“Lord, you have a problem here…”

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I was talking with a friend who had experienced a remarkable healing from cancer. It was hard to distinguish between the effectiveness of medicine and the power of prayer, but my friend, Laura, gave God the glory. Then after a number of years the cancer returned.

“I’ve told everyone God healed me. Now what?” she asked through tears.

“So what are your prayers like now?” I asked.

She said, with a smile breaking through the tears, “I’ve been saying, ‘Lord, you have a problem here!’”

I never thought of a prayer like that. At first it seemed a bit presumptuous to me, as if God were obligated to help her for the sake of his own reputation. But her spirit was humble. She was trusting God, not testing God. So I continued exploring Scripture with her prayer in mind.

You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:2-3 NIV).

Laura was not being selfish. She truly wanted people to be encouraged to trust God because of her story.

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? 10 Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! 11 So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:9-11 NLT).

Countless scriptures call us to pray based on God’s love for us as cherished children. God wants to be part of our lives and for us to be equipped for his work.

I began to realize I often limited my prayers to my own imagination. If I couldn’t see a practical, reasonable answer, then I wasn’t sure how to pray. Laura released her concern to the Lord, without any need to “filter” her request through questions like, “What’s really possible now?” or “Lord, how could you ever do this?”

I experienced a breakthrough in prayer when I realized I didn’t have the figure out the answer to my prayer. I could just lay the problem at the Lord’s feet—and let go. It wasn’t up to me to solve it. I learned to say, “Describe, don’t prescribe.” Don’t try to tell God how to make it happen.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you (1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV).

I hope you understand what I mean when I say I think God enjoys “showing off” sometimes. Not to build God’s ego—that’s ridiculous. But to delight us with the wonder of it all.

Think about God’s creativity

…with Abraham and Sarah giving birth to a child, Isaac, when they were far past child-bearing capabilities (Genesis 18);

…with Gideon doing battle with an army of 300 instead of 30,000 (Judges 7);

…with Elijah and the widow of Zerephath experiencing the miracle of God providing flour and oil for months during a time of famine (1 Kings 17).

Then there is the experience of King Jehoshaphat facing the invasion of three armies coming against Judah. He prayed, O our God, will you not execute judgment on them? For we are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). The next morning, they gathered with the choir ahead of the army and began to worship.

22 And when they began to sing and praise, the Lord set an ambush against the men of Ammon, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed. 23 For the men of Ammon and Moab rose against the inhabitants of Mount Seir, devoting them to destruction, and when they had made an end of the inhabitants of Seir, they all helped to destroy one another (2 Chronicles 20:22-23 ESV).

My faith grows when I see God work in ways I could never imagine. I love it when I look around and say, “Wow! I never saw that coming!”

If I could figure it out, I wouldn’t depend on God.

Don’t prescribe, just describe. And watch our creative God work!

 

Basics come first OR The Price of Impatience

Lombardi FootballPiano

What’s the connection between Vince Lombardi and a grand piano? It’s all about the unintended consequences of impatience.

I’ve always been interested in music. I began with trumpet in the 4th Grade band at Monfort Heights Elementary School in Cincinnati, Ohio. Then I added electric guitar  with a few of my buddies. We were a basement band– not a garage band. Eventually, I realized that playing piano (we’d now say “keyboards”) would add a great deal to my versatility. So I started lessons with the nicest teacher you could ever imagine– and that was a problem. She taught me what I wanted to know, but…

So let’s cut to Vince Lombardi, winner of the first ever AFL-NFL World Championship, later known as Super Bowl I. On January 15, 1967, Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers of the National Football League (NFL) beat the American Football League (AFL)’s Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10, at Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. (If you’re not a football fan, hang in there–I hope you’ll get something out of this…).

Lombardi did not begin with a “super” team. In July 1961 the 38 members (it’s now 53 players with a head coach and 15 assistant coaches– more than you may have wanted to know!) of the Green Bay Packers football team were gathered together for the first day of training camp. The previous season had ended with a heartbreaking defeat when the Packers squandered a lead late in the 4th quarter and lost the NFL Championship to the Philadelphia Eagles. In his best-selling book, When Pride Still Mattered: A Life Of Vince Lombardi, author David Maraniss explains what happened when Lombardi walked into training camp in the summer of 1961.

Vince took nothing for granted. He began a tradition of starting from scratch, assuming that the players were blank slates who carried over no knowledge from the year before. He began with the most elemental statement of all. “Gentlemen,” he said, holding a football in his right hand, “this is a football.”

Lombardi’s methodical coverage of the fundamentals continued throughout training camp. Though they were impatient to get to actual plays and scrimmages, each player reviewed his assignment: how to block, tackle, run, pass and catch. They opened the playbook and started from page one. At some point, Max McGee, the Packers’ Pro Bowl wide receiver, joked, “Uh, Coach, could you slow down a little? You’re going too fast for us.” Lombardi reportedly cracked a smile, but continued his obsession with the basics all the same. His team would become the best in the league at the tasks everyone else took for granted. Six months later, the Green Bay Packers beat the New York Giants 37-0 to win the NFL Championship. [adapted from a blog http://jamesclear.com/vince-lombardi-fundamentals.]

According to “A Football Life” video on Lombardi’s coaching life, his players didn’t see the ball for the first two weeks of training camp. That tried their patience! He made them focus on the fundamental physical conditioning and habits that would be essential to being productive with the football.

I see a principle here: Spiritual life must have a firm foundation in both understanding and practice. There are no shortcuts. Knowing and living the “basics” of faith are essential for growth and maturity.

“In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13 Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. 14 But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (Hebrews 5:12-14 NIV).

So back to piano. I was impatient to be able to play familiar songs as soon as possible. So my teacher taught me a few basics and then put songs in front of me I wanted to learn to play. I could figure them out, slowly, following the fingerings she wrote on the music. She wanted to motivate me—and it worked for a while. But when I discontinued my lessons, I couldn’t figure things out on my own. On the other hand, my friend, Tom, had a teacher who made him learn scales in all keys. And his teacher taught Tom to play Bach’s Two Part Inventions in all keys. Eventually, Tom could transpose (change the basic key) any piece of music on sight. He could modulate (change from one key to another through a progression of notes or chords) in a variety of ways. Tom is a master of performance on the keyboard. Me? Well, I play guitar.

You see, I was too impatient—and my dear teacher catered to me. Impatience, even for the best results, can undermine growth and success.

I’ve learned that the process is the product. Day by day, prayer by prayer, verse by verse, book by book, worship service by worship service, choice by choice, conversation by conversation, mistake-repentance-and-forgiveness by mistake-repentance-and-forgiveness, we are shaped into the likeness of Christ.

 

Sometimes it’s just being there

L_AMBIANCE BUILDING COLLAPSE
The rescue effort to retrieve 28 men from the collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza in Bridgeport, Connecticut in April 1987

It happened a long time ago—but the experience speaks to me almost daily.

On Thursday, April 23, 1987, I turned on the television at the end of one of our delightful, sun-drenched vacation days in Florida to hear the national news report on the collapse of L’Ambiance Plaza, a 13-story building under construction in Bridgeport, Connecticut—about 4 miles from our home at the time. Of the 70 men working at the site, 28 were missing under the tons of concrete and steel.

When we returned from Florida on Monday, a few days later, I immediately joined the Pastoral Care Team that was providing a round-the-clock presence at the site. By Wednesday, seven days into the disaster, they had recovered 16 bodies and were still searching for the remaining 12. I went to the disaster site from 9:00 p.m. – 2:00 a.m. for my shift on the Pastoral Care Team to be available to the families, construction workers, police, fire-fighters and medical personnel.

In all candor, I felt helpless and unimportant at the edge of the pit. They had located 4 more bodies, but it would be hours before they could get to them. What could I do?

Around midnight I was talking with one of the union bosses I’d gotten to know who’d been there from the very beginning.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Mike said, “This place is like hell — and we need to know God’s still around.”

His simple affirmation chastened me. I had fallen into the lie that the twisted pile of rubble represented the “real world” and that my “spiritual resources” were of little use. Mike didn’t expect me to dig through concrete, use a torch, operate a crane or provide medical care. He had plenty of people to do that. He needed me to be there as a visible representative of God. Not to explain. Not to fix. Simply to express God’s presence in the midst of tragedy.

We often think too little of ourselves. We forget God can move through our simple, caring presence. I think this is, in part, what Henri Nouwen (professor at Yale and Harvard, author and spiritual director) means when he calls us “living reminders.” In the following quote he speaks of ministers and pastors, but the idea applies to all Jesus’ disciples. Nouwen reminds us that our primary value is who we are as witnesses of our Lord.

What are the spiritual resources of ministers? What prevents them from becoming dull, sullen, lukewarm bureaucrats, people who have many projects, plans and appointments but who have lost their heart somewhere in the midst of their activities? … Nihls Dahl, speaking about early Christianity, says: “The first obligation of the apostle vis-a-vis [in relationship to] the community– beyond founding it– is to make the faithful remember what they have received and already know– or should know.” [Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Living Reminder: Service and Prayer in memory of Jesus Christ, Minneapolis: The Seabury Press, 1977, 11].

“Remember what you have received and already know– or should know.” And remind others, too. What should we know?

The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged”  Deuteronomy 31:8 (NIV).

But now, this is what the Lord says—
he who created you, Jacob,
he who formed you, Israel:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters,
I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers,
they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire,
you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
3 For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior (Isaiah 42:1-3).

In a world that emphasizes power, many things remind us of our lack of power: like severe weather, political conflict, terrorist attacks, buildings collapsing, addictions, “irreconcilable differences,” and natural disasters, to name a few. We, as God’s people, are living reminders to help the faithful recall the truth of the gospel and the resources of faith, hope and love God has provided in Christ. We are also witnesses to the watching world that, in spite of the worst the world can do people, God can meet them in the darkness and bring light.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses…” Acts 1:8 (NIV).

There are many ways to witness. Sometimes it’s just being there– and responding as God leads.

 

Intentional daily practices can alter history

List_Rule of Life

It’s not the big events that really shape our lives. It’s the “dailies” that determine if we will be prepared for what life brings. Too often we don’t pay attention to the quality and choices of our daily actions and interactions. Then we hear a piece of good advice or an insight and say, “Wow, I need to remember that every day!” – and promptly forget it. Then one day we run across that advice in some notes we made and say, “Oh, yeah… I sure do wish I had remembered that.”

In spiritual formation, the “memory trick” for keeping wise counsel at the forefront of our consciousness is called a “Rule of Life.”  A “rule” in this context is a set of precepts, principles, resolutions, practices, and sayings compiled to guide thoughts, words and deeds. Perhaps the most well-known rule is The Rule of St. Benedict or The Benedictine Rule, developed by Benedict of Nursia (who lived from approximately 480-550 AD) that he used to govern the life of his monastic order.

Many who’ve shaped the course of history developed a rule of life to shape their days. Martin Luther King Jr. was intentional about his spiritual and mental focus. His rule of life included:

Meditate daily on the teachings and life of Jesus.

Walk and talk in the manner of love, for God is love.

Pray daily to be used by God in order that all might be free.

Observe with both friend and foe the ordinary rules of courtesy.

Seek to perform regular service for others and the world.

When Pope John XXIII (who served from 1958 to his death in 1963) was a seminary student, he included the following elements in his rule:

Fifteen minutes of silent prayer upon rising in the morning.

Fifteen minutes of spiritual reading.

Before bed, a general examination of conscience followed by confession; then identifying issues for the next morning’s prayer.

Arranging the hours of the day to make this rule possible; setting aside specific time for prayer, study, recreation, and sleep.

Making a habit of turning the mind to God in prayer.

[Both “Rules” are cited from Marjorie J. Thompson, Soul Feast (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 139, 140.]

So here’s the fun part: what ideas would really help you be the person you know God is calling you to be? Start your list. Don’t worry about being profound, nor about being “too corny or cheesy.” This is your list, for your eyes only, to help you keep the most important things the most important things.

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is (Ephesians 5:15-17).

Dusty People

Dry Earth_Dusty People

People outside the faith have no idea that we who want to follow Jesus live in constant tension. It’s the tension between the ideal of trying to live the way Jesus calls us to live and the reality that we are, most often, just like everybody else. We struggle and fail and refuse to do what we know God wants us to do. It can be a life of constant frustration and deep discouragement as we experience the reality of the traditional prayer of confession:

…We have done those things we ought not to have done

And left undone those we ought to have done

And there is no health in us.

The disillusion and failure have taken many people away from faith. Facing this reality, however, can actually deepen our understanding of grace and our gratitude to God. It can also reshape our unbiblical expectations.

The starting point is learning, in humility, to accept the fact that we are works in progress. We are not “struck perfect” simply by expressing faith in Christ. Faith is a both an act and a process:

It is an act of commitment—like a wedding,

and a process of becoming—like a marriage.

It is like the birth of a child

and the process of that child growing to mature adulthood.

Second, it helps to realize God is not surprised by our failures. That doesn’t excuse them, but it does give us hope. As I wrote in a recent blog, “Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.”

My “trigger phrase” to awaken humility and gratitude at the same time is that we are “dusty people.” I take this concept from Psalm 103…

As a father has compassion on his children,

    so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him;

for he knows how we are formed,

    he remembers that we are dust. (Psalm 103:13-14 NIV).

God knows our limitations. God knows our personality faults and the deep scars of our experience. God knows we don’t have– and cannot get— it all together. God knows we are dust. Mortal, wounded… and redeemed by grace to be resurrected in glory.

In his book, Testament of Devotion, Thomas Kelly frequently recognizes our imperfection and provides guidance for those who are likely to be overwhelmed by failure.

“The first days and weeks and months of offering total self to God are awkward and painful, but enormously rewarding. Awkward, because it takes constant vigilance and effort and reassertions of the will, at the first level. Painful, because our lapses are so frequent, the intervals when we forget Him so long. Rewarding, because we have begun to live. But these weeks and months and perhaps even years must be passed through before He gives us greater and easier stayedness upon Himself.

“Lapses and forgettings are so frequent. Our surroundings grow so exciting. Our occupations are so exacting. But when you catch yourself again, lose no time in self-recriminations, but breathe a silent prayer for forgiveness and begin again, just where you are. Offer this broken worship up to Him and say: ‘This is what I am except Thou aid me.’ Admit no discouragement, but ever return quietly to Him and wait in His Presence.” (p. 39)

The First Letter of John reminds us,

“If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us. 2 My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One” (1 John 1:8-2:1 NIV).

Realistically, we will fail God daily– and often fail to recognize most of our sins. (And that’s a mercy, in and of itself!). God does not want us to punish ourselves with guilt and shame as the way of “self-atonement.” Instead, we cast ourselves on God’s mercy. It’s not about being perfect. It’s about faith embracing God’s grace.

 

 

Advice for a really bad day OR New Year’s Day Every Day

What do you do when you’ve had a really bad day? I’m not talking about a bad day when you’ve  experience all kinds of hassles and problems that are not necessarily of your own making. I’m talking about those bad days when you’ve really messed up:

When you’ve said or done something that you really regret;

When you’ve fallen into that thing that makes you ashamed;

Or when you’ve missed an opportunity because you lacked the courage or wisdom to act.

Bad days are part of life. The question is: what do we do about them– especially when we’ve created our own problems??

New Year’s Day is when the world gets a powerful hint of grace. It’s one of the most vivid experiences of God’s “common grace.” Common grace is a theological term for God’s continuing mercy extending to all creatures, as described by Jesus in Matthew 5:45-46:

…For [the Father] gives his sunlight to both the evil and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike.

In this case, on the first day of a new year, those who have minimal belief in God get a sense of what Jesus promises in faith, hope, grace and love. It’s a fresh start. New Year’s Day is typically the season when we try to put frustrations and failures behind us so we can move forward in positive, constructive—and dare I say redemptive—directions. We have hope that we can make the coming days different. There’s a sense of wiping the slate clean. What a great celebration! The problem is January 2 and 3 and 4…

Resolutions are rarely sustainable unless something happens in the heart.

Our hearts are changed when we accept by faith God’s love for us in Jesus Christ. Jesus took our sin upon himself as the ultimate expression of grace. He gives us that fresh start of being right with God, being released from regret and shame, and entering into the freedom God intends for us.

Take heart in this: Our sin spoils our fellowship with God, but it does not make God love us less.

The wonder of God’s grace is that it lasts, and it lasts, and it lasts. One of the most encouraging passages of Scripture that testifies to God’s continuing mercy and forgiveness is Lamentations 3:22-23,

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
    for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness (New International Version NIV).

The Book of Lamentations, attributed to the prophet Jeremiah, is a compilation of five prayers in the form of “dirge poetry” or “funeral songs” written during Judah’s judgment and exile. Even in the midst of God’s people experiencing the consequences of their sin and rebellion, Jeremiah proclaimed and celebrated the blessings of God’s mercy and faithfulness. The time of consequences will not last. God’s mercy triumphs.

This verse inspired the well-known hymn, “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” written by Thomas Obadiah Chisholm (1866-1960). Chisholm was born in Franklin, Kentucky in a log cabin and became a teacher at age sixteen. He had a powerful to conversion to Christ at age twenty-seven during a revival. He served as a Methodist minister for one year before resigning due to poor health. In 1909 Chisholm began his career as a life insurance agent. In 1923, at age fifty-seven, Chisholm wrote this popular hymn.

This hymn describes God’s faithfulness being demonstrated in God’s character, (“There is no shadow of turning (or change) with thee…), in God’s creation, seen in the consistency of nature (“Summer and winter…”), and, ultimately, in God’s redemption, described in the third stanza which says,

Pardon for Sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide,
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

We cling to God’s faithfulness when it appears God has let us down– and especially when we have let God down.

If God’s mercies are present at times of our unfaithfulness, how much more will they be present when we recognize our failure and truly seek the Lord in humility and brokenness?!

My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise (Psalm 51:17 NIV).

When you’ve had a really bad day—do what we are called to do every other day: Trust God’s faithfulness not your own performance.

How Jesus (un)dressed for success

Nativity feetAt that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.
6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them (Luke 2:1-7 NLT).

How would you expect the Creator of the Universe to be clothed if and when entering this world?

Would you expect the first garment to be a robe of rags?

These were exchanged in later years for a single robe–a seamless one.  But that was stripped from him.

A jail suit– stripes and all–can you see your Lord in it? But he didn’t even get that…

He was stripped naked and publicly exposed.

For God’s sake (literally)–please understand–this is the essence of the incarnation:

Not merely a baby cooing,

But a naked man dying.

It’s not a comfortable picture.

It’s enough to break your heart–

Enough to break it open?

 

 

Jesus’ birth makes life now matter

Nativity scene

A number of years ago, I was at a dinner gathering with people from around our community. I knew most of them by reputation, but they were not involved in the congregation I served. Cathy, the woman sitting next to me said, “Do you mind if I ask you a theological question?”

“Not at all. What’s on your mind?”

“Well, both my parents recently died. I believe they are in heaven. As I was talking to my husband about heaven, I said that I felt ready to die. I don’t want to die now and leave my family, but I believe in the Lord. Then I thought: What is the point of life in this world anyway? I mean, there are many good things in our lives, but just what is the point of this life, especially if heaven is so great and glorious?”

John, our host, chimed in, “Life here is really great—but there’s also plenty of heartache. Why not go straight to eternity?”

These questions, though new to them, are ones many have asked silently in their hearts. In one sense, these are the Ecclesiastes questions. The Book of Ecclesiastes, normally attributed to Solomon, David’s heir and King of Israel whose wealth and power were beyond comparison, dives deeply into the the futility and never-quite-satisfying nature of life. Here are the opening words:

These are the words of the Teacher, King David’s son, who ruled in Jerusalem.
2 “Everything is meaningless,” says the Teacher, “completely meaningless!”
3 What do people get for all their hard work under the sun? 4 Generations come and generations go, but the earth never changes. 5 The sun rises and the sun sets, then hurries around to rise again. 6 The wind blows south, and then turns north. Around and around it goes, blowing in circles. 7 Rivers run into the sea, but the sea is never full. Then the water returns again to the rivers and flows out again to the sea. 8 Everything is wearisome beyond description. No matter how much we see, we are never satisfied. No matter how much we hear, we are not content. (Ecclesiastes 1:1-8 New Living Translation)

Citing the cyclical nature of life, the endless repetition, the author asks, “What is the point of life when all that we do seems to add up to emptiness, vanity, and meaninglessness? Why do we keep going?”

To ask these questions is to penetrate to the meaning of life; to answer them is to grasp in a new way the very purpose of existence.

I think a partial reply is found in the verse, “To you is born this day in the City of David a Savior…” (Luke 2:11)

Jesus came to show us that part of God’s grand purpose for us includes the fullest experience of life in this world to better prepare us for the fullness of life in glory!

Jesus’ birth gives meaning to history. Jesus’ life on this earth gives meaning to my story and yours. This earthly life is our way of connecting with God now and for eternity. A passage from Forbes Robinson (1867-1904), an Anglican chaplain, presents the heroic aspect of our living now by faith. He suggests that our living “by faith and not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7) can inspire even the angels who have no experience of “faith” because they live now in God’s presence —what a fascinating thought! Robinson writes,

“If angels could envy, how they would envy us our splendid chance, to be able, in a world where everything unseen must be taken on sheer faith, in a world where the contest between the flesh and the spirit is being decided for the universe, not only to win the battle ourselves but also to win it for others! To help [another] up the mountain while you yourself are only just able to keep your foothold, to struggle through the mist together, that surely is better than to stand at the summit and beckon. You will have a hard time of it, I know; and I would like to make it smoother and to ‘let you down’ easier; but I am sure that God, who loves you even more than I do, and has absolute wisdom, will not tax you beyond your strength…” [quoted in John W. Doberstein, Minister’s Prayer Book (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress Press, 1986), 203-04].

Life is not just an exercise in waiting for heaven. Life now matters. Affirm the message of this quote, attributed to Irenaeus of Lyons (a second century church leader), “The glory of God is the human person fully alive.” God became flesh to validate as well as redeem life in this world. Live now.

 

Not a Chore! Seven Guidelines for Journaling

Blank Journal

Many people resist journaling because it feels like a chore, like an essay test, or like a duty they “should do.” I can’t tell you how many times people respond to my own testimony about journaling by saying, “I know I should journal, but I just can’t get into it.” I suggest we re-frame journaling as a valuable tool for paying attention to our inner lives, our souls. A journal is not a classroom assignment or a duty; it’s a powerful way to pay attention to your heart and mind.

A journal is more like a letter to God,

a way to focus in prayer,

a way to clear your head and process your thoughts.

A journal is like a great friend who listens on paper instead of in person.

A journal is “holy daydreaming” in ink.

A journal is a way of paying attention. Most of us lack the mental discipline to maintain focus on a consistent train of thought for a significant amount of time. Our thoughts wander, and we have to pull ourselves back to the subject time and again. Journaling keeps us engaged on a topic to the point where we gain new clarity and insight.

It takes a bit of practice to get over the “classroom syndrome” of thinking your journal has to meet a certain standard of excellence. There’s no one grading you. God especially isn’t interested in grades, any more than a parent would grade the spelling or grammar of a note from her kindergarten-age child. It’s all about the connection.

Let me get one thing out of the way: Should you use a computer or keep a notebook? I have read (though I cannot find the research reference—sorry) that there is a significant link between hand writing and heart connection. That intrigues me. I personally find the pace of writing by hand better matches the process of SoulShaping (my own word) than typing on a keyboard. I am quick to acknowledge, however, that the choice is yours. If you use a notebook, shy away from fancy leather-bound journals because they tend to make us think we’ve got be “neat and tidy” in our writing. And it’s often difficult to write in them because they don’t lie flat. I prefer an inexpensive spiral notebook with lined paper.

In previous posts I have written about the benefits of keeping a journal. Now I’d like to share some guidelines for journaling. There’s no right or wrong way to keep a journal.  The basic principle is: Does it help you better understand the Lord, yourself, and others?  Here are seven principles that can set you on the road to developing your own style:

Begin with a simple prayer.

My starting point is that my journal is a spiritual conversation with the Lord. Prayer affirms this at the outset. I use a simple prayer whenever I prepare to journal or to study or to work on a sermon, a blog or any other project. I open my hands, holding them palms up, and say, “Lord, give me what you want to give me in this time.” Trust the Holy Spirit to guide you. The Lord searches our hearts and directs us to the most important matters.

Work with feelings and perceptions.

The journal should not be a chronicle of dates and events.  The insights come from paying attention to how you felt and what you perceived about events and situations.

Trust your own insights.

If they are wrong, that will become apparent in the process of writing.  A proper sense of independence and personal authority is healthy.  After all, who, besides the Holy Spirit, is a better authority on yourself than you?

Anything goes.

Be completely free in your journal.  Write it for your eyes only, not to impress someone who may someday read it.  It is private; no one is looking over your shoulder.  You’re free to go with God over the landscape of your soul: to trudge along, to skip, to run, to roll. Draw, tell your story, write poetry, jot down phrases, record quotes, make charts, delve into memories… use whatever captures your mood and mind in that moment.

Be honest.

Don’t fool yourself with pious talk; if you feel lousy, say it.  We are free to be honest because as someone said, “The One who knows me best, loves me most.”  In honesty, we will see both the light and dark sides of our souls.  The point is to accept them and take God with us as we explore them.

There is a natural tendency to what I call “spiraling.”

This is my own term for going over the same ground again and again. The center of the spiral, the issue, may be the same, but our understanding of it is continually deepening and progressing like the widening loops of a spiral.

Discipline yourself to write positively.

The aim of the journal is to generate the energy to be an overcomer.  State the facts, record your negative feelings honestly, but then seek out the promise.

The Book of Proverbs says,

Above all else, guard your heart,
    for everything you do flows from it. (Proverbs 4:23).

Your journal is one of the most effective ways to guard your heart, to listen to the Lord, to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit around you. Write on!

[Note that I have adapted these from an article I wrote called “Keeping A Personal Journal,” Leadership, Volume III, Number 1, Winter 1982, 156-57, and later published in my book SoulShaping: Taking Care of your spiritual life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, pages 72-76].

A Servant Protests

Robert Greenleaf is credited with the term “servant leadership,” but I would say the concept goes back to countless examples in Scripture. Abraham showed servant leadership and humility when he allowed Lot to choose his portion of land (Genesis 13:8-9). Moses demonstrated servant leadership time and again when he made personal sacrifices and interceded for God’s people in the wilderness (Exodus 32:11-14). And David showed servant leadership in his valuing of his men (2 Samuel 23:13-17). But Jesus is The Model of servant leadership. Jesus’ example and teaching made it very clear that leadership is not about accruing power to the leader, but using whatever resources the leader has for the benefit of those in her or his care.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45 NIV)

For those “outside” the leadership task, this may seem like a fairly straightforward paradigm. When a person tries to live into this servant calling, however, the cost becomes very clear.

I remember my own sense of call to ministry and saying to God, “O.K., Lord, I’ll serve you.” I hadn’t realized I expected to serve on my own terms.

When I protested the long hours, the Lord said, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. Time is not your’s to keep. Time is my gift to you. I promise you time enough for my work now and your Sabbath refreshment. Keep your heart focused on an eternity of joy.”

When I longed for rewards, the Lord smiled, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. The rewards I have for you are beyond comparison. You’re looking in the wrong place for them.”

When I asked for the pain to be removed, the Lord said, “But I heard you say you’d be my servant. My service is to the human heart– a place of pain. You will feel the pain of those who are broken. That is the only way I can heal.”

When I complained because I felt so alone, the Lord said, “Alone? You are never alone. But if you’re wrapped up in yourself, you miss me. I am with you. Always. You don’t seem to take that very seriously. Believe! And I have given you my children, too. You’ll find they’re a lot like you.”

In the silence of the moment, I realized that the Master of the Universe was not a tyrant, but my Father. His only son rolled up his sleeves to sweat and serve among us. This Jesus was and is the Servant King to whom no nobility can compare.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: 
Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)

“O.K., Lord, I really do want to be your servant. It’s not easy for me. And I’ll probably start grumbling again. I’m not even sure I have what it takes. But, if you’ll have me, I’m yours.”

And I heard God’s gracious response, “I want you — now and forever. And remember, as you serve me, I serve you .”

Adapted from Douglas J. Rumford, What About Heaven and Hell, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000, p. 124.