Category Archives: Spirit-Led Living

Articles on how to grow spiritually and how to flow better with the Holy Spirit’s leading in your life

How Much Do You Want the Light?

Light pouring through South Windows, Chartres Cathedral

Nicholas* had avoided me for weeks. Then all of a sudden he insisted on getting together ASAP. When he finally sat down opposite me, he was almost out of breath. He couldn’t look me in the eyes at first, but immediately his words starting tumbling out of his mouth. Tears streamed down his face.

After a particularly upsetting relapse into an old, hated pattern of behavior, Nick was visibly shaken. He was terrified at the power of the temptation and at his own weakness. Yet, what he hated the most was the horrible effect his sin was having on him. Suddenly the right words came to him:

“It sucks the light out of my being and fills it with darkness.”

Each of us has our own weak spots and pockets of darkness in our life. Some of us nurture envy or jealousy. Others are blinded by greed, self-justification, or delusions. Sometimes we comfort ourselves by fantasizing revenge; filling our eyes, hearts and minds with lust; seeking to feel powerful by being cruel; or by exploding in rage. Even more tragically, sometimes we actually wind up hurting, abusing, or deliberately exploiting others.

We may hate being in the darkness, and we may even despise ourselves for our weaknesses and failures. Yet, in the midst of daily anxieties, pressures, and temptations, slipping back into the darkness can be almost effortless. As our sight dims, we may even become more resistant to the light, or forget how much we have lost along the way.

My own tendency to drift into darkness is one of the main reasons I periodically set aside time to fast and pray. I don’t usually like fasting, but I like what God does in me through it.

Fasting helps me to focus interiorly, and to listen more closely to the Holy Spirit. God often reassures me that I am deeply loved and that I belong to God. In the presence of Christ’s light, sometimes I also see better my emptiness, my resistance, my lack of integrity, and the darkness that still grips me in secret places. I also find greater power to let go of sin, and greater motivation to seek the Light.

In fasting and extended times of prayer, I suggest the following:

• Give up two or three meals and drink only water (or juice if need be) all day.

• Use the meals times to read Scripture, journal, and pray alone.

Set your intention to create extra space for the Holy Spirit to shine the light of Christ into your dark places.

• Ask the Spirit to help you to see what you have been having a hard time facing, and to rekindle your love and longing for Jesus and others—and maybe for yourself, too.

On the road to Damascus. Jesus said to Paul, “I will [send] you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” (Acts 26:17-18, NRSV)

No matter how strong we may think we are, we are all capable of self-deception and great sin. Yet, by reaching out to Jesus Christ in faith and earnestness, the Holy Spirit may very well send a powerful, piercing, cleansing, and renewing light that frees us from the various ways that Satan has a hold in our lives.

It’s not a magic solution. We are not completely transformed for all time. And an experience with the Light does not replace the role we can play in avoiding sin the next time. Yet, by continually seeking the Light of Christ, the Holy Spirit will expose the lies we cling to, and drive our darkness away. With clearer heads and humbled hearts, we usually know what we need to do differently next time to avoid getting so consumed by the darkness, and to stay in the Light. Then it is up to us to act on the truth.

This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:5-7, NRSV)

The Point: The real question for spiritual growth is not, “How dark is your darkness?” Rather, it is, “How much do you want the Light?” If you want it, you can have it. But you can’t produce it on your own. Only the Holy Spirit can pour Christ’s light into your inner being and consume your darkness…. Is it time for you to set aside a day for fasting and prayer?

Prayer: “Lord, please help me to see what I need to see, give me courage to face the truth, and strength to act on what you reveal.”

* In order to protect confidentiality, “Nicholas” is an amalgam of various individuals I have worked with over the years. Yet his situation is very true to the experience of countless sincere Christians I have known.


Filed under Day to Day, Spirit-Led Living

What Can I do? It’s Not Working!

Chartres under construction

What do you do when you are just not getting the results you hoped for?

You’re working hard and putting yourself out there, but the response from others is disappointing. You’re feeling more and more frustrated or discouraged. You want a different outcome, but you just can’t figure out what’s wrong or what to do differently. Maybe you’re getting angry, and you feel like lashing out. Perhaps you feel like giving up all together.

When I get in this kind of situation, as I did this past week, my first instinct is often reactive. I vacillate between going on the attack and wanting to quit. Yet, there is a third way.

It’s called “change.” First, I had to face the fact that my current approach to teaching my class was not working, and was not going to work. I had to try to see the situation through the eyes of my students, and imagine what they might be feeling and needing. I had to stop blaming others for the disappointing and frustrating situation, and start thinking creatively.

I had a choice to make. Would I stay stuck in my current feelings and just press through anyway? Or, would I step back to get a fresh perspective and be open to change?

Fortunately, I chose the latter approach. But this choice did not come without a fight. Within me, that is. I had to die to the teaching I wanted to give, and then I had to allow new ideas and different methods to surface.  Specifically, I had to do at least ten things to make the shift.

  1. I took some time to be by myself, and avoided the temptation to take out my frustration on class members.
  2. I went for a long walk. (In this case, I had the opportunity of walking the labyrinth inside the Chartres Cathedral three times, surrounded by images of Jesus and other biblical characters.)
  3. I let off steam by muttering under my breath and by making faces for my wife’s camera. (By the way, if you want some comic relief, there’s a hilarious Youtube video on trying to herd cats that my son sent me. Let me know if you want the link.)
  4. I consciously let myself feel all of my feelings (frustration, disappointment, hurt, anger). I didn’t feed them, but neither did I try to talk myself out of them. I let the feelings surge within me. I named them, without judging them.  At first they grew stronger, and then, over time, they started to lose their power and began to dissipate.
  5. I spent a long time journaling, and started this article hoping that by the end of the week I could really live into what I was going to recommend to you.
  6. Through all of this, I was praying. First complaining to God, then asking for help. What do I need to see here? What do I need to let go of? What can I do differently? What do my students most need, and what do they most need from me?
  7. I stood in front of Le Beau Dieu (The Beautiful God), a statue of Jesus on the south porch of the cathedral. I asked Jesus (not the statue) what he would do. Almost immediately my eyes fell to the Bible the Jesus figure was holding. The message seemed clear: get back to letting the class flow directly out of Scripture.
  8. I sat down and rethought the next teaching session from the beginning, based on the language, approach, and content the class members would find most helpful, instead of what I most wanted to teach them.
  9. I went out to dinner with friends to stop obsessing on the experience, but then got up at 5:30 a.m. the next morning to spend extra time thinking and praying before rejoining the rest of the group.
  10. Though my students had not done anything wrong, I forgave them for not being the way I wanted them to be, in order to clear away the negative feelings that grew out my reaction to them. I forgave myself for missing the mark with my teaching and not figuring out what they needed faster.

I’m not sure what kind of article you would have gotten if the class had bombed again! But it didn’t. The new attitude, new material, and new approach made a huge difference.  Between my willingness to change, whatever spiritual work they had done unbeknownst to me, and the moving of the Holy Spirit, the teaching time flowed powerfully once again.

I still wish I could have taught what I wanted to teach, in the way I wanted to do it; but something else was needed in this context, with these particular students, at this unique time in their lives. Thank God, I was given the grace to make the needed changes in time—for their sake.

Paul (then known as Saul) spent a lot of time hurting God’s people, thinking he was working for God. However, when Jesus finally got his attention on the road to Damascus, Paul faced reality, surrendered his will to Christ’s, and started a new chapter in his spiritual journey and service to God. In his telling of the story, he said, “I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’” (Acts 22:10, NRSV)

The point: Our work in the world is not about us. It’s about Christ, and what the Holy Spirit wants to do in us and through us for the sake of those we are called to serve. If something’s not working, we need to face reality, and make whatever changes are needed in order to get into the Spirit’s flow once again.


Filed under Day to Day, Spirit-Led Living

The Daily Battle

Sons Dan and Tim on the Camino

Every day is a battle.

I don’t mean that every day is awful. My days are often full of joy, meaning, laughter, fruitful work, and love. Yet, life is hard, too, and full of struggle. It seems that so much can so easily undermine my heart and ability to live by my highest values and convictions.

The battle I’m talking about, then, is a perpetual struggle between what we want our lives to be and all those forces that work against our hopes, dreams and commitments. In this conflict, sometimes we are own worst enemies. Even at our best, when we want to serve Christ wholeheartedly, we can usually detect crosscurrents within us—be they mixed motives, at best, or outright sinful impulses, at worst.

At other times, our struggles are not self-generated, though. Sometimes, we get some “help” in our fearfulness, our struggles with temptation, our doubts, our distractions, and our entanglements. Scripture teaches that we are in a spiritual battle with forces of evil that are working to undermine our faith and faithfulness (Ephesians 6:12).

At the same time, we are assured that the Holy Spirit within us is stronger than the Tempter (1 John 4:4). Our job is to have confidence in God’s power and then strategically engage in the battle to overcome our spiritual adversaries. (See Ephesians 6:10-11, 13-18.) Likewise, we must actively draw on the Holy Spirit to overcome our sinful tendencies by daily surrendering our will to God’s and by praying for grace and strength in our time of need. (See Galatians 5:16-25; Hebrews 4:14-16.)

Six Strategies for Successful Struggling
When we know that sinful temptations, negative thinking or counter-productive reactions are going to arise within us uninvited, we are wise to get ready for them. When we expect a fight, and prayerfully prepare for it, we are much more likely to wage the war successfully.

Here are six strategies you can begin employing immediately:

1. Know your Achilles heel and do all you can to protect yourself from falling into sin. This is just common sense. However, how often do we ignore what is in our best long term interests to indulge in short term gratification?

Example: If you’re tempted to gamble away needed resources, don’t even enter the casino or make a bet. If you know that drinking alcohol is going to bring out your worst or work against what God wants to do in you and through you, find alternative social beverages, new hangouts, and even new friends, if need be. If sexual temptation is your nemesis, work hard to develop appropriate contexts in which you can get your affection and intimacy needs met. Regardless of what your specific weakness is, expect to be tempted, expect to want to engage in sin at times, and decide now, ahead of the temptation that no matter how you may feel at any given moment, sin is not what you want for your life.

2. Believe that the Holy Spirit is at work in you and cannot be ultimately thwarted by your failures or evil forces. God is a God of resurrection. Accept God’s forgiveness and seek the Spirit’s renewal and leading no matter where you may be.
Example: I spent years kicking myself for a number of poor decisions I made that took a big toll on me emotionally until my spiritual director reminded me that God is a God of resurrection. You and I are going to make mistakes—sometimes serious ones—but God forgives, and the Holy Spirit continually brings forth new life from what seems dead. To change the metaphor, the Holy Spirit is like a GPS navigation system that begins “recalculating” as soon as it detects that we have missed our turn or gone the wrong way. We may have to suffer the consequences of our mistake, but God is able to create a new path from wherever we are to lead us once again in a fruitful life of fellowship and service.

3. Know how God most wants to use you, expect various kinds of interference, and plan accordingly.
Example: I know that my best contributions often come from teaching and writing, but I can expect many distractions and much inner resistance to getting started on my preparation work. So, I don’t wait to feel like writing to get going. Instead, I block out time, expect to be tempted to procrastinate, and push through the resistance. Almost without fail, getting started is all I need to do in order to turn the tide in the battle.

4. Face fears head on, and don’t let them keep you doing what you need to do.

Example: My marketing and fundraising responsibilities always make me feel anxious. I’m afraid of failing and afraid of being rejected. Not a good combination. So, even when finding new clients or raising money is most needed, I can still freeze up. Fighting this battle means simply reminding myself that I must attend to this part of our ministry and that putting it off will make the situation worse not better. I then make a plan and work the plan. I start today.

5. Pick your battles and give your best efforts to fight for what matters most.
Example: On any given day I will be annoyed or frustrated with someone else for not doing or saying something the way that I think they should. If I’m not careful, I can let this perfectionist tendency produce judgmental attitudes and harsh reactions to others, undermining my greater goal of working well with others for the sake of Christ and his kingdom. Thus, I have to remind myself of my highest values and choose wisely when exerting my energy. When I choose love and serving Christ over self-righteousness or perfectionism, I usually know instantly I have chosen well, and the power of the temptation is cut significantly.

6. Ask the Holy Spirit to do in you what you cannot seem to do on your own. Sometimes no matter how much you want to stay focused and do the right thing or the best thing, you will still stumble or fail to follow through. In such cases, acknowledge the powerlessness you feel and ask for motivation, grace, and strength—or simply divine intervention—to lead you to higher ground.

Example: Sometimes when I have been hurt by someone, letting go of my anger seems beyond my ability. Yet, when I have exhausted my own effort to draw on God’s power to fight the battle, the best thing I can do is simply to let go of trying. I don’t indulge in the feeling, but I admit that I have reached my limit and I need God’s help. And I let go of my own efforts to change myself, and wait. Often my deliverance will surprise me, and I will be set free without doing anything more on my own.

Facing your own inner weaknesses and struggles may feel discouraging. Fully engaging in your spiritual struggles may be daunting. However, admitting the reality of the ongoing, daily battle is actually helpful, and is the first step toward getting the help you need from within yourself and God.

What battle are you fighting today? What’s your strategy to win it?

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Ephesians 6:10-11, NIV)

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The Walk of Faith

Tim teaching Burmese pastors and faculty

Tim teaching Burmese pastors and faculty

Walking by faith has taken on new meaning for me this year.

I feel much less secure than ever, and more uncertain about our future. At the same time, I’m learning more about relying on God and the joy of seeing God work in unexpected ways.

For example, I’ve had incredibly powerful experiences of ministry in Myanmar, France and Princeton over the past six months—the most fruitful of my 25 year career. Yet, at the same time, at the end of June, Faith, Hope and Love Global Ministries was just about out of money.

Financially, our backs were (are) against the wall. I knew this day was coming, yet our extensive travel requirements gave us little or no opportunity to address our fundraising needs.
Now my faith is being tested. Will we shrink back from the vision out of fear? Or will we press on, trusting the calling to keep developing our global ministry to pastors and leaders? I know I want to cross the line from fear to faith, on one end of the spectrum, but where is the line dividing faith and foolishness on the other end?   (Fear–>>Faith—?—Foolishness)

Each of us needs to answer these questions for ourselves, based on our own unique circumstances. In general, what I’m learning is that Christians are often called to walk on the edge of faith and sight. We may be able to see the vision of our calling, but, if our vision is big enough, we often cannot see all of the provision. Faith adds the word, “yet,” to the previous sentence. We cannot see God’s provision yet. Nevertheless, we still believe it is coming, and act accordingly.

Practically, walking by faith in times when money is tight or the future is uncertain often includes the following ten action steps:
1.    Stay committed to the vision. Don’t quit or slack off.
2.    Face reality, make needed changes, and do what needs to be done.
3.    Stay focused on what matters the most, and set daily priorities accordingly.
4.    Stay committed to the major initiatives that support your vision, and put off or eliminate less important goals and activities.
5.    Beware of yielding to temptation that would dissipate your energy or undermine your credibility or effectiveness.
6.    Believe in your calling, believe in yourself, and believe that God’s work cannot be thwarted when you faithfully walk by faith.
7.    Surround yourself with the right kind of friends who share your interests, priorities and faith.
8.    Notice what God has already done and is doing, and stay grateful.
9.    Expect God’s faithfulness to exceed yours.
10.    Let go of anxiety over what you cannot control—which only adds stress to your life. Instead, pray and focus on what you can do.

To walk by faith, then, actually means something in concrete terms. We must put one foot in front of the other along the path we believe God has marked out for us, trusting God to provide, without knowing how and when God will do so.

A week ago, Thursday, as I was preparing to tell our Board members that we were almost broke, one of our major donors unexpectedly offered to give his annual contribution early, plus an extra $1000 to cover an unexpected expense coming up. Then, on Monday, a potential major funder wrote to say that after reviewing our website that he would be eager to discuss “the very important work” that we are doing. On Wednesday, someone volunteered to upgrade our websites for free, and another major donor told me that he wanted to give again this year.

We still don’t have enough money to meet payroll in July, let alone cover all our costs for the Chartres Contemplative Pilgrimage in October, or fund the Rwandan Pastors Leadership Conference we’re leading in November. Nevertheless, God is allowing me to see once again that he will not abandon the mission or me.

At times, faith leads to sight—just enough to believe that the needed resources will given to fulfill the work we have been given to do. Just enough to keep us going, trusting, and walking by faith.

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.” (Hebrews 11:8, NIV)

I wonder where this journey of faith is going to lead, and how God is going to provide in the coming months for us…and for you.


Filed under Spirit-Led Living

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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Change We Can Believe In

This is the first of two parts of a sermon I preached on November 16, 2008 in Sister Bay, Wisconsin.

“Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” –Romans 5:1-5


This fall has been a huge time of change in America. The financial markets have fallen precipitously, industry giants such Ford and General Motors are on the brink of bankruptcy, and many people are losing their jobs and feeling the strains of a worsening recession. Now, in the midst of all the stress and strain, everyone is hoping for some positive change in the days, months and years ahead.

Yet, seeking change is nothing new to most of us. Whenever you or I want a better life, a better marriage, better work, better relationship with others, a better community or church, or even a better world, we are talking about change. We may not be able to describe exactly what we would like, but we know it’s different from what we are experiencing at the moment. We want some kind of change in the hope that our future will be better than our past or present.

At its core, the Gospel is itself all about change.

• When Jesus came into the world he preached repentance from sins and a return to heartfelt, faithful, and loving devotion to God. That was a message of change.

• When Jesus died and was resurrected, he brought hope of eternal life to the world, showing that death need not have the final say in our lives. That was a big change.

• When we move from guilt to forgiveness, from judgment to salvation, from death to life, from despair to hope, and from powerlessness to power through the Holy Spirit, that’s real change.

• In Romans 5:1-5, everything Paul talks about has to do with change. By faith, we move from alienation from God to justification. We move from anxiety over our sins and fear of punishment to forgiveness and peace with God. We move from despair over life’s hardships to hope, because we see God at work in our suffering to produce perseverance, character and confidence for the future. Above all, we move from trying to worship a scary God out there somewhere, to having our hearts filled with love by the Holy Spirit, who is present within every believer in Jesus Christ.

• And, if God has his full way with us, we will also move from serving ourselves to serving Christ with our lives. With this transformation, our whole way of looking at life changes dramatically. We move from a self-centered way of being in the world to becoming instruments of God’s love to one another. Life ceases to be “about us” and increasingly becomes about Christ and serving God’s purposes in the world.

Now all of these changes help give us what we most need. They start as promises, but increasingly become reality for us as grow in faith and in our relationship with God. Truly, they are “the change we can believe in”!

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that we live in a world that is filled with all sorts of impediments to the change God wants to produce in us and among us.

• We have our human weaknesses, bad habits, addictions, and psychological hangups.

• We are subject to our sinful nature, and are surrounded by lies and deceptions from unseen spiritual forces that fool us or tie us up in knots.

• We can easily become afraid or distracted from the Spirit’s leading, and revert back to our pre-changed ways.

Do you know what I’m talking about?

Nothing can undo the work of Christ on the cross, and nothing can separate us from the love of God, but many things can sap the life out of our spirit and undermine our joy and ability to fully live out our God-given purpose.

What I experienced in Africa

The Rwandan genocide in 1994 is an extreme example of what I’m talking about. The church leadership utterly failed the nation of Rwanda, where 85% of the country was “Christian” before the genocide. Before the killing was over, one million people were murdered and 500,000 women raped in 100 days. As I sat with one of the bishops of the Anglican Church in October, he told me that the country is still suffering from effects of the genocide, and that the root of the problem was deep-seated hatred for others, and a failure of church leaders to develop the people spiritually. They had no concept of letting the Holy Spirit pour out God’s love in their hearts.

On the other hand, perhaps one of the most inspiring people I’ve met so far in Africa is Pastor Jacob Lipandasi. I first met Jacob at the Pastors Leadership Conference in Goma that I was leading a year ago. I learned of his compassion for the widows and orphans in his village, and my wife, Jill, and I helped him to raise $500 to buy seeds and tools in order to help the most vulnerable people in his area to plant their own crops.

This year, we invited Jacob to participate in a new program of spiritual life coaching. We had chosen just 3 of the 30 pastors from the conference to participate in the six month program, and he was one of them. We did not have enough money in our new ministry to pay for his travel expenses at the time, so he borrowed the $15 needed so that he could get the cheapest place on the cheapest boat to cross Lake Kivu to come for coaching. I found out that he stood on the outside of the boat for 13 hours, over night, just to come. He arrived with no money for his return ticket. He was trusting God to provide.

During the coaching, he refined his vision for his ministry to help these poor women move from just providing food for themselves to actually creating businesses for themselves so that some day that might get out of poverty. Jacob will need to attend more schooling to learn how to do this, and he has no idea where the money will come from to pay for his further education or for the training center that he wants to establish, yet he has faith and he has compassion that compels him to keep looking for solutions. He is determined.

Jacob’s life has been changed by God in many ways over his lifetime, and he wants to be a change-agent in the life of others. No, he does not have all of his plans figured out. But he is putting his faith into action. The Holy Spirit has done and is doing a powerful and beautiful thing in his life, and only God knows what will unfold in the future as he continues to seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Looking closer to home

Now we don’t have to look to Africa to find examples of Christians who do not know how to be filled and led with the Holy Spirit or for those who do. We can look in our own lives. There are times when we experience the Holy Spirit’s working mysteriously or powerfully, and times when we are being led by dark forces and sinful impulses within. That mixed reality is true of every Christian everywhere.

The question is not, are we sometimes driven by our sinful nature? The question is, how committed are we to learning how to be a Spirit-led follower of Jesus Christ?

What have you learned about how to be more Spirit-filled and Spirit-led in your life? 

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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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