Loving Those Closest, Loving Those Far

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Paul will not permit us to compensate for neglecting those nearest us by advertising our compassion for those on another continent. Jesus, it must be remembered, restricted nine-tenths of his ministry to twelve Jews because it was the only way to redeem all Americans. He couldn’t be bothered, said Martin Thornton, with the foreign Canaanites because his work was to save the whole world. The check for the starving child must still be written and the missionary sent, but as an extension of what we are doing at home, not as an exemption from it.

Eugene Peterson, Traveling Light: Galatians and the Free Life in Christ, p. 184

For those in Christ, our loving concern is to be extended to every human being, reaching as far as those whom we are furthest from. But it must not bypass those nearest to us. It must encompass and encounter those in our orbit. It must be given to those we look upon every day, particulary our family, and even our enemies, of whom it has been said are often one and the same. Love begins in the neighborhood, and for householders, in the home.

This is a grand mystery. We are commanded to love. We are commanded to love those in the household of faith. We are commanded to demonstrate love for the world in the same manner Jesus demonstrated his love for us. We are to act in loving concern for those who are suffering, those who are downtrodden, wherever they may be found. We are called to go to the nations. We are sent into the world. We often miss the opportunities that are right in front of our faces, foregoing faithful, straightforward obedience in our immediate circumstances for the pursuit of some grand purpose or glorious cause.

This observation is not meant to condemn. Rather, it is intended to invite reflection and discernment. I have long puzzled over the Christian compulsion to pursue grand ambitions in faraway places to the neglect of fellow citizens sharing the same city or state. And yet, some of these grand efforts have acheived great good, leading to transformation and faith. Work has been done in the name of Christ. Nevertheless, it seems we choose to go around people in order to get to other people whom we believe really need the love of Christ, rather than tending first to the needs of those where we are.

Above, Eugene Peterson resolves the tension by reminding us that ultimately the command to love is fulfilled by way of a both/and rather than an either/or, and that the calling to love in the Christian life is one of integrity. If we extend love to those far away, we had better be faithfullly loving those right here.

I confess I am not as successful in keeping the command to love as well as I would hope. It is not an easy command to keep. In order to demonstrate love for humanity, the Son of God crossed the veil separating heaven from earth. He put off divinity and put on flesh. He left a throne for a manger. He set aside the privileges of deity for poverty. He left the security and stability of God’s throneroom and became a refugee. The Ancient of Days became a baby. He left the position of Creator and took a job as a carpenter. He left home in the Galilean countryside and instead became one who had no place to lay his head. The one who came to us as life and light was plunged into death and darkness. He was propelled to obedience through love, a love for the Father, and a love for us. Jesus put aside a lot, for love.

When I see a love like that, I find a reservoir from which I can draw which is not only a well, but a river of life, which Jesus said springs up in those who embrace him and enter his kingdom. As an eternal spring, its supply is ample for those who are near and for those who are far, both. We cannot exhaust it. It is the love of God.

Resting in the Hands of God’s Care

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Personally, at the beginning of my day–often before arising–I commit my day to the Lord’s care. Usually I do this while meditatively praying through the Lord’s Prayer, and possibly the twenty-third Psalm as well. Then I meet everything that happens as sent or at least permitted by God. I meet it resting in the hands of his care. This helps me to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (Philippians 2:14), because I have already “placed God in charge” and am trusting him to manage them for my good. I no longer have to manage the weather, planes, and other people.

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, p. 70

There are many avenues by which we may choose to walk with God through life. Signposts, however, do help. Dallas Willard reported beginning each day with the discipline of committing all that would unfold “to the Lord’s care.” There is a natural connection to the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm 23. Both of those prayers declare that God is in charge and that provision and protection are available in God’s kingdom. Willard would mediate, or set his thoughts upon, these passages from Scripture, reminding himself God was worthy of trust and God’s power was available to those who call upon him.

Techniques do not bring us closer to God, but the testimonies of those who have gone before us can be suggestive for how we, too, might walk as companions of Christ. It is God’s grace that makes us holy.

The spiritual disciples are wise ways of seeking God, gifts from God that help us in the seeking. They have proven profitable for others who have longed to know God more fully; God continues to meet people through them. To take up a discipline is an act of faith. The discipline of turning the day over to God, acknowledging human limitations and declaring our trust anew, refocuses our vision, humbles our hearts, and heightens our awareness of the subtleties and, on occasion, the thunderclaps of God’s action. Remember, God raised a man from the dead (among other miracles), and some missed it. Turning the day over to God also allows us to relax. We don’t have to make it happen. God is at work.

A Christian spiritual practice like Willard describes would only take moments to complete each day. But it would make a difference, not only for one day, but maybe for a life.

What commitments do you keep? What actions do you take? How do you seek God routinely each day?

Reminders: They Keep Us on Track

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In today’s issue of my newsletter (sign up here!) I wrote:

We need reminders—people, books, stories, gatherings, songs, images, paintings, words scrawled on scraps of paper—reminders of what matters. Without reminders, we drift.

In Deuteronomy 6:12, Moses reminds the people of Israel to revist the divine commands and rehearse the stories of God’s deliverance, saying, “Then take care lest you forget the Lord, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Remembering is a way of tending to the relationship between God and the people of God.

Psalm 77:11 says, “I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago.”

When Jesus gave his followers instructions concerning the observance of the Lord’s Supper, Luke 22:19 records his giving thanks, breaking bread, and saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

In John 14:26, Jesus promises his disciples that the Holy Spirit will not only teach them, but aid their memory: “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

Paul, in 1 Corinthians 11:2, writes, “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you.” Paul stressed the importance of keeping what had been passed on through the act of remembering.

Last week I attended a conference centered on Christian spiritual formation, revisiting ideas I have been thinking about since my days as a seminarian. It struck me that this conference prompted my memory. I was reminded of events from the past, books I had read, talks I had heard, and truths that had moved into the recesses of my mind. My presence at this gathering brought to my recollection matters of importance. I was invited to consider what matters afresh.

What reminds you of what matters? Artwork? Books on display? A daily reading habit? A weekly gathering for study or worship? Stories you retell, rehearse, and relive? A meeting with friends or family? A routine pilgrimage to a place of importance?

We foster and cultivate memory. Human beings tend to forget, to drift. Tending historical tethers maintain our connections to what matters most.

Reps: They Make a Difference

Are there implications for Christian spiritual formation here?

I think yes.

The Christian tradition contains spiritual disciplines, or soul-training exercises that foster growth in Christ-like character and ongoing maturity in faith. These disciplines are wise practices that, if acted upon, open the possibility for change and transformation. They do not save. They do not put God in our debt. They do not elevate our standing with God. Dallas Willard said, helpfully, that God’s grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude; effort is an action. I like to say that the spiritual disciplines are a response. God lovingly moved toward us in acts of creation, covenant and redemption. Once graciously perceived, we are drawn toward God. Prayer, study, worship, service, and the other disciplines are invitations to the act of abiding, or dwelling, with God and paying attention to God’s presence and activity in our lives.

I’m a fan of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and not only because my middle name is Arnold. I like action movies. I’ve also read Arnold’s autobiography and have sought to learn more about his life and career. He has been a surprising source of wisdom and insight, particularly in respect to the principles he has identified as underpinning his success. Body building is a physical activity that has clear, identifiable connections between actions and results. The sport became a school for Arnold, teaching him about reality.

One of those lessons: the importance of reps. A vision or goal, informed by an understanding of causal dynamics, followed by a plan, accompanied by actions and the right means, leads to results. You can have a dream. You can have a sober assessment of where you stand in the present. To realize a dream, you need steps, or means. You have to perform actions, or take the steps. And if the vision is clear and the means are properly aligned, you’ll progress toward the vision.

Arnold’s body was not built in a day. It took time. Years. It took commitment. There were setbacks. Most great journeys have them. Our path is not always clear, straight, or easy. But it is possible to move from point A to point B.

In the Christian spiritual journey toward maturity the first step is developing a vision, a clear picture of God and of life with God. I have found it helpful to read Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John, and develop a clear picture of Jesus. Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” A study of the Trinity, which would broaden contemplation and include the Father and the Holy Spirit, would expand and sharpen our vision of God. But the Son is a wonderful place to begin.

As I’ve grasped the attributes of Jesus, including what he was like and the kinds of things he would do and say, I’ve looked more closely at how he lived, who he was around, and what his words and the things he did reveal to us about his thinking, attitude, and disposition of heart. After making discoveries, I’ve prayed, “God, I’d like that to be true of me.” I have asked God to teach me patterns of thought, feeling, and embodied action displayed in Jesus. In the same way a body builder learns about physical reality through training, so too does a Christian pilgrim learn about spiritual reality through the journey of spiritual formation and discipleship.

This has led me into practice of prayer, study, fellowship, worship, service, simplicity, and more. Christians believe we are not alone in this venture. The indwelling Spirit leads us into all truth. Our bodies are incorporated into Christ’s body; Christ lives in us (Galatians 2:20). We have received God’s rich blessing and have been given access to the Father in the heavenly places through Jesus (Ephesians 1:3-10). If you desire maturity in faith, ask God. Growth may not unfold as you envision or anticipate. But you will have entered the school of the kingdom, placing yourself in the hands of the Great Teacher. The work God begins in you will be brought to completion (Philippians 1:6). Give it time. Take it step by step.

Every rep taken is an act of faith. It is an offering. Enlivened and infused by God’s grace, our actions draw us nearer to God and the prospect of a more godly life.

A Prayer for Those in the Workplace

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Lord Jesus, 

You have promised to be with us always, even unto the end of the age. 
Today, I first ask you be with me unto the end of my desk. 
I ask you first to join me here, to extend to me the knowledge of your presence. 
May you, Holy Spirit, be manifestly present in and around my workspace. 

I have many tasks to do. 
There are many people with whom I am in relationship and who depend on my contributions. 
I want to do my tasks well. 
I want to receive every person hospitably. 
I want to be joyful and pleasant, radiating your glory and grace. 
When others encounter me, I want them to see not only me, but you. 

Let my ears be opened to hear not only those who speak with me, but to hear you. 
Let my mouth speak words that not only honor the person with whom I am speaking, but you. 
Let my eyes see as you see. 
Let my hands be strengthened for service.  
Let my heart be attuned to your impressions, open to your communication. 
Heal my body, and help me carry out my work as a living sacrifice, presented unto you. 

Lord, I do not only want you to be with me only unto the end of my desk. 
The work appointed for me by you will lead me elsewhere in this building. 
You will send me beyond this desk, this computer, this chair, and this office. 
May I go resting securely in the knowledge that your Holy Spirit goes with me to empower me, to guide me, to convict me when I get it wrong, to lead me into all truth, and ultimately to sanctify me, bringing me into conformity with you. 

I am glad you have drawn near.  
I am glad you are with me. 
I am glad you are my friend. 
I trust you to help me. 

May your name be magnified and glorified in everything I do this day. 


Multiple Buckets

I’m one person. But I take on several roles. I wear a lot of hats. I represent different things to different people.

I am an American, Texan, Tylerite, and Wacoan. Other localities have shaped me, but this country, state, and these two cities most prominently factor in my formation.

I am a pastor, teacher, and writer. I have done other work. But those three ways of being are the most fully enmeshed with my way of operating.

I am a husband, father, and friend. I have other relational ties that are important to me. But these three roles are actively assumed each and every day.

I am a Christian. This commitment is my foremost way of understanding myself and is the one I want to be principally determinative for the rest.

When I first meet someone, most of what makes me who I am is obscured. It is only within a few relationships that the manifold dimensions of my character are displayed and known. In most encounters, only a fragment is revealed: I’m known as a soccer coach, a Sunday school teacher, a Baptist, a preacher, an administrator.

In these fleeting, surface level encounters, I only have time and occasion to represent a part of myself, not the whole.

Relationships can deepen and broaden. And they do, given enough time, space, energy, and experience. But in an atomized society the majority of our encounters are constrained, our modes are thereby limited, and the impact of each encounter is narrowed down to one or two of our identity markers. We’re encountered as an undergraduate student, Gen Zer, lawyer, clerk, an Oregon State Beavers fan, salesperson, or a company board member, a bureaucrat, etc.

We do not experience these encounters with another, at least at first and in a moment, with all of the breadth, depth, and texture that is resident within each human being.

We learn standard shortcuts that we apply to our encounters with those in certain roles. If a person is wearing a hardhat and a reflective vest, I may gather I am dealing with a construction worker, or a fan of the Village People. These shortcuts can become biases, or stereotypes, and some may be faulty. Be vigilant. If your experiences with the police has been positive, you will likely turn to them for help when victimized. If the police prove helpful, your confidence in the police is strengthened. If they do not, the converse results.

As I’ve meditated on these dynamics, I’ve considered what I’m representing, and to whom, in my daily interactions. I’ve thought of my roles as a stewardship.

Stewarding our roles means we make deposits into multiple buckets, not solely those that are our own.

When I help to create a positive experience in my role as a teacher, for example, that is not only to my credit, but a credit to the work of teachers and of teaching.

When I speak to others who know of my service as Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Truett Seminary, I remember that I am not only representing myself, but the institution as well.

When I share with someone that I am from East Texas, not only is that person making an association with my drawl, but also with those who call the piney woods their home.

In respect to faith I remember that as I bear the name of Christ, it is not only my reputation that is in view during my daily encounters, but his. I can be a credit or a debit to his account. I seek to be the former, not the latter. We are witnesses. Better to be a faithful one.

Place God Between Us and Our Circumstances

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It is narrated of Diogenes, that when Alexander the Great asked him to request a favour, the only thing that poor man wished of the conqueror of the world was, not to stand between him and the sun, whose genial light and warmth he was enjoying. If Diogenes stands for the Christian, Alexander for the world, and the sun for Him who is the light and joy of His people, we may look upon this story as an allegory: all that the Christian really wishes is, that the world should not obstruct and intercept the rays of happiness which come to him from the heavenly sanctuary.

If we are anxious always look first to God, and to place Him between us and our circumstances, and the people we have to deal with, then we shall be able to exercise love and patience, and to be calm and peaceful at all times. We have to deal with God on the one hand, and with our fellow-men and circumstances on the other. Now the great point is, how we place ourselves. If we allow people and circumstances to become between us and God, then the smallest provocation, disappointment, and difficulty obstruct to us the light of heaven, and intercept the supply of grace and strength. But if we place between us and the men we have to deal with, and the work we have to do, we shall walk in light and in love; for God is light and love, a translucent and strengthening medium. Look first at Him, and then at men and things. Have you met trial? Do not look first at the trial, and then at God, with the question: Does God, who allows this sorrow, love me? Look first at God, and with the renewed assurance of God’s love, look at the trial, and say, God chastens whom He loves.

Adolph Saphir, The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God

1 John 1:5-7 says, “This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.”

Place yourself in the light. Allow no darkness to obscure your vision of God. Walk in the light. Draw your strength from Christ, for in him there is no darkness at all.

Only a Weight

Remember that man’s life does not consist in what he has, but in what he is. Serve Jesus and the Church. Oh, let not the best years of your life be years in which you have little communion with God, and in which you do little for Christ! “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Let not your biography be summed up: “He turned to God in his youth, he then became lukewarm, being engrossed in the cares and the business and the social demands of the world, and a short time before his death he saw his mistake, and felt that one thing be needful. For years his spiritual life was barely sustained by the prayers of friends and the weekly services of the sanctuary. He might have been a pillar for the Church, but he was only a weight.” This be far from you. Oh, serve the Lord with gladness, be strong, quit yourselves like men, and abound in the work of the Lord!

Adolph Saphir, The Hidden Life: Thoughts on Communion with God

Adolph Saphir lived from 1831-1891. He was a Hungarian Jew who converted to Christianity and became a Presbyterian minister. If the quote above feels antiquated, those feelings are warranted. The book containing it was published in 1877.

My views on the spiritual life lead me to push back against Saphir, or to at least ask for further nuance, on certain aspects of the above. But my disagreements do not keep me from laughing at what I’ve highlighted in bold, or from cheering when he exhorts, “This be far from you.” It is far better to be a blessing than a burden, especially when you consider the blessings we have received in and through Christ. If you serve the Lord with gladness, do not do so because you desire a more favorable biographical summary. Do so because you have tasted and seen that the Lord is good, and that as a result you desire nothing more than to live a life pleasing in God’s sight.

Good Days and Bad Days

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We have good days and bad days.

But one bad day might not capture the bigger story. Growth and progress is seldom linear.

There are good reasons to zoom in and examine a bad day. Maybe there are lessons to learn. In the Christian journey, there are sins of which to repent, confession to offer, behavior to change, justice to seek, mending and reconciliation that needs to be done.

And some days, life goes sideways and there is not much we can do other than to endure it and press on, to turn the page and start the next day fresh.

That one is over. On to the next one.

After a miss in basketball, I say to myself, “The next one is going in.” After a loss, I tell myself, “Back to work.”

There are also good reasons to zoom out and consider where you are today in comparison to where you were a month ago, six months ago, a year ago, a decade ago. You might discover you are further along than you thought.

The graph above could be misleading, since the measure of progress is “up and to the right.” Maybe all you need is plot points between A and B. One line. A is where you begin. B is where you want to be. There may be ups and downs. There might even be reversals: one step forward and two steps back. But are you closer today to B than the day you began? Can you see it? Or can trusted friends see it? Are you grateful for the change? Do you celebrate the growth you have seen? Do you live in the joy of renewal? Or do you get bogged down, zooming in on the bad days, bad moments, and become discouraged? Are you spiraling in the wrong direction? Do you need a reset?

When you have one bad moment, don’t allow it to become two. When you have one bad day, don’t allow it to become two. Instead, return to formational habits, reorient yourself toward the goal (however far on the horizon), and do the daily, small things leading to success. Be disciplined. Keep going.

In Colossians 1:28, Paul writes:

He is the one we proclaim, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone fully mature in Christ.

The principles above apply to anyone with a goal, anyone desiring growth and working toward it. Paul had a goal in mind: to lead others to maturity in Christ. Growth is part of the Christian life. If you want to become “fully mature in Christ,” conformity to Jesus is the target. Romans 13:14 exhorts us to “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.”

How do we do it? By keeping a constellation of commitments while moving toward our true North Star. Prayer is a key commitment, as is worship, fellowship, study. There are other disciplines, too, any virtues to be sought, developed, and instilled, including faith, hope, and love.

Whatever the means and whatever the virtues, above them all, we seek Jesus. He will supply what we need at the time we need it. We say, “I want to know you.” We say, “I want to learn from you.” We say, “My life is in your hands. Teach me.” We say, “Open my ears, my eyes, my heart.” We say, “Whatever is wrong in me, point it out, and heal me.” We say, “Whatever it takes for me to become like you, I trust you to lead me.”

His nail-scarred hand is extended to you. You take it. You grip it tight. You say, “I will not let you go.” You go where he goes and where he sends. In his earthly ministry, he worked alongside his disciples, but he also sent them out and remained at a distance, allowing them to experience a few things. You trust he is true to the promise to always be with those who are his. Just because he may not feel near does not mean that he is not with. Growth and progress in the Christian life is relational, communal, and personal. It occurs “with God.”

Change is possible. Growth is possible. Progress can be made. The process isn’t easy, nor is it always “up and to the right.” It is seldom quick and it takes work to sustain.

Get clear on the vision. Make your commitments. And then take up the actions and assume the attitudes that move you toward the goal, not away from it. There may be bad days. I’ll go a step further. There will be bad days. But keep the bigger picture in view. Take on a broader perspective. Keep moving in the right direction.

Jump Start Your Day with a Dose of Reverence

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We should always hold fast to the fear of God. It is the root of all spiritual knowledge and all right action. When the fear of God rules in the soul everything goes well both within and without. Try to kindle this sense of fear in your heart every morning before you do anything else. Then it will go on working by itself as a kind of pendulum.

Theophan the Recluse, “The Fruits of Prayer” in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology

Sounds good, Theophan. But what would this look like?

  • Consider the first thing you do each day. Where do you walk as soon as you are out of bed? What is the first action you take? Do you pick up your phone? Check your iPad? Turn on a computer? Brush your teeth? Start the coffee maker?
  • Put a sign in the place you go first or on top of the first item you look upon or pick up saying, “First, God.”
  • Think about God. Don’t ask God for anything. Don’t lay out your agenda for the day. Think about God. Then keep your thoughts there. If your thoughts try to lead you elsewhere, let those thoughts run on their merry way and bring yourself back to God and thoughts of God. Tell those other thoughts, “I’m staying right here.”
  • If it helps you to remain with the thought of God, create a list for reference. Write down what you know to be true of God. This could be: good, just, merciful, kind, long-suffering, patience, steadfast, wise, joyful, righteous, concerned for widows and orphans, excellent, praiseworthy, holy, Redeemer, Savior, Father, Son, Holy Spirit, counselor, advocate, friend, etc. No need to read the entire list each day. Dwell on one, or two, or three. Whatever you choose, think about how that thought represents the person of God.
  • After a few moments or minutes of thinking about who God is, say to yourself, “If God is really like this, and if I live in relationship to this God, and if this is a person I desire to honor, how will I live today?”
  • Carry that answer with you. Keep God before you. Seek God in all you do.

That might generate a few sparks.

Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” When we keep God before us, as God truly is, much good follows.