Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Guyon: A Woman Well Worth Heading

 Jeanne Guyon—who Fenelon, John Wesley, Count Zinzendorf and other historical Christian leaders readily praised for her insights and writings—was born on April 13, 1648.  Raised in the hedonistic reign of Louis XIV, Guyon’s intellect, wit, beauty, and conversational skill placed her firmly within the most popular elements of fashionable society. If there had been a “People” magazine in the 17th century, she’d have been in it.  Jeanne married a wealthy man, but in doing so also gained a tyrannical mother-in-law, and thus paid dearly for her married property.

            It all began when Guyon’s husband lost much of his wealth, which helped turned Jeanne’s bitter mother-in-law into a bitter, avaricious mother-in-law. That followed a bout of serious sickness on Jeanne’s part, followed by the death of a close, much loved relative, which hurt Jeanne deeply.

            Jeanne eventually received these calamities as God’s gift to her soul: “Thou hast ordered these things, O my God, for my salvation! In goodness Thou hast afflicted me. Enlightened by the result, I have since clearly seen, that these dealings of Thy providence were necessary, in order to make me die to my vain and haughty nature.”

            In a hagiography (a typical “saint’s” biography), Jeanne would have gone from “glory to glory.” Once she saw the error of her ways and the shallowness of her life and faith, she’d never be the same—but the truth was far more complicated. Her conversion was certainly genuine, making her initially lose her taste for the frivolous entertainments of Louis XIV’s court; but after a couple more years, Jeanne found herself gradually slipping back into her former ways and appetites.

            Haven’t we all been there? God convicts us and we earnestly turn back to him, resolving to change our ways, reform our behavior, and grow in grace. But then time passes, and our heart’s passion cools. God has a way of using severe tests, coupled with good teaching, to bring us back into focus.

            In Jeanne’s case, God helped solidify her heart and win back her allegiance with two major events: a conversation with a godly stranger on a Paris bridge; and then the onset of smallpox, which all but wiped out Jeanne’s famous beauty. In King Louis’ court, appearance mattered far more than character, at least as far as women were concerned. To be disfigured was the surest pathway to being ostracized.  Yet Jeanne received her permanent facial scarring as another divine gift: “The devastation without was counterbalanced by a peace within.”

            In a move shocking to her intimates, after Jeanne recovered from the sickness of smallpox and was well enough to speak, she ordered her servant to bring a mirror. The servant’s hesitation told Jeanne all she needed to know, but still, she persisted, and the mirror was brought.

After studying her marked face, once considered her most valuable feature, Jeanne confessed, “I was no longer what I was once. It was then I saw my heavenly Father had not been unfaithful in His work, but had ordered the sacrifice in all reality.”

            Freed from lesser concerns—vanity and the royal court’s acceptance—Jeanne’s sanctity reached inspiring, even heroic levels. There was something about dying to the vanity of the “flesh” that lifted her to unusual understanding of spiritual realities. Since that time, Jeanne could seem even cold in the face of calamity, but that was only because she realized there is sometimes no other way for us to be freed from the shackles of our superficiality.  Her own painful experience kept her from bringing false comfort to those whom God was in the process of breaking: “Oh, adorable conduct of my God!,” she wrote.  “There must be no guide, no prop for the person whom Thou art leading into the regions of darkness and death. There must be no conductor, no support to the man whom Thou art determined to destroy to the entire destruction of the natural life.”

By “destruction of the natural life,” Jeanne was referring to our vanity, selfishness, and carnal desires.

There is something simply wrong with our culture valuing and rewarding women primarily for what they look like—meaning they “peak” in their twenties—and devaluing the depth of wisdom and character that takes a woman decades to develop and nurture. Who deserves the most attention? Hollywood starlets and pop stars who live lives of devastation, or wise women in their fifties, sixties and beyond who can share a wealth of hard won wisdom and display the beauty of a godly character?

            Guyon left behind approximately sixty volumes that have fed church leaders for centuries. Many of her writings are still read today, the most popular of which is Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, which was originally published as A Short and Easy Method of Prayer.  Experiencing the Depths explores a life of unceasing prayer, meditation, and contemplation, emphasizing abandonment and union with God. At times, I believe she veers too far into quietism, but her works are important feminine contributions to the rich treasury of Christian spirituality. Women often stress surrender in a way that ancient male writers neglected, who tended to prefer “heroic” forms of active discipline (think William Law and John Climacus, for example).

            Some choice quotes from Guyon are:

 “If you seek the Lord and yet are not willing to stop your sinning, you shall not find Him.  Why?  Because you are seeking Him in a place where He is not.”

“As you come to Him, come as a weak child, one who is all soiled and badly bruised—a child that has been hurt from falling again and again.  Come to the Lord as one who has no strength of his own; come to Him as one who has no power to cleanse himself.  Humbly lay your pitiful condition before your Father’s gaze.”

“You and I are very weak.  At our best we are very weak.”

“If you set forth for the spiritual lands…you must realize that times of dryness await you…. You will have times of spiritual dryness.  It is part of the Lord’s way.”

            I write more about Jeanne Guyon in two of my books: Thirsting for God and Holy Available.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Affair Proof and Divorce Proof Your Marriage in 2 Hours a Week

Two hours a week.

Just two hours a week.
That’s all it takes to affair proof and divorce proof your marriage.

After years of reading, writing, speaking, traveling, and pastoral counseling, I’ve identified two things that, when they are in place, can almost guarantee you that your spouse won’t have an affair and that you won’t get a divorce.  But you need to do both. I didn’t come up with these; I’m just recognizing them. You’ve heard of both of them, there’s nothing new here, but consider these two elements as the “canary in the mine.” If your marriage has both elements, the “air” in your mine is fresh and healthy and your marriage is probably fairly stable. If one or both of them die, the air is getting poisoned, and you need to take caution. Your marriage is now much more vulnerable to disintegration.
The first element is prayer.  Couples who pray together more days than not—say, 4 or 5 days out of seven—almost never get divorced. Much has been said about how Christians get divorced as often as non-Christians, but that’s not true of praying Christians. Husbands, most of us men have no idea how the rest of marriage will flow from this if we will simply take the lead and pray with and over our wives. I have not been nearly as faithful as I should have been in my marriage in this area, and am regularly convicted that this should be a non-negotiable, because I’ve seen its power in the lives of so many couples. The prayer times don’t need to be long—even five minutes at the beginning or the end of the day will suffice. It is very difficult to stay bitter and resentful or dishonest when praying together regularly. This act all but forces you to maintain a certain level of intimacy, and men, it moves most women in ways we will never understand.

Second, couples who have sexual relations two to three times a week, and who pray together regularly, almost never experience affairs. Wives, many of you have heard me talk about oxytocin and sex—Helen Fisher, the guru of neurochemical sexual research, has recently pointed out how the bonding factor of sexuality is more pronounced in men than it is in women.  That’s why you may not understand the power of regular sexual relations, just as your husband may not understand the power of prayer. You already have elevated levels of oxytocin, but your husband needs that re-bonding release of oxytocin on a regular basis. For young husbands, 2 to 3 days might seem Spartan—I’m talking about couples married five years or more here. Before you panic—“I thought you said two hours a week!”—let me assure you, it’s not like every session needs to be a long, drawn-out, mind blowing hour and a half extravaganza. Many of these encounters can be the normal twenty minute episodes, which means you can easily do all the praying and all the intimate relating in about 2 hours a week.

The reason these two areas work as “canaries in the mine” is that sustaining regular prayer and regular sexual intimacy requires taking care of the marriage in its entirety. If we’re not talking to our wives, men, they don’t find it very easy to take off their clothes.  But you know that. And it becomes increasingly difficult to pray with someone if we’re even thinking about cheating on them. There’s just something about being in God’s presence with someone that goes far beyond words—God gives you His heart for that person in a way that can’t be naturally explained.

If either element is lacking (I’m not talking about marriages where a physical ailment makes sexual intimacy impossible), the marriage is taking a regular hit and you’re far more vulnerable to an affair or a divorce. Too many couples over-estimate their willingness to put up with sub-par marriages. They “get by,” slowly becoming spiritually or sexually isolated from each other, not realizing that temptation is patient. It will wait until we’ve reached our breaking point and present itself with a spectacularly captivating enticement just when we feel weakest. Spiritual intimacy and sexual intimacy, enjoyed on a regular basis, makes both parties much less susceptible to an overwhelming temptation.

I have yet to meet or talk with a couple, where both elements are present, that are in serious trouble. If one area is lacking the mere act of making it right—having to talk things out, listen, repent, change—repairs other areas of the marriage is well. Why can’t you pray together? Why don’t you want to enjoy each other? Those very questions lead to so many other issues. In the same way, however, neglecting either area is tantamount to ignoring other relational cancers that are slowly attacking the relationship.

For various reasons, you may not like either medicine, but when you know a medicine is so effective that its cure rate is virtually 100%, who are we to argue? Maybe, just maybe, God designed married couples to regularly pray and regularly have sex. As the creator of our souls and our bodies, He just might know what he’s talking about.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Forging a New Relationship with Hunger

I live in a different body now than the one I lived in when I was twenty and could eat ice cream every night. My body isn’t the same now as it was when I was thirty and could drop a few pounds by going for a run and skipping a meal. In fact, it’s even much different from the body I had at forty, as my legs just don’t recover as quickly from a long run as they used to.  As I keep getting older, my relationship with food and my practice of eating has to get older too. And that has meant forging a new relationship with hunger.

The key for me came when I discovered that hunger is just a sensation—nothing more. It needn’t be a tyrant. It’s like lust or anger. Just because I feel lust doesn’t mean I need to act on it. Just because I’m angry doesn’t mean I need to raise my voice or clench my fists. And just because I’m hungry doesn’t mean I need to eat.

There is a subtle and dangerous spiritual mechanism that arises when we always obey our hunger. It becomes a veritable steering wheel in Satan’s hand. He can turn us in any direction he wants, and we become accustomed to letting this one sensation rule us. It affects what we eat, when we eat, and how we eat. It may take precedence over other things in our lives.

You see, if I’ve been irresponsible in my eating habits, I’m going to feel hungry even when my body doesn’t really need food. It’s just “used” to food, or a certain amount of food, and will let me know if something is different. That means if I’m going to lose weight, or even maintain weight, I need to “reset” my body’s signals from time to time. And that means wrestling with hunger.

I was once (and still often am) a slave to my hunger. I obeyed it every time, because I didn’t want to feel hunger. Sometimes I even anticipated it. I ate a lot in advance, because I knew I “might” become hungry if I didn’t. This fear caused tension, anxiety, impatience (if someone threatened my schedule in such a way that I might not have time to eat), and the death of peace, all because I might become hungry.

I had to learn that hunger has a place in helping me understand my body, but I must not allow it to become an unbridled tyrant. It needs to be listened to but not always obeyed. I can use reason to determine if I really need food or if I need to recalibrate my body for its new relationship with food. Hunger is a sensation, nothing more. It should never become my Lord and Master.

It comes down to this: Food is fuel. It is not Prozac on a plate or Valium in a venti Starbucks cup. Nor is it where we should turn when assaulted by stress, loneliness, anxiety, boredom, or uncertainty. It’s important to know the difference between physical hunger, emotional hunger, intimacy hunger, relational hunger, and any other kind of hunger. Many, many calories are consumed in response to needs and appetites that have little or nothing to do with physical hunger but rather are consumed in response to appetites that these calories will never touch.

I aspire to live at a place where being fit matters more to me than not being hungry. When I allow myself to become hungry, over time (definitely not immediately), I usually find that I actually become hungry less often, and in a different way. I no longer feel like its captive.

So now, I try to view hunger pangs in this light—as simply a sensation that takes me where I want to go (better health). These pangs are like riding a bike up a hill—unpleasant, but playing a positive role in my life. I have to walk through hunger pangs on occasion to get to where I want to go.

This has led to a new realm of spiritual freedom. I don’t fear affluent hunger; it might not be pleasant, but it’s something I can live with, and occasionally need to live with, for spiritual reasons as much as physical.

If you're interested in reading more about this, I invite you to check out my book Every Body Matters.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Turbo Charge Your Devotions in 2012

Would you like to make 2012 a particularly fruitful and rich year of growing in the Lord?  Here are three simple suggestions to spice things up a bit.

Add a Daily Devotional to Your Current Reading Plan
One of my all-time favorites is Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest.  Another classic is A.J. Russell’s God Calling.  What I like about both of these is that the entries are so short I still have plenty of time left over for other study, and yet both prove consistently helpful. I have to be honest here, though—while I appreciate Russell’s work as a writer and the movement out of which he wrote, I have a difficult time with writers presenting God (or Jesus) speaking in the first-person. It seems presumptuous at best, and that format alone can be enough to make the experience uncomfortable. Still, there are some nuggets here worth holding on to.  If you’re looking for something more contemporary, Zondervan recently released a daily devotional culled from 12 of my books entitled Simply Sacred.

Get Inspired with Spiritual Biographies
I’ve been reading through James Gilchrist Lawson’s (100 year old) Deeper Experiences of Famous Christians and am loving it. It’s so inspiring to read accounts of how God used some of the most common, simple people imaginable to spearhead great movements of the Spirit. The book has plenty of weaknesses. It’s not the most theologically precise, to say the least, and there’s at least one howler, when Lawson calls Charles Finney the greatest theologian since the apostles. But please don’t let that rob you of benefiting from a heart-inspirational recounting of how God has moved so powerfully in so many lives. It has given me increased desire to see God move afresh in our own day and age. I’m on the teaching team of one of the largest churches in the nation that saw over 3,000 people baptized this past year. While that’s amazing, these stories remind me that God can move even more powerfully than that.  Another suggestion is to wade through John Wesley’s Journals, which, frankly, tires me out just reading it (but in a good way).

Try Something New
It’s easy to fall into a spiritual rut. We do this in our human relationships (most notably, in marriage), and we do it in our relationship with God. Find some fresh ways to meet with the Lord, read about some new devotional exercises, make a point of intentionally cultivating a dynamic and growing devotional time with the Lord. If you haven’t read my book Sacred Pathways, consider doing so. It features nine different spiritual temperaments, all spoken of in Scripture, and all practiced throughout the history of the church, representing different windows through which Christians have beheld the face of God. If you have read Sacred Pathways, you might consider following up with What’s Your God Language? by Myra Perrine. Myra takes the Sacred Pathways model and updates it with some helpful exercises.
Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments section.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Some Favorite Reads in 2011

So many books, so little time… But here are a few of my favorites that I read in 2011, in no particular order.

Crazy Love by Francis Chan.  I thank God for Francis. He has an infectious faith and a committed spirit and this book truly inspires and delivers. I asked each one of my kids to read it this year.

Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. What a great, gripping read. Even if you don’t enjoy the sport of running, you’ll be caught up in this tremendous, true tale. And if you’ve ever wondered why those funny looking toe shoes became so popular, this book is the main reason why.

A Grace Disguised by Jerry Sittser. Just about every Christian should read this contemporary classic about facing life losses. Jerry lost his wife, mother and daughter in a single car accident. His reflections are mature, pastoral, and immensely helpful.

 Marriage Matters by Winston Smith.  I’ve read many marriage books. This is among the best. Winston trends toward the Sacred Marriage approach—exploring the soul-transforming aspects of the marriage relationship.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand.  An almost impossibly great book. As a writer, I don’t think I’ve come across any contemporary author who writes with such skill, who displays such amazing capacity for research, who plays the English language like a master musician plays the violin, and who manufactures a gripping narrative far better than any screenwriter working today. Though her output has been relatively sparse, Hillenbrand is quite possibly the finest contemporary writer working today.

After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters by N.T. Wright. Even if you have issues with Wright’s work on justification, please don’t avoid this masterpiece on sanctification. It’s brilliant.

The Invisible Woman: When Only God Sees by Nicole Johnson.  A very short, but very powerful, inspirational giftbook for women. Women, if you feel taken for granted, this book will prop you right back up.

Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll.  Of course I’ve got to read a lot of marriage books. Though this one will certainly be controversial when it is released in a few weeks, I believe it’s a bold statement and an important book. You and I might draw different lines than Mark and Grace do (which is what, sadly, the controversy will be about), but this is a thoroughly biblical, challenging, and shockingly honest portrayal of Christian marriage.  It took a lot of guts for Mark and Grace to write this book and I think it can spawn many productive conversations and thoughts.

The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ by Alphonsus Liguori.  Can you make room for an insightful though often ignored, Roman Catholic writer on spirituality? This is a profound spiritual read. As an Evangelical, I’m sometimes amazed how Liguori can give one of the best presentations of the Gospel I’ve ever read, and then end the chapter with a shout out to Mary… If you can get past that, there is so much to benefit from here.                                                      

The Great Omission by Dallas Willard
Dallas remains one of my favorite contemporary writers working on spiritual formation. This is such a good book, even though it’s cobbled together from various articles and speeches. If Willard takes the time to write it, it’s worth it for all the rest of us to take the time to read it.

And, for those of you who noticed I didn’t have a new book published in 2010, I hope you did notice that there were four Gary Thomas book releases in 2011 and one new curriculum.  They were:

Thirsting for God   This is a completely rewritten and updated version of my first book, Seeking the Face of God. I just about doubled the number of classics that I drew upon when the book was first published in 1994, threw out some of the more obscure sounding quotes, packed it full of newer material and quotes and hopefully produced a book that will pick up where Seeking left off. If you want a primer to become familiar with the Christian classics and an introduction to Christian spirituality through the perspective of the greatest writers of the past 2,000 years, this book just might be the one you’re looking for.

Sacred Marriage Gift Edition  So many people were giving out Sacred Marriage as a wedding gift but wanting something more substantial (a hardback instead of a paperback) that Zondervan put together this special gift edition with a wedding appropriate cover, and added Devotions for Sacred Marriage to the end—two books in one. We sell out of these every time we bring them to an event. Not only is it more economical to get the “two for one” deal, but people just love the packaging and they love the thought of giving this material to others for a wedding or anniversary gift.

Sacred Parenting DVD Curriculum  Finally—7 years after the book came out—we’ve got a curriculum for small groups to study the concepts of how God can use parenting to shape a parent’s soul. This isn’t a how-to look at parenting; instead, it explores how soul-forming the journey of parenting is for the parent. People appreciate the fresh approach and we’ve been encouraged by the comments received so far. There’s a participant’s guide that will take you through the 6 video sessions.

Simply Sacred
Zondervan went through my previous 12 solo books, pulled some of the most impactful excerpts, and put 366 of them together (we’ve got leap year covered!) for your daily inspiration. These are short entries—a page each—and are rather varied in theme, given that they’re pulled from so many different works.

Every Body Matters
My first completely new book in a couple years, Every Body Matters examines the connection between physical and spiritual discipline, what it means to honor God with our bodies, how we should view our bodies as instruments of spiritual service rather than ornaments, and offers a (I hope) compelling call for Christians to take body-care more seriously. Secular books tackle this subject with all the wrong, me-centered motivations—primarily, to look and feel better. EBM provides spiritual motivation: our bodies are not our own, they were bought with a price and so we’re called to honor God with our bodies.  “Seeking first the Kingdom of God” includes surrendering the kingdom of our physical bodies.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Simple Things: A Devotion for Advent

“So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.  He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.  While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.  She wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.”  Luke 2:4-7

            The storming of the Bastille was the seminal event that unleashed the tumultuous French revolution; Europe would never be the same.  And yet, astonishingly, King Louis XVI’s diary entry for that day was “14/7 1789: Nothing”.
            Sometimes the greatest historical events are missed by contemporary observers, and that was certainly the case with the birth of Jesus. A relatively poor husband, a soon-to-be mother, and an unborn child stood poised to change the course not just of history, but of eternity, yet there was nothing to mark the grand occasion--no parades, no banners, no reporters, not even the most basic comforts.
            Martin Luther writes, “Behold how very ordinary and common things are to us that transpire on earth, and yet how high they are regarded in heaven. On earth it occurs in this wise: Here is a poor young woman, Mary of Nazareth, not highly esteemed, but of the humblest citizens of the village.  No one is conscious of the great wonder she bears, she is silent, keeps her own counsel, and regards herself as the lowliest in the town….  Imagine how she was despised at the inns and stopping places on the way, although worthy to ride in state in a chariot of gold.”
            If you were writing People magazine during the first century, there would be thousands of couples you’d include before you would mention this one.  Mary was from the segment of the population that would never be featured in People magazine.  Luther goes on, “There were, no doubt, many wives and daughters of prominent men at that time, who lived in fine apartments and great splendor, while the mother of God takes a journey in mid-winter under most trying circumstances.”
            How much we miss when our eyes follow glamour instead of substance, and romance instead of love!  “They were the most insignificant and despised, so that they had to make way for others until they were obliged to take refuge in a stable, to share with the cattle, lodging, table, bedchamber and bed, while many a wicked man sat at the head in the hotels and was honored as lord.  No one noticed or was conscious of what God was doing in that stable… See how God shows that he utterly disregards what the world is, has or desires; and furthermore, that the world shows how little it knows or notices what God is, has and does.”
            This Christmas season, let’s remind ourselves that the values of God’s Kingdom bear little resemblance to this world’s.  This ignored baby would one day teach His disciples, “the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.”  But even at His birth He demonstrated, as Luther writes, “the world’s greatest wisdom is foolishness, her best actions are wrong and her greatest treasures are misfortunes.” 
            As followers of this humble baby, we are called to notice those whom a world lusting after glamor often ignores. We are to prize character over immodesty, generosity over affluence, and humility over power.  We are not to value people because they have fine clothes, expensive cars, or famous faces—God’s greatest heroes are often nondescript, anonymous, and less than pleasing to the eye.
            Luther reminds us, “Behold how very richly God honors those who are despised of men…  The angels [couldn’t] find princes or valiant men to whom to communicate the good news; but only unlearned laymen, the most humble people upon earth… See how utterly God overthrows that which is lofty!  And yet we rage and rant for nothing but this empty honor, as if we had no honor to seek in heaven.”
            This advent, what do you find yourself seeking--approval from the world, success in society’s eyes, or obedience to the King of Kings? 
            If God has placed you in a high place, good for you—be faithful where you are.  If God has called you to an entry level position, or one of utter anonymity, concern yourself with the applause of heaven, not being mentioned in The Huffington Post, The New York Times, or USA Today.  What I love about worshipping at Second Baptist in Houston is that a CEO sits next to the receptionist; a business owner passes the communion plate to a customer; the banker studies Scripture with the mortgage holder. 
            What binds us isn’t our status in the world, but our union in Christ.  Those who seek glamor and fame would have missed Jesus while panting at the feet of Herod.  May we not make such a foolish mistake.