Category: Spiritual Life

Dying to Live

For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Phil. 3:8-10.

The closer we come to Christ, the closer we experience life and death. Sounds a bit strange worded like that, but let’s talk about it. We experience life in the abundant life of the Spirit and we experience death in the areas of our lives that still yield to the flesh. Some things in our lives do not yield life and must be put to death to be recreated as something different. This paradox of life and death could be seen in Triumphal Entry celebrated just weeks ago before Easter. Life, liberty, and victory are so near. But so are death, pain and agony. Should we expect to bypass such sufferings in our own spiritual journey? I do not think so. The way to life is the way of the cross.

You may remember experiencing a growth spurt as a young child. The aches and pains in your legs may have woken you up in the middle of the night, as they did for me. At the end of such pain, we grow. My towering stature of 5’7 experienced many such spurts. Or maybe not enough, I can’t be sure. Think about an area of spiritual growth in your own life. How did you learn humility? By being humbled. How did you learn patience? By having to wait. While these sufferings do not compare to the cross, the elemental principle of the resurrection is shown in that death must precede life for life to be victorious over death. When we suffer, we become like Christ in his death. But in being raised to life, we also become like Christ and experience resurrection.

Our spiritual journey must continually experience death in order to proceed to new areas of life. This is the power of the resurrection. My pride must die and be resurrected as humility. My greed must be put to death and raised to life again as generosity. If there is no death of such things, there will be no resurrected life from them. We become stagnant and cease to grow.

It is so fitting for Easter to be celebrated in the Spring. The barren cold of winter yields to the natural progression of blossoming and nature’s yearly miracles. In nature we see a glimpse of our own resurrection, both in the new life Christ has given us and in the new life to come. It is as if creation affirms this, proclaiming, “Christ is Risen!” And our own hearts have risen from the grave and we’ve become a new creation. In becoming resurrected people, we have a new existence for a divine purpose.

In the words of poet-farmer-author Wendell Berry, “Practice resurrection.”

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New Years Resolutions and Their Shortcomings

Every year around this time, people look back on the previous year and evaluate the perceived successes and failures. For some it was a great year. For others it was one of the worst. Regardless of the previous year, many look to the upcoming year with hope. New Years Resolutions add to this hope. We think, “If I work harder this year, it will be a better year” or “If I just lose those 20 pounds the year will be much better.”

Well I’m here to say I think New Years Resolutions (NYRs) rely too heavily on human effort and therefore I think they are a waste of time. Sorry if I come across harsh. If you want to work harder, declaring it at the beginning of the year is a great idea, but you need something greater than yourself to sustain you in your day-to-day existence. This is why most people’s resolutions make no real impact on their lives. But another problem with NYRs is the importance placed on the single day of the new year. There is nothing magical or special about January 1. However there is something special about today.

Paul talks about the time to receive God’s grace:

Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation (2 Cor. 6:2 emphasis added).

Why wait for tomorrow for something that can be received today? Today is the day, not tomorrow. And the time to continually receive that grace will be each new day, not a day in the past or a day in the future. The individual day is the time to receive the power of God and be renewed and transformed by his grace. NYRs claim that if you will it to happen and keep it on the forefront of your mind you can change. We do not have the power to make ourselves “new creations” where “the old has passed away and the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:16).

The emphasis placed on the individual’s power and the importance of one day seems to be unproductive. The grace of God tells a different story. The opportunity for new beginning happens every single morning. But these new beginnings have nothing to do with our initiative. They only happen by the grace of God. If it wasn’t we would still be operating in a Yom Kippur-like system, where one day a year a priest made an offering to atone for our sins. We do not rely on one single day to be changed. It is his grace that changes us and his grace that sustains us. We do have to resolve to make changes, but it is the grace of God that allows such transformation to happen and I believe it is the work of the Spirit that brings about the thought of the change in the first place. Therefore, we need both discipline and grace. The problem with these resolutions is that they rely on the discipline and work of man and neglect the power of God. In discipline we faithfully try; but in grace He gloriously succeeds.

Here’s a practical suggestion: Resolve to give each day to the Lord at the very beginning of each day. Our days do not belong to ourselves. Each new day is a gift from God. If you want to be sustained throughout the day, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly” (Col. 3:16). Therefore, as much as it is possible, give the first part of your day to prayer and reading the Bible. In this you will be strengthened and nourished for the difficulties of the day. Bonhoeffer states in Life Together, “For Christians the beginning of the day should not be burdened and oppressed with besetting concerns for the day’s work.” Do not rely on yourself to get through the day but do as Psalm 63:8 says, “My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.”

My only New Years Resolution is to try to make the first thought of my day be of praise to God, thanking Him for his grace and spending time reading His Word and communing with Him in prayer. In that, I will be continually transformed by His grace and grow and change in the ways he leads.

Am I the Focus of my Faith?

Personal Lord and Savior

I find it interesting that such a common phrase in Christian-speak is found no where in the Bible. It seems as if it would be because of how often it is used. Lord and Savior are used throughout, but the personal has been added. There is nothing inherently wrong with the statement, but it leaves out a key part of what it means to be a child of God: I am a child among many children. Professing faith in Christ is an invitation to a royal family. I understand the phrase’s meaning of the lordship of Christ and the fact that we know him and he knows us. But I believe our understanding of the redemption story must go beyond ourselves so we can see the big picture clearly. If not, the object of faith can become something other than what it should be.

I may be totally wrong in my thinking, I’m still working it out in my mind. I’ve been thinking about it in this analogy:

Suppose an aging, loving father has recently come into a large amount of money and has decided to spread the wealth among his 4 children. He has one million dollars and splits it evenly four ways so that each child receives a quarter of a million dollars. He loves them equally, how could he give more inheritance to one?

The old man sits his children down and tells them the news. They are excited, to say the least. When he explains that each child is getting a quarter of the share, there was some confusion and bitterness.

“Your oldest child does not come around here anymore. How is he worthy?”

“This youngest child is not responsible. How can you give him so great a gift?”

You get the picture. But the father is giving each one an equal share in the inheritance. It is not based on merit nor is it concerned with his favorites (he does not actually have any). No matter how close their relationship, each child received the same share. Surely some are in fact closer to him than the others, but he loves them all the same. Their proximity to the father can not raise their inheritance. This gift is personal in the sense that he has a relationship with each of them and loves them dearly. However it is not only a personal gift because it is given to the group. The monetary gift was not about an individual, it was about a family of individual members. If one child is trying to convince themselves the gift was really given because the father loved them the most, they have formed a strange concept of nepotism that does not seem to align with the wishes of the father.

The gift is personal to each child, but the focus should be on the giver of the gift; not the recipient. This is why I am much more comfortable with the terms Lord and Savior because it describes his Lordship in our lives as well as the salvation he alone provides. God is a relational God, but He is not only relational to me. He is relational to all.

Sometimes it is easy to view salvation as something I possess rather than the new creation I become and the new faith community I join. If I do this, I have effectually made salvation about me, not about God’s grace and mercy. This can be a dangerous road to travel. This is not to say that I don’t personally know Christ, because I do. But I know Christ in the context of all others who know Him as well. The salvation story thankfully includes me, but it is not centered on me. Nor should it be. Any thinking about salvation that is more centered on ourselves rather than God is missing the point.

However, I’m not saying God does not care about us as individuals. He created us and He knows us more than anyone else. He cares about the little details of our lives. Seeing salvation in the big picture gives us an even bigger picture of God. If he knows me this intimately then He knows everyone else on earth in the same way. What an amazing testament of his wisdom, power and sovereignty.

Pastor, Come Preach to My Neighbors.

I recently listened to a radio interview with Steven Johnson who is the author of the book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. In the book, he discusses what can happen when political movements and technological advancements begin at the individual and small group level rather than starting at the top and trickling down. In short, it’s much more effective. I have not read the book, but heard him discuss some of the topics with the radio host as well as engaging with some callers.

What was interesting was that Johnson was talking about this like it was something brand new. Maybe in the book he explains that it is not, but the interview proved otherwise. I immediately jumped to Jesus’ discipleship methods and his sending of his disciples to change the world. He wasn’t going to stick around and do all the work himself. Rather, he would equip his closest followers to accomplish his purposes on earth after he ascended into heaven. But he promised he would always be with us through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is nothing new, but it made me think about how great things can happen when the people of God living with purpose and working in their communities, neighborhoods, and families.

Then I had this simple thought.

It’s not my pastor’s job to change my neighborhood.

It’s my job.

Seems pretty simple. What I mean by this is that sometimes I delegate the “hard” jobs to the “professionals” thereby granting myself the excuse to remain comfortable. It makes no logical sense to expect Pastor Greg or anyone else to come speak to my neighbors and preach the Gospel to them. The Lord has placed leadership in their current position to equip, encourage and inspire their flock to be agents in the Kingdom wherever they go. But this doesn’t mean they are the only ones responsible for doing Kingdom work. It is extremely lazy and against the teachings of Jesus to expect someone else to engage people you know with the Gospel.

I live where I live for a reason. I drink coffee where I drink coffee for a reason. Recognizing and acting on these divine placements is what it means to live missionally.

The Baffled Mind.

I’ve enjoyed reading Wendell Berry lately. I suppose I’m a bit late to the club on this one, but nonetheless I’ve had the pleasure of reading some of his poems specifically.

I came across a quote from him that resonated greatly with the way that we work and the resistance we encounter. We balance the vision and the practical task itself. The dream and the reality. There is so much wisdom in his words. I hope you enjoy this quote and gain from it something meaningful.

There are, it seems, two muses: the Muse of Inspiration, who gives us inarticulate visions and desires, and the Muse of Realization, who returns again and again to say “It is yet more difficult than you thought.” This is the muse of form. It may be then that form serves us best when it works as an obstruction, to baffle us and deflect our intended course. It may be that when we no longer know what to do, we have come to our real work and when we no longer know which way to go, we have begun our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.

Wendell Berry

Tasks that are worthwhile will surely come upon resistance. Read the stories of any successful business, organization or church ministry. Look at the life of Christ. Every word Jesus spoke was scrutinized by religious leaders and they challenged him every step of way. Even his own disciples questioned his decisions at times. It’s safe to say that resistance may come at every single turn. But according to Berry that is where the real work begins.

-SHF

The Dangerous Act of Counting the Cost.

Being a follower of Christ must cost something. Maybe everything. If it does not, you are: 1.) In denial, 2.) in for a rude awakening, and/or 3.) misunderstanding Jesus’ call to be a disciple.

Jesus himself says that following him and being his disciple will demand that we abandon earthly concerns and fix our focus on the kingdom of God. In Matthew 8:18-22, Jesus gives the command that the dead should bury their own dead. Looking to the Jewish context of the exchange, the man who said he had to bury his father did not mean his father was literally dead and he had to go bury him. Messianic Jewish scholar David Stern explains that this statement meant that “[this man] wished to go home, live in comfort with his father till his death perhaps years hence, collect his inheritance and then, at his leisure, become a disciple.” This was not the kind of allegiance Jesus was seeking. As much as I try to rationalize it, there really is no way to be a part-time disciple. For the believer seeking to grow, this is the equivalent of deciding to eat only 1 small meal per week on a Sunday and hoping you still get all the nutrients you need to be healthy.

The desires of the flesh take precedence over our desire to be faithful disciples of Christ. Jesus’ response to the man was clear: we must not leisurely be disciples on our own timetable, following Jesus at our own pace. That is not discipleship focused on Christ and the Kingdom, rather it is focused on our own comforts. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Discipleship is not an offer that man makes to Christ.” Christ is the one who makes the offer, and it is on his terms. And it should be this way. The one who is greater must be discipling those who are lesser. However, we are often blinded by our own will and desires and begin to dictate the terms of this sacred, greater and lesser, transformative relationship.

I believe this is why so many people fall away from the faith: it might end up costing more than you are willing to give. Anything that is held dear may be commanded to be relinquished for the good of the Kingdom and for the spiritual growth of the individual. Being a disciple is dangerously adventurous; for one can never know where, when or how the Lord chooses to use his disciples.

I believe there is a difference between casual followership and active discipleship. A disciple is continually striving to me like the one discipling. George Barna noted the difference between simply following and being a disciple when he said, for the first disciples, “being a follower of Christ was an all-consuming obsession.” One is not being a disciple if the desire to be made into the likeness of Christ is delegated to a service on Sunday and a small group study during the week. The obsessive, zealot-like attitude is what separates a disciple from a follower. From this disctinction, all disciples are followers of Jesus but not all followers are faithful disciples. Barna further explains this point by explaining his followership of the Yankees does not come to the point of being obsessed. He remains a casual follower and is content to stay that way. The Yankees winning or losing doesn’t really influence his day-to-day life. Following Jesus in the form of active, obsessive discipleship demands much more commitment than the way a casual follower keeps up with a sports team.

-Stewart

Ears to Hear: Parables and Beatles Bass Lines.

As a musician, it always surprises me that I can listen to a song that I’ve heard hundreds of times and suddenly “find” something new. Sometimes it is a very subtle part or something layered deep within the mix. Sometimes it is something that seems distinctly obvious but is being overshadowed by something that caught my ear first. Either way, it is always a joy to listen to a song and come away with a new perspective on the contents.

I’ll never forget the moment I was most impacted by Paul’s bass playing. I was in a hotel room in Paris and was winding down after a long day of sightseeing. Having spent a week in England prior to this, I found it fitting to listen to some Beatles as I was going to sleep. I had also just finished reading Here, There Everywhere so I was listening to their albums a bit differently and much more critically. The movement, precision and subtle genius on “Lovely Rita” from Sgt. Peppers literally sat me up in my bed. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The song had new life. The low end was driving the song and I could then hear nothing but the bass line. From then on, the entire album sounded different as I honed in on different parts. I’m sure I had heard these things before, but now I heard them.

He who has ears, let him hear. (Matt. 13:9)

Jesus talked about this kind of listening when he explained his parables. It is one thing to listen to the story he is telling, but it is another thing completely to fully understand the message and apply it to my life. The other day I came across a quote from Soren Keirkegaard on how we as Christians react to the teachings of the Bible:

The matter is quite simple. The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close.

Reading the teachings of Jesus inspires two responses: to follow or not to follow. There really is no in between. In our society, it is so unpopular to be black and white, but these aren’t my words, they are Jesus’ (Matt. 6:24). When we read his words, we must be willing for our lives to be open to whatever way he may bring about his Kingdom on earth. Having ears to hear might mean doing something radical. Or it might be abiding in his presence, trusting and being content in where you are. That is the power of such divine revelation. As we contemplate, pray and obey it changes they way we see the world. And it changes us.

I think about what “Lovely Rita” would sound like without that bass line. It would probably be quite boring and would lack the spark that gives the song such energy. I don’t want a “bass-less” version of my faith. I desire wisdom, knowledge and understanding rather than ignorance, comfort and safety. Following Jesus demands much more than casually reading his teachings and accepting them as nice stories. What he desires for us is life, freedom and joy that comes from humbly obeying his perfect teachings.

He who has ears, let him hear.

-SHF

Cultural Surroundings: A Lesson from Catholics in Mexico.

I seem to often write about culture and how the church should respond to cultural shifts. Clearly, the Church must not be an isolated club, but an living body that engages with culture in a way that represents the teachings of Christ.

James K.A. Smith posted recently on Twitter that the church needs to move past simply acknowledging that the church cares about culture and move further towards to the question of how we do that. Pragmatically, this is quite challenging. Many churches are doing a great job. I love hearing about the amazing work that goes on at the Dream Center here in North Charleston. Living Bread is another fantastic ministry planting churches among the global poor. It is my firm belief that one of the best ways to accomplish the task of caring for culture is simply to find ways to serve our communities in the name of Christ. I also believe that looking at some cases in history could be quite revealing in the way we are to engage (and hopefully change) culture and avoid some mistakes that have been made in the past. I love researching and it didn’t take long to find a good example.

One case is the Catholic church’s presence in Mexico after a series of political changes that took place during the middle of the 19th Century involving Mexico and the US. The religious and political climate in Mexico was changing drastically, and the Catholic authorities from Rome sent many new ministers from the East to assist in the expansion process. The previous generation of priests had great concerns for the poor and often chose to live amoung the poor in order to best serve them. The newer generation did things a bit differently. Where the church went wrong was that the newer generation of priests sought to impose Eastern ways of doing church onto the Mexican people. As Justo Gonzalez stated, “the new [priests] brought from the East…mostly settled among the English-speaking settlers and were content with saying mass for the deprived Mexicans.” That doesn’t sound like the Gospel being lived out in our lives: serving the poor, giving to the needy, caring for the widows, orphans and least of these, etc. It sounds like having a church service on Sunday morning and being content with that being the extent of the church’s involvement in the community.

What can we learn from this account in history? 5 things:

1.) We must never place our own comfort or preferences above people we are trying to impact with the Gospel.

2.) In the honest attempt to administer the Truth, we must continually be aware of physical needs of people in the congregation. Then find ways to meet that physical need. This is administering the gospel by deed.

3.) What works with one congregation will not work with all. And that’s okay. But we need to be flexible in realizing something may not be working and find a better way that fits the cultural context more appropriately.

4.) Cultural change may not always come from the top and move downward in the hierarchal chain. Sometimes change happens from the ground up. (The rest of the story in Mexico involves the excommunication of Father Antonio Jose Martinez by the Catholic Church for his refusal to take unnecessary funds from the poor in his area. He continued serving the poor, regardless of his excommunication.)

5.) When the Church is separated from the poor, it is no longer acting like the Church.

While caring for the poor may not always be the most popular decision, it is one that must not be overlooked if communities are going to be changed, lives are to be impacted, and more and more families come into knowledge of the saving grace of Christ from the witness of His Church in the world. It also takes individuals who are willing to step out and be the hands and feet of Christ for a hurting and desperate world.

If you are interested in reading more about this portion of Christian history, check out The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to Present Day by Justo Gonzalez, especially chapters 27 and 29.

Worshipping From the Ground Up.

One of the reasons I love history is because I enjoy studying how something came to be. Whether it is the origin of a nation, discovering the journeys of influential people or surveying the evolution of a particular way of thinking, I love to discover the entire story of the topic right from the very beginning. It is no secret that many great things have humble origins. The savior of the universe was born to an average family in a stable. Look at influential corporations like Apple and Starbucks. They started somewhere, and it wasn’t always glamourous.

Worship must have humble beginnings as well. Worship that originates from any kind of pride or lofty selfish ambition will surely fall face first eventually. So it is best to start with your nose to the ground, so to speak.

In Engaging with God, David Peterson provides a great explanation of the definition of worship and how it encourages such humble beginnings. The Greek word “to worship” (proskynein) is most commonly translated as a gesture of kneeling or prostration while some believe it also references to a kiss of respect or adoration. Either way, one party is greater than the other and the lesser is giving honor to the greater. Peterson also provides an interesting elaboration of the word’s meaning. He says that it is similar to the customs of the time described as “casting oneself on the ground, as a total bodily gesture of respect before a great one, kissing his feet, the hem of his garment or the ground.” I believe this sheds light on the expected attitude of our hearts when it comes to worship. I find this definition amazingly revealing about how I am called to live a lifestyle of worship that continually seeks to honor the one greater than myself.

This lifestyle of worship must be cognizant of God’s presence in our lives. But the simple awareness of his presence in our lives is not enough. We must respond and it is the recognition of that beautiful reality that leads us to the level of devotion and worship which God alone is worthy to receive. When our eyes are opened to the wonders He is working, worship is the only appropriate response. But we can’t see those things if we aren’t spiritually (and sometimes physically!) prostrate towards God.

Worship must be preceded by humility.

Seems pretty simple. But it isn’t that easy.

I’m guilty of attempting to worship God in addition to something else. That is worship preceded by something other than bringing praise to God. My idols include myself, my family, culture, music, Christian culture, etc. My concerns over other areas of my life will gradually work themselves out as I continually remind myself of the need be entirely prostrate before an awesome and mighty God. And I need to be reminded of this need daily, hourly and sometimes every 3 minutes.

Take a minute and take note of His mighty presence in your life. Consider His power, His majesty and the depths of His love and mercy. Respond in humility and respond in worship.

The Questions:

What am I bowing towards?

Is my worship originating from a place of humility or a place of anything else?

Is my worship the entire gesture of spiritual prostration or simply the portion of my soul I’m willing to give up?

-SHF

Which Language(s) Am I Speaking?

I have always enjoyed reading National Geographic. Seeing that yellow outlined magazine in the mailbox is one major highlight of every month. When I was a kid, my grandpa gave me a disposable camera and I was so frugal with each one of those shots because I felt one would surely be used by NG. It didn’t happen but I kept reading the magazine.

July’s issue had a fantastic article about languages and the high number of languages that are fading into oblivion because of the lack of interest of younger generations to learn and understand the languages of their ancestors. The article reports that Earth’s 7 billion people speak around 7,000 languages. The world’s smallest 3,500 languages share a meager 8.25 million speakers while the 85 largest language speakers make up seventy-eight percent of the world. That was a lot of numbers. But here’s the meat: linguists predict that within a century, half of the worlds languages will disappear. Some of these languages have only 1 or 2 remaining speakers while others have a few thousand. It’s not my intention to summarize the whole article so check it out sometime, its definitely worth reading.

As I was reading this article I was thinking about the way the church engages with the world. What a broad thought. Let me elaborate. There is a small tribe in Mexico that speak Seri. The Seris are vehemently defensive of their language and cultural identity. They even killed a priest who established a Spanish speaking mission in their area. When the Seri speakers started driving cars, they didn’t adopt the Spanish words for car parts, they made up their own words in their native tongue. Their nomenclature is still dependent on the words of their own language. They may slightly evolve with the culture around them, but they don’t allow the culture to change their language.

The Church is not meant to be an esoteric club that speaks a language no one on the outside understands like the Seris and others like them. In order to have any impact on our communities they must understand what we are actually saying. But we must be defenders of who we are and aware of the influence that culture can have on what we do and what we say. Unlike our contextual surroundings, we have something imperishable and victoriously death-conquering that should shine like a city on a hill. (1 Peter 1:3-5, I Cor. 15:56-58, Matt. 5:14). That’s something better than anything our current culture has to offer.

Therefore, the language of the Church (The Word of God) doesn’t need additions to its vocabulary. When we try to subtly alter that language, as people have done for centuries, we are left with a dialect or strange accent that is much different from the original. Our culture doesn’t need to find accommodations for the Word of God, our hearts need to be immersed in it so we can confront and eventually impact the culture. When culture, which is secular, drives the ship you hit end up hitting land. If some cultural development begins to change the tongue of the Church, it becomes a dangerous encroachment on a precious language that must be preserved at all costs. These developments come in all kinds of packages, so its imperative to filter every move, every change, every decision and every motive through the truth of God’s Word. Those cultural advancements have no power to change lives. The language and message of Truth does.

The Questions:

In what ways do I speak the language of culture rather than the language of Truth?

How can I confront my culture’s way of speaking with the words written in Scripture?

Which language does my heart speak?

-SHF