Last weekend I had the very great joy of participating on the leadership team of a retreat weekend. The purpose of this “little course in Christianity” was to give people a taste of an intentional walk with God in Community. Particularly, it teaches a path embracing worship (or piety), study, and action.
One of my functions was to talk about the role of study in Christian life. I thought I would like to share my address on that subject here.
I learned from Bp. FitzSimons Allison‘s little book “The Cruelty of Heresy” that we are creatures born to worship. Whether in maturity or childishness, we will worship. And one of the gifts, or traits, perhaps one of the purposes of worship is that we tend to become like the thing we worship. If that raises a doubt, consider the teen pop idols, and their effect on the clothes and hairstyles we choose.
But this talk is supposed to be about “Study” – From this introduction, it sounds like I am going to talk about worship; it sounds like we are still talking about “Piety”
And I suppose that’s right. They are probably inseparable, like two sides of the same coin
Just as with our human relationships, love calls us to want to spend time with a person, to attend to them. That relates to Piety and worship. We want to know everything about that person. That relates to Study. And because of that relationship, we change the way we interact with the world. We want to do things. We will talk more about this later, but That is Action. In our model of the stool, Our worship of God calls us to want to know God. We become more like Him, seeing with His eyes, caring for the things He cares for. And out of this caring, we are moved to Action.
Worship, in Spirit and in Truth, lead to Action. And our environment changes.
I said that we tend to become like that which we worship, be it God, a pop star, or a national identity. But I overstated a bit. I don’t become like God,
because I don’t really worship God.
Not as He is. I don’t worship God “in Truth,”
I worship God as I understand Him to be, as I see Him.
I am not ashamed of that, It is the best I can do. But if I understand God as being harsh and judgmental, it might not be surprising that I am also becoming harsh and judgmental.
On the other hand, if my understanding of God is almost totally drawn from His loving acceptance, and I spend my prayer and worship in adoration of Him for this trait, you may find that I was becoming more “accepting,” perhaps even accepting things in my own life that I should NOT accept.
But in both cases, the object of my worship, and the model into which I am being transformed, is not really God. It is my construct of God. It is my understanding of God which I truly worship. It is in some measure, still something of “Me” that I worship.
If I am to be transformed into the image of Christ, I must more and more understand who He is. My thoughts need to be led captive, and presented to God so that He can renew them. As we hear in Romans 12, this presenting of ourselves (only possible because of the mercy of God) is our spiritual worship. This renewal of our minds is what allows our worship of the True God to transform us into the image of the True Christ.
My roots are not Episcopalian. I grew up in a home where the children were sent, not taken, to church, the local Baptist Church Actually, not to Church, but to Sunday School. We were always dropped off, and then picked up before church. Education was fine (good for the children’s moral instruction, and all that), but the worship, preaching and invitation business was just a little too much.
It took anyway. I had a very spiritually muddled, difficult and guilt-filled adolescence, which is of course not uncommon. I “went forward” at many invitations or altar calls at various youth meetings. But things did not actually start to click until I was buttonholed by a guy doing just plain “street evangelism” who met me when I was 19;
“If you died tonight, do you know if you would be going to heaven?
How do you know?”
In the midst of my confused and rambling answer he showed me my problem: I was relying on my feelings about God, and my relationship with Him, instead of relying on God Himself, and what HE had said about Himself, and our relationship.
My trust was in me, not in Him.
That was why it was so weak and floppy, twisting in the wind. By knowing what God said, by trusting Him as He revealed Himself, instead of trusting my own feelings, I could have assurance. Because, unlike my feelings, God is stable. By reading the Bible, by trusting God as He revealed himself in spite of my feelings, my feelings became more stable, more trusting, more like the God who I said I worshipped.
A few years later, on a Church Retreat, I spent that spring weekend asking God for a gift of worship. It was not until some years later that I put the next 12 months into context as an answer to that prayer, but I found myself living with the rector of an Episcopal Church in Bellaire along with his family, and a couple of other singles.
I found myself intensely drawn to their style of life, their understanding of worship and music, both ancient and modern, and by the intensely corporate understanding of the life of the church – both spread through all space and time, and in that little block on Alder street.
But what did these people really teach? What did they believe? It didn’t matter how attractive it was, what mattered was whether or not it was true!
By now I was no longer living in that community, so my Baptist roommate was a bit puzzled when I came home with about a three-foot tall stack of everything I could find at the UH library concerning the Anglican Church.
I read almost all of the English reformers I could find, more summaries of them,
I read the “Appointed Homilies”
Most of all, I read the Book of Common Prayer,
not as a devotional book, or as a liturgical manuel, but as a postulant. I read it all. Intently. Critically
–and boy can a Baptist looking for backsliding read critically!
I went carefully through the catechism
and ESPECIALLY, the Articles of Religion.
And I found things with which I disagreed. I tried, though, to seperate things I thought wrong based on the scriptures, from things I disagreed with based on my own Baptist tradition. The very few real differences I found were within the range of Christian understanding, within the area where I might be taught. And so I was confirmed in 1977.
Through my desire for worship, God answered me with a call to study, and through that study, granted my prayer.
Skipping ahead a few decades, through a series of personal reversals, I found myself walking in my neighborhood, praying; actually moaning and groaning to God, which is perhaps as real a prayer as any. “God, Why is my life such a mess? What am I supposed to do about it?” I am not particularly given to “Hearing the Lord” in a somewhat audible fashion, nor am I particularly trustful of such claims. But as a response to my questions, I very clearly heard “Why don’t you read the Bible?”
Walking on and pondering this a little, very little, I said,”Yea, right. It’s not that simple, is it? That’s the kind of simplistic answer I might have given 30 years ago. But it isn’t that simple” I walked on.
“OK, you’re right, Eric. It probably isn’t that simple…” On we walked for another half a block.
“Eric, if you are not willing to do the simple things, how will you ever be willing to do the hard ones?”
I was devastated.
“God, I know the way I argue. This sounds like just me talking to myself. I don’t know that this is really from you at all”
(Reminds me a lot of a voice in the Garden “Did God really say…?” )
“Well, that is a point Eric. You might be you just talking to yourself, giving yourself advice….” Another few houses past in silence. “Eric, I suppose the real question, though, is not whether it is Me or you talking. The real question is this…
Is the advice good or bad?”
And I was without defense.
Over the next few years, I threw myself into study groups, Mostly Bible study, but also some Christian History, and one general Christian Literature group through my church. We had the advantage of a program where we read the Bible through non-stop, once in 90 days, again in 180 days. I did both.
As my inner voice of doubt predicted, I did not in fact find the answers to my questions. Nor did I find what I should do. But I had read Job, quite a few times in the prior year, so I was prepared. When God finally met Job, He did not answer ANY of Job’s questions. Not one. But He did answer Job, and Job was content. God did not directly answer MY questions either. But God did answer ME. I, too, was content.
I found that in the Bible as a whole there is a perfectly rational and comprehensible story of God’s creation and love, of loss and betrayal, of heroic action to redeem an unworthy but deeply prized beloved, and a full restoration, with a marriage, by the end of the story. With hints of a sequel to come. It may be something of a Russian Novel, with all the side stories and character-developing plot twists, all of which are interesting and instructive. But the central themes became as clear as could be when read that way.
In my romance novel simile, I have found another picture of the relationship of worship and study. I take very strongly the picture of the relationship between God and his people, between God and us, God and you, God and me, as romantic and marital. I read the Bible as filled with that image.
If this is so, it has something to say about study.
I did not come to love my wife (now, sadly, twice my former wife)- I did not come to love her through study. I did not go through a stack of CVs or resumes, and study up (like doing comparative religion) until I found one that suited me. (Maybe internet dating does that, I don’t know!). But instead, I had an encounter. I opened myself to her, and she to me. I came to delight in her presence, and more. And in that delight I wanted to know everything about her –from what she liked, how she took her coffee (so that I could get it for her) to what she thought, how she came to those thoughts, what was her history, what had life been like for her, etc.
That learning, that wanting to know all about your beloved, THAT is study. It’s that simple. When we fall in love with God, it is the same.
For those who want the pleasure of the contact, without wanting to actually know anything about the person they claim to love, we have some terms, but none of them are flattering. When the older translations of the Bible use the verb “ to know” to describe total intimacy, it is more than just an evasive euphemism.
In all these times through my life, worship gave me delight in my relationship with God. And study helped me understand more about who He is, so that I could worship him in truth, so that I will be transformed into the image of Him, that I will start to let “the mind of Christ” be in me.
This process (though MILES from being completed!), has begun to change the way I see other people, their struggles, how I act towards them.
This process gives me direction through the big and little things of life.
It has become a story I delight to tell.
We may think of STUDY as only being the study of the Bible, or theology. That it only is to be done in books, the larger and mustier, the better. But there are many subjects, and many ways, to study.
Part of love wants to understand not only my beloved, but everything that my beloved loves. Into how many interests did your spouse draw you, particularly in your early years? How many times did your spouse want t to know at least something about something you cherished, just because it was important to you? Good relationships are like that.
So is our relationship with God. Godly Study is not just theology or Bible study. It is taking interest in anything that God is interested in. I don’t care if it is Social Justice issues, or Biochemistry; God invented them both. Photography (that we may better see and show forth God’s world), music ecology, or economics are all topics near to the mind of God. Studying to find and reveal truth, on any subject, is finding and revealing God.
You can find things to learn about God, and about the things that matter to him in an increasing variety of places. From film to books to internet podcasts material can be found on almost any subject.
When I had a long commute, I use to listen to Christian books downloaded for free onto CD. My phone daily delivers to me (via “YouVersion.com”) a “Through-the-Bible-in-One-Year” sized portion of the Scriptures. It will read it aloud to me if I complain that I am too busy washing dishes. To give you an idea, some of our favorite books are here on the table. I invite you to take a look and copy down an interesting title or two. If you have a question, you will find the name of the team member to whom the book belongs inside the cover. Accordingly, I do ask that you take ONLY the title, and not the book itself, as they are some of our favorites! There will also be a book list included in the handouts.
There is one scene I especially cherish; I can imagine, not learning something about my beloved, but I can remember myself as a child (or maybe I see and remember my joy as a parent) and discovering something in the field, perhaps a particular wildflower or leaf as young children do, then climbing up into my gardener-father’s lap, saying “Look Daddy! Look what I found!” And telling him all about that thing which he, of his delight, had created. This, to me, is another form of study –it’s the telling. Of trying to communicate what you have seen, trying to understand it well enough to help someone else see it. It is why I write. I find that keeping a blog is a way of forcing my thoughts into some form of discipline and accountability. Writing a blog or a journal forces one to focus. It is a good tool to study your own thoughts, your own heart.
And I guarantee you… THAT is a subject of special delight to God!
So, is study for the scholars? Or the clergy, or for those who have a taste for it?
Well, I think it may depend on how we define the terms.
Certainly there are certain types of study, demanded by particular callings God may have for us,
and He has given each of us certain gifts which it would be very ungracious of us not to accept and use.
But for ALL of us who love God,
who love Him for what He has done and who He is in Christ,
— growing is part of what we wish.
Becoming more like Christ is my deepest desire
If I intend to become more like Christ, I must know what that means.
I must be intentional in learning more about Him. And I must do it now, so that I may be prepared.
I know a Christian who for some thirty years has leaned on the joy of his salvation. His piety and devotion is real, although learning about God has not been a priority. Now he are struggling. Winds have come upon this person, winds strong enough to knock the props out of anyone’s home. I get very sad and frustrated trying to help my friend, because the answers are in the character of God and how we are to understand our ministry in light of what He has told us about His own. But this is not a “teachable moment”
Here on the Gulf Coast, we think a lot about hurricanes. But the time to prepare, to stock supplies, to install “hurricane clips” to the rafters and sills is NOT when the winds are howling 100 mph! It can’t be done.
When the storms come whether Hurricans or the ‘storms of life;’
When the storms come, either the preparation has been done or it has not.
We pray, and hold on as best we can. Study gives us that preparation.
Most of us find obstacles to study.
Why don’t we do it? I don’t know.
I do find that it says something about me, that there is something I find so good, so pleasant, so reasonable and so valuable, and yet I put it off and delay it like getting a flu shot. And I do.
I think it says something about the inner war Paul talks about in the Seventh Chapter of Romans, “…that which I would do, I do not, and that which I would not do, that is what I do…” My answer is the same as St. Paul’s …
“Who will deliver me …? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord”
Some other obsticles to study can include these:
- A lack of self-discipline:
We will probably have to give up certain activities in order to make time for study
- A lack of understanding:
Alternate translations of scripture
or Bible commentaries can help open the scriptures to our fuller understanding.
We can read “in community” with other Christians in a group study
- A lack of humility:
Few of us like to admit how much we do not know.
Some of us are afraid of what we might discover as we study. We fear that God may ask us to do something we would be reluctant to do. We might discover truths about ourselves that would be difficult to admit.
We can fight these with the Christian virtues we already know:
- We can practice Courage:
In spite of our fear, we allow God to speak to us in our studies, trusting that God meant what He said in John’s account of the Gospel:
“You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free!”
We trust God’s word, that the truth, his truth, will ‘set us free’
and make us whole rather than diminish us .
- We practice Perseverence:
We keep moving toward the goal of regular study, even if we fall short.
As the Letter to the Hebrews tells us,
We can run with endurance, rising when we fall short, for we know that Jesus gave this faith to us, and He will bring it to completion.
- And we can practice Humility:
We let God be in charge, surrendering our will to God’s will,
remembering the words of our master:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Study, then, is an ongoing process of growth in Christ. It is the expression of our love without which what we call love becomes simply the narcissistic enjoyment of intimate worship just because we love the feeling of worship. We learn about God, so that as we are transformed in worship, we are transformed into the truth, Not into a false image of our own imagining.
We never stop learning in our faith,
we never stop learning about our beloved,
and our learning leads us to be transformed into deeper holiness, into deeper love
My prayer for us is the same as St. Paul’s prayer for the church at Ephesus,
his prayer for all of us (Ephesians 1:17-19 )
…that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory,
may give us a spirit of wisdom
and of revelation in the knowledge of him,
having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,
that we may know what is the hope to which he has called us,
what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power
toward us who believe,
according to the working of his great might…”