Monday, March 31, 2008

Charity – Give to Get? Or, a celebratory act of total trust.

Tony Campolo came to my high school in 2000 and gave a message during our chapel service. I knew his name, I’d seen his books, and pastors had referenced this guy as far back as I could remember paying attention to sermons. In my tiny, private school, in a highly conservative town, Mr. Campolo said, "The United Nations reports that over ten thousand people starve to death each day, and most of you don't give a shit. However, what is even more tragic is that most of you are more concerned about the fact that I just said a bad word than you are about the fact that ten thousand people are going to die today." I began to applaud. Back then, I did it because I had an ax to grind with the church. I didn’t expect to continue my applause almost eight years later.

In an interview last fall, a girl asked my opinion on the first sentence of Campolo’s famous oratory twist. Here is the first paragraph of my full-page response:

“Well, for the most part, Mr. Campolo is right. Lots of people starve everyday, and our culture thinks very little about it. I mean, that is, unless a few celebrities get involved in the campaign against hunger, then just about every college kid on campus will jump on board. They'll even hold their own rallies to talk about the situation, maybe raise some donations... but giving money is such a passive gesture. It might help, yeah, but the person making the donation hasn't really donated their time or energy or even head-space. They gave five bucks to a cause so they wouldn't look like a dick, but still don't think about the cause later on.”

Charity confuses me, especially having grown up in the Christian Church. It seemed like the pastor spoke about tithing once every month. My Sunday school teachers would hold tin-can fundraisers for children I would never meet in countries I would never visit. The only reason I knew those children existed was because somebody in the church said so, and Christians never lie. But even then, I didn’t care about the starving children. I wanted the candy bar promised to the kid who raised the most money.

My new friend Jason Elkins wrote, “We live in a society that recognizes achievement. We get credit for doing things right.” His post continues with a story about expecting credit from the IRS for his tithes. Then, referring to a conversation with a friend, he says, “We talked about how much more satisfying it would be if we gave without expectations. Gave for the sake of showing Christ to others.”

One of my favorite stories comes from the Gospel of Luke 21:1-4 where Jesus is teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem. “And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, ‘Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.’” My Sunday school teachers told me that the widow’s gift was significant because of the proportion of what she gave to what she owned. I think Jesus praised the widow because her gift was a sacrifice. Symbolically, she gave everything to God, trusting in His provision.

The church focuses so much on the blessings promised to those who give that they overlook the purpose of giving. It isn’t just to give the Levites something to live on, and it isn’t a way to connive a blessing from God. Tithes and offerings aren’t a game show where you’ll make a million bucks and get your dream home if you pick the right door. We give to God because He gave it to us. It’s not ours, it’s His, and the offering serves to remind us of His provision. Consider Deuteronomy 12:6-7, “There you shall bring your burnt offerings, your sacrifices, your tithes, the contribution of your hand, your votive offerings, your freewill offerings, and the firstborn of your herd and of your flock. There also you and your households shall eat before the LORD your God, and rejoice in all your undertakings in which the LORD your God has blessed you.”

Give to rejoice in how God has blessed you. The greatest blessing in a Christian’s life came from Jesus’ death and resurrection. New life! We died to our old selves and were raised in Him. Is anything really ours anymore? Does every good and perfect thing come from God (James 1:17), or do we succeed because of our own brilliance and hard work?

So now I look at charity in this light, and I hope I always give with this attitude, “It’s yours, God, not mine. Whatever you want me to do with my possessions, just say the word. However I can show the love of Christ with my time or money, tell me how. You want me to give all of my beer money to a Salvation Army bell-ringer? Done. You want me to give my car to a single mom? No problem. Take a stranger into my home for the night? If you say so, absolutely. I give for the glory of your name.

And if my only reward is your joy and favor, that’s okay by me.”

Friday, March 28, 2008

The Diesel Miracle

Last week, a kid smashed into the back of my parked car while I slept unaware in my parent's basement. As it turns out, he tried driving without defrosting his windshield first. What could have been last week's disaster turned into today's fist-pumping and high-fiving.

My parents asked me what kind of car I wanted to get with the insurance money. I said, "It'd be nice to have a station wagon. Maybe a diesel and a stick-shift." But Michigan has the worst economy in the country. Alaska beats Michigan. People living on government stipends have it better than most people in Michigan. The odds of a diesel stick-shift for sale in our budget didn't give me much hope. Two days ago, I asked God where I should look for a new car. He said, "Look online with dad. I'll direct you and you'll know."

Yesterday, dad and I spent hours looking for cars online. I looked for cars within fifty miles of my parents' place in Michigan, my house in Nashville, and my brother in Texas. There were lots of cars, and none of them worth buying. I decided to search one more website. One car stood out above the others. A 1983 Volkswagon Quantum station wagon, turbo diesel, and a five speed stick-shift. And it was five hundred dollars under an already small budget. I called the owner and asked if the car was still available. "There's a guy coming to look at it tomorrow morning at eleven."
"If that guy isn't interested," I said, "give me a call."
My family and I prayed, "God, if this is the car you had in mind for me, then make a way for me to get it."

Around eleven-thirty this morning, God prompted me to call the VW owner again. The other prospective buyer hadn't arrived and wouldn't be able to look at the car until the afternoon. He said I could come over right away to have a look first. As dad and I pulled into the guy's driveway, I noticed a mural airbrushed on the hood displaying an RV on a lawn under an oak tree. The owner, a mechanic, had only owned the car for two years. The previous owner bought the car to tow behind his RV on summer vacations, which explained the mural. It also explained the 86,000 miles (most of which were tow-miles) and the perfect condition of the body. All through the test drive, dad kept saying, "you've got to be kidding! This car is awesome!" He couldn't write the check fast enough, and I couldn't sign the title fast enough.

When I wrote about the accident last week, I wanted to see what God had in store. Little did I know that I'd end up with the coolest, campiest car in Michigan. And it was everything I wanted. Now all I need to do is learn how to drive stick.

Booyah achieved, friends.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Surprise! You've Just Been Entertained.

Back in the mid 1980s, Professor Neil Postman wrote a book titled Amusing Ourselves To Death. In it, Postman details how the visual medium, and television in particular, is a danger to the culture of ideas. I don't want to write a book report about it, but one of the main themes remains soldered in my mind. Where we were once a culture of ideas, now we are a culture of entertainment.

Every kid in school prefers watching videos instead of listening to the teacher give a lecture. But are those kids excited because the video has better information, or is it because the teacher is boring?
Listening to audio books trumps reading for many people.
I remember when I was ten years old, I tried convincing my parents that watching church on television was just as good as going to the building. This was before I hit Junior High and realized, as a sixth grader, seventh and eighth grade girls made church worth attending. TV church was only cool because of the human interest stories. People living in shambles, on drugs, making porn both professional and amateur. The Gospel was pretty awesome when surrounded by sensationalism.

Now that I'm aware of the saturation of media in our lives, I try to keep it all in perspective. Before I moved away from Grand Rapids, I played in a band. I don't tell a lot of people in Nashville about that because down here you may as well say that you like ice cream. At one of our last concerts, three or four hundred kids danced around to rock and roll music. The image of my band centered around all sorts of well-worn ideals like friendship and honesty and faith. Of course, twenty minutes before our set we were either fighting or giving each other the silent treatment. At one point in the show, I got fed up and said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, don't be fooled. Everything you see here is an act. This is all just entertainment."

My friend owns the venue where this all happened. He had once said to me, "I love music, and I love having a place for kids to listen to music. But I have to constantly remind myself that I'm in the business of idolatry." People worship celebrity. They deify bands. Why? Because this album kicks ass, man. And after the show, those people will go to the bar and ignore anything meaningful that may have happened just then. Most of them won't be inspired to do something with their lives or make a change in the world.

Many artists, teachers, and church leaders (for example) use entertainment in order to arrest attention before they make a point in their message. This method assumes that the idea isn't thrilling or significant enough, and Average Joe Schlub won't be able to process the issue without the context of popular culture. In my own music or writing, I sometimes hit this point of despair. Will I be able to say something meaningful without using gimmicks to make myself look cool? Is image the only doorway to reason in our culture? How can we say something which motivates people to make a change in their lives if we place equal or greater concern on marketability?

Are we selling ourselves or are we promoting an idea? As a Christian, shouldn't I desire to tell people about the Kingdom of God? Do I really need to introduce the concept with a joke?

I want to do something more than spend my life receiving a constant stream of entertainment. And I want to make music without first having to prove how cool or attractive I am. I want to write my books without worrying if people will like me. I want artists to create something daring because it challenges a person to make a change for the better, as opposed to shocking because the artist can't articulate their frustration.

I grieve over how the world lives, and I desperately want a generation that desires change over amusement.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity - Plato

Hopefully, in the previous posts, I've established a basic understanding of how I live and think. Now if I ever sound like a madman, I can refer people to those first few, lengthy posts. I understand, however, that nobody would read this weblog if I kept writing two thousand word entries. With a book, that's one thing. After you turn a page, you feel like you've accomplished something. You've made it to the next step. Let's be honest, we're more proud of reading fifty pages in a day than ten pages. On a computer, you just scroll and scroll and scroll until your eyes and brain are exhausted. And aside from feeling like you can't go on, you don't even want to retain the words you read.

My hope is to always write about the work that God is doing both in my life and through my obedience. That means that my format is far less formal than my imaginary readership may have assumed.

I have to keep this post especially short today because, well, I'm busy. And who isn't, right? But dig this. I'm back in Michigan visiting my family, and my car was parked by the curb in front of our house. This morning, a guy rammed into the back of my car and pushed it onto the neighbor's lawn across the street. My morning wake up call included a bristly cop and a tow-truck driver. The bad news is that I never like talking to police first thing in the morning. The good news is that, even though the other guy's car was totaled, my Volvo has minimal cosmetic damage. Now I have to see if he shook up the transmission, brakes, and alignment. Either way, it looks like I'll have to stay in Michigan for a day or two more than I anticipated. Aside from the possibility of a nice insurance check from the other guy, I'm curious to see why God has kept me in Grand Rapids for now.

I miss the hell out of you Nashville people. See you soon enough.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

These Signs Will Follow...

A few years ago, some people made a documentary about these churches where the congregants toss, like, rattlesnakes at each other. If you’re one of the uninitiated, you have to scratch your head and ask, “Why would anybody do such a thing?”
“Well,” the snake handler might say, “It’s biblical.”
And you might reply, “Prove it, buddy.”
With much confidence, the snake handler would turn to a very uncomfortable passage in the book of Mark. After hitching up his trousers, he reads out of the trusty and musty King James Bible, “Mark 16:17 and 18. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover.” Then he says, “Now those are the words of Jesus. You gonna argue with Jesus?”
And the truth is, you can’t. I mean, not really. Pretty much every translation of the Bible concurs. At the same time, why would God tell people to pass around venomous snakes?

It’s okay to admit that we don’t understand everything we read in the Bible our first time through. Or the second time through, even. It’s a highly textured book. There are threads and references and analogies and all sorts of things that keep it interesting. But it also means we can miss important factors in a casual read. Whenever I hear people quote Mark 16:17-18, they focus on the signs: cast out demons, speak in new tongues (or languages, depending on the translation you read), pick up snakes, drink poison and not die, lay hands on people and heal them. One day, I realized the part of the verse that really, really matters. “These signs will follow those who believe.” Believe what? Jesus said these words after his resurrection, just before his ascension into heaven.

In Matthew 12:38-39, “some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, ‘An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet.’” The sign of Jonah refers to that awesome Sunday School story where a man is thrown off a boat and gobbled up by a whale. After three days, God has the whale spit Jonah onto a beach. When Jesus referred to the sign of Jonah, he was talking about his coming death and resurrection.

The whole of Christianity rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let me see if I can sum it up quickly. God gave man free will. In free will, man chose autonomy. That is, he believed that he knew a better way to live than what God had instructed. Sin is man’s actions outside of God’s will. Man’s choice for autonomy separated him from God. Since God is the source of life, this separation introduced death into the world. Now, the Jewish people believe that a person’s life is in his blood, so a blood sacrifice was necessary to cleanse them of sin and death. They would sacrifice an animal as a symbol of that cleansing. But after the animal sacrifice, people would again sin, which would later require more sacrifice. Now, Jesus comes on the scene and gives himself as a sacrifice for sin. Here’s the kicker, though: Jesus got up. So the sacrifice still lives. This is why our sins are eternally covered. If we say, “Hey God, you were right. I really screwed up. So I want you to cleanse my sins with the blood of Jesus.” Now, as we try to live according to God’s direction, we’re going to screw up again. Every now and again, we’re going to do what we want even when we know it’s wrong. Thanks to the resurrected Jesus, our sins are always covered. I mean, the power of sin and death has been broken. And since sin is what separates us from God, that rift has closed. The apostle Paul made an important point of this new life in Romans 8:1. “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”

This is the power of “The sign of Jonah”. Let’s go back to Mark 16. The signs would follow those who believe, what? What had just happened, Christ’s resurrection. By placing our trust in the resurrection, we now live in the law of Life and not the law of Death. The signs Jesus mentioned aren’t these neat tricks to prove God’s existence, or anything. Jesus was saying that the law of Life has changed things for those who believe. Look at each one of the Mark 16 signs.

Casting out demons: Man is separated from God under the law of sin and death. I don’t claim to fully understand this, but in the separation, sometimes men are oppressed or possessed by demons. Jesus gave his disciples authority over “unclean spirits” in Matthew 10:1. When a person accepts Jesus as their savior, they are also disciples of Jesus, and so they have authority. The point of casting out demonic spirits is to present the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where sin and death once ruled, now life reigns. Freedom is a powerful sign. The Bible says in Galatians 5:1, “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.” Even though Paul was talking to the Galatians about freedom from extraneous rules and regulations, the point remains “It was for freedom that Christ set us free.”

Speaking in new languages: People sometimes get offended when I tell them that the language barrier came as a result of sin. I’m not trying to offend anyone, though, and I love the beauty in other languages. But seriously, I’m not wrong. Genesis 11:1-9 tells the story of a time when everyone spoke the same language. Then, the people decided to build a monument to their autonomy. God had told them to increase and move about, but they remained in one location and wanted to build a tower “into heaven” (by which they could close the rift between God and man on their terms), to make a name for themselves. Verses six and seven say, “The LORD said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another's speech.’” Viola. Language barrier.

After Jesus died and came back to life, God’s spirit came to earth (John 16:5-15). The most popular example of this within churches is Pentecost, written of in the second chapter of Acts. When the Holy Spirit came to the disciples, they began to speak in other languages. Jerusalem held an enormous festival at the time, and people from all over the world heard these disciples speaking in their languages. A crowd of those attending the festival approached the disciples and asked if they were drunk. Then the Apostle Peter had an opportunity to explain the truth of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Where God had set up the language barrier to keep people from sinning, now He allowed a way for people to communicate the truth. Remember what God said in Genesis 11. If the people speak with one language and have one purpose, nothing they propose to do will fail. Paul, writing to the church in Philippi, says, “Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose.” When people live under the law of life, with the purpose of speaking the truth of the resurrection, it would make sense that the language barrier would begin to fade.

Lay hands on the sick and they will recover: Sickness is a product of death in the world, of nature in frustration. It is a product of sin. Like casting out demons, Jesus gave his disciples authority to heal the sick. This, again, proclaims the law of life over the law of death.

Pick up snakes, drink poison and not die: I’m lumping these two together because they’re the signs that typically freak people out the most. But think about them in terms of the law of life vs. the law of death. When we live under the law of life, we have given up autonomy and given God control of our lives. So if we were to accidentally drink something poisonous, or if someone tried to harm us, God decides what happens. We don’t live under the same rules given by the law of death. It gives opportunity for the miraculous to occur. Now, I don’t want anyone to pick up a bottle of lye and give it a go. That would be both stupid and unbiblical. You aren’t supposed to dare God like that. Besides, it wouldn’t glorify Him, which is the point of a sign.

And with snakes, well, there’s a pretty cool story in Acts 28:3-5. “But when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and laid them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened itself on his hand. When the natives saw the creature hanging from his hand, they began saying to one another, ‘Undoubtedly this man is a murderer, and though he has been saved from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.’ However he shook the creature off into the fire and suffered no harm.” This was a sign to the natives of Malta. And in Isaiah 11, the prophet tells of a coming kingdom where nature is no longer in frustration. Verse eight says, “The nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper's den.” This will come as a result of the law of life.

But does that mean we should chuck mambas at each other? Did God automatically make us impervious to all harm just so our “super-humanity” would impress people into believing? That’s pretty ridiculous, and I don’t mind ridiculing it. At the same time, I do believe in praying for healing and casting out spirits. So what makes me so different from them? What indeed.

During the famous sermon on the mount, Jesus tells the people in Matthew 7:21-23, “Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; DEPART FROM ME, YOU WHO PRACTICE LAWLESSNESS.'” When we focus on the signs promised to believers, we neglect the very thing in which we should believe, that is the new life offered in the death and resurrection of Jesus. Then we have missed the point of the signs and we have tried to bring ourselves glory instead of glorifying God. You know what that sounds like? It sounds like man using God in his autonomy. It sounds like the pride of the people at the tower in Genesis 11, making a name for themselves. It sounds like sin.

If we pay attention to the direction of the Holy Spirit in our day-to-day lives, God might direct us to pray for sick people, or cast out evil spirits, or whatever. But it is for God’s glory, for making His name known for people. The signs should follow, not drive, the reality of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The law of life has changed things, and now death is working backwards, and the world is being redeemed.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Is It Possible To Have Relationship With An Immaterial God?

In my first post, I presented the idea that many churches treat a "personal relationship" with God more like a membership to a fan club than anything else. Reading a Bible, going to a church, and praying heavenly voice mail messages doesn't make a personal relationship. The only way you can have a relationship with anyone is to talk with them and establish trust between the two of you. I've included the first chapter of Stark Raving Obedience to introduce how God spoke to individuals, why it's Biblical, and how it still happens today. Even to "uneducated and ordinary" men like me.

Signs of life

“One of the greatest blessings a true believer has is to hear and know the voice of God. It is possible to hear God’s voice today as certainly and clearly as did Abraham and Moses – as clearly as did Samuel and David – as clearly as did Paul, Peter, the apostles, and John on the isle of Patmos!” - David Wilkerson

It all began with a prayer, at a time when I wasn’t sure if I took prayer seriously. This particular prayer was in response to Psalm 42:1 “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so pants my soul for You, O God.” As I read about David’s thirst for God I realized that even though I belonged to “the Jesus Christ Club” of Christianity, and believed myself a sold-out disciple because I did all the correct “church” things, and had once read the Bible the whole way through, I did not feel a desperate longing for God.

People often tell testimonies like this, “My life hit rock bottom, and I didn’t know what to do. Then I found Jesus. Now I have all of this joy and peace and success.” Well, it was only sort of like that for the Kallmans.

We had come to a bad place as a family when I was eleven years old. My brothers Ben and James got burned by people in the church and it seemed like they decided to break every rule the church tried to place on them. The family business had struggled and we lived on the edge of financial failure. All of that strained mom and dad to heartbreaking points. I was intensely unhappy and hated myself. Once or twice I snuck into my brothers’ world and see if drugs would make me happy, and, you know, they didn’t. For me, faith was two parts habit and one part safety precaution. I knew I didn’t want to go to hell, so I became a Christian, but devotion to a religion didn’t seem to fix anything. I felt like I was living in hell already.
At the time, I didn’t know that my father, Ted, and I were in the same place spiritually. We knew that we had accepted Christ and tried to live our lives according to His teachings, but God was this distant being to whom we paid tribute with routine. Prayer, reading the Bible, attending church, helping with church activities, Bible camp, charity, mission trips that suspiciously looked like vacations. Witnessing never seemed to do any good back then because people could probably tell that I wasn’t so sure about God myself.

A part of our family’s routine was to spend time together on Sunday nights. Usually it meant pizza and a movie. One Sunday night, we didn’t have pizza or a movie. My brothers became angry and asked why we were just sitting around the living room with nothing to do.
“We’re going to pray,” my mother answered.

I figured that one of our family members or friends were in trouble, because that seemed like the only time we sat together as a family to pray. Dad said that nobody was hurt or anything. “We want to teach you children something that your mom and I have been learning together.”
Ben and James looked like they wanted to leave, but knew that it would cause more trouble than they were willing to make. My sister Etta, often hiding silently behind our couch, took it all in. I remember feeling confused and intrigued. I knew how to talk to God. Every Sunday school kid knew what prayer was, but mom and dad had just explained that we could listen to God talk back. It sounded like a thought, but the thought was sometimes God talking to us.
So this is usually the part of that testimony where God changes our lives and everything gets better. The family magically alters into this perfect home and all of us get along and sunshine pours out of our fingertips.

That didn’t quite happen. God began to show us the areas in our lives that needed to change, and there were a lot of areas that needed change. Over time, God sometimes asked us to do strange and uncomfortable things. But when we met on Sunday night and asked God to talk to us, all of the problems we faced couldn’t diminish my excitement. I had actually met God, and He met me.

The Preacher in the punk band had it right

My pastor used to have a rock and roll band called Big Fil. Their “big hit” was a song called “I’m Not Your Grandpa”. In the song, God spoke to His people, asking them when they would realize that He was right in the middle of their lives. He wasn’t some crazy old man that lived in the attic with flowing white hair. It’s a great song. I own all of their records.
But I digress.

The point is that God wants a personal relationship with us. You’ve heard that before, right? I mean, He wants to be able to walk with us in the cool of the evening and talk with us, just like He did with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. He wants to be able to meet with us on mountains and talk directly to us like He did with Moses. This same God tore the veil in the temple from top to bottom when Jesus died. Man and God can interact freely, no priest required.

I’ve told lots of people that this book is all about prayer, but it’s really about knowing God. When we hear His voice and obey, then see amazing things come from that obedience, we learn to trust Him. We can approach God with confidence, we can seek Him and actually find Him.
I’m going to talk about sheer madness. I’m going to talk about the best thing that ever happened to me.

Henry Ford once said whether you believe you can or cannot, you are correct. Despite it’s self-centered bent, there is some truth to it. Before we begin anything here, you have to understand: If you don’t believe that God can or will speak to you, then you are absolutely right. This isn’t a case of mind over matter, that the more affirmation you give something the truer it becomes. I’m saying that anyone can hear, but you have to make it a point to listen.
If you’re somebody who really believes that the Bible is the true Word of God, that the Word is unchanging, that God is the same “yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8), why wouldn’t you believe He still speaks?

The book The Lives of the Desert Fathers gives a record of miracles, healings, signs, and wonders that were prevalent in the lives of monks along the Nile from about 100 AD to about 450 AD. It includes a direct translation of The Historia Monachorum In Aegypto, which tells the stories of these men and their intense pursuit of God. Listening while in prayer was a significant part of their walk. In his book Surprised by the Voice of God, Jack Deere details instances in where the early Reformers heard direction from the Spirit and acted in obedience, and how God moved miraculously. This book also cites Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hadden Spurgeon with similar instances. A.W. Tozer in his classic book The Pursuit of God describes the ongoing speaking nature of God in the chapter “The Speaking Voice”.

The problem I have in teaching people about hearing God’s voice comes in the matter of incontrovertible proof. I’m not sure I could come up with a list of bibliographical sources that would satisfy critical minds. I can only present the best information that I have and give accounts of experience.

But they aren’t all just my experiences, or my family’s, or of people unknown to the public. I’ve already mentioned Jack Deere’s book, Surprised By the Voice of God. At the beginning of the book, Deere tells a story of God supernaturally speaking to him. A student came to speak with Deere about a paper, and the Holy Spirit told Deere that this student struggled with pornography. Deere describes his reaction. “What is happening to me? I thought. There is no way this student is into pornography. I must be making this up. But why would I make up something I thought to be an impossibility?” When Deere asks if the student is struggling with pornography, the young man begins to confess and repent of many different sins, including his addiction to pornography. Later that night, the student found Deere and exclaimed, “I’m a new person!”

I believe this all began with Deere relentlessly seeking God’s voice. “For months, I had been praying for God to speak to me like this, asking him to impart to me supernatural knowledge about people so that I might minister to them more effectively.”

A high school Algebra teacher had an annoying habit of saying the same two phrases whenever I asked him a question, “it’s in the book” or “it’s in your notes.” I used to wonder why, then, I had a teacher at all. I should have just been able to read the book and look at the notes and understand how to find “X”. But I didn’t understand. I needed him to sit down with me and go over whatever impeded my comprehension. I remember muttering to myself, “No, it’s in your head.”

Growing up in my church, Sunday school teachers and youth pastors told me that God said everything He needed to say in the Bible, so He doesn’t have to talk anymore. I don’t buy that. I don’t think they were lying to me. They just didn’t know how to listen to God, so they assumed He had finished talking. I do believe that the Bible is God’s word, and that it is fully true. I don’t believe that it’s exhaustive, though, because that would mean the eternal God limited the whole of his being to a book with a beginning and end. John said it himself in his gospel, “And there are also many other things which Jesus did, which if they were written in detail, I suppose that even the world itself would not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)
In John 16:7-15, Jesus tells His disciples that the Holy Spirit will come to guide them after He has gone. He says that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth”, and that the Spirit “will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment”. The guidance of the Holy Spirit was not exclusively for the apostles, and there was a need for guidance beyond the words written in the scriptures. Otherwise, Jesus would have left His disciples with Abraham’s words from the parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16:29, "But Abraham said, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.'” In other words, “It’s in the book. It’s in your notes.”

But even if that were the case, the Bible has no life apart from the Spirit’s illumination. In Greek, there are two different words for “Word”. The first is logos, which refers to the written and spoken word. The other is rhema, which refers specifically to the spoken word. Now, I have only studied a little bit of the Greek language (very, very little), and I don’t claim to have scholarly credentials, but I take it to mean this: When I read the Bible, I read words (logos), but when that word takes on personal meaning, and I feel the Holy Spirit speaking directly to me through the words, that’s rhema. Logos is written and rhema is spoken or breathed. I read logos, but hear and understand rhema.

In the Catholic Church, some believers follow a practice of praying the scriptures aloud and meditating on them. There are two ways that this form of prayer is practiced, one good and the other highly suspect, but I’ll talk of that later.

Even with the Word of God we need to hear His voice to gain true wisdom and understanding. If we study the Bible apart from the Spirit, we can have knowledge of the Word, but not wisdom. Wisdom can only come from having a relationship with the living God. No rhema, no wisdom.

In a letter to one of his closest friends, Francis Schaeffer discussed the “moment by moment” reality of God and how it applied to their faith and mission. “I am not thinking of this in some ‘mystical’ area where God becomes an abstraction, but in the strenuously practical areas of history in which we walk. If we would only allow the Agent of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, to lead each individual instead of living in the areas of rules which are man-made and quite apart from the absolutes laid down in Scripture. If only we would be willing to have Christ be the true Head, and be willing for the exotic leadership of the Holy Spirit in our individual and corporate lives – rather than stagnifying the Holy Spirit’s leadership of yesterday, as seen in the lives of other men who lived in different historic circumstances, when the infinite eye of God would see today’s history as requiring a slightly different or radically different approach; or even stagnifying how the Holy Spirit’s leading of us today be what it was a year ago, when our historic circumstance is always in a flux?”

Here, according to Schaeffer, to claim that God has no need or desire to guide us in our present day is to “stagnify” the Holy Spirit. It renders His power ineffective, and if it were true, would make me wonder if His love for me were secondary.
So what am I saying?
First, God still communicates directly to people. There are examples of this throughout the Bible, Christian history, and our present day.
Second, our belief impacts our ability to hear God.
Third, as the Word says in Jeremiah 29:13, that if we pursue God with our whole heart, He will be found.

Friday, March 14, 2008

A Quick Story Of Stark Raving Obedience

There are times I wish I could introduce myself to people by means of a twenty-page overview of listening prayer. Then they would have a basis for understanding how I live my life. On the surface, this life appears very unstable, and to some, irresponsible. But if I really believe that the Holy Spirit gives me daily guidance, then wouldn't it be foolishness to reject His direction, even if it looks crazy or stupid?

Dad and I often tell a story about a woman doing a headstand at a 7-Eleven. This woman attended a church outside of Lansing. My father met the pastor of this church during our first years of understanding listening prayer. Here is the very true story...

A woman in mid-Michigan had just begun to listen for the voice of God when she prayed. Driving home one day, she felt something in her spirit say, “Stop in the 7-Eleven and go stand on your head next to the pop machine.” Was that God? To her, it felt more like some bad cold cuts in her lunch, or some sort of short-circuit in her brain. Then she heard that internal voice again, “Stop in the 7-Eleven and go stand on your head next to the pop machine.”

By now she could see the 7-Eleven, but she was determined to continue on her way home. God didn’t make insane requests like that, especially not to people like her. Old Testament prophets and acetic Nazarenes, maybe, but not normal people. This time, the nudge had urgency. “Go back to the 7-Eleven and stand on your head next to the pop machine.”

She turned her car around and parked in front of the 7-Eleven. There were no other cars. At least no one would stare at her, she thought. When she entered, she saw a young man standing behind the counter, and the woman wished that he would go into the back room to stock some things. She walked over next to the pop machine, stood on her head, and… nothing happened.
Weren’t the heavens supposed to have torn open to the sound of angel choirs singing because she obeyed? What gives?

The woman began to walk out, and the young man behind the counter stopped her. “Excuse me, why did you just do that?”

Ok, how does one explain this in a spiritually relevant way? “Ah yes, I was driving home, communing with the God of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth, and He said to me, ‘Oh woman of faith and power… go thou to the 7-Eleven and stand upon thy head by the pop machine!’” Does that sound normal? Does it sound sane? Does it even sound like God? No, it sounds stupid.

She told him to please just forget about it. “I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’m a little embarrassed. I think I’ll just leave.”

He insisted, “No, wait, I have to know why you did that.” Then he pulled a gun out from under the counter. “A few minutes ago, I had this gun in my mouth. My life isn’t worth living, and I was going to kill myself. At the last moment, I gave God one more chance. I said, ‘God, if you are real, why don’t you send somebody in here and have them stand on their head by the pop machine.’ So I really need to know why you did that. Could you tell me about your God?”

So, was that God?

How do you know if it was God?

Would you have obeyed?

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Beginning To Live In Stark Raving Obedience

I moved to Nashville in September of 2007. Since nobody in this city is from this city, I always have to answer the question, "What brought you here?" Most people would expect an answer like "music" or "publishing". Well, I have played music for fifteen years, but that's not the reason I moved to Music City. And I did write a book with my father, but I didn't even know that Nashville was a big publishing town until after I had already decided to live in Tennessee. When people ask me why I came to town, I usually laugh before I tell them, "It's a short answer with a long explanation."

God told me to move to Nashville. By that, I mean He spoke to me and said, "Move to Nashville." Yes, God and I have conversations. If this seems like the statement of a psychotic man, I might agree with you if it weren't so Biblically sound. Below, I've included a portion of the introduction to my book, Stark Raving Obedience. Later, I will include the first chapter. Hopefully, these will sufficiently explain how a person can hear the voice of God in his head and not (necessarily) need prescription medication.

Preface to Stark Raving Obedience

People talk to God all the time. Whether it’s someone praying for friends and family, at the dinner table, or at a baseball game, talking to God is pretty ordinary. On the other hand, tell someone that God talks to you, and they might look at you like you ought to be locked up and psychoanalyzed.

It’s hard to deny that people are searching for something in their lives. Dating services try to provide people with intimacy. Some people drink to numb their pain, an attempt at healing their wounds if only temporarily. I remember a professor in college claiming that television was a way for people to have a community experience, a nation of people experiencing the same “events” while sitting alone in their homes. Something exists in every man and woman that longs for something, even if they can’t explain what they long for. I know that lots of people are just searching for answers, and many of them are seeking God for those answers, even if they don’t realize it.

But how can a person ask God a question when they don’t believe that He’ll tell them the answer? How can God give direction if He doesn’t communicate with us? A person might argue that God speaks to us in the Bible. True, but maybe I want to know if I should take a job overseas, or maybe I want to know how to reconcile a relationship with a family member. Personal stuff. Sometimes uncomfortable and complicated stuff. I believe that God wants to direct us and answer our questions personally, not just the deep questions of mankind as a whole.

How in the world can you have a personal relationship with someone who isn’t personal? We say the words “personal relationship” a lot in the church, but I don’t know if the church always does a good job of explaining (or understanding) a real personal relationship with God.
A few years ago, I joined the Rachael Leigh Cook fan club after watching the movie Josie and the Pussycats. I saw all of her movies. I read her biographical information. I read all the news updates, participated in a few of the fan club chats, and sent her a two and a half page fan letter. Even after all of that, I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say that I had a personal relationship with Rachael Leigh Cook.

At a young age, I was told that if I read my Bible, went to church or youth groups, and prayed to God (talked at Him), then I had a healthy, personal relationship with Him. Now I know better. It’s good to do all those things, but it’s not enough. It’s not personal. The only way to have a personal relationship with anybody is to talk with them, to build trust and have a history with them. Is that possible with an immaterial God? I know now that it is.