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“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine.” Isaiah 9:2 NLT

As we approach the celebration of Christmas, it is important to understand what, in essence, occurred on the day of Christ’s birth. John 1 speaks of the event as the incarnation of the Word (1:14). To explain it, however, he uses two other ideas: life and light. Life, in that His was the active force of the creation that which brought into being all things and, as Colossians 1:15-17 states, that which sustains it. Light, referring to the revelation of this truth, the hope and direction that a belief in this creating and sustaining power and submission to it brings.

What strikes me about the nature of Christ’s birth, which is consistent with this concept of light and life, is its pervasiveness; it refused to be contained. From the announcement of the angels to the shepherds and their subsequent testimony of the event (Luke 2:8-20), to the star that led the wise men to announce and seek out the “king” who had been born (Matthew 2:1-12), the news spread far and wide. No one, not even those in the loftiest places of power and influence or the holiest places of worship were immune to its effect or exempt from a response to this revelation, this breaking in, this invasion.

John the Baptist, the witness to the light, illustrates its effect on the society of the day. His testimony of that light had created such a ruckus, making honest men out of tax collectors and moving Roman soldiers to repentance (Luke 3:7-14), that even the religious elite of the day were forced to deal with him (John 1:19-28).

It is that light of Christ and the example of his light bearers that we desire to emulate here in the Yucatan. As we continue with our efforts to see the Yucatan full of churches, our prayer is that that pervasive quality of the light of Christ would again be felt. Since September, we’ve held five major events calling on both leaders and laity to plant churches. It is our desire that the more than seventy individuals registered to start works in the coming months, the fruit of those events would be but the beginning trickle of the flood that will pour forth from the four walls of the church to proclaim the message of Immanuel, God with us, and that society again would be moved.

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This week, we’ve been working through the Spiritual Discipline of Confession as explained in Richard Foster’s book Celebration of Discipline. Yesterday, I talked about my preparation for the actual practice of the confession. Today, I recount the experience. My hope is that, as others read of my account they will be encouraged to walk through their own exercise of confession.

I found, first of all, that the anticipation of the event of giving my confession was in itself a motivation towards the deep work of reflection. The Greek Philosopher Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Paul tells us to “test ourselves to see if we are in the faith.” Nevertheless, we tend to rush ahead into our days, weeks, months, and even years, barely pausing to catch our breath, so wrapped up in what’s coming, that we rarely, if ever, reflect on what we have done or the effect it may have had on others.

The preparation for the practice of confession caused me to think deeply about my experiences and ask the Lord to reveal that which needed to be recalled, mourned, confessed and forgiven. He did not fail me in this exercise. As I spent the time to recall what I had done, he was faithful to bring to mind the sins both of comission and omission that needed to be addressed in my time of confession.

But the time of confession was not simply an exercise of writing out my past sins as one would write out a list of chores to accomplish or groceries to buy. It was, as well an exercise of comprehension, of understanding of what those sins had meant, not only in the in the moment when they occurred, but also how they had affected my life as a whole and my relationships both with God and others. In that, I found confession to be a catalyst for the production of genuine sorrow. The tears flowed on more than one occasion, both as I prepared and as I shared as I came to understand the profound effect of my failures, shortcomings, and willful disobedience.

Still, my time of confession was more than simply a time for tears, it was for me a pathway for the achievement of true relief. As I spent the hour with my confessor, my first and only act of confession so far as an Evangelical Christian, there was a comfort that I felt as I shared with him what the Lord had revealed to me during my time of preparation. Although I am sure that I had confessed each one of those sins privately prior to our meeting, sharing what I had done with another human being made the confession more tangible, more concrete. The activity of my confessor was truly priestly. He served as an intermediary physically listening, understanding, and responding to the words that I spoke audibly which were previously only confessed in my mind or in whispers.

In the act, I was comforted by the seriousness and respect with which he took up the matter. He gave me his full attention. He listened and commented appropriately as I spoke of the my failures along the pathway of life, be them the routine selfish actions or the isolated incidents that the Spirit had brought to my remembrance over the past 3 days of reflection. His questions were not to pry but to clarify, helping me to reveal that which had been burdening my heart. He brought grace to the meeting by not rushing my response, waiting for me to compose myself when the tears flowed. By the time that he spoke the words of 1 John 1:9, It had become more than a cathartic experience with a stranger behind a curtain, it was the embrace of a brother, loving me in all my imperfection and granting me the assurance that Christ’s work was more than sufficient to cover even the sins I had been unable to recall.

In the end, my time of confession was more than a time of reckoning with the past, it was also a reorientation toward the future. The act of confession and the confirmation of my forgiveness gave me a liberty to embrace radical repentance. With nothing to hide or repress, I am now free to engage fully in my relationship with God and others. With the pardon spoken and received, I am able to live openly, no longer hiding myself from scrutiny, no longer telling myself, “If they truly knew me, they would think differently about me.” If my true self has already been revealed, evaluated confessed and forgiven by God, why do I need to fear from the criticism of others?

This, of course was a personal experience, one informed by the other disciplines in which I have already engaged. My own future experiences may not be nearly so special. Yours may not have the profound effect that mine has had due to your own prior experience in spiritual formation. Still, as I move on from here, I feel convinced that personal evaluation, continued accountability, and corporate confession is worth adding to my routine spiritual hygiene. I hope your experience with confession might at least leave you with the feeling that it was worth it to made the effort to complete the exercise.

Do you have a question about my experience or an experience of your own to share? Perhaps you’d like to make a comment about the Discipline of Confession. Why not leave one in the section below. I’d love to hear it.

Photo credit: “Confessions about confessionl” from pallottines.ie utilized in accordance with a Creative Commons 4.0 license.

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For the past two months we’ve been walking through an experiential study of the Spiritual Disciplines as laid out in Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline. This week, we’re going through the Corporate Discipline of Confession. If you’ve missed my introductory post on this topic, I encourage you to go back and review it.

As we turn from its justification to its practice, I felt it helpful to use Foster’s “Diary of a Confession” section as a guide. During the past three days in which I’ve been silent in this space, I’ve been preparing, selecting setting up and appointment with my confessor and spending time in reflection, in the evaluation my past as I prepare to give my own confession.

The reflection consisted of dividing my life, as did Foster into three sections. In my case I chose adolescence, young adulthood, and adulthood as my sections, effectively separating my life into my post conversion experience, my time of ministerial formation, and my life as a minister. I then spent time in focused meditation over the course of three days allowing the Holy Spirit to reveal the past sins that came to the fore. My goal was not to explain or justify those memories, simply to write them down as I that which I believed necessary for me to share in the upcoming session.

Of course, the benefits that I’ve already received from this time of preparation led me to reflect on why I hadn’t taken the initiative to go through this process before or why I had never received an invitation to do so from the Christian communities of which I’d been a part. My search for reasons brought me to an article on CovenantEyes.com, the website of company that produces the accountability software that we use on our electronic devices.

In the article entitled, “Shame-Killing Churches: A Vision of Real Accountability” the author, Traylor Lovvorn, explains why so few Christian communities are able to operate at the level of the trasnformative community that it should be. He cites a Dr. David Powlison when talking about the problem of shame:

Shame [is] “a sense of failure before the eyes of someone else.” When this “someone else” is a perfect and holy Creator and our perspective is vertical in nature, this sense of failure is healthy in that it opens the door to the Gospel and allows us to see our desperate need for a Savior. But when our perspective is horizontal and we are comparing ourselves to peers and fellow believers, shame turns toxic and leads to a deep-seated unease with who we are that causes us to withdraw and hide.

Any attempts to establish community and accountability that do not account for and address this underlying issue of toxic shame only piles on a deeper sense of failure and drives men further into isolation and away from genuine community.

I invite you to read the rest of the article for his description of, what to me is, a far too common problem in our Christian community. Although his struggle was related to the sexual, I believe that his experience is a specific experience of an all too universal problem.

How do we escape this isolationism, the popular cliché that our private, hidden, relationship with Jesus is enough? I feel even more strongly now that it is by becoming vulnerable through confession. It’s by breaking down the facade that we’ve worn before others and showing them the radical nature of the redemptive work, a work that continues to the present day in every believer, and it’s by offering grace for those who are walking that same road with us.

As I write this, I’m readying for my own scheduled time of confession. To tell the truth, the preparation has already had a profound effect. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to living out the experience. After these last two posts, I hope you might be as well.

Photo credit: “Soderledskyran brick wall/a>” by Håkan Svensson utilized in accordance with a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

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In our consideration of the Spiritual Disciplines as treated in the book, Celebration of Discipline, we now turn our focus from service to the Spiritual Discipline of confession. This is also a movement, as the book suggests, from the outward Disciplines of Simplicity, Solitude, Submission, and Service, to the Corporate Disciplines, which include Worship, Guidance, and Celebration, as well as Confession.

Of course, such a categorization of confession may seem strange to some. “Isn’t the confession of our sin a private matter between ourselves and God?” we may ask. Foster affirms this but also points out that the Bible calls for us to confess our sins one to another (James 5:15). He suggests that the reason that many of us struggle with the guilt of our past sins is because we have left this corporate discipline behind as a casualty of the reformation.

As a former catholic, I lament the loss of this spiritual exercise. If there was one thing that has maintained meaning for me in my religious practice after coming to faith in Jesus Christ it is the sacrament, as it is called, of Reconciliation. I remember the catharsis that I experienced as I audibly confessed to another human being the sins that I had committed, and there was a power that I felt as I heard the words of absolution. As I left the booth or the room where I gave my confession, I remember that there would be a lightness in my step, a smile on my face, and a joy in my heart.

Now, I know that confession has been criticized for its abuse, for the idea that comes from a misunderstanding of its purpose that we might sin to our heart’s content just so long as we give confession afterwards, that in this game that we play with God, as long as we follow the rules of giving confession, that he must forgive us. This is an attitude that we must reject. Still we must ask ourselves, do we negate the benefits of modern medicine because there are those who abuse prescription drugs? Do we stop giving to charitable organizations because there are those who have embezzled funds?

Certainly, I’m not advocating a return to empty rituals, I’m inviting us to experience the grace that comes from recovering a neglected Spiritual Discipline. In the days that come, we’ll explore what Richard Foster and the Bible have to say about the Discipline of Confession and we’ll take some time to walk through its practice. I expect it to be uncomfortable, but I hope and pray that, like any exercise, it will bring us benefit from its practice.

What would you say about the Discipline of Confession as we begin? What, if any, experience do you have with its practice? Have you experienced any benefit from it? Have you witnessed its abuse? Share your thoughts with me in the comments section.

Photo credit: “Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse – chapelle des reliques – Confessionnal” by Didier Descounes utilized in accordance with a Creative Commons 4.0 license.

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As we close our time in the Sprititual Discipline of Service as considered in the book Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster, I think that it’s important to relate my own experience with it during the past week. For me, as Foster suggests, my focus on service has been an exercise in the cultivation of humility.

Perhaps a bit of background might help to explain. I grew up in a household with pretty strict divisions of labor. Tasks were assigned by sex, age, and/or experience. For example, unless it had to do with the grill, my dad was strictly uninvolved with meals. In the same way, I never remember seeing my mom out in the driveway with my dad when it came time to change the oil in my car. And when it came to the menial tasks like setting the table, or doing the dishes or cleaning up after the dog, that was the domain of the children. When we would ask our dad to buy a dishwasher he would usually laugh and say, “Why do I need another dishwasher? I already have three! Of course, he was referring to us, his three sons. Needless to say, we didn’t find his joke very amusing.

I relate my childhood experience to explain its effect: all of the above created in me an expectaction of a time when I too would be above certain tasks, when I would be able to dedicate myself to the important things, the manly things, and leave the tasks that I considered beneath me to others, namely my own children!

As I have spent time in reflection on the Discipline of Service, however, I have realized how it breaks down this division of labor, how it calls us to humble ourselves and to accept the personal responsibility to fill the need that’s before us. This is not to say that before this past week that I hadn’t done the dishes, or that I’d left Kelly to slave away in the kitchen to prepare each and every meal, but I have to admit that my default attitude toward such tasks had been that they were beneath me, that they didn’t belong to me. I would routinely find myself, as did the disciples before their last dinner with Jesus, making every attempt to avoid the menial yet necessary task, even when I was staring at, or perhaps, as in their case, smelling the call to service before me.

The most interesting observation for me, however, has been the freedom that this humility has given me to engage in truly meeting the need. Now, instead of complaining about something that has been left undone, I am free to simply do it myself. Instead of arguing about whose responsibility the task might be, I am liberated to simply step in and meet the need and enjoy the benefits for having done so.

Granted, this reflection is in no way suggesting that we shouldn’t come to an agreement beforehand about certain familial responsibilities or teach our children to participate around the home so that they too cultivate an attitude of service, but it does suggest that when others let us down, we still have a choice. We can pick them up or put them down. We can encourage through serving or embarrass through shaming. As we continue to progress in this discipline my prayer is that we will increasingly choose the former and not the latter.

How ahout you? As you’ve progressed this past week in the Discipline of Service or have had other experiences with this exercise, what have you observed either within you or among those you have served? I look forward to reading about your thoughts and experiences.

Image credit,”Washing dishes with soap“ by peapodlabs, used in accordance with a Creative Commons license.

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As we return to our consideration of the Spiritual Discipline of service, considered in the book, Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, we turn from our pretexts for not serving, about which we spoke two days ago (i.e. we don’t want to be taken advantage of or be walked up like a doormat.) to now to look at our aversion to the activity of service. This quote from Foster seems to exemplify that aversion:

“In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial.”

Carrying our cross, following after Jesus to the “ends of the earth.” that is the stuff of sermons, the call that fills the altars, the great work that we feel that we must do, but washing the dishes, setting up chairs, sitting and listening to that person we know will carry on about their difficulties, that is that slow death that we wish to avoid. And yet, if we are to embrace the Disciplines and their work in us , shouldn’t we seek after those deaths, knowing that it will prepare us for that great work that we feel we have been called to accomplish?

Perhaps a change in perspective is what we need. Caedmon’s Call recorded a song some time ago called “Sacred“. It’s a song of a mom asking the question “Could it be that everything is sacred?” as she serves her small children. The chorus ends, “Could it be that everything is sacred, and all this time, everything I’ve dreamed of (that calling, that great work), that has been right before my eyes?” Service, then, may not the distraction from the work that we are called to do but the way to step into it.

What are the areas that you feel have been pulling you from your “calling” today? Household chores undone, a child’s homework, a dirty diaper, a friend’s telephone call? Perhaps it’s not a distraction but an opportunity. Why not try to embrace that moment of service, understanding that if we are to be great we must first become a servant (Matt 20:25-28). If you can, share about the experience.

Image credits: Jesus washing feet statue WLC by txnetstars, used in accordance with a Creative Commons license.

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For the past few weeks I’ve been writing on Facebook about the Spiritual Disciplines, first reflecting on the book Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard, and, more recently, the book, Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. In a conversation with my brother, Mike, he suggested that perhaps Facebook wasn’t the best place to post these more “long form” reflections, that perhaps a link to my own personal site might attract the kind of conversation that Facebook has failed to generate. Well, in the spirit of experimentation, which I’ve been trying to cultivate with the Disciplines, I’ve decided to try out his advice.

If you take a look at our past treatment of the disciplines, you’ll find that we’ve left off with the discipline of service. It’s my full intention to pick back up with that conversation shortly. However, the call to service this week has kept me from writing in the more consistent manner that I’m accustomed to. Still, it has not kept me from listening to podcasts, which I enjoy immensely, whether I’m exercising solo, commuting or doing household chores.

In the course of that listening I came upon what I thought was an incredible physical analogy for the Spiritual Disciplines. I heard it in the November 8th episode of the Run to the Top Podcast with Matt Fitzgerald called, “Pushing Your Limits.” I’ve include the link here for you to go and get it on iTunes or on the Android podcast player that I use, PlayerFM:

The show itself discusses mental toughness and how physical performance is enhanced by mental preparation, but it fits very well with Dallas Willards idea of the concept of the Spiritual Disciplines as that which are activities within our power that enable us to accomplish what we cannot do by direct effort because we meet with the actions of God (grace) with us.

His explanation of “inhibitory control” or could we say “self-denial” for the sake of a greater gain, at 10:13 in the episode, is especially interesting. Also of note is the way in which this type of control can be developed through intention, and transference (doing something easier to help form the toughness for the more difficult endeavor) which sound very much like Willard’s VIM model of spiritual transformation: vision, intention, and means. You can hear this part of the conversation starting at 16:45 in the podcast.

I invite you to give a listen to the podcast with your spiritual ears on and try to hear the various connections between the physical, emotional, and spiritual training of our bodies and the benefits that the Spiritual Disciplines might provide us for seeing progress, perhaps in all of those areas.

Whatever connections you find, be sure to share them in the comments section!

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March was a hectic month to say the least; playing host to two teams and a state-side trip had me wondering if I was coming or going. Add to that a seasonal sinus infection and I was primed for a personal pity party. At the lowest point, alone, on the road, congested and unable to sleep, I’m sure the thought “What difference does all this make, anyway?” had crossed my mind if not once then several times.

That’s not to say that good wasn’t being done. A roof was raised in Kiní, giving a growing congregation a place to meet, shaded from the blazing sun and protected from the rains that are soon to come. A church building was started in Tekax, breaking ground on a vision to reach that city of over 25,000 with its 90+ surrounding communities. Youth and adults were challenged to leave their comfort zone and join in God’s mission to reach the nations. But in the same way that prophets have been known to battle with self doubt, so this missionary was feeling the psychological burden of being over-extended, though his wounds may well have been self-inflicted.

A “chance” meeting on a Wednesday afternoon, then, was just what the doctor, or the psychologist ordered. A man by the name of Luis stopped by the building site in Tekax. He had met one of the team members from the church the evening before on the square and had wanted to thank him for taking the time to talk with him. While he was chatting with the pastor and the team member, he suddenly stopped and took a hard look at me, trying to place me as I took off my sunglasses.

“Did you lead a campaign here in Tekax eight years ago?,” he asked me.

“I had,” I told him. “My evangelism students from Bethel and I held a campaign in 2009 in one of the neighborhoods on the north side of the city.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I was saved on the last night of that campaign.”

All of a sudden, the hectic schedule, the physical exhaustion, perhaps even the sinus infection were but a distant memory. What difference does it make? For Luis, eight years ago, it made all the difference in the world.

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It’s hard to believe that it has been ten years since we spent our first ‘winter’ in Mérida. Although we headed into the Christmas season without the typical blustery winds or early snows of home, we could still hear the carols and melodies both in the stores and on the streets as choruses would sing the message of Christ’s birth for all to hear. There was also the smell of pine, as families purchased live trees to decorate to transform their homes for family gatherings and Christmas celebrations.(Here’s a video clip from our own Christmas tree adventure!) We learned that piñatas were popular with both kids and adults alike during this season, not just for birthdays. Reenacting the Christmas story was also a tradition. One year, our daughter even got to perform as Mary (see picture above).
 
Our first Christmas here, we were invited to share in the festivities of our pastor’s family. There, we discovered that gift giving happens at midnight after the Christmas Eve service and a late family meal. Christmas Day, then, becomes a continuation of family time and eating those all important dinner leftovers.
 
Throughout the past 10 years, we’ve seen that, although the expression may be different, the hope and expectation of the Savior is what unites us regardless of our differences. Thank you for joining with us that we may continue to proclaim this message so that this universal Body of Christ might continue to expand. 

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As we begin the New Year, we normally do it with good intentions. We see the possibility of a fresh start and shoot for the moon when it comes to making our resolutions. Then, reality hits and we find that it takes much more than good intentions to accomplish our plans. If we’re to reach our goals in 2016, it’s going to take perseverance.

That’s exactly what I’d like to share with you today: the story of one teen’s perseverance that has enabled him to reach a milestone in his young life and be a blessing at the same time.

Meet Dominic Juarez. He emailed me in late September of 2015:

I’m a member of the Royal Rangers at BVCC in Chula Vista California. We are currently working to complete our GLOBAL MISSIONS merit. One of the merit requirements is to send a CARE PACKAGE to a foreign missionary supported by our church – Bonita Valley Community Church in Bonita California. I picked you. Therefore, I’m sending this email in the hope that there are some things from here in the United States that you would enjoy receiving (FedEx or DHL) there in Mexico?

Now, while we live in a modern city and have access to many products from the US because of free trade agreements, there are certain items that we have difficulty buying here in Mérida. And, while we could certainly live without them, it is a blessing when we have opportunity to get them. For our kids, these amount to candy corn and jelly beans, to Kelly and myself, Bengal Spice Tea by Celestial Seasonings.

These products made up the list of items that we had sent off to Dominic. Of course, understanding that shipping to Mexico is a complicated procedure, we sent him the list with the resignation that the items might, in fact, never reach us. So, it was without surprise that we received this email from him a month later:

I wanted to give you an update on the care package we promised. We have purchased the goodies, but it has been a challenge getting it out to you. We were not aware of the regulations of international shipping. Since we live near the border, we drove into Tijuana to ship from DHL there. That seemed like the easiest and least expensive route. Not quite, so we brought the goodies back to San Diego. Then we did ship from San Diego using UPS. Well they neglected to inform us of Mexico’s consumable goods restrictions. UPS emailed today that the package is being Returned to Sender. Apparently we need some kind of authorization notice from Mexican Customs to ship candy, WOW. Just to let you know that we have not given up. We’ll try again and keep you updated.

We’d appreciated his intention, but when 2015 came to a close, we had assumed that the obstacles were, in fact, too great, and that he’d had to give up on his desire to bless us, perhaps even on receiving his Global Missions Merit. Imagine our surprise then, when an unexpected delivery reached our door just yesterday. As I signed for the delivery, I asked myself, “Could it be Dominic’s package?” As Kelly, Rebekah, and I opened it and found the items that we had listed, we were sure that it was.

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We sent a thank you email right away including the photos that you’ve seen above. To that, Manny’s father wrote the following:

…thank you for being part of Dominic’s path to his Gold Medal Award with Royal Rangers.
He kept reminding me of this to keep his word to you and to the Lord. You have made a difference in this young man.

He included the following picture of Dominic receiving his Silver Medal Award, a milestone on his path toward the Gold.

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Dominic’s determination and perseverance in the face of difficulty enabled him to find solutions to the problems that arose and helped him to keep his promise, reach his goal, and be a blessing.

How are you determining to be a Dominic in 2016? Share your thoughts with us in the comment section.

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