Archive for the ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ Category

O Come All Ye Faithful, Joyful and triumphant . . .

Come and behold him, Born the King of Angels . . .

All Hail! Lord, we greet Thee, Born this happy morning

Those words from a traditional hymn are on my mind this Christmas morning. Today the world celebrates Jesus, the Son of God who became human about 2000 years ago. Remembering his birth fills hearts with joy and mouths with song. People give gifts and feast with family and friends.

Venice - The Adoration of Magi in Santa Maria dei Frari.But not everyone is so happy this Christmas morning. Some miss loved ones from whom they’re separated by death or conflict. Some remember painful Christmas experiences. Some are alone. Some wonder if they really believe what they’ve been taught to rejoice about on December 25.

Life is not all “joyful and triumphant.” Sometimes we don’t want to greet the Lord because we feel that the Lord has abandoned us. We may feel forgotten, forsaken, far from faith.

If you haven’t experienced such darkness, expect it. Prepare for it. Bolster your faith in advance. Ask hard questions. Pursue truth no matter what it might do to what you’ve been taught. Befriend experienced, wise Christians who can mentor you through faith and doubt. Pray now for strength to persevere when you feel like you can’t pray.

If you have experienced such darkness, share it. Use that experience to bless people who are currently going through it. Let them know that they are not alone. Assure them that their doubt does not kick them out of heaven. Gently come alongside them. Be present for them. Be patient when they’re not ready to talk. Be willing to wait, to listen. Pray for them.

If you are experiencing such darkness right now, know that you’re in good company. Read through the Psalms to find words to express your experience in uncensored prayer to God who understands and expects our cries and questions and can handle whatever pain we spew out. Find words of lament from Psalm 22 arising in agony from the lips of the Son of God on the cross and know that questioning God’s presence is part of faith.

“Come all ye faithful, and all ye who would like to be faithful if only you could, all ye who walk in darkness and hunger for light” (Frederick Buechner).


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Bread and wineMy wife and I like our son to eat food that’s nutritious and good for his development. We allow ice cream once in a while, but we know that giving our child a steady diet of junk food would be parental malpractice. He needs vegetables, vitamins, fruit, protein, complex carbs, and a reasonable dose of fat.

When he gets bored at mealtime and doesn’t want to eat the rest of his green beans, we encourage him to finish eating. We tell him that eating his food will help him to be big and strong like his daddy.

Maybe you’ve heard the saying “You are what you eat.” That doesn’t mean that you become green beans if you eat green beans. It means that eating healthful food empowers you to have a healthy body and a healthy life, while eating too much junk food empowers you to have a junky body with a junky life. This observation reminds me of another saying: “Input equals output.”

My congregation’s sermon this weekend comes from Romans 8, and in verses 1-11 we find a similar inside-outside connection.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (ESV)

What goes into us shapes how we live. “You are what you eat.”

When the Holy Spirit lives in us, God transforms our lives. “Input equals output.”

The Spirit enters us in various ways.

We “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” when we believe the good news of Jesus and when we are baptized (Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:13).

The Holy Spirit enters people through the laying on of hands (Deuteronomy 34:9; Acts 19:6).

The Holy Spirit can enter people who are around others in whom the Spirit is working (1 Samuel 19:18-24).

The Holy Spirit fills followers of Jesus when they speak (Acts 2:4; 4:8; 13:9) and when they are persecuted (13:50-52).

God gives the Holy Spirit to people who ask (Luke 11:13).

The Holy Spirit can even enter people before birth (Luke 1:15).

Beyond these ways, the Holy Spirit can operate in ways that are unexpected and unexplainable (John 3:8). As the hymnist William Cowper penned in the 18th century, “God moves in a mysterious way.”

I look forward to listening to tomorrow’s sermon on Romans 8. Before that sermon, I get to say a few comments to prepare the church for communion. As I get ready for that privilege, my meditation on verses 1-11 leads me to see communion as one way in which the Holy Spirits enters us and empowers us for life in God’s mission.

A long-held belief in Christianity is that Christ is somehow present with his followers in communion (also called the Eucharist and the Lord’s Supper). Although great thinkers in the history of the church have disagreed about exactly how this presence operates, many Christians have believed that in some way Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, is present when gathered communities of Christian faith consume the bread and cup, commemorating Jesus’ crucifixion and celebrating the hope of his return.

Through this process of remembering and celebrating, the Holy Spirit continually fills the body of Christ (the church) and empowers that community of Jesus-followers to carry out God’s mission of blessing the world.

When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we do more than eat crackers and drink wine or grape juice.

When we participate in this event, the Holy Spirit enters us yet again and strengthens us to live for God.

As a child, I experienced amazement when the bread and cup were served. When I looked at the people around me, I could tell that this practice was something special, something mystical. I didn’t understand what was happening, but the holiness of the moment drew me in.

I have not always experienced that amazement at communion. The Lord’s Supper has not always seemed special. I have not always noticed the mystery of the Eucharist.

So I pray for the ability to see the mysterious transformation that God is working through the Holy Spirit when followers of Jesus take the bread and cup together. Through the Spirit, the bread and cup become more than a snack and more than an ancient practice the meaning of which we’ve forgotten. They become a meaningful meal that fuels us for life.

When we eat the body of Christ together, the Spirit empowers us to be that body.

We are what we eat.

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God calls us to participate in God’s mission, and we should respond in worship and obedience. However, we can get distracted by concerns that hinder our right responses to God.

In Jonah 1:1-16, God comissions Jonah to carry a message to a city called Nineveh. Jonah travels by ship in the opposite direction because he doesn’t want to preach to people he doesn’t like. God responds, and people on the ship respond, but Jonah ignores. The people on the ship cast lots and question Jonah, who admits his identity and responsibility and tells them to throw him into the sea. They try to avoid that by taking other actions. After praying to God, they reluctantly toss him. Then they fear, worship, and vow to God. (Note that the sailors are not members of Jonah’s religious community.)

God wants us to worship. When we lose focus on God and worship our own desires instead, God is not without worship. Others can worship God. Our preferences for our own groups and our prejudices against other groups can blind us to that beautiful truth, which calls us to embrace diverse people who worship God.

Instead of focusing on our own desires or worrying about who is or is not worthy to worship God, let’s just worship and obey God! Worship and obedience lead us to recognize and live out God’s love for all people groups in the spirit of Jesus, who died for the whole world.

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C-JR-Zoo 2013-11-18Forgiveness is a process that can be short in childhood and long in adulthood.

The Bible says, “Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry” (Ephesians 4:26, NIV).

But forgiveness is a process that sometimes, oftentimes, lasts much longer than one day. It happens in phases that stretch beyond literal sunsets. Lewis B. Smedes’ book Forgive and Forget delineates those phases: hurt, hate, healing, and coming together. After the hurt naturally comes hatred, or at least dislike. When we move beyond hatred, we can find inner healing with strength from God. Then we can have power to attempt reconciliation with the wrongdoer.

Sometimes we skip phases. Sometimes the phases change order. But the phases exist. Forgiveness is a process.

When we’re little children, that process might happen in a minute. “Ouch, you hit me!” A few seconds later: “You’re not my friend any more!” And then the children are playing together again.

In adulthood the process might take years. One day is not long enough to hold all four phases.

Plutarch en.wikipedia.orgWhat then do we do with Ephesians 4:26? Maybe we should see it as a hyperbolic statement designed to guide us in right living. That kind of statement was common when Ephesians was written. Plutarch (ca. 45-120 CE) in his Moralia wrote about “the Pythagoreans, who, though related not at all by birth, yet sharing a common discipline, if ever they were led by anger into recrimination, never let the sun go down before they joined right hands, embraced each other, and were reconciled.”

I doubt that a group of people would actually live by that principle. If a group were to do it, however, I suppose a group of philosophers like the Pythagoreans might be the most likely to do so. Most of us are not philosophers, at least not professional ones. On our best days, we might think before we act, but not that much.

Despite the idealism of Ephesians, Plutarch, and the Pythagoreans, they can teach us the importance of being intentional and active in the forgiveness process. We should not passively wait for forgiveness to happen by itself. We should not assume that forgiveness is unnecessary. We need to remember that forgiveness is a process. We need to give that process time to happen. But we need to stay moving through the process. Don’t neglect it. Don’t give up.

No matter how long your sunset takes, become a forgiver.


Thanks to Haley Chrisman of the Park Avenue Church of Christ young adult class for the observation about the shortness of the forgiveness process in childhood. Thanks to commentator Andrew T. Lincoln for drawing my attention to Plutarch.

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pilgrimheart“I found a better way. It involves believing with our bodies, not against them” (Darryl Tippens).

Christian spirituality is not a “pie in the sky” kind of esoteric thought. It’s a way of life that happens in concrete ways in this time and on this planet. God didn’t sit in heaven and say, “Hey, you little peons down there! Climb up here so you can be spiritual. Leave the worthless world behind.”

Instead, biblical spirituality is deeply this-worldly. God was pleased with the creation in Genesis 1-2. Our bodies are to be an offering to God and  a temple of God’s Spirit (Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17). God even became a human, complete with a body (1 Timothy 3:16), and God plans to transform and preserve our bodies (1 Corinthians 15:12-57). God doesn’t despise our bodies or the rest of physical reality. God embraces the whole creation and is at work to renew it (Revelation 21:5). The spiritual-physical dichotomy is more Platonic than biblical.

Because the Spirit embraces the physical, spirituality is about more than our beliefs and thoughts; it’s about our actions. Our beliefs and our actions feed each other. What I do, feel, eat, lift, hear, say, touch, read — everything is spiritual. (Any similarity between the last three words of that sentence and a Rob Bell video is purely coincidental but not denied.)

When you cook, clean, write, read, carve, mow, build, and engage in other productive actions, you participate in the physical/spiritual life created by, embraced by, and experienced by God. Let those activities intensify your recognition of God’s presence and performance in this life.

Believing in God is how we live, what we do. It’s more than a mental thing; it’s a physical thing. Belief that’s limited to the mind is not real belief. Real belief is lived, and when it’s lived it grows. We believe “with our bodies.”


For more on this, read the book Pilgrim Heart: The Way of Jesus in Everyday Life by Darryl Tippens (Leafwood, 2006). For slightly older insights, see Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God.

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Hurting with GodGlenn Pemberton was one of my professors at at Abilene Christian University and has been a preacher for decades. He recently wrote a book called Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms. It is informed and relevant, and it arises from the author’s personal experiences with pain and loss.

Dr. Pemberton points out the church’s lack of lament, and the reasons vary: “the wishful optimism of our culture, discomfort with ambiguity, impatient need for quick solutions, and… well-intended but misguided theology.” Some researchers have studied the lament psalms; others have written on the use of lament psalms in preaching, prayer, and public life. In the midst of this literary expansion, however, “the practical translation of this work has yet to take much hold in our churches.” Pemberton’s goals, therefore, are “to make a complete and persuasive case for the restoration of the language of lament in the life of the church and in the lives of believers” and “to teach the language of lament by careful examination of the lament psalms.” He hopes that “this volume brings further attention to the loss of lament in our churches, exposes what this loss is costing us, and stirs our minds to imagine what might happen if we spoke and prayed the full spectrum of the biblical faith languages,” whether used “for personal reading,” “in church Bible classes and small groups,” or as an academic textbook.

The first chapter establishes that humans share a story of “unpredictable, unstable, and life-threatening seas and storms… chaotic forces that stand against human life and well-being.” The author anchors this claim in Genesis, the Psalms, and Job, which provides “good news… that the sea/chaos does not have free reign in this world” and “bad news… that the sea still exists and works chaos in our world.” Such observation leads to the following questions: “How do we live with and relate to God when the waters pound and choke us? What do we say to the God who has the power to restrain the storm but chooses instead to let it pour?” Instead of seeking an explanation for the storm, the author proceeds in an attempt to find a way “to swim” when “this storm is flooding my life.”

Chapter Two teaches about biblical lament language, highlighting the diverse forms’ “commonality: deep faith in God in the midst of pain.” The Book of Psalms contains more lament psalms than any other kind, but the church has largely lost this language of lament. The author documents this loss through the research of his student, T. Austin Holt IV, who analyzes three contemporary hymnals that heavily voice thanksgiving and praise to the neglect of lament.

The third chapter establishes lament as a practice of Jesus and the early church. Chapter Four explores the details and dynamics of lament language. The next seven chapters investigate the problems that give rise to such language: sin, discouragement, health, opponents, and God. The twelfth chapter shows the relationship between lament and thanksgiving, and Chapter Thirteen suggests practical ways to restore lament language in the life of the church. There Pemberton wisely prescribes incremental changes instead of pendulum swings, and he encourages us to practice lament in a “healthy balance of faith languages modeled for us by the Psalms.”

The primary strength of Pemberton’s work arises from his background in both academics and ministry, combined with his personal experience of loss and pain. His scholarly competence provides intellectual substance that more devotional works avoid. His pastoral heart leads to suggestions for ministerial improvement that more academic texts miss. His experience of lament gives his writing a tone of authenticity that compels readers to finish the book and to find points of connection with their own lives. The textual analysis and ministerial suggestions cooperate to “help us regain the wholeness of expression to our God and include the hurting more fully in our worship” (Lowe), and the relevance to everyday life gives readers a reason to recommend the book to a broad and diverse readership. (I gave a copy to my mother when she visited me last week.)

This strength can be a weakness, too. Scholars may prefer more academic texts; Pemberton minimizes his references to scholarly literature. Church leaders may prefer less academic books; the author connects his study to ministry but largely provides textual and theological insights. The blending of approaches, however, exemplifies ministry-related scholarship that empowers theologically informed worship.

Pemberton’s approach from a “low church” experience can be a weakness for readers in more liturgical traditions. Some large portions of Christianity still maintain a substantial place for lament psalms in worship (Wagner-Wassen). While those churches might benefit more from books with other approaches, this one speaks meaningfully to the author’s own and similar heritages; it “provides refreshing corrective for churches inundated with a thin, borrowed and Evangelical liturgy” (Fleer).

Especially helpful is the author’s application of his study to issues of justice, most notably in Chapter Nine. Churches in cultural contexts of affluence and power, even when they fail to recognize their privileges, need this call to speak for and with the oppressed and hurting. We in worship leadership must ask what the lament psalms say to us, to people experiencing lives drastically different from our own, and to our responsibilities as God’s people in and for the world.

I highly recommend Dr. Pemberton’s book to anyone seeking to swim life’s stormy seas, needing permission and place to voice raw emotions to God, or simply wishing to learn more about the Bible, specifically its lament psalms. In the words of Mike Cope on the back cover, “For its biblical insight, this book will sit proudly on my shelf next to Brueggemann’s works on the Psalms; for its pastoral care, I’ll be handing it out to many friends… and church leaders.” The work’s integration of scholarship, ministry, and personal struggle makes it well worth the sticker price and reading time.


This review is modified from one I wrote for a course at Harding School of Theology.

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I grew up in a good home. My parents were Christians. They prayed, read scripture, taught my brothers and me to do those things, and regularly took us to church gatherings.

As a teenager, I started questioning some of our church’s teachings. Biblical and important ideas became unbiblical and unimportant. My religious tradition had taught me the value of studying for oneself, and that’s what I was doing.

For the most part, I stayed quiet about my questions. I didn’t try to cause trouble, didn’t leave my heritage, didn’t start a new one. After high school, I served as a youth ministry intern, preached for a small church, and took a few mission trips.

The questions were maturing and increasing.

Then I spent a few months in England studying philosophy of religion and the development of doctrine (teaching) in the early church. It was, academically, the most difficult time of my life. It also was the hardest spiritually. I finally reached a point at which I knew I had no faith.

The death of my faith was not because of my education. It was not the fault of any professor or assignment. In fact, my philosophy of religion professor was a minister who, upon hearing my confession of faithlessness, smoothly shifted from academic guidance to pastoral care.

Maybe in another post I’ll tell you about my return to faith, but here I want to highlight the precise moment in which I knew my faith had vanished. I had researched and rejected the major philosophical arguments for God’s existence. One night, however, sitting on my bed in a small basement room, I prayed, “God, I don’t even know if you’re there… much less if you’re listening… but for some reason I’m praying anyway.”

Why did I pray? Why do you pray? Why have people prayed for thousands of years?

Perhaps it’s when our prayers seem pointless that they have the greatest impact. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “the most important time to pray is when your prayers seem meaningless.”


Closing quotation from Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Boston: Cowley, 1999).

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