Struggling with an extremely hoarse voice, Dr. Bobby Kelly told OBU students, faculty and staff that he felt the frustration of wanting to sing to God, but was unable to voice his worship -- not totally unlike a person's desire to fill the insatiable quest of knowing the very presence of God.
Kelly, Ruth Dickinson professor of religion, brought a theme interpretation on the chapel theme, "The Pursuit of God: The Human Thirst for the Divine," on Wednesday, Sept. 7, during the OBU chapel service. During the fall 2011 semester, students will hear a variety of speakers bring messages on the theme, based on the book by A.W. Tozer.
"As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God," Kelly read from Psalm 42:1-2 (NIV). He noted the panting of a deer is something terrible to see, as every hair on the animal trembles in thirst. The image from nature is a portrait of people through the ages who have noted their desperation for seeking God.
"My guess is, some of you feel that way this morning," Kelly said. "Your soul is hungry. Your heart is thirsty. You feel an insatiable longing for something, and you are restless. Everywhere you turn, the grass seems greener than in the place in which you stand. And the great tragedy is, this may very well be God reaching out to you, calling for you, calling you to himself, but we continue to direct our affection, our hearts, to unfulfilling objects."
The result of a misdirected search, Kelly said, is that attempts at fulfillment turn to ash. Money, which one expects to provide peace and security, threatens to master life itself. Work, which offers status and security, beckons for more time, and it can leave a person emotionally distant from family and friends. The thrill of lust leaves the residue of guilt and loneliness. Alcohol, which promises escape, can't keep a person from waking up in the real world, with all its messed-up relationships.
Kelly quoted C.S. Lewis' perception of the longing for God: "If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world." He said Jesus expressed it in Matthew 5:6, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, because they will be filled" (HCSB). The fourth-century church father Augustine said, "Thou hast formed us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in thee."
"Restlessness and longing are universal traits of the human heart," Kelly said. "Augustine knew that God had put eternity in our hearts, and we have an inconsolable longing, we have a magnificent obsession, for God's presence. We try to satisfy it by directing our hearts and affections to things other than God."
Kelly said Augustine knew "the secret": humans live life and make decisions based on something other than just intellectual knowledge. God has created humans, so decisions are based on the heart, something deep within each person that touches emotions and an inner being.
"Our problem is not ignorance, it's not skepticism -- it's that we try to find fulfillment for our deepest longings in things that can't satisfy us," Kelly said. "We're like deer panting for water."
Kelly shared a biography of A.W. Tozer, the author of the book which is the basis for the semester's chapel theme. Kelly defined Tozer -- who had an unquenchable appetite for seeking God -- as one of the most important pastor theologians of the 20th century, although he never gained celebrity status or denominational prominence. Rather, Tozer spoke prophetically, and "those who do almost never win popularity contests," Kelly said.
From humble beginnings and thrust into adulthood to support his family, Tozer was the first person in his family to profess faith in Jesus Christ. He devoted his entire life to pursuing God personally through voracious reading of both Scripture and a variety of other resources including zoology, biology, philosophy, history and even 17th-century English poets. He sought the very presence of God through prayer and personal devotion, believing there was some truth which could only be found through the Holy Spirit. He served as pastor of churches and traveled widely, preaching at least twice a week for more than 50 years. He published more than 40 books and numerous articles.
Tozer's book, "The Pursuit of God," will likely challenge each student in chapel this semester, Kelly said.
"In each of its 10 chapters, you will find yourself challenged: challenged to follow hard after God; challenged to apprehend God so that we might know him and not simply know about him; challenged to recognize the universal presence of God in creation; challenged to realize that God is here, and he is speaking," Kelly said. "God's nature is to communicate, and God is articulate in and through the creation, through poets and artists, through Scripture, and, ultimately, through Jesus, the living Word."
Kelly said students also will be challenged to experience a bit of heaven here on Earth by connecting with God to seek restoration to a proper relationship with him. He said students will be challenged to seek rest from the crushing burdens of pride and pretense and artificiality.
"You will be challenged to open your eyes to the presence of God in the things we so cheaply label as 'secular' -- things like eating and sleeping and working, and taking care of our bodies, and performing our daily responsibilities, and even in reading our textbooks," he said.
Kelly said such a challenge can change lives into sacraments, where the eternal touches the temporal, and where the invisible becomes visible.
Tozer was not a perfect man, Kelly noted. After his death, his wife told how she had lived a lonely life, and his sons drifted away from him during his life, each expressing they never felt like they knew him. Tozer's life is a cautionary tale, Kelly said, warning against setting fellow humans up as heroes. Yet despite his imperfections, Tozer's legacy was his passion for the pursuit of God -- to know God more.
"Others before me have gone much farther in the holy mysteries than I have done," Tozer wrote in the preface to his book. "But if my fire is not large, it is yet real, and there may be those who can light their candle at this flame."
Kelly said he prayed the words of Tozer, Augustine and the psalmist will go into all the work and life of the upcoming semester at OBU, and that each person would direct their passion and their heart to God.