May 28

A New Way of Living

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tree sprout

“I am now a new person, a new creation, I also must live a new way. As one indwelt by Jesus, I can now live as Jesus did: in utter dependence on God, in a deep and intimate relationship with him, fully relying on God—not

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tree sprout

I am now a new person, a new creation, I also must live a new way. As one indwelt by Jesus, I can now live as Jesus did: in utter dependence on God, in a deep and intimate relationship with him, fully relying on God—not my willpower—to live the Christian life. Jesus used the image of a vine and its branches to describe this new way of living:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

Jesus (the vine) is the life force that flows into us (the branches), thus producing fruit (love, joy, peace, etc. [Galatians 5:22]). Cut off from the vine, the branches cannot produce fruit. The power of production is not in the branch just as the power to live the Christian life is not in us. In fact, apart from Jesus, we can do nothing.

That’s why Paul said, “I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20 kjv). When we separate ourselves from Christ, his life no longer flows in us, just as the branch cut off from the vine no longer has life flowing through it. But we are actual partakers and participants in the divine nature of Christ: “he has bestowed on us the precious and very great promises, so that through them you may come to share in the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4 nab). I am not God (or even a god), but I have been given a new nature. My faculties have been infused with Christ’s life and power. ..So the key is to abide in Christ.

How do we do this?”

I said, “To abide means to rest in and rely on Jesus, who is not outside of us, judging us, but is inside of us, empowering us. The more deeply we’re aware of our identity in Christ and his presence and power with us, the more naturally we’ll do this. We must get our narrative right and practice spiritual exercises to deepen our awareness of truth. In the end, Jesus’ way is easy. He said that his yoke was easy and his burden was light [Matthew 11:30]. Typically, we try to do what we think Jesus wants us to do—like you did with your bracelet—by your own strength. We can’t do that. But we ‘can do all things through Christ who strengthens’ us [Philippians 4:13].””

Soul Training – Further Reflection

How does it feel to know that the power to live the Christian life is not solely dependant on us, but God in us?


Taken from The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2009 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com

Dr. James Bryan Smith (M.Div., Yale University Divinity School; DMin Fuller Seminary) is the Executive Director of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith is currently a theology professor at Friends University, in Wichita, Kansas, and an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. He is the author of eight books, most notably The Apprentice Series (InterVarsity Press), which continue to shape the work of the Apprentice Institute. Dr. Smith’s other titles include Devotional Classics (with Richard J. Foster), Embracing the Love of God, Room of Marvels, and Hidden in Christ.

 

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Nov 20

A Different Kind of King and a Different Kind of New Year

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This Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year. November 30 is our New Year, the beginning of Advent. But for now, we’re at an end, the end of “Ordinary Time” (the absolutely worst named season of the liturgical year). But back to the

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This Sunday is the last Sunday in the Christian year. November 30 is our New Year, the beginning of Advent.

But for now, we’re at an end, the end of “Ordinary Time” (the absolutely worst named season of the liturgical year).

But back to the new year. Yeah, it’s not in January, well it is for the rest of the world, but not for those of us who call ourselves the church. If you want to make a new year’s resolution, why not make it a month early? You’ll be way ahead of the game.

In this Sunday’s reading from Ezekiel, there’s a problem.

The shepherds who are supposed to be taking care of Israel aren’t doing such a great job. Instead of feeding and caring for God’s sheep, they’re gorging themselves on turkey and stuffing whatever folks gorged themselves on in those days. The shepherds are living the high life, without much mind for the sheep’s well being or health.

Important side note: Shepherd is kind of doublespeak for king in the Old Testament. Think of David, when Samuel tried to anoint all of his other brothers as king (but the Lord rejected them) and David was the only one left, what was he doing? He was in the field, tending the sheep.

Shepherd David=King David.

Back to the story,  the rulers of Israel have been falling down on the job, and God’s not real pleased about that. So,

“The Sovereign Lord says, ‘I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness…I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice'” (Ezekiel 34:11-12, 16)

The Good Shepherd

God wants to be a shepherd (remember, that means king). But this kingship looks a little different. The shepherds of Israel only cared about themselves. In all their self-attention, they let the sheep wander off. Some couldn’t find food, some were eaten by wild animals, and the shepherds couldn’t see beyond their own staffs (Ezekiel 34:1-6).

But, Ezekiel’s image of God as shepherd is one who takes it upon himself to go out and recover those who have been lost. To literally gather in and feed those sheep who are hungry, to heal the hurt and broken sheep.

This king isn’t hanging out at any palace or castle, this king is roaming the countryside, on the move, not settling for anything less than the justice he brings.

Which is striking, because much of the church celebrates Christ the King Sunday this weekend as well. And for all the times people want to make a difference between the God of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament, you can’t do that here. Sorry.

Because this God looks a lot like the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ, the good shepherd.

This God and king doesn’t send the hungry away for food or have someone else do it, he feeds the sheep.

This king doesn’t leave the sick and broken behind in favor of the healthy and whole, he restores them to fullness of life.

This king is resolute, he’s set on this course and nothing you or I can do will change his mind. “I the Lord have spoken” (Ezekiel 34:24)

Are these God’s New Year’s Resolutions?

That’s hard to believe given what’s about to happen for most of us.

Next week, we in the U.S., will celebrate Thanksgiving, and on Friday (or sometimes Thursday), people will rush out of their houses at bizarre hours to buy a bunch of stuff, for them, or their family, or close friend maybe.

Get the best deal. Be self-interested. Rush from giving thanks to buying gifts for Christmas.

Hey, in the world, we shouldn’t expect much else. That’s how their calendar works.

But we’ve got this other calendar that can really mess with our priorities if we let it.

This Sundy we’ll stand in church and proclaim Christ is king, a kingship marked by concern for the sheep who have wandered off, who are at the edge of society, maybe at the end of themselves.

Then, next Sunday we’ll begin Christmas Advent. A season of waiting and self-denial (not unlike Lent). Advent holds up a giant “STOP” sign to our ways of running our lives (and holiday seasons).

Advent seems to say, “Hey, wait, don’t rush out for that new thing. That Jesus you just proclaimed king? Yeah, he’s coming, soon. Prepare yourself.”

And we’ll have a choice. If this whole Christian thing is about being transformed into the image of Christ (the king), we’ll have to decide whether we want our lives (our kingships and queenships) to reflect this astonishingly different way of kingship we see in Ezekiel. Or not.

If we’re being conformed to the image of Christ, then our new year’s resolutions (Advent resolutions) will take the shape of this King; the king who we’ll find in the manger, sure. But, also the king who will come and put all creation to rights and we’ll finally be able to see the fullness of the kingdom come.

Until then…happy new year!

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Sep 29

Convenience: Habit Formation That’s Too Easy To Fail

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Why are convenience stores convenient? It’s obvious, right? They’re convenient because it’s easy for you to stop by and pick up what you need. Instead of driving or walking further to get to a supermarket or big box store, you can stop by a convenience store

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Why are convenience stores convenient?

It’s obvious, right? They’re convenient because it’s easy for you to stop by and pick up what you need.

Instead of driving or walking further to get to a supermarket or big box store, you can stop by a convenience store on the way into the office or trip to grab a pop or bag of chips, or whatever else you desire.

Where’s this coming from? Good question. I watched Gretchen Rubin’s video about habit and convenience. Her basic premise: if you have a habit you want to form, make it convenient.

Makes sense.

Want to make gym-going a habit? Join the closest or most convenient gym, not the one that’s clear out of your way.

Want to read more? Carry a book with you and sneak in a couple paragraphs while you’re waiting for the doctor or the bus or the post office line.

Want to cut out some habit? Make it less convenient.

I get a little over the top sometimes. I want to see drastic changes in my life or in groups I’m a part of or churches I’ve attended. But we don’t change quickly. Our habits don’t snap into alignment easily.

Which is what makes (a good) spiritual formation so difficult.

It’s just not convenient.

Add to that, the fact that when we get a vision for change it’s often a dramatic complete over-haul of our existence (I once was blind but now I see), and you’ve got a recipe for failure.

Complete over-haul in the short term (changing every habit) isn’t convenient. It’s inconvenient and it’s hard, and except for a few especially hardy and determined among us, it will end in failure. And you’ll think you’re a failure and you’ll remember why you didn’t want to do this in the first place.

So this week, or today, what’s one habit you’ve been hoping to cultivate that you can make more convenient?

It’s easy to get bogged down about all the stuff you should be doing. Don’t try to be Jesus, he’s good at that on his own. Just focus on one thing. Day, month, week, whatever the time frame, do it.

One thing.

Maybe you don’t want to spend as much time on your phone–delete your big offender apps for a while and make them less convenient.

Maybe you want to change your eating patterns, don’t bring the offending foods home from the store and the bad habit will be less convenient and the good one will be more convenient.

If you’re trying to create space for God, find a convenient time. If you’re a night owl, don’t try to make a habit of waking up early to spend time in silence or prayer. And vice versa for you morning people. After a while, you may discover you want to expand your habit further into your life.

Great, just don’t start there.

Make it more difficult to fail and you’ll be more successful in the long run.

If you want to serve in some capacity, find a group whose service opportunities work best with your schedule. You’ll be far more likely to participate that way, than if you try to live out a martyr’s complex and are miserable because you are constantly run ragged from trying to cram something extra into an already full space in your schedule.

I recently ended a bit of a running hiatus. The hiatus was there because running just wasn’t convenient. If I ran after work then I tired dogscouldn’t take my dogs (too hot) or spend as much time with my wife. Plus, at the end of the day, I just didn’t feel like lacing up and going to run.

So, I tried mornings before work, but that didn’t work either. Hunting through my dresser for shorts, shirt, and matching socks was too much to ask of my tired brain and phone flashlight (didn’t want to wake up my wife).

Then, I found a way to make it more convenient. I set out all my running stuff the night before. This isn’t groundbreaking, but it changed my whole approach to the habit of running.

I felt stupid doing it at first. What kind of person is so lazy that he needs to set out his stuff the night before? But I can’t imagine going back at this point.

And, since I run before the sun comes up, it’s perfect weather for my pups, which means I free up even more time in my day, and they get great exercise.

Maybe it’s lame to lay your stuff out the night before, but it made a habit more convenient.

What habit can you make more convenient this week?

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May 12

Too Much Faith?

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“Guilt and sin can lead to anxiety and fear,” according to a report from KSN’s report tonight titled: “Too Much Faith?” Too much faith? While provocative, the headline is almost laughable. What would that look like? Tithing too much? Feeding too many people? Being too available? Making

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“Guilt and sin can lead to anxiety and fear,” according to a report from KSN’s report tonight titled: “Too Much Faith?”

Too much faith? While provocative, the headline is almost laughable.

What would that look like? Tithing too much? Feeding too many people? Being too available? Making eye contact with the person you’d rather avoid? Too much time spent in prayer? Too much Scripture reading? Too much time investing in the lives of your friends and family? Too much love of neighbor?

My sneaking suspicion is that this report will have too much emphasis on the wrong kind of faith.

Fides or Fiducia?

Somehwere in seminary I was introduced to two kinds of faith: fides (“mental assent,” or what you think) and fiducia (“sure and abiding trust,” thinking plus whole life).

I doubt this piece on religion in Kansas will focus on too much “sure and abiding trust.” They won’t interview anyone who is too convinced that God is out for their good.

No one will recount a story of having too many people over for dinner when there wasn’t enough food to go around. No one will be too drawn out of themselves and into the messy lives of their next door neighbor or co-worker, or complete stranger, because they believe too much.

And frankly, neither would I.

I’m good at the mental assent thing. I like to read, I like to write. My temptation in this journey is to make it a head game. But that’s precisely where the problem begins. I’ll get too much of exactly what I want, and exactly what I don’t need. I’ll sit in jeopardy over my sin.

I’d lie in bed at night during middle school, confessing to God. Terrified by fear that I might forget to ask forgiveness for something and God might condemn me forever, I’d sometimes say the same thing a few times just to be sure it took. As if my neighbor might be praying too loud and God might miss my (somewhat) impassioned confession of a moment of passion.

And the next night, I’d be back at it. Maybe you can relate. To be honest, I hope you can’t.

Because if you can’t, you might have escaped an overly-thinking-and-conflicted-head-faith for a sure and abiding trust. For the belief that you’re one in whom Christ dwells and delights. For the good news that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. For the better news that Christ invites us to a different way of life. Here. Now.

Then you might have just escaped the idols I like to worship. One of the idols that keeps me in control, but blocks out the one I’m supposed to be believing in following.

Idols aren’t just money and power. Confession and forgiveness can be an idol, heck, almost anything can be an idol. Sure, idolatry is worshiping something other than God. But idolatry is also using something (middle school confessions) to control God, to sway God in your favor.

But idolatry is fun, and it’s fides‘ partner in crime.

Do You Have Any Control Left?--Sebastien Wiertz--CC 2.0

**Do You Have Any Control Left–Sebastien Wiertz–CC 2.0

Because while I “think” I’m swaying God to my side with pious living and sin-confessing, I miss the good news that God is out for my good that whole time. I’ve got too much of the wrong kind of faith.

And it’s understandable, because fides is respectable.

You can pontificate about the meaning of evil and sin, and forgiveness and grace, and it can all remain quite abstract, arms’ length, no commitment. Any amount of that faith is too much.

But fiducia, it’s not respectable; it won’t let you cling to your idols. It’s party line is not going to win many votes: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27).

Lest those remain abstract: Love the lady who trashed your character through the grapevine, and refuse the desire to do the same to her. In fact, say something good about her. Pray for the guy who flips you off as he flies by you for not driving fast enough.

As long as you’re looking for something to make things easier or more palatable, you’re locked into fides. It’s respectable and comfortable and it’s where I’ve lived most of my life. Karl Barth puts it well,

God is not one of the many idols that we erect to make life tolerable in this world of death, but the God who wakes the dead, ‘who calls into existence things that do not exist’ [Rom. 4:17]”¹ (Barth/Willimon, 117)

But when you’re convinced that nothing you can do–good or bad–can sway God’s good news. When you realize that your faith (however much you think you have) can’t save you. Only God can do that. Then you’re ready to be drawn out of yourself and into the fullness of life Jesus promises.

Not some abstract philosophical reality, you don’t have to sell all you have and move to a foreign country: “This is what Christians do. We are present with people, dirty laundry and all, and share everyday life so that others can catch a glimpse of a different reality. We do not need to make anyone or anything a project. Instead we are witness to the hope, hospitality, and healing that God is bringing into the world. Our lives, our friendships, our entire way of life together point to something beyond ourselves: what God is doing to redeem the whole world in Jesus Christ.”²

You can’t have enough of that kind of faith.

 

¹Karl Barth and William H. Willimon, The Early Preaching of Karl Barth (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 117.
² David E. Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw, Prodigal Christianity (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2013), 61.

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Jan 07

Longing for Change? Are You Asking the Right Question?

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            Would you like to have abiding peace? Would you like to have a heart that is filled with love? Would you like to have the kind of faith that sees everything—even your failures and losses—in light of God’s governance

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  • Would you like to have abiding peace?
  • Would you like to have a heart that is filled with love?
  • Would you like to have the kind of faith that sees everything—even your failures and losses—in light of God’s governance for good?
  • Would you like to have the kind of hope that endures even in discouraging circumstances?

If this is the life you most deeply desire, then this blog is meant for you.

A lot of people want to change and would answer yes to these questions, but many of them do not believe it is possible. After years of trying and failing, they lead a Christian life of quiet desperation, longing for change and yet certain it will never happen. So they sit in their pews each week, sighing silently, resigned to their fate.

            I used to think that way.

I tried and tried and tried to change. I prayed and prayed, pleading with God, begging God to change me. All to no avail. I wanted to become the kind of person Jesus described in the Sermon on the Mount—a person who loved his enemies and never worried about anything.

But when I looked into my own heart, I discovered that I not only did not love my enemies, I didn’t even love some of my friends, and I worried about everything.

Change came when, through two gifted mentors, I learned that transformation happens through training my soul. Richard Foster’s understanding of how the spiritual disciplines work and Dallas Willard’s understanding of how we interact with the kingdom of God are unsurpassed. The passion of my life has been to find the answer to this question:

How do we become like Christ?

I have come to believe that the problem is not that we do not want to change, nor is the problem that we are not trying to change. The problem is that we are not training. We have never been taught a reliable pattern of transformation.”

Soul Training – Further Reflection:

Have you ever tried to change something about yourself?

What process did you use? Did it work?

Share your insights in the comments.

Taken from The Good and Beautiful God by James Bryan Smith. Copyright(c) 2009 by James Bryan Smith. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.ivpress.com

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