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.
In this episode, we’re turning to Philippians 2:1-13. This is a passage from one of the letters that St. Paul wrote to encourage the early church. This chapter contains some of the most beautiful poetry in the New Testament, and has some important teaching for us on unity, hospitality, and Jesus Christ as the model for discipleship.
Join us around the virtual table as we reflect on St. Paul and what it means to develop the mind of Christ. Please join the conversation! Add your insights in the comments below.
In Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (Ephesus was an ancient city on the Western coast of modern day Turkey), he is writing to encourage the local congregation. The early church had lots of things going against them, from outside pressures to internal divisions. As Paul writes to help the church through a difficult time, he also makes praying for them a priority. This is his prayer:
I pray that out of [God’s] glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so thatChrist 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 filledto the measure of all the fullness of God.
If you have the time, read this prayer through a few times. As you read it, imagine that Paul is praying it for you. Even though it was written for a congregation long ago on the other side of the world, God still uses it to bless his people here and now. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, this blessing is for you.
Hearts on Fire
I have chosen this prayer as our theme for the fall because it speaks so strongly to what God wants for us as Christians. As we are formed in the love of God, we need to find a way to move that knowledge from our heads into our hearts. God wants his love to be a living truth that sets our hearts on fire and becomes the source of our strength and life. We will keep coming back to this verse because it is full of strong spiritual truths to get us through the challenging months ahead.
I also bring up this prayer as an invitation to look at your daily rhythms of prayer. These spiritual blessings need to be nurtured in your life. They are for you, but they can easily dissipate in the face of busyness and difficulty. How can we nurture them? By attending to the relationship that we have with God in Jesus Christ. Like any relationship, it needs to be cultivated and encouraged. One of the most important ways we do this is through a life of prayer.
Prayer is a Way of Life
Remember, prayer is far more than just ‘talking’ to God or reading a list of prayer requests. In fact, we will see later that intercession is just one of nine parts of prayer! Even more than that, prayer is a way of life. It shapes a committed life of discipleship. Through it you will grow closer to God, grow in inner maturity, become a stronger and more compassionate member of the community, and know the blessings from Paul’s prayer, no matter how hard life turns out to be.
How to Pray: Getting Started
I want to come back now to your life of prayer with two simple questions: when and where? Attending to our relationship with God takes both time and location. The irony of course is that for many of us, one or both of those are in short supply. We can certainly pray on the fly, but deeper prayer takes intention.
When are you going to pray during the week and where is it going to be? I have a couple of places that I go to for prayer. They are comfortable, and I usually have a hot drink with me, either coffee or tea. Whatever you choose, remember these wise words from Pete Greig:
After decades of night-and-day prayer, I have come to believe that 99 percent of it is just showing up: making the effort to become consciouslypresent to the God who is constantly present to us.
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.
In the last reflection, I introduced our theme for the fall: Dry Ground Requires Deep Roots. This comes from our wondering if this will be a difficult fall because of Covid and a reduced ability to have fellowship. It is also a time when we are going to need to be creative to find ways to encourage and support one another when we can’t lean on our normal habits and practices.
With this in mind, we have planned our reflections this fall to help people deepen their faith, as a way of encouraging the kind of inner life that will support us all through hard times. Previews of this fall’s series on growing deep roots are below.
1. How to Pray
This series will be a practical primer on the basics of a Christian prayer life. This starts with God, who wants to share his life with us. Faith is the way we say yes to God. Then, prayer is the nurturing of an ongoing relationship with God. There are so many ways to pray: adoration, intercession, confession, meditative reading, thanksgiving and more. In this series, we will look at them all and give practical tips on how to develop a richer prayer life.
2. Spiritual Struggles
In this series, we want to look at the fact that everyone struggles at times. The issues people face are almost endless: self-doubt, illness, loneliness, anger, fear, addictions, isolation, and on and on and on. Faith does not take away struggle, but it does allow us to find strength, meaning, and a deeper relationship with God as we walk through it. This series will look at the question of what it means to struggle from a faith perspective and to offer practical tips to cope day by day while growing in our faith.
3. Sacred Pathways
One of the truths about prayer is that there is no single way that you should pray. Christians have found a great many ways to be in relationship with God. Some people love silent prayer, some like helping others, and some people go to nature. There are those who like traditional worship, others who like to pray spontaneously in the spirit, and more. What way is best for you to grow closer to God? What ways can you use to grow deep spiritual roots? In this series we will look at the work of Gary Thomas as he guides us through these sacred pathways. There is a path of prayer just for you!
4. Is it Reasonable?
This series will look at the content of our faith from the perspective of our postmodern world. People come to me with many questions: can people still believe in God? Is the Bible trustworthy at all, or is it a relic? Can we believe in the resurrection as a real event or is it just a metaphor? Why should we still talk about sin? Aren’t modern categories better? In this series, we will look at all these questions.
I believe that the Christian story of the love of God in Jesus is the most amazing story there is, and I will argue that not only is it reasonable to believe, but it is far more reasonable than not to believe.
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.
Lectio Divina is a great gift from God. I hope you have seen that this is not so much a technique as it is a simple way to connect with God through the Scriptures. God has always encountered his people in these sacred writings, and he is inviting you into deeper relationship. As we conclude this series of reflections, I want to answer one last question. How do you know what to read in the Bible?
Three Ways to Choose What to Read in the Bible
Through the centuries, Christians have usually approached this question in three different ways.
1) The lectionary
The first way (and my practice) is to follow a daily lectionary. A lectionary is a simple series of readings that the church appoints to be read everyday. It leads us through much of the Bible, including parts that we may not normally choose. The lectionary is used in one of our most common devotional practices, daily morning and evening prayer. As Christians pray together and read Scripture, the lectionary helps us know that wherever we are in the world, there are other Christians reading the same Scriptures and praying the same prayers.
If this interests you, it is easy enough to find the readings. There are usually three readings for each day, along with two sets of Psalms for morning and evening use. You can use them all in daily prayer, or you can choose one a day and use that for your Lectio Divina. The Forward Day by Day devotional booklets (online here) list the readings for each day. You can also find the lectionary online here.
2) A book at a time
The second way is to read through a specific book of the Bible as a way of praying through an entire book slowly. For example, you might pick a book like Galatians. Starting at Galatians 1:1, you would read a section at a time, over many days or weeks. Remember, the principle of slow reading means that you can’t read big chunks. You will need to discern how much to read and pray through in a day. Some Bibles break up sections with headings that make it easier to choose a shorter section.
3) By theme
The third way is to pick a theme that you want to examine more deeply, and then find a series of passages that speak to that theme. In the back of many Bibles is a helpful tool called a concordance. In it, you can look up a word that you want to pray about, ‘faith’ for example. Look up the word ‘faith’ in your concordance and you will find a list of ten to twenty verses about faith. You can pick one verse a day and pray through it.
Usually when I do this, I look up the verse and then read the larger section that it is a part of. For instance, let’s say you chose the classic verse from Ephesians 2:8 about being saved through faith. When you look at your Bible, you see that this is part of a larger section that goes from verse 4 to verse 10. Use that six-verse section as your material for the day. As you slowly pray through the list of verses about faith, over time you will gain a good understanding of what the Bible says about it. You will also find some profound insights into your own faith. You can do this with any theme. As a side note, you can also google “verses about faith” or any other theme, and you will be led to lots of verses.
Remember, the point of prayer is not the technique. Lectio Divina is just a tool. No matter what you read in the Bible, the point is to grow deeper in your love of God and in wisdom about yourself. God is inviting you into a relationship. Don’t worry about getting it right; just show up every day, and you will grow.
Christian spirituality is always a response to what God is doing. Having received from God, we respond, first in prayer and then in action. In the firsttwomovements of Lectio Divina, we have been learning how to open our hearts so that we can receive the word that God wants to speak to us today. This prayerful preparation comes in slow reading and intentional meditation on what we hear. All of this is a way of praying with Scripture and trying to listen deeply.
Word-Filled Prayer (Oratio)
After we have meditated on God’s word, we turn to prayer. The tradition calls this Oratio (Prayer), which is word-filled prayer. Oratio transitions organically into praying with minimal words. We call this transition to wordless prayer Contemplatio (Contemplation). In this reflection, I will look at word-filled prayer, and in the next reflection I will turn to contemplative prayer.
Prayer is Responding to God
From meditation, we turn to prayer. Prayer is a wonderful gift from God. It is an amazing opportunity to be in dialogue and conversation with God. In Lectio Divina, we are prayerfully responding to any insights that emerge from our meditation. There is a constant pattern of hearing God’s word in Scripture and then responding in prayer.
Praying with Scripture: A Personal Example
For example, when I was reading Scripture devotionally the other day, I was working through the letter of Paul to the Philippians, Chapter 3. In this passage, Paul describes all of the advantages he had as a Jewish Pharisee. He was well born, had a great education, was well known for his commitment to the law, and blameless in his observance. Many people would have been jealous of the advantages he had. And yet, he considers all those advantages as rubbish compared to knowing Christ. The love and grace of Jesus Christ is worth far more than any of his privilege. He sings about the joy he feels in knowing Christ, and his willingness to trade everything else for it. He writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection…”
When I read those words, my heart jumped. I thought, “I want to know Christ like that too! I want to know the power of Christ’s love like Paul did. That’s what I really want.” So in my reading, I meditated on those passionate lines from Paul: what would this look like for me? Then I turned to my time of prayer, and this is what I brought to God. Using Paul’s words, I prayed, “I too want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection! Please, Lord, let me know this tremendous gift that Jesus has given us.” I just took the words from Paul’s letter and I MADE THEM MY OWN.
Bringing the Prayers of Our Hearts
This time of prayer is obviously whatever you make it. The structure of Lectio Divina is extremely flexible. It is only meant to be an opportunity to bring the prayers of our hearts to our loving Father.
Perhaps there is something in the reading that confused you, or that you didn’t like. Make that the content of your prayer. Maybe you just felt a strong emotion when reading something in the passage. Make that the content of your prayer. Ask God about it. Long after the prayer is over, you may find insight into what is going on spiritually within you. Maybe something in the reading encouraged you. Voice that to God. Maybe the reading spoke to a bad habit you are struggling with. Make that the content of your prayer. As we pray with Scripture, nothing is out of bounds.
I hope you see the profound flexibility of this way of coming to God. Lectio Divina only lays down a framework. You get to make it your own. There is only one real requirement for growth in the spiritual life. Just keep showing up, every day you can.