Spiritual Disciplines

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Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.

I Timothy 4:8

This year, I will begin my 40th year of life. In my late twenties I had a health scare that changed how I care for my physical body. The health issue caused me to alter the way I view food and resulted in intentionally making exercise part of the fabric of my life. As a result, I would not trade my current physique for the one I had in my twenties or thirties. Consistent discipline and training has resulted in my physical body becoming stronger with each passing year. While my physical body has been well maintained and consistently trained, I have recently realized that my spiritual body, for lack of a better term, was allowed to become overweight and out of shape. In many ways this has been a very painful realization.

The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people.” —Richard J. Foster

I have always been a hard worker. Before our teen years, my brother and I took a fledgling paper route and turned it into a thriving money maker. At the same time we negotiated with a local trucking operation to hand wash their fleet of trucks. As I grew older I earned a reputation for hard work and shrewd business practices. This all sounds great, but sadly I lost who I am, in favor of what I could do. Those who know our story know that we felt like I was not supposed to work for the first couple of years after we moved. That nearly killed me! When God finally opened a door for me to work again, the job was a school bus driver. Honestly, that was right up there with putt putt golf security guard on a scale of jobs I had never considered. Nearly five years later I can see why what I could do was taken from me. It was so I could re-discover who I am. That is where spiritual disciplines come in.

Spiritual disciplines, such as Prayer, meditation, fasting, gratitude, solitude, study, chastity, self-examination and silence have long been apart of my religious consciousness, but I have always struggled with them. I did not necessarily lack the discipline to do them consistently; rather, I felt that they were a manipulation tool that would cause God to do something for me. Even though I would never say it out loud, my heart believed that if I were able to fast enough, pray enough or be faithful enough God would do what I needed him to. As a result, I subconsciously avoided spiritual discipline.

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air.” — I Corinthians 9:24-26

I believe that the apostle Paul was attempting to compel his readers to view the training of their soul as they would the training of their body. The concept of “training” my soul, by applying spiritual disciplines, appeals to me. Finally I realize that I can practice the disciplines without the cloud of manipulation that I had applied to them for so long. I know the discipline that it takes to train my physical body and the joy of watching it develop and become stronger. Now I am eager to apply that level of training to my soul and I am excited to watch as my character is refined and spiritual strength is built as I discover who I am, not just what I do.

It is circumstances (difficulties) which show what men are. Therefore when a difficulty falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man. For what purpose? you may say. Why that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat. In my opinion no man has had a more profitable difficulty than you have had, if you choose to make use of it as an athlete would deal with a young antagonist.”-Epictetus

How about you? Are you interested in a good workout? If so, I invite you to try spiritual disciplines. If you would like a workout partner, let me know. I would be happy to help.

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Transformation Part 5 – Revealing the Heart of the Father

Thank you for walking with me these past few weeks as I process my thoughts on transformation.  I know this series is in no way an exhaustive look at transformation, I have merely been sharing some of the things I have seen and experienced in my own journey.  I needed to chronicle my thoughts because I was feeling a bit of self pity due to the length and heaviness of the process.  God began opening my eyes to things I had never paid attention to before; things that had always been there, but I hadn’t acknowledged or thought about.

I would say the majority of believers would agree our ultimate transformation will be when we get to Heaven.  In December I saw the story of Jesus as transformation in reverse.  Why on earth would God robe Himself in flesh and leave Heaven, the place we’re all longing to get to?  Why would Jesus subject Himself to depending on the care of broken, human parents as an infant, the painful awkward pre-teen/teen years, the tedious hard work of a carpenter, and the humiliation of crucifixion all to end up back in Heaven where He began anyway?  I contend He did it to show us how to live a transforming life, all the while revealing the heart of the Father.

The heart of God has always been mercy and love.  Go back through the Old Testament where many say God has an iron fist and is all about judgment, and read it through the lens of love and mercy.  I did that this last year and, wow, I was amazed at how many times God had been extending love and mercy over and over where all I had previously seen was punishment.  Yes, there were and still are consequences to our behavior and to sin, but God’s first response is to extend grace and call us to repentance and a closer relationship with Him.  Judgement is His very last resort and, as you can see in the OT, even then He is still asking us to turn back to Him.

When we live out transformation here on earth people are able to watch as God forms us into His image, they are able to see Him at work, even if they don’t understand it is Him.  As I mentioned in previous posts, people might not know how to respond to your transformation.  They might get angry, or take a step back from your life; they might embrace it full on and desire the same level of transformation in their life.  Your job isn’t to manage how people respond, your job is to allow God to be seen through the process.  So often we say our goal is to be like Jesus.  Here are a few verses to give insight into who Jesus was, what He did and what He tells us to do:

  • “The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command…”  Hebrews 1:3
  • “If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him!”  John 14:7
  • “I am in them and you are in me. May they experience such perfect unity that the world will know that you sent me and that you love them as much as you love me.”  John 17:23
  • Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”  John 8:12
  • “But while I am here in the world, I am the light of the world.”  John 9:5
  • “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden…In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  Matthew 5:14,16  

Again, I realize this is not an exhaustive list, I don’t think any human could make an exhaustive list of the character of God, how Jesus reflected it, and how we’re supposed to reflect it, but it does give us a good start.

Don’t be afraid of transformation.  He is with us through every phase: hurt, confusion, struggle, growth and triumph, we are able to shine the love of our Father.  Jesus already lived it out for us so we know it is possible.  No matter what phase you are in, keep your eyes on God, your source of hope (Romans 15:13).  I don’t know how it’s possible, but somehow even in the bleakest of circumstances, God is reflected in our lives and the people that encounter us are able to feel that hope and through it His love.

Always and Never

I recently listened to an interview with pastor, author and film maker T.D. Jakes. The interview was regarding his new book for entrepreneurs titled “Soar”. In the interview he advocated getting your “grind” on. His definition of grind is good, old fashioned hard work and dedication. Jakes stressed that when God gives you an open door, you will need to “get your grind on” in order to make the most of that open door. He further reinforced the point by saying, “You won’t see it come to pass sitting on your mom’s couch eating cereal at noon”. I found myself in complete agreement with Jakes. I have found that the doors God opens require a supreme amount of work to walk through. I also believe that is the point being conveyed through much of the book of James. Faith, without works, is dead!

One point Jakes made gave me pause, however. He said, “God does not give you a chair, he gives you a block of wood and it is up to you to make a chair”. He went on to say, “God does not build chairs, he leaves that up to us.” Anyone who has been in a relationship for any length of time knows that it is dangerous to use the words “always” and “never” when describing your partner’s activities. I believe that concept is also problematic in our relationship with God. Every group from the beginning of time has attempted to codify God’s activities into a list of things he always requires and a list of things he never does or requires. That is how the Jewish people were able to expand the 10 commandments into multiple, detailed volumes of how and when God operates. While I agree with many of Jakes points, I believe his statement, about God not building chairs, strays into the realm of always and never.

My family has had the unique opportunity to experience different religious cultures over the last 5 years. The religious culture that I grew up in, emphasized Jakes point about the necessity of good, old fashioned hard work and dedication. Basically, if a door was not opened for you, knock a hole in the wall, because standing still is when the devil will get you (insert quotes from Proverbs and James here). Over the last few years, we have been exposed to other religious cultures that emphasize waiting for God and resting in his promises and goodness. These groups would point out that when the disciples were in need of money to pay taxes, Jesus provided money from the mouth of a fish. This, along with the fish and loaves story, and many other Biblical examples, would be used to illustrate that God is in fact in the business of making chairs.

So, who is right? Does God require you to make the chair or does he do it for you? I propose that both are right! Much to our chagrin, God does not conform to our “always and never” scenarios. In general, Christians tend to polarize into two groups: Grace and Judgment. The grace group highlights God’s goodness and focuses heavily on the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives. The judgment group highlights God’s judgment for wrongdoing and focuses heavily on the Bible’s role in our lives. Both are holding to a true aspect of God’s character (He is kind and he does judge wrongdoing) but they go wrong when they attempt to confine God into their respective always/never boxes. This hyper-focus on one aspect of God’s character causes us to miss him entirely. For example, if Jesus were part of the grace movement he would be reprimanded for name calling, insulting and physical abuse of the religious (that’s not the heart of the father!). If Jesus were part of the judgment movement he would be reprimanded for loving thieves and prostitutes (they are living in sin!).

As you become awakened to more of who God is, there is a good chance that you will be frustrated by the boxes that you restricted God to. You may even flee the confines of the religious culture that promoted those boxes in your life. I want to urge you to proceed with caution and prayer in this matter, because you run a very real risk of unwittingly exchanging the box you currently have God in, for the box that another group has God in. The goal is not to simply exchange boxes, it is to eliminate the “always/never” boxes altogether. For more on that, see the post “Tear Down The Walls”

Transformation Part 4 – Collateral Damage

Over twelve years ago Aaron had a health wake up call.  He went in for a check up and the doctor told him his blood pressure was out of control.  So out of control in fact that if he didn’t do something about it immediately he would have a stroke by the time he was 35.  The doctor wanted to get him on blood pressure meds right away.  Aaron had zero desire to be on medication and asked if he could have a trial period of watching his food and working out.  The doctor said “yes” and gave him six months.  During that time Aaron was very diligent with eating clean and going to the gym at least three times a week.  When he went back in for his follow up appointment the doctor saw significant change.  Aaron was told that if he could keep up this new lifestyle he would not need meds and there would be no fear of a stroke at 35.

Everyone around Aaron saw the change in him and were affected by it in some way.  He wasn’t so careless with his food choices anymore.  When offered foods he would previously have eaten he would decline and choose a healthier option.  If we were going to be out somewhere he would either make sure he went to the gym before we left or make sure we left on time to get to the gym before it closed.  Then people started changing around him.  They started making excuses for their poor food choices or lack of exercise.  He would never say anything, they would pipe up to justify why they were eating whatever it is they were eating or share how they were trying to eat better.  People began to come to him for workout advice and tell him about how much time they had spent at the gym and what programs they were currently following.  These confessions weren’t anything he started or encouraged.  He simply lived healthy because he needed the change in his own life.

Transformation doesn’t only shake the transformee – spell check is telling me that isn’t a word; well, it is now – it shakes those that were around pre-transformation and those that hear the story mid/post-transformation.  Transformation shines a light and opens people’s eyes to see where transformation is available or needed in their own lives.

Peter’s words pierced their hearts, and they said to him and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” Acts 2:37 

When they heard this, they were enraged and wanted to kill them.  Acts 5:33 

In both of these verses people were being told the story of the Gospel.  Same story, two completely different reactions.

When we moved to Tennessee our intent was not to create a stir or have a fabulous story to tell.  We moved because we felt like God was calling us to deeper faith in Him.  Leaving behind everything that was safe and predictable was the method He chose for us.  Since moving our life has taken turns we never anticipated and God has changed our hearts and minds in places we didn’t know were in need of changing.

All this change has caused varying reactions from people and not all of them were pleasant.  At first the negative reactions really hurt us.  We were very self focused and often reflected on the “betrayal” and questioned how people could know us for so long and then turn on us so quickly.  We met with one of our pastors to talk over our journey, desperate for wisdom and wanting to make sure we weren’t totally insane.  During that conversation he said something we won’t ever forget; “Your story causes tremors.  There is a shaking that happens when people see your life or hear your story.  They are left with this conundrum on how to respond to it.”  Basically, if they accept it, they have to acknowledge that God could cause an upheaval in their lives to grow their faith.  If they’re not ready for that they need to reject it and in so doing reject us as well.

That ended the self pity.  We are now able to understand and sympathize with people’s reactions to our transformation.  This crazy story isn’t only messing with our spiritual boxes we’ve built, it’s messing with the boxes of the people we’ve known for years and the people that are just now hearing our story.  They have to grapple with the underlying question of “What does God require of me?” and that can be scary.

If you are in the middle of a transformation process and the people you thought would always be there are gone or aloof, ask God to show them to you through His eyes.  Take your hurt and turn it into earnest prayer for them.  They have been shaken.  What was predictable is now a wild card and they’re not sure what to do.  Ask God to speak to them and show them the way He has for them, and pray for them to have strength to follow.

 

 

Masterpiece

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Great artist such as Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Van Gogh and Picasso all had something in common. The vision for their art was so powerful and clear that they would not allow it to be modified to fit the confines of their age. They had an extraordinary perception, and the boldness to present it in a way that was unique to themselves. As a result, there are college level courses dedicated to the examination of their techniques, even though some have been dead for hundreds of years. The smallest brush stroke and the most outlandish flourishes are examined in intricate detail, because they changed the world and the definition of art forever.

Modern efficiency and the constant pressure to monetize art forms, has made it increasingly difficult for a person to embrace their uniqueness. Since we live in Nashville (Music City), I will use something familiar to the art of music for an example. Imagine if Rembrandt, Da Vinci and Picasso had a painting version of Auto-Tune. We will call it “Auto-Paint”.

The great artists would utilize their unique brush strokes and vibrant flourishes to convert their passion and visions into a completely unique artistic masterpiece and then feed it into Auto-Paint. Auto-Paint would smooth out all of the perceived errant brush strokes, mute the vibrant flourishes and blend the bold brush strokes to produce a product that someone, somewhere has determined the masses want. Imagine the loss that a tool like that would have imposed upon the world.

Are you allowing your unique sound, style, vision or technique to be tuned out, in an effort to be more appealing to your environment? I want to challenge you today to release the confines of the acceptable and tap into the unique way that God made you. Embrace the pure, unfiltered art that God wants to display through you. Give future generations something to study!

Transformation Part 3 – The Cost of Personal Relationships

“If you want to be my disciple, you must hate everyone else by comparison—your father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even your own life.  Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple.  And if you do not carry your own cross and follow me, you cannot be my disciple.  But don’t begin until you count the cost.”  Luke 14:26-28

Truthfully, this passage used to bother me.  My personal aim in life is to love every person like Jesus loves them.  I want people to feel a love from me that cannot be explained, because it comes from the Father.  So for me to read “hate everyone” was really hard.  I knew it didn’t mean to literally hate them, but I couldn’t get my heart and mind to agree on what “hate everyone” meant.  These last few years have shown me the “cost” this verse is talking about.  It isn’t about literally hating or loving them; it’s about me and my heart and what I’m willing to sacrifice.

Laying down my life doesn’t bother me because it’s something I can do.  I can look at the time, comforts and possessions I’ve sacrificed and have an account of what I’ve done for God and for His kingdom.  What I’ve struggled with is the things that have been sacrificed unwittingly; specifically relationships.  This is where the “hate everyone” has become real.  This is a cost I didn’t even know to count.

We will be the first to admit our faith journey, since leaving Wisconsin, has been crazy.  Most of it has made no sense and we look like we’ve lost our ever lovin’ minds.  We have. We didn’t leave behind all the “great” we had (job, house, friends, family, church) because we were angry, setting out to prove something or seeking a new thrill.  We left it all behind because we were desperate for greater faith, for a deeper walk with God.  We want to see the God of the Bible alive and well and active in our modern age; to experience and witness miracles, signs and wonders.  In our naiveté we thought leaving everything behind was the greatest sacrifice, (sell all you have and give to the poor) but we found that was just the beginning.  We had to lose ourselves.  And in losing ourselves, we lost others.

Our “cost” focus tends to be on the things we can change and let go of ourselves: changing our environments, the things we listen to and watch, the way we speak and act.  These are all needed and are all great visual, tangible examples of sacrifice and transformation.  But what about the sacrifice after the transformation?  There is collateral damage to transformation.  Suddenly people don’t know what to do with you anymore, they don’t know how to act or speak around you.  All your previous anticipated responses have changed and they don’t know how to navigate the relationship anymore.

In my mind I assumed all relationships that change or end are ones that were toxic.  That isn’t the case.  Sometimes the relationships that change are the ones you thought were there for a lifetime.  They were the people that were there for you at any moment and they walked through life with you: through marriage, babies, houses, questions, loss, gain, etc.  Then you begin this transformation and you’re in a place they’re not familiar with, nor are they ready to explore.

Now we’re faced with the decision: Do we continue on this walk with God that seems crazy and unpredictable?  This walk that is making us question our sanity?  Or do we stay with what is comfortable and predictable?  Here is where it is important to know the sound of God’s voice in your life.  Sometimes the words He speaks completely contradict human logic and common sense.  Actually, quite often they do.  Are we willing to walk away from relationships where you have found comfort and experienced joy to follow an unknown path that God is calling you to?  This is where we need to examine: is He truly the source of our joy and strength, or are we relying on our relationships with people?

Here is the great cost, not only for you but for them.  God has called you to a path you can’t really see and you don’t know if you have the strength to walk, but you’re willing to give it a go.  Sometimes in order to grow you have to leave things and relationships behind.  You have to “hate” them.  Remember, these were the closest of relationships so you’re not the only one feeling the pain, but you are the one being called and you are the one that will stand before God someday and answer for your own life.  Are you willing to leave all behind to follow Him?  He won’t lead you down a path of what appears to be loss and destruction without a purpose, but you need to trust His purposes.  He loves your friends and family even more than you do so, of course, He is going to take care of them in this journey as well.

 

 

 

Transformation Part 2 – The Process

If you ever need proof that humans are creatures of habit and comfort, I challenge you to slow down and think of people’s responses, including your own, to the following scenarios:

Facebook changes its algorithms. The word “algorithm” was eluding me so I Googled “Facebook changes” knowing the word I wanted would pop up.  (thanks, Googes)  What I didn’t know is that Facebook is getting ready to change its algorithm again!  Haha!  You’re going to be able to get a fresh view of responses to this very soon.  The last few times they have done this I remember hearing complaints from almost every person I knew that had a Facebook page.  “Why did they have to change anything?”  “What was wrong with the way it was?”  “I liked it the way it was.”  Eventually the chatter all dies down and we all get used to the new pattern and all is well in cyber land.  Get ready, folks!  It’s about to happen again.  Maybe the Lord sent me before you to prepare your hearts.  Lol!!

Scenario numero dos:  Your favorite store is getting remodeled.  This is happening right now with our local  grocery store.  It is total chaos.  Entire aisles are empty, new aisles are popping up where aisles had never been, things are being moved to the opposite side of the store, but “only temporarily” so don’t count on it being there the next time you shop.  It’s crazy town!  I have not witnessed anyone having a full blown melt down in the store (thankfully), but I have seen the looks of terror and confusion.  I have also heard conversations in other places around town of people talking about how crazy Kroger is.  I don’t have the heart to tell them after the crazy is over we are all going to have to deal with figuring out the new layout.  I’ll let them deal with that later.  But, again, all the chatter and ruffled feathers will calm down, we will have a new normal and all will be right in our little town.

We may think we like to have our habits and predictable schedules, but it all subconsciously leads us to boredom.  We hold onto our habits and schedules as a safety, to feel like we have control over what happens in our lives, all the while we are dying on the inside because we crave adventure as well.  We’re in a “catch 22”.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this predicament is a factor in us resisting transformation.

“Do not be conformed to this world, but continuously be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may be able to determine what God’s will is—what is proper, pleasing, and perfect.”  Romans 12:2 (ISV)  

This is so amazing to me.  God knows exactly how our hearts and minds work and He has given us tools and encouragement to live abundant lives.  Radical transformations are needed, and they make amazing testimonies, but we adapt to them and become comfortable.  We look back on them with fondness, only slightly remembering the turmoil and pain, able to focus mainly on the good that came out of it.  God is wanting us to go through a continuous, daily shaking, to become comfortable with the uncomfortable.  We need a constant awareness of our thoughts, our instinctual responses to life.  By doing this we can be recreated; we will not respond to life the same way the world around us does. We will be trained to hear our Father and know His heart.  His heart for us is not sorrow or hopelessness, it is power and confidence.

We are to be a reflection of our Father, to be like Jesus in this world.  Jesus had moments of sorrow, despair and anger, but He did not stay in those moments.  He lived the continuous renewing to show us it can be done.  It is not easy.  It means not cussing out that clueless driver, not throwing a shoe at your sassy teenager’s head, it means not losing it at your waitress for getting your order wrong, not coming back with the perfect snarky remark when your spouse says something a little too real to you… and the list goes on and on.  Continuous renewing is like a workout; you get stronger and stronger, your old responses die away and your mind becomes transformed to think and speak with God’s heart for those situations.  Then, a new weight, a new situation gets added and you’re reminded again of your need for the renewing.

Rarely does anything of worth come easy.  So, let’s “fight the good fight”, “take every thought captive” and challenge ourselves to walk through the adventure of transformation.  Let’s show the world around us that hope can come out of darkness and confidence can come out of despair.  Let the heart and mind of our Father be continuously moving in us and reflecting off of us.

P.S.  I did not mail my sister’s birthday card on time.  Some day my friends, some day.