Acadia Divinity College, Simpson Lecture Prayer Breakfast, at Manning Memorial Chapel
Tuesday, February 12, 2019.
Steve McMullin has invited me to offer thoughts for this years prayer breakfast. He told me to keep it “practical and inspiration.” I can tell you that after a big plate of bacon and eggs, I don’t really know what is going to come out of me. You might have to settle for vague and semi-coherent!
Someone asked what I was talking on for the prayer breakfast. I paused and looked at them: “Umm…I am going to talk about prayer.” Am I being unoriginal? I suppose I could have talked about the meaning of breakfast, but that probably would not have been as practical or inspirational.
There are many great passages on prayer, but I found myself drawn to these words in thinking about the subject this morning: 1 John 5:13-15 writes,
13 I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life. 14 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
Stated right at the end of the First Letter of John, like many epistles with powerful theological treatments at the beginning, the closer is often simple words of wisdom for everyday life. John begins his epistle with explaining how God is light and how Jesus is the atoning sacrifice. He treats difficult topics like apostasy and apostolic discernment. He gives his beautiful explanation of how God is love, but he reserves his final words of advice to remind his congregation about the necessities of prayer.
I think that is a fitting reminder for today as we listen to all the wisdom Dr. Theissen has to show us, all the sophisticated ways we can be more effective pastors and leaders, understanding our communities. There is so much data and effective strategy and wisdom to be learned here in these few days.
But lets just take a moment, as John does, to remind ourselves of the simple fundamentals: we need to pray. We need to ask God, what does this mean? How do we act on this? How do we follow Jesus? How is God’s Spirit addressing us? Where is God’s Spirit sending us?
For five years I served as Pastor of First Baptist Church of Sudbury. It is a small aging church. Through my time there, it should be no surprise to you that I realized just how integral prayer was to pastoring.
It should also be no surprise during times of trying to do it all on my own or merely going about my day forgetting to centre myself in prayer that day, that it effected what I did negatively.
Of course the opposite was also true, the times where I was in deepest prayer, those were often the times that I saw God act. I am sure God was and is always acting, but it was prayer that helped me see it.
I would like to tell three stories of realizing the necessity of prayer in pastor. The first shows that God is a God that listens to us, comforts us, gives his presence as provision to us. The second shows that he invites us to partner with him in realizing his kingdom. And the final story shows us that God is faithful to meet small needs, that God also is capable of wonderful surprises that we are to expect.
He listens. He partners, and he even surprises.
1. God Listens
As you can imagine, pastoring a church with a number of elderly people meant I often made visitations to the nourishing home. One lady in our congregation had surgery, and was placed in long term care. As we visited her, one of the deacons of my church and I, she instructed us that we should visit the lady down the hall.
So, she phoned her, and the lady was up for us visiting. As we walked down the hall, I suspected this would be a difficult turn in an otherwise mundane pastoral visit.
We stepped into a room with this middle-aged lady. I tried not to stare. Bedridden, her limbs were terribly, inhumanly swollen. “Come in, don’t be alarmed,” she said with a beaming, bright smile. I was surprised. She was in wonderful spirits.
We inquired what her condition was. She had a rare lymphatic infection, that has left her bedridden, functionally paralyzed. Every day, day in and day out, she had to receive a steady drip of strong antibiotics. But also, steadily, day by day, the infection grew immune to the antibiotics. The very thing that was saving her, was also the very thing slowly killing her. Day by day the inflection slowly but surely was winning.
And yet, to my amazement, I have never met a happier person.
She proceeded to tell me that at the beginning, she was bitter and resentful. She prayed angrily that she would be healed, and of course, while she still does pray for that now, something changed in her disposition.
“What changed?” I asked.
“I realized that Jesus was enough. Everyday, I get to thank God for another day, and I know he is with me. He listens to me and is my friend. That is enough for me.”
She told me that she saw her condition as a calling to be Jesus’ presence here in the nursing home, to the nurses and other patients, who in her mind needed hope and healing more than her.
I think this helps us understand a bit of what John is saying when he says, “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
This person knew the gift of eternal life. She knew the gift of his presence. While she still prayed for healing, that was enough.
Whenever I am tempted to ask, “Does prayer actually work?,” I am reminded of a quote that P. T. Forsyth once said, “The greatest answer to prayer is first and foremost prayer itself.”
Before we can fret about getting anything through prayer, we have to cherish the gift that prayer is. We have to cherish the fact that God is listening, that the first and greatest gift is eternal life, in how Jesus died for our sins and rose from the grave.
In Jesus Christ, all our prayers are already answered. Jesus is enough.
2. God Partners
So why do we trouble God to ask for more? When we rest in Jesus we know we can because he is generous. When we know he is generous, we also confess that everything we have and are comes from him, so we ask in acknowledgement of him. We ask because we cannot do and be anything other than what God in his generosity gives. As God is at liberty to give in the abundance of his generosity, we ask because we know we are free in relationship to ask.
So, I am reminded that John tells us, “…that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” What is God’s will?
During my doctoral studies, I was the co-ordinator of a soul kitchen called the Gathering Spot at Walmer Road Baptist Church in Toronto, off of Blood and Bathurst if you know the area.
It was an odd job. I applied to it because it was near the University of Toronto, where I did my studies, and I really just needed the money, and I wanted something ministry related. I got more than I bargained for.
At that point in my faith, I was going through a disorienting time. Pastors can go through disorienting times. We don’t like to admit that to our congregations, but we do. As some of you know both my parents died while I was in seminary, and I was still processing that as I was trying to grasp my calling in ministry and in academia. Grief effects us all different, and looking back at that, I remember feeling for several years, numb inside
I don’t think I ever stopped praying or stopped believing in praying, but let me just say that it certainly just did not feel like prayer was doing much. Your soul just felt dried up inside.
Well, my perspective changed working at the Gathering Spot. It changed as I was surrounded one night a week, by people whose problems in life vastly exceeded my own.
I felt moved to pray, not sure what this whole prayer thing was anymore, but praying nevertheless because I cared about these people.
You see a scary underside of humanity, the realities of poverty, of the dehumanizing despair of homelessness. People would come off the streets and wanting a meal, needing services of various kinds.
My prayers took on a different fervour. Mostly because I wasn’t praying for me anymore.
I have learned that service moves us for prayer, and prayer moves us to service.
I remember one bitter cold night in January. We had a large crowd that night and the food went quick. But just as we were finishing, a guy showed up out of the cold. “Is there any more left? Sorry I had trouble finding this place.”
We scrounged up as much as we could. He ate quickly, and I sat with him. I heard a little bit of his story, about how he lost his job and so he was recently evicted from his apartment.
He had to leave because he wanted to get to the shelter before it got too late. But he asked me to pray for him. I did. “God please get him to a shelter.” I wanted to go with him, but I knew I had to stay there at the kitchen till closing. I also had to get the bus home to Bradford, or else I would be stuck too. I prayed with him and he left.
I thought of nothing else as I rode home on the bus that night. And I just kept praying.
I got home late, and I sat in my warm town house in Bradford, think and praying about him.
I heard the next morning that 30 people froze to death that night on the streets of Toronto.
I don’t think I ever prayed so passionately in my life that night, and the only thing I could resolve to do in the light of that is to say that if I see someone in need, and if I pray for their well being, we have to consider that perhaps God has moved us to pray for that person because he is moving us to do something for that person.
Why? Because as John says in the passage previous to ours this morning. God is love. God’s will is love. God is light and in him there is no darkness.
Mother Theresa once said God wills no one to be poor, it is our will that keeps others poor.
The question then is whether we will partner with God in obedience to his will, not ours.
I told you that story to tell you this one: Several years later, as I pastored First Baptist Church of Sudbury, we ran a community meal at one of the low-income residences a few blocks from the church. One person, a young guy came to our Christmas service. He just kind of look like he had a dark cloud over him.
Turns out that dark cloud was serve mental illness. One night, after giving a lecture at Thorneloe University, where I also taught, I came back home, ready to relax and get some sleep. I got a text from him. “Pastor, help me. I have been evicted. I went off my meds, and they kicked me out. It was stupid. I know. The shelter is full.”
I can tell you I was tempted to ignore that text. I was tempted to say, “Hope everything works out. I’m praying for you.” But I knew I just couldn’t live with myself if I did. So, I prayed, “God help me to help this man.”
So, I grabbed my coat, and met up with him at a Tim Hortons. We drove from Hotel to Hotel, trying to find something. I could tell he was taking his meds again, but he really was not in a good place still.
Hotel after hotel was either too expensive, or they took one look at him and made some excuse. I asked him whether he had any friends that he could couch surf for a few nights. He didn’t have any friends. No family in the area. Nothing.
It is the fundamental truth that many people are homeless well before they don’t have a roof over their head. People are homeless before they are houseless.
I thought to myself, “What if we don’t find anything? It is getting late. Should I just bring him back to my house to stay the night?” He really did not sound safe or in a good state of mind. In fact, he seriously turned to me and wondering, if he just went out and committed a small crime, he would at least get so stay in a prison where it is warm. He had been to jail as a young man, and I told he wasn’t going to take that way out.
Finally we found an inn above a small pub that was not too expensive, and we went with that. The next day, I was able to arrange a bus ticket for him to get to where he did have some folks that agreed to take him in.
As we pray, God partners. We partner with him, in conformity with his will, and he claims us as his own and uses us. St. Theresa of Avila once wrote, “Christ has no body but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands, with which he blesses.
We pray for our prayers to be answered, and sometimes God can turn that back to us and commission us to be that answer.
If ever you pray to God, “God I pray someone would do something about crime or poverty or sickness or whatever.” Be prepared that that someone could be you.
3. God Surprises
I say God surprises because while that last point is true – God chooses to use us – so is the simple fact that God also goes beyond us.
God is powerful, but he chooses to partner with people. Humans are free and Christians are Christ’s hands and feet, but that does not mean God does not act. God acts in wonderful and surprising ways.
Notice I have described three ways God answers prayer: by giving comforting presence, by commission us to act out his will, and also acting beyond us. We would be wise to know that to say that God answers prayer is not too say that God is predictable. And that is why I say God surprises.
In ministering in Sudbury, I came across a young man, who also lived in the low income housing development.
Early twenties, a poor kid, as I got to know him, he had endured the worst in this world: terrible abuse, such that just to talk with him, he was deeply erratic. It did not take long in his presence to know his soul was in deep chaos: that lethal mix of hatred and hurt.
I would come by his apartment from time to time to check on him. He was on welfare, but there was a strong possibility that it would run out, so he was looking for a job. He was about the same height as me, so I gave him some of my dress clothes. We practiced interviews.
He applied around all over the place. Each time, employers would just hear how he talked, how it was hard to hold down a conversation with him, and go with someone else. Didn’t matter he was willing and able. As he applied here and there, the more downcast he got.
One day, I did rounds around the apartments asking if anyone needed a ride to the food bank I would take them. This was my usually Tuesday noontime routine. The food bank was at the other end of the town and often the food bank packages were heavy, and often people had mobility issues. So, I put out a sign at one of the low income apartments that if anyone needed a ride, i would help. Word spread and there was about a dozen or so I would regularly meet up with.
I knocked on his door, and he answered, a bit dishevelled. I figured he was just getting up. He decided to come along to the food bank that day, even though he did not need anything.
I turned to him in the car, and gave him a Jesus Calling devotional. I had gotten a bulk order of these things, figuring this was an easy way for some of the people, who were not strong readers that I ministered, could nevertheless hear an uplifting scripture spoken over them on a daily basis.
While the one guy went in, this young man turned to me and said, Spencer, I was sitting in my room thinking I got nothing to live for. I have no peace in my life. I was ready to end it when you knocked at the door.
I prayed with him, and I suggested, let’s see what words of encouragement the devotional he had in his hand had to offer. Turns out that day, the topic was scriptures relating to finding peace in life.
He did a stint in the hospital, but after he got out, I met up with him again. He seemed to be in a bad state of mind. I learned that previous to me meeting him, he had committed a crime, which he was going to be sentenced for. The possibility was weighing heavily on him.
I asked him about what he believed in, whether he trusted God’s love and forgiveness in all this.
He turned to me, and said that he admitted his mind is so erratic, so faulty, he resolved at some point to just stop believing anything. He figured his brain is just so unreliable, there isn’t any point to believing in anything. He told me he felt ashamed about all the ideas that would get him worked up. So, one day he just decided he would stop believing in anything.
I tried to offer some words of encouragement, but I was taken back. How do you get someone to believe in Jesus, when they don’t even think they are capable of believing anything?
I went home that day particularly distraught. I remember praying, “God how can a person like that be reached? How could a person like that be discipled? God you’ve got to reach this person, but if the Gospel means anything, it has to mean something to a person like that. The Gospel is good news to everyone, especially a desperate, troubled young man, who needs hope in his life.”
My prayers for the next little while took on a tone of frustration and disappointment.
A little while later, I came by his apartment. I found him in the apartment’s communal kitchen. He turned to me. “Spencer, I was sitting in my apartment. I was ready to end it all. I just felt so worthless. But then he showed up.”
“Who showed up?” I asked. He just pointed up. In a dark moment, he heard a distinct voice say to him, “Your life is worth something to me.”
“Spencer I don’t know what I am, but I know I ain’t an atheist.”
God surprised me that day. It is because what John says, “we know that he hears us.”
God listens, God partners, God surprises.
And of course, as God is faithful to save from sin, to give comforting presence, to commission for courageous service, and to show up in all sorts of unexpected ways, God is also, I fundamentally believe, there for you. He has not forgotten you or your family. God has not forsaken his pastors, his chaplains, or his church.
His will is love, life, and light, says John, pleasing and perfect. And we will know this as we ask, as we follow, as we wait on him – all by prayer. Can not do this any other way.
What are your needs? What are your church’s needs? What our your community’s needs? Are they small? Are they big? Do you sometimes think they are too big? Perhaps sometimes you think they are too small.
Whatever they are, John says, to pray for we have confidence in him.
Pray about it anyway. Pray boldly. Pray persistently. Pray to the point that you think you are praying foolishly and wildly, because then it is a very likely possibility that you are praying in line with God’s will for us all: the kingdom of heaven on earth.
Now, let’s turn to God in prayer…
“I thirst” (John 19:28)
In the beginning as Genesis two tells us, there was a stream that bubbled up and watered the earth. From the clay of this stream the first man was molded, from its water Eden was irrigated, and from there, the text says, out of the garden the stream became four great rivers. Here is the archetypal river of life, fountain of salvation.
The human body is about 50-80% water, and doctors recommend that a person drink about 2 litres of water a day to be healthy. It is no stretch of the imagination that we can say that water is life.
Not surprisingly, there is a persistent image of water in Scripture as a source of cleansing, purifying, and revitalizing.
John, a master story-teller, makes use of the theme of water and thirst throughout his Gospel. Disciples are baptized in water. Those entering the kingdom of heaven are born of “water and spirit” (Jn. 3:5). Jesus poured out water to wash the disciples feet, the quintessential act of servanthood.
One instance is particularly applicable. Near the beginning, a woman comes to the well in Samaria, who has been married five times and is living with a man not her husband. Jesus meets her there, and asks her for a drink. She protests, saying the well is deep. Jesus uses this to tell her that there is water that will make her thirsty again, and than there is living water form which she will never be thirsty again. While naïve and uninitiated, she tells Jesus that whatever this is, she wants this water.
She does not understand what this water is, but she is thirsty for it. She is thirsty for water that is more than water. She is thirsty for compassion, for love, for forgiveness, for truth.
Of course, this water is eternal life, and this water is found in Jesus.
The Samaritan woman is, as we all are, thirsty for salvation.
Psalm 42:1: “As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.”
Yet, here on the cross, Jesus, the God-man, the one who is life, who is living water, is now thirsty. In this beautiful use of irony, water does not mean water, and thirst does not merely mean thirst: Thirst is the thirst of the soul. Jesus becomes thirsty.
As Jesus cried out in thirst, they gave him sour wine. The offering was not a malicious gesture as sour wine was considered better for quenching thirst, often used by soldiers like modern-day Gatorade. But Jesus’ thirst here is more than just thirst.
Psalm 63:1: “God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”
The Scriptures say, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us.” (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ, the son of God, the son of man, died representing all humanity before God and representing God to all sinners. He died in our place. He took on our pain. He took on our thirst.
His parched throat mirrors the desert wasteland of our souls.
In John’s gospel, as he died, after crying out “I am thirsty,” a soldier pieced Jesus’ side and it says water flowed out. Here we see another allusion to Psalm 22: “I am poured out like water.” Water flowed out of the one whom was thirsty. Through Jesus’ death, water flows. Through Jesus taking our place, God dying as a sinner, our souls will one day drink of the river of life.
So the vision in Revelation 22:1-3 says,
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse…
In this passage thirst, water, and the overcoming of the curse are intimately connected. We are all thirsty. We thirst for Jesus. Jesus is that water that restores us to vitality perfectly. We know this because Christ bore our curse. Jesus is the only thing that refreshes our parched, dry souls.
Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are those that hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” Jesus made this promise, and here on the cross, he cries out thirsting for justice himself, dying from the oppression of a corrupt religious and political system. Yet his thirst was not for vengeance, but for the healing of sick, sinful souls. So Revelation depicts a day here water flows from the New Jerusalem “for the healing of the nations.”
Jesus is righteousness. Jesus is truth. Jesus is forgiveness. Jesus is living water.
And because of the cross, because Jesus chose to be at one with the thirsty, to thirst in our place, we are free to drink of the water of life; We are free to drink of the resurrection reconciliation.
So Revelation 22:17 says, “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.”
We realize that we thirst for you.
We may think that we thirst for other things – money, safety, popularity, health – but it is you that we ultimately thirst for.
Thank you for becoming thirsty, taking on our thirst.
May we drink of the water of the river of life that flows from Christ who died in our place.
May the day come quickly that we see all nations gathered to be healed by the water of the river of life.
Let all who are thirsty come to you, Lord Jesus.
“Woman, behold your son” … “Behold, your mother!” (John 19:26)
While it is easy to see this passage of Christ looking to his mother, Mary, and instructing her to embrace John, the beloved disciple, and John vice versa, as a simply provision undertaken by our Lord to ensure his mother is cared for, these passages offers us glimpses of something deeper. Let’s look at both John and Mary here.
Why is Mary told to refer to John as a “son” and John to refer to Mary as his “mother”? The provisions of care do not necessitate this, yet Jesus insisted. He could have just said, “John, take care of her.”
Some have seen this as Jesus recommending a relationship between Mary and the disciples.In Christ, there is a new family, a global family, of the redeemed that all began at the cross. Mark 3:35 says, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” Here we see the constitution of that family, gathered around the crucified Jesus, listening to his instructions, and so, compelled to treat one another as family.
But it surely meant more than that for John. Mary and John are among the few that actually stayed close to Jesus. They did not flee like the rest of the disciples. John was allowed near the crucifixion site, perhaps because he was so young. We know this because only boys too young to serve in the military could come near the execution site for fear of uprising to save the crucified.
This helps us understand why John sometimes refers to himself as the “beloved disciple,” who “reclined at Jesus’ side.” Peter would have been much older, the eldest of the disciples, possibly. It is also possible that John was the youngest. He was only a boy, small enough to need hugs from Jesus. He may have seen Jesus has a father figure.
Jesus taught us to call God, “Abba” (Daddy). John may well have called Jesus, “Abba.”
John is standing there, watching his father figure die. So, this was more than provision of care to Mary, it was recognition of mutual support. They would need each other. You can understand Jesus’ words now as commissioning the young John. “It is time to be a man, now John, take care of Mary, treat her like your mother.”
As we see John’s writings through the New Testament, particularly in his epistles, John took up this commission well. He was an apostles of family and love through and through. He constantly refers to his congregation as his “little children,” not unlike what he was when he learned his essential instructions from his master.
We know from church tradition that John’s dying words to his church was, “Little children, love one another!” Love shun through John’s writings at all points, especially in passages like 1 John 4:7-12:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
His church was his family, and love was his ministry because Jesus was his hero.
Can we look to Jesus like John did?
Now, Mary: Protestants have often forgotten the importance of Mary. We have done this out of understandable reasons: it is out of discomfort with how high Mary is elevated in Catholicism. But as Catholicism raise Mary too high; Protestants are guilty of not raising her high enough.
In church history, veneration of Mary began because of how Mary pointed to a proper understand of Jesus. Jesus died in the flesh (contra some who denied his humanity) because Jesus was born to a human mother: Mary was the guardian of Jesus’ humanity, the theotokos, “God-bearer” in Greek.
But, sadly, Mary was elevated to a kind of co-operator with Christ in some Catholic theology, which Protestants simply feel makes her into an idol. But we should ask is how do we properly adorn Jesus’ mother so that she once again safeguards her son’s high place? We might phrase this better by asking, how does respecting Mary as a mother – us looking to her motherly qualities – how does that bring us deeper into appreciation of Jesus? Or, how does understanding Mary as mother deepen our understanding of Jesus as our brother?
The picture displayed above renders this clearly: eyes too sorrowful to see clearly, but too concerned to look away; hands, clenched praying perhaps both that her son would be faithful to the onerous task she bore him for, but because she bore him, praying pleading with God to relent of the suffering her son is feeling.
To look to Mary as our mother is to look at Jesus’ hanging on the cross, not as an abstract idea, a stale doctrine, a historic account, or an expression of our own sentiments, it is an attempt to see the cross for what it is, and not bypassing it too quickly.
Seeing the cross as our salvation can too readily jump from its tragedy to the benefit we get out of it. We can easily see Christ as suffering on our behalf and we can say, “thanks,” and continue on our merry way. We can selfishly forget the cost of the cross. We can easily look at the cross for what we get out of it, not what God put into it.
When we look to Mary as the mother of Christ, we also look at the cross through the eyes of a mother. Someone’s son died on that cross. Someone’s little boy, her pride and joy, everything she lived for, is being murdered mercilessly, dying that miserable death.
And do you not think that it may have occurred to her that while she knew Jesus was dying for her sins, she would have gladly died in her sons place just to save him from the pain? Don’t you think even that she would have gladly refused her own salvation if it meant saving her little boy’s life?
It is only when we look at the cross through Mary’s eyes do we appreciate the cost of the cross for us. It is the cost of a life more precious than our own.
It is only when we lament the cross through Mary’s tears are we ready to say thank-you to a God that gave so much we will never understand.
It is only through the love of Mary for her Son that we ready to love the world as Jesus loved it.
May we love as John loved. May we look to you as our daddy, our father figure. So close to us that we can “recline at your side.” Help us to remember that we are beloved disciples, not just disciples. Draw us closer into the family of God. May we treat your sons and daughters as brothers and sisters. Give us opportunities to be big brothers and sisters to others.
May we mourn for you as Mary mourned. And in our mourning, let us remember the provision that Jesus gave at that very moment, the only true provision against the tragedy of this age: You gave us the church, the family of God. Help us to take care of one another. Help us to love one another.