February 2008 issue
Make it your Lenten practice to watch for God's activity
Where I live in the beautiful north woods of Wisconsin, restaurants still serve fish on Friday nights. I wonder if anyone thinks of sacrifice these days while eating walleye. I also wonder what people think about during Lent in 2008. All rituals can be empty or inspiring depending on clarity and earnestness. Here’s a suggestion: Let’s all give up mistrusting God for Lent. Wouldn’t that be worth a Hallelujah chorus or two?
How would we even start trusting, you might be thinking? Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer (famous for several things, including the term “cheap grace”) suggested that trust follows obedience. Likewise, obedience follows trust. If we trust that what Jesus said is true, we will act. If you act on God’s behalf, you will see that God can multiply your efforts. If you separate trust and obedience, the church quickly becomes a mere social gathering with a tired conscience and good intentions.
Let’s get more specific. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could experience spiritual renewal this Lent as easily as King Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:14)? His servants brought up a dusty old book from the basement that turned out to be the Scriptures. He read it and called for immediate national repentance and a “return to the Lord.”
Can you imagine the king thinking: “Oh, did God mean every Sabbath? Uh ... what exactly does ‘humble yourself before God’ mean? Whoops, I’m not sure I trust God, but I believe God exists. Is that enough? Hmm … I thought ‘grace’ meant I don’t have to worry about obedience? Really? I thought everyone went to heaven.”
What would it mean for us to confess and “return to the Lord”?
I suspect any attempt at spiritual growth and change will begin with Bible study and prayer. If we take a good look at what Jesus came to do (besides die), we might also get a clearer look at what God is still doing in the world. If we begin to see that God is, in fact, still specifically active in the world, it will refuel us to more resurrection life than we can imagine.
I believe that at the heart of our infamous Lutheran shyness is insecurity about claiming anything but grace in the name of Christ. It’s not that we are genetically silent or evangelically impaired. I think we aren’t quite sure where and how to look for what my sister-in-law calls “God sightings.”
When I spent time studying the book of Isaiah a couple of years ago, I was prompted to write Holy Purpose: The Blessings of Service, Obedience, and Faith for the “Lutheran Voices” series (Augsburg Fortress, 2007). I wanted to help people have more confidence in seeing where God has been in their pasts and in their present. If I could retitle the book now, I’d call it “A Field Guide for God Watching.” The cover art would be a picture of people in bird-watching gear: the scared, the excited, the puzzled and, of course, the bored teenager waiting in the car with headphones on—all watching for the elusive migration of the Spirit.
Once you begin to trust what many dismiss as spiritual coincidences, it becomes difficult to keep what you’ve seen to yourself. That is “witness” in the best sense of the word. You have to have a story to tell before you can talk convincingly about God.
Looking through the lens of what I would call “the Messiah’s job description” in Isaiah (42:1-9, 61:1-2), I began to ask people: Have you experienced God’s wisdom when you prayed for guidance and good judgment? (God cares about justice, both fairness and good judgment). Have you ever thought you didn’t have strength to make it through some difficult time? When you prayed for strength, did you receive it? (God strengthens the weak.) Have you ever walked in the valley of the shadows and lost hope for the future? Did you believe you were at a dead end and suddenly found yourself at a spaghetti junction? (Jesus brought hope to the hopeless, including the dying.)
Finally, and these are the hardest God sightings to share because of the pain and guilt associated with them: When have you had a wholehearted experience of guilt and shame lifted from your life? (Jesus came to forgive and release those who could only ask for mercy.)
When you have some guidance for prayer and reflection, like the four categories in Isaiah, you’ll find the Spirit can begin to reveal where God has been answering prayers and sending you divine assistance. When I road-tested this idea with people in our congregation, I saw awareness and excitement dawn in the eyes of many. The stories, and tears, began to flow. When people talk about “God sightings,” it encourages their joy and my faith.
Here are some real life stories from Wisconsin:
• “I’m not sure why I was prompted to get involved with Habitat for Humanity. Must have been a God thing.”If you would like to trust God more, start with prayer. Here are some things we can learn from Martin Luther about prayer, in various passages from The Book of Concord:
“The prerequisite to trusting that God will hear the cries of our hearts is an earnest desire to be obedient. This is the first and most important point, that all our prayers must be based on obedience to God, regardless of our person, whether we be sinners or saints, worthy or unworthy.
“Where there is true prayer there must be earnestness.
“It is our duty to pray because God has commanded it.
“Pray earnestly and very specifically.”
When you pray specifically, you give God an opportunity to encourage you with answered prayers.
Pray for more faith, which is trust that God answers prayer and keeps promises. Pray for God to give you an undivided heart, the will to be obedient. Pray for eyes to see where God has given you wisdom, encouraged you to consider your responsibility for those with few resources or ability to improve their lives, given you strength from outside yourself, brought hope to what seemed like a hopeless situation, and took the worst moments of your life and used them for holy purposes.
Those are good places to begin to look for “God sightings” this Lent. But don’t take my word for it, ask God.