Saturday, July 13, 2024

I'm Still Beating These Drums


                                                     (Eldoret, Kenya)

I am a small voice sounding a drum from deep in the jungle. Here are some of the drums I beat when I was in Kenya.

I told the Kenyan and Ugandan pastors that the #1 thing they need to do, as pastors, is stay tight with God. Abide in Christ. Dwell in the shadow of the Almighty. Send roots to the river of God. Live, 24/7, in the fortress of God. That's what you need to do. And that's what your people need you to do. Because what they need is not you, but God. They need "Christ in you, the hope of glory."

Dwell in God's presence and he will free you from the illusion of your indispensability. I told these African pastors that they are not needed by God. God can and will accomplish his purposes with or without them. But God loves them and wants to use them. And he will, if they trust in him and abide in him.

We can't change other people. Only God can do that. So I told the pastors: "Today you can let go of your striving to change other people." 

Some of them told me how novel and freeing this was. I added, "But God can change you." 

The change happens as we hang with God. You cannot consistently nurture the "in Christ" relationship and remain unchanged. And, as a bonus, make God your Shepherd (in practice, not theory; viz., trust in him) and he "restores your soul." So, you don't have to "work on your own self." Just step into God's presence, stay there, and the Restorer of Souls starts to strip away all that has covered over your soul to get to the original "in God's image" psuche

The changes God works in you will not be just for you, but for others. This is called influence. We cannot change other people. But what God works in us can and will influence other people, by God's Spirit.

Today, I will abide in Christ. As he speaks, I'll obey. This is the place of all authentic formation,
transformation, renewal, restoration, and in some cases resurrection. This is the place of my need, and my influence.


Friday, July 12, 2024

One Simple Secret to a Healthy Marriage


                                                                     (At Toledo Zoo)

In a month Linda and I will celebrate our 51st wedding anniversary. We are both thankful for having these wonderful years of life together!

We're not the perfect marriage. Acknowledging this helps us be better life partners.

One thing that has helped us is that we communicate about and coordinate our busy schedules, meetings, desires, and obligations. We do this every day, usually in the morning, or the evening before.

We ask each other questions, such as...

"What is your schedule today?"

"What do you want to get done today?"

"How can I help you today?"

"What time will we have together today?"

"Are you OK with me doing this (_______) today?"

"What do we need to do together today?"

"What commitments do we have this week?"

"What shall we do for dinner tonight?"

"What do you need to talk about?"

We ask questions like these. Because we do this all the time, responding to them often takes little time.

We want to share expectations, and be on the same page.

We let each other know what we are up to. For example, Linda might tell me, "I'm doing laundry this morning. Do you have clothes that need washing?"

I always let her know where I am going. Today, e.g., I said, "I'm going to Panera Bread to get a coffee." And later, I said, "I'm going upstairs to work in the office."

This is not rocket science. We always let each other know what we are doing and where we are going, even if it's just going outside to water the flowers. And, we are willing to give up our agendas for the sake of the other.

Linda is excellent at keeping a datebook. We meet together, and she brings her datebook with her. She says, "Remember, John, that we have the graduation party this Saturday at 1."

We communicate like this because we are not single anymore. We are doing life together

Coordinating our schedules is a way of honoring one another. In doing this, expectations become clear. Uncommunicated expectations breed marital conflict.

For us, this is one secret to a healthy marriage.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Amusing Our Infantile Selves to Death



Over 2000 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote:

"It is indeed a strange thought that the end should be amusement, and that the busyness and suffering throughout one’s life should be for the sake of amusing oneself." (In Skidelsky, Robert; Skidelsky, Edward, 
How Much is Enough?: Money and the Good Life, p. 96)

And yet, this is where we now are as a culture, amusing ourselves to death. Think of the people of Panem in The Hunger Games. Think of Philip Seymour Hoffman consenting to the needle of happiness that one day would suffocate him. Think of the increase of happiness studies and "happiness economics" that have their statistical fingers on the pulse of our satisfaction.  Economic growth has been divorced from any humanly intelligible end. (See Ib.) 

(See especially Neil Postman's prescient, prophetic Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse In the Age of Show Business.)

Spiritual Formation Happens in Connection to Community

                                            (Redeemer kids)

Spiritual formation is the shaping of the human heart into Jesus-likeness. Paul's prayer in Galatians 4:19 expresses this: 

My dear children, I feel the pains of birth upon me again, and I will continue in labor for you until the Anointed One is formed completely in you. (The Voice)

We see this idea in Romans 12:1-2, where the word "transformed" is from the Greek word metamorphe. Meta-morphe is a "change of form." It is like a caterpillar changing into a butterly, only more profound (because, I think, it involves changing of essential, not merely contingent, attributes).

Offer your bodies as a living and holy sacrifice to God, a sacred offering that brings Him pleasure; this is your reasonable, essential worship. Do not allow this world to mold you in its own image. Instead, be transformed from the inside out by renewing your mind. As a result, you will be able to discern what God wills and whatever God finds good, pleasing, and complete.

Dallas Willard writes: “Spiritual formation can be understood as the process by which true Christlikeness is established in the very depths of our being. Spiritual formation” is “a term for those processes through which people are inwardly transformed in such a way that the personality and deeds of Jesus Christ naturally flow out from them when and wherever they are. When we talk about spiritual formation we are talking about framing a progression of life in which people come to actually do all things that Jesus taught. So we are obviously going for the heart. We are aiming for change of the inner person, where what we do originates." 
 Jeffrey Greenman - "Spiritual formation is our continuing response to the reality of God's grace shaping us into the likeness of Jesus Christ, through the work of the Holy Spirit, in the community of faith, for the sake of the world."
- Jeffrey Greenman, Life in the Spirit: Spiritual Formation in Theological Perspective, p. 24 

Spiritual formation into Jesus-likeness happens as we are connected to community. Henri Nouwen helps me here. He writes, 

"Spiritual formation requires taking not only the inward journey to the heart, but also the outward journey from the heart to community and ministry. Christian spirituality is essentially communal. Spiritual formation is formation in community. One’s personal prayer life can never be understood if it is separated from community life. Prayer in the spiritual life leads to community, and community to prayer. In community we learn what it means to confess our weakness and to forgive each other. In community we discover our own woundedness, but also a place of healing. In community we learn true humility. Without community, we become individualistic and egocentric. Therefore, spiritual formation always includes formation to life in community." (Nouwen, Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the SpiritKindle Locations 309-315)

Tuesday, July 09, 2024

Spiritual Transformation Conference in New Jersey - July 27-28

Linda and I will travel to Edison, New Jersey, to lead a "Spiritual Transformation Conference," July 27-28.

Where: Stelton Baptist Church

Sat. evening, July 27. 7 PM.

Sunday morning, July 28. 11 AM.

Sunday evening, July 28, 7 PM.

Stelton Baptist Church
334 Plainfield Ave
Edison, NJ 08817


Inner Healing Sermons


                                                                     (Lake Michigan)

Here are three sermons on inner healing.

Breaking the Chains of Shame

Monday, July 08, 2024

Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?

                                                           (Holland State Park, Michigan)

Pourquoi y-a-t-il quelque chose plutôt que rien? 

Why is there something rather than nothing? 

This question became my own as an undergraduate philosophy major at Northern Illinois University. 

Philosopher Michael Gelven introduced me to The Question, via Martin Heidegger. I had just been converted from a weak deism and practical atheism (the same thing?) to Christian theism. Welcome to the Big Questions of life. 

Years ago I read Jim Holt's book on this question, Why Does the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. It's both excellent and sad.  

It's excellent. Extremely well-written. Holt is a good scholar as he comes to grips with hard philosophical, theological, and scientific concepts. He really captures a representative, eclectic scholarly group. Big names are interviewed - Richard Swinburne, Adolph Grünbaum, David Deutsch, Andre Linde, Alex Vilenkin, Steven Weinberg, Roger Penrose, John Leslie, Derek Parfit, and the late John Updike. Wow!

Holt takes us on an intellectual and existential tour de cosmos. In reading his book I have again been captivated. The Big Question seems more important than ever. I think on such things, and my soul feasts.

It's sad. This is how Holt's book ends. This is not all bad. He writes exquisitely about the death of his mother and the time he personally spent at her bedside, loving her with words and actions. I'm thankful he wrote about this. He chronicles her last breath. Holt writes:

"I returned to the room to be alone with my mother’s body. Her eyes were still a little open, and her head was cocked to the right. I thought about what was going on in her brain, now that her heart had stopped and the blood had ceased to flow. Deprived of oxygen, the brain cells were frantically but vainly attempting to preserve their functioning until, with gathering speed, they chemically unraveled. Perhaps there had been a few seconds of guttering consciousness in my mother’s cortex before she vanished forever. I had just seen the infinitesimal transition from being to nothingness. The room had contained two selves; now it contained one." (p. 273)

Not according to me, or Richard Swinburne.

My mother's bones were musical. She moved, slightly and perceptibly, to music. She was grateful that her two sons played guitar and sang. A few days before she died I was with her in her room in the nursing home. It was bedtime. I brought my guitar to play for her. I played soft, beautiful, exquisite music on my guitar, in love and honor for her. She lay on the bed. She heard my guitar. I finger-styled with all the excellence I had. Suddenly a voice from the room next door shouted, "Shut that thing up!!!" I stopped playing for a moment. Then, with utmost softness, I played for her again. I wasn't going to deny her this pleasure and comfort.

A few days later I was in her apartment, and the call came that she was gone. Out of the foundational miracle of Somethingness grows the conviction that my mother had not now become "nothing." 

God created, in the beginning. The One who powerfully created and sustains all that is, is more than able to recreate and raise my mother on that Final Day. From nothing, nothing comes. Ex nihilo, nihil fit

Unless... God.

Building an Identity of Unnecessariness

In my seminary spiritual formation classes I require students to pray. In the first class, after introductions, I send us all out to pray for one hour, using Psalm 23 as our meditative focus. I ask students to leave their cell phones in the classroom. I tell them:

"God wants to break you of the illusion of your indispensability. You are not needed. You are loved, and God desires to manifest his glorious presence in you. But God does not need you."

This is an important lesson to learn. Without it, all kinds of bad things happen to the self and those they lead.

(Holland State Park, Michigan)

See Eugene Peterson and Marva Dawn's really good and necessary book The Unnecessary Pastor. Pastors are unnecessary in three ways that we might think are necessary.

#1 - "We are unnecessary to what the culture presumes is important: as paragons of goodness and niceness." (Loc 71)

Many people are good and nice. This is not our distinctive.

#2 - "We are unnecessary to what we ourselves feel is essential: as the linchpin holding the congregation together." (Loc 84)

None of us are indispensable. "We have important work to do, but if we don't do it God can always find someone else - and probably not a pastor." (Ib.)

#3 - "We are unnecessary to what congregations insist that we must do and be: as the experts who help them stay ahead of the competition." (Ib.)

"Congregations get their ideas of what makes a pastor from the culture, not from the Scriptures: they want a winner; they want their needs to be met; they want to be part of something zesty and glamorous....

...With hardly an exception they don't want pastors at all - they want managers of their religious company. They want a pastor they can follow so they won't have to bother with following Jesus anymore." (Ib.)

If you are a pastor, you are unnecessary in relation to these three expectations. To counter them one must build "an identity of unnecessariness." Peterson writes:

"Only when we realize how unnecessary we are will we be free to do the "one thing needful" - the gospel necessity laid upon the glorious but battered life of the pastor." (Loc 97)

Saturday, July 06, 2024

What I Do When the Conference is Over

It's Saturday morning. I'm basking in
 the afterglow of time spent with many friends and colleagues at our annual HSRM conference. What a great week! We will never be the same again!

All the activity and worship and spiritual and mental intake...  today it is in the past. So, what now? What will I do in these post-event days? The answer is: what I am always doing

Which is:
  1. I will Abide in Jesus today, tomorrow, and the next day. I'll be a branch connected to Jesus the Vine. "Conferences" are not what I am attached to. The same Jesus that spoke to you and me over the past few days will not stop speaking just because we're not at the conference. I have great hope and expectation... now! The God-encounter is a daily thing for me.  
  2. I will Saturate myself in Scripture. God meets me in Scripture. I am more Scripture-focused than I have ever been in all my Jesus-days. I study it. I meditate on it. I ingest it and, by God's Spirit, it gets into me. I'll just keep doing this. The three-day conference has ignited new hope in me. But I do not need a conference to saturate myself in Scripture. This has become my habit. 
  3. I will Listen for God's voice, speaking to me. When God speaks to me today, I'll write it down in my spiritual journal. God has so much to tell me! God is not thinking, "John's no longer participating in the big conference so I won't speak to him in his own home." My view is this. Today is the day of the Lord's activity in my life. Jesus is not the great "I was," he is not the great "I will be," he is the great "I am." Now. 
  4. I will Obey when the Spirit directs. I am not God's perfect servant, as Jesus was. But I do obey God, and find it a delight. I am God's servant. Transform me, Lord, into greater obedient servanthood!
The conference is over. 

I continue doing four things. 



Thank God for inspiring conferences, the God-intent of each one being daily, inspirational, Jesus-loving, Jesus-following and life more abundantly. (John 10:10)  

The weekend conference is over. But God is not gone. He is with me, his rod and staff, they comfort me. For me, life is all about abiding in him, being connected to him, and being where he wants me to be.

God is a good conference speaker, a very present help in trouble. And, meeting with God is free! (Except that it will cost you everything).  

Sit at God's feet today. 

Conference with God. 

Spiritually, it gets no better than that.