John of the Cross: Clouds and Ladders

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John of the Cross: Clouds and Ladders

Do you know how the clouds hang poised, those wonders of Him who has perfect knowledge? Job 37:16

“The steps and footprints which God is imprinting upon the souls that He desires to bring near to Himself, and to make great in union with His wisdom, have also this property, that they are not known. Wherefore in the Book of Job mention is made of this matter. By this are understood the ways and roads whereby God continually exalts souls and perfects them in His wisdom, which souls are here understood by the clouds. It follows, then, that this contemplation which is guiding the soul to God is secret wisdom…This secret wisdom is likewise a ladder. With respect to this it must be known that we can call this secret contemplation a ladder for many reasons. In the first place, because, just as men mount by means of ladders and climb up to possessions and treasures and things that are in strong places, even so also, by means of this secret contemplation, without knowing how, the soul ascends and climbs up to a knowledge and possession of the good things and treasures of Heaven.”

John of the Cross (1542-1591) in Dark Night of the Soul, translated by E. Allison Peers, 85-86. John was a Carmelite monk who is know for this famous work.

On a recent flight I was wondering “how the clouds hang” in the sky. Every wonder this? We don’t understand most of what goes on around us. That’s especially true with perfection or spiritual growth.

A person very close to me is going through a bit of a dark night of the soul. In mining John of the Cross in search of generous wisdom to pass on to that person, I come up with one thought after digging

We can’t fully understand the ways of God so we must trust the goodness of God. But how? Look at the clouds and get a different ladder. Climb not for things but for treasures of Heaven.

This is the tricky part, especially for those in a dark and discouraging place, which may be why John tends to use the word ‘secret’ a lot. You don’t figure this out until you lean into it.

To see the clouds we have to look up. Know anyone who is down? Encourage them to keep looking up. The God who holds those clouds holds them too. Don’t let them forget it.

And, tell them to go get a ladder, a different ladder than the one all their friends are using. This latter actively fills their minds with knowledge and true riches which can help set them free.

Or if they are struggling to ascend that ladder or too weak and weary, just love them generously. Maybe sit and look at the clouds with them. Though alone, I did today from my hotel room after the storm broke in Auckland.

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Martin Luther: Freely and Willingly Spend Yourself

Anyone who has been stealing must steal no longer, but must work, doing something useful with their own hands, that they may have something to share with those in need. Ephesians 4:28

“The Apostle commands us to work with our hands so that we may give to the needy…This is what makes caring for [one’s own] body a Christian work, that through its health and comfort we may be able to work, to acquire, and lay by funds with which to aid those who are in need, that in this way the strong member may serve the weaker…This is a truly Christian life…He does not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness, but he most freely and most willingly spends himself and all that he has, whether he wastes all on the thankless or whether he gains a reward…”

Martin Luther (1483-1546) in LW 31:365-367 as recounted in “If you do not do this you are not now a Christian”: Martin Luther’s Pastoral Teachings on Money” by Kathryn D’Arcy Blanchard, Word & World Volume 26, Number 3 Summer 2006.

I arrived safely to Auckland (pictured above) and enjoyed a day of rest before going to Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown, and then back to Auckland over the next week. Pray for fruitful governance and accountability meetings.

I can really relate to Luther, as he was both a professor and an Augustinian monk! He was adamant that productive work resulted in fruit for caring for personal needs and sharing with others.

It makes many uncomfortable when he writes, “not distinguish between friends and enemies or anticipate their thankfulness or unthankfulness.” But any other perspective loses sight of grace.

Think about it. In sending His Son, God did not distinguish or play favorites, so why do we? We do it because we follow cultural patterns instead of the way Christ marked out for us.

Jesus shaped Luther and shapes us into people who freely and willingly spend ourselves and all we have. That’s my aim. That’s the Christian life! This week, I am spending myself in New Zealand. What about you?

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John Cassian: Fast of the Soul

Then He returned to His disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with Me for one hour?” He asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may Your will be done.” When He came back, He again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So He left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Matthew 26:40-44

“For it is not an external enemy whom we have to dread. Our foe is shut up within ourselves: an internal warfare is daily waged by us: and if we are victorious in this, all external things will be made weak, and everything will be made peaceful and subdued for the soldier of Christ. We shall have no external enemy to fear, if what is within is overcome and subdued to the spirit. And let us not believe that that external fast from visible food alone can possibly be sufficient for perfection of heart and purity of body unless with it there has also been united a fast of the soul.”

John Cassian (c. 360-435) in Institutes (The Twelve Book on the Institutes of the Coenobia and the Remedies for the Eight Principal Faults), Book 5 – The Spirit of Gluttony, chapter 21 – “Of the inward peace of a monk, and of spiritual abstinence.”

While traveling I am finding inspiration from my favorite monks. Yesterday Merton, today Cassian, and you will have to wait until tomorrow to see who comes next. Today I fly from Buenos Aires to Auckland, New Zealand. This will be a long flight. I am hoping to get some sleep and spend some time praying. I’m seeking God’s heart to help me refine a GTP training document.

A friend messaged me and said he was struggling with the desire for prayer. His situation reminds me of the words of Jesus, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” Can you relate? Perhaps a nap might help? After that, consider fasting from food and having a fast of the soul to help you be more watchful and alert.

What does this have to do with generosity? We can’t win the war within alone. We only win it by watching and praying. The opposite of watching and praying is falling into temptation. What are your temptations? There is a wide range of temptations for people. In plain terms, we crave things in place of Christ. What are you craving in place of Christ?

Cassian would say to fast from food and ask Christ to reveal those things to you. The inward battles may actually be what hinders your generosity. They are the weights we must lay aside and the sins that so easily beset us and try to keep us from running the race set before us with perseverance (Hebrews 12:1-2). Combine external fasting with a fast of the soul.

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Thomas Merton: Agitation, Sea Monsters, and Detachment

Then He said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.” Luke 12:15

“No matter what our aims may be, no matter how spir­itual, no matter how intent we think we are upon the glory of God and His Kingdom, greed and passion en­ter into our work and turn it into agitation as soon as our intention ceases to be pure. And who can swear that his intentions are pure, even down to the subconscious depths of his will, where ancient selfish motives move comfortably like forgotten sea monsters in waters where they are never seen!

In order to defend ourselves against agitation, we must be detached not only from the immediate results of our work – and this detachment is difficult and rare – but from the whole complex of aims that govern our earthly lives. We have to be detached from health and security, from pleasures and possessions, from people and places and conditions and things. We have to be indifferent to life itself, in the Gospel sense, living like the lilies of the field, seeking first the Kingdom of Heaven and trusting that all our material needs will be taken care of…”

Thomas Merton in No Man is An Island (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1983) 110.

Watch out for greed and beware of passion. These maladies can afflict any generous person. Anyone who desires money to accomplish things for God will often end up agitated when things don’t go as they hope. Ever fall into this trap? I have more times than I can count.

These are false powers that swim like “sea monsters” in the depths of our lives. What a great word picture Merton uses! Detachment from results and attachment to Christ sets us free from these powers in our lives. Indifference to earthly things is the pathway to peace and life.

In some ways Christ far exceeded my expectations on this Brazil trip, and in other ways, I could feel, in Merton’s words, agitated. Rather than allow unrealized results to steal my joy, I give thanks for all God did. By not focusing on specific results, but on Him, I actually saw fruit I never could have imagined.

Perhaps you can relate to this? You have focused on Christ and He has surprised you with wisdom, insight, or blessings you never dreamed. Today I need rest and renewal as I fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina. But more than that, I just need more of Christ. Join me in seeking Him first today.


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Robert Murray McCheyne: Prayer and Power

Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. Mark 1:35

“I ought to pray before seeing any one. Often when I sleep long, or meet with others early, it is eleven or twelve o’clock before I begin secret prayer. This is a wretched system. It is unscriptural. Christ arose before day and went into a solitary place. David says: ‘Early will I seek thee’; ‘Thou shalt early hear my voice.’ Family prayer loses much of its power and sweetness, and I can do no good to those who come to seek from me. The conscience feels guilty, the soul unfed, the lamp not trimmed. Then when in secret prayer the soul is often out of tune, I feel it is far better to begin with God — to see His face first, to get my soul near Him before it is near another.”

Robert Murray McCheyne as recounted Power Through Prayer: A Healthy Prayer Life by Edward M. Bounds and Edward D. Andrews (Cambridge, OH: Christian Publishing House, 2018) 37.

The generous life, if it is to have power, must choose to start each day like David began his days and like Christ modeled for us. We must open them in prayer with the Father. This requires discipline on our part.

When I travel internationally, it is so hard to maintain this discipline, but I try to do it because without prayer, as McCheyne says, my soul goes unfed and I can be no good to others.

What about you? What is your discipline to be filled first before engaging with others? If you do it for a season, the process transforms you, and you tap the source of power. Need inspiration? McCheyne adds this.

“If I could hear Christ praying for me in the next room, I would not fear a million enemies. Yet distance makes no difference. He is praying for me.” Remember, He is “with you!” The question is: Are you with Him?

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Dave Toycen: The Power of Generosity

I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread. They are always generous and lend freely; their children will be a blessing. Psalm 37:25-26

“Generous acts have the ability to lift us to a higher level where we are more human, more the person we really want to be. In the very act of encouraging someone else we are graced with awareness that life is better. Generosity has the power to make us feel better about helping others.

Will generosity save our lives? Yes, it can be an essential element in enriching our lives, building a more co-operative future, improving our emotional and physical health, and simply making life more fun. It’s also a very serious business because our society is showing the strains of violence, poverty, selfishness, and neglect.”

Dave Toycen in The Power of Generosity (Waynesboro: Authentic Media, 2004) 15.

Have you ever had one of those days where various circumstances came together to send you a message? The name of my hotel in Curitiba, Brazil, where I arrived yesterday, is Dunamys Hotel. Knowing Greek, I immediately said to myself, “power,” as dunamys is the Greek word for “power.”

Then the speaker at the conference spoke on the difference between the sermons of the book of Acts and the sermons today. He emphasized the same word, “dunamys” or “power,” from which we get the English word, “dynamite.” What’s my point and the message related to generosity?

There is power in generosity because it follows God’s design for life and living. When we live it out, we discover that there’s no other way to live because the power of generosity breaks the power of mammon in our lives? It addresses poverty, counteracts selfishness, and blesses those in need.

Generosity has the power to make us more human. You could say that’s the aim of my GTP efforts in Brazil in collaboration with Nydia Garcia Schmidt. We are here to do more than teach or speak. We are helping implement structures of accountability to empower people to unleash the power of generosity.

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George Muller: Never worry about tomorrow

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank Him for all He has done. Philippians 4:6

“The Christian should never worry about tomorrow or give sparingly because of a possible future need. Only the present moment is ours to serve the Lord, and tomorrow may never come. Money is really worth no more than as it can be used to accomplish the Lord’s work. Life is worth as much as it is spent for the Lord’s service.”

George Muller in The Autobiography of George Muller (New Kensington: Whitaker House, 1984) 212-213.

As many readers know, my wife, Jenni, and I follow the example of George Muller in his four-part rule of life. We let God know our needs, wait on His supply, avoid debt, and as He supplies more than enough, we share it. It’s simple, anyone can do it, and it requires the one thing God expects of His followers: trust.

Many in Rio de Janeiro have resonated with this message. Nydia Garcia Schmidt, GTP Regional Facilitator for Latin America, and I have taught multiple groups about trust, accountability, and generosity. Keep praying for us. Today we fly to Curitiba for more meetings with influential ministry workers who lead huge networks.

Wherever you are and whatever you do, never worry about tomorrow or give sparingly. Money is useless unless you put it to work. Spend yourself for Christ and His kingdom either right where you live or wherever He leads you. As you go, remember you are not alone, listen for His still small voice. It whispers: “With you!”

Few places on the planet are like Rio de Janeiro (pictured above at sunset from Pão de Açucar). While the people are great, it quickly became one of my favorite cities in the world. Why? If you need a reminder that Christ is with you, just look up. That’s “Cristo Redentor” or “Christ the Redeemer” lit up on the hill looking over the city.

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Priscilla Shirer: A Different Spirit

But because my servant Caleb has a different spirit and follows me wholeheartedly, I will bring him into the land he went to, and his descendants will inherit it. Numbers 14:24

The Lord had freed ancient Israel from four centuries of bondage in Egypt, opening up for them what had once been an unthinkable opportunity to inherit “a land flowing with milk and honey” (Exodus 3:8). But at a key moment in their pilgrimage to Canaan, a majority of Israel’s population shrank back from the daring endeavor of claiming God’s promise. They chose the safer route, the more easily explainable route, the more reasonable and protective route, rather than the guaranteed, take-no-prisoners route that led to conquering a whole new realm of territory for themselves and their children.

That’s why only two of the the original two million travelers — Joshua and Caleb — ended up walking as victorious landowners on Canaan’s soil. Factor it down, and you have a profound spiritual equation. Individually, these men were one in a million. And what set them apart, the Scripture says (of Caleb, but surely of Joshua too), is that they possessed “a different spirit.” They didn’t need to fit in. They didn’t need to be liked. They didn’t base their conclusions on the majority report.

They didn’t depend on the approval of their friends for determining which path they would choose to walk. They simply hit the dirt road toward the Promised Land and never looked back. They believed that the same God who could bring a mighty Pharaoh to his knees could do the same to any other enemy who stood in the way of His plans being fulfilled for His people. As a result, these two — and only these two — who’d begun their lives as slaves in Egypt were able to complete them as free men in God’s country. Because…they were different.

Abundant living mandates different living — different even from other believers who may be complacent with their freedom, lulled to sleep in their wilderness wanderings. To experience everything God intends, a difference is required. One in which your thought processes, self-disciplines, and most pressing choices carve out a narrow road that is not often tread. One on which you will nearly always walk alone. Alien. Stranger. Sore thumb. Are you willing? To be the one in a million?

The traveling conditions are rarely smooth sailing when heading into the direction of abundant living. The places where God’s presence and provision — His milk and honey — abound are where bold belief in His promises takes priority over man’s acceptance and affirmation. Ask the Father — the Deliverer — to give you the kind of courage by His Spirit that would make you willing to stand out form the crowd when called for. The difference will be worth it.”

Priscilla Shirer in Awaken: 90 Days with the God who Speaks (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2017) reading for Day 10. Special thanks to my friend and brother, John Cochran, for sharing today’s post with me.

Generous people are different people. They have a different spirit. While those around them aim at accumulation, they daydream about distribution. When most give lip service to the teachings of Jesus on money and stockpile wealth on earth, they set goals for sharing and storing up in heaven instead. These people know God’s promises are trustworthy because they depend on Him for their daily bread and everything else. They have a different spirit. They are one in a million.

Likewise, in my GTP work, when I see people willing to set standards of responsible stewardship in contexts riddled with corruption have a different spirit. It’s one thing for a group to say that a culture has trappings, that is,  sinful patterns, and it’s a whole different story for them to be willing to confess openly, “This is wrong! God forgive us. We must chart a new course.” That’s the ‘Caleb spirit’ I see in the testimony of a small group of Brazilians that I am working with this week. They have a different spirit.

What about you? Do you have a different spirit? I am convinced that the Promised Land in the Old Testament foreshadows the eternal heavenly kingdom in the New Testament. Only those who have a different spirit and are willing to go against the flow and live differently will find it. Is that you? Grasping abundant living now and eternal joy later is about the daring adventure of walking the narrow road no matter what everyone else is doing.

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Charles Haddon Spurgeon: Observe His goodness

I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Joshua 1:3

“It is a delightful and profitable occupation to mark the hand of God in the lives of ancient saints, and to observe His goodness in delivering them, His mercy in pardoning them, and His faithfulness in keeping His covenant with them. But would it not be even more interesting and profitable for us to remark the hand of God in our own lives? Ought we not to look upon our own history as being at least as full of God, as full of His goodness and of His truth, as much a proof of His faithfulness and veracity, as the lives of any of the saints who have gone before? We do our Lord an injustice when we suppose that He wrought all His mighty acts, and showed Himself strong for those in the early time, but doth not perform wonders or lay bare His arm for the saints who are now upon the earth. Let us review our own lives. Surely in these we may discover some happy incidents, refreshing to ourselves and glorifying to our God.”

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) in Morning and Evening: Daily Readings (Grand Rapids, MI: CCEL) morning reading for 9 July.

God has safely brought me to Brazil to speak on the connection between generosity and accountability with influential Christian workers interested in setting up a peer accountability group here (like ECFA). Upon arrival in Rio de Janeiro, I met up with Milton Monte, president of the National Missions Board in Brazil, and Nydia Garcia Schmidt, GTP regional facilitator for Latin America, who flew in from Mexico City.

My text for this trip comes from Joshua 1. I am meditating on God’s faithfulness and generosity to ancient saints like Moses and Joshua in today’s Scripture to see how He wants to aid us today in His service. After Nydia and I got checked into our rooms at the seminary (pictured above), Milton took us directly to Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer. There, we asked God for Brazil.

At the feet of Jesus, Nydia read Psalm 2:8 in Spanish, I recited Joshua 1:3 in English, then Milton read 2 Chronicles 7:14 in Portuguese, and we reiterated our request to God asking for Brazil. As you observe His goodness in the lives of ancient saints and review your own life, what do you see? I pray you invite the living God to work as He did in the days of old. Big meetings in Brazil today. Come to my aid, Lord Jesus.

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Jean Pierre de Caussade: Guide

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make His face shine on us — so that Your ways may be known on earth, Your salvation among all nations. May the peoples praise You, God; may all the peoples praise You. May the nations be glad and sing for joy, for You rule the peoples with equity and guide the nations of the earth. May the peoples praise You, God; may all the peoples praise You. The land yields its harvest; God, our God, blesses us. May God bless us still, so that all the ends of the earth will fear him. Psalm 67

“When God makes Himself the guide of a soul He exacts from it an absolute confidence in Him, and a freedom from any sort of disquietude as to the way in which He conducts it. This soul, therefore, is urged on without perceiving the path traced out before it. It does not imitate either what it has seen, or what it has read, but proceeds by its own action, and cannot do otherwise without grave risk. The divine action is ever fresh, it never retraces its steps, but always marks out new ways. Souls that are conducted by it never know where they are going; their ways are neither to be found in books, nor in their own minds; the divine action carries them step by step, and they progress only according to its movement.

When you are conducted by a guide who takes you through an unknown country at night across fields where there are no tracks, by his own skill, without asking advice from anyone, or giving you any inkling of his plans; how can you choose but abandon yourself? Of what use is it looking about to find out where you are, to ask the passers-by, or to consult maps and travellers? The plans or fancies of a guide who insists on being trusted would not allow of this. He would take pleasure in overcoming the anxiety and distrust of the soul, and would insist on an entire surrender to his guidance. If one is convinced that he is a good guide one must have faith in him, and abandon oneself to his care.”

Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) in Abandonment to Divine Providence 2.7 (Grand Rapids: CCEL) 72.

When I travel, I read classic devotionals like this one to nourish my soul. The authors are sojourners. Their voices are familiar. Their words touch me deeply. And, it’s a privilege to share excerpts of what I learn in my daily posts.

The Guide of the nations wants to be the guide of your soul and mine. What a profound truth! He asks us to give Him our absolute confidence, to trust His guidance, and abandon ourselves to His leading and care. Do you?

Today I meet up with Nydia Garcia Schmidt. She’s the Americas Director for Wycliffe Global Alliance and GTP Regional Facilitator for Latin America. She’s also a trusted friend. I don’t work in Latin America without asking her advice and following her lead.

Pray for us. We will teach on Christian generosity and accountability with pastors, ministry workers, lawyers, accountants, and other professionals interested in forming a peer accountability group like ECFA in Brazil. These meetings could shape the future of ministry in Brazil.

Also consider your own situation. Do you trust God and abandon yourself to His care? Until you venture in uncharted territory with nothing but God as your Guide do you really know He’s all you need and have ever needed all along.

We serve a generous God who is an unfailing Guide. He’s the Guide of the nations, but is He your guide? He demands our absolute confidence. We must not just call Him in crisis. He invites us to rely on Him today and every day to live a generous life.

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