Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Room Noise (Quieting the Audible Apparition)

Growing up for me, the television was part of everyday life. My parents still smile when they tell me of the TV comedian, popular during the period of my early childhood, who opened every show by waving a huge bear paw in front of the camera and, consequently, in front of my 18 month old eyes. Although I don’t remember it, the sight of the furry, nail clawed paw sent me running every time. Nonetheless, in spite of the humorous result of what was then modern entertainment, terrorizing one's first born was only the tip of the iceberg amongst the merits of television viewing. Frightening infants could not contend with the role of the TV as “room noise”.

Can you identify with the practice? Turn on the “tube”. Leave it on. Don’t watch - just allow it to provide a distraction in daily living. Who cares what’s on? The presence of the picture and the audible apparition of sound make easy the way of escape from needing to face a gnawing question or working on a relationship that would benefit from solitude, devoted time, and the absence of distractions.

“Noise”, in fact, takes many forms. Television, music, work, recreation, hobbies, substance abuse, and so on increase the volume. We run, we work, we read, we watch and we avoid the questions that seem to call to us from the silence. In fact, working and remaining busy, even too busy, sometimes appears simpler to deal with than living life. Thinking, feeling, facing our mortality, and living at peace with those around us – now that is the hard part. The noise is easy; it’s even a bit comforting. Ultimately however, we must dampen the hullabaloo and face our challenges.

“I like having a place to get away from the clamor, to experience Christ, and to gain a glimpse of His passion for us. I like the honesty and openness the most. Here, it seems OK to stare down disquieting questions and reject the pat answers that really can’t satisfy my questions anyway,” says one Christ follower in our village of Stone Mountain, GA. It’s important to yearn to be “real”. “No one asks me to “put on a mask” as if meeting with others is some sort of costume party. It’s OK to have flaws and I feel connected to something authentic.”

One may say, “Getting real answers – I like that. Turning down the volume, quieting the noise and addressing the silence, now that strikes an even fuller chord.” Maybe you agree? If so, you may find the Celebration of Discipline Chapter 4 Round – Up for week 25 worth the read. It’s part of the ongoing blog through Celebration of Discipline an a terrific example of the good that can come through cooperation of a global group of Christians endeavoring to hear God’s voice and follow Him by choosing to walk together a bit and love Christ as we go.

Take a peek. See what you think and I hope you gain insight into the fellowship of Christ and a God given motivation for being. Yet, even more than this, I hope you catch a glimpse of the One who is the “real star” of life’s drama. If you do, you may be closer to reality than you know. So, consider this an invitation to quiet the room noise, rest a while, and engage the queries that percolate up in your new found quiet.

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Friday, June 24, 2005

“Cheap Grace” and Opportunity

I’m not sure if it’s a good call to do so but I really think shaking things up a bit can be good for discussion. Are we really living in an age of “cheap grace”? Is grace without discipleship or the cross really the rule of the day? If a person says no to fasting are they opting for the easy way out and missing out on “breakthroughs in the spiritual realm that may never happen any other way”? I don’t know the answers to these questions but I do really appreciate this week’s Celebration of Discipline chapter on Fasting.

I don’t agree with the author’s read on Matt 9, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” Scripture doesn’t seem to speak in terms of a “Church Age”; rather, the idea more likely is rooted in a system theology that, whilst it may have merit, it is not God-breathed. So, implying that the passage should be understood in this context raises questions to explore before settling into a comfortable posture with the idea. More importantly, however, I’m not sure how to interpret Christ’s promise to His disciples that” Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world…” if we are to view Him as being absent – in a sense- until His return at the end of this so-called ecclesiastical epoch. Yet, the chapter was really helpful.

I feel the subject was handled in a balanced way. Fasting is not commanded but it is modeled. It is not “prescribed” but is “described” in the pages of the New Testament and it certainly requires our study and, as God leads, participation. “ It is a means of God’s grace and blessing that should not be neglected any longer.” And, Foster does well in pointing out that it has fallen into disrepute and disregard. Likewise, he does well in placing the spotlight on a few dangers, too.

Danger 1: “To use good things to our own ends is always the sign of false religion.” We can do this with fasting.

Danger 2: Fasting for show is a bad deal. The Pharisees picked market days to fast so that they could show off to the largest number of spectators. Clearly, they “ got their reward in full” right then – and a puny reward at that - given Christ’s teaching in the Sermon on the Mount.

Danger 3: You can’t make something a “biblical law” if scripture doesn’t support your legislative attempt. Remember the moralist trap in Ch 1 and be OK if others don’t line up with your zeal. Refrain from manipulating. God the Holy Spirit is quite capable – and you are not Him.

Dangers mentioned, what about the encouragement of several realities about fasting?

Reality 1: “Biblical fasting always centers on spiritual purposes.” There may be evidence of other good things that we derive from the practice but fasting, as modeled in scripture, is for spiritual purposes.

Reality 2: “Fasting must forever center on God. It must be God-initiated (Sorry but I didn’t want to miss the chance to underscore that fasting is God-initiated and a grace of God and not a man initiated discipline that somehow moves God to our way of thinking - Whoop!! Celebrate!!! Worship!!!!!) and God-ordained.” Likewise, ”fasting” and “worshiping” the Lord must be said in the same breath”. It must be unto God. (Zech 7:5) “If our fasting is not unto God, we have failed.”

Reality 3: Fasting is a grace of God given for His glory and our good. He has chosen, as in prayer, to include us in His work in the world. He makes the invitation and sets the music to playing. Now, we can exercise faith and join Him in the dance. How cool this is. Likewise, it resonates with the idea of opportunity that grows from our freedom. What a meaningful paradigm shift. Freedom in Christ brings opportunity - not license. Opportunity-it is profound observation. Thank you Mr. Foster.

Dangers. Realities. Is there more to consider? Yes, there are secondary purposes to fasting that are subservient to what appears to be God’s primary purposes for fasting. For time’s sake, let’s make a simple list: a) fasting reveals the things that control us, b) fasting reminds us that we are sustained by the Word of God more so than the physical food that quells our appetite, c) fasting aids us in keeping our life in balance. It helps us major on the major matters of life and keep the non-essential matters that distract – even entangle - us in check.

Well, that’s it for now. I really enjoyed the interaction sparked by reading this week’s chapter on fasting and I appreciate Mr. Foster’s fair and thoughtful handling of the subject. I must admit this study of the disciplines is very meaningful. I value the dialogue and the encouragement of the discussion that drives me to the scriptures to seek answers to questions that are sparked by the study. Thank you guys for the process.

Here's a parting thought and observation about the question of “cheap grace”. Whilst the accusation may be true more often than not in an affluent society with limited and little persecution, it is certainly not true for our many brothers and sisters in Christ that are enduring persecution for their faith in Christ right now. I don’t think that I fathom the reality that more Christians are persecuted today than at any time in history. So, if we’re fat and happy and guilty of “cheap grace”, we may need God’s grace to repent. Yes, we make up many local bodies of believers all across the globe but we are part of the global body, too, and it seems unfair to apply the paint of “cheap grace” accusations with a broad brush.

A while back, a small group of believers here in Atlanta took part in a 24-hour prayer initiative for the persecuted church. It was eye opening and heart rending. The event, called
Shockwave, began in New Zealand and rolled across the globe for 24 hours. Believers in each time zone gathered to pray in a 4 or more hour window for the persecuted church. Most prayed from 7:00 to 11:00 (in some cases all night) in their respective corner of the world. With the time progressing from east to west and back again, that 24 hour period was able to send a shockwave of prayer for our world and the church. Let me close with the comments of a guy named Sal in CA. He, and many others, took part in an ongoing Internet chat for the persecuted church. Here is what he observed:

Here in Porterville California we had a small shockwave event, ok tiny, but we did pray in general for the persecuted church. The best thing that happened is that eyes were opened, including mine! I know that we here in the USA are spoiled! While the many of the world's Christians are persecuted, we're having lattes at Starbucks! I hope that we are awakening to our responsibility to pray and support them where we can. Hmm? Is there anybody out there? Bye now. Sal Man has left the building.

Good thought – don’t you agree? Hmm—time to leave the building.

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Dad, Can We Go Get Ice Cream?

I know a post is due for Ch 4 and I am excited about the prospect for several reasons. First, the chapter was very helpful and posting forces me to crystalize my thinking. Two, it means I get to log on and read the thoughts of fellow bloggers who are sharing in this study. For me, making the weekly post is sort of like the cost of admission to the party and I really enjoy reading the thoughts of those who are taking part in the CoD blog project.

Anyway, if things go as planned, I'll get my post finished whilst making my way from LA to Atlanta. A four hour flight should allow ample time to write; yet in the meantime, I wanted to pass on an article that I found early this morning. It relates to last week's chapter on Prayer. The writer's style may or may not be "your cup of tea" but it is merits a read.

Here's and excerpt:

Do a quick review of Acts and you’ll be amazed at the consistency of the theme. The early church was born where? Out of a prayer meeting. In chapter 1, Jesus told His disciples to wait and to pray. In chapter 2, Pentecost came while they were praying. In chapter 3, the first miracle happened when Peter and John were on their way to a prayer meeting. In chapter 4, they were beaten up, thrown into prison, and then let out. When they came back to the church, they prayed for more effectiveness, and the ground shook. By chapter 6, the whole structure of the church changed. They had elders and deacons. Why? Because the leadership said they must give themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word. When God revealed Himself to Cornelius, he was praying. When God revealed Himself to Peter in chapter 10, he was praying. When God called Paul and Barnabas out as missionaries, they were praying.

Historically, you’ll find that every great movement of God is tied with people who began to earnestly lay hold of what’s true about prayer.

To see where the "Dad, can we go get ice cream?" ties in and read the rest of the article click here.

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Saturday, June 18, 2005

Thinking God's Thoughts After Him (Ch 3)

Prayer, as a subject, can evoke frustration and guilt even after years now of walking with Christ. “To pray is to change. The closer we come to the heartbeat of God the more we see our need and the more we desire to be conformed to Christ.” These thoughts in Celebration of Discipline Ch 3 The Discipline of Prayer ring true. Yet, I often struggle with a conflict between what I think I see in the scriptures and some of what I observe that others, even Richard Foster, have to say on the topic.

I think my concerns in the chapter may grow out of baggage I bring into the dialogue on prayer, more so, than what the author may be saying. I can be overly sensitive if I hear overtones that seem to imply that prayer manipulates God or sets up an extra-biblical measuring rod of good, best, and better praying. Yet, in the case of this chapter in Celebration of Discipline, I find the author’s follow on comments sometimes explain his thoughts in ways that show my concern was unjustified. For example, the illustrations of saints “ devoting two hours daily to the sacred exercise” or “withdrawing …seven times a day in order to engage in the holy work of prayer” set up an internal dialogue that, at first, left me feeling discouraged and inadequate in prayer. Yet, reading further, I found that Foster was seeking to encourage the reader – not discourage- and I was just too quick on the trigger.

That said, I did have trouble with some of the comments on learning to pray. The main sticking point was his quote, “For years I had prayed for many things and with great intensity, but with only marginal success. But then I saw that I might possibly be doing some things wrong and could learn differently.” Should the matter of praying be so overly complicated that we miss the point for years? Isn’t prayer – even as part of the disciplined path of grace- a supernaturally natural response of a living creation - indwelt by God and made new in Christ- to his Creator? Is the model prayer of Christ in Matthew 6 so complex that we miss how to pray?

Clearly, God has shown Himself to be one who actively pursues His creation, has made provision for our sin, is keenly interested in fellowshipping with us and desires that we glorify and delight in Him. Are the words I say and not ending some prayers with “If it be Thy will” the real issue? Or, is the real issue the God to whom I pray? Is He “able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think” or not? Does He respond better when I dot my spiritual “i”(s) and cross my spiritual “t”(s), or, is what matters most that I come to Him as a child to his Father and pray in keeping with His will? (Maybe you guys can help reconcile this point? It doesn’t seem to line up with my limited understanding or even with Foster’s later comments on “not making prayer too complicated”. )

Moving on, there is little question that the good observations in this chapter far outweigh my possibly unfounded concerns. One such point was the danger of “an everything is fixed and can’t be changed belief that leaves no room for the move of God and the response of God to prayer”. This was a real biggie for me. I see the sovereignty of God throughout the pages of scripture and, if not careful, can be tempted to avoid the holding of truth in tension that faith in Him requires. This can squelch a sense of urgency to pray.

Sometimes, I think I want a system of beliefs that fit neatly together like Legos or Lincoln Logs. But, I don’t believe God gives us this option. We are to worship Him and not a system of theology. We are to know and seek Him as living God and interact with Him in His Word. We are not to treat His written revelation as a jigsaw puzzle that we figure out and set aside to gather dust; rather, we are to pursue Him and be changed by Him into the image of Christ. Therefore, given that His ways and thoughts are higher than ours, I must be willing to hold His revealed truth – when required- in tension and, for me, petitioning God – who is sovereign and all-knowing- is one of these tensions.

The chapter was a good reminder that - even if I can’t reconcile God’s sovereignty with His exhortation to pray - I must pray and He will answer. This is sobering; moreover, it is humbling. Why would Sovereign God involve His creation in His work in this world? Yet, I don’t have to figure this out. I only need to do as He says and pray. I can say, “Father, I don’t understand it but You exhort me to pray – so Lord I trust You and ask _______ “. Moreover, am I really surprised that God, who is “intimately acquainted with all my ways” desires that I talk with and listen to Him?

The Kierkegaard quote, “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer is listening.” underscores the listening aspect of prayer. Foster augments the point by saying, “Listening to the Lord is the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing necessary for successful intercession.” And, this “necessary prelude” makes sense when I consider God and His desire that you and I be in fellowship with Him.

In the end, prayer is something we learn and is a learning process that sets us free to question, experiment, and grow. “In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves, to will the things He wills. Progressively, we are taught to see things from His point of view.” Praying takes place in the context of a living relationship with God. It isn’t a tool I take out of the tool chest simply to advance spiritually. It’s more akin to breathing. Knowing that it is a discipline that I learn and grow in is an important observation. The “Lord, teach us to pray” quote from Luke 11 was freeing and a good point to make. How often I forget that sanctification – and growth in the disciplines- is a process.

Anyway, I need to wrap up. I’m late in posting and apologize if these thoughts are a little “half baked”. Please sort through the ramblings and let me know, by your comments, if any of this rings true. In the meantime, I look forward to logging on and reading your thoughts on this week’s chapter and I pray all is well with you.

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Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Heebie-Jeebies Meet Bonhoeffer (CoD Ch 2)

Have you ever noticed how a single word can evoke emotions to the positive and negative all at the same time? Depending on the definition to which we hold for the word, a term can spark feelings that encourage and inspire us or frustrate and repel us. For me, the concept of meditation is such a word.

I know scripture encourages it.

Psalm 1 - Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers.

Joshua 1- This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate in it day and night, that you may observe to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have good success.

Likewise, at least to some degree, we all do it. David even prayed in Psalm 19May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. “ And, I know it is a word I should embrace and a practice I should and do cherish. So why do I get the heebie-jeebies when I hear the word meditate.

I don’t know about you but I guess I’ve seen too many stereotypical images that push me away from the idea of calling the time I spend with God meditation. You may know the images I mean. An ascetic religious sage – supposedly a person with special knowledge - in a robe and sandals, sitting with crossed legs and up tilted palms, chanting some unfamiliar mantra, emptying his mind and trying to become one with the universe. Maybe I don’t understand and I certainly do not want to offend anyone by a bias rooted in a western experience and too much television, yet it seems that God, as He has revealed Himself to man, has not called mankind be one with the cosmos but rather reconciled and at peace with Him. So, to this end, I am grateful for this week’s chapter in Celebration of Discipline.

In a way, Richard Foster redeems the word meditation from the mire of too many popular misconceptions of the term. He defines it in a biblical context and frames it in a way that makes sense in the Christian life. He boils it down to simply “the ability to hear God’s voice and obey His word”. And, he adds, “Repentance and obedience are essential features in any biblical understanding of meditation”. This makes sense and it rings true with the internal witness of God in me, His child.

You see, I like knowing it’s OK to meditate. I like having a definition that reconciles the idea with the internal witness of God the Spirit and His word. It rings true when Mr. Foster relays that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor martyred near the end of WWII, when asked why he meditated, replied,"Because I am a Christian.” I like knowing that meditating is uncomplicated and as natural for a Christ follower as breathing. I like knowing that “listening to God’s word, reflecting on His works, rehearsing His deeds, ruminating on His law, and more” are all acts of meditation. I like knowing that it is a habit and practice that is not reserved for a special few with “special” knowledge; rather, it is for those with no special abilities who are simply willing to listen. It is this uncomplicated - maybe even unimpressive -man or woman to whom God speaks. I like this reality and I rejoice that it is true.

There are many other points in Foster’s writing on meditation that merit development, discussion and application to my life; yet, for me, I am most grateful that Mr. Foster has unknotted a term that is central to Christian living and done away with this man’s case of the heebie-jeebies. For this, I am most appreciative and I look forward to enjoying the thoughts and observations of the group as I read your posts. Thanks for the continuing conversation.

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Thursday, June 09, 2005

Dance as if no one is watching ...

I get a little uncomfortable about blogging, at times, because it means that I sometimes talk about me. I don’t know why I avoid this but I am pleased to find others doing the same. In a sense, we take the risk – albeit a perceived risk at best - to put a bit about ourselves out there with no certainty that understanding – or anything positive- will be the end of the story from those that read a post. Nonetheless, I am finding the community of Christians that I’ve met thus far is a group of reasonably safe people. We don’t agree about everything but we’re certainly agreeable.

The ongoing blog through Celebration of Discipline is a terrific example of the good that can come through cooperation and endeavoring to hear God’s voice and follow Him. I think I am seeing a ragtag band of Christ followers choosing to walk together a bit and love Christ as we go. Yes, we are exploring Celebration of Discipline; however, I really believe we are, in fact, celebrating - even delighting in - our Saviour and the transforming work He has wrought and is accomplishing amongst His people. It is awesome to be a part of His community. How neat this is! (Maybe I should say, “Sweet”, in today’s vernacular?)

One of my passions is worship. To get lost – so to speak – in God’s presence, to contemplate Him (His revelation - general and specific), to meditate on His word and, by his grace, to obey His lead is part of worshipping Him as Most Holy God. This week’s chapter on meditation is refreshing. It has helped to sort out a definition of meditation that makes sense in the Christian life and I appreciate this. Anything that boils itself down to simply “the ability to hear God’s voice and obey His word” is fine by me and I look forward to reading the posts that will begin later today (GMT + 8 to 10) and placing a post, as well. In the meantime, here’s a parting thought.

Dance as if no one is watching;
love as if you can't be hurt.
Sing tho' no one is listening;
live as if it's heaven on earth.

Author Unknown

Recently, I came across this quote whilst riffling through the shelves of a country store when my family and I went to see Sondre Lerche at The Orange Peel, a music venue, in Asheville, N.C. It’s a relevant thought, especially, when I reflect on taking part in corporate worship. I would that I could - whether gathered or alone - worship God as if He were an audience of One.

Kudos: The quote came to mind as I read through the Celebration of Discipline posts this week. In the midst of reading, my eyes caught Messy Christian's post on Worship Dance. Thank's for showing a bit of your heart for worshipping God. Thank you also for your initiative in jump-starting this whole CoD group blog and compiling the Chapter 1 Round-Up that made reading and commenting such a breeze. The dancing reference is for you.

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Saturday, June 04, 2005

An Apprehensive Celebration

I have to admit an excitement about blogging through Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. I think the community aspect is most appealing. Imagine… a book study with a handful of believers from Canada, The States, England, Malaysia, China, Korea and Australia all, so to speak, on the same page! Nonetheless, my excitement is not without a bit of apprehension, too.

Why do I take a skeptical posture towards a book on spiritual disciplines? Why do I circle the wagons around my otherwise tender heart towards God and cast a skeptical and ready stare towards the writer as if I need to be preparing for a fight or flight encounter? I’d really don’t know but I’d like to.

Given my apprehension, I needed quite a bit of time in the Acknowledgements and Introduction before diving into Chapter One and I am happy I took the time get a bit more familiar with Mr. Foster.

First, his conviction that books are best written in community is reassuring. I also liked the definition that he gave to the phrase “in community” as he described how, in the days in his first congregation, Dallas Willard would teach whilst “they were together in each other’s homes-laughing together, weeping together, learning together, praying together”. Such affection for the brethren (brothers and sisters) is encouraging.

Secondly, learning that his journey towards the subject did not begin with the disciplines but with a knowledge that he was sorely lacking in knowing God causes me to embrace him as a brother and welcome his dialogue. Now I don’t mean knowing God in the cerebral, purely academic way but in a whole heart, soul shaking, deep way. I think Richard Foster’s honesty here – about the spiritual bankruptcy that set him on this journey -is a mark of humility that resonates with me.

Finally, there seems to be realness to Richard Foster and his experience. He seems to possess a yearning for God and a heart that holds the disciplines as a means to spiritual growth – and deepening fellowship with Him- rather than an end in themselves. And, I am convinced that this is of utmost importance for it is desperation and recognition of need- not discipline or the disciplines- that drives me to God. It is my knowing that I come up short - that I am lacking - that provokes me to yearn for His presence, His pleasure, and His way.

Later, Richard Foster will present an image of a path of disciplined grace that runs along a narrow ridge between the two treacherous chasms of moralism and antinomianism. This will prove to be a meaningful analogy; nonetheless, I am convinced that it is important to know that it is my yearning to leave my state of spiritual lacking to find life in Him and fellowship with Him and His community that motivates my steps. Such yearning - and the expectation that God will satisfy that yearning as I wait for Him - is the hope that holds me to the path when it is sometimes easy to walk and, at other times, difficult to walk, too.

I look forward to more Celebration of Discipline in the coming weeks. Reading your posts today was a real encouragement. Thank you.

For now, here is a parting verse:

4 Since ancient times no one has heard,
no ear has perceived,
no eye has seen any God besides you,
who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.

5 You come to the help of those who gladly do right,
who remember your ways.
But when we continued to sin against them,
you were angry.
How then can we be saved?

6 All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.

7 No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and made us waste away because of our sins.

8 Yet, O LORD, you are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
we are all the work of your hand. (Isaiah 64, NIV)

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