Sunday, November 11, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Week 5

11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
1 Kings 19:11-13
New International Version (NIV)
This is the week that I both anticipated and dreaded.  The possibilities were multitude:  Controversial, enlightening, unhelpful, etc.  Frank went with the latter, unfortunately.  I don't blame him, there's only so much you can do with thirty minutes of sermon and 20 minutes of video.

The ultimate question to be addressed by Frank this week was to ask, "How do I know my calling?"  Which sounds an awful lot like, "How do I know God's will for my life?"  Frank's answer was to that there's no real rule for this, that one must simply pay attention.  Not particularly helpful.

In the past when I've looked at this, there were a number of sign posts, so to speak:  The Bible, mature counsel, inner witness, circumstances, personal desires, common sense, and special guidance.  Let's break these down:
  • The Bible:  Pretty obvious.  Everything we understand about God's calling is done so in light of revealed truth.
  • Mature counsel:  There's a lot to be said about the advice and wisdom of those around you, whether it's people with experience, experts in a field, those who know you best, or elders in the faith with good discernment.
  • Circumstances:  There's that old saying, "When one door closes, another opens."  You can tell something about God's calling by your circumstances.  I'm not going to be running a bible study for high-powered executives anytime soon, for example.
  • Personal desires:  Another obvious one.  The heart of man is prone to foolishness, so it's worthwhile keeping a tight leash on this sign post.  Still, the best servants are those who serve gladly.  "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." --Frederick Buechner (via Frank)
  • Common sense:  Still obvious.  God's not calling you to be a missionary to Mars colonists, at least not at the moment. 
  • Inner witness:  This is the still small voice.  The Holy Spirit dwells within the hearts of believers, and it offers God's testimony and guidance to those receptive to it.  Many describe this as a voice heard not with the ears, but with the heart, or God speaking directly to your soul.  The verses in 1King above are frequently quoted in this regard.
  • Special guidance:  This is the audible voice, the "road to Damascus" type event.  Paul experienced a lot of this, as did the prophets.  Think John writing the book of Revelation. 

Interpreting the signs is tricky.  As Frank said, this is going to be different for everyone, and you can't really know how to read these signs unless you're in the moment.  Even then, sometimes it takes someone from outside the circumstances to help interpret them (see mature counsel).  The problem, as far as I see it, is in the last two parts of the above list.

First, and most obviously, special guidance is not normative.  This really should go without saying, but so many situations from the Bible are used as examples of inner witness when they are clearly special guidance. 

The bigger problem for me is the haziness of inner witness.  My best understanding of the scriptural basis for it requires a rather generous interpretation of the verses; it's not exactly clear that the thing Christians describe as "inner witness" is the same thing the justifying verses are describing.  Plus, truly interpreting such a thing is incredibly complicated.  It is, by definition, an inaudible voice.  The inner witness ought to be an obvious phenomenon, but a great number of Christians ask how they can be sure they're "hearing" the voice of God in their heart.  Even worse, it acts as a trump card for many people, both internally and externally.  Short of special guidance, it trumps all other sign posts as it's "straight from the horse's mouth," and many Christians will use it as a bludgeon against other Christians.  It's an embarrassment when two arguing Christians both declare that the Holy Spirit has told them they're right.

Why don't I just write off the matter entirely?  Because the idea that the indwelling Holy Spirit has no interaction with us stretches credulity.  What that actually looks like is far more than can be adequately covered in a blog post, but to reject it would be to reject any level of mysticism or sacredness in the faith.  This form of spirituality may look like foolishness to an unbelieving world, but there are people out there absolutely hungry for such things in their lives.  We make the same mistake as the naturalists to reject anything that cannot be empirically analyzed or quantified.

I have no real conclusion, here.  This week's message brought me no closer to a satisfactory answer than I was before.  Perhaps Frank will tackle it some other time. 

Saturday, November 03, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Week 4

I have to admit, this week's session threw me a bit for a loop.  Frank's overall message was an analysis of the cultural religious milieu, a preoccupation with generic spirituality, hazy eastern/new age mysticism, a prevailing belief in the unity and "one-ness" of all things.  A Christian critique of these ideas isn't really new territory these days.  According to Frank, "spiritual but not religious" is one of the fastest growing religious identifications, although I still have to wonder how relevant it is to deconstruct the ideas.  In my own experience, non-religious (and aggressively so) folks tend to be far more common.  There was a lot of talk of a deep cultural thirst for the sacred, but it's a very subtle thing on the whole.

On a side note, the title of "spiritual but not religious" is so bizarre.  As if being religious is such a terrible thing.  It's one of those little oddities about the current cultural climate of the west.  You can be spiritual all you want.  Just don't let it actually affect your life in any way.

So what does all of this have to do with one's calling?  Frank sort of lamp-shaded it, so it feels necessary to expand on it a bit.  The idea is that living out our calling is not just a personal venture, but a public one.  It is something we do not just out of faithfulness to God and a fulfillment of our life, but as a matter of showing the glory of God through our lives, bringing truth and healing to a world desperately in need.

Living out our calling means understanding the world we inhabit.  If we're to always be prepared to give an answer for our hope, if we're to effectively reach people where they are, then we have to understand where they are.  This doesn't mean we have to be ready to tear down the beliefs of others.  Ravi Zacharias frequently relates an Indian proverb that there's no use offering someone a rose if you have torn off their nose.  Just as Paul used the altar to the unknown god to introduce Christ, we must be able to diagnose the thirsts and longings of those around us attempting to find some form of spirituality.  We aren't selling Christianity, but we are crafting the approach of the message.  The difference is subtle, but important.

Most importantly, living out our calling means doing so on God's terms, not ours, and most definitely not the culture's.  Understanding the influences of the broader culture around us can be very complicated at times.  It's like the old idea about boiling frogs slowly; if the water starts of cool and eventually comes to a boil, the frog doesn't understand what is happening until it is too late.  (I'm given to understand this isn't true, but it is still a useful symbol.)  It's hard to be a dispassionate observer of cultural influences when you're steeped in them all the time.  Subtle assumptions and ways of thinking can be difficult to isolate, which can have repercussions down the line.  We have to be wary of these things, and keeping on our toes means not just being wise to the Christian metanarrative, but also to those of the world around us.  If we're to live out our calling effectively, we have to be cognizant of such influences.

Overall, this week's chapter felt like a bit of an aside, a "B story."  Still, it marks an important aspect of living the fulness of the Christian life.  My deepest concerns with the idea of "calling" have yet to be fully addressed, but I look forward to seeing what Frank has to say in the coming weeks, whether he addresses those concerns or not.