In Search of the Good Life

In Search of the Good Life

Discipleship is such a churchy word. Why should we bother with it? Before I tell you why I think it is important, I want to tell you why I became a priest. This story contains what I love about discipleship.

Once upon a time, I was going to be an academic. I know that won’t surprise anyone who knows me, but the reason was that I loved the big questions of life: Who am I? What is my purpose? What does it mean to be a good person? I was in a graduate program in philosophy. My goal was to be a teacher, but for me this was less about sharing knowledge and more about being a life coach. I was after the concept of THE GOOD LIFE, a life lived well. Often the culture will give us a vision of the good life as sipping champagne, driving our Porsche, and not having to work.

But studying philosophy challenged that for me. I found that what we often call the good life is really the pleasant life. Beneath the glittering surface, it is the shallow life. Once one starts to look deeper, one finds that being so self-centered is really destructive. Philosophy’s answer is that if you want to get to your deathbed with no regrets, you need virtues and values such as responsibility and purpose; tempering the appetites; having a mission in the world, and so on. I got such joy out of pursuing these virtues that I wanted to share the good news of a life lived well. Then I met Jesus, and he changed everything. Well, sort of changed everything.

In Search of a Jesus-Shaped Good Life

My excitement and vision were still the same. I still wanted to encourage people to live deeper life, and to build their lives around higher virtues and values. But now all these virtues and values were Jesus-shaped. When I read the Gospels, I found that Jesus was doing this with the people that came to him. They heard his teachings and were profoundly impacted. As they stayed to hear more, they also started to observe how he lived, how he treated other people, how he prayed to God. They became his students, not in the sense of enrolling in a class, but in learning and imitating. They became students of wisdom and life. The fancy word for student is disciple.

When I put my first love of philosophy with my greater love of Jesus, I found that something providential happened. Jesus leads us into the true GOOD LIFE. It is also a life well-lived, but centered now on God and God’s plan for our lives. It is powered not by willpower, but by grace, and ends in a heart of love.

Living Well

This means different things to different people. But when I think of it, I often remember one of the funerals that impacted me the most. It was for a woman whom I had not met. When I started at my first parish as a new priest, she had already been sick with extreme dementia for quite some time. But I got to know her husband well. When she finally died, I led the funeral.

When her four children got up and spoke about their mom, it was the most moving testimony about a human being that I have ever heard. She had not lived publicly in the limelight. Instead, she focused on her family and volunteer work. But the love and grace she had given to her family and friends was remarkable. As I sat there, I remember thinking that if my children spoke like that about me when I died, then I would have lived well. I would have led a good life. So I prayed to God that I would be the person my children could speak about like that.

Becoming that person is not quick or easy. It is made up of small decisions and actions over the course of years, and the process is what we call discipleship. My invitation to you is also to strive to be the person that God has made you to be. Be a disciple.

Fasting for Lent

How do you observe Lent?

In the Anglican church, it is common to hear someone ask, “What are you doing for Lent?” The answers are a mixture of giving something up and taking on something new. You often hear things like:

“I am giving up chocolate for Lent.”

or “I am cutting back on alcohol.”

or “I am going to read the Bible more.”

or “I am going to volunteer at the soup kitchen.”

The question often arises, why do we fast and take on disciplines for Lent? Is there something earth shattering about giving up chocolate? The answer is no. So why do it? Here are four simple but profound reasons.

Fasting for Obedience

1) The first reason is that Jesus asks us to do these things (see Matthew 6:1-18). It is about obedience. Of course, he doesn’t specifically ask for chocolate. That is not the point. Rather, it is part of a three-fold challenge from Jesus that gives focus to Lent. It is traditionally listed as prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

These are meant to be serious practices, but not legalistic ones. Jesus wants us to pray because prayer is the language of our relationship with God. It is how we grow closer to God. Jesus wants us to fast because fasting allows us to find freedom from unhealthy habits. And Jesus wants us to give alms because it is an expression of care and compassion for people in need, and we need to practice doing that. Giving up chocolate or alcohol or whatever is an expression of fasting and doing without, not for its own sake, but for education and healing.

Learning through Fasting for Lent

2) Fasting is partly about learning. I don’t mean about facts, but about deep inner truths. It helps us realize that many people live in poverty and will never have what we are struggling to do without. We grow in humility as we see that we can do with less than we think we need, and that we have resources that can be used to help others.

In the book of Isaiah, fasting is closely connected with justice. The prophet criticizes those who fast and do other religious rituals, while simultaneously perpetuating injustice. He writes, “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry…?” (Isaiah 48: 6-7a). Part of the purpose of fasting is to help us develop a heart of compassion, which leads to generosity of spirit.

Fasting for Reflection and Growth

3) Fasting for Lent also teaches us something important about our inner life: we need heart healing. This is Jesus’ main goal. He calls us to fast because he wants us to grow deeper in maturity. The problem is that we have many unhealthy habits and attachments in our lives. For instance, let’s say I fast from all sugar during Lent. It doesn’t seem big. But the reality is that I would find that hard. I am used to quite a bit of sugar in my diet. Therefore, when I find it hard, I need to ask myself, why? What am I learning about myself? What am I learning about what I serve?

Now let’s imagine that it is so hard that I find myself getting irritated at my kids or wife. Again, I need to really think about this. What is it within me that is struggling? This should be easy: just stop eating sugar. But why don’t I have the patience and strength?

In truth, it is not easy. And this is the point. We don’t mature and grow unless we push beyond what is comfortable. If everything is comfortable, we stagnate. Giving up chocolate or alcohol–or whatever–amounts to putting controlled spiritual and emotional stress on our lives. This is partly so that we can push through it. But the real reason is that it gives us a glimpse into our souls and shows us we need healing.

Fasting for Lent for Healing

4) Healing is the point. God is nothing but love, and looks with compassion on our struggles. God wants to heal our souls, and this doesn’t happen quickly. The New Testament doesn’t distinguish heart, soul and mind in the same way we do. They are a whole, and inside are a mixture of positive and negative emotions, impulses and drives. There is compassion, hospitality, courage, love, and a host of other good stuff. There is also anger, fear, lust, unhealthy hungers, violence, prejudices, and a host of other bad stuff. They are all mixed up together.

Part of the Good News is that Christ came to bring healing and wholeness to human beings. He brings grace, mercy, and love to transform our hard hearts into soft hearts. This is neither a simple nor a quick process.

We tend to hide our hurt, pain, and negative emotions. But if we bring them into the gentle light of Christ with honesty and humility, he will heal them over time. Sometimes we need to do this soul work with another person guiding us, be it a spiritual mentor or a psychologist.

Fasting for Lent helps us to find the areas of hardness in our hearts by surfacing what needs the most healing. The next step is to pray for God to heal those places. Spend time in prayer for your inner being. God wants to birth within you a new creation. This is the deeper meaning of fasting.

Love Builds Up

1 Corinthians 1:13 - Love Builds Up

At first glance, this week’s Epistle reading (1 Corinthians 8:1-13) doesn’t seem to be relevant to us in the 21st Century. Paul is counselling the church in Corinth as they deal with a divisive issue.

An Ancient Conflict

Paul is wading into a conversation about whether Christians can, in good faith, eat meat that has been used ritually in pagan ceremonies. This is not a burning issue for us. But we can still glean a principle that is important for every generation to grasp. (And on a side note, this is often how Scripture works. It might speak to an ancient conflict, but there is always a more generalized spiritual principle that we can discover.)

The principle that Paul gives us in this conversation is that “knowledge puffs up but love builds up.” In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks to Christians who feel that they have a greater level of spiritual enlightenment than others in the church.

The issue is that the “enlightened” people know they can eat this meat with a clear conscience, so they look down on people who are hesitating in fear of spiritual contamination. They see themselves as the strong and the others as the weak.

While we don’t worry too much about this problem these days, the principle continues to come up in other ways. We still have people who feel that they are more spiritual than others. They have achieved a ‘higher level’ of spiritual experience and maturity. And in fact, some may indeed be more spiritually mature. In the example of the situation in Paul’s time, he actually agrees with the ‘strong.’ Clear knowledge and understanding is important. It is better to be knowledgeable than not.

Love Builds Up and Knowledge Takes Second Place

However, there is a problem with knowledge. Overemphasizing its importance often leads to pride, superiority, and power. In turn, these develop unequal and broken relationships. For Paul, knowledge is not the ultimate good. That place always belongs to love. Later in the letter to the Corinthians, Paul tells us, “If I…can fathom all mysteries and have all knowledge… but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)

Does this mean that knowledge is unimportant? Of course not. We are called to study and learn and grow. This is an essential aspect of discipleship. But it never replaces the central importance of love in the Christian faith.

In fact, all knowledge should lead ultimately to love.

Heaven and the Kingdom of God

Mark 1:15

In this coming Sunday’s gospel reading, we see the heart of Jesus’ message. What is he telling us? What is Jesus’ spiritual message for us and for the world? This is important to know because it is at the center of what Christianity is all about. So what was the message? In Mark chapter 1, we hear Jesus preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

The kingdom of God is at the heart of his message. Jesus assumed that his contemporaries would hear this as the best news ever! He believed that they would be excited at this proclamation.

However, as modern readers, we don’t hear it the same way. The idea of the kingdom of God probably doesn’t mean as much to us. Or if it does, we often think that it means heaven after we die. But Jesus meant it to be much bigger than that.

Heaven isn’t the whole story

What we call Heaven is only one tiny part of what Jesus is talking about: that all of the promises and prophesies in the Old Testament are all now coming true. People in ancient Israel had been waiting and praying for this moment for centuries. God had promised to come himself and be the king. The Creator would come and set things right, rescue Israel from all her enemies, and finally create a kingdom of righteousness marked by peace, justice and love. In fact, at the time of Jesus, there was a revolutionary slogan that said, “No King but God.”

Jesus says the time is fulfilled. All of these ancient prophesies are coming true. But as he continues to preach and heal and teach, it becomes clear that Jesus is doing something different. The heart of the Gospel is that God is becoming king and setting the world to rights in and through Jesus. And the way to enter the Kingdom of God is to commit to Jesus, believing and trusting in him as the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Jesus also taught that the Kingdom would come in stages. His public ministry was the first stage, then there was his death and resurrection, then the era of the church proclaiming the good news throughout the world. And at last, there will be a final consummation of all things.

The Vision of the Kingdom of God

This is important to each of us because, as believers and disciples of Jesus Christ, we are a part of the Kingdom of God. As Jesus taught, this kingdom is not a political reality, but a spiritual reality and a vision of transformed hearts and relationships.

No one is forgotten in the Kingdom of God. All are beloved and have dignity. It is a relationship with God that lasts long into eternity. It is about the world as it was always created to be, and you get to be a part of that. The Kingdom of God is as large as the whole universe, yet fully present within your own heart. In the Gospel on Sunday, we read about Jesus proclaiming the good news and issuing an invitation. Every day is a day to say yes.

Advent Traditions and the Incarnation

Advent Traditions & the Incarnation

At dinner time every evening, my children fight over who gets to light the Advent candle. This is one of our favourite Advent traditions. The desire to light the candle has little to do with piety and much more to do with the novelty of playing with fire. Nevertheless, I believe the simple act of delighting in striking the match over time anchors the deeper meaning of Advent. I hope that it at will sink in over years of lighting hundreds of candles. This is part of why I believe that physical traditions of Advent and Christmas are so important. Lighting a candle, putting up a tree, hanging lights, listening to Christmas music, giving to charity, baking goodies, wrapping presents, and more.

Traditions that Accent the Gospel Message

None of these are the Gospel message, but they accent it. They give us a concrete way to express the joy and wonder we experience as we meditate on the birth of Christ. God made us flesh and blood, not just souls. Jesus Christ did not just come as a proclamation. He came as a baby that his mother could hold and caress and physically love. The church has always recognized that we need to express our faith in physical ways. We break bread together in Eucharist, we adorn our church in beautiful colours and fabrics, we sing together, process with a cross, light candles, and exchange the peace. All of this helps us to embody the Gospel in our lives in simple and beautiful ways.

What are your favourite Advent and Christmas traditions? This year, consider renewing your appreciation of what they mean. For instance, when you light the Advent candles, meditate on the fact that fire represents the light of Christ. Or ponder the meaning of what hope or peace or joy or love might mean to you this day. When you put the star on the top of tree, let it remind you of the star that brought the wise men to Jesus. But even if you are not able to enter deeper into these truths this year, just enjoy the physical action of the traditions. They speak nevertheless.

Advent Arrivals

Getting Ready for Christmas: Advent Arrivals

As we travel deeper into the season of Advent, it is worth noting what the word means. Advent comes from a Latin word meaning “Approach or Arrival or Coming.” But this is not an ordinary arrival; it describes the ceremonial entry of an emperor, the king, or some other high official. When we use this particular word, Advent, we remind ourselves that this is the season of waiting and preparation for the King of Kings.

Three Different Advent Arrivals

In Advent, we are waiting for three different arrivals, and these give the season its unique texture. First, we look back to the Old Testament hope for the coming of the Messiah. This is why we read the book of Isaiah during Advent. Isaiah, more than any other Old Testament prophet, describes this hope to us. From centuries before the birth of Christ, Isaiah’s words remind us for whom we are waiting:

A child is born to us! A son is given to us!

And he will be our ruler.

He will be called, “Wonderful Counselor,”

“Mighty God,” “Eternal Father,” “Prince of Peace.”

Isaiah 9:6 (Good News Translation)

The second arrival is the second coming of Christ at the end of time. This is why we read the poetic gospel vision of Christ coming in glory. We have images of the sun being darkened and the stars falling. This reminds us that in the great renewal, there will also be great upheaval.

The third coming is entirely personal. Christ is not just an historic person. He is the son of God who loves you, and is continually being born again in your heart. This heart preparation is the main spiritual work of Advent, calling us to be ready to receive the note of great joy and wonder that comes with the birth of Christ.

Cultivating Advent

The paradox of the phrase ‘spiritual work’ is that it is not work at all in the normal sense. Rather, it is more the cultivation of a state of openness and trust in what God is doing. It is expectancy. To describe this expectancy, let me share with you a gift that was given to me by my friend Scott. He is the person in our Diocese (regional church) charged with Ecumenical and Interfaith conversations. He is always looking to build bridges with other groups and people. In this time of Covid, he mentioned that so much of his work slowed down. Those connections seem to be harder and harder to make. It can be discouraging. But he has found comfort in a song released back in 2017 called Your Labour is Not in Vain by The Porter’s Gate. The lyrics speak to this:

Your labor is not in vain

Though the ground underneath you is cursed and stained

Your planting and reaping are never the same

Your labor is not in vain

Your labor is not unknown

Though the rocks they cry out and the sea it may groan

The place of your toil may not seem like a home

But Your labor is not unknown

I am with you, I am with you

I am with you, I am with you

This song was a gift to me as well. Sometimes it seems like we are going nowhere, doing a lot of work for little growth. Do you ever feel that? And yet, Advent calls us to look bigger. The promise of the song and the season is that while there is struggle, it is not wasted. The seeds that we plant will bloom in the Kingdom of God. Learn to live in openness, trust and expectation. Advent gives us a profound message that Christ has already come, is going to come again, and is continually coming into your life day by day. Your labour is not in vain.

If you want to hear the song, you can find it here:

Keeping Awake: Discerning How God Speaks

Keeping Awake: Discerning How God Speaks

Welcome to the season of Advent, the time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child, the one who brings light and blessing. The message of Advent comes from the Gospel lesson we read last Sunday. Jesus says, “And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” (Mark 13:37) What does it mean to keep awake? There are different ways to answer this, but at the simplest level, keeping awake means listening to God and getting to know how God speaks.

What Being Blessed Really Means

Once, when Jesus was teaching (Luke 11:27-28), someone was deeply touched by his wisdom. She exclaimed how blessed Jesus’ mother must be for giving birth to such a child. I am guessing that the speaker was also a mother who wanted to express her gratitude. Normally, Jesus might have agreed that his mother was pretty special, but here he answers differently to make a point. He says, “On the contrary, blessed are those who hear the Word of God and observe it.” One of our most important tasks is to listen to the Word of God.

God is speaking to you constantly. Are you listening? This is the question that Jesus wants us to take seriously. God does not usually speak to us like we speak to one another. Because God uses a different kind of speaking, we have to develop a different kind of listening.

How God Speaks

First and foremost, God has spoken through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. This is why we call Jesus the Word of God (John 1:1-3). To understand what Jesus’ life says, we turn to the second most important way God has spoken: through the writings that tell the story of Jesus, that reflect on the meaning of his life, and that tell the story of his ancestors. These are the Scriptures. We listen to the Word by reading, praying and reflecting on them. God also speaks through history, including the events of your life and the people you know.

This way of listening may be unfamiliar to us, and so the meaning is not immediately obvious. For this reason, listening becomes what we call discernment: a considered, prayerful process of tuning our spiritual ears to God’s voice.

The Call of Advent

Advent is the promise that Christ is coming. He comes at Christmas, but he also comes every day. His grace and love is constantly active. Do we see it? Do we hear it? Are we a part of it?

This Advent, consider how you listen to God and how you discern God’s voice. God is speaking to you. Are you listening? Do you keep awake?

Building a Prayer Life (How to Pray – Series Summary)

Building a Prayer Life

We have spent several weeks looking at the life of prayer. We have covered a lot of material, so in this final reflection I thought it might be helpful to highlight what I believe are the four most important points in the life of prayer.

1. Above all else, a prayer life is an intimate relationship with God.

From one perspective, a life of prayer can be complicated. As we have seen, there are many different approaches to prayer and all kinds of techniques for praying deeply. There are lots of different tools, books and apps that one can use. Before we get caught up with all of that, it is essential to remember that above all else, prayer is an intimate relationship with God. At its heart, prayer is utterly simple: God wants to be in relationship with you. And prayer is our side of that relationship. All of the techniques and tools are only supposed to help with that simple goal. If they help, by all means use them! But if they don’t, then don’t use them. It is that simple.

2. Lifting up your heart is the foundation of prayer

Prayer is based on a simple, essential movement. In the Eucharist, we call this ‘lifting up your heart.’ This is a way of putting aside the thoughts and activities of the world and giving your attention to God. The beauty of prayer as lifting up your heart is that you can do this anywhere: at home, at church, in the grocery store, at work… you get the idea. Every method and aid to prayer is only meant to facilitate and enhance this simple truth.

For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux

3. Have a routine and a place for prayer

Consider having a special time and place where you pray every day. In the modern world, we sometimes forget the importance of ritual to structure our days and weeks. Without it, life can often seem chaotic and busy. Daily rituals of prayer help us to recenter and recapture what it is that we are all about. It is also helpful to have a prayer space, even if it is just a favourite chair. Over time, you come to look forward to praying in your space. Obviously, you do not need all of this to pray.

People often point to the Oswald Chambers quotation: “There is no need to get to a place to pray; pray wherever you are.” And I strongly agree with that. But Chambers was speaking to a different question. He was trying to encourage people that you don’t need to go to a church to pray with professional clergy. Prayer is available to anyone at any time. Of course, we can pray anywhere. But if we are going to create a habit, it is essential to have structures in place that will help us to do so.

4. Commit to a prayer life

This is the hardest part. I believe that if we wait until we have time to develop a prayer life, then we probably won’t do it. It is hard to find time to add something new to our lives. What we need to do is to understand how important prayer is, and we always find time for things that we believe are important.

It is not hard to see that prayer is important. I would suggest that this is the single most important activity that we do every day. Think about it… if we really believe that there is a God, and that this God wants to be in relationship with us, and that we were created specifically for this purpose, then spending time in prayer (daily communion with God) is the most important thing we can do. This is merely the law of relationships. For relationships to thrive, we need to put in the time. There is no other way.

Prayer is a special activity. It is clearly an ancient and universal impulse:

From primitive cave paintings to the whitewashed walls of the Royal Academy, the universal impulse to pray permeates and pulsates through human anthropology and archaeology, sociology and psychology. It is no exaggeration to say that to be human is to pray. The question, therefore, is not so much why we pray, but rather how and to whom. For billions of people today, the answer to such questions is to be found in the revolutionary life and teaching of Jesus Christ.

Pete Greig

I pray that your prayer life will grow and be a blessing to you. Though it will have its ups and downs, you will find the rhythm that works for you. Just remember:

Keep it simple,

Keep it real,

Keep it up.

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