Archive | June 2013

Intensive Time with Christ

This is my last night at the Desert House of Prayer outside of Tucson.  I have greatly enjoyed the 8½ weeks of my sabbatical so far, and the intensive time I have been able to spend with Christ in prayer and in digging into the Scriptures and in personal reflection and in reading good books.

I read something today in Mark Buchanan’s book, The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring Sabbath, that gives perspective to the value of this intensive time with Christ.  In this paragraph he writes particularly to people whose calling is to proclaim the message of Christ to others: “All our authority is derived.  Either God gives us words, or we are only giving opinions.  Either God vouches for us, or our credentials are forged.  If anyone ever stops to listen to you or me, this had better be solidly in place: Our speaking comes out of our listening.  What we say comes out of what we hear.  We have to be people who listen, day and night, to God.” (p. 178)

Wow!  What he is telling me is that this time of my sabbatical has not just been a kind gift from my church to let me get away for a while, but a necessity of my life and ministry if I seek to share the love and the truths of Christ with them! 

This reminds me of something E Stanley Jones wrote, quoted by Larry Crabb in his book, The PAPA Prayer: “The first thing in prayer is to get God.  If you get Him, everything else follows.  Allow God to get at you, to invade you, to take possession of you.  He then pours His very prayers through you.  They are His prayers—God-inspired, and hence, God answered.  Prayer’s like the fastening of the cup to the wounded side of a pine tree to allow the resin to pour into it.  You are now nestling up into the side of God—the wounded side, if you will—and you allow His grace to fill you up.  You are taking in the very life of God.”

I have greatly appreciated these past 8½ weeks of allowing God to get at me and of “nestling up into the side of God.”

The next three and a half weeks of my sabbatical will not be spent in Christian retreat centers with reserved times of centering prayer and worship and such.  The remaining weeks will include time spend hiking into the Grand Canyon with my older son, taking care of my granddaughter for a weekend while her parents get away a month before their next baby arrives, time with my wife at Lake Tahoe, time hiking up Half Dome with a friend (my younger son had to back out of this trip), and time in Oakland with my parents.  Then I will be back to the daily challenges of ministry.  But the real challenge and the great necessity for me in the remaining weeks of my sabbatical and in all the years of ministry still ahead for me will be to make sure that I continue to set aside meaningful and sufficient time to listen to Christ and to nestle up to the side of God.  My life and my ministry depend upon it. 

Please pray for me to do this…and, if you know me personally, keep reminding me to do this.


Deepening Friendship with Jesus

Deepening Friendship with Jesus

Deepening Friendship with Jesus

The passage I have been reflecting upon at the Desert House of Prayer this week is John 15:9-17 in which Jesus tells the disciples that they are His friends. One of the statements He makes to them about His friendship with them really grabbed my attention. In verse 15, Jesus says, “I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”

One of the things I thought about upon reading that line was a Skype conversation I had with my 2½-year-old granddaughter one day while I was in Scotland. My daughter situated the camera at a specific spot, but Ella kept running in and out of that spot. She kept running off to get something new to show me. Then, as her mom followed behind with the camera, she raced off to show me the way they have fixed up her new bedroom. God seems to have the exuberance of Ella to share with us all that is in His heart. Listen to the way He describes it to the disciples in John 16:12-15: “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on His own; He will speak only what He hears, and He will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify Me because it is from Me that He will receive what He will make known to you. All that belongs to the Father is Mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from Me what He will make known to you.”

With the exuberance of Ella, God wants to share with us all that is in His heart. We cannot take it in all at once, so He dishes it out to us gradually, as we are able to take it in, through the Holy Spirit.

How does He do this? Here are some of the ways I have experienced God revealing His heart to me: A godly passion stirring within my soul, a deep longing for or concern about something that is dear to the heart of God, a conviction within my spirit over what is right and what is wrong, a nudge within me to do something or to say something to someone, a tenderness toward someone bubbling up within me, a sense of delight over the beauty that surrounds us, a sudden and unexplained joy of spirit. All of this comes from God sharing His heart with us.

The opportunity that lies before us now is to train our hearts to discern more clearly what God is saying to us.

How do we do that?

I have two granddaughters who are both roughly 2½ years old. Children between the ages of two and three are in the process of learning how to talk, how to put their thoughts and feelings together in sentences and how to pronounce their words in such a way that they can be understood. Ella and Brooke are both doing well in this regard…but they are typical children; they are learning how to speak. They have not yet learned to enunciate all their words perfectly. Because I love my granddaughters, I spend time with them. Because I spend time with them, I can understand pretty well most of what they are saying.

I have learned some key ingredients about understanding the speech of 2½-year-olds:
– The more time I spend with Ella and Brooke, the better I understand them.
– The more careful I am about giving them my undivided attention, the better I am at understanding them.
– It is a lot easier to understand them when I am with them than when I distant from them and merely talk to them on the phone.

Interestingly, these ingredients transfer well to my relationship with God:
– The more time I spend with God, the more attuned I am to what He is saying to me.
– The more careful I am about giving God some time of undivided attention, the more clearly I hear Him speak to me. (This is why the Christian disciplines invite us into practices like daily time in God’s Word and in reflective prayer. It is not for the sake of earning us spiritual Brownie points, but for the opportunity to hear more clearly as God speaks to us.)
– It is a lot easier for me to understand what God is saying to me when I am close to Him than when my heart is distant from Him.

The place where this analogy breaks down is at this point: It is not that God is just learning to speak; it is that I am just learning to listen and to understand.

Wanting to be stung by a scorpion?

       For the past seven and a half weeks, I have been enjoying immersing myself in my sabbatical…but I keep procrastinating with concern to one thing that I really do want to accomplish during my time away.  Throughout my sabbatical I have been investing rich time in writing the manuscript for a book I hope to be able to submit to a publisher.  The book is tentatively titled, He Calls Me His Friend.  In it I seek to bring to life the passages in the gospels in which Jesus speaks words of endearment to individuals (calling them son or daughter or friend) or where the writer announces Jesus’ love or compassion for an individual.  I hope with this book to help the reader to embrace more fully that which I am learning to grasp more fully myself: the depth of God’s intimate love for us.  I greatly enjoy the work of the writing I am doing each day…but I keep procrastinating over one thing.

       To submit a manuscript to a Literary Agent who will then pitch it to publishers, I need to be able to “sell” to an agent why my book is worth publishing out of all the book proposals they receive, why my book is better than any others on the same topic, and why I am uniquely qualified to bring these truths to light. 

       Yesterday I decided that I needed to begin tackling this assignment and sat down at my laptop to work on it.  Shortly into my time at my laptop I began to reflect on a conversation we had at dinner the night before.  We got to talking about desert scorpions and how painful their sting can be.  Believe it or not…as I sat at my laptop, wanting to begin working on my pitch to a prospective literary agent, I found myself almost wishing that I could get stung by a scorpion so that I would have an excuse not to work on this pitch.

       What’s going on in me that I would contemplate the benefits of a scorpion sting?

       Much of it has to do with the fact that I grew up being praised for being quiet and not getting in anyone’s way.  To put myself forward, to flaunt myself, to show myself off is drastically contrary to my sense of identity and to the kind of role I have filled in life.  In making such a pitch, it’s almost as if I am taking my skin and turning it inside out. 

       Also, I am afraid.  What if I make the best possible pitch and no literary agent likes what I propose?  What will this say about me and about what I have poured myself into in my writing?  Will I feel that what I have poured my heart and soul into is judged to be worthless?  How will I then feel about myself? 

       Well…I can’t seem to find any scorpions right now…and I have procrastinated enough through this blog entry…so I guess that I need to move on in trying to tackle the next portion of my pitch to an agent.  Aaaah!

Perspective on Generosity…and Stinginess

       One of my great desires during this time of sabbatical is that I will grow to be a more generous person—more generously receiving and more generously giving.

       By “coincidence” one of the books I am reading during my sabbatical addresses this issue powerfully.  In The Rest of God: Restoring Soul by Restoring Sabbath, Mark Buchanan comments, “‘The world of the generous,’ Eugene Peterson translates Proverbs 11:24, ‘gets larger and larger; the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller’ (The Message Bible).  This is more than a principle of financial stewardship, it’s a basic truth of life.  Generous people generate things.  And, consequently, their worlds are more varied, surprising, colorful, fruitful.  They’re richer.  More abounds with them, and yet they have a greater thirst and deeper capacity to take it all in.  The world delights the generous but seldom overwhelms them.”

       That’s what I want in my life.  Unfortunately, though, I tend to be more on the stingy side.  Aaah!  Listen to what Buchanan writes about stinginess: “Stinginess is parasitic, it chews life up and spits out bones.  The stingy end up losing what they try so desperately to hold.  As Jesus warned, those who store up treasure only on earth discover, too late, that such storage is merely composting…. Hoarding is only wasting.  Keeping turns into losing.  And so the world of the stingy shrinks.  Skinflints, locked into a mind-set of scarcity, find that the world dwindles down to meet their withered expectations.  Because they are convinced there isn’t enough, there never is.”

       He applies this not just to our money and possessions, but also to our use of time.  He suggests, “Generous people have more time.  That’s the irony: those who sanctify time and who give time away—who treat time as gift and not possession—have time in abundance.  Contrariwise, those who guard every minute, resent every interruption, ration every moment, never have enough.  They’re always late, always behind, always scrambling, always driven.  There is, of course, a place for wise management of our days and weeks and years.  But management can quickly turn into rigidity.  We hold time so tight we crush it, like a flower closed in the fist.  We thought we were protecting it, but all we did was destroy it.”

       Then he hits the real heart of the issue: “The taproot of generosity is spiritual.  The apostle Paul, when he explains to the Corinthians about the astounding generosity of the Macedonians, remarks, ‘They gave themselves first to the Lord and then to us’ (2 Corinthians 8:5).  True generosity always moves in that sequence: first God, then others…. And it always starts with giving, not something, but ourselves.”

       Good, challenging words for me!…. And perhaps for you.

Foundational Matters

       Getting ready to face some tough things recently, I had to stop before I got started and take stock of some things that I know that I can stand upon as the foundation of my life—no matter what I might face or how things might turn out.

       Here is what I recorded.  Perhaps you can join me in holding these things as the foundational matters of your life…and perhaps you can add others to the list:

– The Sovereign Lord is my strength; He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; He enables me to tread on the heights. (Habakkuk 3:19)
– The Lord our God is in our midst, a victorious Warrior.  He will exult over us with joy.  He will be quiet in His love; He will rejoice over us with shouts of joy! (Zephaniah 3:17)
– God has not two faces but one (not two identities but one), so amidst the things I do not understand, I will hold onto the things I know of God’s love and goodness.
– God is at work for my good in all things (Romans 8:28), and I want to grow in the good that God intends for me, so I will strive to face with hope and confidence in Him whatever comes my way.
– Approval is something we earn; love is not.  Love is given.  It resides not in what I earn or do, but in the heart of the Giver (or giver).  So I will trust in the Giver rather than in myself.
– For I know the plans God has for me: plans to prosper me and not to harm me; plans to give us a hope and a future! (Jeremiah 29:11)
– Since “Feelings signal our state of being…[telling] us how we are doing, what matters to us, what needs changing, what is going well, and what is going badly” (Dr. Cloud in Changes that Heal), I will pay attention to my “red dot,” letting me know ‘where I am.’
– Developing new habits is nearly always awkward and scary; it’s okay to muddle through the awkwardness and fear on the way to developing the new habit.
– Developing new muscles requires exercise…which in turn requires many repetitions of a new activity…with a proper combination of strenuous and relaxed…and with sufficient hydration (refreshment) along the way, so I will keep with it, while providing for myself enough relaxing and refreshment along the way.
– Developing new muscles always hurts for a while—but not forever.
– God holds time and circumstances in His hands, so He is capable of working for my good whatever it is that He wants to accomplish at this time
– I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus my Lord! (Romans 8:38-39)

Shame-based identity or Grace-based identity?

       In the midst of conflict or when I feel that I have failed in some way, I easily slip into a shame-based identity rather than a grace-based identity.

       Much of what I will write in this entry will be a repeat of some things I have written previously, but until I find my identity transformed from a shame-based identity to a grace-based identity I need to keep marinating myself in these truths.

       A shame-based identity believes that when I fail, I am a failure.  When I make a mistake, I am a mistake.  It is easy for me to go down that road.  Grace-based identity admits that I fail at times, but that doesn’t reduce me to a failure.  This is the truth I need to hold onto even though I easily feel the other.  I need to trust God’s grace more than my feelings of shame.

       At the core of the shame-based identity is ME: Who I am; what I have accomplished to validate my place in the universe; what I have done to prove my worth.  So when I succeed, I soar; but when I fail, I crash.  When I have earned the approval of others I am elated; when I fear that I have let others down I am deflated.

       At the core of grace-based identity is not me but the One who loves me and extends grace to me: Christ.  This changes everything for my worth is no longer contingent upon my accomplishments but on the never-ending-love of One who gave His very life for me.  As Henry Cloud points out in Changes that Heal, “None of us deserves love that comes our way; we don’t earn love.  It is given to us.  Approval can be earned, but love can’t….Our ‘lovability’ rests on the ability of the one doing the loving” (Kindle, location 3618). 

       The shame-based identity focuses on what I do to earn or lose one’s favor.  But love is not earned; it is given.  It is based not upon my ‘lovability’ but on the One doing the loving.  Grace-based identity focuses on the grace and love that are given by God.  God, help me to keep my focus on Your love over what I might earn or lose.

       Such a shift in orientation may allow me to take to heart the question Jim McManus asked at Kinnoull, “If I don’t see myself as God sees me, who has it wrong?” 

       A grace-based identity invites me to see myself as God sees me.  So…how does God see me?  Scripture tells me:
– I am made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1)
– I am fallen yet restored (Genesis 3 & 2 Corinthians 5:17)
– I am precious in God’s sight (Isaiah 43:4)
– I am a little lower than God and crowned with glory and honor (Psalm 8:5)
– I am reborn by the Holy Spirit (John 3:5)
– I am God’s temple (1 Corinthians 3:16)
– I am the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)
– I am God’s work of art (Ephesians 2:10)
– I am part of the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:27)
– I am the beloved child of my heavenly Father (1 John 3:1)

       God, help me to see myself with Your eyes of grace more so than with my eyes of judgment.

The Healing Power of E.A.R.

       Another thing Debbie and I worked on at Marble Retreat had to do with conflict—what to do in the midst of conflict and what to do following conflict.

       Mike and Kari recommended the use of E.A.R.

       E stands for Empathy.  It is the call to us to be empathetic in the midst of conflict.  It is the call not just to react to the other person but to feel with the other person.  It is the call to consider the heart and the needs of the other person.

       A stands for Assertion.  When a person’s amygdala (the emotionally reactive part of our brain) is triggered a person’s instinctive response is to fight or to fly or to freeze.  I do not tend to be a fighter, but when I am startled or frightened or overwhelmed (in other words, when conflict arises), I tend to fly or to freeze.  This is a call to me not to run and not to freeze but to be assertive; to stay engaged.  It is a call for me to bring myself forward even in the midst of conflict by sharing what is going on within me—particularly my wants, my needs, and my feelings.  For the person whose tendency is to fight, it is a call to be assertive rather than aggressive—not just to react angrily but to step forward in sharing that person’s wants and needs and feelings.  (The other part of assertion has to do with bringing issues to the forefront in a timely manner so that issues might be addressed before they turn into resentment.)

       R stands for Respect.  This is a call to us to be respectful even amidst conflict.  It is the call to recognize that even in conflict the other person is not simply a horrible person.  It is the call to choose to believe the best about the other person and to consider what might be the good in the other person’s concern that has generated the conflict we are experiencing. 

       To sum it up, E.A.R. is the call to favor compassion for one another over resentment toward the other person.

       Mike and Kari also suggested two personal statements that should be shared following conflict:
– I am sorry I did this______________________________ (fill in the blank).
– It must have made you feel like….

       Sharing these two statements following conflict enables us to bring the restorative qualities of empathy, assertion, and respect to our relationship.

What Blocks the Embracing of Grace?

       I believe in the doctrine of grace.  I teach and preach the doctrine of grace.  I counsel others to live by grace.  But I find that I have trouble embracing grace for myself as fully as I want to and need to.  This personal struggle with the embracing of grace is one of the key things I wanted to address with Mike and Kari MacKenzie during our time at Marble Retreat.

       Mike shared with me three things that block the embracing of grace:
– Lies that need to be replaced by truth
– Wounds that need to be healed
– Patterns that need to be changed

       Lies: Some of the lies that I keep listening to are: My value in life (and my worth as a minister) is determined by what I accomplish.  My contentment in life is contingent upon how satisfied people are with my performance.  When I fail, I am a failure; when I mess up, I am a mess-up.  Good Christians don’t struggle with negative emotions therefore such emotions should be stifled.  If others know I struggle with sinful tendencies I will ruin my witness, so my struggles with sin should be hidden rather than confessed.

       To be able to embrace grace, I need to replace these lies with truth whenever the lies rear their ugly heads.  Here is the truth: My value in life (and my worth as a minister) is determined not by my accomplishments but by God’s love for me.  (To paraphrase Henry Cloud’s observation in Changes that Heal: Approval is earned; love is not.  Love is given.  It resides not in what we earn but in the heart of the Giver.)  My contentment in life is not contingent on how satisfied anyone is with my performance but upon embracing the Father’s love for me and His presence with me.  When I fail or mess up, I have failed or messed up, but that does not make me a failure or a mess-up.  In my successes and failures and everything in between I remain a beloved child of my loving heavenly Father.  That is who I am!  Everyone struggles with negative emotions; rather than stifling them I can allow them to put me in better touch with my true self.  Real healing never comes through the hiding of sins but through the confession of sin.

       Wounds: My wounds have to do with experiences of rejection, with injuries that left me filled with shame, and with things I did that I feel ashamed of.  Because of my perception that shame is something to be hidden, that is what I did with my wounds.  I hid them away in the deepest, darkest caverns of my soul, and I tried to cover them up with piles and piles of good deeds.  But wounds do not heal in the midst of hiding or being covered over.  Mike stressed that two things are necessary for the healing of wounds: grieving and receiving of grace.  Grieving requires that I bring the wounds out of hiding.  I will begin to find healing to my wounds when I pull those wounds out of the deep, dark caverns of my soul and grieve the pain they have brought to me.  And I will experience the healing of those wounds when I allow God and others to pour onto those wounds the healing salve of their grace and compassion and empathy.  That cannot happen through hiding; it can only happen by opening my heart to God and to others.

       Patterns: The key question here for me to consider is this: What things do I do that feed the lie that grace is earned?  When I stifle my negative feelings for fear that they are not what a good Christian should be feeling, I am feeding the lie.  When I hide my sinfulness, I am feeding the lie.  When I want others to recognize the good that I have done, I am feeding the lie.  When I pressure myself to work harder or accomplish more, I am feeding the lie.  When I overwork and fail to take the rest that God has designed for us, I feed the lie.  When I avoid others who may “damage” my reputation, I feed the lie.  If I want to embrace grace more fully I need to practice habits that are in keeping with grace.  I need to practice rest and Sabbath more than simply work.  I must practice forgiveness more than judgment and resentment.  I must practice self-acceptance rather than over-criticism of myself.  I must practice honesty over denial, and confession over hiding.  Some of these patterns will be difficult to change.

Leaving Scotland

Leaving Scotland

Leaving Scotland

I am very grateful for the month I have been able to spend in Scotland. The Lord has spoken to me in rich ways. I have enjoyed meeting many wonderful people. I have been blessed by the kindness of many people.

Very early tomorrow morning I will drag my suitcase to a bus stop about a half mile away, catch a bus to the Edinburgh Airport, then catch flights to London, Dallas, and finally Sacramento. Debbie will pick me up from the airport at 11:20 p.m.

Early on Wednesday morning, Debbie and I will fly to Colorado for some time at Marble Retreat Center. Here we will have an opportunity to do some indepth Christian counseling. We’ll be able to explore further the things God has been showing us during this past month. I am looking forward to it and would appreciate your prayers for God to do rich things for us while we are there. (And I wouldn’t mind your prayers for all the travel connections to go well tomorrow. Thanks.)

Sliding Off of Hills

During morning prayer time at Kinnoull Monastery yesterday before I left for Edinburgh I had the image of a truck driver backing up his truck on a windy hill…not quite paying attention to what was going on around him.  While concentrating on his task of backing up, the front left tire went off the road…and the truck was in danger of sliding down the hill.  I actually think I was starting to fall asleep and beginning a dream (this northern light that pours into my window until after 10 p.m. and wakes me up in the morning before 4:30 a.m. is my excuse).  Anyway…as I reflected on that image I realized how fitting that picture can be for me.  I am often so intent on completing the task before me or at getting where I want to go that I miss paying attention to things around me in the moment that I should pay better attention to.

Two examples:

While walking through Kinnoull hills with Goodwin (a Catholic Brother working with the Brothers and Sisters of Charity) I was so intent on finding the right trail for us to be able to get to where we were going that I failed to see the deer that Goodwin noticed.  Shortly after that I nearly missed another deer.  After that I did a better job of watching for the deer in the woods than just looking for the trail.

The second example bothers me more.  I wanted to extend some words of encouragement to two people from the course at Kinnoull who were on my heart.  While getting ready to leave I prayed that God would give me an opportunity to talk with each of them.  When I finished what I wanted to do that morning and got all packed for traveling I started to leave the monastery.  It happened to be right at the time of the morning tea break, so I went in to see if they were there.  Edmund was having tea, so I got a chance to say to him the words of encouragement I wanted to share.  Then I hurried away.  I didn’t wait for Sue to show up because I was focused on getting to the bus stop on time.  I got there about 20 minutes early.  I got my bus, but I didn’t share words of encouragement with Sue that I wanted to share with her.  I prayed that God would give me an opportunity to talk with her…but I did not give God much chance to answer that prayer.  I am certain that if I had waited a bit she would have shown up for tea…but I was too focused on getting to the bus stop.

How many other times in life do I “slide down the hill” while overly focused on the task I want to complete?