Seek Ye First The Kingdom
When Jesus came into the area around Galilee after John, the Baptist had been put in prison, He came proclaiming, "The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel." Mk 1:15 As He was walking along the Sea of Galilee, He called Peter and Andrew, James and John to follow Him. As they responded He made them disciples. As they followed Him, He made them fishers of men, and equipped them for the task. When they were ready, He sent them out as apostles.
Mark's Gospel would take us next into the synagogue at Capernaum. Mark's "immediately" might even lead us to believe they left the Sea and went straight to the synagogue, where He taught as one with authority. He then cast out a demon with a word of authority. Next He healed Peter's mother-in-law. Whether we see these events as a continuing stream or interspersed with times when other things were occurring, we must see them as the string of events that Mark considered important and closely related as he saw the drama unfolding.
The order of events has something to say in His dealing with the preparation of the disciples. They were called and taught, first by word, and then by demonstrating the authority and power of that word. The sequence said, the Kingdom comes first, and where it is received, healing and deliverance are manifestations of its present power. Luke records the encounter with the Scribes and Pharisees in which Jesus, Himself says, "If I by the finger of God cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you." Lk 11:20
Jesus called the disciples, and He taught them. He set the priorities for their life and ministry in His teaching about the Kingdom, and Father, when He said, " Seek ye first His Kingdom and His righteousness." When you have seen the Kingdom in its power to heal and set men free, then go tell others that the Kingdom of God is at hand. We do not have to become perfect before we are sent; but we do have to know what we are talking about.
As my AA friends are fond of telling me, "We can't give away something we haven't got any more than we can come back from some place we haven't been." When we come to the realization that God is alive and well on the planet earth, we have something to tell others. We have a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as a present reality.
Seeing the Kingdom of God is really the only way we have of knowing whether or not we have been "born again." It is not so much a matter of an experience of some sort; it is being given access to a new creation into which we have been invited by God. It is a matter of accepting the invitation of God to enter. The nature of the change in us is one of healing. It opens for us a new relationship to God, through Jesus Christ, who is the Great Physician.
Our entering into the Kingdom of God requires that we be changed. Jesus told Nicodemus, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." In another place He says, "He who keeps his life shall lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake and the gospel's, will keep it for eternal life."
Paul writes, "The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven...Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust , we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven." I Cor 15:47
When he writes of this transition in his letter to the Romans, it is in the context of baptism. "Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death?...We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." Rom 6:3ff
Our entrance into the Kingdom, which is at hand, is not so much one of changing our mind, or even our behavior. It is being made a new creation, and being given the mind of Christ. We do not come fully mature into the new creation. We are born anew as a babe in Christ, even while we remain adults in the flesh. That seems to be what Paul implies in his first letter to the Corinthians when he speaks of men of flesh and babes in Christ. I Cor 3:1
His second letter to Corinth speaks of our outer nature wasting away and our inner nature being daily renewed. He speaks in another place of dying daily. He sets our coming into the Kingdom as a process of death and resurrection. It is a process of being made new. It is as we "with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into His likeness from one degree of glory to another." II Cor 3:18
When people encounter the experience of meeting God as a living and present Lord, they are apt to act like children. I recall my first encounter with the possibility that God was alive and knowable. I had sat and listened to a friend of mine who told me about a vision of Jesus that had stayed with her for three months, and seeing her father's chest xray on the wall, when he had been healed of tuberculosis the doctors had called terminal.
I went home, and said to myself, "If you believe that stuff, you are crazy." After thinking about it for a while, I determined that I liked that better than what I believed at the moment. It certainly made more sense out of Scripture than anything else I had heard; so I decided I wanted to believe it. That was a decision.
My education was neither in philosophical nor psychological realms. I had my degree in Chemical Engineering. The way to determine whether or not something was true or not was to try it out. It was not a matter of processing it through human logic as a philosopher, or through comparing it with observed human experience. It was to develop a hypothesis and test it in the laboratory. In this case the laboratory was life.
I knew that the way I had been doing things in my life was not working. The world had told me that it would, but I found myself in bondage to alcohol, and the frustration level of life was increasing. If there was anything to this Jesus business, then He ought to be able to get me out of the bondage and into a freedom and wholeness that I was not able to find in the world. My decision was to check it out and see for myself. If there was something there, I wanted it. It was an act of my will that God was able to use to open the door, and invite me into the Kingdom.
I was a babe to be sure, but I was alive. I was aware that there was a dimension open to me that I had not realized before. In some sense I saw the Kingdom of God. It was not a fully detailed picture. It was an inner vision of a possibility that God was present, and I could know Him. It was a beginning. Perhaps we could call it a realization of a birth. At any rate there was a newness to life.
At that time, I was not the most mature Christian I had ever seen. I was like a little child who had found a great secret. God was alive, and He was the same yesterday, and today and forever. We could know Him, and we could do the work that He did, and perhaps more. Needless to say, I was not popular with people who did not want to talk about God, because that is all I wanted to talk about.
Strangely enough my decision to attend seminary did not hinge on my experience of the Lord. I had made that decision prior to the experience. I made the decision to try seminary because I despaired of the messiahs with which I had been presented by the world. Politics were not very effective.. No economic system had done it. Education, the god of choice in my family, had failed. When we dropped a bomb on Hiroshima, it was evident that we had not so much found the answers to our problems, but the capacity to kill one another more efficiently. Something more was needed to go with the education.
Psychology was the great messiah of my age. It was going to get all of the variables in human beings straight so we could be good, and live in peace and plenty. It too had failed miserably. Mental health problems were on the increase, not the decline. Medicine had not attained the ability to keep us all in the good health that was expected to be our heritage as children of an age of enlightenment. The facts were, as the data of life showed, If there is any hope for the world; it must lie in God, and not in humans.
That was how I began my sojourn to seminary. The Lord had taken advantage of the interim to open my eyes to the fact that He is indeed the only hope. The record of humanity in history is a miserable failure when it comes to living a creative life in a hostile environment. We had a lot of nice new things, but we had the same four horsemen, plague, pestilence, famine and death chasing us through history. What God had revealed of Himself gave me some hope that I had made a rational choice. Perhaps the only rational choice that can be made.
When I got to my seminary I was told that I could not believe what I believed. No one believed what I believed, but I was not able to keep silent on the subject of God. I had met Him, and I wanted to know about Him. I did not care much what Barth and Bultmann thought to be true, I wanted to know what I believed. I somehow knew Who I believed. Since I was planning to serve Him, I needed to know more about Him, and I needed to know Him better.
It dawned on me that if we can know God, then our initiative in what we seek to do as the church would not come from the books, or the studies, or the scholars; it would come from God. The Kingdom is at hand, and where people receive the King, healing occurs, and life becomes real.
I was confronted by those who would smugly ask, "If Christ is the Answer, then what is the question?" The question is simple. "How can I live a full life in a world that does not seem to know where it comes from or where it is going, when I have no idea who I am or what I am doing on earth?" Christ is still the answer.
Where life is wrapped in prayer, somehow, God speaks, and theology becomes no longer a study of someone else's thinking about God. It becomes an ongoing adventure as we seek to know Him more perfectly, and seek to make His will the direction of our lives. The answers are not in the books or the instructors. The answers are in God who speaks through the books and the instructors from time to time.
I have seen many people walk into that new dimension since that time. Some of them find great peace in the encounter, and are quite calm as they speak to others about something so close to their inner lives. Others have been like children who found an unexpected Christmas tree with marvelous gifts for everyone; and they saw themselves as designated to deliver the gifts.
Some needed a license for temporary insanity. They had received a glimpse of the vision, and were certain they had seen it all. They believed they had all of the answers for the world at their fingertips, and they were ready to go out and clean up the world. They made all of the errors of immaturity. They believed that what God had given them as a unique gift must be shared by all, and they went out to impose their gifts on the world.
While they tried to share their experience with a world that really cared little for the gifts, they grew somewhat in maturity. They learned to minister God's love in His patience rather than their own zeal. It takes a while for us to grow up in the Spirit as well as in the flesh. All had a new vision of the Kingdom of God. New birth was not the exclusive possession of any one of them; it was the shared heritage of all.
Their experiences varied considerably, but there was a constant in all of them. They had met God, and they were ready to place their lives into His hands. They were willing to relinquish the control of their lives into the hands of God, and let Him reign as their King. With their maturity, they also learned to place the lives of others in the hands of God, and let Him reign as their King.
STUDY IS TO LEARN ABOUT GOD
We seek God's Kingdom in the same way Jesus led Peter and Andrew, James and John to seek it. We study, we are taught, we learn in a process we call education. We learn about God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. We become familiar with the Scriptures. They are the great treasure trove of God's Self revelation. They have been preserved by the Church for the Church. The Church has established them as the canon, or measure of God's Self revelation.
They are to be read, marked, learned and inwardly digested. They have been called everything from the Word of God, and love letters from our Beloved, to folk literature and mythology. For some they are a source of support for their personal views. To others they are a resource which we receive from The Source of Life. They give us an outward expression of the inward, spiritual reality of God's Kingdom.
There is an interesting question that I like to ask those of my friends who talk of Scripture as the Word of God. I like to lay the Bible down on a table, and ask, "Is that the Word of God?"
Their answer is, "Of course! That's the Word of God!"
To which I will respond, "I don't believe it is."
That statement usually causes a furor among those who know my dependence on the Scriptures for what I believe, so they storm back, "You don't believe the Bible is the Word of God?"
When I was ordained, I signed a statement that I do believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God. It is simply that I believe it is important to know what we are saying, and so I ask, "Can you put the Word of God on a shelf and leave Him there for five years so that He is not able to move? My copy of Isaiah says, 'My word goes forth and it will not return to me empty.' Can we stop God's Word so that He cannot move?"
That slows the conversation down a bit so I can ask, "When, and how does it become the Word of God?" When it is read, and heard, and shared as a portion of our own lives. Jesus was not either God or man. He is both God and man. We could not know His presence as God until He put on our humanity to live with us. All people saw His humanity. Those who saw through eyes of faith, also saw His divinity. We can all read and hear the words of Scripture. As we hear them with the ears of faith, we hear the Word speak through them. We must come to our Mount of Transfiguration before we can see through the outward sign to behold the inward grace.
The Scriptures are not a series of dictations from God. They are like a fine food, that when eaten, nourishes the body. The nutrition is not visible as the outer form of the food. The nutrition is that which the food imparts to the body when it is ingested, digested and assimilated. Scripture is to be seen in the same light.
I have learned much from my evangelical brethren who speak of feeding on the Word. It implies that there is more than just learning what it says. It indicates that we are to assimilate what we read. The story has it that when he was a child, Nikita Kruschev won an award for memorizing the Gospels. It was evident that the exercise did little for his life, when, as the head of the USSR, he promised to bury those of us who lived in the United States.
We are called to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest the Scriptures. We are not called to read, mark, learn and regurgitate them. When I was considering this reality, the Lord showed me a cow, chewing a cud. The milk and the meat are not brought to fruition by the grass or even the cud. The milk and the meat are brought to reality by the nourishment being assimilated and changed into a different expression of the grass that is eaten.
There is an incarnational aspect to the process. It is not in our memorization of the Scriptures, but in our continual chewing on them until they are assimilated into our lives. Perhaps our memory verses can be likened to the pocket full of candy or snacks that we can carry around to chew on when we are not seated at the dinner table. They are for the times when we feel a hunger and don't have the book.
When we say that Scripture is the Word of God, we are saying that we receive the Word of God through the words of men. When we have digested that which we have ingested, we become the reality of His incarnation in our flesh. He dwells in us, and we dwell in Him. Study is to bring about an inner change of both mind and heart. It is more than a mental process.
The study of Scripture is not simply the reading of those passages that others say are important, or even the ones that we like to hear. Study of Scripture has to do with our learning where it was born, and the traditions through which it has been passed down to us today. It is learning that there are two major covenants in the Old and the New Testaments. One is a covenant of Law and the other a covenant of Grace.
The Covenant of Promise to Abraham lies as the foundation on which God is building what He has in mind for His people. It is the Covenant that ties the other two together as an ongoing Self revelation of God to His people. Through the Law He showed us clearly what the good life is; but at the same time, the impossibility of our ever attaining that life apart from His gifts of grace.
The history of Israel is a story of God's call of a stiff-necked and stubborn people to be His own possession. He did not choose the highest of the civilizations. He chose the rabble of the middle east. Ogden Nash spoke succinctly and appropriately when he wrote, "How odd of God to choose the Jews."
Their history is a series of cycles of the people being lifted up by God from the bondage in which they found themselves to make them a great and strong nation. When they were prosperous, they no longer had need of a God to deliver them. They turned away from worshipping God, to their own ways. They found gods who would demand nothing and promise what they wanted. In their apostasy, they fell back into bondage. They moaned and groaned in repentance, and turned to God, who once more delivered them.
The prophets were sent to call the people back to God in their times of apostasy and self will. They pointed out that the social turmoil was the direct result of their apostasy, and they called the people to repentance. They promised that God was going to have a day for judgment. He was going to call a halt to history, and He would create a new heaven and a new earth. They also pointed to a time when God would send His anointed to bring forth a new era of a Kingdom which would have no end.
That history, complete with prophecy, together with a statement of the Law and some poetry and wisdom literature comprises the Old Testament. It is to be read as a time of looking forward to something God would do, and at the same time trying to keep the Law as a means of living the lives they were created to enjoy.
The idea was not that they would keep the Law, and earn a reward. The idea was as they lived the Law, they were living their reward. I have often thought how blessed it would be if I never coveted anything that belonged to anyone else. The reward would be my deliverance from coveting. There is an old rabbinical saying that goes, "The reward for a good deed is in the deed itself."
Paul's writing in his first letter to Cornish seems to indicate that God called Christians on the same basis that He called the Jews. He writes to the Corinthians to look to their calling. God has chosen some of the least important people in the area to put to shame those that are important in the eyes of the world. I Cor 1:26ff It is not a matter of having to be adequate or inadequate to be called; it is a matter of knowing that our adequacy is not of ourselves, but of God.
While we might find some ground for boasting in our righteousness under the Law, there is not any ground at all for boasting in Christ. The church subsequently listed Pride among the seven deadly sins, because it puts us over against God. The Christian word for pride is thanksgiving. While we might read the Old Testament with an eye to seeing the future, we read the New Testament as the present glimpse of the future. It is literally a presentation of how we are to know God.
In Christ Jesus the Law has been fulfilled, the barrier of sin that stands between man in his fallen state, and God in His holiness, has been removed. Jesus Christ is our Great High Priest, and He has opened the way for us to have access to God. The New Testament is not to be read in the same light as the Old. It cannot truly be grasped when it is read as a Law. It must rather be read as an account of a relationship.
The New Testament contains a variety of documents. The four Gospels are the portraits of Jesus painted in words by the four evangelists. They do not contain every word Jesus spoke. John makes it clear that if all were recorded, even the world could not contain all of the books.
Each of them selected the words of Jesus and the events of His life that would paint the portrait as they saw Him. That is likely why the church selected four instead of choosing one. It is why they selected only four instead of including all of the material that circulated in the early centuries of the church's life.
There are also letters from apostles to the church, that are written with some particular purpose in mind. When we read them, we can often find why they were written just as we might as we read a letter written from someone who loves us today. There is a bit of history in the Book of Acts, which Luke saw as a necessary addition to show that the life of Jesus which ended in death, burial, resurrection and ascension, did not end with the Ascension. It continued through the outpouring of Holy Spirit bringing His Body the Church into being as the incarnation of His presence in the world today.
Finally, John's Revelation is one of the controversial inclusions in the book. It is written in a style that has led many, who trust in the Scripture instead of the Lord, to proclaim the end of time, despite the fact that we are told repeatedly that no one can know that time. It seems rather a timeless book that describes the states of men as they follow the cycles of apostasy, and separation from God. It tells also of the ways in which God deals with His people. We might say that it is John's vision through the veil of the creation to the reality which lies behind it now.
It is the painting of the battle of which we read in Ephesians. We are not at war with flesh and blood, but with principalities and powers, with the rulers of the darkness of this world, and with spiritual wickedness in high places. We do not see the enemy of which John writes. We see his incarnate form in the powers of the world. Whatever else we find in the Revelation, we find that reality set forth.
We find also that Satan, who had access to the heavenly courts in the Old Testament has been cast out in the New. No longer does he stand before the throne of God day and night accusing the brethren. It is in the New Testament, and not in the Old that we find the clearly stated fall of Satan. He still rules in the old creation. Our hope is in the new creation, the Kingdom God has prepared for us from the foundation of the world.
When the church met at the Council of Carthage to decide which books would make up the New Testament, they selected the ones that had proved to be true in their own lives. We might say that the material in Scripture is true, not simply because it is in the Bible. It is in the Bible because it is true. It has been tried and found to be dependable as a basis for life. When we are willing to try it out in our own lives, we find the decisions of the Council were inspired by God.
When we approach the Bible for study purposes, we read it from cover to cover. We read it to find out what it says. Some of it will be boring, and some exciting. Some of it tells stories that verge on being X-rated ; but it deals with real life and real people and above all a real God.
As we read, we are to let the words tell us the story. Too often we read the material as if we already know what it says, and we do not hear the words, but we impose our words on the words of the Bible. I recall going through a study course for the Order of St. Luke, which is a rather detailed study of the healing stories of Jesus. I was sometimes amazed at what the Scriptures actually said as compared with what I thought they said.
We need to be aware of the variety of literature in the Scriptures. We do not read a book the same way we read a letter. Read each unit of Scripture in the light it was written, and not as a stereotyped document that is all in one form.
When we read the Old Testament, we may be struck with the fact that God is the author of both good and evil. He is in control of the entire drama of creation and its unfolding life. In the New Testament, Satan is banished from the Kingdom, and we are free to enter a new creation where he has no access to us. We read to learn. That is our purpose for study.
There is no substitute for study. The images of the Kingdom must be supplied from some source, and what better than the history of Israel, God's people in the flesh, and the teaching of Jesus and those who walked with Him in the flesh. They are not all that we need. For if we need to know more about God, we also need to know God.
PRAYER IS TO COME TO KNOW GOD
If we study to learn about God, we pray so that we might come to know Him as He has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. Prayer is a dialogue, a construct word from the two Greek words, dia, meaning through, and logos, meaning word. For the Christian, it is our conversation with God in which we participate through the Word.
I have never known anyone in my life unless I have taken the time to converse with them. I must both speak and listen. That is the nature of dialogue. As I sit and talk with people, they will reveal themselves to me. I will come to know some things through what they say, and other things through my observations of their actions. I have met a lot of people that I do not know. I have spoken at length when I teach, to people I will never really get to know, because we just don't have time to share.
We get to know God in the same way we get to know people. We get to know God by speaking to Him, and listening to Him. That is a very difficult procedure if we do not believe God speaks to us so we can hear Him. It is very simple when we are aware that He both hears and speaks to us. We have to remember that being simple does not necessarily mean that it is easy.
It is also important to know the primary purpose of prayer is to get to know God. It is not an effort to get God to do our will. It is a process of opening windows and inviting God to come in and touch His creation with His love; and watching His response to see just what His love entails. If we are trying to change God's will into our own will, we are not speaking of prayer, but of incantation.
Those who pray most effectively seek to pray in accord with the guidance of Holy Spirit. They seek to articulate God's will for themselves and the ones for whom they pray, and they seek to see God's will done on earth as in heaven. What most people do not realize is that God's answer is always the same. Whatever we ask, His answer is, "I love you."
It used to trouble me when I thought of the many ways God seemed to respond to my prayers. I knew that He loved me, even though there were times when what He did was other than what I would call love. It remained for me to look back on what He has done in my life, and see the healing that has grown out of what I had considered His indifference, that I began to see whatever He did to me or for me was love.
It dawned on me one day that for God to treat me with indulgence would not be love at all. Indulgence is something other than love. It seeks not God's will but the will of the beloved. Love is expressed to the beloved in a manner that is best for the beloved. That is not always what the beloved believes. When I bought my child an ice cream cone, it was because I loved him. When I spanked the same child, it was because love demanded another expression at the moment.
When Paul writes, "All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." He is saying that God's love does not always appear to us to be love, but God in His wisdom is the only one who knows what love truly is, because He is love.
When I got out of seminary, I knew the place where I was to be assigned. I also knew that I would not be able to please the people in that small Florida town. No one could please them. I decided that I would make a covenant with God. That is a one sided contract with no conditions on the other party unless they so choose to respond. I decided that I would please God, and He would have to please the people, if in fact, they were ever pleased.
Perhaps I had inadvertently decided that I would love the Lord, my God, with all of my heart and all of my soul and all of my mind. The decision set me free from having to please, or change, the people there. It set me free to simply accept them as they were, and to love them and pray for them. It also compelled me to seek God with all of my heart and soul and mind.
I knew that I had to develop some kind of prayer life. If what I believed was true, I had to stay in touch with God in all aspects of my life. He was not interested just in my preaching on Sunday morning. He was also interested in my fishing on Thursday afternoon. He was interested in my meetings, and in my time alone. He wanted to come and live His life in me; and that would be virtually impossible unless we were communicating.
I read some books on prayer, and found that most of them agreed on the nature of prayer. We needed to pray Praise and Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Intercession and Petition. When I had finished reading, I found that reading books does not teach us to pray. Somewhere I had to get around to practicing. I decided I would start with the system that prays the fifth book of the New Testament, ACTS - Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, which includes asking both for others and for myself.
So I began with Praise and Adoration. I had the words at hand in the Gloria in Excelsis Deo, in the Sanctus, in the Te Deum Laudemus. I could even use a few of the Gospel choruses I had learned. When I began, I was amazed at how dry and dusty my prayers were. I could not understand how the saints took such great pleasure in prayer unless they were given to masochism. Prayer was a drudge, and I must confess that I found the discipline difficult for me to keep, unless I was praying for someone else for healing.
As our children began to grow up, God used them to speak to me about prayer.
I began to learn something about the practice of prayer. When I started praying, I had not realized that I did not know the God to Whom I was addressing my words. I knew about Him, and I had known something of Him in my own experiences of checking out His order for my life, but I didn't know Him.
My children did not know me, and I cannot recall any one of the four, coming to me and asking, "Father, tell me something about yourself, so that I might get to know you."
Their questions followed rather a different line, "Can I have a cookie? Can I watch TV? Can I go outside? Can I stay up? Can I go with you? Can I have some candy? Can I have some money to buy that thing?"
To these questions, my answers would be , "Yes. No. Not now. Sit down. Shut up. Go to bed. Don't forget to brush your teeth."
At the end of two or three years, my children knew me well enough to work me for almost anything they wanted. In the exchange of requests and terse answers, they had come to know me. It dawned on me that a lot of their learned knowledge of me was from non-verbal communication.
As I reflected on that truth, I found that they lived out the first nine months of their lives in non-verbal communication through their mother. When they were born, they began to verbalize their prayers with cries of pain or joy, discomfort or delight. I have become convinced that babies are born with the gift of tongues, and mothers are given the gift of interpretation. Communication is phenomenally accurate considering there is no real language between them.
I remember when one of the babies would cry, and it was my turn to be Daddy, my wife would say, "Go change his diaper," or "Go feed him."
To which I would respond, "How do you know what he needs? I didn't hear any clear requests from him."
She would answer, "I just know," and when I went, I found that she was right. There is a communication that God provides at a non-verbal level that is essential to our lives and relationships when we are getting to know one another.
The same is true with prayer. There is a non-verbal communication with God that begins long before we begin to pray. I can look back on my whole life, even in those times when I believed God was up in heaven, and not anywhere close to the earth, when I can see His hand in my life leading and protecting me - non-verbally revealing Himself to me. The Reformation theologians called this phenomenon, prevenient grace. It was God's call on my life, prior to the time I began to seek Him, and certainly before I knew Him.
I decided I would try being a child of God. I began to make petition my primary form of prayer. I let all of the people who told me how selfish that was have their say. I was not concerned what people would think. I wanted a good prayer life. I wanted to know God as my Father, and I wanted a way to begin that was practical, something that worked whether it was socially acceptable or not. If I could find God, He would be able to define socially acceptable in a new and perfect way.
I learned another step about prayer when I was in the kitchen one day, and Thomas came in and asked for a cookie. I gave him one out of the bag we had in the cabinet. He saw that there were plenty of cookies, and so he asked, "Can I have one for my brother too?"
That was intercession. He found there was a good supply of cookies and a dad that was in a good mood, he could risk asking for one for his brother. I am not sure of the motivation. It may have been that he really cared for his brother at the moment, or it may have been that he stood a better chance of eating his, if his brother had one of his own. His brother was bigger than Thomas, and was not at all opposed to taking whatever he wanted and could take for himself.
Intercession is not simply an exercise in being nice enough to consider the needs of other people. It is important for the intercessor to know that there is an ample source that is available from God. We learn something about God from the answers He gives, both to our petitions and our intercessions.
Our intercessions grow and take life from the realization that we receive something out of the intercessions ourselves. We enter into the presence of Abba, and we get to spend some time with Him. We get the privilege of pleasing Him; and on occasion, we get to share the gift given to our brother or sister.
Thanksgiving is not as easily developed as one might think. We may know with our minds that all things come from God, but like a little child with a new toy, we often become so involved in the toy that we forget the giver. It is true of Christian experience that we often get so involved in the experience that we forget the Giver. Thanksgiving is our way of acknowledging that what we receive is God's gift. It is not something we deserved or earned, it is a gift.
When we receive a gift, we are to say , "Thank you." to the donor. That is not simply a matter of the magic words made famous by Captain Kangaroo, and old-time parents. It is a genuine acknowledgment of the gift God has given. It is to come out of a thankful heart.
There is a difference between saying, "Thank you." and having a thankful heart. When we come to know that all that we are and all that we have comes from a loving Father, Who is also our God, we may have a thankful heart. It is not a reaction or response, but a condition that reigns within us. It is something that we cultivate as we seek to respond to God in the entire scope of our life. It is what my AA friends call an attitude of gratitude.
Thanksgiving is the source of joy, because it acknowledges our Source of Life. It opens for us the constant realization that God is present. Where God is present there is joy that cannot be found in a momentary happiness derived from focusing on some gift or experience. A thankful heart draws us to Him and the realization of His presence in our lives.
My children did not learn thanksgiving in their early years. It took some time and some maturity. Perhaps they learned it from facing responsibility in the world; and finding that the world is not fair, nor does it tend to give gifts, nor do we merit gifts in any greater measure than other people. It is when gifts are recognized as gifts and privileges rather than rights that we begin to find thanksgiving welling up within us.
It is difficult to cultivate a thankful heart in a world that presents everything you receive as your God-given right. If it is a "right", I can demand that I receive my rights. There is no need to be thankful for something I rightfully deserve. It is when I see that all of God's gifts are privileges that I am free to enjoy what I receive rather than lament my unmet expectation. One of the fundamental causes of anger and depression in our American culture is the focus on rights, the lack of understanding of privilege, and the failure of thanksgiving in the hearts and minds of our people.
The prayer of thanksgiving is one of the remedies for that corporate malady that seems to grip the people. It almost seems that we are disturbed even by the idea that we would do well to pray for anything, especially to a God that belongs to someone else, and not to us. We do not see that only through prayer will He ever be ours; and only with a thankful heart, will we come to know God and enjoy Him forever.
When I see how lavishly God deals with me, I might even run the risk of sharing those things about me that I would rather keep covered. They are the aspects of my life that keep me from knowing and loving myself. I might call them sin, or shame, or the results of childhood abuse, but they lie there within, and I keep them covered, and I reap from them the crop of self condemnation and guilt.
When I hear of the infinite and unconditional love of God, I might chance telling Him how I see me. That form of prayer is called confession. It is important for two reasons. First, it keeps us aware that we are not worthy to be children of God. What He desires to give us is far more than we deserve. The things that we confess are the things that make us unworthy in our own eyes. We become as the prodigal at the hog pen, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son."
The second aspect of importance is that when we attend to that confession in an honest manner, we are as open to God as we can get. There we find that His love in both infinite and unconditional, for His response to us is much the same as the response of the father of the prodigal. "This my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found."
When we know that Abba knows us with all of our dirty laundry hanging out, and can still call us His beloved child, we are then set free to love ourselves, "as is", warts and all. That opens a new vista of love that God bestows on us that is greater than we can envision save as He reveals it to us. In the fullness of our sin and wretchedness, (two very unpopular words, but prevalent feelings;) He comes to set us free and embrace us in that love which makes us whole in His presence.
Then we are drawn into Adoration and Praise. There is no need to concern ourselves with the "right" words or any of the other aspects of prayer we might consider important. We do adore this One who has loved us, not only because of who we are; but also in spite of what we are. We find the realization that He has come to love us, warts and all, until the warts fall off.
When we reach this stage of prayer, we are no longer concerned about where we are or whether there is music and dancing, or silence and awe, in our adoration. We are in His presence, and His love has set us free to love Him. It is as normal to praise God as to breathe. How different from the dry beginnings of a prayer life patterned from someone else's experience, and not our own.
I once went out to do a mission, and when I came home, one of the young men in the congregation asked me in excited seriousness, "Did you praise the Lord?"
My response was, "What do you mean, did we praise the Lord?"
He said, "You know. Did you praise the Lord?"
It dawned on me that he was coming from a place that did not allow him to talk save in terms of the jargon of his experiential community. I tried to speak to that, "If you mean did we raise our hands and sing songs of praise, yes we did. If you mean did we actually praise God, I can only answer, I hope so."
That exchange brought me up short. I have learned when I don't have clear answers, that I am to go back to the Lord and ask Him. In my next quiet time, I asked, "Lord, how do we praise you?"
His answer was very simple, though ever so, out of reach, "You praise me by being radically obedient. When you are obedient to me, every word that issues from your mouth and every act of any kind, praises me."
Thus prayer for me was shown to be more than the words I speak to God, and the answers I observe. Prayer was a seeking of God's will through listening to Him as well as talking to Him; and in so far as it lies within me, walking that way with Him. I have heard people say, "My whole life is a prayer." I can only pray that my prayer is lived out, not to the gods of this world, but to Abba, who has made me His own child, in Jesus Christ.
PRAYER IS LISTENING
Learning to listen to God is another aspect of prayer that is often neglected. When I am serious about following Christ, or being obedient to Abba, I must be led by the Spirit of God. I know that all of the people who are baptized, or have attended a baptism in the Episcopal Church have vowed to follow Christ as Savior and Lord. It is in the Rite, and the responses are made by all present.
I have often wondered how we could take such a vow without making the effort to come to know Him and listen to Him. How can we follow someone we do not know, or to whom we do not listen? In the Old Testament God spoke to Israel through the Law and the Prophets. The people came to God through the priesthood and sacrificial system they had been given at Sinai.
Later God sent them prophets, and spoke to them through the prophets, but in these latter days, Peter tells us that God has fulfilled the prophesy of Joel. He has poured out His Spirit on all flesh. He now speaks to us through vision, dream and prophesy. Holy Spirit speaks to and through the whole Body of Christ. We no longer have to wait upon people who wait upon God. We wait upon God, Himself.
Paul will go so far as to say, "As many as are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God." Somewhere we must find that way, or those ways that God will speak uniquely to each one of us. He is not a God who resides in outer space alone. The promise at the end of Matthew is "Lo, I am with you until the end of the age." In John's Gospel, Jesus tells us that when Holy Spirit comes, He and Father will also come and make their abode in us. The author of Ephesians prays that we might be filled with the fullness of God.
God certainly speaks to us through the Bible. When we wrote about study, we talked about reading the Bible to see what the words say. When we read to listen for the Word, we read it in a different way. We read it slowly, asking God to speak to us through the words of the authors. Nearly everyone I know who reads the Scriptures regularly knows the experience of having a phrase light up in a great, or small, "Aha!" God has broken through the outward form to reveal to the person what they already knew. The revelation breathed life into the data, and it came alive.
Madame Jean Guyon, who wrote in the seventeenth century used to teach a way of listening to God through reading the Scriptures.. She would say, "Read slowly, and prayerfully. When God speaks to you, quit reading, and listen, until He has finished what He is saying." It is simply a way to recognize the difference between reading for knowledge about God and reading for knowledge of God.
Others among the mystics point out that when you are reading a letter from your beloved, and He walks into the room with you; you would hardly tell Him to wait until you finish reading His letter. You lay the letter aside, and commune with your beloved. It is one way to listen to God.
Some people use what I call, for lack of a better name, the lucky dip method. They open the Bible at random and read what the Lord sets before them to read. God does not speak to me in this way, but He does speak to some of His children in this way. I had a friend who was traveling with a group, some of whom used this system for seeking guidance. He saw that it worked, and so he decided that he would try it himself. When he closed his eyes, opened the Bible, and placed his finger on the page, he looked to find that he had the blank pages between the Old and New Testaments. He concluded this was not God's way for him, even thought it was for others. The only way I know to find out if it is for you is to try.
God speaks to us through His people, through our friends and even through clergy from time to time. In using this as a method of listening, we listen within in the spirit. We ask God to make alive what He is saying through the people to whom we listen. It is a very good practice in listening to sermons, to ask, "Lord, what are you saying to me through this sermon?"
I have always been encouraged by something Starr Daily said. "Since I began praying for the preacher, I have never heard a bad sermon." Often God will speak volumes that are not being said, but which have been triggered by what is being said from the pulpit.
I recall one Sunday at a coffee hour between services at my church in Maitland, Florida, three people came up to me and thanked me for what they had heard me say in my sermon. I didn't remember saying any of it, but the ideas sounded so good, I thought I might try to use them at the next service. The sermon was poor and the ideas were not heard. At times there is a difference between the words spoken and the Word God speaks through them.
Jesus said, "My sheep know my voice." That is the fundamental truth on which we rely when we are listening for God to speak through other people. It is easy to get distracted by the reputation of the speaker and listen to him as to God. If we are to . hear God, it is important to listen for His voice, for the Word within the words of the speaker.
When I first became involved in Charismatic renewal, I would have a lot of people come by my office with the statement, "Father Al, the Lord told me to tell you..." As one of them began her story one day when I was busy with other things, I retorted, "If He wants me to know, He'll tell me."
When she had left the office, somewhat hurt by my response, the Lord said, "You had better listen to my people. You do not know whether I am speaking or they are speaking until you listen. If you do not listen, you may very well miss what I am saying to you. Listen to them, and then ask me if it is for you to hear and obey." I have heard some things that have not been particularly edifying, but some of them have been crucial to some important decisions that I have made. But as I have come to understand it, listening is love.
We are aware of what it means to have visions. I do not believe we have to see them on the wall, but we may. It may be a vision that lies within our being as we are in communion with God. Sometimes it does not yield to our conscious articulation until it emerges like something that is born from within. Whatever the nature of the vision, if it is of God, it will also be in harmony with His revelation in Jesus. Perhaps that is the best measure of authenticity. Does it express God's love that I have learned about in Scripture, and does it glorify God in accord with His revelation in Jesus?
A dream does not have to come to us in our sleep. I recall my days as a young child and the day dreams that I used to have about what life would be like when I grew up. They were not accurate. They were my dreams. When we invite God to speak to us we find that He will bring His. God does not speak much to me personally in dreams, but He does speak to a lot of my friends that way, and so it is something I have learned to respect and to which I listen.
I personally keep a journal of what I believe God is saying to me. I take the first hour I am awake in the morning for my prayer time, and a part of that time is given to listening to Him. I find that He says many different things, from take out the garbage to unfolding a bit of new revelation for me. Both are important to me. In fact all that He says is important to me.
I will never forget the morning that I found myself writing, "Take out the garbage" It suddenly dawned on me that I had forgotten it the night before, and the truck was due by any moment. I made it to the curb when the truck did. That may sound trivial to most people, but it was important to God, maybe because it was important to my relationship with my wife.
I was delighted to find that I was in good company when I heard someone who knew Frank Laubach, a great Christian mystic. They said that he had told them never to sit down or kneel down to pray without a pencil or pen and paper. You never know when God will speak, and it helps to write it down so you won't forget it.
I found that to be true for me. I was sitting in the choir pews of my church early one Sunday before the first service, and I found Him asking, "Why do you sit here and listen to me when you never do what I tell you?" My feelings were hurt. I suppose I had the idea that if I listened, I was doing pretty good; but as I looked back in my journal, I found that He was right. There were a number of things He had told me that I had flat out not done.
I have learned that we need to ask for help when we are not able to be obedient in the grace that we have at the moment. His solution to the problem was so simple that it had eluded me. Make a list of the things I give you, and check them off as you get them done. While that may sound simple to others, it had not even occurred to me until He made it clear.
Journaling has made another thing clear to me. I was sitting listening one day, and found that I was having a hard time with the wording of what I was hearing. He was talking to me about a sexual problem in the community, and I did not want to write what I was hearing. Finally He said, "Quit trying to clean up my language, and write what I give you. It is not my language anyway. It is yours. I speak to you in knowing, you supply the language to express that knowing so you can receive it."
The revelation came as a surprise to me, but it also let me know how we can hear different things from the same God, and let me know why we need a community to enlarge or correct what we have heard from Him. None of us has a clear and complete understanding of what God is saying, but we do know that we are within a community in which He makes His will clear, when we give Him our undivided attention.
I recall a young man who came to me on a youth retreat and said, "Father Al, I would like to learn to listen to the Lord."
I told him to take a pencil and a piece of paper and go sit under an oak tree that was on the property, and ask God to speak to him. When I gave him the pencil and paper, he left for the tree.
In about twenty minutes, he was back again, saying, "Father Al, I don't think God wants to speak to me."
When I asked him what made him say that, he answered, "Well all I got was something like my beloved son."
"And who would call you that, Eric?" I asked. "Would your folks call you that?" He answered, "No way."
"Would you call you that?" I continued. "You know better than that." he replied.
"Would I call you that?" I asked. "I don't think so," he answered.
"Well, Eric, who would call you that?" The light dawned, and his face lit up in his response, "Oh, Wow!"
When I first began journaling, about all God would say to me is, "I love you." I love you, my child." "You are my beloved son." After a bit of this over a period of time, I asked, "If you love me why don't you talk to me?"
His answer was clear. "If you don't receive this that I am saying first, you will never understand any of the rest."
Since that time, I have learned that to be true. Hearing God is a function of our knowing His love for us. If we do not love Him, we cannot hear Him. If we do not know that He loves us, we cannot understand what He is saying, for He only speaks love.
Camps Farthest Out has an exercise that I recommend to everyone when they ask how they might begin to listen and journal. It is called a letter to God. It is very simple. You take a pencil and paper and write down what you want to say to God, It may be long or short, terse or discursive; but it must be honest.
When you have completed what you are going to say to Him, you turn the paper over and ask Him to speak to you. This is not an exercise in automatic writing, ala Ruth Montgomery. Automatic writing requires that you yield your members subject to some other spirit. You write what comes to your mind. God speaks to us through our mind, and He will speak to us in such a way that we will know the difference between our own thinking and God's speaking to us.
I recall a day when one of my parishioners came into the office and said, "Father Al, God speaks to me. He speaks to me through my mind. I will have a problem with a TV set I am repairing, and I will ask Him to show me what I need to do. I will go on to the next set, and in a little while the revelation will come to me."
My response to him was, "I'm glad you recognize that God is speaking. If I had asked and the idea came to me later, I would likely say, 'Never mind, Lord, I just thought of it myself.'"
There was a nurse in my congregation who was a little skeptical about the idea of God speaking to us. When she was on an IV team at one of the hospitals, she found that veins were not all that easy to find in some people. I had told her to try God when she ran to end of her own knowledge and skill.
Some time later I saw her when I was visiting someone in the hospital, and she said, "You know, I tried what you suggested. I cannot always find a vein in some of the people, but there hasn't been a case yet where He couldn't find the vein and get the needle in it.
When we seek the Kingdom of God, it does not mean that we have to leave this world and get on into outer space. The Kingdom of God is at hand. When we are attentive to Him, we walk in the Kingdom, at the campground, in the TV shop, or in the hospital. Where we acknowledge Him to be King, we walk in His Kingdom, and we are ready to be sent as His apostles to the world.