Wednesday, September 16, 2009

An Authentic Voice

The word "apologetics" seems to be a horrendous starting point for connecting someone to Jesus and his life-restoring grace. I know that the word has a legitimate background but I often think that it points to apologizing for a faith.

One of my burning questions has always been, "Why are followers of Christ the only ones who have to apologize for their faith?" Everyone else does not "have" to make excuses for their faith - they simply live.

With that said, I read in Calvin's Institutes this morning from Book I, Ch VII, 1-5 titled, "Scripture Must Be Confirmed by the Witness of the Spirit. Thus May Its Authority Be Established As Certain."

Calvin points to the role of the Spirit as the way to authenticate Scripture as opposed to the church or opinions of humanity or even other proofs. He circles the argument with numerous responses to the Catholic Church or others who raise questions about the Bible.

In the end, I see Calvin returning to a very basic observation. If you hear a voice of a person, then you can know if it is authentic. An authentic voice comes from the actual person.

Calvin shares (from Ephesians 2:20) that the church is "built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles." These people were given the task of speaking God's voice into the world. The words of the prophets are recorded in the Old Testament and the teaching of the apostles in the New Testament. They never spoke on their own. They shared God's message.

How do we know if Scripture is legitimate? According to Calvin, God's Spirit will authenticate Scripture. I would add that this happens when we listen for God's voice in and through reading and reflecting on Scripture (both alone and in groups). An authentic voice will come through and that voice, God's voice, will address each listener and invite a response.

A picture of this is found in 1 Thessalonians when the apostle Paul shares, "For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction."

They listened and God's voice (through the gospel message) impacted them.

Do you hear an authentic voice that is lovingly addressing you when you open your Bible?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Which path?

This morning, I continued in my readings from Calvin's Institutes. Once again, I am struck by Calvin's heart for God and for how his love for Christ jumps off of the page. Yes, Calvin has his rough edges but I am more surprised by his devotion to Christ than I am by his harsh words for critics.

I read from Book I, Ch VI, 1-4 titled "Scripture is Needed to Guide and Teacher for Anyone Who Would Come to God the Creator."

Calvin builds on his initial thesis that God reveals himself in creation but people turn from God and do not embrace what God clearly shows. In summary, our depraved minds block God and his movements towards us. Calvin continues by stating that we need Scripture to "direct us aright to the very Creator of the universe."

The section that caught my attention today states:
We must come, I say, to the Word, where God is truly and vividly described to us from his works, while these very works are appraised not by our depraved judgment but by the rule of eternal truth. If we turn aside from the Word, as I have just now said, though we may strive with strenuous haste, yet, since we have got off the track, we shall never reach the goal. For we should so reason that the splendor of the divine countenance, which even the apostle calls "unapproachable" [1 Tim. 6:16], is for us like an inexplicable labyrinth unless we are conducted into it by the thread of the Word;

The basics - Turn to God through knowing him through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the Word and Scripture (the written word) bears witness to Jesus. If we refuse to let God speak on his own terms, then we are left to creating our own god.

Which path?

Calvin continues by sharing what caught my attention as I read this section, "so that it is better to limp along this path (turning to God through listening for his Word through Scripture) then to dash with all the speed outside it."

Am I running on a path that leads me away from God (usually in my own self-justifying thoughts and feelings) or am I moving, maybe limping, along the path of following Jesus and hearing from God through Scripture?

Which path?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Road

I have to make a confession. I am fiction-challenged.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I struggle reading fiction. I fall asleep. I get bored. I lose interest. I fall asleep.

I have come to realize that reading fiction is an odd kind of spiritual discipline for me. It is a "spiritual discipline" because I must intentionally engage my imagination with fiction. I discover rest when I let myself step away from non-fiction books and works.

This morning, I woke up and thought, "I need to finally read Lord of the Rings." I read The Fellowship of the Ring 6+ years ago but I only made it through 1/4 of The Two Towers. I never picked up the books again. My friend shared his Lord of the Rings DVDs with me but I couldn't put them in today because I felt the pull to read the books.

I lost myself in Book One of The Fellowship of the Ring today. I enjoyed every second of it and I STAYED AWAKE! I remembered why I was captivated by Tolkien's great work years ago. One reason that stands out more than any other is Frodo's sense of calling and his struggle with the calling that was thrust upon him.

In many ways, I feel that in my calling as a full-time church pastor. I know that it is what God has called me to but I sometimes think and feel "why me?"... I feel like God has set me on a path that I didn't choose for myself but now that I am walking on that path I wouldn't choose any other.

At one point, Frodo shares the following as he walked along with Sam and Pippen:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet,
And whither then? I cannot say.

I am on The Road and I feel like I will be joining some larger way. Yes, "where many paths and errands meet and wither then? I cannot say."

Monday, September 07, 2009

An Indirect Mentor - Leighton Ford

Leighton Ford is mostly known for serving alongside Billy Graham. More recently, he has shifted his focus toward mentoring young leaders. His son, Kevin, served with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship in Virginia when I was at UVA. I remember meeting Kevin at a chapter camp at Windy Gap and then buying Leighton's book titled Transforming Leadership. I read the book that summer.

Years later, I had the opportunity to meet Leighton Ford when he spoke at MVPC. I reread Transforming Leadership before he came and I was able to see how much I have learned (or better put - realized what I have yet to learn and experience) about leadership after 14 years. At MVPC, he preached on the subject of "Paying Attention" and he shared from his new book The Attentive Life.

I bought the book but I didn't open it until this weekend. I am 2/3 of the way through it (the last 1/3 is always the hardest to press through) and I have been refreshed by the content, especially his emphasis on slowing down in our attention-deficit culture.

As I have been reading the book, I have felt like I have been mentored by a great person. I know that I have found a treasure of an author, a book and/or a person when I get that sense. I love feeling like I am sitting down with a person as I hear his/her voice through a book.

One area of mentoring from Ford came from his variety of life-giving perspectives on love. One of his definitions of love is "focused attention." He shares the following words from the Scottish preach Alexander Whyte about love based on the apostle Paul's words from Ephesians 3:
The love of Christ has no border: it has no shore: it has no bottom. The love of Christ is boundless: it is bottomless: it is infinite: it is divine. That is passeth knowledge is the greatest thing that ever was said, about it... We shall come to the shore, we shall strike the bottom of every other love: but never of the love of Christ!... You, who have once cast yourself into it, and upon it -- the great mystic speaks of it as if it were at once an ocean and a mountain, --- you will never come to the length of it, or to the breadth of it, or to the depth of it, or to the height of it. To all eternity, the love of Christ to you will be new.

Let that mentor, refresh and restore you today as you consider the love of Christ.

I know that I felt my soul restored by that quote and many other prayers and stories in this book.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

True Rest and Happiness

I first took Jesus seriously during my freshman year in high school when I heard a small group of friends work through 1 John 4. The verse that still awakens my soul to God's love and identity is 1 John 4:10 - "This is love: not that we loved but that God love us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." I was pulled into the loving arms of God who didn't expect perfection before embracing me.

I rested in that realization.

Years later, I picked up a book titled Knowing God by J.I. Packer. Up to that point, I had pushed away any book that focused on theology. I didn't want to read high and lofty theology. I simply wanted to read the Bible and let God speak.

I started to read Packer's book and I clearly remember the opening section describing the greatest endeavor of a person - to know God. He shared that there is nothing more rewarding than to let God reveal himself and to discover God during intentional moments of listening and searching.

This morning, I continued in my reading of Calvin's Institutes and I read I.V.1-10. The chapter title in McNeill's edition is "The Knowledge of God Shines Forth in the Fashioning of the Universe and the Continuing Government of it."

The sentences that caught my attention came at the very beginning when Calvin writes:
The final goal of the blessed life, moreover, rests in the knowledge of God [cf. John 17:3]. Lest anyone, then, be excluded from access to happiness.

Blessed. Rest. Happiness.

These words are slippery, especially "blessed." What does "being blessed" really look and feel like? I've always asked that question. I've come to the conclusion that I know what "being blessed" is when I am in the midst of it. I feel blessed when I am connected to God and I do not feel like anything is in the way of my relationship with him. I feel blessed when I am serving another person and I know that I would not be doing it without the work of Christ in (on) my life. I feel blessed when I am singing during a worship service with others in response to God's grace. I feel blessed when I feel free to love my wife, my little girls and whomever God puts in my path at any given moment.

The other two words that Calvin uses (rest and happiness) fit right into this picture.

BUT I have be reminded (awakened) of this every moment of every day!

Calvin later shares that God's purpose in all revelation is blessedness of those who receive this revelation. In other words, blessedness is found in experiencing God's revelation. Calvin later says "but because of human sin, the effect of this revelation in creation is to deepen man's guilt."

That's a sad reality. At the very point that we should be experiencing blessing, rest and happiness (in the moment of God sharing himself with us), we often feel the most guilty because of God's presence. We push God away.

I do this. I feel God's presence but then I push him away if I am running away from God or indifferent. This is not God's problem. It is my problem. God is graciously saying "I love you. I am here" but I say "Go away!" because of my guilt (shame and pride).

What is our hope? What is my hope? The hope is that Jesus made the way for us to know God and to not have our guilt become deeper in God's presence. Instead, we should feel the freedom and confidence to come before God AND to experience the blessing, rest and happiness that comes from being known by God and knowing God.

Prayer: Jesus, thank you for making a way for me to be known by God and to know God. I am convinced that the true source of blessing, rest and happiness is God. I can see how I could push God away without the assurance that you made the way for me to be in a living relationship with God now and for eternity. Thank you for finding me. Thank you for awakening a love for you and a desire to know you. Help me to turn toward you every day and then turn toward others because of our relationship and your work of restoration, transformation and renovation in my life. For your name's sake. Amen.

Friday, September 04, 2009

1 out of 100

I am continuing my daily readings in Calvin's Institutes and it has become a highlight of my day. I am now looking forward to the reading, reflection and subsequent prayer.

Years ago, I realized that my swimming workouts were mostly sprint-oriented. I intentionally shifted those workouts to be long distance so as to foster a more 'marathon' mindset as opposed to a 'sprint' mindset. These readings fall in the 'marathon' mindset as I take a little bit per day but consistently take them on.

I often share that "95% of people believe any statistic" - including that one.

Calvin shares in Book I, IV, 1 that "As experienced shows, God has sown a seed of religion in all men. But scarcely one man in a hundred is met who fosters it, once received, in his heart, and none in whom it ripens - much less shows fruit in season [cf. Ps 1:3]."

1 out of 100.

He obviously isn't drawing on polls or statistics but his numbers resonate with me. The convicting aspect of his statistic and subsequent analysis is that he is talking more about the response by people to their acknowledgment of God or a god or "something out there."

Calvin exposes the reality that people often generate an image of God (an idol) in order to ultimately hide from the very God who they know exists, who they know has the final word on their lives, and who they know requires a response. He points out superstitions, religious rites and other actions to placate God.

As for me, I can see how I can easily fall into this trap. In fact, I am a pastor. If anyone can say "look at me God, I am following you" it is me. I can easily embrace a false idea that I am "making it" as a Christian since I serve full-time in a church ministry environment.

This, however, could be the greatest place of hiding.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, take me out of hiding. Help me to follow you and to respond to you and not try to placate you with my life. I want to relate to you and be yours.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Directing Every Thoughts and Action

Today's reading in Calvin's Institutes was Book I, Ch III, 1-3. The section is titled "The Knowledge of God has been Naturally Implanted in the Minds of Men."

I have always started with the assumption that people all have some view of God or a god or "something out there." If anything, I often see that those who oppose the view of God or a god have to work very hard to prove (to themselves?) that a personal, creative, ruling entity does not exist. In many ways, I see this as a lifelong endeavor to hide from God.

In our culture, these statements come across as insulting to those who believe that God does not exist. How can a person (me) make this bold and arrogant statement?

I make these statements because I believe them to be true and I invite anyone who disagrees with me to enter into a conversation about them. I am sharing what I have witnessed in the lives of my friends, co-workers and family members who reject the existence of God. They do so for reasons that are legitimate to them and I can often see why they have chosen to make this decision based on their life experiences and experiences with those who believe in God.

If I truly believe that, then what should I be doing. Calvin awakened me today to why I need to humbly (re)direct my life toward God in every moment of every day. I may claim that God exists and base my life on a relationship with him through Jesus Christ but that doesn't mean that I will be shaped by that understanding and relationship without an intentional movement toward God (as God is constantly intentionally moving toward me first).

Calvin shares the following in I.III.3

Besides, if all men are born and live to the end that they may know God, and yet if knowledge of God is unstable and fleeting unless it progresses to this degree, it is clear that all of those who do not direct every thought and action in their lives to this goal degenerate from the law of their creation. This was not unknown to the philosophers.

The bottom line is that every person has some natural understanding that God or a god or "something out there" exists. Every person has a choice as to what to do with that understanding - whether to be known by God or hide from God.

I believe God sent his Son to share himself and open the way for a life-restoring relationship with the personal, loving God who created everything (including you and me). If we enter into that relationship, then we will be restored daily and into eternity. As I go, I need to direct every thought and action to the goal of knowing God.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for showing up on the scene (earth) and revealing God through your life, death and resurrection. Seriously, thank you. I would be lost without you. I would be searching for an unknown God that would be mostly created in my own imagination (and image). Help me today to direct every thought and action toward knowing you. Thank you for the truth of 1 John 4:10 "this is love: not that we loved but that you loved us and sent your Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins." This truth woke me up to your love for me back in December of 1990 and you have been restoring me ever since. Help me to continue in my quest to turn toward you as you constantly turn toward me. I love you. For your name's sake, Amen.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Every Pastor Needs To...

Ellen Charry, a PTS Theology professor, boldly shared that every Christian needs to read Augustine's Confessions. She then boldly shared, "Every pastor needs to read through Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion."

She shared this during one of my first classes in seminary in the Fall of 2004. Five years have passed since she made that statement and I mentally tucked it away.

Recently, I have set aside 15 minutes every morning to read in my office. I arrive. I turn on a small light sitting on my work table. I open a book and read. I do this before I turn on my computer. I do this before I write on white board. I do this before I sort my piles.

I always enjoy reading works by devout followers of Christ. I often feel like I am sitting in a room with them and dialoguing with them as I read. Earl Palmer's Theological Dialogue gatherings have helped me as well. I often read out loud and stop to reflect on specific items that catch my attention. I then follow another one of Charry's challenges and "let all theological reflection turn to prayer." I end my time with an open conversation with God in prayer - sometimes silent, sometimes speaking, sometimes sharing my struggles, sometimes sharing my excitement.

Yesterday, I decided to take up Charry's challenge and I opened up Calvin's Institutes. I have read excerpts at various points but I have never ventured to read the entire work. I am started on that journey yesterday.

I haven't been blogging because I haven't cared to make the time to do so. I will post a thought here or there as I read through the Institutes. I am not trying to do anything big with these posts. I'm simply returning to the basics of this blog's theme - recording "thoughts as I go."

Here we go...

The quote that caught my attention this morning is in Book I, Chapter II, 2.

Because it (the mind) understands him to be the Author of every good, if anything oppresses, if anything is lacking, immediately it betakes itself to his protection, waiting for help from him. Because it is persuaded that he is good and merciful, it reposes in him with perfect trust, and doubts not that in his loving-kindness a remedy will be provided for all its ills.

Do I really believe that God is the "Author of every good"?
Do I immediately turn to him and wait for help from him?

I am convicted by these words, especially as I face a new school calendar year. Do I really believe this in light of the following:
- Laurie and I are expecting our 4th child (another girl!) in December
- Cambria is starting 1st grade today and parenting continues to challenge me every day
- I am leading a small group ministry that needs guidance and depth
- I feel lost in these efforts when I try to wrap my head around all of the possibilities

Where do I turn? Do I turn to my own thoughts and strength?

According to Calvin's reminders, I need to return to the "Author of every good."

Prayer: Lord Jesus, help me today to know that you truly are the author of every good. Please give me the grace (undeserved gift) of trust in you. Help me to know that you are really there and that you can and will come to my aid when I turn to you. I turn to you with my life again this morning. Take my life and let me rest in you as I live out the calling you have for me and my life. For your name's sake. Amen