A Contemplative Montana Moment
After a long hike into Hemlock Lake in the Swan Valley of Montana, my son Joel and I had a quick lunch so that we could get to the important matter for which we came – fishing.
Although there are many, one of the great blessings while fishing in such a beautiful lake is to catch your breath, look around, and listen. There was snow in some of the high mountain basins and a blue sky with different shaped cotton-ball clouds floating by leaving constantly changing shadows on the mountains and water. Closing your eyes you could easily listen to the wind in the alpine spruce and pine, and, every now and then, hear the screech of a soaring eagle or falcon.
It’s also a great place to think. This particular hike had taken place in the second half of our vacation and already I was begging to contemplate returning to Michigan and to the busy fall season ahead. My thoughts meandered to two anticipated events: the All Pastors’ Conference (APC) at Boyne Mountain and the Lutheran Adult Gathering (LAG) on Mackinac Island. The APC has the theme, “They devoted themselves…” (Act 2:42), and was planned to encourage and assist our pastors in understanding and developing disciplines for their own personal, spiritual lives. Dr. Martin Luther in his Large Catechism (15-19, Tappert) challenges all believers to develop specific spiritual disciplines and practices which would promote a God-fearing sanctified life. It is then our prayer that as our pastors learn and grow in this area of spiritual disciplines (receptive piety, meditation, self-examination, spiritual warfare, fasting, devotional life, prayer, etc.), they will be able to lead the people of God more deeply in the living of their personal, sanctified lives in their congregations, families, and communities.
The theme for the LAG, “Rooted in His Presence,” is centered around Psalm 1:3, “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither – whatever they do prospers” (NIV). The planning committee’s desire is that those attending would find opportunity for faith rejuvenation and fellowship with both new and old friends, but especially a cultivation of their relationship with God through the practice of a disciplined, regular reading of the Holy Scriptures.
It occurred to me that both of these events – the APC and LAG – had very similar themes chosen by their planning committees. There on that mountain top, viewing and listening to the beauty of God’s magnificent creation, I had the clear insight that these events were devised and shaped not to give those attending another set of dos and don’ts for their Christian life, but, rather, encouragements for an intimate relationship with our loving God.
What follows is NOT an exhaustive paper about understanding or developing an intimate relationship with God, but a brief reflection on the topic.
Pursuing an Intimate Relationship With God
In order to pursue an intimate relationship with God, there has to be a recognition and dealing with the disconnectedness – sin – that distances us from God. Holy Spirit engendered, genuine repentance that leads to radically reliant hearts is what leads to a close residency with God through the continued work of the Holy Spirit.
In writing this it became clear to me that intimacy with God has much to do with our routine faithfulness to the realities and practices – the process – of connecting to a faithful God who will continue to fill us in His time and in His way. The process is important – not our individual experiences. Each of us receives and perceives things in unique ways. God made each of us very different. While none of us may experience God in the same way, all of us, however, are making our pilgrimage toward God using the same road map. We follow the map, we engage in the process, and along the way God is present with an individualized product. James 4:8 is a process statement: “Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded” (NIV).
In my former congregation in Lansing there was an individual who worked for General Motors in the area of quality control. Before I knew him and better understood what he did, I thought of quality control as looking products over after they were completed. If they weren’t made right you sent them back to be rebuilt. I learned that was inaccurate. The key to quality control is creating a process that is efficient and effective. If the process was right, the product would be right.
Process – not imitating someone else’s experience or expecting someone else to have our experience – is what is important. Too many of us (I certainly include myself) do, or have, approached intimacy with God in terms of the experiential: “God, what have you done for me lately?” How many of us have measured that quality of our relationship with Him by what He is doing at any given moment and by the frequency and intensity of His interventions and blessing in our lives? When I hear others talk about the amazing interventions God has accomplished in their lives or the remarkable things He has done, I can begin to wonder why God isn’t doing something like that for me.
[REALLY? In reality, God has done so much for me already it takes my breath away. In fact, if God never did another “thing” for me besides forgive my sins and take me home to be with Him, I would never have enough lifetimes to thank and praise Him for ALL THAT HE HAS ALREADY DONE!]
Too many of us are seduced by anything that is spiritually experiential. Instead of faithfully following and continually taking the routine steps toward God in our journey of life with Him, we get easily detoured and look for a “holy handout” by the roadside. It’s always easier to look for the quick adrenalin rush than to be disciplined and focus on the long haul home.
Nourished, Satisfied, and Safe
Although we are very disciplined about keeping our garbage secured and food protected when camping in Montana, we’ve spent enough time in Yellowstone National Park to realize the danger of ‘feeding the bears’ no matter where you are in the mountains. Although there are numerous signs in Yellowstone that say, “Don’t Feed the Bears,” people still do. The result is that rangers have to pick up dead bears in the woods every year that have died from starvation even though the woods are full of food for them. The fact is, if bears become use to handouts and don’t have any for two weeks, they die. If only they had been busy doing what they were created to do – eating all the plentiful berries in the forest, roots, etc. – they would have lived and flourished.
I think that we are often like those bears. God, according to His gracious faithfulness, continues to supply an abundance of nourishment and other blessings on our journey home through His Word, our reception of the Lord’s Supper, prayer, worship, service, fellowship, obedience, etc. There is NO WAY that we should starve in our life on our journey home! But, we keep looking for quick and easy ways or “fixes” to experience His blessings and presence. Intimacy with God is not about “holy handouts.” (Could there be “Don’t Feed the Christians” signs in heaven?) Rather, it is characterized by steadfast faithfulness to the map – the one way home – and practices that God has outlined in His Holy Scriptures.
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I am looking forward to the All Pastors’ Conference and the Lutheran Adult Gathering. They will be wonderful learning opportunities and experiences. What I am praying for – for all of us – however, is a continued life of daily repentance that regularly offers thanks and praise to God for Jesus, for our salvation, for the numerous promises of His faithfulness, and the assured reality that the best is yet to come.
Yes, we did catch fish that day (beautiful cutthroat trout, 12” – 14” in length); they made for a tasty dinner. On the trek down from the lake (which was much easier than the climb up) we feasted on the abundant supply of huckleberries that lined the trail.
There was certainly more than enough to get us back to camp nourished, satisfied, and safe.
Pastor David P. E. Maier