Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Holy Spirit preaching to us while we pray

 Tim Keller tack on an interesting tidbit near the end of the sixth chapter of his book Prayer. In this chapter he has considered what the famous reformer Marin Luther taught about prayer. On the second to last page of the chapter we come across this quote: "He [Luther] expects that the Spirit, as we reflect on the biblical truth before God, will sometimes fill our heart with rich thoughts and ideas that feel poignant and new to us, even when we are thinking about a text or truth that we have heard hundreds of times before."

This experience, of having Scripture made alive and clearly relevant by the Holy Spirit, is a rich and edifying occurrence. I like that Keller notes that this happens "sometimes;" it is not a routine, daily event. But, as the Spirit wills, he will give you fresh insight into the Word that you have been meditating on. This is not new revelation in the canonical sense, but rather the illuminating of Scripture by the Spirit to specific situations in our lives. When it does happen, it is glorious.

As a reminder that helps us from straying too far down the mystical-experiential yellow brick road, Keller reminds us that Luther's prayer life was informed by the Bible and had God's Word as its foundation: "To paraphrase Luther's little treatise-he tells us to build on our study of Scripture through meditation, answering the Word in prayer to the Lord."

However, there is definitely some room for the Spirit to break through our routines and communicate. Keller writes, "we should be aware that the Holy Spirit may begin "preaching" to us. When that happens, we must drop our routines and pay close attention.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Luther's Method

In chapter six of Timothy Keller's work on prayer he discusses methods used by St. Augustine and Martin Luther.

I found the method described by Luther to be very interesting and something I'd like to put into practice. Luther breaks down his prayer into three stages.

The first is described as meditation. Luther teaches that we should meditate and consider passages of scripture that we are familiar with. We should have a good understanding of the scripture so we can properly paraphrase them and consider them. Luther teaches that we should praise God through the scripture and also confess our sin that comes to light through this contemplation.

The second step is to pray through The Lord's Prayer. Keller provides an example from Luther:
"'Give us. . . our daily bread,' I commend to thee my house and property, my wife and child. Grant that I can manage them well, supporting and educating them."
Luther encourages us to paraphrase the Prayer so that it might not turn into, "idle chatter," but instead forces us to focus on the task at hand. Keller describes this exercise as:
"...command[ing] the full mental faculty, and this helps greatly with the problem of giving God full attention."
In summary:
"Luther says we should start with meditation on a text that we have previously  studied, then after praising and confessing in accordance with out mediation, we should paraphrase the Lord's Prayer to God. Finally, we should just prayer from the heart. This full exercise, he adds, should be done twice a day."
 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Book Review – Preaching with Accuracy by Randal E. Pelton

There are many things in life that are difficult to know and understand without attempting them for oneself. Preaching is like that. It seems to me that, until one has grappled with a text and wrestled with the sermon writing process, and stood behind a pulpit and preached to a congregation, the whole process can seem a little mysterious or even down right scary. As a new preacher, I am finding the process of learning and growing as a Scripture expounder, sermon writer, and a pulpit preacher, to be a fair amount of work. And for that reason, I am usually quick to avail myself of any resources that can help me become a better preacher. Preaching with Accuracy: Finding Christ-Centered Big Ideas for Biblical Preaching is just that type of resource. This book by Randal E. Pelton is a powerfully helpful work that I found to be beneficial in some very practical ways along the lines of exactly what the title suggests; determining Scriptures meaning in light of the Gospel with preaching in view.

Before looking at the practical help this books provides, here is an overview of the entire book. This overview is derived from a thorough introduction which outlines each chapter of the book. I find these overviews useful and supportive for non-fiction reading. Chapter 1 is a mini-apologetic for expositional preaching that seeks to show from 1 Corinthians 14 that an “insider-directed message reaches both insiders and outsiders” (10). Chapter 2 discusses the presence of multiple meanings in passages and how preaching different meanings has different results. Chapters 3-7, the chapters I found extremely helpful in a very practical way, focus on finding Christ-centered big ideas for the purpose of preaching. More specifically, Chapter 3 indicates ways that preaching portions should be determined. Chapter 4 explores how various-sized ideas are recognized and how the textual big idea is determined. Chapter 5 progresses from textual big ideas to contextual big ideas; the big idea formed by the immediate context. Chapter 6 moves one step farther with the search for the canonical big idea which takes the core of Scripture–the gospel–and applies it to the passage in question. Chapter 7 elucidates two benefits of the process of finding the various big ideas of the passage.

The practical nature of this book is suggested in the introduction’s final section entitled Suggestions for Pastors Using This Book. The three main ways in which this book is and will continue to be useful to me as a pastor who preaches are 1) its pursuing of the various “big ideas” through the many genres in Scripture, 2) its step-by-step approach to many of the techniques, and 3) the try-it-for-yourself examples (with the authors answers) which occur throughout the book.

The first way in which the book provides helpful instruction is by not limiting its lessons to only certain genres of Scripture, but by demonstrating how techniques can be applied to many different types of passages. For example, when choosing a preaching portion, the author discusses how one “cuts the text” in didactic passages, narratives, parables, poetry, proverbs, prophecies, and visions. Similarly, Pelton describes the process for finding the textual big idea in narratives, didactic literature, wisdom literature, parables, and prophetic-type sections. I found this thoroughness brought clarity to the processes described and confidence in attempting some of the book’s suggestions. Adding to the practical usefulness of this book is the step-by-step approach offered for many of its techniques.

For a new preacher like myself, or for an experienced preacher who is new to theses concepts, breaking the techniques down into simpler steps makes the work accessible and far less intimidating. As an example, from the fourth chapter, the steps for identifying the textual big ideas are as follows: 1) Locate and write the broad subject, 2) write the narrow subject, 3) write the complements (answers to questions arising out of the narrow subject), and 4) write the textual big idea which is the narrow subject + complement. This gradual approach makes comprehending the author’s strategy accessible to all levels. And again, the author does not just formulaically run through the steps, but discusses the steps in each genre mentioned above. Additionally, the author is helpful in a third very practical way through the use of do-it-yourself examples with answers.

Pelton employs examples for many of his suggested techniques. Following an example of how he might use a technique, he then offers a different portion of Scripture and encourages the reader to try the technique themselves. He even provides space in the book to respond. I cannot emphasize how helpful this process was. I found it brought clarity to what the author was teaching, but also helped “cement” the ideas. I will certainly have to review the book regularly as I preach through various books of the Bible, but the hands-on examples did help key ideas stick. These do-it-yourself opportunities make it abundantly clear that Pelton wants this book to be of real, practical value for the preacher. In my opinion, he succeeds in that regard.

As a new preacher, barely into my second year of preaching, I found this book to be a very helpful resource that I am confident I will continue to use in the future. Pelton provides many useful tips and techniques that I have already used and expect to continue to use. The awareness of the need for teaching to various genres will help support other pastors as they work towards being a better preacher. The simple step-by-step approach to most of the methods presented in Preaching with Accuracy makes it accessible. And the do-it-yourself examples make the skills memorable and reproducible. I recommend this book to new preachers like myself, or experienced preachers who want to hone their skills in regards to preaching with accuracy.


Monday, April 6, 2015

Intercession

In chapter five of Keller's work Prayer he speaks on the comfort found in intercession. He uses an example from his past to articulate his point.
A teacher of mine, Edmund P. Clowney, once told me that he went to one of his own teachers, John Murray, to discuss a private matter. Murray offered to prayer for him, and when he did, the power of the prayer was stunning. Murray's address combined intimate familiarity with a sense of God's absolute majesty. The presence of God was instantly palpable. It was clear that Murray knew both the nearness of God as well as his transcendence.
Murray was being Ed's "mediator," though only in a secondary sense. He was bringing him into God's presence and speaking for him.
Ed said to me, "I was so helped by this godly man's intercession before God for me. Then I realized - if I find this comforting how much more comforted should I be by the knowledge of Christ's intercession for me?"
Murray led Keller's friend Edmund before God in prayer. He brought them both before the throne and addressed God as father and Lord. This is the work of Christ. He does this for us. Without him we would have no business approaching God. Jesus intercedes for us every day. His words on our behalf are far more powerful and comforting that anything that even a great man such as John Murray could muster. Let us all find comfort and courage in this!
 

Saturday, April 4, 2015

An Easter look at prayer

In the fifth chapter of Keller's book Prayer, the author deals with the real and true encounter we have, or should have, with God as we pray. This chapter is aptly titled Encountering God. This was an excellent chapter, and I really appreciated how Keller discussed how the triune nature of God affects our prayer life. I also enjoyed his citing Jonathan Edwards' work A Dissertation Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. But the part of the chapter which moved me the most, perhaps because I am writing this post on Easter weekend, was the section that brought the chapter to a close: The Cost of Prayer.

In speaking of our access to the holy and transcedent God, Keller writes, "How is such access and freedom possible? The only time in all the gospels that Jesus Christ prays to God and doesn't call him Father is on the cross, when he says, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Jesus lost his relationship with the Father so that we could have a relationship with God as father. Jesus was forgotten so that we could be remembered forever-from everlating to everlasting. Jesus Christ bore all the eternal punishment that our sins deserve. That is the cost of prayer. Jesus paid the price so God could be our father" (79-80).

What a glorious blessing this is! What a powerful motivation this is! What a conclusively convincing and encouraging truth this is! This is a heart-warming and mind-expanding gospel-cross-approach to prayer. And to read this on Easter weekend...Wow!

This truth is one we must hold on to with an iron grip. We have access to God in prayer because Jesus was forsaken for us and because of us. He mediated our path to encountering God. This Christ-wrought good news is our ticket into the very presence of God.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

365

I'm told it takes about one year for the average child to begin speaking. This doesn't include all the cooing and other noises that often take place much earlier. This is the beginning of dialogue; a few words strung together here and there. Gradually more words are learned and conversation blossoms.

In Tim Keller's Prayer he likens learning to prayer to learning to speak. Keller quotes Eugene Peterson as saying:
Language is spoken into us; we learn language only as we are spoken to. We are plunged at birth into a sea of language. . . . Then slowly syllable by syllable we acquire the capacity to answer mama, papa, bottle, blanket, yes, no. Not one of these words was a first word. . . . All speech is answering speech. We were spoken to before we spoke.
Keller continues:
[...] studies have shown that children's ability to understand and communicate is profoundly affected by the number of words and the breadth of vocabulary to which they are exposed as infants and toddlers. We speak only to the degree we are spoken to. . . . This theological principle has practical consequences. It means that our prayers should arise out of immersion in the Scripture. We should "plunge ourselves into the sea" of God's language, the Bible.
If the goal of prayer is a real, personal connection with God, then it is only by immersion in the language of the Bible that we will learn to pray, perhaps just as slowly as a child learns to speak.

This echoes Jude's first post on the journey into a solid prayer life. It's not easy and can only be properly learned through the immersion in the Word. We learn and grow in our "speaking" as God continually speaks to us through the Bible. This will take time. Just as a child doesn't emerge from the womb citing Shakespeare neither will we build a fervent prayer life without our Bibles!

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tethering your prayers to reality


Keller, in his increasingly admired (by me) book on prayer, simply titled Prayer, touches upon a very helpful concept.

His concept is that God should be the starting point. And he should be this because if he's not, "then our own perceived emotional needs become the drivers and sole focus of our prayer" (61).

Since prayer is a continuation of communication started by God, to omit him or relegate him to the backseat suggests that whatever it is we are doing, it isn't prayer.

Keller's remedy for this, indeed God's remedy for this, is to enwrap ourselves in God's Word. Keller writes, "[w]ithout immersion in God's words, our prayers may not be merely limited and shallow but also untethered from reality" (62).  Keller continues by warning the reader that we "may be responding not to the real God but to what we wish God and life to be like" (62).

Prayer untethered from God's words risks becoming a prayer disassociated from reality; in fact, it becomes non-prayer. We may be doing nothing more than "talking to ourselves" (62).

I find this admonition very helpful, and know that I have often been untethered from the Word when I have prayed. I believe there is grace for that, but my desire is to pray earnestly, accurately, and effectively. Clearly, I need his words found in the Word for that.