My answer to those question is that God is speaking. He speaks to His people primarily through Scripture, which is our rule of faith and life–the lens through which we evaluate the content of other messages or impressions that we believe come from God.
God also speaks through patterns in our lives, through people, through the book of nature. Together these things fall into the category of general revelation.
The problem is not that God isn’t speaking. The problem is that we’re not listening.
While I was reading a paper from a doctoral colloquium on church and mission (I know, geek alert), I came across a little phrase that captured my imagination: the recovery of our contemplative faculty. The phrase comes from Catholic theologian Ronald Rolheiser’s book, The Shattered Lantern: Rediscovering a Felt Presence of God.
Rolheiser’s central assertion is that, “our senses require healing and rehabilitation so that they are adequate for receiving and responding to visitations and appearances of [God]” (p.23). Contemporary society connives to kill our awareness of God: “God dies in our awareness and eventually in our churches as well” (p.107).
Coming from a significantly different theological perspective, Rolheiser echoes an observation made many years earlier by Stephen Charnock (1628-1680). Charnock decried the absence of God in the lives of many professed Christians: “…there is something of a secret atheism in all, which is the fountain of the evil practices in their lives, not an utter disavowing of the being of a God, but a denial or doubting of some of the rights of his nature” (24).
These two radically different Christian writers both touch on our deafness to God:
Rolheiser believes that we have simply crowded out the voice of God, become deaf to his voice because of our narcissism, pragmatism, and restlessness.
Charnock believes that we purposefully close our ears to the words of God due to our internal desire to be an authority unto ourselves.
Surely both men are right. Surely there is within each of us a unique blend of the desire to be an authority unto ourselves and the a canny inability to allow ourselves to be distracted from the counsel of God.
I was walking in our backyard over the weekend and came across a curious sight. Several years ago a sapling must tree must have grown in such a way that its leading branch grew through our chain link fence–specifically between the chain links and the metal frame that holds it erect. The tree didn’t stop growing. Instead as it grew the metal cut into the trunk producing a tree with a metal strand embedded in it.
This is a powerful image of what happens to many Christians as they face key transitions in life. In my work as a campus minister I often observe the difficulty some students face in making the jump from undergraduate life to graduate study and from graduate school to professional practice.
The fresh opportunities and, more often, the fresh challenges can cut into a Christian world and life view (borrowing that term from Abraham Kuyper) that is not sufficiently developed to handle them.
Failing to attend to this often leads to significant challenges for Christians:
Leaving the church because the connection between Sunday and Monday is too tenuous
Leaving law school because the practice of law only ever seems to reach a proximate justice rather than full justice
Experiencing life in the absence of any sense that God cares about or values your work
Feeling the unrelenting pressure to perform and carrying that view into your relationship with God and gradually losing sight of the hope of the Gospel
Growing to resent God because of the great suffering seen in the lives of clients, patients, parishioners, or students
How are you preparing for the next stage of your personal or professional journey?
Are you making sure that you’re world and life view is growing, changing, deepening, and developing so that it is sufficient to aid you in faithfully following Christ?
On Saturday I experienced a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. After spending the morning doing various things to serve our downtown community, members of our church went out and invited everyone they met to have lunch with us.
It was a powerful experience that taught me several lessons about myself, humanity, the gospel, and the church:
Myself: My fear of being patronizing often causes me to hold back. I deeply desire to encounter those with fewer resources, less cultural power, and (perhaps) greater physical need as equals. This can be difficult to do, and so the fear of perceiving myself as a savior often causes me to miss out on deeper relationships with those who are different than myself.
Humanity: All of us are united both in our dignity and our degradation. The photo above is linked to a collection of portraits of homeless people. As I clicked through the gallery, I was struck by the juxtaposition of dignity and degradation. Stare into the piercing gazes of these people and you will see their dignity. Eyeball don’t age, do they? Yet, those same eyes are set in a deteriorating and unwashed body. It’s no different for me. The form may be different, but I too combine dignity and degradation.
The Gospel: The invitation to the banquet only deeply resonates with those who recognize their need. Those who respond to the message of the gospel are those who see their need. Those who joined us for a simply lunch of sloppy joes and potato salad where those who recognized and admitted their need for a free meal.
The Church: The church is a parable of Jesus and so together our story has to mirror Jesus’ story in the gospels. It’s quite difficult for anyone to encounter Jesus in abstraction. Most of us will encounter Jesus through a message-bearer. As the church, we are the bearers of the message that there is free grace offered to us by God through Christ.
Let’s be clear, I’m no Mother Theresa. I am, at best, an apprentice at loving my neighbor. However, God met even me in the simple act of sharing a meal with those in our downtown neighborhood.
The dominant narrative around evangelicals and the arts is one that pits populist evangelicals as standing in opposition to or judgment upon the arts. Think: Thomas Kincade more than Rembrandt; Jenkins and La Haye, Left Behind more than Tolstoy’s, Anna Karenina.
It’s true that evangelicals have a mixed history when it comes to valuing the arts. Thankfully there is some movement towards engaging and valuing the contribution the arts make to the creation of both a good life and a good society. One example is the organization, Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). CIVA explores the relationship between the arts and the Christian faith. I’m fortunate to know several people associated with this organization including its Executive Director, Cam Anderson.
The evangelical church must make significant progress in valuing and embracing the arts as well as artists. This is the case both because the arts are inherently valuable (they’re valuable because of what they are) and because the arts play a critical role in the formation of culture.
Here are five reasons that why the evangelical movement needs to take seriously God’s call to be stewards and supporters of the arts:
Art is an echo of God’s creativity and an expression of our nature as image-bearers. We create because our creator has endowed us with the ability to do so. We are, as Tolkien pointed out, sub-creators. Our creativity is contingent upon and flow from God’s creativity.
Art engages our imagination, our primary faculty. In a technological age, it’s tempting to believe that rationality is our primary faculty. As G. K. Chesterton observed, “The only truly rational men are all in insane asylums” (that’s a paraphrase). His point is that being human means more than being rational. C. S. Lewis observed, “Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”
Art reflects and interprets our present moment–it helps us to see ourselves. Art is the product of reflection upon our moment. Artists generally create in response to something that they perceive either in their own life or in the life of the community or nation. Reading art can help us to see our collective self through the eyes of another–an immense gift.
Art communicates truth in a way that surpasses rationality. Rationality was king in the modern era. Today it will increasingly be important to communicate truth through forms that are adequate to the task and that also by-pass the epistemological uncertainty of our post-modern society. It’s very difficult–although perhaps not impossible–to argue that a piece of art is “untrue.”
Art expresses possibilities for the future. The arts can also help us to imagine what the future could be like. The arts often critique, but they are also able to communicate a positive vision for the future.
Let this be a call to the evangelical movement to value the arts as much, if not more than, we have traditionally valued things like missions–art is, in its own way, an extension both of discipleship and of mission.
It’s been a slow week here at jeffgissing.com. My family is in San Diego enjoying some vacation time and celebrating the wedding of my brother-in-law. It has been a fun week–Balboa Park, San Diego Zoo, the Science Museum!
This week I’ve been reading Mel Lawrenz’sSpiritual Influence: The Hidden Power behind Leadership. It’s a great book and is helping me get to the heart of what ministry leadership is–something that I explored last week in a couple of posts. Ministry leadership is, in its essence, a function of discipleship. If a leader is not a disciple, her leadership rests on sand rather than bedrock.
Here’s how Lawrenz puts it:
“[Great Christian leaders] know that they’re not the real influencers, but that they are being used by God, who brings enduring, transforming influence in peoples’ lives.”
He later writes:
“Leadership that is entirely self-directed [as opposed to God-directed] will always be pathological….spiritual leadership is an extension of discipleship.”
Most of us are prone to excess in this area.
We either think that ‘leadership’ is a bad thing and we avoid it or we valorize it. The problem with this approach is, of course, that Scripture bears testimony to the importance of using one’s spiritual gifts for the purpose of edifying and building up the body in ways that specifically employ our gifts.
On the other hand, many of us go further than Scripture to become obsessed with leadership. As Lawrenz points out in his book, there is no generic term in Scripture for leadership. Leadership is ever and always linked to participation in the mission of God in a specific and concrete way. Leadership is not abstract and ephemeral, it is concrete and involved getting your hands dirty in mission.