Friday, December 28, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Week 7

I may be almost a month behind, but at least this series will finish up before the new year.

In the final session of the Called study, titled "Sneak Previews," we discussed what a calling should mean to people who look forward to eternity.  We discussed three somewhat-related topics:

The primary idea of the topic is that our calling is not just a temporal, earthly concern, but one that will carry importance and meaning into the new Jerusalem.  When the prophets talk about the redeemed creation, they paint a picture of a place where life still happens, where commerce and culture are active and thriving.  The popular notion of heaven frequently involves white robes, fluffy clouds, and endless noodling on the harp, but the biblical picture is that we'll still be living and working.  Work itself was never itself cursed, but when creation was cursed, work became a toil.  It wasn't bad, it was just difficult.  When all things come to fulfillment, what we did in the here-and-now will be important.

This does raise the question, what will we do in the redeemed creation?  I'm not sure we'll have an answer until we get there.  There are a lot of jobs that only exist because this world is fallen and imperfect.  As a scientist, I have a particular interest here, because my job involves discovering hidden truths of the world and using that knowledge to make it better.  When all truth is made plain by the light of Christ, when all flaws have been rendered from the world, what will that leave for me?  I don't know.  I can't wait to find out, though.

The second idea, which flows directly from the first, is that we have a responsibility of working towards the renewal and redemption of creation.  This is not to say that Christians can bring about "heaven on Earth," but we abandon our charge to be the "salt of the earth" by leaving the world around us to rot in corruption.  Of course, what this means is an entirely different can of worms.  A lot of people have thrown their hats in with politics as the means of living out this principle, but there's a lot more to it than that.  I still think the most effective way of redeeming the world around us is through the gospel, one heart at a time.

The final idea that came out of this session involved the impact of our calling and our life.  There are a lot of people who see most of the impact from living out their calling right away; a doctor, for example, sees patients recover and walk out the hospital door.  For the rest of us, however, the true reach of our lives may never be fully realized until we leave this life behind.  One example used is Ruth; in the book of Ruth, there are no miracles, only the story of a faithful woman who finds love in a foreign land.  Yet Ruth is counted in the genealogy of Christ, making the mundanity of her life more significant in retrospect.

A truly interesting example Frank gave for this was the story of Rodriguez, as told through the documentary Searching for Sugar Man. Rodriguez was a guitarist whose music never found fame in the US; he did, however, develop a huge following in South Africa.  The man lived most of his life in obscurity, and his fans in South Africa didn't even know he was still alive.  Some time ago, he was "re-discovered" and invited to South Africa for a concert.  Imagine his surprise, coming onto the stage to an audience of thousands, cheering fans who knew the words to his songs better than he did.  It's a remarkable story, and its connection to our calling is significant.

I'll have one more post on the series to wrap up the various ideas that have floated around, and I hope to have it out before January.

Monday, December 03, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Week 6

I realize this post is incredibly late at this point.  The series has actually ended; well, sort of.  Scheduling conflicts and holidays pushed back my small group's completion of the study until next week.  My own tardiness in putting up this particular post has more to do with figuring out just what I wanted to even say about the topic.

Week 6 of the study involved the role of "calling" as a tool in evangelism.  This series has dealt with the implications of living out your faith every day of the week, which means treating work as an extension of faith.  It's not just that work is something separate from the life you lead on Sunday morning, but it should be an integrated part of that whole.  Since sharing the gospel is the highest privilege and responsibility in the life of faith, work must also be an integrated part of evangelism.

In particular, the idea of "calling" can be useful in evangelism.  It's something that a lot of people will find familiarity with, even if they don't understand it in the way that Christians understand it.  (Well, to the degree any of us even understand it.)  Just like Paul taking the altar to the unknown god and turning it into a vehicle for the gospel, so we should use calling to find and reach people where they are.

Frank has said that this was the entire basis of his thesis, which was itself the basis for this series.  It's sound advice.  If you believe that God is reaching out to every person, the way a person wrestles with purpose and calling can definitely be an opening for the gospel.  They hear God, even if they don't understand it.  (Or, in Paul's words, "Therefore what you worship without knowing it, this I proclaim to you.")

This is probably much more complicated in practice, though.  This area runs up to a problem Christians have been having since New Age spirituality became so prevalent in the West, in that the language used by Christians has been co-opted to mean something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike it's original meaning.  The shared language doesn't just extend to the idea of a calling, but to what that should mean as well.  Most of the world understands morality through the lens of "good deeds;" it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you're a "good person" who does "good deeds."  The "calling" a person wrestles with then becomes a matter of finding something you enjoy doing and/or being able to do "good deeds" through it.  It's not entirely divorced from the ideas we've been discussing the last several weeks, but it's certainly a bastardized version of it.  

The heart of the matter is that our calling is God inviting us to participate in his work.  Expressing that to a world that wonders whether such invitations are possible . . . well, that's the hard part.  I'm not really sure I have anything profound to add that wasn't already said by Frank in this series.  Avoiding formulas.  Listening.  Humility.  Explaining ourselves.  Everything that evangelism is supposed to be.  

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.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Week 3

In week three of the Called series, we discussed what it means to lead a public life as a Christian and how it relates to our calling.  If we think of our calling as our true purpose, the unique and personal way in which we are to serve God and the Kingdom with our life, then having a clear understanding of how we live that out in front of an unbelieving world becomes important.  Throughout the series, Frank has related our current cultural situation as to being "exiles" in Babylon; we either live by our values or we live by those of Babylon, and it's very difficult for us to act as "ambassadors" to Babylon if our faith is not evident in our lives.

One of the things that was emphasized in this session was the pressure in our society to remove Christianity from the public sphere.  We split our lives into public and private arenas and draw lines about which things belong where.  In recent years, it has become a widely held, if not prevailing, belief that one's religion and faith belong squarely in the private arena, that bringing faith into the public arena is not just a breach of etiquette but actively hostile to those who do not share your faith.  What's rather ironic about this, at least to me, is how the internet and social media have been tearing down the walls between the arenas.  Many people put their lives out on display for the world to see, reducing the line between private and public to a blur.

For Christians, this split is something we must fight to overcome.  A faith that happens only on Sunday mornings is one that has no transformative power.  If you aren't living by Christian values in the workplace, school, or any other public space, then what values are informing your actions and choices?  It is rather difficult to be faithful to the Christian life, especially when it comes to evangelism, if all evidence of said life is sequestered away from the world we're trying to reach.

It's a complicated matter to address what that "public life" should look like, though.  It's not just the hair-trigger response to displays of faith as "offensive."  Living out the faith can seem obtrusive to certain parts of life.  Nobody wants to be "that guy."  Jesus's promise that his yoke is light seems unlikely if we must fuss and fret over every detail of our day-to-day actions and interactions.  Is it trite to say that we must simply try to be mindful of our actions and always ready to give an answer for our faith?  Probably.  But I'm not sure how else to deal with it without writing a treatise on the matter.

One other issue that was particularly interesting to me was Frank's emphasis on the story of Joseph in Egypt.  If you don't remember, Joseph receives dreams about his family bowing down before him.  His siblings don't take this kindly and have him shipped off to Egypt as a slave, where Joseph continually finds himself rising to the top of bad situations.  The thrust of it is that Joseph spent years in Egypt, first as a slave, then as a prisoner.  His visions, his calling, must have looked very confusing in those years.  It can often be very difficult to discern your calling in light of your current circumstances.  We can only act on the information and wisdom available to us, and trust God to continue guiding us as we go. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Week 2

The best way I can sum up this week is that our job is not our calling, but it is certainly not less than our calling.  Our work, whatever that may be, is a vehicle for living out our calling, even if the work is simply a means to provide for life's necessities.  We were made to work, and to find joy in that work, and we honor God and love our neighbors by the way we perform that work.

I'm really glad a distinction was made between profession and calling.  I think too many tend to blend the two, Christian or not, which can lead to a lot of confusion and heartache.  In times past, a distinction was made between "holy professions," the priesthood or the mission field, for example, and secular work.  One was noble work, the other not so much.  One was a "calling," the other was . . . well, biding your time, essentially.  Perhaps we've gone the wrong direction.  Any work can be a calling, but if your career must be a calling, then you've set yourself up for grief.

The importance of finding joy in work is another important point, and one I think has warped over time in this society.  This NYT article about men who do not work is a case in point.  Although the recession of the last few years has taken its toll on people, purposefully avoiding work because it's "not fun" or "beneath you" is an awful attitude.  Albert Mohler frequently described the dignity of work, that it's not just something we're made for but a responsibility; there is no work "beneath you" if you have a family to support.

The NYT article above made me think quite a bit about people of my own generation who aren't working at the moment.  Many went off to school being told, "Get a degree, something you love, you have to have one," only to end up with an expertise in a subject for which there are few jobs available.  (Though there are some unfortunate people snookered by unscrupulous departments that inflate their alumni employment statistics.)  There are probably plenty who are similar to Mr. Beggerow in the above article, obtained their degree and then won't work anywhere but their purported field, or even their dream job.  In a sense, that's understandable.  If you've spent thousands of dollars becoming an expert in a given field, it can seem like a waste of an investment to abandon said field. 

Those who went off for advanced degrees are an interesting case, though.  Grad school has long been, at the least, an escape from unemployment or a means of advancing oneself in a competitive field.  There's growing sentiment that universities have been over-producing degree holders, resulting in unemployment, among other problems, for the holders.  Folks in those situations can find it especially tough.  Many end up with such specialized knowledge that their options are limited, and jumping fields can be rough if the employer could just find someone who does have the right specialization.  Leaving behind the field for which you spent 5-7 years of grad school can be like amputating a limb, an agonizing decision.  Taking "lesser" work isn't frequently an option, either.  There's little incentive to hire a PhD holder for a minimum wage job, since they will leave just as soon as they can find a better option.

Of course, most of this is just diagnosing the problem.  We have such a strained relationship with work in western society.  At least for Christians, coming to terms with what God intended for work to be is a start. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Week 1

After the first week's session, I can say this will definitely be an interesting study.  Of course, it was great to see everybody again.  There's always a lot of to be said for drawing off the wisdom of those around you.

To summarize the first session:  In order to lead a worthy life, we must not just understand what our calling is, but what it means to follow that calling as servants of Christ in a hostile world.  Much of the emphasis was on the latter,  describing the nature of the postmodern world and how we can set ourselves apart from that. Though there wasn't much said about understanding your calling, I do still have a few things to say on it.

There's a lot of advice about finding or identifying your calling out there.  Our pastor really favors a quote by Frederich Buechner, "The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet."  There's a variety of other things said in this regard, but the overall idea in finding your calling is both knowing yourself and "watching the signs," "keeping the antenna up," "listening for God," and so on.  This is frustrating to me, though, because this is frequently described in very mystical terms.

I'm not going to ignore the possibility of the mystical in the faith, but I definitely don't think it's normative.  Finding your place in the world, discerning your calling, is something that everyone will experience, but few will hear that "whisper in your heart," or whatever the current popular term is.  Worse, many Christians discuss it as a definitive manner for discerning the will of God in many other circumstances, making it complicated for those who don't experience it.  Am I a bad Christian?  Am I "ignoring" God?  Am I not paying attention?  Why am I not having that experience?

As I've said before, this is something I've wrestled with for years.  I don't really have any sort of answer, but I think it's something that doesn't get talked about nearly often enough.

The other major part of this session, the discussion of finding our place in a postmodern world, is interesting to me, as I've read a number of authors who suggest that we're not so much in a postmodern world as a post-postmodern world.

It's hard to argue with the idea.  Postmodernism was said to have been the reining mindset in the post-WW2 era, and we are far removed from that society.  People under 30 have most of their interactions with the world through electronics:  Texting, email, Instant Messaging, Facebook, message boards.  So much connection, but very impersonal.  So much knowledge, but no depth.  With the extent of disinformation on the internet, truth, and not even in a metaphysical sense, becomes a tribal matter. 

Even with metaphysical truth we may be in the post-postmodern era.  The postmodern reckoning made morals and truth out to be relative and personal; there was no "wrong" answer to these matters because it was ultimately a question of what works for each person.  Those under 30 have been raised in a society that by-and-large ignores questions of truth, religion, and morality.  It's not that they're atheists, antagonistic towards the idea of faith.  Faith isn't even on their radar, it's an alien concept, an interruption to the status quo.  Morality in the post-postmodern paradigm is a function of victimhood, and everyone is a victim.  Right and wrong isn't a function of values, it's about offering benefits to the aggrieved and punishing privilege, real or perceived.

None of this changes the mission of the church.  I just find it interesting.

I look forward to seeing what Frank has in store for the remainder of the study. 

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Heeding the Whisper - Prologue

At my church, Hunt Valley Church, we're starting a new series this week called, well, "Called."  We'll spend the next seven weeks discussing the idea of the "calling" in the faith, how it relates to vocation and direction, what it means to follow as an individual and as a Christian in a hostile and alien world.

I'm really looking forward to this, as I'll be leading my small group during this series.  This will be the first small group I've lead since I was in college, so I'm a bit nervous, especially because I struggled with the concept of a "calling" in the past.*  The entire series is based off of the dissertation of our pastor.  I can only hope he will address the actual idea of a calling in the series and not assume that everyone is on the same page regarding the nature, definition, and workings of a calling.

If this Sunday's sermon is any indication . . . well, I'm going to reserve judgement.  There was a lot of time spent discussing living in a way that we have been "called" for, living in a purposeful way, leaning on Daniel (as well as Rack, Shack, and Benny) by way of example.  Nothing out of the ordinary, but it didn't hit the points I would have hoped.  We'll see how the first week of small group goes.

* - On a side note, it's really weird reading the older posts on this site.  This blog has been around, ostensibly, since 2003. My writing style and interests have changed a great deal since then, especially since the web has changed since then as well.  My writing has improved over the years, though I suspect it's become rusty, as my blogging slowed to almost nothing after I moved to Baltimore.  I suppose, if nothing else, this study will be an opportunity to find renewed purpose in the blog.