One thing I ask of the Lord, this is what I seek: that I may dwell
in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple.
Most Quaker Life readers are old enough to remember the commercial jingle that goes, “The best part of waking up is [coffee of a certain brand] in your cup.” Around the same time that one was popular, the coffee manufacturers’ association was airing an ad featuring Juan Valdez and his trusty donkey with a message something like, “Coffee — it calms you down as it powers you up.” Perhaps a bit of skepticism is allowed.
Observing Christians in our culture, secular people could be similarly excused for being confused about what gets some of God’s people out of bed every morning. It is at times rather difficult to figure out what motivates Christians to do the things they do, to discern where their deepest passions lie, to understand what they think is worth living for and worth dying for. Sadly, at times even the projects we say we’re doing for God manage to displace the Presence that must be our very life, the source of all our motivations. When the best part of waking up is our project, even one we’re doing for God, we are likely headed for trouble.
Consider King David, revered as Israel’s greatest ruler, mightiest soldier, the builder of Jerusalem, prolific poet, a “man after God’s heart.” His role required that he constantly deal with external threats to the nation, palace intrigue and internal political turmoil, practical concerns for the welfare of his subjects, construction of buildings befitting the City of God and expansion of the kingdom when opportunities presented themselves. It is impressive that in a moment of focused spiritual insight, despite all those projects, David wrote that what got him out of bed every morning was the Presence (Psalm 27:4). The one thing he sought was that communion with God’s Spirit and life that motivated, guided, empowered, and tempered all other activity.
So long as David stayed true to that single aspiration, he did quite well. Enemy attacks failed, internal coups were foiled, palaces were built, adjacent territories were assimilated. The problems always came in times when David allowed some of those challenges and projects to become his central focus. He began to pursue goals of self-fulfillment or self-protection and used methods calculated for human success rather than grounded in obedience to God. Those times in his life never ended well.
That principle of the spiritual life remains as true in the 21st century after Christ as it was in the 10th century before him. In this fast-paced, high-pressure digital age, it seems even easier to be distracted from dwelling in the presence of God. The temptation to focus instead — all for God, of course — upon the quest to win competitions, vanquish opponents, satisfy others’ expectations, prevail in arguments, eliminate aberrations and threats, achieve our ambitions is huge.
As part of my work, I frequent gatherings of church workers. Recently, at one such meeting, I listened to two church leaders try to top the other’s account of project success — attendance at services, numbers of souls saved, size and cost of new buildings constructed, lavishness of furnishings, and on and on. It all was carefully couched in the language of “to God be the glory,” but it was competition, pure and simple. Never mind that some of those attenders were shamelessly poached from other area congregations, or that the construction projects meant relatively few resources are shared to help a community staggered by recession and unemployment. Still, organizational goals are accomplished, success is celebrated, and religious careers are advanced. That’s all good, right?
Not always. Richard Foster poignantly observes in Celebration of Discipline that true service must flow out of worship and that, “service as a substitute for worship is idolatry.” In spiritual terms, success is defined not by numbers or boxes checked on a list of religious achievements, but by faithful obedience. The problem with missions is that sometimes they are not accomplished. Spiritual life defined primarily by human successes can be pretty miserable.
Just ask Jeremiah. Despite his years of listening to God and faithfully obeying what he heard, Judah’s kings ignored him and did whatever they wanted, friends betrayed him, the kingdom steadily crumbled towards exile, and Jeremiah ended up imprisoned and fleeing for survival. Fortunately for him, he had learned to live centered on something other than outward success or personal achievement. “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. . . and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:19-23)
Projects, even good ones, come to an end. The Presence never does. My reason for getting out of bed every morning is to discover all over again the immediacy and depth of God’s gracious love, the joy of salvation and the privilege and significance of being invited to partnership in Christ’s mission for another day. It is the life of abiding in friendship with God, learning what he desires, and seeking to cooperate in that, regardless of whether it means wearing a crown or bearing a cross.
The best part of waking up is not the coffee. It is the resumption of the spiritual conversation that is true communion, the life that will never end.
Ron Ferguson and his wife Pam are co-pastors of Winchester Friends in Winchester, Indiana.