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037 What's At the Center (It's a Who, Not a What)

Gerald Franklin hardly ever spoke, so when he did decide to speak we paid attention. Gerald was a believer of long standing and good character in the church in Alabama that I attended as a young man, an auto mechanic with a good business of his own and a family man with a son in his teens. On this particular day in this particular men's meeting, he broke his usual silence to explain to us how God had been awakening him to study the scriptures more. He was overflowing with excitement about his newfound enthusiasm; coming from such a quiet man it was impressive. We all listened approvingly as he encouraged us all to dig deeper.

"After all," he finished, "The scripture is all we've got!"

The last thing I would want to do is to pour water on a fire that God had lit, so I kept my mouth shut, but internally I had alarm bells going off. I didn't think Gerald was in any sort of error; he was just an ordinary guy not all that interested in verbal precision, and he was speaking from his heart about something good. But he was wrong when he said that last bit.

The scripture is not all we've got; not by a long shot. We have the Holy Spirit living inside of us--the Third Member of the Trinity, Himself divine and Himself the author of the scriptures. We have the Church that Jesus established, and all the good believers in our communities. We have the history of the saints who went before us. We have our own set of experiences with God by which we know that He is real and cares about us. We have baptism and the Lord's Supper, and a number of other activities that draw us closer to heaven. Yes, the scripture informs us about all those things, and speaks to those things; no, the scripture is not all those things.

In my last memo I said that I was going to write a series of articles about what the Bible was not, and eventually get to what it is. I've decided that to present this topic properly, I have to start with what is truly at the center of our faith, the reason we're all here and pursuing Christianity.

It's this: we're building a relationship with the living God. 

That's what Christianity is about. We were separated from God and without help or hope, and now, thanks to the intervention of Jesus, the Messiah, we're being brought close to Him and having our fellowship with Him restored. Separation produced many painful consequences; restoration is reversing those consequences. We were orphans, but now we're in a family with a perfect Father (and somewhat less perfect siblings, but that's how family works). Our goal, as with any child with his or her father, is to get to know Him better and to grow to be like Him.

God is alive. He's not imaginary. He's not absent. He's more present with us than is any person sitting in the room with us, even closer than our spouses. He's closer to us than our own breath. He knows all our thoughts and sees all our actions--and He approves of us.

God is able to communicate. He's the inventor of our mouths and ears; He understands speech and knows how to produce it. He understands every human language, and He knows what our reactions will be to every word He speaks.

A relationship with God is like a relationship with any other person, with two exceptions: (1) He's not visible or material; and (2) because He is God and controls everything, He has a much wider range of communication tools than anybody else with whom we might build a relationship. So instead of just talking to us or touching us, He communicates through other people, through circumstances, through incidents that He arranges for the purpose of instructing us, through preachers and books and movies--and of course, He communicates through the scriptures, which He has provided us by means of some 1,500 years' worth of relating to a culture of His own choosing (the nation of Israel) and inspiring several members of that culture to write about it. It's a very useful reference, but it's not God Himself. God is Spirit. God is not Book.

Also, building a relationship with God is like building a relationship with any other person. We have to spend time with Him. We have to talk to Him, and we have to hear back from Him. If we don't understand something He does, we have to talk to Him about it. If we're angry or we don't approve of something, we have to express ourselves.  If we're in love, we have to say so. And then we need to hear what He says about it.

In short, relationship is built on communication.

So I take it for granted that we're all talking to God through prayer, and I take it for granted that we all have our ways of hearing from Him. That's as it should be. (If you never hear from God, you need to correct that. If that describes you, please contact me directly and we'll talk about how to address it).

There are those Christians who only ever hear God from within the pages of the scripture. There's nothing wrong with that--if that's you, you're not deficient in any way--but please allow me to broaden your horizons: He communicates in a lot more ways than that. In fact, if you've been faithful in studying the scriptures, you already know about the fantastic variety of ways that He's spoken to people: burning bushes, pillars of cloud and fire, talking donkeys for crying out loud! Dew on fleeces, ephods and casting lots, prophets and priests, dreams and visions, visits from Gentiles and strangers, appearances of spiritual beings, and on and on...

There used to be folks in Christendom (and some are still out there) who argued that now that God has provided the scriptures, all those other means of communication have ceased. Personally, I can't imagine anything less likely. Did He give us the Book in order for us to know His ways? Yes? So, do we really think that He would fill an entire book with copious examples illustrating this insane array of communications with humans--and then as soon as the book was complete, announce "But all of those examples are irrelevant to you, because now you don't need those anymore 'cause you've got the Book"? What, then, was the point of all the examples? And if we actually believe that God did such a thing, how can we trust the Bible, since it misleads us so badly on this one, crucial issue of communicating with our Father?

He did no such thing; He gave us the book to illustrate the sorts of things available to us in Him. He still communicates in the ways He illustrated. That's what we should expect.

The point here is, the goal is not to learn the scriptures; that's just a means to an end. The goal is a real, vibrant relationship with a real and living God, who cares for us all deeply and is aching to hear from each of us. That's the object of our life in the Church--God, Himself. He is the center, and He is the goal. When we arrive in heaven, He is all that we will see, and all that we will need. All things are summed up and resolved in Him. Learning the scriptures is one--one--activity in which we engage to pursue that goal.

So work toward enjoying your communication with God this week, and I'll be back next time with some of the ways that we put too much weight on the Book but somehow forget the Author.

 

Phil Weingart


PS: if you're interested in broadening the bandwidth on which God is communicating to you--well, don't stop reading the scriptures, they're crucial, but let me recommend a couple of books for you:

Surprised by the Voice of God, by Jack Deere
The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

(The Practice of the Presence of God was written in 16th century French, and it matters a great deal which translation you get. The one I like is from Whitaker House; it's an abridgment but the English is simple and clear. If you're in a book store and browsing a version of Brother Lawrence, read several pages; if it sounds simple and a bit repetitive, you've got a good translation. If you have trouble following it, put it down and find a different translation.)

Dallas Willard, an outstanding and well-regarded theologian, wrote a book entitled Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God. I trust Willard and I sure do like the title, so I don't mind saying that it's probably excellent; but I haven't read it, so I can't actually recommend it. Yet. I'm buying it right now...


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