Do you really have spiritual freedom?


Freedom (Photo credit: Bohman)

Here’s a paragraph from my book that I’d love for you to consider:

President George W. Bush made a profound statement before the United Nations on September 19, 2006. It was about the Iraq War, but its truth extends beyond political discussion. Regardless of your view on the reason why he said it, the reality is undeniable. He said: “Freedom, by its very nature, cannot be imposed. It must be chosen.”

I’m less than interested in a political debate.  Your thoughts on the nature of spiritual freedom and how we go about securing it for ourselves are what I’m interested in.

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Kung Fu Panda and Jesus (Weekly excerpt from my book)

Shifu, with speed and skill of a Kung Fu master, steals the dumpling from Po [big panda] and eats it. Po shrugs it off and reaches for another morsel only to be deprived again. Shifu eventually takes all but one of the dumplings. Po recognizes the urgency of his plight and employs all of his training in an impressive display of skill. Shifu pulls out all of the stops, but Po’s motivation for food – now combined with the excellent training and excitement of doing Kung Fu – gives him the ability to do things he’s only dreamed of. Finally, he outmaneuvers his master. Shifu, pleased at what has been accomplished, tells Po he has earned his reward. It’s time to eat.

“I’m not hungry.” Po says.  He smiles and tosses the dumpling back to Shifu.

Po finally found something that satisfied him more than food. In taking seriously the responsibility assigned to him, he discovered that filling the gap in his soul was far more satisfying than filling the gap in his gut.

Do you remember why Jesus was at the well in John 4, where he had the eternal life-changing conversation with the Samaritan woman? He was in the middle of a long journey back to Galilee from Jerusalem with his disciples. The men had gone into town to get food while Jesus stayed at the well, hungry and exhausted from the trip. The disciples returned as the woman was leaving and they pressed their master to have some chow with them, but their Master’s hunger has been superseded by the effects of the encounter with the woman.

Jesus must have stood up by now. The excitement probably causes him to pace a little while he looks up to heaven with a tight grin, acknowledging his Father’s approval. He is sharing this moment with his Abba. I’m sure a couple of fist-pumps and a half whispered “Yessss” happen too.

Finally, he directs his attention to his disciples. He does a quick scan of the twelve sets of eyes to secure the attention of each man.  Smirk still intact, his shoulders and eyebrows raise and his palms turn up as if he can’t explain what he’s about to say. Then he blurts out, “I’m not hungry.”

The disciples, completely thrown off by this display, try to work out who could have brought him food. Jesus responds with the beginning of another Abbott-and-Costello-like scene: “I have food that you know nothing about. (John 4:32)” They were talking about actual food, the stuff they’d gone all the way into town to get. Jesus meant spiritual food – the kind of nourishment you only get from bearing fruit for God. While disciples try to figure out who could have brought Jesus food, Jesus interjects, “My food . . . is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. (John 4:34)”

Sure, Jesus enjoyed a good bite to eat among friends every now and then. Just look at how much he and his Father talked about banquets and feasts. Jesus did some of his best ministry around food, but this time was different. He refused stomach food because he was feasting on spiritual food that is far superior to it, and nobody in their right mind fills up on hot dogs when a porterhouse steak is on the table.

This is a sample from chapter 11: Pasture-ized, of my book The Attractive Shepherd.  Click on “About The Book” and “Read Chapter 1″ above for more info.  For samples from other chapters click on “Book Excerpts” just under the Twitter updates on the right side of this page. Comments are appreciated.

Looking for love in all the wrong places (Weekly Exerpt from my book)

Jesus’ point was that this woman had been looking for life to the fullest extent in her relationship with men.  Social and religious restrictions had made that the only possible outcome for her life.  But there was no hope for life to the fullest extent as long as she limited her potential in that way.  In John 4:13-14, Jesus made a rather large claim regarding his offer:

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

Jesus was telling her that the road to relating to God no longer had to go through other people.  Her parched spiritual desire would disappear due to the newly installed spiritual source.  There would no longer be a need to try to find fulfillment anywhere else.  There would no longer be a need to see her significance limited to the practices established by a religions system and engrained into the lives of people seeking life to the fullest extent through faith in that system.  Jesus was saying that once and for all, the relationship with God she desired would be quenched, and that her satisfaction was guaranteed.

I bet Jesus “had to” go through Samaria (verse 4) not because mapquest told him to, but because he had a mission for this particular woman.  He knew her wheelhouse and he wanted her to use it for his glory.  Here’s the proof.

The testimony of a woman was not valid in court because women were viewed as unreliable.  The woman at the well would have been considered particularly unreliable because of her lifestyle.  She had even gone to the well at the worst time of day to avoid contact with other women.  She was considered the lowest of the low.  So what happened next was rather amazing.

The woman responded to Jesus by going straight into town and blabbing about all Jesus has said to everyone who would listen.  What is alarming is that people actually did listen.  And, not only did they listen . . . some of them believed Jesus because of her testimony.  The people were so excited about what she had shared that they formed the first search committee to hunt down Jesus and invite him to stick around to tell them more.

This woman accomplished what only Jesus had done to that point.  She led others to faith in Jesus Christ.  The disciples hadn’t even done that yet!  John the Baptist pointed his disciples to Jesus but they hadn’t put their faith in him until Jesus convinced them of his divinity.  But, John 4:39 shows that the Samaritans had believed in Jesus before they met him strictly on the testimony of this woman.

I’d love to know what some of those people saw in that woman that made them believe her.  The freedom from societal and religious restraints revealed her wheelhouse: telling people about Jesus.  How else would people have listened to a promiscuous woman who had been tossed around from man to man unless Jesus had provided the power to make it happen?

Jesus will help you uncover your wheelhouse too, if you only consider the possibilities.

This is a sample from chapter 10: Satisfaction Guaranteed, of my book The Attractive Shepherd.  Click on “About The Book” and “Read Chapter 1″ above for more info.  For samples from other chapters click on “Book Excerpts” just under the Twitter updates on the right side of this page. Comments are appreciated.

Jedi Mind Tricks (Weekly Excerpt from my book)

The Apostle Peter was not a Jedi, despite what may be inferred from his writings.

Have you ever tried to make yourself desire something?  As I mentioned in chapter one, I’ve wanted to want tomatoes.  It just isn’t happening.  God designed my taste buds in such a way that I have always rejected the red vegetable (or fruit or whatever it is).  As hard as I try, that’s just the way it is.  And that’s just the way it probably always will be.  It seems to prove that attraction to things cannot be altered regardless of the intensity of our efforts.

However, passages like the second verse of 1st Peter 2 pose a problem for that theory.  The Apostle Peter tells the early Christians what to desire: “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation. (NIV)”   This verse is a command.  The craving is to be the result of a decision to be obedient to the head apostle.

I can picture the elderly saint standing before stubborn Christ-followers and performing a Jedi mind trick.  It’s enacted by a gentle wave of his hand, just like Obiwan Kenobi did in a couple of the Star Wars movies.  But Jedi mind tricks involve the involuntary acquiescence of the subject.  The Jedi control shallow minds so that the creatures have no choice but to do what the Jedi suggests.  God doesn’t do that and neither does Peter.  He’s actually telling the people to choose to crave the things of God instead of the things they used to be attracted to.

God has planned for us to play a role in choosing the things that will be attractive to us.  Peter isn’t the only one who takes this approach.  David gives the same instruction in Psalm 37:4, “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart. (NIV)”

Therefore, it must be possible, at least in spiritually, for people to play a role in choosing the things we are attracted to.  In the last chapter I explored the need for people to decide to dream about what life to the fullest extent looks like and to be willing to take all the risks needed to get there.  But the question of the method of changing your desires remains.  Fortunately, your determination to set an exciting course for your spiritual journey is the fix for your faulty desires, and it was never meant to be a secret.

This is a sample from chapter 9: Shorn, of my book The Attractive Shepherd.  Click on “About The Book” and “Read Chapter 1″ above for more info.  For samples from other chapters click on “Book Excerpts” just under the Twitter updates on the right side of this page. Comments are appreciated.

The adventurous faith of Chelsi Figley (Excerpt from my book)

One of the guys on our church softball team had invited me to a lift-a-thon at the Work Out Center, a fitness establishment in Columbiana, OH.  It was a fund-raiser for a young woman named Chelsi Figley, whom I hadn’t met.  She was born with Spina Bifida and has never had the use of her legs.  So she uses her arms – and she uses them a lot.  The event at the Work Out Center was to raise money for Chelsi to attend the 2010 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Powerlifting World Championship in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

It had been many years since I had been in a place like that.  A few of the machines looked familiar, but I was certainly out of my element.  The men (and a couple of women) were very serious about working out and were in amazing shape.  Dean, the guy who had invited me, benched 490 pounds that day.  One other guy there did even more.  The messages on some of their shirts advertised the intensity of their commitment.  One of my favorites read: “No, I’m not on steroids . . . but thanks for asking.”

When the sponsored lifters finished it was time for the woman of honor to show her skills.  Brian, Chelsi’s trainer and owner of the gym, strapped Chelsi’s legs to the bench.  With several men and women of incredible size and strength surrounding her and shouting encouragement, Chelsi lifted more weight than I ever had, and she did it several times.  It was a bit touch-and-go at one point, but the roaring of her fellow weight-room warriors urged her on.

“C’mon Chels, this is nothing for you.  You can do this!”

“You can beat this, Chelsi!”

“Show those Malaysians what we’re made of in Columbiana!”

In her drive to be the most she could be despite her disadvantages, Chelsi had become a symbol of strength for the community of people in that room.  Her presence at the gym had motivated them to greater achievements for themselves.  On that day in the gym, they returned the favor.

I tucked myself away behind one of the machines to hide my emotional response to what I’d just seen.  All I needed was another reason to feel like the least masculine guy in the room.  As Chelsi sat up I noticed that she had writing on her t-shirt as well, but hers was a bit different from the rest.  At the top in bold letters were the words No Surrender, followed by 1st Corinthians 16:13: “Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous.  Be strong. (NIV)”

Nobody would blame Chelsi if her approach to life was with lowered expectations.  But if she had viewed life that way, she wouldn’t have accomplished much.  The resolve she shows in the weight room is matched only by the tremendous faith from which it is derived.  By taking Jesus seriously about his life to the fullest extent promise, she has achieved incredible things.  And, she’s not done.  Her new goal is making the 2012 United States Paralympic team.

Chelsi put aside all the fear and anxiety of such an immense pursuit.  She knows that life to the fullest extent is possible for anyone, but huge risks are required to realize it.  Anybody who wants life to the fullest extent through faith in Jesus Christ must do the same two things.  First, we must have the courage to dream about the possibilities, as crazy as they may seem.  The next step is just as crucial: taking the risks required to pursue them.

This is a sample from chapter 8: If Happens of my book The Attractive Shepherd.  Click on “About The Book” and “Read Chapter 1″ above for more info.  For samples from other chapters click on “Book Exerpets” just under the Twitter updates on the right side of this page. Comments are appreciated.

The Red Balloon

The ancient, air-condition-less mini-buses used to transport us through the desert brought us to a small parking lot that overlooked the courtyard filled with children.  An L-shaped two-story building where the children lived provided borders to the left and straight ahead, and a small road through the property created the final border to the right.  Beyond the road a little ways was the Pacific Ocean.  Its cool breeze was gently swaying the trees putting the finishing touch on a perfect setting.

Our tour of Mexico was coming to an end.  About three dozen high school and college aged kids from The Salvation Army in Northeast Ohio had spent several days in May of 1989 giving witness about Jesus’ love via the traditional Salvation Army Brass Band.  My fondest memory of that trip was the children’s home in Acapulco.

Before we exited our buses, a large pickup truck pulled up next to us with more children seated in the back.  They were kids from other sites belonging to the children’s home who had come to greet us as well.  The truck had a safety rail on each side of the bed consisting of four long horizontal planks of wood spaced six inches apart.  The planks were nailed to four wooden posts along the walls of the truck.  Several sets of little eyes peered through the slats at us.  All of the children greeted us with great enthusiasm.

The festive atmosphere our hosts had created was impressive.  There were streamers, balloons, multi-colored lights and piñatas.  The tables were set up with popcorn for an appetizer and as much lemonade as we could drink.  Although I wasn’t accustomed to fish that hadn’t been covered in batter and deep-fried, that fish was amazing.  Many of my fellow students opted out of the main course because the fish were presented to us whole – head and eyes and all.  Yum.  After the meal we had a great time with piñatas and just hanging out with the kids.

Everyone was having fun except for a little girl who was about three years old.  She wore beautiful white dress and had big brown eyes.  She stayed close to her big brother who was about seven.  I felt compelled to do what I could to help her have fun, too.  As I approached her she turned and buried her head into brothers chest.  I reached up and grabbed a red balloon that had been positioned high on a tree and offered it to her.  After a few fruitless minutes trying to convince her to receive the gift, she cautiously accepted the balloon.

She wouldn’t give it back.  I tried to play a game of give and take but she refused to let go of her red balloon.  Other people gave her different balloons.  After awhile she would get tired of trying to holding both.  She had to choose which one to keep.  The red balloon won every time.  At the end of a couple of hours she had softened to me, and even let me hold her for a bit.  Nonetheless, she refused to return the red balloon to me even for a moment and never said a word, even when I spoke the tiny bit of her language that I knew, “por favor.”

The time came for us to go and we boarded our busses.  I was sitting in the back of the bus next to the window.  My conversation with one friend was interrupted by some other friends.  They encouraged me to look out of my window at the pickup truck parked only a couple of feet from our bus.  Directly across from me was that beautiful little girl in the white dress.

Her eyes were welling up she fixed an expressionless gaze at me between the slats of the wood railing . . . and she was still holding onto the red balloon.  The driver started the engine and the truck made a loud noise.  She was startled, but never took her eyes off of me.  Her ensuing gesture lodged that evening deep into my memory, easily recalled even these 23 years later.

The tear graduated into a full-blown cry.  She looked down at her balloon and then back at me.  Then, with wisdom far beyond her years, she carefully squeezed the balloon through the slats and stretched her little arms across the gap as far as they would go.  I reached across the divide and accepted the incredible gift from her.  As she released her grip, she paused her sobbing and whispered the only word I would ever hear her say, “adios.”  As the truck pulled away she cried, waved, and repeated the word “adios” until the truck was gone.

Everyone on the bus sat speechless.  I didn’t say a word until we arrived at our destination for the night. I kept that balloon for the better part of a decade and eventually lost is during one of my many moves.  But, the memory of that little girl has never faded. She provided insight into how our complete surrender to trusting the Attractive Shepherd affects both parties.

Jesus is thrilled that you’ve seen the value of the new life that he offers, but it’s so much more rewarding when you give it back to him.

This is a sample from chapter 7: Unnecessary Miracles of my book The Attractive Shepherd.  Click on “About The Book” and “Read Chapter 1″ above for more info.  For samples from other chapters click on “Book Exerpets” just under the Twitter updates on the right side of this page. Comments are appreciated.

Cookies and Dysfunctional Relationships

The winning streak I had over my cookie addiction had a great effect on me.  In addition to the diet, and only by the grace of God, I was able to sustain a habit of jogging just under two miles a day for three days a week.  As a result, I lost 25 pounds rather quickly and my clothes had become baggy.

The church where I was pastor was in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.  Our secretary’s name was Sandy.  Young people from our church who lived in the area would often stop in and hang out at her office after school.  One afternoon I went into Sandy’s office to use the copy machine and Luie, a high school student who attended our church, was there chatting with her.

“Hey, you’ve lost weight,” Luie blurted in my direction.

“I’ve been working hard.  Is it really that obvious?” I replied.

“Yeah, I can see that you’re wearing a belt now.”

“Luie, I’ve always worn a belt.”

“Yeah,” Sandy interjected, “but now we can see it.”

Whether or not people knew it, the belt had always been there, dutifully doing what it was meant to do.  Its presence had been obscured by the physical side effect of my undesirable attraction.

I had become more aware of the presence of my belt as well.  Before I lost weight its only function was to satisfy the requirements of proper office attire.  You can be sure that if my belt would ever have been the cause of a wardrobe malfunction the slack would have been taken up (so to speak) by my robust waistline.  Having lost weight, my belt was a bit loose even on the smallest hole.  The duty of the belt, which I had previously taken for granted, had become increasingly apparent.

God must feel like that belt did.  Aside from my strange use of personification – or rather, deification – with regard to functional accoutrement, the parallel is fitting (pun not intended).  Our undesirable attractions hinder our awareness God’s presence.  He’s there to satisfy the requirements of acceptable standards of religiosity and nothing more.  Our relationship with God becomes merely functional and we end up taking his presence for granted.

This illustration displays a fundamental deficiency with our approach to living lives to the fullest extent.  Our faith often doesn’t take into account the nature of a healthy relationship, one in which both parties benefit from the interaction and the participation of both are valued.  A relationship in which only the desires of one of the participants are regarded is considered dysfunctional.

We only recognize he’s there when we need him because we undervalue what we have to bring to the relationship.

This is a sample from chapter 6: Divine Desire of my book The Attractive Shepherd.  Click on “About The Book” and “Read Chapter 1″ above for more info.  For samples from other chapters click on “Book Exerpets” just under the Twitter updates on the right side of this page. Comments are appreciated.

What Mariano Rivera and God have in common

Ry Torhan, the youth pastor at The Gate, and his wife, Heather, went to see the Harlem Globetrotters.  Ry gets along well with everyone.  When he sat down next to a man who was there with his family, they quickly hit it off.  At halftime an official for the team invited the man and his family to follow him.  A few minutes later they returned, weighed down in complementary Globetrotter gear.  Before the team rep left he invited the family to the VIP room after the game to meet the players and to get their autographs.

Not only did this man receive autographs, he gave out plenty of his own.  Though everyone else seemed to know who this guy was, Ry and Heather didn’t have a clue.  The Torhans continued to interact with the stranger and enjoyed the game with him as if they had been friends for years.  During a surge in the autograph signing, Ry felt comfortable enough to joke with his neighbor, “My fans are courteous enough to not bother me during the game.”

Toward the end of the game, the suspense finally got the best of the Torhans.  Ry told the man, “We know you’re somebody, but we’re not sure who.”

The wise stranger replied “Everybody is somebody.”

He eventually revealed his identity as Mariano Rivera, the ace reliever for the New York Yankees who is considered to be one of the best closers in baseball history.  Mr. Rivera was cool with Ry’s inability to recognize his stardom, and even let Ry have his picture taken with him to show there were no hard feelings.  Ry proudly displayed it as his profile picture on his facebook page.

It’s a good thing Ry had left his Boston Red Sox baseball cap in his bag.

Mariano Rivera has at least one thing in common with God – and I’m not talking about the productivity in the area of “saves” (sorry, bad joke).  They both believe that everybody is a somebody.  There are no throw aways.  When God makes people he leaves a spotless cutting room floor.  We are all made in the image of God.  God’s kingdom is an interesting blend of exclusivity and inclusivity: only people who follow the Attractive Shepherd’s voice can be counted in, but everybody has sheep potential.

 Nobody hears without ears

It’s obvious that the people Jesus considers to be his sheep have not done so by their own merit.  All of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God.  But, some of us can hear his voice and some of us can’t.

Jesus had a curious saying about people who could hear his voice: “Whoever has ears, let them hear (Matthew 11:15, NIV).”  He was encouraging people with ears to use them, but he wasn’t talking about the floppy things attached to the sides of our heads.  Jesus was referring to our ability to hear spiritual things, which requires spiritual ears.  But, who has these ears and how did they get them?  The rest of Chapter 5: A Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing will tell you! This is a sample of my book The Attractive Shepherd.  Click on “About The Book” and “Read Chapter 1” above for more info.

Chapter 4 Exerpt: No Spin

This is an excerpt from Chapter 4: No Spin

On Election Day in 2004, I was greatly saddened by the subtle forfeiture of freedom in the United States of America that I witnessed.  It wasn’t a lack of voter turnout that taxed my patriotism, nor was it the shameless shenanigans by politicians to squeeze as many votes as possible from undecided voters.  What affected me more than anything else during that election cycle was what I saw while exercising the right afforded me by the shed blood of so many Americans.

I entered the voting booth and perused the panel of names for the candidates I had written down on a piece of paper.  I saw two ominous buttons, one for each major party that if chosen would automatically select all candidates from that party.

How many people chose the button for the party that they identify with, saving themselves the effort of actually finding out what those people actually stood for?  It makes me wonder how often party hard-liners have been taken advantage of.  They vote Democrat or Republican simply because they always have, or because their favorite pastor, movie star or musician has recommended it.  As a result, they forfeit their obligation as citizens of this great land and make themselves vulnerable to political thieves and robbers.  What is presented as a badge of loyalty is really a bad case of apathy.

Freedom taken for granted often results in laziness, and laziness makes us vulnerable to thieves and robbers of all kinds.  The Gate is our way to verify what we choose to believe as truth from God.  True citizens of heaven spend the effort to make sure we’re hearing the right Shepherd using The Gate as our safeguard.

In Jesus’ second analogy beginning in verse seven of John 10, he gave us another way to figure out truth: run it past The Gate.  He’s there to protect us from wandering off or being stolen away by thieves and robbers – even within the church:  

Therefore Jesus said again, “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. All who ever came before me were thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved.  He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. (John 10:7-10, NIV)

The Attraction of Americn Idol

This is an excerpt from Chapter 3: The Ripken Perspective.

The craze referred to as The Law of Attraction has been widely promoted in popular books like The Secret (Rhonda Byrne) and The Key to Living the Law of Attraction (Jack Canfield and D. D. Watkins).  It has captured the imagination of many celebrities and entrepreneurs.  The premise is simple: Everybody has the ability to attract to themselves whatever they focus their attention on.  If we focus on positive things, positive things will be drawn to us.  Accordingly, being concerned with potentially harmful aspects of our circumstances brings bad things to our lives.

            The only reason people don’t live the life they envision for themselves, per this theory, is that they aren’t taking advantage of their power to manipulate the universe to give them what they want.  The universe has no option but to return to everyone in greater measure the vibes they send to it via their thoughts.  Canfield and Watkins put it this way: “Basically, the universe will respond abundantly to the vibrations of whatever you are passionate about, focused upon, committed to and to that which you truly believe is possible.”[i]

            I wonder what people eliminated from the first round of American Idol think about this.  My wife and I like to watch the initial round of auditions.  Occasionally, a would-be idol would have a very nice voice that would please the judges and provide the feel-good story that makes the show so popular.  Often, though, we are even more entertained by those who, until the filming of the show, had been grossly misinformed about their star-studded potential.

            Sorry to be a killjoy, but I can’t help but feel sorry for them.  The entertainment value of their performances has been greatly diminished for me (though admittedly, not eliminated).  Not only are their dreams shattered, they’ve been made the laughingstock of a nation – if only for a few moments.  The infamy can last much longer for the exceptionally untalented.

Many of these people desired the opportunity for musical success every bit as much as those with talent.  The shock and negative feedback by rejected participants to the judges’ comments is proof that their passion for their dream is as intense as that of their successful counterparts.  Why didn’t the universe reward their positive vibes?

As glaring as this flaw in the Law of Attraction is, there’s more.  The most damaging thing about the Law of Attraction is the perspective it promotes to those who follow it: You know what true happiness is for you.  You design your own spiritual journey and you define its ultimate destination.

Instead, God wants us to trust him, our Maker, to tell us who he designed us to be.  For that to happen, we have to learn to believe him more instead of continuing to follow our unrefined instincts.

Copyrited material

[i] Jack Canfield and D. D. Watkins, Key to Living the Law of Attraction, (Deerfield Beach, FL:Health Communications,     Inc., 2008), 39.