Lamentations: Recovering a forgotten discipline.

This article first appeared as an article for The Anglican Church of Canada at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/discovering-lament-why-crying-out-to-god-may-be-good-for-our-souls-23cf60ccfe3a.

While out for a walk with my family the other day, we came across another family, also out for a stroll. Mom and Dad were following their two small daughters, each on bright pink bikes with streamers. As we approached each other, without saying a word, each family adjusted course appropriately. My family moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. The other family stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curbside, their bike-riding daughters pulling to the far side of the sidewalk. We passed each, smiling of course, with a good four or six feet between us.

There is a sadness in the fact that such physical distancing has become so normalized that it occurs without speech. Life has changed. We have grown comfortable with words such as “self-isolation” or “physical distancing.” Such concepts have become the necessary boundaries through which we navigate our lives. As we grow more and more comfortable with this new reality, we cannot deny that there has been a tragic loss. With startling quickness, our lives became turned upside down. Plans were instantaneously changed or cancelled outright. That long-awaited summer trips have been indefinitely postponed. Jobs have been lost. Doors have been closed. Perhaps we, or those we love, now face a time of illness in isolation.

How do we respond to this situation faithfully? What practices or disciplines may help us navigate this new normal, and give voice to the strangeness of life as we experience it currently? I suggest that the discipline of lament might be exactly what is need in this time.

We often fail to think of lament as a spiritual discipline to be cultivated. Literature detailing essential habits of the Christian life rarely speak of this practice. A read through Scripture, however, clearly displays this spiritual practice. This goes far beyond the specifically classified “Lament Psalms.” Old Testament books such as Job or Jeremiah are filled with laments, and of course we can’t forget the biblical book which bears the name “Lamentation.” More profoundly, however, we see prayers of lament modeled by Jesus himself. In Gethsemane, for instance, Christ throws himself down to the ground and cries out “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” This is a lament, a prayer disclosing the deep burden of his soul. Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (a psalm of lament): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to pattern our lives after Jesus, adopting the spiritual practices evidenced in Christ’s life and teaching, then engaging in prayers of lament is one of the ways we can do that.

Lament, simply described, is an unburdening of the soul. We may think of this as a type of grieving. We grieve the loss of your summer plans — or the inability to gather with family. I know several people who have had to cancel long-awaited trips overseas and they are grieving the loss of that which they so eagerly looked forward to. Alternatively, we might think of lament as a sense of soul-heaviness we carry within, because of our concerns or anxieties. Questions such as “what’s next?”, or “how long”, or “where are you?” often dominate a prayer of lament. In lament, we pour out how we are feeling at the deepest core of ourselves. They are prayers that give words to our thoughts and feelings around the difficulties or struggles we may be experiencing.

Lament, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is rooted in two important realities. Firstly, Christ is Present. Christ is not absent from us. In fact, Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. This may not be what we feel in the moment. Our laments may take the form of asking God to act or questioning why God seems absent. Yet the simple act of crying out to God is one of boldly acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggles. Thus, laments are an acknowledgement of our confidence in Christ’s unyielding presence. Secondly, Christ lovingly invites us to lament. Christ invites us to bear our soul before him. He does not shy away from laments, or from our bold complaints or questions. If we think our own liturgy of corporate confession, we see a fabulous invitation: “Dear Friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love, and infinite in mercy….” This reality is also expressed in our prayers of lament. In Christ’s love, we are invited to disclose our hearts in all its raw messiness.

These two realities are important for they ensure that our prayers are laments and not curses. We never curse God. For all the stark honesty of their lamentations, neither Job, nor Jeremiah, nor David ever curse God. As much as we may describe how much we may be angry at God, or feeling abandoned by God, laments hold true to the claim that God is present in love. Cursing amounts to pushing God away. In lament, we grab God close.

With these realities in mind, how might we make our lament? The Psalms particularly can be a great guide for us. You may consider using one of the lament psalms as a pattern for your own. Psalms 6, 13, or 77 would work wonderfully in this regard. In general, there are three guiding steps to making our lament, and most psalms of lament follow this three-fold pattern (there are exceptions — consider Psalm 88).

Firstly, be honestPretending does not help our prayer-life, or our spiritual growth. In lament there is little room for being appropriately Anglican, reserved and stoic. Similarly, pretending that we are not affected by a situation, or not struggling in faith, hampers our spiritual lives. God wants to hear from us in prayer. As we keep the two aforementioned realities in mind, careful to not curse God, we disclose our hearts in all raw and unhindered honesty.

Secondly, we cry for help or assistance: Fundamentally, laments are a reaching out to God. Thus, ask Jesus to respond to your situation, to your feelings, or to your experience. This is what prayer is. Sadly, many have been taught that it is selfish to ask God to respond to our personal situation, that it amounts to using God. Yet scripture is awash with instances of people asking, or begging, God to respond. Again, consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” As you make your Lament, ask for divine help, whether that be help in healing, in understanding, or in perseverance.

Lastly, end with a statement of trust: Most psalms of lament conclude by affirming the two realities spoken of previously. The lament ends by be grounding the individual in the truth that God is present and loving. In this way, we can think of our lament as a prayer that moves from complaint to confidence, or from trouble to trust. Thus, end your lament by acknowledging the blessing you have previously received, or a statement regarding your faith that God will be with you. Again, Psalms 6 and 13 are a good examples of this.

It may seem strange to say that offering a lament can be beneficial to our spiritual growth and formation. Laments, after all, seem so negative. In this time, however, where our lives have been turned around so dramatically, giving voice to our unsettledness may just be the discipline we need.

Messy Faith

This post first appeared at https://medium.com/@revkylenorman/  under the title “Embracing the Messiness of faith” 

Someone once told my mother that eating chilli peppers would cure her cancer.

I wish I was making this up.  Upon hearing of her diagnosis, this individual informed my mother that the Lord had led him to discover a certain brand of chili peppers, and that if she would but eat of them she would be healed.  This was not the only ridiculous thing spoken to her.  Another offered these words: “don’t you worry, we are going to pray for your healing, and God always answers our prayers.”  Don’t get me wrong, prayer is good.  It meant a lot for my mother to know her church community was praying for her.  But to boldly promise a healing, based on the greatness of my mom’s faith, or on the superb eloquence of their own prayers, is simply mistaken.  The reality was that my mother knew three months into her treatments that she was not going to get better.  She died six months after the date of her diagnosis.

I would like to say that the crazy comments stopped upon her death.  Sadly, they didn’t; they just migrated to other members of the family.   Upon her death, someone said to me matter-of-factly that the reason she died was because “she had finished her work on earth.”  This may sound like a nice sentiment, a simple explanation providing an easy logic for why people die.  It is even covered in a thin veneer of spirituality that makes as if it is a faithful response to death.  It might seem this way, that is, until you realise my mother was only 62.  She died before her own father; she will not get to see her youngest daughter get married or watch her only grandchild grow up.   I have no doubt that, given the chance, there would have been a whole lot more “work” that my mother would have loved to do.

I bring these things up because I feel we do not always give voice to the messiness of our Christian faith.  Our faith rarely exists in palaces of simple logic and problem-free solutions.  We face difficulties, we struggle with God’s silence in prayer, we sometimes are left bereft of an answer for what is occurring in our lives.  When we rationalize such difficulties by resting upon easy answers and stock phrases we reduce our faith to something safe and palatable.   For example, a church in my neighbourhood recently posted the quote: “When the answer is simple, God is speaking.”  Now, there are two things wrong with this quotation.  Firstly, this is quote from Albert Einstein, a man who fundamentally rejected any notion of a God who loved you, cared for you, or spoke to you.  Einstein’s god was a non-personal, non-affective, non-redeeming God.  But more importantly, what does that say to the person going through a tumultuous time?   What does this say for the one struggling for direction?  If God is speaking only when the answers are simple, then any difficulty in life necessarily testifies to the absence of God.  In promoting this easy answer, we step away from the very incarnational reality testified to in scripture.

The fact is, scripture is filled with messy situations.  From Adam and Eve to King David, from Job to Jesus, we see faith lived out amongst the muck and mire of regular life.  In scripture we uncover many questions, yet interestingly, very few answers.  The book Job is a prime example of this. Upon Job’s suffering, Job’s friends put forward the answer to his plight:  Job is suffering because he deserves it.  Their theological outlook is quite simple, really: Bad things happen to bad people. The logic of easy answers are direct and pointed: Sin means suffering; Death means God has no more need of you; Chilli peppers cure cancer.  Yet such statements offer nothing to the grieving or struggling person.  They only serve to let’s us off the hook, to move us away from actually wrestling with our life with God.

Faith does not make us immune to difficulty or struggle.  The good news, however, is we are not alone as we bear the difficult things in life. We see this throughout all of scripture, starting right from page one. In response to their sin, God enters the garden (that has just become infinitely messier) and calls out to the hiding Adam and Eve.  We see in Job.  Despite all his questions, God provides no easy answers.  Instead, God provides Job with an understanding of his presence. Job final words are “now my eyes have seen you.” It is in this reality that Job finally rests.

Of course, we see this most profoundly in Jesus.  God steps into the world to take our mess upon himself and to bear it with us.  Christ is born in backwater town of Israel, surrounded by animals, unclean shepherds, and gentile mystics.  Although perfect and without sin, Jesus is baptized in order to take up Israel’s need for salvation.  In the wilderness he experiences the temptations that so often besiege us.  He is hated, despised, and rejected.  Jesus is beaten mercilessly and suffers an excruciating death on the cross.  Such physical agony is only matched by his spiritual anguish as he cries out “My God my God why have you forsaken me?” Make no mistake, the messiness of Christian faith is that Christ is there in the mess.

Rarely do easy answers make us feel better. I can’t answer why, despite all the prayers, my mother was not physically healed.  But I can claim that Jesus held her each and every moment of her difficult journey.  And that gives me comfort. See, when we fail to embrace the messiness of our faith, we may just fail to meet the one who embraces us in our mess.  It is the presence of Jesus in our lives, not safe and easy answers, that makes all the difference.

As you journey through the rest of Lent, allow me to pose a question for reflection: Where is your faith a little messy at this moment?  Perhaps you have some questions that remain unanswered.  Or possibly those easy answers you have been previously offered just don’t seem to cut it anymore.  Maybe you are facing a hard conversation, a difficult road, an unforeseen circumstance.  Whatever it is, what might it look like for you to embrace that mess?   Because having a messy faith is not the worst thing in the world.  It is within that mess that you may just uncover the presence of the Lord.

View at Medium.com

Habits of Devotion

This article first appeared at Ministry Matters under the title “Habits of Devotion: Observing the season of Lent in a healthy, restorative, and biblical way.”  Published February 27, 2020. 

 

Are you bored of Lent? This probably seems like an odd question to ask, considering we have yet to enter into the liturgical season. The question is apt, I think. With only a few days left to go before our big plunge into the penitential season, most of us are probably trying to figure out what will define this year’s observance. If you are like me, you probably have already started to ask yourselves a series of complicated questions: “Do I give something up or take something on?”, “Do I repeat a past observance or think of something new?” , “Do I focus on my exterior life or my interior life?” These questions can be hard to answer. Furthermore, we put enormous pressure on ourselves to figure out what will make for a good Lenten experience. Have you ever felt so exhausted trying to figure out what your discipline will be, that by the time Lent arrives, your passion for the discipline is already disappeared? We may still do our Lenten obligations, with an appropriate mix of understated humility and begrudging liturgical compliance, but that’s all we do. We observe them, but we aren’t transformed by them.

How might we engage in the season of lent differently this year? What might it look like to engage in this season of spiritual discipline with the purpose of transforming our spiritual lives? Are there practices or disciplines that have been proven to do this? Luckily there are. The book of Acts contains a wonderful description of how the early church structured their Christian lives. Having accepted the good news of Jesus as Lord and Saviour, members of this new community lived in a particular way. They structured their spiritual lives around four simple habits. We read in chapter 2 that the early Christian community “devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” These habits are not complicated by any means. In fact, they are rather quite simple. All it takes is a little dedication and a willingness to engage in these actions on a regular basis. For that early baptised community, devotion to these practices opened them to the continuous presence of the risen Lord.

What would it look like if Anglicans everywhere purposefully engaged in each of these disciplines on a weekly basis throughout the season of Lent? What if we structured our life around these exercises? Importantly, these four practices call us into a deeper engagement with the community of faith in a way that giving up my favourite snack does not. By adopting these practices, my Lenten observance is transformed into our Lenten observance. To follow along with the example set by the early Christians, we need to know a little more about each practice.

The Apostles’ Teaching: For the early Christian community, devotion to the apostles’ teaching meant learning about Jesus from those who had been with him. This wasn’t about private moments of silent reflection upon the scrolls. The early community discussed Jesus’ teachings with one another and explored implications for their own lives. The point was to be influenced by Christ’s teaching, example, and Spirit. How might you join others in learning more about Jesus? Can you form a small group and commit to reading a Gospel each week, or work through a 12-lesson Bible study booklet? What would it look like for you to takes notes during the Sunday sermon? Devotion to the Apostles’ Teaching is about allowing the good news of Jesus to form (and transform) the community of faith.

Fellowship: Fellowship lies at the centre of the faith community because it forces us to recognise the call to a common spiritual life. Fellowship is not just about “hanging out” or “shooting the breeze.” Nor is fellowship just about having “Coffee time” with one another. Fellowship is about connecting with a fellow Christian for mutual, faith-based, encouragement. In fellowship, we share what is occurring in our spiritual lives. This means we need to cultivate a radical sense of both hospitality and vulnerability. Could you call the clergy of your parish and arrange an appointment to talk about where you are in your faith life? Could you ask a fellow parishioner how you could support them in their faith life? We live in a time of rampant individualism, and because of this, it is easy for us to believe that such conversations are both intrusive and unwelcome. Yet devotion to fellowship demands that we push past the safety net of small talk and willingly engage in deeper, soul-rich, conversation and sharing.

The Breaking of Bread: The New Testament describes several instances where Jesus blessed, broke, and gave bread to people. Each case was a moment where the Lordship of Jesus was revealed in a particular way (c.f. Luke 24:30–32). The greatest example of this is the Last Supper. For Anglicans, we see our participation in the eucharist as the chief act of worship. Yet the hyper-busyness of modern day often interrupts our celebration of the Eucharist. This is understandable, and maybe unavoidable. Still, as a Lenten observance, what would it look like for you to devote yourself to taking communion every week during the season of Lent? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t have to be on Sunday morning. Many churches have several communion services per week. If you cannot make it to church on Sunday morning you may choose to attend the mid-week service. Or perhaps you could call the church to arrange for someone to bring you communion in your home. (FYI: you don’t have to be a shut in to request this!). Now, if you do not yet take communion, perhaps this is the opportunity for you to engage in discussions with your local clergy about the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, and Eucharist.

Prayer: The community’s devotion to prayer probably sounds the easiest. However, this is not just about having a personal prayer-life. Devotion to prayer for the early Christian community was about devotion to communal prayer. The community gathered together to pray for one another, and to pray with one another. Prayer was both personal and liturgical. This is completely contrary to the privatised and individualistic way that we sometimes view prayer today. There are many different ways that you could cultivate communal prayer during Lent. You could say the liturgy of Morning Prayer (or Evening Prayer) using the BAS or BCP rites; take your bulletin home and pray the collect before bed each evening; ask someone to join you in prayer — either in grace before a meal, or in saying The Lord’s Prayer; seek out a Christian you trust and look up to, and ask him or her to pray with you. Options are limitless and opportunities to join in prayer with others abound. All it takes is a little creativity and boldness.

None of these practices are overly complicated. Each are fairly strait forward. So simple are they, in fact, that we often overlook the transformative power of them. The fact is, each of these practices opens the door for us to creatively engage in our life with God in a unique way. So, if you want the season of Lent to be a time of spiritual renewal, this is perhaps one of the simplest (and most biblically based) ways to go about it. May we all have a blessed Lent.

The Language is Important: Michael Coren and the Problem of Pastoral Insensitivity

This is my response to The Reverend Michael Coren’s CBC opinion piece regarding Medical Assistance in Dying (MAID), posted on February 4,2020. (You can find his article here). Let me be clear about what this response is and is not.  This is not a position paper wherein I pose a counterargument to Coren’s support of MAID.  My intent is not to convince anyone of a certain ethical stance regarding this complex issue.  Coren’s support of MAID will go unchallenged. I do, however, wish to highlight how Coren discusses MAID, and suggest why, I believe, Coren’s piece is unhelpful and harmful.

Before I jump in, let me first tell you who is writing. I am someone who was born with a rare congenital heart condition.  I had open heart surgery when I was 6 months old, and while I have largely lived my life without complication, at 41 years of age, my heart has begun to decline in function.  Every passing year brings more reduced functionality. To put it bluntly, my heart is failing. Due to the rarity of my condition, my cardiologist cannot tell me how my condition will progress or what awaits me in the future.  All of this is to say I am not someone unconcerned with how this conversation is occurring.  Furthermore, while I am not someone who would choose MAID for myself, I understand why someone would, and I recognise that, in the future, I may be in the situation where this is presented as an option to me.  Now, onto my issues with Coren’s article.

Most disturbing is Coren’s position that the alternative to assisted dying is “unassisted dying.”  Coren writes that unassisted dying amounts to “dying in pain, anguish, and often totally alone.”  This is simply not true.  For starters, I would hope that as a clergy person Coren doesn’t believe that someone is alone when they die. More to the point, however, Coren completely dismisses the valuable ministry provided by Hospices throughout the world.  It is as if he assumes that MAID is the only resource available in which one can manage how they die.  Again, this is simply not true.  Coren ignores the simple reality that every single day there are countless medical staff who lovingly and ardently attempt to make an individual’s journey toward death as easy and painless as possible. I have had the privilege of visiting many people in Hospices over the years, and I am constantly touched by the care taken to ensure that no patient feels alone or abandoned.  Furthermore, letting “death come like a thief” does not equal dying alone.  My mother died in a Hospice room after her cancer ran its course.  She was surrounded by all her children, and her husband holding her hand.  We all had a chance to say our goodbyes and to trust her into the hands of God.  To suggest that opposition to MAID amounts to willfully condemning our loved ones to a painful, lonely, and agonizing death is ludicrous, and I would add, pastorally insensitive.

This brings me to another point. Apparently, Coren doesn’t believe that other people have adequate experience with death and dying.  Coren writes: “I have to wonder, how many of these people have sat with an ailing loved one and heard them beg and plead to be permitted to go just a little early” (my emphasis).  Does Coren really believe that people are living in blissful ignorance of death and dying?  Does he really believe that anyone who opposes MAID do so because they have never experienced the death of a loved one?  Frankly, I don’t believe that Coren thinks this way.  This sentence obviously is a rhetorical device designed to bolster Coren’s own position.  It suggests that Coren alone has done the hard work of journeying with people as they die, and no one else has.  But again, this is simply not true.  Personally, I have sat with parishioners as they have relayed to me their sense of frustration that death was taking too long.  I have held the hands of the dying; I have watched life-support be removed from a comatose patient.  I have been called to the bedside as someone breathes their last.  And in each of these situations I was never alone.  I was but one of many. Every day, millions of people spend time at hospital beds and hospice wards as they surround the ill and dying. Coren doesn’t have a monopoly on these experiences, and to suggest otherwise is disrespectful.

Lastly, let me touch on how Coren ends his opinion piece.  Coren, who has not spoken of matters of faith at all during his post, concludes this way: “Pray God – and I use the name of the deity purposefully – we will all come to our senses.”  Obviously Coren is suggesting that God agrees with him, that he somehow has an inside track on God’s view on life and death.  Without typing the words, Coren essentially concludes his opinion piece with “thus saith the Lord.”  It is always dangerous for a clergy person to suggest that he or she has an inside track on how God views matters of morality and ethics. “Who can discern the mind of the Lord?” the scriptures say (Romans 11:34).  Don’t get me wrong, we can have our positions.  We can even believe that our position is a faithful response to God and the scriptures.  But we cannot suggest that disagreeing with my position is akin to disagreeing with God. This does not convey respect to others, or to the God we serve in humility.  By using the name of God “purposefully” here, Coren is labelling those who disagree with him as godless fools.  As a clergy person tasked to help others seek and serve Christ in all persons, this is uncalled for. At best the statement is misguided, at worst it is manipulative clericalism.

The very manner in which Coren speaks of MAID is detrimental to any discussion of the complexity of this matter. Coren caricatures those who disagree with him in the most ungraceful, unchristian, and insensitive of ways. The language he uses does not convey the spirit of humility, respect, grace, or love that we as Christians (or as clergy) are to evidence in the world.  In the future, may we all do better in listening to others and respecting the various complexities of our life together.

 

 

Hubris and Humility, When I get too big for my britches.

We know David to be hero of the Old Testament.  He is the man noted to be “after God’s own heart” (1st Samuel 13:14); he slew Goliath when everyone else was too scared to enter the battle field (1st Samuel 17); he grew to be a mighty warrior, a successful king, a consummate leader.  To top it all off, it is of “David’s line” out of which the Messiah is to come.  You can’t get much more of a compliment than that!

All that beings said, we cannot forget the David is also a man with flaws. In scanning David’s life, we see that David was a man who frequently lived out a sense of entitlement.  David lived and acted with a great deal of hubris.  This self-confidence served him in his tasks, but as he progressed from fabled hero, to military strategist, to mighty King, we see David’s confidence turning to pride.  David begins acting out whatever desire or wish that enters his fancy.

One of the most intriguing examples of this is David’s desire to build the temple of the Lord.  We read about this in 2nd Samuel 7.  Having been named King and now residing in the palace, David reflects on a lack of a “house” for God.  Here he is, in a palace of Cedar while the ark of God lies in a tent.  Surely this shouldn’t be the case, David thinks.  And so, resolved to rectify the situation, David sets out to construct the temple.

To be fair to David, I am sure that his desire to build God’s temple was born initially out of faith.  Furthermore, he did go to the prophet Nathan and seek counsel (it was Nathan who spoke out of turn).  Yet part of me wonders if something more is going on within David.  Is David’s desire to build the temple entirely altruistic?  I wonder if this is an instance of David being too big for his britches? I wonder if David believes that the Lord needs David to manage the LORD’s affairs in the world.  After all, he was the one who slew Goliath; he was the one who brought the ark back to Jerusalem; he was the one who was the continually saved the nation, he was the glorious king of Israel.  I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to believe that David thought “now the LORD needs me to build the temple, because nobody else is able to.”  The fact that building the temple would establish David as the head of the political and religious life of the nations probably didn’t hurt either!  Such an action would have only served to strengthen David’s authority and garner allegiance from all of Israel. (As smart as savvy as he was, I can’t believe that this escaped his notice). The point is, instead of humility and humbleness, David moved to erect the temple out of a misplaced attempt to manage where God resided, and how God was approached.

Do I ever live out such hubris?  Do I ever fall in to a mistaken belief that Jesus needs me to micromanage his affairs in this world?  Instead of humility and acceptance, do I ever believe that I am the one who gets to call the shots, with the Lord dutifully falling in line behind me?  Honestly, there are probably times when I do this.  I probably do this when I believe that God’s presence and activity in church is contingent on my perfect sermon or the perfect execution of liturgy.  I probably act like David a bit too much when I assume that God thinks about everything the exact same way I do; and when I assume that the head of the Church needs me to save his Church, am I not getting a little too big for my own britches?

David does not build the temple; he is told to cease-and-desist.  Nathan comes to him with the divine word that he is not the one to build the temple.  Yet, God’s response to David in this is beautifully instructive.  David isn’t just told “no”, he is reminded of the LORD’s power and guidance in the establishment of the nation, and his own family.  David is told how God has moved with the Israelite’s each day and how no ruler of the nation was ever tasked to build the LORD a house of cedar. I think there is a not-so-subtle reprimand here.  God is, in effect, saying “Who do you think you are to assume that you are the one to do this?”  David, with all the hubris flowing through him, is called to humility. He is reminded of his rightful place before the true and rightful King.

And then God says something profound.  God takes David’s desire, stated in verse 2, and flips it on its head.  In light of David’s desire to build God a house, the LORD affirms “I will provide a place for my people Israel, and plant them so they can have a home” (7:10).  Furthermore “The LORD declares to you that the LORD himself will establish a house for you” (7:11).  Again, David is lovingly put in his place.  The LORD does not need David to establish a house, because Israel’s future is in the LORD’s hands.  God is in control. David’s task in life is not manage God’s presence and activity in the world, but to humbly receive the blessings that God bestows.  David is asked to follow God’s lead; to do that which Gods him to do, and to not do what God does not call him to do.  Instead of crafting a house for God, God will establish a house for David.  Despite the great accomplishments and accolades David may have to his name, in the end, he is but a servant of the heavenly King.

It can be hard to be taken down a peg, to have God address our prideful hubris.  But this is necessary if we want to live our lives faithfully before God. In love, God reminds us of our place as part of His creation.  We are people formed of the earth, crafted in God’s image, redeemed by His love.  As such, God calls us to the place of submission.  We are called to receive, not create, the will of the Lord.  Furthermore, in those times where we may not know what the next phase of our journey is, we are called to wait for the Lord.  God does not need our management-strategies or our directions. God does not need us to create a path, construct a legacy, build a future.  These things are in God’s hands, and despite our knowledge or insight, God’s plan will prevail.  Instead of attempting to manage divine things, therefore, we should use our energy to be diligent in prayer and humble in spirit.   After all, as David’s son once put it, “Unless the Lord build’s the house, we but labour in vain.”

When Words Speak: 5 books that formed my faith and brought me closer to Jesus (besides the Bible).

Recently, our bishop asked us clergy to provide a list of three books that we have found influential to our lives or our ministry. These books didn’t have to be necessarily theological in nature, just books that we would recommend to others.  For me, this proved to be a difficult task.  I love my books and so the idea of reducing my library to only three influential titles seemed overly problematic.  But, exercising my vow of canonical obedience, I presented my three choices at the clergy day.

Since then, I have thought a lot about the books that I chose for presentation.  Why did I pick these books over others? What made me gravitate to those titles over other books I enjoyed?  I also felt that my presentation to my colleagues did not do justice to some of the influential books I have read. I also feel that, if asked to do this again, I would pick different titles than the ones I initially presented.

Given all of this, I present to you my revised list.  Instead of three influential titles, I list five titles that have helped me deepen my love for Christ.  My criteria for choosing these texts are fairly simple: these five texts are ones I seem to return to again and again.  They inform how I understand my life with Christ.  They encourage me.  They challenge me. They inspire me.  Simply put, they are the works that began, and seem to sustain, my spiritual life.

  1. Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster This book tops my list because it began my journey into the area of spiritual formation. Funnily enough, I attempted to read this book early on, but only managed a few pages before pushing it back onto my shelf.  Years later, I picked it up again on a whim. This time, however, Foster’s words seemed to speak to my desire to find practices and habits to sustain my life with Christ.  It is an accessible read, but rich in content and insight. This is a wonderful work for anyone wanting to know how to live a more intentionally Christian life.
  2. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas Kelly. If you have read any Foster’s books, you will recognise this book. Foster quotes Kelly often. After gobbling up all of Foster’s works, I turned to this small work strongly rooted in the Quaker tradition.  Never have I read anything, where from the first sentence, i found it speaking to my innermost desires.  I find Kelly to be uncanny in his ability to describe the inner cries of the heart, our longing to be centred in Christ.  Kelly’s words seemed to sum-up an increasing depth of faith that I yearned for, but didn’t know how to describe.
  3. You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith. This was recommended by a friend of mine after learning I had enrolled in a doctorate program focused on Spiritual Formation. Smith’s book is a wonderful entrance into theological anthropology.  Instead of being merely thinking-things, Smith advocates that we are ruled by our passions – that which our hearts cry for.  Smith’s offers insightful words regarding the danger of being a “bobble-head Christian”, and his discussion of the “liturgy of the mall” is perhaps the best description I have found of the “spirituality” of contemporary society.  These are concepts and images I have passed on to many, and directly informed my final doctoral project.
  4. Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Full discloser: my congregation has been hearing a lot about Bonhoeffer as of late.  Life Together is probably the one book on this list that I have read most often.  I return to it year after year, and when asked to lead retreats for new clergy, I base everything on this work.  I find Bonhoeffer’s words profoundly prophetic in our highly individualistic time.  Furthermore, his radical willingness to centre the Christian life within the context of community is something, I believe, we would do well to recover.
  5. Introduction to the Holy Life by St. Francis deSales. Honestly, I struggled with what text to include as my last selection.  I initially had A Serious Call to the Devout and Holy Life by the good old Anglican, William Law.  That is a work that was important for me in doctoral studies. I chose deSales, however, simply because I read him first.  Introduction was the first book I picked up after realising I wanted  to hear what Christians centuries ago had to say about nurturing the life of faith.  How has Christian’s throughout the ages managed an authentic spiritual life?  Are they any truths that seem to transcend time.  deSales did not disappoint.  His care for the student he writes to is evident, and his spiritual wisdom is applicable today as when he first penned his work.

There you have it, my (current) list of the five works that influenced my spiritual life.  I commend them to you.  If you haven’t read these works, I highly recommend them to you; I don’t think you will be disappointed.

 

Bonhoeffer, Statistics, and the True Focus of the Church.

Do you think Jesus feels invisible in today’s churches, like a guest at a party with whom no one chooses to converse?  I mean, sure he was invited.  We acknowledge his presence as a point of doctrine.  We may even state that the gathering is held in his honor.  However, is that where it ends?  Is Jesus left standing in the corners waiting for our eyes and ears to turn to him?

This pondering was piqued when I noticed the cover page of the latest edition of the Anglican Journal.  In dramatic bold type, the Journal heralded, “Gone by 2040?”  The article references a now well-known statistic; that the year 2040 is the “0 date” for the Anglican Church of Canada.  At this time, the last Anglican will turn out the lights, and the long history of Anglican theology and worship will be no more.  Nothing says “Happy New Year” like a message of impending doom!  The article goes on to talk about theories as to why this the case and how the church today might respond.  Yet while we toss around our theories and strategies for the church’s future, I have to wonder if Jesus stands in the corner hoping that eventually will look to him.

This is not to suggest that the church today has nothing to address.  Of course we do.  Nevertheless, I believe we make a mistake when we overly focus on recapturing the glories of the past.  When we do this, we cast our vision backwards to the days or years when the church was successful, truly established.  One comments, “I remember when every Christmas service was packed to the brim!”, whereas another laments, “In my day, we had a 50 person children’s choir!”  Of course, such statements may be factually true, but dwelling on such things only serve to take our attention the blessing of Christ in our midst. The church community can never be established in any reality, here and now, if we are too busy trying to picture what the church community looked like fifty years ago.

Likewise, I believe we err when we assert that the future of the church is somehow dependent upon the strategic implementation of our well-thought-out programs, whether that be “Fresh Expressions,” “Alpha courses” or whatever the newest fix-it trend may be.  To do so is to believe that the future of the church must include success and societal recognition as if the Christendom of the past must be the Lord’s desire for our future.  Is this not the unspoken point when we reference our percentage amid the Canadian population?

When we focus too much on the glory of the past, or on establishing the glory of the future, we tend to see the present existence of the church only as a stain on the church’s true nature.  Our dreams for what the church should be dismisses what the church is. We discard the present reality of our life together, along with the present reality of Christ’s own work within the church, in favour of a fantasy.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer actually speaks to this in his important book, Life Together.

Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christlike community is a hindrance to the genuine community and must be broken up so that the genuine community can survive.  The one who loves their dream of Christian community more than the Christian community itself becomes destroyers of that community.  (Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 36)

Bonhoeffer follows this passage with a long paragraph elucidating God’s hatred toward our “wishful dreaming” about the Church.  For Bonhoeffer, dreaming about what the church ought to look like, as opposed to what the church held by Christ actually is, is rooted in pride and egoism. We base our dreams about the church upon our self-focused desire to realize our own glory and prestige.  The human image of the church replaces God’s own desire for the church. The wish-dream causes us to remain inwardly focused. “They act as if they have to create the Christian community”, Bonhoeffer notes (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37).   We look only within within for a way reclaim the glorious past. Instead of humbly accepting the Lord’s activity, we make demands upon how the Lord should work in the midst of his community.  We often do this when we equate “future” with “numerical growth.”  In doing so we stand against the present reality of Christ as the head of the church today. We set ourselves up as those who judge the church’s success or failure.  As Bonhoeffer notes, such judgement is based on our limited view, so that “whatever does not go [our] way, [we] call a failure”, writes Bonhoeffer (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 36).  Fixating on an idealized image of the church blocks us from responding to the incarnate presence and activity of their Lord in our midst. More to the point, however, it is to mistake the fundamental nature of the church itself as a body realized by the incarnate presence of Christ. It is Christ alone who creates, holds together, and sustains the church.

Bonhoeffer calls for a radical embracement of the hear-and-now of the church community, one that I believe we would do well to heed. “The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting,” he writes. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 37)  We are to lay aside our idealized dreams of past or future glory in order to embrace the glory of the Lord in our midst.  Christ, and Christ alone, is to be the focus of the community.  Bonhoeffer writes:

Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize, but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.  The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it. (Bonhoeffer, Life Together; 38)

Can we stop trying to realize an ideal and instead focus on participating in the reality into which Christ has invited us?

It may be tempting to see Bonhoeffer’s thoughts as overly theological, devoid of any real world applications.  We may think that such thoughts are great for seminaries and theological books, but surely offer no word given the condemning statistics our present-day.  I believe such a response is misguided.  One of the reasons why I find Bonhoeffer’s words so profound for today’s church is precisely the ecclesial reality surrounding Bonhoeffer’s ministry.  Bonhoeffer did not pen Life Together during a high point of church power and prestige.  In fact, the exact opposite was the case.  Bonhoeffer wrote Life Together in 1938, while the German church was struggling with its response to Hitler and the Nazi agenda.  The Nazi Party had systematically closed seminaries throughout Germany, attempting to seize control of the church’s future.  Just prior to Bonhoeffer writing this book, the secret police raided, and closed, the underground seminary at Finkenwald where Bonhoeffer had taught.  Hitler’s systematic assault on the church did not stop at the closure of seminaries, however.  The secret police forced many German pastors to take an oath of personal allegiance to Hitler; those who refused awaited arrested and subsequent execution.

Bonhoeffer faced a crippling reality.  Nazism had a stranglehold on the church, one that did not look like it as going to subside.  The national church stood silent in the face of the holocaust.  Even the Confessing Church, the body that was to stand faithful to the gospel under Nazi regime, had unfortunately continually shown itself incapable to take an authoritative stance against the horrors occurring around them.  Instead of a 20-year statistical projection regarding the church’s demise, Bonhoeffer saw the death of the church looking much more immanent.  In response, he wrote Life Together. This book was penned precisely against the backdrop of war and holocaust, when one would be tempted to retreat into dreams about the glorious past.  Instead of wishful fantasies about how great things were in the past, or about future growth, Bonhoeffer speaks to the need to embrace the church as it exists in the present.

This brings us back around to the Anglican Journal and the statistic regarding our demise in just 20 years.  Bonhoeffer reminds me that the church has always faced a precarious future.  There has never been a time where the church is able to sit back and claim of itself “Aha! I have arrived!”  Yet despite this reality, Christ has continued to call his church into existence.  This is as true to Anglicanism as it is to other denominations.  Therefore, let us not be too swept up by doomsday statistics.  Let us not work ourselves in a frenzy attempting to fix something that ultimately, cannot be fixed by our efforts.  Rather, as Hebrews reminds us, “let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2)

 

*Note: All citations taken from Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, 2005; Life Together And Prayerbook of the Bible (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vo.5); Minneapolis, First Fortres Press,).

An appeal for Church unity with reflections from the Parable of the Good Samaritan: My response to General Synod.

Last week was the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada.  It is the church that I have belonged to since as long as I can remember.  It is the church that I was ordained in 16 years ago, and it is the church that I love.  For a good several months, however, I have watched comments fling about online, I have read blogs and articles, I have listened to people speak at each other rather than converse with each other.  The issue:  Changing our cannon on marriage.  Make no mistake, despite the election of our new primate, despite the good work done in supporting indigenous self-determination, this was the main issue at Synod.  This meant that when it hit the floor of Synod, speakers quickly piled up. Tensions were high, emotions were hot, veiled insults were flung, and in the end, a vote was cast.  Yet in this me vs you way of governance, this vote insured that there would be no winner for our church.  And, although a frequent theme of this year’s synod was UNITY, when the issue of the marriage canon came, it was clear that church unity was far from people’s minds.

At this point I should be clear that I was not actually at Synod.  While I watched the live feed as much as possible, I could only view what the camera showed me.  Still, over the past week I have thought a lot about church unity and about what  embracing  church unity might mean for the Anglican Church of Canada.  And so, it is on the matter of unity, with some references to General Synod, that I offer this blog.

An important understanding is that unity is not something that we necessarily bring about by being the same.  Unity is not the same as uniformity.  In fact, I would say that unity is not actually about us.  The more we focus on ourselves, and the more we try to force some unity by way of our own actions (or vote), the more we move away from the true unity of the church.  Why? Because we are not the creators of unity.  Jesus holds the unity of the church together. Thus the unity of the church is a gift to the church. That is, the church can only understand itself a united body as it focuses on the good news of Jesus, feeds on the body and blood of Jesus, and is empowered by the spirit of Jesus.  The unity of the church is a function and by product of the church’s identity in Christ Jesus.

Jesus unites us.  This probably sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest of things can be the most profound.  It is the presence of Christ the unites the body of Christ, this means that unity doesn’t dismiss our differences, or our brokenness.  In fact, within the unity of the church (held by Christ) I am free be completely different from you, as different as iPhone to Android, Stampeders to Roughriders, Yahoo to Yee-haw.  What is more, embracing a Christ-held unity can mean that I am allowed to think that you are wrong, or mistaken, and you can think I am wrong.  However, if Jesus is your Lord, and Jesus is my Lord, then together, Jesus is our Lord.  Unity exists with You and I, we and us, resting in the hand of Christ Jesus.

Our expression of unity is rooted in the primary call of our lives: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbour as yourself.”  We heard this passage last Sunday in Luke’s parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-32). Jesus commends the expert of the law who cites this as the “way to eternal life.”  “Do this and you will live” Jesus says.  As we who read religious blogs are probably aware, this appeal to loving the Lord, flowing into love of neighbour, isn’t just something that sounds nice doctrinally but doesn’t mean much practically.  That first phrase was part of Shema, a passage in Deuteronomy that the Jewish people, as a nation, were asked to recite daily.  The Shema spoke fundamentally about who Israel were as a people.  They were the Lord’s chosen.  They were people who lived their life with the presence of the Lord.  The Shema reminded them that the Lord defined what they were passionate about, defined how they thought about things, defined what they gave their energy to and what they avoided.  That same call is true for us.  Jesus commends it to us.  And so, if we are ever asked: “what is the church about?” or “what is that which unifies the church?” we should say that we love Jesus with all our passion and prayer and intelligence and muscle.  This is the foundation of everything we are to be as a church.

The sad reality of our history is that we often make the church about so many other things.  We have made the church about social justice, or about conservative morality, or it’s about progressiveness and liberation, or about the colour of carpets and the dangers of hymn-book revision.  Don’t get me wrong, some of those things may be well and good… they just do not create unity.  Again, the unity of the church is held by Jesus because Jesus alone is the unity of the church.

Now before we smile and say “absolutely” we need to recognize there are radical implications that flow from this.  The love of the Lord leads to love of neighbour.  Referring again to the parable, there was a long-standing rabbinic practice that linked the Shema and the command to love our neighbours.  That being said, there was a debate about who constituted one’s neighbour.  One interpretation saw the command in Leviticus 19 as a call to love only the Israelite neighbour.  Love your neighbour, as you love yourself… because they are essentially just like yourself.  This is why the expert asks Jesus “who is my neighbour?”

(As a side, can I just say, I love the humanity in this. We do this don’t we? We often attempt to justify what not to do, define to whom something does not apply.  Peter asks Jesus: “I only need to forgive 7 times right?”; The expert request: “tell me who I may legitimately not love.”)

To think this way is to think that the love that we have for God, and the unity that Jesus creates within the body of faith, is only to be expressed within certain circles or toward certain people.  It’s designed for people like me, who look like me, or think like me, or vote like me. In response to this flawed way of thinking about the other, Jesus gives the most extreme example of understanding another’s humanity.  In her commentary on the passage, Amy-Jill-Levin notes that in order to understand the parable of the Good Samaritan you need to ask yourself “is there anyone, from any group, whom we would rather die than acknowledge.’

Leading up to the General Synod, in blogs, articles, and comments, and then later during the Synod itself, I heard statements that I can only interpret as a refusal to acknowledge the other. I quote:

“Why do you have so much hate in your heart?”

“How can these people call themselves Christians and vote this way?

 “The Bishops clearly don’t love everyone.”

 “These people don’t read the bible rightly.”

“People who agree with the marriage change have a different understanding of Jesus.”

When we make such statements, I believe the heart of Jesus breaks and he weeps over his church. Such statements mean we think the unity of the church occurs when others agree with my side of the argument.  Love your neighbour only as they are like yourself. The danger in all the statements above is that it pushes us toward excommunication. After all, it’s not that much of a leap from saying “they have a different understanding of Jesus”, to saying “they don’t belong in my church.” If we so distance ourselves from the others, to deny any sort of unity in humanity, or faith, then we will never be the good Samaritan.  We will never embody the sacrificial love that Jesus calls us to.

What if the entire church is lying bloody on the road, feeling beaten up by controversy, and insults, and mudslinging.  What if all of us, regardless of what we think about a host of things, is hurting. What might it mean for us to love the church the way the Saviour loves the church? The love of the good Samaritan didn’t try to change the wounded man.  In fact, the Samaritan was willing to be inconvenienced in order to heal the wounded man. This is the radical, Christ-like, ‘I’m willing to bear the scars of the cross’ type of love that the unity of the church calls for. Can we embrace someone who voted differently than us?  Can we share communion together? Can we allow the Spirit of Jesus in us to see the Spirit of Jesus in them?  We have seen this radical unity in the history of the church and we need to see in now.

What we are called to, what we need to be refocused on, is not a unity centred on ecclesiastical polity, or watered-down theological politeness, or appeals to social agencies or structures, or some human call for us to think the same way.  We are called to a robust and radical understanding of unity that transcends all our human brokenness, pride, arrogance and waywardness. And let’s be honest, all of us are broken, prideful, arrogant, and wayward at times.   We are called to the unabashed witness to of the power of Christ to unite and heal.  We are asked to testify that unity overcomes estrangement, forgiveness heals guilt and joy overcomes despair.

Love the lord your God with passion, prayer, intelligence and muscle, living that out to those who are fundamentally different than yourself.  This radical call is far weightier that just a religious soundbite. Jesus says to the expert in the law, he says to us, “Go and do likewise.”  And before we say ‘Yea but .. .’ Jesus stops his sentence right there.  Jesus doesn’t give any more clarification on the issue so neither should we.  We act this way, radically, boldly, faithfully, because we trust that the Spirit will inspire the community of faith to treat us in similar fashion.  This isn’t about one side giving, and the other side receiving.  It is about all us giving and receiving the Spirit of Jesus together. Because when it comes down to it, the unity of the church isn’t something that we try to bring about by our decision making; it is something we receive by Jesus alone, and it is a quality that ultimately Jesus alone will protect.

 

Individualism: The scourge of the Church.

We all know that the church today is getting smaller.  Denominations are dwindling; churches around the country are closing their doors; more and more people live without any discernible church connection.  Sure, there is a rise of spirituality, but that rarely translates into involvement in a faith community.  When someone describes themselves as ‘spiritual not religious’ it usually means their spirituality does not involve anyone else (and rarely does it involve any spiritual practices).

There are many ideas about why this happening and how we are to address this decline.  Some say we should jettison the traditional church in favour for a new, contemporary, and relevant expression of faith.  Old practices and ancient rhythms simply do not speak to the more modern tempered.  Yet this does not actually solve the problem.  Opting for a more contemporary skin does not actually address what lies behind the decline in the church.  Underneath much of the experience of church decline today is the problem of individualism.

Case in point: For the past 10 years, my church has experienced decline.  Some of this is because of natural occurrences in the life of a community.  Parishioners have died, some of have moved away.  However, what is most intriguing is that, while the active congregation has declined over the past decade, the parish list has remained the same.  We haven’t actually lost members. So what is going on?  The reality that we face, and that I assume many of us face, is that people simply do not attend church as regularly as before.  Those who used to come three Sundays per month now come one, and those who attended only once per month now only show up every other month.  The lack of attendance by those who belong to the church, I think, is one of the key reasons for church decline.

Importantly, this lack of attendance by once-active parishioners is not based on the church style.  Rather, it illustrates a particular view of the church; namely, that church is a voluntary activity that one can choose to engage or disengage in at any time.  The rise of language speaking to the church needing to ‘feed me’ is symptomatic of this individualist lens through which we view the church.   When we view the church individualistically, we base our involvement with church on personal preferences.  Likes and dislikes become the basis for how we value participation in the community of faith.  Thus, when something better comes along, whether that be a sporting event or another community, one feels free to step away from the community of faith.  It is precisely because of this individualism that simply replacing the traditional expression of church with a more contemporary one will ultimately fail to effect widespread growth.  The different ‘flavours’ of church aside, we still live in a time when church is seen as a voluntary engagement.  What we need to do is begin addressing what we actually believe the church to be.

Writing in the 1930’s, Dietrich Bonhoeffer has some challenging words to say about this.

“Only when an individualistic outlook began to transform this obvious necessity into a psychological one did it ask about the meaning of the assembly [of worship] in terms of its usefulness and necessity for the individual.  This question reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept of the church-community.  It is therefore also completely useless to attempt to respond to it by listing a whole host of internal or external advantages, or moral obligations, which might lead the individual into the church. . . Indeed, we submit that the very question is inappropriate to the subject matter. To justify this position we can only point to the concept of the church-community itself.   Thus, a justification for the purpose of the assembly is not lacking altogether; it is not simply an entrenched traditional habit, as one might assume.  However, the justification simply lies on a completely different plain . . . Since I belong to the church-community, I come to the assembly; this is the simple rationale of those who are assembled.  This act is not based on utilitarian considerations, or a sense of duty, but is ‘organic’ and obvious behaviour.

Bonhoeffer does well to get in pointing to the individualism that plagues the church today.  To argue why one is to go to church instead of another activity is to reinforce that the church exists to solely to meet the whims and likes of the individual.   This does nothing to address the problem of individualism, nor does it aid in informing the person about the true nature of the church.  Bonhoeffer is clear; one comes to church because one belongs to the church.  There is a plain and simple truth that we assert: one’s lives out his/her faith amid the community of believers.  Therefore, active, ongoing, and regular involvement in the worshipping community is simply a call we cannot ignore.  There is, in actuality, no way to get around this.

This post is the first in (probably) many wherein I will try to tease out what it means for us to move away from an individualistic understanding of the church-community.  However, for now, let me say this: I believe that we have to start combating the lie that says it is ok to miss church. I think we should start telling people that ‘liking’ the church is no basis for one’s involvement in church-community.  I think we need to start addressing the harm done to the church-community, and to people’s own spiritual livelihood, when other commitments regularly trump involvement in the community of faith.

These may be fighting words today, as they speak directly against the priority of the self in one’s faith-life.  Yet I believe this is necessary if we wish to go forward as the church which God ordains, equips, and empowers.

 

Bonhoeffer quote taken fromBonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Sanctum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church; from “Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works Vol. 1”; Minneapolis, First Fortress Press, 2009. Pg. 227.

Thy Word: A light through the darkness

In my late teenage years, I spent many of my summers at our local Christian summer camp.  Camp Columbia was nestled in the forests of Thetis Island.  It was more run-down that rustic, but I enjoyed much of the time I spent there.  One summer, my role was to help with the Leadership Training program.

One evening, the group decided to wander up to Pride Rock.  Pride rock was a clearing in the forest,  where you could sit and look at the stars.  As I was finishing some duties at the main house, I told the group that I would meet them later.  It was only 10 minutes or so before I was walking up toward Pride Rock in pursuit of the group.  My journey, however, did not go as smoothly as I would have liked.

There were two reasons why the trek to Pride Rock did not work in my favour.  Firstly, it had grown dark. The sun had long ago set behind the horizon and the stars were beginning to come out.  This meant that a pathway through the forest was nearly impossible to see.  Furthermore, the deeper I got into the forest the less I could see.  At one point it was close to pitch-black.  I was convinced, however, that I knew the way.  I had been to Pride Rock several times before; I was confident that I could find the appropriate pathway and meet the group.

Secondly . . .I didn’t have a flashlight.

The lack of a flashlight proved to be disastrous for me. At one point in my journey through the forest, the path zigged where I thought it zagged, and I went tumbling down a hill, landing in a bed of thorn bushes.  I did not hurt myself, beyond a few scrapes on my legs, but now I had a new problem; I was deep in the forest, unable to see, and unsure which way I should go.  I was disoriented and confused.  And I couldn’t see anything!   I called out to the group yet no reply came.  Had I taken the wrong path?  I tried to walk back up the hill, but with no visibility I could not make any progress.  I tried to step in different directions, but it seemed that each way I moved brought me deeper into bushes, thorns, and scrapes.  I will be honest, at one point panic started to set in.

Then I saw it.  The light from the main House.  I could see the light of the House cutting through the darkness of the forest.  While I still could not see a defined trail, or the house itself, I could see the light, and I knew the light meant safety.   Walk towards the light, I told myself.  I began moving in that direction. With each step thorn bushes cut into my legs, but I had to keep going.  The light was always before me, despite all the darkness and scrapes.  I kept moving toward that light, and eventually, emerged from the forest and into the clearing by the main house.

The Psalmist declares, “Thy Word is a lamp unto our feat, and a light unto our path” (Psalm 119:105).  The Psalmist is not thinking specifically about the pages of scripture, but about an inner dynamic.  When we live in relationship with God, we have the privilege of experiencing the voice of God spoken to us.  Sometimes we may ‘hear a voice’, sometimes we may have a feeling; but like a light shining in through the darkness, God’s voice beckons us forward in our Christian lives.  God guides our steps.  God illuminates the way.  God directs our path.

Of course, this does not stop us from experiencing some cuts and scrapes along the way.  The word of God is not the voice of easy street.  As we journey through life, we will still fall down hills, or experience the zigzaging paths. This is simply part of being imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  Yet with God’s light shining before us, God will continually direct us into the places of life where we experience his presence, power, and healing.  Even though the Psalmist is not thinking about leather bound books with gold-trimmed pages, we have the benefit of the Bible to aid us in in hearing the voice of God. Prayerfully reading scripture mediate’s God’s voice to us.  The gift of scripture is that God’s voice is always open to us.  When we read the text on the page, we hear God’s voice spoken into our hearts. God is always speaking.

Now we can turn to the light of God’s voice in two ways.

We can turn to the word of God when we find ourselves lost.  Like falling down a hill in the middle of a forest, there may be times where we find ourselves in a situation that we are ill equipped to handle.  In these times we can turn to God’s word as that light that breaks through all darkness.  The light of God’s voice, spoken through scripture, becomes the way we journey through the unexpected tumbles of life.  Of course, this does not stop us from getting hurt along the way.  There will always be difficulty in life, and even with the light of God’s voice before us we may still find ourselves scraped or bruised.  Yet God’s voice proves constant and faithful, and it will lead us out of the darkness.

There is nothing wrong with this approach to scripture.  In fact, the very Psalm that lauds God’s word as a lamp and light speaks about the sufferings of Psalmist.  When we find that life zigs where we zagged, when we fall down the hills of life and find ourselves knee-deep in some type of obstacle, we are encouraged to turn to scripture for guidance, healing, and wisdom.  God’s voice is spoken in those times to protect us, to lead us, and to rescue us.

Still, it is one things to look to God’s voice as a distant beacon when we find ourselves in need of direction; it is quite another thing to carry a flashlight.

When we turn to God’s word as a flashlight – when we carry it with us daily – we find that we are able to avoid some of the pitfalls of life.  When we carry God’s word with us, we walk in God’s will with every single step.  We avoid the snares and traps that lurk in the darkness, and who can say how many hills we do not tumble down, simply because we are able to the right path clearly.

God’s voice is always there for us.  It is a lamp unto our feet.  It is a light to our path.  God’s word provides direction when we are lost, healing when we feel battered by life, comfort in times of stress or panic.  The faithfulness of God’s word is never in question.  The only question we face is ‘how will we approach God’s voice?’ Will God’s word be a distant voice, turned to only in times when we need rescue? Or, will we take God’s voice with us as a cherished guide for each and every step, allowing God to illuminate where, and where not, we should step.