Monday, August 31, 2009

Drawing near...

(In a recent post, I wrote a little about the Five Love Languages, as written about by Gary Chapman in The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.  I explained how I found myself wondering if they apply to our relationship with God. This is an extra add-on to the seven posts I planned, so I suppose I'll call it 4.b of eight posts on this topic...unless I end up adding more later. ::grins::)

Everything I shared on my last post on Quality Time is still resonating through me. Every time I start talking with God, I find myself overwhelmed with the thought and the question, "God, are You really just waiting for me to want Quality Time with You badly enough? Do you really want to literally show Yourself to me?" And I stand there in awe.

I've found myself wondering just how close to God other people have gotten...both well-known Christian "greats" and unknown ones. Were Enoch, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses the only ones who walked with God in a physical way? Or has there been at least one in every generation? What about George Muller? Most Christians are familiar with one or two of his stories, but I doubt many of us really know our God the way he seemed to...but just how close did he get to God? Or what about mothers and grandmothers around the world? Have there been one or two who have gotten so close to God that He allowed them to see and experience things they could not share? That no one but them and God knew anything about?

So how do we draw near to God? That's what I want to write about today...even though anything I might say is only my own humble thoughts. What do I know? I haven't seen God. All I can do is share where I'm at...what God has shown me so far...and ask anyone who's reading this and who wants to share to do the same, so that we may encourage one another.

Yesterday morning, through a somewhat personal set of circumstances, God let me feel His heart. At least, one side of it. I was playing the keyboard and singing for our church's worship service, we finished a song, and I was about to let the keyboard notes trail off into silence when He said, "Keep playing."

I did.

A moment later, He said, "There is a word for the people." In other words, He wanted to speak to the people through somone.

I kept playing, and the worship leader obviously sensed what I did because she fell silent. "Lord," I said, "No one's saying anything."

"Then you speak it," He said. I did, trembling and my voice shaking, simply sharing that I felt God was calling us to call upon Him while He was near. To seek Him while He could be found. That He was only waiting for us to reach out for Him and seek His face, and then we'd see just how close He'd always been.

And then I collapsed on the chair behind the keyboard with tears running down my face, His Spirit pouring prayer in words that I don't know, as He let me feel how His heart breaks when we shrug Him aside...when we turn our back on the strength available in the mercies that are new every morning and rely on caffeine to get us through our days instead...when we willingly step into slavery...when we're just too busy with less important things to do that which would transform our life into something beautiful beyond our comprehension. "Lord," I sobbed, "how often do I still do this? Open my eyes to see, that I can give You those parts of my heart as well!"

The moment passed...but for one moment, I was closer to Him than I usually am...and it hurt. Was it worth it?

After church, I felt a strange mixture of that pain and of the love He feels, for that grief flowed from His love. After lunch, my husband took the kids to go cut wood, and I had several rare hours in the house alone. I did what I haven't done in a while, and I turned on my favorite worship CD and just worshiped while I cleaned house. And it was wonderful! To be able to stop in the middle of the hallway and raise my hands and face to my God and sing from the bottom of my heart, "I'm nothing without You, You are my source of life." To get so lost in the words of the song that I could no longer sing through the emotion that clogged my throat.

And again I was drawn closer to Him than I usually am. But this time it didn't hurt. This time I experienced the fulfillment of being in the arms of the One who created me and completes me.

How do we draw close to God? I think, perhaps, we are held back by thinking there's a formula...that we have to spend x number of hours day praying...that we have to study the Greek and Hebrew...that we have to worship like someone else does.

I think those are lies. I think it's really quite simple. It starts with the same prayer that Moses prayed, "Lord, show me Your ways." It starts with a heart that is totally willing and humble enough to know that it is only through His grace that we are even capable of drawing near to Him. Then He is the one who opens our eyes to see Him moving in our see things the way He does and know His heart.

I used to view Bible reading as a reading something for the umpeenth time and getting very little new out of it. I'm afraid my prayers were more along the lines of complaining than sincere requests: "God, what does this mean? I'm not getting anything out of this!" But somehow He led me to write out my questions...and I discovered how journalling my thoughts and prayers and questions slows my overactive brain enough that I can hear Him speak. And wow! The things I began discovering in the Bible, as I wrote! That was Him, taking my lack of excitement about the Bible and overwhelming it with my deeper desire to know Him. I couldn't do it...but He did! Now the choice of obedience is mine, continue walking the path that He opened up for me, or to turn my back on it.

Prayer used to be something I labored to do...a list I brought before God. But it's not, you know. I think there's more to prayer than I can comprehend, but God has opened my eyes to see how one aspect of it is simply talking to the God who surrounds me and fills me, about everything that comes my way. When I've messed up and I feel far away from Him, that's just a lie in my mind. He's still there, watching me ignore Him and pretend that He's not interested in the companionship of someone so faulty. But again, opening my eyes to these truths was something He did...a path that He opened up when I was incapable of finding it.

And then there's passion. But it didn't used to be! I was a girl who stood with my arms locked to my sides throughout the worship service. I hated it when our charismatic church organized a processional or dance presentation for the girls to do. I refused to sing a song with the words, "I would give my final breath, to know You in your death and resurrection, oh I want to know You more." Why? Because I knew He heard the words I sang, and I was afraid He'd take me up on that if I said it, even though we both knew it would be a lie. I didn't want to die! I was so bound up in so many things, and I didn't even realize it.

I certainly wasn't asking Him to set me free to dance. But He did! I'll never forget the day and the welling of desire for an unknown something that filled me. The next thing I remember, I was dancing before Him on the stage. (Don't get judgemental, please...this was an informal, evening worship service when the floor in front and stage were open for anyone, so what God did was perfectly orderly.) Anyway, I have absolutely no recollection of moving from the place of bondage that my seat had become, to the place of freedom in His presence that I found when I gave every cell of my body up in worship. But I have never gone back. Sometimes I allow life to get in the way and I momentarily forget about the path into His presence that He opened up that day. But no matter where I am, no matter how I feel, that path is always there...and the distance from my sorrow and misery to the ecstasy of His presence is never more than a few moments long.

I won't say that praise and worship is the only way to draw near to Him, for it is in studying my Bible that I come to know Him. And it is through prayer that I learn what going through my days with Him is like. But I will say that praise and worship might be the only way to enter His physical presence. (Keep in mind that worship doesn't have to be singing. You can speak your praises.) How does the Bible tell us to enter His courts? "With praise." Why? Because when you praise Him, your words are creating a throne for Him to sit down on. You're pulling up a chair for Him and asking Him to make Himself comfortable. He created our world with His voice, and we create His easy chair with ours. And when He settles Himself on what we create, chains fall from our hands and feet, until all we can do is stand enraptured in His presence.

So perhaps drawing near to Him consists of nothing more than holding up our shackled hands and saying, "Here, Lord. Set me free from what keeps me from You. I don't know how to let it go, and I'm not strong enough to break them anyway. But I am willing to let it all go. I am yours. I want to know Your ways, and I will praise You, no matter what."

What do you think? And what have you experienced?

(Continue to the Acts of Service post.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Surviving the experience...

(In a recent post, I wrote a little about the Five Love Languages, as written about by Gary Chapman in The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts.  I explained how I found myself wondering if they apply to our relationship with God. This is the fourth of what turned out to be nine posts as I explored this topic.)
Love Language: Quality Time
Quality Time is my dad's prominent love language. He continuously went out of his way to spend individual time with each of his five kids, and one of his favorite methods of spending time with you was to go on a walk with you--away from everyone else, where no one and nothing could interrupt--and just talk about whatever was important to us and him.

Even though this isn't one of my love languages, somehow I understood that Dad did this because he loved me and because I was important to him. And when I realized that these times meant more to him than they did to me, I knew that my willingness to put other things aside and go on a walk with him was a very powerful way that I could show love to him.

My daughter speaks Quality Time as well. She'll give up almost anything if it means doing something with you. I don't know if she loves to cook...but she loves helping me cook, because we're doing something together. She didn't love baseball, yet she was always out with her father and brother practicing, just because it was a way to do something with Daddy. In fact, if you ever dare to ask her what she'd like to do, it will always involve some sort of time-intensive activity that involves her and one (or both) of her parents, and often her brother and sister as well. (She's an oldest who begs her little brother and sister to do things with her, rather than begging them to leave her alone.)

Another example: What is the traditional Christmas and Thanksgiving Day activity? And what do the vast majority of dating couples do? We enjoy a meal together. Quality Time is why this is so important. There is something special that happens when you share a meal with someone, because you're doing something together and you're (hopefully) looking into each other's eyes and sharing meaningful conversation.

When I started this study, I assumed that this love language would be more for the benefit of someone else reading this blog, rather than for my own benefit. After all, I don't speak this language.

But boy was I wrong! My search through the Bible led to some very interesting verses. In fact, I ended up skimming ten or eleven books of the Bible, looking for more. (Which is why this post has taken me so long to get up!)

The first interesting thing I realized when I started this, is that Quality Time is the only love language that must be reciprocated to be given. Spending Quality Time with someone means looking into their eyes, talking with them, and doing things with them that they enjoy. You can speak Words of Affirmation to someone, and they can pretend to ignore you if they don't feel comfortable accepting it... but you still showed them love. You can pat someone on the shoulder, and even if they shrug off that Physical Touch, they still felt it. You can perform an Acts of Service for someone when they're not around. And you can leave a gift for someone on their bed or doorstep. But you simply cannot look into someone's eyes if they turn their back on you, and you cannot spend time doing what they enjoy if they're avoiding you.

Notice what this means. God cannot show love to us through the love language of Quality Time unless we are willing to spend time with Him!

The obvious way to spend Quality Time with God is spending time in prayer or in reading our Bible. But my study went beyond that. Way beyond that to something that blew my mind and that just might end up changing my life.

I thought again about how spending Quality Time together is essentially doing things together in each other's physical presence, and I wondered. Are there any stories in the Bible of people who did things with God? Not for Him, but with Him?

I ended up rewinding my study and going all the way back to Genesis 3:8-9 where it says that God walked in the Garden, calling for Adam and Eve because they weren't there waiting for Him. God was physically there, coming to actually do something with them. The infinite, all-powerful Creator of the Universe somehow made Himself less so that He could step inside His creation and do something with the most important element of that creation. He wanted to go on a walk with them, just like my father did with me.

But somehow I never really thought beyond that, other than that Sin made it impossible for anyone after Adam and Even to experience spending that kind of Quality Time with God...

...until I did this study.

What if God's whole desire when He created man was to spend time with us? What if, when Adam sinned, thereby clothing himself in sin so poisonous that the simple act of being in God's presence would have killed him...what if that loss of companionship grieved God's heart just as much as Adam's?

What if it grieved God's heart more?

What if it grieved God so much that He began searching for ways to restore that companionship with mankind, since Adam was clearly in no state to be able to do it? You see, it was never God's choice that we be separated. It was our choice. God's glory and sin cannot coexist. They're like baking soda and vinegar--they explode on contact. And when we're clothed in sin, that explosion makes us the casualty. Adam knew it (which was why he hid), and God knew it. And He didn't like it.

What if God began searching for people who were just as eager to spend Quality Time with Him as He was with them...and instead kept finding people who were more interested in holding onto that poisonous cloak?

I'm going to tell a story...a story that takes a little liberty here and there with what's in the Bible, but a story that I think accurately reflects God's heart down through the ages.

Let's keep moving forward through time.

After Adam, the next instance of someone walking with God was Enoch. We're only given four verses of Enoch's story, but the fact that God "took him" was significant. If Enoch's walk with God was the figurative type of walk that we talk about having with God--the type of "walk with God" that I always assumed it was--God clearly wasn't satisfied. He wanted more. He wanted an even closer relationship with this man who was evidently just as eager for Quality Time. In fact, God wasn't willing to wait until the man lived another 600 years or so. (Which is remarkable, since 1000 years is like a day to God!) So God took Enoch to heaven at the young age of 365 (which was, by the way, only 27 years after Adam died).

And guess what? Four years after God took Enoch, Noah was born--Noah, who also walked with God. We all know Noah's story and how Noah was the only righteous man God could find. In other words, Noah was the only man willing to be righteous so that God could spend Quality Time with him. So God decided to start over. He wiped out all of mankind, except Noah and his family, hoping that righteousness would prevail. But of course, it didn't. Noah's son, Ham, remembered the flagrant sin that his neighbors lived in before the flood and carried it into the world after the flood.

I wondered if God sighed? It was already evident that this "fresh start" wasn't going to result in a group of people that were interested in pursuing the righteousness needed to exist in His presence (which is the only way He could spend Quality Time with them).

But what if Enoch and Noah's walks with God weren't figurative? What if God found a way to cloak His glory enough that He could literally go on walks with them?

Does that sound far-fetched? It's not.

Noah's son, Seth, was 465 years old when God called his great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandson out of a land of idolatry. Fourteen years later, (yes, Seth was still alive), God went on a physical walk with Abraham! Here is an abridged version of that day:

God was on His way to check out Sodom and Gomorrah, and He decided to stop off and visit with Abraham along the way. What did Abraham see? He saw three men, but he evidently saw through God's disguise immediately since he ran to them, bowed down, and begged Him to stay for a while and share a meal with him. You see that? Abraham wanted to spend Quality Time with God! The very thing that God cared so much about!

So God and the two angels stayed for a while, and when they finished eating and drinking, they got up and Abraham walked with them. He went on a walk with God, just like Adam used to go on walks with Him, and just like my father did with me.

While they were on this walk, God was thinking about what He was about to do, and He decided He wanted to talk about it with Abraham--meaningful conversation, another important component of Quality Time. So He told Abraham about it, and the two angels left for Sodom. (What happened when they got there is told in the next chapter.) God, however, stayed with Abraham. The rest of the chapter is the account of their conversation, and it proves that Abraham was, indeed, very aware that he was walking and talking with God.

That wasn't the only time God appeared to Abraham, either. Perhaps Abraham recognized God through His man-like disguise because it was the same disguise he'd seen when God appeared to him and promised the land of Canaan to his descendants, or when He appeared again, changed his name, and had another lengthy conversation. It was in this conversation that I see God's desire and intent. It seems to me that He was hoping that, by establishing a covenant with them, He would acquire a multitude of people He could spend Quality Time with.

Let's keep moving through time as God unfolded this plan.

Abraham died; his son, Isaac, became head of what was now a vast household; and twice God appeared to him, reiterating this plan and the covenant that Isaac was a part of.

The first time that God appeared to Jacob, it was in a dream, rather than in the form (or disguise) of a man. Again God reiterated His plan and the covenant that Jacob was also a part of. But it is the second time that God appeared to Jacob that we see God coming to spend Quality Time with him.

In the Love Languages of Children book, we're told how one of the best ways to spend Quality Time with our children is to play games or get involved in a sport with them. How many of you felt loved when you got to ride bikes or play ball or wrestle around with your father or grandfather? Do you realize that your heavenly Father put on his man-like disguise and came down to wrestle around with Jacob? And again, Jacob definitely knew Who he had spent Quality Time with and Who had just changed his name, for he said, "I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved." (My sister wrote a wonderful blog post about this wrestling match, if you'd like to read it.) And God appeared to Jacob again and changed his name.

Four-hundred-plus years went by after that, and the Bible doesn't say anything about God appearing or walking with anyone. God was obviously with Joseph in a very special way, but it says nothing about God appearing to Joseph or how Joseph heard from God. God was evidently waiting for His timing to be perfect.

And then came Moses, and God's plan started unfolding on a massive scale.

God's first appearance to Moses was in the disguise of a burning bush. (No one can claim God isn't imaginative!)

But when they came to Mount Sinai, God began to show His hand and his plan. He told all the people to prepare, because He was going to show Himself to them. (This time disguised as a cloud.) He moved slowly, setting boundaries for how close the entire camp could come. They saw and heard Him and His thunder and lightning and earthquake and horns and smoke.

And what was their response?

"We don't want to spend time with You, God. You scare us too much. Talk to Moses instead."

Moses pleaded with them, telling them that God was testing them...trying to put the fear of His glory into them, so they'd avoid the sin that separated them from Him, but still, it was oh-so-worth it!

That's when something else occurred to me. God gave the law, to show what sin was, right? Perhaps this is why God wanted us to be able to recognize we'll know exactly what will stop Him from being able to spend Quality Time with us! Amazing thought, isn't it?

God's next step was to call Moses, Aaron, Aaron's two oldest sons, and seventy more of the elders of Israel up on the mountain. Yep...that's 74 people! (Possibly 75, since Joshua, as Moses's servant, seemed to accompany him up on the mountain almost every time.) They were still not allowed to come as close as Moses did, but they were allowed past the barrier that God had set for the last showing.

What happened to those 70+ people, up on Mount Sinai? Not only did they hear Him, "They saw the God of Israel; and under His feet there appeared to be a pavement of sapphire, as clear as the sky itself... they saw God, and they ate and drank." Read it for yourself! They spent Quality Time with God, enjoying a meal in His tangible, physical presence.

Then, again God called Moses up on the mountain (Joshua went with him), but what the next step in God's plan was, we'll never know. Why? Because a mere 40 days later, those 73 other men so forgot the God who had showed them Himself that they made and worshiped a golden calf. Even Aaron, called to be the highest priest of the Most High God, lacked the spine and conviction to remind the people what they'd seen, who their God really was, and what was required just to be near Him. (Ex. 32:1-21)

The thought appalls me. How in the world could you actually see God and then go on to worship a cow!?!

What did God do?

He gave up. He got really mad and told Moses He was going to kill them all and start over again with Moses's descendants. Moses argued with Him, citing God's reputation and faithfulness, and God changed his mind.

Then Moses saw what they were doing for himself, took his own turn getting mad, and broke the tablets that God had written with His finger. But still, he asked God to forgive the people.

And God's response is quite interesting. Remember that He'd been working for years to make a way to spend Quality Time with man, and that His plan had progressed so far that the entire camp had heard Him, and 74 of them had actually seen Him. He had even given them instructions to build a house for Him, right in the middle of their camp!

But now He decided His plan to have Quality Time with all of them simply wasn't going to work. Not only did they not want to see and hear Him, but they stubbornly persisted in returning to the sin that kept them away from Him. As He told Moses (paraphrasing Ex. 33:1-3), "Lead them to the land that I promised I'd bring them to. I'm not going back on My promise. But I'm not going to be traveling with them like I wanted to. They're too stubborn and I'll just destroy them before we arrive."

Again Moses pleaded with God, and this time God agreed. He'd go with them. But I can't find any instance after that where God tried to show Himself to the people, outside of the cloud. Moses asked to see God without the filter of any disguises, and God allowed him to see His back...perhaps because Moses asked also to know God's ways. Moses was willing to do whatever it took--pursue whatever level of righteousness was required--to survive the experience.

I can't find anything after this point that says that God appeared to anyone in this way. He appeared to many prophets in visions, and He appeared to men in dreams. The angel of the Lord appeared to quite a few people, and there are some who believe this may have been a form of God, rather than an actual angel. (I don't pretend to know.) There are numerous places where He spoke to men, but God didn't have the writers include how He spoke to those men and prophets.

But God didn't stop wanting to spend Quality Time with His people. It seems He began to wait for them to seek Him out.

"Return to Me, that I may return to you," He said through Zechariah. Through Jeremiah, He said, "You will seek Me, and you will find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart. And I will be found by you."

Jesus came. He was God in the flesh, and He came to do two things, one representing God's side of the Quality Time equation, and the other representing our side.

He said, "If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father." He came so that everyone would know what God was like, since our sin made it so we'd never know, otherwise. Just like the sample counters in stores...they know you'll never put out the expense to purchase something when you have no idea just how wonderful it tastes. So they offer samples. They say, "Come and taste this for free. See how delicious it is!" Jesus came for the same show us what God was like, so we'd see that the "expense" was very little compared to the worth of knowing Him. In fact, Jesus said it again in Revelation 3:18-20, "Come and buy from Me gold refined from the fire...and white clothing that your shame will not be revealed. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and I will dine with him and he with Me."

That "from Me" highlights the other thing He did. He made it possible for every single last one of us to wear those get rid of that poisonous covering of sin that keeps us from God's presence.

But it costs. It costs far more than a simple prayer. The cost involves sacrificing everything that is tainted with the poison of sin. James understood the cost. He pleaded with the church: "Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded."

The cost involves giving up our idols, even if our golden calf looks more like television, chocolate, motorcycles, shopping, or vacations. It involves surrendering our way and our ideas of right and wrong, and praying what Moses prayed, "Lord, show me Your ways." David prayed the same prayer, which is, I believe, why God called him "a man after My own heart."

What about me? What about you? Are we willing to pay the price so that we can walk with God and dine in His presence? Are we willing to give Him our Quality Time, so that He can give His to us?

Or are we dancing around our golden calves, saying, "God, you scare us. Talk to our pastor. We don't want to come up the mountain with You. The cost is more than we want to pay, even though You paid for it. Go find someone else to spend time with."

What choice will we make? Are we willing to seek Him hard enough to find out just how much of Himself He wants to show us? And are we willing to do what is necessary to survive the experience?

(Continue to post 4b which is on Drawing Near to God.)

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