Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Always Room For Spiritual Growth

We visited with Alexander and Irena last night, and I used that time as an opportunity to quiz Alexander briefly about the spiritual state of the church here. Like Masha, he speaks Russian and English, and he was one of the first Russians to start attending Bible studies in Nizhny Novgorod in 1993.

Alexander, now 43, freely acknowledges that he became a student of Americans Charles and Kay Gant for linguistic reasons rather than spiritual ones. "I was looking to practice my English," Alexander said. "I came to listen." But he soon came to realize he needed religious understanding as well.

Alexander's father is Russian Orthodox and taught his son from a young age to adhere to God. "But he could not give me information, he could not teach me the Bible, because he himself was not educated." His father bought Alexander his first Bible in 1977 (he still has it and proudly showed it to me), but Alexander still struggled to learn. He said he read the Bible but did not understand it because he had little guidance from leaders within the Orthodox church, who focus more on ritual than Bible study.

After meeting Charles and Kay, Alexander began to see some of the Orthodox teachings as wrong, particularly the concept of infant baptism. (Alexander was sprinkled when he was 12 months old.) He came to understand the Bible truth that a person must be aware of his sinful condition when he is immersed in water for remission of those sins and must be able to vow himself as a slave to righteousness.

He did not gain that knowledge immediately, however. He wasn't baptized for about two years after he began studying with Charles and others, and when he neared that point, he first made a trip to the headquarters of the Orthodox church to discuss the concept of baptism with a leader there. "I listened to his argument, and I knew the argument of Charlie," Alexander said. "And then I compared things and made my decision."

About a decade later, Alexander still sees room for growth among the Christians in Nizhny. When I asked him to think about the descriptions of the seven churches in Asia in Revelation 2-3 and how Christ might describe the church here, he said this: "We have to be stronger because if we were strong enough, we would have the ability to attract more people" to the gospel.

Alexander went further by applying that belief to himself. He lamented that he does not personally have the "gift" to influence people to do what he right, noting in particular his lack of success earlier this year in convincing an erring sister to return to serving God. He said he lacks the "wits" to be persuasive.

At that point, I asked Alexander to read the first few verses of James 1, where talks about how we can gain wisdom, the equivalent of wits. The answer: prayer without doubt. Alexander has such a good heart that he saw the passage as a confirmation of his belief that his faith is weak. In other words, if his faith were strong enough, he would have no doubts and God would grant him the wisdom he needs.

I couldn't disagree more. Alexander's faith is obviously strong -- precisely because he knows it can become stronger. And just because his efforts to persuade an erring Christian to repent failed in one case does not mean he lacks wisdom. Some people simply want to sin. They want to pursue the pleasures of this life, and nothing that the omnipotent and omniscient God or mere mortal man says will soften their hardened hearts.

But I can tell you now that every time I think I am strong, I will think of Alexander. And I will think of Paul's words: "Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall."

2 Comments:

Blogger Scott's said...

(This is Charlei) Wow! There are some seriously inspirational stories. Teary moments? I'm almost cryin' reading it. :) Good tears tho'. I hope the congregation over there knows how much they encourage us. Alexander already has wisdom in knowing that he has to study God's word to learn what is right. We need more people like him in the world.

1:12 PM  
Blogger Jeff Wilkes said...

PRAYER AND STILLNESS
How wonderful that Alexander understands how essential prayer is for the growth of the church and for his own spiritual growth!

Prayer is hard work; it is often a battle against Satan and his influences on our lives. What a privilege we have to wage this battle, and how often we neglect it! We Americans, especially, seem loathe to spend more than a few seconds in silence.

Imagine the challenge to develop the discipline of silence that all of us face in this world of restlessness, noise, words, and frenzied activity . But there is no way to move toward a deeper, intimate relationship with God without longer times of stillness. The psalmist wrote, "Be still and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10).

Other translations amplify this command:
"Cease striving" [TLB].
"Let be and be still, and know--recognize and understand--that I am God" [Amp].
"Give in and admit..." [Moffat].
"Stop fighting..." [TEV].
And Eugene Peterson's paraphrase:
"Step out of the traffic! Take a long, loving look at Me, your High God, above politics, above everything" [The Message].

We are commanded to stop--literally. To rest, relax,let go, and make time for Him. The passage describes awe, waiting before Him, being ready to serve Him. But in these busy times, we rarely even give Him the time of day!

Nevertheless, knowing God intimately and deeply requires such discipline if we hope to add depth to our spiritual life. Noise and words and hectic schedules dull our senses, closing our ears to God's word and making us numb to His presence. Silence sharpens the keen edge of our souls, sensitizing us to the spiritual.

Henri Nouwen analyzes the perils of "our wordy world":
"There was a time not too long ago without radios and televisions, stop signs, yield signs, merge signs, bumper stickers, and the ever-present announcements indicating price increases or special sales. There was a
time without the advertisements which now cover whole cities with words.
"Recently I was driving through Los Angeles, and suddenly I had the strange sensation of driving through a huge dictionary. Wherever I looked there were words trying to take my eyes from the road. they said, 'Use me, take me, buy me, drink me, smell me, touch me, kiss me, sleep with me.' In such a world, who can maintain respect for words?"

What about you? Do you long to escape the noise? Do you find yourself unsettled by the noisy, busy, crowded world? Is it leaving you spiritually insensitive, with a business-as-usual attitude? Noise steals our energy and distracts our attention, making prayer a chore rather than a joy. Some may even feel a low-grade depression as noise takes its toll.

How are you praying? Even our prayers tend to become a catalog of our problems, a list of requests, a thousand things we want to ask Him. We flood God with demands for information, for an easier path, forgetting that in His Word He has given us the solution to every problem and all the details we are capable of grasping in this life. We fail to listen where God speaks, or else we think that God's Word is almost used up by now. We fail to see that it is we ourselves who are used up and alienated, whereas the Word is alive and powerful and near to us.

We all need the essential presence of stillness, of silence. Escape to a quiet space. Go outside, go inside, go somewhere alone. God can use stillness to heal your soul and to draw your heart closer to Himself.

Nobody but you can do anything about creating silence but YOU!

Allow noisiness and busy-ness to continue, and you will gravitate into one of two directions: either you will run through the motions and cultivate a hypocritical spirituality hidden behind the mask of phony enthusiasm, or you will simply fade from involvement and distance yourself from meaningful relationships with others. In both cases, you will set yourself up for a fall.

It is easy for us to be sucked into a black hole of endless activities. As we get more hurried, we find ourselves running FROM others in our own family rather than toward them. The results can be devastating.

If the pace and the push, the noise and the crowds are getting to you, it's time to stop and find a place of solace to refresh your spirit. Deliberately say "no" more often. this will leave room for you to slow, get alone, pour out your overburdened heart, and admit your desperate need for inner refreshment. God will hear, and He will help. If you wait for someone else to bring about a change, things will only get worse. You will be vulnerable to assault, just as tired Elijah was in 1 Kings 19.

It takes time alone with God and His word before we can expect our spiritual strength to recover. We look about for somewhere to be quiet, to be genuine, to be refreshed. We yearn to restore our spirits in God, to let go in Him and gain new strength, but we fail to look for Him where He is waiting for us, where He is to be found: in His Son, Who is His Word.

*******

"For this commandment which I command you today is not too mysterious for you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say,'Who will ascend into heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?' But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it. See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil, in that I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments, His statutes, and His judgments, that you may live and multiply..."
--Deuteronomy 30:11-16

some ideas from the book INTIMACY WITH THE ALMIGHTY, Charles Swindoll, Word Publishing, 1996.

10:16 PM  

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