Saturday, March 31, 2018

Roots

I was born and raised in Canada, with a minor stint mid-elementary school in the United States (job transfer for my dad). Aside from a briefly altered accent, courtesy of Tennessee, my upbringing was quintessentially Canadian. But below the surface, there were also Scottish influences at work. I just didn’t recognize it.

After all, I reasoned, I was your average, typical, garden-variety, ‘normal’ Canadian. But with (unrecognized) Scottish roots.

For example, my mother used to play pipe ’n’ drum records on the living room stereo when I was quite young, at impressive volumes. I naturally assumed all Canadian kids grew up hearing the melodic allure of the bagpipe.

How else to explain my instinctive love of playing in a Celtic-rock band, many years later? Some strange genetic connection with jigs and reels, I guess. The roots that run deep inevitably reveal themselves above-ground.

The same is true in our spiritual lives, as well.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody — after all, Jesus did teach us that whatever is in our hearts will leak out eventually:
“Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thornbushes, or grapes from briers. A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” (Luke 6:44-45)
One of the areas where this has shown up, time and again, is in the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. I’ve seen two distinct outcomes whenever the topic — and especially the practice — of spiritual gifts comes up:
  1. The most obvious is the polarization between those who believe that all of the gifts are still in operation today (continuationists) versus those who insist that certain gifts were restricted to the early church (cessationists).
    (This post is not concerned with that discussion.)
  2. The other outcome is the pendulum swing that many followers of Jesus have taken over the years: what began as a sincere hunger for discovering and using the Spirit’s gifts (and the excitement of seeing God at work) later cooled off and, at times, shriveled into a functional cessationism (believing in the gifts but not practicing them).
Everyone’s story and experience is unique, of course, but a common denominator among those for whom initial enthusiasm for the gifts of the Spirit has faded away is not the gifts themselves, but often the character of those exercising the gifts.

For example, anyone with unresolved anger issues will have a hard time bringing a prophetic word that “strengthens and encourages”. Their anger will (dis)color the expression of their gift. Pride and finding one’s identity in spiritual gifts, rather than in Jesus, will also taint the use of the gifts. Ditto for the (worldly) ambition to be in the spotlight. Etc.

It may not be obvious at first, but what’s in the root system will leak out eventually. Expose enthusiastic young believers to enough people who are more concerned with their gifting than allowing the Spirit to refine their character, and the outcome is inevitable: disillusionment, withdrawal, and functional cessationism.

So, for the sake of the Body, let’s tend to our roots.
I’d like to suggest that we humbly choose to seek the Spirit as fervently for His character as for His gifts.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Pray the Change (Part Two)


photo source: Wikicommons
“For this reason, since the day we heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you.”

If I were to ever receive a letter from the Apostle Paul, informing me that he and his co-workers were constantly praying for me, I’d be pretty encouraged. Actually, I’m really encouraged, touched, and grateful when anybody tells me that they’ve been praying for me. When I was in college, letters from my grandparents often closed with: “we pray for you daily”, which always warmed my heart.

In Colossians 1:9-14, Paul goes beyond simply telling people that he’s praying for them, and gives us a window into what exactly he’s praying on their behalf. (Paul does the same thing for the church in Ephesus, which I’ve written about here.)

Given that Paul writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, it’s always fascinating to consider what the Spirit is saying is important for a leader like Paul to pray about:
“We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light. For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
Now, let’s just slow down and unpack this short prayer a bit.

Paul begins with praying that the Colossians (and us) will be filled with the “knowledge of his will”. Typically, we 21st century people have a tendency to read the phrase “God’s will” and immediately translate it to mean “vocation/calling”. We’re kinda weird that way — always equating God’s will with work, rather than God’s will for our character as disciples of Jesus.

Read the whole phrase again: “We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way”. God’s will = living a life worthy of Him. Of course, “pleasing Him in every way” will have practical implications for our vocation, ethics, morality, etc., but that’s the out-working of our calling, not the calling itself.

Paul then gives us some immediate examples of what that will look like:
  • “bearing fruit in every good work,
  • “growing in the knowledge of God,
  • “being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience,
  • “and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.”
That’s a fascinating list of spiritual outcomes that qualify as living a life worthy of God, that pleases Him in every way:
  • Good works
    • Thoughts and prayers should always be coupled with action.
  • Growing in knowledge
    • Some people may advocate for a theology-lite approach to their faith, but that’s not what Paul says is pleasing to God.
  • Strengthened by His power so we can be patient and have spiritual endurance
    • It’s tempting to only read “strengthened by His power” and assume it’s about us becoming spiritual giants, but in reality, it’s about the spiritual strength we need to patiently endure whatever life throws at us.
  • Having a continual sense of awe, wonder, and thankfulness
    • The “joy of our salvation” isn’t just a poetic phrase from the Psalms — the simple fact that we’re saved, forgiven, and accepted by God should be a source of perpetual joy.
And then, to underline his point, Paul concludes his short prayer with a truly inspiring reminder:
“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”
In this brief summation to his prayer, Paul — and the Holy Spirit — reminds us of our true identity as a company of the redeemed and forgiven.

Try praying that over yourself and your loved ones, and see what kind of difference prayer makes!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Pray the Change You Want to See

Back in the day when the picture at left was both current and accurate, God taught me some very important, practical, and paradigm-shifting things about prayer and “stepping up”.

Towards the end of my second year of Bible college, I found myself in multiple conversations with fellow students where the Question Of The Day could be summed up:
“Is it just me, or does the spiritual atmosphere in our college kinda, well... suck?”
It had been a very different year than my experience as a freshman the year before. The spiritual vibrancy we had enjoyed now appeared lacking, and there seemed to be some kind of spiritual malaise that was throwing a good chunk of the student body into a funk.

During one of those conversations, I was reminded (probably by the Holy Spirit) of the late-night prayer sessions that I’d seen happening in the college chapel every night around 11:00pm during my freshman year.
(All freshman were required to do “student service” to help defray the costs of the school, and I had been assigned the ‘night watchman’ role. Hence my noticing the late-night prayer time.)
“Does anyone remember that prayer meeting that used to meet in the chapel last year?” I asked my friends. “Is it still happening?”

Actually, we discovered — NO. The guys responsible had all graduated. As far as we could tell, student-initiated prayer had fallen by the wayside.

Hmm. Lack of prayer + a spiritual funk… It wasn’t hard to do the math. My illustrious roommate, Ritchard, and I decided that — even if nobody else joined us — our dorm room, at 11:00pm, would be devoted to a time of prayer.
And I dropped by the Dean’s office and asked if I could become an RA for the next college year — leading a weekly small group of my peers.
And all through my junior year at Bible college, intercessory prayer was a nightly occurrence in our dorm room. Sometimes, it was just Ritchard and I; other times, the room was jammed full of guys praying together for each other and for God to move in our school.

More than once, other students would drop by to ask us to pray for specific situations happening elsewhere in our dorm. As the year progressed, we learned that God had been speaking similar things to the rest of the student body, and there were actually numerous prayer groups meeting, late at night, in both the men’s and women’s dorms.

No-one was surprised at the change in the atmosphere in our college. The spiritual vibrancy was very noticeable, particularly in the areas of worship and community. There was a sense of expectation, and an awareness that God was doing something remarkable in our student body.

A popular slogan in recent years has been a quote from Ghandhi: “Be the change you want to see”. There’s a lot of truth in that saying; it’s why I became an RA at college, “stepping up” so I could be part of the solution.

But ultimately, we’re following a Savior who tells us:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
And if we’re wanting to have a spiritual impact, then we need to paraphrase the slogan slightly, and PRAY the change we want to see.

Because, as it turns out, the old saying is true: “Prayer changes things”. Starting with us.

“Stepping up” = Pray the change.