By Rev. Ken G. Crawford, 31 October, 2011

There are intersections of life and faith where clarity becomes chaos, direction becomes distraction. We find ourselves in between, in transition. To some this feels like a death, while others experience the emergence from adolescence into adulthood. For still others, like me, it is a time of midlife crisis – an undercurrent of dis-ease that says the old ways of doing things will no longer suffice. “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” as the title of Marshall Goldsmith’s book proclaims. A process of discovery ensues, sometimes with blind and anxious experimentation like the restless husband who gets a new wardrobe, new hair, a new convertible, and a new girlfriend (who looks remarkably like his wife!) all in the hopes of freeing himself from this disquiet. Had he read Ignatius, he would have known that a period of desolation is not necessarily a bad thing, a thing to be avoided, shunned or eliminated. Rather, this desolation may be a gift from God, a stirring in the soul of a person or group, shaking loose entrenched thoughts and habits. Good or bad, Ignatius says, we honor a season of desolation by not making any changes, but rather wait till we experience returning consolation regarding a particular direction after long periods of prayer, study, meditation, and conversation.

I experience churches living in the midst of this struggle and grasping at anything that might settle the anxious soul. Surely God has something better in mind for us. Perhaps the church in the second decade of the 21st century finds itself in such a midlife crisis. “What we were” is no longer enough, but we are unsure of what we might become or how to get there. In what follows, I look at two studies that describe for us where some vibrant churches are headed. Later I will identify three practices that are, I believe, essential for the clergy and laity as they seek to live through this season of crisis into the fullness of God’s dream for us, that which Jesus regularly described as “the kingdom of God on earth…as it is in heaven.”


Diana Butler Bass, in her book Christianity for the Rest of Us, explores some of what is happening, and how congregations are managing to live vital, faithful lives during this period of becoming. After describing what was in the first two chapters – “The Vanished Village” and “Remembering Christianity”, she offers a word of hope in the next – “”The New Village Church” and “Finding Home.” She summarized a frequently heard critique of the church experience of our young adulthood – “These mainline congregations…paid little or no attention to people’s spiritual lives.” (Bass, 42) Those people, like so many at mid-life, said “Isn’t there more?” and they began to wander. In fact, she starkly states: “Nomadic spirituality, that sense of being alien in a strange land, is almost a given of contemporary life.” (23)

What she proceeds to describe are congregations who have found ways to live Christianity incarnationally, to live their faith existentially – rising organically from the experience and meaning of their existence. She found in these churches three shifts in attitude and focus – “from traditionalism to tradition,” “from purity to practice,” “from certainty to wisdom” (45). These shifts seem to be true of congregations who are experiencing freedom from the frozen thoughts and habits alluded to above. After outlining what she calls “Ten signposts of renewal”, Bass describes transforming lives, congregations, and the world. What she does not offer is concrete guidance for how clergy and laity may live into such ways of being. She identifies alternatives to the shallow acting out of a midlife crisis, but doe not help us navigate those dangerous waters.

So, where can we find help for the next steps in “Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures”? This subtitle to Emerging Churches (Eddie Gibbs and Ryan K. Bolger, both of Fuller Theological Seminary) offers hope in the gerund verb form “creating,” suggesting a process to be followed. But this is no documentary or “Idiots Guide to the Postmodern Church.” Rather, they suggest that emerging churches who seriously and effectively respond to this midlife crisis of contemporary Christianity are marked by nine distinct practices; the tone is more descriptive than instructive. The first is “identifying with the life of Jesus.” (Gibbs, 45) They illustrate that these emerging churches began to look at Jesus differently, stating “95% of the unchurched [in Seattle] have a favorable view of Jesus, so… the church needs to be trained to look at Jesus” (48) with new eyes, those of the culture. Perhaps then, they argue, the church will be able to have conversation about Jesus with people in the culture. So, I say, one thing to do is learn to ask a new set of questions, such as, “If we like Jesus, and they like Jesus, then why don’t they want to be with us (and why aren’t we more with them)?” We should not presume that we, the church, can answer that question in isolation. Rather, in prayer, reflection, study and dialogue with the community around us, we explore together who Jesus is. This sounds like a risky proposition, one that may stir anxiety on the part of the church. We prefer to read Matthew 16.13-16 and just parrot Peter’s answer rather than asking the question and seriously considering the range of answers. Could we even answer Jesus’ question? Do we even know “Who people say that [Jesus is]”? And then we are faced with whether we received from God an inner light revealing to us who Jesus is for the world today, or do we simply say what flesh and blood have told us (cf Mt 16.17).

To take just one more example from Gibbs and Bolger, this emerging church moves from a focus on “gospel of salvation” one of “gospel of the kingdom,” (91) a shift from focus on the teachings of Paul to those of Jesus in the Gospels. The focus becomes more communal, more holistic, more outward focused, more God focused. This seemingly small change has dramatic impact on how the church thinks about God, itself and the world. A few pages later, though, they make a disturbing observation: “Emerging churches may not appear as legitimate forms of church to those who are not wrestling with the ideas of church practice” (95). This seems to suggest an inevitable split between those of the church that has been and those of the church that is becoming. Bass offers a hopeful vision of mainline congregations who are making the transition, though perhaps they too have left aside others “who are not wrestling” as Gibbs and Bolger say. Neither work explains what the people of God are to do, how we are to make this move, if at all. I will now offer three suggestions.


The questions I am asking are, “How do we love the place from which we came and those who raised us (the modern, traditional, mainline or evangelical churches that are struggling today) while living into the new work of God in the church and world? How do we love and serve the former while giving birth to the latter? We recognize that not all will make the journey to the new land (cf Num 32). Yet we all can still support and be supported, still understand and be understood as one people serving one God. How do we love and remain a part of the existing communities as they make the slow journey of transformation “by the renewing of [their] minds”? (Rom 12.1)

I suggest several categories of thought and practice. Any one of them may help, but I envision all of them together, forming a “cord of three strands that is not easily broken” (Ecc 4.12). They are spiritual formation, theological reflection, and personal growth. Each of these will help individuals and congregations move toward discernment, development and deploying of ministry. This brings us back into the cycle of formation with our experiences of ministry to be nurtured, challenged, edified, equipped, and sent for further ministry (cf Mark 6.6-13, 30-32).

Spiritual Formation Spiritual formation starts with the self as the active agent. One who is aware of the need is also capable of making change and progress in the spiritual life, even if the presumption is that “those others are the immature ones.” My personal ongoing spiritual formation is grounded in the work of the Jesuits. I appreciate their intellectual rigor, their pragmatism, and at the same time their wonderfully creative and expressive poetry and use of imagery. Hearts on Fire: Praying with the Jesuits (edited by Michael Harter) is a wonderful collection of poem prayers linked with the four ‘weeks’ of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises. As I pray with the Jesuits I find my heart opening and becoming increasingly tender towards the people I serve. I move from being impatient with them, through impatience for them, and finally to peace with where they are, knowing that God is at work among us, which is enough for today. This peace leaves me no less hopeful for our full transformation and reconciliation as together we grow, one body, toward maturity in Christ. The shift taking place in my heart through study and prayer then allows a peace to open around me, one in which others may experience similar grace from God. As I experience these transformations, this new life emerging in me, I practice vulnerability and transparency. I talk with the congregation about what is unfolding in me, and I endeavor to share some of those prayer habits that have been helpful to me.

The framework of spiritual direction is useful in spiritual formation, even if not practiced in a traditional one-to-one relationship. Frank J Houdek, S.J, provides guidance from a Jesuit model that I would apply to congregational leadership. A starting premise is that good candidates for spiritual direction desire to grow “in awareness and responsiveness to the living God” (Houdek, 17). One might wish or even assume (as at times I have) that everyone in a church does or at least should feel this way. The reality is otherwise. Not all people in churches (including some leaders) are interested in growing spiritually. So, how does one discern among these, and how does one serve the whole congregation, not just those who actively want to grow?

Houdek indicates three traits present in those who are “ready” to begin spiritual direction. The leader might also look for these in individuals, among groups, and in the community as a whole system. They are: 1) a sense of awareness of experience – “what is happening”; 2) the ability to reflect on these experiences; 3) verbal communication skills. (16-17) As leaders, when we find these traits lacking, we can intentionally work with others to develop them throughout the congregation. We see in Jesus’ teaching ministry a focus on reality – on what is really going on, not just what appears to be. Jesus presses the disciples beyond easy answers “You give them something to eat,” “Let the net down on the other side,” “Roll away the stone.” Jesus then asks questions of meaning, often in response to questions asked of him. This habit frustrates and annoys his listeners, but pushes some of them to deeper levels of thought. Then, Jesus calls on them to articulate – “Who do you say that I am?”, “What is written?”, “Which is the true neighbor?”

Chapter four goes into greater detail on the traits necessary in the director, and some things that can be done to develop them. Clergy and lay leaders would do well to study this chapter and pursue the characteristics described there. We are called upon to model these and other practices of spiritual formation and theological reflection. We are aided in this by our own study of these two disciplines, and by working with a spiritual director ourselves.

Theological Reflection Theological reflection as a learned skill brings together two elements: 1) an experience, and 2) a faith tradition, and moves to a third: 3) an action in the world. This work is best done with questions.

What is happening? This is not as obvious as it seems. We first need to begin with our perceptions, because that is what we have. We then need to look beyond our perceptions, ‘as close as we can get’ to an objective description separate from our emotional reactions to what is happening. At this point we also want to avoid making value judgments about the speech and behavior of others or ourselves.

What does my faith tradition say about what is happening?
This includes several elements: a) The theology in my head – the stories and ideas that come to mind that seem immediately relevant and are a composite of ideas from my own faith development over time (embedded theology). b) Scripture – are there texts that seem to speak either directly or indirectly to this situation or experience? c) Tradition – what has the church taught about this subject? Often there exists a variety of teaching on a particular topic, so it is worth being aware of and open to this variety, so that we might gain new insights and not simply rely on what we ‘think we know.’ d) Revelation – As I pray (speak, but mostly listen) do I receive any new thought on the subject that does not seem to arise directly from one of the above sources? If so, how does it square with them? Even when God does ‘a new thing’ it will be consistent with some underlying spirit or intent present in the ‘old thing (understanding)’.

What insight do I now have into my experience and my tradition? As I think and talk through the above, what insights and understandings arise? What does God seem to be doing? What clarity is brought by allowing the ‘light of faith’ to shine on otherwise clouded and shadowy experiences and thoughts?

What am I or others to do with this increased insight?
So what? Theological reflection is incomplete unless it results in something concrete. What am I (are we) called to be or not be, say or not say, do or not do? How am I to love God and neighbor as self in the midst of this experience and in the light of this reflection? “What does the LORD require of me?”

We learn these skills of theological reflection by working with peers and trusted guides, and then we live them out, day by day, in the midst of our faith community. We think and speak in these ways. We reframe conversations along these lines. When people rush toward certainly, we slow the pace with questions. When anxiety begins to build, we ask for faithful reflection. Stone and Duke’s book How To Think Theologically is a great introductory resource for people learning these skills, as well as those who seek to model and teach them to others.

Personal Growth    The third area of formation is Personal Growth – clearly a broad terrain filled with any number of challenges and opportunities. For the purpose of this paper, I want to suggest that developing a working knowledge of Family Systems Theory, and the techniques that currently fall under the broad category of ‘coaching’, can go a long way toward helping leaders grow personally, and then equipping them (us) to help others. By ‘personal growth’ I have in mind transforming those mental, emotional, habitual and relational patterns which cause problems in our lives. Intentional practice of spiritual formation, theological reflection, and ministry often shine light on these aspects of self, inviting us to think about them and seek growth. Some are so dramatic that we really need counseling or psychotherapy. Many, however, can be worked through in individual or group coaching using systems theory as a frame of reference. The works of Edwin Friedman and Roberta Gilbert have made Family Systems Theory more accessible.

Crucial Conversations give us tools for better understanding ourselves and aiding others in the journey of self discovery. A “crucial conversation” is one in which “the stakes are high…opinions vary….and emotions run strong” (Grenny, 3). The book helps us understand and address those situations and relationships of conflict with calm reason, skill, and humility. The authors lay out various specific techniques for leaders – things we can understand and do, and over time, with support, even do well. One such technique is to “start with heart” which includes answering three questions: “1) What do I really want for myself? 2) What do I really want for others? 3) What do I really want for the relationship?” (34) Asking these questions helps us move away from short sighted reactive behaviors that undermine our real goals and hurt others. Later they lay out a technique called “STATE” – Share your facts; Tell your story; Ask for others’ paths; Talk tentatively; Encourage testing (140). This skill teaches us to have a difficult conversation while reducing the risk that others or we will become defensive – a particularly good skill when working with a group on the journey through a liminal space from what no longer works toward something yet to be discovered. On that journey, anxiety abounds and any skill that helps reduce or manage it is useful.

Working in a coaching model – asking questions rather than telling information or opinions, also helps reduce defensiveness, and allows people the space to live with their anxiety while trusting in the ultimate safety of the relationships. Thomas Crane’s book The Heart of Coaching methodically describes his understanding of “transformation coaching” in three phases: Foundation, Learning Loop, and Forwarding the Action (Crane, 44). He then outlines steps within each phase, so the reader knows specifically what to try – some are optional, others are presented as necessary. One great value of this book for the transformational leader is the ability to work through the perennial questions, “What’s going on? AND What do I do now?” Along with systems theory and the work of Grenny and others, Crane’s book can help us understand what’s going on. More importantly, it then helps us think through what to do. A leader, or group, can sit down with this model and begin to get a handle on the complexity of a congregational system, which is a web of systems within systems within the system – all of which are made of triangles, and all of which are then connected to innumerable external systems. What do I do now? Indeed! Working with a coach, and developing coaching skills, are vital tools for transformational leaders, those who wish to remain fully committed to the existing communities of Christian faith, while walking the long road with them, either from Egypt to the Promised Land, or back to Israel from Babylonian captivity. Either, or both, are long, slow journeys. Along the way many, including the leaders, will say, “Let’s just stay here,” or “Let’s go back.” The Hebrew Scriptures tell us this story repeatedly, and we see it mirrored in the gospels as people struggled with trying to believe that the promise of a coming kingdom was real. That freedom, peace, joy, and new life were real. That who I have been does not have to define who I can become. This is Good News.

As we engage these three processes – spiritual formation, theological reflection, and personal growth – we will be better equipped to serve the church, to equip Christians for the work of ministry. The church, on its better days, wants this from us. We, on our better days, want this for the church. God, every day, wants this for and from us, for and through the church, for the sake of the world Christ came to save. This is the work to which we as ministers, as disciples of Jesus Christ, have been called.

Works Cited:

Bass, Diana Butler. Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith. New York. Harper Collins. 2007. ISBN 9780060859497.

Crane, Thomas G. The Heart of Coaching: Using Transformational Coaching to Create a High-Performance Coaching Culture. San Diego. FTA Press. 1020. ISBN 9780966087437.

Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger. Emerging Churches: Creating Christian Community in Postmodern Cultures. Grand Rapids. Baker Academic. 2008. ISBN 9780801077154.

Grenny, Joseph, et al. Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When the Stakes Are High. New York. McGraw Hill. 2002. ISBN 0071401946.

Goldsmith, Marshall. What Got You Here Won’t Get You There. New York. Hyperion. 2007. ISBN 978-1401301309.

Harter, Michael. Hearts on Fire: Praying With The Jesuits. Chicago. Loyola. 2005. ISBN 9780829421200.

Houdek, Frank J., S.J. Guided By The Spirit: A Jesuit Perspective on Spiritual Direction. Chicago. Loyola Press. 1996. ISBN 9780829408591.

Stone, Howard W. & James O. Duke. How to Think Theologically. Minneapolis. Fortress Press. 2006. ISBN 0800638182.

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Sermon Notes for 03182012 – Matthew 11 vs15-24

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

Why does Jesus speak this way? How can it be that Jesus’ audience would come under greater judgment than Tyre and Sidon and Sodom and Gomorrah? We’re not as familiar with Tyre and Sidon, so how about a little background information. In Ezekiel 26-28 and Isaiah 23 we read prophecies against Tyre and Sidon. These cities gentile nations had given support to Israel, including providing materials and resources for building the palaces and the temple. Yet they were to come under judgment because they became arrogant and oppressed their neighbors and the poor among them. So they also were conquered by Nebuchadnezzar.

And what about Sodom and Gomorrah? Their story is a proverb and a byword, it stands for all sin and the judgment that comes upon it. Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures we hear Sodom used as a comparison, a benchmark for the worst sin and greatest judgment imaginable. Listen to what is written in Ezekiel 16:46-63

So, now we may have a little more appreciation for what Jesus’ own audience might have heard when he referenced Sodom, Tyre and Sidon. And it even sounds as though he is in large part paraphrasing and quoting this text from Ezekiel 16. But that still doesn’t really tell us what is going on. What is he saying theologically? How are we to understand this word?

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world?

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers?

What’s going on here?

Let’s ask a preceding question – are all sins equal? Popular Christian theology tells us that yes, all sins are equal. That God does not judge us differently. We say this, I think, as a way to extend grace to those who have sinned greatly, and as a way to warn those who think they are ok because their sins do not seem as grave.

In Matthew’s gospel we hear Jesus speaking to the Pharisees: 23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Mt 23) Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount he says, “3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Mt 7)

Those two passages sound to me like Jesus is saying that all sins are not the same, that some are worse than others. I think the Levitical code supports this idea, since more severe punishments are assigned to some violations of the covenant.

1 John 5 says this: 16 If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that.

It certainly sounds as though our theology should be that all sins are not the same, that some sins are in fact worse than others. We’ll need to find a different way to extend mercy and grace on those with more guilt while not absolving those with less.

So is that what’s going on? Is it that the sins of believers are worse than those of unbelievers? Did the Jews of Jesus’ day sin more gravely than the residents of Sodom? Well, in a manner of speaking, yes.

Hear two more passages from the New Testament.

Luke 12:
47 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

James 3:1 Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Clearly there is much more to say on this topic. We could explore the teachings of Jesus and Paul regarding how our words and actions might cause others to stumble. We could discuss ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ as the one unforgivable sin. We could wonder about how Noah, Abraham, David and Job were considered righteous even though they were not without sin. We could study Jonah’s visit to Nineveh and think about calling unbelievers to repentance without conversion.

For now, let us remember:

Are the sins of believers worse than those of the world? – not necessarily.

But yes, some sins are worse than others,

Will believers be judged more harshly than unbelievers? – apparently yes.

The greater judgment comes because we have greater knowledge. Those who know and do not are more guilty than those who do not know what to do.

So, what does this say then about our understanding of being saved by grace through faith, if in fact our faith and belief put us in a position of being under stricter judgment from God?

Repentance as preparation


Pastor’s Study 03/2012

Jesus’ disciples went to the upper room after the ascension – 40 days after Easter (Matthew 28, Luke 24 & Acts 1). They went because Jesus had sent them there to wait, for the coming of the promised gift of power from on high – the gift of the Spirit from the Father. Jesus did not tell them how long they would have to wait, or what to do in the meantime. He just said, “Go, and wait.”

So what are we doing? We are waiting for the revealing of God’s good gift, the revealing of God’s dream for us as God promises in Jeremiah 29. And while we wait for the leading of the Holy Spirit, we are praying. We also enter now with Jesus into this Wilderness Season. Israel spent 40 years in the wilderness between slavery in Egypt and their new life in the Promised Land. Similarly Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness between his baptism and affirmation (which marked his exodus from secular life) and his entry into the promised blessing of ministry.

This season of 40 is a time of preparation, strengthening, and repentance. The word repent literally means to turn around. It refers not only to repentance from sin, but any turning from one direction to another – one focus or way of living to another. Whether or not we sense some great sin in our lives, we all have room for a turning toward LIGHT and away from darkness.

I wonder if, as we wait for God’s revealing, there is not some repentance need in our common life? From what do we as individuals, households, and congregation need to turn? How have we been focused away from God toward self or other things? How have we failed in the past without returning to properly repent, confess, and seek to be reconciled and to make amends? Remember, it may not be a grave sin, such as that for which David is repenting in Psalm 51 (the murder of Uriah and taking of Bathsheba). Instead, it may simply have been a short sightedness, a small selfishness or pettiness that prevented us from loving others as Christ loves us – that’s probably a pretty long list, if we are to be honest with ourselves.

You might ask, “Do we really have to dredge all of that up?” Great question. Do we need to drag it all out in public? No, I suspect that wouldn’t be healthy or helpful. Do we each need to go back over the past years and see where we have wronged others, either intentionally or not, by what we have done or failed to do? Yes, absolutely. Should we always go to that person to address the failing? No – not if doing so would cause further injury (for instance, if we have reason to believe that they have moved on with their lives and relationships in healthy ways that would be disrupted by our intrusion). This may not be something you can figure out on your own – you may want a spiritual conversation partner or confessor in that process – your elders are here to minister to you in that way, and others you trust may also serve that function.

Either way, I believe that one obstacle to our experiencing the full Holy Spirit revealed power of God’s dream for us is the presence of these past failures. The point of all this is not guilt, shame and self-loathing. Rather, it is freedom. We are invited to receive God’s mercy, forgiveness and grace in love as we draw near to Jesus and live as his disciples. I urge you to take this Lenten season to repent (turn around) from selfish, small minded and unhealthy ways of thinking, speaking and acting. Instead, through prayer, study, conversation and worship, turn toward God’s will for you as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, whom we follow as Lord and Savior.

May the love of Christ inspire us all – In Him – Ken


2 Chronicles 7 vs11-22 – When it’s time for a turn-around

Sermon Notes:

What precedes the text:     Solomon

  • asks for wisdom above all
  • gathers support from others with resources and expertise
  • builds the temple
  • asks God to hear the prayers of all people
  • asks God to forgive and restore when the Israelites sin and are defeated, become captives, or have droughts
  • Sacrifices 22k oxen and 120k sheep – hosts a great feast!

The people said:    “For he is good. His steadfast love endures forever.” (2 Chron 5:13)

If my people, Called by my name

  • Humble themselves
  • Pray
  • Seek my face
  • Turn from their wicked ways

THEN I will..

  • Hear from heaven
  • Forgive their sin
  • Heal their land

1. God will hear…

The first of these is kind of strange. God promises to hear the prayers of God’s people. Does this suggest that at other times God is unable or chooses not to hear? Would that limit God’s power? Or might we liken it to a parent responding to an insolent child by saying, “I can’t hear you when you speak to me with that tone of voice and posture. I ask you to speak to me respectfully.” Does that literally mean that the parent can’t hear? No. it is rather that the experience of the parent is dominated by the negative energy of the bratty attitude coming from the child. Perhaps this is what the author has in mind in thinking about God hearing or not hearing us.

Or, maybe this kind of hearing is linked with an active response. If I am in genuine need and cry out for help, and you do not respond, then you have not truly heard me, even if you did receive the auditory stimulation of my voice. To hear is to be moved to act, to take in the message and allow it to move one on a deeper level. Perhaps this is what it means when we say God hears our prayers. When we ask selfishly, God does not hear. When we ask a prayer that will bring harm to others, God does not hear. When we ask something that is contrary to God’s will, God does not hear, at least not in this second sense. This seems to be the message of 1 John 5:14-15 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.

The phrase “hear from heaven” is used by Solomon 7 times in 2 Chronicles 6 in his prayer to God.

The Psalmist repeats the call for God to hear, answer, be gracious and revive. (Psalms 4, 17, 39, 54, 61, 84, 102, 143) We need to understand that this first promise of God is not a statement that before God was not hearing, but rather that these actions of ours move us toward a humble posture of relationship in which we can experience God hearing us.

2. Forgive…

Here too, the issue is not that God is otherwise unforgiving, or that our actions result in God deciding to forgive or being made to forgive. It is rather that until we take the necessary steps in our own lives we are not free to experience God’s forgiveness. Recall this affirmation from Exodus 34:
6 The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And again, in Numbers 14: 18 “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Forgive the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have pardoned this people, from Egypt even until now.” 20 Then the Lord said, “I do forgive, just as you have asked; 21 nevertheless—as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord— 22 none of the people who have seen my glory and the signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have tested me these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their ancestors; none of those who despised me shall see it.

These texts demonstrate Israel’s faith in a God who desires to forgive. They also make clear that forgiveness does not prevent the natural consequences of sin from unfolding. God forgives, but we (and others) may still receive the harvest of what we (and others) have sown.

3. Heal their land…

Finally, God promises to heal. This third step is about the journey back from the brokenness that comes as a natural result of our sin. We do not know why, but God seems not to prevent injury to the innocent. Sin has consequences, often unintended, and often to innocent bystanders. What God promises in this prayer is to bring healing to the land – the Hebrew word ha erets connotes both the physical geography and its inhabitants. In a time of violence and greed, people and the rest of the natural world are injured. God promises a healing to flow that will bring restoration and renewal.

This is a wonderful vision – God will hear. God will forgive. God will heal. We want and need this, in our personal lives, in our families, in churches, communities, nations, and among nations and peoples in the world. Solomon asked that God would do this, and that the temple might be an earthly focal point for this encounter between God and human kind. There is not mention here that it is the only place, and Solomon clearly affirms the Hebrew understanding that God cannot be limited or contained by any building, place, people, or even by the heavens we see.

The text also makes clear that we have a role to play, not only in the brokenness, but also in the redemption. God says, “If my people will…” This promise is given to the people of God who were a nation. This is not about political boundaries or ideologies. This promise is given to whoever is called by God’s name. Everyone called by God’s Name. 1 Peter explodes this notion by clearly including the Gentile followers of Jesus, establishing a parallel to the story in 2 Chronicles 6-7, now envisioning God building us together as a temple for God’s self – a spiritual, mystical temple not made with hands (cf 2 Cor 5:1?)

If my people will…

  • Humble themselves
  • Pray
  • Seek my face
  • Turn from their wicked ways

Notice that turning from wicked ways (i.e. repentance) is the fourth item in this list. Does that suggest a necessary order in the process? Not necessarily, but perhaps. It is something to consider – i.e. what are the steps toward repentance? Can we just jump right into repentance, or do some other things precede? I suspect that repentance is like forgiveness and love of enemy or love of neighbor as self – it is something toward which we are directly called, but we can’t get there directly. So, what can we see are three steps toward full repentance? Humility, prayer, seeking after God.

1. Humble themselves. This is an active discipline that requires our attention. It is about our thoughts and attitudes toward other people. Our humility is a posture before self, others, the world and God. It is our awareness that:

  • We do not know everything
  • We are not the center of everything
  • We are not in control
  • I.E. We are not GOD

2. Pray – Prayer also is an active spiritual discipline – it is attending to the spiritual conversation continually in process between God and the world – its like entering a chat line, picking up a party line, or tuning in to a CB or ham radio channel.

  • We have to turn the radio on.
  • We have to tune in.
  • We have to be quiet and listen.

This posture of prayer follows the openness that grows from our humility. Once we assume this receptivity, then we are able to understand more deeply God’s heart for us and for the world. We see the gap between all God desires and all that is. Our hearts break, not because of all that has been done to us, but because of all that we, individually and collectively, have done.

3. Seek my face. We realize through our humility and openness in prayer that we need God more than anything else. We yearn for God. The Psalmist captures our heart: “As a deer longs for flowing streams, so we long for you O God.” (Psalm 42:1); “Who have I in heaven but you, and having you, I desire nothing else.” (Psalm 73:25) “As a servant looks to the hand of his master, and a maid to the hand of her mistress, so we look to you.” (Psalm 123:2). We seek God’s face – God’s presence, God’s radiance. We seek God looking upon us as a loving parent.

I don’t know really whether these things MUST precede repentance – a turning away from our wicked ways – but they certainly will help in the ongoing process of turning away. Repentance of this sort is not a onetime thing. Our wickedness has a depth and breadth to it. It is not just a series of actions, but a complex of ideas, habits and systems. The turning away is a long, slow, laborious process that will continually require us rehearsing those other three steps in order for us to maintain our sense of who we are in God. Humble ourselves, pray, seek God’s face. Repeat. Continually.

Returning to the text of chapter 6 of 2 Chronicles, we hear a list when it may be time for a turn-around.

  • If someone sins against another
  • When your people Israel, having sinned against you, are defeated before an enemy
  • When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you
  • If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar;
  • If their enemies besiege them in any of the settlements of the lands;
  • Whatever suffering, whatever sickness there is
  • If your people go out to battle against their enemies
  • If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin—and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to a land far or near;

When we know we have sinned against someone, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When there is suffering or sickness, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When we are overcome by our adversaries, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When the things that sustain life are in short supply, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When we are up against great obstacles, then it’s time for a turn-around.
When we find ourselves in captivity, then it’s time for a turn-around.

And when it’s time for a turn-around, then we know what we need to do:
Humble ourselves. Pray. Seek God’s face. Turn from our wicked ways.

Update on my school plans

Many of you are aware that I have decided to go back to school, pursuing a doctoral degree at SMU beginning this year.
SMU and I have decided that I will NOT be pursuing a PhD in Theology any time soon. Instead, I am excited to report that I will begin the Doctor of Ministry (DMin) degree with classes in June, 2012. The DMin is a school program pursued part time, designed for people serving in full time ministry.
The DMin is designed to deepen and strengthen skills for ministry in the local congregation and beyond. It is a “practical” as opposed to a “theoretical” degree – i.e. the focus and goal is the increase of effectiveness in ministry – either strengthening existing ministries, exploring and beginning new ones, or some combination. It is rooted and grounded in the student’s lived ministry experience in a local context – for me it will be my lived ministry experience at Forest Grove and in the Lucas/Allen/Fairview area.
This decision now brings clarity to how I will be spending my time, which I anticipate may help Forest Grove move toward clarity on our shared discovery of God’s dream for us. May God continue to work in and through us, bringing us together toward maturity in Christ.
Thanks again for all your continued support.