Showing posts from 2013

The key to being a great student is also the key to growing spiritually

This morning I ran across one of the fundamental aspects of growing spiritually in an unexpected place: a study of what makes the strongest students in school. If you want to grow spiritually, are or know a student, or both, read on...

You might think IQ is the best indicator of a student's track record in school. Not so. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg references a major study performed in 2005 that tracked high school students:
Students who exerted high levels of willpower were more likely to earn higher grades in their classes and gain admission to more selective schools. They had fewer absences and spent less time watching television and more hours on homework... "Self-discipline predicted academic performance more robustly than did IQ. Self-discipline also predicted which students would improve their grades over the course of the school year, whereas IQ did not. ... Self-discipline has a bigger effect on academic performance than does intellectual talent.&…

Two small prayers for experiencing God today

We are half way through the Christmas season. Has it been a frenetic race or a 25-Day Retreat? The latter is absolutely within your reach. I will explain more later, but first a brief bit of setup. Yesterday at Sanctuary we talked about the two most fundamental questions of the spiritual life:
Who's the boss? Who's in the center? Sin pushes us to answer these two questions in self-centered ways. My favorite boss is me. My favorite way to arrange the universe is to put me in the center. It has been said that sin means being addicted to yourself. (BTW, going to church and being nice isn't enough to end that addiction.)

Fortunately, sin isn't the end of the story. Through Jesus, we have free access to God's great recovery program for self-addicts. In this recovery program there is one path. No shortcuts. No VIP passes. It's the one path to freedom and greatness.

God's one path runs through the same territory for all of us. It goes like this:
Through Jesus, I w…

The gift of wise friends

I just returned from an annual 4-day retreat with about ten other pastors, and it served as another reminder that having the right kind of friends is crucially important. One of the things we do on our annual retreats is gather in a circle and take turns talking about what's going on in our lives. We share the same vocation, but we get into real stuff rather than talking shop. In fact, this year more than one person shared things he hadn't opened up about to anyone else yet.
The words my friends spoke into my life were powerful and insightful. They were so important that later I took notes. Now I have a record of thoughts I can return to in the coming weeks and months. I definitely came away with a sense that God is present and invested in my life and ministry. And yet he was reminding me that he needs to be in charge. That's important because in the midst of feeling a sincere sense of responsibility for the church (his church), I often grab the steering wheel away from Go…

New neural pathways of faith, hope, and love

Communion with God changes everything. It's true! I experienced it again this morning. I was praying over a situation that has been giving me some stress. Then I opened the Gospel of John and started browsing through the middle of the book. I settled on chapter 7 and stopped when I read this verse:
Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them. (7:38)I realized that what Jesus is saying is that even when you are in the middle of a stressful situation, you need not get trapped in all the "normal" responses: anxiety, depression, anger, and the like. He has a completely different way to meet the challenges of life. I'm not a scientist, but I believe the normal neural pathways that are accompanied by stressful chemical responses are well-worn highways in our brains, and God wants to plow some new roads for us.

I spent quite a while in prayer, simply receiving from God three gifts: faith to trust him, hope to see that he …

What if most of what you have been taught about faith is wrong?

What if faith doesn't solve all life's problems? What if faith actually makes things worse? Is it worth it to have faith?

Those are questions that came up after I just finished reading the first chapter of a book given to me by a friend, 10 Dumb Things Smart Christians Believe by Larry Osborne. The meat of the chapter is Osborne's observations about Hebrews 11, the Bible's standout chapter about faith. Osborne rightly says that when he really read Hebrews 11 carefully, it messed with his head.

Hebrews 11 starts with this famous "what is faith" statement:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for. (vv. 1-2) Okay, so faith is confidence and assurance. But confidence and assurance in what? Here's a popular conception of faith: "Faith isn't believing God can. Faith is believing God will." That notion of faith is flat out wrong.

The truth lies in the examples …

Reflections on preaching on singleness

Yesterday I preached one of the most difficult messages I have tried to tackle since I have been at Sanctuary: God and the love life of a single person. I had some Scripture to teach on, but I did not feel comfortable.

In the church, married people are usually the dominant demographic. The church holds marriage classes, preaches on marriage, and devotes massive amounts of resources toward discipling married people's children. Singles often feel left out of much of what is going on at church -- a significant demographic that somehow remains invisible. I would wager that the ratio of marriage sermons to singleness sermons is at least ten to one. Add that church cultures often carry an expectation that if single people would just do this and fix that, they could get on board and join the ranks of the married. One would think that church is the best place for a single person to bring the experience of singleness, but reality is often far different. It grieves me that Sanctuary has som…

Who has it backwards -- God or us?

Deep communion with God changes everything. That includes your perspective on life. Want some examples of an altered perspective? Check out a sampling of the instructions from the first chapter of James:
Consider it "pure joy" when you face trials. (James 1:2) If you are humble, think of yourself as having a high position (because you are just as important as a rich person in God's eyes), and if you are rich, think of yourself as having a low position (because you are no more important than the "least of these"). (1:9-10) It is better to listen than to speak. (1:19)  Rather than trying to ratchet your social circles upward, spend time with orphans and widows by entering into their distress. (1:27)  James is turning our values upside down, isn't he? Living with God means adopting his values instead of expecting him to adopt ours. God is not as into the American Dream as a lot of people think.

And how do we adopt God's values? Commune with him. Read Scrip…

"The wise man will simplify his life"

Most of us want to live impactful lives. Here's a key to it: an impactful life is a life with focus. When you know what is important, you devote everything to it. You become a person with a cause.

The trouble is, too many people lack focus. That's why the first main theme in my new book Luminous is Purpose. Life becomes simple when we know why we are here. And if we aren't sure why we are here, then our culture will be glad to give us all the agendas it values: making money, being happy, having a great body, etc. Jesus came with a radically different agenda: "Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these other things will be given to you as well" (Matthew 6:33).

A. W. Tozer wrote:
The wise man will simplify his life by going to the center of it. He will look well to the foundations and, having done that, he will not worry about the rest. Life as we know it in our painfully intricate civilization can be deadly unless we learn to distinguish t…

Growing in prayer and how a desire to control it can hold you back

In the literature of the prayer masters of the Christian tradition, there is a consistent refrain that there are distinct stages of prayer. The beginner stages are characterized by intentional, verbal prayers that are done either because one wants to see something happen (a job, salvation of a loved one, a better marriage, etc.) or because one is committed to prayer as a discipline. One never grows out of this kind of prayer, but there is much more to it.

As prayer grows, there is a transition from prayer as a one-way street (you to God) to prayer as a two-way street (back and forth between you and God). The transition from one-way to two-way is a critical juncture in the deepening of prayer. I know that in my own prayer life, I am continually learning how to be carried along more by God's Spirit. I "generate" prayer mainly to get into a prayerful state, but then I try to let it flow.

The catch is, you can't make two-way prayer happen. God has to do that. Furthermor…

"Stick to the plan" -- what baseball, business, and Jesus have in common

Last night I had the luxury of watching the entire game 5 between the St. Louis Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates. In one moment after the game, I made some connections between the Cardinals, the spiritual life, and good leadership.

I am a fourth generation
Cardinal fan, and I have been following the Cards closely this season. It has been a year full of intrigue. Due to injuries to key veterans, the Cardinals have used no fewer than 20 rookies in their lineup this year. In game 4 against the Pirates, rookie pitcher Michael Wacha pitched 7-1/3 innings of one-hit ball. He was relieved by rookie Carlos Martinez, who finished the eighth inning. Then rookie Trevor Rosenthal closed out the ninth inning. Rosenthal looked like he was hyperventilating when he took the mound, but he got the job done.

There is a system in St. Louis called "the Cardinal Way." The team has produced manuals and materials that outline in detail how the team goes about things. There is a saying in the clubho…

In honor of a dear, departed friend, Sherwood Carthen


What is a "sinner?"

In order to be people whose lives are centered in the gospel of Jesus, we need to understand grace. And in order to understand grace, we need to understand sin and what it means to be a sinner. But what if we fundamentally misunderstand the word "sinner?" The trouble is, most people, both non-Christians and Christians, tend to think a sinner is a person with loose morals or a mean spirit or some other vice. But that's not at all what the Bible means by "sinner."

Eugene Peterson gives a helpful explanation of what "sinner" means. The word "sinner" is not a moral designation...
The word sinner is a theological designation. It is essential to insist on this. It is not a moralistic judgment. It is not a word that places humans somewhere along a continuum ranging from angel to ape, assessing them as relatively "good" or "bad." It designates humans in relation to God and sees them as separated from God. Sinner means something i…

Evangelism in a coffee shop

This morning I witnessed a person witnessing about Jesus. From a certain angle it was funny, but there were important aspects of the situation.

I strolled into one of my favorite coffee shops to sip a beverage and knock out some work. As I approached the counter to purchase a cup of black tea, on the couch next to me was an attractive woman on one end and a young man on the other. Both were reading with beverage in hand. A minute later I engaged in the all-important ritual of pouring just the right amount of milk into my black tea (you are supposed to drink black tea that way; ask a British person). Turning away from the beverage prep station, I saw him sneak a look at her. I was pretty sure I knew what he was thinking: "How can I start a conversation with this woman?"

One of the few spots open was at a table a couple feet away from the sofa. While I set up my computer and things, I noticed the guy had accomplished his first objective. He had asked her some question, and she…

Three actions that make up at least 98% of the spiritual life

Last time I posted I promised that I would comment on three words that are central to how we interact with God. I've been thinking about it, and I believe at least 98% of the spiritual life comes down to these three actions:

1. Receive Nothing distances us from God like initially receiving his grace and then lapsing into a lifestyle of "making it happen." When we make it happen, we become self-reliant and close ourselves off from God. When you think about it, it makes absolutely no sense. Our salvation has come to us as a complete gift. All we could do is receive God's grace. Why drift into self-reliance? It has been said that the best saints are the most receptive ones. Why? Because receptivity is a sign of humility toward God. And "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." (James 4:6)
Example: In the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector praying in the temple (Luke 18:9-14), it is the tax collector who is open and receptive toward God. The…

A lesson on grace that has taken me decades to learn

After taking a break to enjoy family vacations and camping trips, I am excited to blog again today. I decided to write about an issue so big that it's difficult to express in any concise way. To put it in a nutshell, I am rediscovering the essence and message of the Christian life, and it is changing my outlook on everything. It's a long story, but here's the overview: over the last three decades, I have grasped God's grace, gotten separated from it, and now God is bringing me back to it with tremendous force.
In the late 1980s, Susan and I were going to church at Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach, CA. Our pastor, Zac Nazarian, became convinced that the church's grasp on grace was dangerously insufficient, so he set out to preach through Romans very slowly and with great deliberation. My memory is fuzzy about the details, but it seems that after a couple of years in Romans, we were still only in chapter five or six of Paul's letter. Pastor Zac talked about grace. He…

How to make or break your vacation

Having just gotten back from a week away with my family in San Francisco and Santa Cruz, I wanted to offer an observation about vacations. They can very easily become the most fun, entertaining, and spiritually alienating days of the year.

Vacations start long before we walk out the front door, pulling our packed bags behind us. We plan for vacations, anticipate them, and prepare for them. We picture what we will do. We save money to spend in ways (and in volumes) far out of the ordinary. This is all highly dangerous activity, and here's why. People have been taking holidays for centuries. What makes us different in America is that we are incredibly wealthy by global and historical standards, and we are highly trained consumers. When we go into "holiday mode," our consumerism gets switched into high gear. This is "our time," and we plan to do what we want with our money.

And that is the spiritual trap that awaits us when we go on vacation -- or enter into leis…

"Come away and be my son"

Last time I posted, I described God's love as Creator that he made known to me on my recent retreat. In
this post, I want to tell you what he really wanted to say. It's a message I believe we all need to hear and be reminded of.

As I started my retreat, I was praying, "Father, I have two days, and this is technically 'work time.' I want to come away with something I can bring back with me -- a 'product' or 'result.' Something that will help me and/or Sanctuary move forward. But more than anything, I really want to know what you want to do."

Through the course of the next several hours, God's agenda became clear to me. His call was: "Come away and be my son."

Over and over I heard these words in my heart. "Come away and be my son."

Not "produce something." Not "make something happen." Just "be my son." Just "be."

One of the beauties of the retreat is that I had hours to do nothing …

Get quiet to hear God, slow down to enjoy what God has made

"You work too hard." That's what I heard God saying in my heart as I hiked above Highland Lakes in the high Sierras. I was able to hear God talking more clearly than usual because I was on a two-day silent retreat. No distractions. No one else to talk to. No books from my extensive library.  Just long, unhurried conversations with God. In the silence, I was able to perceive his still, small voice.

By the way, that is the longest I have ever been silent, and it's the most concentrated retreat I have taken to date. I highly recommend a retreat like this. It was a game-changer for me.

The first afternoon, I was headed from the top of a ridge to a spot on a neighboring ridge so I could get a panoramic view of the valley where I was camping. I am an achievement-oriented person, so I got focused on getting from point A to point B. I marched forward and started climbing up the ridge. God said, "You work too hard. You need to enjoy the journey."

I'm not all th…

A prayer exercise that helped me hear God this morning.

I want to recommend to you an exercise I took up this morning -- rewriting a Psalm in my own words. I had been feeling like I was a little hard of hearing in my relationship with God, but this exercise opened up my ears. I was surprised at the ways God spoke to me.

Here's the really brief backstory. Recently I felt I needed to do something concentrated in my devotional life, so I picked up a book written by my friend and former spiritual director, Larry Warner. Larry is an expert in traditional Christian spirituality, especially that of Saint Ignatius. I opened the book and dove in.

Warner has all sorts of exercises to do along the way, but none has been more powerful than this morning's. I was to rewrite Psalm 136, replacing the first line from each verse with an event in my own life experience. Here's a sample of what Psalm 136 looks like:
Give thanks to him who made the heavens so skillfully.
     His faithful love endures forever.   Give thanks to him who placed the ear…

The bittersweet reality of graduations

In just under three hours, Susan and I will no longer have any kids in elementary school. I'm not sure either of us has caught up with that reality. We are excited Nathaniel is graduating from elementary school today, but elementary school represents an innocent and often magical period of life, and it's sad to think we as parents will no longer be part of that world.

Graduations are good at stirring up these bittersweet emotions. This morning as I was walking with Nathaniel and his class to their final field day, I ran into a friend whose oldest child is finishing kindergarten. He was feeling the bittersweet too. He's proud of his daughter, but he wasn't ready to let go of kindergarten yet. I understand!

Today I'm thanking God for Nathaniel's big personality and his wild ride through elementary school. I'm thankful for his teachers who poured their energy into seeing him excel. I'm remembering the open houses, field trips, and parent-teacher conference…

Five simple ways to show Jesus to the local community

As Christians, we talk about showing Jesus to the local community. It is a crucially important part of what we do to live generously in the world. And if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Here are five tips on showing Jesus to the local community.

1. Show up spiritually prepared Dallas Willard taught that whatever we do in a particular moment is shaped by how we have been living prior to that moment. If you have been cultivating a responsive life with Jesus in your day-to-day life, you will be best prepared for him to shine through you when important moments come. And interfacing with the local community is always an important moment. Willard lamented that many Christians seem to conduct their spiritual lives "sloppily," so when they need to demonstrate Jesus, they aren't ready. To help Christians show up prepared, Willard taught extensively about spiritual habits like praying, worshiping, giving, serving, reading Scripture, fasting, and so on. Willard is a…

Take the time to participate in your kids' lives

I can't believe I almost let work take me away from experiencing one of the most special weeks of my
son's life. Parents, this goes out to you. Be present with your kid, even if you feel like you don't have time.

I pastor a small local church, and there's always more work to do than time to do it. So when I got the chance to go on a four-day field trip with my son's 5th-grade to a camp in the redwood forest in Northern California, I had mixed feelings. I have gone on a field trip every year except one since 1998. It's one of those things I wanted to do so I could participate in special events in my kids' lives. I have loved doing this. I get to see how my kids interact with their schoolmates and teachers. You learn a lot on field trips.

This particular trip was the last elementary school trip for our kids. I didn't want to miss it. On the other hand, I was thinking about four whole days away from work. That also means three nights of insufficient sleep…

Street wisdom: Prayer changes our perspective

I just came from my weekly prayer meeting with street folks at Loaves and Fishes. One of the men who attends frequently asked me, “How do you feel as you drive to Loaves and Fishes in the morning? Do you experience anything special?”

I thought for a moment and then replied, “It all depends on what has happened before I get in the car. When I feel rushed and haven’t connected with God well, and I usually don’t feel anything special. But when I have spent good time with God to start the day, I look forward to seeing my wife and kids in the morning, and I feel closer to God as I drive here.”
He said, “The reason I come to these prayer meetings is because when I take time with God in the morning, I feel better about things and experience more peace throughout the day. I am able to deal with people who are mistreating me or other people. There’s a difference between a day when I have prayed in the morning and a day when I haven’t.”

The link between dying to our selfishness and practicing a Bible reading plan

When it comes to reading the Bible, some of us like to be "in the moment," picking whatever passages strike us that day. Others want the sense of order that comes from sticking to a prescribed reading plan. I bet few of us put as much thought into why it matters as the monastic fathers and mothers.

As I have posted before, I am slowly reading through an account of monastic life written by one of the ancient world's greatest authorities, John Cassian. Yesterday I was fascinated by the reasoning behind the monks' practice of praying a prescribed list of Psalms every night. This will sound radical to our fiercely independent ears, but we need to hear it.
No monk is fit for the spiritual life "before he has... learnt the fact that he is not his own maker and has no authority over his own actions." (Institutes, book II, ch III) Submitting to the communal prayers and Scripture readings is important because the monk needs to internalize a fundamental, scriptural t…

Ten essential Dallas Willard quotes

This week the church has lost a great saint and a shining light. Dallas Willard succumbed to cancer. As John Ortberg says in a wonderfully written tribute, Willard was brilliant, but "his heart and his life were better than his mind."

I thought it would be appropriate to bring out ten quotes that do a pretty good job of getting at what Willard spent his life teaching and working on.

1. This quote states the central problem Willard spent his career working on:
"My hope is to gain a fresh hearing for Jesus, especially among those who believe they already understand him. In his case, quite frankly, presumed familiarity has led to unfamiliarity, unfamiliarity has led to contempt, and contempt has led to profound ignorance." (opening paragraph of The Divine  Conspiracy)
2. The central problem, restated:
"The governing assumption today, among professing Christians, is that we can be 'Christians' forever and never become disciples." (The Great Omission, …