Simple Devotion

Ever have a song instantly transport you decades into your past? That happened to me this morning while driving. I was listening to Chris Tomlin’s new album, “Always.” Then song number 5 started, “O Lord, You’re Beautiful.”

For those of you old enough to remember, this is one of Keith Green’s songs. As I listened to the song this morning, I was transported back to 1988. I was a brand new youth pastor, on fire with intense love for Jesus. I wanted to go anywhere and do anything to serve him. I loved worshipping him. So, I taught myself some basic piano chords so I could sing my love to him.

As the simple chords of “O Lord, You’re Beautiful,” played in my car this morning, I was in the upstairs youth room in that old Baptist Church. I was alone with Jesus, playing the chords and singing this song of love to him.

“O Lord, You’re Beautiful

Your face is all I seek

And when your eyes

Are on this child

Your grace abounds to me.”

Back in the car, my heart swells and the tears start. My God, I loved him with such a simple and focused love!

But over the decades, I’ve “matured” and let my life and faith become more “complex”. And the simplicity of my love had been replaced by something else. When I was young, I strained for a vision of what I could be in the future. Now I’m there and I long for what I had in the past.

“O Lord, please light the fire

That once burned bright and clear

Replace the lamp

Of my first love

That burns with holy fear.”

In the car, the song continues. I’m back, fully in the present. I’m singing these simple words — words that are more than a song. They’re a prayer, a yearning, a plea. A cry of simple devotion from my past, racing forward to shape my present and future.

The Prize Of Doing It Again

Photography is about not giving up

I’ve occasionally discussed how photography has helped with my spiritual formation. It has taught me to slow down, to look, to notice, to reflect.

The short post linked above highlights another aspect of how photography can also aide spiritual formation by teaching us to endure, to persevere, to see the long road. Or as Eugene Peterson has discussed, “the long obedience in the same direction.” I love how this post ends. The prize is that we get to do it again tomorrow. The prize of spiritual formation is that we get to follow Jesus — to be with him, to learn from him how to be like him — again tomorrow. The prize is his presence, his person, his character, all of him everyday.

Come And Follow Me… Again

The following is not something that I would normally post. When I have intimate and personal experiences with God, I tend to keep them close. But this was a powerful moment and I wanted to put it out there.

This morning, as I was reflecting on the person of Jesus, a very powerful image came to mind. I was standing on a high place like the top of a hill. Jesus was in front of me, silhouetted by a magnificent vista. The land behind him was beautiful and glorious, beyond what any words could adequately describe. I knew this land was his Father’s kingdom.

I could sense Jesus inviting me, “Come and follow me.” He was inviting me to join him on a new journey to explore this grand vista. I knew that if I didn’t accept, he would go on that journey without me. If he started without me he would disappear over the hill and vanish from my sight. And the thought of that brought intense sorrow. Yet as I thought about following him, I was aware of my condition as a middle-aged man, overweight and out of shape. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. I had followed him to this place on the hill and had become content and complacent where I was.

But being with him was the only thing I wanted. So I shouldered my backpack, said, “Wait up. I’m coming,” and struggled to join him. I was filled with a mixture of devotion and fear. I knew where I had been standing was not where I was supposed to remain. It was only a temporary point in the journey. But it was comfortable and safe. I was frightened of the pain I would experience and the prospect of losing everything I had gained. But I knew I would rather lose everything I currently have than lose Jesus. So I chose to follow even though I felt I wouldn’t be able to keep up.

As I rushed to join Jesus, my knees and joints ached and I was winded by the short distance to catch up to him. I was so out of shape. This increased my fear and anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with him. But I knew I had to follow him. I couldn’t let him go over the crest of the hill without me or I would lose him. No matter how much it hurt, I wanted more than anything to journey with Jesus and explore his Father’s kingdom with him.

I remember sensing a similar call when I was 18 or 19 years old. It was the most exciting prospect and filled my life with the deepest sense of purpose. I was ready to go anywhere and do anything with him. I was ready to take risks and make sacrifices. I had absolutely nothing to lose.

For many years, I feel I have drifted from that purpose. I have followed Jesus to the top of this hill and have become encamped there. But now he’s calling me to follow him further, to start a new leg of the journey. While the idea of following Jesus into a new and risky journey is exciting, it also fills me with fear. At this point in my life, I feel I have so much to lose. I fear it will somehow jeopardize my future, my retirement, and the “golden years” of my life. I find myself praying for God to protect or increase what I have obtained. I’m scared of losing it.

But I know I was never supposed to worry about my future. Things like owning a home and saving for retirement, while fine, were never supposed to be my primary concern. And I know that you cannot follow Christ and cling to what you have.

I knew that to accept Jesus’ invitation and challenge, I would need to undergo significant change in order to keep up. I have no idea what Jesus is calling me to. All I know is that he’s challenging me to explore God’s kingdom with him. And as I pray about what this means, Colossians 1:10-12 keeps coming to mind: 

“That you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God, being strengthened with all power according to his glorious might so that you may have great endurance and patience, and giving joyful thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light.”

That is what I want the rest of my life to be about.

Jesus’ call to “Come and follow me” doesn’t only occur at the beginning of our journey with him. I think we hear it again and again as we begin new phases of our life with him. In those moments, we have a choice either to stay where we are, content with what the journey has produced in us or to answer the call again. We begin something new again, accepting new risks and challenges.

Answering the call is always risky. Each time it requires us to leave everything behind, even everything we have gained by following him. This is true whether we are young or old or in-between. Each time we are confronted with the question, “Is following Jesus worth everything?” Is he worth even losing everything we have gained thus far by following him?

Remember the parables of the hidden treasure and the pearl of great price?

“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid it again, and then in his joy went and sold all he had and bought that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for fine pearls. When he found one of great value, he went away and sold everything he had and bought it.”

In both parables, everything had to be sold to gain the most valuable item. The willingness to give up everything to gain the best is essential at the beginning of the journey with Jesus as well as throughout all the phases of the journey. It goes without saying that Jesus is the treasure and the pearl. So when faced with his call to “Come and follow me” we have to ask, is Jesus worth losing everything again?


I took this photo at today’s Theophany service at Puddingstone Lake. Theophany has a lot of meeting for me, so I’m very grateful that I was able to take off work and attend our parish’s Theophany services with Debbie.

Theophany commemorates the revelation of the Trinitarian God at Jesus’ baptism when God the Father spoke to Jesus saying “You are my son, whom I love” as the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove. God as Father, Son and Spirit.

The context for that event is a mammoth, over-arching Story that began in Genesis 1 and ultimately concludes in Revelation 22. Like any good story, this is a multi-layered narrative. Multiple meanings and subtexts converged when Jesus stepped into the Jordan. He was God’s Son, faithful Israel, who were called to be God’s “rescue party” to the nations. He was God’s Son, Israel’s representative King, come to be and do what Israel as a nation had failed. He was God’s Son, the Creator stepping into the very creation that had been created through him and for him.

The Story of God and his creation. His image-bearers fallen, but not forgotten. His covenanted people, gifted to bless and rescue the nations. Their representative king, to be and do what they couldn’t. The Creator loving and rescuing his creation. Jesus, true human and faithful Israel, fulfilling the human side of the covenant. Jesus, the true embodiment and presence of God, fulfilling God’s side of the covenant.

Immersed in the Jordan. Immersed in the Story. God’s Son, beloved by the Father and anointed by the Spirit, ready to turn the Story on its head.

But it’s not just Jesus’ Story. He has swooped us into it as well:

“But when the time of fulfillment arrived, God sent out his son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that he might redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And, because you are sons, God sent out the spirit of his son into our hearts, calling out ‘Abba, father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son! And, if you’re a son, you are an heir, through God.” – Galatians 4:4-7

Theophany is God’s Story. It’s Jesus’ Story. It’s our Story. Jesus is God’s beloved Son. And we are now God’s adopted sons! Sons and heirs through God! Let’s join him and live the Story!

Don’t Worry, Be Happy!

In his commentary on Matthew, NT Wright begins his observations of Matthew 6:25:34 by asking a question that startles me every time I read it:

“Has it ever struck you what a basically happy person Jesus was?”

Sure there were times of stress, grief and anger, but as Wright states, “But these are the exceptions, the dark patches painted on to the bright background.”

When Jesus spoke of God’s care for the birds and flowers, this emanated from his “strong, lively sense of the goodness of his father, the creator of the world.” This was Jesus’ knowledge and experience of God and life.

So when Jesus invited his followers not to worry about tomorrow, he led by example. He was able to completely live in the present, aware of and celebrating his father’s goodness in the moment.

In addition, when Jesus instructs his followers to make God’s kingdom and the covenant life of creative goodness and sacrificial love for the sake of others their highest priority, he’s inviting them into a twofold reality.

First, God is the source of beauty, energy and excitement, not food, drink and clothes. God is the creator who infuses his world with his beauty, energy and excitement. So his people can find their source first and foremost by loving and trusting God, who is always close to them.

Second, because God has saturated the world with his beauty, energy and excitement, it doesn’t mean that food, drink and clothes don’t matter. Jesus isn’t telling us not to enjoy these things, but to enjoy them in their proper priority. For example, Jesus attended parties and ate and drank so that his enemies accused him of being a glutton and drunk. And when he was crucified, his tunic was such high quality that the admiring soldiers gambled for it rather than tearing up such a valuable item. So Jesus isn’t saying to avoid these things.

Rather, Jesus is inviting his followers to enter a life of different priorities and values than what the surrounding world offers. When one puts God’s work and life first, beautiful and wonderful things like food, drink and clothes are provided. So the aspects of our lives like work, relationship, possessions, and hobbies should be enjoyed. But we don’t have to anxiously strive after them in order to find happiness and fulfillment. In this life Jesus is inviting us, one doesn’t have to worry about tomorrow because we know our creator God and good Father is near, caring and providing.

So let’s return to Wright’s introductory question, “Has it ever struck you what a basically happy person Jesus was?” Imagine what his inner life was like. Imagine his deep, trusting confidence in God’s love and goodness. Imagine his ability to live in the present, loving and celebrating God’s goodness in that movement, task, or relationship. Imagine the utter lack of anxiety and worry about what the next hour, day, week or month would bring.

Now hear his joy-filled, anxiety-free voice inviting you to share his knowledge and experience of life:

“Are you having a real struggle? Come to me! Are you carrying a big load on your back? Come to me — I’ll give you a rest! Pick up my yoke and put it on; take lessons from me, I’ll be gentle with you! The last thing in my heart is to give you a hard time. You’ll see — rest you need, and rest you shall have. My yoke is easy to wear, my load is easy to bear.” -Matt 11:28-30

Hearing And Not Understanding

When Jesus explained his parable about the receptivity people have to his message, he likened one type of people to seed falling on a hardened path:

“When someone hears the word of the kingdom and doesn’t understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart.” Matthew 13:19

These people don’t understand what he’s saying and that lack of understanding allows the Satan to easily steal away the message. This is a very frightening prospect.

I wonder what keeps a person from not understanding Jesus’ message? In Jesus’ historical context, he was speaking to his fellow Israelites. Their lack of understanding was not caused by a lack of intelligence. They were as smart then as we are today.

Rather, I think Jesus was speaking from a different story, a different narrative that didn’t make sense from the story they had embraced their entire lives.

Israel believed that their God was the one true God. If this were true, then they shouldn’t be ruled by pagans. They believed their Scriptures that one day, God would make everything right by ultimately becoming king of the entire world.

But many in Israel believed they were to bring about God’s kingdom through violent revolution, overthrowing their pagan oppressors. The problem was they were fighting darkness and violence with darkness and violence.

Jesus was calling Israel to turn back to their true calling as God’s covenantal people, who were to restore the nations and God’s creation through light and love.

Jesus was inviting them to follow him on the path of self-sacrifice and self-giving love, even to one’s enemies and even to one’s death. This message made absolutely no sense in the context of the other stories where Israel was to be the supreme nation above all others.

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that actually made me cringe. It said, “My three loves: God, Guns and Country.” An ideology that would even associate God with either Guns or Country is absolutely ludicrous. But it’s a prevalent one among Christians in the US. And this is only one of several false preconceived ideas about God that Christians embrace.

So it’s our false ideas of God that actually get in the way of understanding Jesus’ true message of God. In this way, someone who thinks they’re close to God is actually far away. And someone who thinks they understand God and his kingdom is actually not understanding at all.

And Satan is right there doing his work.

The Core Of The Good News

Occasionally, I like to simplify everything back to its core. I especially like to do this with the idea of The Gospel, which we are to live and communicate.

The Greek word for “Gospel” means good news. When a new Roman emperor was installed during ancient times, messengers were sent into the outlying territories proclaiming the gospel of that emperor. It was the good news that Rome had a new emperor and because of it, Rome’s citizens would experience peace, prosperity and salvation.

The four New Testament Gospels, in narrative form, are doing the same thing about Jesus. They are bearing witness that Jesus is Israel’s long-awaited, representative king. As such Jesus has fulfilled the covenant that God made with Abraham and his family to be God’s blessing to the nations, he has launched God’s future new creation concurrent with this creation, and he is installed as the world’s true Lord. That is the good news of Jesus! Jesus is the true King and Lord!

The implications of that gospel for every person who loyally embraces Jesus’ kingship and follows him is freedom from all of the destructive powers in our lives and the restoration of our human vocation (and here I’m blatantly stealing from Bishop Todd Hunter) “to be God’s cooperative friends who are learning from him how to live constant creative goodness for the sake of others in the power of God’s Spirit.”

With Jesus as our true King, we lack nothing and thus can learn from him how to build strong, unshakable lives like his, able to risk everything for the sake of God and neighbor. 

This is reality of Jesus’ kingship. And it is the ultimate Good News!

More Present Now

Last weekend, our family visited Oak Glen, a favorite location of ours. This visit was unique because a thick fog rolled in, altering the landscape. So during our visit, I took several photos with my phone. One of the photos was a reflection shot of the pond in the botanical garden. When I took the photo, I thought the image was free of fellow visitors. But when I got home, uploaded the photo to Lightroom and expanded it, I noticed there were a couple of people in the image. The larger screen and software enabled me to see the scene better than when I was actually standing there.

That photo came to mind this morning while reading John 14:12-21. In this passage, Jesus tells his disciples that he will soon be returning to his Father. While at first this sounds discouraging, he informs them that they will actually be able to do greater works than what he’s been doing because he’s going to the Father. And that’s because the Father will give his followers the Holy Spirit. 

I think many of us believe that Jesus’ original followers had it much easier than we do simply by the fact that Jesus was physically with them. But according to Jesus in this passage, the opposite is true. If we think about the original disciples, they seemed to constantly misunderstand Jesus’ words. They found themselves misinterpreting events. Judas betrayed Jesus, Peter denied him and the rest scattered at his arrest.

Here’s the remarkable truth of John 14: Christians today are in a far better situation than Jesus’ original followers during his lifetime! Jesus is actually more present to his followers in this new mode than when he was physically present.

When Jesus talks about going to the Father, he’s not just talking about going to heaven. He’s referring to defeating evil, idolatry, sin and death through his crucifixion. He’s referring to launching God’s New Creation through his resurrection. He’s referring to merging heaven and earth through his ascension. And he’s referring to being fully present and empowering by the Spirit through Pentecost.

Because of his accomplishments through the process of “going to the Father,” an entirely new world lies before us. And in this new world, Jesus is with us far more fully than he was with his original disciples — renewing our minds and energizing our lives with his LIFE to do greater works than Jesus ever did.

Letting Go During Lent

I don’t think I need to convince anyone when I state that our lives are filled, perhaps overfilled, with activity. Usually from the moment we awake to the moment our bodies drift to sleep, we are doing something. And many of those activities have formed our identity, reinforcing and energizing those activities.

One of the invitations of Lent is to let go of some of those activities in order to create new space within our lives — space for the potential of beauty, space to be alert to God and others, space to examine some of the shadowy parts of our inner lives.

I read a statement by Richard Rohr that might be helpful. He says, “We become free as we let go of our three primary energy centers: our need for power and control, our need for safety and security, and our need for affection and esteem.” I think every person struggles in some way with these areas and Lent invites us to become a bit more aware and perhaps to learn how to let go.

The beauty of Lent is that it doesn’t demand, but invites. There is no obligation to participate in Lent. It doesn’t make God love us more nor does it necessarily make us better people. God loves us and is pleased with us whether we have a laser-focus during Lent or if we choose to “give up Lent during Lent.” But that same lavish, unending love is both the invitation to and the environment within which we engage in Lent.

To put it simply, Lent is Love. It is God’s love that invites us to Lent. It is God’s love in which we experience Lent. It is God’s love through which we may be transformed in Lent. And it is God’s love in which we may fail in Lent.

Recently, Bishop Todd Hunter likened Lent to the R&D department of a company. It’s a unique time each year where we can, with a childlike and an almost playful spirit, let go, make space, examine, and engage God regarding oft-hidden aspects of our lives within God’s deep and unchanging love for us.

So I would encourage you to hear and answer God’s invitation to let go and experience his love during Lent.

It Starts And Ends With Intimacy

As a young Christian, one of my favorite worship songs was Maranatha’s version of “As the Deer.” It’s basically Psalm 42 put to simple music:

“As the deer panteth for the water,

So my soul longeth after Thee.

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship Thee.

You alone are my strength and shield

To you alone may my spirit yield.

You alone are my heart’s desire

And I long to worship Thee.”

I have cherished memories of being alone with God, playing the chords on a piano, and singing my heart to him.

Ever since meeting Jesus, he’s been my heart’s deepest desire. And that intimacy and longing has been the core of over 30 years of journeying with him. Now as a not-so-young Christian, the same intimacy for Jesus is the driving force in my life.

And while intimacy with Jesus launched my journey with him, I think it has matured into much more.

Recently, I read a short post by Bishop Todd Hunter describing the purpose of his parish, Holy Trinity Church. He wrote that Holy Trinity Church “is engaged in a straightforward and plain journey: we seek intimacy with Jesus and transformation into his likeness, becoming his cooperative friends… for the sake of others.”

That simple sentence captures the goal of intimacy with Jesus — a personal and communal vocation of spiritual formation into God’s royal priesthood for the sake of others. This is the calling of God’s people, His Body — to be a community of people gripped by deep intimacy with Jesus so that it transforms us into his likeness so we can be like him, live like him and work with him for the sake of everyone around us.

This is why the local parish exists. And all of its theology, liturgy, sacraments, programs, administration, and other aspects of its life must direct its members toward this singular goal — a transforming, loving, others-centered intimacy with Jesus.

But the vocation only makes sense when it’s first and foremost fueled by deep intimacy with Jesus. That’s where it starts and that’s where it ends. And that’s what gives everything in between its shape and meaning.

Betrayed By Jesus

“Give me a freakin’ break! I trusted him! I followed him! I left everything! He was supposed to be Israel’s king. And he went and got himself killed like all the other “messiahs” before him. Now you’re telling me that he’s alive? Give me a break!

“I know, Thomas. It sounds crazy. But we were there. We saw him.”

“I’m tired of this. Not again. I’ll tell you what. Unless I can see and touch his wounds, I mean actually shoving my hand in his side, I’m done trusting.”

I know I’ve taken some liberty and have embellished the biblical dialogue. But I want to highlight what I perceive to be the raw emotions in Thomas’ words.

Too often, our modern, rationalistic culture is projected onto Thomas as though he demanded scientific empirical proof. That’s unfortunate, because I think that perspective misses the point of Thomas’ experience. I believe he felt betrayed by Jesus. And roiling inside of him was pain, anger, hurt, fear, shame, and a whirlwind of other dark emotions that accompany betrayal.

Jesus claimed to be the Christ and Son of God — the King of Israel who was anointed by Israel’s God to vanquish the Roman occupiers, to restore the presence of Israel’s God in their Temple, and to make Israel great again. Jesus had convinced Thomas by his words, his deeds and his very presence to follow him. Sure, there had been would-be messiahs before. But Jesus actually seemed to be the one capable of succeeding where everyone else had failed.

Recently, though, Jesus seemed to be on a suicide mission. Thomas had told the group just before visiting Lazarus’ grave that if they went with Jesus, they would die with him. Jesus seemed intent to return to the places that wanted to kill him. Going publicly into these areas without any type of military force or strategy was simply tempting fate. Jesus had been lucky so far. But Thomas knew how things worked. Sooner or later, Jesus’ luck would run out and he and his followers would be captured and killed like all the other would-be messiahs before them.

What was Jesus thinking? How could he risk everything he had been building the past few years? How could Jesus be so cavalier with his and his followers’ lives? Sure enough, Jesus’ luck ran out. This past week he pushed too hard, too often. He got himself killed. The movement came to a crashing halt at the foot of a Roman cross. And now his followers, including Thomas, were at risk. The authorities would hunt them down and do the same to them.

It’s my opinion that Thomas’ statement was not unbelief. If he truly didn’t believe, I think he would have hightailed it out of Jerusalem under the cover of darkness soon after Jesus’ death. If he no longer believed, why did he stay with the threat of such peril?

I believe it’s because Thomas’ faith was crippled, not destroyed. And his proclamation about seeing and touching Jesus’ wounds was the mingling of betrayal’s pain and hope’s yearning.

And a week later, Thomas is still with the other disciples.

Much like the paralyzed man who had relied on his friends to carry him, to rip apart the roof, and to lower him at the feet of Jesus, Thomas needed his friends. Like true friends, they carried a crippled Thomas and tore down the roof of betrayal’s pain and lowered him to Jesus’ presence.

And there Jesus met and healed Thomas.

And Thomas’ faith surges.

“My Lord!” Thomas’ faith extends to where it was before. Jesus IS Israel’s king. And “My Lord” is how you would address your king.

“My God!” Thomas’ faith launches into new uncharted territory. No self-respecting Jewish man would ever associate divinity to a human being. We must remember that even the title “Son of God” was a Jewish term for Israel’s human king. It’s normal use never associated divinity to its bearer.

Yet, in that healing moment between Jesus and Thomas, Thomas’ faith expands to a place no one else has yet contemplated. Jesus is Israel’s King. And somehow, Jesus is also Israel’s God.

And with Thomas’ remarkable declaration, the Gospel-writer, leads his readers to a startling conclusion. John’s Gospel has revealed a New Creation, a New Temple and a New People of God. And he uses Thomas’ declaration as a rhetorical exclamation mark to highlight that these new realities of God’s New World require a New Faith — a faith exclaimed by a man at his lowest and darkest point, ravaged by feelings of betrayal, anger and fear.

My Lord and My God!

Life-Giving Liturgy

“The Church, through the temple and Divine service, acts upon the entire man, educates him wholly; acts upon his sight, hearing, smelling, feeling, taste, imagination, mind, and will, by the splendor of the icons and of the whole temple, by the ringing of bells, by the singing of the choir, by the fragrance of the incense, the kissing of the Gospel, of the cross and the holy icons, by the prosphoras, the singing, and sweet sound of the readings of the Scriptures.” -St John of Kronstadt

gospel-book-2In my early years as a Christian, it was easy for me to dismiss liturgy as being ritualistic. Unfortunately, there are too many anecdotes that validated my belief. As I matured over the years, I observed two things. First, many who dismissed liturgy as ritualistic only replaced one form of liturgy with another, albeit a much simpler one. For example, at the Vineyard, we had an unspoken liturgy that we followed at virtually every service — 30-45 minutes of singing, announcements, sermon, altar call, and then prayer time. Similar liturgies were performed in other churches and denominations I attended.

The second thing I observed is that liturgy is truly life-giving. Within its well-thought movements, a community can commune with God. That’s because liturgy is a divine “drama,” an embodied story infused with God’s grace that is grounded in time and space and simultaneously spans across time and space.

Grounded within time and space, liturgy at its best, engages the entire person and community. As expressed in the quote above, God uses “everyday” tangible elements within the liturgy to transmit his presence to his worshippers. Simple things like bread, wine, oil, water, incense, and pictures combined with physical activities like crossing oneself, lighting a candle, and kissing an icon or the Gospel book join us with this grace-infused drama. Our entire being enters into worship and communion with God. And we experience this together as a community, young and old, carrying the entire spectrum of human thought, emotion and experience.

Transcending time and space, liturgy at its best, unites us with God’s family through the ages, generations who have come before and the generations who will come after. And it also unites us with our past younger worshipping selves as a child or young adult and with our future older worshipping selves. And ultimately, liturgy is a moment when God’s future New Creation manifests within the present creation. It’s when the “now and not yet” of God’s kingdom becomes tangibly more “now.” It’s that special moment that the Bible calls “kairos” when the New Creation manifests itself concretely within the fabric of history.

But all of this can be easily missed when one attends liturgy. Instead of flashing lights, one sees the flickering of candles. Instead of peals of thunders, one hears the quiet refrains of “Lord, have mercy.” Instead of a majestic vision of God’s throne room, one watches a humble priest praying for God’s people. Instead of saints glowing with glory, one sees normal people stretching their aching backs, fighting distraction, shuffling their tired feet, praying, bowing, crossing themselves, and eating bread and wine in reverence and devotion.

And through it all normal people receive Life as they commune with God, each other and all God’s worshippers through time and space.

Misguided Zeal

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them. -Luke 9:51-55

This is another moment in a string of episodes demonstrating the inability of Jesus’ followers to truly understand the scope of his mission. Sometimes, I think we’re so quick to judge Peter for his many missteps, that we forget James and John, two of Jesus’ closest disciples, blundered as well.

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem for his ultimate demonstration of God’s love. Yet, two of his closest followers want to call down divine judgment upon a village because the villagers won’t welcome their entourage. You can almost hear the slap of Jesus’ palm on his forehead.

Warning PoleChristian history is replete with this type of misguided zeal. A serious problem occurs when protecting the fidelity of the Faith eclipses the actual values of the Faith. While we may not literally call down fire, we resort to other tactics. We’ll label ourselves and others so that it creates an “us” vs “them” dichotomy. We’ll denounce others who are not in our group while we exalt ourselves as being genuine Christians. We’ll resort to “straw man” tactics or compare our group’s best with their group’s worst.

Every group has its overzealous members.

When I was a young Christian in Calvary Chapel, I remember some speaking of Roman Catholics as adherents to dead ritual, implying that they weren’t really Christians. And they described mainline denominations as “liberal” with a similar insinuation.

During my short involvement with YWAM, the organization’s evangelism efforts were focused in middle eastern countries like Turkey. I remember hearing some stating that Eastern Orthodox Christians needed to be evangelized because their religion was dead.

As part of the Charismatic movement, other Christians were viewed as not having the Holy Spirit and being spiritually dead. I remember some stating about non-charismatic churches, “If God didn’t show up to their church on Sunday morning, no one would notice.”

When I was part of the Emergent/House Church movement, I heard some speaking suspiciously of professional pastors because they actually made a living from pastoring.

As part of the Eastern Orthodox Church, I hear some using words like “heterodox” and “heretic” too easily to describe non-Orthodox forms of Christianity. Quite frankly, some of the Protestant-bashing I’ve heard in my limited experience in Orthodoxy is sickening.

I’m familiar with these incidents because, to my shame, I’ve participated in this misguided zeal.

It’s taken more time than necessary, but I’ve finally learned that Evangelicals have no more of a personal relationship with God than Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and mainline Christians. Nor are Charismatics any more Spirit-filled than their other siblings. House churches are no more genuine than their institutional counterparts. Eastern Orthodoxy is no more truer, enlightened or faithful than any other form of Christianity. Everyone needs to be evangelized with God’s Good News.

In the midst of all this zealous craziness, Jesus demonstrates God’s love for everyone by dying upon a cross. Three days later, he bursts from the grave to launch God’s New Creation for all.

I’m not saying everyone simply needs to embrace a wishy-washy undefined faith. Quite the opposite. Our faith must develop, mature and become well-defined. As such, distinctions will always exist. But the more mature our faith becomes, the more it should align with the actual values of the Faith — faith, hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, holiness, compassion, humility, repentance… I think you get my point.

Jesus’ followers defend the faith by living the faith.

Part of living the faith means living in loving communion with all of Jesus followers — valuing each other and each other’s tradition so we can talk with and learn from each other.

Earlier this year, I wrote the following “classified ad” but never had the courage to post it on social media:

“Wanted: A small group of Christians who gather regularly with the sole agenda of becoming Jesus’ apprentices through spiritual formation. This group would welcome Jesus’ apprentices from all traditions — Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. It would not be affiliated with any organization nor would it replace anyone’s local church or parish. Rather, it would be a group of friends committed to learning with and from one another about how to follow Jesus. This group would discuss Scripture and supplemental writings, pray for one another, support one another and learn from each other’s traditions, theology and practices in the ultimate effort of becoming like Jesus for the sake of the world.”

I would love to be part of a community whose members are learning to carry the cross rather than calling down fire.

Struggling In Prayer

Unto My Words-sRGB“I urge you, brothers and sisters, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be kept safe from the unbelievers in Judea and that the contribution I take to Jerusalem may be favorably received by the Lord’s people there.” -Romans 15:30-31

I have to be honest. After being a Christian for over 30 years, prayer is still a mystery to me. There are certain aspects I understand. For example, I know prayer is relational conversation with God. And in that conversation, I pour out my heart, be it praise, thanksgiving, remorse, confession, desperation, or petition.

But prayer is also more than that. So there are other aspects of prayer that are shrouded in mystery for me, even after all these years. The passage in Romans is one of them. How does one “fight the battle” for another in prayer? Is this just dramatic imagery for simply praying for a person’s needs? Or is there something more?

Throughout my Christian life, I’ve participated in groups that had their particular answer to these questions. I’ve been in some prayer meetings where praying was spiritual warfare performed by audibly “binding and loosing” spiritual powers influencing situations.

I’ve been in groups where lists of requests were gathered and a small group would pray over the various needs.

I’ve been in groups where the participants would physically lay their hands on a person and wait for the Spirit to bring specific prayers and prophetic messages to mind.

I’ve also been in groups where prayer is quietly whispering a liturgical prayer and lighting a candle for a person, requesting God’s mercy and presence in their life.

I suspect Paul and the early Christians understood something that is often missing in our modern concept of prayer. Too often we see prayer as petitioning God and expecting an answer. What if that isn’t necessarily the prayer’s primary purpose. What if prayer is more like training — learning to wait on God, sense his leading, praying appropriately, then rinse and repeat.

In most Christian traditions, the “Lord’s Prayer” is the model for prayer. But Jesus wasn’t giving us categories or words to pray. He was showing us how to become “mobile Temples,” how to become God’s presence where heaven and earth are stitched together through love.

What if prayer is like working out on an exercise machine at the gym. In this example, we don’t do a few reps and expect to have fully developed muscles. It takes months or years of training to hone our muscles.

So perhaps prayer transcends mere petition and answer. Perhaps prayer is working out in cooperation with God so our interior life is reshaped and renewed into the place where heaven and earth are joined and then expressed naturally through our exterior life.

So what if Paul’s request is similar to Jesus’ model prayer. Surely he needs their prayers on his behalf. And immediate answers would be greatly appreciated. But he’s a pastor. He knows there are tensions between between Christians and non-Christians. And there are tensions between the Roman Church and the Jerusalem Church.

So perhaps, Paul’s request gives the Roman Christians the opportunity to continually pray for both “unbelievers” and “God’s people” in Jerusalem so they may train into God’s love toward these people.

One of my earliest memories as a child was learning to swim. Every week, my mom would take us to Ms. Christie’s house for lessons. I remember clutching the side of the pool. Ms. Christie stood in the water several feet away, beckoning me. I would let go of the side, struggling with each stroke to reach her. But she always seemed just out of reach. With every few inches I achieved, she would move away from me. When I felt I couldn’t go any further, I was suddenly in her safe and secure arms as she quickly closed the distance between us and grabbed me. Over and over, we would do this. And I learned to swim.

Perhaps that’s what prayer is like. Perhaps our needs or our loved one’s needs force us to struggle toward God. But in love, he always remains slightly out of reach. By doing so, he’s helping us to grow into love, into the embodiment of his New Creation. And just when it seems like all is lost, we’re in his safe and secure arms. Perhaps we don’t have the answer we desired. But we have his presence and the transformation he intended all along.

So if love is the embodiment of God’s New Creation, then prayer is the exercise that develops it in our lives.

Not Chosen By God

PassionsThe other day I was reading Acts 1:21-26. This is the episode when the Apostles replace the fallen Judas as one of The Twelve.

Twelve is not just a nice round number. Twelve Apostles are necessary to continue Jesus’ work. Jesus is restoring Israel, God’s people, around himself. As the twelve tribes followed God’s presence in the pillar of fire, the twelve Apostles followed God’s presence in Jesus. They are embodying God’s renewed plan for Israel, so twelve Apostles are absolutely necessary to move forward.

So after a vetting process, the eleven Apostles find two qualified men — Mathias and Justus. And with a cast of lots, God chooses Mathias… and doesn’t choose Justus.

And the story quickly moves on. But I can’t.

My thoughts keep returning to Justus. Who was this man? What did he think and feel to be one of the two finalists to join The Twelve, only to watch God choose the other man?

Scripture provides us very little. He was known by three names — Joseph, Barsabbas and Justus.

Church tradition fills in some biographical gaps. Justus was a son of Joseph, Jesus’ stepfather, from his first wife Salome. In other words, Justus was Jesus’ step-brother.

Now some people may be scratching their heads and asking, “Wait a minute. You’re saying Jesus’ stepfather, Joseph, was married to someone else before Mary?” Yes. The image of a young Joseph and Mary depicted in our modern Christmas story is incorrect.

According to Church tradition, Joseph was previously married to Salome. They had four sons and two daughters before she died and left Joseph a widower. These are Jesus’ “brothers and sisters” mentioned in the Gospels and include James (author of the Book of James), Jude (author of the Book of Jude), and Justus.

What about Mary?

Dedicated to God by her parents, Joachim and Anna, Mary grew up as a little girl in the Temple. Young women could not live in the Temple once they reached puberty. An elderly Joseph, now a widower, is selected by lots to become young Mary’s husband-caretaker. After birthing Jesus, Mary remains a virgin the entirety of her life. Joseph and Mary never had any children together.

So back to Justus.

Justus was among the original members of Jesus’ ministry. He was eventually chosen by Jesus to be among The Seventy, who were sent out as part of his ministry (Luke 10). Justus ultimately became the Bishop of Eleutheropolis and died a martyr. So we know that he faithfully served Jesus and his people his entire life.

Beyond the biographical information, Church tradition is as silent as Scripture regarding Justus’ thoughts and feelings at not being chosen by God.

At this point one can only speculate. I think it’s safe to assume that Justus was like any other person. So I wonder if he experienced disappointment, doubt or depression. What was going on in his head? One cannot be passed over by God without asking introspective questions. Was I not worthy enough? Did I do something wrong? Am I disqualified? Why him and not me? What now?

I also wonder if inactivity increased the volume of that inner voice. Jesus had instructed his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Father (Acts 1:4). And so they waited and prayed in the upper room. What did he feel when he saw Mathias now huddling with the other eleven Apostles? What were Justus’ prayers like? What was he saying to God? Was he repenting of envy over his friend’s new position? Was he praying for clarity over why he was passed over? Or was he praying for strength, safety and wisdom for his friend? From personal experience, I think his prayers were a mixture of everything.

Mere days later, God’s wind and fire would rest on Justus along with the other hundred-plus believers. In that moment, perhaps Justus’ thoughts and feelings of rejection are swept away in this amazing flurry of excitement and activity. Perhaps his questions are answered as he and the astounded community of believers realize they are now empowered to continue what Jesus had started. Regardless of position, there was new work to be done by all.

In a short reflection on Justus, NT Wright states, “Part of Christian obedience, right from the beginning, was the call to play (apparently) great parts without pride and (apparently) small parts without shame. There are, of course, no passengers in the kingdom of God, and actually no ‘great’ and ‘small’ parts either. The different tasks and roles to which God assigns us are his business, not ours.”

Knowing that Justus’ ultimate trajectory was to become Bishop and Martyr, I would like to think he quickly grasped that truth and found his fulfillment in whatever God placed before him. While God didn’t choose him to be one of The Twelve, he knew God had chosen him for service. And by embracing that vocation, he faithfully served God’s people and ultimately followed his Savior’s example, sacrificing his life in love.

And centuries later, Justus’ life still serves as a quiet example for all who feel they haven’t been chosen by God.

Father, some mornings I wake up wondering if I completely failed you and have been disqualified from your work. May Justus’ faithful life be an encouragement. There’s always work to be done in your kingdom. Keep my focus on that. And when necessary, remind me that whatever work you place before me, it is neither “great” nor “small”. It is work for which your Spirit has called and empowered me to do. May Justus remind me to be faithful to the end.

Being Before Behavior

Hands b&w-sRGB“A Christian is: a mind through which Christ thinks, a heart through which Christ loves, a voice through which Christ speaks, and a hand through which Christ helps.” -St Augustine

St Augustine’s quote is a beautiful expression of an incarnational life, a life that genuinely embodies Jesus so that he naturally lives through that person.

An incarnational life expresses itself in behaviors, habits, thoughts, attitudes and feelings that naturally reflect Christ. But it doesn’t originate there. The incarnational life first and foremost embodies Christ in our very being. The fancy theological word for this is “ontological.”

Fr Stephen Freeman has written an article on the ontological approach to understanding salvation that provides the proper context for discussing life in God. I would highly recommend reading his article. This ontological perspective is one of the primary theological perspectives that attracted me to Eastern Orthodoxy.

God is the only true Being. God gives us being and is the continual source of our being. His goal is for us to move toward “well-being” and ultimately to “eternal being” in communion with him.

Cluster of GrapesIn this light, right or wrong is either the path toward eternal being or non-being. Or to borrow Jesus’ imagery, it’s either remaining connected to the vine and naturally thriving or being cut off and naturally withering.

In contrast, the popular, yet distorted theology views right and wrong from a legal perspective of obedience and reward or disobedience and punishment — behavior and consequence. Sin is seen as immoral behavior and death its punishment while salvation is viewed as obedience and living forever its reward.

But from an ontological perspective, life or death are not the reward or punishment of our behavior. Life and death are about our being. In this light, salvation defines life — salvation is life and life is salvation. And death defines sin — sin is death and death is sin.

So life is well-being and ultimately eternal being as one remains in communion with God, the Source of Being and Life. Death is sub-being and ultimately non-being as one severs communion with God.

This is the framework for understanding Christian life. The incarnational life, a life that naturally embodies Jesus, is first and foremost God’s life in our being that naturally expresses itself through my will, mind and body into my relationships and world. From this perspective, St Augustine’s vision of incarnational life is an expression of life and well-being and not only behavior.

Too often, the discussion of Christ’s likeness centers only on behavior. In other words, a person is considered to be like Christ if he or she avoids certain negative behaviors like drinking, smoking and lying and adhering to positive behaviors like feeding the poor, attending church, acting lovingly, and praying for people. From this perspective, I expend my energy modifying my behavior to adhere to a list of appropriate behaviors, usually determined by the specific faith community in which I live and associate.

But as good as that behavior might be, by itself it isn’t necessarily Christ’s likeness. Again, the incarnational life that naturally embodies Jesus is ontological. The core issue is being, not behavior. From our being, and thus our well-being and eternal being, springs behavior.

So I should expend my energy cooperating with God in the transformation of my being — to choose the ongoing path of life and well-being in intimate communion with God.

Not Worthy Of Them

“The world was not worthy of them.” -Hebrews 11:38

What a wonderful epitaph to have proclaimed over one’s life. The writer of Hebrews declares this after a lengthy list of people popularly called the “Faith Hall of Fame.”

Cloud of WitnessesOne of the beautiful aspects of Eastern Orthodoxy are the icons of the saints. The saints are those whom the Church recognizes to have lived a full life of actually enduring to the likeness of Christ. Most are apostles, martyrs, church fathers, and monastics. But for every recognized saint, there are thousands upon thousands of unknown and unmentioned saints.

These unknown saints are the ordinary men and women who lived daily lives of faith, love and piety. They worked ordinary jobs and performed ordinary tasks. They are the “jars of clay” containing the unsurpassable treasure of God’s presence.

The other day, I heard a woman describe her 89-year old mother as a “saint” because she never drank, smoked or cussed. While I don’t doubt that her mom is a saint, I take issue with her measuring rod. A person is not a saint simply by adhering to a set of regulations or morality. A saint is someone who is set apart for God through his or her personal and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause — to transform and renew this world into his Father’s New Creation.

Like a stubborn toddler resisting and fighting against bath-time, this world resists God’s renewal. Unfortunately, the world fights back with far more destructive and violent forces. And those committed to the world’s renewal suffer. They lose reputation, friends, jobs, homes, health and frequently, life.

But they endure. They endure with grief, sadness, pain and loss merged with an indescribable peace, joy and hope. They endure because the one who will transform and renew the world has already begun the process in them. And so, they carry in themselves the promise of God’s future here in the present. And so they trust him and follow him. It sets them apart. They are saints.

Saints aren’t perfect. They struggle, sin and suffer. They are real people. They have different color skin. They speak with different accents. They hold different values. They raise their kids differently. They attend different churches. They enjoy different movies and books. They prefer different genders. They have different life goals. They manage their money differently. They have different political views. They have different scientific views. They have different spiritual views.

But they have one thing in common. They love God. They’re loyal to Jesus and his cause. They are being renewed by God’s Spirit, tasting a bit of God’s future today. As such, they are beneficiaries and agents of God’s New Creation. And for this they struggle to live by the life of God’s future world here and now and suffer as the world around them resists.

Upon completing his “Faith Hall of Fame,” the writer of Hebrews makes direct application:

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.”

Certainly this vast cloud is filled with those who have gone before us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women who drew close to God and lived a life of intimate and loyal faith.

But the cloud also contains the aspiring saints around us. The extraordinary and ordinary men and women we encounter daily. They are our spouses. They are our kids. They are our friends. They are our co-workers. They are the single man or woman living a life of purity. They are the mom who works long hours to support her family. They are the dad who comforts his sick child in the late hours of night. They are the grandma who quietly and consistently prays for the people on her street. They are the cashier at Walmart smiling at every person. They are the UPS driver faithfully delivering our packages. They are the policewoman on patrol. They are the waiter at our favorite restaurant. They are the guy that cut us off on the freeway. They are the kids playing Pokemon GO.

Because God’s family overlaps the past, present and future, the great cloud of witnesses includes those who have successfully endured the struggle of loyal faith to Jesus and his transformative project, those who still struggle and suffer in their endurance, and even those who will yet endure.

And you and I are surrounded by this great cloud, this awesome community. We’re surrounded, because we are part of it. So, let’s throw off everything that hinders and entangles and run that race marked out specifically for us, with a deeply intimate and loyal commitment to Jesus and his cause.

Waxing Nostalgic – My Kids’ Baptism

Screen Shot 2016-07-30 at 9.01.22 AMThis October marks the ten-year anniversary of one of the most remarkable moments of my life — the day I baptized my kids.

I posted my thoughts about the event HERE a few days after it happened. You can also watch the short video HERE. On that day I offered my children to God and to his family. And while it was a dream come true for me as their dad, it was also a frightening moment.

During the worship that morning, I realized that my children would face a painful world without me. I couldn’t be with them during most of the moments of their daily lives. And as they matured, they would face a harsh and painful world without their daddy’s protection. But God cut through all of this by reminding me that my children were his. And then I heard his voice whispering “I will be there.”

Ten years later, as I reflect on God’s faithfulness to that promise, my heart wells with incredible gratitude. Thank you, God, for being there with them.

God has both protected them and formed, for which I am deeply thankful.

Ten years ago, my children’s ages ranged from 7 to 14. I understood each was making a commitment to Jesus at their personal level and that their commitment to him that would continue to grow and take new expression as they matured.

I don’t come from a Christian family. My parents became Christians after me, so I don’t have the personal experience of a faith handed down through generations. Passing down my faith to my kids has been a learn “by the seat of my pants” endeavor. But one thing I know from watching the Faith passed down in other families, it looks different in each generation. One generation’s values and preferences differ from the prior’s. But at its core, the faith in Jesus, the loyal commitment to him and his cause, is the same.

It’s fascinating to see how each my kids’ personal relationships with God have developed. It’s also a little unsetting. Their faith development doesn’t parallel mine or Debbie’s. So they don’t hold all of the values we hold. I’m learning how to coach and advise them from the resources of my personal faith. But most importantly, I’m learning to be content with that.

The important thing is that they belong to God and to his family that stretches time and space.

From personal experience, I know God will continue to speak to them and work through every part of their lives. Their faith will continue to change and develop, influenced by God’s Spirit, people’s influences and life circumstances.

As I look out upon the unknown of the next ten years and beyond, God’s promise to me for my children still rings true, “I will be there.”

Why Are We Here?

The standing congregation sings the Cherubic Hymn. “Let us lay aside our earthly cares that we may receive the king of all.” The tune is accentuated by the chiming of each swing of the deacon’s censor. Fragrant incense fills the room. Icons of saints look on. This is a holy moment.

Then the harmonies are disrupted with the dissonant crying from a discontented child. This pulls my attention back to my surroundings. As I glance around, I notice people shuffling tired feet and stretching aching backs. Others, both children and adults, look distracted. One heads to grab a tissue. Another exits toward the bathrooms.

I wonder to myself, “Why are we here?” Why do we gather every week? What brings us together like this? Shouldn’t we ask that question before each service?

Maybe someone is here looking for absolution for a word or deed they regret. Or perhaps it’s to find the love of God. Maybe it’s to be embraced in the comfort of friends. Perhaps it’s the opportunity to serve God and others. Maybe it’s simply out of cultural obligation. Perhaps it’s to impress parents, friends or a potential suitor. Maybe it’s to express thankfulness for a joyful event this past week. Maybe it’s to soothe the pain of the past week or to prepare for the demands of the coming week. Maybe it’s to be a good example for ones children. Perhaps the fires of spiritual renewal need to be answered. The answers to the question are as varied as the people in the room.

Body & BloodAs the hymn draws to an end, the iconostasis doors open and the Great Procession begins. The priest carries Jesus’ body and blood into our midst. HE IS PRESENT RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!

That’s why we’re here. The life and love of Jesus. His presence breathes onto all that we have carried into this place as he offers himself to us. Come. Eat and drink. My life for yours.

And we respond by offering him our lives with all of our joys and sadnesses, faith and fears, commitments and distractions.

In this holy moment he sweeps all of us and all we are and all we bring into a moment when heaven and earth kiss.

In the quiet, a mother near me hands her distracted toddler a graham cracker. She excitedly coos, “Coooookie!”

This is truly a holy moment.

A Tough Question

YouI want to ask a tough question. “What’s God doing in and saying to you right now in your life?” I told you it’s a tough question. I’m not sure I could provide a stellar answer right now.

Sometimes the phrase “personal relationship with God” can become sterile and abstract. But ultimately, that question is the rubber-meets-the-road reality of an intimate and personal relationship with God.

Having to pause and think when I’m asked that question is a symptom of something amiss in my relationship with God. It shows I’m not aware of his work and voice, which is a constant in our lives. It is an indicator that my personal relationship may not be so “personal.” And in those moments, I can either honestly admit that or fabricate an answer in the attempt to appear more spiritual.

It would be similar if you asked me, “So how’s Debbie doing?” As her husband and friend, I should know. Not knowing is an indicator that our relationship may not be very personal at that time. The same is true for God.

A person that influenced my spiritual formation was Jean Pierre de Caussade. Here are a few quotes from him:

“The soul, light as a feather, fluid as water, innocent as a child, responds to every movement of grace like a floating balloon.”

“The present moment is always full of infinite treasure. It contains far more than you can possibly grasp. Faith is the measure of its riches: what you find in the present moment is according to the measure of your faith. Love also is the measure: the more the heart loves, the more it rejoices in what God provides. The will of God presents itself at each moment like an immense ocean that the desire of your heart cannot empty; yet you will drink from that ocean according to your faith and love.”

“Those who have abandoned themselves to God always lead mysterious lives and receive from him exceptional and miraculous gifts by means of the most ordinary, natural and chance experiences in which there appears to be nothing unusual. The simplest sermon, the most banal conversations, the least erudite books become a source of knowledges and wisdom to these souls by virtue of God’s purpose. This is why they carefully pick up the crumbs which clever minds tread underfoot, for to them everything is precious and a source of enrichment.”

A personal relationship with God is living aware of what God is doing and saying in the present moment. This doesn’t come naturally and requires us to develop a few skills.

Observation — We must learn to look around. We must develop eyes that look for God in everything.

Attention — We must learn to pay attention. This goes deeper than just looking. It’s looking at the details. It’s looking at the big picture. It’s noticing what may not be immediately apparent.

Reflection — We must learn to ponder and pray about what we see and notice. Many times we may see things that require us to then look at our own heart and ask tough questions.

Observation. Attention. Reflection. I know this is corny, but we need to take up our O.A.R. if we want to properly guide the raft of our lives through the rapids. Otherwise, we remain adrift and at the mercy of any random or destructive current.

God is moving and speaking constantly to us. His voice may come through a sermon, a Scripture, a song, a conversation, a circumstance, a whisper in our heart. Or sometimes simply in the silence.

A good place to begin practicing these skills are with the major movements in one’s life. Have you just experienced or are ready to begin a significant event? What might God be saying? Are you experiencing depression, stress, loneliness, or other pain? What might be God be saying in the middle of it? Are you in a life-changing relationship? What might God be saying? Did you hear a sermon that grabbed your attention? Are the ideas in a particular book captivating you? Did someone say something to you that keeps banging around in your head? Is there a Scripture passage that keeps grabbing your attention?

God is present in every facet of our lives. There’s not a single part in which he is absent. As we learn to sense his movement in the major moments, then we hone our skills to sense his presence in the more minute and mundane areas.

In every life’s detail, O.A.R. are skills that enable us to become more aware of God’s gentle movements and voice.

Waxing Nostalgic – Worship

Pink Rose copyBut may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the Lord!” -Psalm 40.16

During Lent this year, I sensed an inner urging to draw closer to God. While I prayed and read Scripture virtually every day, I have become less intimate with God over the past years.

So during Lent, I decided to listen to my old worship music.

Hold on… a little context. Throughout my entire Christian formation, worship was a constant and dominant aspect of my life. Early in my Christian formation, I was taught that worship was far more than singing songs to God. Rather, it was a deeply intimate interaction with a loving and mighty God.

I loved worship! I loved worshipping at church. I loved worshipping personally using CDs. I collected virtually every worship CD I could. I owned every single Hosanna! Music and Vineyard release. I bought a wide-range of CDs by Delirious, Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, Tim Hughes, Lincoln Brewster, The Passion Band, Darrell Evans, and Kent Henry. By the time I was in the Vineyard, I attended worship conferences and participated in the congregation for a few live recording of worship albums.

I had tried futilely to learn guitar several times in my youth prior to becoming a Christian. As a young youth pastor, I remember asking God to let me easily learn the guitar so I could glorify him through worship and by leading others in worship. Coincidentally or miraculously, I quickly learned guitar soon after that prayer and vowed only to play guitar in worship to God.

When things went terribly wrong at the Vineyard where I was the Associate Pastor, I left professional ministry. The wounds were so painful that I could not listen to worship music without feeling betrayed and depressed. That dark season lasted several years, until this past Lent.

The urge for deeper intimacy with God carried with it a need to reconnect to intimate worship again. So I began listening to my worship CDs during my commutes to work and home. The first couple of days were emotionally difficult. But then something happened. The negative feelings evaporated and were replaced with a newfound intimacy. But the intimacy was much different from what I previously experienced in worship.

The familiar songs brought to mind memories of past worship experiences. I recalled moments during worship conferences when thousands of worshippers sang their hearts to God in deep unity. I recalled worship team practices at the Vineyard with my friends. I recalled times of worship in children’s ministry, youth group, and home group settings. I recalled shouting and singing at the top of my lungs. I recalled moments of holy silence as God’s presence filled the room. I recalled recording worship songs that I had written at my friend’s home. I recalled God’s intimate and healing presence in worship during the darkest days of my burnout in professional ministry. I recalled promises he whispered, sins he convicted, wounds he comforted, delusions he lifted, and resolve he strengthened during countless moments of worship.

The familiar songs and fond memories brought a different kind of intimacy with God. The songs had become stones that fashioned a memorial like the ones ancient Israelites would erect to remind them of important events with God. This “memorial” of worship songs compelled me to remember those intimate moments with God experienced alone and with others. By doing so, it renewed my thanksgiving for God’s faithfulness through the difficult years; for God’s beauty in the midst of ugliness caused by others and myself; for God’s majesty transcending and transforming my personal pain. In all of it God is AWESOME.

I’m so thankful that God has allowed me to experience the joy of worship again. And the fond memories accompanying this renewal are some of the dearest to me. Now that I’m part of a Christian tradition that doesn’t practice that particular style of worship, I am even more mindful of how special and precious those moments were and will carry them reverently the rest of my life.

A Ray Of His Presence

What Is A WeedHere’s a quote from Archbishop Anastosios worth mulling over:

“The critical question for a mission in Christ’s way is to what extent others can discern in our presence something, a ray, of His own presence” (Mission in Christ’s Way).

The Gospel, the royal proclamation that Jesus is the world’s true king, requires embodiment. It is not enough to simply tell someone the Gospel. Nor is it enough to simply invite someone to church in the hopes they will hear or experience the gospel.

If we follow Jesus as his apprentices, then we must continue his mission in the same manner as him — we must incarnate or embody the life and love of God. We must go beyond actions and words. We must BE the Gospel.

I used to tell my kids, Jesus was the will of God even when he was doing mundane things like eating and sleeping. He didn’t just proclaim God’s will and do God’s will. He is God’s will. He IS God’s will, word, life, love and presence. We must learn this as well.

St Paul tells Timothy:

So, then, my child: you must be strong in the grace which is in King Jesus. You heard the teaching I gave in public; pass it on to faithful people who will be capable of instructing others as well. Take your share of suffering as one of King Jesus’ good soldiers. No one who serves in the army gets embroiled in civilian activities, since they want to please the officer who enlisted them. If you take part in athletic events, you don’t win the crown unless you compete according to the rules. The farmer who does the work deserves the first share of the crops. Think about what I say; the Lord will give you understanding in everything. -2Tim 2:1-7

All three images used by Paul illustrate the need for focused discipline and effort. It requires determination and work to become the kind of person that can embody God’s presence like Jesus did, even just a ray of his presence. A person doesn’t magically drift into the incarnational life. There are no shortcuts or hacks.

Waxing Nostalgic – An Old Friend

IMG_6490This is another post in a short series that began HERE and continues HERE.

The other day, I reconnected with an old friend. We haven’t seen each other for about 10 years. But like any good friendship, when we reconnected it was like no time had passed.

Ok. I’m kind of misleading you in that my “old friend” isn’t a person. It’s my preaching Bible. It’s the Bible I used especially when I delivered my sermons. I loved this Bible because the text was in a one-column format and didn’t contain any study notes that would clutter or distract me when I was reading Scripture during a sermon.

When I pulled my preaching Bible off the shelf and opened it up, I was thrilled to find my last two sermons tucked into the cover. That’s when the memories flooded back.

I loved telling stories, showing videos, and using object lessons in my sermons. One of my fondest “preaching” memories is when I brought Michael up during a sermon to help with an object lesson. It took only a couple of moments, but has remained one of those cherished memories for both of us.

When I prepared for a sermon, I would always use a digital Bible. I would then type up my sermon outline with Scripture references. But the final and most critical phase of my workflow was to allow a “simmer time.” This was when I would pray, reflect and let the Scriptures and main points “seep deep” into me. I would read the Scriptures in my preaching Bible during this essential phase.

You see a sermon wasn’t authentic to me if it wasn’t a part of me. I never wanted a sermon to simply be a speech or a study. It was a time when the family of God gathered to hear and obey God’s Word. So I believed it was my greatest responsibility to give a part of myself as the messenger. I was always exhausted and drained when I was done preaching.

Having found my preaching Bible, I’ve been enjoying times of reading Scripture from the page rather than the screen. I love and rely on my digital resources. But there’s something special about unplugging and reading Scripture from a book.

I’ve heard that we read differently from paper than from a screen. I’m not sure if that’s true, but it feels true. Reading Scripture from a book seems simultaneously more leisurely and less distracting. I feel more focused and can stop to reflect without sensing my mind being pulled in different directions.

I remember another object lesson I used in a sermon. I wrote out some  Scripture on a transparency. I then held it up before me to demonstrate that as we read Scripture, it should pull our focus through the text and onto the One standing behind the text.

That’s what I feel has happened since finding my preaching Bible. Reading Scripture from a book actually seems more intimate and relational. Reconnecting with my “old friend” seems to have added a missing dimension of intimacy with my True Friend.

For The Life Of The World

For_The_Life_Of_The_WorldWhen I was beginning my journey away from professional ministry, I came across the phrase, “for the sake of the world,” which I believe is attributed to Karl Barth. This phrase became a centerpiece of my reconstructed theology. Later, as I was beginning to explore Eastern Orthodoxy, I came across a similar phrase, “for the life of the world.” Not only is it the title of a quintessential book by Fr Alexander Schmemman, but more importantly, it’s also a line from one of the priest’s prayers during Divine Liturgy, “On the night when He was delivered up, or rather when He gave Himself up for the life of the world…”

These two phrases remind me that God’s mission, while having a personal dimension in our lives, is far larger than any of us. Remember, for God so loved the world. Everything God is accomplishing is for the life of the world. Christ was sent out of God’s love for the life of the world. We are being saved by Christ and into Christ for the life of the world. We are becoming truly human in Christ’s likeness for the life of the world. We are God’s image-bearers and creation’s stewards for the life of the world. Our lives are mobile temples of God’s presence, stitching heaven and earth together for the life of the world. Our experience of God’s forgiveness, mercy and transformation is for the life of the world.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in Romans 8:18-27, St Paul summarizes how the world is liberated and renewed. Creation is groaning. Redeemed humanity is embedded in creation and joins in the groaning. And God’s Spirit is embedded in redeemed humanity, also joining in the groaning. This groaning is the pain of childbirth and intercession. God’s New Creation is being birthed from within creation, redeemed humanity, and the Holy Spirit, each embedded in the other. Our role is to be the bridge between the world and the Spirit, giving expression to their groans through our own for the life of the world.

In Colossians 1:27, St Paul writes, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Here’s the revealed mystery — Christ dwelling in us is the hope of Habakkuk’s prophecy fulfilled, “For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD as the waters covers the sea.” Christ dwells in us as a future-pointing sign that God’s glory will fill the earth. Christ dwells in us for the life of the world.

During Divine Liturgy, as the priest presents the Eucharist, Christ’s body and blood are offered for the life of the world. But it’s not only Christ. As his Body on earth, we, his redeemed community, join his offering. As Christ gave himself up for the life of the world, we too give up our lives for the life of the world. Where his life was offered to launch God’s New Creation for the life of the world, now our lives are offered to carry out God’s New Creation for the life of the world.

The Purpose of Pentecost

Prayer_CandlesToday the Eastern Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost. The following excerpt by NT Wright is longer than what I would normally post. But it’s a clear and succinct summary of Pentecost. The takeaway for me is the quote, “It’s about God giving to his redeemed people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.”

So much has already been said from all quarters regarding Pneumatology. And many times, the focus has been misplaced, such as upon phenomena or an individual’s gifts. But whether the flame and wind of the Spirit come as a firestorm and hurricane or as a steady flicker and gentle breeze, it’s the same untamable Spirit working in and through God’s people to heal humanity and creation. It’s about God and his lavish Gift by which we, his redeemed people, carry out his purposes in the world he loves.

That’s the purpose of Pentecost.


“Sometimes a name, belonging to one particular person, becomes so attached to a particular object or product that we forget where it originally came from. The obvious example is ‘Hoover’: in England at least we speak of ‘the Hoover’ when we mean ‘the vacuum cleaner’, happily ignoring the fact that quite a lot of vacuum cleaners are made by other companies which owe nothing to the original Mr Hoover. It is as though Henry Ford had been so successful in car production that people said ‘the Ford’ when they meant ‘the car’, even if in fact it was a Volvo.

Something similar has happened with the word ‘Pentecost’. If ‘Pentecost’ means anything at all to most people today, it is probably something to do with ‘Pentecostalism’. And that — again, if it means anything to people at all — probably signifies a somewhat wild form of Christian religious experience and practice, outside the main stream of church life, involving a lot of noise and waving of arms, and (of course) speaking in tongues. We often forget that all Christians, not only those who call themselves ‘Pentecostalists’, derive their meaning from the first Pentecost. We often forget, too, perhaps equally importantly, just what ‘Pentecost’ itself originally was and meant.

For a first-century Jew, Pentecost was the fiftieth day after Passover. It was an agricultural festival. It was the day when farmers brought the first sheaf of wheat from the crop, and offered it to God, partly as a sign of gratitude and partly as a prayer that all the rest of the crop, too, would be safely gathered in. But, for the Jew, neither Passover nor Pentecost were simply agricultural festivals. These festivals awakened echoes of the great story which dominated the long memories of the Jewish people, the story of the Exodus from Egypt, when God fulfilled his promises to Abraham by rescuing his people. Passover was the time when the lambs were sacrificed, and the Israelites were saved from the avenging angel who slew the firstborn of the Egyptians. Off went the Israelites that very night, and passed through the Red Sea into the Sinai desert. Then, 50 days after Passover, they came to Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law. Pentecost, the fiftieth day, isn’t (in other words) just about the ‘first fruits’, the sheaf which says the harvest has begun. It’s about God giving to his redeemed people the way of life by which they must now carry out his purposes.

All of that, and more besides, keeps peeping out from behind what the New Testament says about the spirit, and about Pentecost in particular. For Luke there is a kind of easy assumption that people would know about the first fruits. He can more or less take it for granted that readers will see this story, of the apostles being filled with the spirit and then going on to bear powerful witness to Jesus and his resurrection and to win converts from the very first day, as a sign that this is like the sheaf which is offered to God as the sign of the great harvest to come. And, when we look closely at the way some Jews told the story of the giving of the law on Mount Sinai, we can see some parallels there, too. When the Israelites arrived at Mount Sinai, Moses went up the mountain, and then came down again with the law. Here, Jesus has gone up into heaven in the ascension, and — so Luke wants us to understand — he is now coming down again, not with a written law carved on tablets of stone, but with the dynamic energy of the law, designed to be written on human hearts.

‘Pentecost’, then, is a word with very particular meaning, which Luke is keen that we should grasp. But of course the first day of Pentecost, and the experience of God’s spirit from that day to this, can no more be reduced to theological formulae and interesting Old Testament echoes than you can reduce a hurricane to a list of diagrams on a meteorologist’s chart. It’s important that someone somewhere is tracking the hurricane and telling us what it’s doing, but when it comes to Pentecost it’s far more important that you’re out there in the wind, letting it sweep through your life, your heart, your imagination, your powers of speech, and transform you from a listless or lifeless believer into someone whose heart is on fire with the love of God. Those images of wind and fire are of course what Luke says it was like on the first day. Many Christians in many traditions have used similar images to describe what it is sometimes like when the spirit comes to do new things in the lives of individuals and communities.

It is most significant, in the light of what we said before about the ascension, that the wind came ‘from heaven’ (verse 2). The whole point is that, through the spirit, some of the creative power of God himself comes from heaven to earth and does its work there. The aim is not to give people a ‘spirituality’ which will make the things of earth irrelevant. The point is to transform earth with the power of heaven, starting with those parts of ‘earth’ which consist of the bodies, minds, hearts and lives of the followers of Jesus — as a community: notice that, in verse 1, Luke stresses the fact that they were all together in one place; the spirit comes, not to divide, but to unite. The coming of the spirit at Pentecost, in other words, is the complementary fact to the ascension of Jesus into heaven. The risen Jesus in heaven is the presence, in God’s sphere, of the first part of ‘earth’ to be transformed into ‘new creation’ in which heaven and earth are joined; the pouring out of the spirit on earth is the presence, in our sphere, of the sheer energy of heaven itself. The gift of the spirit is thus the direct result of the ascension of Jesus. Because he is the Lord of all, his energy, the power to be and do something quite new, is available through the spirit to all who call on him, all who follow him, all who trust him.

The wind and the fire are wild, untameable forces, and the experience of the wind rushing through the house with a great roar, and the fire coming to rest on each person present, must have been both terrifying and exhilarating. Of course, there are many times later in this book, as there are many times in the life of the church, when the spirit works softly and secretly, quietly transforming people’s lives and situations without any big noise or fuss. People sometimes suppose that this is the norm, and that the noise, the force and the fire are the exception — just as some have supposed, within ‘Pentecostal’ and similar circles, that without the noise and the fire, and particularly the speaking in tongues, something is seriously lacking or deficient. We should beware of drawing either conclusion. Luke clearly intends to describe something new, something that launched a great movement, as a fleet of ships is launched by the strong wind that drives them out to sea or a forest fire is started by a few small flames. He intends to explain how it was that a small group of frightened, puzzled and largely uneducated men and women could so quickly become, as they undoubtedly did, a force to be reckoned with right across the known world.

In particular, Luke highlights this strange phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues’. This has been a prominent feature of some parts of church life in the last century or so, though for many previous generations and in many parts of church history it has been virtually unknown. It occurs, it seems, in other religions, as Paul was aware (1 Corinthians 12.2–3). Some people try to sweep ‘tongues’ aside as if it was a peculiar thing which happened early on and which, fortunately, doesn’t need to happen any more. Sometimes this is combined with a sense of the need to control the emotions, both one’s own and other people’s. But ‘speaking in tongues’ and similar phenomena are, very often, a way of getting in touch with deeply buried emotions and bringing them to the surface in praise, celebration, grief or sorrow, or urgent desire turned into prayer. It is hard, seeing the importance of ‘tongues’ in the New Testament, and their manifest usefulness in these and other ways, to go along with the idea that they should be ruled out for today’s church.

In particular, it is precisely part of being a genuine human being, made and renewed in God’s image, that people should do that most characteristic thing, using words and language, in quite a new way. We are called to be people of God’s word, and God’s word can never be controlled by rationalistic schemes, or contained within the tight little frameworks that we invent to keep everything tidy and under control.

People sometimes feel guilty if they think they haven’t had such wonderful experiences as the apostles had on the first Pentecost. Or they feel jealous of those who seem to have had things like this happen to them. About this there are two things to say. First, as we saw in the first chapter, God moves mysteriously among his people, dealing with each individual in a different way. Some people are allowed remarkable experiences, perhaps (we can’t always tell) because they are going to have to go into difficult situations and need to know very directly just how dramatically powerful and life-transforming God can be. Other people have to work in quiet and patient ways and not rely on a sudden burst of extra power to fix all the problems which in fact need a much more steady, and perhaps much deeper, work. There is no room for pride or jealousy in a well-ordered fellowship, where everybody is as delighted with the gifts given to others as with those given to themselves.

Second, it is clear from words of Jesus himself (Luke 11.13) that God longs to give the holy spirit to people, and that all we have to do is ask. What the spirit will do when he comes is anybody’s guess. Be prepared for wind and fire, for some fairly drastic spring-cleaning of the dusty and cold rooms of one’s life. But we should not doubt that God will give his spirit to all who seek him, and that the form and direction that any particular spirit-led life will take will be (ultimately, and assuming obedience and faith) the one that will enable that person, uniquely, to bring glory to God.”

NT Wright, Acts For Everyone

Not of This World

“My kingdom is not of this world.”  -Jesus of Nazareth

During this Nativity Fast, I was reminded of a quote made by N.T. Wright that goes something like “Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, but it is for this world.” What a wonderful summary of the Incarnation! Jesus’ kingdom doesn’t originate from nor is fueled by the same energies and economies of this world’s kingdoms.

And yet, his otherly-world kingdom is God’s remedy for the transformation and healing of this world. It spills over from God’s heavenly dimension into this broken earthly dimension. And it reconciles the great divorce between these two dimensions of God’s creation. It goes about stitching, as it were, the two layers of creation back together again until one day Jesus’ and the Church’s prayer will be ultimately realized in God’s New Creation when his kingdom will truly come on earth as it is in heaven.

My hope is that the two layers are being stitched together in my own life so I’m able to participate in God’s larger project in the world as well as become a person who will live naturally in his new world.

Life Change #2

I’d like to share another change our family is experiencing. Debbie and I haven’t shared it with too many people, partly because we are in the very beginning stages and partly because of the potential misunderstanding our new journey may create. But it’s an important part of our lives right now and will become increasingly significant after we move into 2008.


Debbie and I are exploring the reality of our family joining Eastern Orthodoxy. Our journey together has brought us through Protestant evangelicalism longing for something deeper, richer and more significant.


But I’m jumping ahead of myself.


Several years ago, as a professional pastor, I experienced severe burnout. I emerged from that experience questioning both my practices as a pastor and a Christian. I was doing everything I had counseled others to do in order to be strong and mature Christians — church attendance, small group attendance, tithing, participation in ministry, evangelism, prayer, practicing spiritual gifts, regular Bible study, daily quiet times, worship, etc. And yet, while doing all of these activities, inwardly I was angry, stressed, jealous, competitive, greedy, lustful, afraid, insecure, and manipulative. Even though I loved God and truly desired to follow him, everything I was practicing was having virtually no effect upon my inward life.


My burnout became the catalyst for my journey into spiritual formation. I soon discovered the practices of spiritual disciplines and community that were beginning to reshape and renew my inward life.


But this journey quickly led me to realize that even deeper than my false practices lay my false theology and worldview from which those practices were nurtured and strengthened. And this theology and worldview was deeply ingrained within the entire structure of popular Protestant evangelicalism. It’s popular music, books, teaching, radio programs, and even local church infrastructures perpetuated theology, practices and ultimately a life that claimed to be biblical, but was far removed from anything Jesus and his early followers envisioned.


In my search for a theology that would sustain a life of spiritual formation, found myself drawn to theologians and church leaders such as N.T. Wright, Alexander Schmemman, Bishop Kallistos Ware, Father Thomas Hopko and others. Soon I found myself mentally embracing a fuller theology and faith that was significantly different from my Protestant roots. It seems that every facet of my theology underwent tectonic shifts. And all of this while pastoring a Protestant church.


The last four and half years away from professional ministry, while difficult in regards to understanding my calling as a pastor, have been wonderfully liberating in my personal exploration in theology and practice. The emerging church has provided an extended conversation that fueled my theological shifts. I love the faith-community in which God has placed my family. I love the new avenues of influence God has opened through my blog, writing and work at Asian Access. I have loved walking with two Fuller Theological Seminary students as they worked on their field education projects.


Yet, in all of this, there has been something missing. And it was especially noticeable when our family attended a local church on Sunday mornings. Debbie and I decided a couple of years ago to attend a local Vineyard Church that was pastored by my friend. This would allow our kids to participate in a youth program and allow Debbie and me to join in larger corporate worship, both missing within our small home church.


I discovered that the more I was away from professional pastoring, the more difficult it was to attend a local church. Don’t misunderstand me. My friend is an excellent pastor. He is perhaps one of the healthiest pastors I have ever met. I wish he had been in my professional life earlier on as a mentor. I probably would have avoided a lot of pitfalls.


Despite his excellent pastoring, I would leave Sunday morning worship meetings miserable and depressed. It is very difficult to explain what I was experiencing. At first, I thought Sunday mornings simply reminded me of everything I had lost when I left my last pastorate. But it was something else.


The worship, sermons, and fellowship at the local church were superb at one level. But everything was… how do I put it?… unreal. I kept seeing a structure with programs and budgets and people all perpetuating something that wasn’t real. It wasn’t real to Jesus’ vision. It wasn’t real to the Bible. It wasn’t real to the early church and to those who lived, labored and died for the doctrines and practices we now take for granted. It wasn’t real to any authentic spirituality. And it wasn’t real to life. It was like entering some weird fantasyland reality that didn’t make sense anymore.


Again, please don’t misunderstand me. It wasn’t a problem with my friend’s church. In fact, of all of the evangelical churches I have visited lately, his was the most comfortable and healthiest.


As I met with my pastor-friend for coffee over the last year or so, he would tell me repeatedly that because of who I have become theologically, it would be very difficult for me to find a church that I would fit. The truth of his statement hit me one day as I was emailing Mark. I suddenly realized that I embrace and believe more core Eastern Orthodox theology than I do Protestant evangelical theology. And although I disagree with some Eastern Orthodox theology, they are more peripheral areas. On the other hand, I disagree with most core Protestant theology. (I’ll need to unpack that in a future post.)


I was leaving Sunday worship meetings depressed because I was so out of sync with everything there — the music, the teaching, the subculture, the worldview — that it was a constant reminder of how much I don’t fit anymore.


Lately, I’ve been listening to a lot of Eastern Orthodox podcasts from Ancient Faith Radio. As I listen to their discussions of faith, practice, theology and sacramental worldview, I’m discovering that I’ve believed this stuff a looooooong time already. In fact, I told Mark that I think theologically, I’ve been Orthodox for quite a while and it’s just taking time for the rest of me to catch up.


So our family is beginning a slow and cautious journey into Eastern Orthodoxy. We have visited a friend’s church for Vespers several times. It is so foreign and strange. After spending my entire adult life both academically and professionally pursuing ministry in a Protestant context, it is weird being a “beginner” all over again. But there is such promise in Eastern Orthodoxy for both me and my family. The thought of being part of a faith-community whose entire reason for being is to become like Jesus and to live and practice toward that goal together within a rich and deeply historical system excites me.


But I’m very anxious as well. In many ways, I feel there is no where to go from here if Orthodoxy isn’t for us. I cannot go back into evangelicalism. And because Roman Catholicism is inherently a western worldview like Protestantism, moving there seems to be only a lateral move.


So as our family explores Eastern Orthodoxy, I will be posting our experiences and reflections.

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Working Out My Salvation

In Philippians 2:12-13, Paul exhorts the Philippian Christians to keep on working out their salvation with fear in trembling. By doing so, they will joyfully discover that through their efforts, God is working in them for his good purpose.

Then in Philippians 2:15, Paul promises that a very specific and practical application of working out their salvation will result in them becoming “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation, in which you shine like stars in the universe.”

Wow! What spiritual activity can transform a human being into such a person? Hours of prayer? Intense fasting? Reading massive quantities of Scripture? Surely it must be something that only the elite percentile of Christians can actually do?

Well… the answer is in verse 14:

“Do everything without complaining and arguing.”

That’s it? Learn to be content and agreeable and I’ll become a faultless and pure child of God? Yup.

But remember that Paul is speaking more of just holding one’s tongue (although that’s probably a good start). He’s talking about becoming a person in which complaining and arguing are like a foreign language because we have become so fluent in God’s faithfulness and love.

In other words, why complain about the driver in front of me, or about my finances, or about my spouse, or about my work situation, or about… well about anything when God’s sovereignty covers all? Simply, I complain because I’m not getting my way.

Also, why argue with my kids, my spouse, my boss, my friends, or with… well with anyone when God’s sovereignty covers all? Simply, I argue because I’m not getting my way.

Do you notice a common theme? Complaining and arguing flow from an inflated self-will. When my position as the center of the universe is threatened because others don’t do things my way, believe what I believe, take my advice, or live as I would live, then I am compelled to complain and argue with them. I mean, come on, you would think people would have learned my will for their lives with all the WWJD paraphernalia around (What would Jason do?).

Now having said all of that, here’s an Eastern Orthodox prayer that I’m beginning to use daily to help me become a person that isn’t inclined to complain and argue by becoming a person re-envisioned with God’s full sovereignty and caring love.

“O Lord, grant me to greet the coming day in peace, help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealings with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering or embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray. And, You Yourself, pray in me. Amen.”

St. Philaret of Moscow

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Worthy of Enjoying

A phrase in this morning’s prayer caught my attention:“And we will be made worthy of enjoying Your unapproachable light.”In 1John 1:5, the Apostle tells us that “God is light; in him there is no darkness at all.” However, I’ve never thought about the idea of actually “enjoying” God’s light, of joyfully anticipating dwelling eternally in his brilliance and glory. Yet, it’s in God’s light that we truly see and live in reality. Psalm 36:9 states, “In your light we see light.”Yet, the prayer also links another concept with enjoy God’s light. We need to be made worthy of enjoying God’s light. My first reaction was “Huh?” Why do I need to be made worthy of enjoying his brilliance? The fact is, I’m not worthy. My sins, selfishness, evil desires, and delusions prevent me from enjoying his light.My modern context gets in the way of understanding why this is so important. In pre-modern biblical times, light only came from fire. The two were inseparable. So the brighter the light, the hotter the fire. I imagine that when the biblical writers spoke of God’s light, it was intimately linked to the idea of God being an all-consuming fire. In other words, in order to enjoy the brilliance of his light, I also need to be made worthy to enjoy the “heat” of his holiness and glory.God’s fire needs to burn me as a living sacrifice. It needs to burn away everything that stands against his will and dreams. When it’s all slowly burned away by his presence, I’m being made worthy of enjoying his unapproachable light that comes with his fire.

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Baptizing My Kids

By re-enacting the climax of Jesus’ Story, you are saying that you are joining him on a journey of renewal that began with his death and resurrection, will change who you are from the inside-out, and will one day cover the earth with God’s glory. You are saying that you want to become like Jesus, that you’re joining the worldwide family he created, and that you are joining his mission to renew his world.

I had mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I was going to have the awesome privilege of baptizing my kids. On Sunday, October 28th, I helped my kids express their intention to faithfully follow Christ through water baptism. Our family was really blessed because both my parents and Deb’s parents and Mark & Barb came.

Needless to say, it was a pretty emotional moment.

All week, Chris had been telling me that he was nervous. I kept reassuring him, telling him that there was nothing to be nervous about. But as I stood there in the doorway to the baptismal, I suddenly got nervous. This wasn’t just a “dunking.” My kids were stepping into a reality that would forever shape their lives.

Earlier that morning, as I worshipped with the congregation, I felt the Lord remind me that my children are his. There would be moments in their lives when I would not be able to be there for them. I wouldn’t be able to instruct, teach, comfort, care or even hold them. There will be moments when I would be completely absent. As a dad, this breaks my heart. The thought of each of my children facing this broken world alone agonizes me.

But then I felt him whisper, “I will be there.”

And with those words comes a rush of relief. They need to trust him. They need to follow him. And even at their young ages, they are saying they will. And regardless of the pain and hurt they may experience in their lives, they are forever safe in his care.

And as they learn to trust and follow Jesus, I also need to trust Jesus with my children. I need to remember that he can care better for them than I can. And I need to follow Jesus alongside my children, not just showing them how to follow him, but being sojourners with them.

Below is a little “thing” I wrote for them, kind of like wedding vows. We talked about it beforehand so they knew what it meant:

“Today is a special day. It’s like a wedding ceremony. You are publicly declaring your love and loyalty to Jesus. And you’re showing your love and loyalty by re-enacting Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was at that moment that Jesus climaxed his Father’s plan to renew the world and people he created.

By re-enacting the climax of Jesus’ Story, you are saying that you are joining him on a journey of renewal that began with his death and resurrection, will change who you are from the inside-out, and will one day cover the earth with God’s glory.

You are saying that you want to become like Jesus, that you’re joining the worldwide family he created, and that you are joining his mission to renew his world.

So this morning, I’m going to ask you a few questions and if this is what you want, I want you to say, “I will.”

•Will you love Jesus with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength?

•Will you learn from Jesus how to become more and more like him?

•Will you join Jesus’ family, loving, praying and serving others who also love Jesus?

•Will you participate with Jesus as he works to renew God’s creation in love, peace and beauty?

Then in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, I immerse you into Jesus’ life. Who Jesus is, you will become by grace for God’s glory and for the sake of the world.”


Next week, the Live Oak Vineyard is having a baptism service…. I’ve been waiting for this moment and I’m thrilled that I not only get to experience it, but that they want me to baptize them.

Next week, the Live Oak Vineyard is having a baptism service. And all four of my kids want to be baptized! And I get to baptize them! I am so stoked. I’ve been waiting for this moment and I’m thrilled that I not only get to experience it, but that they want me to baptize them. And Pastors Steve and Floyd will let me do the honors.