Tuesday, June 26, 2012

God Speaks through the Scriptures

As followers of Jesus and students of the scriptures, we recognize the need and desire to live “Christ centered lives.”  Becoming Christ centered means that with Jesus at the center of our life, in the place of control, our will becomes wholly submitted to His.  Our way of doing life finds its direction by an active seeking and knowing of His will and His heart and being willing to submit to Him in that. 

The New Testament – most clearly in Galatians 5 and Romans 8 – describes and calls this way of life ‘living by the Spirit.’  By doing life His way, we reap all benefits and blessings found in Him.  We reap the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’  It’s what comes out of us, what is produced when we live life God’s way.  We gain wholeness, peace, love, and joy in our relationships to God, others, and even ourselves (to only name a few of the many things).

Having our lives transformed into a Christ centered life requires that we hear the voice of God.  We need to hear the voice of God.  We need to know his will for our lives.  We need the wisdom and counsel of God.  We need God’s leadership and direction to guide us in a way that leads to life.

The best way to hear the voice of God is through the scriptures.  God speaks through Scripture.  That truth is so painfully obvious and simple that it’s easy to not see it at all!

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul writes to Timothy that all scripture is “God-breathed.”  While much can be / has been made of those two words, I think the important point is that God is present within the written word.  Yes, the scripture filled with human story and experience written by humans and addressed to other humans.  Yet the mystery is that God inhabits those words and uses them speak to us in our present situations.  Much like God breathed into mankind to impart spirit and life (Genesis 2), so to does he breathe into the written word imparting to it spirit and life. 

In Hebrews 4:12 we read that, “The word of God is living and active.”  Through the written word, the Holy Spirit can be actively present and communicate with us.  Through Christian history, ancient believers also saw the word as living and active and a way to actively commune and communicate with God.  Fourth century church father Athanasius said-
“You will not see anyone who is really striving after his advancement who is not given to spiritual reading. And as to him who neglects it, the fact will soon be observed by his progress.”

Two of my favorite examples of believers hearing God through the scripture are the historical practices of Lectio Divina and Ignatian Prayer. 

‘Lectio Divina’ is a Latin phrase meaning ‘Divine Reading.’  While reading a passage of scripture, as Benedict instructed in the 6th century, we hear “with the ear of our hearts.”  We become attentive to both the presence of God and His ‘still small voice.'  As we read, we take notice of any words, phrases or verses that stand out strongly and ruminate on them, interact with them.  We ask, how does this relate to me and my present space?  What is God saying to me through these words?

The Ignatian Prayer exercise builds off of Lectio Divina.  While reading a passage of scripture (preferably an action story in the Gospels with Jesus) you become attentive to the presence and the voice of the Lord.  Using your spiritual imagination you become a participant in the story and experience it as it’s being read.  Maybe you identify with a disciple, or a person being healed, or a member of the crowd, or even a Pharisee.  Becoming part of the story you reflect on how Jesus interacts with you and ask how Jesus wants to be present in those things in your life right now.

The key in these examples is actively engaging the scripture and seeking / listening for the Holy Spirit in and through the text.

God rewards those who earnestly seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6)  God speaks through the scriptures.  I’m always amazed and encouraged to hear of people’s experiences of hearing God speak after engaging the scripture like that.  I especially like hearing those stories from people who were convinced that they were unable to hear from God and now they do hear.

It’s great that we can turn to the scriptures and hear a word from God.  However, it’s when we make seeking God through the scriptures a habit that it changes our lives.  Habits are everything.  A ‘method’ does us little good if it only sees infrequent use.  It’s like eating vegetables as a method to stay healthy, but only doing it once a month.  J

When we develop a habit, it transforms us; it becomes part of our life.  When you have a habit of exercise everyday, you are transformed.  Not only does it become part of what you regularly do –you become fit, have more energy, likely you’re more trim, and are overall more healthy.  That’s really what we’re looking for – not just a method to hear God, but for a relationship with God that leads to a transformed life.

When we are continually, habitually leaning on Him and seeking Him, we come to really know him – not just know about Him, but actually know Him.  We gain his mind.  This is how in 1 Corinthians 2:16 the Apostle Paul can say, “We have the mind of Christ.”  It’s like how a husband and a wife get to really know each other by constantly being in each other’s presence and interacting.  You begin to know how the other thinks.  I just knew that my wife Charis was going to put in a Keith Urban CD while cooking dinner before she even went over to the CD rack.

Imagine knowing Jesus like that – knowing what and why he would do something in any circumstance – knowing both intuitively and from his example.  Knowing him like that, we not only gain his mind, but we also gain his heart. We love what He loves.  Our hearts break for the things that break His.  We have compassion on who He has compassion.

Do you think knowing Jesus like that would change your life?  (That question was rhetorical, by the way.)  J  In knowing him, we can become like him.  Immersing ourselves in His Word, we become formed by Him – formed by His thoughts, His heart, His ways.

I’m particularly passionate about hearing God through the scriptures because of the profound effect that it’s had on me (and on my family).  It has been a life giving and life changing experience.  I’ve had the benefit of learning the scripture since an early age.  When I was in my late elementary and early junior high years I was enrolled in a church program where us kids went through the entire narrative of the scripture over 3 years.  That experience was truly formational and foundational for my life.  God’s word had been planted in me and began to form the way I thought and the way I lived.  Having the Word inside me, knowing the wisdom and counsel of God saved me from so many painful mistakes that so many others around me were making.  It literally has been a ‘Guide for my feet, and a light for my path.’

As I’ve grown older and have continued to encounter God in the Word, I and the community around me can recognize that I’ve continued to grow in character, personal and spiritual maturity.  I grow in wisdom, insight, and revelation.  Jesus living in me and through me becomes more of who I am.  There’s increase in the ways and effectiveness I can minister Jesus to others.  And I continue to avoid a lot of trouble / pain / brokenness by being reminded to follow the Jesus way.  Taking in and internalizing the Word of the Lord continues to shape who I am and how I operate.  I can see the work of the Lord making me into a new creation, moving me forward into his likeness – and I like it.  I’m certainly far from perfect and have a long journey to go, but I’m so grateful for all that God has done already.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Pastors Who Blog

There seems to be a growing number of pastors who are blogging as a way of reflecting on their pastoral work. Two great blogs come to mind - both by Vineyard pastors: Ahren Summach's The Afterthought and Scott Roe's A-Mazing Monday Mornings. What is fascinating to me is that both of these guys, and I'm sure there are many other great examples, are doing practical theology in a public place. 

Theology at its best is a second step - that is it is a reflection on what we have experienced or come to know about God. When we reflect on our experiences we gain invaluable insights into faith and life. Sometimes our initial interpretations are challenged, other times we find even more meaning than we had first suspected. This reflecting on our experiences and beliefs is a key part of how we grow as leaders, actually of how we all grow as Christians. When we do this reflection in the context of a community, such as the online community that reads and comments on our blogs, then we have the opportunity to move from the tempting place of private interpretation to enter the enriching messiness of the interpreting community.

I've talked about the nature of blogs before. Having been a blogger for quite a few years now I know how helpful (and sometimes frustrating to be honest) blogging can be. It is especially helpful when other people jump into the conversation. This is where the frustrations can come, but more often than not comments are a great way for us to have out ideas challenged and pushed. I always try to welcome comments, even when I strongly disagree with them. I have to be careful of not caring too much about changing the ideas of other people - but rather focus on hearing them and navigating my own way through the questions they raise. The thing we need to keep in mind is that blogs are a very public space and online people tend to feel less inhibited about commenting. Ze Frank did a video blurb about this recently, worth checking out (also his episode about exformation is excellent as well). This is part of the messiness that is the interpreting community.

The other side of what these pastors are doing is what I call practical theology. That is they are looking to make their church experiences find relevance in their own lives. This is incredibly helpful for those who sit in on their sermons and might be trying to find a way to make the messages work for their lives. It is also a sign that these bloggers are not just spouting messages they aren't willing to engage with themselves - that, I believe, is a mark of a good leader. Ultimately, the best theology is practical theology. No one really cares how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but what is really important is understanding what it means for us that Jesus showed preference to the least or that His disciples prayed for the sick and saw them healed. Practical theology works those things out - not always in a definitive way but definitely in a living and meaningful way.

Do you frequent any pastors' blogs to join them in their practical theology? If so why not share a link in the comments. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Leaving Theology

It’s too early for me to try to write something about “leaving well”.  My wife and I are just in the first days of leaving the church we planted 10 years ago.  Our goal is to “finish well” but the circumstances of life have the “finish line” a couple months away.  Right now it feels more like a marathon than a sprint.  Today I’ll just try to describe our first steps in the “leaving well” direction and post about this process a few more times before we get to the finish.  Perhaps out of that you can distil some sort of “Theology of Leaving.”

We planted this church with massive dreams, audacious goals and enough confidence to take on whatever came our way.  Like any beginning, myths have grown up around our origin.  The myths include the number of people we started with, why we started the church and even around what kind of church we were.  10 years later the myths carry more weight for some than the truth but for me it stopped mattering a couple years ago anyway.  In our leaving it’s left me wondering though just how many myths will grow up about why we’re leaving, where we’re going and what, if anything, God had to do with this.

So let the blog record show that our leaving started with a question from God.  I was prepping a series of talks back in January about pilgrimage.  I was talking to our church about building roads into the wilderness and that the call to follow was a call to pilgrimage, wherever that might lead.  Then, in my reflection, I felt like God asked, “Is this message just for the church or is it for you too?”  There’s a lot I don’t know but one thing I’ve learned over these years is that when God asks a question like that it’s always loaded.  So with some fear and not a little trembling I replied, “Well, um, it’s for me too.”  And then God began to talk to me about my ‘settledness’ and the limitations I’d put on just what I would and would not allow the Spirit to lead me to do.

Looking back now I can say that this was the moment that leaving changed from occasional, random thoughts into a fixed point in time we just hadn’t come to yet. 

A few weeks ago that “fixed point” finally arrived.  We announced to our church family here that we were resigning and moving to North Carolina where I’d become the senior pastor of Raleigh Vineyard.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to say out loud.  Telling our friends, our elders team, that it was a possibility a month before that was the hardest.  I don’t keep secrets from our friends and the gap between knowing where God was leading us and being able to talk to our close friends about it was painful.

Here are seven of the things I’ve learned so far…
1) You can’t possibly predict or be prepared for the multitude of ways that people will react to the news.
2) Beautiful things can happen in the midst of leaving.
3) Horrible things can happen in the midst of leaving.
4) Change is great as long as it doesn’t actually disrupt anything.
5) Most people personalize your decision and their reaction is not about how this will affect you but rather how this will affect them.
6) I’d much rather people were sad or mad that we’re leaving than happy or glad.
7) Family appears in the most unexpected places and friendships can grow suddenly with people you’ve never met before the moment you come face to face.

As this journey continues I’ll post again here or on my own blog space about lessons I’m learning as I develop a Leaving Theology.

Monday, June 4, 2012

theological workout

This morning I did a new workout called Yoga for the Warrior.  Besides being intrigued by the title, I was trying a yoga-based workout because my osteopath told me I tend to get tight in my core, especially when I sit at a computer for long periods of time and write (like today).  She suggested some yoga moves to help me keep the body more open.  While I was doing some strange poses this morning (something where I had to thread my arms through my legs and stand up straight and pull one leg to the side?!?!?) I started thinking about the different types of exercises we do to help our bodies stay healthy:  some work on flexibility, others bolster strength, and some enhance stamina and speed. 

People who focus primarily on strength have a certain physique.  They are big.  They are solid.  They can move mountains.  But they are not always the most flexible or nimble of people.  On the other hand, long-distance runners have incredible stamina but very little mass.  They are lithe and sure-footed and can go on and on and on.  Then there are dancers and gymnasts who have developed flexibility, precision, and balance to such an extent that they can paint beautiful, moving pictures with their bodies. 

Allow me to draw some parallels between the physical and the spiritual.

Strength:  As people who follow Jesus, this is probably one of the first things we focus on.  We want to develop a strong and solid faith.  One that is not easily shaken.  One that can withstand the winds of temptation and the storms of suffering.  But strength isn't everything.  One can be incredibly strong and pop some big biceps, but still be outrun by (the faith of) a little child.  Strength without stamina or speed means that although we have a solid mass of faith, we do not move all that well and our faith can be a bit unwieldy.  A strong faith without flexibility translates into rigidity which makes one prone to injury or breakage.  I have known people who were very strong (and dogmatic) in their faith and at some point, the pressure of life caused something to snap and their faith collapsed.  So simply having a strong, massive faith can be somewhat limiting.   

Stamina:  Probably the next element we tend to focus on as Christians is to develop stamina.  We want to be faithful for the long haul.  We want to keep going and not drop out of the race.  We don't want a lot of baggage hindering us.  In a long race, one can become easily depleted.  Since the focus is always on pushing forward and making it to the end, one never builds up much strength or mass, one mostly runs alone, and there is very little time to stretch out those tight muscles which are always pounding the ground.  Our faith can become very lean and stretched to the limit if all we do is run race after race after race.

Flexibility:  It seems to me that the element of flexibility is near the bottom of the list of qualities that people seek to develop in their walk with God.  Perhaps this is because flexible faith sounds too much like relativism. But stretching is all about helping the body to move the way it was meant to move.  Unfortunately, we usually engage in a only a few select activities (physically and spiritually); this results in the body getting (up)tight and not wanting to move in any other direction.  Unless our faith continually moves and stretches, it becomes small and limited; we have to encourage it to enlarge and expand and stay open.  I am not talking about going beyond where God has called us to go or leaping outside the skin of the body of Christ, limbs and muscles running willy-nilly wherever they like.  But faith in God means that ultimately our faith resides in him, so it should only be as limited as God is.  Dancers and gymnasts are known for having a very strong core which supports all those crazy moves while allowing them to keep their balance.  In the same way, a strong core of faith (being tightly bound to Jesus our beloved) is necessary to be able to stretch beyond our self-imposed limits and move with greater expansiveness, beauty, and grace.

Speed:  Perhaps linking speed with theology seems a bit of a stretch, but I think there are times when we need to be able to move quickly and sprint in our faith - to leap from where we are and dash to the place where God is calling us to.  When Jesus revealed himself in his resurrected body, some disciples sprinted to align themselves with him while others were not quite ready to move so quickly.  When the Holy Spirit indicated that Gentiles were now to share in the kingdom of God alongside the Jews, not everyone raced toward that goalpost.  This has a lot to do with what we are tethered to.  If our faith is tied to certain traditions or insecurities and fears, we will not move very quickly.  However, if we are bound to Jesus, when he moves, we move. 

In my opinion, theological studies is one tool that can help us develop a well-rounded regimen that not only strengthens our faith, but helps us stretch where we are not used to being stretched (ouch), builds up our core strength by forcing us to rely on the Holy Spirit for discernment instead of our own prejudices, gives us more stamina and patience (for ourselves and others), and hopefully, increases our ability to make quicker and more beautiful leaps of faith that land us in the amazing, dynamic, and incredible kingdom of God.

I am a little sore from my exercises this morning.  When was the last time my faith was a little sore?