Saturday, January 10, 2009
Friday, January 09, 2009
The Church/Cult - Christ/Pharisee Line
Rob Foster was 16 when his family unraveled. He had told his parents that he wanted to leave Calvary Temple, the Pentecostal church in Sterling the family had attended for decades. But church leaders were blunt with his parents: Throw your son out of the house, or you will be excommunicated. And so that December two years ago, Gary and Marsha Foster told Rob that he had to leave. They would not see him or talk to him.OK, for starters, a Washington Post piece does not amount to sufficient evidence to make a judgment on this particular congregation. But let's take these representations at face value for purposes of this discussion. If not this congregation, I bet most of us know of one that really is like this.
But for hundreds of members who have left the church during the past decade, Calvary is a place of spiritual warfare, where ministers urged them to divorce spouses and shun children who resisted the teachings. Scott is twisting the Bible's message, they say, and members who challenged the theology were accused of hating God.
They had joined eagerly, drawn to Scott's energy as a new religious broadcaster and his commitment to living by the literal word of the Bible. He defined the church. But just as he built Calvary, they say, Scott transformed it, taking it from a vibrant, open church to a rigidly insular community over which he has almost total control.
What we learn form this is that the line between being a church and being a "cult," in the pejorative sense of that word, is a thin one. The line between representing Christ and being a Pharisee is a thin one as well. This is legalism run amok, which tends, in my book, to define the lines we are discussing here.
As everyone should know by now, I tend to be pretty "big tent" when it comes to people doing things in the name of Jesus - but this is one place where I would draw a hard line. I see only ruined lives coming from a situation like this. Some may temporarily think their lives blessed, but someday this house of cards will fall and those people will be set adrift, not merely confused, but likely with animosity to Christ. For me the key question is, "How do situations like this develop and how do we prevent it?"
This, frankly, is why I believe in denominations. Hierarchy is necessary to bring this pastor to heel. It is as simple as that. He is victimizing his congregation in such a fashion that they lack the ability to call him to account on their own. There needs to be an outside influence that can do so.
This phenomena happens in so many ways and to so many degrees. Not all of them end up really ugly like this. Some end up ugly only in dark corners, some end up where the personal peccadilloes of some pastor, with limited and hidden victims are just allowed to continue "unnoticed." Only a formal accountability structure, that comes from the outside of the congregation can provide the kinds of checks and balances to situations like these. Only such a structure can detect them before they get out of hand and stop them from growing into a major problem. People in the congregation often suffer from the frog in boiling water thing.
We need to know when we are walking towards the line, not when we have crossed it.
Technorati Tags:church, cult, accountability
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator
Technorati Tags:joke, humor, friday humor, daffy duck, cartoon
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator
Thursday, January 08, 2009
How To Look At Church
But in my talk I suggested it attractional church verses missional church is a false polarization. The problem is in fact that both sides view church as a meeting you attend. Even those who reject attractional church implicitly view church as a meeting. But everything changes if you view church as a community or a network of relationships. Then attractional church is not about putting on a good show, but about a community life that attracts people to God.You want to know what I really think? I agree with that quote about 150% - BUT - I really am uncomfortable with the fact that the idea is coming forth in the "missional/attractional" discussion as if that matters. He starts in the right place - it's a false polarization, but then he proceeds to conduct his discussion in the terms that generate the polarization to begin with.
Worse, when looked at as ideas, and not just words, this discussion is as old as the church itself. We keep debating what the church should be, and keep neglecting the fact that the church is supposed to be US and everything else is just a means of organizing.
The bottom line is that we want to control church. We want to have it organized sufficiently that we can take it in and control it somehow. I don't care how we organize, hierarchically or democratically, conventionally or denominationally - organization - as we practice it is about CONTROL.
Look, whenever people get together they have to organize themselves, but I think God has a very different view of organization than we do. We are commanded:
Phil 2:3 - Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself;Don't you think that maybe that has corporate as well as personal application? The organization of the church exists to SERVE, not to control.
Which means, I think, we will stop arguing about what kind pf church we ought to be and start being ALL kinds of churches. The church will serve those called to do "attractional" ministry by training, equipping and provided those with the resources necessary to do it. Likewise with those called to do "missional" ministry, not to mention every other form of ministry. (Provided, of course, that it really is ministry and not just an excuse for self-indulgence in God's name)
Paul set the example for us:
1 Cor 9:20-22 - And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.The church must be WHATEVER it takes to do the job. Every time we try to be one thing, but not the other, we exclude someone - WRONG! We need to include everyone.
Technorati Tags:church, ministry, all, inclusivity, service, control
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator
Wednesday, January 07, 2009
Faith and Culture
“Gnosticism” may not be the right word for it, but it is what Harold Bloom in The American Religion calls a religion of the self. It is a seductive way of accommodating differences by declaring a truce in contentions over truth. The “Christ without culture” model—meaning Christianity indifferent to culture—would seem to produce a circumstance in which religion is impervious to culture and culture is impervious to religion. But, in fact, it results in religion’s acquiescing in the culture’s demand that religion confine itself to the sphere of privacy.In the piece Father Neuhaus calls for engagement of the culture on the highest levels - abortion, same-sex marriage, freedom of religious expression. He is right to do so. But as a Catholic, I think he misses the biggest problem that faces people of faith, at least Evangelicals. That is the effort to engage cultural trivially. Neuhaus talks about engage or not engage, but I think it is a question of seriously engage, or trivially engage.
The Church is not merely a voluntary association of the spiritually like-minded catering to the indulgence of private sensibilities in one of Babylon’s many enclaves of choice. The Church is the Body of Christ through time proposing to the world the new creation inaugurated in his cross and resurrection and promised return. Whether against, above, in paradox, or transforming, she is always critically engaged—never surrendering to the cultural captivity that is the delusion of “Christ without culture.”
Is Hummel vs Hummel-knock-offs-holding-scripture-cards a serious cultural engagement? Is "Christian country" decor, all purchased from the nearest Lighthouse "bookstore" serious cultural engagement? I would argue that such things are simply trivializing.
But what is worst of all is that they do not just trivialize a Christian's engagement of cultural, they trivialize a Christian's faith in general. How, if you take your faith truly seriously, can you hide in a home surrounded by some blanket of Christian labeled gee-gaws? At a minimum, if you take your faith seriously, you want to be out in the world where you have an opportunity to share that faith - and that's the minimum!
Faith taken seriously changes us, and once changed, if for the better, would we not naturally seek to change those around us?
The crisis Father Neuhaus discusses in his essay is not just a crisis of Christian action it the public sphere - it is a crisis of genuine faith developing in the heart of people that call Jesus Christ their Lord and Savior! Too many say the words, but they fail to let them enter their hearts.
Technorati Tags:faiht, culture, change
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator
Tuesday, January 06, 2009
Clericalism is the idea that certain people, the clergy, are specially gifted and empowered to do ministry. Those we call priests or pastors or reverends or ministers or fathers or preachers are the real ministers who are gifted by the Spirit. The rest of the people–just the lay people–are the receivers of ministry, but not the ministers. Clericalism reigned in the established church for centuries, though it was less prominent in independent or free churches. Even Protestants, who rejected the Roman Catholic version of priestly clericalism, developed their own brand before too long.OK, I could not agree more, but the shoe also fits on the other foot here. The pros need to get the heck out of the way sometimes.
In my experience, as clericalism loses its choking grip on the church, it is being replaced by a similar syndrome: professionalism. In this perspective, the church isn’t divided up into the divinely-called clerics and the non-called laity. Rather, the division falls between the professionals and the non-professionals. Professional ministers are trained, educated, experienced, and paid. They do the ministry, not because they have cornered the market on calling and gifting, but because they are the resident experts.
Many faithful churchgoing folk remind me of myself during my first few games of little league. I wasn’t an especially talented player, so I quickly found myself warming the bench. Soon I just didn’t expect to play and my expectations usually were fulfilled. One night I took my usual spot on the bench. Before too long, the darkness of the dugout and the lateness of the hour lured me to sleep. Toward the end of the game as I was snoozing away, I heard my name being called as if in a dream: “Mark! Mark!” As I began to stir, I realized that I wasn’t dreaming. The coach was calling me. I was being put into the game as a pinch-hitter. It would b my first official appearance in little league! But sleepiness didn’t help my batting much. Three quick strikes later, I returned to my spot in the dugout, mortified with shame and swearing that I would again never be unprepared to play.
If you are not expecting to get into the game, you will probably not be ready when the Holy Spirit calls you up to bat. So let me give you advance warning. God has not put you on his team so that you can warm the bench and watch the pros play. He has called you into the game. He will empower you to play with effectiveness. But first you have to get off the bench. You need to commit yourself to a ministry or to a fellowship in which you will be free to minister. As you become more accustomed to functioning in spiritual gifts, you will realize that the Holy Spirit wants to use you, not just in official church gatherings, but in all times and all places.
Just a few random thoughts for ministry professionals...
You are not building the church, you are building the people. We tend to get all screwed up about what the job is. It is not not get the numbers and contributions up, it is to make the people that are the current numbers and contributions into better Christians, better disciples. They'll get the numbers and contributions up, if you are successful at that task.
This has a couple of important implications:
Mistakes are part of the discipling process. Guess what! You made them too. And you learned from them. Part of what you need to do to make them into better disciples is allow them to fail. Yep, "your" ministry might not look so good then, but then...
It's not "your" ministry. I make a living as an "expert," though not in this field. The hardest thing about the job is to let my individual client companies figure out how to implement my advice in their context. It is so much easier just to tell them what to do, but each company has a different culture, and they are not my companies. I have to let them work it out for themselves or the advice I offer will never really take root.
God's got your back. Pros worry about all this stuff because they think their livelihood depends on it. NOT TRUE. Your livelihood depends on Jesus Christ. Which is plenty.
As a former pro turned amateur, I made these mistakes and I have watched them be made again and again. As a former pro turned amateur I often find myself relegated to the sidelines because the current batch of pros are too worried about losing the illusions of control they have.
There are many in the pews that need to step up, but there are many in the office that need to get the heck out of the way.
Technorati Tags:ministry professionals, discipling, faith, trust
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator
Monday, January 05, 2009
Studying The Opposition
Fact is, if you look around the world, people are not rushing to atheism and secularism. Sure, in some places they’re buying the books, but not in the majority of the world. With the exception of small pockets of atheism and secularism in Western nations, the actual trend is toward a more progressive spirituality, a spirituality that may not—at least from undiscerning human eyes—appear to enthrone self, as does secularism. In fact, some people might even call it a new fundamentalism, a return to what are ultimately superstitious or flawed religious beliefs. Ask an African what is sweeping Africa, and he’ll not reply atheism, but Islam.I am deeply tempted to go off on charismatics here, the movement is a pet-peeve of mine. The gifts aren't, just the charismatic movement. However, to do so would miss what I think is the bigger and more important point here. I think charismatics might be the first to jump ship, but I think most of the church will do so because, whether it is over-focusing on the miraculous, or the liturgical, or just attendance numbers, the idea holds.
Lee Grady, the editor of Charisma magazine, claims a pastor he knows insists that many charismatics will follow the antichrist because of their devotion to supernatural signs. I think that pastor nails it. The deception that is coming is less obvious. It’s subtle. It’s sorta-Christianity, with a veneer of powerful wonders. It will have many of the trappings of what Western Christians have come to accept as Christianity but will actually be a complete lie. In some ways, we Western Christians have been test subjects. We’re just too drowsy to see it.
The opposition does not need to "convert" us, he just needs to pervert us. In fact, if we guard to carefully against such "perversions," we run the risk of letting him through the door that way as well.
This is why, in the end being a Christian is a deeply personal thing worked out in a communal context, it is not a communal thing. Movements, paradigms, institutions, doctrines, etc. are all subject to perversions, and every one you can list, I am certain we can arrive at examples of it gone wrong.
What keeps such things from corrupting? US! You see, this is a question of judgment. Healing on the sabbath may violate Pharisaical dictate, but it clearly does not violate the will of Christ. Only someone rebuilt in the true image of Christ would be able to make that judgment as Christ Himself did.
The correct response to these perversions is not anti-perversion movements, it is personal discipleship.
Technorati Tags:church, perversion, discipleship
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator
Sunday, January 04, 2009
Sermons and Lessons
Aurthur T. Pierson. Editor-in-Chief of The Missionary Review of the World; born in New York City, March 6, 1837; graduated Hamilton College, 1857; and Union Theological Seminary, 1860; ordained to the gospel ministry as an evangelist in May the same year; pastor of the First Congregational church, Binghamton, N. Y., 1860-63; Presbyterian church, Waterford, N. Y., 1863-69; Fort Street Presbyterian church, Detroit, Mich., 1869-82; Second Presbyterian church, Indianapolis, Ind., 1882,3; Bethany Presbyterian church, Philadelphia, 1883-89; Metropolitan Tabernacle, London, England, 1891-93; Duff lecturer on missions in Scotland, 1891-94; Graves lecturer at New Brunswick, etc.; author of “Miracles of Missions,” “Crisis of Missions,” “George Muller of Bristol,” “Forward Movements of the Last Half Century,” etc.
Thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet. - Matt. 6:6.
Three things stand out prominently in this brief injunction; first, the individual approach to God; second, the secret place of communion; third, the specific object, prayer.
The word, “closet,” is unusual. The original word is found but four times in the New Testament, in one instance being rendered, “secret chambers,” and in another, “storehouse.” The words here used by our Lord closely resemble those of Isaiah 26: 20: “Come, my people, enter thou into thy chambers, and shut thy doors about thee.”
There is in both cases marked emphasis on the singular number of the second personal pronoun. In Isaiah, the opening call is plural, or collective, “Come, my people,” but immediately changes to the singular, “Enter thou into thy chambers,” and so, in our Lord‘s adaptation of these words, conspicuous stress is laid on the singular, “ thou.” The injunction is intensely individual. “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet; and when thou hast shut thy door pray to thy Father, who is in secret, and thy Father shall reward thee openly.” Eight times, in so brief a space, is the singular pronoun used, surely not without purpose.
What do these four words suggest: “Enter into thy closet“? Closet means simply a close, a closed place, shut in for privacy, shut out from intrusion and interruption. To Jewish hearers such language would naturally suggest the one place that was preeminently a secret chamber - the inmost court of tabernacle and temple, where God specially dwelt, known as the holy of holies.
That was preeminently a secret chamber, a closed place, having neither door nor window; unlike many an Oriental court which is open to the sky, it was roofed in and without skylight. It was always shut. A door which we open, as we enter a room, we must also close behind us; but the veil in front of the holiest of all, raised as the high priest went in, fell back as soon as it was released, and so kept the secrecies of God’s chamber shut out from mortal eyes.
Here then was one place, peculiarly marked by silence, secrecy, solitude and separation. Only one person ever entered here, at a time, “the high priest, once every year, alone.” Two parties never met there save himself and God. It was, in a unique sense, the place of which God could say, “Thou and I “ - the one closet, shut-in place, secret chamber for the meeting of one man with his Maker.
Moreover, its one conspicuous solitary article of furniture was the mercy-seat, the appointed meeting place, the basis of fellowship between the suppliant and the Hearer of prayer. And thus the three conditions, suggested by the injunction, “Enter into thy “closet,” were met here as nowhere else; here the secret chamber, the individual approach and the prayerful communion. We have the key to this first lesson on prayer: the “closet” is the holy of holies where the praying soul meets God alone, and communes with Him at the blood-sprinkled mercy-seat.
The highest prayer is impossible, save as the human suppliant deliberately seeks to meet God absolutely alone. To secure such aloneness we are bidden to “enter into the closet,” to find some place and time where we may shut ourselves in with’ Him. This is made emphatic by repetition in another form: “And when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, who is in secret,” a second word here used meaning essentially the same as closet - a secret place.
In praying, we need some place and time, free from needless interruption and intrusion. The eyelid drops over the organ of vision, shutting out all external objects; and, if the ear were similarly supplied with an earlid, to shut out all sounds, as the eyelid does all sights, a closet could be instantly found and ‘entered even in the throng, and the spirit might secretly commune with God in the crowded streets or assemblies.
But, in the absence of any such natural provision for such complete seclusion and ex¬clusion, our Lord counsels us, when we pray, to get somehow, somewhere, a silent, secret communing place with God, as not only the very basis of prayer, but of all holy living built upon prayer. The more completely we can separate ourselves from all others, worldly pursuits and pleasures, distracting cares and diverting thoughts, shutting out all else but God, the more perfect is the fitness of the hour and place to the purpose. Those who know how needful and helpful such a secret time and place for prayer are, will secure, at any cost, the silent season even though, like the psalmist, they rise before others wake, and” prevent the dawning of the morning.”
Every praying soul needs to meet God absolutely alone. There are inner secrets which no other human being however intimate ought to know, or indeed can know.
And a stranger doth not intermeddle with his joy.
We turn ourselves inside out not even to a bosom friend: we would not if we could, and could not if we would. To the inmost secret chambers there is no open door; they are locked and sealed; words supply no key to them, and the seal of silence and secrecy is inviolable. But “all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do;” and so the closet, where we meet God alone and only, is the one place for all such secrets. Nothing else will supply its place. Public worship, the “family altar,” or the more private prayer in which only husband and wife join before God - none of these can take the place of the solitary closet. In one respect they who are ”one flesh,” are still twain;” for neither can ever fully know the other. But while, to our most intimate friend we cannot reveal everything, from God we can conceal nothing. His omniscient eye pierces to the secret chambers, despite the lock which no man can pick, the seal which no man dares break. He reads the thoughts yet afar off, “like forms faintly seen in the dim distance, and hears the word yet unspoken in the tongue,” And it is as to these secrets which must be brought to the light in His presence, exposed, confessed, renounced, corrected before Him, that the closet is meant to give facility and freedom for converse with God. Hence this initial command to cultivate habitual aloneness with Him. Like Jacob at Peniel, each suppliant must be “left alone “ at times: the “thou” must be absolute and not the “ye,” when the closet is entered.
Why now is such stress laid, in our Lord‘s primary lesson on prayer, upon this shutting out of all else, and closing in of the suppliant with God?
It is, first of all, in order to what, as his third instrument of “Holy Living,” Jeremy Taylor calls “the practice of the presence of God.”
Nothing else has such an effect upon character and conduct, as this sense of God ‘s presence; and nothing is so difficult, nay impossible of attainment, so long as we neglect God’s appointed means.
God is a Spirit, and must be worshiped in the spirit. Invisible, inaudible, intangible, He cannot be tested by the senses: they utterly fail as channels of impression or communication. His subtle essence evades all carnal approach or analysis. He must therefore be otherwise known, if at all: the spirit alone has the higher senses which, being exercised to discern good and evil, can enable us to perceive God and hold communication with Him. Hence, to those who live a sinful or even worldly life, and are carnally minded, even the reality and verity of His existence become matters of practical, if not theoretical, doubt. There is much virtual atheism in mere unbelief. It is possible to recite the creed, “ I believe in God, the Father Almighty,” without ever for one moment having had a real, true sense of the presence of God. Many who do not deny that God is, do not know that He is.
Such sense of the divine existence and realization of the divine presence may be cultivated. God has appointed two means, which, when used jointly, never fail: first a meditative reading of Holy Scripture, and secondly a habitual communion with Him in the closet. These two are so closely related, that they are not only mutually helpful, but operate upon us in ways almost precisely alike Both introduce us into God‘s secret chambers.
When a devout disciple takes up God’s Word for studious thought, he naturally lifts his heart to Him who alone can unveil the eyes of his understanding to behold wondrous things out of His law. As he reads and searches, meditating therein, the same Spirit who first inspired the Word, illumines his mind. New light is thrown upon the sacred page, so that what was obscure or hidden, becomes visible and legible; and new clearness of sight and insight is given so that spiritual vision becomes more capable of seeing, more keen-sighted and far-sighted.
Those who have felt this double effect of the Spirit’s teaching bear witness that the Bible becomes a transformed book. Best of all books before, it is now the Book of God - a house of many mansions, in which new doors constantly open into new apartments, massive and magnificent, God ‘s art galleries, museums of curious things, chambers of disclosed mysteries, treasuries of celestial gems. The devout student is transported with wonder and delight. Words open with new meanings, affording glimpses into depths and heights, breadths and lengths that are infinite. Looking at a firmament which was before clouded, the clouds are parting and heavenly constellations are visible. Meanwhile the eye has become telescopic; and where before were seen a few scattered stars or an indistinct nebulous cloud, everything is ablaze with the glories of countless and many colored lights. When the Author of the Word becomes Instructor and Interpreter of His own textbook, heaven‘s great classic is read with the notes and comments of the divine Author himself; and so he who devoutly searches the Scriptures, finds in them both eternal life and the testimony of Jesus; the reverent, prayerful study of the Word of God is the cure of all honest doubt as to its divine origin, and the’ all-convincing proof of its plenary inspiration.
But, as the First Psalm reminds us, to find such delight in the law of the Lord, one must meditate therein day and night; be a sort of sacramental tree of life, planted by the rivers of water. Mark the instructive, emphatic metaphor. A tree is permanently planted in the soil. Its roots are fixed organs of nutrition, constantly subordinate to the double purpose of growth and fruitfulness. Through the spongelets at the extremities of the roots, the tree takes up the water of the river into itself, transmuting it into sap which deposits woody fiber in the branches and becomes juice in the, fruit. The disciple,’ planted by the river of God - the Word which goeth forth out of His mouth, takes up into himself the very water of life, translating truth into character, and precepts and promises into practice. He reads God’s Word and, like the cattle that chew the cud, ruminates upon it; and so comes to know God through His Word, as we know men through candid and self-revealing utterances. To meditate on God’s words introduces us to the secret chambers of God’s thoughts, and imparts insight into God’s character. One becomes sure there is a God, who sees Him unveiled in the Scriptures, hears His still small voice in their audience chambers, traces His footprints on their golden pavements; and, in times of temptation, trial, sorrow, or doubt, God ‘s words, brought to remembrance, and applied by the Spirit to his needs, become, individually, God’s words to him. He consults the oracles of God, and they give answer. This is to the unbelieving one of the closed mysteries, a stumbling-block of mysticism, or the foolishness of fanaticism; but, to him whose experience has been enriched by it, an open mystery, a fact as indisputable as any hi the realm of matter.
The other method of the practice of the presence of God is communion with Him in the closet. And how like to Scripture study is the process whereby prayer introduces to His fellowship! It implies meditation; opens the secret chambers and reveals God; discloses marvels and unlocks mysteries; makes one sure that God “is and is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him,” which is the divinely declared condition of all acceptable, prevailing approach!
Upon this method of cultivating acquaintance with God, the great Teacher would specially fix attention in this, His primary lesson on prayer.
All other presence hinders the practice of the presence of God. The thought of human auditors or observers prevents the closest approach and the highest power in prayer. At the very moment when the supreme need is that all the faculties and activities of the being shall be converged and concentrated, centralized and focalized, as are scattered rays of light by a concave speculum or a convex lens, the mind is diverted and distracted, and the attention divided, by the thought that another human being hears or sees. Such di¬vided attention must hinder the realization of the presence of the unseen God. Nor is it hard to see the reason why.
That profound lesson, taught the Samaritan woman on the subject of worship, includes prayer as one of its highest forms or acts. God, being a spirit, must be worshiped as such, and can be approached only by what is spiritual in man. There is among men bodily contact and communion, as when hand joins hand, eye looks into eye, or words pass from one mouth to another ear. But, as God can neither be seen, heard, nor touched, there can be no such sensible contact between man and God; being a spirit, He can be approached only spiritually, that is by contact between our spirits and His.
In order to such contact, and that it may be real, recognized and conscious, all the spiritual faculties need to be active, on the alert; and all diversions or distractions of mind must be avoided which make impossible exclusive attention to the divine object of thought. But we are so constituted as to be unable really to fix attention on more than one subject or object at a time. Hence, in God’s economy of nature, many necessary acts are so provided for as to be automatic, like walking, only half conscious and semi-voluntary; for, were it needful to concentrate all attention upon every step, we could, while walking, give heed to nothing else.
Moreover, we cannot fully exercise any one sense while any of the others is fully exercised and occupied, there being room for but one thorough sense-impression at a time. We cannot fix the eye upon a picture so as to study its effects in drawing and coloring, and yet at the same time give our ears to the hearing of a masterpiece of music, so as to observe critically its melody- and harmony.
Especially do we find that, to occupy the physical senses is so far to divert the mind from purely intellectual processes however simple. For instance, in some late experiments in psychology, the test was made,’ how far an observer, watching rapid changes of color, could detect the delicate transitions from one shade to another; and it was found that if, while so engaged, the simplest exercise in mental arithmetic were attempted, though only the addition or multiplication table, the power to discern these gradual changes of color was arrested. Man is constituted to do properly and thoroughly, but one thing at once.
Acquaintance with the unseen God is the first of all acquisitions. To attain the, closest approach, to get the most vivid sense of His presence, and so, the greatest power and blessing at the mercy-seat, all thought of men and of this world must be shut out, and all interruptions avoided that come through the senses or the imagination. So far only as we learn the art of thinking only of God, will this great lesson of closet prayer be learned, for, on the measure of our realization of the unseen Presence, all else must depend.
Our Lord‘s first lesson on prayer gives another hint of great value, though rather implied than openly expressed. He tells us that the Father who is in secret, or in the secret place, and who sees in the darkness of the soul‘s holy of holies, rewards the suppliant openly – “in the open.” When the high priest approached to God it is neither recorded nor intimated that he was wont to offer up supplication; the element of petition is nowhere prominent. He seems to have gone in to the holiest, to “ appear before God “ - to present himself, with the blood, before the mercy-seat - his presence constituting his plea; and the blood of atonement, both the sign of his obedience and the pledge of his acceptance. There he seems to have waited not so much to offer up to God prayers and supplications, as to re¬ceive from God impressions and revelations.
The “Urim and Thummim” may have some connection with this revealing of God ‘s mind and will. Some think that the light of the Shekinah fire, shining on the breast-plate of the high priest, made successive letters of the names with which its stones were graven, stand out conspicuous, so that he could, in characters of light, spell out the divine message; and it is a curious fact that the twelve names, taken together, contain nearly every letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
However this be, the mercy-seat was mainly a place, not of petition but of communication, of impartation from God, of divine revelation. The high priest waited there for a message which he bore back to the people in benediction.
The closet is not only an oratory - a place for prayer - but an observatory, where we may get new views and revelations of God. There’ is a quest higher than mere request - a search after knowledge of God and communication from Him. Here devout souls learn what is meant by communion - which is always mutual - implying not only prayer offered, but answer received. The praying soul speaks to God, and hears God speak - gets as well as gives - and finds the most precious part of this communion, not in requests imparted Godward, but in returns imparted manward, the reception of divine impressions and communications. The reward, promised, comes while yet he speaks and waits before the Lord: believing he receives, and receiving enjoys. Such a reward cannot be kept secret. It makes the heart to overflow and even the face to shine.
True prayer, in its highest form and reach, is not only impartive but receptive: the whole nature going out in adoration, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, intercession; but also opening, all its channels for the incoming of blessing.’ Communion becomes intercommunication - Jacob‘s ladder resting in the closet and reaching to the throne - and angels de¬scend to bring blessing, as well as ascend to bear petition; or, as a simple Japanese convert puts it, prayer is like the well where one bucket comes down while the other goes up, only that it is always the empty bucket that goes up and the full one that comes back.
Of this aspect of prayer, as a revelation of God to the suppliant, the current definitions take little notice. The Westminster standards define prayer as “ the offering up of our desires unto God, in the name of Christ, by the help of His Spirit, with confession of our sins and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.” Here is no recognition of meditative communion with the divine Presence for the sake of a present communication from God to the soul.
With most praying people, the fundamental if not exhaustive conception of prayer is asking somewhat of God. This is surely not the whole of prayer; little more than a beginning is made without some disclosure of God to the soul. Our Lord himself at times withdrew from all human companionships, for secret communion with the Father, as when He went out “into a mountain to pray and continued all night in prayer to God.” Such all-night interviews mark all great crises of His life on earth; but it cannot be supposed that He spent all these hours in continuous supplication, but rather, like Gideon, on the plains of Jezreel, spread out His whole being like fleece, to drink in the heavenly dew of the Father’s presence, and in the strength of this celestial nectar confront new duties, trials and temptations.
Thus meditative prayer, like reflective reading of the Word of God, becomes a perpetual means and medium of communion with God, and so, also, of revelation of God, communion both leading to, and itself becoming, revelation. He who converses with a friend, habitually, cannot doubt his existence and presence; and God meant this simple converse with Himself to be a demonstration that He is, and is a rewarder of them that diligently seek Him - so convincing as to dispel all doubts, itself the sufficient proof of His reality and verity as the ever present, living, helping God.
The humblest believer, however unlettered or unlearned, may thus, in this school of prayer attain to practical certainty in divine things; he needs no volumes of apologetics or evidences of Christianity: in practicing the presence of God, the proofs, though he cannot always formulate them for others, become convincing to himself. Indeed we oftenest find such assurance in the humbler, simpler disciples, the ignorant and unlearned, rather than the princes or great scholars of the Church, and so there is a proneness to associate such faith with credulity, if not with superstition. Witness that abominable lying maxim, “Ignorance is the mother of devotion.” But the inference is wrong; for, while tile more intelligent and intellectual often lean to their own understanding, and depend on human logic and philosophy for confirmation of, their faith, he who, being untaught of men and books, has no other means of strengthening his assurance save converse with God, is compelled to learn, in His school, where logic and philosophy are never perverted to the purposes of fallacy and sophistry. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High, abides under the shadow of the Almighty“; and no darts of Satanic doubt can pierce him, save as they first pass through the divine “wings” which are his covering and shelter.
Here, then, is our Lord’s initial lesson upon prayer; and as, in any first lesson, a master teacher naturally lays down fundamental laws or first principles, here He lays the cornerstone of all true prayer, namely: Prayer is at bottom the meeting of a human suppliant alone with God, for supplication and communion at the mercy-seat, and revelation of the existence, presence and character of God.
It is plain why His preliminary caution is directed against hypocritical ostentation. The hypocrites “love to pray, standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward.” In praying, as in almsgiving and fasting, hypocrisy courts publicity - it is all “to be seen of men.” The hypocrite’s prayer is addressed to a human audience rather than to the divine ear; it has reference mainly to outward appearance and transient impression. Hence publicity is an object; and in the synagogues where the crowds throng, at the street corners or crossways commanding all points of the compass at once, he takes his stand that he may be seen of men. The formalist may not be a hypocrite, but his mind is taken up with the externals, and here again “the letter killeth,” and only “the spirit giveth life.”
Christ would have praying souls learn, first of all, that being seen of men is to be avoided rather than courted. To concentrate all thought and desire upon God, forget all else in order not to forget Him, and so be lost in the absorbing sense of His presence - this is the first secret of power in prayer, as also of all power in holy living and serving.
This first lesson is also the last, for there is no higher fruit of habitual closet communion with God than this new sense of divine realities. Paul gently rebukes those who have not, by reason of use, exercised their senses - trained them to keenness - to discern good and evil. The spirit as well as the body, has its senses and they are trained to acuteness and exactness by holy exercise. Imagination is the sense of the unseen; reason, the sense of truth and falsehood; conscience, the sense of right and wrong; sensibility, the sense of the attractive and repulsive; memory, the sense of the past. The understanding and heart have eyes with which to see God ‘s beck and glance, ears with which to hear His still small voice, organs of touch wherewith to ”handle“ Him and see that it is He Himself. The closet is the school for the exercise and education of these senses. There we go to learn to look at things unseen, eternal; to hear the divine whisper; to catch the scent of heavenly gardens; to taste and see that the Lord is good. And to reach such results, we need aloneness with God, senses fixed upon Himself.
The closet supplies a key to many mysteries of Scripture biography, like Jacob’s experience at Bethel - ”Surely God was in this place and I knew it not; this “ - a desert place with a stone pillow - ”is none other but the house of God, and this is the gate of Heaven “: and particularly, at Peniel, where later on, he saw “ the face of God “ and got a lifelong blessing, the supplanter of men becoming the prince of God. It is when we are left alone “that revelations come. Elijah was bidden first to hide himself, and then show himself unto Ahab; it was the hiding that made the showing such a power. When Elisha” went in and shut the door upon them twain and prayed unto the Lord,” there came out from that secret chamber a dead child, brought back to life. Nathanael under the fig tree was holding secret converse with God; and, when Christ said to him, “Before that Philip called thee, when thou was under the fig tree I saw thee,” the guileless Israelite recognized in Him One whom he had met in the secret place, and who now as then read his thoughts.
To get such impressions of God, in closet communion, there is needful the time-element. Rapid’ glances always leave comparatively transient impressions, but a gaze, which takes time to fix itself on an object, takes in its whole impress so as to leave its image permanently in the mind.
True, our Lord warns us that we are not heard for our much speaking: it is not by many words or long prayers that we prevail. It is nevertheless also true that haste or hurry in prayer defeats the main end, preventing that calmness, concentration, peace and quiet of soul which helps to revelation. The word, “reflection,” suggests a power to mirror divine verities and realities. To all such reflection hurry and worry are fatal. He who rushes into the presence of God, hastens through a few formal petitions, and then hastens back to outside cares and pursuits, does not tarry long enough in the secret chamber, to lose the impression of what is without, and get the impress of what is within. He does not take time to fix his gaze on the unseen and eternal, and many a so-called praying man has never once really met and seen God in the closet. His spirit, disturbed and perturbed, tossed up and down and driven to and fro by worldly thoughts and cares, can no more reflect God than a ruffled lake can mirror the heavens above it. To see God reflected in the heart-depths, one must stay long enough for the storm to be calmed, and the soul to become placid enough to mirror heaven.
When such communion does become real, prayer ceases to be mere duty and becomes delight, all sense of obligation lost in privilege. Love seeks the company of its object. If we cultivate human companionship for its own sake, mutely sitting in the presence of one whom we devotedly love, shall not our love to God make it an object to shut ourselves in with Him at times just to enjoy Him? Is there no taint of selfishness in prayer which knows no higher motive than to ask some favor? Jude bids us “pray in the Holy Ghost “as one means to keep ourselves in the love of God; as Archbishop Usher, in his last days, when his animal heat failed, kept himself in the warm sunshine. In the closet one learns to keep himself in the love of God, finding there the Sunbeam whose light illumines, whose love warms, whose life quickens. God‘s presence becomes the atmosphere without which spiritual life has no breath. Such habitual abiding in the presence of God, and dwelling upon His perfections develops an enamoring love, which led Zinzendorf and Tholuck to say,” I have but one passion: and it is He and He alone!
Such God-revealing habits of prayer lay the very corner-stone of all holy living. Everything vital to godliness is nourished on closet air. Prayer is spiritual respiration and the secret place supplies its oxygen and ozone.
For example, what a power both to reveal and to prevent sin is this sense of the presence of God which is learned in secret prayer.
We must not be surprised when the communion with God that reveals Him unveils ourselves: “ Whatsoever doth make manifest is light.” That same Shekinah fire, which makes the golden wings and faces of the cherubim shine, pierces every disguise and shows the very thoughts and intents of the heart, like a sword piercing to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit. Secret prayer is a revelation of self as well as of God. We must endure and even invoke its searching ray:
Try me and know my thoughts;
And see if there be in me any wicked way,
And lead me in the everlasting way.
Daniel was so faultless that even enemies could find nothing in him to accuse save his faith in God and his prayer to God; yet, in the presence of that Glory, even his “ comeliness was turned into corruption,” and Isaiah in that Presence, cried, “ Woe is me; for I am a man of unclean lips and dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” But all such self-revelation and self-condemnation are only blessings, for they are the result of a divine vision, and the divine answer to such self-abasement is a new communication and exaltation. When Daniel abhorred himself, he heard a voice, saying, “0 Daniel, a man greatly beloved, fear not; for from the first day that thou didst set thine heart to understand and to chasten thyself before thy God, thy words were heard and I am come for thy words.” When Isaiah bewailed his unclean lips, the seraph touched those same lips with a live coal from off God‘s altar, and said, “Lo, this bath touched thy lips, and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin is purged.” When Peter felt so unfit for the Lord’s companionship that he involuntarily besought Him to depart from him, he heard only the assuring answer, “Fear not, from henceforth thou shalt capture men alive.”
This sense of the divine Presence, which re¬veals sin, also prevents it. In the crisis of temptation Joseph‘s answer to the siren voice of the tempter evinced his habit of thinking of God, and it was natural to say with himself, “How can I do this great thing and sin against God? “ Paul reminds Corinthian disciples that they are the very temple - the holy of holies - of God, because His Spirit dwelleth in them; and, on the basis of this awe-inspiring fact, he builds that exhortation,
Having therefore these promises, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” In the hour of temptation, sudden, overwhelming, overpowering, what a safeguard is the thought, the conviction, the consciousness, “Thou, God, seest me.” I can go nowhere from Thy presence. The wings of the morning are not swift enough, nor the uttermost parts of the earth far enough, to remove me from Thine eye and Thine hand. Such are the profound, devout meditations suggested by that psalm of the presence of God unsurpassed for poetry or piety. When one feels God near, searching the inmost depths of be¬ing with omniscient glance; by omnipresent companionship with us because in us, always and everywhere; and with omnipotent energy creating, upholding, strengthening - how easy and natural to do what pleases God, and say to all seductive allurements, “ My heart is fixed.” Only when the sense of God‘s presence is lost, can voluntary sin be possible.
Again, what intrepid courage in witness for God and heroic duty, this sense of His presence imparts!
Elijah, the great reformer of abuses, and rebuker of idolatry and iniquity in high places, cultivated this consciousness of God. His characteristic phrase was,” Jehovah, God of Israel, before whom I stand“ - as though he felt himself to be constantly standing in the presence of his divine Master - a servant whose eyes were to the eye and hand of that Master, watching and waiting to be guided by a beck or even a glance. Because he thus stood before God, he could stand unabashed before Ahab and Jezebel.
In the old days it was customary to open the Connecticut legislature with an” election sermon.” On one occasion the chosen preacher was one of the Strong brothers, and his modesty shrank from the grave responsibility. On the way to the place of assembly, he disclosed to his brother his oppressive bur¬den of reluctance to face such an audience, a body among whom would be found lawyers and judges, generals and statesmen, doctors of divinity and doctors of law, governors and ex-governors - the flower of the commonwealth. “How can I venture before such an audience?” “You have only to remember,” answered his brother, “that other Presence, so august, that in comparison all human presence becomes utterly insignificant, and preach as in that Presence alone.” With this thought, he went fearlessly to the discharge of his duty. Rev. Dr. Samuel H. Cox recalled this incident when in a momentous crisis of his life he addressed the Evangelical Alliance with its representatives of all nations, and the thought of that same Presence nerved his fainting spirit.
So went John Baptist before Herod, Paul before Agrippa, Felix, Nero; Luther before the Diet of Worms, Knox before Queen Mary. This same sense of the Father, who never left Him alone, enabled Him whom the prophet called” The Servant of Jehovah,” to go with infinite calmness before Herod, Caiaphas and Pilate, utterly careless of human opinion, indifferent alike to censure or applause, because He could say, “I do always those things which please Him! “ After a severe rebuke to those who made void the commandments of God through their tradition, His disciples said, “Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended after they heard this saying?” but He calmly answered,” Every plant which my heavenly Father bath not planted shall be rooted up.” He could not modify His message on account of the opposition of the hearer, but the hearer must accommodate himself to the message; and so will every true messenger of God answer human opposers, if he is wont to cultivate and cherish the sense of the presence of God.
This practice of the presence of God is the secret of both fidelity and cheerfulness in the discharge of common duty.
Whatever helps us to holy living must be found in those secret chambers of devout study of the Word and habitual communion with a prayer-hearing God. Any burden can be borne, any trial endured, any responsibility assumed, when this sense of God is active and constant. To be about His “ Father’s business “was our Lord’s secret of untiring service and unalloyed satisfaction; and we, His followers, work out the mission of a complete life while we feel that God works in us to will and to do!
Hence Paul wrote to Corinth: “Let every man, in that calling wherein he is found, therein abide with God.” When renewing grace finds one engaged in an honest calling, however humble, he has no need to change his vocation, but only to take a new and divine partner, henceforth abiding with God in his daily sphere of work. Jesus of Nazareth wrought at the bench of a carpenter until, at thirty, He entered on His public ministry, teaching us that no workman need be ashamed of his craft when he follows it as God ‘s servant; whether it be the bench of the carpenter, the shoemaker, or the judge; the loom of the weaver or the wheel of the potter; the desk of the author, the studio of the artist, or the throne of the emperor - wherever service is rendered to God there is a pulpit of witness, a shrine of worship.
From the letters of a humble monk, known as Brother Lawrence, it appears that, in a menial office, as cook in a convent, he was led, by this suggestion of Jeremy Taylor about the practice of God’s presence, so to cultivate the habit of thinking of God as ever with him, a partner in his lowly calling, that it became easier to think of Him as present than as absent; and that convent kitchen became as another garden of Eden, and every day as one of the days of heaven upon earth.
This sense of the divine presence is in every way so helpful to prayer that in exact pro¬portion to its vividness and constancy is prayer effective and powerful.
Every element and exercise of prayer is dependent upon it. It prompts the highest thanksgiving, for it proves that God is and reveals Him as He is: we get glimpses of His character and glory which are the inspiration of gratitude. To know what God is, is of far more consequence than to know what He does. He is love, and therefore all His outgoings are lovely and loving: the stream is as the spring.
We have seen that to realize the divine pres¬ence leads to most heart-searching contrition and confession, because in the light of His purity and holiness sin‘s enormity and deformity are most clearly seen; and in the contrast of the glory of His goodness our unworthiness and ungratefulness become awfully apparent. In like manner, when the mind is filled with new views of God, of His truth and grace, and the reality and verity of His promise, supplications and intercessions become the confident appeals of those who “have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of Him.”
There is thus no side or aspect of true prayer which this vision of God in the closet does not touch. Contemplation of God com¬pels contemplation of self; a new sense of destitution, degradation, depravity; a deeper contrition, a sincerer confession; a more importunate entreaty; a new repentance toward God, a new faith in God, a new separation unto God, a new power with God.
Prayer in its highest reach, is worship - worth-ship - ascribing worth to God, describing His worth in adoring praise, inscribing His worth on the forefront of the miter, the palms of the hands, the door-posts of the house, the gates whereby we go out and in; keeping before us and others His infinite excellence. Worship is more than thanksgiving and praise, including both, but above both in adoration, the whole being going out to Him in devout words, or in groanings and raptures which cannot be ‘uttered, the mute language of emotions and affections which find no adequate articulate utterance.
Worship is the form of prayer which echoes in the Apocalypse when the door is opened into heaven: “Thou art worthy, 0 Lord! Redeemed throngs and angelic hosts, lost in the vision of infinite excellence and worthiness, rest not day or night from such adoration. To get new apprehension and appreciation of these adorable perfections is the ideal of prayerful communion.
In the Twenty-ninth Psalm, the Psalm of Nature, all creation is figuratively viewed as God’s temple, the vast cathedral where He is throned, and all the forces of the material universe are vocal with His praise. The boom of the great waters sounds the deep diapason, the gentle breezes breathe melodies, and the peal of the thunders rolls its pedal bass, while cyclones and whirlwinds add majesty to the chorus. Lightnings flash like electric lamps, and giant oaks and immortal cedars bow like worshipers. In this Psalm of Nature it is declared that” In his temple, everything doth shout, glory!
To devout souls who abide in the secret chambers with God, the closet itself becomes another grand cathedral, where every power and faculty of body and mind, soul and spirit, shout “Glory!“ Memory brings her grateful stores to lay them at God’s feet; imagination, the poet and painter, weaves choicest tributes and paints glorious pictures, as aids to faith; reason, the logician, constructs its most eloquent arguments to set forth God ‘s claim on universal homage and love; the understanding, overawed before the infinite Mind, can only mutely confess its own insignificance; conscience, the judge, pronounces Him perfect in all moral beauty; the will, the sovereign of man, lays down its imperial scepter at His feet who is alone worthy to rule; and affection, despairing of ever responding fully to such perfect love, breaks her alabaster flask and fills the whole house with the odor of her anointing. It is the closet’s revealings that prompt us to cry,” Who is like, 0 Lord, unto thee!
Our Lord’s first lesson on prayer, is, therefore, Enter into thy closet. The first rung in the ladder of ascent is faith in the actuality, reality, verity of the divine existence. As the primary condition of prayer,” he that cometh to God must believe that he is, and is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Of what use indeed to pray - nay, what but an affront, rather than an approach, to God - if we do not believe that He ‘exists; and what is the closet for, if not to cultivate those spiritual senses which alone can perceive and receive Him?
Let us not dismiss this primary lesson without once more recalling and impressing its central truth, that communion with God is the essential secret of all holiness of character, conduct and service; and that meditation on the divine character and perfections prepares us not only for prevailing supplication but for reception of divine blessing. Let us think of the secret chamber as a place of vision - of contemplation of God, making possible new impressions, discoveries into His nature, revelations of His goodness, impartations of His power. Thus it comes to pass that before we call He answers, and while we are yet speaking He hears. Communion proves mutual - both an outgo, and an income - a voice that answers as well as a voice that cries.
What a new factor in our spiritual life would such prayer prove!
The most devout find it not only profitable but natural to make the first exercise in closet devotion mute meditation. The prayer of Habakkuk hints that this is becoming to all true worship:
Let all the earth keep silence before him.”
So, when, in the Apocalypse, that vision of the prayers of saints in the golden censer is about to be disclosed, the mysterious announcement which precedes it is:
as though such silence were the only fit prelude and preparation for a revelation of such magnificence and significance.
God is here; but what if I know it not? ‘Let me tarry till I do know it. Then how much added power will come, into my communing, and with what new anointing shall I go forth to life‘s work and witness and warfare!
Technorati Tags:sermon, lesson, arthur t. pierson
Generated By Technorati Tag Generator