Post MLK50 Conference Thoughts: Courage for the Journey

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mlk50_conference-thumb540x360I just returned from a conference in Memphis that coincided with the 50th anniversary of Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King’s murder at the Lorraine Motel. I was just a boy when Dr. King was assassinated so it was my own personal dream to be there on the 50th anniversary. The conference was a once-in-a-lifetime experience as I was in the place where the hopes of the civil rights struggle was simultaneously dashed yet rose from the ashes to gain momentum as a movement while a nation grieved. The conference was about keeping in step with what MLK’s radical vision based on a robust picture of Genesis 1 and the dignity afforded human beings because of the Imago Dei.

One virtue repeatedly spoken about from the platform was love. It is on account of His love for us and our love for Him in return that we embrace real unity and not just a fake unity that neither listens to the other side or makes others act like the majority culture in order to be accepted. What was unspoken and yet undergirded many of the messages was the virtue of courage. While we don’t speak much of courage today it is probably one of the most needed virtues. C.S Lewis writes,

Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.

Lewis’ point is that courage seems to be this “pivot point” that must be embraced in order express the other virtues. For instance, you must be courageous to love or you can’t be humble unless you are courageous enough to leave your ego behind. Courage is what emboldens you to lean into something of value, to gain more character than you currently have, or to create something of lasting value.

Courage as a virtue was originally thought of as an elite virtue. It was a virtue that was set aside for the warrior class who fought and protected. However, in a Christian understanding, the virtue of courage, according to Thomas Aquinas (the great medieval Doctor of the Church), is not so much bravery in battle but rather enduring and moving forward in life in light of Christ’s victory. In this way, courage is “leveled” in that it is the everyday man’s virtue and not just for the warrior elite. You and I have every opportunity to be courageous in a day when, dare I say, cowardice has more influence particularly.

From experience it takes courage on all parties’ part to lean into the conversation on race and not just back away from the table. Ambrose Redmoon wrote,

Courage is not the absence of fear but rather the judgment that something else is more important than fear.

What’s at stake is the beauty of Christ’s bride the church as a diverse body of people. As far as I know, the gospel really is the only reasonable binding force that on one hand says your racial identity is not what’s ultimate about you while on the other hand offers this picture of the Kingdom as radically diverse with all people grounded in the work of Christ. That’s worth leaning into…

Am I Enough?

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Let me take a final brief excursion. I’ve written about spiritual practices, both rhythms and regimens, how they do not directly cause growth but rather put us in the stream of God’s grace so the Spirit can do His work in our hearts to transform us. I referenced Dallas Willard saying, “God’s address is at the end of your rope”. What did Willard mean and how does this connect with the spiritual disciplines?

The Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:9-10 writes in the midst of experiencing a mysterious “thorn” where he pleaded with the Lord to remove it from his life. In God’s sovereign and good response was the ongoing presence of the gracious gospel. We know this because scholars mark these words in red, meaning these are the words of the Lord Jesus Himself! The answer is His continuing grace is sufficient for everything. This grace saved us and this grace is sufficient for us to stand on in the present.

Unlike the current mask we wear that gives the impression of power, being enough, having our act together we use to get through the Christian life, Paul actually says the Kingdom of God is the opposite. When we embrace our weakness, our finitude (I’m not omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, all-loving, etc.), and our brokenness, that is where true power comes from.

When we jump into these spiritual practices they have the effect of confronting false beliefs we all have. For instance, take the good Christian who acts out of their strength. They give this sense that they have it together and if they are broken, they mention it only in the vaguest of terms. While they might share a belief with you that God is sufficient for their needs, in actuality the deep belief they have in their heart is they are sufficient and it’s demonstrated every day in how they approach life and others. This is psychologically unhealthy as it causes a person to “split” between the public and private person. But it also unwittingly presents the gospel as “works righteousness” as one carries this tremendous burden to be sufficient in life. God’s shocking word is our sufficiency comes from Him alone (2 Cor. 3:9 ESV).

What the spiritual practices do, particularly the abruptness of the regimens, is confront the “beliefs” we tell other people with the real beliefs that are deep in our heart. They lead us to embrace our weakness taking apart the belief that somehow I must carry the burdens of the world on my shoulders. Take fasting for example. The point of fasting is not to fix. The point of fasting is to put ourselves in the position of realizing our real hunger is not merely for physical food but to be nourished by God’s sustaining and abiding Word (Matthew 4:4).

Fasting clears us out and opens us up to intentionally seeking God’s will and grace in a way that goes beyond our normal habits or worship and prayer.

Just as a person knee-jerks the response of self-sufficiency in life, fasting re-trains us by putting us in the midst of the gospel, that Jesus is completely sufficient to meet our needs. He is the source of life we should hunger for.

So when Willard says, “God’s address is at the end of your rope” what he means is God shows up when you realize that you are not sufficient the entirety of your life. In fact, you’re not sufficient for your spouse’s or your kid’s life. The sooner you embrace your insufficiency you will be in a place to actually grow. Contrary to the popular belief of “I am enough”, you really aren’t enough. The spiritual practices disrupt, they confront and take us apart, and they reveal our deep belief that we think we are enough by carrying the weight of life. His good work actually begins when we are weak and empty, at the end of our own ability to manage, control, and fix ourselves. That is what we partner with when it comes to the spiritual practices!

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook

Spiritual Practices as Regimens

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imagesRecently I spoke to a group of leaders at church about how people grow to become more like Christ as they follow Him. What makes “discipleship” hard to implement is people fall along a diverse spectrum of spiritual maturity. You have “beginners” not just in terms of new Christians but also those who simply haven’t thrown themselves into the means of grace to help them grow. As I mentioned in the last blog, we want to help these people jump into practicing basic rhythms in their life.

But then you also have seasoned Christians who have known and walked with the Lord for years who readily practice the rhythms of the Christian life. Yet, many will describe their growth as a Christian as stagnant with a great temptation to settle as if that’s as good as it gets. This is where the regimens come in! Regimens are those spiritual practices that are best done in short spurts because of their intensity. Now allow me a bit of a rabbit trail…

In 313 CE the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great issued an edict that Christian worship would no longer be considered a criminal action. This effectively ended the persecution of Christians. But some of the early Christians noted that persecution brought with it a built in mechanism for spiritual growth. When your life is on the line, you tend to get real clear on what’s worth giving your life to quickly discarding comfort. So with the end of persecution some of the early Christians, the Desert Fathers, retreated to the Nile desert region in Egypt and embraced “asceticism” or giving up bodily comfort and material possessions as a way to “re-create” the effects of persecution.

“Now that the Church and the State were at peace, the idea of martyrdom… [gave way to the ideal] of asceticism [as] a substitute for the shedding of blood”

As I have thought about it, this is similar to what regimens do… they re-create the effect of “turning up the heat” as a way to point you to the gospel so your character is forged by the Holy Spirit. In reality, this is what trials and difficulties do in general. Again, if the spiritual disciplines/practices are intended to get us to the end of our own resources to declare our utter need for God’s grace, the regimens are short-term, abrupt, “disruptive” practices that reveal our hearts and point us to God’s gracious love while having a refining effect.

Regimens would include among others solitude, silence, fasting, simplicity certain types of prayer, contemplation, mission, and secrecy. In the future, I plan to spend a bit of time unpacking a few of them. A wonderfully complete resource to pick up would be Adele Calhoun’s book Spiritual Disciplines Handbook. There’s a bit more in it for us to master, but there’s something helpful for all of us no matter where we are on the spectrum of maturity.

Helen Waddell, The Desert Fathers, p. xxvii

Spiritual Practices as Rhythms

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So where do we start in the process called “sanctification”? How do we start growing to become more like Christ in real, deep spiritual maturity? D.A. Carson wrote

People do not drift toward holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord.

It takes training (1 Timothy 4:7-8) on our part and a person should understand that growth is necessarily connected to a kind of training. The opposite would be true – one cannot have any expectation of become more spiritually mature if spiritual practices are not part of their life as one doesn’t automatically “drift” toward maturity.

But this training is going to look different than, say, training to be an Olympic athlete or training to stop smoking. This training (or better yet, re-training) is actually to not to directly appeal to our will to change ourselves – “Stop it and start loving people more!” To put it another way, the disciplines themselves do not change us. Rather they open us up to God’s grace and power, making Jesus more beautiful so the Holy Spirit can enlarge our heart in character transformation. This training is more about using our will to offer/present ourselves to God – “Here I am. Change me.” The goal is not to try and fix or change ourselves – that is the role of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:7). The goal is putting ourselves in the stream of God’s grace as we open our hearts to Him through spiritual disciplines or practices.

In this way the training has to do with getting us to the end of ourselves in order that we might be filled through and through with Him. Another way to put this would be the spiritual training practices are intentional ways that we get to the end of our resources to fill ourselves, to control, to manipulate, in order that God’s Spirit might then work in our hearts to confront our poor beliefs and emotions, making us aware of our sin, then empowering us to live out the virtues. Over time this is how our character is changed. Dallas Willard was fond of saying, “God’s address is at the end of your rope” meaning God often does his best work when you are at the end of yourself. Every single spiritual discipline is intended to put you in that place.

What are these spiritual disciplines or practices? For the sake of simplicity, the spiritual disciplines/practices can be broken into two categories: rhythms and regimens. Rhythms are those practices that are regular occurrences – daily reading of God’s Word, prayer, fellowship/togetherness, Sunday worship/sabbath, talking to others about Christ (evangelism) as well as more neglected practices such as giving, hospitality, and service.

Again, these rhythms are intended to get us to the end of ourselves. For instance, when we read the Bible it’s not really for more information. In John 6, Jesus just issued some very divisive words about who He was. In short, if people were not going to share in His death and resurrection they would have no part of Him. When people heard Him say that they were to eat His body and drink His flesh, they not only didn’t understand it but they were shocked and on that day many ceased to follow Him. When Jesus asked the disciples if they wanted to leave, Peter said, “Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.” This is the heart of a disciple – one who approaches the Bible every day with the heart attitude of, “Lord, where else will I go? You alone have words that drip with a quality of life that I desperately want.”

The same could be said of prayer, worship, giving, etc. They all are regular ways of confronting our own self-sufficiency and leaning on His power, strength, and grace in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9-10). The point is not in what manner you should start the rhythms. The point is to start, get going! There are resources for how to read the Bible devotionally each day, but the point is to start even if it represents a small step.

D.A. Carson, For the Love of God

The Rigorous Christian Life

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training-planAn old friend once said to me, “I enjoy what’s easy. I don’t enjoy what’s hard.” I enjoy sitting around a table with people over good food and conversation. Equally, I enjoy taking a day off where I have nothing to do. Both require very little investment other than me showing up. Yet, I often find that what’s helpful for me is not completely enjoyable. For instance, I don’t really enjoy getting up at the crack of dawn to have a devotional time before I head to the gym. Both require an investment, a sacrifice, and neither are “fun” yet both are incredibly important.

When a person becomes a Christian for the first time there’s a certain ease to it. I remember what it was like as a grad student in Boulder thinking to myself, “I really enjoy my devotional time reading the Bible each day!” It felt easy to do; something I thought would travel with me for the rest of my life. To my shock, I soon discovered what I knew was helpful for me carried with it a certain resistance. I was even more shocked to realized how hard it was (is) for my character to change. I can practice putting a golf ball and become skilled at it. But how do I become proficient in becoming the right kind of person?

The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:7, “…but train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” There is a rigorous training in the Christian life but it’s not the kind of training that focuses primarily on your will to accomplish something. For instance, one should not look at the fruit of the Spirit, or any command in the Bible to be virtuous and approach it as if they could make themselves be “that”.

John Ortberg in The Life You’ve Always Wanted, taking his cue from Dallas Willard writes, “The Christian gospel insists that transformation of the human personality really is possible. Never easy. Rarely quick. But possible” There is a re-training that all of us who follow Christ are invited to enter into. It’s not forced. Nor does transformation happen magically. Rather, it’s something that we choose to enter into because we sense it’s actually the way to become the kind of person who look more like Christ. Yet, as Ortberg points out this training is neither easy nor quick.

Here’s one question: When you read over Galatians 5 and the fruit of the Spirit, granted it’s  a package deal as in singular “fruit”, can you identify one virtue that you know you lack in your character? What would your spouse or close friend say is an obvious “hole in your character”? If you now know that you can’t become “that” by just gritting your teeth and trying harder every day, there is now a gracious demand for you to enter into a rigorous re-training so your character is formed. Where do you start? More to come…

 

John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, p.9

Six Questions to Start the New Year

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There is a memorable line in The Shawshank Redemption that movie buffs quote regularly. At one point during a prison yard conversation, inmate Andy Dufresne says to Red” Redding, “Get busy living or get busy dying”. This statement becomes a key theme throughout the rest of the movie. It’s a great reminder to people that there really is no sense in which a person can put life on hold. For the Christian, even in the midst of hard situations, it’s imperative that we look for gracious opportunities to grow in sanctification.

With that said, here are some self-reflective questions that might help you get on the path of getting busy living life that has an eternal quality (John 10:10). In many ways, these questions reflect the heart of a person who follows Christ intently and not as “part of the crowd”.

1. “In what area of my life do I need to grow in wisdom?” (God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life by Timothy and Kathy Keller). I would recommend starting Keller’s year-long devotional book as a way to “get wisdom, get understanding” (Proverbs 4:5). All of us could use a bit more wisdom, with Jesus as the ultimate embodiment of wisdom (Col. 2:3).

2. What is one thing I can learn about the gospel in a fresh new way? How can Jesus become more real to me in my everyday life? We never get beyond the gospel. It’s something that is quite easy to understand yet it will take us our entire lives to reflect on both its beauty and complexity, noticing just how nuanced the good news to us really is. The more you think you are past the gospel and cease to wonder, the more you need to awaken to the fact that you missed something.

3. What is one spiritual practice that I can adopt as a “rhythm” or a “regimen”? A rhythm in the Christian life would be something done repeatedly daily or weekly as a natural rhythm (e.g. morning devotion or joining a Life Group). On the other hand, a regimen would be a spiritual practice done intensely for a short period of time (e.g. fasting, solitude or simplicity). If there is not some natural spiritual rhythm to your life (and I’m not counting, “I just go to church on Sunday morning”) then 2018 is a time to start by taking small steps. But for those of you who already have a natural spiritual rhythm to your life, it might be time to up the ante a bit. Remember all spiritual practices are a way to get you to the end of you and your power so in your weakness you rely more on God’s strength; to get you out of your comfort. As my friend Purity Nyamu wrote recently, “His abundance and my emptiness are a perfect match. I am designed to have no sufficiency on my own.”

4. Where is my life too comfortable and in what ways do I need to “lean into” faith in Christ in greater ways? A short word here. The default mode of our hearts is always to coast or to put our spiritual life on hold. Look at the number of justifications we offer why something would be “too hard” or “it’s not my calling” as a way to defer and deflect. In many ways, while my suburban life is pleasant, it can lead to a Christian faith that is nice and safe, without challenge. Jesus becomes something more like a cul-de-sac God than one who invites us into a life that feels unsafe. The issue for most of us isn’t toning down our faith because we are too “radical”. Our issue is that we don’t take the gospel seriously enough as it consistently should take us out of what’s safe and comfortable by challenging the status quo.

5. What is one topic I can learn more about? Take a topic in theology and spend a month reading, studying, and thinking more deeply than before. Or take an issue that connects to your faith, say, the wide divide between the races. Ask for suggestions of a book to read and go at it. You might find that the topic is more complex than you originally thought!

6. What is one vice (a habit or attitude of the heart that given the right conditions seems to consistently “leak” out of you) you can identify and begin the process of rooting out the sin that is really underneath the sin? Let’s face it, all of our behavioral sin has something ugly underneath it all. Where many bible teachers go wrong is they focus simply on the behavior without addressing anything that’s going on in the heart. Thomas a Kempis wrote in The Imitation of Christ, “Let us lay axe to the root, so that being purged of unruly passions we may have peace of mind. If every year we uprooted a single fault [vice], we should soon become perfect [mature]” (Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, translated by William Creasy). This is a great place to begin in prayer and then continue in conversation with a good friend who can offer a wise way to move forward. Remember that what we are aiming at is character transformation in us and not behavior modification.

These are just a few questions but hopefully it provides a great start to 2018 as you think about what God wants to do in you and through you! Solia Dei Gloria!

Do Dogs Go To Heaven?

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c & stormie copy.jpgThis Christmas morning I stood at the window looking out this beautiful sunny day with newly fallen snow and I had tears in my eyes. This weekend we had to put our family dog, Stormie, to sleep. It’s a brutal way for the family to spend Christmas but he was ready and it was time to say goodbye. In many ways, the house has been quieter without him. I’ve wondered if it’s crazy to feel so attached to a dog and to treat him as a part of the family but maybe writing this out will be a kind of therapy.

IMG_0005.jpgIt seems like a culturally western thing but it’s really amazing how dogs are a special gift from God. You bond with them in such a way that they really are a part of your life and all the traditions you have. In the story of our lives Stormie seemed to be this underlying consistency in the ups and downs of our life narrative. It was as if you could have the worst day in the world and for Stormie, this really was what the world was like – lots of kisses, snuggling, let’s play, and it’s time for a nap.

“Remember the time when Stormie…” was a constant thread in our family conversations. After hard days when the world was spinning off its axis, he greeted you at the door baring his teeth to give you his Aussie “smile”. When we were relocating to the Midwest and pulled into the hotel in Las Vegas, he was so excited to be in the room that he ran around and jumped up and down on both beds. Eventually he chose a bed to sleep on and let Chris share it with him.

IMG_0072When we were heading up to Milwaukee for Justin and Abby’s wedding a few years ago, Stormie bolted out the door and jumped right into the driver’s seat. It was as if he was saying, “I’m part of the family too!” It took us quite awhile to coax him out of the car and I think he was mad at us for being left behind (he would pee on one of the beds to punish us).

Or the time when we took him out to the high desert in California to test his herding instinct. He was put in a pen with three sheep and a border collie. As the sheep nervously bleated with this new “intruder” in their space, Stormie seemed more interested in the collie than he was with the sheep. After running around for awhile, Stormie jumped over the border collie and all of a sudden his herding instinct kicked in as he circled around the sheep. When one broke off, Stormie would go chase it back to the other two then circle around the other way. All I remember hearing is my boys proudly announcing, “That’s our dog!!” We knew he had it in him as he would often “herd” the boys nipping at them from behind leaving holes in their t-shirts.

IMG_0118.jpgThe last few months it was clear he was getting old but it never occurred to us how quickly his health would decline. His back legs had been giving out probably riddled with arthritic pain making it harder and harder for him to stand. On Saturday he just got tired of struggling to get up and it seemed like he knew it was time. The boys were home so we gathered in the kitchen to talk about it and we all agreed that it would be selfish for us to ignore reality. Stormie left quietly and peacefully with no struggle. It was if his face told us that he had finished what he came to accomplish in our family.

The last gift Stormie has given us (besides all the dog hair around the house) is learning how to grieve well. In all of this I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose a family member. A dog is one thing but to lose a family member must be so terribly frightening that it immobilizes a person. When C.S. Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer, he wrote in A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” At times I have felt like throwing up and the realization of little things like leaving a light on at night or getting ready to feed him often leave me feeling strangely sad and lonely wondering if there’s enough grace for tomorrow.

I have thought about the theological possibility of dogs existing in heaven. I had a respected philosophy professor in seminary who believed this to be true based on a dog’s soul and the imagery we are given of animals in the new creation. I tend to agree and I’d like to think as well that eternal life with the Triune God will be the fulfillment of our happiest memories in this life with Him at the center. Sometimes all we are left with are memories of what we lose in this life but maybe God gives us even these as gifts to hold on to an eternal hope.

IMG_0097.jpgStormie & Me.jpg