Real Prayers for Real People

I didn’t immediately fall in love with the psalms. I found them to be hard to understand and a little dusty. Then some hard things happened in my life and I landed on a few psalms that became prayers when I didn’t know what to pray. When my mother died, Psalm 42 became my lifeline. Psalm 116 was my testimony in a season when things got bad then got better. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to find the profound assurances embedded in Psalm 23.

The psalms challenge us to pray as if God is real. These ancient prayers give us a fresh vocabulary for prayer. In the library we call the Bible, The Book of Psalms is the prayer book and as examples of how faithful people have prayed through the ages, they can help us all find a better prayer life. Here, we find the all-too-human wrestlings of David (who wrote many, but not all, the psalms), a man after God’s heart. We hear honest cries for help and deep, worshipful devotion. We get the full spectrum of emotions, not the least of which is anger. I’ve never had the guts to ask God to kill someone else’s child, but it is in there — an assurance that God can handle it even when we are broken, raging or irrational.

What we don’t hear in David’s conversations with God is anything remotely rote. No recitations. No empty wish lists. No shallow musings. No generalized litanies of what we vaguely hope for the world. David Thomas, in his teaching on travailing prayer, writes, “The Bible seems utterly unfamiliar with casual prayer, prayer of the mouth and not of the heart.” In this, the psalms resonate.

The psalms are real prayers for real people. They challenge us to think deeply and honestly and give us permission to cry out, to feel, to get close, to give our whole heart, to be rough around the edges, and even to be wrong-headed and stubborn.

But real. Always real.

In Lynn Anderson’s book, They Smell Like Sheep, the author offers several practical tips for those who want to learn how pray the Psalms.

  • Choose a psalm to focus on. If you don’t know where to start, try googling your feelings — i,e, “psalm for anger” or “psalm for discouragement.” The psalms are so well researched and commented on that you’ll likely find several articles or references that send you to a starting point. Don’t get sidetracked with the article; go to the psalm.
  • Read it through aloud — slowly and thoughtfully — to get its sense. Make it interactive. Reading scripture aloud can make a huge difference in how you hear it.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the first person (as your own prayer for yourself). Don’t hurry. Wallow in it. Savor it. Mean it. Feel free to stop here and journal what is revealed, or make notes in the margins.
  • Pray it aloud slowly, reflectively, in the second person, as an intercessory prayer on behalf of some other person.
  • Stay there until God shows up. I realize this isn’t great theology. Of course, it isn’t God who doesn’t show up, but us. But from an experiential place, we can admit that when we don’t have patience for the waiting it can feel as if God is nowhere to be found. It isn’t that he doesn’t show up, but that we refuse him entry by rushing too quickly past the moment.
  • Don’t end your prayer when the psalm ends. Let this psalm springboard you into the rest of your day’s prayers for current issues and persons that the psalm has brought to your heart. Let the psalm shape the day’s prayer list.

Even if it isn’t theologically accurate to say it this way, I stand by this good advice: Stay there until God shows up. If he doesn’t show up immediately, he will show up eventually. How do I know? He promised!

Stay in the place of prayer. Jesus himself said the fruit of an abundant life is in the abiding. May you find your stride, your purpose, your anchoring and your fruitfulness in that place of abiding, travailing, real prayer.

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This is a game-changer.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a challenge worth taking seriously.

Start with these three ideas from Wayne Cordeiro (New Hope Church, Hawaii):

1. 80% of what you do every day could be done by anyone.
2. 15% of what you do every day could be done by someone else with a little coaching.
3. 5% of what you do is stuff only you can do. How you spend that 5% matters.

Then consider these four stats from a LifeWay study:

4. 1 in 5 Americans – 20% – has read through the Bible once.
5. 39% – a little more than a third – of church-going Christians read the Bible regularly.
6. The number one indicator of spiritual growth is a habit of daily Bible reading.
7. People who attend a small group are twice as likely to read their Bible daily.

Put those three ideas together with those four stats and consider your next move:

8. Bible reading is not in the 80% or even in the 15%. No one else can read the Bible for you and create spiritual growth in your life.
9. A choice to read your Bible daily will do more than just about anything else to create the conditions for spiritual growth in your life.
10. If enough Christians made that choice, and enough Americans made that choice, think about the impact that could have on the Church and our country. If you are concerned about the direction of our country, the spiritual atmosphere of your home or your personal spiritual health, then start with your own habit of Bible reading.

That’s the 5% you control, that no one else can. And this habit is a game-changer. If you want to get started with a Bible reading plan, download YouVersion (it may show up as a Life.Church app with a “Holy Bible” icon). Search for the Life Journal reading plan or the First Steps reading plan. I recommend either one. If you get stuck, send a comment and I’ll help.

Let the trail of these ideas lead you to a habit that could change the spiritual atmosphere.

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Six ways to breed sanity into your life

That strain we feel — like we’re walking against the tide — has an explanation. We are all trying to get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We are all straining toward our created design.

On the other side of the fall line, relationships are transparent, we serve one another well, and dysfunction is not even in the vocabulary. So we will recognize that glorious world when we get to it, what if we were to practice a little Genesis 2 living now?

Here are a few ideas:

Stop being polite.

If you want to release some sanity into your life (and into the lives of those around you), stop being polite and start speaking from a deeper place of love and prophetic imagination. As southern as I am, I’m pretty convinced that southern politeness is not a feature of holy living. I’m not talking about common courtesy, or even the kind of patience that endures rude people in a store. I’m talking about the difference between the kind of politeness that works against deep love. Deep love will always lead us toward truth; southern politeness will often lead us away from it.

When we learn to be both gracious and honest with one another, we stifle the enemy’s options for control. When we learn to speak prophetically into each other’s lives (honestly, hopefully, spiritually), we release the Holy Spirit to move and create both transformation and trust. Surely this is what Jesus meant when he said, “Whatever you release on earth will be released in heaven …”

Don’t tolerate crazy.

Think about how it would impact your relationships if you refused to keep tolerating other people’s crazy. You’d stop letting people cancel on you at the last minute. You’d have no tolerance at all for passive aggression (which I believe is straight from the enemy of our soul). You’d expect people to honor your time as you honor theirs. You wouldn’t let folks chronically complain about situations without challenging them to move forward. And when others are letting “crazy” make their decisions, you wouldn’t let southern politeness rob them of your deep concern for them. Doesn’t that sound like a much more sane way to live?

Hear me on this: Care what happens to other people. Care deeply. Let your heart be broken for other people. But don’t tolerate crazy. Genuine, mature compassion will always cause us to care enough about a person’s sin that we’re motivated not to let them stay there. Love without accountability is a socially accepted form of abuse that malforms people spiritually.

Stop making excuses.

Paul the Apostle announced more than once that he was focused on the future. He’d say, “Forgetting what is behind (I strain) toward what is ahead …” That is a great mental posture to take toward life. “Forgetting what lies behind” is refusing regret a voice in our life. “Straining toward what is ahead” is putting processes in place that allow room for new habits. Straining toward what is ahead is deciding that what we thought was inconceivable is actually doable so we set goals, then we get accountability so we can stay with those goals.

Accountability is committing to transformation. After all, Jesus didn’t come into his ministry saying, “Talk about your junk and believe, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” He said, “Repent and believe.” In other words, own your junk and move on.

Decide not to be lazy. 

I don’t know who said it first, but I like this: “Discipline is choosing between what I want now and what I want most.” The answer to that inner wrestling between what we want now and what we want most is best answered with discipline. As Kevin Watson says, “Some things need to be predictable.” If what I want most requires a change in my life and a commitment to daily discipline, then I have some choices to make and the first choice may be to stop being lazy.

Stop having good ideas.

Disciplines are for people who have too many distractions, so here’s my wisdom for myself and anyone else who fits this category: stop chasing good ideas and start pursuing disciplines. Disciplines keep us from distractions that aren’t meant for us, while chasing every good idea will only keep us in mental chaos and rob us of rest.

Get yourself an external hard drive.

If you want to breed more sanity into your life, find someone who will speak prophetically (which means, “honestly, hopefully, and spiritually”) into your life. To grow spiritually, you need someone external to yourself who will not be polite, who will not tolerate your crazy, who will not ignore your lazy, who will challenge your bottomless capacity for good ideas, and who will tell you what is sane and moral and biblical.

So here’s the real point to this whole post: To breed sanity is to be disciplined, and to be disciplined is to be in community. My friends, this is how we get back to the other side of Genesis 3. We learn to lean into each other in community and we get serious about serving one other from a loving, honest, holy place.

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Jesus is a friend.

December was a hard month and its effect continues to creep into my days and the days of many I love. We lost a friend, so we are all learning together — again — that grief is exhausting. Complicated. Soul-stretching.

I have learned that in the midst of loss, Jesus is often the one friend wise enough to simply be present without comment. Although, I have to say I wish he’d speak up a bit more. Some days, it frustrates me, his quietness. I interpret it as rejection because I am a broken person desperate for someone to fix my pain, to clear the fog, to say something in 280 characters or less that will make all the rest of it make sense. But no matter how much I beg, manipulate or argue, Jesus keeps his posture — quiet, but solidly present. A faithful friend. Which, of course, is what I need most even when I don’t know it.

Years ago, another friend of mine lost her husband. They met in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and became followers of Jesus. I never got the sense Christian life was easy for them; it was so different from what they’d lived for so long. When you’ve lived a lifetime trying to fill an emptiness with alcohol, all your relationships incubated in the petri dish of addiction, it is reasonable to wonder if Jesus is just another way to be disappointed.

But hard as it was, my friend and her husband discovered Jesus was the one thing that worked. He saved them from self-destruction and fed them a kind of healing nothing else had been able to offer. He was the only one patient enough, kind enough, to hang in through the valleys to the feasts on the other side. And Jesus was the one who taught them to be friends with each other. When my friend’s husband became ill, they leaned on Jesus together and discovered he was enough. Just days before he died, my friend’s husband, laying on his deathbed, turned to her and said, “You know, it really is true: what a friend we have in Jesus.”

Yes, and amen. Surely it is no coincidence that it was precisely in his death that Jesus taught us some of the more profound lessons in friendship. Among his final words to his followers were these: “I no longer call you servants; I call you friends” (John 15:15). And then he picked up the cross and pointed it at all humanity — like a kid on a playground choosing his team — inviting all who would choose him in return to become his friends.

Not servants, but friends.

Christ’s friendship is an act of grace. Brian Edgar, in his book God is Friendship, writes, “It is a profound, unexpected, gracious and powerful promise” (p. 28). It is richer than servanthood, beyond what we can earn. The friendship of Jesus offers the joy of intimate presence, one to another, deep calling to deep. It is Jesus being willing to be with me in my grief without words — unjealously, unswervingly, peacefully there. And it is Jesus who teaches me to be a friend to those around me.

But I’m a pastor. Subtlely and not so subtlely, pastors are taught to detach from personal relationships for the sake of building the Body of Christ (this may be especially true of itinerating pastors). Books upon books indoctrinate us in the art of boundary-making as a mark of good leadership. Jesus, meanwhile, says things like, “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). Maybe both things are true. Maybe there is a place in healthy leadership for giving our hearts to those in our communities.

Perhaps it is not just okay but a mark of holiness to discover the place of friendship not beyond but in the midst of ministry.  

Indeed, that also has been part of my grief — that I haven’t learned sooner how to be a better friend to those who have chosen to live in community with me and to do so as an act of ministry in the best sense of that term. As Edgar says, “Christian friendship is to be transformative. It is a loving ministry that transforms us into the image of our friend Jesus, and enables us to be friends and reflectors of Christ’s character to others” (p. 172).

As he so faithfully does, God is redeeming this season by teaching me things I could learn no other way.  He is revealing the power and beauty of friendship as he offers me his whole heart and proves himself a faithful friend. And he is modeling the kind of friend I can also become, so that in the valley of shadows there is beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning.

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Eat this scroll (or, how to become earthly good).

You’ve heard it said that a person can be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good. Sounds catchy enough to be true, doesn’t it? It ends up being terrible theology, not to mention indefensible. I would argue that if you want to be any earthly good at all, you are better served by a mind that fixes on higher things. In fact, I will go out on a limb and say that the world is better served by those who spend their lives looking for signs of the in-breaking Kingdom than by those who don’t have eyes to see beyond this world.

Being heavenly minded is precisely what makes us earthly good.

Some of the greatest influences on humanity have been heavenly minded. In his classic Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis famously wrote:

A continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth, precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth “thrown in;” aim at earth and you will get neither.

Being heavenly minded is the point. It is what Paul meant when he instructed new believers to set their minds on things above. It is what Ezekiel was called to when he was told to eat the scroll, on which were written the lamentations of God. Those words were the very heart of God for his people. When God instructed Ezekiel to eat the scroll, he was saying, in effect, “Unless you have internalized my heart for my people, you won’t be any good for them. If you have any hope of following through on any of the weird stuff that is in your future, you’re going to need to operate not out of an external word but out of something rooted inside.”

In leadership, the quickest way to kill a great idea is to ask someone to do it before they own it. Hannah Whitall Smith (Quaker theologian) wrote that it is our nature to rebel against laws that are outside of us, but we embrace that which springs up from within. She was right. How often have you resisted someone else’s idea until you decided it was your own? God’s way of working in us is to get possession of us, so he can make his ideas our ideas.

This is how we become heavenly minded. Eat this scroll, God said. Gain the heart of God for people. Internalize it. Own it. Let it do its work in you. This could well be the most powerful word in the Bible about the Bible. Only as we steep in the Word are we able to internalize and own the very heart of God, allowing it to change the way we think.

If being heavenly minded is the only way we can do any earthly good (and I am convinced it is), then the path to that posture runs through the Word of God. Not counter to it.

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How to have a spiritual conversation in Starbucks without feeling weird about it

Here’s a fact: A real Christian is never going to look like the rest of the world.


We are peculiar people, and that isn’t just my opinion. The KJV of Deuteronomy 14:2 tells us we are called to that label — chosen to be God’s peculiar brand of person. (the Hebrew word actually means “treasure” or “God’s possession). We are chosen, holy, God’s possession.

Let’s call it what it is: we kind of like being called treasures but we don’t much like looking strange. And doing spiritual things can look strange. Nonetheless, this is the call. It is to peculiarity, to distinguishing ourselves from the rest of the world. Having spiritual conversations is one way we mark that distinction.

Think of it this way: Suppose you had a passion for painting old furniture. You relish the hunt — finding a beat-up chair for $5 in a second-hand store and seeing that which is not as if it is. You buy it, take it home by way of Home Depot (where you spend another $50, but that’s not the point), and transform it into a treasure. What looks like dumpster-diving to someone else is a creative adventure for you. A passion.

So when guests come to your house and notice your creation — “Wow! What a cool chair!” —  do you stay quiet? No way! You tell them the whole story behind the find and the transformation of that chair. And if someone tells you they’d really love to paint furniture, do you tell them, “Well, I don’t really know enough to talk to you about it. Find a professional.” NO! Because you have Pinterest, you are a professional. And this pleasure of finding treasures and transforming them gives life to you, so you want to share it.

And I want to say this to you: Because you are a treasure who has been redeemed and have found your treasure in Christ, you are also a person who talks about it. You are set apart for this, to share Christ. But if you’re not practiced at having spiritual conversations (even if you are supernaturally gifted for them, by virtue of your redemption), where do you begin?

Ask great questions.

Choose a few easy questions and begin to practice them in the context of conversations with your friends. You’d be amazed at how quickly they become second-nature. And you’ll be surprised at how quickly a well-placed question can turn a conversation to a deeper, more meaningful place. Try these, for starters:

  • How is it with your soul?
  • Where have you seen Jesus at work in the last week?
  • What has you stressed out right now? How can I pray for you?

Learn something new from each other.

Choose a Bible passage to study together (the method offered here is called Discovery Bible Study). Read it out loud, then close the Bible and try to reconstruct what you’ve just read from memory. Then ask a few questions to help get at the meaning of the passage:

  • What did you like? What surprised you? What confused you? Why?
  • What does this passage tell us about God? People? The relationship between God and people?
  • How does this passage change how you view God? Yourself? Other people?
  • How should this passage change how you live? What specifically will you do differently this coming week?
  • (and my favorite question of all) Who can you tell what you learned?

Share prophetically with each other. 

Prophetic thinking exposes us to the treasures that have been embedded in other people. This is why Paul would say, “Follow the way of love and eagerly desire gifts of the Spirit, especially prophecy” (1 Corinthians 14:1-5).

So how do we do that for each other? It is not as hard as it might sound. Just spend a few minutes talking with each other about what you see God doing in the world and in each other. Use this as a time of encouragement and challenge.

  • Talk about what God is doing (Deuteronomy 6:7).
  • Speak words of blessing and encouragement (Numbers 6:22-26).
  • Speak that which is not as if it is (Romans 4:17).

Pray together.

Finally, pray. Having listened to one another with an ear toward the voice of the Holy Spirit, think about how this conversation can be turned into prayer. What did you learn that can now become a conversation with God? What was exposed that can be brought for healing?

Remember: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience” (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin). Spiritual conversation is how we learn the language of our people — chosen, holy, treasured, spiritual.

And peculiar … in a good way.

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The difference between repentance and saying you’re sorry

Forgiveness is the centerpiece of our gospel. It is half the gift God offers through the cross, the other half being an invitation into the fullness of life.

Repentance is how we receive that gift. The word has a bad reputation these days. It has been yelled far more often than taught, so it has gathered more shame than freedom as it has rolled through the Church. Which is a shame in itself, because repentance is a far cry from shame-producing. To the contrary, it is yet another freedom word in the vocabulary of Christ.

To repent means to make a conscious decision to change behavior away from immaturity and repentance2toward maturity. It is a decision to walk out of dysfunction and toward health. Repentance frees us up to more joyfully live into our created design as it shakes off of us the destructive behaviors that cling so tightly and hold us captive.

In its most spiritual sense (which is its deepest definition), to repent means to turn away from something that offends a good, holy, loving, wise God. We do this not because God will strike us dead if we don’t, but because offending a good and loving God is not life-giving. To repent means shifting gears, making a genuine choice to practice life so that we (our whole selves) become an offering pleasing to God. We become no longer our own, but His. That thing we did becomes no longer ours but His.

True repentance releases us from shame and guilt that too often distort our decisions and behaviors and send our lives down dead-end paths.

But here’s the thing: for real repentance to happen, there has to be a willingness to let something go. There has to be a death to our self-centered tendencies. Humility (the primary personality trait of Jesus, always characterized by self-sacrifice) is the fruit of genuine repentance. It is very much what Jesus meant when he advised his friends, “If anyone wants to be my follower, he must take up his cross and follow me.” There is more to repentance than just saying, “I did it,” or “I’m sorry.” When practiced, authentically, there is a transformation proven by a character shift. What happens after we repent proves the sincerity of repentance itself. Humility surfaces, showing up beneath the words in some unmistakable way. In an honest act of repentance, the watching world sees a spiritual shift in one’s relationship with God, with others, with oneself.

Let me say again: In genuine repentance, something has to die. 

You see the point in Jesus’ story about the prodigal son. When the rebellious son first went to his father, he was bent on getting something for nothing. He said to his dad, “I don’t want to wait until you die. I want my share of the estate now.” Somehow he wanted to receive death benefits without death, but there is no shortcut.

Even Jesus asked (remember? on the night before he died?) if it could be done any other way. The answer is no. In order for true forgiveness to happen something has to die. Jesus said (John 12:24), “I tell you the truth, unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” This is the great news on the other side of repentance. If we’ll fully submit to the act of it, we will find such progress on the other side. But as Psalm 23 teaches, we can’t get to the feast on the mountaintop without first walking through the valley.

There is no shortcut to fruitfulness.

That’s what I’m waiting for in stories of people apologizing for things misspoken or for misbehavior that doesn’t honor their best or benefit anyone. I am looking for a spirit of Isaiah, for a deeper understanding of Paul’s truth. There is something to be said for sober judgment, for falling down before God in an honest recognition of our imperfect state, with a less arrogant defensiveness. There is something attractive about a sincere acknowledgement that we’re on a journey … and not there yet. I’m not talking about self-flagellation (a false humility that belittles us). I’m talking about eyes-wide-open reflection on the distance between our current reality and what is true, noble, pure, lovely, admirable.

Yes, we are free, but not free to do as we please. To think otherwise is to completely miss the point of true community.

I guess what I’m looking for in those who lead, in those who serve, in those who live in Christian community is a little holy humility. I’m looking for a death worthy of repentance. And what I’m asking of others — I realize even as I’m writing this — I must also be willing to do within myself.

Lord, have mercy.

Are you practicing the art of repentance, transparently confessing before God areas of offense in your life, so you can experience freedom?

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Why We Tithe (or, How to Make a Marriage Great)

Steve and I can’t take much credit for twenty-nine years of a great marriage. Mostly, it has been mercy and mistakes. But there are a few things we’ve done to make our marriage work that we often share with young couples — things we’ve done intentionally that have made a significant difference.

For instance, about twenty years ago, we began to pray together nightly, and we believe that has carried our family and especially our daughter. About fifteen years ago, we instituted an intentional Sabbath in our home. From 6:00 p.m. Friday to 6:00 p.m. Saturday, our home is a work-free zone — at least as much as church life allows (and without shame for the things we enjoy).

That third thing? Tithing.

When we married we were not practicing Christians, so tithing was not part of our life for those first few years together. We started going to church in our late twenties when we got involved in a Bible study. That’s when we started doing what most people do, dropping a twenty in the plate most Sundays. We were probably giving about 2% of our income to the church and to be honest, we felt good about that. We were tippers, not tithers. We were also  renters with credit card debt and two car payments, so giving anything was a stretch for us.

Then a man we both respected a lot (Sam Pursley) stood up in church one day and talked about the line from Jesus, where he says, “Give and it will be given to you, a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over.” He talked about how his dad would sell grain that way, and how the farmers would tell his dad, “Mr. Pursley, you give good measure.”

Then Sam talked about his Sunday School teacher, who told him as a young man, “Sam, you will never be all you are supposed to be until you begin to tithe.” He asked her what exactly she meant by tithing and she said, “Ten percent. Tithing is giving 10% of your income back to God. It is an act of faith.”

Sam then asked the question we all ask. “Is that 10% of my gross income … or net?” And she said, “Gross.” From that day on, Sam tithed and discovered that as he gave, it was given to him — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

We heard Sam’s story in church one Sunday and when we got home, Steve said, “Carolyn, I think we ought to do it. I think we ought to give 10%.” Now, I hate when my husband gets spiritual on me about money. I told him it wasn’t possible. We were renters. We had credit card debt. We owed on two cars. We were barely scraping by when we gave about 2%. It wasn’t possible to give more. I argued reasonably with Steve, but he didn’t back down. Finally, I gave up. I figured, when we ended up with more month than money, he’d get it. I mean, how many ramen noodles do you have eat before you get it?

So we went from 2% to 10% in one week. And I know it isn’t supposed to happen this way and I know how dangerous it is to tell our story just the way it happened, but this is how it happened for us. We gave, and it was given to us — a good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over.

In the twenty-plus years since we started taking God at His word, everything we’ve needed we’ve had. Without debt. We’ve even continued to step forward from the tithe in our giving. We don’t earn a lot, but we’ve discovered great joy in giving generously from what we have. We’ve learned that the Lord provides. And as I said, I know it’s dangerous to tell these kinds of stories, but I think it is important.

I want you to hear how our marriage has thrived, and I would be doing a disservice if I said anything less than what that lady said to our friend, Sam, that day: As a follower of Jesus, you will never be all you are supposed to be (and your marriage will never be all it is supposed to be) until you begin to tithe.


Because the tithe is how we get past the lie that life is short and into the truth that life is designed to be eternal.

And the tithe has changed the spiritual atmosphere of our home. It makes us approach life and finances and big adventures as givers and that changes everything.

No wonder God asks us to give. He asks, because he knows how we are made and he knows what works.

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How to lead people into an encounter with the Spirit

What are you doing, spiritual leaders, to lead those who are open into an encounter with the Holy Spirit?*

By and large, I’m not sure most spiritual leaders (lay or pastor) have been conditioned to move people along on the spiritual spectrum. We know how to recruit volunteers but not so much how to walk people into deep spiritual waters. Our culture doesn’t prepare us for the long, hidden work of the spiritual process of sanctification. We have not been conditioned for the waiting that so often comes with spiritual growth, nor are we comfortable with the sometimes instantaneous work of Spirit-empowered healing.

If we were raised in a more conventional protestant setting, we don’t have built-in permission to be unafraid of the things of the Holy Spirit. We tend to shrink back because we don’t want to run the risk of becoming like “them” — the crazy, emotional, undisciplined ones. To protect ourselves against that (you probably have a mental picture of what that is), we over-intellectualize as a reaction against the anti-intellectualism of more fundamentalist cultures. As a reaction against manifestations we become the frozen chosen. Pentecostal vocabulary becomes a trigger for us. I wonder how much of my ministry has been wasted on trying to protect people who deeply, inwardly hunger for something more … but who were never given permission to test the spiritual waters of the Spirit-drenched life? How much of my ministry has been tentative, when what someone in my care really needs is an authentic, healing encounter?

What are we doing, spiritual leaders, to lead people who are open into an encounter with the Holy Spirit?

Let me give you four ideas that might get you started.

1. Normalize the Holy Spirit. Help your people understand, my Methodist friends, that the Spirit-led life is a normal part of the process of sanctification. This is our spiritual heritage, and we must teach the doctrine of sanctification over and over and over. It is the process of giving more and more of ourselves to more and more of Him. Help your people shake loose the vocabulary and culture of spiritual growth that scares them, so they can see sanctification for what it is — biblical living. Help them shake loose the culture of other traditions so they can see what that kind of living can look like for this church, for these people. Give folks safe spaces to talk about the things of the Spirit. Education and experimentation should go hand in hand.

2. Passion follows posture. Give safe spaces for people to ask questions, share experiences and feel safe enough to experiment. Give your people permission to linger after a service if they’d like healing prayer. Or at the invitation, invite people to kneel right where they are. Learn to use language for the Holy Spirit that doesn’t set off defensive triggers. Shake Him loose from the culture in which He has been bound and simply invite your people to go someplace spiritually by changing the way they physically approach him. Changing posture is a biblical practice. Abraham fell on his face, Moses took his shoes off, Isaiah cried out. Changing posture often helps us to express something within in a more authentic way. It shakes us loose from passivity.

3. Worship culture follows worldview. When it comes to matters of the Spirit, it is more important to help people develop a worldview than it is to develop a worship culture. Both are important but in the church world, we tend to put all the emphasis on the worship culture when we’re talking about the Holy Spirit. The Spirit gives us eyes to see and ears to hear what God is speaking in to the world and doing in the world. This is the worldview we are looking for.

So much of what we think and do springs from a wrong worldview. We come at life from the bottom up, thinking we have to fight to get “up there” where Jesus is. But Paul tells us in Ephesians that in some very mysterious but real way, we are already seated with Christ in the heavenly realm. I’m convinced that if we can absorb that perspective shift it will change everything, including the power of worship.

4. Hunger follows hunger. If you want your people to go someplace spiritually, then lead them. Take responsibility for your own spiritual life and take authority over your ministry. Pursue the deep end for yourself. Hunger attracts hunger. The fact is, lots of people … lots of pastors … believe in Jesus, but not as many are willing to follow Jesus into the Spirit-filled life. Not many have that kind of spiritual courage, nor the integrity to match. Not as many are willing to die to who their own comforts so they can experience the whole gospel. Not many will hunger and thirst after regular encounters with the Spirit — which can happen when we are intentional about seeking the things of God.

Being baptized in the Holy Spirit is about getting immersed in the whole gospel, not just the part that gets us to heaven but the whole gospel. What are you doing to lead those who are open into that kind of encounter with the Holy Spirit?


*I’m grateful to Mike Barr, who helped me shape this question and process these thoughts for a talk delivered at New Room.

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You can pick your friends …

In the book of John, beginning at chapter 13, there is an interesting shift in how Jesus deals with the people he calls “friend.” First, he does this radical thing where he gets down on his knees and washes their feet. He wants to serve them and model for them what humility in the context of friendship looks like. With that image in mind, he tells them about the cross, his death, and God’s design.

The point, Jesus tells them, is connection. Not casual relationship, but deep connection. “Abide in me as I abide in you” (In the margin of an old Bible, I wrote, “Hang out with me as I hang out with you”). Jesus calls his friends to deep and abiding love, the kind that sees not obligation but the joy of serving, of being, of vulnerable-but-safe connection.

The best word for what Jesus describes in word and deed in that scene is the Hebrew word ahava. Often translated as “love,” it literally means, “I give,” or “to give of yourself.” Jesus’ brand of friendship is ahava friendship — a sacrificial, transparent transaction. It draws from the very nature of God, who is at his core a giver. When we draw on that kind of love in our vertical relationship and put it to work in our horizontal relationships, we are drawing down the very power of God. When that power flows in both directions, it is synergistic.

Jesus was known — not favorably (see Matthew 11:18-19) — for being a friend of sinners and people with bad reputations. Further, Jesus recommended that the community of faith become a place where all kinds of people could feel safe. Jesus didn’t excuse sin; he made room for transformation within the context of community.

Likewise, the church is meant to be a place where sinners and outsiders find ahava friendship … but here’s what I’ve noticed. I have noticed that many of us tend to compartmentalize our relationships. We have our family in one compartment, our “real friends” in another, our co-workers in still another.

All our relationships … all in their little compartments.

And then there are the church folk we sit with on Sundays and maybe even study the Bible with during the week … good people but not our friends. Not in the ahava sense of that term. Not in the “let’s eat and drink and laugh together so much that people think we’re drunk” sense of that term.

In fact, often — not always but often — our relationships with church folk tend to be more on the level of taking. We betray ourselves by the language we use. We “church-shop.” And not for a place we can pour in and invest, but for a place we can “be fed.” This is a taker’s attitude and we announce it from the outset as if it is a perfectly acceptable way to ferret out a good church: “I’m looking for a place where I can be fed.”

Brothers and sisters, this is a dangerous mentality for followers of Jesus. It simply is not biblical. 

(Confession: Last week, I was talking to a church group in another town and heard myself say — completely unrehearsed — that anyone who says they aren’t being fed by a church should be shot on the spot. “Do that two or three times,” I pronounced passionately, even as my more loving self tried to stop me, “and everyone else will get the message.” Probably that wasn’t my best moment, but you get the point, right?)

Here’s what many church people do. We come, we sit, we receive … and when we get mad, we leave. In our desire to “be fed,” we become takers and in that process, we distort the mission of the Body of Christ on earth.

In the very place where we learn ahava love, we don’t have a habit of practicing it. Meanwhile, Jesus gets busted for eating and drinking with sinners.

Following Jesus is not just a willingness but an enthusiasm (a passion) for giving, serving, loving, making room at a dinner table for sinners. Based on that scene in John 13, it seems to me that at all the tables where Jesus shows up, there are two brands of people: sinners and servants. And because the community of faith is the place where I can best practice that, then my commitment to a church is to either repent of my sin, or serve others at the table.

Or both. As far as I can tell, those are the only two options we’re given, and neither of them presupposed a “taker’s” posture.

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