Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Where Is God When We Pray?

Prayer is essential to Christian life, but many of us are discomforted by the idea of entering into prayer. Somehow we assume that if we do not experience something “magical,” then we are not really praying at all. Thus, we attempt to connect to God by strenuous efforts to transcend this reality to enter into another. However, the realm of prayer is not like Lucy peering into a strange new world from a wardrobe or Wendy first entering Neverland. These worlds are only spruced up versions of our own. God meets us here in this world. He listens to us, even if we must pray from a gutter. We do not have to figure out a way to disconnect from our bodies to enter His transcendent presence; He comes to us when we go to Him in prayer. What we must realize when we pray is that begging for Him is not how we must find Him; we must realize that He is already there. When we beg for Him to show up while He is right next to us saying, “I am here,” we miss out on what we are really looking for: a connection with Him.

Too much effort to discover some transcendent mindset causes one to become introverted. We begin to ask, “What must I do?” Thus, our very effort to become enlightened forces us away from God. To follow God is to obey Him, and obedience entails a life of outward, self-giving love. We do not draw away from the world to find God. A life of constant prayer does not mean that we are given reason to remove ourselves from the world. We must learn that our relationship with God does not depend on how often or long we can get away from “life” to enter into quiet time. Quiet time is good and necessary, but so is reaching others. Prayer and communion can happen in the midst of the ordinary. God can speak to us in the mundane. Does God work only in the mundane? Can I not have a miraculous experience in prayer? Surely we can, but if that is where we assume we must start, we walk right past God on our way to find Him. If we need a miraculous event, God knows and will provide. We need not try to conjure it up for ourselves.

We may even speak with God in our own language. Christ taught us to do so; therefore, it must work. It is God who will answer in the language that surpasses our minds' understanding but touches our heart in such a way we understand without hearing a word. Can God speak to me in an audible voice? Surely he can do all things. But, does this mean I am somehow closer to God than my brother or sister who has not heard His voice? Not at all. In fact, it might just mean that we were too stubborn to listen when He spoke to our heart.

Our eyes do not have to roll back in our heads as OMs flow from our mouths and we enter some semi-conscious state. God is not an elusive being that we must catch in order to speak with Him. We do not have to figure out how prayer works before we can partake in it. God knows how it works, and He will deal with any complications that it might take in order for us to connect with Him. In fact, He has already done so. Christ sacrificed Himself so that we might enter into a relationship with God. Let us not insult His death and resurrection by assuming that there is yet another task we humans must figure out before we can speak with the Father.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Reflecting Christ

Often we define God and hope that our definition of Him will give us purpose and meaning. We then seek proofs that reflect this God; however, even when our definitions are correct, we miss the point. We are not to live the life we think God wants us to live. We are to live the life God calls us to live.

We learn about who God is, not just so that we may emulate HIm in hopes of being holy. We learn of who God is so that when He instructs us to act, we might recognize His voice. Many live a religion that imitates Christ, at least in word and deed, yet these same people do not think it important to give one’s life over to Him, though they call themselves Christians. This is altogether a mistaken understanding of the faith Christ presents to us.

Surely we are called to be reflections of Christ, but a mirror reflects not by viewing and then morphing into its likeness but in reflecting the object's light. Similarly, we don't become like Christ through a "see and do" relationship. We become Christ-like when Christ offers Himself to us and fills us. Christianity is genuine only if Christ is intimately involved.

We do not reflect God by following law, by becoming what we think God is like, but by submitting to His guiding and loving Holy Spirit. If we live out our faith through Him, we are truly Christians and can say along with Paul, “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Need For A Reversal

Reflecting on how to live the proper Christian life can be an arduous and even dangerous task if we imagine we can figure the mystery out on our own. One thing is for certain in my mind: the heart is the true and hidden locale from which the Christian operates. Christ’s teachings often return to the heart. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ time and time again brings to light that it is not our actions themselves that we must concern ourselves with when it comes to evaluating our character; it is the motivations of the heart. The condition of the heart is the true litmus test of the soul's relationship with God. We cannot assume that if we somehow discover our heart's true desires, then we will find that pure inner core of the self. The heart is just as diluted and diseased as the mind. However, with the atoning work of Christ and the inhabiting of the Holy Spirit, the heart may be transformed.

Therefore it is with the heart that a person must be guided, not because the heart is somehow intrinsically pure, but because it is the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. Often we allow our minds to control the heart. When the heart is calling for us to cry out to God, to become indignant before Him, our minds tell us that this is not proper and that these desires are strange. There is a reversal that needs to take place; our hearts must inform our minds.

How is this possible? Even while I write of the importance of the heart, the mind, which is forever engaged in this realm as the part of us that gathers information, conveys this message into words. My mind is forever churning while the heart speaks to me in fleeting moments, in soft whispers that I not so much hear but feel. The mind is not the enemy. Rather, it is a powerful tool, even weapon. When used without a guiding force, when left to its own devices, it becomes a source of destruction, but it is not evil in itself. The mind is not something we must discard or transcend to realize Truth. It, too, is a gift from God, a part of the human identity that we need in order to be whole. However, the mind must submit to the heart for our being to function properly. This does not mean the heart is forever engaged while the mind whispers. This would be silly, for we could accomplish very little in our day-to-day tasks.

The task of allowing the heart to lead is not so much an active attempt to force feelings out of the heart at every turn of the day, but an active submission to God. For if we are truly born again, and if the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts, then it is not so much a listening to our own heart as much as it is a listening to His Holy Spirit. To recognize this voice, we must continually learn about its source, God. Through prayer, study, and living a life called to be holy, we can know more of Him. We can find freedom in submission to Him, for once He has our hearts and our attention, He will guide us to our purpose, a life hidden in Him.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Lessons from an Unexpected Opportunity

I recently had an opportunity to embark on a short journey into the unknown. Actually, I had known this place before, but now I would be looking at it from a different point of view. When God first offered me this opportunity, I wished to deny Him, but with my wife's firm yet kind urging, I agreed to go. Now that I have come out of the other side of this journey with a still deeper understanding of the work of God, I laugh, perhaps along with the Almighty, that He would take someone so ill prepared to speak forth His word. The journey I took was to a three-day youth retreat at which I was to be the speaker. Not too long ago, I was part of a youth group, but not as its organizer or leader. I was part of the chaos, and I loved every minute of it. However, as I grew older, I realized that I wanted nothing to do with trying to lead and teach a group of adolescents like my former self.

God has a funny way of doing things and as it happens, I have come across many ideas in seminary that I have quietly reflected upon and then lamented that I had not heard them as a youth. These ideas have sat on a dusty back shelf in the corner of my mind, for I never imagined God would call me to share them with the group for which they were ultimately intended. Never say never. As the weekend progressed, I shared God’s desire to make us Holy. I wanted them to realize that our call to holiness comes not from a God who demands His people to jump through hoops because it pleases Him. Rather, it emanates from our God, who calls us to holiness as a means to demonstrate His love. Our potential lies in becoming like our loving Father, allowing Him to take control in order to show us adventures of which we could never dream.

As the talks unfolded, God spoke through me. I know I could not have reached these youths on my own. There has been nothing inside me for quite some time that was interested in youth ministry. But, as He often does, God wanted to share with me in an area of His work that I had written off long ago. Thus, one lesson that I received was a reminder that although my heart might not be called in a certain direction, it is important for me to praise God for the work He is doing in that area and never assume that what I am called to do is any more important than the work of my other brothers and sisters. However, that was not the biggest lesson God would teach me.

As the last night’s session came to a close, many of the youth stayed in their seats even after being dismissed. Many shed tears and shared with each other the feelings God had stirred within them. I know the Spirit of the Lord was there with us. We stayed as long as we could, but we had to be out of our meeting room by a certain time. Before we left, one youth pastor asked the group if any of them would care to say anything. One student wanted to share but did not want to do so in front of the entire group. A core stayed behind to hear from this young man, and my heart was racing to learn what he had to say. Because of this youth’s desire to share with only a select few, I assumed his testimony would be something that would sweep me off my feet. As he began to share, the anticipation grew and finally he told us of the sin that he had struggled with for some time. Because this young man told us in confidence His testimony, I too will keep it a secret. But I will share with you, with much shame, my initial reaction to his confession. I wanted to laugh. There was something inside of my human false self that told me that this was an insignificant problem. Since the sin was not sexual or harmful to others, I wrote it off as nothing, and my cynical old man wanted to surface his ugly face in laughter.

Here I sat thinking for a moment that this was unimportant just after telling these children that they could give over anything to their loving Father that was separating them from Him. It was a fleeting few seconds of ignorance that I will never forget, for as soon as this warped idea entered my mind, God cut to my heart to show me my error. Surely certain sins have more severe consequences on our lives than others. Surely some sins indicate a deeper sense of separation from truth than others. However, sin is not just a matter of outward effect. It is a cancer of the heart, the inner self. In a way I was reminded, and in a way I realized for the first time, why all sin is equal. This seemingly insignificant sin, an act, might I add, in which many Christians participate without regret, had kept this young man in hiding from God. This sin separated Him from experiencing the full love of the Father because this young man was serving this sin instead of God. It had plagued his heart so that he could not share in full relationship with his Father. I pray that I never again, even for a moment, assume that someone else's struggle is insignificant. Any sin that we allow to be bigger than God in our hearts is devastating to our relationship with Him. This young man let go of his that night, and God worked in an exciting and mighty way.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Are We A Broken Community?

Christians are called to be the light unto the world, but, the way I see it, we are, at best, many scattered and fragmented lights. I have confessed my belief in one holy, apostolic, and catholic (universal) church; however, many times I fear that I speak of an ideal, not a reality. I have never experienced a church that does not exist in the splintered, denominational form of today. I have always had an us versus them mentality, not as in Christians versus non-Christians, which is a very problematic thought within itself, but as in this denomination versus that denomination. While I lament the issues that separate us, the pit within my stomach grows, and my heart aches as I try to understand why we fight. Some issues are so petty that I am ashamed I ever took part in a “defense.” Other issues, however, are of great importance, but are these issues so important that I should feel uncomfortable in the midst of my brothers and sisters who have a different perspective? Whether I should or not, I do, and that is my confession this day. My issue is not that I hold any grudges, but that I often feel judged by those who think differently. We have all heard it: “Oh, so you are a(n) “X” (fill in your own denomination or theological view). So often, in the midst of discussing a theological difference with another, something inside of me just wants to enfold the person with whom I am talking in an embrace that would arrest the expansive chasm I perceive growing between us. That, I imagine to myself, would be much better than debating. I never walk away from a debate feeling as if I have won. I may feel I presented a better argument (And let’s face it. I always feel that I've presented a better argument.), but I walk away feeling as if I have lost another opportunity to share in God’s love with a fellow Christian. Do I suggest that we should not attempt to discuss these differences? Not at all, but not at the expense of spending quality time in holy fellowship. Although my eyes are welling with warm tears and my stomach is churning as I write about the condition of our (the church community's) relationship with one another, I cannot help but be reminded of an encounter I had a few months ago that gave me a greater faith and a reason to carry on.

I met Father Aldrich, a retired Episcopal priest, at a friend's wedding. Before we met face to face, we had already talked on the phone because we were going to work together at the wedding. I was officiating, and Father Aldrich was helping me administer communion. On the phone, he expressed to me his desire for us to talk about my decision to enter into ministry. He was interested to hear my thoughts about the faith that we share. To be honest, I was not looking forward to our encounter. Instead, I was intimidated. Here was a well-educated man who had been in vocational ministry for so long that he had retired. I was a boy not even out of seminary, yet he wanted to hear my thoughts. But when we met, he had so much love and joy in his eyes and smile that the wall I had built in defense instantly melted away. He did not spare me the difficult questions, but I knew that he was talking to me because he wanted to share his love with me. He did not want to prove himself nor challenge my opinions. He genuinely wanted to encourage me. When we parted ways, he embraced me as a grandfather would his grandson, and my heart was warmed. I determined then and there that I would try to model this man, for he was surely modeling Christ.

For those of you who are young, do not be so quick to build up barriers to protect your heart or defend your perspective. You may just pass up an opportunity to learn. For those of you who are older, be mindful that those young in faith or in age need to be encouraged and reminded that you love them before you attempt to teach them. You never know when a warm embrace might change someone’s life.

The church may not be in the condition that I wish it to be, but I am encouraged that there are men and women out there who, although they do not know me, care for me because Christ’s love fills their hearts. It is in their eyes and smiles that I see the church, the church of which I am proud to be a part.

Friday, July 10, 2009

God and Silence

How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts 

and every day have sorrow in my heart? 

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. 

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death;

my enemy will say, "I have overcome him," 

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love; 

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

I will sing to the LORD, 

for he has been good to me. Psalm 13

I really enjoy the times when God speaks with me in such a profound way that everything I learn of Him changes almost my whole view of reality. I have always assumed that the world around me is not actually reality, or at least my perception of it is not reality. The world that seems to spin without paying much attention to its Creator cannot be the real world. So, when God is revealing to my heart His furious love and constant involvement among a people that do not even realize He is there, my heart rejoices, and I feel that I am finally getting the big picture. But what of the times when God is silent? My confidence begins to spiral, and I find just how weak I am without Him. I begin to wonder if all that I had learned before was just something I came up with. How foolish of me to assume I could paint such a beautiful picture? But, nonetheless I question. Such a time of silence came not too long ago, and when I had gotten deeply into feeling sorry for myself, I began to realize how foolish I was being. So I asked myself, "Why would God be silent?" Does He want me to fall into sorrow? I think not." Does He want to remind me that I am helpless without Him? I think that is part of it. But maybe it is not just that He wants me to become somber and reclusive. Maybe He wants me to join Him in silence to enjoy what He has done for me. Maybe He wants me to take a retreat in which I calm my mind from its constant learning. Once, in the midst of a very stressful week at seminary, I said to a friend something that most would not understand except for those of us who were in this particular position. I said, “Have you ever wanted to take a vacation from all this, just take a break from all this Christian stuff?” Of course, my friend understood exactly what I meant, but allow me to clarify. I had been spending all day being stretched and then pouring my heart out to others. I was tired. I did not want to not be a Christian for a week or something like that, but I wanted a break from ministry work. At the time I assumed that was a foolish desire and that to be a “good” disciple, I could never stop. But, as He often does, God shattered my assumptions. Spending time with God does not always mean that I have to be engrossed in the Bible until I learn something new. Maybe God just wants me to enjoy what I already know. More importantly, maybe He just wants me to enjoy being in His presence.

Be still, and know that I am God; 

I will be exalted among the nations, 

I will be exalted in the earth." Psalm 46:10