Spiritual Practices as Regimens


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


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


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


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?


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


Did God Really Forbid Interracial Marriage in the Old Testament?


It’s hard to believe that fifty years ago it was illegal to marry interracially in some parts of the U.S. The landmark case Loving v. State of Virginia, rightfully connected miscegeny (marriage across races) to a continued establishment of white supremacy1. All of this is important to me not only because of the ethics but also because in some states, my marriage to Kay might not have been possible.

If one does a cursory reading of the Bible a few strange things appear. On one hand, it seems as though God is committed to bless the entire world. In Exodus, Moses married a Cushite, an Ethiopian. Miriam seemed really concerned (Num.12:1) that her brother was marrying someone with “darker skin”, and for that God judged her with leprosy. Rahab, a Canaanite, is included in the “Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11) and is actually included in the ancestry of Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:5).

Yet, on the other hand, we read Deuteronomy 7:3-4, which seemingly bans interracial marriage being used by some who desperately want to keep white culture pure.

You shall not intermarry with [the nations]; you shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor shall you take their daughters for your sons. For they will turn your sons away from following Me to serve other gods; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you. (NIV)

This can be either a strong view which calls for complete separation as a way to purity or a weaker view which says, “Well, it’s better for their culture that those people stick to their own kind.” A good example of this was Bob Jones University which affirmed that the gospel is for the entire world yet in the same breath disallowed interracial dating a mere seventeen years ago!

Does the Bible prohibit marriage across racial lines? Can we affirm that in the Old Testament Yahweh warned Israel about marrying people outside of Israel’s boundaries because that would pollute racial purity? It seems very odd that in certain places the gospel seems to cross racial boundaries yet at the same time God calls for racial purity.

It’s best to see God’s warning as pertaining to religious devotion rather than racial purity. In other words, the point of the Old Testament warnings were to not to create a supreme racial/religious group but rather to protect God’s people from drifting religiously toward idols. So as John Piper wrote, “The issue is: Will there be one common allegiance to the true God in this marriage or will there be divided affections?’2” This also captures the New Testament exhortations to believers that marrying someone who is not “in Christ” (1 Cor. 7:39) and an active follower of Christ is only asking for problems (2 Cor. 6:14-15).

When Jesus brought His Kingdom all the conventional values were turned on their head. It’s the religious insiders who are really in trouble. How do you become rich? By declaring your poverty before God. How do you become strong? By embracing your weakness. How do you get a greater sense of self? By being humble. Who really gets included as those whom God loves and is committed to? Anyone who embraces Christ, regardless of their skin color, gender, and socio-economic status is welcomed into God’s family. In many ways, the visible church then is to picture this to a world that still seems to get stuck on differences.

1 I would encourage everyone to listen to NPR’s story this past week,“50 Years Later, ‘Loving’ Revisits The Landmark Supreme Court Ruling” NPR Loving v. Virginia

2 John Piper, a href=”http://www.desiringgod.org/messages/racial-harmony-and-interracial-marriage”>Racial Harmony and Interracial Marriage


Resources on the Spiritual Discplines


IMG_0262This is the last blog after last Sunday’s sermon. Some have asked me what are some good resources out there about the spiritual disciplines. Rather than giving you academic resources I’ve included more accesible resources.

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. A must have resource that not only describes the practice but offers some spiritual exercises that help “drive” the practice deeper than simply a bodily exercise. Calhoun also connects the action to a heart desire. Don’t be overwhelmed by the long list of disciplines nor should you approach them like a check list. Remember, you have a lifetime to practice!

Spiritual Disciplines for Life by Don Whitney. What’s outstanding about Whitney’s understanding of the disciplines is he connects real freedom that comes from the gospel to discipline – those who have disciplined themselves are most free. My only hesitation is I wish he had emphasized more that there is not a direct correlation between these spiritual practices and godliness (as if you do them and you will be godly). The fact that godly character will naturally come out of us as we “get on the highway” focusing our attention on the beauty of Christ, is apparent in later interviews and lectures he gave.

Habits of Grace by David Mathis. This is the newer book on the spiritual disciplines written by Mathis, who works for Desiring God Ministry. It’s a thoughful book that emphasizes not only our part but also God’s part in cultivating the fruit through His Spirit’s work. Where it succeeds in its practicality is he takes into account the multi-layered lives people are currently living and how we practice these disciplines.

Beloved Dust by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel. Yes, I forgot this but while the focus is on prayer, there are connections to our devotional time in God’s Word as well as the practice of silence. I know these two and they are gospel-centered while focusing less on moral formation but formation by the Spirit of God. That is a very important distinction as many of these practices can be taught by appealing directly to people’s will to “just do them”.  My first Life Group read through this and I would say we would all agree our prayer life benefitted!

Here are a couple of harder reads. As JP Moreland would say, “It’s always good to throw a few high and tight fastballs to keep people honest.”

Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. Truthfully, this is a book that you need to read with someone who can help you as a “guide”. It can be “thick” reading for some (I’ve had seminary students who had difficulty). That said, many of us look to the late Dr. Willard as the one who helped clear the fog in our thinking about what sanctification looks like in the Kingdom of God. From my experience, people get stuck with Willard’s anthropology (chapter 2 – The Heart in The System of Human Life) but reading the book is like sitting with your grandfather who turns out to be the wisest (and smartest) person you know.

Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Practices of Jonathan Edwards by Kyle Strobel. I wanted to list the book as pretty accessible but I’ve found that the theology of Jonathan Edwards and his practice is often difficult for people to fully take in.  This book will take some digesting on both ends of the theological spectrum. I wrote a note to myself in the beginning of the book that it will help those who are theologically minded to think more spiritually (the heart) and the spiritual formation fok to think more theologically.