Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A rhythm of life

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength,but you would have none of it.  16You said, ‘No, we will flee on horses.’ Therefore you will flee! You said, ‘We will ride off on swift horses.’ Therefore your pursuers will be swift!

Isaiah 30:15-16, TNIV

Retraining ourselves to hear God requires time and stillness and attentiveness, but our lives demand time, action, and attentiveness. For many, the call of work and family, church and  friends, seems to be unending, and it even seems very “spiritual” or good to always have our days filled with these things.

The problem with that is the “good thing” of rest never seems to elbow its way onto our schedule. People’s needs, car and home maintenance, opportunities to volunteer all seem more important than quiet. And so we, like the Israelites in Isaiah 30, find ourselves always riding away from the strength and salvation that God offers.

Because time for quiet and stillness doesn’t clamor for our attention, we have to prioritize it, schedule it, like an appointment that we simply cannot cancel. Every day cannot be spent meditating by a creek; every week cannot be a vacation at the beach. But there is a need for regular rhythms of renewal, and when I neglect those, my running is more and more in vain. There are daily, weekly, monthly, and quarterly rhythms, and as I prioritize them, I find that I am refreshed and ready for the tasks of life, expected and unexpected alike.

Rhythms of exercise – I need to run or play hard at least three times a week.

Rhythms of retreat – one morning a week, I need to have extended time of reading, prayer (listening) and Scripture study. One day a month, I need to spend 5-7 hours in reading, prayer and Scripture, usually at a retreat center or out in a wooded park in Greensboro. Once a month I need to meet with my spiritual director.

Rhythms of daily grace – each day I need to orient myself to the truth of who God is and my position in Him and in His story. This means I spend time in Scripture and in prayer and in quiet.

Rhythms of family and marriage – each week I need time with my children, playing and being intentional about hanging out with them. Each month I need a one-to-one time with each child. Every 6 months, our family needs to take some sort of vacation. Every two weeks (at least) I need to take my wife out on a date. Every three to four months, I need to arrange a night or two away with my wife.

Rhythms of play – it’s OK for me to play disc golf, watch sports with friends, practice my banjo. Play is good for my soul, and I need to make time for it each week.

It can be hard to put these ideas into practice, and we have not failed if we let them get pushed aside. When we find that we have gotten off course, we simply pick ourselves up, dust off our planner, and try again to schedule in the rhythms of life that restore our soul.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Drinking buddies

My IV staff worker, Dean Mille, used to encourage us to have spiritual “drinking buddies", men and women who mentor us through their books and their walk with the Lord. We may not always have an actual person to disciple us in Christ, but there are many wise saints who have gone before us and left their wisdom in books and sermons. In the arena of learning to listen to God, retraining ourselves to hear Him, I would recommend three people to you.

My main two mentors are Eugene Peterson and Andrew Murray. The book Abide in Christ has been a tool of transformation in my life for over 10 years now. It contains 31 reflections on trusting in Jesus as our life, rooted and abiding in Him.

Eugene Peterson has mentored me in being a pastor as much as anyone through his books like Under the Unpredictable Plant, Run With the Horses, and The Contemplative Pastor. I have recently been re-reading Leap Over a Wall: Earthy Spirituality for Everyday Christians, which is based on the life of David. This book is an excellent primer in learning to listen to God, to train our ears in hearing his voice in every aspect of our lives.

And I would highly recommend the book Jesus Calling by Sarah Young. It’s written as though Jesus were speaking to you, and it simply calls you to greater levels of trust and assurance that Christ is in control of each moment, each day. There are 365 short readings, and it’s an excellent reminder each day to trust God with all your heart and all your life.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Wisdom from my wife

God has really blessed me in recent conversations with Diane. The other night I was talking with her about my discontent with our “stuff.” I wish we had more money, more freedom to do some things that we’d like to do, and I know I’ve not chosen a profession that is going to get us to financial security very quickly. And I also am confronted each day with how rich we are just by seeing our lives compared to our neighbors. So the longing and even envy is in me, as is shame for even wanting more.

God has given me a wife that is content with little. She buys clothes at yard sales, doesn’t really set her eyes on things in stores, and is content with what God has given us. She listened to me sympathetically, and then said, “I just keep thinking that we are here on earth for such a short time. Concerning myself with stuff just seems like a waste of time, when I could be focused on God and His Kingdom. I;m really happy with all He has given us.” She didn’t say it in a tone of rebuke or correction – it was her honest heart, and it spoke volumes to me

Another time I asked her what God was teaching her, and she was sharing that He had been giving her a thankful heart (which I think also connects to being content), and she said, “I’ve found that thankfulness doesn’t leave room for me to be afraid.” When I asked her to explain, she shared how having a thankful heart, and being intentionally thankful to God throughout the day, puts her fears and worries in perspective. In the context of God’s goodness to her, worries and fears pale, crowded out of her heart by an awareness of the Lord.

Thank you God for a wise and loving wife.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Cleaning out the wax

My junior year of college I could not hear out of one of my ears, so  I went to student health. As they flushed my ear with water, out came a giant ball of greenish-yellow wax, and in flooded all the sounds that I had been missing. My hearing was so acute that I could not eat in the cafeteria that day; I heard every single noise, every conversation. Removing the blockage allowed me to hear more clearly.

If busyness and lies block us from hearing God, stillness and truth flush our spiritual ears out and open our them to the flood of grace that He wants to speak. On the same day that I made my list of “Things That Motivate Me to Be Busy” I made another list, a list of truths that I want to live by.

I am accepted in the Beloved.

I have been given all that I need for life and godliness in Christ.

My main job is to remain in Jesus and trust Him for fruit.

I am no one's savior or only hope.

My standing with God is tied to Christ's perfect performance.

I can be content in all things through Christ.

My passions are important, good, and part of God's workmanship in me.

I am not a slave to my emotions. I am led by the Spirit of God.

Apart from Jesus, I can do nothing. In Him I will bear much fruit.

I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

I am loved by God.

I am loved by others for reasons other than my performance.

I am not defined by my failures, and Failure is not my name or identity.

God is. God loves. God wins.

I desire to be a pastor shaped by prayer and the Spirit, not by needs.

These are not truths I invented or ideas that I made up. They are rooted in Scripture, in God’s very words to me (and to us). And while the lies that motivate me often feel more real than these truths, and while they usually scream louder for my attention, the truths above do not change. There is rest, salvation, and strength in knowing them, in believing them over and above my feelings.

Do you have core truths to counter the lies that clog your hearing? Do you know them, rehearse them, repeat them? And is there space for these truths to take deep root in your soul? If not, they will quickly be crowded out and shouted down.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The world is alive

Cardinal and mockingbird, chipmunk and squirrel, butterfly and beetle, dogwood and fern.

Streams of water, cool of the shade. The world is alive. God’s creation.

Living things, plants and animals, rooted in the reality of God, uncluttered by sin, unworried by the world.

Things doing what they were made to do, living a life of unconscious trust while the world zooms all around.

Reminders of God’s life and presence, just off Friendly Avenue.

What keeps me deaf?

If hearing God involves stillness, silence, and listening, my life normally affords little opportunity for me to hear from Him. I recently spent a day in prayer and quiet, trying to figure out why my soul was in such disrepair. Why was I so busy, tired, and angry, overwhelmed with good things to do?

And I came up with this list of “Things That Drive Me to be Busy”:

I am significant because of what I do

I am a failure because I do not get each choice and decision "right" each day

I am necessary in God's Kingdom

God withholds His love from me based on my behavior

"No" said to me is rejection. "No" may make you like me less if I say it to you.

There is no plan B after me. It's all up to me.

I must win, I must be right.

If I don't do what you want/expect me to do, I have let you down.

Others' love for me is tenuous and uncertain.

If I didn't do so much, I would not be as loved/valuable.

I must get it right, no matter what "it" is.

Identity = Performance

I want to be included, significant, and I will attend/go just so I get invited next time.

As you can see, this list is a pretty good recipe for doing good things and living a life pleasing others. It also looks like a life that would be pleasing to God. But for me it is a recipe for soul disaster.

A life motivated by other’s opinions and expectations, motivated by fear, is not really life at all.

I’m not sure what drives you. Your issue might be apathy or it might be living a life that just pleases you, not caring what God thinks. Either way, I bet you’ve got a list that drives you. And in time, by God’s grace, that list will be insufficient to keep your head above water.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Learning to hear again

“My question is, how do we retrain ourselves to hear God? I've been taking up all of my prayer with my words that I no longer know how to hear God.”

This question is on the lips of many of us who long to know God and to hear Him, yet lose Him in the midst of the world and our own thoughts and ideas and problems.

I think that the answer to my friend’s question is very simple, yet profoundly difficult in practice.  We retrain ourselves to hear God by listening.

But why is it so hard to do? Isaiah 30:15 sums up the problem fairly well. “In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength, but you would have none of it.”

We would “have none of it” because we secretly believe that we are better equipped to handle and manage our lives (and the lives of others) than God is. And we also don’t want to have to face the question, “What if we take time to be quiet and listen and we don’t hear anything?”

An important part of stilling our souls is identifying what drives our busyness and our wordiness. What fears cause us to be in constant motion or to lapse into apathetic non-communication with God? What misplaced hopes cause us to believe that talking to God about our problems is more important and necessary than listening? When we identify these, we can confess them to God, renounce them (repent), and claim the truth of who we truly are and who God truly is.

Last week I wanted to go and pray for some people in my church, leaders under my care. But when I got to my place of prayer, going through a list of people didn’t seem like the thing to do. And so I sat quietly, listening, being with God, and seeking to simply abide in His presence. Honestly, it seemed like a waste. It seemed that I wasn’t praying my pastoral prayers. But I cannot lead people where I am not going myself. I cannot teach people a  God-centered, God-infused life if I myself am a functional atheist, and if praying through a list of people becomes more about my fears and less about my faith, I am operating with a very small (non-existent?) view of God.

I was reminded of being out for a walk in the woods and hearing something nearby. If you want to hear it again, you don’t keep crunching in the leaves. You stop. Your listen. You cup your hands to your ears and look intently all around, hardly daring to breath.

Retraining ourselves to hear God requires stopping, stillness, and listening, which are three things that are in short supply in our world and in even in a typical Sunday church service. To retrain ourselves in hearing God requires carving out space for that to happen, saying “no” to the internal and external demands to satisfy our own desires, and saying yes to things like Sabbath and Scripture and silence.

And it is a retraining. Stillness is countercultural for us. It takes time to grow our attentiveness to the Spirit. But there is great reward when we do.

“In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Be still and believe.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Simplicity of language

Eugene Peterson continues to mentor me in what it means to have a living, breathing relationship with the Lord in the mix and muddle of everyday life (and consequently how to pastor fellow Believers in doing the same).

One way that he has really been messing with me lately is in the area of prayer. In some ways, I feel like I am re-learning how to pray, realizing that my language in prayer has drifted from what prayer was designed to be.

In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson talks about 3 levels of language – level 1 is relational, the language of parent to infant, communicating love and emotion without words even being necessary. It is the language of lovers and poets. level 2 is informational, naming the things of the world and learning what stuff means, how it works. level 3 is motivational, using words to get people to do what we want them to do.

Much of our language use is on level 2 and 3. We want to know lots of things, and we want to know how to get people to see things our way or do things our way. We spend a lot of time telling others about things or receiving info from them, a lot of time persuading and being persuaded.

This language usage seeps into our life with God, too. Over time, we equate spiritual growth with knowing more about God and being able to pray in such a way that it motivates God to do what we want Him to do. Often times when I talk with people about God, I am teaching them information about Him or the Christian life or I am motivating them to do something. Being a pastor can sometimes be equated with having answers, having something to say.

But, Peterson argues, that prayer is level 1 language, and he believes that most Christians don’t know how to pray. Prayer is being with God and experiencing His love, His presence, His power, without gathering information. It’s relating to Him in intimacy, irrespective of our actions. God is. We are His. We rest.

As I’ve thought about this, I’ve been aware of how many sermonettes I insert into my prayers, wasting words telling God things that are really meant for the ears of those praying with me. I’ve been aware of how many times I start praying without knowing what I should say, praying out of tune with the Spirit and simply in tune with my own desires and needs.

Praying at a level 1 involves much listening and less self-assurance that I even have a clue what to pray for others. As I listen to God, for what He is praying and saying about a situation, sometimes I all I have to pray is one word. “Rest.” “Comfort.” “Truth.” Sometimes I have nothing to say, and I can feel awkward, knowing that those I am praying with are, like me, used to filling our prayer time with words.

Prayer is much more of a responding language than an initiating language, hearing from God and then speaking back to Him. Sure, there is room for me to simply cry out and pour out my heart to Him. But I think that Christian culture has drifted too far into the realm of, “God’s your buddy so He just wants to listen to all your problems,” without the necessary counterbalance of, “God is Your good Father and Your Lord – listen to Him and let your problems be awash with His words and His presence.”

I’m discovering that my role as a pastor, even more than informing and motivating, is to teach people to pray and know the language of intimacy with God. God is. We are His. We rest in Him.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Snickbuzzards, Toothy Cows, and the Fierce Fangs of Dang–Summer Reading at its Best!

For many of us, it’s beach time, and what better way to spend the day at the beach than by reading? (In between chasing your kids through the waves, reapplying sunscreen, looking for sea shells, and watching “big cable” if you only have “basic cable” at home, that is.)

May I commend to you a series of books that will warm your heart, enlarge your imagination, and thrill you with adventure, sacrificial love, and moments where you laugh out loud? The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson is just such a series, and it would be a shame if more people did not begin reading it. Immediately (if not sooner).

The saga begins with On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, which introduces us to Janner, Tink, and Leeli Igiby, their pirate grandfather, Podo, and their amazing mother, Nia. The family lives in relative peace in the tiny town of Glipwood (except for the constant torment by the lizard-like Fangs of Dang who rule the town in the name of Gnag the Nameless). The peace is an uneasy one, though, as Janner’s heart senses that there is more to life, more to his story, than he is truly experiencing.

Fate interrupts and sends the entire Igiby family running for their lives from an entire army of Fangs (not to mention close encounters with toothy cows, horned hounds, and quill diggles), and each chapter seems to end on a cliff-hanger that will not let you stop reading.

Their story continues with North! Or Be Eaten, as the Igiby’s make their way to the Ice Prairies (where the cold prevents the Fang lizards from fighting). The children discover amazing things about themselves and their family, and begin their first steps towards living in the truth of who they really are. There is treachery, danger, and a Fork! Factory! that is a truly terrible place.

I had read Dark Sea and North! twice before reading them aloud with Eliza (my second-grader), and the third Wingfeather Saga installment arrived just a week ago. Normally, I would have gobbled up The Monster in the Hollows in a day or two (I had been waiting on this story for months, after all), but I wanted to experience the book and all its surprises at the same time as Eliza. So we are 1/3 of the way through, reading a few chapters at a time, the story still twisting, turning, and surprising. The Igiby’s are living in relative peace in the Green Hollows, and Peterson continues to widen the world of Aerwiar with vivid and distinct characters and people groups.

For children (and children at heart), the books offer much silliness and wonder and adventure.

For the wordsmith, the books have wonderful turns of phrase. (“Like the pluck of a stringed instrument, the first edge of the sun broke loose and poured light over the world.”)

For the spiritual, there are themes of  identity, courage, and faith which are strong without being overbearing.

The love and courage of the Igibys is beautiful to watch, even as they struggle at times to trust and forgive one another, and I heartily agree with Eliza, who upon hearing that the series would conclude with book four (The Warden and the Wolf King), wailed, “What! I thought he was going to write SEVEN books in the series.”

I have not tired of the first two books after three readings, and The Monster in the Hollows promises more of the same. If you are still reading this post, what are you waiting for? Go to the Rabbit Room and order the series (or Amazon for paperback or Kindle copies). Read them to yourselves and to your kids (or borrow a friend’s kids if you don’t have any).

May the Maker bless you as you read. As Oskar N. Reteep’s* tattoo says, “I like books.” And these are amazing.

*Oskar N. Reteep is a friend of the Igiby’s and the proprietor of Books and Crannies, and he is an appreciator of the neat, the strange and/or the yummy.