Meditative Prayer Converts the Entire Self to God

First Congregational Church, Detroit

When I was a youth pastor in the 70s at First Baptist Church of Joliet, Illinois, we had a big kid named Dan who one day boasted, “I can put an entire Big Mac in my mouth and swallow it whole.” We said “No way!!!” So we drove to McDonald’s and bought a Big Mac for Dan. Was this an idle boast because he wanted a free meal? Dan – who was a football player at (I think) Joliet Central H.S. – inserted the Big Mac in his mouth. That was the last we saw of it. I am certain Dan saw more of it later than he wanted. If you don’t take small bits and chew your food it will not get assimilated to your physical body.

The Psalmist wrote, “Lord I love your law. I meditate on it day and night.” (Psalm 119:97) Meditation is a slow-cooker, not a microwave. Meditation is like a cow chewing its cud, not like a kid inhaling a Big Mac. Meditation on God-thoughts allows the Spirit to assimilate such thoughts to your spirit and even, following Dallas Willard, to your physical body.

Thomas Merton says it this way. “All good meditative prayer is a conversion of our entire self to God. One cannot, then, enter into meditation, in this sense, without a kind of inner upheaval… [which results in] a liberation of the heart from the cares and preoccupations of one’s daily business.” (Thoughts in Solitude)

To meditate on God’s thoughts in Scripture is to be yourself exegeted by Scripture. Bible “study” can keep God’s thoughts at an objective distance. Meditative Scripture reading is your spirit simmering in the flavors and spices of God’s mind.

All meditative activity brings inner change. Choose this day what your meditation shall be. As for me and my spirit, I will carry Scripture with me and season my soul with God.

The Absence of the Feeling of God

Sterling State Park (Lake Erie)

I talked today with a friend who shared with me that, recently, God’s presence seems to have withdrawn from them. This made them sad, so much so that they felt like crying in just saying this. They are a Jesus-follower who, for many years, has lived in a near-constant experiential sense of God-with-them. Now, God seems to be far from them. They know God is with them, but currently lack experiential reality of this. What can we make of this? Here are some of my thoughts, which are not all directly related to this one person’s spiritual desert.

  • That God is with his followers is a truth that is not necessarily related to one’s experience of God-with-us. For example, I know that my wife Linda always loves me. Her love for me is constant, as is mine for her. But I do not always experience her love for me. The lack of such experience in no way causes me to doubt that she loves me, and loves me now. I think the same of God. I have had many experiences with God. I’ve also had many times when I lack God-experience. While it is true that often I want more God-experience than I have, this does not cause me to wonder why I don’t feel God as powerfuly as I have at other times.
  • None of us experience pure, unfiltered, face-to-face God-experience. All our God-encounters are “see-through-a-glass darkly” events. Yes, some claim more immediate (= unmediated) God-encounters. My own belief is that even such purported unmediated God-encounters (such as certain Christian mystics report, Meister Eckhart among them) are still mediated events. Some are more so than others. God-experiences are more or less proximal. I am not expecting full-blown unmediated face-to-face God moments, and thus am not disappointed at the lack of them.
  • The Psalms contain Deus absconditus moments (the “hidden God”; God as experientially hidden from us). Ps. 10 complains of God’s hiding – “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Ps. 30:7 expresses sadness that, after a time when the psalmist felt secure, he then felt God went into hiding: “When I felt secure, I said, ‘I will never be shaken.’ O Lord, when you favored me, you made my mountain stand firm; but when you hid your face, I was dismayed.'” Ps. 44 expresses outright ticked-offness at God’s hiding, suggesting that God is morally irresponsible: “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? Awake, do not cast us off forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” Part of the noetic framework of Judaeo-Christian theism is experiencing the absence of God.
  • My relatively long personal history (41 years) of brief and extended times of sensing God’s presence makes me confident that God is with me and near me and dwells within me even when I am not experientially aware of this. Even when I do not feel God I know God is near me, even within me, by his Spirit. I do not find myself doubting this. Indeed, this is more of a reality today than ever.
  • John 20:29 may be instructive here. Jesus says, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are they who, not seeing, believe.” This implies that Jesus-followers who believe even without perceptual experience of him have something, perhaps an existential certitude, that needs no empirical proof of the reality of God-with-them and God-for-them. Jesus applauds this kind of faith and trust.
  • I am thinking of Henri Nouwen’s distinction of a “ministry of presence” and a “ministry of absence.” Persons who engage in redemptive activity know that there is a time to be with people and a time to not be with people. The difference between the two is a matter of discernment. Sometimes, even often, the best thing for a person we are helping is to not be with them. Perhaps this is also how it is with our Redeemer God and us, with God knowing the difference. This may be related to the soul-making theodicy of Michael Murphy (via John Hick) in his “Deus Absconditus.” (In Howard-Snyder and Moser, Divine Hiddenness)
  • The “hidden God” moment par excellence is surely Jesus’ cry of “Why have you forsaken me?” Uttered from the cross, it expresses (I think) a total absence of God as a result of bearing this world’s sins. Sin makes a separation from relationship with God; Jesus’ experience of abandonment was absolute. Sometimes, therefore, our sin causally effects, in a negative way, our sense of God’s presence.
  • Is “experiencing God” equivalent to “feeling God?” I think not. I see “experiencing God” as the broader class within which “feeling God” is a subset. Thus one may experience God without feeling God (the relationship being assymetrical). This is a broad sense of “knowing” that includes yet is more than “feeling.” In this regard I am interested in two sources I am currently reading: 1) the work of Paul Moser, especially his idea of “filial knowledge” found in “Cognitive Idolatry and Divine Hiding (Divine Hiddenness) and The Evidence for God (esp. Ch. 4 – “Personifying Evidence for God”); and 2) James K.A. Smith’s pentecostal epistemology in his brilliant Thinking in Tongues.

Finally, when you are a Jesus-follower and are suffering, or are in need of rescue, you want God to come out of hiding and show up. At such times the feeling-absence of God seems most painful. Yet if “knowledge” is more than feeling, then you can know God is with you in the absence of feeling. That, too, can be an experience if we understand that experience is not reducible to feeling simpliciter.

For the Followers of One Thing

My front yard (4/18/11)

Monday, April 18. It is snowing in Monroe. We may get an inch.

A robin in my backyard sits, freezing, snow-coated, confused. The buds on my lilac bush decided to withdraw. “We emerged too early,” they said. My wife Linda does not like this snow.

As for me and my soul, this snow looks beautiful. This may be our last snowfall. I won’t see this for a while. There’s no wind. The flakes are big and corn-flaky.

On that first Easter week things were not looking good to Jesus’ followers. Spiritually, the sun was not shining; darkness was eneveloping the hearts of men. Don’t go to the cross, Jesus! “But I must.” The cross, in that upside-down Kingdom way of God, is the glory-pinnacle of history. “If I be lifted up…” The moment darkness trembled at His voice and tried to hide.

The Cross. This is Paul’s “One Thing.” “I resolved to know one thing: Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Attention all Followers of One Thing: this is your week.

It is good that it is snowing today. It needs to be cold. The sun must be out of sight. “Why have you forsaken me?”

Monroe forecast for Friday, April 22: mostly cloudy, chance of rain, highs 46-50. Good. It needs to be cloudy on Good Friday. The entire day should be a day of night. A day when, from all appearances, darkness gets its way. It was a confusing day for the original Jesus-followers. It was a day when they all, except for a couple of women, decided to check out of the Movement. What we thought was the light of the world just got crossed out. We can cross Jesus off our to-do list. We don’t want to hang with him any more. It will be good if this Friday, with rain, comes some thunder minus the lightning.

Monroe forecast for Sunday, April 24: sunny, highs 54-58.

Don’t Protect the False Self

As a kid in the 60s I was in love with Elvis. I wanted the Elvis gene in me. One day I took an Elvis album cover with me into the bathroom, propped it up against the mirror, and began working on my image. I tried to get my hair to look just like Elvis’s hair. Elvis would often curl his lip up in a kind of sneer. I wanted that for myself, so on that day I practiced the Elvis lip curl. After my self-makeover I went out of the house, through my back yard, straight to my friend John’s home. I was feeling good about myself. I was feeling Elvis-ish. I was Elvis. I am Elvis. When John saw me he said, without hesitation, “So you’re trying to look like Elvis again?” I had hoped he would mistake me for Elvis. I wanted a little shock and awe given my way! My facade had been penetrated, my image-bubble had burst.

Today, many years later, I find myself not wanting to be like anyone else and discovering it to be freedom. I do want to be like Christ, but not like you. I want Christ to be formed in me. (Galatians 4:19) We just had some wonderful speakers at Redeemer for our Furious Love Event. God poured, through them, through the worship, through our own serving people, through those visiting, a lot of Himself into me. I was influenced by Christ in them. Which is exactly what I really need and increasingly what I desire; viz., Him. God. Jesus. Christ in me. Other people are not my hope of glory, but Christ is.

I want a life of greater integrity. When I started off in college I was planning to be a metallurgical engineer. I headed in this direction because my high school counselor said it would be something I could do. And, I did like science. Here is something I know about metal. If you had a block of solid metal you could test its integrity. “Integrity,” in metallurgical engineering, means that a block of metal is the same at point A as it is at point B as it is at point Z. If at any point the metal lacks integrity, it will there crack when pressure is applied. “Integrity” means: “as of one piece.” This is the idea of consistency.

With this in mind we can define “integrity” as applied to a Jesus-follower. If Christ has every part of you, then you have integrity. Your life has consistency, because your life consists of Christ. When life’s pressures squeeze you will remain firm and unyielding, even content, no matter the circumstances. But if, when under pressure, you crumble, it is at that point that you lack the influence of Christ; hence you lack integrity. If Christ grips every piece of your being then you are Christlike when no one is around, Christlike in your home, Christlike in the work place, Christlike at the worship service, Christlike in the bathroom, and Christlike when invading the darkness. We don’t believe Jesus was someone different when the crowds weren’t around, right? Jesus didn’t wear a Christ-mask, correct?

Thomas Merton, in Raids on the Unspeakable, wrote: “If we take our vulnerable shell to be our true identity, if we think our mask is our true face, we will protect it with fabrications even at the cost of violating our own truth.” Elvis is not my true identity. It took a long time for me to realize that. It’s hard work trying to be in public that which you are not in your soul and when alone when the mask is taken off. So don’t protect the false self.

Your true identity is found in Christ. Christ has made his home in you. Christ indwells you. Let Christ be formed in you today. And be free.

Furious Love Is Over – What Do We Do Now?

Worshiping at Furious Love

Our “Furious Love Event” is over. I am physically tired, and began to get a sore throat yesterday. I slept ten hours last night! But spiritually I am doing very well.

So what am I going to do this week? What should we do? If you were at FL and don’t know what to do now you weren’t listening. We were told very clearly what the whole thing is really about. Here’s how I see it.

  • Be Jesus-dependent, not conference-dependent. What you need is Jesus, not another conference. Of course God can come into a conference and reveal himself to us, like he did at Furious Love. But God can do the same, even more, with just you. It’s just You and me here now, only You and me here now… (Did you notice how a few of the FL speakers spoke about “conferences,? especially Heidi Baker?)
  • Abide in Christ, now, like a branch connected to the True Vine. The sustenance of Jesus is yours, now. Remember how Phillip Mantofa visually demonstrated this for us on Saturday evening. To take many “quiet times” with the Lord, daily, for all the rest of the days of your life. That is, for me, the deep well out of which I drink from. DO THIS! Do not try to “make something happen. No striving, please.
  • Saturate yourself in the Scriptures. We all know this. Few Christians do this. So God sent Phillip Mantofa to bring us back to this. I already know of some Redeemer people who are in Genesis today, reading through the entire Bible. I invite others to swim around with me in 1 Corinthians, which Josh and I will be preaching out of for the next 25 weeks.
  • Listen to God. Out of the abiding, Scripture-saturated heart comes direction and vision. Expect God to talk to you and with you is you Abide + Saturate.
  • Be obedient to God. Don’t go off to a bunch of meetings and try to invent some “programs” that will keep the fire burning. You don’t need another program. You need a relationship. With Christ. He is in you, the hope of glory. Remember all the many stories we heard at Furious Love? Stories of unknown people who sought after God and heard from God and were led to do great things from very small, even bleak, beginnings. This can be you. Why not? Remember – you’re not to do anything to try to be “great” or be “somebody.” Remember that God’s idea of “great” is not the dark kingdom’s idea of great.
  • Get in a small group. Tomorrow night Linda and I go to our Home Group get-together at Val & John Fowler’s home. We’ll do some FL-afterglow. We’ll read and talk about the 1 Corinthians verses I’ll preach on this coming Sunday. The fire inside me will burn…
  • Don’t try to get others to share your inner fire. Just tend the fire within you by ABIDING + SATURATING.

When Darren Wilson heard from God that he was to make a movie and call it “Finger of God”  a couple of things happened (as I remember it). Darren shared this with us. He had no money! Yet he was certain God called him to do this. We at Redeemer felt so too. So we took an offering one Sunday morning and a couple thousand dollars came in. Not exactly big-budget movie stuff! But Darren went forward. To all our amazement, look what God has done!

To summarize, now that this great God-event is over…

  1. Be Jesus-dependent
  2. Abide in Christ
  3. Read the Word lots
  4. Listen for the voice of God
  5. Obey
  6. Get in a Home Group
  7. Tend the fire within you

After Furious Love

Our Furious Love Event is over. The God-event continues. Many of us are finding it difficult to talk about it, especially after Saturday evening. Here are some photos, with some commentary.

Greg Boyd

Greg Boyd spoke two times, contrasting a “Blueprint View” if the world with a “Warfare Worldview.” I find his teaching and preaching brilliant and compelling. Many were stunned at the clarity and insights God brought to us through Greg. When Greg was with us at Redeemer a few years ago we had dinner at our home and watched “Napolean Dynamite” together. What if Napolean Dynamite got saved and was brilliant and Spirit-filled? That’s Greg. You can find his writings on the Warfare Worldview here and here.

Greg played drums on our worship team Thursday evening. He is an excellent drummer! I played electric guitar. It was an empowering worship experience. 650 people were maxing out our sanctuary. Heidi Baker spoke that evening. She was coming to us directly from Mozambique. One of her flights was cancelled. I picked up her husband Rolland from the hotel and he was texting her trying to work out the flight details. We began our worship time later so that Heidi could be there to be part of it. I often play guitar with my eyes closed. I opened them at one point and Heidi was on her knees passionately worshiping. For me this was very moving. Holly Benner, our phenomenal worship leader, was God-led, taking us deep into His holy presence.

Heidi came forward. She got on her knees on the platform and continued worshiping, leading us in what became a beautifully haunting a capella singing. The sound crew later played this exprience back to me. We were trying to decide if we heard a violin section appearing out of nowhere accompanying the praise.

Then Heidi preached.

I don’t know how to write about this right now…

Darren Wilson (producer of “Finger of God” and “Furious Love,” as well as his new book Filming God) led a panel discussion which was transparent, real, vulnerable, and endeared us to all the speakers.

Left to right – Darren Wilson, Robbie Dawkins, Phillip Mantofa, Will Hart,
Shampa Rice, Mattheus van der Steen, Rolland Baker,
Greg Boyd, Angela Greenig, Rebecca van der Steen

Angela Greenig taught on deliverance and led a session that no one will ever forget.

Greg Boyd, Angela Greenig, Rebecca van der Steen

Shampa Rice opened Furious Love up on Wednesday evening with an incredible message on the love of God. Linda and I wish Shampa and her husband Jonathan were closer to Monroe! As a little girl growing up in Calcutta Shampa lived across from Mother Teresa. She would go and hug Mother Teresa’s legs. Shampa did a second session and shared about her being abused as a child. It was yet another session no one will ever forget.

Josh Bentley, Mattheus van der Steen, Phillip Mantofa,
and Shampa Rice

Mattheus van der Steen trained under Brother Andrew (of God’s Smuggler). Mattheus is from the Netherlands. He spoke on Thursday evening and gave yet another unforgettable message accompanied by God’s power. And, he gave what may be the funniest sermon illustration (out of his personal life) that I have ever heard.

Mattheus van der Steen

We had people from around the U.S. and world with us. One newly married couple chose to celebrate their honeymoon at Furious Love. Here is Will Hart (from Randy Clark’s ministry) blessing them.

Will Hart

I am so thankful Robbie Dawkins (Vineyard pastor in Chicago) was with us. I got to spend some time with him and his wonderful wife Angie. Robbie spoke twice, and gave the perfect, God-anointed message at Redeemer on Sunday morning.

Robbie Dawkins and me

I am so proud of the 100+ Redeemer servants who served like crazy worker bees throughout the entire event. Thanks to Josh Bentley who did a phenomenal job coordinating this. I heard many compliments about the hospitality that was lovingly served up to all. Here are a few of them.

Saturday evening. Phillip Mantofa from Indonesia spoke on “Read the Bible.” Linda said this evening was one of the three or four most significant evenings in all her life. Most of us cannot talk about it now. Words will not do it justice. God came. I’m feeling emotional as I write this. Something happened. Many of us think it was important in a way that goes beyond us. All of the speakers felt the same. It was different. It felt different. We shall see.

Phillip Mantofa

Shampa Rice at Redeemer This Wednesday Evening

Shampa Rice (“Shanti” from the film “Furious Love”) will speak at Redeemer & the Furious Love Event this wednesday evening, April 6, 7 PM.

For registration information go here.

Shampa Rice was raised in Calcutta, living across the street from Mother Teresa’s headquarters from the age of 12, Shampa was often inspired by her faith and simplicity. She prayed that God would raise her out of poverty so that she too could someday help the poor as Mother Teresa was doing. God heard her cries above and beyond anything she could have dreamed; eventually she would be reaching people all over the world with God’s love.

One of Shampa’s favorite themes is that God likes to use simple, “little people.” “I love to cook. I am a woman from the kitchen,” she says. “God is not looking for someone important; He’s looking for anybody who loves Him because He wants to be found more than we want to find Him.”

Shampa has been the director for Iris Ministries in North India since 2005.

“Church” As a Colony of Heaven In a Country of Death

Every pastor should read The Pastor: A Memoir, by Eugene Peterson.

In Ch. 16, “Catacombs Presbyterian Church,” Peterson takes us to the meaning of “church.” Since American Christianity has for the most part lost this, it is worth going back to Square One. Peterson here functions as a prophet. If you have ears to hear, listen.

Peterson’s first church met in the basement of a home. People began calling it “Catacombs Presbyterian Church.” “Church” was an underground thing. That’s what the Jesus-Movement was in the first century. The powerful movement of the Kingdom of God was like a seed growing secretly beneath the soil’s surface, and not like some opulent, ornate human edifice-complex blooming in full view.

Peterson defines “church.” “Church is a core element in the strategy of the Holy Spirit for providing human witness and physical presence to the Jesus-inaugurated kingdom of God in this world. It is not that kingdom complete, but it is that kingdom.” It took Peterson a long time to understand “church” as: “a colony of heaven in the country of death, a strategy of the Holy Spirit for giving witness to the already-inaugurated kingdom of God.”

“Church” is people who witness to the Jesus-story.

People are messy. Most pastors don’t stay in the mess with their own screwed-upness long enough to be part of church-forming, by the Spirit. Peterson says, “my pastors never stayed with it long enough. Maybe they concluded that there had been some mistake in the packaging of the puzzle and many of the pieces had been accidentally left out. It became obvious to them that there were not enough pieces in the pews of our congregation to complete the picture of… [an] army with banners, marching to make war against the devil and all his angels. My pastors always left after a couple of years for another congregation or some other employment. Obviously our church was too far gone in disrepair to spend any more time on it.”

I grew up in Tabor Lutheran Church in Rockford, Illinois. Our pastor was Clarence Anderzon. He pastored Tabor for… 50 years. When I became a Jesus-follower he was one of the persons I knew I had to talk to. He invited me to his home and we spend several hours together. I shared my story, he listened, and encouraged me. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I now see that Pastor Anderzon had great staying-power. My pastoral model was: pastor as shepherd (not as “rancher”) of a congregation. A shepherd has a flock, stays with the flock, and doesn’t hop from flock to flock looking for the better one. I write this in my 19th year at Redeemer. It has not all been easy, for either me or my flock. They had to get used to me! And it has been so enriching that I often thank God for connecting me with this church, these people, whom I love. Redeemer is a movement of Real Jesus-followers that Linda and I get to partner with!

However…  Real, authentic “church” has “been scrapped and replaced with the imagery of an ecclesiastical business with a mission to market spirituality to consumers and make them happy… [“Church” in America is now seen as] a business opportunity that would cater to the consumer tastes of spiritually minded sinners both within and without congregations.”

The consumer-congregation strategy includes removing “pictures of the God of Gomorrah and Moriah and Golgotha from the walls of the churches and shift[ing] things around a bit to make the meeting places more consumer friendly. With God depoersonalized and then repackaged as a principle or formula, people could shop at their convenience for whatever sounded or looked as if it would make their lives more interesting and satisfying on their terms. Marketing research quickly developed to show just what people wanted in terms of God and religion. As soon as pastors knew what it was, they could give it to them.”

Real Church is about:

  • what God wants, not what people want
  • what people really need, not what people want
  • a Movement, not an institution
  • the leading of the Holy Spirit, and not someone named “Robert”

Peterson writes of “the Americanization of the congregation.” This “means turing each congregation into a market for religious consumers, an ecclesiastical business run along the lines of advertising techniques, organizational flow charts, and energized by impressive motivational rhetoric… This pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity violated everything – scriptural, theological, experiential – that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor. It struck me as far worse than the earlier erotic and crusader illusions of church. It was a blasphemous desecration of the way of life to which church had ordained me – something on the order of a vocational abomination of desolation.”

Peterson opts for the Church as a Movement, as a “terrible army,” rather than “the newly franchised Church of What’s Happening Now.”

To pastor a real church Peterson went to Square One. “Square One here meant the Acts of the Apostles. I would immerse myself and our church-in-formation in the story of the first church-in-formation. Acts would give us a text for cleansing our perceptions from the blurring and distorting American stereotypes.”

I love that way of putting it. Turn off the TV churches and tolle lege the four Gospels. Note the disconnect. Be purged of the “American Church.” Re-enter the strange, earth-shattering world of Jesus.

When Peterson’s underground-catacombs-basement church first met, 46 people were present. He writes: “I wanted to drench the collective imagination of my congregation in the story of church as a reliving, a reteling of the story of Jesus.” Pastors – saturate yourself in the Scriptures. In your preaching, teaching, and living, drench your congregation in the Grand Narrative. View all of life through it.

Don’t follow the American Way! “The American stereotype of church. Salvation is God’s business. It is what God does. And then he turn it over to us [and “Robert”]. Church is our business. It is what we do. God, having given himself to us in Jesus, now retires to the sidelines and we take over. Occasionally we call a time-out to consult with God. [We open our “business meetings” with a short prayer.] But basically, we are the action. [“God helps those who help themselves” – Hezekiah 1:5.] But that is not the way Acts tells the story.”

View “Church” as story. “Acts is not a manual with blueprints or a set on instructions on how to be a church. Acts is not a utopian fantasy on what a perfect church would look like. Acts is a detailed story of the ways in which the first church became a church. A story is not a script to be copied.”

As I’m writing this I received a prayer request from a good friend who is laboring to rescue women out of prostitution. A women who wants to escape the sex-slave industry needs help. Some money will be needed. Please pray for this! I felt God tell me to send the request out to my church, since we are a People Movement, and are used to being moved by the Spirit. We’ll see what happens. I’m expecting God to move some hearts, without the need for human manipulation or coercion. A Movement is far more exciting than an Institution; a Story more than another business meeting. We’re in the story as Jesus-followers, in “Act 5” as N.T. Wright would say. The drama unfolds before us, with the Spirit leading the way. It is happening, right now. Now, not later.

One more thing: “If we don’t acquire a narrative sense, a story sense, with the expectation that we are each one of us uniquely ourselves – participants in the unique place and time and weather of where we live and worship – we will always be looking somewhere else or to a different century for a model by which we can be an authentic and biblical church.”

Linda and I are planted in Monroe.

Bear fruit where you are planted.

(Read the whole book. It’s prophetic, and soul-and-mind cleansing.)