who sets the agenda of our lives?

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

There are many things we could be doing today, probably many we could well say that we should be doing. There is no shortage of the imposed demands and oughts of life, indeed largely a part of our lifestyle as Americans, more or less shared in many other places of relative affluence.

In the story above, the two sisters are often compared: one doing well, and the other not so well. And there is truth in that. But if one backs up and looks at the bigger picture, one finds that the Martha who didn’t do so well, ends up with a faith as strong, one might think even stronger than her sister Mary, in the end. Although only the Lord can sort such things out. Our personalities, gifts from God, and circumstances, and precisely what the Lord is doing in our lives at a specific time, all factor in. So we must beware of thinking we know. For Martha’s faith during the time of their brother Lazarus’s death in a remarkable account, see John 11.

Don’t underestimate the place of rest and quiet, and seeking to listen to the Lord. Busyness and activity seem to be the default of our day, especially work related, things that need to get done. Fun shouldn’t be overlooked, either. But we need to be careful, lest we substitute what God might want to do, and maybe wants us to do (or not do), with our own agendas.

In all of this, we can look for and trust in God’s help in directing us. Especially through the pages of scripture, through the church, and over time in changing us from certain tendencies, to something better. All of this, in and through Jesus.

Sharon Garlough Brown on paying attention to the Spirit of God, and the change that comes

“The spiritual life is all about paying attention,” said Katherine. “The Spirit of God is always speaking to us, but we need to slow down, stop, and give more than lip service to what God is saying. We need to get off autopilot and take time to look and listen with the eyes and ears of the heart.”

Katherine paused, letting the room fill again with pregnant silence.

“Now I’ll caution you right from the beginning,” she said slowly. “Walking the path toward freedom and deep transformation takes courage. It’s not easy. It’s not linear. It can seem messy and chaotic at times, and you’re likely to lose your sense of equilibrium as old things die and new things are born. You may feel disoriented as idols you once trusted and relied upon are revealed and removed. But don’t be afraid of the mess. The Holy Spirit is a faithful guide, gently shepherding and empowering us as we travel more deeply into the heart of God.”

Sharon Garlough Brown, Sensible Shoes: A Story about the Spiritual Journey, 51.

I made what is italicized by the author bold, since my current blog format automatically italicizes all quotes.

naming one’s sin

Scripture doesn’t hide sin, in fact it is replete with sin, sometimes to the point that it is hard to read (or listen to). Sin is defined here as that which is contrary to God in attitude or act, such as an anger which can give rise to murder, or at least murderous thoughts. The saints are not excluded: David, if I may include him, notable. And the New Testament does not shy away from this problem, either.

There is something to be said for naming one’s sins at the proper time, place, and to the proper person. There is something of wisdom and insight in what in some church traditions is called the confessional, in which one names their sin to a priest. The priest in the name of Christ, then pronounces absolution, meaning forgiveness of their sin, in and through Christ. Of course there is only one mediator between God and humanity, even if God’s people are a kingdom of priests, as well. All forgiveness is in and through Christ.

In evangelical circles, I’m afraid that people are largely left on their own. Not so in terms of preaching the word, though that can be spotty, as in hit or miss. People need pastoral care and spiritual direction. We are so removed from that, that we probably often don’t see the need for it. We think we can get along quite well with life on our own, and we can deal with our sin. After all, everyone sins, we are no exception, we go to church and hear the word preached, the gospel proclaimed and taught. What else do we need?

Of course we need what we find in scripture. Our spirituality is to be rooted in Christ and found in the church. And that finding is in terms of the gospel and within the life and practice of the church. An important aspect of that spirituality is the ongoing need of confession. And pastoral care along with spiritual direction, which helps us, as those righteous in Christ who also sin, to receive forgiveness of sin. Call that righteous and sinful at the same time, or not; let’s not quibble about that, I think. And by the Spirit to grow so as to overcome that sin.* I’m not referring to sinless perfection, but toward maturity in Christ. Too many of us for too long have been on our own. And the result is not pretty, sometimes actually catastrophic.

Yes, we need to personally appropriate the truth of God’s word and the gospel. But that should be from the church. We are not on our own, we are members of one body in Christ. Therefore we are to get help within the church. We are to take responsibility and grow up into Christ within and as members of his body, the church. A church which fails to work out some way of helping its members deal with sin is one in which its members will fail to find the help they need. I’m afraid too many evangelical churches neither have this in their practice, or their life. It is not a part of their DNA. If people get help in these churches, it is because of a pastor bent that direction, or them taking the initiative. Churches simply are not set up, it seems, with this in mind.

The church Deb and I are members of actually is much better with regard to this, even if it could be better still. We need help beyond what we can get just between ourselves and God. Life is not meant to be lived out that way. It is lived and we grow in community. And an important aspect of that, like it or not, is naming one’s sin.

*Not excluding professional counseling at times, which can be part of God’s general revelation in common grace- of wisdom. See this post from a fallen evangelical leader.

Eugene H. Peterson on helping others to repentance

The kingdom of self is heavily defended territory. Post-Eden Adams and Eves are willing to pay their respects to God, but they don’t want him invading their turf. Most sin, far from being a mere lapse of morals or a weak will, is an energetically and expensively erected defense against God. Direct assault in an openly declared war on the god-self is extraordinarily ineffective. Hitting sin head-on is like hitting a nail with a hammer, it only drives it in deeper. There are occasional exceptions, strategically directed confrontations, but indirection is the biblically preferred method.

Eugene H. Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, 31-32.

Sharon Garlough Brown’s “Sensible Shoes”–a sacred journey

I want to give the highest commendation to Sharon Garlough Brown’s book, Sensible Shoes. First of all, we are blessed at our church to have a husband and wife pastoral team, both our pastors, and each do well in all pastoral work. Jack does a good share of the preaching, and Sharon the pastoral care, but actually they each do all the above. Sharon has what I’ve witnessed to be an unusual prayer ministry, both in leading us in prayers on Sunday morning, and in praying one and one with us after service. And she has a passion for knowing God and being known by God through what has often been called spiritual disciplines, practices that are ancient in the church, and which can help us become open to God and God’s working in our lives.

The book actually came from a group of women who have met at our church weekly for years now. And even the title is rooted in reality, as there is a real “Sensible Shoes” group. In fact though this book is fiction, it rings so true to life, that not only do the characters become as real as people we do know, but I easily identified with them, or identified them with people I have known. We see the journeys of a number of women, along with a man (or two) added.

We find a group of women whose individual stories are striking and interesting, but no more so than the stories that each one of us have. They struggle or are lost to some extent in one way or another. An array of issues as different, and interesting as each person themselves. One, Hannah, is a pastor who is buried in her work, and finds her identity in that, but is largely lost in understanding that she is loved and known just for who she is as a daughter of God through Jesus. Meg has suffered a lot from a rather mysterious (to her) troubled childhood which holds her mother in a denial which results in Meg not knowing the truth of what happened, has lost her devoted husband who died in an accident, and simply feels out of place and out of step with the world.  Charissa has her act together all the way around. She is a perfectionist to the nth degree, who does quite well in everything she puts her hand to. That includes her Christianity. Mara is the one whose classmates always chose for games, only because she was the only one remaining. In fact she remembers vividly the time she was invited to a birthday party only to be told later that she couldn’t be included–maybe next time.

Interestingly, as the story would have it, we begin to look at each of these people because they end up coming together at a spiritual retreat center for a retreat. We enter into their inside worlds, and outside. We see them as they are, and begin to enter their world in such a way, that we long to see what happens next, and what will happen over time in each of their lives. In some ways I could identify with each of them, but especially so with one I think. It is interesting to meet them all, and then see how in halting, difficult, and really true to life ways, they change over time through God’s working.

Sharon introduces her readers to a number of spiritual practices, called disciplines, some of which I’ve had the privilege to participate in the past few years such as the labyrinth, lectio divina, praying the examen, praying with imagination, confession. The explanations of these practices directly and in the story are clear, concise and thus quite helpful, and all the more so as we see them come to life as the story of these real people unfolds.

It is wonderful in the end to see how God brings these people into a renewed fellowship with him, and within that brings them all together. There is a sense of community within this new living hope, the kind that God always brings about in Jesus. A community of joy and togetherness in the way of Jesus, which means a community not existing only for itself, but for the world.

As one who has the privilege of knowing the author, that only adds to my enthusiasm for the book, but the book stands well on its own. Sharon really lives out what she shares in the book. And the women in the story, though certainly women, ended up not detracting me from being able to identify with them from my male perspective. The book is not a book for women, but for the entire Body of Christ. And the book is not mere psychological ploy. It is rather the transformation that comes through Christ by the Spirit changing lives of people with issues like we all have.

Sharon is working on the second book of what I’ve heard is to be three books in this series. I look forward to the books to come. And I think someday, I hope I live to see it, her husband our other pastor, Jack–who went to Ohio State University with Hollywood film directing in mind, before the Lord intercepted him in grace, and called him to the ministry–that someday he will direct a film which I’m sure will be first rate, telling this excellent story. In the meantime I pray this book, and more to come will be to the blessing and transformation of many lives in and through Jesus.

don’t judge

Scripture warns us, indeed Jesus did, against judging others. I think this works on at least two levels. We’re most definitely not to judge another in the sense of any final judgment which only God can render. And we’re to be wary of jumping in to correct problems in others unless we are ruthlessly doing the same first to ourselves.

Much of the time for us it’s better just not to make any judgment of others at all. Scripture does tell us that we will know people’s heart by their fruit, meaning works and life. Not in some complete, final, or in/out sense, but something of what people have in their hearts at the time. And we in Jesus not only need God to search our own hearts so we can understand whatever might be wrong in them, but we need the Spirit’s searching as well in order to try to help anyone else. But again we need to be slow to undertake any such endeavor. In fact it’s best for a time that we refuse to judge another at all, instead being sure that we ourselves have our own house in order.

I think we are best most often to refuse to judge another because it really takes time to begin to discern all the good along with what might be wrong in another. If our attention is on someone, it may be a problem we have in our own hearts, as well as possibly a problem they have. Or it may be something evident to us about them, even if we can’t put our finger on it at the time. But even if we think we can, we need to step back and slow down and pray. And be slow to think such and such about a person. We need to learn to “read” another person and maybe something of what we can see of their life with love. And we need to remember as well that love covers over a multitude of sins. We need that from others ourselves.

In the end we’re all in this together in Jesus, and together in this for all. God makes it so that we do need each other in Jesus. All mediated by Jesus, but for and through us to each other, as well as in regard to and for the benefit of the world.

what is bothering you?

Chances are if something is on our mind, or if our mind gravitates to something when there is nothing necessarily occupying it, it is either for good, or for ill. Of course there is good reason to be occupied with some things. An exam someone has to take. The sickness of a loved one. A new revelation. A new love. But oftentimes if our minds are fixed on something, this can be an indicator that something is wrong, which needs resolution. What bothers us is often on our minds. We can’t get it out. We can try to, and may be be successful in doing so for a time, but the problem remains. What are we to do?

I believe we in Jesus are to see it as possibly indicating the movement of the Spirit of God in our lives. We must beware of the notion that we can fix it ourselves. We need God’s help so that by the Spirit we may receive discernment in a way that moves us toward the heart of the issue.

Oftentimes what is bothering us is something that needs to be addressed, though maybe not by us except in our necessary ongoing prayer over it. What we need for sure is a searching of our hearts by God, so that we can understand how we may well be part of the problem. The fact of the matter is that even if someone else sins against us, we can easily sin back at them in our attitude while keeping a good front as in keeping up appearances. But when we do so, our spirits are either alienated from, or hostile to their spirit, and at least there is a sense that all is not well in the world between us and them.

My natural inclination is to try to quickly fix the problem. That can be good, because we may need to repent over something we said. But is the problem really fixed? Oftentimes it seems so for a time, but sooner or later we may find ourselves in a similar fix. Why? Because the heart of the problem has not been touched.

This is where prayer needs to come in. Do we trust God enough to reveal to us what is wrong? Are we open to his correction not for others, but for ourselves? As Jesus tells us, when we judge others we often have a plank in our eye which we need to remove, before we can remove the speck from another’s eye. Here is one of the good prayers we can pray:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.

See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.

Psalm 139:23-24

I think we need to look for God’s breakthrough, and indeed that is real. But we also need to remember that life is a process. So that it is more like receiving God’s necessary breakthroughs along the way in his help to us by the Spirit through Jesus. Because our growth is meant to be together with each other in Jesus into no less than conformity to Jesus himself.

at a loss

Sometimes in our lives we’re at a loss. We may know a lot of scripture, we may remember what God has done in the past. But as one of Michael Card’s recent songs says (“The Silence of God“), even as believers in Jesus, we can indeed be lost. We can lose our way, and be “at a loss”, not knowing what to do in regard to a particular matter.

Of course we do need to humbly proceed in the way of Jesus as we understand that. But that may involve simple prayer and waiting. And not proceeding. Until the way is made clear as to what we should do. Always seeking to cast all our cares on the Lord, knowing he cares for all of us.

In the meantime we do well to share our burden with a trusted friend, often with our pastor or spiritual director. So that they can pray with us. Sometimes they can see what we can’t, or God will give them insight into our situation.

I’m rather at that place right now. I don’t like being there. But surely part of the value of it is to learn to be more attentive to the Spirit’s moving, and less acclimated to taking matters into my own hands, or depending on my own understanding. Learning to trust God in the storms life brings our way. Part of the change God is working.

up in the air

I love to write, and of course like most aspiring writers I love to read. Doing a blog comes easy to me, though it still requires discipline. But it’s a discipline that is a regular part of my life. Therefore I probably won’t yield to the ongoing, off and on temptation to quit blogging.

I hope to be able to contribute somehow in the realm of more scholarly studies, and I have begun to take up the art and practice of spiritual directing,  seeing a spiritual director, to be more precise. I want to attend some spiritual retreats. And I do want to work on poetry, pushed that way by blogging friends, particularly one of them.

At heart I see myself as a pastor. Though my blog really comes from one who is trying to learn and walk better in the way of Jesus.

At this point I rather feel up in the air, not sure what my next moves may be.

taking off the edge

17 As iron sharpens iron,
so one person sharpens another. 

Proverbs 27

We value those who keep us on our toes so that we improve as people. Maybe in our work, and certainly in life, both would reflect what this proverb is getting at. As our Pastor Sharon said recently at her book launch at Bakers, it is indeed a blessing when friends in Jesus willingly open themselves up to feedback from another friend or group of friends, as to anything in their life which may be hindering their walk with God and with others (my words and thought of what she was saying).

There are well known, popular Christian leaders who in Christian circles seem to have a rough edge about them. Maybe one would argue that Paul did, and indeed that may well have been when Paul, right or wrong, refused to take John Mark, Barnabas’ cousin on another missionary journey, the dispute being so sharp that Paul and Barnabas went their separate ways on mission, Paul being commended by the church to God’s grace. We read later that Paul had a change of heart and mind toward John Mark, probably the one who wrote our beloved Gospel of Mark. Finding him useful for the ministry. Without Barnabas, John Mark may have never made it, and perhaps we wouldn’t even have the gospel he wrote.

While we need to be open to the receiving and giving, the give and take of mutual spiritual edification, which may well involve some exhortation and even warning at times, along with encouragement (and may the tribe of those who do this, increase; it seems rare to me), we do need to be aware of rough edges we ourselves may have which can blunt the sharpening.

I would think a key element here would be to learn to be in tune with, or maybe more realistically put, aspire toward being in step with the Spirit’s moving and working. The more clearly this is evident, the less personal it is in regard to the human relationship. The personal aspect is then with regard to God, perhaps both friends included, and especially the one to whom God is ministering.

Grace, grace and more grace from beginning to end is necessary. In this exchange there is never one above another, or one person in a higher place, though one may be further along in their walk in the Lord than the other. Rather we are in this together, on common ground at the cross, one as much in need of God and his grace as the other. In fact the closer one is to God, the more they realize their need of God.

We Christians need to be careful over our theological squabbles, along with others such as political, etc. Not only can we fail to be the witness before the world of what we are in Jesus, in his light through loving one another in the truth, but we can lose out in the process of change through the dynamic of relational, spiritual exchange as friends.

God calls us in Jesus toward love in the form of gentleness, humility, patience, and more of the same in his grace to us in Jesus. We need to work at a deep level love and concern for each other, so that we are more and more family in Jesus before the Father in the love of the Spirit. And for the world for whom Christ died.