Tuesday, July 31, 2012

God's Design in Our Depletion: Five Lessons from Elijah

“Arise and eat, for the journey is too great for you.” (1 Kings 19:7).

When long-distance runners or cyclists hit a state of depletion it is usually a sign that something is going wrong. The body is beginning to shut down. Runners call it ‘hitting the wall.’ Cyclists call it ‘bonking.’ Whatever you call it, if you are an athlete you don’t want it happening to you.

As strange as it seems to us, unlike physical depletion, a depleted soul is not always a mistake. In fact, God often has a design in our depletion. If we’ll linger with Elijah under the broom tree we might detect what God’s design is. Here are five lessons drawn directly from the text.

1. A depleted and empty soul is not the same thing as a loss of faith; people of faith find themselves in this valley of emptiness. (19:1-9).
Throughout the entire story Elijah is in constant conversation with God. This is the essence of a life of faith. Faith is insisting that in all things we must deal with God: questions, complaints, doubts, everything. People of faith experience this depletion, this emptiness of soul.

2. Our depletion and emptiness of soul may be grounded in a disordered view of reality (19:2-4)
When Elijah stood on Mt Carmel God was the defining reality of his life. God was large; Baal and his prophets were small. Jezebel and Ahab were small. But under the broom tree, his view of reality changed. Jezebel was suddenly large and threatening and God was small. How does this happen? We’ll look at this later in the week

3. Depletion of soul and body are connected (19:5-7)
When God responds to Elijah’s complaint God does so with bread and water and sleep. Spiritual depletion and physical exhaustion are integrally connected. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your soul involves taking good care of your body. Eating and sleeping can be spiritual disciplines.

4. In our depletion God is bringing us to himself; be patient with this journey (19:8).
The journey from Beersheba to Mt. Horeb can be done on foot in about 14 days. However, God led Elijah on a 40 day journey. In our depletion God is at work to bring us to himself. That might take longer than we expect. Be patient with the journey.

5. Depletion is remedied by hearing the word of God in a fresh and personal way (19:9).
On Mt. Horeb Elijah heard God’s voice in a powerful way. The word of God came to him and restoring his vision of reality and renewing his call. What we need more than anything in our depletion is the voice of God in a fresh and personal way.

We’ll take a closer look at a few of these in the days ahead. For today: What would you identify as the signs of your own spiritual depletion?

Your ways, O God, are not our ways. We struggle to understand your design in our depletion – how you work your will in the dark and barren places of our lives. Renew our faith today, provide what we need for this journey, and make us attentive to your voice. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

'Us' means 'You'

Therefore . . . let us run with endurance the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1)

Spiritual disciplines are not elitist. Take a moment and read that sentence one more time.

There’s a chance that deep down you don’t believe that statement. Somehow you bought into the falsehood that ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ Christians don’t really have time to train when it comes to faith. Only the ‘good’ Christians get up in the morning to pray or read scripture; only the most ‘advanced’ among us ever fast or memorize parts of the Bible.

The weeks ahead will be of little value to you if you think that way.

So let me try one more time to be very clear about this: There are no ‘advanced’ Christians; there is nothing elitist or super-spiritual about the intentional practice of holy habits. Anyone can do this.

I make no claim to being a runner. I don’t especially enjoy running. But three or four times a week I do a four mile route in my neighborhood. I don’t run the entire route. I walk about half of it and when I run I feel like I plod along. I see others running who make want to go home and never run again. And then I see others plodding along, doing the best they can, and I’m reminded that comparisons are not helpful.

Anyone willing to put on a pair of shoes can run. And the spiritual disciplines are likewise for anyone who wants to grow in their faith. Simply put, you can do this.

The writer to the Hebrews spent the whole of chapter 11 rehearsing the names of those who had lived by faith. The roll of honor included Abraham and Moses and Enoch. These well known names are followed by a reference to the unnamed faithful “of whom the world was not worthy.”

And then at the beginning of chapter 12 we read a very significant word: “Therefore.” That is to say, since they lived by faith we can do the same thing. Given the example of these giants in the faith, let us run the same race. Don’t miss the word “us.” That includes you.

Don’t make excuses. Don’t make comparisons. Begin where you are today and start training. Be intentional about going deeper with God. Be purposeful about growing in your faith. This isn’t for the elites or for the advanced and uber-devout. This is for you. But it will require more than good intentions.

Who do you look to as exemplary in their life of faith? How will you begin to live the life they live?

Grant me grace, O God, to move beyond good intentions. Help me to take specific steps toward you and the life you’ve called me to live. Guard me from making comparisons that breed discouragement. Help me to draw inspiration from exemplary people of faith, both living and dead. I will run, even if slowly, doing all in reliance on your son Jesus, in whose name I pray. Amen.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Soul Check

My soul thirsts for you . . . as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Psalm 63:1).

I should have known something was wrong.

The thermostat in my hallway told me that it was 80 degrees on the main floor of my home. The house felt warm but not miserably so. I performed two simple diagnostic tests. First, I checked to see if air was coming from the vents near the floor. Second, I judged if the air was cool. Yes, there was air. Yes, it seemed cool enough to me.

Temperatures in Atlanta last week were somewhere around 106 F. I assumed my air conditioner was working overtime but struggling to keep up with the withering heat outdoors. I gave thanks to God for ceiling fans.

Then came the weekend. We had a technician to the house to do a routine check on our AC units. After a few moments of poking around with the unit in our basement he came up and asked us if we had been feeling warm indoors. Turns out the unit that cools our bedrooms had no refrigerant. For all practical purposes, we had lived through the hottest days of the summer with no air conditioning.

The unit was running. The air was blowing. But the substance that actually makes the air cool was not there. The unseen element that allows an air conditioner to do what it was made to do was missing. I had misread the signs.

As we take up a regimen of training in the life of faith, the practice of spiritual disciplines, it might be a good idea to read the signs and assess the condition of our soul. This is not easy. We live in a world obsessed with the body. We get plenty of help with staying healthy and staying in shape. We are not as good at tending to the well being of our souls.

It is so easy to live our days with the assumption that everything is working just fine. The unit seems to be humming along, we can feel air coming from the vents, but still we have a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right.

What we manage to ignore is that the soul – that unseen reality that allows us to be what God made us to be – is empty or weary. In the well known words of the Twenty-third Psalm we say that the Lord “restores my soul” (Ps. 23:3). One of the ways God does this is through an intentional life of spiritual practices or “holy habits.”

It is said that the Puritans used to ask “How are things with your soul?” It’s a good question. Maybe we can ask it this way: Where in your life do you have a nagging sense that something is not right?

Invite God to show up and work specifically in that part of your life. Invite God to restore your soul as you practice holy habits in the days ahead.

Help us, O God, to read the signs rightly and to know truthfully the state of our souls. Show us those places where things seem to be fine, but are in fact empty and weary and not what you intend. Restore our souls, we pray, so that we might live as you created us to live, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Gold Rush

. . . you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise (1 Peter 1:7).

Think “Gold Rush” and your mind will likely conjure up images of the unruly Western frontier. What your mind is far less likely to conjure up is a picture of Dahlonega, Georgia.

Dahlonega – a Cherokee word meaning “yellow money” – was at the center of an enthusiastic search for gold in the early nineteenth century. I recently learned that my great-grandfather on my mother’s side of the family had invested in a gold mine near Dahlonega. Nothing much ever came of that.

In the weeks ahead we’ll be witnessing a different kind of gold rush. This time the action is in London and crusty miners are replaced with highly skilled athletes from all over the world. In the deep bowels of a mine or in the throes of athletic competition, gold represents a singular attainment. You find gold and strike it rich. You win the contest and receive the gold medal. But in the life of faith, gold is seen differently.

The apostle Peter reminds us that faith in Jesus is more valuable than gold (1 Peter 1:7). Furthermore, like gold, faith is refined in testing. It is purified by fire. For followers of Jesus, gold is not for the lucky ones who happen to find it. Gold is not for the highly skilled who work hard to win it. Gold is faith itself, a life at rest in the care of God.

And here’s the thing: in the life of faith, the treasure is in the digging. The treasure is in the training. In the work of unearthing this treasure and in the efforts of training, faith is refined and developed.

The focus of these daily reflections will be on the practices, the spiritual disciplines, by which the life of faith is cultivated and refined. With a particular interest in the athletic imagery of the Olympics, we will meditate on what scripture teaches us about living a life of faith. Our desire is to run well the race that is set before us. No one, however, will run well without training to do so.

These daily meditations are offered as one part of your training plan. Being an avid spectator of the USA teams is fine for the Olympics. The role of spectator simply will not do as you seek to live your faith. It’s time to train, time to get in the game.

So come each day ready to read the scripture; come ready to think about what it says to you; come to spend time with God in prayer. Let the games begin. Go for the gold.

Gracious God, we don’t want to live our lives haphazardly, doing what we can to get by. Rather, we would live well, intentionally, with focus and purpose as we seek to become more like Jesus. In these days grant your grace, and move us to action as we pursue the gold of mature faith. We ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.