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Reality’s Core Values: Jesus is our Senior Pastor (#1)

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?

Union with Christ

If I were to ask you to explain what it meant to be a Christian, what would you say?

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.

  • Paul says “in Him” 11 times just in the opening chapter to the Ephesians.
  • The same phrase, “in Him,” occurs 73 times in the New Testament [1].
    • Just a couple tantalizing examples,
      • In love He predestined us to be adopted through Jesus Christ for Himself, according to His favor and will, to the praise of His glorious grace that He favored us with in the Beloved. (Ephesians 1:5-6)
      • Therefore, no condemnation now exists for those in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1)

We also hear descriptions about Christ being in us.

  • To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Colossians 1:27)
  • I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20)
  • So then, my dear friends, just as you have always obeyed, not only in my presence, but now even more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God who is working in you, enabling you both to desire and to work out His good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)

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 [2].

What is 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[3]. 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[4].

Why should you care?

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!

There isn’t anything in the Bible that touches the human experience more than this. [5]

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.

It explains who I am.

  • I’m justified in Him (Rom 3:24; 2 Cor 5:17,21; Phi 3:9)
  • I’m identified with Him (Eph 2:6,10)
  • I’m adopted by Him (Eph 1:5-6)
  • I’m brought near to Him (Eph 2:13)

To name a few.

It fuels how I live.

To name just a few.

It shows where I want to go.

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 ConspiracyDallas 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.

What this blog offers

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” [6]. 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!

Works Cited… Read the rest of this entry

Book Review ~ Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero.

I looked at my therapist one morning and replied with a fresh wind of confidence,

“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.”

The book he recommended was Emotionally Healthy Spirituality (EHS), by Peter Scazzero.

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.


You only have to look at the title to guess that EHS is all about emotional health. 

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)

Scazzero’s book structure is simple.

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.

But it’s not for everyone.

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.


Where to buy it.

Buy the book here!

10 Principles of Simplicity

In my last post I talked about the beauty and importance of simplicity

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)

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