Category Archives: Uncategorized

I’m Still Making Changes


Hey everyone. I’m still making changes to the blog to make it easier. This will serve as a notice that this blog is always a work in progress and a test to see if the new sharing function is truly working. Peace…in Him.

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Biblical Lessons from Lebron and Lindsay


            So all of Ohio is buzzing about Lebron James’ decision to not return to the Cavaliers.  Dan Gilbert has posted an online letter blasting Lebron which just seems to show a severe lack of professionalism.  It really is just symptomatic of what truly is the issue here.  On my way out to lunch a couple of days ago, I caught the opening of Rush Limbaugh when he said with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek that no one seemed to be reporting that Lindsay Lohan had obscenities written on her fingernails during her recent court appearance where she was sentenced to 90 days in jail.  Of course, Limbaugh was being facetious.  It seems that the news has been buzzing non-stop about Lebron and Lindsay.

            Why are we so shocked as a nation when our heroes let us down?  We lift them up like demi-gods and expect them to do no wrong and when they eventually screw up, we chastise them for their behavior.  Our expectations are so high when it comes to the cult of celebrity in our culture that when their shiny façade is shattered, so is our trust in all of humanity.  It’s time for a gut check here, people.  The only good inside of us is the good that God placed there. We cannot be flabbergasted when unbelievers do sinful things.  It’s in their nature.  For that matter, we cannot be shocked when believers do sinful things.  We will, of course, be more disappointed when one of our own fumbles, but we are still only human and we will all eventually do some really stupid and sinful things that we are ashamed of.  It might not be as public and humiliating as, say Ted Haggard for instance, but at some point in our life and even some point in our Christian life, we will let somebody down.

            Psalm 9:9-10 says, “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.  And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O Lord, have not forsaken those who seek you.”  If you trusted in Lindsay Lohan’s squeaky-clean childhood image to get her through life, you have been severely disappointed. If Ohioans put their trust in Lebron to stay in Ohio, they were severely disappointed last night.  Gilbert went so far as to say that Lebron “deserted” the Cavaliers.[1]  Here is a blessed and biblical truth: God will never desert you. He will never forsake you.  He will never leave you.  He is the only one…let me write it again ‘cause I’m getting excited and wish I could shout this from a pulpit right now…He is the only One who we can always trust and will never let us down!

            So put down your People, your US Weekly, and any other celebrity-worshipping magazine and pick up your Bible and read the words of a God who will always do what He says, no matter what.  He’s proven it in the past and you can read all about it.  He will do it again and you can read all about that, too.  He’s the God who is loyal to the end, regardless of the circumstances and he won’t leave you for a better contract or the chance to win a championship.  He’s already won!


[1] http://www.cleveland.com/cavs/index.ssf/2010/07/gilberts_letter_to_fans_james.html

The Future of Christian Rock


I’m reading a fascinating book called Body Piercing Saved My Life. It is a look inside the world of Christian Rock from an outsider’s point of view.  The author is a writer for Spin magazine.  This book came out in 2006 and I’m not quite sure how I missed it.  My best guess is that it didn’t make much of a splash in seminary academia and since it seems like that was all I was consumed with at the time that is probably why I just missed it. 

            Anyway, just like, in a previous post, I mentioned that the show Madhouse had got me thinking about my geographical heritage, this book has got me thinking about my musical heritage.  I cut my teeth listening to country music.  And I’m not just talking about the pop country you hear today on the radio.  My parents probably owned every Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn album that ever came out on vinyl.  My parents listened to what is today considered classic country: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Eddie Rabbit, Guy Clark, Exile, Alabama, etc.  But my favorite singer growing up was Barbara Mandrell.  First of all, she was very pretty.  Even being only 5 years old, I knew that.  Second, she could sing.  I remember watching her show Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters when I was very little and singing along to her songs as a kid.  Third, she did a gospel album.  In 1982, my parents purchased for me He Set My Life To Music.  It became one of the more formative albums for me, believe it or not.  Years later, I was able to purchase it on cassette tape and wore it out until it broke, just like I wore out the original record.  Another formative album for me was Amazing Grace by B.J. Thomas.  I remember listening to the songs “I Believe” and “Unclouded Day” and just loving it. 

            I think it is interesting when I look back on that phase of my life, that I never considered it odd that country artists were doing gospel albums.  As a matter of fact, it wasn’t until I began kindergarten at my Christian school that I learned that there were people who believed that such music was ungodly.  Despite the propaganda that was thrown at me for thirteen years of school, I never drank the Kool-Aid. 

            When I was around ten years old, there was one day when I just decided to start listening to “rock music.”  I remember the day very vividly.  I had brought my “boom box” with me on a shopping trip that my recently-widowed mother took with her Sunday School class.  I put my headphones on and turned over to the rock station.  The very first song that I heard was “Take Me Home” by Phil Collins.  Not too long after that, I heard George Harrison’s “I Got My Mind Set On You” (At ten years old, I had no idea that George Harrison was a Beatle).  I was hooked.  I began recording the radio using blank cassette tapes because I knew that my Mom couldn’t afford to really help me buy any music.  Around that time, I took a trip with my Godfather to a Gardner-Webb football game.  I can even remember who they were playing: Carson-Newman.  On the way back, I heard the pop station playing this song about heaven.  I finally figured out who sang it and went out and begged my Mom to buy the album Heaven On Earth by the beautiful and talented Belinda Carlisle.  She finally capitulated and it became the first ever “rock” album I ever owned. 

            Not long after that, I heard a song on the radio…something about sugar.  I recorded it off the radio and then took a pen and paper and listened and rewound the tape until I finally got all the lyrics to my very first hair metal song, “Pour Some Sugar On Me” by Def Leopard. From that time on, my musical taste became harder and harder.  I loved the 80’s glam and hair metal bands and listened to a lot of Motley Crue, Poison, Warrant, Guns and Roses, and many more. 

            In 1990, there was a guy who went to my church named Kilroy.  Ok, that wasn’t his real name, but his call name.  He used to be a DJ at a local radio station and now he was working with the youth at my church.  I credit him for officially introducing me to Christian Rock.  The first album I ever fell in love with, and one that I still consider one of the greatest ever recorded, is Petra’s Beyond Belief.  Another favorite was Degarmo and Key’s The Pledge.  I was soon gobbling up all the Christian music I could get my hands on and thanks to Lemstone Books selling their old demo tapes for $3, it was much easier to talk my Mom into buying me albums.  About this time, I started getting an allowance, too, which made life just a little easier.  I bought the very first album by DC Talk (note that at that time they capitalized the first two letters) and despite people who want to be rather harsh to the album now, the follow-up to their debut, Nu Thang, was groundbreaking.  Of course, Free At Last became probably my favorite album of high school.  In 1995, when I lived in Michigan, I left class early to go purchase Jesus Freak the day it came out.  Jesus Freak is, in my humble opinion, the greatest Christian Rock album ever.

            Sometime in 1991, while watching MTV early in the morning, a band came on that just simply changed everything…again.  I still remember the first time I ever saw the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by the legendary Nirvana.  Shortly thereafter, I saw the video for this new group called the “Stone Temple Pilots” and things just evolved from there.  All of a sudden, there was a music that only fed my need to rock, but added some incredible and introspective lyrics (for the most part). 

            Some time around 1991 or 1992, I dated a girl named Amy.  I’ll spare you her last name in case I find her on Facebook or something.  Anyway, one night driving around, she pops this tape in of this band that I, of course, had heard of, but had never listened to any of their music.  The album was A Collection of Great Dance Songs by the legendary Pink Floyd.  If I would have known that music could be that good so long ago, I would have been listening for a long time.  One of my favorite songs then, and still today, was “Wish You Were Here.”  I remember that I really resonated with the lyrics, “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl…year after year…running over the same old ground….and how we found…the same old fear….wish you were here.”  It was at this point that I begin to physically change.  I began to dress, whenever I was not at school, in a fashion that was clearly in the grunge category.  I wore ripped up blue jeans, old t-shirts with “Baja’s” over them, and Birkenstocks.  I parted my hair in the middle and let it grow long during the summers when I could.  I think it was at this point that my music came full-circle.  I finally reached a point where I listened to music because I liked it, not because my friends were listening to it.  One of my favorite bands of all time is Creed.  They obtained massive commercial success, but most critics just didn’t like them.  However, I resonated with their lyrics and I still Mark Tremonti is one awesome guitar player.

            I’ve had a few phases since then.  Most of them are small phases, maybe a few weeks at the most, where I listen to a lot of one artist because they really speak to me.  At any given time, I have been into Sixpence None the Richer, Jars of Clay, the Kry, The Waiting, P.O.D., Project 86, etc.  My longest phase was probably around 1996 when I got really into club and house music.  And pretty much as soon as I got into it, I got out of it.  It was a complete fad for me. 

            Currently, there are a few artists that I just seem to go back to, for whatever reason.  Some of them include Johnny Cash, the Cars, Styx, Kansas, INXS (Primarily Kick), Jeremy Camp, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana, Project 86, Skillet, dc Talk, Petra, Bob Dylan, Stevie Ray Vaughn, B.B. King, Evanescence, Linkin Park, Caedmon’s Call, Derek Webb, and numerous inde bands.  And I still think the most perfect song ever written is “My Girl.”  That’s right, I’m talking about “My Girl…”

            What is interesting to me is, as I said before, I never found anything unusual about “secular” singers making “gospel” albums.  And, despite the well-meaning people who proposed that Christian Rock could replace Secular Rock for all those Christians who still wanted to rock, it never happened for me.  As a matter of fact, I don’t know one person who stopped listening to “secular” music just because they listened to Christian music.  So here is what I think and here is where I think we are.  I think that there is no such thing as “Christian music.”  Christian should be a noun, not an adjective.  Music is music.  What makes music different is what it is made for.  Music that is made for church is either a hymn or a worship song.  Anything else that is not set apart for worship is simply music created for another purpose, most of the time for entertainment.  The acceptance of a separate genre for Christian Rock (the only genre, by the way, that is distinct because of lyrical content only) is the acceptance that our lives can somehow be divided between the secular and the sacred.  I think this is a false division.  The pastor who is called by God to stand behind the pulpit every week to proclaim the Word of God is just as called as the plumber who shows up to fix my toilet.  They both can or cannot be done to the glory of God. 

            I believe that musicians are also just as called by God.  Does there music necessarily have to give a direct presentation of the gospel in every song?  I don’t think so.  Music can be about love, hate, anger, depression, suicide, sex, drugs, you name it, and still be written by a Christian.  One such singer that I mentioned above, Derek Webb, comes to mind.  He writes love songs, songs about gay people, songs about the church…just songs.  To be a Christian does not mean that we stop being human or facing some of the common things that almost all humans go through.  Very few people, Christian or non-Christian, have not had their hearts broken in a relationship, be it romantic or otherwise.  To gloss over that pain with a trite message just to make the song “Christian” and acceptable to a certain market is not only being disingenuous, it could be sin.  On the other hand, there is a common joy that can be shared with another person over the birth of a child, the taste of a cheeseburger, the feel of wind in your hair as you drive 65 mph down the highway on a beautiful day.  These are all gifts of God and do not need our religious stamp of approval.  I am very grateful that many so-called Christian Rock artists have noticed this and have stepped up their game and started writing songs about life in general.  And I’m completely cool with that.  And there have been so-called “secular” artists who are Christians who have found creative ways to insert God into their music without it sounding trite or preachy and while maintaining their artistic integrity.  And I am also completely cool with that.

            So that is what I think, but what is the state of Christian Rock?  My opinion is that just like the housing bubble, there was a Christian Rock bubble that formed and at some point in the late ‘90’s or early 00’s, the bubble began to leak.  The genre of Christian Rock, as we have known it for the past 30 years or so, is slipping away.  Within 10 years or so, the scene will be dramatically different.  As the old guard continues to fade away, the new guard, with its emphasis on holistic music rather than a segregated “secular vs. sacred” mindset, will take over and Christian music will look very different.  I think that we will always have some form of “Christian Rock,” but its numbers will dramatically decline.  As long as there is a church, there will be music for it.  And as long as there are people who still believe that music can be Christian, there will be Christian Rock.  But with the coming ages, Christian artists are replacing Christian music and only time will truly tell what the music industry will look like for Christians.

When Does Theology Go Bad Part 1-Defining Correct Theology Version 1.1


What seems like a very long time ago, I posted part one of a series called “When Does Theology Go Bad?”  I had wonderful intentions of posting part two, but I never got around to it.  So, I am going to attempt to at least post part two sometime in the near future.  Meanwhile, since many of you have probably forgotten what I posted, here is the original post with some slight formatting changes and clarifications:

I was theologizing this morning in the shower (the best place to theologize). My thought was, “When does theology become bad?” To say that is becomes bad simply because it is incorrect is not going far enough because so-called good theology can become bad when it is applied wrongly. It is true that incorrect theology will lead to bad theology. So maybe it is best to define our terms at this point.

How does one define correct theology? I think there are at least three ways to determine this:

  1. For theology to be correct, it must be correct biblically. In other words, the theology must not violate Scripture. I also that this is the most important criteria for determining correct theology.
  2. For theology to be correct, it must also be historically accurate. In other words, is this how the church has historically defined this issue? This can be a tricky one, because many denominations have historically defined some doctrinal issues differently, but on the essentials of Christianity (I define the essentials as those listed in the Apostles’ Creed with a relational[1] emphasis) the church has generally had one historic interpretation. An example of where theology can go wrong historically is the doctrine of the Trinity. Historically, the Trinity has been defined as one God in three persons, but certain sects of Christianity, Oneness Pentecostals for example, teach that it is God in three forms, not persons. This is historically incorrect and thus leads to incorrect theology.
  3. For theology to be correct, it should generally fit neatly into your system of theology. I have often viewed theology as a head of hair (ironic, don’t you think?). On one extreme, you can have George McFly hair, flawless and slicked back. At the other extreme, your theology can be like Alfalfa from Our Gang with that one large portion of hair sticking straight up in the air. It is not necessary that your theology fit into a neat box. Pre-packaged Christianity is not what we are after. Even the best theologians can be rough around the edges. But if part of your theology sticks out as inconsistent with the rest of your theology, it is most likely incorrect and can become very bad if you do not address it.

 


[1] My concern here is to point out that to merely acknowledge and intellectually agree with the Apostle’s Creed is not the definition of a Christian.  One must accept Christ, meaning that they understand that they are sinful, that their only hope of salvation is Christ and His work on the cross, and repentance, meaning that they must accept Christ’s forgiveness and turn from their sin unto the abundant life that God calls us to.

Emptiness Vs. Hope


There is a sense, as I write this…of emptiness.  I have wanted to write for a couple of days on my reaction to new health care legislation passing.  But after fuming on Monday, I am left…well…empty.

I have been following the health care debate for some time.  I knew that the bill was supposed to be voted on this past weekend, but a Saturday filled with “honey do” projects and a Sunday filled with going to meet Dog the Bounty Hunter at a book signing, it had slipped my mind.  Monday morning, as I put on my socks, I clicked over to Google news and lo and behold, there was the announcement.  I finally got to work, quelling my anger, having to go in early because I had to be with my wife for a medical procedure that she was having.  At 7am, I had to try and put whatever was going on in my head to the side and concentrate on how boxes were stacked on pallets.

At some point in the morning, someone made me mad.  I guess it is inevitable when a temp has to tell a supervisor that something needs to be changed.  But I didn’t really ask to be a temp, nor did I need the pushback.  Not that day.  I ran out the door at 11am to be with my wife for this procedure.  I got there, only to find out that despite the fact they had told her to be there at 11am (her Mom had dropped her off), they had not taken her back yet, and it was almost 11:30.  Finally, at some point before 11:45 (I’m not really sure because I didn’t check the time) they took her back.  I asked how long the procedure would take and they said half an hour and then an hour of recovery from the anesthesia.  I settled down with my book and I waited.  Around 1pm, I began to suspect that they would be calling me soon, but they never did.  1:30 came and went and I was fighting impatience.  Finally, at 2pm, I walked back to the nurses desk to find out what was going on.  “You must be looking for Kandice, right?” the nurse asked.  When I replied in the affirmative, she told me that the doctor had been late and that she would be out soon; they were doing the procedure right now.  I returned to the waiting room and waited some more.  2:30 came and went.  3:00 came and went.  Finally, at 3:30, after an hour and a half of being told that it would be “soon” and after almost four hours since my wife had left the waiting room for her procedure, I walked back there again.  I saw my wife, sitting up on a gurney, looking very pleasant.  The nurses took the pager that had given me, which had never gone off, and as they led me to the seat beside my wife, I told them, nicely but firmly, that they needed to do a better job of keeping the family in the waiting room informed of what was going on.  We then had to wait yet another hour because the doctor wanted to speak to us about the results of the procedure and he was conducting another procedure.

Finally, around 4:30pm, the doctor came to see us.  “I don’t like what I see,” he said, and went on to explain that something was inflamed that should not be and it could mean that my wife’s initial diagnosis of Ulcerative Colitis was incorrect, or that the pouch that had been created surgically was infected.  Not really good news.  We left the hospital with little hope.  I was tired from waiting and she was really tired from the anesthesia.  After we stopped for dinner, I returned home to find a few responses on Facebook from my status update about the health care bill and after a day of being angry, my words were probably more blunt than normal.  To be honest, I’m really not wanting  to talk about this health care thing anymore, suffice to say, I don’t really think that it is going to do what the Democrats want it to do and the economic ramifications of it will be, in my opinion, devastating.  For the record, that is not a prophecy, it is an opinion.  I could be wrong.  I hope I am.

After two additional days of partial-brooding, I am left where I have been many times.  I have never been one of those people that walk around with a perpetual smile on my face (at least, I don’t think).  The truth is that even though I am a Christian, I really do not expect life to be hunky-dory.  Life is tough, but God is good, as the saying goes.  I will say though that I have fallen victim to putting my hope in something other than God which is sin.  I have had to ask forgiveness for that.  It’s a lesson that I have to be continually reminded of over and over.  Where will be this landmark health care reform take us?  What will the result of my work situation be? What will the prognosis be for my wife? I really do not know, but I cannot put my hope and trust in something other than the One who offers ultimate hope and trustworthiness.  It only leaves emptiness and despair.

Now that I have written this, putting it in writing, I am left…hmmm…what am I feeling?  I don’t think its emptiness…acceptance, maybe?  I think that may be it.  And while I must confess that I feel far from hopeful, I think that acceptance may lead to hope.  And that hope, in the Ultimate Giver of health care (ok, that may have been a little cheesy) is something that I can hold on to.

N.T. Wright’s Paul and The Future of Justification: A Response and Review of “The New Perspective of Paul” And the Implications of Redefining Justification


I have just finished reading N.T. Wright’s Paul.  For those of you that do not know, N.T. Wright is “the Bishop of Durham [Anglican] and one of the most widely read biblical scholars of our day” according to the back cover of the book.  Indeed, out of all the theologians that I disagree with, Wright is one of my favorites.  He stands in good company with John Wesley. 

The reason that I chose to read this book, one which would not have been on my normal “to read” list is that discussions of what is called “The New Perspective of Paul” have come up in recent conversations with people and I have to admit, although I had heard of it and knew of its controversial elements, I was not familiar with it enough to offer any sort of critique.  For the theological novice, the “New Perspective” is hard to get your head around and the particular book that I read was one of his Wright’s shorter, but much more dense titles, originally put together to be presented at the  Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge University.  If you want a cursory look at the teaching of the “New Perspective,” I would not suggest reading this book.  This book is primarily geared for those who have a background in theology and I chose to read it because I wanted a short, but detailed examination of the “New Perspective” in the author’s own words.  It should be noted that by my critiquing of Wright’s work, I am not calling into question his salvation.  However misguided I believe that his teachings are, I believe that he firmly stands in the evangelical model of Christianity.  With that being said, if you have not already figured it out, I do disagree with his interpretation of the teaching of Paul.  But I am getting ahead of myself.

What is the New Perspective?  It is, indeed, hard to define and there seems to be no synopsis of it that will work for all occasions, but Wikipedia tried defining it this way: “The ‘new perspective’ is an attempt to lift Paul’s letters out of this framework and interpret them based on what is said to be an understanding of first century Judaism, taken on its own terms.”[1]  From the starting block, I have problems with Wright’s premise.  It is as if he is saying that we have got it wrong for the past 2000 years.  He assumes that the version of Paul that was traditionally understood by the Reformers, particularly Luther, is inaccurate.  Although in most of the critiques that I have read about this, this fact is glossed over, it is an important one for us to understand.  My own personal opinion is that while not as developed, the main thrust of Luther’s argument, justification by faith alone, was the basic belief of first-century Christianity and was de-emphasized in the subsequent marriage of the Roman Empire and the Institutional Church resulting in the bastard child of Middle-Age Roman Catholicism.  When I say that, I am not equating being Catholic to being unsaved, I am saying that the Catholic Church between the late fourth century to the sixteenth century had a serious identity issue equating salvation to church membership, most of the time, it seems, under duress.  During this time, there were certainly elements of the church that maintained that we are saved apart from works, but because of the tyranny and demagoguery of the leaders of the church, these things were not taught en masse until they were finally freed and taught by the Reformers.  For 2000 years, and most certainly in the last 500 years in Protestant Christianity, salvation by faith alone, in one form or another and in one place or another, has been taught primarily using the letters of Paul.  And now, Wright is claiming that they all got it wrong.

Wright begins his work by reminding us that Paul lived in three worlds: the world of Judaism, the world of Hellenism, and the world of the Roman Empire.  This is not being disputed, but his radical interpretation of what Paul was saying in light of this is the thrust of this book and of the New Perspective of Paul.  I honestly do not feel qualified to offer a full response to this line of thinking (it requires a theologian much more astute and qualified than myself), but there is one thing that I want to address up front and clearly.  In his redefinition of Paul’s thinking, he redefines one very important aspect of Christianity: the meaning of justification.  Lifted from his very works, Wright says, “Justification is not how someone becomes a Christian. It is the declaration that they have become a Christian.”[2]  John Piper, who wrote an entire book in response to Wright’s re-definition of justification, restates Wright’s position on justification, using his own words, like this: “‘Justification’ in the first century was not about how someone might establish a relationship with God. It was about God’s eschatological definition, both future and present, of who was, in fact, a member of his people.’ ‘[Justification] was not so much about ‘get­ting in’, or indeed about ‘staying in’, as about ‘how you could tell who was in’. In standard Christian theological language, it wasn’t so much about soteriology as about ecclesiology; not so much about salvation as about the church’ So the divine act of justification does not consti­tute us as Christians or establish our relationship with God. It informs or announces. ‘The word dikaioø [justify] is, after all, a declarative word, declaring that something is the case, rather than a word for mak­ing something happen or changing the way something is.”[3]

I am not going to respond to this, other than to say that I agree with the traditional theological interpretation of justification.  Rather than to offer a full response, I am going to stand behind someone who has done a much better job at responding to this and that person is John Piper.  As I said before, John Piper has offered an extremely well-thought out response to Wright and has even been in dialogue with Wright, who according to Piper, submitted an 11,000 word response to Piper’s first draft of The Future of Justification.[4]  If you would like a greater understanding of the implications of the New Perspective of Paul, in particular, the implications of Wright’s “re-imagining” (Wright’s very own word) of the biblical meaning of justification, then I would highly recommend this book to you.  For the record, I have not read it all, I have only skimmed the sections that I was interested in, but from what I saw, Piper’s response to Wright is academic, well-presented and represents a true biblical response to Wright’s heterodoxy.  As a general rule, we must be very wary of any theologian that claims he has come up with a new meaning or understanding of traditional Christian teaching, particularly one that is as fundamental and foundational to the understanding of Christianity as the definition of justification.


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Perspective_on_Paul

.[2] N. T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005), 125.

[3] http://www.desiringgod.org/media/pdf/books_bfj/books_bfj.pdf  pg. 19

[4] http://www.desiringgod.org/media/pdf/books_bfj/books_bfj.pdf  pg. 10

True Celebration: Going Deeper


I mentioned in my last blog that “Prayer, silence, solitude, and other spiritual disciplines become not just a mundane routine, but a moment, a possibility, an encounter, an opportunity to spend being intentional about knowing this God more and more and daring Him to take you to the next level.”  I would like to comment more on this aspect of spiritual growth.

Let’s define some terms.  How do we define spiritual growth?  I actually prefer the term “spiritual formation” because I think it is a more accurate term.  To me, “growth” seems rather one-dimensional, like short to tall or thin to fat.  “Formation,” however, seems multi-dimensional, and that is how I see the spiritual life working.  Wikipedia (the trusted source for all internet truth) defines “spiritual formation” as “the growth and development of the whole person by an intentional focus on one’s (1) spiritual and interior life, (2) interactions with others in ordinary life, and (3) the spiritual practices (prayer, the study of scripture, fasting, simplicity, solitude, confession, worship, etc.)”.[1]  As you can see from this definition, which I think is very good, spiritual formation is not just about you and God or simply about the removal of sin. 

            Growing up, I was always taught that if you had a problem with sin, you should confess that sin, preferably at an altar during the invitation at church and leave that sin at the altar and never pick it up again.  I did that again and again with certain sins, wondering why I still struggled with them and blaming myself for picking them back up again.  The problem with this type of thinking goes back to how we define spiritual growth or spiritual formation.  If we define spiritual growth as merely “the absence of sin,” then we do not go far enough.  Think of it this way: You have a bucket full of bile.  You want to somehow present that bucket of bile to someone as something to drink.  What’s the best way to do that?  First of all, get rid of the bile!  Second, you’re probably going to want to rinse the bucket, if not, get a new bucket all together, and then you need to fill that bucket with fresh and clean drinking water.  Using this analogy, all I was doing at that altar was confessing my sin, thinking that mere confession would solve all of my spiritual problems.  Twelve-step programs have a term for this.  It’s called “negative sobriety.”  If an alcoholic simply does not drink, he is negatively sober, and according to the teachings of most twelve-step programs, negative sobriety will not keep you sober for very long.  You must become “positively sober” which allows growing and forming spiritually. At some point, you have to rinse your bucket and begin to fill it with pure drinking water.

            I have not read many books on spiritual formation, but I have taken two classes on the subject.  One was an undergrad class where I was first introduced to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, a book that is considered a Christian classic and one that I think every believer should read.  One of the things that just recently struck me was the subtitle to this book, “The Path to Spiritual Growth.” With the exception of the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible-reading, and meditation, I had always viewed most of the spiritual disciplines as optional.  They were for use for someone who had the time and wanted to go deeper in their walk with Christ.  I never viewed them as essential.  However, Foster says, right in his title to the book that the disciplines are not “a” path to spiritual growth; they are “the” path to spiritual growth.  Foster asserts that the spiritual disciplines are not an option for the believer, they are essential. 

            Let’s pause here for a second.  I am not proposing that a person can earn his or her salvation based upon adherence to the spiritual disciplines and I do not think that is what Foster is proposing, although he is often vilified in some circles.[2]  As I said in my last blog, “I believe it [election] is unconditional because it is through no conditions of our own.”  I do not believe that we, as humans, do anything to deserve salvation.  Once we are given mercy from our sin and its punishment (hell) and grace from God to accept His gift of salvation unto an abundant life[3], what does that life consist of?  How do we obtain this abundant life?  I believe the abundant life that God has called us to is when we, as believers, live to our full spiritual potential, unlocking fruits of the Spirit like peace and joy in a way which can only be a result of pressing deeper into the Spirit and following the Spirit in a fresh and meaningful way.  I believe that Foster is asserting that the abundant life, the deeper life, is obtained through the utilization of the spiritual disciplines, the keys to unlocking this deeper life.  On a side note, I am not asserting any Gnostic, “secret knowledge” or anything like that.  I believe that this spiritual awakening is available to every believer, if we seek after it.  Breaking apart Wikipedia’s definition, I think that we can see that spiritual formation has to do with (1) the vertical life, i.e. the status of our relationship with God, (2) the horizontal life, i.e., the status of our relationship with our fellow humans and (3) the actual integration of the spiritual disciplines. 

            First, you cannot begin to go deeper with God if you have not taken the first step.  There are two aspects of this first step.  The first aspect is that you must be a Christian, i.e. a believer.  You must believe that you are a sinner that is hopeless apart from a God intervention and you must believe that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, fully-God and fully-man, was that intervention, sent to us from God the Father to take our place as the punishment for our sin and to give us this abundant life that we seek.  You must accept Him into your life as your Savior and trust Christ by grace through faith for your salvation.  The second aspect of this is that you must be actively seeking God in your day to day life.  Foster asserts that prayer and Bible reading are spiritual disciplines and, indeed, they are, but in my opinion, they are also essential ingredients for any level of spiritual life.  They are part of Christianity 101, if you will.  Read your Bible and pray every day.

            Second, you must be at harmony as much as possible with your fellow humans.  I say “humans” because I want to be gender-inclusive here.  If I may be transparent here, this is an area that I really struggle with.  I can easily adopt a “Jesus and me” attitude that assumes (rather legalistically even) that as long as I read my Bible and pray every morning, it does not matter what else happens.  That is fundamentally and categorically unbiblical and if I may be so bold, it is sin.  Jesus commanded us to love our neighbor and took the time to hang all the Law and the Prophets on that statement.[4]  Unless we love others as ourselves, we are not being obedient to Scripture.  For me, where this strikes at the heart, is in my sense of entitlement.  I am thoroughly a “Burger King Christian.”  I always want to “have it my way.”  If I do not get my way, I often act out like a child that has his toy taken away.  My anger becomes directed at whatever or more importantly whoever is in the way of me obtaining that thing which I so sinfully think will cause me to be ultimately happy.  It could be a server at a restaurant, the person making my sandwich at Subway, or the vehicle that just refuses to get out of my way.  I constantly have to repent of my attitude.  If I do not confess this right away, I risk giving up the best that God has for me and I really do not want that. 

            On a side note, I think that we are often guilty of misrepresenting what sin actually does to us.  What I mean is that we often view sin as an action or omission of something that we should or should not be doing and by that sin we completely hinder what God is doing in our lives.  I do not think that is accurate.  What I think is more likely is that sin acts as a clog in a drain pipe.  The bigger the clog (the more sin) that is in the drain pipe, the less water gets through.  It does not mean that the drain is completely clogged, unless we are not a believer; it means that we just get less and less of God than we could.  This would explain why certain areas of our lives we seem to do really good at spiritually and why others we do not.  It might be a crude analogy, but the spiritual disciplines help us to break out the plunger and really get to the issue of why our sin holds us back.

            Third, spiritual formation has to do with the actual integration of the spiritual disciplines.  I have already mentioned that I think that Bible-reading and prayer are considered spiritual disciplines; they are also essential spiritual ingredients for any level of growth.  I also now think that for one to grow spiritually, one has to integrate more disciplines.  Bible-reading and prayer are only the beginning. I recently had an experience that supported this belief.  I mentioned that I had taken two classes in spiritual formation.  The second one was just this past quarter where we focused on the actual spiritual disciplines themselves.  I had to practice a short-term and a long-term discipline.  I chose silence and solitude for my short-term and prayer for my long-term.  I cannot begin to express to you the level at which I felt like I pressed into God.  My times of silence and solitude were some of the most rewarding times I have ever experienced in my walk with Christ.  These were the moments that I actually believe that I began to feel the love of God.  There are no words.  They were simply incredible.  I have also continued to try and focus on my prayer life, especially with my wife.  My wife and I now have a regular prayer time on Wednesday nights together that I often look forward to.  I have been more challenged in my personal prayer time recently because of lack of time.  After my class ended, the holidays and the move took a great deal of time and energy.  I am now trying to redirect that energy into spending more time with God.  Since I prefer to take long walks for retreat purposes, the snow and cold weather have made this difficult so I am praying (no pun intended) for warmer weather soon.

            In closing, as I write this, I do not mean to be legalistic and say that you have to do these things to be a Christian.  What I do mean to say is that if you want to be intentional about growing in Christ, if you want to live the abundant life that God has called you to live, you do not do it by osmosis. You cannot somehow attract spiritual maturity by simply “hanging out” passively.  You have to be intentional about it and I think that Foster’s book is a good start.

Blessings,

David McDowell


[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiritual_growth

[2] http://www.thepropheticyears.com/wordpress/2008/05/30/the-richard-foster-of-the-emergent-church-leaders.html

[3] http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=john+10%3A10&src=esv.org

[4] http://www.gnpcb.org/esv/search/?q=Matthew+22%3A34-40