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Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

Clean-up on Aisle 7

If you’ve ever worked in a grocery store (I have; many, many moons ago!) you know what that dreaded overhead announcement means.

“Clean up on Aisle 7!”

Bring the mop and bucket, because someone just dropped a jar of pickles all over the floor.

Glass shards and smelly juice everywhere. Embarassment. Inconvenienced customers. And someone has to go out of their way to fix the mess.

Most days, I feel like my life is a continual cascade of pickle jars – and bread crumbs, and coffee grounds, and detergent, and milk – spilling all over every aisle imaginable. The volume of my own sin and folly – even after decades of walking with God – is disheartening.

Then I read, as I have this past week, of episodes where other Christians, and church leaders, spill their stuff all over aisle 2, and aisle 8, and aisle 15 – and it almost seems like one living, breathing mess. Scandal, hypocrisy, impurity – with no end in sight. And this isn’t unique to 2015 – it has always been thus. The struggle is real.

Yet Peter calls us to “keep (our) behavior excellent among the Gentiles.” We are to wage war against sin (not indulge it), so that the world sees our good works springing from a heart of holiness.

All this contradiction.

That is why we need God’s infinite grace, His undying patience. Because there will always be a mess on Aisle 7. And He has committed to cleaning it up – and fixing us up – through the sacrificial work of Jesus, and the steady, sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit.

It is scandalous, this grace. How can God forgive murderers, adulterers, blasphemers, hypocrites, and backsliders? How can He keep putting up with all of my inward-scandals, my heart-sins, my disbelief; sweeping up glass shards day after day while slowly…oh so slowly…renewing me into His image?

What capacity to forgive – beyond anything we can begin to imagine!

There is only one conclusion – God is all-in on the messy work of giving new life to broken people. We’re all disasters, spilling stuff hourly and, many times, trying to hide the mess and deny that it was our doing.

Sometimes – often – I become discouraged by all the contradiction around me and inside me. But today, I must remember – God is up to the task. From the first pages of Genesis to right now, the human race, in sin, has been a colossal mess, and no believers have been exempt from dropping their pickles.

Let’s at least be honest before God and one another, about the reality of the brokenness we’re in. Brothers and sisters, pastors, and God Himself will be continually called to clean things up in Aisle ___ . Yet we also get to see His hand at work – patterns of sin broken, new light and life imparted, the image of Jesus steadily shining forth in each other, even in the chaos of a fallen world.

So let us rejoice, not in our attainments, but in His amazing capacity to love as a Father. All that stuff on Aisle 7? It’s meant to point us to the One who is perfect, and who will renew all things into His image. Even us.

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The Best Gift

It’s October 18th; just another day for most, but for me, always a good day to pause and reflect.

I was given life-outside-the-womb on this day, 56 years ago. It seems more like the blink of an eye. Yet here I am in middle Tennessee, with 5 wonderful kids, a loyal and loving wife, a warm extended family, a God who has “rescued me from the domain of darkness, and transferred me to the kingdom of His beloved Son,” a fulfilling career, a great network of cool and creative people, and I’m feeling something that has been an elusive experience for most of my life.

I have never been happier.

Not just because of the circumstances, but because, in all my sin and folly, I’m drawing a little bit closer to God day by day.

Life, and new life – that is the best gift of all.

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Doors Unlocked

So far on this brief vacation in the Finger Lakes with my brothers, I’ve noted at least 3 occasions when we’ve left doors unlocked.

Front door. Patio door. Car door.

At least we’ve practiced equal opportunity negligence. Thus far, happily, without consequence.

One reasonable excuse is that we’re in unfamiliar/rental surroundings, so these things happen. But negligence can lead to consequences, whether in familiar or unfamiliar territory.

DoorsWhile walking in a state park yesterday, I spotted a broken-down building with these broken-down doors. I immediately thought of how the Scripture talks about doors and windows into the soul – and the need to guard our hearts.

The fact is, if we leave the doors of our soul unlocked to temptation, sooner or later, sin will both break out and break in.

How we need grace to guard our hearts, lest we end up being ransacked like this.

What sins are you toying with right now that threaten to kick down your doors? Let us turn the lock of repentance, and believe what we are told that if we play with fire, we will eventually get burned.

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Collapse and Renovation

Driving through upstate NY State with my brothers yesterday, we noted how many properties had fallen into disuse and disrepair.

Once-thriving communities built on farming are no longer prospering.

Collapsed barns. Leaning silos. Boarded-up houses. Fallow fields.

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And then, in the midst of the decay, we spotted one brand-new, freshly-reconstructed barn. Someone believed, hoped, and invested.

Decomposition is not sovereign.

I look into my heart, and I see collapse and decay.

Yet Jesus sees a place for investment, a place to show forth His renovating power. He renews. He pours in life.

He lovingly cultivates.

Fields of weeds will bear fruit.

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Phil Robertson Duck DynastyA huge amount of quacking has occurred about the Duck Dynasty/A&E kerfuffle this week, where Phil Robertson has been suspended from his (hugely successful) show for speaking his mind about homosexual practice.

(disclaimer: I’ve only watched the show once. Just to be able to say that I did…!)

And make no mistake – the incident has brought to the surface some huge, brewing cultural trends that need to come out in the open – even in such a stark and public way.

Let’s not duck the fact that this is really about something far bigger than a group of offended folks, as important as that may be. So, let’s grasp the opportunity to get below the surface and expose the core of our culture war.

Put aside, for a moment, Phil and his family, or the particulars about what he said and how he said it. That’s really secondary to what has actually been going on in our society for several generations.

You see, the very same cultural disconnect is driving issues such as who uses which bathrooms in California. That state, always at the forefront of “progressive” thought, is seeking to enforce the notion that students may select their own gender for the purposes of choosing restrooms or playing on sports teams.

I am not kidding. Choose-your-own-gender.

And this starkly illustrates the crux of our societal divide. To put it very plainly – we are having to choose between gender as defined by God and/or natural law; or, gender as defined by the almighty self.

In other words, we are wrestling with a societal push towards Gender Anarchy. Choose-your-own-gender. Choose-your-own-sexuality. Choose-your-own-behaviors. Subjective identity; subjective morality. Objective realities are so last century.

Gender anarchy will, of course, manifest itself in a growing assortment of social and sexual behaviors. People on one side of the cultural divide will tend to believe in defined roles and identities and behaviors that transcend personal choice or feeling. Those who seek more personal/societal license will inevitably break down barriers in the pursuit of a more radical form of individual expression. Which will lead, of course, to the inevitable questioning of strictures against polygamy (also in the news), and an untold number of other sexual choices. Because, you know – right and wrong are shifting constructs.

To put it another way – either a transcendent God has created us with clear and understandable gender identity and purpose, or not. Either we embrace an external standard of reality and morality, or we reject it in favor of personal subjectivism.

This is binary. We can’t have it both ways.

God = Accountability. No God = Whatever I can get away with.

If there is no capital-R Right, then everyone may do whatever is right in their own eyes – choose-your-own-everything. And even though those who embrace such moral and sexual license will always try to qualify it with the idea of “consent” between individuals, that paper barrier never stands. Respect for others is rooted in transcendent values – it is not in the vocabulary of either anarchy or tyranny.

Whoever is strongest and loudest wins, and the rest must be suppressed. Not accepted – suppressed. They stand in the way of the “progress” of limitless personal choice. And right now, in our culture, the cheerleaders for gender and sexual anarchy are on the ascendancy.

Bye-bye, Phil Robertson. Shut up, Christians. Farewell, traditional morality. If you like your convictions, you can’t keep your convictions. Because your convictions offend those whose core conviction is self-determination.

So, this is not simply about A&E and ducks. It’s not merely about toilets. It’s not primarily about this or that sexual behavior or preference. In fact, when you think about it – radical self-determination is not even just about gender.

It’s about God, and truth, and objective moral reality. The rule of a REAL, objective, moral, sovereign and holy (yet benevolent) God, and the anarchic rule of man, are incompatible. Period.

That’s why we’re at war over a duck-hunting, Bible-believing family.

We’re accountable to God, or we’re adrift in a sea of subjectivism, subject to the whims of whomever has currently seized the reins of power.

When we embrace radical self-determination, as individuals or as a society, we’re at war with God. We’re at war with each other. And we inevitably lose our freedom to the tyranny of majority opinion.

Let’s not duck the real discussion here. This is about more than freedom of speech. The Duck Dynasty blowup is a symptom of something far deeper. This is about God. It is also about the club of societal power, and who wields it.

Liberty is from God (recommended reading for Anarchist-Americans: our founding documents). Or, freedom is really just all about personal moral license joined to majority rule. Pick one.

Moral “progressivism” is not freedom. It is rooted in anarchy. It is thought-policing. It is tyranny in bud, waiting for full flower. It is the enemy of freedom; and it will, inevitably, destroy all of our liberties. When presidential advisor John Podesta broad-brushes Americans of a different political party as Jonestown cultists, he merely shows his bias toward suppressive tyranny. Such hate-filled extremists are not public servants. They’re quacks.

As for me, I’m with God, with objective reality, and with the founders of our country, thank you very much. I’d choose “Duck Dynasty” over “Quack Dynasty” any day of the week.

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What a Jesus-Follower is Like

That phrase in I John 2:5-6 has always been more than a bit intimidating: By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.

Are you kidding me??? is a very common reaction. Jesus walked in the closest communion with His Father, experiencing temptation but never committing sin – His heart and mind were pure. And I’m supposed to walk like him? I’m a cesspool of foul desires, evil thoughts, and guilty actions.

But there it is. The expectation is that Christians will reflect Jesus. The Holy Spirit comes, not as some mystical theory, but as a living Presence, changing the heart of the believer and pouring, daily, the life of Jesus in our souls. Slowly, we are becoming like Him. In my case, there are extra o’s: sloooooowly.

Sometimes it feels like we’re actually becoming worse, but that is because as God gives light progressively into our minds and hearts, we simply see more of the reality of our fallenness. Yet, that same light is also purifying us, in the most consequential and sequential daily miracle the world will ever see. Sinners transformed.

I see 5 words that can sum up what I John teaches us about a growing-into-the-image-of-Christ disciple:

  1. Authentic – a formerly dishonest heart is becoming truthful, leaving behind hypocrisy and embracing – before God and men – spiritual reality.
  2. Believing – the one who despised Jesus Christ and took His name in vain now gladly acknowledges Him as the only Savior – his/her only Savior.
  3. Holy – once running in the ways of the world, and delighting in sinful pursuits, the follower of Jesus has now broken with worldly patterns, even while still loving those yet trapped in their sin.
  4. Loving – the hallmark of Jesus’ presence in the heart is love – a formerly self-centered soul now increasingly acts on the impulses of love vertically (God-ward) and horizontally (with other men).
  5. Obedient – God’s commands now take precedence over the expectations of others; and, even at great cost, over our own preferences and desires.

Every one of these things is a miracle. We don’t need to divide the sea or multiply loaves of bread to prove the existence of God. We just need to follow Jesus and give Him the reins in our lives.

No disciple of Christ walks perfectly in these things – none of us can come close to living in the perfect holiness of Jesus. It will be a source of utter futility to read the text as if it meant, “the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk perfectly in the same manner as He walked.” That interpretation is the fastest way into the pit of despair.

Nonetheless, the evidence of the work of the Holy Spirit is clear – when these five traits increasingly fill our lives, even starting in small measures, we are walking with Jesus. And, the converse is true – no matter what we say with our lips, if we are not practicing authentic, believing, holy, loving obedience, then (as John so bluntly phrases it) we are liars.

A Jesus-follower looks like Jesus. It’s gradual, slow, step-by-step, and discolored by the power of remaining sin in the heart of the believer. But now, the true disciple grieves over that sin and consistently turns away from it. The Jesus-follower brings his/her foulness to God and receives pardon and fresh power. The believer falls six times and gets up seven times, and keeps moving forward.

That, too, is a miracle of grace.

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When I became a believer in Jesus, I was taught early on to have very regular daily personal devotions. It was a valuable discipline, which carries through to this day. However…

Form - - - Freedom

Form – – – Freedom

I have also learned that there is a balance of freedom and form in the life of worshipper.

This lesson came home to me most powerfully when we were about to have our first son. Babies have an odd habit of thoroughly disrupting anything resembling a schedule, and my wife was concerned about how the sleep/feeding cycles were going to impact her (very regular) schedule of Bible-reading and prayer. Turns out that God is perfectly capable of sustaining His people in the midst of unpredictability and relative chaos.

Most believers find benefit from a disciplined and regular schedule, and most believers also find, over time, that rigidity can be unproductive and a period of less-structured free-form devotions can be exactly what is needed. Liberating ourselves from the mentality that there is one “right” method to personal devotions is important in experiencing the freedom of grace, and giving God room to work in new ways.

Also, a word about fixed notions of the “right” time to have devotions. I am wired as a morning person, so the standard advice that one should have devotions first thing in the morning fits easily into my modus operandi. However, it is vital that we respect our internal makeup in these matters – some people feel nearly worthless in the morning but really come alive in the evening. For them, the oft-quoted maxim, “Be sure to see the face of God before you see the face of man,” while well-meaning, may lead to hopeless bondage. Instead, built your devotional schedule around your best times, and give yourself (and others!) flexibility. We are free to experiment, evolve, and discover what works best in our lives.

So, to sum up – don’t get locked in to one framework, and don’t bind others. God is big and powerful enough to accomodate our many styles and makeups. Embrace the necessity of discipline, enjoy the flexibility of freedom, and above all, walk in the liberty of grace.

How have you grown and changed in your devotional approach? Have you found a good balance of freedom and form, or are you still struggling to find a path of peace in personal worship?

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The End of Greed

There’s a lot of talk about greed in our society these days – the greed of the rich, the greed of politicians – even the greed of the unproductive.

We get agitated about the enormity of greed that surrounds (and infects) us; and when it leads to illegal and unethical activity, which it often does, our hearts cry out for justice. Well  – ahem – except for our own case. Then we have a few ready rationalizations…

While we might like to think that we live in a uniquely depraved time, in fact, there truly is nothing new under the sun. If we look back through human history, for however many thousands of years, two of the underlying bass notes of the performance have always been pride and greed.

And death. While government will never be able to “fix” greed, there is one sure-fire cure.

Here’s how it was put, many generations ago, in Psalm 49:

Give ear, all inhabitants of the world, both low and high, rich and poor together…Even wise men die; the stupid and senseless alike perish and leave their wealth to others. Their inner thought is that their houses are forever…but man in his pomp will not endure; he is like the beasts that perish…Do not be afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house is increased; for when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not descend after him.

Stark, yes? And unavoidably true.

When our eyes ascend to the feeble and temporary heights achieved by those who accumulate wealth and power, we often feel a sense of fear, of outrage – and a need to bring them down. But this is because our gaze does not ascend high enough – to a just and holy God who looks with far keener eyes upon the pride and pitiful wealth of men. Rich and poor alike are like a flower in spring – vibrant but for a moment, then soon gone. Not a single greedy, wealthy, arrogant baron who elevated himself a few millimeters above his fellow man in the 1800’s is still around to be feared. And when we look around at the living faces of people in our generation – they, and we, will soon be gone.

God, however, remains – unmoved, unchanged, unsullied by our sin. He is the one to fear. He is the one to depend on. His justice will make things right.

We can’t “fix” greed – all attempts to do so by human means are misguided. We can enforce laws against illegal behavior, but a pure heart is beyond the reach of societal and governmental enforcement.

We can, however, look ahead to the end of greed, and see that it cannot and will not endure. The Lord, our Redeemer, will see to that.

There’s plenty enough for our attention to be cleansed of the greed that infests our own hearts. God can see to that, too.

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Election Anxiety

Every four years, like clockwork, my internal stress level increases dramatically for maybe 4-6 months.

Election season.

I actually take politics seriously, because for all of the stupidity and messiness of it, there are major issues at stake that impact both the present and future. It’s certainly true that politicians of both stripes don’t live up to their principles, but principles do matter.

Hence the anxiety. I worry about leadership. I worry about finances. I worry about consequences. I just worry!

Then I read this morning about a man named Simeon. Residents of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago had plenty to worry about – Roman occupiers, divided religious/secular leadership, political and social turmoil – we’re really not so unique here in 21st century America.

Simeon, however, while undoubtedly quite aware of what went on around him, had his mind also operating on another, higher, level. He is described, in the Gospel of Luke, (2:25-32), as being righteous and devout – “the Holy Spirit was upon him…it was revealed to Him by the Holy Spirit…he came in the Spirit into the temple…”

Simeon managed to live with a 2-track mind. His nearness to God and faith in His purposes gave Simeon a steadiness of mind I truly envy. He was waiting for a Messianic King, not simply wrapped up in the machinations of earthly thrones.

I am constantly trying to suppress (not always successfully) a longing to swing verbal swords in the political battlefield. To fight for the here-and-now. But while that is not wrong in and of itself, what I really need far more is a deeper work of the Holy Spirit. To live with my hope and longings fixed on a higher plane. Emperors and kings and presidents and senators will all pass away. Lord, grant me grace to follow a much greater King!

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Fish Out of Water

Beginning to read through Susan Cain‘s recent book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I was surprised to find, in the second chapter, that she addresses the discomfort an introvert may feel in modern evangelical Christian culture.

The main thesis of the book is that there is a strong tendency to over-value demonstrative extroversion, and a corresponding tendency to under-value reflective and quieter introversion. The inner wiring of introversion can subtly (or even overtly) be viewed as problematic, instead of a strength. I have felt this trend in many areas of life, including business (see Lisa Petrilli’s excellent e-book on the subject, The Introvert’s Guide to Success in Business and Leadership).

While I have felt like a fish out of water in some church settings, I hadn’t thoroughly connected it to the broader evangelical culture until pondering this (page 65 of Quiet):

Now I’m quite sure our Lord was outgoing, but to peg Him to a personality type and then use that as a screening tool for leadership effectiveness? I don’t think so (but I have felt that pressure)!

From what I have seen over the years, outgoing-ness and expressive-ness are valued more highly in church settings, both in the pulpit and the pew. The gregarious pastor, the energetic worship leader, the hand-raising parishioner – those whose faith more easily flows into outward expression often surround the quiet and reflective souls who are left silently wondering if their faith is somehow defective.

Last week, my wife and I were watching a DVD of Michael W. Smith leading a worship concert of thousands in Houston (Michael’s got “it” when it comes to up-front leadership charisma, though I suspect he also has a reflective side). I felt that pang of insignificance – how does my more one-on-one approach to people and life measure up to this type of public display? Answer: It’s not meant to. Michael is built for what he does. I’m built to reflect and analyze and question and reason and write and teach. Is one of these traits inferior? I have to believe not (but that doesn’t always stop the feelings of inferiority that introverts regularly experience!)

So I guess that’s the point of this rambling post. Measuring ourselves, and others, by some “ideal” personality type – let’s dispose of that. In life, in business, and yes, in the church. We need our extroverts; they bring a lot to the table. But introverts have some very unique and vital strong suits that balance out the inevitable weaknesses of those who lean more heavily toward speech and action and social engagement (and vice-versa).

I struggle to worship in the outwardly-expressive manner of many of my brethren. I feel like an alien trying to schmooze in noisy social settings. I sometimes feel like a fish out of water when I’d rather take a walk and think, rather than run off to some social gathering. But I’m OK with all of that. God made me to go deep, not necessarily wide. My personality, along with my navel, is an Innie, not an Outie.

I’m sure our Lord loves His introverts.

(Links to Amazon are affiliate links, which means I may earn a few pennies if you click on them and buy the book!)

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