Longing for the Kingdom: An Advent Devotional

I hadn’t planned on posting this to my blog, but it’s just too good.

For Advent this year, we had members of Soma’s congregations write meditations on themes related to four of Jesus’ Beatitudes, and compiled it into this devotional:

  • Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied
  • Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy
  • Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God
  • Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God

(we’re preaching through those Beatitudes this month)

In addition to the original meditations, we also have original artwork (for external and internal covers) by Abby Nelson and Jingo de la Rosa. And it’s all just so good.

If you’re interested in an Advent devotional this season, this one starts December 4; and you can go through it either on its own, or after listening to each Sunday’s sermon on our sermons page. Just reading through the content to get it ready for print was great for me, and I’m really excited to go through it day by day through this month!


Thoughts on becoming a father again

I wrote this from the hospital, where on Friday night my wife delivered our baby daughter Vale (Valerie) Elizabeth Rhea. Everyone is healthy; cuteness is off the scale.

This delivery and recovery have been so easy that I’ve had more time to think than when we were in hospital with Gwyn and Max. (And because she isn’t fully awake, I’m better rested than usual too). This season of work has had random fixings stewing in the gumbo pot, and three thoughts in particular have been impressed on my mind:

1. We co-write our children’s stories.

If our lives are a play, our parents write Act I. (And, to press the metaphor, give very strong character notes for the rest). I’ve been studying family systems theory, which says we cannot really understand someone until we know who they were in their families of origin. The story we give our children of who we are and who they are – both what we tell them, and also how we treat them – shapes them into adulthood.

Accepting that reality feels heavy, and I think it’s supposed to. With Vale, I now have three little dramas that my words and my actions will shape. I will become part of the self-definition of my children.

For one, this drives me to my knees. I have fantastic parents, who made my early story a great one, and that is a gift that feels more valuable the older I get. But wielding a pen in three new stories is a responsibility of eternal significance, and I want to drink deeply of God’s power and wisdom so I can give them the best story I know how to write.

With that in mind, I’ve also consecrated each of my children with a promise or an image from the Bible that I feel like God wants to make real for them. I take it from the parent-child blessings in the early stories of the Bible, which again reflect that idea that we shape our children’s stories, even in mysterious ways. These passages influence how I pray for my children and what I think they’ll grow up to be like; time will tell how the themes are stitched through.

2. Presence matters.

“Presence” means way more than “being physically there” or “being physically not there.”

One of the most meaningful “factors” in all three of Allison’s births has been Jennie Rader. We met Jennie when we hired her to be doula for Gwyn, but she’s become a friend to our family and to Allison in particular, and it’s hard to imagine having another baby without her there.

Beyond Jennie’s training (years as an OB nurse) and expertise, she brings something into the labor and delivery room that only the washy word “presence” describes well. Her years of training, her who-knows-how-many sessions as a doula, and her Christian hope and charity have given her a something that we can feel when she’s there with us, and even our medical staff pick up.

Several things I’ve been reading reflect this idea that a lot of how we perceive others happens on an intuitive, sub-rational level. All the words to describe it are spooky, but when it comes to our actual relationships with people, we perceive in them a shape that can be calming or exciting, peaceful or uncomfortable. And if that includes conscious actions like words and gestures, it also seems to go beyond it.

We’re watching through Band of Brothers for the who-knows-what time, and you can see presence in action in leaders like Winters and Lipton. Competence is part of why they’re respected by the men; but as both the miniseries and the interviews with the soldiers shows, great leaders have much more than just competence.

My wife has an incredible life-giving presence, which I can see the power of in the relationships she has with women in our church community. It’s grown over time – she definitely had it when I first met her, but maturing has made it even richer and sweeter.

3. People take priority.

I wrote about this when my son Max was born, but each new child impresses it on me again. I make things, I like to make things, I want to make things that endure: but my children will outlast them all. The Babylonian peasants gabbing about the Enuma Elish 4,000 years ago will outlive it, no matter how many times it gets reprinted. C.S. Lewis puts it this way:

You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilization — these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit — immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. – from “The Weight of Glory”

I’ve read somewhere that creators can view their works like their children; but in this hospital, I’m reminded that these lives are the most enduring works my name will ever be on. They do and always will deserve the best time I have to give.

The Good Gift of the Will

In Reformed circles, we get skittish when people talk warmly about human will. The “gospel-centered” movement – which aspires to follow the example of the Reformation – sees itself as recovering the purity of grace from the chaff of self-centered Western religion. Part of our self-definition is the rejection of the primacy of human will in salvation or sanctification. That instinct has truth behind it: we are saved, sanctified, and glorified by the gracious will of God.

That being said, what if we’ve been so quick to reject any hint of self-salvation that we’ve lost the beauty and power of the sanctified will?

As a reaction to sermons structured something like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. Therefore, go do X.

The “gospel-centered” movement has shifted toward sermons that look more like this:

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.

That shifts our focus from ourselves to God’s substitutionary grace – all to the good. But that isn’t complete. A sermon – a gospel-saturated, God-oriented, Christ-exalting sermon – isn’t complete until it brings the grace of God to bear on our actions in our present life. In other words, on the will.

Here’s a complete picture, that matches New Testament examples like Paul (Romans 12:1ff) and Peter (Acts 2:28ff):

  1. The Bible shows that God’s will for your life includes X.
  2. You are by yourself unable to do X.
  3. Thank God that Jesus has satisfied the need for X on your behalf.
  4. By the grace of God, pursue X with all your heart.

In other words, gospel truth hasn’t saturated us until it compels us to use our wills to act on it.

The will is biblical.

If the word “will” makes you feel icky, pick another. But whatever word you use to define “a person’s ability to weigh choices, pick one, and follow it through,” a plain-sense reading of Scripture shows God treating us as if we have it.

  • “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live …” (Deuteronomy 30:19)
  • “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
  • If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. (Colossians 3:1)

Yes, our will is corrupted by the Fall. Yes, it’s in bondage against God’s glory until God sets it free. But all caveats caveated, the stubborn fact remains: God treats us like we can (and should) make meaningful choices.

The will is commonsensical.

Even the staunchest will-averse Calvinist treats himself and others as if we have the real ability to make real choices. We choose the restaurant where we want to eat dinner. We debate our friend’s choice of restaurant, in the hope that we’ll persuade her to choose ours instead. We ask our growing children to make wise choices about their habits or their friends.

Ministry in chronically poor areas highlights the beauty of a will used well. We can counteract many of the systemic and circumstantial factors that trap someone in poverty; but ultimately, a person must also learn to make and maintain wise decisions to move out of poverty into financial health. It doesn’t happen – or at least doesn’t stick – without the will.

The will is a gift.

Early Church fathers recognized that our ability to weigh and make choices was part of what made us more like God than like the animals. When Psalm 8 describes us as “made … a little lower than the heavenly beings” (v. 5), Eastern and Western thinkers alike saw our decision-making power as part of that special image. Here’s Gregory of Nyssa:

… for the soul immediately shows its royal and exalted character, far removed as it is from the lowliness of private station, in that it owns no lord, and is self-governed, swayed autocratically by its own will; for to whom else does this belong than to a king? (“On the Making of Man”)

The fallen or poorly-used will gives us nothing; but once made truly alive and empowered by the Holy Spirit, the will becomes a means by which we glorify God and become more like Christ. Here’s Paul:

“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” – 1 Timothy 4:7-8

And what is “training” but the exercise of the will?

If we’re willing to accept that the will is real and that it might, when redeemed and empowered by grace, be a gift that can be used for God’s glory, how can we work that into our teaching? Some quick suggestions:

  1. Talk about the will.

As you teach the beauty of God’s saving and sanctifying grace, teach how that grace liberates and empowers us to choose more of God’s glory and more of our neighbors’ good. Uphold the goodness and beauty of choices that honor God.

  1. Appeal to the will.

We tend to think we can’t get excited about God’s grace unless we simultaneously diminish human choice. But though the Bible affirms that God’s choice is more important (e.g., John 15:16), it never shies from appealing to the will of its readers. The speakers and writers of the Bible give commands, make appeals, issue warnings, all with the assumption that people might hear them and make different choices on the basis of them.

  1. Cultivate the will.

Our ability to make choices and act on them is like any other ability: it needs to be practiced. Is it possible to have a highly disciplined sinner? Absolutely. But the Bible equally affirms the beauty of a highly disciplined saint. We should challenge ourselves and challenge one another to practice godliness, and celebrate when we see our wills made stronger.

Image: “The Education of the Children of Clovis,” by Alma Tadema


“Better Than:” The Spirit of Fasting

If, like me, you didn’t grow up marking Lent, the whole practice of fasting may seem strange to you. I want to love God more, so, I don’t eat? Or maybe I do that juice cleanse I’ve been thinking about, because hey why not? It was kind of a New Year’s resolution and I bombed it in January, so I can try it now.

A few years ago, I came across a psalm that transformed my understanding of what fasting is supposed to accomplish.

O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you;
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
in your name I will lift up my hands.
My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food,
and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
when I remember you upon my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Psalm 63:1-8)

David wrote this psalm “in the wilderness of Judah” – during one of the times he was on the run for his life. The “wilderness diet,” so to speak, would have been pretty lean: scarce water, scrubby plants, no fruit, maybe the occasional lean and gamey deer if you’re lucky. David is likely spending his days with the hollow feeling of not having enough to eat.

That makes the visceral imagery he uses to describe his longing for God all the more powerful. Instead of asking for a no-longer-dry tongue, “my soul thirsts for you.” Instead of asking for a full belly, “My soul will be satisfied [in you] as with fat and rich food.” He’s letting his hunger turn his heart to long for God more.

The emotional crescendo is verse 4:

Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.

That’s where the light came on. The spirit of fasting – what we’re supposed to understand when we give things up for God – is captured in the phrase “better than.” God’s love is better than life. God’s spirit is better than a spring of water. The memory of God is better than a steak dinner.

Fasting is giving up a good thing to remind ourselves that God is better than that. It’s temporarily depriving ourselves, not to practice self-control or feel like dirt, but to try to direct that longing to the ultimate good. As Augustine said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee.”

That means that instead of just depriving ourselves, fasting accomplishes its fullest purpose when we replace that lack with something of God. We replace a meal with time meditating on the Bible. We spend time in prayer instead of with Netflix. We practice silence and solitude one evening instead of time with friends.

The good things in life are good; but God is better. If you’ve never practiced fasting before, consider these questions:

1. What is one “good thing” in my life that I think I need more than I do? (that I’m afraid to give up for a time)

2. How can I let go of that thing and “replace” it with God, to remind myself that God is better than that?

Image: “San Gerolamo,” by Caravaggio

The Punctuated Life

I wrote this piece for my wife’s excellent blog, Less, Please! – enjoy!

Early in 2015, we got together with some of our friends and did something I’d never done before. We reflected back on 2014 and shared the “monuments” that we would set up to remember the year. Mine were:

  • The birth of our daughter Gwyn
  • The sense of feeling settled in the community we’d developed
  • Celebrating three years of marriage to Allison

And afterwards, we shared a few goals we had for the coming year.

(I didn’t keep any of mine, because I wasn’t yet making goals intelligently or seriously.)

In one sense, New Year’s is totally arbitrary: we’re smack in the middle of a season that’s as depressingly dark and cold on one side of the calendar as the other. But the fact that we close down one year, retire one wall calendar, and make a hoopla about opening a new year is a cultural gift: it’s a chance for us to make our life into more than one day after another after another after another.

It’s a punctuation mark.

Punctuation divides a set of words into meaningful units. While we can communicate in a breathless rush with no pauses and just the spew of whatever comes to mind in the moment and still get some points across I guess … punctuation gives order, clarity, and sense to our thoughts.

In the same way, punctuating time can give clarity and sense to our lives. Each New Year feels like a chance for a fresh start, even if we rarely keep our resolutions. Each birthday or anniversary feels like the right time to reflect on where we’ve been. Punctuating time feels natural to us; it feels right that our lives have something like chapters.

Here’s what punctuating time looks like:

  1. Stop.

It starts with stopping – taking a deliberate break from the normal rush of your life. I love the image of a swimmer throwing her head out of the water to breathe, because I can live my life that way: pounding from one urgency to another. I like it also because stopping well feels like moving from one level of existence to another, even if only for a moment.

Whatever stretch of time you’re punctuating, stop your normal activity and step out of it into somewhere you can breathe. Leave the phone at home. Go to a library, or just a quiet room.

  1. Reflect.

One point of punctuating life is to reflect on where we’ve come since the last mark (a day, a week, a month, whatever). What did I learn? What can I celebrate? What can I try again tomorrow, or try to do better?

The New Year practice we did for the first time in 2015 (which we’ve done every year since) gave me a time to re-experience, in a sense, the high points of my year. To look for the hand of Providence, which was invisible in the moment; or even to see ways I repeated failures of 2013, which can be a gift if I’m willing to learn from it.

Reflecting helps us recapture meaningful experiences we’ve lived through, and can be a way to find patterns or causes for thankfulness in things we were too underwater to notice.

  1. Envision.

Finally, punctuating time gives the opportunity to look ahead and dream about what the next chapter could look like. Again, I had tended to do this sloppily and halfheartedly around New Year’s; but with a more deliberate goal-setting system in my life, I’ve already seen more progress on my goals through dreaming and (wisely) planning ahead.

The free headspace of a punctuation mark – even if it’s a just a liberated hour at a coffee shop – lets me draft out a little of my future. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll get there, but it makes it a heck of a lot more likely.

In practice

Right now, the one punctuation mark we’ve worked into our family’s week is an hour on Saturdays. We take our kids to the child care at the Y, walk to a coffee shop (don’t tell the Y), and look at the past week and the coming week. We talk over what went well, what didn’t, and how we can work more wisely on the week to come.

Because I’m using Pace & Pattern, I have a bigger punctuation mark coming at the end of March: the end of Quarter 1, and the goals I’ve set for it. (And we’re, you know, having a baby.) Knowing that I have to put a whole season to rest has me feeling the pressure, in a healthy way, to work at these goals now so I can go on to something else in the next chapter.

And we just recently had our reflection on 2016 with our friends, which was a fantastic way to remember the great things we’ve experienced in the last year.

Happy punctuating!

Image: “Saint Jerome,” by Leonello Spalla

Make a Plan, Man

I am not by nature a planner. My approach to future has been either to hold a vaguely visualized goal in mind, or just to assume life will happen to me and I’ll react to it as need be.

That means my new year’s resolutions, when I’ve made them, have tended to never happen. The half-baked plans I share in my obligatory goal-related small group meeting never come to fruition.

I’ve comforted my unplanful self with passages like the one from James that warns against prideful planning; but, like my pastor said in a sermon on planning last summer, just because there’s a wrong kind of planning doesn’t mean there’s not a right. “To plan is to love,” he said, and there’s a lot of truth in that. To plan pridefully is to be prideful; but to never plan is to miss opportunities to love others and see God in fresh ways. It can be an act of worship.

My wife should really be the one writing this piece, because she’s way more acquainted with wise planning than I am; but I’d like to share some of the wisdom I’ve picked up from her on how to plan more effectively.

Why plans fail

There are some common reasons why new year’s resolutions tend not to pan out:

Too vague: “Love my wife more” is a great aspiration, but if it doesn’t lead to me doing something it’s never going to happen

Not connected to a “why:” “I’d like to eat better” is a nice idea, but if I don’t have a good reason for it I’m not going to stick with it

No accountability: Sharing it once or writing it down and losing it are not recipes for success.

I don’t build it in my calendar: “Write a chapter a month” is good; but if I’m already not writing, what am I going to clear out of my life each week so I can actually write that chapter?

Too ambitious: Those eight goals that combine to 20 hours of new activity each week simply ain’t  going to happen.

Generally, our Island of Unmet Goals is populated by one of those five ferries.

Planning that has a shot

There is no magical formula to ensure your goals will work out. You may set out with wise goals and have render it impossible; you may start on a goal and realize that you want something different. But that being said, here are some suggestions (again, almost entirely from my wife) that can help you set goals that can stick:

Plan from a “why”

Before you make goals, start by setting a vision for who you want to be – even if it’s only for this year. What do you want to define you as a person? What do you hold most dear, in your best moments? “Eat better” is a fine goal; but which of these “whys” will make you more likely to actually eat better?

  1. I want to eat better because I feel guilty about overeating this Christmas
  2. I want to eat better because I want to be healthy enough to love and disciple my grandkids one day

Start small

Part of what led Allison into her research on goal-setting was realizing that every year she set more or less the same large number of goals, and then by the next year realized she hadn’t met any of them. She was setting too many goals to keep in her mind, let alone work into her calendar.

This quarter, I have only three goals I’m intentionally working on (outside of work). Three things I’m pushing myself to achieve. All the other things I’d like to see – good things – I’m giving myself permission to pass on this quarter, because I know I can’t really handle more than these.

Be specific and measurable

Again, “Love my wife more” is a great aspiration; but it doesn’t mean anything in practice. However, “Plan one date a week with my wife” is measurable. I can get my hands around it, which means I can move a lot closer to loving her more.

Put them in the calendar

If I’m going to change my actions – to do something I haven’t been doing already, or stop doing something I’m already doing – I have to plan ahead. My current self has already filled my calendar for 2017: by default, I will sleep until my kids wake up, and I will probably watch at least an hour of TV a night.

To accomplish something new, I have to preempt my current self by intentionally blocking out he time I need to accomplish it. I have to make Wednesday night a writing night; I have to make Sunday evening my date-planning time.

Don’t think you’ve made a goal until you know beforehand when you’re going to work on it!

Get accountability

Get someone to hold you to your plans. Find someone who won’t forget, and who won’t let you forget about them either.

Give yourself grace

Finally, be ready to forgive yourself and try again when you fail to meet your goals. Missing a goal in the first month (or week) doesn’t mean you’ll never get it; it may mean you need to adjust your efforts or recalibrate your expectations. Dust yourself off and try again!

Image credit: Joe Forkan, from his “Lebowski Cycle;” accessed at his website



To Brag on My Wife a Lot

A few months back, I published about a goal-setting guide my wife Allison had developed – a system-plus-agenda downloadable.

This weekend, she released a print version with a full-year agenda for 2017, and this thing is dope.

Over the last few years, she’s pulled together some of the most valuable productivity-related wisdom out there: from Stephen Covey, Greg McKeown, Matt Perman, and others – and added her own insights to make a tool that helps you start with a personal big-picture vision and turn that into concrete goals you can write into your planner.

I could say lots more, but she says it better. You should watch the video below and then go buy the thing – I’ll be using it for 2017.