Not Even Once

If you haven’t heard lately, the latest actually troubling news concerning a drug epidemic is taking place in lower income white families with the advent of increased use of opioids. The things about these drugs is that they are usually prescription, meaning that drugs typically used to control pain are being found and used or traded from inside the house. You know, that old horror movie chestnut: “It’s coming from inside the house!” I don’t write this to create more fear, only awareness that there is an issue. Also to point out that most families do not store these medications properly. Opioids are highly addicting and have caused many problems for those simply wanting to ease chronic pain who end up needing more and more of these substances to achieve the same effect.

I’m not particularly at risk for this issue because of my deathly allergy to codeine, which is an opiate. Having my respiratory system nearly fail again is not high on my list of things to do today… or any day for that matter. So, literally, between my asthma and opiate avoidance, my personal list of drugs I could use recreationally is short… meaning there’s nothing on the list.

That said, I had a thought the other day, about drugs and sin. No, probably not the thought that you just had about how drugs lead to sin or vice versa. More like how sin behaves like a drug. See, sin has this effect of deteriorating our humanity. Sure, it’s not very noticeable at first, but the effects become more pronounced over time. Small lapses of morality pick up steam usually. The picture I always seemed to have growing up was that sin was making holes in the lifeboat to heaven, and only Jesus could fix it. But what if sin had much more immediate, and destructive effects.

The first 11 chapters of Genesis show clearly the dehumanizing effects of sin, and how humanity sank further and further into its own self-glorification and away from God’s order. Romans 1-2 use the context of Genesis 1-11 to detail how God’s created order is disrupted by sin, how truth and morality become distorted and confused. As sin eats away at how God created us, we can see an analogy in how hard some drugs are on the human body. The body ages, cracks, scars, and decays as the drugs take their toll. Sin twists our perspective, damages relationships, and drives us away from God.

And we all have taken sin. We’ve all fallen short of reflecting God’s glory, we have all given over our loyalty and authority to objects or people instead of God, and we have all felt the sting and decay of sin that leads to destruction. And this is where the new life of Jesus changes everything. God restores us by granting us the life to come now in anticipation of the age to come when God will restore all of His creation. We become truly what we were made to be: the image of God reflecting praise to God and God’s glory and order into the world.

Have you had a conversation with your kids about making wise choices with medication and drugs? How do you model the life to come in the way you forgive, apologize, and show love to your family and others? What does it mean to you to be a restored, complete human made in God’s image for a purpose?

Quit Being So Wretched

Have you ever found yourself frustrated at someone because they continue apologizing long after you’ve forgiven them? I certainly have. Sure, the first heartfelt apology is good, clears the air, and paves the way for a restoration of relationship. The second shows that the person is truly contrite, illustrating that they have thoroughly thought through their actions. The third begins to show cracks in the thin veneer of genuine repentance and begins to point to a person’s focus on reputation rather than relationship. The fourth tends to lead toward resentment, and so on.

There are so many Christians who consider themselves wretched, unworthy insects being dangled over a fire by an angry God. (Points if you got that reference.) It does seem odd to me, though, how someone who has been chosen out of love for a grand new kind of life would continue to view themselves as wretched. See, the wretchedness of sin was something we used to live in. It is something we still struggle against, just as we do the dark powers that continue to strive for our worship and allegiance, but it no longer defines us. Paul even says distinctly, after describing the life of sin, that “you were that.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) Paul uses the past tense because these things no longer define us.

Consider this analogy: Would you allow a child, spouse, friend, or even a passing acquaintance to continually put themselves down? Would you allow your child to continually say, “Daddy, I’m so unworthy to be your kid. I’m a terrible person”? Would you allow your spouse to say, “I’m a wretched, ugly human being. Why do you love me?” Does the thought of your spouse or child saying these things to you daily make you sick to your stomach even a little? Now consider what God must go through every day.

If we continue to claim the sin that used to define us, what separates us from those of God’s people who longed to return to Egypt? Those men and women were tasked with wandering for forty years and dying out partly because they allowed their former slavery to define them. Instead of reveling in their new freedom given to them by the God that chose them, they instead continued to see themselves as slaves. They were, in effect, continuing on in their wretchedness instead of their God-given freedom.

As followers of, co-heirs with, and adopted family of Jesus, we have also been chosen and given freedom by God. We, who are in Christ, have become a new creation – the old is gone and the new has come! (2 Corinthians 16-18) We are called out of the world to be a witness to that same world. And as a serious question, if the world looks into the life of a Christian and that Christian is calling himself or herself by these low names, what kind of hope will that portray to those looking in? Is there any joy or hope to be achieved in following Christ if all that person can see is an endless repetition of self-abasement?

Repentance is one thing. It is an act that involves acknowledging our wrong attitudes and actions and returning to the way God has set out for us. It is an action primarily focused on God, and our relationship with him. Self-abasement seems more focused on us, and punishing ourselves to appease our own sense of rightness.

We are more than conquerors and are currently sharing in the victory of Jesus over sin and over death. He has defeated the dark powers and is on the throne. His Kingdom is here, and is coming. We are ambassadors of that Kingdom, with the freedom and authority provided by that position. We bow no longer to the power of sin, and our old identities are no longer valid. We gave those up when we came up out of the water that day we we renounced all other allegiances. Our identity is children loved by a Heavenly Father, redeemed by our King, and guided by a wise Comforter. We are no longer slaves.

I cannot give as balanced a view on this in one blog post as is probably necessary. But I will ask the question: how do your words and actions reflect God’s character? Does your life of victory look inviting? Does it look worth the challenge and sacrifice? Or does it seem dreary and not worth the effort?

What do your kids hear when you talk about God? What do others infer about God’s character from the way you talk about Him? How does your family’s life reflect the victory of God over sin and death?

When Your Ass Won’t Cooperate (Numbers 22)

Working in a church means you have two times a year when you get to use a “naughty” word: preaching on Balaam and his ass (donkey) and at Christmas when at least two songs talk about asses being at the manger. Of course, I am a children’s minister, and so I have to chuckle a little inside as my inner 5-year-old finds this hysterical.

I read this passage a week or so ago and was reminded of the absolute absurdity of the whole ordeal. Balaam is hired out by a king named Balak to do some cursing of his own – against the Israelites, no less. He consults God and receives a stern rebuke not to go with the king’s men and after a couple more asks (and a substantial raise) Balaam agrees to go with the men. God, however, does the thing my parents used to do when they were sick of me asking about doing something, replying, “Fine… Just do it…” Implied in that statement is the dire warning of a parent who foresees danger, but is willing to let a child learn a harsh lesson.

So Balaam is riding down the road and three times his ass refuses to cooperate, veering off the road, crushing his leg against a wall, and finally stopping. Balaam absolutely beat that donkey senseless, which ironically cued God to allow the donkey enough sense to talk and ask, “Why are you beating me? Do I normally do this kind of thing?” Balaam responds curtly, but his outlook changes, literally, when God reveals the heavenly guardian with the gigantic sword barring Balaam’s path. The guardian then reminds Balaam to say nothing except what God would give him to say. The sword reminding us that God will protect His people.

So, isn’t the donkey the good guy in this story? Well, yes, but I’m talking about another ass. See, Francis of Assisi coined a lovely phrase when he referred to his own body as “brother ass.” In a sense, he understood that there were two dueling natures in us, the natural and supernatural, the sinful and the godly. St. Francis saw something of what Paul was getting at when Paul described beating his body into submission as if training for the Olympics – self-discipline would lead to a more godly life.

I learned recently that the male body is an odd thing. For around 3-6 weeks after receiving the announcement, “I’m pregnant,” from his partner, a man’s body begins to flood his system with the hormone cortisol. Cortisol is the “stress” hormone that triggers a human’s “fight-or-flight” response. So at the same moment a man is feeling pride, excitement, and joyful expectation, the man’s body reacts by screaming “Get out of there or punch something!”

And honestly, this is the Christian life. Jesus is continually calling and leading us closer to God, into becoming more like Christ,and therefore more like ourselves. At that same time, our sinful nature is screaming, “Get out or attack someone!” And all at once we realize that we have become the proud owner of an uncooperative ass.

And so, like Paul, St. Francis, and many others, we begin to apply discipline to our lives to bring brother ass into line with God’s new life and our baptismal vows. We work out our faith with fear and trembling, mostly because trying to move an uncooperative animal takes a lot of coaxing, pushing, muscle, and exertion. (Ever tried to lift something too heavy and find yourself shaking like a destabilized washing machine?)

So if you find yourself confused about how difficult following Jesus is, find comfort in the fact that everyone else is thinking the same thing. We are all on the same road, with similar struggles, trying to find the best way and disciplines in order to bring ourselves into alignment with God and His way of living. And Jesus sympathizes with that. Remember, he lived among us for a while,  (and technically still does) and watched friends make fools of themselves, felt betrayal, watched as people stumbled and picked themselves back up again. God is rooting for us. He’s not like a spectator at a hockey match or a NASCAR event, hoping for a disaster. He’s a father, watching his child perform a balancing act, tensely hoping that she will make it all the way across this time without falling. And if she does, running over and picking her up.

How do you handle self-discipline in your own life? How do you model bringing yourself under Christ’s way of living? What habits are you developing in your children that will allow them to better evaluate and correct their lives?


America’s Civil Dispute and 3 Ways to Fix It

Here’s a friendly reminder that the term of a new president is approaching. There are some who are elated, some despairing, and some unsure how to feel. I have seen articles and counter-articles covering each and every event and social media posting. I have heard angry people shout names that they would be ashamed of if they heard the recording. I have seen people share hateful messages with a glee that borders on malice. Regardless of how you feel about the incoming government, here are some things to consider.

First, the office of the president does deserve respect. I have honestly been rather disgusted with the way people have spoken about President Obama and President-Elect Trump. I have been especially disgusted with the way Christ followers have spoken of these men, people who, as James put it, try to use the same mouth for praising God and cursing others. Please think carefully about how you talk about those in authority. Respectful dialogue and tones do not rule out disagreement but do lead to more productive discussions. Remember, your kids are always listening, and other peoples’ kids are listening, too. If you want to end the bickering, fighting, backstabbing, and name-calling, then be the first to stop.

Second, put your trust in God and quit panicking. If fear is your motivator, then you will make mistakes. I recently did an Escape room and missed escaping by 2 seconds because I panicked and missed calling out a single number for the door code. Fear causes us not to be sharper, more vigilant citizens but half-crazed vigilantes always looking under the bed for the next political boogeyman. Do what you can, call your representatives if you need to, and leave the rest to God. Love others, and be confident in God’s love, because perfect love drives out fear.

Lastly, always check your sources. It is all I can do not to name and shame people on Facebook for posting shoddily written articles built on shaky evidence. Ask yourself a couple of questions while reading each article (or headline), “Where’s the money from this article going ? (i.e. Who’s advertising?)” and “Who stands to benefit from this?” If an article appears to be too good to be true, it’s probably not entirely true. All sources are biased, but the trustworthy ones are aware of it and work to balance their reporting. Good sources are fair, and try to present both sides well. The mark of a poor thinker, writer, and citizen is to be unable to articulate the opposing side’s viewpoint.

If we, as Americans, are tired of the mud slinging and ceaseless prattle, we should educate ourselves on the viewpoints of all sides. We should challenge ourselves to walk in the shoes of another person. We should be willing to sit at the table and eat and discuss with those whose opinions differ from us. We should, unsurprisingly, work to model our lives on the self-giving character of Jesus.

Again, we need reminding from time to time, but this nation is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people. The government can only be as good as we are. And that, my friends, is what should cause us to start working on ourselves.

Where Do You Live?

Ok, in hindsight, that title does sound a little on the creepy side. No answer required, and hopefully some of the creepiness will be assuaged by what follows.

I have always found it interesting when authors describe where their characters live. From the “hole in the ground” of Tolkein’s Bilbo Baggins; the dark, cold, unwelcoming abode of Dickens’s Ebenezer Scrooge, or even the cozy Waystone Inn of Rothfuss’s Kote, some of my favorite authors have given me a good idea of what these homes look like. At times, I have looked up from a book to be disappointed that I was right where I left myself rather than in the abode I had just had described in great detail to me.

So where does God live? Does He describe His home to us? In a way, He does. Genesis 1 describes the building of a magnificent Temple we know as Creation, with God laying the foundations of his own home on days 1-3 and then adding beautiful detail work on days 4-6. At the end, he places humans into Creation to be His agents, to radiate His character and authority into the world and reflect Creation’s praise back to Him. We were to be a royal priesthood, acting on God’s behalf and delivering praise and intercession back to God.

Then, after forging a covenant with a humble man longing to start a family, and delivering that family from slavery, God commissioned another “abode.” This was to be a magnificent tent, built to reflect in miniature the beauty and wonder of Creation. God’s presence would dwell there among His people and move with them as they traveled. He led his people through the wilderness, giving them the law of the covenant, and reaffirming his faithfulness.

Later, a well-meaning king, a man after God’s own heart sought to build a more permanent structure for God’s presence to inhabit. God denied his request, but only for a generation, and that king’s son built a structure that again reflected in miniature the beauty of God’s creation. Now that God’s people dwelt in the Promised Land, God would dwell with His people while calling all the nations to Himself.

See, these were to be places where heaven and earth met. God’s realm and this realm overlapped at these points, and direct contact could be made. (Though these weren’t the only places, as seen in Jacob’s visions in Genesis.) Heaven, in the Jewish mindset, isn’t some skyward place somewhere beyond the bounds of the clouds, but a place that wraps invisibly around our own experience and overlaps in wondrous and common ways. What God did next was unexpected in the time it was accomplished, but now we read the ancient story as leading up to this moment.

Heaven and earth met in the form of a baby boy, who grew into a man. This man walked and dwelt among His people bringing news of a new Exodus, a freedom from the great oppressors of sin and death. He came giving of himself, healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, and making the lame to walk. This living, breathing tabernacle lived, slept, and taught right beside the poor, the weak, the uneducated, and those anxious for freedom. Drawing to himself the violence great powers of darkness, this man went through death and emerged on the other side, claiming a new kind of life and Kingship.

And with His blood, he made clean and set apart a people for Himself who became themselves the place where heaven and earth meet. Now those who follow Jesus, who experience the guiding of God’s Spirit are a meeting place of heaven and earth. Jesus is continually building himself a house, a people, brick by brick, person by person, through the actions of His people.

So, I’ll ask it again: where do you live?

Who’s at your table?

Have you ever invited a stranger to dinner? Maybe a passing acquaintance? Do you think you ever would, or does the very idea of inviting a stranger into your house give you the willies and have you reaching for your baseball bat?

I’ve tried it. It worked out nicely. And here’s the story.

I was challenged some time ago to be loyal, and not just in relationships, but in those relationships formed with businesses in my area. Now, I would like to be more loyal to local businesses, and I am whenever possible. But I have been visiting my local Food City Supermarket, which is just a block from my house, for nearly five years now. (I’m honest, I’ll admit that there are a few other grocery stores I frequent for specialty items.) And over those years, I’ve come to recognize the regular employees there. I may not be on a first name basis with them, but apparently I’m known as the “guy with the cool hats.” I’ve been called worse, so I’ll take it.

Anyway, our church was challenged to Pray for One. This means we pray for God to send us one person to show His love to every day. One young man at the Food City, to whom I had been speaking with on a regular basis, became my one to pray for. So, I set out to continue speaking and invite him to church. I did, and the conversation was stilted, almost rehearsed, and didn’t really go anywhere. The seeming failure haunted me for a week.

Then, the questions came to mind, “Would you invite him and his wife to dinner?” I of course was a little unsure, I had never just invited someone I didn’t really know to my house. The question wouldn’t leave me alone: “How does he know he’ll be welcome at your church if he’s not welcome in your home?”

So, that next week, I invited him and his wife to dinner, with my wife’s OK of course. (I have yet to make the mistake of inviting someone over without checking with my wife first and hopefully never will.) He accepted, and looked a little surprised. A week later, he was in my home and we have been friends since.

No, I didn’t make a new convert or baptize anyone, but, really, that isn’t the point of Praying for One. The point is to make a connection, to remind people you know and those you don’t that God is loving and pursuing them as well.

Jesus ate with those he probably didn’t know and wanted to know better. He ate with sinners, the sick, the poor, the outcast, the hated. Jesus understood the power of a meal so much so that he made it a central symbol of his work.

So, I’ll ask the question again: Who’s at your table?

Blessed Are the People You Don’t Like

It’s Advent, which means that it’s a time for thinking through the amazing gift God gave through Jesus. About the coming of the King that we have both experienced and hope for. We are joyful, yet solemn as we ponder the beginning of Jesus’ earthly life.

I have always, for some reason, focused on the Shepherds in Luke’s account. After all the bombast, tension, and drama of the announcement of the birth, Caesar’s outlandish (to us) demand, and the cathartic sigh of relief as the child is born; we find ourselves face to face with the 1st century equivalent of a migrant worker. Shepherds had a stigma around them, of being smelly, unclean, and unfit for civilized society. They were asked, maybe not so politely, to make sure they stayed outside town with their sheep unless needed. Migrant workers today are paid little, work like crazy, and are still stigmatized as being a problem for modern society.

I wonder if Jesus thought about those shepherds who came to visit his family when he scanned the crowd before he began his famous Sermon on the Mount which begins in Matthew 5. As he scans the crowd, he notices faces that are hopeful, yet realistic in their expectations of whether or not this new teacher would except them. He had healed many but would he present them with something more than standing outside the Temple, with something better than the label of “sinner”, with something freer than the Roman oppression, or greater still the oppression of sin and death?

I imagine Jesus making eye contact with people whose stories he had heard from their own mouths as he began, “Blessed are the poor in spirit[…] the mourners[…] the meek[…] people who hunger and thirst for God’s justice[…] the merciful[…] the pure in heart[…] the peacemakers[…]!” Suddenly, those “outside the fold” were welcomed into a group, a family, and in a way, the Temple itself. Jesus, the place where heaven and earth meet that the temple could only foreshadow, was welcoming all who heard him into the Kingdom, into the presence of God. Did he promise an easy journey or that they would remain the same? No. Jesus showed clearly in the teachings that follow this welcome that the Kingdom requires all who enter to undergo radical change, above and against the wisdom of the world.

What would the beatitudes (Matthew 5.1-12) look like if after every “Blessed are” you put a person or group you disagreed with or disliked? What would they look like if you were honest and put those you despised and feared in them? How much would your outlook change if instead of seeing others as outsiders, as enemies, you saw them as having received the same welcome from Jesus that you received?

How do you answer the cliffhanger at the end of the Prodigal Son parable (Luke 15:11-32)? Does the older son come in and celebrate with the father, or sulk outside and refuse to welcome his younger brother? We have a choice every day to celebrate with God, to welcome into His Kingdom, or to sulk outside in the cold and the rain.

So what do you choose during this season of generosity and hope and joy? Do you choose welcome, hospitality, and the giving and receiving of forgiveness, or a cold, bitter, sulk outside?

Photo Credit: Shepherds’ Field | by via Flickr