29 September 2011

Guest Writer: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

From Life Together

Thankfulness works in the Christian community as it usually does in the Christian life. Only those who give thanks for the little things receive the great things as well. We prevent God from giving us the great spiritual gifts prepared for us because we do not give thanks for the daily gifts. We think that we should not be satisfied with the small measure of spiritual knowledge, experience, and love that has been given to us, and that we must be constantly seeking the great gifts. Then we complain that we lack the deep certainty, the strong faith, and the rich experiences that God has given to other Christians, and we consider these complaints to be pious. We pray for the big things and forget to give thanks for the small (and yet really not so small!) gifts we receive daily. How can God entrust great things to those who will not gratefully receive the little things from God's hand? If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian community in which we have been placed, even when there are no great experiences, no noticeable riches, but much weakness, difficulty, and little faith--and if, on the contrary, we only keep complaining to God that everything is so miserable and so insignificant and does not at all live up to our expectations--then we hinder God from letting our community grow according to the measure and riches that are there for us all in Jesus Christ. That also applies in a special way to the complaints often heard from pastors and zealous parishioners about their congregations. Pastors should not complain about their congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. Congregations have not been entrusted to them in order that they should become accusers of their congregations before God and their fellow human beings. When pastors lose faith in a Christian community in which they have been placed and begin to make accusations against it, they had better examine themselves first to see whether the underlying problem is not their own idealized image, which should be shattered by God. And if they find that to be true, let them thank God for leading them into this predicament. But if they find it is not true, let them nevertheless guard against ever becoming an accuser of those whom God has gathered together. Instead, let them accuse themselves of their unbelief, let them ask for an understanding of their own failure and their particular sin, and pray that they may not wrong other Christians. Let such pastors, recognizing their own guilt, make intercession for those charged to their care. Let them do what they have been instructed to do and thank God.

p. 37-38, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996

13 September 2011

Prayer Is Preparation

From today's entry for Experiencing God Day By Day. Too good not to share--

When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. (Acts 2:1)

Prayer does not give you spiritual power. Prayer aligns your life with God so that He chooses to demonstrate His power through you. The purpose of prayer is not to convince God to change your circumstances but to prepare you to be involved in God’s activity.

The fervent prayer of the people at Pentecost did not induce the Holy Spirit to come upon them. Prayer brought them to a place where they were ready to participate in the mighty work God had already planned.

Jesus told His followers to remain in Jerusalem until the Spirit came upon them (Acts 1:4–5). The disciples obeyed His command, waiting for God’s next directive. As they prayed, God adjusted their lives to what He intended to do next. As they prayed, a unity developed among them. For the first time the disciples used Scripture as their guide in decision making (Acts 1:15–26). The day of Pentecost arrived, and the city of Jerusalem filled with pilgrims from around the world. When God released His Holy Spirit upon the disciples, He had already filled the city with messengers who would carry the Gospel to every nation. Prayer had prepared the disciples for their obedient response.

Prayer is designed to adjust you to God’s will, not to adjust God to your will. If God has not responded to what you are praying, you may need to adjust your praying to align with God’s agenda. Rather than focusing on what you would like to see happen, realize that God may be more concerned with what He wants to see happen in you.

11 September 2011

2 Recent Books

I recently finished reading 2 books I've been working on for a while, Heretics, by G. K. Chesterton and Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard. Both are excellent in their own rights. Heretics, being written near the dawn of the 20th century is in public domain and can be found online for free. Spirit of the Disciplines was penned in 1988 but is still available in publication.

Chesterton is one of those authors who I had seen quoted frequently and I appreciated the quotes, so I finally decided to go to the source and read some of his works on their own terms. I was not disappointed. His insight and interpretation of the world around him is forthright and refreshing. It was a bit of a struggle as he wrote Heretics as a response to his contemporaries, many of whom I am unfamiliar with or know only in name, but the main points of his arguments could be followed without much background.

Chesterton's best gift, at least in this book, is his penchant for "calling a spade a spade." He examined the thought of his time period and responded with a loud and unequivocal, "This is garbage!" Unfortunately, many of the trends in thinking and writing that he observed and challenged have proceeded over the intervening century largely unchecked. At several points I felt I was reading a commentary on something I had heard in class the day before.

"But there is one thing that is infinitely more absurd and unpractical than burning a man for his philosophy. This is the habit of saying that his philosophy does not matter." (Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2011). Heretics (Kindle Locations 55-56). Kindle Edition.) This really sums up much of his thought and I heartily agree. We hear such things constantly, but He has none of it. He continues, "I perceive that it is far more practical to begin at the beginning and discuss theories. I see that the men who killed each other about the orthodoxy of the Homoousion were far more sensible than the people who are quarrelling about the Education Act. (Kindle Locations 131-133).

There is much that I highlighted and would love to share, but for sake of space, I will stop there. He has a very good point. What we believe, what we believe about fundamental things--life, love, God, death--these things matter immensely, for out of our fundamental beliefs flow all of our actions and other beliefs. Somehow, we have lost this in our so-called "enlightened" age. It is both a tragedy and a farce. I sit in higher education once again and listen to academicians speak in such ways that reveals their biases while at the same time the claim--and with a straight face--to have none. This, of course, is insanity. One last quote form the end of the book to sum up.

Every man in the street must hold a metaphysical system, and hold it firmly. The possibility is that he may have held it so firmly and so long as to have forgotten all about its existence. This latter situation is certainly possible; in fact, it is the situation of the whole modern world. The modern world is filled with men who hold dogmas so strongly that they do not even know that they are dogmas. (Kindle Locations 2433-2436).

Okay, onto Willard. Dallas Willard is one of the few living authors I will willingly read. I doubt he'll put that bit of information on his resume anytime soon, but what I mean is, as I have stated in other places, is that much of what is written in contemporary times is either a) garbage or, b) recycled from previous times. Dallas takes the best of the latter and interprets and applies it with very little of the former.

This particular work of his takes some ideas that have been floating in my head for about 20 years and crystalizes them. The bottom line of the book is this--how we live as Christians matters. Not in some moralistic way, but in the very practical and spiritual way that it forms us. Just as Christ is fully God and fully man, we too are fully body and fully spirit. They two co-exist and reside within us. We can do nothing "spiritual" outside of our flesh and blood, and everything we do physically affects us spiritually.

From this obvious, though often overlooked, beginning, he lays out how discipline in the Christian life is necessary in order to train ourselves in righteousness. "Our mistake is to think that following Jesus consists in loving our enemies, going the "second mile," turning the other cheek, suffering patiently and hopefully–while living the rest of our lives just as everyone else does." (p. 5) Too often, this is the case. We go to church and talk about our "spiritual lives" as if they had nothing to do with our Monday through Saturday "real" lives.

"Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop. There is no third possibility. I must plan to follow Jesus fully or not plan to follow him." (p. 13)

Read that again.

Either I must intend to stop sinning or not intend to stop.
There is no third possibility.
I must plan to follow Jesus fully or not plan to follow him.

We cannot gloss over the way Jesus and his disciples lived their lives. They practiced regular prayer and solitude. They were disciplined in the way they lived their lives. Jesus words key us into this if we listen, "When you pray...when you fast,... when you give..." (Matthew 6) are telling. He does not say, "if," but when. The expectation is that we will do these things.

Unfortunately, through radical interpretations of reformation theology, we have largely discarded spiritual disciplines because we are afraid of "works righteousness." In truth, many of us are just lazy.

The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help us by assisting the ways of God's Kingdom to take the place of the habits of sin embedded in our bodies. (p. 86) They are training to be who we want to be. It takes effort on our part. Yes, God gives us the Holy Spirit and works in us and through us, but we must work with him. We cannot sit on the couch eating popcorn and expect to just poof become holier. It does not work that way, and no where in scripture does it tell us it does.

"The mark of disciplined persons is that they are able to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done." (p. 151) We understand this in the purely physical realm. I cannot expect to be able to run a half marathon on the prescribed day if I do not train myself in preparation. So why are we so flabbergasted when we cannot resist a temptation, or speak against falsehood when it comes, if we have not also trained ourselves?

Enough of my rambling. If you haven't read either of these, do yourself a favor and read them.