Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Head and Heart

Blaise Pascal famously wrote: "The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of."

I tend to be someone who actively lives in my mind, in the realm of thinking and rationality. Although I am easily moved emotionally (I have cried at television commercials), my preferred sphere is the life of the mind.

And so, as a preacher, I have tended to speak to people's understanding, hoping that I would, through that portal, gain access to their hearts as well. And even though my teaching has had effect, the response has tended to be muted at best.

In the same way, my prayer life has tended to focus on thinking and speaking thoughts to God.

However, recently I have come to an existential crisis. I have realized that the life of the mind, although important and not to be ignored, is inadequate when it comes to real life transformation. As Henri Nouwen said in The Way of the Heart, "The crisis of our prayer life is that our minds may be filled with ideas of God while our hearts remain far from him. Real prayer comes from the heart" (p. 71).

Jesus spoke similar words to the Pharisees, "These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me" (Matt. 15: 8).

I realized that I felt comfortable staying in my head because I felt competent, powerful and in control. But the ways of my heart were mysterious, even mystical, and beyond my control.

The really difficult task is making that seemingly insurmountable journey (of approximately one foot) from my head to my heart. This has reinforced my determination to learn from the spiritual fathers of our faith who, practicing the spiritual disciplines, have given us tools that will help "exercise ourselves unto godliness."

Solitude. Silence. Prayer. And so much more.

Are you ready to go on a journey of the heart?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Decision-Making in the Kingdom

Have you ever made a big decision in your life and been half-way there when you realized that you had never really prayed about it?

Despite the many incredible victories described in the book of Joshua, there are a couple of hiccups along the way.
In chapter 7, unbeknownst to Joshua, Achan had lustfully taken and kept for himself some plunder from Jericho, even though God had specifically commanded Israel to destroy everything and keep nothing as plunder.

So, flush with excitement over
their spectacular triumph at Jericho, when the spies reported to him that Ai was not worth sending the whole army--"We can do this one. It's a piece of cake"--Joshua neglected to ask the LORD if it was okay. The result was a spectacular defeat.

And when Joshua was complaining to Him about it, God's response was something like, "What are you doing groveling there? You should be purging your ranks of sin. Get up and take care of business."

Joshua's prayer was ill-timed. The time to pray was BEFORE making the decision, not after the fact.

A similar faux-pas occurs in chapter nine. The Hivites from Gideon stage an elaborate ruse, pretending to be from a far-away, non-Caananite land. The Israelites fell for it.

"The men of Israel sampled the provisions but did not inquire of the LORD" (9: 14).

In both instances, the Israelites fell into the sin of pride, the hubris that they could figure this one out themselves. The moral of the story: "Always inquire of the Lord." There is never a time we should not include God in the decision processes of life.

How have your decisions been made in your life? Do you retain the right to make most decisions and only inquire of God if you don't have an opinion, or it seems easy enough? Why not develop a new Kingdom habit? Inquire of God first and save yourself a lot of heartache later.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

When Disaster Strikes

Having lived in California my whole life, I am used to feeling earthquakes.

And when I used to teach Sunday School, I knew the anxiety that big shakers induced in young children.  Their world was not as secure as they had thought.  So, I would sing an old song that I learned during the "Jesus People Movement" taken from Psalm 46:

"God is our refuge and strength;
God is our reguge and strength;
A very present help in trouble.
God is our refuge and strength.

Therefore, I will not fear
though the earth should move
though the mountains fall in to the heart of the sea...
God is our refuge and strength."

On Thursday night, I could not turn off the TV and go to bed.  I was transfixed by the live images from helicopters following the leading edge of a giant wave sweeping a mounting slurry of destructive debris across the Northern Japanese coast.  Boats, cars and houses were all being picked up like plastic toys and tossed forward into houses, bridges and trees. I felt helpless in the face of such incredible power.

Besides the empathy I felt for those who were suffering, I also felt a kind of resignation.  Yes, God sometimes allows a smidgen of His power to be revealed to us in order to remind us where to put our trust.

In the Christian sci-fi classic, Perelandra, C. S. Lewis shows the "Adam and Eve" of Perelandra (Venus) living on floating islands made of the roots of trees.  The prohibition was not "don't eat the fruit" but "don't stay overnight on solid ground." In other words, the temptation for the Perelandrans was to place their trust in what they could build, store and own themselves, rather than accepting the tentative nature of their floating islands.  They had to trust that God would provide what they needed, when they needed it, moment by moment.

When disaster strikes us, it should be a reminder that our refuge is God Himself. Our trust is never really in the transitory "stuff" of life--our possessions.  Instead, God Himself is our refuge and strength.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Help, God!

John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard, used to say that there was one prayer that God always heard and answered, "Help, God!"

King David used more eloquent language:

"Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in the miry depths,
where there is no foothold.
I have come into the deep waters;
the floods engulf me..." (Psalm 69: 1-2).

Every one of us has that "sinking feeling" at least once in a while.  For some, it is frequent.  For others, it is their constant experience.

Why do we have to go through such times of distress? When we become Christians, aren't all of our problems suppose to be born by Jesus and now we can float through life in a state of blissful joy?

Well, if we are following Jesus, then we should learn from His example. He faced the shame, humiliation, pain and total rejection of the cross.  The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus was "made perfect" through suffering (Heb. 2: 10) and that he "learned obedience from what he suffered" (Heb. 5: 8-9).

How could the sinless Son of God be "made perfect" or "learn obedience?"  Wasn't He already perfect? Didn't He already "know all things?"

The word for "perfect" really means "complete or mature."  The kind of learning the writer is talking about is experiential learning.  In heaven, Jesus had no cause to learn obedience.  He had the ability, but until He was submitted to the Father as the Incarnate Son, He did not have the occasion.

Until He had received an order to obey, He did not learn what it was like to obey.

That is what our suffering does for us.  It forces us to obey.  To say, "You're God and I'm not. I will call out to You in your God-ness and in my creaturely-ness and remain in an attitude of trust and submission, even when it is difficult, even when I'm sinking and my feet can't touch bottom."

Maybe that's how Paul could "rejoice in sufferings" (Rom. 5: 3) and James could "consider it pure joy, whenever you face trials of many kinds..." (Jas. 1: 2).  They saw it all as part of the maturing of our Christian character.

Are you learning obedience from what you're suffering?  Remember that handy prayer, "Help, God!"

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

No Regrets

This last Saturday I got the news that my father had passed away.

We had just celebrated his 90th birthday in December and I knew he had a sense that it would be his last. It is a long drive for me (about 8-9 hours).  But I knew it was important for me to get there.

I happened to be in Arizona at a conference, so I had to drive back to Southern California before I could make the trek to Northern Cal.  Of course, all that drive time allowed me space to think about my relationship with my dad.

Although my father was a constant presence in my life--always home at 4:30, 4 weeks of vacation every year--he was not very demonstrative with his feelings.  I grew up wondering if I was loved, or maybe if I was love-able.  A lot of my personal growth involved letting go of the need for my father to demonstrate his love and accepting him for who he was.

Once I had done that, I came to a peace and acceptance of the dad I really did have.

And I found out that I liked him. He was intelligent, yet kind and gentle.  And I knew he was rooting for me to succeed in life.  And even though he couldn't express it easily, I know that he loved me.  And I can say without reservations, that I loved him.

And with his passing, I realize that all that work in recovery was worth it.  I feel at peace and I have no lingering regrets.

Paul says, "Let no debt remain outstanding, but the continuing debt to love one another..." (Rom. 13:8).

Are you working to clear the ledgers in your life so that you can say there are no regrets? The work we do now will reap benefits later.  I speak from experience.