back to basics: knowing firsthand

Taste and see that the Lord is good;
blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

Psalm 34:8

It is amazing how much help is available online nowadays. You can find something of whatever you might imagine, and it’s usually helpful. I would hardly know where to begin, but I’m impressed with The Bible Project. The Our Daily Bread devotional along with Bible Gateway is helpful in getting us into the word, and I’ll add Bill Mounce’s site in getting into details of the Greek New Testament (and note his version of the New Testament on Bible Gateway.  There’s much more.

It’s fine to get help in knowing about something, but we can’t stop there. We need to get into it firsthand ourselves. For me that is simple as far as an ongoing day to day practice. I simply get into the word, Scripture, one line or thought at a time, meditating and praying over that. And along with that, I have a daily reading through an Old Testament passage, a Psalm (Psalm 119 I divide up according to section), a Sermon on the Mount or Sermon on the Plain reading, and a New Testament reading, one NIV heading at a time. At times I’ll work at reading through a section of Scripture. Though it’s more than I normally do at one sitting, last night I read through the book of Revelation. And certainly not least is hearing the teaching of God’s word Sunday after Sunday (or weekends) at the church gathering.

The goal in this is to taste the goodness of God for ourselves through God’s word. There’s absolutely no substitute for that. It’s good when other things help, but we must get into the word for ourselves. That we might grow in our faith with others toward full Christian, meaning Jesus-like maturity in and through Jesus.

 

what is the prevailing voice in our lives?

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.

John 10:27

Jesus was talking to the Pharisees who saw themselves as the guardians of God’s tradition given to Moses, considered the same by a majority of Jews then. So people who listened to them may have been very well quite religious and faithful to the tradition they were brought up in. But according to Jesus that wasn’t enough. Of course Jesus was present and God had been on the move in a way in which the faith tradition had not anticipated or was prepared for.

But to us today: What are the prevailing voices in our lives? Or the prevailing voice? Often it’s our own voice in tune with voices of the past, often disparaging, and giving us a voice which is anything but helpful most of the time. We never measure up, and at least some of the time are worse than that. And then there are the voices in the world. Today in a near scream, certainly in rage, and it seems with ample justification at times, even if the rage itself is not good.

This gets to the heart of what I hope is a new revolution in my own life: the simple discipline, if you may, of practicing seeking to hear the Lord’s voice. Through the word, particularly while reading the gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John). With a sense of hearing the Lord’s voice. And with a focus set on listening for the Lord’s voice, so that my focus is not on my own voice and thoughts, nor on someone else’s.

I have found this particularly edifying the last few days. Like so many things that may seem to be revolutionary and helpful, they all tend to fade away in time, maybe leaving some kind of impact on one, but lost and gone. But this “discipline” might last as long as I can keep up the practice by God’s grace.

This can certainly help us to pray for others, to bring them to God’s throne because we’re living in response to the voice of the Lord, and not having our spiritual life drowned out by our own voice and many other voices.

But this does not shield us from struggles, pitfalls, and wrongdoing. But God’s grace is present always as we go back to this: listening to the voice of the Lord, the Good Shepherd who loves us, his sheep.

looking beyond the problem

I am one who can easily become fixated on a problem. In today’s information age, in which we can get quite a lot of data at our fingertips, that is a habit which can end up draining one of time and energy. Draining spiritually, as well.

Such times are good times for me to practice the discipline of looking beyond the problem, to the Lord, the Creator and Redeemer and Sovereign over all. That doesn’t mean I can’t consider the issue at all, but I must learn at the same time to approach it, not in my own efforts in trying to resolve it. But looking to the Lord for his answer, whatever that may be. With the desire to radically rest in that, in all my weakness.

A big part of my problem is that somehow I think I can solve a problem. Some problems we can solve rather easily. And sometimes we receive information which helps. Nevertheless, it is good, and actually a blessing to be put in a place in which we can look only up, beyond the problem, to God himself.

Job is a good case in point of this. Much of that great wisdom book is taken up with Job and his three “friends” focusing on the great problem at hand: the misfortune and suffering of Job. In the end God appears and with that comes a resolution, but not of the sort either Job or his friends were looking for, or could have imagined.

I too need to practice this by not thinking that the solution to a hard problem lies with me. And there are so many problems which arise not only in our lives, but in the lives of our loved ones, in the lives of those around us, yes, in this world, to be sure.

And so I turn my eyes away, or look beyond the problem to the one who is our help, our hope and our salvation. Together with others in Jesus and for the world.

training one’s self to be godly

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

Although we as humans are made in God’s image, that image is broken and marred due to sin. In Christ we are being restored into the image of God, Christ himself the image of God, fully in his being. A part of that change involves our own effort. And it is described in nothing less than training.

When we are converted to Christ our lives take on an entirely new direction. But we soon learn that we haven’t arrived, that we still sin, and that in fact we have a long way to go to be like Jesus, and to fulfill God’s will as prescribed in scripture. Further down the road in our Christian life we may have made significant strides and we may be quite different. But we will have a depth about us so that we will be able to understand God’s will in Jesus in a way we couldn’t have understood it before. So that, like Paul, we will not think we’ve arrived, but will all the more be poised to press on toward the goal God has set for us in Christ.

Training involves self-control and effort on our part. Discipline is a common word for this, the verb as well as the noun which points to actual things we can do in the process of training. Reading or listening to, studying and meditating on scripture, praying, meeting regularly with God’s people, doing good works for others- especially for the poor and those in need. All of these and more are part of what we can do. Some of the classic Christian exercises such as silence, solitude, lectio divina and other practices can help us immensely, deepening us so that we can engage in such training all the more and in that be making progress all the more, as well.

We will by and by find that training is indispensable to us for our progress in the faith. And we will become those who are more and more acclimated to it, because it is something that is becoming more and more a part of us, and because it helps us in our Christian walk and experience. In fact we will find it an essential part of following our Lord in this life, something we not only have to do, but want to do. In spite of the struggle and problems involved in it. Together with others in Jesus in this for the world.

obedience better than sacrifice

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

There are important, helpful spiritual disciplines for us, learned from tradition which is rooted in scripture. Solitude, silence, chanting scripture, praying the Jesus prayer as well as the Lord’s prayer, etc., etc. There are all kinds of things we do as Christians: attending church, giving regularly to the church and God’s work in the world, reading the Bible and praying, witnessing to others of our faith in Christ and the gospel. But what good are all these things if on something or other we’re holding out and not obeying the Lord?

Culture can help us sidestep obeying Jesus and his commands. It is not fashionable, for example, to turn the other cheek when we are struck, to bless those who curse us, and pray for those who despise us. Even Christians advocate carrying or owning guns, though they do so as only a last resort to stop an evildoer bent on violence. But Jesus’ way, counterituitive and countercultural as it is, is to take the way of the cross always, no matter what. That is the only way for the follower of Jesus.

Any expression of the Christian faith which does not make much of obedience and specifically of obeying the commands of Christ falls short of carrying out God’s will in Jesus. I’m afraid a cultural expression of the faith has made this not only possible, but easy, in fact hard not to do, the norm.

One other example: Christ commands us to be reconciled to our brother or sister before we worship in presenting an offering to God:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

It doesn’t matter if we like them or not. We are to be reconciled, period. We are so accustomed not to obeying all the commands of Jesus that I doubt that a majority of Christians are even aware of this command of our Lord.

And so let’s forget about any grandiose ideas we have in serving God. Rather let’s humbly give ourselves to obedience out of love in response to God’s love in Jesus, together for the world.

doing the same thing

In my case I think I could serve well as a monk in a monastery, of course a married order for me. I tend to like to keep a certain routine and don’t mind structure as in set times for certain practices. It is good to have some breaks from that here and there, as in vacations or special times and occasions, doing something out of the ordinary. We need some of that as well.

But there is value in doing the same things over and over again. In fact for me it seems to be a kind of essential. I have heard or read that something becomes natural to us or a part of us only after we do it repeatedly for some time. While I have done and continue to do a blog post everyday, that is not what I’m thinking about. Although that would also fit in this, I see that as more of a calling I suppose which I try to fulfill. What I’m thinking of are such practices as reading scripture, praying, meeting with God’s people. There are a number of things like that which are ingrained in me. A number of other things which I don’t have much if any of a handle on, I would like to become a regular part of what I am about and doing.  In fact I think myself weak in some areas of practice in which I want to grow, for example being silent before God.

Again it is good to have some seasons of rest and breakaway from the normal routine, especially from the workaday world. But everything can serve to help us live in a rhythm, which in significant part is part of what we’re to be and be about as followers of Jesus together by the Spirit. There is a certain air and harmony we’re to live in which becomes a part of who we are. So that we remain settled in a certain way no matter what the occasion.

I think we see this in the life of Jesus in the gospels, and it is for us as followers of Jesus, together in him for the world.

who has your ear?

What we listen to, or take in is what can change us, for good or ill. I seem to learn best by listening. So I actually daily listen to the Bible being read. But I refer to listen in this post in a metaphorical sense. What do we take in day after day, or on a regular basis? And ultimately who should have our ear?

N.T. Wright’s book, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was and Is revolutionized my faith, and turned me back toward my Anabaptist roots (even though he is not Anabaptist), toward a Jesus-oriented, Sermon on the Mount kind of faith, although that journey and the end or outcome of it is much more complex than that. Scot McKnight’s, The Jesus Creed: Loving God, Loving Others also powerfully impacted my faith. Another important book for me right now in helping me get my feet more firmly on the ground is also by N.T. Wright: After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters, with an excellent ending chapter on “the virtuous circle,” not to diminish the rest of the book. And there are a number of other key writers for me, such as Eugene H. Peterson, to name one. I wish I could read all of the books I would like to read, but “too many books, too little time.”

Ultimately the one who is to have our ear is the good shepherd, Jesus. We are likened to sheep, and sheep are known to respond to their shepherd’s call, recognizing the voice. If what we are taking in is not helping us hear the voice of the good shepherd, Jesus, then something is amiss.

Interestingly, what and how we hear is influenced by those around us, particularly those who actually do influence us or have our ear for one reason or another. I put our pastors high on that list, Jack and Sharon Brown, who I both deeply respect. And Sharon’s award winning book, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey, now being published by InterVarsity Press, is a most worthy read, unique in the way she helps us see how God can powerfully impact and change our lives in community through the spiritual disciplines rooted in scripture as practiced in the church (I am doing this book injustice with that sentence; you must read it for yourself).

In the end, let us listen, listen, and listen some more. Waiting and endeavoring to live as those who move because of the good shepherd’s voice, Jesus. Together in him for the world.

“make every effort”

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control…

Between the effort to catch the wind of the Spirit, and ride that, and the effort required from the life and faith we have in God through Christ by the Spirit, there is a call for the Christian to work hard at, as well as work out our salvation. Of course we’re not talking about salvation by works, by our own effort. Any work we do is because of God’s grace active in our lives in Jesus.

A lot of this work will amount to simply waiting on God. That’s an important aspect of it. Spiritual disciplines rooted in scripture such as the examen, lectio divina, silence, etc., all require a diligence which does not, as a rule come natural to us. What is needed by the work of the Spirit in and through Jesus is that certain things become second nature to us over time through practice.

A wrong teaching and misunderstanding is the idea that we simply can’t do God’s will. We are going to sin in everything we do. Are we still going to sin? Yes, and the idea that we won’t sin in this life betrays a shallow understanding, I’m afraid, of what sin is, as well as missing that very point from scripture. But when we confess our sins, God is faithful and just through Christ to forgive us, and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. All of this is part of the equation.

And so we go on. In this new life in God through Jesus. Looking forward not only to the redemption of our bodies in the resurrection, but growth in this new life here and now. Together in Jesus for the world.

holding steady

There is nothing more difficult it seems than to hold steady to one’s course in and through Jesus. If what I mean here is that there’s to be nothing but a smooth ride, than I’m amiss. There are bumps, twists and turns along the way, even dangerous cliffs. More likely we at worst will be knocked off our feet, so that we have to get up, brush ourselves off, and get on track again.

Sometimes I really feel shaken, not in a major sense of destroying my faith, but rather, undermining my faith walk. But such times are an opportunity to learn and go on, with growth through it all.

Spiritual warfare is no doubt oftentimes, and more often than not, a big part of this. The enemy wants to take ground from us. We are told we must resist the enemy with all the armor God through Christ provides for us. We’re to resist the devil, and draw near to God. With the promise that the devil will flee and that God will draw near to us.

Holding steady doesn’t at all mean not being open to change. Life in Jesus is a life of ongoing change. We are to be more and more conformed to the image of God’s Son, Jesus, more and more like him. That inevitably and necessarily means change.

Referring to my opening lines, maybe one does need to change course. It’s not about maintaining our own course, but it’s about being on God’s course or path for us.

We’ll need quiet time in the word (lectio divina is good). Prayer as in speaking and listening to God. Fellowship with other Christians. Openness always to God in everything. Oftentimes simply being as quiet and still as possible.

Sometimes it’s a matter of something like a storm passing over us. Other times it will take longer, even into months and perhaps years for us to see the problem removed, either in terms of us living well in it, or in it being a thing of the past.

At any rate, let’s together in Jesus hold steady, and not be deterred from what God has for us, and through us for the world.

solitude

I have to admit that I tend to dislike any practice that is not communal in orientation. I want to connect with others. I want to be with my wife. I want to have good relationships with others of our church, and those who don’t believe. I am in a sense a social being, and really we all are, since that is an essential part of our humanity. “It is not good for the man to be alone.” In the end in the Revelation there is a city.

And yet there’s another part of me which craves solitude. I really want some space, some aloneness. There is nothing better to me on a normal evening than to be in the living room with Deb, listening to classical music while reading a good book. And second best is when I’m alone doing that.

Jesus was around people nearly all the time. Crowds came. Even when they subsided, he was still busy in ministry to them. And as a Rabbi, he was the Master to followers who lived with him in keeping with that tradition, learning all they could from the totality of his life (see Lois Tverberg’s new book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life).

And yet Jesus himself used to break away with his disciples from the crowds to get some rest and just be together I’m sure, and he would break away from his disciples as well, to meet with his Father in a solitary place.

We need solitude. In the busyness and humdrum of a normal day, I always want to be on the same wavelength of the others I’m working with, but at certain points I don’t mind at all simply being alone. In prayer. Seeking God, or speaking to him and hopefully listening, and reciting the Lord’s/our Father prayer, along with the Jesus Creed, and perhaps just working at being silent in my mind, actually a good idea I rarely practice, I’m afraid.

I admit though that I’m not really good at practicing solitude, as Christians have for centuries. I am thankful that our church encourages this practice, and especially our Pastor Sharon, who exemplifies it  quite well for us. So I hope to grow in it, so as to really walk with God in all of life. Together with others, that people may see Jesus in and through us.