Ep.128: The Care and Feeding of Sheep.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.  

In the final chapter of John’s gospel, the main characters are Peter and Jesus. Peter, probably thinking he disqualified himself as a disciple by denying Jesus, fired up his old vocation again by organizing an all-night fishing expedition with other former disciples, but they didn’t catch a single thing. 

Early in the morning, someone shouted a suggestion from the beach, that they try fishing on the other side of the boat. They did, and immediately their nets filled with fish. Someone counted 153. 

The voice that shouted advice from the beach was Jesus, and he invited them to a breakfast of fish and bread, cooked over open coals. Peter was glad to see Jesus. He must have experienced deja vu, remembering the time three years ago when Jesus found him fishing and said, “Follow me. I will teach you to fish for people.” Peter followed Jesus and loved him, but his apprenticeship ended with the disaster of denial. 

After breakfast, Jesus took Peter for a stroll along the beach. Three times he asked, “Do you love me?” and three times Peter replied, “You know I do.” Each time Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.” In his years with Jesus, the most important thing Peter learned was not the skills to be a professional disciple, but the love that grew in his heart for Jesus. Jesus was satisfied that that was enough, and he gave Peter his job back. 

Jesus also gave Peter a new promise, saying Peter would die the same way Jesus did, by crucifixion. No more denial in Peter’s future, only faithfulness.

I hope it was a comfort to Peter, as he went through life serving Jesus, to know that each day brought him closer to sharing the kind of death Jesus died. I’m not sure that would be a comfort to me. 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, like Peter we have felt your call on our lives. To fish for people. To feed your sheep. To love our neighbours. To serve your church. 

Like Peter, we haven’t achieved this. We want to build your kingdom, but we deny you. We want to build your church, but we end up arguing with sheep instead of feeding them. We want to become fishers of people, but we scare them away.  

Jesus, why didn’t you fire Peter after he denied you? Do you always restore and recommission fainthearted disciples?    

Jesus, even though the evidence for our love is weak and our denials are recent and strong, we say with Peter, “We love you.” We have no heart for our old vocation. Our years of following you have imprinted us with love. We are ready to accept as Peter did the way of the cross–your cross first, and ours to follow.

Jesus, we receive from you today whatever vocation you give us and whatever death will be our portal to life with you. Help us to feed your sheep. 

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.127: Psalm 55: Smooth Words and a Violent Heart.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

In Psalm 55, the poet is once again overwhelmed by trouble and doubt. 
– His enemies threaten him (v. 3).
– His thoughts trouble him (v. 2).
– His city is rife with violence and abuse (v. 9)
– His friend betrayed him (v. 13).
– He is overwhelmed with horror (v. 5).

Of his traitorous friend he says:
    His talk is smooth as butter,
        Yet war is in his heart.
    His words are more soothing than oil,
        Yet they are drawn swords (v. 21). 

The poet makes two responses to his troubles. His first impulse is to run away. He says,
    Oh that I had wings like a dove,
      I would fly away and be at rest (v. 6).
    I would hurry to my place of shelter,
      Far from the tempest and storm (v. 8).

I identify with that prayer. “God, don’t let it be my problem. Make it all go away. Take me to an island of peace far from the maddening crowd, far from the noise of the city, far from evil and distress. Help me escape the war zone that is my life.” 

The poet’s second response to trouble goes like this: 
     Cast your cares on the Lord
        and he will sustain you
    He will never let
        the righteous be shaken (v. 22). 

Let’s pray. 

Hear us, O God. Our thoughts trouble us when we consider the state of the world and the state of our nation and the state of our own hearts. We thought the bomb would protect our western civilization, but enemies use our technology to build their own bombs. We thought medical science would cure human disease, but viruses change and adapt, outwitting our best efforts. We thought psychology and reason and mood-enhancing drugs would create mental health and stability, but our progress is slow and uncertain. 

Like the poet we see poverty and crime in our cities, violence and strife, malice and abuse. Opioids made to ease pain have spawned an addiction crisis far worse than we could have imagined. Once-vibrant inner cities are violent slums. Lord, we want to escape the noise and confusion and evil. We want to fly to the wilderness, to a place of unspoiled beauty. But if we went there, would we take our evil with us? 

With the poet, we turn our hearts to you, saying,
    We call to God
      and the Lord saves us.
  Evening, morning and noon
      We cry out in distress
      and you hear our voice (vv. 16-17).

You see us, God. You hear us. You call yourself our father, you have adopted us as your children. Look on our world of violence and evil. Remember us when friends betray us, remember us when the public discourse is dishonest and dishonourable, remember us when our enemies plan violence against us, when
    Their talk is smooth as butter,
        but war is in their hearts (v. 21). 

With the poet we pray,
    Cast your cares on the Lord
      and he will sustain you (v. 22).
    But as for me, I trust in you, Lord (v. 23). 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.126: Resurrection.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.  

In John 20, Mary Magdalene was first to see the empty tomb and the risen Lord. Early Sunday morning when she went to the grave site, someone had opened the tomb. She hurried to tell Peter and John and they ran to see what had happened. They found the burial clothes in the tomb but no body. Peter and Mary were mystified, but John saw and believed.

The men left and Mary stayed at the tomb weeping. A man she thought was the gardener asked, “Why are you crying?” and Mary recognized him as Jesus.

That evening, Jesus showed up where the disciples were gathered and said, “Peace be with you.” Thomas, who was absent, doubted their report. A week later, Jesus showed up again and said to Thomas, “Touch the nail scars on my hands and the wound in my side. You too can believe.” Thomas replied, “My Lord and my God.” 

Jesus said, “You are blessed because you have seen and believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” 

Thus begins the story of Jesus’ new life, and the new life of Christianity. Mary and Peter were mystified, struggling to understand what it meant. Thomas was doubtful and unbelieving, wanting more evidence. Only John came quickly and decisively to believe what had happened. 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, when Peter saw your empty tomb, he didn’t know what to make of it. When you spoke to Mary, she thought you were the gardener. When Thomas heard the news, he said, “I won’t believe unless I see for myself.” 

And here we are 2,000 years later, mystified like Mary and doubtful like Thomas. Though we have not seen you, we have heard you call our name. You speak to us through the stories in scripture, you call us in the quiet of our hearts, you whisper our name by your Spirit, you are present with us in the community of Christians.

Jesus, we feel the weight of our modern western religion. A closed universe with no room for God. An evolutionary story with no room for miracles. A morality of independence and freedom, with little space for goodness and virtue. A scientific explanation for everything, with no place for mystery. O Jesus, this modern religion is shrivelled and cramped.

We look again to you. We see with Mary the empty tomb. We believe with John that life has invaded the stronghold of death. We touch with Thomas the nail scarred hands that point us to a new way of life. We believe with Peter that God’s kingdom has come to our time and space.  

Jesus, you share your kingdom with us, in all its mystery and faith and hope and love. Though we have not seen you, we love you, and though we do not see you now, we believe in you, and we rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory (1 Peter 1:8).

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.125: Psalm 54: Good Lord Deliver Us.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Psalm 54 follows a familiar trajectory. The poet has been attacked by his own enemies and God’s. So he asks God to remember his covenant, to deliver and protect Israel, to implement justice, and to crush the enemy. The poet combines his request with a strong affirmation that God hears him, and that God sees his pain and will deliver him. 

Is your response to this psalm like mine? I ask, “Haven’t we heard this psalm before? Hasn’t the poet prayed this prayer of desperation and deliverance many times? Why pray it again? Perhaps the poet’s life, like mine, is a recurring cycle of despair and hope, fear and courage, doubt and faith. 

In this part of the psalms, the poet repeatedly feels the weight of frustration and evil and opposition. Like living through a Canadian winter. The weather is cold, the days short and cloudy-dark, the nights long and frigid. Though I sometimes see a beautiful winter sunset or sun glistening on hoarfrost and snow, the dark and cold still provoke lethargy and dreariness. But I choose to live in hope. Each new day of winter is one day closer to robins and daffodils. The gray and featureless skies of February are a forecast of the sunny skies and white clouds in June. 

So we continue praying through the psalms, knowing that these dark days of Psalm 54 are but days on the journey to the psalms of praise that lie ahead. 

Today, in the spirit of Psalm 54, let’s begin praying for deliverance from the seven deadly sins, which are our enemies and God’s. 

Our father, we know the sins that so easily entangle us (Heb. 12:1). They are not just behaviors we exhibit but the motion of our hearts; they are attitudes of our life; they are deeply held perspectives we do not question. Free us from our sins.

We pray against lust. Save us from views of sexuality that disguise themselves as personal freedom–freedom to define own sexuality, freedom to be unfaithful to relationships we have vowed, freedom to create and view all manner of pornography, freedom to define sexuality as an amoral human activity that no one has a right to judge. Jesus, what we call freedom you call the slavery of lust. Deliver us from this web of sin.

We pray against the sin of gluttony. Two-thirds of adults in Canada and the U.S. are overweight or obese. Because of our emotional attachments to food, we are unable to eat in moderation. We love our junk food, the pantry is our closet of worship, the fridge our favorite solution to loneliness and depression. Our deepest comfort is that cup of coffee or that bite of chocolate. Lord, help us grow up, help us exchange our obsession with food for what the psalmists had–a rich emotional life with you. 

We pray against the sin of greed. We are lovers of money and hoarders of things. When we try to declutter, we fail because of our emotional attachment to stuff. O Jesus, help us lose our dependence on money and things, to grow in our love for you.  

We pray against the sin of sloth or laziness. How often we prefer our quiet comforts in front of TV or computer to the challenge of working creatively, helping a neighbour, or spending more time with family. How much of our life is wasted when it could be invested. O Jesus, deliver us from our laziness and from justifying our inaction. Help us exert ourselves in your service and the service of others.  

Bring us to a place where we can say with the psalmist,
    You delivered me from all my troubles,
        My eyes look in triumph on my foes (Ps 54:7). 

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.124: Crucifixion Day.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.  

When John 19 tells the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, it does not focus on the details of his torture. Nor does it interpret the meaning of his death. Instead, it quietly emphasizes four moments of revelation in the story. 

First, Pilate put a sign on Jesus’ cross that said, “King of the Jews”. The chief priests objected, “Don’t write ‘King of the Jews’–write that he said he was king of the Jews.” Pilate dismissed them, saying, “What I have written, I have written.” For John, the sign on the cross was not just a Pilate-sign, it was a God-sign because it stated in three languages of the Roman Empire that the man being crucified was king. 

As the soldiers shared out Jesus’ clothes, and as they cast lots for his cloak instead of ripping it into equal pieces, John saw another revelation. In his gospel, he quoted Psalm 22:
    They divided my clothes among them,
        and cast lots for my garment (John 19:24, quoting Psalm 22:18).
For John, the crucifixion was not merely an unhappy ending, perpetrated by Pilate at the insistence of the Jews. It was part of a greater story that started in the Old Testament and continued on crucifixion day, even as the Roman soldiers distributed Jesus’ last possessions. 

The third revelation John noted followed Jesus’ complaint on the cross, “I am thirsty.” The watchers responded by using a sponge on a stick to give him wine vinegar. John quotes Psalm 69 which says: “They gave me vinegar to drink” (Ps 69:21). There it is again: the story of Jesus’ torture is not a random event, it is part of a larger narrative predicted long ago, working itself out unexpectedly in Roman times. 

Earlier in John’s gospel, John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the Lamb of God. One of the rules for sacrificing a passover lamb was “Don’t break any bones” (Ex. 12:46).

On crucifixion afternoon, the Jews asked the soldiers to break the legs of the crucified, to hasten their death so the bodies could be dealt with before the Passover holiday started that evening. When the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, instead of breaking his bones, one of them speared his side, releasing a flow of blood and water. John describes this moment of revelation by quoting the Old Testament again, “Not one of his bones will be broken” (Ps 34:20), and “They will look on the one they have pierced” (Zech 12:10). It was important to John that the Jesus, the new Passover lamb, was killed without breaking his bones. 

With Jesus dead and pierced, the Romans let some compassionate Jews bury him in a borrowed tomb. 

Let’s pray. 

Jesus, John’s gospel invites us to believe that behind the story of your unjust and untimely death, God was telling a different story. Pilate’s cynical sign, “King of the Jews” was God’s sign that he was preparing a kingdom for you, Jesus. As the soldiers divided your clothes and the watchers gave you vinegar and your bones were not broken, we hear echoes of God’s hidden story. In your death as a passover lamb, God was preparing a passover feast for Jews and Romans and Greeks–for the whole world. Teach us to be welcome guests in the passover meal you serve.

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.123: Psalm 53: Is There a God?

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray with Me”. 

Psalm 53 is exactly the same as Psalm 14, except  for two words. Twice where the earlier Psalm calls God “Yahweh”, Psalm 53 calls him “Elohim.” 

The Psalm opens with a striking assertion:
    The fool has said in his heart,
      “There is no God” (v. 1). 

Nearly 40% of Canadians don’t believe in God or a higher power. Is Psalm 53 calling them fools? Let’s take a  brief look at atheism today and consider whether it is just foolishness.

Charles Dawkins, the popular British evangelist for atheism, says that as human thinking and civilization mature, superstitions and religions fall away. And we are left with a rational, empirical, evidence-based view of life, free from primitive notions of gods and demons and angels.

Charles Taylor, the well-known Canadian philosopher from Montreal, describes this as a “subtraction theory”. and says it doesn’t work that way. If you subtract superstition and belief in God from a worldview, what is left is not the rational system Dawkins describes. Rather, the modern western worldview has replaced belief in God with a belief that human reason and science and initiative are all we need to give meaning to life. The new belief can no more be proved than the old one.roved than the old one.

I think of it like this: if belief in God is a swamp you can drain, does draining the swamp leave you with a tidy bit of land where good stuff grows? Or has the subtraction of the swamp left a muddy and uneven place where new creatures and plants take over? Does draining the swamp of American politics create a just and reasonable society?

Charles Taylor describes today’s culture as “cross-pressured”. By that he means we have many options for belief. For example, fundamentalist Christians believe in God and in six literal days of creation. Fundamentalist atheists profess certainty that God is just a myth. The rest of us live in a cross-pressured space where sometimes it feels like faith in God doesn’t make much sense, and at other times we feel that science and modern culture have excluded the most important aspects of life.  

Here’s what Apple founder Steve Jobs said near the end of his life: 

  “I’m about fifty-fifty on believing in God . . . For most of my life, I’ve felt there must be more to our existence than meets the eye.
    “I like to think that something survives after you die,” Jobs said. “It’s strange to think that you accumulate all this experience, and maybe a little wisdom, and it just goes away. So I really want to believe that something survives, that maybe your consciousness endures. 

   “But on the other hand, perhaps it’s like an on-off switch: Click! and you’re gone.”

   Then he paused . . . and smiled slightly. “Maybe that’s why I never liked to put on-off switches on Apple devices.” (Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011), pp. 570-571, as cited in Smith, James K.A. How (Not) to be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor) (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), p. 13.)    

Let’s pray. 

Our father, it is a modern invention that we can choose whether to believe in God. The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” But we modern thinkers try not to think with our hearts. We try to weigh the evidence and form logical conclusions. But all of us–Christians, atheists, and agnostics–are  subject to doubt that we have concluded rightly. And we are never sure how much our heart and our hidden motivations influence the conclusions we draw.

Jesus, king of truth, touch our minds, touch our hearts, touch our souls, until we know and feel your presence, until we lose our endless speculations and doubts. Teach us to be still and know that you are God (Ps 46:10)

We conclude with Psalm 53:

    When God restores his people,
    we will  rejoice and be glad (Ps 53:6).

Amen.

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.

Ep.122: Pilate's Predicament.

Hello, I’m Daniel Westfall on the channel “Pray With Me”.  

Other than Jesus, the Apostles’ Creed mentions only two humans: the Virgin Mary and Pontius Pilate. It says, “Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”

Each Sunday in church,  it strikes me as odd that I name a Roman politician in my statement of faith. What does Pontius Pilate have to do with faith? Wouldn’t it be more helpful to focus on people who contributed to faith instead of those who undermined it? Mary, for example. Or Peter who founded the Christian church. Or the apostle Paul, who spread the faith westward to Rome.

Instead of defending or criticizing Pilate’s appearance in the creed, here’s how it impacts me as I repeat his name each Sunday. 

The first thing Pilate does is connect my faith to a real place at a real time in the real world I live in. Much of the Apostles’ Creed deals with big and invisible beliefs–God the creator of heaven and earth; the Holy Spirit, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the body. 

But when I repeat that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, it grounds my faith in the world I know. In Pilate’s system, politics trumped kindness. The empire he served dispatched worldwide suffering and injustice. Individuals like Jesus counted for nothing if they questioned the empire or rocked the boat. Pontius Pilate, Donald Trump, Justin Trudeau, Boris Johnson–all are pragmatists using their power to further their own interests, freeing some people and crucifying others. They take a convenient course, not a principled stand, as they work their way through conflicting demands of lawyers and lobbyists, fundamentalists and indigenous people, special interest groups and business. Pilate had a complicated job in a conflicted world. Just like the confusing world I live in today.

Pilate’s situation also brings out my sympathy with human weakness and short-sightedness. The Apostles’ Creed and the Gospel of John do not overtly criticize him. Instead, John presents him as a conflicted politician who found no basis for a charge against Jesus (John 19:6). He was worried about Jesus’ claim to be Son of God (John 19:7-8). But he was also worried that if he let Jesus go free, the Jews would complain to Caesar that Pilate was disloyal to Rome, that he permitted alternative claims to kingship. I sympathize with Pilate’s predicament and I don’t envy his choices.  

And Jesus is inexplicably silent before Pilate. When Pilate says, “Answer me please. Tell me who you are. Don’t you understand I can have you crucified?” Jesus only replies, “You wouldn’t have any power over me if God didn’t give it to you.” That’s not much help to Pilate the judge. He has nothing in his toolkit to tell him whether Jesus’ claims are religious fantasy or truth. Like Pilate, I often I come to a crossroads in life–feeling that behind the Jesus I speak with there might be an invisible kingdom and a world-changing power. But it often seems unreal and I’m not sure what to do.

Pilate’s place in the creed also warns me each Sunday about the danger of living by pragmatism instead of faith. Pilate didn’t have patience to sort out who Jesus was; he just wanted the Jews to shut up with their absurd religious arguments, to go away, and to quit bothering him. He ignored his unease about Jesus’ claims to be Son of God and king of truth. I face a similar risk: that I will ignore my unease about relationships and faith and duty, that I too will protect my comfort by letting the innocent suffer. Perhaps some day I will stand beside Pilate in the Guinness Book of Records as one who made the most pragmatic, the most opportunistic, and absolutely the worst decision ever.

Let’s pray.

Jesus,  how easy it is for us to believe that Pilate has the last word, or that the American empire has the last word. But when you suffered under Pontius Pilate you proved that God has the last word. The worst sins of empire, the most short-sighted political decisions, the most unjust judgement rates only passing mention in God’s history of salvation and in the statement of our faith. Jesus, you suffered under Pontius Pilate, and that suffering began the healing of the world.

Amen. 

I’m Daniel on the channel “Pray with Me”.