Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Advent and Christmas resources

My friends from the Evangelical Center for Spiritual Wisdom have compiled a great list of spiritual resources to help you enter in more fully to the Advent and Christmas season.  Check out some of these great ideas:

For Advent


Silence and Other Surprising Invitations of Advent
by Enuma Okoro (Upper Room, 2012)

God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas 
 Anthology of prayers, readings and meditations by authors Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Peterson and Luci Shaw. (Paraclete Press, 2007) 

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas 
Anthology of sermons by George Whitefield, Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, R. Kent Hughes, Alistair Begg, John Piper, J.I. Packer and others. (Crossway, 2008) anthology 22 authors

Preparing for Jesus: Meditations on the Coming of Christ, Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom
by Walter Wangerin, Jr. (Zondervan, 1999)

Online Resources:

Advent Music:

Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus
O Come, O Come Emanuel
O Come, Divine Messiah
Breath of Heaven

For Christmas

We already have many practices and traditions we engage in for Christmas. Here are a few that might be new to consider:

  • Practice intentionally thoughtful giving – consider the impact of your gifts from all sides, both on the recipient and the makers and sellers of the gift.  
  • Practice simplicity. Intentionally plan to do less instead of more. Carve out intentional time for silence, solitude and rest.
  • Remember those who are away from family on Christmas—soldiers, relief workers, missionaries, etc.—by writing to them or sending them a care package.
  • After Christmas Day, spend some time reflecting with God on the gifts you were given and how you received them. What do your reactions tell you about the condition of your heart? 
  • Celebrate Boxing Day, December 26, by giving a gift to those who provide you with a service, and giving to the poor and those in need.
  • Epiphany, January 6, marks the end of the Christmas season and celebrates the coming of the Magi. Spend some time reflecting on how your heart wants to respond in love, like the Magi, to the great gift of Christ.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Why Self-awareness is important for spiritual growth

A friend of mine recently wrote a blog post in response to an article written by a pastor on the absolute necessity of self-forgetfulness for spiritual growth.  While I found myself agreeing with some of what this pastor wrote, I believe he overstated his case.  For example, he writes:

"There is nothing in the gospel or about the gospel that encourages me to focus on me.  Nothing!"

"Any version of "the gospel", therefore, that encourages you to think about yourself is detrimental to your faith."

"Sanctification is forgetting about yourself."

In many ways, I would argue the complete opposite.  Let me explain with an illustration and a conversation:

An Illustration:

The summer after my senior year of high school, I found myself on a trip to Europe with a bunch of high school students.  Our tour bus brought us to Pisa, Italy to join hordes of tourists gawking at the famed leaning tower. To my surprise, the tower was considered sturdy enough at the time for us to climb the spiral staircase that traced the inside wall of the tilting cylinder. 

It was an ascent like no other.  Each step felt strange.  As I climbed the stairs, the tilt of the tower produced a disorienting effect.  Even though I knew I was ascending to the top of the tower, at times, I felt like I was actually descending.  It felt like I was going the wrong way, even though every step I took was one step closer to the top.

In many ways, our own journey as Christ-followers parallels my experience climbing The Leaning Tower of Pisa.  When we take our first steps as new Christians, we begin to grow.  Old habits fall away.  New appetites develop.  We find ourselves hungry to read the Bible and connect with God in prayer.  We often experience uncanny answers to prayer and learn to recognize the Spirit’s voice. 

But over the years, as our relationship with God deepens, the journey often takes an unexpected turn.  Things start bubbling up from our souls that we didn’t know were there or perhaps more accurately, did not want to admit were there.  We find ourselves descending into parts of ourselves that we would rather avoid—dark, untamed parts of ourselves that were previously unknown, ignored, or supressed.  It often feels like we are going the wrong way.  Instead of inviting us to forget more and more of ourselves, the Spirit at times invites us to greater self-awareness.

This invitation can be seen in the Apostle Peter’s journey.  When Jesus told Peter that he would deny Him three times, Peter refused to believe it and said, “I will never disown you” (Matthew 26:35).  By his response, Peter essentially called Jesus a liar.  The Son of God invited Peter to descend into parts of himself that he did not want to acknowledge.  Peter doubted Jesus more than he doubted himself.  Peter's refusal of Jesus' invitation to greater self-awareness let to failure.

A Conversation:

A few years ago, while interviewing for a church ministry position, my interviewer posed an interesting question to me.  She said, “You’ve been serving with Campus Crusade for Christ for over 18 years.  If you could go back in time and talk with that 22 year old college graduate just starting out in ministry, what would you tell him?” 

“Great question,” I thought to myself.  I paused for a moment and said, “I would tell him this:  the things that you refuse to see in yourself will have great power over you.  You must pursue knowledge of yourself as much as you pursue knowledge of God.”

In my own experience, my refusal to see some of the darker parts of myself was a great hindrance to my growth in Christ-likeness.  It felt so counter-intutive to trust the leading of the Spirit during those times.  But when I did, I found that he’s took me to a place in my soul where he was waiting to meet me.  A place of mercy, grace, and freedom from the things still lurking in my heart that I didn't want to admit were there.

Yes, excessive self-contemplation can hinder spiritual growth, but let's not through out the importance of spirit-led self-awareness with the bathwater of fleshly self-absorption.  Knowledge of God is central to spiritual growth, but so is knowledge of self.  

The importance of this "double knowledge" of self and God has a long history in Christian spirituality.  For example, John Calvin famously opened his "Institutes of Christian Religion" with this statement:

"There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God."

The journey upwards towards Christ-likeness also means a journey downward into those parts of our self that hinder our devotion to the Master; a journey towards an encounter with things that must be acknowledged and faced in order to be defeated. 

What about you?  Do you tend towards knowledge of God at the exclusion of knowledge of self or vice versa?  Has self-awareness been important in your own growth as a Christ-follower?  Does self-forgetfulness have a place?   

Saturday, January 28, 2012

How I Found a Date Worth Keeping

Have you ever found yourself stuck in an unsatisfying pattern of life with no clue how to change it?
My dating life wasn’t working and I didn’t know how to fix it.  I was still single in my 30s, approaching 40, and wondering why I couldn’t find someone who wanted to be in a relationship with me.  The women I was attracted to and interested in dating weren’t interested in me and vice versa.  I was successful in other areas of my life.  Why was I so unsuccessful in relationships?  What did I need to do to change?

Significant changes came to my dating life when I read best selling author and psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, “How to Get a Date Worth Keeping.”  The book is based on his work as a dating coach to his assistant Lillie Cashion.  Dr. Cloud offered to serve as Lillie's dating coach and then equipped her to tackle her dating life in fresh and challenging ways.

The book offers three strategies to revamp your approaching to dating and guarantees you’ll be dating in six months.

Here are the strategies and how I applied them:

1.  Get a team – I needed to surround myself with people who would support me in my efforts to change my approach to dating.  People who would cheer me on in my efforts and hold my feet to the fire if I got in any unhealthy relationships.
My primary team member was my counselor Michael.  At the time I began implementing Cloud’s strategy, I was in seminary. My particular degree program required me to receive six months of counseling.  I found it so helpful that I spent 18 months meeting weekly with my psychologist Michael, who also served as my dating coach.  He provided a safe place for me to go with any anxiety, questions, or issues that surfaced as I revamped my approach to relationships.

2.  Get out there – I stepped up my dating game significantly and became much more assertive in my efforts to meet women.  I joined and looked for opportunities to meet women in my church.  At one point, I went out on coffee dates with eight different women in a two week period.  A well-meaning friend questioned my efforts and suggested that word was getting out that I was “playing the field.”  Honestly, I didn’t care.  I knew what I was doing.  I had no interest in being physically or emotionally promiscuous.  I was simply trying to meet more women to figure out what I was looking for in dating relationship and eventual marriage partner.  I knew I was heading in the right direction.  If people had nothing better to do in their free time than discuss my dating life, so be it.

3.  Get Healthy – Meeting with my counselor Michael was enormously important.  Stepping up my dating game caused some buried internal issues to rise to the surface, which is exactly what Cloud’s approach to dating is designed to do…it forces you to confront your issues so you can resolve them and move on.

You don’t need a paid professional to address the personal issues in your life that might be hindering your dating life (although in my case, it was worth the investment).  A good friend who shoots straight with you can also be of great help.  Michael helped me wrestle with the things in my internal world that were getting in the way of meeting potential marriage partners.  In particular, he opened my eyes to the ways my addiction to approval and my tendency to people please had the potential to derail me from meeting and pursuing a great woman.

Within eight months of reading the book and applying what I was learning, I met my wife Tracy.  Needless to say, I highly recommend Cloud’s book! 

This past weekend, I invited Dr. Cloud's former assistant Lillie, the subject of the book, to speak to single adults at my church about what she learned through her experience of having a dating coach and how she met her husband Audie.  She now serves as a relationship coach and executive coach.  You can listen to her talk by clicking here.

Me, my wife Tracy, Lillie and Audie Cashion
Were you ever stuck in an important area of your life?  What changes did you make to overcome it?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Spiritual Formation and Control

“Our constant struggle with the issue of control is a crucial part of our spiritual pilgrimage. I don’t mind spiritual formation at all as long as I can be in control of it. As long as I can set the limits on its pace and its direction, I have no problem. What I do have a problem with is getting my control structures out of the way of my spiritual formation and letting God take control. In the final analysis, there is nothing we can do to transform ourselves into persons who love and serve as Jesus did except make ourselves available for God to do that work of transforming grace in our lives.” (M. Robert Mulholland. "Invitation to a Journey". Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993, p. 26.)

How does this quote hit you?  When I read it on my former spiritual director’s blog, it led me to step back for a moment to examine my life.  At times, I’ve been tempted to think of spiritual growth as a process I’m in charge of, sort of like going to the gym.  My effort alone produces the results. 

It reminds me of a quote from Dallas Willard that one of my seminary professors was fond of repeating, "The Christian life is what you do when you realize you can do nothing."  More significantly, it reminds me of what Jesus said, "I am the vine, you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5).

If there is nothing we can do to grow ourselves spiritually except make ourselve available for God to do the work of transforming us, then what does it look like to make ourselves available to his transforming work vs. trying to grow ourselves in our own power?  Thoughts?

Monday, January 2, 2012

Life Planning

"If we would only give the same amount of reflection to what we want out of life that we give to the question of what to do with two weeks' vacation, we would be startled at our false standards and the aimless procession of our busy days."
-Dorothy Canfield Fisher

"Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom" (Psalm 90:12)

As we finished out 2011 and entered the new year, my wife and I took a day last week to do some life planning.  How easy it is to get caught up in the business of life with small children and not stop to give thought to our lives as a whole.  If I am not careful, I end up feeling like I am being "lived" instead of I'm following a script that someone else has handed me and that I have had no role in shaping

I discovered a very helpful free ebook by Michael Hyatt called "Creating Your Personal Life Plan."  My wife and I were able to read it together in about an hour or so.  The next day, we began implementing the suggestions for mapping out our lives based on the outcomes we hope for and our priorities.  The only "cost" to get the ebook is to subscribe to Hyatt's free email newsletter...meaning that you will receive an email version of his highly popular blog.  His blog is the only one I subscribe to via email and honestly, the content is so good, it's worth having it pop up in your inbox.  (he writes primarily on leadership, productivity, publishing, and social media).Creating a Life Plan Cover

Life comes rushing at all of us and we have no way of knowing what will befall each of us in the years ahead.  But that doesn't mean that we cannot give thought to what we will prioritize and how we will prepare to face the joys and challenges that await us in the future.

Have you done an life planning exercise similar to the one my wife and I are using?  What is the most helpful thing you have done to steward your life well?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

What will ground you in 2012?

(a blog repost from earlier this year)

In their book, The Sacred Romance, John Eldredge and Brent Curtis noted that our culture produces a "thinning" effect on our souls, causing us to become "light", airy, and vulnerable to whatever blows in from the winds of our post-modern culture. They called this "ontological lightness, the reality that when I stop "doing" and simply listen to my heart, I am not anchored to anything substantive. I become aware that my very identity is synonymous with activity."

I a recent newsletter, Eldredge reflected on how, in the 10+ years since the publication of The Sacred Romance, this condition has only gotten worse. The piercing and tattooing movement, the "simplicity" movement, the increased obsession with celebrities, and the popularity of "reality" television all point to a deep need for substance, grounded-ness, and a deeper sense of self.

And with social media like facebook (and blogs….gulp), one writer noted that "we can digitally represent ourselves without having to be ourselves."

It all seems so hollow. Yet I am as susceptible to this as the next person.

In the book of Acts, chapter 17 verse 28, the Apostle Paul, in presenting the news of Jesus to a curious crowd of skeptics and seekers in Athens, notes that "in him we live and move and have our being." Any other place we look for groundedness comes up short.

How will you stay grounded in 2012?  If you are a Christ-follower, what will you do to remind yourself that you are one in whom Christ dwells?  What will you do to keep your identity rooted in Him?  How will you resist the pull to anchor your identity in someone or something else?