a proper stimulus: the word, tradition, scholarship, and pastoral reflection

Having internet access and many books, probably best not in that order, but probably in that order in our practice, can be helpful to provide a stimulus for the body of Christ, to help us do the works of service to which we’re called.

We need to be in the word, and tradition, both. The word, scripture, is the final authority, but an authority dependent to some extent in its outworking on tradition, the church, by the Holy Spirit.

We benefit from good biblical scholarship feeding tradition, the church, whether or not we delve into it ourselves. It shapes how we approach scripture, and through that, all of life.

Pastoral reflection is just as serious in the mix of what we humans do in response to God’s revelation, as anything else. In fact the shaping on the human side goes both ways: the insights we need from scripture are best worked out in a church setting, in the church itself. A good pastor, and good theology is reflective of listening to God’s voice and seeking wisdom and direction within the context of real life, and the community in Christ, the church, is the kingdom in which this life takes root and bears fruit.

I have been a word person, but not enough a person of the church, though I’ve always either attended or have been a part of one, so that it has rubbed off on me, or at least has been present in the good ways that come from the Spirit.

What we need to realize is the reality and importance of the stimulus, and we could say stimuli which God provides for us in Jesus. We need to acknowledge what already affects us in that, and deliberately take it in all the more, with an emphasis on the word of God and prayer. All of this together, in and through Jesus.

the prayer of examen, an essential, neglected part of true prayer

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139

Ed Cyzewski, an evangelical contemplative, talks about the prayer of examen, and centering prayer being essential for contemplative prayer, a practice that can help us pray, and deepen our faith. For those who tap into, and seek to sink deep into the riches of this tradition of the Church, this can be quite helpful, indeed revolutionary. But for those who stick to scripture only, and their own tradition, simply to acknowledge the importance of asking God to search our hearts based on Psalm 139 is sufficient. I think we should receive from tradition, while holding to scripture as our primary authority. Really, that’s a complicated issue by itself, since scripture gives the church much authority in Jesus, by the Holy Spirit. But that’s another topic.

A major purpose of prayer is to change us, not just change circumstances. Real prayer is transforming, itself a humble admission of who we are, our need, and God’s goodness and greatness and promise in Jesus. But our prayers can often be less than prayer. We shoot out cheap prayers, while intending to go on our merry way. Hoping God will change our circumstance, or some situation out there, but with no intention of change in ourselves, or corresponding heart. As Jesus said in quoting from Isaiah, people can indeed come to God with their lips, while their hearts are far from him. Dangerous, ritualistic prayer, empty religion.

We are welcomed to throw up prayers of desperation to God (see the psalms). Sometimes dire circumstances can end up being a help in awakening us to faith, and out of that can come genuine change. But in the normal everyday grit and grime of life, even when things might seem to be going well, we do well to begin with what tradition calls “the prayer of examen.” Here is a brief description of it.

This kind of prayer takes some time along with attentiveness on our part. We simply don’t send it God’s way, then go on to our normal daily routine. On the other hand, it’s a good prayer to pray in the midst of our busy lives. But to have times of quietness before God with such a prayer is what is called for. Along with that, simple consistency in doing this, perhaps at the end of each day, that might be optimum. But indeed, regularly. As we see in the prayer, we can imply that God would reveal what we need to see about ourselves, certainly God knowing all in the first place. The petition is simply that in this, God would lead us in the way everlasting.

This isn’t merely for our good. The prayer of examen will change us so that we can better be a blessing to others: blessed to be a blessing. All of this in and through Jesus. And so we close where we begun. May it be our prayer today, and a regular part of our praying.

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139

a call to prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

Colossians 4

The older I get, the more necessary I see prayer. For us in Jesus, it ought to be as natural as the air we breathe, and yet there’s an aspect of it which is difficult.

The church has talked about contemplative prayer, which I think of as simply being present before God. It is not so much engaged in words ourselves, but really being present and attentive before God, whatever might happen from that. Here’s a good post on contemplative prayer. I have grown to see the importance of simply being present with others, knowing I’m inadequate in myself to even help myself, much less them. But being there, and how God is often somehow in that. And just really being present can be helpful to others. When it comes to us and God, it’s often like God is just an aside, and even in our prayers, God is simply the one we come to to fix the problems, and bail us out, and what not. But that our hearts are not really with God. God is actually present and at work in love in our lives. And wants us simply to be present before him. Maybe this is the greatest kind of praying, or the start of true prayer. There are many kinds of prayers, so it’s not like contemplative prayer is the end-all, be-all. And while God does value our faith in prayer, what God wants is simply us, in all of our brokenness and sin. And that we would learn to want to be before him, first and foremost, more and more, each day.

Other kinds of prayers exist (Ephesians 6:18), as we see from scripture. For some reason, God wants us actively involved for others, and for ourselves. God both wants us, and he wants us to be advocates of his good will. We endeavor to pray according to that will, and we ask for God’s intervention in situations, as well. Believing that our prayers can make a difference in both changing us, and others, as well as somehow even changing circumstances. We don’t have, because we don’t ask, according to James. He follows that by saying, and when we do ask, we don’t receive, because we pray selfishly, or for fleshly endeavors, which means our hearts are not right before God (James 4). But in whatever state we’re in, we need to learn to resort to prayer sooner than later. In and through Jesus.

against paralyzing fear

Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.

1 Peter 5

The most often repeated command in scripture is to not be afraid. I often carry with me nagging fears about this or that, but ordinarily relatively benign. Like the need to replace a non-functioning turn signal, or check to make sure the roof is not leaking. Even those can have a cumulative, wearing effect on us, so they do need to be addressed, even if the solution is simply to let it go as not worth the trouble. The big problem comes when fear wins over faith, when the fear we’re experiencing all but knocks out our faith.

In the passage above, a lion can gain advantage over its intended prey by paralyzing it with fear. Just a long enough hesitation can be all that the lion needs to pounce on it for the kill. Paralyzing fear is a sure sign that it’s not a legitimate fear, but one to be rejected. And that involves nothing less than spiritual warfare, even as we see from the text above (and see Ephesians 6:10-20). After working through that, we might be able to find some legitimate underlying fear, which we can take care of.

Faith in God certainly doesn’t preclude responsibility on our part. A good example of that is when the devil tempted Jesus with the words that he should simply throw himself off of the top of the temple, depending in faith on God’s promise that the angels would be there to protect the righteous when they fall. Jesus countered that text taken out of context by the devil with the scripture: “You shall not test the Lord your God” (Matthew 4). Which means expecting God to deliver what God has never promised. In faith we depend on God without reservation. While in prayer, we do what we’re supposed to do, or what might solve a problem, and settle a legitimate fear.

In all of this, no matter what we face we must have faith in God. That God will fulfill his promises, and ultimately take care of everything. And in that process, help us make decisions, and ultimately grow in wisdom and in the likeness of his Son. Individually, but also together, in and through Jesus.

The United States and us fearful Christians

Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for.

….All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

….Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.

Hebrews 11-12

July 4 is upon us, this being the holiday weekend preceding it. And if there’s one thing for sure, so many of us, and I’ll include myself, are hardly past the election fervor, caught up in a presidency which may turn out to be the most polarizing in US history, aside from Abraham Lincoln’s presidency during those tumultuous and horrific Civil War days. Hardly any of us like what is going on in US politics, many for similar reasons, others of us for different reasons, some of the concerns being the same across the board. It is a difficult time for a good number of reasons in a nation which is not only polarized, but threatening to be on the edge of being torn apart.

The question on this post is this: When push comes to shove, just where does our confidence lie? What do we think will win and save the day, and why? And just why are we so upset and fearful?

This is not meant to be a critique of the United States, but there’s no doubt there have been seismic changes in society, and that the liberal, progressives have been all but dismissive of the conservatives. And there’s no doubt that the conservatives themselves have written off the liberals. You have few moderates, who by many would be seen as wishy washy and weak kneed. As far as I’m concerned, while I do have opinions about US politics, and especially concerning issues of the day, none of that matters in comparison to the main point of this post. While those things have an important and provisional place, they are not at all on par with what now follows.

We as Christians, and especially the older generation of us, which includes myself, and I plead guilty, we have lost our focus and therefore are weak in our faith, and weary, in danger of losing heart. Oh yes, there will be some who will fight to the bitter end either for the Democratic Party, or for the Republican Party, or their version of what they think America needs, and won’t seem to have lost any heart at all. They have a lot of hope for good, and to avoid what isn’t good through the federal, state and local government. And again, it’s not like that has no value at all. But we in Jesus are actually called to something else, even while at the same time we pray and humbly participate according to our convictions for the good of the state.

Our goal is something better, something much more. It is to be a follower of Jesus in whatever culture we’re placed, to announce and live out the good news of the kingdom of God in Jesus, in the truth that Jesus is King with the hope that follows. We should be those who are commended for our faith in God, both confident and assured that God will fulfill his promises come what may. And that includes whatever we may face in coming days, years, or generations, should the Lord tarry.

We need to quit thinking and from that acting as if all depends on what is happening or not happening in Washington, D. C., as hard as that might seem to us, for some of us for different reasons. Our eyes need to become fixed on Jesus, period, who shows us the way as the pioneer and perfecter of faith, and of course, is the way. Faith, plain naked faith, and I mean the faith that is in the God revealed in Jesus, that is what we live for, and if need be, die for. While at the same time we faithfully pray for those in government, and hope for the best for the nation, and the world.

That is our calling. This is what we Christians in America should be known for. In and through Jesus.

See Andy Stanley’s compelling message, Fix Your Eyes, which inspired this post.

 

living with unresolved tensions

Life is not only downright messy, but sometimes fraught with issues which may never be completely resolved. We would like to make everything as neat and tidy as possible, live without a care in the world, relax and enjoy. But what if we’re to learn to live content and at peace with unresolved tensions? And what if within that mix, we find empathy for the countless people who live day to day in difficult circumstances? Add to that the reality that even when all seems well, we know little of what might be under the surface. Tragedy is no respecter of persons.

We seek and try to apply wisdom to every situation which confronts us, doing the best we can, but realizing there just might be some tensions we’ll have to learn to live with. As we await the day when somehow all of that will be gone, and life will be a fulfillment of what we have begun to imagine here, but can’t completely envision, certainly beyond our experience. In and through Jesus.

the seeming uneven hand of God

There is no way you can live very long and thoughtfully, and not find the unevenness of life perplexing, even troubling. Why does life happen the way it does? In terms of circumstances, as well as in one’s lot. There are the crack cocaine babies, those born in places that have never heard the gospel, others having to flee their homes in war zones, not to mention atrocities from which people can never fully recover. That’s only the beginning of what we could say. I’m sure the list could go on and on.

Although we can’t say God caused these things—of course some would question whether God caused anything—the Hebrew Bible, First Testament attributes to God everything, since nothing can happen outside of his will. God could stop or prevent anything from happening. We could live in a different world. Everything would make sense to us in that world. No one would tell lies and mislead people. No one would harm people for their own self-interest, or who knows what for?

I have experienced plenty of blessing in my life, but like everyone else, I live under the curse (Genesis 3). The world is far from an agreeable place to live if one is going to take out the fairness, justice card. This is much more the case for some people other than myself, people whose progeny have suffered injustice over generations, and who still do to this day. And the syndrome that comes with that; there are some things most people never gets over at least in the way of shaping them, sometimes actually in good ways.

Turning to scripture can help us here. I think particularly of the story of Job. It is a great help in looking straight in the face the unevenness of the world, and the seeming unevenness of God. Life is messy at best, and traumatic or even catastrophic at worst.

This is where faith comes in. Do I believe in God, even in a good God in spite of the fallout of life? Do I hold on to that belief for dear life, in spite of my numbness, and even anger, in spite of unresolved questions and the reality which flies in the face of easy answers, and wooden empty platitudes? Yes, in the midst of it all, someone can say Romans 8:28 instead of simply being present with us and praying. A handy out for them, it would seem, even if they are completely sincere and only want to help.

But looking at life as it is, we do need to get back to the bedrock of our faith. We need to look both at the details of scripture, and to the gospel, the good news in Jesus. God’s ultimate answer is Jesus, and the cross. How everything shakes out in the end is with reference to that, and how God is at work in the present, as well. We do well to lay hold of the promises of God, like in Proverbs 3:5-6 with that in mind. And as Job would remind us, mystery is a major player, as well. Who can understand what only God can fully understand, if the God of the Bible exists?

Life is uneven now, but there is God in Jesus. We need to stop there, no matter what. That is where we need to take the broken, shattered pieces of our lives, our own brokenness, indeed, ourselves. And in prayer, others, as well.

We look toward an end when all will be grace, flourishing, shalom. When the end will make good sense, even if we never do understand fully what preceded that. All of this always in and through Jesus.