Wednesday, October 28, 2015

The Multicultural Church

It is good to be here at this gathering of people who seek to be like that great multitude that no one can number, of all nations and kindreds and peoples and tongues, gathered before the throne and before the Lamb (Rev 7). In the next few minutes I want to indicate something of the imperative in Scripture that God’s people are always called from all ethnicities and cultures and classes of people to form the church.

We could use Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11 the people tried to establish themselves as a monocultural group with one language by building a tower to reach Heaven. God rejected their efforts and scattered them across the world with many different languages. In Genesis 12 God began the process of recalling all humankind to himself by calling out one small family, the family of Abraham and Sarah. He gave them a great promise, including the promise that through them “all the families of the earth” (that is, all ethnic groups) will find God’s blessing.

We could use Revelation 7, with this grand vision of all languages and ethnicities gathered before the throne of God at the end of time. It is a stirring and wonderful vision, which completes the promise made to Abraham in glory and delight.

We could explore the way that Jesus restricts his own preaching mission to “the lost sheep of Israel” and tells his disciples to avoid the Gentiles (Matthew 10 and 15). We could observe how Jesus was born of Gentile ancestors in the genealogy of chapter 1, and how Gentile magi from “the East” knelt at his bedside in chapter 2. Then at the close of his ministry (chapter 28), just before he ascended into Heaven, Jesus told his followers to make new disciples of all Gentiles as well as of the Jews. Jesus began a multi-cultural church. You see that the Bible as a whole supports the multi-cultural nature of God’s people. From the passages I have just mentioned to the stories of Ruth (the Moabite woman) and Jonah (sent to the Ninevites), the Bible calls on all people everywhere to worship the one true God.

Acts 11
We could also explore Acts 1 (the sending of witnesses to the ends of the earth) and Acts 2 (all Jewish nations gathered Pentecost heard the gospel in their own language), as well as Acts 10, with Peter’s vision and Acts 15, with the council at Jerusalem, when the first church embraced all cultures.

But I am looking at a brief account found in Acts 11: 19-26
19 Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. 20 Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. 21 The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.
22 News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.24 He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.
25 Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

The Basic Scene
Picture the action in this passage.
·         The church is formed at Pentecost (Acts 2). You notice that it is a strictly Jewish church—formed by “Jews from every nation under heaven.”
·         The disciples engaged immediately in witnessing and preaching in Jerusalem (cf 1:8).
·         As a result, many people followed Christ, and the church grew rapidly.
·         This growth led to severe persecution, including the stoning of Stephen (chapter 7).
·         The persecution scattered the disciples and forced them out of Jerusalem (cf 1:8—to Judea and Samaria) (chapter 8).
·         There is a brief interlude on Paul’s conversion (chapter 9) and Peter’s experiences in Caesarea (chapter 10), which marks the beginning of a shift from the mission to the Jews to the mission to the Gentiles.
Then we have the text from Acts 11. Some of the disciples had gone as far north as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch. Antioch is the scene for our story. There, disciples told everyone they met about the gospel of Jesus—or almost everyone. Actually, they told the gospel only to Jews. I can almost see them wanting to tell someone, and then realizing, “No, you are not a Jew. I can’t tell you about the Messiah. The Messiah is only for the Jews.”

Then some Greek and African disciples started telling Gentiles also, and the Gentiles believed! Suddenly you have a church made up of Jews and Gentiles, not just Jews.

The Name “Christian”
Consider the names used for the disciples up until this point. They are called”
·         Brothers (brothers and sisters of the Jewish people).
·         Disciples (followers of a Jewish rabbi).
·         Church (the word used is ekklesia—the Greek word for “congregation”; like qahal— the Hebrew word for congregation: it means the gathered peole of God, that is, Jews).
·         Followers of the Way (similar to disciples, members of a Jewish sect).
In short, every name used before Acts 11 applies to Jews only, so that when Gentiles join the church, people needed a new name for them. They were no longer “brothers”; they were now brothers and aliens. So people came up with a new name for this strange group: Christians, or Christ-people, or Christ-followers (11:26).

There is something about being Christian that crosses barriers and destroys boundaries. So Paul, Galatians 3: “26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

A Multi-Cultural Church
A basic part of the vision in beginning this assembly, “All Nations Assembly”, is precisely to include people from all kinds of backgrounds. I know that some people say that words like multi-cultural and mono-cultural don’t really mean anything. I work in an academic setting, and there are those in the university who tell us that ethnicity is a social construct with little real meaning.

I am not interested in that debate here, because we know very well that people in Manitoba come from many different backgrounds. Some of us are immigrants from South America, and some from Africa. Some of us have roots in Russia and come many generations before that from Holland. Some of us are migrant workers from Mexico, and some of us are well-established. Some of us are wealthy, and some of us are poor.

The point of our passage is that the church includes all of us, all people from every possible background you can imagine in Manitoba. We might say with Paul, “In Christ there is neither Filipino nor German, there is neither immigrant nor first nations, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Churches are always on the edge of turning into their own ethnic groups that exclude people who are “not like us”. We may not intend to do this, but it happens. We work hard to bring our children up in Christian faith, and soon we are a church of third-generation people in Canada, all like each other, and we have become an ethnic group instead of a faith community.

I am a Mennonite. We Mennonites struggle with this tension between ethnicity and faith. We want to welcome everyone, but all too often one of our first questions is, “You say your name is Giesbrecht? Well do you know …?” I grew up in the Brethren in Christ Church, part of the larger Mennonite world, and I have often been asked, “Is your father David or Arthur?”  This is a natural, normal process as we remain together in the church, but when it begins to form a wall that keeps other people out, it becomes something also that God wants to change.

When I was in college so many years ago, in 1969, I was in a musical called “For Heaven’s Sake”. One of the songs we sang in this play was a take-off on Luther’s great hymn, which we sang as “A Mighty Fortress is our Church”, written in response to the way that White Americans in the 1960s fled their city churches as people of colour moved in.

A mighty fortress is our church, a bulwark never-failing
Against the changing neighbourhood Where sin is all-prevailing.
For round us are the slums, With drunks and pimps and bums,
The nice folk had to move, But we return to prove
We won’t give up our fortress, We won’t give up our fortress.

If we let those outside in here, They’d make the place a shambles.
You don’t get purses from a sow’s ear, Nor gather grapes from brambles.
Your sheep protect the fold, The fortress we will hold
’Gainst those of darker skin. The goats we’ll not let in.
We won’t give up our fortress, We won’t give up our fortress.

There’s the problem. When the church becomes a fortress instead of a place of welcome, we have a problem. Sometimes we think that the church is under attack, and we want to fight back against those who are attacking us. Let me suggest that instead we should welcome them and pray for them and invite them to follow Jesus also. That invitation will only make sense to them if they see us as a truly welcoming people who truly have met God.

Being a People of Faith
Who truly have met God: There is the key point. Why did these Jews from Cyprus and Cyrene start telling everybody Jesus? They could not keep it in. They could not help it. They had met Jesus, and they had to tell everyone they met what had happened.

One reason that we turn into an ethnic fortress instead being Christ’s church is that our encounter with Jesus fades. Do you want to see evangelistic outreach throughout Canada? Pray for revival in the church. Do you want to see your neighbours come to Christ? Pray that you yourself will be overwhelmed with the Spirit of Christ in your own life. Sometimes in mission studies people debate whether we should emphasize the internal life of the church or the external outreach of the church first? The answer is always “Both”. Revival leads to mission, and mission requires revival. Maybe you can say that revival is logically first—it leads to outreach. But the space in time is so small as not to notice it.

All Nations Assembly desires to be a place where everyone can worship. You will need to be a place where people meet God, otherwise there is nothing to worship. As you move into the future my prayer for you is that you would indeed be a place where people encounter God, and that you would also be a place where people discover that in Christ we really are one. God bless you and guide you in this journey as you also tell everyone you meet about Jesus.

All Nations Fellowship, Winkler
25 October 2015

Monday, October 26, 2015

Jesus: The True Reformation

Today is Reformation Sunday. I am not an expert in the study of the Reformation period, and I cannot impress you with details and stories from that historical period. But it remains a pivotal part of the church’s year, and it is good that we remember the Reformation today.

You know of course that the day is chosen as being the Sunday closest to the day on which Martin Luther made public his 95 Theses (which Wikipedia tells me is called more precisely, “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”). As the longer title suggests, Luther objected especially to the practice of collecting “indulgences”—payments made to the church that were supposed to ensure salvation. The popular saying was: “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory [also attested as ‘into heaven’] springs.” Luther insisted that only God can forgive, and we turn to God alone for salvation.

Modern “Indulgences”
I wonder, do you think that indulgences could take root in our society today? Surely not! Indulgences were a way to achieve several goals. They helped make one certain of salvation in a most uncertain world. They allowed one to go around the hard demands of the gospel and take a shortcut to eternal security. One need not make embarrassing (and potentially damaging) confessions. One need not make difficult (and potentially costly) changes to one’s lifestyle. Pay some money to the priest, and all is cared for. We would never consider doing such things, would we?

We are human, of course. We belong to a society that loves shortcuts. Pick up any magazine at the checkout counter and you will find articles such as these: “Ten (or five, or three, one!) easy steps to losing weight.” “Three exciting ways to improve your sex life.” “Tired of cooking? Use this sure fire method to prepare a 15-minute meal.” One headline after another tries to set us free from the hard work of building relationships and doing our duty. We are a people deeply in love with indulgences.

Here is one theme of modern life that functions as indulgences in our lives today. Lois and I have reached the age that we can begin to draw on what Canadians call “Old Age Security” (OAS). Canada Pension Plan (CPP) and Social Security (the American version) are also in the picture. Do they have something of the nature of indulgences? Perhaps.

I am reading a book on the East African Revival (A Gentle Wind of God, by Macmater and Jacobs), a moving of God that began in Uganda and Rwanda in the 1930s and spread also to England and North America. In 1960 a man named William Nagenda visited the American brothers and sisters who had also experienced some of the revival. One American named Don Widmark recalls a conversation with Nagenda that he found life-changing:
We were driving north from Los Angeles to Fresno. The sun was just coming up and casting long shadows from the hills over Bakersfield and the valley below. William had awakened from a snooze and was looking around, when he said, “Don, do you have any weak brethren who know that they are weak?” I asked what he meant. William went on to say, “You Americans are wonderful people. You are so strong. You just know how to do things, get things done, organized, so efficiently.” I was beginning to be really confused. “You know how to do things so well you really don’t need Jesus too much. Don, do you really have one person who is weak, who knows it, and so in all things he can trust him who alone is strength to do for him all in all? (MacMaster and Jacobs, 199)

Our self-sufficiency (as represented by the way we take care of ourselves at retirement) is one of our greatest indulgences. It protects us from having to reveal ourselves, our faults, our problems—the reality of just what is inside us. We use it to drop “a coin in the coffer” and set ourselves free, but of course our efforts fail. In the end our self-sufficiency fails and we face eternity with or without God.
Note: We sang “A Mighty Fortress” for reformation Sunday. Perhaps we need to grasp Luther’s thoughts more clearly: “For still our ancient foe/ Doth seek to work us woe./ His craft and power are great,/ and armed with cruel hate/ On earth is not his equal.” Luther combines a lively awareness of Satan’s activity in our world combined with absolute trust in God.

The Texts
With these thoughts in mind, consider the texts we have heard this morning.

In Job 42:1-6 and 10-17 Job truly sees God, “repents”, and is rewarded. Without going into detail about Job and his gains and losses, we observe that Job sought God’s face through his pain and received God’s blessings.

I have wondered sometimes if Job’s wealth and security in the beginning of the book could have become a snare for him. The text states that he is a righteous man; his wealth is his blessing and he gives thanks and honour to God. But in the end wealth tends to turn our hearts away from God. That is why Jesus said, “It is harder for a rich man to enter into heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”

When Job sees God, he repents. If he is truly righteous, what does he repent of? Not of open sin—there was none in his life. Perhaps he repented most fully of the sense that many of us have that we can be what God wants. When one sees God, one becomes aware of how unworthy we are to be in God’s presence. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord high and lifted up, and his glory filled the temple.” So spoke Isaiah. What was his response when he saw the glory of God? “Woe is me!” he cried. “I am ruined! I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6)

We don’t use this kind of language, but if we truly see God we discover that we are broken people, too weak to stand in God’s presence. Then God can fill us with his Spirit to do his work.

Hebrews 7:23-28 is part of a long argument to demonstrate that Jesus does what no earthly priest (or minister) can do—Jesus can “save us completely”; Jesus “truly meets our needs”. It is true that we take care of each other, but in a fuller sense only Jesus can truly meet our needs. Only Jesus can “save completely”, because Jesus is the “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (1:3) The readers of Hebrews were considering returning to Judaism (cf Hebrews 6), partly because it provided a kind of security that parallels the use of indulgences. It had become a way of going around God to ensure one’s own security. The writer reminds them that only Jesus can give the kind of help that they seek.

Mark 10:46-52 tells us the story of Bartimaeus, who appeals to Jesus for healing. Who knows how long he had sat by the road in that spot. He heard people talking about Jesus and his miracles of healing. Perhaps he talked with friends about what he would do if he could meet Jesus. Then he hears a group of people going by and hears that Jesus is there. He appeals loudly, insistently, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus healed him.

You notice that Jesus asked the blind man what he wanted. “I want to see!” (I wonder if he muttered under his breath, “What did you think I want?”) You notice also what he does when Jesus heals him. He follows Jesus. The time he had spent in darkness prepared him well, and when he met Jesus, he followed Jesus. There was no thought of self-sufficiency in his heart. There was no thought of using any kind of indulgence to get around the demands of discipleship. He got up and followed Jesus. He already knew that he could not deal with reality alone.

The Point
You see the point of thee passages, read in light of indulgences. We need to be broken, aware of our weakness, and then we can learn to lean on Jesus alone. I mentioned William Nagenda and the East Africa Revival. This theme of brokenness was basic to their experience. One brother met another and confessed his ongoing struggle to be holy. The other replied, “Stop trying! Confess each day that you cannot be holy and ask Jesus to carry you. God has done all that can be done.”

It may take the struggles of Job or of Bartimaeus in our lives before we get rid of our indulgences. The only true reformation is to give up trying to fix ourselves, and confess our failures to God, and trust in Jesus to re-form us, re-make us, re-create us as the people God wants us to be.

Preached at Grace Bible Church, Winnipeg
25 October 2015

Texts: Job 42:1-6, 10-17
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

Sunday, October 11, 2015

What Kind of Soil Are You?

Text: Mark 4:1-20

This is Thanksgiving Sunday. We won’t spend much time on Thanksgiving, but simply link the fact of the harvest that lies behind the celebration of Thanksgiving, and the way that Jesus draws on an agricultural image to communicate what he wants to say. The Parable of the Sower belongs at this time of year. The parable also speaks to us of our whole lives, just as the Thanksgiving season stands at the centre of the whole of life.

Some Background
Jesus taught in parables. This was a common form of teaching for rabbis of his time and place. Parables mean more than they say—like poetry. (Ray Zercher described it as “saying less, meaning more”). As Jesus explains his use of parables in Mark 4, they reveal God’s truth to those who are ready to hear it.

A basic characteristic of parables is that they make one primary point. In that respect the parable of the sower/parable of the soils is unusual. Jesus gives an explanation to the disciples and those gathered around him (verses 10 and 11). His explanation reveals several themes for us to consider this morning.

First Theme: The Sower or the Soils?
Some call this the parable of the sower, which places the emphasis on the action of the sower. Jesus tells us, “the farmer sows the word” (verse 14). Who is this farmer? God himself certainly, but also Jesus in his earthly ministry, and by a reasonable extension, his disciples as they follow in Jesus’ footsteps, preaching the kingdom of God. My own view is that Jesus refers primarily to himself, to explain why many of the Jews did not receive his word (verse 12).

Some call this the parable of the soils, which places the emphasis on the response of those who hear the word. Everyone hears; some reject it, and some accept it. Since Jesus uses the parable to explain why many did not receive his word, this emphasis makes sense; but also since the growth of the word depends on the action of the farmer, planting the gospel generously everywhere, we see also God’s grace making growth possible.

The picture is of God coming to you and to me, not asking whether we are the right ones to receive him, but assuming that we are. Generously he gives us his word, whether we have the right last name or a good reputation in the community. All that he asks is that we receive it and let it grow in our lives. “Wonderful the matchless grace of Jesus, deeper than the mighty rolling sea;/ Higher than a mountain, sparkling like a fountain, All-sufficient grace for even me!”

But the picture includes our response. The soil gets to choose, unlike any dirt that I know! The picture of different kinds of soils does not suggest such choice—dirt just is. If anything, the farmer prepares the dirt for a good harvest. It chooses nothing by itself. But Jesus says, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear” (verse 9). Because we are real people and not just one kind of dirt or another, we get to choose whether we will receive the word or not. As Jesus puts it in verse 20: “Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—some thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times what was sown.” We have the choice—to hear and accept and bear fruit.

Remember the sermon on thankfulness Randy preached last week? There were ten lepers who were healed, and only one came back to say thank you. You remember something else that Randy brought out—a note that struck me strongly. Jesus never said to the lepers, “Be healed.” He said only, “Go and present yourselves to the priests.” They were healed when they responded. Our part is to respond, and without our response, God has bound himself so that Christ cannot plant himself in our hearts.

Perhaps we should use both names: the Parable of the Sower—God’s work in our lives is a free gift that we can never earn, but that penetrates us and changes us; the Parable of the Soils—God gives us the dignity of choice, to accept or reject. In the terrible words of verse 12, those who reject have their choice sealed by God, so that “they may be ever seeing but never perceiving, and ever hearing but never understanding; otherwise they might turn and be forgiven!”

Second Theme: The Responsibility of a Heritage
One of the questions that the early church wrestled with was why the Jewish people as a whole did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah and follow him. Many people did; they are the good soil of this parable. But the greater part of the people did not; they are the soils in which the seed did not grow. Jesus told this parable partly to explain why so many did not follow him and partly as a warning to those who thought that their standing as Abraham’s children was enough to get them into Heaven (cf Matthew 3:8-10, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”)

Part of the warning in the words, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear”, is found in the Jews’ reliance on their heritage. God comes to each one of us anew. It has been said truly that the church is always one generation away from extinction. As Ezekiel stresses in Ezekiel 18, each God wants all to turn from self to God, each generation turning anew to God.

I stand in a long line of Christians. My father was a pastor and missionary in the Brethren in Christ Church. My grandfather was a bible teacher and missionary. My great-grandfather was the treasurer of the Foreign Mission Board. His father was a strong member of the church, and his grandfather—my great-great-great grandfather—was known for his strong faith as a BIC lay minister in Ontario. When I stand before God at the end of my life, of what value is this great heritage? I treasure it. I thank God for it. It has prepared the soil well for the seed to be sown. But the real question concerns me. What kind of dirt am I? Have I also received the word? Such a heritage is a treasure, but it does not transform my life. Only God can plant the word in me. Only God’s Spirit can deal with the human rebellion setting myself up in God’s place, which I share with all people. If Jesus does not plant the word in my life, nothing good can grow there.

Often when we give our testimony at baptism, we find no particular moment of conversion, but say something like, “I’ve followed Jesus all of my life.” I rejoice when a candidate can say that. Often the decision to be baptized is also the time when you make that commitment clear and certain. But I repeat, you must commit your life to Christ to plant his word deep in your heart. Your family cannot plant God’s Word in your heart. Only Jesus can.

Third Theme: The Crop
Jesus does not specify what this wonderful crop is that grows in the fruitful soil (verse 20). The three parables that follow in Mark 4 emphasize several ideas. One is the importance of living our lives openly for Christ (the lamp on a stand)—the idea is that the community of Christ shows the meaning of Christ clearly to the world. A second is that the seed grows quietly, then bursts forth in full growth (the growing seed)—the idea is that growth is great, and brings a harvest, which suggests also the presence of God’s kingdom in this world. The third is that a small seed grows into a great plant (the mustard seed)—the idea is that the growth of God’s kingdom surprises us by growing from a small beginning to a great size.

Common to all of these is the idea of the growth of the kingdom. I think that is what Jesus has in mind also in our parable this morning. Some people want to see the growth of numbers here—the church will fill up with people! That is not a bad desire, but the idea in this parable is that God’s kingdom, God’s reign, takes possession of our lives and God does what he chooses to do in us and in our world.

I have been good soil and bad soil at different times in my life. I learned recently that my influence in an old friend’s life was formative for good. In my 20s, when I was not even aware, God was growing good fruit. I remember another relationship in which I carried on an email argument with another friend’s son that pushed only resulted in bitterness and anger. Not such good soil that time!

I suggest that our concern with numbers is often misplaced. We ask how we can fill this building. Jesus says, “Receive my word. Be good soil!” He doesn’t promise us a full house; rather he promises that God’s kingdom will grow. That might mean more numbers, but having more people in the sanctuary is not the point. As long as you are trying to fill this building, instead of seeking to be filled with God’s Spirit, God will not do his work here.

Synthesis: The Word of God
Let me try to bring these themes together. I could preach this passage as a call to conversion and focus especially on younger people in and around the church, but that would miss the point. God sows the word in our lives throughout our lives. This is a call to be radically open to God’s work in us throughout our lives.

We haven’t defined God’s word. In verse 14 Jesus says, “The farmer sows God’s word.” What is God’s word? Jesus is the word (John 1). Jesus comes speaking the word. As Mark 1: 14 and 15 tells us, “After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. ‘The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!’” This good news is the word of God—that Jesus has come and brings us God’s reign, God’s rule in your life and mine.

The word of God is the call to repent (turn away from ourselves) and embrace God’s reign, which comes in the person of Jesus. This includes conversion at the beginning of our walk with God, as well as every moment throughout the rest of our lives in which God comes to us and restores this word within us. Whether you are 15 or 50, 25 or 75, whether you are a child or a middle-aged person or what we sometimes call “a senior”, the parable calls to you to get ready for God’s Spirit, God’s Word to enter your life in a new way.

In a book called Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Richard Foster tells the story of a graduate student he calls “Jim Smith”. In his second year of graduate studies Jim realized that his spiritual life was growing weak, so he went to a retreat house where a spiritual director led him through a private retreat. The brother gave him only one assignment, to spend the day meditating on Mary’s encounter with the angel in Luke 1. Jim spent two days reading and re-reading. He used all his ability to interpret the passage. On the first evening his director asked, “What was your aim in reading the passage?” Jim said that he was trying to understand the passage. His director told him to let go and stop trying to understand. On the second day of reading and thinking about the passage, he felt like “he would go deaf from the silence.”

After two days of struggling, Jim felt drained and frustrated. His director said, “You’re trying too hard, Jim. You’re trying to control God. Go back to this passage and this time be open to receive whatever God has for you.” By noon on the third day Jim was defeated. Finally he shouted, “I give up! You win” “He slumped over the desk and began weeping.”

Foster continues,
“A short time later he picked up his Bible and glanced over the text once again. The words were familiar but somehow different. … The opening words of Mary’s response became his words: ‘Let it be to me … let it be to me.’ … Then God spoke. It was as if a window had been thrown open and God wanted to talk friend to friend. …
“The Spirit took Jim down deep into Mary’s feelings, Mary’s doubts, Mary’s fears, Mary’s incredible faith-filled response. It was … also a journey into Jim’s feelings and fears and doubts, as the Spirit in healing love and gentle compassion touched the broken memories of his past.
“Though Jim could barely believe it, the angel’s word to Mary seemed to be a word for him as well: ‘You have found favour with God.’ Mary’s perplexed query was also Jim’s question: ‘How can this be?’ And it was so, and Jim wept in the arms of a God of grace and mercy.”

When the soil of Jim’s life was ready, God planted the Word in his heart. Is your heart ready for God the Great Farmer to plant the living Word in your life?

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Pursuing God

We shall not cease from exploration/ And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time
(T.S. Eliot, “Four Quartets”)

In my seminary days (35 years ago now) I remember hearing, “Being is more important than doing.” Those who said this held that we act out of a centre that comes from dwelling in God, so that however important acting is, being is more important.

Recently I read an article titled, “Churches could fill their pews with millennials if they just did this.” The author doesn’t quite deliver on the title, but his main point is as follows: “I’m all for love and a personal relationship with God, but I choose to follow the man who teaches that political action is worship, that social justice is love.”

When I was in seminary, I resonated more with that writer than with those who told me that being precedes doing. I wanted to do justice more than I wanted to pray. Over the years, however, I have changed my mind. Doing is easy—for a short time. Doing justice for a lifetime requires something more. Doing requires a deep inner connection with God. Doing requires Being.

So today I want to describe a lifetime of searching for God, and some of the ways in which God has found me. These descriptions fall into two groups: what you might call mountain-top experiences, and the daily routine of spiritual disciplines.

The Mountain Tops
When I was 14 years old, I was baptized into the Brethren in Christ Church in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe on a Saturday afternoon. On Friday evening we gave our testimonies to the church and were accepted for baptism. Saturday was the baptism. On Sunday I took part in feetwashing and the Lord’s Supper for the first time. Throughout the events of that weekend, I was aware of a profound sense of God’s presence. My father tells me that my face was shining when I came out of the water, and still today the feetwashing service moulded my understanding of the Christian life decisively.

In 1967 I entered Messiah College in Pennsylvania. In chapel we sat alphabetically, so that I sat next to Rachel Cooper. Rai was a pastor’s daughter who had become agnostic in her faith and was determined to convert others to her agnosticism. We had many good arguments! One evening in the second semester we arrived at the dining hall at the same time. That evening Rai told me that she had met the Lord in a new way, and she asked me if I had ever led anyone to the Lord. I spent the next hour making excuses as to why I did not share my faith publicly. I liked arguing, but not sharing! We ended up in the mailbox area praying over the water fountain as I recommitted my life to Christ. That evening again formed me as one who wants more than anything else to know God and live for God.

After college I returned to Zimbabwe and taught high school mathematics there for three years. In the third year, August 1974, I remember a series of services at Mtshabezi Mission, during our church’s General Conference. A man named Luke Keefer preached each evening on the presence and work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. On the last night of the conference, the congregation responded to Keefer’s preaching by surging forward, seeking God’s Spirit in their lives. I remember how we sang, “Woza Moya Oyingcwele”, as we sought for God’s Spirit. We ended up in circles of about 15 people, praying to be filled with the Spirit. Once again as I sought God, God found me and filled me with his presence.

One final event recently, here at Providence. Without going into details, I felt like was as close to a collapse as I have ever been in my life. The experience was similar to depression, but was spiritual in origin, not emotional or mental. Kathleen Norris calls it “acedia”, and she says that you can tell the difference from depression by the fact that it responds to spiritual discipline, while depression responds to counselling and medication. My acedia responded to God’s presence through prayer and spiritual discipline. That experience, February 2009, was again a critical time of searching for God’s presence, and of being found by God. Whatever age we are, we need God, and God is waiting for us at every age, to speak into our lives with new life and with God’s Holy Spirit.

Spiritual Discipline
Throughout my life I have been taught that a basic part of seeking God is regular spiritual discipline. When I was young I was told that you should get up a half hour earlier than you normally would in order to read the Bible and pray. Five chapters from the OT and two chapters from the NT will take you through the Bible in a year. This kind of discipline works well for my Dad, who divides the number of pages in the Bible by 365 and then reads that many pages a day. I admire such discipline, but it doesn’t work for me.

As I got older and married Lois and had two sons, we tried family devotions. Reading to the boys before they went to bed worked well, and we would pray after the reading, but I must admit that we read Narnia more enthusiastically than Joshua and Judges. We involved our sons in Bible Quizzing, which was good, but hardly replaced family devotions. I won’t describe all that we did; it is enough to say that we tried to be disciplined, and we did not always succeed.

Now that the boys are gone, Lois and I are again trying to work out how one interacts with God in Bible reading and prayer. This brings me to something that we have been doing a little over a month—using the music and silence practiced in Taizé worship. Let me tell you a bit about Taizé and then describe how we use it.

Taizé is a small village in France, not far from Geneva, Switzerland. In 1940 Brother Roger began a small community of brothers there, who made it their mission to be a place of refuge for Jews and others in Nazi-occupied France. In 1942 he had to flee to Switzerland, but in 1944 he returned. After the war they continued as a place of refuge for anyone who needed it. Their common life revolved around daily prayers drawn from several contemplative traditions.

Over time these prayers began to attract travellers, who came to join in the life of the community for brief periods at a time. Today during the summer months 5,000 to 6,000 young people come from Sunday afternoon to the following Sunday to share in the life of the community. Lois and I and our sons spent half a week there in December 2003. At that time of year there were only a few travellers who joined in. The community itself consists of 200 to 300 people in the Brothers of Taizé and in a community of sisters nearby. Their life still revolves around daily prayer.

There are three times of prayer a day—before breakfast, in the middle of the day, and about 8 in the evening. Each prayer time as we experienced it was something like thi
  • We began with a time of singing the distinctive Taizé chants—perhaps 15 minutes. A basic characteristic of the chants is that they are open-ended, with various solo verses that can be added by the brothers and sisters, rather than defined as hymns are. They combine form with a kind of improvisation.
  • There was a Scripture reading—usually an OT reading and then a NT reading, read in French, German, and English.
  • More singing of the chants followed, for perhaps 10 minutes, preparing for the silence.
  • Then came the silence—10 minutes of silence during which one meditates on the reading or in one way or another tries to become fully silent in God’s presence. When one becomes fully silent, one can hear God’s voice.
  •  Finally there was a final, joyful chant. Occasionally Brother Roger (then in his 80s) would give a brief two minute or so homily. Often we simply began singing again.
  • After a 40-45 minute service we left the meeting place. A few brothers stayed behind for any who wanted special prayer, and a few others continued to sing.

 Recently I read a history and examination of Taizé, an excellent study that reconnected me with this significant week in my life. Then I thought of trying the Taizé worship in our home. I suggested it to Lois and she readily agreed. This is what our adapted prayer looks like:
  • At about 9 pm we light a candle on a small table in our living room and lean a cross against the table. This serves to define the space as a sanctuary. Then we turn on dim lights with one brighter light to read by.
  • We start with one or two songs from our Taizé songbook, sung for three to five minutes.
  • We read the gospel reading for the day, taken from the lectionary.
  • We sing another brief chant or two. Then we turn off the brighter light, leaving the room dimly lit.
  • We sit on the floor before the cross (similar to the way that they do at Taizé) and spend about five to seven minutes in silence.
  • After the silence we do brief prayers, usually starting with our children: “For Vaughn and Lauren”—“Lord, hear our prayer.” “For Nevin and Alison”—“Lord, hear our prayer.” We add requests for others who are on our hearts at that moment in the same style, without elaborating on the requests.
  • Finally we close with the Lord’s Prayer. “Gathering our praises and requests into one, we pray as our Saviour taught us, our Father in Heaven …”

 I have learned several things from our practice of Taizé. One is that I do silence more easily than Lois does. She has too much energy to sit still for long! Another is that when you have talk about your concerns with each other, to pray “For this person” is enough. God is not impressed with our false eloquence, but responds to our hearts’ desire.

I have found also that I pray better in my own private prayers when we also pray together. I have other times when I read the Bible and pray on my own, but I hold those times better when I am also engaged in regular prayer with Lois.

I have learned that the prayers are a gift of grace, not a load that is bound on our backs. When we have guests, or go out for the evening, we don’t necessarily do the prayers. We pray together again the next night instead.

I have found that I miss the prayer when we don’t do it. I can miss one night because I know we will pray together again soon. I can miss two nights if I have to. But then I need the time of prayer because it builds a foundation in my life on which I can build with other acts of devotion and which gives me greater stability in my life.

I have found that the prayers give me a space out of which to act. My old friends in seminary were right. “Doing comes from Being.” In the words of Eliot’s “Four Quartets” (with which I began), life in Christ is “A condition of complete simplicity (Costing not less than everything).”

I have been searching for God my whole life, and by God’s grace he has found me.