What Can We Count On?

What can we count in our life with God?

Let's talk about grace for a minute. Grace is a beautiful word, but somewhat mysterious. Most of us have been taught that it is "unmerited favor". But that doesn't quite capture it for me. 

Perhaps the simplest way to think of Grace is as God's help... as His assistance... it is where He does things for us that we cannot do for ourselves.

This of course, can be applied to large issues like forgiveness and salvation. But Grace can also be for every day things:

  • Grace can be God giving us courage, or hope or understanding when we need it.
  • Grace can be protecting us from the worst of ourselves.
  • Grace can be meeting a physical or emotional need in us.
  • Grace can be energy to do what God asks.
  • Grace is the fuel we burn when we forgive others.
  • Grace is the power we use when we turn away from  temptation.
  • Grace is there when we laugh and sing and worship and love.

Most profoundly, grace is what we can always count on from God. He is always present to us to give us what we need for any situation. And when we receive anything from him, it is always grace.

That means, as we learn to be present to God in our lives, we can turn to him and expect to receive grace (what we need) in all circumstances. We can count on it. We can take that to the bank.

Grace to you this week!

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At a conference I was at a few weeks ago, a philosopher shared this story:

He was spending time with his young son, swinging him on the swing set.  Absentmindedly, he had taken out his phone and was scrolling through emails.

His son asked him, "Dad, will there ever be this moment again?' 
"Son, do you mean will there ever be this exact moment in time again?"
"No, Dad, will there ever be this moment again?"
"Do you mean will there every be this specific moment on this particular day and time again?
"No Dad, will there every be THIS moment again?"

The penny finally dropped and the man realized, that this moment was an absolute one -off. There would never be that exact moment again.  There might be moments like it in the future, but that one moment, at that time, was going to happen and then be gone.

He finally replied, "No son, there will never be this moment again."

And then he slipped his phone into his pocket, determining to be present with his son in that moment in a deeper way.

Here is to being present to the people in your life, in the exact moment you are in, in a much deeper way this week.

Grace & Peace.
Brad Swope

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The Beauty of Joyous Competency

Last week, I had the opportunity to go to a spiritual formation conference. It was an academic conference that included presentations by theologians, philosophers, professors, pastor's and spiritual directors - both men and women, young and old, those with terminal degrees and those still  in process.

Though the material was rich, I was more impressed with those who presented.

  • First, each presenter was amazing competent in their subject. They knew what they were talking about and had given much time and care to crafting their papers.
  • Second, each presented with a lot of humility. In academic settings, knowledge usually puffs academics up, but it was obvious to me that these people were approachable, humble and self-effacing. 
  • Third, each had a quality of joy and passion in and for their work. It was obvious in the way they presented.

So I've been thinking about what it looks like to also pursue what I am called to do with a joyous, humble competency. First, to know what I am talking about (no faking it); then to know I still have lots to learn (authenticity) and finally to exhibit both joy and passion in doing my job (being fully present to my work), all to the glory of God.

In the field of work you are called to work in (be it a 9-5 job or as a stay at home parent), what would it look like to pursue joyous humble competency in it, both to and for the glory of God.

Grace & Peace,

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Really Listening

When was the last time someone really listened to you?  Has it been awhile?

Listening includes giving someone unhurried space to express themselves without trying to give advice or solve the problem.  It includes asking questions or using prompts to draw the person out so that they "get out" what they need to.  

Someone listened to me last week (my wife) and in the space of just a few short minutes, the tension I had been feeling was resolved.  What had been eating at me all week was dissipated after she simply took time to listen to me. 

Listening is a great gift that you can give others and one of the best ways to show someone love.

Unfortunately, listening is a skill very few people have developed and is thus in short supply in our world. But, since it is a skill, it is something we can get better at.

Sometime this week, practice listening to someone.

Quiet your mind, still your "ready reply", and give someone space to express themselves... and see what happens as you begin to listen.

Grace & Peace,

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Injecting Meaning

In the scriptures, the technical word for a complete unit of thought is a pericope (think, a passage of scripture, rather than a verse).

Now think of your day as not being made up of moments but of pericopes...units of attention/time/energy given to something.

Now think about what portions of your day (pericopes) seem mundane to you... the daily commute, folding laundry, cutting grass, paperwork etc...

What would happen if you were to intentionally try to inject meaning into each pericope of your day?  What would happen if you were to ask yourself, "How can this section of my day be meaningful? How can I see it from God's perspective? How can I join God in what he is doing even in these mundane moments?"

I have been doing this as a little experiment in the last week, and I have found it brings life to what often feels lifeless to us ... 

How will the way I greet my wife in the morning be meaningful?
How will my interaction with contractors be meaningful?
How will the way I talk with my kids before bed be meaningful?
How will my drive to work be meaningful?

I think that this kind of thoughtful approach to injecting meaning into the mundane has to be what Jesus meant when he said, "Seek first the Kingdom of God..."

Grace & Peace, 
Brad Swope

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How We Come to Perceive the World

We all operate with a basic myth that we are able to perceive the world objectively and describe and relate to it as such. It's a myth because what we don't realize is that often there are previous concepts or ideas that we have in our minds, that influence how we perceive reality, before we perceive it.

For example, I don't just see a woman in front of me, but  I have ideas and concepts about what a woman is, which influence how I see the actual woman in front of me and relate to her. If the dominate concept in my mind  is that a woman is a sexual object (this week is the SI swimsuit issue week), then I will see the woman in front of me for how desirable or undesirable she is. I will not see the person herself (her identity, her name, her story, her family, her desires, her dreams), I will perceive her only according to the dominant thought construct that is in place.

The Bible tells us that we are to replace concepts that come from a culture that is largely set against God, with concepts that flow from the heart of God &lead us into the world to relate to it correctly.

Weeks ago, I preached on the Imago Dei, the image of God, reflected both in male and female. I was attempting to replace other concepts (people as adversaries, people as less than us, people as competitors, people as enemies, people as unworthy, people as objects) with this biblical one.

If you see that each person you meet is made in the image of God, is called into being by God, is intrinsically valuable, and is inherently loved by God, it may change how you relate to them.

With this in mind now read this passage in 2 Corinthians 10:4 - "The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ."

Consider today, how the bible, under the influence of the spirit, in the context of the church community is in the business of simply replacing ideas and concepts that are contra to the kingdom of God with those that are foundational to it.

Seeing this, may actually influence how you read it. As we read, we can ask, "How is the Bible/Spirit teaching me to see the world I live in? How is this different than the world I live in?"

Happy Reading!


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Redeeming Time

Last week we talked about how speed, hurry, & busyness are all enemies of love. This week we want to talk about the nature of time.

As the Genesis account teaches us that linear time is part of God's creation... It did not exist until God called it into being.  It existed then as a wholly good part of the cosmos. 

But sin warped all parts of God's creation when it entered the world, which means it also warped time.  Time now exists in a broken state. 

In this broken state, we serve time, we fear the passage of time, there never seems to be enough time, we are always trying  to make more time... 

But since God's plan is to redeem "all things" effected by the fall, that means that time can also be redeemed. 

So the question is, what does redeemed time look like? To me...

- Redeemed time now is seen as a gift from GodHe gives it to us. We receive it gratefully 
- Redeemed time now is seen as the servant not the master.  It does not drive us, it serves us.
- Redeemed time is used for God's purposes and for his glory. Like Jesus, we try to follow the spirit in using wisely the time we have been given.

What might that look like practically? Each day is received from God and we thank him for it. And then we go into our days seeking a way to wisely steward our time, investing in the things that matter most.

- That includes worship, and pursing a depth of relationship with God
- That includes our work, our relationships, our health, our rest
- That includes the work of the church, the work of evangelism, the work of compassion, the work of hospitality etc...

I wonder if this might help us understand Matt 11:28 - where Jesus promises us rest, if we only take his yoke upon us.

So this week, meditate on the idea that God is redeeming  your time, and that time is now to be received as a gift, and used wisely. And so enter God's rest.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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What Busyness Does to Love

There was a social experiment that was done at a Christian University. Students were told to prepare a talk on the meaning of the story of the Good Samaritan. They were then given instructions as to where on campus they had to go to give the talk.

Some students were given only just enough time to get there and others were given more time.

Positioned in the route of all the students was a person who appeared to be injured.

Most of the students who would have been late had they stopped to help, didn't stop. They could not connect the content of their talk to the real life situation because hurry blinded them. Most of the students with more time did stop, since they had time to see and stop and provide some care.

Were either set of students more moral or virtuous than the other?

No, the only difference was time.

The truth is busyness does violence to love ... hurry is the enemy of love.

Next week, we will explore the idea that God wants to teach us to redeem time.

But for this week, think about what it might look like to not be driven by time or blinded by time, so that we can be present to God and to each other, and so have the space to love and serve.

Grace & Peace,

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Dealing With Reality

A theology that does not deal with reality as it is is not robust enough. A theology that denies reality is a bad theology. 

Christians live in a broken world. And we live in it as broken people. The fullness of God's redemption will be a future reality, but one in which we only experience only partly in this life.  

That means that as Christians, we too will have to deal with addiction, mental illness, depression, conflict, sickness, unemployment, disease, broken relationships, fractured emotions etc...

When we experience these things, it is not necessarily because of personal sin, or a lack of faith, or unbelief. While these things might contribute,sometimes, its just the state of the world we find ourselves in. And often much of it is out of our control.

I think how we respond to these things is vitally important. The twin poles of seeing God as personal genie and despair/hopelessness must be avoided.

Instead, we look to God for our daily bread, asking for his intervention, but always prepared to receive what he gives, even if it not what we asked for.

In these times, with open hands and hearts, we receive courage, power to persevere, hope, and comfort.

If this is your season, we join you in praying for daily bread... the bread you need for today, and today alone.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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Christianity and Magic

A few years ago, the world was taken by storm by the Harry Potter books and movies - and why not? The characters and story line were compelling.

But also compelling was the fantasy of these young people learning the right spells, charms and potions to make things happen magically that they could not make happen naturally.

What is often missed however, is that there was no magic to the deepest themes in the book - friendship, courage, sacrificial love - no potion  or charm was offered to help the characters learn these things.

They had to learn them as they went through a life that was filled with trials, tests and tragedies.

Sometimes, within our Christian faith, we think that Christianity should function  a little more like magic - say the right prayer, practice the right spiritual exercise, worship in the right church - and God will "magically" make your life right and whole.

But the truth is that the major themes of our faith are arrived at only by the long pilgrimage of people who travel through a life that always includes trials, testing and tragedy, so as to arrive at the most worthwhile things in our faith - maturity, community, forgiveness, reconciliation and love.

This is what I think Psalm 23 communicates to us - God's abiding shepherding presence is available to us to guide us to green pastures and still waters, on right paths, and through dark valleys, until we are seated at God's banqueting table, and all the time, we are convinced that his love and mercy will follow us all of our days.

If you suffer now, if life is hard, if you are being tested, it doesn't necessarily mean you are doing anything wrong. Instead, it probably is God using these things to form in you what he deems best and most long lasting.

Trust him and look to him to guide you, and be convinced that his love and mercy will follow you all the days of your life.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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New Year Realities

You wake up on January 2nd, and you realize the holidays are officially over.  

And then you realize that the time you had planned to set aside during the holidays to think, to reflect, to plan has evaporated. You had wanted to do some "soul" work, but alas that time was filled up with travel and parties, people and activities.

With the first cup of coffee on Jan. 2nd, you recognize that the new year is upon you, work now begins again in earnest, routine kicks back in and you are not quite sure you are ready for it.

The truth is that we usually put unrealistic expectations on the holidays to do "soul work." So rather than regretting the way you did spend your time, as the new year begins, here are a few things you might do to get ready for the new year:

1) Invite God to meet you where you are at (he is your good shepherd who promises to lead you to green pastures and quiet waters).

2) Make whatever small changes you can to your schedule so that you can daily spend time with God in these first few weeks (get quiet with God and expect him to speak).

3) With God's direction, make a few decisions, and ground them well (instead of trying to bring a lot of change to a lot of areas, let God direct you to what may lead to lasting change in a few vital areas).

Grace to you in this new year, found in God's abiding presence.
Peace to you in this new year, found in God's healing work in your life.

Brad Swope

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Asking & Waiting

As finite beings,we often find ourselves in places where we have no power to influence or control things.  (Increasingly, as I get older, I am more in touch with my limitations).

When you come to the end of yourself  as a believer, you have only two options. Both involve asking. One  involves waiting.

Option # 1 - You can ask God to intervene miraculously. The Bible is full of this kind of asking and it should be our first response to crisis or trouble.  

      But when we ask, and God chooses not to act, we then go to option #2

Option # 2 - You can begin to pray/intercede. The Bible is full of stories of God's people patiently asking, and patiently waiting for God to respond as they pray (Abraham, Joseph, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Paul,  etc...).

- This is the definition of long suffering or patient endurance. It is part and parcel to the Christian life. It is a  posture of trust, and of watching and of waiting for God's deliverance.

- This is what I believe Paul had in mind when he instructed the early church to "pray without ceasing"... He wanted them to take on the posture of prayer and intercession ... of turning to God and trusting him to act, in his good time and in his good ways.

Option # 3 - I guess there is a third option... despair/giving up... but this is the path of cynicism and hopelessness.

If you have found yourself choosing option #3 in some part of your life (as I have found myself), ask God for the strength to choose option # 2 again. There is much to learn and much he can teach us when we adopt such a posture

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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God Carried Us Through

This weekend my wife and I had a chance to get away for our 22nd wedding anniversary. We had a great time, and I won't bore you with the details.  But one thing that stood out to us over the weekend was God's goodness and faithfulness.

Over dinner, we talked through the 22 years we have been together, the highs/the lows, the disappointments/ the triumphs, the lean years & years that were more prosperous, etc...

It was a rich time of remembering the journey, and it was clear to us how God had carried us through... had watched over us... had provided for us every step of the way. 

In any one moment, we may feel vulnerable, alone, afraid... but in a lifetime of relating with God, we can look back and can see God's hand in our lives and so add our testimony to those who have come before us.

Psalm 86:15 - "But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness."

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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All Saints Day

This Wednesday is All Saints Day and unless you are from a Catholic, Orthodox, or Anglican background you may not have ever celebrated this day or thought much about it. Without getting into all the history, the basic premise of the day is sound. On this day, we remember all  those who have come before us who have shaped our faith. We remember and we thank God for them.

So as to stir your memory ...here is an exercise you can do...

Start by asking...
Who of his Saints did God use to bring you into his Kingdom? 
Who shared their faith with you? Who mentored you?  Who prayed over you? 
What church and what tradition informs you understanding of biblical truth?
What modern writers, thinkers, or pastors have shaped your understanding of God? 
What ancients writers, thinkers of pastors have shaped your understanding  of God?

Now go back further:
Think about the early church - the apostles and leaders teaching,  witnessing and sharing what Christ had deposited in them.
Think about the earliest Christians...practicing & sharing  their new faith.
Think about the generations  of Christians that followed, each one passing the faith on to the next.
Think about all the key leaders God raised up in every generation to lead and pastor his flock.

Now go back further:
Think about the patriarchs,  the judges, the kings, the prophets, the priests, and the Psalmists - all embodying what faith looked like in their day.
Think about the scribes, the copyists, and the teachers of the law who faithfully transmitted the Torah.

Hebrews 12:1 - "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus,the pioneer and perfecter of faith."

Grace and Peace,
Brad Swope

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Drivel & Distraction

A challenge: Much of our technology is supposed to save time and make our life easier. But do we ever actually save time and so have time left over?  (Imagine technology saving you so much time you have an extra hour each day?)... Or does the time we save just mean we cram more into our lives?

If in this fall we are talking about ruthlessly eliminating hurry, practicing being present to people, and practicing sabbath rest... it means we must deal with busyness, and distraction.

We must consider if we are giving our time to meaningful things or to drivel & distraction:

...if time saved (or created) is then used for things we believe in and are life giving, or given to that which we have no memory of the next day

Do we have  time in our lives... to think, consider, reflect, read, rest, relate?

Or is it filled with activity, distraction and amusement (the work means "no think")

As we try to slow down and have more margin, let's also consider what to fill our lives with and what to eliminate.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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What is "Well-Being?"

Who is really well off? How do we define well being?  Can we feel secure in an insecure world?

Typically, in the west, "well-being" is largely a function of money (the well-off, have the most; the well -off are the most secure; the well-off have it made).

But somewhere deep inside, we know that money really can't ground our being or secure our existence. (You probably have more money and possessions than you did 20 years ago... Do you feel more secure?)

Here is a different approach to finding our worth and security...

  • The Bible tells us that God created everything ex-nihilo (out of nothing); that all material existence is sustained by his immaterial being; that he is the basis of reality.
  • It tells us that we can know God in Christ.  It tells us that this knowledge brings us into life now that will bleed into eternity ( an eternal kind of life).
  • It tells us that those who enter into life have it in abundance. It tells us that nothing can take this life from us. 

That means the most well-off people in the universe are those who know him, who are sustained by him, whose existence is secured by him. 

Romans 8:35 - "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?...  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

If God secures our lives now, and then for all eternity, then we truly are the most secure, the most well-off people in the world.

Brad Swope

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Being Present, Right Now

How often do you find that your mind is not on the moment you are in, but you are thinking instead about something that has happened previously, or thinking about what something that is about to happen?

For instance, you had something upsetting happen earlier and you are still dwelling on it, OR you have a big meeting later in the day and it is on your mind.

A person with you might say, "Where is your head right now?" What they are really saying is, "You aren't present with me right now."

In the same way, how often do you find yourself, distracted with your phone/social media, even though you are with people, OR unable to focus on what you need, to so you turn to something like social media?
We might say that the phone and its applications have largely robbed us of being present to others, or that when we don't want to be present to something difficult, we seek out distraction.

Today, I sat down at Starbucks to work... and I had a lot of work to get down in a short time, but, because I am practicing being present, was aware of the person next to me, and when they struck up a conversation, was ready to be present.

It turns out she is a former Muslim who had just started going to church, and that she had just lost her mother to cancer. We had an amazing conversation and I was able to encourage her and pray for her.

I say this because - this moment would not have happened unless I was actively seeking to be present to God and/or to the people around me in the way I am not usually.

I also practiced this last night when instead of turning on the TV in my tired state, I tried to be present to my children and spent 30 minutes with my son, hanging in the hammock.

As part our fall challenge, I wonder what will happen in your life if you are aware of how often we are not present to the moment, and, if you ask God to help you with this, what you might discover.

Grace & Peace,
Brad Swope

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Finding Our Lives - a Spiritual Challenge

Yesterday, as part of a fall  spiritual challenge, I named three things that I felt God was challenging all of us to work on as a church this fall:

1) To Ruthlessly Eliminate Hurry
2) To Practice Being Present
3) To Practice Sabbath Rest

For the next three weeks I will talk about each of these in turn. This will give us a chance to go more in depth and to compare notes as to what we learn

Over twenty years ago, Dallas Willard said something to me and a group of twenty something pastors that I have never forgotten, but never applied. He said that for our lives to flourish as disciples we had to "ruthlessly eliminate hurry."

Standing where I am, I see that he was a prophet, predicting where all the technological advances would take us as a culture. We are hurried, harried, busy and driven. We over commit, plan poorly, and are not master of our own schedules. So we rush around like chickens with our heads cut off.

What does hurry do to us?
1) We miss important things when we hurry
2) We treat people poorly when we hurry
3) We cannot be present to God's direction when in a hurry.  
4) We cannot be present to people when we are in a hurry.
5) We introduce unneeded anxiety into our lives when we are in a hurry.

What would it look like to eliminate hurry?
1) You would have to own your schedule
2) You would have to cut some things out
3) You would have to be ok with some margin in your day

What we might do to eliminate hurry?
1) I am planning to build ten minutes before and after things I have planned this week
2) I am working on my schedule now, trying to see what needs to be cut out to create more space

Who else wants to practice "ruthlessly eliminating hurry" with me this week? What ideas do you have?

Grace & Peace,

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Yes it is time for the annual "Seasons" blog post.  Yesterday I dropped off my daughter at college. This week fall sports begin for two of my kids.  The class I teach at William Jessup started a week ago. Vacation is long behind our family, and a full fall lies ahead.

Every turn of season means saying goodbye to one way of living/being/relating and saying hello to another. If summer gives us more space to relax, travel, BBQ etc... the fall feels like a time of engaging more fully in our work lives.

(My mother told me today that after a busy season of hosting many people at her house, she feels like God is leading her into a season of rest. The former season left her empty, a bit fragile, and exhausted. She hopes the new season of less activity will be restorative to her.)  

The change of season always reminds me that there are seasons in our spiritual lives as well. There are flourishing seasons of faith and seasons where the fields of faith lie fallow; there are seasons where we feel engaged, and seasons where we feel detached; seasons when God feel present and seasons where he seems hidden from us.

The key to know is that God is NEVER absent from any season of your life. He is always at work in our lives.  What season you are in?  And what does God want to do in this season of your life? 

Brad Swope

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