I recently heard a popular Christian speaker tell of a “rich spiritual exercise” he began practicing in secret. A friend of his encouraged him for years to try it, and for years he resisted. Finally, he gave it a shot. And he loves it.
The friend who introduced him to the spiritual practice is an Eastern Guru, and the exercises themselves are born out of Eastern Mysticism. At first, the popular speaker feared mixing eastern religion with Christianity, but afterward he spoke of the wonderful, inner-peace he feels. “The proof,” he preached, “is in the pudding; ‘We’ll know it by its fruit.’”
When he indulges in these practices, he asserts he “is more kind to himself, has learned to receive, has discovered his self-worth, grown in self-love,” and is “growing in heroic self-care.”
He concluded, “It’s only stupid if it doesn’t work.”
In February 1978, I sensed God call me to spend a summer volunteering on a kibbutz in Israel (a communal farm that provides room and board for six days of work). I asked friends to help me discern if I heard God correctly. Some were pretty sure it was from God, and others were certain it wasn’t. After deliberation, I decided to go, but not until April.
The deadline to register as a volunteer had passed a month earlier (this was in the days before internet, email, or fax; though indoor plumbing was making a splash). I still thought I heard God invite me to go, so I drained my savings and bought a plane ticket.
When I boarded a plane May 2nd, with my last $300 in my pocket, not a soul in Israel knew I was coming. And I had no idea what to do when I got there.
My itinerary took me from Detroit to London (where I visited friends), then to Athens for a two-hour layover, and finally to Tel Aviv. When I arrived in Athens, I discovered my two-hour layover wasn’t two hours but a day and two hours. The hostels were full and hotels cost about $100.
To kill time as I figured out a plan, I visited the famous Acropolis. While sitting on its steps, high above the city, some tourist-kids began to talk with me. It turned out that they were middle-school students from Israel on a field trip to Greece. (I was jealous: my Detroit field trips took me to its sewage and water-purification plant.) They introduced me to their chaperone.
That chaperone happened to be the world-wide head of the kibbutz volunteer program.
He heard my story, suggested the perfect kibbutz for my situation, gave me money for a taxi from Tel Aviv to his office, handwrote a letter for me to give his secretary, and invited me to have dinner and spend the night with him and his school kids.
For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.
Look at the hopeful assurances offered:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)
The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)
When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.
Instead of posting an article this week, I decided to try an experiment. My good friend Gary Barkalow interviewed me in a live video on Facebook. The topic of the interview was: Does God Still Speak Today?
“God speaks time and again—in various ways—but nobody notices” (Job 33:14).
Core to the nature of the human race is a desire to hear God. Well, more than mere desire. We crave a connection with the divine, somehow to see the face of God, to touch and be touched. It’s an inborn, inherent ingredient of our humanity.
Scripture says God is always speaking, but we miss it. It’s not that he doesn’t speak to us, it’s just that we don’t recognize it when he does. Oh, sometimes he breaks in through writing on the wall or thorough a speaking donkey, but mostly he speaks in a still, small voice.
We miss his voice because it is drowned out in the sea of other voices. The cacophony of sounds, like an orchestra tuning, obscures that still small voice. Stomachs growl their hunger, bosses bark their orders, and that insult from twenty years ago still shouts its condemnation.
How do we begin to recognize God’s voice? In meditation. Christian meditation trains our ears to distinguish God’s voice—that one instrument—amidst the orchestra of others. And once we learn to recognize God’s voice, we begin to hear it “time and again, in various ways.”
To hear God’s voice, we need to learn to meditate. Unless, like Balaam, you have a talking ass.
My daughter’s boyfriend, Matt, works in the High-Tech Performance Apparel industry. (I always thought the height of high-tech apparel was the Converse high-top.) He’s an avid sportsman and a NOLS leader trained in Alaskan sea kayaking, mountaineering, and glacier-navigation.
Matt recently described two kinds of people who buy performance gear and apparel. Some buy because they use it. These are the active outdoor sports enthusiasts who know that high-tech boots can make or break an Alaskan hike and that the right carabiner might save their life.
And then there are the tech-geeks who academically argue the advantages and demerits of chromoly vs. stainless steel alloys in their boot crampons.
You see them in Starbucks disputing metal fatigue, manufacturing processes, and moisture-wicking properties. The problem is: you see them sitting in Starbucks, not climbing their next mountain.
Alas! When it comes to biblical authority, too many Christians are like tech-geeks.
When I was twelve, my parents taught me to read a chapter of Proverbs a day. Proverbs has thirty-one chapters, so the day of the month determined which chapter to read. (Some months, of course, have fewer than thirty-one days, and I just skipped those last chapters without guilt.)
After ten months of Proverbs, I finally—dare I say it?—got bored. So on a whim, I decided to read Hebrews. But then a Sunday school teacher told me Hebrews is a horribly difficult letter, and I would do better to begin with something easier, like Timothy.
I immediately stopped reading Hebrews. (I didn’t even look at it again until I was thirty.) But studying Paul’s two letters to Timothy was good. I read them three or four times.
And then, once again, I was stuck. What should I read next? My Proverbs / Hebrews / Timothy venture sparked a multi-year struggle to find a reading plan that could pass the test of time.