Living For God Through Jesus—Reflections on 1 Corinthians 8:6

This will be the last of my daily blogs for awhile; I simply cannot continue to invest the time and keep up with the demands of seminary and my other work. My intent is to try to publish at least once a week because I still feel the call to do so.

Yet for us there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.—1 Corinthians 8:6 (NIV)

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.—Genesis 1:26a (RSV)

“See, I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil.—Deuteronomy 30:15 (RSV)

[Jesus said] You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.—Matt. 5:48 (RSV)

“The time has come,” [Jesus] said. “The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”—Mark 1:15 (NIV)

As I read Paul’s verse from 1 Corinthians this morning, I was struck by its tightly-packed nature. In this one sentence, Paul summarizes what it means for Christians to live in the Kingdom of God as well as the basis for our hope—Jesus Christ and him crucified.

What does it mean to live in the Kingdom of God? To live in the Kingdom means that we must allow God to rule our lives so that we live according to his purposes for creating us. What are those purposes? In the creation stories we read that God created humans to have fellowship with him, to worship and obey him, and before the Fall, Adam and Eve enjoyed that kind of relationship with God because they DID obey. In other words, as Paul says, they were living for God. Then came the Fall when we freely chose to rebel against God’s creative purposes for us and the Bible tells us that things went south in a hurry. First, we humans no longer have the ability to be perfect, i.e., mistake-free, in our discipleship, even if that is our intention. Second, because we are sin-marred, fallen creatures, we have no hope of ever living in God’s Kingdom because there is no sin or imperfection there; God simply cannot allow it as the story in Genesis 2 makes clear.

So what can we do to fix this? Nothing. There is absolutely nothing we can do in our own right that will fix the problem. Try as we might, we humans, because we are Fallen creatures, cannot live up the standards required to live in God’s Kingdom. There is no hope and if that were the end of the story, our lives would be quite depressing and miserable. In fact, I suspect this world of ours would look radically different (for the worse) than it does now.

So what’s the solution? Jesus Christ and him crucified. In his infinite love for every person, even the worst of us (and you may fill in the blank here), God became human and did what was necessary to restore our broken relationship with him—he died on a cross and bore the full brunt of the punishment that is justly ours because of our sinful rebellion. In other words, God suffered our punishment for us so that we might eventually enjoy a fully restored relationship with him. This is partly what Paul meant in 1 Corinthians when he talked about living through Jesus. It is the sole basis of our hope if we ever want to live eternally in God’s Kingdom. It is also the sure antidote to smug self-righteousness because without that cross, even the best of us will fall short and be denied entrance into God’s eternal Kingdom.

That God loves us enough to become one of us and take on himself our richly deserved punishment so that we might have our relationship with him restored is truly Good News and that is why I believe Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6). In other words, it’s why I reject this notion that there are many paths to God because no other path offers a solution to this problem of sinful humans living in God’s sin-free, perfect Kingdom.

So what do we have to do to obtain this benefit? We simply have to accept this wondrous free gift by believing that God did exactly what he said he did for us in Jesus and then turn from our selfish, self-centered ways—what the Bible calls “repentance”—and begin to live lives that bear attendant fruits. To repent means more than trying to follow a legalistic set of rules in an attempt to see how many of them we can follow (and measuring our own righteousness based on our ability to do so). No, true repentance demands a radical alteration of our entire lives where we focus on living for God, not ourselves, and true repentance always bears its fruit, just as evil bears its own fruit. Therefore, I am always skeptical of anyone who claims to have repented but does not show evidence of it (and I’m not thinking of so-called “death bed conversions” here—that’s a different topic for a different day). Nor do I believe for one minute that the Blood of Christ covers someone like that. How else can we explain Matthew 7:21? Grace is a free gift but it is never offered cheaply. Neither is it offered up as a license to continue sinning (living for ourselves instead of for God).

Let me share an example from my life to illustrate this. I’ve been divorced twice and married three times. On the one hand (at least the first time), I have tried to live according to God’s stated purpose for the way he wants men and women to live together (Matt 19:4-6), i.e., I got married. On the other hand, I have failed twice and according to Jesus, I’ve committed adultery twice. Given my dubious track record, how can I show repentance and live for God? Simply this. As a tangible sign of my repentance, I am resolved to do whatever it takes on my part to ensure this marriage will not end in divorce. That requires effort and intentionality. It requires I live for someone other than myself, to love my wife as Christ loves his church, and it demands that I ask God’s help in doing so every day I live. Do I get things right every day? Of course not; in fact, some days I don’t even come close! Does that mean I’ve not truly repented? No, because despite my failure to be perfect in carrying out my resolve, I have not abandoned it and continue to strive for it. More importantly, I count on Jesus to be present in my daily living and to work within me, to transform me so that I might be better able to truly bear fruit consistent with my repentance. In other words, I live through Jesus. This is the other thing Paul meant in 1 Corinthians when he talked about living through Jesus. In so doing, I can live in confidence that Jesus has forgiven me for being two-time adulterer because he helps me bear fruit consistent with my repentance. And because it is Jesus who enables me to bear those fruits it is NOT merit on my part because it is not my own doing.

So each day I try to live for God. But each day makes me painfully aware that despite my best intentions and efforts, if left to my own devices, I cannot do so without failing. That’s why the Jesus’ cross is so precious to me. It is my one and only lifeline. Yet because Jesus does live in me, I am slowly but surely being empowered to live a life for God. That’s why I am utterly dependent on Jesus to save me. That’s how I live through Jesus.

In sum, when Christians say that we live for God, i.e., that we live in God’s Kingdom, we are saying that we acknowledge God as ruler of our lives and will try to worship and obey him because we do acknowledge his Lordship and rule. Yet in trying to live for God, we Christians also humbly admit that we are incapable of fully doing so because of our sinful nature and accept the free gift offered to us in Jesus, trusting that we are made righteous in him and opening ourselves up to his transforming power and presence in our daily living. In other words we live through (or because of) Jesus. Make no mistake. We have to do our part, but we live through Jesus.

What about you? How do you live for God and through Jesus? What is the basis for your hope (or do you have one)? How can we Christians help each other live for God through Jesus? If you are not living for God through Jesus, what’s holding you back? Share your doubts, reservations, and/or skepticism with us so that we might share with you our Hope in the daily context of our various lives.

The Transforming Friendship—Reflections on the Writing of Weatherhead

Before I begin today’s reflection, I want to remind readers once again about the purpose of this blog. My intention, prayers, and hopes are to provide a forum where Christians can talk about issues of faith and/or real problems they face, identifying resources they use/draw upon to help them overcome these problems or deal with issues. I encourage interested readers to share their own experiences in the context of the day’s topic. Only then will this blog reach its full potential and God-given purpose.

Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.—Rev. 3:20 (NIV)

An old Scotsman lay very ill, and his minister came to visit him. As the minister sat down on a chair near the bedside, he noticed on the other side of the bed another chair placed at such an angle as to suggest that a visitor had just left it. “Well, Donald,” said the minister glancing at the chair, “I see I am not your first visitor.” The Scotsman looked up in surprise, so the minister pointed to the chair. “Ah!” said the sufferer, “I’ll tell you about the chair. Years ago I found it impossible to pray. I often fell asleep on my knees I was so tired. And if I kept awake I could not control my thoughts from wandering. One day I was so worried I spoke to my minister about it. He told me not to worry about kneeling down, ‘Just sit down,’ he said, ‘and put a chair opposite you, imagine that Jesus is in it and talk to Him as you would to a friend.'” “And,” the Scotsman added, “I have been doing that ever since. So now you know why the chair is standing like that.” A week later the daughter of the old Scotsman drove up to the minister’s house and knocked at the door. She was shown into the study, and when the minister came in she could hardly restrain herself. “Father died in the night,” she sobbed. “I had no idea death could be so near. I had just gone to lie down for an hour or two. He seemed to be sleeping so comfortably. And when I went back he was dead. He hadn’t moved since I saw him before, except that his hand was out on the empty chair at the side of the bed. Do you understand?” “Yes,” said the minister, “I understand.”

The reality of this transforming friendship is reached not through argument but through experience.

The love of Jesus, what it is,
None but his loved ones know.

But they know.

—From The Transforming Friendship by Leslie D. Weatherhead

Have you ever wondered what it means to have “communion with Jesus?” I have. Years ago I read Weatherhead’s book and found it tremendously helpful in answering that question. I especially like the poignant story above because it has all the markings of real fellowship between Christ and one of his beloved children (note too that the disciple was not spared suffering). In part, because of Weatherhead’s little booklet, and because I have intentionally tried to practice what Weatherhead preached, I have been able to develop a closer relationship with Jesus. As with any relationship that involves humans, it’s not perfect but it’s definitely becoming a deeper, more intimate relationship. What’s the secret? Faith, practice, and more practice.

The first and most important lesson I learned from reading Weatherhead was to treat Jesus like a person, not some abstract concept or historical relic consigned to the past. Doing so helped me understand that I have to do the same things with Jesus that I must do to cultivate any relationship—work at it and invest myself in it. What does that look like in my daily life? Well, when I am driving alone in my car, for example, I try to picture Jesus sitting in the passenger seat next to me. I talk with him and try to listen for his voice (see my previous reflections on this—mind you, I don’t hear an audible voice but I do hear his voice at times). Knowing that Jesus is in the car with me also tends to help me be on my best behavior (and when my wife reads this, I’m quite sure she will want me to picture Jesus sitting in between us when we’re in the car together! :)). After all, it’s certainly not polite to issue the flying fickle finger of fate to some crazy driver who just cut you off when your Lord and Savior is sitting beside you!

Likewise, when a noble thought strikes me or I am moved to some act of compassion, I try to remind myself that Jesus must be present and has prompted me to think or act in that manner. I have also written in a previous entry about how I look at his face during my morning prayer time to cultivate a greater sense of his presence. Now certainly Jesus is present with me ALL the time, whether or not I am aware of him being with me, but that is not my point; rather, the point is that I must work on my end of this relationship so that our friendship grows. The more I work at it, i.e., the more I practice, the better able I am to cultivate my Lord’s presence. This is not unlike thinking constantly about our beloved spouse or friends when they are not present. The more intimate we become with them, the more they become part of us, irrespective of physical limitations or time and space constraints. That’s what I am constantly working on, and not always successfully. Some days are better than others, of course, but there is not a day that goes by without me thinking about my beloved Savior or listening for his Voice. I should also point out that my ability to cultivate this relationship is heavily dependent on my other spiritual disciplines (daily Bible reading, prayer, fellowship, tithing, and weekly worship).

In regards to the spiritual discipline of weekly worship, my growing friendship with Jesus has also helped me change my attitudes about the way folks worship. For example, I loathe contemporary music to the degree that I am convinced if I am ever cast into hell, it will surely be a place where I am forced to listen to this music for all eternity. 🙂 Seriously, despite my personal feelings about contemporary music, I am all for it if it helps folks grow in their friendship with our Living Lord. Likewise, if folks can find meaning in crossing themselves, or genuflecting, or lighting candles, or reading psalms, or waving hands, or whatever else, I’m all for it. In other words, the mode of worship should focus on developing a REAL relationship with the real person Jesus so that believers find themselves in an increasingly intimate relationship with their Lord. THAT’S communion with Christ! As such, believers should always do those things that are meaningful to them as they try to practice the presence of God. So whatever its mode (or form), as long as it helps the believer find our Risen Lord and strike a meaningful relationship with him, mark me down as being all for it, irrespective of my own personal beliefs about a particular mode or form of worship.

Based on my experience and the experience of countless others, if seekers can find the real Jesus and not their own made-up version of him, I am confident they will never have to worry about correct doctrine or any such thing because they will have found the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

What about you? Do you have a satisfying relationship with Jesus? If so, what do you do to help grow it? What does Jesus do to cultivate your friendship? What problems have you encountered in your relationship with Jesus and how were you able to overcome them (or were you)? If you don’t have a satisfying relationship with Jesus, what is standing in your way and how can we help? Share your wisdom and experience with us so that together we might grow in our love for Jesus and each other.

On Hearing God’s Voice—Part 5

“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD.—Isaiah 1:18 (NIV)

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.—Isaiah 55:8 (NIV)

Most people who are interested in guidance are perplexed as to its relationship with reason, and many of the warnings given to believers are concerned with the need to respect thought.

Nor need we resent the warnings—even though some of them are very naive and appear to be addressed to morons. Reason is one of the highest of the human endowments, and God cannot wish that His priceless gift become atrophied for want of use. More thought—and not less—is clearly the urgent need of the age. It is one of the cardinal misfortunes of the times that people seem content to catch the epidemic opinion, or buy it for a penny in a newspaper, rather than undertake the labour of thinking it out for themselves. Religion is not the handmaid of shoddy thinking. It has discovered no bypass road to all knowledge that shall cut out the need for careful and laboured thought. Guidance is a glorious and precious privilege, which insulates one from worry, but does not deliver one from the moil of mental stress. Reason we must. Are we not called upon to love the Lord our God with all our mind? We cannot think that God can be fittingly served by people who have become intellectually effete.

And yet unaided reason is often a disappointing tool. The hymn-writer calls it a “glimmering ray.” All of us have had the experience of putting our hardest and most patient thought into a thing, and then making a mistake in the end. It is unlikely that we shall ever win a full exemption from that peril while we live on this plane, but if, in the providence of God, our best thought can be helped by some special insight, or our reasoning lifted into a realm where the mystery of our motives is a mystery no more and where we can see with clearness what purposes are really influencing our conduct, then we are more likely to act with true reason and may find that there is no ultimate conflict between the reasonable and the right. Is there any way in which we can reason with God, or submit the fruit of our thought to His judgment that we can see where the Divine approval rests? The saints have always held that there is. They have not claimed for it an utter infallibility, but they are so sure of the difference it makes to the reasoning process that they describe the contrast as a stumbling in the twilight beside a striding forward in sunshine.

[Yet] all human reasoning is honeycombed with uncertainty. We are seldom in possession of all the facts relating to the matter in the past and present, and, as to the future, the wisest among us can only guess. Hence, it should not surprise us if the constraint of guidance is sometimes towards a course for which it is impossible to give a completely valid reason. How can it be otherwise unless we assume that omniscience is a human attribute as well as a divine one?

—From God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster

Previously I reflected on how I have heard God’s voice through prayer, reading the Bible, in the fellowship, and in life’s circumstances. Today I conclude this series by reflecting on the fifth of Sangster’s ways of hearing God’s voice—through reason. I will focus on the role of reason in my decision to seek ordained ministry because I think it illustrates nicely Sangster’s two main points about the ways reason can help us to hear God’s voice. Like Sangster, I confess a certain element of mystery to reason. Yet I also think Sangster’s writings can help us better understand the apparent contradiction in the two passages from Isaiah I quote above. How can we reason with God if his thoughts are not like ours?

As I reflect on my call to ministry, I can see both reasonable and unreasonable elements in it. On the one hand, I’ve felt the call for a long time. A quick read of my spiritual autobiography shows that. I have always been interested in matters of the faith and involved in my church, wherever I lived. On the other hand, this call doesn’t make sense. Why would God call someone like me? I am my own worst critic because I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me (Psalm 51:3). And so as I consider why God would call someone like me, I must scratch my head in bewilderment—it just doesn’t make sense. But at the same time, the call is not unreasonable. It doesn’t call me to do violence to myself or others (perhaps I should wait to see the reaction of folks after my first sermon before making the latter claim! :)). Moreover, God continues to call all sorts of men and women to ministry and so my call is nothing extraordinary because I am of the human race. As such, I had to look to means other than reason to ensure I was hearing God’s voice correctly in this call.

I have reflected on those other ways elsewhere and so I’ll only summarize them for you here. In addition to using my reason, I listened to God’s voice in prayer and heard his voice in circumstances and in the wise counsel of the fellowship—my Christian friends, my discernment committee at St. Matthew’s, my bishop, my wife, etc. In all these things there was a convergence (or as my old stats professor used to say, a triangulation of the data) that helped me confirm the validity of God’s call and so I can move forward with confidence, but always with an ever-listening ear.

As for my motives in pursuing ordained ministry, I believe God helped me see them not necessarily through reason but when I went for my Midwest evaluation, an intensive two-day psychological/vocational assessment process that the diocese requires of all men and women thinking about pursuing the ordained ministry, i.e., God spoke to my motives through circumstances and the fellowship. Both the psychologist and the counselor told me that my motives appeared to be just as I stated them—to use my gifts of teaching to serve God’s people—and that my ego needs were minimal. Knowing my sinful nature, of course, I believe their observations are valid but take them with a grain of salt—I know how quickly things can go wrong with me.

And like Sangster, I have been mistaken when using reason to help me hear God’s voice. I am thinking now of my decision to leave Miami and come to Columbus to take a new job. I was in the process of getting a divorce and my job at Miami appeared to be in jeopardy. A door opened for me here (although I confess I pressed hard to open it, which in hindsight was a fatal mistake—isn’t it almost always?), and I moved to Columbus to take the new job. As I reasoned it out, the job seemed perfect. It represented a career advancement, offered a huge increase in pay, and would allow me to have influence on a statewide basis, perfect for an ego like mine. 🙂 Yet the job turned out to be a disaster. Moving here also cost me dearly in terms of being physically separated from my daughter, a terrible burden I have had to bear since moving here, and one I can only bear with Christ’s help, BTW. And so as I reflect back on that decision, it seems to me that my reason failed me, in part because I also tried to force the issue. Perhaps I used faulty reasoning to begin with or my motives were not right in the first place. But thanks be to God that he took what I consider to be a poor decision and turned it into a good one, at least as it pertains to my call to the ordained ministry. I eventually found work in Westerville (a disaster in its own right) and then found St. Matthew’s and Fr. Ron, two key events in helping me hear God’s voice in my call.

To summarize, then, I try to use my reason as one way of listening for God’s voice. Does the voice sound reasonable? Does it tend to restrain me in ways that are beneficial, at least as far as I can tell? Does it make sense in the context of my life? Yet at other times God’s voice doesn’t always sound reasonable in that he seems to call me to do audacious things—like go into the ordained ministry (and when I say “unreasonable” I do not mean harmful or something that clearly flies in the face of God’s morality, etc.)! At times like this I have to accept the limitations to my reasoning abilities (because I am finite), and accept God’s omniscience, trusting in his great love and intentions for me. In all instances, however, I don’t rely on just one means to hear God’s voice but always try to look for convergence, i.e., in prayer, in the Bible, in circumstances, in reason, and in the fellowship. It has been my experience that this is the best way to confirm the validity of the Voice when I hear it.

What about you? How do you use reason to hear God’s voice? When has it benefited you? When did your reason fail you? Has God ever asked you to do something audacious? If so, what was it and how did you recognize God’s voice in the asking? Do you agree with my idea of convergence? Why or why not? Are there other ways I have not discussed that you use to hear God’s voice? If so, please share them with us so that we can learn from each other and “watch over each other in love.”

On Hearing God’s Voice—Part 4

A solitary Christian is almost a contradiction in terms. His vital growth depends upon sharing and service, as well as upon prayer and meditation. God’s guidance, in its completeness and corroboration, requires fellowship as well. We bear glad witness to the fact that God speaks to us constantly without any intermediary at all—but we bear witness also to our need of his Voice through the fellowship. The doubts which fill the mind at times when our personal guidance is not clear, can be resolved in the fellowship.

Perhaps the disciple is hesitating at a difficult interview, or growing lax with his period of daily devotion, or slipping down from his new level of life to the ineffective routine of conventional Christianity. The fellowship holds him up and keeps the challenge high. Every week brings its time of refreshment and God fulfils His promise made to the twos and threes [to be with them where they are gathered]. He is in the midst to guide; from self to surrender; from sin to holiness; from sloth to service; from the vision seen in a glass darkly to those blinding moments when we dare to say we see Him face to face. Robert Barclay knew the secret. He said, “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 unto it, I found the evil weakening in me and the good raised up.”

—From God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster

Previously I reflected on how I have heard God’s voice through prayer, reading the Bible, and in life’s circumstances. Today I reflect on the fourth of Sangster’s ways of hearing God’s voice—through Christian fellowship. Before I begin, however, I must state the obvious. It would be a mistake to once again pigeonhole God’s voice to small groups of Christians. Indeed, God can and does use all kinds of people, Christian and non-Christian, in all kinds of contexts to speak to us. But if the testimony of the saints is accurate, that seems to be more the exception than the rule. Consequently, it is beyond the scope of today’s reflection. Moreover, as is the case in my previous reflections, hearing God’s voice in the fellowship means we must be listening for it.

Fr. John Wesley believed there was no such thing as an isolate Christian. He believed correctly that as Christians, we are part of the body of Christ—a living, breathing organism. As members of Christ’s Body, the church, we are mutually accountable to each other to help keep Christ’s Body healthy as a whole and to help each other grow individually into the full stature of Christ (Eph. 4:13). So important was this idea of mutual Christian accountability to Wesley that he placed great emphasis on developing an extensive small group structure within the Methodist movement with the purpose of raising up and nurturing Christian disciples, calling these small groups the “sinews” of his movement. As Sangster points out above, Christian fellowship can play an important role in encouraging, exhorting, restraining, or rebuking and we must trust each other and God’s presence in their voices if we are to hear him speak through them.

This idea of mutual support (accountability) is nothing new. People who start diets or exercise programs or anything else they know will be difficult—and let’s be clear about this: denying ourselves and following Jesus is no small or easy thing to do—often get a buddy to help them continue doing what they are doing. Let’s face it, it’s easier to do something hard when you can count on someone else to support you (remembering there is only a six inch difference between a pat on the back and a swat on the behind :)) or when you have to hold yourself accountable to someone else, and we humans tend to find it easier to be held accountable to flesh and blood rather than to the intangible Spirit! Why, then, would it be unreasonable to expect to hear God’s voice in other Christians, especially given Jesus’ promise to be with us wherever two or three of us are gathered in his name (Matt. 18:20)?

I relate the following four stories to illustrate how I’ve heard God’s voice in the voice of other faithful Christians.

Two weeks ago, Fr. Ron announced my postulancy to the congregation in all three services. In two of the three, spontaneous applause erupted, something that embarrassed me in the service I attended, but also something I interpreted to be both a tangible sign of support and yet another confirmation of God’s affirming my call to ministry. The former is especially remarkable because I don’t go to the 11:00 service and suspect that most folks there don’t even know me!

A second example comes from about six years ago when I went to a Christian therapist to help me get through my divorce. I was devastated and very despondent. Yet every time I visited, I would pray to God to use the therapist, a devout Christian and former minister, to speak to me what I needed to hear that day. I don’t want to suggest that things were peachy after each session or that my road to emotional recovery was easy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yet slowly but surely I began to feel some palpable relief and hope again. That was probably the darkest period of my life but God spoke to me regularly and in many ways. In doing so, he sustained me even as I momentarily contemplated (and rejected) ending my life. I can really love and adore a God who refuses to let go of his children, even in their most profound state of brokenness. What about you?

The third example is illustrated in the following email I recently received:

Meanwhile, I’ll offer some encouragement regarding your blog. When I first started my website, it seemed a bit silly to me. After all, who would care about – much less download – my teaching? In fact during the first 2 years it existed, I had only a handful of downloads (literally only 3-4 per month). Then six months ago, God decided it was time to make use of my efforts, and things started to change. During the first week of 2006 alone, I saw 2,500 downloads of my teachings. God is amazing.

This came from a man whom I have never met. His name is Steve Armstrong and I originally learned of him when I began listening to his podcast series on the Sovereignty of God, a series I found to be quite good as well as provocative. Steve lives in Texas and I listen to his sermon every week on my way to and from Toledo. We also exchange email occasionally. Now I don’t always agree with him nor he with me but that is not the point. My point is that here is a man who doesn’t know me from the next fellow, but who took the time to look at my blog and offer encouragement for this ministry. Now THAT’S an example of Christian charity on Steve’s part and I also consider it to be God offering his encouragement to me through Steve. Why? Not because I got my ego stroked but because I think Steve is a faithful soul and God happily uses a man like him to speak to others. As such, I am thankful to both. BTW, this is also a good example of how God can use technology to connect Christians in meaningful ways from literally all over the world. Powerful stuff!

A final example comes from yesterday morning. After looking at one of the syllabi for my online courses, a syllabus that really put me off, my pride and intellectual arrogance reared their ugly heads (or perhaps it was Satan tempting, I’m not sure) and I was seriously contemplating giving up this call to ministry—I just didn’t want to do the work or be a student again in the formal sense. My wife, bless her heart, in her own inimitable and gentle way called my motives into question and this led me into an extended prayer session with God to clear the air. Long story short: I realized I WAS being sinfully proud (or HAD been tempted) and was going down the wayward path; I was contemplating active disobedience toward God yet again. Regardless if it was satanic temptation or sinful pride (or both), I am thankful that God spoke through my beloved wife to drive me to prayer where he could finish me off! 🙂

In closing, I do not wish to convey the false and mistaken notion that discerning God’s voice in the voices of the Christian fellowship is easy or infallible. It most certainly is not! I recall one set of extended conversations I had with one of my friends who thought I was clinically depressed. He was surely sincere, but I believe sincerely mistaken, and we could not come to agreement on this matter. My point here is twofold. First, I am thankful my friend loves me enough to express his concerns to me. Perhaps God WAS speaking through him but I was unable to hear his voice; I just don’t know. This leads me to my second point. As with anything else involved with listening for God’s voice, we must always test our Christian friends’ voices against other reliable sources because Satan is always active and we are not infallible creatures. As with anything else, the more we practice listening for God’s voice in the voice of others, especially our Christian brothers and sisters, the better we are able to discern the Voice from the other voices. That’s good news as far as I’m concerned.

What about you? How has God spoken to you through the fellowship? Has God used others to speak to you? Has he used you to speak to others? How were you able to know it was God’s voice you heard or spoke? What difficulties have you had in hearing God’s voice in the fellowship and what suggestions can you offer to help us better listen for, hear, or speak the voice of the Good Shepherd? Tell us your stories so that God might use you as his voice right now.

Tomorrow: Conclusion-Hearing God’s Voice Through Reason

On Hearing God’s Voice—Part 3

The third story concerns the writer [Sangster]. I have made it a practice of my quiet time to ask God’s guidance in all areas of my life and ministry, not to the atrophy of reason but to the overruling of it in any way where it runs counter to the Divine Will. Particularly do I seek guidance in my pastoral work: where to call and how to make best use of the personal contacts of the home. One must work to a plan in this, as in other things, and yet beware lest the plan become a prison and make one deaf to a special word from God.

One morning as I waited quietly before God, it was borne in upon me that I must call on a certain woman that day. I resisted the thought. It did not fit in with my plans. I knew no reason why I should go to her home. To go in that direction would mean one call; to go in the way I planned would mean a dozen. Yet her name dinned in my ears and I went. And the memory of that visit will always be sweet to me. I can see her wan face as I write. “Do come in,” she said, and when I sat down she added, “Fancy you remembering.”

But I had remembered nothing and said so. And then she reminded me. “It was a year ago to-day,” she said, “since you buried my husband. I have been dreading this day and got up this morning fearfully overwrought and feeling that I must run away from the house and every stabbing memory. But, as I tried to pray, God came very near and seemed to urge me to wait within the home. Somehow I knew He would send me a word of comfort.” So we talked together quietly and confidently of the Blessed Hope—the sure and certain hope (sublime paradox!)—and I reminded her again that I had not remembered but that God had sent me. And my forgetfulness seemed a little thing to her at the thought that He was mindful. “It is very wonderful,” she said; “God must keep a calendar.”

—From God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster

Previously I reflected on how I have heard God’s voice through prayer and reading the Bible. Today I reflect on the third of Sangster’s ways of hearing God’s voice—through circumstances in our daily lives. I relate three stories from my recent past that I hope illustrate this point.

The first example deals with my discernment process and being made a postulant for the priesthood. Throughout the process, I tried to be very intentional in looking for God’s movement, guidance, and involvement in it. I mention this because it has been my experience that it is entirely possible to miss God’s voice in the midst of our circumstances if we do not look for it. And so as my priest, Fr. Ron, began to assemble my discernment committee, I was amazed that independently we thought about the same people to serve on it.

As my discernment process moved to the diocesan level, and without getting specific, I was astonished—literally—to find the right people being in place at the right time. First, my bishop affirmed my call to ministry in a most powerful way that left me amazed; it was certainly not something I had expected but it was quite real nevertheless. In fact, as we left the meeting, my wife commented about how peaceful I looked and acted.

After my meeting with the bishop, certain events had to happen rather quickly for him to grant me postulancy before he retired in December, something he told me he very much wanted to do. They did. Today I begin my studies at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (TESM) in its online Diploma for Anglican Studies because the right people were in place to make that decision. I am absolutely thrilled to be able to pursue this seminary option because it best suits my skills as an educational technologist. TESM is also an orthodox seminary and that best suits my beliefs. Suffice it to say that I believe it to be no coincidence that I am where I am because of God’s guiding hand in this rather complex set of circumstances. Too much has happened for them to be merely coincidences and because of this, I have once again heard God’s voice confirming my call to the ordained ministry.

The second example I offer is much more personal. Recently I had to deal with some legal hangovers with my ex-wife regarding child custody issues. As a result, I had to drive two and a half hours to Hamilton for a court hearing, something I dreaded doing. I was also deeply saddened that this was an apparently unresolved issue, even after almost 6 years of being divorced. Simply put, it had taken the stuffings out of me on more than one level. I had thought about asking my dear friend, Fr. Ron, to drive with me but rejected the idea because I did not want to impose on him; I knew I would be asking him for an all day commitment and couldn’t bring myself to do that to him. When the day of the hearing arrived, my heart was heavy as I prepared to undertake my journey. Imagine, then, my utter surprise when Ron called and asked if I wanted him to travel to Hamilton with me (I still get the shivers just thinking about this)! He told me that God had awakened him very early in the morning, something that Ron will tell you is no easy task, and told him to call me. I quickly accepted Ron’s invitation and thanked both God and him for being so gracious to me as well as being such good friends.

Note the dynamics in this latter story. Here were two people listening for God’s voice and responding positively when they heard it. Also note the intimacy of God’s involvement in the circumstances of life. It wasn’t overly obtrusive nor was it harmful; rather, it answered a quite palpable need on my part. I can really love and worship a God who pays that kind of attention in the lives of his children and believe that guidance to be available to any who ask and seek it. I should also point out again that Ron did not “hear” an audible voice when God awoke him early that morning. Instead, the idea that he should travel with me was borne on his mind; and so, like Sangster’s story above, he heard God’s voice because he has a history of paying attention to it and recognized it when God spoke to him.

The last story involves this blog itself. I have not had much action on it and that has been disappointing. It’s a tough thing to put my time and energy into something and then have no one pay attention to it. However, because I perceive this to be something God wants me to do, I will continue writing it, irrespective of traffic or response, until I hear otherwise. Toward the end of last week, I was reflecting on the fact that few, if any, people were reading this but kept reminding myself that that was not the point. Imagine my shock when I went to Kendall Harmon’s blog, titusonenine, on Thursday and saw my name as a topic! Unbelievable! He found out I had a new blog (how, I don’t know) and invited folks to check it out. This is especially interesting because I had considered writing Kendall and asking him to plug my blog but didn’t because I am not very good at selling myself, at least in that way. Then the Confessing Reader paid a visit here and made a positive comment about my writing on his blog. In addition, a third person left a wonderful comment elsewhere on this blog from which I took encouragement.

How did I react to these events? I was absolutely awed into silence because in these unrelated circumstances I heard God’s voice of encouragement to me. He seemed to be saying, “Keep on writing, Kevin. If I want this to grow, it will. Your job is to keep on writing.” And so here I am this afternoon. I have a ton of things to do today, including seminary work, but here I am, trying to be obedient to God’s voice heard in these circumstances. Make no mistake. This blog has not suddenly turned into a high traffic site or any such thing. That’s OK, though. It’s not mine to grow. My job is to obey the call, to listen to the Voice in circumstances.

It’s your turn now. How has God spoken to you in your life’s circumstances and how have you responded? What prevents you from hearing God’s voice in them? What are some things you could do to better listen for his voice in your daily circumstances? How might we help you in this endeavor? Tell us your stories so that we might draw strength, hope, and encouragement from our collective testimonies. all the while giving thanks to God for speaking to us in the daily circumstances of our lives.

Tomorrow: Hearing God’s voice through fellowship

On Hearing God’s Voice—Part 2

Before I begin today’s reflection, I want to remind readers about the purpose of this blog and quote from another page on it.

I have had this blog installed on my website for months now and have desired to use it as a tool for ministry ever since I installed it. Yet it remained blank. I was almost paralyzed with indecision because I could not figure out what to do or how to organize it. Then it came to me in prayer on Monday, January 9, 2006. I had an impulse to use this as a tool for mutual Christian accountability, an area about which I am keenly interested and on which I hope to focus my ordained ministry when the time comes. I will attempt to write a daily reflection each weekday and will trust God to grow this (or not) as he wills. I will also continue to write until he tells me to stop.

My intention, prayers, and hopes for this blog are to provide a forum where Christians can talk about issues of faith and/or real problems they face, identifying resources they use/draw upon to help them overcome these problems or deal with issues. To facilitate this interchange, I will attempt to post excerpts of devotional writings or passages from Scripture on a regular basis and then comment on them. I will then ask interested readers to do likewise, sharing their experiences and knowledge so that we might “watch over each other in love,” as John Wesley put it.

May Christ bless these efforts and use them for his purposes.

I encourage interested readers to share their own experiences in the context of the day’s topic. Only then will this blog reach its full potential and God-given purpose. Having reminded you of this, let us look at today’s topic—hearing God’s voice through the Bible.

[Jesus said] You search and investigate and pore over the Scriptures diligently, because you suppose and trust that you have eternal life through them. And these [very Scriptures] testify about Me! —John 5:39 (AMP)

Again and again, in the passage of time, men have supposed that the Bible had outlived its usefulness and need no longer be reckoned with. In the early centuries it was often criticized for its lack of literary style. Augustine, prior to his conversion, felt that the Scriptures were “unworthy to be compared with the dignity of Tully.” In later years, science was said to have entirely discredited the book. Voltaire thought that nobody would be reading the Bible in the nineteenth century, but, in the twentieth, the demand for it is even greater.

In prayer we speak to God. The Bible is one great way in which God speaks to us. None who seeks guidance can afford to neglect the Book. Let us consider how God guides through the Bible.

Some devout people have substitutes for the Scriptures. They find the Bible a somewhat bewildering library, so that they live on little books of “selections” or even on “promise boxes.” [Promise boxes were popular in the Victorian era. They were wooden boxes that contained biblical promises printed on small pieces of paper and rolled up like miniture scrolls for random selection in times of need]. As to the “promise box” it will do as a sweetmeat but it must not be made into the whole meal. It is all comfort. But God has other things for us beside comfort. God gives us comfort when we need it, but we have need also for counsel as well as comfort, and for reproof and restraint. That is why the “promise box” and similar selections are no sufficient substitute for the Bible…Take the Bible. Let God speak to you through His own Book.

But in urging you to take the Bible, we do not suggest that it be treated as a book of magic. It is our privilege and duty to study it. God cannot desire that the only use we make of His Book is to treat it, in moments of crisis, like a lucky dip. We must study the Bible. Obviously so far as the Book is concerned, God can guide most those who study it most.

How, then, shall we study the Bible to get the maximum guidance from its page?

We shall study it first with prayer. We shall study it every day—and unhurriedly. When we turn to a portion of the Scripture and quietly seek its meaning, not carrying our preconceived ideas to it but just keeping an open mind to what it has to teach, we ask two questions. “What did it mean then?” “What does it mean for me now?” God’s guidance through the Bible is not limited to the repetition of exact circumstances.

As he questions the Scriptures, devoutly asking in the felt-presence of God, “What can I learn about God from this?” “What can I learn about myself?” “Does this Scripture rebuke me or challenge me?” “Does it call for action, or confession, or restitution?” —as he questions the record, the Divine Spirit will answer him and God will speak to his need. So God guides. For it is never enough to say that God has spoken through the Scriptures. God speaks through them still.

—From God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster

Yesterday I reflected on W. E. Sangster’s book, God Does Guide Us, and how I hear God’s voice in prayer. Today I consider the second way Sangster urged us to listen for God’s voice—reading the Bible. I consider this topic especially appropriate in the context of my blog because with the exception of this series on hearing Gods’ voice, each of my entries has come from insights I gleaned from reading Scripture! Sometimes a particular passage dovetailed with that day’s devotional readings but the idea behind each blog entry has always come from hearing God’s voice through his Word on a given day. And just as I prefaced my reflections on prayer, I want to address briefly the “rules of engagement” that guide my approach to reading Scripture.

First, I believe the Bible to be the infallible Word of our God—a living, breathing document that speaks to us in many ways and at multiple levels using various literary genres. As the infallible Word of God, I believe the Bible gets it right in all instances and when we have problems with it, it is because we are broken, fallible humans and our understanding is finite and incomplete. In other words, we don’t have the option of picking and choosing the chapters and verses we like while ignoring the ones we don’t; the Bible comes to us as a whole package. So like Sangster, I believe it to be an accurate guide for daily living. And like Sangster, I also believe I increase my chances of hearing God’s voice when I study it.

Second, I believe daily Bible reading and prayer are intimately interconnected, having a synergy of sorts, so that I increase my chances of hearing God’s voice when I read the Bible prayerfully and allow the Bible to help prepare me to pray.

Third, because I believe God speaks to me through the Bible, I try to read it with faithful expectation that I will hear God’s voice in the passages I read for that day. As with prayer, when I speak of “hearing” God’s voice, I do not mean I hear an audible voice; rather, when God speaks to me through Scriptures, thoughts usually come to mind or I am reminded of something or I am inspired or have a peace that is not my own, etc. And yes, there are times when God reprimands me. As with prayer, I hate it when that happens 🙂 but understand he does so for my benefit.

To help prepare myself to read God’s Word, I first do some journaling. I actually have two journals, one for prayer and the other for reflecting on the Scripture I am reading for the day. I find this helps me center down and focus on the task at hand—listening for God’s voice. I also use various devotional resources that provide structure for reading the Bible and before I read the assigned verses, I always start with this prayer, “Lord Jesus, open my heart, mind, and very spirit to your Word for me today. Speak to me according to your will for me and my ability to understand and bear it.”

The devotional resources I use organize devotions into weekly themes with an assigned psalm for the week and related daily Scripture readings. I also use a study Bible to assist my reading. I prefer the NIV translation but have multiple translations on hand and consult them if I just don’t understand a verse or passage.

After my opening prayer, I proceed to read the assigned psalm for that week. If any impulses come to me or if a given passage or word jumps out at me, I make note of it. I try to read Scripture aloud because I find it helps me concentrate better and keeps my mind from wandering, something over which I constantly struggle. When I’m done reading the psalm, I read the assigned Scripture for the day. I usually try to read the passage straight through and then read the study notes if I am unsure of the meaning of something.

When I finish reading the assigned chapter and verses for the day, I try to do what Sangster prescribes above. I summarize in my journal what I think the passages say or what they are about and how they speak to me in my situation. For example, this morning I read 2 Corinthians 4 and made note in my journal that preaching requires simplicity, straightforwardness, and a focus on Jesus Christ. As such, it reminded me of the ground rules for any work I do in ministry—to bring honor and glory to Jesus Christ.

I also found this reminder to be particularly appropriate today because yesterday this blog received wonderful validation from three sources whom I respect very much—one from my dear friend and priest, one from Kendall Harmon’s blog, titusonenine, and one from The Confessing Reader’s blog. Consequently, today’s assigned passage helped me resist the temptation of having an inflated opinion of myself and prompted me again to remember Whose I am and why I write this blog—I write it because I believe God has called me to provide a forum to help Christians who struggle with issues of living faithful daily lives. And so I was quite thankful to hear God’s reminder to me in Scripture this morning; it was just what I needed!

A final example of God speaking to me through his Word occurred on Tuesday, the day I travel to Toledo to work at my part-time job as interim Technology Director. As I read and reflected in my journal on Christ’s call to discipleship, about how I had to deny myself and take up my cross daily, I realized that I will probably not be able to continue that job next year because of the demands of seminary work. While that saddened me because I really enjoy my work there, I also realized that my call is to the ordained ministry and therefore I had to make seminary work my first priority; I just don’t think I can do both. I never cease to be amazed at God’s timing and the insights he provides me through his Word. And when I really stop and think about it, I am in awe of the fact that the Creator and Lord of the universe has the time, ability, and desire to be intimately involved in my daily living. If that cannot evoke thanks and praise in a person, I’m not sure what can. As such, I try to thank him daily in prayer for being so gracious to me.

I do not wish to give the impression that I never have problems hearing God’s voice when reading his Word. To the contrary, I am beset with a host of difficulties I think plague all men and women of faith. Sometimes I read a passage and don’t always understand what I read or the passage troubles me. For example, the thoughtful person cannot help but be troubled by God’s command to Joshua to slay the inhabitants of the Promised Land. Why would God do that? Then, of course, there’s the deep anguish of Psalm 137 and the terrible existential loneliness of Psalm 88. What are we to make of these passages? Whenever I am confronted by God’s Word in ways I do not understand or comprehend, I try to remind myself what Sangster says about Scripture, how we must not attempt to pigeonhole it. I also try to remind myself, although not always successfully, that I am finite and broken, that I am not God nor am I capable of understanding his ways—his thoughts are not my thoughts nor are his ways my way (Isaiah 55:8). It is moments like this that demand my absolute trust in God, even when understanding does not follow. And so while I am troubled by certain verses or chapters in the Bible, I always try to read them with the eye of faith and accept there are some things that are simply beyond my ability to know or comprehend. Acknowledging that does not invalidate God’s Word, however; it simply affirms our human condition.

I am also beset at times by a wandering mind and/or tiredness which detract from my ability to hear God’s voice. Moreover, I have found that if I do not start reading Scriptures early enough in the day, I am bothered by distractions that normally occur in our house, e.g., the TV playing, phones ringing, etc. The solution to the latter set of problems is to find a regular quiet time when I can read the Bible unhurriedly and without external distractions. During those times when I am distracted internally, I usually ask God to help me focus. If I am not successful in doing so I normally just acknowledge that this is a product of the human condition and do the best I can, trusting in God’s grace to speak to me according to my ability to hear it.

In sum, I try to follow Sangster’s wise counsel when reading the Bible. I approach it with faith and trust God to act according to his will for me and my ability to hear his voice on any given day. As with anything else related to matters of human endeavors, especially when interacting with the Spirit, results will vary. 🙂 In other words, I acknowledge that some days I can hear his voice more clearly than others and recognize that is my problem, not God’s. Like prayer, I read the Bible primarily to listen to what God has to say to me, although I am not afraid to question what I read and ask God about it. When I don’t get an answer to my questions, I have learned to be satisfied with the ambiguity and can accept an element of mystery in his Word. I use devotional materials, e.g., a study Bible, devotional readings, journals, etc., that work for me. I consider prayer and Bible reading to be interdependent and synergistic in nature so that I have a better chance of hearing God’s voice when I do both instead of doing one or the other. When I am confronted with passages I don’t understand or that trouble me, I try to read them in faith and trust in God’s purposes and ways, acknowledging that I am simply incapable of fully understanding God’s Word or Nature. I have found that in doing so, I am less tempted to rewrite Scripture to fit my own idolatrous image. Finally, I try to find regular times to read the Bible so that I will not be rushed or distracted in my reading. In all these things I give thanks to God in Jesus Christ for being loving enough and gracious enough to speak to me intimately and in myriad ways.

Now it’s your turn. How do you read the Bible? What are some things you do to help you hear God’s voice in his Word? What things prevent you from hearing God’s voice and what do you do to help overcome those things? Tell us your stories so that together we can learn to be better readers of God’s Word and hearers of his voice.

Monday: Hearing God’s Voice through circumstances

On Hearing God’s Voice—Part 1

[Jesus said] I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. —John 10:14, 27 (RSV)

Men and women who have long made a practice of listening to God claim that they can distinguish between their own imagination and the impress of God’s will. This claim is made quite deliberately, by servants of God in all branches of the Universal Church, and in all centuries. They do not claim that this gift fell upon them suddenly. It is the product of long practice in the art of listening and they commend such constant practice to all who would qualify for the gift.

God has sometimes spoken clearly to men who have no rich background of devotional life, but the rule still holds that those who would cultivate the power to know His voice must set time aside specifically for it and set it aside every day.

Nor do those who claim this power deny that they are sometimes mistaken.

There is a possibility of error in all things human—or partly human—but the adventurous soul will not turn back because of that. One would need to abandon life if one wished to avoid the very chance of error. And there is so much to encourage us in the pursuit of this prize: so many witnesses come forward in its confirmation and so much positive testimony accumulates even among those who were hesitant to believe.

“So the soul that waits in silence must learn to disentangle the voice of God from the net of other voices—the ghostly whisperings of the subconscious self, the luring voices of the world, the hindering voices of misguided friendship, the clamour of personal ambition and vanity, the murmur of self-will, the song of unbridled imagination, the thrilling not of religious romance. To learn to keep one’s ear true in so subtle a labyrinth of spiritual sound is indeed at once a great adventure and a liberal education. One hour of such listening may give us a deeper insight into the mysteries of human nature, and a surer instinct for Divine values, than a year’s hard study or external intercourse with men.”

From —God Does Guide Us by W. E. Sangster

Today I begin a series of reflections on hearing the voice of God, a critical aspect of discipleship and a topic worthy of our discussion and sharing. I base my reflections on W. E. Sangster’s book, God Does Guide Us, a book I found tremendously helpful and one to which I return on a fairly regular basis. Sangster writes that God can and does speak to those of us willing to listen (and sometimes even to folks who are unwilling to listen) in the following ways: (1) through prayer; (2) through the Bible; (3) through circumstances; (4) through reason; and (5) through fellowship. Surely Sangster’s is not an exhaustive list and it would be a mistake to try to pigeonhole God’s voice to these ways alone. Yet his list provides us with a useful starting point and so over the next seven days, I will devote a reflection on each of these ways, using my own experiences as the basis for each day’s reflection. Today I begin by reflecting on God speaking to me through prayer.

Before I talk about my prayer life, I must provide you with the “rules of engagement” I try to follow when praying. First, I acknowledge that being able to hear God’s voice is scriptural; Jesus says as much in the passage I quoted above, and so I try to enter prayer each day acknowledging it as an act of faith that God will act. Second, I try to acknowledge each day, although not always successfully, that God is sovereign in my life. This must be more than a pious platitude and given my sinful and rebellious nature I really have to work at this so that when I say, “not my will but yours” I really mean it. Third, to be able to say to God that I want his will and not mine means that I must trust him totally and surrender myself to him. Again, given who I am, I consider this area to be a work in progress and results may vary on any given day! Last, as Sangster makes abundantly clear, to be able to hear God’s voice means that I must LISTEN.

I hate it when that happens. 🙂

Indeed, I find this latter requirement every bit as difficult as trusting God to be sovereign in my life. It is much easier for me to do the talking than the listening but of course this is just another manifestation of the brokenness of our human condition. When Jesus says that his followers hear his voice, it implies that we are listening for it. I don’t know about you, but I cannot listen to someone talking to me if I am busy talking to him. In fact, some of the most frustrating conversations occur when two people are trying to get a word in edgewise and not listening to the other. Anyone who has gotten into an argument knows exactly what I mean!

To help me listen, I use George Buttrick’s Guide-Map to Prayer, something I found in Richard Foster’s wonderful collection of devotional writings. I like it because it helps me first to center down and then organizes prayer into the categories of thanksgiving, asking forgiveness, intercession, and petition in that order. It also provides the structure for me to speak and then to listen for God’s voice. So, for example, after I finish offering thanksgiving, I try to listen for how God wants me to use the gifts he has given me. Sometimes I hear nothing (and when I say “hear” I do not mean hearing an audible voice; I’ve never heard that, even when I had my encounter with Christ back in 2004). Sometimes my mind is scattered, or I am tired, and I have difficulty concentrating. Whenever that happens I try to be patient and just move on; I assume that I should follow previous marching orders until God issues new ones. Sometimes the names of people pop into my head. At other times tasks that I need to complete come to mind. I consider these latter phenomena to be valid impulses and I immediately write them in my prayer journal for further reflection (and since I am not the brightest star in the sky, to serve as written reminders of what I must do) when I am finished praying. Keeping a prayer journal is also a useful way for me to monitor progress (or backsliding) in my prayer life and it provides me with useful information about it. When I do gain insight into my prayer life, I consider it to be God’s voice speaking to me as well and give thanks.

As with anything else, my ability to discern valid impulses from my own self-will etc., requires practice and I have found that the more I work at listening the better I get at it. There is also a consistency in the impulses I think come from God. For example, they never do harm to me or others and there tends to be a feeling of validation that I cannot explain but which is real nevertheless.

I also try to pray at regular times during the day. Taking the consistent cue from the devotional masters of past and present, I try to start and end each day in prayer, although I confess I am not entirely successful at this. This is because I tend to be undisciplined and so I must make myself start the day in prayer before I do anything else; otherwise, it likely won’t get done. Today, for example, I decided to write this blog entry before praying and find myself well into the day with the increased likelihood that I will forego prayers because of other obligations I have. Not good (but fairly typical).

Starting the day in prayer also helps me focus on what I need to do that day and ending it provides me a chance to review what I’ve done (or not done). In describing this aspect of my prayer life, I do not want to give the impression that these are the only two times I pray. To the contrary, I try to pray constantly, albeit not as formally as I do in the morning. For example, yesterday I was thinking about what to do with my blog entry today and this idea came to mind almost immediately. The impulse had all the markings of coming from God and so here I am writing about it!

To summarize, I consider prayer to be both an act of faith and trust, I try to start and end each day in prayer, i.e., I try to establish regular times to pray and stick to those times, I use a prayer model that works for me in that it helps me organize my prayers and provides me time to listen to God as well as talk to him, and I have a prayer journal in which I write down impulses, thoughts, etc. Listening is the most important piece during prayer and one of the aspects I find most difficult. In addition, and something I did not mention previously, I try to read the biographies of the saints so that I can learn from them.

Am I always successful in hearing God’s voice in prayer? No. Have I been mistaken? Yes. Is my prayer life a model for others? No, but I hope it will serve as a starting point for you to reflect on your prayer life and what works (and doesn’t work) for you.

It’s your turn now. How do you listen for God’s voice in prayer (or do you)? What are some of the markings of its authenticity? How do you discern the real voice from the false ones, and what do you do to cultivate your prayer life? Tell us your stories so that we can learn from each other and contribute to the collective testimony to the power of prayer offered by the Communion of Saints.

Tomorrow: Hearing God’s Voice through the Bible

On the Call to the Unlikely—More Reflections on Discipleship

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” —Acts 9:10-16 (NIV)

So those who imagine that they are called to contemplation because they are attracted by contemplation, when the common duties of existence steadily block this path, do well to realise that our own feelings and preferences are very poor guides when it comes to the robust realities and stern demands of the Spirit.

St. Paul did not want to be an apostle to the Gentiles. He wanted to be a clever and appreciated young Jewish scholar, and kicked against the pricks. St. Ambrose and St. Augustine did not want to be overworked and worried bishops. Nothing was farther from their intention. St. Cuthbert wanted the solitude and freedom of his heritage on the Farne; but he did not often get there. St. Francis Xavier’s preference was for an ordered life close to his beloved master, St. Ignatius. At a few hours’ notice he was sent out to be the Apostle of the Indies and never returned to Europe again. Henry Martyn, the fragile and exquisite scholar, was compelled to sacrifice the intellectual life to which he was so perfectly fitted for the missionary life to which he felt he was decisively called. In all these, a power beyond themselves decided the direction of life. Yet in all we recognise not frustration, but the highest of all types of achievement. Things like this—and they are constantly happening—gradually convince us that the overruling reality of life is the Will and Choice of a Spirit acting not in a mechanical but in a living and personal way; and that the spiritual life does not consist in mere individual betterment, or assiduous attention to one’s own soul, but in a free and unconditional response to that Spirit’s pressure and call, whatever the cost may be.

—From The Spiritual Life by Evelyn Underhill

The story of St. Paul’s conversion found in Acts 9 fascinates me, puzzles me, inspires me, and gives me hope. It is yet another story in a long line of biblical stories in which God uses the most unlikely folks to advance his work and will (see, for example, Joshua 2ff, Ruth, Isaiah 44:28-45:5, Jeremiah 25:9, and Christ’s interesting genealogy found in Matthew 1). I take heart and courage in this because like the psalmist, I “know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). This is not false modesty on my part; rather, it represents a profound sense of my own sinful rebellion against Christ. If I were to put forth a litany of my sins, the sheer scope and volume of them would be staggering—they are a source of both personal embarrassment and shame. Yet it is to God’s glory that the Bible makes it quite clear that our Lord uses the most unlikely suspects to accomplish his will. This is truly Good News because in the final analysis we are all unlikely suspects since we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). That means there is hope for every one of us because God can and does use us irrespective of who we are or the personal baggage we bring to the Table. I can really appreciate and love a God like that. What about you?

Moreover, as Underhill makes poignantly clear, if we can overcome our self-doubts and answer God’s call to us, it sometimes manifests itself in ways we do not expect or anticipate. In each of her examples (as well as her own personal life), the person denied himself, took up his cross daily, and followed the call of his Lord, and in doing so, found profound blessing. Once again, there is Good News to be found here. God is gracious enough to use us, irrrespective of who we are, for his work and will. When we are wise enough to respond to God’s call (and it does NOT have to be to the ordained ministry), we find additional blessing when we deny ourselves and work to serve the Christ who loves us and gave himself for us.

And so while I have to scratch my head in wonder about God wanting to use me as an ordained minister, I must always remember that I am in good company of the redeemed and forgiven; I am part of the Communion of Saints and this great Cloud of Witnesses. As such, my faithful response is not to question God’s wisdom in using me for this work but rather to be as faithful as I can to his call and just do it. That means denying myself, taking up my cross daily, and following Jesus. As I begin a very heavy load of seminary work, continue to teach at Ashland University, work a part time job in Toledo, remain active in my church, and maintain the daily disciplines of prayer and reading the Bible, I will count on Christ to sustain me in the work to which he has called me. This is my only hope because if left to my own devices or if I revert to sinful self-reliance, I’m toast.

What about you? Have self-doubts prevented you from answering Christ’s call to be his disciple? If so, how did overcome your doubts (or did you)? How can Christ use us to help each other overcome our doubts and fears? How can daily Bible reading, prayer, tithing, weekly worship, and small group fellowship be important in helping us overcome our doubts and fears so that we might respond faithfully to Christ’s call to us? Tell us your stories so that we might take heart and hope, all the while continuing to watch over each other in love.

Reflections on a New Personal Insight From Psalm 51

And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, Jesus explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. —Luke 24:27 (NIV)

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. —Psalm 51:2-3 (NRSV)

I often reflect on Luke 24:27 and would love to have been with the disciples as Jesus explained to them what the Scriptures, i.e., the Old Testament, said about himself so that I could know the exact passages. This is one of the reasons why I began to read Robert L. Reymond’s book, Jesus—Divine Messiah: The New and Old Testament Witness. Reymond is a thorough and meticulous scholar as well as a fine exegete. He makes a compelling case for the Old Testament witness about Christ and I have learned a lot by reading his work. In the process, I have also begun to sharpen my skill at reading the Old Testament through the lense of the New Testament witness about Jesus. The following example illustrates this point.

Recently as I was reading Psalm 51, a psalm I read regularly, I began to read it in a new light. As I read the psalmist’s words, “wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” for the first time I thought about the blood of Christ and how this petition has been answered by his death on the cross. I am made clean by the blood of the Lamb and as I wrote last week, this image, once gross and repugnant to me, is now quite precious. Christ’s atoning death is the sole source of my hope and his blood represents the answered prayers of every penitent heart who seeks him in faith.

In terms of reading the Old Testament, I am beginning to discover that reading it with an eye on Christ makes the text even more powerful and alive for me. I seem to be able to read it with a deeper faith, a fuller understanding, and a wondrous awe at its truly integrative and trustworthy nature. I also give thanks to God for blessing me with grace that makes all this possible according to my ability to comprehend it.

What about you? How do you read the Old Testament? Do you believe it speaks of Christ? If so, in what way(s)? Has it enriched your reading and understanding of the infallible Word of God? Share with us your stories and then trust that God will use them so that together we may all be able to read God’s Word more faithfully and with a deeper understanding.

Reflections on the “Already-Not Yet”

All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. —Isaiah 40: 6b-7, 28 (NIV)

For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. —Jeremiah 29:11 (NRSV)

We are finite and mortal. God is infinite and immortal. His Word, and hence his promises, last forever. He has delivered us in Christ; he has walked among us. Yet we are not fully delivered in the sense that there is still sin and evil in the world. Full deliverance will come when Christ returns.

What, then, shall our response be to this “already-not yet” reality of God’s promise to us? It may not make sense to us but God calls us to wait patiently and expectantly. In doing so, we may have to suffer but “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5). God has promised to act and to do so decisively. Therefore I must trust and obey even when my understanding of his will and ways is incomplete. That is not something I do easily. The following entry from my prayer journal, dated July 16, 2004, illustrates my struggle with this tension.

After a week of despair and depression in which I grieved for my dad [who had died in March] and was stunned to learn I am going to teach middle school for the first time in my life, I had the breakthrough this morning. The issue is not all this crap happening around me. The issue is Christ’s faithfulness. It started with Jim’s email last night and this morning I really listened for what Scriptures had to say to me. Psalm 46 affirmed God is our present help in trouble and that we should not fear even in the most dire of circumstances. It also exhorted us to be still and know that God is God, i.e., to stand before God quietly in surrender. Paul spoke of his awful situations and repeatedly affirmed that Christ is faithful and trustworthy, that he delivered Paul in all circumstances. I realized that is what I have lacked this week. Christ may not deliver me from my circumstances but he will empower me to conquer them. I have been too myopic in this. No more. I choose to trust Christ.

As a postscript, Christ did not deliver me from those circumstances I dreaded. I ended up teaching high school the last year of my professional career, an issue on which I reflected last week, and continued to grieve my dad’s death for sometime thereafter. Yet even in those troubling times, Christ DID sustain me, his grace was sufficient for my needs, and I discovered that when I began to trust Christ, he was utterly reliable. And so I continue to live in this tension of the “already-not yet” with the understanding that the more I trust the better I will be able to deal with any and every circumstance life throws my way.

What about you? How do you handle the tension that is produced by the “already-not yet” nature of God’s promise to deliver us? In what ways, if any, does it challenge your faith? How do you meet the challenge?

On Putting Our Hopes in the Right Place—Reflections on the Writing of Bonhoeffer

After this, many of His disciples drew back (returned to their old associations) and no longer accompanied Him. Jesus said to the Twelve, Will you also go away? —John 6:66-67 (AMP)

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything, they say, and so everything can remains as it was before.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.

Such grace is costly because it call us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all it is costly because it cost God the life of his son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.

Just as Christ is Christ only in virture of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only in so far as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and crucifixion. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus [emphasis added], and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross.

Once again, everything is left for the individual to decide. When the disciples are half-way along the road of discipleship, they come to another crossroads. Once more they are left free to choose for themselves, nothing is expected of them, nothing forced upon them. So crucial is the demand of the present hour that the disciples must be left free to make their own choice before they are told of the law of discipleship.

“If any man would come after me, let him deny himself.” To deny oneself is to be aware only of Christ [emphasis added] and no more of self, to see only him who goes before and no more the road which is too hard for use. Once more, all that self-denial can say is: “He leads the way, keep close to him.”

—From The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Following Jesus is not easy, especially if we pin our hopes to a specific outcome instead of on him. For example, when we lose a loved one to death and focus only on the event or cause of death, we deny the promise of Jesus to be the resurrection and the life. Thankfully the death of loved ones is not an everyday occurrence for us. Instead, the mundane tasks of daily living tend to challenge us the most as Bonhoeffer observes above. It is in this area that “Christian conferencing,” i.e., mutual accountability, can be most useful. I would like to relate one such story from my life that illustrates how putting my hope in an outcome instead of in Christ almost cost me my faith.

Two years ago, I had my job cut in the school district where I worked as educational technologist, and was faced with the prospect of having to return to the high school classroom, something I had not done in the 11 years since earning my Ph.D. My head was not into teaching social studies to high school kids nor was that where I wanted my career path to end. I called everyone I knew who was in a position to offer me a job elsewhere but to no avail. I prayed about it, asking God to save me from a fate I considered worse than death.

God didn’t answer my prayer, at least in the way I wanted.

I found myself back in the high school classroom in my 30th year of teaching and it was like an out-of-body experience. I was horrified. Here I was, a big-shot former college professor and upper-level executive for a state agency, back in a high school classroom, back where I did not want to be. What was my response? I did what anybody who doesn’t fully put his/her trust in Jesus would do—I cursed him. I told him if this is all he thought of me, he could go to hell (he replied that he’d already been there, thank you) and that I wanted nothing to do with a god who could be so cruel to me. Never mind the fact that I still had a job and that in so having, I would be able to retire with full pension benefits. Never mind the myriad other blessings I had in my life. No sir. I was determined to jettison this god and find one who would grant my wishes; after all, I knew better than God, right? So here I was. I had pinned my hopes and feelings on a particular outcome, not on Christ. In doing so, I had set myself up to be eventually disappointed because life does not always go the way we would like nor is it always fair.

Now to be honest, that year was the most difficult year of my professional life; I hated almost every minute of it, even after I tried to develop a better attitude about it. Clearly, it was not where I was supposed to be over the long haul. But thanks be to God that he did not abandon me even as I cursed him and was ready to abandon him because he didn’t let me have my way. As I reflect on this time, I cannot help but think of Paul’s words to Timothy: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful — for he cannot deny himself.” (2 Timothy 2:13).

The last year of my professional career seemed like it would never end but mercifully it did in June 2005. In fact, God in his tender mercy actually sent me a student teacher during that last semester and it helped make those last months more bearable. I have since retired and am preparing to pursue the ordained ministry. To this day I am not quite certain what purpose it served other than to remind me again of God’s faithfulness to his people, to point out the bankruptcy of pinning my hopes on particular events, outcomes, or persons other than Jesus, and to develop some much needed patience that I suspect I will need as an ordained minister. Come to think of it, those aren’t bad lessons to learn! Thanks be to God in our Lord Jesus Christ!

In closing, I share this experience with you because I think things like this happen all the time in the lives of Christians and we must learn to develop positive assets in our lives to help us deal with life’s hurts, heartaches, and brokeness. The only sure way we can do that is to learn to put our whole hope and trust in the person of Jesus Christ, independently of life’s events, because he is faithful and will never abandon us, even in the midst of our most profound hurt and brokenness. In other words, we must learn to live in Christ, not ourselves. As I learned in a painful way, it is only then that we can go through life with the hope, peace, joy, and courage as men and women of faith. Make no mistake. I fully expect to have my faith challenged again. This time, however, I hope to be prepared because I have found my true center.

What about you? How have you had your faith challenged and how did you deal with it? What can we Christians do to help each other during hard times and in our discipleship journeys? How can we encourage each other to lose our lives so that we might save them?

On the Blood of Christ—Reflections on the Writing of Carlo Carretto

Today I reflect on how my views about the Blood of Christ have changed and start with a piece from Carlo Carretto I read years ago.

When, through my tears, I began to tell him something of the years during which I betrayed him, he lovingly placed his hand over my mouth in order to silence me. His one concern was that I should muster courage enough to pick myself up again, to try and carry on walking in spite of my weakness, and to believe in his love in spite of my fears. But there was one thing he did, the value of which cannot be measured, something truly unbelievable, something only God could do.

While I continued to have doubts about my own salvation, to tell him that my sins could not be forgiven, and that justice, too, had its rights, he appeared on the Cross before me one Friday towards midday.

I was at its foot, and found myself bathed with the blood which flowed from the gaping holes made in his flesh by the nails. He remained there for three hours until he expired.

I realized that he had died in order that I might stop turning to him with questions about justice, and believe instead, deep within myself, that the scales had come down overflowing on the side of love, and that even though all…through unbelief and madness, had offended him, he had conquered for ever, and drawn all things everlastingly to himself.

—From In Search of the Beyond by Carlo Carretto

I have a picture of what I believe to be the crucified face of Jesus taken from the Shroud of Turin. It hangs on a wall overlooking my desk where I hold devotions and I gaze at it frequently during prayer. Of course, I cannot prove it to be THE face of Christ but it wouldn’t surprise me if someone could prove its authenticity. After all, I suspect God understands we humans would be naturally curious about what our Lord looked like and so he left us this picture of himself as a gift even before the technology existed. I can really appreciate a God like that.

Regardless, I mention this picture because it provided me with a visual stimulus the other day and evoked a memory about Carretto’s writing above. Years ago when I first read this piece, I was frankly repulsed by this image of Christ’s blood bathing him at the foot of the Cross. I tried to envision myself in Carretto’s place but really couldn’t because the thought of being bathed in blood was repugnant to me, even though at the time I could definitely empathize with Carretto’s agony about being an unforgiven sinner worthy of punishment. Quite simply that could have been me writing about my sins and yet I was repulsed by Carretto’s vivid imagery.

Then it happened. As I asked forgiveness for my sins in prayer the other day, I gazed on the bloody face of my Lord. I thought about his agony on the cross, how he gave himself for me and bore my punishment because he loves me. I marveled that God loves me so much that he took my just punishment on himself. At the same time I confessed my inability to fully understand or appreciate such a love offered. All of a sudden I wanted nothing more than to be bathed in Christ’s blood because I knew there is forgiveness in it; I knew that Christ’s blood shed for me is my only hope for salvation. In other words, God blessed me with a deeper insight about and greater appreciation for the source of my salvation represented in Christ’s blood. My desire to be bathed in it was not some new-found desire to become a cannibal nor does it represent a morbid fascination with blood; rather, it manifested a clearer understanding of my desperate state of being without Christ and my need for his love, forgiveness, and salvation. Put another way, as the old hymn goes this desire manifested my profound need to “cling to the old rugged cross.”

It was then I understood why I was originally repulsed by Carretto’s image—I was looking at it as an outsider looking in! In other words, I was still trying to earn my salvation through my own merit; I was still engaging in works-righeousness. Of course that is a delusional notion but I clung to it for many years until by God’s grace I realized that I am saved only by his grace, not my works. In Christ’s blood I have my only hope; who wouldn‘t crave the source of one’s hope? That would REALLY be delusional!

Of course this notion of Christ’s atoning work on the cross is consistent with the biblical witness and the teaching of the church, and so I trust this insight to be an authentic sign of grace; it indicates that I am moving from grace to grace and for that I am profoundly thankful. It certainly doesn’t mean I got smarter all of a sudden or anything like that! Just ask anyone who knows me!

Upon further reflection, it seems to me that those who cling to the delusion of self-righteousness or self-reliance as the way to salvation would be naturally repulsed by this image of Christ’s blood on the cross because we instinctively understand that there is something greater here than us, that we really aren’t the final arbiters of our lives, and that offends us. That was exactly where I was. Yet thanks be to God that he was gracious enough to offer a very tangible sign of his great love for me and move me past this particular delusion. Indeed, the Good News is that this grace is available not just to me but to anyone who accepts and believes.

And so I no longer have fears of being cast into hell because I know the source of my hope—Jesus Christ and him crucified. What about you? How do you react when you hear or read about the Blood of the Lamb? Are you offended or is it something that makes you profoundly thankful? Perhaps you are somehere in between. What might that tell you about where you are in your journey and/or where you need to go? Have you had any experiences like mine, either positive or negative? If so, tell us about them and what that has meant for your discipleship.

In the interim, my prayer for you is that you too may crave Christ’s blood because in it is your hope and salvation. Jesus was right. It really is about losing your life in order to save it.