Monday, August 26, 2013

When you fast... Matthew 6:16-18

Original Photo by Wikimedia user Jean Fortunet 
Jesus fasted (Matthew 4:2)
He taught about fasting assuming its role in the life of a disciple (Matthew 6:16-18)
He stated that his followers would fast after his departure (Matthew 9:15; Mark 2:20; Luke 5:35)
He stated that some demons could only come out by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29)
Anna fasted often (Luke 2:37)
Fasting and prayer as a church was practiced by the early church (Acts 13:2-3)
Paul and Barnabus prayed and fasted as they appointed and installed elders (Acts 14:23)

Those are just a few of the examples of fasting being mentioned in passing and being explicitly taught about in the New Testament. Fasting is all the way through the Old Testament. My question is this...

If Jesus talked about and taught how to fast...
And if He made statements assuming his followers would fast...
And if we have several examples of the early church fasting both together and individually...

Then why have I never heard a single sermon or sat in a single class on fasting?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not exactly complaining. After all, I have been a full-time minister for over 8 years. I have been teaching at least 2 Bible classes a week almost every week for that period of time. I have had ample time to both study, and begin teaching about fasting. I am a grown man and have been a Christian for long enough that I ought to have at least somewhat of a level of Christian maturity and discipline by now. And yet, in  8 years of ministry, I have only mentioned fasting a handful of times and have not dwelt on it much when I did. What's worse, is that my personal fasting has been at about the same track record.

Is it possible that over the years, when the church has fallen into error with Jesus' teaching about practicing righteousness before God instead of men, it fell a different direction with fasting than it did with prayer and with almsgiving?
Think about it...most of our giving is typically done through the church and we refer "benevolence cases" to the church office instead of helping people privately. It seems that all too often, we fall into patterns of rote prayers in public because we are not comfortable with prayer in private. Yet when it comes to fasting, we have soaked in Jesus teaching about it being a private manner so much that we NEVER talk about it in the assembly of saints and we most certainly never practice it together as a body. Why is public prayer any more acceptable when Jesus said to go into your room  and pray in secret? Why can we preach and teach on the importance of giving? The structure of the teachings about giving, prayer, and fasting are very close to identical in Matthew 6 and yet we have treated the first two subjects very differently than the last.

Because of that, I fear that we now have generations of Christians who are completely unaware of the mechanics, the necessities, and the blessings of fasting...and I am including myself in that.

But how are we supposed to talk about it when Jesus stressed privacy so much?

Well...I'd say we are at least free to talk about it the same way Jesus and the early church did, wouldn't you!? We can teach how it's done in a God-honoring and soul-benefiting way. We can let others know that not only are we praying for them, but we are fasting for them as well. We can fast together just as we pray together, knowing that both praying and fasting are sometimes strengthened with the power of unity and strength in numbers. The early church did all those things...can we?

I think what it boils down to is the same thing everything else in the Sermon on the Mount boils down to...the heart. It doesn't matter how many people know or don't know that you are praying, giving alms, or fasting...what matters is that you are doing it to please God and not to impress people!

Here is my plea to those of you who are like Anna, and Paul, and Barnabus, and Peter, and the early church and are spending time in prayer and fasting and are reaping benefits from it...teach me. And teach the rest of my generation. Share it with your own generation that has not found the blessings that you have found in it possibly for years. Call the rest of us on the carpet and encourage us to join you so we can share in the blessings and then teach future generations.

There is a chance our children will learn how to pray and study the Bible on their own even if we never teach them how to use the tools for study, and we never kneel at their beds with them. But we all know that it is a much slimmer chance than if we share the practical tips we have learned and we model it for them, and we go through it with them until they figure out how to do it on their own and then share it with someone else. And then we find incredible joy by being peers in study and in prayer with them instead of teachers! May we view fasting the same way we view prayer and Bible study.

I'd like to open the comments below to start the conversation. What have you learned about fasting? How has it benefited you? How have you found to overcome the struggles associated with it? How did you begin the practice? What do you do when you are fasting? You can feel free to post the comment anonymously in order to ensure that you are not sharing for the wrong reasons...but I beg you...for share it.

Monday, August 19, 2013

How can I forgive what they did to me!? Matthew 6:14-15

"But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." Matthew 6:15

 I have twin 3-yr old daughters. If you squint your eyes a little and use your imagination just a tad, you could almost believe that the two girls in the picture above, are actually them. My girls are absolutely precious to me. Over the past 3 and 1/2 years they have gotten me and most other men they come into contact with wrapped around their fingers. Some of my greatest joys are watching them play together, hearing them laugh, and receiving their hugs and kisses.

Their mom is just as precious to me and more so, because I have learned to love her for almost 11 years now. I started falling in love because she is beautiful. I kept falling in love with her because of her sense of  humor that has always picked me up when I am down. I love her hugs and kisses and her unconditional love for me. More than anything I love her dedication and unwavering commitment to do what is right and her awareness of other other people's feelings.

In short, my greatest blessing on this earth are my wife and two daughters.

Now let's go to a twisted imaginary scenario.

Let's say that for some crazy reason- through negligence, malice, or kill my wife. Assuming a court system with no appeals in place and a very strict sense of justice that says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is absolute law, you must die to make pardon for your sin of killing my wife.

But let's also say that I love you dearly. You are one of my friends and as much as your actions have cost me pain, I can't stand the thought of losing my relationship with you. Let's say that because of my love for you, I quietly go to the judge and explain my dilemma. The judge, who has a very keen sense of justice, demands that a law has been broken and justice must be served. If he does not carry out capitol punishment, then he will no longer be a just judge. Let's say, I explain that I already know all of that and that is why I brought my one of my daughters along with me. And then I offer my daughters to be executed in your place so that a death will have occurred and justice will have been served. And then, because other are still looking at you funny and unwilling to forgive you for what you've done to me...I bring you into my house to live with me.

I'm guessing that your first feeling on reading that, was a sense of repugnance, and rightly so. The thought of me killing one of my daughters is a horrifying and disgusting thought. And let's get this straight...I am not capable of that much love for you because I have too much love for my daughters. It wouldn't happen in real life. But let's pretend like it did. How much of a sense of debt and gratitude would you feel toward me as the dad who sacrificed his daughter so you could live? Is there anything that I could ask you to do that you would not be willing to do?

Now let's fast forward 10, 20, or 30 years, when my other daughter who lived is all grown up. Let's say that for whatever reason, she has turned out to be a real nightmare. She is selfish, hateful, and mean-spirited. And, for whatever reason, you have been the target of her hatred and ugliness.

If I ask you to forgive her even if she is unwilling to repent and change her behavior toward you...could you? Could you find it in your heart to release her from the hatred and spite that she deserves for her bad behavior for the sake of my daughter that died in your place and for the sake of my love that saved you so many years ago? Could you treat her with respect even when she treats you with disdain simply because you remember how much I gave up for you and I am her father? Could you refrain from telling others about her shortcomings and the way she has abused you, not because of the way you feel toward her, but because I asked you to as her father? Could you love her with your actions and pray for her forgiveness even when your emotions are still raw from her actions?

Because that predetermined decision to forgive based on what has been forgiven you is exactly what God has asked us to do for his children who have wronged us. The only difference is that instead of only knowing his Son for 3 years or for 11 years, God the Father has loved His one and only unique son for all of eternity, and yet He still offered Him in your place. You know I wouldn't kill one of my daughters for you in real life...but God did kill His Son for you.

Can you forgive God's other children who are still in rebellion against their loving Father and are taking it out on you, not based on your feelings toward them, but based on your feeling toward their heavenly Father?

R.T. France speaks about Matthew 6:14-15 in the Tyndale Commentary Series and says, "The point is not so much that forgiveness is a prior condition of being forgiven, but that forgiveness cannot be a one-way process. Like all God's gifts it brings responsibility; it must be passed on. To ask for forgiveness on any other basis is hypocrisy."

Jesus illustrates this principle further in Matthew 18:23-35 with the parable of the unmerciful servant. In the story, the servant was forgiven to tune of an unfathomable amount of money and then he goes out to call a fellow servant to account for a much, much smaller some of money owed to him. I've always heard it told as if the fellow servant only owed him pennies and yet the man wouldn't forgive him, but that's not the case. The amount owed was 100 denarii, or 100 days wages. If you figure a minimum wage of $7/hr and figure a wage worker is working 8-12 hours/day that comes out to be a sum of $5,600-$8,400 in today's language. I don't know about you, but if someone owed me almost a third of a year of wages, I would not feel like it was just pennies! But compare that to the amount the servant had been forgiven by the king, 10,000 talents!! Most scholars say a talent was worth about 6,000 denarii. Using the same math as before, that's somewhere between $33.6 million and $50.4 million! And when you are talking about that kind of money, all of the sudden $8,400 actually does sound like pennies!

So what...

does that mean that I am supposed to forget about what someone has done to me even if they have not asked for repentance? Are we supposed to allow someone to continue to abuse us and others without calling them on the carpet? I recommend you read an excellent article by Jerrie Barber about when it would be a sin to forgive for some practical help on dealing with specifics. But that's about as far as I'll go toward answering those questions. Instead, I'll simply has God forgiven you? Once you grasp that, let it lead you into how you should behave toward others who have wronged you understanding that God who has forgiven you already at the expense of the death of His Son has asked you to forgive His other children who are erring.

I can't imagine anything worse than getting to judgment day thinking I have lived my life for God and am secure in His grace and then hearing Him ask me why I refused to forgive my brother who owed me $8,400...or my parents who abused me...or my spouse who neglected/cheated on me...or my friend who betrayed me...or my church member who gossiped about me...or my coach who was a jerk to me...or fill in the blanks.

How often do we pray for forgiveness? How often do we pray for forgiveness the way Jesus instructed us to..."as we forgive others." May we bring that part of the Lord's prayer back into our hearts and into our actions, and may God forgive us all for the times we have ignored it in the past...even as we forgive others who have ignored us.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Lord's Prayer: Getting Past a Ritual- Matthew 6:9-13

"This, then, is how you should pray:

'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,  your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.'"

- Matthew 6:9-13

I wanted to get a different perspective on the Lord's prayer this week, so I called someone whose prayer life I have always admired and respected and asked her to write an article on prayer. Betty Bennett has asked me several different times how something was going in my life that I had asked for prayers for months before. Her quiet smile when she walked away after finding out that things in that particular area had improved led me to believe that she had been praying for it specifically and was pleased to hear that her prayers had been answered in the affirmative.

When I think of Mrs. Betty, I think of the early years of the prophetess Anna....
There was also a prophet, Anna, the daughter of Penuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 and then was a widow until she was eighty-four.[a] She never left the temple but worshiped night and day, fasting and praying. 38 Coming up to them at that very moment, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. - Luke 2:36-38
I am personally incredibly grateful for Mrs. Betty's prayers, and I am incredibly thankful for her words and honesty about her prayer life that she shares with you below. I hope they bless you as they have blessed me, and I hope and pray that we will all learn to lean on God the way she does so we can be used by God the way she is.

Growing up as a child, in a Christian home, in the 1950's, prayer was certainly a part of my life, but not a large part. I was taught to pray before meals, "God is Great, God is Good" etc. At bedtime, it was "Now I lay me down to sleep." At school, believe it or not, we were even allowed to say "The Lord's Prayer" before starting our classes for the day.

Even though I attended the services of the church three times a week with my parents, I don't remember there being many lessons on prayer. To me it seemed that the deal was, "if all else fails, then pray but don't expect too much." I don't know what happened to the scripture in 1 Thess. 5:17, "pray without ceasing" or Rom. 12:12, where we are told to continue steadfastly in prayer.

As I grew older, married, and had my sons, prayer became an important part of my life. I prayed for wisdom, strength, patience and guidance. I tried to teach my boys that prayer was important to me by praying with them and encouraging them to pray. Of course, countless prayers were said on their behalf.

Over the years, as I have recited "The Lord's Prayer" found in Matt. 6:9-13, I think that is exactly what I did, RECITED, not thinking about the words that it contained. The words, "thy will be done" have played a very big part in my life these past three years.

On October 1, 2010, we were given Monte's diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. We both knew the seriousness of this diagnosis but we also knew we had God and lots of "prayer warriors" on our side. We immediately began to pray, asking God for direction and for healing if it was God's will. We also prayed that somehow God would be glorified through this journey. As our journey progressed, there were many bumps in the road. The doctors and nuses were so impressed by our peacefulness and clamness. We told them that we had faith in God and we tried to live out our faith.

Monte's surgery was successful and the tumor was removed. The doctor's initial report was glowing and we praised God for that. He seemed to gain strength for a while. After undergoing chemo for several weeks, the CAT scan showed further spread of the disease. We were devastated!

Monte's health began to deteriorate more and more each week. Prayer was such an imporant part of our lives. I would kneel by his bed with tears streaming down my face, praying that God would heal him, yet also praying that somehow God would be glorified. In the latter stages of his illness, we would come to the table for our meal and he no longer had any strength. He would ask me to pray and pray I DID. We could not have faced what we did without prayer.

On Saturday, July 2, 2011, 12:45 PM, Monte was HEALED!! Not on this earth, as we both wanted so badly but for God's purpose or will.

These past two years have not been easy. Yes, there was even a time when I wondered about my own faith. Was it not strong enough? Did I doubt? Why did God say no? When I pause and take a step back and look at my life these past two years, I see things that I have done and accomplished that had Monte lived, I probably wouldn't have done, such as the widow's ministry and the City of Children mission trips. God has been glorified through Monte's death. Prayers were answered. Praise God!!

The ability to talk to my God each morning is such a blessing? I start each day with a cup of coffee in my hand, my Bible and my prayer list. I know our daily lives can be hectic, especially when raising families, but setting aside time to meet with the Lord is so worth it. I encourage it for you and your family.

When you read the prayer in Matt. 6:9-13, don't just read or recite it, but think deeply about the words He is saying. It is a good pattern for our lives. God knows what is best for us, He will provide for our needs and He will protect us. After all, it is the Lord's prayer.
- Submitted by Betty Bennett

Monday, August 5, 2013

Conversations with God...blah, blah, blah- Matthew 6:7-8

Photo by Flickr user evan courtney


"And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him."

- Matthew 6:7-8

"Guide, guard, and direct us"
"Be with the speaker of the hour"
"Bless the hands that prepared this food"
"Bless this food to our bodies and our bodies to your service"
"Ready recollection"
"We pray that everything has been done in accordance with your will."
"Let us take this cup/bread in a manner worthy of you."
"Let us give as we have been prospered"

You could probably add several to this list. In fact, I don't even have to tell you what the list is already know what it is.

I won't pretend to know nearly enough about prayer to feel confident writing about it. However, Jesus addressed it often, and so must we. I guess it actually shouldn't be a surprise that the followers of Jesus are still asking "Lord, teach us to pray" (Luke 11:1).

Last week we looked at verses 5 and 6 in which Jesus addressed the habit of the hypocritical Pharisees to pray with the motivation of being seen by men instead of being heard by God. But in our passage today, Jesus addresses the actual words used in the prayers themselves. And his instruction this time is not a critique of the Pharisees, but of the gentiles.

Where the Pharisees error was praying to be seen by men, the gentiles error was thinking that if they said things the right way and enough times, then they would be heard. It had turned prayer almost into an "incantation" in order to accomplish some "magic" instead of a conversation between two beings. I love how Jesus simply says, "Your Father already knows what you need." What a beautiful thought and encouragement when I keep running into the persistent doubts and worries that I am not "very good" at prayer or that I am doing it the wrong way!

So what about the phrases I've listed above? Since they are repeated so often that they have become cliches, are they the modern equivalent to what Jesus calls "meaningless repetition"?

Based on my understanding of this passage...I'd have to depends.

What does it depend on?

It depends solely on the heart of the person praying. As we discussed before, Jesus is the only human who had the ability to see into people's hearts and that is why he was able to say what he did about the prayers of the Pharisees and the gentiles. Would he say it today about some of us? I have to say that I think he would. But I also have to say that I think he would say it just as quickly about my perfunctory prayer of thanks before a meal that uses none of the above phrases but is still more of a habit and ritual than an actual thanks for the gifts He has given me unless I am very careful and deliberate to slow down.

I think the point is this...God isn't worried about how I say something. He isn't even worried about me repeating something. Just read the Psalms! David was a man of prayer that we can all learn from and yet how many times did he repeat things in flowery language!? I believe the point is that I am to simply be honest with God and open with Him. That I am actually thinking about the words I am saying whether they are words I read in the Bible or words I heard my dad say before meals for 15 years. That I am actually centering my thoughts and my heart on the idea that I am approaching the throne of God to engage in conversation with Him....AND THAT HE DELIGHTS IN THAT CONVERSATION! When that thought is in my head above all others, then I will be able to break out of the mold of rote prayers that have lost meaning to me...and I will also be able to break out of the habit of judging others who use phrases that I could repeat in my sleep if the first part were started.

Its a matter of the heart...not the words. May we all seek to worship God in spirit and in truth instead of just going through the motions. And may we all choose to assume that others who are praying privately or publicly are doing the same.