Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Praying is Scary

Praying lays us bare. It strips us naked. When we pray we are exposed as vulnerable creatures before God and before the other people with whom we are praying. If our prayer is a prayer of worship and adoration (e.g. “God, you are truly great!”), then we are exposed as small before his greatness and strength. If our prayer is a request, our weakness is on display. Regardless of what kind of prayer we offer, we always pray as small creatures. When we pray, we are all made children again. And that is why prayer can be so scary.

Today we often idealize childhood, but the reality is that childhood is a precarious stage of life. Children are, after all, relatively powerless and weak. Don’t believe me? Imagine leaving some small children alone in your kitchen for a few hours; they would quickly get themselves in a (potentially life-threatening) situation beyond their control. In other parts of the world, where safety from diseases and wild animals cannot be attained, childhood is indeed a struggle for survival. We often forget just how vulnerable children are… until we are asked to be like them. Jesus said: "“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3–4). Recognizing our need of God, like a child needs his parent, is a base requirement for being a Christian. It is often this aspect of faith that keeps many grown men and women from knowing God. We are too scared to admit we are that vulnerable.

Praying is a continuation of the first act of faith in God required of us for salvation. At conversion we believe and trust in Jesus, forsaking any hope of being able to save ourselves or rule ourselves or defend ourselves. And prayer, whatever else it might be, is at least an acknowledgment before God and before ourselves of this kind of neediness. It is this acknowledgment of need (and the hope of Parental help) that defines child-like faith. Child-like faith is NOT faith outside of reason...quite the opposite. It is a profound and practical wisdom to see ourselves as we actually are (as children in need), and to see God as He truly is: the strong and loving Father who readily offers help. To see things this way is to have made a reckoning with reality. Child-like faith is, in fact, quite reasonable and practical. It is when a child accurately assesses his dangerous situation that his cry for help makes the most sense. It is complete irrationality when a child doesn’t ask for help in the face of danger beyond their power.

This kind of child-like faith is at the heart of prayer. And that is why it takes courage for us “adults” to pray, especially with other “adults.” When we pray aloud with others, our childishness is exposed. We are shown to be needy people who, like children, can barely articulate our need. In honest prayer times, we often stumble over our words like children… only able to blurt out: “God, help me” or some other simple phrase. When we pray honestly, our neediness can’t help but be revealed… it is too vast to hide. I don’t know about you, but that makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want others to see me as weak…. but I am weak. And so are you.

But Jesus tells us that walking the path to greatness in his Kingdom requires full embrace of our weakness. "Whoever humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 13:4). This is one reason why learning to pray, and learning to pray with others, is so important. It is an exercise in child-likeness. We cannot truly pray and remain strong in our own strength.

Very often Christians pray with others. There are many reasons we do this. One reason is that act of praying with another member of the Body of Christ often enhances our sense of the Presence of Christ. If you’ve never prayed aloud with other Christians, I recommend that the first person you pray aloud with be someone you know loves you, and that you know will not laugh at you. Perhaps that is your spouse, a sibling, your pastor or priest, or a close friend. Perhaps your small group at Church would be a good place to start. If you’ve never prayed with your spouse before, I highly recommend you start there. It may be awkward at first, but consider all the other awkward moments you’ve been through and will go through? (e.g. medical moments) What’s one more? What starts as a clunky enterprise can end up becoming a truly life-giving and God-honoring act. The rewards of praying with brothers and sisters in Christ far outweighs the risk.

Be assured of this: God will not reject you if you pray with this child-like faith. You may not receive all you ask for, just as our children do not. But you can count on some blessing, some reward before your heavenly Father (Matthew 6:1-21). To be rewarded by him, to be great in his kingdom, is to have a treasure beyond our imagining. But this treasure comes to those who humble themselves in prayer.

Next week....  "Praying is easy."  

Thursday, February 19, 2015

What is a Bishop?

This Sunday, our bishop, Steve Breedlove, will be at Good Shepherd.  But what exactly does that mean?  Why is the bishop visiting?  And what does a bishop do?  For many at Good Shepherd, the whole concept of a bishop is foreign, and even for those of us who have been in churches that have bishops, most have not been taught about what a bishop is or what a bishop does.  Bishop Steve's arrival gives us a chance to talk about the office of the bishop, and its role in the life of the Church.

A bishop usually leads a diocese.  A diocese is a group of churches, large or small, usually tied to a geographic area.  Because this work of leading a diocese is so great, bishops almost always enroll the help of priests and deacons to assist them locally in the churches under their care.  The priests and deacons who serve in the churches of the Diocese are delegated authorities of the bishop.  As Jesus has given bishops authority over his Church, these local churches are the "bishop's churches," not the church of a particular priest or pastor.

The Anglican Church's constitution contains a great summation of the bishop's office:  "A Bishop is called by God and the Church to be a shepherd who feeds the flock entrusted to his care. A Bishop is an overseer of the flock and as such is called to propagate, to teach, and to uphold and defend the faith and order of the Church willingly and as God wants him to – not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to his care, but being a wholesome example to the entire flock of Christ (1 Peter 5:2-3). These requirements are in addition to the requirements… for a Deacon (1 Timothy 3:8-13) and for a Presbyter [Priest] (1 Timothy 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:6-9). By the tradition of Christ's One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, Bishops are consecrated for the whole Church and are successors of the Apostles through the grace of the Holy Spirit given to them. [In summary:] They are chief missionaries and chief pastors, guardians and teachers of doctrine, and administrators of godly discipline and governance."

Bishops are pastors.  The word "pastor" literally means shepherd.  Bishops are the pastors of the churches that are in their diocese.  They are responsible for the growth and care of the members of their churches like a shepherd is responsible for the growth and care of their sheep.  This means they are responsible to see that correct doctrine is taught in their churches, that the worship and life of the church is in accordance with biblical principles, and that any erroneous teachings are refuted. Just as a shepherd is a defender of his sheep from wolves, the Bishop is a defender of his fellow Christians from false teachers.  The Bishop is also a pastor to pastors: caring directly for the clergy in their diocese.  When bishops and the clergy under their authority are pastoring well, the people of God usually grow in spiritual health.  When a bishop is not a pastor, their clergy often fall away into heresy and the people do not flourish. 

Bishops are overseers.  The word overseer (Gr. episkopos) or bishop ("bishop" is the Old English version of the Greek episkopos) is used in the NT six times to describe a minister. (1 Tim 3:1; Titus 1:9; Php 1:1; Acts 20:28; 1 Pe 2:25).  It describes the role some priests (Gr. presbyter, often in English called an "elder") have in giving oversight or leadership to the life of the Church.   Just as the apostles led the Churches of the first century, the bishops give "oversight" – they are the primary leaders of the Church.  They set the direction, order and organizational life of the Churches in their diocese.  When bishops give oversight properly, the Churches under their care tend to be well-ordered and mission-minded.  When the bishop does not give oversight, Churches can become disorganized, confusion reigns, and the Great Commission forgotten.

Bishops are successors of the apostles. After the apostles began dying off, they handed over their authority to bishops.  Men who served faithfully as priests would be selected for this great privilege and responsibility.  This passing of the baton began happening in the Church at least as early as 100 AD (and probably during the NT era (See Titus, 1&2 Timothy)) and is still happening today.  Every bishop in the Anglican Church comes from a long line of men who have come before them, and every bishop is tasked with faithfully preserving the Gospel for the next generation.  Because bishops have this "lineage," they are visible symbols of the unity or Catholicity of the Church.  They are living reminders of all who have come before them.  This is one reason why Bishops in the Anglican Church administer the rite of Confirmation and why a bishop must be present to ordain both priests and deacons.  Bishops are truly successors of the apostles when their churches are recognizably in line with the great cloud of witnesses that have come before, both in doctrine, in life, and in order.  When bishops are consecrated outside this lineage or when bishops are consecrated who do not hold to the apostolic teaching, it brings disunity to the larger Church.

So, that, in a nutshell is what bishops are and what they do.  When Bishop Steve visits us this Sunday, he is coming to one of the churches under his care.  His primary role this Sunday will be to preach the Word and to administer the Sacrament to the flock.  But he will also meet with the clergy to counsel them and to give direction to our church.  He will update us all on what I happening in the Church regionally, nationally, and globally.  And he will come to bring God's blessing to God's people!

One last comment on bishops.  Because they're role is so weighty and because they are sinners like us, we need to pray for our bishops.  As a congregation, we do this every Sunday, but let me encourage you to pray for our bishops in your home.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why fast?

Last week in “From Fr. Tom,” we looked at the various spiritual disciplines Christians have employed in the past during Lent.  This week, I want to narrow it down to talk about the one thing most people do during Lent: “giving something up for Lent.”  Technically, giving something up for Lent (e.g. alcohol, coffee, sweets, Facebook, TV, etc.) is called "abstinence," and "fasting" is when we eat less food or none at all.  But usually fasting and abstaining are lumped together (for good or for ill), and when most people talk about "fasting" they mean one or the other.  

But, before we answer the question “What are you giving up for Lent?" it is good to ask another question first: “Why are you giving up something? Why are you fasting at all?”  Some might challenge us and say: “Isn’t all that fasting an Old Testament practice? Isn't fasting something we are meant to do in secret?"  

Here’s a few reasons why fasting/abstaining is a good practice for Christians to do. (I’ve borrowed a great deal of material here from Cru.org, adding a few of my own insights occasionally.):

       Fasting was an expected discipline in both the Old and New Testament eras. For example, Moses fasted at least two recorded forty-day periods. Jesus fasted 40 days.  Jesus assumed his disciples would fast after his Resurrection.  He says things like: "when you fast," not “IF” you fast.  Jesus also said that there would be a time when his disciples “will fast,” (not “might” fast).  (Matt 6:16; 9:14)

       The church in the New Testament fasted!  "While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off." (Acts 13:2-3) "And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed." (Acts 14:23; see also 2 Cor 11:27).  These fasts were corporate in nature (as is clear from the context). 

       Fasting has always been a part of Christian activity and discipline from the earliest days.   (Where do you think Lent came from?)

       Fasting and prayer can restore the loss of the "first love" for your Lord and result in a more intimate relationship with Christ.

       Fasting is a biblical way to truly humble yourself in the sight of God (Psalm 35:13; Ezra 8:21). King David said, "I humble myself through fasting."

       Fasting enables the Holy Spirit to reveal your true spiritual condition, resulting in brokenness, repentance, and a transformed life.

       The Holy Spirit will quicken the Word of God in your heart and His truth will become more meaningful to you!

       Fasting can transform your prayer life into a richer and more personal experience.

       Fasting can result in a dynamic personal revival in your own life-and make you a channel of revival to others.

Let me encourage you to take seriously this season of fasting and abstaining.  (I will pray for you during this season if you ask me. And I would ask for your prayers well.)  In my experience, this can be one of the richest seasons of the year for Christians… God, help us!

(POSTSCRIPT:  I know that many struggle or have struggled with eating disorders, and that the practice of fasting for some who have have been through this battle is neither helpful nor recommended.  Also, pregnant women should avoid fasting during Lent (you get a pass!) and those with health complications may want to talk to their doctors first before engaging in a fast.  Fasting may not be for everyone.  If that's you, please note that last week's post included many other great spiritual practices for Lent that God might use in your life.  Please don't hesitate to contact me or another pastor if you'd like to talk more about what steps God might be calling you to make this Lent.) 

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Are You Ready For Lent?

Are you and your family ready for Lent? On Ash Wednesday, we will enter the season of Lent.  That means we have very little time to prepare ourselves for Lent…. and preparation is an absolute necessity.  To benefit fully from Lent we must enter into it with a plan.  I know in our house, we are often discussing what we will "give up for Lent" once it has already started! (That's like waiting to buy stocking stuffers on the day after Christmas!) What I hope to do in this article (and in the one next week) is to get us ready so that when Ash Wednesday rolls around we will be able to enter into the Season of Lent fully, not haphazardly.  

Ash Wednesdays begins our observance of Lent with this exhortation: The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.Therefore, in the name of the Church, I invite you to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word. (Book of Common Prayer, 1979, p. 264-265)

This section of the BCP (Book of Common Prayer) helps us see that Lent is not merely about "giving things up", but also many other things which I'll list here. As you read this list, let me encourage you to ask God which of these you need to engage in during this Lenten season.  And don't pick more than two of these... otherwise you'll get overwhelmed and not follow-through: 

  • Investigation of the Claims of Christ - For many this season of Lent has been the end of a long journey of faith.  If you are at Good Shepherd or any other church, but are not sure what you believe about Jesus ("Is he really God's Son? What does that mean?" etc.) then let Lent be a season when you devote some time and energy to answering your questions.  We have several people in our church, including myself, who would love to talk with you about any questions you may have.  There are also many good resources out there that may help answer your questions and concerns about Christianity... including this one here.

  • Preparation for Holy Baptism - As the BCP says, in the past many people who had made commitments to follow Jesus and who were yet not baptized, took a series of classes to ready themselves for baptism during Lent.  If you've not yet been baptized, I would love to talk with you during Lent about baptism.  Also, it is a good time for those who have been baptized to look again at the commitments and ask for God's help to live more fully into them.  You could do a personal study or study with some friends on these vows.  Click here for that.

  • Confession of Sin - Historically, Lent was a time where those who had sinned in ways that brought scandal to the Church could come to repent and confess and be forgiven.  This, as the BCP states, was a time for every Christian to remember the promises of the gospel for themselves: That anyone who comes and confesses will be forgiven.  (1 John 1:9-2:2).  Perhaps this Lent you could meet with Fr. Tom for a special time of prayer in confession of sins, both past and present, and know what it means to be forgiven by God.  

  • Restoration of those who have turned away from Christ in the past - In years past, Lent was a time when those who had walked away from Christ would come back to him, confessing their sins and finding the open arms of Jesus through the loving gospel-preaching of the Church.  If you have been away from Church for some time, Lent is a great time for you to come back to Church. Or if you have a friend who has been walking away from Christ, why not pray for them to return to Him this Lent?  Why not invite them back to Church? 

  • Self-examination - We are told in the Bible that we should "examine ourselves to see if we are in the Faith" (2 Cor 13:5), and we are told that before we take Holy Communion, we should examine ourselves (1 Cor 11:28).  And really, any confession of sin is impossible without some degree of self-examination.  During Lent, we are called to a season of asking God to reveal our sin to us, to expose it:  "Search me, O God, and know my heart, try me and know my anxious thoughts, and see if there is any evil way in me, and lead me into the way everlasting."  (Psalm 139:23-24)

  • Repentance - Repentance means turning away from sin and turning to God. "Turning" and "change" are key words for understanding repentance.  Perhaps this Lent God will call you to turn from something, whether it is an evil thing contrary to his commands or whether it is a good thing you've put above God, and then turn to Him.  What is God calling you to repent of?  

  • Prayer - Prayer is the basic activity of any Christian.  Perhaps this Lent you begin to pray daily?  Perhaps you and your spouse will commit to pray together a few times a week?  Perhaps you could learn one new way to pray.  If I could see anything happen in our church for Lent, it would be that every household would be devoted to prayer. 

  • Fasting - "Fasting refers to restrictions on quantity of food and when we consume it."  For example, we may fast on a Wednesdays or Fridays during Lent by not eating at all, or we may eat smaller quantities on these days.  Many Christians fast on Fridays year round as a way to focus their hearts on Jesus's crucifixion (which was on a Friday), but during Lent it is especially appropriate to do this.  

  • Abstinence - "Abstinence refers to the avoidance of particular foods." This is what most people mean when they talk about giving something "up" for Lent.  They may give up alcohol, meat, candy, etc.  It is very common to abstain from meat on Fridays for Christians.  One principle on this:  do not abstain from something for the Lord's sake that costs you nothing, that is of no difficulty for you. More on this next week.  

  • Alms Giving - Though no explicitly mentioned in the exhortation to a Holy Lent above, alms giving (that is giving to the poor and needy) has been a regular part of Christian piety and of Lent from the beginning.  Consider seeking out those in need and giving of your time, talent or treasure.  Locally we have several ministries with whom we partner to do this.  Check out G4G Ministries, Just Hope, Hands of Hope.  Also considering giving a gift to Pastor Asif in Pakistan, Compassion International, or the Walk with Rwanda Campaign.  

  • Reading and Meditating on God's Holy Word - As a Church we will be spending time in the Word together on Sundays and Wednesdays.  If you've never been a serious student of the Bible, Lent is a great season to start.  There are several ways to do this, and if you'd like some easy practical steps to take, don't hesitate to email Fr. Tom: tom@GoodShepherdBermudaRun.org 

  • Deepening of Our Dependence on God Through the Gospel - The whole point of Lent is that the gospel would become more precious to us, and that by a fresh embracing of the gospel, God would be glorified in our lives.  All of these disciplines listed above work to that end, when the Holy Spirit moves in them.  My prayer for you this Lent is that the Good News about Jesus would become for you the Greatest News, that Gospel and the God of the Gospel would be your greatest treasure.