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. 

True Liberation – A reading of the Parable of the talents

(This post be long!)

This post arises out of question, posed on social media, about how we might mistakenly interpret this parable based on the privilege and capitalism of our North American context.  I took that to heart and looked for alternative interpretations, based largely in liberation theology.  I started writing out some of my thoughts on this and kept writing… and writing…. and writing.  I have included subheadings so that you can take this post in chunks if you so desire.  Peace!

Two ways not to read the parable

I have recently been sitting with the Parable of the Talents.  This is a well-known passage, albeit a difficult text to navigate homiletically. Is the master a good person or a bad person?  Did the third servant act in honour or in shame?  What exactly is going on?  The normative reading of this text lends itself to an interpretation where the first two servants are hailed due to their resourceful reproduction of talents. Each receive a double-return on their investments.  They earn money for the master and are duly praised for it.  The third servant does otherwise.  His failure to produce talents leads him to condemnation.  Not only is he verbally rebuked, but he is stripped of his resources and cast outside “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  It seems cut and dry.

But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does.

Liberation theology lends itself to a different reading.  Liberations theology demands that we step away from the power-dynamics of a capitalist system to recover how the Gospel would have been received in the original context.  This is a good and needed challenge, and one I support.  We ought always to seek out how the gospel was, and is, received by those outside the dominant class of power and privilege.  After all, until the time of Constantine, this would have defined the Christian community.  Jesus spoke truth to power and combated, in word and deed, the exploitive practices of the empire.  Furthermore, the radicalness of Christ’s message was spoken to the those who were on the bottom of society, as opposed to those gilded in the golden halls of power.  The challenge must be heard.  The parable cannot be about increasing our power at the expense of others.

Interpretations rooted in liberation theology turn this parable on its head.  The third servant is not the bad guy, but the hero.  In burying the talent, the third servant refuses to be complicit in the master’s quest for economic rule by exploitive means.  The master, here, is rendered the evil capitalist. The third servant, therefore, acts as the prophetic witness against the exploitation of the poor.  The servant’s suffering at the end of the parable is a call for the Christian community to bear with the suffering of the weak and powerless.  Various interpreters will offer subtle nuances, but by-and-large, this is the interpretation.

But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does either.

Looking at the context

We can never uproot a passage from its context.  Sure, scholars may propose that Matthew inserts this parable into the narrative at this point for a certain literary purpose, yet this is always merely conjecture.  In the end, we have to deal with the Gospel record as we have it. It is always a danger to excise a passage of scripture from what comes before and after it. 

When we take the context into consideration, what we see is that this parable is about the kingdom of God. Jesus is teaching about what it means to live within the dynamic rule of the messiah, as they wait for his return.  This becomes clear when we see how the parables of Matthew 25 are put together. Jesus begins the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids with the words “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” While this phrase does not begin the parable of the talents, it is clearly continuation of the theme.  Consider verses 13 and 14, when read together; they read: “So, watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  For it will be like a man going on journey who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.”  Jesus is clear that the parable of the bridesmaids is about preparation for, and reception, of the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is inaugurated by the Bridegroom himself. The parable of the Bridesmaids makes the clear point that those who are inadequately prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom are clearly in the wrong.  The following parable, flowing seamlessly from verse 13, continues with this theme. 

Evidence for the kingdom focus of the parable is also seen at the end of the parable.  The master does not imprison the third servant.  This occurs in other parables and would have been the recourse of any earthly businessman (see the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18).  Rather, the master casts the wicked servant “outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  This is eschatological language, not economic nor punitive.  From start to finish, the parable seeks to articulate what it means to live amid the kingdom of God.

Looking at the master

We must also take into consideration how the master is depicted in this passage.  The third servant charges the master with being, essentially, a thief.  The rhetoric of the third servant accuses the master of being a hard man, reaping where he has not sown and gathering where he did not gather seed.  Make no mistake here, the third servant insults the integrity, the honesty, and the godliness of the master. 

But is this what we see of the master?  The only indication that the master is a harsh man comes from the lips of the third servant who, as we have seen, is in opposition with the master.  In response, the master uses these words against the third servant, implying that his actions were not consistent with his own viewpoint. 

Typically, verse 26 has been hard to translate.  Some translations render the verse as a question: “So, you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” Rendering this verse as a question implies that the master questions the very foundation of the third servant’s perception of himself.  Other translations render this verse conditionally: “If you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed, then you should have …” Even this reading, however, does not imply that the master agrees with the servant’s outlook.  In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the master agrees with the servant’s depiction.

It hard to base our vision on the master simply on the rhetoric of the third servant.   This becomes particularly more problematic when we consider how the master is depicted at the beginning of the parable. The way Jesus presents the master is extravagantly hyperbolic. The master gives away an extremely large amount of money.  A silver talent was worth roughly 20 years of wage for a common laborer.  This means that the master doles out roughly 160 years worth of wages to his three, trusted, servants. (Giving out golden talents would only increase this extravagance.) Again, Jesus presents a vision of the master as extravagantly generous. One must wonder if Jesus would use such hyperbole if he wished to articulate the real-world dynamics of an oppressive and tyrannical economic system.

Is money the main thing?

Jesus appears to present a situation, rooted in economic imagery, in which money is not of ultimate importance.  In giving out the talents, the master takes the abilities and uniqueness of each of his servants into careful consideration; each receives their distribution of the talent “according to his ability.” The master seems to know each servant deeply.  Similarly, when he returns from his trip in foreign country, and settles the accounts of the servants, the unit of talents gained seems to be of little importance.  The master does not comment on the productivity, reliability, or resourcefulness of the first two servants, but on their faithfulness. “Well done good and faithful servant” he says to each person.  He commends them for their faithfulness and trustworthiness.  Furthermore, the reward for their faithfulness is to enter the joy of their Lord.   Again, the amount of talents given, and received upon his return, appear inconsequential.

So, what of the third servant?  Did he sin by failing to produce talents?  An interesting question to pose is what would have happened if the third servant had invested, but lost, the original talent?  What if he came to the master in the same way as the other two, yet did not have a sizeable increase to show for his efforts? Would he have still be cast into the darkness?

I would argue that he would not.  Why?  Because the force of the parable does not appear to be about how many talents a person produces. If the master’s true focus is faithfulness, not productiveness, then the failure of the third servant is his faithlessness before the master, not his lack of production. 

The issue at hand is not the lack of talent-production, but the lack of interaction with the talent itself.  The servant buries the talent in a field and thinks no more of it until he hears of the master’s return.  To borrow a phrase from Chesterton, the servant found the work too difficult, and therefore left it untried. He shunned the business of the master and refused to take up the call to act on the master’s behalf.  The master, therefore, is correct in his description of the third servant; he is “wicked” insofar as he is opposed to the will of the master, and “lazy” insofar as he refuses to act on behalf of the master.  The third servant’s sin is inactivity.

Returning to the context

In fact, this is consistent with the overarching flow of Matthew’s narrative.  In Matthew, the Parable of the Talents occurs after the Transfiguration. Jesus has marched into Jerusalem as the final leg of his journey to the cross.  At this point, Matthew presents a large block of dialogue, beginning in the 24th chapter.  Salient to this discussion are many of the images that Jesus uses within this block of teaching.  Here Jesus speaks of a fig tree that does not produce figs, lamps that do not light, servants who do not act, and disciples who do not serve.  In each case, the issue at hand is the failure of the tree, lamp, or servant, to fulfill the purpose for which it was created and called.

More to the point, Matthew’s cluster of parables actually begins in chapter 24, with the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant.  Here, Jesus presents a tale of a master who puts servants in charge of his household, while he is away in another country.  The faithful servants are the ones who heed the master’s business – working diligently though they know not when the master shall return.  The faithless servants are the ones the one who shuns the master’s work.  Again, the punishment is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The message is plain. It would seem odd for Jesus to pose two parables, composed of the same situation, yet involving different meanings.  I would also argue that it would be odd for Matthew to place two parables, composed of the same situation but involving different meanings, almost back-to-back to one another.  This would be confusing.

One final question

One final question must be posed if one seeks to view this parable from the standpoint of popular liberation theology.  The question is this: Where is the liberation?  Jesus frequently speaks good news to the poor and downtrodden.  The ill are cured, the forgotten are noticed, the untouchable are embraced.  Christ’s kingdom is a radical reorientation of human life.  In the Kingdom of God, self-serving economic systems, and tyrannical power-structures, so implicit in the way human society works, are frequently turned on their head.  This is precisely what lead to the critique that early disciples were “turning the world upside down.”   

If the third servant is praised and lauded for his radical and prophetic critique of the dehumanizing ethics of a capitalist system, then where is the encouragement to those poor and helpless of the world?  After all this occurs in other places, most notably the Parable of the Unjust judge.  Here, Jesus’ depiction of a judge who refuses to hear the case of a poor widow is abundantly clear.  The judge is seen as unjust, and the widow, though powerless, is clearly in the right.  This parable uses the literary structure of “lesser to greater” –ensuring that God is not to be understood to be the unjust judge.  The point of the parable is that the powerless are heard. Therefore, disciples should pray and “not give up”.  The woman is victorious in her case, and the unjust judge gives appropriate judgement.  There is also the call to the poor and powerless to continue their pleading for justice.  Even an unjust judge will eventually hear the cry of the poor and powerless due to their persistence.  Liberation is clear.

In the Parable of the Talents, however, there is no liberation offered.  The servant is punished by the master, removed into the outer darkness, and spends an (arguably) eternity in weeping and teeth gnashing.  If this is the case, the message is that this is the future for those who stand up to the coercive economics and evil ways.  No reward is received, no eternal vindication, just weeping. 

Would this be an encouragement to Matthew’s readers? Would this encourage the faithful allegiance to kingdom ethics to any of the poor and distraught of the 1st century world?  I hardly doubt it.  It speaks of nothing but destruction.  Furthermore, vague applications referring to the church’s call to “stand in solidarity with the poor and helpless” does not help this matter.  In the context of the parable, if one reads it this way, the rich get richer, the poor continue to be victimized, and no liberation can be found.

Jesus never shies away from the hard truths of discipleship. He speaks plainly about how allegiance to the Lord may bring about division, persecution, and even death.  In fact, Jesus begins this grand narrative by speaking about the end of the age, and the persecutions that will occur.  Jesus is open and forthright: “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name” (24:9).  Amid this sobering reality, however, Jesus offers good news. He states that the “one who endures to the end will be saved.”  The same dynamic occurs in the Parable of the faithful versus the unfaithful slave, the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, and the Parable of the sheep and the goats.  Despite words of judgement, and the implicit challenges to lax discipleship, liberation and salvation is always extended.  The call of the gospel is clear.

But not in the parable of the talents?  If taken to be some exhortation against non-jubilee economics, this parable stands out dramatically from the rest, If the master is evil and the third servant righteous, then this parable makes absolutely no sense given the arc of Matthew’s narrative.

Conclusion

Given all this, I simply cannot see how we can understand this parable in the way suggested by some liberation theologians.  I see no warrant to see the master as an evil despot, simply because he is presented as rich beyond imagination.  Nor do I think we can force the third servant into the framework of stalwart hero – a suffering servant as it were.  There is simply no indication within the parable itself that this is what is going on.  Reading into the text in this way does not make it true.

We must remember, however, that this parable is not about the maximization of economic wealth. This parable is concerned with faithfulness, not growth or production.  The true liberation of the Gospel comes not from what we produce, or the various talents we can attach to own efforts.  True liberation is a gift of God, bestowed upon us in grace.  What our master looks for is not the ever-increasing production of bricks, but the heart of faithfulness that is willing to take up the Lord’s generous invitation to join his kingdom.  It is this, that I believe, the parable rightfully articulates.

O Blessed Boredom: Isolation and the dethronement of idols

This article first appeared at http://www.medium.com/ministrymatters

It’s been over two months of lock downs, isolation, physical distancing, and mask-wearing.  Depending on where you live, you may be facing this for the foreseeable future.  For myself, I have long moved past my initial bouts of irritation.  Being unable to run down to the local mall and pick up a present for my wife’s birthday made me pout and sit around like a frustrated lump.  This may seem reasonable enough, but my irritations didn’t stop there.  I felt the prick of annoyance when faced with being unable to journey to my local coffee shop, or wander through the electronic store in search for a new gizmo.  Frankly, I almost threw a hissy-fit when I realised I couldn’t get the specialty ingredients for the dinner I wanted to make.  And even though random stores and restaurants may be opening all around us, the times of unrestricted normalcy of which we were previously accustomed has long gone.  In its replacement…Nothing. 

So, like so many others, I must confess; I am bored.

Boredom is easy to recognise.  We diagnose it as a natural consequence of inactivity.  But what if we looked deeper?  Could our internal sense of boredom point to something significant in our spiritual lives?  Might boredom highlight a twisting of our inner selves; a spiritual dis-ease needing to be addressed?  Might we see boredom as indicative of God calling us back to the divine centre in which our souls must rest and be satisfied? 

As I sat with this thought, I happened to come across Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Letters and Papers from Prison. I figured if anyone might have something to say regarding being unexpectedly cut-off from his church community (and all other social activity for that matter), it would be Bonhoeffer.  Happily, as I have come to expect by this thoughtful pastor, he did not disappointBonhoeffer begins this book by offering a reflection on, what he terms, mass-leveling events.  These events, writes Bonhoeffer, mean:

“…the renunciation of all the place-hunting, a break with the cult of the ‘star’, an open eye both upwards and downwards…Culturally, it means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation.”  [i]

With prophetic voice, Bonhoeffer cuts through our tendency to focus on petty irritations and points us to a deeper truth potentially at work. Mass-levelling events call us away from our idolatries.  They unmask the sandy foundations upon which we are tempted build our lives.  After all, the call away from extravagance to moderation, or from sensationalism to reflection is eerily contemporary is it not?  

If we are honest with ourselves, I believe we will see that most of our frustrations centre around the inability to satisfy temporary delights. For example, why is it that we feel frustrated when unable to sit in our favourite coffee shop?  Does this disclose something about ourselves?  Perhaps a deep-seeded insecurity is at play, or a desire for image-management expressed in our propensity to attribute a certain status to particular brands and places.  In this way, the frustration we feel over not being able to obtain our favourite latte may not be so much a matter of flavor or taste, but about the inability to be recognized as the kind of person who enjoys certain beverages.  Is the frustration connected to a loss of a beverage, or loss of perceived status?

Similarly, can we not clearly see, in light of the pandemic, how much of life is mediated through the “cult of the star”? Celebrity status invades much of life, often without our conscious acknowledgement. Instead of a movement away from the radio could we not say that the time of pandemic calls us away from the computer, the cell-phone, the constant buzz of social media?  Being bored at the prospect of binge-watching yet another Netflix series only highlights how inept such things are at satisfying the deep yearnings of our souls.  Yet too often these are the things to which we turn.

Of course, I do not want to deny that there are some legitimate pains being experienced in this time.  The inability to hug a grandchild, or celebrate a birthday with loved ones, is undoubtedly a heartache with which I sympathise.  In response to these legitimate pains, all we can do is acknowledge the difficulty of the time in which we live.   And, in fact, this is the same response we are called to make when faced with the frustrated boredom in other spheres.  The way forward is not to replace our lost comforts with new, but equally idolatrous, tasks or entertainments.   Replacing one idol with another will do us no spiritual good.  Instead, boredom calls us to sit within it; to recognise our experience of boredom as a dissatisfaction of heart and soul.  Boredom equals restlessness, and when we are restless we must enter those moments prayerfully, searching for the presence of God.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams writes:

 “. . . to try to escape boredom…restlessness, unsatisfied desire by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace.  Without the humiliating and wholly ‘unspiritual’ experience of cell-life – the limited routine of trivial tasks, the sheer tedium and loneliness – there would be no way of confronting much of human nature.  It is a discipline to destroy illusion.” [ii]

For Williams, combatting boredom by propping up new entertainments still roots us in a life of illusion.  It is to still live our lives under the goal of entertainment, distraction, or bliss.  The illusion, or the idol, of self-gratification still reigns supreme in our lives, now just under a new guise. Thus, new entertainments fail to address the source of spiritual dis-ease.  Ultimately, they will lead to the same frustrated boredom as experienced prior. 

Instead of propping up new entertainments, we must recognise our sensations of boredom for what they are, the stirrings of inner restlessness. Restlessness is not a product of what exists or does not exist; it is indicative of dissatisfaction deep within.   As Williams writes, the Christian person, wrestling with the illusion of boredom and tediousness, must “recognise that root of illusion in himself [sic].”  Boredom points out to us that we have lost our centre.  Thus, we must sit within our restless in order to overcome it.  We must seek God’s direction and insight into from where our dissatisfactions stem.  Do we place too much emphasis on being entertained?  Does this restlessness speak to an attempt to overly manage or control our own life?  Can we loosen our life of ease and comfort in order to gain the true life of divine closeness?

We are created for a life of relational intimacy with God.  We are not created to be endlessly entertained.  Thus, the boredom of our lives performs a prophetic function within us.  It calls us back to the centrality of our life with God.   It is in this sense that we can call boredom a “blessed” sensation, for it serves to prompt us to reach out to Christ, and find our satisfaction in him alone. 


[i] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; 1953 Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York, NY. Touchstone Publishers)

[ii] Williams, Rowan; 2014 The Wound of Knowledge. (London, UK; Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd) Kobo Edition

The Way of Discernment

This post first appeared in “Ministry Matters” under the title: “Discernment: it’s not just pointing at random verses” on Medium.com

Whenever we aspire to live the Christian life with any intentionality, an inevitable question arises. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know I am making the right decisions? How do I perceive or recognize the specific parameters of how God wants me to live my life? The answer to all these questions is the same: discernment. Discernment is the spiritual discipline through which we listen for, and respond to, directions God’s voice. Simply put, discernment is the process of recognizing God’s will for our lives.

It is important to recognize that discernment is not a routine set of steps. It is not a codified system of checks and balances by which we can streamline our decision-making. Nor are there any shortcuts. One can’t, for example, simply close their eyes and point to random verses, expecting to uncover the fine nuances of God’s plan for their life. That’s not discernment; that’s biblical roulette, and it can be devastating to someone’s faith. It is best to think of discernment as a way of prayerfully relying on God. It is a function of an active relationship with the Lord, one that establishes a certain kind of life. Thus, before we even think about how we discern God’s will for our lives, we should endeavour to cultivate the type of life in which recognizing God’s direction is conducive.

There are three foundations upon which this type of life rests. Firstly, you need to cultivate a sincere desire to live in God’s will. If you are not actually concerned with living the life that God desires you to live, there is no point in trying to discern God’s voice. It’s as simple as that. Or, if you think that God will simply rubber stamp any decision you make, discernment is simply a façade. In order to rightly discern God’s direction for you, you must first desire God’s will above and before all things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to pray for God’s kingdom and will to be established before we pray to receive our daily wants or needs. We need to root ourselves in the primary longing for God’s ways to be revealed in and through our lives. This is what Ignatian spirituality calls “indifference” — wanting God’s will to be established, whatever that may entail, instead of my own interests, desires or plans.

Secondly, we need to cultivate an active engagement with Scripture. God has given us Scripture as the primary way that we become familiar with God’s voice. Now this doesn’t mean that every answer is written in the pages of the Bible — again we aren’t talking about biblical roulette here. However, by immersing ourselves in the Bible (the whole Bible — not just our favourite verses), we continually grow in our familiarity with the weight and the tone of God’s voice. The continuous engagement with Scripture also aids us in becoming attuned with the kind of things that the Lord may say to us.

Lastly, in order to rightly discern God’s will for our lives, we must establish an ongoing conversation with God, in prayer. We need to learn how to listen to God’s voice — and you only do that by establishing a conversational relationship with the Lord. In prayer, we bring God the matters of our day, the desires of our hearts, and we cultivate a habit of listening through the practices of silence or solitude. An active prayer life helps us identify those thoughts or impressions that are indicative of divine nudging. In prayer we learn to highlight such things and say “there’s a different quality to this”, or “there’s something about this feeling, thought, word, impression that is not just a function of my own pondering.” Jesus indicated that his followers, like sheep before a shepherd, are able to recognize and know His own voice. We become familiar with this voice through the sustained habit of prayer.

If you are in the midst of trying to discern something but have yet to establish this way of life, this is where you start. But let’s say you have cultivated this life of active reliance upon Jesus… what now? What does discernment actually entail?

Keeping in mind that there is no one surefire process of discernment, there are three components of God’s guidance that can be mentioned. In his classic book, The Secret of Guidance,F.B. Meyer refers to these components as the “three witnesses” of discernment. He writes: “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.” Circumstances; the inward promptings of the Spirit; and Scripture are the three areas we look to when attempting to discern God’s direction for our lives.

First, circumstances are the particulars of whatever situation you are in right now. Is there anything about the contours of your life, the decision you are trying to make, that speaks to where God is working? Discernment is never done in a vacuum. God is at work in your life. God does speak. In discernment, we want to look at the specifics of our life situation. Meyer also mentions that it is good to pray that God close the avenues or opportunities that are not conducive to God’s way. Ultimately, discernment isn’t like receiving a divine memo. It is about looking for the signs of God’s leading in our the everyday tapestry of our lives.

Second, the Lord often guides us by prompting our inward selves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will often begin to work with our inner dispositions, we will feel “drawn” in a particular direction. This is why an established lifestyle of reliance upon, and interaction with, the Spirit of God is so important. In discernment we ask our selves questions like: “What is Jesus doing within me?”, “What does my heart say?” and “Where do I feel Jesus drawing me closer to Him? Conversely, is there an option or way that seems to lead me away from God?” Ignatius terms these inward dispositions consolations and desolations, and they provide good insight into how God is leading us. Importantly, you might not be able to fully articulate these internal sensations. However, if inwardly you are feeling one way as opposed to another — and that feeling just wont go away — this can be an indication of divine guidance.

Lastly, we turn to Scripture for guidance. Does the Bible say anything — or give any principles applicable to our situation? Again, this isn’t about finding a certain answer — or pointing to random verses — this is about recognizing that God has provided for us a written voice. And while we may not be able to turn to a specific verse for “the answer”, God does us the scriptural word to speak to us. Thus, the more we are familiar with Scripture, the more we will find it has the uncanny ability to speak into our lives.

Meyer’s emphasis in highlighting these three witnesses is that, in proper discernment, these three components converge. Scripture reinforces our inward dispositions, which help us to recognize God’s movement in the present circumstances of our lives. One always points to the other.

Of course, discernment can be a trying process. There may be a lot of emotion surrounding that our discernment. Also our discernment may impact others. Because of this, discernment can seen as a highly stressful endeavour. To combat this, it is best to keep in mind three remembrances:

  1. Discernment takes time. We live in a world of instant gratification, and so often we want direction at the drop of hat. We turn to God and expect to get the answer within a heartbeat of a moment. Discernment, however, is a way of wrestling with something, and sometimes this takes a while. It may be God wants us to sit with a decision for a time, or possibly God wants other things to be revealed or shown before we get the final direction. Meyer points out that discernment is always about the next step — never the full picture. We are to enter our times of discernment slowly, being willing to receive what God offers, in whatever time-frame that occurs.
  2. Like so many other disciplines, we are to involve others. As you enter discernment, seek the counsel and partnership of a trusted friend or guide — a spiritual director or perhaps your parish priest. If you have come to a conclusion, ask for a sense of confirmation. Although Meyer doesn’t list the community as a particular component of discernment, the voice of the community has an important role in confirming the guidance we have received. Do not be afraid to ask others to help you with this discipline.
  3. Claim grace. Discernment is not only different for each person, it is different in each circumstance. Do not get discouraged if discernment does not appear “easy.” We can, at times, feel an undue sense of responsibility to perfect this practice. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our sense of wrestling with a decision indicates a failure to adequately listen to God. On top of this, one may mistakenly believe that choosing the “wrong” path means will be cast out of God’s good graces for ever. This is simply not true. We trust in grace. We trust that God will work with our frailties. Furthermore, in discernment, as in all of our Christian life, we can trust that God’s love and grace for us prevails over all things.

If we take the time and effort to establish the certain way of life in which discernment is conducive, then I believe we can have confidence in discerning God’s will for our lives. We can have this confidence because, ultimately, discernment is rooted in the fundamental truth that God speaks. Not only does God speak, God speaks to us. We can hear God’s voice. We can know God’s will. May each of us uncover the particular nuances of God’s direction and will for our lives. Amen.

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

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.

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.”