If you never thought you could learn about the value of confessing sin from a Bible story about a talking donkey, you need to listen to this message. It’s based on the story of Balaam and his donkey in Numbers 22.21-35.
On a Facebook recommendation, I pre-ordered, and received quickly from Amazon.ca, the latest publication by Rowan Williams, entitled, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer (Eerdmans, 2014). It is a surprisingly small book, at under ninety pages. And it is a quick read; it arrived in the mail yesterday afternoon, and I had it completed before going to sleep (with several other needful things done in between).
I recommend this book for those looking for a basic refresher on some of these fundamental aspects of what it means to follow Jesus. As the subtitle suggests, he writes (about twenty pages on each) about the meaning and implications of the sacrament of Baptism, how we read (or hear) the Bible, what it means to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, and then gives a brief summary of three views on the Lord’s Prayer (from Origen, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Cassian, all classic Christian writers from early [pre-AD 600] Christianity).
Williams is clear, concise, and accessible in his writing style. He writes with a modest Anglican bias, which the reader would only expect coming from the immediate past Archbishop of Canterbury! But even with that ‘filter’, Williams could be read quite satisfactorily by an inquirer, or by a believer from any branch of the church.
There were six especially helpful learning points that I noted for myself in the book:
- In the Eastern Christian tradition, some icons for the baptism of Jesus depict Jesus up to his neck in water, with river gods, representing chaos being overcome, beneath the water. The old ways are always trying to claim us back.
- The Bible is, in a way, our own story, so history matters when reading Scripture.
- In the Eucharist, Jesus is telling us he wants our company.
- Prayer is about changing your attitude.
- Prayer is a promise to God.
- This one deserves to be quoted: “[Prayer] is opening our minds and hearts and saying to the Father, ‘Here is your Son, praying in me through the Holy Spirit. Please listen to him, because I want him to be working, acting and loving in me'” (p. 80).
Reflection and discussion questions are provided at the end of each chapter for use by individuals or groups. This is a short and helpful read, and I recommend it.
Benedict of Nursia (480-543) is best known as the father of modern monasticism; his feast day, for those who mark such celebrations, is today, July 11. He wrote what has become known as the Rule of Benedict, a lengthy guide for those who seek to live in cloistered community.
I could say much about Benedict, but I will limit it to this, for today: Benedict said that for the monk, nothing is to be preferred to what he called “the work of God.” And what is the work of God, for Benedict?
Put simply, prayer.
In a more involved sense, Benedict referred to the divine office as the work of God, the multiple daily occasions where the monks drop whatever else they’re doing to gather together to pray and sing the Psalms. While each monk is assigned work within the community based on training and gifting, his real work is to pray. Ora et labora is the Benedictine motto: pray and work.
Last week, I wrote about patience, and how time spent waiting in line can be used to pray for others – even the people waiting in line near us, whom we may not know. In response, I was asked two excellent questions by a faithful reader of Encouragement From The Word: first, Why would God need or want us to pray for someone we know nothing about? and second, Since God already knows what is best for that individual and we don’t, why would our prayer have any influence on God?
I responded by saying that prayer has less to do with us influencing God than it does with developing our relationship with God. I remember when I was getting to know the woman who is now my wife, in those early weeks and months, we talked, whether on the phone or in person, a lot. If you’ve been in a serious relationship, you probably have done the same. We would talk about anything and everything, and it wasn’t about information sharing; it was about relationship building.
And on those occasions when we pray for others, whose situations (or maybe even names) we do not know, we commend them to God’s love and care, and let the Lord deal with their individual circumstances. While we may not be able to pray with precision, we can build our relationship with the Lord through such prayers.
When I pray with a monastic community (and I do, when time allows), I am not always acquainted with the people or issues that fill their times of prayer. The Psalm chants that we sing are not always familiar to me. But these times, like the times I spent waiting in line and praying for others, help to strengthen my walk with God. And that is never time wasted!
How can you redeem time by spending it building up your relationship with God?
“Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18, NLT).
Lately, my wife has busied her evenings with scrapbooking. She’s not one of those scrapbookers – you know who you are! – who work meticulously and carefully on the exact placement of every photo, who scour the Internet to find exactly the right design and paper and theme, and, and… (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!)
No. She creates a scrapbook for a singular purpose: to create an authentic memory of an experience that she can look back on, and share with others. Yes, she spends a bit of time on it, and it looks amazing when she’s finished, but it’s more about creating a memory than a piece of art.
When I meet with people seeking spiritual direction, I sometimes ask if they keep a journal. For some, it’s a passion. For others, it’s a ‘binge’ thing. For still others, it’s an unknown discipline. I like to think of journalling as a form of scrapbooking the spiritual life.
Like scrapbooking, everybody who journals does so in her or his unique way, and there’s no prescribed right way to do it: it is, after all, a form of personal expression. The biggest difference is that our journals are not normally shown to others. They are our own visual dialogues with God.
Journalling can be a helpful discipline for those who struggle to pray; writing out a prayer in one’s journal can be a way of focusing the mind on the task at hand. It also helps to expose what our common prayer pattern can be. Is our prayer more like a love letter or a grocery list? Is it more like a lecture or a lament? Or something else? Achieving balance in our prayer life is a good goal toward which to move, and journalling our prayers can help us review what our prayers are like. Ideally, it is helpful to spend time, when we pray, praising God for who he is, confessing our sin, giving God thanks for what he has done, and offering our requests and concerns.
When we are intentional about including these different aspects of prayer, it can make us want to pray even more. And when we journal these prayers, we can, as we would with a scrapbook, look back on it in years to come to see how our relationship with God has changed over time. For me, as for many people, this leads to more prayer – especially thanksgiving.
I know some people who draw in their journals, expressing their thoughts to God pictorially. Not all of them are necessarily even ‘artists’, as such, but they believe God gives them the drawing, and they share it as an expression of faith.
Have you ever thought about scrapbooking your spiritual life?
“And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true’” (Revelation 21.5, NLT).
What does prayer look like for you?
For many people, even seasoned believers, prayer is something that happens at meal times, maybe at bed time, maybe for a few minutes before the morning rush ensues. But few of us take much time for this rich and important fellowship with the Lord.
If you’re one of those for whom time in prayer is limited, you’re in good company: even most pastors do not spend much more than 5 minutes a day in prayer. That said, such ‘good’ company is auspicious indeed. What kind of relationship would we have with our spouses if we spent only 5 minutes a day in conversation with them? Not much, right? So why does God get crowded out of our lives in terms of the priority of time?
Perhaps one reason is that we cannot see God, at least not in a physically obvious way. “Out of sight, out of mind,” we might say. Another reason God gets crowded out of our lives has to do with his character: God is patient. Because God is Creator and we are the creation, God has no need of us, so he has no reason to beg us to be in relationship with him. Yet God wants to be in relationship with us, so he finds subtle ways to invite us into his presence. Can we slow down enough to take the time to notice God’s subtle invitations, and respond?
We seem almost to wear it as a badge, don’t we? Someone asks, “How are you?” and we respond, “Great. I’m really busy.” Yet even the most noble tasks – even the most godly tasks – which make us too busy to spend time with the Lord need examination by us if we are to carve out time for our Maker.
It doesn’t have to be complicated. And it can start simply. There will be interruptions, but as one person has suggested, consider each interruption yet one more opportunity to return to God. Start with five minutes a day, and add a minute each week to your prayer time. Even if you find you don’t have enough to say to fill the time, sit in the silence. Let God speak to you, or just enjoy the silence with God as your Companion.
“Rise up, my darling! Come away with me, my fair one! Look, the winter is past, and the rains are over and gone. The flowers are springing up, the season of singing birds has come, and the cooing of turtledoves fills the air. The fig trees are forming young fruit, and the fragrant grapevines are blossoming. Rise up, my darling! Come away with me, my fair one!” (Song of Songs 2.10-13, NLT).
While soaking up some of God’s free vitamin D today, I was reading David Benner’s excellent book, Opening To God, in which he wrote these very interesting words:
Coming to God in trusting openness does not mean abandoning our agency and responsibility. Genesis tells us that God invested in Adam and Eve the responsibility for all of creation, and at no time since then is there any reason to believe that God has said: “Since you have made such a mess of things I now absolve you of that responsibility and ask that you simply trust me to take care of things.” Prayer is divine communion that enables us to engage the world with renewed focus, competence and passion – and with all of our natural gifts and abilities. And pondering problems, both personal and communal, can form a central part of that experience of communion with God. (David Benner, Opening To God [Downers Grove: IVP, 2010], 96)
What a great reminder! Even though God is sovereign, and he invites our prayerful communion with him, we are still responsible, and can share our decision making process with God as a form of prayer.