How You Can Hear God's Voice (again)

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"Why isn't God speaking to me?"  I was venting to a friend of mine a couple of years ago about how everything felt silent on the God front.  He was kind, and offered the best answer he had.  He said he wasn't sure I was right.  He wasn't sure God ever stopped talking to me.

In the moment it was not the kind of advice I was wanting.  I was looking for a technique or some trick to have an ecstatic experience that would spark the divine inspiration.  I didn't want to hear the simple, profound truth God hid in the words of my friend.  God was speaking to me.  God is speaking to me, but that's not it.

God is speaking to you too.  One way or another, God is speaking.  If nothing else, God is using creation to call out to you.  The problem is not God's voice, it's our ears.  While we are sitting around waiting to pass by a burning bush that is not being consumed, God is trying to talk to us through the unwashed dishes in our sink and the dew on the ground in the morning.

How do you hear it?  It begins by practicing being aware of the presence of God.  God is always present, and keeping that reality in the front of our mind is the beginning of being able to listen. That's the next step: listen.  

By "listen" I mean, with an awareness that you are a spiritual being and God is present, consider your world.  Think about your surroundings.  Listen to the music.  Watch the movie, and notice where the spiritual intersects with your life.

Sometimes its a lyric that describes how you see God. Sometimes its two paths diverging in the woods that reminds you of a brilliant poem, your high school english teacher and how much you love being in nature.  

If you can listen, if you can let go of the idea that the voice of God has to happen in some heightened emotional state and be more aware of God's presence,  I bet you will discover that God has been speaking to you more than you thought.

Question for the Comments: Where is it easiest for you to hear God?

Jesus Wept

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I know we are supposed to be all about joy, but the problem is, life isn’t always that great.  We are dealt hard blows at difficult times and spend years recovering.  In those difficult times, those times when the world seems to be against us and we are grieving some important loss, I have one question: How does God respond?  

I think that we see his response in the shortest verse of the Bible in John 11:35: “Jesus Wept.”  Besides being an easy way to get a piece of candy for memorizing a Bible verse in Sunday School, this verse reveals some of the most profound truth about how God acts in our world.

To understand that verse, we have to understand the story that sets it up.  Jesus is in another town a couple days journey away from his friend Lazarus’ hometown when Jesus gets the news that Lazarus is dangerously sick.  Jesus’ response is one of gladness because he says that this will be something that God will use to increase the faith of the disciples which is kind of weird, but he’s God so… we’ll give him a quirky creator pass.

Let me say that it seems clear at this point that Jesus knows how this story is going to end, but I won’t spoil it for you.  After being glad at this sad news, Jesus waits a couple days before leaving and makes sure his disciples know that Lazarus is dead before they leave even though no one has come to tell Jesus this fact.

When they arrive, Jesus is scolded by Martha (which the Bible seems to indicate is a regular occurrence) for missing his opportunity to heal her brother.  Then Mary comes and breaks down at his feet.  She is joined by several other people who are grieving and Jesus is moved.  In fact a couple verses before the shortest verse in the Bible it says, “When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” (11:33)

Then, troubled by their grief, Jesus weeps.  Like I said before, it seems clear from the beginning that Jesus knows he is going to wait, Lazarus is going to die, and Jesus is going to raise him from the dead and cause everyone’s faith to deepen.  That means that Jesus is not grieving the loss of his friend.  He is not weeping because he misses the one he loved.  Jesus is weeping with Mary and her friends.  

That is powerful.  In moments of grief, Jesus doesn’t tell us to suck it up or get control over ourselves.  In moments of grief, Jesus does not demand joy.  Jesus weeps with us.  But he doesn’t leave us to wallow in our grief.  If we are willing, if we can come to the place where we are open, Jesus will help us begin the supernatural process of healing.

I used to think that healing from loss meant it not hurting anymore or somehow getting over it, but I have learned that is not the case.  Some things just hurt.  They always hurt, and they always will hurt.  But, sometimes in our cocoon of grief Jesus begins the metamorphosis of that pain.  

He will begin to make that pain become something that gives to us rather than taking from us. Instead of causing us to break down, it will cause us to remember all of the wonderful gifts that whatever is causing the pain brought. It will enrich our lives by allowing us to remember, and in that memory we are nourished through what is still painful.

I don’t know if you are grieving right now or are on the mending side of grief, but know that if you weep, Jesus weeps with you.  He does not demand you stop or ask you to feign joy, but offers to begin the (sometimes long) process of healing.   

Give Thanks! The World Isn't Going to Hell in a Handbasket

While I was reading a book called Rational Optimist, I read this article about negative news being bad for you and had an epiphany. My increasing pessimism about the world not only makes my life more stressful, but is the exact opposite of reality.  

Though the headline will not sell nearly as many newspapers, every meaningful statistic tracked over a long enough time span reveals an amazing fact: the world and the human race is experiencing a constant rise in prosperity, health, morality, and anything else you want to measure.  In order to help us all give thanks, I offer you some of the statistical hope that I found.

Artificial Light

One of the things that enables us to develop, grow and improve our lot in general is the ability to continue to do work (or leisure-work like reading a book) even after the sun has gone down.  Tracking the cost of that work in meaningful terms represents how able we are to develop at our own pace rather than the one dictated by the sun.  Check out this dramatic improvement in the cost of artificial light in terms of work time at the average wage:

  • A CFL Today: 0.5 seconds of work
  • Filament in 1950: 8 seconds
  • Kerosine Lamp in 1880s: 15 minutes
  • Tallow candle in 1800s: 6 hours
  • 1750 BCE: 50 hours

Poverty

It may seem a little ridiculous to spend all that time on light when people are suffering in real, oppressive poverty.  The key poverty measure for me is the extreme poverty that threatens someone's existence.  That poverty (measured in terms of a dollar/day in 1985) is also on the decline.

  • 1950s 36% of the world's population was in extreme poverty
  • Today: less than half - less than 18% are in extreme poverty
  • At the current rate of decline, there will be no extreme poverty in 2035!

The American Poverty Line

My own country (the United States of America) sets an income amount below which a person is considered "below the poverty line" and in need of assistance.  The lot of that group has been improving until today they have more than food, water, and shelter.

  • 99% of those below the poverty line in the USA have electricity, running water, flush toilets, and a refrigerator.
  • 95% have a television
  • 88% have a telephone
  • 71% have a car
  • 70% have air conditioning
  • Rewind to the 1800s, and one of the richest men in history, Cornelius Vanderbilt, had NONE of those things.

Global Hunger

Though the global population has increased from three billion to over seven billion since 1960, we have been able to continue to produce enough food for no one to be hungry (we have a distribution problem that causes hunger).  The amazing thing is that if we had not increased our efficiency in that time, we would have needed to begin farming an additional area equal to the continent of South America minus Chile.  Instead, our efficiency per acre has increased at a rate that has kept up with demand resiling in no need tot increase the overall acres farmed since the 60s.  But what about hunger?  Good news there: look at the change in those who are so hungry they may not survive:

  • 19% of the world population in 1990
  • 12% of the global population in 2010

Health

Since the 1800s, life expectancy has increased six times and the two most at risk groups (Children and Seniors) are the ones who have benefitted the most.

  • Infant mortality has dropped by 1/3 since 1950
  • Disability rates for those over 65 fell from 27% to 19% since 1982
  • Death from stroke (a leading cause among the older population) fell 70% since 1950

Morality

Maybe we are healthier, wealthier, and better fed, but what about the "moral bankruptcy" touted by your local television anchor and newspaper editorial?  This is a little more difficult to ascertain as the nuances of morality change over time and people are reluctant to fess up to moral problems in a survey.  There is, however, something that is wrong in all cultures and is easily measurable: homicide.  Lest you think the ages past before the internet, violent video games, and mega-cities was safer, here is one last statistic:

  • Homicide was 10 times more common in the 1600s than it is today 

Why is it Improving?

I hope you will not be surprised by my answer: God.  The Bible makes it clear that since the moment of the first sin, God has been working to reconcile the world to him and set things right.  When Jesus left, he made it clear that a major part of God's plan for this vision of reconciliation is humanity.  God is going to use us to bring about his work in the world.  The final part of the Bible ends with a brilliant vision of the future with a new Jerusalem descending and the world being transformed into a place where there is "no more death, mourning, crying, or pain." (Rev 21:4b)  No matter what the headlines say, we are well on the way to the New Jerusalem and have a lot to be thankful for this year!

 

 

Christianity: Stop Talking About It

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“I have been praying for an hour each day that my son would be saved.” Statements like this are difficult to process.  While I am glad you have been praying for your son’s soul, is it really necessary to tell us the length of those prayers?

I have been in this situation too many times. In the middle of a good conversation, someone drops in the fact that they fast every week, sold their car to give the money to the local shelter, or spend two hours each morning reading the Bible.  I have watched as, far too often, the discussion turns into a sort of passive-aggressive spirituality contest.  Never does anyone say, “I do that too and also do this,” but we might as well.

Our spiritual practices of prayer, giving, and fasting are for two purposes: to bring about the Kingdom of God within us and further that same Kingdom in the world.  It is not about making us look more spiritual.  

I think that’s why Jesus told us to stop talking about it. In the sermon on the mount, Jesus challenges us to something very difficult when talking about these three practices: “Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:4b).  He tells us to be secretive about our praying, giving to the needy and fasting.  He instructs us to keep wraps on how spiritual we are!

Don’t get me wrong, Jesus doesn’t want us to stop sharing his love with the people around us or telling people about who he is.  Rather, he wants us to stop using his love, or our sporadic obedience to make ourselves look good, or worse, to make ourselves look better than someone else.  

The main question we need to ask is this:  who is getting the credit?  Why are we telling someone that we mowed their lawn because God loves them?  Is it because we want to get double credit of helping and being spiritual?  If we spend time thinking it through there is almost always a way to accomplish it where we get no credit at all, we remain totally secret, and any good thought, grateful emotion, or thank you goes to God.  

That is the goal.  We don’t hide our light, we remember that we don’t have the light. What light we appear to have is only God’s light reflected through the dim mirror of our life.  Which means that our goal is to turn people around and show them the true light we are working so hard to reflect.

 

Getting Distracted by Baby Jesus

As I have been researching and thinking about what happened in the years of Jesus life that are not touched on in the Bible, I have been overwhelmed by this simple fact:  the reason that the authors of the Gospels didn't devote much space to describing that part of Jesus life and ministry is because they wanted to focus our attention on what they thought was most important: His ministry, death, and resurrection.

And, despite their best efforts, we have found a way to get around that. 

Christmas Starts in June Now

Christmas Starts in June Now

This article is really about a moment about a month ago (it is now July) when I walked into a local fabric store in search of foam only to be presented with a display of Christmas decorations.  Christmas in June!  This was not a clearance table left from last December or even some special Christmas in June sale.  They were trying to get a seven-month jump on the Christmas marketing!

Not two weeks later I saw a post on twitter from a friend bragging that they had gotten a jump on their Christmas shopping at which point I wondered how I was ever going to be able to get my shopping done in the remaining six months.

In American culture, Christmas has become a distraction for many Christians, for others it is an all-out idol.  Rather than spending some time focusing on the important fact that God came to earth, every waking hour from sometime in, well apparently, June is spent obsessing over the perfect ornaments, gifts and sweater.   As ridiculous as it sounds, a holiday that celebrates Jesus has become a distraction from him.  Something that is good has turned bad.

That can happen with any good thing.  I have seen people become distracted by a number of seemingly positive, spiritual things.  

There was the man whose quest to be a good steward of his money became the driving focus of his life causing him to miss the opportunities for ministry that God was offering.  There was the woman whose focus on living a life of constant prayer made her inaccessible and hard to converse with eliminating her opportunities to talk to people who weren't Christian.  Then there was the guy whose church volunteering transformed into another way for him to neglect his family responsibilities, and the mother whose focus on her family and being a good mother ended up blinding her to the need to be an incarnational minister in her community.

These good things become bad when we begin to focus on serving them instead of God.  When our life centers around stewardship, church service, family, and even prayer, instead of Jesus we have allowed the good to become a distraction. 

The call of Jesus isn't to perfect some piece (or all) of our life, but to follow him down the messy paths that leads us into places other people think we shouldn't go, talking to people we shouldn't talk to and offering help to those who might take advantage of it.  I am trying to make my life look more like that this week.

 

What if They've Never Heard about Jesus? A Story of Miraculous Revelation in Ethiopia

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An Ethiopian man I met named  Benjamin told me this amazing story: He was in a field in Ethiopia working with his brothers when he sees a vision of a man carrying a cross on the other side of the field. The man is beaten and bloody, and in a lot of pain. He realizes that his brothers in the field can't see the man and begins to become very distressed when he hears a voice say, "This is my son who died for your sins." These words about sin caused him to examine himself.  He soon realized that there were many things he had been doing that were bad, and quit cold turkey because he could not believe that someone who had never known him would suffer so much for him. Benjamin began to tell his brothers and friends about this man who he saw in the field. He would say that they needed to stop doing what they were doing, and live pure lives. Eventually the lives of those around him began to change as he kept retelling his vision. People began to refer to the man in the vision as the God of Beniamin because he did not know that it was Jesus.

Benjamin's father was not as happy. He kept urging him to "Stop speaking all this foolishness," but he refused. Beniamin said he could not stop talking about this man who suffered for his sins. His father eventually disowned Beniamin.

At this time Ethiopia was under communist rule, and as more and more people began hearing about Beniamin, he was taken to prison and asked to renounce his beliefs. He refused, but they had nothing to charge him with. Every day they would threaten his life, and then take him out to the streets to show him the people they killed the day before (that's where they dumped the bodies after shooting them... if someone went missing, people would search the streets every morning to see if they had been killed). Benjamin still refused. This went on for 21 days (or months it was hard to understand him here) in a row. During his time in jail one of the guards mentioned that there were several others in jail in the north for talking about a similar man. This gave Beniamin hope! He was amazed that there were others in Ethiopia who had heard of this man.

Eventually he was released from prison, and decided to go to the north where he met a couple of protestants who told Benjamin that he was a Christian. He continued to preach in the underground church, but was constantly being searched for by the police. He narrowly escaped several times (a whole post could be dedicated to the many stories he told about this). Eventually the communist government was overthrown and they were able to worship in public. He told of a story of a conference he helped organize during a spring break while working with an Inter-varsity organization where 14,000 people came to the Lord.

I am constantly answering the question: What if someone has never heard about Jesus?  My usual response goes something like this:  

The answer begins with the idea that we believe God to be loving and just.  If that is so, I don't know anyone who would say it is either loving OR just to hold people accountable to concepts that they were never exposed to, and there is a significant amount of the world for whom that is a reality.  However, God reveals himself to us in more ways that a teleevangelist's sermon on late night.  In Romans 1, it talks about the fact that God's very creation is a form of revelation.  He calls to us through beauty and sunset and if that is all we know of God, that can be a significant amount!

Now... the real question (do they get into heaven) is one that I cannot answer. I cannot answer because over and over Jesus says surprising things in the Bible about who Gets into heaven that basically add up to him saying, "There will be some people you are sure will be there who aren't and people you never thought would be there in a thousand years who are."

ut, this story always gives me hope that there is another answer as well: God is miraculously revealing himself to many who will listen and see.

Who Gets Into Heaven? Downton Abbey Explains.

Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey)

Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey)

Are Jews Going to heaven?  What about my friend who was a pious teenager but has lost his way?  How about my father who lived a good life but committed suicide?

These questions are as tragic as they are common.  They seem to be on the hearts and minds of almost every believer I interact with, yet they flow as a tragic consequence of recent church History. Yet, they are solved quite elegantly by Downton Abbey.

For those of you who have ignored the Downton-shaped hole inside each of our entertainment spirits, the show is about the lives of the family and staff of an English Lord at the turn of the century (19th to 20th).  The previous era was one in which there were firm walls between the staff and family.  Though they shared space, they lived in two different worlds with the staff constantly serving every whim of the family with no real relationships between them.  

Over and over again, the show puts on screen characters who are hopelessly bound to the old era’s strict, clear wall between the classes, but the family and staff at Downton  are in the middle of the delicate process of taking down the wall.  There are moments where huge portions of the wall fall like when Sybil, the daughter of the Lord, marries an Irish revolutionary who is their chauffeur. 

Then there are moments when it is taken down a brick at a time like when the Lady of the house says to the head housemaid who is fearing cancer that, “if you are ill, you are welcome here for as long as you want to stay. Lady Sybil will help us to find a suitable nurse. I don’t want you to have any concerns about where you’ll go or who’ll look after you. Because the answer is: here and we will.”

What was a bounded system that was focused on making a clear delineation between who’s in and who’s out begins to focus more on the wellbeing of the estate as a whole.

Alan and Debra Hirsch, brilliant missional thinkers, explain in their book Untamed that the Church is in the exact same place.  For a long time, we have existed in what he describes as a theological bounded set.  A lot of thought, time and communication has focused on understanding where the line between Christian and non-Christian exists, and exactly how one crosses that line.  

Hundreds of books and thousands of rallies have been held focusing on this line.  Though understanding what it means to be a Christian is important, the focus on making a clear in/out distinction ends up having some negative consequences.  When all that time is spent on the wall between Christians and Non-christians, what is within that wall (namely Jesus and every aspect of the faith) takes a back seat.  And what is on the outside of that wall (namely those who do not know Jesus) are more separated from what’s inside.  Hirsch describes it as having a hard edge and a soft center.

What’s more, when Jesus talks about this wall, he constantly explains it in ways that say that in heaven, there will be a lot of people there that you never thought would be there.  Likewise, there will be a whole lot of people not there that you thought would be there.

The solution according to Hirsch?  Take down the wall.  Instead of spending all your time on deciding who is in and out, spend that time on lifting up the teaching and person of Jesus.  With Jesus as the focus, our call to the world is the same as Jesus own call: follow him.  

This opens Christianity up to everyone.  You do not have to be in some certain proximity to Jesus, you don’t have to have your life together, you don’t even have to have attended a Christian rally.  You merely have to turn to Jesus.  Wherever you are.  Whoever you are.  Then, follow him.  And that next step, the step of following, is totally different for a buddhist in Thailand, a rock star in Ireland, and a minister in Alabama.  A different step, but the same action: following Jesus.

Who is a Christian?  The people who follow Jesus.  Who goes to heaven?  The people who follow Jesus.  Who gets to make the call of who is following Jesus?  Me.  

Actually, the opposite of that.  No one gets to make that call.  The determination of who is following Jesus is something that only Jesus himself can decide, and I am so glad he takes that off my shoulders.

That means its time to stop arguing about once saved always saved.  It’s time to stop arguing about infant baptism.  It’s time to stop arguing about last rights, and start talking about Jesus.  Start sharing his message of love, peace, grace, and repentance.  It’s time to start calling the world to follow its savior.

Wesley for the Broken Hearted Lover

Wesley and Sophie 

Wesley and Sophie 

Most accounts of Wesley I’ve heard in Methodist churches set him up as the sanctified, theologian who worked harder than anyone you’ve ever heard to spread the Good news of Jesus and call people to scriptural holiness.  He is put on a pedestal as an example.  The problem is that the pedestal tends to be too high to see any of his flaws.  But, there is power in flaws.  The power for us to not only see an example, but identify our struggles with someone who has gone before.  It is often through this sort of identification that we open ourselves up to be taught by those who are placed on pillars.

As it turns out, John Wesley was not perfect.  What’s more he was human.  In his younger years, he set out on a great adventure to go to the Colonies (Georgia in particular) and do his best to get back to the roots of Christianity and do ministry like he saw in the book of Acts.  When he arrived, a new friend introduced him to a beautiful young woman named Sophy Hopkey who was related to a powerful local magistrate.

They hit it off immediately, but she left to go visit a relative in another town.  After a while, John went to visit her and found that her spirituality had slipped.  Then, he made a gamble that showed how much he cared for Ms. Hopkey: he told her.  He pointed out exactly how she had slipped and implored her to move back to the city that encouraged her spirituality: the city in which John lived.  She did.

Once there she even consulted a friend as to what a woman should wear to attract a minister who disliked “all gaudy attire.”  She wore white from that point forward.

Over the next several months they spent hours together doing the sorts of things people did who were falling in love, and she even sat with John during a five-day long fever nursing him back to health.

John was ready.  He wanted to pop the question, but decided to consult a board of church elders to make sure he wasn’t getting ahead of himself.  After some deliberation, the board told John that he was not to marry Miss Sophy. As far as I can tell, modern Americans would say that he was crushed, but he obeyed. Sophy was equally hurt.

John was caught by surprise about a month later when Sophy Married a Mr Williamson whom John described in is journal as “not remarkable for handsomeness, neither for greatness, neither for wit, or knowledge, or sense, and least of all for religion.”  I know exactly how he feels.

Poor John did not get over it easily.  Under what seems like an excuse to get back at Sophie, John refused to serve her communion.  Because she was not just your average colonist, John ended up being brought up on charges and eventually skipped town for England shortly after the local officials told all the officers of the colony to prevent his departure.

What a tragic story, yet it is not for from the stories youthpastors, teachers and parents hear week after week from teens and young adults navigating the waters of dating or courting or whatever your church calls it.

Why tell this story?  Because John did amazing things.  He had brilliant ideas, and made a huge impact in the world.  He did all of that despite a heart that was broken.  He made it through and came out whole on the other side.  There it light at the end of the tunnel.

I say, we take the words of Corinthians (11:30) one step further.  We boast not only in our weakness but in the weaknesses of our founders and theologians.  And who knows, maybe that boasting will help us take those people off their pillars and re-direct our focus to the God who changed the world through those broken people.

If you want to read an EXTREMELY detailed account from people who really love Wesley, it is here.

From YouthWorker Movemen