Thursday, 27 September 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Service

Image result for john 13 jesus washes feet

At the 10:00am service we were blessed to have Pastor Rick Abma speak to us about service- to learn more about him go here:

This week we are continuing with our sermon series on the spiritual disciplines, and today we are looking at the discipline of service. Service is an act of other-centeredness. It is exerting our energies for the benefit of another.

There are a lot of practical examples of how we can serve. We can serve at a homeless shelter, or we can listen to someone in pain, we can serve a parent with a chronic illness, we can volunteer to clean at the church- or any number of other ways we can serve God, our church, our neighbour, our friend, or our enemies.

The overall outcome is humility. The author and pastor Richard Foster says that being a servant enables a person “to say no to the world’s games of promotion and authority”. It frees us from the game of having to feel better than others. Jesus teaches us that, “whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Matt 20:26).

This can be tricky though because we can use our acts of service to actually inflate our egos rather than learn humility. This happened in Jesus’ day where there were people who sounded trumpets when they gave money. We can serve and be proud that others see how helpful we are. Sometimes there are people who help a charity just because they need a tax-break, or they need some charity work on their resume, or they are managing their image. In those cases there is a real danger that their act of service can be about serving themselves. … The solution when facing that temptation is to do our act of service in secret- so that God alone knows what we have done (Matt 6:4, 6:6, 6:18). It doesn’t mean every act of service we do has to be done in secret, but it can be an antidote when we are tempted to serve our own ego in our acts of service.

Jesus is our perfect example of service, so it is worth taking some time to look at an example of how he served. In John 13 the disciples arrive at a home and are eating supper when Jesus suddenly gets up, takes off his outer clothing, and wraps a towel around his waist. He gets a basin of water and begins washing the disciples' feet. Jesus gets up and dresses like a servant, then he begins doing the work of a servant.

Foot washing was among the lowest of all jobs that could be done. It wasn't just any servant who did the foot washing. It was the lowest ranking servant who did the foot washing. It was the job even the servants didn't want, so it was the duty of the lowest ranking servant. Each time a servant did the foot washing they were reminded that they were the lowest of the low. The reason they were doing this task is because there was no one lower than them.

The fact that Jesus gets up to do this task is shocking. Here is the Lord of the universe washing the feet of fishermen and tax collectors. The way the world understands power and authority has just been turned on its head. In this foot washing Jesus is enacting the ancient hymn we find in Philippians ch 2:5-8, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.”

Jesus places himself in the lowest possible position. It is a position of service to his disciples. And that points to his greater act of service to the world, which is the cross.

Peter can't accept Jesus in this role. His mind is still working in the way of the world. It can be uncomfortable to have someone serve you, especially someone you respect. Peter cannot put Jesus in that role. It is like the queen of England offering to clean your toilet, but amplified infinitely. Peter has a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that power and authority in the kingdom work differently. The ways of the world are not the ways of the kingdom. Peter needs to understand this, and so do we.

Judas was also present among the disciples during the foot washing. Jesus moved the basin and knelt at Judas' feet. And Jesus knew. He knew what was going through Judas' mind. We can't even guess as to the reasons, but Jesus knew. He knew the betrayal he was planning. He knew that Judas would set in motion a political machine that would result in his agonizing torture and death. And Jesus kneels at his feet. He pours water over the feet that have walked with him for three years of dusty roads. He washes the feet that will shortly walk away from the light into the darkness of the night to betray him to those who will kill him. The love he shows Judas is not comprehensible in any kind of worldly way.

When we move from the foot washing back to the meal we are surprised to find Judas again at a place of honour. He is close enough to Jesus for him to serve him by giving him bread. He is close enough for Jesus to whisper to him without anyone else hearing. At the meal, Judas was at a place of honour close to Jesus. Even those within the church whose hearts are set on betrayal are treated with loving service by Jesus. When we are at our darkest, we still find Jesus lovingly washing our feet and feeding us bread.

Jesus is the embodiment of the God who is love. God's love is not something we earn or work for. It doesn't matter if we are a traitor like Judas, or a zealous follower like Peter. Jesus loves us and serves us because that's who he is. It's not really about who we are, it's about who he is.

Jesus' whole life is an integrated act of loving service to us and to his Father. His birth, baptism, teaching, healing, exorcism, cross, resurrection, and ascension are all about Jesus' loving service. They all work together. The life of Jesus is an integrated whole. This foot washing teaches us about the cross. The cross is a loving act of service. It is Jesus taking the lowest position. Jesus takes the most despised position as an act of loving service. His whole life is offered to us in love. His life-force is poured out so that it can pour into us.

His love poured out, is then available for us to take into ourselves. As we feed on him we become more like him. The Lord of the universe washes our feet, and in return he doesn't ask that we wash his, He asks instead that we wash each other's feet. Our service and love to him is shown in our love and service to each other. And this is how we become known- it is by our love. We aren't shown to be followers of Jesus by the way we dress, or what we eat or don't eat. We aren't shown to be followers of Jesus based or our rituals, or our rule following. … We are shown to be followers of Jesus by our love for one another- by our willingness to serve each other and even give our lives for one another. It is demanding, but Jesus doesn't ask anything of us that he hasn't done for us.

We serve and love because God has poured his love into us. We serve and love because that is who we have become because of Jesus' love. We serve and love because Jesus, who is our Lord and God, has served us first.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Study

Image result for augustine at study

We are continuing with our sermon series on the spiritual disciplines. This week we are looking at the spiritual discipline of study.

My hope is that as we explore these that we will each take a look at our Rule of Life- which is our spiritual exercise plan- and update it. What is our plan for going as disciples of Jesus- what do we do daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally, yearly. What is our exercise plan? how are we purposely putting ourselves in the place where God can transform us.

When Jesus was asked what the greatest command was, he said, 
‘“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37).
 If Jesus gave that as the most important command, then we should probably give that some serious consideration. What does it mean to “Love the Lord your God with all your mind”? I suspect it means something like- using our mental powers to gain insight and wisdom to grow as disciples of Jesus for the benefit of the kingdom as it expands on earth.

What we are aiming at is a life marked by wisdom. We want to be people who live wisely. We are called to be people who apply knowledge to our lives for the benefit of those around us.

Ironically, we can know a lot of information without being wise. I’m sure we have all met people who know a lot, but are really pretty clueless about life. If you spend much time in academic circles you will find people with PhDs who don’t really know how to be in a relationship, or how to control their anger. They have a lot of information, but their lives are a mess. They lack wisdom.

That’s not what we want. We don’t want to just pack our head full of facts. We want to aim at wisdom that helps us live life better. We want to engage our mind so that it takes on the shape of the mind of Christ.

The primary place for study for Christians is the Bible. We pour over the words that have instructed and inspired generations of God’s people. We internalize the words that shaped Jesus. 

 The Prayer Book collect for the second Sunday of Advent says,
“BLESSED Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.”
That’s not a bad prayer before reading your Bible, even outside the second week of Advent.

Studying our Bible should be a daily practice for Christians. Just as we should pray daily, we should also read our Bible daily. That is the reason Morning and Evening Prayer put them together- Prayer and Bible reading. They are the daily food for our soul.

There are a variety of strategies we might use to read the Bible. For example, you might want to follow a lectionary, which is a schedule of reading that gives little chunks of scripture from all over the Bible. For each day, morning (p45) and evening (p66), a lectionary (click here for a lectionary p450; or here, or here) will give you a reading from a psalm, an Old Testament reading, an Epistle reading, and a Gospel reading. The lectionary is designed to help you read quite a bit of the Bible in a year (or 2), depending on the lectionary you are using.

Or, you may want to study one book in depth. So, every morning you read a chapter in Paul’s letter to the Romans. You might want to read it with a commentary. For example, N.T. Wright has a book called “Romans for Everyone”. He will give a chunk of Romans and then comments on it to hopefully make it easier to study. A good study Bible will be helpful for this as well. It might also be helpful to read a book like Gordon Fee’s “How to Read the Bible for all its Worth”, which gives advice about reading the Bible, generally. For example, as Christians, it is important to read the entire Bible through the person of Jesus Christ.

Studying only starts with reading. To study we need to read, re-read, concentrate on what is being communicated, understand it well enough to describe it to others, and also take time to reflect on the deeper significance of what we have read. … We also need to come to the Bible with a level of humility. We have to assume it has wisdom to teach us, rather than assuming it is an old dusty book from an irrelevant culture. As Christians we read with the sense that God can speak to us through these words.

I think it is helpful to mark up your Bible. Underline things that stand out to you. Underline patterns of words. Some people find it helpful to keep a journal or write in the margin of your Bible as you reflect on what you have read. Join a Bible study so you can hear the insights of others.

You might also want to go on a retreat to spend a few days focusing on a special part of scripture. For example, you might want to take a few days and go to Kingsfold in Cochrane and read and reread the Gospel of John. Or, you might want to go to Regent Audio, which is Regent College’s store where you can buy recording of their seminary classes. I have a number of those that I listen to as I drive or go for walks.

There is a lot more we could say about reading the Bible. I think some of the best advice I received when I first started reading it was to just do it. Even if it is just one paragraph that takes you 10 seconds to read, make sure you don’t end your day without some of the Bible. I was told, “don’t turn out the light without taking in the light”.

When i started I also found that I often didn’t understand what I was reading. The advice a wise person gave me was this. They asked me, 
“do you remember what you ate 2 weeks ago for lunch on Tuesday?” 
Of course, I had no clue. They went on, 
“reading the Bible can be like that. It fed you for that day, even if you don’t remember it all. Trust that it has fed you and is working in you on a level you don’t quite understand”.

Of course, it is important to mention that we are to study more than the Bible. Psalm 19 tells us that, 
“The heavens are telling the glory of God” (19:1).
 And from our Gospel reading it seems like Jesus, in addition to knowing the Scriptures in depth, also spent time studying the birds and the lilies of the field. He saw that there were lessons about our life with God to be learned from the natural word. In a sense, everything has God’s fingerprints on it, and so there is something to be learned about the artist. … slide In Philippians 4:8 Paul says, 
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
 There is a lot inside the Bible that falls into that description, but there is also a lot outside the Bible that falls in that category.

It is also important that we learn to study ourselves to gain insight into our character. If you have an interaction with someone and you notice you became quite angry it is important to take time to consider what it was that caused the anger to arise in you. Was there a value you hold dear that was offended? Was there an injustice you were being confronted with? Was your ego wounded? If we can understand ourselves better, it is less likely that we will walk through life in an unconscious way. We will be better able to shape our reactions. Hopefully, we will be able to limit our negative unhelpful reactions, and increase our helpful reactions.

We should also be willing to study relationships. Notice what healthy marriages are like. Learn how to develop strong friendships. We should study institutions and cultural movements. If we learn the ideas that have shaped history then we can put our own time and culture into context. We can see that the individualism we all assume is just the way people think is actually a part of a culture and has a history we inherited. (It's a bit like how no one thinks they have an accent). There are plenty of ideas that take root inside our heads just because we are born into our culture. The idea is never presented to us in a way that we can say if it is true or not, it is just there, like the air we breathe. … Just as we study ourselves it is important to study our surroundings, including the ideas that surround us. We do this with the ultimate end to become more effective disciples of Jesus.

We should also study the classic writings of Christians who have gone before us (I'll put a bit of a list below). We should especially study the lives and writings of the saints. 

What information we put into our minds- what we focus our attention on- will shape our minds. If we watch 8 hours of reality television every day, that will shape our mind. If we play 8 hours of violent videogames per day, that will shape our mind. Just as the kind of food we put into our body will have an effect on the health of our body, so what we feed our mind will shape our minds. If we want our minds to be Christ-like, then we need to feed our minds in a way that match up with that goal. A Christ-like mind is a wise mind, and that is a mind that loves God. AMEN

My Life with the Saints by James Martin

As part of learning to love God with our mind Christians study what they believe so they can better serve the God they love and communicate what they believe to others. The following are a few book recommendations that may be helpful. 

Most modern Bible translations are good. I tend to use the following:
NIV (New international Version)
NRSV (New Revised Standard Version)
ESV (English Standard version)
Some people avoid the King James Version (KJV) because it uses older language and can be difficult for some people to read. There are many other translations. Some translations are attempts to translate the ideas rather than the specific words. Eugene Peterson’s “The Message” is such a Bible. More license has been taken in this version and therefore it tends to be as much a commentary on the Bible as a translation of the Bible.   
“You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people's feet.” (Matt 5:13- ESV)
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.” (Matt 5:13- NRSV)
“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.” (Matt 5:13- NIV)
“Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men.” (Matt 5:13- KJV)
“Let me tell you why you are here. You’re here to be salt-seasoning that brings out the God-flavors of this earth. If you lose your saltiness, how will people taste godliness? You’ve lost your usefulness and will end up in the garbage.” (Matt 5:13- The Message)

There are many good study Bibles. These include a translation of the Bible and also includes articles and footnotes that help the reader understand the Bible better. Sometimes the note gives a clue as to the original historical and cultural context. Sometimes the note gives insight into the original language, or it might point the reader to an Old Testament passage that was in the mind of the author as they were writing. Sometimes the note helps to explain a difficult or confusing part of the text.
The Oxford Annotated Bible
The Spiritual Formation Bible
The Life Application Bible
Introductions to Christianity
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis (I tend to recommend everything Lewis wrote)
Finding Faith by Brian McLaren
The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller

Reading the Bible
The Story We Find Ourselves In by Brian McLaren
The New Joy of Discovery In Bible Study by Oletta Wald
How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee
How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon Fee
You can Understand the Bible by Peter Kreeft
The Blue Parakeet by Scot McKnight
Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson

Being a student of Christ:
Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster
Renovation of the Heart and Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard
The Good and Beautiful God/Life/Community by James Bryan Smith
A Guide to Christian Spiritual Formation by Evan Howard
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis
The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer
The Way of the Heart by Henri Nouwen
The Mountain of Silence by Kyriacos Markides
A Long Obedience by Eugene Peterson
Back to Virtue by Peter Kreeft
The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
The Living Church by John Stott

A Primer for Christian Doctrine by Jonathan Wilson
Faith Seeking Understanding by Daniel Migliore
The Modern Theologians by Ford
The Moral Vision of the New Testament By Richard Hays
At Home in a Strange Land by Andrew Sloan
Heresies and How to Avoid Them by Quash and Ward
A History of Christian Thought (3 volumes)  by Justo Gonzalez

The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez
The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright
How on Earth did Jesus Become a God? by Larry Hurtado
A History of the Church in England by Moorman
The Story of Christianity by David Bentley Hart

The Accidental Anglican by Todd Hunter
Welcome to Sunday by Christopher Webber
Welcome to the Episcopal Church by Christopher Webber
Anglicanism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark Chapman

Apologetics (this is a field of Christian study that attempts to address Christianity’s critics)
Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart
Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Kreeft and Tacelli
Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig
Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan
The Apologetics Study Bible

Evangelism (how to speak to people about what you believe)
Evangelism for Normal People by John Bowen
More Ready Than You Realize by Brian McLaren

I'm happy to make other recommendations. Feel free to ask me if there is a particular area you are interested in. 

Monday, 10 September 2018

Spiritual Disciplines- Prayer

Image result for saint teresa of avila art

We are continuing with our sermon series on the Spiritual Disciplines. This week we are looking at the discipline of prayer.

Prayer is such a massive topic that we really can only scratch the surface. There are a lot of good books out there on prayer if you want to dive a bit deeper. One I would recommend is called “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home” by Richard Foster.

He delves into many different types of prayer. And just as there are many kinds of prayer, there are also a number of different kinds of techniques to enter into prayer that Christians have used throughout the centuries (I will place a few of these below).

Prayer is absolutely foundational to the Christian life. Jesus was a man of prayer- as were his followers. Therefore, so should we be. 

With so much variety around prayer it might be helpful to have some specific and practical helps. This is what I tend to suggest. (I realize that many of you have your own patterns, and if you find that helpful feel free to ignore me). I think we should aim at 20 minutes of intentional prayer per day. Some find it easier in the morning, and some find it easier at night. Regardless of when, do try to find a consistent time and stick to it. I know some days just get away from us, but I think that that 20 minutes every day at the same time of day is what we should generally aim at. As you delve into the life of prayer some of you will have times of prayer that last an hour or more and that’s great. Sometimes it will feel like 5 minutes. You might also find that 5 minutes can feel like an hour. Your prayer life will shift with what is going on in your life. You will probably pray differently as a parent with young kids at home, than you would as a retired person, or as a single person.  You might also find that different types of prayer seem to work better for you at different times of your life. (There is even a book that helps you to match a prayer style to your Myers Briggs personality type- "Prayer and Temperament")

You might also find your heart drawing towards God throughout the day outside of your set times of prayer. I remember having a season in my life when it felt like my heart was burning through my chest. I had this intense desire to find somewhere private to pray- I remember locking myself in a washroom or mechanical room so I could pray. Words weren’t always a part of those times of prayer. Often it was like an inner groaning (which I think might be what Paul is referring to in Romans 8). That’s not an unusual experience for new converts. I think God gives them a special grace to motivate them to chase Him.

Prayer can look like many different things. Prayer can be sitting in silence as you seek the presence of God. Prayer can be a child on their bed praying for their family. (The payer that Jesus taught his disciples is simple enough that a child can pray it and understand it- and deep enough that theologians can spend their lives digging into its depths.) Prayer can be written like Morning and Evening Prayer that we have in our prayer books. Or, it can be a spontaneous conversation. Even with written prayers there should probably be some spontaneous prayer mixed in. Prayer can include a list of people or concerns you wish to pray to God about, but it should also include times of listening, so God has an opportunity to speak back. Prayer can also be the repetition of a line from a Psalm as you walk along that draws your heart up to God. There is tremendous variety when it comes to prayer.

The topic of prayer really is a massive world and we could have a whole sermon series just on this topic. At its most simple, prayer is reaching out to God. It is seeking to strengthen your relationship with God. It is foundational to the Christian life because the Christian life is a life in co-operation with God that will never end. We seek to know who God is, personally, because we are going to be spending eternity with God. If we never seek out God’s presence, why do we think we would want to seek Him out when we reach our death? Seeking God’s presence is not something to be delayed.

Prayer also reorients our perspective. Prayer helps us see things from God’s perspective. In our first reading, when Elisha prayed for God to open the eyes of the man who was with him. His perspective changed. He previously saw the army of the enemy surrounding them, but now he saw an angelic army that greatly outnumbered the army he had been afraid of (2 Kings 6:17). Often, prayer is about changing us. It is about seeing God’s way of looking at our situation. Prayer is where we meet with God and are transformed. It is where we bring our lives to God, not as we wish they were, but as they are with all our pain, passion, and problems. Prayer is a part of our life before God, the goal of which is to love and serve God and to be transformed more and more into the image of Christ. Prayer helps to make us holy by transforming our character- our will, desires, motives, and behaviors.

Prayer changes us. Prayer can also change the world outside us. There have even been some scientific studies in the area of prayer. A doctor named Larry Dossey wrote a book called “Healing Words” where he describes these studies. 
As an agnostic medical doctor he came to the following conclusion after looking at these studies, 
“over time I decided that not to employ prayer with my patients was the equivalent of deliberately withholding a potent drug or surgical procedure. … I simply could not ignore the evidence for prayer’s effectiveness without feeling like a traitor to the scientific tradition. And so, after weighing these factors for many months, I concluded that I would pray for my patients” (Xviii). “[T]he evidence is simply overwhelming that prayer functions at a distance to change physical processes in a variety of organisms, from bacteria to humans. These data, …, are so impressive that I have come to regard them as among the best-kept secrets in medical science” (p.2).
 He believes the studies show that when lifting a person in prayer- with an attitude of empathy, love, compassion, trust, and gratitude- that prayer is effective.

This doesn’t mean that the results of prayer can always be predicted, but he found that the studies say that overall prayer has an effect. Of course, there are still “sickly saints and healthy sinners” that show us that the spiritual world is a complicated place. Sometimes the deeper healing of the soul takes priority over physical healing. For example, Paul had a “thorn in his flesh” that would not be healed, which he came to believe was allowed for the development of his humility (2 Cor 12:7). Our character will outlast our earthly life, so I suspect our character is the priority for God. There is a lot of mystery mixed with the suffering of the world. We shouldn't pretend to understand it all, or to minimize it.
  We live in a world that is often beyond our control, but that should not stop us from praying. 

The fact that prayer doesn’t always bring physical healing doesn’t refute the fact that sometimes it does bring healing. We don’t understand how it all works, but sometimes it works and so we should pray for healing while also understanding that there are deeper purposes that might mean healing will not always come. There may be a deeper purpose in suffering that is beyond our ability to comprehend.

We also have to be careful to not think about prayer as a technology we use to get our will done. As if we just say the right words we can get what we want done. We can’t lose sight of the fact that prayer is about a relationship with God.

Sometimes I think about my relationship with my boys. I hope that my sons are not primarily concerned with manipulating me to get me to give them candy or buy them toys. Though, no doubt, toys and candy pass through their minds from time to time. I hope that they are more concerned with us being together because we love each other. That doesn’t mean they should never ask me for anything. It just means that the asking is embedded in a relationship. The relationship with my sons is not primarily about them asking me for things, but that is a normal part of a parent-child relationship.

When my sons make a request of me I can respond in one of three ways. I can say “yes”, “no”, or “not now”.

If I say “yes” then that means that my son has asked me within the realm of my will. If I tell my boys to go play outside in the back yard they could be doing a variety of things and still be “in my will”. Being “in my will” doesn’t mean I have defined exactly which game they play and how they play it. There is a range of things they could be doing. They also know that I don’t want them to hurt each other and start throwing punches at each other’s noses. I also don’t want them playing in the street, or to do anything dangerous that could lead to them getting seriously hurt. So, there is a range of things that they could be doing and still be in my will if I tell them to go in the back yard and play.[1] I think this is similar to how God works. I think we can be doing a number of things and still be in the range of God’s will.

If my sons ask me for ice cream. I might say “yes” if it is in the realm of my will, which means that it fits into the overall context of my will for them.

There are times when God does say “yes” to a request in prayer. When we ask “in Jesus’ name” what we are doing is we are asking as Jesus’ disciples, who are learning to live with his desires becoming our desires and his life living within us. Praying in the name of Jesus means having a sense of God’s will and what God wants to happen in the world. Amazingly, God has chosen to work through prayer. We have been given the privilege and opportunity to cooperate with God through prayer. I’m sure we have very little understanding of the power of our prayer in effecting the world.

I might also say “no” to my sons' request for ice cream. If, for example, we are close to the time we will be eating supper. I don’t want them to spoil their appetite, so I’ll say “no”. I will deny them this not because I don’t want them to have good things, but because I want better things for them. Having a healthy diet is more important than having a treat. I also know that too much ice cream can sometimes cause a stomach ache, or can become unhealthy. So, while my sons might see my saying “no” as being mean, the reason I say “no” is because I want something better for them, or want to prevent future pain they can’t see.

Similarly, God might say “no” in response to our requests in prayer. We might be denied certain requests because there might be effects on our soul, or on the souls of others, that would be undesirable.

When my sons ask me for ice cream I might also say “not now”. I may have planned for us to go for ice cream after supper. At home we might have had ice cream cones. Maybe the ice cream is the bottom of the bucket, melted and refrozen 8 times, kind of ice cream. And maybe I was planning on getting hot fudge Sundays after supper. So, I might ask them to wait because the timing isn’t right.

Similarly, God might respond with “not now” to our prayer requests. God sees the bigger picture and he can see that now isn’t the right time, or that he has something better planned for you in the future. This can be a difficult answer to hear because it seems like such a decent request to us. At times we really have to trust that God has a greater understanding than we do and that He answers prayer according to what is best for us and for others.

Again, we want to be careful to remember that prayer is about a relationship with God, not merely a way to manipulate God to get what we want. There is a certain mystery to all this, but it remains that we are invited by God to pray and to be his people praying for ourselves and for the world. And by doing so we participate in God’s work in the world. AMEN

[1] I once heard Dallas Willard teach on this point

Some practical experiments with ways to pray:

The most simple I have found is to pray concerning things you 
(1) are thankful for and 
(2) things you need help with, or help you want God to give others.
You can do this with children, but it can also be a profound prayer for everyone. 

There are also apps for your smart phone for Morning Prayer, and Evening Prayer (often called the Daily Offices). 
There are also PDFs (electronic documents) found here

Sacred Reading (Lectio Divina)

Words of scripture come alive as they touch the Holy Spirit alive and working in us. This is the same Spirit that inspired the writing, gathering, and editing of the Bible.

Usually we read for information- to explain, or to be entertained. Lectio Divina is a way of reading that places us under the text, rather than us being over it as controllers and consumers. In Lectio Divina we are not attempting to gain information in order to describe God, or get God to do what we want, or even to master the “text”. Rather, in Lectio Divina we are allowing the “Text” to master us- to allow God to speak to us directly through the Word of God.

The Egyptian Orthodox monk ‘Matthew the Poor’ talks about ways of reading the Bible. He says, “There are two ways of reading:
“The first is when a man reads and puts himself and his mind in control of the text, trying to subject its meaning to his own understanding and then comparing it with the understanding of others.

“The second is when a man puts the text on a level above himself and tries to bring his mind into submission to its meaning, and even sets the text up as a judge over him, counting it as the highest criterion.

“The first is suitable for any book in the world, whether it be a work of science or of literature. The second is indispensable in reading the Bible. The first way gives man mastery over the world, which is his natural role. The second gives God mastery as the all-wise and all powerful Creator.

“But if man confuses the roles of these two methods, he stands to lose from them both, for if he reads science and literature as he should read the Gospel, he grows small in stature, his academic ability diminishes, and his dignity among the rest of creation dwindles.

“And if he reads the Bible as he should read science, he understands and feels God to be small; the divine being appears limited and his awesomeness fades. We acquire a false sense of our own superiority over divine things- the very same forbidden thing Adam committed in the beginning.” (p 16) Matthew the Poor, the Communion of Love.

The 4 elements of Lectio Divina are 
1) reading; 
2) meditation; 
3) prayer; and 

4) contemplation.

Reading: First choose a piece of scripture that you would like to pray with, or use a reading for the day from a reading plan. This is not reading for entertainment or reading for gathering information. This is allowing God to speak to you through scripture. Try to use a Bible that has no distractions in it (e.g. notes, highlights, or underlining). Also, try to use a translation that is easy to read. Try to do this in a quiet place with no distractions. Begin with a prayer requesting God’s presence and direction. Repeatedly read the passage slowly.

Read only what the words say. Don’t read into it. Let the words stand on their own. Slow down and get the words right. Humble yourself before the words.

Meditation: We move from looking at the words of the text to entering the world of the text. As we take this text into ourselves, we find that the text takes us into itself. Scripture is connected and interconnected- not separate bits and pieces. Jesus is the context with which to read scripture. Move from being a critic on the outside of the text, to being inside and appreciating and noticing what you see. Be a curious child. Allow your memory to be active, drawing images from your life and from other parts of Scripture.

Prayer: is language used in relation to God. God reveals himself personally through language. We pray shaped by and in the name of Jesus. God speaks to us, and listens to us. We are most ourselves when we pray. Scripture is our most normative access to God.

Pay attention to what is happening inside of you as you read. What parts do you like? What parts don’t you like? Why? What associations or memories are triggered by the reading? Try not to edit your thoughts, just let them be, and discern what God is trying to say to you. What part of the reading seems to stand out? Why? What are the underlying values and assumptions of the scripture? What feelings arise in you? Continue to ask God for guidance. What is behind your emotions? Where is the reading touching your life?

Contemplation: this means living the read/meditated/prayed Scriptures in everyday ordinary life. It means getting the scriptures into our bones. Contemplation means living what we read- being conscious of it in the moment. Life originates from God’s Word. In contemplation we let God’s word flow through us and become life.[1]

1st Reading- Read- What does it say? What are the meaning of the words? Don’t read into it.

2nd reading- Meditation- allow yourself to be drawn into the text. Where is your mind drawn? What do you notice? Allow your curiosity to draw you in.

3rd Reading- Prayer- What might God being saying to you through this text? What is standing out and why? Where does it connect with your life? What memories or emotions are triggered?

4th Reading- Contemplation- how might you apply this text to your life? How might you live this text? Are you to act or think in a new way?

[1] See “Spiritual Reading” in Dictionary of Christian Spirituality.

The Jesus Prayer-

The words of this prayer are “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”, or “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”.  It is best to practice this in a quiet place away from distractions. It may be helpful to match your breathing with the words of this prayer. Breathing in pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God”, and breathing out pray, “have mercy on me, a sinner”. Sit in a comfortable position and try to be still. 

Centering Prayer-

This prayer is essentially attempting to still one’s self, while also being aware of what is taking place inside one’s self. Sit with your eyes closed or just slightly open. Try to relax completely while maintaining a comfortable posture. Let go of all thoughts about the past or the future. Release any tension you notice in your body. Choose a short word and focus on it (e.g. “God”, “love”, “Jesus”). Feel free to let go of the word as long as you are not distracted by thoughts, memories, or sensations. However, whenever you do get distracted, gently bring yourself back to this word. Try to maintain this practice for at least 20 minutes. Give yourself some time to gently come out of the prayer, perhaps using this time to express your thankfulness to God in prayer, or repeating the Lord’s Prayer.

Another way is to, similarly, sit comfortably in a quiet place. Choose a phrase to repeat “Ma-ra-na-tha” (Aramaic, “come, Lord”), or “Come, Lord Jesus”. Close your eyes and quiet yourself. Keep repeating the phrase for at least twenty minutes. Allow the phrase to form a rhythm with your breath. Focus on becoming inwardly peaceful and resting quietly in God’s presence.


“Meditation” is sometimes distinguished from “Contemplation”. Contemplation is more like Centering Prayer where the content of the prayer is the silence itself. The silence and emptiness is noticed to be neither silent, nor, empty, but filled with God’s presence. “Meditation”, on the other hand, has content that we meditate on. We turn it over in our minds. This content can be a passage from the Bible- a concept, an event, etc. Be careful of dividing these two methods of prayer too much though.

One method of meditation guides one into one’s self using the imagination and the senses. This type often uses an image or biblical story as a guide. If you are using a biblical passage (e.g. Mark 4:35-41, “Jesus calms the storm), walk yourself through it slowly. Imagine the setting using your five senses. What does it look like? What time of day is it? What does it smell like? What does it sound like when you are with the crowd? On the sea before the storm? During the storm? After the storm? Walk yourself through the story slowly, what is Jesus doing during these moments?

The Examination

(You may receive the most benefit from this practice if you have a spiritual director). Begin by giving thanks to God for the grace received in your life. Then continue by asking for the illumination of one’s sins and short-comings, and pray for the grace to grow past them. Examine yourself in thoughts and actions during this day- what you have done and what you have neglected to do. Take your time and go through the day slowly- from waking to this moment. Examine your life looking for sin and virtue.

Compare your thoughts and actions with; prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, goodness, gentleness, modesty, self-control, chastity, humility, and diligence.

Compare your thoughts and actions with; pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

Or, you may try comparing you life and day to the Ten Commandments, being careful to spend time on each one. You might want to also try slowly moving through the Lord’s Prayer, line by line, or word by word. Or, compare your life to a list of the disciplines. Try to notice where God has been present in your day, and where you think He has been absent.

Pray for forgiveness for the sins committed and ask to be strengthened in virtue for the glory of God and for the good of the spreading of the Kingdom. End with the “Our Father”.


Find a picture that will help you pray. This could be a picture of Jesus, or of a biblical scene. Keep in mind that you are not praying to the painting, you are praying through it. While true icons follow a specific style, you may find other pictures useful as well. As you pray allow yourself to enter the icon- be drawn in by it. Use the icon in a similar way that you use scripture- it is not the specific words that matter, it’s what they mean. Examine the details of the painting, think about the symbolism. For example, if it is an Icon of Jesus, why are Jesus’ eyes like this? If Jesus was looking at you like this, what would he be thinking? What would you be thinking and feeling? If you were actually face to face with Jesus in a really physical way, what would you say to him? What would he say to you? Try to lose yourself in the painting.


Journaling can be used with other practices like the examination, sacred reading, or meditation. Begin with prayer, adoring God, Thanking God, and asking God to guide you in your exploration. Go through your day and try to write down the times when you felt God was close and when you felt God was far. What did you do today that you think God cares about most? What did you do today that you think God didn’t care about at all? What have you been praying about lately? Write down your prayers. Write a conversation with God. What is on your heart? What is something you are thankful for? What is something that is bothering you? What reoccurring issues do you struggle with? What sin is most present in your life? What virtue is most present? What is God saying back to you? Can you write God’s part in the conversation? You may want to try looking at a piece of scripture and interact with it using your journal. What questions do you have about the scripture? What do you like about it? What do you not like about it? What are your fears? What issues tend to come up in your interactions with people? Who is your hero? In what ways are you like your hero? In what ways are you not like your hero? End the session with a short time of prayer, thanking God for what has been revealed, and asking for assistance to form your life to who you were created to be.

Body Prayers

Try praying in different positions. Try kneeling, standing, laying prostrate on the ground. Try kneeling with your hands in the air, standing with your hands in the air, sitting with you arms in from of you, as if you are about to receive something. Try praying in “orans” position. Try walking and praying- rhythmically match you breathing with your walking and praying (it may be best to have a memorized prayer, short phrase, or word for this). Try swaying or rocking. Try walking a labyrinth (one is located at the Eaton Centre on Queen and Yonge). Try bending and stretching with your prayers. Try dancing your prayers. Repeatedly make the sign of the cross as you pray. Be conscious of how a different posture changes how you pray.

The Anglican Rosary

The Anglican Rosary is a rope with knots or beads that guide one through a series of repetitive prayers. The Rosary has four weeks (7 beads) separated by a cruciform bead. The Rosary aids prayer by serving as a tactile reminder, bringing one's attention back to the prayers. Suggested prayers for the beads are supplied by the website bellow, or you can assign your own prayers to the weeks, cruciform beads, invitatory bead, and crucifix. Attempt to commit the prayers to memory, and pray around the circle of beads at a steady pace, matching one's breath with the words of the prayers. Also, remember to allow space for moments of silence. Rosaries are supplied by a few places, but you can also make them yourself (see the website). 

Listening Prayer

Sunday, 2 September 2018

The Spiritual Disciplines

There is a vision in the Bible of a people created in the image of God who will be a blessing to the earth. We see this in the creation of Adam and Eve when God creates the human beings and tell them to be fruitful and rule the creatures of the earth. It has become popular to think of that as a bad thing, but what if humans ruling the world could be a blessing to the world?

In God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 12 God blessing them to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. God doesn’t bless them for their own sake alone. Their blessing is for the benefit of the world.

Exodus 19 expresses this as well. God desires that the people keep his commandments so that they will be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, which implies a kind of leading of humanity.

Jesus is right in line with this. He wants to renew this original vision for humanity to be a blessing for the world. At the end of Matthew Jesus says,
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20)

The idea here is that being a disciple of Jesus is to call people into who they are created to be, but it is also exactly what the world needs. It is a continuation of the call of God for human beings to rule the world, and with that idea comes the thought that that is exactly what the world needs- it would be a blessing if truly Christ-like disciples ruled the world. This is the idea of the kingdom that Jesus spoke so much about. The Kingdom of God is a reality wherever God’s will is being done. We pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. That is a prayer for the kingdom to expand.

For that to become a reality we must follow Jesus’ command in Matthew 28 to make disciples of all people, to invite them into the life of God, and teach them to obey everything that Jesus has commanded us.

It might be helpful to take a look at what Jesus has commanded us to know what we are supposed to be aiming at- what are we supposed to be like, and what are we supposed to be teaching others to be like.

The Sermon of the Mount is found in the Gospel of Matthew chapters 5 to 7. That is a good place to start looking. We won’t go through the whole thing, but let’s take a couple examples:

In Matthew 5:21-22 Jesus tells us, 
“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.”

Here Jesus tells us that we are people who are not controlled by anger. He’s not saying here that you aren’t allowed to feel anger. But he is suggesting that anger is dangerous and outward expressions of anger are especially dangerous. We might even say that anger is the seed of murder. How many murders would happen if people had control of their anger?

Let’s look at Matthew 5:43-44, where Jesus says, 
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”.

I think it was C.S. Lewis who said, ‘loving your enemy sounds like a great idea until you have an enemy’. Loving an enemy and praying for someone who is working actively against you seems so counter-intuitive. We automatically have all kinds of protests that arise in our minds for why this isn’t a good idea.

But beyond the thought about it being a good idea or not, we also wonder if it is even possible? How can I love an enemy? Is that even within our willpower to do?

If you are a disciple of Jesus, someone has helped you to become that. Someone has taught you about Jesus and about his teachings. Have they done their job by teaching you to do all that Jesus has commanded? Has the church truly taught you how to follow these commands?

We have told you to do that, yes. Control your anger. Control your lust. Love your neighbour. Love your enemy. But, have you really been taught how to do this?

In our reading from Galatians, Paul yearns for Christ to be formed in his hearers. That’s you. He yearns for Christ to be formed in you. What does that mean? Well the outward expression of a life like that is a lack of certain characteristics- 
“fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these” (Gal 5:19-21).
  So that is what shouldn’t be present. And then there is an outward expression of evidence of Christ being formed in you- what Paul calls “fruit of the Spirit”: 
 “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

How do we become people whose lives lack the one and are full of the other?

Imagine you have never taken piano lessons, then you are sat down in front of a piano and told to play Beethoven’s “’Moonlight’ sonata”. Can you do that by sheer effort? Just try hard in that moment? Does anyone want to come up here and try? Most of us know that piece of music. Many of us enjoy that piece of music, but I bet few of us have intended to learn to play that piece of music.

Human beings usually grow through a process. If you want to learn piano then you get someone like Elaine to teach you, and you probably start out by playing scales and doing certain fingering exercises and playing simpler pieces, and then working your way up to the more complicated pieces.

Almost every area of Human growth is like that. If you want to learn a language, that is how it works. If you want to learn to figure skate or do jiu-jitsu, that is how it works. You engage in practices and start simply, and you build up to the more complicated practices. You aren’t going to be able to get onto the skating rink at the Winter Olympics and perform at that level by sheer willpower without having entered into the process of learning how to figure skate.

Why do we assume the spiritual life is any different? We can admire Jesus, but if we haven’t intended to become more like him- If we haven’t learned ways to practice being like him, why would we live Jesus-like lives? Why do we assume we can control our anger by just trying hard (though certainly effort is involved)? Why do we assume we can love our enemy by just trying hard? Where is the process by which we can become disciples of Jesus who actually do what he taught us to do?

The spiritual disciplines are practices that Christians have used since the beginning of Christianity. Within Roman Catholicism they often degenerated into penance, and in Protestantism we lost them because we often focused too much on trying to get the doctrine right and we turned Christianity into something that was a set of truths we hold in our minds.

The spiritual disciplines are practices that we engage in to experientially teach us about the life Jesus wants us to live. They put us in a place so that we can receive certain kinds of grace from God. They are ways of abiding in Christ.

In John 15 Jesus says, 
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4-5).

As we use these practices to abide in Christ, our character is formed. The evidence of this is that the fruit of the Spirit will be more obvious and the negative works of the flesh will become less present. But the goal isn’t just behavior modification. The goal is that our character is transformed to such a degree that the ways of Christ become the easy way for us to behave- they just come out of us naturally.

We are starting a sermon series on the Spiritual Disciplines. Each week we are going to look at a different one and explore how it can help you lead the life Christ wants you to lead. There are many different practices, but we are going to look at 12: 
Guidance, and 
Celebration (not in that order).

What I’m hoping we will do is that we will be purposeful about the way we are following Christ. I’d love for us all to have a Rule of Life. A Rule of Life is a personal plan for the practices of your life. It will contain daily things- like morning prayer, bible reading, and a devotional reading. It will have weekly practices- like going to church on Sunday. And it will have monthly, seasonally, and yearly practices- that might include a retreat, for example. As we speak about these different disciplines you can pray about them and consider if God is asking you to try them and maybe incorporate them into your Rule of Life.

I also want to let you know about a few people who have been helpful guides in these practices. Richard Foster has written a number of books and I recommend them all. He is especially famous for the book “Celebration of Discipline”, which I will use quite a bit for this sermon series. I also recommend the books of Dallas Willard. He is a Philosopher, so his books can be a little more difficult for some people, but they are well worth reading. Also, John Ortberg and James Bryan Smith have become known as people who have learned from Dallas Willard and are using his ideas in their books. It’s important to say that these people are not doing anything new. On the contrary, they have been learning from the spiritual masters through the 2000 years of Christian history and have been helping this generation recover these practices. 

 In John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments”. It is important that we learn how to follow him. I’m going to do my best to try to make it plain how we can walk on this road, but you also have to intend to be a disciple of Christ. Jesus doesn’t need fans. He wants people who will learn from him how to live in a certain way. This isn’t just for yourself either. Our world is in big trouble, and I think the thing the world needs most is people who are shaped into the image of Christ- People who live the way he taught, and who teach others to do the same. AMEN.
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