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Thursday, September 27, 2012

“Feelings, as Eugene Peterson once said, are remarkably unreliable guides to the state of your relationship with God, and are indeed seldom very reliable as guides to the state of your relationship with others.”
 Ben Witherington III

I received a discouraging email this week from a friend in Pennsylvania. The email spoke of another friend who has decided to drop out of his weekly Bible Study. The reason was that he simply could not “feel” God. This man was weary of chasing a relationship with a God that seemed absent in his own life. What surprises me about this particular individual is the regular, disciplined approach he took to reading the Bible. His love for the Bible and hours given to its study each week would make most church folk blush. My surprise, therefore, is that given all the time he has spent reading the Bible he must have discovered that it is replete with characters who have felt the absence of God. Chief among them is Jesus, “My God, My God, why have You left Me?” (Matthew 27:46 Common English Bible)

Where did my friend ever get the notion that relationships must be built upon “feelings?” Not from me. I have been married too long, I know better. Certainly, I love my wife. And for most of the twenty-five years of our marriage I have “felt” that love for her. That is to say, of course, that there have been moments where I have felt other things than love. To be fair, there have been more than a few moments when my wife has felt much about me other than love. What has kept us from walking away from each other in those moments is a commitment to the relationship. “Feelings” is simply too fragile of a foundation to build something as important as a marriage. The same is true for a relationship with God.

Ben Witherington III makes another observation I believe is useful to the conversation, love in the Bible is an action word. “It is your ethic, what you do and how you act toward God, others, and self. It is not really meant as a feeling. Doing loving deeds is what the Great Commandment is about. I am rather certain that the greatest loving deed of all time, Jesus’ dying on the cross for all of us, was not accompanied by warm fuzzy feelings. On the contrary, the story in the Garden of Gethsemane suggests that Jesus faced that prospect with icy dread. (Ben Witherington III, A Shared Christian Life, p. ix.)

What I know for certain is that God hasn’t given up on my friend. I have been praying for him since receiving the disappointing email. But my prayer has been less out of worry for him and more from a position of confidence in God. In the Garden of Eden story Adam and Eve hid from God out of shame. Yet, God pursued them. And God pursues us. We all experience those moments when we lose our grasp of God. What we must never forget is that particularly in those moments, when we lose our grasp of God, God does not lose His grasp of us.


Friday, September 21, 2012

“We are saved to be a community, not a church of individuals.” 
(Brad House)

            Perhaps one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual formation today is busyness. I have written elsewhere that a basic pathway for spiritual formation, being formed into the character of Christ, is fourfold: intentional formative practices, time in solitude with God, time in community of a small group and time sharing your faith journey with another. Each of these requires that we slow down our lives. There is a sturdy biblical foundation for this. The second chapter of Genesis opens with a declaration that God has completed God’s work in six days and now sets aside the seventh day for rest. As my former teacher, Walter Brueggemann, once commented, we are not to read quickly past this seventh day as if it were a footnote. Here, God announces that there is something of infinitely more value than striving and producing. The remainder of the Bible speaks to this though Jesus states it succinctly for us, love God and love your neighbor. Simply, our primary business is to be in relationship with God and one another.

            Many in the church have forgotten this. God’s seventh day has become a footnote, in very small print, as our lives become marked by ever escalating frantic activity. Lives are increasingly formed by the six days of the Genesis story and the seventh day, if considered at all, is regarded as a luxury or worse, that place where the lazy dwell. Spiritual formation might be the pursuit of some but its pursuit is largely done from a place of exhaustion and is unmoored from a small faith community. Without “rest” we imagine ourselves as more than the God who “rested from all the work that He had done in creation” (Genesis 2:3 NRSV) and separated from a small group, the pursuit is not Christian. As Brad House observes, we are saved to be a community, not a church of individuals.

            If there is to be a recovery of a vibrant Christian church it will be with a recovery of a vibrant experience of Christ by those who comprise the membership of the church. That simply isn’t possible until the seventh day is lifted from a footnote at the bottom of our lives and returned to where God intends, as the capstone to all of our activity. In that seventh day, and I am speaking figuratively here, we pursue not greater output but greater attention to relationships, God and neighbor. Attention to neighbor is optimally and authentically realized through participation in a small group. By planting ourselves in the community of a small group and recovering this seventh day of God’s rhythm of creation, we will train our attention toward God and remain in touch with what really matters in the midst of the busyness and noise of the other six days.


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

“And love, by its very nature, always reaches out.’
David G. Benner

            In my former church I often watched Kevin, an eight year old boy go around the church emptying trash cans into a large plastic trash bag. I looked forward to those evenings when he would come after school to the church to help his mother, our sexton, with her work. He was always pleasant, with a large beautiful smile that was occasionally punctuated with a near breathless excitement to share with me something he experienced that day in school. Kevin and I became friends and he would always brighten the day when he showed up with his mother.

            His mother,  a single mother of two young children, worked hard to provide for her family. The church provided her with ‘flex-time’ so that she could meet the needs of her elementary-aged children and complete her responsibilities for the church. This occasionally meant that she would have to pick her children up from school and bring them to church as she completed that day’s work. What fascinated me was that all she asked her children to do at the church was their school work. Yet, Kevin was compelled to help mom with her work in some way. The vacuum cleaner was larger than he was so that didn’t work. The soap dispensers in the bathrooms were out of his reach so that wasn’t a possibility. And there was no way she, being a responsible mother, would let Kevin near dangerous cleaning chemicals. What remained was emptying trash cans. 

            My fascination was Kevin’s unmistakable love for his mother. He adored her. And love, suggests David Benner, by its very nature, always reaches out. As Kevin “dwelt” in his mother’s love and his love for her, he could not help but to be caught up in his mother’s work. He participated in his mother’s work according to manner that he was equipped and had ability. He emptied trash cans and did so with sheer delight.

            Kevin is an inspiration to me. When I become weary by endless church committee meetings and have listened to innumerable people who always seem to know how to do my job better, Kevin reminds me that I am loved by God, and that I have been invited by that God to be “caught-up” in God’s work in the world. When I remember this, the spring in my step returns and once again I experience delight as a pastor, a pastor that serves our Lord in the manner in which I have been equipped and in which I have ability.

Doug Hood

Thursday, September 6, 2012

“God desires that we become Bible-hearted practitioners, not just Bible knowers.”
Klaus Issler

“…there is a great deal of disappointment expressed today about 
the character and the effects of Christian people…” 
Dallas Willard

            Following Jesus is about change. Change in our thoughts, speech and behavior. In fact, that good church word “repentance” literally means to “turn around and go the other way.” It is to change direction. Jesus came to us to show us another way to live. Knowing with considerable clarity what Jesus taught has no value to Jesus – none. That is, none unless it is followed by change.

            The church is populated with people who “know” the Bible. The Pharisees mentioned in the pages of the New Testament “knew” the Bible. Perhaps no one knew the Bible better than the Pharisees. But notice something else. The Pharisees drove Jesus nuts. Certainly they “knew” the Bible but their hearts were unchanged. Consequently, Jesus’ only mention of them was always as an example of what not to be. Klaus Issler is right – God desires that we become Bible-hearted practitioners, not just Bible knowers.

            Bible “knowers” are easy to recognize in the church. They are the ones who are always offering “helpful” criticism to others. The words that come over their lips rarely “grace” anyone – rarely encourages or praises someone. Bible knowers not only know their Bible. They know how to “do” church better than anyone else. Fresh baked cookies for the fellowship hour, never store bought. The music should be softer in worship or the pastor shouldn’t be reading from such a worn copy of the Bible (this really happened!). It often surprises me just how many Pharisees there are in the Christian church. And I stand with Jesus – they drive me nuts!

            If the truth be told there is a little Pharisee in each of us. Each of us has had a moment here or there when we want to offer our opinion – to be “helpful” of course. But the best of us recognize those moments and cringe. We simply do not want to be that way. So we try to be different, to change. The difficulty is that every action, every thought and behavior and word spoken comes from the heart. Unless the heart is changed, willful determination to change will always fail.

            Heart change is the work of God. It is not our work. Yet we do have a responsibility. God’s empowering, formative “heart-work” in each of us is accomplished as we place ourselves in accommodating circumstances. Simply, God requires time with us in the silent places. Jesus demonstrated this for us time and time again. Regular time alone with God reading scripture and prayer and sitting in silence listening for God’s whispers in our hearts accommodates God’s work in us.

            It is well documented that sleep deprivation diminishes our mental clarity and physical health. We simply require sleep. Similarly, “God deprivation” diminishes us spiritually. Willpower alone can never carry the freight of living into the character of Christ. We will always be defeated. Fortunately, we are never asked in the Bible to live by our own strength. God changes hearts. But time alone with God regularly throughout the week is required. If we give this time to God, we will not be disappointed.