Category Archives: Day to Day

What I am seeing…

Dr. Cung Lian Hup teaching at M.I.T.

I am seeing more and more signs of Spirit-led living and Spirit-led leadership in those around me—not because they’re increasing, but because I’m looking for them more.

What’s making the biggest impression on me so far here in Burma is how many students, pastors, and leaders seem to be simply swept along in a spirit of sacrificial service. Every day, they are unobtrusively making choices for the well-being of others, sometimes at considerable cost to themselves and their families.

Half the time, they don’t even acknowledge how much they are giving up. To many, being separated from their family for months and years at a time is normal. Working seven days a week is simply “necessary” because of the needs of the people under their care. Sharing their very meager amounts of food or other resources with someone who is visiting from out of town or has less than they do is simply the right thing to do. Burma has a culture of hospitality, to be sure, but even more, their relationship with God drives many of them to remarkable levels of generosity.

For example, one faculty member at at a seminary in Myanmar, Dr. Z.L, continues to teach Old Testament, even though he is supposed to be retired. Younger faculty members do not yet have their PhDs, and his retirement would leave a huge hole at the seminary (like the one I’m temporarily filling in the New Testament department). He is also the senior pastor of a small church that reaches out to many poor and illiterate Kachin Christians (one of the 135 ethnic groups in Myanmar). His wife keeps asking him when he is going to rest. His reply? “Rest is for the next life, I guess. There is far too much that needs to be done to rest here.”

Another faculty member of another seminary in Yangon, “H. Thwaing” (pseudonym), decided to return from America to serve his people, even though he had the opportunity to stay, which would have been far more financially beneficial for him. After five years of studying for an advanced degree, he was offered a job as the senior pastor of church in New York for Burmese immigrants. Though the offer was attractive for many reasons, he chose to return to Myanmar to stand with those who are suffering and help in any way he could.

For different, but equally self-sacrificial, reasons, Dr. Cung Lian Hup returned from America to serve as academic dean of a seminary. He had been living with his whole family in the U.S. while earning a Ph.D. in missiology. Staying there, raising his children in American schools and enjoying an American way of life would have been a great opportunity for all of them. Nevertheless, he chose to return to Myanmar. He wanted his children to know their motherland and their own ethnic roots. Even more, he wanted to honor the commitments he had made—to the seminary who sent him to America, to those who financially supported him and his family, and to the American consular who had granted him a visa—that he would return home to teach. Then, when he had an opportunity to stay for four more years in America, he came back anyway, reasoning that his return would free up scholarship money for some other aspiring faculty member.

When “La Pen’s” pastor first began urging her to consider going to seminary, she refused. In the first place, she wasn’t sure what she believed about God, and secondly, she felt completely inadequate to get a Master of Divinity degree. Unless God gave her some kind of sign, she argued, she wasn’t going.

However, it wasn’t long before she got the sign she didn’t want!

One night, she was dreaming that she was in church and the pastor was preaching. Suddenly, he pointed his finger at her, and said, “Serve your people!” When she woke up, she knew that she had not had a nightmare. She had received a calling. She enrolled in seminary, and while there, she felt led to create a center for impoverished and needy children from her ethnic group. Now there are 50 kids, eight or ten of which are orphans, whom she alone cares for every day, when she’s not lecturing part time in feminist theology part time at the seminary.

Space doesn’t allow me to tell every story I have heard so far. Each is different, and each is the same. In one way or another, these Christian men and women love God, are committed to Christ, and are following the Spirit’s leading to serve their people. Often at great personal cost. The Holy Spirit calls them, prompts them, opens doors for them, provides resources in surprising ways, and leads them forward one step at a time to serve Christ in their context.

I know many pastors and lay leaders who are similarly being led by the Spirit in the United States, Europe, and Africa, too. Now that I’ve had the privilege of working with Christians on four continents I’m seeing a common denominator, regardless of the cultural, educational, and socio-economic differences. The Spirit seems to be leading the most inspired and inspiring among us to live out their faith by sacrificially serving others.

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Spirit-Led Living in Real Life

What do you expect God to do in your life today? Are you expecting the Holy Spirit to create divine appointments for you in the midst of whatever else you have planned?

Before heading out to Burma, I had a chance to visit my brother in Texas. As I was driving to his house on Saturday afternoon, my eye caught a couple of people fighting with a sign blowing in the wind. I had about a nano-second to try to read the words as I drove by, but I saw enough to wonder if there might be a church service in the school building nearby.

Later that afternoon, I dragged my two young nephews back to that intersection and my instincts were confirmed. I had two other options for churches, but this one’s service fit my schedule the best. On Sunday morning, I slipped in the back door shortly before the worship began.

I really liked how warm everyone was and the feel of the congregation. Afterwards, I sought out the pastor to thank him for the morning, but soon sensed that something was troubling him. I felt a strong impulse to offer my perceptions and perspective on pastoral leadership in order to try to encourage him.

I was clearly being presumptuous. I had no knowledge of his church or of him other than what I heard in the sermon. My comments were unsolicited and audacious. Yet, I sensed the Holy Spirit was prompting me to boldly say what I was seeing and thinking—for the pastor’s sake.

You could say, I was taking a chance on the Holy Spirit.

Surprisingly, he opened up his heart to me as we stood in front of the sanctuary with parishioners milling about. He talked about very personal matters, and he let me know that he was looking for a way out. At one point, he suddenly grabbed me by the arm and asked me—a total stranger 15 minutes earlier—to pray for him right there and then. I did.

Here’s the email I received from him a few days later. (Used with his permission, with contextual information altered or deleted.)

Tim, I’ve been intending to email you and update you, but been busy. Our talk really went a long way in renewing my hope. It was so nice to visit with someone safe (no affiliation to our church and no denominational agenda) and share my frustrations. One of the things you said that really helped was talking about the emotional toll of leadership. It was so nice to have someone know exactly what I’m dealing with. Leading a church is a draining and at times a painful undertaking. It is unlike any other job since we pour our heart into it. I think that is a lot of what has been going on with me, the emotional pain of recent events and the slow, steady toll on my heart of leading this church for the last 6 years.

I ordered your book, One Step at a Time, and am through the Introduction. I’m enjoying what you’ve written. It seems to be addressing a struggle of mine….

Recently with some of the acute frustrations here I made the decision to start planning my “exit strategy” and go into counseling. Our talk put some hope back in my sails, at least for the short, medium-term future, in terms of continuing to lead this church….

I met with my therapist this week and we talked about what has been going on, and about my visit with you on Sunday. That also helped me clear my head and just take things “one day at a time” in considering my future.

I had no idea of what the Holy Spirit might do when I drove by that half posted sign Saturday afternoon or decided at the last minute to attend that church just because the starting time was more convenient than the one down the street. I still didn’t sense the Holy Spirit was leading me to talk to the pastor until we were in the middle of our conversation after the service.

Suddenly, I knew. I was experiencing a “divine appointment”. God had led me to this church on this particular day to encourage this pastor at a critical moment in his life and ministry.

As I drove back to my brother’s house, I felt exhilarated. I was praising and thanking God for the opportunity to be used by the Holy Spirit in such a surprising—though not unexpected—way.

All of my Spirit-led encounters are not this dramatic or powerful. Yet, I do expect the Holy Spirit to be working and leading me into meaningful, joyful, and fruitful interactions with others every day. I take no credit for any such divine encounters, except that I choose to show up in life with high expectations, expecting the Holy Spirit to lead me and use me to serve God’s good purposes regularly on the journey.

For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10, NIV)

How is the Holy Spirit leading you to divine appointments that serve God’s purposes? I’d like to hear your stories. Please comment here or email me at

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Transformation—One Step at a Time

The book that grew out of our pilgrimage

A Request I Couldn’t Get Out of My Mind
About two years ago, one of my sons’ friends and his parents came to our house for dinner one night. As we were flipping hamburgers on the grill, Mike (the father) and I started talking about spiritual growth. In a moment of candor, he said to me, “I would really like to grow spiritually, but I don’t know what to do. I wish someone would break spiritual growth down into specific steps that I could take.”

As I worked for the next year and a half on a book that was just published a couple of weeks ago, Mike’s request haunted me. By the time I was done writing it, I realized that I had been writing for Mike and other Christians who want to grow spiritually. Taking pilgrimage as a metaphor for the spiritual life, I titled the book, One Step at a Time: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Spirit-Led Living (, the Alban Institute, 2008).

At the heart of this book is my wrestling with the question, “How can I experience more transformation in my life?” Biblical writers teach that believers are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit at work in their lives, but if transformation is so elusive for so many of us, what’s wrong? Is it our theology or something we need to do differently? What could I say to help others experience real, lasting transformation in their life?

Insight on the Camino
Two and a half years ago, the summer before my conversation with Mike about spiritual growth, I went on a long hike. A very long hike. Jill, my two sons and I walked 500 miles across northern Spain on pilgrimage. I was on sabbatical, and I felt led to walk this ancient pilgrimage route to seek God’s leading for the next phase of my life. Even more, I was hoping that God would use this intense, extraordinary experience to transform me in some way.

I didn’t really know what I was getting myself in for. The first night we slept in bunk beds, in a room with 120 other pilgrims. Our clothes got soaked, our legs were aching, we were exhausted, and this was only day 1. Some days the temperature was over 110 degrees. Jill injured her leg and nearly got heat exhaustion. My feet ached and my legs throbbed. We had to face things in ourselves and in our marriage that we didn’t want to have to face.

I was praying to be transformed every day, but all I was getting was crabbier, more tired, and more fed up with myself and everyone else. Oh, there were lots of wonderful moments, too, but I was really wondering if significant transformation was even possible in my life.

Then one day, something shifted. I started off in a particularly crabby mood. We had an extra long way to go that day, and on top of it, the rain started falling. This was really going to be a good day, I could tell!

Along the way, I noticed that the rain would come and go depending on the wind. When there was no wind, the rain just kept dripping on me. But when the wind would start up, sometimes the rain cloud above me would blow away, and we’d get a respite.

All of a sudden, I got this insight.

The Holy Spirit is like the wind. When I pray and ask for help with my negative moods or temptations or hard feelings, I am inviting God to do in me what I cannot seem to do for myself. It’s not magic, and it doesn’t work every time, but often, when I truly surrender my will to God’s, and ask for help with an open heart and mind, God produces a change within me. To go back to the metaphor, the Holy Spirit often blows away whatever is making me all wet spiritually, mentally or emotionally.

I also came to realize that the changes the Holy Spirit makes in me are seldom permanent. I trust that God has given me eternal life, but I still need the Holy Spirit to breathe into me freshly every day and every moment for me to continue to experience the changed life that comes from God.
Such an ongoing dependence on the Holy Spirit is what Jesus meant by abiding in him. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. With Jesus we can bear much fruit. Apart from the Holy Spirit, we will be our old normal, limited, unchanged selves. With the Holy Spirit, we can experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

It’s that simple.

I didn’t say, it’s that “easy”, but it is a simple concept. With and only with the Holy Spirit’s active working in our lives and through us, can we experience the change we most desire, and the change we are called to as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, too many Christians have accepted the message of salvation, but have not learned how to let the Holy Spirit transform their hearts, minds and behavior on a day-by-day basis. Or, if they know how to yield to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, they often choose not to. Did I say, “they”? I meant, “we.” We all know the experience of knowing the right or good thing to do, but choosing a different course.

The Christian bookstores are full of inspirational and instructive books on living the Christian life, but not one will do you any good, if you are not willing to say “yes” to the Holy Spirit. You can listen to sermons, get videos of great teachers, and read the Bible until you’ve memorized every word, but if you are not prepared to say “yes” to the Holy Spirit on a moment by moment basis, you are not going to experience transformation. You are not going to experience the change you need, the change you hope for, and change you can believe in.

I cannot tell you specifically what the Holy Spirit wants to say to you at this moment, but I guarantee you that the Spirit has something to say to you that fits with God’s will for your life. God is trying to lead you in the ways he wants you to go, on a step-by-step basis.
We are not called to figure out God’s master plan for our life ahead of time. We are called to learn how to stay connected to the Holy Spirit, to recognize the Spirit’s prompting when it comes, and to say “yes” for the next thing God is asking us to do. Then, and usually only then, after we have said yes and have followed through on the Spirit’s leading, will we be ready to hear the next bit of instruction.

Transformation rarely happens in one fell swoop. We change as we learn to take one step after another as the Holy Spirit leads us. As we say yes to the Spirit’s leading today, we move to the place where we can say yes to whatever he wants us to do tomorrow. Then, when we add up all the days of our lives that are filled with moments in which we are being led by the Holy Spirit, the net result is a truly transformed life.

The place to start, though, is with this present moment.

What’s the Holy Spirit saying to you now?

What’s your answer?

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. —2 Corinthians 13:14

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Hopes and Dreams

All I got was a blank stare. I had asked the group what their hopes and dreams for the future were. At first, no one knew what to say.

One person hoped he didn’t run out of money before he died. Another was scared about getting dementia. Someone else said he’d be happy just to get enough business to make ends meet. On the other end of the spectrum, another person dreamt of winning the lottery and winning the Pulitzer Prize, even though she doesn’t buy lottery tickets and doesn’t write much anymore.

Finally, someone blurted out that he doesn’t think in those categories. Hopes? Dreams? He’s just trying to get through life!

I felt sad for the “quiet desperation” I was hearing. At the same time, I was perplexed and deeply troubled. I continually meet people who seem to have no vision for their life. I hear comments that suggest that hopes and dreams are only for the rich, the lucky, the privileged. One pastor of a large, growing church even told me realizing one’s dreams doesn’t apply to 98% of the world’s population.

What? If Christians cannot hope for a better life, to realize their God-given dreams, or to fulfill their purpose in life, what in the world is he preaching and teaching?

Now, to be fair, the people who tell me that that hopes and dreams are not for them often are thinking about all that they cannot do. They have reluctantly come to the point of accepting that some secret aspiration that they have had is beyond their reach—becoming President of the United States, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, being a world explorer, or something equally grand. Or they feel demoralized after looking at someone else who has more money, more talent, more education, or more opportunity. With a twinge of envy, resentment, or resignation, they conclude that pursuing one’s hopes and dreams is only for a lucky few.

But does realistic thinking mean that there are not hopes and dreams that we can pursue? Do the special privileges of a few mean that we should give up on hoping and dreaming for ourselves?

I don’t think so. The nature, size and scale of our hopes and dreams will vary widely among us, but cannot nearly everyone aspire to something that they desire but is not yet a reality?

Abraham Maslow argued that humans must first meet “lower” level of needs before they will be able to pursue higher ones. That is, we start with seeking to meet basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and security. Only when these needs are met are we able to move to higher level needs, such as love, friendship, self esteem, and ultimately self-actualization. As a general rule, I think he’s right. Yet, how many people have let anxiety over lower level needs unnecessarily keep them from simultaneously pursuing higher level needs?

Here’s another problem. When we talk about hopes and dreams, so often people think in terms of wealth, status, power, comfort, or material gain. Thus, those who think that they aren’t the lucky ones, or as smart or talented as others, or who don’t have the same opportunities as others, sometimes falsely conclude that there is no point to hoping and dreaming for them.

But what about hoping and dreaming in different categories? What about a dream of closer relationships? What about building a stronger community? What about joy from serving others? What about knowing and loving God better? What about pursuing meaning and purpose in one’s life? What about simply finding peace in the midst of so many situations outside of our control? These things are not dependent on luck, financial resources, or special opportunity. In fact, some of the materially poorest people in the world are some of the most vibrant people I have ever met. Yes, they have some unfulfilled hopes and dreams, but many also have other blessings—joy, friendship, community, meaning, purpose, vitality and so forth. These qualities of life might very well be available to more of us as well—if we would learn to hope and dream in these categories.

The many people I’ve been meeting, interviewing, teaching, coaching and observing lately show me that hopes and dreams can fuel vision for almost anybody’s life—with very good results. To know what one most values and cherishes, to believe that God has planted dreams in our hearts to serve God’s purposes, and to pursue a vision for a more fulfilling and purposeful life, is powerful, motivating, and life-changing. No matter how hard the work, or how frustrating such a pursuit can be at times, I can’t imagine not living with hopes and dreams.

Next week I leave for the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over 4 million people have been killed in civil war in the past decade or so. I will be leading a Pastors Leadership Conference, teaching and speaking to people who have struggled with basic survival needs to an extent I have never known. Will I find people who still have hopes and dreams beyond survival there? Will suffering Christians still have a vision for a more vital spiritual life, for healthier churches, for caring for one another effectively, for love and friendship, and for other “higher” level needs and aspirations? I don’t know. My experience suggests, yes.

What do you think? Are hopes and dreams beyond survival and security just for the lucky few in our world?

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