If You're Married, You MUST Do This

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On a recent Focus on the Family radio broadcast, marriage counselor Dave Carder suggested an intriguing communication exercise for couples. Every morning for 30 days, he suggested, each of you should write down something you like about your spouse, and then share it with him or her at the end of the day.

My immediate thought was, “Great idea, but 30 seems like a lot. I certainly like lots of things about my wife, but 30 might be a stretch.” When I shared this idea with Annette, she suggested an alternative. “What if we modify it to 20 things I like about you, and 10 things about you that drive me crazy? Maybe we could do two days on, one day off.” (Her reaction reflected #25 on my list of things I like about her:  her sense of humor.)

We went ahead with this exercise, and I must say it’s been one of the best things we’ve ever done. I found myself thinking all day about both what I had written for that day – looking forward to sharing it – and pondering what I would say the next. Spending a month thinking about all the things you like about your wife is an awesome experience!

Midway through the month, I started to fear I might “run dry.” Then I realized I could “buy” several days if I started listing things she is not:  she is not high maintenance; she is not a gossip; she is not a troublemaker; she is not a “shopper.” (I know this last one makes me the envy of half the men in the country.)

Perhaps the most interesting aspect was how surprised we were by some of the items the other person listed. After being married for 38 years, I heard Annette verbalize some positive things about me that had never even occurred to me.

And it turns out that the most surprising thing she said about me didn’t show up until the very last day when she told me I don’t have a mean bone in my body. She said she has never seen me do anything to intentionally harm anyone. I pushed back a bit and reminded her to the many times I would complain – occasionally bitterly – about some of the jerks in my life. She agreed that I have honed that particular skill pretty well, but she went on to point out that, despite my negative feelings, she has never seen me take action to hurt them. I had never thought of that. What an encouraging observation from the person who knows me better than anyone else!

Interestingly, my #30 comment about her was also an obvious one that I’m surprised I hadn’t tagged sooner – the fact that she feels secure enough in our marriage to be able to express her anger toward me knowing it wouldn’t kill our relationship. I’m thrilled she feels that safe.

And it turns out we didn’t have to worry about running out of ideas. We each even came up with one or two “bonus” items, beyond the 30.

So, I highly recommend this exercise. Give it a try! By the way, you can also do this with your kids or anyone else. Tell them one thing you like about them every day for 30 days.

Two Reasons I Don't Do New Year's Resolutions

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Well, here we are in the fourth week of the new year, and undoubtedly the majority of New Year’s resolutions have gone the way of the Sony Walkman. A recent US News and World Report cites an 80% New Year’s resolution failure rate. If you made some, how are you doing?

I’ve never been big on the practice, and now, for two reasons, I never even start down that road.

1. Many New Year’s resolutions are made with little thought

I was guilty of a parallel transgression as a first year Cru/Campus Crusade for Christ staff member. We were getting ready for our annual student Christmas Conference, and my monthly communication with my support team was due. Naturally, I discussed the conference and asked for their prayers. I had just heard a talk about praying specifically, so I yanked some figures out of the air regarding the number of students attending, the number of people we would get to share Christ with during the conference, etc. But, . . . I had devoted almost no thought and even less prayer to the numbers. I don’t even remember praying particularly diligently for these requests myself. That’s how many people formulate New Year’s resolutions.

Meaningful change comes with thoughtful planning and realistic (i.e., reasonable and modest) expectations. Yet many people haphazardly generate lists of a dozen or more poorly-thought-through resolutions, and they – predictably – fail. Few people succeed at going from zero to sixty in four seconds.

2.  The most profound changes usually come when God teaches me something I didn’t even realize I needed to learn

I’m all for planning and personal goals. But over the years, I’ve learned some of my most significant lessons unexpectedly when God painfully spotlighted one of my shortcomings. A few years ago, I got into an argument with a beloved family member and pushed and pushed my point much further than I should have, damaging the relationship. Although we had gotten into scuffles before and I knew in my head I should have backed off, I didn’t. Subsequently, God made it painfully obvious how badly I had messed up. I deeply regretted my folly, and I vowed never to travel that path again.

Guess what? This is a great picture of what true repentance is. In a recent sermon, our youth pastor Troy Gambrell referenced Charles Spurgeon’s three elements of repentance: 

·         Discovering your shortcoming

·         Mourning your sin

·         Resolving to never repeat it

Troy pointed out that, although repentance has gotten a terrible reputation in our culture, we should embrace it as the means and message of good news that follows the bad news about our sin. If our goal is merely to stop bad behavior, we start down the dark road of legalism, judgmentalism, and self-condemnation. But if our goal is spiritual transformation, we should see repentance as a vital tool God employs in our upward calling in Christ (Phil 3:14).

 

So, I’m happy to keep planning and setting goals, but I’m (eventually) delighted after God reveals a major flaw and provides the grace that helps further conform me to the image of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Hebrews 1 - 7explains how Jesus is superior to the prophets, angels, Moses, Joshua, and the Old Testament priesthood. In the same vein, I would suggest that repentance is superior to New Year’s resolutions.

When You Unexpectedly Have a Ministry to Yourself

Every speaker and teacher I know agrees that organizing their thoughts into a talk or written piece leaves them feeling they learned more than their audiences did. I’m no exception.

At this time of year, we tend to reflect on the previous twelve months. As I did a quick scan of my 2018 blog posts (www.glennpearson.co/new-blog), I thought all of them had something of value. Of course I did, or I wouldn’t have written them 😊. But as an undergraduate English major trained to notice literary patterns, I recognized some inter-related themes in four of my blogs:

  • January 24 – The Absolute Best Bible Passage for Resolving an Age-Old Debate – References Daniel 3:17-18 where the pagan king Nebuchadnezzar threatened to incinerate Daniel’s three friends if they didn’t worship the golden image he had set up – “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it . . . .  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

  • July 19 – got envy? – Tells of my envy over seeing people having the luxury of running when I had to drive to work, but then my equal envy when I was the one running in the park when my business was slow and saw people on their way to productive jobs

  • November 15 – When God Uses You to Answer Someone Else’s Prayer but Doesn’t Answer Yours – Relates the story how God supernaturally allowed me to establish a mentoring relationship with a young man at LA Fitness who specifically prayed for someone to take him under his wing as he was literally driving to the gym that very morning

  • December 12 – Contentment:  2 Obvious But Life-Changing Ideas – Reminds us of two things:

    ·   Contentment consists not in great wealth but in few wants

    ·   Since God controls absolutely everything, loves me completely, and knows what he’s doing, I have exactly what he wants me to have

Here’s how these four fit together. I see others’ favorable circumstances but envy them (the envy blog), and I rejoice when God uses me to bless someone else but wonder why some of my prayers aren’t answered (the blog about using me to answer someone else’s prayer), resulting in more envy. The antidote is to ponder Daniel’s three friends’ faith as they recognize God can do the absolutely impossible if he wants to and to emulate their astounding commitment to trust him even if he chooses a different path for them. Internalizing these three lessons leads me to contentment as I see that my circumstances reflect exactly what God wants me to have.

Ironically, literally one hour before I posted the contentment blog, I received some very disappointing ministry-related news. God graciously reminded me of these four blogs and, although I was still disappointed, he allowed me to exhale and trust his loving sovereignty. So, I’m thankful I had the chance to unexpectedly minister to myself 😊. But of course, I am ultimately thankful to God for driving these lessons into my heart and allowing me to live them out.

Contentment: 2 Obvious But Life-Changing Ideas

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,

whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

The Apostle Paul – Philippians 4:12

Who wouldn’t want to be able to echo Paul’s sentiment? Here are a couple of thoughts that might help.

1. Contentment consists not in great wealth but in few wants. I came across this saying about thirty years ago and liked it so much I wrote it on a card to put on my stationary bike to ponder as I logged the virtual miles.

Our natural tendency is to constantly want more, especially during this hyper-consumerized time of year. I love the way our family handles Christmas gifts. Rather than taking wild stabs at what to get for each other, we each generate and circulate a list of things we’d enjoy. That way the gift givers know they’re on target.

I have been so materially blessed that I can initially be hard-pressed to identify things I don’t already have. I usually start with a pretty modest list, but as Christmas gets closer, I keep thinking of things to add, and by the time the big day arrives, I’ve so emotionally invested in my expanded catalog that I feel disappointed if some of it doesn’t make it under the tree. So, I’ve gone from having a hard time identifying things I want to being slightly miffed when all my wants are not satisfied. The problem isn’t with our gift-giving method but with my oversized list of wants.

Comparison is at the root of most discontent. I compare what I don’t have with what others do have. Of course, we tend to look “upstream” at people with more money, a better job, better looks, more friends, etc. And our contentment evaporates.

There is one way that comparison can help, though. And that’s by viewing our many, many blessings – both material and relational – in light of what other people don’t have. Two universal responses from people who go on third-world mission trips are amazement over the mind-numbing poverty and some degree of embarrassment over how much we have. And many of our new overseas friends seem more joyful than we rich Americans are. This type of comparison is a great reminder that contentment doesn’t consist in great wealth but in few wants.

2. I have exactly what God wants me to have. One of the finest books I’ve ever read is Trusting God by Jerry Bridges in which the author explores three of God’s biblically provable attributes. God:

  • is sovereign over absolutely everything in the universe

  • loves me perfectly

  • knows what he is doing

If all these things are simultaneously true – and they are – how could I not have exactly what God wants me to have – no more, no less? Stop and think about this for a moment. When you recognize your lack of contentment, it’s helpful to ponder which of these three truths you’re failing to embrace.

May you and your family experience a blessed and contented Christmas season and 2019!

When God Uses You to Answer Someone Else’s Prayer but Doesn’t Answer Yours

“What’s your shirt about?”

I had just seen a guy by the dumbbell rack at LA Fitness wearing a bright red tee shirt with the words “Spiritual Battle” in bold black letters on the back. He got a funny look on his face and mumbled something about getting it at a retreat. Of course, I knew there had to be some kind of Christian connection, but this was a good conversation-starter. As we chatted, Paul revealed he was working through some pretty big personal issues.  

We got together for lunch a few days later and then about every other month for the next year or so until he moved. Over that time, through me and others, God solidified a lot of important things for Paul, and today, he is a vibrant Christ-follower, having a strong impact for the Kingdom.

During our third or fourth meeting, Paul revealed some interesting details. First of all, the reason he was taken aback when I initially approached him was that no stranger had ever spoken to him in the gym before. Secondly, he wasn’t sure why he wore the “Spiritual Battles” shirt that morning. In fact, it was the first and last time he ever wore it. But most interesting was the fact that the very morning we met, he had prayed specifically that God would bring someone into his life to help him sort through the challenges he was facing. So, I was a direct answer to his prayer. How cool is that! 

Think about the timing factors that had to fall into place for our relationship to get launched. I go to the gym a couple of times a week on different days and at different times. The day we met, I was there unusually early, so would could have easily missed each other. Then there was the shirt, only worn once. And finally, there was his specific prayer that very day for someone to talk to. God worked all this out behind the scenes, and I was literally an answer to his prayer.

As I look at my own life, I see a mixed bag of answered and unanswered prayers. Just last Saturday, November 10, marked the 48th anniversary of my conversion. There are people for whom I’ve been praying for nearly half a century and who seem no closer to the Lord than they were back in 1970. And then, despite my fervent prayers, there have been the major relationship-related, work-related, and ministry-related disappointments. What’s up with that? Why hasn’t God answered my prayers?

I’ve concluded two things about these contrasting situations – being used by God to answer someone’s prayer and God’s seeming silence about some of my own. First, he certainly can orchestrate circumstances in miraculous ways in response to our prayers, just like he did for my friend Paul. But, for reasons known only to him, he often doesn’t. Secondly, I can be OK with that if I view the situation in light of God’s perfect, 100% love for me. As Tony Evans says, if someone actually dies for you, don’t you think he’s on your side?

So, seeing God miraculously use me to answer someone else’s prayer helps me trust his power, and knowing his perfect love for me helps me relax when I don’t always get my way. Can you say you’ve gotten to this point? I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer.

 

 

When Christianity Wasn't Considered a Religion

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In his terrific book The Prodigal God, Tim Keller explains that, surprisingly, in its earliest days, Christianity wasn’t considered a religion. Religions typically have three defining traits:  sacrifices to appease the gods, temples where these sacrifices are carried out, and priests to offer the sacrifices and serve as intermediaries between the deities and the people. Ironically, since the early Christians in the Roman empire didn’t follow “expected” religious behavior, they were labeled atheists.

Christians’ revolutionary teaching was that sacrifices to the gods are no longer necessary because Jesus himself was the ultimate sacrifice. And neither temples nor priests are needed if you don’t have sacrifices. This ran counter to every concept of religion known in the ancient world. All other Middle Eastern religion had many gods who controlled every single aspect of life:  the weather, fertility, war, pestilence, etc. When bad things happened, it was because the gods were angry and had to be placated.

My wife and I recently had the chance to observe one New World, non-Christian, polytheistic religion. In August, we enjoyed an awesome trip to Peru where we hiked the four-day Inca Trail to the ancient Inca city of Machu Pichu. Like other ancient cultures, the Incas believed in many gods to whom they regularly offered sacrifices. One of their principal deities was Pachamama, or Mother Earth.

After hiking the Inca Trail, we visited the charming Southern Peruvian city of Arequipa, which houses a museum containing the frozen mummy of a 12-year-old girl – dubbed “The Ice Maiden” – who had been sacrificed to the Inca’s gods in the 1450s. The museum provides many sobering details about the Inca’s belief system and rituals surrounding human sacrifice.

Although few, if any, cultures today still practice human sacrifice, many polytheistic concepts linger on. During our Peru excursion, we had the chance to discuss Jesus and our faith with our outstanding and friendly guides. It was a bit surprising to see how influential Pachamama remains today, even among some who identify as Christians. More than once, before our guides started drinking a beverage, if we were outdoors they would pour a few drops on the ground as an “offering” to – or at least an acknowledgment of – Pachamama.

This practice, even among professing Christians, should alert us to how easy it is to mix our faith with superstitious or polytheistic ideas and revert to thinking we have to appease God. Jesus was our sacrifice for sin, once and for all (Hebrew 9:12). He loves us enough to have laid down his life for us (John 5:13), and God works everything – even seeming calamities – together for our good (Romans 8:28). We don’t have to do anything to earn his favor. If we truly grasp this, we should want to live in a way that honors God, not feel like we have to do things to satisfy this wrath.

Here’s a question:  Am I living like the first Roman Christians did, basking in the knowledge that, because of Jesus, I don’t need sacrifices, temples or priests, or am I doing anything today that smacks of returning to a pagan belief that I have to earn God’s favor?

Follow Up from Immigration Blog Post

My last article about the yard sign welcoming people of different nationalities drew the most reaction of any blog I have written. (Scroll down to the previous entry to review my original comments.) I appreciate the effort so many made in writing back and wanted to summarize your comments.

Reactions fell into two categories. The first was affirming the importance of loving all people but confirming that laws must be obeyed. A few writers pointed to Romans 13 where Paul admonishes obedience to those in authority, a teaching that reinforces Jesus’ statement about fulfilling rather than abolishing the law (Matthew 5:17). My first draft of the blog actually referenced Romans 13, but I deleted that part because the article was running long and also because the topic was how Jesus would react to the issue of immigration, and, of course, Paul was not Jesus. But those of you who pointed to Romans 13 astutely recognized that obeying the law is a consistent Christian theme.

The second set of comments dealt with an aspect I didn’t specifically address: the legal status of people from other countries. Several readers pointed to the financial implications of essentially welcoming anyone and everyone into the country. One person noted that we are a country governed by laws and that we have specific mechanisms for changing laws that we don’t like or have become obsolete. I completely agree with his contention that we don’t have the luxury of picking and choosing which laws to enforce and which to ignore.

Some of you mentally inserted the word “illegal” in front of the concept of people from other nations. I specifically avoided that term because my intention was to consider how we should react to every individual we meet, regardless of whether they follow human laws or God’s standards. Remember, Jesus did not harshly reject the woman caught in adultery, but neither did he condone her actions (John 8). He is the original role model for “love the sinner but hate the sin.”

Perhaps the most interesting comment came from a LinkedIn reader:

I agree with what you write, but here in Sweden we find that immigrants and the second generation don’t respect our laws because they don’t stem from Allah. It’s so sad that everything has turned into such a mess when we just wanted to help them.

So, this is, indeed, a complex issue.

Here’s the bottom line. When Christians encounter someone from another country or culture in the supermarket, the workplace, or the neighborhood – as well as people with lifestyles we may disagree with – we must react in the “Jesus way,” demonstrating love and compassion for them as individuals. Whether or not they got here the right way or whether they are trying to live according to God’s standards should not enter into our personal interactions with them.

This is not to say they should get a pass if they have skirted the law. What happens in that realm is governed by our legal system. In our personal interactions, however, we must treat them in ways that exhibit the love of Christ. How could we do any less?

 

What Would Jesus' Attitude Towards Immigrants Be?

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Last month, my wife and I were blessed to be able to visit both sets of our married kids in Los Angeles. During one of my morning runs, I came across a yard sign with an intriguing message in three languages (Spanish, English, and a Middle Eastern language). The English said, No matter where you are from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor. 

“What an interesting sign,” I thought. “That’s a very nice sentiment.” But then, I immediately recognized the political overtones implied by including the two non-English languages. And it got me to thinking, if Jesus had a front yard, would he put this sign in it?

I both watch CNN/network TV news and listen to a few talk radio shows, so I am familiar with both sides of the “culture war” issues. This sign was obviously placed by someone who welcomes Hispanic and Islamic neighbors, implying a more progressive view toward immigration. Just because someone is Hispanic or is a Muslim doesn’t mean they have done anything illegal. But some Hispanics have broken immigration laws, and some Muslims (a very small percentage) espouse violence against Westerners.

So, would Jesus endorse this sign or not?

The anecdote from Jesus life that sheds the most light on this question is in John 8 – the account of the woman caught in adultery. You know the story. The Pharisees and teachers of the law haul an adulterous woman before Jesus, hoping he will say something that would allow them to claim he didn’t follow the Law of Moses. Of course, Jesus sees right through this and invites anyone who was sinless to pick up the first stone. None is, so none does. Once it was just Jesus and the woman, he tells her he didn’t condemn her either.

People of a more liberal bent tend to stop here. Their application of this story to many cultural issues tends toward the progressive side, and many would support a position that ignores current immigration laws and allow in anyone who wants to come to our country.

 But not so fast. This position ignores the story’s concluding verse where Jesus tells the woman, “Go and sin no more.” So, although Jesus doesn’t condemn her, neither does he invalidate the laws against adultery. It’s the perfect illustration of the old adage, Love the sinner but hate the sin.

Sometimes, people of a more conservative bent – like the Pharisees and teacher of the law in this story – focus exclusively on upholding the law and fail to act lovingly toward individual perceived lawbreaker. But sometimes, people with more progressive inclinations seem to forget that Jesus never supported lawlessness. He said in Matthew 5:17 that he didn’t come to abolish the Law or the Prophets, but to fulfill them. The Old Testament laws regulated both religious and civic behavior. 

So, where does this leave us? Would Jesus endorse this sign or not? I believe he would. But just like he calls everyone to obey the laws of God and man, he would not support behavior that breaks the law.

What do you think?

 

got envy?

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During my 19 years as Executive Vice President of Georgia Hospital Association, I drove through a half-mile stretch of Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Marietta on my way to work every day. Although metro Atlanta is very crowded, I could at least for a few minutes pretend I lived in a less developed area. 

More than once, I had to stop for runners crossing the road during their morning runs through the park. And more than once, I got jealous, wishing I could join them instead of having to drive to work.

One morning right after I left Georgia Hospital Association and started my own consulting business, I had one of those days when I had nothing of real substance going on. Rather than sit around the house all morning, I decided to go run in the park. As I approached the very same road crossing I had driven past so many times, I found myself being jealous of “all those people who have somewhere to go this morning when I’m treading water.” I wonder how many of them wished they could be me at that moment.  

How typical look right past our countless blessings and become envious of what we don’t have.

Several months ago, I attend a professional healthcare conference and ran in to some younger colleagues I hadn’t seen in a while. Of course, we checked in with each other and asked how we were all doing. One of them commented, “Boy I wish I could be doing what you’re doing. You can set your own schedule, do what you want, and serve as master of your own destiny.”

I didn’t verbalize what I was really thinking: “Yes, you’re right about all those things. But guess what? I don’t have a steady paycheck, I’m paying my whole Social Security withholding amount and healthcare coverage, and I have no one to delegate to all the administrative tasks I either don’t fully understand or hate doing.”

Every choice we make and every circumstance we face has its upsides and its downsides. God has designed life so that we constantly face challenges. I have yet to meet anyone who would not change a single thing about his or her circumstances. It’s easy to get sucked into the Face Book version of people’s lives where we only see their fabulous vacations, incredible accomplishments, and perfect-looking families. It’s easy to look at my areas of disappointment and envy those who seem to have it so much better than I do. 

Instead, we should focus on our many blessings and thank God for the things we often take for granted. And we should also thank him even for the rough spots we would ditch if we could. It’s all part of his plan to transform us into thankful people who acknowledge his grace in all areas of our lives – the bad as well as the good. I believe this is part of what Jesus had in mind when he referred to his followers as the Light of the World.

Jesus, the Judgmental

They metaphorically wag their fingers at someone expressing concern about a recent cultural trend that shifts us further away from biblical standards. They then reference what may be one of the few Bible verses they can quote. “Didn’t Jesus, himself, say, ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’?” Sometimes, whoever invokes this verse (Matthew 7:1 – part of the Sermon on the Mount) sees it as the “touché” that is supposed to shame the “judger” into silence.

Yanking verses out of context encourages dubious interpretations or applications. In the very same chapter that records this admonition to not judge, Jesus slips in a few pretty “judgy-sounding” things:

·         Only a few will find the narrow road that leads to salvation (verse 13-14). Implication:  most people won’t “make it.”

·         He calls people who don’t do God’s will “evildoers” who will be excluded from the kingdom (verses 21-23).

·         Anyone who fails to heed his words faces ruin (verses 21-27).

But wait! There’s more! It’s not that Jesus woke up on the wrong side of the bed on the day he delivered the Sermon on the Mount. We see the same theme of judgement in nearly half his parables. By my count, out of Jesus’ 40 parables, 18 involved judgement, including:

·         The vineyard tenants who rebelled against the landowner, ultimately killing his son (Mark 12:1-11)

·         Being entrusted with talents and either investing them or burying them (Luke 19:12-27)

·         The rich fool who was not rich toward God and tore down his barns to store all his riches (Luke 12:16-21)

And within the 18 “judgment parables,” fully 10 are “dualistic” where they specify two groups:   those who do it right, and those who don’t.  Here are just a few:

·         The sheep and the goats – those who either care for God’s people or don’t (Matthew 25:31-46)

·         Two sons, one of whom said he would do his father’s will but didn’t, and the other who initially said he wouldn’t but changed his mind and ultimately complied (Matthew 21:28-32)

·         The Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:10-14)

Beyond these teachings, look at Jesus’ scathing denouncement of the Pharisees and teachers of the law (Matthew 23:13-39) where he calls them hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, and a brood of vipers. Not exactly “Jesus, Meek and Mild” who never called people out when they violated God’s standards.

If those who criticize Christians for speaking up on social issues were to apply the same standard to Jesus himself, they would be forced to label him judgmental.  The problem is that, in the way they apply “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” they are conflating the different “dimensions” of judgment:

1.      God judging me as an individual

2.      God holding societies accountable for their collective practices

3.      Me judging someone else as an individual

4.      Me communicating my understanding of how God’s standards should affect society

Jesus’ prohibition in Matthew 7:1 relates to #3 – Me judging an individual.  It fits perfectly with the rest of the Sermon the Mount which addresses my personal behavior, character, and even inner thoughts. Matthew 7:1 does not disqualify me from speaking to #4.

We should not take a confrontational approach when people hijack nine of Jesus’ words to support their social positions. Instead, we should humbly and gently point them to a more nuanced understanding of judgment and Jesus’ charge to his followers – also in the Sermon on the Mount – to be the light of the world.  

Growing Up in a "Reverse Whack-A-Mole" Family

I was raised by crazy people.  Not the “wild and crazy” type.  The mentally ill type.  All the men in the family had significant issues.  My dad left our family when I was 12 and never provided either financial or emotional support.  Some divorced fathers become “Disney Dads” – showering their kids with gifts and fun events to make up for their physical absence.  Not mine.  He rejected virtually everything conventional, including even giving birthday and Christmas gifts.  

He was emotionally abusive and, according to my mom, seemed to relish picking on me.  Instead of reaching out to my brother and me in terms we could relate to, he would badger us for not having warm feelings toward him.  When I see Jesus ask in Matthew 7:9-11, “Which of you fathers would give a stone instead of bread?” I have someone I can nominate. 

My dad’s dad thought he had cancer when he was in his 60s, so one day he jumped in front of a speeding train at a railroad crossing about a mile from our house.  

My brother, who was a year older, suffered from schizophrenia and manic depression.  We never had any kind of relationship.  He spent most of the last 20 years of his life in and out of mental hospitals and eventually hanged himself. 

My other grandfather had an emotional breakdown and was also hospitalized for several months. 

And then there were the uncles and cousins.  Among them were at least one alcoholic, one who was unfaithful to his wife, a hoarder/hermit, and (allegedly) a small-time criminal.

In short, there were no healthy men anywhere in sight, and I always felt on the “outs” with all of them.  

You probably know the carnival game Whack-A-Mole where nine mechanical moles pop out of their holes in a random manner, and the player tries to whack them with a mallet before they retreat.  I have concluded that I grew up in a “reverse whack-a-mole” world where there were about nine whackers and one mole – me.  

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Several years ago, I visited a counselor to try to piece all this together.  After hearing my story, he said – on at least four occasions: 

There is no explanation for you.  Someone with your background should be unemployable, divorced three times, abusive, an alcoholic, or some other kind of addict.  The fact that you’re none of these things is an incredible testimony to God’s grace.

Whenever my wife calls me out on something I’m doing wrong, I love reminding her that I “should” be a whole lot worse than I am  😊.

You may know that I wrote a book called That’s a Great Question, which is a critical thinking/apologetics book.  It’s aimed at the “intellectual” side of the faith.  I love discussing skeptics’ “head” problems with the Bible.  I can’t necessarily answer all their questions to their satisfaction, but I can hold my own in the discussion.  After we have tap-danced a bit and they realize I’m not brain-dead, I like to say something like this:

I’ve appreciated our conversation.  Even if we don’t agree, I respect your perspective and I hope you respect mine.  I don’t think I can convince you conclusively of the truth of the Bible at this point, and I have studied these issues enough to feel there is probably nothing you can say that will convince me to walk away from the faith.  So, we’re at something of a standstill.

However, I want to point out a totally different reason that I know that Jesus is real.  And that’s the fact that he absolutely changed my life.  

I then tell them my story, and they typically listen attentively.

So, yes, Jesus can even rescue someone brought up in a reverse whack-a-mole family.  Praise him!

A Down Side of Being Strong

In our household, we have rephrased the old saying about springtime to read, “Spring is the time when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of . . . planting shrubs.”  I thought we owned two or three of every tree and shrub that Pike Nursery has to sell, but each year, I rediscover that I was wrong.  We always seem be sprucing up a different part of the yard or replacing a dead bush that didn’t survive the winter.

A couple of years ago, we decided to swap out a dozen shrubs in the front of our house that just weren’t doing it.  The challenge was finding a single variety that could thrive in conditions ranging from full sunlight to full shade.  Very few are that adaptable, but we finally settled on a specific type of hawthorn that prefers sunlight but can do reasonably well in shade.  

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Although all twelve plants were healthy, when it came time to plant them, I made sure to put the very best and strongest specimens in the least favorable (that is, most shady) conditions.  And that made me wonder if my approach was parallel to the life circumstances God allows in different people’s lives.   

Some people seem to have it made.  Everything consistently falls into place:  good health, great jobs, relatively smooth family lives, few financial problems, etc.   Others experience just the opposite.

One friend I’ve been meeting with monthly for several years seems to be a problem magnet.  His family of origin was nothing short of a nightmare.  His wife of two decades suddenly left him for another man, triggering a very expensive years-long custody fight.  He experienced other issues with his adult children.  And just when I thought things couldn’t get worse, he had a serious car accident that has left him with significant medical issues that threaten his ability to work.

I can only speculate as to why God has allowed this tough, tough series of circumstances.  But my experience with planting the hawthorns makes me wonder if perhaps God is paying my friend a very high compliment.  Just as I made sure to place the very strongest plants in the most demanding locations, could it be that God does the same and allows the most severe circumstances for those he knows can handle it?  This is consistent with the spirit of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:13 – God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.  But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.  

I’m sure there have been many times my friend has been tempted to despair, but God has been faithful to sustain him in his faith.  And he has endured and grown greatly.  In fact, he is almost unrecognizable as the same man I started meeting with a few years ago.  And it’s because of the adversity God has allowed in his life.  Others might have crumbled but my friend hasn’t.  Instead he has grown and thrived and serves as a powerful testimony to God’s grace.  

So, the next time you encounter a particularly rough spell, perhaps it’s God recognizing the inner strength he has built into your life.

 

A Lesson about God's Grace from Yogurt Trees

Well, actually, they’re not really called yogurt trees.  They’re redbuds – beautiful, slender trees that dot wooded areas and homeowners’ properties throughout the South and much of the East Coast.  Our daughter Stephanie started calling them “yogurt trees” in high school because their delicate blossoms are the same pinkish-purplish color as the boysenberry yogurt she loves.  And the name stuck – at least in our family.

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Yogurt trees are small-to-medium sized and have attractive heart-shaped leaves.  What makes them really stand out,though, are the clusters of pinkish blossoms that pop right out of the trees’ bare branches even before the leaves do.   These blossoms signal the beginning of spring, and since they start sprouting while most other trees are still dormant, you can’t miss them.

We live right next to Kennesaw Mountain National Civil War Battlefield Park just outside Atlanta, and starting in mid-March, whenever we drive through the park, I’m delighted to see little pink bursts absolutely everywhere.  However, once the flowers fade and the other trees sprout their leaves, yogurt trees go virtually unnoticed for the rest of the year.  But they’re always there.

And they serve as a special reminder of God’s grace.  You see, even though yogurt trees/redbuds never go away, they’re easy to overlook most of the time.  In the same way, although God’s grace is always present, it’s easy for me to miss it.  

Absolutely everything I have reflects God’s goodness and grace:  every breath I take, my physical health, each crumb of food I put in my mouth, my family, my friends, my job, and – most of all – my relationship with God.  Which of these things can I claim is based on my own merit?  

Although I may be the one who earns money to pay for graceries and who cooks my meals, who created food in the first place, and who designed the human body to be able to enjoy the pleasure of eating?  Although I may work hard at my occupation, who gave me the intelligence and physical health that lets me hold down a job?  And although I may be doing my best to honor God in my actions and attitudes, who made a relationship with God possible in the first place?  Jesus is the one who died to take care of my sin problem, and he is the one who, through his sovereignty, touched my life and chose me for a relationship with him.  As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9:

. . . it is by God’s grace you have been saved through faith.  It is not the result of your own efforts, but God’s gift, so that no one can boast about it – (Good News Bible)

So just like it’s easy for me to not see yogurt trees for most of the year, it’s easy for me to look right past God’s grace for much of my life.

I should point out that there is one sense in which the analogy breaks down.  Since the trees’ blossoms are linked to the seasonal calendar, I am guaranteed to notice them every spring.  But I have the chance every single day to either notice – or miss seeing –  God’s grace.  

 

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Saving a Life 3 Times

Some jobs are just plain cool.  Chad – one of my favorite people in the world – has one of the best.  Besides being a faithful follower of Jesus and a great guy, Chad is a helicopter paramedic.  We met when our family lived in Ann Arbor, and we have stayed friends ever since.

Chad recently told me an awesome story about one of his late-night rescues.  About 18 months ago, Chad and his team were called to a serious car wreck in rural Southeast Michigan.  Inside a car that had careened off the road was a seriously injured 18-year-old high school football player.     Paramedics do all they can to extricate patients without creating further damage, but this boy’s foot was so thoroughly entrapped in sheet metal that the paramedics finally realized what they had to do to save his life.

Last summer, Chad – who is a beast – was participating in a Spartan race, one of those insane athletic events that combines running with crazy obstacles.  As he was climbing a steep hill, he saw a fellow participant with a prosthetic leg struggling to make it to the top.  “I’m dying,” the younger man gasped.  Being a big-hearted soul, Chad said to him, “Put your arm around me and I’ll help you up.”  

On the way up the hill, Chad asked about his injury.  Based on the young guy’s age, he thought perhaps he was a soldier injured in overseas combat.  “No, I was actually in a real bad car wreck last summer,” he said.  As he started sharing the details, Chad realized that this was the young man he had helped airlift to the hospital.  Unfortunately, besides losing his foot, he ultimately lost his entire leg.  We they reached to summit of the hill, the young guy said with a big grin, “Thanks!  That’s twice now that that you saved my life.”  

When the boy’s dad, who was at the finish line, realized who Chad was, he had difficulty communicating to Chad the extent of his gratitude.  He told him that even though his son was a good kid, before the accident he was starting to make some poor choices.  Once, out of exasperation, he said to his son, “I don’t know what it’s going to take to get you back on track.”  

In the aftermath of the accident, both the son and his dad – both of whom are Christians – have grown much deeper in their walks with Jesus.  Of course, if the son hadn’t been physically rescued from the mangled car, he wouldn’t have been on that hill where Chad was able to “save” him, so to speak, the second time.  Nor would he have been around to experience a renewed commitment to Christ.  God used that tragedy in both the son’s and the father’s life, and their spiritual walks are far stronger because of the accident and the son’s subsequent survival.

So Chad had a hand in “saving” this young man’s three times:  once literally, once metaphorically, and once (in a sense) spiritually.  What a blessing for Chad and for everyone who hears how God can work through even the most tragic of circumstances. 

I hope this story provides major encouragement to you.

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The 3 Things All Kids Need

Among the many ministries God has used in my life, Focus on the Family ranks right at the top.  Back in 2003, I had the great pleasure of participating in two of their 225-mile fundraiser bike rides.  And Focus publications are top-notch.  But probably their most significant impact on me has been the daily radio broadcasts.

One program that particularly stands out addressed what children need emotionally.  Although this particular broadcast targeted dads and their sons, the principles apply to both parents and all kids.  But since this interview’s focus was on dads and sons, I will relay the lessons in those terms.

According to the psychiatrist being interviewed, sons need three things from their dads:

1.      Attention – They need to feel noticed and important.  This is communicated in many ways:  spending time together, entering the boy’s world, and being present for the important moments and events in his life.  Of course, these days, everyone is hyper-busy, and there are sometimes unavoidable schedule conflicts.  Nevertheless, when your son stands back from his day-to-day activities, does he know that you are there for him no matter what, and that if there is a genuine need, he won’t be left dangling to figure life out by himself?

2.      Acceptance (or Affirmation) – It’s one thing to be present in your son’s life, but another for him to feel you accept him.  One obvious example of giving attention but not acceptance is the ultra-competitive dad who never misses a basketball game but berates the kid for every little mistake on the court.  Yes, dad is giving him plenty of attention, but does the young man come away feeling affirmed or rejected?  And what about the All-American quarterback dad whose son shows more interest in drama and the arts than in chucking a football with dad in the back yard?  Does the son know that his dad loves him completely and is proud of his abilities and interests?

3.      Affection – It’s so cool to see parent-child interactions where they can playfully joke with each other and just enjoy being together.  Of course, it must be mutually respectful, and the objective is not for you to become your son’s “buddy.”  He probably has several of those, but he only has one dad.  Every boy should know that his dad both loves and likes him.

So there you have it:  the three things boys (and girls) needs from their dads (and moms).  

As someone who got none of these from my own dad, I can tell you how crippling these deficits can be.  But don’t beat yourself up too badly.  None of us is the perfect parent.  With the hindsight only experience can bring, I realize that, given a do-over, I would do some things better with my own kids.  

But at the same time, we must remember that God can make up for our parenting shortcomings.  He has done this in nearly miraculous ways for me.  However, rather than depending on God as our “backstop,” let’s do our best today to give our kids what they truly need.

The Absolute Best Bible Passage for Resolvoing an Age-Old Debate

God has blessed me with wonderful Christian friends from various faith traditions:  Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Charismatic, non-denominational, Wesleyan, and others.  Although we all agree on the central issues of the faith – what C. S. Lewis would call “mere Christianity” – we sometimes have different “takes” on certain principles of Christian living.  

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A core issue for believers concerns how “demanding” we can be in prayer.  Jesus himself promised several times that we can ask anything of God and expect him to answer as long as these prayers are “claimed” in the context of God’s sovereignty.  After all, he is the God of the universe, and I’m not, so he may have outcomes I can’t see from my limited perspective.

But this raises a vexing problem.  How can I pray confidently, expecting an answer not knowing if what I’m asking is really God’s will?

Some Christians stress our unfettered access to our loving heavenly father and boldly ask for miraculous interventions.  If you extrapolate this position to the extreme, it can almost border on the “name it and claim it” false theology – insisting that God apply one of his promises exactly the way I want it to look.  

Other Christians are more reserved and, following Jesus’ example in the garden, stress prayer’s “nevertheless, not my will but yours” aspect.  Taken to an extreme, this position approaches “practical deism.”   That is, although I ask God to intervene on my behalf, I really don’t expect him to do anything, so he more or less becomes a non-entity in my daily life.

How do we resolve this tension between perhaps being presumptuous on the one hand and being “of little faith” on the other?  

There is no better Bible passage to address this than Daniel 3:17-18.  Enemies of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego ratted them out to Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar for not worshipping the golden image the king had set up.  The penalty?  Incineration in a furnace hot enough to instantly kill the soldiers who threw the three into it.

Given one last chance to reconsider, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego answered:

“If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it . . . .  But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”   

That’s it!  The perfect blend of believing God’s power and a willingness to continue trusting him even if his will doesn’t match my personal agenda.  If God could make the Milky Way and the Grand Canyon, and if he could bring Jesus back from death, certainly he is able to suspend the laws of nature to preserve the three from the flames.  But will he?  I can and should ask for the miraculous, but God may be after other things.  That’s his business.  My job is to trust him even if my prayers are not answered precisely as I think they should be.  So ask away, and rejoice regardless of the outcome.  

Thank you for this transformational insight, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego!

Responding to Compliments: 2 Wrong Ways and 1 Right Way

“You’re an amazing musician!  I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone play harmonica like that before.  You have such a bluesy sound, and you make that thing sing!”

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I often hear comments like this.  For five years, I performed with various internationally touring Cru music ministry bands and currently play professionally in a Christian bluegrass band and with various other musicians.  

How should I respond to such compliments?

Wrong Way #1 – Pay too much attention to them and start believing my own press clippings.  That’s a dangerous path towards inappropriate, destructive pride.

Wrong Way #2 – Dismiss the compliment in an attempt to show humility.  

Years ago, I heard a Christian psychologist confess that he used to employ Wrong Way #2 when people would thank him for his wonderful public talks.  “Oh no.  That wasn’t me.  It was all Jesus,” he would say.  In hindsight, he wished just one person would have called him out.  “Wait a minute!  Were my eyes and ears deceiving me?  Didn’t I see you behind that podium?  Wasn’t that your voice I heard?  I don’t know what Jesus sounded like, but the voice I heard sure seemed like yours.”

Of course, this well-meaning speaker was trying to avoid Mistake #1 and but overcorrected by communicating– rather ineptly – that he recognized God is the one who made it possible for him to succeed.  

And he’s right.  Ultimately, God is the one who blessed me with my natural abilities and gave me the discipline to put in the time required to achieve competence.  However, I do deserve some credit too.  If it truly is “all Jesus” and I don’t spend the hours required to hone my skill, the performance will be a mess.  I’m not sure Jesus wants to be blamed for my lack of preparation.

A Right Way to Respond – Now when I am complimented for my playing, I sincerely thank my conversation partner, saying I’m glad they enjoyed the music.  Sometimes I mention how blessed I feel that God gifted me in this way.  I might also briefly comment on one of the songs we played or mention how much I enjoy playing with such great fellow musicians. 

And then – and here is the key – after “basking” in their compliment for maybe 30 – 60 seconds, I ask if they play any instruments.  The typical response is something like, “Well, I used to play trumpet in high school,” or “I play a little guitar.”  If it’s the former, I ask if they ever get to play now.  If it’s the latter, I ask what style they like.  Either response usually starts an enjoyable conversation.  

My approach accomplishes two things:

·         It affirms the person’s compliment.  Instead of rebuffing them by essentially denying the validity of their comment, I receive it and graciously thank them.

·         It gets the attention off me and on to them

This practice can be adapted whether you’re an athlete, speaker, or faithful servant quietly going about your tasks.  Try it out!

 

Are You Chasing a Phantom?

During my first year on Cru staff, ministry leadership detected a troubling pattern.  They realized that many staff were pursuing phantoms.  Well, not multiple specters.  Only one they dubbed “The Phantom.”  This mythical creature was not the typical ghoul that populates horror movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, but instead was a composite, idealized, nearly perfect Cru staff member.  Here’s how it worked.

Cru attracts some of the most committed, talented disciples in the Christian world – people willing to make vocational sacrifices and pursue the formidable task of support team development.  This determination typically carries over to other aspects of their spiritual lives:  prayer, Bible study, evangelism, etc. 

The Body of Christ concept teaches that God uniquely gifts believers and places them in various kingdom-furthering roles.  My responsibility is to faithfully fulfill that calling and rejoice as others do the same.

The problem Cru leadership detected was that some staff were gazing at their peers and, rather than celebrating their talents and faithfulness, felt convicted that they didn’t measure up.

·         Bill is one of the most outgoing people I know and takes every opportunity to share his faith.

·         Chelsea is a prayer warrior, typically rising at 5:00 a.m. to spend an hour praying.

·         Chad is a Bible scholar who studies diligently to bring fresh insights to his disciples.

·         Cheryl has the gift of hospitality and uses her apartment as an incredible ministry platform.

·         Jason dearly loves the people from his home area who support his ministry and somehow finds time almost every month to send each one a personal note.

What admirable, commendable traits!  The problem comes when I move from admiration to berating myself I don’t measure up in all these areas, a fairly wide-spread trend the Cru leadership detected.  

Essentially, these well-meaning rank-and-file staff were taking the best characteristics of various friends and created The Phantom – the idealized staff member who exists only in a mythical, over-spiritualized universe.  What they were missing was that even though Bill has the gift of evangelism, his apartment looks like a war zone, and he almost never communicates with his support team.  Chad may know the Bible inside-out but would be the first to admit that his prayer life suffers from extreme flab.   

We should always strive to up our ante spiritually and admire the best traits of others, but, rather than getting down on ourselves for our shortcomings, we need to do so in a way that embraces the path God has me on.  

So the take-aways are:

·         Admire other believers for their gifting

·         Stop short of becoming unduly self-critical

·         Seek was to appropriately serve as encouraging role models to others as we serve from our strength areas.

This reminder is especially apropos at this time of year when we pressure ourselves to orchestrate the “perfect Christmas.”   I recently commented to my wife that somehow the Magic of Christmas loses something when you are the magician.  Let’s do our best to keep this in mind during this holy season, remembering what Christmas is really about.