Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Feeling God's Presence (The Presence-Driven Church)

Redeemer sanctuary

"When I entered your church's sanctuary I felt the presence of God."

Over my twenty-five years at Redeemer I have heard these words many times, in many variations, spoken by people new to our Jesus-community.

"I sensed God's peace as I approached your building."

"I encountered God's power as I worshiped with your people."

"Surely the Lord is in this place."

I experience this, too. This is how it should be. Jesus-followers encounter, regularly, the earth-shattering presence of God.

This is not about a physical building, but about a people who host the presence of God. Remember how Jesus changed the whole Temple thing from a physical structure to a people, individually (1 Cor. 3:16) and corporately (1 Cor. 6:19). (In the first verse the word 'you' is singular; in the second verse the word 'you' is plural.) God has come to dwell among His people, to inhabit His lovers, in their singular hearts, and in their plural midst.

This is a visceral, experiential reality, and not just a theory or a propositional truth. One
feels God, within and without.

As God lavishly pours out His love into our hearts, this is, precisely and Hebraically, best understood as a feeling. (Note: part of my evangelical heritage is to pause at this point and warn me about the dangers of "feelings." I respond to this by noting the dangers and vacuity of theory and intellect without feelings. I want to know God-feelings as experience, since experience, not theory, breeds conviction. All talk about God's "love" is meaning-deficient if it does not include feeling.)

Consider these words from Robert Barclay, written in 1701.

"When I came into the silent assemblies of God's people, I felt a secret power among them, which touched my heart. And as I gave way to it, I found the evil in me weakening, and the good lifted up. Thus it was that I was knit into them and united with them. And I hungered more and more for the increase of this power and life until I could feel myself perfectly redeemed." (Barclay - see
here, p. 357; cited in Richard J. Foster, Sanctuary of the Soul: Journey into Meditative Prayer, Kindle Locations 302-304)

Welcome God's presence into your life today.

Host the earth-shattering presence of God.

Get ready to "know," in the sense of to "feel."

Dallas Willard and the God Who Is Near

Dead tree in my backyard

For anyone who has been influenced by the life and writings of Dallas Willard here is required reading - Eternal Living: Reflections on Dallas Willard's Teachings on Faith and Formation. This book is a collection of thirty people who knew Dallas, and their gratefulness to God for his friendship.

Two Evangelical Friends pastors recommended it to me at the conference last week. One of them said he has read it three times. I can see why. I just picked it up and am halfway through it. Along the way I have been touched by many things, including the reflections on Dallas's life and integrity. Reading these testimonials makes me want to be a better person.

Dallas believed that reality is far bigger than what can be accessed via the five physical senses. He believed we could know reality, to include spiritual realities. In support of this thesis Dallas drew heavily on phenomenological philosopher Edmund Husserl. And, he drew upon personal experiences that corroborated it.

Here is one story of an experience Dallas had with God.

"One evening, following a special service on campus, Dallas had an unexpected encounter with God...  a vivid experience with the presence of God. “It stayed with me for days, weeks. It never left me really,” Dallas said. “After that I never had the feeling that God was distant or had a problem hearing me.” That night when they went to bed, Jane related, Dallas exclaimed, “There is an angel at each corner of the bed.” Dallas added, “I did not have an image but a sense that they were there.”"  (Willard, Eternal Living, Kindle Locations 183-188)

Monday, May 22, 2017

Empowering Women for Ministry

My 5/14/17 sermon "Empowering Women for Ministry" is HERE.

Prayer As the Antidote to Anxiety

Bridge, Green Lake Conference Center, Wisconsin

In Philippians 4 Paul commands Jesus-followers to “be anxious about nothing.” (v. 6) The biblical Greek word for ‘anxious’ is often used in contexts where persecution is happening. For example, in Matthew 10:19, Jesus counsels his disciples: “When they arrest you, do not be anxious about what to say or how to say it.”

When Paul counsels the Philippians to not be anxious, it’s not like he’s sitting on the beach savoring Starbucks. He’s in prison! The context is: persecution. The Philippian Jesus-followers were suffering under opposition from their pagan neighbors, like Paul and Silas had suffered when among them (Acts 16:19-24; Phil 1:28-30).

I know what worry and anxiety are like. I have, in some especially troubling times, felt consumed by them. So, how realistic is it to be told “Be anxious about nothing?” 

Paul’s answer, his experiential reality, is found in his rich, ongoing prayer life. He writes: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

Paul's praying life is a deep vein of gold that produces spiritual wealth and wellness. Paul's praying life is ongoing; i.e., Paul prays, as was his habit, unceasingly. 

I have proven that this works, for myself. I have a proof that prayer works. It’s this (following Henri Nouwen, in his book Gracias!): When I don’t pray I am more easily filled with worries and fears. But as I do pray, God meets with me. In the act of praying I experience caregiving from the Great Physician.

In everyday prayer-conferencing with God I present my requests to him. I lay my burdens before him (See 1 Peter 5:7). I have a Father God who loves me, in whom I trust. Where there is trust, there is neither worry nor anxiety. A person with a praying life grows in trust and diminishes in anxiety. A praying person discovers that trust and anxiety are inversely proportionate. 

Paul writes that our prayers should be accompanied “with thanksgiving.” Ben Witherington writes: “Paul believes there is much to be said for praying in the right spirit or frame of mind.” This is significant for the Roman Philippians, since pagan prayers did not include thanksgiving. Roman prayers were often fearful, bargaining prayers, not based on a relationship with some god.

Witherington adds: “Prayer with the attitude of thanksgiving is a stress-buster.” John Wesley said that  thanksgiving is the surest evidence of a soul free from anxiety.

The antidote for worry and anxiety is: praying, with thanksgiving.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Trust As the Cure for Anxiety & Fear

Image may contain: one or more people and people standing
Me, walking in the community college parking lot, exhibiting a lot of trust. (Thank you J.W.)

bought a new chair for my home office. I had the previous chair for twenty years. I trusted it. I trusted it would hold me. Therefore, I had no anxiety in regard to it.

Where there is trust, there is an absence of anxiety. It would be contradictory to say, "I trust the chair I'm sitting in, but am afraid it won't hold me." Where there is trust, there is no fear.

There are objects of significant trust, and objects of insignificant trust. Objects of significant trust affect us; objects of insignificant trust have no effect. I may not trust the motives of the present King of France (nonexistent anyway), but my mistrust does not cause me anxiety or fear, because I am unaffected by his actions. I place no trust in the present King of France. But, my mistrust of our economy can cause me to wonder whether or not I will have sufficient funds to meet my needs in retirement. 


This can breed anxiety and fear. To not have control over an object of significant trust causes fear. The person who is mostly filled with anxiety and fear is the person who does not *trust, or whose trust is misplaced. 


There is a cumulative effect that results from a lifetime of trusting in God. A psychological confidence, a certitude, emerges. It is like the confidence one gains as a result of sitting in the same chair for twenty years, and finding that, through it all, it still holds. This is not illusory. I have met people who experience this. I have been at the bedside of these God-trusters as they lay dying. You have to be there to see the reality of this. 


The one who places their trust in God experiences less anxiety. Therefore...


Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Don't lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge God. And God will make straight your paths.

- Proverbs 3:5-6


 

*I recognize that there are clinical, neurophysical conditions that cause anxiety and fear. The antidote for such conditions may be medications. But even when medications stabilize a person's emotions, issues of trust may remain. Medication will not help a person when the only chair they have keeps breaking.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

How To Hear the Voice of God


Monroe (D & J's home)

Often people ask me the question "How do I hear the voice of God?" A related question is, "How do I know it's God speaking to me and not just myself or some other voice?" In brief, here's my response.

1. Abide in Christ. Dwell with God. Spend much time with God. There's simply no substitute for this. For about "Mc-hearing" God. God can't be fast-fooded. Hearing the voice of God is largely an acquired thing. Analogically, I spend much time talking with Linda and listening to her. The result is that I know her heart, and her heart's desires, very well.

2. Saturate yourself in Scripture. The greater one's familiarity with Scripture is, the greater one will be able to know when it's God speaking and not something else. Begin by saturating yourself in Matthew-Mark-Luke-John. Try reading these over and over and over, slowly and meditatively, for a year. I did it recently for two years and found it very helpful. Read the four Gospels as if you've never read them before. As you read them, when God speaks to you, write it down in a journal.

3. Hang around people who do 1 and 2. Meet with other Jesus-followers who actually pray. Talk together about what you feel God has been saying to you. It won't do any good to talk to people who don't spend time alone with God. You'll just end up speculating about theology. They won't have a clue about what it means to hear the voice of God. Meeting together with people who do 1&2 provides corporate discernment. One can learn a lot about hearing God in such an environment.

Additionally - Don't multi-task the God-relationship. Spend much time with God... alone. Just you and God. Face to face. Heart to heart.

If you're unfamiliar with this, my recommendation is: just start doing it. In the process you'll learn what this is about because God so much wants you to know Him experientially and relationally.


One very good book on hearing the voice of God is: Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God.

See also my book Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

Many Who Leave Christianity Don't Know What They Have Left


"New social science research indicate[s] that young adults are almost entirely ignorant of the teachings and practices of the historical Christian faith." (Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation, p. 2)

Seventeen years of teaching philosophy at our local college confirms this, for me. Even most students who call themselves Christians don't know what historic Christianity is.

The "nones," Millennials who say they have left Christianity, are ignorant of what they claim to have abandoned.

None: "I left the Christian faith."

What is the Christian faith?

None: "I don't know."

Or,

None: "I left a caricature of Christianity, which was not historical Christianity."

The ignorance of the "nones" extends to their "noneness." They don't believe, and don't know why. Or, they don't believe, and then google to find a reason why they don't believe, and then present that reason as a justification for unbelief. (This especially applies to nones raised in legalistic, fundamentalist environments.) 

Socrates, in an appeal to critical thinking, said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Most, he said, would rather be pigs who are nonreflective but satisfied. Socrates would rather live the examined life, even if it dissatisfied him.

That was 2500 years ago. Since then, no progress has been made.



Friday, May 19, 2017

Pride and Shame

Image may contain: plant, tree, outdoor and nature
Dead tree, in my backyard

I tell my seminary students that they still have too much pride. I say this because I believe it to be true. So do you.

So do I.

This includes, obversely, having too much shame.

Pride and shame are two sides of the same coin. The coin is self-obsession. Pride and shame are both forms of self-obsession. Pride says, "I am great and to be admired," and shame says, "I am  despicable and deserving of neglect."

The antidote to self-obsession is humility. Humility is produced as one abides in Christ and is transformed into greater and greater Christlikeness. The humble person discards the coin of self-obsession, knowing it has no cash value in the kingdom of heaven. The humble person is therefore the free person, having been rescued out of their subhumanity.

Proud and shameful people cannot love others purely, being tainted by their need to be recognized. A humble person does not need to be recognized; therefore, they are free to recognize others. 

Non-Discursive Experiences of God

Kitty Hawk, NC

A non-discursive experience is an experience that is felt and "known" as real, but which cannot be captured in the steel nets of literal language. One has such experiences, but cannot discourse about them. (On religious experiences that "I know that I know that I know" but cannot speak of, see James K.A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues.)

I experience God in a variety of ways, many of which are non-discursive. This is how it should be, right? None of us has epistemic access to the being of God. We have no clue about what it's like to be all-knowing, or all-loving, or all-powerful.

The expression of a non-discursive experience is confessional and testimonial. There is a sense in which it cannot be refuted. What does this mean? Say, for example, that I now feel joy. I make the statement, “Now I feel joy.” It would be odd, in a Wittgensteinian-kind of way, for someone to say “You’re wrong.” That would be leaving the language-game I’m now playing. (Wittgensteinian “playing” is what I have here in mind.)

Consider the statement, “I felt God close to me today.” Even a philosophical materialist could not doubt that today I had some kind of numinous experience which I describe as God being with me. They could and would doubt that what caused my experience was “God.” I understand this. But their doubt has no real effect on my experience and the interpretation of it. Their doubt does not make me a doubter, precisely because I am not a philosophical materialist. I see no reason to disbelieve my experiences because others do not have them. This relates, I think, to Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne's "principle of credulity."

At this point I’m influenced by theistic philosophers Alvin Plantinga and William P. Alston. For them, belief in God is properly basic if the noetic framework of Christian theism is true. Plantinga’s work on “warranted belief” and Alston’s work on the “experiential basis of theism” is helpful here. Alston writes: “the relatively abstract belief that God exists is constitutive of the doxastic practice of forming particular beliefs about God's presence and activity in our lives on the basis of theistic experience.” I realize that sentence may need a lot of unpacking. Suffice it to say here that, for Alston, experiential support for theism is analogous to experiential support for belief in the physical world.

Alston explains what he means by “theistic experience.” He writes:

I “mean it to range over all experiences that are taken by the experiencer to be an awareness of God (where God is thought of theistically). I impose no restrictions on its phenomenal quality. It could be a rapturous loss of conscious self-identity in the mystical unity with God; it could involve "visions and voices"; it could be an awareness of God through the experience of nature, the words of the Bible, or the interaction with other persons; it could be a background sense of the presence of God, sustaining one in one's ongoing activities. Thus the category is demarcated by what cognitive significance the subject takes it to have, rather than by any distinctive phenomenal feel.”

For Plantinga, if the noetic framework of Christian theism is true, then I can expect to experience God. On this noetic framework God exists, has made us in his image, has placed a moral consciousness within us, has revealed himself in the creation, and desires for us to know him. Plantinga, of course, believes this noetic framework is true. As do I. One then expects experiential encounters with God. They come to us, as Alston says, like sense-experiences.

This is to argue for the rationality of theistic experiences. One can have “warrant” for the belief that such experiences are from God. But these experiences do not function as “proofs” of God’s existence.

Non-discursive experiences, and experiences in general, cannot be caught in the steel nets of literal language. “Experience” qua experience has what French philosopher Paul Ricoeur has called a “surplus of meaning.” “Words” never capture all of experience. Never. All experiencing has a non-discursive quality. Here the relationship, if any, of words to experiencing leads to volumes of discussion in areas such as linguistic semantics and philosophy of language.

Even a sentence as seemingly simple as “I see a tree” is, phenomenally, incomplete. Consider this experience: sitting on an ocean beach watching the sun set with the person you are falling in love with. Ricoeur called such experiences “limit-experiences”; viz., experiences that arise outside the limits of thought and language. But people want to express, in words, these events. For that, Ricoeur says a “limit-language” is needed, such as metaphorical expression. So-called “literal language” cannot express limit-experiences.

Every person has limit-experiences that move into the arena of non-discursiveness.

I believe that experience, not theory, breeds conviction. Theorizing either for or against God is not as convincing as the sense of the presence of God or the sense of the absence of God. This is precisely why, in spite of all my previous and ongoing theoretical studies about God, I keep returning to my “conversion experience.”

Among the God-experiences I consistently have are:
- A sense that God is with me
- Numinous experiences of awe and wonder (not mere “Einsteinian wonder”)
- God speaking to me
- God leading me
- God comforting me
- God’s love expressed towards me
- God’s Spirit convicting me
- God directing me
- Overwhelming experience of God
- God revealing more of himself to me

These experiences are mediated through:
-Corporate worship
-Individuals
-Solitary times of prayer
-Study of the Christian scriptures
-Observing the creation
-In difficult and testing situations

And sometimes I have experienced God in an unmediated way.

I discern and judge such things to be experiences of God because:
-I spend many hours a week praying
-I have heavily invested myself in prayer and meditation for the past 40 years
-I saturate myself in the Christian scriptures
-I have studied the history of Christian spirituality
-I keep a spiritual journal and, over the past 3 years, have 3000+ pages of journal entries having to do with God experiences and the voice of God to me
-I hang out with a lot of people who do all of the above
- I've taught and yet teach this stuff in various seminaries, at conferences, in the United States & elsewhere around the world. Thus I've gained a multi-ethnic perspective on the subject of experiencing God.

All the above seem to me to increase one’s diacritical ability (dia-krisis; “discernment”; lit. “to cut through”). Spiritual diacritical ability is mostly acquired. Discernment is in direct proportion to familiarity.



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My book on prayer is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

My book Leading the Presence-Driven Church will be published this summer.

Presence-Driven Pastors Tend, Not Run, the Garden

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Snow falling on my back yard

A Presence-Driven Church is organic.

The soil is the hearts of the people.

The people are taught to abide in Christ.

God is the seed planter.

In the Christ-abiding connection, God sows dreams and visions, course correction and direction, into the hearts of the people.

The Presence-Driven Pastor is not threatened by this. They welcome and nurture it, like parents caring for a newborn baby. The Presence-Driven Pastor is like an expectant parent who prays for this child to be born, prepares a room for it to flourish, and celebrates its arrival.

This is Real Church, a community where everyone (not just the pastor) gets to play. Everyone is part of the movement. Everyone is a leader. When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. (1 Corinthians 14:26)

To allow this you must let go of control. Which is hard for an Entertainment-Driven Pastor to do. (Hard for many of us, right?) These pastors control the Studio Church. The many are not as talented or as beautiful or as camera-friendly as the few. So they run the garden, rather than tend it. The people are spiritually lobotomized, becoming an audience of outsiders. The Entertainment-Driven Pastor of the Consumer Church has been seduced and trafficked by the American honor-shame hierarchy.

This is, Eugene Peterson writes, a dark vocational shift. It is the "radical fall from vocational holiness to career idolatry," which "goes undetected by all but the serpent." (Eugene Peterson, Eugene H., Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, p. 7)

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I am now writing Leading the Presence-Driven Church. (Summer 2017)