Category: Spiritual Formation


This is my rendition of Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus which I completed in 2015.

A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light.

Leonardo da Vinci 

I have read in Plato and Cicero sayings that are wise and very beautiful; but I have never read in either of them: Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden.

St. Augustine

Almost twenty-five years ago, shortly after becoming a Christian, I came across a remarkable painting. I was at my school’s library in downtown Chicago—Grant Park was right outside the window from where I sat. As I turned the page of a book, the 15th century Italian painter Michelangelo Caravaggio’s The Supper at Emmaus caught my eye.  I was flipping through a bunch of books that I had grabbed off the shelves. I was just wasting time, waiting for a class to begin.  Immediately, this painting caught my eye, because it wasn’t your typical “religious” artwork. In fact, it was almost too non-descript, and at first I didn’t realize that it was a painting depicting anything sacred or religious—it just looked like a painting of a few guys eating lunch together. I’ve only seen this painting in art books, and one day, I hope to venture to the National Gallery in London and see it up close.

That day when I caught sight of this painting, it began for me a new way of seeing Jesus. Something was special about this painting, made up of nothing more than oils placed with some thought and skill on the canvas. As I sat and stared at it, I realized why it held my attention, and I recognized its uniqueness. It was how the characters looked. When I open up an art book now and flip to the painting, I realize that it depicts the friendship of God in an astonishing manner. Back then, you know what caught my eye? Simply this: Jesus looks real. Gone is the blond hair and blue eyes. He looks like a real Hebrew guy, olive skin and all. Caravaggio did something earth-shattering in his time as an artist—he painted Jesus like a real person; amazingly, he looked human and real to life. In fact, very uncommon for his time, most of Caravaggio’s models were peasants from local villages. Instead of painting the noble and the wealthy as his models for John the Baptist, Jesus or any other biblical character, he was painting the cobblers, fishermen and maidens of his day, and therefore, when it came to religious art, for the first time ever, his paintings took on a look that was authentic and true.

In this painting of Caravaggio’s, Jesus looks like a person, someone you could know, the guy next door. He seems approachable. This is the operative word—Jesus in this painting looks like a person. Before this, in the art world—for the artist, Jesus was never a person—he was just “God.” Most of the artists in this period were painting the “majestic Christ”—the unapproachable Jesus, the one on the throne, the one you needed to schedule by appointment. But none of this actually captured the biblical narrative, because as we know, Jesus really is a person, a friend, someone who is very approachable. With Caravaggio’s interpretation, you see this “friend” aspect come out onto the canvas. Jesus is just hanging out, eating a meal and shootin’ the breeze. When I saw this painting in my early years of being a Christian, this was the Jesus I wanted to get to know. You could get close to him, and this was what I wanted. Unlike other religious art I had seen up to that point, it captured Jesus as someone you would want to get to know. As a contrast, look at some of the artwork from this period or earlier, and you will notice that the characterizations of Jesus are oblong and uncomfortable. Let me illustrate some examples; you might have seen some paintings depicting Jesus like this:

  • Painting No. 1: Baby Jesus is pure white, and his face looks like he’s 59 years old—wrinkled and balding. He wears a smirk, a baptismal gown and a bratty look.
  • Painting No. 2: Jesus has his kingly pose, no smile, and wearied look. It looks as if he might want to think about getting a prescription for some Prozac.

Again, these portrayals of Jesus aren’t realistic. They don’t tell the story that the Bible tells. These works of art do not depict Jesus as he really is. However, Caravaggio was getting into it, painting as if he was there, sitting at the very table, and showing you something sacred and important. This is the Jesus we are going to try to encounter in this blog. The real one.

In: Spiritual Formation

When I was in middle school, I loved basketball. I was always next door at the Egan’s shooting hoops with kids in the neighborhood or by myself. I was so dedicated and I have many memories of playing in the dead of the winter wearing out gloves my mom bought me.

My freshman year I went out for the team and made it. However, I was the proverbial bench player. When I did play, I was awful – my hands just didn’t work like they did when I was playing next door. After that season, I realized I just wasn’t very good at basketball, not at least playing at the high school level. That was a very deflating experience because  I thought what now? What do I do with my life now—I really thought I might be the next Dr. J…

That spring, I decided I would ditch basketball and take up tennis. Now this was different from playing basketball; right from the start I was fairly decent. While I wasn’t the worlds greatest tennis player, I did play on the team throughout my high school years and was probably good enough to play at the college where I went. There was difference in playing tennis versus basketball—it was natural for me.

This taught me an important lesson which I keep relearning in my life. When it applies to what you do whether it is your work or what you do for fun, you should:

  • Spend your time focusing on things that you are innately gifted at
  • Spend your time focusing on things in your life that are life-giving

Sometimes I meet people who do the opposite of this. They spend a lot of time doing things that they are not gifted at and most importantly, pursue things that are not life-giving.  Now granted when it comes to what we do for a living we sometimes don’t have a choice in these matters. However, what we do outside of that part of our life, it is vital that we focus on pursuits that are life-giving.

As one example in my life today, painting is very life-giving for me. While I don’t have the talent of a Van Gogh, I am also not too shabby. By putting this into practice, I’ve gotten better and most importantly, when I paint I get energized and it flows into other areas of my life. This is just one of those life-giving aspects—it is when you know that you are becoming good at doing something.

The other thing is this—doing these types of things also help me to connect in my relationship with God at a deep level. Essentially, painting for me is worship. It is a  time in which I can release the stress of the day. It is a time in which I can try to tune into his voice. Like many who might be into woodworking, knitting, running, you name any hobby—I am not only learning on how to do something well, this thing that I do also strengthens my relationship with God.

So what do you do on a regular basis with your free time that is life-giving?

In: Spiritual Formation

One of my favorite assignments while in seminary was in a Systematic Theology class  where we had to write creeds and confessions. A creed or confession is simply a statement about some aspect of faith for an individual or community. Creeds are not intended to be comprehensive, but to be a summary of core beliefs and in writing them, it can help us fine tune what we believe. It is a wonderful and thought-provoking exercise to put down on paper in terms of what you believe about a certain issue. I highly recommend you try it. Below are some of my beliefs about God.

From the beginning, He shows us that he is the Creator; He created the heavens, the earth and all that lives. He made the seen and the unseen: ocean and wind; animals and angels.[1]  Most importantly, he created us, his masterpiece and child.[2] An important part of his nature is creativity as seen by all that he has uniquely made. God is an uncreated Spirit, and he is substantially more than any person we could imagine.[3]

God is holy and is vastly different from us and anything he created; he is dependent on nothing and no person, and indestructible from any power or person.[4]Everything separated from him has no life.[5] There is no place where he can not be found and likewise, there is nothing that can contain him.[6] God is always right in everything he does; not once has he made a mistake or been wrong in a decision. He is fair and full of mercy; nothing evil is found in him.

There is a security found in God. He does not change in his character; he is consistent and constant. He is perfect and good in every way. However, he must always reject anything opposed to the way he designed the world, namely sin. He is honest; he always speaks the truth and can not lie. At the same time, he can be deeply moved; just as with him, it is he who gave us our emotions.[7]

God moves the world in the direction of his purpose. He knows the beginning, the end, and most everything in between. But because He has chosen to make children rather than dolls, he doesn’t know every detail.[8] He is strong and able for anything; nothing can stand in his way.[9] Because of this relationship, God can be flexible in our relationship with him. By living in relationship with us, he sometimes changes his mind on account of us.[10] Though he is in control, he is not controlling. He can take charge, but he can also leave us room to move and grow. However, he does give us the choice to follow him or walk away;  if we do choose to walk away, we will experience our greatest loss.[11]

God is highly personal; His greatest passion is relationships and his greatest desire is to be in friendship with us, his most remarkable creation. He is close and involved because he wants to be known. Though he has no beginning or end, he enters time to rescue us, his lost children; he is not removed from the world and its brokenness.[12] He is not selfish or has his life centered on himself.[13] At one point in history, he literally entered our world to die for us and ransom our lives. He experiences the greatest loss so that we may live. He is friend to the unlovely and the lost; anyone who comes to him, he does not reject.[14] He is the most authentic love we will ever find.[15]

In the end, He will bring justice and perfection.[16] His creativity, which began with a purpose, ends with a purpose that is everlasting and focused on a relationship with those who come to him.[17]

[1] Genesis 1-2

[2] Genesis 1:26-27, 2:1-25, Psalm 139:14

[3] Luke 3:21-22

[4] Job 22:2, Acts 17:25, John 5:26

[5] Job 38:41, Romans 11:36

[6] I Kings 8:27

[7] Isaiah 63:7-9

[8] Jeremiah 18, Jonah 4:2

[9] Deuteronomy 10:17, Joshua 3:9-17, Proverbs 21:30

[10] 2 Kings 20:1-6, Jeremiah 26:19

[11] Matthew 9:9, RICH YOUNG RULER

[12] Deuteronomy 4:7, Jeremiah 23:23-24, Psalm 90:1-2

[13] John 18-19

[14] Psalm 68:4-6, Romans 4:17

[15] I John 3:1, Genesis 1:27, Ephesians 5:2

[16] Revelation 20

[17] Revelation 21-22

In: Spiritual Formation

dadTeach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. Psalm 90:12

I have learned during this year that watching someone die is a very sacred thing. In a way, it is a holy experience no different than prayer. You learn in stark terms what it means to be human—good and bad.

My dad last January had surgery and during it they found that his cancer had spread to other areas of his body. In the spring months, he fought the disease hoping chemotherapy and radiation would heal his body, but just yesterday we found out that he only has days to live.

I read some years ago in a psychology class about what it means to have a good death (or also a bad one). A “good” death is when someone has come to peace about their situation and have the love and support of others around them. While I hate what is happening, my dad to some degree is dying well. My mom is continually at his side and she has been a model for me of what it looks like to be dedicated to someone for a long time. A good marriage is lots of sacrifice—don’t let anyone tell you differently.

Yesterday was when I found out my dad only had a few days to live. He was able to get on the phone with me and even though he was mostly incoherent, I was able to speak some important words to him that I have always wanted to say.

Dad, I want you to know that I love you.

Dad, I want you to know that I am glad you came into my life.

Dad, I want you to know I am grateful for all that you have done for me.

I fought through tears to get these words out and I think he did hear me. My dad was not the type of person who would say I love you and therefore, I was also reluctant to speak those words to  him. Over these last few months, I knew that had to end so I began to tell him that I loved him whenever I saw or spoke to him. Initially, he would just say thank you or something else, but even he had to break down and tell me and others that he loved them as well.

Through all of this, I have learned this as well, don’t let the events of a loved one on their dying bed finally get you to say things that you always wanted to—do it now.

The day I met my dad, I was just five years old. I met him because he was involved in a car accident with my mom. This moment is my earliest memory. I was standing next to him as my mom was in the back seat of the squad car getting her ticket. I remember kicking stones at him in anger and this in some way foretold our next thirteen years together. We were always fighting with one another. Over the last twenty five years we have slowly let go of our anger toward one another and now he is one of the people I love the most.

I don’t want him to go. In so many ways I am so grateful for him and to some degree I have regrets that I didn’t spend more important times with him. I know that I can’t change that, but I also hope I have learned an important lesson that I can apply to my life in the years ahead.

I have been fortunate in that I have not had to face the loss of many friends or family, but now I am standing in its terrible wake. I am about to lose my dad. Death is awful, but it does offer us something helpful—it helps us to remember what is really important. It helps us to remember what really matters in life. It helps us to do things that we were always scared to do before.

Love you dad.

In: Spiritual Formation

Bought this on vinyl two weeks ago by Explosions in the Sky.  The song title is Be Comfortable, Creature.

It’s worth your time.


In: Spiritual Formation, What I've Been Listening To

[To have faith in Christ] means, of course, trying to do all that He says. There would be no sense in saying you trusted a person if you would not take his advice. Thus if you have really handed yourself over to Him, it must follow that you are trying to obey Him. But trying in a new way, a less worried way. Not doing these things in order to be saved, but because He has begun to save you already. Not hoping to get to Heaven as a reward for your actions, but inevitably wanting to act in a certain way because a first faint gleam of Heaven is already inside you.

C.S. Lewis

In: Spiritual Formation


Moved reading the tributes to Brennan Manning. One quoted a portion of this poem by Leonard Cohen which captured his life perfectly.

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

In: Spiritual Formation


With sadness learned that on Friday Brennan Manning passed away.

“The gospel is absurd and the life of Jesus is meaningless unless we believe that He lived, died, and rose again with but one purpose in mind: to make a brand-new creation. Not to make people with better morals, but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within, who would live in ever greater fidelity to the omnipresent Word of God, who would enter into the center of it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love. This, my friend, is what it really means to be a Christian.”

Brennan Manning

In: Spiritual Formation

In the space between yes and no, there’s a lifetime. It’s the difference between the path you walk and the one you leave behind; it’s the gap between who you thought you could be and who you really are; its the legroom for the lies you’ll tell yourself in the future. Jodi Picoult

In any journey, you have to start somewhere. Believing in God also has a beginning. Whatever you want to call it—giving your life to God, being born-again, finding Jesus—the Christian journey starts off by believing. A believer is someone…well…who believes. How does a dictionary describe belief? It defines the word as simply the mental act, condition or habit of placing trust or confidence in a person or thing. Sounds pretty easy, doesn’t it? I like to think of it as a change of mind. I once thought this; now I see it this way. This is what believing is—it’s a little more than changing your mind.

As an example, a case in point of this occurred in our home many years ago when we introduced our two sons to Thai food. It is by far the food that Julie and I enjoy the most. When we lived in Chicago, we would have it delivered every Friday night—an order of Pad Thai and Pad See Ew. Up to that point, the most risqué thing our boys had eaten was something called the Ultradog—a unique and messy hot dog from a place here in Grand Rapids called Yesterdog. It’s coated with onions, chili, cucumber shavings, and ketchup and mustard (yeah, I know it sounds gross, but you’ve got to try one). So one Saturday evening, we decided to introduce some Thai dishes to our sons. Micah, at the time was probably five, and immediately and emphatically expressed his disapproval. “Yuck, no way! Gross!” After finally getting him to the restaurant (yanking and pulling and bribing) and then finally making him take a bite, he bellowed, “Hmmm…This Thai food doesn’t taste half bad!” His mind and taste buds had been transformed. He changed his mind about how good Thai food actually was. Put simply, he began to believe in the goodness of Thai food.

Believing in God on one level is similar and is a pretty simple process if you think about it. Whether you are a thirteen year old at a Bible camp or the chief of some long-lost tribe in Kenya who’s never even seen a book, let alone a Bible, the process is no different:

  • You understand that God exists.
  • Your life is confronted about who you are through the story of the cross.
  • You acknowledge who you are as a sinner and who God is as a Redeemer.
  • You begin to believe in God and begin to believe that He can take away your sins.

God made it easy and straight forward in starting a relationship with him. For some of us, it happened when mom came in our room when we were six and prayed for us at our bedtime and then asked us if we wanted “Jesus to come into our heart.” For some others, it happened in high school or college, an arduous intellectual process in which we needed all the facts lined up, and all the apologetics made straight in our mind, and we then made a mental transformation in our belief system. And then, for some of us, we were deep in our own broken world, had made a total mess of our lives, maybe we were going from bed to bed or from drink to drink, and saw only one way out and that was the way of Jesus. Believers come in all different shapes and sizes; perhaps they have been Christians for forty days or as long as forty years.

There are many ways in which God reaches out to each of us. He is often imaginative in his approach. Jesus is so in love with us that he will do whatever it takes to be near us, close to us, in relationship with us. There are many ways in which he captivates us and I have heard countless stories and the many different ways in which people come to faith.

  1. A camp counselor tells you about this captivating Person and you want to know him.
  2. A guy hands you a tract on the subway.
  3. It’s late at night, you can’t sleep because of a head cold, and you’re flipping through the channels and you come upon some television preacher.
  4. You are all alone in another town on a business trip for three days and on the second day you open up the bed stand table and begin flipping through the book that lies there.
  5. A friend opens up their life to you about Someone who has made a dramatic difference in their life.

As I once heard Joseph Stowell comment, “God is like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police…He always get his man (or woman).” And in doing so, God comes up with some of the most normal and some of the most odd ways in bridging that gap—from not believing at all in him, to at least believing just a little bit.

Stay tuned: next week I will share a unique story in how God reached out to someone…

In: Friend to Jesus, Spiritual Formation
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It’s good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end. Ursula LeGuin

Never look back unless you are planning to go that way. Henry David Thoreau

And so with all of this, this is why it is important to follow Jesus. Naturally, we are continually being renewed, growing and emerging and becoming more. We need to remember this—our journey of faith has marking points. Being a Christian is a progression. We have many examples of this in Christian literature, The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan as the classic and The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis in the last century. And yet, the walk of faith is never one in which the person “arrives.” We’ll let the eastern religions keep that monopoly. The walk of faith can be likened to one going on a long road trip, crossing state lines and going from one town to the next. Every now and then you may need to stop alongside the road, perhaps to change the tire that has blown or by getting off at the next exit to have some good coffee and a piece of pie at a diner just off the beaten path. Discovery, in the in end, is at the heart of the Christian faith.

Throughout the Bible, God is attempting to pound this idea into us that it’s all about a relationship with him that matters the most. The Israelites of the Old Testament had such a hard time with this one, because they wanted so much to make it about following a religion—following a set of rules was so much easier than being in a relationship with their Creator. Very few characters we read about in the Old Testament got this one right. Most, which we read about insisted on obeying all the rules versus moving into a friendship with God. If we were to think about that list of those who moved into an authentic relationship with him, it is a relatively short one. A few would be: Abraham, David, Isaiah, Josiah, and Elijah. When we read their stories, we learn about the beautiful possibilities of having a friendship with God.

In the New Testament, Jesus makes the same challenge. He says that the basis of everything is relationship, a relationship with him. Let’s listen to Jesus’ all-important words: “I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) The Message restates it even more emphatically as it ends: “Separated, you can’t produce a thing.” Now that’s saying it like it is! Meditate on that one for a minute. Are we really going to believe such a statement? No one—not your Aunt Bev, not the nice guy down the street who shovels your sidewalk every winter, not even your own mom, the nicest lady in the world—can do anything good without Jesus. What he means in that statement, is simply this—everything has to be about him, otherwise it means nothing. Everything will come up short without Jesus. Every part of our lives must be subject to him: the inner strength of our marriage; the skills and talents we use on the job; our ability in the high school classroom or on the volleyball court; how well we can think or feel; our financial security; our gifts of hospitality or giving; our ability to be a father or mother, son or daughter. Jesus is the center and how centered our lives are to his will determine how well we do in everything that we do. Everything about our lives starts with him. It’s not that we don’t have importance as well in this on-going relationship; but the whole of our lives and how we live them starts with the One who made us. Let me say that one more time: the whole of our lives and how we live them starts with the One who made us.

This is the starting point and the ending point. Our life, all of it, is in relationship to the One who created us (Colossians 1:16). The closer we are to him, the better we are. I see this continually with my own life and in the lives of others. The better a relationship with God a person has, the more “effectiveness” they have in their own lives. Depression is easier to conquer; marriages re-connect sooner; a father and a teenage son begin to have fun again; sometimes, you can even hit the golf ball straight. Things begin to happen that you never expected to happen. Life begins to fall in place. Inevitably, if we want to have the life we want, if we want to be the person we are supposed to be, it will tie back to our connection with Jesus. In essence, only the person who has God at the center of his life can have the good life. Again, the closer you are to him, the better you will be.

Alongside this, the person who commits his life to God and his ways will go through many changes. Relationships will change. Interests will change. Thinking will change. Life, itself, will change and for the better. If we allow it, the whole of life will just be an on-going metamorphosis into something more, something different, and something good. In the process of the journey, we are inevitably changed. Literally, one year-five years-twenty years later, you’ll become an entirely different person, a better person, more sound and connected to something extraordinary. As Muhammed Ali said, “The man who views the world at fifty the same way he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”


But process inevitably means that there are also stages and I believe that there are different marking points to the Christian walk. It clearly says in the book of Corinthians that in your faith at one point you can be an infant, at another you can be like a child, and then finally, you can live  as an adult (1 Corinthians 13:11). Something that I have seen over and over in other people’s lives, but most certainly in my own, is that there are three distinct marking points in the Christian walk and it all relates back to our relationship with Jesus.

We hear it all the time: you have to make God No. 1 in your life. Yes, it’s a cliché, but even though the phrase is overused, it still is true. This relationship with God is the key. In speaking of this relationship, it occurred to me that looking back over the last twenty-five years since becoming a Christian I have had differing relationships with him. The relationship changed and grew. Early on, the relationship was more distant, and then gradually has become more intimate. Likewise, I also recognized that Jesus began to play different roles in my life. Just as I was changing in relationship to him; amazingly, he was changing in the way he related to me. Slowly, but surely, I was living the privilege of a more personal relationship with him. Let me give you an example of how this works. No different than with my seventeen year old son, he has begun to trust me more and I trust him more as well. Josiah is growing up and how I am with him is changing. At one time in his life, he was an infant in which he was entirely dependent on me and I had to do everything for him. As years went by (and much too fast I might add), Josiah grew up into a vivacious and curious nine year old, where now I often had to protect him from himself. And now as he is nearing adulthood, my role as his parent has diminished greatly. He doesn’t need me to tell him to tie his shoes, go to bed at the proper time or eat his green beans. Josiah is becoming a mature young man with whom I am very proud. Our relationship has moved from me being a parent to him, to now Josiah has become my friend. In many ways, he doesn’t always need my input or protection, because he can take care of himself. In some ways, our relationship with God can be the same. In our own relationship with God, we too can become mature, and become that person to which he also is proud of us.

I began seeing these distinctions, in myself, with others, and in the Scriptures. There were growth spurts to be sure, but in the end, there are three distinct stages in this journey with God. I saw these marking points in the lives of those found in the Old Testament: like Abraham, David, and Elijah. I also saw these steps in the life of the disciples, moving from just-believing to really-living. And finally, as I related the Scriptures to my own life and story, I saw them personally—I had changed and was changing as time went on, growing in my relationship to the One who shaped me together. The progression was marked and obvious. As I began looking back at the years, I saw that not only did I change, but as I mentioned earlier, God also has changed in the way he related to me. Similar in the way a parent relates to a child, the relationship changed and in some ways, we began to relate in different ways. Specifically, I realized that in this journey I moved from being a believer, was transformed into a servant and finally, began to emerge as a friend of Jesus. Perhaps put in another way, God was first my Savior, then became my Lord, and finally became my Friend. This is the transformation I went through and still undergo, each day attempting to move into a friendship with the One who made me for him. By moving closer to Jesus, everything begins to fall in place. Moving forward through this blog, this is how we will distinguish these marking points in the journey of being a Christian: a believer, a servant and a friend.

In: Friend to Jesus, Spiritual Formation
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