Meditation and Prayer: Kindle the Fire

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Do we not miss very much of the sweetness and efficacy of prayer by a want of careful meditation before it, and of hopeful expectation after it? . . . We too often rush into the presence of God without forethought or humility. We are like people who present themselves before a king without a petition, and what wonder is it that we often miss the end of prayer? We should be careful to keep the stream of meditation always running, for this is the water to drive the mill of prayer. It is idle to put up the floodgates of a dry brook and then hope to see the wheel revolve. Prayer without fervency is like hunting with a dead dog, and prayer without preparation is like hawking with a blind falcon. Prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit, but He works by means. . . The Holy Ghost is the author of prayer, but He employs the thoughts of a fervent soul as the gold with which to fashion the vessel. Let our prayers and praises be not the flashes of a hot and hasty brain but the steady burning of a well-kindled fire.

Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon and the Psalms, Commenting on Psalm 5

When teaching the Christian spiritual disciplines I have encountered a surprising amount of resistance when introducing meditation. Most students think of meditation as only emptying the mind, and not, as is prescribed in the Scriptures, of filling the mind with the things and thoughts of God.

Here is Charles Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher, comparing meditation to water that powers a mill, a hunt, hawking, gold, and fire. He says the meditating person is a person prepared to petition and praise God. Why? Because a person who thinks on the things and thoughts of God supplies the Holy Spirit with material from which to draw and choose for the occasion, the moment, of address.

Meditation invites God to refashion, reform, and renew our minds, not only so that we might think more clearly in relationship to God and God’s kingdom, so that we might converse more plainly, accurately, and cogently with the God who has called us into fellowship.

Think on the things and thoughts of God.

Peace in Battle

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Last Thursday I read J. C. Ryle’s tract Fighting for Holiness and came across the following:

We may take comfort about our souls if we know anything of an inward fight and conflict. It is the invariable companion of genuine Christian holiness. It is not everything, I am well aware, but it is something. Do we find in our heart of hearts a spiritual struggle? Do we feel anything of the flesh lusting against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh, so that we cannot do the things we would (Gal. 5:17)? Are we conscious of two principles within us, contending for the mastery? Do we feel anything of war in our inward man? Well, let us thank God for it! It is a good sign. It is strongly probable evidence of the great work of sanctification. All true saints are soldiers. Anything is better than apathy, stagnation, deadness, and indifference. We are in a better state than many. The most of so-0ccalled Christians have no feeling at all. We are evidently no friends of Satan. Like the kings of this world, he wars not against his own subjects. The very fact that he assaults us should fill our minds with hope. I say again, let us take comfort. The child of God has two great marks about him, and of these two we have one: He may be known by his inward warfare, as well as by his inward peace.

J. C. Ryle, Fighting for Holiness [affiliate link]

The things you read while sitting in a quiet corner of a coffee shop.

I shared with friends that Ryle was addressing a movement in his own time, which continue to be present today, that we should simply rest in God, to “not wrestle, only nestle,” or, more popularly now, “let go and let God.” Ryle was writing in the latter half of the 1800s. Pendulums swing.

Resting and contending, both, are found in the witness of Scripture. More than one thing can be true at the same time. Our present struggles, though unpleasant, can be used by God for our good, and as Ryle says, they may be “evidence of the great work of sanctification” and a sign that we are spiritually alive. Ryle’s statement that Satan “wars not against his own subject” should stiffen our spines when we do experience the “inward warfare.” If we weren’t a threat, we would not be assailed by the powers of hell.

Whatever your trials, troubles, are temptations, stand firm. God is at work, drawing us into a deeper, fuller life. Don’t grow weary. Continue the pursuit; keep up the fight.

A Human Being Like Ourselves

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Perhaps it may be well explicitly to note that our Lord’s emotions fulfilled themselves, as ours do, in physical reactions. He who hungered (Mt. iv.2), thirsted (Jno. xix. 20), was weary (Jno. iv. 6), who knew both physical pain and pleasure, expressed also in bodily affections the emotions that stirred his soul. That he did so is sufficiently evinced by the simple circumstance that these emotions were observed and recorded. But the bodily expression of the emotions is also frequently expressly attested.Not only do we read that he wept (Jno. xi. 35) and wailed (Lk. xix. 41),sighed (Mk. vii. 34) and groaned (Mk. viii. 12) ; but we read also of his angry glare (Mk. iii. 5), his annoyed speech (Mk. x. 14), his chiding words(e. g. Mk. iii. 12), the outbreaking ebullition of his rage (e.g. Jno. xi. 33,38) ; of the agitation of his bearing when under strong feeling (Jno. xi.35), the open exultation of his joy (Lk. x. 21), the unrest of his movements in the face of anticipated evils (Mt. xxvii. 37), the loud cry which was wrung from him in his moment of desolation (Mt. xxvii. 46). Nothing is lacking to make the impression strong that we have before us in Jesus a human being like ourselves.

B. B. Warfield, The Emotional Life of Our Lord, p. 96-97

Christians believe Jesus was (and is) fully human and fully divine.

This teaching was clarified and affirmed at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. As noted in this article, the Chalcedonian Definition is not a confession or creed, but is, rather, an explanation or commentary on a series of terms appearing in the Nicene Creed, detailing for us how the Nicene Creed should be understood with regard to Jesus’ nature and essence.

When Christians says the Son came down from heaven in the incarnation and was born as a human being, what does this mean for his divinity? And what does his divinity mean for his humanity?

These were challenging questions for the early church. They remain challenging questions for us today. But, as then, so now; these questions remain relevant. In his humanity, Jesus identified fully with us. In his divinity, Jesus accomplished for us what we could not accomplish for ourselves.

B. B. Warfield’s essay The Emotional Life of Our Lord examines the witness of the Evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), and shows us the ways in which Jesus displayed emotion, that he was “a human being like ourselves.”

In my pastoral ministry experience, I have found that it is common for those inside the church to easily see Jesus as divine, but to be reticent to understand him as a human being, like us.

And with those outside the church, I have found that people are compelled by and interested in Jesus as a human being, but are very hesitant to believe that he was and is divine, worthy of our adoration and worship.

Jesus fulfilled the Law by keeping it perfectly, and by paying the penalty for its transgression as our substitute.

Jesus was (and is) both fully human and fully divine.

Warfield’s entire essay can be read here.

Calling: Adjusting the Dials

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We think that a correct theology of calling can and will apply to all Christians, but not so the all-too-popular individualized understanding. Or better yet, we contend that a more faithful theology of calling will help direct the shape of a believer’s life no matter what their current circumstances. Put still another way, we contend that a theology of calling that is truly faithful to Scripture and not just pious language must apply to all Christians at all times and in all places. An overly individualized and specific view of calling as popularly presented just does not work. It ends up limiting more than it liberates.

William W. Klein and Daniel J. Steiner, What is My Calling? A Biblical and Theological Exploration of Christian Identity

This summer three new titles on vocation and calling landed on my desk for review, and the first of those titles I have picked up to read has been published by Baker Academic: William W. Klein and Daniel J. Steiner’s What is My Calling?

Klein and Steiner contend that current Christian discourse on calling, or the words we use and how they shape culture, distort, mislead, and malform Christians more than they clarify, direct, and aid in faithfulness. In a survey of the literature, the authors find that the vast majority of the current writing on calling focuses more on the individual and unique circumstances than it does the universal call to follow Jesus as his disciple.

Furthermore, by equating job-as-vocation with the idea of calling, the authors observe that the stress is frequently misplaced. Christians downgrade a variety of jobs and fields as possibilities because of a subjective feeling that it is not right for them. Christians can also identify job satisfaction or fulfillment (“living your passion”) as the key signifier they are living according God’s will. A great deal of modern discourse on calling puts the individual at the center of inquiry, and not God. That’s a mistake.

This way of approaching calling introduces a variety of problems. These criteria may work for some, but not all. Klein and Steiner ask us to consider the biblical witness and the ways Christians in other eras have approached calling in an effort to free us from our current individualized approach.

As I’m reading this book, I think that project is worthwhile. But I also suspect that Klein and Steiner have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction.

In an effort to standardize our discourse on calling and avoid the pitfalls of subjective assessments Christians attach to their testimony about calling, they draw our attention back to the universals, such as the calling all people have to live as disciples of Jesus.

But in doing so, they minimize the biblical witness concerning the leading of the Holy Spirit, the responsibility of the believer to discern God’s will, and the active and near presence of Christ as advocate, counselor, teacher, and guide. In an effort to clean up the messes created by our commonly used words about calling, they sterilize the environment in which callings are clarified and worked out–the chaos and disorder of our everyday lives.

I’m still thinking about these ideas. When I speak with brothers and sisters in Christ, I do make distinctions in our understanding of calling.

First, I emphasize the calling of all Christians, which is to take up the cross and to follow Jesus, to become his apprentice, to learn his way, to declare allegiance to him, and to demonstrate complete trust and confidence in him. This dimension of our calling to Christ is universal and shared.

Secondly, I invite everyone to consider everyday faithfulness and the specific, particular outworking of that first and primary calling. This dimension of calling is individual and unique.

Klein and Steiner’s point, however, is well taken.

If anything, I think the dial on universal calling needs to be turned way up, while the dial concerning individual calling needs to be turned way down.

Everyone wants to know and do God’s will but no one wants to follow Jesus and become like him.

We want to know what to study in college, where we’re supposed to work, who we’re supposed to marry, where we’re supposed to live, etc. And if we follow Jesus and become like him, that’s a bonus.

But if we inverted our pursuits, if we contented ourselves with following Jesus and allowing him to remake us according to his image and way, knowing and doing God’s will is assured. Those other identity pursuits have been satisfied; the associated idols have been long cast aside. We will have found our calling, because we have entrusted ourselves fully to the Caller.

When You Want the Preacher to Move On

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I’ve been poking around the Paul Powell Legacy Library, an online resource that contains audio, video, and writings from the aforementioned Texas Baptist preacher, who served as pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas for seventeen years. Paul was and continues to be an influential person in my life.

One of those audio files is called, “Funny Stories I Like to Tell.” The audio runs forty five minutes. That’s a lot of jokes.

Paul sets up one of these jokes by inviting the people of Park Cities Baptist Church in Dallas, whom Paul was then serving as interim, to pray for the pulpit committee. Paul said that it is harder to get rid of a preacher than it is to find one, and that’s why it is important to call a good one, and to pray for those who are responsible for the search.

Paul then said:

A church had a pompous preacher they wanted to get rid of. They prayed that he would leave. They recommended him everywhere. But no one would call him.

Finally he received a call to be a pastor in another place. The Sunday he resigned he said, “When I came here five years ago, Jesus led me here. And now Jesus is leading me away.”

When he was finished the chairman of the deacons stood and said, “Let’s all sing, ‘What a Friend We Have in Jesus.’”

Brother Paul was known for his sense of humor, and even compiled a number of his jokes in a book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Retirement.

I think humor is such an indispensable quality to look for in a leader, not only for the capacity to make others laugh, but in the ability to laugh at your own goofs, mess ups, and mistakes. When I find a good joke, I like to hang on to it.

And to tell it.

A Review: Spurgeon and the Psalms

From Thomas Nelson, a new issue of the Psalms with devotions from C. H. Spurgeon, the “prince of preachers.”

One mainstay of baptist piety that has stuck with me over the years is the daily quiet time. I begin each day with a reading from Scripture, a selection from the Psalms, a devotional reading, and prayer.

Thomas Nelson has released a new edition of Spurgeon and the Psalms [affiliate link], and with this volume, plus a cup of coffee, I have all I need to begin my day in meditation on God’s wonders and works.

In his preface, Charles H. Spurgeon said of the Psalms:

No one needs better company than the Psalms; therein we may read and commune with friends human and divine, friends who know the heart of people toward God and the heart of God towards people, friends who perfectly sympathize with our sorrows, friends who never betray or forsake. Oh, to be shut up in a cave with David, with no other occupation but to hear him sing and to sing with him! Well might a Christian monarch lay aside his crown for such enjoyment and a believing pauper find a crown in such felicity.

Spurgeon loved the Psalms and found much sweetness in them. We can, too.

A Leathersoft cover, with gold gilding.

This volume contains each of the one hundred and fifty psalms–the complete psalter–plus the brief reflections of Spurgeon on each psalm. Of his time in reflecting and writing on these portions from Scripture, Spurgeon wrote:

The delightful study of the Psalms has yielded me boundless profit and ever-growing pleasure; common gratitude constrains me to communicate to others the benefit, with the prayer that it may induce them to search further for themselves. That I have nothing better of my own to offer upon this peerless book is to me a matter of deepest regret; that I have anything whatever to present is subject for devout gratitude to the Lord of grace. I have done my best, but, conscious of many defects, I heartily wish I could have done far better.

That’s Spurgeon’s way of saying, “Thanks to God for the good relayed here and for the grace leading to my writing any truth found in these words. All errors remain my own.”

Charles H. Spurgeon lived from 1834 to 1892, and was the best known preacher of his day. He was a Baptist, and pastored New Park Street Chapel (more widely known as the Metropolitan Tabernacle) in London for thirty eight years.

The volume open, containing a bookmark. At right, you can see Spurgeon’s short reflection, followed by the psalm.

Spurgeon and the Psalms contains readings from the New King James Version translation of the Bible. Spurgeon’s prose continues to sing out with melody, a fitting accompaniment to a Bible translation that both seeks to maintain the lyric nature of the KJV while making it more accessible to the modern reader.

You can find a copy of this book at Amazon, linked above, or by visiting the FaithGateway store. I received this volume for review, for free, as a member of Bible Gateway’s Blogger Grid. Bible Gateway continues to be a valuable resource for me in reading and researching the Scriptures.

I enjoyed holding, reading, and exploring this new volume of Spurgeon and the Psalms. I found one error, within, on a dog-eared corner of Psalm 129, folded prior to the manuscript being cut and then bound. It’s nothing scissors and a steady hand can’t fix–and, I trust, an anomaly in the printing process.

If you’re looking for a new daily devotional and a faithful guide through the psalter, consider this one.

What is Spiritual Formation?

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Spiritual formation is the lifelong journey of being transformed by the love of the Father into the image of Jesus by the gracious movement of God’s Spirit, in order to live an abundant life of trust, rest, hope, and joy, accompanied by suffering and sorrow, for the sake of God’s kingdom and glory and the fulfillment of his mission of grace, justice, mercy, and peace for all.

Stephen Macchia, The Discerning Life: An Invitation to Notice God in Everything, p. 127

I serve as the Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. When I tell people my job title, I get a lot of confused looks and comments like “Cool” or “That’s interesting.”

Most people aren’t familiar with the term “spiritual formation.” They are much more familiar with the term discipleship.

When I’m asked what Christian spiritual formation is, I tell people it is the process by which we become like Jesus. I add that the goal of spiritual formation is to grow to maturity, becoming the person who God in Christ designed, redeemed, and now calls you to be.

I like Dallas Willard’s explanation too, which says that spiritual formation “for the Christian basically refers to the Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”

Stephen Macchia’s definition is a mouthful. But that’s because there are worlds contained within the statement, “Discipleship is how we grow to become like Jesus.” He tries to relay the Trinitarian nature of Christian spiritual formation, the fruit of life with God, the acknowledgement that the path is, at times, difficult, and that the process is not only for the individual, but is part of God’s program for redeeming and renewing all things.

We’re all receiving a formation. It’s only a question of what kind of formation we are receiving.

Top Gun: Maverick – Woo!

I’m not the world’s greatest movie critic. My rating scale is simple:

  • Hated it.
  • One big okay.
  • Good.
  • Awesome. I recommend it. 48 hours later, I’m still thinking about it.

Top Gun: Maverick strikes all the right notes for me. The first official trailer dropped in 2019. There’s a nostalgia factor for me that’s off the charts. The franchise anthem gives me goose bumps. I’m a sucker for action films (I’ve watched a lot of bad ones). Most of the action films I like were made in the 1980s. The movie industry had a few great action stars, clear and compelling villains that could play off our foreign policy concerns, and the limits on special effects kept run times between 90 minutes and two hours.

Top Gun was one of those “good” action films that I enjoyed as a young person, albeit in the edited-for-television format. The first movie debuted when I was seven years old. But Kenny Loggins’ hit “Danger Zone” had been cemented in my mind thanks to radio play, and as a Nintendo kid, the 1987 Konami Game was a staple among my friends.

I also am a fan of Tom Cruise. Like a lot of people, his acts of insanity in the early 2000s turned me away from a while. But after Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Rogue Nation, and my enjoyment of his performance in Edge of Tomorrow (science fiction is another favorite genre of mine), I was back on board. I was happy to see him back in the role of Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell, too. I wanted to see what an older Cruise would bring to the character. I wasn’t disappointed.

Top Gun: Maverick has a lot of throw-backs to the original film. A friend said that the movie lacked the number of great one-liners the original film had, and that the score wasn’t as good. He immediately went to the comparison game. But both movies can be great, in their own way.

This film has a faceless, nameless enemy. It has a battle plot that exactly parallels the final run on the Death Star in Star Wars: A New Hope (also known as “Star Wars“).

It contains a romance subplot between Mitchell and Penny Benjamin, a single mom and local bar owner, played by Jennifer Connelly.

The main plot driver is that of the relationship between Captain Mitchell and Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw, son of Nick “Goose” Bradshaw, whom we know from the original film. Not only does Mitchell still carry feelings of guilt from Goose’s death, he sees himself as a failed father-figure for Rooster, too, and is resented for it.

The film also comments on the need for the older generation to hand the baton to an emerging generation, and old debates over technology–its use, advantages, and disadvantages. In this film, the case is made for the human pilot over and against drone technology.

And it all works.

When this movie was over and the credits rolled, I had seen everything I had wanted. There was great action, character development, and plenty of thrills. This movie was a wonderful depiction of the miracle of aviation, the valor of military service, the stakes in warfare, was filled with incredible camerawork and stunning color, had moments of humor and tenderness, and was a lot of fun. Molly liked it, too.

It was awesome. I recommend it. More than 48 hours later, I’m still thinking about it.