Keeping God Before Us

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Last week I relayed a thought from Dallas Willard (1935-2013) explaining that to think of God rightly, in a manner leading to worship, “is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person.”

Here is Henry Scougal (1650-1678) suggesting much the same thing:

The awareness and remembrance of the divine presence is the most ready and effectual means both to discover what is unlawful and to restrain us from it. There are some things a person could attempt to mitigate or defend, and yet he would not dare to look almighty God in the face and then set out to do them. If we look to him, we shall be enlightened. If we set him always before us, he will guide us by his eye and instruct us in the way wherein we ought to walk (Psalm 32:8).

The Life of God in the Soul of Man, p. 133

Scougal observed that many believe Christianity, or the true nature of religion and spirituality, to be a matter of orthodox belief or doctrine, outward behavior or ethics, and/or emotion or ecstatic experience. But religious faith in the Christian tradition, while it may involve such things, is none of these in and of themselves. Rather, Scougal writes, true religion “is union of the soul with God. It is a participation in the divine nature. It is the very image of God drawn upon the soul. In the apostle’s words, it is Christ formed within us” (p. 29). Scougal refers to this as “a divine life.”

Biblical and theological knowledge helps us to know God as God has been revealed to humankind, and a careful study of the history of the Christian movement and the conclusions reached concerning sound and reliable teaching by God’s grace and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit are helpful for our own journey. So, too, is the adoption of patterns of life and protocols for decision making that result in godly action. Furthermore, there are feelings and emotions evoked by the contemplation of a transcendent truth, the observation of the nature’s wonders, or the participation in a healthy, vibrant community that can encourage us and inspire us along life’s long and difficult way.

But there is no substitute for a personal relationship with God stemming from an open and wholehearted response to God’s invitation to fellowship, made possible to us not through a doctrine, or an ethic, or a feeling, but through a person: Jesus Christ. 1 John 1:1-3 puts it this way:

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.

The invitation is open to all, to know and to be in relationship with the “life” who has appeared, who through faith imparts to us the gift of fellowship with God, and through fellowship establishes within us “the divine life.”

The Most Powerful Force in the Spiritual Formation of the Human Person

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As disciples engage in the practice of placing Jesus Christ at center stage in every branch of human knowledge, they are simultaneously being encouraged to train their thoughts ever upon God. In this way they enter not only a life of study, but also a life of worship.

To think of God rightly, as God is, one cannot help but lapse into worship; and worship is the single most powerful force in completing and sustaining the spiritual formation of the whole person. Worship naturally arises from thinking rightly of God on the basis of revealed truth confirmed in experience. We say flatly: worship is at once the overall character of the renovated though life and the only safe place for any human being to stand.

Dallas Willard, “Transformation of the Mind” in Renewing the Christian Mind: Essays, Interviews, and Talks [affiliate link]

Writing What’s True, Preaching According to Conviction, and Sean Tucker’s “Making the Art You Really Believe In”

I think Sean Tucker is right, and that much of what he says here has direct application to the craft of preaching, writing, and blogging.

Many preach, write, or publish on the web in an effort to become popular, rather than to uncover and offer what is true.

Popularity isn’t always the best measure of success, integrity, or profundity. Many artists, prophets, and innovators are widely misunderstood in their own time. Pursue truth. Point to it. Tell it. Relay it as you are able.

Lessons Learned on Foot

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When we haphazardly encounter people we know, we realize that we are part of a communal fabric that is large, complex, and fluid: it helps us to connect specific streets, parks, and buildings with ideas of commitment, accountability, and care. The street grid and the relational networks we depend on become layered, part of each other in an inextricable fashion. And this is the sort of process, I would argue, that builds our deeper love for a place. As long as our networks of community and built environment remain separate, we grow a more detached admiration. We will likely appreciate the place where we live, but we may not feel part of it in the same way we do when we realize, “Around that corner, or the next, I meet see someone I know.” For me, at least, the process of serendipitous encounter shapes a strikingly different experience of the city. It changes the way I perceive a place, as well as the way I explore it.

For our children, walking has been both their favorite thing, and the most annoying chore we asked of them. They love walking to the nearby woods and exploring, strolling along the Thames, or venturing up to the Ashmolean museum or the Natural Science museum. On these trips, we’ve always had either a stroller or a baby carrier, and have given our 4-year-old shoulder rides as needed. Our 6-year-old has had to finish these walks, since she’s too big to carry, and has thus learned to think about how far she wants to go with this knowledge in mind. She’s grown stronger and more resilient, both mentally and physically, as a result. The mental endurance is important to emphasize here, I think, because (as long as you aren’t asking them to go too far) walking is not difficult for a child. It’s the mental hurdle of embracing the tedium of walking, the slow process of getting from point A to point B, that is often harder. Walking teaches a child patience. Let’s be honest—it teaches adults patience! We’ve all grown accustomed to instant gratification when it comes to transportation.

Gracy Olmstead, “Our Year Without a Car (With Kids)

Olmstead’s essay is worth reading in full, and her newsletter is quite good.

My community was not built with walkers in mind. We’re dependent on cars. My work is a twenty minute commute. Only a handful of our regular commitments are within a ten minute radius. My shortest drives are to the elementary school, the grocery store, and my weekly pick-up basketball game, which takes place at a nearby church gym.

But I do walk my neighborhood, early in the morning, or in the evenings. When I go without earbuds, I can hear the birds, reminding me of my creatureliness, or the distant traffic, which reminds me of my smallness. I see others, walking dogs, or strolling with children, or a group of older men, who routinely walk and talk together. There are vistas. Our neighborhood is located on a hillside, and over the edges of a few lots on the highest hillsides you can see the lower basin that holds Lake Waco, surrounded by a large expanse of Central Texas farmland, scrub, and plains. The sunsets to the west can be glorious, and people pay for those views.

My favorite thing about walking isn’t the serendipity, but the slowing. The pace feels much more human, more well-suited to our nature, and physically reminiscent of the fact that while we are capable of running at great speed or soaring to great heights, we are made to walk with God.

Listening for God’s Call

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Pastors and mature believers in the congregation need to remain sensitive to those among them who display evidence of gifts and character that might signal God’s call on their lives. Sermons and lessons dealing with the call ought to become ordinary parts of the congregation’s diet. Pastors should occasionally refer to their own story of calling as a way of both publicly reaffirming their commitment to it and inviting others to consider God’s call on their lives. If a called ministry is as vital a conviction for Baptists as it appears, then creating an environment in which people learn to listen for and obey God’s call would be a reasonable extension of our theology into our practice.

R. Robert Creech, Pastoral Theology in the Baptist Tradition: Distinctives and Directions for the Contemporary Church, p. 47

This is exactly right.

I’m finding myself much more receptive and sympathetic to Creech’s account of call and its place within the life of the church body and in the life of the Christ-follower. I’ve been reading other accounts of calling; a slew of books has been published this summer that I’ve been less agreeable toward.

All are called to follow Christ. The outworking of that calling, however, is individual and specific, and it is possible for a person within the fellowship to develop the conviction that their task is to shepherd the congregation and preach the gospel.

Creech notes that pastoral leaders can create an environment where people learn to listen for and obey God’s call. They cannot force God to call anyone. But Baptist theology and practice can lead to the cultivation of a posture toward God that is receptive to God’s calling, not only in the preaching of the Word, but also through the testimony of the saints, the pastor included.

Digital Connectivity is Overrated

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Cal Newport relays a story from a reader named Peter who recently visited the Lyndon B. Johnson State Park and Historic Site in Stonewall, Texas. LBJ had a phone installed poolside while serving as president in order to remain accessible. A tour guide told visitors this story, who responded with laughter. We all have phones now. Everywhere.

Newport observes:

In an age of smartphones, everyone has access to a phone by the pool. Also in the bathroom. And in the car. And in every store, and on every street, and basically every waking moment of their lives. The average teenager with a iPhone today is vastly more connected than the leader of the free world sixty years ago.

I thought this was a good reminder of the head-spinning speed with which the connectivity revolution entangled us in its whirlwind advance. We haven’t even begun to seriously consider the impact of these changes, or how us comparably slow-adapting humans must now adjust. Be wary of those who embrace our current moment as an optimal and natural evolution of our species’ relationship with technology. We still have a lot of work ahead of us to figure out what exactly we want. After sufficient reflection, it might even turn out that taking a call by the pool, LBJ style, isn’t as essential as we might have once imagined.

And this is exactly right. Who knows what we’ll think about the smartphone in another ten, twenty, or fifty years?

We may discover that our obsession with social media has proven even more destructive, harmful, and wasteful than we perceive it to be now. The smartphone has affected how we consume news, who and what we consider a friend, our social expectations, our speed of life, our perception of the “good life,” and our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being. We may find that a flourishing human life doesn’t depend on the connectivity created by digital technology, but is found instead in something older and much less dependent on a screen, an electronic portal allowing us to transcend time and space.

What would that be? Unmediated human connection; flesh and blood presence, conversation, and shared activity. Doing things together in the concrete, rather than the digital.

Newport is careful. He says that digital connectivity may prove to be less essential than we imagined. It will still have a place. But it may be better to begin finding ways now to lessen dependence on our smartphones, create space for solitude and silence, designate spaces and zones where digital connectivity is no longer expected or required, and invest our energy in connecting face to face with family members, neighbors, and others living nearby.

Praying Against the Grain

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O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being loved, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being extolled, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being honored, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being praised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being preferred, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being consulted, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the desire of being approved, Deliver me, Jesus.

From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being despised, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being calumniated, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being forgotten, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being ridiculed, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being wronged, Deliver me, Jesus.
From the fear of being suspected, Deliver me, Jesus.

That others may be loved more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I unnoticed, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should, Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val, “A Christian Litany of Humility

I had read portions of this prayer before, I had encountered it before, but it strangely compelled and stuck with me when seeing it referenced by Clarence Thomas in his memoir, My Grandfather’s Son [affiliate link].

Cardinal Merry del Val lived from 1865 to 1930 and served under Pope Pius X as Cardinal Secretary of State, an office described as “prime minister” of the papacy.

Merry del Val’s prayer brought to mind another, by John Wesley:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.

And now, glorious and blessed God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.

Such prayers run against the grain of human nature, as it is in our post-fall reality. We are glory seeking creatures. When that desire for glory is misdirected toward the self, as it is in our state of disorder, this pursuit gives way to destruction of ourselves and anyone who stands in our way.

The other-directed orientation expressed in both these prayers–in the latter portion of Merry del Val’s prayer toward the neighbor and in Wesley’s prayer directed toward God–is exactly the dual reorientation we need.

This can be done by yielding ourselves and placing ourselves fully at God’s mercy. We can do so with confidence, and in hope, because God put aside self in Jesus Christ, in order that we might receive back from him our true selves. Having redeemed us, the glory is no longer ours to pursue, but his to bestow, and then ours to display.

Living into the fullness of our redeemed humanity restores us and fits us for life as a servant, first to God, and second to those we encounter. It is a life reflecting and revealing the person and work of Jesus Christ, the one who was humiliated but who is now exalted, and before whom, if we are brought low, will find ourselves likewise lifted up.