Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Paul's Prayers #16 & 17

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we 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.
Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel,which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Col. 1:4-12)

Paul highlights two prayers for the church at Colossae - one of thankfulness and one of intercession. These two prayers are linked by a direct reference to missions. Together, the passage shows us the potential we have in any missiological opportunity.

First, Paul thanks God for the church's faith and love, grounded in hope. This is not a church Paul has visited. Instead, he has heard about them from his world Christian friend, Epaphras. Yet Paul's love for the church flows throughout the letter, and it's easy to forget that he wasn't the church planter. The unity of the body shines in Colossians! The foundation of their faith and love - the hope laid up in heaven - is the same as Paul's.

Before laying out how he prays for them, Paul highlights how they heard of this hope. Epaphras is one of those Biblical characters I long to know more about. All we know is that he took the Gospel to Colossae, prayed fervently for them (Col. 4:12), and was a prisoner with Paul (Philemon 23). Yet Paul calls him by name, something he doesn't even do for one of the most well-known Christians of his day (2 Cor. 8:18). He was a faithful minister and took word of Colossae back to Paul and his team. What a picture of a cross-cultural worker - sharing the Gospel and bringing word of this whole other world back to the church at home!

Finally Paul lays out his prayer for them. Not just his prayer - but the prayer of his team. Specifically, he prays that the church would be filled with the knowledge of His will - requiring spiritual wisdom and understanding. As a result they would:
  • Walk in a way pleasing to God
  • Bear fruit
  • Know Him more
He concludes by asking that they would be strengthened with power for endurance, patience, johy, and thankfulness. Paul knows that to truly walk in His will requires an infusion of the Holy Spirit.

How does this relate to becoming a world Christian? If we are on the "going" end, we should do as good a job as Epaphras of relating something of the personality of the church on the other end to the church at home. We should help the church at home learn to love the body on the field as much as we do! If we are on the "sending" end, or even if we just encounter a cross-cultural worker, we should ask questions and get to know the people they serve. Every missionary I know loves it when people ask more than surface questions. They can give a five-minute summary, but they really love to pour out their heart. Learn to ask questions that give them open doors to share that heart. Some practical notes:
  • Allow plenty of time for conversation - a 30 minute cup of coffee will barely scratch the surface.
  • Ask the right questions. This will vary based on what your friend does, but here are some questions that have worked for me to get you started:
  • * What is the most encouraging thing you've seen since your last furlough? The most discouraging?
  • * What are the strengths/weaknesses of the church?
  • * What is a worship service like?
  • * What are their needs?
  • * Are there solid leaders in the church?
  • * What do you do when you go to their homes?
  • * What is going on politically/culturally that can help me understand your life and the church better?
  • Spend extended time in prayer after hearing about the church. Pray for your friend, but also for those he or she serves.
  • Learn about the country and people group he or she serves. Read articles online and in the international section of newspapers and magazines.
Prayer: Lord, help us to be Epaphrases and Pauls. As we go, help us share our heart with those back home and be faithful to pray when we are away from those we serve. As we stay, help us understand better the culture and people who our friends serve. Help us love them as one body.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Paul's Prayers, #15

And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God. (Phil. 1:9-11)

Paul knew the "main thing" for believers. He had written about it in 1 Cor. 13: "...the greatest of these is love". And so it's not surprising that he makes a point of praying for the church to be filled with love.

Significantly, he doesn't just pray for warm fuzzies. He doesn't want love separated from truth. So he prays for abounding, overflowing love - with knowledge and discernment. To the Ephesians he warned to speak truth in love; for the Philippians he prays they will live love in truth. The motive is significant - to approve what is excellent, being pure, blameless, and fruitful for God's glory.

"Approving what is excellent" is a much harder thing to do, and a higher calling, than criticizing what is wrong. Anyone can see the problems; Paul wants their love and truth to lead them to exalt what is good and right - what is excellent. In this they will demonstrate purity, blamelessness, and fruitfulness.

I think Paul is basically telling them to keep "the main thing the main thing". If we focus on what God is doing - what is more excellent than that? - we will fill our hearts, minds, and calendars with the things of Him. This will greatly aid purity and blamelessness, as there will be no room for the things that promote unfruitfulness. Yet Paul draws it all back to love. This isn't about legalism or restrictions. It's about the overflow of love. When we truly love God and grasp His love for us we find that we long to focus on what pleases His heart.

How does this relate to becoming world Christians? I don't know how we can focus on what is excellent from a kingdom perspective without focusing on what God is doing around the world. When we see, for example, the dreams and visions He is giving people groups to reveal Himself to them and prepare them for the message of the Gospel, we grasp the current world situation in a much more "excellent" light. When we bring love, knowledge, and discernment together we find a sensitivity to His purposes that we didn't know we had. And we find ourselves wanting to be on mission with Him.

Prayer: Lord, fill us to overflowing with love coupled with knowledge and discernment. Help us to see things with Your eyes and approve what You are doing excellently in the world. Teach us how to live in purity, blamelessly before You, filled with good fruit for Your glory.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Paul's Prayers, #14

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. (Phil. 1:3-7)

Paul didn't just have supporters - he had partners.

This is one of the key passages (along with 3 John 5-8) that guide my thinking about how churches should view relationships with missionaries. In Paul's mind the church at Philippi was a partner in his work.

We know from history and other passages that many churches in Asia Minor were persecuted or in great poverty during this time period. But God, in His grace, allowed some churches to flourish in freedom and prosperity - and guided the leadership to request and facilitate support for the churches that were suffering. 1 Cor. 8-9 speak to such a collection, delivered by Paul to Jerusalem prior to his arrest.

Paul's teaching to the churches indicates that those churches who weren't struggling should make an extra effort to support those who were. And similarly, Paul didn't hesitate to accept financial support from those churches who could afford it, even while not expecting support from churches in other areas. He was free to take income, and willingly laid that right down when it was best for the church involved.

Philippi was one of the more prosperous churches, and we see in this passages that they viewed their wealth from a kingdom perspective. They were partners with Paul. We know from other passages that this partnership was not just financial - Paul asked them to pray for his deliverance in 1:9, so they were prayer partners as well. But the key point is that there was a relationship - one that Paul treasured.

How does this relate to being world Christians? We need to develop relationships with those we support. We should never simply write a check. Prayer, birthday gifts, checking on their house, keeping them informed about what's going on here - all are part of being partners. We should be such a part of their lives that there is no "disconnect" because of the distance. It takes work - but modern technology has made that work much easier. Email, Facebook, Skype - all make staying in touch in even the remotest areas easier. Missionaries likewise should be open and communicative - newsletters with specific prayer requests help the church to develop world Christians. Most of all, we should truly view each other as partners. As I've said many times, the one traveling is the feet, but the entire body goes. We have to truly see ourselves in the "go".

Prayer: Father, please help us to see ourselves as partners in the Gospel. Guide us to understand and support our missionaries in a more significant manner. Teach us how to be good partners.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Paul's Prayers, #13

Yes, and I will rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. (Phil. 3:18b-26)

After a brief absence due to power outage and ice storm, I'm excited to resume our study of Paul's prayers. This one isn't so much a prayer Paul prayed, as one prayed for him. Yet it is very instructive in learning to become world Christians.

Paul, in prison, writes to Philippi that he knows he will be delivered because of their prayers and the help of the Holy Spirit. It's important to let it settle into us: They apparently had been praying for His deliverance. This isn't surprising, since Paul wrote to the church at Thessalonica, Finally, brothers, pray for us, that the word of the Lord may speed ahead and be honored, as happened among you and that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men. For not all have faith. (2 Thess. 3:1-2). Paul wasn't averse to praying for deliverance.

That's important, because sometimes we tend to glorify the persecuted church or missionaries who are suffering. We focus so much on their eternal rewards that we convince ourselves we are doing them a disservice to pray for their earthly deliverance. We imagine their bloody, bruised bodies as somehow holy and above pain and the temptation that comes with it. We even convince ourselves that it is unspiritual to pray for deliverance.

We forget that we are at war.

When you hear of a soldier captured in a war zone, you want that POW returned. You want him delivered from 'wicked and evil men'. It's the same in our spiritual war. Though the enemy can't permanently capture soldiers of the cross, he can make life pretty miserable for them. One thing we fail to recognize when we glorify persecution is that extreme persecution throws the church into survival mode, causing the focus to be on living through the day rather than sharing the Gospel. It can even lead to destruction of the church in a region. The church in the Middle East faces this possibility even today.

Certainly, in the Philippians passage we are looking at, Paul recognizes that the deliverance might come in the form of death - and that would be gain. But he ends this section by reaffirming his belief that his life would be spared because his ministry wasn't finished. His deliverance would be worked out in an earthly fashion. Later, he will write, For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come (2 Tim. 4:6). He will know when God is guiding him to a heavenly rather than earthly deliverance. But for now, he anticipates an earthly deliverance of a very practical nature.

How does this relate to becoming world Christians? We have to recognize that God will give the missionaries on the ground discernment into their specific situations. We need to pray for that discernment for them, and not judge their response based on our limited information. We also need to recognize spiritual warfare and pray boldly for earthly intervention when called for. Finally, we need to pray outside crisis times for them to have such a relationship with Christ that to die will truly be gain. This will make discerning to continue to fight that much easier. John Bunyan put it very well:

Thou mayest do in this as it is in thy heart. If it is in thy heart to fly, fly: if it be in thy heart to stand, stand. Anything but a denial of the truth. He that flies, has warrant to do so; he that stands, has warrant to do so. Yea, the same man may both fly and stand, as the call and working of God with his heart may be. Moses fled (Ex. 2:15); Moses stood (Heb 11:27). David fled (1 Sam. 19:12); David stood (1 Sam. 24:8). Jeremiah fled (Jer. 37:11-12); Jeremiah stood (Jer. 38:17). Christ withdrew himself (Luke 19:10); Christ stood (John 18:1-8). Paul fled (2 Cor. 11:33); Paul stood (Acts 20:22-23). . . . There are few rules in this case. The man himself is best able to judge concerning his present strength, and what weight this or that argument has upon his heart to stand or fly. . . Do not fly out of a slavish fear, but rather because flying is an ordinance of God, opening a door for the escape of some, which door is opened by God's providence, and the escape countenanced by God's Word (Matt. 10:23).

Prayer: Father, we ask You to give supernatural insight to our friends on the field about how to respond in each situation. Provide for them the discernment to respond to situations. Give us the boldness to pray for both heavenly and earthly deliverance from their struggles. As we pray for the persecuted church, help us not to glorify them but only You, and to pray for them to have only the measure of difficulty that will purify the body and promote the Gospel, not a measure that will hinder their productivity for You.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

When a little means a lot

We have just emerged from the worst ice storm in our region's history. We were without power for 53 hours, then again for 8 1/2. There is a lot of cleanup to be done, but thankfully not a lot of structural damage (comparatively) and very little loss of life (though any is sad). I learned going through this that a little can mean a lot.

A little ice - less than an inch on our property, just over an inch in most of our town - wreaked havoc. An inch isn't that much. But it was a lot.

A little light made a big difference too. Just one candle after the sun went down made all the different in the world in a room. Sure, more candles were better - but the darkness couldn't extniguish even one candle.

A little electricity matters too! When our power came back on, and went off again, I started thinking of the stories many of you have shared about power that is sporadic, maybe every few days for a few hours. Yet what you can get done in those hours! In the 17 hours our power was on before going off the second time, I did dishes and laundry, took a much-needed hot shower, vacuumed, caught up on news and email, and in general felt "normal". From now on I will be praying for those of you in those situations, to be able to maximize your times with power!

Jesus gave us the principle a long time ago that a little means a lot. One boy with five loaves and two fish was all He needed to feed a multitude. What mattered wasn't the offering, but the offer. The willingness. The heart. And it's like that for you. Whatever you're doing that doesn't feel like enough, please remember that a little means a lot. It matters. All He wants is for you to put it in His hands and let Him multiply it.