Rooted

So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.
Colossians 2:6-7 (NIV)

Last summer Wendy and I had five fire bushes planted at the back of our yard. As the hot, dry summer wore on the bushes struggled for life. Despite the fact that I gave them water and they had plenty of sunlight, they slowly withered and died. Fortunately, all of our other landscaping, which had been planted two years earlier, made it through the drought and is full of life this spring.

It’s been a beautifully warm, wet spring this year and I’ve been mowing my lawn twice a week. As I passed by the dead bushes at the back of our yard on Saturday, I happened to bump a couple of them with the edge of the mower. I noticed that they quite easily bent and seemed to pull up from the ground. They had no depth of root structure grounding them.

I thought of those bushes as I read this morning’s chapter. Paul instructs the spiritually immature believers in Colossae that having made a decision to follow Jesus was just the beginning of their spiritual journey. They are spiritual saplings, newly planted. Now, it’s time to put down deep spiritual roots which only happens slowly, over time. It is the continual processing of Word and Light and Spirit and relationship in spiritual photosynthesis leading to a chain reaction of praise and gratitude which perpetuates the cycle.

In the past few week’s I’ve written about an observation I’ve had over the years. The brands of Jesus’ followers with whom I’ve been associated most of my life have had a penchant for focusing on getting people “saved” like a nursery of seedlings dropped into a tiny pot of loose soil and sprinkled with water. When life begins to scorch, or the storms of circumstance blow in like a midwest thunderstorm, there are no spiritual roots. The seedlings wither.

This morning I find myself meditating on the long, slow, gradual process of growing deep spiritual roots. It’s not a quick fix. It requires time, attention, and a certain amount of discipline. It goes against the grain of a culture that worships the quick, simple, and easy. But, it’s good. The deeper my roots, the more capable I found myself to weather the unpredictable ebb and flow of both drought and storms in life.

Dig deep. Build up. Strengthen faith. Let gratitude flow.

Have a great week, my friend.

Expanding My View of “All Things”

For in him all things were created:things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

For God was pleased to have all his fullnessdwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven….
Colossians 1:16-17;19-20 (NIV)

Last fall I stumbled onto a book entitled Factfulness by Dr. Hans Rosling. A swedish medical doctor who has spent his life serving on the front-lines of disease around the world, Dr. Rosling and his team have observed that most human beings have a completely incorrect view of the world. He lays out his case using readily available facts and statistics from reliable sources and a short quiz he has administered to tens of thousands of educators, politicians, and corporate executives around the world over many years. Our world views, he says, are stuck in the early twentieth century while the world itself has rapidly progressed. Chimpanzees randomly choosing the answers to his multiple choice quiz score higher than  most “educated” human beings. I highly recommend you read the book. It has been a game changer for me.

Dr. Rosling’s insights about our world have coincided with a shift in my spiritual world-view in recent years.

For most of my spiritual journey, the theological institutions and brands of Jesus’ followers of which I have largely been a part have been primarily focused on the spiritual salvation of individuals. As I have read through and studied God’s Message time and time again I have observed that this is not incorrect or inappropriate. Jesus Himself made this plain in a verse referenced for many years in football end zones everywhere:

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:16 (NIV)

What if, however, the focus on the spiritual salvation of individuals has had a corollary effect on my view of creation? The earth is a terrible place from which we must be saved. The world is going to hell and we must escape it. Temporal, earthly things are not important. It is getting as many souls to heaven that’s the priority by instilling a message of the condemnation of this evil world and fear of eternal damnation.

And yet, as I wrote in my post the other day, the prayer Jesus taught us is about bringing the Kingdom to earth, not the other way around. In today’s chapter Paul makes it clear that Christ is not only the agent of creation, but the cosmic, eternal force that holds all things together. Paul goes on to state that Christ’s mission was that through him would come the reconciliation of all things. He doesn’t say the reconciliation of all people, but the reconciliation of all things in both heaven and on Earth.

Dr. Rosling has been expanding my view of the Earth. While there are still many problems to be addressed, we have made incredible progress over the past century and life is better on Earth than it ever has been. And, despite the fear tactics of media trying to keep your attention (so they can charge advertisers for it), it’s getting better at a rapid rate.

At the same time I feel Holy Spirit expanding my view of eternity, the Cosmos, and this Great Story. I perpetually hear myself being called away from my own ego. If I am to be one with Christ as Christ is one with the Father and the Spirit, and if in Christ all things hold together and all things are reconciled, then in Christ I am part of a bigger picture than I’ve ever considered. Forgive me, I haven’t laid hold of it and in the quiet I find myself struggling to articulate it. Suffice it to say that I feel myself called “further up and further in” and I’m more excited than ever to follow and experience where it all leads. It is a faith journey, after all.

Pomp and Circumstance

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

We are all suckers for a Pinterest-worthy phrase. The Bible is full of them. The stuff of inspirational bookmarks, posters, desktop backgrounds, and cheap commercial trinkets sold at your local Christian bookstore.

As I’ve journeyed through God’s Message for almost 40 years, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for that inspirational, scriptural quote to be taken completely out of context. Text that is actually profound, mysterious, and/or challenging with eternal, Level Four spiritual meaning is screen printed, replicated and dragged down to self-centric, ego-pleasing, Level One interpretations. I’m not pointing fingers, by the way. I’m as guilty as anyone.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

I’m sure there are many young followers of Jesus who are receiving graduation gifts from well-meaning grandparents with that phrase printed on a greeting card, key-chain, or bookmark. On the surface, it seems to flow right along with all the pomp and circumstance of your boiler-plate commencement address:

“Chase after your dreams.”

“You can be anything you want to be.”

“Make your mark on this world.”

“The world is yours for the taking.”

“All your dreams can come true if you work hard enough.”

I noticed as I read the chapter this morning that preceding Paul’s inspirational statement is a rather sobering message:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

Paul, who was stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra. Paul, who was shipwrecked three times in the Mediterranean and once spent twenty-four hours floating on debris in the open ocean hoping to make it to shore. Paul, who was bitten by a viper. Paul, who five times was given 39 lashes (because 40 was considered lethal). Paul, who traveled some 10,000 miles largely by foot. Paul, who was beaten with rods three times, went hungry and found himself cold, naked, and alone. Paul, who was writing those words from prison.

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

The secret of being content in any circumstance is the “all things” Paul was referencing with his inspirational phrase. He wasn’t talking about grabbing the world by the tail, achieving his personal dreams, and moving up in the world. He was talking about being perfectly content being cold, naked, hungry, bloody, bruised and shackled in a first-century dungeon. Ironically, that is not the stuff of inspirational commencement addresses.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that it is discontent that often fuels personal dreams, aspirations, ambition, economics, and the American dream. Paul’s faith taught him contentment in the midst of unimaginable suffering. I struggle to be content with my iPhone 8 when the iPhone X hits the market.

And there’s the disconnect.

This morning I find myself challenged to restore the meaning of the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to its profound, mysterious, spiritual meaning in my own heart and life.  Being content no matter my current situation and circumstances. I confess that it’s easier said than done for me, and I’ve got a long way to go in learning the secret Paul discovered. Which is why this is a journey.

Time to press on. Have a good day, my friend.

 

Not Earth to Heaven, but Heaven to Earth

But our citizenship is in heaven.
Philippians 3:20a (NIV)

Since last September our local gathering of Jesus’ followers has been engaged in a year-long study of the book of Acts, which starts as a history of the early Jesus Movement. The second half of the book, however, is really a history of Paul. While history records that what remained of the Twelve original disciples gave their lives in service to advancing Jesus’ message to the known world, the latter half of Acts does not mention them. The author, Luke, traveled with Paul and his focus lies there.

In case you didn’t know it, that’s why I’ve been blogging through all of Paul’s letters in, roughly, chronological order.

One of the discoveries I’ve made in my study this year is the degree to which Paul was focused on Jesus’ mission to bring God’s Kingdom to Earth.  “Your Kingdom come,” Jesus taught His disciples to pray. “Your will be done on Earth, just as it is in heaven.” This isn’t a minor point. It’s a transformative shift in paradigm.

As I look back on almost forty years of my spiritual journey the emphasis I’ve been taught by teachers and authors and commentators has been on getting to heaven. We want people to walk the aisle, get their ticket punched and their reservation made in eternity. That accomplished, we encourage spiritual growth, but in practice only a few really take the whole thing seriously on a day-t0-day basis. Most go about life without giving it much thought in daily life. But no matter, the important thing is that the sinner’s prayer was dutifully said as a child back in church camp. Your fire insurance policy is paid up. The church can breathe a sigh of relief if you get hit by a Mack truck later today. (In case you didn’t know it, Mack trucks have been unexpectedly sending people to untimely deaths in hypothetical Christian scenarios for many decades).

In today’s chapter Paul certainly has his sights on eternity. He talks about being called heavenward. He tells the Philippian believers “our citizenship is in heaven.” His emphasis, however, isn’t on getting there. His emphasis in today’s chapter is on the work in his here-and-now, Level Three journey on Earth. I paraphrase:

  • Rejoice today in your circumstances (Paul is writing from prison).
  • Watch out for those who would lead you in the wrong direction.
  • I’m giving everything I’ve got, today, to advance the Kingdom (on Earth).
  • I’m approaching everything in this Level Three earthly journey with a Level Four eternal perspective.
  • I’m following and suffering to live out Jesus’ teaching and calling.
  • There’s more to do. I’m not waiting for it. I’m pressing into it every day in every way.
  • I’m not sitting back and waiting to die, I’m doing everything I can right now.

This morning I find myself reexamining my entire life and faith journey. Mental adherence to the right set of beliefs, a muttered rote prayer, a membership certificate, or a religious habit of Sunday attendance were what Jesus’ message was about, but that’s largely been the message that I think I’ve unwittingly lived out in too many ways. I have to confess that bringing the Kingdom of Heaven here to Earth hasn’t been where my focus has been. I regret that.

Well, as Paul wrote in today’s chapter: “forgetting what lies behind, straining toward what is ahead.” I’m getting ready to head into a full day of client meetings. I don’t want to leave the Kingdom in my hotel room once I publish this post. I want to take the Kingdom with me into every meeting, conversation, word, relationship, and action.

The Christ-likeness of Mothers

…rather, [Jesus] made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant…
Philippians 2:7 (NIV)

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Wendy and I had a chance to stop and see my mother on the way to the airport. We brought her some of her favorite treats from Jaarsma bakery. I’m grateful that medication has successfully slowed down the progression of Alzheimer’s. She never ceases to remember family, which has been of great encouragement to all of us. There are other signs, however, that the disease is slowly progressing, and I know it’s only a matter of time. It’s a sobering reality.

At this point in my life journey, I find myself at a fascinating crossroad. I look back and grieve watching my own mother recede, as she and my father continue to faithfully trek in the late stages of their own earthly journeys. At the same time, I look forward and watch Taylor struggle through those draining early years of motherhood when so much of life and ego is drained out you and into this little, helpless person. I watch as Madison prepares for marriage and thinks about her own dreams of motherhood. I watched yesterday as Wendy sat and poured love into my mother as she shared Madison’s engagement photos with her. I’ve watched as she prepares to pour herself into both girls, into all of the wedding plans, all of the travel plans, and into Milo.

I read this morning’s chapter and what is a well-known theological passage about Jesus “making Himself nothing,” quite literally emptying Himself, in order to love all of us. Perhaps for the first time in my life, I thought about this theological concept in conjunction with motherhood in all of the many facets I’ve witnessed. I’ve learned along the way that motherhood is more expansive than I once thought in the ignorance of my youth. It is not confined by biology and the transfer of DNA. It is a matter of Spirit. When a woman embraces motherhood, she empties herself in countless ways. God has surrounded me with amazing women. I witness it in so many ways at so many levels.

In the quiet this morning I’m meditating on the Christ-likeness of mothers. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for all of the ways mothers of all types, and ages, and generations have made a difference in my journey.

Thank you, mothers. For emptying yourselves into me, into us.

When “Love” is Hard

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight….
Philippians 1:9 (NIV)

Along my journey I have managed individuals who were in the wrong position. They weren’t suited for the tasks they were given, they didn’t enjoy the work, and the fruit of their labor was often rotten.  The fact that we had good person in a bad position was obvious to me as a front-line manager. I have two very vivid memories in which I argued with my boss that an individual needed to be terminated. This was not so much to alleviate the problems felt inside the system (though it would certainly do that) but because the individual needed to be freed to find something for which he or she was better suited. In both cases I was told that the best thing to do was to “show grace and love” by continuing to work with the individual, keep encouraging the individual, to keep overlooking their failures, and to perpetually give them another chance. In neither instance did the this course of “grace and love” succeed.

Love is a simple word, and very often love is a simple concept: a random act of kindness, going out of your way to assist a person in need, an encouraging word, or a thoughtful gift.

As I read the opening chapter of Paul’s letter to the followers of Jesus in the town of Philippi, I was struck that he prayed, not just that the Philippian believers’ love would abound, but that that it would abound in knowledge and depth of insight.

I have found along my life journey that love is often not such a simple concept. In fact, sometimes love is hard:

  • Coming clean, owning my own shit, and getting help.
  • Forgiving, knowing you’ll never forget the injury and/or the perpetrator will never admit, own, or repent of what he or she did.
  • Refusing to rescue a child; Allowing him or her fail as you watch and pray.
  • Choosing to make a child responsible for earning his or her way rather than freely providing all things.
  • Severing relationship with a crazy-maker.
  • Walking away from a toxic relationship.
  • Telling an addict, “No.”
  • Terminating an employee who isn’t a good fit for the job.

Just as Paul wrote that Satan masquerades as an angel of light, I’ve learned that sometimes what looks like love on the surface of a situation is actually not love at all. Quite the opposite. Often, the loving act is misunderstood in the moment. It requires knowledge to realize that it’s actually the best thing for the other. The truly loving act can initially illicit anger, bitterness, and lashing out. Depth of insight is required to see how things will play out in the long run.

This morning I’m thinking about the two individuals I referenced at the beginning of this post. I’ve learned that they moved on, found a better vocational fit, and appear to be successful in their chosen fields. I’m happy for them. They taught me an invaluable lesson. Showing “grace and love” sometimes means making the difficult, uncomfortable, even unpopular decision with the knowledge and insight that it’s actually the most loving thing to do.

 

“All Kinds” on “All Occasions”

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests.
Ephesians 6:18a (NIV)

Among our local gathering of Jesus’ followers we have a small army of individuals who are both passionate and gifted in the spiritual discipline of prayer. I admire and respect them greatly. I probably haven’t expressed that to them enough.

It was Paul who introduced the metaphor of the “Body” to describe the universal whole of all believers. The further I get in my journey the more I appreciate what an apt metaphor it is. Different systems operating with unique parts that make up one body. Each cell, structure, chemical, system, organ and appendage are necessary for healthy functioning, yet those cells, structures, chemicals, systems, organs and appendages are not interchangeable. In fact, some operate independent of one another because they simply don’t mix well, yet they are each necessary for the health of the whole.

In the same way each member has different spiritual gifts, callings, disciplines and abilities that contribute to the healthy functioning of the Body as a whole. Teaching and preaching has always been easy for me. It came naturally. I don’t even think about it, though I know the very idea of standing in front of a crowd and giving a message scares most other members of the Body terribly. Prayer, however, has been something at which I’ve had to work.

One of the lessons I’ve had to learn in my pursuit of developing the discipline of prayer is the very thing Paul encourages of all believers in today’s chapter: pray  on “all occasions” with “all kinds” of prayer.  I’ve had to learn that prayer is not just a rote prayer to bless a meal or the bowing of my head and folding of my hands kind of prayer (though those are both legitimate kinds of prayer). There is breathing prayer. There is singing prayer. There is the type of prayer that is simply an on-going, silent, inner conversation of my spirit with the Spirit. Almost any time I sit down and journal my thoughts, the words on the page naturally transition, at some point, into a written prayer to God. There are set hours of the day when I can “pray the hours” with thousands, maybe even millions, of other members of the Body around the world. There are “popcorn” prayers that blurt out from my system in an unexpected moment. There are prayers of confession, prayers of thanks, and prayers for and over others.

Along my spiritual journey I’ve come to embrace the truth that while some things are not areas of giftedness, passion, or bent they are, in fact, important for my health and spiritual whole. I have never been a naturally gifted athlete (I think I still have slivers in my butt from all the time I spent “on the bench” as a kid), yet participating in CrossFit has become crucial to my overall health as I age. Likewise, I’ve never been a gifted musician or singer, yet learning an instrument, participating on worship teams, and making a “joyful noise” have taught me many lessons and have played a huge part in my spiritual development and overall health. Prayer falls into the same pattern. I have good friends who are truly gifted and called to prayer in ways that, I confess, I sometimes envy. Yet prayer remains a core spiritual discipline that is necessary for my spiritual growth, maturity, and health. It’s simply something I must work at, learn about, and develop.

This morning I’m thinking about my prayer life. It is ever-present on the mental task-list of of my daily life journey. It is an area of my spiritual life that is in constant need of attention. C’est la vie.

And so, I’m going to finish writing this post and take a few moments to stretch my pray muscles and pray for you who took the time to read it.

Have a great day, my friend.

Note to readers: Occasionally people reach out to ask my permission to “share” or “re-post” one of my posts like this one. Please know you are welcome to share any of my posts at any time if you think they could be an encouragement to others.   – Tom