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Present PerfectDiscovering God's Kingdom in the Now
By Gregory A. Boyd
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Gregory A. Boyd
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMere Christianity
So begin ... make that resolution. Now! ... be daring. None of us have a long time to live ... what years we have, let us live them with God. Brother Lawrence
Our ever-present Father, We pledged to surrender our life to you, but we confess that most of the moments that make up our actual life are not surrendered to you. Help us, to remember you and offer ourselves up to you in this moment and in every moment.
For the Supersaints Only?
When many Christians first hear about the practice of the presence of God, it strikes them as an impossible discipline. Perhaps supersaints locked up in monasteries can attain this level of awareness, but not us average folk who work nine-to-five jobs and raise families! It's hard enough to pray ten minutes a day and make it to church once a week! For us ordinary Christians, trying to remain aware of God's presence moment-by-moment seems like a hyperspiritual pipe dream.
If you're inclined to feel this way, it might be because, like everyone else in modern Western culture, you've been brainwashed by what is called "the secular worldview." In this view of the world, what's real, or at least what's important, is the physical here-and-now. When we're brainwashed by this worldview, we experience the world as though God did not exist, for we habitually exclude him from our awareness. We may still believe in God, of course, but he's not real to us most of the time.
Because of this we go about our day-to-day lives as functional atheists. We may pray and worship God on occasion, but these are "special times," isolated from our "normal," secular day-to-day life. So thoroughly are we brainwashed by the secular mind-set that the very suggestion that we could routinely experience the world in a way that includes God strikes us as impossible.
If you're looking for an explanation why so few contemporary believers experience the fullness of love, joy, peace, and the transforming power that the new Testament promises, I think you've just found it. The secular worldview causes us to compartmentalize our life, isolating the "spiritual" from the rest of our experience. Our relationship with God is boxed into special prayer and devotion times along with weekend church services, all of which have little impact on us. But in the process of segregating God from our "normal" life, we block the love, joy, peace, and transforming power of God.
If we're ever going to experience the fullness of life that the New Testament promises us, we're going to have to tear down the walls that compartmentalize the "spiritual" and "normal." We're going to have to accept a new definition of "normal," and this means we need to get over our mistaken idea that the practice of the presence of God is only for the "superholy."
The call to practice the presence of God is not a hyperspiritual exercise. On the contrary, it's the core of what it means to surrender our life to Christ. Though few realize it, this practice is woven into the very fabric of the new Testament, written for all followers of Jesus. Aspiring to remain awake to God's ever-present love is simply an aspect-a foundational aspect-of what C. S. Lewis referred to as "mere Christianity."
Living Out the Pledge of Life
We began our walk with God when we confessed our need for Jesus and pledged to surrender our life to him. But we often fail to notice that our pledge to surrender our life to Christ isn't itself the life we pledged to surrender. The life we pledged to surrender is the life we've lived each and every moment since we initially made the pledge to surrender our life. For the only life we have to surrender to Christ is the one we live moment-by-moment.
Think of it like a marriage. Thirty-one years ago I looked into my wife's gorgeous eyes and pledged my life to her. But my pledge wasn't itself the life I pledged to her. My pledge didn't magically give us a good marriage (would that it were that simple!). Rather, the actual life I pledged to my wife was the life I have lived each and every moment since I made that pledge. The only life I have to give to my wife is the life I live moment-by-moment.
The quality of my marriage, therefore, isn't decided by whether I made a pledge thirty-one years ago. It's determined by how I live out that pledge now. The same is true of our relationship with Christ. The important question is not, Did I once surrender my life to Christ? The important question is, Am I surrendered to Christ right now? For the only life we have to surrender to Christ is the life we're living this moment.
Unfortunately, many Christians seem to have a "magical" understanding of Christianity that leads them to assume their life is surrendered to Christ because they once pledged to do just that. They pray a "sinner's prayer" and think that this somehow-magically-means they have a real relationship with Christ. But it doesn't, any more than making marriage vows magically produces a loving relationship between two people.
I believe this is the most prevalent and tragic misunderstanding that afflicts contemporary Western Christianity. We make a vow to submit our life to Christ but then spend 99 percent of our time excluding him from our awareness. We make him lord over our life in theory, but we do not make him lord over most of the moments that make up our life.
For Jesus to be our Lord, he must be Lord over our actual life-the one we live moment-by-moment. The only relevant question is, Are we surrendering our life to Christ as Lord right now? Is this a moment in which we are aware of, and surrendered to, Christ's Lordship? Is this a moment over which God reigns as King? Are we, in this moment, living within the Kingdom of God?
The supersaints aren't the only ones who need to ask these questions. Living in this way is simply what it means to surrender our life-our actual life-to Christ.
The Heart of New Testament Discipleship
Once we set aside our compartmentalized, secular Western worldview, we discover that the New Testament tells us that disciples of Jesus are to remain aware of, and surrendered to, God's presence each moment. Here are some illustrations.
Seek First the Kingdom
Jesus tells us to "seek first the Kingdom of God" and trust that God will provide us with all that we need (Matthew 6:33). But this isn't something we can do one moment and then forget the next. We can't pretend we're obeying Jesus and seeking God's Kingdom because we sought the Kingdom yesterday while today our sole focus is on a job promotion or a family matter or a new house. We can't imagine we're following Jesus' teachings to trust God to provide for us because we trusted him in the past while today we're obsessed with providing for ourselves.
No, to seek the Kingdom first means we need to seek the Kingdom in each of the present moments that comprise our actual life. It means that living under God's reign is our highest aspiration right now. While we will, of course, have other goals on our mind in any given moment (such as understanding and internalizing the message of this book), the primary goal of each moment (including this one as you read this sentence) must be to make that moment one over which God reigns. This implies remembering that God exists and that yielding to his will is our supreme objective, even as we strive for other, less important, goals.
Living in the Spirit
The apostle Paul tells us that followers of Jesus are to live in-and be led by-the Spirit (see Galatians 5:16-18, for example). Again, this isn't something we can do one moment and then forget the next. No, to live in the Spirit means that we submit to the Spirit in the present moment, for the only life we have to submit to the Spirit is the one we're living right now. To obey Paul's teaching, therefore, means that we learn to cultivate a surrendered awareness of the Holy Spirit moment-by-moment.
Remaining in Christ
Jesus teaches his followers to "remain" in him (John 15:4-5). The Greek word translated "remain," menô, means "to take up permanent residence." Jesus makes this clear when he says that just as branches are attached to a vine, we are to be attached to him (John 15:1-5). Branches don't visit a vine once in a while on special occasions. Rather, branches are permanently attached to their source of life. So too, followers of Jesus are to take up permanent residence in Christ, remaining attached to him at all times as their source of their Life.
Paul instructs us to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:17). While we do have to set aside time for concentrated dialogue with God, as Jesus did, the biblical model of prayer is that it should permeate our life. As Lawrence, de Caussade, and Laubach all teach, we should aspire to make our entire life a sustained conversation with God.
Take Every Thought Captive
Closely related to this, Paul says we are to take every thought captive to Christ and be transformed by the renewing of our mind (2 Corinthians 10:5; Romans 12:2).
I don't know if you've ever noticed it, but your brain never stops thinking. It's constantly chattering! If you doubt me, go into a quiet room, shut off the lights, and try not to think. Listen carefully for the voice in your head and see how long you can keep it completely silent. If you're attentive, you'll probably discover that within five to ten seconds you'll be chattering to yourself. You'll hear things like: "So far so good" or "This is stupid" or "Don't forget to take out the garbage."
Our brain never shuts up. To submit every thought to Christ, therefore, we're going to need to have Christ on our mind all the time.
This doesn't mean we should try to analyze every thought to make sure it's submitted to Christ. This would turn our mental focus completely onto ourselves and would pull us out of the present moment. It would also likely drive us crazy. Rather, to take every thought captive to Christ simply means to remain aware that he is ever-present and to surrender to him. Invite him into your thought process, and turn your thoughts into a conversation with him.
The Body of Christ
One final teaching worth noting is that disciples of Jesus belong to the corporate body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Romans 12:4-5). He is the head and we are his hands, feet, mouth, and so on (Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:18; 2:19). We all know what happens when a body part "falls asleep"-or worse, when its connection to the head gets severed. A foot that isn't connected to the head isn't going to be much of a foot. So too, before we can function as the body part we are called to be, we must stay continually connected to the head, ready to respond when he tells us to do so.
These are just a few of the teachings of the New Testament that presuppose that the "normal" life of a disciple is to remain aware of God's presence. As foreign as it is to contemporary Western Christianity, and as impossible as it may seem to many contemporary Christians, practicing the presence of God lies at the foundation of "mere Christianity."
To passionately embrace this call as the central goal of your life, it is important to refrain from thinking about the magnitude of this challenge over an entire lifetime. Don't even worry about whether you'll be up to meeting this challenge tomorrow or a minute from now. The only thing that is real-and thus the only thing that is important-is right now. This challenge can only be met one moment at a time.
Right now is the time to surrender. Right now is the time to seek first the Kingdom of God. Right now is the time to remain in Christ, to live in the Spirit, to pray, and to take every thought captive. As Jesus taught, tomorrow will worry about itself (Matthew 6:34).
Game with Minutes
Frank Laubach created something he called the "Game with Minutes" as a way to become more consistent in practicing God's presence. This game challenges us to bring Christ to mind at least one second of each and every minute within a designated hour. He called it a "game" both because he wanted it to be "lighthearted" and because he found it to be "a delightful experience and an exhilarating spiritual exercise."
Laubach recommends that we begin by designating a particular "uncomplicated hour" to "see how many minutes of the hour you can remember ... Christ at least once each minute." The basic idea is that we need to become accustomed to remembering Christ when our mind has little to do before we can learn how to remember Christ with any consistency in situations that require more attention.
To begin this "game," think about the times when you tend to be most bored. Designate one or more of these periods as a time in which you're going to challenge yourself to remember Christ at least once every minute. I find I play the "game" most effectively when I'm jogging, mowing the lawn, washing the dishes, or engaging in some other mindless task. Not only does this practice transform a boring activity into a sacred moment, it makes the boring activity much more interesting and helps the time pass more quickly. Staying awake to God's presence helps you experience the wonder of shear existence, regardless of how boring the activity you're engaged in is.
Waking Up to God
For many of us, the most "uncomplicated" time of any day is when we first wake up. Our heart and mind are clearest before they get filled with the cares and concerns of the day. Not surprisingly, biblical authors as well as spiritual leaders throughout history have expressed a preference for worshiping, praying, and meditating on God as the first act of every day (for instance, Psalm 5:3; 59:16; 88:13; 90:14). Laubach himself testified that he found it helpful to practice the presence when he first woke up in the morning, especially when he first embarked on this discipline. Each morning, he said, "I compel my mind to open straight out toward God." He then added, "I wait and listen with determined sensitiveness. I fix my attention there, and sometimes it requires a long time early in the morning. I determine not to get out of bed until that mind set upon the Lord is settled."
Excerpted from Present Perfect by Gregory A. Boyd Copyright © 2010 by Gregory A. Boyd. Excerpted by permission.
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