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.

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  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.

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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.”

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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)

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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.)

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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

What I Learned In 2019

One…A cure for worry induced insomnia. “Earlier this year, I found myself in a situation where there was much on my mind and my penchant for pessimism had turned to depressive thoughts and barely controlled worry. I was stuck in a mind loop that I couldn’t get out of and it was keeping me up at night. So, I just started reading the Psalms…As I read, and it didn’t take long, my anxiety, that included a disturbed stomach, began to dissipate and the heaviness of the moment turned to calm and a sense of relief. I found myself relaxing and dozing off.”

Two…Like a baby who craves a parent’s affectionate attention, what we need is Christ and his attention and he so longs to give it to us.

Three…And like the children who couldn’t get enough of Jesus, I can be a little friend of Jesus and live in the reality of Jesus in the present.

Four…Man’s power versus God’s power. “A man has power from the outside to push, pull, prod, and mold other men to his liking, for his good or for theirs, but it is only the outside of these other men that his power can affect. But the power of God’s love expands your world, opens you up to receive love from others, brings light to the dark, helps you get up when you are down and generates peace when it is nowhere to be found.”

Five…I found a simple go-to prayer that keeps me praying throughout the day.

Six…Jesus seems to prefer the ordinary. “He certainly can use the miraculous and the profound but he isn’t above using a meal or some kids running around or an ordinary argument among friends.”

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Seven…Perseverance is not a dirty word. “The Bible doesn’t see perseverance as something to avoid but to embrace. In fact, it seems to be an essential part of Growing Up. Paul, in a letter to the Christians in Rome, says that we should “glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” James uses even more elaborate language. He says, “Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.”

Seven…God doesn’t share my pessimism.

Eight…The reality of Spiritual Seasons. That all aspects of our lives have seasons and the spiritual life is no different. Mark Buchanan’s book, Spiritual Rhythm, taught me about the season that I believe I find myself in, Winter. He references Psalm 88 where the author states, “Darkness is my closest friend.” Bleak stuff but a possible part of life. Better to acknowledge it than to run from it.

Nine…Smiling at Wal-Mart turns a huge, annoying chore into an adventure.

Ten…The most important thing about me is who I am becoming.

Eleven…The danger of the Promise Land mentality. “I have been guilty of turning situations in my life into a kind of Promise Land. I think that if this one thing will change, then everything else will fall into place and life will be the way it is supposed to be. But that one thing might not be the point or what God wants to do with my life. The point may be for me to Grow Up, to learn to trust, to experience his presence, to find rest in him, to die to self. My Promise Land may be right in front of me in the transforming work of Christ and his redeeming love and mercy. A relationship with the almighty was good enough in the end for Moses, it should be good enough in the end for me.”

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Twelve…Your beliefs must have skin on them. “None of what Jesus accomplished on the cross and through his resurrection means anything unless individual lives are changed and futures transformed. That is theology that is truly incarnational.”

Thirteen…Religion is easier than trust.

Fourteen…Christians don’t need Kanye West. ‘Jesus is not Lord because Kanye West has proclaimed him such or because a certain person was elected to office. Jesus has already been inaugurated and has already taken office at the right hand of the Father.”

Fifteen…Sin is a failure to bother to love.

 

Would You Become Your Dog?

Jesus loved us so much that he became one of us. That is the wonder of Christmas.

I love my dog but I would never want to become him.

That would mean that I would put on the limitations that he has as a dog. As a human becoming dog, I would operate on instinct rather than inspiration and creativity. My range of emotions and feelings would be limited and sparse. Any power I possessed would only be confined to a few senses that for the most part wouldn’t benefit any one else but myself. I would lose an awareness of the larger world around me. I would lose imagination and the ability to improve myself on my own.

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This is the limiting and confined experience that Jesus gladly took on when he became one of us. Christ, the Son of God, “did not see equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Is there a more beautiful and amazing piece of scripture in all of the Bible than those words?

In another spot in scripture, it says that in Jesus we have a leader who can be “touched with the feelings of our weeknesses.” Paul Brand and Philip Yancey state, “God wasn’t satisfied enough to just love us from a distance but came along side us.”

Though Jesus was all divine and all human the packaging of the flesh and bone must have been so burdensome and fraught with potential problems that Jesus must have had moments of clear bewilderment at his existence on this Earth. Yet, he chose the incarnation to serve us, to demonstrate love to us, to teach us, to heal us, to cover us with mercy, to live a life that no one else could live so that he could die a death that no one else could die to bring us new life that no one else could bring.

God’s son loved us enough to become us. Who would do that? That is the wonder of Jesus that we celebrate each year at Christmas.

The Three Things Challenge

Several years ago, I started a simple practice when taking our daughters to school. As we drive, everyone in the car has to say three things they are thankful for.

There is only one rule, you can’t say something that someone else has already said. You are forced to come up with your own unique list of three things. Our girls are so used to doing this that I never have to prod or offer suggestions, they can usually shoot off their three in a matter of seconds. When we first started this, the lists contained the usual. They mentioned items such as “food,” “a house,” “family.” But now, they expand their list to include anything or everything. Examples being “socks,” “hair ties,” and “brownies.”

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I have to do it too and some days I have already determined my list before I really even get in the car and some days I struggle to come up with even two. Those days that I struggle with my list are dark days and a good measurement on where my soul is. I ask myself tough questions on those days. What has so clouded my spiritual life that I can’t come up with three things to be thankful for? What am I not noticing that is right in front of me, blessing me? Am I choosing self absorption and self pity over gratitude and faith?

As a person who writes a blog on spiritual formation, I am often thinking about how I can encourage others to practice spiritual disciplines. This practice of three things is a spiritual discipline that anyone can do with no special training or explanation why. So many mornings, this practice has reset my day, established my priorities, and reminded me of God’s goodness on even the darkest of days.

Don’t make gratitude just a November thing. Do it daily by coming up with your own three things. This has been an invaluable gift to me and I think to our daughters. Try it for yourself.

Why I Need Jesus And You Do Too

Why do we feel the need to prove the existence of God and of Jesus as his son? At this point in modern thought, what real effectiveness am I making by trying to make a factual and historical case for Christ? I don’t know what good this can actually bring. 

What I can do though is show that only Jesus provides the answer to this question: What is most needed in my life?

What is most needed in my life is a way to live that cultivates faith, hope, and love. What is needed in my life is a way to overcome my deepest faults and my propensity to screw things up. What is most needed in my life is a way to Grow Up so that wisdom shapes my existence and not selfish and limited thinking. What is most needed in my life is a way to care and love those around me that changes their world for the good and helps them Grow Up in wisdom too. What is most needed in my life is a way to persevere and overcome the absolute worst things that life can throw at you.

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Jesus has provided these things for me. Jesus has not been proven right in a court of law but has been proven right because through his indwelling in me and the help of the Holy Spirit, I now possess hope and am able to love more freely. His sacrifice of his own life means I don’t have to be buried in my mistakes and doomed to shame because of my poor choices. His teachings have given me words to live by and expressions of life and hope that others need to hear. His example and transformation of my heart has empowered moments in my life where I sacrificed strictly for the benefit of others. Jesus has shared in my suffering and has been present in my lowest moments and that has given me strength to move through and beyond struggles and heartache.

I am not perfected and still have the capacity for great harm to myself and to others but I have let go of patterns that no longer serve me and have begun to surrender to Christ’s way of life and the results have transformed me in more ways that I can count.

That is what is most needed in my life and what is most needed in your life. Try Jesus, see what he can do for you. Prove me wrong.