Friday, July 31, 2015

Unveiled Praying

In 2 Corinthians 3:12-18 Paul writes: "Therefore, since we have such a hope, we are very bold. We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. Even to this day when Moses is read, a veil covers their hearts. But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit."

To authentically pray is to turn toward the Lord with an unveiled mind, heart, and soul. As I pray, God wants to lift the veil over my face and into-me-see ("intimacy"). 

Thomas Merton comments: "The Spirit is given to me, the veil is removed from my heart, that I reflect "with open face" the glory of Christ. It would be easy to remain with one's heart veiled, and it is not by any wisdom of my own, but by God's gift, that it is unveiled."

God sees behind any barrier I erect between myself and him. 

I meet people who fear going to God because God will search them out and expose their imperfect inner selves. Imagine a doctor who knows you have a physical heart problem. You refuse to have him order an MRI because you are afraid he will discover that you have a heart problem.

Apparently God allows us the choice of living veiled or unveiled, even though he sees behind the veil. This is an act of his grace. He won't force himself upon us, but invites us to be voluntarily vulnerable. Just that thought makes me want to remove the veil over my heart when I come to God.

It's easy to remain veiled before God, but this makes life harder. In faking it before God I become an actor, and acting takes work. To live unveiled before God is freedom. Unveiled living is the gateway to the experience of God's love, mercy, and grace. It becomes the foundation for holy living. It is the portal to contemplation of God.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Prayer Looping (On Unceasing Praying)

Inside our new Children's Ministry Building, under construction

Last week Linda and I spend several hours together listening to "Serial," the radio series that went viral. At the beginning of each show, and periodically throughout, the theme music played. It was this little, simple piano piece that became associated with this story of a young high school girl who was murdered. For days afterward I could not get this music out of my mind! It was unconsciously repeating, looping through my neural self, sometimes unceasingly.

Conscious repetition leads to unceasing consciousness. I believe Paul's "unceasing praying" can be understood like this. The conscious dedication to intentional praying shapes us, by the Spirit, into constant pray-ers. Like the worship song that was repeated on Sunday morning is singing in my heart when I wake on Monday, the praying I do day by day and week by week and year by year has carved out a deep river in my heart that flows today. From much praying comes praying without ceasing. 

Apply this to 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.

  • "Rejoice always" (which emerges out of an intentional worshiping life)
  • "Pray without ceasing" (which happens as a result of choosing to pray consistently)
  • "Give thanks in all circumstances" (which happens as a result of a consistent choosing to be thankful)
  • "For this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (This is God's "inclination" or "desire" (Greek thelema) for you; which is to say this is God's very heart, produced in you and I.)

  • This rejoicing-praying-thanksgiving begins to loop through your being, without ceasing.

When He Comes, He Will Build It (More on the Presence-Driven Church)

Common whitetail dragonfly

Our church, Redeemer, is not a “Purpose-Driven church.” It is also not a “Program-Driven church” ("If we build it, they will come.) We are, and long to be even more, a “Presence-Driven Church.” This means:

When He comes, He will build it.
I did love Rick Warren’s “purpose-driven” books. I learned much from them. I have no quarrel here. I’m making a logical and experiential point, which I feel Warren would affirm. It is: out of the experiential presence of God “purpose” is given, by God and from God.

Warren taught that God has given 5 purposes for the Church. The community of Jesus-follwoers is to grow…

·    Warmer through fellowship

·    Deeper through discipleship

·    Stronger through worship

·    Broader through ministry

·    And larger through evangelism

OK. That’s good. But this way of looking at things relativizes the One Thing, which is: to love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; to know God, in the sense of knowing-as-intimate-relationship; to abide in Christ, and to lead others into the abiding relationship, from which all God-things come (fellowship, discipleship, etc.).
It is only within God’s presence, only as we dwell in relationship with him, that any of Warren's 5 purposes gain experiential credibility. Unless God shows us such things, they remain mere theory. I have found that as I focus on John 14-type abiding, my fellowship with other Jesus-followers does grow warmer. As I live the abiding life and lead my people into these beautiful relational and experiential fields of the Lord, God will expand his ministry through them.

It feels to me like this. “Unless the Lord builds the house, its workers labor in vain.” A church may have, as one of its purposes, to build a spiritual or physical (or both) house. This is fine, but it is so only if the Lord has given that directive. Unless our Builder says “Build!” any building we do is in vain. The immediate purpose of building is mediated in and through the experienced presence of God.

Biblical scholar Gordon Fee calls this the “presence motif” we find in Scripture. The presence motif is the hermeneutical key to, for example, the book of Exodus. Moses, In Exodus 33:15-16, appeals to God this way:  And he said to him, “If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here. 16 For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people? Is it not in your going with us, so that we are distinct, I and your people, from every other people on the face of the earth?” The reason “better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere” is precisely because of God’s desired, radiant, earth-shattering presence.  And the reason the Temple will no longer stand, said Jesus, is because the Temple religious leaders “shut the door to the kingdom of heaven.”
The call of Jesus for his followers to abide in Him, like branches connected to the Vine, is an invitation to presence and relationship.

As for church programs, if God speaks out of his presence, saying “Begin Program X,” then do it. And if God says “It’s time to stop doing Program X,” then stop it. Here’s where program-driven people often falter, since they have become more invested in “their” programs than in the commanding presence of God.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Holy Ghost Reborn at Redeemer August 29, 7 PM

Darren Wilson will be at Redeemer Sat. night, August 29, 7 PM, premiering his new movie "Holy Ghost Reborn."

For tickets and more details go HERE.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Pray For Judgmentalism To Be Exchanged For Understanding

Maumee Bay State Park (Ohio)

Jesus tells us to stop judging other people. (Matthew 7:1) Here are some thoughts I have about this.
§  We can, and will, make “judgments” in life. This is unavoidable, and is not the thing Jesus warns us against doing. Consider this judgment: Killing people for fun is wrong. I judge that to be “true.” Every day we make hundreds of judgments ranging from moral judgments to “This cup of coffee is too weak.” When Jesus says “Judge not” he is referring to judgmentalism, which is different from making judgments.

§  A “judgmental” person weighs in on the hearts of other people and pronounces, like a trial judge, a verdict. Like: “guilty.” Or: ”That person is bad.” Or: "You deserve punishment." A judgmental person sees themselves as both judge and jury over people. Judgmental people feast off making moral and spiritual judgments about the motives of other people. Judgmental people see the worst in others irregardless of evidence to the contrary. Judgmental people make their pronouncements without any evidence at all, without understanding and compassion, or in the face of counter-evidence, or even on the basis of manifestly false evidence. Judgmentalism is the bedfellow of gossip and slander.

§  Behaviors can and should be judged, but the human heart is difficult to assess. If someone steals from you it is not wrong to say, “They stole from me; stealing is wrong; therefore what this person has done is wrong.” But why did they steal from you? Here’s where caution is advised. Because you do not have access to the human heart. Judge the behavior; refrain from judging the person’s heart. How many times I have been either positively or negatively surprised when a person’s true heart becomes evident. Which leads me to say…

§  I have, at times, assessed the heart of another person incorrectly. When my assessment has been negative I’ve built a case against that person. That’s neither good nor helpful. It breeds bitterness. I have made mountains, not out of mole-hills, but out of no-hills. Consider Proverbs 20:5, which says that “the purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters.” You and I lack epistemic access to the deep waters of another person’s heart. I can’t at times figure my own heart out! How then can I expect to accurately read the hearts of other people? If you wonder why someone did something that affects you negatively, why not ask them rather than put them on trial in your own mind and before others?

§  If God reveals to you some negative aspect of another person’s heart it is only so that you can pray for them or, with permission, help them. God doesn’t entrust such privileged information to judgmental people.

§  In John 7, in one of his confrontations with the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus asks them to “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment.” They have, again, misjudged Jesus. This is because what is seen with the eyes is not equivalent to what lies in the heart. It may “appear” to me that a person has just given me a nasty look. I should not conclude from this that they have a nasty heart. Maybe, maybe not. Many years ago, when Linda and I were dating, one of her friends told Linda that it appeared I did not like this friend because of the look on my face. Linda assured the friend that I did like her, and by the way that’s how my face normally looks. You can’t judge a book by the cover.

§  I think judgmental people are fearful people. Judgmentalism works as a barrier erected to ward off self-scrutiny. If I deflect attention away from my own sin and failure and get people to look at the surface-appearance of sin and failure in someone else, I can breathe easier. Instead of crying out “Search me O God, and know my heart,” the cry becomes “Judge them, O God, for I know their hearts.” Probably not.

§  It’s hard work being the judge of the world. I have spent too many hours trying to figure out just what the heck is going on in the brains of other people. Now, consciously, I am more and more giving this responsibility to God. What a relief! He calls me to love others, not judge them. God is able to speak into the hearts of all the people I find myself wondering about. In the meantime I will do well to allow him to speak to my own heart, and leave the judging to him.

I am asking God for freedom from judging the hearts of others. I can make judgments about things without being judgmental towards people. But note this: one cannot make a reasonable judgment without first understanding. It is foolish to judge without understanding. #1 – Understand; #2 – Evaluate if needed.

Things get tricky when it comes to the hearts of other people. We barely understand the complexities of our own heart. How can we think we have access to the inner workings of another person’s heart and mind? Yet this is precisely what the judgmental person claims. They say, “I know what you are thinking!” Or: “I know why you did that!” Which makes us want to respond by saying, “And just who are you – God?”
Strive to understand others and be understood by them. When understanding is achieved judgmentalism morphs into compassion.

Time spent judging the hearts of other people is wasted time, for the following reasons. 
  1. Our judgments can be wrong, and are surely incomplete. 
  2. Judgmentalism has no redemptive value. The point of judging others’ hearts is simply: to judge others hearts. There is an intrinsic vicious circularity to judgmentalism. 
  3. We can’t change peoples’ hearts anyway, so why waste time judging them? Years ago God spoke to me and I wrote these words in my journal: “John, why are you trying so hard to change other people when you can’t even change your own self?”

Spend time, yourself, with God today. Ask God to search out your own heart.
If God reveals to you some truth about another person’s struggle, thank him that he has entrusted you with this knowledge, and begin praying for that person.
In Matthew 7:1-2 Jesus says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” I can see the truth of this in two ways.
#1 – The judgmental-person-as-faultfinder-and-accuser-of-others will receive their own unfair share of retributive judgment heaped back on them. Everyone gets misunderstood. But if you waste your time picking out the faults of others others will waste their time picking out your faults. The big bang of your judgmental words creates an ever-expanding universe of judges, all skilled at finger-pointing. Not everyone who gets “judged” judges back. But when people feel judged the thought comes into their heads, “But you, also, are a failure.” One wants to attack back, unlike Christ responded. Judged people rise to their own defense. Tu quoque

#2 – The non-divine judges of all the earth suffer something even greater, which only gets exacerbated by the human judges who lash out at them. Most judgmental people I have met waste a lot of time being critical of their own selves. The people who hate and punish others hate and punish their own selves. The skilled, cynical critic of others is just as skilled and cynical about their own self. The one who hurts others is themselves a hurting heart. It’s the old “hurt people hurt people” thing, which I think is mostly true.
The antidote to this whole wasted mess is to find and experience the love of God for one’s own self. Be loved by God, not just in theory but in experience, and the result will be things like greater compassion towards others.

Love God.
Receive God’s love for your own self.
Stay connected to Jesus and experience, in relationship, his love.
Love one another.

Pray for judgmentalism to be exchanged for understanding.

N.T. Wright on the "Dying and Rising God" Myth

An atheist I was dialoguing with said to me: “I do not believe Jesus was a real person. I believe the Jesus of the Bible is a mish-mash of previous “Sons of God” or “Sun Gods” such as Osiris, Mithras or Dionysus, all were born of virgins, all were martyred. All were resurrected. It’s just a re-telling of the old tales into a new tale.” I've heard this before. What can we make of it?

It’s false. Here’s why. But first note: If you want to read much more see N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God, Ch. 2, “Shadows, Souls, and Where They Go: Life Beyond Death in Ancient Paganism.” Wright combines excellent scholarship with clear writing to show that the idea that, e.g., Osiris, Mithras, and Dionysus et. al. “were [mythically] resurrected” is false because a misunderstanding of the meaning of ‘resurrection.’ In the ancient world in which Judeo-Christianity was situated “’resurrection’ was not an option.” (Wright, 60)

“Resurrection,” in the Judeo-Christian sense, means: “a new embodied life which would follow whatever ‘life after death’ might be.” (Wright, 83) The Greco-Roman world assumed that such a thing was impossible. The Isis, Osiris, and Dionysus myths are affiliated with fertility rites and “productivity of the soil.” (Ib., 80) These gods “died and rose” every year. “The new life they might thereby experience was not a return to the life of the present world.” Nobody actually expected the mummies to get up, walk about and resume normal living: nobody in that world would have wanted such a thing, either.” (Ib., 80-81)

“When the Christians spoke of the resurrection of Jesus they did not suppose it was something that happened every year, with the sowing of seed and the harvesting of crops. They could use the image of sowing and harvesting to talk about it; they could celebrate Jesus’ death by breaking bread; but to confuse this with the world of the dying and rising gods would be a serious mistake… When Paul preached in Athens, nobody said, ‘Ah, yes, a new version of Osiris and such like. The Homeric assumption remained in force. Whatever the gods – or the crops – might do, humans did not rise again from the dead.” (Ib., 81)

The two greatest influences on the Greco-Roman worldview were Plato and Homer. For Plato ‘resurrection’ was a detestable thought; for Homer an impossible thing.
The Christian idea of resurrection is antithetical to Platonic thinking because the human body, for Plato, is a “prison” and no one would want to inhabit it again after death.
For Homer the dead are “shades,” “ghosts,” “phantoms.” “They are in no way fully human beings, though they may look like them; the appearance is deceptive, since one cannot grasp them physically.” (Ib., 43)

The Egyptian Osiris myth has no concept of “resurrection” in it as Christians understood it. Egyptian mummification assumes the person is “still ‘alive’ in some bodily sense, despite appearances.” “’Resurrection’ is an inappropriate word for Egyptian belief.” (Ib., 47).
There’s a lot of reasoning and resources in Wright’s chapter. He concludes with three things.

“When the early Christians spoke of Jesus being raised from the dead, the natural meaning of that statement, throughout the ancient world, was the claim that something had happened to Jesus which had happened to nobody else. A great many things supposedly happened to the dead, but resurrection did not.” (Ib., 83)

“The early Christian belief that Jesus was in some sense divine cannot have been the cause of the belief in his resurrection…. Divinization did not require resurrection; it regularly happened without it. It involved the soul, not the body.” (Ib.)

The ancient non-Judeo-Christian world took the Judeo-Christian term ‘resurrection,’ which referred to something hardly anyone believed in, “and used it to denote something a great many people believed in”; viz., non-bodily life after death.

Wright writes: This “was a variation that attempted to retain Christian language about Jesus, and about the future destiny of Christians, whole filling it with non-Christian, and for that matter non-Jewish, content. If this mutation had been the norm, and belief in bodily resurrection the odd variant, why would anyone have invented the latter? And why would not Celsus have pointed this all out?” (Ib., 84) Good question!

Monday, July 27, 2015

Our Concept of God Makes a Praying Difference

In Cape May, New Jersey
A year ago at Redeemer we preached through the biblical book of 1 John. At the heart of John's letter is his concern that some of his readers are walking in darkness, saying they have no sin when they really do, and thus deceiving themselves. John's redemptive strategy is to bring the concept of God's character as light, purity, and righteousness to center stage. What we think of God makes all the difference in our struggle against our inner corruption.

For some recent empirical research to back up this idea see "Sociologist: Concept of God impacts power of prayer, anxiety-related disorders." Prayer seems effective in combating psychological challenges, like relieving anxiety. The level of effectiveness is connected with the person's concept of God.

Baylor University sociologist Matt Bradshaw received a Templeton Grant and published his findings in the journal Sociology of Religion - "Prayer, Attachment to God, and Anxiety-Related Disorders Among U.S. Adults." 

"According to his study, people who prayed to a loving and supportive God whom they thought would be there to comfort and protect them in times of need were less likely to show symptoms of anxiety-related disorders — irrational worry, fear, self-consciousness, dread in social situations and obsessive-compulsive behavior — than those who prayed but did not expect God to comfort or protect them."

Perceived characteristics of God - such as loving, remote, or judgmental - affect the relationship between prayer and mental health.

For the praying person what we think of God makes a difference.

The Distinction Between a "Career" and a "Vocation"

Linda, in Tipp City, Ohio

Frances Perkins, U.S. Secretary of Labor under FDR from 1933 to 1945, distinguished between a "career" and a "vocation." A vocation is a calling. For her, it was a calling from God. David Brooks writes:

"If you do it for God, you will never grow discouraged. A person with a deep vocation is not dependent on constant positive reinforcement. The job doesn’t have to pay off every month, or every year. The person thus called is performing a task because it is intrinsically good, not for what it produces." (Brooks, The Road to Character, Kindle Locations 970-972; emphasis mine.)

In one particular extended and difficult time of her life Perkins cultivated her vocational calling by spending much time in silence at a retreat center, eating simple meals, working in the gardens, and praying. She wrote:

“I have discovered the rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world,” she wrote to a friend. “It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge…. It is really quite remarkable what it does for one." (In Ib.)

Silence and prayer and simplicity before God nurtures and fuels one's vocation. With a calling comes a sense of "felt necessity," an "I must do this for a greater reason than my own happiness." Brooks writes:

"A person who embraces a calling doesn’t take a direct route to self-fulfillment. She is willing to surrender the things that are most dear, and by seeking to forget herself and submerge herself she finds a purpose that defines and fulfills herself. Such vocations almost always involve tasks that transcend a lifetime. They almost always involve throwing yourself into a historical process. They involve compensating for the brevity of life by finding membership in a historic commitment." (Kindle Locations 1014-1017)

Here Brooks quotes Reinhold Neibuhr:

"Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness." (Kindle Locations 1018-1022). 

Sunday, July 26, 2015

When the Class Is Over

It's Sunday morning and our Spiritual Formation class is over. All the activity and worship and spiritual and mental intake...  it's in the past. What will I do now? The answer: what I am always doing

Which is:

  1. I will abide in Jesus tonight and tomorrow and the next day. I'll continue to be a branch connected to Jesus the Vine. Seminary classes are not what I am attached to. The same Jesus that spoke to you and me over the past few days will not stop speaking just because we're not at the seminary. I have great hope and expectation tonight and tomorrow and the next day. The God-encounter is a daily thing for me, varying, of course, in its clarity and intensity. But it's all real. 
  2. I will saturate myself in Scripture. God meets me in Scripture. I am more Scripture-focused than I have ever been in all my Jesus-days. I study it and meditate on it. I ingest it and, by God's Spirit, it gets into me. I'll just keep doing this. I do not need a class to do this.
  3. I will listen for God's voice, speaking to me. When God speaks to me this week I'll write it down in my spiritual journal. God has much to tell me, tonight and tomorrow and the next day. God is not thinking, "John's no longer at the spiritual formation class so I won't speak to him in his own home and community." I think like this: today...  could be the day where God speaks to me in such ways that my life gets more transformed into a greater Christlikeness. I'm not predicting this. I also won't be shocked if it happens when I'm not at the class (which was a very good one, BTW, with a beautiful group of students and the presence of God showing up in all of us).
  4. I will obey when the Spirit directs. I'm not going to claim absolute, perfect obedience. I am not God's perfect servant, as Jesus was. But I do obey God, and find it a delight, even if only sometimes ex post facto. We are God's servants; therefore transform us, O God, into greater servanthood.
Thank God for inspiring classes, the God-intent of each one being daily, inspirational, Jesus-loving and Jesus-following and life more abundantly. (John 10:10) Thank God for a seminary (Payne) that sees the importance of spiritual formation. And thank God that Jesus is with me today even though I'm not at the seminary. 

It's all about abiding in him, being connected to him, and being where he wants me to be. God Himself is a very good course instructor. His classes are free (except that it will cost you everything).  

Pastors are Facilitators of Transcendence

I took this picture of the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

People need the Lord. Therefore, introduce people to the Lord. How can this happen?

1. Know the Lord yourself. Cultivate the God-relationship. Abide in Christ, hourly.

2. Teach people how to enter into the presence of God. Show them how to abide in Christ.

3. Tend the garden. The abiding person's life will bear much fruit.

That's it. That's all a pastor-shepherd needs to do. This is about the Presence-Driven Church, which is the only church worth living for. (During Jesus' time the Temple fell because the religious leaders shut the door to the presence of God.) 

Pastors facilitate this. Pastors facilitate transcendence.

I like how Jame MacDonald writes about this.

"Transcendence is the best single word I have found to describe the attributes of God that are found only in Him and what is missing too often from our churches. We are facilitators of transcendence. Our main job is to usher in the Almighty— God forgive us when we have settled for less. When transcendence is welcomed and unveiled, no one even notices the program, the preacher, or other people. Anything resembling performance seems out of place. Because all that is visible is eclipsed by what is not: God Himself moving through the church in power and meeting with His people in manifest ways.  (MacDonald, Vertical Church: What Every Heart Longs for, What Every ChurchCan Be, Kindle Locations 498-502)