Last week, I posted a screenshot of books I read during 2013.  Today, as a means of reviewing the past year, I will take a look at some of the topics and events that prompted me to write over the last twelve months.  You may have already read some of these, but if not, the links will take you to each story.

Connected-thumb

2013 began just as it has for me for the past several years, with a spiritual review of the year by studying the Fruit of the Spirit.  I have built upon this idea for the past couple of years, and this past January/February I wrote further on each individual piece of fruit.  It has been a great way to begin the new year and I am embarking on this same exercise even now.  For a full index of the Fruit of the Spirit, go to Top Posts and review all the entries on this topic.
Better yet, go here and download the complete guide!  Yes, 2013 marked the release of the short study, Connected To The Vine, inspired by this topic and your feedback.  Thanks to those who have read it, provided feedback, and even used it as a group study guide.

Corinth

In March, my brother and I took a trip visiting many biblical sites throughout the Mediterranean region.  Our journey began at Athens, and continued to Corinth, over to Ephesus in Turkey, then to the Cappadocia region of Turkey, and finally concluded in Istanbul.  It was an amazing trip that continues to impact and shape the way I read scripture.  I shared just some of my observations from each stop through this space.

2013 had its sad moments as well.  Personally, I experienced the loss of a couple of loved ones.  Death seemed to be a theme in the late summer/fall.  More broadly speaking, two authors whose writings impacted me deeply, also passed.  Brennan Manning and Dallas Willard always challenged me and their spiritual insights will be missed.  I was fortunate to meet Brennan Manning in person and he was a great example of spiritual strength in brokenness.

I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to post this past fall – primarily due to the previously mentioned loss of loved ones.  But I did have a moment sitting in an airport that reminded me how easily relationships can be pushed aside by electronic distractions if we are not careful.  We can be so engrossed in our on-line world that we are not present for those actually along our path.

Finally, I completed this interview for my book site, where I share some of the events that led to my writing, as well as provide a glimpse of my upcoming project.  God willing, 2014 will see the completion of A Journey Through Ephesus, a project I am very excited about!

Thanks for your support and encouragement; follow this blog to stay up-to-date on my observations and projects, and blessings in 2014!

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I recently had an opportunity to complete a brief interview for my author page on Smashwords.  I thought I would share it here as well.

When did you first start writing?

As a pastor, I wrote sermon outlines, but I always felt like there was so much more to explore in any given topic. There was one series I had taught a couple of time, and even after teaching through it more than once, I still had ideas bouncing around in my head on the topic. Then on a trip to Israel with a couple of good friends, one of these friends encouraged me to start writing. I came home and began writing my first book, Ten Essential Words, where I really took a comprehensive look at the Ten Commandments and their relevance for today’s world. I’ve been writing ever since.

Who are your favorite authors?

There are several authors that I love to read for different reasons. Brennan Manning, who recently passed away, has probably influenced me as much as anyone. His writing really reaches deep inside me and brings out emotions and insights that tend to get pushed aside. N.T. Wright and Dallas Willard bring an intellectual approach to the Bible and to faith that I really resonate with. Bruce Feiler‘s books on exploring the actual places and sites of the Old Testament hit close to one of my biggest passions: traveling to places rich with Biblical history.

What motivated you to become an indie author?

I had finally finished the manuscript to my first book. Like any unpublished author at the time, I sent several book proposals to publishers. I was investing time and money, getting no where. Meanwhile, I had this manuscript saved on my hard drive, not being read by anyone. I began reading a couple books about how the internet was opening channels up to people that have been traditionally controlled by a handful of big players – be it record labels, publishers, or mainstream media. I realized that I had a choice to continue to play the game of getting the attention of a publisher or to go the indie route and get my ideas out there available to people. It has been both challenging and rewarding.

When you’re not writing, how do you spend your time?

Reading a good book at a coffee shop, most likely. But outside of work and writing, I always have a couple books I am reading my way through. I am always planning my next travel adventure. And when time permits, I enjoy cooking and trying new restaurants. I enjoy food that has been prepared with passion!

What are you working on next?

I am really excited to explore the New Testament letter of Ephesians from the context of the Greco-Roman world of the recipients. Most commentaries tend to either lack depth, avoiding any contextual discussion, or be so deep, dissecting the sentence structure of the original language to an extent that the larger narrative is lost. I wanted to take a letter like Ephesians and really tell the story: who where these people, how would they have heard Paul’s words, why did Paul write what he did, and what did it mean to be a Greek person in the Roman Empire trying to live out the message of Jesus. This past spring, I actually travelled to the archaeological site of Ephesus, so I am really excited to finish this project!

Wow, two of my biggest influences as authors have passed away in the last month.  I recently gave my thoughts on the passing of Brennan Manning, and now today, Dallas Willard has passed away after a battle with cancer at the age of 77.  Willard was a professor of philosophy at the University of Southern California, but his books were known for their theological approach to spiritual growth.  Willard was characterized as being on a “quiet quest to subvert nominal Christianity.”

UnknownWillard’s classic work may have been The Spirit of the Disciplines, which examines the role of the disciplines in spiritual transformation.  The Divine Conspiracy is another book for which he is well-known.  I will forever associate this book with a personal retreat I took.  It was during that retreat that I wrestled with the question of how to integrated the kingdom of God with everyday living.  The Divine Conspiracy both prompted those questions and served as a guidebook through my retreat.  I just recently enjoyed flipping through it again and discussing it with my brother when he asked for a Dallas Willard book I would recommend.

51pZJhHm6pL._SL500_AA300_One of the first topics I wrote about here was on Willard’s book The Great Omission.  Willard did not hesitate to challenge the church where he saw gaps in theology.  He wanted the believer to always experience more in their relationship with God.  The other book I have read by Willard is Hearing God.

Willard’s spiritual, yet intellectual approach to faith will be missed!

Letters By A Modern MysticWhile reading another book by Dallas Willard, I ran across a reference to this book by Frank Laubach.  Laubach was a missionary to the Philippines in the 1930s and this book is a collection of his letters written to his father back in the States.  In his letters Laubach describes his attempt at a rather simple, but daunting experiment: to – quite literally – bring God to mind every minute of every day.

I was personally intrigued by the contrast of this experiment.  On one hand it is the simplest of concepts; on the other it is a virtual impossibility, much like the biblical command to “Be perfect, as I am perfect.”  Sure, no problem!  Several of Laubach’s comments struck me.

Concentration is merely the continuous return to the same problem from a million angles.  We do not think of one thing.  We always think of the relationship of at least two things, and more often of three or more simultaneously.  So my problem is this: can I bring God back in my mind-flow every few seconds so that God shall always be in my mind as an after image, shall always be one of the elements in every concept and percept?  I choose to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this question.

This is something that Dallas Willard refers to and I believe it is a sizable hurdle to overcome in following Jesus.  It is the realization that we do not think about only one thing at a time, but usually we are thinking of multiple things at once.  Go ahead – record your thoughts over the next five minutes.  When we realize this, we can overcome the common objection that we cannot think about God … and work … and watch TV … and get the kids ready for bed.   Accepting that we can – and do – recall multiple things to mind each and every minute allows us to simply make God one of those reoccurring thoughts.

The most wonderful discovery that has ever come to me is that I do not have to wait until some future time for the glorious hour.

This sentiment is one that I desperately want to believe: that we need not wait for heaven to experience God’s kingdom.  It has been my own experiment over the last five years and it has proven both challenging and elusive.  But I believe it is possible.  It is here that Laubach offers another small discipline in living out this reality.

This experiment which I am trying is the most strenuous discipline which anyone ever attempted.  I am not succeeding in keeping God in my mind very many hours of the day, and from the point of view of experiment number one, I should have to record a pretty high percentage of failure.

One of the things I appreciated most about this little book was Laubach’s honesty about his own struggles and failures at this experiment.  I admit that I haven’t fully immersed myself in this particular experiment, but I have been more aware of my thoughts and what a daunting challenge this actually becomes to live out.  Yet with each failure, Laubach reminds us that each minute brings the opportunity to start fresh again.  And isn’t that what grace is all about?

Last week was a very busy week at work.  As I write this, I am reminded of how elusive it can be to keep God in my thoughts each day, let alone each hour, each minute.  But I am also reminded of Laubach’s own conclusion:  “Can it be done?  Hardly.  Does the effort help?  Tremendously!”

While N.T. Wright has been one of my favorite authors, having read many of his books I was often left with the question, “So what does this mean for daily living, the stuff discipleship is made of?”  In his book, After You Believe, Wright attempts a long-awaited answer to that question.  However, if easy answers are what you are looking for, N.T. Wright is not the author to read.

After You Believe starts with this basic premise:

Christian life in the present, with its responsibilities and particular callings, is to be understood and shaped in relation to the final goal for which we have been made and redeemed.  The better we understand that goal, the better we shall understand the path toward it.

Wright has been passionately and convincingly refocusing believers of that goal: God’s kingdom here on earth, rather than the long-held belief of abandoning earth to spend eternity in heaven.  Quite simply, if heaven is the goal, then how we live on earth correlates little to that goal.  But if God’s kingdom is the goal, then how we live this life is only a precursor to life in the kingdom of God.  And this is where Wright reclaims the idea of Christian virtue.  What follows are some of my thoughts.

After You Believe

I have personally done a lot of reading on transformation.  Christians use that word a lot, but few seem quite sure of what it is.  Does it take place at salvation?  To a certain extent.  Does it continue to take place through the work of the Holy Spirit?  Again, that is definitely an aspect of transformation.  Will it only occur upon death/new life?  Some believe so, but I think it is more available to us now that we realize.  Now comes the controversial one: Can we be engaged in activities to bring about transformation?  Many get uncomfortable answering “Yes”, but I believe “Yes” is the correct answer.  Dallas Willard has written, “Grace is opposed to earning, not effort.”  The Holy Spirit works in conjunction with our efforts, not our attempts to justify ourselves.  And while the ultimate outcome may be out of our control, we are never-the-less called to put in effort toward transformation.  I appreciate that Wright is not afraid to suggest this.  Transformation does not just happen to us while we lie around on the couch.  We go to the gym – to use his language – and develop our moral muscle.

This leads to another observation, a broader topic mined from the entire book.  It is the idea that virtue prepares us for this “kingdom-in-advance life” – we don’t have to wait for heaven to experience kingdom life.  Now I have to say that this sounds great, but it can be difficult to live out, given the lack of immediate payoff and the time it takes to build up moral muscle.  I also say it can be difficult because, let’s face it, we are largely judged by this world’s view of success. And God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to that view of success.  I am concerned that many churches today are primarily promoting the idea that following God will lead to that same view of success promoted by the world around us.  The more I read Wright, the more I grow uneasy with that idea.   Am I willing to develop virtue for a kingdom life that may or may not ever lead to success and fulfillment in this lifetime?

Another quote from the book jumped out at me:  “Part of the problem in contemporary Christianity, I believe, is that talk about the freedom of the Spirit, about the grace which sweeps us off our feet and heals and transforms our lives, has been taken over surreptitiously by a kind of low-grade romanticism, colluding with an anti-intellectual streak in our culture, generating the assumption that the more spiritual you are, the less you need to think.”  I couldn’t agree more with Wright on this point.  Christians should be some of the most thinking people around and yet are still largely perceived of as simpletons or naive.  Where did we get so off track?  His chapter “Transformed by the Renewal of the mind” was really good on just what that chapter title suggests.  Ironically, many Christians assume that the renewing of their minds is a very unthinking process – it is something that will eventually just happen to them.

In After You Believe, Wright calls for a transformation to take place through the reclamation of virtue.  But this transformation is different than what is encountered among many nowadays.  It is proactive, it is at least partly driven by our own efforts, it is mind-engaging, and it has a different goal: God’s kingdom on earth.  True to his other writings, I am left with more questions than answers, but I have been offered a different path to those answers as well.

I just finished reading The Great Omission by Dallas Willard.  I have to say, when I began reading it and found that it was largely a collection of previously written articles, my first reaction was disappointment: “Nothing new here that I haven’t already read by Willard.”  But I was pleasantly surprised and enjoyed the book very much.

There were many great take-aways from the book.  However, one statement that was repeated throughout the book really stuck with me:

As I often point out to folks, today we are not only saved by grace, we are paralyzed by it.  Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning.

I can only imagine that a statement like that does not sit well with most Evangelicals.  Willard often had to defend that statement, explaining that, yes, we are saved by grace, but becoming a disciple of Jesus requires effort and discipline.  And because effort sounds a little too much like works, many churches simply avoid the issue of discipleship altogether.  It doesn’t preach well.  The result has been churches full of Christians, yet wanting in disciples.  Paralysis!

Perhaps that quote has stuck with me because it aptly describes my own spiritual journey.  Early on, my faith consisted primarily of trying to keep the rules.  It was exhausting.  Over time, all the teaching on grace began to sink in.  I learned to relax, to get off the performance treadmill.  But over the last five or so years, there has been a restlessness to my faith.  There was still something missing.  I am discovering that the missing piece is the disciplined life of a disciple.  And it is not easy; nor is it something that I will just drift into.  It requires effort.  And that aspect of faith isn’t spoken of much in the church.  It’s much easier to just stick with the subject of grace.

So is there such a thing as too much grace?  How does Dallas Willard’s statement sit with you?  How do we convey both the grace of God and the discipline it takes to be a follower of Jesus?

I sat down in Starbucks this morning to write something entirely different.  I was going to talk about one of my writing projects.  But as I was doing some reading before writing, my reading pulled me in a different direction.  I was reading out of Dallas Willard’s The Great Omission, and came across this:

There is absolutely no suggestion in the New Testament that being a disciple consists of reading your Bible and praying regularly.  There is a totally wrong conception of what discipleship is.  It’s been presented as attending a church, reading your Bible, praying, and maybe some witnessing, and that’s it.  [Many think], “I will make discipleship these ‘devotional’ times.”  They would be opposed to saying, “My life is my discipleship.”  Or, rather, they just wouldn’t know what that meant.

My life is my discipleship.  Do you ever read a simple statement over and over again, struggling with the feeling that you don’t  fully get it?  I just kept reading that statement.

Discipleship is something I’ve been trying to understand for a couple years now.  It has been during this time of transition in my life that I have been trying to incorporate more of the spiritual disciplines.  But I have to confess, it has not always been clear to me how the disciplines, discipleship, the kingdom of God, and my life all fit together.  I am slowly learning that the disciplines, in and of themselves, are not discipleship, though they may be a piece of it.  Discipleship, in part, is how I let those disciplines inundate the rest of my life.  My life is my discipleship.

I am realizing that it is all too easy to confuse accomplishment with discipleship.  Dare I say that the drive to accomplish may be the enemy of discipleship.  It is also easy to mistake devotional time with discipleship, as Willard points out.  But devotional times are powerless unless we express that devotion throughout the rest of our day.  God never intended us to possess such a compartmentalized faith.

So it would be easy for me to finish my coffee, feel encouraged about my reading, blog about my morning, and think, “what a great time of discipleship.”  But in truth my discipleship time begins when I leave Starbucks – as I drive back to the house, as I watch football this afternoon, as I take the dog for a walk, as I pay more attention to the people who cross my path today.  I become a disciple of Jesus, not when I read about him in an overstuffed chair in a coffee shop, but as I follow him out the door into the rest of my day.