Reverent Observation

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Sunday, March 18, 2018
Sacred Thirst Sermon Series, Week 5
Scripture: Deuteronomy 11:18-21 & Romans 12:1-2
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Can you believe that today marks a year of Sundays since I came to be your pastor? I don’t think I can, but it has been fun for me to start repeating events instead of experiencing them as something new each time. After preaching on fasting and my love of food last week, I brought a dozen Ryke’s doughnuts to staff meeting (joining in the 10 billion doughnuts consumed by Americans annually!). A year ago, Jill and I walked to the library for Joyful Noise’s literacy event. We did that again this week. And today marks a year of Sundays together. I am grateful to be here as your pastor, and I am geared up for what God will do through us and with us in year two.

Today we wrap up our series on Sacred Thirst. We have spent time thinking about meditation, prayer, and fasting. Today we cover our final inward discipline – study. Now, you may be thinking, “Study? That’s a spiritual discipline? I thought that was something I did to get good grades in school. What does it have to do with the interior life of the soul?” To be honest with you, those were among my first thoughts as I went down the path of learning about study as a discipline. But the further I got into it, the more I realized that study is foundational to Christianity and that it is something Christians need to reclaim today so that we can be kingdom-builders.

In 1643 the founders of Harvard wrote about the purpose of starting a college on American soil so soon after their arrival from England. They wrote, “Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed, to consider well [that] the main end of his life and studies is to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3, and therefore to lay Christ in the bottom, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning.”[1]

The foundation of so many of our institutions of higher learning is based upon this idea that knowledge matters because God is the source of truth. Hundreds of years later our society is suffering the consequences two opposite errors – either seeking what is true totally apart from the God who created, loves, and sustains everything, or fearing anything that doesn’t emerge out of the pages of a very narrow, fundamentalist reading of the Bible. The church has a massive role to play in the search for knowledge, and it resides somewhere between those two errors.

I didn’t always think along these lines. Growing up I was always a good student. I certainly knew how to get an “A” in every class. I was good at performing according to the standards my teachers set out for me, but I was not so good at learning. By the time I arrived in college, I ran into the struggle of what it meant to truly learn and to do so faithfully as a Christian. My upbringing had me far more worried about the dangers of anything that felt too secular or too far removed from my very narrow understanding of the Bible. I feared things that were different. I could still get good grades, but the stress of the way my faith and my learning were clashing made me almost give it all up.

I went to the same college as my older brother, and I vividly remember riding home with him for Thanksgiving break in his early 90s Mazda 323 station wagon – a tiny car with no power steering, barely a radio, and no sideview mirror. I told my brother I was thinking of dropping out of college because I didn’t see what all of this learning had to do with following Jesus. I was ready to sign up for a mission organization and just head somewhere else in the world to do something that felt far more churchy than sitting in a classroom. God spoke through my brother on that car ride, though. He heard what I had to say, but he asked, “Doesn’t God use your learning to prepare you for what God wants you to do? There is something sacred in studying, and God has a reason for you to be in school right now.” I mulled his words over that holiday weekend, and thank God, I returned to school.

It was one of the most significant turning points of my life because I finally realized that the search for truth is an act of worship and that what I studied and how I studied was transformational for me and for the world. I ended up taking study so seriously that I keep adding degrees to that degree, although I am kind of hoping I stop with this Doctor of Ministry degree! I don’t want to be in school while my kids are in college!

Admittedly, I’m a strange one. I’d guess most of you didn’t go through a crisis of faith because of going to school, but I’d also guess that most of the reason any of us studied anything was so that we were prepared for the work we wanted to do, to make the money we wanted to make, and to have the kind of life we wanted to have. This goes for formal education, but also studying to build houses or wire them, to take beautiful photographs or frame them runs along the same lines. These are all good things, but they stop one step short in the design of God, for all of us our study ultimately is about how we become more fully the people God wants us to be.

I wish I had these words Neal Plantinga wrote before I went through that crisis: “One way to love God is to know and love God’s work. Learning is therefore a spiritual calling: properly done, it attaches us to God….The person who studies chemistry, for example, can enter into God’s enthusiasm for the dynamic possibilities of material reality. The student who examines one of the great movements of history has moved into position to praise the goodness of God, or to lament the mystery of evil, or to explore the places where these things intertwine. Further, from persistent study of history a student may develop good judgment, a feature of wisdom that helps us lead a faithful human life in the midst of a confusing world. And, of course, chemistry and history are only two samples from the wide menu of things to learn.”[2]

The discipline of study is vital to full Christian living. This is a discipline that simply must be rooted in Scripture and the Christian tradition, but from those roots emerge wildly differentiated ways of being faithful in the world. Scripture and tradition give life and vitality to the many expressions of faithful living – in our vocations (paid and unpaid), in our raising of children, in our social and political convictions, and so much more.

Seek truth where it may be found, for “The Holy Spirit authors all truth, as Calvin wrote, and we should therefore embrace it no matter where it shows up. But we will need solid instruction in Scripture and Christian wisdom in order to recognize truth and in order to disentangle it from error and fraud.”[3]

“Jesus made it unmistakably clear that the knowledge of the truth will set us free. ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8:32). Good feelings will not free us. Ecstatic experiences will not free us. …Without a knowledge of the truth, we will not be free. This principle is true in every area of human endeavor. It is true in biology and mathematics. It is true in marriages and other human relationships. But it is especially true in reference to the spiritual life.”[4]

So, how do we come to know the truth?

I’ve already said that we have to have a firm foundation or rooting in Scripture. That rooting means that we have to read it not only devotionally but also in a way that digs deeply into it, that asks hard questions, that is truly inquisitive, and that challenges it. That’s the starting point for study, but I hope we learn to be countercultural in how we engage the world through study. Our world is filled with sound bites. Study seeks deep engagement. Our world is saturated with tweets – averaging 6,000 per second, 350,000 per minute, 500 million per day, and 200 billion per year! In these few characters, there is little opportunity for nuance and depth and lots of opportunity for half-truth and anger. Our world is filled with 24-hour news that is focused on ratings more than truth. Study seeks to live with the complexity of the issues, not the partisan ranting that is tearing apart the very fabric of our society. Our world is filled with books – thank God – but how often do you not just read a book but actually dwell in it?

If you hear nothing else this morning from my lips, hear this: slow down and pay attention! Study is reverent observation. Study is reading Scripture, but it is more. Study is reading Augustine’s Confessions and the beautiful words of Brother Lawrence’s Practicing the Presence of God, but it is more. It is paying attention to the sights, smells, and sounds right around you. It is paying holy attention to the numbers of the spreadsheets of your office until the beauty of your work hits you between the eyes. Study is paying attention to the people in your life and revering them for all their complexities. Study is paying attention to nature until it moves you to praise. Pay attention.

“André Gide describes the time when he observed a moth being reborn from its chrysalis during a classroom lecture. He was filled with wonder, awe, joy at this metamorphosis, this resurrection. Enthusiastically, he showed it to his professor who replied with a note of disapproval, ‘What! Didn’t you know that a chrysalis is the envelope of a butterfly? Every butterfly you see has come out of a chrysalis. It’s perfectly natural.’ Disillusioned, Gide wrote, ‘Yes, indeed, I knew my natural history as well, perhaps better than he…. But because it was natural, could he not see that it was marvelous? Poor creature! From that day, I took a dislike to him and a loathing to his lessons.’ Who wouldn’t! Gide’s professor had only amassed information; he had not studied. And so the first step…is reverent observation.”[5]

We’re going to do that this morning with a music video put out by the band Gungor. The song is called “Vapor,” which has it’s roots in the Bible. As we watch this video, I want you to use eyes of reverent observation. What images stick with you? What feelings does it evoke in you? What challenges you? Let’s watch it now.

You are holy.

Infinite and holy. 

A billion suns rise for you

Clouds paint the skies for you

Mountains stand tall for you

Valleys bow down to you

Everything rising to

Sing all our songs to you.

 

I love things that move my heart to praise, and that song and video move me in that way. Even more so when I pay close attention to them – when I slow down and study them.

In Deuteronomy 11, we saw how God’s people paid attention to God’s word. They put it on their doorposts in their homes. The put them on their hands and heads. They taught them to their children – for in teaching one is most often the greatest student! They paid attention to what God was saying in their coming and going, their rising and sitting. In Romans 12, Paul urges Christians to be “transformed by the renewing of their minds,” which is an act of worship.

In the end, study is meant to be transformational for the person and for the community. The more a person learns to love God and to love seeking knowledge of truth, the better that person is equipped to do anything in this world – from being a lawyer to a faithful wealth manager, from being a father to being a chef, from painting to healing. Our Lord is Lord of it all, so I encourage you to faithfully seek God in all that God has given you – not just the stuff you do here. Pay attention. Observe reverently.

I’ll close with Dostoevsky’s stunning words from his amazing book, The Brothers Karamazov, “Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things.”

Pay attention because the holiness and beauty of God is calling out to you and me all the time. We just need to slow down and notice it.

[1] Plantinga Jr., Cornelius. Engaging God’s World, p. ix.

[2] Plantinga, p. xi.

[3] Plantinga, p. x.

[4] Foster, p. 63.

[5] Foster, p. 73.