An Ash Wednesday Challenge For Those Who Didn’t Know It Was Ash Wednesday

You may not care a lick about Ash Wednesday and think people that would put ashes on their forehead or go without chocolate for 6 weeks are strange but let me challenge you anyway.

There are six weeks until Easter. There are six weeks to get to know Christ, to understand who he is, why he came, and what the cross means. Open up the Gospels and consume the information and the good news of Christ.

There are six weeks until Easter. Six weeks to bury your wrongs and mishaps and high propensity to mess things up. Bury these things with Christ in that tomb so you can fully understand the power of his resurrection and your own.

File:Crossofashes.jpg

There are six weeks until Easter. Six weeks to share in Christ’s suffering. Because he suffered for you, what would it look like for you to suffer with Christ? Why would that be important? This sharing in suffering will cleanse you and refine you for obtaining resurrection.

There are six weeks until Easter. Six week to become like Christ in his death. We need to die to self and crucify our old self so our new self can emerge.

For when that day comes, when Easter arrives, we can celebrate the resurrection that puts death to death. That turns the world upside down. This resurrection that we can obtain and will obtain.

 

Spiritual Growth Is Not A Hobby

I have a proclivity towards self improvement plans. I gravitate towards contemplation. I embrace silence. I am fascinated by anything spiritual. The phrase spiritual disciplines does not scare me.

But there have been times when I have been slightly embarrassed by my interests in spiritual formation and discipleship. I can be cynical about these tendencies.

Was this just a personal preference of mine that didn’t really mean much except giving me something to do, like a hobby? Was I just tinkering around with Growing Up like others like to tinker around in a wood shop or with an old car or playing guitar?

In other words, I was unsure if all of these books I read, all of these spiritual practices, all of these conferences and retreats I desire to attend had any real bearing on my life other than personal enjoyment? Was I truly being shaped and transformed by these things or were they just some things I liked to do?

Soon, though, life started to present me with real, truly difficult obstacles. I was handed a leadership position that I didn’t want in the midst of one of the most troubling times of transition, challenge, and loss our organization had ever seen. My dad suffered with cancer for more than two years and eventually died. Plus, I faced some dark, personal struggles that ripped me a part and tested every aspect of my being.

I have not been done in by these things. I have not lost my faith, in fact, it has become stronger. I have been able to minister to those around me in the midst of their own struggles, grief, and loss. At my best, I have been driven by things like love, grace, joy, forgiveness and surrender to God. At my worst, I have acted out of fear, resentment, and pain but have not been destroyed by these things and remain rooted to hope and the promise that this is just a season and that perseverance is an essential part of the Christian struggle. I have not lost myself, my God, or my love for others. I may be torn, defeated, and bruised but I still look to God and I still make Jesus my Lord. I am going to be okay.

assorted puzzle game

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

It took trials and hardships to realize that all of my interests, tinkering, study, writing, and practicing of Growing Up has actually shaped me. I have actually matured and have tools to counter the challenges and I have built up the capacity to face deep, dark, overwhelming times. I am not some kind of mystic that is floating through life in a spiritual cloud. I bleed, I cry, I rage, and I lash out at God and others in ways that I am not proud of but I am not broken. I sometimes say more than I know and behave better than I am not as an act but because Christ is working through me in grace filled ways. He is changing me and growing me. I can feel it and am gaining strength from it.

So, if you think your Bible reading is a waste of time or that your prayers are barely reaching the ceiling or you can’t bear one more day of service. Maybe you want to just give up on Growing Up because there is little hope in change let me tell you to keep going because these things ARE shaping you. You ARE meeting Jesus in these practices, you ARE giving grace a chance to work in your life to accomplish what you cannot accomplish on your own.

You may not see it now but every effort at becoming Christlike is honored by God and essential to your transformation. Don’t lose heart, there will come a time when you too will know that you are okay, God is love, change is possible, and joy and peace are right around the corner.

 

 

You Have Nothing To Fear

Followers of Christ should not be fearful people.

What is it about the gift of the Holy Spirit, life in the Kingdom, the promise of eternal life with Christ, and the deepening of God’s love would indicate that fear should be a characteristic of our current existence? Yet, so many Christians seem to live in fear and constantly have their guard up, ready to respond out of fear. This response usually manifest itself in anger, a characteristic that we are commanded not to indulge in.

Fear may be a way to protect our self and keep us safe but it also forms us in specific ways, usually in negative ways. James Bryan Smith states in the Good and Beautiful Life, “I certainly have many unmet expectations each day, but when fear is not present, anger does not arise.”

If not fear, what should be our overriding characteristic? How about love? Stanley Haurwas says, “This love that is characteristic of God’s kingdom is possible only for a forgiven people—a people who have learned not to fear one another. . . . Only when my self—my character—has been formed by God’s love, do I know I have no reason to fear the other.”

Emily P. Freeman tells the story of a decision she had to make concerning a trip to the Philippines. She was weighing all sorts of factors to help make her decision when she talked with the trip leader. The leader told her, “There may be many reasons why you shouldn’t go on this trip but don’t make fear one of them.” This changed Freeman’s entire outlook and she instead made her decision based on love rather than fear.

woman wearing eyeglasses and black hijab

Photo by Wildan Zainul Faki on Pexels.com

The only way to overcome our tendency to fear is to recognize our identity as a child of God. In that identity we know that we are forgiven, we know that we are loved, and we know that the kingdom we belong to is strong and unshakable.

Remember, “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom shall I fear?”

Personally, I could fear all of the wayward choices our kids could make; I could fear the shaky ground my current industry seems to be in; I could fear the loss of a relationship; I could fear the hurt and disappointment that seems to be on the horizon; I could fear and blame people that I disagree with. But, all that fear just feeds things that I want no part of  such as anger, prejudice, a sense of scarcity, and a desire to hurt others before they hurt me.

I have lived in fear before and largely suffered emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. I want to choose love instead.

So, if you are being formed by the love of God then fear has been pushed to the periphery of your existence. Let’s not give in to fear,“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”

How To Complete A Fast

Here are some things to keep in mind so that you can complete a fast and reap the spiritual benefits that I mapped out in my last post. I have made some mistakes in my efforts at fasting and this is what I have learned.

  1. Check your motivation. If you are more interested in the health benefits and the possibility of weight loss then you are not fasting in the spiritual sense. In fact, that mindset might be counterproductive. One of the reason that you participate in a fast is to take the focus off yourself and put it onto God. Instead, pray before you start that nothing will come out of the fast except what God wants. My problem was not with focusing on the physical benefits but trying to mark something off my spiritual achievement list. I saw completing a fast like I saw completing a Half Marathon or Marathon, it was a mountain to climb, something difficult that some never do and I was going to be a guy who got it done. “Kudos to me. Aren’t I special.” Again, the focus was on anything but God.
  2. Batch your fast. As I discussed last week, the fasting we find in the Bible is almost always centered around a sacred moment – some heavy repentance, mourning, a deep request for God to intervene and was always fasting from food. When my dad died, I took a day and fasted to work through some of my grief and remember his life and God’s gift to me through him. As you are first beginning to take up fasting, find a day or event that has some sacred meaning to it or combine it with a deep prayer need. Choosing a random Tuesday to fast just to fast will not give you the intentionality you need to make it work as you starting out.
  3. Add an activity. Similar to the one above. Combine your fast with an activity. One of the reasons fasting is so difficult is because we can get bored. Eating, thinking about eating, and preparing to eat take up a lot of our day. To eliminate that is to bring on a lot of time where it seems we are just sitting on our hands doing nothing. This can make a challenging thing even harder. I like to walk during my fasts. This is a good way for me to combine prayer with my fasting and to be present in nature where it seems we are often better able to reflect and hear from God. Warning: don’t make your activity too strenuous on your weakened fasting state. Other activities that might be good with a fast: worship, playing or listening to music, writing, watching an inspiring and moving film, or sleep.

    flatlay photography of white ceramic bowl

    Photo by Anna Tukhfatullina Food Photographer/Stylist on Pexels.com

  4. Start small. With anything we start a new, we have a tendency to plan for more than we can actually carry out. Or, we get through the first time but at such a cost physically and emotionally that we have zero motivation to do it again. With fasting, I would just start with one meal and then work your way to a 24 hour fast. You may think you are such a wimp to just fast one meal at a time but again, we aren’t interested in spiritual achievement but giving God a chance to work and dedicating ourselves to the practice to begin to reap the spiritual benefits.
  5. Don’t gorge yourself at the end of the fast. I have learned this one the hard way. I may be so famished that I think that my next meal has got to be some big taco plate or that BBQ sandwich. After living off of water for a day, dropping a big fatty meal into your stomach is a shock to your system and your body will probably react negatively. I like to make my next meal breakfast (a meal that is smaller anyway) and include some small protein and some fruit. If I respond well to that, I might add something a little more substantial an hour later. Resist the urge to feast.
  6. Give yourself a break. This may be cheating but I will stick with water throughout the day but will give myself a little tea with a little milk or honey in the afternoon of my fast. This is usually just enough of a pick me up to take the edge off of my sluggishness and gives me some motivation to stick it out the rest of the fast.
  7. Listen for God. Remember that you are doing this to place yourself in front of God and to learn to rely on him for everything. He is with you and you will learn from him as you make fasting a regular practice. If your first time is nothing but a challenge, that is normal. You and God will begin to find each other during your times of fasting and you will have sweet moments together.

Three Things I Have Learned From Fasting

Since May, I have made a regular practice of fasting. I tell you this not to impress you or to top your own spiritual experience. I tell you this so that you will take what I am about to tell you with some seriousness because it is coming from someone that has a bit of experience.

First, let me explain that I appreciate Scot McKnight’s theory on biblical fasting. McKnight explains that fasting is a spiritual response to a sacred moment. In other words, when you see fasting in the Bible it is because something sorrowful, convicting, or deeply meaningful was happening. The apostle Paul would be confused by the trendy nature of fasting today that is not tied to any kind of sacred event or holiday. That being said, here are three things I have learned while fasting.

board bread breakfast bunch

Photo by Lukas on Pexels.com

  1. Fasting resets me spiritually. Usually, my day starts with some kind of preoccupation, worry, or obsessive thought that is usually fraught with anxiety or worse, anger. On the days that I fast, my life has gotten simpler. I usually end the day realizing that God is here, I can trust him, and I don’t have to manage everything on my own. I face the fact that I need God and God will provide in all aspects of my life.
  2. Fasting slows me down. Like the one above, I have a fresh, simple outlook on my day. I do the thing that is in front of me, usually at a slower pace and with less frantic-ness. Fasting takes the edge off of the urgent and allows the day to flow with a rhythm that reminds me that there is so much more happening around me and I have just one role to play.
  3. Fasting focuses my prayer life. With a fresh, simpler perspective and a more deliberate pace to my day, I now have the freedom to pray and pray with focus and intent. Through fasting, I know that everything comes from God and the best place for me to be is in reliance on him and not on myself. That establishes my place in relation to God. I need him and he needs to intervene in my life and in the things and people around me. So I pray because that is the best response I can come up with in my current situation.

Next time, I will share some practical steps to complete a fast and make it work for you.

Developing A Waiting Strategy

If you have hit a dry period in your spiritual life and God seems distant and deaf, how do you find the strength to persevere in prayer? How do you hang on until help comes? What is your waiting strategy?

According to Emilie Griffin, our growth and our sanctification is found in the waiting:

We hate to admit that we are deepened by this waiting. Waiting makes us strong. We thought we were frivolous, impatient people, bent on self-gratification. Slowly, we grasp what we are made of. Patience sharpens and refines us. We endure.

fashion hand hurry outfit

Photo by JÉSHOOTS on Pexels.com

I am not a very patient person. I like action steps and plans and implementation. Sitting and waiting with nothing to do but trust is hard for me. Lately, I have been in a time of waiting. Here are a few things that have been my waiting strategy:

  1. Do the next right thing. Sometimes, the only thing we have control over is our next course of action. This can be as simple as to send that text of encouragement to someone; that run that will make you feel better; that point of service that is desperately needed.
  2. Written or memorized prayers. There are hundreds of written prayers full of deep theology, rich praise, and honest confession and hope. I find these speak to my condition much more than my often rambling and incoherent prayers. No doubt, God can look past my incoherent prayers but I feel better when I can verbalize things a little clearer and with some depth. Lately, I have been using the following prayer by Charles de Foucauld:  “Father, I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me what you will. Whatever you may do, I thank you. I am ready for all, I accept all. Let only your will be done in me and in all your creatures. I wish no more than this, O Lord. Into your hands I commend my soul. I offer it to you with all the love of my heart, for I love you, Lord, and so need to give myself, to surrender myself into your hands without reserve and with boundless confidence, for you are my Father.”
  3. Acknowledge the good inherent to the good. Look, I am not saying I am good but as a believer and practicing Christian I have access to blessings and grace. But am I paying attention? I need to recognize the quality of the worship that I just experienced at church. I need to be grateful for the sweet love of our daughters. I need to recognize all of the ways God is showing up even if I don’t see it in a certain area or as an answer to a specific prayer.

Waiting is not fun and is fraught with doubt, uncertainty, and questioning but it is a part of life, even the Christian life. Develop a strategy for waiting that helps you embrace the season you find yourself in and begins to strengthen you as you wait. Waiting does not have to be devastating or torturous.

Your Prayers Should Include the Truth Even If It is Ugly

Author and Anglican priest, Chris Webb, had the guts to tell someone that she could pray for her ex-boyfriend to die. By directing her to the Psalms, he claims her prayers didn’t need to be from a place of dishonesty.

I have heard this story in person and also in one of my favorite books of the last year. I encourage you to read it and just think about what your prayer life would look like if you prayed with honesty right where you are. Cut the bull, leave the platitudes aside, and just go at God with ruthless truth on how you feel and what you truly desire. As Webb says in the article, “What else are you going to do? Sugarcoat a lie? Do you think God doesn’t already know how you feel, what’s going on in your life? There’s no point telling anything other than the truth.”

closed eyed man holding his face using both of his hands

Photo by Ric Rodrigues on Pexels.com

You may not agree with Webb’s pastoral approach but the lesson about prayer and what you get out of the exercise is profound. Perhaps the very act of praying for someone, even if our intentions are suspect, changes our heart and helps us to see God and people in a different light.

There are many things I have prayed for over months, even years, and God seems silent or determined to do something different. But out of that practice I have found my vision of the situation changes; my actions in relation to the situation soften; that I am alive to the possibility of a more life giving and Godly trust and approach.

Perhaps that is the answer to the prayer. The outcomes are sometimes secondary to the transformation and heart change that arises out of the practices of prayer. So keep praying, it is doing you good and changing you for the better.

To hear Webb talk about his book and the story above go to this video (the story is found at the 30:00 mark).

What Jesus Had to Believe About Himself

Jesus told us that he is the way, the truth, and the life. Do you realize that Jesus had to believe this about himself also?

Wrapped in the human flesh, Jesus still had to trust his way was right.

With the limitations of flesh and blood, Jesus faced the temptation that maybe just maybe he was on the wrong path. Satan saw this as Jesus wrestled with his calling in the desert and presented to Jesus three potential paths that countered the one he was sent to fulfill.

First, Satan tempted Jesus to forgo any limitations that might be present on Earth and just take care of his needs completely by himself. Hungry? Turn these rocks into bread. Satan was essentially saying that Jesus didn’t need to trust his father to provide for his earthly needs, he, Jesus, could just provide it himself and forgo the whole trust thing.

Secondly, Satan tempted Jesus by trying to convince him that what mattered was showing off and drawing attention to yourself, that this was a sign of success and the only way to advance your goals.

Christ in the Wilderness by Stanley Spencer

Third, Satan tempted Jesus by offering the path of power and prestige and splendor. That he didn’t need to rummage around with all of these back woods and ignorant people, that he could skip small moments with small people and just go straight to the king part and the glory part.

Jesus had to face these temptations because these are the biggest temptations that we all face. We all are given short cuts that pushes God to the sidelines and stunts our growth in him. We all are lured by the sensational and the impressive that has no depth behind it and loses its power because it doesn’t touch the heart of things. We all are tempted to think that strength only comes from power and possessions and domination of others.

Jesus, after overcoming these temptations and establishing his own way, the Jesus way, tells his followers that the only way to save our life is to lose it.  Dallas Willard says, “To take him as our master means that we trust his way is right and, as he himself did, always look to the larger good under God. Like him we keep on entrusting ourselves to the One who judges righteously (1 Peter 2:23). This is “losing our life and thereby saving it” in the manner Jesus taught.”

Did you catch what Willard said twice in that statement? Twice he makes the point that Jesus had to trust his father, that we we are not taking on a path he himself wasn’t already choosing. That Jesus, in the wilderness under temptation, chose trust in his Father over everything else. We can do the same.

If you find yourself taking short cuts in your spiritual life then you are not following the Jesus Way. If you are constantly seeking the grand and the splashy and ignoring the mundane and the ordinary then you are not choosing the path that Jesus chose. If you are concerned with only who has control and how much forceful influence you have then you are embracing an approach that Jesus rejected.

To live this Grown Up life, we must keep trusting the One that Jesus trusted. Nothing else will bring us truth and the life that we genuinely desire.

 

Books I Read in 2019

They say that you can learn a lot about a person’s personality by looking at their bookshelf and their CD collection.

I read 17 books this past year. Some I read using Audible, some on Scribd, some through Kindle, some I checked out from my own library, and some I purchased.

Not all of them are related to Spiritual Growth but I notice that I don’t read much fiction and that if I do read for entertainment only, it is usually about music. It used to be about sports but that is not as important to me now.

Maybe this list will spark your curiosity and motivate you to read more in 2020. It is one of the most rewarding things I do.

The Art of Letting Go by Richard Rohr

Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back) by Jeff Tweedy

Folsom Untold: The Strange True Story of Johnny Cash’s Greatest Album by Danny Robins

God-Soaked Life by Chris Webb

12 Rules For Life by Jordan B. Peterson

The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman

Rising Strong by Brene Brown

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Climbing With Mollie by William Finnegan

The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu

The Storm-Tossed Family by Russell Moore

Miracle Hour by Linda Schubert

The Common Rule by Justin Whitmel Early

Glittering Vices by Rebecca DeYoung

The Cloud of Unknowing by Unknown

Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer

Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton

 

My Favorite Growing Up Books of The Decade

Each one of these books has impacted me, challenged me, or shaped how I live. I can point to each one and tell you that because of this book I now do X or have become Y. Few things in life have that kind of influence. Pick one up and see for yourself. I threw in some non-spiritual/non-philosophical favorite books at the end just for fun.

Water to Wine – Brian Zahnd (A pastor’s unlikely journey)

Good and Beautiful Community – James Bryan Smith (Led and taught out of this book repeatedly)

Fire of the Word – Chris Webb (Scripture has often intimidated me. This book inspired me to embrace scripture for all that it can be)

Called to Be Saints – Gordon T Smith (This book made me want to Grow Up and for all the right reasons)

Becoming Dallas Willard – Gary Moon (I always wondered if Willard was just a spiritual savant or if he really grew into his Christlikeness. This book does a good job of trying to answer that)

https://i1.wp.com/i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1387768666i/17861710._UY630_SR1200,630_.jpg

Unapologetic – Francis Spufford (Not an easy read but many of his points have shaped the way I think and talk about my faith over the last 10 years.)

God’s Forever Family – Larry Eskridge (Christians like to get nostalgic about the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th Centuries but the Jesus Movement of the late 60s and early 70s was a true revival and one of the weirdest phenomenons of the 20th Century. This book tries to describe that movement.)

https://i1.wp.com/ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51uRCm6wsSL._SY445_QL70_.jpg

12 Rules For Life – Jordan Peterson (I would love the ability to take intelligent, profound ways of thinking and explain them in a way that the skeptics and intelligentia have to take notice)

The Pastor– Eugene Peterson (I quote this book much more than I ever thought I would. Peterson was a saint and any chance there is to learn more about him and how God worked in his life is worth the read)

Other Books That I Loved

Just Kids – Patti Smith

Four-Hour Body – Timothy Ferriss

Building a Story Brand – Donald Miller

11/22/63 – Stephen King

Born to Run – Christopher McDougall