What’s in a Name?

My cousin is a Jehovah’s Witness. She and I had a conversation a while back. I asked her, “When Jesus said that he had given his disciples God’s name, what name did he mean?”

“Jehovah.” was her unhesitating response.

Then I asked her where in the Gospels do we find an instance of Jesus ever calling God, “Jehovah.” She didn’t have an answer. Jesus had his own name for God which he taught his disciples to use as well. Know what it is?

I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one. (John 17:11)

The Hebrew scriptures speak from time to time of the LORD as being like a father to his people, but no one used, “Holy Father,” in the vocative tense to call on God. Only Jesus, the eternal Son, could so refer to God. That is, until by his death and resurrection, he paid our adoption fee.

The name, “Father,” when applied to God holds tremendous power regardless of the language we speak. Those who call God by this name can count on his protection, provision, guidance and correction. The children of God can live victorious, though persecuted, in the midst of a wicked society.

The name Christ has given us to call God by speaks of relationship. The power comes not from phonemes, but from our access in Christ to the Father by one Spirit (see Ephesians 2:18). If it were any other way, God would be reduced to some sort of impersonal force required to respond to properly pronounced incantation.

When we call God, “Father,” we proclaim gospel theology.

Fathers, especially adoptive ones, initiate the relationship with their children apart from any effort or work on their part. Children can be proud of their father, but they can’t boast in their own merit at achieving a place as his child.

Fathers want to give gifts to their children. We can come boldly to God to ask for small things as well as big things.

Fathers seek the best for their children, but children must trust that this is so in order to benefit from that good will. This is why everything in our relationship with God must come from and operate on faith.

Fathers discipline wayward children for their benefit even though it isn’t pleasant for either party. There is a severe side to God as Father, but always for our good.

Every father’s ultimate goal is to develop mature offspring who reflect their character but also stand as full fledged individuals. God commands us to live free.

These facets of our understanding of God can seem to contradict, but they harmonize completely in God’s nature as Father. By holding all of these dimensions of the name, “Father,” in tension, we will be protected not only from external harm, but also from destructive ideas about God in our own minds. We will truly be kept in his name.

Indispensable Unnecessary

Ever since I first read Neil Cole’s Organic Church the alarm on my phone has gone off at 10:02 every morning, Monday-Saturday.  It reminds me of Jesus’ command to his disciples in Luke 10:2b that they pray for the Lord of the Harvest to send workers into his harvest fields.  That alarm just went off. I offered up my cursory prayer and then looked up at my computer to continue my reading in With Christ in the School of Prayer.  It just so happened to be on chapter 9, “Pray the Lord of the harvest.”  Murray asks the obvious question, “Why would God who knows the need and wants people saved need us to pray for him to send out workers?”  The answer: “that His compassion may stream into us, and His Spirit be able to assure us that our prayer avails.”  

The question is often posed Christian circles, “Does prayer change outcomes or does it change us?”  The answer according to Murray is that we are changed when we pray with certainty that our prayer will change the outcome.  So, as Murray goes on to say: 

Let us set apart time and give ourselves to this part of our intercessory work. It will lead us into the fellowship of that compassionate heart of His that led Him to call for our prayers. It will elevate us to the insight of our regal position, as those whose will counts for something with the great God in the advancement of His Kingdom. It will make us feel how really we are God's fellow-workers on earth, to whom a share in His work has in downright earnest been entrusted. It will make us partakers in the soul travail, but also in the soul satisfaction of Jesus, as we know how, in answer to our prayer, blessing has been given that otherwise would not have come.


Friend of a Friend

As a missional movement, we’re constantly aware that without God’s provision, we will burnout, fail or burnout and then fail if not for the provision of God through prayer.  Our leadership team is reading through the book that Richard Foster calls the best book ever written on the subject of prayer, Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer.  I first read this work nearly fifteen years ago.  I’ve still not gotten over it.  As I read through it for what must at least be the fifth time, the insights continue to strike my forehead with same dizzying force as when I first read it.  I’d like to share some of them with you through this blog.  

I’m currently in chapter 7 of the book so you’ll have to read it for yourself to get insights from chapters 1-6, I suppose.  Here is a quote from Murray’s exposition of the “Friend at Midnight” story from Luke 11:

When I come to God in prayer, He always looks to what the aim is of my petition. If it be merely for my own comfort or joy I seek His grace, I do not receive. But if I can say that it is that He may be glorified in my dispensing His blessings to others, I shall not ask in vain. Or if I ask for others, but want to wait until God has made me so rich, that it is no sacrifice or act of faith to aid them, I shall not obtain. But if I can say that I have already undertaken for my needy friend, that in my poverty I have already begun the work of love, because I know I had a friend Who would help me, my prayer will be heard. Oh, we know not how much the plea avails: the friendship of earth looking in its need to the friendship of heaven: He will give him as much as he needeth.'

Boots On the Ground, Part 1

Jesus prayed.  He got up early to do it.  He stayed up all night in it.  His first disciples followed his example devoting days on end to prayer.  Every saint throughout history who has ever done anything worth remembering has been devoted to prayer.  So why do modern Christians devote so little time to this discipline?  I believe that it is because they have not learned to pray.

Luke, the evangelist, highlights Jesus’ prayer life.  In 5:16, Luke relays that “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”  It seems that Jesus did not pray with his disciples much if at all and yet they knew he was praying.  Jesus told his disciples to pray and gave them specific things to pray for such as in 10:2.  I’m sure they did this but when compared with the vibrance of his own experience they seemed to know their practice of prayer was lacking.  So, they asked him to teach them to pray.  According to Luke 11:1, “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.'” Over the next twelve verses Jesus gives a perfect lesson on prayer.  Beginning with this post and over the next two, I will expound some of the content of that lesson.

Jesus’ lesson on prayer comes in three movements.  In the first movement, Jesus gives his disciples the very words to say to God.  He does this because learning to pray is far different from learning about prayer.  Learning to pray is like learning to ride a bike or learning to swim.  In each case a person must engage in the activity in order to begin learning it.  The disciples asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray;” not “Teach us about prayer.”  So, he had to get them actually praying.

The words he gave them had to be without fluff or flaw.  They say practice makes perfect but that presumes proper technique.  Really, practice makes permanent.  So Jesus gave them a very short prayer that they couldn’t mess up.  Each phrase of the prayer reveals the priorities of the kingdom and the heart of God.  Let’s take each in turn.

“Our Father” – To address God as “Father” is to come to him in the bold humility of a child.  We’re not God’s distant relatives who stammer out requests for small, short-term loans.  We are his dear children who dare to bring him our every need and who quietly trust that he knows our need better than we do.  God is my father but he’s not just my father, he is our father.  We come to him as part of a larger family.  We are to come to him together in united prayer to our father.

“Hallowed be your name” – Everyone who has come to know God as father longs for the rest of humanity to see his glory.  Imagine standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon and on either side of you stands scores of people facing the desert.  Wouldn’t you be compelled to get them to turn and face that breathtaking view?  Everyone who has experienced God through the gospel of Jesus Christ shares that same longing for everyone to see and admire him.  We instinctively loathe anything which would diminish him in the minds of others.  Our purpose in life becomes to glorify him that many others will cry out with us, “Hallowed be your name.”

“Your kingdom come” – Many who have learned this prayer have no idea exactly what it is that they are asking for when they use this phrase.  I would suggest that the kingdom comes first to individuals.  Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is in your midst.”  As people embrace the gospel of Christ’s reign, they come under the liberating authority of God.  Individual lives so changed begin to influence families and entire cultures.  People will never be at peace with each other until they are at peace with themselves.  People will never be at peace with themselves until they are at peace with God.  Jesus has come as Christ the king, the prince of peace.  He has announced peace with God to all who will lay down their arms and join the triumphal procession.  The kingdom has come.  It is coming.  May it come!

“Give us each day our daily bread” – Those who have joined the Father’s cause can be assured that he will care for their needs.  Just as soldiers on active duty need not worry over their rations so Christians on mission need not fret over their material needs.  So often people want to come to Jesus for bread without taking up his cause.  Jesus is not running a mission.  He is on mission to bring the kingdom of God and spread the glory of God.  Our job is to follow Jesus and trust that the provisions will follow.

“Forgive us our sins as we forgive everyone who sins against us” – We do not take up the cause of Christ as if we were Christ.  We are first recipients of his grace and also agents of it.  We do not go to fix the world but to admit to the world that we are broken and being fixed by the same One who will fix them.

“And lead us not into temptation” – As I go into the mine field of a fallen world, God knows which mines are particularly configured to my tendencies.  I do not know my own heart and am prone to overestimate my strength.  I need our Father to guide me through enemy territory without fatal incident.

Well, that’s the first installment.  Next time I will unpack the what I believe to the be centerpiece of this section, “The Friend at Midnight.”  I hope to build some discipleship material around this prayer which will become a page on this blog later on.  Check back for it and the next post.

Religious Unbelief

The Bible warns against unbelief but not against atheism per se.  How could the writers of the Scriptures have warned against atheism?  There weren’t any atheists.  I’ve heard commentators on a local Christian radio station aim Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”) at atheists.  Of course the implication becomes, “Atheists are fools.”  However, should you have met the 10th century B.C.E. Jewish citizen to which the psalmist referred, he would have confessed to a belief in the existence of God.  The psalmist was not saying that avowed atheists are fools.  He was saying that fools secretly (in their hearts) suppress their awareness of God.

So who are the fools?  The rest of Psalm 14 describes these religious unbelievers as those who elevate themselves by pushing others down.  Such people by their actions deny God as their source.  They may claim to believe that God exists, but they do not trust him to supply them with security, sustenance or self-worth.  They maneuver and manipulate to get for themselves what others have or might acquire.  Such people pray and attend religious services but they do not expect God to respond to their petitions.  Instead, they engage in these activities to further establish their superiority.

As a case in point, consider Jesus’ very telling question addressed to the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 NIV)  These men who stood at the peak of the religious establishment of their day were unbelievers according to Jesus.  From their lofty perch they congratulated each other on their moral superiority and derided everyone else.  They traded genuine engagement with the Basis of their being for the illusion of relative worth.  Rather than find the favor of God, they fed on the “failures” of those whom they defamed.  “They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.” (Ps. 14:4b NIV)

Faith, real faith, is a foreign concept.  People will seek any alternative to humble reliance on God.  Each alternative counterfeits the genuine treasure of our existence.  The most dangerous counterfeits most closely resemble the genuine article.  Those who accept religious achievement as heavenly currency are among the most desperately deceived.  Beware religious unbelief.

Poker Face

“Something’s wrong with me?”, Jamie, my wife, said over the phone.  “I can’t straighten my legs.  What am I going to do?”

What was she going to do?  What was I going to do?  I was out on my route.  I couldn’t leave.  I felt helpless.  She was at home taking care of our two young children and she could barely walk.  Besides, I could hear the fear in her voice.  I worked extra hard to get home as quickly as possible.

When I got there, my concern turned to alarm.  Both of her legs were bent at a 75 degree angle.  She could neither sit nor stand comfortably.  I’ll never forget the sight of her hobbling up the five stairs ascending from our den into our kitchen.  As she ascended those stairs, I descended into despair.  “What could this be?  Some degenerative disease?  Why would it come on so suddenly?”  All of these questions raced through my mind.  I considered taking her to the doctor, but I had absolutely no faith that they would be able to help with such a strange problem.

We had plans that evening to eat at the home of our close friends and fellow believers, so I gingerly loaded her into the van and away we went.  After dinner, I related to my friend that I had been reading a book by Smith Wigglesworth on divine healing and I suggested that he and his wife join me in praying for Jamie.  We put her on the couch and I prayed like I had never prayed before.  Instead of asking that she would be comforted in this difficult time or that the doctors would discover the cause of the problem or even asking if God might be willing to heal her, I said, “We speak to these knees and in Jesus name we command them to be healed.”  When she stood up, she announced, “I’m better!”  The next day my family went for a hike at a local state park.  She’s not had any trouble in the eleven years since that evening.

That day I got to peer behind the veil of the material world to see what’s going on when we pray.  We’re involved in a high stakes poker game with the “father of lies.”  Jesus has told us that we have a winning hand, but as we look across the table at those mirrored glasses and that look of derision, our nerves can get rattled.  We push a few chips to the middle of the table – a five minute request qualified by lots of “if it be thy will.”

Satan responds, “It will take more than that if you want to see my cards.”

Our palms begin to sweat.  We wonder, “What if I stake all my faith on this hand and I’m beaten?  What will happen to all that I claim to believe?  What will happen to the faith of other people if they observe God’s promises fail?  Do I dare to stand?  Wouldn’t it just be safer to fold and cut my losses?”  So, we fold.  We walk away from the table with slightly less faith than we came with but at least we didn’t risk it all.  Meanwhile Satan sits at the table with a smug smile, holding a pair of deuces.

To all of us who too often fold in prayer, I commend the words of the apostle Paul, “Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of his might.  Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.”  (Eph. 6:10-11 ASV)

The Parable of Fish

There once was a poor farming village.  The sandy ground bore little fruit despite the daily toil of the inhabitants.  They fought over the meager produce and the weak starved to death.  No one considered leaving the village because the leaders, out of desire to maintain control, had told everyone that they were surrounded for miles and miles by trackless desert.

One day, a stranger came to the village.  He was different.  He didn’t farm or fight for food.  Instead, he would regularly cross the berm which surrounded the village and come back with a mess of fish that he would share with those who were too weak to farm or fight.  It didn’t take long before he had inspired the admiration of the villagers and the disdain of the leaders.

Some followed him on his fishing trips and discovered that rather than being surrounded by desert, they were located by a vast ocean.  The Fisherman showed them how to cast a line into the dark depths and bring up a catch.  Every day the Fisherman would head out with his little troop of followers.  Some days they would bring in hundreds of fish.  Other days were more difficult.  The Fisherman explained that while this ocean would always yield plenty of fish, there would be days and weeks which would require more persistence to bring in the catch.

In time, the villagers lost interest in farming and fighting.  They got more interested in fishing.  The leaders, who sensed that they were losing control over the people, decided to have the Fisherman killed.  They gathered several of the best fighters and cornered the Fisherman.  They killed him in a back alley and threw his body in the ocean.

The damage had already been done, however.  The villagers had learned to fish and continued to do so.  As the Fisherman had predicted, however, some of their outings yielded little or no results.  When they would return empty-handed, the leaders and other villagers would laugh at them and offer them some of their produce.  The leaders would say, “You can’t expect to catch as much as that guy.  He was different from you.  You’re a farmer and you need to return to farming.”

The Fisherman’s followers thought this made sense but they didn’t want to dishonor the memory of their friend by giving up on what he had taught them.  They also had learned a unique and impressive skill which set them apart from the other villagers.  The leaders understood their reservations and made the fishermen an offer.  They would build a beautiful fountain in the middle of the village as a monument to the Fisherman where people could come and learn about how to fish from the followers.

At first, this plan worked beautifully.  Villagers regularly turned out to watch this sacred ritual and learn how to do it.  The fishermen were revered, respected, and sought after for their unique skills.  Villagers would pick their favorite fisherman based on his particular style or his elaborate equipment.  They would spend time arguing about who was best.

After a few years, though, the demands of farming and fighting began to pull interest away from this new curiosity.  Even the Fisherman’s followers struggled to find time to devote to fishing in the fountain.  So that the ritual wouldn’t die out altogether, they scheduled a weekly fishing session when the faithful would gather begrudgingly for an hour at the fountain to discuss fishing and watch the experts ply their trade.  Then everyone would go back to his fields for the rest of the week.

Lord, teach us again to pray.