Beyond Spiritual Formation . . .

Have you noticed that spiritual formation is the latest idea to  hit the church.   We hear it in from the pulpits.  It is the focus of small fellowship groups.  The shelves of Christian books stores are increasingly filled  with new authors on the topic.  Christian colleges and universities are offering courses, majors, and degrees on it up to the level of the PhD.  This is all to the  good.

We read in Jeremiah 18:5&6, “ Can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord.  Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” Also in Isaiah 64:8, the people respond to God saying, “We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.”  Like the potter, God takes the clay of our lives into his hands, if we let him, and shapes us into something beautiful and functional, beautiful in his likeness and functional in serving him in ways that go beyond our imagination.  Such formation is not his ultimate purpose however.

There is always more. By God’s grace our formation is to be followed by the Spirit of God that fills us. This is to say that there is more to the Good News of the Gospel than spiritual formation. Beyond spiritual formation there is God’s infilling to the brim, and then to spilling over in profound love for others. When God does a work of filling, he does a work of cleansing, purifying our hearts after the likeness of his heart,  sanctifying entirely. Thanks be to God for he does immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine for us, then in purity of heart through us for others. Glory to God!

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.  Psalm 51:10

Leading With Character


In the weeks following the recent US presidential election, I’ve been thinking a great deal about leadership and character.  The concern in a great many hearts  was the apparent lack of character in both candidates vying for the most powerful position in the world.  My reflections are occasioned by preparation to speak for a day (four sessions) to a group of fifty special graduate students on the topic of Leading With Character.  They are special in that they are all ordained Salvation Army clergy whose pastoral covenant includes a commitment to personal holiness, sanctification, and purity of heart and life.

Just this morning I discovered a note-to-self that I jotted down at the beginning of several days of preparation.  It was a simple listing of ways to think about the nature of character.  Here’s verbatim the nine thoughts that came to mind about character:

(1)  It derives from our highest priority: life in Christ (no God but God). (2)  By character we mean living in the likeness of Christ. (3) It reflects a profound love of God and of people.(4) It is seen in dispositions (tempers) based on the “fruit of the Spirit”and purity of heart. (5)  It is guided by mind of Christ including a knowledge that surpasses knowledge (knowledge of the heart). (6) It is refined through continual responses to convictions that lead to repentance (a change in the right direction) through submission, surrender, and obedience to the word and will of God. (7) It is seen and judged (inferred by others) more by observation of true humility, compassion, and self-denial for others than acts of piety. (8) Character is formed by the company we keep. (9) Its outer expression in righteousness is inner holiness!






Social Holiness & Trinitarian Love

Rublev’s Trinity Icon

As a people called to covenant with God and to exercise general and specific gifts, we are blessed by the God’s gift of his very self.  Our greatest distinctive is our gift of Emanuel, God with us and God in us together.  This makes us different. This is our particularity as followers.  Holiness is the very character of God in us as we live relationally in the fellowship of the Trinity. The mystery of the privilege is ours as we embrace the invitation to participate together in the life and mutual love of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The possibility of life together with God always and forever is Good News!  As it comes to us we pass it on to others (Matthew 28:19).

As GoodNews, God calls us to himself.  He draws us into intimacy so that we may know God in his fullness and make him known.  He call us to a life of holiness within his Trinitarian love where we may abide, rest, and remain (John 15:5) in the deep, intimate fellowship and unity (John 17:20-23) of the Trinity.  Thanks and praise be to God!  Glory to his name!

Paying Attention in the New Year

We live in a culture of seemingly constant, unremitting distractions not withstanding smart phones and other rapidly evolving technology. This is so much so that being distracted is the new normal. As a result, we accommodate non-stop distractions by embracing short attention spans. We experience discomfort if any task takes more than a brief encounter. Along the way have we lost the habit of being attentive? Do we have what Asbury University professor, Daniel Strait, identifies as a diminished capacity to see beyond ourselves.

Dan Strait writes in the November 2016 issue of Word & Deed, “We are called to ‘behold,’ ‘look,’ ‘witness,’ and ‘see’ God’s presence in our midst. Isaiah 43:19 calls us to live in the expectation of God now, at this moment, in the place where I stand: ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (NRSV). Often we don’t perceive it, and, just as often, perhaps, we don’t expect anything new, not even at the start of a new year.”

He calls for a recovery of attentiveness and for a recognition of the difference between attentiveness and “attending to.”  In our attentiveness, there is always more to see, learn, and know and yet always mystery, discovery, and light. A good place to begin the New Year is with attentiveness with expectancy to the presence and provisions of God in our daily lives. The Psalmist declares (Psalm 40:5), “Many, O Lord my God, are the wonders you have done. The things you planned for us no one can recount to you; were I to speak and tell of them, they would be too many to count.” The Apostle Paul (Ephesians 3:18) prays we might grasp the magnitude (how wide and long and high and deep) is the love of God, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge” (knowledge of the heart).

Here’s the call at the beginning of a New Year: “Wake up! Look! See! Pay far more attention to God and others! Make it a habit! Stop slacking off! Do something about your inattentiveness! There’s more about life in Christ than you’re seeing! Cultivate an appreciation for the wonder and grace right in front of you that makes possible a profound love for God and one’s neighbor.  Instead of a New Year’s resolution, consider praying a prayer for attentiveness:

 Open my eyes, that I may see 
glimpses of truth thou hast for me;
place in my hands the wonderful key
that shall unclasp and set me free.
Silently now I wait for thee,
ready, my God, thy will to see.
Open my eyes, illumine me, Spirit divine!

Happiest and Attentive New Year!



The four Christmas journeys of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus the Christ child, together begin a journey that became our journey. It was and remains a journey of acquainting grace with divine purpose. Glory to God!

Journey is an enduring theme throughout Scripture. We see this in the journeys of Abraham, Moses, Ruth and Naomi, the journeys of the people of Israel exiled to Babylon and their eventual return, the ministry years of Jesus, and the missionary journeys of Peter, Paul and Barnabus. The traditional Christmas story of the journey by Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem in her third trimester is but a part of a longer narrative of four Christmas journeys: (1) Mary with child in her pregnancy first trimester traveling to visit her cousin Elizabeth; (2) Mary and Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem; (3) their flight with the toddler Jesus to Egypt; and (4) the holy family’s return from Egypt to Nazareth.

The complete journey from Nazareth to Egypt and back again likely covered a period of five years. Altogether the four-journeys-in-one were just the beginning of Christ’s journey throughout his life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and return to the Father. Our Acquaintance with his journey is the beginning of our journey. Because of his life’s journey, we are blessed with the privilege to become personally acquainted with Jesus and through his self-giving love. Thereby we come to know the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Knowing God, we come to love him.  The Christmas journeys begin our journey of an acquainting grace.

It is by God’s acquainting grace that we come to know God in the Trinitarian personhood of perfect unity and love. We begin a journey to knowing his presence (God with us), his identity, and character.   With increasing acquaintance with him, we appreciate Christ as Lord and King. We accept the Father’s love for all the world and embrace our life as children of God. We acknowledge the Spirit’s work in us as comforter, counselor, and guide. Through our journey in Christ by the Holy Spirit we continue to increasingly knowing, love God, and live for him. Those first four journeys of Christ continue in and through us with God who is Emmanuel, God journeying with us, and who continues to love us with an everlasting love! Thanks be to God!

Christmas Journeys and Acquainting Grace

Four Christmas Journeys.

A trip to the mall is not the same as a journey across the country. A journey takes more time, costs substantially more, and holds more challenges, risks, and prospects. In the Christmas season, its traditional to retell the Christmas story of the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the birth of the Messiah, baby Jesus. However, there’s more to the story than that one journey. Actually, there are altogether four journeys which speak to our own spiritual journey with challenges, risks, and yet prospects of God’s acquainting grace.

Journey 1 – Mary visits Elizabeth.  Mary was about 14 years old when first “with child.” She set out on a journey from Nazareth to the hills of Judea to visit her older cousin, Elizabeth. There’s no mention of Joseph accompanying her. Scripture suggests she made the trip of about 20 or more miles alone. She stayed with Elizabeth and Zechariah through the first trimester of her pregnancy for three months before returning home. Since the Christmas story starts with her miracle conception, this was the first Christmas journey. It is significant in connecting the Christmas narrative to Elizabeth’s anticipated birth of John the Baptist. John was to play a major, prophetic role in the eventual start of Christ’s ministry.

Journey 2 – The traditional Christmas story begins with Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. In the third trimester of her pregnancy, the couple journeyed sixty-nine miles to Bethlehem. The likely route was directly south through Samaria. Mary rode on a donkey with Joseph walking the whole way. Only the mega-wealthy would have made the journey by means other than walking or by donkey. Imagine such a journey for Mary’s in her third trimester. The journey could not have been pleasant. It ended with no place to recover but in a stable. Upon arrival, Mary went through the physical rigors of labor and giving birth to baby Jesus and then hosting visitors that smelled like sheep. Nevertheless, the journey ended in an amazing, celestial celebration like no other. Then, it wasn’t for several months, possibly as much as two years, before the next segment of their Christmas journey.

Journey 3 – The flight to Egypt. Contrary to the traditional narrative, the Magi mentioned in Matthew 2:1 did not visit Jesus in the manger on the night of his birth along with the shepherds. They arrived several months and possibly a much as two years later.  By then Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had moved out of the stable. Luke’s narrative (v. 2:11) states that the Magi, on coming to the house, saw the child and Mary and worshiped the child king. The blood thirsty king, Herod, was out to murder the Christ child when the Magi returned to Jerusalem on their way home. Sensing Herod’s malevolent intentions, they returned another way. If so, they were right. An angel then appeared to Joseph in a dream saying, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” That night they fled as political refugees to Egypt, a trip of 430 miles.

Journey 4 – Return to Nazareth. After a good while in Egypt, Herod died. An angel appeared again in a dream to Joseph again and said, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and go to the Land of Israel for those trying to take the child’s life are dead.” They then returned to Israel and settled again in the little town of Nazareth where it all started. The journey likely took more than twenty days covering nearly five hundred miles. By this time Mary was nineteen or twenty years old and Jesus was four or five years old. Rome’s oppressive occupation of Israel was in full swing controlling the lives of the people by intimidation and fear. Likely, for the child Jesus, crucifixions along the journey to Nazareth previewed the cross to the young Jesus and what was yet to come later in his continuing life’s journey. To be continued . . .



This Thursday millions of Americans will sit down with others to enjoy a time of reflection and thanksgiving. Like our Canadian cousins who celebrated Thanksgiving dinner in October, many of us will share a meal around a table with family and friends. Millions of others will sit across from strangers to partake of turkey, potatoes, and other accouterments thanks to the institutional compassion of The Salvation Army and other churches and missions. Sadly, some will eat alone or not at all.   Giving thanks has always been a hallmark of American life at this time of year since before the nation was founded. It remains tethered to the story of Native Americans and undocumented aliens (Pilgrims at Plymouth) sitting down to share a time of feast and fellowship.

The Trinity Table of Divine Fellowship & Holy Love   Icon by Andre Rublev

The beauty of Thanksgiving includes the idea of inviting others to the table. It is a special time of holiday (from the root: holy day). It is a time of hospitality and self-giving love for one another; a time of appreciation for blessings too often unnoticed and unacknowledged throughout the year. It is a time to remember the source from whom all blessing flow, the triune God of perfect unity and holy love who daily invites us to a table of divine fellowship, into the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God in three persons, blessed Trinity, invites us to the table of fellowship and waits our response.  Thanks be to God!

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community-picWe are social beings easily affected by the presence of other persons – by people with whom we are not competing and with whom there are no rewards or punishment, and in fact with whom they do nothing except be passively present. One hundred and eighteen years ago, a psychologist, Norman Triplett (1898), noticed that cyclists times were faster when racing together than when racing alone against the clock. He noticed the same result with children winding string faster on a fishing reel along with others than when winding alone. Triplett, a pioneer social psychologist, is credited with the beginning of research into what eventually became social facilitation theory. The theory states that the presence of others liberates latent energy and improves performance. That’s not always the case. Sometime the presence of other diminishes performance. Later studies showed that the presence of others arouses dominant responses enhancing easy behaviors and impairing difficult ones.

What’s important is that we are social beings who are impacted for better or worse in the presence of others. When there are no scales or physical measures for something, we turn to the assessment of others to understand its nature or value. Others provide support in the way of information, judgment, and insight. In the presence of others we look for a consensus of opinion and wisdom that offers clarity on what’s real and true. This is what Paul may be referring to when he uses the phrase in Ephesians 3:18, “ . . . together with all the saints . . ..” He writes,

“I pray that you . . . may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide, long, high, and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. . .”

 apostolic-teachingTo truly know the love of God is not merely an academic, theoretical idea or engaging proposition. It is more. It is to have knowledge that surpasses knowledge, a knowledge of the heart. Such knowledge comes from being in the presence of the saints, others who walk, and talk, and love one another in holiness. This is the “what” of Paul’s prayer. Then he prays the “why” – “that you (too) may be filled (like all the saints) to the measure (Christ) of the fullness of God,” in other words that you may be holy; holy in the presence of all the saints with complete knowledge of the magnitude of God’s love in true holiness and righteousness. All the saints increasingly know the extent of God’s love.   In the fellowship of saints, it is clear, knowable, visible, obvious in who they are and how they live in loving God with a profound love; loving others in ways that are immeasurably more than one might imagine (Eph. 3:20), all to the glory of God.

Power to love, together with all the saints, is the nature of social holiness!

The Swamp or the River

The center of Christian discipline is this:  “The love of Christ constrains me,” or “narrows me.  The difference between a swamp and a river is that a river has banks, and a swamp has none – it spreads over everything. Civilizations organize themselves around rivers.  Some people are like rivers.  They know where they want to go, and they confine themselves to the banks that lead to the goal. But some people are swamps: they spread over everything; their minds are so open they cannot hold a conviction; they are everything and nothing. . . Paul could say, “This one thing I do.”  They can say, “These forty things I dabble in.”  Paul left a mark.  They leave a blur.    –    E. Stanley Jones

river-banksLike the banks of the river, when we commit ourselves to the constraining love of Christ, such discipline occasions habits of the heart.  Such habits constrain us. Jesus’ commitment to the love of the Father resulted in three disciplined habits: 1) He read the Word of God.  Luke’s gospel (4:16) reads that it was his custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath where he would stand up and read the scriptures.  2) He frequently sought solitude to pray. “He went into the mountain to pray as was his custom.”  And 3) He shared what he had and what he gained through the Scriptures and prayer.  In John 17:14, Jesus says in his prayer to the Father, “I have given them your Word,” and in 17:22, “I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one.”  In the life of Christ, The River of Life is one of disciplined habit. In this way, the love of Christ constrains.  If we love Him, we will exercise the disciplines of prayer, reading the Word of God, and sharing the Truth with others.

Stanley Jones says in his autobiography, A Song of Ascents,  “Long before I had discovered these three things in the Scriptures, I say this instinctively (or was I led by the Spirit or both): the deep ingrained necessity of these three simple habits. So I fixed them deep into habit; they became part of me.”

O, God our Father.  The swamp is not the place for me.  I want to move with you in the River of Life.  Your grace takes the form of constraining love.  You show me the way to my only realistic response to your great love for me.  I confess it takes time and discipline to form core habits.  I ask for more grace to strengthen my resolve to love you more and to reflect that love in the life-changing habits after the likeness of my Lord, Jesus.  Amen!