© Richard Alvey and iLife Journey, 2014. All rights reserved.
In my early 50s I was given a sabbatical: seven weeks with nothing to do. The elders at our church invited me to take it. Actually, they insisted that I take it. I needed it because I was becoming increasingly frustrated and impatient and preoccupied. I felt as if I had too much to do and not enough time or ability to do it. I was obsessed with the external things that needed to be done around me. I was operating on the unspoken assumption that my inner world would be filled with life, peace and joy once my external world was perfect. That’s a great recipe for a healthy soul, as long as you live in a perfect world.
During my sabbatical, it was easy to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry from my life,” as my friend and mentor Dallas Willard had so wisely counseled. I found myself thinking that I’m a better person when I’m on sabbatical than I am when I’m working for God at a church, and I knew that was just plan wrong. I began to form a new goal: I want to be as relaxed as I am on vacation while being as productive as I am at work.
There was only one place to learn about that. So I drove to Box Canyon. I had a whole day to spend with Dallas. I told him that I felt frustrated because the people at the church I served were not changing more. I asked him what I needed to do to help our church experience greater levels of spiritual growth.
Long pause… “You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing deep contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday life with God.”
“No,” I corrected him. “I wasn’t asking about me. I was asking about other people. I was wondering what I need to make the church do. I was thinking about a book everyone should read, or a program everyone should go through or a prayer system everyone should commit to.”
“Yes, brother John,” he said with great patience and care. “I know you were thinking of those things. But that’s not what they need most. The main thing you will give your congregation – just like the main thing you will give to God – is the person you become. If your soul is unhealthy, you can’t help anybody. You don’t send a doctor with pneumonia to care for patients with immune disorders. You, and nobody else, are responsible for the well-being of your own soul.”
“I’m trying,” I said. “I learned long ago about the importance of having a quiet time when I read the Bible and do daily devotions; I do my best to start each day that way.”
“I didn’t say anything about having a quiet time,” he gently corrected again. “People in church – including pastors – have been crushed with guilt over their failure at having a regular quiet time or daily devotions. And then, even when they do, they find it does not actually lead to a healthy soul. Your problem is not the first 15 minutes of the day. It’s the next 23 hours and 45 minutes. You must arrange your days so that you are experiencing total contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday life with God.”
“But how can I have total contentment, joy and confidence?” I responded. “My work isn’t going nearly well enough. Lots of people are not happy with me. I am inadequate as a pastor, husband and father. Every week I carry the burden of delivering a sermon and knowing I’ll have to feel the pain if it doesn’t go well.“
“I didn’t say you should experience total contentment, joy and confidence in the remarkable adequacy of your competence or the amazingly successful circumstances of your life. It’s total contentment, joy and confidence in your everyday experience of God. This alone is what makes a soul healthy. This is not your wife’s job. It’s not your elder’s job. It’s not your children’s job. It’s not your friend’s job. It’s your job.”
~ Excerpt from Soul Keeping by John Ortberg
© Richard Alvey and iLife Journey, 2014. All rights reserved.
The account of God using Gideon and just 300 Israelites to defeat over 200,000 Midianites is a great story, but it’s the irony within the story that has captured my attention. (Judges 6-8)
An angel of the Lord appears to Gideon and gives him God’s directive. But Gideon isn’t sure it’s really the Lord so he asks for some confirmation. God is agreeable and sends fire to consume a meat offering laid on a rock.
Gideon is awe-struck and agrees to go with the Lord on this special ops mission. But along the way he has some doubts. So he asks the Lord for another sign and places some fleece on a bowl before heading to bed.
God again privides the miracle and Gideon is convinced… almost! He wants another sign using the same fleece and bowl but in a different way. God does it again.
Then after whittling Gideon’s troops down from 32,000 to just 300 men God grants Gideon yet another confirmation. He allows Gideon to sneak into the enemy camp and overhear them talking about some strange dreams. In these dreams the Israelites roll down the hill like a large boulder and crush them.
Gideon’s weak faith is again bolstered and the battle is won in short order.
God’s rescue is amazing but even more amazing is how Gideon was used in spite of his doubts. God didn’t get angry with him or give up on him.
Does anyone else find that the least bit encouraging?
We can follow God… we can be used to carry out His kingdom purposes… we can do His work… and we can wrestle with doubts at the same time!
Faith is obviously a critical part of our journey with God and it is impossible to please Him without it (Hebrews 11:6). But that doesn’t mean we won’t still wrestle with some occasional doubts.
Every time I’ve struggled through a season of doubt I’ve come out the other side of it with a stronger, deeper faith. The important thing is to be honest with our questions and seek out some good people/resources to help sort it out.
Check out my Resources tab above for some good books on this subject. One of the best is Faith and Doubt by John Ortberg.
© Richard Alvey and iLife Journey, 2012. All rights reserved.
Yesterday I blogged about the greatest Christmas song ever written – The Magnificat – and how Mary burst forth in praise when she met up with her relative Elizabeth.
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” ~ Luke 1:46-47
We explored what it means when our soul praises and our spirit rejoices – a celebration that involves every fiber of our being. And I explained that the name The Magnificat comes from the Latin translation meaning “magnify my soul, magnify the Lord.”
We all know that to magnify something is to enlarge it, to make it more visible. But what exactly does it look like to magnify God? This much is for certain:
To magnify or glorify God is not just something we do with our lips or when we gather on Sunday mornings; it’s what we do with our whole life.
Dallas Willard gives what I think is the best definition of what it means to magnify or glorify God when he says:
“It means to live in such a way that when people look at your life, they say, ‘What a good God God must be to think up somebody like you.'”
When others look at us, does what they see magnify God and draw attention to Him; or do they see just another human being doing life like most of the world – focused on their own concerns and comfort?
John Ortberg tells the story of their church hosting a Christmas party for their leaders. They contacted a vendor, a business guy, to help them with the desserts. One staff person called this guy and said:
“I work at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. We are going to have a party for our Elders and there’s a man at our church who recommended you to us. Can you help us with a dessert deal?”
And this vendor said, “You mean this guy goes to your church and he recommended me?”
The staff person said, “Yeah, do you know that guy?”
The vendor said, “Know him? I’ll tell you what. Not only do I know him. He is such a good guy. He has been so kind to me and the people that I work with that if you’re his church, I will provide my part of the dessert for free. You are not paying me anything. I will give the dessert away to a church that produces a person like that.”
How amazing is that?!
From John Ortberg…
What do you think is the number one most popular religion in America?
I’ll give you a hint: its not Christianity.
Its also not Islam, Judiasm, Buddhism, Taoism, or the Home Shopping Network.
According to Christian Smith, a sociologist at Notre Dame, the primary expression of faith in our day–at least for young adults–is what he calls “Moral Therapeutic Deism.”
This religion is characterized by five beliefs:
* There is a God who created earth and watches over it
* God wants people to be nice, fair and good (as it taught in the Bible and most other religions)
* The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself
* God doesn’t need to be involved in your life except when there’s a problem that needs Celestial Performance Enhancement
* Good people go to heaven when they die.
This is a religion that is far more about comfort, individualism and conformity that it is about meaning, calling, and sacrifice. What makes it particularly challenging is that it is not offered through a new MTD movement or denomination. It is actually catching on and being practiced in churches where we leaders think of ourselves as historically Christian.
It cannot sustain a life.
It cannot build a community.
It cannot call people to take up a cross.
We want something more.
One other piece of bad news has to do with where young adults learn MTD.
I’ll give you a hint. Its mostly from older adults. These are themes that have captured our culture in such deep ways that we’re hardly aware of them.
The good news is that God is much bigger than Moral Therapeutic Deism. He has a way of showing us what we idolize.
–when someone goes through a crisis or pain;
–when someone is inspired to devote their life to a cause greater than themselves;
–when someone is called to sacrifice their own comfort or success for a hurting world;
–when someone engages in the intense study of the God revealed by the writers of the Scriptures;
–when someone grows bored with a faith that is nice and comfortable and distant–
then God is once more breaking through.
MTD is just one more on a long list of idols.
But, somewhere deep down, the human heart keeps hungering for the real deal.
Frank Furedi documented an increasing use of fear in the media by counting the appearances of the term at risk in British newspapers. In 1994 the term appeared 2,037 times. By the end of the next year, the total had doubled. It increased by half in 1996. During the year 2000 at risk was printed more than eighteen thousand times. (1)
Has world danger really increased ninefold in six years or has fear begun to run amuck? For the first time since the end of the Second World War, parents expect that life for the next generation will be worse than it was for them. (2)
Reporter Bob Garfield tracked health articles in major publications and discovered that, among other health issues:
Reportedly, in total, 543 million Americans consider themselves to be seriously sick, a troubling figure since there are only 266 million people in the country. As Garfield noted, “Either as a society we are doomed, or someone is seriously double-dipping.” (3)
What about we who profess Jesus as Lord? Will we give in to this doomsday mentality or will we turn to our Maker, and because we do, fear less? As Max Lucado puts it:
“Courage does not panic; it prays. Courage does not bemoan; it believes. Courage does not languish; it listens. It listens to the voice of God calling through Scripture, ‘Fear not!’“
Which voice will we listen to?
PS – Join us this Sunday at Hagerstown Congregational as we wrap up our Fearless series.
(1) Frank Furedi, Culture of Fear Revisited, xviii
(2) Ibid., 68
(3) John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat, 132
A non-anxious presence works like this: You are hit with a problem or crisis that immediately causes you to become anxious. Your mind races in half-thoughts imagining the worst. You share your news with others who react in a similar way. But then you run into someone who reacts differently, someone who remains calm.
They are fully aware of what is going on and yet they exude a sence of confidence that things will work out. This person has been where you are or known others who have been. All of a sudden you begin to calm down. Your heart returns to a near-normal pace as you are able to collect a few deep breaths.
That person was a non-anxious presence in your life. I’ve been on both ends of this scenario as the anxious person and as the non-anxious presence; and I’ve even seen it happen within whole groups of people. One person with a calm demeanor can influence others just by their presence. John Ortberg offers this thought experiment:
Now consider what it would be like to have someone with you ALL THE TIME as a non-anxious presence to help you live out what you’ve just imagined. That person is the Holy Spirit! He dwells in us to comfort and guide us through every step of life. Even when the unexpected surprises us, it doesn’t surprise Him.
The mind surrendered to the control of the Holy Spirit overcomes fear and leads instead to life and peace. There is a phrase that wonderfully captures the role the Spirit wants to play in our hearts and minds:
The Spirit of God is a non-anxious presence!
The story is told of Mark Twain riding a train home from Maine after three weeks of very successful fishing – even though Maine’s fishing season was closed. He went on and on and on about his huge but illegal catch to the only other person on the train.
To his great surprise the other passenger grew increasingly glum and was completely disinterested in the fish stories. When Twain finally asked him who he was, the stranger explained he was the state game warden. “Who are you?” the warden asked.
“To tell the truth,” Twain said, “I’m the biggest liar in the whole United States.”
Sort of funny how our stories change depending on who is in the audience! John Ortberg describes three basic ways in which we can experience being present with another person.
Sometimes we hide our true thoughts and feelings when in the first two situations, but are more honest in the third. Right or wrong this is human nature and we can all relate to it. We are physical beings with limited capacity. We cannot exist everywhere at the same time so people can talk about others when they are not present.
But God is not limited as we are. He is everywhere, all the time so we are never out of His presence. No matter where we are or what we are doing God is there. That’s why Paul could encourage us to “pray without ceasing.” Since God is everywhere with us we can pray – carry on a conversation with Him – at any moment. So how does this influence our view of prayer?
The goal of prayer is to live all of my life and speak all of my words in the joyful awareness of the presence of God. ~ John Ortberg
We don’t have to gain an audience with God. We don’t have to follow any travel plans to be with Him. All we need to do is realize that God is with us always! When we do, we’ll realize that even a simple sentence prayer in the middle of any moment is not only possible but delights our heavenly Father. So…
Why don’t we pray more?
PS – If you want to learn more and share the journey then join us tonight for some Prayer and Praise. Hagerstown Congregational Church @ 7 PM.
If you are at all familiar with my blogs you know that I am a huge fan of pastor/teacher/author John Ortberg. His way of describing and explaining our journey with God resonates with me in a way I’ve never experienced with anyone else. His humor, his candor, his insight.
But every once in a while he royally ticks me off! Not because I disagree with him, which I sometimes do, but because he can take a perfectly warm, fuzzy moment and speak truth into it in such a way that it immediately grabs my attention and then smacks me right between the eyes. Thanks a lot John!
I’m in the middle of his newest book, The Me I Want to Be, which is all about participating with God to become the person He had in mind from the beginning. It’s about spiritual formation. About how God wants to redeem my unique characteristics and personality to make me more like Jesus. I was thoroughly enjoying it and soaking it all in when he writes…
Jesus does not come to rearrange the outside of our life the way we want. He comes to rearrange the inside of our life the way God wants.
Aw stink! I know he’s right. But it is so much easier to focus on the external. That’s what the world values. “Image is everything.” And way too often it’s what the church values. But it’s not what matters most to God.
Reread Matthew 23 and notice the scathing tone Jesus takes with the religious leaders of his day. He chews them out for paying attention to the outside while ignoring the inside. They could talk the talk but it didn’t match up with their walk. John goes on to mention that when spirituality gets discussed in our culture, there are some messages from the Bible that everyone likes hearing;
But what about this one?
I know John’s right. I know that Jesus came to recreate us from the inside out. But I’m not even sure what to do with all the muck inside. The struggle with sin, the wounded spirit, the dark corners of my soul.
Where do I begin? How does it happen? I honestly don’t know; but that’s OK. I don’t have to know. This isn’t a do-it-yourself project. Paul said that we are God’s workmanship, God’s masterpiece. (Eph 2:10) God gave us the Holy Spirit to dwell in us and complete the work that Jesus began. All we have to do is surrender.
Surrender is a hard word! But it’s the only path to the real life Jesus came to bring us!