Going Deeper with God – I’m First! (Selected Gospel Passages)

In Eat this Book, Eugene Peterson teaches us to chew on a passage of scripture, digest it, and then put it to use in practical ways. Our early Christian fathers and mothers called this process Lectio Divina. These passages show us that, much to the  dismay of Jesus, the disciples frequently thought about their role in his coming kingdom. “Who’s first?” is a question   with which we all can identify.

 Mark 9: 33-35;  Luke 9:46-48; Mark 10: 35-29;  “I Want to Be First!

“[Then the disciples] came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9: 33 -35).

They started arguing over which of them would be most famous. When Jesus realized how much this mattered to them, he brought a child to his side. “Whoever accepts this child as if the child were me, accepts me,” he said. “And whoever accepts me, accepts the One who sent me. You become great by accepting, not asserting. Your spirit, not your size, makes the difference” (Luke 9: 46-48).

“Then James and John, sons of  Zebedee, came to him, ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘we want you to do whatever we ask.’  ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ he asked.  They replied, ‘Let one of us sit at your right and the other at the left in your glory.’ ‘You don’t know what you are asking,’ Jesus said. ‘Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” “We can,” they said” (Mark 10: 35-39).

CHEWING

Don’t you feel embarrassed for these disciples? Jesus tries repeatedly to explain life in his Kingdom and what they are worried about is their status in that kingdom. In Matthew’s account (Matt. 20:20), they even hide behind their mother as she asks them to do her the favor of giving her two sons the highest leadership positions in his kingdom. Even if Jesus were just another political leader looking for senior advisers in his government, mother and sons look really greedy. But this was the Messiah, the one who walked on water, who healed all manner of physical and mental diseases, who fed thousands with a child’s lunch basket, who dared to contradict the most important religious leaders in the country!  How did they have the nerve to push themselves to the front and claim the highest positions in the movement?  

We may sign in relief and say, “At least I wouldn’t be dumb enough to do to that.”  But can we deny that we never hoped, “I wish I could be first (or best-dressed, smartest, most well-read, most popular, most religious?)” Can you identify with friends trying to one-up each other (better car, bigger house, best vacation, smarter children, best tennis game, most books read, better landscaping)?  What is the common denominator?  “Look at me. See how great I am.” Usually we are less obvious or more ingratiating than these blatant requests of Jesus by his disciples.  But our motivations are the same. 

DIGESTING

Jesus gives three different (but the same) answers to these gold diggers:

  • It is better to be last than first.  Greatness comes through service.
  • Become child-like. Accept your status and your position. Pushing to get ahead will get you nowhere.
  • “Drink my cup.” If you can’t go through what I go through, don’t even dream of serving next to me.

Jesus helps us become his apprentices by pointing us to the model of service, acceptance, and sacrifice.  The next time you catch yourself want to be seen as the best – or even the better – choose one his answers to the disciples and put it into practice.

MORE FOOD FOR THOUGHT

“The context of Luke heightens the absurdity of this debate among the disciples. Jesus has just announced His impending death (9:44) and He is about to set His face to go to that fate in Jerusalem (9:51). Sandwiched between these solemn pronouncements, the disciples bicker about which of them is the greatest! We will again encounter a similar episode at the Last Supper (22:24). But before we shake our heads and say, “How could they do that?” we need to acknowledge that we are made of the same fabric as the disciples; we struggle against the same problems. The fact that they got into a similar dispute on the eve of the crucifixion should also warn us that this isn’t a lesson that you learn once and store away in your file cabinet. It is a lesson that we must constantly apply” (bible.org website)

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Pack Horse Librarians

Every Monday morning, I stop by the North Branch of Herrick Public Library in Holland, Michigan. As I leave with a large and heavy bag full of books, I breathe a prayer of gratitude for libraries and librarians.

My love affair with libraries began early in my childhood, and by the time I was an 8th grader asked to research three possible occupations, I chose librarian (along with teacher and missionary). I eventually fulfilled that dream by volunteering in an amazing library offered by First Presbyterian Church in Flint. I was asked to help by someone who had seen me in the library every week after church.

My first memory with libraries outside of my elementary school was the Holland Public Library located on the top floor of city hall. It was a long walk up the stairs and the building was not air-conditioned. As a teen-ager I worked on a research paper in that library for Miss Van Dyke’s senior English class for so long that I fainted dead away. I woke up to see the head librarian kneeling over me with a glass of water. How embarrass- ing is that for a 16-year old!

In my 30’s we moved to the small town of Burr Oak with its tiny one room library. This library was the salvation for Kelly, my third-grader, who was so bored in school that he  carried two or three library books per day to read when he was done with his school work. If he didn’t have any books, he refused to go to school. I had to promise to take him to the library the next day it was open (about 3 days a week) before he would agree to go to school.

The Imlay City Library was right down the street from our house, next to the beauty shop and across from the hardware store.  I remember reading a series of books on the Queens of England by Jean Plaidy and being devastated when I came to the final book. This library is where I met my co-conspirator in a sustained campaign to begin a “gifted” program in the elementary school.  It came into place the year after my family left the district. 

 My next stop was the Lapeer County Library where my most important memory is the securing of office space in the basement of the administrative building for an adult literacy nonprofit that I had founded and a conference room in the main library in which I presented seminars on the work of Stephen Covey

The huge Flint Public Library was a big step up for me. Not only did it house thousands and thousands of books, it subscribed to every magazine and journal I had ever longed to read; I often plopped in an arm-chair to read them. I also remember systematically going through the many well-stocked VCR shelves for movies I had always wanted to see.

Finally we returned to Holland and I immediately got a library card for the North Branch of the Herrick District Library where every staff person now recognizes me. I make constant use via my computer of the library inter-loan system, the Lakeland Library Cooperative, made of 75+ local libraries in West Michigan. I pick up the Book Pages publication on the first of the month and add the want-to-read books to my computer- rized list of books (now numbering seven single-spaced pages!) to put on hold. If I can’t find a book I want there, I am just a click away from the stacks of the Library of Michigan which sends the books to my library for pick-up.

This love affair with libraries story was inspired by a story on NPR about the  Pack Horse Library Project, a Works Progress Administration pro- gram that delivered books to remote regions in the Appalachian Mountains between 1935 and 1943. It seems Eleanor Roosevelt was concerned about the children of the depression who would not have access to books. Unemployment in Appalachia was so widespread that an organization was funded to hire women who were paid $1 a day to deliver books to local communities on horseback. People who did have access to books donated their sometimes tattered books and magazines to the project. 

The women rented horses for 5 cents a day, loaded a pack of books that sat behind the saddle, and then followed paths or  animal trails or rivers through the woods to deliver the books. They also spent hours going through the donated books and magazines creating scrapbooks of recipes, how-to-do articles, children’s stories, etc. And since the children often couldn’t read, they tried to find time to read to them before they left for home. Even-  tually thirty libraries serving 100,000 people were founded before the program ended and the states took over the supervision of libraries.

The NPR story about pack horse librarians included an interview with a 97-year-old woman who spoke with pride about her involvement in the program. Sons and grandsons whose relatives had been librarians also spoke with enthusiasm about how they had not only brought books to the wilderness, but they also had contributed financially to the support of their families. 

From pack horses to internet websites and everything in between, cities and towns and their librarians have found a way to make books and information available to children and adults like me.  I will be forever grateful.

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Continual Renewal – The Renovare Way to Discipleship (Part 2)

This post is part 2 in a series based on the Renovare organizations covenant and “best practices.  See part 1 at https://livingasapprentices.com/2018/08/29/continual-renewal-the-renovare-way-to-discipleship-part-1/

The Renovare way to discipleship involves a  life-time of training in spiritual disciplines which arise from the six streams or traditions of the Christian church.  Here is a discipline from the Contemplative Tradition:

Common Discipline #1: By God’s grace, I will set aside time regularly for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading and will seek to practice the presence of God. 

I am not someone who has “quiet time” in the early morning. In fact, mornings are my most active and productive time; I get a lot done – and not much of it is quiet. So whenever someone mentions their early morning quiet time, I often flinch and wallow briefly in guilt. When my spiritual director first men- tioned the word “contemplative,” I visualized early morning prayer, Bible reading, or  sitting by a lake in silence , and I quickly said, “That’s not me.  I am not a contemplative!”

Joseph looked at me in amazement and said, “You are one of the most contemplative people I have ever met! You are always contemplating.” I was stunned – and without words, for once. After our conversation, I suddenly understood how my personality fits into the instruction to “set aside time” regularly for prayer, meditation and spiritual reading. It is true!  I am always contemplating: while reading, while watering plants, while doing dishes, while cooking, while changing sheets, while taking a shower – some of my most productive meditating is done in the shower! 

As my body does these everyday tasks, my mind is also active. I may ponder the latest Eugene Peterson quote to grab my attention. I compare my life and relationships with those in the latest novel I am reading. I wrestle with words and phrases and concepts and Scripture passages while plotting and then writing a blog post. I watch political reporting and documentaries and ponder on how my Christian principles fit into values and viewpoints expressed there. This whole pattern of life also fits another concept in this discipline: practicing the presence of God.

I think many of us have the same mis-conception I had about contemplation. We think we should be sitting quietly with a Bible or devotional book in hand. Of course that valuable style of meditation is a good habit to develop. But some of us contemplate just as easily  on our feet. A member of my spiritual formation group recently said that she is rarely successful at the stereotypical quiet time – she tends to fall asleep. “But,” she said, “I do a lot of reflecting while I am cooking or taking  a walk or even working with a client.” She said that she hoped that in our group she would learn to be contemplative. I couldn’t resist! I said, “You are contemplative. You are just doing it in a way that fits your personality and spiritual gifts. Her statement reveals her process of “practicing the presence of God.” Involving God in everything we think and do is practicing the presence of God.

But what about a dedicated prayer time, you may ask? I believe that prayer is simply communicating with God: speaking, thinking, listening, arguing, thanking, requesting, being silent. When we are in tune with all of these activities as we go about our day, we are praying. This kind of prayer is vital to our living out our Christian life in our families, our neighborhoods, and in the world around us.  Of course, it may sometimes be necessary to actually “set aside time” for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading. And some Christ-followers who have different personalities and gifts than I find great value in this formal practice. 

However, my more informal approach to this is discipline includes spending a few hours almost every afternoon reading the newspaper or a magazine or a novel or a Eugene Peterson sermon and thinking about how all of what I am learning fits into my apprenticeship to Jesus. Or I may spend hours working on a blog post in my mind or on the computer that requires Biblical study, reflection, and begging God for answers or for words to express what I am thinking. All of this can legitimately be called practicing the contemplative tradition.

And for now I no longer obsess about my failure to have a morning quiet time. 

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Becoming Me

“‘The most important thing God gets out of your life is the person you become’ (Dallas Willard). The person you become is largely unseen, although that person is constantly leaking out of your facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice when you are not trying to manage your appearance. The person you become is what you will take with you into eternity – which is currently in session and inviting you to walk on in.” (John Ortberg in the Afterword for Gary Moon’s book, Becoming Dallas Willard).

What a relief! My job is not to convert every non-believer I meet. My job is not to worry anxiously about doing the will of God. My job is not first to drive every sin from my life – or anyone else’s life.  My job is not to end world poverty.  My job is only to become me, the person I was created to be. And that’s what God wants from you as well. 

Not that this is an easy task! It is a difficult, lifelong journey which requires effort, training, and commitment. It does help explain, however, some of our thorniest theo- logical issues. For example, becoming me often requires my rubbing up against or step- ping into or being nearly overwhelmed with pain and suffering (which answers “Why does God allow suffering?”). Becoming me involves imitating Jesus, giving control of my life to God, and welcoming, listening, and obeying the Holy Spirit (which answers “What is the purpose of a three-in-one God?”). Becoming me involves risking relationships with diverse and not always lovely people (which answers “Why do we need community?”).

Becoming me means creating my best self. This adventure hinges upon my awareness and commitment to the moral code and philosophy of life as found in Scripture. Also crucial to becoming my best self is a willingness to root out all the deviations to that moral code and choosing to follow a different path than my selfish and needy ego may direct me to.  

Becoming me means finding my gifts, developing my intellectual and emotional muscles, being willing to absorb God’s presence through silence and solitude – and then taking all that into a world that desperately needs who I am. So yes, it will mean relating my faith to those who share my journey. It will involve living out the will of God. And, of  course, it will mean confronting sin and evil in the world around me. And yes, it will involve my participation in ending world poverty, or child trafficking, or illiteracy, or political depravity – or whatever cause I am led to. But, as Dallas Willard teaches us, those activities are not our first purpose; they are the result of who we become.

The best motivator for becoming me is John Ortberg’s delightful statement that “the  person you become is what you will take with you into eternity – which is currently in session and inviting you to walk on in.” What more motivation for spiritual formation could there be?

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From My Reading

In a world so torn apart by rivalry, anger, and hatred, we have the privileged vocation to be living signs of a love that can bridge all divisions and heal all wounds” (Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey).

♦   ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“For Christians, love is a universal obligation. We practice it toward all, believers and nonbelievers. Love as a social ethic puts into common practice what is right, just, and noble. It upholds freedom, dignity, and life as inalienable rights. Love is “as love does”(Rose Marie Berger in Sojourners, September-October, 2018).

♦   ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“There will come one day a personal and direct touch from God when every tear and perplexity, every oppression and distress, every suffering and pain, and wrong and justice will have a complete and ample and overwhelming explanation” (Oswald Chambers in My Utmost for  His Highest).  Recommended by Barbara Nyland.

♦   ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“I do believe that deep down somewhere in the center of ourselves we long to command our life from a place of radical simplicity. We hunger for a life that’s free of mixed motives and competing desires, we want to act and speak from a single, solitary place, from some subterranean aquifer of strength. The unencumbered life is not isolation and deprivation. It’s singleness and right stewardship. It’s a holy stewardship” (Jonathan Bailey in jonathanrbailey.com).

♦   ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

[Everyone has] “an unquenchable fire, a restlessness, a longing, a disquiet, a hunger, a loneliness, a gnawing nostalgia, a wildness that cannot be tamed, a congenital all-encompassing ache that lies at the center of human experience and is the ultimate force that drives everything else . . . Spirituality is, ultimately, about what we do with that desire, What we do with our longings, both in terms of handling the pain and the hope they bring us, that is our spirituality. . . . Augustine says “you have make us for yourself, Lord and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”  Spirituality is what we do with our unrest” (Ronald Rolheiser in The Holy Longing pgs. 4-5).

♦   ♦  ♦  ♦  ♦

“The sinful worship of Mammon does not consist in eating and drinking and wearing clothes, nor in looking for a way to make a living and working at it; for the needs of this life and of the body make food and clothing a requirement. But the sin consists in being concerned about it and making it the reliance and confidence of your heart. Concern does not stick to clothing or to food, but directly to the heart, which cannot let a thing go and has to hang on to it. . . .  Thus “being concerned” means clinging to it with your heart. I am not concerned about anything that my heart does not think about, but I must have a heart for anything about which I am concerned” (Martin Luther, quoted in Spiritual Classics, edited by Richard Foster and Emilie Griffin).  

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The Battle for the Soul of America

For three years now I have been fighting two battles, one physical and one spiritual.  The physical battle is against two diseases at war against my body: multiple myeloma, a treatable but incurable blood cell cancer which destroys the good blood cells in my body, and diabetes, a chronic condition that affects the way my body processes blood sugar (glucose). I continue to fight the battle being waged in my body. Chemotherapy will hold off the cancer cells for an unknown period of time. Insulin injected four times a day will help counteract the damage of spiraling blood sugar.

My spiritual battle has intensified as Donald Trump has forced his way onto the American political scene. That battle, also fought by my fellow spiritual formation sojourners, has been to try to see Donald Trump as one of us, a child of God who often goes astray and needs the prayers of God’s people to turn to and listen to his “better angels.” I often fought  to see the damaged child in our president and to find compassion for the way he is coping with his inner struggles. This battle I have decided to stop fighting.

The Bible is very clear about the battle between the powers of Good and Evil.  If we are at all self-aware we see that battle in ourselves every day. Henri Nouwen explains it clearly:

“When we look critically at the many thoughts and feelings that fill our minds and hearts, we may come to the horrifying discovery that we often choose death instead of life, curse instead of blessing. Jealousy, envy, anger, resentment, greed, lust, vindictiveness, revenge, hatred … they all float in that large reservoir of our inner life. Often we take them for granted and allow them to be there and do their destructive work” (Bread for the Journey).

Nouwen goes on to say that “it requires a great attentiveness to the death-forces within us and a great commitment to let the forces of life come to dominate our thoughts and feelings.”  

I have come to believe that our president and his many accomplices have given in to the death-forces within them and are aligned with the Evil One. My battle is to no longer try to summon up the compassion to pray for Donald Trump to change, but instead to pray that I become attentive to the “death forces” within me. Then I can do battle with the death-forces without that seem to control our government and our politics. This action can be the chemotherapy and insulin for my spiritual battle. 

I believe we all face this battle. How we fight depends, I suppose, on the level of influence we wield in our own worlds. Those who hold national office have a responsibility to speak out and legislate against government by lies and diversion and the politics of self-interest and revenge. Their responsibility is not to their own electability, but to the American people and the national values that have withstood the testing of nearly 250 years.

The rest of us have the responsibility of constantly searching for the truth – drilling down more than ever to find the facts in the fiery rhetoric. We have the responsibility to avoid being sucked into or fueled by Trump’s calculated nastiness or being motivated by his life-chilling (and sometime life-taking) policies. We must do battle against this self-centered presidency and its racist impulses and actions. 

In short, we must see the political war of 2018 as a war between good and evil, not simply as a virulent partisan dust-up. Jon Meacham has described this growing conflagration as a battle for the “soul of America.” I believe God is calling me to be a soldier in that battle. Where do you stand?

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“Continual Renewal” – The Renovare Way to Discipleship (Part 1)

RenovareYou would think I would remember the exact year during which my spiritual life totally changed!  But I only know that sometime in the late 80’s or early 90’s, I read Celebration of Disciplines (which celebrates its 40th birthday this year) and joined Renovare, an organization founded in 1988 by Richard Foster in Wichita, Kansas, to “advocate, resource and model the with-God life.”

Foster recruited his friends James Bryan Smith, Dallas Willard, Bill Vaswig and Marty Ensing to become early members of the Renovare team. You can read more about the history and goals of this organization on the Renovare website.Foster has been ribbed since the organization started about naming his organization something than no one could pronounce – Renovare. Having studied Latin for two years in high school I knew exactly how to pronounce it and what it meant: new again.  I was filled with anticipation because becoming new again was exactly what I was looking for. 

When I joined Renovare, I received a card which invited me to sign the Renovare Covenant which I did immediately.   The Covenant reads:

“In utter dependence upon  Jesus Christ as my everliving  Savior, Teacher, Lord and Friend, I will seek continual renewal through spiritual exercises, spiritual gifts, acts of service.”

I signed this covenant thoughtfully and with huge hope for co-creating with God a transformed life.   I have been at that task ever since. 

On the back of this membership card are six “Common Disciplines,” based on the six streams of Christianity explored in another Foster book, Streams of Living Water, Celebrating the Great Traditions of the Christian Faith, published in paperback in 2001.  I am currently part of a small spiritual formation group that is using the Renovare Spiritual Formation workbook, based on these traditions. I thought it would be interesting to use my blog occasionally to reflect on these six dimensions of faith and practice in the Christian tradition which have enriched my life. I anticipate that these posts will be my personal experiences and reactions, not an academic study of the disciplines. 

 The common disciplines are as follows:

Common Discipline #1: By God’s grace, I will set aside time regularly for prayer, meditation, and spiritual reading and will seek to practice the presence of God. (The Contemplative Tradition)

Common Discipline #2:  By God’s grace, I will strive mightily against sin and will do deeds of love and mercy.  (The Holiness Tradition)

Common Discipline #3:  By God’s grace I will welcome the Holy Spirit, exercising the gifts and nurturing the fruit while living in the joy and power of the Spirit. (The Charismatic Tradition)

Common Discipline #4: By God’s grace, I will endeavor to serve others everywhere I can and will work for justice in all human relations and social structures. (The Social Justice  Tradition)

Common Discipline #5: By God’s grace, I will share my faith with others as God leads and will study t he Scripture regularly.  (The Evangelical Tradition)

Common Discipline #6: By God’s grace I will joyfully seek to show forth the presence of God in all that I am, in all that I do, in all that I say.  (The Incarnational Tradition)

I hope you will join me in the journey of becoming new again through the practice of spiritual disciplines.

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“Nosey Neighbors”

You may have read my post entitled Insteadpublished on August 8 or a guest  “Learning from ‘Strangers’ Among Us.” on August 15 which responds to “Instead” by sharing a story about learning from refugees and immigrants.   On August 22,  I shared “Bags Full of Hope,” a success story about a  project carried out in just weeks by people in Holland, MI (with help from friends in other places) that demonstrates the power of “Instead” thinking. Today I present a comment on “Bags Full of Hope” by Thomas Tajian. This essay, which further develops the concept of strangers helping strangers, first appeared as an entry on his Facebook page. Thank you Thomas!

At this time when people are looking suspiciously at people who are different, I want to thank strangers for carrying to this point in my life. I am blessed with the things around me but would not be here or have these things but for people that I don’t know who came to my rescue and then disappeared. I am third generation full-blooded Armenian, and Armenians hold a grudge against Moslem Turks because of the genocide led by Talit Pasha at the turn of the century.

But a Moslem Turkish gendarme saved my aunts and grandmother by warning them of soldiers coming to look for them. My grandmother’s Turkish housekeeper hid them below the outhouse when soldiers came to her asking about them. A Moslem Turkish General protected my Grandmother as his servant as she went with him to the Turkish border by Aleppo to search for her children. A Moslem Syrian merchant picked up my aunt as she begged for help and carried her off to his place in Mosul and raised her as a daughter until my grandmother found her. An Moslem Iraqi judge hear my Grandmother’s case and gave my Aunt back to her for her to find her way, as many refuges did, through Europe, to America.

I would not be here if any of these and other strangers had not risked their lives to help my ancestors.In America, I would not be here if an Catholic Brother did not climb into the rubble of our tornado –wrecked 3 – decker to pull me out. There are people from all walks of life who carried me to this point. An old lady came out of Friendlies yelling at some hoodlums to leave me alone as they were beating me up when I was young. In college, a black lady banged her umbrella on the bus roof and yelling “let the Man out “ at the corner of Longwood and Huntington Ave in Boston after the bus doors closed on me and it began moving. My daughter might not be here if a rich man had not dived off the dock by the Yacht club to pull her out of the water in Manchester, MA.

There are other things that I also witnessed: I saw a woman in a wheelchair, wheel up to a fence in a parking lot on a cold winter day to allow a young African-American boy stand on her legs to unhook him from the cyclone fence that pinned him when he slipped while horsing around with his buddy. Twice, when I was tired at the end of a long workday when my wife was laid up, I came home to find help from unknown neighbors: Once there was a casserole on my porch and other time I found my animals tucked away in the barn. I never complained to anyone, but my “nosey neighbors” reached out. I still don’t know who did those things. Certainly not the government casserole agency.

Thank-you GOD for nosey neighbors, and strangers who love YOU regardless of their backgrounds. Thank-you that you did not wait for an agency to help or ask “who me?” but just did what was needed.

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