Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Why Our Desire Cannot be for the Church

To the woman He said…
“…your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you.”  Genesis 3:16 (NASB)

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry? And why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.”  Genesis 4:6-7 (NASB)

I’m meditating this week on Genesis 3 and the “fall of man”. In my study, I tripped over Genesis 3:16, where God pronounces the “curse” on the woman, saying that, as a result of her sin, “your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.” It seemed odd to me…the first part, that is. How, exactly, is “your desire shall be for your husband” a bad thing? Because I am not a Hebrew scholar, my first attempt to understand what exactly it means was to simply check a variety of English translations. Unfortunately, except for a couple, most of them translate it the same way: your desire shall be for your husband. Again, what could be wrong with that?

But here is where some light gets shed…and where we learn (again) about the limits of language to capture some concepts: Genesis 4:7 has very similar language, but the intent is much clearer. When God warns Cain about the bitterness raging in his heart, he says, “…if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it.” And so, we see what are apparently similar Hebrew words and phrases being translated the same way. In Cain’s case, “sin’s desire is for you” and in Eve’s case,”your desire shall

Of Drownings and Gouged Eyes

Tuesday Re-mix – This is a popular post from the past, updated and resubmitted for your consideration and comments.

Little boy sleepovers and little girl slumber parties are two pretty different things. I learned this as a father of girls, whose wildest conversations in the slumber parties we hosted don’t even register on the “grotesqueness” scale I am sure my parents used to measure the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of the stuff about which my childhood friends and I talked. I mean, we talked about sick, morbid stuff, from “What’s the grossest sound you ever heard?” to “What’s the absolute worst way to die?” I have long since decided that these were perfectly normal topics of discussion for little boys and that there is nothing wrong with me. Please don’t comment and tell me otherwise.

I think boys are just drawn to extremes…the worst, the grossest, the hardest, the biggest. It is actually a communication style for them. You know, when they want to really hammer a point home and leave no doubt in the listener’s mind, they use an extreme illustration. It works for them.

millstone-around-the-neckIt worked for Jesus too. In Matthew 18, when he describes the way his followers will influence one another in His “church”, he wants to make a critically important point about the effects of sin in our lives. Here is what He understands about us: the only consequences of sin that really influence us are the immediate, physical consequences. If we don’t see immediate, physical consequences, our attitudes and behavior are not really being changed. That is just a part of the human condition. We are a short-sighted bunch.

So Jesus used extreme illustrations to make his point about the Spiritual impact of sin in His church. He talked about throwing someone into the …

You Think You Know Someone…

Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters…When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying,“Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Revelation 1:12-15, 17-18

AcaciaTree SunriseEver have a really good friend and, somewhere along the way in the relationship, you see him/her in his/her “natural environment” and you come to realize you didn’t know him/her nearly as well as you thought you did? You’ve been through hard times together, you’ve travelled together, you’ve met family and know each other’s triumphs and fears, and you have logged lots and lots of hours just hanging out together. But, by some twist of circumstances, you happen to catch him/her in a situation where the real “natural” self comes out and you think, “Wow. Did not see that coming.” And then it hits you…this is who he/she really is!

I believe John (the apostle and writer of Revelation) and Jesus were best friends. Best. Friends. I believe that is a perfectly reasonable interpretation of the gospels. John was clearly in Jesus’ “inner circle” (along with Peter and John’s brother, James). He was atop the Mount of Transfiguration to …

Small Groups are Key to Church Unity

Looking back at the hundred-or-so conflicted congregations with whom I have been called to consult over the last couple of decades, here is an important observation: only a small handful (or so) of them had a strong small group ministry. The vast majority of them either had no small group ministry or they had a tired, ineffective small group or Sunday School ministry. I believe there is a correlation.  I believe there is a direct relationship between small group ministries and church unity.

small group

For some decades now, church leaders have been recognizing the importance of small groups as a critical tool for Spiritual formation (or for Spiritual “transformation”, depending on whose vernacular you favor). We have all begun to see that, only in the intimacy and accountability of a small group of friends gathered together around the Word of God, can we live the life God has called us to live and become the Christians God has called us to become. It was true in the lives of the apostles (the first small group ever) and it is still true today. Whether you call them Sunday School, Bible Study, home groups, cell groups, prayer groups, gospel communities, support groups or recovery groups doesn’t matter. They all have slightly different aims, but one reality is the same for all of them: creating a safe environment with equal parts grace and truth and where we “lean into” one another’s lives is where real Spiritual transformation occurs.

But I will take this observation one step further. Because small groups are such a powerful tool for Spiritual transformation, they are also a key ingredient to unity in a local body of believers. Why? Because Spiritual formation is a key ingredient to unity. If the Spirit Himself is the central figure in all questions about …

Gospel Centered Worldview: All Lives Matter

 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome. Romans 1:14-15

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. 2 Corinthians 5:16

For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:27-28

all lives matterPerhaps nobody in Scripture went through a more radical change in worldview than the Pharisee named Saul. As a Pharisee among Pharisees, he thought he had the world figured out. He had the puzzle all put together and, though there were some inexplicable gaps in the picture here and there, it all made sense…basically, anyway. According to that worldview, the missing pieces would be filled in when the Messiah comes. And in that worldview, there were two kinds of lives in this world: Jewish lives (which mattered) and all the others (which mattered less).

Twenty years later, as a converted Christ-follower writing to churches in Corinth, Rome, Galatia, et. al., he would show astounding wisdom and a very different worldview…a gospel centered worldview. According to that worldview, the Messiah had already come and we already had all the pieces there are to have…and they all fit together more perfectly and completely than he could ever have imagined. No more inexplicable gaps. It was a beautiful and perfect worldview. And in this new worldview, all lives mattered.

In the 2,000 years since Paul’s written presentations of this new way of seeing the world, many other worldviews have come and gone. And today, in the U.S. alone, scores of different …

Love the Porcupines…Quills and All

the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 1 Corinthians 12:22-25

porcupine quillsI’ve learned to be careful in my application of Paul’s “body parts” metaphor in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. Once you start assigning body-part descriptions to individuals in your church, the discussion can all go south pretty quickly. The truth is, most of us would rather not know what body part many in our church would use to describe us!

I am thinking today about the “difficult” people in the church, the “porcupines” (painful to love), the ones Rick Warren describes so eloquently as the EGR people (Extra Grace Required). Paul would describe them as “seeming to be weaker” or ones “we think less honorable” or “unpresentable parts”. These are the people we generally would prefer not to be around, the ones we wish would try visiting another small group rather than ours (except that we would not wish that on any of the other leaders). These are the extremely high-maintenance folks with negative outlooks on everything and everyone. They are “projects”, needing lots and lots of attention. They are exhausting.

As I consider this category of fellow believers, my first thought is to question whether or not I am perceived as one. I think it is worth our while as leaders to examine the evidence of how influential we really are …

For Appearances’ Sake

Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Colossians 3:22

As church leaders, I wonder how many right things we do or say strictly for appearances’ sake? Let’s be honest, even as leaders among God’s people, we are not immune from having selfish and prideful hearts (in fact, it may actually come more easily for us), and just like the rest of humanity, we develop pretty highly-polished “systems” for managing people’s perceptions of us by hiding our pride and doing and saying things strictly for appearances’ sake. One translation of scripture refers to this as doing or saying things “by way of eye-service”.

Happy MaskWe are living in and ministering to a culture that does more than just recognize this reality…it encourages it. It places the highest possible premium on our personal “brand”, which we are building every time we teach/preach, every time we make a public appearance, and every time we post something on social media. But, at the same time as our culture demands this, it also takes every opportunity to expose the gaps between what we say and what we actually do (or, better yet, what we believe). We are ministering in a culture which demands that we take a side and then destroys us for doing so. And never before have we lived and worked in a more transparent world, where it is just not that difficult for those who oppose us to see the inconsistencies and the false motives.

In this world of social media, worldwide news coverage, hidden-camera investigative reporting, and information technology, it has perhaps never been more important for church leaders to live lives of integrity and transparency…to be pretty much the same person on the …

Who Gets to Determine Our Identity?

So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.” Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.” 1 Samuel 16:10

For you created my inmost being;
    you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
    your works are wonderful,
    I know that full well. Psalm 139:13-14

labelJesse does not get “Good Father” points for his handling of his youngest son, David, when it came time to anoint one of his sons as the next king of Israel. He did not even bother bringing David to the event. He left him in the fields to watch the sheep. After all, what were the odds that God’s agent, Samuel, would identify the youngest of all Jesse’s sons as the next king? The good news for David was this: his earthly father did not get to dictate who he was. Only his heavenly Father, his Creator, gets to do that. And David acknowledged as much in his 139th Psalm.

At a time when our culture has become obsessed with “identity” issues (gender identity, ethnic identity, political identity, etc.) this 3,000-year-old story about a boy named David begs a critical question for each of us to ask ourselves: Who gets to determine our identity? Am I the person others say I am? Am I the person my family says I am? In matters of identity, who has the final word?

I think all of us have believed a lie or two over the course of our lifetimes when it comes to answering this question. Here are some of those lies:

1. Social Media gets to determine my identity. It is the lie at the very heart …

Patiently Waiting for God to Show Up

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Exodus 32:1

patienceI am a fairly patient person. I actually think it is a gift of mine. Nevertheless, I have no problem at all understanding the restlessness of the Hebrew people waiting for Moses to return from 40 days on Mt. Sinai. At a time in their new chapter when there were precious few “routines” upon which they could rely, one routine had become Moses’ “felt presence” among them. Another had become God’s visible presence through the pillar of smoke (by day) and fire (by night). And now, they had neither. All they had was Aaron, who was pretty clearly a far cry from Moses’ dynamic leadership. So, with Moses’ disappearance up the stormy, thunderous Mt. Sinai for an unscheduled, undisclosed amount of time, the hours turned to days and the days turned to weeks. They had no idea IF or WHEN he might ever return. I have no problem understanding the immense pressure these people began to place on Aaron’s not-so-broad shoulders. “Don’t just stand there…DO SOMETHING,” became the mantra of a restless, fearful people waiting for their God to show up and really set them free. As a church leader, you are probably familiar with that refrain.

In my experience, patiently waiting for God to show up can be the most difficult assignment we are given as God’s people. There is nothing easy about it at all. In a world and a culture where we are taught to take responsibility …

Intensely Personal and Critically Communal

“You shall have no other gods before me…”  Exodus 20:3

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male servant, or his female servant, or his ox, or his donkey, or anything that is your neighbor’s.” Exodus 20:17

God’s plan for growing a people dedicated to Him and blessed by Him has been consistent from the beginning. He created us for relationship with Him, but also for relationship with one another. This is even evident in His bedrock principles, the Ten Commandments. But it may be less evident to those of us whose first language is English than for most others.

10 CommandmentsEnglish is a bit odd in many ways, with all it’s “rules” for grammar and then the thousands of exceptions to each of those rules. It makes it  a difficult language to learn. One of those oddities is that our word, “you” is both singular and plural (The New York version of “Yous” and the Southern version of “Y’all” notwithstanding). So, when we read the Ten Commandments in our English bibles and we see “You shall…”, and we read the context of God speaking from a mountain to some 600,000 Hebrew men (and lots more women and children), it is easy for us to read it as a plural “you”. If there were a Texas version of the Bible, we might be inclined to translate it, “Y’all will have no other gods before me.” But that would be an incorrect translation.

You see, we English speakers are accustomed to living with this ambiguity between the plural you and the singular you…we’re accustomed to just kind of figuring it out in context, leaving much accuracy to be desired. But most other languages (including the original Hebrew language of the Old Testament) treat …