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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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 Christ. The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Many would say it involves mostly rules. Others think it’s doing good things for other people. Or maybe church attendance. Perhaps intellectual belief. But how does the Bible define following Jesus?
Overwhelmingly, we hear descriptions about being in Him.
We also hear descriptions about Christ being in us.
So frequent are these terms used to describe the Christian, and so extensive is the scope of each, that for simplicity’s sake, the entire mystical endeavor is often simply called Union with Christ .
Christ put it rather succinctly, “In that day you will know that I am in My Father, you are in Me, and I am in you” (John 14:20, HCSB). I think Wayne Grudem’s definition is helpful here: Union with Christ is “a phrase used to summarize several different relationships between believers and Christ, through which Christians receive every benefit of salvation“. In other words, everything noteworthy about salvation–from start to finish, from conversion to glory–is inextricably tied to our union with Christ! We do not have any Christianity apart from our union with Christ.
It underlies all the works of God in our lives: election, calling, regeneration, faith, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance, and glorification. To study union with Christ is to explore all of these particular blessings, and therefore the vast range of meaning in that little word in. – John M. Frame.
Some of you may think of union with Christ an abstract doctrine, useful only for arm-chair theologians who like to spend endless hours nitpicking ethereal concepts that never touch the human experience. I hope to relieve you from this state of indifference!
When a person becomes a Christian, they are not merely brought into a new set of beliefs, a list of behaviors, or a social club; it is a mysterious, all-encompassing, multi-faceted relationship and realm involving a divine Person. God himself invades our mess in the most literal way possible. Divine beauty and sinful flesh converge in a miraculous display. That mystical relationship has tremendous implications. I’ll just share from my experience of life in union with Christ.
To name a few.
To name just a few.
Perhaps you answered my original question by saying, “Christianity has to do with following a set of rules,” or “It is mainly about being a good person.” I would say Christianity may include or overlap with some of those popular definitions of religion—I certainly hope Christians can be identified with good people, who are consistent in their beliefs and convictions. But I would also suggest that being a Christian is more. It’s about being the version of humanity that God originally intended. But for that to happen, you must be indwelt with the Divine (2 Pet. 1:4).
In his Magnus Opus, The Divine Conspiracy, Dallas Willard suggests that a person cannot keep Christ’s law by trying to keep Christ’s law. That person must aim for something higher. “One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow” (142).
I believe our Lord put it this way: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (John 15:4, ESV).
Back to my point, where I want to go.
Well… I want health in my entirety. A healthy Christian is someone who is made more like the Christ who indwells them. Paul said that God’s good purpose is that we would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (Rom. 8:28-29), which is also to “mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). This involves the health of the whole person. To love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind (Matt 22:37). It’s what Jesus said was the most important command; the one to write home about, certainly, the one to remember if you are prone to forgetting such things.
I’m sure you’ve heard of nominal Christians. Perhaps judgmental Christians. Or [fill-in-the-blank] Christians. But my obsession is with healthy Christians.
I’m obsessed with how Christians can become healthy. So far, I’m convinced that it has to do with our union with Christ. So I obsess about that too. Mostly because I want to be a healthy Christian. And I want everyone I know to become one too.
This blog exists in great part to take this far-reaching, all-encompassing, glorious doctrine of our union with Christ, and show it’s daily implications in everyday life. Union with Christ is not for the armchair theologians.
It’s for you. And it’s for me.
How do you experience Union with Christ?
The apostle said, “When you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and when you believed in Him, you were also sealed with the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:13). That’s a great place to start.
Your experience of Jesus starts by believing the truth about Jesus. As J. Todd Billings writes, “Full humanity is humanity in complete union with God” . So most of these posts will explore the realization or practical application of this truth. Even if it’s subtle. For example,
So, stay tuned!
Here is my full-length sermon on this topic:
“I think I know what’s wrong with me now: I’m spirituality mature, but emotionally immature. I have a lot of spiritual knowledge, but I’m not very good at managing my emotions.”
To give you a little background, I was in a season of my life where I was trying so hard to be spiritual and productive for God, yet feeling more stagnant and disconnected from him than ever.
His eyes widened as he replied, “You need to read this book right now.”
Until this point, I’d never really heard about it, even though it’s been around for a while. I was curious about why the good doctor seemed so convinced I needed to read it. When it came in the mail, I took one look at the subtitle and laughed. It said,
“It’s impossible to be spirituality mature while remaining emotionally immature.”
Before cracking open the first page, I knew this book was written for me. Chances are, it’s probably written for you too.
Broadly speaking, emotional health has to do with expressing or managing the emotions we feel. Practically speaking, it plays out in the way we interact with others. Scazzero’s entire premise is that without emotional health, you have no spiritual health either. The two are inextricably woven; really, the book is about both emotional and spiritual health. For a person to grow into a healthy disciple of Christ, they need to be concerned with managing emotions and cultivating their spiritual life (contemplative spirituality he calls it). The unambiguous diagnosis that emerges from the book, however, is that many contemporary Christians neglect either emotional health, or contemplative spirituality in the process of discipleship. But if you lack either of these, you aren’t growing in a meaningful way at all. What is absent in most Christian’s lives is not contemplation–otherwise, this would be a book about the spiritual disciplines. What’s missing is a Scriptural plan for managing emotions. Says Scazzero,
When we do not process before God the very feelings that make us human, such as fear or sadness or anger, we leak. Our churches are filled with ‘leaking’ Christians who have not treated their emotions as a discipleship issue. Grieving is not possible without paying attention to our anger and sadness. Most people who fill churches are ‘nice’ and ‘respectable.’ Few explode in anger—at least in public. The majority, like me, stuff these ‘difficult feelings,’ trusting that God will honor our noble efforts. The result is that we leak through in soft ways such as passive-aggressive behavior (e.g., showing up late), sarcastic remarks, a nasty tone of voice, and the giving of the ‘silent treatment.’ (143-144)
In the first half of the book, he explains “what an emotionally unhealthy spirituality looks like” (p.2). You won’t get far in the book before you know whether the book is for you or not. In chapter three, he offers a clear solution: a marriage of emotional health with contemplative spirituality. This is the hinge of the book. The remaining half of the book offers a pathway to EHS. One that actually works.
Of the various pathways to Christian spiritual formation, there are two streams from which I have thoroughly benefitted: the Reformed tradition, with it’s panoramic view of God’s glory and emphasis on the Scriptures; and the Contemplative mystics, with their emphasis on the indwelling presence or God. One thing that always struck me about these two streams is their respective vernacular when it comes to growing in Christ. The Reformed tradition often speaks of looking outward to God who is holy other, and the contemplative stream often uses refers the believer inward to God who dwells within. One of the things I appreciated the most from Scazzero is that he marries these concepts together, as mutually compatible. He isn’t the first one to do this—there is a rich history of Reformed contemplatives at our fingertips who teach these things. Unfortunately, many of today’s books on spirituality are weighted in only one of these directions. It is refreshing to hear both “inward” and “outward” coalesce in Scazerro. For example, when he explains how emotional health keeps us from “self-absorbed narcissism” (61), while contemplative spirituality keeps us from getting exhausted as it “binds us to the living God” (155). In other words, emotional health keep us from imploding; contemplative spirituality keep us from burning out.
The draw of this book lies in the problem it’s attempting to discuss. If you are emotionally stable, deal with conflicts well, have a rich inner life, processed your past hurts constructively, and are deeply self-aware of your own weaknesses, it’s probably not going to impress you very much. But if even one of these things rings a bell, you need to get this book.
As the beginning of my post betrays, I have experienced firsthand the frustrations that come with trying to grow in my relationship with Christ. In most cases, it’s because attention is brought to bear on only one area of life, such as the intellect, or habits. But the human personality is complex and beautiful. As the Psalmist said, “the inward mind and heart of a man are deep” (Ps. 64:6). While emotional health is not all that makes up a person, it is an important and deeply-encompassing part of the human soul, and ironically, one of the most neglected areas of discipleship in the church. For that reason, I highly recommend this book to anyone who feels spiritually dry, spiritually stagnant, or on the verge of burnout. I also recommend it for anyone that just wants to walk deeper with God and others.
Buy the book here!
Now, a few suggestions for practicing this. In his acclaimed book, The Celebration of Discipline, Richard J. Foster offers 10 principles for simplicity. It was written a decade ago, and yet is surprisingly relevant. I will mention each one, followed by a fitting quote. Then I will punctuate each of them with a successful personal experience, or a personal failure. Since some of these points connected with me more than others, the length or brevity of my “punctuations” will reflect that.
1. Buy things for usefulness rather than status
“Stop trying to impress people with your clothes and impress them with your life.”
This is cutting advice considering the city of Santa Barbara (or any part of Southern California). We are known more for image than we are for utility. And it’s hard to separate the two sometimes. I’ll admit, the jackets I wear to keep warm at night, also look really good! Rather than beat ourselves up over this one, I think it more helpful to rephrase this point in this way: “Do the things I own promote my quality of life or just my standard of living?” I hope for more of the former.
2. Reject anything that is producing an addiction in you.
“Remember, an addiction, by its very nature, is something that is beyond your control…How do you discern an addiction? Very simply, you watch for undisciplined compulsions” (91).
I gave an exhaustive sermon on Alcohol and the Christian back in 2013. It’s my most viewed sermon to date. I suspect the reason for its popularity is two-fold: Santa Barbara really likes their alcohol, and no one has ever given a full-blown sermon on alcohol here before. Now, there are countless Christians who can imbibe without sinning; there are also many other who cannot. I think it’s at this point that a careful distinction needs to be made about what we are free to do. Christian liberty means you have the gospel-freedom to partake (if you can), but it also means you have the gospel-freedom to abstain if you should! Some Christians drink too much (Eph 5:18), or against their consciences (1 Cor 8:12), or against their health (Isa 5:11), or against a weaker brother (Rom 14:21) when they, in fact, need to stop. They are deceived if they think drinking, for them, is a freedom. As the apostle Paul posits, “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything” (1 Cor. 6:12, NIV). If you are mastered by anything, it’s not freedom. It’s slavery. In this case, true simplicity prevents you from developing a bondage to an otherwise good thing.
3. Develop a habit of giving things away
“Masses of things that are not needed complicate life…most of us could get rid of half our possessions without any serious sacrifice” (92).
This is a hard one, because I like my stuff. But we are graciously forced to downsize periodically because of the size of living in Santa Barbara. There’s simply not enough five bedroom homes to accommodate our love for things. This makes life easier, and, well…simple.
4. Refuse to be propagandized by the custodians of modern gadgetry
“Timesaving devices almost never save time.”
I was one of these guys. I stayed in lines during the Steve Jobs era, waiting to be one of only thousands with the next best thing in their hands. Even though I knew the feeling would dissipate in a month, it was worth it to be among the select few in the world that had something most others did not. Silly, I know. But I couldn’t shake it. Then one day, I took Abby into a pool. With my iPhone in my pocket. For forty-five minutes. I tried to resurrect that thing using every Pinterest solution imaginable. From sticking it in a jar of rice for seven days straight, to laying it on a bed of rice in an oven at low heat. Nothing. I looked up my contract to see if I had any upgrades available. Fall of 2015. Ugh. Someone graciously lent me an older version. And I’ve been learning to slow down. I had to cut out most of the apps that used to take up so much of my time, due to the lack of space. Social media stopped running as fast as it used to, and I found myself wondering if it was worth waiting five minutes to check Facebook statuses that I know are just going to be about food, ex-boyfriends, and photos of people’s babies. Because of the pool accident, my life has gotten simpler–albeit in a small way. However, the magic was in the two weeks before my friend lent me a phone, and I had nothing. No way to search social media. No phone calls. No texts. No email. I hated it at first. But within days, I felt like I had come alive. I know that sounds sensational, but it really was true for me. I spent more time in the Scriptures than I have for a long time. More time in a contemplative posture of prayer. More time with my daughter. And wife. And God. I’ve since gotten a phone back, but with some semblance of simplicity to go with it. And it’s been worth it.
5. Learn to enjoy things without owning them
“If we own it, we feel we can control it; and if we can control it, we feel it will give us more pleasure” (93).
No one owns much in Santa Barbara, so I have nothing to say about this one, haha.
6. Develop a deeper appreciation for creation
“Simplicity means to discover once again that ‘the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof'” (Ps. 24:1).
I’ve been surfing a block from my office. And there is nothing that will silence the unending flow of emails in the brain than being in the ocean. Catching a wave is pretty darn intoxicating too. What’s your “creation” experience?
7. Look with healthy skepticism at all “buy now, pay later” schemes
“They are a trap.”
When I was a teenager, I racked up thousands on a credit card, because I didn’t know any better. Those cards are payed off, but the memories remain. My friend, Gerald Torres once told me, “If you live within your means, you’ll be happy. It’s as simple as that.” I’ve found those words to be true.
8. Obey Jesus’ instructions about plain, honest speech
Passive aggression. That’s when you are indirectly hostile towards another person. Perhaps through a backhanded remark, an irritated comment spoken below the breath, or a Facebook status that doesn’t name anyone yet is clearly intended for a specific person to see. This is not how Jesus ever spoke. He was clear, direct, and honest. The reason we are not, is because we are too insecure with ourselves to be honest in conflict. Or because we fear. We fear the tension that will escalate when we deal with the hard issues in an interpersonal relationship. So we cover the truth, mask our feelings, and don’t say anything. Then we attach some level of piety and self-righteousness to our (in)action, thinking we took the high road. But we didn’t. This is evidenced by the fact that we cannot let it go. At least in our minds. We play the scenario over and over in our heads, thinking of what we could have said, or should have said. And we get angry while we do it. All of this anger is directed towards that person who originally upset us. We could have dealt with it at the beginning, but not it’s building up steam. Then when said person enters the room, we release a little passive-aggressive steam, couched in a note of sarcasm. And both sides of the relationship suffer for it. All of this can be prevented by being honest and forthright. Go figure.
9. Reject anything that breeds the oppression of others
Welp, that’s almost everything in my kitchen, my closet, my car, and my office. To do this with any shred of integrity, you’d have to make your own clothes, ride a bike instead of a car, buy organic veggies, free-range meat, and American products. Guess how much that would cost? Do any of us do this? Why or why not?
10. Shun anything that distracts you from seeking first the Kingdom of God
Imagine a life that looks like this. Not an individual life, but corporate. Imagine everyone in your church free from status-envy, addictions, stinginess, the race to be cutting-edge, the obsession with belongings; or if we all developed a care for our surroundings, an aversion to debt (except to owe love); if we were easy to understand, and said what we meant, and if we all worked together to free the oppressed, and ran from anything that did not look like God’s will. I think our church would start to look set apart in Santa Barbara, yet, strangely alluring as well. Why? Because we don’t need anything except what we already have. What a glaringly different and attractive way to live. Such is the power of simplicity. No wonder Paul’s quirky instruction…
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NASB)
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NASB)
I’ll come back to this passage in a paragraph or two. But first a question for anyone who has gone to a church.
I’ve talked to more than one individual who felt this pressure. And as a result, condemnation, albeit indirectly, by their fellow Christians, for not being as “on fire” as the critical mass of worshippers in their church. Now a second disclaimer: No blame should be left at the feet of those who are passionate about their faith. Especially if they are excited about following Jesus. Passion is needed in the church. All I’m suggesting here is that not everyone is in the same place that you are, spiritually speaking. And they don’t have to be. Everyone has their own pace at which they grow in their spiritual walk. All that really matters is that you’re growing. We shouldn’t quench the fire of the zealous ones among us; neither should we quench the smoldering wick of the Christian who is just trying to make it through the day without screwing up. For that reason, I can’t stop going back to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Specifically, those two verses in chapter four.
There is this prevalent idea among Christian (evangelical?) millennials to live in a manner that is unparalleled by their peers. In a way that stands out. There is an external pressure to wield as much influence, power, and connection in the world as possible. After all, this is the “next great generation,” as they say. And we have a hefty expectation to live up to. “Ahem”…for the glory of God, of course.
Now, I do believe God’s call on our lives is radical in itself. Jesus changes our innermost being, relationships, worldviews, social structures, and then sends us as disciples into the world to repeat the process with others. Just the nature of our salvation, involving the mysterious union we have with Christ is beyond the scope of imagination. Consequently, anything we do as Christians, if the presence of Christ is in us, is by association, of a radical nature. To share the gospel with a non-believer, if done with the Spirit of Christ in us, is a radical commission. To open our doors in hospitality to our neighbors, when infused by the Spirit of Christ in us, is radical. If we are one with Christ, then talking to a cashier at the local grocery store can be radical. If, by radical, we mean, “far-reaching or thorough” in its “affecting the fundamental nature of something.” You can see how talking to a cashier in a grocery store about Jesus can have “far-reaching affects” if you are speaking by the power of Christ’s indwelling presence.
So then why are millennials so unsatisfied with their jobs, homes, churches, environment, and callings? It’s not the technical definition of “radical” that we seem to be after. For then, we’d already be satisfied in the seemingly mundane, as long as God is present with us. But we’re not satisfied. We’re the unsatisfied generation. I lost count of how many restless friends I’ve known who left the town they initially thought they were “called to.” It’s like they’re always on the run to find the next best thing “God has for them.”
I wonder, why don’t I ever hear of millennials staying in the same place, for years and years, faithfully ministering to the same people, day in and day out? Why don’t I ever hear stories about that twenty-three year old who worked for twenty years at a job she hated because of the uncontrollable burden on her heart for a co-worker? Why do I less stories about millennials counting the cost to obey Christ, and hear instead about “chasing my dreams”? Why do I see young people hopping from “calling” to “calling”–as if God keeps changing our minds (or His) on what He’s called us to?
Maybe our dream is of big venues, great movements, and the prestige that will come when God uses us. Perhaps we daydream about the connections we’ll make, the book deals we’ll sign, or the influence we’ll have. We see non-profits, CEO’s, celebrity pastors, entrepreneurs and kind-of-famous musicians. Even if we can’t be that big, we at least dream of being as happy. We feel as though our right as Christians is to serve God doing what we want to do. We have passionate ambitions. We cannot imagine serving God in anything less than our dream job, with our best gifts, on our terms, and according to our schedule. I fully support dreaming big. But sometimes big dreams emerge from small beginnings.
I remember visiting the Sistine Chapel six years ago. The swell of global visitors in that room was astonishing, as everyone stood on tip-toes clamoring for a blurry shot of the famous ceiling frescos that were too far away to promise any photographic detail. Greatness. We want to be the Michelangelo of our day. But Michelangelo was primarily “gifted” as a sculpter. In fact, it’s said that he had a low opinion of painting. How many of us would turn that opportunity down because “our gifts are not being used,’ or “it wasn’t my dream job!” But Mike faithfully undertook the commission. Four years later, a masterpiece was born. That’s true greatness. But lying on scaffolding, with paint leaking into your eyes after the 10th hour on your back is certainly not romantic. Greatness rarely is. And according to the apostle Paul, the greatest ambition we should be pursuing is an invisible one.
What if God never intended for you to be legendary? What if you never made the paper, the TV, or even Youtube? Are you ok with being insignificant in the eyes of culture, to be obedient before God’s? What if God just wanted you to be faithful to your classmate, your friend, your neighbor, your kids? What if the inner change that occurred over the slow months of investing into them was the world-changing venture God had in mind for you? What if God just wanted you to teach others what you were once taught? Would you be ok with that? Because Paul’s verse to live a quiet life, not bother anyone, and have a good reputation would also certainly dovetail with his calling to make disciples. Paul is consistent. Maybe we’re the ones that have it skewed.
In Hebrews 11:32-40, aptly nicknamed the Hall of Faith, some of the most faithful believers don’t even get named. To be sure, some of them “stopped the mouths of lions” (33). But others were simply mocked, flogged, or imprisoned (36). How unglamorous. All of them went down in history nameless and unknown to us. Yet they are unforgettable to God. In fact, the author of Hebrews describes them as people “of whom the world was not worthy” (30). A backhanded jab at prevailing culture’s adulation for celebrity, fame, and power. The irony is that most of us don’t even know any Greek pagans from that time in history–the ones with honor and prestige. But our churches exist because of the nameless in the Hall of Faith. The explosion of the early church was founded on the faith of such men and women. So yes, history yields a radical result. It’s just not worthy of the world’s fame. Or even a headline in a blog. But God is thrilled. Is that enough for you? To be praised by God, if not by the Huffington Post?
This grinds in the face of what many of us think we want (try sitting in a chair for 20 minutes without having to look at your phone). In fact, Paul seems to correlate the overall health of our relationships with non-believers to a simple and quiet life: “lead a quiet life and attend to your own business…so that you will behave properly toward outsiders”
As I mentioned at the beginning, my life seems anything but simple. The times my life is the most complicated, sometimes also happens to be the most lacking in true, heavenly power. And I wonder if there’s a correlation. I long for simple power. To not be dominated by my calendar, technology, bills, emails, and urgent-but-menial tasks. I’m guessing that for a lot of you, it’s the same. That would make simplicity a discipline that we must enter into and practice if we’re going to take seriously God’s Word. It won’t just happen. But the discipline we enter into is not some spiritual form of self-flagellation. It’s a pattern by which we subvert dangerous cultural norms that threaten to derail us from true peace of mind. It’s a discipline by which we experience and reflect God’s power in our lives regardless of the external pressures of our world. It’s a way of saying, breathing, and living a simple motto: my union with Christ is enough. It lies latent in every believer who can slow down enough to trust and obey their Lord. It will cause us to slow down and refocus our inner life on the indwelling presence of Jesus, if we let it. But since acts of simplicity are an enigma for many of us, it might help for me to spell it out for the sake of clarity. Since I am still a novice at it, I’ll offer direction from one of the great modern-day contemplatives.
So my next post will bring with it ten acts of simplicity, by Richard J. Foster. A guy who knew where the radical nature of Christianity lied: the interior life of every Christian.
The “Good Life” is the life that everyone is after. It’s a vision of well-being that we’ve been taught to create or chase. Yet it’s usually on the other side of the fence where grass always appears greener. It’s the dream that captivates our imagination, and just as often breaks our hearts. Many of us might agree that the Good Life is as evasive as it is alluring.
But the Bible presents us with a far more satisfying picture. Jesus explained that a taste of the Good Life is here with us right now. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, he gave supernatural examples, situations, and case studies of the breaking forth of God’s kingdom in the present age—the Good Life of Heaven coming down into our world. All of this is now on display in Jesus’ most famous and memorable sermon.
Join us as we begin a series through Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, starting September 21st.
Here is a list of the sermons we’ve done so far.
For what to expect, check out the schedule: The Good Life Series.
I was once at a bar-b-que where the main course was chicken. I grabbed a couple of wings and threw them on my plate next to a generous helping of mashed potatoes (my mouth is watering as I write this), sat down, already famished, and began devouring a wing. To my dismay, there wasn’t anything there to begin with—the only bit of existing meat lie deep between stacks of chicken bones—I felt like I was trying to chew slivers of string cheese stapled to toothpicks. I took two small bites before throwing the remains back on my plate, and grabbed the other wing hoping for a better catch. No luck. Those emaciated chicken wings were so boney that it wasn’t even worth eating them at all. I should have stuck with my hunch and filled my whole plate with mashed potatoes! The moral of the story is:
Chicken wings don’t have enough meat on them to be worth your time—especially when there are thighs on the other serving table.
Authors, preachers, and speakers are basically the same. There are times when you feel like you are chewing on a chicken wing—sure, there’s a pocket of teriyaki sauce that globs up and whets your appetite when you bite it, but there’s not enough meat to make navigating those bones worthwhile—kind of like the preacher or author who constantly drops clever one-liners but without any substance. The earth is full of these! Do yourself a favor: find something else that will satisfy your hunger and don’t waste time on finger-food anymore.
It’s probably clear that no one out there will ever offer a perfect meal of words except for Jesus. But that’s why we read widely, chew on the meat, and spit out the bones—otherwise we wouldn’t learn anything. Just stick to those preachers and writers that actually have substance, or you’ll wake up with a mouth full of bone marrow, disgruntled because you can’t seem to figure out why there’s no spiritual growth in your life.
Perhaps because you’re not really eating?
Many of us want accountability, and rightfully so—we go to mid-week gatherings, we sign up for redemptive groups, we meet other Christians for coffee, we ask pastors for wisdom, we set up counseling appointments, and these are often with great effect—but not everyone who does this is as vulnerable, humble, and teachable as they need to be. So instead of “accountability” what we end up with is victimization. Instead of surrounding ourselves with people who can check our blind spots, we surround ourselves with people to blame. Accountability is illusive, not because there aren’t people willing to bear our burdens, but because we sometimes expect those people to do for us what we are too prideful to do ourselves: repent of our sin.
When this happens,”accountability” is nothing more than a cheap buzzword that we think will save us if we say it repeatedly. “Accountability,” “Keep me accountable,” “Who are you accountable to, bro?” “She’s been keeping me accountable.”
Think about this. If you struggle with lust, you can probably entertain those lusts, even act them out, in secret for many years—perhaps for the rest of your life—without anyone finding out. What good is having a hundred accountability partners if you are better at hiding your sin than they are at keeping you accountable? I think we give other Christians too much credit in this regard: we think that others will check us on all the sin issues of our heart, and yet we are masterful at hiding such things! The only way our friends can really know how we struggle, and thereby work to restore us, is when we are brutally honest with the right people. But some in the church feel as if “accountability” will do all the work for them, kind of like a butler who launders their clothing while they are asleep. Yet they wake up to find their dirty clothes strewn across the living room floor because they don’t really have a butler, and they don’t know how to operate the washing machine by themselves. The problem with Christian accountability is not accountability, per se, it is the Christian who is not really willing to humble themselves, submit to others, and face the fact that they are worse than they think. We all are.
Instead of throwing around magic buzzwords, the Bible calls us to open our lives to fellow Christian’s who we trust and can speak into our lives. And it’s not enough to ask people to “keep us accountable”—we must also listen and heed the righteous judgment of others, while being honest with our shortcomings, sinful habits, and idolatry. This is true accountability. It’s a two-way street where all our crap is on the table, and brothers/sisters can gently show the blind spots in our lives. It is also a God-ordained means of sanctification, whereby God uses the community around you to conform you into His likeness.
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The urgent request of a righteous person is very powerful in its effect.” James 5:16 (HCSB)
We are not to settle for the mere reading of God’s Word, or even understanding His Word (though we are certainly not called to less than these!).
But why devote such labor to memorizing words that for some of us feel very archaic? Wouldn’t we be better served by memorizing one-liners from contemporary sermons, pithy sayings of wisdom, or quotes from modern authors? I will share more exhaustively in the following post the value of memorizing Scripture. But today I wish to leave you with this:
If you have, you know that in that moment time seems to blow by you without much warning. When I’m in a sudden place of distress, or I lose a loved one, or someone cuts me off on the highway, adrenaline sets in and my mind becomes discombobulated. In a moment of abrupt chaos, I’m not going to remember Wayne Grudem’s systematic chapter on God’s sovereignty over circumstances. Nor am I going to recall John Piper’s 7 point sermon on enjoying God in suffering. In fact, I believe it was Piper who once said, “You might remember a sentence.”
When Satan tempts me to despair, I want God’s Word to lift my spirit.
When my mind loses its grip on God’s faithfulness, I want God’s Word to anchor my soul.
When I am too easily consumed with the delicacies of a fallen culture, I want God’s Word to satiate my heart.
When I can’t control my bitterness, I want God’s Word to saturate my thoughts.
“All Scripture is inspired by God” (2 Timothy 3:16-17, HCSB).
Scripture memorization is easy to cultivate in times of security and comfort. But it’s in the seasons of difficulty that the most fruit is evident. So if you haven’t experienced any setbacks in life; if you haven’t been sifted like wheat by Satan; if you haven’t trembled at the thought of eternity; if you haven’t lost anything of value; if you are too young to have suffered. Give it time, you will.
How will you align yourself with heaven in all the circumstances that come your way? What will be your weapon of choice to fight the devil? What will fixate your mind on Christ? But, O! Let us consider the Psalmist’s hope with tremendous confidence, “Your word is a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.” (Psalm 119:105, HCSB)