The Long Game

The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools.  Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.  (Ecclesiastes 9:17-18)

Faith has not come easy to me.  Although I was raised in a nominally Christian home, secular matters were always the first order of business.  My two brothers and I were pretty much forced to attend church as children, but once we were confirmed (in a Lutheran church), nothing more was said about faith and one by one we turned our focus to school and athletics.  My parents seldom attended church together that I recall.  My mother went fairly regularly when we were young, but stopped altogether in her mid 50’s as she retreated into discontent and bitterness.  My father, on the other hand, had a deep interest in spiritual matters.  And while faith, at least the easy believism of some evangelicals, was hard for him, he never stopped seeking and eventually became a Roman Catholic.

I have written in the past of my own faith journey from agnostic to Christian.  About a distress prayer I made in a time of great fear.  About a sign from God in the form of a rainbow.  About a “chance” reading of Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.  About three years of intense reading and reflection.  And most impactfully, about the steadfast and gentle witness of my wife Pat and several close Christian friends – people who prayed for me for many years, but whose principal witness was their consistent embodiment of the values they professed.  In the words of Eugene Peterson, theirs was a long obedience in the same direction.  But mostly I have written about my continued personal journey of faith as I have endeavored to learn how to live a Christian life.

Today’s post marks the 50th reflection I have written over the same number of months.  It has been a good discipline for me to write like this.  A month has seemed just the right length of time to collect my thoughts and organize them within some sort of coherent framework.  I have never presumed to tell others how to live out their faith, but have simply used this blog as a way to publically reflect on my own journey and what I believe are the essential teachings of Jesus.  There is nothing magical about the number fifty, but it feels right to me that I should take a break for a while and turn my focus elsewhere.

I have written about the pursuit of virtue because it is the way to follow Christ.  Moreover, it is our principal witness to the world.  I complete this series of writings with a reflection on how the evangelical church in America is straying from the way of Christ and losing its witness through involvement in politics.  I have been reluctant to comment on politics in this blog because there are people I love on opposite ends of the political spectrum.  I have also avoided doing so because I don’t like the controversy that often emerges from those with deep-seated opinions.  What I write now is not to advocate for or against any political candidate or party, but about how Christians should play the long game in politics as the best way to witness for Christ.  In any event, I appeal to your grace if anything I write causes you offense.

No political event in the past four years was more surprising than the election of Donald Trump.  And no response more stunning to me than his embrace by many evangelical leaders.  It is not because they like his outrageous and often immoral conduct, but rather that he promises to enact policies and appoint judges that they support.  The quid pro quo that he demands and receives is unquestioned loyalty no matter what his conduct.  Anyone who speaks against his character literally loses a seat at the table.  To be fair, I have not heard any evangelical leader say that immoral and unethical behavior is okay, but their silence is deafening and contrary to God’s word.  For example, Paul tells us, Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”  (Ephesians 5:11)  Indeed, Jesus commands us to publically confront the sins of those who claim to be Christians and don’t listen.  (Matthew 18:15-17)  God hates sin and no doubt commands us to confront it because many people interpret silence as tacit assent, which is even more problematic.

These evangelical leaders are not bad people nor is their desire to protect their beliefs wrong.  Indeed, many of their goals are laudable.  However, there are two problems.  The first is that God’s word is “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)  Evil always begets more evil, and remaining mute in the face of evil is complicity.  The way of Christ is the way of love – that is the only way if we are to follow him.  The second problem is that their goals are short-sighted and doomed to fail.  There is no policy or judge that is worth the cost.  For when political winds change (as they always do) and leaders change, policies and judges will also change.  What is gained today can be lost tomorrow.  And then all that remains is our integrity, our virtue, our character, our moral voice.  In the words of Scripture, “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”  (Isaiah 40:8)  Make no mistake, our witness is always tied to our values – to the way we treat and love others.  It is certain that these values are the practical distinctive of Christianity in our culture.  If we compromise our values, what remains of our faith witness is very thin indeed.

I remember well the ethical failings of Bill Clinton and the moral outrage of evangelicals.  I was not a believer at the time, and had no love for the Christian right.  Yet, I knew their criticism was correct – infidelity and lying are wrong.  Soon after this my spiritual journey took off.  Today, God’s word has not changed, but many of the same evangelical leaders who were so outraged by Clinton’s actions now embrace a president whose words and actions are anathema to people of faith.  This hypocrisy is precisely what Jesus condemned in the religious leaders of his day.

Please do not misinterpret what I write – I do not opine on whom a Christian should vote for – elections always present a binary choice that must be weighed by one’s own conscience.  But regardless of whom we vote for, we must never compromise God’s moral principles.  We must expect our evangelical leaders to play the long game and speak the truth (in love) regardless of the short-term personal cost.

Despite my concerns, I remain optimistic about our faith because the words of the Lord are: I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.  (Matthew 16:18)  Even as I write about what I see as a heartbreaking miscalculation by many evangelical leaders, there are other Christian leaders who are appalled at what they are witnessing and who are daring to speak truth to power.  But more importantly, I know many, many followers of Christ who are truly “seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  For the most part, they are quietly going through life with all of its ups and downs while remaining faithful to the Lord.  I have written about many of them.  Here are some living out the Beatitudes daily.  Here are some shining the light of Christ into dark areas of the word.  Here are some serving immigrants and the homeless.  Here are some caring for the elderly.  And here are many more whose daily prayer is, “Thy kingdom come Thy will be done.”

And so I bid you farewell for a while.  I expect to be writing again, but not monthly.  I thank you all for your patience, kind words, and grace.  May the Lord truly bless you.




“I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin”  (Psalm 39:1)

Today we welcome a new year.  For roughly 40% of us Americans, this means a New Year’s Resolution in which we resolve to accomplish something that has eluded us in the past.  According to one source, here are the top ten New Year’s Resolutions:
1.   Exercise more
2.   Lose weight
3.   Get organized
4.   Learn a new skill or hobby
5.   Live life to the fullest
6.   Save more and/or spend less money
7.   Quit smoking
8.   Spend more time with family and friends
9.   Travel more
10.  Read more

I recently conducted an informal survey of resolutions with about twenty Christian men between the ages of 45 and 80, and the results were remarkably similar.  Roughly 40% make a New Year’s resolution in any given year.  For those who make resolutions, I asked two things:  1) name a resolution you recall making in the past; and 2) name a resolution you are considering for 2020.  Regarding the past – only three resolutions were mentioned and all are found on the above list – “exercise more,” “lose weight,” and “read more.”  The one significant difference is that resolutions to “read more” specifically mentioned the Bible.  I’ll reveal their 2020 resolutions in a bit, but first a few thoughts.

Why do so many of us make resolutions?  The allure of a fresh start and the idea of improving oneself no doubt play a significant role.   But at its root there is a vision of a better life – one in which a bad habit that has entrapped us is broken, or one in which a beneficial pattern of behavior is established.  In this regard, all of the “top ten” resolutions have value as no doubt each of them can improve the quality of a physical life.  I find it curious however that none of these ten has a significant moral component.  For the most part they are morally neutral, meaning they are not inherently good or bad. This does not mean that they have no moral component because they do.  For example, improving one’s health is a way we care for the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Still, their main focus is on temporal matters.

Because their primary orientation is not in the moral realm, these types of resolutions will not prepare us for the spiritual challenges that will undoubtedly confront us in the year ahead.  Such challenges typically hit us in the form of temptations – everything from lust, anger, and pride, to gossip, criticism, and worry.  Or, in the words of the Apostle John, the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.” (1 John 2:16)  If we are unprepared, spiritual struggles born of such temptations have the potential to turn us away from God, harm our relationships with other people, and generally eat away at our faith journey.

It is important that we care for our physical body through exercise and diet, and improve our mind through reading, and travel.  But no less so that we care for our soul, which we do by following the way of Jesus.  This is not an abstract belief in Christ, but an active robust faith developed through practicing the virtues modeled and taught by Jesus, such as humility, forgiveness, love, honesty, purity, etc.  As followers of Christ, the extent to which we pursue godly virtues goes the heart of what we believe, the heart of who we are, and the heart of our witness.

It is unfortunate that with a majority Christian population in the United States, there are no classical Christian virtues on the list of New Year’s Resolutions.  Perhaps we Christians should use the occasion of the New Year to resolve to focus on a virtue.   With a little prayer, the Lord would surely reveal one that he would have us pursue.  Here are some that figure prominently in the Bible, but there are many, many more.
1.  Forgiveness
2.  Humility
3.  Compassion
4.  Kindness
5.  Graciousness
6.  Patience
7.  Encouragement
8.  Service
9.  Generosity
10.  Purity

The truth is that we don’t just stumble into virtue the way it seems we sometimes stumble into a vice.  We are informed by Scripture that Christian virtues are something that have to be thought out and put into practice.  Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves.  Do what it says.” (James 1:22)  NT Wright explains it this way, “The difference between vices and virtues is this:  Anybody can learn a vice – all you have to do is to go into neutral, slide along the way life is going and before long the habits of life will have you in their grip or vice.  But virtue you have to think about – you need to make a decision to be this sort of person now.”  This means that we follow the way of Jesus by practicing the kind of life he commands – the biblical record is unequivocal on this point.

And so, why not start today by making a firm resolve to pursue a Christian virtue?  What better occasion than New Year’s Day to refocus one’s efforts on living the kind of life envisioned by God?  There are at least two objections to embracing New Years Day as a time for making spiritual resolutions.  Both of these can be easily answered.

The first objection is that the pursuit of virtue is an ongoing, everyday affair for followers of Christ.  And so it is!  Indeed, Jesus tells us we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  (Matthew 6:33)  And that Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.”  (Luke 9:23).  Repentance is a never-ending (in this life) endeavor.  We are to be constantly turning to the ways of the Lord, and not relegating it to a once a year kind of commitment.  However, the same argument could be made for any occasion of spiritual focus.  For example, reflection upon our sin and the sacrifice of Christ is a foundational principle of our faith, but still we have no trouble placing specific emphasis on it during Lent.  Sometimes when something is to be done “all of the time” it tends to be done none of the time.  Emphasizing the practice of Christian virtues at the New Year would put a fine point on Jesus’ teaching that “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21)

The second objection is that New Years Day is a secular holiday that is not traditionally recognized by the church.  Perhaps it is time to change this.  We all know that in the 1950’s and early 1960’s Christmas underwent a hostile takeover by the forces of modern secularism.  It caught many Christians by surprise because we unwittingly participated in the takeover.  We fell into line as commercial interests joined forces with Santa Clause, and relegated Jesus to a cameo role as a manger prop and picture on a Christmas card.  Perhaps it is time for Christians to plot a friendly takeover of New Years Day by emphasizing New Years Resolutions that are based on Christian virtues.  What would the impact be if those of us with bitter hearts resolved in the New Year to truly forgive those who have hurt us?  Or those with selfish hearts resolved to serve people in need?  Or those with critical hearts resolved to guard their tongue?  The possibilities are endless.  And in doing this we would breathe new life into what it means to be transformed, what it means to be fully human, and what it means to be a true follower of Christ.

Returning to the informal survey mentioned at the beginning, in which past resolutions closely matched those of the general population.  When asked about resolutions to be made in 2020, there was a significant shift in emphasis.  Although exercise, lose weight, and read more still appear, other resolutions include:  “Growing closer to father and brother,” “Regularity in dates with wife,” “Volunteer,” “Get closer to God,” “Better family leader,” and “Obedient to God.”  These seem like a pretty good start.



You are the light of the world.”  (Matthew 5:14)

When I was growing up in the 1950’s, I watched for three faithful heralds of Christmas:  the Sears Christmas catalog, an Advent calendar, and sugar cutout cookies.  The Sears Christmas catalog, colloquially known as the Christmas Wish Book, was the first to arrive in early November.  I spent hours pouring through its pages and dreaming about Fort Apache toys, Davy Crocket hats, Erector sets, Lionel trains, transistor radios, and festively displayed chemistry sets.  In my mind I can still smell the ink and feel the tissue-like texture of the oft-turned pages.  The Advent calendar was the second to arrive on the first of December.  It was a cardboard affair with small windows numbered from one to twenty-five.  Each morning another day in the countdown to Christmas was marked, as a new window was peeled opened revealing the picture of a toy or winter scene.  Sugar cutout cookies, like the ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, were more mercurial, arriving in their own time – in other words, whenever my mother had time to bake them.  Normally they appeared a week or so before Christmas Day.  Shaped like camels, angels, and stars, these were plain sugar cookies with no frosting or decorations, yet they were most welcome guests.  Like apparitions they soon disappeared.

You might wonder why I have not mentioned a Christmas tree as being a herald of Christmas?   The reason is that in our house the tree was never put up early, indeed, sometimes as late as Christmas Eve itself.  And so, when I was a child, the Christmas tree was mostly a lagging indicator of Christmas.  Why we waited until the end of Advent may seem inexplicable to some.  But my father had his reasons, which were rooted in basic economics, as opposed to any deep theological objection or concern over “rushing” the season, as it were.  For, you see, my father was a child of the Great Depression, which had indelibly imprinted frugality upon his soul.  He was also a natural negotiator and reckoned that if he waited until Christmas Eve to buy a tree that he would get an undoubted bargain.  As a philosophical matter, I questioned the strategy some years later when the thought occurred to me that the seller surely recognized a buyer who had his own pressure to come home with a tree.  Nonetheless, many a Christmas Eve found my Dad shopping the lots for a last minute sale.

Even though the tree arrived late in the season, its importance was not diminished.  It was to squeals of delight that the tree, always a balsam fir, was carried into the house and secured in its stand.  Many hands made short work of trimming it – first with lights, then with ornaments, and finally with strands of aluminum tinsel.  The ornaments were nothing special – an eclectic assortment of family keepsakes, trinkets crafted at school, and plain dime store balls.  But they were our ornaments and we each had several favorites that we gently hung on the tree after first making a careful reckoning of the best location.  Lovely as the ornaments were, for me the magic was forever in the lights.  Red and green and white and blue, strings of lights girdling the tree washed it with a spectrum of color.  A special few bulbs were shaped like candles and had a liquid core that bubbled when heated by their socket.  When night fell and the tree lights turned on, everything was transformed.  The tree positively glowed, and the room took on a new quality in the soft illumination from so many points of light.

As the years have passed, the heralds of Christmas have changed.  When Pat and I married we blended what was best from our families of origin, and gradually new traditions emerged.  These continued to evolve as our children grew, and we adapted to different seasons of life.  These days I no longer pour over a Sears Wish Book, indeed Sears itself has been through bankruptcy.  Advent calendars disappeared with the passing of childhood and only make a brief appearance now as gifts to our grandchildren.  And while Christmas cookies are still a big deal, expanding waistlines mean that we no longer devour them as once we did in our youth.  The Christmas tree, however, remains an essential part of our Christmas celebration.  It literally stands alone as a tradition that has transcended the passage of time.  No longer a last minute purchase, we now secure a tree shortly after Thanksgiving, decorate it, and enjoy its comforting presence in our living room until the New Year.

The tree has, for me, never lost its luster.  The magic I felt as a child is still there when the tree lights are turned on against the darkness of night.  Each little bulb casting a soft light that reflects off of so many shiny ornaments and merges with the light of myriad others to gently illuminate the room.  This is a time when many of us study the lights and reflect upon the season.

There are those who see the heavenly stars when they look at Christmas tree lights.  Perhaps the day in creation when, God said, ‘Let there be lights in the vault of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark sacred times, and days and years, and let them be lights in the vault of the sky to give light on the earth.”  (Genesis 1:14-15)  Others are reminded of the star of Bethlehem heralding the coming of our Savior, and of the Magi who asked,  “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?  We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”  (Matthew 2:2) These are all wonderful points of reflection to fill the soul of an evening during Advent.

But, for me, it isn’t so much the stars of the heavens that I see in Christmas tree lights.  Nor is it even the light most central to the Christmas story, namely that of Christ, whose “life was the light of all mankind.” (John 1:4)  Rather, in pondering Christmas lights I see the faces of many people I know, authentic followers of Jesus, who have, “the light of life.”  (John 8:12).  These are the faces of friends and family who are incarnating the spirit of Christ by selflessly serving others.  The ones who have taken Jesus’ words to heart, You are the light of the world.  A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl.  Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”  (Matthew 5:14-16)

There are so many people who come to mind.  Here is one sacrificially loving a spouse.  Here is one honoring a parent.  Here is one patiently listening to a child.  Here is one advocating for immigrants.  Here is one giving food to the needy.  Here is one visiting shut-ins.  Here is one providing medical care for addicts.  Here is one praying for the sick.  Here is one bringing the good news to a far corner of the world.  Here is one encouraging the anxious.  These and so many others who offer hope where there is despair, healing where there is pain, and indeed light where there is darkness.

When the Christmas tree is illuminated after sundown, the darkness of the room does not vanquish the light of the tree.  Just the opposite – the lights of the tree overcome the darkness as hundreds of tiny little bulbs bravely stand against the stygian gloom and cheerfully and indiscriminately radiate their light onto everything in their path.  And so it is with true believers who shine the light of Christ into a dark world.  May it be so with you.



Contentment (Part 2)

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Philippians 4:12-13)

Sometimes of an evening Pat and I watch an episode of House Hunters International.  This is a reality TV program in which a couple is house hunting in a country outside the U.S.  We follow them as they view three properties, one of which they select at the end of the show.  The closing scene is several months after they have moved in, where they extol the wonderful choice they have made.  Often the couple is enjoying a glass of wine with friends as they admire the view from their new home.  It is intended to be a picture of contentment.  But most of us are not so easily duped because we know the moment will soon pass, and the reality of normal living will overtake them.  In a recent program, the couple was house hunting in Rome, where they found an apartment within eyesight of St. Peter’s Basilica.  How amusing to imagine contentment being found simply by viewing one of the holiest sites of Christianity – the one religion that teaches the narrow way of deep contentment.

The Apostle Paul had a stay in Rome 2000 years earlier.  We do not know if Paul had a view of the city, but his accommodation was certainly far less comfortable than modern day.  He was under arrest and whether confined to a house or prison cell, we can be certain that it was a Spartan existence at best.  Paul had good reason to be discontented.  Yet his letter to the church at Philippi tells a different story – one of joy that transcended his personal circumstances.  For despite the conditions, Paul had found deep contentment.  In his words, “I have learned the the secret of being content in any and every situation.”  (Philippians 4:12)

I wrote last month about the importance of contentment in our faith journey, and about three distinct manifestations:  discontentment, conditional contentment, and deep contentment.  This month I reflect on Paul’s “secret of being content in any and every situation.”  (Philippians 4:12)  At the outset, it should be noted that Paul doesn’t spell out what this “secret” is, but gives us some leeway in discovering it for ourselves.  He provides a clue by tying his own contentment back to Jesus “I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Philippians 4:13)  And so, it seems right to consider what Jesus said about contentment, which he did in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ concise teaching on life in the kingdom of God.  I have never heard it framed from the perspective of contentment.  But, in fact, this is exactly what Jesus does in the metaphor he uses to conclude the Sermon:  Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.  The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock.”  (Matthew 7:24-25)  This seems clear enough:  our ability to stand firm in the face of the storms of life comes as we apply Jesus’ teaching, that is, as we put his words into practice.  Not falling apart when encountering difficult circumstances is a pretty good description of deep contentment.

So what, in essence, do Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount (recorded in Matthew 5-7) tell us?  Simply stated, we are to:  1) Forgive what is past; 2) Live honorably in the present; and 3) Be hopeful about the future.  As we do these things in increasing measure, deep contentment will more or less follow automatically.

Forgive What is Past.  Many of us are burdened by regrets, guilt, and even self-condemnation resulting from our past actions.  As a result we are restless and unable to experience deep contentment.  This is why Jesus teaches us to press into God by praying, “Forgive us our debts.”  (Matthew 6:12)  Jesus understands the destructiveness of a guilty conscience, and that this is something God alone can heal and will heal if we but ask him.

Our struggles though are not only with our own past actions, but also with how others have hurt us.  If we do not forgive them, we will not know deep contentment.  Living with unforgiveness is like living in the exhaust vent of a smoldering volcano that periodically releases fumes from a long past eruption.  We never experience deep contentment because we are repeatedly poisoned by escaping gases.  There is an inseparable connection between our need to be forgiven and our need to forgive.  Jesus makes it very clear.  “If you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.”  (Matthew 6:14)

Live Honorably in the Present.  If we do not live honorably in the present, we will not experience deep contentment. Those who do not respond to Jesus’ call to live a life of virtue – one of compassion, purity, honesty, love, etc. – will inevitably be distressed.  This we know from Scripture: “There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil.”  (Romans 2:9)  And this we also know from the testimony of our own consciences.  We will never be settled as long as we are enslaved by patterns of sin in our lives.

Be Hopeful About the Future.  If we worry about the future, we will not know deep contentment.  Worry is one of the great cancers of the spiritual life.  It not only eats away at our present joy, but slowly consumes our soul as more and more of today is sacrificed to the future.  Jesus words in the Sermon are, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear … do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.”  (Matthew 6:25, 34)  Not succumbing to our fears, but trusting fully in Jesus, is a measure of our Christian maturity.

Still, worry is more than fear about the future, although it is that.  Worry includes any undue emphasis we place on our desires being met.  For example, the great political divide in this country is reflected in the passionate views held by people on all sides.  Whenever our emotions come to dominate our reason we will not know deep contentment.  Dallas Willard put it thus, “Those who are wise will, accordingly, never allow themselves, if they can help it, to get in a position where they feel too deeply about any human matter.  They will never willingly choose to allow feelings to govern them.  They will carefully keep the pathway open to the house of reason and go there regularly to listen.”  (Renovation of the Heart, page 125)

Paul, of course, wrote extensively about these three – forgiving the past, living righteously in the present, and not being anxious about the future.  But Paul gives us one more handle that ties all three together.  Namely, gratitude.

Paul’s letters often mention gratitude (thankfulness).  For example, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”  (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)  “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace.  And be thankful.”  (Colossians 3:15)  And in his letter to the Philippians, in which he writes about deep contentment, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.  (Philippians 4:6)

In the context of mature discipleship, Ronald Rolheiser observes, “Gratitude is the basis of all holiness.  The holiest person you know is the most grateful person you know.  That is true too for love:  the most loving person you know is also the most grateful person you know because even love finds its basis in gratitude.  Anything we call love, but that is not rooted in gratitude, will, at the end of the day, be manipulative and self-serving.  If our love and service of others does not begin in gratitude, we will end up carrying peoples’ crosses and sending them the bill.”  (247-248)

Jesus modeled gratitude as he often thanked the Father when he prayed.  But while Jesus does not speak directly about the importance of thankfulness, Paul does.  Indeed, Paul puts a rather fine point on thankfulness, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.”  (Philippians 4:8)  True gratitude always starts with our thoughts.  Thinking about things that are excellent and praiseworthy is precisely what fosters gratitude in our hearts.  Gratitude leads to loving acts and contentment grows.

The human heart longs to experience deep contentment.  To know and feel an abiding sense of peace, patience, and joy that transcends external circumstances.  The paradox of deep contentment is that it not achievable by direct effort.  Rather, it is the by-product of a living a certain kind of life – a life that is within our reach – one of forgiveness, righteousness, and hope.  And one that is forever grounded in gratitude.


Contentment (Part 1)

“Real contentment must come from within.  You and I cannot control the world around us, but we can change and control the world within us.”  (Warren Wiersbe)

There is a way of living that more than any other reflects the depth of our faith journey.  It is a way that most of us have experienced but few have sustained.  A way marked by an abiding sense of peace, patience and joy.  A way abounding in the abundant life promised by Jesus.  The way known as contentment.

This reflection on contentment will be in two posts.  This month is the nature of contentment by looking at three examples from the Psalms.  Next month is how to find contentment by exploring the Apostle Paul’s “secret of being content.”  But first to the Psalms where there are at least three distinct manifestations of contentment that are helpful in fleshing out its essential nature.  These are Discontentment, Conditional Contentment, and Deep Contentment

“When our ancestors were in Egypt, they gave no thought to your miracles; they did not remember your many kindnesses, and they rebelled by the sea, the Red Sea.”  (Psalm 106:7)  If there is one thing that stands out in the Exodus, it is how the Israelites were perpetually complaining.  Despite God’s miraculous provision, they constantly vexed him by their rebellion and discontent.

And so it is with many today who seem to be perpetually discontented even in the face of enormous blessings in their life.  It is curious how easy it is to focus on negative things and take positive ones for granted.  I am not writing about those who are suffering or in the throes of personal tragedy.  But rather about those who, despite generally good health and relationships, are nonetheless discontent.  Somehow in their journey they have lost a sense of the richness of their lives, and chosen instead to be resentful and angry.

In writing about struggles of our middle years of life, Ronald Rolheiser observes, “Many … deeply regret that during the healthiest and most productive years of their lives they were too driven and too unaware of the richness of their own lives to appreciate and enjoy what they were doing.  Instead of privilege, they felt burden; instead of gratitude, they felt resentment; and instead of joy, they felt anger.  One of the demons we wrestle with during our adult years is the resentment of Martha, that is, a joylessness bordering on anger for, ironically, being burdened with the privilege of health, work, and status.”  (Sacred Fire)

The danger of chronic discontentment is that it increasingly becomes one’s identity.  We have all known people who despite many blessings are perpetually discontented, having allowed their lives to be consumed by bitterness and anger.  One of the ironies of discontentment is that it is off-putting to others, and consequently they pull away.  The more they pull away, the more bitterness and anger grow.  It is a negative feedback loop that can be difficult to stop – particularly as we age.  But there is always hope because according to the Apostle Paul, contentment is something that can be learned.  Still, overcoming discontentment, like any vice, becomes more difficult with the passage of time.  Discontented old people were once discontented young people.

The spiritual implications of discontentment are chilling.  Because of the discontentment and incessant grumbling of the Israelites, God declared that they would indeed die in the wilderness and never enter the Promised Land.  (Numbers 14:26-29)

Conditional Contentment
“But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.”  (Psalm 131:2)  A child with its mother – here we have a beautiful image of contentment and peace.  So why is this not the paradigm for biblical contentment?  The answer is that the child has good reason to be content – it is with its mother, perhaps asleep in her arms.  And these favorable circumstances are precisely what make its contentment conditional.  For we all know what will happen when the child gets hungry or its mother has to leave.

Conditional contentment is therefore contentment that is dependent upon circumstances being favorable.  This fits well with one definition, “Contentment is happiness and satisfaction, often because you have everything you need.”  (Cambridge English Dictionary)  And it also fits pretty well with the spirit of our age that promises us that contentment comes as soon as our perceived needs are fulfilled.  As soon as we find someone to love us, we will be content; as soon as we get the mortgage paid off, we will be content; or as soon as we retire, we will be content.  But for those of us who bought into this storyline, inevitably we have come away disappointed.  It was great when I married Pat, but the honeymoon eventually ended.  I was elated when I paid off our mortgage, but it was short-lived because I then had to replace all of the windows and doors.  And soon after I retired, I encountered unexpected and difficult medical and family crises.

I am not alone in experiencing contentment conditionally.  Most of us have seasons of contentment when things are going well, and times of discontentment when troubles come.  And indeed, troubles always come!  Yet, as I honestly reflect on my life, I see so many blessings even during difficult times: a loving wife, faithful friends and family, and good medical care.  Christian maturity demands that we look beyond the temporal and take the long view.  This brings us to the third level of contentment, which is deep contentment.

Deep Contentment
“Although the earth erupts in quakes, we will not shake or fear; though glaciers crash into the sea, our God is always near.  And though the oceans roar and foam, and breakers crash and swell, though mountains sway and split in two, we know that all is well.”  (Psalm 46:2-3)  Here we have the true Biblical paradigm of contentment.  When our world is coming apart, there is a place of deep contentment.  A place where we can stand and truly say ‘all is well.’

Deep contentment is radically different from conditional contentment.  Consider the words of the Apostle Paul, I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Philippians 4:11-13)  Contentment for Paul did not depend upon his circumstances or even whether his most basic physical needs were met.  To the contrary, Paul had learned contentment whatever his situation.

I don’t want to be glib about being content when things are in turmoil.  Struggles and suffering are real.  And it is easy to write about contentment when things are going well.  Still, there is value in thinking and praying about contentment when not in the middle of a crisis.  Paul writes, “train yourself to be godly”  (1 Timothy 4:7), which implies developing holy habits, such as contentment, before trials come into our lives.

For some, contentment means having no desires.  For example, one definition of contentment is “A state of mind in which one’s desires are confined to his lot whatever it may be.”  (Easton’s Bible Dictionary)  This is not so far from Buddhist belief that desire is a root of suffering and therefore to be eliminated.  We should be clear on this:  Death of desire has no place in Christian practice!  We are to desire God’s kingdom to come in our marriages, our homes, our community, and our world, and we are to work for its fulfillment.  Scripture calls us to action – from helping the oppressed to working on our character.  Indeed, it is precisely because we are called by God to fight injustice and to seek righteousness that contentment finds its true home.  Biblical contentment never seeks the end of godly desires.  Instead, its power is in not allowing those desires to rule our lives.  We draw our life not from whether we obtain our desires, but from the Spirit.  This is why Paul tells us that if we walk by the Spirit, we will experience joy, peace, patience, etc.  (Galatians 5:16, 22)

Deep contentment is not an impossible dream.  It is not just Jesus who could sleep in a boat in the middle of a storm (Matthew 8:24-25), or Paul who be content even when hungry (Philippians 4:12).  There are people in every age who have demonstrated deep contentment in the face of personal hardship and tragedy.  For example, Horatio Spafford was a Christian and successful businessman in Chicago in the latter part of the 19th Century.  Spafford lost his only son to scarlet fever in 1870.  The next year, his real estate investments were destroyed by the Great Chicago Fire.  Two years after that, his four daughters drowned when their ship was struck and sank while crossing the Atlantic.  His wife miraculously survived, and as Spafford sailed to join her, his ship passed near the spot where his daughters went down.  It was there he penned the words of one of the great hymns of our faith.

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
when sorrows like sea billows roll;
whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.

Deep contentment is being able to say when sorrows come, “It is well with my soul.”


PS   Next month I will reflect on the secret of contentment that the Apostle Paul discovered.


“Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.  Anyone who does what is good is from God.  Anyone who does what is evil has not seen God.”  (3 John 1:11)

An anechoic chamber is the quietest place on earth.  Acoustically isolated from the outside world and fitted with irregular foam shapes on the inside walls, all sound generated from within is absorbed.  The word anechoic literally means “without echo,” which accurately describes the function of the specially constructed walls.  Scientists use these rooms to conduct acoustic tests, such as determining the noise level of various consumer products.  Some years ago I had an opportunity to spend a few minutes inside an anechoic chamber.  When I stepped into the room and the door closed behind me, I spoke a few words but did not recognize my own voice.  The walls literally absorbed all of the sound, and the normal echoes one takes for granted simply ceased to exist.  If I had screamed at the top of my lungs, it would have made no difference for all noise would still be absorbed by the non-reflective walls.  There is an otherworldliness feeling to anechoic chambers, and I can understand why NASA uses them to help astronauts get accustomed to the silence of outer space.

Fortunately, God did not design an anechoic world.  Just the opposite, because echoes add an amazing richness and timbre to our lives.  For example, the Lord has made great canyons where the splashing of rushing torrents echoes in splendid cacophony.  A place where deep calls to deep in the roar of [his] waterfalls.”  (Psalm 42:7)  Each day starts anew with the waking sounds of creation greeting him.  “Awake my soul, arise with me, awake O harp and strings; together we will wake the dawn as all creation sings.”  (Psalm 57:8)  He created old growth forests where bird songs like that of the Wood Thrush reverberate with a flute-like trill.  For there, “the birds of the sky nest by the waters; they sing among the branches.”  (Psalm 104:12)   And great cathedrals built to honor the Lord uniquely resonate as sacred music and hymns of praise echo off of vaulted ceilings. For God is King of all the earth so sing Him songs that please; sing psalms and hymns and spirituals with sweetest melodies.”  (Psalm 47:7)

But it is not simply a matter of aesthetics that God designed sound to be reflective.  Functionally, the echo of sound waves bouncing off of our surroundings helps give us our bearings.  We intuitively sense the position of objects by the direction and speed of sound that is reflected from their surfaces.  And with the two ears God has given us, we can judge direction and distances even in the dark.  Truly, the echoes of sound in the natural world are a wonderful gift from the Lord.

When it comes to our spiritual life we have a tendency to echo whatever we observe in others.  If those around us embody that which is good and decent, we are encouraged to do the same.  Contrariwise, if those around embody that which is evil, we are tempted to follow.  God, of course, does not intend for us to echo the latter, but the former.  “Dear friend, do not imitate what is evil but what is good.”  (3 John 1:11a)  Rather than echoing the evil we see and hear, the Lord would have us absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber absorb sound.  Yet this is hard for us to do.  For when evil is experienced by us, we are tempted to retaliate.  And even when evil is only observed by us, we can be tempted to imitate.

We echo evil when retaliation is our response to someone who is treating us unjustly.  Paul tells us “do not overcome evil with evil, but overcome evil with good.”  (Romans 12:21)  A common way we retaliate is by anger.  Anger is like a wildfire – once it is lit it can quickly consume all those in its path.  But even though anger may automatically rise up in us as a response to the unjust and evil actions of others, we don’t have to yield to it, and can choose to absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber.  In the words of Dallas Willard, While anger arises spontaneously, we can choose whether [or not] to receive it and indulge it.” (The Divine Conspiracy)  Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is, You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’  But I tell you, do not resist an evil person.  If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”  (Matthew 5:38-39)

Still, there is a far more subtle way that we echo evil, which is when we imitate those around us who disregard God’s moral law.  I am not referring to the pagan culture in which we live because most of us Christians are aware of the dangers inherent to the spirit of our age.  Rather, it is the danger of our relationship with those who claim to be Christians – be they our friends or public figures – who act in ungodly ways.  For even when we know the difference between right and wrong, there is a temptation to disregard moral restraints when we observe other Christians doing so.  I don’t completely understand the psychology behind this, yet we all know it is true.  Somehow when we see others who claim to be Christians acting in an ungodly manner, we can be tempted to believe that it must be okay for us to act in the same way.  In some cases we may trust their judgments more than our own, or perhaps we feel social pressure to conform our behavior.  It’s almost like we are hearing the words of the serpent, “Did God really say that you must not eat from any tree in the garden?”  (Genesis 3:1)

For example, if a Christian we know and respect slanders someone, we may question whether slander is really so bad.  Like masters of illusion, we tell ourselves that it is really not slander or that it is somehow justified.  The Apostle Paul recognized the danger, which is why he tells us to have nothing to do with those claiming to be Christians but not acting accordingly.  But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.  Do not even eat with such people.  (1 Corinthians 5:11)

Paul’s counsel can present us with a dilemma when the person acting immorally is a personal friend.  For example, if they are having an affair, should we drop them as a friend?  Or what if they have an addiction or are pursuing some other idol in their life?  There are Biblical principles about loving and caring for those in need, so simply not associating with them may not be the right thing to do.  And frankly we all fall at times, and our critique of the sins of others can quickly lead us down a path of graceless judgments and self-righteousness.  At the same time, I believe we can underestimate the danger of being around those who habitually sin because of the temptation to echo their behavior and similarly fall.  Paul’s word to the Galatians reflects this dilemma, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.  But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.  Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  (Galatians 6:1-2)

The matter is somewhat different when the Christian who is acting immorally is in the public arena, such as the church, sports, politics, media, or entertainment.  For when they act immorally, it is not just us who are in danger of echoing their behavior, but all who see them.  Given that our ability to influence a public figure is usually minimal, our best course of action is to move beyond the sphere of his or her influence.  We hear a lot these days about the need for role models because of how those in authority can influence others for good or ill.  Jesus paid particular attention to this when he warned against causing people to go astray, and the particular punishment for those who do.  “Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble!  Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come!”  (Matthew 18:6-7)

Jesus, of course, never echoed evil.  He never repaid evil for evil – never!  Even on the cross, he did not revile his persecutors.  In this he showed us the way.  “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.  ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.’  When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats.  Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.  (1 Peter 2:21-23)  Jesus is our model – we are not to echo evil and injustice, but we are to absorb it like the walls of an anechoic chamber soaks up sound.  As we do this in increasing measure, we anticipate our destiny, which is “to become conformed to the image of his son.”  (Romans 8:29)



“The first duty of love is to listen”  (Paul Tillich)

I would like to be a better listener.  To be attentive and focused when someone is speaking to me.  To be interested in what they are saying.  And to be slow to jump in with a response.  But lifelong habits are hard to break.  When I am involved with something, I don’t suffer interruptions well.  When a person is rambling or speaking slowly, I can become impatient.  And frequently my mind wanders from what is being said to how I will respond.  As I have mentioned in previous posts, I write about Christian virtues not because I am particularly proficient in any, but precisely because I am not.  I write to think them through and remind myself what is important to God.  Listening well is surely one of these.

The desire to be really heard and understood by others is a bedrock need of every human.  It is a need that can only be fulfilled when someone makes an effort to listen well.  Author Ralph Nichols puts it this way:  “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood.  The best way to understand people is to listen to them.”  Imagine a world in which no one ever listened to us.  Perhaps a world in which everyone wore headphones.  People could tune into their favorite station and never be interrupted by another.  It would be like a world of animatrons “that have ears but cannot hear.”  (Psalm 135:17)  This may not be so far removed from the worlds that some have created.  With all of the ways we can isolate ourselves physically and emotionally from others, many of us have ceased to listen to those desperate to be heard.  And when we cease to listen we cease to love.  As Rick Warren writes: “You see pain with your eyes, but you sympathize with your ears.  Sometimes the greatest way to serve someone is just by listening.  Behind every need is a story.”

I find it curious that there is not much in Scripture about the importance of listening to one another.  I once counted over 300 Bible verses relating to the words we speak.  Yet, I am hard pressed to find verses about listening to others.  The one verse Christians point to in regard to listening is in the book of James, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)  But even this verse in context has more to do with listening to the word of God than listening to other people.  There are a handful of verses in Proverbs that speak to the importance of listening to others, but for the most part these relate to the listener gaining wisdom, rather than the speaker being helped.  For example, The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (Proverbs 12:15)  By any reckoning, the virtue of listening to others is not emphasized in the Bible.  Although there is much recorded about listening to God, the importance of our listening to one another must be teased out of God’s Word.  This is not to say that listening to others is unimportant.  To the contrary, it is the quintessential way we love others.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book  “Life Together” writes, “The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.  Just as love of God begins in listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”

Listening to others is an important means for mediating other Christian virtues.  Consider the seven virtues Paul mentions in Colossians, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.  Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone.  Forgive as the Lord forgave you.  And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”  (Colossians 3:12-14)  Each of these seven virtues – compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, and forgiveness – is demonstrated (or not) to the extent we really listen to others.

Listening with compassion means we seek to share in the pain of the person speaking.  When tornados devastated parts of Dayton on May 27, a number of my friends were filled with compassion for the victims and immediately volunteered with the cleanup effort.  But often people suffer in ways that are not self-evident.  Only by taking time to listen to them tell their story – without judgment or comment – can we demonstrate compassion.  The word compassion comes from two Latin words: “cum,” meaning “with;” and “pati,” meaning “suffering.”  So listening with “com-passion” means we suffer with the person as they unburden themselves.  Job’s friends initially listened with compassion when they sat with Job for seven days – saying nothing and listening to Job speak.  But eventually they could not restrain their tongues and accused Job of doing evil.  Recriminations are incompatible with compassionate listening.

Listening with kindness means we seek to orient our heart to the other person.  We show kindness by being available and attentive when they need to be heard, not just when we feel like listening.  We may demonstrate our interest by being an active listener and reflecting back what they are saying.  But the real grace of listening with kindness comes in providing an emotional space where the other person feels like they are really being heard.  Simply knowing that someone is truly listening can provide a healing balm to a troubled soul.  Among all the ways we can show kindness to another person, one of these is surely listening with an open heart.

Listening with humility means we seek to restrain our own words and ego.  We listen to the other person without turning attention to ourselves.  When we truly listen to another person, our pride screams at us to say something.  We feel an overwhelming urge to respond by giving advice and sharing our own brilliant ideas.  Stephen R. Covey observed that, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  (The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People)  When the mind turns its focus from what is being said to what its response is going to be, it is listening with pride and not humility.  “Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions.” (Proverbs 18:2)

Listening with gentleness means we seek to create a safe place for the other person to share.  We are non-threatening as we listen without judgment.  The other person opens up and unburdens their heart in the presence of someone who is interested and safe.  Jonathan Edwards said that, “real disciples of Christ have a gentle spirit in them.”  Listening with gentleness means that our gentle spirit is present to the other person.  This presence will be like a well-worn cardigan that we wrap around them.

Listening with patience means we seek to be fully present to the other person.  We are attentive although we would rather be doing something else.  And we stay engaged even in the face of boring or rambling comments.  It is hard enough in normal interactions to stay focused when another person is speaking.  But this is exacerbated when the person is speaking about something that is of no interest to us or that we cannot understand.  And so we practice listening with patience as we shut out all other thoughts and concentrate on the words being spoken.  Listening with patience can be particularly important when we are present with older people whose minds no longer function as they once did.

Listening with forbearance means we seek to accept the other person as they are and not as we would like them to be.  Even when we disagree or perhaps even dislike the other person, we are listening to understand rather than to be understood.  We listen as a matter of respect for the other person as one made in the image of God.  We don’t listen because we seek to gain anything from the interaction.  Rather, we listen because God commands us to, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Matthew 22:39)  How much of the conflict in our marriages, our families, and our communities could be ameliorated if we learned the discipline of listening with forbearance.

Listening with forgiveness means we seek to release a person from the debt of their wrongdoing.  But here our listening must be of a different kind, because often we need to forgive someone who will never speak to us, let alone apologize.  They may be estranged, or in another town, or even dead.  Listening to them is therefore impossible.  And so, when we are listening with forgiveness, we are listening to a different voice – the voice of One who forgave even as He was going to His death.  We listen again to the Lord’s Prayer, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors,” and our hearts start to thaw.

Listening to others is simple, but it is not easy.  It is simple because it only requires time and a willing heart.  It is not easy because it requires us to overcome engrained habits born of self-interest.  Yet, there are few actions that reveal more about our spiritual maturity than how well (or not) we listen to others.  Jesus is the only hope for a broken world, and we are his people, the instruments through which his grace and healing is dispensed.  In the midst of all that is wrong and broken in the world today, we have the opportunity to shine his light through the simple act of listening.


Psalm 1

Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that bringeth forth his fruit in his season; his leaf also shall not wither; and whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The ungodly are not so: but are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For the 
Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.

Psalm 1 holdeth a special place in my heart.  I memorized the King James version as a teenager, decades before I became a follower of Christ.  To this day I delight in its lyrical parallelism and rich metaphors wrapped in the luscious language of the King’s English.  The world has changed in many wonderful ways since 1603 when King James I of England authorized a new translation of the Bible, but not necessarily in our use of language.  These days a person walks, stands, or sits – quick, precise, and to the point.  Utilitarian to a fault.  But not so in the court of King James I where a person walketh, standeth, or sitteth (probably mostly standeth when the king was present).  The pace of life today is intense – with efficiency and speed prized virtues – all of which is reflected in our language.  In today’s world, a tree is genetically modified, cross-bred, grafted, and sprayed to maximize its yield; but back then a tree simply “bringeth forth” its fruit.  Today chaff is hauled to a compost facility; but then chaff was “driveth away” by the wind.

Psalm 1 is reflectively poetic even as it brilliantly illuminates the spiritual divide between those who choose their own way (the ungodly), and those who choose to follow God’s way (the righteous).  Jesus says those who choose their own way are foolish, and will forever be buffeted by the winds of life.  But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”  (Matthew 7:26-27)  In contrast, the righteous stand strong despite whatever misfortunes may befall them.  Paul’s description is,  I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.  I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do all this through him who gives me strength.”  (Philippians 4:12-13)

Psalm 1 uses two great metaphors to describe this contrast – chaff for the ungodly and a tree for the righteous. It is tempting for us Christians to frame these metaphors in soteriological terms – with chaff representing the unsaved, and tree representing the saved.  Naturally, we all want to believe we are like the tree – saved and secure in the kingdom of God.   But framing this in black and white – either we are chaff, or we are a tree – flattens a three-dimensional world into two.  For this Psalm can also be understood in terms of spiritual formation, in which chaff and tree are on opposing ends of a spectrum.  There are times when we are more like chaff and times when we are more like a tree.  Spiritual formation then is not a fixed point but the direction we are heading, and Christian spiritual formation the sure and steady movement from chaff to tree.

Psalm 1 cautions us that the life of the ungodly is like chaff.  Chaff of course is the husk surrounding a seed.  It starts its life as part of the plant.  Indeed, it serves a very important purpose in surrounding and protecting the seed.  But it dries out and becomes brittle as the plant matures, so by harvest time it has no value at all.  In ancient cultures, after grain was gathered it was beat upon the floor to loosen the chaff from the seed.  The mixture would then be tossed in the air on a windy day, and the lighter chaff would literally be blown away.  To be chaff then is to lack weight and substance.  It is a waste product that is of no use to anyone. Chaff has no life in itself, it has no roots, and when exposed to the slightest breeze it is thrown to the four winds.

There are times when circumstances have blown me about like so much chaff.  For example, I can recall instances when I have responded to a minor problem with rage, an unkind remark with brooding, a physical illness with self-pity, a fear of inadequacy with defensiveness, and even a kind word with pride.  Whenever my actions are controlled by my circumstances without regard to the word of God, I am like so much chaff blowing in the wind. At such times I am living like one who does not know God.  I harm others and I harm my soul.

I know other Christians who have similar experiences.  For example, there are some in the church who allow fear to blow them about like chaff.  There are many concerns in today’s world that we perceive as threats to our way of life – the environment, immigration, technology, terrorism, and finances to name just a few.  Despite being told throughout Scripture to “fear not,” many succumb to their fears and respond with the tools of the world – the counsel of the ungodly, the way of sinners, and the seat of the scornful.   But God’s word is, “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” (Romans 12:21).  Benjamin Corey states in reference to his new book “Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith,” Fear seems to have gripped American Christianity like never before, and the impact is already noticeable.  This generalized fear is causing us to turn on one another, abandon consistent and collective application of Christian values.  It’s seriously damaging our witness.”  He cites fear as a reason some believers seem to place greater faith in leaders who are otherwise anathema to the principles of our faith rather than our bedrock Christian values.

In contrast to chaff, Psalm 1 gloriously describes the life of the righteous as a tree planted by rivers of water that yields fruit in season, a tree whose leaves are forever green, never withering.  This is an abundant life, a life well-lived.  And who among us, Christian or not, does not desire this kind of life?  For all of us eventually experience hardship and heartache.  We may for a time believe we are in control, but reality eventually hits us and we realize there is very little we control – not our health, our relationships, or even our finances.  The winds of change can be fierce and unforgiving, and the desire to withstand them is irresistible.

I know many followers of Christ who have faced adversity in their lives. For those who have remained grounded in the Word, their faith has revealed them to be like deeply rooted trees. Some of them I have mentioned in prior posts, but there are many others.  For example, Jim is surrounded by family members struggling with physical illness, mental imbalance, stress, and unforgiveness.  Yet Jim’s roots go deep in the Lord and he is faithfully persevering through prayer.  Greg has physically suffered from back problems, but has not yielded to despair all the while maintaining an infectious faith.  Steve has undergone four heart valve surgeries but never ceases praising God for His goodness.  All have “let the word of Christ dwell in [them] richly.” (Colossians 3:16)  And they continue to bring forth fruit in their lives.

So how exactly do we move from chaff to tree?  How do we mature as disciples of Jesus in our spiritual life so that fear, insecurity, pride, etc. lose their grip on our souls and we become like trees planted by rivers of water?  Psalm 1 says the answer is to “meditate” on the law of the Lord day and night.  To “meditate” on the law of the Lord is simply to think deeply about the law so as to rewire our mind from our flawed model for life to God’s perfect model.  In so doing, we are moved to action.  This is what Paul meant when he wrote Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:2).

I have found one very simple way to meditate on the law, which has had a profound impact on my spiritual journey. I simply take a single verse from Scripture and then think about it and try to live it out for a day or perhaps several days.  For example, one verse I have meditated on is “love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4).  It is amazing how much this has revealed to me about my heart and how impatient I am with others.  Over time, the practice has allowed God to work a change in my heart so that many annoyances have lost their power to blow me about like chaff.  The possibilities are endless.  “Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” “Clothe yourself with compassion.” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.” “Everyone who looks for a woman with lust for her has committed adultery in his heart.”  And so on and so forth.

It is tempting to extend the metaphor of chaff and tree by observing that chaff was once part of the grain, but eventually dried up and was discarded, thereby following a way that led to death.  In contrast, the tree that was once planted near a river grew and eventually yielded fruit, thereby following a way that led to life.  But here the metaphor dries up because neither chaff nor a tree has the power of choice.  Psalm1 is clear that rejecting the way of the ungodly is a choice, just as whether to meditate on the law of the Lord is a choice.  For truly, there is a way that leads to life and one that leads to death. “The Lord knoweth the way of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish.”



“Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.”  (Colossians 3:2)

When I started law school in 1979, I probably knew less about the legal system than anyone in our class.  I didn’t know the difference between civil law and criminal law.  I couldn’t distinguish a misdemeanor from a felony.  I vaguely understood the role of the Justice Department.  I had no concept of the interplay between federal and state judicial systems.  I had never read the Constitution.  My background was exclusively in engineering and mathematics, which put me at a disadvantage vis-à-vis my classmates.

However, it wasn’t my general ignorance that was the greatest hurdle I faced.  Rather, it was my belief that there were right and wrong answers in the law to be discovered.  Engineers operate on the knowledge that there are exact answers to technical problems.  For example, in my first job as a systems engineer, I was involved in developing computer simulations for surface-to-air missiles.  When I once inadvertently inserted the letter “O” rather than the number “0” in a computer program, the missile “crashed.”  In those days computer time was costly, and this error caused considerable consternation to my supervisor.  Still, it was better to find out in a computer lab rather than in an actual missile flight.  No doubt the engineers who worked on the angle of attack sensors for the Boeing 737 Max wish they had discovered their error in the design phase.

The engineering mindset that I brought to the study of law had to be transformed before I could move forward.  For, you see, law is more of an art than a science, which is why it finds its home in the liberal arts rather than the hard sciences.  Lawyering emphasizes interpretation and persuasion over calculation and solution.  Scientific laws are by their nature invariant within a given system.  Science and math are logically objective, whereas law is inherently subjective.  Although at times a law and its application are clear, more often than not there is room for construction and argumentation.  This is because laws are enshrined in words, and words are far more nuanced and intrinsically ambiguous than scientific formulas and numbers.  Therefore, in order to succeed as a lawyer my mindset had to fundamentally change.

When I switched vocations from the sciences to law, I did not know that a quarter century later my thinking and foundational assumptions would once again be radically challenged.  This occurred (and continues to occur) in my journey from the secular, non-believing world into Christianity and the kingdom of God.  For the mindset of one who would dwell in the kingdom of God is diametrically opposed to the mindset of one who follows the pattern of the world.  I did not understand this when I first became a Christian.  I thought that I might need to “kick up my game” a notch or two – perhaps by being a little kinder, a little more generous, or bit more forgiving.  It never occurred to me that the way of Jesus would require a baseline reset of my mind, a fundamental readjustment of my thought processes.

Paul certainly did not believe that following Christ was a matter of a few minor adjustments to our character.  He made it clear that we are a new creation and should no longer live for ourselves.  (2 Corinthians 5:15-17)  He wrote that this transformation is predicated on a change in our thinkingDo not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.”  (Romans 12:2)  What Paul is saying is that we Christians must rethink the way we see the world. The patterns that we have become comfortable with, the assumptions that we have accepted – either explicitly or implicitly – must be examined.  And the goal?  It is to “test and approve”God’s will!  And here we come to the heart of the matter – life in the kingdom of God is centered around God’s will, whereas life according to the pattern of this world is centered around my will.

Thus, kingdom living requires that our thinking must be directed to discerning God’s will.  We pray this in the Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.”  (Matthew 6:10).  We hear this in the teaching of Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”  (Matthew 7:21).  And we see this in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”  (Matthew 26:39)

The question I have struggled with is how to pull this off in practice? How can my beliefs change so that I really believe God’s will is paramount?  I have a lifetime of living according to my will – putting myself first – in my family, my career, and my marriage.  While God surely renews our mind even as he gives us a new heart when we are saved; still, it is my choice where I will set my mind, what thoughts I will dwell upon.  The Spirit will lead, but I must follow.  On this there can be no doubt.  Moreover, as Paul makes clear, what we set our mind on will determine how we live.  “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”  (Romans 8:5)

Changing my mindset from my will for my life (living for myself) to God’s will for my life (how he would have me live), is a far harder transition than changing my mindset from engineering to law.  So much of what I see and hear in the “pattern of the world” opposes the will of God and would tempt me to do the same.  For example, Jesus speaks of the evil of lust, but sexual images are everywhere.  He warns against anger, but I live in an angry world.  He says to speak the truth, but I am bombarded by lies.  It takes great effort for me not to slip into the cultural streams flowing past.  Yet, I must do precisely this if I am to avoid conforming to the pattern of this world.

I write about the pursuit of virtue to explore some of the ways I seek the renewal of my mind.  It has been a journey of discovery for me, but not one that has revealed any formula or one-size-fits-all process for change.  Indeed, I find more mystery than certainty around how the mind changes.  Much of what I have learned and written about has come from good teaching, great authors, prayer, and meditation on Scripture.  But one of most impactful ways I have found for doing this is through a community of like-minded individuals.

I learned this first when I was in law school.  Although I had a number of wonderful professors, it was my fellow students who inspired and challenged me by their approach to the curriculum.  My classmates were “all-in” for the study of law.  No one spoke of equations and calculations – it was all about investigation and issues, research and writing, precedents and persuasion – and slowly but gradually my thinking changed.  Being immersed in an environment where everyone was set on pursuing the same goal was a powerful inducement for me to learn and achieve.

It is a lesson that has been beneficial in my spiritual journey. The power of a community of believers whose minds are set on discerning God’s will has encouraged and helped me to grow.  It is a great blessing to have family and friends who have a kingdom mindset – those who don’t assume that faith is a matter of abstract belief and assertions, but that it involves real effort that starts with what is truly believed.  For example, on Tuesday mornings for the past ten years I have met with a community of like-minded believers.  There are roughly thirty of us who weekly read and discuss books from great Christian authors.  We also pray for one another, but mostly we listen and learn from one another – from men who have their minds set on things above.  On Friday mornings I meet with a smaller group of men.  Jim, Dave, Gideon, Bill, Mike, and I are less structured in our time together, but share challenges in our faith journeys, listen with open hearts, and encourage one another.  And every Saturday morning I meet with my friend John.  We have no agenda – we simply talk about our lives.  We pray and we laugh a lot, and we encourage one another to keep our minds set on things of God.

Friends, we are living in a time where following Paul’s counsel, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things,”  (Colossians 3:2), is harder than ever.  For increasingly the pattern of the world is to follow our own self-interests.  As Richard Foster recently wrote, “In the contemporary scene today, narcissism is the spirit of the age … It is in the air we breathe … this extreme self-centeredness, this total self-absorption, this exaggerated sense of entitlement, this utter self-obsession.”  More than ever we need the bond of Christian brothers and sisters whose minds are set on the kingdom of God and his righteousness.




“Where man sees but withered leaves, God sees sweet flowers growing.”  (Albert Laighton)

May is here and gardeners rejoice.  Whether in the south where backyard gardens are in full swing, or farther north where they are still emerging from a long hibernation, growers of every stripe are embracing the season.  In southern Maine, where Joanie and Pete grow their own organic produce, the soil has been mostly tilled or otherwise prepared and seed planting is underway.  Early planters such as snow peas, lettuce, and radishes are up and before too long beans, corn, and squash will be seeded.  As the days get warmer, the demands of the garden will grow and the two of them will spend more and more time outside.  Joanie loves gardening, and there is nothing she enjoys more than to spend a few hours outside tending her plants and talking with the Lord.  It fills her soul to partner with God to bring forth the bounty of the earth.  As the Psalmist proclaims:

O Lord, You drench the hills with rain, You water all the lands;
The earth is nourished by the fruit created by Your hands.
You make the grass grow green and lush for cows and bulls to eat;
You give us plants that we can tend and crops of grain and wheat.
 (Psalm 104:13-14)

When Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden, horticulture was not difficult.  We know this because after the Fall, God cursed the land.  His chilling words to Adam were:  “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.  It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return.”  (Genesis 3:17-19)  Anyone who has gardened knows “sweat of your brow” is not a metaphor.  It takes strength and perseverance to grow produce.  Fortunately, Joanie is a certified Master Gardener with an indefatigable spirit, and good knowledge of when to plant and how to execute a winning strategy against the three scourges of gardening:  diseases, pests and weeds.  But above all she understands that the essential component of garden life is literally in “the ground,” namely, a vibrant and healthy soil teaming with organic life.  Indeed, good soil is to a garden what a virtuous life is to a soul.  While plants can grow in poor soil, to be healthy and sustainably thrive they must be rooted in good earth.

Good earth is a particular focus for Pete.  For while he provides encouragement and a willing hand for the endless manual labor involved in raising a garden, he also makes compost.  More correctly, Pete partners with God to make compost, because the “magic” of making compost is nothing less than a miracle.  God may have cursed the ground after the Fall, but he also provided for its sustainability in the form of compost, which is a never ending cycle of “dust to dust.”

For the uninitiated, compost is the end product of accelerated decomposition of organic matter.  Ideally, the organic matter is a combination of those rich in nitrogen such as fruit and vegetable scraps and manure, and those rich in carbon such as dry leaves and sawdust.  And the end product?  It is a nutrient rich fertilizer that looks like soil but with a texture that more closely resembles peat moss.  Gardeners fondly refer to compost as “black gold” because of its incomparable value when added to the soil.  Compost enriches the soil with nutrients and provides a medium where beneficial microbes live and thrive even as they support the life of growing plants. Compost is not simply finely chopped up organic matter, but a radical chemical and biological transformation of such dead matter into a rich, dark, crumbly substance.  While it contains low levels of plant nutrients, its primary function is not a fertilizer to feed plants per se, but rather to feed the soil creating a better environment for the plants to feed themselves.

From time to time in years past, I tried making compost with varying degrees of success.  When I moved to an abandoned farm in Maine in the mid 1970’s I thought that I would plant vegetables to become self-sufficient.  A local farmer generously plowed and harrowed an enormous ten thousand square foot garden plot.  On one side I built several large bins for compost, which I mostly filed with chicken manure from a neighbor’s farm.  I didn’t have time to balance the high nitrogen manure with carbon rich materials, nor did I have the time to turn the piles over to help in the decaying process. As a result, when I finally dug into the piles later that year not much had happened over the summer – very little decomposition had occurred and it still smelled foul.  Several other half-hearted attempts to make compost over years met with similar results.  The one striking success was in the mid 1990’s when living in Ohio I prepared and tended a much smaller compost pile.  This time I was careful to balance the different types of organic matter and within weeks the pile started to heat up.  When I finally dug into it several months later, I was pleased to find that all of the kitchen and yard scraps had been transformed into the sweetest looking and feeling compost imaginable.  It was truly a magical moment.

God works a miracle when organic matter is converted into compost. To watch the breakdown of banana peels, corn cobs, and even coffee filters is a transformation that is truly amazing to behold.  God works no less a miracle when he takes a soul that has been crushed by sins and/or wounds and transforms it into a new creation.  Yet this is what we are promised when we are told that the one who belongs to Christ has become a new person – “if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come:  The old has gone, the new is here!  (2 Corinthians 5:17)

If Jesus had used compost as a parable for the kingdom of God, I imagine it may have gone something like this.

The Parable of the Compost

“Jesus told them this parable.  ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a refuse pile on the edge of a field.  Weeds, pomace, dung, and all manner of leftovers are cast into the pile where they are transformed into compost, which works through all the soil in the field.’

When his disciples heard this they said to him, ‘Explain to us the parable of the compost.’

Jesus answered, ‘The Refuse is anything that damages the soul – any sin such as anger, lust, and greed; and any evil that befalls a person such as illness, rejection, and the loss of a loved one.  The Field is the world, and the Compost stands for the people of the kingdom whom God has transformed out of the brokenness of their souls.’

‘But Lord,’ they said, ‘How can good come out of something so bad?’  Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.  Very truly I tell you, unless the refuse of one’s life is transformed into compost, it remains only refuse.  But if it is composted, it produces life for many.’

When his disciples heard this they were amazed.”

Jesus obviously did not use compost as a metaphor for the kingdom of heaven, but the point of a soul being transformed is very real.  I witnessed just such a transformation some years ago with a woman I knew from work.  Becky was a follower of Christ who had had her ups and downs in life.  Her marriage had ended in a divorce, but the union had also produced a daughter who was the love of her life.  Becky raised her daughter and watched her mature into a confident and beautiful young woman.  It was a great day when she graduated from a local high school and started her freshman year at a nearby university.  Like all parents who send a child away to college, Becky felt both joy and fear when her only child moved out.  The latter turned out to be prescient when one evening early in the school year her daughter was a passenger in a car on driven by a boyfriend.  Tragically, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove into a bridge abutment.  She was killed instantly.  There is no way to describe Becky’s suffering.  Her one and only child, with a lifetime ahead of her, instantly cut down.

I didn’t see Becky very often for the next year or so, as she continued to work while processing her grief.  Still, she did not lose her faith through her ordeal, and gradually she was functioning again.  But what really stood out was how much empathy she showed towards others when they were going through difficult times.  It seemed that Becky was the one people turned to when they were suffering. When another woman in our department lost her granddaughter to a sudden crib death, Becky was the first to comfort her. The Lord had taken Becky’s divorce and tragic loss of her daughter and was working them for good.  She had become compost in his hands, allowing the Lord to transform her damaged soul so that she could now give life to others.

Spring is the season of hope.  The good earth, long suspended in a frozen grave, is once again in motion.  The world turns green and life stirs anew.  Gardeners emerge from their winter doldrums with enthusiasm and a vision for the year ahead.  There is no looking back.  The remnants from last year’s garden have been piled up and wonderfully transformed into compost.  May this Spring be for us too a new beginning, as the Lord takes the sins and wounds of our past and turns them into something beautiful for his kingdom.