Tag Archives: spiritual disciplines

Renew Your Life!

This book, written by Pastor Mark Kai Nilsen, is birthed out of a story that has become so familiar among churches. The Pastor feels tired, trained burned out. He winters around with his spirit diminished and his relationships drained. Even though he appears to have it all together, on the inside his energy has been completely drained. This was Kai Mark Nilsen’s story – and it’s the story of hundreds of pastors (and Christians!) all over America.

As Nilsen says himself:

This book chronicles my attempts to restore the energy I once had, the energy I desperately needed in order to revitalize my work and refresh my relationships. I write hoping that readers struggling with similar issues will not feel alone, will find helpful guidance and will be renewed in their ability to access life-giving energy. (16)

Nilsen takes us back to the creation story in order to discover the gracious energy that God has for his children. Through the creation story we see many sources of God’s energy that are available to us: 1)Grace, 2)Possibility, 3)Paradox, 3)Natural World, 4)Relationships, 5)Relationships, 6)Fruitful Work, and finally 7)Rest.

Each of these “creative renewable energies” receive attention in each of the respective chapters. These energies give us the power to live life to the fullest and to truly love others as God has called us to. They also are unending because God’s grace towards us is unending.

Throughout the book Nilsen stresses that there are no such thing as quick fixes. Often this renewal of energy takes time – its gradual – and its often difficult. He also stresses the fact that renewal can never happen on the basis of our own energy – in other words you can’t pick yourself up by your own bootstraps.

One aspect of the book that I really enjoyed – and I know will be super useful for small groups and for individuals going through the book is that there are a series of “essential life questions” for each chapter. These questions help the reader process what they are reading. They are questions that are very practical and if taken seriously could lead to major life change. Also, each chapter is tied to a specific spiritual discipline. Some of these disciplines are pretty traditional – like solitude or bible memorization or spending time in nature. Others are pretty unique. Either way – they are helpful in directing the reader to spend time with the Lord.

Overall I really appreciated this book – for me it came at such a good time. I have a million things on my plate right now – I’m full time at the CATS program at Fuller, doing full time ministry, taking the lead on planning two international mission trips within the next three months, and publishing tons of stuff. So right now – I’m swamped. And a few weeks ago it all just hit me like a brick wall – I realized I don’t have the energy to sustain this long term this book reminded me that maybe I don’t need to have the energy. I need to let God give me that energy because he is the infinite energy of grace.

You can order the book on Amazon.

Note: I received this book courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an impartial review.
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Experiencing The Trinity

The Trinitarian revival that has been experienced among academic theology has now started to trickle its way down into popular theology. This is a good thing! We can always get better at knowing God’s heart – and the way to really do that is to dive deeper into his Trinitarian character and nature. A couple of popular treatments of this doctrine come to mind – The Deep Things of God by Fred Sanders and Delighting in the Trinity by Michael Reeves; however these books still feel like theology books. What was needed was a book on the doctrine of the Trinity that feels more devotional…. Joe Thorn has written such a book.

Experiencing the Trinity

The book consists of a short introduction, describing why Thorn wrote this book and a few words describing the discipline of “preaching to yourself.” According to Thorn preaching God’s word to ourselves helps us find peace, joy, strength, and faith in God. However it is not necessarily a quick fix, at times we will suffer and experience sorrow, yet even these experiences can lead us closer to God. While in the midst of these experiences we need to keep our eyes on the truth – that is where preaching to ourselves comes into play.

Here is how Joe Thorn describes the nature of this book:

What follows are fifty daily readings that reflect on God and the gospel and how they overcome our fear, failure, pain, and unbelief. Much of this I preached to myself over the last couple of years, and all of it is directed toward my own heart… But if you find yourself with a heart like mine, weak, and in need of grace, I pray these readings will be an encouragement to you. For God offers his grace to people like us.

These 50 readings are divided according to each person of the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Under the Father section you will find “notes” on topics like – He is Creator, He is Patient, He is Unchanging, He is Jealous, He is Father.

Under the Son section you fill find “notes” on topics like – His Humanity, His Deity, His Poverty, His Temptation, His Obedience, His Suffering, His Reign, His Mission, His Glory.

Under the Spirit section you will find “notes” on topics like – He Indwells, He Fills, He leads, He Revives, He Sanctifies, He Gives Gifts.

This book certainly serves its purpose well. Though I didn’t take 50 days to read through it, I definitely did stop to meditate on the topics that spoke most to my heart. Thorn has written a wonderful devotional that takes a difficult theological concept – the Trinity – and brings it down to a point where our heart can be warmed by it. I really appreciated hearing the story of how he wrote the book – he was brutally honest – I appreciate that. Hearing his story really helped me to see how “preaching to yourself” can be a powerful spiritual discipline.

Note: I received an advanced readers copy of this book courtesy of Crossway in exchange for an impartial review.

Writing Your Spiritual Biography

We have all been designed by God to make an impact – both on our community and the world around us. He has given each one of us specific gifts and life experiences that are unique to us. Nobody else has those same combinations of gifts that you do. Nobody else has ever had, nor will ever have, the same life experiences that you have had. Your design and your life story are unique. However, the truth is that we don’t often take time to reflect upon how God has uniquely designed us and orchestrated our life story. Sometimes its helpful to step back and prayerfully think through the things that have shaped us to become who we are today. In the following video we are going to see a Christian Rapper – Propaganda – reflect upon different circumstances in his life that have shaped him to be who he is, and have prepared him for the type of ministry that God has called him to.

I am Second® – Propaganda

 

In the video, the rapper Propaganda shared some of the experiences that shaped his life. He shared about what it was like growing up as the only African-American kid in a Mexican culture, what it was like feeling alone at church, as well as what it was like to be a male in his particular culture with artistic passions and desires. As he reflected upon these things he noticed that “all this was on purpose – everything you are – your whole goulash of experiences and gifts – all the scars, every hurt every failure…. Its on purpose, you are fearfully and wonderfully made, you are exactly who I want you to be.”

Exercise – Writing Your Spiritual Biography

Take 20 minutes to prayerfully reflect on how God has shaped you over the years through various means such as:

  1. Life experiences – Think about the various phases of your life: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. Which experiences during those years have shaped you the most to be who you are today?
  2. Spiritual experiences – i.e. experiences of God’s presence and guidance through Scripture, church, mission trips, camps, nature, or some spiritual experience. List out at least 3 experiences that have significantly shaped you.
  3. Spiritual mentors including historical figures.
  4. Your context—i.e. cultural, family, ethnic, socio-economic, geographical & historical factors.

After you have done this, take some time to craft a “spiritual biography” (using Propaganda’s testimony as an example) around these four categories. How might God want to use your experiences to make an impact for his Kingdom on this world?

Working Out and Being on Mission

I’m not one of those guys. Yes I played sports in High School. Yes I loved sports. Yes I spent all of my free time at the gym….

Bible Bowl Champs

I worked HARD at football b/c I didn’t have as much natural talent as some other guys. I worked HARD at soccer b/c I wasn’t as fast or accurate as some of the other guys. I worked my butt off to be good at sports. It didn’t come naturally by any means.

Here was my schedule – go to school – go to practice – Spend an hour after practice working out at the school gym – eat dinner – go work out at the gym – find time to get a 4.286 gpa. How the heck did I do that! As soon as I graduated high school I slowly found myself lacking the motivation to work out as much. Yes I would be able to go on crazy work out spurts. Call it being intense, call it binge working out, call it what you will, they never lasted more than 2-3 weeks before I fell back into laziness. Why?

I lacked motivation to maintain discipline!

Think about it. In High School I wanted to be the best, or at the very least competitive. I had a goal set before me. Even more importantly I wanted to help my team win the championship. (By the way we won league and made it to the CIF semi-finals in football.)

Tangible goals that I really believed in motivated me to stay disciplined!

I think the same holds true in Christianity. Why do so many of us struggle to spend time with God through scripture and prayer? Why do so many of us find it a chore to get up 30 minutes earlier to spend time with God but don’t have that same problem when it comes to working out?

At times I will enter my “workout binge” stage. Usually the goal is I want to lose a few pounds or I want to look really good. But those goals are shallow. Even I don’t believe in them enough to put all of my effort into fulfilling them. I think that happens with our time with God as well. We are told that its good to spend time with God, so we should make every effort to do it. We “binge devotion” i.e. read our bibles and pray for 2 weeks but then fall back into our old habits. That is partly b/c we are never given a tangible goal that we really believe in.

What is our tangible goal that we can really believe in? Whatever it is we have to believe that it is of utmost importance. In sports I believed that winning CIF was of utmost importance. Second we must believe that its something worth giving all of our time and energy towards. Third it must happen in community. If I didn’t have a team spurring me on I doubt that I would have been so disciplined in sports.

Football - Village

Is there something in our Christian faith that matches us with these three things? I certainly think there is. So what is that goal?

God’s glory among the nations is an “epic” enough goal to get our butts out of bed every morning to spend time with him.

What if each of us knew that without that time with him we wouldn’t accomplish our goal? What if we believed that those 30 minutes per day could change our lives and could change the world around us. What if we really believed that those 30 minutes could mean the difference between life and death for somebody in an unreached people group on the other side of the world.

God’s glory in the nations is a tangible goal that I can really believe in and give my life to. I don’t feel that way about “my own personal growth.”

Seeking transformation for the sake of transformation is a dead end. Seeking transformation for the sake of God’s glory among the nations is powerful motivation…

Book Review: Formed for the Glory of God – Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards by Kyle Strobel

When I heard that Kyle Strobel was writing a book on the spiritual disciplines of Jonathan Edwards I immediately went on Amazon and pre-ordered it. As you well know, I am an avid Jonathan Edwards fan, and have devoted much of my seminary writing to Edwards (and other Reformed theologians like Barth and T.F. Torrance). I haven’t been studying Edwards for a very long time, I was only in seminary for 3 years, nevertheless one of my first papers in seminary was actually on the spiritual disciplines of Edwards. I wrote a paper outlining his Spiritual Formation in a Puritan context, what “practices” he practiced (is there a better word?), and what we can learn from his rhythm of spiritual formation. It was in writing this paper that I fell in love with Edwards, mainly because it forced me to engage with George Marsden’s behemoth biography of Edwards. And now I’m in the process of preparing to do a ThM with a research focus on Edwards alongside of Oliver Crisp (we are waiting for him to come back from his sabbatical in Fall of 2014). So, all to say, that the spiritual disciplines of Jonathan Edwards hold a special place in my heart.

Having laid out the fact that I am biased, and have a keen interest in the subject of this book let me share some thoughts on it.

Overview

Kyle Strobel’s book, Formed for the Glory of God: Learning from the Spiritual Practices of Jonathan Edwards, is broken up into two parts. The first is titled “A Journey into Beauty.” In this section of the book Strobel lays out the foundation of the Christian faith according to Edwards. He uses the metaphor of a journey or a path to illustrate Edwards God-centered theology. This journey is centered on the Beatific vision (something that contemporary evangelicals have either forgotten was a central part of our catholic faith or have simply chosen to ignore). Kyle says that the culmination of the journey  “is standing before the God of love and beholding him as my Father, seeing him clearly and growing in knowledge of him for eternity.”[1] In the next chapter he cashes out what the beatific vision is really about, knowing God as glorious and knowing God as beautiful. And we only know God in these ways because we are “in” Christ. Knowing God in these ways, through Christ, is ultimately relational. It is no mere academic exercise. This is extremely important for understanding Edwards’ theology because Edwards’ practical theology is centered on “affections” (and by this I don’t mean the warm fuzzys). Edwards’ thoughts on affections are best captured in the truism “people are not simply thinking beings, but loving beings.” Our hearts will always gravitate towards something. When our hearts do that our will attempts to grasp it because we are vigorously captivated by it.[2] In turn our entire way of living is changed because our will is now centered upon that one object or person.

Part two is titled “Tools for the Journey.” In this section of the book Strobel assesses the “tools God has given us on this journey, asking what they are for and why we should practice them.”[3] He begins by explaining the fact that spiritual disciplines are means of grace. The means of grace are practices or actions given to the church which are not efficacious on their own right, rather they are actions through which we receive the Grace God has already given to us. In other words they are “spiritual postures to receive God’s grace.” This notion of putting ourselves in a posture of dependence is key for understanding Strobel’s discussion of Edwards’ disciplines. Again and again Strobel emphasizes that we don’t create grace or earn it through this disciplines; the Grace is already there, we simply put ourselves in a posture to receive the gift that God has already given to us, namely the gift of himself. Having laid this foundation Strobel explains some of Edwards’ practices. For instance he devotes an entire chapter to examining our own lives and an entire chapter to Mediation/Contemplation (which are slightly different). He concludes with a chapter on Sabbath, Fasting, Conferencing, Soliloquy, Silence and Solitude, and Prayer.

Thoughts on the Book

I want to highlight a couple of things that I believe Strobel did really well, and then make some constructive criticisms of the book.

Here are some of the things that Strobel did well:

  • The Discussion of the Christian Life: Strobel says that “we refuse to talk about spiritual practices until we have a firm grasp of the picture of the Christian life.”[4] Most people writing on spiritual disciplines these days don’t take the time to place the disciplines within the larger context of the Christian life. It almost seems as though these disciplines become the end of the journey, instead of the tools for the journey. Placing them with the context of our spiritual journey keeps us from falling into that trap. On top of this, Strobel did a great job explaining the Christian life from an angle that most people will not be familiar with. In my own experience working in ministry, I have never heard congregant explain their walk with Christ in the way Strobel explained it. Most people describe their journey as growth in becoming better people or something else like that. Strobel explains the journey as a journey towards the beatific vision, which can only occur in Christ. He says that the Christian life is a journey to see clearly.  “It is a journey inaugurated with a sight of faith and a journey whose destination is perfection of that sight.”[5]
  • The Discussion of the Means of Grace: “Means of Grace” is a very reformed phrase, that most people aren’t accustomed to. Nevertheless, Strobel does a great job explaining what Means of Grace are. In my opinion this is the strongest part of the book. Where most people will see spiritual disciplines as self-help tools, or tools that will help them get closer to God so that God will love them more, the notion that disciplines are a means of grace combats these temptations. The disciplines that Edwards practiced, and Strobel recommends are the places that we come to receive the wonderful gift of grace that God has already given to us through his son Jesus. Spiritual disciplines are not a way of wrenching God’s arm into giving us more of himself. God has already fully given himself to us in Christ!
  • The Appendix: For people who will want to practice what Kyle preaches, this is an invaluable tool. Its clear and well organized. Anybody can turn to this section of the book and begin to lead themselves and others into the disciplines that Edwards practiced.

Its hard for me to really criticize this book because I loved it so much, and found it to be spot on with Edwards’ theology, nevertheless here are some constructive criticisms:

  • A Lack of Interaction With Edwards’ Historical Context: I would have liked to see Strobel interact with Edwards greater Reformed and Puritan context a bit more, especially in regard to how spiritual disciplines were regarded by continental reformed pastors and theologians and also by Puritans in the new world. What role did spiritual disciplines play in the lives of puritan pastors? Were spiritual disciplines a big part of reformed piety? Or is Edwards unique in this regard? The fact that Strobel didn’t include this sort of discussion in the book doesn’t hurt my opinion of the book, but I believe the book could have been strengthened by it. Perhaps he could have included it in the chapter about the means of grace.
  • A Lack of a “Spiritual Biography”: I also would have liked to see Strobel pull all of these practices into a short (perhaps chapter long) biography section. Strobel does a good job of picking apart these disciplines and giving Edwards’ theological postitions behind them, but it would have been a stronger book if Strobel would have written about how these practices shaped Edwards’ life and ministry.  I can imagine a chapter where Strobel starts off by talking about Edwards’ periods of prayer and solitude (as well as group prayers) when he was a kid in the woods. Then he could have written about the key role these disciplines played while he was a Presbyterian pastor in New York. And so on… I think you get the point. I would have liked to see how these disciplines fit into the big picture of Edward’s life.

Conclusion

As you can tell I (mostly) have only good words for this book. Edwards and spiritual disciplines are two subjects that I absolutely love to study, and this book brilliantly combines both. If you are looking for an easy introduction into the practical theology of Edwards I highly recommend this book. If you are looking for a reformed take on spiritual disciplines, I recommend this book. If you are interested in spiritual disciplines and want some practical guidance on practicing them, I recommend this book. Basically, whoever you are and whatever you are interested in I recommend this book.

Formed for the Glory of God


[1] Strobel, 34.

[2] Strobel, 59.

[3] Strobel, 16.

[4] Strobel, 16.

[5] Strobel, 34.

Simple Smallgroups (pt. 8): Pattern 2 – Steps for Changing in Your Own Group

Last time we evaluated where our groups are along the “Changing” pattern. Today we continue this mini-series on spiritual growth in Lifegroups. In this blog we will take a look at some of the things you could be doing for in your Lifegroups to help them move along the change continuum.

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Pattern 2: Changing (Steps for Your Group)

 So your group wants to change? Or maybe they don’t but you want them to change. Either way God wants them to change and grow, and that is what really matters. If God wants them to grow and become more Christ like then God will make sure it will get done. However this does not mean we sit back lazily and expect God to make us grow. God does the growing in our lives but he calls us to be faithful to that by opening ourselves up to being changed by him.

Lets Make it Grow!

Before we take a look at steps we can take to help our groups move along the various phases of the “change” pattern we need to get one thing VERY clear. There is nothing you can do to make yourself grow. Growth in Christ-likeness is an act (a miracle) of the Holy Spirit. A while ago I had a weird dream about Christian growth. I’m going to throw it out there and hopefully you catch point.

I was out on a huge grass covered field that stretched out as far as the eye could see. And there was a small sapling in the middle of the field. I had a pail and I was watering the tree. As I was watering the tree I was getting frustrated because the stupid sapling wasn’t becoming a tree. And then some guy walks up to me and says: “you can’t make it grow on your own.” And I replied “but this is how you make it grow.” Then I kept watering the tree but once again the guy said “you can’t make it grow on your own.” A little frustrated I told him, “no this is how you make it grow.” I knew in my mind that you make a tree grow by watering it. Thus if I was watering the tree it would grow. And for a third time the guy said “You can’t make it grow on your own.” By now I was pissed off and frustrated so I told the guy “No this is how you make it grow!” Then I woke up.

When I had this dream it was very personal to what I was experiencing in my life and in ministry, however we can extract a truth from it that applies to all Lifegroups and all Christians as they grow. We can know “how to make things grow.” We can know all the right spiritual disciplines or the complexities behind human psychology and human spiritual development, but ultimately its God who creates growth. Without God, growth does not happen. Reading all the right books, spending hours upon hours praying or fasting will not accomplish anything unless God works in you to grow. I’m not saying don’t do those things. After all, we water plants but the growth in the plant is not dependent on us. As Paul says to the Corinthians in his 1st letter: “So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.”

So having said that lets move on to how we can be faithful in “watering” and “planting” the seeds of change.

 Phase 1 – Learn

  • Learn Together: Duh… Here is what I mean though. Pick something to learn about that will get everyone in the group excited. I know we have a set curriculum for our Lifegroups, but there are always things you can add on to help and to encourage your members to grow through learning. For example last quarter Stacey Sturznacker and I added weekly bible reading to our group. Each week we would all read one book of the bible (an epistle) and then we would get together and share what we learned. We chose to do this because it was on everybody’s heart to be in God’s word more consistently. So by choosing something that people were already excited about we were able to learn together.
  • Memorize Scripture: This is impossible for me…. But maybe its really easy for you. If any of you did Elevate (our summer discipleship program) you know how beneficial memorizing scripture can be. If you began to memorize scripture your together your group would become much better at speaking truth into one another. Have them memorize scripture and the watch how God will end up using those scriptures in the group!
  • Pray Together: At its most basic, prayer is conversation with God. Talking and listening. So what could be better for our growth in Christ than talking to God himself? Here are three quick tips to prayer in groups. Keep it small. You can break of into smaller groups or you can only have a few people pray during prayer times. Either way you don’t want a million people praying. That will take all night. (Unless of course the Spirit prompts your group to spend the night praying instead.) Give it Time. Make sure everyone has enough time to share prayer requests. This means that you will have to keep the clock in mind when leading the discussion but it also means that you will need to keep some loquacious people in check. Don’t let someone dominate this prayer time each week! Guide it well. Cast vision for this time of prayer. Emphasize that God loves to hear our prayers and he desires to answer them for his glory. Emphasize why we pray and how our prayers are effective.

Phase 2 – Growing

  • Discuss: Discussion is the crux of our Lifegroups. We center our Lifegroups around the Word because this is where we encounter Christ. Do what you can to keep the discussion flowing. If someone is dominating, help others chime in. If someone is intimidated to share then make sure the group encourages the fact that their opinions are important and valuable. In keeping the discussion flowing make sure you kill tangents. Kill them before they kill your Lifegroup. On another note, allow awkward silences. Silence is not necessarily bad. It might just mean that people are busy thinking. And who knows maybe someone who feels awkward jumping in during the middle of a heated conversation will feel a bit more comfortable sharing during these silences.
  • Accountability: A group should feel free to open up and share what is going on in their lives. But first you need to make sure that you stress the importance of confidentiality in Lifegroups. As you stress confidentiality, you will build trust. As you build trust, people in the group will have the confidence that people in the group have eachother’s best interest in mind and are not interested in gossiping. So once trust is build, and the “relational bridge” has a strong foundation. Incorporate a time into your group where people share with one or two individuals (usually of the same gender) the things that God is working on them to grow. We have build this time into our Lifegroups, but you can mix it up and do it in different ways each week. Or else it can easily become a sin pity party. We want to avoid sin pity parties! We want to avoid them because we know that our sins are covered and paid for by the blood of Jesus. Because they are covered we don’t need to live in fear, remorse, condemnation or guilt. We are free to confess sin and expect growth.

Phase 3 – Belong

  • Accountability Outside of the Group: One thing that we constantly repeat is that our Lifegroups aren’t meant to be accountability groups, nevertheless our Lifegroups can help us stay accountable. The primary way that we do this is through accountability outside of the group. One of the groups I coached last quarter instituted a system in which each member had another member that they kept accountable and that they prayed for throughout the week. By doing this the group freed up time to spend on discussion, prayer, and worship instead of accountability. So the situation was a win-win. The group had more time to devote to “Lifegroup” activities and everybody received more individualized accountability than would have been offered in the group alone.
  • Service:I am firmly believe that the best way to grow is by serving. When you serve you get stretched and put out of your comfort zone. When you serve you often have to learn to rely more on the Spirit and less on yourself. (Of course you could try to do things on your own… good luck with that.) So if you can get your Lifegroup to serve together you will end up seeing growth in the group itself and in the individuals doing the serving.

Concluding Thoughts

Hopefully these tips helped! After all it’s our heart that God would create growth in our Lifegroups. I am confident that as we grow deeper in community and as we continue to spur one another towards remembering our identity in Christ we will see growth! And hopefully as you grow closer together and growth happens then the non-Christians in your lives will see the power that God has to change people. As always I’m praying for you, your groups, and the non-Christians around you!