Thursday, August 18, 2016

How Spiritual Growth is like Tanning

How to grow spiritually

How do we grow spiritually?  

Growing spiritually is like tanning.  
I’m not an expert on tanning—I play too much Madden for that—but I know the basics.  You stand or lay in the sun, you get crispy friend gorgeous.  After a period of time you flip so you don’t burn.  I've been a little more tan recently due to a certain popular augmented reality video game has caused me to venture outside more than usual.  

Let’s just say trying to catch ‘em all has it's physical benefits.
Back to tanning, some mechanics for turning golden brown run parallel to becoming spiritual mature.  To make this analogy work, though, I’m going to have to get a bit technical. 
Let me explain a popular phrase in Christian theology: “means of grace.”  
A means of grace is something that brings us closer to God. They are experiences or actions God uses to build our spiritual muscles.  Some well practiced means of grace include baptism, communion (eating the bread & wine or crackers & juice on Sunday mornings), reading the Bible, prayer, caring for those in need, and being a part of a local church.   We don’t quite understand HOW God uses these things to reinforce us, but we know that He does.  It’s a mystery, but it’s a good mystery.
Simply put: When we access these means of grace, we grow spiritually.
It’s like tanning.  
During the day, the sun’s rays are always available.  You can sit outside and get a nice dark bake by exposing yourself to the light already there.  If you stay inside, you remain pale like my video gaming friends and me.  The sun is there.  The sun is shining.  All you have to do is step into it’s rays and you’ll be affected.  
God’s grace is there, and we can easily access the means.  Even if it’s not Sunday you can grow with God.  On Mondays you can care for those in need.  Are you homebound?  Read the Bible (here’s a great resource to get you started).  Don’t have a Bible?  You should probably buy one, download the YouVersion app, or get on  Internet down and still no Bible? You can pray!  Prayer is a free, no equipment needed, no others needed means of grace. 
As long as you give it time, you can be transformed by God.  
Another point to be made: You didn’t tan yourself.  The sun did it.  No one can just imagine themselves a darker hue.  If someone compliments your tan, replying, “Oh thanks, I just sat in my room and concentrated really hard on the color I wanted my skin to be and PRESTO!” would get you dubious looks.  The sun is responsible for your tan. Your role is to step out into the light. 
We don’t grow ourselves spiritually.  God does that work.  We can put ourselves in the right place, we can practice habits that are known to make us stronger.   Each day I try to put myself in the path of grace by reading scripture and praying.  Even though I’m taking the time for the task, I’m not the catalyst for growth.  God does the heavy lifting, I just open the front door for Him.  God doesn’t NEED these common means to grow us, either.  We just know, through centuries of experience, that God has a habit of using these means to help us sprout.  
So means of grace are mysterious avenues that God uses to strengthen our faith.  We cannot do it ourselves.  Instead, we’ve got access to God’s transforming power any time. All we have to do is stand in the path of his grace.  Luckily, we’ll never burn if we linger in God’s rays.  Give God the time, and he'll give you the strength.  

How will you standing in the path of God’s grace?  Tell me in the comment section!

Monday, August 15, 2016

Peace That Makes No Sense (Philippians 4)

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your request to God.  And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

Lot’s of things don’t make sense to me.  

Why the best tasting foods are the worst for me (I’m looking at you, funnel cakes):  Shouldn’t God have made it so that funnel cakes take away calories?  That way we can all be in great shape and have a glorious taste bud parade at all times!
Why silent letters exist: Pterodactyls probably like being called Perry instead of Terry, you don't know. You never asked them.  

Why anyone would be a “cat person”:  Why would you spend money to have something tell you how to run your house, scratch your furniture, and poop in your indoor sandbox?  If I had an indoor sandbox, it’d be for castles only.  I’d have a strict “No defecation” policy.  

Or why anyone would put a turtle on a fencepost.  Seriously?  At least give it a slide to cruise down.  

In Philippians 4:6-7, instead of “peace that transcends understanding,” I like the phrase “peace that doesn’t make sense.”  God’s peace is peace that doesn’t make sense.  It’s peace when everything else is chaotic.  It’s peace when the world seems to be crumbling.  It’s peace when you're under fire.  It’s peace that shouldn’t be there.  

There’s no reason I should have peace, but I have it. 
I don’t understand how I’ve got peace right now, but I’ve got it.  

It’s like that fencepost turtle.  How did it get there?  Not on it’s own, that’s for certain.  Someone must have acted to get that teetering turtle into such a precarious position.  

God’s peace is like that, just less sinister.  I’m not sure how this peace came upon me, it must have been placed there by an outside source.  Someone must have acted in a way to get this peace in my life.  

And I like it. 

Worry and anxiety are unproductive, even Jesus taught that.  He rhetorically asked, “Who by worrying has added a single hour to his life?”  The answer: no one.  Worry and anxiety are not our friends.  They’re con men robbing us of our time and peace, wrecking our sanity and twisting our futures from bold adventures to pocket-sized flatlands.  The remedy, Paul notes, is available through faith in Jesus:

Step one: Pray about all the things that are giving us anxiety, thereby positioning our hearts toward thankfulness and joy (even rejoicing!). (4:6-7)

Step two:  Shift our focus from the things giving us anxiety onto things that are: 
true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. (4:8) My recommendation—focus on Scripture and stories of God working in your life and others.  

Step three:  Repeat after me, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”  For Paul, “all things” didn’t mean an NBA Championship.  It didn’t mean a promotion.  It didn’t mean starting a successful business.  Paul meant that he could ENDURE anything and be content with what God has given him.  (4:11-13)

We can be content, able to give thanks to God, whether we’re in a storm, under fire, or feeling like a turtle on a fencepost.  We can kick anxiety to the curb—not us, but Christ working in us.  

We can have a type of peace that doesn’t make sense.  

This post is part of a series on Philippians: 

Also by John:  

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Stop Ignoring Results

My garden is overrun by weeds.  They didn’t get there overnight, I saw them creeping daily when getting home from work.  After a while, I stopped looking at them though.  Gardening is my father’s favorite past time—but that gene wasn’t passed down to me.  Weeds make me want to run inside. I usually ignore them until they get so bad I’m scared the HOA will send us a(nother) letter.  

My garden upkeep routine is pretty terrible.  If I want things to be different, I’ve got to choose to change.  A famous leadership maxim is this: “All organizations are perfectly designed to get the results they are now getting. If we want different results, we must change the way we do things

For many of  us, we simply are not giving enough credit to our life’s results. We self-sabatoge because we refuse to self-evaluate. We fake it, like everything is okay.  We lie to ourselves and get deeper and deeper into life situations we despise.  I reality, that's unfair to  yourself.  

Why don’t we pay attention to results? I wrote an article on what results we ought to look for in our spiritual lives, but I cannot seem to shake the notion that we, as a whole, are slow to acknowledge when things are getting worse.  “Sudden changes” often take years.  

“I don’t know how it got to be this way…” is a sad refrain you’ve probably heard or said.  
We say it about financial stress, crumbling relationships, or unwanted weight gain. Each begin as potholes, fillable in the early stages, but if left untreated may become huge ruts that blow out our tires or even total us. 

The problem isn’t making a bad purchase.  It’s not eating an extra slice of pizza.  It’s not forgetting to send a “happy birthday” text.  The problem is not acknowledging how those things will affect us in the long run.  The problem is ignoring results.   

Are we so scared to acknowledge that something isn’t working that we’ll let things get worse? 
Is changing our routine that terrifying?  When we refuse to change we choose to die.  

If my relationships struggle, I either change what I’m doing or I let them fizzle out.
If I’m not getting the results I want at work, I either change or watch people walk out the door.
If my bank account seems to have a leak, I either change the way I’m managing my money or end up with a negative credit score, crippling debt, or even lose my house.
If my walk with God seems non-existent, I either change my habits or I sink deeper into my problems.  

Choose to change.  Choose to improve.  

There will be times when absolutely nothing can be done on your end.  Those situations are very rare—if you think you’re in one then you’re probably not.  I’ve personally never been at a complete impasse.  I always could add an extra thank you, reach out with a kind word, work a little smarter, not buy that cheeseburger, or wake up 15 minutes earlier to be inspired by God’s Word.

Let’s imagine what we want our marriages, our friendships, our jobs, our physical, emotional, and spiritual health to look like. Catch a vision of what should be and what could be. Acknowledge our honest goals, develop habits to get us toward those goals,  and celebrate the results along the way.  

Weeds aren’t the problem, they just show us where we need to get on our hands and knees. Let’s simply stop ignoring them. 

Monday, August 8, 2016

How Swimming is like Spiritual Growth

How Swimming is like Spiritual Growth

"But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.  Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.  Only let us hold true to what we have attained.  Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes fixed on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Philippians 3:13b-17, ESV

Swimming is one of those events where you don’t quite know who is winning until the very end.  In other sports, like basketball, soccer, and football, you can look up at the scoreboard and it’s clear who is going to win.  While you’re in the water, though, you can’t look up and see where everyone else is.  If you do, you’ll be stopping in the middle of the race, resigning yourself to last place for sure.  Occasionally you’re aware where the person next to you is, depending on what stroke you’re swimming, but not always.  Even then you cannot fully see all eight lanes.  

Competitive swimmers don’t get the luxury of coasting because they’re ahead.  They can’t be up 50 points in the 4th quarter and but their bench players in.  They have to swim all the time like they want to bite gold!  

I have a tendency to coast sometimes when it comes to my pursuit of the ultimate prize.  I go through times where I’m sprinting hard after closeness with God — I’ve developed a habit or prayer, I’m working a through a Bible reading plan, I’m serving others, I’m listening to sermons on podcast and devouring books that are helping me grow spiritually.  Then I’ll put my bench in.  I’ll rest on the fact that I know so much about the Bible, that I can parse some Greek, and tell you what the “ichthus” meant to first century Christians (aka that “Jesus fish” you see on car bumpers and gravestones).  

I run, then I jog, then I sprint, then I walk.  

I’m not running for gold, I’m running to say that I ran.  
I’m starting to believe that’s truly not enough to honor God.  

While my salvation may be secure in the fact that Jesus still forgave my sins, what I’m losing is a closeness with my heavenly Father.  Closeness with God through obedience is the “prize” that the apostle Paul strives for.  It’s the goal of our lives.  

Paul writes that we ought to forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead— keeping our eyes on the goal, “the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:14).  He argues that anyone who is mature in their faith should think this way.  If that’s not your perception, God will change it soon enough.  He then tells the Philippians to imitate him, a common refrain for the apostle.  

Living a life that honors God isn’t about how much we can do but about how well we obey.  We will always have something to strive for when we focus on the goal of closeness with God, of living up to God’s call for our lives, and of holiness.  Let’s keep our eyes on the ultimate prize.  Let’s imitate those who we see doing it right.  

For Olympians it’s gold medals.

For us, it’s a prize that never fades away. 

This post is part of a series on Philippians: 

Also by John:  

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Challenge: Slow Down!

Slow down, Be still and know that I am God, Psalm 46:10

I'm always on the move. 

So are you, probably.  We're go, go, go 24/7.  I get up, spend time with God, exercise, get ready, head to work, hustle there, go home, throw all my energy into being a husband and dad, put the kids to sleep, talk shop with my wife (who is an incredible pastor as well... much better than me in many ways), and sleep. There's hardly any time to breathe anymore.  All my energy, mental and physical, are spent by 11pm every night.  Then I get up a 6 and do it all over again. 

My church's staff is going over a book together, and one chapter hit me square between the eyes.  In 99u’s Manage Your Day-to-Day, Scott Belsky writes to “Make time for serendipity”

Serendipity is finding good things you didn’t look for.  It’s meeting a new friend in line at the grocery.  It’s having a movie you’re watching for laughs speak something deep into your life.  It’s finding $20 in the pants pocket of your 3rd favorite pair of jeans.  

Belsky reminds us to not be consumed by media at all times.  Instead, be present where you are.  My coworkers will know that I keep my headphones in 90% of the time I’m at our church office.  The 10% of no ear buds is when I’m in meetings.  Typically I’m listening to a podcast, whether it be a sermon or a leadership series.  I’ve constantly got information buzzing in my brain.  That buzzing can keep me from being attentive to the little things that are blossoming around me. 

Making time for serendipity is an amazing concept, but I’ll take it a step further.  Let’s slow down and stay attentive to the little things God is doing in our lives.  God’s at work in the small stuff.  God can move mountains and inspire minds.  He can break trees with the wind, he can calm nerves with a friend’s words.  

God is active in your life, whether or not you recognize it.  He’s interacting in the world around you—the world he created in the first place.  He’s working things out for good.  His view of good is more far-sighted than ours, so we may not notice it as much.  It probably won’t look like us winning the lottery, but it might look like us having an opportunity to learn patience.  (What if God puts taxing people into our lives in order to help us grow?) We need to practice the art of slowing down and allowing ourselves to hear the symphony God conducts.  

What if the next time you went to Kroger, you kept your phone in your pocket and listened to the people around you?  

What if the next time you walk into a doctor’s office, you stopped to ask the receptionist how they were doing that day?

What if we forced the people working at McDonalds to make eye contact with us instead of practically throwing our large fries out the drive through window? 

What if I left my headphones off? 

Hit the brakes.  Coast for a bit.  Let your mind be attentive to what’s actually going on around you.  Don’t let thoughts of your future distract you from God’s present.  When you see God at work, write it down.  You’ll be encouraged when you read them later, and you may even start a blog some day.  

Me?  I’ll be meditating today on this verse: 

“He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God’” Psalm 46:10a

Read more from John:

How should Christians use social media?: Why I blocked one of my Christian friends because he was misusing his Facebook account.

9 Books that will help you grow Spiritually: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced - No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, you'll find gold here! 

Monday, August 1, 2016

How to live a Grumble-Free Life (Philippians 2)

“Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, ‘children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.’ Then you will shine song them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life.” Philippians 2:14-16a

What is the point of grumbling, really? 

Some people will argue that they grumble, and complain in order to fix problems.  
I'll cry "bogus" on that claim.  

We grumble for grumbling’s sake.  Misery doesn’t just love company, misery is obsessed with company, stalks company, draws hearts all over a Five Star that says “Mrs. Company.”   Common complaints unite people.  Men who have ever watched football at Buffalo Wild Wings can relate.  I feel comfortable when I’m jeering aloud with 10 other guys about a terrible call against the Colts.  It’s never pass interference when it’s against my favorite team!  I add to a glorious cacophony of grumbles and feel at home in my discontent.  We all want our mates at other tables to sympathize with our frustration, we want the attention of someone saying, “That’s right!” to our bad call assertion.  It’s simply more fun to complain as a group. 

But we don’t need grumbling to grow.  
Problems that we see will never be fixed by complaints or gossip.  They can, however, be fixed--and we can do our part to fix them.  Here is my quick anti-grumble process for trying to fix problems:

1. Stay calm, 
2. State your opinion clearly to someone who has the power to make decisions, 
3. Cite facts when applicable and 
4. Accept the results

The last part, accepting the results, is the toughest—especially when the results are not what you’d hoped for.  But once a decision is made, complaining is wasted time.  It’s sideways energy.  It’s moving the ball from sideline to sideline without getting closer to a first down.  Maturity is accepting unfavorable decisions and moving forward.  

The Anti-Grumble Process is tougher than grumbling, but it’s worth it.  

Paul wrote to the church he started in Philippi that people who live without grumbling or arguing will shine like stars in the sky.  

If Rihanna ever wanted to really “shine bright like a diamond,” Paul’s got her solution: quit grumbling.  Imagine if we had a community of people who never argued or complained with one another.  Wouldn’t you like to be a part of a group that never gossiped?  That would look strange to the rest of the world.  It would invite spectators and participants alike.  

What if we used that sideways energy and focus it on progressing?  How much more would we get done!  How many more people would experience the love of Jesus!  

My challenge for us all is this:   Save grumbling time and spend it on growing time. 

Pretty soon, we’ll start to twinkle.

This is part 2 of a 4 part series in the book of Philippians.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness

What foods do you crave the most? 

My list includes Five Guys burgers, Taco Bell, and pizza.  Since having my son, I have decided to adjust some of my eating habits because, to put it bluntly, I don’t want to die young.  My family has a history of diabetes and heart attacks.  I can dodge many of my ancestors’ problems if I eat healthy and exercise.  It’s funny how the basics can make such a difference.  I will gladly trade a constant stream of cheeseburgers for hours of running along soccer fields with my little ones. 

Easy trade.

And while my heart is in the right place, sometimes my gut isn’t.  My mouth waters at the thought of some of those junk-tastic treats. Every time I try to quit eating them completely, the cravings are intense.  My tongue feels like it hasn’t known moisture in years, only a soda can quench this thirst.  My brain reminds me, “How delicious was that pizza?  You know it’s not expensive, we can enjoy it again!”  It’s like my whole body joins together in a unified desire for cheap grub. 

But after time, the cravings subside.  Abstaining from soda helps me not want it anymore. Now I’m praying for the right kinds of cravings.  

Jesus’ most famous sermon, in Matthew 5, includes a line that always strikes a chord in me:  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,  for they will be filled.” (Matthew 5:6)

I want to be hungry.  I want to have cravings.  I want to thirst for righteousness.  

What is righteousness?  Righteousness is being “right” with God.  It is “integrity, virtue, purity of life, rightness, correctness of thinking feeling, and acting.” 

The righteous are the ones who love the things that God loves, who obey his commands, who are pure and unselfish, who think how God thinks, who desire the things God desires.  It’s a condition we all should hope to attain. 

Let’s be the kinds of people who not simply want righteousness—let’s hunger and thirst for the stuff.  I want my whole body to join together in a unified desire for a pure heart. I don’t want the cravings to stop. I want my tongue to feel like it needs the constant presence of a new way to speak the gospel to the world.  I want my brain to remind me, “How comforting is your quiet time with God?  You know, it doesn’t take long, you can enjoy it again!”  I want cravings that never subside.  I want to read books that bring me closer to God. I want to sing songs that are deep (not about cars that look like pandas). I want to pray with passion and expectation that God's going to show up in powerful ways.  I want to grow spiritually.  

I pray that my whole family craves righteousness, too.  Righteousness will strengthen my heart and my soul so no matter when I pass away, I’ll play with my family for eternity. 

More by John:
What French Fries Teach us about PatienceOur perspective and patience are married.  As one grows so the other. 
Do What MattersHow does my schedule prove that I value my family? My marriage?  My spiritual health?  Am I growing