A Sacrifice of Praise
This week was my birthday! Though I am probably much too old for this, I really love birthdays - my own, and everyone else’s, too. It is a particularly easy day to feel so grateful for life, for family, for the beautiful spring trees and flowers blooming everywhere along the roadsides, and just for the goodness of God. I pray that as you read this, you are experiencing such a day of peace and gratitude.
But I know that some of you are having a very different kind of day altogether. Sometimes our circumstances and the situations in which we find ourselves make it excruciatingly difficult to feel very grateful for anything at all.
I am particularly mindful today of our friends, Collin and Kim, who have been given some very difficult news about their soon-to-be-born son. I would love to invite all of you reading this to join so many of us who are praying for this little boy. Jesus said to ask, seek, and knock, and He encouraged those of us who follow Him to pray and ask for God‘s hand to move. So we do just that, and ask for God to strengthen this baby’s heart, and for doctors and nurses alike to be so surprised at the health and vigor of this precious young man on his birthday.
Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name.
The Bible says that we are to bring a sacrifice of praise to God. There is an old chorus inspired by this verse that we used to sing in our church, and I have a vague memory of wondering exactly what it meant to bring a sacrifice of praise. To my young and untested self, who had at that point lived such a sheltered and easy life, the best I could imagine was just a sleepy round of praise, because we had stayed up so late the night before as college ministers.
Of course, now I have lived much more life, and I think I better understand what it means to give praise to God that is also a sacrifice. A sacrifice is defined as an act of giving up something valued for the sake of something else regarded as more important or worthy. To give God praise that is a sacrifice means to glorify God with our hearts and lips even in times of great trial and trouble and uncertainty. It is to trust and thank God, even when we feel so afraid and even angry, and would like to hold on to those emotions. We can praise and express our gratitude to Him, no matter what our feelings or the circumstances of our lives are at any given moment.
-It means that even in times of terrible and confusing sickness we can praise the Lord because He is good regardless what is happening in my body.
-It means that when relationships are complicated, even unimaginable, we can praise the Lord because He is kind and faithful even when none of the rest of us are.
-It means that when infertility or failed pregnancies occur, or when our children are suffering, we can praise the Lord, because He is unfailingly compassionate and comforting.
-It means that when people we love become sick, or even die, we can praise the Lord because His love endures forever.
-It means that when people we thought were friends betray us or slander us, we can praise the Lord, because He is just and true.
-It means that when all of the comforts and sureties of life fail, or are taken away, we can praise the Lord because He alone is our firm foundation.
No matter what, we can bring our praise to the Lord, even - and especially - when it is a sacrifice.
J. Oswald Sanders in his book Spiritual Maturity says that we moderns too often equate blessing with comfort. When we have everything we want and things are going our way, it is easy to remember that God is good and cares for us. But we have made the grave error of equating physical or material comfort with the love of God. If things are uncomfortable or not going our way, we sometimes feel that He must be angry at us or giving us the cold shoulder. But God is not like that. God does not love us when…, or as long as…, or if…; God loves us, period. And He is worthy of praise in good times and bad.
As followers of Jesus, we must remember that there is a much bigger picture to keep in mind - an eternal picture. Romans 8:28 reminds us that "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose."
This is a powerful truth that we must remember. When we love God and trust Him and give our lives towards His purposes, we can rest assured that no matter what happens, God will use it for His glory and for our good. Suffering is not for nothing. Discomfort is not for nothing. We can trust that God will use all of the things that we go through to help us become more like Jesus and to help others know Him. We may not understand everything that happens at the time, but we can still bring a sacrifice of praise, because we know that God is good. And we know that eternity with Him will make all of these momentary difficulties make sense.
I pray that this week, whether you are rejoicing or in sorrow, you will find sweet rest and comfort in the presence of our wonderful God. May your joy spread like wildfire to those around you, and may your sorrows draw you closer and closer to our loving Savior.
PS - during spring cleaning this year, clear out a little space in your bookshelf for something new coming very soon!
To Be Loved
Happy Valentine’s Day! What a special time of the year this is, and how lovely to spend a day reflecting on the importance of loving relationships in our lives. We spend a lot of life thinking about love - we have something deep inside that yearns to know real love. All of the best relationships point to this something deeper, and all of our hearts long to be known and loved completely.
Eli and I have a small closet in our bedroom that holds a random assortment of things that just don’t fit anywhere else. There are our winter boots, which don’t get a lot of action in Texas, some boxes of old photos and videos from years past, and an odd assortment of other things that I can’t seem to imagine throwing away. Included in this last category is a small, blue rectangular box that contain my some of my greatest treasures in life, namely letters and notes that Eli has written to me throughout the years. Occasionally, I will break out that box and peruse through the contents, loving the wonderful memories that are contained within - sweet notes that he wrote to me after the births of our daughters, a long missive that he wrote on the plane ride home after a three week trip overseas, birthday cards and valentines, and so many others.
Most precious to me are an entire semester’s worth of letters that Eli wrote to me while we were in college. We met on the swim team at our school in California, and then transferred to Sam Houston State university during our junior year. But for the fall semester of that school year, he was still in California while I was already in Texas. This is before the internet was around, and it was also when long distance phone calls cost a small fortune. We made those calls, but they were very late at night when the rates went down, and so few and far between. I remember looking forward to and loving every one of those calls, but can remember so little of what we actually said or discussed.
In the meantime, several times a week, we exchanged letters through the mail. I am saddened that many of us have lost this special means of communicating. Email and text messages and video chats are convenient and expedient, but long letters are infinitely better. Now we have become accustomed to writing short messages, always in a hurry, straight to the point, and frequently abbreviated. Then, we took our time to really talk and process through things. Thank goodness past generations preserved so many letters - we are certainly all enriched by reading correspondence from eras past. I am thinking of lively correspondence between statesmen like Benjamin Franklin and so many from his era, which give us a snapshot of such a fascinating time in history. Or lovers pondering the depths of their feelings like Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, or even friends talking shop like CS Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. This is not even to mention the immense importance of the divinely inspired letters that became much of the New Testament, which is beyond reckoning. Letter writing is such an important means for thoughts and ideas to be explored and broadened, and for important conversations to be preserved for the benefit of posterity.
In the letters from Eli, I can read and remember simple, everyday things like what he was studying or thinking about from his school classes, or the way he was looking forward to getting a dog when he got home to Texas. I can recall how his faith in Jesus, which was so new at the time, was growing and strengthening, and how that encouraged my own faith journey at the time. I can look back to see things he was learning and studying as his devotional life was developing, and the beginnings of an awakening to his call into ministry. But most precious are the declarations of love that he made to me, and the promises of our life together when he returned. I can remember vividly the feelings stirred in my heart when I read those words, and cherish them still.
How wonderful it is to be loved and to have hope for the future! I hear songs that were popular at that time (all considered oldies now) and can vividly remember how every one of them made me think of this amazing red-headed man that had captured my heart. If the song happened to be about marriage and family, it made my heart almost burst with longing for that to happen in our relationship. I am sure that I annoyed every new friend I made in Huntsville with all of the talk I did about this Eli character who was coming in just a few months. He was so often in my thoughts, and the dreams I had for our future together impacted every decision I made.
Now I can look back on those letters with a heart filled with love and gratitude. He made good on every one of his promises, and then some. He pledged his love and life to me in front of God, our family, and so many friends. We have built and lived a wonderful together, based on deep love and respect for one another and the gifts that God has given to each of us. We have watched our precious daughters grow into beautiful young women with families of their own, and now have the thrill of watching the next generation in all of their wide-eyed wonder. We have had thirty incredible years of marriage together, and, Lord willing, will have many more before eternity.
As wonderful as my husband is, and as beautiful as our life together has been, it still is just a small taste of the reality of walking with God. The Bible teaches that the Church is the Bride of Christ; we are His beloved and He is our bridegroom. Admittedly, this comparison is more difficult for men to go with than it is for women, but it is such an important truth for all of us to grasp. In God’s great plan, the very basis of society is a picture of God’s design and dream for His prize creation. Marriage and family represent something deep and spiritual and true. The coming together of husband and wife, and the begetting of children beautifully represent the close relationship that God has with His people, and the fruitfulness that results from that union. The bond and covenant of marriage represent the unending bond between God and His Church.
In our own homes, our sinful natures frequently spoil the metaphor. We are too often selfish and unkind to one another; we too often spoil Eden again and again with our headstrong ways. So we spend our lives working to overcome our own selfishness in our relationships, and having grace with our spouse as they attempt to do the same - even this becomes a picture of Christ’s constant forgiveness to each of us. But the best seasons and moments of every marriage and family are a glimpse and a reminder of what eternity holds. The safety and stability, the ability to really be ourselves and be comfortable in our own skin, and the knowledge of being known and loved and chosen are all part of what marriage represents.
As followers of Christ, we are His bride, and are the object of HIs thoughts, cares, and concerns. God created us to have endless fellowship with Him, and He chose us because He loves us with a perfect and unselfish love. He sees all that is beautiful, rare, praiseworthy, and lovely within each of us, and draws that out, helping us to become who He created us to be.
He is the bridegroom, whose vows and promises to us are true and trustworthy. His thoughts and intentions are for our highest good, and to give us a hope and future. He is always true, always faithful, and always steadfast. God did not need any of us: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have enjoyed perfect and fulfilling fellowship forever…but God chose us to be part of that fellowship, and His love for us will never fail.
How wonderful it is to be loved and to have a hope for the future! I remember how my heart rejoiced every time a letter from Eli was in my university mailbox. I cannot forget what beautiful anticipation his words stirred in my heart, yet my anticipation could never have matched the deep fulfillment that knowing and loving my husband actually is. In a much greater way, “now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” God’s love and grace are limitless. We cannot fathom what joy and wonder await us when eternity begins, when sin and sorrow and pain are no more.
Take heart today that you are known and loved and chosen. The One who loves you, whose peace and presence are so real to you even now, is preparing a place for you, that you may be with Him where He is forever. Let this love of God be so often in your thoughts, and let the dreams He has for your future together impact every decision made. This is certainly a love to celebrate!
To Be Known
This season of our life involves a lot of travel, which means much more time in airports than I have ever experienced. They are so interesting, and oddly the same no matter where in the world they happen to be. The big airport in Houston looks so much like the one in Chicago, or New York, or London, or Nairobi, or Dubai. There are restaurants and shops, and endless streams of people shuffling in and out of lines and gates and airplanes. The bright, florescent lights are always on, day or night; muffled announcements which no one can understand play around the clock. Though there are many hundreds, even thousands, of people all around you, almost no one speaks to one another. Each person or family keeps to themselves, and makes getting on that plane their goal. Being in such a place causes such a strange sensation of aloneness and anonymity.
How refreshing it is to get somewhere, and to see people that you know and love! It is so gratifying to have a beloved family member or friend give a smile or a hug or a “how are you?” It doesn’t matter how often we have to go; getting to the place where we are known is such a wonderful feeling, every single time.
Yes, this betrays the fact that I am (not so) secretly a Hobbit, and love my home and hearth. But it reminds me of a deep truth - each of us desperately longs to be known.
The deep-seated anguish of our generation stems from a crisis of identity. So many express feelings of loneliness and emptiness, feeling untethered and adrift emotionally and relationally. People of all ages are reaching for something, anything to make them feel a sense of purpose and belonging.
It is difficult to say if this problem is new - we only know for certain what we actually experience in our own lifetime. Perhaps every generation before us has struggled with the same disconnect. But we do know that modern additions to the problem certainly include more broken families, more people changing location frequently for work, and less connection with local institutions including the church.
This day of social media adds in a further confusion: it is too easy to conflate being known with just being seen. I actually love seeing updates from family and friends - I do think there are some wonderful things about the limited connectedness social media affords. But the whole system does feed into a nagging feeling that somehow I am not measuring up to everyone else. The compulsion to constantly check in, and to be constantly doing something worthy of sharing adds to a disconnect from real, right-now living. Someone said never has life been more highly chronicled and less lived. It turns out that being seen is not at all the same as being known.
Arguably worse is the misguided idea that being recognized is the cure for feeling disconnected and unknown. This can lead to many dangerous places as people seek more and more outrageous reasons to be noteworthy, not realizing that fame, notoriety, acclaim, renown, or whatever word you call it, is fleeting at best and a deadly poison at worst. The culture feeds into the idea that every person must be the best or the most in some way. We are tempted to look for titles or accolades or attention for being the very best_________, or the most interesting___________, or the wildest ___________. Many are even succumbing to the great pressure all around to question everything about their very minds, bodies, and identities, and to do something shocking to achieve recognition. It is difficult to remain untouched and unaffected by such a zeitgeist, but even worldwide recognition cannot satisfy the deep longing to be known.
We long to be loved, and we long to be significant. Little children, teenagers, young men and women, all the way to the most aged senior can experience the pang of wondering if anyone out there really cares or even knows that they exist. It doesn’t matter whether a person lives in a palace or a slum, or whether they are married or single; everyone wonders does anyone see, does anyone care, does anyone know?
God Himself has put that deep longing within our hearts. We are hard-wired for relationship. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have enjoyed perfect fellowship and love for all time, and each of us were lovingly and purposefully created to share in this deep fellowship with God and one another forever. Many of us know the beauty of being part of a healthy community, whether it be a family or a church or a campus group. We really need one another to grow and mature spiritually. This good fellowship is rich and healthy, and is so much more fulfilling than just about anything the world can offer. Sadly, though, we can look to community for more than it can ever deliver. When we look for others to give constant affirmation and acceptance, it can become unhealthy so quickly. Even wonderful community with other people cannot satisfy the deepest longing in our hearts.
The only One who can truly know us is the same One who made us.
George MacDonald wisely noted that loneliness and longing are often signs that God is calling us to Himself. We can look for significance and fulfillment through great things like relationships and work and Christian service, but none of these things can give us what only God is able to give: a deep sense of belonging, a heart full of peace and fulfillment, a mind filled with truth and reality, and a life of gratitude and contentment.
Turn to God, the One who knows you. Revisit and meditate on the powerful words of scripture that recount how deeply significant each of us is to the Lord of All…
You have searched me, LORD,
and you know me.
You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
Before a word is on my tongue
you, LORD, know it completely.
You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!
How vast is the sum of them!
- Psalm 139:1-17
When we find our fulfillment in God, we can think rightly about ourselves and others. When we look to Jesus for our hope and peace, we can face the cares of each day with courage and confidence. When we first turn to the Lord, and find our significance in and through Him, the rest of life makes sense. You are deeply and completely known by our gracious Creator - may His presence be so real and near to you this week!
Back When - An Ode to Marriage
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to you and yours! I hope that you have had some time to rest and reflect on the great love of God this season - the very God who so loved us, that He gave His only Son that we might have life.
We just heard the news that on Christmas Day, one of our heroes of the faith went to be with Jesus: Rev. Fred Hill finished his race. He and his beautiful wife, Betty, have loved and encouraged so many people throughout their marriage and ministry together. He was one of the first pastors to support and encourage us so many years ago as we were starting out in ministry, and they have been such a blessing to us for almost thirty years. I believe that they were about to celebrate 70 years of marriage, which is an amazing and beautiful testimony of the goodness of God. I am grateful for his life, and for his influence in our ministry and so many others. I am thankful for the hope of heaven, where there is no more saying goodbye. And I am mindful of the beautiful force that a godly marriage can be...
Recently, I was walking into a local grocery store, when a woman coming out of the store caught my eye. We looked at one another, each obviously feeling that the other looked familiar. So we smiled at one another, and went on our ways. A few minutes later, I was in the coffee aisle when I realized where I knew that face. She was one of the girls in my first fourth grade class as a brand new teacher. I was fresh out of college, 21 years old; she was a fourth grader, probably 9 or 10 that year. Now I am a 50-year-old grandmother, and she is probably almost 40 herself, likely with a family and growing children. But still, I knew that face because I knew her back when.
One of my favorite things about campus ministry is getting to meet people, many of whom become the greatest of lifelong friends, when they are 18 years old and full of it. And I mean full of everything! Certainly pride, as we all were, but also full of hope and zest and life and fun. Now that we have stayed in campus ministry for decades, many of those 18-year-olds have grown into the most godly men and women that anyone could ever meet. They are doing incredible things all over the world for Jesus and for His people. They are the bedrock of every community that they live in: honest, hard-working, hopeful, and full of the Holy Spirit.
But still, I love that we knew them when.
I love reflecting on this in our own lives. This month we have celebrated the amazing milestone anniversary of 30 years of marriage! I have actually spent the entire year celebrating and reflecting, and in rejoicing over what God has done in our lives. Because you see, I knew us when, too.
I remember when I was 17 and he was 19, and we were both on the same swim team in college. Neither one of us was thinking very much about God, or anyone else but ourselves for that matter. We were living the typical American college student life, basically just living for what we could get out of each day. We were not particularly looking for anything, or trying to change, but God had an appointment with us, which is something I will never be able to fully understand. God knew us better than we knew ourselves, and He certainly saw how selfish and prideful and thoughtless each of us was at the time. But in His great love, He met us, and He also helped us meet each other, and we set out on a journey with Him, way back when.
Marriage is so much more than anyone just entering into it can anticipate. It is actually an institution designed by God himself, something that God had in mind in creation, even before the fall of mankind and the entrance of selfishness and sin into the world. This is a staggering thought… what might marriage have been like, if there had never been a fall, and sin and death had not entered the world?
Tragically, there has been a fall, and sin and death are very much present. So every marriage is the bringing together (some might say the smashing together) of two very different persons, each with their own idea of the right way to do everything, and with a very egocentric way of looking at the world. How difficult it is to learn of the vast and deep well of selfishness in my own heart! Even 30 years later, I am still too often surprised by how selfish I can be.
When we enter marriage with God as the center, it can be the most beautiful and satisfying relationship besides that of our own relationship with Jesus. How lovely to learn to put someone else first. How wonderful to trust someone enough to let them be honest with you, and you with them. How amazing to be with someone through so much good, bad, ugly, rejoicing, sadness, hope, fear, dreaming, changing, aging…life. Should the union be blessed with children, there are a couple of decades filled with pouring the best of ourselves into the next generation; guiding and encouraging them to be all that God created them to be. All the while, our own hearts and lives continue to be refined by the great daily choosing afforded by continuous relationship in such close quarters. If we let Him, God can do a wonderful work in all of our hearts as we raise our kids.
But then everyone is suddenly grown and gone, and it is just you two again. After so many years of focusing on the younger set together, it is a delight to look up and really see each other again, Of course, this can be a perilous time if we aren't careful to maintain friendship and to keep God at the center of everything. But it can also be an amazing time to look back and see how far the Lord has brought you since you first started the journey together. Though we still have much learning and growing left to do, I know how much we have stretched and grown and changed over the last thirty years. I remember how many wonderful people have been a part of our lives, and what incredible things we have seen and experienced. We started out back when with a little hope and love, and have watched it all grow into something deep and rich and beautiful.
I can only imagine what our parents, who are even further down the road than us, must feel, and what our dear friend Betty experienced with the love of her life for nearly 70 years. I do know the impact that these great marriages and others like them have had on us and on so many others. Godly marriages are a beacon of health and safety and hope to the watching world. The love and power of God shine through every couple that treats seriously the business of daily choosing to love, to constantly forgive, to put one another's needs higher, and to choose to believe the best of one another, year after year, decade after decade. It is beautiful picture of the way God loves His people, and of our great love for Him.
For all of you reading this who are married, I encourage you to reflect back on where you two started in your own back when, and how far God has helped you come. Spend some time focusing on the many good things that the Lord has done in you and through you. Shake off any bad habits of thinking and speaking poorly and negatively to one another. Instead, recommit yourself to the vows that you took on your wedding day, and to unselfishly choosing for the good of your spouse and marriage. Let the Spirit of God fill you with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and an extra measure of hope. May the Lord bless your marriage and make it stronger than it has ever been in the coming year!
PS - some exciting things are in the works for 2023 - I will definitely keep you posted as they unfold in the new year!
A Light Has Dawned
A blessed Advent season to you and yours! I hope that you had a wonderful Thanksgiving, and were able to find at least a little time to enjoy the peace and presence of God. Reality is such that sometimes, large extended family gatherings on holidays can be rather stressful experiences. I was with our university ministry interns yesterday, and many of them expressed that the week was anything but easy and refreshing. One young couple was dealing with a severely depressed sibling who was speaking of ending her life. Another person had a difficult time with warring parents. Still another had a close family member going through a difficult divorce. Several had parents or grandparents suffering from serious illness. Other friends of ours are struggling through the first holidays since they lost a loved one, and these days are not quite as joyful as they once were. The list goes on and on - people are hurting and broken, just like the world we live in.
But, thank God! During these four weeks of Advent, there are some amazing things that we can and should take time to ponder and remember daily..
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty
will accomplish this.
Isaiah 9:2, 6-7
This beautiful passage of scripture was written many long years before these events came to pass. Imagine what it was like to live in the years before that blessed child was born. Certainly terribly dark, and without much hope at all. The world was no less broken then than it is now, and sin and rebellion ran just as deep throughout the earth then as now. Just one tiny nation in the midst of the wide world knew of God anymore. Somehow all understanding of the True God had been lost over the centuries, and just Israel remembered. God had made a covenant with Abraham, promising…
I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.
But even they, who were God’s chosen people to bring His light and hope to the nations, often forgot Him, or just disobeyed His law and commandments for years on end. It was during one of those times that Isaiah delivered his beautiful and hopeful prophecy about the coming King, who would right all of the wrongs in this world.
This side of the cross, and having experienced the grace of God in Christ, it is difficult to imagine what it must have been like not to know about the cross. Of course, there are still billions of people living without the knowledge of what Jesus has done for them, but there are billions of us who do know. The point is that Jesus really did leave glory to come here to save us! The words of Isaiah were more than just a dream; they were reality. During advent, we take time to remember exactly what that means.
One day long ago, a young couple really did stumble into a crowded little town and realized that yes, the baby really was coming right then. They really did have to put Him in a manger out there with the animals because all of the rooms in the entire town were full. That blessed child really was named Jesus, and really was announced by angels and visited by kings. He really did grow into the most unusual and wonderful person ever to live: fully God and fully man. He really did teach and preach and heal and encourage, everywhere He went. He really did confront the religious status quo, and bring Good News of a Kingdom of love and relationship, not endless rules and regulations according to man’s ideas. He really didn’t overthrow any earthly government by force, but instead took the way of suffering, and gave HIs life for all of us. He took the punishment of our sin on Himself, so that we wouldn’t have to be separated from God forever. He really was crucified on a Roman cross, died, and was buried in a borrowed tomb.
But, of course we know that that wasn’t all. Jesus really did rise from the dead, conquering death, hell, and the grave! He really did show Himself alive and well to people for 40 days, before the amazing day that He ascended back to Heaven. He really did pour out the Holy Spirit ten days later, and to this day offers this amazing gift of power to any who will receive it. He really is sitting at God’s right hand right now, acting as our advocate. His words still give life and hope to countless people every day. His healing presence is right now moving across the world through His Spirit and His people; the Good News of His Kingdom is being spread by believers everywhere.
Better than all of these wonderful things, HE REALLY IS COMING AGAIN! This time, to rule and reign as the rightful King of all of Heaven and earth forever. The apostle John saw a glimpse of this in his revelation…
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” -Revelation 21:1-5
Take courage this Advent. This is a special four weeks to remember the amazing things that God has done, and the amazing things He is still doing and yet to do. The entire world calendar divides on the time before Christ came, and after. Try as any nation or people might, His reality and presence cannot be erased or wished away. We live in a world that is currently enemy-occupied territory. But even that wicked enemy knows full well he has lost it all. The war is over, and Jesus won the victory. The great power of God has made a way for everyone who will to be with Him forever. This time of waiting is God graciously giving His Church time to gather all of HIs lost lambs back into the fold.
As we wait for His return, we can remember how wonderful Jesus is, and we can bring HIs light and hope to everyone in our lives. We can recall that all of the promises of God are true, and that He is faithful. Rather than being overwhelmed by the problems of life, we can be emboldened by all that Jesus has said and done. I encourage you to set aside time in your daily routine these next few weeks to contemplate these things deeply. Let the truth and reality of God’s generosity and faithfulness sink deeply into your heart and mind. I pray that God’s peace and presence fill you with strength. May your heart and home be full of His hope and joy. May the Holy Spirit fill you with wisdom and grace as you interact with your family, coworkers, and friends during this holy season.
The Great Cloud of Witnesses
As I write, we are in Pennsylvania, on our way from one ministry gathering in New York to another in Massachusetts. We have a little time to get to the next place, so we are spending the day enjoying the cool air and spectacular fall color of this beautiful part of the country. The leaves are at the perfect peak of their change, and the countryside is a flaming patchwork of reds, yellows, oranges, and greens. The backroads take us past farms and little towns, full of activity as everyone prepares for the long winter to come.
Earlier in the trip, we were near Lake Oneida in New York. That is where a young Charles Finney moved with his parents and siblings close to 200 years ago, when those parts were still the western frontier of our brand-new nation. Finney referred to that region as the “burned-out district” since everyone had heard a good share of preaching, but were numb and indifferent to it. What the preachers had to say had very little impact on the hearts and lives of the people; many were jaded by the dissonance between what they were taught the Bible said, and the difficulties they saw in their own lives.
All throughout this part of the country, we see evidence of this same feeling, unfortunately alive and thriving today. There are billboards all along the roads warning of the dangers of pills laced with fentanyl. There are signs encouraging people not to be fooled by the too-often fatal allure and false promise of opioids. There is ample evidence that people are not finding anything that makes them feel alive and purposeful; rather, so many are discouraged and despondent.
We spent time with a good friend in New York, and he mentioned having to watch out not to be overcome by what he called his “Northeast skepticism.” He described the condition as wondering if anyone would be able to actually walk with Christ in abundance and victory like we all hope. There have been so many moral failures, so many people who claim to be godly but are actually rascals, and so much hurt and pain that it is easy to begin to wonder if all of this Christianity stuff is actually too good to be true. Sadly, this skepticism is not at all relegated to only one part of the country.
But there is something we must not forget...
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart. - Hebrews 12:1-3
This time of year, we celebrate All Saints’ Day, which happens on the first day of November. Our culture absolutely loves to decorate anything and for any reason, and we are currently decked out for All Hallows’ Eve, aka Halloween. Though most have forgotten the significance of what they are decorating for, and simply enjoy a fun night of candy and costumes and celebrating, the origin still remains, and perhaps many of us could again emphasize the true meaning of the season.
There is an important reason we look at the headstones in the graveyard this time of year! We actively remember all who have walked in our faith before us, because it is a mighty number. The writer of Hebrews called it a Great Cloud of Witnesses, and gave a role-call in the previous chapter. Those mentioned are Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Issac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, the people of God marching around the walls of Jericho, and Rahab,
From there, the writer broadens the scope and says, “And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground. These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Of course, the writer means that all of those amazing people had faith in God even before the incarnation, suffering, cross, death, and mighty resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! Since then, think of all the mighty men and women who have given their whole lives to loving and serving Jesus…
- All of the great apostles and disciples of the early Church, who marched right into a fierce and raging persecution, including Peter, John, Paul, James, Barnabus, Lydia, Phoebe, Timothy, Junia, Philip and his daughters...
- The great fathers and mothers and fathers of the Christian faith, who faced trial and tribulation in an age of great uncertainty and change - Justin Martyr, Athanasius of Alexandria, Basil of Caesarea, Thecla, Gregory of Nazianzus, Theosebia, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Jerome, Fabiola, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo...
- The great theologians and artists of the long Middle Ages and the Renaissance, withstanding the press and threat first of barbarians and then of a militant Islam, and of pestilence and disease - St. Patrick, Boniface, the many nameless monks who preserved and copied the Bible, the architects and builders of stunning and mighty cathedrals, St. Francis, St. Clare, Anselm, Aquinas, Catherine of Siena, Leonardo daVinci, Michelangelo…
- The reformers and mystics, who withstood much pressure and persecution from the most powerful within Christendom to bring the Word of God and a personal walk with God back into the forefront of our faith - Erasmus, Luther, Katherine von Bora, Calvin, Zwingli, Wycliffe, Huss, Count von Zinzendorf, Madam Guyon, John Bunyan…
- The revivalists and creatives, who refused to let a vibrant faith in Christ be swallowed by the cold reason and individualism of their age - Whitefield, the Wesleys, Finney, Hannah Whitall Smith, Beethoven, Bach, William Wilberforce, Olaudah Equiano, Hannah More…
- The moderns, who stood strong for Christ in the age of rising atheism, fascism, and militant Marxism - GK Chesterton, CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Amy Carmichael, Hudson Taylor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Watchman Nee, Mother Theresa, Pope John Paul II, Tolkien, Billy Graham, Martin Luther King, Jr., Francis and Edith Schaefer, Corrie ten Boom…
The list goes on and on, filled with men and women who left a lasting mark because of their bold faith in Jesus Christ. Just about all of this cloud of witnesses faced hostility from people in power during their lifetime, some who hated God and some who claimed to represent Him. This always has been and likely will continue to be the case on this side of heaven. But even in the face of unpopularity, persecution, and violence, an incredible number of the most wonderful people ever to live have been followers of Jesus, all the way up to today.
I feel like the writer of Hebrews must have - there are so many amazing people who are alive today, loving and serving Jesus faithfully and making a real difference in their communities for His glory: it would take a whole library to contain all of their names and stories! They are standing up against the absolute insanity and confusion of this age, boldly proclaiming the love and reality of Jesus Christ. The broader world may never know any of their names, but they are many and they are bringing life and hope through Christ to people - and not just in the West, but all over the world.
Just like in Charles Finney’s day, this whole country is a burned-over District. We have seen and heard it all. Politicians make endlessly empty promises, social media never stops blaring its smoke and mirrors, many try desperately to deconstruct an orthodox faith and belief in Christ, and people are tired and confused. Families are breaking apart, kids don’t know who they are, and many people are desperate for an escape from reality.
Just like 200 years ago, many think they know what God has said, but are numb and indifferent to it. What the preachers have to say has very little impact on the hearts and lives of the people; they are so jaded by the dissonance between what they think the Bible says, and the difficulties they see in their own lives.
Friends, may we not give in to the confusing spirit of this age and grow weary or lose heart. May we keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. May we remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone before us, and who cheer us on still. They withstood the tremendous pressures, uncertainties, and dangers of their own generations and remind us that if they can make it, we can too because the same God is with us.
Just like them, may we lean heavily on Jesus - the same Christ who endured the shame and brutality of the cross for the joy set before Him - and take courage and comfort in His help and presence. Just like them, may we believe the Word of God to be true and alive and active, sharper than any sword.
Just like in Charles Finney's day, when many tens of thousands came to vibrant faith, may the Spirit of God breath a mighty revival of faith in Christ into our hearts and throughout our burned-over land.
Greetings from the end of a long, hot Texas summer! We have finally entered the only other season that we have in Texas, known as “not summer,” and thank the Lord that we made it. The evenings and mornings are cool and glorious, and though we all try not to let the oppressively hot season affect us, a drop in temperature always makes it seem like hope has been restored.
Earlier this week, I was enjoying the wonderful morning weather on a walk with my dog, Maggie, when I heard the sound of a golf cart coming behind us - it was my father! Even though we have now lived in the same town again for 25 years, I still haven’t gotten over the pleasant surprise of bumping into my parents out and about in town. We lived across the country from each other for a season, and being together again is such an unexpected blessing.
He was headed home, so for just a moment I wondered where he might have been so early. When I remembered, I realized instantly what the subject of this blog post would be. Recently, I brought up the idea that a large part of our culture is has developed a new religion, and that Christians must take care not to become swept along. In the last post, we examined being careful not to engage in the Culture of Comment all around us. This time, let's think about the question,
What are you worth?
Not just your life, but also your time and effort - what kind of price can be put on such things?
That morning, my dad was heading home from the golf clubhouse, where he and a group of people meet one early morning each week to spruce up the golf course. They pick up trash, fix the divots, and otherwise get things back into perfect order. Similarly, he and another group from church regularly give time to doing odd jobs around the church property - changing light bulbs, cleaning messes, straightening papers and books, and keeping things in order. These examples are indicative of the way he and my mother have chosen to live, and not just in their retirement years.
My father is one who, after he retired from 30 years in the Navy, taught at a military college for a few years, and then gave a decade at our local high school in an effort to help young people learn math and even a little bit of respect. Next, he taught for the prison system, helping men who made some terrible choices have a chance of making a life for themselves once they were released. Likewise, my mother has volunteered for every group my sister and I were in, and for all kinds of church and community ventures through the years. During Covid, they both participated in drive-by golf cart greetings for people who were shut in all alone. They are always visiting and caring for others, rejoicing with those who rejoice and mourning with those who mourn. They give so much of their time to help people, and they have been that way all my life.
They don’t do this for recognition or accolades. Neither of them are running for political office or some other position. They give of themselves, and know that what they get in return has nothing to do with money or fame or power. It has everything to do with helping others know that they are seen and heard and cared for. It has everything to do with looking to help the next generation have a good start. It has everything to do with keeping things in order, and even making things better. They serve and give because they are grateful for what they have had, and want others to have it, too.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking and living is no longer the norm in our society. Instead, most of us sit around, bemoaning the fact that things just aren’t like they used to be. Our schools are struggling. Our churches are not nearly as full as they once were. Kids are disrespectful and can’t pull themselves together. Things look so run down and uncared for. Families are falling apart, the suicide rate is alarmingly high, and substance abuse and even overdose deaths are all too common. Why are things so bad? Why doesn’t someone do something?
Last week, a royal person, when participating in an official function on behalf of their ruling family, was quoted as saying, “I can’t believe I’m not getting paid for this.” What a striking contrast with the late Queen Elizabeth, who selflessly and tirelessly served her God and her people for 70 years. But it should not be surprising - this thought is in the very air of our modern culture and is a tenet of its new religion.
The worldview assumes that each person’s worth literally boils down a dollar amount. In this way of thinking, the value of your life is dictated by your lifetime bottom line. How much are you worth? This danger does not apply to just one political or ideological branch: some have to be careful of a tendency to want to always make more no matter the cost, and others have to be careful not to want to take more no matter the consequences. Either way, the danger is found in evaluating the worth of a human being in terms of money.
If you cost someone else too much to bring into the world or to stay in the world, you aren’t worth it and are terminated. If you aren’t constantly adding to the bottom line of net worth, then you aren’t really living or being true to yourself. Choices in life, death, education, marriage, vocation, location, parenting, philanthropy, and so many other avenues are made depending on how much a person can make and how much each decision will cost them. Does it help my resume? Does it take from my retirement? Does it cost me or benefit me in any way?
No one considers the possibility that there might be quite a few things in life worth much more than money. No one stops to think about what will happen if and when money is suddenly worth much less than it is today. No one is encouraged to volunteer or give freely, instead everyone is coached to ask, “what is in it for me?” It is no longer thought of to do something for nothing - not even for our own families and communities.
This way of thinking leads to so many difficult and even dangerous ideas, actions, and inactions, and we must be careful not to become engulfed by it.
The good news is that Jesus showed us what to do and how to think rightly about this. As followers of Christ, and as people who believe the Bible, we know that every man, woman, and child is lovingly created in the image of God. This means that there is no price high enough to equate to the worth of a human being: each person, whether they live in a palace or a shelter, is God’s treasured masterpiece. One of the best-loved passages in scripture reminds us that “God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son.” God lovingly and carefully made us, and then spared no expense in redeeming us.
The ideal of Christian service, which has inspired many of the greatest people in history, and still inspires people like my parents and others like them, was modeled by Jesus Himself. He gave His own life to love and serve all of us. He left the glory and majesty of Heaven to come to this fallen earth, tirelessly showing all of us what real, abundant life can look like.
He showed us that we were all striving in the wrong direction in looking for abundant life, and getting things backwards. It isn't about power, or possession, or political gain. He plainly told HIs disciples, when they were lagging behind Him on the road one day and indulging in their usual argument about which one of them was the greatest, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” The One who actually is the greatest showed us how a real King lives, by making Himself the lowest and giving everything for us.
This is exactly the opposite of what our culture preaches. It says take and get all you can. It says demand your rights. It says don't do anything that doesn't directly benefit you. But this makes people miserable, and so many people get hurt. All you have to do is read the headlines to see that all the money and fame and power in the world can't keep anyone happy or fulfilled for long.
Following Jesus' way in being servant of all can be described by the idea that love finds a need and meets it. We don’t have to wait for someone to tell us that someone needs help or visiting or encouraging, we can look around and see who needs our help. We don’t need to be told to clean or fix things, we can see that it needs to be done and take care of it. Our cities and towns are the place we all have to live, together, and it is our responsibility to keep them in top order. Our schools and churches are where our minds and spirits are nourished and it is up to all of us to keep them healthy. When we all do this, things remain in order, people are helped, and few remain uncared for.
The world says your life is only worth a dollar amount. God says your life, and your neighbors' lives, are worth more than could ever be counted. He gave of Himself to save us and serve us; now it is our turn. We can give ourselves and our time and resources to help others, and will find that this brings more joy, purpose, and fulfillment than any amount of money ever could.
We do not have to fall into line with what our culture is saying. Instead, we can follow Jesus and give of ourselves, knowing that what we will get in return has nothing to do with money or fame or power. It has everything to do with helping others know that they are seen and heard and cared for. It has everything to do with looking to help the next generation have a good start. It has everything to do with keeping things in order, and even making things better. We can love and serve and give because we are grateful for what we have, and want others to have it, too.
In Memory of Queen Elizabeth II
This week marks the end of a special era in human history. Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain has passed from this life, and gone to be with her Lord and Savior forever. Considering that there are photos and videos of her still fulfilling her duties and graciously receiving Britain’s new Prime Minister a mere two days before her passing, we can give thanks to God for this special woman as she finally enters her rest.
There is nobody like her. I wonder if anyone will emerge from the current era to be role model for the younger set like Queen Elizabeth has been to so many us who have come before? She ruled for 70 years, meaning that for almost everyone alive today she has always been the queen of England. Her life marked an entire era of time that perhaps someday will be referred to as the second Elizabethan age. As the rest of the world went through its many kings, presidents, prime ministers, and dictators, Queen Elizabeth lived and served gracefully, bringing a steadiness and sense of timelessness to the world. Her life was so special, and there is so much we can learn from her example.
Of course, she was born into royalty as the granddaughter of the king, and therefore had a rather unusual perspective on life for her whole life. When Elizabeth was just 10 years old, her grandfather died and her uncle soon abdicated his role as king, leaving Elizabeth the heir to the throne. At the tender age of 25, an age when so many of us are still trying to figure out who we are and what we ought to be doing, her father died and she became the queen of a vast number of the world’s people. The rest of the world joined in the excitement. My mother, who was 10 in 1952, remembers her whole class gathering at the home of the one family in town who had a television set to watch the coronation of the young new queen. It was an exciting and hopeful event.
There are some pretty amazing things that came with her unique position. She never had to have a driver’s license or a passport, as all of those things were issued to everyone else in her own name! Her image has been on all the coinage and currency, postage stamps, and legal documents for Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations around the globe for the better part of a century. She met most of the world’s leaders throughout her long reign, and was given beautiful gifts of honor and respect by a great number of them. She traveled the world and was celebrated by gatherings of thousands everywhere she went. She lived in fabulous palaces and had beautiful clothes and jewels, and people to attend to her every need. She attended balls and galas, and really lived all of the fairy tale ideals.
Though she was surrounded by opulence and plenty all her life, she was not ruined by them. People were continually shocked by what a normal woman she was. She loved her husband and children, her parents and sister, her dogs and horses. She had a wonderfully regular daily routine that she maintained wherever she happened to be in the world. She was kind and gracious and respectful to all, whether family, stranger, servant, or world leader. There is a story of an encounter with two American tourists who did not realize who she was, and she just played along and even took a photo for them. Her bodyguard laughed, wondering if anyone would ever tell those two who they had been speaking with that day.
She deeply loved her God and country. At a young age she committed herself to the service of both, famously saying on her 21st birthday, “I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” Though many under her dominion practiced other faiths, she boldly and lovingly represented the goodness and majesty of Christ, and always referred to Him as her Lord. Though many in her care had widely differing political opinions from one another, she loved and hoped for all of her subjects, living above and beyond politics. She knew exactly who she was and exactly Who and what she represented, and took great care never to do anything that did not represent God and country rightly.
Certainly not every person born or married into human royalty has viewed the position and privilege in quite the same way that Queen Elizabeth did. So many have wasted and squandered and misused their influence. There is much in the written record about her, documenting that even at a very early age she had a deep understanding of what it meant to be the child of a king. Friends and contemporaries testify that she was always both grateful and dutiful. She was a person like all the rest of us, and must have had off days, but we never saw them. She kept her frustrations to herself. There were no bitter and weeping interviews when she felt she just couldn’t take it anymore. There were no sensational books or exposés about her secret and awful hidden vices. For nine decades, this lovely woman lived her life of service to God and others. She never wavered, she never complained, and she never quit. Right up to the end she was the steady and responsible queen that her people and the rest of the world could count on to do what was right.
It is such a lovely thought to picture such a graceful and dedicated queen finally entering into the courts of the King of all Kings. May her memory be a blessing for many generations to come.
What can we learn from such a life well-lived? None of us are likely to ever know the kind of broad power and significance that she had by virtue of her office and birth, but each of us has our own sphere of influence in this life. We have the opportunity to choose to live a life of unfailing service and encouragement.
There is something wired deep inside every person that longs for a good person to rule. We seem intuitively to know that things were supposed to be a certain way, and they are not. We know that everything about illness and death feels wrong. We know that injustice and poverty and misuse of power are wrong, and should not exist. We know that the weak and vulnerable should be loved and cared for by those who are stronger. We know that families should be healthy, not broken. There is something in every heart that yearns for true justice and peace, and wisdom and plenty for all. Our hearts are longing for the very one who made and sustains us - the Lord Jesus Christ.
Elizabeth exemplified a true servant of this good King. She believed that her honor came only from Him, and always sought to point back to Him. She knew that He was the giver of life, and the One from Whom all blessings flow. On His behalf, she strove to rule with wisdom, grace, and justice, and always had a hopeful and encouraging outlook for her people - the people she knew He loved so much. She stood for righteousness and peace, and against division and unbelief. She determined to always remind her people of who they were, and of what they could be with a little faith and diligence.
I am grateful to have witnessed someone stand steadfast and faithful for the entire fifty years of my life and beyond. We are blessed to have had such an example of a strong and committed leader, who spent a long lifetime in joyful service as a child of the King. What a difference it could make if many of us determined to serve God and the people in our lives with such unfailing hope and faithfulness.
The Comment Section
Happy Anniversary to us! It has been four years since this blog first appeared, and what a season it has been. Thank you so much for joining me on a journey to know God better, and to love people more. So much has happened in that span of time. In my own family, we gained three beautiful grandchildren, a new son-in-law, and have had ministry roles change for everyone in our family. In the broader picture, many of us have experienced real loss and change, and we all muddled through Covid as best we could. At the same time, so many joys and triumphs have occurred. It has been a lot of wonderful, God-given life, and what a joy to know Him and walk with Him. I look forward to sharing another year with you all!
Nearly thirty years ago, at this time of year, I was beginning my first year as an elementary school teacher. The first day of your first year is something to remember. Suddenly, and for the first time in your life, you are on the other side of the desk. It is your responsibility to make sure that the kids in your care are safe, loved, and above all else, educated. The daunting task of taking someone from illiteracy to literacy, and from unfamiliarity with numbers to proficiency is sobering. But what a joy to watch young minds learn and grow. Back in the day, it was still an accepted and expected outcome that students would learn to read and to think for themselves. Education was understood to be the foundation each student would need to build a life.
But how interesting to look back on that time and realize that it was the beginning of a great sea-change in our culture. I have some vivid memories from the first teacher inservice day of that year. I was on the fourth grade team, the sole new teacher in a group of highly experienced veterans. Three of them were at the stage then that I am now - empty nest and second stage of adulthood. These ladies knew exactly what they were doing, and did so with excellence. They were so gracious to answer my many questions and to give me many helpful methods and strategies. Their reaction to the special speakers on that day made a lasting impression on me.
The theme of the day, as you might expect in an elementary school environment, was based on a fun, whimsical name - TTWWADI, apparently pronounced to-wah-dee, and devised with the hope of producing ridiculing laughter. It stood for That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It, and the idea presented all day was that it was definitely time for some new ways of doing things. Why should we keep on doing the same old thing, year after year? How silly to do things just because they are the way we have always done them! When the day is new and the future so bright, why should we stick to the same old crusty ways? Modern kids, they said in 1993, ought not be constrained by the rigorous and demanding methods of the past. We would not want to crush their creativity or stifle their imaginations by expecting everyone to learn in the same exact way.
I had never been a teacher before, and I had never heard a presentation like this before. All I knew was my own school experience as a child and what they had told me in my teaching classes at school. I had never actually tried to teach a child anything before. I listened to the people presenting, all just a little older than myself, and found it interesting, even compelling. They were very passionate and fun, and gave a great presentation full of wonderful sounding new ideas. I left the sessions with my open and impressionable mind ready to try any of these new methods.
I was soon fascinated and quickly redirected by the reactions of my teammates. We gathered together later that afternoon in one of our fourth grade classrooms, and I heard them questioning why in the world people with so little experience were knocking the methods they had relied upon for two or three decades. These ladies each took twenty-five children, year after year, and taught them to read, write, and think. They had also raised their own children from infancy to adulthood, and knew that you can’t just give children free reign over every decision. Well, not without coming out with some really confused and difficult, oftentimes profoundly unhappy, people.
One of my favorite authors, GK Chesterton, once suggested that it is a very foolish thing to remove a fence before you inquire why the fence was put there in the first place. You might soon find, hopefully before it was too late, that the fence was put there by a kindly farmer who hoped to protect people from his large and angry bull.
From the vantage point of thirty years later, I am sad to realize that many other teachers and educators of that era must not have had the benefit of experienced and wiser people to guide the way. Not just in the realm of education, but it seems that our whole culture has embraced the idea of scorning and ridiculing TTWWADI and removing a lot of fences that were put there for very good reason.
The core of the matter is a difference in worldview. People with a distinctly Christian worldview founded and shaped this nation, and our laws and institutions reflect this fact. Our education system was founded and formed under this Judaeo-Christian way of viewing the world and people. Our standard for life and morality is the living and active Word of God. Those of us, then and now, who believe in God and trust His Word believe that every person starts out with a sinful nature, and needs to be shaped and molded by people who love and value that young life and mind. We all need to be diligently instructed and reminded and disciplined and taught how to bring order into life, in order to live a healthy and productive life as an adult. We further know to be true that without diligent shaping, each person runs the risk of giving entirely into their sinful predisposition and potentially becoming a supremely selfish and lazy person. We believe that it is not kind to leave kids to fend for themselves.
The other side of today’s culture does not start from a Biblical view at all; conversely, they believe that man, while somehow an accident of nature, is inherently good and ought not be stifled in any way. They think that it is cruel to impose any set of values or beliefs onto anyone else. The foundation for what is true and right is based on people's feelings and on public consensus, not on anything fixed. Some believe in a god and some don’t; some believe in life after death and some don’t. But this all comes together to make a new, secular religion, and involves a fundamentally different view of life and eternity than Christianity.
This radical difference in worldview impacts every part of modern society. As Christians, we have to take extra care not to let our secular society and its way of thinking shape our values and actions. We don’t want to throw away the fences that we know were put there to keep everyone safe and healthy, no matter what anyone else says. Now that I am one of the older set, I would love to spend a post or two sharing caution in areas that I have particularly noticed lately.
Now, I must pause to say that I am definitely all for improving things that need improving. I really love indoor plumbing and air conditioning. I love that women can now be educated along with men, which wasn’t always true, and still isn’t in many parts of the world. I love improvement that benefits society, and that helps everyone live a healthier and more productive life. I love anything that makes life more abundant for all. For we all have to live together in this world, regardless of worldview. There isn’t us and them - there is just us, and we are all affected by culture.
But we must realize that not every change is a good change. Progress for the sake of progressivism is not necessarily healthy. For example, while they have been amazing in many ways, personal cellphones and the constant interconnectedness they have afforded have brought some real challenges and dangers; on this everyone can agree. One that I would love to draw attention to is the modern Culture of Comment.
Compulsion to Comment
A strange evolution in our society has to do with the perception that every person must comment on everything that happens, or else that person is doing something wrong. Think about this - it has happened slowly but surely and is now a real thing. There is strong pressure on social media to comment on everything.
It started with commenting on one anothers’ pictures, at least with a like or an emoji. Then it grew to acknowledging the birthdays of all 800 of your Facebook friends. Now it has to do with commenting on sad news stories, and the deaths of public figures. And is has grown so much that now someone, somewhere is inventing special things to be commented upon. Evidently this last week included National Dog Day. I have lived fifty years and avidly love dogs, yet this is the first time I have ever heard of National Dog Day. But there is a strange tug to say something about it! If you don’t, you feel that you are being disloyal to your past, present, and future dogs, or maybe are giving the impression with your silence that you actually hate dogs. This is affecting all of us. It is exhausting and stressful and guilt-inducing to try to keep up with everything that we have to comment upon.
Worse, it is creating a new ritual for this new religion that our secular society is developing. It has to do with Denouncing Bad Things. Now, if our secular society was consistent it would admit that if you remove Biblical values in one place, you have to remove them everywhere. So secular people being offended by what the Bible calls sin is strange. Why do they even care about people doing bad things if the Bible isn’t true? But they do care. In their new religion, it is a vile offense to not publicly denounce every terrible thing that happens and every person who has done something wrong.
It is here we must be careful. We cannot let ourselves be sucked into this new religion; more, we must prayerfully consider actively going against the flow of participating in this new ritual. It is one thing to comment on a friend’s wonderful vacation picture - that is innocent and sweet and connects people in a good and healthy way. But it is another thing entirely to join in on trashing a person who has done wrong.
As Christians, we actively strive to follow the Kingdom way of life that Jesus lived and taught. His way was (and still is) radically different than what the world comes up with...
-The world says we are against each other; every man for himself.
-The world says take what you can get, no matter who it hurts or what it costs.
-The world says make yourself look good, even and especially at the expense of your neighbor.
-But Jesus says love your neighbor as yourself.
-Jesus says giving is much better than taking.
-Jesus says do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.
There is not one person who wants their own sin to be publicly ridiculed and shamed; those of us who follow Jesus must remember this and act accordingly.
Jesus taught about Denouncing Bad Things. We can read about it Matthew 18:15-17...
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.“
As Christians, we believe that sin is real, and is what separates each of us from our loving Creator and Father. It is something that affects every person, and it is devastating. The consequences of sin ruin families and break hearts, and nothing about it is funny or lighthearted. In fact, sin is the saddest thing in the world, and our hearts are so heavy when we hear of a Christian brother or sister who falls into a terrible abyss of sin.
But we also believe that Jesus came to save us from our sin, and to cover our guilt and shame. He graciously meets us as we come to Him to repent of our sin and accept His grace. Though He is the One person who could without being a hypocrite, He would never broadcast any of our sins for the world to see and gloat over. He meets everyone who is repentant with forgiveness - be they a liar, an adulterer, a murderer, an embezzler, a slanderer, or anything in between. He teaches us to deal with sin in our own communities in a gracious and loving way. The hope and goal is always for the restoration of a soul. The way of Jesus is never to make ourselves feel better by pointing out that we were not the ones who did something bad, or trying to fool ourselves into believing that we could never do anything wrong.
It must be noted that it is terrible when anyone sins, but it is truly devastating when a church leader sins. Everyone who enters into ministry understands that we will be held to a higher standard by God Himself, and that we must diligently strive to live holy lives. The devil knows that when he can trap a church leader into choosing sin, it does maximum damage. The people who represent God to people must represent Him rightly. The Apostle Paul wrote to his disciple Timothy, instructing what to do when a church leader fell into sin. “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.” Every Christian denomination and community has practices and procedures for doing this, and these are to be diligently followed when the occasion arises, otherwise we have compromised everything we hold to be true. Nothing is to be winked at or swept under the rug; rather it is to be treated with utmost sobriety and severity, and ministerial credentials relinquished. Still, the public address occurs among the people that the leader led. The circle of confession ought to be proportional with the circle of offense. This is God’s gracious way.
Our nation is still Christian in its laws. People who do evil things have to bear the consequences of their actions, and this is a sacred thing. Our legal system recognizes the Biblical truth that what we do and don’t do really matters, both now and for eternity, and we should all be mindful of that. But there is nothing Christian in taking to social media to name and shame those who have fallen, be they inside or outside the church.
Our secular friends and neighbors may not agree or understand. But our great leader, Jesus, has clearly instructed us on His thoughts in this matter, and asks us to represent Him rightly to a watching world. Let’s cling to that truth, and prayerfully consider bowing out of this dangerous part of the modern comment section.
For further study, please read John 8:1-11 to see what Jesus Himself did when pressured to join an angry and denouncing crowd.
Rules, Rebellion, Relationship
Recently we actually went to the movie theater to see a new movie. This is not something we do often at all, so we were so surprised to find out that nowadays before the movie started we were subjected to at least thirty minutes of previews. As we were about to lose heart that the movie we came to see would ever begin, a trailer played for a new movie about Elvis Presley. He, of course, was a worldwide phenomenon, and certainly had lasting impact on the United States.
I have not seen the movie, and I am not sure whether the filmmaker was trying to say anything definitive about the choices that Elvis made throughout his lifetime, or whether that person was simply telling a life story. But a two minute trailer was enough for me to have some takeaways. I could not help but notice that there were the stereotypical nagging scolds represented in the film, scowling at a young and cool Elvis Presley, warning of the dire consequences should he rebel against their rules. The line delivered was something like, “You had better not wiggle so much as your little finger on that stage.” From just the brief few seconds of that scene in the trailer, you see scowling, scolding, disapproving faces juxtaposed with the seemingly electric, exciting promise of all that Elvis‘s new style of reckless abandon contained.
Sadly, his life story did not end in excitement or promise. I do not personally know anyone in Elvis‘s family, and he died when I was only five years old, so I cannot make any sort of intelligent or helpful commentary on any of them. But decades have passed since the time the real-life scolds gave their real-life warnings to a young Elvis and his whole generation. We are left here to deal with the outcome, which turns out to be nothing new.
Jesus once told a story in response to the religious scolds of His generation who were following Him around and contemptuously muttering, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” It never ceases to amaze me how wise and relevant Jesus’ teachings are, though the words we read were spoken over 2000 years ago. In this story, Jesus perfectly captures the two different ways that people go in an attempt to make a way in the world, and it just so happens that the two sons He mentions in His story are just exactly like Elvis and his critics. (I am going to put the whole story down below - it is found in Luke 15, and I hope you will take a moment to read it.)
The first son represents every person who decides that the rules and restrictions are just too much. They either don't take the time to think that their own actions are actually hurting themselves and others, or they just don’t care. Much of the modern generation fits this category, and even advertisers pander to this attitude: Have it Your Way, You Deserve It, If it Feels Good Do It, and so on. Everything in our society is encouraging people to smash the rules, shatter the conventions, and push the limits. It has become so prevalent that we can no longer pretend we do not see the ramifications.
Sin is devastating. We can try to explain in away, and we can try to pretend that there is no such thing as morality, but all around us the evidence says otherwise. We can also pretend that if no one else sees our own sin, then it does not matter. But if you have ever been impacted by the nuclear-grade destruction of sin, whether self-inflicted or caused by someone else’s choices, then you know that Christians, scolding or not, are not making this up. Sin is very real, and it destroys everything it touches.
When a person chooses to follow their own willful desires for a moment or a season or a lifetime, throwing off every thought of anyone or anything else, terrible consequences follow. Sin is costly. It is never free. No one ever gets away with it. Sometimes the price is required now, sometimes accounts will be settled later, but every time a terribly expensive cost is incurred. Broken homes, ruined careers, devastated hearts and lives, crushed spirits: all of these things are the very terrible and very real price tag that accompanies our rebellion.
When any of us is confronted with such a devastating situation, and if we take a second to be honest, something deep within us recognizes that this is our own true spiritual condition. Sometimes we are tempted to throw stones at others who make horrible choices, but what we should do is stop and reflect. The Bible teaches that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We all have a sinful nature that desires its own way and its own will, and separates us from God.
So Jesus does not stop with just the person who breaks all the rules. He also takes the time to explore the second son, the one who stays home and keeps every single rule. In fact, this guy is keeping careful score of how well he keeps the rules, and also of how poorly everyone else around him is doing in comparison. Just reading the story, you can picture the person in your mind - grumpy, scowling, angry, and bitter. If he was a modern, he would certainly be an internet troll. Though he lives in the house with the father, he is not happy or satisfied or kind. You get the distinct feeling that he is just waiting for his dad to die so that he can have his inheritance all to himself, not so different from his wayward brother after all.
Both sons represent the two dangers all of us face when we do not keep our own wills submitted to the love and wisdom of God. Giving in to our inherent selfishness can manifest as either a person with no rules at all or a person who thinks the rules are the only thing. But the point of Jesus’ parable is what everyone of us must take time to understand - rules without any relationship just lead to rebellion in our hearts. One person thought the rules were stifling and threw them away, one thought they were a way to be superior to everyone else. Neither realized that they were entirely missing the point.
What can possibly quiet the demands of our strong wills; what can replace our selfish desires on the thrones of our own hearts? Only someone better and far more lovely than anything the world has to offer. Only someone stronger, with infinitely more love and wisdom. And only someone who is strong enough to conquer sin and selfishness. Through His finished work on the cross, Jesus has made a way for us to have peace with God, with ourselves, and with each other. As we trust Jesus as both Savior and Lord, surrendering our wills to Him, we realize that being in close relationship with Him was what we were yearning for all our lives.
The father in Jesus' story provided a safe home and a robust inheritance for each of his children. When one child strayed, the father was waiting and watching for him to return. When the other child was bitter and disgruntled, the father gently reminded him that everything he had was available and always had been. Jesus is telling all of us that the point of life is a relationship with the Father, who eagerly desires to be with each one of us. The rules are just there to keep us safe from ourselves and our proclivity to sin; the point is enjoying a loving relationship with Him, both now and then forever.
In our incredibly divisive and angry age, it would be wise to take a moment to reflect on our own hearts. Are we leaning towards breaking down the barriers and doing whatever our hearts and bodies desire, or are we leaning towards looking with contempt at others who don’t play the game as well as we do? Either way, the remedy is to lean instead into a loving Father who watches and waits for each of us to come back into His loving embrace. Only standing with Him, made complete and whole by His love and grace, can we look rightly on the world around us.
Luke 15: 11-32
Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
Hi! I'm Mary - mother to two wonderful grown daughters, wife to an incredible husband, and loving our life in the piney woods of Texas... (read more!)
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