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If you only had one prayer to pray, what would it be?

In the 19th century Russian tale ‘The Way of the Pilgrim‘ a pilgrim journeys across Russia, seeking to practise Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) by constantly repeating the ‘Jesus Prayer‘,”Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner“, an ancient confessional long-revered in Eastern churches. More recently, evangelicals became enthusiastic about repeating daily the prayer of Jabez“Oh that you would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from the evil one.” (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).

Inspired by the pilgrim’s tale*, I pondered my own choices: if I had to choose a simple prayer to repeat constantly, what would it be? Not that I disliked the ‘Jesus Prayer’, but curiosity left me wondering if there was an even simpler option. Perhaps “Help me, God!” or “Come, Holy Spirit“? “Abba, father” or “Jesus, let your kingdom come“? What was the most basic, most fundamental prayer of my life? Certainly I would have rated all of these as fundamental at various times. But in musing on this question again recently, I came to a even simpler answer.

I want every prayer that I pray to acknowledge who God is and who I am. For I have authority and agency: what I do and say matters. Yet it is God who loves me, calls to me, rescues me, sets me on my feet, and sends me. It is his Spirit that gives me new life, his kingdom which compels me. How could a single prayer encompass so much? Was there a prayer that would reflect the most fundamental desires of my life: to live in agreement with how God has made me, and what he says about me, to be filled with the Spirit, and to submit my life to his purposes and kingdom rule? When I put it that way the answer seemed obvious: agreement and submission can be summed up in a single word.

I believe that the simplest, and most fundamental, prayer that I can pray is “Yes.”

“Yes” encompasses acceptance and invitation, agreement and obedience, triumph and celebration. It’s agreeing to try something new, and confirming a request. It’s answering the door, and accepting seconds of dessert. It’s admitting blame, and conceding defeat. It’s agreeing to marry! It’s the shout of victory, and the exclamation of an overflowing heart.

With a single word I can say so much. I want to say “Yes” to everything that God says about me; “Yes” to his love and his saving grace; “Yes” to the life of the Spirit and crucifying the old self; “Yes” when he calls my name and asks me to leave everything and follow him; “Yes” to everything he asks from me. I will declare “Yes” to Jesus as Lord and King, and a wholehearted “Yes” to every good thing he has for others. And along the way I want to celebrate everything that he has made and done and purposed with a resounding “Yes!”

Praying “Yes” acknowledges my authority and agency: God asks -not compels – me in all things. And yet by itself the word is meaningless – it is simply a response. In order to respond, there must be first a question or command. Thus with this simple prayer I can profess the reality of God as ultimate source and final question: all of creation must answer. My answer is “Yes.”

I am made to freely respond to God’s love. I am a free agent who finds peace only in surrender. I am an individual made for relationship. I have authority only in agreement. He loves me; I love him. He calls me; I answer. He sets me on my feet; I walk beside him. He gives me identity and purpose. Everything he says about me is true, everything he commands is because he loves me. I can only say “Yes” to him, because he first said “Yes” to me.

So, I was convinced. Simple, yet profound, “Yes” seemed a worthwhile prayer to spend time with – and the nervousness I sensed within me made me confident that it held plenty of potential for wrestling with deeper things. So, how would I go about using this simple prayer?

In a nod to the Russian pilgrim it’s my intention to use the prayer as a meditation during a pilgrimage of sorts. I am planning for this pilgrimage, which I expect to take some time, to take me on a journey through the various questions, statements and commands put before me in the Bible. As I consider each “Yes”, and I expect there to be many different kinds, it will be with the intention of understanding what God is saying or asking in a deeper way than before. As with the practice of the Jesus Prayer, my hope is to hear God’s voice. And I am certain that along the way I shall find many ways to say “Yes”.

Despite the simplicity of the words, and the familiarity of much of the territory I expect to cover, I don’t expect an easy journey – in fact I am sure it will be adventurous, challenging and occasionally scary. Though I remain confident of the value of an intentional journey with God, and in his capacity to surprise me.

Though on the face of it ‘Yes’ is an easy word, it’s often very hard to say. Submitting to authority can be hard; acknowledging responsibility is tough; following Jesus means leaving things behind. Part of me is deeply scared of this word. What parts of my heart are not in agreement with God? And what about all of the ways in which I’m not fully obedient to him? There’s no doubt about it: saying “Yes” to God requires trust. It’s not meant to be easy, but it requires a decision.

“Will you trust me?” he asks. It’s the first question. I take a deep breath. “Yes.”

 

It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” JRR Tolkien, in the Lord of the Rings.

*I first came across this story – I think – in Philip Yancey’s ‘Prayer’.

oscarmuriuglsOscar Muriu is the Senior Pastor at Nairobi Chapel, Kenya and a passionate proponent for the raising up of young leaders. He was one of the most provocative speakers at the GLS conference this year, bringing a straightforward message that will have been difficult for many to hear. I doubt many leaders went away saying ‘I really must put that into practice next week’. This was hard teaching.

He presented his five convictions of viral leadership:

1. The size of the harvest depends on how many harvesters you have (Matt 9.37-38).

These harvesters are leaders who need raising up. Jesus didn’t leap into the field and spend all his energy harvesting – his strategy was to invest his time in 12 disciples. The first thing he did was find his leaders and grow them. ‘Who will continue your work?’ he asked us. If you want to measure the impact of your life, ask yourself this: how many young leaders are you growing? A wise question and a challenging one  – am I investing in younger leaders?

2. Live for the next generation (Ps 71.18).

His challenge to us was to pour out our lives for the next generation, not our own, and by this he meant those 20 years our junior. This is certainly seek-first-my-kingdom stuff, and the challenge to selflessly live for a time to come was one of the most difficult of the conference.

3. Find your 70. (Num 11.10-17.18)

His point from Moses’ story was that the 70 leaders were already there, because he appointed them all in one day. He challenged us to find the budding leaders who are right under our noses, to recognise potential and train it.

4. Instil the ‘five loves’ (Mark 12.30-33).

Remember these? Heart, soul, mind, strength, neighbour… Love God, love your neighbour – everything is summed up in this! He pointed to these five loves as a model for teaching young leaders: (a) Heart – character; (b) Soul – conviction; (c) Mind – comprehension; (d) Strength – competence; (e) Neighbour – compassion.  Nothing revolutionary here, but a excellent framework!

5. Never do ministry alone (Acts 4.13).

His challenge was to always have budding leaders around, in every part of ministry, at every opportunity. If you’re doing ministry alone, he suggested, it’s a wasted opportunity for teaching. This was the advice I thought most leaders would find the hardest to implement. It’s such a wise idea, but I can see plenty of concerns being raised about privacy and so on. However, people are happy to accept this same approach in a teaching hospital: younger doctors always around, listening and learning, offering suggestions, trying things out. What is so different about spiritual ministry?

GLS: BILL HYBELS on Courage

This is the first of a series of posts on the Global Leadership Summit that I attended in Newcastle recently. Even compared to the usual high quality of these conferences, this was an excellent year. We heard huge amounts of high quality content – teaching, encouragement and exhortation – over this two days. Blogging the sessions is a useful way to process everything.

Bill Hybels opened up the conference with a call for leaders to have courage.

Be strong and courageous. Don’t be fearful or discouraged, because the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. Joshua 1.9

Bill-Hybels-GLS-2013Courage to pursue the vision that God has given you; courage to face reality; courage to build a healthy culture in an organisation; courage to establish values; courage in the face of pressures; courage to finish strong. Be strong and courageous!

How many visions never make it off the starting block because of a leader’s fear? Our cowardice adds to the world’s suffering.

How many organisations suffer because the leader cannot face reality? Or let fear keep them from apologising, from modelling humility, repentance and forgiveness? How many leaders let caution and fear hold them back in championing values? And how many hurt their own organisations by not facing up to the succession question, or fearing reinvention? Be strong and courageous!

Typically excellent stuff from Bill Hybels, with plenty of practical encouragement (although his personal examples are always on a totally different scale!). This was a powerful reminder that courage is not an optional extra for a leader. As he says, courage correlates to every component of leadership. ‘Pastor Bill’ talked a lot about his need to declare the ‘Joshua prayer’ to himself – and to keep doing so – at many points during his years in ministry. Bill is a favourite speaker of mine, not least for his passion and total commitment to the significance of the local church. This is a man who loves Jesus and loves his church, and in listening to him I never fail to be encouraged and emboldened – both as a leader and a disciple. Be strong and courageous! Don’t be fearful or discouraged, because the LORD your God is with you wherever you go. 

In this provocative article on the biblical theology of the city Tim Keller describes the city as a form of cultural ‘gardening’, designed by God to “draw out the riches he put into the earth, nature and the human soul at creation”.

Keller describes how the city was designed by God as a place of refuge and safety, a place of cultural development and a place to meet with him, but sin corrupts the city, creating places of violence, pride and idolatry.

This short article ends with a summary of why cities are crucial to the church’s mission to reach the world, and how the church can engage effectively with the city. I particularly liked Keller’s four models of urban ministry:

We despise the city. Church as fortress. (Forgetting the city as Jerusalem).
We are the city. Church as mirror. (Forgetting the city as Babylon).
We use the city. Church as space capsule. (Forgetting the city as battleground).
We love the city. Church as leaven. Jeremiah 29.

Any theological model of the city will fail if one or more of these three biblical themes of the city is neglected, omitted, or over-emphasised.

Tim Keller, A biblical theology of the city, Evangelicals Now, July 2002

The Poison of Lies

“Here’s what I was learning: secrets are poison. They suck the life out of you, they steal your ability to live in the present, they build walls between you and the people you love.”

Tyler Hamilton/Daniel Coyle, ‘The Secret Race: Inside the Hidden World of the Tour de France: Doping, Cover-ups, and Winning at All Costs

The passage today is 1 John 4.7-16.

This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

God shows his love not just with words or gifts or power, but by coming into the world, sacrificing himself for us. It’s such a good reminder that the primary thing we have to offer the world is ourselves, poured out in love. A readiness to sacrifice for the sake of another – this is real love.

Jesus came that we might live through him. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” (John 10.10) Where does this life come from? 1 John 4 v.12: God lives in us; v.13: We live in him and he in us; v.15: God lives in him and he in us; v.16: Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. This abundant, eternal life comes from God, out of our shared life in Christ – this ‘mutual indwelling’. He in us and us in him. In Christ humanity is irrevocably entangled with the divine. What an amazing thing to get our heads round!

We’re into our final Gospel today with John 1:1-18, which is known as the Prologue to John’s Gospel.

So many of the themes we’ve already looked at are found in these verses, but at the same time this is very different to the Old Testament passages we’ve seen. These verses acknowledge Christ’s deity explicitly – he is the eternal Word made flesh and dwelling among us. “All things came into being through him“. The source of life and the true light, born into darkness, unrecognised and unacknowledged. I’ve read these verses many times, but on this reading it’s this verse that hits me:

He came to his own people, and even they did not receive him. (v.11)

It’s such a sad statement. Here was the very glory of God come into the world, the world which was made through him – and his own chosen and beloved people, his “treasured possession” (Deut 7.6) did not recognise him or want him. What terrible rejection.

But to anyone and everyone who did receive him, he gave the right to become children of God. When we welcomed Jesus we were given the right to be part of a new family, part of God’s own people.  What a wonderful privilege! So many of the Old Testament promises were made to the people of Israel, long before we were ever on the scene. But now we have been given the right to be part of God’s family- “grafted in” as Paul says (Romans 11) – and therefore we have now become inheritors of all the promises to Israel!

“… remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2.12-13)

“From his abundance we have all received one gracious blessing after another.” (John 1.16)