THE DIFFERENT STATES OF OUR EXISTENCE

Famed Scholar Walter Brueggemann says, “Prayer is a great antidote to the illusion that we are self-made.” Brueggemann also describes our prayer life as occurring in three possible life states:

  • A State of Orientation. It is in this state when all is right with the world. The state of our being is thankful, and it is from here where prayers of gratitude are derived.
  • A State or Disorientation. In this state our lives have been disrupted and chaos exists. We are not sure where to turn or how we can move forward. This is a state where prayers of petition occur.
  • A State of Reorientation. It is here where have emerged from the valley of despair and the light of dawn shows up in our life. A place where we see resolution and hope returns. Prayers of praise and thanks occur in this state.

Specifically, Brueggemann associates these states of expression to the largest book in the Bible, the Psalms. The Psalms represent the prayers of our ancestors from the ancient past. A collection of poem-like prayers that extend back as far as Moses and span a period of one thousand years, many attributed to King David. In them are expressions of all three life states. Some include all three states and some only one of the three.

In reading the Book of Psalms and its one hundred fifty chapters, you hear the ancient prayers. If your read only five a day, you can finish this section of the Bible in a month, and there is no better way to supplement our prayer lives than to connect them with Scripture. Through this daily combination, our lives move from being random events to being a connected set of providential circumstances.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

STAYING FOCUSED WHILE PRAYING

In theological school, we all had to take a class on prayer. We would practice each class. Over a few days, I began to hear the term “monkey brain” used by my classmates. My classmates used the term “monkey brain” as the mind, wandering away while we are praying. When I first heard this expression, I was very relieved that my classmates experienced the same drifting of the mind during their prayer time. It happens to all of us, but for a long time I thought it was just me.

In prayer class, thoughts other than our prayers would enter our minds and we had to force ourselves to return to God. The mind’s wandering was always an indication that we had not set ourselves enough apart from the world. We still had not emptied ourselves and were not really engaged in conversation with God. But “monkey brain” happens to all who pray, and when it does, we must return at once to God in an empty state. Sometimes it serves as a quiet reminder of where we are, or an indication that we are not in uninterruptable state. But because prayer is sacred, we must return emptied.

“Fundamental to prayer is a sense of need that we ourselves cannot meet, and faith that God is both able and willing to meet that need.”

Charles L Allen, a mid-twentieth-century author and pastor, describes prayer as follows: “Fundamental to prayer is a sense of need that we ourselves cannot meet, and faith that God is both able and willing to meet that need.” When we search for something to meet our needs, we search in many places. We search at work, in our relationships, and in our readings. The further we search, the more we seem to just miss what we’re looking for. Searching directly for God through prayer will open us to God’s desires for us and when we are patient and faithful, God will reveal the answer we seek.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

VALLEYS OF DESPAIR ARE TIMES OF PREPARATION

With our faith lives, we sometimes enter valleys of despair. It is our time in these valleys of despair that we should see as periods of preparation. Preparation for the next climb with our faith and God’s purpose for us.

After his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, the apostle Paul was forced to spend three years in the Arabian desert. Lonely years of preparation. Utterly alone and wondering if his faith in Jesus was worth the cost. He wanted to help spread the message of the “Good News” quickly but found himself instead alone in Arabia. But God was preparing Paul for a long journey outside of his known world, toward a larger mission of spreading Christianity beyond the confines of Judea. During these three lonely years in the desert, God was preparing Paul for three remarkable journeys that would propel Christianity to become the predominate faith of the known world. In the history of Christianity, few missions were as critical as Paul’s in spreading the “Good News” about Jesus.

Peter Drucker, the famed business advisor, says, “The key to success isn’t what you learn in success, but what you learn in failure.” Consider the following. Winston Churchill was banished from his political party for a decade before he became prime minister. He then led England at a time when they stood alone against the forces of tyranny during World War II. Thomas Edison’s teachers told him he was not smart enough. Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first television job as an anchor. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper because he lacked imagination! We all know the happy endings these stories have. The key ingredient was not giving up but getting prepared!

In summary, in our own efforts of faith, we can see valleys as a time of preparation. These periods in the valley can be an indication of powerful movements that lay ahead in our lives. A direction God is going to take us.

Most of us want success, peace, health, and a strong connection with God. Having these dreams and ambition are critical to moving forward. Wanting to be a good and faithful person or good at our craft is a great start. With our spiritual life success requires endurance and patience. When Jesus says go through the narrow gate, he is telling us to avoid the easy way. He is telling us to respect what we seek. He is telling us that what we seek is sacred. He’s asking, “Are we willing to put in the time to develop our faith?

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

TAKING THE “NARROW GATE”

Our faith is something that must be nurtured and sought after. The world reaches out to us and pulls us away through life’s temptations, setbacks, and imagined responsibilities. At times the world will convince us that God is not with us, that God is just some imaginary human construct. We will begin to blame others for our problems and to seek easier paths. However, it is at exactly this spot that we should turn from our human instincts and dig deeper into our faith.

The recognition of the sovereign nature of God ebbs when we pay too much attention to the ways of the world and give in to despair. When we turn our eyes to God, the ways of the world grow dimmer and our faith becomes brighter. A strong faith is practiced and nurtured, despite our present condition, not because of it. There are few roads that are easy with faith. Jesus explains this, with a call to stay steady with our faith, when he says, “For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:14)

In life, it is the little things that make a difference. Our faith lives are similar. For instance, great musicians do not move on from their practice until all notes are played correctly. Great painters ignore the clock until every blemish is resolved. Many of us face these types of decisions in our work lives as well. Do we stop to get things right or allow time to force us to sacrifice quality to check off a “to do?” Inevitably creating great music, art or faith takes longer than we expect and there are always a few more things to do than we had expected. But it is in this spot, with our faith where we must decide between quality and quantity. Do we finish our task because time is telling us to move on, or do we dig deeper to resolve those nagging feelings? This spot reminds me of a quote I used many times in my career, “The great enemy of art is time.” Likewise, our faith life can become the victim of the suffocating drumbeat of time. High quality faith requires a focus to go deeper in practicing our faith. How often do we say, “I cannot do any more” or “I do not have the time to nurture my faith” and move on? It is this internal decision that separates great faith from faith that is just an afterthought.

Our faith is in investment of ourselves in combination with God. God is not a genie that solves our problems alone. Our God is a loving God whom desires a relationship with us. Like any relationship, it requires mutual acts of support. There are times when we need more from God than we can give, and God responds. Other times God only needs to stand by and watch us succeed. This continuum of faith varies from moment to moment.

Many of us are pressed for time. Our to-do list piles up if we tarry too long on a project. We are besieged by an endless list of tasks. Jesus suggests we avoid becoming slaves to our to-do lists and to focus instead on what counts, to be concerned about quality. Jesus wants us to trade off the trivial for the important, to avoid distractions and not stop until we find the answer that settles our souls. Jesus wants us to travel life’s narrow gate and, take the hard road. When we do, many times we find our answer around a corner that looks steep and hard. Faith requires a little more patience, with the sure knowledge that it will still all come together. When we take the time and find the right answer, life becomes revealed and we become contented. We no longer feel defeated or harried. We have climbed a long hill. We have put aside the great enemy of faith, time.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

FAITH IS A BELIEF IN THE UNSEEN

The biggest impediment to our faith is ourselves. Not because we are weak, unworthy, or inherently bad, but because we trust too much in what we see, what we have learned, and what we think. Faith is a belief in the unseen. Our human instincts and our own senses can often drive us away from faith. If we cannot see, we think we cannot believe. From almost the day we are physically born our human senses seem to teach us what to trust and believe. Our very physical survival depends on this trust, but at the same time our human senses push us away from believing in the unseen. As we age, we learn to trust only in what we know, touch, feel, see, and surmise, creating a barrier that becomes harder each day for our faith to burst through.

Saint Augustine, one of the church’s early leaders, said, “Our hearts are unquiet until they rest in God.” A powerful statement from a man who in the first half of his life engaged in much debauchery. He was a great lawyer and orator in his early life. His fame was so widespread that he was recruited to go to Rome to teach aspiring students about oratory, reading, and philosophy. Augustine was one of the few in the 4th century, who could read and write at a very high level. During this period of his life he was in constant pursuit of the “truth,” while engaging in a life of sin. He relied on finding this “truth” through earthly means and his own intellect. If he could not use reason to understand what was real, then it was not real. Yet despite his great ability to reason, he kept slipping further away from finding the “truth.”

His mother, Monica, a deeply faithful woman spent a good deal of her life pushing her son to look to God for the “truth.” At each turn Augustine rebuffed her attempts, considering her efforts superstitious. Finally, after many failed attempts at finding the “truth,” and encouraged by his mother, he met with Bishop Ambrose in Milan. Through many meetings with the bishop, Augustine discovered that he had been on the wrong path to real truth. For Augustine, Bishop Ambrose showed that the “truth” resided in the unseen.

In a garden in Milan, sitting alone with his thoughts and in despair over his life’s journey, he heard a child’s voice. He was convinced this was the voice of Jesus, and in this moment, he knelt to accept Jesus as the “truth.” From this moment in his life he went on to become a bishop himself, and ultimately the key figure in firmly propelling the Christian church during the fourth century. After a lifetime of thinking about the “truth,” he discovered that real truth had not ever been that far away; it resided in his heart. A place that does not rationalize but believes. A place where both our joy and our pain reside. It is here our hearts are quieted and where we have faith in the unseen.

One of Jesus’ first acts was to deliver a powerful sermon revealing his mission on earth. This sermon is called the Sermon on the Mount. In it he says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8) Jesus tells us in this verse to have a pure heart. A heart led to do good. One that avoids the temptation to give in to our fears, desires, and schemes. A heart that reaches outward to our neighbor. A heart that has faith in God. A heart that endures momentary losses and looks to the future. A heart of hope in the unseen. Jesus asks us to not give in to our personal power, but to our hearts and the existing human desire to do good as images of God. It is here we will see God and find our faith.

Augustine found his faith in his heart. He found it by looking not for the seen, but for the unseen. After what seemed to be a lifetime of unquiet, during the remainder of his life his heart became quieted.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

WE YEARN TO KNOW JESUS

Early in the Gospel of John, Jesus was walking on a road and was followed by two men. Sensing their presence, he turned and asked them, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38) It is the same thing we all are looking for. To be with Jesus and have Jesus in our hearts. Those walking with Jesus on the road in ancient Judea wanted to know Jesus. They wanted to have the presence of Christ in their hearts. They wanted a deeper relationship than just knowing Christ existed. Like many of us, they wanted their hearts to be connected to God through Jesus.

Matthew Henry, the famed theological scholar from the 17th century, called this kind of changed experience that of “an awakened soul.” It is a communion between our souls and Christ. It is Christ who begins the conversation, by asking us, “What are you looking for?” When we hear this question deep within our hearts and souls, the process of fully accepting Jesus has begun. The conversation starts, and we begin the journey of leaving other thoughts, focused on our faith.

A faith that Jesus exists and is with us, is what we are looking for. A faith in the unseen that heals us from the troubles of our world. A faith that becomes our refuge when we are left disrupted.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.’”

– (Luke 24:5)

CHANGING OUR PERSPECTIVE TO FIND OUR TRUTH

In Luke, after the resurrection, two women go to the tomb where Jesus was laid. To their dismay, Jesus was gone. “The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, ‘Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here but has risen.’” (Luke 24:5) The women had arrived at the tomb of Jesus and found his body missing. Two angels suddenly appeared, and the women were terrified. They had been looking for a body and it was gone! All they had known was in disarray. Where had the body gone? The angels gave them a clue, that Jesus was among the living and not the dead. He had risen. The Angels reminded the women that Jesus had told them that on the third day he would arise. The women had heard this directly from Jesus, but at the time had not understood him. When he had spoken this message to them, what Jesus said did not fit with what they desired to be true. It was too hard to comprehend. But now they saw it and remembered his words.

Life is like this a lot. Change is inevitable. Those who reframe the events of life quickly can move quickly. While others of us remain terrified of change. We stay rooted in the past and take on a cynical view of change. We hem and haw about why we must change. We resist, but change is inevitable. The more we resist the truth, the greater is our fear.

The story of the risen Jesus changes this paradigm. It invites us to embrace change. In the book “Who Moved the Cheese,” Haw said, “When you move beyond your fear, you feel free.” This is true with both the Resurrection and the smaller events of our lives. The Resurrection is a reframing of our relationship with God. A God for the living and not the dead. A hopeful future with Jesus. In the smaller events of our lives, this is true as well. When we reframe our circumstances, we reframe our actions. Many times, it is the fear of changing that holds us back. Moving past this fear reframes our future.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So, it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

— John 3:7–8

SEEING AND ACCEPTING THE SPIRITUAL WINDS OF FAITH

On this dark night near Jerusalem, Nicodemus is struggling to understand the message of God. Nicodemus was from the ruling class of the first-century Judean society. He had nearly everything; wealth, a membership in the Sanhedrin, and social status. Yet here he was, trying to learn what Jesus had to offer. Nicodemus felt compelled to find out more about Jesus, but was trapped in a life of privilege. Like many of us he had a yearning for God, and deep in his soul he knew Jesus was the answer. Torn between the trappings of his life and the desire to know God, he visits Jesus.

However, Nicodemus is struggling, and he does not get what Jesus is saying. All that he had and knew was at risk, preventing his full comprehension of what Jesus had to say. Knowing this, Jesus was frank and to the point.

Jesus’s point compares the Spirit of God to the wind. God directs both. Jesus is simply telling Nicodemus that if he was with God or born from above, then he would know that the wind or life is not for him to control. Those in commune with God or born from above understand the wind and the Spirit. He is also telling Nicodemus that he is trapped in the ways of the world. Matthew Henry, the famous seventeenth-century theologian, explains it this way: Thus the things of the Spirit of God are foolishness to the natural man. Many think that cannot be proved, which they cannot believe.” Nicodemus is at a crossroads in his life. Does he accept Jesus’s answer, which threatens his wealth, power, and status, or does he return to his life and still have a thirst for God that cannot be satisfied by the natural life?

Those of us peering into this story know the choice Nicodemus should make. A test that he must take in the school of life that has only one answer. Perhaps we feel like screaming out, Choose the wind! Almost as if we are watching a science fiction movie and we are encouraging the main character to not go into the dark room. We all know the answer and what we believe we would do.

This however, is the same question we are also asked every day, sometimes every hour. Do we choose the comfort of our life or choose the wind? Nicodemus has a lot to give up. Accepting Jesus posed a threat to all he had obtained in his life. To embrace the message of Jesus threatened all that Nicodemus had achieved through the world.

C.S. Lewis, the great English writer of the twentieth century, had spent his late teens and early twenties angry at God. As he stated, “I was angry with God for not existing.” An atheist for an extended period, he continually wrestled with God. He found church boring and religion a chore. His belief was that if God existed, he would not have designed a world “so frail and faulty as we see.”

Lewis was a member of the Oxford University community, surrounded by people like Yeats and Tolkien. He was part of the intellectual elite of England during the early part of the twentieth century. Like Nicodemus he could not buy into the winds of God. Like Nicodemus his wrestling with God eventually ended because God became the only answer to a lifelong yearning.

He wrote his own conversion story, where he states: “You must picture me alone in Magdalen , night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of Him who I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In the Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in, and admitted God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.” The searching had ended. Encouraged by his friends, like J.R. Tolkien, he was changed and reborn.

Both Nicodemus and C. S. Lewis went on to become strong Christians. Lewis wrote Mere Christianity and was instrumental in helping the English people’s morale during the bombing of London in World War II. Many nights during World War II, he spoke to the people of London on the radio to soothe their hearts, while bombs rained down. Nicodemus eventually came out of the closet and acknowledged Jesus publicly. In fact, he was at the Crucifixion and worked with Joseph of Arimathea to provide the burial tomb and spices for Jesus.

Life gets in the way of God, as it did with Lewis and Nicodemus. But God pursues us. We fall and do not accept the winds of God, but God’s chase is never ending. Once we give in to our gift of grace, we are quickly whisked to life as another being. We are still “frail and faulty,” but our lives have changed.

The giving in to the compelling spirit of God, and satisfying our own yearning, can and will place us at a crossroads. The path we take can heal us, but it sometimes comes at a high earthly cost.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“But I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

– (Luke 22:32)

HEARING THE WIND AND TURNING BACK TO GOD

In the early thirties of the last century, Germany was mired in fourteen years of hyperinflation, political turmoil, and poverty, as a result of the sanctions imposed on them after World War I. What emerged was a Nazi regime, led by Adolf Hitler, that slowly gained control over their society. Slowly, to gain the benefit of not having to live a desperate life, the German people gave in to the terribly pointed moral compass of Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young Lutheran theologian, stood up against this acceptance of the Nazis. He preached against Hitler in the great Lutheran church in Berlin, the centerpiece of the Lutheran worldwide church. He implored the people of Germany not to gain material safety by giving in to Hitler. He warned people from the most important pulpit of the Lutheran church that nothing would be left standing in the end, even the very church that they were sitting in would be destroyed. In fact, the mighty cathedral of the Lutheran church that Bonhoeffer was delivering this sermon in was destroyed by allied bombs during World War II.

Eventually, the Nazis seized control of the institution of the Lutheran Church and were able to force the Catholic Church to look away. In response, Bonhoeffer helped start a new church, called the Confessing Church. He organized a clandestine seminary to train young German pastors. However, even this new church was compromised. Understanding the threat this church posed, the Nazi regime closed the seminary and continued to tighten its grip on every aspect of German spiritual life. Fearing for Bonhoeffer’s safety, his friends encouraged him to go to New York City, where he would be safe. He went.

While in New York, however, he remained unsettled. Despite his wide acceptance and support by leading American theologians, Bonhoeffer could not shake the thought that he needed to turn back. Many advised him not to go. He would be safe in America, they said; in Germany he would be anything but safe.

Finally, in a desire to rid himself of the guilt he felt for not helping his German brothers, he answered the spiritual winds and returned to Germany in 1939. He had known he was not where God wanted him. He left on the last boat out of New York to Germany, prior to the start of World War II. Upon his return to his home country he continued to speak out against Hitler. He was part of one of the many attempts to overthrow the Nazi regime.

Arrested, he was thrown into prison, but he continued his ministry there, with both the other prisoners and the guards. In fact, many of the guards went to Bonhoeffer for spiritual help. Two weeks before the end of the war and the elimination of Nazi rule, he was executed. His executioner described his death as one of peace. A peace the executioner had not witnessed before. Bonhoeffer had turned back.

During the Last Supper, and before his fateful walk to the cross, Jesus said to Peter, But I have prayed for you that your own faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32) Jesus knew that Peter would turn away. He was also sure Peter would turn back. He knew a crisis in Peter’s faith would occur. Jesus knows that it will occur in each of us as well. Giving up our safety for a noble cause is a hard decision, but it is made easier when we follow the ways of Christ. We want to be safe but are left with a nagging feeling that we have let someone down. Our character fights with us. We are unsettled until we hear the spiritual winds and turn back to complete our task. When we do, we strengthen ourselves and others.

“We all will have to turn back and confront our foe.”

Most people do not have to confront the terror of Nazi Germany, however, we will all have something we need to turn back to. We all have something to do driven by the spiritual winds of our lives. This could be a troubled friend, a spiritual crisis or perhaps a difficult business situation, but eventually, we will have to turn back and confront our foe. Jesus knew Peter would turn away and come back. Bonhoeffer also could never escape his mission. Similarly, we all have that thing that we need to turn back to. Maybe it is not as dramatic, but it nags us. Our peace will only come when we turn back. Accepting the wind and its course heals us and moves us closer to satisfying our yearnings to be with God.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman

“The sea is his, for he made it.”

– Psalm 95:5

THE TIDES OF LIFE

Our greatest enemy in periods of stress is time. We want things to be righted quickly. We want to have our answers quickly and we want to be free of the binds of sadness. These periods of time can stretch on endlessly, and the mountaintop of relief can seem too far away.

Charles Allen, the great pastor, writer, and radio host of the mid twentieth century, describes this period as the tide going out. He says, “Sometimes all we can do is wait for the tide to come back in again.” This is easy to say for those of us not in stress, but for the person in grief the wait can seem endless. It is here we must reconcile with the sovereign nature of God.

After spending two weeks on an island along the coast of Georgia, Charles Allen created a reflection on the tides. In this reflection he quotes Psalm 95:5, “The sea is his, for he made it.” Adding to this, Allen says, “Such assurances give one a deep sense of security. With a God like our God, we know that we really have nothing to fear.” Sitting and watching the sea reinforced Allen’s faith. A two-week statement by God to him on the majesty of the sea and of God himself.

Others have experienced similar feelings. When I asked my friend John Robinson, a well-regarded former CEO and considered a wonderful friend by many of his neighbors, with a knack of speaking common sense with immense clarity, about his faith, he replied, “How else could the deer glide so effortlessly into the trees, where no one of us could go? Or watch the birds fly to and fro; we only have to watch to know that only God could create this elegance.”

As a pastor, Charles Allen had seen and helped many distressed people. He noticed the similarity of their grief to the tides he watched for two weeks. The tide will come in and then go out. As with our lives, there are highs and lows. But the tide will always come back in. Believing this is the core of faith. Despite our present circumstances, God will always be with us and is sovereign. To have this belief requires an observation outside our lives. Perhaps it is an observation of the rhythmic tides. Perhaps the beauty and elegance of nature. Perhaps it is seeing great acts of mercy. Perhaps it is knowing that the night is always the darkest and coldest before dawn. The reconciling of our grief with the sovereign nature of God tells us which path to take.

Blessings, until next time,
Bruce L. Hartman