The Prayer of the Heart

A woman balances on a swing in front of a waterfall, illustrating how the prayer of the heart brings life into balance.

A Series on the Human Heart as the Temple of God, Part 3 of 3

There is only one secret to the spiritual life that you need to know: the human heart was made for God. It sounds impossibly simple, but understand that it is more profound an insight than most people know. Life is busy and complex. It is difficult sometimes to know what decisions to make. For instance, there is nothing simple about discerning how to allocate money and resources wisely. We also struggle with how to get through pain and grief. And yet… for all its complexity, there is a simplicity at the heart of life that can easily get lost.

You Are Your Ability to Love

Who are you? In one sense, you can spend a lifetime learning the answer. But in a deeper sense, you are simply your ability to love. You are your heart. And you were made to love God above all things. I will go out on a limb and say that if you have this right, then most of the rest of your life will fall into place.

This is the foundation of everything else. It is why Jesus says that ultimately all the laws of God boil down to two: love God and love your neighbour. Make sure that loving God is first and the neighbour is second. Why? It is not because there is a competition between God and everything else, nor is it because God needs to know that God is first. Rather, it means that making the love of God your highest aim sets everything else in place.

One reason life can be so difficult is that our loves fall easily out of balance. This is the real meaning of idolatry. Created things like money, desire, power, possessions, and relationships are all good. They only become problematic when they are loved and desired out of balance. Giving them God’s place in our lives and attention distorts everything else.

Keeping on Track with the Prayer of the Heart

How do you keep God first and everything else in balance? One way is through prayer, particularly the Prayer of the Heart. If you explore this prayer practice, you will probably find a simple and powerful way called the Jesus Prayer. This is a humble plea for God’s love and mercy through one repeated phrase: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me. Christians have used this prayer for centuries to help keep their lives centred on God.

The human heart was made for God. The heart is the dwelling place of God, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We can distill the Prayer of the Heart even more than these seven words, and say that it is only about bringing our hearts before Jesus. To really experience this truth, we must strip down our prayers and come before God just as we are, in all our poverty. By that I mean without big thoughts about God, with no desire to impress or get something, no excuses about our behaviour or choices, no big plans for how life should be, no thinking about how important or rich you are. Just you – plain and simple, stripped down. Find the simplest words you can to express love, and then stay there.

The Prayer of the Heart is Reaching with Love

The Prayer of the Heart seems so simple that most people pass it by, yet it carries the deepest wisdom. Carlo Carretto tells us,

“Don’t try to reach God with your understanding; that is impossible. Reach him in love; that is possible.”

God really only wants you to know one thing: that you are loved and that you are called to love others. When you pray, keep the logic of it simple, and you will find that wisdom will meet you in the practice.

As I end this series, I invite you to meditate on these words by Carlo Carretto that sum up the Christian vision of the Prayer of the Heart:

“The love of God is by nature pure, balanced and holy. Whoever is dominated by it lives in deep peace, has an ordered view of things, and knows the meaning of true freedom. But the love of God, too, passing into our heart must be worked at, cultivated, pruned, fertilized. And the most uncompromising farmer is God.”

The Hope Canteen Podcast, Episode 42: For God so Loved the World

Podcast #42: For God So Loved the World
Episode 42: John 3:14-21

In today’s podcast we are looking at a passage from the Gospel of John that contains perhaps the most famous verse in the Bible: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.

The passage flows out of a conversation between Jesus and a religious leader named Nicodemus. Our topic for the podcast today comes from this longer passage, John 3:14-21. It hangs on an important question: how to we know heavenly things? And more specifically, how do we attain to eternal life? The answer of the passage is through Jesus.

To help us understand it, the speaker points us back to a much earlier episode in Israelite history. It is a story where, centuries earlier, people were being bitten by poisonous snakes and getting sick. Moses was instructed to put an image of a snake on a pole. Then, if the Israelites looked at it, they would be healed. By referring back to this story, the Gospel of John is telling us that if we look to Jesus and believe in him, we too will be spiritually healed and receive eternal life.

Join us around the virtual table as we talk about what “God so loved the world” has to say about condemnation and love, staying close to God, and what it really means to believe.

In Search of the Good Life (Six Questions for Every Christian to Ask: Introduction)

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.

The Hope Canteen Podcast, Episode 23: The Mind of Christ

the mind of Christ (Philippians 2)

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.

How to Pray: Getting Started (Dry Ground–Deep Roots series)

How to Pray: Getting Started

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 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 3:16-18

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 consciously present to the God who is constantly present to us.

– Pete Greig

How We Grow in Faith (Dry Ground–Deep Roots Series)

How We Grow in Faith

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.

1) Knowledge:

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

Photo: Kittelenden on Wikipedia

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.

Growing Deep Roots

Dry ground requires deep roots

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.

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.