If you want to grow spiritually, start small

I had a transformative spiritual experience this morning. After taking one kid to the bus stop and the other to preschool, I hung out our family’s wet laundry. And as I pegged each piece of dripping clothing to the line, my heart rate slowed. My mind grew still. I found myself noticing the humidity in the air, the sounds of the city around—a distant garbage truck and the odd way a siren changes key as it moves away from you—and the chatter of neighbors talking across the fence. My mind and senses moved into the moment. To borrow a term that is perhaps on the cups of cliché, I became present to the moment.


Like many of you during the course of a week my mind goes in many directions and body stays all but still. I prepare the liturgy for this weeks’ communion service, I think through the congregational meeting I will moderate, I outline some thoughts on an up-coming study of Ephesians. I prepare budget scenarios for the upcoming budget process. Email. Texts. Calls. Office pop-ins. Sometimes these things feel like death by a thousand cuts. No one thing pushes me over the edge and into mental hyperactivity, but together my mind seems to run the marathon my body should be running.

We all know that our world is moving fast. Some Christians seem to believe that if the world moves fast, the kingdom should move faster. In truth, the kingdom keeps its own speed and it’s generally rather slower than we’d like. However, we often get confused and believe that the Christian spiritual life should follow the pattern of, say, a Tony Robbins motivational seminar. Be a peak performer! Shatter your mental barriers and negative self-talk! Live your best life now.

I don’t see much of that in the gospels or in the rest of Holy Scripture for that matter.

In reality, the Christian life is very ordinary. For the most part, we grow incrementally rather than in leaps and bounds. What is true in the world of exercise is largely true in the life of discipleship: you have to run a mile before you can run a marathon. In other words, holiness comes by training, which opens the door for the Spirit’s transformation of the heart.

If you want to grow as a saint don’t quest after high intensity, impactful (I hate that word) events that will catapult you into the company of the holy apostles. Instead, look soberly at your life. God has given you very ordinary ways to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus. In the reformed tradition we call them the ordinary means of grace. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 88 explains them this way:


Q: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?

A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

The church needs to recover ordinary means ministry. That is, before we start talking about missional practice or the five-fold model of ministry, we need to establish that the foundation of Christian faithfulness is no less than following the pattern established by the apostles—gathering for word, sacrament, and prayer.

Our congregational gathering for common prayer, for the proclamation of Scripture, and for the celebration of the sacraments provides the corporate foundation for our private and family lives of devotion. It also provides the base from which we are sent into the world as part of God’s mission to the world.

The one thing that ties together the great works of God across the centuries is the resurgence of the means of grace as the heart of life in Christ. For the church to stand firm in its new cultural exile, we must once more embrace word, sacrament, and prayer. The reality of the Christian life is that a thousand whispered prayers while hanging laundry on the line is of more value than a handful of celebrity pastor conferences.










Five podcasts I couldn’t live without


Like most of you I have a lot on my plate. One of the most challenging elements of life can be making time to continue to learn and develop both as a minister and as a leader. I’ve found that podcasts are an excellent way to learn.

I listen while I exercise. During the warmer months I’m out on the bike and it’s not safe to wear earbuds and listen to a podcast. However, in the winter months I shift my exercise routine toward jogging, which is perfect for podcast listening. I typically run for about 30 minutes which is just about the same length of many of the podcasts that I enjoy.

Podcasts also form a key part of my evening going-to-bed ritual. Research shows that ritual practices can have a calming effect and actually provide a structure that leads to freedom (more about this in another post). I listen to two podcasts right before bed.

So, here’s my list of five podcasts that I really value:

  1. This is Your Life (Michael Hyatt). This is my podcast for running. Michael focuses his podcast on intentional leadership and influence often touching on productivity as well. At around 25 minutes its the perfect length for a run and also features a question section at the end that is helpful.
  2. Insight for Living (Chuck Swindoll). I love Chuck’s Bible teaching. He’s a master of teaching the Bible in a way that’s both true to the text and deeply engaging. I often listen to this podcast while working in the yard or, less often, while relaxing in front of a fire in the living room.
  3. Truth for Life (Alistair Begg). A little known fact is that every presbyterian pastor secretly wishes he had a Scottish accent. Begg is a master of expository preaching and a Bible Calvinist. He excellently preaches Scripture without allowing his doctrinal system to be of greater focus than the Bible. His style is simple, straightforward, and often employs hymnody. A valuable model of the Puritan plain style of preaching.
  4. Pray as You Go (British Jesuits). This daily podcast provides a brief (>15 minute) devotional service featuring prayer, sacred music, scripture reading, and reflection questions. Anna and I listen to this in the evening as we get into the bed and settle toward sleep. There’s something beautiful about the Word of God washing over us as we let go of the troubles of the day.
  5. The Archers (BBC Radio 4). The Archers is the longest running radio drama in the world. Set in the rural community of Ambridge, the drama centers on the lives of the village’s residents many of whom are farmers. What’s intriguing about The Archers is how compelling and interesting a host of small and trivial events can be in the life of a community.


Five suggestions about plagiarism

Celebrity preacher Mark Driscoll is in the news again. Surprise! Jonathan Merritt of the Religious News Service reports that more instances of plagiarism are alleged against the popular preacher and writer.


The first allegations came to light during an interview conducted by Janet Mefferds. You can read coverage of the initial interview here or you can listen to the interview embedded below.

Here’s a summary of the allegation from Merrit’s account:

Syndicated Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll of plagiarism on her Nov. 21 broadcast. Mefferd claimed that Driscoll quoted extensively from the work of Dr. Peter Jones for at least 14 pages in his book, A Call to Resurgence, without direct or proper citation.

“In this book,” Driscoll responded, “I took [Jones’] big idea and worked it out through the cultural implications but I wasn’t working specifically from his text.”

Tyndale House, Driscoll’s publisher, is standing by him:

Tyndale House takes any accusation of plagiarism seriously and has therefore conducted a thorough in-house review of the original material and sources provided by the author. After this review we feel confident that the content in question has been properly cited in the printed book and conforms to market standards.

This story is likely not over. We’ll see what strange by-ways it takes in the coming weeks.

Plagiarism is a sticky business. Judging by the interactions I have with friends in higher education, the appropriation of someone else’s written work and intentionally passing it off as your own is quite common among college students. It has never been easier to lift text and insert it into you own document. I the quotes above were cut and pasted into wordpress. Simple. Ease, anonymity, and urgency create big incentives to take short cuts in research and to omit any or proper attribution. 

Where this gets interesting is in the case of oral documents like sermons. Good preachers do a lot of research in preparation for delivering a sermon. Giving attribution in a sermon can become cumbersome and turn a lively sermon into an AAR/SBL paper if it has too many phrases like “as Rowan Williams has noted,” or “to quote C. S. Lewis,” “Thomas Aquinas argued.” The same is true for a blog post, which is a more casual piece of writing than a published book.

How then can you avoid plagiarism in your writing, whether that content is received aurally or visually:

  1. Footnote. Footnote. Footnote. If you’re blogging do your best to link to the original source if you’re quoting it. If you can’t find it, say so. If you’re writing a paper or book chapter, make sure you footnote. My rule of thumb here is: if in doubt, footnote. In my academic writing, which I haven’t done much of lately, my rule of thumb was that the number of citations should be roughly twice to three times the number of pages (excluding introduction and conclusion) in the document.
  2. If you’re delivering a sermon and you directly quote someone, you must state that you’re doing so. For this reason, I suggest not having more than one to two direct quotes in a sermon. Use them sparingly because the value of the quote has to far exceed the cost of stating “Charles Williams states….”
  3. Always have down time between reading/research and writing. Some of you won’t struggle with this, but I find that if I read a chapter of a book or an article on a topic I’m researching, and then immediately try to incorporate that into my article I will disproportionately be influenced by that research. When you’re really concentrating on understanding the depths of another’s argument and even interacting with in a mental conversation or sparring match, I find it takes some time before I’m ready to integrate these new insights into my writing with the appropriate degree of differentiation.
  4. Don’t outsource research. Period. My advice is try to avoid outsourcing research, especially if you’re a pastor. If you’re a writer or academic then it’s more justifiable. Remember, if you outsource research then you’re also outsourcing your integrity and your reputation so be sure you trust your assistant and do your due diligence (i.e., double check).
  5. Remember, you only get one chance. Somehow I doubt that Driscoll will do what he’s told others to do and quite his ministry over this. However, his reputation has taken a hit and for a lot of people what he’s alleged to have done will be seen as one more reason to deride the Christian faith.

What do you think?



Four things I love about international travel

Tomorrow I’ll be traveling to join my wife who has spent the last week in Oxford, UK. She’s been participating in the Scholarship and Christianity in Oxford program at Wycliffe Hall. I’ll spend the last three days of her program exploring book shops, pubs, and the town. Then, we’ll spend three days together touring C S Lewis’s home, The Kilns, punting the Cherwell, taking high tea, and having as much fun as we can handle.


I love international travel. I was fortunate to have spent the most formative years of my life outside of the United States. I was born in Cyprus. Spent four years in Germany (Berlin) and then ten years in Great Britain. I’ve lived in the Western, Southern, and Northeastern United States. Additionally, I’ve visited several other countries like France, the Netherlands, Brazil, Greece, and Turkey. By globe-trotter standard, not particularly impressive. However, many people never have the chance to leave their state let alone their country. International travel is a privilege, something accompanies sufficient affluence to be able to afford it and sufficient education so as to value it.

There are five things that I especially love about international travel:

  • 1. The chance to leave my “home” culture behind.
  • 2. The chance to absorb another culture.
  • 3. The chance to observe Christianity in that other culture.
  • 4. The chance to observe views about the USA in that other culture.
  • Don’t get me wrong, I love taking in the sights, sounds, and tastes of other cultures. More than that, I always find myself observing, studying, probing the culture I’m in looking for connection between things that I’m familiar with and things that I am experiencing for the first time. That’s why I love international travel.

    How to find balance in your blogging

    by Jeff Gissing | @jeffgissing

    If you’re a blogger, the chances are that you undulate between regular posting and periods of radio silence (and guilt). Blogging gurus will chastise you for that–it’s not a great way to build a following for your blog. In reality, however, sometimes life just gets in the way. Adam Jeske thinks that’s a good thing. There are things that are more important in life than regular blogging, especially if you’re an established writer and publishing elsewhere. Like most things in life, blogging requires a balance that works in your context and with your goals.

    So how do you find balance in your blogging? How much is enough?

    The answer to these questions depends on your context. Specifically, I would ask two questions of myself:

    1. What are the values and characteristics that I want to be true of my life?
    2. What is the purpose or the goal of my writing/blogging?

    Hopefully you value being a good husband (or wife) and father (or mother) more than being a good blogger or writer. The vocation of writing isn’t unimportant–far from it–it’s just not important in quite the same way as being a husband and father is. If, on reflection, you discern that posting less frequently will allow you to be a better person in other ways, embrace that. But be careful–sloth is often accompanied by noble rhetoric.

    It’s important to consider what the purpose of your writing is. Where do you want it to lead? I started blogging because I needed a public space for thinking on things I read or was experiencing. I write to know what I think about something–the act of posting requires me to reach a conclusion (albeit a tentative one). 

    I still blog for that reason, but in addition I now write because I can help my readers think through important issues from an evangelical perspective without abandoning their evangelical identity or setting aside their intellect. That’s changed the way that I write and, to some extent, what I write about. Blogging is an extension of my ministry as a pastor in the academy and as a ministry leader in an evangelical organization.

    As you think about how often you want to post, consider the two questions above. I think doing so will free you from the tyranny of the urgent.



    Subversive gardening

    “A person who undertakes to grow a garden at home, by practices that will preserve rather than exploit the economy of the soil, has set his mind decisively against what is wrong with us. He is helping himself in a way that dignifies him and that is rich in meaning and pleasure. But he is doing something else that is more important; He is making vital contact with the soil and the weather on which his life depends. He will no longer look upon rain as a traffic impediment, or upon the sun as a holiday decoration.”

    Wendell Berry, A Continuous Harmony: Essays Cultural and Agricultural

    Don’t send that email

    I recently read this Harvard Business Review article by Anthony K. Tjan, CEO of Cue Ball. In it he makes the case for having live conversations rather than electronically-mediated communication (such as email and social media).

    This is especially the case where important decision need to be made or conflict needs to be addressed. He writes,

    There is a rising and unproductive trend towards people trying to do digital conflict resolution. The de facto path for issue resolution seems to be increasingly via email. More accurately, email has become a convenient mechanism for issue-avoidance. It is easier, quicker, less stressful, and less confrontational to have critical or challenging issues sent over email versus a live one-on-one with a counterpart.

    The immediacy of email, as the fact that it appears less confrontational, all mask the hidden cost of email:

    1. It is hard to get the EQ (emotional intelligence) right in email.
    2. Email and text often promote reactive responses.
    3. Email prolongs debate.

    In light of this, my resolution is to pick the phone up more rather than send off an email. What do you think?

    How to slay your dragon before sunrise

    Many of you know that I enjoy reading Mike Hyatt’s blog. I read it because he provides consistently excellent material around the topics of leadership, productivity, and writing. I’m not a naturally-strong leader or a naturally-productive person. I’m a stronger communicator and teacher than I am a leader. To the extent that I lead, it is often by my words (spoken or in print).

    For that reason, Mike is a mentor or a coach–for free–on topics like leading well and working effectively. Over the last couple of years Mike has helped me to live and lead more intentionally–I’m a work in process and always will be prone to be more professor than CEO, but I’m moving toward growing in my strengths (writing and speaking) and managing my weaknesses (leading and managing).

    Here’s a recent post I found helpful on the importance of slaying your dragons before sunrise. I found this post especially helpful because there are, at least for me, two critical points in the week.

    1. Sunday night. An hour spent in thinking through the week returns at least four times that much during the next five days. It’s so much easier to think and plan when there’s no pressure–no calls, no emails, no deadlines. Yet I often choose to let Sunday night go past without getting my head around the week–and it costs me.
    2. Every day just before quitting time. It’s wise to give yourself thirty minutes before leaving the office to wrap your mind about what the morning will hold (and the rest of the week too). A lot of times I crank out work until quitting time and then mentally say, “OK! Time to go.” It helps me a great deal to slay the 8 o’clock dragon (i.e., the stress and pressure of planning the day) before I leave the office the night before.

    Here’s Mike’s post, what are your thoughts? How do you get a jump on the week/day?

    What are you resolved to do?

    The almighty index card

    Bill Hybels has a great chapter in his book Axiom: Powerful Leadership Proverbs called “Six-by-Six Execution.” In it he describes a transformative practice he implemented at Willow Creek.

    Every six weeks he would take an index card and write the question: “What is the greatest contribution I can make a Willow Creek Community Church in the next six weeks?” He then answered it and used the answer to focus his energies for the next six weeks.

    As we move further into 2012, many of us have made resolutions. If your goal is actually to achieve your resolutions its important that you follow Hybels’ advice and focus your energies.

    Enter Michael Hyatt who has posted some tips on making resolutions stick.

    1. Keep them few (focus!)
    2. Make them “SMART” (Specific, measurable, actionable, realistic, time-bound)
    3. Write them down (and review them regularly)
    4. Go public

    In the spirit of “going public” here are my personal resolutions for 2012 (our fiscal year run July to June so I do my professional planning at or before July each year).

    1. Lose 40 pounds by December 31, 2012.
    2. Practice a weekly date night with Anna.
    3. Spend quality, focused time with both Nathan and Eliza daily.
    4. Take a monthly spiritual retreat.
    5. Take a walk with Anna and the family at least three times per week.

    So, what are your resolutions for 2012?

    Driven to distraction

    It’s Christmastide, which means one thing–travel. During our annual ten-plus hour drive to the Gulf Coast of Alabama we stopped in a remarkable gas station north of Atlanta. As I moved around the car to take the gas pump in hand, I was confronted with a smallish flat panel television mounted immediately above the price display. It was showing NFL highlights complete with sound. High above me muzak wafted out from speakers in the awning and together with the tunes clearly audible from a neighboring car (despite closed windows) it formed a perfect trifecta of noise-pollution.

    Random moments of quiet are quickly shrinking from our lives. Every nook and cranny of our waking hours is filled with some form of stimulation designed to propel us toward the consumption of some goods or services. Go to a restaurant, even a relatively expensive one, and you’ll find at least one television. Find yourself in your doctors office waiting for an appointment and there will be some form of visual and auditory stimulation offering you information about some disease or condition sponsored by a purveyor of one drug or another. Noise is ubiquitous. 

    It’s amazing how comfortable we have become with noise and other forms of stimulation. The instant the power goes off during a winter storm or an electronic device fails many of us start getting really anxious–stir crazy. We need something to do. That’s because distraction is addictive. I forget where I read it but scientists have found that the “ping” of a new email releases a small amount of dopamine into our brain–we keep going back to email, Facebook, Twitter, because we get a biochemical reward for it.

    The key to focus is learning to steward technology and distraction so as to control it rather than be controlled by it. It’s unlikely that you’ll ever be able to get away with not having email–we have become too accustomed to this technology to be able to move past it yet.

    Some ideas for keeping your focus:

    1. Turn off new mail notifications.
    2. Schedule time to process email. Try 30 minutes twice or three times a day (10am, 1pm, 5pm).
    3. Get noise-cancelling headphones.
    4. Automate and schedule your social media interactions. Try an app like Buffer <www.bufferapp.com>

    How do you maintain optimal focus at home and work?