Of What Use Is Spiritual Progress?

     Many who sit in Christian churches Sunday after Sunday have little inclination as to why. For some it simply feels right, raised by parents who instilled a sense of duty or obligation that this is a responsible course for one’s life. Some are present because of a gnawing sense that something is missing in their lives – they are genuinely looking for that something whatever that something may be. Others may have come with someone else, present in worship because it is important to the person they came with. Though it is fair to say that some have come for excellent music or an inspiring sermon, the question remains, what is it that the music and sermon bring to the table of the individual life? To offer the answer that music and sermons advance the spiritual progress of the person fails to answer, of what use is spiritual progress?
     It is a common question in this practical age. Whether the question has been clearly fashioned in the mind or remains a rather nebulous vapor seeking shape doesn’t really matter. It does not matter if the question hides in the shadows of the mind or stands unashamed upon center stage stripped of all pretenses. The question betrays a particular point of view: God is a utility that is available to serve needs. This is a deeply flawed point of view and may answer why there is such complacency among many church members. God sits on the spice rack of life. We reach for God when life needs a little seasoning or flavor. God’s purpose is to advance our life in whatever direction we chose.
     Friendship will not open its door to the one who keeps asking of others, “Of what value can you add to my life?” Attempts to use people for personal advancement betray sincerity and ruins friendships. Marriage will not afford access to its rich blessings to the one who asks, “Of what advantage will this spouse provide my life?” The use of a spouse for personal gain or advancement degrades marriage. To approach the holiest relation of them all – fellowship with God – with the expectation of personal enrichment or value bars the communion of God and personal spirit.
     Naturally, friends often prove of greatest service, and a spouse can often be of incalculable enrichment but these are gifts of a companionship that is sought for its own sake and not as an opportunity. The pursuit of a relationship with God also presents various gifts. But, as with friendships, to pursue a relationship with God solely or primarily for the benefit it may provide ruins the relationship. As Barbara Brown Taylor has wisely observed, the most important thing we get in prayer is God. Properly understood, prayer is less about obtainment of wishes and personal advancement. Prayer is about taking the journey of life with another – sharing life’s journey with God. This practice of prayer rejects God as utility, a force like electricity or microwaves to be harnessed for our ends. As someone once observed, that is magic, not religion. God desires a personal relationship with us and that relationship seeks trust and love, not the tapping into a source of power for personal desires.
     Let us return to our original question: of what value is spiritual progress? I propose that the value of spiritual progress is the deepening of a personal relationship with God – for relationship sake only. From what we have explored above, we must dismiss the pursuit of a relationship with God as an aid in achieving personal or social goals. That places the goal first and God second, even in a subordinate and auxiliary place to the goal.
     As friendships develop and marriages mature, there is present a healthy and natural dynamic; a growing shared interest and concern for one another. Shared interests develop and common pursuits are sought. They are not the objects for which a relationship is forged but, rather, the fruit of relationships that grow and mature. This dynamic is true for a relationship with God. As that most holy of relationships deepens and matures, so emerges the realization of God’s international intention – to bind all people of every nation into one holy communion under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Further, the heart and mind becomes conscious that God pursues that international intention through the gifts, talents and energy of those who accept God’s invitation to a life-long relationship.
     Of what use is spiritual progress? Simply, it is to enjoy that most holy of all relationships with another, to know God and enjoy God’s companionship in the journey of life. Yet, as in any relationship, we are changed as a result of paying attention to God, as a result of our life rubbing-up against the life and activity of God. Awareness of what God values – the upmost well-being for all – becomes important to us. We discover that our own little life projects become increasingly insignificant as we participate more and more in God’s project in the world. Then, one night we close our eyes and prepare to take our rest from our labors and we realize that we have discovered – and lived – our divine destiny.

Unconscious Spirituality

     M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. suggests that spiritual formation is a process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others (Invitation to a Journey, p.12). In an earlier blog (September 27, 2013), I shared that the spiritual life is one that is characterized by two attributes, consecration and inspiration. Consecration is the dedication of our lives, including our talents and abilities to God’s purposes. Inspiration is the realization that our best effort produces more than what we can reasonably expect; that something else shows-up in the midst of our own best effort, adding value to what we are able to accomplish alone. That something else is God’s power.
     A common experience of those who have both consecrated their life to God and experience God’s inspiration is “unconscious spirituality” – the working of God through the devoted man or woman who is unaware of that work until some later time. When at some later date there is a sign or indication that God has quietly used them, there is a renewed confidence and exalted sense of usefulness of a single life placed into God’s hands.
     My father experienced this on a number of occasions. Once a man walked into my parent’s place of business and asked me if Mr. Hood was available. Clear to me, this man was unaware that he was addressing Mr. Hood’s son. I introduced him to my father and politely excused myself. For nearly thirty minutes the two spoke softly. I continued my work with more than the occasional glance at their conversation together. Then the unexpected, though I shouldn’t have been surprised. My father placed his hand on the man’s shoulder and the two prayed. Following the prayer, the stranger left and neither my father nor I ever saw him again.
     Naturally curious, I asked my father what that was about. Seems this man was a stranger to my father as well. This stranger simply told my father that he had heard that Mr. Hood was a follower of Jesus. He wanted to know what that was like, what it meant in practical terms in day to day life. I remember the answer my father gave. In clear and simple language, he told this stranger that Jesus was God’s Son Who loves each of us very much. Jesus wishes to share life with us, wishes for us to know Him as we can know Him from His teachings and to trust Him. My father shared that he lives in continued conversation, through prayer, with Jesus throughout the day; that he is given uncommon wisdom from that conversation as well as strength. Simply, “I know Jesus is there with me and I trust Him,” replied my father.
     This unusual request for my father’s testimony was followed by something even more unusual. The man, with moisten eyes said, “Thank you. You may well have just saved my life.” My father prayed for him and the stranger left.
     My father went to bed that night wondering where this stranger had heard that he was a Christian. What brought this man to my parent’s business that day? What did he mean that my father’s story may well have saved his life? These questions remain unanswered – known, of course to God. Though my father would never know the answers to the questions that stirred in his mind, he feel asleep once again with the quiet confidence that God had, in some way, used him for God’s ongoing, redemptive purposes in the world.

Our Core Beliefs

“Our core beliefs are the convictions that are revealed in our daily actions, 
based on what we actually do.” 
Greg Ogden
     In the summer of 2012, The Atlantic magazine ran a cover story about the wide use of Facebook in our present culture. What the editors of that magazine found most startling was how pervasive is the practice of misrepresentation. A significant number of persons on Facebook actually present a personal profile that is simply untrue – identifying favorite books that have never been read, favorite television programming that is never viewed and hobbies that are never pursued. These people are not lying, except maybe to themselves. They really wish to read those books, view PBS and the History Channel and enjoy gourmet cooking. Simply, there is a chasm between what is desired and what is.
     I believe this phenomenon is as old as there has been human life. There exists within each one of us the ambition to be better, faster, stronger and more intelligent. In truth, it has little to do with our desire that others to see something more in us. We want more in us. The Apostle Paul says as much when, in a conversation with God, he declares that the things he wishes not to do he does and the things he wishes to do he doesn’t. Paul isn’t remotely concerned about what others think of him. It is all about what Paul thinks of Paul. If he was on Facebook, he would be no different than many of us. Paul would be guilty of misrepresentation.
     During the transition period between Senior Pastors, First Presbyterian of Delray Beach was asked for what was most important in the new ministry that would follow Dr. Ted Bush. Second to strong preaching, a significant number indicated the desire for help with intentional spiritual growth. Tending to matters of walking more closely with Jesus and experiencing a life that is continually transformed by that walk is a high and worthy ambition. The question presses, is that the idealized self or a path that will intentionally be sought?
     On Saturday, November 9th, First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach will welcome Dr. Greg Ogden as the first presenter for the Center for Christian Formation. I am confident that we begin this new ministry with the finest thinker and practitioner in spiritual formation working in the church today. His one purpose on that day is to provide the understanding and tools for personal growth in your walk with Jesus. My hope, as your pastor, is that what this church posted on its Facebook page, figuratively speaking, results in a strong presence for our first Center for Christian Formation.



Doing Something With Your Faith

     Before I met my wife, I participated in a singles Sunday school class at the North Avenue Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. One morning, a young man, a student of Georgia Tech, asked if he could speak to the class. He shared, “Several years ago I said I believed in Jesus Christ and trust Him as my Savior. I was then baptized in this church. Yet, I did nothing with my faith so my faith did nothing for me.”
     Fortunately, that was not the end of the story. He shared that it was now his intention to change; to take his faith seriously. He asked the pastor to help him chart a path for intentional progress in the Christian faith. Part of that path was accountability. That is where the singles Sunday school class came into the conversation. This young man was asking us, fellow class members, to walk with him and encourage him as he sought to be changedby his faith. Changed – a powerful word. Formationis another word that means the same thing. As people who say that Jesus Christ is Lord, we are people who seek to be “changed” or “formed” increasingly into a person who acts like Christ, speaks like Christ and thinks like Christ.
     Five times a year I reprint in our monthly newsmagazine, The Spire, a basic approach to growing in Jesus Christ. This approach is summarized by four important words: Practices, Solitude, Community, and Sharing. It is a pathway or means that, if followed, will result in our own change or formation to look more and more like Jesus. Simply, that is what is meant by the terms Spiritual Formation or Christian Formation. Take the journey and when you need your faith the most it will be there to strengthen you.

Marks of a Healthy Congregation

     The Alban Institute, a non-profit that conducts research on what makes for effective churches in the United States began asking, “What would a transformed congregation look like? After considerable research, they concluded that a congregation is healthy and vital if it has fourteen characteristics:
1.      Created and sustained by vital authentic quality worship that bonds the people to God and one another.
2.      Enriched but not imprisoned by the past and open to the guidance of the Spirit.
3.      Caring for the “Corporate Soul” of the congregation as well as individual souls.
4.      Committed to a shared vision from which it prioritizes and uses its energies and resources.
5.      Committed to an effective discipling process.
6.      Healthy Leadership, both clergy and elected church leaders.
7.      Committed to membership growth realizing that growth brings change.
8.      Able to face and deal constructively with conflict.
9.      Actively engaged in addressing the issues and problems of its community.
10.  The congregation enjoys an “adult/adult” relationship with its denomination.
11.  Places a high priority on biblical literacy and the capacity of members to utilize the biblical story to illuminate their own lives individually and collectively.
12.  Committed to thinking globally while acting locally.
13.  A wise steward of its resources.
14.  Manifest a healthy sense of humor.
Whenever the question is asked, “How are we doing?”, it is helpful to have some tool or instrument for shaping an answer. After considering the fourteen benchmarks mentioned above, where do you think First Presbyterian of Delray Beach is succeeding in its mission? Where do we still need work?