One Idea to Digest that Day

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. But now make sure that reading many authors and every kind of book-roll does not represent a kind of unsettled drifting. You should linger over and feed yourself upon a few chosen intellects if you want to take in anything that will stay faithfully in your mind. The man who is everywhere is nowhere. When men spend their life in traveling around, they have many hosts but no real friendships. The same thing must happen to those who do not devote themselves intimately to any one intellect but take in everything at speed and in haste. Food that is evacuated as soon as it is consumed gives no benefit and does not add strength to the body. Nothing delays healing as much as a constant change of remedies. A wound on which medications are tied out does not knit into a scar. A seedling that is constantly transplanted does not build up strength. Indeed, nothing is so beneficial that it can do good on the run; hence a great number of books slackens the mind. So, since you cannot read as much as you possess, it is enough to have the amount you can read. . .When you have surveyed many writing, choose one idea to digest that day.

Seneca, Letter 2 (Book I.2), in Selected Letters [affiliate link]

Seneca lived from 1 BC to 65 AD, a Stoic philosopher who lived during the Roman Imperial Period. Born in Spain and educated in Rome, this man was highly involved in politics. He served as a tutor to an adolescent Nero and later became a close advisor when Nero ascended the throne. Prior to service in Nero’s court, Seneca was exiled after being accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister. His life ended in forced suicide, after he was found complicit in a plot to assassinate Nero.

The quote above, found in one of his philosophical letters, made me think of the oft cited self-description of John Wesley, who called himself “a man of one book.” Wesley referred to the Scriptures. He was a student of the Bible, first and foremost.

But Wesley read other books. This is evident through his sermons, journals, and other works. But Wesley read these other books through the lens of the Scriptures. He read widely, but routinely returned to Scripture. His interaction with other minds was done in consult with his familiarity with the mind of God, as it has been revealed through the canon of the Bible.

Seneca’s advice also made me think of Cal Newport, who’s commendation of the deep life and slow productivity aligns well with Seneca’s prescribed benefits of association with select intellects, key writings, and the contemplation of “one idea to digest that day.”

The Hidden Path

Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash

A child was filled with a question, which like an itch demanded to be scratched.

“Jacob, what I don’t understand is how you are to decide whether to follow what you feel is right or what you think is right?”

Jacob touched his own chest and said, “My heart know what my mind only thinks it knows.”

The answer pushed the boy to another question.

“What if neither my heart nor mind can help me find the way?”

And Jacob answered, “Prayer is a path where there is none.”

Noah benShea, Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World, p. 36

I’m of the opinion that discernment involves thinking and feeling prayerfully as one seeks to determine their way. Thus, prayer isn’t a last resort, but a first.

Nevertheless, “prayer is a path where there is none” suggests that the wise person understands that when they are at the end of both their emotional and intellectual capacities, help comes from outside the self, and is found ultimately in God. Prayer can show us a way where there is no way, because it focuses our attention on the One who can raises up valleys and levels mountains, who makes alive the dead, who makes possible the impossible.

Meditation and Prayer: Kindle the Fire

Image by HeungSoon from Pixabay

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

Photo by Stillness InMotion on Unsplash

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.

Calling: Adjusting the Dials

Photo by Adi Goldstein on Unsplash

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.

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?

Image by jplenio from Pixabay

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.

Spiritual Formation and the Body

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

In short, the dominant narrative about our bodies is that they have nothing to do with our spiritual lives except hinder us in our spiritual formation. In truth, our bodies are an essential and indispensable aspect of our spiritual formation. Everything we do in the spiritual life (pray, love, serve, study, worship) involves our bodies. Yet there is very little teaching in our churches about the role and significance and sacredness of our bodies in spiritual formation. The body is seen as a source of sin or shame, or an obstacle to growth. Seeing our bodies–our good and beautiful bodies–as sacred instruments is essential if we are to live a vibrant life and have wellness in our embodied souls.

James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful You: Discovering the Person Jesus Created You to Be [affiliate link], p. 33-34

This neglect of the body is a byproduct of our bent toward dualism and reflects the way many think of the relationship between what are distinct yet united dimensions of the human person.

My conviction is that we are embodied souls, or ensouled bodies. Our spirit may go on to dwell to with God in paradise at the moment of physical death, but our eternal home is not there. God will renew all things, in heaven and on earth. And as part of this renewal, we will receive a glorious body that is like Christ’s, at the resurrection.

In Philippians 3:20-21, Paul writes, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body,” a transformation Paul further describes in 1 Corinthians 15.

Smith is right. In the interim, while we wait, the body deserves greater consideration. The body, after all, is a gift from God. It is the means by which we think, and feel, and act. It is the vessel used for divine service, when the body is stewarded well.

When we praise God, we use the mind, the tongue, the vocal chords. The words we speak reveal not only our capacity for thought or our aptitude for speech, but also the state of the soul.

Disciplining the body can have an effect on the inward disposition of our souls. And seeking God at the level of soul can change our desires, and how we act upon those desires–or not–with our bodies.

What would it be like to engage in a service activity and pay attention to the body? Our hands, feet, eyes, ears, the smells we smell, the emotions we feel, and how we are affected? What would we learn about God, about ourselves, and about our calling to love our neighbor as ourselves?

What principles would we learn that could carry over into other areas of discipleship?

How would a church choose to approach the discipleship of the body? What would it look like to engage this idea as a small fellowship? What practices would be essential, and how would we speak of these practices biblically and theologically?

Waiting Differs from Doing Nothing

Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on Unsplash

Waiting differs from “doing nothing.”

Waiting doesn’t always feel that way.

Waiting can be active, expectant, watchful, and patient.

Or waiting can be passive, unexpectant, lazy, and impatient.

Lamentation 3:5 says, “The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him.”

Psalm 27:14 says, “Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!”

Habbakuk 2:3 reminds us, “For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay.”

Isaiah 30:18 says, “Therefore the Lord waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.”

These are all Old Testament references. Maybe the Hebrew people learned a thing or two about waiting.

James 5:7 says, “Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains.”

Romans 5:1-5 says,

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.

In Luke 2:25 we read this about a man named Simeon, “Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

And Henri Nouwen writes:

Whenever there is a lack of clarity or ambiguous circumstances, it is time to wait. Active waiting is essential to the spiritual life. In our mostly active lives and fast-paced culture, waiting is not a popular pastime. It is not something we anticipate or experience with great joy. In fact, most of us consider it a wast of time. Perhaps this is because the culture in which we live is basically saying, “Get going! Do something! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there and wait.” But the paradox of waiting is that it requires full attention to the present moment, with the expectation of what is to come and the patience to learn from the act of waiting.

Discernment, p. 150

As we wait, we pray. We’re active. Alert. Exercising faith, echoing the words of Psalm 39:7, which says, “And now, O Lord, for what do I wait? My hope is in you.”

“Dearer than all that is nearest…”

Dearer than all that is nearest,
Dearer than dear, or than dearest,
Dearer than sight,
Dearer than light,
Is the communion with Jesus.

Oswald Chambers, as quoted in Wesley L. Duewel’s Heroes of the Holy Life: Biographies of Fully Devoted Followers of Christ

I’ve been reading and researching the life of Oswald Chambers, an artist, poet, preacher, Christian educator, and Baptist minister, born in 1874 in Aberdeen, Scotland, and died in 1917, at the age of forty-three. He is most well known for his devotional work, My Utmost for His Highest, compiled after his death by his wife, Biddy Chambers.

One of his students at the College of Dunoon recalled, “As one entered the room it was like stepping into heaven. Then Mr. Chambers spoke, leading us straight to God, and I afterwards found that this was very characteristic of him. In every lecture or meeting he brought one right into the presence of God.”

I’ve met a few men and women like that. I’d like to meet more. And, I’ll confess, I’d like to be a person like that. Chambers had a deep conviction that his life was a product of God’s activity and grace, that God had worked for reasons he did not understand nor grasp in response to prayers that he did not nor could not know to appoint him as a worker in the church, in schools, and in the world. Chambers not only taught people about God and pointed people to the Scriptures, he was a man of profound and rich spiritual experience.

Chambers dedicated himself to the life of faith. He also trusted that God’s outside power had come in, had shaped him, and was continuing to conform him to the likeness of Jesus. This is a yielding, of heart, mind, soul, and spirit, and taking up a cross, dying to self, and following Jesus wherever he leads.