Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Monks and Ordinary People

It sure would be nice to always feel close to God, wouldn't it?  I think we all would like that.  A long time ago, people who were especially passionate about connecting with God took a drastic step, to
live in a mountaintop, desert, or island 'retreat.'  Some lived in monasteries and convents with vows of silence, as a way to hear from God.  They created daily routines of prayers and readings and hymns, and discovered tools to stay more connected with God.  The impression grew up that these were 'the holy elite,' as though the only way to spiritual living was to become a monk or nun.

I'm glad to say the Lord invites all of us to connect deeply with him, and there aren't any 'elite.'  Paul tells us in Romans 12:2, "let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect."  He wrote those words to ordinary people living in Rome -- the hotbed of immorality and evil practices -- without telling the people to 'leave civilization behind' and live elsewhere.  So if Romans can participate in spiritual transformation, all Christians can!

Those who lived in retreats learned, of course, that "wherever you are, you take yourself with you" so they still had the same personal sins and weaknesses, and still had to let the Lord transform their thinking and emotions.   Like craftsmen create tools for woodworking, dozens of different practices were discovered by these people, as they were led by the Holy Spirit to surrender their shortcomings and problems to God.  And what they learned can help us! 

Would you like to feel more connected with God, more often?  I'm going to write a series, off and on, highlighting some of those ancient and effective practices.  I'll learn by distilling and writing about them, and I hope you will learn too.  May the Lord bless our journey together! 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Success: Listening and Obeying

How much of 'success' is hard work, and how much is a gift from God?  A lot of people quote the old proverb that success is "10% inspiration
and 90% perspiration" which leaves the real effort up to us. Is that really it? 

A story might help illustrate.  The Lord promised Abram in Gen. 15:4, “you will have a son of your own who will be your heir” and verse 6 says that "Abram believed God."  The Lord sent Abram a vision as part of a covenant ceremony (described in the rest of that chapter) so that should have sealed Abram's belief.  But, several years later, Abram still didn't have a son.  Sarai, his wife, thought she had a solution, by having Abram father a child by her slave Hagar -- that was an accepted practice in the culture, so perhaps Abram thought it was a good way for the promise to be fulfilled.  But if you read further, you realize that wasn't the Lord's plan, and Hagar's pregnancy just complicated life.  It would have been simpler, perhaps, if Abram had stopped to ask the Lord if this was what he had in mind. 

Most of us have no trouble admitting we need divine help for the really tough parts of our lives.  But we tend not to ask for help with everything. That's not wise!

A friend of mine asked me to pray that he would rest his problems on the shoulders of the Lord instead of trying to carry them himself, and that's wisdom straight from the word of God:
"Trust God from the bottom of your heart; don’t try to figure out everything on your own. Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go; he’s the one who will keep you on track."(Proverbs 3:5-6, The Message).  And I was reminded the same thing while meditating, when the Holy Spirit asked me, "So, do you really think your solutions are better than mine?  Is that why you get up some days and start trying to handle problems without humbling yourself in prayer and my words to you first?" Ouch...

To really "listen for God's voice in everything" means taking the whole day to him before it starts, responding to challenges slowly enough that we have time to listen to him, and letting him have the last word.  That's tough for us self-starters, but it takes less time to listen and make the good decision the first time, than to go fast and then have to do it all over because we didn't listen.  How about deciding, once and for all, to listen to God first, every day, about everything?  He will direct us!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Bilbo and the Fishermen

Gandalf interrupts Bilbo's quiet morning
The new Hobbit movie is a beautiful work of film-making.  This morning I saw a parallel
with the work of Jesus -- probably intentional, because Tolkien wrote Christian themes into his extended allegory about good and evil in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  This story involves Gandalf the Gray, whose character is the Christ figure in the trilogy, and Bilbo, a stay-at-home hobbit quite content with his life.  Gandalf shows up uninvited one day on Bilbo's doorstep, and turns his life upside down!

Gandalf's other guests -- a dozen dwarves -- show up soon, and while eating every bit of food in Bilbo's well-stocked pantry, debate the adventure they are beginning, to reclaim their lost homeland from a dragon.  Their lurid descriptions confirm Bilbo's determination not to be an adventurer.  Finally, though, his curiosity draws him into this crazy journey, where growing comradeship mixes equally with life-threatening surprises. (Disclaimer:  this is not an endorsement of the movie, nor your excuse to drag your unwilling friends or family members to see it "because the pastor said it was good."  It includes a lot of fantasy, fighting and conflict, and it's rated PG-13.  Just so you know.)

I've been reflecting recently on Luke 5:1-11, where Jesus invites some fishermen on an adventure that is just as different from their previous life as Bilbo's adventure was to his.  No nice, safe house to come home to at night, no certain meals or bed, await these travelers.  Rather, they are told they will "fish for people" -- whatever that is supposed to mean -- and to go on the adventure, they have to leave everything else behind.  And so, amazingly, they do!  Just like Bilbo. Their reward for helping Jesus reclaim their homeland -- the whole earth, terrorized by sin and the original dragon, Satan -- isn't gold and jewels, but eternal life beginning now, (1 John 2:24-25) and a "crown of righteousness" (2 Tim. 4:8) in the future. 

And, the same kind of adventure, discipleship with Jesus, exists for us as it did for the original 12, and for Bilbo and the dwarves, even though it might not mean going to a Roman prison, or fighting your way through a cave full of (I won't spoil the movie if you still want to go see it).  We still have to sacrifice, to learn as we go, and to have a great need for faith in our leader, as we journey.  There are times it won't be comfortable, and we won't know what's next; but Jesus is always with us, and HE knows what's next, so that will have to do.  Oh, and one more thing -- the same reward Jesus promised the 12 disciples is given to every single one of us, and is the destiny of all humanity!  Let's get started, together!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

What Is God's Name? (Part 6)

The Bible names God as three Persons:  Father, Son and Holy Spirit; yet some scholars and
lay people feel those names are inadequate or wrong.  I hope this series of questions on this topic has been helpful to you!  Here's one more question:  doesn't the Bible talk about God in terms of feminine or motherly actions?  If so, why can't we call him Mother instead of Father, or Father/Mother?  There are good reasons to delight in the motherly traits described of God, yet still to call him Father.  (In this post I'm indebted to Peter Toon's work Our Triune God: A Biblical Portrayal of the Trinity.)

Let's look at one example, and then the principles involved.  Isaiah 66:13 says "I will comfort you...as a mother comforts her child."  Does this say God is a mother?  The word-picture here is a simile, where one thing is said to be "like" or "as" something else, for illustration, but the language is always of comparison, not literal statement, and nowhere is God named as Mother.  There are others scriptures, such as Deut. 32:11 and Isa. 31:5 where God is described like a bird hovering over a nest, caring for and protecting its young (Jesus uses a similar picture in Mat. 23:37), but nowhere does the Bible say God is a bird. 

God is described as Father in three ways.  First, in simile, as in Psa. 103:13, where God is said to have compassion for his children like a physical father.  Second, as a metaphor in the Old Testament, where he is described as the Father of a nation (Jer. 31:9) or a king (Psa. 2:7).  Third, Jesus reveals God as his own Father (John 3:16) of whom he has full knowledge (John 1:18 etc.) and reveals the Father to us (John 12:49-50).  "Father" then is not something we decided on and projected upward to God, but "this is God's self-revealed name and what it means is revealed by the One who is his 'Son' and by the One who is his 'Holy Spirit'" (Toon's words here).  This is no longer a metaphor but a revelation of the very name of God in Jesus' own words to us.  

Isn't God described as our Father also?  Yes, because we are brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father; but not through a separate relationship.  Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters (Romans 8:29, Heb. 2:11), and because he said so -- not because we became so on our own -- we are also the children of the Father.  

To conclude the series, then, we see that if we trust the Bible's words as accurate, we see God calling himself Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and we are not free to name him otherwise.  If we are uncomfortable with those ideas, or a masculine-sounding context (never to be identified with gender in the human sense!), then it is we who need to examine our hearts and open them to God, as he is already open to us through Jesus.  Solo Dei Gloria -- to God alone be the glory!

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Free Indeed!

Luke 4:18-19  "“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free,
 and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come."

Jesus quoted from Isaiah to state the purpose of his ministry (setting all humanity free), but they have
a parallel in our nation's history.  January 1, 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, an executive order of President Lincoln, declaring freedom for some of the enslaved peoples in the United States (the proclamation was limited by politics and the ongoing war).  Nevertheless, Lincoln's proclamation was the first domino to fall that caused the end of slavery in the United States. 

There's another parallel.  All slavery was outlawed by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, and all humanity is declared free in Christ.  Yet illegal human trafficking still occurs in this country.  And many do not know, or understand how to live in, their freedom in Christ, so they feel they are still enslaved by their sins, or under God's judgment. 

Jesus said "
So if the Son sets you free, you are truly free" (John 8:36) and I believe him more than I believe myself!  So how do we live in our freedom in Christ?  First we have to believe we are free.  Believing God means letting him change our thinking:  "Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect" (Romans 12:2).  Notice, it's surrendering our self-will and letting God change us -- not getting up the gumption to change ourselves so we can present ourselves to God already changed, because he is the only one who can truly change us anyway! 

Living in that freedom every moment of every day comes from knowing the will of God, as Paul said.  That leads us back to (no big surprise) spending time in the word of God and in prayer, along with other tools of spiritual formation that we know and practice.  And notice, these spiritual tools only work if we believe Jesus has truly set us free -- otherwise we keep trying to obey without faith, and that's a legalistic dead-end, spiritually fruitless.  (If you have any doubts about that, re-read the book of Galatians, especially chapters 3 and 4.) 
The freed slaves had to learn a new life -- how to make good decisions, think about the future, and care for their loved ones -- challenges created by their new freedom.  Christian discipleship, including the process of spiritual formation, is the exercise of learning to follow Christ in our spiritual freedom.  Let's make that spiritual formation a major goal in 2013 as we walk together in Christ.