Monday, May 02, 2016

Who You Are, and Who You Are Not

Green Lake, Wisconsin
In my spiritual formation classes for pastors and Christian leaders I begin by sending the students out to pray for an hour, using Psalm 23 as their meditative focus. My instruction to them is simply: when God speaks to you, write it down.

Upon returning from their hour with God I have found that many of them will have heard God tell them "I love you." Some of them have not heard those words in a long time.

Henri Nouwen wrote that he was "firmly convinced that the decisive moment of Jesus's public life was his baptism, when he heard the divine affirmation, "You are my Beloved on whom my favor rests." (Spiritual Direction, 28) When God tells someone "You are my beloved," or "I love you," the most intimate truth about that person is revealed. God loves you: this is the ultimate truth about you. Nouwen says that "the ultimate spiritual temptation is to doubt this fundamental truth about ourselves and trust in alternative identities." (28)

Who are you? Nouwen counsels us not to define ourselves by the following alternative identities.

1. Do not define yourself as: "I am what I do." He writes: "When I do good things and have a little success in life, I feel good about myself. But when I fail, I start getting depressed." (Ib.) To define yourself by what you do is to live on a spiritual and emotional roller coaster that is a function of your accomplishments.

2. Do not define yourself as: "I am what other people say about me." "What people say about you has great power. When people speak well of you, you can walk around quite freely. But when somebody starts saying negative things about you, you might start feeling sad. When someone talks against you, it can cut deep into your heart. Why let what others say about you - good or ill - determine what you are?" (Ib., 29)

3. Do not define yourself as: "I am what I have." Don't let your things and your stuff determine your identity. Nouwen writes: "As soon as I lose any of it, if a family member dies, if my health goes, or if I lose my property, then I can slip into inner darkness." (Ib.)

Too much energy goes into defining ourselves by deciding "I am what I do," "I am what others say about me," or "I am what I have." Nouwen writes: "This whole zig-zag approach is wrong." You are not, fundamentally, what you do, what other people say about you, or what you have. You are loved by God.

Today, God speaks to the deep waters of your heart and says, "You are my beloved son or daughter, and on you my favor rests." To hear that voice and trust in it is to reject the three alternative ways of self-definition and enter into freedom and joy.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

What Is God Like? (Join Me In Studying the Attributes of God This Summer)


I will be leading a summer study on the nature and attributes of God. Reading materials for study will be provided. This study will meet at least three Saturday mornings, to be announced. We will look at things like: God's omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, aseity, love, everlastingness, timelessness, immutability, incorporeality, and holiness. We'll be drinking a lot of coffee to help us understand these things. If this summer study interests you please let me know.

Overcoming Fearfulness

Tora, Dan & Allie's cat

(I'm teaching a seminar at Redeemer Sunday, May 1, 6-7:30 PM - on "Overcoming Fear and Worry." You are welcome to come if this interests you.)

Most of my fears are irrational, in two ways. The first kind of irrational fear I have suffered is like this:

1) I believe that horrible event X is going to happen.
2) I feel fearful of the horrible event X.
3) X never happens.

The famous non-event of "Y2K" is an example. Personally I was among those who did not believe that this horrible event would happen. But some did, and the emotion of fear was real to them. They went through that fearful time for no reason. Their fear was irrational. I think most of the fears many people experience are about situations that never happen. Surely this is an unhealthy way to live!

A second kind of irrational fear is this.

1) Horrible event X is probably going to happen.
2) I feel fearful of horrible event X.
3) X happens.

For example, I might be facing a surgery. I experience fear while waiting for it. It is natural to feel fearful, but my fear does nothing to help the situation. Indeed, my fearfulness makes the whole thing worse than it already is. In this sense my fearfulness is irrational, because it is like pouring fuel on an already-existing fire.

Consider a less toxic situation. Let's say that tomorrow I have to mediate in a conflict which threatens to hurt our church if it is not healed. (Which I do not, BTW.) I have trouble getting to sleep tonight because I am fearful there will be a negative outcome. My fear is real but irrational since it contributes nothing to the healing, and may actually prevent me from seeing clearly in the act of mediation.

The truth is, both as a pastor and as a human, I often face fearful situations. There is always "something coming around the bend," whether imagined or real. I would very much like to face those situations minus the feeling of fear, which is unhelpful, unhealthy, and debilitating. Is this possible?

I think it is possible to overcome fearfulness. The answer is to make God one's "fortress and strength," the result being "what shall I then fear?" Henri Nouwen writes:

"The mystery of the spiritual life is that Jesus desires to meet us in the seclusion of our own heart, to make his love known to us there, to free us from our fears, and to make our own deepest self known to us... Each time you let the love of God penetrate deeper into your heart, you lose a bit of your anxiety." (Nouwen, The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life, 70-71)

Nouwen devotes an entire book to this theme and asks the question, "Do you live in the house of God or in the house of fear?" We have a choice about which spiritual and emotional "house" we are going to call home. (See Nouwen's Lifesigns: Intimacy, Fecundity, and Ecstasy in Christian Perspective)

Friday, April 29, 2016

If You Can't Say it You Don't Understand it

In my MCCC Philosophy of religion classes I give the students three one-one-one, 10 minute oral exams. They know in advance the questions I'm going to ask them (such as, "Explain Anselm's Ontological Argument for the Existence of God"). 

On occasion a student complains (even though they have been instructed) about the oral exams. They say, "I understand the material. I just can't say it." (Which means: They don't understand the material.) 

Or, a student says: "I can't say the answer, but I can write it down." (Which means: they don't understand the material. This may not be true in everything, but it's true in philosophy. Or, in medicine. Imagine a doctor who tells you, "I can't say what's wrong with you, but I understand it and can write it down on paper." Avoid doctors like this.) 

I evaluate the students' understanding of the material, not their agreement or disagreement with it. They cannot begin to evaluate arguments they don't understand.

Plus, giving oral exams protects me from this.

Green Lake Holy Spirit Renewal Conference - Come Join Me!

 Holy Spirit Renewal Conference
"His Empowering Presence: 
Experiencing the Fullness of Joy"
JUNE 26-30



Robby Dawkins
Bob Hazlett
Bob Hazlett, is a friend to leaders and a sought-after speaker and author. Strong healing and prophetic gifts follow his ministry. Bob has a passion to empower people in the spiritual gifts in order to fulfill their life purpose. He has traveled extensively throughout the United States and internationally. 

Robby Dawkins, pastor, speaker, author, is a passionate Church-equipper in demand around the world as he equips God's people in power evangelism (Prophetic, Healing, Deliverance or ministry of God's manifest presence). Robby's engaging style of humor, fresh testimony and scriptural truth give listeners fresh purpose & hope. 


AWESOME! The Green Lake experience is so powerful because it's not just a conference, it's a family! Experience the love and joyous celebration that accompanies the incomparable presence of our amazing God. 

The conference offers ministry for all ages -- adults, kids, youth, and young adults. This year we offer a study of the book of Philippians Monday through Thursday at 9 a.m. with seasoned teachers of the Word. Main sessions feature world renown guest speakers and ministry leaders during the 10 a.m. and evening sessions. Workshops Mon-Thurs from 11 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. feature an excellent variety of relevant, life-impacting topics. Every afternoon is "free time" which helps make this conference the perfect, believer's experience -- vacation with inspiration and revelation!  

A limited number of pastor scholarships are available. For more information contact
Brought to you by 
Holy Spirit Renewal Ministries

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Smart Enough to Know How Ignorant I Am

I am smart enough to know how vastly ignorant I am. Here's some proof

Imagine a circle that contains all of human knowledge:
By the time you finish elementary school, you know a little:
By the time you finish high school, you know a bit more:
With a bachelor's degree, you gain a specialty:
A master's degree deepens that specialty:
Reading research papers takes you to the edge of human knowledge:
Once you're at the boundary, you focus:
You push at the boundary for a few years:
Until one day, the boundary gives way:
And, that dent you've made is called a Ph.D.:
Of course, the world looks different to you now:
So, don't forget the bigger picture:

Keep pushing.

Remember that It's About Influence, Not Size

Maumee Bay State Park (Ohio)

As I watched the beautiful twenty-one-minute film with Bono (U2) and Eugene Peterson (The Message, et. al.), and heard Bono speak of how Eugene writings have influenced him (especially The Message and Run With the Horses) I thought of the power of influence. 

Here we have the power of small. Peterson is a small man with a capacious heart for God who pastored a relatively small church. I want to be like him.

I want to be used by God to influence people. I want to be part of a community of influence. Eugene Peterson has helped me with this. I have slow-cooked through his The Contemplative Pastor at least three times. I see #4 on the horizon. Maybe after I finish reading Run With the Horses. I can't even get past the Preface, because Peterson writes:

"The American church seems to have lost its nerve. Leaders are stepping up to provide strategies of renewal and reform. If the sociologists are right, more and more people are becoming disappointed and disaffected with the church as it is and are increasingly marginalized. The most conspicuous response of the church at this loss of “market share” is to develop more sophisticated consumer approaches, more efficient management techniques. If people are not satisfied, we’ll find a way to woo them back with better publicity and glossier advertising. We’ll repackage church under fresh brand names. Since Americans are the world’s champion consumers, let’s offer the gospel on consumer terms, reinterpreting it as a way to satisfy their addiction to More and Better and Sexier. 
The huge irony is that the more the gospel is offered in consumer terms, the more the consumers are disappointed. The gospel is not a consumer product; it doesn’t satisfy what we think of as our “needs.” The life of Jeremiah is not an American “pursuit of happiness.” It is more like God’s pursuit of Jeremiah." (Peterson, Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best, Kindle Locations 58-62) 

Wow. Everything in me resonates with this. Peterson is a crazy, prophetic bearded man typing on a computer overlooking a Montana lake. From his isolation come words for the world. Is anyone listening?

In America masses of people say they believe in God and are "Christians." But in proportion to their size their relative influence is miniscule. My college teaching experience and research tell me that "church" is not on the radar screen of most of today's young adults. Yet the hype goes on...

You might be "small" as a person, or "small" as a church ("church"= a community of persons following after Jesus in his Kingdom-mission). There might only be twelve of you. Yet God could use you to influence the world. Remember the Twelve.

When I was traveling and teaching in central India I addressed a group of thirty medical students who were Jesus-followers. One of them asked me, "How can you start a revival?" My answer was, and still is: "When revival happens within you, then the revolution has begun." Historically this is how it always happens. Moves of God begin small. They don't happen in mega-situations. (For by far the most part, right?) God could do something in you, right now, that he could use to influence multitudes. Remember the mustard seed.

Could a mega-church have influence in proportion to its mega-ness? It's possible, but it would have to be muscular and lean. If a mega-church was the spiritual equivalent of one of the Biggest Losers, then we would have a huge but flabby and non-influential church. It is a mega-task to maintain such a church with its massive size and massive couch-potato-ness. Remember the cost of discipleship.

Influence happens underground. God's Kingdom is an underground movement. It is subtle, subversive, revolutionary, and very powerful. This rarely (if ever) happens on TV or the Internet. We spectate and watch "revivals" happen on TV, but televised moves of God are not themselves moves of God (or rarely so). Remember the seed growing secretly.

Leadership is influence. Therefore everyone is a leader. Leaders for Christ are led by Christ. Therefore they hang tight with Christ, and the stuff that made for Christ's influence gets into them. Remember that we participate in the divine nature. (2 Peter 1:4)

Yesterday Linda and I were sitting in a Subway eating lunch together. She had just begun to read Run with the Horses. She said, "John, you have got to see this quote from Peterson, who is quoting William McNamara."

My grievance with contemporary society is with its decrepitude. There are few towering pleasures to allure me, almost no beauty to bewitch me, nothing erotic to arouse me, no intellectual circles or positions to challenge or provoke me, no burgeoning philosophies or theologies and no new art to catch my attention or engage my mind, no arousing political, social, or religious movements to stimulate or excite me. There are no free men to lead me. No saints to inspire me. No sinners sinful enough to either impress me or share my plight. No one human enough to validate the “going” lifestyle. It is hard to linger in that dull world without being dulled. 
I stake the future on the few humble and hearty lovers who seek God passionately in the marvelous, messy world of redeemed and related realities that lie in front of our noses.

"The few." I want to be counted among them, don't you?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Why I Believe Prayer Works (I Lay My Googler Down)

James 5:16 states that the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. I believe this is true; i.e., I believe that prayer "works." Here are some preliminaries before I give my reasons to believe that prayer works.

  1. I define prayer (following USC philosopher Dallas Willard, et. al.) as talking with God about what we are thinking and doing together. Prayer is a relationship with God that I have. (This is important for what follows.) When I claim that prayer "works" I have this definition in mind. 
  2. My reasons for believing in prayer's efficaciousness form an inductive, not deductive, argument. I have reasons to believe, or why I see it as rational to believe, that prayer is powerful and effective. (Logically, I'm using abductive reasoning, or inference to the best explanation.) Can this be doubted? Of course. Any inductive argument is subject to doubt, more or less. In the same way the inductively arrived-at claim Prayer does not work can logically be doubted. (Note: If one begins with the claim God does not exist, then it deductively follows that Prayer does not work.)
  3. I present why I believe prayer works. I think it is important to state it this way. I lay my omniscient God-substitute Googler down and speak for myself. (Note: This is why I also value meeting face-to-face over coffee with people who don't believe what I believe. Thanks to all of you who have done and do this with me. I have learned from you.)
Why I Believe Prayer Works

  1. In 1977 I began a practice of getting alone and praying for several hours each week. I have maintained that practice, to this day. I believe the question "Does prayer work?" can only be answered by those who have committed themselves to a life of praying. 
  2. I have kept journals recording my prayer life since 1977. My journals total over 3500 pages. I have had many incidences where the best explanation for an event, as far as I can tell, is that it is an answer to my prayers. 
  3. So, I have much personal experience with praying. This is important to me because of a deep philosophical belief I have, which is: experience, not theory, breeds conviction.  
  4. I'm going to be praying today, and tomorrow. I would not pray if I thought it did not work. (This reason is by via negativa.) It is important to say this. I'm not saying it to convince others. I don't expect my experience to convince others. But this is my experience, just as you have your experiences; therefore, I stand convinced. Call this an existential reason, without which I have no idea why I would pray (To religiously fake it? To impress others?).
  5. I have taught praying to many people. My estimate is that I have taught at least 3000 pastors and Christian leaders about praying. 1500 of them have engaged in 6-weeks of praying an hour a day, 5 days a week. They have kept journals recording their prayer experiences. They have sent their journals to me. I have read them. These students have been, literally, from all over the world. A few have invited me to their countries to teach prayer to their people and colleagues. I have a broad, deep data base of people who committed themselves to actually praying. These people tell of experiences and events that deepen my already-held conviction that prayer works.
  6. I have studied, and taught, the history of prayer and praying. I am familiar with the praying lives of many historical figures. The end result of my studies has been to inspire me to continue to pray.
  7. Scholarly, empirical studies of prayer and praying support my existential belief in the veridicality of praying. Such as, to cite but two, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, by Candy Gunther Brown; and The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, by Bernard Spilka and Kevin Ladd. 
  8. I have read countless counterexamples to my belief that prayer works. This is important to me. I've read innumerable (over the years) atheistic (and other) arguments that the statement Prayer works is false. I began reading this counter-literature in 1971, as an undergraduate philosophy student. (Beware - philosophy makes you read opposing ideas!) I have little sympathy with atheists who have never had a praying life and out of their non-engagement believe they have falsified the claim that prayer works. Their theoretical arguments, which are logical manifestations of their worldview, do not dissuade me. I have also read many books by, e.g., ex-theists who claim to have prayed like I have but found no reciprocity. I am sympathetic towards these testimonies. But note this: since my personal testimony is to the efficacity of praying, absence-testimonies do not persuade me any more than my testimony persuades an ex-believer.
  9. Jesus believed praying works. I believe Jesus is God incarnate. Therefore I believe praying works. A major portion of my adult life has been spent immersed in Christological studies. I remain convinced that Jesus is who he claims to be. (Note: my Christological studies are historical and textual studies. Some of my critics mistake me for a religious fundamentalist, which I am not. Ironically these critics are usually themselves hermeneutical fundamentalists.) Again, note the pronoun 'I'. I know why I believe praying works. Obviously I do believe praying works, since I continue doing it. Here personal knowledge is important (see Kierkegaard, and Michael Polanyi). 
  10. I believe prayer works because I believe a personal God exists. If I did not believe this I would not pray, period. My praying life is a function of (is in direct proportion to) my belief in God. 
  11. I have a deep, experiential and philosophical belief that not only does God exist as a personal agent, but God is good, God loves me, and God is working all thing together for good ("good" is defined in relation to God's plans and purposes [no, this does not lead us to the "Euthyphro dilemma"]). Because I am certain and happy that I am not the all-knowing, all-loving God, I know I do not have full epistemic access to what God is doing. I have prayed for things that, from my POV, seem unanswered. At this point my properly basic belief in God helps me trust that my prayers are not going unheard.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Bono & Eugene Peterson | THE PSALMS

Reading tips for the Psalms:

  1. Pay attention to the whole of a psalm, not just to the parts of a psalm.
  1. Read the psalms consistently, rather than occasionally and sporadically.
  1. Pay attention to the internal coherence of a psalm or a section of psalms, rather than allowing them to remain fragmented parts, reflective of our immediate and self-absorbed interest.
  1. Read the psalms out loud, not just silently.
  1. Read and sing and pray the psalms together, not just alone.
  1. Pay attention the Psalter’s “hospitable ‘I’” and its “intimate communal” sense, rather than allowing the individual expressions to devolve to individualism and the communal expressions to devolve to an impersonal communalism.
  1. Immerse yourself in the metaphors that the psalmist employs, rather than remaining distant and detached from them.
  1. Pay attention to the placement and role of the psalms in the biblical canon, rather than viewing them as isolated and idiosyncratic.
+ These suggestions were written by David Taylor. Read his curated list of resources on the Psalms here.

“What can I give back to God
for the blessings he’s poured out on me?
I’ll lift high the cup of salvation—a toast to God!
I’ll pray the name of God;
I’ll complete what I promised God I’d do,
and I’ll do it together with his people.”

+ Bono frequently reads Psalm 116 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message at the beginning of U2’s concerts.

Bono & Eugene Peterson Colloborate on a Film About the Psalms

Is this cool or what? Bono (U2) and Eugene Peterson (The Message, and more) have collaborated to make a film about the biblical book of Psalms.

They entitled their project "Bono and Eugene Peterson: The Psalms," according to the New Boston Post. Bono and Peterson have known each other ever since they met during the band's 360 Tour back in 2010. They credit the Book of Psalms as the foundation of their friendship.

(Yes, Bono is a Jesus-follower.)

Produced by Fourth Line Films, the documentary was directed by Fourth Line’s Nate Clarke. It’s the first production to be released by the Pasadena school’s new website, Fuller Studio, a resource from Fuller, a seminary founded by a 1940s preacher who reached the masses through radio broadcasts.