Category: Theology

What’s the Point of Prayer?

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What do you think about when you think about prayer?

I have a confession: throughout my life I’ve had moments of skepticism regarding the value of prayer. Does prayer accomplish anything or is it simply wishful thinking?

Over the years I’ve learned that a lot of people avoid prayer because they’re afraid that it might not work and by that they mean that their requests won’t be fulfilled. So they keep prayer at a distance, safely tucked away and pulled out for religious occasions.

You’ve likely heard the maxim that “prayer changes me more than it changes God.” Perhaps that is true, but I would put it this way: prayer is the arena in which God changes me. When we pray, we are being drawn into a conversation that has already been going on long before we show up. Prayer draws us into God’s life, helping us align our desires with his.

Henri Nouwen says it beautifully when he writes that “prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us.”

One of the ways prayer changes us is by giving us a new vision. In my own experience, prayer has afforded me the possibility of having a new set of eyes for seeing people and situations.

Jesus was known to say, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.”

If you’ve ever tried to pray for someone you dislike, or who has offended you, it doesn’t take long to realize why Jesus invites us to pray for those who persecute us. It’s not simply because Christians should be “nice” to all people, it’s much more. When we pray for our enemies, we’ll inevitably be put in a position to think about what would be best for them. What do we hope for him or her?  What do we want for them? When we pray for those we are against (or those who are against us), we’re not complaining about them or focusing on how they offended us,  but wishing good for them and hoping the best for them.

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When we pray, we’re letting God give us a new perspective on the people we would otherwise dismisson the people we would otherwise want to avenge, and want to see fail.

It gets better: prayer doesn’t only do this for our relationships, but for any situation in our lives that might seem like “an enemy”the moments in life where we feel like everything is working against us and things seem hopeless, aimless, pointless.

As a pastor, I have had times with people who reveal their grievances and complaints about someone who has offended them. In these situations, I’ve learned to follow up with an important question: “What do you hope for them?” This question is usually rhetorical, but important. It draws them into the transformative practice of beginning to actually pray for their enemy.

Prayer is the place where we are challenged to discover what God wants for a person, a circumstance, a next step.

Prayer gives us a new set of eyes for the people who get on our nerveseven those closest to us. When Jesus invites us to pray, he invites us to develop a future vision to see beyond the faults of those who offend us.

This is what prayer does: it gives us vision. It opens up possibilities. It says “yes” when everything in you wants to say “no.”  In prayer, God takes us away from our present offences to a greater vision of what could be.

So prayer, more than merely a tool for requests, is a means of transforming our very desires. Prayer is a means of changing our “hunger and thirst.” Prayer helps us have the wants that God wants.

Perhaps the lack of hope and vision for our lives (or our children’s lives, our marriages, our relationships) is often due to a lack of prayer.

I know I’ve found this to be true in my own life.

In fact, when Jesus told his disciples to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors, he was defining perfection.

“Be perfect, just like your Father in heaven, who causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good.”

For Jesus, perfection means we live with a deep hope even in the most broken situations; that nobody and nothing in our lives is beyond repair.

Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.

Next time you feel anger or offence, ask yourself what God may want you to want for your offender. It won’t be hard to figure out, and maybe in that process you’ll find yourself loving your enemy, praying for your persecutor, and just a little closer to perfection.

My Journey With Election

It was on my 6 hour drive home from my Pentecostal Bible College of which I had recently graduated, that I got serious about being a calvinist.

I was listening to a series of lectures on TULIP, and by the time I arrived home, I walked up to my dad and said, “I think I’m a calvinist.” That was in 2010.

Today, I reject the teachings I embraced many years ago. Here’s some of that story.

(By the way, the basic idea behind TULIP is that we are so totally depraved that we can’t choose God, he must choose us.  Fine, but this is where it gets sticky. When God does choose us, he “doesn’t miss”; his choosing is “irresistible” – when God chooses you for salvation, you can’t resist him.  And since it’s irresistible and God is efficient, Jesus only dies for those God already chose. “Election” therefore, is the idea that since nobody can choose God, nor resist God, God “elected” or “chose” them before the foundations of the world to be “saved.” He chooses by grace, not by merit, I should add.)

I started to engage with the biblical idea of election in my late teen years.

I read and re-read Romans 9-11, Ephesians 1, and other similar sections wondering what it all meant and if I could believe in a God who “chose” some for heaven and some for hell. When I went to college I dabbled in calvinist theology and was eventually on staff at a church where the calvinist understanding of election was taught as orthodoxy. For a little while, I reluctantly embraced calvinist doctrine as most faithful to Scripture.

Over recent years, my stance has changed. What I’ve found is that most understandings of election are read through a thin eschatology of a disembodied heaven as God’s ultimate goal for the world, and a thin soteriology in which salvation has everything to do with arriving at this disembodied destination. In simple terms: being christian is all about securing your place in “heaven” after you die – a place far away from this world.

Things started to really shift when I read Karl Barth.

Barth was an important 20th century theologian who considered himself Calvinist, but in a unique way. He provided me with a new way of thinking about election. For Barth, Jesus is both the Elect one and the Reprobate (or condemned) one. Barth uses Calvinist categories but re-shapes them in a creative way. Jesus is the one that is both “accepted” (or elected) and “rejected.”

That got me thinking.

Barth’s rendition opened new doors for me to think more deeply about the biblical meaning of election.

An important shift in my thinking came when I started to consider the meaning of election in the Old Testament.

I learned that if you misread the story of Israel, you will misread a lot of important theological ideas like election or salvation, or even the so-called “end times.” Most of our contemporary ideas of what the bible says about election, salvation and the end of the world would be vastly foreign to what Abraham, David, and Jesus thought.

Foundational to election in the Old Testament is the calling of Abraham as the bearer of a new tribe, one that would exist for the sake of blessing other tribes.

This story comes to us at the climax of evil in the early stories of Genesis. The extent of humanity’s brokenness is both relational and societal. It’s revealed in the violence of the first two brothers and comes to a climax in the story of a babel: a story of societal domination.

If chapter 1 of the Israel story is about a good God creating a good creation, chapter 2 is about how things went wrong. And chapter 3 is about about God’s desire to bring things back to the way they’re supposed to be: good.

How? Election. God elects a people: Israel.

Abraham’s family becomes those through whom God would use to heal the world and bring it back to its intended goal. That goal illustrated by God’s calling to Adam and Eve to be stewards of creation, making it flourish, and taking it from “good” to “very good.”

Abraham wasn’t promised a spot in heaven.

Indeed heaven wasn’t on his mind at all–not in the way we westerners typically think of it. Just go through the psalms of David–he beleives that he will be in the place of the dead when he dies (“sheol”).

Abraham’s concern was the present world. And how God was using his tribe to make it good.

Christian “salvation” has a lot to do with getting us back on track on this mission. Getting us back to being faithful co-creators with God–the very thing he created Adam and Eve for. Abraham, and Israel is “chosen” or “elect” for this very mission, which is later handed to the ekklesia – those who gather to worship and follow Jesus.

So salvation and election has a lot to do with doing something than it does with getting somewhere. Let me illustrate:

When we think about election today, we know that election always has to do with performing a task. The President is not elected to merely relocate to the white house—that’s an added perk. Instead, he is elected for a task—i.e. to lead the country for it to flourish. He may do so successfully  or not.

When people use language of election to mean that God “chose” individuals to “go to heaven” they miss a large part of the Bible’s story. Not only is heaven not the ultimate goal (a renewed creation is), but the elect are chosen (by God, I will grant) for a special task to be the signposts of this goal through the life they live.

But just like in the Old Testament, the chosen or the elect can fail miserably. Yet God, in his grace, continues to invite all people to join him in his mission. Everyone’s invited. And everyone can choose to say yes or no (which is an idea so prevalent throughout Jesus’ teaching).

In comes Paul.

In the New Testament, Paul loves using the concept of election. He knows the story of Israel and of Abraham and talks about it at length here.

When Paul uses the language of election, he is thinking about Israel’s calling to be a blessing to the world. He is thinking about how God “chooses” ordinary people (including himself) to get the world back on track. To bring healing, wholeness, shalom, to a world tainted by the darkness of lies, injustice and dysfunction.

Now, for Paul, all those who put their faith in Jesus are the “elect” because it’s through trusting Jesus that the world could be “put to right” (N.T. Wright’s favourite phrase). It’s through trusting in Jesus that Adam and Eve’s task to be stewards of creation could be restored.

So much more can be said.

But here’s the big take away:

Election has little to do with where you go when you die. Election is a task–a task that is of course initiated by God himself in which we are invited to join. In Paul’s new idea of election, the church becomes the place of the elect – the place where those who trust in Jesus are formed in a new way of life. The church is not marked out by race anymore, but by trust (or faith) in Jesus. When you trust Jesus you become part of a new mission – you become “grafted” into the One who is Chosen (thanks Barth). And you are invited to be part of a way of life that bring healing and restoration to all parts of creation.

That’s good news.

Ratzinger on Holiness and Interpreting the Bible

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“The Saints are the true interpreters of Holy Scripture.  The meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most indelible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out. Interpretation of Scripture can never be a purely academic affair, and it cannot be relegated to purely historical.  Scripture is full of potential for the future, a potential that can only be opened up when someone ‘lives through’ and ‘suffered through’ the sacred text.”

Joseph Ratzinger

Dallas Willard on Grace

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“Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action. Grace, you know, does not just have to do with forgiveness of sins alone.”

Dallas Willard

Thomas Merton Prays for God’s Will

In honour of Merton on his 102nd birthday:

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always, though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”

Three Rules for Healthy Bible Reading

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I recently had a conversation with a Christian who confessed her aversion of personal Bible reading. Her reason was understandable: she’s afraid that she’ll misunderstand and misinterpret the Bible, rendering her more confused than when she started. For some people, reading the Bible is an intimidating task because they’re keenly aware of its complexity.  While they are willing to be honest, there are others who read the Bible with a certainty that claims to “hear from God” every time they read it. Two unhealthy extremes are typical: avoidance and arrogance. In a world of competing extremes, here are three foundational rules for healthy Bible reading that you can start applying today:

  1. Accept the Complexity of Scripture: 

Healthy bible reading begins with accepting the complexity of Scripture. Peter speaks of Paul’s writings as containing things that are “hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.”  The Bible is a collection of writings that encompass a multitude of genres, many of which aren’t in use in our day (i.e. Revelation is a “prophetic-apocalyptic epistle,” and a prime victim of misreading as foretelling of the future).  The Biblical world is “distant” from ours in terms of language, geography and culture, and without a healthy awareness of that distance, we will be tempted to assume a meaning that isn’t there. Matters of salvation are clear in the Bible, but much of the Bible is easily misapplied and misrepresented because readers lack a humble posture towards. Reminding yourself of the complexity of Scripture will help foster an open, listening and humble posture.

  1. Prioritize Your Heart Over Your Head: 

I have devoted a large portion of my life to understanding the biblical narrative and its complexity, so don’t misunderstand the following words: the primary purpose of reading the Bible is not to “understand” it with your head, but to receive it with your heart. If you believe “understanding” the Bible is the primary goal of reading it, you will miss its point altogether. And when you don’t understand it you might think something is wrong with you; it might even deter you from ever reading it again (like it did my friend). Or worse, if we too quickly presume that we have understood it, in an absolute sense, we can easily become “puffed up” (1 Cor. 8:2).

Instead, attend Bible reading with a heart ready to be convicted and corrected. Prayerfully anticipate that you would be cut to the heart, and be made aware of the many ways your life doesn’t align with the way of life that Jesus is calling you to. You’re not looking for “universal laws” to add to your bag of ammo, but listening for the voice that’s speaking to you. The great Catholic theologian Joseph Ratzinger wisely captures this when he says “the meaning of a given passage of the Bible becomes most indelible in those human beings who have been totally transfixed by it and have lived it out.”

  1. Read with Patience

If you’re like me you might expect to experience something special whenever you read the Bible—a vision, an insight, a unique revelation. We sometimes approach the biblical text with the expectations, (or heaven forbid, the demand!) that God will open our “spiritual eyes” so that we can discover deep life-changing truths!  That could happen sometimes, but it’s not the norm. Our expectation for quick results is more so informed by our perpetual-entertainment-culture of Netflix and Youtube than anything else. Learn to read with patience and endurance through the mundane and boring bits.  Bible reading is a lot like brushing your teeth; you can’t expect to have healthy teeth all at once. Healthy teeth comes from brushing two minutes twice a day for the rest of your life.

Foundational healthy Bible reading that produces fruit will always include these three things: a humble acceptance of the complexity of Scripture, an openness to be convicted and cut to the heart, and a willingness to read with a patience that endures even when nothing special happens. With these three rules, you can trust that the words of Scripture will truly become “indelible”—it will truly “take root”, endure, and bear fruit in its time.

 

Reflections on Gratitude and the Holy Supper

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Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? 1 Cor 10:16

Eucharisteo is the Greek word for gratitude.

The posture of thanksgiving is what the biblical narrative points to as the proper posture of the imago dei in man. This stands in contrast to our North American culture of excessive hoarding and addiction through the gratification of insatiable desires. Hans Boersma makes the observation that this is quite understandable since our words is astonishingly beautiful: “When we smell, when we taste, when we hear, when we see, when we touch—the pleasure that follows can be overwhelmingly powerful.” But the purpose of our lives is not for increased gratification of the instinctual sort. What separates us from animals and what makes us rightful candidates of the imago dei—that uniquely human calling to image the Creator—is a posture of eucharisteo: gratitude. But not just any gratitude, but the kind that leads to self-giving, the kind that recognizes that all of creation—all that we can taste, touch, smell, hear and see—is merely a gift to be offered back to God.

In response to Jesus’ instructions, christians have made what has come to be known by countless names (holy communion, eucharist, holy supper, etc) as the definitive marker of the Christian identity.

“Do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus said. Then word “communion” refers to the greek word, koinonia, which is also translated as fellowship, and participation. This special Christian act is precisely that: fellowship, participation, a unique and unexplainable mystery of entering into the Trinitarian life. And as we enter into the life of the Trinitarian God, we are launched into a life of eucharisteo.

To be authentically human, according to Christian faith and practice, is constituted by the posture of thanksgiving that leads to self-giving.

Paradoxically, and in opposition to everything we’re told by a culture of rampant consumerism, a life of gratitude is the life that is most satisfying of all.

Studies have shown that gratitude in itself is a healthy posture, and daily practices of expressing gratitude will contribute to happier life. But who are we to thank? How we answer this question will determine whether or not we will move from thanksgiving to self-giving.

God’s Plan For You is to Be a Gardener

A couple of weeks ago I had a sudden impulse to have a garden.

I bought some soil and some planters and the next you know I was in my garden gloves, watering basil, tomatoes and cucumbers in a raised garden bed made of an old bookshelf. The idea of having a garden sounds nice, but unless I learn to prune and water it, it’s going to die. If I want it to flourish, I will need to be intentionally present to it.

The beautiful thing about gardening is that it’s the primary image used in the Bible to describe what humans were created to do: to be gardeners of the world.

In the first pages of the Bible we’re introduced to God as a gardener: “And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8).  And like any gardener, God’s desire for His garden—His creation—was that it would flourish. In other words, when God created the world, He created it with the intention that it would be a place where goodness, truth and beauty would abound. The Hebrew word for this was shalom.

The surprising part of the story is that God did not choose to do this by Himself. God’s plan was for man and women to be co-gardeners with Him. Humans, made in the image and likeness of God, were created to join God in His creative work to care for the world in a special way.

All the pain, hurt, suffering and shame we’ve ever experienced is a result of our failure to be responsible gardeners of God’s creation.

The good news of God becoming a man and entering our world is not that we get a ticket to escape the world, but show us the way to be proper gardeners of the world.

Unfortunately, salvation is often misunderstood as a story of escaping this world because it is just too damaged and corrupt for any hope of redemption. Thankfully, this isn’t the case. See, God did not become flesh to get us out of the world, but so that we would be fully human, fully alive, in the world and for the world.

Because of Jesus, a new creation has penetrated our world.

One of the earliest Christian teachers captured this idea when he said that “the glory of God is man fully alive.” What he meant was that in Jesus, we find our true human fulfillment. This is why Jesus often talked about offering “abundant life” to his followers. It doesn’t mean that he gives us a lot of things but that he makes it possible for us to recover our human calling to be co-gardeners with God.

This has a lot of implications with how we view and inhabit our world. Christians are called to be the shapers and makers of culture. We’re called to be present, like a gardener is present to his garden, caring for our world, our city, our neighborhood in ways that reflect the ways of Jesus.

When we follow Jesus into the way of life he calls us to live, he will make us more human than we could ever be without him.

Following Jesus means that we learn to be present to people, places and things in every sphere of culture we find ourselves in for the sake of cultivating shalom.

Be A Farmer: How to Experience Transformation

TransformationIf you’ve been a Christian for longer than a week you know that you can’t transform your heart through sheer determination and willpower.

The Bible talks about sin as a condition so deeply ingrained in the heart that it works its way out through the body (Ro. 7:5). Jesus spoke of this as well when he said that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” He was addressing the external righteousness of the Pharisees, telling them that “every careless word” will reveal the true nature of their heart (Matt 12:34-36).

In other words, what is inside will always come out. If you are full of anger, full of lust, full of bitterness, no force of willpower and determination will keep the heart from being revealed.

There’s two typical ways we go about dealing with this reality: the first is to try harder and do better, give will-power another try. The second route we take is to believe that there is nothing we can do so we must idly wait for change to happen automatically. In the meantime, thank God that you are “objectively” righteous, and soon enough the real righteousness—the change of heart Jesus spoke about so often—will eventually come. These are the two options: will-power or idleness, and both are wrong.

Paul gives us a third option: learn to be a farmer.

He says, “he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (6:8). Richard Foster comments on Paul’s farming metaphor and how it relates to the process of transformation:

“A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain.  He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain” (The Spiritual Disciples, 7).

Paul gives us the picture of the farmer to resolve the tension of transformation, and it’s a paradox: there’s physical work you can do that has no power in creating growth, yet is necessary for maturity. Like the flourishing garden of a farmer, transformation takes bodily discipline. When the Christian practices of prayer, study, solitude, silence, service, and many others become a regular part of our diet, we are creating the right conditions to experience something supernatural.

But don’t be fooled into thinking that there is some kind of power inherent in the disciplines, there isn’t.

No seasoned farmer will boast about what grows from his garden, he is well aware its mystery, and thankful to be invited into the process. The disciplines simply create “the right conditions”—they create the environment for God to do his work. They are his chosen means of grace for transformation—for taking what we believe in our heads, and webbing it deeply into our hearts.

Transformation happens not through willpower nor idleness but by learning the skills of the farmer who takes the time, the patience, and the effort to cultivate, plant, and water, creating the conditions for God do his mysterious work. It is a slow, long, but life-giving process.

 

 

 

Learning to Lament in the Midst of Tragedy

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Christians need to learn to lament. We live in a culture that prefers to hide sadness, and too often, Christians have been found doing the same.

Every day, we encounter people who are suffering because of loss, instability, pain or regret and they lament because of it. And every day, Christians offer intellectual answers to the emotional turmoil that so many victims of tragedy experience, bypassing any need for lament.

We look up our favourite suffering-will-make-me-a-better-person verse and stamp them on the victims of tragic turmoil.  I hear it said all the time that since “Jesus will use your suffering for good to make you a better person,” you shouldn’t be sad.

Though the statement about Jesus is true, the conclusion about emotional repression is absolutely false.

Here’s a question that might be worth asking: How should Christians  respond to tragedies that involve violence, hate, suffering and death without disqualifying the reality and immensity of their grief? How can our faith in Jesus as Lord ultimately be a source of joy while being honest about the dysfunction of suffering and death? How can we point to something worth hoping for without giving pat answers about “sanctification” and how suffering will “make you a better person”?

It’s easy to miss, but there’s something mistakenly unhealthy about this common scenario because it fails to take into account the complexity of the biblical narrative and how Jesus himself responds to tragedy.

On the one hand, the Bible is full of claims that God redeems suffering. He reveals himself as the Redeemer of his people and the whole of creation. Indeed, the entire biblical narrative is largely about the how God promises to redeem a creation inked with suffering, violence, and brokenness.

Despite this, nowhere in the Bible do we get the idea that a victim of tragedy should silence their cry, hide away their tears and pretend that it’s all okay.

Nowhere in the Bible is the suppression of honest feelings equated to holiness.  Instead, an entire book in the Bible is dedicated to the very necessary human response to Lament.

Learning to lament is part of what it means to be human. And we see this throughout the Bible:

The great psalmist David expressed every emotion in his psalms and in the midst of tragedy and grief invited his people to lament with him (2 Samuel 1). Not only did he sing this lament but taught his people to learn and live in it, despite God’s faithfulness to redeem the situation.  When Mary and Martha lose their brother, they lament. Mary laments with particular gusto, expressing her wishes that Jesus should have been there sooner. Was she wrong? 

The narrative of suffering for many Christians doesn’t fit with the next part of the story. For many, Jesus should have just told Mary and Martha to stop being sad.

Instead, Jesus does what nobody could have guessed: he weeps. The God who makes himself into a man reveals how deeply he has tied himself to the creation he loves with real, physical, tears. This is the character of God; one who responds to tragedy not with a simple answer, but with his humanity.

The Gospel is not about a God who takes all the pain away with the click of a button, but one who enters in with great compassion and empathy, making a way possible for a redeemed and resurrected world.

In our pain, in our suffering, when we experience violence, abuse and exploitation, the God of the Bible does not stand afar, but enters into the suffering, offering his tears. Only when we see a tearful God, could we begin to hope for a redeemed future.

This is part of what it takes to become a mature human being: learning to grieve with those who grieve, to cry with those who cry, and to mourn with those who mourn. When we learn to lament with one another, we are learning to take up our cross as a communal act, and only then will we be ready to experience the miracle and mystery of the resurrection.