What is unique in you?

I have had several individuals who know me describe me as more cerebral than emotional.  From the inside, this doesn’t feel right, but I understand how they can say that. I have degrees in engineering and statistic, which would imply more cognitive than emotive.  However, much of my childhood would best be described as impulsive and free-spirited.  And I loved the classes in all my schooling which weren’t cut and dried content.

Much of my walk with Christ has also been formed through the study of God’s word and the books I have read. I have grown in my understanding of the faith and my walk with Christ more from a cognitive perspective. I am more of a thinker and that is okay. It is one of the ways I am uniquely made. My growth history and profile may look very different from others. This is what Paul is telling us in Ephesians 2.8-10

8-9For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

The first two verses (8 & 9) clearly describe the foundation of a new life in Christ and verse 10 describes the result of this new life. We are told that we are a masterpiece (one-of-a-kind novel), for which he has designed good workings that only each of us can do. No one else can do the things that God has designed for you to do.

I find it interesting how often we get the foundation and the result mixed up. So many people try to work enough for God to be accepted by him and never experience the freedom of being who God created them to be. Rather, this passage clearly asserts there is nothing you can do to earn God’s approval, but as you accept his gift of new life in Christ by faith, then you experience a quality of life that enables you to BE who he really created you to be.

Think about it. You didn’t come into a new life to get into heaven. The gospel isn’t about fire insurance. I know that may upset some of you reading this, but as you experience freedom that results from this gift of God, called grace; you are free to be the unique person and do unique things that only you can do. 

Think of how many cool things this world has missed because people never embraced their distinctive role here on earth. They didn’t engage with God to do and be who he created them to be. So what exceptional workings does God want to do in and through you?  Long ago, I realized this doesn’t mean everyone else will notice. Quite to the contrary, it may only be between you and your Lord. But he will know and so will you.

You are God’s plan A. God has no plan B. There is no backup for you.

Read verse 10 again.

God has designed you into the very fabric of this universe. God did this by intentionally putting into you some very very unique characteristics that you don’t share with anyone else.  AND because of the irreplaceable nature you possess, he wants to walk with you in life (this present life and beyond) working in ways that are specifically designed for you. You will be able to do things no one else can do! You will be able to be someone no one else can be!

I would contend (along with Dallas Willard, CS Lewis, and many others), that these exclusive attributes of yours will follow you into eternity. You are just going to sit on a cloud playing a harp, but rather doing what only you are equipped to do.

Wow, only this can give eternal value to each of us in Christ.

Next week I want to talk about what is not okay with being unique. I wished some people could really celebrate their uniqueness, while I wish others wouldn’t expect or export their unique perspective onto others.

What Do You Read?

So how much of what you read or listen to do you agree with? I have been criticized by some Christians for the kinds of authors I read. I read very widely and a lot. However, I read authors who profess no faith in Christ as often as those who do. Even within the Christian faith, I read or listen to many who think and believe much differently than I. 

Why do I read people who are so different than me? Let me first confess that I used to brag that I graduated from the University of Michigan with an Engineering degree without having read a book. I am not proud of this now, but I was then. I used “Cliff Notes”, (something younger individuals won’t understand) to skim my way through the language art courses in high school and college. I am embarrassed by this today. 

However, after graduating from college, I started dating seriously and realized I had no clue how to do it well. So I started reading books on dating and marriage. I soon learned that authors often didn’t agree on the same subjects, so I decided to read a lot in this area using my own mind as an incubator of what I was reading. 

The subjects expanded quickly and my thirst for learning has continued unabated for the past 47 years since then. I learned that by reading people who disagree with each other and even me, I would learn and grow in unanticipated ways. My faith deepened and I struggled through my own issues and reading. My walk with Christ is so much deeper today because of the way I have been stretched to think and walk in new ways. I am not talking about deconstructing my faith as is so often discussed today by those who are jettisoning their faith. No, I was learning to love the Lord with all my heart, with all my mind, and with all my soul and strength.

So why do sincere Christians find fault with me because I read widely? Many followers of Christ think you should only fill your mind with people who think or act like you do. This doesn’t really promote learning; I would suggest it promotes confirming. These are totally different concepts. Learning means I am forced to think in a new way. I consider what I know or believe and weigh it with the new information I am taking in. Confirming implies I already know all I need to know and all I need to do is find more reasons to continue to believe what I do.

I am glad when I married Mary Kay I didn’t assume I knew all I needed to know about her and our relationship; even after 10, 20, 30, or 40 years I didn’t figure I knew all I needed to know. I am glad I didn’t just confirm what I knew (or thought I knew) when we got married, but I have continued to learn. Now, after 45 years of marriage, we are still learning, growing, and changing in our relationship. I am sometimes startled by something in her or me that I had no clue of before. We are still growing.

The same is in our relationship with our Lord. I hope you would be open to learning, changing, and even being surprised by some things which are different from what you thought you knew in the past. 

Too many Christians find comfort in thinking they know all they need to know. There is no longer a seeking of God, or their seeking is doing it in all the ways they have done it before. Both the Old Testament and New Testament are filled with passages about our need to continue to seek God. We are to continue to grow in our understanding of our relationship with Him throughout our entire lifetimes.

I love Paul’s acknowledgment when he writes in Philippians 3

8-9What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. 
10-11I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead.
12Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 
13-14Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 3:8-14

Paul considered everything a loss compared to knowing Christ deeply. He was so secure in this intimate relationship that he didn’t consider what he knew or where he was or even who he was at this point as something to hold on to. No, even late in his life when he wrote this letter to the Philippians, he still felt there was so much more to learn. So forgetting what he had learned, he continued to press on or strive to know Christ more intimately which surely required learning things anew.

I know Paul read material he didn’t agree with. He quotes a pagan poet in Athens (Acts 17.28) when he talked to the philosophers of his day. Paul was always learning right up to his last days on earth (2 Timothy 4.13). 

My prayer is that I, too, will be learning and growing in my walk with Christ until my last days on earth.

Open Your Window – Episode 4: The Church Today

In this series on Open your Window, we have been looking at why so few Christians have wide-open windows of faith as demonstrated by their lives. We have seen how anxiety in our culture and the Christian’s reaction to stress has reduced their ability to live by faith as demonstrated through Covid. The last factor which I want to deal with is the way churches function today. The scripture portrays followers of Christ as different from others who are not in love with Jesus. The scriptures also portray churches as the means to develop these disciples.

What are disciples?

These apprentices or disciples of Christ live differently. Their lives are typified by contentment, so they are not bothered when they don’t get their way; they know their Lord is in control.

  • They believe things will work out despite circumstances, not because of them. This results from their faith in a sovereign God.
  • They are full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control which produces healthy relationships with all people.
  • They are loving with those who are like them as well as those who are very different.
  • They live their lives in such a way that there are no secrets and others are drawn to them because of their vibrancy for life.
  • Finally, they freely demonstrate compassion with others, so they freely share what they have and know with them.

2 Peter 1.3-8 states it this way:

His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Peter 1.3-8

Peter tells us that the lives of Christians would be demonstratively distinctive from others whose lives have not been transformed by Christ. He echoes what Jesus tells his followers throughout the gospels and what Paul writes in his letters (see Colossians 3.1-17). The entire New Testament is written to followers of Christ whose lives are being transformed from the inside out. Their lives are qualitatively different. 

When we come into the transformative relationship with this Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ we become new creatures. Paul says simply, “Therefore if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2 Corinthians 5.17). Jesus knew, that if the heart were transplanted, then the externals would demonstrate the inner transformation. Paul and the remaining apostles understood this, however, others tried to make this new life about managing the external rather than transforming the internal. 

Paul reiterated this transformation presence and power of Christ when he writes: “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation” (Galatians 6.15). Paul states that it is not the external (what we do), but the internal (this new creation) which makes the immediate and eternal difference.

Do churches produce disciples?

Churches today too often drift in the same direction as they did in Paul’s day. They tend toward sin management rather than heart transformations. There is a tremendous difference between the two. The difference is as followers of Christ we are to be transformed by the Spirit within our hearts. This is a qualitative process; we are literally changed from within. 

On the other hand, sin management is where we attempt to control our behavior through teaching, guilt, or peer pressure. We tend to agree or hang around with people who act like us because we find affirmation in the way we behave. Behavior becomes the product of our will rather than the extension of our heart. 

So why do most churches fall into a sin management approach?

What we measure determines what we value. 

In the short term, it is much easier to measure change in behavior rather than change of one’s heart. Through programs and scripted approaches, individuals can be produced who conform to norms of behavior.  As a church grows, it is simply easier to offer programs to change behavior through ministries for parenting, students, small children, singles, retirees, marrieds, single moms, serving the poor, tutoring, building healthy relationships, managing finances, dating, collegiates, pre-marital, grief recovery, mentoring…etc. The list of potential ministries goes on and on as our churches grow in their resources and impact.

Don’t hear this as condemning any of these ministries. My concern is that too often we are trying to teach individuals to behave in a specific arena of life, rather than developing a heart that is solely focused on loving God and others. As our hearts are thus transformed, we can then let our loving behavior flow out of that into every arena in which we find ourselves. 

How are disciples produced?

There are several deep Christian thinkers who have challenged and helped me process this question. All of them believe in the church and were committed to the church thriving in their generation. Most of them died trying to help the church produce disciples. Before I give you a list, let me suggest disciples are made in close connection with other disciples. It is in the context of close relationships that the submission to and the love of Christ is manifested in another’s heart. It comes from exercising the heart muscles in the love of God and the love of others that life change occurs.

Furthermore, as different as each of us are in our history, personality, and appearances; so we are different in the manner our heart is transformed. In other words, you can conform one’s behavior to a norm through a program containing large numbers of people. But if you want to transform another’s heart with the love of God, then you must walk with them through life and live with them in the midst. This simply doesn’t fit the program-driven church model which is so popular today and so different from what the New Testament paints for a local body of believers. 

I am not surprised when the apprentices who are developed in a program-driven model fail to believe that their lives are secure in Christ regardless of circumstances. Nor am I surprised when they cannot love those who are much different from themselves or serve those who are mean to them. Their will can not overcome their heart’s desire, which is to protect themselves. There has been little heart transformation.

Here is a very short list of books I have read (or reread) during the last three years which have caused me to rethink “HOW” we do church today in light of what I have observed around me. This list is by no means exhaustive and surely has built upon many of the great works I have read by other Christian thinkers throughout my last 50 years. However, they kickstarted my thinking on how our churches today struggle to make disciples as the New Testament describes. They are not organized, structured, focused, or evaluated to produce apprentices of Christ.

  • The Divine Conspiracy by Dallas Willard. Christ’s desire for his followers is for their hearts to be transformed so their lives and behaviors naturally flow from an agape-shaped heart.  And how the Church can produce such disciples.
  • Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard. How is the heart transformed to love God above all else and live in proper relationships with others? He gives guidance into spiritual formation and heart transformation.
  • Life without Lack by Dallas Willard. What does Psalm 23 teach us about how our faith and lives can be fulfilling and content in Christ?
  • Hearing God by Dallas Willard. God desires a relationship with us and thus designed us to be in communication with him, so how do we hear from God? In other words, how do we live our lives in constant communication with him?
  • Preparing for Heaven by Gary Black. So how should we live if we know and believe that we will one day die?  What will death and life after death be like? Gary walks us through Dallas Willard’s final moments on earth to illustrate Dallas’ teaching on these subjects.
  • Contrarian’s Guide to Knowing God by Larry Osborne. Larry dismantles many of the sacred cows in the local church surrounding spiritual growth. He highlights how often churches unbiblically attempt to conform behavior. As a pastor with a passion for growing disciples, his observations are especially poignant. 
  • Simply Christian by NT Wright. Wright outlines why the workings of the created world are echoes of the God of the universe. And the greatest experience in life comes through experiencing love and intimacy with others. These yearnings are ultimately fulfilled in knowing God’s love, which we must engage with him.
  • The Way by E. Stanley Jones. 365 Devotionals to walk one through how to experience life as Christ intended us to live out of our relationship with him
  • The Way to Power and Poise by E. Stanley Jones. 365 Devotionals to demonstrate the power and poise of Christ in our everyday lives.
  • Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places by Eugene Petersen. Petersen says it best when he writes, “There comes a time for most of us when we discover a deep desire within us to live from the heart what we already know in our heads and do with our hands.” The book describes how this is done.
  • Unoffendable by Brant Hansen. As a Christian radio talk show host, Brant is public on how we must be different from those around us. With a great deal of wit, courage, authenticity, and wisdom he shares how his heart had to be transformed to not be offended by many callous or crazy listeners.  As Christians, we can also emulate Brant’s journey.
  • The Pursuit of God by AW Tozer. Christians are intended to live their lives in conscious awareness of God’s presence.  We are to enjoy this pursuit which results from experiencing God’s presence throughout our lives.  He is pursuing this kind of intimacy with us.

My prayer is that all of us will first see others who can help us open our windows of faith and as we do, we too will take on the responsibility to help those God brings into our lives to do the same. We simply cannot keep doing the same thing that we have always done in our lives or in the church and expect different results. We must change how we and our churches function. May these books and these blogs give us the wisdom to know what and how to change.

Open Your Window — Episode 3: The Way We Think

In these few posts, we are looking at three influences that seem to be narrowing the window of faith of Christians these past few decades. Last week I wrote how the epidemic of fear which has shown itself in the Covid-19 pandemic, simply allowed the anxiety of Christians to be manifested in some not so Christlike ways. Followers of Christ have become more identified with the anxiety of our culture than the peace of Christ, as shown through the various ways Christians responded (or did not respond) during these last several years. This was not a recent development, however, but is simply the continuation of decades of narrowing our windows of faith through fixating our perspectives. But this is only the first of three ways one’s windows of faith are being narrowed. 

The second window narrowing factor comes from what we have learned about the brain-mind-body these last 10-15 years. Summarizing thousands of pages of research1, we find a growing consensus that shows how our brains literally rewired themselves, how our DNA is modified, and how hormonal balances change dramatically from chronic stress or trauma. These changes cause long-term dysregulated behavior in people, some of which is sin. It is no longer appropriate to study the brain, mind, or physical body as separate entities. The body is impacted directly by the traumas, chronic stress of emotional episodes that the mind experiences. Often, we find evidence of previous traumas in a person’s life, which now produce symptoms in their body. 

The way we think or the way our mind works clearly impacts the way the brain structures itself. The way we experience, process, and recover from chronic stress or trauma will either hinder or help the body even develop immunities. A person’s ability to handle mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional challenges is directly related to their ability to regulate and restore themselves in the face of chronic stress or trauma. Research tells us that the habits one establishes in maintaining intimate relationships, meditating on Scripture, and taking care of oneself physically through appropriate diet, sleep, and exercise straightforwardly increase one’s health and ability to serve others. Even twenty years ago, this would have been thought of as highly improbable.

Researchers have found that living with chronic stress can be as detrimental to one’s emotional, physical, or spiritual health as a significant traumatic episode. In other words, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) not only results from enduring a traumatic event in your life but the same physiological or neurological damage can result from living in a chronically stressful situation for a period of time. For instance, you don’t only have to fight in a war, experience a horrible automobile accident, suffer from a sexual abuse encounter, or similar event to experience PTSD. Growing up in a home with parents who were unable to engage with you emotionally will likely result in feelings of abandonment as a young child that produce PTSD-like symptoms.

Agency and Recovery

What determines whether chronic stress or trauma is detrimental to you is often a result of agency and recovery. If you have little agency while you experience chronic stress, you will most likely become traumatized. And at some point, act out in unhealthy ways. Agency is your ability to act or behave in such a way to change the situation. If you have no agency, the chances of this experience being traumatic are greatly increased. The more freedom one has to act to impact an outcome, the less likely they are to experience long-term detrimental symptoms.  

This is critical as we deal with followers of Christ today. With the breakdown of the family, more individuals are experiencing trauma or chronic stress in their formative family years where they had no agency or recovery

Agency is critical in dealing with chronic stress and trauma, and so is recovery.

As we experience stress and trauma, we must build into our lives the intentional time and ability to recover, or we will experience negative long-term effects. Recovery takes many forms and is beyond the scope of this blog. However, as one experiences chronic stress and/or trauma, recovery means they process the resulting dysregulation (ways one does not handle it well) so that they are able to regain a healthy mental, emotional, hormonal, and physiological equilibrium state. 

You are peace! 

Deep abiding and spiritual peace.

As stated above, studies show taking intentional time to develop habits of 1) engaging in close and intimate relationships, 2) meditating on Scripture and dwelling in prayer, and taking care of oneself physically through appropriate 3) diet, 4) sleep, and 5) exercise allow individuals to recover deeply.

If individuals inside or outside the church encounter chronic stress or trauma while lacking agency and/or recovery, they will likely carry deep dysfunctional wounds. These wounds then produce much of the unhealthy behavior we see in churches today. In hindsight, it is easy to see how it happens. What I’m trying to help us develop is our foresight, the ability to change our ways before an unwanted outcome occurs!

As these people come to know Christ and begin growing in Him, their emotional, neurological, hormonal, addictive, or reactive issues are not immediately resolved. Most often, they go “underground.” When these Christians attempt to grow in Christ by primarily cognitive means, such as sermons or bible studies, they may learn to express their walk with Christ well, but the hidden dysfunctions lurk deep within. Our churches become filled with people who are experiencing unhealthy behaviors, attitudes, and emotions that they are trying to keep hidden.

In many of our churches, we pray for people with addictions, narcissistic traits, raging, anger, or other such obvious dysregulated behaviors, which often result from what I discussed above. The same can be said of the “quiet” ones, or the not so obvious dysregulated behaviors where individuals repress or deny their emotions, are inhibited by anxieties, discouraged by their depression, or struggle with abandonment issues. More people today coming to Christ are dysregulated deep in their soul. Here, we must be careful not just to treat the symptom. 

Through Christ, we begin to have access to all that junk, but too often, it just gets buried under a burden of guilt, shame, and Christian verbiage. We will deal with this next week in our last episode of Open the Window, Episode 4.

So what does this all have to do with how Christians are losing their ability to function as the children of the light? 

I have watched a number of Christians grow up in congregations that now serve as leaders/pastors but have not processed the trauma within their lives. They did not experience agency or recovery during their times of chronic stress or trauma. Their windows of faith have been narrowed because they have not processed the now deeply buried traumas. 

Understanding how these factors have caused well-meaning Christians to harbor unresolved emotions deep within their souls has helped explain to me why I see so many Christians (and those who have no faith) acting out in sinful and unbecoming ways. Their windows have been narrowed dramatically. 

Next week we will finish this series as we deal with how the church is or can respond to this situation.

1 A few of these books are:

  • The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk
  • Widen the Window by Elizabeth Elliot
  • Scattered by Gabor Maté
  • The Brain that Changes itself by Norman Doidge
  • Lost Art of Listening by Michael Nichols
  • Think Again by Adam Grant
  • How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford

Open Your Window — Episode 2: The Anxiety Pandemic

Having lived through several wars, pandemics, and social, cultural, and economic crises, let me suggest that the most pressing danger to the Church is not a virus but the overwhelming presence of anxiety that has been destructive to our faith. It is our reaction to pervasive cultural and personal anxiety that continues to narrow our windows of faith. We have all witnessed sincere followers of Christ cowering behind closed doors, screaming at others who think differently from them, and generally freaking out because their rights were not validated.

As I have assessed, coached, and consulted pastors, churches, and denominations prior to and through the Covid-19 pandemic, I have repeatedly heard how this virus has hurt the church and demoralized many pastors. Personally, I have had several friends die from Covid. I recognize the virus has been devastating in many ways. The numbers on the recent New York Times front pages show a million deaths in America as dots across the map. My desire is to help apprentices of Jesus understand how the pandemic illuminated how narrow their windows of faith really were.

The virus itself wasn’t really the cause of windows of faith closing. For over 100 years, our culture has experienced increasing anxiety. In many ways, people of faith have been negatively influenced by this and have allowed anxiety to become a part of normal life without even being aware of it. As this happened, people’s windows of faith have been closing. As Christ-followers, we should heed the warning to be in this world, but not of this world. However, Covid has once again shown there is little difference between Christians and the rest of the population in the way we responded.

In 1881, the American neurologist George Miller Beard outlined the causes of what he regarded as an epidemic level of fear in the culture around him in his book, American Nervousness (1881). Then Sigmund Freud and his followers highlighted growing fear (and anxiety) as the symptom which would open the mental life of an individual. W. H. Auden used his poetry to emphasize the anxiety of his day in 1947 in his book, The Age of Anxiety (1947). Rollo May elevated anxiety to a critical topic for psychologists when he wrote The Meaning of Anxiety (1950). 1

In the 1950s, a miracle drug (Miltown) was launched to treat “nerve problems,” including nervous breakdowns. Anxiety was the leading symptom identified in the advertising for this medication. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-I) was created in 1952 to classify mental health and corresponding disorders better. The DSM-II (1968) featured anxiety across many of the disorders. In the DSM-III (1980), anxiety was much less central because it contained a category of anxiety disorders that were distinct from others. With the development and launch of SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) medications in the mid-1990s, the concentration of treatment focused on depression, and we entered what some have called the “age of depression.” There were approximately 11 million doctor visits for depression in 1985, while in 1994, that number rose to 20.4 million.2 

Was anxiety replaced with depression? No. Anxiety never went away. The diagnosis of depression provided an opportune label that created an onramp for prescribing SSRIs. Anxiety was ever-present; even in diagnoses today, many psychologists don’t distinguish between the two in treatment. 

Early in 2019, Steve Cuss released a book for Christian Leaders entitled Managing Leadership Anxiety: yours and theirs3 in which he addresses the growing epidemic of anxiety in Christian leaders, especially as pastors of churches. Notice that this book was written a year before Covid became a real concern in the United States. 

I am not discounting anxiety in clinical mental health. I am suggesting that we deal with the anxiety in our minds and hearts. We must do the difficult spiritual work of rooting out the false beliefs and emotional scars which do produce anxiety in our lives. Medications may give time and space to do this temporarily. Let me suggest that two of the causes of anxiety in Christians result in narrowed windows of faith: 1) a fixed frame of reference and 2) a fixed knowledge base or the lack of adaptive learning.  Both perspectives cause anxiety and narrow our window of faith.

Fixed Frame of Reference

The first cause of anxiety is a fixed frame of reference, which involves seeing one’s life, family, church, or world only in terms of what they know has worked in the past. Anxiety is an anticipation of a threat. Therefore, Christians will experience anxiety when they see changes in their environment, church, or even themselves. They cannot comprehend how to see themselves or their world differently. A great example is defining oneself by a political party, such as a Republican or a Democrat.  This fixed frame inevitably causes anxiety as the other party takes power or promotes policies different from your beliefs. 

Where do you have a fixed frame of reference concerning yourself? We are quick to justify our fixed frame as biblical, but we are “children of the light,” that is, children of the Living God. We must be careful not to fix frames beyond where scripture is clear. When we see the world around us in fixed terms, we begin to narrow our window of faith. We no longer expect God to do something different from what we expect. We limit our ability to see God work to what we already believe.

The same is true regarding the church you attend. Is your frame of reference regarding what a church should/could look like fixed?  If so, at what point was it fixed? The 1960s, 1980s, 2000s, or now?  The miracle of the body of Christ is that it is a living organism that can adapt and change to any culture and any political structure. I see too many Church attenders who have closed their view of how God works to an era in the past. The Scripture doesn’t change, but models should, which brings us to the next cause of anxiety.

Fixed Knowledge Base or the Lack of Adaptive Learning

The second cause of anxiety that narrows our windows is our knowledge base. Many Christians stopped learning in their early twenties and seldom learn or change dramatically beyond that. As followers of Christ, we are called to be adaptive lifelong learners. Paul demonstrated this at the end of his life, in the last letter he wrote. In the last chapter of that book, he asks Timothy, his protégé, to bring his books to him so he can continue reading and learning. 

Paul never stopped learning through the 35 years of his ministry. He continued to adapt to different situations. He continually learned to pursue where Christ was taking him and wasn’t limited by where he had been (Philippians 3.13-14).

How many books, webinars, or podcasts have you read or pursued since Covid started?  Not ones on justifying what you already believe, but ones on learning to understand how the world is changing and how must you adapt to it.  How must the church adapt? We can’t go back; we can only adapt to the new normal. Paul never wished (as far as his writings reflect) for Christianity to return to the predictable situation it functioned in while in Jerusalem for the first couple of decades. He adapted to the great persecution that broke out against the church in Acts 8.1 and never looked back. His approach was much different from the Jerusalem church because he adapted it to different cultures.

Points of Debate: Race, Abuse, Politics, Masks, Vaccines, and Social Distancing

The Covid-19 pandemic triggered the latent anxiety among all people and revealed how many Christ-followers had narrowed their window of faith. It released existing pent-up anxiety that was just below the surface in our societal veneer. We witnessed its impact in many ways, from heightened racial tensions to “me too” movements to political polarity and more. These events rocked leaders inside and outside the church—all were indicators of deeply hidden anxiety and real problems. Sadly, many Christians were caught up in the fray and became overwhelmed to the point of inaction. They lost their ability to function as his ambassadors and ministers of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5.18-20).

On many social media platforms, self-identified Christians attacked those who were on the opposite side of any given issue. The attitudes and words displayed saddened my soul. Even in my personal conversations with sincere individuals of faith, I heard them use disparaging words about other followers of Christ who took a different position. They were even more hostile toward people of little or no faith on the opposite side of an issue. 

In small groups of believers where we have talked about our response to the pandemic policies, I heard more anxiety about how the virus (or the policies to deal with it) impacted us rather than how God could use us to impact others who are understandably anxious apart from Christ. Why weren’t Christians the first to love others with whom we differed or were hurting, even if it exposed ourselves to grave danger?

Throughout history, Christians have responded selflessly to pandemics, catastrophes, and climate disasters far more than those of no faith. I don’t see this in many of the lives of Christians today. As Philip Jenkins points out in his recent book, Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith4, in times of dramatic disjuncture, historically, Christians have responded in ways that catalyzed or adapted their faith.

Rodney Stark, in his book The Rise of Christianity (1997) 5, states that the pandemics which caused social chaos in the Roman Empire in the early days of the church fueled both the viral growth of the church and the depth of community in the communities of faith (house churches), in what we call microchurches today. As many deserted family or friends and cowered in fear, the followers of Christ in these house churches sought to help the sick and the suffering. Their love for others and their witness convinced people that the Good News of Jesus was real and for everyone.6

During the social crises and disastrous plagues which were common in the urban lifestyles of the Roman empire, Stark believes that “Christianity offered a much more satisfactory account of why these terrible times had fallen upon humanity, and it projected a hopeful, even enthusiastic, portrait of the future.”7 Life in the city was one of disease, misery, and fear, which provided Christians with the opportunity to imagine a better world in the distant future and also solutions for problems people were facing every day.

Why have so many Christians today failed to be Christ’s non-anxious presence among those around us who are struggling with fear and dying without hope? Why have we failed to be the bastions of hope and security which Stark and Jenkins show typified the 3rd and 4th century Christians in the Roman and Eastern empires?

Christians have narrowed their windows through a growing anxiety. Many are prevented from being a vibrant “witness” of the love and presence of Christ in their communities simply because they are too anxious. Fear is the response to an imminent threat, while anxiety is the expectation of a threat. I see many believers living under the expectation of threats — whichever Covid variant may be next, whatever political party is going to ruin the democracy, or whatever race, economic theory, or gender is going to corrupt our comfortable standard of living.

Philippians 4.6-7 says it simply, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”

  • Is the peace of God obvious through your heart and mind? 
  • Do those around you, especially those who you don’t agree with, see you as a person of peace?
  • How much time do you spend in prayer thanking God for your situation and asking him for wisdom?
  • How often has his Spirit changed your heart and/or mind on an issue?  Or does he simply confirm what you always believe?  If so, either you have the mind of Christ always (unlikely), or you aren’t open to his changing your heart and mind.

For the last century, our culture has continued to drift away from absolutes, which provide boundaries and security. It’s not likely we as Christians are going to change that. But we can respond to anxiety in the world around us by being non-anxious followers of Christ in all things. We can serve those who are hurting and help those we disagree with. We don’t have to be right every time. We can be humble, secure, and strong in our commitment to our Lord. We can demonstrate his peace and presence in all our relationships. 

Christians who see their world as fixed or are fixed in what they know will narrow their windows of faith.  It is obvious to me from looking at those who identify as Christians around me that they are anxious as the world around them changes.  It will continue to be so in the future. They basically won’t know how to interact. As Christians, we must be lifelong adaptive learners. Since Covid, how have you learned to be salt and light differently in your world?  In other words, how do you view yourself, your world, and the lost around you differently than you did three years ago? If there is no difference, you are probably fixed and have narrowed your window.

God is bigger than anything we will ever face or imagine, and he will never leave us or forsake us. May we be a people deeply rooted in the peace, love, and life of Christ, willing to learn throughout our lifetimes and adapt when crises strike. This is what we are called to, and it is our witness to the world.


1 Jason Schnittker, After Many False Starts, This Might be the True Age of Anxiety, (Aeon/Psych electronic journal; www.psyche.co) November 26, 2021 issue

2 ibid

3 Steve Cuss, Managing Leadership Anxiety: yours and theirs, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2019)

4 Philip Jenkins, Climate, Catastrophe, and Faith (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021)

5 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987)

6 Lance Ford, Rob Wegner and Alan Hirsch, The Starfish and the Spirit, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan Reflective, 2021)

7 Stark, ibid pp. 74

I would like to thank Point Magazine, January 2022 issue, for allowing me to use some of my article in this post: https://converge.org/point-magazine/story/january-2022/the-anxiety-pandemic

Open Your Window – Episode 1

Last week I wrote about how I have watched the faith of Christ-followers deepen and change over a lifetime. I am intrigued by how many writers of discipleship and/or spiritual growth write on the subject while still in the first half of their life. For me, the most instructive authors are those who wrote toward the end of their lives. During the first half of my life, I would ask questions about “how” to make disciples behave like followers of Christ. now I ask questions about “how” to transform their hearts, knowing that their behavior will ultimately follow.  

During the last several years, I have thought deeply about this subject due to three factors (in addition to working on 4 separate assessment instruments dealing with this subject). These factors have forced me to reflect on what I see across the church today. The three factors are: 1) Observing churches, pastors, and Christians navigate Covid, 2) Good thinkers outside the church, and 3) Good thinkers inside the church. 

I will spend the following several Thursday Thoughts unpacking what I am learning from each of these three influences. Several of you have asked what books I am reading, so I have included a link that gives the books I have read over the last three years. The unhighlighted books were ok, the yellow highlighted were good, and the green highlighted were very good.

I have come to realize that as Christ-followers we all have a window that can either be open to God teaching us new things or we can close it by refusing to be curious in our faith. Some individuals keep their windows open their entire lifetimes and it is obvious. They are not where they spiritually were 20 years ago, and they will continue to see life differently in another 20 years. Their personal understanding of God deepens through their lifetimes in a way that they possess a deep vitality in every state or stage in which they find themselves.

We have all seen those who have gradually closed their windows to God, growth, and ultimately life by becoming bitter, stubborn, or acting as if they know all they need to know. Often they have just enough of God to get by, but not so much to transform their lives. They look to consume spiritually to meet their needs but not so much to change their values or priorities.

I am watching Christians all around me closing their windows. I think many churches encourage this process through their programming or priorities. I will unpack this through these next three episodes of Thursday Thoughts. In each episode, I will attempt to explain how each of these factors informed my thinking. The following provides a brief synopsis of each of these factors in general.

  1. Observing Churches, Pastors, & Christians Navigate Covid

Having lived through several wars, pandemics as well as social, cultural, and economic crises, let me suggest the most pressing danger to the Church is not a virus or political struggle; rather, the overwhelming presence of anxiety has been destructive to our faith. It is our reaction to pervasive cultural and personal anxiety that continues to close our windows of faith. We have all witnessed sincere followers of Christ cowering behind closed doors, screaming at others who think differently from them, and generally freaked out because their rights were not being met. Over the last 2,000 years, followers of Christ have reacted much differently through many and varied crises. Certainly, there have always been disciples who were polarized on different issues or those who denied their faith or panicked during crises throughout the ages; however, during these past several years, I saw a much larger percentage of Christians react out of fear and anxiety and close themselves off from Gods work in and through them to others.

  1. Good Thinkers Outside the Church

Within the last decade, there has come to the front a group of researchers and writers who have changed how we view our brains, minds, and bodies. No more are these subjects of study viewed as separate. Instead, research and careful observation reveal the innate relationship between the physical structure (physio) and sickness in the other (psycho). Not only is the brain rewired by repeated thoughts and actions, but actual chromosomal changes occur from chronic stress and traumas. The body will respond to these changes in very negative or positive ways depending on how we regulate or dysregulate ourselves. Researchers now see how one’s spiritual health impacts mental health (this is little surprise to Christian thinkers).  A person’s ability to handle mental, physical, spiritual, and emotional challenges is directly related to their ability to regulate and restore themselves in the face of stress and/or trauma. Their window is opened to serve others more selflessly as they maintain intimate relationships, meditate on Scripture, and take care of themselves physically through appropriate diet, sleep, and exercise.

  1. Good Thinkers Inside the Church

Consumer Christianity has finally become the norm across many churches in the United States (and those cultures we have influenced). Churches have succumbed to giving people in church enough deliverables to keep everyone attending, giving, and content. The deliverables may include doctrine, worship, entertainment, exegesis, social action, relevance, etc.  There is nothing wrong with any of these if they are used as part of heart transformation. However, the deliverables most often become an end in themselves, and people become clients looking for a church where they can get the deliverable they desire. At best, it becomes a sin-management course, and at worse, we produce shallow converts or Pharisees.  If the contemporary church were to be evaluated on its ability to make disciples whose hearts and lives reflect the transformative love of God and the transformative love of others, I would not give it a passing grade. We have narrowed the window of most people in churches today to only focus on their needs and managing their sins as best they can, given the church’s program Du Jour.

In closing, let me suggest that for most Christ-followers, this is neither an intentional act nor something they are entirely oblivious to. It has been a slow-growing subculture within the church that has now become the norm, and it is an observable phenomenon to those who care to look. 

PS: I realize that I have said some harsh and challenging things in this blog. I will unpack much of it in the next three episodes but feel free to leave comments. 

PSS: One last comment on my book list, it will continue to be updated. I have a much longer list of books that have influenced my whole life, but these are the books from the last few years.

Seasons of Faith

Is light a wave or a particle? The answer according to quantum physics is yes!  It is both, which is an apparent paradox. So much of life in Christ is a yes to apparent paradoxes. It is what JI Packard* called an antinomy. It isn’t just a paradox which is a juxtaposition of words that present opposing views, it is actually opposites reconciled from God’s perspective. 

Is faith developed organically or in stages?  I would posit, yes!  Let me explain. 

The concept behind the seasons of faith development goes back to the scriptures and is woven throughout the history of the church and her thinkers. In Romans 14, Paul makes the case that there are those who are stronger in their faith, and these need to bear with those who are weaker. Here he clearly distinguishes between degrees of faith development in the body of Christ in Rome. In 2 Corinthians, Paul alludes to the immature believers as babes, surely implying that there were some attributes that put them in one category of faith development rather than another. Clearly, Paul’s letters to the churches don’t divide faith development into clearly distinguishable categories and I believe we do an injustice to the scriptures when we do so.  

Faith does grow and mature, but not in stair step or locked categories. I think it is important to realize most westerners have been educated in Euclidean geometry which assumes ‘bounded set’ theory and therefore we think in delineated sets. This simply means that if you have a collection of oranges and apples, you can divide them into one of two sets, and either you are in one set or another. The same can be said of odd and even numbers, here we clearly have separate sets for these numbers and a number is either in one or the other set. We can have two sets that share the same number, however, that number is identified initially as in both sets.   

The church has adopted this philosophy completely. Either you are a member or not. You are an Elder or not. You are saved or not. You are on staff or not. You are a pastor or not. You have a quiet time or not. You are memorizing scripture or not. You are filled with the Spirit or not. You are using your gifts or not. You are discipling or not. We have many bounded sets within the church because it has expedited our measuring a person’s (or church’s) commitment, engagement, or spiritual walk. 

However fuzzy logic, which is the logic that underlies much of learning software and variable speed devices is built upon ‘centered set’ thinking. Meaning that what is important is not whether something is in one set or another, what really is important to measure is what direction or toward what center are you headed. We seek to understand and measure not whether something is inside a set or not, but is it becoming more of something or less of something. In other words, we are more concerned about where it is headed and to what degree and speed it is heading there.

So, back to considering an apple, the bounded set thinker says it is either an apple or not.  Whereas the center set thinker asks whether it is becoming more or less of an apple. This is very helpful when I begin to eat the apple a bite at a time. Or when it is growing from a blossom to an apple ready to be picked. The challenge to a bounded set thinker is at what point does the blossom become an apple? Or, at what point does it cease to be an apple as I eat it? This is no problem to a center set thinker as we can talk about how the apple is becoming less of an apple as I eat it. We can talk about degrees or ‘appleness’ and live comfortably with these nuances of states.

For me, center set theory is the mathematical model spiritual growth should be built upon.  The question is not whether you are a member or not, but in what direction are you headed. Not whether you are an Elder or not, but are you becoming more or less of one.  The same can be said of using your gifts, reading the scripture, discipling another, walking in the Spirit, etc. I even think we can talk about this regarding salvation. I leave that totally up to our Lord because I do believe there is a point in the faith awareness and embodiment, where faith is real. Too often it is defined by when one prays a prayer rather than what only our Lord knows. We should be concerned with the direction one is headed, toward Christ or away from Christ…regardless of what labels we may place on them.

Understanding this mathematical mindset, it is helpful to look at the history of the church in understanding faith development. St. John of the Cross wrote 600 years ago about 6 or 7 stages of faith development. Since that time countless writers and thinkers have put faith into various categories and most with a bounded set mindset.   

I am currently working on an instrument to assess one’s spiritual maturity with North Point Community Church. In preparation to work on this instrument, I read many authors who have thought deeply on this subject like Dallas Willard, AW Tozer, C.S. Lewis, Eugene Peterson, and NT Wright to name a few. I find that most agree with the organic concept of spiritual growth and relational concept of discipleship. But most also see various seasons of growth in a Christian’s life which are different.  

Most don’t see these seasons as only linear and one-way directional. Most would have resisted putting individuals in bounded sets. However, I am uncomfortable with some of the authors during the last four decades who have landed on a firm bounded set theory concerning discipling or spiritual growth. These authors place people in clearly bounded sets that are behaviorally identified. I see this as contrary to scripture and my study of Christians these past six decades.

In developing the six stages for our instrument**, we don’t see these stages as linear or one-way directional. Rather for us, these stages of faith development are stages of heart and mind direction. We have attempted to address the directional aspects of faith development. One may find a home in one stage but visit other stages in one direction or another continually. One may also be in entirely different stages depending on which of the 19 subscales are being evaluated. 

The instrument is intended to only be a snapshot now and would be helpful to take annually to assess in what direction am I headed? It would be inappropriate for the results of the instrument to be used to classify an individual or to label them by one season. It is intended to help an individual understand where they can head in developing their faith.  And this is best done in the loving relationship of another who can serve as a healthy mirror and guide in going there.  

*How Both Biblical Truths Coexist in God’s Grace, by J. I. Packer, 1961

**Click here for a complete description of these six stages.

Keeping the Faith

One of the aspects of growing older is that things that confused or frustrated me in my earlier life often become clear. Of course, this isn’t always the case, but it usually does. One of the most frustrating times in my life, without exception, was the 14 years I spent starting a church in Orlando. I was 32 and had:

  • an engineering degree and experience with General Motors,
  • I had worked on my MBA and understood leadership,
  • I had a seminary degree and experience on a good church staff in a large church, and lastly
  • I had taken a medium sized church and grown it dramatically as well as daughtered a successful new church from it.

With these kinds of credentials, I felt I was the best spiritual gift God could give the Northeast suburbs of Orlando. Little did I know that God had so much more in mind than simply planting another mega-church there. Hundreds of lives were changed for eternity during the next fourteen years, and God did some amazing things. However, the church never grew beyond 200, and I felt like a failure. No matter how much prayer, Bible study, spiritual discipline, strategic planning, disciple-making, emotional processing, goal setting, leadership development, or systems analysis I practiced, people came, and people went.

I have never tried so hard to accomplish anything in my life. We struggled financially, emotionally, and finally, I had no energy left. It seemed like no matter how much of myself or pleading with God I put into the church, we never gained momentum.

So I resorted to going back to school because I had learned the more effort you put in, the better grades you get. And I earned my Ph.D. in Psychometrics. I ended up on faculty at the University of Central Florida and loved it. My students and fellow faculty loved me as well. I thought I had found my niche. But then, new leadership came into the college, and all the non-tenured faculty were let go. So again, I found myself a failure. 

Looking backward, I can now see what I couldn’t see at the time. I was going through a well-worn path of spiritual growth. God’s caring hand, which had built me up carefully in the disciplines of my earlier faith was tearing down all that I valued. I had read about spiritual stages of growth and leadership1 before this, but until you experience them, it is only head knowledge. 

God wanted to do something much deeper in my life. Early on, he wanted to teach me disciplines, boundaries, and principles to live by; he was building the container of my life2. But as I entered the second half of my life, God wanted to build an inner life with which to fill the container. I never “lost” my faith in God; throughout the entire time, I was trying to turn toward my Heavenly Father. But to be very honest, at times, he didn’t seem to be responding in a manner I appreciated. I remember telling a friend that I felt like I was banging my head against a brick wall which really hurt, and the brick wall was God. I couldn’t get over it or go around it. I had to sit and be faithful in the little things.

So, I learned to slowly trust in him when things didn’t go the way I wanted. I noticed several attitudes and behaviors inside of me that surprised me. I read God’s word and prayed differently. I learned to be faithful in the little things and not worry about the big things. I finally became content in my life of obscurity. Eventually, I experienced what Willard identifies as the four stages of brokenness4:

  1. Surrender (the situation to God)
  2. Abandonment (my whole life to God)
  3. Contentment (experiencing the peace of God)
  4. Participation (involved in the work of God, often much different than before)

This was over 20 years ago, and today I am amazed at God’s grace through this whole process. What I now know is that there are several stages of spiritual growth which have been identified throughout the ages, but every generation or individual must learn and experience them to understand them.

In fact, the earlier stages have little appreciation for individuals in the latter stages and judge them as naïve, simple, or “checked out.” However, the later stages can look back at those in the earlier stages with grace and understanding. Ironically, the latter stages can graciously look at those in the earlier stages with compassion, but not the other way around. I judged those in later stages when I was young in my faith, and I now experience it from those still caged in earlier stages.

Simply stated, we spend a lot of effort working on our security in the first half of our lives, spiritually and otherwise. We work hard to make ourselves spiritually sound and people of significance. Then through being broken, we discover that this isn’t enough. Only through being totally exasperated and resigning our expectations and control do we enter the second half, where we get to experience God’s grace in our depths for the rest of our lives. Unfortunately, far too many people get caged in the first half, where performance and production reign. As a result, they don’t experience the true grace and freedom found through being broken and restored.

Some describe spiritual development as simply two halves of life, while others identify 4, 5, 6, or 7 stages of spiritual development. Next week I will share how my six stages of spiritual growth fit into these two halves of our faith life.   See you then.

References:

1 The Critical Journey of Faith by Guelich & Hagberg

2 The Making of a Leader by Bobby Clinton

3 Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

4 Renovation of the Heart by Dallas Willard (my paraphrase of his writings in Chapter 8)

Avoiding Average

I am finishing a book that has really engaged me from a variety of perspectives; the name is The End of Average, by Todd Rose. This book is a must for every parent, educator, assessor, leader, and friend. So don’t pass go without reading this book. It is a must.

This book describes the strategy I have had to learn and develop in my life the hard way. Todd is a statistician, like me. Ironically, he dropped out of high school and struggled with learning until he learned a lot about his uniquenesses. The book’s premise is that we are conditioned to compare ourselves with the average in every area of life (including the church). We have glorified this concept of average to such an extent that we think something is wrong if we are below average in anything!

NO ONE IS AVERAGE

Averages are meaningless as far as describing reality is concerned. In the graduate statistic classes, I taught at the University of Central Florida, I would illustrate this with my students by stating the average American has one testicle and one breast. But it is very difficult to find someone that matches that description. And that is true of averages. Most often, they don’t describe reality. NO ONE IS AVERAGE. To combat “averagarianism,” one has to establish a concept of individuality. In other words, we are all unique individuals. And I believe created by God that way!

There are three conditions for individuality: Jagged, Context, and Pathways. These three clearly describe why I do assessments the way I do. First, I believe everyone is “Fearfully and Wonderfully made” (Psalm 139.14). I have done thousands of assessments, and every one of those individuals was exceptional in some unique ways.

Basically, Jagged means that one cannot adequately describe a variable such as intelligence, talent, character, or most things of significance in life by a single number. I understand we do this in all of life. But when we do, we violate the individual’s uniqueness and actually lose accuracy. Just because you finish a test quicker than another, does that really mean you are intelligent? No. Jagged means we are fast at some things and slow at other things. Most things in life are jagged in their nature.

Context means we are all different in different contexts. In some contexts, I act one way, and in others, I act differently. This is true for most of us. So not only are most concepts jagged, but most contexts cause us to respond according to what is happening around us. For instance, I usually am not a detailed person, but I can become compulsively fixated on details when I am in the midst of elaborate statistical problems. Context is important.

Pathways means we all learn through ways that will be unique to our jaggedness and consistent with our context. Of course, this doesn’t imply that there are as many pathways as people. Instead, there are multiple ways people learn, process information, grow and/or change.

Even babies now are known to learn to crawl much differently from each other. Even 15 years ago, babies were compared to averages or standard milestones of developmental crawling. If a baby didn’t meet a specific milestone by a certain age or did it in a completely different method, the parents were often told something may be wrong with the child. Today we are much smarter. There are at least 25 different ways children learn to crawl, and some never crawl at all, with no related problems.

So how do followers of Christ grow? I think we must keep the Jagged, Context, and Pathways criteria in mind as “We proclaim him, admonishing and teaching everyone with all wisdom, so that we may present everyone perfect* in Christ.” (Colossians 1.28)

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