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.

Book Study: Surprise the World! — BLESS

Surprise the World: Bless

In this series on Michael Frost’s book Surprise the World!, we are looking at missional habits. What is wonderful about this book is that Frost gives us an easily understandable way to faithfully live out the Christian life. He uses the acronym B.E.L.L.S., which stands for Bless, Eat, Listen, Learn, Sent. The idea is that while we are not each called to be Evangelists, we are called to bless the world through our life.

God calls us to point people to the Kingdom of God through our actions, and if needed, our words. We do this by living surprising lives, lives that make people notice that something is different in the way that we live. What are these habits that people notice?

Living Blessing

The first one is BLESS. Frost challenges every Christian intentionally to bless three people every week. One person should be from within the church; one person should be outside the church, and the third person could be either.

To bless someone is one of the simplest things we can do. The word ‘bless’ originally meant a few different things. It meant to speak well of someone or to praise them. It also meant conferring material or spiritual well-being upon someone. As the word has evolved, we now use it in the sense of building people up, filling them with encouragement so that they can increase in strength and prosperity.

Frost puts it like this: To bless someone else is “anything that relieves their burden in life. Anything that helps them breathe more easily. Anything that lifts their spirit or alleviates their distress. It can be a small thing or large.” Blessing can take a number of different forms. Frost gives us three common examples to start us off.

Bless with Words of Affirmation

This is the simplest way to bless someone. It is as simple as sending someone a note letting them know that you have noticed something about them or appreciated something that they did. You can pick up the phone, or just say something in passing. People really appreciate words of encouragement. Mark Twain once said, “I can live for two months on a good compliment.” To affirm something about someone is to connect with them beyond the superficial.

Bless with Acts of Kindness

This is the simple action of doing someone a favour with no desire for acknowledgement or reward. There is an old Alcoholics Anonymous card which contains nine daily promises. One of them is “I will do somebody a good turn and will not get found out.” Obviously, it doesn’t matter if you ‘get found out,’ but the idea is to just do something nice as a principle. Is there a neighbour you can help? Someone in your family who is struggling? Is there somewhere you can volunteer? Everyone appreciates someone who gives.

Bless with Gifts

We all like to get gifts on a birthday or at Christmas. But Frost challenges to go one step further. How about random gift giving? At the heart of love is the act of giving. Giving a gift is a symbol of love; that is why they are special. A gift doesn’t have to be big, but it requires us to be on the lookout for what others need. Is there a struggling family who could use a casserole? Is there a book that someone has been talking about? Maybe just a balloon for a small child? Whatever it is, it will be a blessing.

Bless with No Ulterior Motives

Frost is encouraging us to lead surprising lives. But he also adds a small word of caution here. While we bless people as a way of living surprising lives, we have to be clear that we are doing this for no other reason than to be a blessing. There is no agenda. There is no expectation. For instance, if someone takes your gift and never thanks you and throws it in the garbage, that is not your issue. We only want to be a blessing because we have been blessed so richly in Jesus.

How have you been blessed yourself? How have you blessed others? Add your thoughts in the comments.

(NOTE: These reflections are only meant to be a synopsis and study of Michael Frost’s work, Surprise the World! Our purpose is to encourage our readers with these great ideas. If you interested in going further, please go read the book. You can order it here:

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How to Pray: Adoration and Praise

How to Pray: Adoration and Praise

In the last reflection, we looked at the central action of lifting our heart to God. As I mentioned earlier, finding a time and place is the first step to prayer. After that, we place ourselves before God by lifting up our hearts. The question that often follows is what is the content of our prayer? What is it that we are ‘supposed’ to say?

As we explore the content of prayer, I will be following Pete Greig’s nine paths of prayer: Stillness, Adoration, Petition, Intercession, Perseverance, Contemplation, Listening, Confession, and Spiritual Warfare. (Always note that different teachers have slightly different lists.) Today I want to start with Adoration and Praise.

Adoration and Praise Is Natural

In some ways, Adoration is the simplest and most natural of prayers. If you have ever been in the mountains, and the sheer beauty and vastness of the landscape hits you, and you exclaim “Wow! This is amazing!” then you know adoration.

As Christians, we believe that everything good and beautiful in creation and in the lives of women and men ultimately comes from God. God is the absolute source of all that is true, good and beautiful. This is important because the true, the good and beautiful are qualities of the world that move and inspire our souls. They provoke emotional responses that are meaningful in our lives.

If good and beautiful things move us because of their power, just imagine how incredible must be the being from whom they come. God is the ultimate artist. Therefore, we praise God. The Westminster Catechism calls this the purpose of our lives: “What is the chief end [purpose] for humans? It is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.” To glorify God means to praise him for who he is: to be in love with God. God commands our adoration and praise, and this is the reason for our creation.

Does this Mean that God Is Egotistical?

Here, we quickly need to clear up a confusion. C.S. Lewis asked these same questions, and he found this a hard teaching because it made God seem very egotistical. He wrote, “We all despise the man who demands continued assurance of his own virtue, intelligence or delightfulness; we despise still more the crowd of people round every dictator, every millionaire, every celebrity, who gratify that demand… Thus a picture, at once ludicrous and horrible, both of God and of His worshippers threatened to appear in my mind.” I think this is a common question for people when we talk about the need to praise and adore God. Is God petty and insecure?

Praise Completes Enjoyment

As he pondered this question, Lewis had two insights. The first had to do with the nature of praising itself. He had been thinking of adoration and praise as complimenting God. But then he noticed that “every enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise.”

The world rings with praise—lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game—praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars.

C. S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

He realized that the praise actually completes the enjoyment of an activity. It is like when you read a great book and you need to find someone to tell. To praise God is to complete the enjoyment of the things that God has made. More than that, in praising we come to enjoy God as the source.

God Communicates Presence in Adoration and Praise

This was Lewis’ second insight. When we say true things about God such as how great and awesome God is, we find that we actually experience God through our praise. Lewis writes, “It is in the process of being worshipped that God communicates His presence to (us.)” The adoration and praise is not so that God can receive something from us, but that the worship is intimately bound up with God giving himself to us.

In other words, in praising God, we find that we are simultaneously uniting with God. We become part of something that is far greater than we are, and our souls are expanded in the praise. This is the great paradox of worship: it is all for God, and yet we find that we simultaneously grow richer in emotion and deeper in faith.

So how do we Adore God? In the next reflection, we will look at what it means to “Bless the Lord.”

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Strength from Within: Surviving Winter in the Pandemic

Hope Canteen: Surviving Winter

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 of Fire. 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

Finding 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.

What Does it Mean to Store Up Treasure in Heaven?

Building Treasure in Heaven

The one who has God for his treasure has all things in One.

A. W. Tozer

This series is about using Jesus’ image of building Treasure in Heaven to help us understand the life of Christian discipleship. The image of treasure focuses us on what is of central importance. It is also an image of desire. People will sacrifice much to find ‘hidden treasure.’ Before I continue in my series, I want to remind us what Jesus is telling us with this image of building Treasure in Heaven.

What does it mean to store up treasure in heaven? First, building treasure in heaven is NOT about getting points with God. It is NOT about impressing God. It is NOT about completing a religious checklist of dos and don’ts. Storing treasure in Heaven is NOT about God rewarding us with material wealth because we have done spiritual good in obedience. In fact, it is NOT about getting anything from God.

Continue reading “What Does it Mean to Store Up Treasure in Heaven?”

Walk by Faith / Walk Humbly with Your God

Walk by Faith

Building Treasure in Heaven Series, Part 4

Over the past two articles 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.

Continue reading “Walk by Faith / Walk Humbly with Your God”