Who is Spiritual?

Apparently, we live in an age of increasing spirituality.  Magazines and websites are full of articles explaining how to increase the spirituality that is latent within each of us.  The advice is often connected to the diet we eat, the attitude we have toward others, or the practice of daily habits like meditation and prayer.  If only we could practice patience, tell the truth more, find something to believe in and join a spiritual community, then we would be more spiritual, or so we are told.

We live in a generation that seems to be obsessed with this kind of spirituality – one that is fashionably new, and yet at the same time, rooted in ancient practice.

Everything I have written so far could be written about your natural-food-eating, yoga-practicing colleague.  But it could also be describing someone totally different.  In John 3, Nicodemus came to speak with Jesus.  He was in many ways much more like the impressive moralist of two or three generations ago – that is, someone who looks impressive because of the standards they keep and the things they don’t do.  But still, in today’s terms, he is not unlike a 21st century spiritual leader.

Nicodemus believed there is a latent spiritual life within that can be cultivated and developed if you live well.  He ate a strict diet, had a certain attitude toward others, and was diligent with daily habits not unlike meditation and prayer.  He may have practiced patience, taken pride in his honesty, definitely believed something and been at the heart of a spiritual community.

He really was not a 21st century spiritual man, nor a 19th century moral man, but he was an impressive 1st century spiritual leader and example to others.  Nicodemus was morally impressive, highly educated, significantly influential and personally powerful.  In almost every respect he was at the top of the pile, and I suspect all of us would have been intimidated if we met him.

Jesus wasn’t intimidated, nor impressed.  Nicodemus wanted to talk spirituality with Jesus, but Jesus couldn’t talk spirituality with him.  Why?  Because, despite everything he had learned, achieved, cultivated and developed, he was yet to even begin being spiritual.  Jesus knows what is inside every man, and as he looked inside Nicodemus he saw absolutely no evidence of the presence of the Spirit of God.

This is a massively important point for us to remember – the spirituality of the New Testament is always absolutely defined by the presence of the Spirit of God.  It is not a quality latent in humans.  It is not something our meditating and travelling neighbor can develop outside of faith in Christ.  As Jonathan Edwards writes in his Treatise on Grace, spirituality is not given its name because it is connected to the soul or the spiritual part of humanity, but because it comes from the Spirit of God.  In fact, Edwards makes it clear that people who are not saved are not just lacking enough of the Spirit of God, they actually don’t have Him at all.

Why is it important for us to be clear that true biblical spirituality is completely wrapped up in the presence and influence of the Holy Spirit?

1. Spirituality outside of Christ? We must not be fooled into thinking that spirituality is a quality that some humans can develop more than others, and that they are doing so outside of Christ.  Hopefully you are clear that outside of Christ there is no access to true spirituality. However, there may well be people in your church who are not clear about that.  We live in an age where a certain kind of tolerance is celebrated, and so there will be young and biblically untaught believers in your church who assume all spirituality is genuine – after all, they have been trained by our age to not question the experience of others.  If our churches are going to be effectively evangelizing this generation with its version of spirituality, then we need to help people understand the radical and eternity-changing difference between human spirituality and true Christian spirituality.

2. Confused spirituality within the church?  It is not just how we view the world around us that matters.  We also need to be clear within the walls of our churches, too.  The church reflects its surrounding culture more than we realise.  I wonder how many people in our churches assume that spirituality is a quality that is latent within each person, which can be developed and grown by Christianised versions of non-Christian practices and ideas?  It could be the case that we have lots of Christians investing lots of energy into approaches to spirituality that are inherently missing the point.  For all their apparent Christian devotion, it could be that their healthy living, daily meditation and prayerful practices are more oriented to what they assume lies within them naturally, instead of fixing the gaze of their hearts on the person of Christ by the Spirit of God.

3. The profoundly personal nature of true Christian spirituality. Self-focused spirituality is not a 21stcentury invention.  It is not even an ancient idea originating with Eastern religions.  Self-focused spirituality goes right back to the Fall of humanity into sin.  We have a deep inner pull towards our own independence that goes back to Genesis 3.  We think we are alive when actually we are spiritually dead.  That was Nicodemus’ problem.  And apart from Christ, that is my problem.  In fact, even as Christians, because of our flesh, it is still our problem.

We need to ask God to grow in us a discernment concerning any spirituality that poits our hearts to self, rather than to Christ.  Let us thank God for His Spirit living within us, who always wants to pour out God’s love into our hearts and nudge our hearts to fix their gaze on Jesus. True Christian spirituality is not primarily about a quality within us, but about a person we love.  It is profoundly personal, and Christ will always be the focus when the Spirit of God is at work.

And if the Spirit of God is not at work, then call it what you like, but it isn’t spirituality.

Overflow Leadership: 2 Vital Ingredients

coffeecup2The great temptation in any leadership is to think that my leadership is about me.  It isn’t.  True leadership will be more concerned with those that I lead than me as the leader.  And true leadership will always recognize that I can only give what I have first received.

As I write this we are about to start into the fifth year of the Cor Deo full-time training program here in England.  It is a small ministry focused on mentoring and training participants to multiply ministry that will make a profound impact.  What can we give to these participants that we did not first receive?  Nothing.

The best leadership, the best mentoring, and the best teaching, will always be overflow leadership, overflow mentoring, overflow teaching.  That is, as I have received, so I can overflow to others.  The great danger for any leader, mentor, or teacher, is to start to think that our ministry comes from our own capacity, our own ability, or our own accumulated knowledge.

How can we avoid the subtle shift from overflow ministry to stagnant self-absorbed ministry? Here are two vital ingredients to protect us from this dangerous (and natural) shift:

1. Personal Gratitude. It is not enough to be grateful when nudged to be grateful.  We need to continually return to a place of gratitude as we give ourselves away in ministry.  Let’s be thankful for all the training we have received, conferences we have attended, books we have read, and mentors we have been blessed to spend time with.  Thankfulness reorients our hearts to God’s kindness toward us.

Actually, it is not just the obviously good gifts that have brought us to this place in our ministry.  Great ministry is typically forged in the crucible of significant challenges.  But without thankfulness, challenges typically bring only bitterness.  Let’s be thankful for all the difficult situations, setbacks, apparently unanswered prayers, opposition and disappointments.

Good ministry comes from overflow, not personal capacity (where I have learned, and I have accumulated, and I have become . . . the gravitational pull of our flesh will always reorient our hearts to self-praise).  Gratitude is a vital ingredient to maintaining healthy overflow ministry.

2. Spiritual Integrity. God has invested a lot into each one of us over the past years.  The obvious blessings, the careful character sculpting, etc.  Gratitude protects us from believing that we have made ourselves somebody significant.  But there is another issue that I hinted at already – the danger of stagnancy.  Past blessings can quickly grow stagnant if there is not a present reality to my spiritual walk.

I cannot dispense teaching or leadership from a reservoir that was filled twenty years ago, or even last month.  For all of that to be fresh today, it must be stirred by the present reality of a personal walk with Christ.  The Bible uses language of God pouring out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom.5:5).  Elsewhere Paul uses the present tense to speak of being filled with the Spirit (Eph.5:18).

God pours out His love into my heart and consequently I can love in leadership, in mentoring, in teaching . . . but if the gaze of my heart shifts from Him to myself, then my reservoir starts to drain down and grow stagnant.  Without the present reality, all the past investment loses its present value.

As I head into another season of ministry, I want to be grateful for all I have received, and make sure there is a present dynamic reality of abiding in Christ’s love so that I can overflow to others.  We cannot give anything of value that we did not first receive.  Not just what we received in the past, but also what God wants to give us today.

Resolved: No Resolutions

resolved2To finish this week of posts I want to re-visit one I wrote two years ago and develop it slightly.

Resolved: To make no New Year’s Resolutions for me to do, but to cling to the One who is at work in and through me according to His perfect plans for 2015.

A while back I really enjoyed reading the masterful biography of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden.  It is fascinating to see the early resolutions of Edwards give way to a mature spirituality that was delighted in and by Christ later in his life.

Let’s face it, there are so many good resolutions that we could make as we head into another New Year.  Bible reading commitments, wider reading plans, personal prayer schedules, pursuit of ministry training ideas, grow theologically intentions, find a mentor strategies, evaluation and feedback gathering plans, sermonic self-improvement schemes, pastoral ministry visitation goals, personal fitness/diet/exercise/rest regimes, family scheduling tactics, and on the list goes.

All of these would be good ideas.  But making these determined and resolute teeth-clenched-and-muscles-flexed kind of personal commitments may well not be the best way to go.  That is, if we aren’t the autonomous self-made individualists that our culture and our fallen world like to convince us that we are.

Our life and ministry is much more about response to God’s Spirit at work in our lives than it is about our responsibility to act like the god of our own lives.  We are not the captain of our own destiny.  We are not sheriff of Me-ville.  We are lovers defined by who and what we love.  And as those who know and love the Triune God, we are in the best possible place to face a new year of uncertainties, trials, complexities and challenges.

My loving response to God’s love for me will result in some determined lifestyle choices and evidences of personal discipline.  This will also be true in my married life too – my loving response to my wife will look disciplined and diligent.  But I won’t talk about it in those terms.  At one level there is no real sacrifice involved in responding to the God we have.  Yes, it may look costly at times, but from the perspective of a captured heart?

As we head into 2015, let’s hold all our resolutions with a very loose grip, but squeeze tightly on the hand of Him who holds us, our families, our ministries and our year ahead in the palm of His hand.

Can we even begin to imagine what our Lord might do in us and through us in 2015?  Exceedingly, abundantly beyond all that we ask or even imagine . . . and certainly more than we can achieve by our own self-determined productivity and improvement plans!


Three Possibilities Preaching Psalms

OpenScroll16PsalmsAs I am reading through the Bible I am currently in the Psalms – what a great book!  Sadly, for some, Psalms seems to be preached only as filler material in the summer holidays.  There is so much potential for preaching in the book of Psalms.  Let me offer three possibilities opened up by preaching from this book:

1. You can introduce new treasure to people.  People tend to be familiar with some Psalms.  Probably 23.  Perhaps 24, 1, 110, 121, 127, 51, 8, 73, 37, 27.  But what about Psalm 36?  Or 33?  There is a whole host of Psalms that tend to get ignored in the annual audition for three filler sermons.  And don’t just stick to the filler sermon approach.  Why not preach Psalm 34 at the start of a series on 1Peter?  It certainly was in the mind of the apostle as he wrote his epistle.  Why not preach Psalm 118 in connection with Easter?  It might add a new set of thoughts to the Easter considerations since Jesus would very likely have sung that with his disciples at the last supper.

2. You can connect with a different group of people.  It may be a stereotype, but some have suggested that engineers enjoy epistles.  They like the truth statements, logical flow, direct discourse.  So if that is the case, who might appreciate the Psalms?  Artists?  Sure, and there are more of them than we tend to realise in every congregation.  How about the suffering?  Certainly.  Psalms connects with different people at different times in the complexities of each personal biography.

3. You can offer a more vulnerable sermon.  When David wrestles with spiritual realities, why not be more open that we do too?  Personal sin struggles, doubting God’s goodness, tendency to trust in ourselves, feelings of extreme fatigue, etc.  We don’t preach to preach ourselves, but we ourselves do preach.  The Psalms opens up the possibility of greater vulnerability from the preacher, and hopefully stirs vulnerability in the congregation.  The Psalm writers didn’t treat God as delicate or fragile, they blasted their prayers at Him.  Perhaps we can stir greater prayer in churches that tend to pray religiously, and Psalms would be a worthwhile workshop for that kind of goal.

Prayer and Preaching

PrayingThe sermon is coming and the preacher is praying.  Sometimes this can be really passionate prayer.  Sometimes there can be a sense of a spiritual breakthrough.  Praying for the message, for the church, for the people, for the lost!  This can be a time of great excitement and great expectation.  And this can be a time of intense battle.  We fight not against flesh and blood, but against the forces of evil.  And in the intensity of battle the expectation for devil-destruction in the power of the glorious grace of the gospel can increase.

Then comes the sermon and it can all feel so, well, normal.  The sermon goes ok, and the listeners say nice things, but this wasn’t what you prayed for and longed for and hoped for.  It is just normal.

It is easy to let the normal-ness of ministry diminish our sense of expectation.  After a while it can become as if  we don’t really expect people to be transformed or the Spirit of God to be at work.  This is understandable, but it is wrong.  As Haddon Robinson once put it, “we’re handling dynamite, and we didn’t expect it to explode!”

The Spirit of God is at work, the Word of God is powerful, and whether we see it or not, we should prepare and pray with great expectation.  (What about the disappointments and struggles that come internally after we preach?  We pour them out to God and then press on, daring to dream again, daring to pray big and preach big for a big God!)

Preach the glorious gospel into the normal world of life and church.  Preach the wonder of God’s grace so that it connects with people in normal world.  But don’t preach as if preaching is just normal.  It is not.  It is a moment where the character of God is held forth in His self-revealing Word to draw hearts and lives into profound transformation.  This life changing process may feel normal all too often, but it is not normal.  It is supernatural.

Why Do We Preach 4

why preach2Here are another pair of thoughts as we reflect on the why? behind the ministry.  Perhaps these two should give more pause for thought than the others already posted?

7. Because we can’t help but speak of Someone so wonderful.  This should be the case.  Sadly, over time, it can easily cease being the case.  We can end up in a role, in a ritual, in a rut.  We end up preaching because that is what we do, or that is how we pay bills, or that is how we get respect.  We feel we should.  We feel it is expected.  We know it is needed.  And somewhere along the way we fail to notice the fog gathering between our hearts and heaven.

A growing spiritual complacency is the proverbial frog in boiling water syndrome for preachers.  God can become familiar and distant at the same time.  He can become a concept, a set of truths, a source of identity for us, but somehow fade from being the captivating One who so fills our hearts and lives that we can’t help but speak of Him.  May we all have a constant stream of newly engaged folks in our churches – constant reminders of the simple reality that a captivated heart can’t help but spill out.

8. Because we care about the people to whom we preach.  Again, this should be the case.  Sadly, over time, our flesh can easily co-opt the other centredness of ministry and turn it to a self-serving project.  We can become preachers doing so to gain respect, to gain credibility, to gain attention, to gain a following, to gain influence.  The gain increases and the give becomes token.  Of course we can talk about giving – we can frame the ministry in self-sacrificial and spiritual terms.  But really?

Just as spiritual fog can go undetected for too long, so a growing self-absorption is hard to spot in the mirror.  Our flesh will always justify a subtle pursuit of godlike status.  So we must keep walking with the Lord and ask Him to search us and know us.  Ask Him to underline the motivations that drive what may look like a gloriously giving ministry.  The true biblical preacher is shaped by the Word they preach, and they join God in giving of themselves as they preach it to others.  The blessings are hard to quantify, but they must be the by-product, not the goal.

Truth Through Personality 6

Personality Face2I have been blogging about the basic requirement that preachers should themselves evidence growing fruit of the Spirit in life and ministry.  It is a disaster when the truth of the gospel is undermined by a perceived lack of Christlike character in the preacher.

So we’ve gone through the fruit of the Spirit in pairs, but we skipped the first.  Or did we?  Perhaps the four pairs lay out what that first fruit looks like.

It shows in the joy that comes from resting in the goodness of God, and the peace of healthy ordered relationships with God and others.

It is patient in trusting God’s work in the lives of others who often need longer than we feel is necessary (just as we do too!), with a kindness that is giving for the good of those also still in process.

It has an inherent goodness that reflects the profound quality of God’s character, as well as the gentleness that is fitting for someone reflecting God’s manner of authority.

It has a faithfulness that speaks of both trusting and persisting for that which is good and right, while always retaining the appropriate self-control of a life lived in the desires of the Spirit rather than the impulses of the flesh.

We have had several interrupted nights in a row as a virus has worked through our family.  The loss of sleep does add a certain strain to daily life!  Under pressure, does the fruit of the Spirit show?  I’m sure I am not the only one who wishes it showed more.  But the solution isn’t to strain in my own effort to look good under pressure, the solution is to grow as one walking in step with the Spirit.  I hope that my preaching next week, next year, in twenty years time, will show a more Christlike personality than it does now.  I’m sure I’m not the only one.

Truth Through Personality 5

Personality Face2The preacher preaches, and so the preacher matters.  A personality that doesn’t reflect the fruit of the Spirit, the character of Christ, is a personality undermining the truth being proclaimed.  So let’s finish the list…

Faithfulness – The issue with faith is always the object.  We can’t have faith in ourselves, our skills, our preparation, our training, our gifting, etc.  And we can’t place our faith in the audiences, whatever their size.  Our faith has to be in God.  This points back to patience, but it is more than that.  Not only do we keep pressing on over time, but we also need to demonstrate faithfulness in every circumstance.  We may be preaching to hundreds or thousands one day, and to a handful the next.  Our faithfulness should show in both situations.  We are trusting God and giving our best to the tiny gathering, and we are trusting God not the occasion with the larger gathering.

Faithfulness in preparation means we don’t offer shoddy sermons.  Faithfulness in accepting bookings means we follow through.  Faithfulness in delivery means we give ourselves fully, even if it does mean being wiped out at the end.

Self-Control – It is so easy to do damage with your words.  You can say too much, violate privacy, twist the truth, deceive, belittle others, etc.  And all before you pause for thought.  Self-control is a critical fruit of the Spirit for biblical preachers.  Keeping a tight rein on our tongues is so important.  I read somewhere about the ancient wisdom that the human tongue is like an arrow, not just a sword.  That is, if you unsheath your sword to kill your friend, he may plead with you, beg for mercy and you may return the sword to its sheath.  But once an arrow is shot, you simply cannot return it to the quiver, no matter how much you want to do so.

Joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.  The fruit of the Spirit.  Required for preachers.  But one is missing . . . tomorrow.

Attention! Strategy…

If you haven’t got the attention of your listeners, then they aren’t really listeners, and you’re not really preaching to them.  I know there are all sorts of factors influencing the preaching event, and we’ll probe some of those later in the week.  But to be super simple, here’s a principle we should all take on board:

People listen if they want to, so make them want to . . . 

How can we do this?

1. Relevance.  I think the preacher needs to prove as early as possible that the preacher, the message and the passage is relevant to the listeners.  Introduction is critical here.  But then there needs to be a continual re-proving of relevance throughout.  Don’t leave “application” until the last few minutes, they probably won’t be with you by then.  Demonstrate relevance all the way through.  This includes lots of factors, but the content is critical.  Historical lecture, theological diatribe, rant against them out there, etc., are all felt to be irrelevant to listeners in the church setting.  Speak to us.

2. Interest.  When the content is interesting, people are more likely to pay attention.  Never bore people with the Bible.  Be interesting.  Does that mean we rush to our illustration sources?  Hang on.  The Bible is interesting.  Too many preachers preach dull Bible enlivened by interesting anecdotes and stories.  This may be less dull preaching, but it is not interesting biblical preaching.  Communicate the content well, and use explanations, proofs, applications, when they are genuinely helpful.  Make sure the core of the content is interesting.

3. Accessibility.  If it is completely over their heads, they won’t listen.  If it is patronizing and trite, they will get annoyed and also stop listening.  Make it appropriately accessible for the level of those present.

4. Energy.  Getting attention has a lot to do with delivery as well as content.  Your energy matters.  When we stand in front of a crowd, our natural instinct is to become limited.  Seek to break out of that monotonous box and be yourself with appropriate energy for the occasion and your personality.  This means eye contact, facial expression, vocal variety, movement and gestures.  If you are enthused and have an appetite for it, they have a chance of catching it.  If you don’t have the disease, you’ll struggle to be contagious.

5. Warmth. Energy in delivery is not about a show or a performance.  It is about the real you communicating with them.  One key ingredient is your personal warmth.  If you come across as cold, they won’t lean in to what you are saying.  Simple.  Represent the gospel in your manner and tone, as well as in the precision of your content.

6. Spirituality.  People can sense when you have the spiritual gravitas that comes from being with Jesus.

More to add, but I’ll leave it there.  Tomorrow we’ll consider some of the illegitimate approaches people take to get attention.


Faint Not: The Discouraged Preacher 3

Yesterday we looked at some of the causes of discouragement.  But what should we do about it?  Maybe one or more of these suggestions might be the prescription for your particular situation:

1. Cry Out to God.  God was never a huge fan of our independent autonomy, in fact, that notion of functioning apart from Him came with a hiss.  Yet in our upside-down world we can so easily assume that the right response is to grit our teeth and press on, not bothering God with our struggle, but somehow proving something by our faithfulness.  Uh, no.  What we prove by such independent proaction is anything but faithfulness.  Faithfulness carries an implicit sense of trusting dependence upon, and responsiveness to, God.  We are not being faithful when we leave Him out, even if everything we do is technically right.

So while our flesh may urge us to press on alone, our hearts should cry out to God.  Be real with Him.  He is not delicate. He is not easily offended.  Look at the prayers coming from Job, Jeremiah, David, et al., as they vented heavenward in the Hebrew Scriptures.  Why do we think we shouldn’t do the same?  God is not offended by our venting frustration or expressing fear.  He probably is hurt by our stony silence, however.  Cry out to God.  Be honest.  Be real.  Tell Him you need Him.  Express utter dependence.  Express utter frustration with Him if that is the case.  When you’ve poured your heart out and all your strength is gone, lying face down before Him completely spent, then perhaps He’ll pick you up and ask if you are prepared to trust Him.  To serve Him.  To be His.  Like a fire in my bones, as Jeremiah wrote, I have to preach.

2. Cry Out to Another.  Just as our flesh likes to go it alone on the vertical dimension, so we are prone to going it alone on the horizontal.  It isn’t appropriate to blab our problems to everyone.  But it also isn’t appropriate to share our problems with no-one.  Prayerfully consider who would be a wise confidante in a time of discouragement.  Be careful not to slip into gossip or slander, but be willing to be vulnerable with someone who cares, who will pray, who might offer wise counsel, who will give courage to move forward.

Tomorrow we’ll add to the list, but feel free to add your thoughts at any time.