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Archive for Spiritual Formation


Does Your Heart Condemn You?

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“Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And by this we will know that we are from truth and we will reassure our hearts before him whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Beloved, if our hearts do condemn us, we have boldness before God, and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.” (1 John 3:18-22)

What does John mean when he writes that our hearts can condemn us? In short, it is the internal feeling that I am not right; that something is askew. Our hearts can tell us that we are wrong, leading to shame, and that we have done wrong things, leading to guilt. So how does this work?

First, our hearts can condemn us for who we are. We can feel condemned because of our race or our gender. We can feel it in our unhealthy body image issues or an unrealistic view of our physical appearance. We sense it in our lack of income. We don’t have the right clothes or the right cars. Or we didn’t get the right degree because we weren’t smart enough. It is the essence of dissatisfaction and being somehow incomplete. Or, “I am not good enough, therefore, I am not good at all.”

Another way that our hearts can condemn us is for where we are. We live in the wrong suburb, neighborhood, or kind of house. We have the wrong job or career. We went to the wrong schools. It can even be that we were born into the wrong family or married the wrong person.

A third way that our hearts condemn us is because of what we do. This includes our sins, but extends to our mistakes and failures. It can even involve the opportunities that we’ve missed or didn’t take complete advantage of. It comes when we make the wrong decision or waited too long to make the right one. We made a purchase creating debt when we should have been patient and paid cash. Our actions condemn us actively and passively.

Isn’t it fascinating that John’s first century audience struggled with the same kind of contemporary issues that we wrestle with today? His encouraging word that lifts us from guilt and shame and sets our feet on hope is that “God is greater than our hearts.” Those committees that live in our heads that condemn us do not hold the majority opinion of who we are, where we are, or what we’ve done. God has the last word on that. It is important for us to remember that he loves us, accepts us, and cares for us in spite of everything. We are valuable because God says we are valuable. Nothing we can do can compete with that!

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What Is Your Priority?

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From Essentialism, by Greg McKeown: The word priority came into the English language in the 1400s. It was singular. It meant the very first or prior thing. It stayed this way for the next 500 years. Only in the 1900s did we pluralize the term and start talking about priorities. Illogically, we reasoned that by changing the word we could bend reality. Somehow we would now be able to do multiple first things. People and companies routinely try to do just that. This gave the impression of many things being the priority, but actually meant nothing was.

McKeown’s words created a pause when I first read them. Like many, I was conditioned to think of having many priorities, and I categorized them according to my spirituality, my family, my relationships, my physical health, my personal finances, my work, and my intellectual and emotional well being. Each of these categories had sub categories, with goals and action plans. All were, in my own thinking, my priorities, but upon reflection, was my feeble attempt to “have it all.” The pursuit of all of those priorities was demanding, leaving me overwhelmed and governed the tyranny of the urgent. Having multiple priorities complicated things and resulted in chaos. Establishing one priority creates simplicity and order.

His words reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi. “I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us” (Philippians 3:13-14, NLT). Faith was not an important part of Paul’s life. It was his life. His faith served as the litmus test which ordered everything else. It doesn’t mean that Paul didn’t do other things or have meaningful relationships. For a while he held down a job as a tentmaker. He had numerous relationships with people he called friends. He developed a strategy for planting faith communities in towns that didn’t have a Christian presence. Paul developed people and leaders of people. He also had an extensive writing career. But each of those served the greater good of one priority. Having one priority doesn’t mean you only do one thing. However, having one priority governs every thing else you do, if you even do it at all.

Maybe instead of getting our priorities in order, its better to discover the “one thing” and focus there. No, we can’t have it all or do it all. But we can identify and pursue what is best and finally discover the freedom and power that comes by being able to say “no.”

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The Goal of Faith is Clarity

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“The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” — Paul Tillich

For many years I equated faith with certainty, a kind of “know so” posture that could rest in having all the answers. I began with certainties about who God is and my eternal destination in heaven. From those two foundational blocks I attempted to back into the grind of everyday living, believing that I could have the same level of certainty about life and its perplexities. But it didn’t always work out that way. The everlasting problem of evil, for example, left me confounded. Every time I watched the news or witnessed the personal struggles of humankind, I found myself frustrated that I didn’t have the certainty that I felt I was entitled to have.

Daily faith is more related to clarity than certainty. Faith is not an answer to every question. Faith certainly includes questions, but the goal of faith is the process of learning. The outcome of faith, in my personal experience, is not an answer, or even the answer. The outcome of faith is the next better question. Faith is humble. Certainty is arrogant. Faith is directional. Certainty is explicit. Faith focuses us on the future and hope. Certainty is formed by and bound to the past.

Abram left the land of Ur with clarity, but not certainty. He was directed to go to a land he would be shown upon arrival where he would father a child in his impossible old age. He was promised to become the father of a great nation as numerous as the stars in the heaven, yet he only had one son. Abram knew the general direction of what, but wasn’t given the certainty of how or when. My American faith struggles to separate those nuances.

Here’s what has been helpful as I distinguish the two. Clarity is expressed in stories. Certainty is expressed in rules. Clarity possesses curiosity about other points of view. Certainty has little if any curiosity. Clarity embraces knowing what you don’t know. Certainty doesn’t know what it doesn’t know and doesn’t care to learn. Clarity emerges in the space between insight and action, comfortable with the direction its heading but flexible about the detail of how you’re going to get there. Certainty demands rigid formulas and processes with little room for variance. Clarity fosters trust and confidence. Certainty demands detailed explanation and guarantees.

Don’t get me wrong, I would love to live life filled with guarantees. But it’s not real. Each of us is only one test result or phone call away from being turned inside out and having our certainty shattered. Clarity empowers us to ride the waves of life’s undulations and ride the storm out until the clouds clear and the sun emerges. If I walk in clarity rather than certainty I can manage life free from resentment of the storms and see that I have grown from the experience.

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Are You a Critical Person?

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“Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them.” (Ephesians 4:29, NLT)

Are you a critical person? I’m not talking about critical in the sense of vital importance, as in you play a critical role in an organization. Neither do I intend it in the sense of someone who appraises art or writes food or movie reviews. I’m talking about the kind of critic that negatively criticizes someone else or someone else’s work, usually excusing it with the postscript “I’m my own worst critic,” which may or may not be true. Some Bible translations treat the words “critical” and “judgmental” interchangeably. Being judgmental is the every day person’s description of being critical.

Being critical (or judgmental if you prefer) produces several negative implications in one’s life, even if much of it is unspoken. Let me give you six and please feel free to add to it if you wish.

  1. Being critical keeps us focused on ourselves and our own elevated opinions, resulting in unhappiness. It causes us to lose objectivity, perspective, and even our sense of humor.
  2. Being critical blocks us from positivity and creativity, rendering us ineffective in solving even the simplest of life’s problems.
  3. Being critical prevents us from having and maintaining authentic, meaningful relationships, and will often result in retaliation and resentment.
  4. Being critical makes it impossible to live in the flow of the Holy Spirit’s love, grace and mercy. (see Ephesians 4:30-32)
  5. Being critical usurps the work of God’s Spirit in the life of another being. If we honestly do see a character flaw in someone else we need to remember that God has not delegated that particular work to us. God has no deputy judges.
  6. Left unchecked, being critical will sow a field of pride that will produce a harvest of hubris, self-righteousness, and fear. Yes, fear.

The number one sin Jesus spoke against was against the sin of being judgmental. In the Sermon on the Mount he even went so far as to say that the standard that we use to judge others will be the same standard God will use to judge us. (Matthew 7:1-2) I can only speak for myself, but I would rather be judged according to God’s grace and mercy, and not my own standard of excellence.

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Keep Your Chin Up!

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“But you, O Lord, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high.” (Psalm 3:3, NLT)

Any time I would get down or discouraged when I was a kid my dad used to tell me to keep my chin up. I understood the metaphor and interpreted it as “don’t be discouraged,” “don’t get down on yourself,” and “don’t give up.” He was always positive and surrounded himself with like minded people. But sometimes that’s easier said than done. The world can be a dark place, filled with negative people, so much so that when someone is eternally optimistic they are judged as outliers who are unrealistic. Life is hard, filled with hard events that harden people. It’s easy to drop your chin and keep it there.

The problem with having your chin down is that it changes your focus. When your chin is down, the majority of what you see is yourself. Try it and see. If you drop your chin to your chest you become the center of your own attention. But when your chin is up you don’t see any of yourself. Again, try it and see. Your focus shifts from self to the world around you which changes your attention and ultimately your direction.

The gospel of Jesus Christ is good news. Inherent in that fact is that the gospel is positive news. God’s intent is for us to keep our chin up so that we can see the people and problems we can serve in his name. And when we can’t seem to find it in ourselves to keep our chins up, he intervenes to be the lifter of our heads and hold them high.

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My (un)Biased Thinking

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My friend Matt recently shared a podcast series titled Learning to See, produced by the Center for Action and Contemplation and hosted by Brian McLaren, Richard Rohr, and Jacqui Lewis. This series suggests 13 different biases that we can have, each serving as a lens through which we view the Bible, culture and current events. Here is the list, complete with a brief description of each. For the purpose of the podcast’s discussion, bias is defined as our “precritical (or prejudiced) inclination toward what we see or think.”

  1. CONFIRMATION BIAS. The human brain welcomes information that confirms what it already thinks and resists information that disturbs or contradicts what it already thinks.
  2. COMPLEXITY BIAS. The brain prefers a simple lie over a complex truth.
  3. COMMUNITY BIAS. It is very hard to see something that your “group” does not want you to see.
  4. COMPLIMENTARITY BIAS. If people are nice to you, you will be open to what they see and think. If they are not nice, you won’t.
  5. CONTACT BIAS. If you lack personal contact with someone, you won’t see what they see. In other words, put on the other person’s shoes and try to see from their perspective.
  6. CONSERVATIVE / LIBERAL BIAS. Our brains like to see what our political party sees and aligns itself accordingly.
  7. CONSCIOUSNESS BIAS. A person’s level of consciousness makes seeing some things possible and some as impossible. Our brains see from a location.
  8. COMPETENCY BIAS. We are incompetent in knowing how competent or incompetent we really are, se we may see less or more than we do. Our brains prefer to think of ourselves as above average.
  9. CONFIDENCE BIAS. Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.
  10. CONSPIRACY BIAS. Our brains like stories and narratives that cast us as either the hero or the victim. Never the villain.
  11. COMFORT BIAS. Our brains welcome data that allows us to be happy and relaxed and rejects data that creates discomfort.
  12. CATASTROPHE BIAS. Our brains recognize sudden changes for the worse, but miss the subtle changes taking place over time. The brain is wired for normalcy.
  13. CASH BIAS. It is hard to see anything that interferes with our way of making a living. We see and think in accordance to our personal economies.

Granted, that’s quite a list, and its hard to admit that I would be guilty of possessing any of them, even periodically. I can concede that some of these are easier to recognize in my thinking than others. But recognizing that these are possible is the first step in overcoming them. Having been exposed to that possibility creates a responsibility to monitor myself and self correct when I sense they are present. Finally, I have the opportunity to then enter into constructive conversations where humility trumps hubris and certainty. Old dogs can learn new tricks, but only if they’re willing and open to learn. Stripping away biases one by one has the potential to elevate our thinking from secondary sources that are satisfied to overhear toward having convictions that are rooted in principles and values. For more information on The Center for Action and Contemplation, check out www.cac.org. The Learning to See podcast is available at your preferred podcast app.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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More Like King Saul?

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There would be little dispute that the most familiar Old Testament Bible story is the epic battle between David and Goliath. Sunday School teachers, Sunday morning preachers, high school coaches, and a host of others have leaned into this passage to describe how strength is overcome by weakness, evil surrenders to good, and big is no match for small, provided God is in the mix. I’ve heard a lot of sermons on the text and have preached a few myself. The major themes never grow old.

My friend Greg sent me an email the other day about this passage that has occupied my recent thoughts. What if I identify with Saul’s character instead of David’s? What if I don’t identify with David and his glorious victory? What if David is the Christ figure in the story, and I’m the desperate one unable to bring his own victory? Think about it for a moment.

First, Christ offers to fight the giants that we don’t have the strength to fight or the ability to defeat on our own (1 Samuel 17:32). I know, preachers like me love to beat on King Saul for being weak and unable to face the giants of life, let alone defeat them. But as I think about my personal giants, I actually am like Saul, bunkered down on the hillside paralyzed at the thought of my next possible move. David recognized Saul’s weakness, just as Jesus recognizes mine and offers to take my place.

Second, pride and absence of faith creates a reluctance to concede defeat and ask for divine intervention (1 Samuel 17:33). It’s kind of ironic that we can recognize our own need yet simultaneously reject God’s help. Why do we do that? Pride will bind us and blind us to the possibilities that can happen if we’ll only quit gripping to our egos. Pride and faith cannot peaceably coexist.

Next, fear can cause us to focus so much on the present danger that we forget the past faithfulness of God (1 Samuel 17:34-36). Saul needed to understand that David had faced overwhelming odds before and emerged victorious. The daily practice of gratitude will allow us to see God’s prior faithfulness and find security in his present ability.

Finally, the key to victory is ultimately surrender. When we fully surrender, the giants that make us feel diminished and block us from God are defeated and removed (1 Samuel 17:45-50). It is in the moment of surrender that we discover that God is able and willing to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. Ultimate surrender comes at the realization that we’re defeated before the battle has even begun.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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A Checklist for Humility

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As you can note from my reading list, I have included a book that is a compilation of men and women from antiquity who have written on the subject of spiritual formation. We have Richard Foster and James Bryan Smith to thank for sifting through thousands of pages to produce a work that I use in my daily readings.

I’m not one to simply recount the work of others, but when I came across the work of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1677) on the subject of humility, I found it too good to keep to myself. Taylor, in his book titled, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living, shares twenty (20) points on humility.

  1. Do not think better of yourself because of any outward circumstance that happens to you.
  2. Humility does not consist in criticizing yourself, or wearing ragged clothes, or walking around submissively wherever you go. Humility consists of a realistic opinion of yourself.
  3. When you hold this opinion of yourself, be content that others think the same of you.
  4. Nurture a love to do good things in secret, concealed from the eyes of others, and therefore not highly esteemed because of them.
  5. Never be ashamed of your birth, of your parents, or your present employment, or the lowly status of any of them.
  6. Never say anything, directly or indirectly, that will provoke praise or elicit compliments from others.
  7. When you do receive praise for something you have done, take it indifferently and return it to God (or reflect it back to God).
  8. Make a good name for yourself by being a person of virtue and humility.
  9. Do not take pride in any praise given to you.
  10. Do not ask others about your faults with the intent or purpose to have others tell you of your good qualities.
  11. When you are slighted by someone, or feel undervalued, do not harbor any secret anger, supposing that you actually deserved praise or they neglected to praise you because of their own envy.
  12. Do not entertain any of the devil’s whispers of pride, which will only expose the heart’s true wishes.
  13. Take an active part in the praising of others, celebrating their good with delight.
  14. Be content when you see or hear that others are doing well in their jobs and with their income, even when you are not.
  15. Never compare yourself with others unless it be to advance your impression of them and lower your impression of yourself.
  16. The truly humble person will not only look admirably at the strengths of others, but will also look with great forgiveness upon the weaknesses of others.
  17. Do not constantly try to excuse all of your mistakes.
  18. Give God thanks for every weakness, fault, and imperfection you have.
  19. Do not expose others’ weaknesses in order to make them feel less able than you.
  20. Remember that what is most important to God is that we submit ourselves and all that we have to him.

Taylor concludes with this insight: “Humility begins as a gift from God, but it is increased as a habit we develop. That is, humility is increased by exercising it.”

Like me, you’ve probably thought of most of these at one time or another. I’m thankful Jeremy Taylor had the discipline to put all of them in a listing that can be used as a checklist for my personal progress.

“Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up on honor.” (James 4:10 NLT)

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For Cave Dwellers Only, Part 2

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What lessons are available in the cave? Let me share four for your consideration. First, when you find yourself in a cave, remember you’re in the cave with a King. Those who gathered there may not have recognized David as such in that moment, but it was true nonetheless. This reminds us that we are not alone! King Jesus is with us in the depths and darkness of the caves of life.

Second, the king understands your situation. David understood the displacement, the distress, the discontent and the grief of all of the cumulative grief and loss. I can imagine David listening to each person who arrived at Abdullam, nodding with empathy as they shared their stories. Jesus, of course, was “a man of grief, acquainted with sorrows.” Hebrews points out that he experienced what we experience while he was here on earth. We’re not only in the cave with a King, we’re in the cave with a king that understands.

The third lesson we can learn is that we don’t have to stay in the cave forever. Caves are temporary shelters, not permanent homes. David went into the cave, but eventually emerged as God led him into the next phase of his life and leadership. Don’t forget that Jesus experienced a cave for three days. On the other side of the cave is a resurrection to something new and remarkable.

Finally, caves have a purpose. They help us discover our meaning, our purpose, our calling and our mission. Sometimes those things can only be learned in the experiences of the cave. It is critical that we don’t waste our dwelling time and miss the opportunity that lies before us as we emerge. Those who joined David in the cave experienced transformation. The entered a people who were rejected by society and struggling with personal challenges. But they emerged as an army that would become renoun as David’s mighty men of valor. God has something for us on the other side if we walk by faith. Your life, like their’s can be transformed into something beautiful and beneficial.

What is God revealing to you about you in your confinement? What are the possibilities that are on the other side?

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For Cave Dwellers Only, Part 1

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“So David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Abdullam.” (1 Samuel 22:1)

For many of us, these past six weeks have created a deep sense of isolation and loneliness. Social distancing is poor phrasing, because we are by nature social creatures. I prefer to call it physical distancing. Even though our physical proximities are limited, we can still have social nearness through technology. Regardless of what we call it, it is an isolation that we neither created or have chosen.

I’ve always enjoyed the story of David in the cave of Abdullam because of the multiple layers of spiritual lessons it provides. David is known for his famous victory over the giant. But thereafter the story takes an unforeseen shift. In quick succession, David lost his job, his wife, his home, his counselor, his best friend and his self respect. 1 Samuel 21 concludes with saliva running down his beard, scratching the gate of the enemy like a madman.It was his lowest moment to this point in his life. During this period he penned Psalm 142, where he laments, “no one cares for my soul.”

Desperate and on the run, David looked for a place of peace, a respite of sorts. A place to regroup and think. But in the very next verse, his family arrived. There are two mentions of his family prior to this point, and neither are positive. The first is when Samuel went to the house of Jesse to anoint one of his sons as king. Jesse did not esteem David enough to call him from the shepherd’s field to be presented. The second was prior to the battle with Goliath, where his brother Eliab criticized his presence and youthful curiosity. Let’s not think that the family’s arrival cues a system of support. By familial association, David’s family became collateral damage. Because he was on the run, they were on the run.

But wait, there’s more. Soon after more began to arrive. There were those in trouble or distress, literally “under pressure or stress.” There were also those who were in debt, followed by those who were discontent, experiencing a deep bitterness of soul due to mistreatment or injustice. That’s quite a collection of people!

I believe that David had a choice. He could have chosen to walk away, saying “who needs it? I have my own problems.” But he didn’t run away like many do instead of facing their problems. He didn’t see the burden, he saw the blessing.

Caves bring the blessing of clarity to our lives. The cave was an opportunity for David to deal with an important question: Do I really want to be king? Is this what it looks like to be a king? Look at these people! Here he learned that if he could lead anyone, he could lead everyone.

It reminds me of Jesus, whose ministry followers were similarly in distress, in debt or discontented.

So here’s today’s question. What is the great thing that God has for you that your confinement is providing clarity? Tomorrow I’ll post the rest of my thoughts and share four lessons we learn in the cave.

Categories : Spiritual Formation
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