Sonny Bill Williams and prayer

sonny bill williams

I was reading an article in the NZ Herald last week about Sonny Bill Williams’ Muslim faith. Talking about how he fits the Islamic prayer-and-diet lifestyle into the training schedule of an All Black, he says:

“When I’m most happy is when I’m doing my prayers… How can you not spare 25 minutes of your day to give thanks? I look at where I came from and feel blessed.”

While we’re not praying to the same god, I was inspired and challenged by what Sonny Bill had to say about prayer. It reminds me so much of 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18:

16 Always be joyful. 17 Never stop praying. 18 Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus.

What emphatic wording – always, never stop, in all circumstances. Paul is challenging us here to make prayer and thankfulness part of the fabric of our everyday life. Not something we do occasionally, or when we need something, but something we do always.

This is the area of my faith which I want to develop the most. To be honest, I’m a slack pray-er and so often find myself falling back into well-worn habits of infrequent prayer. My focus over the coming months is going to be on breaking those habits – intentionally taking time out of my day to pray and give thanks.

To help with this, I started reading Tim Keller’s book on prayer recently (aptly titled Prayer). In the first chapter Tim writes:

In the second half of my adult life, I discovered prayer. I had to. In the fall of 1999, I taught a Bible study course on the Psalms. It became clear to me that I was barely scratching the surface of what the Bible commanded and promised regarding prayer… my own growing conviction that I just didn’t get prayer, led me into a search. I wanted a far better personal prayer life. I began to read widely and experiment in prayer.

I was heartened to read that I’m not alone and that a widely respected pastor struggled with prayer in the midst of his ministry (24 years after graduating from seminary, 10 years after starting Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan).

So, over the coming months, in the midst of the busy-ness of life, my challenge will be to dedicate more time to prayer. After all, to paraphrase Sonny Bill, how can I not spare time to give thanks and commune with my God?

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All who are weary…

We’ve had a bit of sickness in our house over the past few weeks – I seem to have been hit the hardest and I’m only now starting to feel close to ‘normal’ again. In the midst of the weariness that sickness brings, the song Come As You Are (by Crowder, not Nirvana…) kept popping into my head, particularly the following verse:

There’s hope for the hopeless
And all those who’ve strayed
Come sit at the table
Come taste the grace
There’s rest for the weary
Rest that endures
Earth has no sorrow
That heaven can’t cure

I assume the lyrics are based on Matthew 11:28-30, which reads:

28 Then Jesus said, “Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

How awesome it is to have a God who knows that there will be times in our journey when we are weary, for a multitude of reasons. A God who will always provide us with rest.

I like how Brennan Manning discusses these verses in The Ragamuffin Gospel:

When Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who labour and are heavy burdened” he assumed we would grow weary, discouraged, and disheartened along the way. These words are a touching testimony to the genuine humanness of Jesus. He had no romantic notion of the cost of discipleship. He knew that following Him was as unsentimental as duty, as demanding as love. He knew that physical pain, the loss of loved ones, failure, loneliness, rejection, abandonment, and betrayal would sap our spirits…

Thank you Lord that in the midst of weariness we can find rest in your unending grace.

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Stories and community

Typewriter with Story buttons, vintage

We’ve recently started hosting a life group[1]– our first foray into smaller church since we arrived back in Whangarei.

I didn’t realise how much I missed this kind of fellowship and community – it’s so different to what a Sunday service (in a larger church) could ever realistically accomplish.

Our life group is reading through Rachel Held Evans’ Searching for Sunday, discussing a section of the book each week (each of the seven sections is thematically-based on a sacrament, e.g. baptism, confession, communion, and tells the stories of Rachel and others based on the relevant theme).

It is eliciting fantastic conversation so far – what we are valuing the most is hearing each other’s stories – it’s given us a much deeper understanding of each other – where we come from, why we believe what we believe, our struggles, our frustrations.

In one of the chapters we discussed on Wednesday, Rachel says (emphasis mine):

“I came to see just how much tension and misunderstanding can exist between the churched and unchurched, particularly when we are unfamiliar with one another’s stories”.

How true this is, not only between churched and unchurched, but also within the church. How often do we make silent assumptions about people without actually getting to know them, to know their stories?

That’s why I believe life groups are essential to being part of a vibrant, authentic church community. We need to have deep connections with people that go beyond just Sunday clichés. Small groups, when done well, can be places of depth, where people feel comfortable and safe enough to be authentic and vulnerable with others. Where we can encourage each other and uphold each other in prayer. Where we can live out what is exhorted in the New Testament, including Hebrews 10:24-25 and 1 Thessalonians 5:11.

This is what I long for in community – it’s what I think we’re starting to find in our new life group – and it’s what I didn’t realise I had been missing until we started experiencing it again.

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[1] small group, home group, cell group – call it what you will, my definition would be any group under about 15 people – in our case there are seven of us.

Are you not entertained?

I must confess that I’ve never seen the movie Gladiator – I assume this means I’d probably have to hand in my man card if such a thing existed! However, despite not having seen the movie, there is a scene from it that I’m very familiar with as it regularly pops up as a meme on the Internet (see the clip above).

Are you not entertained? Are you not entertained? Is this not why you are here?

What an impactful scene; Maximus (Russell Crowe) forcefully questioning the crowd that has just witnessed his gruesome gladiatorial exploits. It may seem like an unusual connection, but the words he shouts frequently come back to me when I think about church – corporate Sunday services in particular.

Have you ever left a church service saying to yourself (or others) something like:

  • I didn’t like the songs we sang, or
  • I didn’t feel God today in the worship, or
  • I didn’t get anything out of that message.

Debate ensues about our experience of Sunday services, usually focusing on the singing (‘worship’) and sermon. I know I’m guilty of it myself.

How easy it is for the consumer culture of the world to infiltrate the church. For us to look at those up the front and expect them to entertain us – like Maximus we could almost see them saying at the end of the service: “Are you not entertained?” – although hopefully with a little less bloodshed!

Now I’m not saying entertainment is in itself a bad thing. If I want to be entertained I’ll go to a Foo Fighters concert or tune into a Warriors game (that’s the basketball team rather than league team, I’m not a masochist!). I just don’t believe that entertainment is what we should be aiming for as we gather on Sunday.

What should we be aiming for, you might ask? Let’s have a look…

The early Christian church in Acts is a good place to start. In Acts 2 we see the church in its infancy, with verse 46 saying “They worshiped together at the Temple each day…” Surely this is the ancient tradition we are continuing when we gather together as a church family on Sunday.

Worshiping together.

Just as this crowd of believers from different backgrounds gathered together two thousand years ago to worship God (and they would have been different – remember this was all happening at Pentecost – a Jewish holiday that saw people from many foreign lands gather in Jerusalem – from the get go the church was a group of very diverse people), so we gather together today to worship God.

So what does it look like to worship God together?

Worshiping God together includes not only singing praise (Colossians 3:16; Ephesians 5:19), which worship is often equated to, but also prayer (like the Acts church), listening and responding to teaching (Romans 15:16), the sacraments (baptism and communion), and the simple act of just gathering together.

Jesus’ key teaching on worship is when he is talking to the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:21-24. In verse 23 Jesus says “the time is coming – indeed it’s here now – when true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth. The Father is looking for those who will worship him that way.” So worship is about glorifying God – the Father, the Son (aka ‘Truth’) and the Holy Spirit (aka ‘Spirit’).  Importantly, worship must be sincere:

“Worship without truth does nothing for us and God rejects worship that is not done in truth. Truth without the Spirit is a manmade worship so true worship must be in the Spirit and in truth. God is seeking those who will worship Him in this manner. ” (link)

So when we gather together on a Sunday we are doing so first and foremost to worship God, in Spirit and in Truth. However, as is so often the case, the prevailing culture of the world, in this case consumerism, has crept into how we worship together.

Mick Duncan, in a sermon titled Do I really have to be religious?, talks about the need to name modern gods in order to dethrone them. When it comes to worship, he says it is the god of self that needs to be dethroned, and God himself enthroned. He says that we often reduce worship to ourselves, it’s all about us and how it makes us feel. This is the complete opposite of what worship actually means – that is, to ascribe worth – it’s not about us, it’s about God.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Searching for Sunday, touches on entertainment and the church from a millennials perspective. She writes (bold emphasis mine):

“We millennials have been advertised to our entire lives, so we can smell b.s. from a mile away. The church is the last place we want to be sold another product, the last place we want to be entertained.

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus – the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

This consumer culture also places undue pressure on our pastors, worship leaders and others involved in the Sunday service, potentially transforming them into mere entertainers. Ben Sternke writes about this pressure, saying:

“It’s easy to look at your congregation on Sunday morning and feel like the pressure is on.

They got up early instead of sleeping in. They got the kids dressed and ready for church. You’d better show them it was worth it, or you won’t see them until Christmas.”

Ben also looks at the differences between worship and entertainment:

  • Entertainment depends on my skill. Worship depends on God’s presence.
  • Entertainment draws people to me. Worship draws people to Jesus.
  • Entertainment causes amazement in the talents of people. Worship causes awe in the love of God.
  • Entertainment leads to repeat visitors. Worship leads to discipleship.

This lines up with the words of John the Baptist in John 3:30 “He must become greater and greater, and I must become less and less.” True worship is about glorifying God, about bringing people to Jesus. If we approach Sunday mornings with a desire to be entertained (or to be an entertainer, for those up the front) then we’re only there for ourselves, not for Jesus.

So, if we are not here to be entertained, why are we here – what is the question we should be asking ourselves and others as we walk out of the church service on Sunday? I suggest it could be something like this:

“God, have you been glorified? Have you been glorified? Is this not why we are here?”

Great is thy faithfulness

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Just before Christmas we welcomed our second child into our family, Son #2. Babies certainly make you reassess your priorities – hence my silence on this blog for the first half of the year!

His name means ‘supplanter’, which we were initially unsure about given its origins with Jacob and Esau. However as we considered it more we started to view the name meaning through a different lens: our previous struggles with infertility.

We started trying for a baby in late 2009. At the time we were filled with excitement about the prospect of a child just around the corner, but as the months and then years went by and no baby came we grew increasingly disappointed and hurt, especially Kim. I’ve touched on our journey with infertility before (Sacred and holy moments) – eventually I received a belated birthday present in early 2013 – Kim was pregnant – and Son #1 arrived later that year.

At that point we thought the pain of infertility would start to fade, but that was not the case. As we continued to feel the pain, even with the presence of Son #1, we realised just how deep the emotional wounds of infertility go. We’d always been keen to have a large family however our struggles with infertility made us begin to doubt whether this would actually be possible.

So when we decided to start trying for our second child, we were understandably preparing ourselves for another long journey. How surprised we were then when this time, instead of taking three years, it only took a few months for us to conceive.

So Son #2 is, for us, the supplanter – not in the sense that he has supplanted his brother, but that he has supplanted our broken dreams of a large family and given us hope that this may be possible in the future.

 

As I lay in bed the night Son #2 was born I had the old hymn Great is thy faithfulness running through my head. Written in 1923 by Thomas Chisholm and based on Lamentations 3:23, I sang out my praise using these fantastic lyrics.

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Great is Thy faithfulness!

Morning by morning new mercies I see

All I have needed Thy hand hath provided

Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!

Thank you Father. Amen.

Loving our neighbour

the good stranger

My son has a great book by children’s authors Nick Butterworth and Mick Inkpen called Favourite Parables from the Bible. One of the stories from the book is The Good Stranger, based on the famous parable from Luke 10:25-37.

The story of the Good Samaritan has got to be one of the most well-known of Jesus’ parables. It focuses on what it means to love our neighbour and who our ‘neighbour’ is. This parable speaks directly into some of the most topical issues of today’s world, including how we as Christians respond to the refugee crisis.

The wave of refugees flooding out of Syria, Iraq and northern Africa has been incredible this year and at the forefront of world’s attention. Initial public response to the refugees, particularly following the tragic story of Aylan Kurdi and his brother, tended towards sympathetic, with people seemingly supportive of providing homes for these people who had risked much to escape a terrible situation. However, ever since the more recent terrorism events linked, either directly or indirectly, to ISIS (notably Paris and San Bernardino), the public response seems to be changing, with people like Donald Trump, a large number of states in the US, and a number of countries (particularly in eastern Europe) starting to tar all refugees with the same brush, with calls for closed borders and bans on Muslims.

It is becoming an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation – something that should be abhorrent to Christians. We are called by Jesus to love, and this call isn’t restricted to those that are similar to us, those that we’re comfortable being around. We’re called to love everyone.

The scandal of the Good Samaritan parable is that it is the Samaritan man who aids the wounded Jewish traveller, not the priest or the rabbi – aka the fellow Jews. Brian Krum, teaching pastor from Greenlane Christian Centre, was invited to preach at our church last Sunday. His sermon was on the woman at the well (John 4) – another famous passage that involves a Samaritan. Brian made it clear that the Samaritans were despised by the Jewish people – they were the worst of the worst, complete outsiders, people who any self-respecting Jew would have nothing to do with. What a shock it must have been for the religious scholar for Jesus to turn around and say that we are to love everyone, including the Samaritans.

To see people and countries start to turn their backs on refugees because they are different and out of fear is awful and isn’t something we should tolerate. It’s not an ‘us’ and ‘them’ situation, because that is not how Jesus calls us to see people. Jesus says love our neighbour as ourselves, not make our neighbour like ourselves. I read a great blog post the other day about how the Bedouin love people through hospitality. Chad ends the post by saying:

Love just loves.

This is powerful and is what Jesus is calling us to do. Our response as Christians to the refugee crisis shouldn’t be ‘keep them away, leave them to fend for themselves’. We should be actively seeking to embrace these people who are struggling, hurting, longing for a peaceful life. We should be extending mercy and hospitality to them.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan finishes with the following dialogue between Jesus and the religious scholar:

36 “Now which of these three would you say was a neighbour to the man who was attacked by bandits?” Jesus asked.

37 The man replied, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Then Jesus said, “Yes, now go and do the same.”

Oh that we would take this to heart and go and do the same, both towards the refugees and everyone else in the community around us.

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Sacred and holy moments

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The upcoming birth of our second child (due in less than two weeks!) and the fact that Christmas is just around the corner remind me of a chapter from Sarah Bessey’s book Jesus Feminist, where the following quote comes from:

I can assure you: there isn’t anything very dignified about giving birth.

And yet, that was the moment when I felt my carefully constructed line between the sacred and the secular shatter once and for all. The sacred and holy moments of a life are often our most raw, our most human moments, aren’t they?

The bolded section resonates with me when I look back on my life so far. Two of the moments which, both at the time and on further reflection, have been the most sacred and holy were also my most raw…

The first moment was when I was made redundant from my job in 2010. I’d been working for the company for the first three years Kim and I had been in Dunedin and, while there had been a lull in work – not great if you’re a consultant – being called into the manager’s office and told that I was going to lose my job absolutely blindsided me. I remember feeling completely numb returning to my desk after the conversation. I nervously headed home at the end of the day and it wasn’t long before I shared with Kim what had happened, tears streaming down my face. The following day I spent at home and found myself scrubbing the kitchen floor and crying out to God – asking “why?” In this moment I felt so close to God, it was incredible.

The second moment was while Kim and I were in the midst of infertility, holding on to the hope of a child after three years of trying to conceive. In October 2012 we attended our church’s annual camp at Pounawea in the Catlins. After one of the sermons there was an opportunity for those who wanted prayer to be prayed for by others. We asked for prayer and were surrounded by a small group of familiar faces. As I tried to explain what we wanted prayer for I found myself choked up with tears, unable to get any words out. Up until that point our infertility journey had emotionally impacted Kim much more than me, but in that moment, opening up to others about our pain, I struggled for words. We were covered with prayer on that day and I recall a great sense of peace about the situation following this. One year later our wee surprise arrived – an incredible blessing after trying for so long.

In both of these moments I was faced with a loss of control and certainty about the future. I was weak, vulnerable, on my knees, crying out to God. I’ve found that these moments of inadequacy and uncertainty are such amazing opportunities for God’s grace to shine through.

In his book, Man Enough, when discussing vulnerability Nate Pyle says:

There are going to be times in our lives when we are not strong enough to change the situation. Cancer. The loss of a job because of an economic crisis. Losing a loved one in a car accident. Only when we realize how truly little control we have over the world around us will we being to accept just how weak we are. And if we can embrace our weakness in the world and stop the pretense that we are super-natural he-men impervious to the threats of a broken world, then we will begin to see the strength of Christ move in and through us.

This is so true, and is something I will continue strive towards in the future. I want to be someone who is vulnerable and aware of the inherent uncertainties of life, who is willing to share these weaknesses with family and friends, and who endeavours to create an environment where others can also be vulnerable.

This is crucial to creating a close-knit community of disciples, where we journey with each other to seek Christ through the good times and the bad, where our human-ness shows through in sacred and holy moments. One further quote from Sarah Bessey:

[God] never shied away from our most piercingly human experiences – birth, pain, death, sickness – and so, can we not find him and his redemption ways there still?

Finally, I’ve been reading 2 Corinthians recently and what Paul writes in chapter 12 speaks directly to this topic:

Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. 10 That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

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Changing the flag

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Voting in the first referendum on the New Zealand flag closes at the end of this week. With everything going on around the world at the moment this seems like a bit of a side issue, but it is still getting some airtime in the news media (largely focussed on the general public indifference towards the referendum).

I support changing the flag in principle, but it has to be at the right time – now is not that time (in my view the right time would be when/if we become a republic).

Even if I did think now was the right time, I’m not convinced any of the choices are that inspiring or really do justice to our country. Particularly the initial four options: the three silver fern flags look like messy attempts at branding, the koru is a bit plain. The ‘Red Peak’ flag intrigues me, but I still wouldn’t vote for it over the current flag in the second referendum.

Of all the public debate on the flag referendum, some of the arguments that have been put forward about the reasons why the Government (seemingly driven by John Key) is changing the flag have been amusing at best – conspiracy theorists of the highest order! I particularly enjoyed the theories around how a change in flag will reduce sovereignty or the apparent links to the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations. Good times!

John Key was at a conference I attended in October and in his speech spent some time talking about the flag and why he’d like it changed (from what I’ve heard he does this in almost any speech he makes). I can understand his reasoning, he puts forward a good case, but I don’t think that now is the right time.

So for me, I’ll likely be voting ‘Red Flag’ in the first referendum, and ‘Keep the current flag’ in the second.

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Franchising church

church unlimited

Last weekend saw the launch of Church Unlimited in Whangarei, with billboards popping up around town in anticipation. From what I can tell this is the second church in the city this year which has rebranded as it partners up (or comes under the wing of) a larger church. First Kamo Alive became Arise Whangarei in February (also complete with a glitzy billboard advertising campaign), now Crossroads has become Church Unlimited Whangarei.

This trend of smaller churches becoming regional outposts of larger metropolitan churches seems to be becoming more commonplace in New Zealand, particularly within the Pentecostal ‘megachurches’ (well, comparatively mega for New Zealand). It’s like church franchising in a way, as you’d see with McDonalds or Subway, except in this case they’re selling God and community. Often, from the outside looking in, it appears the church brand and/or the lead pastor, is at the forefront in marketing the church franchise to the wider populace – from what I can gather with Arise at least, it seems to be a very top heavy approach, with their lead pastor regularly visiting (or beaming in from Wellington on the big screen).

I can’t help but wonder if it’s merely an attempt to cater to the consumeristic culture of the world around us. We want church to be cool. We want it to be flashy and big. All of the advertising and marketing points towards an amazing experience which you can turn up each week to receive.

These approaches to church makes me uncomfortable.

Perhaps it just disturbs my Baptist sensibilities and thoughts around the autonomy of the local church (which links back to the priesthood of all believers). Perhaps it the growing consumerism seeping into the church. I’m not sure exactly.

Ultimately I realise that churches are never going to be one size fits all. It’s near impossible to have a church which caters to every person (as awesome/messy as that would be). If the Arises and Church Unlimiteds of the world are reaching members of the city who would not otherwise be reached, and creating places of community where people are actively challenged and encouraged to grow as disciples, then that’s great. But for me, I like my church to be a bit rougher around the edges, where everyone is encouraged to get involved, even if that means the church sacrifices some of its polish from a worldly perspective.

Is it wrong to doubt?

doubt

At our church members’ meeting this week (which I mentioned in my previous post), a Word for Today devotion was shared on the topic of doubt. The devotion suggested that doubt is ‘the doorway through which Satan enters your life’ and that ‘your doubts reveal a lack of confidence in what God says’ – I’m not sure I agree with these statements.

Surely some level of doubt isn’t unhealthy, or is even healthy. I believe that questioning what we believe and why we believe it strengthens our faith. Sharing these doubts and working to understand them with others is crucial to developing a truly authentic community of Christ followers.

I recently listened to a sermon by Nate Pyle where he touched ever so briefly on the topic of doubt in the context of speaking about the Great Commission. Matthew 28:17 says “When they saw him [Jesus], they worshiped him – but some of them doubted!” Here it is in black and white – it’s not wrong to doubt, it doesn’t make us a bad Christian. Nate finished by saying that doubt only becomes a problem when we use it as an excuse to not continue seeking God. Doubts, knocking on the door, asking him to answer, is okay.

Rachel Held Evans, in her book Evolving in Monkey Town, discusses doubt and makes an important observation:

Doubt is a difficult animal to master because it requires that we learn the difference between doubting God and doubting what we believe about God. The former has the potential to destroy faith; the latter has the power to enrich and refine it. The former is a vice; the latter is a virtue.

I think this differentiation is key, and perhaps the Word for Today devotion was primarily addressing the former. However, it portrayed it in such a way that it suggested all doubt was wrong, which is so unhelpful for those of us sitting in the pews with nagging questions of ‘why?’, ‘how?’ and ‘when?’ running through our head.

I’ll finish with another quote from Rachel’s book (which is a great read if you haven’t already picked it up!):

Doubt is the mechanism by which faith evolves. It is a refining fire, a hot flame that keeps our faith alive and moving and bubbling about, where certainty would only freeze it on the spot.

Faith isn’t about being right, or settling down, or refusing to change. Faith is a journey, and every generation contributes its own sketches on the map. I’ve got miles and miles to go on this journey, but I think I can see Jesus up ahead.

And for further reading, few interesting articles on Christians who aren’t afraid to doubt:

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