Thoughts from a Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: Growing in the Habit of Family Prayer

Prayer and the reading of Scripture are the Christian’s bread and butter (right along with the Sacraments, I’ll come back to that another time). Growing up in the evangelical Church, I knew that I was supposed to pray and regularly read because it is expressed so plainly in Scripture. Throughout Scripture, we are exhorted to pray (throughout the Psalms), bring our needs to God (Philippians 4:6-7) and join in the worship of God in the community of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-25, Acts 2:42). But, I’ve never been that fantastic at maintaining the habit of daily prayer and Scripture reading. Why?

First, to draw an analogy. My wife grew up in the Catholic Church; she struggled to find roots for her faith because no one could tell her why they did what they did. Why do you cross yourself? Why do you kneel? Why do you receive the Body and Blood of Christ? These formative actions and habits, without explanation, did little to form her knowledge and love of God.

Similarly, Evangelicals tell their children to read the Bible and pray. But they can quickly fail to tell and show them why this is essential to their faith. In both cases, the faith must be caught and taught.

As an Anglican Pastor and Father, I am in danger of failing on both fronts. Conversely, I have the glorious opportunity to teach my children and church the deep meaning of liturgical worship tied a life of prayer and scripture reading.

Secondly, this practice was difficult to grow in and maintain because I expected so much out of it. The pressure to have a life-giving devotional time and to encounter God every time I prayed and read was intimidating and overwhelming. There was a felt need for a spiritual high every-time I prayed or read; it was exhausting both in anticipation and disappointment. Finally, there was also a suspicion around prayer and Scripture becoming routine, which meant I needed to spice it up; never let it get old or worn out. All these factors combined lead to an anxious prayer life

Beyond my own experience, I’ve seen this anxiety about the habit of prayer becoming routine in my limited pastoral experience. I’ve begun to wonder whether it is an implicit romanticizing of our relationship with God. Do we view our relationship with God through the lens of dating and romantic love? If we are always supposed to be on fire for God, like a fresh romance, then of course routine feels like capitulation. I think, then, the problem is the lens of romantic love. I believe friendship and Marriage are better metaphors, both of which require time, patience, commitment, and routine. What if the change, relationship, and encounter we desire in our relationship with God is experienced over time doing the same thing with the desire to love and serve God?

So how have I grown in the habit of daily prayer and Scripture reading? Falteringly, through The Daily Office.

The Daily Office is an order of prayer and Scripture reading set for morning and evening prayer with shorter times of prayer at noon and before bed. Combined with a reading plan (the Daily Office Lectionary) it is a helpful tool for making prayer and Scripture reading an essential part of the rhythm of your day.

Throughout my early to mid-’20s, I preferred and wanted to pray far more than I desired to read Scripture. But, as I entered seminary, I was ushered into the practice of daily morning and evening prayer in Chapel, which forced me to do both together. Four years of this practice slowly that shaped my desires to pray and read Scripture; sometimes being told that you have to do something, actually works. Nevertheless, the application of daily morning and evening prayer in life outside of seminary is almost overwhelming. In God’s providence, we also joined an intentional community in our last year of seminary that helped encourage praying the Daily Office by myself.

Since we left Pittsburgh, a few things, both theological and practical, have helped us to grow in the rhythms of daily prayer.

First, I needed a more robust and mundane doctrine of Scripture. Robust because I needed to see that Scripture is a primary means of grace by which the Holy Spirit shapes his Church into the image of Christ. (see my blog post what Scripture is for). Mundane, because I needed to submit to the extended slow reading of Scripture as God communicates his grace to me over many years

Second, I needed to learn to read and meditate on Scripture in the context of prayer. The Daily Office, with its rhythm of prayer and Scripture, provides that context. Worship, either communally, or as an individual in Spiritual communion with the Church, is the proper location of the reading of Scripture. We see this reflected in the prayers of the Psalms and the Early Church.

All that said, getting into a habit of praying the daily office was difficult, and for a good reason.

The practice of daily prayer forced me to walk the Gospel line between legalism and lawlessness. The Gospel is that in Christ, God loves and accepts me (justification) and in the Holy Spirit empowers me to love and obey him (sanctification) (blog post on the gospel).

The practice of daily pray consistently forces me to reckon with the Gospel. I’m not accepted or loved by doing daily prayer (legalism). However, doing daily prayer is good for me because it shapes my day around God and his grace. Further, when I fail to maintain daily prayer, i don’t just give up (lawlessness), nor I am a failure (perfectionistic legalism). I do not fall out of my justification because I am united to Christ (see my blog posts on union with Christ 1, 2, 3). But I am called to get back on the horse, to keep building the habit – to ‘always begin again.’

So how have we grown as a family in daily prayer? How do we keep going, trusting that God’s grace is given in the robust, mundane, and gospel rhythms of prayer and Scripture?

1. Community

Establishing the practice of prayer and Scripture reading is a lot easier to do when other people are doing it with you. My time in seminary and an intentional community grew the desire for a rhythm of prayer and Scripture reading. Now with our small family, we push one another to pray and read, even when we don’t feel like it. I receive and am reminded of God’s grace every time my daughter pipes up at mealtime telling us to pray, ‘more pray.’ Even when I don’t feel like it, I know I need to do it and having a community with the same goals and desire helps grow the habit.

2. Diversity of Tools for different times

The Book of Common Prayer is an excellent tool for prayer. But sometimes, in life, we don’t have the time or capacity to sit down and pray and read for a half-hour. Thankfully, there are a variety of tools and options. The two we’ve found most helpful are Trinitymission.org and ACNA’s Family Devotions.

During our early days of parenting, we would listen to Fr. Michael Jarrett read morning prayer, through the trinitymission.org. At this point, we felt like we were accomplishing a lot by just listening and praying along with him. These times of prayer framed our days and instilled in our family the importance of daily prayer, even when our daughter was fussy, or Lindsay was driving to work. At that point, evening prayer was much harder to accomplish with any regularity.

As our daughter grew up, we slowly moved away from listening to actively praying with her and as a family, by praying ACNA’s Family prayer (link). It is a shortened version of morning, midday, evening, and compline prayer. It starts with a Scripture reading, a psalm, a scripture verse, The Lord’s Prayer, and a Collect. We add our prayers, readings from the ACNA Catechism, and the Apostles Creed. We can accomplish the bare-bones version this in under 2 minutes or spend up to 10 minutes.

Reading Scripture as a family continues to be a challenge. Lindsay and I read from the ACNA’s Daily office lectionary (two-year plan) separately, and try to read together on the weekends. But more often than not, we forget or don’t prioritize it. In the evenings, we’ve been trying to read a story from *The Jesus Storybook Bible* with Maren.

An additional tool, for Scripture reading, that we’ve found vital is thebibleproject.com. This resource helps us learn the big picture of the books of the Bible and see how each book points us to and is about Jesus.

Music has also played a part in our family prayer life. The music of Roots for Rain graces our car drives, and during certain seasons we incorporate music from the Liturgical Folk. I think Luther said that when we sing, we pray twice, and we all love singing praises to our Lord together.

3. Patience and Trust

Growing in the habit of prayer all requires patience, trust, and for me, a consistent battle against legalism. I have to be patient with what we can do, trusting that over time, we are growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Patience and trust help me fight against the temptation to feel like I’m not doing enough, or we could be doing it better. Again, this brings me back to the Gospel. We put effort into our growth, and the growth comes from God (see Philippians 2:12).

4. Grace is for doin’ something.

Finally, the discipline of daily prayer and Scripture reading through the Daily Office is grounded in the sanctifying Grace of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll write more about this point another time, but, in short, God’s grace is the Triune God’s personal work of transformation in our lives is both for forgiveness and transformation. In some Christian circles, grace is seen primarily as forgiveness; grace is given when we admit when we’ve done wrong. While this is true, the Grace of God also compels, directs, and changes; Grace is for doin’ something (see Ephesians 2:8-10 which emphasizes both aspects of grace). It is by the grace of God that we’ve grown in daily prayer and the grace of God will be what keeps us going.

If you want to learn even more about The Daily Office and Anglican Worship, hop over to Theanglicanpastor.com; it is a wonderful resource for all things Anglican.

Also, I am a huge fan of the ACNA’s new Book of Common Prayer. Here are some videos about it, and the place to go buy it.

Questions from the Parish: Is distraction in prayer a problem?

I think distraction is a normal part of the Christian prayer life.

Distraction is a normal part of the human experience of trying to concentrate on one thing. To understand distraction in prayer, we must briefly rehearse and put it in its proper theological context:

Humans are created to behold God and contemplate him forever. Our sin and our twisted desires pull us away from God. When we are redeemed and believe in Jesus Christ we are accepted and brought into fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit. A part of this fellowship is prayer. In prayer, we submit our minds and hearts to God as he teaches us to attend to our final goal and purpose: the face of God in Jesus Christ.  Distraction in prayer is bound up with the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying of our minds and hearts as we are taught by God to desire only God and order all that we do, think, and say towards God in Christ Jesus.  Distraction occurs because we are still on the way towards attending to the one thing needful. However, distraction is not, in itself, a sin. The things we are distracted by might be sinful. What we do with distractions and the feelings we have when we are distracted is what matters. Will we allow God to put to death our thoughts and our distraction and renew our minds or not? That is the question.

For me, it is easy to react to distraction in two ways: either by feeling guilty, which leads to further distraction, and usually some sort of self-inflicted sin or by giving into them totally; turning from prayer to the thoughts themselves. One remedy to this is to turn the distractions into prayer themselves, which leads us back to our primary purpose: being with God. However, sometimes our minds are so busy that our primary objective is drowned out by the distractions, even if they turn to prayer.

In these moments I try to simply surrender them to God, with a prayer like: “God I am powerless over these distractions, please take them from me.”  Additionally, I find that the guilt over distraction is more powerful than the distraction itself. In those moments I have to remind myself that God is patient and gracious and loves it when I am seeking to spend time with him.

I read somewhere that it is helpful to think of distracting thoughts as boat passing down the river of your mind; they are there, and you acknowledge them, and then you let them pass. This sometimes helps me.  But usually, I want to jump on board and go down the river with them. I have to actively surrender that desire and give the desire to get distracted to God.

In the end, our goal is to practice the presence of God, to ‘pray without ceasing” (1 These 5:17) which means constantly seeking to acknowledge and be attentive to the reality that God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is closer to us than we are to ourselves.

Quotes from the Fathers and Mothers of the Christian Faith: Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity

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Today I’m sharing one of my favorite quotes from Gregory of Nazianzus on the Trinity. Gregory of Nazianzus was a fourth century Bishop who helped defend and articulate the Scriptural understanding of the Trinity.

By way of preface, I have two thoughts:

1. I want to encourage my readers to see this quote, not as speculation, but as prayerful and reasoned contemplation on the Trinity.

2. The Trinity is not an abstract doctrine that has little to do with life, on the contrary, when a person becomes a Christain, they are caught up in the life of the Trinity. When someone confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, they do so through the work fo the Holy Spirit, and to the glory of the Father. We confess Jesus and believe in him by faith, and when we ,do we are brought into his eternal relationship with the Father through the Holy Spirit. For our salvation to truly be salvation, Jesus must be God, the Holy Spirit must be God, and the Father must be God, and not three Gods, but one God.

With this in mind here is the quote:

I give as a companion and protector for all your life, the one divinity and power, found in unity in the three and gathering together the three as distinct; neither uneven in essences or natures, nor increased or decreased by superiorities or inferiorities; from every perspective equal, from every perspective the same, as the beauty and greatness of heaven is one; an infinite coalescence of three infinites; each God when considered in himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Spirit; each preserving his properties. The three are God when known together, each God because of the consubstantiality, one God because of the monarchy.

When I first know the one, I am also illumined from all sides by the three; when I first distinguish the three, I am also carried back to the one. When I picture one of the three, I consider this the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part has escaped me. I cannot grasp the greatness of the one so as to grant something greater to the rest. When I bring the three together in contemplation, I see a torch and am unable to divide or measure the united light. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 40.41.

The first thing to note is that confession occurs in the context of a baptismal sermon. In other words, this is Gregory’s passing on the mystery of the Trinity to those who are about to be baptized. The Doctrine of the Trinity is not mere knowledge; this is the heart of the Christian life.

In the first paragraph, Gregory offers the basic contours of the Christian understanding of the Trinity: God is One and Three who are totally equal and eternally God. When considered separately Father, Son and Spirit are each fully God, while they are distinct because of their particular properties (i.e.,. The Father, begets, The Son is begotten, and the Spirit processes from the Father through the Son). Their equality and distinction establish eternal and real relations who are all one God. In this tightly packed paragraph, Gregory offers an outline of what God has revealed about himself in Scripture. This outline does not comprehend God, but it gives us a door into the mystery of who God is. The fact of the matter is that Gregory confesses what he does because he has already been caught up in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

In the second paragraph, Gregory offers the same material through a different lens: the lens of prayer and rational contemplation. The first paragraph confesses the boundaries of the mystery of the Trinity; the second paragraph invites us to enter that mystery by means of personal communion. When we pray to God the Father, in Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit, the Triune God brings us into his very life. We are illumined by the Three who are One and the One who is Three. When Gregory contemplates God he does not comprehend God, but he is embraced by God. As he is embraced by God, he catches a mere outline and a glimpse of who God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This glimpse does not discourage him but encourages him to contemplate and seek the face of God.

Humanity was made to know God and be known by God; this is an eternal journey that begins now, by confessing Jesus as Lord and Savior. As we come to know our triune Savior more, we start to catch a taste for the incomprehensible joy of life eternal with him.  Though we only now see as in a mirror dimly, we will one day see God face to face. This quote from Gregory enlivens my desire to know and love the Triune God. I hope it does the same for you.

Desiring the Renewal of the Church? Look to the Trinity

 

222c640e641f279fafa30226a67e6f26.jpgIn my reading this week I skimmed Gordon Fee’s God’s Empowering Presence to see how he frames and articulates the person and work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s writing. In his conclusion, Fee argues that the path for the church’s renewal is the living experience of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, including, but not focused on the gifts of the Spirit. Here is an extended quote:

A genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will not isolate the Spirit in such a way that “Spiritual gifts” and “spirit phenomena’ take pride of place in the church, resulting in churches which are either ‘charismatic’ or otherwise. Rather, a genuine recapturing of the Pauline perspective will cause the church to be more vitally Trinitarian, not only in its theology, but in its life and Spirituality as well. This will mean not the exaltation of the Spirit as such, but the exaltation of God; and it will mean not focus on the Spirit as such, but on the Son, crucified and risen, savior and Lord of all. Ethical life will be neither narrowly, individualistically conceived nor legalistically expressed, but will be joyously communal and decidedly over against the world’s present trinity of relativism, secularism and materialism, with their thoroughly dehumanizing affects. And the proper Trinitarian aim of such ethics will be the Pauline one – to the glory of God, through being conformed to the image of the Son by the empowering of the Holy Spirit. 

In recapturing the dynamic life of the Spirit there will also be the renewal of the charismata, not for the sake of being charismatic, but for the building up of the people of God for their life together and in the world. What must not happen in such a renewal is what has so often happened in the past: holding the extraordinary charismata in such awe that they are allowed to exist untested and undiscerned (Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 902). 

Having spent a lot of time wrestling with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, the renewal of the church, etc., I found this turn to the Christian life as a life in relation to the Trinity as very refreshing to the extreme. Further, because Fee contextualizes the gifts of the Spirit in the Trinity, and opposes isolation or emphasis of the gifts for their own sake, the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is ordered to the end goal of transformation into the image of Christ to the Glory of God the Father. Thus, charismatic gifts are for the good of the church and should be desired because they have a particular purpose: to make us like Christ to the glory of God the Father.  This means that we must be free to question and test the extraordinary charismata, to see if they are fulfilling their Trinitarian end goal.

Do you want to renew the church? Seeking the happy land of the Trinity in prayer, worship, and study are where it begins. Because in seeking it, you’ll find, if you are a Christian, it is the happy land you’ve always been in ever since you said: “Jesus is Lord.”

 

 

L’Abri: A way of life for the Church? Part 1

This blog post is the first part of a series of reflections on my experience with L’Abri and how its vision can help the church in the 21st century. For more on L’Abri: http://labri.org/ 

Francis Schaeffer’s thoughts and writings were the warp and woof of my high school years and my life today. Francis’s book, True Spirituality, punctuates my memory as a turning point in understanding the Christian faith. I still regularly listen to an album of Bach cello solos I heard at an L’Abri Fellowship conference. But above all, the vision of L’Abri as a place of hospitality, prayer, and gospel living is in my mind almost daily.  It was only natural that I would eventually find myself at L’Abri.

After graduating from Taylor University, I went to L’Abri England to explore my vocation and calling. What I experienced was a peculiar way of life: a life that sought to live the Good News of Christ in the everyday habits of hospitality, honest conversation, and practiced community. Francis founded L’Abri in Switzerland with this vision and purpose: “To show forth by demonstration, in our life and work, the existence of God” (Edith Schaeffer, L’Abri, 15-16).  This vision worked itself out in several ways, but most striking to me – and the point I want to reflect on for the rest of this post – is the total dependence on God as a way of witnessing to God’s existence.

Francis did not shy from the radical truth claims of Scripture. But what he did, that so few people do, is live them. I can’t remember where I read this, or if it was something that someone said at L’Abri, but it struck me as a perfect description of L’Abri: it is the Gospel intentionally on display in the lives of everyday people. This display included meals together, lots of tea, open, honest, and life-giving conversations, and a Tuesday morning time of prayer.

Every Tuesday morning the community would gather and pray for its daily, weekly, and yearly needs. They don’t ask for help; they don’t advertise their needs, they pray and trust that God will provide, and God does. This belief in God’s good, loving, and providential provision for everything, I suggest, is one of the most significant witnesses to God’s existence that L’Abri offers. Their prayer-filled trust in God’s provision endures as a witness to God’s existence under the suffocating weight of secularity’s imposition of a world voided of transcendence.  L’Abri witnesses to the rest of the Church and the world that there is a God who is real and actively at work in the ordering of all of life, including the provision of food and basic needs.

L’Abri’s radical reliance on God to provide everything needed, when compared to the Scriptures, is not very radical at all. It is made strange by the fact that so few people live this way. So few people live in total reliance on God for their daily needs. The question that continues to prod me is whether the Anglican Church could live in a way similar to L’Abri?

Since we are both submitted to the same God of the same Holy Scriptures, I desire to say yes; the church can live such a witness. I dream of seeing the Church as a place where God’s existence is demonstrated through its’ life and work; God’s existence demonstrated through lives that are entirely dependent on God for everything. What would that look like in the church? It would mean a profound change in our vision of the good life and our sense of purpose in life. It would mean being oriented towards God and his kingdom, not our wants and consumeristic desires.

I am convinced that we must begin with knowing and believing in the God who provides for what we need. This means we must both seek his face in prayer and take a good look at how we define what we need. But believing and knowing is not enough, we must put into practice the habits of praying for what we need. What would it look like for a church, at their vestry, to honestly and earnestly pray for their needs?

What would it look like for a church to pray and truly rely on God for its financial and material needs, and for the people God wants in the church? What would it look like if we prayed for our daily needs and did the small tasks of faithfully trusting God to provide in our every day lives? If we believe God is the God who he says he is, then we must be on our knees in prayer for his good provision and direction. I really can see no way around it. What is the end goal of this trust? Nothing less than the witness to God’s reality and existence.

I struggle with trusting God the way that the people at L’Abri do. But I also see no other way forward; I believe the way that L’Abri prays is the way the church should pray. “We pray that God will plan the work, and unfold his plan to us (guide us and lead us) day by day, rather than planning the future in some clever or efficient way in committee meetings” (Schaeffer, L’Abri, 16). Some may object that this leads to passivity, I would suggest that it does not. Because when we rely on God to provide everything we need, that includes the energy, will, strength and ability to do the next thing in front of us. We pray that God will provide for everything, and he will.

One afternoon I joined a veteran L’Abri Worker for a cup of green tea. As we looked out his window on the English countryside sipping our tea we talked about life, the sacramental nature of reality, and the absolute good providence of God. I confess to him that I was struggling to trust God, the worker pointed me to Philippians 4:6-7 as a passage to meditate on.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

 

This passage stays with me because I saw it lived out L’Abri.
I believe that the way forward for the Anglican church in America today is living with this kind of faith, trust, and hope; a total abandonment to God’s loving care and providence. This way of living, unlike any evangelistic strategy, will demonstrate the existence, love, and power of our Triune God.