Habbakuk’s Conversation with God (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we continued our study of what I am calling secondary characters in the Bible, the sort of people who may not get top billing but who play an important part in the story.  We moved into the minor prophets last evening, looking at Habakkuk.  Originally I was going to do Habakkuk the week prior to Spring Break as it pairs well with the story of Job which we had looked at the previous week.  Both books discuss the problem of evil and suffering and ask where is God or how could God let this happen.  Unfortunately, snow led to that night being cancelled.

First off, to set the stage for the prophets, I summarized the story of scripture up to that point:

*God Creates and Humanity lives in Relationship with the Creator

*Humanity Rebels and the Relationship is Broken

*God launches a rescue mission to restore this relationship – this mission begins with the call of Abraham and the promise to bless all nations through his descendants.  It then moves through the rescue of Israel from slavery and the giving of the Law through their becoming a nation and eventually rejecting God as king.  In this Israel, who was to be an example to other nations, wants to be like other nations and have a king.  God gives them a king, some are good but many are bad.  Bad kings lead them away from God so God sends prophets to call them back.

Enter Habakkuk.  Being such a short book we read it and discussed it rather then me just talking about it.  Habakkuk 1:2-4 begins with Habakkuk complaining, wanting to know where God is and why God is silent in the face of violence.  God responds (Habakkuk 1:5-9) by saying the Babylonians will soon arrive to punish those who are violent among God’s people.  This is not the response Habakkuk wanted, as the Babylonians are even worse (1:12-17).  God response includes what is now a well-known statement, “the righteous will live by faith” (2:4).

We spent time reflecting on what this means.

1. Such a faith is a trust in God’s entire plan for the whole world – God says in Hab 2:14 that the earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.  In other words, God’s rescue mission will succeed no matter how dark things look from Habakkuk’s perspective, or ours.

2. Along with that, such faith remembers what God did in the past, recognizes God is faithful and thus lives based on God’s promises for the future.  Important to say then that faith is not just assent or belief, rather it is an active trust that plays out in real life.

3.  At the same time, we see from Habakkuk’s conversation with God that when we struggle to understand what is happening in our world, it is okay to ask.  Even to complain.  This is what real relationship entails, even relationship with God.

4. Finally, such faith leads to prayer and praise.  Habakkuk 3 is a long prayer and is a model for where we end up through our conversations with God.

I think there is a lot in Habakkuk that is very relevant to us as we live out our faith in the contemporary world.

Weekly Word – Job’s Suffering, Dialogue and General Awesomeness

I love the book of Job.  It is forty-two chapters of brilliant dialogue around the problem of evil and suffering that never really provides any solid answers.  People argue and debate, lose their temper and scream at each other.  Its great!

I did not always like it.  I remember hearing people say, in regards to the problem of evil and suffering, to just read Job.  As a kid I read the first few chapters and last few chapters to get the gist, but I skipped the dialogue.  It was not until much later that I plodded through the whole thing and realized it did not offer the answers I wanted but instead gave space to ask questions.

I think people struggle with Job because we read, if we read, one or two chapters a day.  In this way it will take weeks to work through Job.  If you only read one chapter you will read a diatribe by one of Job’s friends one day and then Job’s response the next day.  But by the next day, you’ll forget what Job is responding to.  That is why I think the best way to get Job is to read it in big chunks.   If you can, read it all at once!

Last night at CSF we went through the entire book of Job, obviously not going deep into much of it since it is so long.  Here is an outline of the book:

  • Job 1:1-12 – Introduction
  • 1:13-22 – Satan’s First Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:1-10 – Satan’s Second Attack and Job’s Response
  • 2:11- 13 – Job’s Friends Arrive
  • Chapters 3-27 – Dialogue between Job and his three friends arguing about why this has happened to Job – Dialogue continually escalates in anger of friends towards Job due to Job’s refusal to admit he deserved it
    • Job’s friends confident – they knew how God worked and that God did not punish those who did not deserve it, so Job must deserve it (rigid retribution theology)
    • Job agrees God works this way in theory – but Job insists he is sinless in this case and thus God is wrong and Job wants to plead his case
  • Job silences his friends (Zophar does not respond a third time like the others
  • Job 28 – An Ode To Wisdom
    • 28:28 – To fear the Lord is the beginning of wisdom
  • Job 29-31 – Job’s Final Speech – His Defense
  • Job 32-37 – Elihu speaks to Job
    • Job has silenced the traditionalists, Elihu speaks for the younger generation, offering new solutions to old problems but fails to provide an answer just as the others failed.
    • Elihu’s speech on God’s greatness in chapter 37 does foreshadow God’s speech
  • Job 38-41 – God speaks and silences Job
  • 42:1-6 – Job repents, acknowledges he does not know God’s ways
  • 42:7-9 – God rebukes Job’s friends for not speaking right as Job has
  • 42:10-17 – God blesses Job

One of my favorite things about Job is how the story seems to question the sort of wisdom you find in the book of Proverbs.  Proverbs, a fantastic work in its own right, tends to promise that hard workers succeed and lazy or evil people fail.  This is the sort of theology that both Job and his friends hold to.  Yet we know from real life that things do not always work out this way.  More than that, the fact that our Bible contains both Job and Proverbs tells us something important – being a wise person, a disciple of God, does not mean turning our brain off and blindly following a few commands.  Instead, God provides us wisdom teaching that will show us how to think and live in the situation we find ourselves in.

Since Job and his friends have this basic idea that God only punishes people who deserve it, they insist Job deserves it.  He must have some secret sin to confess!  Job, agreeing that God punishes those who deserve it, argues that God is unfair in this case for he does not deserve it.  Thus, Job wants to plead his case with God.  What we, the reader, know is that God is not the one who did this.  God has allowed it for sure, but has not done it.

Is there a difference between God doing something and allowing something to be done by someone else?

I think there is.  There is a big difference between pushing my daughter off her bike as she is learning to ride then in allowing her to fall as she learns.  Anyway, I drew a few general conclusions from Job’s story last night:

Job was WRONG in what he said about God (42:3, 6)

*God’s speech emphasizes the complexity of creation and God’s power over it – as finite beings we do not know much

*When we talk about God then we ought to be humble, realizing how much we do not know.

*When someone suffers and comes to us…we better not be like Job’s friends!

Job was more right in what he said about God than his friends were

*Even though Job was wrong, he was closer to being right even as he challenged and questioned God

*This shows me that God desires a real relationship and not just people who blindly follow accepted truths

 

God’s speech to Job is satisfying on one level but leaves us wanting more as God remains kind of distant from Job’s problems.

In Jesus the distant God of Job comes close and experiences our suffering

What Job wanted of God we get in Jesus.

The Story of Uriah, Bathsheba and David (Weekly Word)

I remember being at a church event once and the speaker was talking on the story of David and Bathsheba from 2 Samuel 11.  The story begins by noting that it was spring, the time when kings go off to war.  But David stayed home.  This, the speaker said, was his first mistake.  It began a chain reaction which led to adultery and murder.  The lesson, we were told, was that if we want to avoid sin (sexual sin, specifically) we need to be where we are supposed to be, unlike David.

The problem is that the previous summer when Israel was fighting the Ammonites, David had also stayed home (see 1 Samuel 10).  It made sense for the king to not always go on military campaign, since he was the head of the government.  Later on David’s soldiers will beg him not to go (2 Samuel 21:17).  David certainly makes mistakes in this story, but simply being home is not one of them.

That said, maybe we could still fault him.  I mean, he was a great warrior!  He had fought Goliath!  But for whatever reason, he was home.  He went out on his roof one evening to catch the cool breeze.  His roof probably gave him a good view of the city, including a view of a woman bathing.  She probably, on her own roof, thought she had privacy.

Here’s another part of the story I never got before.  It always sounded like David simply saw this random woman, was attracted and invited her to him.  But if we look more closely, it is pretty obvious he had to know who she was and that she was married.  We are told she is the daughter of Eliam who, we learn in 2 Samuel 23:34, was one of David’s top soldiers.  Uriah, her husband, is also in the list of David’s top soldiers (23:39).  And her grandfather, Ahithopel, was one of David’s most trusted advisors (2 Samuel 16:23).  These three men were part of his inner circle.  This indicates to me that he had to know exactly who he was inviting to his bed.

To make a long story short, and we spent more time discussing it last night, David gets her pregnant.  In an effort to pass the child off as Uriah’s, David calls Uriah back from the military campaign.  After getting a report, David encourages Uriah to go home and enjoy the comforts of his wife.  Uriah, showing deep integrity and identification with his men in the field, refuses.  The contrast is clear – David does not mind staying out of harms way and enjoying women while Uriah chooses to pass up those pleasures in order to identify with his community.

David has to think of another solution and he does.  He sends sealed orders with Uriah for the military commander.  The orders say to put Uriah in harms way so he will die.  The leader complies and after Bathsheba mourns for the appropriate time, David marries her.  This may seem fishy to us.  It was common in those days for a woman to marry her dead husband’s brother.  If Uriah had no siblings, David as king could have volunteered to care for Bathsheba, fulfilling the role of a brother to Uriah.  David would come out looking quite generous.  That is, until the next chapter when Nathan the prophet uncovers the whole thing and David confesses!

So what lessons did we take from this?

1. Uriah provides a fantastic model of integrity for us – In a world filled with cheaters, Uriah illustrates what it is like to live by strong character and conviction.

2. Uriah was an outsider to God’s people who lived a holy life; this points us to Jesus who welcomes outsiders – Uriah was a Hittite, one of the people Israel was to exterminate (Deut. 7:1-5).  Surprisingly then, Uriah is the hero of the story.  When we come to Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus we notice there are only four women listed – Ruth, Rahab, Tamar and Uriah’s wife.  This is often used to emphasize that Jesus came to welcome women and men.  While this is certainly true of Jesus, I do not think that is the point of Matthew’s genealogy.  If it was so, why did Matthew say “Uriah’s wife” and not simply “Bathsheba”?  Bathsheba was an Israelite while Uriah was not.  The emphasis is that those outside of God’s people – Ruth, Rahab, Uriah and so many others – are now welcomed into God’s people.  But “now” is not right, for Matthew is showing that such people have always been welcomed!

3. Reconciliation does not end in Confessing to God – You must go to the one you have hurt – David’s confession in Psalm 51 kind of bothers me.  He says to God, “against you only have I sinned.”  What about Uriah?  Taken alone a passage like this could lead someone to think they just need confess to God and they are fine.  In light of Jesus’ words in places like Matthew 5:23-24 and Luke 15:21 we are reminded that reconciliation is not just vertical with God, we must also pursue reconciliation with others.  Of course, this was already a reality at places in the old testament – see Numbers 5:5-8 and Proverbs 28:13.

 

The Story of Hannah and Samuel (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we took some time to read and discuss the story of Hannah from the 1 Samuel.  Hannah was one of two wives of Elkanah, a Levite (his being a Levite ought to have us on edge after last week’s lesson, but he’s a good guy).  Elkanah appears to be wealthy, able to sacrifice three bulls, and it is possible he married the second wife because Hannah was not having children.  This is a common theme in the Bible, we’ve read of women before who were unable to conceive (Sarah and Rachel being two).

Hannah prays and promises that if God gives her a son she will never cut his hair and that she will give him to the Lord.  To make a long story short, she soon becomes pregnant and gives birth to Samuel.  Samuel grows up in the temple (not the temple in Jerusalem, that is not yet built) and becomes the last judge.  He is a pretty pivotal guy as his name is on the book that tells not just his own story but that of the first kings, Saul and David.

Reflecting on the story, we drew out five points:

1. Everything you have is a gift from God Hannah realized this, which is why she was able to give Samuel back to God.  May we realize it too, from the time we are poor college students to when we are making the big bucks later on!

2. There may be something you desperately want, so ask God for it!  I think the way Hannah prays is a model for how we ought to pray.  We do not need to be shy or fearful, we can pour out the depths of our heart to God.  Of course, there may be some things we desperately want that we do not need, or even if we ever got them we would realize we do not really want them.  What Hannah wanted though was a beautiful thing and there is no shame in asking God for good things.

3. Hannah’s prayer is answered, but this does not mean ours will be.  Prayer does not work like that.  It is not as simple as just asking for something and getting it.  Lots of women then and now desperately want to get pregnant and cannot.  I have friends who want to get married and have not yet, perhaps they never will.  How prayer works remains a mystery.

4. When you do get that thing you pray for, it still belongs to God.  Again, Hannah knew this which is why she was able to give Samuel back.  It is easy, or easier, to rely on God when we need or want something.  After we get it, when life is comfortable, we may forget that previous reliance.  The point here is to remind us that at all times, its all a gift.

5. Hannah’s story points us to Mary and thus to Jesus.  Hannah knew everything was from God and belonged to God.  She was thus able to give Samuel back even as she praised God (1 Samuel 2).  This praise echoes that of another unexpected mother, Mary, in Luke 1:46-55.  Mary’s miraculous birth gave the world Jesus Christ.  And just as Hannah’s son served God, so too did Mary’s, going to the very farthest extent of love for the world.

The point of Hannah’s story is not to pray like or have faith like Hannah, even though she is a good example.  Her story, like all stories, points us forward to the coming of Jesus.  Jesus is the gift to the hungry and needy world, Jesus is Lord and Savior.

Thoughts on the Most Horrific Story in the Bible (Weekly Word)

Last night at CSF we studied the story of a Levite and his concubine from Judges 19-21.  If it is not the most horrific story in the Bible, it is certainly top 5.  The concubine, a sort of second-tier, lesser wife, leaves the Levite and goes back home.  Older translations said the woman prostituted herself out, basically blaming the woman for much of what was about to happen.  Newer scholarship argues that the specific reason she leaves is unclear, leaving it as anger at the Levite.  When the rest of the story is taken into consideration and the Levite’s character is seen, we can see why she left him.

He goes after her and together they begin the journey back to his house.  They are forced to stay in the town of Gibeah for the night and are taken in by an elderly man.  The men of the town come to the house they are staying and, in echoes of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19, demand the Levite be sent out so they can rape him.  To make a long story short, he sends his concubine out to save himself.  The next morning, after she is viciously abused, he awakes and finds her laying on the outer doorstep.  Apparently he had no problem sleeping while she was raped.  The text leaves it vague as to whether she is dead or unconscious.

The Levite proceeds to cut her body into twelve pieces and send them out to the twelve tribes, calling for vengeance.  He tells his fellow Israelites what happened, putting himself in the best light.  A few battles follow, the tribe of Benjamin (it was a city of this tribe that committed the crime) is decimated.  The few remaining Benjaminite men have no wives and thus one of the 12 tribes of Israel will die out.  So the Israelites, fresh off decimating them, seek to find them wives.  They do this through further violence and rape.

Its all around awful.

As I prepared for this lesson, two thoughts stuck in my mind.  First is a church I often drive past that has a sign out front that says, “Jesus on every page!”  It sounds nice, but I don’t see Jesus on these pages.  Second is a few websites I came across that use this story as proof the Bible as a whole, and God if one exists, is evil.  The argument seems to be that since this is in the Bible, God is okay with it.

I think both of those are false starts.  Here are the lessons I drew from this story:

  1. The Bible is a Story About Humans and Does Not Hide Humanity’s Depravity – Within this not everything humans do is smiled upon by God.  In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean God approves of what happened.
  2. The Bible is Not Simply a “How-To” Manual For Life – Sometimes the Bible is difficult to understand.  We are obsessed with practical application but there does not seem to be much here.  I mean, it can be found – be hospitable, don’t abuse women.  But such lessons are not why this story is in scripture for such lessons could be taught in other ways that do not include horrific narratives.  The point is,the Bible is not always easy, despite what some Christians may say.
  3. The Bible is Not Unbiased – The point of this story – “everyone did what they saw fit because there was no king in Israel”.  That statement is repeated both before the story and at the very end. This shows that the reason Judges was written was to argue for why a king was needed.  Judges is propaganda explaining why we (Israel) need a king.  Yet if we turn the page and go into the books of Samuel and Kings we learn that once kings do show up, violence and evil continue to plague God’s people.  If the problem Judges sees is correct (everyone does as he sees fit), their cure is found to be inadequate (so we need a king).
  4. Ultimately then, this story points to the inadequacy of human systems and even kings – Reading this as a Christian, we do get to Jesus.  The answer is not a king, the answer is Jesus.  Jesus is the one who willingly steps outside, leaving his own safety behind, and gives himself into the hands of the mob to be abused and killed.  Jesus voluntarily takes on violence to say others.
  5. Where is the application then, if there is any?  Well, are we like the Levite, in seeking our own security first?  Or are we like Jesus, giving ourselves for others?  Jesus had the opportunity to harm a woman who was accused of sin but he saved her (John 8:2-11).   And ultimately, as I said above, he gave his life in our place.  This is our example.
  6. Do We Listen to the Voiceless Among us Today? Who is the nameless concubine in our culture today?  It is clear that rape and abuse continue to happen, both on our campus and in our churches.  May we speak in in support of those facing this.  Here are just two resources that are helpful: RAINN  and GRACE .

Weekly Word – Some Lessons from the Story of Ruth

Weekly Word is a weekly Friday devotional geared towards the college students at PSU Berks.  But hopefully anyone else who stumbles across it finds something helpful.

This semester on campus our theme for Thursday nights is The Bible You Never Knew: Secondary Characters Who Matter.  I am hoping to investigate the lives of some less known Bible characters, people who do not get a yearly mention in Sunday school growing up, like Abraham, Moses, David and Daniel.  Of course, who is a secondary character is a somewhat arbitrary choice.  This week we looked at Ruth, who has a whole book of the Bible dedicated to her story!  So why did I choose her as a “secondary character”?  In my experience, the stories of great women from the Bible such as Ruth tend to only show up in women’s Bible studies.  Everyone studies David and Moses, only women study Ruth and Esther.

Like I said, its somewhat arbitrary.  That said, I think the story of Ruth teaches us some amazing things.  I won’t go into the details of the story here, other then to note that it is important to grasp that Ruth was a Moabite living in Israel  The narrator refers to her as a Moabite quite often, not allowing us to forget her outsider status.  Moabites and Israelites did not get along in those days, there was a mutual animosity.  Living in Israel, Ruth would have not been trusted, she would have been seen as a questionable woman  In some ways, think of negative stereotypes that immigrants have today and you may begin to get the idea of how people thought of Ruth.

Not everyone looked down on her.  Boaz showed kindness to her which, to make a long story short, led to their marriage.  Ruth ended up giving birth to a son whose descendants included King David and Jesus.  So Ruth is rather important.

Here are four points I drew from the story with some questions I gave the students time to discuss last evening:

1. Be generous in ways that go above and beyond what is required.

Ruth would have been seen as “just an immigrant” or “just a Moabite” or “just a woman.” Who do you tend to look down on, to see as “just a _______”?

Who is someone in my life that I should make an extra effort to love and care for?

2. By walking in someone’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective we are able to be humble and sympathize

How would the way I talk about immigration (or really, anything) be different if I tried to put myself in someone else’s shoes for one day?

3. The love of God transcends all human made borders and boundaries.

Do I tend to think God favors people who think, act, talk and look like me? Am I open to loving the people Jesus loves?

4. The most unlikely person can be used by God to be the hero of the story.

With a college education, you are someone empowered to do great things. You will have opportunities others may not. What will you do to empower all the Ruths in this culture who are going to do great works for the kingdom of God?

Weekly Word – Jan 16 – Stories from the Margins

Weekly Word is a weekly Friday devotional geared towards the college students at PSU Berks.  But hopefully anyone else who stumbles across it finds something helpful.

When I watch movies, I am often intrigued by minor characters.  They show up on screen so briefly, perhaps making a major contribution to the story, and then disappear.  The primary example of this is Boba Fett, the bounty hunter who captured Han Solo in the sci-fi/fantasy film Empire Strikes Back (I know, nerd alert!).  He appears on screen quite suddenly, says little, has an awesome spaceship, and disappears just as quickly.  We know little about his background and motivations, though we want to.  Of course, book authors and the prequel trilogy sought to shed more light on Boba Fett.  But part of his coolness is his mystery as a minor character.

As you go through the story of scripture there is a Hall of Fame of sorts when it comes to characters.  Some characters get a lot of time for their story.  These men, and mostly are men, are the main characters in the story – Abraham, Moses, David, Joshua, Daniel.  If you’ve been around the church for any amount of time you are probably familiar with their stories.

What about the characters in scripture who are not quite as well known?  People who live  on the margins, either the margins of their time or the margins of our understanding?  People like Ruth, a poor immigrant woman from an enemy country?  Or like Micah and Habakkuk, prophets whose tiny books are dwarfed and often lost in the hazy end of the Hebrew Bible?

This semester our Thursday studies at CSF will focus on such people.  We will see what lessons their stories and writings can teach us.  Beyond that, we will see how they point us to Jesus.

Who is your favorite minor character in a movie?

Who is your favorite minor character in scripture?

Spiritual Disciplines – Simplicity and Service

This past Thursday at CSF we continued our discussion of the spiritual disciplines.  Once again we tackled two of them – simplicity and service.

Luke 12:13-33 was our primary text.  Here Jesus warns against greed, telling the crowds to beware storing up things for yourself but not being rich towards God.  From this we see the challenge of simplicity.  Over and over the Bible warns against wealth, as Foster says in Celebration of Discipline, “The biblical injunctions against the exploitation of the poor and the accumulation of wealth are clear and straightforward” (82).  I have seen many stories of people who take a scissors and cut all the verses about money out of the Bible.  They are not left with much Bible.

Yet simplicity is not simply poverty.  It is not so much about what you have as to how tightly you hold on to it.  If anything, there is sometimes a false dichotomy built between helping the poor and creating beautiful architecture, for example.  I have been guilty of this in my life.  There have been times I have been very critical of churches who spend money on a beautiful building.  I now believe this attitude buys into a myth of scarcity, as if God only has enough money for one.

That said, some things are a waste of money.  A well-known creationist organization is building a replica of Noah’s Ark and asking for donations.  For $500 a month for 10 months you can have your very own beam!  This is a total waste of money.  If you had an extra $500 a month there are myriad better ways you could use it.  In the same way, if you are a pastor of a church that gets big and you have the choice between buying the biggest house in your community with 3-4 times as many bedrooms as people in your family, that too is just plain wrong.  The prophets in scripture spoke publicly against the greed of some and there is certainly a place for that in our world.

On another level though, things are not so simple.  It might be nice if the Bible had a chart for us so that we knew what amount of income was okay.  We humans want laws.  But we don’t get any.  When I analyze my own life I can say I am doing well in the discipline of simplicity compared to some people, while others may look at me as quite greedy.  So it is not sinful to have a house or to create a beautiful worship space (I admit, the cathedrals I saw in Spain, making me wonder if I am on earth or in heaven, influenced me in this).  And those who give the most to the poor are not automatically living the simple life.

Jesus says that when you give do not let your right hand know what your left is giving (Matt. 6:2-4).  Lest we turn this into a law, we need to remember that we can follow the letter and give in secret and still be proud.  These challenges of spiritual discipleship cannot be reduced to a few laws or rules.  I think it is more likely that as we live in relationship with God, surrounded by a community of Christians, and immersed in prayer and scripture, that we discern what it looks like for us to live simply.  Simplicity for one person may look different then for another.

Foster’s solution is to follow Jesus’ teaching – seek first God’s kingdom and everything else will be made known.  But again, beware reducing this to a law:

“Should a person get a suitable job in order to exert a virtuous influence? His answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Then should we give away all our money to feed the poor? Again the answer: no, we must first seek God’s kingdom. Well, then perhaps we are to go out and preach this truth to the world that people are to seek first God’s kingdom? Once again the answer is a resounding: no, we are first to seek the kingdom.”

Just as simplicity cannot be reduced to a chart, rule or graph, nor can service.  When we talk about service on campus we tend to talk about programs – go to the after-school program, ring bells for the Salvation Army, come on spring break mission trip.  These are good things, but they do not automatically show we are living a life of service.  Service as a discipline is a lifestyle.  For some of us, especially at the beginning, forcing ourselves to schedule the service may be necessary.  It is a first step to developing a lifestyle of service.

But it is so tempting for these programs to miss the point.  When we sign up for a program, it is public.  Perhaps we go on the mission trip because everyone else is.  As the leader there have been a few times, such as after Hurricane Katrina, where we got a bit of local publicity for the trip.  Admittedly, that feels nice.  If we start going down this road though, service becomes more about us then the other we are serving.

As Foster puts it:

“We must see the difference between choosing to serve and choosing to be a servant When we choose to serve, we are still in charge. We decide whom we will serve and when we will serve. And if we are in charge, we will worry a great deal about anyone stepping on us, that is, taking charge over us. But when we choose to be a servant, we give up the right to be incharge. There is freedom in this” (132)

I think how well we are doing in service is more revealed by what we do when no one is looking.

How well do I tip my waiter?

Am I willing to assist someone when it would be easy to walk past?

When I get an email asking help for someone at church, and I know 30 other people probably got it, and I already have plans, am I willing to help?  Or do I find easy reasons not to: They don’t know I’m not busy!  Someone else will do it!

What kind of neighbor am I?

Am I serving when no one is looking?

Like all disciplines, who we are when no one is around reveals our true self.

Spiritual Disciplines – Study and Solitude

Last Thursday at CSF we continued our study of the Spiritual Disciplines, using Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline as our guide (along with the Bible, of course).  Here is a brief summary of what we talked about.

If you read through the book of Acts quickly you may miss that those 28 chapters cover a large period of time.  From one chapter to the next couple be a gap of years.  We see this in the story of Saul, the persecutor of Christians turned disciple of Jesus.  When we first meet him in Acts 8 he is holding the cloaks of the men executing Stephen.  Then in Acts 9 he is on his way to Damascus to persecute followers of Jesus, his fellow Jews who have bought into the heresy that Jesus is Messiah.  On the way he sees a vision of this very Jesus and soon finds himself among those on the wrong side of tradition.  We see him preach for a short time, but chapter 9 ends with him in his hometown of Tarsus.  Then at the end of Acts 11 we see that Barnabas travels to Tarsus and brings Saul back to Antioch to work with the church there.

What we might not realize is that there is about a 10 years span between these two events.  Saul, soon to be called Paul, spent ten years in his hometown.  I imagine he spent a lot of time reading and studying the Bible.  After all, as a Pharisee he was among the elite of Judaism of his day, knowing the scriptures backward and forward.  When he met Jesus it had to shake up his life.  Imagine you are taught one thing your whole life and then one moment, one experience, throws that all into question.

The Paul that emerges in Acts 11, the writer of amazing texts like Romans and Galatians, is a changed man.  His many years in Tarsus, where I imagine he spent time in solitude, praying and studying, were certainly a factor in this change.

Study is simply the transforming of your mind (I don’t feel I need to explain what studying is to a group of college students!).  A key text here, from Paul himself, would be Romans 12:2.  When we talk about scripture, or Bible study, it helps to contrast it with meditation or devotional reading.  Foster says:

“A vast difference exists between the study of Scripture and the devotional reading of Scripture.  In the study of Scripture a high priority is placed upon interpretation: what it means. In the devotional reading of scripture a high priority is placed upon application: what it means for me. All too often people rush to the application stage and bypass the interpretation stage: they want to know what it means for them before they know what it means!  Also, we are not seeking spiritual ecstasy in study; in fact, ecstasy can be a hindrance.  When we study a book of the Bible we are seeking to be controlled by the intent of the author.  We are determined to hear what he is saying, not what we want him to say.  We want life-transforming truth, not just good feelings.  We are willing to pay the price of barren day after  barren day until the meaning is clear.  This process revolutionizes our lives” (69)

A devotional reading starts with me and my needs and immediately applies the scripture, probably a verse or two, to them.  Study is broader, beginning not with my own needs but with what the author was trying to say to the original hearers.  Study looks at the big picture and emphasizes thinking about the text.  If you are interested, Bible Study Guide 2013.

What struck me about Foster’s chapter on study is that he did not limit it to Bible study.  Instead study of anything and everything can be a spiritual discipline if approached in the right way.  I say it all the time at CSF, but your study in class ought to be seen as an act of worship.  God is calling you into a career and your study is preparing you for God’s calling – as an engineer, teacher, lawyer, nurse, writer or whatever you may become.  It would be absurd to seek discipline in one area of life (Bible study) and miss the holiness of study in another area (your classes).  Study as a discipline also relates to studying the world around us.  Part of this would be observing how people interact, another part is questioning the assumptions of our culture.  For example, what is good and bad about being constantly connected to technology?  Finally, study yourself.  This one is troubling for me, but as yourself questions: why do you like certain people? Why do you say what you say?

From study we moved into solitude.  Solitude relates to all the disciplines so far – prayer, study, meditation, fasting.  These are things we do in solitude with God.  But solitude is only half of it, we can also do these things in community – praying together, studying together, etc.  Both are needed for a balanced life.

Solitude is closely related to silence.  As I reflected on what Foster wrote in his book and on scriptures related to silence (like James 1:19 -My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry) I was greatly convicted.  I was struck by how many of my words go into defending myself.  Instead of just acting and speaking in the way I believe is right, and within that trusting in God, I often try to sweet-talk people into liking me, agreeing with me or affirming me.  What I learned in this is that the disciplines of solitude and silence help you learn when to speak and when not to speak.

Finally, in talking about solitude Foster brought up the Dark Night of the Soul.  As we’ve been talking about these disciplines, it is easy to give the impression that if you begin doing these things – if you pray more and read the Bible and fast and so on – then you will become closer to God.  Perhaps this could be taken to mean you will go through life just feeling totally filled with the Spirit.  But what if that doesn’t happen?  What if you do these things and God feels distant?  What if as you begin living out God’s call in your life you have an experience like Mother Theresa who, we learned after our death, felt distant from God for 50 years!

Part of the answer is in Mother Theresa’s life – even in feeling distant she continued to do the work, serving those in need, she was called to.  Further, we are reminded that our faith, like anything in life, is not based on just a feeling.  Mature faith lives in the way of Jesus not in hopes of a nice feeling but out of a belief that living this way really is fulfilling.  In other words, we are not generous and forgiving in hopes of getting a warm fuzzy, deep down knowing we’d rather be greedy and hold grudges.  No, we realize that regardless of how we feel moment to moment, it ultimately is more fulfilling to give and to forgive.

If you want to read more on this, check out my post on John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.

Spiritual Disciplines – Prayer and Fasting

Last Thursday at CSF we continued our look at Spiritual Disciplines, using Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline as our guide (and the Bible, of course).  We talked about two of the more well-known, thought not necessarily well-practiced, practices: prayer and fasting.

Just to share a couple key points:

 1. We must be taught how to pray.  On one hand, there is a religious impulse in all humanity that has led to every culture having some form of religion.  To some degree, reaching out to God or the gods is natural.  Yet in Jesus’ day it was common for rabbis to teach their disciples to pray.  Thus it is no surprise that Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1).  I don’t think this means that God only listens if we say good or the right words; the truth is God will listen to whatever we say and understand our needs better then we can ask.  But being taught how to pray is for our benefit.  My own frustrations with my mind wandering and my words rambling is often remedied when I use the Lord’s Prayer or one of the Psalms to help me pray.  We see then the connection of prayer to the Bible – we learn to pray by reading scripture;

2. People in the Bible pray as if there prayers really make a difference.  This could lead to all sorts of fun theological and philosophical questions.  That aside, when we read scripture it appears that prayer actually changed things.  In Exodus 32 God announces the Israelites will be destroyed.  Then Moses prays and then God relents.  Other examples could be offered, but the point is that we are wrong if we think our prayers are just going through the motions and God is going to do what God does anyway.  We are not mere pawns living in a deterministic world.  Somehow, someway, our prayers do make a difference. 

3. Prayer is entering into communion with God our Father.  When my daughter talks to me, I listen.  I love hearing her talk, especially as her babbling is growing into words, sentences and conversations.  In the same way, God listens to us.  Through prayer we enter relationship with God.  As we talk to, and listen, to God we learn more about God and are able to pray more in line with what God wants to give us anyway

4. Prayer transforms us.  As we live in prayerful relationship with God, we are changed.  Foster quotes PT Forsyth who says, “Prayer is to religion what original research is to science.”  As we embark on this “original research” we are changed.  As Foster says, “To pray real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.”

 5. Prayer ought to be confident.  Foster points out in his book that when Jesus prayed for other people he never concluded by saying, “if it be thy will.”  Such a comment may be fine for a prayer of guidance, literally asking God to reveal God’s will for us.  But if we are praying for something we know God desires – reconciliation between friends, healing for cancer, etc – we can confidently ask God for these things.  For more on this one, look up Psalm 138:3 and 2 Chronicles 7:14. 

6. Prayer for others is intimately connected to compassion.  As we begin to pray for others, we need to think good thoughts and love toward them.  And if we want to learn to love our enemies, a good first step is praying for them.  Through praying, active love begins to look more possible. 

7. Prayer needs focus.  My mind wanders all the time.  I appreciate this from Teresa of Avila – “This was my method of prayer; as I could not make reflections with my understanding, I contrived to picture Christ within me…I did many simple things of this kind…I believe my soul gained very much in this way, because I began to practice prayer without knowing what it was.”  In the same way, it sometimes helps me to imagine Jesus sitting right there in the room with me as I pray.  In terms of focus, it also helps to journal – my mind does not wander as easily when I write my prayers. 

8. Pray not when you feel like it – pray because you know you need to.  This is a basic truth for all things in life.  Your feelings are over-rated.  Prayer, along with any good act, is done not just when we feel like it but any chance we get!  It is a lifestyle.  As Foster says, “We must never wait until we feel like praying before we pray for others. Prayer is like any other work; we may not feel like working, but once we have been at it for a bit, we begin to feel like working. We may not feel like practicing the piano, but once we play for a while, we feel like doing it. In the same way, our prayer muscles need to be limbered up a bit and once the blood-flow of intercession begins, we will find that we feel like praying” (45). 

9. Prayer is the Christian battlefield.  In Ephesians 6:12 it says our battle is not flesh and blood but against powers and principalities; our battle is in the spiritual realm.  I think of the early Christians who argued that their prayers did more for the success of the Roman military then the soldiers did.  Whatever is going on in the visible world, the world of prayer is where the real battles are.

10. Prayer is not just spiritual – it requires your whole body.  What this means is that our body matters, we are whole, complete people.  This leads into the discipline of fasting.

Fasting

Foster says a lot about fasting in his chapter on it.  For the most part fasting is to give up food, though there are a few times when only a type of food is given up (Daniel) or when both food and water are given up for a short time.  The point of fasting is to grow closer to God.  Though there are times of public, communal fasting, in general fasting is an individual and private act.   Basically, we are free to fast whenever we desire.  Which for most of us is never.

Jesus says “when you fast,” not, “if you fast.”  Yet in my 33 years in church I have heard little talk on or encouragement to fast.  Either everyone is doing a REALLY GOOD job of the whole keeping-it-secret thing or not many of us fast.

In the end then, I just challenge myself and the members of CSF to fast in the next week.  Here are some helps from Foster for this challenge:

  • Choose one day this week and commit to fasting from lunch till at least breakfast (if not lunch) the next day.
  • Drink fresh fruit juices only (or just water)
  • When you would normally eat, pray and read scripture.
  • Remember – your body has been trained to expect food; when you first feel hungry you are not really hungry, this is just your body reminding you that you usually eat at this time. Take control and rely on god.