Tagged: Prayer

Prayer: God Listens, Partners, and even Surprises

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“Three Camaldolese Monks in Ecstatic Prayer” (circa. 1710-1740)

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…

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The God Who Sees You: Hagar’s Story for Mother’s Day Sermon 2018

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If there was a job description for being a mom, what do you think it would sound like? Frankly it would sound like the worst job in the world.

Hours? 24-7. Evenings and weekends, travel costs not reimbursed.

Skills? advanced communication, cooking, janitorial capabilities, basic first aid, tutoring skills, etc. etc.

Pay? None..actually, you pay to have this job!

Benefits? No dental, no medical. Yet the intangible benefits are beyond worth.

Parenthood and motherhood specifically is one of the most difficult, longest, toughest callings a person can have in this life. It is a calling that is essential to there being human life. It is a unique relationship.

The sound “m-” is nearly universal of language. The name for mother in almost every language on earth has the sound “m-” in it, which leaves some linguists to suspect that ma might be a word, that relationship, that is semi-hardwired into our brains at birth.

We sometimes say that children have a special place in the mother’s heart. It is actually scientific fact that mother carry a part of their children in them. “Microchimerism” is the recently discovered phenomenon that mothers after birth still have fetal cells – cells of their babies – inside their bodies, for years after. These cells circulate through the mother’s body much in the same way red blood cells do. They have been suspected of having a mild healing effect on the mother. There you go, science says it!

This bond is so essential, it often means we take that fact for granted. It is true. We take our mothers for granted.

By analogy it is similar how we take God’s love in a similar sense for granted. We just assume it will always be there.

When we do that, we fail to understand the depth and extend of what that love is and means: what our mothers do for us and how that is one of the first and greatest gifts God has given us humans. This gift of this parental bound that is so precious.

We take our moms for granted. We take love in all is powerful and precious forms for granted.

It was my wife and I’s 9th anniversary last week. In 9 years, can’t believe all the stuff we have been through. Twins to top it! Twins have meant a lot of sleepless nights for Meagan with tough days trying to wrestle three other kids with two you can’t really put down.

In nine years, I continue to grow in admiration for my wife. How tough she is, how caring and hard working. I told her this knowing she would have to be with the twins in the nursery. See she is still working! I have to admit that I don’t appreciate my wife enough.  I don’t know if I ever will appreciate all the ways she makes our families life better.

Husbands I imagine you might feel the same.

And there are moms in this congregation that probably feel like they are taken for granted: undervalued and underappreciated and overworked and overtired.

Today we are going to look at on overlooked mother in the Bible. It is a story with two mothers in it, in competition, actually. It is a messy and at some points sad story, but there is something beautiful about it that way because it shows God in the midst of life, in the midst of what we go through, that God does not forget or neglect what any of us go through, especially mothers.

There is a special, unique, place in God’s heart for those that have the love of a mother.

1. Hagar’s Story, the First Part

So go to Genesis 16. This is the story of Hagar. Her story is a sub-plot of the greater story of Abraham, the patriarch of our faith.

So, the story begins with Abram, before he was named Abraham. God had promised Abram the blessing of offspring, land, protection, and reknown. He was blessed in order to be a blessing to all humanity. That is the Christian calling right there. But, all of that does not sound very comforting when you are nearly 100 years old and don’t have a son.

Abram is a good man, but imperfect. In this culture, it was very common to divorce your wife if you two could not have kids, and it seems to be because Sarai is infertile. So, Abram refuse to divorce Sarai, they hold to their wedding vows for richer or for poorer, but they get frustrated, as you can imagine.

Abram and his wife Sarai decide to take the future into their hands.

Sarai implores her slave girl to be Abram’s lover, a surrogate mother. This is a culture where polygamy and slavery was prevalent. Polygamy is something the New Testament clamps down on, probably because of what happens in this story.

As I said, this is actually a story about two mothers, Sarai and Hagar, but we are going to track with Hagar for what her story has to show us. Both show the frustrations and messiness of life, however.

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

You can detect the desperation in her voice, can’t you? This is the same woman that also lied about her marital status with Abram earlier in order to get him favor with rich and powerful leaders. She is used to sacrificing her dignity. But, this time it is way too far. It is a desperation that is causing her to lose trust in God. It is a sacrifice that is not hers to make.

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

Can you imagine how awkward this could have been for Hagar? Again this is a time when women are treated like property and here is a poor slave girl that is essentially told to be the wife of Abraham and bear him a son. This would have been a great opportunity, economically speaking, but was it her choice? You begin to see the plight of this poor girl.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

Now, this makes Hagar sound conceited, but according to Mesopotamian customs at the time, if you had more than one wife, one wife could not enslave another. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that this is a bad idea, especially when a slave girl like Hagar is now able to claim that she is the mother of the heir to the entire household. If she is a bit puffed up, its obvious why. This person has gone from being a nobody to somebody, the mother of the heir is also the slave to the wife that did not produce an heir. Do you see how tangled the situation is?

Notice again, Abram’s next mistake, he avoids stepping in and making peace:

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.

She abused Hagar and Abram like so many know about it and did nothing. So, this young pregnant girl ran.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.”

This is difficult advice. The angel recommends a path that while it is not adviceable to any abused person today, it will be effective at winning Sarai over and thus allowing her baby to be born and cared for.

How many mothers work terrible jobs or endure terrible circumstances just to provide for their families? Sometimes this is the only option.

 10 The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.” {She is given Abram’s promise, God has included her in his plan]

11 The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,[a]
for the Lord has heard of your misery.
12 He will be a wild donkey of a man;
his hand will be against everyone
and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
toward all his brothers.”

The blessing is two edged. She is now the mother of a great nation, but God knows this nations will have its problems. This is describing the harsh and militant way of life the Ishmaelite Bedouin live, often at loggerheads with Israel.

13 She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “[El-Roi] You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” 14 That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered.

15 So Hagar bore Abram a son, and Abram gave the name Ishmael to the son she had borne. 16 Abram was eighty-six years old when Hagar bore him Ishmael.

2. Hagar’s Story, the Second Part

The story continues. It says that when Abram was 99 years old God appeared again to Abram and made a covenant with him. He changes Abram’s name to Abraham. From “Exalted Father” to “Father of Many.” God again promised Abraham an heir through Sarai, renaming her Sarah. After this a bunch more happens, and the story picks up in Chapter 21.

Sarah has a son, she calls him Isaac which means laughter. You can tell these is so much joy in her words, but the celebration is bitter sweet.

Another son means Ishmael is not the heir anymore. Hagar has lost her rank.

Ishmael is on the verge of being a teenager (there is some ambiguity as to how many years have in fact passed), and one day it appears that Ishmael teased young Isaac.

The competition between Sarah and Hagar that was dormant for a decade resurfaces and Sarah urges Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away.

Abraham again concedes and seems to get a message from God that they will be okay.

So, he sends them out of the camp.

But without much water, Hagar and Ishmael started to die of heat exhaustion in the desert.

15 When the water in the skin was gone, she put the boy under one of the bushes. 16 Then she went off and sat down about a bowshot away, for she thought, “I cannot watch the boy die.” And as she sat there, she began to sob.

17 God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What is the matter, Hagar? Do not be afraid; God has heard the boy crying as he lies there. 18 Lift the boy up and take him by the hand, for I will make him into a great nation.”

19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. So she went and filled the skin with water and gave the boy a drink.

20 God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. 21 While he was living in the Desert of Paran, his mother got a wife for him from Egypt.

That is a round about way of saying that God came through for Hagar.

This is a story in the midst of life.

The people in this story a deeply imperfect. Abraham seems like a patriarch that is easily swayed. Sarah is desperate, competitive, then conceded. Hagar swings from arrogance to abused.

Mothers competing to make sure their children have the best in life. Their kids security is their security. We all understand that. God understands what a mother goes through.

According to statistics it is getting hard to be a mom these days.

Today, 40% of women who have children under the age of 18 are the primary breadwinners in their family. In 1960, that figure was only 11%! And while 92% of mothers were married in 1960, today only 69% are married.

This means in many cases, moms today are working harder and still their job at home remains the same.

And mothering is heard work: The average mother will have changed approximately 7,300 diapers by the time her baby turns two years old.

Parent life can be stressful: worrying about money and work; worrying about kids school. Are they playing with the right kids? Are they getting good grades? Do I help him with his homework enough? Are we having enough family time? Is my marriage working?

I have not met a single mother today that does not subject herself to grueling, unfair expectations. The judgment and worry, this picture in their heads of being super mom, the worry that they just aren’t good enough.

How Hagar’s Story is Our Story and Hagar’s God is Our God…

This is where this story – this ancient story from a time very distant from ours, from a culture very different from ours, from customs very different – ends up having something to say that is true of our God then as now.

First: Pregnant Hagar, alone, on the run, at the end of her rope, has God appear to her. She does not know what to call this God, so she calls him, El-roi, the God who sees me.

Our God sees what you are going through. Our God understands the struggles that you endure. Our God knows every little sacrifice you make, every thankless deed of goodness and kindness. He feels the same long-suffering love, because that is the same love he has for all of us. Our God sees you.

Second, Our God is a God who keeps his promises, who comes through in the end, who does not fail.

Hagar, who was forced to leave her home, her security and status, all for the safety of her son again, when she is near death and the situation is so hopeless, she lays her child down at a distance because she cannot bear to see him die before her, God in the last moment, shows up again.

He reveals a well for them to drink and revitalize themselves. He comes through on his promise of bring them to safety. The story ends with Ishmael becoming an archer, which is the ancient equivalent of having your son become doctor or something.

Hagar was not Abraham’s first and chosen wife. She was not in the covenant. We will tackle what election means in a few weeks. And this is the remarkable thing. Abraham did a foolish thing having a child with Hagar. He did not trust God, neither did Sarah. When it all went South and Abraham again did not do what was right, God still came through. God in his grace blessed Hagar.

Even though Isaac would be the chosen one from whom Israel and the church would come, God chose in his surprising grace to also bless Ishmael.

God blesses un-expectantly and over-abundantly. He comes through in the end.

The sign outside of our church says the prayers of our mothers are still being answered.

I have often said, I think one of the many cool things we will see in heaven is how our prayers all got answered. And we know our mothers pray long and hard for us.

They pray that we would be healthy. They pray that we would make good choices. They pray that we will succeed in life and find happiness. Our mothers of faith pray that we will come to know the lord.

Can we trust again that God is the God that comes through? He answers prayer. He keeps his promises. He does not always answer them right away or answer them the way we expect. But he does answer them.

Our God is the God that sees us. He is with us not against us. He gave of his life, in the Son, to save us. He will never leave us or forsake us. He will provide, sustain, empower, heal, restore, redeem, and vindicate for he is our father and we our his children.

Let’s pray…

God’s Way For Us To Deal With Worry

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Some of the most important sermons a pastor can preach, as I have learned, are the ones that were written for himself. Today’s sermon was written for me. I needed this sermon this week. Undoubtedly, you might need to hear this word too.

In the 1930s, Hans Selye, an endocrinologist (that’s a doctor that looks at hormones in the body), was the first doctor to name perhaps a term that is sadly a pervasive term in our modern way of life:  stress.

He was the first to realize that humans can have physical reactions to emotional worry. We are psychosomatic unities – that’s the technical way of saying that what happens in our minds and hearts effects everything else.

Before Selye, doctors treated people like machines. We are not machines. Selye found that worry can do all sorts of things: cause illness, abdominal pain, insomnia, etc.

I think Selye’s point implies the solution too: If worry over the world can cause physical stress, peace in Christ can bring us out of stress. What’s in our heads affects our bodies and what is in our hearts affects our heads.

As we rest in who Jesus is, we have peace in the face of worry.

What advice does Scripture give for those facing worry? Let’s look at Philippians 4:4–7:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

1. “Rejoice at all times”

I will say it again rejoice! We need to remember that when Paul wrote this he was in prison, awaiting trial. Paul would eventually suffer the death penalty for being a Christian. He was not unaccustomed to difficult circumstances. He had a lot to worry about and nothing but time to worry.

In Acts 16, Paul is recording as being stuck in prison, beaten and threatened with death, and yet, he sang songs of joy. It bewildered the prison guards. Those prison bars could not contain his joy. Being beating for doing the work of the Gospel could not get him down. It brought him up.

Yet he says rejoice at all times. Why? Was it because Paul was such a positive person?

Jesus said to his disciples in Luke, “Rejoice because your names are written in the book of life.”

Paul similarly says, “because Jesus is near.” He is close to us.

For Paul, no matter what has happened or is happening, Jesus Christ has risen from the grave.

Jesus Christ is with his people in his presence and love.

Jesus Christ has given him eternal life.

Knowledge of our salvation means we can greet every moment as the gift that it is, even if it is full of challenges. Every moment, even the worst of moments, are still moments with Christ.

Worry fundamentally detracts from the truth that every moment is a gift.

“Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow; it only saps today of its joy” – Leo Buscaglia

2. In times of trouble, be gentle.

It says, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.”

Why would Paul go from talking about rejoicing to exhorting gentleness?

Anyone who goes through stress knows why: When you are stressed, when you have worry, you are irritable. You are on edge. Additional problems, even small ones, can push you over the edge. Then you dump your frustration on someone.

And so, Paul encourages us to be gentle. Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.

Perhaps you have a stressful job, so you bring the stress home. Perhaps you have a stressful family life, so you bring it to work. Perhaps you take your stress out on your spouse; perhaps it is on those that work for you. This is why Paul emphasizes having gentleness on everyone. If you have one person you treat as a whipping boy, that is not true gentleness.

Are you gentle to others when your stressed? Or do you use stress as an excuse to treat people worse? People are really irritable when they drive. They also in thought aren’t all that gentle to people that, for instance, cut them off.  If I am driving somewhere, and I am running late. If I get cut off, I don’t know what it is, but I automatically assume the person that did that is just the worst human being in the world. Do you do that too?

Here is the thing. I’ve caught himself driving, whether I miss a sign or something, and accidentally cut someone off. I give myself the benefit of the doubt. “I hope they knew I was in a rush or lost or something.” That’s a double standard. Anyone ever thought that?

Our world, our lives our messy and unpredictable. That is why we need to trust God’s grace and that is why we need to be gentle with each other.

Why have grace and gentleness on others? Paul gives another reason: Jesus is near to us. Jesus is our cure for worry, bringing us to joy. Jesus is also our model: in times of worry, be gentle like him.

Why should you be gentle in times of great trial? Because that is how Jesus responded to the anguish of the cross.

The worry of being betrayed, of being tortured, of being put to death by the most excruciating means possible by that day, – all with the possibility that the greatest tragedy would be for him to seek to preserve his life and fail in being obedient to the father’s will.

Jesus sweat tears of blood in the garden. Yet, his response to an unjust arrest was to heal one of his attackers.

His response to false accusations was honesty and even silence.

In the midst of people killing him, he had the gentleness to pray for their forgiveness.

Jesus knows a bit about what worry looks like, and in that chaos he was truly and perfectly gentle.

Gentleness gets portrayed as a vice of the weak in our fast-paced world. Be a shark, a go-getter, not a push-over. Be ruthless and assertive, not humble and selfless. Gentleness is synonymous with the cowardly.

But there is nothing more powerful in the world than gentleness.

3. Don’t Worry…Pray

Do not be anxious [or don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God

I remember one of the worst times of worry in my life was just after my father died when I was in college. I felt lost. I could not find a job (he passed right at the beginning of the summer, when you go and hunt for student jobs). I was back on rent. I remember eating just cans of tuna for dinner, because that is all I had to eat.

I remember enrolling in school for the fall at Heritage College, and thinking to myself, if I don’t get OSAP, that is a government student loan, I don’t have a way of paying for my education.

I got a job working at Tim Horton’s night shift. That was kind of depressing too. I had graduated with my undergrad and beginning a master’s degree and the only job I could find was a Tim Horton’s night shift position. Night shift is either busy in all the ways you don’t want it: dealing with drunk people that wander in wanting coffee to sober up or it’s the opposite: It is mind-numbingly quiet. That made me worry about my future.

All of it gave me a terrible sense of worry. I remember working away always having this heavy felling in my chest. I remember not being particularly hungry because my stomach always felt wrenched. This is what stress can do, as I said. We are holistic beings and what happens in our heads effects our bodies.

I learned a few things about financial stress. First is that when you are stressed out about money, you realize just how little in your life is actually necessary.

The opposite of rich is not poor. It is simply enough.

Second, I was reminded of the blessings of community. When I was stuck doing these really lonely nigh shifts, one thing that was really nice was that I had a few other friends that worked nigh shifts at other places: grocery stories and at a hotel. We would get together. He didn’t do much since there is nothing open late at night, but we just had fun together.

We would go for walks and talk. Since I would sleep doing the day and be awake at night our days were nights. We would walk around at  3 or 4 in the morning. It almost felt like you were in an apocalyptic movie scene. The city was so still: not car on the highway. I ended up finding it very peaceful.

Third, oddly when we have nothing, we can have moments where we feel far from God. Where are you God? – but also closeness with Christ. Christ had nothing in this life. He was a traveling preacher that did not own any land. He lived in poverty. He merely trusted his Father.

It is bizarre, but we can greet difficult instances in life with a similar mentality. Oh shucks…now I have to realize that I was always completely dependent on God anyway!

Some situations of worry are merely situations presented to us to emulate Christ.

What do you worry about? What is your biggest worry? Can you accept that as an instance where – just like the rest of life – we are totally dependent on God anyway?

Do not be anxious [don’t worry] about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God

Now, I have learned as a husband that saying to my wife, “Don’t worry” does not really help when my wife is worried. It does not help to say to a sad person, “Be happy!”

Just saying you should stop worrying is often completely unhelpful. You can try to will yourself into not worrying. You can try to distract yourself, which is just suppressing worry that is still there. Or you can do something that dissolves the worry.

Paul recommends prayer.

Have you brought your worries before God in prayer?

Sometimes when I worry I forget to prayer. What is the use of prayer?

“…by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” It can be translated more literally as, “make known your requests to God.” That is an odd way of saying it. God is said to know what we need even before we ask, so why does Paul speak as if God does not know here?

Do you have important news and you realize there is a pecking order to who first should find out and how should hear it directly from you rather than someone else.

If my brother or sister found out Meagan was having twins through the grapevine, they would be insulted. Why? Relationship demands communication.

God knows what we need, but he wants to hear it from us. He loves listening to us. He wants to be close to us. He knows that the very act of committing that thing you are worried about to him in prayer, is itself a solution.

“The answer to prayer is prayer itself” – P.T. Forsyth

Often we come to prayer wanting the world to change, but then we realize prayer changes us.

If you want the world to be at peace, your soul has to be at peace first.

If you want the world to become more loving, your soul has to be filled with love first.

The only way your heart is going to be any different from the world that it is in is if it is in a restored relationship with God.

My dad taught me a saying, “When you start worrying, you stop trusting.” The only way to trust more first begins in praying more.

4. You will have peace

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

I love that image that this peace guards us. Like an umbrella in a rainy day, like a shield against arrows, God’s peace in us guards us.

I remember being stressed out in college about my father passing, about money and not having a job and not knowing what to do for school.

I distinctly remember sitting on the porch of the house I lived at. I remember praying and slowly giving every worry over to God. In the midst of all of it, I remember thinking, one way or another, I know I am good. One way or another, God is still good. One way or another, life is still good. One way or another, I will always keep following Christ’s way of goodness.

I remember feeling that peace that passes all understanding. I remember the heaviness in my chest lifting. It was like a pain killer just kicked in (only better!), it was so dramatic.

Have you experienced the peace of God that surpasses all understanding?

Like I said, it is only thought prayer. Have you given your problems over to God?

Have you committed to following him no matter what? A clear conscience is peace of mind. Paul says this peace will guard your heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Paul is talking in the context of serving God here. As you commit to following Christ – knowing that this is better than any other way – I think you will know a certain peace of mind and conscience.

So…

I am going to be a father to twins. Five kids.

There was a couple in my church in Bradford who had twins. I remember thinking, knowing that twins have to usually run in the family: “Jeez, I’m glad that won’t happen to me!”

Or we knew a family of five kids. I remember thinking, “Those people must be crazy.” I am going to be one of those people now.

I was at the house Tuesday, working on the sermon for this Sunday in my study, when Meagan called me from the ultrasound. She was really flustered. “Are you sitting down?” My heart sank. My immediate gut-instinct was that there was something wrong with the baby.

When she said, “we are having twins” I remember my stomach wrenching. I paced around my house bewildered.

I immediately texted my pastor-friend, Jason Tripp. Back in April, just after we found out that we were having a baby, but we had not told anyone yet, he texted me saying that he had a funny dream in which  we were having twins. Isn’t that freaky? I had to ask him, “Did you happen to see any winning lottery numbers in the background as well?”

I had to ponder the meaning of all this.  I was not so uncritical as to see it as a prophesy at the time, but perhaps God was just trying to warm us up to the idea in advance. God was just trying to remind us that this is apart of God’s plan.

That still does not stop you from worrying though.

Are we going to need a new van? How are we going to fit all these kids in our house? If it wasn’t noisy enough!

How am I going to balance work and home with Meagan?

Meagan had a midwife appointment right after that. Apparently at the midwife, the midwife told stories of woman who decided to have more kids expectantly getting chastised by their friends for not having abortions.

We live in that kind of age. But like I said, if our God is a God of life, then the most peaceful way of living is a way that embraces life. If life is a gift, in the biblical mindset, we cannot help but greet even unexpected instances of human life as something to cherish and celebrate.

It did not take long for my worries to turn to rejoicing. But it was not till later that night where peace really set in. I remember siting on my back deck late at night thinking. The stars were out. I was doing some reading. Reading often calms me down. The whole occasion continuously moved me into conversation in prayer.

I remember sitting there in the peace of the night feeling that peace that passes understanding.

You know what, with God, we are okay.

Father, I know that this gift of life is from you.

Father, I know that it is a blessing.

Father, I know that doing your will is the best way to live.

Father, I know you will take care of us.

That is how I overcame worry this week: Rejoice, be gentle, know that Christ is near, pray, and be at peace.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. – Romans 15:13

A Prayer for the Quebec City Mosque Shooting

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Father in heaven,

We stand in powerless awe at the reports given to us of a shooting in a mosque in Quebec City, struck by the perhaps arrogant surprise it has happened to us, in one of our cities, but to them, in their own place of worship.

We are grieved at these acts of violence against your Muslim children, our neighbors, people made in your image, worthy of dignity and protection. We lament the particular depravity of a mass shooting happening in a place of worship.

Comfort their families; heal those in hospital; have mercy on the victims. Protect all Muslims as we work together to build a nation of empathy, co-operation, understanding, and peace.

We are shocked that a new intolerance has infected our nation. May your mercy be on the shooter to lead him to repentance. Let not our anger drive us to towards vengeance, but the true justice of restoration and reconciliation.

Lead us also to repentance for any hatred or lies about our Muslim neighbors that we in moral laxity or fear have held. Forgive us for building cultural walls of “us versus them,” which have contributed in thought and attitude to this heinous crime. We are a people of unclean lips. Our fears of the violent intolerance of terrorism so often have made our souls into ugly mirrors of what we detest.

Forgive us for we have been disloyal to our true nation, our true citizenship. As we cling to other loyalties before the lordship of Christ, we realize now that we privileged white Canadians are not a religion of peace! Build in us true religion that “acts justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly” with you. Tear down our false gods of nationalism, class comfort, and religious arrogance so that you may build the kingdom of heaven, which knows no borders, refuses all violence,  permits no ignorance, and encompasses the full diversity of your family and the full reach of your mercy.

May all come to know the mercy of your Cross.

May all come to know the Cross by its mercy.

May we take up our crosses to be that mercy in our broken world.

Until the day when your mercy is revealed in full, we pray in Christ’s name,

Amen.