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.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

300 Pound Pastors? Let's Start the Conversation (for leaders only)

When Mark Bejsovec, a youth pastor, saw the scale creep over 300 pounds, he gulped.  During his high school football playing days, he carried just 186 pounds on his six-foot-two frame.  In his early thirties, however, Mark started gaining weight steadily. At first, he rationalized it and even began using it like a tool. It made him seem funnier. He could push out his stomach until he looked like he was pregnant, and the kids in his ministry would laugh: “You look like you got twins!”

When he hit 300 pounds, though, Mark began to sense God speaking to him about his physical condition.

“I looked into Scripture, specifically at the men in the Bible who assumed leadership roles, and wondered how they must have looked. I couldn’t find anyone in leadership who was overweight.”

This wasn’t about vanity, but rather about being a better steward of his body and his calling: “If I was addressing only spiritual issues but not the physical ones, I considered I would be less useful to the Lord in my ministry. If I was going to remain in ministry, I needed to honor God with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind, and also all my body.”

By definition, we can’t be a leader in secret.  Somebody is following us.  And the bodies we are leading with aren’t hidden.

A friend of mine, who works as a senior director for a major Christian development organization, recently shared with me the battle he faces with eating and exercise.  On a recent business trip, he ate twenty-four restaurant meals in a row. He’s concerned about his health habits, and like many, he lives with a constant sense of failure that he could be doing more about his weight. What he doesn’t see are spiritual leaders taking this struggle as seriously as he does.  “We’ve been taught in the evangelical tradition about adultery and lying and stealing and coveting,” he says, “and about lust and alcoholism and smoking and drug abuse. But many evangelical pastors who preach against these things are visibly overweight or obese. I don’t say this to judge them—I struggle with the same thing. But sometimes I wonder. Sure, they may have conquered the online porn, but it seems like they’re ‘medicating’ with food; I get that, because I do the same thing.”

For his part, Mark decided to quit his former eating habits cold turkey. When his weight started coming off, Mark experienced a rush of positive energy. “I started feeling more affirmed, my self-esteem went up, and my relationship with God grew. It’s not that my previous life didn’t honor God, but now it felt like I was living like God designed me to live.”

When I asked Mark what changed most about his life since he lost seventy pounds, he responded, “Let’s be honest: there were times I was discredited because of the way I looked. When I talked to kids about self-control in other areas, they could look at me and understandably ask why I wasn’t addressing my issues with food. But now, when I share my story, there’s an added inspirational element. If I can do it, anyone can do it, and my weight loss has become an effective tool in my ministry.”

As a writer whose most prominent books relate to marriage, I take it as a personal challenge to maintain the integrity of my own marriage.  I can’t write and teach on marriage if my own is falling apart.  As a pastor, however, when I talk to the church about self-control; when I preach on the necessity of personal discipline, good stewardship in all areas of life, and, above all, when I teach out of 1 Corinthians 6:20: You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body” I am going to completely undercut my message if I’m preaching out of a body that denies this.

It would be convenient if being a leader didn’t require also being an example, but that’s not the case.  Paul writes, “Follow me as I follow Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

Leaders, let’s ask ourselves, “Is my body serving or thwarting my message?”  If you’re a pastor, you may well have accepted financial sacrifice for the privilege of being in the ministry; if you’re a leader of any type, you have readily accepted the sacrifice of your time, tranquility, and even reputation, as leadership assaults all of these.  But will you also accept bodily sacrifice—watching what you eat, and putting in the effort to get appropriate exercise? Will you recognize that the body out of which you lead can either support or undercut the message that you carry?

I am not suggesting that we pick leaders by how thin they are, or that we make a direct connection between a person’s BMI and his holiness. That would be ridiculous, ignorant, and unfair—some bodies aren’t designed to be thin, other bodies seem to naturally stay thin regardless of how they are cared for or fed, but leaders, we know our own journey, we know whether this area of stewardship is feeding or hindering our maturity and ministry. Don’t all of us feel better, stronger, more energetic, when we’re being faithful in this area?  And don’t we all know that there are negative consequences when we get careless?

So, in a spirit of encouragement and grace, let’s admit that this is something we need to start talking about. Just as we seemed eager to denounce the opulent affluence and money-raising scandals of the 1980s televangelists, let’s not be blind to our own contemporary challenges at the dawn of the 21st century.

For more on this topic, check out Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul.