How I lost 50 pounds this year (part 2 of 2)

Previous: “Why I lost 50 pounds this year

“How did you lose the weight?”

Combined with “How much weight have you lost,” this is the most common question I receive from people these days. I’m happy to share what I’ve learned, though I’ve found people usually aren’t interested in the level of detail you’ll see below.

So here’s the short answer: I ate less calories and moved more.

I’m not saying anything against surgeries, medications, or support groups. But for me, it was as simple as changing my diet and exercise.

“Yeah, but everyone says eat less and move more. How did you do that?”

  1. I recorded everything I ate 

This was my new year’s resolution this year. I’m not on a diet. I’m not restricting calories. I’m just writing down reality.

Awareness of what I ate was an essential part of changing what I ate. Previously, I ate impulsively. There’s a donut in the break room? There’s pizza available at a church event? There’s chips in the pantry? There’s candy for sale in the gas station checkout? Yes, yes, yes… and let me pull over to get that.

I knew that there was significant research that said awareness itself changes behavior. That’s why there are those solar powered speed limit signs that tell you how fast you’re going and there’s calorie counts on display signs in California.

So, at the end of last year I began entering everything (and I mean everything) I ate into MyFitnessPal on my phone.

It took about three weeks to stop being annoying. After that, recording what I ate became an easy habit. And as someone who likes tracking things, it became a fun game for me. (I know, that’s weird.)

Pretty quickly I began to see the shifts in my eating. Do I really want to have to write down that I ate a second donut? For the second day in a row?

Plus, since MyFitnessPal linked with my smart watch, if I went over my calories I could go for an extra walk to get myself back into the green for the day.

  1. I switched to five, pre-planned meals a day

One of the challenges I have had in the past with overeating is a fear of being hungry later. That is, if I eat a salad for lunch, will I be hopelessly starving at 3 pm? Better eat a giant burrito just to be safe that I don’t go hungry.

Two strategies helped me change this behavior:

i. Pre-plan my lunches – I identified lunch as my biggest problem meal of the day and the one I most wanted to fix. Why was lunch my biggest problem? Probably because it was separated from my family community. I eat breakfast and dinner with them and I want them to eat nutritious food, but lunch was just me.

So here’s what I do: each Monday morning I go to Trader Joe’s and buy pre-packaged salads and healthy snacks for my office. I also grill chicken breasts at home for the week’s lunches. After a couple of months, I zero’d in on TJ’s Southwest Salad (200 calories), which is now what I eat most work days, combined with a sweet potato (microwaved) and four ounces of chicken breast. (“What, every day?” I’ll get to the boredom part of this later).

ii. Add two small meals each day – This was helpful to me mentally. It really helps to know that I’m never more than a couple of hours away from another meal.

Mid-morning I have a protein bar (this one) and mid-afternoon I have a protein shake (using this blender in my office; two scoops of chocolate protein powder, skim milk, oats, peanut butter, and ice).

  1. Exercise became a scheduled part of each day.

While changing what I ate was the primary vehicle for weight loss, exercise did help, too. It helped with burning calories, of course, but also with mental health and with feeling stronger in my body.

I know some people hate exercising but I actually enjoy it, especially now (Last January? A little less so).

Of course, finding time to exercise is tough. I get it. As a dad, husband, pastor, and doctoral student I didn’t exactly have time to just hang out at the gym. And as someone who… how can I say this gently…. sweats like a pig, exercise can’t exactly be wedged in between appointments.

So, what did I do?

First, I embraced walking. In an inversion of Churchill’s maxim, I considered what I could do walking instead of sitting. My job is sedentary, for the most part. But could I read while walking? Sure, if I embraced audiobooks. Could I write sermons while walking? Parts of them, sure, as long as I didn’t mind people seeing me carry papers and mouth words on the street (masks helped with that one).

Second, I embraced cheesy, late night infomercial exercise videos. Because gyms closed in March (and have been off and on open since then), I had to stop going to Anytime Fitness on my lunch break. I replaced it with P90X3 and then Insanity Max 30. They’re loud, they’re a little annoying… but they’re also reliable, very low cost (especially when a good friend loans the DVD’s to you – thanks, Michael), and efficient. And since I was eating pre-packaged salads for a quick lunch at my desk I had time to workout during the day.

4. Embraced the habit cycle 

At the start of the year, these changes took huge efforts. But as the year has gone on they are easier and easier. Why? Why do some things come so naturally and others seem impossible? And can we choose what to put in each column?

Two books I’d recommend: Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.

Both books outline how we can leverage the habit loop to benefit us. Without rehashing each of the books here, the bottom line for me was figuring out:

a. What were my triggers for unhealthy eating? (Exposure to unhealthy foods; lack of an eating plan; boredom)

b. What reinforcements helped me want to practice good habits? (Hope of it making a difference; that I could have a protein shake after I worked out)

5. Cultivated the mental shifts needed for change

a. It’s okay if my meals are boring.

Yes, eating healthy is boring sometimes. But fast food is boring, too. I can eat repetitive, boring meals like salads most of the time and be just fine. Plus, there’s plenty else in the world to be fascinated by.

I’m not saying that I don’t want to cook or eat something exotic. I do! But think of it this way: There are almost 100 meals a month. If I eat five truly interesting ones a month, that leaves 95 other ones that are fuel to live on. Better make those 95 nutritious and healthy.

b. “What do I need to eat?” is a better question than “What do I want to eat?”

Let’s be honest: “What do I want to eat” got me to 273 pounds. My desires around food are not an impeccable guide. I want to eat french fries. Lots of them. But I don’t need french fries. I need leafy greens, high vitamin fruits and veggies, lean proteins, certain carbs, and some dairy.

c. There will be more food available when I need it. I don’t need to fill up like a camel. And so what if I’m hungry for a bit?

I have lived an embarrassingly blessed life when it comes to food. I have never experienced food insecurity or had to really worry about whether there would be something to eat tomorrow.

Yet I would still feel the need to eat more than necessary out of concern that I wouldn’t have another meal for a number of hours later. Shifting my mind to expecting that more food would be available and that I was durable enough to withstand hunger were necessary shifts for me.

d. This is going to take a while. That’s okay. I’m not on a diet. I’m just living a healthy life.

There were a lot of moments this year that it was discouraging not to have made more progress more quickly. (I know, I know, 50 pounds in a year is a lot of progress – but it doesn’t feel like it when you haven’t lost 1 pound in two weeks during certain stretches).

Seven reasons why I lost 50 pounds this year (part 1 of 2)

At the end of 2019, shortly after the birth of our third child, I weighed 273 pounds. At 6’3, that meant that I was 33 pounds into the “obesity” part of the BMI chart and 73 pounds overweight. I was eating terrible and felt sorry for myself. I was moderately active (playing with my kids and playing ice hockey once a week), but I knew my health was going in the wrong direction. People in my family have developed type II diabetes and I could see that I was following their footsteps if something didn’t change. 

Almost every week when I’d drive home from my hockey game, I’d fantasize about how things would have gone differently if I had been in better shape. And when I’d get dressed for work, I’d complain about how nothing seemed long enough to cover my stomach (outwardly blaming it on my height but knowing it was my weight). 

So, I decided to do something about it. And today I weighed in at 222 pounds, down 51 pounds from my weight at the beginning of the year. 

November 2020 – 222 pounds

Since I often get asked, “How did you lose the weight?”, I thought I would put down what worked for me. I do so with some sheepishness, though, knowing that listening to other people talk about their weight loss can be boring, annoying, or worse. I don’t offer these thoughts from a place of superiority or triumph; after all, the only way to lose this much weight is to gain far too much weight in the first place. And I realize that I benefit from a number of factors (age, gender, physical ability, lack of food allergies, access to nutritious food) that make this easier for me than for others. Plus weight is dynamic; who knows that I will not be even heavier in a decade than I was last year?  Additionally, I’m not a dietician and I don’t know if how I lost weight is a good plan for you. 

November 2019 – 273 pounds

Last thing: I have no interest in shaming anyone about their weight. I have found that when people ask me about weight loss, they are thinking about their weight, not their own. They are either looking for a strategy they can use or an excuse they can have. I get that. While I think that losing weight has been helpful for me, it may not be for you. I’m happy to encourage you, but have no interest in making you feel bad. 

So, how did I lose 50 pounds?

I came to grips with why health mattered to me.

For me the “Why” portion was more important than the “How.” When I was heavier I understood the problems with fast food, eating added sugar, and my approach to food in general. The problem was not a lack of head knowledge, but rather a problem of the will that came out of a posture of the heart. As a Christian, this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me: As Romans 7 makes clear, it is one thing to know the right thing to do; it’s a whole other to have the desire to do it. 

I’ll write another post soon on the practical “how” questions – what I ate, how I developed habits, what apps I used, etc. But those things all required the energy of “why.”

So, why did I lose weight?

1. I am a bodied person who is as fragile as anyone else – I’ve been blessed with terrific health in my life. I say “blessed” because it is true: I haven’t done anything to deserve it (quite the opposite, actually). But that doesn’t mean that I am impenetrable. Part of middle age is realizing that while my death is inevitable, how I live between now and then is (in part) up to how I treat my body. I know that there are some who claim that Christian theology who would deny this – they say that pure faith will heal us of any disease. That’s a dangerous heresy called the “Prosperity Gospel.” It is better to consider Paul’s words about our contribution in preparing ourselves physically and spiritually.  

1 Timothy 4:8 – “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.”

2. No one else is responsible for my body – This sounds weird coming from someone who is almost 40, but I needed to recognize that no one else is responsible for my physical health. I’m an adult. While people can be helpful in providing encouragement, support, and community, it’s no one else’s fault if I “have to” grab fast food for lunch. It was helpful for me to consider the outside forces that affected my relationship with food and health: my family of origin, my marriage, my responsibilities as a father, my workplace habits, and my American culture. But there’s a difference between being aware of those things and abdicating responsibility to them. 

3. It is an act of love to my family, my church, and my neighbor – My obesity was a small burden for those near to me now and threatened to become a large burden as I got older. Deciding that I would voluntarily limit my energy and mobility while increasing my risks of stroke, diabetes, and so many other illnesses meant that I was saying, essentially, “I don’t want to care for my body now, but I expect you to care for me later.” 

This has only come into sharper relief during COVID. While I’m not hugely fearful about COVID, I am aware of the role that obesity plays in the morbidity rates of COVID, both directly and through diabetes. 

Obligatory fat pants picture

4. This is a season of preparation – A few years ago I was struck by John Maxwell saying, “The wise man uses his younger years to create options for his later years.” What do I want my later years to look like? Am I able to integrate my current self with the potential of a seventy-five year old version of myself?

5. Because obesity is painful – There’s a saying about change: Change only comes when the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain of change. And the problem with excessive weight is that the pains obesity brings are dull (aches, strains, embarrassment, shame, etc) or they are in the future (potential heart disease, future risks of cancer, etc). So my challenge was bringing that pain into the present, pain I have developed a lot of defense mechanisms to avoid. 

6. Christian maturity is measured in part by being self-controlled – There are a lot of virtues that develop as part of growth in the Christian life (in part shown in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5). One of the fruit of the Spirit virtues is “self-control.” It is the mark of an elder (1 Timothy 3:2). Young men are specifically exhorted to develop self-control (Titus 2:6). 

So, how can I say that I value self-control when I need a whole bag of sour apple gummies? For me, the excuse was how self-controlled I was in other areas. I don’t drink, control my temper and tongue, etc. But self-control is a good to benefit from, not a limit to be restrained by.

Will power seems to be a limited good (according to social science research). But self-control has a spillover effect. The more I develop self-control in one area, the more it helps in other areas. (More on how I used my limited will power to cultivate self-control in the next post).

7. It is an act of love for my spouse – As with most happily married men, I could say, “Why lose weight? Who do I have to impress?” In fact, I did make the mistake of saying that to my wife once. While she was gracious with me, it was clear that she would like for me to want to still impress her. And I want to give her the gift of a husband whose body she finds as attractive as possible. Will I ever look like a 25 year old male model? No, but there are increments of value between that and apathetic obesity.

Coming up next: How I lost 50 pounds this year

Pastoral Letter on Politics and the Upcoming Election

This was written and sent to Grace Seal Beach the week before the 2020 presidential election.

Four years ago, recently confirmed as the next senior pastor at Grace, the presidential election divided the country. Our church wasn’t immune. At least 10 people left the church over the election. Half progressives, half conservatives – it seemed the only thing they had in common was anger at how we weren’t “standing for what was right.” 

Because of that experience, I was less than eager to pastor through another presidential election. And as you know, the situation this year has only become more divisive as a pandemic, economic uncertainty, and an overdue national conversation about race have only escalated the weight of what is said and not said during this season. While I think it is healthy for a pastor to be tentative to offer any political opinions, it is not fair to you to have a pastor who is silent on what Scripture says on any topic. 

I am deeply grateful for how the vast majority of people in this church are thoughtful, measured, and humble with each other. You’ve taught me much about what it means to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. You’ve sought to live at peace with one another and eager to maintain the bonds of Christian fellowship. Thank you. My experience with the vast majority of the church is that you want to bring your faith to bear on your voting in a way that is healthy and encouraging. 

As we’ve been preaching through the Lord’s Prayer during this season, it is worth considering how the Lord’s Prayer can guide our theology during this election season. 

  1. “Our father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name.” May God’s holiness be shown in how you vote, advocate, and grieve over the next few weeks. 

In political polling, the only thing that seems to matter is, “Who are you voting for?” But, honestly, I am much more concerned with what your voting (or not voting) says about your heart. Are you voting out of love for God and your neighbor? Or is your voting a demonstration of selfishness and wrath? Is your voting a mark of faith or worldliness? Would you vote any differently if you weren’t a Christian? 

I know that some of you would like me to endorse or condemn President Trump, or endorse or condemn Vice President Biden, but I’m not going to do that. There are a number of reasons for that, but mostly it is because it would not be helpful to you. You must personally wrestle with your conscience in this election. It is not enough to vote for the “right” candidate (if there is one). You must do so with a clear conscience before God on your own. And if you vote differently than I do but do so with peace before God, I don’t want to put a stumbling block in front of you by voicing a different opinion. 

  1. “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.” Remember that your citizenship is in Heaven, and it is that kingdom that lasts, not this one. 

As I mentioned on Sunday, a few years ago Becca and I went to Paris for a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. We were there for a little over a week and happened to be there for their presidential election. We were able to connect with one of my childhood friends who moved to Paris after college, married, and was involved with a church there (the American Church in Paris – a beautiful cathedral on the Seine River with English services, if you’re ever there). We attended worship that Sunday with her and her husband (a native Frenchman), then went to lunch together afterward and heard about the election. While our faith was the same, our earthly citizenship was different. Because I wasn’t French, the election that day was a curiosity, something I had little personally invested in. For my friends, though, the results of that day were deeply important. Because I was a citizen of a different nation, the results of that day would not shape my identity, hope, or fate. 

“What a different attitude than when the American election happens,” I thought. When it was France, I could be calm and rational. Could I do the same if it was my country? Or would I show that I was overly concerned about this kingdom instead of the one to come? 

It’s not that presidential elections (French or American) are wholly unimportant. What happens in them can shape a country for a time. And there are probably some Christians who need to care more, not less, about politics. But my experience is that there is probably more need for correction on the other side. We are too invested in the kingdoms of this world. As Christians we always need to remember that we are foreigners in this election. There is no happy ending to kingdoms of this world. But there is for the Kingdom of God. Our primary citizenship is in another King, and it is from Him that we draw our hope and identity. 

  1. “Give us today our daily bread.” Today’s bread is enough.

One of the values of praying for today’s bread is that it focuses us on the present, rather than worrying about the future. Today has enough trouble of its own. It is easy to worry about how this election could impact the future. And while it is wise to consider the long-term impact of any policy, it is unhelpful to worry about things outside our control. Those worries and fears are preyed upon by both sides of the political aisle. We need to remember that even if the worst fear-mongering is true from either side of the aisle, God is in control of providing. 

We do not depend on the government to give us bread, but God. While the government can do either good or harm for its people, it is not the ultimate source of anything on its own. 

  1. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” We must never forget that we are forgiven people. 

As Christians, we are not people who have received what we deserved. Quite the opposite. We have received what Christ deserved but freely shared and gave us. 

Christians can disagree on how grace should shape political policy, which is understandable. But it cannot be forgotten. We cannot become self-righteous or mean-spirited people who forget the joy and humility of our salvation. 

  1. “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” The election brings temptations; God’s Spirit can sustain us through them as we resist temptation and deliver us from evil. 

We are naive if we think that elections are not temptations. They can tempt us in different ways: some are tempted to grab power in unjust ways; some to speak unlovingly to others; some to despair; some to divisive speech; and probably a dozen other ways. But we are all going to experience temptations tied to the next three weeks. Pray for yourself, pray for one another, and please pray for me. We all need God’s sustaining strength through this time. And be gracious with those who are walking through different temptations than you are right now.

I will be praying for you in the next few weeks. It is a hard season for your heart, but it is also a time that God can use to grow you in your longing for Him. Whatever happens on November 3rd, I pray that you will love Christ more on November 4th than you do now. 

In Christ,

Pastor Bob

PS. I’ve put together a list of resources for those who want to reflect more on how their faith intersects with the political realities of the day. While there is no shortage of those purporting to offer Christian voter guides, think pieces, and take-down articles, these are the ones that I’ve found most helpful, personally. 

Recommended Resources: 

  • Books on political theology and political theory 

Jonathan Leeman – How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (if you’d like a shorter version of Leeman’s writing, here’s an article he wrote recently on the ethics of voting and here’s an offer for a free audiobook, “How Can I Love Church Members with Different Politics”)

David Koyzis – Political Visions and Illusions: A Survey and Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies

  • “How could Christians support the other side?” If you’re an ardent Republican or Democrat, it might seem impossible to you that Christians could see it differently. If that’s you, I’d encourage you to read what other Christians have written, if for no other reason than to better understand and love your brothers and sisters: 

More conservative – Decision Magazine

More progressive – The AND Campaign

A prayer for America on the weekend of July 4, 2020

These are my remarks and a pastoral prayer from last Sunday at Grace Community Church of Seal Beach. They’ve been edited for a written format. You can see the video here, starting at 23:53. 

This weekend is the 244th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Normally, we don’t make a huge deal of patriotic holidays in worship, because it is not the role of the church to celebrate national holidays. 

But this year there is so much hurt, anger, and longing among our community and nation that it is a ripe opportunity to cry out to God.  Additionally, all of us need help cultivating a theology of Christian citizenship that will work in the modern-day. 

Unfortunately, the models of Christian citizenship most often presented in our culture are at the political extremes. Is there a way we can pray together as a diverse Christian community?

One of the reasons why praying together for our country is difficult is that we often disagree about who “America” is. Specifically, there is a divide between older and younger evangelicals in the US about whether America is more like the biblical model of Israel or Babylon. 

For many older American Evangelicals (though not all, of course), our country reminds them of Israel. They remember how God has used America to bring hope, freedom, and the gospel throughout the world. They recognize the deep religious faith of many of the founders and the ways America seemed like the promised land to them. They celebrate the willingness of the American people to sacrifice to bring freedom and democracy in the face of fascism and communion, even at the cost of war. They resonate with Abraham Lincoln’s description of America as the “last, best hope of earth” and see our current cultural moment as the point that where that hope will be either saved or lost (as did Lincoln himself). They are concerned about America facing the same exile and wilderness that Israel faced in the Babylonian captivity. For them, America is losing its essential quality as a Christian nation. 

For many younger American Evangelicals (though, again, not all), our country reminds them of Babylon. They see the way that Babylon enslaved and slaughtered people they conquered and they see America’s shameful history of the same. They see how Babylon used their military to enrich itself at the expense of other people, using their offer of freedom as a pretext for extortion, and overlay American foreign policy. And they are concerned that even as Babylon misunderstood themselves as impenetrable, America is on a similar path to divine judgment. For them, America has never lived up to being known as a Christian nation.

So, who is right? Is America Israel or Babylon?

Neither. America is America. 

A sign of mature Christian thinking is the capacity for avoiding false dichotomies. (Think about Solomon’s wisdom with the baby, Jesus with the challenge over taxes, or Paul’s response to the question of circumcision.) When we put only two options on the table and say, “You have to choice A or B,” as if they are the only potentialities, we rob ourselves of seeing the broader complexity God offers.

Do we need to say, “Israel or Babylon”? We are certainly not the unique covenant people of God. But that does not mean that we need to assume the opposite is true.

To have an honest and fully Christian view of America, we should thank God for many aspects of how God has blessed America. It would be ungrateful and ahistorical to act as if God has not blessed America. And yet glossing over our many sins as a country is neither honest nor pious. There are also many things we should be ashamed of in our country’s past and present. The presence of one does not need to deny the other.

So, how does a church of both younger and older Christians pray together on the fourth of July? I think the best way is to pray together for revival.

Revival is when God’s people experience the normal means of grace (confession, repentance, and assurance of salvation and forgiveness) in heightened and profound ways. It’s normal grace to a supernatural extent.

Revival is not necessarily a return to a certain point in the past. Revival is neither a conservative nor progressive act. It is a cry for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in Heaven.

God has been kind in our country’s history and done this before.  Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, the First Great Awakening swept through our land. Later, the Second Great Awakening brought revival to a new generation. Portions of revivals came during and after some of the darkest points in our country, such as the Civil War and the two World Wars of the 20th century. And in more recent days, certain aspects of the Jesus People movement of the 1970’s experienced revival experiences. 

These revivals are not unique to America. Profound revivals have happened in Pyongyang, Kenya, and Wales, among others. (If you’d like to read about revivals, I recommend A God-Sized Vision: Revival Stories that Stretch and Stir by Collin Hansen and John Woodbridge). 

When we say we need revival, we confess that we are a people in rebellion against God. We humbly confess. We ask God to return us to the freedom that Christ has won for us on the cross. 

1 Peter 2:16 – “Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God.”

On this freedom weekend, why would we ever want to return to a yoke of slavery to sin? 

PRAYER 

God, you’ve called us to be a part of America. We know that our final home is with you in Heaven and it is there that we have our citizenship. But while we are here, we’re proud to be Americans, whether through birth or immigration.  

But that pride in our country doesn’t mean we ignore our sin. We’re grieved by the sins of our people. 

God, we confess our country’s many sins against you, both in the past and in the present. We see the ways that we have failed to love you and our neighbor and we are truly sorry.

God, would you revive us? Would you bring life to us as a people? Not so people would come to our side, but so that we would together fall down before you and cry, “Holy, Holy, Holy!”

God, we are grateful for much of our country’s history and we’re grieved by much of it, too. Thank you for those older adults in our church who help us to see the good you’ve done in our past. We don’t want to neglect to be grateful for those things. Thank you for the younger adults in our church who help us to see the ways that we need to change in order to live holy lives before you. 

God, we are often overwhelmed at the complexity of the problems facing us as a country. But before we look at the problems in others, would you bring revival and start with us? Would you give us mercy and make us a people of mercy? 

In Christ’s name,

AMEN 

 

Why are verses “missing” from the ESV and NIV?

Here’s the facebook message I’ve had concerned members contact me about lately. So, what’s the deal? Why are we using a “corrupt” Bible that’s out to undermine our faith?
I can reassure you, though, that there’s no conspiracy afoot. Both the NIV and ESV are translated by conservative, evangelical scholars who are deeply committed to their faith. I’ve had some of them as professors and they aren’t interested in undermining anything about Scripture. They are committed, though, to passing on what is true.
So, what happened in this case? Here’s the situation: the numbered verses we rely on in our Bibles (3:16, for instance) come from the 16th century. They were added by a man named Erasmus and were based on the Latin version of the Bible that he was translating into Greek for publication. The Bible he was using (generally called the Textus Receptus) became the foundation of the KJV translation less than 100 years later. And his numbering system became the default everyone uses (so we all have a similar reference point, even if sometimes we wish he would have made chapter divisions somewhere different).
Here’s where we get into a problem, though. The textus receptus is only one family of manuscripts. Imagine a family tree. The original copy of the book of John is the first parent. And from there, copies (and copies of copies, and copies of copies of copies, etc) are made. Which copy best represents what was in the original?  Ideally, you’d have the original copy of John to judge by, but no originals of the New Testament (or OT, of course) are known to exist (this shouldn’t surprise us – they were written 2000 years ago on papyrus – think about how crusty our paper receipts look after just five years!).
The good news is that the New Testament is the best-preserved set of documents in the ancient world. There are literally thousands of copies of manuscripts and copies in a variety of places, languages, and forms (scrolls, books, etc). And that doesn’t include all the other books written in the first couple centuries of the church that quoted the New Testament.
Even more good news: not only are there tons of manuscripts to compare, they are overwhelmingly in agreement with each other. The vast majority of times that one manuscript disagrees with another, it’s over how a name is spelled or something else minor. When there are more meaningful disagreements (such as in the cases you mentioned in the forward), it’s often because the scribes were more inclined to include rather than exclude, so they added phrases they knew from other gospels or phrases. For example, the verse you mentioned from Matthew 18:11 is also found in Mark 10:45. There are no major (or even minor) doctrines on the line when it comes to textual criticism. And I don’t think that’s a conservative opinion – that’s just the reality of the evidence.
So, who decides what was in the original New Testament documents? This is actually a whole academic discipline that you can get a Ph.D. in – it’s called textual criticism. Based on extensive research, examining manuscripts, secondary sources, etc, groups of scholars produce original language Bibles (the best of which are the Novum Testamentum, UBS – 27, and Biblica Hebraica). In these, there are tons of footnotes that list what ancient documents and manuscripts included (or excluded) words in question. And this is where the differences come in: The ESV, NIV, NRSV, NLT, The Message, NASB (basically, everyone but the KJV and NKJV) use these as their source material to translate from. The KJV and NKJV are translations of the textus receptus and since that’s the one that verse numbers come from, it looks like other translations are “removing” verses. In reality, though, they’re just disagreeing with the textus receptus understanding of which best represents what the original writers wrote.
Let me give you an example: If you were a scribe in the third century and you heard the reader say that a verse read “the Lord Christ” but you remember the verse as “the Lord Jesus,” what would you write down? Many scribes didn’t want to mess things up, so they just included both, “the Lord Jesus Christ.” But fast forward 1700 years. A scholar looks at all the manuscripts. The five oldest, best-attested manuscripts all said, “The Lord Christ.” They’re able to piece together what happened. To be authentic to the original author (rather than the KJV), would you be willing to take “Jesus” out of the Bible?
Unfortunately, there is a strand of American Christianity (especially prominent in the South) that sees the KJV as the ONLY translation you should use. And sometimes they can be quite belligerent about that opinion. I’m grateful for the KJV – it helped spark the English expression of the Reformation and is the most published translation in history. But it’s over 500 years old, which means that (besides being difficult to read) a lot of manuscripts have been discovered since then, so we are better able to understand what the original manuscripts said. Yes, that means that in a few places words need to be removed, even if it looks bad in an email forward.

Resources on Race and the Christian faith

Here are some resources from Christian leaders who are black. Obviously, there are many more evangelical leaders we could list, especially from Latino and Asian-American backgrounds. But I confined the list to African-American leaders who could be your pastor or leader. We share theological alignment with everyone on this list. We went to the same or similar seminaries, participate in the same theological societies, and agree on the same doctrines. The reason I did that isn’t because there’s nothing to learn from people with different theological beliefs; it’s to help us see that if we are irritated or push back on them about their concerns, it’s not because we have different theological convictions. 

Dr. Anthony Bradley (Professor at King’s College in NYC) @drantbradley – A very helpful article on how Transitional Justice can help us with race relations in America. Also, wrote Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions. 

Charlie Dates (Pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago) @CharlieDates – All of his sermons are worthwhile, but this one he gave at the MLK50 conference was terrific. 

Mika Edmondson (Pastor and author) @mika_edmondson – Wrote an academic book on MLK’s concept of suffering and God’s presence. 

Dr. Tony Evans (Pastor and author) @drtonyevans Has been a leader in American evangelicalism for the last forty years. 

Dr. Derwin Gray (Pastor in North Carolina; former NFL player) @DerwinLGray – Author of The High-Definition Leader on building multi-ethnic churches 

Dr. Bryan Loritts (Pastor and author) @bcloritts Author of a variety of wonderful books on race and the church, including editing Letters to a Birmingham Jail: A Response to the Words and Dreams of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Eric Mason (Pastor of Epiphany Philadelphia, leader of the Epiphany church planting organization) @pastoremase – Few people in America have discipled and deployed as many church planters and gospel preachers as Dr. Eric Mason. Author of Woke Church: An Urgent Call for Christians in America to Confront Racism and Injustice. 

Dr. Esau McCaulley (Pastor of Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Greensboro, NC and assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College) @esaumccaulley – Gave a wonderful sermon on Sunday about how Acts 2 and Pentecost guides us in these days. Christianity Today published the transcript. 

Trillia Newbell (Author and executive with Moody Books) @trillianewbell – Author of general Christian living books; her children’s book, God’s Very Good Idea is great for kids. 

John M. Perkins (Civil rights leader, pastor, author, and co-founder of the Christian Community Development Association) Wikipedia page. Author of a number of helpful books (see the Wikipedia page for a list and to be inspired by his story). 

Albert Tate (Pastor of Fellowship Monrovia) @alberttate – One of the most compelling and engaging preachers in American evangelicalism. 

Jemar Tisby @JemarTisby PhD candidate in US History; President @thewitnessbcc Author of Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. 

Reference List for Doctoral Project on Elder Training

Anderson, Daryl K. 2009. Developing A ReachGlobal Leadership Pipeline Focusing On Three Levels Of Leadership. Doctor of Ministry project. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Agosto, Efrain. 2005. Servant Leadership: Jesus and Paul. St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press.

Anyabwile, Thabiti M. 2012. Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.

Auxano Group. 2016. “Leadership Pipeline.” Seminar materials. Unpublished.

Banks, Robert J., Bernice M. Ledbetter, David C. Greenhalgh, William Dyrness, Robert Johnston, and Max De Pree. 2016. Reviewing Leadership: A Christian Evaluation of Current Approaches. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic.

Barton, Ruth Haley. 2012. Pursuing God’s Will Together. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Barton, Ruth Haley. 2008. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Beebe, Gayle D. 2011. The Shaping of an Effective Leader. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Beeley, Christopher, 2012. Leading God’s People. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Bennis, Warren G. and Robert J. Thomas. 2007. Leading for a Lifetime. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Blanchard, Kenneth and Patricia Zigarmi and Drea Zigarmi. 1994. Leadership and the One Minute Manager. London: HarperCollins Business.

Catron, Jenni. 2015. The 4 Dimensions of Extraordinary Leadership. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Charan, Ram. 2000. The Leadership Pipeline. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Collins, Jim. 2001. Good to Great. New York: HarperBusiness.

Collins, Jim. 2005. Good to Great and the Social Sectors. New York: HarperBusiness.

Clinton, J. Robert. 1988. The Making of a Leader. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Cordeiro, Wayne. 2004. Doing Church as a Team. Revised edition. Ventura, CA: Regal.

Edmonson, Amy C. 2012. Teaming. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Erb, James L. 2012. Organic Missional Leadership Development Using a Modified Neil Cole Approach. Doctor of Ministry project. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Etheredge, R. Craig. 2001. The Design and Implementation of Spiritual Development Groups as a Means to Leadership Development and Church Revitalization. Doctor of Ministry project. Trinity Evangelical Divinity Schools.

Geiger, Eric and Kevin Peck. 2016. Designed to Lead. Nashville: B & H Publishing.

Granberg-Michaelson, Wesley. 2005. Leadership from the Inside Out. New York: Crossroad Publishing Company.

Greenleaf, Robert. 1996. Seeker and Servant: Reflections on Religious Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Habecker, Eugene B. 1987. The Other Side of Leadership: Coming to Terms with the Responsibilities that Accompany God-Given Authority. Wheaton, Ill: Victor Books.

Hellerman, Joseph. 2013. Embracing Shared Ministry: Power and Status in the Early Church and Why it Matters Today. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Herrington, Jim, Robert Creech, and Trisha L. Taylor. 2003. The Leader’s Journey: Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Hsu, Tony H. 2008. Discipleship and Leadership Development in First Ithaca Chinese Christian Church: A Pilot Project. Doctor of Ministry project. Trinity Evangelical Divinity Schools.

Johnson, David C. 1997. A Design and Implementation of a Leadership Development Strategy for a Growing Independent Community Church. Doctor of Ministry project. Trinity Evangelical Divinity Schools.

Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. 2010. The Truth About Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. 2012. The Leadership Challenge. Fifth Edition. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Kouzes, James M. and Barry Z. Posner. 2006. Christian Reflections on the Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Laniak, Timothy. 2006. Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible. Leicester, England : Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic.

Malphus, Aubrey and Will Mancini. 2004. Building Leaders. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Maxwell, John. 2005. Developing the Leaders Around You. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

Nanus, Burt. 1992. Visionary Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Newton, Phil A. and Matt Schmucker, 2014. Elders in the Life of the Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel.

Nouwen, Henri. 1989. In the Name of Jesus. New York: Crossroad Publishing.

Osborne, Larry. 2010. Sticky Teams. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Placher, William C. 2005. Callings: Twenty Centuries of Christian Wisdom on Vocation. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Quicke, Michael J. 2006. 360-Degree Leadership. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker.

Richards, Lawrence O., and Clyde Hoeldtke. 1980. A Theology Of Church Leadership. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan.

Rinehart, Stacy. 1998. Upside Down: The Paradox of Servant Leadership. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Saffold, Guy. 2015. Course notes from Doctor of Ministry course, “Theology of Leadership.” Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

Sanders, J. Oswald. 1984. Paul the Leader. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.

Sanders, J. Oswald. 1994. Spiritual Leadership. Chicago: Moody Press.

Savage, Timothy B. 1996. Power through Weakness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stetzer, Ed and Thom S. Rainer. 2010. Transformational Church. Nashville: B & H Publishing.

Strauch, Alexander. 1995. Biblical Eldership: An Urgent Call to Restore Biblical Church Leadership. Littleton, CO: Lewis and Roth Publishers.

Taylor, Phil. 2017. Eldership Development: From Application to Affirmation. Orlando: Floodlight Press.

Thune, Robert. 2016. Gospel Eldership. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press.

Tillapaugh, Frank. 1982. Unleashing the Church. Ventura, CA: Regal.

Willard, Dallas. 1990. The Spirit of the Disciplines. San Francisco: HarperCollins.

Williams, Brian A. 2005. The Potter’s Rib. Vancouver: Regent College Publishing.

Four Reasons Success in Ministry is Hard to Hold Onto

I recently talked with a friend in ministry who had reached a significant career milestone, but he struggled with how to talk about it. Could he be proud of accomplishing something?

His comments stood out to me because I’ve been in that same place many times. Can I be proud of what has happened in our church? Or would that be sinful pride?

In ministry, “success” is a loaded term, one that many are quick to run from. And while I’ve certainly come across the cliched pastor who can’t wait to tell you how big his church is or how many followers her Instagram page has, most people in ministry truly aren’t like that. They want to serve God, help people, and live humble lives. But we also feel a desire to succeed in our vocation, and would like to know we’re doing a good job.

Here are four questions for you to process when thinking about success in ministry:

1. How does the gospel shape my experience of success? As Christians, we are completely loved by God before we do anything for Him. If we are driven to succeed out of fear that we are unloved otherwise, we need to re-order our understanding of the gospel.

That said, we sometimes go too far, acting as if the gospel invalidates our longing to participate in work that matters. I believe that it is a good thing to find joy and meaning in our work, as long as that joy and meaning is in right relationship to the Creator.

2. What do I want to see happen in people’s lives? Sometimes we’re the worst critics of our own ministry. “No one really liked my message.” “No one’s life is really changed.” “Ministry isn’t real work compared to manual labor, brain surgery, or corporate life.” Especially with experience, we can become skeptical of stories of life change, knowing that there are many factors that go into true transformation.

But don’t discourage yourself out of worship when God works in someone’s life. Cynicism isn’t maturity – it is faux-maturity, a sophomoric belief that we know how every story will end. Ministry work does matter, and your contributions can be significant to people.

3. What did I do to contribute? We may know that the ministry we’re a part of did something life-changing, but we dismiss our role in that process.  Especially as we grow up the ladder and take on more of a visionary role, we sometimes aren’t sure what we contributed besides being the leader.

This sounds humble until we consider how important “just the leader” can be. Don’t believe me? Find a successful ministry without strong leaders.  You may not be the one who gets to lead the child to Christ, feed the homeless person yourself, or mentor the troubled couple, but your leadership makes these contributions from others possible.

4. How does my success compare with others? Predecessors, neighboring leaders, heroes, and secular influencers all can make us feel like we aren’t keeping up with others. Our “wins” feel small compared to the deluge of success stories we hear at conferences, on social media, and in church history books.

Our successes aren’t invalidated because they are smaller than others, any more than a watermelon is invalidated because it is smaller than other watermelons.

Besides, if you aren’t sure if your success is truly from God (see #2), how can you be sure the successes of others are or aren’t? Make the words of Jesus to Peter his words to you: “What is that to you? You must follow me.” (John 21:22)

How have you found ways to hold on to the successes of ministry without being ruled by them? 

2018 “Thank You” List

Here are 18 people, books, media, and institutions I’m grateful for from 2018:

  1. The women who persistently, bravely, and selflessly forced the church to confront issues of abuse, especially Rachael Denhollander, Nancy Beach, Beth Moore, and Nancy Ortberg.
  2. Jemar Tisby – Grateful for his wisdom around issues of race and the church.
  3. Russell Moore – There’s no one I’d rather see representing evangelicals on the news than Dr. Moore.
  4. I don’t know that I’d have the courage to talk publicly about my experiences of attraction, sexuality, and Christian faith, even as a person with attractions that are very traditional. I’m grateful for the courage of Sam Allberry, Wesley Hill, Jackie Hill Perry, Chris Yuan, and Rosaria Butterfield for being willing to talk about themselves in such a vulnerable and powerful way.
  5. Dave Guiles and Encompass – As a pastor of a Charis Fellowship church, I’m grateful that our denomination’s mission organization is led by a man of such character, insight and wisdom as Dave.
  6. Fleming Rutledge – Her book, The Crucifixion, is the rare book worth 500+ pages. Her twitter account is shorter, but also helpful.
  7. Tim Keller – Rarely do I give a sermon that isn’t influenced by Keller. If you think I quote him in my sermons a lot, just think of all the times I hold back.
  8. Persecuted church leaders – The courage of Christians around the world continues to amaze me. Thank you, God, for people like Andrew Brunson (an American pastor jailed by Turkey for political reprisal), Wang Yi (a Chinese pastor recently jailed by authorities), and Leah Sharibu (a Nigerian teenager held hostage by Boko Haram).
  9. Dennis Mukwege won the Nobel Prize this year for his work in the Congo with rape victims. He also won my quote of the year prize for this: “It is up to us, the heirs of Martin Luther, through God’s Word, to exorcise all the macho demons possessing the world so that women who are victims of male barbarity can experience the reign of God in their lives.”
  10. Biola University, especially Talbot School of Theology – There are many great seminaries throughout the country, but Talbot holds a special place in my heart. When looking at prospective candidates for staff roles here at Grace, there is no school I am more confident in the graduates of than Talbot.
  11. Christianity Today – If you’ve clicked through many of the links in this post, you’ve probably noticed many are from Christianity Today. Grateful for the quality of the writing, editing, and reporting.
  12. Dale Allison, The Luminous Dusk – This was my favorite book I read this year (originally published in 2003). The central premise is, “What do miss out on spiritually by being modern people? What is different about our world than the ancients?” He’s not an evangelical, but the book is relentlessly thought provoking.
  13. The Gospel Coalition, especially the writing and blogging of Brett McCracken, Justin Taylor, and Collin Hansen. If you’re looking for a church in a new area, their church directory is helpful, too.
  14. Pete Scazzero and the Emotional Healthy Discipleship podcast
  15. David Crowder – In my mind, I’m still a college student listening to some of his early David Crowder Band albums. But in body, he and I are both reaching middle age. Grateful for his creative music, joy, and faithfulness. His new album this year (“I Know a Ghost”) is unlike anything you’d normally hear on Christian radio (and that’s a good thing).
  16. Ellen Burany and CRM – Besides the birth of our second child, I’ll remember 2018 most for the sabbatical I was given by our church. Ellen was my coach throughout that process and helped me walk through that process with God. Grateful for her. If you’re considering a sabbatical and looking for coaching, call Ellen!
  17. Center for Individual and Family Therapy (CIFT) – The place I recommend most often for people looking for a therapist is CIFT.
  18. Grace Community Church of Seal Beach – Grateful for our church!

Churches I visited during sabbatical

I’ve just completed a 12 week sabbatical.

I visited 19 churches during that time. I should say, I visited 19 worship services. I didn’t observe their mission activities, their elder meetings, or their care for one another. My observations were just superficial.

I thought some people might be interested in what churches I visited, so here’s the list. This isn’t an “endorsement” list, just a list of where I went. I don’t think it would be fair or helpful for me to review or grade the churches. For a couple of the churches, I made notes of things I found praise-worthy or notable about the services.

I tried to do two things: Be God-centered personally, and receive each worship service for what it was, rather than critique it for what it was not.

The churches are listed in the chronological order that I visited them.

The Garden Church (Long Beach) 

Anchor Community Church (Long Beach)  A church plant at our local elementary school. The most welcoming church we visited as a family. Probably half of the people in the room came up and started a conversation with us during or after the service.

Grace Long Beach Visited by myself on Pentecost. A wonderfully thoughtful liturgy specially designed around the Spirit’s coming.

Antioch Church (Long Beach) 

Los Altos Grace Brethren Church (Long Beach) 

CityLights Church (Long Beach) – Appreciated that they replaced the “turn and greet” time with an open time of praise and prayer requests. A great picture of what a multi-ethnic, multi-economic church can be for a community.

Good Shepherd Presbyterian Church (Los Alamitos) 

Bellflower Grace Brethren Church

Eastside Church (Bellflower campus) 

Calvary Church of Santa Ana

Grace Church of Orange

Emmanuel Reformed Church (Paramount) – I was impressed by how committed to prayer this church seems to be. There were 4 thoughtfully prepared prayers by different leaders throughout the service. When I met the senior pastor after the service we talked for a few minutes, then he asked if he could pray for me and my sabbatical. You can tell that this church has a bias toward prayer, which was great to see.

Community of Faith Bible Church (South Gate) – Probably my favorite church to visit, and the one on this list I’d consider first to become a member of. A deep joy pervaded the people, and the service was God-centered and biblically driven in a way that was a delight.

Mammoth Community Church 

Cornerstone Church (Long Beach) 

Ambassador Church (Anaheim) 

First Southern Baptist Church of Anaheim 

Hillsong LA 

Union Church (Los Angeles)