Snippets from the week: a desire for greatness

It is exceedingly difficult to be obedient to Christ and humble at the same time.

Zack Eswine, in his book The Imperfect Pastor, argues that desiring greatness isn’t wrong in itself, but that our desires often get diluted along the way. What starts with pure devotion to Christ, can end with grandiose pictures of what we can accomplish–or what might happen to us if we did accomplish them. In other words, fame. Devotion turns into a longing for approval.

In that way, the desire to “do good things for God” is often a bit of a double-edged sword. Eswine reasons that on one side, desiring great responsibility is called a “noble” aspiration in the Bible (1 Tim 3:1). On the other, our desires might be simultaneously tainted with more sinister motivations, like “the love of money (Luke 16:14), networking for position (Matt. 23:6-7), the lust for power (Acts 8:18-21), or the advancement of [our] name” (ibid, 20). This is certainly not limited to pastoral work. It can include anything we do while telling ourselves that it’s for God.

I painfully resonate with this because I want to be significant.

I want to be valued, and I often want this at the expense of my desire to do great things for God. Maybe at my best, the two desires are mixed. I’m also an INFJ–the “J” referring to my excessive need for steps and measurements–so basically, I want significance, I want to see tangible (and explosive!) progress, and I want it all immediately. I’ve seen others driven by this same motivation for overnight greatness/significance. Many of my friends in college thought they would rise to fame. The Barna Group found that “one-quarter of teenagers (26%) said they expect to be “famous or well known” by the time they reach age 25” (Barna). Against that backdrop ring these words,

“You will be tempted to orient your desires towards doing large things in famous ways as fast and as efficiently as you can. But take note. A crossroads waits for you. Jesus is that crossroads. Because almost anything in life that truly matters will require you to do small, mostly overlooked things, over a long period of time with him” (ibid, 26).

Indeed, the longer I live, the more I find that the things I remember most in my life are usually without fanfare.

The things my wife admires most about me (when I am at my best, that is) are not worthy of headlines. What makes my son smile the most has nothing to do with my talents or abilities. In fact, as I am writing this, my daughter woke up from her nap and collided into me asking for me to pick her up. Of course, I did. But a little part of me was saying, “But I have to finish this blog so people can read it!” Glad my senses came to me in that moment. Wish that they did more often! The things that matter most in my life sometimes never intersect with what I’m always being told matters. That’s Eswine’s point, I think. Eswine is asking us if we are sure we know what God has in mind when we are thinking of doing great things.

“Our desire for greatness in ministry isn’t the problem. Our problem rises from how the haste of doing large things, famously and as fast as we can, is reshaping our definition of what a great thing is…At minimum we must begin to take a stand on this one important point: obscurity and greatness are not opposites” (ibid, 29).

Sometimes the greatest things are also the quiet things. The unknown things. The boring things.

The more I examine my motives, the more I see my ego surface. My only reassurance is that Jesus is not surprised by this, and can perhaps, by grace, still harness my immature desires for significance, and point them in the right direction again. And again. And again. Until I’m just like Him.

I wish I could bottle obscurity and drink it before breakfast everyday. Because I certainly don’t always want to pursue it. God help me!

Reality Core Value #3 – Gathering and Scattering

All of this discussion about our church’s core values brings up a related question. What form should our church take? The answer is fairly simple. You could say that our church exists in two forms: 

We gather and we scatter.

Let’s break it down!

1. The gathering.

By “gathering,” we mean any time believers in the local church get together for the purpose of worshipping and exalting Christ. The most obvious gathering is on Sunday morning, when we all get together for worship and preaching. But it also happens throughout the week, when home groups gather, when Bible studies gather, when youth groups gather, etc. This part of our core value is probably what most people think of when they think of “church.” They think of the Sunday morning gathering. And it is very important. But church is not merely gathering together. It also involves scattering.

2. The scattering.

By “scattering,” we mean that individual followers of Christ continue to be a part of Christ’s church regardless of proximity. The nature of Christ’s “one body,” the church (Eph. 4:4), exists outside of, and is not limited to any four walls. The church is still the church even though it is not always gathered in any sort of building. On Sunday, we are the church gathered. But other days, we are the church scattered. We scatter in the sense that we live our lives aligned with the Kingdom of God in our individual spheres of influence. One person is a general contractor; another a school teacher; another a janitor; someone else is a business owner; but all of them are still part of that larger entity and body known as the church.

Why these two forms?

In Scripture we see that each has a special purpose.

We gather together for ourselves and for each other. Mutual encouragement (Heb. 10:25), building each other up (Eph. 4:12), unity (Acts 1:14), and strengthening of each others faith through fellowship, Scripture, and worship (Acts 2:42; Luke 22:32; Acts 16:5; Rom. 1:11; Eph. 3:10,16), among other things. (Of course, all of this is primarily for the glory of God. And it benefits ourselves and each other–which is what I want to emphasize here). 

We scatter for mission. To reach out beyond the gathering to society, culture, and neighbor. One of the dangers of any church is its proclivity to become a bit of a social-club. Meaning, we “go to church” merely for inspiration and personal benefit. If a church does this long enough, they eventually turn inward, and grow stagnant. This is what Jesus often warned the Pharisees about (Matt. 23). The natural—or should I say supernatural—cure for this inward decay is an outward flow of obedience, or mission. Think of the Dead Sea. It cannot support any life because of an abnormal amount of salt. As the lowest place on earth, every stream flows into it, stacking up minerals and making it inhabitable to any form of animal life. It is stagnant. I may be stretching the metaphor a little far, but it bears stating for our imagination. You could say that the Dead Sea is stagnant because it has no way to pour out beyond itself. So is the Christian life.

It doesn’t matter how often you attend Sunday gatherings, Bible studies, or home groups, if you are not investing in others what has been invested in you. Without mission, you will grow stagnant.

To be on the receiving end of bible studies and worship gatherings, but not invest ourselves in Christ’s mission is to court the danger of becoming a lazy, stagnant, ineffective Christian. We are not on mission for our own health and spiritual vibrancy—we are on mission because our Lord calls us to it. But one of the benefits of obedience is spiritual health and vitality, not only for individuals, but the local church.

When a church forgets the mission of Christ, it is only a matter of time before it begins to grow stagnant, ineffective, and irrelevant.

Scattering might sound a little foreign to what many people think of when they envision “the church.” This is probably because of wrong, preexisting views of what the church is.

  • Some people think of the church as the pastors and staff. But the Bible constantly refers to the church as the people who Christ has brought together in his name. And it instructs them to gather (for building up) and scatter (for mission). The church is not merely pastors and staff, although they are an important part of it.
  • Some think of the church as the building. We show that we believe this when we say things like, “I’m going to church.” But the church is not a building. The church is a unique group of people brought together by Christ (gathering) and dispersed by Christ for his mission (scattering). We are meant to BE the church, not just GO to church.

What we need in place of this is a biblical and vibrant understanding of the church.

Christ’s purpose in the world, which is to expand his kingdom, happens when the church gathers for worship, and when it scatters for mission.

That’s why this is our core value. We exist as a church that places great importance on gathering, and equal importance on scattering. We see this as a vital part of Christ’s kingdom coming in Santa Barbara as it is in heaven.

What does this mean in daily practice?

  1. It means we place great importance on the corporate gathering of the church. The gathering of the church is not optional; we gather because Christ tells us to, for his glory and the building up of the saints. This is seen most vividly on Sunday mornings. We LOVE Sunday morning church gatherings, and place great emphasis on it. We also place great emphasis on smaller gatherings throughout the week. The point is, we must get together with the sole intent of following Christ!
  2. It means we place equal importance on scattering as a church—this means we really value mission. Notice I did not say “missions.” We often think of “missions” as a compartmentalized ministry of a church. But for us, mission is a way of life and obedience.  This is a big part of our vernacular. We certainly send “missions” to other nations, but we also believe that every follower of Christ is on mission wherever he or she lives the normal course of their lives. This includes work, home, neighborhood, recreation, etc. These are all areas that we exist as a church scattered. To be scattered, means we are not just called to “go to church,” but to BE the church everywhere we are.

What has been your experience with gathering? With scattering?


Read more from this series on Reality’s Core Values:

Intro – What are Reality’s core values?

#1 – Jesus is our Senior Pastor

#2 – Directed by God’s Word; Empowered by God’s Spirit

 

Reality’s Core Values #2 ~ We’re directed by God’s Word and empowered by God’s Spirit

Long ago, a missionary friend gave our church a prophetic word.

He said something like this:

Reality is like a ship. It has large sails that symbolize the Holy Spirit pushing it forward. But underneath the vessel is a large rudder—that’s the Word of God. The Spirit empowers her, but the Word directs her.

Over time, this became part of our DNA as a church.

We find our direction from God’s Word, and our power from the presence of God’s Spirit.

First of all, we believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, authoritative, sufficient, and inerrant Word of God (2 Timothy 3:15-17, 2 Peter 1:21). Therefore, God’s Word determines our roadmap as a church. But we also believe in the present ministry and work of the Holy Spirit. After all, it is the Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of Scripture, illuminates our hearts to understand it, and gives us the power to live by it. So you could say that the Bible gives us our game plan, as God’s active presence empowers us to carry it out.

We are most effective as a church when these two truths are held in harmony.

On the other hand, when one of these truths is emphasized over the other, we get into a lot of trouble. For example, when emphasizing Scripture at the expense of the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we will grow stagnant and lifeless. But if we start to emphasize the Holy Spirit at the expense of the Word of God, our church will become a free-for-all, driven more by our passions, whims, and opinions than the heart of God.

What we see in the Bible itself, are numerous stories of people being empowered by the Spirit and directed by God’s Word. This is where we want to live too.

What does this look like?

You can get a taste of this in the liturgy of our worship gatherings. Most of our time is spent in two things: the preaching of the Word, and musical worship. Why? Because God often speaks to us in the preaching of God’s Word, and he is present with us (in a special way) during musical worship. Another way we see this is in day-to-day activities in the life of the Christian. When looking for guidance on a decision, the first place we should look for an answer is in the Bible. When we find that answer, it is the power and presence of God’s Spirit that enables us to obey the Word. Then there are other times where the Bible does not specifically address a situation. In those moments, we must learn to hear the still small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12). Either way, there is a relationship between his Word and his empowering presence. 

These are only two examples. Our hope is that this relationship between God’s Word and His presence continues to pervade everything we do, whether big or small.

What does this mean for us as a church?

  1. It means that we believe the Bible to be the inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word of God. We believe it is authoritative and sufficient for living. Therefore, we take our cues from it.
  2. It means that our mission together is ultimately persuaded by the Scriptures, not by culture demands, politics, passing trends, or personal preferences.
  3. It means that we believe God’s Word is more than a dry document—it is alive with activity, power, and the presence of the very One who inspired its words.
  4. It means that we believe we were made to be in the presence of God, so we value His presence in our midst over anything else.
  5. It means we believe a moment in the presence of God can answer a lifetime of doubts.
  6. It means that we need supernatural power to do anything God wants us to do—and we believe he is calling us to things that require supernatural power.

Read more from this series:

Why we have core values

Our 1st core value: Jesus is our Senior Pastor

 

Reality’s Core Values #1 ~ Jesus is our Senior Pastor

One of our rallying cries, and most basic values as a church is that “Jesus Christ is our Senior Pastor.”

What does this mean? Simply put, it means we believe that Jesus is the head of the church. Of course, this bears some fleshing out if we want more than a mere truism (we do). So let’s start with the primary passage of scripture where this core value comes from…

And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:4)

Right here, the apostle Peter tells is that that Jesus is a particular kind of shepherd.

He’s the chief, or in other words, he is the senior-ranking shepherd. This is an unequivocal title of leadership. So before we even get to what Jesus does, we need to understand a bit about what the Bible says about church leadership in general.

Scripture tells us that God gives authority to certain people in the church.

And there are two official kinds of offices within the local church to which Scripture explicitly refers: elder (1 Tim. 3:1-7) and deacon (1 Tim. 3:8-13). It’s the first one (elder) that I want to focus on in this blog post, because there are a few different labels that the New Testament uses interchangeably with elder. And we need to look at all of these labels to get a clear picture of biblical leadership in the church. One of the most clear examples of Biblical leadership is in the broader context of the passage we just quoted—all the labels I’m talking about happen in this one single passage! Here it is in full:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (1 Peter 5:1-4; ESV)

Ok, I want to point out a few things.

(Disclaimer: this may get a bit complex and technical. But it is important to wade through this, because the implications are so important for how a church operates! Afterwards, I’ll do my best to summarize it all as succinctly as possible).

First, notice that “shepherd” is not an office ascribed to anyone but Jesus.

What is a shepherd? Well, it seems more of a function than an office (except for when it is used specifically of Jesus). For example, the function of a worship leader is to shepherd the congregation, mainly through music. Home group leaders are also shepherding their group discussions, and so on. But why does this small semantic joust matter? Because we get our popular modern-day church title pastor from what is often, and in this case, simply translated as shepherd (greek word poimainō). The words are the same in the Bible. A pastor is someone who shepherds others.

Second, notice that the words elder and shepherd are used here interchangeably.

See, while pastoring/shepherding is a function, the Scriptures show us that “elder” is an actual office in the church. So while not everyone who is shepherding someone else is a pastor, certainly everyone who is an elder is also called to pastor. All elders are supposed to pastor. They are the ones who are “keeping watch over your souls” (Heb. 13:17)!

Third, notice that these terms for pastor and elder are also used interchangeably with the word “oversight.”

“Oversight” in this context refers to the practice of leadership. Paul and Barnabas “appointed elders…in every church” (Acts 14:23) and “in every town” (Titus 1:5) whenever they planted churches, referring to them as those “who rule” in the church (1 Tim 5:17). So then, elders aren’t just pastors. 

Elders are called by Christ to exercise leadership over the local church.

That’s the complicated part. Let me give you a simple summary!

The Apostle Peter is telling us that God reserves the very specific roles of pastoring and leading in the church for the elders to whom He calls and anoints.

This is important to mention, because it is common practice for churches to have the pastors shepherd the flock, while selecting business people, entrepreneurs, a board of directors, or others with fiscal savvy, to lead the church. This may be a good way to run a business, but it’s not a good way to run a church. The Bible clearly mandates that it is the elders, not business leaders, who are to pastor and lead in the church. Now, Reality does have a board of trustees, in keeping with California law. But we certainly believe and maintain that it is the elders who lead in our church according to the Word of God. And we have never regretted that decision! [Who are our elders?]

Hopefully now the significance of that Scripture about Jesus being the chief Shepherd is starting to make sense. You see, while God does call elders to lead in the church, they also must do this in submission to Christ’s ultimate leadership. That’s why when the Apostle Peter calls elders to lead and pastor the flock, he only refers to Jesus as the “chief Shepherd.” This is synonymous with calling Jesus the senior leader, or in common church vernacular, the senior pastor.

This is exactly what Paul said when declared that God the Father “put all things under [Christ’s] feet and gave him as head over all things to the church” (Eph 1:22). Jesus, therefore, is the Senior Pastor of the church, both locally and universally!

Hence, this is our first and primary value as a church.

What does “Jesus is our Senior Pastor” actually mean in daily practice?

  1. It means our leaders constantly strive to be under the authority of Jesus Christ.
  2. It means that in order for fallible human leaders to be under the authority of Jesus Christ, they must be diligent in prayer and repentance.
  3. It means church leaders must be desperate for the voice of the Lord to lead his church.
  4. It means that as a church, we primarily look to, and hope in, and cling to Jesus, way more than to any person called “pastor.” The pastor(s) is there to help us look to Jesus!
  5. It means that the church exists for Christ’s mission, not our preferences and comforts.
  6. It means that we intentionally and consciously choose to submit to the mission of Jesus Christ.
  7. It means that we do not call any pastor in our church the “Senior pastor” except for Jesus Christ to whom that title belongs!

What Are Reality’s Core Values?

I had a conversation with Britt Merrick on the subject of “values.”

Britt is the founder of the Reality churches. Someone recently asked him, “What makes Reality the way that it is?” They were basically asking, what are the things that define your church’s identity, culture, mission, DNA, etc? What makes you you? Britt and I had a good laugh, having never really sat down to think very deeply about such things over the last twelve years. But after going home and pondering the question again, I began to see the importance of identifying who we are as a churchSoon after, about fifteen identifiable things came to me in a stream-of-consciousness. Once I began to think about it, it was pretty easy to see who God made us to be. I showed these to Britt, and he seemed to agree. That list grew to about nineteen identifiable things, and is what some of us might refer to as core values.

A value is a deeply-held principle that governs your standard of behavior.

You live out of what you truly value. Likewise, a church (or any organization) operates based on what it truly values, not merely what it says it values, or what it writes down as its values. For that reason, I tried to the best of my ability not to superimpose values onto our church. I am aware that I have ideals that I hope and wish we could live up to. But those aren’t truly our values. Our values are underneath what we are already doing. They expose what is already important to us. Having observed and worked at Reality for over a decade, I tried my best to take an honest look at the principles that emerged out of our shared culture. The values that form us on a daily basis.

It’s worth noting that this really only describes the Reality churches here in the coastlands (Santa Barbara, Carpinteria, and Ventura), and specifically Santa Barbara. There are certainly many overlapping values that we share with other Reality church plants, since we were all birthed out of the same vision and family. But as each church has grown, they have also developed core values that are specific to their own context and identity as churches. We love and celebrate this.

Reality Santa Barbara, by my estimation, has about nineteen core values.

By core, I mean that out of the hundreds of different principles we have as a church, these nineteen are the ones that form our identity and drive us to do what we do. They are what makes us a Reality church. And we need to identify and codify them so that we can continue to realign ourselves with what God has created us to be. So…I will post nineteen of Reality’s core values one at a time in the weeks and months to come. Can you guess what any of them are??

Please feel free to interact, ask questions, or even offer cordial pushback in the comment sections as this blog series develops!

My favorite reads of 2015

My annual booklists are admittedly strange.

They’re usually written before the review year–sometimes much before. The list is spread across a wide spectrum of sporadic themes. Usually, it’s where my own soul happens to be at the time. For example, this year’s contains leadership development, historical fiction, theology, and even secular philosophy. They are varying degrees of comprehension.

In other words, for some reason, the books I read are all over the place. I’m not sure why, but I think two parts of the reason is that

  1. I need a wide spectrum to hold my attention. And…
  2. They are usually what I need in that particular season.

This year, I read a book a week for the year. (see all of Chris Lazo’s books read in 2015). Below, you will find my five favorites and the reasons I liked them so much. Starting with #5….

#5 – A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living. By Luc Ferry.

A Brief History of Thought is an introduction to philosophy. More than that, it is a narrative about how the biggest ideas in history have all attempted to prove their idea of “salvation,” either building on one another or tearing each other down. Of most interest to me, was the author’s treatment of Christianity. Luc Ferry, though a secular humanist, is sympathetic towards Christianity.

My favorite snippet: listening to Ferry describes how the juggernaut of Greek thought, after reigning for a thousand years, was quickly displaced by Christianity’s message of love and the afterlife.

Who should read it: If you want to a quick introduction to philosophy, or want to see how powerful the movement Jesus started originally was, this is a good one.

#4 – Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. By Simon Sinek.

Simon Sinek’s first book, was based on a Ted Talk he gavewhich argued that people do not want what you do, so much as they want why you are doing it. Leaders Eat Last is the follow up to suggest how that concept plays out in teams. His argument is that leaders must create environments of trust and sacrificial service if they want their teams to move from good to great.

My favorite snippet: when Sinek explains the biological origins of “trust.” His major point is that trust is a chemical reaction–you cannot force it, you can only create an environment for it to develop.

Who should read it: If you lead anybody, even your dog, you need this book.

#3 – After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. By N.T. Wright.

After our church went through the Sermon on the Mount, and afterwards, a series on character and spiritual maturity, this was one of the books that lit the fire (besides Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart which I read in 2014). Character is not the type of  This book is a primer but also a persuader about why you need to long for good character.

Favorite snippet: Wright’s story about a pilot, illustrating how it takes thousands of repeated behaviors to eventually do right what needs to be done right in the moment it is needed most.

Who should read it: you.

#2 – Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. By Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg.

Lois Tverberg is a wonderful researcher and writer. I love her appreciation for the ancient Jewish roots of the New Testament, and her books have made my faith, and reading of the Bible, come alive.

My favorite snippet: her explanation of the Messianic significance of the tassels on Jewish garments.

Who should read it: if you have trouble relating to the Bible when you read it (perhaps it feels outdated or removed from your contemporary experience); if you want to grow in your understanding of the Scriptures, Biblical culture, and the world that Jesus inhabited; or if you simply want to deepen and enrich your faith…this is the book for you.

#1 – All The Light We Cannot See: a Novel. By Arthur Doerr.

I don’t even know where to start on this one, so I guess with a short description. Set in WWII, this Pulitzer Prize winner waltz around the separate stories of a blind french girl with a love for seashells and a young german boy with a love for radios. As the girl is swept into the arms of the resistance, and the boy’s talent for electronics brings him invariably to the Hitler Youth, the centripetal force of their combined stories, tragedies, and hopes work to bring them together. I have not read a book this gripping and beautiful in prose since The Great Gatsby. 

Who: readers of historical fiction, WWII themes, or magical writing.

Honorable mention: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho.

 

Advent: The Arrival!

It’s the beginning of Advent!

I always think of Advent as stretching Christmas out for a month. Advent starts four Sundays before Christmas, in this case it began November 29. Though there are different traditions involved, generally each week focuses on different facets of Advent.

Advent is multi-faceted

Let me explain…

There is a Greek word that comes up several times in the New Testament: Parousia. The word means “coming,” or “arrival.” Here’s an example:

Matthew 24:27: “For as the lightning comes from the east and shines as far as the west, so will be the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man.”
 

Parousia is often merely a reference to Christ’s Second Coming; the visible return of Christ from the heavens, to raise the dead, judge the living and the dead, and set up the kingdom of God.

What does this have to do with the Christmas season?

Well, parousia translated into Latin is adventus, or simply Advent. In other words, Advent starts with the arrival of Christ as a babe in swaddling clothes, but it also emphasizes an altogether separate arrival: his Second Coming!

Advent is about Jesus’ arrival(s)

That cute little nativity scene actually lurches forward in anticipation of a Great Story unfolding: when the Messiah will come again to renew and restore all things to Himself!

Prepare Him room!

As the Christmas carols start playing tomorrow, the tree farms turn on their lights, and shelf space fills with holiday memorabilia, let even these things serve as a reminder; let them stir in you that same anticipation which must have been in the original cast in the stable on that day. Jesus is coming back! The story is not over. He will return to renew and restore all things.


Prepare Him room in your hearts this week. As you go about regular activities, regularly ask yourself if you would do that said thing differently knowing Jesus was about to personally arrive right where you are any second!

Book Review ~ Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Calhoun

I used to hate this book.

Someone gave it to me in passing a couple of years ago. I opened it the next day, skipped the introduction, and began reading from left to right, as quickly as possible.  The first chapter was on “celebration,” and the second was on “gratitude.” Since I felt devoid of both, reading about their explicit practice was too much for me to bear. I felt exhausted, and stopped reading the book altogether.

I know. Awkward way to start a book review.

But I’m reviewing the book because months later, a friend told me that I was not supposed to read it from back to front; and that reading the introduction was vital to my understanding the rest. So I sat back down with what I thought was a terrible book, and read the first twenty-three pages that night. Everything changed. That night.

What it’s about.

It morphed from a book about trying harder to a book exposing my innermost self. Calhoun spends the first few pages carefully articulating a theology of desire; that is, how our desires work, how sin distorts our desires, and how God heals them. Against this, I always thought of spiritual disciplines as pietistic acts of self-hatred—-means and methods for suppressing desires, not listen to them. Now, there is a clear thread of self-denial woven through all biblical disciplines; but self-denial is not self-hatred. As Calhoun explains, the process leading to self-denial must inevitably start with a degree of honesty and vulnerability. This means listening to our desires. It doesn’t mean they are right desires. It doesn’t mean God won’t change those desires. It just means they are true, and that they tell us something about ourselves. This makes the beginning of any spiritual discipline fairly straightforward: “We simply desire. We bring our ache for change, our longing for belonging, our desperation to make a difference” (19). All of this then sets us up for any spiritual discipline worth its salt: “they simply put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to his word to us” (19). That’s just from the first few pages of the introduction! The rest explains how our desires help us find what discipline is necessary for spiritual maturity in any given area of our lives.

After reading this introduction, I felt a hunger in me begin to simmer, and skimmed through the various disciplines Calhoun lists to discover what I needed to single out the most in my life. The result has been spiritual, emotional, and even physical health; the thing I’ve learned the most through this process is that time spent alone with God is the best thing I can do for myself and others.

Book structure.

The structure of the book is easy to follow. After the introduction, Calhoun offers sixty-two disciplines (!). This large swathe of practices makes up seven larger groupings: worship, opening self to God, relinquishing the false self, community, hearing God’s Word, incarnating the love of Christ, and prayer.

Each discipline is given a page or two of summary, along with simple, practical instructions, Scriptures, and questions to not only discover which disciplines are right for each person’s desires, but also to guide the process of practicing them once the right discipline is found.

Why you should get it.

If you have ever felt a longing inside for something deeper in your spirituality, this might be the book for you. If you’ve ever felt a disconnection between your heart and your actions, this might be the book for you. Or if you just want to wake up every day and “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7)—in other words, to live everything Jesus taught and did at every moment of every day…this might be the book for you. Over the last two years, I have felt all of these things to the point of frustration. And this was book really helped me. It is the single most comprehensive, simple, and practical book on the disciplines I’ve ever read. I would probably still be depressed, teasing burn-out, and closed off to God (I share about that here and here) had it not been for the compassionate wisdom and simplicity of Calhoun’s writing. Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended by me.

It’s important at this juncture to know at the outset that spiritual disciplines are the means, not the end. Spiritual transformation is the end. Things get out of hand when these get mixed up. What transforms a person is not disciplines, but the Spirit of God in Christ indwelling the human heart. What disciplines can do is posture that person, already desiring God, to then receive from God and live for God; not just in moments of spiritual prosperity, but in the tedium of normal life. It’s this consistent Spirit-fanned flame of devotion, even if small at first, that causes the Christian life to soar long and true through circumstances and setbacks of any kind. Isn’t this the Christianity we long for? It is available to you. You just have to want it bad enough.

Purchase Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun here.

Read the Bible in 2015

2015 is three days away! 

This is that time we tend to redo or accumulate plans for the new year: financial budgets, diets, exercise regimes, even plans to take a vacation later in the year.

Just about the only thing we don’t plan for is our spiritual life! But if there is anything more important to the Christian, it is the health of their inner being. The apostle Paul once said that “Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come” (1 Tim 4:8, NLT).

The Bible speaks a lot about planning. By all means, get physically fit. Plan a good budget. And find time to rest with your family, or get away. But don’t forget the part of you that needs the most care.

Make a plan to feed your spirit!

One of the most basic and far-reaching ways to do this is to be in the Word of God daily. I give an extensive sermon about the value of God’s Word here. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah was so sustained by the Scriptures, that he compared them to food: “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer. 15:16). Jesus would take this even farther, saying that God’s Word was able to sustain us even more than bread (Matt 4:4).

We may find this agreeable. But if you’re like me, it doesn’t just happen automatically. There are too many other things in our lives that want to compete with our spiritual well being. That’s why we need to have a plan. And for some of you, it may help to have a little bit of structure for reading the Bible.

Here is the whole Bible broken up into quarters for readability:

January – March.

April – June.

July – September.

October – December.

Every day it will take you through portions of the Old Testament and portions of the New Testament. You don’t have to use this for your “spiritual plan,” but if it helps, by all means use it!

There will probably be times when you skip a day or two, or ten.

When that happens, it’s easy to feel guilty about missing chapter readings, and fall even farther behind trying to catch up. Inevitably, people stop reading all together because they are discouraged. Please don’t let this happen to you! It is not about reading every single word, or filling out a quota, or saying you read the whole Bible.

This Bible reading plan is about posturing yourself in the presence of God to receive from His words!

So if you skip a day here and there, or fall behind, it’s ok! Don’t try to catch up, just take it back up where you left off. The point of all this is not perfection, but consistently opening up the Scriptures. After a year of training yourself to hear and read God’s word, your life will be significantly transformed. But it’s hard to do that sometimes, isn’t it?

That’s why we need a plan for our spiritual lives going into 2015. If you need one, I hope this will bless you next year!

Again, click here for the first quarter of the Bible reading series.

My five favorite reads of 2014

Let me define “favorite” and “of 2014.”

By “favorite,” I just mean impactful. But there are other things I consider too: if it was well written, if the author was able to carry me from beginning to end, if the ideas and concepts in the book were cohesive and well-developed, and if the writer has something to say that is worth reading.

What I mean by “of 2014” is not published in 2014–some of the selections are a decade older. They are simply books I read in 2014. I’m such a latecomer to books!

As a side note, this list is not written in order of importance. I’m lining them up as a narrative. I hope that storyline pops out in the descriptions about what has been most formative for me this last year. Without further ado…

The Divine Conspiracy, by Dallas Willard

It’s about time I read this one. The late Dallas Willard is one of the greatest thinkers of our day. I hesitate to say “Christian” thinkers, because he can flex his philosophical muscles with the best secular intellectuals of the century. Willard’s books often mix his mastery of the human personality with a deep admiration for the believer’s union with ChristThe Divine Conspiracy is his magnum opus. And what a great work it is! Taking the Sermon on the Mount as his cue, Willard pokes holes in flimsy, modern assumptions of Christianity that leave the confessor void of transformation or commitment. His premise is that being a “Christian” is to live vastly different in every area of life, because of the indwelling life of Christ. What follows is a four-hundred page juggernaut to convince you. By the time I was half way through this tome, I wasn’t just convinced, I was desperately hungry for change in my own life. One that can only be described as discipleship.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero.

Emotional Health is a discipleship issue. Unfortunately, a lot of “discipleship” in the church consists of teachings and other knowledge gathering, with a dash of volunteering. Essentially, read more, do more. Scazzero opens with stories peppered throughout (both Biblical and personal) of why that doesn’t work. He immediately follows with examples of emotionally unhealthy habits (in case you are tempted to drop the book and think, “I’m emotionally good-looking”), before he explains what an emotionally and spiritually healthy person looks like, and how they become so. I found myself hooked. Mostly because the person he was describing so well, was me. He ends the last half offering a way out of the nightmare of emotional and spiritual immaturity. His solution involves getting mystical and contemplative, in a non-creepy sort of way.

Here is a more extensive book review I wrote on EHS.

The Five Disfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni.

If Scazzero revealed how detrimental emotional immaturity can be to an individual, then Lencioni shows you how it can unravel a team, community, or even a simple group project. Lencioni is a fascinating writer who takes two seemingly opposite concepts–business and narrative–and combines them. What you have left is a masterfully told story that drives home principles of team health and dynamics. The storyline is so captivating that you never even know what hit you. In the final chapters of the book, Lencioni steps out of his storytelling role, to explain what just hit you. Even if you are not a leader, per se, so much in this short read will enlighten you to why things didn’t work very well on that project you were working on with so-and-so. It will also prepare you for how to work well with others. A necessary component in today’s world of team-oriented everything.

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun.

Contemplative spirituality and spiritual disciplines can sometimes scare Protestant evangelicals, because it reeks of a mystical nature. I really appreciated Calhoun’s ability to break these practices down with clarity and brevity, supporting them with Scripture, and showing the differences between Christian acts of spiritual discipline and the counterfeits offered by other world religions. Each discipline warrants no more than three pages, including an inspirational explanation, a tutorial, appropriate Scriptures, and a litany of ways said discipline can transform your life. As good as each of these are, the gold is in the introduction. Nowhere, in all of the titans of contemplative spirituality and disciplines, have I witnessed such an clear and enlightening vision for why a Christian should practice them, or how to practice them effectively. If you get this book (and you should), DO NOT READ IT WITHOUT FIRST READING THE INTRODUCTION. It is that good, and that necessary.

Sacred Reading, by Michael Casey.

This is an introduction to Lectio Divina, one of my favorite contemplative disciplines. It is the ancient practice of praying and meditating on the Scriptures, in a way that allows the Word of God to permeate, not just the intellect, but the heart. It is a slow reading of Scripture. It allows the reader of the Word to be read by the Word. Casey is filled with deep reverence and knowledge of Lectio, and his admiration for God’s word catches fire to the reader. A word of caution, it is not a manual for practicing Lectio Divina; for that, refer to Calhoun’s book on Spiritual Disciplines mentioned above; Casey’s Sacred Reading is a glimpse into a lifestyle of communion with God through His Word. It is meant to captivate you to a different way of reading.

The favorite of the favorites?

My number one book of this last year was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Scazzero. It’s affect on me was no doubt due to the journey I had been on at the time (which I talk about here). But as Scazzero points out, and as the experience of many other people I’ve talked to over the last couple months confirms, this is a topic that is as neglected by Christians as it is crucial for their maturity. This short read is a breathe of fresh air on a long pathway. So for all these reasons and more, this was the most impactful book on me in 2014.

What were your best reads of 2014, and why?

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