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Archive for February, 2014

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I didn’t want to go to the gym this morning. And, frankly, if I hadn’t promised my wife that we were going, I probably would have blown it off. But we went and I got on the elliptical and started my workout. I decided not to push it and just let it “come to me.” This is hard because I am a “pusher.” Even though I didn’t want to be there, my tendency is to push and try to beat my best time or my best calorie burn or whatever statistic I can come up with. But this time I simply let my body lead with what it could do. About half-way through the work out, I was feeling pretty good. By the time I finished I actually came close to what my normal workout would have been (if I had gone full-bore). I had a good sweat and I was glad that I showed up. Among other things, the workout gave me the idea for this morning’s blog:

“Getting there is half the battle.”

This is true in our spiritual lives as well as our physical lives. In the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, Sabbath, worship, Bible reading, giving, being in community, serving in ministry, or reaching out to others, the hardest step is always the first one. It’s that decision to simply do it.

As one of my cycling training buddies told me, “The hardest part of the training ride is walking out the door and taking the bike off the rack.”

Once we decide and take that first step to spend time with Jesus or open that Bible or get ready for the worship service or write that tithe check, it’s downhill from there. God meets us at that place of faith, usually in a very powerful way.

But that first step is so hard. If “getting there is half the battle,” what can I do to help me win that half of the battle? Here are some things that have helped me:

1. Plan to do it. “When you fail to plan, you plan to fail.” This has more to do with intentionality, than with the specific plan. If you sense God wants you to become more consistent in going to corporate worship service, then write it down on your calendar (or smart phone). Don’t just leave it in your head as an “idea.”The night before our workout, Letty and I planned to work out the following morning at 6:30am. It was intentional; we talked about it and set our sights on it.

2. Get someone to partner with you. Find someone who has a similar goal and plan to do it together. For example, if you desired to spend some time with the Lord in the morning and you have a friend who desired the same, make a covenant with them that you will both do it – and then figure out a way to hold each other accountable (maybe through email, phone call, or a meeting during the week). As I mentioned earlier, even though I had planned to work out the night before, I woke up “not feeling it.” But Letty made me do it. I would not have taken one step toward the gym if I had not already agreed with Letty to do it ahead of time. Accountability is a very strong motivator (especially if it’s your wife!)

3. Ask God for grace and strength to “get there.” The spiritual disciplines are actions that God wants us to engage in because they help us to draw near to Him and hear His voice. So to ask Him to empower us to take those first steps is a prayer He loves to answer. It’s funny that we ask God to do “big” things (like heal sickness, provide jobs, etc. – which he does do), but we are reluctant to ask Him to do the smaller, yet very significant thing, that enables us to do His will; thus glorifying Him. As it says in Philippians 2:13 says, “For it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” So, let’s ask Him to do so!

4. Once we are “there” we let God take the lead. We don’t try to make things happen, the spiritual disciplines are designed to help us let go and let God. Just as I started my workout slow and “let it come to me,” so we enter into the disciplines with nothing but the expectation that God is going to meet me in this. We don’t strive to be “perfect” in our practice (that kind of defeats the purpose) nor do we try to act like “Super Christian” in what we do (like, “I’m going to pray for an hour” or “I’m going to read the entire book of Ezekiel and write a commentary on what it means”). Do not view the spiritual disciplines as bar bells and weights to gain spiritual prowess, but as doors and windows that allow our souls to encounter the Living God.

But “getting there” is half the battle. God awaits for us there, desiring to open our lives to new horizons in Whole Life Worship.

What helps you to “get there”?

What spiritual discipline is your favorite door or window to God?

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Confined or Directed?

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One of the hardest years of my life was when I taught Junior High School music. It was a job I took while starting a network of house churches (I was bi-vocational). It was an answer to prayer, in that, it provided for our family. I was already a credentialed music teacher, having taught High School music for seven years. So I received a full salary based on my education and experience, with benefits.

But the job was hard. Teaching Junior High kids was difficult for me. I got a lot of attitude. I had to focus a lot on discipline, which I hate. In addition, being in the JHS environment reminded me of my own Junior High years – the most painful period of my life. It was like I was reliving it all over again. I hated this job.

I felt so confined. Though I was freed up to spend some time to focus on church planting (I was basically done by 3pm every day and I had my weekends), I desired to spend more time with my house churches. And because of my frustration during the day with the JHS kids, I was drained of much of my energy. I was miserable. Surely this was not God’s will for my life!

I remember crossing off the weeks on my school calendar (only 35 more weeks to go), when the Holy Spirit confronted me. The conversation in my soul went something like this:

HS: Doug, why are you so miserable?

D: I hate this job. I’m not good at it. I’d rather be doing church planting stuff. That’s what you called me to do, right? I feel like I’m in a straight jacket. Why am I here?

HS: Because I directed you here.

D: But this can’t be your will.

HS: It is my will. God’s will is wherever you are. It is not someplace in the future. It is now. What you do with the present moment determines whether you are doing my will … or not.

That was a profound turning point; not just in my job, but in my life. From that moment on, I sought to do God’s will in the JHS. He had me there for a reason. I started praying in the music rooms before class. I took on a learning posture as I taught my classes. I built relationships with students and other teachers. And I began to see this job as a gift, not as a “death sentence.”

I thought of the Apostle Paul, the greatest of church planters. At the prime of his calling, he got thrown into prison. He was confined. He could no longer start new churches in new parts of the world. He could no longer mentor side by side with the Timothy’s, Silas’s, and Titus’s that needed training. The only people he could proclaim the Gospel with personally were his prison guards (who did come to Christ).

All he could really do in prison was write letters. Funny how God used that, huh? Half of the New Testament consists of those letters Paul wrote – most from the prison cell.

From a human standpoint, Paul was confined. But from God’s perspective, Paul was being unleashed.

Perhaps you feel like you’re in a place or position that is far from God’s will. You might feel confined or not used to your potential or in a “less than” role or title. Maybe you hate your work or despise your situation or you long for something better.

If you are not in this situation because of sin or disobedience, perhaps it’s time to ask God to show you His larger perspective. Maybe you are there for a reason. Maybe He’s trying to teach you something. Maybe there’s someone He’s calling you to reach or something that He wants you to do.

Just to give a finishing touch to my story: it was still a struggle but eventually I found joy in teaching at JHS. The principal gave me a special award at the end of the year because I helped turned the music program around. I was able to go more full-time church planting after that school year. So that was my one shot teaching JHS music.

Ten years later, I discovered that one of my former JHS students became a Tech director at a local church. Another became a worship leader for a church plant in San Diego. Recently, I serendipitously ran into parents of another student who told me that I taught profoundly impacted the life of their son.

It’s amazing what God can do when He has us right where He wants us – despite what we think or feel.

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Bread or Band-Aid?

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From time to time, I experience spiritual dryness; going through seasons where I struggle. But today, while going through my daily discipline of Scripture reading, I came across a passage that totally ministered to me. It was as if God had inspired that Scripture to speak to my particular situation for that particular moment!

Now there are reasons why I came across that Scripture today. One is that God loves me and wanted to deliver to me a personal message. Another reason is that there are a lot of people praying for me and asking God to refresh my life. But the most important reason (important, because it has to do with my response) is because I was following a daily discipline of reading God’s Word. If I didn’t read God’s Word on a regular basis, my finding that passage would have been delayed. And if I don’t read God’s Word at all, there would be no way I would have found that passage. Regular, disciplined Scripture reading puts us in the position to hear from God.

Too many of us look at Scripture reading as a “band aid”: only when we are in times of trouble do we crack open the dusty pages of our Bible, frantically trying to find words of wisdom and direction that can soothe our souls. But, save a miracle from God that leads us mysteriously to the appropriate verse, we don’t find our “magic verse” and it often leaves us frustrated and disillusioned, leading us to the false conclusion that the Bible is irrelevant and outdated.

You may have heard the story of the man who needed direction from God, so he closed his eyes, opened his Bible to a random page and pointed blindly at a verse that said: “Judas went and hung himself.” That’s a little extreme, but it makes a point what could happen when we try to use the Bible as a “band aid.”

But Jesus tells us that Scripture is not a band aid, it is daily bread for our soul. “Man shall not live on bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God!” Jesus declared as He was tempted by Satan. We need to be in the Word daily in order to hear the voice of the Lord.

I can tell you that I have had many dull, uneventful readings of Scripture. For every epiphany (a fancy name for “God moment”) I have experienced through a Scripture reading, I have had a thousand ordinary, plain old “manna” type readings. But the effect of all those Scripture readings has helped me to recognize God’s voice when it comes, as well as renewing my mind.

So how can we get a steady diet of Scripture? Here are a couple of practical steps:

1. Set apart a time and a place to read the Bible. You don’t need a lot of time, but you need to establish it. Find a quiet place to read where TV, radio, newspaper or people cannot distract.

2. Read assigned portions of Scripture. Some choose a book of the Bible to read. I used to do this. If you do, start with a book that’s easy, like a Gospel or Psalms. Don’t start with Revelation or Ezekiel or Leviticus (perhaps later on). But nowadays, I don’t even choose the passage. I let the passage “choose” me. I utilize the Lectionary from the Book of Common Prayer. It systematically gives me Scripture passages that fit within the Church calendar year.

3. Be accountable with someone. Ask a friend to ask you each week how your Bible reading is going. Accountability helps with the follow through on our intentions. This can develop in a spiritual friendship, whereby you can share what God has been teaching you through your readings.

4. Spend time reflecting on the passage. I use the “lectio divina” method, where I read the passages four times and spend silent reflection after each reading (for more on Lectio Divina, click here.) If there’s something confusing or I have a question about in the passage, I write it down and look at it later. More importantly, I am listening for God’s voice in the Scripture. What is God saying to me? Is there something I need to do/learn/understand?

Is Scripture reflection a struggle for you or a delight?

What helps you in getting into the Word on a regular basis?

How have you moved from Scripture reading being a “band-aid” to “bread”?

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The other day I was having breakfast with my good friend, Felix – a fellow Whole Life Worshiper of Jesus. Felix has seen many spiritual doors open up with clients and associates (he’s both an amazing contractor and an accomplished jazz musician) who constantly ask him about his sunny disposition and cheerful outlook on life. He tells them, “I begin each day making a choice to live it for God. God has done everything to make this a wonderful day. He set everything in motion while I was asleep and now it’s my turn to live it out. It’s up to me to approach it selfishly or selflessly. It’s like a baseball pitcher with a ten run lead going into the 9th inning, and God is giving me the ball. The only way I can lose is to not play His way. This day is my day to win by following God or lose by following my way or the world’s way.  So I choose to win.”

Now it’s important to understand that Felix is not exhibiting a “Pollyanna” perspective. This is not an overdose of positivity. He understands that life is not always easy or positive (and he’s been through his share of rough spots). Rather, this is an expression of faith in God’s sovereignty, intentions, and power in the midst of our reality.

This perspective is described in one of the great promises of Scripture in Romans 8:28 –

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose.

Underlying this amazing promise is the intention of God toward you and me: that God is good – all the time. He desires the best for us. God is not malicious. Nor is He forgetful or careless. And He sovereignly works all things in our lives for our best possible interests. It is imperative that we believe this with all our hearts.

However, this promise does not mean that everything will always turn out the way we want. Sometimes what we want is not the best thing for us. Sometimes we want bad things and that is not good. Sometimes we want to get our way (maybe like, all the time). But if God gave us that we would become spoiled, impatient people. In light of that, we need to approach our day with the expectation that not everything will go according to how we want or what we want.  And that is good, because it’s for our best.

Also, this promise does not mean that bad things or trials will not come our way. God wants us to become strong, loving, and faith-filled people. The only way we can become “good” people is to face trials and hardships with the presence of Christ. So we need to approach our day with the expectation that bad things and trials may come our way. But as we face these trials, we have Christ. And that is good, because being good is the ultimate goal of God for us.

The key operative phrase in this verse is “those who love God and are called according to His purpose.” As the things of life come our way, we approach them with the presence and the purpose of our loving God. If we see our day as lived for His purposes (Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done) and lived out of a trusting love for God, how can we lose? As Paul later states, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

This is the perspective that my friend Felix and other Whole Life Worshipers of Jesus have. God has set up this day for us to win, and we choose to live it out His way. It is our day to win or lose.

As for me, I choose to win!

How about you?

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I love meeting with God in my personal worship of Him. It is sheer pleasure; something I look forward to with great anticipation each morning.

It wasn’t always like this.

I remember times, even seasons, of my life when having a “quiet time” or “devotional” was like pulling teeth. It was hard. It was a chore. And many times, it seemed like I got nothing out of it.

But not anymore.

Sure, there are times that are drier than others. God doesn’t always “manifest” His presence when I meet with Him. And I still have to fight the urge to just “go through the motions” and “check this off my spiritual to-do list.”

There are many things that I’ve learned about this time of meeting with God, one-on-one; things that have transformed how I approach this time. And I’ve written about quite a few of them (click here for an overview of how I approach personal worship time with God).

But today I want to focus on one thing that has helped make my time with Jesus so … pleasurable. And it’s not something super spiritual or profound. In fact it’s quite “earthy” and simple:

I attach some tangible, pleasurable things to my time with God.

– I make a good, hot cup of coffee for my time with the Lord. I’ll take a sip between prayers. I’ll hold the cup in my hand and enjoy the warmth, as I reflect and meditate.

– I light a small candle at the beginning of my time. It not only reminds me of the presence of God’s Spirit with me, but it calms my heart and my mind. I’ll gaze at how it dances at the slightest wisp of air as I read aloud a passage of Scripture. In silent prayer, I will focus on its light – sensing the invitation from God to go deeper and to come closer.

– I play some very calm, soothing, but inspiring instrumental music on my iPod or computer (I highly recommend the “Music for Solitude Series” by the Transforming Center. Click here for more information). Sometimes the cadence and mood of this music fits perfectly with my readings or prayers or reflections. This causes a strong sense of closeness and intimacy in my heart towards God. This is not something I contrive or manipulate. The music is the same, and the readings/prayers are assigned (Daily Office) – but the Spirit sometimes uses them to do some amazing orchestrations in my heart!

Of course, the greatest pleasure of my time with God is simply to be with Him. But these additional pleasures prepare me for the pleasure of being with God. Much like going out with my wife to a special restaurant enhances the pleasure of being with her. The restaurant, while pleasurable in and of itself, is not the reason why I go there. It is simply a pleasurable context to enjoy the greater pleasure of being with my lover, my best friend, and my companion.

So spending time with my Lord is enhanced because of these special, pleasurable things I do to prepare my heart to meet with my Creator, Redeemer, and the Lover of my Soul.

It’s become my favorite moment of the day.

What are some pleasurable things you do to make your personal worship time with God special?

What helps you to overcome the rut of doing “spiritual tasks” in your personal worship so that you enjoy the relational aspect of being with God?

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Abiding through worship

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One of my whole life worship friends, Diane, shared with me how worshiping the Lord helps her to abide. She writes:

Finding time to worship everyday helps me to abide especially when the storms of life are raging around me. Christ is the eye of that storm. If I keep looking up at that circle of light in the eye of the storm instead of looking around at the dark clouds, then I know everything will be fine.

There is nothing like worshiping God, whether it is in song or a prayer of praise or in giving glory to His name with our bodies (standing, kneeling, lifting our hands). Worship is an act of faith, responding to who God is or what He has done. And in that act of faith, God’s presence is not just honored, but sometimes it is revealed. That’s when the “abiding” begins.

Our perspective begins to change. The things of the world, whether they are dark clouds of being overwhelmed or the grey fog of confusion or the beige-like “blahness” of going through the motions, move to the periphery and we begin to see light. We get our bearings; our compass is recalibrated from the illusions of worldly values and standards to the true North of Christ and His ways. And we begin to see the Light that gives life to our souls.

Some of us enjoy singing to God – the most popular form of worship. And I highly recommend taking some time to sing praises to God during the day. And if you can’t sing, you can hum or whistle (which my wife loves to do). Turn on your iPod and play some praise music – and join in the song!

But you don’t have to be a singer to be a worshiper. As I alluded earlier, you worship whenever you respond to the Person and Work of God. I worship God when I thoughtfully read a Psalm (especially the ones that are a part of the Daily Office). Just before I started writing this, I prayed the mid-day office. I paused and reflected and glorified God after each phrase. It took about 10 minutes. But it made a difference.

Or you can worship God by reciting a simple prayer of surrender, recognizing His greatness, His goodness, while confessing your dependency on Him. The “Jesus Prayer” is a great example of such a simple prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”) You can pray that in your car or at your desk or when you are walking across the hall.

The abiding that leads to abounding doesn’t have to be hours of profound intimacy with God. It can be a moment before you do each task. It’s about finding simple ways of getting “God on your mind, Christ in your heart and the Spirit flowing through your body.” And worship is the best way to start.

How do you get God more into your day?

What helps you to worship God in everyday moments?

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Abiding and Abounding

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Yesterday, my staff team did a group Lectio Divina on John 15:1-17 (for my blog on “Lectio Divina” click here). In these prayerful readings, the Lord met with us and spoke to our hearts about the relationship between “abounding” (fruitfulness in life and accomplishing God’s purposes) and “abiding” (remaining in the presence and heart of Christ as we live out our lives).

For the Christ-follower, “abounding” is a high priority. No one wants to live a wasted life; we all desire lives that are meaningful and productive. And those who have been redeemed and are being transformed by Christ desire to bring glory to God’s name through fruitful lives. Those who are called to “professional” ministry especially feel the pressure to “abound.” In some ways this can harmfully lead to connecting our ability to abound with our concepts of success/failure, our effectiveness, our livelihood, and – most dangerously – our identity.

In this passage where Jesus makes some rather strict boundaries about “abounding.”

1. “Abiding” is what we are to pursue. The focus is always on abiding first; abiding in right relationship with Christ (v. 5), of abiding in His love (v. 9), of Christ abiding in our hearts as Lord and King (v. 4), of abiding in the confidence that comes with obedience to His commands (v. 10) – particularly His law of Love (v. 12).

2. Abounding is a by-product of abiding. We don’t pursue abounding. We don’t pursue being fruitful. We become fruitful when we abide in Christ (v. 5b). Just as a fruit comes to a fruit tree when it simply is what it is, so fruit will come to a Christ-follower if we simply find our life, love, and sustenance from Him.

3. Pruning allows us to abound more (v. 2b). Pruning is part of the abiding process. When we abide, we learn to trust the Father and his love. This means we allow Him to do whatever He feels needs to be done in our lives so that we can bear more fruit. This is one of the hardest parts of abiding, as pruning comes in the form of pain, trials, disappointments, setbacks, and even deaths (of dreams, agendas, beliefs, relationships, etc.)

4. But there is great joy (v. 11) and empowerment (v. 7) to be had when we stick to abiding.

My colleagues and I have felt the pressure to “abound” from others (both within the church and outside), from ourselves, and from our culture. But Christ’s invitation to abide in Him and His love is so freeing. It is an invitation to be a Mary (rather than a Martha) and to allow Him to abound through us, rather than trying to “make things happen.” It does not mean that we are passive or fatalistic. But Christ asks us to wait on Him and move in His rhythm, presence and timing. It truly brings sanity back to ministry for us.

What helps you to abide in Christ?

How have you felt the “rat race” of trying to abound without the proper abiding?

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