Abraham Lincoln: Prophet for our times?

Every now and again you discover something that stops you dead in your tracks. Or at least makes you think. Such was my recent discovery of the text of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation of a national day of fasting.

Living in the times we do, it is almost inconceivable that the leader of a Western nation – or any nation for that matter – would make such a proclamation. Even a quick read of the text reveals an outlook on the world that is lost to the political elites who govern us today. Given that Lincoln’s proclamation was in response to a request from the Senate, it is all the more astonishing.

Lincoln’s declaration of a national day of prayer and fasting, made as it was during the civil war, makes a sharp and distinct connection between the nation’s woes and its forgetfulness of God: America had become too proud to pray to the God that had established and blessed her.

In describing how the spiritual condition of the nation had degenerated, Lincoln’s words have an uncomfortable resonance with our own times. Let me give you a flavour of the text:

 “We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity.”

“We have grown in numbers, wealth and power..”

“But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us…”

“…we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success…”

“… we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us!”

Lincoln’s analysis at times feels like a prophecy of twenty-first century Britain. We might never had had it quite so good as America, but for most of the people for most of the time since the end of second world war, life has been pretty good – certainly in comparison to pre-war years and in comparison to many other nations in the world.  And whilst we might not be in a civil war, it is not too hard to spot the economic, political and religious fault lines that threaten to widen the divisions that already exist in our society.

What can we do about it? Given that twenty-first century Abe Lincolns are in short supply, our best course of action is one that the apostle Paul said was of first importance. It is of course to pray for good government.

We hear a lot about apostolic ministry today. In 1 Timothy 2.1-2 Paul states that prayer for good government is a number one apostolic priority:

I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.

Somehow these words seem to have lost their force. Even in churches that have inerrancy and infallibility written into their statements of faith, zeal to implement Paul’s instruction is not always evident. If we spent as much time considering how we might apply Paul’s crystal clear teaching to pray for good government as we spend debating and discussing how to apply Paul’s less than clear teaching in verses 11-5 of 1 Timothy 2, we might begin to see a turnaround in our nation.

We will, I fear, wait a long time, perhaps in vain, for our political leaders to pick up the mantle of Lincoln and call us to prayer. But we can pray ourselves. And we can wait on the Lord, knowing that waiting on Him is never in vain.

The full text of Lincoln’s proclamation can be found here.

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“God makes a way for a praying man “

One of the things I had hoped to do at the end of last year was post an article on the best books I had read in 2015. Somehow that post never materialised. It never got further than a few thoughts in my head. If I had written it, one book would certainly have made the top three, if not the number one spot. It was a biography of David Wilkerson, by his son Gary, The Cross, The Switchblade and The Man Who Believed.

David Wilkerson was a spiritual giant. Preacher, leader, pioneer. We’ll remember him as all those things. However, I have a feeling that Wilkerson saw himself as first and foremost a man of prayer.

When he was a boy, his dad use to say to him words that shaped his ministry: “God always makes a way for a praying man.” He never forgot those words. And they stood him in good stead throughout his life and ministry.

When you read through the Bible, you will search in vain for anyone who accomplished anything of any significance who was not a man or woman of prayer.

When the disciples wanted special instruction from Jesus, they did not ask Jesus to teach them to preach or lead worship. They said “Teach us to pray” (Luke 11.1). Jesus “often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (Luke 5.16).

Out of David Wilkerson’s praying came Teen Challenge. Out of his praying came prophetic insights that were forty years ahead of their time.

Who knows what God will do as we seek His face in prayer and fasting? Jesus instructed us to pray and fast without drawing attention to ourselves. And He also promised that His Father would reward those who “did the business” of prayer and fasting in secret (Matthew 6.6, 18). Perhaps it was His way of saying “God makes a way for praying men and women.”

Restoring the “Wow factor”

I don’t know where the term “wow factor”came from. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “wow” as a natural exclamation first recorded in Scots in the 16th century. How it became attached to “factor” is not clear. It would be a bit special if someone discovered that it was used to describe why John Knox’s preaching in 16th century Scotland was different to everyone else’s efforts in the pulpit!

Just recently I was talking to someone about their faith and the way God was answering their prayers, and the thought struck me ‘This person’s faith has a big “wow factor”’. That thought was followed by the thought that some people need the “wow factor” restored to their faith.

What are the signs that your faith might have lost the “wow factor”?

Here’s a few possible signs:

You don’t have the same zeal you used to have for prayer, reading your Bible or fellowship

When something new is announced in church you mentally respond with “Done that before” adding, perhaps, “and it didn’t work”.

Someone shares a testimony and instead of rejoicing with them you adopt a kind of “we’ll see whether it’s really God or not” stance.

When you have been a Christian a long time, it is easy to lose the “wow factor”.

It happened to the Christians in the book of Hebrews. After years of faithfully following Christ it seems that they were tempted to abandon faith.

As you read through the epistle, you find a number of factors working against them.

Firstly, there is no doubt they were under severe pressure. Some had their property confiscated.

Pressure, whatever form it takes, can rob our faith of the “wow factor”. Opposition and persecution force people to make some very hard choices – choices the like of which many Westerners have never had to make.

How do you cope with that pressure? According to Hebrews, you look to Jesus (Hebrews 12.1-3).

Secondly, they experienced the pull of their former religion (Hebrews 8).

When we experience difficulty, we can find the temptation to ‘go back to what we know’. Why? Because it seems safe. Or familiar. ‘What we know’ might be a broken world of substance abuse. Or ungodly relationships. Or it might just be nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ and the way our faith was then. There are all sorts of idols that lurk in our mind that seek to detract from what God wants to do in us today.

In verse thirteen of Hebrews 8, the writer says that the old religion was obsolete. It had never worked in the past and was now set aside by what Jesus did. Your old life never did work! And even the blessings of the past are just that – the past! You need fresh bread today!

Thirdly, they lost the sense of privilege and pleasure in following Jesus (Hebrews 10.32-35). The writer to the Hebrews called on these Christians to remember how they had joyfully responded to difficulty in the past.

Sometimes we simply need to recall how joyful our faith used to be! Recollecting joyful times in our walk with God can create a reconnection with the joy that is produced the “wow factor” that makes our faith so compelling and brings God so much glory.

One Word For 2016

Words of advice and aspiration abound at this time of year. And so they should. New Year is as good a time as any to set goals, dream about the future and think about what we could do differently.

However, you don’t have to be a prophet to predict that 2016 will bring its own challenges and difficulties. Apologies if that thought is an unwelcome intrusion into your dreaming and planning! In our more realistic and honest moments, most of us, I think, acknowledge that the assertion that 2016 will not  be a sunny walk in the park is more a statement of fact than a mere opinion.

Having said all of that, what could be said that might help us as we enter a new year? I want to suggest one word that, understood and applied, could really make a big difference. I know some of you will guess that the word is “Jesus” or “faith”. How could I argue with you? However, let me suggest another word: resilience.

My definition of resilience is the ability to keep going when things get difficult or to bounce back when you have been knocked back.

Proverbs 24.16 indicates that the capacity to bounce back is something that belongs to the righteous: for though the righteous fall seven times, they rise again.

Consider for a moment how your life would change if you could up your resilience capacity by five per cent?

In Luke 18.1-8, Jesus tells a story in order to teach His disciples that they should always pray and not give up. It is a story about resilience.  

Why did the disciples need to hear this story? Why do we need to hear this story?

Although the Bible does not reveal anything more than the purpose of the story, three possible reasons present themselves.

Firstly, we need to hear a story about resilience because we have a propensity to give up in the face of difficulty. For some, the “giving up” threshold is high. It takes a lot to make them give up. For some it is low. A minor setback and they quit.

Secondly, Jesus’ story is reminder that when all our best efforts in any given situation have failed, we can always pray. No-one can stop you from praying. Not even the devil! No-one that is except you! When it looks like the last word has been spoken and there is no hope, you can still pray.

Finally, Jesus’ story is not just a story of resilience, it’s a story of promise. The woman had her request granted!  God answers the prayers of those who call to Him day and night. That’s a promise. Our priority is to stay in faith: “When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

There is eventual breakthrough.

Florence Chadwick was a phenomenal swimmer. In 1950 she broke the women’s record for swimming the English Channel. A year later, she became the first woman to swim the Channel both ways.

Not content with her records, Chadwick decided to swim from Catalina Island to the coast of California in 1952. She was making great progress, until a fog set in. She told her mother who was in one of the boats that she did not think she could continue. What she did not realise was that she was just one mile from her destination. She told the press afterwards: “All I could see was the fog…I think if I could have seen the shore I would have made it.”

Sometimes the mist of circumstances, emotions or even offence descends and we lose sight of the shore. The promise of God lifts the fog and brings breakthrough into view.

Whatever you do in the year ahead, keep swimming. Keep the promise of God before you. Have a resilient 2016.