Tag Archives: Lent

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

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.

Is Lent really just about treats?

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, heralding the beginning of Lent.  Typically, this liturgical season involves adopting a devotional activity to mark one’s observance.  Often, this involves some type of fasting.  We ‘give-up’ something for the 40 days of Lent.  What are we to give up?  Well, that’s the question.  Too easily does Lent become a time of merely stepping away from the treats enjoyed in regular life – the coffee, the chocolate, the candy.  In our media-saturated world, it is becoming popular to give up Facebook or other Social Media platforms. We take our 40 days away from posts and shares, likes and comments.  We boldly proclaim that we are ‘signing-off’ – and then we live our lives with near-regular routines.

We feel good about these treat-based fasts.  We move through the 40 days of Lent seamlessly.  After all, we know the routine.  We know what to expect.  We have felt the coffee withdrawals, or the hunger pains, or the sugar-crashes.   These Lenten observances hold nothing new for us.  They are, in the grand scheme of things, fairly easy.  The ease of these fasts may be more pronounced if we give up the same thing year after year.

Has our Lenten disciplines become little more than easy exercises in self-righteousness?  Does giving up my treats amount to an external observance without an inner change?  If I give up the same thing year after year, then where is the transformation?

I’m not against giving up our treats per se.  All of us would probably do well to step away from the idolatrous grip of self-satisfaction and consumerism.  Maybe giving up our treats signifies a dislodging of our idolatries. Perhaps our intemperate love for the treats of life is a deep sign of our spiritual off-centeredness.  But maybe it’s not.  Maybe we give up our treats because we know it’s manageable and easy and doesn’t impact our lives all that much.  After all, do candy bars and potato chips really get in the way of our relationship with Jesus?

“Sorry Jesus, I’d love to spend time with you, but I’m too busy eating a Kit-Kat!”

In order for our Lenten journey to be truly transformative, we must push past these easy observances.   Lent involves a journey to the cross, a journey that is not paved with the treats of modern life.  This journey to the cross, realised in the celebration of Good Friday and Easter, is marked by our longing for divine closeness.  In his 1st letter, Peter reminds his readers that ‘Christ died for sin once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God’ (3:18).   The truth we re-hear at Easter is the truth we long to embrace today, that Jesus ushers us into the heart of God.

Lent is a time to look at the relational closeness between ourselves and our Lord. Where do we need to grow closer with Jesus?  Where do our actions, our habits, or our attitudes, get in the way the call to faithful living?  After all, we are imperfect people living in an imperfect world.  This means that we still struggle with the likes of sin and waywardness.  You sin.  I sin.  We sin.  This sin occurs in a myriad of ways.  We sometimes care too much about ourselves than our neighbours; we take up self-indulgent appetites; we live out of anger, or frustration, or doubt; we act uncharitably or unkindly; we forsake justice and fairness.   Lives lived in these ways step outside of the relational closeness with God for which we were created, and into which we are continually invited.  Does giving up Facebook do justice to our struggle with sin?

If the cross brings us close to God, then our journey to it calls us to look for whatever obstructs this closeness in our lives.  Our Lenten observance should address the habits, false worships, and misplaced loves and keep us from experiencing the gracious intimacy with God.   It is only as we address these areas, and not the popular treats we enjoy, that we can fully enter the celebration of Easter as transformed people.

Our journey through Lent is a time to think about how we can further enter divine closeness. Christ died to bring us to God.  Christ died so that we, in this moment, can experience the liberating power of his salvation. Christ died, and was raised to life, so that we can step away from all that is spiritually destructive.  Through the resurrection, and the forgiveness it brings, we are called into a life where we are reminded, by divine voice, that we are the beloved of God.   May our journey through Lent grasp this vision of divine closeness, as we turn away from those places where we fall short of God’s call, seeking ways to more deeply enter the loving heart of God.  Amen.

 

Cancer and the Cross

Maundy Thursday has always been my favourite service of the year. I love the solemnity of the service. The stark contrast between the celebration of the Eucharist, immediately followed by the removal of all signs of life, leaves me continually awestruck. I find profound poignancy in the church being left as nothing but an empty shell. For me, it is a reminder of how the very life and heart of my faith is ripped away if I disregard the resurrected presence of the Lord.

These reflections are easy to make, sitting comfortably in my prayer desk, knowing that Easter is right around the corner. After all, these ruminations are easy when you never have to walk the road of suffering. Thus, year after year, I would enter this, my favourite service, with an attitude of pretend sombreness: the liturgy would be spoken with a touch of sadness, my pace of speech slow enough to echo a sense of mourning, my demeanour appropriately subdued and contemplative. But it would all be skin deep, for I would have already written my Easter sermon. Already had I read of the resurrection, and begun preparing myself for the Sunday celebration. Despite my love of Maundy Thursday, I have to wonder, did I ever actually enter into it?

But last year was different. My wife and I had known for some time that she was sick. Doctors had confirmed that there was a growth in her body, but assured us that it was benign: annoying, yes. Threatening, no. Surgery was done, and the growth removed. We thought that was the end of it, but then life turned upside down. The doctors had been mistaken, and that annoying but benign growth had, indeed, been cancerous. On Maundy Thursday, my wife and I were called down to the cancer centre to sign the appropriate paperwork so she could begin Chemotherapy. We heard about the risks, the symptoms, and the probability of survival. This day, the day of my favourite service, became a day about cancer, about the loss of hope, and about the closeness of death.

Despite the appointment at the cancer centre, I had agreed to be preside at the Maundy Thursday service. I drove my wife home from the cancer centre, having just signed on for an extremely aggressive treatment plan, turned around, and arrived at the church roughly 20 minutes prior to the beginning of the service. I walked into the church in a haze. I put on my vestments, and I sat in silence.

I know what you are thinking: I shouldn’t have been at the service. I should have called someone. I should have been sitting beside my wife. You would be right. But I wasn’t thinking straight. And so, I just went on auto-pilot and presided over the liturgy. I washed people’s feet; I preached the sermon; I began to celebrate the Eucharist. I felt as if I stumbled through the service, my words and prayers spoken from a place of deep emptiness. I felt an inner disconnect between who I was and who I was to be at the church. It was as if the church was expecting ministry as usual: the safe-and-easy-but-subdued Lenten reflections that had become common. Yet for me and my family, life was no longer safe, and it certainly wasn’t easy. Over everything we knew and loved, cancer had thrown a big question mark. Everything had changed, and I was not the same person.

This feeling of disconnect changed, however, as I celebrated the Eucharist. I stood behind the Altar, saying the words I have spoken so many times before: “this is my body given for you,” “this is my blood shed for you.” So many times, these words have been rattled off without thought. So many times, I have lifted the elements in a liturgically appropriate but completely rote action. But as I spoke the words that night, I heard them echoed back to me. It was as if Jesus whispered these very words into my heart. In that moment I almost began to cry as the full force of the Eucharistic message made its way to me. In those words I heard Jesus say:

Into the fear of what comes next, into the awaiting pain, into the vomiting and the constant sickness, the hair loss, the time off work, the crushing weight of chemo drugs and cancer treatments,—I come; Into the times when the role of caregiver seems taxing and long, into the feelings of exhaustion and sorrow, and into the fear of loss, my body is given for you, and my blood is shed for you. It is into all these dark places that I come. You are not alone.

Maundy Thursday, and indeed all of Lent, reminds us that it is in the very sucker punches of life that we find the presence of God. As we reach our hands out to receive him once again in bread and wine, we do so not from places of ease and comfort, but from places of agony and heart-wrenching need. The glory of the incarnation is the very ugliness into which Jesus comes. Christ offers himself into a world of lostness and confusion, a world where sometimes we feel powerless against the dark things that crash down upon us. The power of the cross is not just that Jesus heals our hurts and softens our pains, but that he hurts right along with us. Our agonies are met by his. This is the space in which we come to him in the Eucharist. We are called to enter the Eucharistic mystery precisely when we are overwhelmed with confusion, anger, and betrayal, and when can’t help but feel separated from God’s presence. Jesus institutes the Eucharist, and offers himself to us within it, precisely for the times when we stand in the church and feel completely hollow.

And yet, in that place, there is grace. In that place, there love. In that place, there is a Saviour. Alleluia.