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Tag: spiritual formation

What Does The Baptism of Christ Mean?

Image sources:, Artist: Daniel Bonnell

I was reading my Bible plan on youversion the other day when it led me to the baptism of Christ. I’d never thought much of the event before, but this time it stood out.

Why did Jesus submit to baptism? There are two parts to this answer we should explore: the role of baptism in Jewish life; and what baptism seems to represent in the New Testament Scripture. We will look only at the second for now.

Baptism represents several things. I believe that baptism is representative of repentance from sin, and it prepares our souls for public affiliation with Christ. But why would Christ himself need to be baptized? Is he not sinless? Is he not our master, the one by whom we are named? What is the significance of his act?

While thinking about this and reading a couple articles about this passage, I think that baptism is representative of work that is public and work that is private. Or maybe I’m more correct to say that Christ’s baptism reflected both private and public reality simultaneously. More than this, it referred to Christ’s present and future work, simultaneously.

In Matthew when Jesus says that his baptism fulfills all righteousness, that is a present reality. The reality of the death of Christ is already present to him and he is already working in the task he has been prepared for. It is like a war. When we speak of World War II, or Haiti’s War of Independence, we can think of it as a series of battles, but it is all one event historically. All of these events come together as a unified whole. This is how God sees the work of Christ. In submitting to baptism, Christ also indicates-privately since no one else has knowledge of the event at the time-his obedience to the Father’s plan for redemption of man. This is why He says He is well pleased with His Son. His Son has accepted the cross, and descending and ascending into and from the waters symbolizes his descent to and resurrection from death on the cross.

It is public because everyone witnesses these events. The completion and fulfillment of God’s plan is announced. But it is also indicative of future work. It points in human time to a future reality that will be fulfilled 3.5 years later at the conclusion of his public ministry. The baptism is a symbol that promises the completion of a future reality.

Therefore, the baptism is important because it is yet another testimony of God’s faithfulness to Himself and His promises. To Him, He has already completed His work in you, and your salvation and glorification is one complete and unified event. But he is also promising the fulfillment of a future reality. That you will be presented along with His Son faultless before the throne. It is private because your baptism indicates your obedient acceptance and participation in His plan. But it is public because you declare your identification with Christ in His death, burial, and resurrection.

Present and future, public and private.

Peace and blessings.

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From Sacred Space to Public Grace

I was at a Christmas party with my kids this past holiday season and I was conflicted. The music was hot, the kids were eating well, and everyone was merry. Problem was, I wasn’t enjoying myself. I was trying to figure out why. I mean, I like rap, I like R&B, I like Bruno mars and Beyonce, but today I was unable to enjoy their music. Why? Because this party was in church.

I was trying to figure out why I couldn’t enjoy myself:
-Was I taking a holier than thou attitude?
-Was I being hypocritcal?
-Don’t I hear this music in other places, like the gym?
-Would Jesus even care? Would he be that offended?

Then it hit me: this is supposed to be a sacred space. Then I had to think to myself, what is the role of the sacred in our lives? Why do we distinguish the sacred from the everyday, quotidan, profane?

The sacred is a display of public grace.

What do we mean when we say something is a public grace? Grace is displayed:
-because the sacred indicates our sense of God’s existence
-because the sacred indicates our need for God’s presence
-the sacred displays our desire to know and experience God
-the sacred expresses our submission to His perfections
-the sacred indicates our awareness of sin and need for purity
-the sacred reinforces our hope in the transcendent

When we say that something is profane, on the other hand, we mean to prioritize the lowly over the heavenly, the immediate over the right, the tangible over transcendent. Profanity obscures God, while the sacred is meant to reveal Him.

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Spiritual Calisthenics

Have you ever tried to do something that flat-out humiliates you? Something you have absolutely no idea how to do and is so far beyond your abilities? Don’t stop because thats a perfect metaphor for the spiritual life.

Train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.

1 Timothy 4:7b-8, NIV84

In fact, that’s exactly how I feel–that hopelessness and embarrassment–about calisthenics skills. Most other physical pursuits I’ve tried have seemed attainable if only I’d put more effort in. I’d either already mastered the movements, or at least have been familiar enough with appropriate foundational movement patterns that I was able to do it in a small number of tries. Basketball, soccer, weightlifting, and marathon running are simply not that difficult. They are all composed of very basic movement patterns that literally everyone uses every day of their lives. The coordination takes only a modest amount of training and practice to become proficient. You just add weight or try to move faster.

Body weight calisthenics skills are something else altogether. Instead of standing on your feet and legs-your strongest body parts-you stand on your hands and arms-much less strong. Instead of using your legs to perform explosive movements with your arms, you use your arms to perform explosive pull-ups and muscle ups. Your anterior core (abs) become no less important than your posterior core and shoulders for stabilizing body movements and isometrics. And almost none of the skills-planche, levers, handstands, crosses, etc.-have equivalent movement patterns commonly used in everyday life. It is embarrassing trying to learn skills that your body has literally never had to perform.

If we are honest, this is exactly what the life of the Spirit is like. In our everyday lives-especially in the US-our survival depends on our ability to be materialistic and self seeking. We have no need or practical experience with (so-called) esoteric spiritual practices that place a sense of the transcendent over our sense of self. We have no practical or useful experience prioritizing our ability to anticipate spiritual movements. We literally have no understanding of how to perform miracles or communicate in the unseen world using unlearned languages. It is exceedingly difficult for us to fight demons because we have been told from birth that they don’t exist. Therefore we live under curses and demonic possession unaware. We do not expect healing because we believe healing only happens in stories. Like in a handstand, our world is turned upside down.

Unfortunately, while you don’t need a handstand to face reality, you do need faith. If you want to live in God’s world, you must have faith in Him and know what pleases Him. You must learn to recognize his activity and learn to join what He is doing.

What can we do when our experience is wholly inadequate to reality? Well, we have some tips from the physical challenges posed by calisthenics skills. Notice that there is some level of baseline strength that one must have in order to turn your world on its head. You cannot attempt a handstand if you cannot do a push-up. And there are disciplines that start from where one is to progress them to the more advanced activities. You may not be able to perform a front lever raise today, but a number of exercises performed consistently over time can help you bridge the gap.

While there is much about our spiritual lives that is beyond our ability to control, there are basic disciplines we should pursue in obedience while our spiritual strength grows. Do you pray? Do you read and meditate on Scripture? Do you cultivate a heart of worship? You cannot expect to perform miracles or even be other-centered if you don’t consistently engage these basics first! Work on the basics and make room, by faith, for God to move in your life.

Build your spiritual core.

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Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community

It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.

Let me say that this statement contains a useful summary of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer believes to be the essence of Christian life, lived for the purpose of building up others in Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes this in the first chapter of his book, Life Together, which crystallizes his theology of Christian community. As time permits, I will try to share a few reflections from this book that I believe are encouraging. I have finished reading the book for some time, but it is difficult to write a review so I will share a few thoughts over the next week or two as I have opportunity. Let us start by discussing the quote above.

We see his emphasis on grace. If you have read more than one paragraph of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writing–in most cases even only one paragraph–you will know that Bonhoeffer believes that the grace of God in Christ is the reason for living. It is the rationale and motivation of our ethics. It is the breath of life and the substance of what we call death. To Bonhoeffer, grace is everything, and so it is fitting that this quote from his book, Life Together, begins with grace.

We see that his focus on grace yields to his acknowledgment that God allows us to live in community with other Christians. I’ve written recently about how much I am disappointed and dissatisfied by church. I think that Bonhoeffer, even if he saw exactly the same data that I experience, he would conclude that even the church experiences that I have had are a supreme gift of grace that must prompt a response of praise and gratitude and not one of self-righteous complaint. When Bonhoeffer wrote this book–one of his last–he was writing as a pastor who was a leader of a non-sanctioned non-denominational seminary in Germany during the Third Reich. Communities of authentic Christianity were not common. So he wrote this with the understanding that the enjoyment of Christian community for many could be abridged at any moment by the governing authorities. Thus, not only is it grace, but it is a privilege if God calls you to live in Christian community with others. If He calls you to respond to Truth in Christ, He does so without respect for your external circumstances. Many are called to labor alone. That is not my call in Christ, thank God. He allows me to live in community with other Christians.

And this brings us to the third thing we see here: community. If we are in Christ, our lives are not our own. Bonhoeffer understood that our lives are lived in Christ, through Christ, expressly for others and not for ourselves. To me, this truth is tricky because, of course, it is only possible for me to be self-aware, physiologically. I can only be aware of things that are revealed to me, speaking from what I understand of our cognitive processes. However, in Christ, our lives are not our own. Starting in my own household, since I am married my body belongs to my wife and not to myself. The desires of my children often come before my own, discipline notwithstanding. Choices that I can make, even if I do want to satisfy my own desires, are circumscribed by household resources that do not belong to me but to my household as a unit. And this is before I leave my doors. If I read the Scripture, yes I am transformed but my transformation affects my brothers and sisters. And much about my spiritual journey cannot be accomplished if I am isolated from my brothers and sisters. How can I experience grace if I never need to ask for forgiveness? How can I experience kindness if I am never put in a position to rely on the sovereign choices of others? I cannot develop self-control or patience if I am never subject to the will of another. I cannot exercise love or be loved if I am not in any relationships. It quickly becomes clear that what Christians call the fruit of the Spirit cannot be cultivated outside of community. It also becomes clear that these fruit are not produced for our own sustenance, but for the sustenance of the entire body.

How is God calling to you to live for the Body? In what ways can you thank God for the Christian communities around you?

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Count Not Just the Cost, But Also The Worth

We have been writing Lenten devotionals in our church’s Foreign Missions Ministry. This post was originally written to be published on our minstry’s blog, but it was not required. I think that I’d like to share it with you all on my personal blog, so here goes…

Today’s Scripture Focus: Luke 14:28-33

“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?    For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you,    saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’ “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?    If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.    In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.”

During my discipleship class this week, we were discussing this passage. If you turn to Luke 14 in your Bible, and start reading from verse 25, you will see that Jesus had been followed by very large crowds. Seeing the condition of their (and our) hearts, He says to them “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.    And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” These are probably among the most famous words in the Bible. Jesus is clearly telling us that it will cost us everything to follow Him.

But this time, reading this passage, I couldn’t help feeling that we were missing something.

I think that Jesus knew we’d miss the point, so He uses a parable to explain why it is that it is worth giving up everything.  This pair of parables is our Scripture focus today.  First, Jesus compares to a builder who “estimates the cost” of his building and evaluates the plans that have been established. Second, Jesus compares to a king who is about to go to war and considers “whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand.” This is strikingly different than what Jesus says above in that we must “hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters…” How does the “hate” meet up with “estimate the cost.”

I believe Jesus uses these parables to show us that our focus should not be on what we are losing, but what we are gaining! The point is not to fail to build the house, but to make sure your secure the mortgage before you start! The point is not to stay home from war, but to make sure you have 20,000 troops or alliances that will protect you!

So, what am I saying. Why does God tell us count the cost? Because we are to clearly see that God’s life, and life with God is much more valuable than anything that we currently have.  This is the goal. And anything less than life with God is like building on a foundation without securing the mortgage. Living this life without rebirth in Jesus is like us in our will and wisdom (10,000 men) going up against God and His holiness in eternity (20,000 men).  The foolishness of this task is just as clear as the folly shown by the foolish builder or the foolish king. This foolishness is compounded by the fact that the solution is simple in both cases.  Consider buying a home: very few of us have the tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars required to build a home. However, the value of home ownership for building wealth is worth so much to many people in our culture that we see clearly the advantage of committing to a debt greater than a substantial part of our financial worth in order to pursue the vision of homeownership. While many of us will spend the majority of our working adult lives paying down our mortgages, it is not seen as a sacrifice at all.  Consider the king going to war. If one can’t defeat his adversary, he goes to him and makes terms of peace. One will have to give up his autonomy and live under the King’s authority, but it is infinitely worth it. If we make peace with God, we will be part of His Kingdom!

Of course, to make peace with God, we must give up everything that we have (v. 33). But, in view of the alternatives, this is not a sacrifice at all! We are the opposing king who has just been made an ally in the most powerful kingdom in all eternity!

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#66: God brought you through the struggle… Now what?

Last night, I was asked to share my testimony with the Navigators fellowship at Bowie State University. I shared, but departed greatly from my prepared comments, so I’m writing an abridged version of my thoughts here. A few points of background to start:

1.) The Navigators is a Christian organization emphasizing one to one discipleship. On campus, new members and new believers start out in introductory small groups, then progress to smaller, life-sharing relationships facilitated by more senior students and Nav interns. The campus ministry is led and directed by a Nav missionary.

2.) Bowie State is an HBCU in Bowie, MD. I love HBCUs, having attended one, and I was so excited to have been a part of that fellowship last night. The students are dedicated and colorful. I missed the expressiveness and rhythm that was the background of my Howard life, and I had a taste of that back last night.

Let’s go now to the thoughts:

So, it should be apparent now that Rev. Osaze and I are good friends and he is one of my role models. Let me say something here that I say to myself on the way to the classes I teach that I’d first heard on one of his albums: “Dear Lord, if anything’s said of me, help them to forget it; if anything is said of you, help them to remember it. Bring glory to yourself in Jesus’ name.”

There is a hip hop artist who sings a song that resonates very much with my life. Da T.R.U.T.H. has a song, “My Story,” with a lyric that goes something like this: “I ain’t got no horror story, God kept me in my youth I give Him all the glory!”

When I first heard this song, I realized that we often enthusiastically seek God when we are deep in trials, especially trials that attend poverty, poor choices, and poor discipline. We ask God to remove from us the vicissitudes of abuse and structural violence, and hold those who survive such madness in special esteem. Overcoming trials gives us special purpose, but when the trials are removed, what purpose motivates us?

I realized that I had this problem, because I’d be ashamed that I didn’t come through anything major or have any drama in my life. And I see around me in the fellowships I’m in almost an apology for God’s material blessings and protection over their lives. How ironic that we always ask for God’s protection, then treat His provisions with contempt! This contempt is the reason poorer communities are full of faith, while wealthier ones forsake God and trust in their riches.

But when God keeps you, what will you do? You must solve this dilemma now. It is urgent, don’t wait! God gives wealth and provision so you can focus on Him and fix your gaze on Him. What is the purpose of life when you’ve all you want and need? Where can you go to get a large enough vision for a blessed life? You must resolve to see God.

[a brief aside, that last sentence is so much more important when your life revolves around ideas… being convinced is not the same as being convicted. more on this some other time]

If you do not resolve this motivation in your heart, you risk glorifying the struggle without a vision for your time of blessing. The Biblical account of Israel’s history testifies to this truth repeatedly.  If you trust in God, he’s there. But without a vision for our blessed times, we perish despite our resources. Trust in wealth, he withdraws. One of the clearest examples of this in the Scripture is Israel’s national state of affairs when the priest Samuel was called.  At that time, Israel had enjoyed 400 years of freedom from Egypt, and had failed to trust God.  On the contrary everyone “did what was right in his own eyes.”  Consequently, God had not been speaking for some time… [Samuel 3:1 (ESV) “Now the young man Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. And the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision.”]

As I said earlier, we see this withdrawal in our lives. We do not hear God speak, or tangibly feel his presence.  As a result, if you feel that you have the resources to make it through your circumstances, you see no need for God.  In short, Poor=religious:Rich=self reliance.

But why is it that we don’t hear from God, when we know that He is always there? The short answer: We don’t invest in God. Consider some common choices we make that reflect our priorities: “Have you ever taken a vacation day away from work to pray or read the Bible?” “Have you ever been late to a business meeting because you were in prayer or reflection?” “Have you ever sacrificed time with work or hobbies to get just a little more time with God?” [When evaluating priorities, apply this to other things we also claim are important to us… like our wives, kids, etc…]

Investing in God does not mean just “spending quite time” with Him.  Rather, investing in God is planned, intentionally structured Bible reading, querying, reflection, meditation, and prayer.  It requires a lifetime of dedication, the results of which many may not see in this lifetime.  We often marvel at the spiritual fortitude of those who have mastered spiritual investment, but rarely desire the transformational benefit of God’s full presence enough to make the requisite sacrifices.

I believe that we are not necessarily creatures of habit more than we are creatures of investment. If you follow this blog, you know that I am a new engineering professor who is training for a 10-mile race.  This is approximately 1.7x my distance PR at the time I chose to run.  If I am to be successful, making a habit of running everyday will not suffice.  Making planned investments in consistent training, rest, and diet will.  Another example is my friend Tylon training as an amateur bodybuilder.  When I first met Ty, he was slim and totally unimposing.  Now, folks ask him what his secret is for “getting big.”  He has made planned investments in his training, rest schedule for each muscle group, and careful approach to his diet over the past 8 years. The difference between investment and habit is planning and intention over long periods of time.  Investments are non-linear in their returns, and operate according to systems dynamics that make them highly sensitive to small changes in inputs and sometimes path dependent.  According to this definition, ask yourself what you are currently investing in?

Last semester when I was starting as a professor, I asked myself “What am I consistent in?” “What am I investing for?” I noticed for me, it was nothing! Not physical endurance, not academic excellence, not my family, and certainly not God. It is hard to invest in God because we cant see Him, and He controls the reward. He reveals Himself, or dwells with us at His initiative. Investing in God requires planned and structured approaches to study of the Scriptures, study of history and philosophy, and, most importantly, structured time in solitude and prayerful meditation.  Not only that, but building on the non-linear reality of good investments, God never entrusts His presence in individuals who do not invest in Him over long periods of time.  I realized that I was losing a lot of time and spiritual power not seeking God just for God.  It is hard to invest in God, yes.  But if we don’t, what are we really saying we want from Him?

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i decided i’d use my first blog to welcome you to the page and let you know what all this is going to be about…. here, i’ll give you all a chance to peer into my life just a little bit, especially into what i’m experiencing as my life lived out in Jesus Christ unfolds before my eyes, at his command…. i want to let people know that i experience the uncertainty, i experience the pain of doubt, but that i am also assured that transformation is taking place, that my mind and heart are being remade…

my page is named “seed.planted” because Jesus said “unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it will bear no fruit… but if it falls to the ground and dies, it will bear much fruit…” my life has been planted, and God has done what only he can do: allow me to die to my flesh and be born again by the Holy Spirit. now, what this all means, i’m still learning each and everyday. this explains the address of this blog: “fertile-paradox…” certainly, the word of God which brings salvation to all who believe has fallen on fertile ground; the paradox of course is that my life often exhibits such selfishness, doubt, death, and disobedience that is not the fruit of a life of faith… i have realized my life is a paradox because, while God gives us ultimate responsibility for the fate of our souls, we are at the mercy of forces which are far beyond us… but we can also serve a God whose power is far beyond ours!…

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