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.

Lenten TV Fast Update

So it’s day three of no Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, or Disney+.

So far, so good.

I’ve noticed a few things. First, it’s not really something I miss per se. But because of the habits that I’d formed, I’m aware of the absence of it. I miss or at least am cognizant of the change in my routine. It’s amazing what I would do because it’s what I was used to doing. Lent is giving me the opportunity to reflect on and change habits.

I also have a little more time. When I would watch something while eating lunch, my meal was always done before whatever I was watching. But I kept watching. Today while eating I listened to a podcast. When I was done eating, I got back to work. I kept listening to the podcast, but it wasn’t the same as passive entertainment; it was spiritually edifying and intellectually stimulating. Lent is teaching me a bit about what Scripture calls “redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:16).

Lastly, there have been moments when I’ve thought about “adjusting” my commitment to fasting from TV for Lent. Maybe I could only fast from certain portions of it. No doubt an excuse to keep some of what I want. However, I’m not going to change the parameters of my fast. To that end, Lent is helping me experience the value of not always getting what I want.

With 37 days to go, it should be interesting to see what else I learn from observing Lent.

Thoughts on Prayer: Pre-Written or Spontaneous Prayers?

When I was growing up as a Roman Catholic, I was taught how to pray some specific prayers. The first was The Lord’s Prayer, which in the New Testament (in the CSB) goes like this:

Our Father in heaven,
your name be honored as holy.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not bring us into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

Matthew 6:9-13

There was also the Gloria Patri. This prayer is also a part of the Daily Office from The Book of Common Prayer.

Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.

Gloria Patri (Glory Be to the Father)

I remember saying this prayer regularly during my bedtime prayers as a child.

But for most of my adult Christian life, I have not used pre-written prayers or prayed only using the words of The Lord’s Prayer. This is because I became a committed follower of Jesus in university through the influence of evangelicals. I was taught, therefore (often by example), to pray from the heart. That is, to come before God with my own words, to pray spontaneously.

Often, Christians think we should pray one way or the other. Those from a more high-church or liturgical tradition (Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans) maintain the value and importance of prayers that are essentially “given” to us. We should make use of and personalize pre-written prayers. Those, however, from the free-church or evangelical traditions (Baptists, Pentecostals, Wesleyans) emphasize spontaneous prayers. More, they often see pre-written prayers as rote, as prayers that can be spoken without the person really praying.

So how should we pray? Does it have to be one or the other?

For instance, when it comes to The Lord’s Prayer, did Jesus intend his disciples to pray those words verbatim? I appreciate theologian Karl Barth, who in his wonderful little book Prayer, puts it this way: “Be content with possessing in the Lord’s Prayer a model, but let your prayer arise from the fieedom of the heart.” I think Barth puts it beautifully, and in doing so addresses the respective concerns of both those who emphasize pre-written prayers and those who emphasize spontaneous prayers.

You see, I think here is a difference between Jesus teaching his disciples, including us, the words to pray and the way to pray. The words he gives in The Lord’s Prayer show us the way. He is teaching us what to pray for and how we ought to prioritize our prayers. However, I daresay we can pray with these words without praying in the way he taught us. We can do it simply by rote without really thinking about the words. We can do it without heart.

On the other hand, one weakness of only ever praying spontaneously is that we often immediately jump to our concerns or worries or needs. Our tendency is to focus on our problems–or the problems of people we know–without ever really giving time for what is on God’s heart and how that should make its way into our prayers. I remember one pastor saying that people often only pray for “stomachs and steering wheels,” referring to health issues and what we call “traveling mercies.” And although God certainly invites us to bring all of our concerns to him in prayer, I think he also wants us to do so within the larger framework of the story he is telling all throughout Scripture.

Notice that even in The Lord’s Prayer, only after teaching us to pray for God’s glory, kingdom, and will does Jesus teach us to pray for our daily bread and everyday needs. Maybe there’s a good reason for that. I think there is.

In making use of the Daily Office in my devotions for the last few months, I have been making use of the pre-written prayers in it as well. One of them is the confession of sin:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we have erred and strayed from your ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against your holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done, and we have done those things which we ought not to have done; and apart from your grace, there is no health in us. O Lord, have mercy upon us. Spare all those who confess their faults. Restore all those who are penitent, according to your promises declared to all people in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for his sake, that we may now live a godly, righteous, and sober life, to the glory of your holy Name. Amen.

Book of Common Prayer (2019)

Now, let me ask: How often to do you hear pastors praying words anything like this on a Sunday morning? How often do we pray like this in the privacy of our own hearts? Yet isn’t forgiveness, repentance, and the confession of sin a pretty basic aspect of discipleship?

Here’s the thing: What’s important are not the words of pre-written prayers but rather the spiritual realities to which they point us. Without such reminding, I think we would simply overlook some of these basic spiritual realities, like the need for confession (individually and corporately). Indeed, I think there are some key aspects to a praying life that are almost entirely absent from the lives of most believers and the worship of most congregations.

Let me put it this way: Praying only from the heart when the heart is not being sufficiently instructed and trained in how to pray can lead to a self-centred and narrow prayer life.

Just because we’re followers of Jesus doesn’t mean we know how to pray. Consider the context in Luke’s Gospel for Jesus giving the words of The Lord’s Prayer to his disciples:

He was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples. He said to them, “Whenever you pray, say,”

Luke 11:1-2

Jesus’ disciples asked him for help in praying. They wanted to pray like he prayed. They needed instruction. Are we so different?

I think pre-written prayers, even if we only use them as a starting point for our spontaneous prayers, remind us to pray in ways that we might otherwise neglect or forget, ways integral to growing in our living out of the good news of Jesus.

So, I submit, it’s neither one nor the other. Those who are seeking to love God and follow in his ways need both pre-written prayers and spontaneous prayers. Our prayers need both heart and direction, and making use of both ways of praying, allowing them to inform each other, provides what we need.

My Story Part 14: Grace in Hindsight

For you have made me rejoice, LORD, by what you have done; I will shout for joy because of the works of your hands.

Psalm 92:4

It was 1995, my last term at Mount Allison University. I was going to graduate with my BA in Religious Studies (and Political Science, as it happens), after which I’d be heading off to Acadia Divinity College to begin my MA in Theology. At the time, my plan was eventually to earn a PhD in theology and teach as a professor. That last part never happened, and even going on to do a master’s degree was hardly a given while I was at Mt. A.

My years at Mount A were incredibly formative for me. I’ve shared about that in earlier posts about my experience of being involved with IVCF and studying theology. Yet while in the midst of those years, what God was doing was not always evident.

Towards the end of my last year, while finishing up term papers and writing final exams, I recall having this nearly overwhelming feeling of joy, gratitude, and expectation. I remember going for walks and having this profound sense of God’s presence. It felt like the end of the most important season of my life to that point. No surprise, given what those years had been like. I had changed and grown so much. To put it another way, God had done so much in my life.

One memory in particular stands out. You see, our IVCF group met in the basement of the Mount Allison chapel. I had also been involved with the chaplaincy ministry a little bit. I often went there to pray, too, to come before God with whatever frustrations or anxieties were bothering me. So the chapel, which, incidentally, is absolutely beautiful, was an especially meaningful setting for me.

And I remember being in the chapel one spring evening during my final days at Mount A, filled with three years of memories, in awe of all that had happened, and having tears pour down my face.

Was I sad? Upset? Hardly.

Imagine being hit all at once with the realization of what God has done for you over the last few years of your life. Because if we’re honest, we know that God is at work, but we don’t always see or understand how in the moment. Sometimes it takes hindsight. Even then, sometimes God needs to open our eyes.

That’s what happened to me on this evening. All the joy and gratitude I had been feeling for a few weeks overflowed into one of the most profound experiences of thanksgiving I have ever had.

All I could say was, “Thank You.” But believe me, it was a deep and full hearted thank you. Because it was all grace, unmerited favour, sheer gift, God’s doing.

While in the present we aren’t always aware of the significance of what’s going on or what God’s doing in us and around us. But there are times when he graciously gives us a glimpse, when he lets us feel the weight of his providential care and supervision of our lives.

Truly, there is something wonderful about being able to look back and see how God has been at work, to realize how he has been mysteriously and lovingly protecting, guiding, and shaping you.

And this includes the bad stuff, the struggles, the pain that we deal with along the way. God is there too. My time at Mount A, as significant as it was, wasn’t perfect or only an endless highlight reel. There were moments and experiences that, well, sucked. No matter what age you are or what’s going on, life can be hard.

Yet, honestly, I’ve also learned that some of what was difficult to deal with at the time proved to be God’s means of protecting me from something or preparing me for something. Only with hindsight, though, did it become possible to understand that God was even at work in the disappointments.

Each one of our lives can indeed be, as the psalmist says above, the work of God’s hands. When we come to the end of ourselves and realize our need for God, it’s like he immediately sets out transforming us so that our desires and priorities radically shift. He makes it possible to learn how to look back and see his movements in our circumstances.

I’ve always loved these words of Charles Spurgeon: “God is too good to be unkind and He is too wise to be mistaken. And when we cannot trace His hand, we must trust His heart.”

Spurgeon is absolutely right. Much of the time in the present moment we cannot trace God’s hand in our lives. We don’t know what he’s up to or how we are growing spiritually. It’s then that we learn to trust his heart—by learning to lean on his promises and his character.

Yet, there are moments, such as the one I had roughly 25 years ago, when God pulls the curtain back just a bit and gifts us with hindsight to see the work of his grace in our lives. When that happens, treasure the moment and be thankful. And when life is proving troublesome and challenging, look back to that same moment when you saw his hand. Doing so will help you, as it does me, trust his heart.

Reading to Slow Yourself Down Part 2: Reading as a Way of Listening

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

John Bunyan

“It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”

C.S. Lewis

So this morning when I first woke up it was somewhere between 6:00am and 6:30am, and immediately my mind turned to making breakfast for our twin sons (who can’t always be trusted to make healthy choices) and getting the laundry out of the dryer (because I needed clean socks, of course). Then, thankfully, instead of leaping into whatever tasks lay before me, I did my morning prayers from the Daily Office, trying to slowly pay attention to the words rather than rush through them like another chore to check off my list.

The Daily Office this morning included Scripture (John 14), prayers (including the Lord’s Prayer), and the Apostles’ Creed. Reading these ancient Christian texts regularly immerses me in a narrative, a worldview, through which I can then approach life and see the world around me. Such liturgical practices orient me so that the other voices competing for my attention and allegiance (media, consumerism, politics, etc.) are gradually stripped of their influence. They also help quiet the internal voices of misguided desire, insecurity, anxiety, and expectations. It’s a way of allowing another, more foundational Voice to have greater power over me and in me. Like Lewis says above, it means “listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”

Such listening can’t happen in a vacuum. In other words, it’s not simply about sitting quiet and still and waiting for a voice–a sense, an impression, a feeling–to descend upon on our hearts and minds, bringing calm and focus. Though, truthfully, most of us could stand to spend much more time being still and quiet. As French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal once said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” No, what I mean is that reading Scripture, paying attention to liturgical texts such as the Apostles’ Creed, making use of traditional prayers like those in the Daily Office, is a form of listening. One that followers of Jesus, I think, are obligated–invited?–to use as spiritual resources in their apprenticeship to him. This is especially and primarily true of Scripture.

We are always being formed. We are always following a narrative. The question is: Which narrative? What is shaping our attitudes, the posture of our hearts? What is forming us? At the risk of pulling a Bible verse out of context, listen to what Paul says in Romans 8:29 should be happening to each believer in Christ: “For those he [God the Father] foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.” Conformed to the image of his Son. To conform means “to give the same shape, outline, or contour to, “to be similar or identical,” “to act in accordance or harmony.” In other words, we are called to become more and more Christlike. Not just in terms of what he did, but how he did it. Notice that Jesus was never in a hurry. He was never pressed for time. He was always acting and living out of his intimate communion with the Father. But here’s the thing: being conformed to Christ doesn’t–won’t–happen by osmosis or accident.

One of the ways it does happen is when we willingly take the time to listen to and to root ourselves in the story of Jesus, in redemption history, in the story of what God in Christ has done, is doing, and will do. It means allowing this narrative to take precedence. It means, honestly, fighting for it’s primary place in our lives. Because there is so much else that is attempting to fill that space. It’s often easier to make excuses and let spiritual disciplines fall to the wayside. There is, after all, too much else to do and think (worry? obsess?) about. Yet we need to pause, take a step, count to ten, to breathe.

Now, lest you think I’m coming at this from some ivory tower or idealistic-pastor-in-his-study point of view, let me assure you that my life is also busy (oh, how I hate that word). I am a full-time pastor. I’m married to a French and Music teacher who is very nearly full-time. We have a 16 year old daughter who does school online from home. We have twin sons who turn 12 next week. As I type this, there is church stuff to work on, laundry to do, rooms to clean, and a multitude of other tasks and responsibilities before me. I know perfectly well what it is like to feel overwhelmed by responsibilities. I know what it’s like to want to rush past prayer and Scripture because there’s too much else to do.

But I have also learned what I am like as a person when I do rush past prayer and Scripture. I am less attentive, less patient, less reflective, less prayerful, and less in the moment; and I am more easily tossed about by winds of anxiety, more prone to irritability, and, frankly, more likely not to love others well. I might even become more likely to use more, as our family calls them, “sweary words.” So, yeah, it means not exactly being conformed to the image of Jesus, the God-man who came, who died, and who was raised on my behalf so I could actually experience life as a new human being, freed from slavery to sin and my own selfish proclivity to think of myself first. So, I don’t know about you, but while it isn’t always easy or convenient to make time to “read” God into my life, to listen to him, I know that I wouldn’t have much of a life if I didn’t.