Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 4, 2017

The Good and Beautiful Life

On Wednesday evenings this winter I’ll be leading a study based on a book by James Bryan Smith called, The Good and Beautiful Life: Putting on the Character of Christ.  Smith’s series on spiritual formation has been one of the best formats for discipleship that I’ve come across.  What I appreciate about the format of this course is that it moves us beyond observation to participation.  This course blends reading and studying with weekly soul-training exercises that invite us to encounter God in personal ways.

downloadIn this study we’ll explore the underlying narratives that drive our lives.  We are all shaped by a particular narrative of what the good life is.  Without intentionally wrestling with these ideas we tend to adopt the narratives around us.

In our culture the overarching definition of the good life is defined by the accumulation of wealth, status and power.  Smith argues that this definition leaves us wanting.  There is a law of diminishing returns as we pursue these goals.  Furthermore, this narrative of the good life overlooks the dimensions of virtue, healthy relationships, and a deep spiritual life.

Over the course of 12 weeks we are going to be working slowly through the Sermon on the Mount.  This is Jesus’ overarching view of what the good life looks like. Jesus proposes a very counter-cultural view of life.  Adopting this new narrative requires the reframing of our mindset as well as a re-orientation of our rhythms and patterns of living.

Jesus makes some audacious claims in this passage. He suggests that we can live a life that isn’t bogged down worry, envy, anger and debilitating addiction.  If you are like me you may read this passage with a certain skepticism.  Our track record with these vices discourage us and cause us to think that real change can’t happen.  Yet, Jesus seems to think that with his help we can live into this good and beautiful life.  This winter we’re going to take these claims seriously and work through a holistic process that invites us to experience change.  If you are around Wednesday evenings I’d love to have you join us!

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. 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 Years 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 Years 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 backwards. 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 backwards 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 be discouraged when we feel like we are circling backwards 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 backwards 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 lets begin with this question – “Where’s Jesus?”

Perhaps, the starting point for this year is not to forge ahead making big plans. Maybe 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 lets 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 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.  The 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 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, bed ridden, or unable to be as productive as we once were.  God says that there is room for you in his kingdom.  There is place for you.

Christmas is good new 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 a 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 feel 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 new born 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 opponents 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 an empathy for the things that are driving our opponents view of reality.  One practice she suggests is to try and defend your opponents view.  If you have a sharp disagreement with someone perhaps you could grab a coffee and debate the issues by taking the other persons 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 Bonheoffer 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 judgement, 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 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 that, “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 frustration is 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 said, “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.

 

 

 

Hi Readers,

I’ve been on a bit of a break from writing these last few weeks while focusing in on my doctoral studies.  I’m excited to begin to share some of the insights and resources I have encountered as we begin a new ministry season at Longview Community Church.

Those of you who have frequented the blog know that one of the authors I have been spending a lot of time with is Dallas Willard.  Willard is like a contemporary C.S. Lewis in a lot of ways.  He has a profound way of communicating what the heart of the Christian faith is all about.  He emphasizes that the good news of the gospel is not simply about what happens after we die, but what life can start to be like now.  The Great Commission does not read, “go into the world and make converts who have a ticket to heaven.”  Instead it reads, “go into the world and make disciples who learn to obey all that I have commanded.”  Willard believes we miss out on a fuller and deeper life by ignoring Jesus’ call to discipleship.  One of my favorite quotes of his reads:

Our usual ‘gospels’ are in their effects – dare we say it – a standing invitation to omit God from the course of daily existence . . . it is good to know that when I die all will be well, but is there any good news for life? If I had to choose, I would rather have a car that runs than good insurance on one that doesn’t. Can I not have both?

The only problem with Willard is that he can be a hard read.  As a philosophy professor, he often speaks at a level that is hard to connect with.  Those of you who suffered through my course on his book The Divine Conspiracy, can attest to that.

downloadThat is why I am grateful for the work of James Bryan Smith.  Smith was mentored by Willard and spent time developing a year long curriculum of spiritual formation based on the Divine Conspiracy. Smith takes these big ideas and makes them accessible and slows down the process.  He also integrates reading and thinking with weekly spiritual practices that are meant to help us embody these ideas.  Book knowledge can only get us so far.  Spiritual formation requires a more holistic enterprise.  I wouldn’t want a surgeon to operate on me if he/she had only read a book about how to do it.  It is in the practicing of spirituality that we grow closer to God.

If you are free Wednesday evening we will be starting up the Apprenticeship series this week (Oct 5) at 6:45 pm in the Journey Room at church.  Come at 6 for simple supper if it works with your schedule.

Looking forward to sharing this journey of spiritual formation with others!

Posted by: Philip Rushton | August 4, 2016

A Day Of Prayer August 27

Hello readers!

We are starting registration for our day long prayer retreat on August 27. This is our 5th annual day of prayer. This year we will be hosting the event at Mary Ross’s beautiful property up in Mill Creek, which is about 25 minutes from Longview.  Cost is $10. Enjoy a day of silent reflection, renewal and good food. We’ll provide you with a guide for a personal day of prayer that you can tailor to your needs.  Let me know if you want to come! You can also register by calling the office or on Sundays after service.

Slide1

 

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 and mission going to be?

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?

Sometimes we talk about God opening and closing doors, but what if there are 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)

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? Does the impression we are getting line up with the tone, quality and content of Jesus’ voice that we encounter in the bible? 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.

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 emotional response. Peace and joy are things we feel.

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.

We tend to be skeptical of emotional knowledge. Our society privileges detached rational analysis. Yet, 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 make 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.

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 a material prosperity as it is a 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.

(Taken from my monthly newsletter article at LCC)

Posted by: Philip Rushton | May 10, 2016

Wrong Units Of Measurement

One of the things James has been learning lately is the different units of measurement.  Every once and a while I overhear him using the wrong type of measurement. The other day he was measuring different things around the house with a tape measure; however, instead of using inches he was using pounds. The stool in our kitchen is 34 pounds high and the rug is 56 pounds long!

At our annual meeting last week I used this story as an analogy for how we go about measuring the spiritual life.  I reflected on whether we sometimes use the wrong units of measurement.

It is tempting to jump straight to external data to determine how we are doing spiritually.  We might do this on an individual level by looking at how often we go to church or participate in religious activities.  As pastors we often do this on a corporate level.  The unit of measurement is the budget, the attendance records, or the number of programs we offer.

These units of measurement certainly have their place.  In the book of Acts the effect of Pentecost lead to an exponential growth in new disciples.  God has a heart for reaching people of all nations.  Behind numbers are real people that God loves.

Yet, external numbers are not the only unit of measurement we are given in scripture.  While Jesus cares about the breadth of our outreach, he also cares about the depth of our discipleship.   At the beginning of John 6 a large crowd of over 5000 people are following Jesus; yet, by the end of the chapter there are only a few left.  In vs 60, we read, “many of his disciples said, ‘this is a hard teaching, who can accept it.”  Jesus seems to be focused less on crowds and more on disciples who are willing to follow him whole-heartedly.

As the contemporary church struggles to grow and thrive in a post-Christian culture we often go to great lengths to make Christianity easy and convenient.  My friend Ryan offers a helpful assessment about this trend in one of his recent blog posts.  He writes:

Two huge factors in our shaping context are individualism and consumerism. Church is something that people do if and when they feel like it and often on their own terms. Our need of it is much less comprehensive and much more selective. It is something we do if we have time, or if we’re looking for a spiritual boost or a bit of inspiration . . .  We choose churches like we choose products, selecting those that best reflect our own self-understanding and that speak to our own personal hopes and ambitions for ourselves and for the world. I’d like a double-shot of certainty with some political conservatism, please… I’ll have a low-doctrine, eco-friendly, peace and justice church, please. And go light on the evangelism. To go.

It is tempting for us to adapt the Christian message to fit the preferences of our contemporary consumeristic culture.  I suspect Jesus’ approach to marketing would not fair well in this cultural context.  At times it sounds like he is trying to talk people out of following him.   He says that if people want to follow him they are going to have to renounce their will and take up their cross.  I can’t see that working very well on a church billboard or an outreach flyer!

I am currently reading the Institutes of John Cassian.  John Cassian spent a number of years visiting the monks of the Egyptian desert.  The Institutes capture the seriousness by which these early Christians pursue God.  In one chapter he records the way in which a new monk is integrated into the community.  He writes, “One, then, who seeks to be admitted to the monastery is never received before he gives, by lying outside the doors for ten days or even longer, an evidence of his perseverance, as well as of humility and patience.”

I was joking with a friend the other day that we should borrow this model for our new member class.  If you want to join Longview Community Church we’ll make  you sit outside the front door for 10 days and see if you have the perseverance to take up your cross and follow Jesus!

To be sure, the desert fathers sometimes swing to the other extreme by elevating the human will too much in the pursuit of God.  Nevertheless, these startling stories often serve to jolt us out of our contemporary apathy.  Have we really counted the cost of discipleship?  Do we really want to follow Christ? Do we want Jesus on his terms or ours?

This can sound harsh and discouraging; however, at the heart of Jesus’ call to follow him  is his deep love for humanity.  If we only half heartedly follow Jesus we will miss out on the “life of abundance” (John 10:10) that he has in store for us.  Any talk about the “cost of discipleship,” must be balanced with a recognition of the “cost of non-discipleship.”  Dallas Willard writes:

“Nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, nondisicpleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.

In other words, we are selling our self short if we place our walk with God on the periphery of life.  The down side to consumer spirituality is that it never brings about the depth that we long for.  By ignoring the call to give up our life we fail to gain the true life that Christ has in store for us.

As we consider how we measure the spiritual life, let’s be sure not to leave out the dimension of depth.  I suspect that when we take this aspect seriously the breadth of our impact on society will take care of itself.

Some questions to reflect on:

  1. How do you measure a healthy spiritual life?
  2. In what ways is Jesus calling you to a deeper commitment to follow him?
  3. What are some of the barriers that need to be removed so that you can follow Christ more fully?
  4. What would help you follow Christ more fully?
  5. How has God promised to be with you on this journey?
Posted by: Philip Rushton | April 25, 2016

Cultivating Courage

(Below is the manuscript from yesterdays sermon based on Acts 5:27-42).

Intro:

I think it is fair to say that we do not always make the best decisions in high stress situations. When we face pressure the voice of fear or anxiety often crowds out the voice of wisdom.

We have had a problem with bees and wasps  at our house over the past couple of years. When I encounter them inside the house I often react in irrational ways. It doesn’t register, for example, that it is a bad idea to try and kill a bee while it sits on a fragile lamp, or that it is a bad idea to squash it with your wife’s library book. Fear can cause us to make bad decisions.

In our text today, the apostles are facing a highly stressful situation. Their very lives are at risk for disobeying the religious institution. In this high-pressure situation it would have been easy for them to sacrifice their convictions.   Yet, with great courage they say, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Somehow they do not allow the voices of fear crowd out the voice of God.

What I want to explore this morning is how we might cultivate that type of courage in our lives as well. For, while we do not face the level of persecution they face , we need courage in our own way. We need courage to confront problems at work, to stand up to injustice, to speak truth to people in our lives, and to honestly face our own brokenness.

The apostles say, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” We are going to make this verse our focal point today and explore both sides of the statement. First, we are going to look at some of the voices of “human authority” that we may be tempted to listen to. Our text highlights what some of these voices of authority are. We’ll call them the voice of fear, the voice of avoidance, and the voice of skepticism. Then I want us to explore how we might follow in the apostle’s footsteps and courageously choose to obey the voice of God.

The Voice Of Fear

The first voice that the apostles would be tempted to listen to is the voice of fear.  The apostles have gotten themselves into trouble for proclaiming Christ and demonstrating his love to marginalized and the sick.   Back in verse 15 it says people are literally bringing the sick on cots so that they apostles can minister to them.

In verse 17 it says that the religious leaders are jealous. They see that the disciples are making an impact and gaining a following and they want to bring an end to it. This anger comes to a head in verse 33 where it says that “they were furious and wanted to put them to death.”

Fear has a way of causing us to compromise our values. Survival is a powerful motivation

During his years as premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev denounced many of the policies and atrocities of Joseph Stalin. Once, as he censured Stalin in a public meeting, Khrushchev was interrupted by a shout from a heckler in the audience. ‘You were one of Stalin’s colleagues. Why didn’t you stop him?’
“Who said that?” roared Khrushchev. An agonizing silence followed as nobody in the room dared move a muscle. Then Khrushchev replied quietly, ‘Now you know why.’ (1)

It is easy to call others out on this issue. But it is important for us to own up to the ways we are tempted to obey the voice of fear.   Perhaps this morning you might reflect on some of the fears that prevent you from courageously living out your calling as a disciple. It may be the fear of failure, the fear of rejection, the fear of burning out, fear of being taken advantage of. The voice of fear is a common voice that we listen to often. It can prevent us from following through with the plans God has for us.

The Voice Of Avoidance

Another powerful voice that would have been tempting for the apostles to listen to was the voice of avoidance. This is what the religious leaders have fallen victim to. You see the ministry of the apostles was very disruptive to the Pharisees. The apostles were calling into question the way things have always been done, they were challenging authority structures, and they were compromising the delicate balance of power the Pharisees were trying to hold on to under Roman occupation. One commentator writes that these religious leaders were trying to “keep their own people from causing too much trouble for the Roman occupation forces.” (2)

They wanted to avoid change. Change os too risky. Change os too disruptive. It is more convenient to keep up the status quo

I think the voice of avoidance is tempting for us to listen to as well. Last week I rented a thatcher and tore up the lawn so that I could deal with all of the moss and weeds that had taken over. As I did so I was reminded that things often have to get worse before they get better. When I was done with the thatcher there was almost no lawn left. In a moment of fear I wondered, “what have a I done.” Anyone who has done a home renovation can attest to this dynamic.

This same dynamic plays itself out in our lives. I encounter this when I do marriage counseling. Sometimes things have to get a bit worse before they can get better. Hurts need to be addressed and acknowledged before forgiveness can happen.

In the midst of that process it is tempting to avoid the problem.  In doing this, though, we shortchange ourselves. We miss out on a better future. Whether it is a better lawn, a better relationship, or a deeper faith – we miss out if we avoid dealing with the obstacles and challenges in our way.

All you have to do is compare the lives of the apostles with these uptight religious leaders. Who do you want to be like? The apostles are taking the risk but they experiencing a vibrant faith and they are impacting the world in a powerful way. The religious leaders, by contrast, are stuck in bitterness, fear and jealously. Avoidance comes with a great cost.

The Voice Of Skepticism:

Another human voice that we may be tempted to listen to is the voice of skepticism. This is illustrated for us in the response of Gamaliel. In a lot of ways Gamaliel can be viewed in a positive way. He essentially saves the lives of the apostles. He also wisely states that it is futile to oppose God.

However, Gamaliel is skeptical that God is in this. He reminds the Pharisees of previous movements that did not amount to anything. He suggests that the same thing will probably happen to the ministry of the apostles. “Let it run its course,” he says.  In the meantime he is content to sit on the fence and wait and see what happens.   He does not join the work of the apostles. He does not follow Christ. His skepticism causes him to passively observe from the sidelines

I think that skepticism gets in the way of courage for us as well. We aren’t able to courageously follow God if we are skeptical about whether God is at work in our world.

I’m reading a book right now by Dallas Willard called, Knowing Christ Today: Why we can trust spiritual knowledge.  He suggests that, “In the context of modern life and thought, [Christians] are urged to treat their central beliefs as something other than knowledge— something, in fact, far short of knowledge. Those beliefs are to be relegated to the categories of sincere opinion, emotion, or blind commitment.” (3)

The consensus today is that religious belief is not rooted in reality. It is just blind faith, or it is our personal belief. “You can believe what you want to believe, it doesn’t really matter.”

What Willard argues in this book is that spiritual knowledge is actually grounded in more than just personal opinion.   While there is a lot of mystery to God, and while we humble admit that we don’t have all the answers, our faith is grounded in more than just a blind commitment. There are very good reasons to believe in God. The presence of God is well supported by reason, scripture, experience, and natural revelation.

Willard argues that we need a dose of confidence in our faith. We need to reject the skepticism of our contemporary culture, which reduces faith to something that has no grounding in reality.

Perhaps, one of the ways we might cultivate courage is to pursue answers to some of the questions and doubts we have.   Thomas Merton writes, “Anxiety is the mark of spiritual insecurity. It is the fruit of unanswered questions. But questions cannot go unanswered unless they first be asked.”(4)

What I appreciate about this quote is that Merton does not judge us for our questions. Instead he invites us to create space to get our doubts out in the open and work towards building a stronger foundation for our faith.

The Voice Of God:

In the face of pressure it is easy for us to submit to the voice of fear, the voice of avoidance and the voice of skepticism. Yet, the Apostles choose instead to submit to God. They courageously say, ““We must obey God rather than any human authority.”

So what enables them to listen to this voice over and above the other voices that they are hearing? Where do they get the courage to stand up for their convictions?

The answer lies in the followup speech by Peter. Peter says: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. 31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things.”

The Apostles courage is made possible because they have kept their eyes focused on Jesus. They are able to look beyond fear to the deeper hope that Jesus has overcome death and has provided the means of repentance of and forgiveness.

This is not just a theoretical kind of knowledge. The text says that have “witnessed” these things. Their encounter with Christ is not just based on second hand information. They have been transformed by a deep personal encounter with Christ. Christ is real to them.

Timothy Keller suggests that there are two ways to cultivate courage. We can try either defiance or hope (5). Defiance is what the self-help books teach us. One technique that is often promoted is to visualize yourself conquering your fear successfully so that you will build confidence. Courage is cultivated through the power of positive thinking. We overcome fear by saying, “these things aren’t going to happen.”

This works to some degree. But the problem with this approach to overcoming fear is that our fears often are based in reality.  Keller asks, “Do I need to be delusional to be courageous?” (6) Do I need to filter out reality? What happens if reality is difficult? What happens to our courage when things don’t work out as we hoped?

A great example of this defiance model of overcoming fear is when you are driving your car down a really narrow street. I don’t know if you have every done this, but sometimes I when I’m driving through a tight space I just squint my eyes and hope I don’t hit anything. I trick myself into thinking that if I just squint hard enough I’ll be ok. It’s a really bad plan when you think about it! Here’s hoping you are right! That is the defiance approach to courage. Just think it will be o.k. (7)

The apostles, however, root their courage in something deeper. Their courage is shaped by focusing on the deeper hope that nothing can separate them from the love of God. They fix there eyes on Jesus who had the courage to face death on the cross knowing that even death could be redeemed by God. The apostle’s hope is not rooted in denial, it is rooted in the hope that God is with us even in suffering. It is rooted in their hope that God can redeem even the deepest hurts and the deepest pain. They are able to risk persecution and death because they have encountered the hope of Easter. In other words, obeying Jesus was worth the risk, for in Christ they had found a true and unshakeable hope.

We displace fear by keeping our eyes fixed on Christ and what we know to be true about him. Praise and thanksgiving chase away fear.  Peter talks down the voice of fear, the voice of avoidance, and the voice of skepticism by proclaiming his hope in Christ. May we find the same type of courage as we do the same.

(1) https://bible.org/illustration/nikita-khrushchev-0

(2) William H. Willimon, “Acts,” Interpretation: A Bible Commentary For Teaching and Preaching

(3) Dallas Willard, Knowing Christ Today: Why we can trust spiritual knowledge

(4) Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island

(5) Timothy Keller, The Hero Of Heroes

(6) Ibid

(7) I got this illustration idea from the blog of Paul Vanderklay

Older Posts »

Categories