Learning to Walk with God

Tom Holmes, 17 03 26

As I begin this, it is 11:53 am. On Sunday, March 26, 2017.  I am sitting in front of my computer rather than standing in front of the congregations I serve because there is a freezing rain warning in effect.  At this point I feel a little guilty because the freezing rain and even the rain stopped quite some time ago, at least here.  I am not sure of what has happened in Roslin and Thomasburg.

I know I shouldn’t feel guilty because the wisdom of my age tells me that “it is better to be safe than sorry”.  How much would I regret my actions of not cancelling the service this morning if I were to have an accident, or worse still, if one of you did?

I wonder how many times you and I have found ourselves caught between the real or potential regret of doing something and the potential or real regret of not doing that very same thing.  Life is filled with choices, so probably, more often that we care admit.

Keeping ourselves and those we care about safe, is for most of us, the natural thing to do.  But is it always the wisest choice?  Sure, if, when our children were young, playing outside and they came running home to show us what they had found, which turned out to be a very old stick of dynamite, we would have traded our safety for theirs and gently taken the dynamite from them and carried it off some distance, even if that meant leaving them alone, hoping we would return to call the police to have that dynamite disposed of in a controlled manner.  That’s a no brainer.  But what about the danger of letting them learn to walk?  Would it have been wise to not let them learn for fear of them falling and bruising a knee or banging their head?  Seems to me that’s a no-brainer as well.  There are many things we need to learn as we grow up that requires putting ourselves in danger as we try and fail and try again.  Otherwise, none of us would ever have learned to ride a bike, play sports, learn ideas new to us, began dating and/or chose a potential mate.  All of these things exposed us one kind of danger or another.  Because we did do those things, we could say of ourselves that we are fairly brave.

But what about learning to walk with God?  Are we equally as brave?  In writing this, I discovered how much I like that phrase, “learning to walk with God”.  It is such an apt description of the process we enter and hopefully never cease.  Just like learning to physically walk from point “a” to point “b”, it is only by overcoming our fears of falling, of getting hurt and of failure that we can succeed.  Yes, we may fall many times over taking those first steps of learning to do what God has asked of us.  Yes, each of those falls may expose us significant pain.  And yes, we may feel like a failure repeatedly.  However, each of those falls brings us one fall closer to not falling, each of those hurts are avenues God can use to teach us something of ourselves, God and others.  And, the word “failure”, never applies to doing as God asks us, even when we never see what we would know to be success.

So, let’s be brave again!  Let’s enter or re-engage our walk with God.  Let’s be more concerned about getting good at walking than our fears of falling, hurts and failure.  Let’s be more motivated by God’s definition of success (faithfulness) than ours.  Let us become who God has created us to be!

From Head to Heart: I Can’t Explain It, It Just Happened!

An elderly Chinese woman who has two large pots, which she carries with a pole balanced across her neck.

One of the pots is perfect and always delivers a full portion of water.  The other has a crack in it.  At the end of the long walk from the stream to the house, the cracked pot arrived only half full.

For a full two years this went on daily, with the woman bringing home only one and a half pots of water. Of course, the perfect pot was proud of its accomplishments.  But the poor cracked pot was ashamed of its own imperfection, and miserable that it could only do half of what it had been made to do.

One day after 2 years of what it perceived to be bitter failure, the blemished pot spoke to the woman while they were at the stream.  ‘I am ashamed of myself, because this crack in my side causes water to leak out all the way back to your house’.  The old woman smiled, ‘Did you notice that there are flowers on your side of the path, but not on the other pot’s side?  That’s because I have always known about your flaw, so I planted flower seeds on your side of the path, and every day while we walk back, you water them.  For two years I have been able to pick these beautiful flowers to decorate the table.  Without you being just the way you are, there would not be this beauty to grace the house.’  (from http://www.guy-sports.com.)

Prayer: God who knows us better than we know ourselves, open our hearts and minds so that we may see through your eyes.  Amen.

Today is the last in the series of talks we have been having concerning a personal relationship with God.  We have considered entering a relationship with God, hearing God’s side of the conversation, the fact that we are church and that as such, we need to be able to judge or discern whether or not the voice we are hearing is in fact God’s voice.  God has given us several tools to use.  We started with the church, local and universal and then looked at the Scriptures, our collective history and our ability to reason, being mindful that our natural reasoning is insufficient to understand God’s ways.  Today we are going to very briefly take a look at experience.

We use the word, “experience” in two very different ways.  One points to an event and the other to an going process.  So, it is, that our experience is made up of various experiences.

Under the category of experience, let’s be mindful that there is a very real sense in which experience points to all of the other tools God has given us to help us discern God’s voice.  We can consult the experience of those found in the Scriptures, of those around us, of those that have gone before us and the reasoning each employed to help them decide.  Take for example those who experienced the events on the Day of Pentecost that marks the birth of the Church (Acts 2: 1-21)

When that rag-tagged group gathered in that room that day, they had no idea what was about to happen.  But they knew that sooner or later something would definitely happen because Jesus had instructed them to stay in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49) until the Holy Spirit came upon them.

Beforehand there was a lot of uncertainty, but once it happened, even though they had never had an experience like this before, they had no doubt about either their experience or what it meant.

Because they knew the Scriptures, because they knew their history, they knew that during the Exodus, the foundational event in the nation of Israel, they knew that wind and fire were physical manifestations of God’s presence.  They knew that in days long ago when the Spirit of God came upon a prophet, often some type of ecstatic speech was part of the experience.  They reasoned that since the languages they were speaking was in reality the native languages of Jews living in cities across the known world, visiting Jerusalem for the feast, that Jesus wasn’t messing around when he commanded them to take the Gospel to the entire world.  (Although, it did take a few more experiences for them to understand that the entire world included the non-Jewish people as well.)  They knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was present with them and that the Holy Spirit was very powerful; more powerful than their very human fears and weaknesses.

Like I said before, they consulted their community, the Scriptures, their history and reason and concluded that whatever this very new experience was God stuff.

They did not ignore their experience.  They acted on it and when they did, they saw confirmations of what they had concluded – that God was at work in and through them.  This leads me to what I most want to say to you.

First, any experience we may have, means nothing if it does not compel us to action.  If we believe God is saying something to us and we do not act on it, that whole enterprise is a waste of God’s time and energy.  As well, we don’t remain where we are in our evolving relationship with God.  We take a step back because we have said, “No.”

Second, experiences should change us, whether that be in our understanding of God, of ourselves, of others or of the various relationships in which we are engaged or our actions and attitdues.

Third, God’s definition of success is faithfulness, not a favourable result.  After Peter gets up and preaches, some 3000 become followers of Jesus.  Peter had a very successful day.  However, God also called Jeremiah to speak on God’s behalf and the result was exactly as God told Jeremiah before he spoke his first word – nobody paid any attention.  Just because God asks us to do something doesn’t mean we will see the result we might be hoping for.  Nor does not seeing the result we were hoping for mean that the exercise was a waste of time and energy.  We don’t know the ripple effect that comes into play once we set out to be faithful to do what God has asked.

Fourthly, as we walk with God carrying on the conversation, we become more aware of and accustomed to God’s voice.  This helps us to both better recognise God’s voice and to have greater confidence in our ability to hear and understand God’s voice.  However, we can’t gain experience if we never step out and take action.  Like with many things, some of the best lessons come from what appear to be failures.

And fifth and lastly, just because asks us to do something does not mean it is intended to last forever.  Most things have a time and season.  So, it is important that when God asks us to do something, that we remain open to God telling us that time is up.

Next Sunday, we are going to do something that came about as a result of one of our numbers suggesting something.  It was a conversation that I believe God highlighted and so, I decided that this needed to be done even though what we are going to do is probably not exactly what Clarence had in mind.

Assuming we do a relatively good job, I already know that some will like what we do, some will very much dislike what we do and some will like some of what we do.  And that’s ok.  That’s life.  What I also know is that regardless of how well or how terrible we do, it can only get better if more get involved.

Prayer: Give us ears to hear your whispers, the wisdom to use the tools to help us know what whispers come from you and the determination to do as you ask.  Amen.

From Head to Heart: Come, Let Us Reason Together

We have been looking at “Entering a personal relationship with God” and proceeding on the basis that no real relationship can exist without open and honest two-way communication taking place.  We have talked about how God often speaks to us using that “still small voice” that comes from within as well or by causing something we are reading, hearing, seeing or participating in being “highlighted” so that it stands out, taking on a greater significance for us than normal or by God placing a burden on us to do something good that perhaps we would not normally even consider doing.  But, of course, there was the caution that just because we might initially believe God is speaking to us about something, does not necessarily make it so.  God has given us tools whereby we can judge or “discern” God’s voice.  To date we have considered the community of faith, or “church.”  Following Christ is not a lone wolf enterprise.  We are church.  We have also considered the Scriptures, Old and New Testaments or Hebrew and Christian writings and how they were collected according to a set of rules or a “canon” which in turn causes them to be a “canon” or set of rules of faith and life.  Last week we took a look at the fact that we belong to a faith tradition with a history that involved a lot of controversy and as a result we can learn from past mistakes and accomplishments.  Today we will give some thought to “reason”, the ability to come to an understanding of our faith and how it works in the real world.  But once again, we have a problem because some things about our faith are not reasonable, at least, by regular human understanding.  Take, for example the reading from Acts 16:16-34.

But before we go there, let’s pray:  God whose ways are far above our own and whose ways are so different than ours, teach us your thoughts and your ways.  Amen.

It is perfectly reasonable that an earthquake would shake loose the prison doors but how could an earthquake cause the chains holding the prisoners fall off?  Not only that, consider the jailer.  He was responsible, upon penalty of death, for the security of the prisoners and when he discovered the doors open he assumed they had all escaped and was going to do the so-called honourable thing and commit suicide.  But Paul stopped him.  So far, so good.  But what happened next?  The Jailer takes Paul and company home.  Why?  Allowing an escape is one thing but helping one happen is far more serious.  What did he think would happen when his commanding officer found out?  A slap on the wrist?  This story is not reasonable?

When I was young there came that day when I asked my parents for a BB gun.  Guess what my mother’s answer was?  “No, you’ll put an eye out!”  She didn’t even have to think about it.  This seems to be the tag line for adolescents of the late 1950’s.

At first look, her reasoning was not logical at all.  If I had a BB gun and shot it, assuming I pointed the BB gun away from me, how would I have ever damaged my eye?  And even if I was too close to my target and the BB bounced back, given the relative size of my eyes to my entire body, what are the chances?  Slim to almost none, right.  But, putting her fear aside, almost none does not equal zero.  As small as the odds were, this very thing must have happened and probably more than once.  Her words were one of the catch phrases on my generation.

Another, seemingly unreasonable conclusion my mother carried with her to her grave was that if I was not feeling well, it could only be due to one of two things, lack of sleep or irregularity.  Absurd right?

But, just a second.  Medical research tells us that adolescents and teenagers require more sleep than adults and that sleep is vitally important to brain development, physical development and emotional well-being.  Medical research also tells us that because we are much taller than our ancestors; our intestines are longer meaning that the food we digest sits inside of us for longer periods.  Since what is left in our colon is, by its very nature septic, there is a greater chance of various types of infections and cancer.

So, even though my mother’s logic was perhaps based in fear upon either some old wives’ tale or urban legend and even though her logic does not express a universal truth, in the end, her reasoning was not as unreasonable as first thought.

Now back to the passage in Acts.  This passage only starts to become reasonable if we conclude that Paul and Silas were not in prison because of a dispute with a merchant of divination.  They were there for God’s purposes.  God’s purposes included setting free the young woman who Paul exorcised.  God’s purposes also included the jailer and his household; that they might come to faith.  God’s purposes included Paul and God’s promise that he would stand before kings.  God’s purpose included what may have seemed like an earthquake but was in reality a direct intervention of God, setting the captives free.  God’s purposes even included the magistrates who gave word at first light to set Paul and Silas free, thus freeing the jailer from certain death.

Isaiah 55:7-9 in the New Living Translation is rendered

7 Let the wicked change their way
and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

8 “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.

9 For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts”.

And in Romans, we find this instruction: “Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.” (Romans 12:2 NLT)

It doesn’t make sense to our natural minds that in order to gain life we must lay our lives down, to be important, we must be the lowliest of servants, or that God is the supplier of all our needs and so the more we share what God has given us the more we will receive to share, or that even we are the hands, feet and mouth of God.  In our time and place if we admit to hearing God’s voice we could be subject to some questions regarding our sanity.

The fourth tool that God has given us to learn to discern or judge what voice is God’s voice, is reason.  But this “reason” is more than just simple human logic.  Simple human logic deals only with what can be seen, but God’s logic incorporates things that cannot be seen and connections that we cannot even begin to imagine – “butterfly effect”.

When we look at the Acts passage with normal human eyes, what we see is nonsensical.  When we look at Acts 16 having adopted God’s reasoning, we see the hand of God at work, not only in the lives of Paul and Silas but possibly in our own.  How many times has God saved us from harm that we do not know about?  How many times has God asked us to do something and promised us God’s participation and empowerment but have not acted upon that voice because what is being asked in unreasonable in our limited human reasoning?  How many times have we been save embarrassment or harm because we decided that the voice we are hearing is asking of us something that violates the higher thoughts and higher ways of God – the sanctity of life, the dignity of the human spirit and pre-existing human relationships, of seeking justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God?

God birthed us into a family, the church, where we learn to understand and live out God’s ways.  God gave us the Scriptures as to use as guide for faith and life.  God gave us a history so that we might learn from the wisdom of our family over the centuries and avoid making the same mistakes over and over.  God gave us human intellect so that we can figure out why we do what we do or should do or should not do.  But God also shares with us God’s reasoning that, even though we may never fully comprehend, can be incorporated into our pondering of our life in Christ and our life in this world.

Next week, the last tool we will talk about in connection with discerning if the voice we are hearing is God’s voice – experience.