Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 1, 2020

Contemplative Wednesdays: Workbench Edition

Hi Everyone,

Here is my weekly “Contemplative Wednesday” talk, which I live-streamed from the workbench in my basement. The wifi signal was weak in my basement so the video quality is not great. You might consider just listening to the talk instead of watching.

I streamed this from my workbench because this represents a place of anxiety for me. I own an older house that always needs work done, but I am not very handy with tools. So the workbench is a reminder of all the things I need to do and my lack of confidence in getting them done.

In this talk, I explore some spiritual  resources that might help us work through the anxiety we are dealing with during the Covid-19 crisis. Here is the video:

 

A couple quotes from the talk for you to consider:

“Some Christians seem to imagine that they must be continuously boisterous and bubbly and wear a perpetual grin on their face. How unbiblical can one become?” John Stott

“When you hit your thumb with a hammer, it hurts just as much after you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior as it did before.” Eugene Peterson

“Lament is a cry or despair with direction.” Chris Rice

The prayer practice I suggest at the end of the talk is called “Palms Down, Palms Up.” The idea is to hold your palms down as a symbol of letting go. As you hold your palms down, name the things you want to release to God. After you take time to lament and name the hard things you are carrying, you then turn your palms up as a symbol of receiving what God has for you. Spend some time listening to how God is speaking to you in the midst of the hardship you are facing. Perhaps God wants you to remember his promises, or meditate on his attributes.

Lastly, I referenced an album by the group Bifrost Arts, titled “Lamentations” in my talk. This is part of my Covid-19 lockdown playlist. To listen you can access the songs on youtube at this link.

God Bless you as you navigate this difficult season.

Pastor Phil

Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 25, 2020

Contemplative Wednesdays: Bell-Tower Edition

Hi Everyone,

During the Covid-19 Crisis, I’m continuing to provide teaching on Wednesday nights via Facebook Live. During the Lenten season, I am hosting some reflections on prayer and spirituality called “Contemplative Wednesdays.” This week’s edition is streamed live from our bell-tower. In this edition, I talk about developing our rhythms of prayer. Below you’ll find the video, as well as the Thomas Merton quote and evening prayer referenced in this talk. I host these talks at 7:15pm Wednesdays on the LVCC Facebook Page.

“Bells” by Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

Bells are meant to remind us that God alone is good, that we belong to Him, that we are not living for this world.

They break in upon our cares in order to remind us that all things pass away and that our preoccupations are not important.

They speak to us of our freedom, which responsibilities and transient cares make us forget. They are the voice of our alliance with the God of heaven. They tell us that we are His true temple. They call us to peace with Him within ourselves. . .

The bells say: business does not matter. Rest in God and rejoice, for this world is only the figure and the promise of a world to come, and only those who are detached from transient things can possess the substance of an eternal promise.

The bells say: we have spoken for centuries from the towers of great Churches. We have spoken to the saints, your fathers, in their land. We called them, as we call you, to sanctity. What is the word with which we called them?

We did not merely say, “Be good, come to Church.” We did not merely say “Keep the commandments” but above all, “Christ is risen, Christ is risen!” And we said, “Come with us, God is good, salvation is not hard, His love has made it easy!” And this, our message, has always been for everyone, for those who came and for those who did not come, for our song is as perfect as the Father in heaven is perfect and we pour our charity out upon all.

Evening Prayer from the Monks of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Carlton, OR

Now in the fading light of day
Maker of all to you we pray
That with your ever watchful love
You guard and keep us from above

Help and defend us through the night
Danger and terror put to flight
Never let evil have its way
Preserve us for another day.

Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 18, 2020

Contemplative Wednesdays: Sophie Edition

During the Covid-19 crisis we are unable to meet in person for the foreseeable future. Since I usually teach on Wednesday evenings, I thought I’d continue to provide some Wednesday night teaching via Facebook Live.  Join me Wednesdays at 7:15 for a short time for spiritual reflection and contemplation on the LVCC Facebook page. Between now and Easter I am going to host some reflections on prayer called “Contemplative Wednesdays.” Following Easter I am going to lead a 4-week series on the post-Easter resurrection encounters with Jesus. I am going to explore how the Easter story intersects our experiences of grief (Mary), doubt (Thomas), regret (Peter), and fear (The disciples in the upper room).

My first live-stream focuses on how to pray the Ignatian prayer of examen. If you missed it you can view the video here: https://www.facebook.com/109595110389321/videos/2317534308548417/.  I often pray the prayer of examen while walking my dog Sophie at Lake Sacajawea, so I invited Sophie to join me for this video at the lake.

 

 

If you are interested in praying the prayer of examen on your own here is the guide:

Examen Prayer

 Centering

  • Take a minute to be still.
  • Ask God for help you see his presence as you review the day.
  • Some Centering prayers that might help
    • Ephesians 1:18 “ I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people
    • Lord, open our eyes, that we may see the beauty of goodness. Lord, open our ears, that we may hear the truth. Lord, open our lips, that we may show forth your praise
    • “Behold God beholding you… and smiling.” –Anthony De Mello, S.J.

Gratitude:

  • Spend some time giving thanks for the gifts of this day. “Lord this day we have just lived is a gift from you. Help us to see the signs of your beauty, truth and goodness. Hear our prayers of gratitude and praise.”

Introspection:

  • Reflect over your day starting from when you woke up until now.
  • Ask God for help you to notice the strong interior movements and feelings that arose this day whether pleasing (like joy, peace, compassion, confidence, excitement or hope), or painful, (like sadness, anxiety, self-doubt, jealously, anger, or confusion)
  • Ask the spirit to help you to zero in on one or two of the experiences you had today that God wants you to pray about.
  • If they are positive movements where you were close to God, rejoice
  • If they are painful moments where you were drawn away from God, seek, help, forgiveness, or reconciliation.

Grace

  • After reviewing the day take some time to just sit silently contemplating the grace of God.
  • Rejoice in the grace of God’s provision, mercy, and forgiveness.

Look Ahead

  • End the day looking ahead to tomorrow
  • Reflect on how you can approach tomorrow in light of the ways God has been present in your life today. You may want to ask for help, strength, peace, or guidance regarding the things you are anticipating tomorrow.

Close

  • You may want to close with the Lord’s Prayer, thank God for this time of prayer, or just sit in silence.
Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 6, 2019

Nothing is More Practical than Loving God

Hi Readers,

As many of you know, I have taken a long break from blogging while writing my doctoral dissertation this past year and a half. I’m excited to report that my dissertation has been approved!

My project is titled, “From Insight to Encounter: The Ignatian Spiritual Exercises and the Transformation of the Heart.” In my project, I look at how spiritual formation requires not only the reorientation of our thinking but also requires the reorientation of what we love. What we love directs and shapes our lives. I explore how Ignatius of Loyola’s approach to prayer and scripture meditation facilitates the reorientation of our desires. Along with this, I explore how the reorientation of our heart provides the foundation on which effective missional engagement happens. Prayer, in the Ignatian tradition, is not an escapist activity, but rather a foundation for practical engagement in our hurting world.

A quote that captures the heart of what my project is all about comes from the former Jesuit Superior Pedro Arrupe.  He writes:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

If you’d like to experiment with the Ignatian approach to scripture meditation and prayer I’ve put together a 40-day prayer challenge for our church titled “Awake My Soul.” Many are planning to use this prayer guide during the Lenten season which begins this week. To access this guide you can find it at the following link:

https://www.longviewcommunitychurch.org/2019/03/06/awake-my-sou-a-40-day-prayer-challenge/

If you would like to hear a short talk I gave about the project as well as a testimony from Nelson Graham, who participated in the praxis component of my project, you can listen here:

You can also view an outline of the talk with quotes and references included: Epiphany Reflection Outline Source Info

Once I recover from this long season of writing I hope to re-engage the blogosphere!

God Bless!

Phil

Posted by: Philip Rushton | September 11, 2017

Beyond Cool: The Gift of Intergenerational Community

“There is neither hipster nor boomer, guitar player nor organist, nor are there young families and retirees, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” My paraphrase of Galatians 3:28

In preparation for our small group leader retreat this past weekend I watched a number of talks from a discipleship conference called, “Verge.” The conference was primarily made up of young urban church planters. Everything about it struck me as very cool. Most of the speakers wore dark-rimmed “post-modern” glasses and skinny jeans, the stage had state of the art lighting, and the graphic design was sleek.

There was a noticeable contrast between this cool hipster conference and my humble small group leader retreat. We viewed a couple of the sessions from the “Verge” conference because the content was helpful, but our gathering did not have the same cool factor. My powerpoint graphics weren’t very “urban.” We were also an intergenerational group that spanned from age 30 to 90. I helped one of our members who is in a wheelchair navigate the stairs. Our group burst out laughing when one of the speakers referred to a 50-year-old in his congregation as an “old guy.”

As I witnessed the juxtaposition between this cool hipster conference and our small intergenerational leadership gathering I found myself feeling very grateful.  I felt blessed to be part of a church that has managed to forge a unique setting where people from different generations can collaborate and faithfully serve God together.

Hipster Christianity, Revisited, Brian McCraken

Hipster Christianity, Revisited

This morning I read an article by Brett McCracken titled, “Hipster Christianity, Revisited.” In the article, he suggests that there are, “Instances where the inherent qualities of cool clash with those of the gospel.” He argues that when churches place too much emphasis on being cool, they can compromise what it means to be an authentic Christian community. He writes:

The medium of cool is necessarily exclusivist; it can only exist as a minority, in-the-know subculture. Not everyone can be cool. Indeed, this idea drives fashion’s fast-moving ephemerality. If something is cool for too long, it becomes known and accessible to too many. How does this exclusivism square with a faith that is fundamentally inclusive and open-to-all?

The answer to that question, of course, is that exclusivity does not square with Christianity. One of the values of the early church was to promote unity in the midst of diversity. The church made a huge effort to bring together people from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds. This was very counter-cultural in the ancient world.  Wealthy people did not associate with the poor. The idea of getting Jews and Gentiles in the same room together was unheard of. Yet, the message of Christ compelled this new movement to bridge these barriers.

The contemporary church, however, is extremely homogenous. Martin Luther King Jr. once declared Sunday morning at 11am as the most homogenous hour of the week in America. I am noticing that this is becoming especially true around the issue of age.  Intergenerational communities are becoming rarer. Many young church plants target a certain age demographic. Some large churches even provide multiple worship services to cater to the tastes of each age group. While this might make church life easier, it seems to confront the gospel values of reconciliation and diversity.

McCracken recognizes that it is legitimate and necessary to try and contextualize the gospel in ways that reach different people. We are, after all, a people who believe in the incarnation. Jesus took on flesh and moved into the world in order to explain himself to us. This models for us a call to make the gospel accessible to people.  Perhaps there are contexts where some will be called to become a hipster to reach the hipster.  However, McCracken suggests that we need to recognize how the methods by which we communicate the gospel impact the message. Contextualization becomes problematic when it causes us to sacrifice the values of the gospel. He suggests that our over-emphasis on being cool has the potential to create communities that are individualistic and exclusive.

I have grown to appreciate our intergenerational church community.  While we are certainly not as cool as some of the young hipster churches that are being planted, we experience a level of community that I think some of these “cool” churches are missing.

First, there is a sense of openness in an intergenerational church.  We do not have to fit a certain mold to belong.  Our Sunday morning service provides a beautiful (and colorful) collage of Hawaiian shirts, neckties, blue jeans, wool suits, Seahawks jerseys and blue-tinged perms.  One does not have to be wearing the right kind of plaid or have a tattoo to fit in here!

Second, our intergenerational community is teaching me humility.  In some of the emergent church literature these days I sense a subtle ageism or generational arrogance.  Some of the speakers at this conference seemed to imply that previous generations totally missed the mark about the church.  It is as if nothing good happened between the first-century church and the twenty-first-century church.  The true church of the Bible is finally re-emerging after years of failure.  As I have had the privilege of walking alongside believers who are a couple generations ahead of me I have discovered that this is absolutely not true.  In fact, I often see a higher level of commitment and sacrifice to the mission of God in the members who are older than me.  I am overcome with respect for my 90-year-old friend who is still showing up to leadership gatherings even though he has had a stroke and needs help getting up the stairs.  This is something us younger folks can learn from.  Being a disciple has nothing to do with being cool.  It has everything to do with being faithful!

Lastly, diversity provides a context where we can learn reconciliation. It is important for us to learn how to be hospitable to those who are different from us. Whereas homogeneity breeds individualism and selfishness, diversity creates a context where we learn to make sacrifices for other people.  This happened beautifully on Sunday morning during our combined worship service.  Some of our members put up with drums and songs they have never heard, while others listened to the organ for the first time in a while and tried to figure out the tune to the old hymn, “His eye is on the sparrow.”  I found myself unusually teary-eyed on Sunday.  This convergence of different music reminded me that the church does not exist to cater to my preferences and needs.  The church is supposed to be a community where we can learn to die to ourselves and love our neighbor as ourselves. Diversity, I believe, provides a context where this can start to happen.

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 3, 2017

Losing Jesus: Reflections for a New Year

“After the festival was over, while his parents were returning home, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but they were unaware of it.”  Luke 2:43

Well, friends, the festivities are coming to an end for us as well. Christmas is over, the New Year has arrived, and this week many of us get back to work or school. We return to the regular rhythms of life.  In the midst of this transition, I wonder if we have a tendency to leave Jesus behind as well?

I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic that seems to take place between Christmas Day and New Years Day. At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of a savior. We tell a story about our need for God’s intervention in our lives. God is our peace, our joy, and our hope!  On New Year’s day, however, we tend to become self-reliant again.  We test out the capacity of our will power.  We set goals, start diets, plan to get in shape, decide to read through the entire Bible, only to fall back into our bad habits by February 1.

I came across an article in the New York Times that cites a study saying 95% of New Year’s resolutions are broken by February. The writer makes this concluding statement, “Studies suggest, then, that willpower is a limited resource.”

Now don’t get me wrong. I believe in setting goals. As the old adage goes, “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time!” Goals and plans can direct us in helpful ways. But I wonder if we struggle with our attempt to grow because we are relying on a limited resource.  I wonder if our longings for change fall short because we lose sight of our need to stay connected to Christ.  I wonder if we struggle because we have a tendency to leave Jesus behind.

There are a lot of reasons why Jesus gets left behind. Like Mary and Joseph, we can simply go along with the crowd. We can let those around us set the pace and the direction of life without making sure Jesus is with us. Sometimes Jesus gets lost simply because we allow the rhythms of our busy world to set the agenda. Instead of approaching life with the question, “Who is Jesus calling me to be?,” we begin with the question, “What do I have to get done?” And suddenly the demands of everyday life build up and crowd out our deeper calling.

Sometimes, Like Mary and Joseph, we can lose Jesus even in a religious crowd. They are in a group of devout worshippers who are returning after their pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the same way, we too may be busy doing religious activities, thinking Jesus is with us when perhaps we are missing the point. We may be doing all kinds of ministry, but perhaps we forget to carve out space to actually look for Jesus and sit with him in the temple and hear what his plans are for us!

Sometimes, Like Mary and Joseph, we lose Jesus because we assume that we know where he is. When Mary and Joseph find Jesus, it says they were astonished. And I wonder – are we ever astonished by Jesus? Are we open to the possibility that he has more to teach us, or that we have something wrong? Are we open to learning new things from him?

N.T. Wright says, “Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood Jesus, he will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking.” This story is a reminder that we need to be careful that we don’t assume we have Jesus figured out.  If Mary and Joseph were caught off guard by Jesus, perhaps we need to be open to the fact that we have more to learn as well!

Sometimes, like Mary and Joseph, the journey back to God will feel like we are going backward. I think of them turning back and finding Jesus. They had walked a whole day and it took them three more days to find him. This was a disruption and an inconvenience. It got in the way of their productivity and their plan. Yet, it was a journey they needed to take.

Sometimes spiritual progress feels like a backward movement. In retrospect, I’ve noticed that it has been those times of hardship, doubt, and disorientation that God has used the most to grow my faith.

Spiritual growth isn’t a straight path. We ought not to be discouraged when we feel like we are circling backward or going over ground we thought we wouldn’t have to cover again. Barry Gillespie writes, “The path isn’t a straight line; it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood and see deeper truths.”

Friends, for some of us 2017 won’t feel productive. Perhaps you look out on the horizon and see hardship, sickness, grief, or pain. Maybe Jesus seems distant and you’re struggling to see him or find him in your life. Know that God is often in these times. These seasons that feel like backward movement can be times when God is doing some of his greatest work in our lives.

Like Mary and Joseph, we may question Jesus saying, “Why did you do this to us?” Yet, maybe Jesus is in the disruption, the hardship, the backward movement. Maybe he is actually leading us back to what really matters.

Today we begin a New Year. We step out into the unknown full of hope and longing. But before we embark on this journey of 2017 let’s begin with this question – “Where’s Jesus?”

Perhaps, the starting point for this year is not to forge ahead making big plans. Maybe the starting point for us is to sit with Jesus in the temple for a while and listen to what he has to say. This is what Jesus models for us.  Above all the expectations of the world, he reminds us that first and foremost we need to carve out space to listen to God.

As you look ahead to 2017 perhaps you might bring Jesus into the conversation. You might ask Jesus, “What do you have in store for me this year?,” or, “Where do you want to lead me?” These questions are vital for our hope for the future rests on the continual presence of Jesus in our lives.

As we begin 2017 let’s not leave Jesus behind!

 

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | December 14, 2016

Christmas for the Down and Out

(The following is an adapted manuscript from this past weeks sermon where I looked at the characters of the Shepherds in Luke 2:8-20)

One of the fixtures in our home right now is the Play School “Little People’s Nativity Set.” This is not a delicate nativity set.  It is a toy – the type of toy that is made to withstand the full contact play of a four-year-old boy.   Various pieces tend to fly across the room and get mashed together mixed up with other sets of toys. So it is not uncommon to find odd guests showing up at the nativity scene.  Sometimes Thomas the Train pays a visit to the manger.  This week James staged a wrestling match between Scooby Doo and one of the angels. Even our Golden Retriever Sophie made her way over to the nativity.  I discovered one of the wise men next to her bed with one of his hands chewed off.   All types of unexpected and odd guests show up at our nativity scene.

img_20161210_172559291

Sophie Looking Guilty With the Handless Wise Man Behind Her

In many ways, this is how the nativity story would have sounded like to first-century listeners.  We’ve become so accustomed to the story that we forget how startling it is.  We have made it this tame, cute, Norman Rockwell scene when in reality it is quite odd. There are all kinds of unexpected people that show up.

The supposed king is born in a down and out nothing of a town.   His parents are poor minorities that can’t find a place that will take them in.  The birth takes place in cowshed surrounded by dirty animals. Not Golden Retrievers mind you, but animals none the less. Three wise men, who were pagan foreigners despised as idolaters by the religious people of the day, show up and bring gifts.  The news about the whole thing is announced to nameless shepherds.

Commentators point out how the shepherds had a questionable reputation in the ancient world.  Chris Seay writes,  “At that time, shepherds were often despised as thieves unfit for more respectable occupations. Their testimony was not allowed in court nor their presence in polite society, so shepherds found their place on the outskirts of towns.”

Right from the outset of the gospels, we see those on the margins taking center stage.  We begin to see that the kingdom of God is going to be an inclusive kingdom.  Jesus will be a king that makes room for the outcast, the poor, and the marginalized. Those who are looked down upon, those who you would least expect to see, take center stage in a story that would change the world.

This is confirmed as the story unfolds.  The angels say they have good news for “all people.”  When Jesus finally speaks in a couple chapters he says that he has come with good news for the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the lame and the prisoner.

There is a group of musicians from the Phoenix symphony regularly go and play beautiful classical music at the local homeless shelters.  That is the type of scene that our text is portraying.   God sends the angels to sing beautiful music to a group of rough around the edge misfits.  They do not go to a beautiful concert hall.  They do not perform for the elite in society or the people with status and power, but to a group despised shepherds.

This reminds us that the Christmas story is good news for those who can relate to the shepherds.  This story is good news for those of us who feel excluded in some way – for those who feel as if they don’t fit.

Christmas is good news families who don’t live up to the cookie cutter image of the perfect family.  Chris mentioned a couple of weeks ago that 75% of families don’t fit the traditional definition of a family with 2 parents and 2.5 children.  The Christmas story reminds us that if our hearts are broken by divorce; if our kids have gone astray; if family life is hard; there is room for us in God’s kingdom.

The Christmas story is also good news for those of us who feel weak, for those who feel left behind and excluded in a fast-paced society, for those who are sick, bedridden, or unable to be as productive as we once were.  God says that there is room for you in his kingdom.  There is a place for you.

Christmas is good news for those of us who are weighed down by shame for our past mistakes and our present struggles with sin.  It is interesting to note that the Shepherds respond to the angels with a sense of fear.  I wonder if this indicates a feeling of unworthiness or shame?  A fear that they aren’t worthy to be in the presence of angels? “Are they here to judge me?” “Do they know what I’ve done?”  Stepping into the light is scary because it might reveal who we really are.

My spiritual director gave me a wise word this week.  He said that the enemy wants us to feel uncomfortable around God.  That is one of the lies of the evil one.  The lie that says we’re too messed up to come to God, to be in his presence.  But God tells us to not be afraid.  He meets us in the depths.  He comes to be with us despite our struggles and our shame.   Others may despise us, and we may despise ourselves, but God sees us as worthy and able to receive the glory of God!

The Christmas story is good news for Longview and Kelso.  One of my friends commented that this story reminds us that the divine drama of God plays itself out in struggling small towns.  That God’s kingdom enfolds places with rising homelessness and economic struggles.  You don’t have to live in Manhattan to be part of something significant and important. There is room for Longview and Kelso in God’s kingdom.

The Christmas story is good news for those our culture often rejects – for the poor, the refugee, the homeless in our midst.   This passage issues a challenge to those of us who read it from a position of privilege.  It calls us to respond with humility, generosity, and hospitality to those whom Jesus seeks to elevate. The good news is not just for me. It is for all those who are feeling defeated, rejected, and on the margins of life.

This is more than a call to be charitable to the poor. It is an invitation to treat those on the margins with dignity. To begin to see people who our culture rejects as people of value – people that Jesus counted as worthy to be the central figures in his kingdom.

Julie and I had the privilege of spending time with a missionary named Joel down in Guatemala one summer. He works with people who live in slums and prisons.  He spends his time with those who are often forgotten and despised.  One of the things he said to us is that grace pools in low places.  Grace pools among those who have been displaced to the depths of society.

Thomas Merton writes:

“Into this world, this demented inn, in which there is absolutely no room for him at all, Christ has come uninvited. But because he cannot be at home in it, because he is out of place in it, and yet he must be in it, his place is with those others for whom there is no room. His place is with those who do not belong, who are rejected by power because they are regarded as weak, those who are discredited, who are denied the status of persons, tortured, exterminated. With those for whom there is no room, Christ is present in this world.”

I wonder if God is present with those for whom there is no room because they are open to his coming? Maybe he chose to reveal the message to the shepherds because they were ready to receive it.  Maybe the poor and the excluded are at the scene because they are the ones looking for hope.  They are not attached to wealth, status and power because they are poor.

One of my professors Chris Rice once said, “to the extent that our lament is shallow our hope will be shallow.” What he means is that we will not be receptive to hope unless we have come to terms with our pain.   The joy of Christmas won’t resonate if we have distracted ourselves and numbed ourselves to the pain of life.

Maybe part of our journey toward Christ this Advent season is to take the risk of naming our brokenness.  To create space to lament where we feel excluded, weak, vulnerable, or weighed down by shame. To take the risk of journeying to those low places both in our own lives and in society so that we might discover again our need for God’s grace.

Have you ever walked into a climactic moment of a movie without having watched the first part?  You see other people crying and showing emotion and you don’t get it.  The joy or the resolution falls flat.  You’re sitting there wondering why everyone is so emotional.

That is what celebrating Christmas without Advent is like.  That is what celebrating the hope of a savior is like when we haven’t come to terms with our need for a savior.

Advent is a season where we rewind the story of scripture to the time when people were longing for light to dawn in the darkness. It is a time where we prepare for the coming of God by coming terms with our brokenness.

The shepherds model this for us.  For you see they are so overcome with the hope and the joy of the message that they are able to leave everything behind and go in search for king. The message of the angels is so compelling that they drop everything. They risk losing their jobs and having their sheep taken by predators or thieves. They are ready to leave these things behind because they have heard about a deeper hope.  The angels have told them that there is a new kingdom coming where they will belong.

May the wonder and the hope of the Christmas message compel us to set aside the barriers of our world and step towards this newborn king. For to all of us who, for one reason or another, feel unworthy, excluded, and hopeless, God says to us:

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.”

 

 

 

 

The anxiety about the current election season is hard to avoid. It is flooding our Facebook feeds and working its way into our daily conversations.  One thing I think most of us seem to agree on is that we will be glad when November 9 is here!

What I’d like to offer in this article are some thoughts about how we might deal with our political anxiety.  I wrote a similar article during the last election, but I wanted to revisit the material and add some additional thoughts.

This article is not about debating the issues or evaluating the candidates. I think most of us have had ample opportunity to hash out and debate these issues by now.  Instead, I want to suggest some spiritual practices that I think help us tend to our soul and protect our relationships during a divisive campaign.

  1. Prayer

If anybody could advise us on how to deal with political anxiety it would be David. His life was marked with constant political instability. He dealt with civil wars, military coups, and betrayal from his own allies. Yet, David often directed this anxiety to God in prayer. Prayer enabled David to cultivate an awareness of God in the midst of difficult situations. In Psalm 46, for example, he speaks about how the nations are in an uproar and the kingdoms are tottering, but as he recalls God’s power and faithfulness he is able to gain perspective. He concludes his prayer saying, “Cease striving and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations; I will be exalted in the earth. The Lord of hosts is with us; The God of Jacob is our stronghold.”

I don’t know what the outcome of the election will be this year, but I do know this. God will still be God on November 9! In the Lord’s Prayer, we are invited to rest in the hope that God’s kingdom, power, and glory will endure forever! This is not only a future hope. We can trace this promise through history. The church has survived and even thrived through political situations that are much more dire than what we face today.

What might happen if I replaced some of the time I spend reading news headlines and instead rested in the presence of God and expressed my anxiety to Him? Perhaps, like David, I might be able to be still and remember that God is God.

  1. Protecting Our Relationships

Most of us have strong opinions about the current political election. In the midst of this, we need to be careful that we do not take our cues from the toxic type of debate going on in our society.

In his book, What’s so Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey writes, “Politics draws lines between people; in contrast, Jesus’ love cuts across those lines and dispenses grace. That does not mean, of course, that Christians should not involve themselves in politics. It simply means that as we do so we must not let the rules of power displace the command to love.”

As Christians, we need to make sure that we do not let a bitter root of dissension grow up within our communities. One helpful antidote to dissension is humility. The us-versus-them mentality of partisan politics can create a situation where we elevate our virtues and overstate our opponent’s vices. In response to this, we ought to humbly recognize our own shortcomings and biases. N.T. Wright reminds us that, “the line between good and evil does not run between us and them. The line between good and evil runs right through every human heart.”

Another important virtue needed to counteract dissension is empathy.  In her book Twelve Steps to the Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong emphasizes the need to cultivate empathy for the things that are driving our opponent’s view of reality.  One practice she suggests is to try and defend your opponent’s view.  If you have a sharp disagreement with someone perhaps you could grab a coffee and debate the issues by taking the other person’s side!

3. Prophetic Words

At the same time, I think it is important for us as Christians to speak up and defend the values of the kingdom of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” The bible is full of examples of prophets who speak out against injustice. We usually think of prophets as “future-tellers” but their main role in scripture is to be “truth-tellers.”

So there is a place to speak.  Grace does not mean we cease to be discerning.  One of the false narratives I have heard this election cycle is that we should let leaders off the hook because we are all sinners.  To be sure, we are called to humbly forgive others, but forgiving someone doesn’t mean we necessarily trust them.  When Jesus says, “do not judge,” he is not saying, “do not discern.”  The intent of Jesus’ statement is that we do not pass final judgment.  As Dale Bruner says, we are called to be discerning, not damning.  Yes, we forgive, yes, we don’t pass final judgment, but we still are called to hold leaders accountable.  So there is a place to speak out against things we think are wrong.

Yet, as Paul reminds us, we are called to, “speak the truth in love.” One of my professors once told me that there is an important difference between a prophet and a critic. A critic simply likes to cut people down whereas a prophet speaks the truth because he or she loves the people and desires their best.

Furthermore, the truth we speak is not to be guided by our political affiliation but by our understanding of the values and teachings of Jesus. Timothy Keller observes “the churches in America are often controlled by the surrounding political culture than by the spirit of Jesus and the prophets.” This, I believe, expands our notion of what is true and will likely cause us to speak out against issues on both sides of the aisle. This orientation also protects us from sacrificing the values of the gospel for the sake of our political alignment.

  1. Perspective through Gratitude

Finally, while our anxiety and frustrations are valid, I believe there is still reason to be very grateful for our current situation. There is a profound juxtaposition going on right now between the political crisis in America and the political crisis in Syria.  Let us be grateful that we are in a country that does not resolve differences through extreme violence. Our politicians may anger us, but they are not using chemical weapons on their citizens. Democracy can be messy and frustrating but it is a blessing compared to totalitarian regimes. As Churchill once said, “democracy is the worst form of government except for every other form of government.”

More importantly, as Christians, we believe that we have a hope that transcends the hardship of living in the world. As Jesus says, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, I have overcome the world.” As Paul says in Romans, “nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Perhaps this current political impasse is an opportunity for us to evaluate what we really trust in.

 

 

 

Posted by: Philip Rushton | July 18, 2016

Discerning God’s Voice in Times of Transition

 

crossroadThe season of transition that we are entering as a church is also a season of discernment. This fall our transition team will be facilitating a process of listening and discernment for us as a church. There are a lot of questions on the horizon. What should the next chapter of Longview Community Church look like? What type of leadership do we need? What is our vision as a church?

I think many of us struggle to know how discernment actually works. Does God really speak to us? If so, how? How do we know if what we are hearing is from God or is simply our human agenda clothed in Christian language?

When I took a course on spiritual discernment from Gordon Smith at Regent College, he argued that evangelicals have a very limited understanding of discernment. Sometimes we talk about God opening and closing doors, but what if there are no doors open, or five doors open that could all be good possibilities? Other times we talk about “having peace about the decision,” but what if that peace is simply the result of us getting what we want instead of what God wants? Our language around discernment needs some more depth to it.

This summer I have been doing a lot of reading and thinking around the topic of spiritual discernment and there are a few common themes that have emerged for me.

First, there are some important prerequisites to discernment.  If we are not committed to our own spiritual transformation we will struggle to know what God’s voice sounds like when we need guidance. Dallas Willard writes, “Only our communion with God provides the appropriate context for communications between us and him” (Willard, Hearing God). Discernment requires us to know what God’s voice sounds like. If we aren’t spending time with God we are not cultivating a listening posture. So the disciplines of scripture meditation, silence and solitude, prayer, and worship provide an important foundation for discernment.

Another prerequisite for discernment is that we develop a humble openness to God’s leading. Thomas Green writes, “Discernment presupposes a person who truly desires to accomplish God’s work . . . it further presupposes a person who is truly open to be taught by, and led by, the Lord.” (Green, Weeds Among the Wheat). Discernment requires us to be able to echo Jesus’s words in the garden of Gethsemane when he says, “not my will, but yours be done.” Ruth Haley Barton suggests that we begin the discernment process by asking, “Is there anything I need to set aside so that I can be open to what God wants?” (Barton, Pursuing God’s Will Together). Sometimes fear about what people think or our attachment to comfort, possessions, or success can tip the scales prevent us from getting an accurate read on the situation.

These prerequisites are important but they still leave us with our original question. How do we actually hear God’s voice? I want to suggest that scripture points us to three ways of hearing. The first way that God speaks to us is through scripture. Scripture sometimes gives us very specific answers to what we should and should not do. If we are wondering whether God is calling us to rob a bank or not, the answer is pretty clear! The general will of God is revealed to us through the word of God.

Often, however, the bible doesn’t speak specifically to the decision at hand. The Bible doesn’t tell me exactly who to marry or whether to take a new job or not. In this case, it is important for us to consider whether the decision we are considering lines up with the character of God and the general principles of scripture. Will the decision we make lead us to love God and others? Does it bring about the fruit of the spirit? Dallas Willard suggests we ask whether the impression we have about a decision lines up with the tone, quality, and content of Jesus’ voice that we encounter in the Bible (Willard, Hearing God).

Paul says that Christ-followers are “transformed by the renewing of our mind” (Romans 12:1). As we engage with the scriptures our mind begins to be fashioned after the mind of Christ. This enables us to discern the specifics of life from a Christlike way of thinking, which is often different than a worldly way of thinking. In the context of choosing a pastor, for example, we may tend to look primarily at external factors like experience, education, and track record of success. The scriptures, though, often emphasize the need to look at a person’s heart. In the choosing of David, for example, God says to Samuel “The LORD does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” By immersing ourselves in the Word of God, then, we begin to look at situations the way the Lord does.

The second way we hear God is by paying attention to the movement of our hearts. The scriptures teach us that the movement of the Spirit leads us to love, joy and peace (Galatians 6). Paul says that through prayer we receive a “Peace that passes understanding” (Philippians 4). It is important to note that this is describing an affective response. Peace and joy are things we experience not just think about.

Ignatius of Loyola draws on this biblical tradition by pointing out that one of the ways we discern God’s leading is by noticing whether there is an underlying consolation in our hearts. He believes that if we are in God’s will it will be accompanied by a sense of rightness, hope, and peace, even if we are called to a hard task. By contrast, when we are outside of God’s will we will experience a desolation marked by a troubled spirit.

A practical exercise one can do when seeking a decision is to imagine you say yes to a decision and notice what affective responses emerge for you. You can then imagine a no to a decision and do the same thing.

The affect aspect of our spiritual journey and the discernment process is something that we are sometimes to reluctant to embrace as westerners. Our culture tends to privilege detached rational analysis over affective knowledge.  Yet as Jonathan Edwards (a pretty intellectual guy himself) acknowledges, “The Holy Scriptures do everywhere place religion very much in the affections; such as fear, hope, love, hatred, desire, joy, sorrow, gratitude, compassion and zeal.” In other words, the scriptures testify to the fact that our encounter with God touches not only our mind but our emotions and our experience. God is not just an idea to figure out but a living being that we experience and relate to.Y

If we are honest I think we all rely on the affective aspect of decision-making. When you decided to get married I suspect that you didn’t just do a cold cognitive calculus about the decision. You didn’t just make the pros and cons list and evaluate the data about your potential spouse. There was most likely an accompanying sense of joy, passion, or rightness that moved you toward that decision.

The same thing happens in spiritual discernment. I remember having a major breakthrough in my decision to enter ministry when my professor asked me, “What is your heart saying?” At first, I thought that this was a trivial question. Yet, as I reflected on it I experienced a deep consolation in my heart about entering the pastoral vocation. I had been overthinking this decision and made the most extensive pros and cons list you can imagine, yet this simple question brought a deep and lasting clarity.

Of course, we must always test this consolation. We need to bring the heart into conversation with biblical thinking. Sometimes we can have peace for the wrong reasons. We may have a false consolation because the decision gets us off the hook or because it furthers our worldly agenda. So we must test for false peace (Gordon Smith, The Voice of Jesus).

This is where the last component of discernment is important. We also discern by entering into conversation with the community of faith. When the early church made big decisions, they did so in a group (Acts 15). They listened to scripture and the Holy Spirit together and sought consensus through dialogue and prayer. The reality is that we can interpret both scripture and spiritual experience incorrectly at times. That is why it is important for us to be in conversation with other trusted friends and guides as we seek to hear God’s voice. God often speaks to us through other people.

How might these principles for discernment help you as you seek to hear God’s voice in your life? What aspects of discernment might you need to put more emphasis on in your journey?

Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 24, 2016

Finding God in the In-Between Spaces of Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALife is full of in-between spaces.  We always seem to be transitioning from one thing to another.   We wait for children to be born, for a new job to open up, for college to start, and for retirement to arrive.  As a church, we are about to enter an in-between space as we begin a pastoral search process.

These in-between spaces can be hard to navigate.  Transitions can cause anxiety, impatience, and uncertainty.  I remember the season in my life when I was in the in-between space between graduating from seminary and waiting for my first call to a church.  There were a couple of months where nothing seemed to be coming together and I spent some of my days watching my sisters kids while she worked.  It was frustrating and confusing.  I started to question why I had just spent 3 years doing a masters program so I could be a babysitter!

Where is God during these times?  What is God up to when we haven’t fully arrived at our next destination?

Jeremiah 29 offers some helpful perspective here.   Many of us are familiar with Jeremiah 29:11.  Here the prophet says, “for I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.” These are comforting words as we look out at the horizon of life.  God speaks a word of hope and encouragement for those of us who are looking ahead.  We can face the future with hope because he has plans to prosper us.

What we often overlook, however, is that this passage was written to a group of people who have just been told that they will be in exile for the next 70 years (Jer. 29:10). This reminds us that the journey toward this preferred future involves navigating long disorienting in-between spaces.

 I wonder if the recipients of this letter from the prophet Jeremiah thought that it was sent to the wrong address!  How could Jeremiah be so positive when the foreseeable future was going to be difficult and uncertain?

When we look more closely at the passage, however, we begin to discover that part of God’s promises are going to be worked out in this frustrating in-between space.   In vs. 12 Jeremiah tells Israel that as a result of coming through 70 years of exile, “you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. You will seek Me and find when you search for Me with all your heart.  I will be found by you.”

 The prosperity that Jeremiah speaks of is not so much material prosperity as it is spiritual prosperity.   As they face the hardship of exile they will turn back to God and begin to seek to him with all their heart.  God is doing important work in this in-between space.  The uncertainty of the present exile is providing an opportunity for the Israelites to confront the idols of their heart and to grow in their trust and love for God.

This reminds us that the in-between spaces of life are not wasted on us.  On the contrary, God often uses the seasons of uncertainty and transition to do some important work in our hearts.  These are seasons where we have the opportunity to grow deeper in character and faith.  The in-between spaces of life are part of the way in which God is working out his preferred future for our lives.

 My hope is that as we navigate the challenges of the in-between spaces of life we will find ourselves growing in our faith and awareness of God.    These seasons are not meant to be viewed as a holding pattern.  Sometimes God’s greatest kingdom work is being done in times of transition.  Let’s be on the lookout, then, for the way God is at work in the in-between spaces of life.

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