Awakened by Reality


Hole in a wine barrel.

Hole in a wine barrel.

[As a brief reminder, I am blogging twice a week on our ministry blog at The Leadership Institute website. Many are sharing that they appreciate hearing different voices from our Journey community over there.]

I recently had a very hard conversation to which I wasn’t looking forward. Those are always hard, aren’t they? But experiences like this have a way of awakening us to reality in a way that “life as usual” doesn’t. We find we need to say something we had hoped to keep hidden. Or we find we need to hear something that feels quite unwelcome. Reality. And there’s nothing quite like reality to awaken us to the Real.

I’ve quoted from George MacDonald novels before. In his The Highlander’s Last Song (one of the first of his novels that I read when I discovered him), he describes a scene in which two main characters are threatened by a flash flood. The coldness of the water and the danger of drowning was bracing to them both. In comment, MacDonald observes:

“When we are most aware of fact‑ness, we are most aware of our need of God, and most able to trust him. The recognition of inexorable reality in any shape, or kind, or ways tends to rouse the soul to the yet more real, to its relations with higher and deeper existence. It is not the hysterical alone for whom the great dash of cold water is good. All who dream life instead of living it require some similar shock. Every disappointment, every sorrow, every tragedy of life can work the same way–can drive one a trifle nearer to the truth of being.” (MacDonald, George. The Highlander’s Last Song. Ed. Michael R. Phillips. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1986, p. 160-61.)

How much of our lives do we sleepwalk? How often are we daydreaming instead of actually living? A bracing splash of cold water in the face is a helpful metaphor for those moments when God awakens us to what actually is—in us, around us, in others.

A few months ago when I was in Nigeria for the Journey, I had a conversation with a pastor who had just escaped from a muslim extremist attack on his village. He had narrowly escape at least eight different times with his life in just a couple of days. At one point, he was in a cornfield surrounded by armed extremists. He was rather certain that he was facing his final moments in this life. He then prayed that God would deliver him and his family. Within moments, a hard rain began to fall that scattered the armed men. He made his escape. To hear this pastor’s story was bracing for me. That pastor gave me a gift that I am still cherishing.

What hard thing lately has felt like an unwelcome splash of very cold water in your face? What has happened to you that you resist with everything in you? How might that become the sort of encounter with reality that could awaken your soul to the Real?

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Engaging the Scriptures for Life-Change


Beautiful shot by Scotty Bruce, a friend and alumni of The Journey.

Beautiful shot by Scotty Bruce, a friend and alumni of The Journey.

Often, in the morning, I will read the particular Psalm, Old Testament, Gospel, and New Testament lectionary readings for the day, then journal my responses to them with these questions in mind:

• “What do you want to say to me, Lord, through these readings?
• What do you want me to know and remember?
• What do you want me to hear and hold onto?
• What do you want me to feel and be confident of?
• Speak Lord, your servant is listening.”

If you have never read the scriptures through the lectionary, you can learn more about this on Ken Collins’ web site, and you can see the current readings here on his site).

One morning in May of this year, these were the lines that caught my attention, and my journalled responses:

  • Ps 40:2, “He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.” God lifts me up out of the messy, muddy, trapped places I find myself, and gives me the gift of a solid, secure, firm place to stand and live. I’m so grateful for this grace.
  • Ps 40:13, “Be pleased to save me, Lord; come quickly, Lord, to help me.” This prayer implies that the Lord is one who is pleased to save me and help me without undue or unkind delay. He isn’t biding His time, but is attentive and present. Any delay on God’s part is strategic and not arbitrary.
  • Ps 54: 4, “Surely God is my help; the Lord is the one who sustains me.” I can have confidence that God really is my help, and the One who sustains me. I am sustained by God himself.
  • Ex 34:21, “Six days you shall labor, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during the plowing season and harvest you must rest.” There are seasons when we will be sorely tempted to work when we should, and when God invites us, to rest. Our culture amplifies, endorses and even embodies this temptation.
  • Ex 34:29, “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord.” There is a radiance in our countenance when we are in conversational relationship with God. This is the holy mysticism that some resist for fear of being misled or misguided by some other presence. Counterfeits copy something of value. We don’t toss the valuable because it has been counterfeited. We use discernment to be sure that we are only embracing the genuine article.
  • 1 Th 3:9, “How can we thank God enough for you in return for all the joy we have in the presence of our God because of you?” There is a gratitude and joy we can have in God’s presence as we think of those we serve in the gospel. This is the nature of “abiding for others” in prayer.
  • Mt 5:37, “All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” I don’t have to reinforce the truth I speak with vows and promises and oaths. I can be a person who says “Yes” and lives “Yes,” or says “No” and lives “No.”

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Book Endorsement: Beloved Dust


21548911I’m glad to write a little endorsement here of Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel’s new book Beloved Dust. The publisher was kind enough to send along a copy a couple of weeks ago (though that does not influence my opinion of the work).

I wanted to wait to write this until I’d had a chance to read a few chapters. This has been a great pleasure. What I have most appreciated in what they write is the inviting sense they offer of bringing the “real me” to the “real God,” in a sense, dustiness and all (and idea they talk about in the book).

We don’t pray prayers that we think God wishes to hear, or that show us in our “best light.” We come and pray honestly. We show God the places where we know we need grace. We do not hide our dustiness behind sanitized and sanctimonious prayers. We pray our hearts and our minds and our guts just as we find them when we come.

I hope you’ll get yourself a copy and enjoy it as much as I am. It’s well worth your investment of time.

Buy your copy of Beloved Dust on Amazon.com

Grateful Listening to Scripture


IMG_0834The other morning, as I was enjoying my morning reading of the lectionary passages for the day, I found myself very grateful. I journalled this little prayer of thanks:

“Thank you, Jesus, for enabling me to read these texts with an ear to hear your voice, rather than with a sense of needing to fulfill my “spiritual formation” duty. I sometimes fall asleep to this simple reality. Thank you for awakening me to remember that spiritual practices are simply a way of offering you the gift of my attention…of my abiding in you. Thank you for reminding me that my deepest and truest hungers and thirsts are satisfied in you. Too often I begin in a place of hunger and thirst for your living presence and present voice, but then devolve into a sense of duty, obligation and lifeless focus on my faithfulness or my unfaithfulness, neither of which brings life. Only your faithfulness does this. It sounds simple to write this prayer, but I can so easily become focused on my side of our relationship in such a way that I forget your initiative and interest that always precedes mine. Thank you, and Amen.”

I’ve realized along the way that sometimes I come to the scriptures as a listener, but sometimes I come to the scriptures seeking answers to the questions I have crafted, solutions to the problem I have identified, blessings the ideas I’ve hatched. It’s too easy to fool myself that I’m seeking God’s kingdom first when I’m really seeking God’s kickstart of mine.

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Confidence in the Presence


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I love finding meaningful insights in little lines of scripture where you don’t expect it. For example, I recently read this line in my morning scripture reading:

Colossians 4:17 NIV, “Tell Archippus: ‘See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.’”

It made me think that I could paraphrase it for myself…

Read the rest of my post at spiritualleadership.com/blog/

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Creativity as the Fruit of Wholeness of Soul


AJF_SJF_Mission22I was talking with a trusted counselor recently about my personal journey towards emotional healing. One comment he made was that creativity is a sign of soul integration. When we less and less at odds within ourselves, one of the fruits of that inward singleness is a surging of creative energy. I’ve found that as I use less and less energy for activities like appearance management, self-protection and wrestling with inner conflict, that energy becomes available to me for far more eternally profitable work.

I’ve certainly found that to be true in terms of writing (both in An Unhurried Life and my work now on a second project). I’ve also found this to be true in speaking and training settings. It is no waste of time to give serious attention to the reformation and transformation of our souls. It is one of the most fruitful activities you can engage as a leader.

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Knowledge As Idol


A fountain at the San Juan Capistrano Mission

A fountain at the San Juan Capistrano Mission

I’m quite grateful for my roots in the Evangelical tradition. I have received a deep appreciation for and knowledge of the scriptures that bless me (and I think others) every day. But there are times when such knowledge becomes more an idol than a gift. Listen to this quotation from one of the novels of George MacDonald in which one character highlights this problem to another:

“[Donal Grant answers Lady Arctura’s question, ‘How could all the good people be wrong?’] Because the greater part of the teachers among them have always set themselves more to explain God than to obey him. The gospel is given not to redeem our understandings, but our hearts; that done, and only then, our understandings will be free. If the things be true which I have heard from Sunday to Sunday in church since I came here, then the Lord brought us no salvation at all, but only a change of shape to our miseries. It has not redeemed you, Lady Arctura, and never will. Nothing but Christ himself for your very own teacher and friend and brother, not all the doctrines about him, even if every one of them were true, can save you.” (MacDonald, George. The Shepherd’s Castle. Ed. Michael R. Phillips. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1983, p. 97.)

Here, MacDonald’s character speaks to the difference between ideas about God and living encounter with God. The irony is that many who call themselves followers of Jesus have made an idol of their Christian ideas of doctrine or theology. They worship at the altar of theological accuracy rather than offering their religious intellect at the altar of Jesus Christ himself. One can tell the difference between the two by the kind of fruit that is borne.

Knowledge as idol can be recognized in the company of haughty arrogance, self-importance, impatience and contempt for those who don’t share their position, and harsh ridicule. I’m pretty sure none of these are fruits of the Spirit. I have recently had some self-appointed discernment experts send me some pretty ugly emails. Lucky me. I guess all it takes is writing a book and gaining a little bit of visibility to discover a sign painted on my chest.

Knowledge that builds up rather than puffing up is good friends with kindness, patience, gentleness, and genuine care for others. It knows what is truly central and what is peripheral. It remembers that the greatest commandment is not “have all the right answers as defined by your little theological neighborhood,” but “love God with all you are and all you have” and, of course, “love your neighbor.” There is a variety of knowledge that is miles from that command. 

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