Sunday, August 20, 2017

Recycling History

Statue of Joseph Stalin decapitated in Budapest in 1956
The recent controversies over the removal or preservation of Confederate monuments has prompted some exploration of the nature of history. Some have said that removing these monuments is tantamount to revising and even erasing history. Others believe that removing them is a necessary act of contrition in the journey toward healing the divisions in the country. Others have said that that the monuments should be preserved in a way that teaches about a dark era in US history so we might do better in the future. Still others have said that these monuments are important to their personal, family, and regional history and feel devalued by their removal. Many voices from divergent perspectives have echoed the refrain that those who are ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it.

That idea has been invoked identifying any number of parallels between current trends in the US and the world with totalitarian and dystopian eras from the past, frequently Nazi Germany. Sometimes these come with “Woe is us; we are doomed!” complaints. Sometimes they are met with lists of exceptions that preclude a return to such a past, at least in terms of specifics. Often these represent contradictory political and social presuppositions.

On Sundays, I move my lectio divina on the passages from the Lectionary from one week to the next, so today (August 20, 2017) I read from Exodus 1-2 about the enslavement of the Hebrews by the Egyptians in the time between Joseph and Moses. Exodus 1:8-15 suggested to me a different historic parallel to explore. The new Pharaoh saw that the Israelites were gaining in numbers and power, and he was afraid they might turn against the Egyptians. The text doesn’t say they were slaves yet, but it would appear that the Egyptian economy have benefited and perhaps even become dependent on the Israelites. So they set taskmasters over them to oppress and enslave them. The more the Egyptians oppressed the Israelites, the stronger and more numerous the Israelites became, setting the stage for God to raise up Moses as liberator to lead them in Exodus.

Demographers have been projecting that “non-Hispanic whites” will be less than half of the US population sometime around the middle of this century. In some circles, this is fueling the drive for greater equality and justice for “non-whites” (many are observing that the US is becoming “browner” day by day). In other circles, this reality evokes a fear not unlike that of the Egyptians of Exodus 1-2. “They” are getting too many and too strong, changing the US in uncomfortable ways, taking “our” jobs, etc. So as in ancient Egypt, the forces of liberation and oppression are on a collision course.

Before you write off what I am saying by objecting to my use of the words “liberation and oppression,” know that I understand that these are complex and convoluted issues, and the voices of “liberation and oppression” are not all in harmony with themselves, and there are people of good will and evil intent whose energies and inconsistencies muddle the identification of two clear sides – “liberation and oppression.” My point, rather, is to prompt the consideration of how what we are seeing played out in our time reflects human history that is far more deeply rooted that the era of the Confederacy of the nineteenth century or European fascist and Marxist despots of the twentieth century. My hope would be that consideration of the Israelite Exodus from Egypt will give us greater, more nuanced insight into the struggles of our own time and situation.

I would suggest that the debates about what to do with Confederate monuments have become the tangible touchpoint or lightning rod for the profound issues facing us in our own time. While I know some of my friends (of both pro and anti-monument persuasions) will object vigorously to this, my sense is that the Confederate monuments are not the issue, rather they have become symbolic turf on which the battle is currently being waged. Objecting that certain Confederate personas represented in the monuments were neither racist nor pro-slavery but heroic defenders of their homes from the northern aggression, does not change that many in the white supremacist movements have adopted them as champions of their causes. Nor does it change the reality of the persistent injury they perpetuate for the descendants of US slaves. Whether historically precise or not, these monuments have been endued with the meaning of white racism by both the most vigorous defenders and attackers of these monuments.  This is much the same as Moses’ plea to Pharaoh to let the Israelites go into the desert to offer sacrifices was indeed a ruse that set the stage for the Exodus.

I would even go so far as to suggest that by debating how to handle the Confederate monuments is a diversion from addressing the profound evils of slavery and racism that are embedded not only in US history but in present social reality. Similarly, I suspect that the competitive citing of history documents about the role of slavery as a cause of the Civil War/War Between the States is not about the accuracy of history but about the persistence of racism today. I will add very quickly that I am well aware that the US has no monopoly on the evils of slavery and racism. They are part of the brokenness of every human society throughout history.  But I would be quick to add that comparing and contrasting their manifestation in our society with that of other societies, even if others might have actually been more cruel and worse, does nothing at all to diminish the reality of the evil of slavery and racism in our history and our current society. Using it to evade recognizing that “both we and our ancestors have sinned” (Psalm 106:6) perpetuates the wounds of those evils and inhibits the healing that begins with contrition.

When we go to a doctor with an ailment that we may not understand, we report the symptoms and hope the doctor can identify the cause and prescribe a remedy. The conflicts over the Confederate monuments have triggered an outburst of violence. That violence is not specific to the Confederate monuments but is widespread and takes a variety of forms. Many have complained about how prone politicians can be to using and even promoting dividing people for their own political ends. This, too, has been a strategy of despots for many generations. My assessment is that the debates over Confederate monument, the violence in our society, the divisions along ethnic and economic lines are all symptoms of deeply disturbing diseases of the soul. I see it in Psalm 106 again, this time verse 15, God “gave them what they asked, but sent a wasting disease among them.” (KJV translates it “leanness into their soul”). My diagnosis is that we have insisted on having what we want at whatever cost to others, and when we think what we want is threatened, we pursue and defend and insure that we get it, to the point of bringing the wasting disease of leanness of soul on ourselves.

My prescription (How dare I speak or write as though I am a spiritual physician?) is radical repentance and relinquishment of insisting on my privileges without acknowledging that they have come at great cost to others. In my work of spiritual direction and as a pastor, I have long taught that prayer is not about us telling God what needs attention and what to do about it, rather prayer is about getting in enough congruence with God to hear from God what needs my attention and what I am to do about it. In this particular area, I suggest that we be asking how to love our enemies as Jesus directed in Matthew 5:44, as how to bless those who persecute us, as Paul wrote in Romans 12:14.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Is “The Market” an Idol?

As I have done for 45+ years, yesterday, on the 25th of the month, I came to Psalm 115 for my daily prayer. Verses 4-8 parallel the ridicule of idols in Psalm 135:15-18. Ordinarily, these Psalms prompt me to invite the Spirit to identify idols I have created to lurk in the dark corners of my heart. But listening to the news last evening, a story about how real estate appraisers were having difficulty keeping up with “the market” in certain high activity areas. “The market” was described as an independent, self-contained, internally consistent, and intelligent entity, almost as though it was a person whose wisdom, power, and authority was indisputable, and the description of idols from my morning prayer echoed back to me.

Their idols are silver and gold, the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear; noses, but do not smell.
They have hands, but do not feel; feet, but do not walk; they make no sound in their throats.
Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.

I am not an economist, nor am I a business person or politician, so I claim no expertise in “the market.” I am sure that the information derived from a good understanding of “the market” can help make better economic, business, and political decisions. The concern that emerged from my meditation on this Psalm is with submission to “the market” as though it immutably dictates the decisions we make.

As I understand “the market” (inexpert as I am), it is that it is the composite of all of the economic decisions made by people in buying, selling, manufacturing, setting wages and prices, etc. So in the case of the real estate story on the news, when there are more buyers than homes of a particular type, and they are willing to pay more, the prices of those houses will go up. The idea that “the market” knows something, is not some intrinsic or centralized wisdom (such as a person with a brain) but the result of human behavior and decisions. Like the idols of the Psalms, “the market” itself does not speak, see, hear, smell, feel, or walk. Those qualities of “the market” are made by people, just as with the idols of the Psalms.

The real crux of the matter comes in verse 8, “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” When we make our gods ourselves, instead of marveling at the wonder of being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27), we make idols in our image incorporating our finitude and flaws. Then when we trust in our idols for the direction of our lives, we are doomed to wander aimlessly. So it is not that information from “the market” cannot inform us for good planning, but when we trust “the market” to lead us, we exchange the authority that belongs to God (through Scripture and the Spirit) and trust “the market” to guide us, we are in danger of an idolatry that will always mislead us.

I don't know if this belongs in Pilgrim Path or Writing Workshop, but I do invite interaction.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Reverse Rapture

This week as my Lectio Divina has focused on Jesus’ Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, verses 42 and 43 have prompted me to ponder whether end times speculation such as popularized in the Left Behind books gets the “rapture” backwards when it suggests the faithful are removed and the wicked left behind. Here in the parable, the weeds (children of the evil one) are taken away and burned and the righteous shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

As I reflected on this, my mind went a little farther to Matthew 24:36-44 where Jesus was answering his disciples’ questions about the end of the age and told them that neither he nor the angels knew the day, but only the Father (v. 36) and that the Son of Man would come at an unexpected hour (v. 44). He made the comparison to the days of Noah when the flood took away the wicked and Noah’s family was left, which introduced Jesus’ observation that one would be taken and the other left, which is often assumed to refer to the “rapture.” If the analogy is applied consistently, the children of the evil one in the Parable of the Weeds are the ones taken to be burned while the righteous will be left to shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.

Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17 that the Lord will descent from heaven and both those who have died in the Lord and those left alive will be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, which is often assumed to relate to the “rapture,” but it lacks any mention of those who are left behind and focuses on being with the Lord forever. Though Paul didn’t say so explicitly, if Jesus is returning to reign in his Kingdom, then it would seem that those who meet him in the air to be with him forever, would return with him to his Kingdom.

Such imagery matches the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday. John 12:12-13 says that people in the city heard the Jesus was coming and went out to meet him and accompany him back into the city, which matches an understanding of 1 Thessalonians 4:17, that those who meet Jesus in the air will accompany him back and welcome him as King. Luke 19:41-44 seem to emphasize that people who had been traveling with Jesus breakout into praise as he descends from the Mount of Olives toward Jerusalem. This focuses just a little earlier in the events of that day as Jesus weeps over Jerusalem in stark contrast to the cheering crowd accompanying him. Matthew 21:9 and Mark 11:9 seem to bring these two groups together by saying that some followed (those who had been traveling with Jesus) and some went ahead (those who had come out of the city to meet Jesus). If Jesus’ Triumphal Entry is a metaphor or precursor for his return as the Eternal King, the two groups would seem to parallel those who have died and those who are left alive in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.

I know my dispensational, pre-millennial friends are rehearsing all of their reasons for understanding the “rapture” the other way around. I grew up in a church in which dispensational, pre-millennialism was the presumptive though not official teaching, and a number of folk (including my parents) were quiet dissenters, though I never got an overview from those folk. I learned that whole schema thoroughly, but I was never able to square it with my own investigation of Scripture. Only when reading more broadly as an adult introduced me to Reformed Theology did I find a way to assemble what was to me a more satisfactory model. In 1991 CRC Publications (Christian Reformed Church) published my high school youth curriculum (student and teacher) based on that theology called Coming Attractions. It is out of print, but I believe a few copies may be available on line.

My point, however, is not to argue with or try to convince my dispensational, pre-millennial friends, but by questioning the direction of the “rapture,” to nourish our spiritual journeys with Jesus. I do not think Jesus intended in either Matthew 13 or 24 to give some sort of chronology of future events, such as might be asked of an Ouija Board, fortune teller, or psychic. In fact, I do not believe that is a legitimate use of any of the Bible’s eschatological material. Nor do I think Jesus is giving a moralistic scolding, “Now don’t you be a weed. You need to be wheat.” At the most obvious level, Jesus is clearly telling us there will be weeds and wheat, and we can leave sorting them out up to God and God’s angels. This much the same message as Psalm 37:1,8,30-40,  “Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrong doers. … Do not fret – it only leads to evil. … The salvation of the righteous is from the Lord; he is their refuge in the time of trouble. The Lord helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked.” Paul ended his discourse on the Lord’s return in 1 Thessalonians 4:18 by saying, “Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” Taken together, we are being encouraged not to be anxious or fearful, but to trust that God is at work and with us even (especially) when we are struggling and discouraged.

In Matthew 24:42-44, Jesus encourages us to be awake, watchful, and ready whether conditions suggest expectation or not. I suggest that this is not as much about some checklist of events prerequisite to the Lord’s return as it is about being attentive to God’s presence and activity within and around us. That by the Holy Spirit and informed with Scripture, we can perceive God at work and be encouraged by that whether others see it or not.

I don’t know how intentional the lectionary developers were of the connection between the Parable of the Weeds (with its subtle allusion to “rapture” thinking) and the account of Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28:10-19a, which they paired in the readings for next Sunday, but the image of Jacob at the base of a ladder with angels ascending and descending evokes something of these “rapture” images of our coming and going with Jesus. Interestingly, there is some textual ambiguity about whether the Lord is at the top of the ladder or alongside Jacob at the base of the ladder. Without delving into the scholarship here, I find the ambiguity intriguing. God is both by our side and at the pinnacle of our spiritual aspirations.

After Jacob awoke, he exclaimed, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” … “This is none other than the gate of heaven.” In my meditations this week, the juxtaposition of the Parable of the Weeds and Jacob’s Ladder with the “rapture” reflection, has stimulated my wakeful watchfulness for the presence of God on my journey with Jesus. Whether you agree with my eschatological theology or not, I hope that sharing these reflections with me has also sharpened your awareness of God at work within and around you. Ask yourself, where has the Lord been in the places you have been this week, and maybe didn’t know it? What ordinary places, people, and events have been the very gate of heaven for you this week?

One last word on the word “rapture.” It does not occur anywhere in the Bible (which is why I put it in quotes). That in itself doesn’t mean too much. “Trinity” does not occur in the Bible either. Though there are some antecedents of the concept, the word “rapture” does not show up in Christian theology until the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. My sense is that the constellation of biblical allusions akin to the “rapture,” when taken together, are a metaphorical lens through which to recognize both God at work even in the seemingly evil and destructive events of human history and experience, and to participate in what God has given us with hope and joy, even in the face of discouragement and difficulty. I propose considering contemplating the “rapture” as a gate of heaven through which you recognize that God is in the place where you are.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Too Wonderful or Too Impossible for God?

As I read the Hebrew Scripture selection from the lectionary for Sunday (Genesis 18:1-15 as portrayed in Rublev's icon) I was stopped by v. 14 "Is anything too wonderful for God?" and prompted to look up the parallel in Luke 1:37 "For nothing will be impossible with God." As our transition from Dallas to Milwaukee has taken a number of unexpected turns, at each of which God's whispers have been coaxing us along the path, Candy's Dad's fall, broken hip, surgery, and rehab are the current uncertainty, I am encouraged to trust God in another surprise in which we don't know where the path will lead. I am also drawn again to Thomas Merton's prayer.
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
Though I may seem to be lost
And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Thomas Merton in Thoughts in Solitude, page 83

Then I come to this in my daily Psalm prayers from Psalm 43:3. "Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me."

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

How Do We Know What God Wants?

In September 2016 I drove limo for a funeral at The (Episcopal) Church of the Incarnation in Dallas, Texas. I noticed prominent banners publicizing their fall sermons and Bible studies on the Old Testament. Each banner had a thought provoking question that seemed to me to go well beyond an Old Testament survey to probe deeply into human reality and faith. I am composing my own answers to these questions, not as an Old Testament overview, but an exercise in my own spiritual formation. I encourage you to ponder these questions and even share your responses.

·                 How do we know what God wants?
·                 How do we know when we’ve been rescued by God?
·                 Are you ever too old for God to use you?
·                 What does standing up to evil look like?
·                 What happens when leaders fail?
·                 What does an extreme test of faith look like?
·                 What do you do when there’s nothing left?
·                 Can romance be redeemed?
·                 What was the first break-up in the history of the world?
·                 Is your money actually yours?

I am writing in May of 2017 when my wife, Candy, and I are in the midst of a major life transition. After retiring as a pastor and serving five congregations as interim pastor, I drove funeral cars for a year and a half before concluding my years of employment. A little over a year ago my wife was diagnosed with the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease. As we explored how best to plan and pursue the path into the next phase of our life, we believed moving from Dallas, Texas to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to share a duplex with our son David and his family was wise. All three of our sons and several trusted friends confirmed that we were on the right path.
Our Dallas house sold more quickly than we expected, which encouraged us as we launched this journey. Purchasing the duplex hit unexpected delays and adjustments which prompted some wavering even as we knew there was no turning back. Friends of our son and daughter-in-law welcomed us to an open ended stay with them as we waited for the duplex to become available. This path seems to have many hidden twists and turns. Our son Erik, who continues to live in Dallas, did not have a place to live when we left Dallas. An older man invited Erik to stay with and help him with housekeeping and errands. This seemed a welcome gift, albeit with its own unsettled and impermanent realities, and his path has taken several unexpected turns to a different unexpected housing opportunity.
Along this path we have interpreted the confluence of many voices and events as confirmation that we are walking the route God wants for us. As we have encountered complications, delays and direction changes, we have asked if we were hearing God correctly. We have prayerfully pondered how to discern the prompting of God through emotional exhilaration and discouragements. I have frequently recalled the words of Dr. V. Raymond Edman (President of Wheaton College 1940-65) on this journey. “Do not doubt in the dark what God has shown you in the light.” But I have continued to question whether what seemed so clear in the light was actually a sign of what God wanted for us and if we do not need to listen for God in the dark as well. So at seventy years old, I’m still asking, “How do we know what God wants?”
What does God want for whom?
I well remember the church of my youth and other high school and college ministries and groups frequently emphasizing the importance of finding God’s will. I typically understood this in terms of choosing a college and a college major, taking steps toward a career God had already chosen for me, and identifying the spouse God had selected and been preparing for me (and me for her) from our births. Somehow, once those were settled, I wasn’t aware of adults struggling to find God’s will. Yes, there was prayer to make wise decisions as a church, such as calling a pastor, and as an individual to know whether to accept a promotion or new job offer. Now nearly fifty years on from those decisions myself, I am acutely aware of adults earnestly searching to find God’s will for the endless stream of decisions that come with life, for me and many of my friends. Yet, that doesn’t present or process the way I remember from my years of impending adulthood.
After I finished graduate school, I do remember reading John MacArthur’s 1973 book God’s Will Is Not Lost, though I could not rehearse its premise now, except that I remember thinking that the title was the best thing about the book. God is not playing a cruel game, hiding a plan for us in cryptic clues and mocking us if we can’t find it. Nor does God have some perfect plan, but we can follow a second or third best alternative if we don’t get it right the first time. In fact, God does not lay out a complete life scheme. Rather God guides us by often imperceptible daily increments.
With a pretty full lifetime behind me, as I have pondered how to know what God wants, I have concluded that this approach is shaped more by our individualistic Western culture than by any Scriptural understanding of what God wants. It all too easily becomes presumptuously ego-centric and promotes the idea that God want me to be successful and happy without regard to the context in which I live and the people around me. When we grasp what God wants in the big picture, we will be clearer about what God wants of and for me.
In the next section I will point to some biblical spotlights that illuminate the big picture of what God wants, but first I want to overview what I believe are the essential themes.
In the Genesis creation, God sought to walk with the man and the woman in the garden in which God had declared every created thing good. For them to be alone was not good. God wanted relationship, communion, fellowship between God and humans and among people. Though the word “love” isn’t used in that narrative, love clearly is at the root of what God wants for the world and its people. Starting with Adam and Eve, Cain and Able humans do not love as God wanted, and the results are disastrous. But God persists in loving by calling Abraham, who becomes known as the friend of God (James 2:23). The life, death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s ultimate expression of love. “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Love is the essential core of God’s character. “We have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God.” (1 John 4:16)
What does God want for people in this world of so little love? The Hebrew prophets were adamant that God wants peace and justice, righteousness and mercy for all people. These are antidotes for the venom of lovelessness that poisons us all. We need only a cursory look at the rivalry and violence between people of different nations, ethnicities, religions, languages, and socio-economic groups to recognize the dearth of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy – not to mention actual love – on a global scale in our time and through history. So I am convinced that God wants us human beings to be aware of and compassionate toward people around the world who suffer from a lack of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy. I recognize that is an impossibly huge bite for any one person, but I think that God wants individuals and groups of people to focus on particular groups of people who are different than they are to become aware and active in cultivating love. Thus the global compassion for people can be made into manageable increments that become cumulatively effective.
I am also aware that what passes as realism can convince us that the problem is so overwhelming that even starting seems pointless. I think the Talmud gets it right when it said, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly now. Love mercy now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” I am familiar with my son Jon’s vision of building 100 homes for the widows of Santo Domingo Xenacoj, Guatemala as one of a myriad of such efforts to interest, involve, and mobilize a few people to connect with another few people seemingly far away from each other. Not that anyone gets it all right, but I do think God wants such love connections between groups of people all over the world.
Sometimes the social and geographical distance can make love seem safer and easier for the people who are closer to us that for those who are different and distant. Trying to love people we don’t know or understand makes us uncomfortable. The suspicion about emigrants and refugees and the racial, class, and economic tensions in our local communities should alert us that God wants peace and justice, righteousness and mercy among the people who are close to us as well. Fear of crime, loss of property value, change of community character interfere with doing what God wants for people who are close to us. I believe God wants people in these contrasting, and even conflicting, communities to not only support acts of peace and justice, righteousness and mercy, but even more important to get to know each other well enough to form loving friendships. Once again, the magnitude of this can be overwhelming, but on a small group to small group basis becomes not only manageable but rewarding.
I would suggest that for churches in proximate but diverse communities to partner with each other is a practical way to pursue what God wants for people who are close to each other. I want to suggest further that congregational life is a way for churches to foster the love God wants for people who are even closer to each other. Even a cursory look at the New Testament is clear that God wants the congregations of the Church to be communities of love, not institutions of religious business. Acts 2:42, 46-47 says that the people of the early Church devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayers, and they spent much time together in the temple and broke bread from house to house. Clearly they were not showing up for an hour service 11:00 am to noon on Sundays. Their lives were intertwined in such a way that everyone could tell they were Jesus’ disciples by the way they loved each other. (John 13:35)
The closest of all relationships for all people, not just Jesus’ disciples, are those in the family: spouses, children and parents, siblings, extended family. In Genesis 2:18, 22-24 God brought the woman to the man with allusion to extended family because being alone is not good for people. God wants us to give and receive love in the intimacy of our family relationships.
Thus, we see the focus of the love God wants for people from global, to community, to congregation, to family. Relationships are essential for experiencing the love God wants for all people. I do not want to get into the tangled controversies that swirled around Joseph Fletcher’s 1966 book Situation Ethics: The New Morality (and others then and now) that push into extreme circumstances to explore how love might lead to a decision seemingly contrary to conventional moral principles. However, I do believe that in asking how to know what God wants, we can say that God wants a love relationship with humans and between people. I am also confident that in our world lacking in love, God wants peace and justice, righteousness and mercy.
The Bible’s eschatological images also give a vision of what God ultimately wants. I want to start with the image of mansion from the King James Version of John 14:2. Especially on the west side of The Pond (Atlantic Ocean) this has been misunderstood as a large, luxurious house often on a hill surrounded by vast acres of land separating it from its neighbors. But the King James translators (and Jesus) had something entirely different in mind. The Miriam Webster Dictionary includes as a second definition what would have been commonly understood in the 1600s and even more recently in England. A mansion is “a separate apartment or lodging in a large structure.” Modern translations give a more accurate picture. NIV and RSV have “My Father’s house has many rooms.” NRSV and NASV say, “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.” Jesus followed this image with the promise that “where I am you may be also.” (v. 3) What is important to Jesus is that we are together with him and with each other. This is not a vision of isolated luxury but of joyful congregate living. A divine apartment complex in which we are in close proximity.
This is consistent with the image of the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9) which Jesus’ banquet parables seem to anticipate in Matthew 22:1-15 and Luke 14:1-24. Though the book of Revelation is often understood as foretelling the cataclysmic events at the culmination of human history that will usher in the fulfilled Kingdom/Reign of God, a great deal of it is devoted to repeated images of great multitudes from every  tribe and language and people and nation harmoniously praising God together. William How’s 1864 hymn For All the Saints captures this in this verse.
From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast,
Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,
Singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
The New Testament gives very little detail of what individuals can expect in eternity. Rather, the focus is on the community that God has redeemed and called together through Jesus Christ. Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus says that Lazarus was comforted at Abraham’s side (Luke 16:25). The point of Jesus’ story, however, is not to describe Lazarus’ personal eternal comfort. We in the individualistic culture of the West are fixated on what we will experience in “heaven” which seems incidental to Jesus and the New Testament writers who focus on God’s eternal community gathered for eternal worship. However, we are not alone. In Matthew 20:20-21 the mother of James and John ask Jesus to designate her sons to sit at his right and left in his Kingdom, but Jesus rebuffs the request with a call to humble service of others, consistent with the picture of God wanting relationships of love.
None of this is to suggest that God doesn’t want things, sometimes very specific personal things, of me as an individual, only that the context powerfully informs knowing what God wants for and from me.
Biblical Signposts Pointing to What God Wants
Though I am not presuming that those reading this share my conviction that the Bible is the lens for discerning what God wants, I’m sure that my commitment is already obvious. I also am aware that just saying “according to the Bible” in and of itself convinces no one. The Bible is a library of many diverse pieces in a variety of literary genres written by a number of different people over the passing of several centuries in different cultural contexts and historical situations. Very little of the Bible is presented as dictated by God; rather God spoke through all these people with their unique personalities and circumstances. The consistency that links all of these elements is that the same God is interacting with people who are trying to know and do what God wants, even if they are not consistent in doing so. All of this variability informs my conviction that the Bible is inspired by God, reliable in what it teaches, and authoritative for the Church through the centuries and for me in my present moment.
This understanding of the nature of the Bible precludes treating it as an “owner’s manual,” “recipe book,” or “rule and policy list.” Individual lines cannot be lifted out and absolutized without regard to their literary genre, the context in which they occur, or the relationship to the whole of the Bible. In his 2007 book The Year of Living Biblically, A. J. Jacobs tells how his attempt to follow every commandment in the Bible (he was pretty much working from the Torah known among Christians as the Pentateuch) literally for a year, he humorously exposed the paradoxical reality of being unable to do it at the same time as being positively changed by it. Some of my Jewish friends have reported the same result from their sincere efforts to celebrate and follow the 613 commandments of the Torah. While woodenly, mechanically following all of the rules is clearly not what God wants, something about them shapes those who pursue them to be more attuned to and harmonious with what God wants.
While I will not attempt a comprehensive inventory of signposts from the Bible that point to what God wants, I will start with a couple of observations from Genesis. Theologians may explore and even debate what made Able’s sacrifice more acceptable to God than Cain’s (Genesis 4:4-5), but Cain’s violent anger was clearly contrary to what God wants (Genesis 4:5, 8ff) Violence characterized the evil that prompted God’s judgment with the flood (Genesis 6:11). By illustration of contrast, Genesis affirms that God wants love: peace and justice, righteousness and mercy. But God did not give up on people just because they lived so far from what God wants. God called Abram to become the channel by which all the families of the earth would be blessed. (Genesis 12:3) God did not bless Abram and his descendants so they could be passive pets but because God wanted to bless all of humanity through Abram.
The Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21) are a pivotal signpost of what God wants for people. Calling them “commandments” may reinforce the “rule list” misunderstanding of the Bible. Jewish usage typically calls them “words.” The point is that God has spoken to people, and by listening people are in a conversational relationship with God. Also, many Christians count “you shall have no other gods before me” as the first commandment because of the imperative construction, but Jewish usage typically counts “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” as the first word and puts “you shall have no other God’s before me” together with “You shall not make for yourself an idol …” as the second word. Thus the emphasis is on God who has reached out to rescue people from bondage, the God who wants a relationship with people. The rest of what is called the first table is much more than rules to follow but a portrait of this God who loves people so they will know the One they are to love. The second table of is about how people can have loving relationships with each other with peace and justice, righteousness and mercy. These are not arbitrary or abstract rules but deep principles of healthy community life. A solid grasp of the profundity of the Ten Commandments/Words is the foundation for knowing and doing what God wants and how the Bible expresses that from beginning to end.
The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) recount the adventures and challenges, triumphs and disasters of the community of Israel (and Judah) in relationship with God, with each other, and with their Gentile neighbors, more or generally less often living out the Ten Commandments/Words. Though in different times, facing different issues, the Hebrew prophets consistently call them back to what God wants as founded on the Ten Commandments/Words. Because they so consistently failed to live with the God of love who wanted peace and justice, righteousness and mercy for them, calling to social justice is one of the most prominent and consistent themes of the Hebrew Prophets. Amos and Isaiah 58 are prime examples. Perhaps the most succinct signpost for what God wants articulated by a Hebrew prophet is Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
In the New Testament the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7 and the parallel sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6:20-49) is a pivotal signpost pointing to what God wants, much as the Ten Commandments/Words were in the Hebrew Scripture. Even the most cursory reading or hearing of the Sermon on the Mount makes clear that Jesus was not at all interested in behavioral conformity to a set of rules. Nothing there can be reduced to a checklist to marked at the end of a day as having been completed. No, Jesus was concerned with profound conditions of the heart in relationship with God and with other people. And just as the Hebrew prophets had a special interest in the weak, the poor, the oppressed, the foreigners, Jesus gives those who are excluded and suffering the greatest blessings. For Jesus these were not individual, personal virtues but qualities of life in the community he called the Kingdom of God (Reign if kingdom seems too gender specific to you). And Jesus knew this community would be shunned by the dominant society among whom they lived.
The Lord’s Prayer that is embedded in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:9-13 (Luke 11:2-4 is a shorter version prompted by the disciples request to be taught to pray) includes an important signpost pointing to what God wants. “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) What God wants is for the community of the Kingdom to come on earth where what God wants will happen. Jesus is emphatically clear that the community of God’s Kingdom is here and now, not going somewhere remote in time and place. Theologians speak of this paradox that the Kingdom of God is present and simultaneously rejected and hidden as the mystery of “already and not yet.”
Ephesians 5:10 says to “try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” This is not a tricky puzzle. It follows the discourse on God’s gifts to the Church in Ephesians 4. The purpose of these gifts is the unity of the faith and maturity of the full stature of Christ. (v. 13) So again the focus is on relationship with God and with others in the community of the Church. Consistent with the Sermon on the Mount, what God wants is the mature character of Christ. We get to know Jesus by soaking in the Gospels where Jesus meets us. This character is summarized as humility in Philippians 2:5-11. Jesus said as much in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 that he did not come “to be served but to serve and give his life a ransom for many.”
I am not going to enter the fray about universal salvation one way or another that has received so much attention, especially since Rob Bell’s 2011 book Love Wins. I don’t think that 2 Peter 3:9 speaks to that when it says, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” Rather I believe it is giving us a picture of God’s love, which is patient with those we would zap, left to our own devices. God doesn’t want to leave anyone out of his love but to include everyone. If we want what God wants, we will want to invite people into a loving relationship with God through Jesus and the community of those who follow Jesus. This is not about revivalist style evangelistic rallies (though they may have their place), but it is about being so in tune with what God wants that we want it too, even for those who would consider us their enemies.
For most of us, especially in the individualistic culture of the West, when we ask how to know what God wants, we tend to be thinking of what does God want me to do or decide in a particular situation. That is a legitimate concern but finds its place in the context of realizing what God wants in our relationships with God and with other people both within and beyond the community of faith. I contend that when our relationships with God and people are healthy, we will know and do what God wants without needing to deliberate excessively.
The Holy Spirit lives within individual disciples of Jesus and the community of the Church. The Holy Spirit uses the raw material of Scripture we have absorbed or considered to prompt decisions in harmony with what God wants. The Holy Spirit prompts others in the Church to confirm or correct our interpretation and discernment of what God wants. And even though our grasp of what God wants is limited and fallible, Romans 8:27 assures us that the Holy “Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
The book of Acts is a marvelous case study of how these signposts informed the apostolic Church as they made their decisions. As we might expect, this all happened in the context of community. Even the individual promptings, such as Philip being sent to the road to Gaza where he met the Ethiopian Eunuch (Acts 8:26). This grew out of the ministry in Samaria shared with Peter and John (Acts 8:4-25). The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is the ultimate expression of the consistent pattern in Acts of making decisions together as the Church for both individuals and groups. The process was not always as formal as this, and sometimes a large group was not available or involved, but careful reading reveals that they prayed, discussed, and decided together when decisions were needed. One possible exception is when Paul insisted on proceeding to Jerusalem and certain arrest and probably execution, even though the disciples at Tyre, through the Spirit, told Paul not to go to Jerusalem. (Acts 21:4) Was Paul wrong? The conventional Pauline assumption wants to say he was obedient to the Spirit and the disciples at Tyre were only sad because they knew what would happen to him. But even here, where Paul seems to override the word of the Church, the Church was actively participating in the decision.
Yes, I do believe the Spirit guides with subtle nudges to know and do what God wants. No I do not believe some sort of majority vote by itself is a reliable indicator of what God wants. I am also all too aware in my pastoral ministry and my personal life, how prone we humans are to rationalize what we want and convince ourselves it is what God wants. So I do believe that if the Spirit has prompted something, it will be confirmed by the witness of others who are attuned to the Spirit. I have served in some contexts where the designated church leaders agree to act by consensus. This does not mean every member has a veto vote, but to pray and work together until there is a clear sense of the Spirit’s prompting. Sometimes that comes when one unconvinced person agrees that the others are hearing the Spirit and cooperates. Perhaps most often at a personal level, that means that individuals share their sense of the Spirit’s prompting and ask others if they can confirm that too. This is not a procedural or ecclesiastical polity matter but consistent with the whole understanding of what God wants for relationships between people and God and people and each other.
I have also participated in a form practiced among Quakers (Society of Friends) called “Clearness Committee.” In such instances and individual or family needing to make a decision calls together a group of spiritually mature, trustworthy folk. After presenting the choice to be made, the group prayerfully discusses what should be considered in making the decision. This is never the group dictating to the individual but rather questioning and speaking what contributes clearness to those making the decision. I have also experienced the same dynamic in groups that were not formally following the Clearness Committee process but functioned similarly.
Guidance from Some Giants
As essential as these biblical signposts are, insights from those who have gone before us can inform how we get to know what God wants. I want to mention just three: Benedict of Nursia, Ignatius of Loyola, and Thomas Merton.
After the Roman Emperor Constantine made his own distorted version of Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire (ca. 436 CE) the spiritual health of the Church declined rapidly and steeply. In response, many who were hungry for spiritual vigor withdrew to the deserts and laid the foundations for the monastic movements that continued to seek spiritual renewal for the Church in the coming centuries. Some of them wrote their own spiritual guidance and others wrote what they learned from respected leaders. Written copies of Scripture were scarce and some could not read. Some of the stories and teachings seem bizarre to us today, but considerable spiritual wisdom is embedded in what we know today as the Sayings of the Desert Fathers and Mothers (a number of edited collections are available in print).
As important as the Desert Fathers and Mothers were, they did not prompt widespread spiritual renewal in the Church. Benedict of Nursia (480-547) was studying for pastoral ministry in Rome and became so disgusted with the moral and spiritual bankruptcy of his fellow students and Church leaders that he left Rome determined to walk and pray until he heard from God how to find spiritual renewal for himself and for the Church. He walked until he ran into the cliffs at Subiaco where he lived as a hermit, praying in a cave for three years. When he emerged he was convinced God had called him to be an instrument of spiritual renewal for the church. He founded monastic communities and wrote what we know as The Rule of St. Benedict. Though some of it specific to his time that we would find objectionable today, and though he wrote specifically for these monasteries, in my 40+ years of pastoral ministry, I have found The Rule of St. Benedict to be one of the best guides to pastoral leadership I have ever read.
Benedict was very concerned about what he called gyratory monks. In the first chapter of his Rule he wrote of them, “All their lives they wander in different countries staying in various monasteries for three of four days at a time. They are restless, servants to the seduction of their own will and appetites.” He proposed three principles for finding what God wants for spiritual health, around which he built the structure of the monasteries he founded: stability, conversion of life, and obedience.
Stability discouraged bounding from one monastery or abbot to another seeking some thrill or new experience. Rather, stay where God put you and grow there drawing on all that community and leader provide. I think Benedict would be appalled at the church hoppers and marketers of today who cater to an entertainment appetite, as well as to the divisions expressed in the multiplicity of denominations who formed so people of a like mind could reinforce each other’s thinking, rather than learning and growing together by interacting and living with people who are different from each other. I also think Benedict would affirm what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” Benedict would say God doesn’t want us wandering off in fickle pursuits that reinforce spiritual immaturity. He’d tell us God wants us to patiently persist in learning from the people and experiences God brings to us.
Conversion of life recognizes that God wants us to keep growing and not become spiritually complacent. God wants us to know that in this life we are never finished products. God wants to keep shaping and renewing our relationship with God and with the people around us. In the monastery, the leaders and other members are not to be considered either comfortable companions or irritations to be avoided. God wants us to grow and stretch through the interaction with the people around us.
For Benedict, obedience was not an unthinking compliance with the Abbot or any other leader. Obedience is an issue of the heart, wanting above all else to want to obey God, to do what God wants. Obedience is a matter of accepting that your spiritual leaders and companions on the journey are God’s instruments of letting you know what God wants and guiding you on that path. Benedict believed that neither he nor the abbots of the monasteries had all of the answers. They are also subject to the Rule and to the life of the community. But obedience recognizes that God does not want us to be autonomous individuals. God wants us to have leaders and companions we trust whose presence, example, and teaching guide us on the journey of following what God wants.
Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1553) is thought of as the intellectual and spiritual leader of the Counter-Reformation. Because of his loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church and his criticisms of Protestant Reformers, many Protestants ignore or reject him. Interestingly, he and John Calvin had been classmates as young men, and though they took opposite sides on many of the issues at stake at the time, they never attacked each other personally. Ignatius is best known to us through his Spiritual Exercises, which many Protestants have embraced as a rigorous guide to spiritual formation, now that some of the animosities of the Reformation are fading. Yes, some distinctly Roman Catholic thoughts are found in the Spiritual Exercises (such as reverence for Mary), but you cannot read them without recognizing that this man was fervently in love with Jesus and trusted him wholly for his salvation. The Spiritual Exercises specifically avoid “works righteousness” but promote the value of disciplines that nourish spiritual growth.
Ignatius devotes one substantial section of the Spiritual Exercises to making “elections,” which we would think of as decisions. He teaches how to use the five senses to make sound decisions by loving and imitating Christ. This prayer from the Spiritual Exercises (98) expresses how much he wanted to want what God wants for himself and for others.
“Eternal Lord of all things, I make my offering, with your favor and help. I make it in the presence of your infinite Goodness and of all the holy men and women in your heavenly court. I wish and desire, and it is my deliberate decision, provided only that is for your greater service and praise, to imitate you in bearing all injuries and affronts, and any poverty actual as well as spiritual, if your Most Holy Majesty desires to choose and receive me into such a life and state.”
He instructs those who are about to make an election/decision to pray in this way, “Ask for an interior knowledge of Our Lord, who became human for me, that I may love him more intensely and follow him more closely.” (104) Rather than some esoteric jargon or mystical ritual, Ignatius taught how to use the ordinary senses to discern what God wants when making a decision. (122-125)
“By sight of my imagination I will see the persons, by meditating and contemplating in detail all the circumstances around them, and by drawing some profit from the sight.
“By my hearing I will listen to what they are saying or might be saying; and then, reflecting on myself, I will draw some profit from this.
“I will smell the fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness and charm of the Divinity, of the soul, of its virtues, and of everything there, appropriately for each of the persons who is being contemplated. Then I will reflect on myself and draw profit from this.
“Using the sense of touch, I will, so to speak, embrace and kiss the places where the persons walk or sit. I shall always endeavor to draw some profit from this.”
As diligently and sincerely as we may want what God wants, we are often unsure that we are on the right path. We may feel forced to live by faith and wish we had greater certainty. But Habakkuk 2:4 is clear that God wants “the righteous (people of justice) live by their faith.” The New Testament alludes to this three times, affirming how much God wants us to live by faith: Romans 1:17; Galatians 3:11; Hebrews 10:38, as 2 Corinthians 5:7 says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” Romans 14:23 is even more emphatic that God wants us to live by faith. “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Both in pastoral conversation and my own decision making when one option doesn’t seem clearly better, I ask, “Which option calls me to the strongest expression or exercise of faith?
Thomas Merton (1915-1968) captures what it means to life by faith in the real uncertainties of life in this prayer in his 1958 book Thoughts in Solitude. (p. 83)
My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road
      Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust you always
      Though I may seem to be lost
      And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
And you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Special Challenging Questions
What happens if what God wants doesn’t match what I want?
The Apostle Paul seemed to struggle with this in some fashion when he wrote in Romans 7:15 “I do not do what I want, but I do the very things I hate.” I have come to conclude that my feeble failings, even when intentional, are no match for what the sovereign God wants. I may miss it, but what God wants will not be frustrated. Psalm 103 assures me that God forgives all my iniquity, does not deal with us according to our sins but removes our transgressions from us as far as the east is from the west. And Psalm 130 asserts that if God marked iniquities, who could stand? But there is forgiveness with God.
The idea here is not to presumptuously keep doing what we know God doesn’t want, but to not live in fear of messing up. Yes, some choices have very long term consequences, but they may draw us back to trusting God and counting on Christ’s grace to get us through. I have found the Merton prayer to be a profound way to pray for me to want what God wants, and be honest when I know what I want and what God wants don’t match. Psalm 37:4 to be very beneficial, though it is often misused. “Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” Some “prosperity gospel” preachers seem to treat this as a way of bribing God into giving me the stuff (yes material things and wealth) that I think I want, whether God wants to or not. But a much better understanding is to recognize that when God is indeed my desire, God will delight to be with me.
How can I protect myself from rationalizing so I think what I want is what God wants?
I start by acknowledging that I can and do rationalize that God wants what I want. I can ask for the Holy Spirit to prod me when I’m heading in this direction. In daily practice, I can establish a relationship with someone or a group of folk whom I not only trust and respect spiritually, but who I can depend on to be honest with me. Then, I overtly give them permission to confront me when they think I’m heading into trouble. To make that work, I need to check in regularly, not just when I suspect I may be susceptible to rationalizing.
How can I expect God to want my life to work well when so many innocent people suffer as victims of violence and natural disaster?
This is a real and serious question that deserves considerable contemplation. One part of the answer is to have some kind of relationship with someone (or group) in another part of the world who are living with much more threatening conditions than I am. I believe this is an important part of the value of child sponsorships and short term mission trips (even for those who support but don’t go). The value is not so much in the work accomplished to benefit struggling people (though well-developed strategies can do that), but to have enough of a relationship to build empathy and identification with people considerably different that we are, to know them as people and friends and not just as charity targets.
As valuable as I think these relationships are, that does not dissolve the problem how to understand what God wants for people who suffer through no fault of their own, especially those who are victims of violence and injustice. Yes, God wants us to be advocates for justice and peace that will benefit others. We are probably more effective with that when we have a mutual and not condescending relationship with them or someone like them. I think, as well, that God wants us to cry out for justice and peace, both in our prayers and in the public arena. We can add our voices to the cries of James 5:4. “The wages of the laborers which were kept back by fraud cry out and have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.”
Our culture puts a high value on fixing things. When we find we can’t fix them we may blame the victims, become frustrated crusaders, or simply ignore the problem. Can we stare these folk in the face and see the image of God in them, acknowledging our own powerlessness? I believe God wants us to see the pain of those who suffer violence, oppression, disaster, and disease as God sees them. When we do, I believe we will see much more clearly how God wants us to live in the contexts where we have been called and sent.
Why do different Christians whom I respect for their spiritual maturity and sensitivity come to contrasting decisions about how God wants them to vote, use money, set priorities, establish personal lifestyles?
This question is not all that far removed from reading the Bible with the recognition of the variety of human voices it reflects. For one thing, acknowledging the spiritual integrity of someone who disagrees with us about something we are passionately convinced of should evoke humility and remind us that we are all working with incomplete information and insight. That is not to say that disagreements between followers of Jesus don’t matter. In fact, it should push us to pursue better understanding, better dialog, and better strength of conviction.
In some instances, these disagreements arise because we align ourselves with human philosophies, worldviews, and political, economic and social positions that we allow to supersede the love: peace and justice, righteousness and mercy that God wants. This all too easily becomes a sort of group rationalization.
Having said that, I think I can say that when these disagreements arise among those whom we respect for their spiritual maturity, God wants us to enter dialogs in which we seek to learn from each other more than trying to convince each other. That way we maintain positive relationships while nourishing growth in each other. I suggest asking ourselves, “Why can what seems reasonable to me seem reprehensible to someone else?” and “Why can something that seems reprehensible to me seem reasonable to someone else?”
How can I grow from external conformity to rules to have internalized values and character?
From Abraham and Moses through the Hebrew Prophets to Jesus, even the Law of the Bible conveys God’s desire for people to have internal values and character, not just conformity to external rules.
In recent decades considerable analysis and research has gone into understanding moral development, much of it associated with Lawrence Kohlberg and James Fowler. Though organized with some variation, a sequence has been identified that moves from understanding what is “bad” as what hurts and what is “good” as what pleases. This is illustrated by young children who avoid punishment and seek reward without necessarily understanding why parents, teachers, or other “big people” deal out punishment and reward. Moral value is determined externally by whomever holds power. As the principles behind the punishment and reward become clearer, the idea of rules, laws, and principles becomes clearer. What makes a particular rule good or bad may still not be accurate or understood, but it is no longer the momentary wish of someone with power. Even people with power have to follow the rules. Stable societies, especially democracies, depend on the rule of law to function smoothly in populations of people with widely differing expectations. Having rules to define what is good is much more dependable than the whims of people with power, but it is still external to individuals. What people do when no one else is watching points toward the internalization of moral values and development of character. As people mature, they develop and adopt their own set of values that define a moral compass that operates regardless of the rewards and punishments from people in power. While a society’s legal code certainly influences people’s personal values, individuals can often articulate the specific values they have adopted by which they guide their lives, behaviors, and decisions, even when it goes beyond or against the social contract. For some folk this internalization grows into a deeply rooted character that comes into play even when profound distress pressures, bends, and may even break specific values. People with such character can become moral leaders who resist moral threats that intimidate or baffle others. People of power and even people of rules may reject the vision of people of character in times of moral upheaval.
Though this explanation is dramatically over simplified, those who have explored moral development in considerable depth have found that in any society only a very small portion of people grow to adopt well-integrated internalized values, and even fewer develop deeply rooted, mature character. That is why for many people, saying, “It’s the law” settles an argument or ends a discussion. That is why in times of distress and confusion so many people crave a strong leader who will enforce order with force. That is why even the most brutal despots cannot silence dissenters with violence.
I suspect that this pattern of moral development also explains the appeal for many Christians of understanding the Bible as a rule book and the great difficulty of accepting and pursuing that Jesus taught so consistently the internalization of values and character. Jesus’ interaction with his critics among the religious elite of his day and with his own disciples gives important clues to how these internal values and character develop. Jesus’ critics viewed him as a rule breaker and thus a threat to moral order. While Jesus’ disciples had grown up with that teaching and were challenged by his way of thinking, their relationship with him opened them to being shaped by his approach. The telling of parables, without the tacked on morals such as Aesop’s Fables, and the asking of questions without pat answers stretched the disciples to reexamine their assumptions and presuppositions. Jesus compelled them to look deeper when the accepted models no longer matched their expectations of what they thought God wants.
Practical Discernment and Cultivation of Knowing and Living Out/Into What God Wants
Though I’m sure someone else could write a full-length book to answer, “How do we know what God wants,” those who have read this far may understandably be sighing, “How can I put all this into practice?” I do believe the answer is actually quite simple, though that does not mean it is easy. Three essential elements are readily accessible: scripture (especially Gospel) saturation, listening prayer, and engagement with a church community.
Even those who can’t read can hear the Bible read to them. I propose that if you want to know and do what God wants, soak in the Scripture. I’m not thinking of typical Bible study or devotional literature. Nor am I suggesting plowing through huge volumes of material. Rather, I’m thinking more of nutrition. It’s a question of absorbing Scripture so that it becomes an intrinsic part of you. Henri Nouwen compared it to a cow chewing it’s cud to extract the maximum value of every bite. The desert father Abba Poeman used a different metaphor.
“The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard; but if a bottle is hung above the stone, allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the [one] who hears the word of God often, opens [the] heart to the fear of God.” The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, tr. Benedicta Ward, SLG, Kalamazoo, MI, Cistercian Publications, 1975, pp. 192-193
Jesus said, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34; Luke 6:45) So the point of soaking in Scripture is to fill the heart to overflowing, so that what God wants is what comes out. We thrive and grow spiritually best with daily nourishment, just like eating. If you depend on what you get on Sunday worship, as good as it may be, you will be spiritually malnourished. Good balance is also important in the Scripture diet, just as with food. The Common Lectionary recognized this with selections from the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) and Acts, the New Testament Epistles, and of course, the Gospels. While absorbing the whole of Scripture is important, we meet Jesus in the Gospels. Reading the Gospels is not about accumulating information about Jesus, but becoming so acquainted with him that he can live out his life through us. Daily exposure to the Gospels is essential to walking each day in harmony with him.
Sometimes reading the Bible is thought of as God speaking to us and prayer as us speaking to God. At a certain level that is true enough, but it easily leads to a view of prayer that can seem as though God is stupid and needs to be told by us what calls for attention and what to do about it. Indeed, God is interested in the great and sometimes terrible affairs of our world as well as the personal details of our daily lives. Understanding the God wants to be our friend, we are free, even welcome, to discuss anything that matters to us with God, as we would with any close friend. As Romans 8:26-27 says, the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God with sighs too deep for words. So listening prayer is a partnership with the Spirit in which we quiet ourselves so we can perceive the whispers and nudges of the Spirit who knows what God wants.
Listening prayer depends on a deep reservoir of Scripture in the heart. As we bring the things that concern us into our awareness of God by praying, the Spirit can draw on not only our recent Scripture reading but on the cumulative shaping Scripture works on us. While the wider and deeper the knowledge of Scripture, the more there is to work with. The Spirit is well able to use even a meager inventory if it has become an internalized, integrated part of us. It’s not so much how much Scripture we have gotten through as it is how well Scripture has soaked in and become part of us. Many people have developed and used many different methods of prayer, many of which are quite suitable. The steps of Lectio Divina that come to us through the Benedictine disciplines intrinsically link Scripture and prayer. However, the point is not the method as much as being quiet enough, long enough to tune into the movement of the Spirit.
Finally, if we actually want to know and do what God wants, we need to participate in a church community of other people who also want the same thing. These people do not all have to be spiritual giants. People who humbly recognize themselves as spiritual beginners are often the best at discerning what God wants and being ready to do it. Nevertheless, any healthy church community will have several people who are recognized and respected for their spiritual maturity.
Often what God wants becomes clear in the informal conversations between people in such a church community where people openly share their lives with each other. If they are purposely listening for the Spirit in the responses they receive, what God wants will become clear in the interaction. Sometimes an individual will have an idea that seems to be what God wants. The confirmation of others in the church community clears the way to proceed with confidence. Sometime questions, reservations, or doubts can prevent heading in the wrong direction. For new ideas to find their way into such conversations may well be the work of the Spirit, even if we are not directly aware of it.
Not only is participation in a church community important for discerning what God wants, that kind of life together is itself what God wants. Just as a Sunday morning worship is too thin an exposure to Scripture for spiritual nourishment, so too, an hour or two once a week in a structured, largely listening setting does not give us the social support for spiritual health. We have to know and be known well enough by people with whom we are companions on the path with Jesus as we seek to know and do what God wants. This requires a range of relationships compatible with some level of intimacy and trust. That doesn’t mean that a congregation cannot be large, but it cannot be a collection of individuals who show up to listen once a week, but must be made up of clusters of people who share the everyday realities of their lives and their own journeys with Jesus. Such clusters must be more than a program option available to church members or attenders, but must be the defining reality of the lives of those who want to know and do what God wants.
So all of this boils down to three basic ingredients in knowing what God wants. They are utterly simple and monumentally challenging. I once heard Fr. Thomas Hopko, former Dean of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary in New York say, “When I was a boy my mother told me that to grow as a Christian I needed to read my Bible, say my prayers, and go to church. Now I am leading a seminary training people for lifetimes of ministry and I tell them that if they want to grow as Christians and help others grow as Christians, they need to read their Bibles, say their prayers, and go to church.” If you want to know what God wants, build your life around these three essentials.
·         scripture (especially Gospel) saturation
·         listening prayer
·         engagement with a church community

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“Peace Be With You,” Jesus

When I got to contemplatio in my lectio divina on John 20:19-31 today, I was able to listen to Jesus saying to me, “Peace be with you.” (vv. 19,26) I believe I was receiving Christ’s peace for how the transition Candy and I are making is changing our marriage and what our relationship will become when we get settled in the duplex, for patience with how long this transition is taking, for the joys and challenges of living in Christian community with Mandy and Matthew Bailey and Chris Gooding, for the support Milwaukee Mennonite Church has been to Rachel and David, Sam and Elizabeth and their welcoming us into their community. Listening to Jesus prepared me for a fresh encounter from God in my Psalm Prayers today.

Psalm 49 evoked an acute awareness of just how those who trust in their wealth, boast in the abundance of their riches, and name lands as their own (vv.6,11) have come to prominence and power in our society. My inclination to be angry and alarmed was tempered by Jesus’ assuring words, “peace be with you” echoed by the tone of the Psalm, which asserts that their graves are the homes of such people forever, even though they named lands and enterprises after themselves. (v. 11)

Ordinarily, on the 19th of each month I skip quickly through Psalm 109 (the quintessential imprecatory – cursing Psalm) as I don’t have such bitter feelings toward anyone I know. However, today, having already been thinking of a number of powerful, prominent people who seem to trust in their wealth, boast in the abundance of their riches, and name lands their own, I resonated with much of Psalm 109.

The NRSV translation of verse 6 has long troubled me, as their own footnote indicates “They say” is not in the Hebrew text. I wonder if this was a scribal addition in antiquity or a translators’ effort to soften the uncomfortable severity of the Psalm. My instincts tell me that the original was indeed harsh, for sometimes we do feel these emotions. I did check a number of other popular translations, and none of them included “They say.”

As the Psalmist (ascribed to David, whether that ascription was original or not is questionable to me, but not because David was above such curses) vents his curses, the Psalm brings us to focus on God’s steadfast love (vv. 21, 26 hesed) and entrusting those we want to curse into God’s hands. Today I found a leisurely reading the entirety of Psalm 109 helped me receive the peace of Christ, not only for the transition Candy and I are now making, but also for the way our world seems out of control hurtling toward inevitable disaster at the hands of those who trust in their wealth, boast in the abundance of their riches, and names lands as their own.