turning our attention to God

Scot McKnight has an interesting post on the gospel being focused on God, and John Walton on a podcast talks about something similar in his thoughts about the coronavirus and how the book of Job might direct our thoughts about that, not to some satisfying answer, but toward God, and from that simply trusting God in the midst of the mess. Which ends up being much more satisfying and stabilizing than even helpful answers.

So often when we approach Scripture, or think on life in general, it’s in terms of our own need, or the needs of others. And Scripture and of course the gospel address that over and over again.

But essentially in the end our attention is directed to God, and when it’s all said and done, we’re left contemplating God. And the sooner we get to that place, the better.

We need to become those who don’t look to God for God’s gifts, as if that’s all we need. What we need first and foremost is God himself. Blessings will come with that, but also hardship, just as we see over and over again in Scripture. We need to learn to turn our attention to God. And seek to be more and more transfixed there. In and through Jesus.

we become like who or what we focus on, what we love and hate

Why do the nations say,
“Where is their God?”
Our God is in heaven;
he does whatever pleases him.
But their idols are silver and gold,
made by human hands.
They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.

Psalm 115:2-8

A frightening thought today: but I think it’s psychologically, and far more importantly for me, biblically and theologically sound: We become like who or what we either love or hate.

First the easier, or more obvious: We become like what we love. I think of a man and woman who have been happily married at least a good share of their marriage for decades. They know each other practically better than they know themselves, and feel completely at home only in the presence of the other. They may have completely different personalities, but they believe they are one flesh in the holy state of matrimony. That may seem like a far fetched example, but there is a sense of awe and reverence for the other which ought to carry over into all of life. Akin to “the fear of the LORD being the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs).

We become like the one we admire. And who should we admire and esteem the most? Of course if there’s a god, than that god, at least you would think. We Christians reverence God and accept the love of that Triune God in and through Christ by the Holy Spirit. And Scripture tells us that we as God’s children through faith in Christ are being made more and more like Christ. We somehow through God’s work are becoming more and more the people we were created to be, no less than brothers and sisters in the very family of God.

But what if we don’t love God? What if it’s a love focused on ourselves, or someone else? Then either we, or whoever, or even whatever becomes the measure of everything. And the problem with that is that we’re all sinners. We are a mix of good and bad, beautiful and ugly, but somehow never measuring up to whatever good aspirations we might have. And often pursuing what is really not good at all, or is at least a waste. It ends up being the blind leading the blind, like sheep going astray, heading toward a dead end, or even for a cliff. Not good to say the least. We need God’s grace and salvation found in Jesus.

What about what we hate? We must beware here. Indeed we should hate all that’s evil, while we love all that’s good. But we must be careful lest in that hatred we become like the very thing we hate. In the passage above, people of olden times didn’t necessarily love their gods. In fact they often feared them in more like utter fright, believing them to be vindictive if they failed to meet their demands. And while we may not have those kinds of gods today, we do have figurative gods in their place that are every bit as real. The idol of ambition to make it to the top and maybe be well known. The idol of pleasing someone who or something that demands a loyalty that is both crushing and demeaning. Causing us to act in certain ways we never would otherwise. Whatever it might be, anything less than the God revealed in Christ and found in Scripture does not deserve any such place in our hearts and lives.

The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from thy throne,
And worship only thee.

William Cowper

Only God’s grace meaning God’s undeserved, unearned favor in the gift of Christ can make the needed difference in our lives. But even after receiving that grace, we must beware lest we drift back into our old ways. We must hold onto God’s grace in Jesus through faith. We must turn away from other things and keep our focus on Christ. In so doing we will be looking into the face of God. And will change from glory to glory into that resemblance beginning in this life, to be perfected when we see Jesus.

 

waiting for the change to come

“If only you would hide me in the grave
    and conceal me till your anger has passed!
If only you would set me a time
    and then remember me!
If someone dies, will they live again?
    All the days of my hard service
    I will wait for my renewal[e] to come.
You will call and I will answer you;
    you will long for the creature your hands have made.
Surely then you will count my steps
    but not keep track of my sin.
My offenses will be sealed up in a bag;
    you will cover over my sin.

Job 14:13-17

I’m not sure, but I like the NIV choice within the context here of “renewal” over “release” (NIV footnote). I would vote that direction, given the book of Job and its context. Job was wrestling through with a hope before God, but understandably feeling hopeless and in despair.

It is easy to despair when one considers their own weaknesses and shortcomings. And that can turn into a vicious cycle which actually feeds on itself and makes matters worse.

While I think I’ve experienced some substantial change over the years, I want more change in my life. It seems mostly all incremental, so gradual, so that it’s easy to miss any change that has occurred. And ironically the more light we receive and live in, the more acutely aware we are of the dark spots left in our character and conduct. Sometimes in just lacking what we wished we had, but too often in displaying thoughts and attitudes not worthy of Christ.

In the case of Job, and ourselves, that doesn’t mean there isn’t much good. Job was acknowledging his offenses and sin here, but he was a man of faith and good character, as we see from the entire book in the way he conducts his arguments, even if they may not be entirely blameless. It’s degree. Any misstep by those further along is more egregious.

I want to bracket this post dealing briefly with the charge that such considerations are mere navel gazing, just being all taken up with one’s character while not caring about the world at large both close and further removed. Can’t it be a case of being concerned with both? Actually in Job’s case he certainly was. He defended the cause of those who needed it, as we see from the book. A big part of the problems in the world is lack of character. And before we decry everyone else, we must see to ourselves.

The hope Job expresses is after this life. We know that when we see Jesus we’ll become like him entirely, since we’ll see him as he is (1 John 3). And somehow we’ll be completely open to not only reflecting that light, but being transformed by it. That actually does begin now insofar as we see Jesus by the Spirit through the gospel.

I look forward to my own change to come. I’m tired of myself, of my deficiencies. I look to God to help me grow in grace and in the knowledge of Christ. And I look forward to the day when all struggle in the way we do now will cease. My sins covered and removed, and with others set free to live completely in God’s love then by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

 

turn your attention, look to, and focus on Jesus

Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the festival. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.

John 12:20-22

Recently we saw what I think amounted to a good documentary on the life of St. Patrick of Ireland. I thought it dealt with what I have read and been taught about his life, evenhandedly and well, for the limited time it had, not including the myths that are either historically unwarranted, or can’t be substantiated. What I like best about it in retrospect, became apparent to me after looking at a popular (I take it) more like film, acting out his life. In this film, the actor playing Patrick was quite charismatic, I suppose, which is beside the point, because actually the actor playing Patrick in the documentary, surely would have been as well, if by charismatic we mean seeing the gift of the Spirit at work through his prayers and life. But if by charismatic, we mean a strong figure who attracts the attention of others, than that was every bit the Patrick portrayed in the film. He looked tall, rugged, strong, a face one could hardly forget, in command, one people would look to, and have confidence in, just because of his appearance. But the real Patrick, or the one that I believe is much more in keeping with what we know of in accordance with historical evidence, and from what we see about this in scripture, was humble, self-effacing, yet firm in his commitment to God’s call on his life. A broken vessel, sharing the gospel. The one as portrayed in the documentary.

Interestingly, in the scripture above, the Greeks didn’t care about seeing the disciples, or followers of Jesus. Or anyone else for that matter, it seems. They wanted to see Jesus. And Jesus surely wanted to see them, as well. But he thought of the great ingathering of Greeks and of all peoples that would take place through what he was about to do. This was Jesus’s response, and what followed:

Jesus replied, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.

“Now my soul is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!”

Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” The crowd that was there and heard it said it had thundered; others said an angel had spoken to him.

Jesus said, “This voice was for your benefit, not mine. Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die.

John 12:23-33

Jesus is the one we need to see. It’s not us, or someone else. Only, and forever only: Jesus. Through him we see God. And we see the one who wants to make us fully what we were created to be in what amounts to nothing short of a new creation in him. But it is never marked by our own greatness or goodness. Only his.

Our lives are only as good so to speak insofar as they point to Jesus. If people’s attention is turned to us, that’s not to their benefit in the least, but actually to their destruction. But insofar as we can see Jesus in someone else, that is wonderful, and what’s meant to be. But it is marked by the way of the cross. What we reflect on during this time of the year, as we look forward to remembering Jesus’s suffering and death for us, and the resurrection that followed.

“We would see Jesus.” Yes, me, too. In and through him. Amen.

feet on the ground, experiencing God

Thomas Aquinas who surely had many wonderful things to say, his writings still benchmarks, late in life had a kind of vision of God, or more precisely an experience which led him to think of all of the writing as of no value at all. He had glimpsed, and had been taken in to something of the reality of God in which words seem to fail. Just the opposite is true though, about what he had written. His ability to think and put his thinking reflecting on philosophy and theology into words was a gift from God, surely a great gift, and end up amounting to helping others in the way of the Lord, and in catching a glimpse of the Divine in this life.

For the most part in my own life, I plod along with words. I am a word person. I can remember when we were part of what is called a charismatic church, we had a great group of quite artistic, creative people. They were kind of known as Spirit people I suppose, while I was considered a word person. I try to constantly be in my Bible, in a lot of places with a small New Testament/ Psalms and Proverbs. With that and my coffee, I feel pretty much okay, even at home, at least grounded, or attempting to be.

In the Great Tradition, the beatific vision, and theosis are held in high esteem, the former realized in the life to come, the latter beginning in this life. And actually both correlate to what scripture teaches, even if some of the descriptions given from church fathers might lend themselves to some misunderstanding. The point for us here is that we look forward to living in God, in the vision of God in the life to come, but in the meantime, we begin to experience something of that in this life through the word and the sacraments, so that we become more and more like God, by becoming more like Jesus through the Spirit, all of this in and through Jesus.

In this life we seek the Lord, we even seek his face (see the Psalms), while at the same time, we keep our feet on the ground, regardless of what we are, or are not experiencing. So much of life involves a groundedness in the midst of, and often in spite of the many details of life: the ins and outs, and ups and downs which come our way.

So for the most part, I’m quite happy to be plodding along, trying to understand, trying to follow. But to have those refreshing seasons when the water is turned into wine so to speak, and I have a strong sense of the divine, is quite helpful. But I am probably wary of receiving too much of that, because most of where life is lived will not be there. Life can seem not only austere, but even troubling, and difficult at best, one just trying to hold on.

That is why we need scripture, and to simply keep on keeping on. Thankful for the glimpses and experiences of divine glory, but not looking for that. Rather, hoping something of that more and more pervades our normal down to earth, feet on the ground experience, day after day, together with others, in and through Jesus.

Dallas Willard on God wanting to be seen*

…God is, without special theophanies, seen everywhere by those who have long lived for him. No doubt God wants us to see him. That is part of his nature as outpouring love. Love always wants to be known. Thus he seeks for those who could safely and rightly worship him. God wants to be present to our minds with all the force of objects given clearly to ordinary perception.

In a beautiful passage Julian of Norwich tells of how once her “understanding was let down into the bottom of the sea,” where she saw “green hills and valleys.” The meaning she derived was this:

“If a man or woman were there under the wide waters, if he could see God, as God is continually with man, he would be safe in soul and body, and come to no harm. And furthermore, he would have more consolation and strength than all this world can tell. For it is God’s will that we believe that we see him continually, though it seems to us that the sight be only partial; and through this belief he makes us always to gain more grace, for God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.”**

Seeing is no simple thing, of course. Often a great deal of knowledge, experience, imagination, patience, and receptivity are required. Some people, it seems, are never able to see bacteria or cell structure through the microscope. But seeing is all the more difficult in spiritual things, where the objects, unlike bacteria or cells, must be willing to be seen.

Persons rarely become present where they are not heartily wanted. Certainly that is true for you and me. We prefer to be wanted, warmly wanted, before we reveal our souls—or even come to a party. The ability to see and the practice of seeing God and God’s world comes through a process of seeking and growing in intimacy with him.

But as we can expect to make progress in the seeing of any subject matter, so also it is with God. Toward the end of his life Brother Lawrence remarked, “I must, in a little time, go to God. What comforts me in this life is that I now see Him by faith; and I see Him in such a manner as might make me say sometimes, I believe no more, but I see.”*** The heavens progressively open to us as our character and understanding are increasingly attuned to the realities of God’s rule from the heavens.

Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God, 76,77.

*Subtitle of this section: “God Wants to Be Seen”

**Julian of Norwich, Showings, 193-194 from the edition cited.

***Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, 58 from the edition cited. Also free here.

Ann Voskamp on finding the thin places

…I wonder too…if the rent in the canvas of our life backdrop, the losses that puncture our world, our own emptiness, might actually become places to see.

To see through to God.

That that which tears open our souls, those holes that splatter our sight, may actually become the thin, open places to see through the mess of this place to the heart-aching beauty beyond. To Him. To the God whom we endlessly crave.

Maybe so.

But how? How do we choose to allow the holes to become seeing-through-to-God places? To more-God places?

How do I give up resentment for gratitude, gnawing anger for spilling joy? Self-focus for God-communion.

To fully live–to live full of grace and joy and all that is beauty eternal. It is possible, wildly.

I now see and testify.

So this story–my story.

A dare to an emptier, fuller life.

Ann Voskamp, One Thousand Gifts: A Dare to Live Fully Right Where You Are, 22-23.

tested and tried

It’s interesting how often I am tested on a certain matter the same day I post about it on this blog. Somehow I see the devil in those details, yet I also can learn to see the Lord. The devil of course tempts us, wanting us to fall. Out of love the Lord tests us, to refine us and make us holy.

Early church desert fathers and mothers from what I understand, spent extended time in solitude and experienced much of the temptation of the devil, there. Just as our Lord did when he was tempted forty days and nights in the wilderness. Such times were times of drawing near to God, and hearing God’s voice. Followed by rich blessing for many when they returned to society. I think especially of Anthony of Egypt.

I want to finagle my way out of such times. Instead of resisting the devil and drawing near to God, I want to complain. Alright, if I pour out my complaints to God as in the psalms.

Shouldn’t I develop a new attitude toward trials? I think so. I should see them as necessary in a process of my becoming like Jesus. I need to resist the devil in all of his schemes. Learning discernment in that. And I need to draw near to God, to hear God’s voice, and learn to see his heart and hand in everything.

Tested, tried and in the end found true. For all of us, in and through Jesus, that we might become more and more like him, together for the world.

getting to the heart of it

I wonder what it looks like to God when he looks on us the human race. And particularly those engaged in religious activity, specifically Christians. And what God sees when he sees me in my activities, including this blogging.

Does he see someone who is engaged in lots of things about God, about Christianity in God’s revelation to the world in Jesus, even about love and relationships. Even if some of my words may be moving toward it, does God see a heart that is moving toward him in love through Jesus? And in that love toward others?

I recall the story of Thomas (Aquinas) before he died. He somehow caught a glimpse or had a vision of reality in God through Jesus and in that light all he had written seemed empty, even worthless to him. But we know better. He was one of the church’s great theologians, surely second to none in the gift of mind he had. All the words of scripture do matter. And even our muddling in trying to understand and let it work its way into our lives bit by bit in everything.

We do need to keep in mind “The Jesus Creed” of loving God completely, and our neighbor as ourselves. And we also need to keep in mind that this is a work of God through Jesus that can’t be completed in a day, or even over many years. It is ongoing in this life.

We must not imagine that we will have what Christians call the “beatific vision” in this life, though we may get faint glimpses of it. We often will be groping along, still encumbered in this life by the world, the flesh and the devil. Of course Christians see this “unholy trinity” differently, though it is agreed that this is part of what keeps us in a prolonged off and on struggle here and now.

In the midst of all of this, let us recite “The Jesus Creed” and “The Lord’s Prayer“, so that God may use those words to ground us in Jesus at getting to the heart of what matters through Jesus and for the world.