In Conversation with Steve Bell

Sometimes it pays to be bold with emails. I have long had a deep affinity for the music of Steve Bell. Not only is he a gifted musician and singer/songwriter, but he also conveys a deep thoughtfulness about the matters of faith. Steve loves the Church, and he loves Christians. He also loves the Psalms. This made him one of the first people I thought of when I desired to have these conversations.

Please enjoy the video below. Unfortunately, Steve’s audio is fairly quiet, so you will have to turn up your volume to hear him. Blessings!

When Discouragement begins

Maundy Thursday has always been my favorite liturgical service of the year. I love the contrast of celebrating the Eucharist, followed by the immediate removal of all decorations and beauty. The stripping of the altar is beautiful and haunting. On that night, the church is left an empty shell as we exit the barren sanctuary in uncomfortable silence. It is a reminder of how the very life, and heart, of faith is ripped away if we disregard the resurrection.

Such theological reflections are easy when you sit comfortably in the prayer-desk, never having truly walked the road of suffering and emptiness. In the past, I entered my reflections with ease. I would feel appropriately subdued and contemplative. But was I ever truly affected?

In 2015, everything changed.

The news of my wife’s cancer had come unexpected. She had a tumor previously removed, but all indications were that the growth within her was benign. After hearing about its malignancy, we had thought our visit to the cancer center was a mere follow up appointment. After all, the tumor had been removed – that should have been the end of it. But on Maundy Thursday, 2015, the oncologist told us, “I’m recommending chemotherapy. You start next week. Here is the paperwork.” We were dumbfounded. To this day the pit of my stomach drops whenever I think of those words.

The fact that we sat, weeping in the exam room, as our church gathered for our annual Agape Feast is testifies to how spiritually distant I felt in that moment. I felt encumbered by sadness and confusion. All the times I prayed with my wife while she hunched over in pain felt pointless; the prayers I prayed seemed forsaken. In hindsight, I see things differently. But in that moment, it felt as if my faith was very thin. This is not a comfortable experience for an ordained priest.

This feeling of spiritual discouragement would linger with me through my wife’s entire cancer treatment, and far beyond. Each day I wrestled with an odd dynamic of both daring to believe in ever-present goodness of God, and yet at the same time, feeling deeply a lack of spiritual life. I preached messages I had a hard time accepting myself. I offered prayers that felt flat. I smiled while internally I wept.

Spiritual discouragement can be hard to pin down because it is different for everyone. It may be a general feeling of lacking livelihood in your faith, a feeling about being stalled in your spiritual life, or a feeling of a complete lack of faith altogether. It may involve a struggle with prayer, or lack of desire to read the Bible. It may result from life turning ugly out of the blue. These feelings can be hard to deal with. We feel like Ezekiel’s dry bones, lifeless and dry.

Compounding this problem is the fact that we rarely talk about spiritual discouragement. We pretend it doesn’t exist. It’s like we want to keep the illusion alive that faith in Jesus removes us from anything truly upsetting. Faith means being stalwart, unaffected. We live out a faulty theology that assumes struggles in faith are the denial of faith – if we really loved Jesus we would just smile and sing Shine Jesus Shine.

But that is rarely the case. This wasn’t the case for Jesus.  It wasn’t the case for the disciples. It rarely is the case for us. So, if you are reading this from the point of spiritual discouragement, I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to feel this way. It’s not a lack of faith, or a failure of your spirituality. It’s part of our Christian journey and myriads of faithful people understand exactly what you are going through.  The good news is, our Lord walked this path before us, and he walks this path with us today.

A Conversation: with David O. Taylor

The Psalms have become a source of constant inspiration for me. They have informed my prayer-life far more than any liturgical resource or devotional text out there. Within the Psalms I find the language of praise, adoration, and awe-struck worship; I also find the words for when I need to lament, cry, and yell. The Psalms affirm to me that there is nothing about my life – nothing about me – that cannot be presented to God. Nothing is to be hidden. I can live my life with Jesus open, and unafraid.

Open and unafraid. That is the title to David O. Taylor’s book on the psalms. I was delighted when the formation small-group in my parish chose David’s book to work through. I am excited to begin this journey into the Psalms with them, in only a few short weeks.

On a whim, I decided to contact David to see if he had time to chat. Happily, he agreed. Below is our conversation; I know you will be blessed by David’s insight and passion for the Psalms. (Apologies for the time when the video get’s stuck – just stay with it and it will right itself). Enjoy!

Being Kingdom-Minded

Note: This post was originally part of a blog series called “52 Weeks of Simplicity”. I got so distracted that I never completed the series!

I have noticed the strangest urge within me. Every time I sit at my desk with my Bible open, in preparation for sermon work or Bible study, a small voice goes off in my brain demanding that I check the current feed on Facebook or Instagram. When I sit reading, my mind immediately goes to a thousand tasks that I have before me. But when I engage in any of those tasks, I long for the quiet focus of silence and solitude.

Have you struggled with a similar thing?

We live in a world of constant noise and distraction. There is always something to tear us away from what we focus on in any given moment. Images flash before us, ever changing what we are thinking about or reflecting on. Music provides an endless soundtrack to life; we find it in malls, in banks, in hospital waiting rooms. The frenetic pulses of the world we live in, like a migraine that won’t end, eventually takes it’s toll on us.  The world views slow, methodical, focus a detriment and multitasking a virtue. We say things like ‘I wish there were more hours in the day’, or ‘If I only had a few more hands’ or ‘please stop the world I’d like to get off!’ We feel exhausted and tired because of the ceaseless pace of the world we live in.

Is this there a way to break out of this type of life? Can we combat the overexposure of sights and sounds, the barrage of messages highlighting self-indulgence, and that internal sense of being overwhelmed? Can Jesus lead us into a different way of living?

Jesus points us to a life of unhurried grace. He calls us to not worry over “what we shall eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ Instead of running after the things of the world, the things the heavenly Father knows we need, Jesus calls us to seek first the kingdom. When we do this, Jesus promises that all those things we tend to stress over will fall into our lives. They will be “added to us” if we but set our eyes, hearts, and souls toward following the Kingdom.

Like you, I have grown up with this verse. I have sung it as a hymn in churches many, many times. Yet I never really thought about what that verse points us to. What does it mean to seek first God’s kingdom in our lives? How do we go about this? And how does living for or in the kingdom of God, differ from living for or in the kingdom of this world?

Have you ever seen the movie City Slickers—starring Billy Crystal and Jack Palance? In this movie, Palance plays an old rugged cowboy named Curly, while Crystal acts the young mid-life crisis-baring city person. Crystal’s character is in awe of Curly because, as Curly’s life makes sense. He seems undistracted and singly focused. In the central scene of the movie Curly, with cigarette dangling from his mouth, says to the burden-laden Crystal, “You city folk are all the same. You spend 50 weeks tying knots in your rope and then think two weeks up here will untangle them for you. None of you get it. Do you know what the secret of life is. This. (Curly holds up his finger) One thing. Just one thing.’ With one speech Curly seems to disarm the frenetic distractions of the world.

Hollywood, of course, takes it’s typical turn and suggests that everyone must find their “one thing.” Unfortuantely, what this means is that everyone is called to seek his or her kingdom. The movie never really explores the glaring irony that seeking his own kingdom was what got Crystal discouraged in the first place. How do you define your “one thing”, when you feel lost and do not know where to look?

Jesus makes a stark difference between two fundamentally opposed manners of living. There is the way of seeking the kingdom, first and foremost in our lives; and there is the way of ‘The Pagans’. The way of the kingdom is unhurried, focused, and diligent. The way of the kingdom is to follow the path that Jesus hold out. We do not find the kingdom; we do not create it or produce it. The kingdom erupts around us. It is a gift of Jesus we are invited to enter, enjoy, and participate in.

This is contrasted with the way of the pagans—the way of the world. The way of the world is to run around in an intolerable scramble, trying to achieve that which we are worried about, yet can never fully receive. The way of the world is to find the clothes that make the man, to win with the most toys, and to keep up with the Jones’. Of course, whenever we believe ourselves to have procured our ultimate goal, we find it hollow and fleeting.

Jesus tells parable after parable about the centrality of following his Kingdom; it is a person searching for a rare pearl, a woman searching for a lost coin, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep; a father searching for his lost son. The kingdom of God is to be that which redefines all of life. Unlike life according to the world—telling us we are to flit about in ten thousand directions at once, chasing everything and finding nothing; a simple, kingdom focused life arranges all actions, duties, and tasks around one unified and definitive principle and goal—life in the kingdom of God; life as a disciple of Jesus.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

Psalm 73: A Song for the Faithfully Forlorn

We all get discouraged or frustrated in our faith. Our spiritual lives rarely occur exactly as we would imagine or hope. After all, we live in an imperfect world, and we bear those imperfections within ourselves. We all struggle. We all question. We all, at times, raise our voice to the heavens and scream “why?” These experiences are not a denial of our love for God. They do not indicate a loss of faith or a deconstruction of our spiritual life. They are a natural part of our relationship with the Lord. This is why the Book of Psalms are so important for us. The psalms show the normality of our questions and discouragements; they teach us how to voice our discomforts honestly and faithfully. Psalm 73 is a good example of this.

The psalm (attributed to Asaph) begins by heralding stalwart faith. Asaph speaks to God’s utmost goodness in providing for the righteous. He sings, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” This affirmation almost rolls off the tongue. It reads like it may have been a spiritual slogan common to the day. Is this something Asaph had heard before? Was this the go-to response whenever someone voiced struggle or doubt; the ancient equivalent to a patronizing pat on the should and a softly spoken “there, there”?  Did someone turn to Asaph, immersed in a time of turmoil, and hurt, and offer the not-so helpful response of “There, there…Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart.” As if mouthed by one of Job’s friends, the subtle charge of such a statement implies that Asaph, mired in confusion and discouragement, is not pure in heart.

Have you ever had someone offer you such not-so-helpful spiritual soundbites?

Of course, Asaph believes this statement in principle. Yes, God is good.  Yes, God’s goodness is known to Israel. The problem is, in this moment, Asaph doesn’t experience this goodness. He is struggling. He is discouraged. His song describes how he has almost slipped and stumbled. The solid base of Asaph’s faithfulness appears shaken. The problem is not so much the imperfections of life, in and of themselves. What truly stings is how the arrogant and wicked appear to prosper. They seem blessed with unrestricted happiness.

Here is where the discouragement finds its roots. Do you see how verse 3 seems to contradict verse 1? Slogans of faith seem triumphant enough. They are catchy and repeatable. They stick in our minds. God is good…all the time…and all the time…God is good! Yet Asaph simply cannot deny that when looks at his own life, set against the lives of the arrogant and wicked, the goodness of God appears one sided. The wicked have no struggles, their bodies are healthy and strong. They live free from burdens. Despite scoffing at the Lord, they “lay claim to heaven” and enjoy the delightful possessions of the earth. Power, prestige, and privilege befall the wicked. Asaph, however, is left feeling divinely cast aside. For ten verses his complaints come gushing forth. Asaph holds nothing back.

Who hasn’t borne these questions today? How can we not? Mass media continually bombards us with new occurrences of prideful arrogance, violence, or oppression. We lift the rich and famous as the elite to emulate. Hollywood brags the good life, even though we are all aware of the deep narcissism, selfishness, and personal destruction that lurks behind the scenes. Despite continuous occurrences of personal, professional, and relational breakdown, the world tells us to look at them as if they are “always free of care as they go one amassing wealth.” Oh, if we could be like them, we think. Oh, if we made the money they did! Oh, if we had their house, their car, their glamour.

Asaph has these exact feelings. He is brutally honest, with himself, and with God. “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”, he says. Can we be as honest enough to admit that, at times, we bear a similar envy?

What is the faithful response to such discouragement? How do we exude faithfulness when this sense of envy rises within us? Where do we go when we ask the haunting question “how come them and not me?” Asaph feels all this deeply. He feels that his faithful following of God’s ways has garnered him nothing but affliction and punishment. “In vain I have kept my heart pure and washed my hands in innocence”, he laments.

Feelings of deep spiritual discouragement are wrapped in dismay, hurt, and profound sadness. They are felt in that deep inner place where we are most uniquely ourselves. We should not, however, rush past our laments. We should not minimize these feelings or attempt to explain them away. Leaving our spiritual discouragement unexplored does us no spiritual good. To do so is to avoid meeting God in life’s unpleasantness. Too often our faith becomes abandoned as a result. The psalms diligently articulate feelings of discouragement to illustrate that they are a normal side of our spiritual lives. None of us are immune. Thus, instead of avoiding these feelings, or these questions, we should engage them. This is exactly what Asaph does in his song; Asaph enters his spiritual discouragement and begins to walk through it.

In his song, Asaph considers whether his faith is worth it, whether it really matters to believe in the Lord. Yet by sitting with these questions, Asaph concludes that the momentary delights of the world hold no weight against the eternal blessings of the Lord. He recognizes that wandering away from the Lord, in pursuit of vain pleasures, would be to abandon who was created to be. It would betray who he is at the core of his being.

Asaph comes to this realization in the sanctuary of God. In this sanctuary he is surrounded by people who struggle with the same struggles and ask the same questions. The sanctuary of God does not peddle easy answers. To be clear, Asaph does not return to the patronizing slogan of verse one. The sanctuary of God simply reminds him of the vision of God’s eternal glory and blessing. Surrounded by the worshiping (and lamenting) community, Asaph perceives the ultimate end of all who chase after momentary delights. When their spirits depart, they return to the ground, and all the baubles of the world come to naught. So instead of looking enviously upon the wicked, Asaph begins to set his gaze on the greatness of the Most High.

Of course, his newfound realization does not make his struggles vanish. Asaph does not escape his feeling of daily struggle or affliction. Tomorrow, the wicked will still flourish, and (most probably) Asaph will still feel discouraged. The difference is, despite the discouragement, despite the confusion, even despite the doubt, Asaph can say with confidence “I am always with you.” Spiritual discouragement, then, is an invitation to journey to a deeper place of faith. Relaying our honest struggles, as Psalm 73 illustrates, does not drive the Lord away. We lay hold of God more tightly when uncover our honest selves

The Lord is not offended by our questions. The Lord does not abandon us when we feel discouraged or dismayed. Our questions do not discredit our faith nor do our struggles indicate a deconstruction of our spirituality. They are but a deeper way we reach out to God for guidance, council, and support. It is because God is the one who journeys with us in the messiest of places that we can voice our laments. Even when our own hearts fail, God is the strength of our hearts, forever. God is faithful to us, even if we can’t see it.

We are all psalmists at heart. We sing out our joys and our dismays, our victories, and our struggles. We need not mask how we feel; the Lord knows it anyway. And as we sing, we are invited to experience the deep reality that, through it all, the Lord is our refuge, our guide, our strength, and our delight. We don’t have to figure things out. We don’t have to arrive at some “solution” to our plight. The spiritual life is not a Disney movie; things don’t always get wrapped up neatly at the end. That’s ok.

Despite his struggles and doubts, Asaph ends his song on an important note. “It is good for me to be near God”, he cries. In the end, that’s enough. This is where we, as psalmists, rest our faith. We rest not in well-meaning but ultimately unsatisfactory spiritual slogans nor in polite pats on the shoulder. Our faith is built not by gritting our teeth and pretending that we do not hurt. Instead, sing. We join Asaph’s psalm with our own. And despite the ups and downs and twist-turns of life, we dare to believe that it is good for us to be with God.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start? Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Asaph? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

Suffocating the seed: Reflections on the Parable of the Sower.

Let me begin by saying that I am not a gardener. While I enjoy gardens, I am completely unfamiliar with any of the technical specifications that go into developing and sustaining one. I have, however, quite enjoyed researching what may obstruct the health and vitality of the plants you may wish to grow.

See, recently I have been reflecting on the Parable of The Sower, found in Matthew 13. In this parable, Jesus puts forward 4 different types of soils: the pathway, the rocky ground, the thorns, and the good soil. All have the seed sprinkled upon it, yet only two soils receive the seed. I find it intriguing that both the rocky soil and the good soil receive the word of the kingdom with joy. Both soils receive the Word and begin to live anew in God’s Kingdom. The only difference appears to be that the good soil takes the seed deeply into itself, allowing the seed to take root. As Jesus explains, it is because the rocky soil has no roots that life in the Kingdom is abandoned at the first sign of problem or difficulty. Roots sustain life.

What stops a seed from establishing roots? Arguably, this question is outside the scope of the parable itself. Still, the question intrigued me. As it turns out there are a myriad of answers. Yet topping the list perhaps is the problem of overwatering. Overwatering is one the biggest no-no’s you can do to a plant.

Rather than drowning a plant, overwatering limits the amount of oxygen available for the roots. Like all living things, plants need oxygen to survive. This oxygen is stored in small, microscopic pockets throughout the soil. The roots extract this oxygen from the soil and use it to promote the plant’s health and vitality. Overwatering fills these air-pockets with water, effectively cutting off the supply of oxygen to the plant. If you overwater a seed, roots will never be established as there is no oxygen to support root-growth. Without any air to breathe into itself the plant suffocates.

Just as our physical bodies need to breath in oxygen to survive, our spiritual lives run on the same principle. God’s indwelling Spirit animates our spiritual lives. Without the Spirit within we cannot expect our life of faith to be vibrant, healthy, or growing. Breathing in the Spirit allows the reality of God’s kingdom to establish roots in our lives.

Scripture employs a beautiful play on words when it describes God’s act of breathing the Spirit. In both the Hebrew and Greek language, the word for breath is the same word for spirit (which is the same word for wind). A great example of this is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. In this conversation, Jesus describes how flesh gives birth to flesh, but Pneumatos (Spirit) gives birth to Pneuma” (John 3:6). When Nicodemus scratches his head, Jesus extends this play on words and begins to discuss the attributes of “wind.” “The wind blows wherever it pleases, you hear it sound, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).  Jesus seemingly leaves his discussion of the Spirit behind to describe the activity of the wind. This may seem like a non-sequitur until you remember the play on words going on in this text. Jesus literally says “The “pneuma” where it wishes breathes (pnei).”  He then he describes how we hear the wind/Spirit’s “phonon”- meaning its cry, its language, or its voice.

Putting everything together, the connection becomes clear. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a deep yearning in his heart. Despite his opening pleasantry, his visit with the Messiah is clear. Nicodemus is spiritually restless, discouraged. He longs to know how he can live a vibrant spiritual life, a life deep in the presence and activity of God. To this longing Jesus responds by describing Nicodemus’ need to breathe in God’s Spirit, and to listen to the Spirit’s voice.

If we wish the seed of the kingdom to extend its roots into our lives, then we need to provide the spaces wherein we can breathe in the Spirit. After all, the first thing the resurrected Lord does for the disciples is to breathe on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says (John 20:22). The Spirit is necessary for our life of faith.

Breathing in the Holy Spirit is never a one-time thing. It is not something to which we can point to a specific date or location. To Nicodemus, and to us all, Jesus describes an ongoing, interactive, spiritual reality. Like a plant’s own need for oxygen, our spiritual lives need to be animated by the Spirit of God. If we allow the spaces of our lives to be filled up with other things, then we cut off the flow of the Spirit within.

Is this one of the things that distinguished the rocky ground from the good soil? Did the rocky ground receive the seed with joy but then subsequently cease all interaction with it? Did the rocky ground fill the air-pocket spaces with other things beside that which it needed to breathe deeply?

The good soil, however, continued to breath in the Spirit into itself. It established a dependance, not just on the seed, but on the inbreathing Spirit. The good soil relied on an active interchange between itself, the word of the kingdom, and the Spirit of life. Thus, it withstood the taunts of weeds and thorns, magpies, and harsh conditions. And it grew; its life flourished, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and one hundred-fold.

What gets in the way of you breathing in the Holy Spirit? Is there something in your life that dampens flow of the Spirit? Are you like Nicodemus, feeling a deep desire for more in your spiritual life, but unsure exactly how to cultivate it? The good news is that the Sower has already planted the word within you, and if you allow him, he will breathe upon that seed and allow it to stretch its roots. We simply need to allow enough spaces in our lives for the Spirit to work.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel like you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start. Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Nicodemus? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

A Valley of Bones

Have you ever felt the need to comment on something but find that you have no words to do so?  That’s how I feel in this moment. The country weeps in the wake of the newly discovered mass-grave on the property of a Kamloops Residential School.  Such things are what you expect to find in the despotic regimes of tyrannical rule.  It is not something you picture occurring in the lush landscapes of British Columbia.  The terrifying question is how many other graves like this exist. 

As if nothing could make this discovery worse, this unmarked, secret grave is filled with the bones of over 215 children.  This news makes my heart ache for so many reasons.  As a human being, I am sickened that anyone could so consistently, and flippantly, discard the bodies of children. As a Canadian, I hate that my country so easily adopted practices and attitudes that destroyed Indigenous lives and communities.  As someone raised in BC himself, I detest that Indigenous children were so de-valued, so unloved.  Did no one consider, even for one moment, that the bodies of these lifeless children should be treated with even the smallest amount of decency and respect?  Topping everything off, I feel an overwhelming sense of disappointment that Christian people, and the denomination that ran the school, could have so profoundly missed the point of the gospel.

Since the news of this discovery, I have been thinking a lot about Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones.  This is probably because the discovery was made a few days following our celebration of Pentecost, and I preached on this passage.  Still, the picture of Ezekiel standing in a barren valley, looking upon a pit of lifeless bones, all strewn about, is hauntingly relevant for this time.

In this text, God’s Spirit leads Ezekiel to a valley filled with dry, exanimate bones. The bones are dry because they have laid in this spot for years, maybe even decades. The bones are long discarded, the people and families that once animated them long forgotten.  It is a vision of hopelessness and despair.  In response, The Spirit poses a question to the prophet, “Can these bones live?”

What if this is the precise question that we are asked today, as Canadians, as neighbours, as Christians?  Can the bones of these children live again?

Yes, they can.  These bones will live if we are willing to be affected by this discovery.  These bones will move with life if we allow them to shock us out of our comfortable complacency, the pleasant but action-less lip service that we sometimes give to things like TRUTH and RECONCILIATION and JUSTICE.  The bones will be an empowered force of God if we allow them to dismantle the long-standing and systemic denial of personhood that the Indigenous community frequently suffers under in our country.

Most importantly, these bones will live if we treat them, in death, with the respect they deserved in life; If we make the effort to uncover their names, their families, and their histories.  These bones will live if we take the burden and cost upon ourselves to provide a proper and dignified burial. 

But the bones of these children will never live so long as we see them as nothing more than a problem of the past. The bones will not move again if we see them as a footnote in a history text that we never read.  If we refuse to let these bones reach out to us, we condemn them to be dry for eternity.

As I write this, I find myself applying this question to myself, asking whether my own bones can live.    What if the Spirit’s question does not refer only to the bones of the children, but also to ours?  What if our bones have become dry to decency and compassion? What if we have become so accustomed to those privileges that we label “rights”, that we have become desiccated to the ever-loving Spirit of God within us?

Can our bones live?  They wont if we allow this discovery to simply be replaced by the next news cycle.  Our bones will not live if we say “Well I didn’t do anything to those children!”  Our bones will not live if we look at what is right and decide that it costs too much of our money or our time.  Our bones will not live if we refuse to hold our superiors accountable.  We will neve be spiritually alive so long as we refuse to join the Lord as he weeps beside the grave.

Ultimately, Ezekiel’s vision of the hopeless valley becomes a vision of a valley filled with life.  The disconnected bones become a vast multitude, made alive by God’s Spirit.  This occurs because Ezekiel interacts with the vision.  He prophesies to the bones.  He allows those bones to be a part of his faith experience, and he is ever changed for it.  May we allow ourselves to enter into this current bone-filled valley.  Although it may be uncomfortable, may we, under the Spirit’s leading, also speak to these bones, and allow them to speak to us.  May we be changed by them, and by doing so, find ourselves changed by the animating Spirit of God. 

Lessons in Prayer 2: The invitation to be dissatisfied

Have you ever felt dissatisfied with your prayers? Have you felt that despite your best efforts you have never plumbed the depths of everything that prayer can offer you?  Have you looked longingly to the saints before you, wishing to uncover a fraction of the prayerful intimacy they seemed to enjoy? I know I have.

For many years, I condemned myself for these feelings.  Although I loved prayer, would speak of prayer, and preached on it often, internally I felt I was describing something of which I only scratched the surface.  My dissatisfaction with prayer even, at times, drove me away from prayer. I believed my dissatisfaction was indicative of my failings in prayer.

Dissatisfaction with our prayer life is a sign of deepening faith, not the absence of it. This shift in understanding is vitally important. We can spend an exorbitant amount of time condemning ourselves for our own frustrations, instead of recognizing that the frustration is Christ’s invitation to journey deeper. Deeper prayer begins with a sense of restlessness, a desire for more. Satisfaction in our prayer life is indicative of a stalled prayer life.

The saints before us, to whom we often turn when looking for inspiring instruction in prayer, knew this reality well.  Their lessons on prayer did not come from a point of mastery, but from the heart of desire. They desired more in prayer. This realization gives us the right to own our frustrations in prayer; to articulate them and act upon them.  It is as we rest in our prayerful dissatisfaction that we actively trust that God works within us to move us to deeper prayer experiences.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many today are like me. I would not be surprised to learn that many within the church have never received a lesson on prayer. It is assumed that all the talk, reading, and preaching about prayer will suffice in developing active and ongoing prayer in our lives. In my own liturgical context (Anglicanism), it can be easy to leave our lessons about prayer to the specific liturgies printed in our liturgical texts. I am guilty of doing this in my own ministry. It is assumed that those who spend their time diligently mastering the “what” and “where” of a particular prayer book will naturally develop a rich prayer life. This is not a criticism of The Book of Common Prayer, or any specific liturgical text. Prayer books have a strong place in Christian history. Indeed, periods of deepening in my own prayer life have often coincided with a more frequent use of liturgy. Since shunning Morning and Evening prayer in seminary, I have discovered the value of these rites for our spiritual lives. In fact, I would now make the case that an inner familiarity with the “what” and the “where” of the prayer book does develop a rich prayer life within us. Yet our prayers must progress past rote reading. If the use of the prayer book is the only thing that defines our prayer-lives, then surely something is missing.

Prayer must move past simply reading words on a page. If it is true that many in our churches have never been taught the way of inner prayer, then I fear the church may have slowly drifted into a casual prayerlessness – an inability to engage in the activity of prayer from deep within our hearts. Our prayers can far too easily become reduced to nothing more than the internal recitation of memorized words with very little contemplation or concern. In this case our hearts remain disengaged. When this happens in our churches, and in our Christian lives, prayer becomes so routinized that the internal force of prayer has been lost. Prayer becomes reduced to words that are spoken, either in the silence of our minds or in response to the instruction from the liturgical leader.

Have you been feeling that your censer has been running on fumes?  Do you lack the intensity of prayer, both in power and desire, which marked the saints of old? In my pastoral ministry I have come across countless lifelong, faithful Christians who harbor an inward guilt because this is what they are feeling. They look upon their internal feelings of dissatisfaction and believe that it equates to failing in prayer. Yet prayer is a journey, and we in the church need to recapture the radical notion that our dissatisfaction is but an invitation. This is the way of Christian prayer. None of us ever rise to the top; it is not a skill we master.  Prayer, for the follower of Jesus is a way of being, an internal movement of heart and spirit through which we respond to the Lord’s presence in us, and in the world. Prayer is not simply something that we add onto our lives, it is the very ground out of which our life grows. Without prayer we simply cannot, we do not, live the Christian life.

Lessons in Prayer 1: A longing for communion

Prayer is communion with God. It is an enacted relationship, a reaching out to Jesus. “Prayer is the natural outgushing of a soul in communion with Jesus”, says Charles Spurgeon.[i] One cannot pray and remain cut off from the presence of God. The intimate presence of God, understood and experienced in our lives, is the very subject and the object of prayer.  Prayer is the “expression of a relation to God, a yearning for divine communion. It is the outward and upward flow of the inward life towards its original fountain.”[ii] It impossible to pray, to truly pray, without the expressed desire to connect with our Lord.  It was for this very reason the disciples originally asked the question “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11)

When we deny this communion, we treat prayer as nothing more than a divine loophole.  It becomes a dry and lifeless religious activity. “Prayers” rattle off our tongues devoid of any interest or engagement of heart. The prophets of old continually challenged the faithful for just this reason.  Isaiah, for example, confronts Israel’s own lack of faithful connection to God, despite maintaining the strict adherence to religious activity.  Through Isaiah, God cries out against such hypocrisy: “When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers I will not listen;” (Isaiah 1:15). The sinfulness of the people had led to a complete dismissal of God’s presence in their midst. They had forsaken the Lord. From this rebellion came a complete abdication of Israel’s desire to be found in God’s presence.

Isaiah’s challenge is particularly relevant as Israel maintained the outward form of religious observance. Despite their inward rejection of God, they believed their adherence to “what” and the “when” of religious observance would win them divine benefit. They mistakenly believed that they were cultivating the spiritual life God desired for God’s people, even though they were, in fact, far from it. Their fervent prayer-activities lacked any sort of desire to connect with the living God.

The challenge for Israel then, and for us today, is to understand that the mere outward observance of prayer can never bring one into the full presence of the Lord. Dutifully going through the motions of religious activity lacks the necessary element that gives life to our prayers: desire. We must want to connect with God.  We must desire to be found in God’s presence, to be heard from the one on high.  We must willfully, and lovingly, open ourselves to the presence of our Redeemer.

The power and essence of our prayer lies not in the words that are used, or the specific liturgy performed. Prayer is rooted in the intimate connection of spirit to Spirit. In prayer we open ourselves to the presence of Jesus, through the mediation of the Holy Spirit. In those times when words fail us, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with inward groanings, making it clear that the power of prayer is found in our spiritual connection with God, and not in the use of fancy phrases or religious terminology.

There are no magic words in prayer. Merely speaking religious jargon can never create authentic prayer. In fact, resting on such phrases – without the inward desire necessary for prayer – simply highlights the hollowness of our inward spirits. A profound example of this is seen in Israel’s debacle with the Golden calf.  What is particularly interesting in this account is how Israel usurps divine terminology. As the idol-calf emerges from the fire, Israel proclaims, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).  The central tenant of Israel’s understanding of the nature and identity of God has now been attributed to a mere idol. What is perhaps even worse is that it is not just the activity of God that gets usurped, but even God’s own name. Aaron instructs the people “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the LORD” (vs. 5). Aaron uses the divine name, revealed to Moses, to describe a lifeless hunk of gold.

What we see in Exodus 32 is a people who use the correct terminology yet lack any connection with the Spirit of God. Prayer was but a self-focused appeal to special phrases, divine names, and spiritual slogans. As James Houston writes, “Unless prayer recognizes and celebrates Yahweh as King . . . then worship denigrates into idolatry.”[iii] An appeal to the correct usage of words and forms does not constitute right prayer.  It matters not the words we say, if our hearts are far from the living God.

God looks at the heart more than any exterior experience, utterance, or action. It is this acknowledgement, this communion, which is essential to the activity of prayer. Cultivating a life of prayer must begin here. We must inhabit a continuous and unrestrained reaching out, a furious longing to be overcome in God’s presence. This unrestrained longing is not a longing to possess or to wield, but a desire to be poured out, to offer the whole self.  We must long to be in the presence of the Lord, who both comforts us, and challenges us. This immersion in the presence of God, is the power and the essence of prayer.


[i] Spurgeon, Charles “The Secret of Power in Prayer, Part 1” in A 12 Month Guide to Better Prayer (Barbour Publishing, Ohio. 2009) Pg.27

[ii] Bounds, E.M “The Necessity of Prayer” in The Complete Works of E.M. Bounds on Prayer, (Baker Books 2013) [Adobe Digital Editions Version]. Retrieved from http://www.kobo.com

[iii] Houston, James. The Transforming Friendship (Regent College Publishing, Vancouver 2007) pg.87

Listening to Dietrich

In the opening days of the pandemic, when everything came to a grinding halt and people everywhere were looking for a way to fill the time, I decided to read through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. My rational was simple: Bonhoeffer’s experience of being away from his family and friends during the high celebrations of Good Friday or Easter, might prove helpful to me in my own sojourn away from the community of faith. Indeed, this proved to be true. Bonhoeffer’s words provided me both clarity and perspective. I found myself moved by his words. His reflection on the being able to hear the church bells from inside his prison cell, and how that lifted his reflection to the unceasing presence of the Church was particularly relevant for me at the time.

I have always loved Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His work Life Together has become the top book in my library (besides the Bible of course!). I used many of Bonhoeffer’s insights in my doctoral study on Christian community. In fact, I joked with many of my fellow students that my thesis really ought to be three words: “Read Life Together.” During my studies, I moved from Life Together, to Bonhoeffers own doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio.” A thicker read, a harder read, but worth it, nonetheless. The two sing texts together splendidly. In many respects Sanctorum Communio is the theological basis upon which Life Together is founded.

Thus, following my walk through his Letters and Papers, I decided to tackle some of Bonhoeffer’s other writings. I jumped to Discipleship, which I had read before yet forgotten just how profound this work is. What was particularly moving for me as I re-read this work was the decision remain cognizant of the Nazi regime continually playing in the background. After all, this was the very context in which Bonhoeffer was writing, and the very world he was addressing. Aided by the excellent editorial notes, Bonhoeffer’s profoundly prophetic teaching reverberated with new clarity. I began to see the depth of his faith, his passion, and his bravery.

Since then, I have continually had Bonhoeffer by my side. I re-read Life Together and then moved to Creation and Fall. I even began listening to a podcast through The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, hosted by Pastor Robert Schenck. Recently, my wife gave me the devotional “A Year with Bonhoeffer,” and I have just begun tackling Bonhoeffer’s Ethics – A series of writings he worked on between the years of 1940 and 1945. After all, as Schenck says frequently in the podcast, “if you want to understand Bonhoeffer, you have read Ethics.”

Throughout this time, Bonhoeffer’s voice has continually risen out of the pages of history. I find his words to possess an uncanny clarity and relevance for our lives today, particularly considering the many social, political, theological, and ethical questions we are facing. When I spend time with Dietrich, I often forget that I am reading a theologian of the past. His voice is pre-eminently current.

Case in point:  On the very day when supporters of President Trump, on his strong insistence, stormed the Capital Building in the United States, in direct defiance of law, order, and the democracy they hold to so dearly, I read these words from Bonhoeffers Ethics:

For the tyrannical despiser of men popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminals. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.

Beside these words I wrote “This is scary.” The obvious similarity between the despiser of humanity in Bonhoeffer’s day, and that which is occurring south of the border is frightening to say the least. I cannot read these words and not hear Bonhoeffer speak directly to our world, and our time.

It is not simply the similarity between the two individuals that is frightening. Underneath it all is the church’s continual vacillation to governmental power. Bonhoeffer constantly spoke against the state church of the day, and their complicity in the Nazi program. With full knowledge of the horrors of the holocaust the church bowed its head and abandoned its theological and moral principles. Sadly, in some cases, the church acted in full support. Well known, and well-regarded, theologian of the day, Paul Althous referred to Adolf Hitler as “a gift and miracle for God.” To be clear, this was not said by some unknown theologian on the fringes. At the time of this statement, Althous was a professor at the University of Erlangen and had long established himself as one among the most prominent of Lutheran theologians. Preeminent Bonhoeffer Scholar, Victoria Barnett, writes “[I]t has become abundantly clear that [the Churches’] failure to respond to the horrid events…was not due to ignorance; they knew what was happening. Ultimately, the Churches’ lapses during the Nazi era were lapses of vision and determination.” (The Role of Churches in Nazi Germany | ADL)

This makes my heart hurt, but honestly, so does the capitulation of the Evangelical Church in the States to the modern day “despiser of humankind.” After all, it is probably not too much of a stretch to assume that many of the individuals marching on the Capital probably self-confess to be pious and devout Christians. But even if this is not been the case, the church today has been silent amid all the dehumanizing activity of the sitting president. While we may be uncomfortable drawing a direct comparison between Donald and Adolf, we should not ignore the fact that silence of the church in our day is eerily similar to the silence of the church in the 1930’s and 40s.

Given this, Bonhoeffer’s voice sounds louder and louder in my mind and heart. His witness is frighteningly prophetic. And yet, therein lies some hope. For if Bonhoeffer was a pastor who could fearlessly speak against the horrors of his day, then this opens the door for us all. We can speak out. The church can have a voice. What is more, in the witness of his words, and his martyrdom, the church does have a voice. So, let us rise and listen to Dietrich. Let us hear the faithful call to dismantle all the lies and falsehoods of today. More importantly, with Bonhoeffer’s insistence and example, let’s hear the call to be a better Church, and better Christians.