2018 Random Lent Thought #33: Perseverance

“But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:15 NIV).

I am not very good at persevering. I am much, much better at starting well and then giving up.

I can begin a new discipline enthusiastically, and be sustained by that enthusiasm for a few days. But then boredom sets in – or the desire to relax and have a good (or easier) time – and so I fall away. This is why so many of my efforts to grow spiritually have failed.

That’s probably why I love this word ‘perseverance’ so much (in the NRSV it  is translated ‘patient endurance’). ‘Patience’ and ‘perseverance’ go together. Patience helps me remember that the crop will not be produced overnight; everything good and worthwhile takes time to grow and mature. So it makes no sense to give up overnight. I need to persevere – to ‘keep on keeping on’ – even when the discipline gets hard, even when I get discouraged at the slowness of the growth.

Perseverance in what? According to verse 15, it’s perseverance in hearing and retaining the word of God. In Luke 8:21 Jesus adds ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear God’s word and put it into practice’. I love the double meaning of ‘practice’ in English! It can mean ‘doing’ something as opposed to just ‘thinking about it’ – but it can also mean ‘doing it over and over again so that I can get better at it’ (which is how we form a habit). Both these understandings are vital parts of perseverance. So I hear the word of God through Jesus – I realize I’m being called to a new holy practice – I decide how to do it, and then I intentionally do it over and over again until I get better at it, until it becomes habitual, until it’s part of who I am.

I think the motivation for perseverance comes from keeping our goal in mind. Our goal is to see Jesus face to face and be transformed into his likeness. This is the big, overarching goal and it’s worth every ounce of effort we put into it. But of course there are smaller goals we establish as well, in the context of this big goal. By keeping our goals in mind we can motivate ourselves to persevere.

I’m getting better at persevering, but I’m still a long way from where I would like to be. Lent is nearly over. Lord, help us all to persevere with the good changes we have been practising through this holy season. Amen.


2018 RLT #32: Loyalty

Sorry the RLTs have been a little more sparse in the past couple of days; life has interfered a bit!

One of the key texts for Lent is surely these words of Jesus: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34b).

In the Christian church we have a long history of spiritualizing this text. We’ve sometimes done it by broadening the definition of the ‘cross’ to include any suffering that we’re called on to bear. So my cancer is the cross I have to bear, or my difficult relationship with my spouse, or the loss of my job, etc. etc. Another way we’ve done it is to understand ‘deny themselves’ either in terms of ‘saying no to yourself (i.e. turning away from self-will and submitting to the will of God), or even to understand it as ‘to deny things to yourself’ (giving up coffee for Lent etc.).

I’m sure there’s plenty of spiritual fruit in these approaches. I do think, though, that they do not reflect the meaning the words originally had. Mark wrote his gospel for Christians in Rome who were being persecuted by the Roman empire. They were being arrested, taken before the magistrates, and given the choice of denying Jesus or dying in horrible ways. In this context, let’s pay attention to the whole passage, not just verse 34:

‘Then Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38, NIV 2011. Note that in Greek the words translated ‘life’ and ‘soul’ are the same).

The original meaning is stark and challenging. You have been brought before the magistrates and you have two choices: you can deny Jesus and live, or you can deny yourself and die a horrible death. Taking up the cross means literally that: being willing to be seen as a rebel and a traitor to the empire because of your allegiance to Jesus, and being willing to die for that. Taking up the cross does not mean crucifying lust or selfishness or greed – at least, not originally. It means being willing to be publicly identified as a follower of Jesus, and if that means suffering and death, being willing for that to happen, just as Jesus followed his Father’s will and was crucified for it.

So this Lent thought challenges our ultimate allegiance. Let no one give an easy answer here. Peter was faced with this issue a few chapters later, in the middle of the night before Jesus died. He confidently predicted that even though all the other disciples would abandon Jesus, he would never do so, and yet a few hours later he denied Jesus three times. So let’s not say with shallow self-confidence ‘Though none go with me, still I will follow’. Rather, let’s be aware of our own weakness, and pray for the strength to give our allegiance to Jesus, to live it out day by day, to be willing to be publicly identified as his follower, and if necessary, to suffer for it.

Most of us in the western world are not going to be executed for our faith. The price we pay, though occasionally still a challenge, will be much less serious than that. All the more reason for us to be willing to stand up and be counted as followers of Jesus, to be unafraid to live by his teaching, and not to be dissuaded from it when folks around us are not jumping for joy about it.

2018 RLT #30: Rich Toward God

‘Someone in the crowd said to (Jesus), “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.”

‘Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

‘And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

‘“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

‘“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

‘“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”’ (Luke 12:13-21 NIV2011)

Jesus sandwiches this parable between two powerful and categorical statements. The first is a warning to be on our guard against all kinds of greed, because ‘life does not consist in an abundance of possessions’. Today, of course, there is a powerful advertising industry dedicated to convincing me that that’s exactly what life consists of (not to mention politicians who tell is it’s our patriotic duty to consume more and more in the service of the false god of The Economy). This all ties in to the idolatry of my greed; the delusional state in which I think, “I’ll be happy if I can just have…” (insert your own preferred next purchase here). This is delusional, because none of the stuff we’ve bought so far has made us happy; it’s just made us more fixated on burglar alarms.

Jesus addresses this issue by setting it in the context of eternity. When we meet our Maker face to face, the size of the bank account our relatives are fighting over won’t make a blind bit of difference. But there are things we can focus on, right now, that will make a huge difference on that day: loving God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving our neighbour as ourselves. This is true wealth, Jesus says; this is what he means at the end by ‘being rich toward God’.

So Jesus ends with the second categorical statement: “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” God, please help me not just to think about this, but to practice it: not to accumulate more and more stuff, but to focus on the things that truly matter in the light of eternity. Amen.

2018 RLT #29: Focus

‘Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

‘“Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith! And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.”‘ (Matthew 6:25-33 NIV2011)

This is one of those gospel passages that is so outrageous that you just know it must have come from Jesus, because if it hadn’t, no-one would have dared to make it up. Jesus didn’t live in wealthy suburbia; he lived in first-century Palestine, where the poor had plenty to worry about. Hunger, thirst, homelessness, the tender mercies of vicious Roman soldiers – life was precarious at best for many people in Jesus’ audience. So how dare he tell them not to worry? And how dare he tell them that if they seek first the kingdom of God, God will provide for them? Throughout human history, how many people have starved to death believing that?

I’ve come to believe that we have to accept that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point here (as he so often does). And what’s the point? It’s not so much worry as focus: what are we focussing our lives on? The enjoyment of luxuries or the fulfilment of the promise of God’s kingdom?

In the Lord’s prayer we are taught to pray ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven’. The second half of that phrase explains the first: when God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, then God’s kingdom has come. What is God’s will? A world where everyone has enough and no one has too much; a world of compassion, justice, and genuine community; a world where people turn from false gods to the one true God, the creator of all. Jesus is telling us to focus on this, to place all our hopes in this, and to direct our energies in this direction, rather than the gratification of our own egos or our own hunger for more and more luxuries.

Focus on God’s will and God’s kingdom, and live in trust in our heavenly Father. That’s our lesson for today. I think we’re going to need a little help with this one, Lord!

2018 RLT #28: ‘Hallowed’

“Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2, NIV 2011).

I once preached a Lent series called ‘Living your life as a prayer’. It was a series on the Lord’s Prayer, considered not so much as a prayer, but as a guide for daily discipleship. What would it mean to ‘put legs on our prayers’, and live our lives so that we are part of the answer to our prayer?

‘Hallowed be your name’ means ‘May your holy name be honoured’. How do I live my life in such a way as to make that happen? Or, as someone once put it, how do I live in such a way that God’s reputation in the world is enhanced, and not diminished, by my life?

Once when I was going to an Alberta registries office to renew my vehicle registration, the agent called up my driving record on the computer and was shocked to discover a list of drunk driving convictions! For a few minutes we had a rather tense conversation; then she tried to call the list up again, and was unable to do it; it had all been some sort of computer glitch! But for a few minutes I experienced what it was like to have your reputation in the world diminished and your good name dragged through the mud!

What am I doing to God’s good name? How can I live today in such a way that his reputation is enhanced, and not diminished, by my behaviour? Father, hallowed be your name in our lives today. Amen.

2018 RLT#25: Spirituality for the Road

At its best, Lent can be a wonderful opportunity to grow in love for God and love for other people. but all too often, Lent doesn’t reach its best. Sadly, Lent is often a self-centred time. We can spend six and a half weeks focussing on ‘my’ prayer life, ‘my’ spirituality, ‘my’ walk with God’, even ‘my’ sins. It can be all about me and God, and the neighbour never even enters into it.

A few years ago I read an excellent book called ‘Mission-Shaped Spirituality’. I love that title! Christian disciples are called to be in mission with Jesus – “Come, follow me…and I will send you out to fish for people” (Mark 1:17 NIV). There’s a spirituality that’s appropriate to this mission-shaped life, and we need to discover it.

Today in our prayer time Marci and I read this passage:

‘Then Jesus went around teaching from village to village. Calling the Twelve to him, he began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over impure spirits.

‘These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra shirt. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town. And if any place will not welcome you or listen to you, leave that place and shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”

‘They went out and preached that people should repent. They drove out many demons and anointed many sick people with oil and healed them.’ (Mark 6:76b-13 NIV)

Obviously there are specific details in this commission that are particular to the time and situation: Jesus wants his message to get out to as many people as possible before the great crisis of his death and resurrection. But I think there are some points of connection with our own experience as we try to grow a ‘mission’-shaped spirituality’.

Mission-shaped spirituality involves growing in faith. If we disciples are going to be obedient to our master, we will sometimes need to go places and do things without a reassuring support-structure in place. If we have learned to trust God in the little details of daily life, it will be easier for us to trust God in larger things. This is why people who live in poverty are often better at living by faith than rich people (For a thrilling story of how an ordinary person learned to live by faith, I highly recommend ‘God’s Smuggler’ by Brother Andrew).

Mission-shaped spirituality is about delivering people from the power of evil. Whatever you think about ‘impure spirits’, it’s unquestionable that the spiritual forces of wickedness are alive and well on planet Earth, and many people suffer under their whip. Millions today suffer under the cruel hand of poverty, war, prejudice and injustice. Millions also suffer because they have never heard that there is a God who loves them and has come as one of us in Jesus to love them to the end. Gospel-shaped mission includes spoken witness, healing love, and deliverance from evil.

This Lent, how am I growing in mission-shped spirituality? Are my faith-muscles being exercised so I learn to trust God more and more each day? Am I looking for opportunities to be a blessing to the people around me through spoken witness, healing love, and deliverance from evil?

Lord Jesus, help us today to follow you, so that you can send us out to fish for people. Amen.


2018 Random Lent Thought #19: Fervour

‘Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.’ (Romans 12:11 NIV).

There are many advantages to being a little ‘longer in the tooth’ as a Christian. One disadvantage, however, is that our zeal and spiritual fervour can so easily flag.

This is a well-known phenomenon, right back to the earliest days of Christianity. How those early Christians loved the Lord! Think about the drive and enthusiasm that carried the Gospel across the eastern Mediterranean world! They had no money, very little organization, no ecclesiastical infrastructure, no seminary training. They had no missionary boards or support structures for travelling evangelists like Peter and Paul. These men and women provided their own support, lived in poverty, and went through tremendous hardships to spread the message of Jesus. and they did it gladly, driven by their joy in the power of the Holy Spirit. James says ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance’ (James 1:2 NIV).

When I look at my own Christian life, I sometimes get a wistful feeling about my early days as a follower of Jesus. The experience of the Gospel was fresh in those days! I had the maverick temperament, and being a young Christian in high school in the 1970s was a fine way of being a maverick! I was a shy introvert, but I wasn’t at all shy about being a Christian! Jesus was the passion of my life, and I didn’t care what other people thought about that ‘little eccentricity’ of mine!

Nowadays people like to talk about ‘moderation in all things’, but in the New Testament I don’t detect any respect for moderation about following Jesus. Sheldon Vanauken once wrote “It is not possible to be ‘incidentally a Christian.’ The fact of Christianity must be overwhelmingly first or nothing”. Moderate Christianity will not change the world – it’s quite comfortable with the world as it is. But full-blooded Christianity has a holy discontent with the world as it is; its prayer is ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done ion earth, as it is in heaven’.

How do we keep our spiritual fervour? I know of no other way than to be turning back to Jesus in prayer every day, reading the Bible and mining it for fresh truth, not being content with going over the same ground over and over again, but looking for the next step – the new thing the Lord is teaching us, the next challenge in our journey with him. And it’s also important to be with other Christian people, sharing our faith with each other encouraging each other, re-evangelizing each other. Lumps of coal glow red with flame, but take one of them out of the fireplace and put it off by itself, and the flame soon dies. We need each other.

Today, in my Lenten observance, I want to pray from the heart these famous words from St. Richard of Chichester, the 13th century bishop:.

‘Thanks be to thee, my Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits thou hast given me, for all the pains and insults thou hast borne for me. O most merciful Redeemer, friend and brother, may I know thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, and follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen’.