Lord, revive us again!

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“Put me to the test, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you a blessing until there is no more need.”

Malachi 3:10

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Developing an Attitude of Gratitude

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy”, Cartsbridge Church on November 7th 2018

General Introduction

Last week, a bottle was washed up on the tiny Hebridean Island of Canna. When one of the islanders picked it up, they realised it contained a brief note which read:

My Love Story

“I have a girlfriend. She is called Jody Gates and my name is George Kirkland. I hope you see this one day and I love you even though we were 4 when we met. I still love you now that we’re 9 now that we both go to Market Hill Primary School.”

Incredible! When you read that, do you not long for Jody to discover that George’s love for her is enduring?! He is now 9 and he has loved her since he was 4!

The ability for a written note, message or letter to move us, inspire us, encourage us is something that most of have experienced in life. A text message, an email, a letter at just the right time can bolster our flagging spirits and give us fresh resolve to keep going.

The letters of Paul are the first century version of our ‘message in a bottle.’ To be clear, they were not thrown by Paul into the Mediterranean with the faint hope that they would reach the countries of Turkey, Greece or Italy. They were carefully delivered to fledging Christian communities who learned about the inexpressible and unassailable love of God for them and for humanity at large.

We are going to dip into these letters in the coming weeks, reflecting especially on Paul’s prayers for the first century church. Our reason for doing this is so that we can align our prayer habits with his. We want to learn what to pray for, what priorities we should adopt, and what beliefs should shape our prayers. To that end, Paul gives us a clear and unmistakable example of how to pray and what prayer is really all about.

As we survey the prayers of Paul, they can be very helpfully summed up in one sentence:

“Paul’s prayers are primarily centred on drawing Christians into a deep understanding of all that Jesus has accomplished for us through his death and resurrection and a dynamic and intimate relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.”

If I could sum up the purpose of the series in one sentence it would be:

“As a church our aim is to reflect on Paul’s prayers in such a way that we hear God speak to us today and find strength and direction to improve our praying, both for God’s glory and for our good.”

Introduction

Tonight, we launch out into this series as we think about:

Developing an Attitude of Gratitude 

Thankfulness is a value that we seek to instil in our children from their earliest days and one that we teach them to express in their relationships.  

The theory behind this practice is the belief that children need to be taught to express gratitude and develop a thankful spirit. Parents understand that children learn to be thankful through the process of example, encouragement and repetition.

Why do we invest so much energy into this process? To lift us out of self-focused living into an understanding of the precious gift of life that we have been given. 

Those three qualities (example, encouragement and repetition) are embedded in Paul’s New Testament prayers and teach us a great deal about developing an attitude of gratitude. 

1. Paul modelled this attitude of gratitude

His prayers for six churches in the world of the first century are framed in spirit of thankfulness.

Read Romans 1:8-10 

“First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world. God, whom I serve in my spirit in preaching the gospel of his Son, is my witness how constantly I remember you in my prayers at all times; and I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.”

Paul thanked God for the Christians in the city of Rome. It must have meant so much to the scattered Christian communities in the Roman empire that the church was established in the world’s capital city.

There’s something I don’t want you to miss here. Paul found reasons to give thanks for God’s people. His prayer here and his prayers for the other first century churches were deliberate, conscious and purposeful.

If you want to find a reason to be critical of people in this church or of the direction you perceive the church going in, then you will find it. 

Look at what Paul says here, “First, I thank my God…because your faith is being reported all over the world.” This is first in order, as if Paul says, I am going to begin my letter by giving thanks to God for the Roman Christians.

If Paul had a second point in mind, he never actually gets to it!

Paul’s example teaches us one vital lesson about life and faith. Look for a reason to be thankful first and very often the criticism that you plan to raise afterward disappears or is refined.

2. Paul taught Christians to cultivate an attitude of gratitude

Read Philippians 4:6-7

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

This attitude is cultivated in prayer. It is one of the great passages in the New Testament which Christians in every generation have turned to for guidance and from which they have received encouragement and blessing.

Paul uses three different Greek words for prayer.

The word translated ‘prayer’ is perhaps a reference to general prayers, talking with God about the big things of life and society.

The word ‘petition’ could represent particular prayers. It might be talking to God about a specific matter, event or person.

The third word, ‘requests’, is really about detailed prayers.

This verse informs us that God is interested in the telescopic view of life, the big things, things at a local, national or international level. He calls us to pray about those matters. 

However, he also cares about the microscopic view of life, the minute matters, the details of our lives. And he equally calls us to bring those specific requests to God.

Paul says that all of those prayers, petitions and requests are to be offered and framed in a spirit of thanksgiving. Recalling God’s goodness and mercy in prayer will save us from being people with ungrateful hearts.

Worry and anxiety will be displaced and peace will garrison and protect your hearts and minds when we pray with thanksgiving.

Woven through these two central truths is a much more foundational reality – one that fully explains Paul’s thankful heart.

Put simply, deep within the heart of Paul resided a profound sense of gratitude for the grace of God that rescued him and set him free. In the best sense of the expression, Paul never recovered from the discovery of the gospel truth – “…the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). It was a spring within him that continually overflowed in thanksgiving and praise to God.

This understanding should unstop a spring in the hearts of every Christian that begins to overflow with gratitude that God would love even me! In every child of God, there should reside a profound sense of thankfulness for Christ and his work.

A week past on Saturday, 12 young lads from the ‘Wild Boars’ football team in Thailand spent the day at Old Trafford as guests of Manchester United Football Club. I am sure most of you know the backstory to the visit of this team. 

Following a training session on June 23 this year, the boys went with their coach to visit caves in the Chiang Rai Province of northern Thailand. A sudden downpour of monsoon rain flooded the caves that the boys were in, making it impossible to leave. That was the beginning of an 18 day ordeal for the boys and their families. 

Miraculously, on Monday, July 2, two British rescue divers found all 13 individuals alive on a muddy ledge in a dry air pocket deep inside the cave. 

What followed was a truly incredible rescue mission. A team of highly trained divers taught the boys how to dive and swim. Then each boy was tethered to a diver who also carried their oxygen tank. Very slowly they were brought to safety. Each boy’s journey to surface took about 8 hours. The entire team was rescued and the joy when they were all finally brought out was indescribable. 

Last Monday, they met the British divers who saved them at a special ceremony and one of the lads said, “It was great to see the divers again, hug them, and thank them in person. They gave us this new life.”

The debt of gratitude these boys expressed to the British divers is pale reflection of the immeasurable debt of gratitude that we should carry in hearts for the great rescue mission that Jesus undertook to set us free from sin to live in the new life of the Spirit.

Conclusion 

I believe, that as the children of God, we can learn from Paul. He has taught us to express gratitude and to develop a thankful spirit.

“When gratitude becomes your default setting, life changes.”

(Nancy Leigh DeMoss)

Seeking After God

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The following talk was given at ‘The Prayer Academy’ on October 24th 2018.

Seeking after God

Introduction 

On April 15, 2013, Carlos Arrendondo stood with hundreds of other people at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon. As many of you will remember, terrorists detonated two bombs at that point. Carlos was caught up in the resultant carnage. The blast threw him to the ground. He later said that when this happened his instinctive reaction was to run as fast as he could from this awful scene. However, as quickly as that thought entered his mind, another thought took over with an impulse to run to the injured, to help them in whatever way he could. As a result of this action, he was captured in an iconic image as he and another man helped a terribly injured individual called Jeff Bauman. In Carlos’s own words, when the bombs went off, he thought, ‘This is a moment…make a better choice.’ That better choice led to him helping people who were seriously injured.

I believe that statement has resonance for Cartsbridge.

This is a moment: a unique moment in the story of our church. This is a moment when we are experiencing the blessing of God. We have so much to thank God for in this season. But running parallel to this blessing, the collective prayer life of the church hit a real low before the summer. An average of around 30 people attended the midweek prayer from a membership of 231 people. 

The September Prayer Focus and now ‘The Prayer Academy’ is a way of saying to the church, ‘This is a moment…make a better choice.’

Therefore, before the Prayer Academy can start, we need to have a change of heart!

For this to happen, it requires that we invest our time and energy in two central areas:

1. Align ourselves with God’s purposes for collective prayer

As we align ourselves with God’s purposes for collective prayer, it says something about us.

(a) We demonstrate our dependence on God’s power

The collective prayer times of a local church provide a clear and emphatic demonstration of our complete dependence on God’s power for all our work. To meet for the purpose of bringing the people and the work of the church before the Lord signals our dependence on him like nothing else can. At the same time, collective prayer sets before the church family a demonstration of the answering power of God. 

One of the things that impacted Kenny Crawford and me when we spent time with the elders of the church in Vlore, Albania this month was the way they encouraged the church to celebrate answered prayer. They pray very specifically as a church and when God answers that prayer, they acknowledge it as a church with praise and thanksgiving.

Let us be more specific in our praying and more intentional in celebrating answered prayer together.

(b) We focus our minds on the church and its mission

Collective prayer trains us to realise our oneness within the body and to be concerned about the ministries of the church. God’s desire is to shape and beautify the whole membership together, and to bring about a responsible and involved body of people bonded in a sacred activity of united prayer. We care together in prayer times and we feel together. 

(c) We extend the horizons of our faith

Collective prayer trains the church to develop faith and to anticipate great things from God.

In John 4, Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.” Collective prayer makes those words real in the life of the church, encouraging us to regularly lift up our eyes to the see the needs in our world. It focuses our minds and hearts on issues much bigger than ourselves.

(d) We are taught in the school of prayer

In collective prayer we discover the full scope, range and manner of prayer. Untied prayer is uniquely educational and broadening.

2. Approach God with the right heart and attitude

The idea of the Prayer Academy was inspired by the truth of Psalm 24:6…

“Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.”

The generation of those who seek God in Psalm 24 is blessed by God. Do you not long to be among the generation who seek God and who know the blessing of God?

What does it mean to seek God?

I spent three years in Nottingham working with a church in the late nineties. On one occasion, I remember taking my family to a large park on the outskirts of Derby on a Saturday afternoon. I am not entirely sure how it happened but  I managed to lose Alisdair, my son, just shortly after leaving the car. The few minutes until I found him again were awful. For that short period, my energy, thinking and heart were poured into finding him.

That picture is both helpful and unhelpful at the same time when we apply it to seeking God. It’s helpful because it captures the strength of the Hebrew word for seek. Our entire heart is to be engaged in seeking God. But it is also unhelpful. We are not seeking for God as if he is somehow lost. Jesus has made a covenant commitment to be with his people through the Holy Spirit. “Surely, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). When the Bible repeatedly calls us to “Look to the Lord and his strength; seek his face always” (Psalm. 105:4), it is an acknowledgement that his revealed, conscious, trusted presence is not our constant experience. There are seasons when we become neglectful of God and give him no thought and don’t put trust in him. His face – the fullness of his character – is hidden behind the curtain of our sinful desires. This condition is always ready to overtake us. That’s why we are told to “seek his face always…continually…”

John Piper says that seeking God is the conscious fixing or focusing of our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God.

 There well over 30 references in Scripture to the importance of seeking God but our primary inspiration tonight comes from 2 Chronicles 34 and the story of King Josiah.

Josiah was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem for thirty-one years. He did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and followed the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighth year of his reign, while he was still young, he began to seek the God of his father David.

(2 Chronicles 34:1-3)

At his ascension, he was 8 years old. In the 8th year of his reign, at the age of 16, he began to seek God. I am convinced this was a crisis point in the life of Josiah. Very often, crisis points are moments when we are brought to see our need for God’s presence and help. Here is this teenage boy, with the cares of the kingdom on his shoulders, newly aware of the responsibilities and possibilities which that brought him, turning to God. When he was 16, Josiah began to seek the God of his father David. 

What about this moment in the life of Cartsbridge Church? This is undoubtedly a season when we are experiencing the blessing of God. But more than ever, this is a time for Cartsbridge to seek God. This is a moment to press on with greater urgency. 

Why do I say that? Well, an example from the experience of God’s people can help here. The context is one in which the Israelites are preparing to enter the Promised Land. At this moment, Moses says to the people:

When the Lord your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you – a land with large, flourishing cities you did not build, houses filled with all kinds of good things you did not provide, wells you did not dig, and vineyards and olive groves you did not plant – then when you eat and are satisfied, be careful that you do not forget the Lord, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.

(Deuteronomy 6:10-12)

The very blessing of God can cause the people of God to forget him.

What the Deuteronomy passage is saying in our language is this: don’t take your eye off the ball.

I recognise that we are a busy, busy church with many of the members leading very busy lives. However, it is a cause for concern if only 15% of the membership attend the collective prayer gatherings of the church (pre-summer  2018 attendance). 

We are called as the people of God to seek him. John Piper says that this is the conscious fixing or focusing of our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God.

“If you seek him, he will be found by you.”

(2 Chronicles 15:2)

This is a profound principle that is repeated throughout the Scriptures. The idea is that when we draw near to God, he reveals himself to us. 

God does not hide himself from seeking hearts.

This truth lies at the heart of the Prayer Academy.

Conclusion

I grew up in the Ayrshire town of Dalry and spent a good bit of time over at the coast in Largs. The main route home involved the steep climb up the Haylie Brae. There is a fork on this road which drops down to my hometown. I discovered that once I made this turn and moved the car into neutral it would coast all the way down the two mile stretch of road with only an occasional light touch on the breaks! Eventually, the car ambled to a stop before the turning onto the main Kilbirnie to Dalry Road.

In church life, it is possible to coast along in neutral, thinking we have momentum. However, eventually we will grind to a halt. 

The call to seek God is really about encouraging the Church to move into gear and then moving up the gears in order to move forward with God. 

And this is never done better than when we do it together!

“Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob.”

Psalm 24:6

The Journey Continues

Welcome to ‘the Prayer Academy’ blog! We hope you find it helpful.

“…(the prayer meeting) will be the engine that will drive the church…” (Jim Cymbala – ‘Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire’)

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Collective Prayer at Cartsbridge

Background

The church organised a weekly prayer meeting for many years on a Wednesday night. Apart from the last Wednesday of the month (which was reserved for Home Groups), the prayer meeting was held in the church and led by an individual on a rota basis. 

In the recent past an additional home group evening has been added so we now have church prayer meetings 2-3 times per month.

Current Position

In discussions this year there has been an acknowledgement that the current format is tired. At our AGM in June the elders informed the church that we would use the month of September to focus afresh on prayer and use a teaching DVD called “When God’s People Pray” on Wednesday nights and teach about prayer at our All-Age Service on Sunday mornings. There was an average of 50 people in attendance each Wednesday during September.

The Way Forward (‘The Prayer Academy’)

It was Andrew Murray who spoke about disciples of Jesus enrolling in the school of prayer. That thought developed into the idea of running a “Prayer Academy” at Cartsbridge during the week thus replacing the prayer meeting. 

The overall aim of ‘the Prayer Academy’ is that we ‘learn to be a generation that seeks God.’

“Such is the generation of those who seek him, who seek your face, O God of Jacob” (Psalm 24:6).

The story of King Josiah from 2 Chronicles 34 has direct relevance here. It says in this chapter that at the age of 16 “…he began to seek the God of his father David” (v.3). This phrase appears around 30 times in the OT.

From these verses the broad idea of seeking God:

  • Requires that we turn from our sin and worship him with humility. 
  • Means that we are in constant fellowship with him, observe his commandments and practice love and justice.

John Piper says it is “the conscious fixing or focusing of our mind’s attention and our heart’s affection on God.”

While the larger part of seeking God will take place in the lives of individual believers the opportunity for regular corporate prayer will allow us to become a generation that is intent on seeking him.

The Way Froward (in Practice)

In session 3 of “When God’s People Pray” Jim Cymbala taught about the vital importance of the Word of God and prayer. His appeal was that we should allow the teaching of the Bible to inform our prayers. Therefore, ‘the Prayer Academy” will place much greater emphasis on God’s Word and encourage its teaching to inform our prayers.

In essence the evenings will contain: 

  • A focused time of praise – a deliberate coming to God in song that focuses our hearts on him.
  • A engaging period of Bible teaching – approx 15 minutes where we listen to what God’s word says and we use that as fuel for our prayers.
  • A deliberate turning to prayer  – this would be a mix of whole group and small group prayer.

When we read Paul’s letters to the churches in the New Testament it is fascinating how he records what he is praying for each local church or church leader. There is, therefore, much in these passages to get the teaching of ‘the Prayer Academy’ up and running.

Conclusion

“…(the prayer meeting) will be the engine that will drive the church…” (Jim Cymbala – ‘Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire’)

Prayer ought to have a foundational place in the life of local church. What we have set out above is a way to achieve this goal.