My Critique of Christian Republicanism

The History of this Article

I began writing this piece shortly after the Primary races began. It started as a piece I hoped would spark dialogue between my Republican friends and I, but because I am slow to marshall thoughts, and even slower to share them, this article quickly lost relevance to the event which first inspired it. I kept it in the queue, thinking I’d roll it out in four years as a timely piece before the next round of circus.

Then I read this article by Wayne Grudem and it suddenly became relevant again. Now, you have to understand, Mr. Grudem has been highly influential in my life. His book, Systematic Theology, has been informative and inspirational and almost convinced me to pursue a Doctorate in Systematic Theology. So my first inclination, after reading an article which sickened and angered me, was to check myself. Was I mistaken? Would Hilary really be as bad as he prophesys? Can we really make the leap to saying that voting for any Democrat in any election is an immoral choice?

I don’t think so. In fact, in his article, Mr. Grudem exemplifies the sort of Nationalistic Christianity that caused me to write this article initially. I’m heartened by the number of responses to Mr. Grudem’s article by people of my generation (Millennials) because they have been kind, considerate and respectfully defiant. We are carving out new ways of understanding how our faith interacts with politics — and I’m thrilled. This will likely put us at odds with older generations of Believers, but that doesn’t mean we love Jesus (or our moms and dads) any less. We are just insisting that loving Jesus does not also mean we need to love Republicanism.

The Purpose of this Article

I wrote this article with the hope of making people think about their faith in God, their understanding of the Bible and how those two things interact with their political inclinations and the issues in our world. I’m troubled at how easily people on either side of the aisle claim to follow Christ and yet their opinions and legislative decisions rarely align with the Christian faith. More troublesome is the commingling of the words Christian and Republican, as though the two were one and the same. Therefore, into the cess pool of political opinion on the Internet, I respectfully submit my thoughts.

The Political Nature of the Gospel

The Gospel is political, there is no getting around it. When Mark the Evangelist first penned the words, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ,” there was already a Gospel in circulation, the Gospel of Tiberius Caesar, son of the gods. Mark’s assertion was that there was a new Emperor who actually was the Son of God and Mark wrote about his exploits. This Good News was a direct threat to the existing government and much of the persecution of early Christians was due to the political nature of their message. If the Gospel no longer threatens, critiques or corrects the worldly political system, then it is no longer the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In many ways we find ourselves in the place of Joshua in Joshua 5. Joshua has just finished praying and he looks up to see an angel standing before him with his sword drawn. Joshua gets up, goes to the angel and says, “Are you for us or our enemies?” The angel replies, “Neither. I am the commander of the armies of the Lord.” In essence, the angel asked Joshua, “Who’s side are YOU on?” Oftentimes we think there are only two sides to an issue and we are relatively certain God sides with us. Yet it is often the case that God has his own side and we must make the choice to align with him.

My goal in this article is to explore that third way of God, the one that is greater and more comprehensive than either the Republicans or Democrats can understand. I will fall far short of doing it proper justice, but if I can start a respectful and thoughtful discussion than all of the labor that went into the writing of this piece will be worth it.

My Background

I was raised in a Republican home. I think I’ve maintained a good portion of my conservative values while still being able to acknowledge that there are important things besides fiscal responsibility and the sanctity of life. Because of my upbringing, I have a fondness for the Republican party that I don’t have for the Democratic one. In an interesting emotional and theological twist, that fondness compels me to be a fierce critic of the GOP, especially the wing that identifies itself as Conservative, Evangelical Christian. Because I am more familiar with the Republican mindset and ideals, the bulk of this article will be addressed to them. It is my hope that a more Democratically aligned Christian will offer a similar critique of that party. I do hope that you will be patient and at least attempt to understand my arguments wherever you fall along the political spectrum. Additionally, I’d love for you to leave your corrections and comments below.

The Issues

  • Abortion – I think the basic thinking on this issue is solid. Life is precious, sacred. According to the Gospel of Luke, John the Baptizer was able to recognize the life of Jesus (who was little more than a zygote at the time) when he was 6 months in the womb. It is amazing that a child, 6 months in utero, would have that kind of discernment. Even more amazing is that he was able to recognize the personhood and divine nature of Jesus who was less than 3 weeks old. To be “Pro Life” is to be “for life” in all of its stages. Republicans need to up their game dramatically when it comes to caring for teenage moms, single parents, foster parents and children, adoptive families and families with lots of kids. It is unethical and immoral to guilt someone into carrying a child full term and then effectively abandon them once the child is born.
  • Death Penalty – Again, to be “Pro Life” is to be “for life” in every regard. State sanctioned murder is still murder. Furthermore, the sentence over some of these people is questionable at best. Can we really claim to represent the One who said, “the Son of Man did not come to destroy life, but to bring life to the earth” (Luke 9:55) and kill the innocent? Isn’t it better to leave that level of judgment in the hands of God? Do we need violent criminals off the streets? Absolutely. But it is best to remember that “an eye for an eye” makes the whole world blind.
  • The Environment – This is also an issue of life – the life of the planet. We claim that God created the air we breath, the water we drink and the ground we stand upon. Doesn’t that make those things sacred? Can we really claim to love God and desire to be good stewards of all he has given us and defile the planet at the same time? I’m not even going to touch the issue of climate change because it is a tertiary issue. I think many of us are living in denial about what really happens to the junk we put in the trash can — where do we think that goes? As we continue to uncover how harmful plastics are to human health, do we not think that those same chemicals will harm the lives of other things on this planet or the planet itself? Yes, we believe in a new creation – a new heaven and new earth – but there is also the principle of being faithful with what you’ve been given so that you can be entrusted with more and better things. After all, doesn’t the Bible say that the Earth waits in eager expectation  for the children of God to be revealed so that it will be liberated from its bondage to decay? (It does, see Romans 8:19-21) That means your status as a child of God will, in part, be measured by the amount of freedom and health you bring to this planet.
  • Guns and the Second Amendment – I get it — guns don’t kill people, people kill people and guns are just a tool. And yet this tool has one intended purpose, to fling a piece of lead at high velocity into flesh, be it human or animal, in order to injure or kill. The purpose of this tool is to kill and the only time it does “good” is when it kills bad people. Killing bad people is still killing. Jesus did command his disciples to arm themselves in Luke 22:36-38, but when they tried to use their swords, Jesus rebuked them and undid the damage they caused. Jesus never taught his disciples when it was appropriate to use violence and we don’t see the Apostles carrying weapons at any other point in the New Testament. In fact, they quite readily offered themselves up to be beaten, even martyred. Throughout the world, unarmed and powerless Christians are changing the world in the face of great persecution and yet the Church thrives. They walk in a level of authority we can’t comprehend in the West and they do it through pacifism. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor committed to pacifism in Nazi Germany. After much internal struggle, Bonhoeffer eventually decided to participate in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He failed, however, and the surge of confidence this failed attempt gave to Hitler had catastrophic results. I do think there are times when bad men need to die, but I’m not certain any of us have the wisdom to know when that is and what the repercussions may be. The best we can do is act on what seems best to us and trust in a Merciful God. On the whole, however, guns seem quite unnecessary for civilians.
  • Sanctity of Marriage – What are we really trying to protect in our legislative efforts to define marriage as “between one man and one woman”? Are we really trying to protect the sanctity of marriage or are we trying to protect our right to file taxes jointly and be privy to our partner’s medical information? If we were really trying to protect the sanctity of marriage, shouldn’t we also limit people to just being married once? We would probably be best served by rewriting our nation’s laws concerning marriage. Marriage is a religious institution with intense spiritual repercussions — it isn’t an issue the government has any jurisdiction over (remember Braveheart?). If two people choose to merge their lives through a governmental procedure so that they can file taxes together and get some other benefits, can we really say no to that? What Christians insist on is a spiritual truth — that marriage is sacred and strictly defined and that anyone who doesn’t treat it that was hurts themselves in the short term and long term, but can we really legislate that? Just as the government should have no say in who can get married in a church, the church should not have a say in who gets married in the government. (Separation of church and state is kind of our big idea in America.)
  • Caring for the hungry, thirsty, immigrants, the poor, the sick and those in prison – Sorry for the giant, run on category, but these things all fit together in God’s Book. Take the case of Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. The Sheep are those who will enter into Life in the Kingdom of God and the Goats are those who will be punished for eternity – what distinguishes the two groups? How they treated the people mentioned above. Look, Biblically speaking, to reject immigrants is to reject Christ. To deny the sick access to healthcare is to make Jesus suffer. To refuse to care for the hungry, the thirsty and the poor is to refuse to care for Christ. Not devoting time, energy and resources to rehabilitate and free those in prison means that God won’t do that for you (“forgive us as we forgive…”). As individuals, it is impossible to do all those things, but not for a group. Until the Conservative Evangelical wing of the Republican party pushes for these things to be major agenda items, the Republican party cannot claim to have the moral high ground and cannot claim to represent Christ.
  • Taxes – Flat taxes across the board seem to be the standard Biblical procedure. The Temple Tax was the same fee for every person, no matter their income and the tithe is 10% wether you make $50,000 or $500,000. However, Jesus also says that “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required.” God expects those who have been blessed with wealth will use it to bless others.
  • Military Spending – I get that we, as a nation, need an army. But can we Christians at least acknowledge our hypocrisy? It is hard to justify a national army when Jesus said to turn the other cheek. We spend an enormous amount of money on our military, almost beyond comprehension. Why? The majority of the nations that could potentially pose a threat to us are already allies and we have plenty of guns. Can we cut back on some of that spending and use some of it to help the people that hate us? Then, maybe, they wouldn’t hate us so much and we could cut back some more in a few years. Also, can we redirect that funding to take better care of our soldiers and their families? If someone is going to put their life on the line for me, whether I want them to or not, they deserve to be well taken care of.
  • America is a Christian Nation – Can we please drop this rhetoric? America is not a Christian nation and never has been. At least, I pray to God it isn’t and has never been. The United States was indeed founded by many Christians, but were we representing Christ when we massacred indigenous peoples and stole their land? Or were we living out the command to love our neighbor as ourselves when we forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of people from their countries and forced them into slave labor and subjected them to humiliating forms of abuse and poverty? What about when we repressed and belittled women even though there is clear and compelling Biblical evidence of women in leadership in the Bible? What about when we prohibited the sale of alcohol in this country in clear contradiction of Scripture? Jesus blessed the drinking of wine, he made it a Sacrament for crying out loud. It is our uncomfortable reality that the times of greatest church attendance in our nation have coincided with the greatest amounts of racism, sexism, bigotry, violence and hypocrisy. If that is what it means to be a Christian nation then I want none of it.

The real difficulty is that Christianity was never intended to be a ruling religion. We have always been at our best under the pressure of persecution, exerting our influence and the Kingdom of God as salt, light and leaven. When Constantine made Christianity an official religion in the Roman Empire it was hailed as a major victory by the Church. But only because they were deceived into thinking they could make the kingdom of this world into the Kingdom of Our God by political maneuvering and military might. Until Jesus returns there can and will be no Christian nation. That doesn’t mean we don’t try to make the world better. It just means we do what we can to represent God well and that we shouldn’t overstep our bounds and go beyond what is written in the Word about the Kingdom of God on the Earth. Last time I checked, Israel was the only nation God had covenanted with in the Bible. He agreed to preserve them and he has, but they are the only ones who can claim divine support.

  • Israel – Speaking of Israel, let’s not confuse our support of the Jewish people with the support of the Israeli government – they are not the same. The Israeli government has some real problems they need to answer for. We must creatively support the Jewish people and God’s intentions while also holding the Israeli government to high moral standards, or at least the ones we read in the Bible.
  • Racism –  When I first wrote this article I had thought the tide was turning, that white Christians were beginning to see how racist our systems, structures and institutions were. I no longer think that. Instead I hope and pray that God will soften our hearts and allow us to bear the burden our black brothers and sisters have carried for so long.  As a white male, I could very easily ignore this issue and carry on with my life with no problems. But as a Christian, racism is a forced issue. Jesus is a Jew and the Lamb that was Slain purchased people for God from every nation, tribe and tongue. Our Father has decided that he wants a large, ethnically diverse family and he paid a high price to secure it. Now he commands us to “love one another”. As long as walls of hostility and racism stand we can never represent the heart of God in its fullness.

Closing Thoughts

As long as this article is, it represents just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to be said on each item I addressed and far more items besides those listed here. My hope is that my thoughts sparked something within you and I would love to know what it is. I hardly believe this is the final word on each of these topics and I’d love to hear your thoughts. Thanks for taking the time to read this. If you felt it was helpful, please consider sharing it with others who might appreciate it.

Ben

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Black Lives Matter, All Lives Matter

The first rule of Fight Club is “you don’t talk about fight club.”

However, the first rule of Debate Team is “you must talk about your opponents ideas — you must talk about them so much you understand them inside out and can make their points better than they do.” Because it is only after close listening and careful understanding that two people (or more) can explore the merits and drawbacks of particular ideas. A debate is supposed to be a single conversation about a single idea, not two monologues happening in tandem. [/end rant]

As I continue to think about what is going on in our country, read articles and survey my Facebook feed, there seems to be a lot of talking past one another. Each group insists on its own point, but these two points aren’t mutually exclusive.

I’ll freely admit that I am a newcomer to this conversation, so please keep that in mind.

Black Lives Matter

The “Black Lives Matter” Campaign came into being after George Zimmerman was acquitted for killing Trayvon Martin. The campaign highlighted that a civilian killed another civilian for “looking suspicious”and also drew attention to racial profiling. The campaign gained national attention when it mobilized to protest the way Michael Brown’s body was treated after he was killed in August 2014. Brown’s body lay uncovered in the street for hours after the event while police officers chatted nearby. Was the area an active crime scene where investigation was needed? Absolutely. But it was hard to shake the image of a young man’s body being treated as nothing more than road kill.

As I understand it, the Black Lives Matter Campaign is the advocacy of basic human rights for black people. They want to be treated with the same level of dignity that people of other backgrounds are treated with. Essentially, they want to be treated as human beings, not as something less than that. The Black Lives Matter Campaign insists that black people should be treated equally and that will require an overhaul of our political justice system (policing, sentencing, enforcement and more). Black Lives Matter is not an attempt to say that black people are better or deserve special treatment, it is an assertion that black lives matter as much as white lives, asian lives — really any human life.

The Black Lives matter campaign believes that all lives matter. The reason they are drawing attention to how the Black community is treated is because they can document how the black community is being treated differently that other communities in terms of surveillance, arrests, sentencing and profiling. In other words, they are drawing attention to the fact that, in American today, black lives don’t seem to matter as much as other lives.

All Lives Matter

The All Lives Matter Movement started as a protest to the Black Lives Matter Campaign. Those who started the All Lives Matter movement felt like the folks at Black Lives Matter were campaigning for special treatment for black people. They felt the statement “Black Lives Matter” insinuated that other lives did not matter and that BLM was using media coverage to heighten racial tension for the purpose of anarchy and discord.

Those in the All Live Matter movement believe that all lives matter, that people should be treated the same regardless of race. They believe that drawing attention to someone’s race  only fuels racism and division. Those who are a part of All Lives Matter want people to love one another regardless of race or background. In fact, they don’t even want to talk about race or background, they just want to love people.

In other words

In other words, the All Lives Matter camp says “Black lives don’t matter more than other lives” while the Black Lives Matter camp says “Black lives don’t matter less than other lives”. So if we’re all saying the same thing then what is the big deal?

The Real Issue

The real issue is about the importance of race in human interactions. The All Lives Matter camp says that race and background don’t matter, that we should treat people as people and love them the best we can. While I believe most people in the Black Lives Matter camp would say they agree with that idea in theory, they can’t help but look at the inequality of the political justice system.

If we truly believe that people are the same — that white people are just as likely to obey or break the law as black people — then our prisons should represent that. There should be a breakdown in prison population that is roughly equivalent to the population breakdown of the country, but there isn’t. While blacks account for roughly 13% of the U.S. population, they account for 24% of the prison population. Is that because black people are more prone to lawbreaking and rebellion? No. It is because they are more likely to be sentenced for it.  Additionally, when we compare the severity of sentencing for similar crimes we find out that black people are penalized more for doing the same things as white people.

Then there is the whole issue of classifications for crimes. Why is it that the drugs prevalent in the black community are considered worse offenses than the drugs most typically found in the white community?

Lastly, the Black Lives Matter Campaign is helping us to see how deeply embedded racism still is in our culture. As individuals we may not be racist, but we support structures and systems that are. For instance, who decided that “nude” was peach colored instead of plum colored — whose nude body are we talking about? Also, why do bandaids disappear on my skin rather than stand out? They could literally be any color — the adhesive works just the same — so why choose tan? Also, why is “tan” tan? My friend Quovadis’s tanned skin looks very different than mine.

I very much believe that all lives matter and I want to love people equally, without prejudice or distinction — but I know I don’t. I live in a world that assumes “white” is normal, the baseline against which everything and everyone else is compared. So the only way I feel like I can really love people equally is by acknowledging that their lives are different than mine, in part because of their decisions, but mostly because of how people perceive them based on their race. I wish it weren’t so, and one Day it won’t be, but Today it is.

The important thing to remember, though, is that while we may start in different places, we are moving in the same direction. We are companions on the journey towards equality and love. The narrow road is wide enough for us to walk side by side if we are willing. But that willingness can only come from careful listening and the desire to understand. We differ on methods, not the goal — it is good to remember that.

As always, thanks for reading friends.

Ben

Overcoming Indifference

I’m finding it very difficult to be a happy Pastor this morning.

Last night a friend asked me, “Are you going to be talking about what happened this week on Sunday?” Since I’ve been on a media fast this week I had to ask him, “What’s going on?” He then proceeded to tell me about the shootings in Louisiana, Minnesota and Texas. I came in to my office this morning to look up the stories and try to wrap my head around them. I haven’t been able to so far.

7 people dead and 7 people wounded in senseless acts of violence. I watched one man die in the front seat of his car and another die lying in the dirt. I watched thousands of peaceful protesters run in fear as officers were picked off one by one. Meanwhile, our political circus continues its freak show and our new President will either be a fear-monger or grossly incompetent. Hurry for ‘murica.

If I was feeling a touch more melodramatic, and if this were less serious, I could ask the silly question “What is this world coming to?” Silly because, as people of faith, we know the answer — Jesus tells us in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). In that parable Jesus talks about the simultaneous maturing of good and evil — the dark will get darker and the light will get lighter until the Day comes when he will put an end to wickedness. There will never be a day short of Jesus’s return where humanity will overcome wickedness, bigotry, fear, hate — where humanity overcomes Sin on a national or international scale. BUT that also means there will never be a day where evil wins and love, kindness, compassion and the desire to see others helped, healed and free will be extinguished from the earth.

If there is anything the Old Testament teaches us, it is that we can’t legislate morality. We can make all the rules we want about how people should treat one another and they won’t change our hearts. They will help curb certain behaviors (and, for the record, I am in favor of that), but that root of Sin in humanity will just find a different way to bear fruit. While I believe we need to work for reform in our government and law enforcement, I’m not delusional — if anything is going to change it is going to change because individual men and women choose to live differently, not because we elect the right officials.

As I see it, the great evil we need to overcome in our nation, particularly within the white community, is the indifference of good men and women. This video demonstrates that point admirably. Indifference is the heinous manifestation of hate and the polar opposite of love because indifference strips another person of the dignity of being human. I can be indifferent about my spot in the parking lot, I cannot be indifferent about the suffering of human beings or else I lose a portion of my humanity as a result. I believe this is what the Black Lives Matter campaign is all about. By saying “black live matter” we aren’t saying that other lives don’t matter, we are saying that black people are human, that they share in the dignity of being created in the image of God. The image of God in the black community isn’t being well honored in our society and that needs to change. When one candle lights another, the first isn’t diminished. The same is true with honor. I don’t have to devalue myself as a white man in order to fight for the honor, safety and dignity of my black friends. In fact, doing that is the only way the Light will shine in this present darkness.

Overcoming my indifference is going to require more than a blog post, more than momentary feelings of outrage and injustice. It is going to require a fundamental shift in the way I think about myself and others and how I live my life. It is going to require me to have heart-to-heart talks with the Eternal Optimist, Jesus, and to go out of my way to meet and befriend people who aren’t in my typical social circle. It is going to require me to bear another person’s burdens, to “walk a mile in their shoes” and love them like I love myself.

I have to believe that the Way of Jesus is the answer to our nation’s problems. The way we will reconnect with Father and recreate this world is through sacrificial love, compassion, justice and righteousness. We must love people where they are AND call them to a higher standard. We must realize we are where we are for very good reasons AND realize that stagnation leads to death. God didn’t stand by and watch the world roll on towards Hell, he took a stand, he got involved. That is part of the image we bear. Black lives matter, indifference is the enemy and the Way of Jesus is how we fight.

 

Some thoughts on prayer

There is an old proverb in the Levant that says, “If I student is dull, it is his fault; but if a student is bright, the teacher gets all the credit.” Charlatans babysit geniuses in order to pass off their student’s accomplishments as their own and lambast anyone who isn’t “smart enough” to follow their “advanced techniques.” The true teacher, however, makes anyone feel brilliant because he or she is able to adjust their method to suit the student’s learning style.

When I apply that idea to pastoring, particularly preaching, I am confronted with a sober truth — if someone leaves feeling confused, defeated or uninspired by what I’ve said then it is probably my fault, not theirs. The sign of a good teacher, the kind of teacher I want to be, is that they are able to take complex concepts and make them easy to understand and relate to. I don’t think I did that very well on Sunday in my message on prayer and I’m looking forward to fixing it. That said, after 12 hours of working on this piece I stand in awe of the mystery and complexity of prayer and admit that communicating cogently about prayer may well be beyond my abilities. What follows is my best attempt.

The Paradoxes of Prayer

Prayer is the art of holding multiple truths in tension with one another and finding God in the midst of them. For instance, the Gospel of Matthew teaches us that God is a Good and Gracious Father who knows what we need before we even ask, so our prayers can be short and childlike while the Gospel of Luke teaches us that prayer is more like banging on the door of a lazy friend in order to get something or heckling a judge until he rules in our favor. Do we only pray about something once, trusting that God knows what we need or do we pray repeatedly about the same issue until it happens? I would say that the answer to both of those questions is “yes”.

The Right Tool for the Right Situation

My wife frequently uses the analogy of tools in a tool belt when it comes to prayer and other ministry skills. You don’t use every tool for every job, some are for special situations, but knowing which tool to use for a particular circumstance (discernment) is the mark of a master craftsman. Some tools can perform functions they weren’t designed for (I could try to drive in a nail with the butt of a screwdriver), but it is never as easy or as pleasurable as using the tool built for the job.

The art of prayer is being able to discern which way of praying is best suited for a particular situation. Sometimes we need to pray simply, like a child asking their loving Father for what they really want or need. These kind of prayers might be as simple as “Help! I can’t do this on my own” or as loaded as “Dad, I’m leaving this in your hands. You know what is best for me and my family.” Other times we need to pray like an attorney prosecuting a criminal as is often the case with breaking soul ties or generational curses. Our enemy has a tendency to take more than what he is entitled to and we get it back by appealing to our Father, the Just Judge, in Heaven.

Defining Prayer

It occurs to me that I operate from a different understanding of prayer than some other people and that taking a step back to define prayer would be helpful. For me, prayer is about growing in intimacy with God and partnering with him to manifest his Kingdom on the earth. Depending on which stream of the Church you grew up in, it is possible you will be familiar with one idea or the other but not both, so please allow me to explain.

Prayer is a self-disclosing dialogue with God where we share the things most important to us with him, he shares the things most important to him with us, and we are transformed as a result. If that seems esoteric, it isn’t. It happens every day as people fall in love. Two people start off as total strangers, but as they share their likes, dislikes, dreams, fears, successes and failures a relationship is formed. As this relationship blossoms into a mature expression of love, neither of the two remains as they were before the relationship started because each has adjusted to the peculiarities of the other. This is the essence of prayer, self revealing love-language and Other-oriented listening that results in lives that are transformed as they are woven together.

The other essential aspect to prayer is asking for things. We ask for things for ourselves (called “petition”) and for others (called “intercession”). However, the primary thing we ask is for God’s will to be done on earth as it is in Heaven because that is how Jesus taught us to pray. I’ve come across some folks who lean heavy on the intimacy side of prayer and almost totally neglect the asking side because it seems unspiritual. I disagree. Not only did Jesus teach us to ask for things, but asking, receiving and doing what someone else asks of us are primary ways of building trust, affection and love. For instance, when I plan out my week on Sunday evening, I almost always ask my wife if there is anything I can do for her over the course of the week that would make her feel loved and cared for. When God answers our prayers and gives us what we asked for, a huge deposit is made into our relationship with him. Asking and receiving is a sure path to intimacy and connection.

The Wrong Way to Pray

In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), Jesus teaches the crowd what it means to be his disciple as opposed to a disciple of the Pharisees. From Matthew 5:21 on, the sermon can be boiled down to “they do it that way, but we do it this way.” When the Pharisees gave money to the poor, they would “blow trumpets” or make a big deal about the fact they were giving, but Jesus’s disciples give in secret. Where the Pharisees wanted the respect and honor that came from the people who saw them give, the disciples of Jesus only want the respect and honor that comes from our Father who sees in secret. Similarly, when the Pharisees fasted they wouldn’t bathe and would mope about so that everyone could see they were suffering for the sake of their piety. But Jesus commands us, his disciples, to follow our normal routine when we are fasting so that no one will know but God. The Pharisee’s reward was having people see them — the disciple’s reward is having God see them.

When the Pharisees prayed, they would position themselves in places so that they would be seen by others. They would pray long, impressive sounding prayers that were ultimately devoid of meaning. Jesus instructs his disciples to do the opposite — to pray privately when possible and to approach God simply, knowing that it is our relationship with him that will get an answer, not an impressive speech.

When we examine the Sermon on the Mount through the lens of “do this, not that” a number of things come into focus. We realize that much of the Pharisees’s behavior, especially prayer, was an attempt to manipulate how people perceived them. They wanted to appear spiritual, to make it seem like there was more going on in their relationship with God than there actually was, so that the crowds would look at them in a certain way. They wanted respect, admiration and special treatment from people and used spirituality as the way of getting it. Jesus called them out on it and taught his disciples another way — the way of secrecy and sincerity that would result in a reward from God rather than people.

The only wrong way to pray is when we to try to control other people through our prayers. That could be trying to control their perceptions of us (as the Pharisees did) or trying to control their actual behaviors by asking God to violate their free will. This is where things got confusing yesterday, so I will take the time to elaborate on the concept and provide a few examples.

I’ll discuss three particular situations — salvation, disagreement and alcoholism — in order to demonstrate what manipulative prayer looks like and how we could approach those situations in a better way. We will move from the theological/theoretical to the practical and see how the principles of one situation apply to another.

Salvation

Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy that “God wants all people to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth”, yet Revelation 20 makes it clear that many people will not be saved. How does that work? If God wants everyone to be saved, he clearly has the ability to make that happen — a few tweaks in human mindset or DNA and BOOM, instant converts.

Instead, God has chosen to honor our free will — he honors it so much that he even allows us to make horrible decisions. God has given us as human beings unimaginable dignity, honor and respect by making us in his image and allowing us the ability to choose wether we will reflect that or not. When given the choice of creating us for absolute obedience or genuine affection, God chose to create us to love. And love requires the ability to choose to reciprocate.

For instance, it is impossible for me to love my desktop computer because it doesn’t have the capacity to respond. I could write a program that would simulate affection (Artificial Intelligence), but it could only respond with the script I gave it. Humanity could have been created as a divine version of AI, but that isn’t what God wanted. He wanted lovers, kids. And that required him to limit himself by not controlling us.

So why isn’t everyone going to be saved? Because God respects our free will. God refuses to violate our free will, even when it would keep us (and him) from immense amounts of pain and suffering. And if God refuses to do such a thing, then it is only fitting that we, his people, should refuse to do it as well. Instead of directly controlling us, God attempts to woo us, to win us over through love, sacrifice, generosity and service. He is uniquely capable of creating the perfect set of circumstances that will give us the best chance of choosing him and eternal life. That is the method I believe we should use.

Disagreement

Let’s pretend I got in a fight with my son and he said or did something that really hurt my feelings. I could choose to wallow in my pain and build up a case against him for how he wronged me or I could choose to give him the benefit of the doubt by realizing that we really do love one another and the hurt was almost certainly unintentional.

Almost any prayer that comes from a heart posture of hurt, anger or fear is going to be manipulative in some way because our default human response is to try to gain safety, security and comfort through control. We see this a lot with parents, especially parents of teenagers. As the kids grow up, they have exponentially more potential to cause physical, emotional and spiritual harm to themselves and to their parents. The typical parental response to this is control — rules and punishment. Boundaries are absolutely necessary for children, but where those boundaries come from in the parent’s hearts is critical and so is the intended purpose. If the rules were made to protect the parents from emotional trauma, they will almost certainly be broken, along with the relationship with their teen. If the boundaries were set to protect the child, they might still get broken, but there is a much higher likelihood the relationship will be preserved and the parents and child can work through the issue together.

So if I get into a fight with my son, I’m not going to ask God to change him, correct him or punish him. Instead, I’m going to ask God to bless me with wisdom, courage and compassion so that I can talk with him and discover what was really going on. Because if I stand in the truth that we really love one another and really want what is best for each other, then I know that his actions were the overflow of something else in his life and the fight we had was him giving vent to something that was bothering him. So I might ask God to arrange a time for us to talk or thank the Holy Spirit for being Emory’s counselor and comforter, but I need to be careful to respect Emory’s personhood and not treat him as a problem needing to be fixed for my own convenience.

In the above instance, would it be alright for me to ask God to take away Emory’s pain? I don’t think so. Emory could ask God to take the pain away or we could pray together for that, me vocalizing Emory’s desire, but the truth is, Emory would be the one who needs to first give up the pain in order for it to be dealt with — I can’t give it up for him. Now, it is certainly my desire as Emory’s dad to see him happy and pain free, but I can’t allow pain relief or pain management to be my primary motivating factor in prayer.

Let’s look at the ministry of Jesus. Did Jesus have compassion on people and take away the things that were oppressing and distressing them? Absolutely. But if pain relief had been his primary goal, he would have healed everyone, which was not the case. He healed everyone who came to him, but he walked past many sick people lying next to the pool of Bethesda. Again, the issue of respecting people’s free will — Jesus healed those who came to him or who the Father sent him to, but he didn’t force healing on the people en masse. An uncomfortable truth is that people are often attached to their sickness, disease or pain in unhealthy ways — they embrace it because they feel it gives them special treatment. I know of a man who chose to get around in a wheelchair rather than walk because he felt people were nicer to him. Now he has put on a bunch of weight and could hardly walk on his own even if he wanted to. Which leads us into the next topic, alcoholism.

Alcoholism

What do we do when people we love chose to embrace a lifestyle of self-destruction? How do we pray for them?

Before I get too far in on this topic, let me use another proverb — this time from American lawyers — “difficult cases make bad law.” In difficult cases, like alcoholism or 9/11, so many factors are involved that it is difficult to create good laws that apply across the board. Outliers like these need to be seen and treated as such. That said, let’s dig in.

We typically pray for alcoholics for two reasons: they are in pain and we have compassion for them or we are in pain because of them and want relief.

When praying out of compassion I have a simple metric, if an alcoholic doesn’t want to be set free from their addiction, then I don’t pray for it to be taken away. I remember the story of the blind man who heard Jesus was passing by and created a ruckus to get his attention. When the blind man finally comes face to face with Jesus, Jesus asks him a simple but profound question — “What do you want me to do for you?” Isn’t it obvious Jesus? Can’t you see that the man was blind? Why don’t you just initiate and give the poor guy what he clearly wanted?

Jesus asked the man what he wanted because Jesus treated him with dignity and realized that people are complicated. The man might have been perfectly fine being blind and maybe would have asked for some other thing. Jesus didn’t presume to know what this man wanted or needed, he didn’t view the man as incomplete or invalid, instead, he asked him what he wanted.

Some alcoholics don’t want to give up drinking — it is familiar, even comforting, to them. They don’t even want to imagine what life would be like without alcohol. They have made peace with their situation and only their change of heart can set them free. As Danny Silk often says, “If you don’t have a problem, then I can’t have a solution.” If the person doesn’t want to quit, the only thing we can do is ask God to orchestrate a set of circumstances that convince them of their need to quit.

But suppose the person does want to quit, they just can’t — they are caught up in the cycle of addiction and habit, what then? In this instance, if the person wants to quit and is asking you for help (i.e. spiritual support), then we have license to pray in every way we know how. This is much like someone hiring a lawyer to represent them in court. The individual in question may not know how a trial goes, the details of their particular case or whatever, but they do know that they have a reasonable chance of walking away free if they bring in someone who knows what they are doing. Fortunately, Jesus is the best defense attorney there ever was and he is praying along with us.

I seem to keep circling around to the idea of respecting people’s free will. I think it is desperately important to keep in mind that we as prayer warriors and intercessors are not people’s saviors. We can’t bust in Rambo style and clean house. First of all, it isn’t our house, we are trespassing if we come in without permission. Second of all, even if we did succeed in cleaning house, if the person isn’t engaged in putting their life back together, then that demon is going to come right on back and bring a bunch of friends — we could very easily make that person’s situation worse, which is why God typically prevents it from happening in the first place.

Now, what about the other scenario, the one where we want to pray because we are being harmed physically or emotionally by an alcoholic. First, never use prayer as an excuse for action — get out. You can ask God to change their heart once you are at a safe distance. Don’t stay in a bad situation asking God to change it, do what you need to do to be safe and get healthy yourself, then worry about the other person and pray for them as described above.

Heart Posture

As it usually does with me, it all comes back to heart posture. The place our prayers come from within us matters much more than the actual verbiage we use, though that is important too — “out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” If we pray for someone from a place of love and have their permission to ask for God’s will to be done in their life then we are good to go. But if we are praying from a place of hurt, anger or fear we will very likely ask God to control the other person, which he is very much opposed to doing.

Confidence

Writing this article has been quite a lot of work. I’ve invested at least 12 hours into writing it and tracking down the biblical references that make me feel confident to say the things I’ve said and that doesn’t count the additional hours I’ve spent thinking about it and searching my own heart. What I’m left with is a profound thankfulness that Jesus and Holy Spirit pray with us and for us, taking our ignorance and sincerity and transforming them into something beautiful before God that he is pleased to answer. I frequently feel like I am leaning to pray all over again and am often embarrassed by my infantile understanding of prayer — something so basic and foundational, yet complex and mysterious.

What I want to leave you with is the confidence that however you pray is good enough because of Jesus. Father sees and hears everything about us filtered through Jesus’s sacrifice and that should comfort us greatly. I do think it is important to take times like these to dissect our prayers and ask ourselves why we pray like we do and if it is in alignment with God’s word, but at the end of the day we should still be praying, trusting that God will teach us as long as we have a listening ear.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this lengthy piece. If you have any questions or comments or wish I would clarify something further, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Ben

Working Too Hard?

Pastoring is a profession like any other. I am constantly working to hone and upgrade my skills and become a true master of my craft. This takes diligence, effort and a lot of punching the clock. Pastoring isn’t nearly as sexy as I thought it would be.

Pastoring is also a profession unlike any other. I am a midwife and surrogate parent. I am responsible for the spiritual care and well being of my spiritual family, arguably the most important part of their lives, and yet I am given little power to affect anything in their lives. I only have the influence they let me have. Hence, much of my job is persuasion… and it is wearisome.

In my more melancholy moments (like this one), I wonder about the effectiveness of the model of church we have embraced in the West. We, the church leaders and pastors, have tried to make everything so easy — we break down the teachings of Jesus into three point sermons complete with application points; we do much of the heavy lifting in prayer, intercession and service; we try to set the bar as low as possible so it is easy for people to participate; and we pour ridiculous amounts of time, energy, focus and creativity into preparing messages that are usually dismissed with little more than a “good message pastor.” This last piece has me particularly vexed.

The last time I bothered to look up the figure and poll my peers, the average pastor spent around 20 hours of their week preparing a sermon. For those whose sole purpose is preaching and teaching, that number can inflate to 35 or more. I live in a town with 20 churches, each pastor preparing a message each week. That is 400 hours and more being invested into the people of God each and every week, almost 21,000 hours in a year. With that kind of focused investment from highly trained and highly passionate people, why is 50%+ of the city still unreached and the rest of the city relatively unchanged? I’ve been noodling on that for some time and still don’t have the answers I’d like.

It does occur to me, however, that I might be working too hard. Working too hard to make the sayings of Jesus easily digestible, working too hard to apply those teachings to other people’s lives and situations. For me, sermon prep is a worship experience because it forces me to submit to a God who does not think like I do and to rework what I thought I knew in order to follow his train of thought. Perhaps more people need to be doing that each week than the 19 other pastors and I? What if the model we’ve embraced, comfortable as it is, has actually incapacitated the church and is barring us from actually doing what Jesus commanded us to do?

Like I said, I don’t have any good answers, just a lot of nagging questions. I’d love to hear from you guys though. Have sermons changed your life? Are they worthwhile? What would make them more transformative?

Ben

Equipping or Enabling

I spent a good portion of last week pondering the Kingship of Jesus in preparation for last Sunday’s message. At the most basic level, the Gospel is that Jesus came as a King to announce the arrival of his Kingdom. People could get on board with that Reality or not, but he said in no uncertain terms that failure to submit to him would result in death and/or being cast into outer darkness/ the lake of Fire (see Luke 19:27 for the clearest example). It is True that Jesus is much more than a King, that the Gospel talks about other issues besides God’s Kingdom, but even a cursory read through of the book of Acts reveals that it is the message of Jesus as King of the Earth and Judge of the Living and the Dead that provoked repentance and conversion, nothing else. To be quite blunt, the Apostles didn’t walk into a pagan city, say “Jesus loves you” and have thousands of people submit their lives to Christ. Through powerful words (and even more powerful actions) the Disciples argued and demonstrated that Jesus was indeed the one God had chosen as King by raising him from the dead and that they were Jesus’s delegated authorities on the Earth. It is True that Jesus loves us and died for our sins because of that Love. It is equally true that he is a King who demands obedience from his followers. In fact, to love him is to be obedient to him and to disobey is the same as not loving him (John 14:23-24).

The Church is an army

If Jesus has delegated the forceful advancement of his Kingdom on the earth to the Church (Matt. 11:12 and Matt. 28:16-20) then that makes the Church an army. Just as the Marine Corps is not the government of the United States, but a representative thereof, carrying out the will of our Commander in Chief and advancing the interests and ideologies of the American people throughout the world, so too the Church is the organization designed to advance the Kingdom of God and the will of our King on the Earth.

This has a number of implications for us as followers of Jesus, but I’m going to hone in on my call as a Pastor. Biblically speaking, my job is to work in conjunction with other leaders in order to “equip the saints for the work of ministry”(Eph. 4:12). To carry on with the army metaphor, I need to teach the recruits how to identify the enemy and dispatch them, stay in formation and achieve the objectives of the mission, make sure no one gets left behind and develop people’s specialities so that we have the right people for the right job. (I’m not an army man so my list is far short of what actually happens, I’m sure.)

Let’s take target practice for an example.

What were to happen if a batch of new recruits went down to the firing range and the drill instructor said, “Wait. I know this is hard, so let me do it for you.” The instructor then proceeded to fire every shot for each recruit. Sure, the targets would display the work of an expert marksman, but the instructor would be exhausted and the soldiers still untrained. What happens when they are deployed? The instructor can’t take every shot for them — they need to learn to do it for themselves. They need to be equipped or else they are done for.

Equipping not Enabling in Pastoral Ministry

As clear as that seems in the Army, when we switch domains and start talking about the Church, things get fuzzy for some reason. Broadly speaking, Pastors are trained to enable people. We are trained to take away pain, to shepherd people and care for them, to speak reassuringly and to come running when we are called to do battle with darkness. Pastors are good at this kind of work and well loved for it. Even better, by enabling people rather than empowering them, we have excellent job security.

I’ve been as guilty of enabling people as anyone I know. My desire is to care for people, but this past week of reflection has revealed that I tend to be short sighted in my approach. When people ask me a question that is in the Book, it is easier to tell them a straight answer than to suggest they take the time to find it for themselves. (After all, I’m trained and paid to know the answer, right?) But I’ve come to realize that teaching people to be Biblically literate, to teach them how to find answers for themselves is much more important than giving them the right answer.

A more difficult example would be when someone comes to me asking about divorce. What should they do? Well, the truth is, the Bible has stories on both sides. David fled from abusive authority and broken covenant while God told Hagar to return to an unhealed and abusive authority because God had more he wanted to do there. And so, the only thing I can do responsibly is to turn things back on them and, after explaining the Principles of the two stories above, ask them which Principle applies. They have to make the decision after talking it over with Papa. It isn’t compassionate or loving for me to tell them to bail if God wants them to stay. (To be gut level honest, I cringe while I write this even though I know it is the Truth, but that is due to my sin and immaturity. I’m not more compassionate than God and God definitely commanded Hagar to return to an abusive relationship.) That story and Principle may not apply to 99.9% of cases, but it does apply to someone or else it wouldn’t be in there. In cases like this, I can’t give someone a straight answer. I can only explain Principles and then point them back to Papa. For some reason, that is exceptionally difficult for me to do – I feel like I wasn’t helpful or kind, but it is the right response nonetheless.

The place I am growing into is going to require me to become much more skilled at equipping instead of enabling. I’m going to have to learn a new way of communicating and I will need an extensive overhaul of my internal belief structure. But if I am going to become the person I want to be and lead God’s people where he wants them to go, then I’m going to have to belly up to the bar and suck down some strong medicine.

Wish me luck.

Ben

 

Blessing Your Spirit

My Introduction to spirit blessing

A few years ago, Dani and I came across a book called Blessing your Spirit, written by Sylvia Gunter and Arthur Burk. We had been introduced to Arthur’s a short time before at a marriage workshop. The couple leading the workshop used Arthur’s material to do “on the spot” deliverance/inner healing and marriages that were about to end in divorce turned around almost instantly. It was quite astonishing, even miraculous.

One of the things Barry and Lori (the couple leading the workshop) did frequently was bless the spirit of the person they were ministering to. This was a new idea for me, but seeing it modeled many times a day made it normal fast. Whenever the person had a blockage in hearing God’s voice, started to bad mouth their spouse or otherwise get distracted, Barry or Lori would gently stop them, look the person in the eye, speak words of blessing and strength to their spirit and then call their spirit back to the place of authority and dominion over their soul and body. The person’s spirit seemed to responded quickly and whatever blockage had been hampering progress was dealt with and removed.

Dani and I got the book Blessing Your Spirit shortly thereafter and started working through it. Dani did a lot more with it than I did, because the idea of speaking to your spirit, encouraging it and instructing it seemed a little “out there” to me. As is often the case, I needed time for this idea to take root in my theology while Dani sprinted with it right out of the gate. For the other slow processors out there, the rest of this article will be devoted to my understanding of the theology behind blessing your spirit or someone else’s spirit. I will say, however, that well before I had what I considered an adequate theology, the fruit of this exercise was apparent. I knew it worked, I just didn’t know why.

Foundation and Framework

It is generally understood within most Christian circles that human beings are made up of three parts — body, soul and spirit. This comes from Paul’s words in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 “May God himself, the God of peace, sanctify you through and through. May your whole spirit, soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” and from the study of Genesis 2:7 “Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground [body] and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [spirit], and the man became a living being [literally “soul”].

Within this framework, we typically say that the soul is our “mind, will and emotions” that our body is relatively inert, just a holding tank for our soul and spirit, and that our spirit is the part of us that connects with God. Truthfully, this is a really anemic understanding of all three parts of us.

Looking through all of the references to the human spirit in the Bible, it becomes apparent that our spirits have their own thoughts, desires and feelings, and even work through our bodies to inspire certain actions (though most of the time it is so underfed that it cannot exert such control).

Take for example the following passages…

  • The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” Matt. 26:41. The spirits of the disciples wanted to stay awake, pray and comfort our Lord in his moment of need, but were incapable of overriding the disciple’s bodies. This is opposed to passages like Ezra 1:5 where the spirits of certain Israelites were stirred and caused the people to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. These people had no natural reason to leave their lives in captivity, it was a spirit prompting.  Passages such as these show that our spirit has its own will and desires.
  • I, Daniel, was grieved in my spirit within my body, and the visions of my head troubled me,” Daniel 7:15. Daniel’s spirit showed the emotion of grief as it processed the vision God had shown Daniel concerning the fate of the holy people.
  • This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only of the baptism of John,” Acts 18:25. Though Apollos had only received an initial revelation of what God was doing through Jesus, his spirit was able to accurately perceive and extrapolate who Jesus was and could convincingly argue that he was the Christ even though he only knew Jesus had been baptized by John (not crucified, resurrected or ascended). This reveals that our spirits can think, perceive and communicate information that our souls don’t actually know.

We could similarly demonstrate that our bodies (flesh) are much more that inert material, but that is beyond the scope of this article. I simply mean to say that our spirits, souls and bodies all have their own thoughts, desires, emotions and will. When humans were first created, all of these entities were in harmony — thinking the same things, wanting the same things, doing the same things, etc. The Fall fractured and disintegrated our nature and our souls and bodies went into rebellion against our spirits. The spirit was designed to be the leader of our life, keeping us in alignment with the will of God. However, the human spirit is rarely the dominate force in human beings nowadays.

Who is in charge?

In most human beings, our souls are the ones calling the shots. Our souls take in the information gathered by our senses, make sense out of it and plot the course forward. They do a marvelous job considering their many limitations. For instance, they have incomplete information, they don’t always know what is important and, therefore, overlook many crucial elements and they have a severely limited understanding of what it possible because they can only include finite resources (time, energy, skills) in their calculations.

But humans are designed to have their spirit in the place of leadership and dominion.

When a person’s spirit is leading their soul and body, a number of fascinating things take place. They have better discernment — they make decisions based on supernatural elements their soul knows nothing about. They live longer and healthier because the spirit controls the regenerative capabilities of the body and mind — look up how many verses that talk about the human spirit mention it in terms of health or disease. Also, think about how long people used to live compared to now. Their lives are more in alignment with the will of God (i.e. they sin less and have less desire to sin or be in rebellion against God).

Now, the above paragraph describes someone who has a strong spirit and a strong soul.  I would like to contrast this with the rare example of someone who has a strong spirit and a weak soul. I say “rare,” but I think this describes many people in ministry.

Someone with a strong spirit and a weak soul has lots of good ideas that never happen. This person is terrible at follow through and follow up. They are unorganized and tend to live quite joyfully in crisis management mode. They live in the moment and don’t plan ahead. They think this is quite spiritual, even fun, but they leave the people around them with hurt feelings, uncertain expectations and a lot of stress because they never know what is coming next. The Senior Pastor who can never return a call in a timely manner, who is constantly changing focus after the latest conference and who leaves people feeling violated and unspiritual because they can’t “go with the flow” as well or as quickly as he can is the classic example of a strong spirit and weak soul. This person needs to beef up their soul skills and realize that spontaneous does not equal Spirit led.

Now, onto the good stuff. How do we strengthen our spirits and get them in charge?

We all recognize that we can exercise our bodies and that they will get stronger if properly fueled and given time to recover. Similarly, our mental faculties can be exercised and grow far beyond our initial skill sets as infants through systematic educational programming. Even our emotions can be trained to respond in certain ways through effort (count to 10!). But we tend to not apply this same principle to our spirits because 1) it seems weird, and 2) we don’t know how.

So, in an attempt to demystify this endeavor, I’ll offer four exercises for you to try.

Acknowledgment

This is simply acknowledging that your spirit exists, that it has a right to exist, that is is made in the image of God and that it was designed to be the leader of your soul in body. This is ideally done by another person — men in particular are especially powerful in the area of acknowledgement and validation. If this is something you pursue as a family, I highly recommend the man of the house acknowledge and validate the spirits of his spouse and children. Because so many of our spirits are used to being ignored like the ugly stepsister, this can be a powerfully emotional time. Here is how you do it:

  • Have the person doing the acknowledgement look the other person in the right eye. I can’t explain this fully right now, but I’ve found that if someone needs fathering a right eye to right eye connection seems most powerful and if someone needs mothering/nurture a left eye to left eye connection is best. For now, you are calling something up into the fullness of what it was created to be — the very essence of fathering.
  • While looking into the other person’s right eye, have the person doing the acknowledgement say something along the lines of: “(Name), I call your spirit to attention in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth and I invite you to come and take your rightful place as the leader over (Name’s) soul and body.” Wait a few moments. Having done this enough, you will notice a change in the person’s pupil I can’t quite explain. The spirit is now present.
  • Go on to legitimize and validate the spirit as a beautiful creation that reveals part of the image of God, something that is perfect because of the blood of Jesus and that is destined to powerfully expand the influence of our God and King on the earth. (The hardest part of this is getting started. As you continue to speak, your spirit and the Holy Spirit will help you know what to say.)
  • Once you run out of Identity Statements to proclaim over the individual, shift to Blessing.

Blessing

Arthur’s book is invaluable here. You don’t have to recreate the wheel — go and get it. At first the language may seem a bit strange, or it will be difficult to make significant eye contact while reading. You’ll get used to it. This is basically a warm bath for the other person’s spirit. Invite them to receive the words of blessing you speak or read over them. This is the powerhouse for the women. Blessing, nurturing and mothering are what our souls need at this step. Again, if you are doing this as a family, after Dad has finished affirming and acknowledging, have mom join in to bless at this point. Here is the step by step:

  • Look the person in their left eye.
  • Invite them to receive the words, blessings and promises of God
  • Minister to their spirit through your own words or Arthur’s blessings.
  • This is the time to exercise your prophetic gift to affirm, bless, encourage, strengthen and otherwise uplift.
  • This is not the time to try to impress someone with your fancy phrases. Simple truths are immensely profound. Don’t be embarrassed to say things that someone already knows. “You are a beloved son,” hits the spirit differently than the soul.

It isn’t unusual for the recipient to feel markedly refreshed, energized or “lighter”. This is normal. I’ve occasionally experienced a “buzzing” in my fingers after a particularly thick blessing.

Binge Read the Bible

The Word of God is food for the spirit, the Bread of Life. While this is primarily a Truth about Jesus, it also applies to the Bible. The Bible is a collection of God’s words, a testimony of his character, a light to our feet. Just as you need to eat more food than you are used to in order to gain muscle, you need to force feed your spirit in order to get it to support rapid growth. Depending on your starting point, a “binge” session may be 15 minutes or an hour. I’ve made an hour every work day my normal and I’d like to increase it to an hour every day, but my season of life hasn’t cooperated yet. Again, much like working out, it sucks at first, but then you get used to it and then you look forward to it. I’m at a point now where reading is the first thing I do — I’m anxious for it.

Don’t stress about the time, just read as much as you can.

Pray in the Spirit

For those of you who have the gift of tongues, use it. Pray consistently because it is the one Gift of the Spirit designed primarily to benefit you, not other people. It is a great way to keep infusing your spirit with light, life and truth and it can be done while doing a lot of other things.

So there you go. I know that was like drinking out of a fire hydrant, but I wanted to try and give you a solid framework for you to explore and expand at your leisure. I definitely encourage you to pursue this in more depth and detail — the rewards far outweigh the effort.

Thanks for reading,

Ben

A Kick in the Pants to read your Bible

A few weeks ago I was listening to a message and the speaker mentioned that it took a little over 75 hours to read the Bible out loud, cover to cover. Turns out he was right.

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Now, that is 75.5 hours of dramatized (slow and with music) and unabridged reading. How much time gets cut off if you read in your head and skip the boring genealogies? I think cutting off 5 hours wouldn’t be a stretch.

So that leaves 70 hours. To read the WHOLE Bible cover to cover.

That means, if I read the Bible an hour a day every day of the week I could read the entire Bible five (5!) times in a year. Why am I not doing this?

Just thought I’d share my new found enthusiasm for binge reading with you. 🙂

Living with Free Will for Eternity

I get to preach on one of my favorite topics this Sunday — how the Cross changed the Law. It is something I have written about elsewhere, and it is a topic that is endlessly fascinating to me. By tracking how Jesus upgraded, reinterpreted and ignored various categories of the Law, I feel like we get a much clearer picture of the heart of our Father. I’m certain I’ll expand on that in future posts, but I’m pretty anxious to write about what I’ve been meditating on this morning.

One of the categories in the Law is something I call moral law — the actions, attitudes, thoughts and beliefs that God expects of those made in his image. In the Old Testament, those laws were things like “Do not murder. Do not steal. Do not commit adultery. Do not lie. Don’t scheme to get something that isn’t rightfully yours (covet).” Since many of those are in the 10 Commandments, we are pretty familiar with them.

In the New Testament, Jesus upgrades this portion of the Law. He says things like “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder…’ but I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment… and anyone who says ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” He also said “You have heard that is was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” In the Old Testament, as long as a man and woman didn’t actually have sex they were OK, but in the New Testament, Jesus talks about the condition of our minds and hearts — the seedbed of our actions. Indulging in thoughts and feelings of anger acclimates us to it and allows us to progressively take steps towards acts of violence. Similarly, indulging in a lustful fantasy life makes it that much easier to do things we otherwise wouldn’t. It is said that if you put a frog into boiling water it will jump right out, but if you put it into room temp water and slowly raise the heat it will stay in until it cooks itself to death. I don’t think people are much different.

What I find fascinating is that, in so many areas, Jesus looses the restrictiveness of the Law or ignores it completely and yet, in the area of character and integrity, Jesus intentionally sets the standard beyond anyone’s ability to reach on their own. Of course, as Christians, we understand that this was so that we would be perpetually dependent upon the Holy Spirit. Indeed, as those reborn as the children of God and those who have the Spirit of God living inside of us, we should look more like our Father than anyone. But Jesus is also doing something else, he is teaching us to live in freedom with free will for eternity.

Would you consider something with me?

When God created the world, everything was good. There wasn’t sin, sickness, demons or death. We don’t know how long the world remained in that state, but we do know that Satan eventually came to tempt Adam and Eve.  And let’s pause right there. Satan. Where did he come from?

Those who have far more interest in this than I do have pieced together various portions of Scripture and come up with a storyline for Satan. He was originally created as Lucifer, one of the three Archangels alongside Gabriel and Michael. Some traditions say that he was the most beautiful and the most glorious of the Three and the worship leader in the Throne Room. Eventually, Lucifer decided that he wanted to receive the same kind of praise as he was giving. He convinced one third of the angels to rebel against God in hopes of setting up their own kingdom. He failed in his revolt and was banished from Heaven. Supposedly, this happened before Adam and Eve were created and Satan then worms his way into the Garden.

But here is the point I want to make — when Satan was created, he was created good and with a free will. He didn’t have a sinful bent, nor did he have anyone entice him towards sin and rebellion. He came to that choice out of his own free will. He coveted God’s glory and praise and schemed to take it for himself. He indulged in the fantasy of what it would feel like to be on the receiving end of that angelic worship and it ended with him in rebellion against God. Does it make more sense now why Jesus cares so much about the thoughts, attitudes, emotions and opinions of our hearts?

In order for love to flourish between people, there must be freedom. Freedom to make good choices as well as bad. In upgrading our understanding of what it means to be made in God’s image, Jesus is teaching us how to make good choices. He is teaching us how to nip evil in the bud before it grows up into sin in our lives. He is teaching us how we are to look at and feel towards those around us who are also God’s sons and daughters. Jesus is teaching us how to be free and how to live in his Kingdom before it has even fully arrived.

Thanks for reading friends.

How I Stay Organized

The Struggle

I spent the better part of a decade figuring out how to get (and stay!) organized. For much of my college career I had the nonchalant attitude of If it is too much for me to remember, then it is too much. I had very limited commitments and an abundance of free time, yet I frequently told people how “busy” I was with no sense of irony.

Due to my love of leisure and highly invested mother, I never had to learn organizational/administrative skills when I was younger. All my appointments were made for me, I had daily reminders about upcoming events over breakfast and chose to limit my extracurricular activities to theater, dance and church.

Then it all changed. I got engaged and my future spouse wanted to see that I was hardworking and dependable — a good provider. Then I graduated college and got a real job, then several real jobs at the same time. Then I was asked to be the Lead Pastor of a church, then my son was born. With each progression into adulthood my life and calendar became much more complex, the demands on my time more insistent and the need for an organizational system more apparent.

I didn’t want to be the husband coasting through life at the expense of an overworked wife. I didn’t want to be the friend constantly running late or forgetting get togethers entirely. I didn’t want to be the Pastor jostled about by a calendar out of control, constantly running from one thing to another and feeling like my life was being lived for me by other people’s needs. I wanted to live and enjoy my life. I wanted to be in control. I wanted to do the things that were important, but not urgent.

Enter the Bullet Journal.

The System

I owe my exposure to the Bullet Journal to my sister. She was working on her Master’s degree when she introduced me to the system. I gave it a one month trial run, got hooked and have been swimming in the deep end ever since. After years of starting and stopping journals, trying Post-It Notes and iCal and having a wife who constantly had to remind me of things, having a one stop shop for all of my various interests and duties was intensely liberating… and productive. Like, through the roof productive. I would guess I get twice to three times as much accomplished in a day as I used to. It is a little crazy when I look at a day’s output as opposed to what I did a few years back.

I now teach this system to every man I do premarital counseling with. It is amazing how many of us need help managing our time and getting stuff done. A disciplined and well organized man is a force to be reckoned with. To paraphrase the old Stoic Philosopher Seneca, “Life is more than long enough for those who use it wisely.”  Here is how I roll.

The Journal

I started my adventures with a black, graph paper Moleskin. After I got into fountain pens and needed better paper, I dabbled in a few others, but I think I have finally landed on the Leuchtturm1917 black, hard cover graph paper notebook.

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Beautiful isn’t it? Coincidentally, Leuchtturm1917 is also the brand Bullet Journal chose for its own official notebook. I’ll get an official one in the future, but for now I am quite content with the regular cheaper one. This journal has a list of features that make it an ideal place to start:

  • Page numbers – Make using the index much easier.
  • Large table of contents – 3 pages is more than enough to index all your ideas
  • Stickers – Super cool to use for archival purposes. You can add the date the journal spans to the spine and also note any major entries on the cover. As my shelf grows with little black notebooks, these stickers become ever more valuable.
  • Nice paper – Important for fountain pens. It feels good to use quality tools.
  • Expandable pocket in the back – For all the little bits of paper one tends to accumulate.

I am a pretty rigid personality, particularly with scheduling and organization, so I prefer the graph/grid paper. I recently tried a larger, unlined journal — disaster. It was great for sketching, journaling and generally feeling more creative, but I felt things starting to slip through the cracks. Try a few different kinds of paper, but start with the grid.

How it works

This video (4 min.) explains this really well and is a slightly updated version of the system I use. However, for the more text oriented among you, here is my basic run down.

IndexYour first page is the index. If you get the Leuchtturm1917 it is already done for you. This is the Table of Contents for your journal. Put any important entries here as well as the months you are journaling in. Each month will take up a different number of pages, so simply write them in as needed.

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In this picture you can see that I have three items, Future Log, the first month I will use this notebook (Feb. 2016) and a meeting I had this morning. The Future Log is on page 1 and February starts on page 2. When March comes along, I will make up a new monthly calendar, and add it to the index. If I write in February from page 2-22, then March will start on page 24 (explained below).

Future LogThis is a different method than explained in the video, but is talked about on the website. It is a great addition to the Bullet Journal system. The Bullet Journal system is wonderful for short term organization, but can make long term planning difficult. Since I use my Bullet Journal in conjunction with iCal it is less of a problem, but I love the Future Log too. This log goes 6 months ahead. Whenever I have a date I need to remember I write it on a fresh line, put a dot in the month column and then add the date. Then, when I start a new month, I reference this log, copy over any relevant information and then cross it off my log. For instance, you will see in the picture below that Ash Wednesday is on Feb. 10 this year, Easter on Mar. 27 and Pentecost is in May.

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Monthly Calendar and To Do List At the end of each month, I create I calendar and To Do List for the following month. This always happens on a “spread,” two pages facing each other (which is why in the above example, March would start on page 24 rather than 23). The calendar is always on the left, the To Do List on the right. It is much more convenient for planning purposes to have it this way than to flip one page back and forth all the time.

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You will notice that there isn’t much room to write in dates. This is where the idea of Rapid Logging comes in. Rapid Logging is simply being efficient with words. Use the fewest possible that will sufficiently jog your memory. For instance, if you work out every day at 6am, then you don’t need to write it down, it is already habit. But if you have a meeting crop up at an unexpected time, write the person’s name and the time.

You will also notice that Feb. 10 has Ash Wednesday on it. I took that from the Future Log and put it on my monthly calendar and then crossed it out on the Log. Moving an item from one page to another is called Migration and is one of the great strengths of this system. Writing things down, then rewriting them, keeps things fresh in your mind and they aren’t likely to get buried. Also, if you find yourself constantly migrating a certain task from one day to another and one week to another, it serves as a filter. Either get it done or decide not to do it, no sense in writing it down over and over.

At the start of each month, I sit down with my wife and talk about our goals for the month, hence all the house projects on my To Do List :-). If there are any items that pop up on my iCal that are month specific, they go here too. This is really my catch all for the month. Then, when I sit down to plan out my week, I am able to incorporate these items into my days.

Weekly To Do List and LandscapeMy job involves a lot of important but repetitive tasks. Writing them down each week keeps them fresh in my mind. I’m also able to write down anything that needs to be done that isn’t part of my regular routine. One thing I have added to my planning sessions is Roles.

My “Roles” section is where I write down my most important roles/relationships in my life – husband, father, brother, son, friend. I plan specific ways to invest in those relationships so that I’m never just coasting in life and taking people for granted. I could easily include “writer” or “pastor” in that list, but I’m already taking specific actions towards bettering those things in my life.

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Once I have dumped everything out of my brain and onto the page I can set up my weekly Landscape, my birds eye view of the week.

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In the Landscape, I start assigning tasks to different days. In the beginning, it is hard to know what you can do in a single day. You may possibly over schedule but, more likely than not, you will under schedule yourself. You will come to find that when you plan out your month, week and day that some part of your brain will work on finding out the most efficient way to do things. And when you have a list that need to be knocked out, your energy and ambition will kick in as well. I routinely knock out in 2-3 hours what used to take me a whole day to complete. All that extra time can them be devoted to more important/creative tasks.

The Landscape also allows you to block out time for uninterrupted creative work. Weather it is your side hustle you’re trying to turn into a full time job, a hobby you’d like to pursue or simply time to think, having a chunk or two of time each week that is sacred and set apart is imperative. Going back to the reason for this system — you are the one called to live your life, not other people. Give yourself the margin you personally require to get to appointments, have down time and otherwise enjoy life.

Daily Entries This is the heart of the system. Each day you write the date, copy over your To Do List and start kicking butt. This is also the place to record your thoughts, observations, notations and future To Do items. Use Rapid Logging to keep it short and sweet.

As I’ve used this system, I have moved away from Rapid Logging and Bullets and instead use my Daily Entries to journal, reflect, record prayers and write. I still record To Do List items here, but I’ve honed my Landscape in to such an extent that it is usually the only structure I need.

 

The Bullet Journal gets its name from the “bullets” used in the Daily Entries to signify different things. To Do List items get a box that is checked off when the item is completed, meetings get a circle, thoughts or other items a bullet point. You can also add signifiers (an exclamation point or a star) to highlight more important items. My preferred method is to look through my items for the day and number them inside the box. Then I get to work.

iCal

In addition to the Bullet Journal, I also use iCal to schedule things. I use it primarily for reminders of recurring events. Since I have a lot of meetings and other items that are particular to certain times or seasons, iCal functions as my long term memory. It is wonderful. The combination of iCal reminders and long term planning along with the Bullet Journal for monthly and daily planning has made a huge difference in my life. I highly encourage you to try it out if you don’t already have a system that works for you. I pray you get as much benefit out of it as I have.

Putting it all together

It isn’t enough to get organized, one needs to stay organized. In order to do that, I block out and hour every Sunday evening to work on my “Battle Plan.”

At the designated hour of the evening, I go up to my study with my journal and begin to put things together.

The first thing I do is write out my top priorities, my “big rocks” as it were. Since Pastoring really is my life, my personal and professional goals are the same. It will likely be different for you. My top priorities are communion with God and communication with his people. Practically, this looks like 6 major things: 1) reading the Bible, 2) Quiet Reflective Time, 3) Prayer, 4) Sermon Preparation, 5) Blogging and 6) Writing.

Then I look through the past week and see if I failed to complete any To Do List Items. If I did, I migrate them onto the new week’s To Do List and put a “right arrow” in the box.

Next, I pray about my roles and who God and I want to invest in for that week/month.

Lastly, I pull out my iPhone and copy over my list of Weekly To Do’s, any appointments and whatever else comes to mind. Once I have compiled a whole week’s worth of work I begin making my Landscape, chunking tasks together in groups for most efficient dispatching.

I find that once I get into the groove, this goes very quickly and is quite enjoyable. I enjoy being able to look back over the past weeks and months and see how things have gone. I also delight in intentionally building up friendships and important relationships in my life.

Once my Battle Plan has been made, I go to sleep with a mind so blank it is almost numb. I know that everything has been planned out and that I have time to do everything I need to do. I wake up the next morning ready to work and it is quite a lot of fun.

Well, thanks for reading this (overly) thorough guide to my system. I hope you can take something from it and make it your own. It took me a long time to settle on something I’d actually stick with, so don’t despair if you haven’t found “it” yet.

As always, thanks for reading.

Ben