Developing A Spiritual Walk

Spirituality is an intentional act. The first step is to avoid hurry. Rushing through life leaves no room for introspection, processing the events that surround us, looking for the hand of God around us. To begin a spiritual walk, one must devote some time to it.

The development of a deeper spiritual walk also requires an acknowledgement of, and gratitude for, the provision of God. As Janet and I drove home last night and observed the lightning display in the storm clouds, we didn’t reflect on how the heavier negatively charged particles were descending in the cloud, reacting to the positive particles producing lightning… it is true but that isn’t where our minds went. We thought of God, his power. We thought of his lovingkindness that reaches the clouds. We observed the way the moon was suspended above the cloud. As the cloud passed over the moon, we could still detect the shine, remembering in the darkest of nights… God is there, still extending lovingkindness.

The next step of spirituality is external. To satisfy a spiritual longing privately, without an external connection to life is both selfish and destroys community. Our spiritual lives are expressed in connection with one another. If loving and worshiping God does not drive you to connect with all of those made in the image of God, you have made God in your own image. We are taught in Scripture that both friend and foe are worthy of, and should be recipients of, our blessing. To bless only those who we care for is selfish and stingy. Rather than being an exercise in imitation of our God, it is replacing the will of God with our own selfish motivation. We exalt our values over his values, while expressing our nature rather than his.

Finally the final step is to process the day with God. Rehearsing the day’s events, how you focused on denying self and imitating Jesus is the only way we can develop better spiritual habits.

I am pleased with how far we have walked together. Let’s not give up.

Grace and Peace,

Carl

Perhaps my favorite weekly task as your preacher has been to write a weekly article. This will be the last, the bulletin taking a new format next week. If you  want to continue to read, you can do so at my blog that you can locate through Facebook.

 

 

 

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What Is the Message?

What is the Gospel? That was a question that I was asked this week. I thought about it for a time, then I knew my answer.

For a long time, if asked that question, I might have responded with a person’s response to the gospel, a message about believing, improving, acknowledging and being immersed. No doubt true that we must react to the message, but more fundamental is the question of what the Gospel actually is.

When we consider what people had believed about deities in the past, it is easy to see how suspicion and distrust became a part of it. Satan’s initial ploy in the Biblical narrative is that God limited mankind because he feared man becoming like him.

Later information about God was distorted, then abandoned for fanciful notions of tricky deities playing games on each other and mankind. The result was an idea that deity could not be trusted, sometimes acting in our behalf and other times enjoying our despair.

The good news of Scripture is that God is now, has always been, and always will be, on our side. He desires relationship with us, going to any and every imaginable extreme to accomplish that goal. The pivotal point of Scripture being the story of Jesus, standing in for us and taking our place on a cross. The evidence of our reconciliation being the resurrection on the third day.

That earth shaking revelation becomes the core message proclaimed to every nation under heaven. In Jesus, there is life. In Jesus, there is hope. In Jesus, we live and move and have our very being.

What is the gospel? Very simple really… God loves you and is on your side always.  The narrative can be tracked through every story in the Hebrew Bible. It is the core message of the four gospels and the letters that follow them.

Push aside the minutia, the little details of Jewish laws around clothing, foods, and religious expression. Push it aside to see the God of Scripture going to every extreme to bring us hope.

We can, likewise, set aside the details and asides that have caused division and distortion of the message from the New Testament. Don’t let other things move your eye from the message. God loves you, wants you, and provides for you.

This is the good news.

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How You Read….

How we read material has a great impact on our understanding and application of it. I read history, philosophy and theology mainly. From time to time I may include other genres but not often. I’ve noticed over time that when one begins reading a book, if you start with the assumption that you will not agree, you will probably end that way. To a large extent, we find what we are looking for.

This has a great impact on our understanding and application of Scripture. To see the Bible as primarily a book of rules and regulations, makes it about as enjoyable as a shop manual for a piece of equipment. We might know what part fits here, and what connects to what, but while it may be informative, it is devoid of joy.

I’ve begun to see Scripture as the story of God as he reveals himself to his creation. Sometimes the Scripture is giving us backstory, filling us in and bringing us up to date. The account of the creation in Genesis is like this. While it answers the questions of man about “How did we get here?” (God created you for here) Or “What am I doing here?” (You are charged with taking care of all creation), it isn’t designed to answer with great detail or fine precision. God is just saying that from when time began, He has been the one of began all things, and sustains them even now.

Through the very general history of early mankind, amid all of the early stories, with the Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the beginning afresh, we see the ebb and flow of humanity. As man struggles with sin, God intervenes to set things back in place.

If God was about to bless or call someone to a task, he appears benevolent. His call of Abram to begin his people is an example of that. When man has entered into sin, we might come away thinking that he is stern, strict, or exacting. Stories of the Judges, or the accounts of the kings of Israel would demonstrate this.

However, an overarching principle in each story is God taking the initiative to give us a new start. God’s love for mankind in general is so strong and deeply rooted in his character that mercy is evident on every page of Scripture.

God’s offering of Law is an effort to offer a framework for living that allows for health in relationships between us, and satisfaction within us. We are challenged to live above “simply surviving” and offered an opportunity to fulfill and enrich all who are around us.

The story of Jesus is a highlighted section of Scripture where God says, “Look at me, see me for who I am.” Unfortunately, those who held to the rulebook mentality didn’t recognize him.

We must do better.

 

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How Do I Want to Think?

If you got dressed this morning, beginning by putting your  right sock on, you likely put the same sock on first yesterday. As you seat yourself to drive, you will likely run through a habitual routine of preparation. We are creatures of habit.

Habits can be good or bad, some chew their fingernails, while others begin the day with exercise. What most people don’t recognize is the importance of establishing good habits, in religion they are called spiritual disciplines.

A morning begun with a season of prayer and meditation, or perhaps reading a good devotional book can be a habit that shapes the rest of your day and ultimately your life.  That time you take with the Bible and a cup of coffee or tea in the morning is training your brain to think in a specific focused way for the remainder of the day. It is the way we train our hearts and minds.

A caution for those of us who engage in social media, when you begin your day on Twitter or Facebook, we are doing the same thing. We are replacing the age old habit of these spiritual disciplines of prayer or Bible reading with a seemingly benign habit of “checking on the world” by reading whatever pops up on our screen.

Rather than being intentional about our lives, we unintentionally replace a choice of shaping ourselves spiritually with a decision that replaces a daily devotional feed with Instagram, Twitter or Facebook.

The clamor that took place this last year over Facebook, Fake News, and  the foreign influencing of our elections is all confirmation that we are shaped by what we read. The same way that we’ve worried about young children and too much TV time or internet time. We have to be sensitive to how we shape our own lives.

My point is not to say that we should listen to one media stream or another. It is rather to say that to do anything repeatedly, routinely, is training us about what to focus on and how to see it. We will never fill that void, that hunger that craves relationship with God on social media. People of God desire for his word to shape them, to mold their character into the image of the Christ.  Substituting, intentionally or not, different less healthy habits, becomes an inadequate diet for what we crave. We will read more and more of the same thing, never being satisfied, increasingly less prepared for the spiritual battles that we will ultimately face.

I am not dropping my Facebook account, but I am more judicious regarding the amount of time I participate. I am increasingly focused on the information that I place in my mind as my day begins and ends. I know what it is that I value, who it is that I love. These are the influences that I willingly put before me.

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Nothing or Everything

Janet and I are like many working couples. We say our goodbyes before 7a and greet each other again around 11-12 hours later. It is pretty typical to ask how the day went, any intriguing happenings or things that went awry. Once in a while the report is “nothing”.

“Nothing” doesn’t mean we sat in a vegetative state staring at the walls all day. Usually it means that we are in the midst of projects, not bringing anything to completion, but putting in the time with research, reading, or in accumulating and compiling information into usable forms. So “nothing” doesn’t mean void or empty.

Reflecting on this recently I thought about the life of Jesus. We read about events from his life. The time he met lepers on the road, or the time he met a woman at the well on the outskirts of town. In neither of these situations, and most of the others that are recorded for us, was Jesus seeking out the person that is described in the Scriptures. They were just “who was there”.

Asking Jesus about his day would not have resulted in “I healed 26.32 people today. I met in the synagogue to discuss Scripture with 14 rabbis…”  Often the significant events in his life happened on the way to other things. It was the opportunities that came up while pursuing his other plans that make up our Bibles.   As he was approaching… Crossing over the sea, a storm arose….

The healing of the woman with the issue of blood occurred while going to heal Jairus’ daughter. As Jesus left the mountain, returning to town at the Sermon on the Mount, a leper approached him and received healing. Unplanned, but significant. It was an aside, not a designed event. These things happen because he was working from a designed script.

When John, in prison, sends disciples to see Jesus, his reply reveals the script. “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

It is going according to the plan, that was the message of Jesus. It wasn’t happening as he spoke, but that was his life story.

So, press on. Keep doing what God has called you to do. Don’t worry if today seems dull or mundane. When the moment arises, if you are doing your job, the good things happen.

 

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Self Control

I work with kids for multiple reasons. Many of those I work with are on the lower end of social skills. They tend to overreact to what happens to them. Many of them have been victims of being bullied, often because others like to see their overreactions.

My job is to help people to learn to control themselves instead of trying to control others.

It is a task that has its foundation in Scripture. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the Jews about it. The Jewish people were focused on how the Roman law allowed a Roman soldier to command a Jewish man or boy to carry his pack for one mile. Of course, many Jews would not carry a single foot past that mile. This caused a tremendous amount of resentment among the Jews.

Jesus teaches that when one cannot control the circumstances that happen to them, they can control their response to those circumstances. Commanded to go one mile? Then carry the burden two miles…

Someone slaps you in the face, then turn the other cheek. You can’t prevent others from doing things to you, you can control how you react.

Christians must remember that we live in a carnal world, with hostile rules, and inequities on every hand. Is the world harsh? Unjust? Unfair? Yes. We live in a world that doesn’t play by our rules.

Not only does Jesus teach this principle, he demonstrates it all throughout his ministry. Amid the accusations of the Jewish leadership, Jesus goes about his mission. It is not redefined by pressure from others. There are no excuses given.

So, tomorrow… if someone is unjustly cross with you. If someone misrepresents what you said or did… If you feel bullied, judged, or put upon… Don’t retaliate. Don’t curse. Don’t abuse in return.

Do speak words of grace. Do respond with kindness. Offer a blessing in exchange for the curse.

When you don’t control the action, be willing to control the reaction.

 

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The Schemes of Mice and Men

Do you ever try to plan things that are out of your control? Of course you have.  In reality, future things are never in our control. You can plan a crop and get too small a yield. The yield can be fantastic and the prices can drop to nothing. We can plan retirement and find our health is too frail to travel. We can expect to slow down and end up raising grandkids. As Robert Burns wrote long ago, The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry

. What is the outcome? Should we plan nothing, live by our wits and hope to eke out a meager existence? Does proper planning indicate a lessened dependence on God?

The admonition of James 4 is not about planning for one’s future. Yet he issues a warning to those who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this city, spend a year there, buy and sell and make a profit…. You do not know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? It is just a vapor that appears for a little while and vanishes away.

His caution is about failing to include God’s will in the plan. The plan is fine, but one’s thinking ought to reflect and have an acknowledgment of God’s plan and purpose.

Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and do and that.’ He goes on to point out that a failure to acknowledge God is evil and arrogant. Presuming that you hold the reins to the future. Boastful rejoicing is evil.

It isn’t wrong to make college plans, career plans, start a 401k or to purchase a home with an accompanying mortgage. All of these things imply a planning into the future. The successful completion of any of them is under the watchful eye of God and with his blessing. To presume you did it all, that each item is a check off on your master plan of success, discounts the participation of God in your life and shifts your focus from faith in him to faith in yourself.

The failure to complete a mortgage, a business plan, or any other design that we had hoped for our futures, may only be God making modifications to accomplish his purpose. We would do well to be patient and mindful of such things.

 

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Daring To Think

Reading a new book, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, by Alan Jacobs. I have found it interesting, challenging, and sometimes frustrating. He draws from some of my favorite philosophers, along with his own contemporary insights. Jacobs says that he is a Christian, his book is written from a more academic standpoint than a devotional one.

T.S. Eliot wrote, “When we do not know, or when we do not know enough, we tend always to substitute emotions for thoughts.” One would not have to spend much time in the coffee shop, or the virtual coffee shop of Facebook to recognize that.

An appeal to emotion, to the passions of a person, is always a more popular position than to appeal to reason. If we can enflame others our posts will be popular, securing the support of some and incurring the wrath of others. “Liking this post indicates you agree, sharing the post will insure God’s blessing.” Or, like if you love “___________, share if you are unashamed to __________.” That kind of statement will work for puppies, soldiers, guns, or saving the environment. Posting a photo of something cute, pathetic or inspirational will only make it better.

Such things aren’t about thinking, they are about gathering support. It indicates that we are a part of some community, a part of the larger group. Suggesting a different thought, an alternative view will result in lots of condemnation, ostracization, or serves as a rallying point for a large number to state their agreement with the original point of view.

Community (political parties, church dogmas, social agendas) provide security in exchange for thought, and the member of the community who dares to step out of line, thinking differently, sacrifices that security. The result is usually that the contrarian is pushed to the side, or cast out of the group. Like chickens in a hen house, the group begins to peck at one until the target is consumed.

The history of the Restoration Movement is one of evolving and changing as new understandings and ideas are examined, adopted or rejected. Free thought and exchange of ideas is rare and to be highly prized. I value having such freedom.

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Transitions of Power

I must decrease that he might increase. That was the way John the Baptist described his vision of his task. After a successful time of ministry, where entire communities and regions came out to hear his proclaiming the coming Christ and the fulfillment of God’s promises, his time was coming to a close.

For those who followed him, trusted him, and looked up to him, this was incomprehensible. They knew the deprivations that he had endured in life, the limitations of ease provided from the wilderness. Dressing in camel hair clothing, eating locust and wild honey, John is described as one who lived on the diet of the nomadic desert people of Arabia.

He stands in sharp contrast to Jesus, not eating bread nor drinking wine, His was an ascetic life, avoiding crowds, on the fringe of the din and roar of the cities. Jesus, instead, has a more traditional interaction with people, in villages and cities and along the roads traveling from place to place.

Their ministries did not conflict, more one building on the other. John found no occasion for jealousy, it was natural that one who lays a foundation would expect a carpenter to build upon it.

Not so with some of his disciples. Having followed him, learned from him, and had hope inspired through him, they did not desire the decline. When they heard of the success of Jesus, it sparked concern in them.

As the Apostle John describes it in his gospel, John the Baptist normalizes it, placing it in the context of the overall plan of God. Each has a task from God and finds satisfaction with that task. I must decrease that he might increase.

Influence, power, following, however we might describe it, there is no clinging to it. There is no positioning or contriving a way to hold on to what has been theirs historically. As the mantle is transferred from one set of shoulders to the next, God’s will is played out before us. There is something special about it, nothing seen very often in this life.

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Discipline For Me

I became engaged in a verbal altercation this week. I asked a man to refrain from calling an older woman a profane name. Without going into any detail, the issue was resolved.

After I returned home, I reflected on my behavior. The writer of Proverbs states two conflicting statements. “Answer a fool according to his folly.” As well as, “Answer not a fool according to his folly.”  Evidently there might be a time for each of these.

Within me, I noticed a desire to want to “one up” the other man. I considered being louder, becoming aggressive, using personal verbal attacks on his manhood, intelligence, wisdom, along with many other things that I probably don’t remember.

I wanted to engage him, threaten, subordinate, and make him yield.  I had all of these things running through my mind as we stood in this place.

In the running commentary in my mind were the checks, the limits that I knew I needed to try to maintain. “Nothing physical unless aggressive movement was made toward the vulnerable.” “Disengage, the point is made, look away from the man.” “Keep your mouth shut, more challenges will only escalate the situation.” “You profess to be a Christ follower, keep that in mind in this circumstance.”

When one is doing “right”, protecting someone else, it is easy to step further across the line to becoming a bully confronting a bully. This is the line that stands between right and wrong.

To listen to the other voice in my mind, “Knock him down before this gets out of hand.” “Laugh at him and get others laughing at him.” Or other things that might provoke the situation, those might be my instinct but they were not going to be beneficial. I would have moved from being protector to aggressor.

I’ve spent time this week trying to look at the interactions of Jesus with both friends and enemies to evaluate how he kept his balance. I’ve tried to think of the counsel of Proverbs on interaction with people. I keep coming back to the “anger of a man does not produce the righteousness of God.”

Ultimately, that is what I seek, the righteousness of God. Controlling me is a full time job. I am glad God is gracious.

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