On today’s podcast, we are talking about Romans 4:13-25. This is part of a letter that the Apostle Paul wrote to a community in Rome. At that time, Rome was the capital city of the biggest empire in the ancient world. In the short passage today, Paul is reflecting on the promises God gives to Abraham. The whole story of the Jewish people leading to Jesus begins in a promise that God made to Abraham around 4000 years ago.
The question for Paul is what does it mean to be in relationship–or covenant–with God? Is our relationship grounded in our ability to fulfill the commandments of God? Or is it grounded in our trust in the reliability of God’s promises? For Paul, we really need to grasp this distinction if we are going to have a rich and deep relationship with the living God.
Join the conversation! How do you remind yourself to trust in the promises of God? Please add your own thoughts and insights in the comments below.
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.
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.
On the Hope Canteen, we are beginning a new series called How to Pray. We want to help people create a meaning-filled and life-giving practice of prayer.
Prayer is one of the touchstones of my day. It is where I connect with God and have the opportunity to think, centre, pray, journal, relax, and take some time just to be. I have found that people often want to pray, but only know it as reading lists of names. My hope is that by the end of this series, you will see what is possible.
Some Ingredients for Growing in Faith
Before I get into prayer itself, I want to make some preliminary comments about what is necessary to ‘grow in faith.’ While the prayer series is part of our theme for this fall, faith is more than prayer. It is a whole approach to life that grows over time.
Faith starts with saying yes to God. From there, it develops trust in God and learns to receive the love of God. Then it grows to being able to ‘see’ (i.e. discern) God working in different parts of our life. Then again over time, it grows into seeing God in all aspects of life. Ultimately, we learn to see our whole life in God no matter what is happening to us, either good or bad.
Today, I want to touch on four elements we need to put in place to be able to ‘grow in faith’ as a Christian.
As with most other religions, Christianity has doctrines. This just means that we believe certain things to be true and other things not to be true. Having common beliefs is not meant to impede free thought, curiosity, or intellectual exploration. It just means that in the end, we believe that the story of Jesus Christ is a true story.
Like any good story, this story raises lots of questions: who is Jesus? How is he related to God? What is the Bible? What is salvation? What happens after we die? How good do we have to be? What is grace? What is the Gospel? The Christian church has spent a lot of time answering all those questions, and the answers to those questions are the doctrines of the church. Part of growing in faith is getting to know the answers to those questions and asking what they mean for you. The answers are important because they address the HOW of coming to know God, WHY our lives exist, and what is the point of it all. Knowledge gets us going in the right direction.
2) The Journey of Faith
Knowledge by itself is not enough. We are living, embodied people, and we have to be able to live out what we believe. Saying that a journey is important for faith is to say that we need to make the Gospel into the rhythm of our lives.
Pilgrimage is a very practical metaphor for how we grow in faith. This year I was supposed to go to Iona on pilgrimage. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out because of Covid. Going on a pilgrimage is an amazing way to take a journey. Iona is the island where St. Columba landed after being exiled from Ireland. There, he formed a monastery. Pilgrims have been visiting that holy place ever since.
To embark on a pilgrimage is to bring your whole life temporarily into a particular part of the story of God. Iona offers pilgrims the chance to walk in the footsteps of St. Columba. On pilgrimage, I look at my life in light of this story, my own story, the prayers of my heart, and so on.
Ordinary Life is Pilgrimage
The interesting and ironic learning of pilgrimage is that you don’t have to go to exotic places to be on a journey with God. Pilgrimages always point you back to your own life. Make your ordinary life a journey in small ways and large.
For instance, I go on a pilgrimage every single day. As one of my daily rhythms, I get up before everyone else does. I pour myself a cup of coffee to drink while I pray and read and just sit in silence. This has become a cherished part of my day. I look forward to that first sip of coffee in the morning, the first breath of fresh outside air and the first moments of talking to God. It is special for me.
I say that it is a journey because it has a beginning. Then as it goes on, I gain insight as I talk with God and think about what I am reading. Then it comes to an end. The whole process is a small journey that I take every day that feeds my soul.
Layers of Journeys
This small morning journey is not the only one I am on. I am always on a yearlong journey through the church calendar. I go from Advent to Christmas to Easter and back again. During the year, I have so many experiences and joy and frustration, and all of it causes me to grow. In this season of my life, I am also in the journey of fatherhood. Also, every week I journey from Sabbath to Sabbath.
To grow in faith, we need these daily, weekly and yearly rhythms, all lived in the presence of God. Prayer is talking to God, but it also contains rhythms that form our whole lives.
3. Make it Personal
As I have meditated on different Christian programs that have been successful in helping people to grow in faith, three have stood out to me: Cursillo, TEC (Teens Encounter Christ) and Alpha. I have personal experience with these three, but there are many more.
What is it that makes them work? First off, they each combine the first two elements of faith building well. They each give knowledge about the faith. Then, the whole experience is meant to be a journey. The first two are a retreat weekend with a beginning, middle and end. Alpha is a ten-week journey. They all incorporate a very personal element. In each of these three programs, you are given the chance to sit with someone in prayer. The person praying for you is there to keep everything you say confidential, be non-judgemental, and to be a safe and prayerful presence. They give you the space to look into your heart.
Growing in Your Faith
This is not just for sensitive people. I have seen tough men walk this path and discover the living God. Given the opportunity, anything can happen: you can confess sin, you can express your joys, you can talk about your confusions, you can get excited about your breakthroughs, you can admit that you are stuck. There are no expectations. The point is that a space is created where faith can become real and personal. It is no longer information, something your parents made you do, or a habit that you have cultivated. This is about YOU, and all the stuff in YOUR life and YOUR heart.
At some point on the journey of faith, you have to realize that God is actually talking to you personally, and that all of this stuff you know is real and for you. Everything changes when you get to this point.
Programs like Cursillo, Alpha and TEC are by no means the only place you can develop a personal faith. Like pilgrimage, they always point you back to your unique, ordinary life. Faith can be real for you on your sofa all by yourself. But at some point, you need to take the step and make it personal.
4) Grow in Faith with a Supportive Community
Faith grows best when we are surrounded by supportive people who are on the same journey of faith. To that end, we need people in our lives that we can talk with, laugh with, confide in and be real with. We also need to learn to be that person for others. These don’t have to be close friends, but we do need to be able to gather and worship with others.
Ideally, this community would be the church. I know that doesn’t always work for people. But part of the purpose of the church is to be the community that proclaims the gospel, celebrates the sacraments, and loves one another. It is meant to be the fertile ground where faith will grow.
I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.
Ephesians 3:16-17, our theme verse for this fall.
Looking Ahead to the Cold Months
I want to use this reflection and the next one to tell you about the theme for the upcoming season. I keep thinking about how different this fall is going to be from previous years. In one sense, it is obvious that everything will have changed. Our church services are under emergency Covid protocols. Our Christian education will happen over Zoom. We won’t be able to do the programming that we normally do. The simple answer is that it is going to be a lot harder, given the realities of Covid. But I also want to ask the question in a deeper way.
Over the past two weeks, I have become very aware that the temperatures have started to turn. I was sitting on my back porch when the wind came up, and I noticed the chill in the air. It struck me that we have been able to cope with Covid a lot better because of the warm weather. Different groups have been able to gather outside to talk and have fellowship. It has been really good to be able to laugh again with people. With the cold weather coming, I realized that meeting outside is going to become more difficult. With the daylight waning, I wonder what this means for our congregations. This could be a difficult winter for many of us.
Focus on Spiritual Health
I have started to pray about this, asking God what we need to focus on this fall to help us pull through the cold months together, and indeed to be spiritually healthy as we wait for the return of the warmth. The image that came to mind was one of my favourite scenes from the movie Chariots ofFire. Eric Liddell, a runner in the 1924 Olympic Games, is talking to a crowd and comparing faith to a race. He says,
“I want to compare faith to running in a race. It’s hard, requires concentration of will, energy of soul. You experience elation when the winner breaks the tape — ‘specially if you’ve got a bet on it. But how long does that last? You go home. Maybe your dinner’s burnt. Maybe, maybe you haven’t got a job. So, who am I to say, “believe,” “have faith,” in the face of life’s realities?I would like to give you something more permanent, but I can only point the way. I have no formula for winning the race. Everyone runs in her own way, or his own way. And where does the power come from to see the race to its end? From within. Jesus said, ‘Behold, the kingdom of God is within you.’”
Strength from Within
That little phrase is so important: from within. There is so much imagery in the New Testament naming ‘within’ as the place we meet God. The heart is the chief metaphor of the place where we most deeply encounter the living God. Our strength from within comes from God.
In Galatians 4:6 we read, “God has sent the Spirit of his son into our hearts.” Ephesians 3:17 says, “That Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” In the John 14: 23, Jesus says, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” As Eric Liddell tells us, to get through hard times we need to be able to draw strength from God whom we meet within us, in our hearts.
If this fall is potentially going to be a difficult one for many of us, then one of the best things we can do as a church is to deepen our faith life within. We want to be strong enough in faith not only to get through these difficult times ourselves, but in turn to be a source of support and strength for each other. With Jesus Christ as the head of the church, I know we are going to get through this stronger than before.
Dry Ground — Deep Roots
We are using the image of Dry Ground Requires Deep Roots for our theme this fall. As we know from gardening, plants get their water from underneath the soil. The roots of a plant both stabilize the plant and allow it to draw the necessary moisture to survive and even thrive. But when times are hard because there is little rain, the roots of a plant have to grow even deeper to reach the water.
In our theme, the roots stand for our faith, by which we draw life and strength from God. In hard times, we need to attend to our faith more than ever. We want to help you grow in spiritual health. In the next reflection, I will talk a bit more about what we have in mind.
I hope so! I want to be faithful to the Gospel. I love God tremendously, but I also love indoor plumbing… and pizza delivery and electricity and central heating and the grocery store down the block! Actually, the question goes a lot deeper that. All these things I love are conveniences that, of course, I am prepared to give up if God calls me to it.
Being a modern person is about subscribing to a worldview that challenges what we thought we knew about the Bible. In previous articles, we looked at how this worldview came about. You can read about faith and science here, and biblical criticism here. It is also important to ask if Christians SHOULD engage in these questions. The modern world puts some fundamental challenges in front of us. Does rejecting these challenges make us more faithful to the Gospel?
Searching for Truth and Being Faithful to the Gospel
My less flippant answer is that I think we as Christians need to be modern as well as committed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When we pit the Gospel against the questions of the modern world, we lose the fact that we are TRUTH seekers.
Insofar as possible, I want to know the TRUTH of things. I know there are many Christians who feel that it is our first commitment to defend the Bible and the faith against the encroachment of Biblical criticism, new discoveries about cosmology, evolution, insights into racism, and so on. But this surely the wrong attitude to start with.
Freeing Ourselves to Search for Truth
A defensive posture renders us unable to learn and search for truth. Stephen Covey once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” It takes humility actually to listen to new ideas in order to understand them. This is not to say that every new idea is worth following. But before we pass judgement on them, we first need to understand. We will never understand if we are defensive first.
For me, I want to know truth. I hate the idea of defending what I only WANT to be true. If the book of Isaiah was not written by a single individual, I want to know the truth of it. I want to know if evolution is true and what that means for my faith. If the walls of Jericho didn’t actually fall down, I want to know that. I don’t want to hide from the challenging truth that Christianity has had a long legacy of racism. I refuse to defend what I just want to be true.
There have been tremendous discoveries in the last one hundred years in physics, psychology, political science, medicine, archaeology, and many other fields. As I wrote in an earlier article, liberal theology doesn’t mean throwing away the truths of the Gospel. It means that we admit that modern claims about science and many other fields are generally true, and that we need to have a serious and honest conversation about this new knowledge and how it affects the way in which we read the Bible. Again, the impetus is to be a truth seeker FIRST. Two things need to be said:
1) Being a modern person doesn’t mean that we are uncritical of the modern world.
In fact, the Gospel helps us to see clearly where the problems are. There is much in the modern world that is problematic. Here are just a few examples:
The modern world values celebrity far too highly, to the point of throwing our economies and our understanding of human dignity out of balance. We pay our entertainers and sports heroes scandalous amounts of money while we allow our school systems to go broke.
It is blasphemous that our modern world tolerates the existence of weapons capable of rendering God’s creation unlivable, and that the use of them is considered a live option.
Our high standard of living in the West is based on tremendous waste. This is sown back into the earth, reaping the destruction of species, habitats and entire ecosystems.
One that really stands out to me is the fact that the modern world has no eschatological hope. When I was a younger man, I remember watching the Berlin Wall fall and the Communist world collapse. Political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared to an excited world that we had finally reached the ‘end of history.’ He didn’t meant that there would be no more history, but that out of the upheaval of centuries, the liberal democracies had finally won the day. Our society could look forward to a future of ever-increasing material prosperity and social stability. This is the great secular, modern hope.
A Discerning Faith
In 2020, we see that this hope was illusory. The world economy hasn’t been stable but is still marked by wild fluctuations. Communism may be gone, but different kinds of dangerous nationalism have arisen. We have learned the painful lesson that not every group has bought into the Western secular way of life and is prepared to use terrorist tactics to disrupt and destroy. We are also in the midst of a pandemic, a reminder that nature doesn’t play nice and that we don’t have all the tools to fix our problems.
All of this is to say that, as Christians, we need to point constantly to the fact that salvation must come from outside human history. We need God to bring about the reconciliation of all things. Humanity is not going to accomplish it. To say that we can be modern people as well as people of faith doesn’t mean buying into modernism hook, line and sinker. We need to use our discernment.
2) Being a modern person doesn’t mean that we must reject biblical truth.
We still proclaim the Gospel: that God cares about the world and doesn’t just want to watch as we inflict pain and misery on ourselves. We continuously proclaim that God wants to offer salvation and bring his kingdom of justice, mercy and peace. Along with centuries of Christians, we hold that God has acted in history, and that he has been most fully revealed in the teaching, life, death and resurrection of this amazing God/Man Jesus of Nazareth. In Christ, God calls all people to turn to him, receive forgiveness and new life, and join with him in this great project of reconciliation. This is good news!!
It does mean that the final word about our interpretation and understanding of the biblical witness has not yet been said. As Puritan John Robinson (1576-1625) put it, “The Lord has more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.” That we have more to learn about God and how to be faithful to the Gospel is the biggest assumption of this whole Lessons of the 20th Century series.
Learning New Ways to be Faithful to the Gospel
I do not need to be defensive because I believe that the truths generated by the challenges of the 20th century have actually given us deeper insights into the good news of what God is doing in Jesus.
I think we see more clearly now the role of peace in the world; the need for equal relations between men and women in the church and in life; the seriousness of the stain of racism; the need for humility in end-time proclamations; how charity to the poor is not enough in itself; why nationalism is opposed to the Gospel; how important it is for Christian churches to work together; why civil rights are a Gospel issue; the importance of the contemplative life; the need to understand our Jewish foundation; a far greater appreciation of the vastness and intricacy of God’s creation; and on and on and on.
We are discovering that the Gospel is deeper and more exciting than previous generations have known. This is not because we are wiser or smarter, but because we stand on their shoulders. In the same way, future generations will stand on our shoulders and be able to see still further. There is always more to learn. This assumption is the foundation on which we at the Hope Canteen are exploring the magnificent Kingdom of God.
As part of our series on Building Treasure in Heaven, we’re looking at living by faith, hope and love. This trio comes from one of the most famous passages in the Bible: St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 13. It concludes with this assurance: “Now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.” We read this chapter at many weddings because it captures the essence of what love is.
“Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Over the past twoarticles in this series, we have been exploring an episode in Matthew 23:23. Jesus is challenging his religious opponents to step back and look beyond the fussy minutiae of religious law to see the bigger picture. What is it that God really expects in our daily actions as disciples? Jesus suggests there are three central virtues in the Christian life: justice, mercy and faith. Today, we look at our call to walk by faith.
Most people understand vaguely that Christianity in the 21st century is in a different world than it was a hundred years ago. My hope in this series of articles is to highlight the story of how and why we find ourselves in a different world. This is a fascinating story, and it is one that I am looking forward to telling. However, the story is not going to be an academic one, nor is it meant to present an argument. These are meant to be short reflections about what I believe are key moments when we learned something new and important about the Gospel.
I want to give Christians looking to the future of the church a better knowledge of how we have come to the place we are now. I believe that the lessons learned are the tools we need to move forward in this odd time of being church. I assume most readers do not know a lot about these events. If any of the reflections are particularly interesting to you, I link to some helpful resources so that you can learn more.
It is hard to pick a place to begin this story. There are many places to start, but for this one, I will start with the beginning. The very beginning… as told in the book of Genesis. “In the beginning…” Most Christians are deeply familiar with this symphonic story of Creation in six days, with a complex interweaving of time, space, light, creatures, humanity, and ultimately Sabbath rest. And all of it was pronounced good.
If you could have been there at the Creation, what would you have seen? Prior to the 19th Century, I think most Christians would have thought it took place exactly as Genesis chapter one describes it and would have thought that all of this happened about 6000 years ago. In the 21st Century, most Mainline Christians do not think this. What happened for this change? That is a complex story, but the central player in that story is the rise of modern science.