Archive

Tag Archives: Bible

“So, how’s your book going?”, asked a member of my church today. “It’s not,” I said with a smile. She was referring to this project which I happily announced here over a year ago. Last fall I wrote an introduction and two chapters. I outlined other portions and compiled a list of books I wanted to study to inform my writing. A group from my church met with me multiple times to read what I’d written, offering quite helpful encouragement and feedback.

Then our daughter was born.

Having a baby turned my life upside down in many ways, including obliterating the time I had to write. There are these things we call priorities. Learning to care for our daughter without question had to take priority over side-project of writing for which I had grand plans. For months I felt torn, wanting to complete this project I’d started, while at the same time recognizing that I no longer had the free space in life to write that much on top of co-pastoring a church, working a part-time job, and loving my family.

Peace has come, though, as I’ve accepted this as an opportunity to grow in patience and humility. Like marriage, parenthood is full of opportunities to cultivate such virtues, if we are willing to receive such opportunities as gifts for our sanctification. The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts (James 3:5). My tongue boasted of wanting to write a book. I still do. I’ve just realized that it will take years – not months – for me to write this particular book.

That’s not to say I haven’t been writing. I just completed an extended personal essay for the House of St. Michael. (If you leave your contact information in the form below, I can try to get you a copy.)* I’ve also had another totally different writing project under consideration with a publisher. I may still seek publication for Practicing the Truth, but I’m in no rush. To my surprise, God has given me a blessed amount of patience and indifference about these projects. If they work out, may God be glorified. If they don’t, may God still be glorified.

I think that in this I’m tasting the spirit of Psalm 131:1-2: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; / I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me.” The Lord has been humbling me recently, making me realizing that I can’t always give all I want to give, accomplish all I want to accomplish, or please everyone I want to please. Simply knowing that makes me a bit less frantic. A bit. I’m a long way from being able to continue with the Psalmist in saying, “I have calmed and quieted myself / I am like a weaned child with its mother, / like a weaned child, I am content.” The words calm and quiet do not always describe my inner being. But I want them to. And I believe the Psalmist who says such peace only comes with a heart that’s not proud.

And with that humility comes an ever-expanding freedom to trust that God is the one who completes what God began in us. As Paul says in Philippians 1:6, it is “God who began a good work” in us and “will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”  It’s the hope of Psalm 57:2, which says, “I cry to God Most High, to God who fulfills his purpose for me.” Amen. May God fulfill his purposes for me, whenever and however He chooses.

 

 

 

*If you’d like to receive a print copy of “So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighed Down”, please leave your name, email address, and mailing address below.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I’m learning from expecting the birth of our first child. Given that the timing of this birth coincides so neatly with the season of Advent, waiting for Baby Brown is teaching me a lot about the watchfulness that Jesus expects his followers to have in hope of His return.

That was a month ago. Now the due date is less than two weeks away. And we’re still expectant. Still waiting. And waiting. It’s getting harder to concentrate on other things. Optional work (like blogging) has taken a backseat to preparations for Baby. I’m finding hard to be motivated to do or think about anything other than Baby’s arrival. It’s tempting to shrug off other responsibilities because of the much larger responsibility that’s about to burst into our life: There’s a baby on the way.

This means that when I read the epistle appointed for today in the daily lectionary, I thought “I get it.” The passage is 2 Thessalonians 3:6-18. The Thessalonians, to whom the Apostle is writing, had a problem with idleness. Though Paul doesn’t say why there are so many “living in idleness,” one interpretation suggests that their idleness was an expression of belief in the Second Coming.  Expecting the imminent return of the Lord, some of the Thessalonians had gone so far as to quit their jobs. The perceived nearness of the end meant for them that the normal rules of life no longer applied. Rather than preparing with due diligence for the return of the Lord, these Thessalonians were sleeping and letting their resources run out (cf. Matt. 25:1-13).

The Greek word which is translated “idleness” here is ataktos, which also means “undisciplined.” In military settings, ataktos described soldiers who weren’t prepared for duty.  While others from the Thessalonian church were eagerly going about the work Christ had called them to, this group was AWOL. But the Apostle Paul is clear that this idleness is the direct opposite of watchfulness. Instead of living in idleness, he commands them to get a job (v. 12). Paul points to his own example of laboring with his own hands while ministering to the Thessalonians. Paul expressed his hope in Christ’s return through eagerly working to proclaim the Gospel, not by retiring early.

True watchfulness manifests itself in eagerness to do the work one is called to. As the bumper sticker says, “Jesus is Coming Back – Look Busy.” More seriously, living in hope of Christ’s return should lead us to take both our work and our spiritual disciplines more seriously. One doesn’t prepare for the Lord’s return by sleeping-in.  One prepares through prayer, vigil-keeping, fasting. If one expects a new world to come, one begins to practice detachment from the things of this world. And if one really believes that the Advent of the Lord has universal significance, then one would work to share that hope with others.

So I’m trying to prepare for our personal advent with watchfulness, with the discipline of a soldier still on duty. I’m preaching on the 23rd, and yes I’m already writing that sermon.  I’m coordinating a Service of Wholeness and Healing at Upper Room that night, and today I hope to send out the final draft of the liturgy for it. Later this morning, I’ll be helping my co-pastor write liturgies for services which I may not even attend. This is a spiritual discipline, teaching me to be expectant with watchfulness and faithfulness, training me to “not grow weary of doing good.” (2 Thess. 3:13 NASB).

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving. This means, among other things, that I’ve already seen and sent a few emails regarding Christmas lists. Family and friends are already asking us what we’re asking for this Christmas, and we’re asking them the same question in return. This means that on the day when we give thanks for what we do have, we’re all already thinking about what we don’t have, what we’d rather have, what we want.

Compiling a Christmas list has a strange effect on me, forcing me to answer the question what do I actually want? Each year I find the question harder to answer.  What I really want in life aren’t things that can be put on a simple holiday shopping list. I have my frequently updated wish-list of books, but to go beyond books, compiling a Christmas list requires a whole new level of deliberate work: What do I want? Why do I want that? Will I actually use that? What do I really need?

A few years ago, a friend told me she had received a word from God for me. The message was simple: “Just ask.” I have a note about that encounter in my journal to the effect of “Ok. Thank you God for this word. What am I supposed to ask You for?” I never heard a specific answer, but the memory has promoted me several times to be more intentional about asking for things from God. Today I’m wondering, What would my prayer life look like if I put as much thought into my requests of God as I’m putting into my Christmas list?

That’s a convicting question because it first clarifies my intentions. Today’s daily lectionary reading gives both an encouragement to ask freely, but also a caveat regarding our motives: “You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3 NIV). Even with something as tempting as Christmas gifts, I have enough sense to ask myself about my motives: Why do I want that? What will be the result if I get it? Why not also ask ourselves these things about our petitions of God? Doing this forces me to pray much more deliberately and consistently. My desires are so fickle that I’m sure I’ve prayed for something one day and directly contradicted myself the next. Clarifying intentions means paying attention to what I’ve asked for, watching for answers. Keeping a “book of intentions,” a notebook in which I keep track of what I’m praying for other people, has also brought greater clarity and consistency to my intercessory prayers.

My Christmas list also reminds me that there’s sometimes a drastic difference between what we want and what we need. God knows what I need before I even ask him (Matt 6:8), and that includes all the food and clothes and stuff necessary for daily life (Luke 12:29-30).  So, What do I really need to ask for in prayer?  More than any material gift right now, I need holiness. So for a year I’ve been asking God deliberately to give me a hatred for particular sins and a love for the virtues which replace them.  God is certainly answering these prayers.  This has changed the way I pray for others as well. Every prayer request has a subtext. The art of praying for others is like the art of gift-giving. The best gifts are the ones that a person never realized they wanted, but were delighted to receive. If you know a person intimately, you can give these gifts. Pay attention to the subtext of a prayer request and the Spirit will lead you to pray for what’s truly needed and desired, even if it wasn’t part of the original prayer request.

With the items on my Christmas list, I’ve questioned my motives and considered whether I really need or want them, but I still haven’t sent the list off to family yet. It’s waiting to be edited. My Christmas list is presently in a draft email to my wife, which I plan to have her look at before sending it on to anyone else. I want someone else to verify that I’m asking for the right things in the right way. For another example, I’ve spent weeks crafting support letters to mail to other churches asking for money to finance Upper Room’s expansion of our worship space into the theater behind us. Others have reviewed and edited it. The stakes are high (obviously much higher than a Christmas list), so I want this letter to be perfect.  But why would I think the stakes are any lower when I’m praying? Perhaps having others proofread our prayers isn’t a bad idea. Tell someone, This is what I’ve been praying for and how I’m asking for it. Does that sound right?

But after all this deliberation and intention, there’s still a marvelous gift of grace and freedom: the privilege of asking. In Philippians, Paul tells his readers to “in everything, by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (4:6). In other words, “Just ask.”   We aren’t children estranged from their Father. We can ask for what we need. We can trust that the Lord provides. We do well to think wisely and carefully about what we ask for, but we can also approach God with childlike simplicity. And we can rejoice far more in the gifts we receive from the Lord than we rejoice when celebrating and opening Christmas gifts with friends and family. Thanks be to God.

Today, while re-reading St. Athanasius of Alexandria’s On the Incarnation, I came across some profound advice on how to understand the Bible. Having concluded his defense of the reality of the Incarnation of Christ, Athanasius adds a brief word advising his reader to move forward by consulting the Scriptures: “Here, then, Macarius, is our offering to you who love Christ, a brief statement of the faith of Christ and of the manifestation of His Godhead to us. This will give you a beginning, and you must go on to prove its truth by the study of the Scriptures” (St. Athanasius On the Incarnation [Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press 1996] p. 95 section 56). Note the order here: right doctrine about Christ is presented (and presented at length) before the urging to read the Scriptures. We’ll come back to that. Then Athanasius continues:

But for the searching and right understanding of the Scriptures there is need of a good life and a pure soul, and for Christian virtue to guide the mind to grasp, so far as human nature can, the truth concerning God the Word. One cannot possibly understand the teaching of the saints unless one has a pure mind and is trying to imitate their life. Anyone who wants to look at sunlight naturally wipes his eye clear first, in order to make, at any rate, some approximation to the purity of that on which he looks; and a person wishing to see a city or country goes to the place in order to do so. Similarly, anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds. Thus united to them in the fellowship of life, he will both understand the things revealed to them by God and, thenceforth escaping the peril that threatens sinners in the judgment, will receive that which is laid up for the saints in the kingdom of heaven. (p. 96 section 57.)

According to Athanasius, we need to have a “good life and a pure mind” in order to understand the Bible. The most obvious meaning of a “pure mind” is a mind free of sinful thoughts while reading Scripture. But for Athanasius it means more than that.  Remember where Athanasius placed this in On the Incarnation? It’s at the end of the book in which he’s explained the reality of the incarnation of Christ. Part of that purity of mind is about doctrinal purity. His thinking, along with the thinking of the rest of the early Church, was that the Bible could not be understood apart from right faith. We read the Bible through the lens of our theology, and if our theology is unorthodox, the Bible is hard to understand.  A broken lens makes things look strange. But when our theology is correct, the Scriptures are easier to understand and the meaning becomes increasingly clear.

But what Athanasius says here isn’t just abstract theology.  It’s also about relationship. “Anyone who wishes to understand the mind of the sacred writers must first cleanse his own life, and approach the saints by copying their deeds.” In other words, if you want to know what Paul meant when he was writing his letters to the Corinthians, then you should start acting like Paul. The more your heart breaks for those who don’t know Jesus, the more you endure hardship for the sake of the Gospel, the more you find the pattern of Jesus’ life becoming the pattern of your own, the more insight you will have into Paul’s letters. For Athanasius, the Scriptures were not just an instruction book. They were a gateway into direct relationship with Jesus and also with Jesus’ servants who knew Him intimately. As we study the Scriptures, we grow in fellowship with the Apostles and Prophets whose testimonies about Christ are shared in the Scriptures. That growth in relationship takes time and practice, but it yields deeper and deeper understanding of God’s Word.

So what should we do if we want to understand the Scriptures? Repent. Pursue right faith. Seek holiness. Seek relationship with the Apostles and Prophets. And patiently wait to see what the Lord reveals.

I’ve been commuting by bike a lot recently, riding from home to work at the cafe, to Upper Room, to the seminary, to meetings. And my legs are sore.  This isn’t because I’m out of shape; it’s because I consistently forget to stretch before or after riding.  When I go for a run, and know that my purpose is exercise, I can easily remember to stretch and save myself later pain.  When commuting, I forget.  There’s pressure to get somewhere quick, so I hop on and ride without adequate preparation. Then, as I start to slow down midway up Forbes Avenue, I think, ‘I really should have stretched.’  Rushing to get where I need to go, I end up moving less efficiently and feeling sore afterward.

I realized this week that the same pattern shows up in my prayer life.  Just as exercise requires stretching and warming-up before a strenuous workout, prayer requires preparation. When I enter into a time of prayer after reading Scripture or other spiritual writing, prayer flows more smoothly, naturally. The same is true if I’ve been listening to worship music that sets my heart in a prayerful place.  This is also another reason why I’ve found using liturgies for daily prayer immensely helpful. To continue the bike analogy, prescribed liturgies can function as training wheels, guiding us until we can balance on our own. I value extemporaneous prayer, but without these ways of “warming-up”, extemporaneous prayer can be clumsy and confused.  Tools like liturgies do not guarantee prayer from the heart, but they can help us get our balance so we can move forward freely. Without these forms of preparation or support, my prayer life becomes disorderly, uncoordinated, awkward.

Today’s Old Testament reading in the Daily Lectionary, Ecclesiastes 5:1-7, suggests that the consequences of rushing into prayer are more than just clumsy words and confusion:

Guard your steps as you go to the house of God and draw near to listen rather than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know they are doing evil. Do not be hasty in word or impulsive in thought to bring up a matter in the presence of God. For God is in heaven and you are on the earth; therefore let your words be few. For the dream comes through much effort and the voice of a fool through many words. When you make a vow to God, do not be late in paying it; for He takes no delight in fools. Pay what you vow! It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay.  Do not let your speech cause you to sin and do not say in the presence of the messenger of God that it was a mistake. Why should God be angry on account of your voice and destroy the work of your hands? For in many dreams and in many words there is emptiness. Rather, fear God.  (NASB)

For the author of Ecclesiastes, what we say in prayer can actually cause us to sin in God’s presence.  Our words matter more than we realized, especially when we are speaking with the Lord of the universe, because words are an expression of who we really are. In Matthew 15:18-20, Jesus says,

It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of a mouth, this defiles a person . . . What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person.  For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, and slander. These are what defile a person. (ESV)

If our words reveal the state of our heart, what does the way we pray reveal about the sin and brokenness in our hearts? The words we speak to God may not convey all the sins Jesus listed in Matthew 15, but they do reveal other strongholds in our hearts: impatience, distrust, selfishness, pride.

Ecclesiastes 5 suggests we should be quicker to listen to God than to speak, and that when we do speak we should carefully consider our words and approach God with reverence.  Perhaps part of our preparation for prayer should include asking questions like Does what I’m praying express truth about God? Why am I praying in this way? Am I listening as much as I’m speaking?  Am I being rash in the things I say to the Lord?  We should also consider the warning in James 4:13-15:

Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow.  You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.  Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord, wills, we will live and also do this or that.’

How often do our prayers seek to tell God the way things will be, rather than submitting our plans and desires to God’s will? I find that when I rush into prayer, it’s because I want to set the agenda, rather than to say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

This Sunday is Pentecost, the day when the Church celebrates the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in Acts 2:

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place.  And suddenly there came from heaven a noise like a violent rushing wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting.  And there appeared to them tongues as of fire distributing themselves, and they rested on each one of them.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit was giving them utterance. (Acts 2:1-4 NASB)

The Holy Spirit rested upon the Apostles and they spoke in tongues.  Thus was introduced to the Church a spiritual gift which would create controversy from the First Century to the Twenty-First.  The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians bears witness to the confusion the early Church had about the gift of tongues. In our world today, I’ve known people who have thought that speaking in tongues was the only proof that one was filled with the Holy Spirit. I’ve also known people who’ve insisted that such a gift was no longer given to the Church.  In my experience, both of these extremes have been untrue.  God does still choose to give this gift to individuals within the Church, but it is one of many signs or fruits of the Spirit, and to each member of the Church, different gifts are given. We’re not all called to speak in tongues. The desire to speak in tongues is admirable because it is a desire to yield control of our speech to God. But we would do well to ask: What does it really mean to have our speech controlled by the Holy Spirit? Is speaking in tongues the only form Spirit-controlled speech, or are there others which are more accessible to everyone? 

Perhaps Spirit-controlled speech looks less like “speaking in tongues” and a lot more like “taming the tongue.” When Paul says “I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others than ten thousand words with a tongue” (1 Cor 14:19 ESV), he’s indicating that our language should be used to benefit others.  “Prophesy” is superior to tongues for Paul because “one who prophesies speaks to people for their upbuilding and encouragement and consolation” (1 Cor 14:3 ESV). That sort of speech requires wisdom and deliberation.  Control is still yielded to God, but that giving up of control may mean choosing to speak less. I think Paul’s exhortation to pursue prophesy agrees with James’ calling to tame our tongues:

If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well.  Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of pilot directs. (James 3:2-4 ESV)

The taming of our tongues is a sign that we are growing in sanctification. “Self-control” is one of the fruits of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:23, and exercising self-control with our speech is surely a sign of the Holy Spirit’s presence and work in our hearts.  In the long run, a lifetime of careful, discerning, wise speech may be just as profitable and equally indicative of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit as speaking in tongues.

The great spiritual writers of the early Church understood this. For them, discerning and careful speech was more indicative of the Holy Spirit’s guidance.  The famous prayer of St. Ephrem the Syrian asks the Lord not to give us a spirit of “idle talk”, but instead to give us “a spirit of soberness, humility, patience, and love.” St. Diadochos of Photiki saw talkativeness as dissipation of the Holy Spirit. He uses the imagery of a sauna to explain:

When the door of the steam baths is continually left open, the heat inside rapidly escapes through it; likewise the soul, in its desire to say many things, dissipates its remembrance of God through the door of speech, even though everything it says may be good.  Thereafter the intellect, though lacking appropriate ideas, pours out a welter of confused thoughts to anyone it meets, as it no longer has the Holy Spirit to keep its understanding free from fantasy.  Ideas of value always shun verbosity, being foreign to confusion and fantasy. Timely silence, then, is precious, for it is nothing less than the mother of the wisest thoughts. (“On Spiritual Knowledge” no. 70 in The Philokalia vol. 1 p. 276)

Similarly, John Climacus wrote this in The Ladder of Divine Ascent:

Talkativeness is the throne of vainglory on which it loves to preen itself and show off.  Talkativeness is a sign of ignorance, a doorway to slander, a leader of jesting, a servant of lies, the ruin of compunction, a summoner of despondency, a messenger of sleep, a dissipation of recollection, the end of vigilance, the cooling of zeal, the darkening of prayer. (p. 158)

The sort of careless speech that Climacus is criticizing here isn’t speaking in tongues, but it’s something that’s much more relevant to everyday life. The mindless speech which we engage in every day can detract from our spiritual lives.  Pursuit of holiness, on the other hand, will both be aided by and will produce greater discretion in what we say.

So how do we pursue tame tongues? I’ve found it helpful to make Psalm 141:3 a regular prayer: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips.” Whether before writing, preaching, speaking in a group, or counseling people, this simple verse has helped me yield more of my speech to the Spirit’s control, though I certainly have a long way to go.  I’ve also found that it’s helpful to question my motives for saying (or writing, or tweeting) something. Why do I want to say this?  Will it benefit others? Am I simply trying to attract attention to myself? Am I trying to control or manipulate others by what I say?  The answers to such questions usually quickly reveal whether it’s right to speak up or keep my mouth shut. The challenge is learning to slow down and examine one’s thoughts closely enough to ask such questions before saying something regrettable.

This Pentecost, let us pray that God would grant us the grace of increasingly tamed tongues:

Set a guard, O Lord, over our mouths, and keep watch over the doors of our lips.  Purge us of idle talk and fill us with your Holy Spirit that we may speak with soberness, humility, patience, and love. Tame our tongues as we yield them to your control, in order that you would be glorified, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.