Am I Going to Grumble or Shine Today?

Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour in vain. But even if I am being poured out like a drink offering on the sacrifice and service coming from your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you. So you too should be glad and rejoice with me.

Philippians 2:14-18

Sometimes I make life about me. And sometimes this leads to complaining. I can definitely be a grumbler.

So I find Paul’s words to the Philippians convicting today. I mean, really? Do everything without grumbling or arguing? Those are high expectations! Why not most things? Or on some (crappy) days only some things?

I guess the whole point is growing in Jesus-likeness even when I don’t feel like it, when I don’t have the warm and fuzzies, when life hits me with stuff that is frustrating or uncomfortable. It is on these days—or in these moments—I’m supposed to shine. That happens when I stop focusing on myself and what I want and put it on others around me. Easier said than done, which is why I require the work of the Holy Spirit in me.

Here are some words from today’s Lectio 365 devotional:

“I am struck by the idea that I can shine like a star in this world. Not like the star of celebrity, but the star of service. Paul encourages me in Romans to ‘Take [my] everyday, ordinary life—[my] sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering’ (Rom. 12:1 in The Message).”

And then the prayer: Lord, help me today to pour my life out for the sake and service of others. I want to be known as one who gives and not one who takes. Amen.

Feeding Your Soul

I was doing some reading this evening in the book quoted below, which brought the apostle Paul’s words from Philippians to mind. I think they go together well.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable— if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy— dwell on these things. — Philippians 4:8

“Take a break from social media, put down your smartphone, and stop reading the news. Your soul has an appetite, feed it with goodness. Your mind is hungry, feed it wisely too. It’s much like a muscle in that, if you don’t use it, you will lose it . . . Read scripture and talk through your day with God. You’ll be amazed at how your sleep is affected by what you fill your mind and heart with before bed.” — Joy McMillan, SOZO: Embracing The Hard + Holy Road To Wholeness in a Quick-Fix World

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.

Train of Thought

Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things.

Philippians 4:8

“He who runs from God in the morning will scarcely find Him the rest of the day.”

John Bunyan

I don’t know about you, but I’ve made the mistake of starting my day the wrong way. These days, many people wake up with a small digital screen, with their Facebook feed, or maybe their favourite newsfeed. Before escaping Facebook, I fell into that trap plenty of times. And when I did, my frame of mind, the attitude that launched me into the rest of the day, wasn’t always, say, reflective, prayerful, or focused on the most worthy or worthwhile things.

I confess it still happens to me even though I am no longer on Facebook.

One result is that my perspective gets skewed by whatever media I consume. So if I click on the CBC news app or watch news of any kind before I pray or read Scripture, or even, ahem, check on the progress of an Amazon order, then my train of thought ends up running along the wrong track.

When that happens, it’s not always easy to change tracks.

That’s why I like the John Bunyan quote above. I do wonder how people distracted themselves in Bunyan’s day, though. What was the 17th century equivalent of Twitter?

My wife almost always begins the day with the Daily Office and Scripture. She’s a great example in that way. I endeavour to do likewise.

But it’s about more than the start of the day. The train can go off the rails at other points during the day. And I would imagine that’s why the Book of Common Prayer also has a midday office. Recalibrating even partway through the day is sometimes necessary.

Of course, you don’t need the Daily Office to do any of this. It helps, but even stopping for a few minutes to pray the Lord’s Prayer or reciting The Apostles’ Creed or simply asking God to help you in that particular moment to be more sensitive to his presence are all ways of getting back on track.

Not only that, but we also, I think, need to be more intentional about the media we consume and the effect it has on our thinking. What are we allowing into our hearts and minds and souls? Does watching too much CNN, CBC, or Fox News, to cite a few examples, make us more peaceful and kind? Or do we find ourselves more angry and cynical and suspicious and anxious? Is it any wonder Paul says what he does in Philippians about dwelling on things that encourage us in our faith and remind us of our identity in Christ?

Our habits around technology and media do have an impact on us. It affects us. It can direct our train of thought in unhealthy ways. I think we all know this. But given our pretty obvious cultural addiction to our technology and media, it’s up to us to take steps to allow healthier–indeed, holier–matters direct our train of thought.

Here are four suggestions:

  1. Don’t start your morning with Facebook, Twitter, or social media of any kind. Instead, start with the Daily Office, a few minutes of quiet prayer, or whatever devotion you prefer. Ask God to help your thoughts and your attitude move in a more healthy direction, one shaped by his character, his word, and his will.
  2. Pay attention to your media consumption. How does what you consume make you feel? What attitude do you have afterwards? What mood does it put you in? Are you better for it or worse? Is being that much more “informed” worth the time you spend online?
  3. Take time at some point in the day to draw aside and ask: Where are my thoughts? How has my day been going? Have I gotten off track? Do I need to take a moment and ask God to recalibrate my heart?
  4. Pray at the end of the day. Come before the Lord with whatever has happened since getting up. Remember what Psalm 4:8 says: I will both lie down and sleep in peace, for you alone, Lord, make me live in safety.

So I hope that provides some food for thought. In these days when we can easily spend most waking hours in front of a screen aborbing all kinds of messaging, I hope I can resist the temptation to do so and instead fill my heart and mind with, as Paul says, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable. I hope you can too.