Thursday, January 30, 2014

Prayers from prison

How do you read your Bible? Do you follow a particular plan that takes you in a chronological tour through each book, Old and New Testament? I've tried my fair share of reading programs to work my way through the Bible but never found one that stuck. Don't get me wrong, I think  programs are a wonderful, worthwhile resource. That's why I've tried so many - I think they are a great idea! But for me there has always been something missing when I've tried to read the Bible with a structured plan. My preferred method of reading the Bible is what you might call "free form." Some days I read a chapter, some days I read an entire book. Somedays I read from the Old Testament and some days from the New.
There is one principle that I always try to adhere to as I do my daily readings: don't close the Bible until I know I've read the words God is seeking to impart to me for the day. This may seem a bit odd. How do you know where it is God wants you to read from or when you have read the precise right word? I can't explain it other than, you just know. Sometimes it takes me chapter upon chapter before I reach that word and sometimes it takes a single verse. No matter how long it takes it never fails that if I continue to press on in my reading God will reveal to me a message I need to hear. When I seek Him, He is always there in scripture just waiting to be found.
The past few mornings I have struggled to truly engage in my reading. Thoughts have crept into my mind, taking my attention down rabbit trails and off of the lessons to be learned in the scripture before me. Still, I have tried to continue to practice my basic principle. As always, God has been faithful.
This morning I started my reading where I often begin, the Psalms. When I had finished reading Psalm 112 I was encouraged but still yearned for more. So I turned to Micah. I can't recall reading through the whole book of Micah so I decided I would start at chapter one. I read all the way through to the end of chapter two and then paused. I could sense it, God was calling me out of Micah and into the New Testament, specifically to letters written by Paul.
I opened my Bible to Colossians chapter one, a letter written by Paul while he was in prison. It didn't take me long to realize why I was led to Colossians chapter one. By verse three the reason was clear. "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you," 
Such a short, small, seemingly insignificant sentence immediately revealed a profound truth I desperately needed to hear. 
Paul, locked away in prison, writing to his brothers and sisters in Christ that were not in prison, starts out his letter by discussing his prayers - for them. He could have begun this letter in a million other ways. I could think of a few that would have entered my mind. How about "I often pray that I will get out of this prison cell" or "They barely feed me here and when they do it tastes absolutely lousy" or "Will you pray for me that I will be released from prison! And soon." If I were locked in a prison, and a terribly brutal prison at that, I'm quite sure my words would not be of prayer and thanksgiving but of lament and anguish! 
But not Paul. His first topic of discussion is one of prayer and praise. He thanks God for the salvation and faith of his fellow Christians who, unlike him, are living free of the chains of enslavement. He doesn't complain or display any sense of bitterness. He doesn't tell them how envious he is of them because they are free while he remains behind bars. No, he prays for them and he thanks God for them. 
Paul's devotion and commitment to prayer and thanksgiving is a beautiful lesson of how you and I, as Christians, are to live. Our attitude is to be, first and foremost, one of praise. Our go-to position should be one of praise. The song on our lips should be one of praise. 
Oh, but how often I fall short! How often do I let out a cry of lament before I sing a song of praise and worship? How often do I complain about my own plight before I thank God for the blessings of my fellow believers? I am prone to lay out my burden and then, after I have all of that off of my mind, turn to a time of praise. 
God wants my praise first. He wants my prayer and thanksgiving first. Whether I am in prison or paradise, God desires my praise. Whether I find myself in want or in plenty, a hallelujah is the word He longs to hear.
This morning I needed a reminder to praise first. In every circumstance, give God a prayer of praise first. God has given His children every reason to live a life of continual praise. Paul knew that truth and lived it. His life posture was one of praise, even when there was little in his own life worthy of praising from the human perspective. Still, he praised God in his prayers by pouring out thanks for other people and the spreading of the Gospel. His focus wasn't on himself or his predicament. His eyes were fixed on God, wholeheartedly devoted to claiming a spirit of thanksgiving even from the cruelest of prison cells.

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