Most Sundays after church, my father invited us kids to critique his sermon. He disliked “Atta-boys” and he loathed a “Nice job!” He loved to observe how we thought and what we saw.
He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:
I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain predestination well;
I wonder if your second point should have come first, and your third point eliminated;
I think the best part of your sermon was the final, “Amen.”
His partly wanted to ensure we listened to his sermons, sure; but even more, he genuinely wanted to engage with us at a heart level by hearing what we thought. Dad encouraged honesty and offered no repercussions when we criticized, disagreed, or misunderstood.
It was my dad’s way of inviting us up into his life.
I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.
After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.
The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.
I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”
“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”
My wife’s and my first home was a trilevel, with only two of the floors completed. We decided to finish the third floor ourselves, creating a family room, office, and second bathroom. I had done lots of carpentry, wiring, and plumbing before. But I had never mudded drywall.
My first and only selfie: Sam Williamson, June 1984
I figured the drywall mud would sand down easily, so after hanging the drywall, I caked on mud like a teenage boy piles his plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And then I went back for seconds.
Alas. It took us more time to sand off that surplus mud than it took me to frame in and wire three rooms and to plumb the bathroom. Carla and I spent scores of hours of bored agony, sanding, wet-sponging, power-sanding, and bathing off our layers of dust:
I had thought mudding was the easy part.
The history of the world is the long story of bad answers.
Most of my life I failed to appreciate beauty. Oh, I loved the look of sails on the sea and snow on the mountains, but mostly I liked sailing those sailboats and skiing those slopes.
Fifteen years ago, I learned to scuba dive. On our first dive, my sons and I wobbled our way to the sea in unwieldly gear, inserted our mouthpieces, lowered our heads beneath the waves, and dived. In fifteen feet of water, we entered a cloud of thousands of small yellow and white, black-striped fish. We could see nothing but a beautiful gallery of sparkling fish.
And the beauty of their colors, and the shimmer of their glory, delighted and enthralled me.
Yesterday I joined two friends to talk with a woman about her calling. And she talked only of beauty. She shared the glory of seeing a sunrise, and sparks of hope in the cracks of a frozen harbor, and satisfaction in a sunset-pond. And she spoke of the healing wholeness of beauty.
Hearing her reminded me of the first time I was captivated by beauty.
This morning I read Psalm 27 as part of my Scripture meditation. When I read verse 4, something again was awakened:
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: … to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….
And I wondered, “What the heck does it mean to gaze on the beauty of God?”
When I first envisioned my book on hearing God, I imagined it as a little book with simple tools for learning to recognize God’s voice. In fact, my original title was, The Little Book on Hearing God because I pictured it as a short book with tips and techniques.
But as I wrote it, I realized that the true purpose of the book is to help all of us (including its writer) to grow in intimacy with God. God is relational, and he came to earth to redeem us so that we could re-enter into a relationship with God, a relationship broken by our rebellion.
So I named the book, Hearing God in Conversation. The idea is for us to re-engage with God in a personal relationship, a conversational relationship. After all, God’s own descriptions of his connection with us are all relational: his people, children, friends, and breathtakingly intimate, his spouse.
But my book is mostly lecture (though I hope an engaging lecture 🙂 ) and humans mostly learn in the lab. I’ve created two tools to help move us from the lecture to the lab, from head-knowledge to heart-knowledge.
The week before Christmas I heard the best argument against Christianity I’ve heard in years.
I met with a professional woman who had worked seven years for near minimum wage in the administration of a Christian ministry. When they decided to move their headquarters, they abruptly dismissed her with two weeks’ severance. She felt used and discarded.
And she felt anger: How could they treat her so callously after seven years of sacrifice? She said, “If they believed God would judge them for their callousness, they would have treated me more generously.”
She added: “What’s so bad about works righteousness?”
My twelve-year-old self had a violent temper. My fuse was short, and my bursts of anger detonated at perceived-insults as unexpectedly as bursts of laughter explode at well-timed jokes. Without the mutually pleasant consequences.
I once chased my older brother Andy around the house with a knife. I don’t remember what he had done (probably something HEINOUS), but I remember him chuckling as he easily evaded my thrusts. His laughter did nothing to calm my storm.
I hated my uncontrollable anger, so I memorized verses about the angry man:
A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.
Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty.
But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.
Whenever I sensed an outburst begin to rise, I tried to calm myself by repeating those memorized verses. It even worked a few times, but not for long. I soon boiled over again.
When I was thirteen, a friend offered to pray for anything I wanted. I asked him to pray for my anger problem. Six months later, he asked how I was doing, and I realized I hadn’t lost my temper once since he prayed. I hadn’t even had to fight it.
My explosive temper had been miraculously defused.
Since then, I’ve asked God to take away other bad habits, and he’s never acted again so instantly. He usually works slower, a little less dramatically, and (it seems) less miraculously.