Mother’s Day

Her children rise up and call her blessed;
her husband also praises her:
“Many women have done noble deeds,
but you surpass them all!”

Proverbs 31:28-29

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day.

And for many Mother’s Day gives rise to a mix of emotions. One emotion is sadness. Because some of us mourn the loss of our mothers. My Mom passed away of cancer in June 2011–nearly ten years ago. I miss her. There are so many things I wish I could talk to her about or ask her. So many questions. And my kids–especially my sons–never really had the opportunity to know her.

And my Mother-in-Law passed away in December of 2014 of cancer. She was amazing, and she and my wife were best friends. She was also extremely close to our daughter. Our sons still miss her very much too. She was also a confidante of mine.

Losses still near enough to have a very real affect on us in the present. No doubt many of you feel the same way.

At the same time, Mother’s Day is also about joy. I am married to a wonderful woman, who is also a wonderful mother to our three children. So we get to celebrate her. Our kids make homemade Mother’s Day cards. We make a special meal. Give her a few gifts. We do our best to make sure she knows she’s loved and appreciated. Without a doubt, she deserves more than we can say or do.

For my wife, being a mother has had its share of challenges. During the second trimester of her pregnancy for our daughter, she experienced a very serious depression. With our twin sons, she had to have a caesarian section two months before their due date because she had developed hellps syndrome. After the delivery, she was in ICU for a few days. Her condition was quite serious for a time. Not to mention that our sons were in the NICU for 7 weeks and that there were some moments of touch and go with them too.

Now our daughter is 16 and our sons are 12. Those years hold a lot of memories, history, and emotions. As a mother, my wife isn’t perfect. But she needn’t be. No one is. And yet I still think she is the strongest, smartest, most committed mother I know. No one has cried harder or laughed louder because of her kids. In my eyes, she is a hero. I am in absolute awe about how our lives have been knitted together into the crazy, never-dull family that we are. And she is at the center of it all.

Reflecting on Mother’s Day is very much to reflect on life, our lives, and to experience both joy and sorrow, gratitude and loss. Mother’s Day is a reminder that each of us has (or have had) important people in our lives who are (or have been) there for us, who shape (or have shaped) us, hold (or who have held) us, and who cry (or who have cried) with us and for us.

So I am grateful for my Mom, for my late Mom-in-Law, and now, and most of all, for my wife. While many women have done amazing, wonderful things, for me she surpasses them all. Could I ever think otherwise?

Happy Mother’s Day, Alisha.

The Work of Grace

O Gracious God, by your Son, Jesus Christ, you call us forth from sin and into the baptism of new life. Help us work out our salvation with the fear and trembling necessary for any genuine disciple. Forgive us when we imagine you are done with your re-creative work in us.

Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

None of is done growing. God has more to do in us. But spiritual growth isn’t always easy. We have to be willing to enter into the process, become more self-aware, and be ready to do some hard work. As the late Dallas Willard once said, “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.” Indeed, the above prayer draws on Philippians 2:12, where Paul says: “Therefore, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, so now, not only in my presence but even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.”

For me, the last four or so years have been among the most significant of my life with respect to growing spiritually. Not because I have finally made it. Not at all. Instead, I would say that how I see the spiritual life has shifted in important ways. I have had a big change of perspective. But entering this process has meant being willing at times to deal with corners of my heart and aspects of my past that are painful to look at.

And it’s still true. Even now, there are areas of my life that need profound change. And what needs to change in the present is rooted deeply in my upbringing. Lifelong negative habits are often borne of emotional and psychological attempts to cope with other things. Who we are in the present, including the not so good stuff, is the end result of our personal history. This same stuff–habits, traits, proclivities, fears–is what God wants to go to work healing and restoring.

As a result, facing these habits, these things that need to change, can be very hard. It’s never only about the exercise of willpower. Though effort is needed. We also need to recognize that these things are spiritual. Because everything about our lives, especially as it pertains to how we relate to others and even to ourselves, is spiritual. Spiritual in the sense of having to do with the deepest part of ourselves, that image of God-ness, who God has made us to be. Spiritual in the sense of being re-made into the image of Jesus. Spiritual in the sense of needing to submit to the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Spiritual in the sense of realizing that long before we began the hard journey home, our heavenly Father saw us from a distance and began running towards us, arms outstretched for an embrace.

In one sense, we go on that journey again and again. As soon as we find ourselves confronting another element of our painful past, or whatever it is that keeps us from being more fully ourselves or from growing, we need to learn to receive the Father’s love that much more fully. Because it’s his love, fully revealed in the person of Christ, that transforms and redeems us.

The question is always: Are we willing to let God into that space, into those painful areas of our lives? What’s more painful, the redemptive process of God doing his work in us or staying exactly where we are and allowing the guilt, fear, and shame have its way with us? Either way, life is going to be painful at times, at some level. But we have to choose our pain.

I’m facing a choice along those lines right now. I don’t even know exactly how to go about it. It’s an area of my life that I have struggled with for as long as I can remember. And while I know perfectly well that the pain of remaining as I am is much less desirable, making the effort again to change, perhaps at a deeper level, is not a prospect I necessarily welcome.

Part of God’s work of grace, I think, involves freeing us from all the baggage, the past hurts, that define how we deal with life in the present. He wants to break the chains that hold us back from experiencing the new life in Christ he offers. The spiritual life–life lived in the presence of God through Christ in the power of the Spirit–is not about holding on until we get to heaven, about just waiting until Jesus returns. No, it’s about the power of God at work in our lives in the present. Here. Now. It’s not an easy or comfortable process. There is some fear and trembling involved. But I’ve come far enough to know that the process is worth it. That God shows up in grace and love. And if I am going to keep growing, which he calls me to do, it’s knowing this that makes continuing this process possible. Not only for me, but also for you.

The Daily Office for Families

My lovely wife put together a Word document of the Family Prayer section of The Book of Common Prayer. It includes short prayer services for morning, midday, evening, and the close of the day. This is how we occasionally practice the Daily Office as a family. Typically, we’ll use the one for the end of the day, often called “compline.” Sometimes I like using the early evening one instead, with its focus on Jesus as the light and use of the Phos Hilaron.

I should say that using this sort of resource doesn’t make us an especially spiritual family. Our family life is messy, often loud, and not all of us get along perfectly all the time. So our use of the Daily Office takes place within our family life as it is. More than anything, using the Daily Office forces you to slow down and stop and reflect—and to acknowledge intentionally that God is at the centre of our lives. Even when you don’t always want to or don’t feel especially holy or spiritual.

If you’re interested, here’s the link to the Family Prayer part of the Daily Office. There’s also an app for The Book of Common Prayer (2019). Below you can download the document my wife put together.

Maybe you wouldn’t normally use a resource like this for all kinds of reasons. But if you find that your usual way of doing devotions, reading Scripture, and spending time in prayer isn’t working like it once did, it’s ok to change things up a bit. Or as we say in our family, “Mix it up a little!”

Perhaps this will bless you. If it does, feel free to share the blessing with others.

Two Collect Prayers for the Evening

“O Most mighty and merciful God, in this time of grievous sickness, we flee to you for comfort. Deliver us, we beseech you, from our peril; give strength and skill to all those who minister to the sick; prosper the means made use of for their cure; and grant that, perceiving how frail and uncertain our life is, we may apply our hearts unto that heavenly wisdom which leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

“Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”

Douglas Murray and the Need for Forgiveness in a Culture Where It Seems Impossible

I’ve been reading Douglas Murray’s excellent book The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity. Before the final section of the book, he has an interlude with the title, “On Forgiveness.” Given what some call the “Cancel Culture,” which seeks to punish people interminably for real or perceived misdeeds or mistakes, his words are particularly striking and even convicting. And this from a thinker who is ostensibly not religious. Is he not right that perhaps learning to forgive is the only way out of our present cultural morass? Alas, while I appreciate his words, as a Christian it is difficult for me to see both a motivation, basis, or power for forgiveness apart from the reconciling work of the cross and the power of the good news. Yet maybe someone like Murray can at least draw our attention to the matter at hand. He’s raising some important questions here while offering interesting historical analysis. This is how he puts it:

The consensus for centuries was that only God could forgive the ultimate sins. But on a day to-day level the Christian tradition, among others, also stressed the desirability–if not the necessity–of forgiveness. Even to the point of infinite forgiveness. As one of the consequences of the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche foresaw that people could find themselves stuck in cycles of Christian theology with no way out. Specifically that people would inherit the concepts of guilt, sin and shame but would be without the means of redemption which the Christian religion also offered. Today we do seem to live in a world where actions can have consequences we could never have imagined, where guilt and shame are more at hand than ever, and where we have no means whatsoever of redemption. We do not know who could offer it, who could accept it, and whether it is a desirable quality compared to an endless cycle of fiery certainty and denunciation.

Douglas Murray, The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race, and Identity

What I Don’t Know and What I Do Know

Are churches that refuse to abide by COVID guidelines making the right decision or the wrong decision?

I don’t know.

Are government authorities who fence in a church building or issue large fines for such refusals exercising power illegitimately? Are they violating the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms by their actions?

I don’t know.

Is this really an issue of religious freedom or is it confusing such freedom with the traditional means of exercising our religious freedom?

I don’t know.

How do we know for sure when such freedoms are being unfairly restricted or even violated?

I don’t know.

Should the same guidelines exist for all situations and places and organizations?

I don’t know.

However, what I do know is that at a time like this there aren’t easy answers.

What I do know is that many government authorities are doing their best to protect citizens. What I do know is that not all governing authorities are the same–from province to province or state to state. We can’t equate what’s happening, for example, in the US or some parts of the US and look at our situation here in Nova Scotia through that lens with accuracy. What I do know is that there are examples of COVID restrictions that seem inconsistent, confusing, or applied unfairly. What I do know is that there are plenty of people acting in good faith, in churches and in the government, who are not on the same page.

What I do know is that followers of Jesus and churches are called to obey governing authorities unless they are telling us to disobey God. What I do know is that being able to protect and have religious freedom is important in a free society. What I do know is that it’s not always clear in this situation what it means to obey or disobey God’s word. What I do know is that Christians ought to be willing to do whatever it takes to love our neighbors. What I do know is whatever we do as disciples of Christ and as communities of faith will be our witness to our neighbors.

What I do know is that many of us are quick to give our opinions and slow to listen. What I do know is that people on all sides of an issue can get emotional, frustrated, and argumentative. What I do know is that all that’s going on in our culture right now is leading to division, polarization, and disunity. What I do know is that we often end up in echo chambers where all we hear is what we already agree with. What I do know is that social media platforms such as Facebook drive us apart more than bring us together. What I do know is that none of this is good for any of us.

But most importantly, what I do know is that the God in whom I believe is the Creator of each one of us. What I do know is that he calls us to love one another, even when we profoundly disagree. What I do know is that being a follower of Jesus involves laying down our lives, carrying our crosses, and sacrificing our desires for the sake of others. What I do know is that even those of us who are Christians don’t always want to do this or are willing to do this. What I do know is that we–including Christians–need the gospel of the kingdom, the gospel of repentance and forgiveness, and the gospel of Jesus more than ever. What I do know is that without it we have no hope, no peace, and no way forward as we live in this difficult and confusing time.

Homemade Worship

Last year during the period when our church couldn’t meet in person, my family and I led an online service from our living room. We called it “Homemade Worship” because our whole family got involved. It was imperfect but personal.

Because we’re now on a two week lockdown, we decided to have “Homemade Worship” again. While we’re glad to do it, it is certainly our prayer that we will be able to meet in person very soon.

If you do watch the video below, let me just say it’s not what you would call a professional production. The audio on the songs is a little muddy because we don’t have the proper equipment. Plus, you get to see one of our sons show you a LEGO set he recently “assembled.” That’s a joke that some might get.

Anyway, I hope something about “Homemade Worship” blesses you. We’ll be doing it again next week for sure.

A Prayer for Those Afflicted with Mental Illness

Mental illness, depression, anxiety, and similar afflictions affect all of us. Either we suffer from them or someone we know does. Maybe both. Especially in these days of COVID and other forms of uncertainty and instability, there has been a significant rise of those struggling with mental health issues, including young children. My family is well-acquainted with this experience. I’m grateful that it’s possible to be more open about it now than in the past.

Here’s a prayer for people dealing with mental health issues from The Book of Common Prayer:

“Almighty God, whose Son took upon himself the afflictions of your people: Regard with your tender compassion those suffering from anxiety, depression, or mental illness; bear their sorrows and their cares; supply all their needs; help them to put their whole trust and confidence in you; and restore them to strength of mind and cheerfulness of spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

An Ancient Prayer for Governing Authorities

I was looking for early church prayers for governing authorities, and I came across excerpts of a prayer from 1 Clement, a letter written to Christians in Rome between 80–100AD. Here it is:

Lord, give harmony and peace to us and to all who dwell on the earth, just as you did to our ancestors when they reverently called upon you in faith and truth, that we may be saved, while we render obedience to your almighty and most excellent name, and to our rulers and governors on earth.”

You, Master, have given them the power of sovereignty through your majestic and inexpressible might, so that we, acknowledging the glory and honor that you have given them, may be subject to them, resisting your will in nothing. Grant to them, Lord, health, peace, harmony, and stability, so that they may blamelessly administer the government that you have given them.

For you, heavenly Master, King of the ages, give to human beings glory and honor and authority over the creatures upon the earth. Lord, direct their plans according to what is good and pleasing in your sight, so that by devoutly administering in peace and gentleness the authority that you have given them may experience your mercy. You, who alone are able to do these and even greater good things for us, we praise through the high priest and benefactor of our souls, Jesus Christ, through whom be the glory and the majesty to you both now and all generations and for ever and ever. Amen.

1 Clement (80–100AD)

And of course, there are these words written by Paul:

First of all, then, I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good, and it pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

1 Timothy 2:1–4

Whatever else we make of our governing leaders, we are called to pray for them. Even if we don’t like them or agree with them, we can and should do that.

One Pastor’s Perspective on Christians and Government

Note: I’m sure there will be Christians who disagree with this post. I would be grateful if this were part of a larger conversation rather than a monologue. If you have a different, and biblical, way of thinking through this issue, I’d be grateful to hear from you. Or if you want clarification on something I’ve said, I’d welcome that too. 

Over the last year churches have had to deal with restrictions on gathering because of COVID. Depending on where in the world you live, your church has been unable to meet in person for long stretches of time or only if those attending adhere to certain guidelines. Where I live in Nova Scotia, Canada, we’ve been able to meet in person since last July if we socially distance. Though due to a significant rise in COVID cases in our province, we are currently on a two-week shutdown. 

Am I going to insist, despite our provincial government’s policy, that our church gather in person anyway? I am not. And even if I were inclined not to follow our government’s mandate, there’s a very good chance that I’d be alone in church on Sunday. My congregation, perhaps because they are largely older, are particularly cautious.

But we are already aware that there are churches who have refused to follow any of the guidelines. The claim is that doing so would be a violation of not only their specific convictions but actual biblical teaching. Furthermore, restrictions on faith gatherings are sometimes being characterized by those who refuse to abide by them as discrimination or even persecution. 

The question is whether or not this a fair assessment of the situation. Or to put it another way: when and on what basis can people of faith legitimately engage in the refusal to abide by such government mandates? 

And before I get to what my understanding of this is according to Scripture, let me underscore the fact that I am not an expert of any sort when it comes to the issue of church and state, what the Bible says about governing authorities, and when believers and other citizens can and should responsibly engage in civil disobedience. What I am about to say is based on my current best reading of Scripture. To that end, I am open to being corrected if I am misinterpreting Scripture or misapplying it. However, anyone who seeks to correct me would need to convince me of their interpretation of Scripture and not simply assert that their position is more sound than mine. 

One passage we need to consider is written by the apostle Peter:

Submit to every human authority because of the Lord, whether to the emperor as the supreme authority or to governors as those sent out by him to punish those who do what is evil and to praise those who do what is good. For it is God’s will that you silence the ignorance of foolish people by doing good. Submit as free people, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but as God’s slaves. Honor everyone. Love the brothers and sisters. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

1 Peter 2:13-17

Perhaps the first point to make concerns the form of governmental authority which was in place at the time Peter wrote these words. That is, we’re not talking about a democratic government system to which we are accustomed. People in Peter’s day didn’t vote for their emperors or governors. Not only that, but the authority in question here is Emperor Nero, a corrupt and violent leader who, according to the ancient historian Tacitus, burned Christians alive.

This makes it all the more curious and perhaps alarming that Peter uses the word submit. The word means to “place ourselves under” or in this case to live according to the governing authorities. As one commentator notes, “there could be few rulers indeed whose claims on loyalty would be sustained by less personal merit” than Nero. Why, then, would Peter exhort his readers to submit not only to the authorities generally, but Nero specifically?

For Peter to tell believers to honor an emperor such as Nero, the standard for civil disobedience must be especially high for those who claim allegiance to Christ. Indeed, the exhortations in 1 Peter are meant to emphasize that Christians are also called to be law-abiding citizens and that their compliance with the governing authorities is one component of their witness to the gospel.

Peter is not the only New Testament writer who writes of the relationship between believers and the governing authorities. Quite possibly the pre-eminent passage on this matter is written by another apostle, a contemporary of Peter’s:

Let everyone submit to the governing authorities, since there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the one in authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For it is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor. 

Romans 13:1-7

Much like Peter, Paul emphasizes the duty of Christians to be good citizens. But Paul goes further here than Peter by saying governing authorities are instituted by God. He refers to the state as “God’s servant.” Those who resist governing authorities are “opposing God’s command.” 

Whatever else we say about the relationship between Christians and governing authorities, we have to contend with what both Peter and Paul are telling us. If a Christian holds the conviction that they need to disobey a particular law or mandate of the government, they need to have an especially compelling reason to do so. 

Perhaps we can put it this way: The most fundamentally compelling reason is if Christians are being forced to choose between obeying God and obeying the governing authorities. In such cases, Christians are obliged to disregard the governing authorities. 

In Acts 4:19-20, Peter and John were told under threat not to tell people about Jesus anymore. While these were religious and not governing authorities, how Peter and John responded is instructive and important. This is what they say: “Whether it’s right in the sight of God for us to listen to you rather than to God, you decide; for we are unable to stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a moment. The authorities were asking Peter and John to stop telling others about Jesus. Peter, John, and other followers of Jesus were compelled to share this good news with anyone who would listen. Not only that, they were expressly commissioned by Jesus prior to his glorious ascension to do precisely that. So even if the governing authorities of the time had made such an act illegal, the disciples of Jesus would have been compelled and even obligated to proclaim Jesus anyway. 

In any case, Christians, I think, can engage in civil disobedience or be non-compliant with a mandate or law that would either (1) contradict what we are clearly taught in Scripture and/or (2) prevent us from sharing the good news of Jesus with others. So, for instance, a governing authority cannot force a believer who is a medical doctor to perform abortions. Abortion, being murder, violates the clear teaching of Scripture. The government also cannot reasonably expect Christians to obey a law that would prevent them from telling others about Jesus. Jesus commands us to tell other people about him.

For our part, those of us who are followers of Jesus have to be willing to accept the consequences of our decisions. What was true of the early disciples, like Peter and John, and is also true, say, of Christians in China today, also has to be so with us. If obeying God and following Jesus means being arrested, so be it. Let’s not forget that the apostle Paul wrote a number of his letters while imprisoned. John had his vision recorded in the Book of Revelation on Patmos, an island to which he had been exiled.

Now, as far as I can reasonably tell, none of the current COVID restrictions prevent me from obeying what Scripture clearly teaches or from telling others about Jesus. In other words, I can very easily live out my life as a follower of Jesus even while abiding by the current guidelines put in place.

Now, whether the guidelines are reasonable in themselves, or absolutely necessary, is beside the point. Rather, if a Christian or a church chooses to ignore them, they need to look outside Scripture for their reasons.

But what might someone say in response to this? For instance, what Scriptural support might one give for violating the restrictions on gathering in person? 

Here is an example to which some may point. In Hebrew 10:23–25 we read this: Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, since he who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another in order to provoke love and good works, not neglecting to gather together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging each other, and all the more as you see the day approaching.

The author of Hebrews recognizes that believers need spiritual support and encouragement to persevere in their faith. Living as a follower of Jesus requires community. Those who neglect Christian community are at risk of being much more spiritually vulnerable. And so the author exhorts readers to continue meeting in order to encourage one another.

However, let us be clear on this. Nowhere does this passage describe in detail how such meeting together should take place. Prominent pastors who have ignored gathering restrictions on the basis of this passage (but surely not only this passage?) seem to be interpeting it through the lens of how people in their particular cultural setting expect the church to gather. 

However, the writer of Hebrews wasn’t speaking about Christians gathering by the hundreds, much less thousands, in a modern church facility. Indeed, the early church met in one another’s homes. Pastors and others who conclude that they can gather their people in such large numbers in violation of government authority in our current situation cannot do so based on what we read in Hebrews. Put simply, we can apply this passage in Hebrews without having to gather together in large numbers in our modern church buildings.

Of course, I’m sure it’s possible someone can make a case as to why churches ought to be able to meet in large numbers despite COVID. My main point here is that it’s very difficult to do so on the basis of Scripture, from a specifically Christian perspective. 

At least as far as I can see, taking into account what the New Testament says of our relationship to government as instituted by God, alongside the apostolic example, means that, generally speaking, Christians can in good conscience abide by the COVID guidelines without the fear that they are disobeying God and his word. I think the burden of proof lies with those who posit otherwise.

What I want to say, too, is that I think those of us who are Christians need to be able to distinguish between obeying God even if it means disobeying a given law and fighting for religious freedom so that laws which put us in that position do not exist. We may or may not be able to change an existing law or how the governing authorities act towards people and communities of faith, but we should not conflate obeying God with the exercise of political power for the purpose of protecting religious freedom. 

It’s not that we shouldn’t work to ensure that citizens, whether Christian or otherwise, have the freedom to worship and live according to their beliefs and conscience. We certainly ought to do so. However, in an increasingly post-Christian culture we need to be prepared to follow Christ whatever law our government puts in place. While having religious freedom is always ideal, it’s never a guarantee. Plenty of Christians around the world know this all too well.

These are strange, challenging, and often confusing times. Christians in good faith are reaching different conclusions about how to follow Christ and the dictates of their consciences. Each of us is responsible for applying the teaching of Scripture to our everyday lives—including in our relationship to governing authorities. May we all exercise due diligence in this process, because though we are all called by God to live as responsible citizens, we are all also accountable to him for the manner in which we do so.