2018 Random Lent Thought #34: God’s Love for Us Always Comes First

We began Lent this year on Valentine’s Day, which seemed appropriate, since Lent is about discipleship and discipleship is all about love.

But let’s remember that the fundamental love is not our love for God; it’s God’s love for us. Long before we ever thought of loving God, God loved us with an indestructible love.

So let’s close these Random Lent Thoughts for 2018 with a passage of scripture that sums it all up:

‘Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

‘This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

‘God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

‘We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister’. (1 John 4:7-21 NIV)

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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 #31: Praying Together

As I mentioned a few days ago, I think you can make a strong argument that prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. The prayer that Jesus gave us is a community prayer: ‘Our Father…’ Of course we should pray alone, but even when we pray alone, we still pray as members of a community.

Throughout Christian history monastic orders have born witness to the importance, and the power, of daily community prayer. Most of the daily offices we use today originally evolved in monastic settings. And perhaps most of them find their natural home there still. For those of us who aren’t called to celibate community life, they often need a bit of adaptation to fir naturally in our situation.

For most of my Christian life my natural community has been my family. But is it possible that the obligation to pray prayers originally developed for monastic communities might make it harder for us to develop prayer forms that work well for families (especially families with small children)?

I know I usually failed in this way. When my kids were little, we were on-again, off-again in our family prayers – more often off than on. During Advent we were good – everyone loved the Advent wreath and the ‘same old’ Advent book (woe betide us if we tried to change it!). But through the rest of the year – not so much.

Now that Marci and I have the house to ourselves, its easier for us. And for the past few years, we’ve started every day with prayer together. I get up in the morning, make a pot of tea, bring her a cup, and then we sit up in bed with our tea and pray our own ‘poor man’s Morning Prayer’ together, using the bare outline in our Canadian ‘Book of Alternative Services’. It’s very simple; it goes like this:

Opening sentences and either Psalm 95 or Psalm 100
One or two other psalms (depending how long they are) (see below)
A Bible reading, with a commentary (see below)
Each of us prays in our own words
We finish with the Lord’s Prayer

We don’t use the daily lectionary; we find it works better for us if we take one book of the Bible and work our way through it. At the moment we’re going through ‘Mark’ and we’re supplementing it with the daily explanations and comments from Tom Wright’s little book ‘Mark for Everyone’. Tom Wright (‘New Testament for Everyone’ series), William Barclay (‘Daily Study Bible’ series), John Goldingay (‘Old Testament for Everyone’ series) and the Bible Reading Fellowship ‘People’s Bible Commentary’ series (now available as PDF downloads at https://www.brfonline.org.uk/commentary-downloads/) are all very good and helpful.

For psalms, we start at the beginning of the book and work our way through it, usually doing two psalms a day. If they’re especially long, we might just do one. If they’re very short, we sometimes do three.

In the prayers after the reading, we both have little lists that we use. I’m hopeless at remembering all the people who’ve asked me to pray for them, so I keep a list and revise it every week. We pray for our own concerns, family and friends, wider concerns and world issues (of which there are rather a lot right now!), and try to remember to add thanksgivings too.

We’ve tried adding Evening Prayer to our routine as well, but it rarely seems to work for our schedules.  But we rarely miss Morning Prayer; I’d say we average six days out of seven each week. I like this because it keeps me steady, draws us closer together, and gives me a Bible reading partner who thinks differently from me.

I don’t know what your pattern of daily prayer is – or if you have a prayer partner you can pray with regularly. If you would like to start daily common prayer with someone, I commend this as a model that might work for you.

 

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.