Monday, August 22, 2011

Modulating from Corporate to Personal Discernment

 The last sermon that I preached is posted on my blog.  The topic was cultivating conditions for hearing the Holy Spirit in the corporate church.  In my reflection on the development of the Church in the opening chapters of Acts through chapter 13, I observed five conditions that were present when the leaders in Antioch clearly heard the voice of the Holy Spirit (13:2):
1.       Believe that God still speaks today.
2.       Purity in the church.  No known sin is tolerated.
3.       Unity of the church. 
4.       An expectancy that God was going to move; or better put, knowing that God is always working and seeking to join Him there.  (This idea was well developed by Henry Blackaby in Experiencing God.)
5.       Corporate spiritual disciplines that positioned the people to receive the grace that God is always pouring out.
The message has stayed with me and I’ve had several people let me know what they heard God saying to them (or us) that morning.  I mentioned several times in the sermon that it could be applied personally as well as corporately, which was the focus of the text.  With a bit more reflection, here’s what I’ve come up with as a personal application of the five points I offered:
1.       Active belief in God’s intention to speak and act in our world.  I’ve combined points 1 and 4 from the message here because I believe they are essentially the same thing.  We must approach God in active faith.  Hebrews 11 tells us that those who would come to God must believe that there is a God (loaded statement – I believe such faith encompasses an understanding that God is who He says He is and that He is actively working in His world) and that He rewards those who diligently seek Him (v.6). 
2.       Purity in your life.  Of course you sin; we all do.  You’re still a work in progress.  Keep short accounts with God.  Confess your sin.  Most importantly, repent from any known pattern of sin in your life.  Do not embrace it if you intend to hear the Holy Spirit speaking in your life.  I John 1:5-2:6 speaks powerfully to this issue.
3.       Do not allow unforgiveness, resentment, or bitterness to take root in your heart.  Pray the Lord’s Prayer with integrity, “…forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us…”  “But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matt. 6:15 NLV). 
4.       Finally, engage in regular spiritual disciplines such as prayer, silence, solitude, and in critical situations, consider fasting.  God rarely speaks in the busyness of our lives.  His voice is almost always quiet – the “still, small voice.”  You must separate yourself from the diversions of your agenda if you are to know God’s.  Spiritual disciplines do not earn favor with God; rather, they put us in a position to receive the grace that God is continually pouring out towards us.
I want to hear God’s voice in my life.  I find when these principles are in alignment that I begin to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying and where He is working in the world.  And that is where I want to be.    

Monday, August 15, 2011

Thoughts on Hearing God's Voice in Community

I am convinced that God still speaks today.  How could a God who spoke the cosmos into being and whose very essence in human form was referred to as “the Word” (John 1:1-12) clam up after the New Testament was written? After all, Jesus clearly said, “my sheep recognize my voice” (John 10:27). Asserting that God no longer speaks today doesn’t make good theological sense.  It’s not Jewish or Christian.  It’s deist. 
But Scripture does hold a unique place in the revelation of God.  What is it that makes the New Testament of a qualitatively higher order than a word that we might hear from God today?  Well, it’s complicated and I’m certain that I don’t know all the nuances.  But in my understanding, the trump card of the New Testament (that is, what makes it Scripture) is that it carries apostolic authority.  The writers of the New Testament were either apostles (part of the original band of twelve – plus Paul who was recognized by the early church as an apostle) or they were closely associated with an apostle’s ministry.  Mark and Luke were connected to Paul’s ministry.  Jude was Jesus’ half-brother.  It took the early church over two hundred years to confirm which writings carried the authority of Scripture.  The twenty-seven books that we call the New Testament are known together as the canon.  “Canon” means “rule” or “standard” and the writings of the New Testament have met the rigorous standard of apostolicity. For that simple but profound reason, Scripture is no longer being written today.  But that doesn’t mean God no longer speaks.  It does mean, however, that whatever word we might think we hear from God today must be in alignment with the revelation of Scripture.  Think of Scripture as a “filter” with which we test all prophecies or words of knowledge we receive from God.
How might this work in a church?  How can we learn to hear from God?  I’ve never been part of a church that valued the gifts of prophecy or words of knowledge.  That’s too bad, because Paul highly valued the gift and coveted it for the believers in the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 14:5 – I suggest you read the whole context – Chapters 12-14).   I don’t believe that prophecy is part of my gift mix, but I know that I’ve heard God’s voice.   In one instance, I was strongly impressed that a good friend of mine should have the elders of the church anoint her with oil and pray for the healing of her eye.  She was quickly losing her vision and doctors could only explain it but not cure it.  She was anointed with oil and prayed for and the degeneration in her vision was fully arrested.  I believe the prompting that I sensed was the voice of God.  In another completely different instance when I was very angry at one of my children I heard God almost say audibly, “Bob, your anger will not accomplish my purposes.”  The word almost literally stopped me in my tracks.  I could take you to the exact place where I heard that word today.  Most often, however, I hear God in quietness, especially while I’m journaling, reflecting on Scripture and the issues of my life. 
Hearing God, I believe, takes practice.  We learn to discern God’s voice over time.  Most often, His voice is quiet and comes with a sense of peace and settled-ness.  Over time, I’ve come to recognize it.  I’m sure many of you share the same experience.  But there are also many other voices competing with God’s in our life.  It could be a voice of pride or insecurity.  Or perhaps it might be the voice of fear or even the voice of Evil which would seek to destroy us.  That is why Scripture is a necessary filter.  Along with Scripture, I also believe that the wisdom of the community is invaluable in discerning whether or not we have heard the voice of God.  Within the church there are mature people who can help us determine if the word we hear is consonant with Scripture and the nature of God.  We observe the discernment of the community in Acts 13:3 as the church leaders continued in fasting and prayer before they confirmed the word to send Barnabas and Saul on their mission.
What if someone has received a word they believe the whole church should hear?  I think it would be prudent for that person to humbly and privately share their impressions with the leaders of the church (pastors or other trusted leaders – who are, after all, charged with the spiritual health of the church) and allow them to discern the word according to the written Word and the consistency of God’s character.  If the word is confirmed, it can then be shared with the whole church. 
One word about humility.  It is very telling if the person who receives the impression/word from the Lord offers it in humility.  God’s Spirit is not pushy.  Jesus promoted and modeled humility.  If a person shares a word in a demanding manner (to be heard), that word, to me, would be immediately suspect because the conduit for God’s word (the person sharing the word) contradicts the character of God himself. 
I’m not experienced in these matters.  I certainly do not know it all.  But this is a conversation that any church desiring to hear and discern the voice of God should have. 
By the way, three people shared “words” that they heard from the message I shared on discerning the voice of God in community.  They’re good words and they just might be from the Lord:
1.      There is unity here. (This was an especially encouraging word.)
2.      This (the message we heard this morning) is a good word.
3.      I want to be a catalyst for unity in the church (from a person who has the position and ability to function in that way).
Lord, give us ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church.

A New Mission: Catch the Wave - Sermon from 8/14/2011

I’m a sailor.  Not a very good one and I don’t do it very often.  But it’s in my blood.  I was born on Long Island, New York and some of my relatives were boatman as far back as the Colonial Period.  Sailboats are a lot different than powerboats.  When I’m in my fishing boat and I want to go from point A to point B, I just pull the cord on my outboard motor, point the bow of the boat in the direction I want to go and head there.  Most of us would like our lives to be like motor boats.  Set a goal, make your plans and off you go – you’re sure to arrive in time.  Problem is:  life is more like sailing.  We’ve got economic boom or bust, relational blessings or break-ups, good health or bad, and the simple realities of growing up and growing older.  In sailing terms, we have to deal with the variance of wind speed and direction, the intensity of tidal flow and the size of the waves.  To reach our destination in life we have to be able to navigate through conditions that are constantly changing.  What is true for individuals is also true for communities.

Since Pentecost, the church had been sailing along with the powerful wind of the Spirit of God.  They successfully navigated through the rough waters of dissention in chapter 6 and the shifting tide of public opinion as persecution arose.  They trimmed their sails as the Gospel moved beyond the safe harbor of Jerusalem out to Samaria and even further to Syria.  All along the way, the leaders and people were attentive to the wind direction of the Spirit.  The ship of the Church was strong and seaworthy and they made good headway for the Kingdom of God.

By the time we get to Acts 13, the crew is experienced and attentive to the slightest variance in the wind.  They’re about to experience a significant change in direction.  Let’s look at the story:

Acts 13:1-4 (NLT)

 Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul.  One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.”  So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way.

So Barnabas and Saul were sent out by the Holy Spirit. They went down to the seaport of Seleucia and then sailed for the island of Cyprus.

As the story continues, Barnabas and Saul, along with John Mark, Barnabas’ nephew journey to Cyprus.  There they encountered a sorcerer – a false prophet – who had attached himself to the governor of the island.  While there, we observe the two men bringing the Gospel to the governor (who is very receptive) being harassed by the false prophet.  In one of the many remarkable stories from the book of Acts, Saul, filled with the Holy Spirit, curses the false prophet, who was a very serious impediment to the Gospel, so that he becomes blind.  There is a lot of poetic meaning in that episode that which we can’t address here, but the effect was the Cyprian governor “believed and was astonished at what he had learned about the Lord.  His conversion was very strategic in the ancient world as it opened the door for the Gospel on the island.

From there, Barnabas and Saul (John Mark went home), sailed for Asia Minor, and began evangelizing in what would be central Turkey today.  They gather quite a crowd and inspire no small amount of jealousy from the Jewish leaders until they are finally driven out of the town.   The chapter closes with a church being planted, but Saul and Barnabas turning their focus more intentionally to the Gentiles.   And thus begins Paul’s first missionary journey.

Prayer for Illumination
Speak O Lord as we come to You
To receive the food of Your holy word
Take Your truth plant it deep in us
Shape and fashion us in Your likeness
That the light of Christ might be seen today
In our acts of love and our deeds of faith
Speak O Lord and fulfill in us
All Your purposes for Your glory.
                                                             Stuart Townend and Keith Getty

I want to backtrack a bit to the beginning of chapter 13.  I want us to consider this morning how the church heard the voice of the Holy Spirit so clearly that they commissioned Barnabas and Saul for this new mission.  The question of spiritual discernment should always be in focus for any church that wishes to fulfill the mission of God in their day.  It is especially pertinent for us as we shape strategic plans and consider what God is doing in this city and how we can be a part of it.  Let’s look, then, back at the text:

Among the prophets and teachers of the church at Antioch of Syria were Barnabas, Simeon (called “the black man”), Lucius (from Cyrene), Manaen (the childhood companion of King Herod Antipas), and Saul. 

We should be immediately struck at the rich diversity and depth of leadership in this church.  The church in Antioch was very dynamic.  It was made up of both Jews and Gentiles.  The movement of God had been so powerful (Chapter 11) that Barnabas was sent down from Jerusalem to check it out.  God was moving so powerfully that Barnabas needed help and set out to recruit Saul who had moved back to his hometown of Tarsus.  By the time we get to our story, Saul had been with Barnabas in Antioch for a year.  But along with Saul and Barnabas, we see a black man (Simeon), one of the original evangelists (Lucius) and a childhood friend of the Jewish King.  There are few prescriptive models in Acts – it is a narrative, not a rulebook – but in Antioch we see the wonderful possibilities of plurality in leadership.  Any church that has multiple gifted leaders is gifted indeed.  Leadership in the local church need not be vested in just one person.  In fact, plurality of leadership is probably more the norm than the exception.

2) One day as these men were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Dedicate Barnabas and Saul for the special work to which I have called them.” 

We observe here that these leaders were engaged in regular spiritual disciplines and it was in that setting where they heard the Holy Spirit clearly speak.  We come back to this point in a moment.

3) So after more fasting and prayer, the men laid their hands on them and sent them on their way.

I find this extension of the story almost amusing, but very necessary.  God has already spoken, why should there be any question.  There is an art to discerning the Lord’s voice.  We don’t always hear right and we can be easily swayed by other voices in our head.  It is wise to test the promptings we hear from the Lord.  By continuing to fast and pray, the word they heard was confirmed and then they acted on it.

What were the conditions that enabled the leaders in Antioch to discern the clear voice and command of the Holy Spirit?  And how can we cultivate those same conditions at FirstB so that we might hear the voice of God and experience the power of the Holy Spirit in our community?  All that we unpack in the next few moments can be applied to your personal life, but I want us to focus together on what applies to us as a church.

The Conditions for Spiritual Discernment in the Church

First, we need to acknowledge deep within our collective soul that God is still speaking today.  The days of cessation theology, where people believed that certain gifts had ceased, are mercifully pretty much over.  God, by his very nature, is an expressive God and is always speaking.  He spoke the worlds into being.  Jesus Himself, the full expression of Deity, is called “the Word.”  God still speaks today and we need to make room for that.  Certainly, Scripture holds a unique place, and no contemporary word of knowledge will ever hold the same authority as the written Word.  The record of Acts is that God speaks most often to individuals and then that word is relayed to the community.  While our text seems to say that the Holy Spirit spoke directly to the leadership team, it could be that He spoke through one of the prophets and it was confirmed and resonant in the hearts of the other leaders.

Second, God speaks to the church that is pure.  The story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 is shocking.  Why would God judge a husband and wife by killing them simply because they conspired to lie to the church?  And why is that story included in the narrative?  Luke tells us that fear gripped the entire church.  You can be sure that people were determined to walk with integrity before the Lord after that episode.   I think we have to conclude that purity in the early church was vital if God’s mission was to be fulfilled.  The church that tolerates known sin will not hear the voice of God.

Third, the church was diligent to preserve the unity of the community. When dissention arose over the treatment of Greek widows in chapter 6, church leadership quickly dealt with it and did not allow it to fester.  When rumors spread that Peter had fellowshipped with Gentiles against the accepted norms of the people, he explained himself till they understood what God was doing.  The morale and unity of the community was a vital concern for the leadership of the church.  This is why Jesus taught his disciples to pray, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”  It’s the hardest part of the prayer to say.  The church that harbors bitterness and cultivates factions will not hear the voice of God.

Friends, do you want to know what the role of our Church Council and leadership should be?  (The answer should be yes…we’re wrestling with those issues right now!)  Concern for the purity and unity of the church must be at the top of their job description.

Not only do we need to be a pure and unified church, we need to be a people of expectancy.  A sailor looks for telltale signs of the wind; a surfer looks for the next wave.  The early church was moving in the mighty stream of God’s power.  They were going places.  They regularly saw God perform signs and wonders.  People were coming to Christ wherever the Gospel was preached.  There was an expectancy and anticipation for God’s next move.  In such an environment, people are ready and eager to move with the Holy Spirit.  We need to be a church that expects God to speak to us. 

Finally, in our story we observe that the leaders were engaged in regular spiritual disciplines.  The Holy Spirit spoke while they were worshipping and fasting.  People who engage in spiritual disciplines are people who expect God to pour out his grace on them.  They are people who expect to hear from God.  Spiritual disciplines – practices such as Bible reading and study, regular prayer, worship, fasting, and many more… - do not earn favor with God.  That is a theology of works.  Our standing with God is based solely on the work of Christ.  What, then, do spiritual practices do for us?  Simply this:  they put us in a place to receive the grace that God is constantly pouring out towards us.  It’s like being in the outfield on a baseball team.  When the ball is hit in the air, you move to the place where you can catch it.  It’s like catching the bouquet or garter at a wedding reception.  You get in line and push and shove your way to the place for the catch – that is if you want to get married.  Spiritual disciplines are very intentional. They enable us to receive what God is pouring out to us. 

Let’s camp here for a moment.  We need to nurture a culture of expectant prayer when we gather together, especially when we meet together in small groups and especially when we need to make decisions.  We need to – and we can – do better than just opening and closing prayers when we meet to deliberate on what God would have us do.  And some groups are beginning to do this as they’ve gathered to shape strategic plans.  A few months ago worship planners from both the traditional and contemporary services met to shape a unified plan for our worship life together.  You have to know that perspectives and opinions in such a group are widely divergent.  We laid the issues out – discussed the landscape of worship ministries at FirstB – and then spent a good deal of time in prayer.  Nearly everyone in the large group prayed.  We still retained differences of opinions but most of the folks that attended those meetings would say that God was present and he spoke through the voices of everyone.  A sense of love and respect for each other pervaded our deliberations.  I can only speak for worship ministries, but I suspect some of the same dynamic has been happening in the other groups that have been meeting.  Folks, we need to cultivate that culture.  We need to give time – and a good deal of time – for spiritual disciplines together.  Then, I believe, we’ll hear God speak. 

I started this message using sailing as a metaphor for navigating life.  Well, I’m a surfer, too.  Not a very good one and, as you can imagine, I don’t do it very often.  I spent most of my childhood and half of my adulthood in California.  In fact, I was privileged to live in a beach community for five years.  I know how to catch a wave and since it part of the sermon title, it makes a good illustration for discerning the voice of the Spirit.

If you want to catch a wave, you have to get in the water.  If you want to hear the Spirit’s voice, you have to be determined to follow Jesus.  If you want to surf, you’re gonna get wet.  If you want to move with God you’ve got to exercise faith with the expectancy that life is going to be an adventure.  That’s true for you as an individual and true for us as a church.  Any good surfer learns to discern what waves will provide a good ride and which waves will won’t.  In the same way, as we walk in faith we begin to discern where God is moving and where He isn’t.  When a good wave starts to rise up the surfer must position himself in place to catch it.  This involves several things:  paddling to the place where the break is most conducive to catching the wave, paddling with the wave and fast enough to be picked up by the wave.  The metaphor is rich.  First, surfing is about catching a wave.  Much of what we try to do in our lives and in ministry is like paddling against the waves, across the waves, or completely outside the break expecting to get the ride of our life.  God invites us to join us in His enterprise.  Waves are always breaking in the surf.  God is always working.  He invites us to join him.  The problem is, we often seem to want to generate our own waves and ask God to empower them.  No wonder we go nowhere fast.  How much better to seek out what God is already doing and join Him there – you know, catch the wave.  If you want to catch a wave you’ve got to paddle to the right place and get up to speed with the wave.  That’s a picture of spiritual discipline.  Sometimes you’ve got to paddle fast and deep if you’re gonna catch the wave.  Sometimes we need to pray long and hard – maybe even engage in fasting – if we’re going to hear God’s voice.

Church family, God is working.  He invites us to join Him in His mission.  We need to be a people who give place to hearing Him.   We need to be a church characterized by purity and unity.  We should expect God to work in our midst and we need to be intentional about doing spiritual disciplines together.   If we do these things, I believe we will begin to cultivate ears that hear what the Spirit is saying to the church. 

Friends, this has been more teaching than I had intended.  But I believe it is what God would have us hear from this text this morning.  I want to give you an opportunity to respond to the word today.  To reflect on what you’ve heard.  I’ve put the points we’ve discussed on one PowerPoint slide for us to consider together.  We’ve focused the message on us this morning, but it also applies to you as an individual.  I’d like you to take your Times and find the blank space on the back cover.  In that space, I’d like you to write, “I hear God saying…”  Then I want you to reflect on the five points on the screen.  Do that now.  What is God saying to you through the word this morning?  It could be a word for you personally or it could be a word for the church.  Write it down.  If it is a word for the church, I’d be curious to know what it is if you would be willing to share it.  Talk to me or Steve, write us a note or email, or call us. 

God is speaking.  May He give us grace to cultivate ears that hear what the Spirit is saying to us.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Communion as “Trans-Participation”

The church staff attended “Pastor’s Day” at the Okoboji Bible Conference yesterday.  Good stuff and good company.  Many times pastor’s gatherings are rather stuffy and just a bit boring.  We had three fabulous speakers. Skye Jethani, senior editor for Leadership Journal began the day with provocative challenges to contemporary ministry.  A lot of his comments were push-back from some of the stuff I’ve heard in ministry methodology for the last twenty years.  Refreshing.  Bob Thune, brother of Sen. John from SD and previously the pastor of Christ Community Church in Omaha, shared his stunning story of being released from his position as lead pastor in a very large church in California.  It was sobering but also encouraging as he recounted the affirmation of ministry that he received from many individuals in his church.  We never really see what is going on underneath the surface.  Occasionally, God allows a peek.  We’re probably having more impact than we’ll ever know this side of eternity.
Ross Hastings was the last speaker of the day.  He is an associate professor in pastoral theology at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.  I pretty much hung on his every word.  He speaks my new-found language of the last ten years:  missio Dei, metanarrative, Trinitarian theology and the like.  The final thrust of his talk was centered on the Lord’s Table.  He said that if he were ever to return to local church ministry that he would focus worship on the table rather than the sermon.  I agree, but that agenda is too radical for my faith community.  He did make a comment that was incredibly profound.  It went something like this:
“I don’t care how you view the elements, as transubstantiation (Catholic & Orthodox), consubstantiation (Lutheran), as a memorial (Reformed traditions), real presence (Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, Orthodox), or real absence (all the rest…that was funny!), the Lord’s Table is trans-participation.”
I don’t know if he really knew how profound he was.  (He probably did.)  I’ve studied and taught on the meaning of anamnesis – the Hebrew concept of remembering and I’ve never heard it put in such clever and clear language.  Participation with Christ in his complete work of salvation (death, resurrection and ascension) is what biblical rememberance at the Table is all about.  It is the mystery that we are invited into union with Christ.  Check your New Testament and the theology of St. Paul.  Union with Christ is what St. Peter is talking about when he says that we have become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).  I’ve unpacked this idea of biblical remembrance in an earlier blog.  ("Remember What?" )
“Trans-participation.”  Wow!  That’s profound.