“FILLED WITH THE KNOWLEDGE OF HIS WILL”
The Revd. Ed Hird
The Revd. Ed Hird was ordained in 1980. He served in the parishes of St. Philip’s, Vancouver, and St. Matthew’s, Abbotsford, before becoming the rector of St. Simon’s Church in North Vancouver in 1987. He has been active on a number of committees at the diocesan level. Ed is the past National Chair of Anglican Renewal Ministries Canada, and has spoken at Renewal, Essentials and Prayer Book Society conferences in Honduras and in various locations across Canada. Inspired by the Essentials movement, he recently re-introduced the Prayer Book as one of the two main Sunday services in his parish, with significant growth resulting.
We live in an age in which the knowledge of God’s will is deemed by many to be either unknowable or irrelevant. Our society reminds me of the story of the roving TV reporter who was sent out to the shopping malls on Saturday morning to investigate the problem of teenage apathy and ignorance. Every teenager had the same response: “I don’t know and I don’t care”! And to be fair, teenagers are not the only Canadians suffering from spiritual ignorance and apathy. I remember an adult coming up to me after a sermon I preached in a previous parish. This person said, “I’m totally shocked. I have never made it before to the end of a sermon. I would always just doze off and wake up at the end of the message. But this time I actually heard it through to the end.”
This problem of apathy and ignorance can be traced back to the ancient disease of Pyrrhonism. Pyrrhonism is a system of skeptical philosophy, expounded in 300 BC by the Greek thinker, Pyrrho of Elis.1 The heart of Pyrrhonism is the denial of all possibility of attaining certainty in knowledge. All one is left with is the classic west-coast phrase: “Well, whatever works for you”. With the collapse of confidence in objective truth, our Canadian culture is sinking in intellectual subjectivism and moral anarchy. A few months back we saw a Canadian judge strike down child pornography laws while claiming that our Canadian Constitution and our Charter of Rights somehow protect the possession of child pornography. We live in an age where there “is no king and everyone does as they see fit.” (Judg. 21:25). We live in an age of leadership crisis. It is not just our politicians, our police officers, our school teachers, our military leaders. Even in the Church, yes, in our Anglican Church, there is a profound leadership crisis that is crippling our corporate ability to get on with the task of making disciples of all nations. Perhaps the never-ending “sexual politics” in the Anglican Church of Canada is really a symptom of a deeper leadership crisis at the core of our beloved Church.
More than ever, we in the Canadian Anglican Church need to discover afresh what it means to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and given the power to carry out that will. As J. John at the Canterbury ‘98 Conference put it, “We only have enough time to do the will of God”. So many of us in the Church are like Martha whom Jesus said was distracted by many things, but missing the main one of sitting at Jesus’ feet. One of the many things I appreciate about the Prayer Book Society is the clarion call to prayer. The Prayer Book Society is not a Colonel Blimp English Memorial Society.2 Rather it constitutes a mobilization of God’s troops to the sacred calling of spiritual warfare through sustained and intensive prayer. If there is anything that we know about God’s will, it is that God wills that we “pray without ceasing”. Let’s be honest. How many of us need to cut back on our prayer life, because it is getting in the way of doing God’s will? Despite any fears that prayer will make us so heavenly-minded that we are no earthly good, the truth of the matter is that only the prayerful and heavenly-minded are ultimately any earthly good. The late Mother Teresa of Calcutta was a living testimony to the intimate relationship between prayer and resulting action.
It is not without reason that the Apostle Paul calls us again and again to “devote ourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (Col. 4:2). Prayer is the backbone of all lasting renewal. As Dr. E. Stanley Jones, the famous Methodist missionary to India put it, “there can be no great spiritual awakening either in the individual or in the group unless and until the individual or the group give themselves to prayer.”3 Dr. Jones goes on to say: “When we feel that there is something wrong and that it is all ending in futility, instead of giving ourselves to prayer, we appoint a committee! If a monument”, says Dr. Jones, “were erected over the dead situations in Christendom, we might inscribe on it ‘Committeed to Death’. We call a committee instead of calling to prayer.” It has been said that the 16th century Reformation began in Luther’s prayer closet. The truth is that all reformation, all renewal, all restoration begins in someone’s prayer closet. Quoting Dr. Jones again, “we find sooner or later that in prayer we either abandon ourselves or we abandon prayer. Prayer will keep us from self-withholding or self-withholding will keep us from prayer.”4
I would encourage you, if you have your Bibles with you, to turn in the book of Colossians to Chapter One, which deals with one of the greatest prayers in the New Testament. I believe that it would be presumptuous to try to improve on the New Testament prayers. Rather, our goal as 21st Century Anglicans should be to model all of our prayers on the biblical pattern of prayer shown especially by Jesus and the Apostle Paul. I remember my rector, Ernie Eldridge, telling me that one of the great strengths of the Book of Common Prayer is that something like 80% of it is straight from the Bible. The prayers in the BCP were written by people who were steeped in the biblical thought forms, and so produced biblically sound and lasting prayers.
Paul is writing here to a formerly great and flourishing city that had been in a recession for the last three to four hundred years. Colossae, whose name means “Monstrosity”, had become a backwater no-name town that had been left behind in the busy pace of 1st century Greek life. Its neighbouring towns, Laodicea and Hierapolis were well-known respectively for their financial and administrative prowess, and for their burgeoning tourist and hot springs industry. They, like Colossae, were located on the River Lycus, a river famous for overlaying its surrounding river banks with thick deposits of chalk. As Bishop J.B. Lightfoot put it, “Ancient monuments are buried; fertile land is overlaid; river beds choked up and streams diverted; fantastic grottoes and cascades and archways of stone are formed, by this strange, capricious power, at once destructive and creative, working silently throughout the ages. Fatal to vegetation, these incrustations spread like a stony shroud over the ground. Gleaming like glaciers on the hillside, they attract the eye of the traveller at a distance of twenty miles, and form a singularly striking feature in scenery of more than common beauty and impressiveness.”5 In some ways, Bishop Lightfoot’s description seems like a parable of the Canadian Church … beautiful, impressive, but calcified and choked up by double-mindedness and fear.
Paul had never personally visited Colossae. Rather, he preached extensively in the coastal city of Ephesus, with the result that his new converts spread the gospel extensively to many lesser-known cities and towns that were further inland. There is a remarkable similarity between the books of Ephesians and Colossians, especially in the structure of Paul’s prayers in both epistles. In both Colossians and Ephesians, Paul centres his prayer in thanksgiving. You will notice in verse 3 how Paul says: “We always thank God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you …”. In a structure similar to that of the Lord’s Prayer, Paul pays the debt of gratitude before he moves into his personal requests. “Thy kingdom come” needs to come before “Give us this day our daily bread.” In the Alpha Course, Nicky Gumbel says that the three key prayers that we can pray are “thank you”, “please”, and “sorry”. Back in 1931, Bishop Lewis Radford of Goulbourn, Australia commented regarding this passage that “a survey of the grounds for thanksgiving revives the spirit of hope, and provides fresh material for petition.”6 The Christian life is not a life of Pollyanna-style positive thinking, but rather that of eucharistic thanksgiving in all circumstances, trusting that God can turn everything that is against us to our advantage, that all things work to the good for those who love him.
Why was Paul so thankful? Verses 4 and 5 tells us that Paul was thankful because of the great triad of Christian graces: faith, hope, and love. So often when Paul prays, he prays according to the three-fold pattern of the only things that will remain in the end. Faith: their faith in Christ Jesus; Hope: hope stored up for us in heaven; and Love: love for all the saints. As Bishop J.B. Lightfoot put it, “faith rests on the past; love works in the present; hope looks to the future”.7 Does the Prayer Book Society, indeed does the Anglican Church have a future as we celebrate the 450th Anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer? I believe that the answer to both questions is yes, if we will ground our Christian life more and more on the three-fold graces of faith, hope and love. I will always remember Dr. Robert Crouse’s presentation at the Montreal Essentials ‘94 Conference when he spoke of “despair, that most dangerous of all sins.”8 Satan, the ultimate deceiver and seducer of God’s people, is a past master at the use of discouragement and despair in crippling the saints. He would love us to believe that the Anglican Church in Canada is beyond hope, that there is no point in praying and working for the restoration of biblical orthodoxy.
The good news found in verse 6 of Chapter 1 of Colossians is that “all over the world the gospel is producing fruit and growing”. Lambeth ‘98 was a powerful reminder of that truth with the hundreds of Asian, African, and South American bishops making their presence felt in unforgettable ways. The gospel, as Bishop Lewis Radford put it, is both a transforming force and a travelling fire.9 It is a fire that cannot be stamped out no matter how hard secularists and revisionists may try.
Recently over 600 churches were involved in an interdenominational outreach covering southern B.C. 1.8 million dollars were donated by Christian business people so that the stories of Canadian Christians could be shared on the media. The ads were very sensitive, low-key, and Canadian in content. Yet the CBC, at the last minute, turned down $25,000 worth of communication because the messages were pro-Christian. This is the same Crown Corporation that is happy to take money for Mormon commercials and yet rejects mainstream Christian messages while moaning about not having enough money for CBC programming. Our nation has very quickly moved from valuing its Christian heritage to intentionally excluding it in the name of inclusiveness. I am sure that you all know about the federal government bureaucratic edict that forbade Christian clergy, in the name of inclusiveness, from using the New Testament or mentioning the name of Jesus at the Swiss Air funeral service. Despite the fact that most of those tragically killed were self-identified members of Christian churches, and although the Koran was allowed to be read, Jesus’ own words were censored. We can thank our Lord Jesus Christ that he will always have a faithful witness in Canada, even if someday it may require missionaries from Africa and Asia to come and re-establish the gospel in our own homeland.
Verse 7 tells us about Epaphras, the founder of the Church at Colossae. Some early church traditions make him the first bishop of Colossae.10 Verse 7 describes him as “our dearly loved fellow servant”, as a faithful minister of Christ on our behalf. Both Paul and Epaphras were passionate that the Colossians should be filled with the knowledge of God’s will. Epaphras was so passionate about this that Paul commented in Colossians chapter 4, verse 2 that Epaphras was “always wrestling in prayer for you that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured.” The Greek word for wrestling is agonizomenos which means to agonize. It is God’s will that each of us agonize in prayer for the restoration of our beloved Anglican Church of Canada. Wrestling in prayer is the key to being filled with the knowledge of God’s will. That is why the Rev. Samuel Shoemaker, the Anglican priest who wrote the “12 Steps” and helped to found Alcoholics Anonymous, quoted Colossians Chapter 1 in writing step 11. What does Step 11 encourage us to pray for: “… the knowledge of His will for us and power to carry that out.”
What is the use of knowing what to do, if we haven’t the power to do it? What is the use of studying the Bible if we never do the Bible? What is the use of praying the Prayer Book if we never live out the Prayer Book? The key to doing the Bible and living the Prayer Book is Colossians chapter 1, verse 8: “love in the Spirit”. It is not the love of power that will set the Anglican Church free, but rather the power of love. Dr. Gordon Fee, the well known New Testament Scholar from Regent College, notes that virtually everywhere that the word “power” is used in the New Testament, it is referring to the power of the Holy Spirit.11 Only the Holy Spirit can give us the power to change. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the power to love. Only the Holy Spirit can give us the power to forgive. Verse 8 tells us the secret of lasting renewal: “love in the Spirit”.
In the early days of Anglican renewal, a bishop in northern B.C. fired his dean because some of his parishioners had had the nerve to pray that the bishop be filled with the Holy Spirit. If only they had just prayed for the bishop to be filled afresh or anew, the Dean might have kept his job. Why do all of us need to be filled with the Spirit again and again? (Eph. 5:18). The reason, as D.L. Moody put it, is that we leak. It is always touchy to pray for one’s bishop without sounding like one is trying to give his bishop advice. It is so easy for us to dump all our unmet dreams and frustrations on the back of our bishops. Yet God calls us to bless and not curse. God calls us in verse 9 to never give up praying for each other, and that certainly includes our bishops. Verse 9 is a wonderful way to pray for your bishop, your rector, and your wardens in a way that none of them could possibly object to. Just pray that God will fill them with the knowledge of His will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding. All of us need to be filled up, to be more full of God’s grace, peace, joy, hope, and faith so that we will be more full, more grace-full, more peace-full, more joy-full, more faith-full. The point of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22) is to fill us up inside with more of the character of Jesus Christ.
What will being filled with the knowledge of God’s will really do for us? Paul tells us in verse 10 that such filling will result in our walking worthy of God, in our pleasing the Lord in every way, in our bearing fruit in every good work, in our growing in the knowledge of God. Being filled with the knowledge of His will is the key not only to living in the Spirit but also to walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:25). As our AA friends remind us, it is not enough to talk the talk; we also need to walk the walk.
Yet all of us are powerless in ourselves to change our lives. In fact, no change is possible until we admit in the words of Step 1 that “We are powerless over our (addictions and sins) and our lives have become unmanageable”. The reason why “12 Step” people talk so much about a Higher Power is that our own power, our own resources, are never enough to make a lasting difference. We need, in the words of Luke 24:49, to be clothed with power from on high, the very power of the Holy Spirit. That is why Acts 1:8 says that “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you shall be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth.”. That is why Colossians chapter 1 verse 11 talks about our being strengthened with all power: in the Greek, “being powered with all power”, with all dunamis, all dynamite. There are logjams in our beloved Anglican Church of Canada that nothing but the power, the dynamite, of the Holy Spirit can possibly remove. All of us know many faithful Anglicans who have given up in despair and left our church, perhaps returning occasionally for their Communion “fixes”. When we think of the mother/father God/Goddess apostasy that our new Anglican “Common Praise” hymn book is leading us into, only the power of the Holy Spirit will be able to lead us out of that syncretistic swamp. Yet with God, nothing is impossible! Would anyone like to become the founders of a Blue Hymn Book Society of Canada?
Dr. E. Stanley Jones holds that “the difference between a river and a swamp is that one has banks and the other has none. The swamp is very gracious and kindly, it spreads over everything, hence it is a swamp. Some of us are moral and spiritual swamps. We are so broad and liberal that we take in everything from the shady to the sacred. Hence we are swamps. A river has banks – it confines itself to its central purpose. The civilizations of the world organize themselves not around swamps, but around rivers.”12
To me, the Book of Common Prayer and the Bible are rivers. The new Common Praise hymn book in contrast is a gracious and kindly swamp. The river that is the Holy Spirit confines Himself to His central purpose, which is to fill us with the knowledge of the Father’s will and to give us the power to carry that out. The Colossian Christians were a tiny, faithful minority living in a “new-age” spiritual scene. As with the original Colossian church, one of the greatest challenges facing our Anglican Church is well-meaning interfaith syncretism. In our worship of newness and inclusiveness, we are rushing to replace the riverbanks of our BCP with the neo-gnostic swamp of centering prayer/mantra yoga, enneagram workshops, labyrinths, Jungian-based personality tests, and invocations of “God our Father and our Mother”.13 Lord, forgive us for our naïve worship of the seemingly new and trendy, and for our disrespect for the wisdom of our Anglican forebears. Genuine renewal is actually about renewing the riches of our inheritance in Christ Jesus, not about uncovering secret “new revelations”. (Eph. 1:18)
Most renewal movements in the past few centuries, including the various holiness, pentecostal, charismatic, and third-wave expressions, can be traced back to the influence of two Anglican priests, John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism. Canadian Methodism was the largest of the bodies which came together to form the United Church of Canada in 1925. Few people realize what a high view the Wesleys had of the Anglican prayer book and of the Anglican Church in general. Even on the verge of being forced to ordain his own preachers, John Wesley commended the Church of England to his leaders as “the best constituted national church in the world”.14 John Wesley also taught his followers that “there is no LITURGY in the World, either in ancient or modern language, which breathes more of a solid, scriptural, rational Piety, than the COMMON PRAYER of the CHURCH of ENGLAND”.15 John Wesley did not just appreciate the Prayer Book theology. He even loved its language, language which he described as “not only pure, but strong and elegant in the highest degree.”16 John and Charles Wesley experienced manifestations of the Holy Spirit that would make the Toronto Airport Fellowship look tame, yet the Wesleys still held up the Prayer Book as a vital tool for orthodoxy and renewal. And John Wesley was even radical enough that he advised all his clergy to administer the Lord’s Supper every Sunday at the main service.17
As Dr. Bard Thompson put it, “It was the way of John Wesley to espouse extempore prayer, yet esteem the prayer book; to give free expression to evangelical power, yet prize the structures of the church …”18 Yet sadly Wesley’s wisdom was largely ignored. His followers decided that they could pray better and with more devotion when their eyes were shut, than they could with their eyes open, praying from a book.19 So they cast aside the Prayer Book and produced the United Church of Canada instead. Wesley drew the balance between the stability of tradition and the dynamism of the Spirit. His followers, however, became progressively less rooted generation after generation. It is so easy to cast aside “the riches of our inheritance”. It is much harder to humble ourselves enough to go back home and start afresh. I remember how hard I tried to convince my Grandma Allen to “get with it” and give up on the Book of Common Prayer. But she was so “stubborn and inflexible” that she died with the Bible and the Prayer Book by her bedside.
Our parish of St. Simon’s had not used the Book of Common Prayer at its main service for over 25 years. When I came back from the Montreal ‘94 Essentials Conference and suggested that we might try doing the Prayer Book on fifth Sundays, some of my leadership secretly wondered if I might have lost my mind. But eventually they came to see in unity what I was talking about. Reintroducing the Prayer Book as one of our two main services has brought 30% growth in average Sunday attendance over the last two years. I am not saying that it was easy to reintroduce the Book of Common Prayer. Many Anglicans don’t like change, even if it means restoring the riches of their inheritance. There are many well-meaning Anglican clergy out there who would rather die than admit they may have made a mistake in abandoning the classic Book of Common Prayer. Many clergy have battle scars from liturgy wars in the 1970’s and early 80’s. They have finally achieved relative liturgical calm in their parishes and they are reluctant to “open up old wounds”, and disturb the relative truce.
But God’s will for us as clergy is not merely for us to preserve the peace or to be keepers of ecclesiastical aquariums, but rather to be fishers of men and women. Our greatest desire as Anglican leaders must be our desire to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and to have the power of the Holy Spirit to carry it out. Why else do we pray every day “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done”. What is God’s will? The Bible is clear that God’s will, among other things, is that we go into all the world, preaching the gospel to all creation, and that we make disciples of all nations (Mark 16:15, Matthew 28:19). 1 Timothy chapter 2, verses 4 and 5 tells us clearly that God’s will is that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth, and that there is only one mediator, one bridge between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all. The leadership crisis in our Church is directly linked to a growing fuzziness of vision regarding God’s will that the lost be found. Many church leaders are beginning to publicly question whether the lost are really lost after all, and whether God really wants to find them. Unless we are convinced that the man Christ Jesus is the only mediator between God and humanity, and that he really gave himself as a ransom for all, not just for those raised in the church or in the west, we will not have the power to carry out this great and lasting commission. As Dr. John Stott put it recently at an Vancouver Anglican Essentials gathering, we claim uniqueness and finality in Christ alone.
If all we do is squabble about liturgical preferences and do not reach the lost, we are a people most to be pitied. The Book of Common Prayer is not an ingrown book. It is a book with a passion that the lost might be found. In contrast to the BAS, the BCP is clear that God wants us to win the world for Christ. The BAS, if you read it carefully, is written in a way that it can either encourage you to do evangelistic mission work for Christ or merely to affirm God in all cultures. The BCP, however, is uncompromising in its biblical stance that “God is not willing that any should perish but that all may come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9) As the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, said a while ago at Kanuga, “Evangelism is not a matter to be debated but a command to be obeyed.” God’s will, as expressed in Colossians 1 verse 13, is that he might rescue (many) from the dominion of darkness and bring (them) into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we might have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. We say each Sunday in the Creed that we believe in the forgiveness of sins. Are you sharing that forgiveness with your lost neighbour, family member, co-worker? I pray in conclusion that God may fill each of us with the knowledge of His will, that none should perish, that all may come to repentance, and that God may give us the power of the Holy Spirit to carry out his will to the very ends of the earth, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
- The Oxford Dictionary of the Church, F.L. Cross, ed. (Oxford University Press, 1957), p. 1128.
- Colonel Blimp was a humorous anachronistic figure in the British WW2-based television series “Dad’s Army”.
- Dr. E. Stanley Jones, Pentecost: the Christ of Every Road, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1930), p. 247.
- Ibid., p. 248.
- The Rt. Revd. Dr. J.B. Lightfoot, as quoted in Dr. William Barclay’s The Daily Study Bible: the Letters to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (Toronto: G.R. Welch Co. Ltd.), p. 91.
- The Rt. Revd. Dr. Lewis B. Radford, Colossians (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1931), p. 3.
- Ibid., p. 151.
- Anglican Essentials, George Egerton, ed. (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1995), p. 289.
- Radford, op. cit., p. 153.
- Ibid., p. 154.
- Dr. Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994), p. 35.
- Dr. E. Stanley Jones, op. cit., p. 227.
- As done in the Canadian Anglican “Common Praise” hymn book (1999), which tragically alters the much-loved “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” hymn from “God our Father, Christ our Brother” to “God our Father and our Mother”.
- Liturgies of the Western Church, “The Sunday Service”, ed. Bard Thompson, (Cleveland and New York, Meridan Books, The World Publishing Company, 1961), p. 416.
- Ibid., p. 416.
- Ibid., p. 416.
- Ibid., p. 416.
- Ibid., p. 416.
- Ibid., p. 410.