Category Archives: Personal Reflections

The Path to Greatness

On Sunday I preached on Mark 10:32-45.  The passage is a series of conversations through which Jesus reveals the path to greatness.

James and John approach Jesus and petition him: ““Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (v. 37).  They believe Jesus is destined for great things.  Power. Glory. Fame.  When Jesus establishes his kingdom rule, they want places of prominence within the coming government.  They are hungry for power and the attending privileges that come with it.

Jesus uses their request to subvert their entire worldview.

42 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 43 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Jesus offers a contrasting vision of authority, power, greatness, and glory.  James and John, who desire power OVER others, must learn that those who follow Jesus are to use power FOR others.  Power and authority are gifts that must be stewarded for the benefit of those under the power and authority.

Jesus makes it clear that authority and greatness in God’s kingdom is defined by one’s ability to use their power to serve others.  Tightening the screws on this upside-down paradigm, Jesus even insists that “whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

The path to greatness Jesus holds out looks very different in a world that values power over others.  He calls his followers to the pattern of leadership that he embodied; a self-sacrificing use of power that leads to life and flourishing for others.

Walking the Path to Greatness

Even if it is meager, each of us holds a certain measure of power and influence.  What might it look like to move into our marriages, workplaces, schools, sports teams, relationships, etc., with a view to use that power to serve and bless others?

In his book The Servant as Leader, Robert Greenleaf defines those who live out of this Jesus inspired paradigm as servant-leaders.

“A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. While traditional leadership generally involves the accumulation and exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid,” servant leadership is different. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible.”

Regardless of whether we occupy formal positions of authority, the characteristics that define servant leaders are ones that each of us can integrate in our lives.

Like James and John, our hearts crave greatness.  But too often we seek to satisfying this craving by putting ourselves in positions of power over others.  We desire to be on top and in control; masters but never mastered.  Jesus declares this path to “greatness” to be an anti-God and anti-human path to walk.

Embracing the heart of a servant, Jesus says, is the path to true greatness.  And it’s a glorious and world-transforming path to walk.

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Six Great Quotes from “The Courage to Teach”

I recently finished Park Palmer’s The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life.  It’s a powerful reflection born out of a lifetime seeking to understand the craft of teaching.

This isn’t a how-to manual filled with tips and tricks on how to teach effectively.  Those hoping to plunder Parlmer’s decades of teaching experience for practical nuggets will find themselves disappointed.  Instead, The Courage to Teach is offered as spiritual direction more than professional development.  It’s a rich work that attempts to give voice to the nuanced, mysterious, complex dimensions of teaching that those who care about communicating ideas to others often struggle to articulate.  It was a very satisfying and inspiring read.  I highly recommend it to teachers of all stripes and expressions.

Here are the six quotes from The Courage to Teach that I found particularly powerful:

1. “This book builds on a simple premise: good teaching cannot be reduced to technique; good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher. The premise is simple, but its implications are not. It will take time to unfold what I do and do not mean by those words. But here is one way to put it: in every class I teach, my ability to connect with my students, and to connect them with the subject, depends less on the methods I use than on the degree to which I know and trust my selfhood—and am willing to make it available and vulnerable in the service of learning.”

2. “The behaviors generated by fear—silence, withdrawal, cynicism—often mimic those that come with ignorance, so it is not always easy for me to keep believing, when I look at some of my students, that anxiety rather than banality is what I am looking at. I need to keep renewing my insight into my students’ true condition in spite of misleading appearances.”

3. “The way we diagnose our students’ condition will determine the kind of remedy we offer.”

4. “If we embrace the promise of diversity, of creative conflict, and of “losing” in order to “win,” we still face one final fear—the fear that a live encounter with otherness will challenge or even compel us to change our lives. This is not paranoia: the world really is out to get us! Otherness, taken seriously, always invites transformation, calling us not only to new facts and theories and values but also to new ways of living our lives—and that is the most daunting threat of all.”

5. “Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one’s inwardness, for better or worse. As I teach, I project the condition of my soul onto my students, my subject, and our way of being together. The entanglements I experience in the classroom are often no more or less than the convolutions of my inner life. Viewed from this angle, teaching holds a mirror to the soul.”

6. “Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline.”

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Does Your Coat Have Two Pockets?

“We need a coat with two pockets.  In one pocket there is dust, and in the other pocket there is gold.  We need a coat with two pockets to remind us of who we are.” (Hasidic tale)

Does your coat have two pockets?  I ask because many of us wear a coat with only one.

If we only carry around dust, we will live with the crushing awareness that we are fragile, vulnerable, small, dependent, and broken.  Self-loathing will inevitably set in.

If we only carry around gold, we will live with the crushing delusion that we are grand, glorious, and precious without qualification.  Narcissistic self-aggrandizement will inevitably set in.

Where can we find a coat with both pockets?  The gospel.

Only the message of Jesus’ incarnation, atonement, and resurrection provides us with such a coat.  In the gospel’s simple message we discover, as Timothy Keller notes:

“We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”

 

We are broken, unworthy, lost, fragile and feeble creatures.  Dust.

We are loved, dignified, justified, redeemed, beautified, and glorious in Christ.  Gold.

Does your coat have two pockets?
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Who Defines Your Spirituality?

Spirituality is a buzzword that has settled comfortably within the cultural ether.  Many (most?) are comfortable using it, because the word has become highly customizable.  Once tethered to some formal religious tradition or ideology, “spirituality” (and what it means to be “spiritual”) has  morphed into an incredibly broad, and thoroughly personal concept.

Who defines your spirituality?  That is, whom do you empower to frame your understanding of one of the most important ideas within your life?  Our highest values and priorities are often connected to our ideas around what it means to live an authentic and vibrant spiritual life, and therefore it’s important to consider who we’ve given the keys to that kingdom over to.

A celebrity?  A spiritual guru?  Ourselves?

I believe that Jesus—because of who he is—should be the one defining what an authentic and healthy spirituality looks like.  And he does, but in a refreshing and challenging way.  One of the things that I’ve come to value about Jesus’ definition of spirituality is how much sharper it is when compared to contemporary definitions.  For Jesus, genuine spirituality is framed by the concept of discipleship; the process of learning how to align one’s life to what God values and prioritizes.

Jesus defined discipleship in its most basic form when he responded to a question posed by a religious scholar of the day:

28 One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” 29 “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31)

Jesus framed spirituality around two foundational principles: loving God thoroughly and intensely, and loving our neighbours as ourselves.  There are a few things I appreciate about this definition:

1. We are not the centre.  Most modern definitions of spirituality place us at the centre.  The self is understood to be the supreme source of truth, hope, and power.  There is a kernel of truth here.  Yes, human beings hold tremendous capacities due to the fact that they are image-bearers of God.  However, to localize the source of truth and hope within ourselves is, for Jesus, a magnificent error.   God and his kingdom are central to Jesus’ definition of spirituality.

2. One’spirituality has to find its place within a larger story.  By invoking the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”), Jesus is implicitly teaching that spirituality that is healthy and hopeful must be grounded in a larger story.  The Bible reveals the larger story of Creation, Fall, Redemption to be the one that provides us with the cosmic narrative within which our individual expressions of spirituality can be located and established in meaning beyond, “this seems right/helpful to me.”

3. Scripture is our Foundation and Guide.  When asked, Jesus doesn’t turn the question around and ask the religious leader to search his own heart.  Instead, Jesus drives him back into Scripture.  It’s incredibly tempting to listen to spiritual gurus who would encourage us to look within and trust ourselves in the formation of a fulfilling and meaningful spirituality.  Jesus does the exact opposite.  He places our focus on the revealed Word of God, and challenges us to draw out its implications within our lives as individuals and communities.

4. There is/not a “one size fits all” spirituality that leads to life and wholeness.  To modern ears the idea that there could be one–and only one–valid expression of spirituality seems beyond ridiculous.  Could anything be more myopic and even irrational?

But Jesus consistently answers these questions the same way in the gospels, turning people’s attention back to this Great Commandment.  Why?  If it’s just one choice among many, why not switch it up once in a while and highlight some alternatives? But Jesus never does.  Whenever he’s asked what the priorities of one’s spirituality should be, his answer is always the same: Love God and love people.

Which seems incredibly restrictive and exclusive.  Until you realize just how vague that centre is.  Love God and people.  Ok, but how?  That is for us to experiment with and discover.  There are clearly boundaries to that exploration in the Bible (i.e. no need to experiment with whether loving your neighbour might include adultery), but Jesus’ definition of spirituality is (almost) alarmingly vague.  There is a dynamic and inexhaustible breadth and depth to one’s ability to express these two priorities.  These aren’t rules that you can easily check-off and complete.  They are principles and priorities that require continued practice, imagination, right intention, and humility before God and others.

The older I get the more I see the genius behind Jesus’ definition of–dare I say it–true spirituality.  It is accessible to everyone, and yet it rescues us from the self-centred (and therefore self-serving) definitions of spirituality that call out to us.

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Can a Five-Year-Old Become a Christian?

Last week I led my  five-year-old through a prayer to become a Christian.

The prayer was simple.  I explained to him that it was an “ABC” prayer.

  • Admit that he is a sinner who needs God’s forgiveness and grace.
  • Believe (trust) that Jesus died for his sins, and was raised from the dead to overcome sin’s power.
  • Commit to live for Jesus, serve his kingdom, and grow as a Christian every day.

This moment of prayer/decision hadn’t arisen from out of the blue.  For several months Brayden had been asking questions about Jesus/God/faith/Bible, and what it means to be a Christian.  Our talks usually occurred in his bed at night while we reflected on our day.

A few Fridays ago, among talk about Star Wars and Christmas, Brayden asked me if he was a Christian.

I told him that he was not.

“But you and mommy are Christians,” he replied, puzzled.

I explained that no one is automatically a Christian, because a Christian is someone who has personally decided to devote their life to Jesus.

He seemed confused.

“But I go to church” he said.

“Yes, you do, but you can go to church and not be devoted to Jesus.  Becoming a Christian only happens when we make Jesus our King and decide to live for him instead of ourselves.”

“I want to become a Christian.  When can I become a Christian?”

That was/is a good question!  Personally and pastorally, I hold the conviction that becoming a Christian is a serious, life-altering decision.  Like marriage, it should not be entered into “lightly or hastily.”  That’s why, regardless of what age one is considering embracing Christ as King and Saviour, I think it’s appropriate to provide some resistance so that we prevent people from making a rash or impulsive decision.  Jesus said “follow me” (Matthew 4:19), but we should do what we can to help people think through what that commitment will mean for them, both now and into the future.  As Brayden’s father, I felt it was important for him to wrestle for a while with the potential consequences of becoming a Christian before saying the prayer that could change his life forever.  That’s why, for several months I’d consistently pushed the decision (but not the conversation!) off to an undetermined point in the future.

It wasn’t just for Brayden’s sake that I was providing some push-back to his request: had a lot of questions that I felt needed to be answered before I could be confident that his decision to embrace Christ was legitimate:

  • Why did Brayden want to become a Christian?
  • Did Brayden know “enough” about what his commitment to Christ would cost him?
  • Did his age invariably mean that the decision was born out of complete naiveté?  He’s watched his older sisters talk about their Christian faith and grow in it; is it just “monkey see; monkey do” mimicry?
  • Is there any depth to his motivation?  Does he show a desire for discipleship?  When his definition of discipleship is “making good decisions,” does that show a sufficient or insufficient understanding of the foundation of a Christian worldview?
  • How much theology does he need to know before he’s ready to make a commitment of this nature?  If he can (barely) articulate the Gospel (Manger, Cross, Crown), can he legitimately embrace it?

These were some of the questions I was mulling over during the months I was pushing Brayden to think about becoming a Christian until a later time, when I could better determine if he was ready.

But a few weeks ago, Brayden wouldn’t let it go.  I went into my usual, “that’s great, let’s keep talking about it…” mode, but he kept pressing me.

“Why can’t I become a Christian now?”

A Scripture that God had used to rebuke me in the past came to mind once again:

“Who was I to think that I could stand in God’s way?” Acts 11:17

Indeed.

Brayden had shown a persistent desire to become a Christian for almost half a year.  We had talked about Jesus, God, the Bible, salvation, love, grace, and sin, all while snuggling in the warm blue glow of the nightlight beside his bed.  For months I had put a (necessary) speed bump in front of him, wanting to make sure any conversion would be from the heart, and not mere mimicry.

And here he was, resolute in the conviction that he was ready to give his life to Jesus.

Was I going to stand in God’s way?

Nope.  In that exchange what became very clear was that my little boy genuinely desired to give his life to Jesus.

Did he know “enough”?  Well, he knew the gospel.  That’s enough, isn’t it?

Did he understand what he was getting into?  Did I when I said my own unpolished and imperfect prayer at age 14?

Were his motivations and intentions pure?  Can I point to even one decision I’ve made that has been made with pure and right motives—even my decision to embrace Christ?

When God’s grace-filled invitation to new life intersects with a person’s humble and heartfelt response, we may find ourselves harboring lots of questions regarding what is “actually” happening.  That’s ok.  We’re entitled to our questions.  Those questions and hesitations are important and often valid and should be identified and addressed.

But, we must be careful to never allow our questions and hesitations to stand in God’s way.  None of us (however well intended) have the right to delay another’s response to the gospel until we’ve figured things out and are sure they “get it.”

Besides, you can never really “get” grace anyways.  That’s kind of why it’s grace.  It can’t be grasped.  It can only be received.

That night, Brayden didn’t fully understand God’s grace, but he “got” it.  Or more precisely, God’s grace “got” him.  He may not have grasped it in its totality, but it grasped him.

Can a five year old become a Christian?  Yes, a five year old can.

And that night, my five year old did. By God’s grace and for His glory.

 

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6 Spiritual Lessons I Learned from a 21 Day Nutrition Challenge

Last spring I blogged about the spiritual lessons I learned during my first three months at Nelson’s VO2 Performance Training gym. Recently our trainer invited us to complete a 21 day nutrition challenge.  I completed the challenge a few weeks ago.  Here’s what I learned.

1. In order to grow I need a plan.

I learned very quickly that a major reason the 21 day nutrition plan worked was simply because it was a plan.  It was a strategy for eating.  For years I’ve had the intention to eat healthier, but intentions without a plan are about as helpful as a car without an engine.  It’s been said that “a failure to plan is a plan to fail,” and that truism came into greater clarity for me through this challenge.

Spiritually speaking, we may have lofty and noble intentions to “grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18), but if we don’t create some kind of growth plan, we shouldn’t expect to see much progress.  It’s tempting to “wing it” when it comes to spiritual growth, but without a plan we all drift towards reflexive living (which reinforces the status quo).  Our moment-by-moment moods and cravings set the agenda instead of a pre-determined strategy that has been decided upon in advance.

Intentions are very important, but without a plan even the most basic disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, and serving others will be driven by our moods rather than our will.  As Christians, however, we are not called to glorify and honour God when we feel like it or when the mood strikes us.  Discipleship to Jesus requires a strategy and disciplined course of action.

What would such a course of action look like?  I create a plan each month that is based on Jesus’ command to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength, and loving your neighbour as yourself.  You can read about it here.  Try it or adopt another plan, but don’t think that a casual approach to spiritual growth will get you very far.

2. Structure seems limiting (at first).

Initially, the nutrition challenge and the structure it imposed on my eating felt very restrictive.  This was due to the fact that I had become accustomed to a “go with the flow” approach to eating.  I valued the freedom that came from basing what I would eat on what I was craving at any given moment.  This freedom, of course, had led me down a deeply unhealthy path.  The new eating plan brought that negative momentum to a screeching halt.

The plan we were given was precise and strict.  It outlined what to eat, when to eat, and how much to eat.  While there were some options regarding food choices, most of the decision points around food were removed.  A new liturgy of consumption was introduced.  Every week Heather and I bought exactly what we needed, spent a few hours Sunday prepping our meals for the week, and then organized them in the fridge.  This meant that every day we simply had to eat according to what had been prepared.

Within a few days the structure that initially felt so constraining became liberating.  Without having to troubleshoot what I would eat for lunch or a snack, I could simply grab my prepared meals from the fridge and get on with my day.  I spent $0 on lunches out and $0 on impulse snack purchases.  As a result I ate cleaner then I had during any other three-week period of my life.

At first glance, the prohibitions within the Bible (i.e. “thou shalt not’s”) seem restrictive.  Because our culture tends to define freedom as the absence of restrictions, we can miss that fact that a total lack of restrictions doesn’t result in freedom, but chaos.  Basketball is enjoyable to play and watch, because of the rules (i.e. restrictions).  A gourmet recipe can only be enjoyed if the chef has adhered to specific restrictions during its preparation.  Likewise, God’s commands and instructions are the very things that—rather than restricting us from the life that is truly life—open that life up to us.

Timothy Keller has it right: “True freedom lies not in absence of restrictions, but the presence of the right restrictions.”

3. Gluttony slows and weakens.

Another insight the nutrition challenge gave me was just how gluttonous I was.  There was a huge gap between my perceived caloric needs and my actual needs.  On paper, the amount of food the plan indicated I was supposed to eat (while working out at VO2!) seemed ludicrously small.  There was no way this was enough food for me to sustain basic energy for my day!

But even by the end of day one, it was clear that I would be ok.  The plan provided more than enough food.  I felt fine—better than fine.  I felt energized and experience increased mental alertness.  This caused me to cringe at how gluttonous my food intake must have become over the years, that I was finding this kind of physical vitality and mental acuity to be a novel thing.

Gluttony is condemned throughout the Bible, both because a. it is an abuse of the body, and b. it is an unjust pattern of consumption (I am consuming more than I need at the expense of another who doesn’t have enough food).  I guess I’d always recognized that this was an area of struggle for me, but I hadn’t really seen it as that much of a problem until my nutritional intake was realigned to what my body actually needed.  Once that realignment took place I was surprised and shocked by my previous levels of over-consumption.

This has given me pause to consider how gluttonous patterns have infiltrated other dimensions of my life. I believe following Jesus means a commitment to a life of simplicity, because such a life intentionally fights against the impulses of greed and gluttony.  Over-consumption slows and weakens, not just in my ability to be physically healthy, but spiritual healthy as well.  What other patterns of over-consumption need reform in my life?

4. The body resists change.

Adopting the tenants of the nutrition challenge was straightforward enough, behaviourally speaking.  Do X and Y.  Repeat.  However, physiologically, my body put up a fight.  Day five was rough.  Four straight days of eating clean while avoiding my regularly scheduled high carbohydrate intake led to the low-carb flu.  Like a two-year old that wasn’t getting what it wanted, my body was throwing a tantrum.

As we seek to follow Jesus faithfully, our “flesh” (the word the Bible uses to refer to our innate sinful impulses and desires) resists transformation.  We may put together the perfect plan, even one that is tremendously spiritually healthy, but we will likely find our flesh in revolt.  It prefers the status quo, so when we seek to effect change in our lives, we will encounter resistance.

To grow as a disciple of Jesus is to invite change and profound growth, and my nutrition challenge helped me to understand that all change is a war against the status quo.  It also helped me to anticipate that the first enemy I should expect to face in that war is myself, or rather, forces within my own flesh that will revolt once it becomes clear I’m heading down a new and healthier path.

5. Garbage in, garbage out.

I’ve read many studies and heard lots of anecdotal evidence underscoring the effect of the food we consume on our moods and physical vibrancy.  This challenged showed me just how dramatically my food intake shapes my emotional and psychological outlook throughout each day.  With each successive day of clean eating, I had more sustained physical and mental energy.  I had greater self-control, and I experienced greater optimism and better moods overall.  This was such a radically divergent experience from my previous modus operandi, where I slammed back lots of crappy food, reaping inconsistent energy, poor mental focus, weakened self-control, and increased pessimism as a result.

The 21 day challenge helped me to see again the importance of what I choose to put into my body.  Over the course of the challenge Philippians 4:8 came to mind often.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

Physically, we cannot ingest crappy food and expect to reap vibrancy and health.  Spiritually, we cannot ingest crappy food (that which is false, ignoble, wrong, impure, ugly, shameful, degrading, etc.) and expect to reap spiritual vibrancy and health.  Garbage in, garbage out as they say.

6. Just because a craving exists doesn’t mean you should satisfy it.

Cravings are inevitable.  Sometimes they are good.  The can be the body’s way of indicating the deficiency of a key nutrient.  Often, however, cravings do not lead us into greater health.

It would have been disastrous if I had sought to satisfy the many cravings my body presented to me during the 21 day challenge.  Eating clean and eating often went a long way to ensuring I felt satiated most of the day, but cravings still came unbidden and unwanted.  When they did, I had to actively resist them in order to usher in greater health and strength.  I could not have grown healthier while simultaneously satisfying my cravings for sugary treats.

We live in a culture that encourages us to pursue the satiation of our desires at every turn.  Whether the desire is rooted in food, sex, or another arena, the desires at work within our hearts are seen as natural, good, and to be embraced.  But like our physical health, our spiritual health cannot be strengthened while we seek to respond to many of the cravings that exist within us.  In order to gain spiritual health and strength we must actively resist many of the cravings that we face.

In Galatians 5 Paul writes:

“live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” (Galatians 5:16-17)

Just because a craving exists doesn’t mean you should satisfy it.

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Jesus is the True and Greater Shambhala

Note: This brief reflection first appeared in the August 12th edition of the Nelson Star.

It has come and gone.  Shambhala, a music festival that drew thousands of revelers to our neck of the woods has been dismantled for another year.  In its wake, our city experienced an influx of post-Shambhala pilgrims recuperating from four days of sensory overload.

Shambhala is a Sanskrit term meaning “place of peace/tranquility/happiness.”  In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Shambhala is a mystical kingdom hidden within the Himalayas, accessible only to those with sufficiently good karma.  Many fusions of New Age and Buddhist spirituality also view Shambhala as a spiritual reality that can be taken hold of through a combination of proper meditation, mindfulness, and right living.

The Shambhala festival’s popularity reveals a longing every human has for “bliss”; a state of harmony, inner coherence, and joy.  In naming this music festival Shambhala, a not-so-subtle invitation was voiced by the festival’s founders: we are providing a place of peace, happiness, and bliss.  What we observe in the yearly pilgrimage to Shambhala is the quest to secure peace and life in a world of violence and death.

And yet each year that sought after peace and security slips through the fingers of every attendee.  The weekend is euphoric, but it is also fleeting.  Life eventually returns to normalcy.  As it does, I wonder how many of those who clamoured to gain access to the festival are haunted by the question of whether or not they are chasing shadows?

In the Bible Jesus is titled “Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).  The gospels (the historical records of Jesus’ life and ministry) present Jesus as a kind of embodied Shambhala.  In Jesus peace, tranquility, and happiness (“blessedness”) is offered and found.  Jesus said, “’Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest’” (Matthew 11:28).  Jesus offers peace and life in a world of violence and death.

To further that good news, in Jesus the “peace that surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7) is available–not just to those with sufficiently good karma–but even to sinners; spiritual “losers” who don’t have any self-righteousness to stand on.

And the peace Jesus gives isn’t fleeting.  It is established in the heart now and continues forever.  Jesus is the true and greater Shambhala.  There’s no need to chase shadows and substitutes.

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Orlando: Mourning With Those Who Mourn

“4 My heart is in anguish within me;
    the terrors of death have fallen on me.
Fear and trembling have beset me;
    horror has overwhelmed me.” Psalm 55:4-5

“What can men do against such reckless hate?” Theoden, Lord of the Rings

Ten minutes before our Sunday service I was informed about the mass shooting in Orlando.  I could scarcely take it in when I heard the news.  It’s been a little over 24 hours now and I’m still trying to wrap my heart around the reality of what has transpired.

Like many churches around the world we took time to pray for the victims and their families, praying that the church would rise up and be a redemptive expression of Jesus’ love and healing in the midst of this tragedy.  It was so powerful to hear heartfelt prayers of mourning and compassion offered on behalf of the victims in Orlando.

It likely comes as no shock to anyone to admit that the church and the LGBT community have had a strained and hurtful history.   Being part of an evangelical Christian denomination, many might presume the relational rift to be even deeper.  After all, aren’t evangelical Christians the ones who hate gays?  Aren’t they the poster children for homophobia?

Despite what some (many?) believe, evangelical Christians genuinely love their LGBT neighbours and care about their well-being. Admittedly, this assertion is a pretty big generalization, but it’s particularly true of the Christian tribe I belong to.   We have LGBT friends, co-workers, and family members.  They join us to worship God on Sundays.  They delve deeper into discipleship to Jesus in our small groups and bible studies.  We break bread together around our tables.  Yes, when trust and candor are high we find ourselves in disagreement at some pivotal theological crossroads.  But even in these emotionally charged conversations we’ve seen how grace, vulnerability, and a willingness to really listen (on both sides) leads to a greater appreciation for the image of God in the other.  Love is built and deepened through these conversations.

So when those whom we love are the target of terrorism, we are sorrow-full.  And when those whom we love are specifically targeted because of their sexual identity, we are heartbroken.  The entire situation is unfair, unjust, inhuman, and sinful.  These were people who were loved by many, none more than God himself.  As details about the victims become available, let’s remember that each name and face represents families torn apart, dreams brought to nothing, hearts broken, bodies maimed, and life extinguished through a vile act of hatred.

“What can men do against such reckless hate?”

I believe that through God’s love and grace, even the deepest suffering can be redeemed.  But the first step into a redemptive future is genuine mourning.  “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” Jesus promised in Matthew 5:4.   Christians are called to “mourn with those who mourn” in Romans 12:15.  Mourning is the process of moving into grief and loss honestly and with utter vulnerability before God.  From that posture, God can do some of his most important work in our lives.  And from that posture God can redeem situations that seem to be nothing more than a testimony to the power of evil.

How do we respond to the Orlando massacre?  Let’s begin by mourning, and see where that leads us.  More importantly, let’s see how that forms us.

This week I invite you to join me as I mourn from a distance even while the wake of the suffering in Orlando feels close to home.  I invite you to join me in praying for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  I invite you to join me in praying for his shalom to overwhelm the chaos.

May the healing that only Jesus can provide touch the lives of everyone impacted by this brutal act.

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Fit for the Kingdom: Reflections on Spiritual Training

I glance at the clock.  I have 28 seconds remaining.   Those 28 seconds will feel like five minutes before they’re over.  I’m not sure which is louder: the beats blaring through the sound system or those pounding from my chest.  My eyes sting from sweat that has poured unabated into my eyes for several minutes now. My legs are on fire, caught in a relentless loop of squatting as I drive a 20 lb. ball against the wall four feet above me, looking towards the heavens for relief.  I hear the grunts of those beside me.  We’re almost there.  Just a few more seconds…

And the timer beeps, signalling the end.  We’re done, and not a moment too soon.   I try to take a moment and compose myself, but it isn’t easy.  My muscles are desperate to feed on oxygen and no matter how deep my breath reaches I can’t seem to satisfy their hunger.  There’s a pool of sweat underneath me and I think I might be seeing stars. And it feels fantastic.

I’ve just completed my third month at a performance training gym that integrates philosophies from CrossFit, power-lifting, and circuit training.  While I strain to catch my breath I am flooded with an enormous sense of accomplishment.  For at least three times a week I’ve participated in classes that have forced me to carry, lift, throw, run, jump, pull and push in ways that have challenged me in both mind and body.

I was introduced to V02 Performance Training through my wife, who had been attending for six months prior to my first day.  She had consistently encouraged me to take the time to prioritize training of this nature, believing it would make a significant positive impact in my life.  But I had every excuse at the ready.  Money and time found their way to the top of my excuse hierarchy.

However, in February of this year I found myself planning an Easter series on the resurrection, and as my preparation unfolded I became uncomfortably aware of how my theology of the body had grown to be robust in theory while remaining shallow in practice.  Over the previous five years I had developed a behavioral pattern prone to sloth and gluttony.  The result: I was overweight and, to borrow a Trumpism, “low energy.”  I struggled to make it through most weeks without consistent naps and copious amounts of coffee.

Even more humbling was the realization that while I was only a few weeks away from proclaiming the significance of Jesus’ resurrection, I was neglecting a profound truth the resurrection speaks to: the importance of our bodies.  In the resurrection God reveals his redemptive intentions for all aspects of creation, including our bodies and the material universe.  Our bodies are good gifts from God, marred by sin, but ripe for redemption in Christ.  And while redemption of the body takes many forms, I found myself challenged by the Scripture’s charge to “offer yourselves to God as people who have been brought from death to life and the parts of your body as instruments of righteousness to God” (Romans 6:13).

In March I decided to bite the bullet and signed up for my first month.  The first week was a shock to my system.  Three training sessions in and I had to confront the fact that I had grossly overestimated my current level of fitness.  My body communicated in all manner of ways that it was not happy.  Discomfort was constant.  My body was being forced to learn a new language, and very little about the new vocabulary was familiar.  I had entered into “strict training” (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:25).

After each successive workout I found myself reflecting more and more on the implications of Paul’s charge to his young protégé Timothy: “Train yourself to be godly” (1 Timothy 4:7).  I’ve taught on that verse many times in different contexts, but until I began training at V02 many implications of this command were lost on me.  Dallas Willard’s distinction between training and trying took on new meaning as my experiences at V02 caused me to begin rethinking my discipleship practices.  After a few months I was becoming aware of the disparity between how I train physically vs. spiritually. As each month unfolded the performance training taught me just as much about my spiritual deficiencies as my physical ones.  I was not bringing the same intensity and focus to my spiritual growth in Christ as I was to my training sessions.  I decided to close that gap.

I began by taking an inventory of the lessons I was learning at V02 and then applying them to my discipleship to Jesus.  What follows are the principles I’ve learned through VO2, and how each one has a direct application to spiritual growth as well.

1. In the beginning all training feels unnatural. For the first two months almost every exercise routine felt awkward and contrary to my preferred mode of engagement.  I was clumsy, lacked proper posture, and continually battled to get my body to do what seemed so straightforward in my mind.  For several weeks my body did little more than protest again and again.  I was asking it to do things it had never done before, at an intensity it was not accustomed to, and it wasn’t quiet in letting me know how it felt.

When, for example, the Scripture calls us “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (Colossians 3:12), we must understand that integrating these elements of Christ-like character will prove difficult at first. When we introduce a new spiritual disciple into our lives, or attempt to deepen an existing one, the new practice often feels muddled and awkward in the early going.  But this is natural when learning any new habit.  The development of strong spiritual practices does not happen effortlessly and without uncooperative beginnings.  The good news is that what feels unnatural at first will become second nature if we persevere through the early, clumsy stages.

2. We train harder on the context of community. On any given week there are two training sessions I would likely quit on were I undertaking them in isolation.  However, VO2 structures their training in the context of a class, and the presence of others working out with me to push myself beyond my preferred comfort level.  Psychologists call this phenomenon social facilitation, and it accounts for why we do tasks better and faster in the presence of other people.

I’ve always tended to view Christian growth as primarily an individual endeavour, but VO2 has really challenged this presumption.  My training has shown me how much easier and effective it is to train in the context of community.  As a result I’m learning to involve more people in my spiritual growth plan and have become interested in exploring how discipleship within the context of community helps us “spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24).

3. Routine can be the enemy of growth. We all love routine, but in V02 the only routine is strategic confusion.  Week over week, strength emerges by shocking the body through muscle confusion.  The training is scheduled so as to continually confound your body’s ability to adapt to a pattern of conditioning.  Said another way, Vo2 has a liturgy: planned disruption.  No two workouts are alike and several factors are adjusted continually to ensure my body is kept guessing.  This never allows my body to adapt to a routine, which would mean a less intense, easier workout (which I want but don’t need).

Discipleship to Jesus demands a liturgy of planned disruption as well.  If you read the gospels carefully, you’ll notice Jesus doing this all the time with his disciples.  No two days of ministry are alike.  The result?  The disciples were continually forced to stretch themselves and adapt.  Spiritual growth was the result.  Similarly, in order to ensure I’m not spiritually coasting I need to employ a variety of practices from the deep tradition of Christian spiritual formation that challenge me to adapt and grow into a disciple that is able to love God heart, soul, mind, and strength.

4. A commitment to strict training means a commitment to living in a state of chronic physical discomfort. When I began V02 my wife warned me, “You will love it, but you will have to get used to living in chronic pain.”  That may have been an exaggeration, but not a large one.  On any given day there are muscles protesting the previous day’s session.  Since beginning my training I’m not sure how many days I’ve moved through comfortably, but I could certainly count them on one hand.

Discipleship to Jesus will mean living in a state of chronic spiritual discomfort as well.  As we adopt and strengthen habits of loving God heart, soul, mind, and strength, we discover the Holy Spirit moving us into areas that disrupt our preferred life of ease.  Jesus’ call to forgive those who have harmed us, bless our enemies, practice gospel-sized generosity can leave us tired, sore, and definitely uncomfortable.  But that’s evidence that our spiritual muscles are being worked.

5. Rest is imperative. My rest days are precious.  Without them I couldn’t sustain the mental and physical intensity of VO2’s workouts.  They are Sabbaths that allow me to replenish in both body and mind.  I’ve never slept better since starting this training regime.

Training in godliness demands a reclamation of the practice of Sabbath.  After attempting to live too long without a day to pray and play, I’ve learned that I just can’t sustain intentional, intense discipleship.  My discipleship efforts do not flow out of my attempt to secure acceptance in Christ, but flow out of my acceptance in him.  Therefore, if I’m not taking time to rest in God’s grace, love, and goodness, spiritual injury (i.e. burnout) is inevitable.  The practice of Sabbath grounds me in the gospel and renews me for Jesus’ mission.

6. I need to eat intentionally and healthy. If I fail to intake the proper food before or after my workouts, I pay the price.  Exercising at this intensity has caused me to focus more on what I’m putting into my body, because more than ever it has a direct and almost immediate effect on my ability to perform when the clock is ticking.  I’ve become more conscious of what I eat and why.

A casual approach to discipleship will lead to a casual approach to spiritual intake.  When I committed to strict training, my diet necessarily followed suit.  I’ve become more conscious of my need to consume, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable” (Philippians 4:8), beginning with feeding steadily on Scripture and quality books and resources.

7. Coaching matters. Our head trainer Megan understands that each of us comes with a set of pre-conceived self-limitations.  Because she’s a skilled coach, she understands where I’m strong and weak, and is able to identify opportunities to push me beyond my comfort zone.

In order to grow beyond my present capacities I need to enlist wiser, more mature Christians who can help me become aware of areas where I’m plateauing or coasting.  I need spiritual mentors who can help push me into new patterns that I wouldn’t think to try without their input.

What Am I Training For?

V02 is a performance training gym.  Which begs the question: training for what end? 

Everyone’s answer is different of course, but here’s mine.  As a disciple of Jesus my central calling is to love God and love others (Mark 12:28-31).  Discipleship is the process by which I cultivate spiritual strength and vibrancy so that I can fulfill this calling and be a blessing to others.  The last three months at V02 have challenged me to move into that calling with a greater focus and a renewed perspective.  Echoing Paul, my aim is simple: I do not want to run like someone running aimlessly.  I do not want to fight like a boxer who can’t land blows.  Instead, I train my body, making it my slave, for the world’s good and God’s glory.

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An Inevitable, Unstoppable Kingdom

Mark 4:30–32
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.”

This short parable of Jesus is packed with significance for us. In attempting to explain the nature of God’s Kingdom (ie. God’s “rule and reign”), Jesus used the picture of a mustard seed.

mustard seeds
Photo courtesy of Anja Herbert Noordam

The mustard seed indigenous to the land of Israel is extremely small.  To the naked eye a single mustard seed seems trivial.

What possible significance could come from something so small?

Indeed, it’s difficult to image that from just one mustard seed a tree like this could emerge:

 

mustard seed tree
Photo courtesy of Anja Herbert Noordam

Many sermons have emphasized the point of Jesus’ parable to be that God’s kingdom begins small–almost imperceptively so–but grows large.  That is an important (and encouraging!) dimension to this teaching.  But there’s another aspect to this parable that sometimes goes unnoticed.

In the first-century laws were in place that placed strict parameters on where mustard seeds could be planted.  Why?  Because the aggressive, fast-growing nature of the mustard plant caused some to view it as a “malignant weed” with “dangerous takeover properties” (Michael F. Bird, Jesus and the Origins of the Gentile Mission, Continuum, 2006, pp. 73–77).

From the Wikipedia Entry on the parable:

Pliny the Elder (Roman Naturalist and philosopher) , in his Natural History (published around AD 78) writes that “mustard… is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”

The significance of this fact is incredibly important for us to understand.  Jesus wants his disciples to understand that although the kingdom starts small, it’s growth is inevitable and unstoppable.  Regardless of where it’s planted, God’s kingdom is a offensive, encroaching, non-domesticated force that quickly overwhelms the ecosystem around it with God’s power, joy, love, grace, and truth.

Last Sunday about 60 people gathered at our church to worship, share communion together, pray, and learn more about following Jesus.  By Sunday afternoon I found myself reflecting on the the future of our church within the broader Nelson community. To the naked eye our church seems trivial.  

What possible significance could come from something so small?

And I realized in light of this teaching that I was asking the wrong question.

If we are sincerely following Jesus and allowing God to establish his kingdom within our lives, growth and impact will materialize.  The question I should have been mulling over was, “What possible significance will come from something so small?”

Because the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.  It has takeover properties.  Despite its meager beginnings, life-giving impact to the surrounding ecosystem is inevitable and unstoppable.

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