Cut-Flower Syndrome

Withered Flowers shutterstock_180107483

Many in our day have what I call a cut-flower mentality. They focus on the immediate experience of the “flower,” neglecting the need for roots that sustain the plant. It is normal and appropriate to enjoy flowers, but that enjoyment will be short-lived without the long-term nurture of the plant.

This is especially problematic in matters of faith. Many followers of Jesus suffer from “cut-flower syndrome” in the primary areas of biblical knowledge, theology and worship. Without roots, they are subject to being tossed about by fads and pressures instead of standing firm in confidence and understanding.

Immediate experience and crowd-sourced values are real liabilities when it comes to living as a disciple. This leads to situations where our judgments and practices are based on personal preferences and subjective evaluations, rather than drawing on God’s Word. We think we have to figure everything out for ourselves instead of drawing on the witness and careful thinking of God’s people across the ages.

In his book, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, Michael Horton quoted an article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker Magazine about the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture.

“The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was ‘good’ in the sense of ‘valuable,’ were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define ‘good’ in terms of ‘popular.’ A ‘hierarchy of hotness’ replaced the older hierarchy of value and there was no such things as poor taste anymore, just different tastes… These judgments do not depend on knowledge of the canon, tradition, history, or some shared set of standards as to what constitutes ‘good taste’ to give them weight; this kind of taste is more appetite than disinterested judgement” (Horton, 191).

Deep waters, I know. So why is this such a big deal? How does this affect our hearts and minds? Here’s the point: If nothing is intrinsically true, good, and beautiful–and therefore superior to other things that are not quite as true, good or beautiful– everything is a matter of taste, or personal preference. And all we have are today’s cut flowers, which wither quickly.

I confronted my own cut-flower mentality during seminary.

I really struggled with impatience during the three years it took to complete my seminary education. I wanted to get out on the front lines of ministry. When I finally did get “out there,” however, I quickly realized that my education was an invaluable resource to sustain ministry in depth and breadth. In other words, I had some roots. I, in no way, had all the answers, but I knew where to look for more understanding. I, in no way, was prepared for the demands I faced, but I had reference points in Scripture, theology, church history, practical theology and counseling (to name just a few areas) that helped me better frame the questions and issues.

You don’t have to go to seminary, however, to develop roots. To change metaphors, when we develop depth through the renewing of our minds, we move from the burden of having a glass we rely on ourselves to fill to the joy of tapping the well of Living Water (John 7:37-38).

Deep roots drawing on Living Water– that’s key to spiritual vitality. It reminds me of this wonderful verse in Genesis:

Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them (Genesis 26:18 NIV).

I love the image of reopening the wells. First, it speaks to the reality that the wells of truth and grace have been blocked by forces that stand against us. But we are also reminded of the promise that we can find fresh water from old sources. Isaac didn’t just dig new wells. He went back to the old wells that still had so much to give.

There are too many applications for me to develop now, so I’ll close with a few simple questions. Are you putting down roots, deep roots in your faith? Roots that draw on the life-giving waters of Scripture? Roots that draw from the wells of the thoughts and experiences of dear saints who have hard-won insight to share?

Enjoy the flowers– but, more importantly, put down roots.

Holy Imagination and Bible Meditation

Bible with Dramatic Sky_Imagination_shutterstock_660389860

I am always amazed at the depths awaiting us in both study and meditation on Scripture.

We easily understand the concept of studying the Bible. The most basic method for personal and group study is often called the inductive Bible study method. It is based on three steps. Observation: What does it say? Interpretation: What does it mean? And application: How do I apply what I learn in my life? We could call study “cognitive meditation” because it uses the analytic functions of the left hemisphere of our brains to come to understanding.

Meditation, however, is a different approach to God’s Word. Meditation is a word that often makes Christians nervous. They rightly think of the problems of “eastern mediation.” “Eastern religions… usually stress the painstaking discipline by which one detaches oneself from the world, losing personhood or individuality and merging with the Cosmic Mind to become one with pure consciousness” (Morton T. Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence, New York; Paulist Press, 1976, p. 1). I heartily agree that Jesus’ followers do not follow that path. We do not empty our minds; we fill our minds and hearts with God’s Word.

Christian meditation is different from study. To meditate means to “murmur” over and over. We could also use the metaphor of rumination, like a cow chewing its cud over and over. Meditation moves from analysis to encounter. Like Mary (Luke 2:19), we ponder God’s word in our hearts.

The Lord clearly call us to meditate on Scripture.

Oh, the joys of those who do not

    follow the advice of the wicked,

    or stand around with sinners,

    or join in with mockers.

2 But they delight in the law of the Lord,

    meditating on it day and night (Psalm 1:1-2 NLT).

In discursive meditation (‘discursive’ because it a type of dialogue with God’s Word) we tap the intuitive functions of the right hemisphere our brain. Discursive meditation is visual and symbolic, connected to stories, art, the physical body, and movement. My own definition of discursive mediation is “encountering the living Lord through the written Word by the power of the God-given faculty of imagination.” (SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, p. 254).

What does it look like when we use our holy imaginations to enter into God’s Word? We slow down and imagine the scene. We consider the characters and may even have an imaginary dialogue with one of them.

Let me share an example from my meditation on Luke 18:1-8, when I entered into a brief imaginative dialogue with the desperate widow who persistently “pestered” the unjust judge.

DOUG:      Why did the judge refuse you?

WIDOW:  Look at me. I’m an old woman. What favor could he gain? He chose cases that served his ends.

DOUG:      How could you keep going after being rejected time after time?

WIDOW:  This wasn’t a matter of convenience for me. Without justice, I could not survive. I was not asking for riches, nor for ease, comfort or vengeance; only for the justice of receiving what was mine.

DOUG:      What would you say to me?

WIDOW:  You value too little too lightly. You have so much that your true desires run shallow. You want– you get. You lose– you replace.

DOUG:      Is something wrong with me?

WIDOW:  You are distracted

DOUG:      And I have rarely faced my helplessness. I run from situations where it’s exposed.

WIDOW:  You aren’t running now, but sometimes you start to coast or divert your energies. Focus and persist.*

The power of this meditation was the insight I “received” from the widow. I don’t fully understand how this happens. And I certainly do not believe I was in dialogue with any true being. But the Holy Spirit, working through my meditation, revealed insights that “ring true,” calling me to repentance and faith. That’s the “test” for a useful meditation.

Holy imagination can break the spell of boredom and disinterest, leading us into ever-fresh encounters with the Lord in Scripture.

*(I first published this dialogue in my book, What About Spiritual Warfare?, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000, p. 78).

Billy Graham’s Doubts

Doug & Billy Graham
Meeting with Dr. Graham in Kansas City in 2004

The death of Dr. Billy Graham brought back some very special memories for me. Dr. Graham handed me my diploma at graduation from Gordon-Conwell Seminary. Then, over 25 years later, I had the privilege of being part of the pastors’ invitation team for Billy’s final full crusade in Kansas City, at Arrowhead Stadium, October 7-10, 2004. More on that in a moment.

First, let me share a story that has had a powerful impact on me about how he handled his personal doubts and misgivings about God’s Word. Billy described this situation in an article in the very first issue of the magazine he helped found, Christianity Today, published on October 15, 1956. Here is a portion of it (reprinted in Christianity Today, October 22, 1976) in his own words:

In 1949 I had been having a great many doubts concerning the Bible. I thought I saw apparent contradictions in Scripture. Some things I could not reconcile with my restricted concept of God. When I stood up to preach, the authoritative note so characteristic of all great preachers of the past was lacking. Like hundreds of other young seminary students, I was waging the intellectual battle of my life. The outcome could certainly affect my future ministry.

In August of that year I had been invited to Forest Home, a Presbyterian conference center high in the mountains outside Los Angeles. I remember walking down a trail, tramping into the woods, and almost wrestling with God. I dueled with my doubts, and my soul seemed to be caught in the crossfire. Finally, in desperation, I surrendered my will to the living God revealed in Scripture. I knelt before the open Bible and said: “Lord, many things in this Book I do not understand. But thou hast said, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ All I have received from thee, I have taken by faith. Here and now, by faith, I accept the Bible as thy Word. I take it all. I take it without reservations. Where there are things I cannot understand, I will reserve judgment until I receive more light. If this pleases thee, give me authority as I proclaim thy Word, and through that authority convict me of sin and turn sinners to the Savior.”

Within six weeks we started our Los Angeles crusade, which is now history. During that crusade I discovered the secret that changed my ministry. I stopped trying to prove that the Bible was true. I had settled in my own mind that it was, and this faith was conveyed to the audience. Over and over again I found myself saying, “The Bible says….”  I felt as though I were merely a voice through which the Holy Spirit was speaking.

Authority created faith. Faith generated response, and hundreds of people were impelled to come to Christ. A crusade scheduled for three weeks lengthened into eight weeks, with hundreds of thousands of people in attendance. The people were not coming to hear great oratory, nor were they interested merely in my ideas. I found they were desperately hungry to hear what God had to say through his Holy Word.

I saw that faith demonstrated at the 2004 Kansas City Crusade when I sat on the platform with Dr. Graham. What I remember most is how frail he seemed—until he stepped up to preach. At that moment, he was 30 years younger! It was like he grew in size and energy—like going from a lamb to a lion. And then, when he completed his message and invitation, he was back to the lamb.

For the word of God is alive and active” Hebrews 4:12 (NIV)

God’s Word is Living and Active—in more ways that we can imagine. Thank you, Dr. Graham, for being a witness to that. Glory to God.




Being content when it doesn’t make sense

Even in the midst of dementia, my dad found contentment through God’s Word.

One of the saddest moments in my life was realizing my dad was suffering from dementia. The moment of that realization is another story. What stands out more than the sadness (and the fear that this dreaded condition may lie ahead for me), however, was a phrase my dad used frequently in the midst of his terrible confusion. He would often quote Philippians 4:11, King James Version, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.” Those words had a new depth of meaning coming from a man whose mind was betraying him.

It seems to me that contentment was, at some level beyond his compromised cognitive processes, dad’s defense against despair. This verse was the voice of his “inner coach” continually reminding him that God’s presence and care were his comfort and strength.

My experience with dad reinforced the fact that life-choices accumulate. The attitudes we nurture now will either help or hinder our adjustment to the challenges ahead. Beyond attitudes, our choice to soak, to marinate, in God’s Word reaches our hearts and minds in ways we may never fully appreciate. Psalm 119:11 says, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (KJV). This verse has a broader application than keeping us from sin. God’s Word keeps us focused on the mind of Christ.

God’s Word had taken such deep root in my dad’s heart and spirit that even dementia couldn’t smother it. I realize this may not be a common experience for many in dementia, but it gives me hope– and a determination to continue to devote myself to hiding God’s Word in my heart.

I’m also cultivating contentment in a culture of discontent. Learning to be content today will pay rich dividends now and into the future.  Contentment appreciates what we have in life and in Christ. Contentment sees all things in the light of eternity. And above all, contentment trusts God’s wisdom and care, often in spite of appearances.


Tags dementia, Philippians 4:11 Psalms 119:11 1 Corinthians 2:16