All Saints' Deacon

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Illusion

Practically speaking, disillusionment is the loss of illusion. In terms of larceny, then, it is the equivalent of having one’s high cholesterol or a perpetually bad habit stolen. Disillusionment, while painful, is evidence which shows the myths that enchant us need not blind us forever, a sign that what is falsely believed can be shattered by what is genuine. In such terms, disillusion is far less an unwanted intrusion than it is a severe mercy, far more like a surgeon’s excising of a tumor than a cruel removal of hope… disillusionment is the precursor to nothing short of resurrection. And faith is the audacity to confront our illusions with the cross upon which we find a self-giving God.

Jill Carattini

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The Deacon in The Journey

My contributions appear starting in August in the daily devotional THE JOURNEY available at the All Saints’ bookstore.

 

Mercy and Sovereignty

From Jon Piper:

Nothing, absolutely nothing, befalls those who “love God and are called according to his purpose” but what is for our deepest and highest good (Psalm 84:11). Therefore, the mercy and the sovereignty of God are the twin pillars of my life. They are the hope of my future, the energy of my service, the center of my theology, the bond of my marriage, the best medicine in all my sickness, the remedy of all my discouragements. And when I come to die (whether sooner or later), these two truths will stand by my bed and with infinitely strong and infinitely tender hands lift me up to God.

41

Today is my 41st anniversary with Melanie. We got to renew our vows at church last Valentine’s Day. The next day Melanie got word that her mother had begun her final illness. Melanie chose to stay by my side rather than go to Michigan for her mother’s eventual funeral two weeks later. Because when you marry, you leave all others and cleave to your spouse. It has been a difficult year. Thank you, Melanie, for going through it with me. I do love you more than… ever.

Stay in touch

This blog by Rev. Rick Hoover, former deacon at All Saints’ Church, is no longer linked at the church web page. A handful of short posts are backlogged to appear through the summer months. You can see those if you go directly to this blog address OR if you have subscribed to receive posts by email. I invite you now to follow my personal blog   deaconrick.wordpress.com

Trees and Orchards

Just because a tree in the orchard isn’t bearing fruit, that doesn’t mean it’s not part of the orchard. It could mean the tree hasn’t been planted long enough for the roots to grow deep enough to bring nourishment to the branches to bear fruit. It could be it was just transplanted from another orchard, a greenhouse, or maybe a tree nursery. We have to be patient with these trees. We may not see the fruit for a while. But, they’re still part of the orchard. – Renee Hibma, ON TO THE PRIZE.

God’s Assignment

Sometimes we are in “positions” that we resist. You tell yourself it’s too menial. I have more to offer… blah, blah, blah. It could actually be a promotion in the Kingdom of God. Does God have an assignment for you? Yes. Has He given you this position to accomplish a mission for the Kingdom? Yes. There are no mistakes when He has ordered your steps. — Renee Hibma, ON TO THE PRIZE.

Just service?

The goal of the call of God is His satisfaction, not simply that we should do something for Him. We are not sent to do battle for God, but to be used by God in His battles. Are we more devoted to service than we are to Jesus Christ Himself? — Oswald Chambers

With Us

A friend of mine shared this at her blog a few weeks ago:

Over the past decade, I have learned to know God as Emmanuel – God with us, specifically, God with me. And suffering has made me greedy. I am no longer satisfied with glimpses of Him or with a Christianity devoid of intimate experience…

I went to the Regional Cancer Center for a blood transfusion. He went with me, and He calmed my spirit when I felt terrified of the risks and possibilities of what I was doing. He’s not a God who lives in heaven and stares down at us with disinterest. He is Emmanuel – God with us, whether in a cathedral or a cancer center… For me, suffering is the hand that has turned my face to look squarely into His eyes.

Sacrifice

“God engineers circumstances to see what we will do. Will we be the children of our Father in heaven, or will we go back again to the meaner, common-sense attitude? Will we stake all and stand true to Him? “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” The crown of life means I shall see that my Lord has got the victory after all, even in me.

“We make a mistake in thinking that the ultimate God wants of us is the sacrifice of death. What God wants is the sacrifice through death which enables us to do what Jesus did, that is, sacrifice our lives. Not— “Lord, I am ready to go with You…to death” (Luke 22:33). But— “I am willing to be identified with Your death so that I may sacrifice my life to God.”  – Oswald Chambers

Our Smallness

“Knowing our smallness puts us in touch with the essential lightness of created things –  transitory, ephemeral creatures. Splendid irrelevance. All lives are small lives, all epic struggles are skirmishes, because we are weightless creations – deceived by an illusory sense of gravity. Inside the movie inside our head, we all feel like we are stars. It’s an illusion. We’re all extras.” – Jonathan Martin

Adjustments

We are tempted to hold tightly to things God has given us. We say, “I would be willing to give up anything God asked of me, but I just don’t think He would ask me to give anything up!” The Father asked His Son to make radical adjustments in His life. Can we not expect that He will ask us to sacrifice privileges and comforts as well? – Henry Blackaby

Humility Exam

For a large part of my Christian life I have been a “star,” working in a spotlight of one sort or another. What was comfortable about it was the way such positions allow you to control the level of exposure one must endure. To some degree I could work in a spotlight but also choose when I wanted to step away from it.

My experience with a stroke has forcefully changed that. I feel much more “sidelined.”

This past week Melanie and I opened our home as hosts for a contemplative prayer group. We had hosted an evening group in the past. Our present circumstance made a daytime schedule seem better now. It also seemed to provide me a ministry opportunity again.

The morning before the first meeting of the new group, I read the following in our daily devotionals. Oswald Chambers once more hit me between the eyes.

Are you willing to sacrifice yourself for the work of another believer—to pour out your life sacrificially for the ministry and faith of others? Or do you say, “I am not willing to be poured out right now, and I don’t want God to tell me how to serve Him. I want to choose the place of my own sacrifice. And I want to have certain people watching me and saying, ‘Well done.’ ”

It is one thing to follow God’s way of service if you are regarded as a hero, but quite another thing if the road marked out for you by God requires becoming a “doormat” under other people’s feet. God’s purpose may be to teach you to say, “I know how to be abased…” (Philippians 4:12). Are you ready to be sacrificed like that? Are you ready to be less than a mere drop in the bucket— to be so totally insignificant that no one remembers you even if they think of those you served? Are you willing to give and be poured out until you are used up and exhausted— not seeking to be ministered to, but to minister?

Part of our contemplative prayer practice in the group is a period of silence before the Lord, in the discipline of centering prayer. It is not an easy discipline. But this week I had much to think about and be silent over, there before God.

Silence and Questions

We all try so hard to make sense of difficult circumstances by asking questions and hoping for answers…  By asking these questions, we are attempting to find a way to control our future.

I took comfort from the words of Oswald Chambers: “His silence is a sign that He is bringing you into a marvelous understanding of Himself.”

–Jan Frank, in her book A Graceful Waiting,

I hope so.

Possible

It is possible to enjoy Me and glorify Me in the midst of adverse circumstances. In fact, My light shines most brightly through believers who trust Me in the dark. — Sarah Young, “Jesus Calling”

Turning Points

Not often, but every once in a while, God brings us to a major turning point— a great crossroads in our life. From that point we either go toward a more and more slow, lazy, and useless Christian life. Or we become more and more on fire, giving our utmost for His highest— our best for His glory. – Oswald Chambers

RIP Andrae Crouch

I thank God for the mountains,
and I thank Him for the valleys,
I thank Him for the storms He brought me through.
For if I’d never had a problem,
I wouldn’t know God could solve them,
I’d never know what faith in God could do.

–“Through It All” by Andrae Crouch

 

Night watches

Psalm 119:148 My eyes are open in the night watches, that I may meditate upon your promise.(BCP Psalter)

Maybe you didn’t intend it, but there you are again, awake in the middle of the night, eyes open. What for, Lord?

David concluded the purpose of his being awake in the middle of the night was so he could spend time thinking about and meditating on the promises of God, the promises in Holy Scripture. It surprises me – it embarrasses me – that after a lifetime as a Christian I can still so easily forget those promises, even the ones I think I know. Particularly when it would help me to be remembering them.

So, if I’m awake in the night watches, Lord, let me remember the best purpose for that quiet time. You invite me to join you in the stillness of Your presence. Let me call to mind, again, the good things you have done for me and those I love. And may the Holy Spirit help me by calling to mind, once again, the promises You have made for the day ahead.

The Feast of Stephen

As a deacon myself, I take note of today’s dedication to the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen. It is interesting that, on the first day after Christmas, Mother Church calls us to remember the first follower who laid down his life for his witness to Jesus.

I have often thought what the first diaconal assignment – waiting on meal tables – can teach me. There is, for example, the waiting to be told what people want rather than assuming I already know. There is also the aspect of waiting, out of the way, until I am needed for something further.

Stephen’s death triggered the next bit of church history that Luke records in Acts. It is the story of another deacon, Philip. This deacon was the first one to carry out the Great Commission from Jesus. Luke records stories of the revival Philip started in Samaria and the missionary convert he baptized on the road to Gaza.

Today my greetings go out to my brother and sister deacons. We hold a place of great honor and great responsibility in the Church. May we honor the examples left for us by the first servants called to this order.

How?

How are we going to get a life that has no lust, no self-interest, and is not sensitive to the ridicule of others? How will we have the type of love that “is kind . . . is not provoked, [and] thinks no evil”? (1 Corinthians 13:4-5). The only way is by allowing nothing of the old life to remain, and by having only simple, perfect trust in God— such a trust that we no longer want God’s blessings, but only want God Himself. – Oswald Chambers

The nature of the resistance

“People try to persuade us that the objections against Christianity spring from doubt. That is a complete misunderstanding. The objections against Christianity spring from insubordination, the dislike of obedience, rebellion against all authority. As a result people have hitherto been beating the air in their struggle against objections, because they have fought intellectually with doubt instead of fighting morally with rebellion.” Soren Kierkegaard

Revealed through obedience

From Oswald Chambers:

All of God’s revealed truths are sealed until they are opened to us through obedience. You will never open them through philosophy or thinking. But once you obey, a flash of light comes immediately. Let God’s truth work into you by immersing yourself in it, not by worrying into it…

Don’t say, “I suppose I will understand these things someday!” You can understand them now. And it is not study that brings understanding to you, but obedience. Even the smallest bit of obedience opens heaven, and the deepest truths of God immediately become yours.

Yet God will never reveal more truth about Himself to you, until you have obeyed what you know already. Beware of becoming one of the “wise and prudent.” “If anyone wills to do His will, he shall know . . .” (John 7:17).

Not by sight

God places His saints where they will bring the most glory to Him, and we are totally incapable of judging where that may be. – Oswald Chambers

God sees where He is placing me, sending me. I will not be able to see this at first, but that’s when I must carefully obey, trusting that God DOES know what He is doing!

Making confession

From a conversation between the Pilgrim and his confessor in the Russian classic, The Pilgrim Continues His Way:

I heard that in the Kitayevaya Poustinia, which is seven versts from Kiev, there was a priest of ascetical life who was very wise, prudent, and compassionate and that whoever went to him to confession received good advice and returned very happy. I was very glad to hear this and soon went to him. We talked for a while and then I gave him my list of sins to examine.

After reading the list, he said to me, “Beloved brother, you wrote here much that is useless…(the priest reviewed the list)… Fourth, you came to repent, but you are not repenting of the fact that you do not know how to repent; your repentance is cold and careless. And, fifth, you enumerated all the trivialities but ignored the most important thing; you did not reveal your serious sins. You did not acknowledge and did not write down that you don’t love God, that you hate your neighbor, that you do not believe in the word of God, and that you are full of pride and ambition. The entire abyss of evil and of our spiritual corruption lies in these four sins. They are the main roots from which spring the shoots of all our other failings.”

…I was astonished and thought to myself, My God, what terrible sins are hidden within me and up to this time I did not notice them!

A prayer for the Church

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world know that things that were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Miracles

In her book Celebration of Miracles, Jodie Berndt recommends how to look for explanations.

“Instead of searching for a natural cause, we should look for a miracle’s intelligent cause. Underneath the drama and excitement of each miracle lies a careful, thoughtful purpose.”

It startled me to realize how often I do begin with an expectation of some mechanical solution for the surprises, for the miracles, that show up in a day. To think that way reveals my own assumption that I am in charge. I know how these things are done. I could even do them myself.

That’s not the case with a real miracle. A real miracle is evidence not of accident, but intention. Intentions are evidence of a Person, a Person who has stepped up and stepped into my life. And when God steps in, it is because He has a plan to show me, if I’ll accept it.

First of all

From the early pages of the Russian spiritual classic, The Way of a Pilgrim:

Many approach prayer with a misunderstanding and think that the preparatory means and acts produce prayer. They do not see that prayer is the source of all good actions and virtues. They look upon the fruits and results of prayer as means and methods and in this way depreciate the power of prayer. This is contrary to Holy Scripture, because St. Paul clearly states that prayer should precede all actions: “First of all, there should be prayers offered” (I Timothy 2:1). The Apostle’s directive indicates that the act of prayer comes first; it comes before everything else. The Christian is expected to perform many good works, but the act of prayer is fundamental because without prayer it is not possible to do good. Without frequent prayer it is not possible to find one’s way to God, to understand truth, and to crucify the lusts of the flesh. Only fidelity to prayer will lead a person to enlightenment and union with Christ.

Furthermore

“I like to think I’ve grown enough to choose consciousness of Him without such difficult constraints, but the fact remains that suffering is one of the most direct routes to the experience of love that I’ve ever encountered.” – Amy Thomas

Following up on my last entry, a quote from Oswald Chambers on suffering, I direct your attention to a reflection from a writing friend of mine in Ft. Myers, Florida, Amy Thomas. Amy has had serious health issues this year. And it has turned her thoughts like this.

 

Choosing a focus

No normal, healthy saint ever chooses suffering; he simply chooses God’s will, just as Jesus did, whether it means suffering or not. And no saint should ever dare to interfere with the lesson of suffering being taught in another saint’s life. – Oswald Chambers

Vocabulary Word

On vacation I was rereading William F. Buckley’s “autobiography of faith,” Nearer, My God, published in 1997. One of the exercises he undertook was to gather some Christian friends and poll them on the question of whether or not “the person of Jesus Christ is historically established beyond reasonable doubt?” One of the friends he posed the question to was the late Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. It should be no surprise that, brilliant thinker that he was, Neuhaus casually stretched my vocabulary bank, as Buckley himself often did.

Neuhaus wrote, “The truth of the entirety of the Christian proposition depends upon the second advent of Jesus the Christ. Christians proleptically experience the fulfillment of that promise. In this sense, Christians are the people ahead of time; the people who are saying now what one day all will acknowledge – when ‘every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.'”

It’s okay, I looked it up for you. “Prolepsis, noun. The representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.”

I knew that action already from the way Paul talks about hope not being hope if it is something that can be seen. Our hope in Jesus is what saves us, now, and that hope is transformed by faith into evidence of that which is yet unseen. (I’ll plug my own book, The Mystery of Faith, where I discussed this linkage.) I just didn’t know there was a word for it when I was writing my book!

Heart troubles

A reminder from Oswald Chambers:

You cannot hoard things for a rainy day if you are truly trusting Christ. Jesus said, “Let not your heart be troubled . . .” (John 14:1). God will not keep your heart from being troubled. It is a command— “Let not. . . .” To do it, continually pick yourself up, even if you fall a hundred and one times a day, until you get into the habit of putting God first and planning with Him in mind.

Every Man Decides This

“A man in this world must solve a problem: to be with Christ, or to be against Him. And every man decides this, whether he wants to or not. He will either be a lover of Christ or a fighter of Christ. There is no third option.” – St. Justin Popovich (with thanks to Grace and her “This Side of Glory” blog, where she writes, “I think Orthodox Christianity is about the only thing in the world I take really seriously, because it’s the only thing in the world that seems absolutely true and absolutely beautiful.”)

Reading the books

Melanie had just finished another book manuscript. She’s been on an interesting inspirational string the last few months, completing FOUR books since her birthday in October.

Now she remarked to me that she thought the Lord was “pausing” because she didn’t have any inner sense in her spirit of what she might work on next. Then, on a Saturday evening, a friendly neighbor dog caused my 94-year-old mom to topple over as she was taking her evening walk down the driveway. The fall broke her right arm and, within the hour, we were all at the hospital emergency room. It was not until three days later that she could finally be fit into the surgery schedule and have the bone reset. And now, of course, there will follow some weeks of rehab and recovery.

Melanie spent a full day sitting in the hospital room with mom, rereading her own book on Listening in Our Circumstances. “I needed it,” she wrote at her blog.

The bumps come. The road takes a turn. We have to try to remember what the Lord has taught us about hanging in there.

My mom had her own amusing episode with a book. One she had ordered a few days before her accident arrived in the mail after she was in the hospital, her arm in a splint. I picked up her mail at the house and realized I needed to deliver this book right away, so she could have something to read while she waited.

The book was titled Falling Into Place.

Bible Commentary

Wisdom from my friend Chris Thomas, pastor’s wife, Bible student:

“God can even use a donkey. It doesn’t mean that He’d rather.”

From the Ascent of Mount Carmel

A sobering and clear-eyed assessment from St. John of the Cross, in his book, The Ascent of Mount Carmel. St. John of the Cross was a spiritual director over a monastery in 16th century Spain. It can be sensed that little has changed in the work of discipling followers of Christ in every age.

From my observations Christ is to a great extent unknown by those who consider themselves His friends. Because of their extreme self-love they go about seeking in Him their own consolations and satisfactions. But they do not seek, out of great love for Him, His bitter trials and deaths.

Ways and by-ways

Further reflections from George Herbert’s poem The Temple:

     Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone
     is much more sure to meet with him, than one
               that travelleth by-ways.

     Perhaps my God, though He be far before,
     may turn, and take me by the hand, and more
               may strengthen my decays.

There is a joke about the man who loses his watch while walking a street at nighttime. The police find him conducting a search under a street light. “Is this where you lost your watch?” they ask. He says, “No, I lost it half a block down the street but the light is better here.”

I enjoy the way Herbert frames an obvious truth and speaks of why it may be of tremendous value to me. If I’m not looking in the right place, I am not going to find what I’m looking for, or needing. There’s a way to increase my chances of being close to Jesus today. If I’m keeping my distance, or moving in some other direction, I’m not likely to notice when he holds out his hand to help me.

Scandal

Writing one hundred years after Henry VIII took control of the Church of England away from Rome, George Herbert was writing poetry. In The Temple, he reflects on the way the truly humble man recognizes his own separation from the teachings of the historic Christian faith:

     He says, in things which use hath justly got,
     I am a scandal to the Church, and not
               the Church is so to me.

What reference point do you use to define whether you are in line or out of line? Is there a Fifth Commandment obedience issue here?

To put it in contemporary terms, is a politically correct society right to say historic Church teaching is scandalous? Or should it be the Church and the witness of the saints that is scandalized by my sinful behavior?

Faith, Truth, Proof

I’m doing a few Sunday School classes that ask the question, What is faith? And what did Jesus see when he told people their faith healed them, or saved them? In the first class we dug out some plain definitions from the Bible itself (Hebrews 11:1-3 for instance).

Then I found Dr. Steve Harper reflecting on the matter at  his blog: “Faith does not exist on its own.  It must be connected in some way to truth.  Otherwise, we believe a lie.   At the same time, however, the truth we believe in as Christians is not the same as factual or scientific truth.  In other words, we believe in some things we cannot prove.”

One of the folks in the class commented that this sort of approach seemed negative. I said I thought that was because we’re so used to relying on material, “scientific” ways of perceiving reality. We forget that spiritually discerned truth is not handled as if it were just another chair or rock or measurement in the physical world. If we can’t touch it, we are uncomfortable with it. But truth is truth.

Somebody should write a book.

What do you want?

In my book The Mystery of Faith I examined encounters Jesus had with people and their prayer requests.

In most cases, the Scripture accounts describe the illness immediately and there is no discussion about it. But there are a few curious instances where Jesus does not seem to assume that the prayer request is self-evident. In those moments, the Gospels record an explicit question from Jesus: What do you want?

Isn’t it clear that Jesus knows what we need? But he is willing to limit the conversation to what is on our minds, if that is all we want.

When will it dawn on us that he is actually willing to do more than we can ask or think? And it will be better than anything we could ask or think!

English Negotiating

I came across a review of the “negotiation styles” from cultures around the world. Some cultures tend to the verbose and emotionally heated. Others don’t want to offend by suggesting any particular facts are final or true.

What interested me was the description of the “English” (but not “American”) style of negotiating. It immediately had me thinking about the history and development of Christianity in the Anglican Church.

The “English” style begins with small talk before anyone brings up whatever “reasonable proposal” is under consideration. (There can’t be any reason to hurry since we are already enjoying the conversation.) Once the proposals are expressed there is always resistance. All change can be characterized as rocking the boat. But the last thing we want to do is rock the boat. So the result, for the moment, is deadlock. “English” style negotiating retreats to humor and vagueness, in order to stall. Then there is a recess. Perhaps a solution can be found by repackaging everything, i.e., calling it something different? Some sort of summary of the points where agreement (if not relevance) can be found gets written up. But decisions? Those will be postponed until the next meeting. This is not to be understood as wasted time since everyone can agree that greater clarity has been achieved.

Heh. How has the breadth of conviction and theology been accomplished in the historic Anglican Church and its children? It apparently is the English way! Bill Buckley once asked, “How would anyone know they were NOT Anglican?” Tut-tut. That would not be the English way. But we can continue the discussion next time, now that we have made that clear.

Made to stumble

“All of you will be made to stumble because of me tonight,” (Mark 14:27 World English Bible).

One of those precious promises from Jesus. I don’t know, maybe he only meant it for the disciples that night. I do plenty of stumbling all by myself, so I don’t want to lay blame on Jesus for my accomplishments in this matter.

But I do ponder the inevitability of stumbling in life. I don’t like it. Those who watch me don’t like it. They think I should do better. I think I should do better.

I can’t. The best I can do is get up again after falling. And get ready to do that again, when I stumble again. Call it a reality check for Lent.

The question Jesus still has

When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?

That is a question Jesus himself asked (Luke 18:8). It seems odd but it does seem like an honest question. And, yes, maybe it’s meant for us more than for Jesus. As in, if we’re worried about whether we will be part of the solution or part of the problem, when the time comes.

But even if we want to be part of the solution, part of the good news for Jesus, what exactly is it that Jesus will be looking for? How will he define this “faith” he hopes to find? Is that something we can tell that we have even before he comes for a look around?

Got faith? Can anyone else tell?

 

Santa and Martha

One of my prayer class students writes about her own prayer life, saying,

“I began to become a ‘friend’ of God. The demands stopped, and God ceased to be a Santa Clause to Martha.”

That’s almost enough to make me think my work here is done! Recognizing that prayer with Almighty God is more than a matter of handing Him a “to do” list is a huge step in the right direction. If you are in a hurry you’ll barely have time even for giving orders. That kind of communication may work in the military or with employees. It’s no way to run a friendship or a romance. And it’s not what God is looking for, or what Jesus died for.

Visions and Dreams

As I write it is the Feast of St. Stephen, the martyr-deacon. Luke’s account of his death says that the crowd listening to him preach (Acts 7) was pretty angry at what he was saying already. But then he had a vision.

He told the crowd that he could see Jesus standing at the right hand of God in Heaven. That was too much. For the final crime of describing the supernatural vision he received, Stephen died at the hands of the stone-throwing mob. A significant milestone in his life, you might say, because he had a vision.

I’ve been thinking of Joseph and a similar moment in his life. He didn’t have a vision, he had a dream in which an angel warned him to flee for his life with Mary and the newborn baby Jesus. It was so clear and vivid he couldn’t ignore it. He may well have spoken of that dream to Mary in order to explain why their lives would be turning upside down (again). Given the danger, he probably didn’t speak of it to anyone else. But what he saw and heard in that dream was a game changer. If he had ignored it, or had not believed such supernatural events were real, things would have been very different indeed.

The supernatural moment in Stephen’s life did not make things easier for him. Nor was Joseph’s life over the next several years serene. I would imagine he rarely had a peaceful night’s sleep in the foreign land where he went to hide. How often was he startled awake at some strange sound and wonder if his enemies had finally located them?

No wonder angelic messengers commonly began their speech by saying, “Fear not…!” It was time to hang on. A change was coming.

The Long Defeat

We fight the long defeat because results are not as important as our Father’s delight. We fight the long defeat because we are not the authorities over “success.”

I draw your attention to a thoughtful essay by Andrew Barber on J.R.R. Tolkein’s stories from Middle Earth. It illustrates the power of stories as vehicles of meditation on our Father’s Kingdom among mankind.

Tolkien has made his stand against the utilitarian spirit of the age, not through self-righteous diatribes, but through story after grand story of characters living in testimony to inherent goodness. Characters consistently make potentially catastrophic decisions simply because they believe it is the right thing to do.

ICS Class

Saturday, December 7th, I have been invited to teach a class of students attending the diocesan Institute of Christian Studies. We’ll be looking at the subject of prayer and even practicing it a little. As part of the class, I prepared a handout with some supplemental articles. I have printed this out for the attending students but decided to also provide the material online in the form of an E-book. These days it is common for everyone to have a laptop or smart phone handy at all times. I wanted to make the handout accessible for these devices.

And, having done that, I’ve realized this makes it easy for me to also share with you, even if you do not attend my class in person. (By the way, I do recommend the ICS curriculum if you are at all interested in scriptural and spiritual studies that go deeper than the usual Bible study group or Sunday School). The material I drew together for this class on prayer includes articles and — in the E-book format — a collection of live links to videos, blogs and some good books on the subject. This material is thought-provoking on its own even removed from the context of my lectures! It pleases me to take advantage of this way to share it over the internet with you. The E-book edition is free but will not stay up for long, so please do take the opportunity to download your copy right away by clicking the links within this post.

Philadelphia’s door

Fr. Robert Barron has another riveting 10-minute video commentary online. He summarizes his recent talk on the Church in Philadelphia, one of the letters that John was instructed to write down in the Book of Revelation. Fr. Barron draws on the breadth of scripture, Genesis to Revelation, to reveal the determination of Almighty God to order his Creation and have us, his people, serving as regent kings.

The Reality Test

The other day I found an email in my inbox from an unhappy person. They felt hurt about something that seemed like a major oversight. The email came to me because they couldn’t find an address for the people they really wanted to complain to.  The writer asked me to pass along their email to those folks.

I wrote back asking if they really wanted me to be their messenger. Wouldn’t it be better to take the message in person, as Jesus instructed us? I didn’t know what to expect as I sent that email.

Another day, and the person wrote again to say thanks. They had thought about it some more and decided to just let it all go. That is also, quite often, a good idea, I think. Time passes and second thoughts cause us to rethink some quick decisions.

All of which reminded me about a so-called Schizophrenic Reality Test. Basically, the idea is to double-check your personal perception by asking someone else if they also see or hear what you do. A person suffering schizophrenia cannot rely on their own senses. That’s the nature of this affliction. And so one recourse is to ask for another opinion from someone you choose to trust. Do you see that mailbox talking to me? Do you hear that voice?? It can help to have a second observer who will say, “No, I don’t. It’s okay to ignore that…”

To a dangerous extent we are all in need of that second opinion, that outside judgement, the fresh viewpoint that only comes after counting to ten. Ten times. The first opinion of ours that seems so right, so true – maybe it shouldn’t be trusted after all.

It’s a good reason to gather with trusted friends who are dealing with a similar flood of opinions and judgements in their own heads. Like, say, the friends you would have at church. Letting people walk with you – people who can talk over the situations you deal with, and offer a second look at the facts – that’s a valuable resource for anyone. Listening to their battles helps them, too. It’s like praying and listening for the Holy Spirit, our Counselor and Guide, to keep us on track and not at the mercy of our impulses. The Lord speaks to us through His servants, so we can avoid the hallucinations blinding us from reality.

Scratching

Have you noticed how much an itch demands attention and interrupts whatever is going on? An itch cuts in line at the very front and needs to be scratched before anything else can continue.

And this is true when the itch is not yours but someone else’s. You will stop until their itch is scratched. We all stop until comfort is achieved for them.

It’s not such a shallow truth. Jesus told a story about a Good Samaritan that expresses how serious it can be for the other person’s condition to be attended to. Rick Warren’s first sentence in The Purpose Driven Life is the popular catch phrase, “It’s not about you.” The need in the other person’s life takes precedence. Even if it’s just an itch, something you can’t see or feel yourself. Everything stops in your agenda while that agenda takes center stage.

Jesus sees it as showing love. Even if you don’t personally know how to scratch the other guy’s itch, just wait patiently until it can somehow be taken care of. Nothing is happening until it’s taken care of.

This may be the one time in our connected lives when feelings do have merit and priority.

Making a confession

In the Russian spiritual classic, The Way of the Pilgrim, the anonymous narrator recalls when his travels brought him to the city of Kiev. “My foremost desire was to fast and to prepare myself for confession,” he says. He learned of a wise priest who lived in a nearby hermitage and decided he would present himself to this man. The Pilgrim says, “I resolved to make a very detailed and thorough list. I wrote down everything that I could remember, to the smallest imperfection.”

To his surprise, when he recites his list of sins to the priest in confession, the priest replies, “Beloved brother, you wrote here much that is useless. You came to repent, but you are not repenting of the fact that you do not know how to repent. Your repentance is cold and careless.”

The pilgrim is as surprised at this rebuke as I was to read it. But it reminded me of a topic we had addressed in a recent Sunday school class. We had reflected on John Stott’s claim that one can know all the facts about Jesus and still fail to make a decision to surrender our life to him. The knowing of information (or the extensive listing of your sins) is not the same as acting upon what you know or confess.

Well what?

There’s what it is and what it is not.

I was scribbling down notes for a project the other night. I was pondering those awful verses where Jesus says there will be people who stand before him at the Judgement. They’ll tell him, “We did this in your name! We helped people out! We cast out demons in your name!” And Jesus says his response will be, “I never knew you.”

So we are warned about a crucial difference between knowing about Jesus, and KNOWING JESUS (and he knowing us).

That’s when I recalled the promise Jesus made about how he would greet the saints arriving in heaven. “Well done, good and faithful servant…!”

That is what he will say.

What he will NOT say is, “Well explained…! Well understood…! You had a solid, studied grasp of the Gospel…!”

It won’t be about what we knew, or thought we knew. It will be about what we did with what we were told.

 

Melanie’s blog

Let me introduce you to a new blogger. I think you might like what she has to say.

Rejecting the Gift Because of the Giver

Actress Helen Hunt won her Oscar for her role in the 1997 movie As Good As It Gets. She plays a waitress and single mom who has an asthmatic child over whom she is chronically anxious. Adding to her worries is the fact that she feels she gets a runaround from doctors and hospitals whenever her son has an attack. She’s an exhausted wreck.

Then there is a knock at the door. A doctor comes in to visit with Helen and her mom and discuss the child’s condition. She shows him his medical file. He begins to sort things out, arrange appointments and write some prescriptions. The look on Helen’s face is one of confusion, joy, and amazement at this miraculous turn of events.

“I can’t afford this,” she says.

“It’s been taken care of,” the doctor assures her.

“Who…?” she asks.

The doctor tells her it is a grumpy, cranky customer she hates to serve when he comes to the restaurant where she works. (The character is played by Jack Nicholson. Say no more.)

In an instant her expression changes. The blood drains from her face. She begins to shove all the paperwork back. “No,” she says, forcefully. “NO!”

It is a wonderfully dramatic moment in writer/director James Brooks’ script. The gift offered is perfect, exactly what the poor mom needs. But because she can’t stand the thought of it being given by someone she dislikes, she’s ready to give it back. (“You don’t do that!” her mom rebukes her. “You don’t give a gift like this back!”)

Yet the moment rings true because that’s exactly what we do too, too often, with God’s gifts. We’re in desperate need. He has the abundant power and love to help us. But it’s… Him. We’re pretty sure He is not likeable or trustworthy. We don’t want Him around. But there’s no one else stepping up who is willing to rescue us. And that Gift is on the table.

Life isn’t always like the movies. But sometimes, for a moment, I think that it just may be, after all.

Ground Zero

Toward the end of the 4th century a group of seven monks from the Holy Land set out to visit the already legendary Desert Fathers who were living in monastic communities and solitary cells up and down the Nile River in Egypt.

Sr. Benedicta Ward has observed that these visitors took note of the intense focus the Desert Fathers placed on the battle over one’s thought life. This was where a man encountered the first and most subtle distractions that could divert attention away from studying the Bible or the life of prayer.

You might think the ascetic life of these men (and women) was a waste of opportunity to serve the poor and meet the needs of widows and orphans. (In fact these saints were more successful at tilling the desert lands than anyone and it was well known that the monasteries always had bread and provisions for all any time there were famines or crop failures in neighboring cities.)

The Desert Fathers saw themselves as intense spiritual warriors, learning how to fight the enemy of all mankind. The demons who mocked or cast doubt on God’s Word were well-known adversaries. The desert saints were vigilant in resisting them and teaching others how to stand strong in faith through the disciplines of prayer.

In the Ten Commandments, the first nine describe clear points of behavior that are plain to see by all. But the last commandment can only be obeyed invisibly, inside the heart and mind. That is where all the temptations and battles with sin begin. The Desert Fathers recognized this was ground zero in the struggle for our spiritual life.

Waking Up

Jesus spoke to them in parables… Mark 3:23

As my friend and Melanie’s prayer partner lay dying, I sensed the Lord saying to me, “Carol is waking up.” This was followed immediately by the thought, “The rest of us are still in Sleepy Land, dreaming.”

I’ve pondered what this imagery is telling me and it has been like listening to Jesus tell one of his parables. In those parables Jesus would describe people and things and common situations. But those were not really what he was talking about.

What does the everyday experience of dreams and waking up tell me about life?

In my dreams I am convinced I am awake, making my way through situations that are full of drama and challenge. In my dreams I have rarely had any doubt about what was happening. Anxieties, excitement, engagement with the events before me – I live a “real life” in my dreams. Until I wake up. Then I experience disorientation as my mind tries to sort out what is “real” from what is real. Emotions stirred up by my dreams linger for a moment, like fog that is burning away in the daylight.

The unreality of that oh-so-vivid dream world soon becomes clear to me. It is time to rub the sleep from my eyes so I can see clearly what was actually all around the whole time.

My dreams are composed of echoes of the real world I know. Familiar faces show up as if their presence was entirely normal in whatever activity is humming about. It is not until I wake up that I realize these dots do not actually connect in that way. These friends whose company I’ve been keeping in my dreams may not even know each other in my real life.

These dots have a basis in truth but they connect in other ways once I wake up. Those things that riveted my attention while asleep I usually can’t remember by the time my feet hit the floor and I rise to wash and dress myself for a real day, a day that never enters my mind while I remain in the Sleepy Land.

On a Friday evening, the day she was brought home from the hospital, her husband in a vigil by her side, Carol woke up. I suspect Jesus gently rubbed the sleep from her eyes.

For her family and friends the nighttime was approaching and all of us soon went, tears in our eyes, from one dreamland to another.

But my friend Carol is wide awake at last.

Make disciples

Melanie and I read the account of Jesus meeting the Syrophoenician Woman looking for help for her demon-tormented daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). This is the woman whom Jesus rebuffs, saying he has not been sent to her people but to the house of Israel.

Since most of the time Jesus is reported as patiently letting himself be stopped by people who need his help, this incident seems a bit jarring. But today I heard it with a different point of view in mind.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of discipleship. A bit part of that process, it seems to me, involves the mentor telling the student, “You’re not doing it right. It’s this way… Do it this way…” It is the lesson that says, “If you are going to call Jesus your Lord and follow him, then you cannot be calling the shots or setting the directions for your life anymore.”

This desperate woman thought she had a simple request just like all the others who called out to the Lord for help. But Jesus is not living his life being moved by the judgements and assumptions and directions from the people he meets. They are not in charge and he always makes that clear.

Fortunately, this woman got the point and instantly agreed with Jesus. He granted her request. But only after the basic ground rules were clear. It’s called “making disciples.”

Holy monotony

The Bible is inherently obscure for us; we have to work reasonably hard to extract meaning from the text… We can expect some measure of difficulty in reading the Scriptures and need not be discouraged by it. The benefits of spending time with the Bible far outweigh the labors of coming to grips with its foreignness.

Frankly, I don’t recall hearing anyone state that the Bible “is inherently obscure” before. But there it is in Michael Casey’s book, Sacred Reading (Ligouri, 1995). He doesn’t just have reading the Bible in mind. The spiritual disciplines of the Christian life generally call for some generous investments of time and effort.

The first requirement is patience. In fact, we have to slow down our intellectual metabolism and not expect to find quick and easy solutions to all life’s problems. It is precisely this damping down of superficial excitement that creates the environment in which we are able to perceive spiritual things more intensely…

In an era of hyper-stimulation it can be difficult for people to realize that enlightenment comes not by increasing the level of excitement, but by moving more deeply into calm. There is a kind of monotony that is not boredom but paves the way for a more profound experience… We have to move to a level that is different from the one on which we operate in everyday life.

And, yes, you might want to slow down and read that again.

Discipline

Reading the thoughts of saints who have gone before us often confirms to me that there’s nothing new or strange about any particular hindrance I am facing.

For example, have you ever struggled with consistency, trying to live a disciplined Christian life? Herewith, John Henry Cardinal Newman, the distinguished Anglican priest who later joined the Roman Catholic Church:

Nothing is more difficult than to be disciplined and regular in our religion. It is very easy to be religious by fits and starts, and to keep up our feelings by artificial stimulants, but regularity seems to trammel us and we become impatient. This is especially the case with those to whom the world is as yet new, and who can do as they please. Religion is the chief subject which meets them, which enjoins regularity; and they bear it only so far as they can make it like things of this world, something curious, or changeable, or exciting.

Who, me? Ah, me, yes. Trying to make the Christian faith be more like the curious and exciting things of this world. I recognize that itch. Must. Not. Scratch.

Prayer Requests

On certain occasions Jesus turned down prayer requests. One of those occasions happened when he visited the home of Martha and Mary. Mary was sitting down listening to the Lord talk. Martha was trying to get lunch ready for everybody. But she stopped long enough to give her prayer request to Jesus.

“Lord, I want my sister to help me fix lunch! Make my sister do what I want!”

Jesus didn’t say her prayer request was unreasonable or bad. But he noted that Mary had made a better choice about what to do with her time and he refused to interrupt what Mary was doing.

Many times Jesus would ask people, “What do you want me to do?” And Martha certainly made her request clear.

But “make people do what I want” does tend to disorganize the proper order of relationships that God wants. What if God replies, “But they’re already doing what I want…”? Are we going to say we don’t like that?

Why do VBS

After a brief tour with the VBS children, looking at the stained glass windows in the nave, one came up next to me so he could ask a question. “Why was Jesus on a cross?”

Before I could answer another child explained in an authoritative voice, “He didn’t die there, he was smothered after they came to his house and kidnapped him…!”

And they both hurried off to their next activity.

“Non-churched,” someone said to me. But we had a few moments during the week to introduce new information into those curious minds.

Sooo, that’s why we do vacation Bible school.

Christianity Today 1964

My mother is packing up and preparing to move out of her house. She has been passing along tidbits she finds while emptying old file drawers of their memorabilia. One of these was a yellowing copy of Christianity Today dated October 9, 1964 (cover price 25 cents).

The lead article asked, “Dare We Hope for Renewal?” Author T. Leo Brannon declared “that stagnation and ineffectiveness are prevalent in vast segments of the modern Church can hardly be disputed,” and “there seems to be a false hope for revitalization of the Church in the union of denominations.”

It is interesting that this was written four years after Fr. Dennis Bennett, an Episcopal priest in Seattle, Washington, had become one of the early leaders of the charismatic renewal that soon swept churches in the 1960’s and 70’s. It is also interesting because the same issue of the magazine carried a report from the first British Faith and Order Conference at Nottingham University which, to the surprise of the participants, ending up proposing an audacious merger of British churches by the year 1980. The call did not extend to the Roman Catholics, of course. And the closing speaker raised doubts about Billy Graham’s “presentation and understanding of the Gospel.” Thus there were haunting clues to the failure of that vision of unity to arrive on schedule.

Clues of another sort were included in a report of Princeton University’s President Robert F. Goheen who announced that the new freshmen class that year would be the first to enter Princeton free of the traditional requirement of attending religious exercises. “The maturing and shaping of the moral and spiritual structure of your lives must be largely your own affair,” he said, though, of course, no such assumption of the efficacy of such independent study was made on behalf of the remaining curriculum.

Christianity Today was wrapping up its tenth year of publication and that suggested a topic for another article: What factor will decide Christianity’s influence upon secular thought in the next ten years? A round table of scholars replied. Editor Carl Henry wrote, “Whenever a culture loses vision of the eternal…it is headed straight for heathenism.” Gordon Clark said, “The sovereignty of God is the only factor that will decide Christianity’s influence on secular thought. Observation gives no grounds for supposing that Christianity will have any noticeable effect in the next decade.” Addison Leitch struck a positive note, remarking, “I am increasingly impressed by the attention being given by the Roman Catholic Church to biblical studies.”

Perhaps the most prescient comment came from William Childs Robinson, a professor at Columbia Theological Seminary: “That factor which is likely to have the most decisive influence in diverting the secular thought of the oncoming generation from Christianity is the removal of prayer from our public schools.”

A charming footnote included in this issue was an item about the newest winner of the Miss America crown, Vonda Kay Van Dyke. Pageant Emcee Bert Parks remarked that Vonda Kay carried a Bible around as a “good luck charm.” Vonda Kay gently replied that the book was not a charm, it was “the most important book I own.” Her awareness of the importance of sharing her faith was hinted at when she talked about her particular talent as a ventriloquist. She often spoke before youth groups and had noticed “they won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to my dummy.”

Thank God for the continuing witness of the saints, whether by dummies or Christian magazines!

Blind dates

People who set up blind dates try to introduce you to someone they think will be a good match for you.

They know something about you and something about the other person before you have both been introduced. They describe the other person to you. They highlight the reasons they think you’ll want to get to know each other. They’ll be excited and urge you to go on that date while you hesitate because you aren’t sure whether to trust their opinion about someone who is a stranger to you.

And there is that one last unavoidable fact: no matter how sure they are that it will be a great date, they aren’t the one who will be going on it. You must do that yourself.

Welcome to evangelism and wanting to introduce people to Jesus. You can describe him. You can highlight the reasons why people should get to know him. You can be excited and urge people to give their lives to him. But you can’t go on that date with them. They do that for themselves and find out for themselves. It’s the last unavoidable fact.

Nearing Home

For a few weeks the Sunday School class I lead is reflecting on Billy Graham’s recent book, Nearing Home. Rev. Graham’s willingness to talk about dying is giving all of us permission to think out loud about the subject.

Billy’s candor is apparent when he admits, “I can’t truthfully say that I have liked growing older.” This is not encouraging for one like myself, only six decades in. Apparently, the list of “I won’t miss this…” will just keep growing!

One arresting question prompted by Billy’s meditations is, “What older person has been a great inspiration to you?” I have spent some long moments considering that one. I didn’t come up with very many names and that concerns me. But I was able to write down two names (for now), one a minister I knew personally years ago and the other one a minister I’ve only heard at a distance through broadcasts of his sermons. Perhaps what this says is that it’s not easy making any impression at all on other people, at least a strongly positive one. That’s something to think about, too, while nearing home.

A mom top-ten list

My nephew Sam has written up a top-ten list of things he remembers hearing his mom say.

 
Yes that’s him in the picture on the left. That’s his mom on the right. I’ve never seen a picture like this of her. Plenty of him, though. Not drawing any conclusions, though.

Love

Simon, son of John, do you love me?

What was Jesus asking? Was it something like this?

Simon, son of John…

Are you going to be patient with Me?

Are you going to be kind to Me?

Are you going to keep from being envious of My position as Lord and my right to give you orders?

Are you going to refrain from being boastful or arrogant or rude to Me when you speak to Me?

Are you going to refrain from insisting on your own way?

Are you going to refrain from being irritable with Me, or resentful of Me when I am shaping your life?

Are you going to regret the times you do wrong, or are you going to rejoice in them?

Are you going to rejoice when I show you the truth about your life and your place in My Kingdom?

Are you going to put up with everything I send your way and bear it?

Are you going to believe Me when I say I have your best interests at heart?

Are you going to keep your hopes centered on My promises to you?

Are you going to endure walking after me carrying your cross all the way to the end?

Love never ends. Will yours?

And would Jesus ask me all those same questions? Has He already?

Waiters

I had breakfast with a man who is discerning a call to be a deacon in the church, to talk about what it was like.

He had chosen the restaurant where we met. I asked him, “When you chose this nice restaurant, was it because you wanted some particular waitress to serve us?” Of course, the answer was “No.”

And yet, I pointed out, we were happy that our waitress had been prompt, attentive to our meal orders – and had left us alone once she had brought the food, so we could enjoy our conversation in privacy. She had given us her name but at the moment I couldn’t remember what it was.

The first deacons were called to wait on tables like that. Their service was to make it easier for the people to hear the teachers who were speaking to the church. So there was a sort of “help and get out of the way” quality to their work. The preparation they contributed to the gathering would usually be noticed only by it’s absence.

This “He must increase, I must decrease” quality is there for all of us following the Lord Jesus. Yet this does not mean our service to the Lord and His Kingdom is insignificant. As Saint Catherine of Siena said, “If you are what you should be, you will set the world on fire.”

Chesterton

I am absolutely delighted by the first sentence of G.K. Chesterton’s autobiography. He addresses a mundane fact we all take for granted in our knowledge of ourselves. He slyly points out how all of us are likely to accept certain facts with no further proof than that somebody said so. Thus, he begins his autobiography with a lesson in apologetics.

That opening sentence:
Bowing down in blind credulity, as is my custom, before mere authority and the tradition of the elders, superstitiously swallowing a story I could not test at the time by experiment or private judgment, I am firmly of the opinion that I was born on the 29th of May, 1874, on Campden Hill, Kensington; and baptised according to the formularies of the Church of England in the little church of St. George opposite the large Waterworks Tower that dominated that ridge.

Answers

Job, the suffering man of the Old Testament, did not, at first, receive any of the answers he looked for.

He believed help was owed to him and he was ready to explain that to God. But he did not receive any of the satisfaction he sought to relieve his pain.

His friends invited him to confess sins he had not committed. They invited him to change his thinking in ways that did not make sense to him.

It’s a bit chilling is to realize that, although his friends failed to bring him any comfort, his ultimate conversation with God Himself brought even less. God did not speak soft, tender words to Job. God looked at his broken servant and told him, “Brace yourself like a man.”

That shut Job up. After 128 verses of withering questions from God, Job can only lie down in the dust and ashes and say, “I despise myself.”

It does not seem a warm, pastoral encounter. Or do I have it wrong? Is it possible that this stark lesson shows what pastoral care really should be like?

Because it seems that Job’s comfort is not the first priority to God. That place belongs to Truth. No comfort is possible without it. No healing will begin apart from it. Job can not frame the discussion and ask God to fit into it. It will be the other way round.

I noticed an echo of Job’s encounter in John’s account of the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus is already aware the crowd following him must be hungry. The way John tells the story, it is Jesus who first raises the issue with Philip. “Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?” (John 6:5) John adds the comment that Jesus was only testing Philip. Jesus “already had in mind what he was going to do.” So it’s not that Jesus is really asking for any advice. It’s more like Jesus wants Philip to see the situation clearly.

So while the hungry crowd waits, Jesus teases Philip. Philip takes it as a serious question and a serious problem. “Eight months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!”

Looking at the hungry people and their suffering only seems to magnify the crisis in Philip’s mind. Starting with the problem does not help him find the answer he needs. That is going to come when Jesus demonstrates that He Himself is the answer and provider.

Those of a pragmatic mindset say we must feed first, and clothe and bathe and heal and comfort those who are suffering, before we try to teach or disciple. You cannot expect to get the attention of sufferers unless you first pay attention to their agenda.

Pragmatically, I guess this is the approach to take when addressing a child, at least for awhile.

But is there a time when that approach no longer is helpful? Is that how God treated Job? Is that how Jesus decided who to listen to for direction?

Lord, do you mean to tell me that, before we talk about my issues, I have to get straight about Yours?