I like watching clouds–especially the interplay of sun and clouds around sunrise or sunset–but clouds are not as common a sight where I live in Southern California as where I grew up in Oregon. (I’m talking big, fluffy white clouds here, so smog doesn’t count.) Sometimes, if I’m watching the sun peek from behind the clouds and trace their edges with fiery gold, when I turn my attention back to what’s in front of me, my eyes are momentarily dazzled by the brightness and it takes a second or two for them to adjust.

I’ve been reflecting this week on an old chorus that we sang in our worship service on Sunday. And this chorus seems to be speaking of a similar “dazzling” effect that leaves our eyes blind to other things. This is what it says:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus, 
Look full in his wonderful face; 
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim 
In the light of his glory and grace.  

Turn your thoughts upon Jesus 
Think deep of His wonderful love 
And the thoughts of sin and of self and strife 
Will be lost in that rapture above.

This is a very different strategy than saying “Stop focusing on the things of this earth!” or “Don’t be so wrapped up in yourself!” Trying to directly quit focusing on something that our eyes and mind are drawn to is often impossible. But when our eyes are dazzled by something else or our mind is captured by a different thought, then those earthly, self-focused things are more likely to fade away.

Either way there is a turning that happens. Either I follow the inward-turning rut of my sinful autonomy from God, or I turn upward and outward toward God in trust and worship of Him. And which way I turn has much to do with my eyes and my thoughts–what I’m looking at and what I’m thinking about.

The author of Hebrews says much the same thing as this chorus when he writes of “fixing our eyes on Jesus” (Heb. 12:2) and “consider[ing] Him” (Heb. 12:3). And in 2 Corinthians 4:18, Paul says we are to “look, not at the things that are seen, but the things that are unseen.” In other words, we turn our eyes, and our thoughts, upon Jesus, in order to not lose heart.

This is a mellow chorus, which may give the impression that turning our eyes and thoughts on Jesus is something to be done stoically and calmly. However, I believe that loud laments and intense emotions could also accompany this kind of turning toward God, because that is what a lament does–it voices my complaint and need to God (rather than to myself).

So turn…and let your eyes be dazzled by the beauty of your God! He is good. He is merciful. He is holy.


The Cost of Productivity

I’m a fan of productivity. Certainly God has not called us to live lazy, unproductive lives. Rather, “we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10, emphasis added).

But as with any good thing, productivity out of balance with relationship or rest can become detrimental to what God says matters most–love of God and neighbor. Sadly, Christian culture can be just as wrapped up in the drive to do more (and do faster, and do better, etc.) as the culture around us, and there is a serious cost to that preoccupation with productivity.

So these words of J.I. Packer–who has walked with God for many years–should be considered carefully:

“For the Christian, the outward journey takes the form of learning to relate positively and purposefully to the world and other people–that is, to all God’s creatures–for God the Creator’s sake, and the inward journey takes the form of gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God the Father and with Jesus the Son, through the mighty agency of the Holy Spirit.

“Now in the hustling, bustling West today, life has become radically unbalanced, with education, business interests, the media, the knowledge explosion, and our go-getting community ethos all uniting to send folk off on the outward journey as fast as they can go and with that to distract them from ever bothering about its inward counterpart. In Western Christianity the story is the same, so that most of us without realizing it are nowadays unbalanced activists, conforming most unhappily in this respect to the world around us. Like the Pharisees, who were also great activists (see Matt. 23:15!), we are found to be harsh and legalistic, living busy, complacent lives of conforming to convention and caring much more, as it seems, for programs than for people. When we accuse businessmen of selling their souls to their firms and sacrificing their integrity on the altars of their organizations, it is the pot calling the kettle black. Perhaps there are no truths about the Spirit that Christian people more urgently need to learn today than those that relate to the inner life of fellowship with God, that life which I call the inward journey.”     [J.I. Packer, Keep In Step with the Spirit, pg 68-69]

Toward that much-needed end of “gaining and deepening our acquaintance with God,” I have found regular days of solitude retreat to be tremendously helpful. For those who are a part of the church that I serve (as well as for those who live in the Southern California area), I lead several half-day retreats during the year–you can find information about them (or register to attend) on my church website.

Intentionally Indirect

There is a difference between training and trying.

Trying is a direct attempt to produce some kind of result. Take knee surgery, for example.  If your knee is injured in some way, then surgery is a direct attempt to repair the injury. Surgery is a way of trying a specific methodology that has good potential to produce a positive result.

Training is very different from trying. Training may be aimed at the same end goal, but it is an indirect means of getting there. If your knee is injured, you could opt for a training regimen in place of surgery. The stretches or exercises you do may not be directly producing repair in your knee, but they are creating conducive conditions for repair to happen.

Christian, you are called to “Train yourself for Godliness” (I Timothy 4:7), not to “Try to be more Godly.” There is a big difference in this as well.

None of us can produce Godliness simply by our own fortitude and effort. Rather, Godliness is only produced by God as He forms our character to be more like Christ. So when we tell ourselves (or demand of others) “Just try harder!” or “Tsk, tsk, next time try to be more loving,” we are attempting to do the impossible.

Rather than trying to muster up will-power to somehow produce a change in our hearts, we need to learn how to be intentionally indirect. And that means training, not trying, for Godliness. Unlike knee surgery, we cannot directly operate on our heart spiritually and remove the cancerous anger or replace the longsuffering “ligament.” Instead we train our heart to worship Christ (not “getting my way”) as our greatest treasure. We train our heart to “Count it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2). We train our heart to share honestly with our brothers and sisters in Christ and to receive their encouragement and prayer or even rebuke.

Sinful anger is not overcome by directly trying not to get angry. (I could tell you firsthand how effective that is!) No, sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my heart of worship increases through training. Sinful anger is overcome indirectly as my confidence in God’s goodness grows through training. And sinful anger is overcome indirectly as its power is diffused in grace-filled community through training.

Training is not aimed at producing change, but at opening our hearts to the change that God alone can produce.

Double-Sided Change

As a disciple-maker for Christ, I am fascinated by how people actually change and grow and mature in relationship with Christ–I want to know how I can best facilitate that process of change in others. And as an apprentice of Jesus myself, I long to grow deeper in my own relationship with Christ–how does that happen for me?

Different authors have different perspectives on how the change process takes place, and (nerdy person that I am) I’ve been studying the variety of perspectives and trying to figure out where they overlap, with the goal of being able to articulate my own perspective of how a believer in Christ grows toward maturity.

One thing initially is very clear: change is double-sided. There are two sides of the same coin in this process of change. Change is fully a work of our sovereign, good God…AND change is a work that we engage fully in as well.

God is clearly the agent of change. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) He is sovereign over all that he has created–he alone can produce change. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding…” (Daniel 2:20-21) There are other foundational “stones” which make up the structure of the change process, but God is the “capstone,” without which the whole structure would collapse.

God is the producer of change, but he does not bring change about by magic. Though he has the power to do so, he does not do his work of change by simply zapping Christians in their sleep so that they wake up one morning fully sanctified. Rather, he calls us to abide in him (John 15:4), to obey all that he commands (Matthew 28:20), to set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2), to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). He calls us to actively participate in the process of change, yet with the understanding that apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).


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Here is my attempt to summarize and visualize the process of change: the triune God brings change in Christians as our minds are shaped by his truth, and as we train our hearts to worship him in the midst of the trials he ordains and the tribe (or community) he places us in.






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God is the producer of change–sanctification is his work from beginning to end. No growth or maturity would happen apart from the foundational saving mercy of God, apart from the truth the Spirit reveals, and apart from the Christian’s union with Christ. The shaping influence of community is because we are united in the Body of Christ, and the formative power of trials is because we share in the sufferings of Christ.



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God alone forms and sanctifies his children, but we are not passive in the process. We respond and obey and depend and abide, and our action creates space for God to carry out his transforming work–it puts us in a posture of receptivity to the work that he is doing.

Waterfalls & Rotten Logs

From way back in my childhood, God has often wooed me to Himself through the stillness of the forest and the beauty of mountain streams and waterfalls. One of my first experiences of the discipline of solitude–before I knew what spiritual disciplines were or that solitude was one of them–was as a youth serving at Trout Creek Bible Camp in Oregon. On the days when the campers went home, I would hike through the woods to my favorite spot by the creek, where there was a small waterfall and I could be alone to think and rest. In all the years since those times by the creek, I have always loved being alone with God in the woods and along streams–that is where I feel closest to Him.


So here at another camp–Mt. Hermon Conference Center in the mountains around Santa Cruz, California–I took a walk alone in the woods today and discovered a little waterfall I had never seen before. Amidst the beauty of the sun filtering through the giant redwoods around me, surrounded by the pleasant cadence of the falling water, and breathing deeply in the few minutes of time alone, I again felt the gentle wooing of God and relaxed in His presence and love.

In remembering my times alone with God next to the waterfall at Trout Creek, I recalled seeing something there that made a lasting impression in my mind. There was an old tree that had fallen across the creek many years prior, but as that dead log decayed, there were all kinds of new plants–including a new young tree–growing out of the fertile soil of the damp, decaying wood. As a youth by that creek so long ago, God used that image of life springing forth from death to illustrate the Gospel reality of my life coming out of Christ’s death.

So here at Mt Hermon, as I sat and enjoyed the stillness and beauty, I realized there was brokenness and deadness here too: a section of the fencing was broken down next to where I sat, there were thorns intertwined with the plants growing by the stream, and there were dead limbs and leaves in some of the trees. Yet even in the midst of such evidences of the curse of sin and death, the beauty and life of God’s redemption and creation far surpass it.

In this season of life for me–especially in marriage and parenting–God is allowing me to see much of my own brokenness and sin, and there is much that feels like it is dying. At this point, while I do not yet see the life and redemption and beauty that God is bringing out of that death and loss, I trust that He is at work and that He is indeed bringing beauty out of ashes and gladness out of mourning (Isaiah 61:3), because that is who He is.




The Cost of Retreat

Retreats are costly. Not always financially–I’m finishing up a personal retreat at The Oaks Conference Center and they have a Shepherd’s Rest cabin that is free for pastors and missionaries–but retreats are costly in other ways. By definition retreats require setting aside a large chunk of time, and that is a huge cost. Retreats usually imply going away from your usual setting of family or work or friends, which also involves a significant cost.

But retreats are not just costly for the person retreating. There is also a cost paid by those who grant the space for a retreat. I know that firsthand–allowing my wife to get away for a day or a couple nights means that a lot more responsibility is on me to cover for the things she would normally do in our home and family. And when I am away, as I have been the past couple nights, I know it adds extra work and burden on my wife. Our kids also bear some of that cost, as they have extra chores added to their plates when one of us is on retreat. Realizing how costly it is for those who love me makes me value the time away even more, and pushes me to be very intentional in how I utilize such a gracious and costly gift.

Retreats are costly. But not retreating carries an even greater cost. Endlessly plugging away at life and work without pulling aside to refocus and be refreshed in Christ leads only to burnout. Refusing to ask a spouse or friend to cover for you, or refusing to release a spouse or friend to go, may save some of that cost up front but, like an unpaid credit card, accrues a much greater cost later on.

So I’m tremendously grateful for my wife and children, who have absorbed the cost of allowing me space to retreat, not just this time, but regularly! And I’m grateful to God for the refreshment and renewed focus that He brings through a retreat like this. Retreats are costly, but they are definitely worth the cost.

The Discipline of Singing

It is not my position as a pastor that pushes me to sing in worship whether I feel like it or not. Rather, it is my increasing experience that the intentional act of singing words that are true helps my heart to turn toward God and away from self.

If Luther is right (and I believe he is) that sin prompts us to “turn in on ourselves,” then worship songs that speak of God and the Gospel are a powerful antidote. (Granted, there are plenty of worship songs that do not focus on God or the Gospel, but instead tend to assist our souls in turning inward.) And yet the songs themselves cannot serve as an antidote unless we intentionally enter in to singing them wholeheartedly.

And that is why I believe that singing can be a spiritual discipline. Certainly it doesn’t have to be a discipline, and it isn’t always a discipline, but sometimes it may be chosen as a discipline. Singing becomes a discipline when in my flesh I say “I don’t feel like singing” or “I don’t want to sing” and yet I sing anyway. In that place, I do not sing because I’m happy, but I sing to make myself happy in Christ. And in that place, I do not sing because life is comfortable and good, but I sing to remind myself that God is good even when life is not. Singing as a discipline is not a response to joyful feelings but a catalyst for them.

But the only way that intentional singing can become a catalyst for joyful feelings is when what is being sung is deeply and powerfully true. In order to pull my sin-sick eyes off of myself and onto the God who saves, and in order to straighten out my inward-curving gaze, I must be singing words that point me compellingly to the Gospel so that I become captivated by the beauty of Christ.

At the retreat I led this past weekend, I struggled to sing Keith and Kristyn Getty’s song “When Trials Come” because I felt so empty and weary, and yet those beautiful–and true!–lyrics breathed new life into my soul as I chose to sing them despite how I felt. So join in with me, and see the triumph of the cross even in the midst of your weariness.

When trials come no longer fear
For in the pain our God draws near
To fire a faith worth more than gold
And there His faithfulness is told 
And there His faithfulness is told

Within the night I know Your peace 
The breath of God brings strength to me 
And new each morning mercy flows
As treasures of the darkness grow 
As treasures of the darkness grow

I turn to Wisdom not my own
For every battle You have known
My confidence will rest in You
Your love endures Your ways are good
Your love endures Your ways are good

When I am weary with the cost
I see the triumph of the cross
So in its shadow I shall run
Till He completes the work begun
Till He completes the work begun

One day all things will be made new
I’ll see the hope You called me to
And in your kingdom paved with gold
I’ll praise your faithfulness of old
I’ll praise your faithfulness of old