There’s 12 More Days of Christmas!

When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Matthew 2:10-11

Years (and years!) ago my grandfather would always say right after Christmas dinner, “Christmas is now further away than ever!”

Calendrically, he was correct. The next December 25 is a full year away. Only 365 shopping days till the next Christmas!

But it’s not entirely true. After all, there are the 12 days of Christmas between December 25 and January 6. That’s where the well-known song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” comes from! And January 6 is what some used to call “Old Christmas.” Usually Christians refer to it as Epiphany, the day we acknowledge the appearance or revelation of the Christ child to the Gentiles in the biblical story of the magi honouring Jesus with their gifts.

That’s why we leave our tree and lights up until after New Year’s. Not because we’re lazy. And, yeah, we also enjoy the Christmas lights and like leaving them up for awhile longer. Actually, we’ll probably take the tree down but leave other lights up until the days get longer and the evenings are lighter.

So don’t think that Christmas is over. More, the story of Christmas—of the Son of God penetrating space and time to bring hope and healing to our broken, hurting world—is a story for any time of year, for 12 more days and beyond!

Living in a Tiring World

Is it just me or is life more tiring than it used to be?

Please, no comments about middle-age.

Besides, I’m not, strictly speaking, talking about physical tiredness. No, I mean emotional and mental tiredness. I mean the way in which so many around us are dealing with anxiety and depression, and at younger and younger ages. I mean the pace of life, and how we don’t really know how to rest. And I mean really rest. A deep, down rest in our souls rest. A rest from feeling like we have to be on all the time.

I think of someone who watches TV news for long stretches of time or spends hours scrolling through their Facebook feed, indiscriminately taking in angry posts, conspiracies, and drama. I think of people who very nearly can’t part from their smartphones for any length of time but are captive to notifications, likes, and comments sections.

We’re addicted to our devices and to social media, and we’re killing our capacity for empathy, compassion, self-awareness, and patience.

I also think of our nearly pathological need to keep “busy” pretty much for its own sake. Anything to occupy ourselves so that we don’t actually have to face ourselves and have our thoughts wander to more significant things: life, death, and everything in between.

French philosopher Blaise Pascal, in his Pensees, once wrote this: “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” True, that.

Our hearts and minds are like hamsters on a wheel, endlessly going round and round but never going anywhere—except making ourselves more anxious and more distracted and more discontented.

There was a time when I would feel oddly guilty about not being “busier.” It’s like I felt less important. Because busyness suggests importance. But I honestly don’t care anymore. I think doing less is a virtue. That not running around to endless activities is a virtue. That not filling up my kids’ calendars is a virtue. I look at people whose lives seem overcrowded and I know that, were that me, I would go nuts.

But maybe it’s just me.

Yet it seems to me that we’re failing to learn and to pass on what it means to be ourselves, to know ourselves, and, certainly, to know what it means to rest in the presence of our Maker.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I think there is a lot of fear in people today. Much unease. And, I think, a lot of loneliness and longing. Without solid footing, many just rely on their best guesses and opinions for purpose and meaning.

All I know is that we’re more than the sum of our activities and social media posts. We’re creatures made in the image of God with dignity and value. We have a Creator, One who designed us to be human beings not human doings. One who loves us before we lift a finger or open our mouths.

And we know this because this God came here, to this world, his creation, entered into our humanity, in order to tell us and to show us.

In the Bible we have these words which tell us about Jesus, who is God incarnate:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For everything was created by him, in heaven and on earth, the visible and the invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities- all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together.

Colossians 1:15-17

Listen to that again: All things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and by him all things hold together.

There’s your reason for living. There’s the explanation for your existence. Right there. In the person of Jesus.

This same Jesus also invites us to find rest from busyness, from weariness, from all forms of self-justification, from all anxiety, by coming to him:

Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am lowly and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

Matthew 11:28-30

I think it’s true that life is more tiring than it used to be. I think our world is tiring. I think people often feel this enormous pressure and obligation to go along and try and keep up. But Jesus, I think, invites us to something different. That’s the life I want. I’m learning to live into it. What about you?

Sin, Church Conflict, and the Need for Confession in Public Worship

Over the last five years or so, I have had at least half a dozen pastor friends who have had to leave or resign from their churches on account of various kinds of congregational dysfunction or confict. Even though it’s true that I don’t know many of the details about these individual stories, it almost doesn’t matter. Because while I don’t doubt that there is truth on both sides, my concern is more about how churches and Christians handle these situations. In many cases, these pastors have walked away having to deal with a sort of spiritual PTSD. Whoever’s to blame, these situations leave a lot of wreckage in their wake.

For about 20 years or so now I have been pastoring small, rural Baptist churches. So far I have managed to avoid serious conflicts with the churches I have been privileged to serve. In that way, my family and I have been remarkably blessed. I hope and pray that this remains the case. Yet, I have seen and heard of enough shenanigans, in-fighting, and struggles for power to make me wonder sometimes why anyone still bothers with this thing called “church.” There are moments when it seems to be more trouble than it’s worth.

Then again, there are those who don’t bother with church anymore. A harsh word, a critical remark, or an insensitive comment is all it takes for some to turn tail and run. I can’t say I blame them. How much easier is it to disengage from Christian community than it is to keep pressing forward with it, especially if it’s going to be this painful?

The truth is, despite having said that I’ve not had to deal with serious conflicts in the churches that I’ve pastored, there are ways in which this is still a problem. Bear with me. My point is this: there are people who have left churches while I’ve been pastor, but for the most part I don’t know why they’ve left. Not really. As a pastor you can try to have those awkward conversations with people who have left, but quite often what you’re told is that it has nothing to do with you or anyone at the church. At least that’s my experience. It’s the classic break-up scenario where the one doing the breaking up tries to make the other person feel better: “It’s not you, it’s me.”

And I understand. Completely. No one wants a confrontation. No one wants to make anyone else feel badly. Or this is at least the case in the church culture that I’ve been a part of for the last couple of decades. Walking away quietly can seem like the more honourable and respectable approach. No one gets hurt this way. Presumably. Of course, as a pastor it can be incredibly difficult not to take such situations personally. Clergy beyond count have wrestled with these questions in the long watches of the night: “What did I do? What didn’t I do? What could I have done better?”

What this highlights for me is an issue that plagues churches (and I’m sure other communities too) and that is this: an inability to deal maturely with conflict. You can rest assured that whenever a conflict rears its ugly head in a congregation it will often be handled poorly. This is because growing in spiritual and emotional maturity has never really been that much of a priority in churches. Or we equate intellectual knowledge of theology and the Bible with spiritual maturity. Our discipleship has been largely from the neck up. So and so knows so much about the Bible. They’re such a mature and wise believer. Maybe. But maybe not.

I think when it comes to sorting out our thoughts on this stuff, there are a few points that need to be made. One, there will be conflict in churches. Let’s face facts. Stick enough people in a church community and have them spend enough time worshipping and working together, someone will eventually get bent out of shape, annoyed, frustrated and, yes, even hurt. This is going to happen. Count on it.

Facing this is important. Think about it. How many times have you heard people express dismay or disgust at how Christians have behaved? How many people have left churches precisely because someone else in the church has been mean or unkind to them and the shock of this pushed them away? To say nothing of unintentional slights or careless words spoken in haste from otherwise caring people.

Years ago, I was sitting in Tim Horton’s and I overheard a conversation. One person said to another, “You should be in church on Sunday.” The other person said, “Why? I’m just as good as anyone in church.” As if being in church is supposedly for those who are better than others or if the point was simply outward behaviourial change.

But being a Christian and therefore going to church is not about sin management. If it were, the church writ large would have to be judged a spectacular failure.

However, this leads us to the second thing: we are sinners. 1 John 1:8 reminds us: If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. Accepting Jesus, so to speak, does not change this reality. Now, this reality is not an excuse. We shouldn’t sin so that grace may abound, no. Just because we are tempted to sin is no reason to throw up our hands in resignation, proceed with our sin, and presume God’s forgiveness. But neither should we be altogether surprised when someone who confesses Christ as Lord actually sins–and perhaps against you.

Being able to acknowledge that we are sinners in constant need of grace, mercy, repentance, and forgiveness, even outside of specific conflicts, positions us to anticipate those moments when even followers of Jesus fail to love one another. Expecting the Christians around us to be perfect is a recipe for disappointment in the church.

Think of it this way. When we sin, heinously or not, God is not surprised. Our sins of action or inaction do not take him off guard. Why? Because he knows who we are. He knows who I am. He knows who you are. And when it comes to churches, he also knows how the combination of these people in this place will lead to problems. Jesus knows your church, both its strengths and failings.

All this to make clear that my sin reverberates through the church much like a rock thrown in still water. There is, pardon the pun, a ripple effect.

Indeed, that is in part why we gather as a church. We need constant reminding of the good news. We need help to live as Jesus calls us to live. We need confession and absolution when we fail. We need brothers and sisters in Christ to uphold us in prayer, to admonish us, and to encourage us. It is through the ministry of the Body of Christ that God intends to heal us and make us whole by his Holy Spirit. Simply put, we need ongoing repentance and forgiveness. Thankfully, God is more than willing. 1 John 1:9 assures us: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

But when we are unwilling or unable for whatever reason to own our sin, and to accept that our fellow Christians are also sinners, conflicts in the church, big or small, become the very thing we are ill-equipped to handle with honesty, mercy and wisdom.

It strikes me as revealing that in many churches, we speak much about the cross, about redemption, even forgiveness, but we never actually confess sin to God, much less to one another in our public worship. Yet in James 5:16 we read: Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.

This is a problem. Much of the church culture with which I am familiar is deeply uncomfortable with the biblical practice of confessing our sins to one another, primarily, I think, because we largely don’t feel safe doing so. But I think this is because we simply haven’t found ways of doing so that are genuine and safe.

This is my next point. I think there needs to be some means of acknowledging in public worship our sins against God and one another.

Now, it’s fair to ask: Is confessing sin in our public worship important? Why can I not confess my own sins in the quiet of my home, away from the judgmental gaze of the person sitting behind me in church on a Sunday morning? More to the point, doesn’t Jesus tell me to pray privately?

Yes, Jesus does instruct his followers to pray in private. Here’s what he actually says:

Whenever you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you pray, go into your private room, shut your door, and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:5-6

But the context, as always in Scripture, is vital. Jesus was contrasting sound spiritual practice with the sort that sought the reward of public recognition. And there is a world of difference between praying for the applause of others and confessing our sins to one another. Consider what Paul writes:

Therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and dearly loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another if anyone has a grievance against another. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you are also to forgive. Above all, put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.

Colossians 3:12-14

We can’t obey Scripture like this in the privacy of our home away from other believers.

Moreover, the problem with restricting all confession to our private prayers is that this neglects the very real fact that my sin doesn’t only affect me. We tend to have a very individualistic outlook even as Christians, given we are called to accountability with other believers. So we conclude: If no one knows my sin, how can it affect anyone else? Yet, even my most private sin impacts others. I don’t exist in a spiritual vacuum. My relationship with God is not cordoned off from the relationships I have with the people in my church. Whenever something is off between myself and my Lord, things will be off in how I relate to people in church. All of our sin is relational, both vertically and horizontally.

Take, for example, a sin of omission: the neglect of prayer and Bible reading. I would think of this as sin because I am failing to avail myself of two primary means of grace God provides so I can draw nearer to him and become more Christlike, which is his will for me. And if I am not doing this as a member of Christ’s church, then I am also unable to bless other people in the church. If I am not a prayerful person (or hopefully and gradually becoming a more prayerful person, which is where most of us are), then this will profoundly affect my participation on any church committee, board, or ministry team. For instance, I may want to push for a decision that needs more prayer. Or to put it another way, someone who is being more deeply formed by their time in Scripture may bring wisdom to the table someone who neglects time in Scripture cannot.

One means of this is to include a unison prayer of confession. Of course as I say this, let me confess: as a pastor I have not yet led our congregation to do this. In my pastoral prayers, I have often (but not always) included such words of repentance, an acknowledgement of our sin, and an assurance of forgiveness. This is not the same, however, as giving the congregation an opportunity to say such words themselves. That matters.

Take this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer as an example:

Almighty God and Father, we confess to you, to one another, and to the whole company of heaven, that we have sinned, through our own fault, in thought, and word, and deed, and in what we have left undone. For the sake of your Son our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon us, forgive us our sins, and by the power of your Holy Spirit, raise us up to serve you in newness of life, to the glory of your Name. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Praying this or a similar prayer in public worship is not only a matter of confessing particular sins of which we are aware. I sin without always being aware of it. I don’t always decide to sin; I am sinful. Since I am a sinful person, everything I am and do is tainted by sinfulness. That is, sin concerns more than discrete sinful actions; it concerns my innate tendency to choose sinfully.

I think such congregational prayers would allow us to acknowledge before God and one another that we are sinners and our relationships with one another stand in regular need of spiritual repair. Incorporating prayers of confession and assurances of forgiveness into our public worship also means we needn’t divulge personal information in an indiscrete way. There may be occasions when confession of specific sins during times of public worship is actually important and necessary, but in such cases leaders need to act with sensitivity, wisdom, grace, and discernement. Confession is meant to lead to healing, not to deeper shame or embarrassment.

Here’s the thing: I am not saying that simply praying such words, however we choose to do so, in our congregational worship is a silver bullet against the poor handling of sin and conflict in the church. But we are still responsible as brothers and sisters in Christ to cultivate a spiritual environment where we can have a mature assessment of our mutual sinfulness and deeper appreciation of God’s grace in Christ. Doing this in community is how we work the gospel into our relationships. The church needs the leaven of humility and honesty to be healthy and effective. Because it’s simply not enough for those of us who are Christians, who confess Jesus as Savior and Lord, to try and deal with sin outside of congregational life. This risks an evasion of the very reality we are seeking to acknowledge: that we are indeed sinners against God and one another and that God in Christ has made possible reconciliation.

Have I Been Disfiguring My Face?

Whenever you fast, don’t be gloomy like the hypocrites. For they disfigure their faces so that their fasting is obvious to people. Truly I tell you, they have their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting isn’t obvious to others but to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

I have been brought up short by Jesus’ above words.

You see, recently I blogged a couple of times about fasting from TV for Lent. My intention in doing so was to share my experience. The plan was to post occasionally the ups and downs of fasting from a habitual (though not necessarily sinful in itself) behaviour. What does fasting in this way uncover in my heart? How is God teaching me through this Lenten season? When I (or we) deny myself (ourselves) something I (we) want, what effect might that process have?

But it occurred to me that blogging about this may in fact violate Jesus’ teaching on fasting in the Sermon on the Mount. Especially if at any point I share the challenges of such fasting. Sad as it is that fasting from TV may actually prove difficult for me once in awhile, surely blogging about it (disfiguring my face) inadvertently draws attention to my spiritual efforts. “O woe is me! I have to read instead of turning to Netflix! How horrid is my life!” Nevermind the fact that it’s a voluntary fast.

So let me say this. Fasting in this way doesn’t make me a spiritual hero. Pastor or not, I am not super-spiritual. If anything, fasting in this way shows me that I have allowed something frivolous to become a mindless habit. Because I have had a moment or two where I wanted to turn back to this habit. Maybe precisely because it is a habit, not so much because there is anything intrinsically good about the activity.

Here’s another thing about this. Some might say it’s sort of empty to fast in this way, that there’s nothing particularly worthwhile about engaging in this Lenten practice. But I think for me fasting helps me understand how profoundly I am affected by a culture that tells me I should be able to have what I want when I want it. Why deny myself?

First, Jesus tells me to deny myself. And if that somehow doesn’t take on flesh and blood in my everyday life in practical ways, what can it possibly mean?

Not only that, but all of our habits, being habits after all, have a pretty direct affect on us and on people around us. A habit is a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. Some are fairly benign; others are addictive and dangerous; and many fall somewhere in between and can cross over from one to the other.

If I habitually were to watch an hour of TV before supper, for instance, what else should or could I be doing? And if it becomes genuinely habitual, I may even find myself annoyed that some outside force, person, or situation requires me to break the habit involuntarily. I may even develop the feeling that I am in fact entitled to enjoy my habit uninteruppted.

So part of this process is becoming more self-aware. Sometimes it’s not until we attempt to give something up that we realize and experience how great a hold it has had on us.

More than that, it’s ultimately about gaining more freedom, ironic as it sounds. Because breaking myself of a poor habit allows me time to be with my kids, to be more productive in my work, or to enjoy something more substantial like a good book. Or it can. Whether it does, is up to me.

In the end, I don’t think I have been disfiguring my face, so to speak. But just in case, from now on I may not make posting about my Lenten fast too much of a habit.

Learning to Pray from Scripture Part 2: Prayer Priorities from Paul

In my last post on learning to pray from Scripture, which you can find here, I talked about how the Bible reveals the truth about the God to whom we pray and why who God is matters to our prayers. This time around I want us to consider what Scripture teaches us about prayer priorities. To do so, I’m going to discuss a few passages from the letters of Paul.

Now, before I get there let me first draw attention to The Lord’s Prayer once again. It’s no coincidence that when Jesus teaches these words to his disciples that he begins with petitions that concern God’s glory, kingdom, and will; and only after that does he teach us to pray for our needs. If we are followers of Jesus, then God’s concerns and priorities ought to be ours also. Think about Jesus’ words elsewhere:

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.

Matthew 6:33

Becoming a Christian, a disciple of the Lord Jesus, means putting him first in our lives. And this means, in turn, praying in accordance with God’s purposes and desires for our lives.

But if we wonder what exactly this looks like, then turning to Paul’s letters is especially helpful. You see, Paul wrote most of his letters to churches, to small communities of believers, many of which he started on his missionary travels. Therefore, he writes with the heart of a pastor who wants these Christians to grow and mature in their faith. This is why when you read the majority of Paul’s letters, there is a prayer at the very beginning. He shares how he has prayed and how he will continue to pray.

Since these churches consisted largely of newly converted first-generation believers in Jesus, from both Jewish and Pagan backgrounds, Paul wrote his letters to correct, guide, and support them as they lived our their faith in decidedly un-Christian territory. These new disciples didn’t have two or three, much less several, generations of Christians and church life to draw on for wisdom. It was new ground they were plowing. They needed wise and firm counsel if they were going to remain faithful and obedient.

So even though Paul wrote these letters and prayers to first-generation churches, we can glean a great deal from him about how to prioritize our prayers. As Paul puts elsewhere:

All Scripture is inspired by God and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

2 Timothy 3:16-17

When Paul tells Timothy that Scripture is profitable for teaching, it stands to reason that this includes teaching on prayer. And though Paul’s prayers in his letters are not direct teaching, we are, I believe, to learn from his example. Put simply, Paul’s prayers in his letters show us how to pray for ourselves, one another, and our churches.

So here is one example:

I give thanks to my God for every remembrance of you, always praying with joy for all of you in my every prayer, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . . And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, so that you may approve the things that are superior and may be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.

Philippians 1:3-5, 9-11

First note why Paul is thankful. The Philippians bring him joy because of their partnership in the gospel. Every time he prays for them, gratitude wells up in his heart. He declared the gospel to them and now they are living it out. For this he is glad. And because he knows God is the one who has made all of this possible, it becomes a part of his prayers.

Paul then tells them how he continues to pray for them. Though we could say a great many things about his intercession on behalf of the Philippians, we can simply say that Paul prays here for the spiritual growth of these believers. He wants their love to grow in concert with a deepening grasp of the gospel; for their lives to bear the fruit of the Spirit and of witness; and for their entire perspective to be Christ-centered, oriented towards the day when Jesus will return.

In other words, he prays, as Jesus teaches in The Lord’s Prayer, that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done in the lives of the disciples in Philippi. Because such lives are what hallow God’s name.

In case we think Paul’s prayer for the Philippians is an anamoly, let’s look at another example. This one is from Colossians.

We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. 

Colossians 1:3-5

Once again, Paul expresses his thanks to God for the faith of those to whom he brought the gospel. He is grateful for how the good news has changed their lives, and how they are showing love to one another.

I never hear anyone praying like this. For some reason, I don’t even pray like this in church when leading a pastoral prayer.

Maybe we should pray that we would have more and more reasons to pray like Paul here. Either that God would give us eyes of faith or that his kingdom would come and his will would be done more clearly in our midst!

For this reason also, since the day we heard this, we haven’t stopped praying for you. We are asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, so that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, so that you may have great endurance and patience, joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the saints’ inheritance in the light. 

Colossians 1:9-12

How does Paul pray for the Colossian Christians here? He asks God to give them knowledge of his will, that they would grow in wisdom and spiritual understanding, that they would live lives worthy of Jesus, that they would bear spiritual fruit, that they would be strengthened by God so that they can endure hardship with patience, and that through all this they would have an attitude of joyful gratitude towards God.

Another example of prayer in Paul I love is from Ephesians:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

Let’s be honest. Is that not a beautiful prayer? And look at what he’s praying for on behalf of this church. He wants their faith to be firm and he wants them to grasp more and more the height and depth of God’s love for them. Imagine how an answer to such a prayer would transform many who attend church today. Imagine if our intellectual knowledge that God loves us would more fully descend and fill our hearts. I’m not sure we’d know what hit us.

Of course, I suspect some of us may read Paul’s prayers here and elsewhere and think, wow, I could never pray like that. Perhaps we find his example a little intimidating. Maybe we think Paul is a little wordy. His prayer is, after all, quite a theological and spiritual mouthful.

But think of it this way. We don’t have to pray exactly like Paul to learn how to pray from Paul. Ask yourself: what is Paul asking God to do in the lives of the Philippians, Colossians, and Ephesians? Isn’t he asking God to enable them to grow spiritually, to become increasingly mature followers of Jesus? Doesn’t he want these believers to live more Christ-centred and therefore joyful, thankful, and faithful lives? And isn’t he asking God to sustain them in faith whatever circumstances or troubles come their way?

Now, let me ask an obvious question: isn’t this how we ought to be praying for one another as followers of Jesus? Not only that, but shouldn’t this be our first concern for our brothers and sisters in Christ? Yet, is it? I humbly suggest that prayers like this are almost entirely absent from church prayer meetings, church worship services, our prayer request lists, and pastoral prayers (and, yes, that’s on me too). Instead, our prayer lists almost entirely consist of everyday matters, especially for health concerns and people’s difficult situations.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray that someone would experience recovery from an illness or that our friend or family member would see a turnaround in a challenging relationship. Or whatever. Certainly we should pray for these things.

But should those things be our priority?

Well-known pastor and author Timothy Keller says this about Paul’s prayers: “It’s remarkable that in all of his writings Paul’s prayers for his friends contain no appeals for changes in their circumstances.”

No prayers for physical healing or a change to trying situations. None. Nada. Zip.

Yet prayer permeates Paul’s letters. His passionate, loving concern for the churches he writes overflows naturally in prayer. The reality of the good news, of the centrality of Jesus and our salvation in him, fills his vision. Nothing is more important.

Do such concerns–does such passion–fill our prayers for one another?

Do we pray for our fellow church members, that their faith would grow, that they would experience God’s love more deeply, that they would become more resilient as life throws curveball after unexpected curveball?

Or instead are we so focused on the here and now that we neglect such petitions and forget that our real lives will take place on the other side of Jesus’ return in eternity?

What does a lack of prayers like those in Paul’s letters say about us, our churches, and our priorities? What does it tell us about what we value most?

I don’t say this to lay a guilt trip on anyone. Including myself. But there’s a difference between experiencing guilt and experiencing conviction. We don’t only need to experience conviction with respect to obvious things we’ve done wrong. We need to experience conviction about the good, spiritual priorities that we tend to neglect.

Here’s the thing: what does such neglect reveal about what we believe about God? What does it say about what we believe God can and desires to do in our lives and in the lives of our churches?

Imagine for a moment if more–maybe even most–believers in most churches began praying by following Paul’s example in his letters. What might God do? Well, I think the apostle Paul helps us there too. And with his words I will end.

Now to him who is able to do above and beyond all that we ask or think according to the power that works in us—to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

Ephesians 3:20-21

Next time I will talk about how we can bring all of ourselves to God in prayer.

Like a Child

I love kids. Or at least I love my kids. As it happens, like other parents, I love my children in a way only I can. Sometimes I just love watching my kids. I love seeing them at play, observing their behaviour as they interact, learn, and discover the world around them. And while most of the time we adults are teaching our children, we often miss out on the fact that they can teach us much too. Of course to learn from our children, it’s important that we welcome them—that we engage them on their terms, meet them at their level.

I was playing outside with my twin boys (then around 2 years of age) Henry and Eli—while my wife and daughter were in Grand Bay, and it was such a pleasure to watch these two little guys toddle around, toss the ball back and forth, throw snow in no particular direction, and explore the various areas in our yard. There was something so simple about their joy in being able to play, in how they enjoyed their environment. Random twigs and pebbles became toys. Walking from the front lawn to the back deck became a fascinating journey. Their hands and feet made new discoveries with each step. Laughter punctuated our silly conversations. There is a freedom in play that only children seem to know. It made me wonder that afternoon what we lose as we grow older. It makes me wonder still if when teaching our children we’ve gotten into the habit of educating them out of their imaginations, that ready playfulness and receptivity to the possibilities of the world around them. It seems, at times, that we don’t want our kids to be kids—at least not for very long.

As I watched my two sons play that Saturday afternoon, it occurred to me that one of the things I could learn from them is to slow down. Sometimes we grown-ups are in a big, fat, hurry. Life moves at a quick pace these days and catching our breath is always a challenge. Now, it may sound silly to think that kids—especially excitedly mobile toddlers!—can teach us about slowing down, but I guess I mean that they don’t yet know the pressure of having to be in a rush. They have the freedom to enjoy their environment, of taking in the world around them one twig or pebble or insect at a time.

We, on the other hand, miss much that is within view. Our day-planners force a certain kind of myopia upon our vision. This can have the effect of losing the ability to take pleasure in little things, like when our daughter, when less than two years old, spent a great deal of time examining a slug crawling along the ground. She declared it to be beautiful. She did the same thing with caterpillars. Without kids going with us on a hike, what else might we miss that is beautiful?

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church in Corinth, wrote these words: “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me (1 Cor. 13:11).” So maybe we can say that we’ve just grown up. We’ve matured, and put old ways behind us. While the kids around us have an imaginative, playful freedom, it’s something that we should hope for them to outgrow. At some point our children need to “put the ways of childhood behind” them. We’re simply helping them along the maturing process.

Unless, that is, there is a difference between being childish and being child-like. Obviously, our kids are going to grow up. They will mature, change, and become more sophisticated. But do they have to lose their imaginations in the process? Must they forfeit their freedom to enjoy the world around them, to capture in gleeful glimpses its often unrecognized examples of beauty? Should we encourage them to quit playing or should we instead learn to join them?

In our present culture children are growing up faster than ever. From the education system to our media-saturated environment, kids are hardly allowed to be kids any longer. Toys get packed away sooner and sooner. Exposure to questionable subject matter is becoming harder and harder to control in the age of the iPod and Facebook. Pressure on parents to ensure their kids preparedness for life in every respect looms larger than it ever has. Even worse, the school system is geared to introduce ideas to our children at a stage not all parents deem appropriate, ideas of a certain moral and social complexity perhaps best left to parents and out of the classroom altogether.

I wonder if the reason for this pressure kids sometimes face to grow up is that we don’t always take them seriously as people in their own right—they’re only adults-in-waiting, and until they do grow up they are of no significance. Let’s face it, there are a number of social contexts where children are simply in the way. We experience them as a nuisance. In church we murmur under our breath, “Can’t they make their kid shut up?” Or in a line up at Wal-Mart we think, “Boy, that kid sure is a brat!” All these thoughts cross our minds without us ever wondering at the same time if we’ve made appropriate space for these little people to be a part of the community. How have we welcomed them? How have we made room for them?

In the Gospel of Luke, there is this story about Jesus and his disciples: “People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’”

Jesus’ welcome of children is instructive for us. If he extended hospitality to children, saw their intrinsic value, and even went as far as to suggest that we should be more like children, then this presents us with a challenge both in how we view the kids in our midst and how we interact with them.

Given that in Jesus’ day children were non-persons, the lowest on the low rung of the social ladder, we shouldn’t be surprised at the initial reaction of his disciples. “Those kids don’t belong here! Don’t bother Jesus with your children. He’s got more important things to do!” Sounds like what we might say while waiting in a line-up at Wal-Mart. But Jesus’ attitude was markedly different. Not only did he teach that we should welcome these little ones into our company, receive them kindly, but he also suggested that we should become more like them. They are our example.

In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus makes this even clearer: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

If we not only welcome these little ones but also dare to become more like them, perhaps we too will experience something of the freedom, the natural sense of playfulness, they seem to know almost instinctively.  It’s not so natural to us. An adult must stoop to play with a child. And stooping has a certain undignified air about it to us. But maybe it’s in welcoming a degree of childlikeness in ourselves that we most effectively lose childishness and become fuller human beings. Perhaps it’s when we become like one of these children that we can truly say we’ve grown up.



Quiet. It’s a rare thing for me these days, especially as a father of three. And not only for that reason. Our world is filled with noise: voices, music, TV, computers, traffic, crowds, appliances, phones. Unusual is the moment in the course of an average day that our environment is empty of sound. Even now as I sit typing, I hear at least one of my four year old sons waking. The serenity I enjoy is temporary, soon to be interrupted by the sound of kids playing—something done only occasionally at low volume. So, at the very least, this gives me ample motive to take full advantage of such tranquility when it’s available. Learning the value of stillness is important, maybe all the more in a culture where sound is virtually ubiquitous.

Tuning our ears to quiet is also a challenge. We’re used to noise. Becoming accustomed to the sound of our own thoughts isn’t easy. And nor is it always something we want. When alone with our thoughts, we might not like what we hear. The constant background hum of our computers and the chatter of our workplaces and homes can shield us against what’s going on in our own heads. Maybe we prefer this. We’d rather our existence within the world of work, home, and social media be the sum total of what we are—ignoring our inner-life altogether. Facing ourselves is, at least sometimes, much less desirable than updating our Facebook status.

But even if we want quiet, it’s hard to come by. Lives busy with activity make time alone seem like an indulgence if not an inconvenience. Sometimes we even feel guilty for taking it. Such moments are unnecessary interruptions. Think about it this way. When someone asks you how life is going, how often do you say, “Pretty slow, actually. Lots of time on my hands,” vs. “Oh, we’re keeping busy”? Busyness implies importance. It signifies that we’re responsible. We manage our time well. That abundance of tasks that fills our schedules lends significance and meaning to our lives. Taking a break from that means waste. It means being irresponsible. It means—heaven forbid—that the world can get along without us.

And this, in part, is what Sabbath is all about. The Hebrew word we translate “rest” in the Old Testament is the verb form of the word Sabbath. And it doesn’t mean to rest because we’ve grown weary or tired from our labours. Literally, it means to “stop or cease.” Sabbath is not about working to the point of exhaustion and then crashing. It’s a break from productive activity, whether you’re tired or not. Work six days, then stop.

And to stop, we require some quiet. We need to separate ourselves from tools, toys, and environments that tempt us to busyness and activity. It means instructing our computer to shut down. Only when we do so will we have the quiet we need—yes, need. We might very well be wired for sound and activity; but we’re also wired for rest and quiet. This is why the first six days of creation activity in Genesis 1 is capped off with a seventh day, a Sabbath day, a reminder of our need for rest.

But it’s not just about taking a break. Sabbath ultimately speaks to the purposes of God for us, that ultimately he is interested in our placing our relationship with him first above all else. “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee,” prays Saint Augustine. “My soul finds rest in God alone; my salvation comes from him,” we hear in Psalm 62.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, says this about Sabbath: “Whatever you are doing, stop it . . . Whatever you are saying, shut up. We must stop long enough to hear what he has said and is saying . . . without silence and stillness there is no spirituality, no God-attentive, God-responsive life.”

Sabbath is about paying attention to God. Of course, this might very well be the reason some avoid quiet. There are those who want to ignore that “still, small voice.” Life is easier, it seems, without it. Our preference for texts and tweets reinforces the tyranny of the urgent in our lives. God becomes peripheral, rather than a priority.

In the Bible, rest is another way of talking about salvation, of being made whole and right, firstly and especially in relation to God. It’s no surprise, then, that Jesus gives the following invitation: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give your rest” (Matt. 11:28) Jesus offers more than rest for our bodies; he offers us rest for our souls.

But to hear and respond to this invitation, we require quiet, a reprieve from the noise that normally fills our days. To listen we need to be in a position to hear. Our ears to be open, waiting. And this is what Sabbath is truly about. It’s not about only not working. It’s about what not working allows us to hear. It’s what being still rather than busy helps us be aware of.

My advice? Take a few moments alone this week—today even—and turn to Isaiah 30:15 where it reads: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.’” Understand that this invitation to rest is for you too. Jesus’ invitation—given two millennia ago—is given to us today: “Come to me . . . and I will give you rest.” The invitation is there; the rest, as they say, is up to us.