Giving As Spiritual Discipline

When I was in fourth or fifth grade, I would get my parents Living Bible translation with the green cover and read the Gospels. One day I came across the story about the poor lady who gave her measly two mites in the Temple and was highly praised by Jesus for giving sacrificially while he criticized the wealthier people whose donations were much more than the poor woman’s. This story had such an impression on me that the next Sunday I took the money that was in my wallet (maybe $24) and tried to give it all to the church. My parents explained to me that I only have to give a portion of my money to the church and not all of it.

The point of this story is as an idealistic and innocent child, I was willing to live out my faith in ways that showed true sacrifice, true trust, and radical actions. As I got older, money became something to hold on to and hoard rather than give away. It became easy to rationalize ways of getting around giving and being generous. No matter what my stage in life may be, it doesn’t change the point that Jesus is making. It doesn’t matter how much you give, what matters is the state of your heart when you give. And giving is an act of worship that truly allows us to worship in “spirit and in truth.” If my giving comes out of anything other than worship of God and a response to his generosity and blessings towards me than God doesn’t want my money.

Do you give out of guilt or obligation or do you give out of generosity, love and sacrifice? It makes a world of difference to God.

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Run The Race: Slow Burn

Fun runners taking part in the 2006 Bristol Ha...

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On Dec. 4 I will run in the White Rock Marathon in Dallas. Once a week, I will provide my observations on the connection between the spiritual life and training to run a marathon. Please visit my White Rock fundraising page to honor my daughter and contribute to a great cause.

The biggest mistake a beginner in any new venture can make is starting too hard and too fast. In our zeal for getting started and our grand imaginations about what we are able to handle, so many of us start a new thing way over our head. We get up at 5 a.m. to workout even though we haven’t gotten up that early in 12 years; we start a blog even though we barely have the time to respond to emails; we read three chapters of our Bible when one would have been just fine. What marathon training has taught me is the idea of slow progress.

I know one lady at my work that has completed a marathon who, when she began running, set her goal to simply run to the next light post. How do you go from running as far as the next light post to running 26.2 miles? Slow progress. I didn’t start my training by running a 10K, instead I started running for 20 minutes and some of that was walking as I focused on maintaining a certain heart rate. Most training programs call for building miles upon mile until you are able to run 15-20 miles. But you do not get there unless you first can run that first mile.

So many Christians need to take to their spiritual practices like they would a marathon training program. Maybe their “light post” strategy should be to memorize one verse once a week or read five verses every other day or pray intently for one minute. Once you complete this small effort, you add on one thing that is doable and then after you do this, you change up the plan to keep it interesting. Savor your slow growth in Christ. It took the disciples three years to understand who Jesus was and how they could serve like him. Jesus was patient with them, he will be patient with you. Start small and grow. It is the best way to becoming who you want to become.

Who I Turn To For Inspiration

Dallas Willard is a hero of mine. His book, The Divine Conspiracy, opened up a completely new way of living out the Christian life for me. Before I discovered Willard I was searching for a deeper, more meaningful faith that I didn’t know was possible. Willard introduced me to what discipleship was really all about and showed me that Jesus and his teachings can radically reshape my life if I just give him the opportunity. With very little effort, I am able to memorize quotes from Willard and they have helped in many ways. Below, you will see some of my favorite Willard quotes that just came off the top of my head.

“Discipleship is becoming the person that Jesus would be if he were I.”

“Grace is God’s action in my life to accomplish what I cannot accomplish on my own.”

“Faith cannot grow on hype.”

“Ruthlessly remove hurry from your life.”

“Hope is anticipation of good not yet seen.”

“Faith is confidence based on reality.”

“God will let anyone into heaven who can stand it.”

“Grace is not opposed to effort it is opposed to earning.”

“It is not the sinner who uses up a lot of grace but the saint. A saint burns grace like a 747 on take off.”

“Jesus is the most intelligent man who ever lived.”

“The life we wanted is possible if will rearrange our life around the plans and practices of Jesus Christ.”

“Reality is what we learn when we find out that we are wrong.”

“Peace is the absence of will.”

If you are interested in reading more from Dallas Willard, I would suggest starting with Renovation of the Heart and then move to the Divine Conspiracy. There is also a good daily devotional with portions of Willard’s works in bite size form.

photo: intervarsity.org

Running the Race: Athletes For God

On Dec. 4 I will run in the White Rock Marathon in Dallas. Once a week, I will provide my observations on the connection between the spiritual life and training to run a marathon. Please visit my White Rock fundraising page to honor my daughter and contribute to a great cause.

Unless you don’t know any better or are some kind of genetic freak, no one can just decide one day to run a marathon and then

56/365 morning run

Image by kharied via Flickr

complete 26.2 miles the next day. Most plans that I have seen discuss a training regiment that last five months. I am trying to do it in 3.5 months. If at any point in my training, I lost a week of running, I would probably be done and have to consider another marathon. Marathon runners do not happen by accident, they are grown over weeks and weeks of preparation. 20,000 people will participate in the White Rock Marathon and each one of them will have dedicated hours and hours of training. It simply is a necessity.

In a Christian’s  life, we are called to be disciples to Jesus, some have even called Christians athletes for God. And though our salvation isn’t riding on it, our growth as a person and as a light for the world depends on us training ourselves in Christlikeness.  The disciples of Jesus spent three intensive years learning at the foot of Jesus plus received the power of the Holy Spirit before they were able to fully live out their apprenticeship to Jesus. Paul tells us that he spent three years in Arabia before starting his ministry. Training is essential for those who wish to become disciples to Jesus.

For a Christian, there is work to be done to train ourselves to be servants to Christ. As diligently as people train for the marathon, that is how diligently we, as believers, should train for our life with Christ. We should discipline ourselves through prayer, fasting, service, study, silence, and worship. Just as I understand more and more what my body is capable of doing, I, as a believer, should more and more understand what my spirit is capable of learning and doing. I am an athlete training for a marathon but I am also an athlete for God.

The Focus of Christians Should Be The Heart

Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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If you are a pastor and you want to get your name and face on TV just start criticizing everything around you in culture. You will get carted out in front of the cameras and show up on TV talk shows. Unfortunately, the minute you do this will be the minute that you cease to be a proclaimer of the gospel and instead become a political figure.

Jesus, for all of his countercultural sensibilities, was not a political figure and never even appeared to be one. He said that he came into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17).

His people, the Israelites, during his lifetime, were ruled by the tyrannical Caesars of Rome. The Israelites were the chosen people of God and yet they had the unclean Roman Gentiles occupying their land, taxing their finances and ruling in their holy city. The Jewish people in Jesus’ day could not have been more opposed to anything as they were the Romans and their power over them yet Jesus says nothing about the issue and even shrugs off a question about what belongs to Ceasar so he could make another point about the spiritual life. Jesus’ harshest criticism was not for governments or cultural evils but for hypocrisy and limited faith.

Jesus was much more concerned about transforming hearts than transforming political establishments. Perhaps it is time that Christians take a step back and quit placing the microscope on politicians, Hollywood, and Homosexuals and instead place it on their own hearts. It is in the heart where Christ does his best work.

Running The Race: When I Became A Runner

On Dec. 4 I will run in the White Rock Marathon in Dallas. Once a week, I will provide my observations on the connection between the spiritual life and training to run a marathon. Please visit my White Rock fundraising page to honor my daughter and contribute to a great cause.

Wednesday morning I became a runner. Sure, I have been training for a marathon for almost two months but it wasn’t until Wednesday that I became a runner. All signs pointed to me skipping a run that morning. I had stayed up too late watching a recorded playoff baseball game and my early morning workout schedule meant that sleep was going to be short. Then, as my alarm went off, the first thing I hear is the steady stream of rain drops on my roof. I am tired, it is raining. I tell myself that I don’t have to get out there today. But I remember something I had read the day before from Martin Dugard:

 Runners run. If you’re having one of those days where you want to rationalize not taking that first step out the door, remind yourself that this commitment renews itself each and every day. Then lace up your shoes and get out there.

So I took Dugard’s advice and laced up my shoes and put on a hat, to keep the rain out of my face, and ran around three miles. First, the rain was barely noticeable but then it began to pour but it didn’t bother me much because I knew that I had crossed a threshold and had become more than a guy in training but someone much more interesting, a runner.

To me, the spiritual application to the above discovery is pretty obvious. Through my daily commitment to God, even when life brings storms, I become a Christian in the truest sense of the word. But it takes a renewing commitment and realization that seeking first the kingdom is not a drudgery or a hassle but the absolute best thing that I could do for my life. Just as skipping out on a run would have been short changing myself, avoiding my responsibilities and dedication to God and his kingdom can keep me from fulfilling God’s abundant purposes for my life.

Relax and Take In God

I have been trying to find ways to simplify my life but I am terrible at it. I am easily distracted by media and the latest information. (I guess that is why I am a librarian) I am hoping to find time and space in my life for God, reflection, and family. That is one good thing about all of the running that I have been doing. I don’t have much else to do on a 30 minute run but think and pray. But, still my mind wants to wander in other directions.

Dallas Willard says that spiritual formation should start with our thought life. He is right but this taming the thought life is a lifetime process that I am sure I will be struggling with until I die. One thing that has worked for me lately is to practice being more relaxed. The more relaxed I am, the better able I am to focus on God. Running has helped here as well.

I don’t know where I first heard this but one aphorism for running long distances is “Just relax and endure.” So, if I am in a tense situation, I slow down and try to stay relaxed and my mind starts to take the reigns off a little and God then steps in and gives me wisdom, or comfort, or strength to handle the situation. We often hear the excuse that we are too busy to think about God but the reality may be that we are too stressed or tense to think about God.

Take a moment right now and try to relax your body and your mind. Say a prayer, asking God to make you more relaxed and for Him to speak to you in these relaxed moments.

Running The Race: Christian Life Tracker

56/365 morning run

Image by kharied via Flickr

On Dec. 4 I will run in the White Rock Marathon in Dallas. Once a week, I will provide my observations on the connection between the spiritual life and training to run a marathon. Please visit my White Rock fundraising page to honor my daughter and contribute to a great cause.

I have a sensor in my running shoe that can track how many miles I have run, at what pace I am running, and how many minutes I have been running. I then can upload that information to a website so I can chart my progress. Another site that I have found, called Daily Mile, allows me to enter my results for each workout in a Twitter like fashion. In Daily Mile, others in my social network can see my results and comment on my progress while I can do the same for them.

The ability to track your status and broadcast it to others keeps you accountable and makes it easier to set goals and see how much you have improved. Why isn’t there something like this for spiritual activities? Why can’t I track my daily Bible reading and let others know how I am doing? Why can’t I list prayers and then check them off when they have been answered? There are many spiritual disciplines that could be tracked and monitored and shared.

The reason we don’t have Christian Life Trackers is because we are afraid that we will become legalistic. Legalism occurs when you attach righteousness to spiritual activities.  When I think that I have to complete certain spiritual tasks in order to receive favor from God or, in most cases, the church then I am being legalistic. How exactly is tracking my daily Bible reading being legalistic? I am simply finding a tool that will motivate me to continue reading and help me encourage others who are trying to do the same thing. Sure, there may be a level of competition and one up-manship involved but the rewards to making our spiritual lives more quantified far outweigh the temptation for pride and power.

I enjoy watching my progress through my marathon training and keeping up with how others are doing as well. I feel a kinship to friends, and some strangers, who are putting in good work towards their goals and I enjoy celebrating when they achieve something extraordinary. Doesn’t this sound like something we should be doing as fellow believers? Let’s find a good way to track and connect our spiritual journey.

Starter Prayers

I have been thinking recently about prayers that God has answered in my life. In the past week, I can think of two that he answered. I need to pay more attention to these answered prayers. Our pastor told of how George Mueller recorded all of his answered prayers and it totaled 300,000.

For those of you who are new to prayer or can’t get over the prayers that God has not answered or answered in a way that we didn’t like, let me give you a way to begin this prayer process. First, we need to start small. If I want to run a 5K but have never run more than one mile, I should start with that one mile and then try to increase my distance from there. I shouldn’t expect to achieve a 5K on my first try. I have to build up to it. It is the same way with prayer, especially if I am wanting to record my results. I shouldn’t put all of my emphasis on one big prayer without noticing all of the little prayers that God has answered.

Second, find a daily prayer and track the results. I would suggest something like the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” Begin your day saying this prayer and say it throughout your day. Start to notice the ways God has answered this prayer. Maybe a stressful situation at work gets resolved, you respond more appropriately to your fighting children because you recognize the mercy that has been portioned to you, or you are reminded of Christ’s great sacrifice in taking on death when we were the ones who deserved it.

What if you find yourself in a terrible situation even after praying this prayer all day? Instead of thinking that God has not answered your prayer, see how God gets you through the situation and how that might have been different if you hadn’t cried out for mercy and direction.

The Jesus prayer, or one of my favorite prayers – “Come, Lord Jesus”, are our base mile, our starting point that we then build on. We need to start a habit of paying attention to our prayers and their results before we truly can pass judgement on God’s willingness to answer our prayers. These starter prayers can be our warm up.