The Role of God and Spiritual Disciplines in Transformation

By Tolivar Wills

Megachurch pastor, Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Church, shares a beautiful metaphor for the nature of how change happens in the life of the church and individuals.  In the opening chapter, he shares the process that a good surfer goes through to be able to have a good day on the waves; needless to say, there is a lot of preparation that goes into such a quick and short ride.  Factors such as right board size, waxing of the board, weather reports, shark reports, knowing one’s skill level and much more need to be factored into the day.  Even so, there is one dynamic that not even the best surfers in the world cannot control:  ‘WHEN’ OR ‘IF’ THE WAVES COME! The only thing they CAN do is prepare for its arrival; and when it does, surf.  In much the same, Foster, and others like him (Dallas Willard, Kent Hughes, the Desert Fathers, etc.), are encouraging the body of Christ to put themselves in a place where they can catch the wave of the Spirit’s movement in their lives and churches.  


As we at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church begin our journey of reading Richard F. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline together, I am reminded of one of the key principles of my reformed faith; namely, that all change that occurs in the human psyche, soul, and will for the glory of God is a result of what God is doing by His Spirit.  God is sovereign over all things, including my transformation.  While stating that truth, I realize that it smacks up against our western or human confidence to be able to be in control of ourselves and destiny.  A proclamation of ‘God’s sovereignty’ begs the question, ‘what about man’s role or responsibility?’ Are there things that we can do to be prepared or in a position where the Spirit’s movement will be greeted by receptive hearts?  

Chapter 1 of CoD lays out perfectly, in my humble opinion, not only a reformed view of the mechanical components of this sanctification process, but much of historical Christianity throughout the centuries.  

This basic position states that God moves within time to affect the hearts and minds of people to turn from their rebellion and to depend upon the redemptive work of Jesus Christ via His life, death, and resurrection.  

As a result, coming into this relationship with Christ one quickly learns that it is a connection initiated by God the Father, secured by Jesus His Son, and sealed by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  Upon the completion of this relational transaction, the nature of this connection continues in the same vain; the believer continues to be in a state of dependence upon the Triune God to bring about our spiritual growth.  This is a truth that both Jesus and Paul state repeatedly in the bible:

I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.                                             John 15:5

and then in Paul:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.                         I Corinthians 3:5-7

And yet, despite these clear descriptions, we also read of the role of individual responsibility to pursue ongoing dependence and obedience:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.                             Philippians 2:12-13  

So as we begin this journey of learning about and implementing the means of grace given to the church throughout the centuries, let us keep a few of these principles in mind.  

  1. We need to do so with measured expectations.  Making use of these spiritual disciplines are not a magic pill or a rabbit’s foot; they merely put us in a place where we can wait on the lord to do whatever it is He chooses to do both in and through us.  
  2. Two, and of paramount importance, is that we all keep in mind that the Word of God is the ultimate authority for the Christian life.  Whatever the Lord impresses upon us through these practices needs to be siphoned through His Word.  As our confession states, ‘the Word of God is our only rule of faith and practice.’  With these few caveats in mind, by God’s grace, may we all catch some ‘killer waves’ of the Spirit this summer.     

Getting to Know Your Elders: Pat Pickren

Thank you Pat Pickren for opening up your soul. Here are a few things you may not have known about Pat.

1.) When/how did you start coming to St. Paul’s? What do you enjoy most about it?

We started May 2014 – Memorial Day – just  over three years ago. For years Phil and Lauren Ellen told us about the community at St. Paul’s and opportunities to love, serve and do life together. We finally took them up on their offer to come and be a part! I enjoy most the ethos of St. Paul’s especially the sense that you can come as you are (you don’t have to try and impress others) and be a part of a group that wants to become more like Christ. It’s a value that Tolivar and Hung have called “unedited community”. 

2.) What is one scripture that is currently resonating with you in your life?

Jesus’ words during the Sermon on the Mount: “everyone who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock” (Matt 7). Also in this parable is the foolish man who hears but does not do them. Jesus invites us to either hear and do or hear and not do. There is no in between. I want to build my life on Christ – the rock – and not on the shifting sand of culture, others, or myself. It also helps the my children love to listen to Rain for Roots album which has a song based on this parable which means it plays in our car and my head often.

3.) What is the best live musical show/concert you’ve ever attended?

I’m dating myself but the best live concert was Lollapalooza ’92: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Ministry, Ice Cube, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, etc. It was a 90’s quasi-alternative music mecca. 

4.) Fill in the following statement: “One piece of advice I’d like to give to 25-year-old Pat Pickren would be…..” 

Dream big, trust in the Lord, love others well with the freedom that comes from self-forgetfulness (not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less – via Tim Keller). 

5.) If you were on a deserted island and could only bring one movie from the ’80s what would it be?

 Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Classic!

Reconciling Reconciliation Within My Own Heart, Part 1


By Tolivar Wills

I think it is important to lay out a few caveats or presuppositions before I delve into addressing this mammoth topic called ‘Racial Reconciliation’.  If I don’t, there is the huge possibility than I am going to be misunderstood because of my inability to communicate clearly via writing.  With that said, here are a few ‘heads-ups’.

First, I come to the topic, in my humble opinion, with a little more confusion about the topic due to the fact that I am bi-racial.  My father is black and my mother white.  Staring at the previous phrase on the surface strikes me as insignificant considering where we are in our cultural awareness and norms.  Nevertheless, despite being the product of a bi-racial relationship and being married to a lovely white woman for 23 years, which has brought forth 3 lovely bi-racial children, I am still stunned whenever I see other mixed couples.  There are latent norms, ideas, identities, and much more which come from both sides of the cultural/racial divide, which underlie my understanding of race, identity, and my own personal experience, making interpretation of clear boundaries and definitions difficult.  In one sense, I feel like the middle child of a family who perceives that they need to be the perpetual ‘peacemaker’; the one who is trying to take both sides into consideration, but never really being able to come down on one-side or the other.  As such, I hope my article will help shed light on why I think there are issues that make racial reconciliation not only a little more confusing for people like me, but will provide a unique vantage point on which to think about the issue. (A perspective that I feel is often neglected, ignored, oversimplified, or glossed over in discussions, though not necessarily intentionally.

Second, I bring a good amount of frustration and emotional fatigue.  This was never more apparent than in my preparation for MNA’s 2017 Reconciliation & Justice Conference in St. Louis, MO.  Once on the road, I could literally feel the angst building throughout my body, finding its way up my throat, and out my mouth at an unexpected target: The driver and my wonderful white friend. He must have been confused as we headed up I-75, thinking this was going to be a great time of fellowship with his bi-racial pastor and of other mutual servants of Christ. Instead, he was lambasted by my emotion and distrust of everyone who would be talking about the topic. My hope is to delineate the points of my frustration that we discussed, repent where needed, an to possibly offer a different perspective on how we discuss and implement a pathway to ongoing reconciliation.

Third, despite my confusion and cynicism, it is very important that you understand that I do believe there is a biblical mandate for reconciliation and very much desire to see it increase in God’s church and world.  My entire life and calling is the product of racial reconciliation. I am a bi-racial man who was raised by a white mother, whose immediate and extended family were from the very white and rural hollers of Southeast Kentucky; many of whom were very integrated in my daily life. I don’t know a person of color who has been loved and cared for more, by people who typically would not have anything to do with people of color. I am theirs. They are mine. My family is very proud of me and ask about my well-being on a consistent basis. I am a blessed man.  In addition, I was raised in a small rural village in central Ohio, where I was the only person of color in a town of approximately 3,800 people.  Yes, there were some prejudices and uncomfortable experiences, but by far, my life in the community was safe, kind, loving, strong, accountable, truthful, and many other positive characteristics.  Despite the towns unfamiliarity with anyone outside of their race, most of them were able to see me as Tolivar. To this day, they see me as theirs and look forward to when I come home to visit; and just as important, they are mine. Most of them are like my extended family, who I have lived, played, fought, kissed, hugged, and much more, since I was three years old. And every single one of them were white.

Finally, I am a Christian and pastor today because of the reconciling endeavors of many believers, both white men and women, who have invested in my life for the sake of preparing and developing me for a lifetime of ministry. From my neighbors who led me to Christ and took me to church, to the ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ, to seminary at Gordon-Conwell, to my first pastoral position in a church in New Haven, I have been loved and developed for the sake of the kingdom of God by white people. In fact, it was by the influence of several white men, that the Lord implanted a desire for ministry to the poor and underserved communities; it was they who pointed me to my first African-American spiritual influences via various books, talks, people, training, and much more which ultimately led to me planting a multi-cultural church in the inner city of New Haven.  Today, I have the privilege to help lead a multi-cultural church with a Vietnamese-American co-pastor, who is also in a mixed marriage.  What I am conveying here is that the sovereign God of the universe has orchestrated my entire life to be at the center of His reconciliation project via the gospel and His Church.  I am all in! So what is my problem? Why is talking about it and going to conferences to be a part of encouraging others to do the same so uncomfortable?…


Learning Through Lent

By Sarah Healy

It was a normal Wednesday morning in the drive-thru line. As a college student in Tallahassee, I dragged myself out of bed most mornings at 4:30 am to help open the local Starbucks. This particular morning, however, I couldn’t understand why so many people had the same bruise on their foreheads. “Weird coincidence,” I thought. “Did everyone get in the same bar fight last night?” Although I grew up in a godly Christian home, this is how little I knew about Ash Wednesday and Lent.


This year David and I decided to explore lent and to press in and see what God wanted to teach us. Lent is traditionally a time of fasting 40 days before Easter. This was patterned after Jesus’ fasting in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights. Generally, Catholics aged 14 and older abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday leading up to lent. It is also customary to “fast” from something that is important to you or that you would miss in order to propel you to prayer and introspection.

What am I learning about Lent, you ask? First, I’m learning that I’m very bad at it.

Yes, terrible.

I gave up sugar and then accidentally ate some the very first day. I think I’m also eating some daily in my vitamins. Why am I telling you all of this? To point out I’m not even capable of perfectly keeping a rule I made for myself. Which means it’s accentuating my humanity and God’s divinity.

And all of that leads me to grace. “God’s grace, grace that can pardon and cleanse within…Grace that is greater than all my sin.” Lent is reminding me that it was, in fact, my sin that sent Jesus to the cross at Calvary. No amount of good doing and rule following would have made up for the sins in my life. And thankfully, it didn’t have to.

Second, I’m learning that Lent is about lamenting. As I consider the last moments that led to Jesus’ arrest and death I think about sorrow and lamenting. As He prayed in the garden, he lamented. He lamented over the task that was before him. He begged that “this cup may pass.” He lamented over the separation of Himself from His Father. And He lamented the sin of the world and all that it entailed.

He didn’t just weep for the hurt and pain of the present or the past, but also the future.

Our world is daily showing the effects of sin and its pain. As I write now, families of 44 people are mourning the deaths of their loved ones in a Christian church in Northern Egypt. Just this year, hundreds have died at the hand of ISIS and its followers.  Many others have died because they are black, police officers, gay, Jewish, or Christian, just to name a few. The hate that runs rampant is a reminder that this is not our home. But as believers, we are wrong to gloss over and ignore this hurt.

Lent has taught me that part of being a Christian is lamenting over the pain and hurt of the world. Pressing in. Like Job’s friends did, we must be willing to sit in the pain with the hurting before moving toward a solution. We must sit in the pain and then offer hope. Thankfully, there is a hope that will not put us to shame. “This hope will not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” (Romans 5:5)

Finally, Lent leads me to love. How can I think about the cross and not think about love? “For God so loved the world, He gave His only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16). For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.” (Romans 5:7) This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.” (1 John 4:10, The Message) There is no greater love than this.

So it turns out that Lent is much more than a bruise on a forehead.

It’s about grace.

It’s about hope.

And most importantly, it’s about love.

Grace gives us hope in a world full of hurt. This hope points to love. And nearly 2000 years ago, Love Himself walked up the steps of Calvary to accomplish the greatest rescue mission of all time.

Happy Easter, brothers and sisters. He is risen indeed!

Q and A With Your Elders

Have you ever thought, “I wish I knew more about my elders”? Have you found your mind wandering in church to whether or not Phil Ellen has ever been to a rap concert or which Tom Cruise movie Mark Yang watched the most in the 90s?  I know you’ve asked these questions, and you’re not alone.

So, without further ado, here is our new feature: Get To Know Your Elders. Every once in a while (don’t expect too much regularity) you will get a post centered on an elder with some fun Q and A as well as a few Bible-y questions.

Today’s Elder: Mark Yang


1.) Mark, tell us what brought you to St.  Paul’s and was has kept you at St. Paul’s.

I began coming to St. Paul’s in 2008 when the church I was attending, Crossroads Church of Atlanta, merged with St. Paul’s. What’s kept me at St. Paul’s is the warmth and kindness of people and the great ministries here.

2.) What is one scripture that has affected your life in a particularly powerful way?
John 15:5-“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”

This verse was particularly meaningful in my life after college when I had some challenges finding a job. Through this verse, God showed me that I cannot do anything without Him, and taught me the meaning of abiding and relying on Him. This verse has continued to be meaningful to me over the years as a reminder of my need for Him and the importance of finding my value and worth in Him.

3.) What is your idea of a perfect Saturday?
Breakfast with wife and kids, tennis in the morning, going to the park with family in the afternoon.

4.) What’s your favorite song or movie from the 90s?
Favorite song: Say it ain’t so by Weezer
Favorite movie: Jerry McGuire

Thank you Mark for all you do for the folks of St. Paul’s!

Just Mercy: A Book Recommendation


By Missy Davis

Despite my years of following Jesus, on most days I feel like there is still so much to know about him, so many ways I do not follow Him or see Him fully. Of course this is sanctification, and this is the process of change. Many imperfect days filled with grace.

However, there are some things that I do know, and this is one of them: Jesus loved the outcast. The marginalized. The ugly. He loved Samaritans, adulterous women, lepers, tax collectors. These people were the ugly of his society.

I recently read Bryan Stevenson’s book Just Mercy, and perhaps one of the reasons that it affected me deeply was because it opened my eyes to what can happen in the lives of people who are rejected in our society. The mentally ill. The abused. The abandoned. The disabled. The convict.

Stevenson’s book details several people’s stories of incarceration. Some of them were imprisoned when they were only teenagers living on the street. Some of them suffered from depression or mental illness due to abuse. A few of these stories are of innocent people who were not just convicted, but sent to death row.  The stories are harrowing. They will make you angry and sad and burdened and overwhelmed.  They need to be heard.

The book affected me mainly in three ways. One, I am glad I know now what I did not know before. I am grateful that I have a bit more of a glimpse (though an incomplete and imperfect one) of what some people in our society have dealt with or are dealing with. I am glad that I know that our justice system is far from perfect. I want there to be more justice in our world, and I do not want to be naive in simply hoping it will be so. Now I know more than what I knew before, and I think this matters.

Secondly, I am grateful for this magnifying glass on the lives of those who are outcast in our world. To be honest, I do not think much about these people. I have not made space in my life for those whom our society considers the lowest. And this is convicting to me. This is something I will sit with. It is something I will pray over. It is something I hope will be different in my life moving forward.

Thirdly, I was convicted that Jesus cared quite deeply for the rejects in the world. He still does. He loves these folks in a way that is powerful and breathtaking. He loved the rich and accepted as well. But I do believe that Biblically, the Lord has always had a particular affection for those whom society cares little for. I do want to be more like Jesus. So I must consider how I will love in the way he does.

It is not just the poor and outcast who are broken. Especially at Easter we consider how we are all broken. One of my favorite parts of Stevenson’s book is a section where he comes to the understanding that he is just as broken as his clients–even though they are behind bars and he is a successful lawyer.


He writes:

“For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of Joe Sullivan and of Trina, Antonio, Ian, and dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war, like Herbert Richardson; people broken by poverty, like Marsha Colbey; people broken by disability, like Avery Jenkins. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice.

It took me a while to sort it out, but I realized something sitting there while Jimmy Dill was being killed at Holman prison. After working for more than twenty-five years, I understood that I don’t do what I do because it’s required or necessary or important. I do it because I have no choice.

I do what I do because I’m broken too” (Stevenson 288-289). 

Indeed, this is the gospel: we are all broken. We are all in need of a savior to redeem us.

I recommend Stevenson’s book for this reason: it will stir up a desire to live more in line with the gospel. You will be moved to compassion for the lowly in our society. It will push you to remember that, without Jesus, you are as ugly as the basest person in our world, and that with Jesus, the convicted murderer is as righteous as Christ Himself.


Tolivar’s Story: A God Who Is For Us

By Tolivar Wills

Growing up poor, black, in an all white town, and single parent home, I developed several misinterpretations about my place in the world. In particular, my general comparison of myself to other families in the neighborhood was that of always being the one from “the other-side of the tracks;” that certain aspects of life were for “those people,” but not for me. The latest version of Nike’s Jordans? Nope. Name brand clothes? Nope. The amenities of two-parent homes, like nice cars, houses, and extra lunch money? Not even close. These experiences during my developmental years, as I have learned through The Soul of Shame class, shaped much of my perception of how others, God, and even myself were and are postured towards me; namely, that I am unwanted and uncared for in the world.

A deep sense of abandonment had colored much of my world and thus helped shape the self-driven means I would use to try to justify myself to God, others, and myself. I would use anything to try and prove that I was worth caring for: sports, humor, grades, people pleasing, and entertaining were all continuously employed to gain the favor and acceptance of others. The ironic flaw in these attempts, however, was that my efforts to show myself worthy were really only masks to hide my deep sense of shame. Everything looked good on the outside, but deep down I was filled with pain, fear, and sadness.

As you might imagine, over the course of nearly 30 years of walking with the Lord and serving in His Church, this seemingly never-ending spinning wheel of achievement has at times burned this pastor out.

It is in these broken moments that one can no longer hide the sad reality of what is occurring within one’s soul. The sadness brims over the fake smiles, and the tears supernaturally break through the vaults of our facades that we portray to God and others.

I can tell you from experience that this is not a fun or comfortable place to be as a Pastor. Thoughts have run through my head like “You are supposed to feel like this; you are doing all the right things,” and worse yet,  “If I am in this horrible place of despair, then where is God? Doesn’t he know I am doing all of this stuff for Him?” And then, following several fist slams of the table or verbal cursings of God, the tears begin to flow. I’ve  realized that no amount of anger could  make these horrible feelings go away; I was left alone with only myself. No amount of performing or hiding would cover up the deep shame that I’d  been working so hard, for so long, to hide.

It is here, when God and others felt a million miles away from the deepest part of me that the Lord made  Himself present and known. Recently, this truth has come to the forefront of my life as I have been slowly meditating upon Henri Nouwen’s book, The Return of the Prodigal Son.

In Nouwen’s meditation upon the Luke 15 parable, he points out the stark observation that regardless of the behavior of both the younger and older son, the Father is shown to be ‘for’ His children; whether in their wanton rebellion or self- righteous indignation, the Lord is really ‘for us’.

In fact, as we consider just a few of His precious promises to us we see that in many ways the children of God are really not warranted to have such a ‘glass is half-empty’ mindset. Whether in this world or in the next, these beautiful anchors of the soul pull us deeper and closer to our ultimate and unique flourishing in Christ.

For instance, in Romans 8:27-39 we find the creme-de la-creme of this theology:

“In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren; and these whom He predestined, He also called; and these whom He called, He also justified; and these whom He justified, He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? Who will bring a charge against God’s elect? God is the one who justifies; who is the one who condemns? Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? Just as it is written,We were considered as ‘sheep to be slaughtered.’

But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This is only one of many examples of the depth of God’s commitment to His children. A commitment that has no end, and results in both ours and the whole world’s reaching its fully intended purpose. As we head into the Christmas  holiday, it is this beautiful truth that I am most thankful for; that my story and my interpretation of it are not the ultimate author; that God the Father is intimately involved in each of our journey’s, working to take them to a place and quality that I could never have imagined or directed myself or others to. I am thankful that our Father is committed; He is in it to win it for us and through us for the sake of His church and world. Thanks be to God!



5 Underrated Christmas Songs Worth Checking Out


Song can be an amazing way to worship during  the holidays. Some Christmas songs we have heard so many times we don’t even realize how profound the lyrics are. Try giving a few of these a listen. They may draw your mind and heart to the Lord in a new way this season.

Thanks to Katelyn DiGioia, Mark Yang, Martin Davis, and Hannah Scheidt for contributing to this list.

1.) Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson

This isn’t just one song, but one of my (Hannah’s) favorite Christmas albums is Behold the Lamb of God by Andrew Peterson. Over the course of the album it tells the story of Christ’s coming, starting in Genesis and ending with His birth. It beautifully illustrates how all of creation was longing for a savior, and how Christ’s birth met that need. It’s a great album to listen to with the whole family. (I’ve noticed kids tend to really like it too.)

2.) “Little Drummer Boy” (A familiar song but the lyrics are underrated)

3.) “Winter Snow Song” by Audrey Assad with Chris Tomlin

4.) “O Come All Ye Faithful” by Mandy Ihrig; A unique take on a classic

5.) Sufjan Stevens’ Christmas Album (for people who don’t think they like Christmas music).