Living Now with Eternity in Mind #3: Living By God’s Word

Since you have purified yourselves by your obedience to the truth, so that you show sincere brotherly love for each other, from a pure heart love one another constantly, because you have been born again—not of perishable seed but of imperishable—through the living and enduring word of God. For

All flesh is like grass,
and all its glory like a flower of the grass.
The grass withers, and the flower falls,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.


And this word is the gospel that was proclaimed to you.Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice, all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, desire the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow up into your salvation, if you have tasted that the Lord is good.

1 Peter 1:22-2:3

It is said that when the famous missionary, Dr. David Livingstone, started his trek across Africa he had 73 books in 3 packs, weighing 180 pounds. After the party had gone 300 miles, Livingstone was obliged to throw away some of the books because of the fatigue of those carrying his baggage. As he continued on his journey his library grew continued to grow smaller, until he had but one book left—his Bible. He could live without all of those other books; but the one book he couldn’t live without was the word of God. In our passage from 1 Peter, Peter tells us about living by the word of God.

Peter says to his readers: You have been born again by means of the living word of God. The question is: what does he mean when he says this? Now when Peter talks about God’s word in our passage, he’s not talking directly about the Bible as we know it. Peter would not have had the Bible as we have it; he would have had the OT. And more specifically, when he talks about God’s word here, he means the good news of Jesus: what we call the gospel. He’s talking about the overarching story of Scripture—the narrative arc that culminates ultimately in the person of Jesus. And as Peter says: This is the word that was preached to you.

So, it is the message of Scripture that God uses to bring us to faith. Put simply: We only come to faith in Christ through the message of Christ. The Spirit uses the message of the gospel to bring us to life. Which means: Living by God’s word means having new life in Christ. In Romans 1:16, Paul says, For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for everyone who has faith.

If we think of Peter’s original readers, they would have heard someone preach the good news. The Holy Spirit would have used the preaching of the good news to change their hearts and minds and lives—to bring conviction, repentance, and conversion. It was through the means of his word that God changed the hearts of Peter’s audience.

God’s word is also the means by which we come to faith. Think about yourself. What did God primarily use to bring you to faith in him? Was it through someone’s testimony or witness or friendship or a sermon or a special experience of God’s presence at church or VBS or Sunday School or a Christian camp? Whichever it was, no doubt it was the message about Jesus that led to your conversion. There are lots of ways and situations in which we could hear God’s word, but it is the message of salvation in Jesus that leads us to faith.

So: How did you first hear of the good news of Jesus? What was it like hearing about the salvation we can have through Jesus? What makes the message of the good news in Jesus unique? How does it differ from other messages we can receive? If you’ve already come to faith in Christ, what role does the word of God have in your life now?

Being changed by the power of God’s word is not only about our own personal salvation. When we come to faith through hearing the good news, this should also have an effect on how we relate to one another. Writing to the believers in Asia Minor, Peter says: So you have an honest and true love for each other. So love one another deeply, from your hearts. He’s describing a love that is sincere, not sentimental; that is based on our faith, not feelings; and that is not only about our attitudes but our actions. He gets down to the nitty-gritty here. Listen to what he says: So get rid of every kind of evil, and stop telling lies. Don’t pretend to be something you are not. Stop wanting what others have, and don’t speak against one another. We’re being instructed here to cultivate healthier, holier relationships with one another. This is significant because it means that our new life in Christ is not just “between me and Jesus.” It’s between me and Jesus and the people around me.

This is why John says: whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen . . . And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister (1 John 4:20—21).

Now, it’s important to realize that the love Peter is calling us to have is rooted in God’s love for us that we have received through his word, the proclaimed good news of Jesus. In other words, only once the word of God has taken root in us can we love one another deeply, from our hearts. It’s a love based on and rooted in the kind of self-sacrificial love we see at work in Jesus, the love that is at the heart of God’s character.

Eugene Peterson, in his book Eat This Book: A Conversation in the Art of Spiritual Reading, he writes: “Christians don’t simply learn or study or use Scripture; we assimilate it, take it into our lives in such a way that it gets metabolized into acts of love, cups of cold water, missions into all the world, healing and evangelism and justice in Jesus’ name, hands raised in adoration of the Father, feet washed in company with the Son.” Do you see, then? When we’re really living by God’s word, it changes who we are and how we live. And in this case, it should transform our relationships with one another.

So: How do we treat one another? What is our attitude towards the people around us? What’s the connection between loving God, ourselves, and one another? Can we truly love someone else if we haven’t learned to receive the love God has for us? What are we doing in our church to grow in our relationships? Do you see this as part of your responsibility? In what ways do you actively show others the love of God and seek to build stronger, healthier, more loving relationships in your church?

John MacArthur writes: “I have found that my spiritual growth is directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort I put into the study of Scripture.” And I don’t quote him to make us feel guilty about whether or not we think we’re reading the Bible enough or whether we struggle with it. I quote him to point out two things: first, we are called to grow spiritually. Once someone has been converted to faith in Christ, ongoing transformation and spiritual growth has to occur. In Ephesians 4:15 Paul says: we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. Second, this happens as we allow the Holy Spirit to apply the word of God to our lives. So, if we’re going to grow up as believers, and therefore grow in love, then we need ongoing nurture from the word of God.

Our passage puts it this way: Like newborn babies, you should long for the pure milk of God’s word. It will help you grow up as believers. You can do this now that you have tasted how good the Lord is. Here’s the thing, however: the word of God is not always going to be a welcome or comfortable word. Even for Christians, it might be a convicting word, one that ought to lead to further repentance and further transformation into the image of Jesus. Hence, Hebrews 4:12: For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. God still has (much?) work to do in all of us, deep work that penetrates our hearts and minds.

But that’s why our passage also says this: You can do this now that you have tasted how good the Lord is. In other words, once you have come to faith in Christ and come to know the love and grace and mercy and power of God in your life, it is all easier to trust him to continue his work in us. This means putting ourselves under his word. It means being in his word. It means submitting to his word. Not something we always find easy to do. It’s like a small child submitting to their parents because they’ve experienced their parents’ love—having received their love, having tasted the goodness of their parents, means they find it all the easier and, dare I say, desirable, to follow their parents’ instructions.

So: What does it mean to grow spiritually? Have you experienced this kind of growth? Do you want to? What difference does reading God’s word make in your relationship with him? What difference does it make if you don’t read God’s word? When was the last time God challenged you through his word and invited you to deepen your faith further? What was that like?

In our passage, Peter also says: His word lasts forever. You were not born again from a seed that will die. You were born from a seed that can’t die. In other words, the message of salvation, the good news of Jesus, is not a message that changes. This is what makes the word of God reliable and trustworthy. It’s not a truth that changes with the circumstances. It also means the new life we have in Christ won’t go away or end. Which also means our changing circumstances don’t affect our life in Christ. I don’t mean to say that reading the Bible is always easy. Nor am I saying that growing spiritually is easy. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t easy.

Of course, this is also why God’s word is such a gift to us. God has given us his word so that we can grow spiritually, so that we can grow in our understanding, in our attitudes, in our actions, and in our relationships. I think of Jesus in the wilderness being tempted by Satan to turn stones to bread. He quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Look how Jesus relied on the word of God! Indeed, feeding on the word of God is how we learn to trust and walk with the Word made flesh, our Saviour Jesus.

Prayers for Humble Listening and Wise Speaking

Below are two prayers from this morning’s Lectio 365 devotional. One concerns our need to listen humbly and the other to speak wisely. Both go together. Both speak to the need for relational accountability among Christians. Both highlight how difficult the conversations we have with one another can sometimes be and, therefore, how much grace we need in the midst of them. And of course both make clear that the words we exchange with one another ought to be enveloped in prayer—which, if nothing else, is a recognition that our inter-personal interactions require the presence and power of God.

Given how, sadly, Christians sometimes address each other, perhaps we need to take the intent and spirit of these prayers more seriously. How we go about our relationships with one another in the church pertains directly to our spiritual maturity, which cannot be separated from our emotional and relational maturity. Like the apostle Paul says, Christians should be speaking the truth in love, so that we will grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ (Ephesians 4:15). May such spiritual growth, which includes the words we speak and the manner in which we speak them, be increasingly our hearts desire.

Here are the two prayers:

Lord, surround me with people who love me and who are unafraid to tell me the truth. Develop in me the humility to listen and the wisdom to recognise when I need to change my ways.

Lord, when those I love face difficulties, I commit to bringing them to You in prayer before offering my own advice. Fill me with Your wisdom that I might speak Your life-giving words to them.

Prayer #4:Praying for One Another

This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength . . . 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. 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 1:15—19, 3:16—21

I heard someone say once that most prayers are about steering wheels and stomachs! In other words, we pray for people who are sick or traveling. And I think this more or less rings true. And of course there’s nothing wrong with praying for these concerns.

But I think this is also why prayers in the Bible can sometimes sound strange to us. This is definitely true with respect to how people pray. Last week we saw Abraham enter into a bold yet humble conversation with God in a way that most of us probably do not. And prayers in the Bible can also sound strange to us because of what people pray for. And we see that with the apostle Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. It’s characteristic of Paul to include prayers in his letters, usually at the beginning, but often throughout too. By looking at his prayers, Scripture also teaches us how to pray. Specifically, we’re being taught how to pray for fellow believers.

Have you ever thought about what God wants for the people you’re praying for? Is his first concern their physical health? Maybe the Lord has allowed illness to enter their lives to get their attention. The first thing we see here is this: Praying for one another requires the fuel of biblical truth. Now, what do I mean by this?

In Ephesians, Paul bursts into prayer immediately after having spoken of the reality of salvation, the blessings we have through Christ, and God’s purpose for those whom he calls. Here are some of those words: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavens in Christ . . . In him we have received an inheritance . . . In him you also were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed.

If you read the beginning of Ephesians, it almost feels like Paul’s words are tumbling out. He’s like he can’t keep it in. He’s overjoyed and overwhelmed by God and his blessings. And so his prayer for the Ephesians literally spills out of these words. He says: This is why, since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I never stop giving thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. In other words, he’s saying: “I’m so incredibly glad that you have experienced the gift of salvation, that you have come to know Christ and have become a part of the family of God. I’m blown away and filled with gratitude with what God has done in your lives.”

Paul’s prayers are fueled by biblical truth, by the reality of what God has accomplished for us through Jesus and by the Spirit. And this is what motivates Paul to pray in the first place. It also shapes what he prays. For instance, he prays: I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spiritof wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.

Do we pray like this? Do we ask God boldly and humbly to open the eyes of the hearts of our fellow Christians, so that they would be further and further filled with faith, hope, and love? Isn’t this what God wants for them? Indeed, for us?

Here’s the thing: if want more motivation for our prayers and a deeper understanding of how we should pray, we need Scripture. We need the Bible. It is the fuel for our prayers—including our prayers for others.

And this is true whether we’re praying for Christians or for people who are not Christians. Either way, we’re called to ask God to be at work in people’s lives. This can mean continuing to grow in faith or it can mean coming to faith in Christ for the first time. Praying for others requires the fuel of biblical truth.

When you pray for others, what do you pray for most? What specific biblical truth about God fuels your prayers? Do you fuel your prayers with Scripture? What difference does it make?

Do you remember the OT story of Elijah and the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18)? Elijah challenges the prophets to see if their god is more powerful than Yahweh, to see which God will shower their altar with fire. The prophets of Baal spend all day crying out to Baal. They even cut themselves, hoping he will respond. He never does. Elijah mocks them. Then after they’ve had their turn, Elijah makes sure his altar is soaked with water. He utters a short, simple prayer; and fire falls on the altar, thoroughly drying out even the water that spilled over into the trench. The prophets of Baal seemed to be trusting in the fervency of their prayers. It was about what they could do to manipulate their god to act. On the other hand, Elijah spoke a simple, trusting prayer in the God of Israel: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, today let it be known that you are God in Israel.  Elijah’s faith was in a powerful God. Then God showed up in a powerful way.

So the next thing we then see is this: Praying for one another means trusting in the power of God. This means trusting that God can do what he says he will do. It means trusting that he can answer our prayers. It means trusting that he can be at work in our lives. He can rain fire on the altar of our hearts.

I think we struggle with this as Christians. But I wonder if that’s because we focus too much on ourselves and not enough on the character of God? Fueling our prayers with biblical truth can really help us to trust in the power of God.

Paul mentions the power of God a couple of times. First, he talks about the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength. He goes on to say that God exercised this power in Christ by raising him from the dead.

So he wants the Ephesians to understand—to take deeply into their hearts and minds—that the power at work in them is the same divine power that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s this same power that gives us strength to live the Christian life: 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. And do you see what he’s praying for here? That the Ephesians would be strengthened spiritually in their walk with Christ, that their faith in him would grow and become more resilient.

Look at how Paul concludes his prayer with a benediction: 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.

Did you catch that? 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. This is an expression of deep trust in the power of God. Paul’s saying we can trust God’s power to answer our prayers according to his purpose. I also believe this: the more we pray like Paul, the stronger our own faith can become.

Based on Paul’s prayer, what does God want for us and our lives? Is this what you usually pray about for others? How would you describe the power of God that’s at work in our lives?What does believing in the resurrection have to do with trusting in the power of God for our lives now? Do you pray for others with this kind of trust in God’s power?

I think as a father, the most important thing I want my kids to know and experience from me is my love for them. I say, “I love you,” all the time. Maybe it even annoys them after a while! Sometimes, rather than saying “I love you” back they say “I know, Dad.” But did you know that this is what God wants us to know and experience of him also? God wants us to comprehend the length and width, height and depth of [his] love for us.

This is what Paul prays for the Ephesians. And we should pray the very same thing for others too. Put simply: Praying for one another means wanting them to know and experience the love of God in Christ. Listen again to what Paul prays:  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.

Isn’t that just amazing? Whatever else Paul is saying here, it’s all rooted in the love of God for us, a love that he wants us to be profoundly aware of. And indeed if Paul makes this his prayer for the Ephesians, we can also make this a part of our prayers for others.

In his book, Prayer for Beginners, Peter Kreeft writes: “Trusting God’s grace means trusting God’s love for us rather than our love for God. Therefore our prayers should consist mainly of rousing our awareness of God’s love for us rather than trying to rouse God’s awareness of our love for him.” Because there is nothing that can and will transform us more than knowing and experiencing—comprehending deeply—God’s love for us in Christ.

To quote John White, from Daring to Draw Near, “In knowing the love that passes knowledge we are changed . . . All Christians are meant to grasp it, not to understand an abstract concept but to perceive that they themselves are loved by a love that has no measure.” We should be praying that all of us would become more aware of, and changed by, this very love, the love that we see ultimately in the person and work of Jesus.

Do you need to know and experience God’s love more deeply? Are you comfortable asking him to help you with this?How does knowing someone loves you enable you to trust them? Why might praying that others may know God’s love for them change how we see them?

George Whitfield, 18th century evangelist and founder of Methodism, wrote: “If we inquire, why there is so little love to be found amongst Christians, why the very characteristic, by which everyone should know that we are disciples of the holy Jesus, is almost banished out of the Christian world, we shall find it, in a great measure, owing to a neglect or superficial performance of that excellent part of prayer, Intercession, or imploring the divine grace and mercy in behalf of others.” Our love for one another goes hand in hand with praying for one another. With praying specifically that we would grow in our knowledge of God’s love for us, in our trust in God, in our walk with Jesus.

Maybe you’ve shared with someone a difficulty you’re having and they’ve said, “I’ll pray for you.” Or maybe you’ve said that to someone when they’ve shared with you. And if you’re like me, there are times when you completely forget and never actually follow through. So, if possible, what I try to say instead is this: “Can I pray for you right now?” And if the person says yes, which is what they usually say, I do it right there and then.

Praying for one another requires the fuel of biblical truth. Or to put it another way: prayer is a key way of applying my knowledge of Scripture in a very practical way. Praying for one another means trusting in the power of God. This means trusting that God wants to and is able to change the people we are praying for. Praying for one another means wanting them to know and experience the love of God in Christ. This is true for us believers, because all of us need to more fully receive the love of God for us. And it’s true for people who have yet to experience faith in Jesus, because they need to know, even if for the first time, just how much God loves them. The truth is: we all need the eyes of our hearts opened more and more to the reality of the love of God the Father and to the good news of Jesus the Son. We’re all in need of further and deeper transformation by the power of the Holy Spirit. This is what it means to become and to grow as a Christian. And this takes prayer. This is why we pray for one another.

Something New?

Do not remember the past events, pay no attention to things of old. Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it? Indeed, I will make a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert. Wild animals—jackals and ostriches—will honor me, because I provide water in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people. The people I formed for myself will declare my praise.

Isaiah 43:18-21

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, and see, the new has come!

2 Corinthians 5:17

It’s been a difficult year. The ongoing reality of COVID has made all of us weary. It’s certainly taken it’s toll on churches and Christians: emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually.

We need something new. Don’t we?

Does the New Year give us hope or is it simply flipping the page on a calendar? Is the transition from 2021 to 2022 merely numerical or do we have genuine reasons for anticipating something new?

Often I just expect more of the same. Even if I believe God can do a new thing—in me, my faith community, my family—I don’t always believe he will. After all, why get my hopes up?

Yet, through the prophet Isaiah God tells the people of Israel he is going to do something new. He is going to make a way in the desert, through the wilderness. God promises to refresh and renew with life-giving water.

Where do we need refreshing? Or: in what way are our hearts and souls dry and parched?

Do we believe God can do something new there?

What new thing do we want or need God to do in our churches? Or: in what way are our churches stuck or discouraged?

Do we believe God can do something new there?

How can God transform this arid desert into a place where there is life-giving water?

And how must we position ourselves to see it, to experience it, to participate in it?

Remember the words of Isaiah: Look, I am about to do something new; even now it is coming. Do you not see it?

Sometimes, I confess to being spiritually blind, unable to see past my own limited experience and understanding. is this true of you too?

Lord, in your mercy open my eyes. Open our eyes.

How often do I underestimate God, not only what he can do but what he desires to do? How often do I treat him not as a living God who continues to do new things but as a God who once did things worth remembering?

Maybe something new begins with confession, with a heart of repentance. Don’t we all need to come clean about our faithlessness and hopelessness, our spiritual complacency? Even as churches?

What might God want to do among us and in us and through us? Do we think he’s done? Is his work in our midst all in the past, on calendar pages we’ve long since turned or torn off altogether?

May God by his grace and by the power of his Spirit give rise to a fresh hope, to genuine anticipation, to a willingness to confess our sins and admit our need for him. May God in his mercy lead us to places of refreshing in the wilderness of the here and now of COVID, constant negative news, and confusing cultural change. May he lovingly orient us anew towards the cross and empty tomb, to the very source of our life. And may we be willing to have our hearts broken open and healed once again by his eternally good news.

And from The Book of Common Prayer:

O immortal Lord God, who inhabitest eternity, and hast brought thy servants to the beginning of another year: Pardon, we humbly beseech thee, our transgressions in the past, bless to us this New Year, and graciously abide with us all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

49

Yesterday I began the last year of my 40s. Or as my kids like to point out, “Dad, you’re nearly half a century old!”

An encouraging thought, indeed.

Yet as the pastor of a largely senior congregation, I know that I’m comparatively young. One lovely lady in our church has been a member for, I kid you not, 70 years!

So while I may be nearly half a century old, age is relative in some sense. To my kids, I’m old; to most people in my church, I’m young.

The most common way to describe someone in my season of life is to say I’m middle-aged. Halfway between old and young. And it feels strange, if I’m honest. Unless I’m with peers, I always feel slightly out of place but able to connect with people who are younger and older.

But the truth is, even though age is a mere number, getting older—or proceeding further into middle-age!—means change. Eating chicken wings or other spicy food, for instance, comes with a price to my digestive process I never had to pay, say, during my university years. I can dye my beard (As I have done. At my wife’s request, I might add!) or accept reality.

Getting older also means having your perspective change. You begin to see life differently. Things that were once important, you hardly give a second thought. Other things occupy more space in your mind. Or maybe it’s a question of limited space. If something new goes in, something else falls out.

Even as a Christian and a pastor, my perspective has changed. My journey of faith continues. I’m not who I once was. Not entirely. My relationship with God has grown. How I see church and ministry has shifted. Every once in awhile I have this sense of perhaps where God is (or seeks to be) at work transforming me. I think of the words of John the baptist: He must increase; I must decrease.

Though I have also found myself evaluating and pondering my life. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever really had a mid-life crisis; however, I have found myself asking: What have I accomplished? Have a made an actual difference? Where will God lead me in the days ahead? What reasons have I given my kids to seek therapy in the future? You know, the usual questions.

And obviously in many ways I’m glad when it comes to where I find myself at this stage of life. I’m grateful to be a father of three (nearly all) teenage kids. I’m grateful to be married to an incredibly beautiful and intelligent woman who deigns to be with me. In a lot of ways, despite my flaws, I’m much more comfortable with myself than I used to be.

Of course, in other ways I am less happy with myself. I should lose a lot of weight. There are loose ends in my life and I have unfinished business in various ways. I wonder: can I change this or that about myself? Or am I (and those around me!) stuck with me as I am?

Ah, 49! My life still stretches out before me, but now just as much (and probably much more so) behind me. I have no real desire to return to a younger version of myself. I’m more interested in growing older and hopefully, therefore, wiser. Whether the latter is happening, I’ll perhaps let others decide. Meanwhile, I want to lean into the present, and learn more and more to trust that God has my future well in hand, however many birthdays I have left.

The Embodied Church

Today we had the first get together in person, face to face prayer meeting at our church in almost two months. While in lockdown in May and June, some of us would meet on Zoom to pray together. Having such technology available has certainly been a blessing over the last year and a half. Without Zoom and the ability to livestream, we would have had to have gone weeks at a time not being able to connect, hear each other’s voices, and see one another’s faces. Granted, the online option doesn’t work for everyone. Being the pastor of a church where some members don’t even have a computer at home means there are some who get left out of this online participation. But at least there was something. Though, honestly, I am much less enamored of such technological possibilities now than I was a year or more ago when the whole lockdown thing began. I am grateful for them but not satisfied by them.

I heard somewhere that there were statistics showing that in some places only 60% of people would return to church in person after COVID. The remaining 40% are those who have found the online option preferable because it is more convenient. After all, who wouldn’t rather watch church on their TV or laptop screen in their PJs with a hot cup of coffee? Any parent, knowing what it’s like having to wrangle kids into clean clothes and into the minivan to make the trek to church, might be tempted by staying with this option. So such a statistic, if its bears any resemblance to reality, is certainly worth unpacking.

However, as convenient or helpful as being able to go online has been, I can’t imagine it ever being a substitute for actually gathering together in person. I will show my bias by stating it simply: online church isn’t really church.

Why? My reason is simple. We have bodies. And our bodies are not simply transportation devices for our heads. Our bodies matter. Who we are as physical creatures, as flesh and blood human beings, matters. We are embodied souls created by God to live in relationship with other embodied souls. That we can gather in one place with other people, smile at one another, shake hands, hug, and even just hear one another’s voices and see one another’s faces, matters. Profoundly.

Whatever else we say about church, it has to be embodied to fully be church. People attend worship services not only–and probably not even primarily–to hear sermons and sing songs. Sermons are available by the millions online. No pastor should be under the illusion that their preaching is indispensable. You can stream music at home or in your car, lifting your voice along with your preferred worship songs and hymns. You don’t need to go to a designated building to hear good teaching or music.

But church–that is, genuine Christian community–is much, much more than sermons and songs.

You see, you can’t embrace or be embraced at a distance. You can’t mourn with those who mourn and rejoice with those who rejoice only by texting. You can’t shake hands or offer someone a shoulder to cry on while on Zoom. A kind, loving tone of voice doesn’t translate well in an email. Genuine, long-term Christian community requires physical presence. It means being with others. It’s virtually impossible to obey any of the New Testament’s “one anothering” passages unless people are actually together.

Staying online for worship and other forms of spiritual nourishment also has the potential effect of feeding our already bloated consumerist approach to church life and Christianity. I find what I like. I stream what I prefer. My favourite preacher. My favourite music. My favourite liturgy. And if we’re watching an online service and the speaker or preacher says something that doesn’t conform to our preconceived ideas, we can turn it off. We move onto something else. Our own preferences and comfort zones become the arbiter of truth and value. We can safely become theological islands. Our Christian faith becomes a buffet of biblical interpretation and practical application–all based on our own appetites.

And when “going” to church from the comfort of our living rooms, we can sidestep the awkwardness of actual relationships, of people who don’t like us (hard to imagine) or who rub us the wrong way (perhaps easier to imagine), the person who smells funny or doesn’t quite understand common social cues, not to mention the potential disagreements and conflicts that cause many to leave congregations in the first place.

No wonder some people avoid church and opt for watching their favourite mega-church pastor on YouTube or Facebook instead.

But doesn’t all of this messiness provide the very conditions within which God seeks to conform us spiritually into the image of his Son–our Lord–Jesus? Doesn’t growing into spiritual maturity involve much more than increasing the amount of biblical information in our brains? Indeed, isn’t wisdom not only the accumulation of scriptural knowledge but living that knowledge out around other people, in actual relationships, in specific circumstances?

Learning to live patiently with people who annoy us, even if they are brothers and sisters in Christ, is most definitely not the same as intellectually understanding the concept of patience. Bearing one another’s burdens is not the same as recognizing the importance of compassion and sending an etransfer to a worthwhile charitable organization. No, to become patient people, thankful people, humble people, faithful people, merciful, forgiving, and loving Jesus-like people, we need to be smack dab in the middle of Christian community, of a family of faith through which God by His Spirit cultivates these qualities in us by placing us with people who test them.

Besides, isn’t our faith an incarnational one? After all, God did not remain afar off, but came near–indeed, became one of us. The entire arc of the core biblical narrative is God dwelling with humanity in a reconciled, whole, flourishing relationship. That’s the whole point of creation and redemption. That’s why the second Person of the Trinity became a human being, entered our world, went to the cross, and was raised again. It’s why we need forgiveness and repentance. It’s what our sin wrecks. It’s why, ultimately, Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. In the end, it’s all to bring together heaven and earth, to reconcile all things.

Being the church means learning to live into this reality even now, becoming over time a living display of what God intends and will bring about for all of creation in the new heavens and new earth. As hard, as messy, and as inconvenient as church seen in this light might therefore be, it can only happen in the way God fully intends when it’s embodied, with people actually gathering together, learning to forgive and love one another as Christ in the flesh has done with us.

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.

Dying to Live

Maybe we have to die to live.

Jesus tells us that only those willing to lose their lives will save them.

But this has to mean more than believing in the fact of the atoning death and life-giving resurrection of Jesus.

Which I do.

It certainly has to mean more than putting to death sin in our lives, especially in our usually narrow way of constricting sin to obvious, individual, discrete acts of misbehaviour and disobedience.

What in me and in my life has to die so that I can live as Jesus calls me live?

I think it can be a whole bunch of things.

I need to die to fear. I need to die to my fear of other people and their expectations (perceived or actual), of not having enough, of failure, and even of pain, discomfort, and death.

I confess that my fear reveals my need for deeper trust in God.

Trusting in God—letting his perfect love revealed in Christ cast out my fear—is what it means to live.

I need to die to my need for control. I need to die to my need to have control over my life and my circumstances. I need to die to my desire to control those around me and closest to me.

I confess that my need for control reveals my need for vulnerability and dependence.

Acknowledging my weakness and limitations—that God’s power is made perfect in my weakness—is what it means to live.

I need to die to my self-centredness. I need to die to putting myself first, to seeking my desires ahead of others’ needs. I need to die to ignoring the consequences of my decisions on the world around me.

I confess that my self-centredness reveals my need to live more generously and to be more aware of the impact of my choices.

Learning to have a more open hand—because it is more blessed to give than receive—is what it means to live.

All of this means dying to myself.

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.

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.
Amen.

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.