3 Phases of Spiritual Growth

One of the great paradoxical realities of life is that we’re continually growing while we’re continually dying – physically and spiritually. Our bones and muscles might stop growing during our teen years, but our cartilage never stops – which is why I’ll someday need a box truck to haul around my ears. Spiritually, we die to our sins every day, while longing for spurts of growth that bring us closer to God.

Our spiritual growth spurts typically happen in three distinct phases: Times of inspiration, times of desperation, and times of gratitude. (Side note: Attempts at alliteration resulted in frustration, so I’ll leave that to your imagination.) Those phases often start out sequentially, but then they tend to come and go and return again in no particular order.

Times of Inspiration

I originally saw this as the time of conversion, that period right after we surrender our lives to Jesus and we’re on fire to learn anything and everything about what it means to follow Him. We read. We listen. We are proactive in our pursuit of the head knowledge that strengthens our heart knowledge. Then someone in our Bible study noted that this period often repeats when we attend events where a speaker inspires us to greater obedience. These mountaintop experiences can happen during a Sunday morning service, a conference, while reading a book or a blog – anything that re-ignites a passion for spiritual growth.

Times of Desperation

Christianity isn’t a faith that offers the promise of happiness in this life; instead, it offers peace and joy in the midst of trouble and a trouble-free existence only in eternity. Jesus promised that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33), and our experiences confirm it. But it’s in times of trouble that we often experience the deepest dependence on the Father, and thus our greatest spurts of spiritual growth.

Times of Gratitude

We might never live on Easy Street, but there are times when life rolls along in ways we can only describe as blessed. For instance, God has blessed me with an amazing wife, consistent work, wonderful friends, and a great family. We have “issues,” but they are pretty small compared to those others face or even those we’ve faced in the past. This state draws me closer to God because hardly a minute goes by when I’m not overwhelmed with gratitude for all that He’s given me – so much more than I deserve. When my response is to run into His arms, my heart and mind are open to spiritual growth.

So why is it important that we recognize these phases of growth? Because we need to appreciate them when we’re experiencing them and we need to find our way back to them when we’re not. All three draw us to surrender to and dependence on God, two essential ingredients for spiritual growth.

If we attend a conference or worship service and hear an inspiring talk but greet it with indifference, we’re missing a growth opportunity. If we encounter troubled waters and fail to reach for Jesus in the storm, we’re missing a growth opportunity. And if we’re bathed in the blessings of our Father and fail to hug Him tightly in gratitude, we’re missing a growth opportunity.

What happens when we miss these growth opportunities? You guessed it. The only thing that’s growing is our ears. The rest of us is dying.


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Theology lessons from my coffee mug

Who Broke My Coffee Mug … And will God Restore it?

I was definitely ill and perhaps a bit delusional as I pondered two deep theological issues: One about heaven and one about blame.

It had been a rough day. As I mentioned, I was sick. And to make matters worse, I experienced an unexpected loss. As I unloaded our dishwasher that morning, my favorite Arkansas Razorbacks coffee mug fell from the cabinet shelf, shattered on the counter, and sent pieces large and small across the kitchen.

Audrey and I found this Razorback in Siena, Italy …

This led to my first theological pondering: Since we know that God makes all things new (Revelation 21:5), will I get a renewed Razorbacks mug in heaven?

I’m mourning the loss of my mug. I’d like to think God will make it whole again the way He restored my shattered life.

Then again, who can fathom the majesty of heaven? So I decided some research was in order. I Googled up an article by John Piper on this subject, and he mentions four ways God makes things new. One is “the new creation,” but – shockingly – he doesn’t address if that includes an Arkansas Razorbacks coffee mug. So for now, I’ll take comfort in the reality that I’ll either see my restored mug in heaven or something so much better that I’ll not even remember it.

My second theological issue centered on who/what broke the mug. You know, who is to blame?

I was putting other mugs into the cabinet when, weaken and delusional due to my illness, my normal near-perfect coordination went askew, causing me to nudge my Razorbacks mug off the shelf. So, obviously I didn’t break it – it didn’t break until it hit the counter; thus the counter broke it. Furthermore, any role I played should be absolved by the fact that I was, as they say, not my right self. Clearly the world owes me a new mug!

I was joking with myself, of course. But I also know that most of us are regularly guilty of blame shifting. Look around. Better yet, look in the mirror. Notice how often you make a mistake and explain it with a passive-voice sentence instead of an active-voice sentence.

Passive voice: The mug fell and broke.

Active voice: I broke the mug.

So here’s my reminder, to my delusional self, as well as to anyone else it might help: Take responsibility for your mistakes, seek forgiveness, walk in that forgiveness. Jesus can restore your shattered life. Stop worrying about broken coffee mugs. And, oh, yeah, and be more careful when you’re unloading the dishwasher!


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When Love Becomes a Weapon

Ladies and Gentlemen, we gather here today to mourn the loss of our longtime friend and ally, a supporter who has seen us through the darkest days of our lives and given comfort and aid to billions upon billions of suffering souls throughout history. Goodbye, LOVE, you will be missed far more than we can know, because, as it turns out, we never really knew you that well in the first place. …

OK, so maybe I’m overstating things a bit. Maybe love isn’t dead. But let’s face it: The word has been severely wounded in recent years, adding to centuries worth of battle scars, the most obvious of which came in the form of two nail-pierced hands.

It’s always been troubling that we use the word so loosely – you know … I love pizza, I love golf, I love sunsets, I love a good story, I love popcorn, I love photography … The word too often gets stripped of its depth and sense of sacrifice. John 15:13 tells us, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I have that type of love for my wife, but I won’t lay down my life for pizza.

What’s more troubling lately, however, is that love has been co-opted into a weapon in the raging political and cultural wars. For example, former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently spoke at a chapel service for John Brown University, a faith-based college in my area. So a few students and alumni organized what was a very peaceful protest in opposition to some of Huckabee’s opinions and policy positions.

That’s all well and good. It’s the American way, right? Sure, it seemed a bit contrived. To paraphrase one pundit, is Huckabee really worth protesting? But no one burned cars or littered the streets or wore pink hats with profanity inscribed across the top, so it was all good, clean civics.

On the other hand, the protesters butchered the word love in the name of their politics. A few wore T-shirts that collectively spelled out, “We Stand for Love.” And the organizer was quoted as saying, “I’m so proud of the students who chose to stand for love” and “I think we all realize, more than ever, that we must stand for love.”

What’s wrong with standing for love, you ask? Nothing. Who doesn’t want to stand for love? And that’s the point. These and many other modern protesters often imply or outright say that the only way to “stand for love” is by embracing their politics and values. Otherwise, you stand for hate or you are somehow an opponent of love. I’m not naïve enough to think some people aren’t motivated more by hate than love. But they weren’t protesting Hitler or the KKK. I mean, does anyone really think Mike Huckabee stands for hate or that he doesn’t stand for love?

Here’s the reality: Love isn’t about getting our way or giving others what they want. In fact, we often demonstrate our love for others by not giving them what they want, but what they need. Or by sacrificing what we want or need for the greater good of others. But in a room (or world) full of grownups, there’s often honorable disagreements over what people need and how to go about providing it.

I can love refugees and believe we should have no limits on which ones we allow in this country or how many we allow in. But I can love them just as much if I support stronger screening policies and stricter limitations. I can love someone who is gay and believe he or she is living a completely moral lifestyle. But I can love that person just as much if I believe that lifestyle is sinful and unhealthy. I can stand for love if I voted for Clinton or if I voted for Trump or if I voted for neither of them.

1 Corinthians 13, often referred to as the “love” chapter, reminds us that “love never fails” (1 Corinthians 13:8). The chapter doesn’t talk about love as a feeling, as a political policy, or as a moral high ground to claim and use against those with whom we disagree. It’s an attitude that drives an action. So before we allow love to be laid into the grave by co-opting it in protest statements, let’s do our part to restore its dignity, its life, and its purpose – in the way we think and the way we act.

Jesus was and is the ultimate example and embodiment of love. He didn’t agree with everyone he encountered. He didn’t always give them what they wanted. He didn’t ever condone their sin, even as He died to forgive those sins. And he didn’t use love as some sort of linguistic dagger. Instead, He lived it.

Here’s the challenging portrait of how that looks: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

That sort of love has motivated some amazing protests throughout history. But if we want to stand for love, there’s a great alternative to using it as a weapon: Adopt it as a way of life.



My Lake Wobegon Facebook Life

One of my best friends from high school died in 2016, and I found out about it on Facebook. In fact, if not for Facebook, I doubt I would have learned this sad news.

That’s what I appreciate about Facebook – it provides a window into the lives of people I seldom get to see and, in many cases, I may never see again. Occasionally, it actually matters.

Of course, Facebook, like most social media, is a window into only a few rooms of the home we call life.

Some folks open all the windows, including the ones very few of us want to see into. But I’ve found that most only open two windows. One, the window into their political frustrations and opinions. Or, two, the window that only shows a nicely decorated, freshly dusted world where chestnuts roast on an open fire and everyone’s kids are scholars and future pro athletes.

It’s Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon.

I’m guilty of the latter, although I really don’t feel guilty about it. I try to avoid political rants. I don’t re-post things to prove my friendship or because a post tries to guilt me into it.

So what’s that leave me? I looked back at my timeline to see. Mostly, I post to tell folks I’ve written a blog or to share something that’s happened in my life with Audrey and/or our kids or grandkids. Sometimes I attempt to be clever. If I share someone else’s post, it’s usually because they wrote something really insightful or funny or because I believe in them and want to do what I can to help share something that’s important to them. I “like” things I like and occasionally (probably too often) comment on someone’s post. That’s my Facebook life.

I’m guessing I see about 2 percent of what comes across my Facebook timeline, and these days about 90 percent of what I see reflects political frustrations. So chances are I’m missing lots of great glimpses into the lives of people I know or once knew. I want to see them, even if, like me, they only share the Lake Wobegon version. I don’t care. I like to see how friends are living their lives, not hear what they think about how others are living their lives.

Social media has become a powerful platform for social and political expression, and there’s no going back. The best we can hope for is that more and more people will use it responsibly and respectfully. In the meantime, it’s mostly noise that I tune out. When I was a sportswriter, people sometimes asked how I could write an article in a basketball arena with 20,000 screaming people. The answer: I was only listening to what I needed to hear.

Maybe Facebook can come up with an algorithm that suits my wishes — that helps me listen only to what I need to hear. I’m sure they’re working on it. Isn’t everyone trying to make me happy? Well, probably not. But it would be nice. I’d like a setting that lets me keep all my friends, even the ones I don’t like, and see posts based on this criteria: Any news from my family members, good news from friends, prayer requests, and clean-non-political-humor.

I’m sure it will happen. They’re beta testing it now. In Lake Wobegon.


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