Accepting Blessing

By Andrew Allison and Konnie Vissers

We live in a world where all too often people do not receive the kind of love and care they need growing up. Simply put…we live in a broken world. I believe this is not actually how God intended us to live. I believe God intends us to live into Jesus’ wholeness and love. Last week at SPL Church we looked at Mark 9, and the transfiguration, where Jesus is transfigured on a mountain top before Peter, James, and John (his inner circle of disciples). And the voice of God is spoken over Jesus, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” A beautiful blessing… “This is my Son, the Beloved.”

Andrew preached a sermon on this, ending with a blessing to those listening. He took promises and statements from various points in Scripture that God speaks to us, His beloved children. It was powerfully moving for me, and I would like to share that with you. This is the Father’s blessing that Andrew shared:

“Hear the Father’s blessing:

I see you.

 I’ve always seen you

  I’ve always seen you and I adore you.

I made you.

  I made you like Me.

    You bear My family resemblance

       My likeness is on your soul.

    I made you inside and out

  I know every bone in your body.

You are wonderfully and fearfully made.

I know your dad and I know your mom.

  I know the details of your conception and the day of your birth.

    I know the whole story.

       Child, listen, I brought you here.

You are My idea, My delight, My beloved.

I smile every time you wake up.

 I know your heart, and it is precious to Me.

  I’ve kept track of every toss and turn,

   Through the sleepless nights,

     Each of your tears are entered into My ledger,

      Each ache is written in My book.

I know your struggle.

  I’m well aware of the temptation that threatens to ruin you.

   I see how fear calls your name.

      When you pass through the waters, I will be with you,

       When you walk through the flames, you will not be burned.

      I have redeemed you.

   Child, you are Mine, I bless you.

Stop thinking these words aren’t for you!

   As though I’m speaking to someone else,

      It’s YOU I’m speaking to.

You are precious to Me;

 You were bought with a great price.

    Hordes of evil were fought to rescue you, and        

       Even now they are kept at bay because

       I love you.

I bless you.

  You have my favor.

    No longer live in fear.

      No longer carry shame.

        I don’t condemn you for anything;

         All is paid for.

You are free!

 Free to live, free to love, free to forgive and give away.

You are blessed so that you can be a blessing to others.

   Live from the fullness of My blessing, live generously.

      You are My daughter, My son.

   I AM the One who never leaves you,

     I will never abandon you.

      I will NOT change My mind about you or forget you,

  I can’t, I carved you in the palm of My hand.

Listen to Me! You are my child. I love you.”

Thinking through Scripture in this form changed something for me. It was no longer words on a page that I had read and heard time and time again. It was a love note. It changed the way that I saw the promises of God in the Bible. They are personal, not generic. They are written for each and every one of God’s created children.

When our identities are rooted in this—rooted in the promise that no matter what has happened to us, and no matter what we have done—we cannot be shaken from our foundation. When we accept that we belong to Christ, we have a firmer foundation than even the most perfect earthly upbringing.

It is one thing to hear these words. It is another thing to accept them, with your whole heart. For those who have been wounded in the past, or are jaded to the world around them, these are much harder to accept. For such people, I encourage you to read them often. Soak in God’s promises. If you hear something enough, you begin to believe it. This is certainly true with the many lies the world tells us: “You are not smart enough. You are not good enough. Nobody could love you after what you have done. Nobody could accept you or see the changed person you have become.” We hear things like this from the world. But God has different words for you…words of blessing, words of love.

Every time you are told a negative, a lie about who you are, think about God’s promises and the blessing bestowed on you through God’s words.

Journal Questions:

  1. Write about some of the thoughts and emotions that came to mind as you read the blessing above.
  2. What are some of the lies you have received and believed about yourself from the world (whether in childhood or adulthood)?
  3. What stood out to you in the blessing above? Was there a certain phrase that stuck out?
  4. What would your life look like if you lived as if you believed that blessing about yourself?

God-Sized Concerns: A Matter of Perspective

What are the concerns of God? What are the concerns of human beings? As we continue to work our way through Mark at SPL Church and look at the Spirit of Jesus “Inside Out,” I am struck by the poignancy of Mark 8:33. The sermon last Sunday laid the groundwork really well for this post. Jesus is telling of his coming death and resurrection, and Peter pulls him aside and “rebukes” him.

And Jesus replies with, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

How do we set our minds on divine things? What are the divine causes that we ought to set our minds on? A few verses in the Bible remind me of a bigger picture.

Micah 6:8, “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” This is a God-concern. In Matthew 22, Jesus describes the Greatest Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind…And Love your neighbour as yourself.” He even follows it up with, “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” This is a God-sized matter. And finally, the Great Commission in Matthew 28:19, where Jesus says to his disciples, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Jesus provides a God-sized vision for what the disciple’s ministry will look like moving forward.

But as humans we often get caught up in the minutia of life. And, as humans, we inherently (and even to an extent biologically) want to know that we will be taken care of—some of this strikes at crucial core longings that God placed in our hearts, and other parts of it strike at the rampant narcissism of the first world. But as humans, we often get caught up in what Jesus calls “human things.”

This is a difficult topic, because nobody wants to admit when they have been caught up in human matters. If it’s something that does matter to us, then by definition, we have skin in the game and get heated about the outcome we want.

So, I am going to admit some of the human matters that I get caught up in and you can do it for yourself: 1-my husband throws his laundry at the hamper, not in the hamper. I don’t know how much time I have wasted trying to educate him on the necessity of this, but I still haven’t won.

2-What should I wear to church on Sunday? I know that people will not actually remember what I wear and probably don’t care at all what I wear (within reason), but I still spend invaluable time trying on outfits for Sunday. *In fairness, as a female pastor I do get comments about my hair and my shoes and the fit of my dress, but these are human matters that I allow myself to play into.

3-money: This one is a biggie! Money stress and concerns are some of the biggest arguments and conversations with many couples/families. Money causes stress in many forms: whether not having enough, or how to spend it wisely, or how to save, are high-stakes conversations. But often, they are at the level of human concerns.

And frankly, none of these three things are the greatest conversation. Sometimes I (maybe some of you can relate) allow myself to get all raveled up in these human concerns, as if they are the be-all and end-all of life, or of church, or of living out faith. Now some of these issues are connected with God’s concerns—like money; and some of them are totally unrelated—like hampers. Though I would like to say “cleanliness is next to godliness,” that is not actually in the Bible.

But we sometimes waste so much of our time on human concerns, that we miss opportunities to be living out God’s will in the world.

And one of the result of this is disengagement and cynicism on the part of unbelievers, who see believers wasting their time arguing over petty issues instead of engaging with their communities and the world.

So, how to break the cycle…well for starters, I think each person needs to recognize the myriad of ways they look to human concerns over and above God concerns. For instance, every time I nag my husband over his dirty socks, I miss an opportunity to enrich my marriage in some more beneficial way. And consciously recognizing this pattern is the first step in the right direction.

Each week I said I would provide some sort of practice to go alongside the blog to delve deeper into the “Inside Out” series. And here is where that practice comes into play. I think that if our lives were truly centered on God, we would not be so focused on our own concerns, and be more focused on God-sized dreams, visions, and plans.

So, what I plan to do each day this week is a meditation exercise called lectio divina. Some of may have done this before, but for those who haven’t, it simply means “divine reading,” in Latin. It is a process of meditating upon a scripture and allowing God to speak to you through it. In lectio divina you read a passage through several times, asking the Holy Spirit to stir something in you during the reading. There are somewhat varied ways to do it, but this is the version I prefer.

The first time just read the passage out loud. The second time, as you read, think of a word or a couple of words that speak to you. The third time through, think of a phrase that stands out. Write down what this experience is like and any takeaways you have from it throughout the week. The Psalms are an excellent place to start this. Read one per day, or even part of one per day.

As you do this throughout the week, notice how your heart changes, how you receive things, how you hear things, how you interact with others. See if getting in the scripture each day changes how you perceive human concerns versus God concerns. It helps me to align myself with God early in the morning, before the barrage of human concerns (mine, as well as others) come pouring in.  It is an exercise in discerning God’s will over our will.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to hear Jesus ever say to me, “Get behind me Satan!” Harsh words! But the part of the story that this misses, is that Jesus also told Peter he would build his church upon him. Even imperfect people like me, who don’t always have the big picture in mind, and sometimes get caught up in the petty, are called God’s beloved children.

Journal Questions:

  1. What human concerns do you pour over on a regular basis?
  2. What concerns do you most frequently argue about with loved ones? Are they human things or God things?
  3. Even as you think through the God concerns in your life, are there unhelpful ways you sometimes talk through them or miss the boat?
  4. What did you experience through the lectio divina exercise?
  5. Write in your journal about the experience of pouring over scripture, and what you felt God put on your heart through that.

 

 

Where is God in Our Suffering?

This past Sunday at St. Paul’s Leaskdale, we enjoyed a Family Service, where our whole church body came together for worship, rather than having children’s ministry during the service. It was a beautiful time where we looked at different ways we “experience” God in prayer, and specifically prayed for healing for many different individuals. While a few oral prayers may have been uttered, the basis of the service was to experience prayer through art or other physical media that we can utilize when words elude us.

One of the highlights was seeing eighty-year-olds, sitting on the floor next to four-year-old kids, colouring prayers to the Lord, expressing their prayers for healing in wordless sighs/groans. But something struck me in this service, an often-cried plea from believers and unbelievers alike.

All of these people were gathered praying prayers of healing, but what about the times when it seems like our prayers go unanswered? What about the times when it seems like our prayers fall on deaf ears? I don’t think this more profoundly affects people anywhere than in prayers of healing.

I do not think for a second that those who find healing are somehow better Christians, or prayed the right words, or had stronger faith than those who don’t find healing. I have seen God radically heal people through prayer, and others pass away despite prayer. The problem of suffering is a timeless dilemma. When we ask questions like these we deal with God’s providence and presence uniquely amid human suffering. And I don’t think there is a “right” answer to how God answers prayer.

But human responses to this question sometimes seek to control suffering and fail to address a complex, omnipotent, all-loving God.

In the Old Testament, in the book of Job, we meet Job, who was a righteous man who followed God in his very being, and yet was afflicted with horrific things. His friends come around him as his life literally crumbles around him (losing his family, his livelihood, and even his own health), and question what he had done that caused the calamity. Job replies that he did not do anything to cause it; which indeed is correct!

But that is unfortunately an all-to-common notion, even today, that God brings problems into peoples lives for a reason, to teach them, or because “they sinned.” But as Christians this is not helpful nor correct. In the book of Job, it was not God bringing these struggles into his life, but rather a story of Job being tested by evil. It used to be the common belief in the Old Testament that if a person sinned they would be punished accordingly. But we receive something very different from Jesus in the New Testament. Suffering happens despite Job’s faith and righteousness. And sometimes healing and restoration occur, and other times they do not.

Another take on the problem of suffering is in the Gospels, where Jesus meets a man who is blind since birth. The people test Jesus asking if it was the man’s sin, or the sin of his parents that caused his blindness. Jesus replies to them, “Neither.” He goes on to say that the man is blind, but that the miraculous thing is him receiving his sight back. And the miracle is to and for the glory of God. This New Testament angle of God’s providence in a challenging situation, and the meaning behind human suffering is likely where more people today find themselves.

But I think there is a further answer to suffering and elusive healing, and that comes in the theology of the cross. Now, you may not agree with this theology entirely, but the essence of it is that God suffers with us. God is not absent in our suffering, or punishing us for wrong-doing, but rather God, in Christ, suffers with us.

Furthermore, when God suffered in the person of Christ dying on the cross, he experienced the fullness of human suffering. He died because of our sins, the sins of the world, and bore the immensity of that burden. This theology is called theology of the cross for this very reason: Christ suffers on our behalf, but he also suffers with us.

Even when God does not bring physical healing in the way or the timing that we want or see fit, God is still there in the midst. I love the story of Lazarus. Jesus gets there too late; Lazarus is gone, and Mary and Martha are wailing, and blaming, and bargaining. And before he does anything to remedy the situation, Jesus weeps. Christ weeps. God weeps with us. (*Photo Jesus Wept, by Joann Lee Kim).

We are never alone in our suffering because we have a God who loves us so deeply that He weeps with us. This doesn’t answer all of the problems of suffering, but I know I can stand firm in the promise—that “even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The answer to the question, “where is God in the suffering?” is simply, Emmanuel—God with us.

What about you…Where do you find God in the suffering? Why do you think our prayers sometimes appear to go unanswered?
Journal Questions:

  1. What area of your life do you need healing in?
  2. Have there been times in your life when God answered your prayers and brought healing? Describe them.
  3. Have there been times in your life when God didn’t seem to answer your prayers the way you wanted? Describe them.
  4. One way we believe God works in the world is through believers in the local church. How can you come alongside someone right now in their suffering?

*Joann Lee Kim is an incredible artist who often does live art during sermons and services. This piece is a reflection of a church service at Bothell United Methodist Church near Seattle, Washington. Follow the link to see more of her art or visit her facebook page.

*For further reading on this topic I would highly recommend C.S. Lewis’ book, The Problem of Pain.

Teach Me How To Pray: Thanksgiving

Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Well put, Einstein! In life, you come across both kinds of people day-to-day—those who live graciously, and those who are never happy with anything! For pessimists (who of course consider ourselves realists), prayers of thanksgiving might not come naturally. But prayers of thanksgiving are crucial because they reorient our lives and correctly attune our hearts toward God.

Some of us, though, do not even remember our many blessings. As soon as we receive a gift, we say thank you, then promptly forget our heart of gratitude. The Israelites were an excellent example of this.

In the book of Exodus, they finally get out from under the reign of Pharaoh, and they start complaining to Moses that they live in the wilderness. Then they get past that complaint, and complain about their lack of water. When God gives them water, they complain about their lack of food. When God gives them food, they complain about their lack of dietary diversity. But isn’t that exactly what we do so often without realizing it?!

We must first remember everything that God has done for us…write it down! Then we must consciously thank God for our blessings. The Psalms are ripe with prayers of thanksgiving. Psalms 65, 103, and 138 are classic examples of prayers of thanksgiving. Psalm 105 is a helpful example of how we ought to remember and be grateful for what God has done. Try reading them in multiple translations/paraphrases. The NIV tends to be the most readable, but The Message paraphrase packs some powerful prose, especially in Psalm 103.

Ultimately, when you begin to pray prayers of thanksgiving regularly, you begin to cultivate a lifestyle of thanksgiving. The apostle Paul, in the New Testament, illustrates this well. He starts most of his letters, to the churches he helped plant, with a message of thanksgiving. Romans 1:8 (NIV): “First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is being reported all over the world.”

And Paul did not live a comfortable life! He was repeatedly beaten for his faith, he was shipwrecked, attacked, persecuted, and barely had his basic needs met. And yet, he writes to the church in Philippi, thanking them for their gracious support of him in his ministry, but making clear he is not asking for more: “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:12-13, NIV). Paul knew what it was to have a lifestyle of thanksgiving—to consciously be grateful for the little things.

G.K. Chesterton once said, “You say grace before meals. All right. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.” Chesterton understood and lived a lifestyle of thanksgiving.

A lifestyle of thanksgiving considers the myriad of “miracles” in the everyday.

A helpful reminder of this that has caught me off guard in recent years, is when I complain to my sister, she often gives me the look, rolls her eyes and says in a tone of mild superiority, “First world problem!” It checks my gut real fast. We often take for granted the many things in life that enrich us, the little “miracles” all around us. We also take for granted the many gifts that we have simply grown accustomed to as a way of life (hot water, electricity, cell phone data, high-speed internet, clean drinking water, clothing, food, etc).

I spent a couple of months in Guatemala back in 2010 living and working at an orphanage with babies and toddlers and teaching English at a school. During that time, I learned gratitude…and slowly forgot it since. Each day I spent about two minutes in a cold shower before the crack of dawn, in a lightly cockroach infested bathroom, before heading to work with twenty babies and toddlers for the day. During the kid’s nap time, I would normally spend a couple of hours reading, and after I finished all 8 books I had access to, I spent time writing on recycled scrap paper that I found in the orphanage office. A very simple life, where nothing could be taken for granted.

We ate three meals a day, which was an overwhelming extravagance for the staff and kids on site. Breakfast consisted of atole almost daily (a beverage somewhere in between cream-of-wheat and soupy oatmeal). Lunch was normally rice and refried black beans, sometimes a small portion of meat, and Monday, Wednesday, Friday tortillas as well. And dinner was normally rice and refried black beans again. On special days of harvest, we would also get a vegetable fritter of some sort for lunch. Those were the days I looked forward to!

About a month into my time there, a nearby hotdog factory had cases and cases of unsold product that were about to expire that they graciously donated to us. So, for a week or so, hotdogs were served with every meal. It wasn’t until my time there was drawing to a close, that another orphanage traded some of their nearly-expired donated yogurt, with our nearly-expired donated hotdogs. That truly was a luxury!

My point is that by third world standards, we had it good at the orphanage…really good! We had food on the table and purified water to drink. We had clothing, education, and general safety (a premium in Guatemala), and we even had vegetables on occasion.

But everyone around me knew how good they had it, and they cultivated a lifestyle of gratitude.

I met a fifteen-year-old mother there, who had an 18-month-old son, who was conceived neither out of love, nor choice. But every morning she brought him to the baby house; and when she picked him up, she poured forth colourful praise and gratitude to all the woman who cared for her son so that she could go to school. That little girl, despite the horrific circumstances of her childhood, lived a lifestyle of gratitude.

Those who travel to “help” people often come back with much more than they give…If I learned nothing else in my time there, it was to cultivate a lifestyle of gratitude toward God. We have been given much!

Journal Questions:

  1. Read Psalms 65, 103, 105, and 138. What similarities and differences do you see in these Psalms? What emotions do you feel when you read these?
  2. Do you currently live a lifestyle of gratitude? If not, what steps would you need to take to get there?
  3. Write out a prayer of thanksgiving. (Be sure to include the people, things, and intangibles that you are grateful for).
  4. Try praying a prayer of thanksgiving right when you get up in the morning every day this week. How does it change your outlook on the day?

Teach Me How to Pray: Confession

What does it mean to confess our “sins” to God? What if we forget a “sin”? What if we die before we confess all our sins? Will we still be forgiven? These are all questions I have heard on the topic of confession. But something in me was stirred this past week as I sat in a discussion with other Christians on the troubling topic of confession. And what became even more apparent is that people who don’t consider themselves Christian are probably even more troubled by traditions surrounding confession.

So, while we are on the topic of “Teach Me How to Pray,” I thought that a post on prayers of confession might be due.

As I grappled with confession this week, several things came to mind. First, what is sin? The historic understanding and interpretation of sin is “transgression”—simply doing something wrong. But I think that limits our perception of sin, and perhaps even undergirds a problematic mentality of sin. If sin is doing something wrong, then as long as we avoid doing those things, we are good to go, and have no need of Christ or salvation because we can do it on our own.

In Matthew 19:16-26 a rich young man confronts Jesus and asks how he can inherit eternal life. Jesus lists off a few commandments for him, and he says, “I have done all these since my youth.” Then Jesus says, “Go, sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and then come follow me.” The man is deeply distressed by this because he has so much, and he goes away grieving. Jesus then tells his disciples that it is nearly impossible for the rich to be saved, and they inquire, “Who then can be saved?” And Jesus says, “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible.”

I think in this story, we see a man who did everything right, but still couldn’t attain salvation on his own. He still needed Jesus, even though he followed all the Jewish laws. For this reason, I prefer to define sin as “brokenness,” or as a broken state that we are in as humans. In this way sin covers a multitude of motivations of the heart that we often live out of that are not whole or holy ways of living and being.

When Jesus came into the world, and offered up His life as a once for all atoning sacrifice, it formed a new covenant between God and God’s people. 1 Peter 3:18 says, “For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” Similarly, Romans 6:10 says, “The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.” In this we no longer need to go to the priest with a sacrifice for each transgression (as the Israelites did according to Hebrew law), but rather can look to Jesus for forgiveness and learn to live repentant lives.

Repentance is simply a turning away from one way of life toward a better way of life. God desires our wholeness and to be able to live in relationship to us. That is what repentance is about, a turning toward God.

So, what should confession look like today? Confession should focus on repentance (turning back toward God), or as my husband says, “leaning in to Jesus.” When we lean in to Jesus wholeheartedly, we can share everything with him—the good, the bad, and the ugly. Being vulnerable with Jesus in prayer means putting it all out there. Often when we pray we give sanitized versions of what we really mean, but God knows our hearts, so this attempt to sugar-coat is both futile and inauthentic.

Being vulnerable with Jesus means opening up about our brokenness: not just listing off the things we have done wrong, but getting at the root of our brokenness. Talking about sin as transgression misses that we need healing from the ways we have been victimized and the ways we have victimized others. It misses that we need healing from the ways we have tried to get there on our own by being good. It misses that we need healing from the ways that our motivations were wrong, as well as from the things that we didn’t do that we should have done. But talking about sin as living in a broken state, resonates with the reality of life on this planet.

Most people are comfortable being just a little bit vulnerable. A friend of mine refers to this type of vulnerability as being slightly “wind-blown.” Maybe your hair is a bit tousled. But abandoned vulnerability before Jesus is equivalent to ugly-crying. Abandoned vulnerability looks like the woman in Luke 7, who weeps at the feet of Jesus, seeking forgiveness. When we let Jesus into those deep places of brokenness, we open ourselves to healing in new ways. We create the opportunity for repentant hearts and repentant lives when we recognize that we are very imperfect, and yet perfectly loved as children of God.

So what should confession look like today? I think confession has more to do with identifying the ways we are not living in the right direction—toward God, and asking God to be involved in correcting that. I don’t think there is some magical prayer we can say to make our sins vanish. I think it has more to do with having repentant hearts and desiring to turn back toward God.

But very simply, a prayer of confession would include asking God to show you the ways that you have failed to love others and to follow Him well. It would include asking for forgiveness, and should also include asking God to help you to live “toward Him.”

A basic template would be: Jesus, Open my eyes to the ways I am not following you. Forgive me for the way I have failed to love you and others well. Teach me to live “leaning in” to you. Amen.

Journal Questions:

  1. Read the following prayers of confession from the Bible. (Psalm 39, Psalm 51, Nehemiah 1:4-11, Matthew 23:32-43, Luke 7:36-50) What resonates with you?
  2. Do you notice a difference in the prayers of confession from the Old Testament to the New Testament?
  3. Read Luke 7:36-50. What does this tell you about Jesus? What can you learn from the woman and how she seeks forgiveness?
  4. Write your own prayer of confession. You can use the “template” above to work from or try something totally different.

 

*For further reading on prayer, and prayers of confession, I would recommend Too Busy Not to Pray, by Bill Hybels.

 

Teach Me How To Pray: Adoration

As we cross country skied through a deserted section of Algonquin Park this weekend, I stopped for a minute and listened, listened for something, anything—silence. All I could hear around me was the wind lightly rustling trees far off across a lake.

There is something about experiencing God in nature that is restful. But not in the same way that kicking up your feet in the evening while watching the game is restful; restful in a deeper, more rejuvenating sense. It is as if when you look around in nature, you see the fingerprints of God, all over creation. It’s like looking at a painting and being able to identify the painter by the brushstrokes. Or looking at a sculpture and literally seeing fingerprints left behind.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes: “Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God. But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”

I love that… “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” Browning sets aside her normal eloquence to hammer her point home. When I think of the word crammed, I picture trying to fit my sleeping bag (which normally fits a full-grown adult inside) into a tiny little stuff-sack about the size of a soccer ball. As I cram it into place, I see if there are any little air pockets of space that more sleeping bag might possibly fit into. That is what I think of when I read that quote: “Earth’s crammed with heaven.” It’s as if God created the deserts, and the seas, and the forests, and the fields and wondered what other bits of heaven might possibly be packed into the air pockets, little pieces that reflect our Maker.

This week, in Mark 4, we were talking about rest. We looked at how Jesus kicked up his feet in the bow of the boat and rested, while the disciples fought the storm on the raging sea. It is the image of Jesus, comfortable in his father’s creation, at rest on a cushion, in the midst of a violent storm.

And it is that image that makes me want to look at another way to pray. Last week we looked at prayers of lament, but this week we are looking at prayers of adoration, and one specific way to pray a prayer of adoration: a prayer walk. In scripture, Jesus often retreats from society into places away from it all to rest and rejuvenate in creation with his father.

Mark 1:35 says, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” Again in Luke 5:16, we see, “But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.” The Gospel of Matthew similarly says in 14:23: “After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray.” Jesus, in the middle of busyness and ministry gets away to spend time with his father in creation.

So, what I am suggesting this week is a prayer walk. A prayer walk can be done on skis or snow shoes or on foot; it could even be a prayer run, or bike, or canoe. But the purpose is to get out in nature to be with God. Sometimes I slowly walk through a Psalm or meditate on a verse, but other times I just breathe it in, witnessing God’s splendor all around, uttering nothing but subtle smiles and soft sighs.

If you want a Psalm to “walk” through I would suggest starting with Psalm 23, perhaps the most popular psalm of adoration. Print it out and read it, meditating on each line as you walk. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord my whole life long.” This is a song of adoration written by David to God. We often only hear it in the context of funerals, but try praying through the meaning of it, showing adoration to the Creator.

Prayers of adoration are often the type of prayer that people struggle with the most. It seems almost childish for some—telling God all of the things you love about creation. And to others it seems too intimate—talking to God like a lover. But it is a prayer of gratefulness, of pondering, of thoughtfulness, of care for and toward God. I find it easiest to pray these prayers while in creation, as I walk about, pursuing God.

Find a nearby park, and snow shoe, walk, or ski a prayer. I think the winter is actually a better time for this because the parks are less crowded! As you go deeper, notice things. Be the person that Browning describes as “taking off their shoes.” Be someone who notices the holy in the commonplace.

Those who notice the holy in the commonplace practice prayers of adoration. Have you seen a person from the deep south witness their first snow? That is a prayer of adoration! Have you watched a child interact with a squirrel, giggling at the wonder of it all? That is a prayer of adoration! Taking delight in the things of God that others would miss; that is a prayer of adoration!

“Earth’s crammed with heaven.” Take a walk and breathe it in.

Journal Questions:

  1. What place have you been where you could unplug and notice creation?
  2. As you go for walks this week, what new things do you notice? (Write them down).
  3. If you decide to try praying through a Psalm of adoration, what was that experience like? Did you feel yourself in the Psalm in a new way? What came to mind as you “walked” through it?

Teach Me How To Pray: Lament

Twice in the past week, people in our church have asked me how to pray. I stumbled through a haphazard response, trying to seem like I knew what I was talking about. And I pray often, I definitely know how to pray (there really is not a wrong way), but to distill it down and articulate it with words eluded me…which is a problem. Any pastor should be able, on the spot, to explain what it means to pray. Let me rephrase that, any Christian should be able, on the spot, to explain what it means to pray.

And so the title, “teach me how to pray,” is the prayer I pray alongside you.

But there is this mentality in the church that there is a right and wrong way to pray, and that you have to do it a certain way. Many of you who are reading this also may find a great difference in praying alone and praying with other people. To be honest, I still find it anxiety-provoking to pray in front of people…what if I say the wrong words?! Let me reiterate—I cannot say the wrong words in prayer and neither can you. And just as private prayer is necessary and foundational to the Christian life, so is corporate prayer, praying together before God and other believers.

So, for the next several weeks as we continue in this series “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus,” we will be looking at prayer and different types of prayer. I will walk alongside you practicing these types of prayers, but I will also attempt to explain them in a way that is tangible. Since this week’s sermon and passage were on that ever-exciting emotion—anger, I thought the natural “type” of prayer to cover this week would be lament. Prayers of lament are upset prayers, sometimes angry, sometimes sad, sometimes a combination of the two. But prayers of lament are essentially pleas to God that something is not right and ought to be different than the way it is.

Often, I hear Christians pray prayers that sound so nice. Prayers of lament are anything but nice…they are real. Prayers of lament fall on the ears of God our loving parent, who the pray-er deeply trusts with both their positive and negative emotions. Prayers of lament call on God in the face of injustice and suffering in a broken world, and ask for redemption. But they don’t skiff over the angry, justice-seeking part and jump to redemption, they sit with God in the mire of it all.

The author of the book Lamentations, which is a prayer about the exile of God’s people, does not mince his words. “Remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace! Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens. We have become orphans, fatherless; our mothers are like widows” (Lamentations 5:1-3).

Again, earlier in the book, he writes: “When all the prisoners of the land are crushed under foot, when human rights are perverted in the presence of the Most High, when one’s case is subverted—does the Lord not see it?” (Lamentations 3:34-37). In other words…God, where are you in this broken, sick, and violent world? Where are you Lord? Open your eyes!

Prayers of lament are not only present in the book of Lamentations, but are sprinkled throughout the Psalms (a book of prayers written by various authors, including David), and throughout all of the major prophetic literature (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc). Jeremiah writes this prayer, “O Lord, you know; remember me and visit me, and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors. In your forbearance do not take me away; know that on your account I suffer insult…Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed? Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail” (Jeremiah 15: 15, 18). Jeremiah’s words are not nice. They actually blame God for some of his problems; but they also plead with God for justice.

Similarly, David writes this in the book of Psalms, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I bear pain in my soul, and have sorrow in my heart all day long? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? Consider and answer me, O Lord my God!” (Psalms 13:1-3a).

What do all of these prayers have in common, other than perhaps that the authors ought to see a counselor?  Prayers of lament are not neutered prayers, but real cries to God. They are unedited in the best sense. They are prayers of real pain, and real sorrow, and real stories being thrown up at an understanding and loving God, who can handle our intense emotions, perhaps the only one who can handle all of our intense emotions.

If this seems un-holy to you in some way, then read the Bible—cover to cover. It is full of prayers like these, real people being real with God; people in pain, expressing that pain to their loving maker in heaven. This, to be sure is not the only way to pray, but it is a great way to start when feeling the emotion of anger! Even when people cannot handle your rage (or shouldn’t have to), God can take it.

We know that this is not unholy because Jesus, Himself, prays prayers of lament. In Matthew 23, Jesus is denouncing the ways of the Pharisees and scribes in their hypocrisy, and ends that with a prayer, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (Matthew 23:37). Again, Jesus laments the loss of a friend, Lazarus, in John 11:28-37. Jesus prays prayers of lament in the Garden of Gethsemane shortly before his death.

Prayers of lament are proof that we trust God with our difficult emotions.

If you know how to get upset at injustice, then you know how to pray.

Journal Questions:

  1. What injustice bothers you more than any other?
  2. What would it look like to turn that over to God, and pray a prayer of lament?
  3. Read the following passages in the Bible, and try a modern translation like the NIV or a paraphrase like the Message: (Job 3:11-26, Psalm 6, Psalm 13, Psalm 22, the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah 15:15-18) What commonalities do you see in these prayers?
  4. Write your own prayer of lament in your journal.

Practicing Discernment

 

This past Sunday was week 2 of our sermon series “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus.” We read from Mark 2, but focused in on the verses where the Pharisees are testing Jesus and trying to trap him in blasphemy because he said that a man’s sins were forgiven. Verses 8-12 are what we really zoned in on: “At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them, ‘Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk?’’”

Jesus then tells the man to walk and the man gets up, takes his mat, and walks. This is one of the first miracles in Mark, but what we are focusing on this week is the part before the miracle, the part where Jesus perceived in his spirit.

Discernment can be described in many different ways. I would err on the side of the Apostle Paul who exhorts one of his church plants to “test the spirits,” a form of discernment. To remove the religious jargon from that definition, discernment is to wisely test intentions and meanings.

On Sunday Pastor Andrew defined discernment as, “the ability to see a situation or a person the way God sees them.”

Charles Spurgeon, a historic figure in preaching is known to have said, “Discernment is not knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is knowing the difference between right and almost right.”

Discernment is basically having a good sense about the people and things around you. All throughout the gospels (the first four books of the New Testament), Jesus exercises discernment, and is able to recognize intentions and perceive what is in people’s hearts before they speak.

Discernment has many different definitions, but I think the essence of it is some combination of the above. The problem is that discernment is very difficult to practice. Some people have a gift of discernment and are able to exercise it from a young age. For others, it does not come so naturally. But I do believe it is something we can all practice to an extent, whether we are gifted with it or not.

I said each week that I would provide some sort of spiritual practice or tool you can use throughout the week to deepen your faith and understanding, something I will do alongside readers. Many of the practices are coopted or adapted from Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. (I would highly recommend this book for Christians who want to take their faith deeper—it is not nearly as rigid as it sounds).

As if last week’s practice of solitude wasn’t enough of a challenge in this world, I will be talking about fasting this week. But before you shut your laptops or turn off your phones, hear me out…

Fasting is normally associated with food, but according to one explanation, “The purpose of fasting is to take our eyes off the things of this world and instead focus on God.” In Jesus’ day, the average person did not have innumerable distractions and pressures that took their focus from God—no email, no cell phone interruptions, no social media rings, dings, or pings. But we live in a me-focused culture where more, more, more is never enough. We are constantly told by media and advertising that if we just buy one more thing we are sure to find happiness.

We rarely practice habits of intentional denial for practical growth.

But intentional denial does not need to be ascetic, rather it should flow from a settled place of desiring to go deeper in faith, and focus more attention on God. I think that when this happens, and when fasting from something is done in this Spirit, it helps us to listen to the heart of God…It helps to discern.

*Sidebar: I want to be very clear, that this practice, along with any other I discuss in this blog, does not earn you anything. This does not make you a better Christian. If anything, if your heart is in the wrong place, it would make you a bit like the Pharisees (see later in Mark 2). Christianity is the only religion where you don’t earn your way into heaven, to be with God, you only need accept the gift of Jesus’ grace and sacrifice. It’s not a matter of being a good enough person to “get in” to heaven.

With that in mind, when we practice fasting for a time (from food, or alcohol, or television, or social media, or whatever might be something that distracts us from a deepening relationship with God), it is reflective of faith. It doesn’t gain us any love or salvation.

Intentional fasting doesn’t change God’s view of us; it changes us from within.

So, if you are going to participate in this week’s challenge, what are you going to fast from? If it is food, make sure that you are in a physical and psychological place to do that well (please read further on this topic, and safe ways to fast). Other things you might wish to fast from are television, social media, checking email (outside of work), alcohol, sex, coffee or tea, basically anything that you use everyday that would affect your life fairly dramatically if given up.

And when you choose something, the next step is to figure out what to do with that extra time, resource, energy, money. This is where the discernment piece comes in. This week, for one week, I recommend replacing that time spent on prayer and being with God. I, personally, am giving up television. I know that is not the most religious expression, but it is something that distracts me most evenings from going deeper with God. With that time freed up I plan to write in my prayer journal, read the Bible, and pray. In practicing these things, I know God will grow discernment in my life. How will God grow discernment in your life?

Journal Questions:

  1. What thing in your life distracts you most from God day to day (If it is your kids…pick the second biggest distraction)?
  2. What would your week look like if you gave that up? How much free time, energy, money would you save?
  3. As the week goes on, write down what God is doing in and through this practice in a journal of some sort. What changes do you see forming in your life?
  4. How has this changed your capacity to discern during the fast? Do you think this will have long-term effects?

Practicing Solitude

 

We began a new sermon series this week at SPL (St. Paul’s Leaskdale) called “Inside Out: Pursuing the Interior Life of Jesus.” Together we are walking through the book of Mark in the Bible. During this series I will be posting a reflection on the blog coinciding with the same chapter in Mark, but focusing on the application, the “what now” piece after the sermon text. The Mark 1 sermon related to the text: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased,” where Jesus is baptized and hears these words from God. The very next verse, though, is what I want to focus on this week. Jesus’ identity is established as God’s beloved Son, and immediately out of that, he spends forty days in the wilderness, in solitude.

What I am going to do each week is look at a practice, a specific way of being, that we can learn from the life of Jesus and reflect in our own lives. This week, the practice I want to look at is solitude.

Contemporary society has a lot to say about solitude. There is a huge movement right now in both religious and non-religious circles toward “mediation” and “mindfulness.” The psychological and mental benefits of these are touted in popular magazines and medical journals alike. But I want to take a step beyond mindfulness or meditation to something even more uncomfortable: intentional solitude.

The practice of solitude, as defined by Henri Nouwen (late Catholic priest, professor, and writer) in his book, Making All Things New: An Invitation to the Spiritual Life, is a “strange period of uselessness.”

The practice of solitude is like a “strange period of uselessness.” Nouwen

Nouwen brilliantly, and much ahead of his time, posits that we have a culture obsessed with being useful. We not only are busy people “occupied” with what is going on now, but we are “pre-occupied” in the sense of being future-busy-oriented. We worry about the future and we plan and we waste much of our lives being pre-occupied with the senseless. And to combat this, Nouwen recommends solitude as a “period of uselessness.”

Earlier this week, my brother-in-law just recommended a show to my husband and I called Alone; which is a reality television show, on the history channel of all things. I have serious doubts about reality TV, but was captivated by this one nonetheless. The contestants are dropped off in Patagonia, the largest region of unpeopled and unchartered wilderness in the world, in the mountainous regions of Chile, and their sole goal is to be the last survivor. At any point, they can pick up their satellite phone and call in help and go home. But they can’t call their families, or read books, or browse the web—they can just be in the woods…alone.

It is a survivalist show at its core, but what the videos seem to show is not an overwhelming anxiety at being in the danger of hazardous weather, or wild animals, or even starvation (most of the contestants are proficient in those areas). Rather the overwhelming anxiety for most of them is being alone. One individual noted in a video that the hardest part was to be alone with her own thoughts…because when you are alone, you unfortunately bring you with you. Nouwen writes, “As soon as we are alone…an inner chaos opens up,” which is exactly what that candidate experienced. We can normally sate our personal chaos with tasks and busyness, but not when we experience true solitude.

When Jesus goes into the wilderness for 40 days he is alone, while “facing temptations” and being “waited on by angels.” The strange paradox here is that I think Jesus went into the wilderness to be alone, but also to be in solitude before God. He had the discipline to stay in the wilderness in the midst of temptations and stay strong in the midst of the challenges of aloneness, facing himself, but also preparing him for his next three years of ministry. St. Teresa of Avila says, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.” This is the paradox of being alone, but also before God. I believe this is what Jesus was doing in the wilderness…settling himself in solitude, in order to be, just be, with his Father.

So this week, I decided to be intentional about solitude. I have only had one period so far. And I want to set it apart from meditation, which is focused on some thing. Many people meditate on an idea, or a scripture, or a piece of art, or some thing. I daily practice guided meditations on an app that walks you through different mindfulness techniques, and would recommend this as well. But to just be, before the Lord—not reciting prayers, or asking God for help, or having any sort of agenda—to have a period of “uselessness” simply dwelling on God, is much more difficult.

I thought I could easily spend an hour or two in this sort of head space on my day off. I sat down somewhere comfortable, trying to push aside the many earthly to-dos that I had all around me, and settled into being before the Lord. And though my mind wandered back and forth a bit, I settled into focus eventually, waiting for God to speak something to me. And eventually, in the silence, in the solitude, I felt a stirring as I waited and listened, and eventually started to understand the type of stillness I crave so deeply. When my heart finally settled into this place for what seemed like hours, perhaps days, I stirred back slowly to attentiveness, opening my eyes to what was around me—dirty dishes, a to-do list a mile long, my half-eaten breakfast, and the clock.

All of that energy had taken me through nine minutes! in solitude. For nine minutes, I sat there with my soul. I guess it is much harder than I thought. To be, to simply be, requires energy and time; possibly much greater energy and time than to do. It will be an uphill battle to learn this practice of solitude.

As I go about the week, I plan to continue this practice of solitude each morning, not prayer in the active sense, but prayer in the passive sense. Prayer in the active sense is thanking God, requesting of God, even adoring God, which is necessary and good. But this prayer in the passive sense, of listening to and being with God is just as necessary, and profoundly more difficult for me.

I think ten minutes a day is a good place to start, asking God to still your heart and reveal something to you in this time. Join me in this endeavor this week if you dare. Find a quiet place, away from roommates, and spouses, and children, and activities to still your heart before God for ten minutes a day for a week, and see what happens.

Jesus found his identity rooted in his Father in heaven. But a one-time act of connecting was not enough to develop a relationship. Jesus had to be in solitude before his Father in preparation for his ministry, and he continued to be in solitude often throughout his ministry.

Here are a few things to think about as you reflect on times of solitude this week:

  1. Where is your identity rooted—work, family, Christ, a traumatic event, success and performance, etc? (If you aren’t sure, consider where the majority of your energy is focused. Or consider if something went wrong in one of these areas of life, which would derail you the most?)
  2. Is your identity rooted where you want it to be? Why or why not?
  3. What changes would have to take place in your life to realign your core identity?
  4. What is God stirring in you in the solitude?

 

Being Intentional & Intentionally Being

 

A New Year’s Course Correction

Every year that passes, I think a lot about what edges God wants to work out in my life and how Jesus might prune away something to bring forth fruit. A few years back, I had the year of peace, where I focused on experiencing God’s peace, and being a peaceful presence to others. I had the year of hope, where I prayed often for direction and a future in the midst of job changes and not knowing where God was taking me. I had the year of patience…which simply didn’t take. I think that one is a life-long battle! But as I prayed and thought into this New Year, 2017, and what God was stirring in my heart, the word “intentional” kept rising within.

Like many people, I feel busy a majority of the time. I look forward to the next break, breath of fresh air, vacation. Like many people, when asked how my week was, I simply answer, “Busy.” Or when asked how life is, I respond, “Busy.” This is problematic language for a Christian, and even more so for a pastor; because busy living is focused on tasks, whereas unhurried living is focused on presence.

This is not a post to tell you to drop out of everything you enjoy doing, or even a call to “simplify.” I actually believe both of these put the cart before the horse. What I have realized recently is that living intentionally redefines and reframes this call to simplify. Being intentional means putting my time, money, resources, and energy where God is intentionally moving me to put them.

Being intentional (the first part of the course correction) for me means beginning each day in relation to God. That means starting the day off reading the Bible and praying in my prayer journal. What does God want to speak into my life? Where is God calling me to go? What words does God desire me to hear that day? What people does God want to bring through my life that day? How is God molding and shaping me into someone unique?

When my life begins each day with an intentionality to be before God, in His presence, to develop my relationship with Jesus through listening to His Word, and to allow the Holy Spirit to work in my heart through prayer; then everything I do can flow out of that place. Should I join a Zumba class in 2017? Should KidZone be at both services? Should I make a complicated dinner or just heat up leftover pizza? When I start my day by intentionally rising to God’s call upon my life, these and many more questions seem to make sense.

Being intentional means saying no to some decent or even good ideas in order to say yes to the right idea.

The second part of this New Year’s practice is intentionally being. This is not something that comes naturally to me at all. I am a “doer!” Intentionally being for me means practicing the presence of God, regardless of what I am currently engaged in doing. In the book, The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence says that, “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayers…I possess God in as great tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the blessed sacrament.” This type of intentionality in being, of presence in any particular moment, is what I long for.

Intentionally being also means being present with one thing at a time, fully engaged, which is a far cry from our cultural norm. Rather than doing Sudoku, while texting with my sister, while watching tv, and having a side conversation with my husband (*confession…I actually do this sometimes); I intend to focus on full engagement in one thing at a time, to fully be there, in the moment.

Society has equipped us with all of the necessary tools and tech toys to never be engaged or present in any given moment. Having everything instantly available on a cell phone, having watches that give reminders to stand up and walk around, having the motherload allotment of distractions ever present in our homes, schools, work places, and churches, ensures that we never have to be fully present to anyone or anything.

I think this is why there are so many lonely people, longing for real intimacy and connection, and yet they may have thousands of Twitter and Instagram followers and Facebook friends. I have felt this over and again, a lack of real connection to people, because I allow myself to be distracted by tasks and gadgets.

That is why this year I want to focus on being intentional and intentionally being. Is there a way you have learned to be intentional or to intentionally be?

What is God calling you to this year?

I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment below…