Making Time for God

How do you make time for God? Many Christians have a great desire to spend time with God, but it never seems to translate to action. Sometimes, we convince ourselves that we lack the time; other times we are simply unsure of where to start or even how to cultivate the desire for a devotional/prayer life.  We catch ourselves saying, “I wish I could start the day with an hour of prayer, but given my commitments that’s not very realistic,” or “I know I want to spend time with God but where do I start?”

Without guidance the whole issue of how to develop a prayer life can become bewildering.

So how does one go from barely reading scripture or praying; to spending a robust amount of time in prayer, reading, or reflection of some sort?

The simple, one word answer: repentance. A devotional life begins with needing to cultivate some desire for it. The surest way to cultivate an honest desire for God is repentance. You might ask, “Repent? For what?”

For everything, more specifically repent for our lack of desire for a devotional life. You may want to choose some phrases to help. Many Christians use the Jesus Prayer. “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner.” But other phrases from scripture or like in spirit can be easily used. A few examples:

  • The wages of sin is death.
  • Give an account for your management of the household.
  • Remember from what you have fallen, repent and do the works you did at first.

Cultivating a prayer and devotional life is a bit more akin to being serious about going to the gym or getting into physical shape. At first it’s going to be slow and hard work. You aren’t going to want to develop a prayer life. Instead you’ll find it comforting to go back to old patterns rather quickly. That’s why repentance is crucial. Repentance brings us back to our unwillingness to really cultivate our faith. The process of developing a prayer life will humble you and that sort of humbling is a key ingredient for living a life of faith.

After repentance you need to choose some set course of study or rule (set form for study). This is probably the hardest thing to do, especially in an age that values spontaneity and experience, at some point all of that feeling has to give way to a decision. The good news is that there are a lot of things one could do. There’s the Book of Common Prayer (here‘s an easy to use online version)  which has very set prayers for morning and evening. There’s also a whole host of audio prayer devotions, and scripture readings. Here is an audio devotional from the Jesuit tradition and here is a long listing of options from http://www.biblegateway.com.

Some elements that are worth looking for as you decide where to start. Look for something that has some scripture to work through or think about. Look for something that you will do in repetition. This is a key point. In the beginning your prayer/devotional life can’t really survive off of spontaneity. If you have to start with five minutes a day, twice a day, than that’s what you do. Like weight lifting start at something you can repeat and explore from there. A prayer life is something you cultivate and develop; it doesn’t just happen because you want it to.

You aren’t going to go from nothing to a robust devotional life in a short period of time. Realize that patience will be a key ingredient to cultivating a life of faith. So you are looking for something to build on.

Practice. Not just doing the devotion, but implementing the ideas and truths in scripture in your daily life.  Faith without works is dead. Devotion without practice won’t build up a life of faith. The scriptures have to be infused in your day to day life to strengthen your faith. It’s not enough to think about theology and about prayer and about scripture, integrate them with specific people and specific circumstances and you will find that your understanding of scripture and desire for a devotional life grows.

Faith comes by hearing and doing. A devotional life comes with cultivating a desire for it by living out what we learn.

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How Evangelicals Handle Wealth, Fame, and Mission

“Not by bread alone we live,
Thy good word our life shall be;
Not for all the earth can give
Shall we worship ought but thee;
Nor the word of promise bend
E’er to tempt our God in heaven;
Never for unholy end
Was the gracious promise given”
(Faint and Weary Jesus Stood by Walter C. Smith)

It’s in our human nature to assign blame. We want to know why something happened and who was responsible. This is true in our legal processes as much as within our own relationships and family life. If something has gone wrong someone is to blame.

These tendencies are amplified when your community is facing big challenges. Presently, evangelicals are facing big challenges. Very few evangelicals are looking at the future and seeing bright and vibrant possibilities for the evangelical faith.

People are giving a multitude of reasons for the declining influence of evangelicals. For those outside of the community the culprit is the right-wing politics. Evangelicals would be better off practicing their religion and leaving politics alone. In fact if evangelicals did this many outside of the community might change their judgments from negative to just quirky.

For those inside of the community the reasons tend to be legion, but there is a tendency to say that such things are happening to us rather than to say that we are causing such things. Without a significant unifying figure like Billy Graham many evangelicals are breaking into a kind of tribalism. With various people picking their favorite way of practicing faith or doing it the right way. This has spawned a whole social media industry of blame.

So, what has actually gone on?

Seek first the Kingdom and His Righteousness.” How are we doing with such a focus when it comes to wealth, fame, and mission.

There is a tendency for posts like this to descend into a sort of blame game as well. But I submit to you that God calls us to discernment not to sit in judgment of specific people. Ultimately judgment belongs to the Lord and such a thought should cause us each to tremble. I know it does for me.

As best as possible we want to keep our judgments sober, modest, and in line with helping to extend the mission of the church as it is united with Christ. With this kind of charitable spirit let us look at some hard issues.

Money

Perhaps there is no challenge greater in the present church than the role of money. Beyond the sermon to give generously we don’t talk a lot about money. Yet, our day to day is dominated by needing to navigate finances. Money can buy material goods and we’ve even developed a special term for when our relationship with money is going well: financial well being.

Pastors are not immune from how our society grapples with money. And you can see this play out in the life of the church. From lavish amounts being spent to make sure the church keeps pace with the business world or not enough being spent keeping pastors in unnecessary hardship. We run the gamut from pastors who charge exorbitant speakers fees and fly private jets to those who never save for retirement. In our community you would be hard pressed to say we handle money well. The words of Jesus come to mind if you can’t handle the riches of this world who will give you the riches of the kingdom.

Scriptures are clear you can’t serve God and money. Money is not morally neutral. It’s not what you do with it, it’s what hold it has on your life and ministry.

Without the proper spirit on money, money easily rules the life of many evangelical Christians.

Perhaps we have seen our witness squandered in part by the way we’ve handled ourselves with money. It’s one of the unspoken areas of church life. Money often determines our comfortability with risk in the kingdom, should it really be that way?

Fame

This is a harder one to talk about, but in some ways as pervasive as a dynamic as wealth.

We live in a celebrity culture and evangelicals are not immune from such tendencies. In fact many crave attention and recognition. The problem is that seeking fame is not the same as seeking the kingdom.

If one wants to seek fame they might actively brag about their access to the corridors of power and influence. Yet the kingdom is not impressed with such things. The riches of the kingdom surpass the riches of any temporary fame. The way of the cross and salvation is not the way of cultural glory.

We should hold those who embody a holy life in high esteem. If that leads to recognition so be it, but let us all be on guard for the temptation to seek recognition for its own sake.

Mission

Seeking first the kingdom means seeking those things of the Father in all places and at all times. It requires peace of mind, awareness, intense prayer, and a deep love for others. This should be what motivates our focus, when such things are lacking we are falling short on Christian mission and in some ways we should consider refraining calling things that don’t resemble Christianity, Christian.

Mission creep is certainly very present in the evangelical world. So let us return to a passion for the mission of the kingdom in all of its rich forms.

The point is not to just say see look at three areas that aren’t normally talked about it is to actually encourage a turn and repentance in order that we might more fully seek the kingdom.

Repent, turn, and actively turn from the old ways. This is true for me as for you. Don’t just say I repent demonstrate repentance with actions that match a truly turned heart. Ask what God would have you do even if it is sell half of your possessions to atone. Have sorrow for how things have happened and move towards the heart of the kingdom. Seek the true treasurers. Don’t wait the time is now. Amen.

Has Thanksgiving Lost Its Christian Meaning?

I love Thanksgiving. I love the time off and the time with family, but over the years I’ve noticed that Thanksgiving has not been too connected to much if any Christian meaning. Although there is a rich theology of giving thanks  to draw from, the holiday itself seems a bit a drift. For many churches Thanksgiving is that short break before the hectic programming of Advent and Christmas.

Origins of Thanksgiving 

Thanksgiving has a rich Christian tradition, a tradition that has been marked by the call for thanks, praise, repentance, and humility.

The first Thanksgiving proclamation was given in June not November of 1676 by the governing council of Charlestown, Massachusetts.  The text of the day is mostly focused on the relative success of their war against neighboring tribes of Native Americans. Simmering tensions between the various tribes of New England and the English had resulted in a 16-month war. The first Thanksgiving proclamation was issued towards the end of that conflict.

It is not a surprise that Puritans were the forerunners of days of Thanksgiving in America. They viewed God as taking an active role in the history of his people. So going back to the 1500s, various Puritan and other Christian groups held days of Thanksgiving (one of these celebrations in the early 1620s has become vaguely stuck in America’s popular imaginations) to mark special times and moments of God’s work among his people. This is itself an extension of the traditions of scripture, to mark special moments in the life of God’s people with thanksgiving and celebration.

This view may seem a bit odd to us present day Christians, as we are much more uncomfortable assigning special significance to national, regional, or even corporate events.

George Washington started us on the trajectory which would become the present day celebration of Thanksgiving when he issued a proclamation in early October of 1789.  The first national Thanksgiving Proclamation urged Americans to pray:

to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed

The emphasis on pardon for national sin and transgression is particular notable, if not uncomfortable for the present day reader.

Thanksgiving became a  truly national holiday in the midst of the Civil War. Regional days of Thanksgiving were celebrated through any number of states, but in 1863 Lincoln proclaimed a national day and issued this statement. Addressing his fellow Americans Lincoln also takes on the theme of repentance and sin:

With humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

Thanksgiving in its current form owes its legacy to legislation adopted in 1941, when the 4th Thursday in November becomes the official day of celebration. During that proclamation Franklin D. Roosevelt writes: 

Let us ask the Divine Blessing on our decision and determination to protect our way of life against the forces of evil and slavery which seek in these days to encompass us.

On the day appointed for this purpose, let us reflect at our homes or places of worship on the goodness of God and, in giving thanks, let us pray for a speedy end to strife and the establishment on earth of freedom, brotherhood, and justice for enduring time.

Present Thanksgiving Day proclamations have taken on a far less Christian tone, even from notable and recent evangelical Presidents. Consider this one from President George W. Bush. The President urges Americans:

Our citizens are privileged to live in the world’s freest country, where the hope of the American dream is within the reach of every person.  Americans share a desire to answer the universal call to serve something greater than ourselves, and we see this spirit every day in the millions of volunteers throughout our country who bring hope and healing to those in need.

And this one from President Bill Clinton:

Across this land as people gather together with loved ones to savor the bounty of the Thanksgiving Holiday, I invite each family, each religious congregation, each community and city, to celebrate your experience of the American heritage. Reach out in friendship and cooperation to the people of your hometown.

Shying Away From Thanksgiving

Although Thanksgiving has strong Christian origins it has a rather mixed reputation within the present day church. In part it is because we have a rather mixed, uneven view of the role of Christianity in forming American culture and political identity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the various strands of American life have given rise to many explanations and identities within the American experience.

Culturally speaking Thanksgiving has become that time when families gather and throw the football around. Families may or may not go through a process of giving thanks, though there is enough of an emphasis where undoubtedly some think about what they are thankful for. Politically speaking Thanksgiving has not had the same cache apart from a time of national crisis. Probably not since World War II has Thanksgiving taken on a national moment of thankfulness for provision through uncertain times.

Of late the holiday is all marked by the start of the Christmas shopping season. It is the weekend where you can get a jump start of the many hot item sales.

Revisiting Thanksgiving

751869707_757e710a89_zEven without the tie to culture and politics, American Christians ought not to resist re-Christening the holiday for the modern moment. A season to give thanks for provision and the goodness of the Lord is always right and good. A season for repentance and humility is also befitting a day of thanks. In the midst of joy and in the midst of pain, it is good and right to give thanks for what is given.

In that realm I offer this prayer for Thanksgiving:

Father God, the author of light and life we give you thanks for giving us the abundant life found in your son our Lord Jesus Christ. Grant us this Thanksgiving the eyes to see your goodness and provision in our lives. We thank you for our creation and perseverance. Lord we repent for our sins, debts, transgressions, and wayward tendencies. Have mercy on us Lord Jesus. 

In seasons of abundance or scarcity,  joys or sorrows, mourning or rejoicing, thanksgiving or grieving, we ask that you would help us trust you and know you most holy Trinity. In the days ahead grant us a deeper knowledge of you in our lives so that we might be a people set aside for your purposes in the world. We ask these things through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.  

On Remembering

One of the consistent themes in the Old Testament is remembering. Remember what I did in Egypt, remember what I did in the desert, remember what I did in the midst of you. Deuteronomy 11:2 has an even more interesting theme:

Remember today that your children were not the ones who saw and experienced the discipline of the Lord your God: his majesty, his mighty hand, his outstretched arm

Remember not only that I did these things, but that you witnessed what I did. Why? So that those who witnessed the work of God might have the strength to go forth and do what what was left to be done in their generation.  Deuteronomy 11:8:

Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess,

What role does memory serve in our own walks with the Lord? Why do we remember the great works and interventions of God on our lives? Why are we so prone to forgetting God? As the hymnist puts it:

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love

We are prone to forget that in Christ we are loved by God and accepted by him. We hear it so often but seldom let it into our hearts. When we don’t remember whose we are, we can not go forth and be restored. Our dismembered selves can not be healed and transformed into the new life and new humanity.

We need to strive and take time to remember and understand and know the work of the Lord in the fabric of our lives.

On Loving My Neighbor Well

One of the persistent themes for millennials tends to be relational isolation or lack of relational connection. Yes we have Facebook, twitter, and countless youtubes, instagram, skype, texting, and more, yet the basic problem remains. Are we known and do we know others really?

When you look at depression rates, a bad economy (high unemployment for millennials), gaming addiction, and more you realize that at our core our generation is a bit relationally isolated. Obviously this is not true for everyone, but I find very few millennials even the ones with old friendships are relationally satisfied.

In any case if you are still reading, I assume you can identify with at least some of these dynamics. To be loved and to know you are loved are one of the most basic human desires.

So if this is true, why don’t we find a lot of this sort of thing within the church? It is there, but it is not a universal experience.

I want to give you at least one way to look at, and that’s around the language of family and its disuse within the church. Consider the words of Jesus:

 “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50)

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34)

“I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” (John 15:15-17)

We know we are to love our neighbors as ourselves, where we have trouble is the application. Too often we love are neighbors in the abstract instead of loving our neighbors actually. Also we are not very intentional about the loving our neighbor aspect of faith. Loving God we think about a bit more fully (read the bible more, pray more, etc.), but loving our neighbor (umm…). Too often, we functionally love our neighbor by not confronting them with things that bug us about them.

So to open us up a bit more, let’s consider the language of family. Brothers, sisters, parents, and children. That’s the language the New Testament most often uses in relation to the church. Think about it this way, if you want to love your neighbor more fully think about loving them as a close relational brother or a close relational sister.

Something about the word family reorients our focus towards the family of God. Especially when we think of specific Christians not just an abstract concept. What would it mean to build the sorts of ties that put you in a more familial posture?

Obviously this is a bit of an imperfect analogy, but not by much or at least not as much as we might think. Our tendency when confronted with more concrete ideas is to explain them away. Instead of trying to wrestle with them on the terms presented.

So, here’s an exercise. Think about one or two people that you might want to build a more brotherly or sisterly relationship with. What might it look like to love them well?

This is not an easy process, it actually takes a long time and there is a fair amount of trial and error on how to do this, but unless there is some explicit intentionality it may very well not happen at all. You say but my neighbor is hard to love? They are too different?

Well put it this way. We don’t choose our biological family. We don’t choose our local community as much as we might think either. So try and work on your own heart first and trust God to make up the difference when it comes to trying to really love our neighbor well.

We are no longer simply friends or acquaintances but we are part of a family and a kingdom. It’s time we took that element of our life of faith a bit more seriously than we do.

I Renounce, the World, the Flesh, and the Devil

Our modern world has an odd obsession with the spiritual realm. We are fascinated by dark spiritual themes, everything from the more fantastical zombies and vampires to the practice of exorcism, demon possession, and things that go bump in the night.

It’s a pretty strange thing if you think about it, but interestingly enough the Christian church has a pretty solid response to this sort of spiritual evil.

Actually in every Lord’s Prayer, we pray “deliver us from evil.” And it may surprise many Christians to remember that in Jesus’ prayer in the gospel of John we find these words from chapter 17, verse 15:

My prayer is not that you take them out of this world but that you protect them from the evil one

Christianity doesn’t ignore manifestations of evil in the spiritual realm, but neither does Christianity give them an unhealthy focus.

Russian Orthodoxy teaches that a Christian who regularly repents, takes communion, and is in regular fellowship will never be harmed by evil spiritual manifestations.

Christians often recite “I renounce the world, the flesh, and the devil” during baptism and at times membership confirmation.

Christians don’t shy away from the inescapable spiritual dimensions of life but we focus on the primary things: repentance to Christ, communion with Christ, and fellowship with the bride of Christ (term used for members of the church).

How does this teaching help you think about the spiritual realm? Why do you think repentance is so key to the Christian life? How can you enter into fellowship with another Christian today?

May The Lord bless you and protect you in each and every way,

Alexei

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True Wealth

As a young man and a young Christian I wanted to discern the teachings of the church in regard to wealth. Wealth is a particularly important thing to a young, well-educated, and ambitious young man.

So I had my questions, Jesus wasn’t really against wealth was he? Did God really want me to sell everything and give to the poor? Did I need to take a vow of poverty, forsake retirement and health insurance? Surely there was a place for the American dream in the life of Christianity?

by Frederic Poirot used through flickr creative commons

by Frederic Poirot used through flickr creative commons

I still don’t have all the answers to these questions. What I eventually concluded was something like a Christian version of modesty when it comes to wealth. As long as you weren’t too attached and you gave, you had the right to pursue whatever you wanted.

My views were/are impoverished on a number of levels. I only recently realized that the passages on wealth are often juxtaposed against wealth toward God. Wealth for oneself versus generosity toward God specifically. Not just wealth in terms of money, but wealth in terms of time and commitment. Not just personal prayer and devotion but measured by generosity/attention towards the things of God. The everyday kindnesses, the keeping of commitments, the faithfulness, the kindness, love, and self-control. Or in other words everything pure, noble, true, and right. Not just in vocation but family life and recreation time. God even invades into ME TIME.

With all of life how generous are you towards God? What shapes your day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute? Do you use your own creativity to offer back to God everything under the sun? Are you rich in your generosity with the Father? Is your life filled with the richness of God?

Consider these words from Luke 12:15-21:

“Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.”

16 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest.17 He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’

18 “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. 19 And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’

20 “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’

21 “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”

Our wealth isn’t ours to use. Our leisure isn’t ours to use. Seek first the kingdom and everything else will be provided. In other words the promise is that everything you truly need and will truly desire will be fulfilled because of or in-spite of the circumstances. True freedom comes from the Father, not from anyone or anything else.

May the Lord cause you to be rich and generous with your time and energies towards those who have placed demands on you today (wife, child, friend, boss, etc).

In everlasting peace,
Alexei