Wise Words for Today

With good intentions and sincere desires to reach as many people as possible for Jesus, we have subtly and deceptively minimized the magnitude of what it means to follow him. We’ve replaced challenging words from Christ with trite phrases in the church. We’ve taken the lifeblood out of Christianity and put Kool-Aid in its place so that it tastes better to the crowds, and the consequences are catastrophic. Multitudes of men and women at this moment think that they are saved from their sins when they are not. Scores of people around the world culturally think that they are Christians when biblically they are not.

David Platt

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Spiritual Complacency and Quiet Desperation (Part One)

Mick Turner

Even a cursory exploration of Scriptures from many faith traditions will reveal that Universal Intelligence, by whatever name we choose to call it, wants us to be successful. It is to no one’s benefit if we allow ourselves to wallow through life in the muck and mire of mediocrity. No, experience reveals that what we here at LifeBrook often refer to as Sacred Light wants us to succeed in achieving our dreams, provided those dreams and desires are in accordance with positive universal principles and spiritual laws. In addition, we live in a universe that is limitless and fill with everything we need in order to lead rewarding, fulfilling, and successful lives

Yes, scriptures from the whole range of faith traditions point to the reality that we are called to lives of success. Here I am not speaking necessarily of financial abundance, the prosperity gospel, or teachings related to money, although success can be manifested in that way. What I am talking about is being a success in the spiritual sense and the best way to do that is to become the absolute best that you can be. God did not create us and give us a mandate to slog our way through a life of mediocrity.

The problem arises, however, when one takes an honest look at what seems to be going on in the daily lives of most people. The vast majority of sincere, earnest, and spiritual people are not particularly happy. Even those that do profess a degree of happiness, when pressed, admit to a vague sense of dissatisfaction with life. Many exist rather than live. Thoreau had it right many years ago when he mused that most people “lead lives of quiet desperation.

What causes such a tragedy?

Obviously, the issues that contribute to such a widespread, complex phenomenon are many. To make our task in this particular writing a bit more manageable, I want to emphasize two problems areas that seem to beset many folks, especially those who consider themselves spiritual individuals. This pair of problematic obstacles to our God-given drive for success consists of: lack of focus and complacency.

I have a confession to make. In my life I have wasted a significant amount of time and energy, running here and speeding there, chasing what I thought was brooks living water but turned out to be a series of dust-filled wells. Putting it in honest terms, I was busy but not effective.

As I look around me now, I can see that I am not the only person who is engaged in these fruitless races. On a near daily basis I encounter sincere people who have convinced themselves they are diligently racing toward a meaningful goal, only to find that like Solomon, they are chasing after the wind. These individuals, like myself, expend time, energy, and other resources in pursuit of self-defined visions that, in the end, are empty and unsatisfying. Others never quite reach the intended goal, but instead, waste valuable efforts chasing their own, self-designed greased pigs.

I vividly recall when this issue came to a head for me. One Sunday morning, as is my habit, I arose early. I spent time asking Sacred Light to speak to me regarding an issue I had been struggling with for some time. As is often the case, my tampering with this problem eventually led me to a state of perplexed paralysis. It was an issue related to how I was to proceed with one aspect of my professional life.

After praying, I sat quietly and gradually began to feel the peace of Sacred Light fall over me. It was nothing earth shattering and no burning bushes spoke to me, nor did any donkeys give utterance, but I had a palatable sense of the Sacred Light’s presence. This is significant in that it had been months since I had felt any sense of light in my life. It seemed that in my busyness, God had somehow gone on sabbatical. I longed for Light’s touch, even if only brief and subtle. I was, in essence, in a stark period of spiritual dryness.

I had several books at my side that I had been reading prior to my prayer time. I opened one of the books and soon came across these words by the French mystic Francois Fenelon:

Be silent and listen to God. Let your heart be in such a state of preparation that His Spirit may impress upon you such virtues that will please Him. Let all within you listen to Him….

Now comes the good part!

Don’t spend your time making plans that are just cobwebs – a breath of wind will come and blow them away. You have withdrawn from God and now you find that God has withdrawn the sense of His presence from you. Return to Him and give Him everything without reservation. There will be no peace otherwise. Let go of all you plans – God will do what He sees best for you.

Fenelon’s words hit me between the eyes like a Louisville Slugger. I knew immediately what I needed to do, even if it was going to be difficult. Like the Old Testament story about Abraham and Sarah, I had grown impatient waiting on God’s timing and gave birth to an Ishmael. I needed to return to God, wait in silence, and trust his promise of an Isaac. Basically, in my own anxiety and uncertainty of potential outcomes, I took charge of the situation and ended up at what seemed a dead end.

Trusting God to guide us and lead us to the place we need to go is not an easy proposition. This is especially true for those of us who are used to “making things happen.” I made the decision that Sunday morning to let the entire project go. I put it in God’s hands and, in his time, not mine, the situation worked out better than I could have ever manipulated on my own.

In practical terms, I discovered how important it was to be patient and wait on God’s benediction before I moved too far down a particular path of endeavor, be it spiritual or otherwise. In short, I learned the value of focus.

Recall for moment the adventure Peter had when he saw Jesus walking toward the disciples’ boat during a raging storm. Noted for his impulsive, impetuous nature, Peter jumped in and, with his attention riveted on Jesus, he, just as his Master, walked on water. Things were going swimmingly (I couldn’t resist that pun) until, for whatever reason, Peter took his focus off Jesus. Perhaps the howling of the wind or the high waves crashing over him distracted the lead disciple for a moment. For reasons really known only to Peter and Jesus, this loss of focus was an unmitigated disaster. Peter began to sink fast.

One of my favorite Christian authors, Erwin Raphael McManus, discusses this very scene from the gospel narrative and relates it to the issue of having a personal focus. McManus goes on to make the following insightful comments:

Part of what costs us the life we were created to live is that we don’t lock in. We lose focus because we become distracted by our circumstances. We get pulled out of the direction we’re supposed to be walking because we start looking in the wrong direction…..It’s so easy to get distracted by all the things going on around you. If you resolve to live the life of your dreams, if you refuse to settle for a life other than the one God created you to live, you’re going to see the waves and the wind. And it’s going to terrify you and you’re going to begin to sink. You have to decide to focus and lock in on the direction God has called you to live your life.

I wish I had been able to read these words from McManus’ excellent book Wide Awake years ago when I was struggling with the issue of focus. Chances are I might well have saved valuable time. Still, by God’s grace, I was able to become more zeroed in on the mission God had for me. It took a major health issue to accomplish this lesson in priorities and being sensitive to the leadings of the Holy Spirit. Yet once I followed the directions of the Spirit, I was better able to create an environment where the spiritual gifts and talents that lay within me could be manifested, honed, and utilized. McManus speaks to this aspect of focus as well:

Your potential becomes talent only when it is harnessed and developed. Your talents become strengths when they are focused and directed. It is here where you begin to discover who you are and the potential God has placed within you. A destiny is not something waiting for you but something waiting within you.

As we have seen, lack of proper focus can be a major stumbling block when it comes to realizing our potential and making our personal vision a reality. It is, however, not the only obstacle we face.

From consistent observation, I have found that one of the most fundamental problems confronting genuine spiritual seekers in these admittedly challenging times has little to do with external forces and factors. It is easy enough for us to sit back a distance from the “heathen culture” that surrounds us and wag our fingers at a society that by just about all indicators, appears to be heading toward moral and ethical bankruptcy at breakneck speed.

Indeed, it is not a difficult task to define and identify those aspects of the world around us that we find falling far short of the standards set forth by the Bible in general and Jesus in particular. Easy as these options may be, my observations have led me to the inescapable conclusion that our most significant problems as the church universal do not exist “out there.” Our weightiest issues rest within the parameters of our own walls.

We have met the enemy, and it is us.

I don’t mean to be trite or sarcastic here. Instead, with a heart of sincerity and sadness I want to confront at least one of these problems that seem to be draining the Body of Christ of its vitality and its power. I am not speaking of some sinister or deep rooted problem that will take great energy and countless committees to “study and investigate” the issue at hand. I am not talking about some vague, wispy metaphysical or doctrinal dilemma that, like a parasite, is eating away at the very fabric of our faith. I am talking about something far more simple in concept and personal in terms of solution.

I am talking about Christian complacency.

Far too many of our churches are experiencing a decline in vitality due to a creeping, insidious blight that normally goes unnoticed until the congregation is on the cusp of a suffocating death, vainly gasping for even a drop of breath, a touch of the Spirit to restore a chance at life and a rebirth of hope. This metaphor of life and death and breath and spirit may seem a bit dramatic and perhaps it is. It is highly appropriate, however. Many churches are dealing with issues of life and death as a result of decades of settling for maintaining the status quo. Further, the absence of breath and the absence of Spirit are synonymous. Man did not become a living being until God breathed life into him. Even more relevant is the fact that in many languages, the words for breath and spirit are the same.

The implications of this are readily apparent. Where there is no Spirit, there is no life. And where there is no life, there is death and disintegration. What is more tragic is the fact that much of this could have been avoided had it not been for that demon we are speaking of: complacency.

To Be Continued. . . . .

(c) L.D. Turner 2015/All Rights Reserved

The Necessity of Obedience

Mick Turner

It has taken me a long time to get this basic Christian teaching past my overly active, comfort seeking, rationalizing mind: obedience lies at the very core of the Christian walk of faith. It should be easy enough to see this fundamental reality but the fact is, no matter how many pious platitudes we may utter or how much lip service we may give to the importance of obedience, the church has a major blind spot when it comes to actually following the teachings of the Master.

I don’t know about you, but when I first became seriously aware of what obedience to Christ really entailed, I wanted to run for the nearest exit. It wasn’t so much that I saw the requirements as too restrictive. Instead, my desire to head for the hills flowed out of my honest self-assessment, which screamed: Ain’t no way I can pull this off.

And it was precisely at this juncture that I needed a solid, gifted mentor in Christ who, exuding wisdom, confidence, and agape love, would have informed me that this was the most amazing aspect of the whole gospel package: I didn’t have to pull it off. Christ was going to place a new spirit in me, and, in fact, he was going to take up residence in me and in so doing, he was going to empower me to live as he wanted me to live.

Unfortunately, no such mentor appeared. Instead, I was left with an incomplete understanding of the gospel message and how it applied to my life. Yes, I understood who Jesus was, at least marginally, and I understood that through his death on the cross my sins were forgiven. I had no inkling, however, of how Christ and the Holy Spirit were going to help transform me into new order of being.

Over the years I have come to see that the spiritual quagmire that I found myself in was not unusual. In fact, it seems to be the norm. The church has been woefully inadequate in preaching and teaching the full gospel message. Further, there appears to be a marked shortage of teaching on the role obedience plays in bringing about the godly lifestyle described in scripture. In an attempt to make the Christian life appealing to contemporary Americans, many church leaders, pastors, and teachers (far too many) have jettisoned the message of obedience in favor of a gospel of comfort, convenience, and cash flow. The result has been the creation of a Christian faith that is a superficial replica of what the Master intended.

For countless people who identify themselves as Christians, Christ is seen as their Savior but certainly not as Lord. As stated, this shallow sort of Christianity is not what Jesus intends when he issues the call, “Follow me.” Time and time again, scripture reveals that much of our inheritance as Christians hinges upon our obedience to the teachings laid down to us by the Master. Unfortunately, the whole “grace vs. works” issue has clouded this reality to the point that the vast majority of Protestant believers have little understanding of the necessity of obedience in the Christian walk of faith. If you have any confusion on this issue, I suggest you prayerfully and with reflection spend time with the closing section of the Sermon on the Mount, specifically Matthew 7:21-27.

In his latest book, Follow Me, David Platt takes up the practical implications of what it means to walk the Christian path as a disciple, as opposed to a cultural or non-committed “believer.” Platt makes the point, and I have long said the same thing, that “making a decision” for Christ, or “taking Jesus as your personal savior,” or “inviting Jesus into your heart,” are all woefully inadequate in becoming a true follower of Christ. Only one thing will guarantee that you are indeed an authentic Christian: obedience.

Christ repeats this time and time again, along with his call to repentance and his teachings on the necessity of “taking up one’s cross,” which basically means to die to self. It is apparent, however, that we as a church have found all manner of clever strategies for watering down these teachings or worse, ignoring them completely. Platt laments:

With good intentions and sincere desires to reach as many people as possible for Jesus, we have subtly and deceptively minimized the magnitude of what it means to follow him. We’ve replaced challenging words from Christ with trite phrases in the church. We’ve taken the lifeblood out of Christianity and put Kool-Aid in its place so that it tastes better to the crowds, and the consequences are catastrophic. Multitudes of men and women at this moment think that they are saved from their sins when they are not. Scores of people around the world culturally think that they are Christians when biblically they are not.

Earlier in the book, Platt describes how “belief,” although important and even essential, is far from the whole enchilada when it comes to treading the Christian path. The church has perpetrated a glaring disservice to “converts” by stressing the need for belief without a concomitant commitment to obedience to Christ. After all, scripture openly tells us that even the demons believe (James 2:19). Platt goes on to say:

Clearly, people who claim to believe in Jesus are not assured of eternity in heaven. On the contrary, only those who obey Jesus will enter his Kingdom. As soon as I write that, you may perk up and ask, “David, did you just say that works are involved in our salvation?” In response to that question, I want to be clear: that is not what I am saying…….Instead, it’s what Jesus is saying.

Platt goes on to make the clear point that Jesus is not saying that our works are the basis of our salvation. The Master, and later Paul, makes it quite clear that only grace is the basis of our salvation. I think the point Platt is trying to make, and it is the same point I have made on numerous occasions in this blog, is that the church has put so much emphasis and stress on God’s unmerited grace, that our part in the overall Christian walk of faith has been minimized and, in some cases, completely ignored. The result has been a Christianity that is quite frankly, a shallow farce which lacks transformative power. Worse, it has deceived far too many “believers” into thinking they are authentically Christian when, in fact, they are not. Referring to Jesus words at the end of Matthew 7, Platt continues:

…….in our rush to defend grace, we cannot overlook the obvious in what Jesus is saying here (and in many other places as well): only those who are obedient to the words of Christ will enter the Kingdom of Christ. If our lives do not reflect the fruit of following Jesus, then we are foolish to think that we are actually followers of Jesus in the first place.

Rather than following a knee-jerk reaction to those words, spend some time prayerfully reflecting on what Platt just said, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal to you just where you stand in relation to this issue. To what extent are you obedient to the teachings of the Master? Granted, no one is perfect, but how consistent are you in putting your faith, as defined by Jesus, into daily practice? Does your life indeed reflect the fruit of following Jesus?

Only you can answer these questions with any degree of honesty. If you ask the Holy Spirit, he will give you the discernment you need to make an honest, self-assessment. I know when I spent time reflecting on these themes, it was a real eye-opener that resulted in one of those life-changing, epiphany-like moments. And I hope it can become the same for you.

© L.D. Turner 2013/All Rights Reserved

The Apologetics of Incarnational Living

Mick Turner

Any thoughtful, observant Christian should be aware by now that the Western church is in crisis. Don’t be deceived by the growth of the so-called “mega-churches” and the various and sundry “evangelistic explosions” that we see taking place. The fact is, people are leaving the faith in droves and fewer new faces are coming through the doors. Moreover, these dwindling numbers, along with our culture’s increasing negative view of Christianity, have relegated the church to a position of peripheral social influence.

Once the bedrock upon which our culture’s value system was built, the church is now little more than marginal voice in the constantly shifting tides of post-modern America. Identified by most Americans as joined at the hip with Right-Wing Conservatism, the church is viewed with increasing disdain and animosity. Traditional attempts at evangelism and apologetics only seem to make the situation worse. Evangelism is seen as an attempt by elitist Christians to ram their faith down people’s throats and apologetics is viewed as an archaic attempt to make the unreasonable make sense.

If the church is to survive, drastic changes must take place. It should be obvious by now that the old ways of “doing church,” especially evangelism, is doomed to failure.

Personally, I have come to believe that the most effective form of Christianity involves being faithful to our calling to incarnate Christ to a hurting world. This is the essence of what is often called “Kingdom living.” It is a lifestyle which, if carried out with compassion and commitment, will in and of itself draw people to the faith. It involves a simple paradigm: find a pressing social need and address it.

Put simply, it means giving flesh to grace. This is what Christ did and we are called to no less.

When people of faith express the love of God through acts of service and kindness, people take notice. These simple acts of grace accomplish far more than reasoned arguments, stadium rallies, popular seminars, and best-selling books. These simple acts of grace, especially given the church’s increasingly negative image in our culture, are the most effective forms of evangelistic activity we can engage in. It was not so different in the early church, which can serve as a model for what we should be doing.

In the middle of the Third Century a terrible plague devastated the Mediterranean world, dealing death to large swaths of the population. Many of those stricken with the disease were sent out of the cities, destined to die agonizing deaths alone and terrified. The Christian faithful, however, responded in a much different fashion. Dionysius, the bishop of Alexandria, describes the acts of grace this way:

Most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves and thinking only of one another. Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ, and with them departed this life serenely happy; for they were infected by others with the disease, drawing on themselves the sickness of their neighbors and cheerfully accepting t heir pains. Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.

Many people were drawn to the fledgling church by the acts of service and sacrifice that so typified the early Christians. I am of the belief that it is here that the modern church can find its methodology of renewal. Crafting theological arguments is not the answer in today’s post-modern culture; nor is allying the church with a political party or ideology. Withdrawing into our own “Christian culture” is equally misguided. Instead, we need to immerse ourselves into the hurts of this world and find creative ways to bring God’s healing light to those hurts. Anything else misses the point.

Paul stressed that in order to be effective witnesses for the gospel, we must become “living epistles.” We must become open letters that anyone can read and by reading, come to a deeper understanding of just who this radical Galilean was and is. It is a high calling, indeed and not one to be taken lightly. If we take Jesus’ words about the final judgment as recorded in the 26th Chapter of Matthew as true, then it should be obvious to even the most dense among us that the litmus test for defining a Christian is not belief in Christ, but in embodying Christ.

Michael Frost, in his excellent book Exiles, points out that this incarnational living is incumbent upon all who would claim Jesus as Master and Teacher:

Practicing the presence of Christ means being a living example of the life of Jesus. This raises the stakes enormously. It means that our lives need to become increasingly aligned with the example of Jesus. It doesn’t require sinless obedience – as if that’s possible anyway. It means, though, increasingly becoming people of justice, kindness, mercy, strength, hope, grace, generosity, and hospitality.

Yes, this divine calling is an invitation to a life of fulfillment and reward beyond our imagining, if we will only yield ourselves to it with complete abandon. Yet for many of us, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. Still, it is necessary to move forward as best we can, relying on the promises of God and the empowerment of the indwelling Holy Spirit. For many of us, we get better in spite of ourselves. I know that is often true in my case.

This call to emulate Christ is a call to give flesh to grace. The whole story-line of God’s Great Saga is one of proactive grace. God saw that we needed grace and gave us Christ and Christ saw that the world needed grace and gave the world us. Just pause and chew on that one for a minute. What a great honor and what a great responsibility.

As “living epistles” we have the opportunity to meet God in the divine moment, what Erwin Raphael McManus calls the “epicenter of God’s activity.” When we consistently engage in these acts of Christian kindness, we in essence become what Gary Thomas accurately calls “God Oases.” Thomas explains:

A holy man or woman is a spiritual force, a “God oasis,” in a world that needs spiritually strong people. When the winds of turmoil hit, such people become shelters; their faith provides a covering for all. By their words and actions, by the ways they listen and use their eyes to love instead of lust, to honor instead of hate, to build up instead of tear down, holy men and women are like streams of water in the desert, affirming what God values most. When the heat of temptation threatens to tear this world apart, godly men and women become like the shadow of a great rock. These God oases carry Christ to the hurting, to the ignorant, to those in need. They will be sought out, and they will have something to say.

I find this description of godly men and women highly inspirational, not to mention vivifying. Thomas’ words encourage us to sensitize ourselves more and more to God’s activity in this world and further, to take compassionate action in emulating Christ’s acts of grace and healing. In ways both great and small, we can locate that epicenter of God’s activity and get to work.

It is nothing less than our calling, our responsibility, and our honor. And in so doing, it is my earnest prayer that more and more of us can become living epistles – God oases – and give incarnation to the godly image described in Isaiah 32:2:

Each man will be like a shelter from the wind

and a shelter from the storm,

like streams of water in the desert

and the shadow of a great rock in a thirsty land.

© L.D. Turner 2010/ 2014/All Rights Reserved

Serving Where You Are Planted

Mick Turner

First and Second Corinthians are two of my favorite books in the Bible, primarily because Paul, in speaking to the wayward believers in Corinth, addresses many themes that are pertinent both to our churches today and to each of us as individual Christ-followers. In the seventh Chapter of First Corinthians, for example, the Apostle puts the spotlight on several issues that believers grapple with today, including our questions about where we are to serve and how.

So often these days we hear sincere Christians struggling with questions regarding their calling and mission. There seems to be much confusion on these issues and, like many other aspects of the faith, perhaps some of that confusion comes from our tendency to complicate simple matters. At least in my own life, I can say that this has often been the case.

In 7:17 Paul lays the foundation for his discussion by stating, “Each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him.” A little later, in verse 20, he continues with a similar statement, “Each one should remain in the situation he was in when God called him.” The Apostle then repeats the same teaching in relation to difficult work situations, “Each man, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation God called him to.”(1 Cor. 7:24)

Keep in mind that the large majority of Christians in Corinth at this time were new believers. I think we often lose track of the fact that Paul’s letters were addressed to the congregations of fledgling churches that needed much instruction and guidance. The Apostle’s repetitive statements indicate that there must have been a number of situations in the Corinthian church were believers thought they needed to change their circumstances now that they were Christians. Paul’s message is a clear one: It is best to serve God where you were planted when he called you.

As new believers, we often overlook the possibility that God may have a specific purpose for us exactly where we are. The reality is we are often called to be salt and light in the context of our families, our marriages, our jobs, our schools, and just about anywhere else we might find ourselves when God finds us. Those of us who are seasoned Christians need to keep this in mind, especially when we are in a position of mentoring a new believer in the discernment of God’s call on their lives.

There is a caveat here, however. I don’t think Paul was saying that this principle held in all situations. Careful reading of his other letters reveal that the Apostle believed it was sometimes best to get out of a situation that was likely to cause one to stumble. I think this is one of the reasons he encouraged believers to avoid “bad company.” For example, I would not want to encourage a woman in a relationship where she is consistently battered and abused by her husband to remain there. By the same token, I would never advise a new Christian who had just become sober to remain in a job as a bar tender or cocktail waitress. The reasons for this are obvious. These, however, are exceptions and not the rule. It is clear from Paul’s repetitive statements that his belief is that new believers can often serve God best right where they are. Hence the old adage, “Serve where you are planted.”

I have been blessed over the years with the privilege of mentoring a significant number of new believers. Most of these fresh Christians were both enthusiastic and eager to do all that they could for the Lord. As a mentor, it is vital not to dowse the fire the Spirit has ignited in these new converts. However, it is equally important to guide them in such a way that their spiritual energy doesn’t cause them to make unhealthy decisions that could have damaging results. Granted, this is a fine line for the mentor to discern and it can be like walking a tightrope. Much prayer is needed.

Further, I firmly believe that assisting believers, both new and seasoned, discover their calling is enhanced by having a sense of what God is doing in terms of the big picture. Sometimes discerning a move of God can be difficult, but for the most part, we can rest assured that the Lord will make his intentions known to us if we keep our hearts reasonably pure and maintain an intimate relationship with him. Also, we should keep before us the main themes of God’s Great Story. Any movement of God is going to take place in context of his overall plan of renewal and restoration.

As I said earlier, I have a genuine fondness for the Corinthian letters and the important themes addressed in these two books of the Bible. Planting where you are served is just one of the issues touched upon by the Apostle. In the days ahead, I will address a few more as we explore together the baby church in Corinth. I suspect we will find more similarity than we expect between our 21st Century Church in America and our ancient brothers and sisters in Corinth.

© L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved

Cultivating Sacred Character: The Role of Spiritual Disciplines (Part Two)

Mick Turner

In Part One of this essay, we discussed the importance of engaging in the classical Christian spiritual disciplines if we are to work with the Holy Spirit in cultivating Sacred Character in our lives. Certainly scripture is not silent on this issue of discipline and discipleship. Scripture, especially the New Testament, repeatedly stresses the importance of discipline, prayer, meditation, and spiritual endeavors.

It is apparent, however, that the church lost its focus on the practice of spiritual disciplines over the years. As mentioned in Part One, I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of the historical “faith/works” controversy. The result has been a general sense of confusion on the part of the Christian community in terms of the spiritual technology available to those who desire a deeper walk of faith.

One of the primary reason today’s church is becoming less of a force in society and even in the lives of those professing to be Christian is the fact that for many years the Body of Christ as a whole had lost the real meaning of the word “disciple.” Dallas Willard speaks directly to this tragedy:

For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership – either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church. I would be glad to learn of any exception to this claim, but it would only serve to highlight its general validity and make the general rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship is clearly optional.

This lack of emphasis on discipleship in the contemporary church has led to many unfortunate circumstances, not the least of which is that so many Christians are walking around feeling as wounded, depressed, and hopeless as those outside the faith. That this is so, however, should not be surprising. Christ did not call us to a “country club” religion. In fact, he didn’t call us to religion at all. He called us to relationship and mission. To participate in this life-giving relationship and to fulfill our mission as Christ-followers, we must indeed become just that – Christ-followers. Tragically, few realize that this involves far more than belief in a few arcane doctrines, tossing off an occasional prayer, and being a tithing member of a local congregation. And perhaps nothing is more essential in this challenging age than having an army of true Christ-followers. Willard understands this necessity:

Nothing less than life in the steps of Christ is adequate to the human soul or the needs of our world. Any other offer fails to do justice to the drama of human redemption, deprives the hearer of life’s greatest opportunity, and abandons this present life to the evil powers of this age. The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.

The notion that deep discipleship was optional was not a part of the early church. Willard continues:

…there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggest that you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him.

In Paul’s remarkable prayer to the Ephesians (3:19) he petitions the Lord that “you may be filled with the fullness of God.” Have you ever really reflected on the magnitude of what the Apostle is saying in these few words? Basically, what Paul is asking God is that the believers in Ephesus become like Jesus. Any close examination of scripture reveals that the goal of our development as disciples of Christ is to become Christ-like; in essence, we are to cultivate Sacred Character.

Later on in Ephesians (4:15) Paul goes on to say, “Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” This statement by Paul should not surprise us. Two verses earlier he flatly that in achieving maturity, we are to attain “the measure of the full stature of Christ.” I don’t know about you, but when I read this statement two things immediately occur within me. First, I am strongly convicted about how far I am from manifesting this kind of maturity in my daily life but, secondly, I am filled with hope that it is at least remotely possible. Paul would have never put it this way, under the leading of the Holy Spirit, unless it was indeed true.

In addition to the church’s general lack of focus on the spiritual disciplines and their strategic necessity in the life of the believer, two other problems seem to complicate the issue and result in either lackluster commitment to practicing the disciplines or, even worse, a general paralysis on the part of Christians when they attempt to make the disciplines a vital part of their walk of faith.

First, even though many churches are now speaking directly to the importance of the spiritual disciplines, it seems that this renewed focus spawns a loud and most often irrational outcry from fundamentalist believers who feel practicing the classical spiritual disciplines is somehow either a “New Age infiltration of the church,” or worse still, “the work of Satan.” This resistance is usually based on the general lack of understanding of what advocates of the spiritual disciplines are trying to accomplish. Writers such as Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Brian McLaren, and countless others are branded “arch-heretics,” “apostates,” and even “dupes of the enemy.” This is highly unfortunate because nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of leading people away from the truth of the gospel, these authors are, instead, making a compassionate attempt to direct people toward experiencing the very heart of the gospel.

The blather and fear-based banter of these self-appointed doctrinal “watchmen” only serves to confuse sincere Christians even more and many times prevents them from finding the true heart of the gospel message. Even worse, keeps them bound in the chains of a narrow, rigid world view which is devoid of spirituality and arid when it comes to Christian love.

A second problem stems from the fact that the classic spiritual traditions were formulated centuries ago and are often wrapped in language and tone that is quite alien from our 21st Century world. I know from personal experience that studying the Christian mystics of the Middle Ages is a very fruitful endeavor, but can be quite a challenge due to the archaic language used in the texts. What is needed is a reformulation of the disciplines that is both understandable and engaging to the modern reader.

With this thought in mind, here at LifeBrook we have developed a method of exploring the principles that are contained in the classical spiritual traditions that is hopefully more pertinent and practical when it comes to life in the 21st Century. In brief, we teach workshops, seminars, training programs, and e-courses based on the following breakout of the disciplines:

Discipline of Consecration

Discipline of Connection

Discipline of Cognition

Discipline of Contribution

Discipline of Community

Discipline of Comprehension

Discipline of Calling

Discipline of Cultural Engagement

Discipline of Cultivation

Consecration includes: decision, determination, diligence, commitment, perseverance, patience, etc. Consecration occurs when we have decided in the depth of our hearts that we want to experience and possess all that God has for us. Scripture alludes to the fact that God has graciously provided us with all that we need to live a life of holiness, fulfillment, and usefulness. These free gifts of grace now exist on the spiritual realm and it is part of our spiritual unfolding to bring God’s blessings for us down out of the spiritual world and into manifestation in our daily lives.

Connection includes: prayer, meditation, contemplation, solitude, nature

Cognition includes: taking thoughts captive; tearing down strongholds; mindfulness; positive thinking; sacred imagination. Paul tells us that we are to be transformed by the renewal of our minds and it is in the Discipline of Conscious Cognition that we work with the Holy Spirit to bring about this transformation of our thought life. The Discipline of Conscious Cognition is based on the reality that everything begins with our thoughts. This principle cannot be stated too often. “As a man thinks in his heart, so he is.”

Contribution includes: sacred service; spiritual gifts; mission; sacrifice, and most importantly, continuing incarnation.

Community includes: our family and friends; our church; our community; our nature; our world.

Comprehension includes: sacred study of Scripture and other inspirational writings; understanding of God’s Great Story; realization of where we fit into the “Big Picture,” including the role of the church in the coming years.

Calling includes: discovery of where we, as individuals, fit into God’s unfolding story in terms of our calling, our mission, and our vision of how to live out our God-ordained destiny.

Cultural Engagement includes: making ourselves ready to incarnate God’s plan within the context of post-modern, post-Christian culture in general and our own unique cultural setting in particular.

Cultivation includes: ongoing growth in Christ-character by internalizing a Christian value system and acting in accordance with it; and the development of a Christian worldview, along with the capacity to have our actions consistently flow from said worldview.

We fully recognize that this methodology does not represent the final word as far as contemporary expression of the spiritual disciplines is concerned. We have found, however, that looking at the spiritual technology of the Christian tradition in this way helps students and seekers understand the disciplines more clearly.

It is my profound hope that an increasing number of churches will come to understand the importance of equipping congregants with practical, time-tested methods for deepening the Christian walk of faith.

(c) L.D. Turner 2009/2014/All Rights Reserved

Fresh Wind and Raised Sails: Fresh Perspectives on the Christian Faith

Mick Turner

The Grace of God is like the wind blowing across the sea; if you want to reach the other side you need to raise your sail.

Rufus Jones

Over the past decade author and teacher Brian McLaren has stirred up a hornet’s nest of controversy within the church, particularly among those believers of a more conservative, fundamentalist bent. Fueled by his own spiritual journey as well as a deep understanding that the church must find new wineskins in which it can spread the life-giving teachings of Jesus, McLaren has stepped on more than a few theological toes along the way.

McLaren clearly understands that his mission is a daunting one, yet he continues to move forward in spite of a constant din of criticism coming from the more rigid, backward-looking quarters of the faith. As a person who cares deeply about the church, McLaren also knows that unless these new wineskins are developed, the massive exodus from the sanctuaries across America will continue.

In A New Kind of Christianity McLaren lists ten questions that might frame the discussion, which leads to a fresh definition of the faith. These questions are:

  1. The narrative question: “What is the overarching story line of the Bible?”
  2. The authority question: “How should the Bible be understood?”
  3. The God question: “Is God violent?”
  4. The Jesus question: “Who is Jesus and why is he important?”
  5. The gospel question: “What is the gospel?”
  6. The church question: “What do we do about the church?”
  7. The sex question: “Can we find a way to address human sexuality without fighting about it?”
  8. The future question: “Can we find a better way of viewing the future?”
  9. The pluralism question: “How should followers of Jesus relate to people of other religions?”
  10. The-what-do-we-do-now- question: “How can we translate our quest into action?”

In describing the current context in which these vital questions are being asked, McLaren makes the following cogent remarks:

These ten questions are, to recall Dylan’s epic line, blowing in the wind around us. Even if we’ve never heard them articulated, they have been hovering just outside our conscious awareness. They trouble our conventional paradigms of faith just as the ten plagues of frogs, gnats, flies, and hail plagued the Egyptians in the Exodus story. When people tell us to be quiet and accept the conventional answers we’ve been given in the past, many of us groan like the ancient Hebrews when they were forced to produce bricks without straw. We cry out to God, “Please set us free!” We cry out to preachers and theologians, “Let us go! Let us find some space to think, to worship God outside the bars and walls and fences in which we are constrained and imprisoned. We’ll head out into the wilderness – risk hunger, thirst, exposure, death – but we can’t sustain this constrained way of thinking, believing, and living much longer. We need to ask the questions that are simmering in our souls.”

If recent history tells us anything for certain, these questions are indeed being raised. And one more thing – if sincere, thinking, seeking followers of Jesus cannot find the freedom to explore their questions, doubts, and concomitant gray areas within the parameters of the traditional faith, they will find that freedom elsewhere. The exodus from organized Christianity over the last half-century proves this beyond any question.

I sincerely believe McLaren’s voice is a prophetic one and his message, although he would never admit or assert this, is of divine origin. God is calling to his people, insisting that they come out from the theological and denominational prisons religious leaders have fabricated over the centuries. A fresh wind is blowing my friends, a wind that carries a message of liberation, hope, and rejuvenation.

And just as in those biblical times so long ago, anytime a prophetic wind sweeps across the landscape, voices of opposition arise in an attempt to quell the latest movement of God. Shamefully enough, more often than not those contrary voices come not from the non-religious, but instead, from our religious leaders themselves. This is no less true today than it was at the time of the Master. Jesus contended with the Pharisees of his day and so do we. With an agenda bent upon maintaining the status quo at all cost, these critics are loud, judgmental, and fearful. McLaren has been accused of apostasy, heresy, and everything from being the brother of Beelzebub to creating a limp-wristed Jesus.

Turning briefly to another angle on all of this, it is important that we understand that the term “Christian” has taken on a generally negative connotation in contemporary culture. Perhaps this is somewhat less true in the Bible Belt where I live, but for the most part, when people hear the word “Christian,” it brings to mind a stereotype of “rigid, judgmental, narrow-minded, homo-hating bigots.”  Whether this reality is justified or not is open to debate, however, the fact is such a reality indeed exists. Perhaps this has occurred as a result of far too many professing Christians have settled for an empty shell of the real thing. Jesus charged us with making disciples, not Christians. McLaren explains:

We might say that “Christians” are people who have entered a certain sedentary membership or arrived at a status validated by some group or institution, while “disciples” are learners (or unlearners) who have started on a rigorous and unending journey or quest in relation to Jesus Christ. It’s worth noting in this regard that the word “Christian” occurs in the New Testament exactly three times and the word “Christianity” exactly zero. The word “disciple,” however, is found 263 times.

I can say without reservation that what we need today is not more Christians, but instead, more disciples of Jesus. By that term I don’t mean a cadre of holier-than-thou Morality Marshalls or Thought Police and certainly not a mega-flock of Super Christians out to convert the heathen and keep an eye on the Democrats.

I am talking about an increasing number of highly committed, consecrated disciples of the Master who seek to deepen their vital connection with the Divine and bring about his kingdom on earth – a noble mission if there ever was one. Driven by a heart of compassion flowing from an internalized understanding of the interconnection of all existence, these rejuvenated disciples form communities that thrive on consistent, loving service to others while, at the same time, seeking to establish religious, social, economic, and political institutions based on kingdom principles of equality, justice, and compassion.

Brian McLaren is but one of a host of fresh voices being used by God in this exciting yet challenging time. Like McLaren, many of these relatively new voices are calling for a reevaluation of all that has gone before. And believe me when I say this is no small, isolated movement. It is, instead, a groundswell emerging from the spiritual grassroots. Fueled by the energy and passion of many young, vital believers this new Christianity is attracting a great deal of positive attention from those outside the traditional church culture. Social researcher George Barna puts it this way:

The United States is home to an increasing number of Revolutionaries. These people are devout followers of Jesus Christ who are serious about their faith, who are constantly worshiping and interacting with God, and whose lives are centered on their belief in Christ. Some of them are aligned with a congregational church, but many of them are not. The key to understanding Revolutionaries is not what church they attend, or even if they attend. Instead, it’s their complete dedication to being thoroughly Christian by viewing every moment of life through a spiritual lens and making every decision in light of biblical principles. These are individuals who are determined to glorify God every day through every thought, word, and deed in their lives.

Giving a more personal face to this new breed of Christ-follower, Barna, in his seminal volume entitled, Revolution: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary, describes a “Revolutionary” by the name of David this way:

David, you see, is a Revolutionary Christian. His life reflects the very ideals and principles that characterized the life and purpose of Jesus Christ and that advance the Kingdom of God – despite the fact that David rarely attends church services. He is typical of a new breed of disciples of Jesus Christ. They are not willing to play religious games and aren’t interested in being part of a religious community that is not intentionally and aggressively advancing God’s Kingdom. They are people who want more of God – much more – in their lives. And they are doing whatever it takes to get it.

Increasingly, we see more of the old faith structures crumbling, often from their own ineffectiveness and lack of relevancy. As this process goes forward, we also are witness to many of the walls and barriers that formerly separated people and cultures falling as well. To say this is God’s will is a vast understatement. Jesus’ entire ministry was an example of reaching out to those considered unclean or unapproachable. Jesus stressed unity at every turn and this theme was echoed time and time again in the writings of Paul.

This process of tearing down walls of separation and creating avenues of connection and unity has at its heart a desire to resurrect and implement a fundamental Christian principle that has generally been lost in the American church. Our nation was founded on and developed through a people driven by a central cultural icon: rugged individualism. The positive progress engendered by this peculiarly American value is without question. However, we must understand that no matter how theologians, preachers, and laypersons alike have tried to marry this individualism to the Christian faith, they have created a form of Christianity that runs counter to the faith envisioned by Christ.

Fortunately, more and more of these new, revolutionary disciples are coming to understand that a core mission fueled the practice and the success of the early church and it is precisely that core mission that was mentioned at the beginning of the preceding paragraph. The way of living increasingly exemplified in the lives of this new breed of disciple is rooted in the ancient Christian practice known as the common good. Author and social researcher Gabe Lyons explains:

This simple phrase means “the most good for all people.” Aristotle first conceived it, but Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth century Roman Catholic philosopher, honed it well as a Christian conception of how Christians ought to live alongside others in society. This strict definition of the common good – the most good for all people – doesn’t prefer one human being over another; instead, it values all human life and wants what is best for all people, Christian or not. It motivates these next Christians to care for all people, whether young or old, disabled, impaired, unborn, or otherwise different from themselves in race, religion, socioeconomic status, or worldview. . . . . . . .Practicing this common good mentality – where good deeds are also seen as integral to Christian mission – can actually have a positive impact on culture at large.

I find it highly refreshing to see this long-standing Christian conception of “common good” begin to reemerge into the light of day. As mentioned before, our culture’s obsession with individuality, coupled with Capitalisms “every man for himself” ethic has submerged the spiritual principle of common good, relegating it to the spiritual hinterland where it only makes an appearance as a trite platitude around the holidays. When you look at the life of Jesus, you quickly see that he placed common good at the very center of his worldview and more importantly, his daily lifestyle. As his followers, we are called to no less.

We began this article by looking at the ten questions posed by Brian McLaren; questions which we can use to frame our discussions of how we, as followers of the Master Jesus, may proceed. As we look at these questions we also discover that our personal spiritual formation and the corporate mission of the church are intimately connected. When things are working as they should, the latter provides direction and support to help facilitate the former. Experience has shown, however, that this is rarely the case. As the future unfolds, rectifying this kind of spiritual misfiring has to be rectified if the church hopes to survive.

More often than not, when we analyze the factors that contribute to the church’s failure to follow Christ’s command to “make disciples,” we find old, time-worn paradigms taking center stage. “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” and “If it was good enough for Grandma Becky, then it’s good enough for me,” or similar refrains echo down the vacant pews in near-empty sanctuaries. Still, one can hope and the new, vibrant kind of Christians we have discussed in this article give us a reasonable foundation upon which we can base that hope. And the church, with all its warts, blemishes, and even its scandals, can still surprise us at times with its resiliency and its ability to transcend the ball and chain of irrelevant tradition. These are special times when something sublime – something mystical – something life-changing is taking place. McLaren describes these experiences this way:

Rare moments come to us in our journey when the penny drops, the tumblers click, the pieces fall into place, the lights come on, and our breath is taken away. The old paradigm falls away behind us like a port of departure, and we are won over to new possibilities, caught up in a new way of seeing, looking toward a new and wide horizon. The Lord has more light and truth to break forth, we believe, and so we raise our sails to the wind of the Spirit.

(c) L.D. Turner 2011/2014/All Rights Reserved