One of the challenges faced by pastors is the organization of public prayer. I have long used a document for myself, Regular Items for Thanksgiving and Intercessory Prayer. This document has all the regular things which should be remembered in public prayer on the Lord’s Day — at least the ones I could think of (with the help of my elders). They are organized into eight groups. The idea is to pray through one group each Lord’s Day. I typically do this in the second prayer in the PM service. Using a system like this helps prevent lengthy “around the world” prayers, as well as the neglect of certain matters. I’m sharing it as a MS Word file so other pastors can modify it for their own purposes.
Category Archives: prayer
Can we pray to Jesus? This is a question I’ve answered countless times, both in sermons and here on Yinkahdinay. It’s a question I have to keep coming back to, because the answer sometimes given to that question is not only wrong, but harmful. Some say that since Jesus taught in the Lord’s Prayer for us to pray to the Father, we must therefore only pray to the first Person of the Trinity. The Lord’s Prayer says “Our Father,” and therefore we may not pray to Jesus. Case closed.
However, if such voices are wrong, they fly against what we confess in article 32 of the Belgic Confession. There we confess that we must not deviate from what Christ has commanded for worship. Then read this carefully: “Therefore we reject all human inventions and laws introduced into the worship of God which bind and compel the consciences in any way.” So, if someone says we must not pray to Jesus, and Scripture says we are allowed to pray to Jesus, that person is introducing a human law which illicitly binds and compels our consciences. There is a lot at stake here.
There are several ways I could address this question. I could point out the proper explanation of “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer (see here). I could mention the explicit biblical passages where prayer to Jesus is not only observed, but even invited (John 14:14, Acts 7:59, 1 Cor. 16:22, Rev. 22:20). I could discuss again how the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, answered this question using an essential theological distinction. I could point out the practice of the early church with church fathers such as Augustine, the practice of the medieval church with Anselm of Canterbury, the practice of the Reformation church with William Farel, or the post-Reformation church with Thomas Watson. We could note that the Athanasian Creed speaks of worshipping the Trinity in unity, and unity in Trinity, noting how this has been understood throughout the history of the church. We could note the prayer-like hymns we sing which address Jesus — and to which most people don’t give a second thought. There are all these different ways of going at this issue.
However, today I want to take an approach I haven’t taken before. It came to me while I was recently teaching a marriage preparation class for a couple in my church. We were discussing healthy communication in marriage. I pointed out what Scripture says in Ephesians 5, where the Holy Spirit draws a parallel between human marriage and the relationship between Christ and his church. The thing that stood out to me is that Christ is clearly said to have a relationship with his church. That relationship is spoken of in marital terms. How absurd it would be for a human marriage to see one spouse being forbidden to speak with the other! Imagine a human marriage where the husband can speak to the wife, but the wife is not allowed to answer and communicate with her husband. Yet that’s what we’re left with when we’re told that the church of Jesus Christ may not pray to him. We have a relationship where the communication can only go one way. What healthy relationship only has one-way communication? We realize that healthy relationships see communication going both ways. If the church really does have a relationship with Jesus Christ, and if that relationship parallels human marriage, shouldn’t it be expected that the church would pray to Jesus?
As mentioned above, it is not only wrong to conclude otherwise, it is also harmful. Think about it. If we cannot communicate with him, how can we really have a relationship with him? How can we live in union with someone with whom we’re not even allowed to speak? How can we avoid the danger of turning the person of our beloved Saviour into a theological concept to be analyzed or argued rather than someone to be loved and cherished? I posit that the challenge of real spiritual vitality goes up exponentially in Reformed communities where they are taught (and then believe) they may not pray to Jesus.
So, yes, I do pray to my Lord Jesus from time to time. I don’t pray to him all the time. Most of the time I pray to the Triune God as my Father. But I’m taught in Scripture that prayer to my Saviour is also appropriate at times. I may pray to him in my personal prayers. I may sometimes also address him when I lead congregational prayer — this is especially if a sermon has been on a text explicitly unfolding some aspect of his person or work (as an example, see the prayer at the end of this sermon). Through the Word of God, the Holy Spirit allows me this privilege of being in a relationship with the Son of God where I may freely speak with him. He allows you that privilege too and don’t let anyone take that away from you. Don’t let your conscience be bound by human laws.
I quite enjoyed David McCasland’s biography of Eric Liddell. My generation remembers Liddell because of Chariots of Fire, the somewhat fictionalized account of his go at the 1924 Olympics. Liddell won gold at the Olympics, despite being challenged to give up his belief in keeping the Lord’s Day holy. Liddell was a man of Christian convictions. Following his Olympic triumphs, he became a missionary to China. The Second World War saw him interned in a Japanese camp. He died there on February 21, 1945 because of an inoperable brain tumour.
McCasland’s biography includes some snippets of Liddell’s life in the prison camp. In this excerpt, Liddell taught a powerful truth which many others have discovered: prayer mysteriously changes the one who prays.
…when Eric spoke in church or led a Bible study group with them, he rarely dealt with what might happen tomorrow. Instead, he focused on what could happen today. During one small group discussion, he read aloud the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:43: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them that despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Then he asked if this was merely an ideal or something practical they could actually do. Could they love the guards in camp and the Japanese people as a whole? Most thought it was only a lofty goal.
“I thought so too,” Eric said, “but then I noticed the next words, ‘Pray for them that despitefully use you.” When we start to pray,” he said, “we become God-centered. When we hate them we’re self-centered. We spend a lot of time praying for people we like but we don’t spend much time praying for people we don’t like and people we hate. But Jesus told us to pray for our enemies. I’ve begun to pray for the guards and it’s changed my whole attitude toward them. Maybe you’d like to try it too.
Eric Liddell: Pure Gold, David McCasland, page 267.
This coming Sunday we have the ordination/installation of office bearers at the Providence Canadian Reformed Church. I plan to preach on the well-known passage of Ezekiel 3:16-21, where the prophet is appointed a watchman over Israel. As part of my preparation, I was reading John Calvin’s commentary on these verses. He has some very good insights and application. However, what really struck me was his prayer. The material in this commentary was originally delivered in the context of weekday lectures or sermons in Geneva. Before starting, Calvin typically prayed the following:
Grant us, LORD, to meditate on the heavenly mysteries of your wisdom, with true progress in piety, to your glory, and our edification. Amen.
Then after each lecture/sermon, he would have a prayer suited to the particular verses he’d been expounding. The English translation of Thomas Myers (later republished by Baker) includes Calvin’s prayer after Ezekiel 3:18-20. Unfortunately, it leaves a bit to be desired in terms of readability. With the help of some friends who are far more proficient at Latin than I am, I hereby offer this improved translation:
O Almighty God,
You appoint the ministers of your doctrine. You raise them up, watchmen over us. You do so on the condition that they be vigilant for our safety. Therefore, grant that we also may be attentive to their instruction, and avoid that double destruction through our own fault, by error and obstinacy. But if we should happen to wander, may we at least, having been held back, come to our senses and so return into the right way, never to desert it again. May we persevere unto the end, that we may eventually enjoy that eternal blessedness which is laid up for us in heaven, through Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. Timothy Keller, New York: Dutton, 2014. Hardcover, 336 pages, $31.00.
There is a disturbing phenomenon we’ve seen in the last few years. It involves celebrity pastors and their fans. It seems these pastors can teach, write and do anything they want and their fans (let’s call them “fanboys”) will defend them come what may. Certainly Tim Keller is a celebrity pastor with a “fanboy” following as well – there are some for whom the man can do no wrong. This is a dangerous way to regard sinful and fallible fellow human beings. However, one can also react wrongly in a different direction. Seeing a few significant problems with a popular writer, one might be inclined to write off everything he says. It’s true that some “Christian” celebrities are so far gone that they should be written off – they are false teachers with a false gospel and believers need to be warned to stay clear, lest they be deceived and led astray. However, I am not convinced that Tim Keller falls into that category. Keller does have significant problems in some areas – I’m thinking especially of his openness to theistic evolution and his approach to apologetics – but he has also made helpful contributions in other areas.
This book on prayer is the best Keller book I’ve read so far. Prayer is a very easy thing to talk about (“I’ll pray for you”), but an incredibly challenging thing to practice, particularly to practice biblically. Keller breaks down the topic in an easily understandable fashion. Undoubtedly one of his greatest strengths is a clear writing style and Prayer fully capitalizes on that strength.
Keller wrote this book to help people understand and practice Christian prayer. His aim was to explain the theological, experiential, and methodological aspects of prayer and, for the most part, he succeeds. He draws from the Scriptures and especially from the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms (“the prayer book of the Bible”). However, he also builds on what previous generations have taught on prayer. This book is notable for its extensive use of Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and John Owen. Keller persuasively shows how these godly men of the past can still teach us today a lot about “experiencing awe and intimacy with God.”
I especially appreciated Keller’s emphasis on prayer as a response to God. In fact, he defines prayer as “personal communicative response to the knowledge of God” (45). Christians should listen to God speaking in his Word and then prayer is the appropriate response. One’s devotional life is therefore a two-way street. Though Keller himself doesn’t say this, I would compare it to the covenantal dialogue we experience in public worship: God speaks through his Word and his people respond. It’s the same with our private worship or devotions – it should have a conversational nature reflecting the relationship between you and your God.
One of the most remarkable aspects of this book is Keller’s critique of contemplative spirituality and mystical prayer practices. He is rather vocal in criticizing those who would teach that prayer involves emptying the mind and escaping rationality. So, for example, he spends several paragraphs explaining how Roman Catholic author Thomas Merton contradicts biblical teaching on prayer (see pages 56-59). Practices like mantras, centering prayer, the Jesus prayer, and lectio divina are all censured to varying degrees by Keller. That does leave one a bit baffled, however, by the fact that the church that Keller pastors, Redeemer PCA in New York City, promotes lectio divina on its website. In the past, Redeemer has also offered classes in some of the practices that Keller warns readers about in this book.
Somewhat related to the foregoing, I also want to express some concern about a quote from Martin Luther. Luther wrote a little booklet entitled “A Simple Way to Pray” and Keller makes extensive use of it. Near the end of chapter 6, he mentions that Luther taught that one should always be alert and ready to hear the preaching of the Holy Spirit within. While in prayer, a believer can suddenly be overcome by good and edifying thoughts and then he or she should sit still and listen. Says Luther, “The Holy Spirit himself preaches here, and one word of his sermon is better than a thousand of our prayers. Many times I have learned more from one prayer than I might have learned from much reading and speculation.” This is one of the most abused quotes of Luther. Authors like Sarah Young (in Jesus Calling) appeal to this quote to justify their belief that God has spoken directly to them. Luther was often given to very expressive and over-the-top language and I doubt that he wished to provide support to the modern-day descendants of those Anabaptists who claimed to receive direct revelation from God. Instead, Luther’s intent was to remind Christians of how we may sometimes receive illumination from the Spirit – he can sometimes enlighten our hearts and bring us to breakthroughs in our understanding of spiritual truths found in God’s Word. I’m convinced Keller knows this too: “Luther is talking about the eyes of our hearts being enlightened (Eph. 1:18) so that things we know with the mind become more fully rooted in our beings’ core” (96). Yet, because this quote is so easily misunderstood with its use of the word “preach,” I wish that Keller had explained more clearly that this is not speaking of extra-biblical revelation and gives no support to those, like Sarah Young, who claim that the Lord spoke to them in their quiet time.
This volume will answer a lot of the common questions that believers have about prayer. For instance, there is a solid biblical answer for the oft-discussed question of whether we have the freedom to pray to our Lord Jesus or to the Holy Spirit (see pages 125-126). Another question: does prayer change things? If so, how does that relate to God’s sovereignty? (see pages 223-225). Unfortunately, there are other questions that are left unanswered. I would have liked to see some discussion of the mechanics of corporate prayer. How exactly do we pray together in a group, such as in public worship? This is not often given much thought.
Keller’s book on prayer is both readable and practical. Readers will come away with a good grasp of how to improve this aspect of their personal devotions so that they grow in their relationship with God through our Saviour Jesus. Remarkably, I found this book at my local Chapters bookstore – not at a Christian outlet. Though I’m still not a big fan of the author, I’m thankful that Keller’s celebrity status helps books like this get out to a wider audience and I do hope that it will bless many readers with a better and more biblical understanding of this vitally important topic.