Most of my life I failed to appreciate beauty. Oh, I loved the look of sails on the sea and snow on the mountains, but mostly I liked sailing those sailboats and skiing those slopes.

Fifteen years ago, I learned to scuba dive. On our first dive, my sons and I wobbled our way to the sea in unwieldly gear, inserted our mouthpieces, lowered our heads beneath the waves, and dived. In fifteen feet of water, we entered a cloud of thousands of small yellow and white, black-striped fish. We could see nothing but a beautiful gallery of sparkling fish.

And the beauty of their colors, and the shimmer of their glory, delighted and enthralled me.

Yesterday I joined two friends to talk with a woman about her calling. And she talked only of beauty. She shared the glory of seeing a sunrise, and sparks of hope in the cracks of a frozen harbor, and satisfaction in a sunset-pond. And she spoke of the healing wholeness of beauty.

Hearing her reminded me of the first time I was captivated by beauty.

This morning I read Psalm 27 as part of my Scripture meditation. When I read verse 4, something again was awakened:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after:
… to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord….

And I wondered, “What the heck does it mean to gaze on the beauty of God?

It’s Not Escape

The verse before David’s puzzling gaze-phrase describes enemies who wish to “eat up my flesh” and “war rising against me,” and the verses after it speak of enemies who “surround him” and false witnesses who “breathe out violence.” And later, parents who “forsake” him.

David longs to “gaze on the beauty of the Lord” in the middle of horrific suffering and threats. Ernest Becker (in his Pulitzer Prize book, Denial of Death) said it this way:

Taking life seriously means that whatever you do must be done in the lived truth of the evil and terror of life, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.

David’s longing for the beauty of God is neither an escape from that terror of life, nor a mere means of copingwith the rumble of panic beneath everything.

This longing means we can triumph amidst the evils of life, simply by fixing our eyes on the beauty of God.

It’s Not Exploitation

I love snowcapped mountains and sea-bound sailboats because I use them for skiing and sailing. Sure, I like to look at them, but even more, I like to use them.

God’s nature is incredible, but too often I just want to use it: I love his power because I can ask of him, or his justice because I can appeal to him, or his righteousness because he gives it to me. Even his fatherhood, because he adopted me.

But for me to appreciate his beauty means I value him just for who he is, no requests, no exploitation, no “using” him to further a ministry or a good cause.

Just to gaze on him and say “In seeing you, I have all that I need.” It means to be overwhelmed with the beauty of God. To be satisfied with him alone.

His Spirit in us sees his beauty, and we worship.

Sam

Is there such thing as Godless faith?

I recently met an elder who was whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.

After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.

The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.

I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”

“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”

What If They Did Everything Right?

This elder gave me a Cliff Notes summary of their process. I didn’t participate in their weeks of seeking God, searching Scripture, and consulting with the congregation. I didn’t witness how they communicated the vision.

But let’s imagine that they acted perfectly: they sought God with pure hearts, they correctly heard God tell them to raise their budget, and they expressed their vision without coercion.

What was amiss? We know that some trust in horses and chariots; others trust in sword and spear; some trust in beauty and smarts; and others trust in education and 401k’s.

But some trust in the measure of their faith.

And all of these trusts are godless faiths, including faith in our faith. Faith is not the power of positive thinking; it is confidence in God’s loving goodness.

Where Is Our Faith?

The nature of faith is found in the depth of a relationship, not in the measure of our conviction. It looks to God not our ideas or plans, or even to our assurance. In fact, real faith is subconscious, unaware of itself because the presence of God floods our hearts and minds.

An overwhelmingly awareness of our faith is a sure sign that we have trust in our trust rather than faith in God. Real faith is confidence in the nature of a God whose ways we do not understand except to know that his plans for us are better than any we can imagine.

Chapter 11 of Hebrews lists a dozen heroes of faith. Some “stopped the mouths of lions or quenched the power of fire” but others were “sawn in two or killed by the sword”!

The only faith that can stop the mouths of lions is the same faith that can also be sawn in two. And the only faith that can be “sawn in two” is an explosive power of the Spirit of God in us that sees God so clearly that “quenched fires” and “death by a sword” are one and the same.

Infused Faith

When Gabriel told Mary that she would bear a child, she asks, “How can this be since I have not ‘known’ a man?” The angel answers, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

More than confidence, we need presence. God invites us to invite his Spirit into our lives, a sense of the presence of God so powerful that swords and saws, and budgets and bosses, are overshadowed by an intimacy with God.

True faith is knowing God intimately.

Sam

My first and only selfie: Sam Williamson, June 1984

My wife’s and my first home was a trilevel, with only two of the floors completed. We decided to finish the third floor ourselves, creating a family room, office, and second bathroom. I had done lots of carpentry, wiring, and plumbing before. But I had never mudded drywall.

I figured the drywall mud would sand down easily, so after hanging the drywall, I caked on mud like a teenage boy piles his plate at an all-you-can-eat buffet. And then I went back for seconds.

Alas. It took us more time to sand off that surplus mud than it took me to frame in and wire three rooms and to plumb the bathroom. Carla and I spent scores of hours of bored agony, sanding, wet-sponging, power-sanding, and bathing off our layers of dust:

I had thought mudding was the easy part.

The history of the world is the long story of bad answers.

Wrong Answers Create Greater Difficulties

Every culture offers answers. Epicureans used to say, “Live for the moment. Eat drink and be merry, and then you’ll have fun.” But today we know that too much food bloats our bellies and skyrockets our cholesterol. Eating too freely undermines our fun.

Bogus answers create bigger problems than the difficulties they hoped to solve. The problem with most bad answers is they initially seem smart: What’s so bad about a little extra mud?

C.S. Lewis said it this way, “Perfect love, we know, casteth out fear. But so do several other things – ignorance, alcohol, passion, presumption, and stupidity.”

Helping God Out

Christian movements that start in the Spirit predictably end in the flesh. The change is insidious because the bad answers initially look smart. I’ve been wondering what our 21st century “fleshly answers” are, and I think I stumbled on a hint this morning when I read Oswald Chambers.

Chambers helped lead the Holiness Movement one hundred years ago, yet he also criticized it for birthing an idolatrous, false-spiritual answer. He said,

Christians fail [when] they place their desire for their own holiness above their desire to know God.

Today we are not tempted to make holiness an idol. Instead, we place mission above our desire to know God. We say to ourselves, “I want to make a big impact for God’s kingdom,” or, “I want to raise up kids who will follow the Lord.”

It is good to want to serve God or to raise believing children (and also, by the way, to desire personal holiness). But these desires often mask “answers” designed to prop up our egos. Like the builders of the Tower of Babel, we are making a name for ourselves by helping God out.

Whenever we think we know what God needs, and then help him out, it backfires. Just as it did for Abraham when he fathered Ishmael and Moses when he murdered the Egyptian.

Let’s let God be the Lord of our kids and our missions.

It’s Spiritual Calculus

Our problem is we seize responsibility for something that belongs to God. Whenever we despair, it is because we’ve seized ownership of a thing that was never God’s will for us to take.

The greatest fruit in our lives is born solely out of our connection with God. It is his life in us that changes the world we walk in. It is never our heroics. Let’s nurture the life of God in us, not our visions of our missions.

Everything else is just caked on drywall mud.

Sam