Are You and God on Speaking Terms?

“Perhaps all the good that ever has come here has come because people prayed it into the world.” ― Wendell Berry

Americans have a strong belief in God

Here are some findings from the Pew Research Center on religion in America:

The vast majority of Americans (90%) believe in some kind of higher power, with 56% professing faith in God as described in the Bible and another 33% saying they believe in another type of higher power or spiritual force. Only one-in-ten Americans say they don’t believe in God or a higher power of any kind.

Trust Magazine

Americans also believe in and practice prayer

[Out] of 102 countries examined for frequency of prayer by Pew Research Center, the U.S. is unique in that it has both a high level of wealth ($56,000 per-capita gross domestic product in 2015) and a high level of daily prayer among its population.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in 2014 found that 45% of Americans – and a majority of Christians (55%) – say they rely a lot on prayer and personal religious reflection when making major life decisions. The same survey found that 63% of Christians in the U.S. say praying regularly is an essential part of their Christian identity.

A large portion of Americans believe in God and communicating with him on a regular basis. I do too.

“Believing takes practice.” ― Madeleine L’Engle

Have you and God been speaking lately? What has he been speaking to you about? What have you been speaking to him about?

Last week I was feeling frustrated and overwhelmed. In my prayer (I also write these down so I can keep track) I asked God to help me figure out how I was going to manage the next chapters of my life. I was thankful for all of the ways that he had helped me – in very tangible ways. I named my blessings one by one. But, the bottom line was, help!

A few days later, instead of an “everything is going to be okay” answer – I got some bittersweet news that would mean the next chapter of my life was going to be even more difficult than I could have imagined. What kind of answer to my prayer was that?

“The wise man in the storm prays God not for safety from danger but for deliverance from fear.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson

A friend sent me a bird feeder to add to what I’ve already had hanging up. It’s been fun to watch the squirrels work so hard to try and get at it. I’ve been wondering why I didn’t have more birds these days – then realized, those blasted squirrels had taken over the neighborhood and run all the birds out. It’s no longer safe to nest around here.

But the other evening there was a loud and exuberant birdsong in the trees at the back of the house. I craned my neck again and again to try and see which kind of bird it was. It was full of joy and went on and on. Happened again the next evening as I sat and wondered about my answer to prayer. That prayer that seemed to have gone off the rails.

“In Gethsemane the holiest of all petitioners prayed three times that a certain cup might pass from Him. It did not.” ― C.S. Lewis

My Bible study group at church is going to be studying the New Testament letter to the Hebrews next. I will be doing the teaching. In preparation I’m reading it in several different ways. First I went over the whole letter as an outline. I read it in different translations. Next I focused on all of the familiar verses that have meant much to me over the years. Right now I’m reading it slowly, sentence by sentence, to see how God might use it right now speak to me.

So, there I was, downcast about the latest bad news and not very hopeful about my future life. I was starting to slowly look at Hebrews while that bird was going to town out in the back. And there it was…

In the first sentences of Hebrews, the writer explains that God used to speak to his people through his prophets. Now he has spoken to us through his Son, Jesus Christ. That brought to my memory some of the last words Jesus spoke to his disciples as he was preparing them for his leaving,

The Father is sending a great Helper, the Holy Spirit, in My name to teach you everything and to remind you of all I have said to you. (John 14:26)

So that means God doesn’t only use intermediaries anymore, He speaks directly to his people now. So when I sit there reading Hebrews, hearing that bird singing to Kingdom Come, I open my ears to hear…

In Chapter 2 of Hebrews the writer warns, “That is why we ought to pay even closer attention to the voice that has been speaking so that we will never drift away from it.”  Remember, in this reading my goal is to listen and hear from God. Well, while I’m busy worrying about my future (feeling sorry for myself, boo hoo) I am called to remember all of the ways God has taken care of my life so far – why do you think he’s suddenly going to stop? Go back and look at all you’ve written down, read some of these very verses you hi-lighted years and years ago and remember how God provided for you. What are you so worried about?

“We tend to be preoccupied by our problems when we have a heightened sense of vulnerability and a diminished sense of power. Today, see each problem as an invitation to prayer.” ― John Ortberg

Pay attention to the voice that has always been speaking to you.

And if you’re still too thick in the head to get it, I’m going to send a very loud bird to sing and sing and sing in the middle of the squirrel kingdom to remind you not to worry or be afraid.

Look at the birds in the sky. They do not store food for winter. They don’t plant gardens. They do not sow or reap—and yet, they are always fed because your heavenly Father feeds them. And you are even more precious to Him than a beautiful bird. If He looks after them, of course He will look after you. Worrying does not do any good; who here can claim to add even an hour to his life by worrying?  (Matthew 6:26-27, The Voice)

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and then all these things will be given to you too. So do not worry about tomorrow. Let tomorrow worry about itself. Living faithfully is a large enough task for today.  (Matthew 6:33-34, The Voice)

What should you be talking to God about right now?

 

Do You Really Need God Anymore?

“Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” ― C.S. Lewis

I got to teach a course on religion this past year. That’s one of my specialties that I enjoy digging into and helping students understand. It’s an especially exciting experience for me because working at a Christian university, there are a number of misconceptions that we have to address right away. The first is that the course is about religion, not just about Christianity. That opens up our study to all of history and all of the many ways that human society has gone about creating explanations for the unknown.

It’s a great class that I think everyone needs to take. Can I sign you up?

“Religious liberty might be supposed to mean that everybody is free to discuss religion. In practice it means that hardly anybody is allowed to mention it.” ― G.K. Chesterton

Our society right now is so advanced and has enabled most individuals to thrive so well that I often wonder if we need God anymore?

Have you ever asked yourself that question? Do you need God today? What about tomorrow?

Sociologist Christian Smith writes that people (as members of a society) are religious because:

…they hope for superhuman powers to help them realize human goods and avoid bads, especially to grant them blessings, prevent misfortunes and aid them in crises; and because they wish to enjoy the various forms of identity, community, meaning, expression, aesthetics, ecstasy, control and legitimacy that practicing religions offer.

We studied his definition in class this past year. It still has me thinking about the practice of religion in my own life and among the groups to which I belong. I don’t think ANYONE that I know would ever say or believe that they didn’t need God anymore. But how do we know that people need God? What behaviors would we find?

  1. Attending religious services and studies, to express and grow in faith
  2. Praying, alone and in groups, seeking answers to problems
  3. Sharing their faith story in prayer requests and testimonies
  4. Seeking answers to larger (and smaller) questions about the application of faith to daily life

This is just the start of a list. You could probably brainstorm other additions.

When I look at Smith’s definition of religion (it has be very global so it fits all religions throughout the world and history), it makes me wonder if people in my circles are less religious just because we don’t think we need God for much. As long as we have good health insurance, a retirement plan, a steady job, a warm and loving family – why do we need to bother God?

Again, I don’t think we are actually aware that we’ve fallen out of our relationship with God. Because we’ve become so self-sufficient (or so we think), he’s just become like a distant uncle who we visit on the holidays.

I’m probably being way too cynical.

You take a look at your own life and decide.

  1. What and who are on your prayer list? Do you keep one?
  2. What are your conversations about when you’re with other Christians? The weather?
  3. How often do you attend your church and small group? Are you spectating or participating?
  4. Are you and God on speaking terms right now?

“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade the presence of God. The world is crowded with Him. He walks everywhere incognito.” ― C.S. Lewis

Why not start to journal this year about your spiritual life, about your need for God? Writing each day will help you to refocus and realign, just in case you’ve accidently wandered off into that place where you think you’ve got it all under control.

“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.”   ― A.W. Tozer

 

Is Going to Church Out of Style?

Church membership and attendance is on the decline.

It has been for several decades. Is attending church out of fashion for the online generations? Have we overbooked and overworked everyone, with no clear 9-5 boundary anymore? Weekends (including Sundays) have turned into safety zones for family and retreat?

Our world will never cease to change as technology evolves, social life fractures and capitalism dominates more of our choices. So, is the future of the church in jeopardy?

The church, the Body of Christ, is not going to become a fashion victim. The ways that we carry out its functions probably will. As people and the way we live change, so too will our methods of ministry. But church isn’t going out of business because it has an eternal purpose.

Here’s what Anglican Bishop and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright believes about the church:

“The church exists primarily for two closely correlated purposes: to worship God and to work for his kingdom in the world … The church also exists for a third purpose, which serves the other two: to encourage one another, to build one another up in faith, to pray with and for one another, to learn from one another and teach one another, and to set one another examples to follow, challenges to take up, and urgent tasks to perform. This is all part of what is known loosely as fellowship.” ― N.T. Wright

There aren’t any other social organizations fulfilling these essential tasks. Here’s my list I’d like to add to answer the question, Why Do We Need The Church?

  1. It is a place to become yourself
    We become more and more real as we experience transformation. The church is the one place where we can see who we really are and be changed. It’s a gathering of those who are living out a brand new life because of following Christ – as disciples. Our true self is emerging when we are a part of God’s church. Your local church is a place that challenges you and allows you to experience transformation in all areas of your new life.
  2. It is a place to suffer
    When we do suffer, and all of us surely will, we need others with us as we navigate those treacherous waters. Christians find eternal meaning in the suffering they experience. A large part of this meaning is experienced together as the Church when others help to share our burdens of fear, worry and pain. God cares for our every need through the actions of the church.  We are confident that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in the comfort God gives us.” – 2 Corinthians 1:7
  3. It is a place to make sacrifices
    Once you’re a part of a church you quickly learn that it’s not really about you anymore. A church is a place where people come together and make sacrifices of their resources, time, efforts and even their will. It’s not what I want or what I think is best, but what others need. The sacrifice of your will is going to be the most difficult you will make. It takes much practice.“Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life.” ― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
  4. It is a place to grow up
    Literally and figuratively we mature in this body of faith. The church has a schedule filled with activities for every age group. It is an essential “agent of socialization” into the Christian faith. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things. Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely.” (1 Corinthians 13:11-12)
  5. It is a place to become more and more like Christ
    This is the direction we head as we die to ourselves, take up our cross and follow him. When John the Baptist pointed out Jesus to his own followers he said, “He must become greater, I must become less” (John 3:30). The church is the gathering of people who will love us in our successes and failures as we journey toward Christlikeness. This is where we come to learn, to grow and to see firsthand the great mission we are called to follow.
  6. It is a place to worship, pray, serve and give, together
    When we come to church we do something different. We are challenged to act, think and to imagine a different way of living. The world outside we’ve made for ourselves is increasingly oriented toward the individual, helping to make us successful and less obligated to others. Our life within the church contradicts this alien culture with practices and beliefs that bind us together and challenges our selfish inclinations.
  7. It is a place that’s not really a place
    Usually the word “church” makes us think about a building, a location or even the distant memory of place. On my way home each day I drive past churches in traditional looking buildings with steeples, with big signs in strip shopping centers and even one located in an industrial workshop. In America, churches are located in all sorts of places.But we all know that the church isn’t really a location, it’s really a group of Christ followers. The church is bigger than a building, it’s all those people who love you no matter what. The church takes care of family, friends and strangers. It embodies love as it shares an eternal message of hope. It’s a group of people who try as hard as they can to pull away from this world and live as if there’s something bigger and better that’s eternal and means more than this life can give.

“The world can no longer be left to mere diplomats, politicians, and business leaders. They have done the best they could, no doubt. But this is an age for spiritual heroes- a time for men and women to be heroic in their faith and in spiritual character and power. The greatest danger to the Christian church today is that of pitching its message too low.” ― Dallas Willard

 

Through Every Dark Night

jesus-suffering

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I’ve been thinking about suffering these days.

There are different kinds of suffering. I just read one pastor who cataloged 14 different kinds of suffering he found in the Bible. That’s a lot of heartache. It’s impossible to divorce the Christian life from suffering. It’s almost impossible to find someone in the Bible who didn’t experience suffering. Suffering has always been a part of the life of faith. I suspect it always will be.

We can experience misery as the result of consequences, such as bad behavior or selfishness.

  • When people have to go to prison for breaking the law
  • A student fails a class because he stopped attending or didn’t hand in assignments
  • A family falls apart because neither spouse will give in

But the kind of suffering I have been thinking about is the kind that happens to people out of the blue, when someone experiences terrible harm for no reason at all other than because they live here on earth with others.

  • A drunk driver kills a family in another car
  • A child is diagnosed with an incurable cancer
  • The economy shifts and your father loses his job all of a sudden
  • An innocent victim is sexually assaulted

It doesn’t seem like the same degree of suffering if its somehow deserved. There’s got to be a different word. To me, what makes it real suffering is that the people who live the experience have done absolutely nothing to deserve it. Horror and pain sometimes fall without reason on innocent people. That’s suffering.

 “The righteous person faces many troubles, but the Lord comes to the rescue each time.”
– Psalm 34:19

There is no immunity from trouble, from suffering. Even people who are living right, end up suffering. How will God come to the rescue? So often, it’s not the way we planned or fast enough. But He is near to the brokenhearted. When we walk through the valley of shadows He provides visible comfort. His Holy Spirit has been sent to walk with us so that we will never be alone, never be afraid, never feel abandoned. Through every dark night there waits a sunrise.

“The Lord has turned all our sunsets into sunrise” – Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)

 

 

Who You Thought You Were

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I was watching a talk by writer David Brooks a few weeks ago. He said something that seemed very important to me.

“As Paul Tillich put it, suffering introduces you to yourself and reminds you that you are not the person you thought you were.” 

Tillich was a Lutheran theologian from Germany (1886-1965). He spent his academic career here in the United States first at Union Theological Seminary and then at Harvard Divinity School. I hear these words from the past and I discover some meaning to the road I’m on for the past few years. A road I’m sharing with several others as well.

My response to suffering has been anything but pretty. I can’t believe what’s coming out of my mouth most of the time. I’m the guy who has old men at church calling me “sir” – surely at this stage I am supposed to have things figured out and be able to maturely handle defeats and disasters. But that’s not what’s been going on. Tillich hits the nail on my head. I’m never going to grow up if I’m not even sure of who I really am.

“I began to understand that suffering and disappointments and melancholy are there not to vex us or cheapen us or deprive us of our dignity but to mature and transfigure us.” ― Hermann Hesse

When we suffer we are able to look past the fable of who we think we are and present to others. We see another side of ourselves, the vulnerable and broken remains.

  • Suffering helps us to grow up because it reveals to us a truth hidden from our happy introspection
  • Suffering helps us to see what must be attended to in our lives, we see faults and frailties for the first time or that we thought we had outgrown
  • Suffering shows us more of the truth and less of the fiction that keeps us deluded about whether we are moving forward or not

This quote from Tillich continues to speak to me because it calls me to cast off more and more of the comforting veneer and become more genuine, more frail and less in control. I believe that transformation, healing and growth can happen only when we look at our true selves. No, I’m not who I thought I was.

That’s okay.

“We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.”
― C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed