Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Spiritual Rhythm of Fasting and Prayer

At the beginning of each year since 2000 I create more space in my schedule to spend time alone with God. Sometimes I get away for a couple of days, and sometimes I simply prioritize it in my daily schedule. I also lead our church through a time of fasting and prayer, which has varied in length from one week to twenty-one days.

At Centerpointe Church, we take the month of January to focus on prayer and fasting. It is a time to celebrate the goodness and mercy of God over the previous twelve months and prepare our hearts for what God has for us in the coming year. It is a time to hit the reset button of our souls.

It is part of the spiritual rhythm of my personal life and the life of our church. Like the yearly festivals of the Israelites (Passover, Lights, Harvest, Purim, etc.), these are spiritual rhythms remind us of God’s deliverance and provision.

This is also a time of consecration in order to move forward; allowing the Holy Spirit to cleanse us from sin and renew a right spirit within us. At Centerpointe, 2018 is especially important because there will times of testing and faith decisions, so it is vital that our hearts are right before God. In my office is a picture of a phrase that hit me during one of our months of prayer that says, “Consecration before Amazing.” No matter how long we have walked with God, we need to, on a regular basis, consecrate ourselves to him for his purposes.

As a pastor, I believe there is nothing more important we can do than to pray. In my library, I have many books on the subject of prayer. I probably have preached, or taught, on the subject of prayer as much as any other topic. I enjoy studying the prayers of our biblical heroes like Abraham, Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, and of course Jesus. However, I still haven’t scratched to surface when it comes to prayer.

I remember Dr. Robert J. Ashcroft, former president of Valley Forge University teaching on the subject of prayer, over thirty years ago at a prayer conference. He was one of the godliest and humble people I knew at the time. Whenever I spoke with him I felt like I was with someone who just came out of the throne room of God. He opened the first session by saying that for over seventy years of following Jesus and praying, he is just now learning a few things about prayer. This is how I feel.

I am by far not one of the prayer heroes I read, or read about. I do well for a season and feel like I gain traction, and then I fall back into times of dryness and seemingly powerless prayers, like I’m just punching a spiritual time clock; which is another reason to make January a month of prayer focus. It is intentional and intense, snapping my soul back into attention.

During the first week of 2000, in a time of fasting and prayer, I knelt behind the pulpit to pray and God began to speak to me about my personal life. I wrote this in my personal journal the next day: "God challenged me with 'I don't need another pastor who knows how to run a computer; they are a dime a dozen. I want a pastor who knows me and hears my voice."

I cannot tell you how that scared me. I loved working on my computer, and I loved the new tools to help me study and the new programs to make our church more efficient. But at the time, computers were not so user friendly, and required a lot of attention. Since I was the most computer savvy person in the office, I became the computer answer man for our staff. However, that was not what our people needed; they needed a pastor who cared more for God than they cared for anything else.

When I stand behind the pulpit people need to know that I have a Word from God. God is the only one that can really change people. I may be able to use PowerPoint with a flashy presentation, but without the anointing of God on my life, I will only look polished but I will not be refined. God’s goal for my ministry is not to look good, but to have a pure heart.

Some changes needed to be made in my life. God was not asking me to give up the tools of ministry. He just wanted to re-prioritize my life. Much to my staff’s displeasure, I laid down some ground rules for them and myself. For three months, I was going to go back to paper and pen for sermon preparation. This helped me not only focus on writing but kept me from being distracted by gadgets and information overload. I also asked the staff to no longer ask me computer related questions until they have, one, read the manual, and two, ask someone else first. Interestingly enough, they became more adept at finding their own solutions – funny how that works.

We are constantly bombarded with things that demand our attention. We are sucked into distractions, and we settle for cheap spiritual substitutes; that is why it is so important for our spiritual lives to create space for God to refresh and restore our souls.

In his classic work, Power Through Prayer, E.M. Bounds wrote, “What the Church needs today is not more machinery of better, not new organizations or more and novel methods, but men whom the Holy Ghost can use – men of prayer, men mighty in prayer. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men – men of prayer.”

When I am in an intimate relationship with God I can stand with confidence and declare without reservation that sin will destroy, Hell is hot, and only Jesus can save; I cannot work that up. I need the Holy Spirit to endue me with power from on high. Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill said, “He who is intimate with God will not be intimidated by man.” Ravenhill’s preaching was marked by calling sinners to repentance, insisting Christians live lives marked by holiness, and encouraging deeper prayer lives.

Recently, I was asked to pray for the future leader of the Potomac District Network at a recent prayer meeting. Within the prayer I prayed, “We want your person for this hour; a person who will recognize the season we are in and knows what to do. We want a person who knows what the inside of Your throne room looks like because they spend time there; a person who recognizes your voice because they are intimately familiar with it; a person who will take steps of faith because they have history with your provision; a person who is so in love with You that others want to follow; a person who can tell the stories of Your faithfulness from the past and have a vision to experience new stories of faith and miracles; a person willing to take great risks to advance Your Kingdom.”

The life of Moses captures my attention. Here is a man that desired to be in the presence of God more than anything else. Exodus 33:11 says, “The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” This is a powerful epitaph.

Moses wanted three things (this will preach).
To walk in God’s pleasure (Exodus 33:13, 16)
To walk in God’s precepts (Exodus 33:13)
To walk in God’s presence (Exodus 33:15)
To see God’s Glory (Exodus 33:18)

My cry is that I would not go anywhere without the presence of God and I long for our church to daily walk in His presence.

Fasting

To be honest, I have never enjoyed the fasting part of seeking God. I get hungry after the first hour of any fast. I would rather pray fast than to fast and pray. However, I have learned over the years that in order for me to grow deeper in my walk with Jesus and lead our church, I cannot neglect this spiritual discipline.

Now, when I speak to young ministers and pastors who are looking for guidance, whether to change ministries or are seeking specific direction, I tell them they have to create space for fasting. It clears the mind of self and fills it with God thoughts. I tell them that if they are truly desperate for God to move in their lives, it calls for desperate prayers.

When I became an associate pastor at Trinitylife in Baltimore, I attended a 6:30 am prayer meeting every Tuesday morning, and afterward we went to breakfast. To be honest, my motivations were not exactly pure. I got to spend time with the lead pastor George Raduano, and I rarely paid for my own breakfast. It was a win-win for me.

At Trinity, they choose to do a Daniel fast lasting for twenty-one days. This proved to be a bigger blessing than I anticipated. It was during one of the Daniel fasts that God called me to Centerpointe in 2011. In 2012, it was during a twenty-one day fast that God led our church into an intense remodeling project called “Ready the House”. In 2013, during our time of fasting, God showed me a new model of ministry for our church. Although I was not sure how this was going to happen, God impressed on me that at the same time our Family Life Pastor and our Music Pastor were going to leave, and I was to prepare for a new paradigm of ministry that included bringing on staff that would work with our ministry teams in a coaching role. The Lord also showed me how we were going to move forward in discipleship, outreach and small groups.

During the Lenten season (forty days before Easter) in 2013, I knew we were going to face new challenges and I set aside more time to fast and pray. I prayed that God would expose what was not right in the church. God answered that prayer for sure. We discovered that one of our leaders confessed to a sin that had the potential to cause serious damage in the church. I had to talk to our congregation and talk about things I never want to talk about again. It was during that time the two staff members came to me about leaving. Although I knew both of those things were the right moves,  I still had to lead the church through it.

If Jesus, the very Son of God, began his ministry with a 40 day fast and concluded with an overnight prayer meeting at the Garden of Gethsemane. It was Jesus who said, “My house shall be called a house of prayer.” He did not call it a house of programs, worship, or preaching.

Fasting brings a follower of Jesus back to center. People, as well as churches, have a tendency to drift away from their values and their vision. For people, the pace of life and the cares of the world consume our attention. For churches, the machinery of ministry and programs takes over and we forget why we are doing ministry in the first place; the what and how becomes greater than the why. When that happens, religion sets in and people begin to attach values to rules, traditions, facilities and programs.

Furthermore, fasting, along with more concentrated prayer times, takes us to new levels of spiritual awareness. We are more aware of our dependence on God, more aware of God’s presence in our lives, more awareness of the Word’s impact on our lives, more aware of the needs around us, and more passionate for the Kingdom of God. It sharpens our spiritual focus more than just about anything else. When this happens life is not the same; our spirit comes alive and we move from passive to passion.

For those who have been on marriage retreats, leadership retreats, or spiritual retreats, you know that it takes you out of the routine to focus on what is most important. It gives you an opportunity to repair the broken places and move forward with new vision with renewed energy. Fasting and Prayer restores the first love.

For a great practical guide to fasting and a 21 day devotional guide, go to https://fhchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2014/01/turningpoints_devos_2014web.pdf

We have to be determined and relentless about creating space for the most important people in our lives. God. No one else will create space for you.

So find a quiet space, bring your Bible and notepad, use a devotional guide to assist you, and start this year off with a holy determination to passionately follow Jesus.

Here is the promise:

2 Chronicles 7:14 NIV “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Do we need any greater motivation?


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Thursday, January 04, 2018

2017 In Review

2017 was a roller-coaster year. I spoke about it during the Christmas Eve message. You can watch it here: