Saturday, December 31, 2011

Reflections on 2011

As the year draws to a close, it is natural for us to begin reflecting on the year that has past, as well as the new year that is just around the corner. This morning I began writing in my journal about the previous year, wondering as I wrote what God’s perspective on my year would be. As I prayed and read the Scriptures, I think I felt some direction.

As I reflect on 2011, I am reminded of the deep pain that has been part of my story this year. I also reflect with shame how much rebellion and entitlement ransacked my heart (and those around me), compounding the pain of this season. I imagined that God might shake his head in disappointment and shame over my “performance” this past year, wanting to distance himself from me in 2012 and move on to more productive disciples. By grace, I knew this to be wrong, so I sought a fresh image of God’s heart.

I quickly found myself in Nehemiah 9, one of my favorite passages in the Old Testament, describing a covenant renewal ceremony for the exiled and disenfranchised people of God. As they reflect on their past, they make several statements and requests:

  • God has been faithful, but I have not; I have acted wickedly (9:33ff)
  • Yet he has not forsaken me (and will not) because of his grace and compassion (9:31)
  • Lord, remember my sufferings and heal me (9:32)

All of the mess of 2011 is caught up “in Christ” (Eph. 1): all my failures, backslidings, rebellions, as well as the few momentary spurts of obedience. 2011 feels like a great year of sadness, a “year of the old self, of giving in to compulsions to escape from pain, or resentment, entitlement and slothful despair.

The Lord began unpacking more of his perspective on my year by reminding me of the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15). I have wandered, and in many ways, I am still wandering, but the Father waits, hopes, embraces, kisses and restores. Always.

I repent of my addiction to illusions in 2011 and stumble toward Christ in 2012. My soul found a home in these prayers for the upcoming year:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. . . . Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit” (Ps 51:10, 12 ESV).

Lord, grant me a broken and contrite heart in 2012 (Ps 51:17).

Teach me to number my days, that I might gain a heart of wisdom (Ps 90:12)

“Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

“Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and  for as many years as we have seen evil” (Ps 90:14-15)

“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Ps 51:15).

Let me know the reckless love of Christ in every dimension of my life (Eph 3:14-19)

These songs ministered deeply to me as I ruminated on these things:

“The Prodigal” by Sovereign Grace

“I Have a Shelter” by Sovereign Grace

“How He Loves” by Passion Worship

I feel the gentleness and wide mercy of a Father on me, a scraggly disciple who has spent far too much time away from home. With as much grace as God gives, I return home, hoping that I linger for longer seasons at home in 2012.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Where Peace is Hidden

A wonderful Advent reflection from Henri Nouwen -

Keep your eyes on the prince of peace, the one who doesn't cling to his divine power; the one who refuses to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights and rule with great power; the one who says, "Blessed are the poor, the gentle, those who mourn, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and those who are persecuted in the cause of uprightness" (see Matt. 5:3-11); the one who touches the lame, the crippled, and the blind; the one who speaks words of forgiveness and encouragement; the one who dies alone, rejected and despised. Keep your eyes on him who becomes poor with the poor, weak with the weak, and who is rejected with the rejected. He is the source of all peace.

Where is this peace to be found? The answer is clear. In weakness. First of all, in our own weakness, in those places of our hearts where we feel most broken, most insecure, most in agony, most afraid. Why there? Because there our familiar ways of controlling our world are being stripped away; there we are called to let go from doing much, thinking much, and relying on our self-sufficiency. Right there where we are weakest the peace which is not of this world is hidden. (Adam's Story: The Peace That Is Not Of This World, Henri J.M. Nouwen. ©The Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust. First published in Weavings, March- April 1988).

Here Nouwen reminds us of our Prince who came (and comes) to us in weakness, vulnerability and need. If we want to live into this “way of Jesus,” we must find him not in our places of wisdom, strength and control; rather, we must seek him in the dirty stinky stable of our own weakness, vulnerability and need. Let’s be honest about where we are spiritually, emotionally and physically (we are bankrupt!); don’t try to hide your weakness from others this Advent season, especially not from our Prince of Peace who delights to dwell in that weakness. For if we hide from our weakness, we shall, like Adam, find ourselves in the dangerous position of hiding from God.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Advent Monologue

I’ve been thinking about Walter Wangerin’s “An Advent Monologue,” which is found in his Ragman: and Other Cries of Faith. I found it on a website, and so decided to repost it here for my own meditation. See my comments below.

I love a child
    But she is afraid of me.
I want to help this child so terribly in need of help. For she is hungry; her cheeks  sunken to the bone; but she knows little of food, less of nutrition. I know both these things. She is cold and she is dirty; she lives at the end of a tattered hallway, three flights up in a tenement whose landlord long ago forgot the human bodies huddled in that place. But I know how to build a fire; and I know how to wash a face.
    She is retarded, if the truth be told, thick in her tongue, slow in her mind, yet aware of her infirmity and embarrassed by it. But here am I, well travelled throughout the universe, and wise and willing to share my wisdom.
    She is lonely all the day long. She sits in a chair with her back to the door, her knees tucked tight against her breasts, her arms around these, her head down. And I can see how her hair hangs to her ankles; but I cannot see her face. She's hiding. If I could but see her face and kiss it, why I could draw loneliness out of her.
    She sings a sort of song to pass the time, a childish melody, though she is a woman in her body by its shape, a swelling at her belly. She sings, "Puss, puss." I know the truth that she is singing of no cat at all, but of her face, sadly calling it ugly. And I know the truth, that she is right. But I am mightily persuasive myself, and could make it lovely by my loved alone.
    I love a child.
    But she is afraid of me.

    Then how can I come to her? to feed and heal her by my love?
    Knock on the door? Enter the common way.
    No. She holds her breath at a gentle tap, pretending that she is not home; she feels unworthy of polite society. And loud, imperious bangings would only send her into shivering tears, for police and bill collectors have troubled her in the past.
    And should I break down the door? Or should I show my face at the window? Oh, what terrors I'd cause then. These have happened before . She has suffered the rapings of kindless men, and therefore hangs her head, and therefore sings, "Puss."
    I am none of these to be sure. But if I came the way that they have come, she would not know me any different. She would not receive my love, but might likely die of a broken heart.
    I've called from the hall. I've sung her name through cracks in the plaster. But I have a bright trumpet of a voice, and she covers her ears and weeps. She thinks that each word is an accusation.
    I could, of course, ignore the doors and walls and windows, simply appearing before her as I am. I have that capability. But she hasn't the strength to see it and would die. She is, you see, her own deepest hiding place, and fear and death are the truest doors against me.
    Then what is left? How can I come to my beloved? Where's the entrance that will not frighten or kill her? By what door, can love arrive after all, truly to nurture her, to take the loneliness away, to make her beautiful, as lovely as my moon at night, my sun come morning.

    I know what I will do.
    I'll make the woman herself my door -- and by her body enter in her life.
    Ah, I like that. I like that. However could she be afraid of her own flesh, of something lowly beneath her ribs?
    I'll be the baby waking in her womb. Hush: she'll have the time this way to know my coming first before I come. Hush: time to get ready, to touch her tummy, touching the promise alone, as it were. When she hangs her head, she shall be looking at me, thinking of me, loving me while I gather in the deepest place of her being. It is an excellent plan! Hush.
    And then, when I come, my voice shall be so dear to her. It shall call the tenderness out of her soul and loveliness into her face. And when I take milk at her breast, she'll sigh and sing another song, a sweet Magnificat, for she shall feel important then, and worthy, seeing that another life depends on hers. My need shall make her rich!
    Then what of her loneliness? Gone. Gone in the bond between us, though I shall not have said a word yet. And for my sake she shall wash her face, for she shall have reason then.
    And the sins that she suffered, the hurts at the hands of men, shall be transfigured by my being: I make good come out of evil; I am the good come out of evil.
    I am her Lord, who loves this woman.
    And for a while I'll let her mother me. But then I'll grow. And I will take my trumpet voice again, which once would have killed her. And I'll take her, too, into my arms. And out of that little room, that filthy tenement, I'll bear my mother, my child, alive forever.
    I love a child.
    But she will not fear me for long, now.
    Look! Look, it is almost happening. I am doing a new thing -- and don't you perceive it? I am coming among you a baby.
    And my name shall be Emmanuel.

Now listen to this retelling by Andy Gullahorn, “I Will Find a Way.”

What this story speaks to me is not only the truth that Jesus came for us, but the way he came (helpless babe) says more than we typically give credit for. The way Jesus came speaks to our need as much (or more) as the fact that Jesus came speaks to it. By faith, sitting beside the feeding trough in awe, looking at this crying drooling baby who is the Maker of the universe, on a rescue mission behind enemy lines, come to romance me into his kingdom – what can I say? My only response is love. Emmanuel wins another heart.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Vulgar Grace

Found this quote from Brennan Manning’s new memoir, All is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir to be especially compelling today.

“My life is a witness to vulgar grace — a grace that amazes as it offends. A grace that pays the eager beaver who works all day long the same wage as the grinning drunk who shows up at ten till five. A grace that hikes up the robe and runs breakneck toward the prodigal reeking of sin and wraps him up and decides to throw a party, no ifs, ands, or buts. A grace that raises bloodshot eyes to a dying thief’s request — “Please, remember me” — and assures him, “You bet!”…This vulgar grace is indiscriminate compassion. It works without asking anything of us. It’s not cheap. It’s free, and as such will always be a banana peel for the orthodox foot and a fairy tale for the grown-up sensibility. Grace is sufficient even though we huff and puff with all our might to try and find something or someone that it cannot cover. Grace is enough…

Sin and forgiveness and falling and getting back up and losing the pearl of great price in the couch cushions but then finding it again, and again, and again? Those are the stumbling steps to becoming Real, the only script that’s really worth following in this world or the one that’s coming. Some may be offended by this ragamuffin memoir, a tale told by quite possibly the repeat of all repeat prodigals. Some might even go so far as to call it ugly. But you see that doesn’t matter, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly except to people who don’t understand…that yes, all is grace. It is enough. And it’s beautiful.” (cited on

Christmas is about vulgar grace! Grace that shows up with bloody afterbirth in a stinky stable smelling of crap. That’s where we have to go, folks. If God got that “real” for us, how can we pretend anymore?

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!!

I’m reflecting on at least two passages today:

Ps 107:1 (ESV) "Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
   for his steadfast love endures forever!"

Our God is good, his love eternally on display through the sacrifice of his beloved Son, so let’s trust him enough to celebrate today! (It takes real faith to celebrate, you know).

Nehemiah 8:10 (ESV) Then he said to them, "Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength."

God gives joy to his people and this joy (in Him) provides us strength. Perhaps the robustness and freedom in which we feast and celebrate is indicative of our belief in this truth and the good Giver who came up with it.

Let’s trust him enough to have fun and feast!

For those of us who feel a sense of brokenheartedness during this season (many family issues are stirred up, aren’t they?), take heart friends. Even though we may not be able to experience complete freedom from regret or sadness, let’s press in to our merciful God today. He will hold us and our tears and celebrate over us when we can’t celebrate (over) ourselves.



Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Walk with Two Selves

This morning I tried a meditation exercise while on my walk. I have been reading Albert Haase’s book, Coming Home to Your True Self, and I wanted to try and unpack some of what he was saying. Specifically, I wanted to acknowledge my false selves (some of the ways I am false), then try to transition in prayer to my new self. It turned out to be a series of “I am ___” statements.

First, some of my false selves:

I am . . .

what others think of me;

what I have;

what I do;

my weight;

my intelligence, etc.

Then I tried switching to the new self:

I am . . .

chosen, beloved and redeemed in Jesus;

uniquely made;

never forsaken;

safe in his arms;

free from sin and all lies, etc.

At the end I felt more in touch with my true self than false; I acknowledged before the Lord that the cause of my false self is my feeling alone, abandoned and afraid. I asked the Lord to be with me in these places and I sensed his presence. It was a good exercise I think.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

I Hurt, But the Cross is Close

This title comes from a blog I came across today that I just had to share. In this blog Jason Clark reflects on whether or not the Cross is big enough for dealing with the suicide of both his parents. I can’t even imagine what he must be suffering, but my heart immediately resonated with his as he struggles to articulate what he is feeling. Here is an excerpt, but I encourage you to read the entire thing (it’s not too long).

So I circled back to the cross this June with my mother's suicide, and I find myself, back to the cross today, asking again 'Jesus is your cross big enough for this'?  And the more I come to His cross, with the darkest and most painful things that seem to have no end, I sense in the peripheral vision of my soul, that his arms on the cross are bigger, wider and stronger than anything that has befallen me. (emphasis mine)

Clark talks several times about “circling back” to the Cross throughout his life, particularly in painful seasons. I like the way he puts it: “Taking my pain to the cross, not hiding who I was or what had happened . . . was like being dragged naked to an emergency doctor, for critical and life saving care.”

As I reflect on my own past and come to grips with large elements of it that can only be described as abuse, I take heart from Jason’s words to “circle back” to the Cross, bringing my very real pain to this place of mystery and suffering – the revelation of the suffering God.

Somehow this is the only place my pain can find a home. Wherever else I take it, the effect of the pain is to destroy and perpetuate itself. Only the Cross provides the infinite grace for my wounds to find healing. The Cross is so much more than the mere forgiveness of sins! It is certainly not less than that, but is so much more! At the cross we see the clearest revelation of God’s heart. The Cross was not a reluctant “role” that God played for a time, but was central to who He has always been, a God whose greatness doesn’t primarily consist in his ability to speak worlds into being, but rather in his kindness and endless mercy in stooping down to lisp sweet words of redemption to his enemies.

“Come to the Cross, my beloved, for there you will find not only forgiveness but healing, you will find me, and with me you will have life. Come!”

I come, Lord Jesus, I come.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Incongruity of Suffering

I just posted this on the blog of the Society for Christian Psychology.

One way to understand suffering is through the lens of incongruity. Webster defines  incongruity as that which lacks consistency or harmony. There is, then, an incongruity, a gap or inconsistency, between what we know should be and the reality of what we actually experience. An example might be in the case of a child born with an incurable disease. Parents of such a rare gift ache within themselves, knowing intuitively that this is not the way it’s supposed to be! They also long for a time for their child when his or her body will be made completely whole. The gap in the middle is what we call suffering.

One of the curses of this fallen world is that our sense of worth is bound up with order, affluence and success. We experience the incongruity of suffering when these things are denied us in some form. Things of incongruity (i.e., suffering) are often seen as things to be denied at worst and overcome at best. We are fooled into thinking we are loved and secure when things go our way – when we have enough money to be comfortable, enough affirmation from friends and loved ones, enough success in our career, etc. But as soon as we experience suffering (when these things are threatened), our sense of security often goes out the window. Perhaps it would help us to move toward a new understanding of suffering and how God uses it in our lives to bless us.

If we live in a world where the trappings of affluence, health and wealth come inevitably bound with the deception that our ultimate meaning resides in these things, then the best thing God could do for us is to give us gifts of sufferings that awaken us from their deceptive grip. The goodness of God is not shown primarily in giving us resolution, deliverance and healing in this life; God is most good in giving us suffering because it keeps us awake to our need for ultimate meaning that only he can satisfy. Only suffering and the maddening incongruity that comes with our inability to resolve it, can awaken us to “The Matrix” that this world offers us (particularly in the affluent West). Several conclusions or implications flow from this:

1. Embrace insignificance, confusion and loss as the friend of God given to keep us close to his heart, for he is the Suffering God who is most clearly revealed not in displays of power, wisdom and glory, but in the suffering and ignominy of the stable and the Cross.

2. Jesus said that “the last will be first, and the first last.” (Matt 20:16 ESV) If we really believed this then we would actively seek out situations and relationships that exposed our weakness, inability and need. Relish the hidden and insignificant task; cherish the “wasted” grace on those who cannot return it; seek out the margins and not the center, for there alone will you find the fellowship of the crucified. Those in the center have their glory in this life, and it pales in comparison to what will come to those on the margins, the poor in spirit.

3. Throughout the day or week, the illusion of our affluence and control is inevitably exposed through interruptions, troubles and pain. It is made clear that we are not God and that we are not in control. What do we do when this happens? Try harder through prayer and manipulation of circumstances to bring things back to a measure of “control”? Perhaps we try to avoid dealing with it through escape, which vary from the fairly harmless (e.g., a good movie or book) to the extremely toxic (e.g., porn). What would it look like to pause and reflect on the opportunity that Paul talks about in 2 Corinthians 12 – the “gift of a handicap” as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it? This is another opportunity to fellowship with the suffering Christ, who is Lord of all confusion and order. We can go to him at the cross and find peace for our questions (but not necessarily answers).

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Book Review: Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (2011)

Spiritual formation and spirituality have increasingly taken center stage in the evangelical world. In recent years, there has been a more concerted effort to ground spirituality in the worlds of biblical truth as well as generating cultural and historical awareness. The recently published Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Zondervan, 2011), edited by Glen S. Scorgie seems to continue this trend.

The work is divided into two sections, a series of 34 “integrative perspective” essays and an alphabetical section of around 700 entries. The logic of this division is clear: to provide a reference work for the work of Christian spirituality that is both concise and comprehensive. These two sections perform this task well. Depending on one’s need, each of these sections can fit a variety of situations.

The authors represent many well known authors in the field of Christian spirituality (e.g., James Houston, Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Eugene Peterson, Ruth Haley Barton, etc.) as well as theology (e.g., J.I. Packer, Clark Pinnock) and Christian history (Justo Gonzalez) and Biblical studies (e.g., Mark Strauss, David M. Howard Jr.). This wide selection of authors provides the work the grounding and breadth it seeks to convey.

My only criticism of the work is the failure to provide an index of any kind. The value of the work would have been significantly increased had there been indices that catalogued biblical, author and subject references. Though one can easily scan the table of contents to navigate the integrative essays, there is no such tool for the alphabetical section.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Fighting the Doom

The circumstances of my life in the past year especially (and the last 10 years generally) have mirrored the lies in my soul to the extent that they are almost always present to my consciousness. They actually dominate the way I see the world. The circumstances of loss, obscurity, depression and broken dreams have not caused this sense of doom as much as provoked it to the surface. Now the call from the Father is to deal with it.

I am in a fight to re-interpret reality using the resources of Christ and the Spirit. The enemies in this case are lies about who I am and what I am worth, lies that are intertwined with my very flesh from a very early age. All this makes them very difficult to overturn (impossible, really, without Christ) and even hard to objectively identify. They are so much a part of my vision that I always assume their reality without choice, without thinking about it.

The tools & categories I am attempting to use to identify and overturn these lies in the power of the Spirit are many, none of which can be very efficient without the help of other people. I rely on a small company of fellow warriors who are broken enough to remain close to God’s resources and are not frightened by my chaos and pain. Without community I would not make it, to be sure. I need to feel the touch and hear the voices of those who love me so that Jesus is “incarnated” afresh beside me.

I just wanted to talk briefly about a couple of these tools & resources here, in the hopes of gaining strength from them once again. They are all manifestations of the mercy of God towards me, to be sure. First, my wife and kids force me to deal with life on a daily basis, the regular “mundane” life of doing things together from chores to adventures. If not for my family I think I would easily sink into the darkness and never re-emerge. They remind me that this fight is worth fighting. Nothing less than my marriage and my children’s futures are at stake.

Second, habits of imaginative readings in the Scriptures are helpful to me. Propositional truth can not seem to penetrate the fleshly sinew of self-protective vendetta I’ve developed over the years. What is required is a more childlike approach, using a child’s tool, the imagination, to re-gain my humanity. Recently I was thinking of the passage in Mark 10:13-16 in this way.

And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it." And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them (ESV).

I imagine myself in this passage being one of the children who longs to see and be held by Jesus. I am prevented by my self-righteous self-hatred, which tries to make me lose heart and go home without trying to get through to Jesus. How the hearts of the children would break, thinking that the “rebuking disciples” must mirror how Jesus felt about them! I love that Jesus was indignant. He got furious over this misrepresentation of his heart for these little ones! Symbolic of the childhood I lost through abandonment, I let myself-as-a-child enter the arms of Jesus and listen for his blessing. Can you hear it? It must sound something like this: “Thank you Father, for this unique and exquisite creation! I love this one as if he were my own son!! Be blessed, child, the Father is very pleased with you!”

I want to live in that place.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Struggling with “What ifs”

Writing is often therapeutic for me, and this week I need a lot of therapy! I’m trying to tease out new strategies to undermine my old self self-hatred and re-imagine my life through the lens of the new creation beloved son. Recently this involves a situation at work that I’ve been very anxious about the past few days. It involves being thrown in to a very important task that I don’t feel prepared for, and feel sure to fail. When I think about it, the darkness around this anxiety feels like a consistent shot to the gut. I just want to run.

I was reading something this morning that is helpful in combating this dynamic.

Where shall I go from your Spirit?

Or where shall I flee from your presence?

If I ascend to heaven, you are there!

If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!

If I take the wings of the morning

and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,

even there your hand shall lead me,

and your right hand shall hold me.

If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,

and the light about me be night,”

even the darkness is not dark to you;

the night is bright as the day,

for darkness is as light with you. (Ps 139:7-12 ESV)

The Psalmist David is trying to imagine out loud the most distant, dark, and unlikely places to imagine God being, and what he finds there is – God! Indeed, darkness is as light to God. When we can’t see in the dark, he can see everything clearly and plainly as in broad daylight.

This text invites me to bring my unique dark places, those places of pain, anxiety or sorrow that I just can’t imagine God dwelling in. God is there. I think of the “worst case scenario” of what I’m worried about and try to remind myself, “even there [at this particular – unique-to-Scott Holman dark place] your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me.”

It’s difficult to unravel habitual self-protective habits of thinking and doing! But God is patient, calling to me from this text, wooing me into a little more ownership of who I really am – a beloved son with a more-than-capable Father to care for him.

Friday, September 09, 2011

A Personal Remembrance of 9/11

Many Americans are reflective this week (and rightly so) as we remember the 10 year anniversary of the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01. It is natural for each of us to think about where we were when we heard the news and who we were with. For many of us it also served as a wake up call – that our country was not so indestructible as we thought and that our world was really more fragile and dangerous than we were led to believe.

For me, 9/11 served as another kind of wake up call. It was the first rumbling of disillusionment within my own soul of what really mattered. I remember sitting in Southern Seminary chapel (here in Louisville, KY) and hearing the news from the Seminary president, Dr. Albert Mohler. I remember him saying that the World Trade Center had been attacked and another attack was believed to be imminent.

I remember distinctly the fear and confusion I felt in those next few moments. Who had attacked? How extensive was the damage and loss of life? What kind of attack was believed to be imminent? Are we in danger of nuclear attack? I knew only one thing for sure – going back to class didn’t really matter anymore; I must get out of there and get to my wife and son (at the time, we only had Samuel). Nothing else mattered; I would face whatever came together with them.

As I processed my decision, I was discouraged by the response of the students around me; many were flippant about signs of God’s judgment falling on a “depraved America.” Others felt that the answer to this confusion and fear was to return to the world where they felt comfortable – the classroom and textbooks. As I skipped out on the remaining classes that day to be with my family I was saddened to think I might get in trouble with the school if I did so.

Up until this point, my relationship with Southern Seminary had been one of adulation and mutual affirmation. Something shifted in me that day though. Some cracks were beginning to form in the structure of my self and my sense of calling (which, at the time, was bound up with Southern). I’m not intending to bash Southern Seminary here, it just happens to be the place where these things occurred in my soul. 9/11 marked the beginning of deep subterranean cracks in the foundation I had trusted in for so long. It marked the beginning of the deepest, darkest valley I’ve ever known – what some ragamuffins have called the dark night of the soul.

From all appearances, I am still in this valley. I have seen many angels, demons and false selves, won and lost many battles, and seen many remarkable and mysterious providences of God in meeting with me to restructure my soul. As I think back to 9/11 this valley and what God has done in the midst of it is what I remember. Life is uncertain, but God is faithful. Those words seem so trite; the truth of them begs for bigger word-containers to bear them! But they are true nonetheless.

God is our refuge and strength,
   a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
   though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,
though its waters roar and foam,
   though the mountains tremble at its swelling.

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
   the holy habitation of the Most High.
God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
   God will help her when morning dawns.
The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
   he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The LORD of hosts is with us;
   the God of Jacob is our fortress.
Selah (Ps 46:1-7 ESV)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Staying on the Path

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “the path set before me” as I try to stumble in the direction of the Lord. Two Psalms have been forefront in my mind as I meditate.

He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
(Ps 23:3b-4 ESV)

The Lord leads us in “paths of righteousness,” which would seem to refer to paths or habits of wisdom, godly living, loving others, etc. As I travel through the dark night, my path feels anything but righteous, approved, or blessed. It literally feels cursed. But when I look at verse 4, I see that even this “cursed path” is in God’s hands. The Bible refers to the dark night in terms of dryness, desert, or as here, the shadow of death. Even though I walk through the valley of deepest darkness, I need not fear because God walks it with me. The darkness does not equal my ultimate doom; it is a tool (very painful and confusing tool!) in the hands of the Master Surgeon. Like Aslan walking beside Shasta in the dark in The Horse and His Boy, the only way Shasta knew anyone was there was Aslan’s breath upon him, and his voice gently saying, “Tell me your troubles.”

In Psalm 16 I see another aspect to this path – it is the path of life.

You make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore
. (Ps 16:11 ESV)

This path of righteousness that leads me (currently) through the dark shadow of death is in reality the path of life. Why? because the Author of Life travels with me, and though I don’t currently experience “fullness of joy” and “pleasures forevermore” it doesn’t mean it won’t someday happen. I may not even experience it in this life, but when this shadowland existence is swallowed up by life itself – reverberating, pulsating, unstoppable life! – then I shall see that all my paths were in the hands of my tender Father, wisely guiding me through death to resurrection.

Come soon Lord Jesus!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Raging in the Dark

I wrote an email to some safe friends the other day that I think pretty accurately displays some of the issues having to do with the Dark Night. I re-post it here, mostly as therapy for me as I continue to work out what it means.

I feel if I don't write some things down this morning they will dominate my day. I am full of intense anger right now, ready to chuck it all in.
It started this morning when I woke up, generally feeling depressed, but hopeful that I might be able to connect with God. Things spiraled down after meditating on Romans 15:13, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." (ESV) I felt desperation to feel joy, peace and even hope. I felt called to trust, to believe so that I might experience these things. Not much happened though; I began to think (with increasing rage) that maybe this really is a conditional universe, that maybe the orphan really is right, that I have to work and manipulate to get people (and God) to love me. Why else don't I experience any joy or peace? it must be because I don't trust enough, don't believe enough. What's the !#&! point of doing all these disciplines? I know, I know, it's to "present ourselves." But what good does that do?
"God pursues us."

Really? I don't see it. God pursues us when we pursue him, in other words, we have to manipulate his response. How is this different from what I've always believed (as the orphan??) God pursues and blesses the strong "in faith," meaning those who are better than me.
What would happen if I stopped pursuing God? maybe blackness, silence. I fear my entire "spiritual life" would finally crumble; I'm terrified to consider that maybe there really is no one good pursuing me, that it's all just me desperately trying to hang on and if I let go no one, NO ONE will be there to catch me. "God's pursuit of me" seems to me to be merely a religious coating for my endless attempts to get him to act.
"God grants what he commands."

Really? why hasn't he granted to me? Unless he's waiting for MORE FROM ME so that he can respond (conditional!) All this just seems like smoke and mirrors trying to mask the idea that maybe he just doesn't give a damn about me, that "God's pursuit" is really just my religious mania. I don't know how it can be proven one way or the other, other than looking at a bunch of dusty doctrinal statements and try to squeeze life out of them.

What I see in this is the futility of using disciplines and “devotional life” to run from the darkness. This is shown by my rage when expectations remain unfulfilled. The Lord is gently unpacking these things in my soul, as I come to a little more peace with “sinking into” the darkness instead of trying to manipulate it or control it through devotional practice.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

a short update

I haven’t had much to write about lately. I’ve been in the midst of a pretty dark depression for the last few months as we’ve decided to leave our church of 9 years and see what’s out there. We have been visiting a local church with some hope that it will provide a fit for our family.

I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on inside me; I feel so volatile and angry sometimes. It seems like leaving our church was the symbolic “last nail in the coffin” of whatever dreams I had that there would be a place of “convergence” where my true heart and my gifts & calling would meet. I mostly want to escape into the world of my Xbox.

Lord, have mercy.

Monday, June 06, 2011

10 Years in Louisville

Today I turn 41, and I just realized that we moved here 10 years ago, so I’m feeling a bit reminiscent. It was in June 2001 that we moved from Vancouver, BC to Louisville, KY so that I could attend Southern Seminary and work toward my Ph.D. What a journey the last 10 years has been! I am sure I never would have chosen it had I known what it would involve: losing two parents to cancer, countless dreams crushed, 8+ years of Dark Night (and ongoing), perpetual relational and financial poverty, etc. Wow, what an inspiring list! Maybe I should make some greeting cards:

“Here’s hoping God deals more gently with you than he has with me”

“Don’t hold your plans too tightly – God will likely pull them out from under you, but God bless!”

Looking over the last 10 years can easily overwhelm me again with sorrow over what has been lost. I wish I could say I’ve made better “progress” against the massive presence of the remaining dark night where very little makes sense and there is very little hope that anything will improve.

Lest you think despair is all I’m feeling, I must say that there are also seeds of gratitude, mainly revolving around two areas:

1) How God has used these years to change me into an entirely different person. I would not recognize (or like!) the Scott Holman that came to Louisville in 2001. In some ways, I’m much more burdened, but in other ways much more free. Free from the bottomless pit of earning the performance required for “today’s ministers.” I’m much less certain than I used to be, much less black and white about life and theology and how it plays out in the everyday. Quite literally, the things I despised then I adore and cling to now (and vice versa) as necessary for survival (things like spiritual readings, meditative prayer, retreats, psychological insights, etc.)

2) My wife, children and a few choice friends have become very precious to me. When the bottom of your life falls out (and especially when it continues to fall out over the span of years) you realize how flippant and superficial most “Christian community” is. You also realize that if you don’t have a few trusted safe friends to journey with, you will not make it. Some of my greatest sorrows are here as well, with friends bailing on me when things got too dark and messy. Also, the reality of relational obscurity being a regular component to this journey has made things much more difficult (we don’t fit in well with the Christian community most of the time because we just can’t play the games emotionally, physically or financially, so we can quickly get somewhat “blacklisted.”)

10 years later I wish I were more loving, patient and self-controlled, trusting implicitly in the Father’s care. But frankly, there are days (and weeks!) where I can barely manage to survive without hurting myself or anyone else. I have some inklings as to why God led me on this journey and what he’s up to; but most of the time they don’t even begin to explain it sufficiently to make it “ok” let alone “good.” Maybe someday I’ll come to see this season that way.

So, my offering of “thanks” after 10 years is what it is – a mixture of light and dark. I am indeed thankful that I know God better than when I started, and have had the privilege of walking alongside some of the most amazing people God has ever created (esp. my amazing wife – I can never say enough praise to do her justice). But I also look forward with fear and trepidation, afraid to hope or dream again, never sure of where my feet are stepping, just trying to evade the doom that I sometimes feel surely awaits me.

Here I am, Jesus. For better or for worse? I don’t know, but I do know that you will accept me no matter how dark and messy I get.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Easter Takes Longer than Lent

I was intrigued as I read this from Ruth Haley Barton’s recent e-newsletter from the Transforming Center:

Fortunately, the Easter season (fifty days, eight Sundays, seven weeks—however you want to look at it) is longer than Lent because there are some areas of our lives where resurrection takes longer than dying. The Church calendar itself teaches us that “the implications of the resurrection—its explosive force—call for an extended period of exploration and appropriation.”* For us mere mortals, Easter cannot be done in a day.

This resonates with the season of life I’m in, where deaths and resurrections are often far more drawn out and slow in coming. Sure, in this Dark Night I’m dying to my desire for affluence & affirmation, but it is a slow agonizing death, fought day by day (and often minute by minute), with many steps forward and many steps back. It is difficult to see which side is winning!

Resurrection comes occasionally, but it is usually a surprise after a long subversive bout with my inner demons. It ever remains though, not the product of my “hard won efforts” for I have no such illusion (my defeats far outweigh my victories!), but the miracle of the risen and ascended Christ; it is a gift to those broken and dead enough to receive it.

May the light of resurrection increase and the darkness of death decrease. But I must remember that resurrection cannot happen unless death precedes it.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Face the Enemy

My good friend Andy Hassler sent me this reading from Henri Nouwen’s Inner Voice of Love and I just had to share it:

"Face the Enemy" (Henri Nouwen)

As you see more clearly that your vocation is to be a witness to God’s love in this world, and as you become more determined to live out that vocation, the attacks of the enemy will increase.  You will hear voices saying, “You are worthless, you have nothing to offer, you are unattractive, undesirable, unlovable.”  The more you sense God’s call, the more you will discover in your own soul the cosmic battle between God and Satan.  Do not be afraid.  Keep deepening your conviction that God’s love for you is enough, that you are in safe hands, and that you are being guided every step of the way.  Don’t be surprised by the demonic attacks.  They will increase, but as you face them without fear, you will discover that they are powerless.

What is important is to keep clinging to the real, lasting, and unambiguous love of Jesus.  Whenever you doubt that love, return to your inner spiritual home and listen there to love’s voice.  Only when you know in your deepest being that you are intimately loved can you face the dark voices of the enemy without being seduced by them.

The love of Jesus will give you an ever-clearer vision of your call as well as of the many attempts to pull you away from that call.  The more you are called to speak for God’s love, the more you will need to deepen the knowledge of that love in your own heart.  The farther the outward journey takes you, the deeper the inward journey must be.  Only when your roots are deep can your fruits be abundant.  The enemy is there, waiting to destroy you, but you can face the enemy without fear when you believe that you are held safe in the love of Jesus. (p 93-94).

This really speaks to my struggles these days!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Where Accusations Go

Yesterday while playing on the Xbox a stranger messaged me this: “No offense, but you suck.” Ha! As if I wouldn’t find any offense with that! It was out of the blue, but it definitely caught me off guard. Come to find out, it is a guy I played with earlier in the weekend; apparently my “performance” was not up to his standards!

My son saw the message too, and I tried to shrug it off. All day long it was bothering me (to my shame!). I heard Jerry Seinfeld’s mom’s voice saying, “How can anyone not like me?” I fantasized about all my one-liner comebacks like, “sorry I didn’t meet your expectations, you with your LOWER rank and all!” By God’s grace, I realized the foolishness of this, and didn’t give into it, though I still entertained the fantasy for a while.

Still bothering me this morning, I took it to God. Obviously this was “sticking” to me for some reason, probably because it resonates with something in me, about my own insecurities and sense of worthlessness. First I visualized it for what it was: an accusatory arrow; I saw it sticking in me, plunging deep into my woundedness and impossible to dislodge. I remember thinking (by grace), that I needed to take this to the Cross “where all accusations go.” It suddenly made a lot of sense to see it this way, and the Cross was clearly the only place for me to take it.

First, I lifted up the arrow to God and acknowledged my inability to do anything about it. I prayed to receive his love in this specific place of brokenness. I saw the love of God (in the form of living water) flowing down the shaft of the arrow into the deep wounded place. As I let God love me, he was able to dislodge it and place it in one of the wounds of Christ hanging on the Cross.

I felt a good sense of freedom at that point. In this freedom I symbolically spoke to my accuser (this stranger, and behind him, Satan, whose scent was on this accusation even if it didn’t originate with him), “You’re right, friend. I suck. I suck far more than you realize! But Jesus has taken all that for me, and in Him I am infinitely loved!” I felt free from the accusation (and all desire for retaliation, which was strong before), and I felt free to enter the day not having to prove myself to anyone. I recall John Coe’s words in a recent lecture I listened to where he said that real change happens when we’re loved by God in the midst of our bad (see for his excellent spiritual formation lectures).

Oh, that this freedom would remain throughout the day! Let it be, Lord.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


Ever since my recent Gethsemani retreat (5/6-8) I’ve been thinking about childlike faith and trust, especially against the backdrop of the Dark Night of the Soul. (I’ve also been thinking about the childlikeness of God, via George MacDonald, but that will be a separate post, Lord willing).

This blessing from Larry Hein (given to Brennan Manning) comes to mind:

“May all your expectations be frustrated, may all your plans be thwarted, may all your desires be withered into nothingness, that you may experience the powerlessness and poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God who is Father, Son and Spirit.”

I feel, often with waves of terror, the withering away of my desires -the slow and painful powerlessness that comes from letting deep things go. The dreams I cling to are slowly and painfully slipping away and I am permitted to feel the nothingness in its place. It can be overwhelming! But the Lord remains with me; he is faithful even though I am not.

Psalm 131 has also been a comfort and a focus:

(1) O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.

(2) But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.

(3) O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore. (ESV)

My disciplines of late have been all about “calming and quieting” my soul, of realizing my limits and taking my eyes down off great and marvelous things/projects that are way too big for me. For example, instead of worrying about where money will come from in a few months time, focus on today’s provision and God’s promise of daily bread (see also Matthew 6).

How long, O Lord?

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Megachurch Jesus

Though I’m not much of a poet, these words have been bouncing around my brain for a while, begging for expression:

Megachurch Jesus

Ain’t got the time;

For you and me.

He’s got people to see and

Things to do.


A Kingdom to build,

Glory to polish.


As long as you play his game,

Give all your money and time,

You are loved.


If you have potential and can produce results,

You are on the fast track to influence.


But if you fail,

If you fall behind,

You are blacklisted and ignored.


Megachurch Jesus only loves the strong

Those who have it together

These are the ones who have his ear.


The broken stand outside watching, waiting;

Wondering if this Jesus is all there is.

Shuffling their feet, shifting their burdens,

Desperately wanting to fit in.


Tired of jumping through hoops,

Unable to keep up with the strong and powerful,

These have given up on trying to fit in.


Unnoticed, one appears among them,

Disenfranchised and disheveled himself;

Quietly he speaks,

He tells of a different Savior,

One that prefers the broken and the weak.


Slowly the riff raff start to listen and take note,

Sinners are intrigued by the newness of grace;

Hearts are slowly healed;

Loved for who they are,

Not for what they can do.

This one is Immanuel, and he hates Megachurch Jesus too.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Essential Psalms Companion

I wanted to offer a brief review of The Essential Bible Companion to the Psalms by Brian Webster and David Beach. It is a very simple easy to use guide to reading the Psalms.

A few comments on the authors are in order. One of my first thoughts was how useful it would be for our kids in homeschool. It’s full of glossy pictures and easy fonts. Dr. Webster himself is a homeschooling dad, so he may have had that in mind. Webster and Beach bring an interesting partnership to the work, Webster being a professor of Old Testament and Beach a licensed counselor. This collaboration is reminiscent of the work done by Dan Allender and Tremper Longman (Beach himself studied under Allender).

The book is divided into three sections: an introduction to the Psalms, quick reference charts and brief commentary on each individual psalm. Though the summary on each psalm is valuable, the most important contribution is the introduction and quick reference guides. In these sections we learn the different types of psalms along with their inherent genre characteristics that aid us in reading the psalms with greater understanding. In particular, the section on “personalizing the psalms” is very helpful, which places the psalms squarely in the relational and conversational context in which they originated.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Word Made Fresh: A Call for a Renewal of the Evangelical Spirit

I loved this confessional statement, and I agree with Roger Olson that it is needed now more than ever. This seems especially needed in my “camp” - areas of the SBC “resurgence,” Acts 29 network and the Gospel Coalition, which unfortunately are moving more and more toward a polarizing fundamental spirit. It was signed by 110 evangelical scholars and leaders in 2001. Sadly, very few conservatives seem to be aware of it.

The Word Made Fresh: A Call for a Renewal of the Evangelical Spirit
To be evangelical is to be committed to the Lordship of Jesus Christ–the Word incarnate–in all areas of life and to the supreme authority of the canonical Scriptures–the written Word–in all matters of faith and practice. To be evangelical also entails being characterized by an irenic, Christlike spirit of love toward those with whom we disagree and a cautious openness to the reform of tradition as the Spirit leads us to fresh understandings of the Word that are even more faithful to the entirety of God’s revelation. We oppose unfettered theological experimentation and accommodation to culture that threatens the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we also deplore a present tendency among some evangelicals to define the boundaries of evangelical faith and life too narrowly. For this reason, we call evangelical leaders and thinkers to make room for reverent exploration of new ideas and reconsideration of old ones without assuming too quickly that we know what Scripture clearly does and does not teach.
Throughout history, evangelicals have courageously stood against attempts to compromise biblical faith. Unfortunately, passionate resistance to error has repeatedly also led to militant, separatistic habits of mind and heart from which evangelicals in the mid-twentieth century struggled to free the movement. We are concerned that some claimants to the evangelical heritage appear to be falling back into some of the more onerous attitudes of fundamentalism. Out of this concern, we call all evangelicals to acknowledge the value of the kind of genuine diversity and fresh reflection, grounded in the written Word and centered on the incarnate Word, that has always been the hallmark of the true evangelical spirit.

To this end, we call all evangelical leaders and thinkers not to reject out of hand constructive theological proposals that are reverently rooted in biblical reflection, even when they challenge aspects of what some consider to be the “received evangelical tradition.” Rather than a sign of decline, constructive theological endeavor and rigorous debate about theological issues are marks of evangelical theological vitality. Premature closure of dialogue and debate by means of condemnations and threats of exclusion, in contrast, disrupts community and often quenches the Spirit who brings new life and leads us toward ever more faithful readings of God’s Word. Therefore, we admonish all evangelicals to resist attempts to propagate rigid definitions of evangelicalism that result in unnecessary alienation and exclusion. And we call all evangelicals to affirm the genuine diversity and fresh reflection, rooted in the authority of the written Word and centered on the Word incarnate, that has always been the hallmark of the true evangelical spirit.
Let peace prevail among evangelicals. We pray not for peace at any price, but for peace and harmony among equally God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving evangelical Christians who may find that they disagree about many secondary matters. We call all evangelicals to rediscover and honor the motto: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” May the irenic spirit of generous orthodoxy that has energized and unified the evangelical movement prevail in our evangelical theological discourse. And may all evangelicals seek to renew the broad, historic evangelicalism that honors the oneness of faith that unites all who trust in the Lord Jesus Christ and submit to the authority of the Word.

William J. Abraham.
Albert Cook Outler Professor of Wesley Studies
Perkins School of Theology
Southern Methodist University

Dan Allender
Dean, Mars Hill Graduate School

Mark D. Baker
Assistant Professor of Mission and Theology
Mennonite Brethren Biblical Seminary

Craig Blomberg
Professor of New Testament
Denver Seminary

Barry Callen
University Professor of Christian Studies
Anderson University

M. Daniel Carroll R.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary

Craig Carter
Vice President, Academic Dean and Professor of Religious Studies
Tyndale College

Rodney Clapp
Editorial Director
Brazos Press

David Clark
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Bethel Theological Seminary

Charles J. Conniry
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology
Director of the Doctor of Ministry Program
George Fox Evangelical Seminary
George Fox University

Stephen T. Davis
Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies
Claremont McKenna College

William A. Dyrness
Professor of Theology and Culture
Fuller Theological Seminary

C. Stephen Evans
University Professor of Philosophy and Humanities
Baylor University

Gordon D. Fee
Professor of New Testament Studies
Regent College

Doug Frank
Adjunct Professor of History
The Oregon Extension of Houghton College

John R. Franke
Associate Professor of Theology
Biblical Theological Seminary

Al Glenn
Professor of Theology and Apologetics
Fuller Theological Seminary

Joel B. Green
Dean of the School of Theology
Professor of New Testament Interpretation
Asbury Theological Seminary

Stanley J. Grenz
Pioneer McDonald Professor of Baptist Heritage, Theology and Ethics
Carey Theological College
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Regent College

Vernon Grounds
Denver Seminary

Douglas Harink
Professor of Theology
King’s University College

Christopher Hall
Professor of Theology
Eastern College

Fisher Humphreys
Professor of Divinity
Beeson Divinity School
Samford University

Douglas Jacobsen 
Distinguished Professor of Church History and Theology
Messiah College

Alan F. Johnson
Professor of Theology
Wheaton College and Graduate School

Robert K. Johnston
Professor of Theology and Culture
Fuller Theological Seminary

Henry H. Knight
Associate Professor of Evangelism
Saint Paul School of Theology

D. Brent Laytham
Assistant Professor of Theology
North Park Theological Seminary

Randy L. Maddox
Paul T. Walls Professor of Wesleyan Theology
Seattle Pacific University

Gerald R. McDermott
Associate Professor of Religion and Philosophy
Roanoke College

Scot McKnight
Karl A. Olsson Professor in Religious Studies
North Park University

Nancey Murphy
Professor of Christian Philosophy
Fuller Theological Seminary

James Nelson
Professor of Theology
North Park University

Eric H. Ohlmann
Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Dennis Okholm
Professor of Theology
Wheaton College

Roger E. Olson
Professor of Theology
George W. Truett Theological Seminary
Baylor University

Alan G. Padgett
Professor of Systematic Theology
Luther Seminary

Tim S. Perry
Associate Professor of Theology
Providence College

Ronald W. Pierce
Professor of Biblical Studies and Theology
Talbot School of Theology
Biola University

Christine D. Pohl
Professor of Social Ethics
Asbury Theological Seminary

Daniel G. Reid
Senior Editor, Academic and Reference Books
InterVarsity Press

Kurt Anders Richardson
Boston University

Douglas R. Sharp
Professor of Christian Theology
Northern Baptist Theological Seminary

Lewis Smedes
Professor Emeritus
Fuller Theological Seminary

Klyne Snodgrass
Paul W. Brandel Professor of New Testament Studies
North Park Theological Seminary

Russell Spittler
Professor of New Testament
Fuller Theological Seminary

John Stackhouse
Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and Culture
Regent College

Glen Stassen
Professor of Ethics
Fuller Theological Seminary

Bryan Stone
E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism
Boston University School of Theology

Don Thorsen
Professor of Theology
C. P. Haggard School of Theology
Azusa Pacific University

Terrance Tiessen
Professor of Theology and Ethics
Providence Theological Seminary

Leanne Van Dyke
Professor of Reformed Theology
Western Theological Seminary

Miroslav Volf
Henry B. Wright Professor of Systematic Theology
Yale Divinity School
Yale University

Jerry Walls
Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Asbury Theological Seminary

Robert Webber
William R. and Geraldyne B. Myers Chair of Ministry
Northern Baptist Theological Seminary

Timothy Weber
Dean and Professor of Church History
Northern Baptist Theological Seminary

Jonathan Wilson
Professor of Religious Studies
Westmont College

Ben Witherington
Professor of New Testament
Asbury Theological Seminary

Monday, April 04, 2011

A Fresh Look at Jesus

I read chapter one this morning in So You Don’t Want to Go to Church Anymore by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman and from what I can gather so far, it involves reflecting on what John the apostle might have to say about Jesus if he were alive today. Here is some of his description of first-hand experience of Jesus:

“But he was as gentle a man as one would ever know. He could silence detractors without ever raising his voice. He never bullied his way; never drew attention to himself nor did he ever pretend to like what vexed his soul. He was real, to the very core.

“And at the core of that being was love.” The stranger paused and shook his head. “Wow! Did he love!” His eyes looked far past the crowd now, seeming to peer across the depths of time and space. “We didn’t even know what love was, until we saw it in him. It was everyone, too, even those who hated him. He still cared for them, hoping somehow they would find a way out of their self-inflicted souls to recognize who stood among them.

“And with all that love, he was completely honest. Yet even when his actions or words exposed people’s darkest motives, they didn’t feel shamed. They felt safe, really safe with him. His words conveyed not even a hint of judgment, simply an entreaty to come to God. There was no one you would trust more quickly with your deepest secrets. If someone were going to catch you at your worst moment you’d want it to be him.

Though so few ended up following him, for the few moments his presence passed by them, they tasted a freshness and power they could never deny even years later. Somehow he seemed to know everything about them, but loved them deeply all the same.” (p.9-10)

I am captivated by this description of Jesus, mainly because it seems to describe the biblical Jesus in a new and fresh way. It is not the Jesus I know most of the time, however, the “megachurch Jesus” who is more concerned about earthly displays of success and power.

I remember thinking after reading this, If you’re on the run from God and religion, Jesus is a good travel companion.

You can purchase this book from Amazon here. But you can also download the .pdf for free here.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Trust and Flourishing

I am writing two blogs for the Society for Christian Psychology website this month. This is the first of my two posts (a reworked and expanded post from my own blog).

Jesus said, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21 ESV). One of the things we can glean from this is that the relative health of our lives will be largely (if not entirely) determined by where our hearts are “bent,” specifically, whether or not our hearts are trusting in God to care for us (see the context of the rest of Matthew 6). For the purposes of our Society, then, it would be helpful for us to consider where our hearts are in relation to trusting God, and consider how this affects our healthy functioning as image bearers. Let’s consider this text from Jeremiah 17:5-8:

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”

In this passage of Scripture, two men are contrasted with each other. Reminiscent of Psalm 1 which contrasts the two paths of blessedness and wickedness, we are meant to see the ugliness of the wrong path in contrast to the beauty of the good path, so that we will choose the good path for ourselves and call others to it as well. As Christians involved in a variety of ways in the care of souls, it would be helpful for us to consider this text as a way toward spiritual and emotional health.

To feel the power of this text, we will unpack some of the contrasts. First, we notice that both of these men trust. The cursed man trusts in man and makes flesh his strength. Correspondingly, his heart turns away from the Lord. There is no neutrality before God; either we are trusting in Him or trusting in ourselves. What does it mean to trust in man? One of the things it means is that we cling to autonomous forms of living. We trust in our own ability to find life for ourselves, to navigate problems, gain affirmation and notoriety, etc. We also trust in others to give us the affirmation and love that we so desperately seek in this dark world. This leads to all our false selves as the public face of our sinful flesh which is determined to find life without God’s help. In contrast, the blessed man trusts in the Lord as a way of life. This is not restricted to initial trust for salvation from sin (though it is not less than that), but a daily pattern of trust in God, living interactively with him in all we do. It means acknowledging our need of him every moment of every day, and choosing to live in the brokenness of our own limits and inabilities, trusting in his grace and strength.

The second thing to notice is the motif of rootedness. The cursed man is described as a shrub in the desert. The image comes to mind of sagebrush floating across the prairie floor, without root, thrown here and there by the wind. Eugene Peterson captures this in The Message:

He's like a tumbleweed on the prairie,
   out of touch with the good earth.
He lives rootless and aimless
   in a land where nothing grows.

There remains only an expectation of trouble in the shrub-heart. There is little gratitude or expectation of God. In contrast, the blessed man is like a strong tree with roots connected to living water. The wind cannot topple it. The tree-heart leans hard on God and expects good from him. The image is that of a tree replanted in Eden, close to the source of all life.

The third motif is that of thirst. The cursed man dwells “in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.”
How much misery is created living under the tyranny of unsatisfied thirst? I know in my own life, the potential for misery is nearly infinite, as my creative faculties are brought to bear on the creation of a multitude of false selves dedicated to scraping an existence without any help from God. The diagnosis of this text is so clear: On my own, I am scratching a living in the land characterized by loneliness and thirst (salt). After a while, I assume it is the “normal Christian life” and seek to numb myself. I do not experience gratitude or the ability to see the good that comes my way. All I know is the tyranny of unquenchable thirst. These are all my false ways of living (false selves):

I am what I do

I am what others perceive of me

I am what I have (categories from Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, p. 74-79).

In contrast, the blessed man is a tree with ready access to life giving water. Rooted next to God’s river, we are free from fear and anxiety during the inevitable times of heat and drought. Our fruitfulness derives from abiding in Jesus our vine (John 15), not in our circumstances. How easily we forget this! How much fear and anxiety are created in our lives through our shrub-heart trust in man?

The question I am left with is: how do we move toward trust in God? How do we move from the salt land to the lush forest of trust in God? It must take a lifetime of small decisions, otherwise it would be much easier! As Eugene Peterson has said, it involves a long obedience in the same direction. The salt land is miserable but predictable, the forest mysterious and chaotic (like slavery in Egypt vs. the promised land).

It all seems to hinge on whether or not I trust that God is good. I must resolve daily to trust that the unpredictability of God is infinitely preferable to the predictability of what I can manage for myself.

Lord have mercy on my corrupt heart and twisted mind, so that I can sink my roots into your love and faithfulness in ruthless trust.


Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship In An Instant Society. IVP, 2000.

Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. Thomas Nelson, 2006.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mystery of Mercy

I have been taken recently with Andrew Peterson’s version of a Caedmon’s Call song, Mystery of Mercy. I would almost call it the Beloved’s take on Psalm 22. It invites us to participate in every character of the biblical story as the means by which every part of us is presented before God. Here we are called to be amazed at his radical acceptance of losers, wannabes, wash-outs, whores and jerks.

I am the woman at the well, I am the harlot
I am the scattered seed that fell along the path
I am the son that ran away
And I am the bitter son that stayed

My God, my God why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast though accepted me
It's a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing

I am the angry man who came to stone the lover
I am the woman there ashamed before the crowd
I am the leper that gave thanks
But I am the nine that never came

My God, my God why hast though accepted me
When all my love was vinegar to a thirsty King?
My God, my God why hast though accepted me
It's a mystery of mercy and the song, the song I sing

You made the seed that made the tree
That made the cross that saved me
You gave me hope when there was none
You gave me your only Son

My God,My God,Lord you are my God.
My God,My God,Lord you are my God.
My God,My God,Lord you are my God.
My God,My God,Lord you God.

Friday, March 25, 2011

The Lush Forest of Trust (2)

Yesterday I posted a short meditation on Jeremiah 17:5-8, which contrasts the cursed man (who trusts in man) and the blessed man (who trusts in God). The next verses allude to the complexity of the situation:

The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?
“I the Lord search the heart
and test the mind,
to give every man according to his ways,
according to the fruit of his deeds.”
(Jer 17:9-10 ESV)

This text tells me, among other things, that these two men reside in the same heart. How can one heart be home to both trust and unbelief? (see the similar reasoning in James 3:1-12). This duplicity is one of the reasons why the heart is so deceitful and desperately sick. It reminds me not to try and see myself and my struggles in a black and white way, like “who will I be today, the cursed man or the blessed man?” (though sometimes that is a helpful question to ask). How much better to realize that both reside in me, and it’s only by grace that I ever choose the blessed path.

This also speaks loudly to God’s radical acceptance of me in Christ – that I will never be free in this life from the cursed man (my old self – Eph 4), and that the beauty of God’s love lies in the fact that Jesus died for me when all I knew was the cursed path of hating God and trusting in myself.

I say all this because it’s so easy to be discouraged that more of the “blessed” is not part of my actual experience. The same grace that transforms me from cursed to blessed is the grace that loves me where I am, both blessed and cursed. I am, as Luther so aptly said, simultaneously sinner and justified saint. Grace is mine the more I realize that my brokenness doesn’t exclude me from God’s favor; it actually puts me in a better position than the Pharisee because I begin to recognize the depth of my need. I have both Pharisee and tax collector in my heart, and Jesus accepts me as a duplicitous mess. Unless I realize this and accept it myself, I will never have the power to really change, to really grow into the blessed path.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Lush Forest of Trust

Thus says the Lord:
“Cursed is the man who trusts in man
and makes flesh his strength,
whose heart turns away from the Lord.
He is like a shrub in the desert,
and shall not see any good come.
He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness,
in an uninhabited salt land.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
that sends out its roots by the stream,
and does not fear when heat comes,
for its leaves remain green,
and is not anxious in the year of drought,
for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
(Jeremiah 17:5-8 ESV)

A friend sent me this text today, and I’ve continued to meditate on it. It makes me think of the consequences of living in the true and false selves. The diagnosis of the text is so clear - I am used to scratching a living in the "uninhabited salt land" where all there is is lonely thirst. After a while, I assume it is the “normal Christian life” and seek to numb myself. I do not experience gratitude or the ability to see the good that comes my way. All I know is the tyranny of unquenchable thirst. These are all my false ways of living (false selves): I am what I do, I am what others perceive of me, and I am what I have (categories from Peter Scazzero, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality).

In contrast, the trusting man reminds me of John 15, abiding in Jesus our vine. But how to move toward trust? How do we move from the salt land to the lush forest of trust in God? It must take a lifetime of small decisions, otherwise it would be much easier! The salt land is miserable but predictable, the forest mysterious, chaotic (sounds like slavery in Egypt vs. the promised land).

It all seems to hinge on whether or not I trust that God is good, that the unpredictability of God is infinitely preferable to the predictability of what I can manage for myself.

Lord have mercy on my corrupt heart and twisted mind, so that I can sink my roots into your love and faithfulness in ruthless trust.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Borrowing Faith

I’ve been feeling despair more strongly the past few days. I wonder, as I feel a deeply painful lack of hope, what does Jesus think of me? I have no sense of purpose in life, no “calling,” and feel like a complete failure as a Dad, husband, as a disciple. My only hope is that Jesus is carrying me when I can’t walk. Every other Christian I know seems to have some sense of their purpose, that they’re heading in a certain direction, even if it brings pain. They can draw on their purpose for strength during trying times. I wonder what must be wrong with me if I don’t feel that at all.

These words from Bebo Norman’s (I like his stuff, but can’t stand his name) song “Borrow Mine” are helpful, and it turns out, my only hope today. I hope this is Jesus’ perspective.

Take my hand and walk with me a while
Cause it seems your smile has left you
And don't give in, when you fall apart
And your broken heart has failed you
I'll set a light up
On a hilltop
To show you my love
For this world to see

You can borrow mine
When your hope is gone
Borrow mine
When you can't go on
'Cause the world will not defeat you
When we're side by side
When your faith is hard to find
You can borrow mine

Take my love when all that you can see
Is the raging sea all around us
And don't give up 'cause I'm not letting go
And the God we know will not fail us
We'll lay it all down
As we call out
Sweet Savior
help our unbelief

You can borrow mine
When your hope is gone
Borrow mine
When you can't go on
'Cause the world will not defeat you
When we're side by side
When your faith is hard to find
You can borrow mine

When you are weak
Unable to speak
You are not alone
The God who has saved us
Will never forsake us
he's coming to take us
Take us to our home

You can borrow mine
When your hope is gone
Borrow mine
When you can't go on
'Cause the world will not defeat you
When we're side by side
When your faith is hard to find
When your faith is hard to find
You can borrow mine

Take my hand
Take my love
Don't give in
Don't give up

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Confessions of a Group Leader

[a recent article I submitted for Soul and Spirit, the newsletter for the Society for Christian Psychology]

A recent experience I had in leading an experimental Spiritual Formation group provides a window into some soul dynamics that I thought may be helpful to other leaders. The group consists of two primary elements: emotional health, involving therapeutic elements such as safety and self-awareness, and spiritual formation through union with God in Christ. The unified purpose is to bring all of ourselves before God and live interactively with him in our day to day lives, as Jesus did.

Although there was some inconsistent attendance, things were going well until we had a meeting about 2 months into it where I felt the need to challenge our commitment a bit. I sensed resistance that night, and felt this resistance grow over the coming months. I wondered if people were unwilling or unable to receive the vision I was trying to convey. So, I pushed back harder, trying to correct what I perceived as ignorance. I tried harder to describe the life that God has set before us, in the hopes that willingness would follow. I found that I was only making things worse. I entered into a deep depression and began having stress related health problems.
I realize now many of the mistakes I made - part of the danger in starting something new without much help from previous examples. One of my mistakes was trying to lead too cognitively and not enough relationally, wrongly thinking at times that correct ideas alone would be enough for everyone to experience God’s transforming presence. We all learn differently, and we are all at different places in our journey, but my teaching did not reflect that understanding. The result was that many felt left out and confused.

The nature of my vision for the group, however, involved as much experience as rational content. Instead of pushing harder to “make people understand” I should have invested more in relationships, especially with men who could lead with me, and I should have invited more feedback so that I could get a feel for where people were. In my desire to communicate the ideals of formational spirituality, I tended to run rough-shod over the reality of each person’s unique journey. When things didn’t go as planned, I reacted to what I perceived to be resistance and rebellion in the group, not realizing that some specific events had triggered my old self fear of abandonment. Resistance was interpreted as rejection. I felt my “vision” threatened, and failed to see it for what it was: my pathology of seeing myself as an orphan with no one to care for me. It amazes me how I missed what was going on inside me; it seems I am capable of nearly endless self-deception.

In the midst of all this, I developed a rigid me/them mentality and leading became unbearable. Though most of the members were benefiting from the group, each week left me drained and increasingly discouraged. I finally gave up, deciding that things could not continue like this and I sought a way to leave the group for good, especially as my health problems seemed to be escalating. I shared my feelings with a few core leaders of the group, who were rightly concerned that I might be making a rash decision. The more I tried to help them understand, the worse I felt. I felt increasingly trapped and hopeless. My issues were so strongly triggered that it clouded my view of the group; I couldn’t see beyond what I felt to be rejection and betrayal. Even when those closest to me in the group suggested that this was what was going on, I rejected it. I just couldn’t hear their counsel. It took someone outside the group to speak so that I could hear it.

By God’s mercy, a mentor and counselor helped me to see what was happening. After I shared what I was feeling, he suggested setting the situation in a therapeutic framework. He pointed out to me that I was seeing things in a black and white mentality due to my pain being triggered.

In the normal course of life, things get triggered in our brains that may provoke strong emotional responses. We then have the choice to repress those emotions and hide, to strike back against those we perceive to be attacking us, or bring our issues to God for His healing redemption. Once again, I had underestimated how powerful, overwhelming and distorting my pathology can be. Had I realized what was going on earlier in the process, much of my anguish could have been averted. I needed to learn to recognize, objectify and release my pathology to the Lord. In reality, this reaction was not about the group at all, it was about me and my fear of abandonment, a fear of having to figure out things on my own.

Further, my counselor helped me to see that there are two types of leading - internal and external. Internal leadership has to do with inviting people in, translating the truth and experience of God to where they actually are so that it can be clear to them that God is for them, that his yoke is easy, and his life is our best way. It is a call to model “Come, taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:8). The danger with internal leadership alone is that teaching may never challenge us to grow beyond who and what we are. External leadership, on the other hand, has to do with the call, “Come, follow me!” (Mark 10:21; 1 Cor. 11:1) and is necessary because we will always tend to revert to old self patterns of thinking and doing. We need to be called to something bigger and better than what we currently know. The danger with an overemphasis on external leadership is becoming heavy on content and condemnation when people struggle to “get it.” Both of these types of leadership should work together. I tended to lead the group externally, though at the beginning that was not my desire. I am returning to my core desire behind the group - to make this “with-God” life accessible and understandable to tired, weary Christians so that they can engage with God more deeply right where they are. My intent was never to create more weariness or more burdens, and for this I am most sorry. I am still convinced that spiritual formation is a rational, orderly process that can be understood and entered into, and that our thinking is central to that project – but recognize that I need to grow in sensitivity and wisdom as to how to best practice this in leading our group externally and internally.

Further, a false self has emerged in my leading this group. At least two elements came together in its formation. First, a legitimate desire to share a formational spirituality became for me a twisted need to make people see. Second, I felt a need to prove myself. I confess that I wanted this group to validate my worth.

We are free to acknowledge how messed up we are because we are secure in Christ. We can allow ourselves to feel fully our fear, anger and other negative emotions so that we can surrender them to the Lord who longs to heal us. Though my eyes have been opened to my pathology, I know it will likely take the rest of my life to work through it.

I met with the group recently and shared this confession. They responded in deep kindness and familial affection, eager to work with me in community. I feel a new hope growing that I can lead out of freedom of who I am in Christ and not in the insatiable demand to gain the affirmation of others. I realize that not only do I need to affirm my identity in Christ and put on the new self, but also put off the old self and let go of its machinations (Eph 4).