Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Plumbing problems


Plumbing problems. These are two words that can strike fear into the heart of every homeowner. They also represent a euphemism for bodily dysfunction, but that’s not the tack we’ll be taking here.

What I’m referring to are leaks and breaks and other issues in the pipes of a home. Lead pipes. Copper pipes. PVC and pex. Or, perhaps it’s a bad washer in a faucet, a failed flusher in the toilet, or a clog in a drain.

Plumbing problems -- big and little -- can bring the strongest man to tears. Especially when you’re living on only half a shoestring and haven’t got a clue.

Many years ago, while up in the middle of a very cold night to use the bathroom, I heard a noise in the wall behind the bathtub. I went around to the other side through the laundry room and saw a slight bulge in the wallboard. I touched it and Whoosh! a strong stream of water came spraying out at me.

There was a tiny crack in the copper pipe, the rest of which, it turned out, was frozen.

Panic set in. This was the first home I’d owned, had only barely enough income, and no idea where to turn off the water. I searched all over for a shut-off valve, only to finally discover -- and I can’t recall how I came into this knowledge -- that the shut-off was in the street.

We had to call the city and wait while the water spewed.

Needless to say an easily accessible shut-off valve was added inside the house. Since then, wherever I’ve lived, whether apartment or house, I always checked first thing to see where the water shut-off valve was located.

I’ve dealt with a fair number and kinds of plumbing issues since then. I’ve even worked in construction where I installed plumbing. Now, instead of panic, I figure out what needs to be done. Minor issues I can usually take care of on my own. Duct tape can be handy for fast, temporary fixes! For bigger, more complicated issues -- like the slab leak we recently dealt with-- I call a few plumbers and get quotes.

Experience makes a difference in response. Learning occurs. Or at least it should.

A brand new baby Christian can easily be sidetracked by the usual everyday temptations and clever but wrong arguments. However, if maturing is happening common tempters can be anticipated and avoided. And nice-sounding, but non-biblical and deceptive concepts become easier to spot. We learn not to go certain places or watch certain programs or listen to certain people and so on. We learn.

Trials become a little easier to endure as well. Events that once were instantly crushing eventually are still painful when they happen, yet bearable. We learn that what feels like the end of the world really isn’t. Shaky faith grows into stronger faith. We learn to endure and hope even when it seems hopeless. Our pain teaches us how to comfort others.

And when life throws one of those soul-punch challenges at us -- a serious illness, divorce, death of a loved one, financial collapse -- we discover that it’s better not to bear those burdens alone. We belong to a body of believers and have discovered there are lots of shoulders to lean on.

Jesus told his followers, “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33, ESV).

With time and experience, learning the reality of this truth -- that Jesus has overcome the world -- becomes more real, offering steadying hope and comfort. When life “springs a leak” panic abates as we turn to our Master Plumber and fellow believers for support.



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How do you deal with life’s “plumbing problems”? On your own? Or do you phone a friend? Does scripture help or hurt? As for my midnight leak, I wrote a poem about the ordeal later. You can click here to read it: “Prayer at Midwinter”. Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Cue the bunny!



The bunny and colored eggs are Easter oddities. They really have nothing to do with the point of the day. Yet we embrace these alt-artifacts enthusiastically. Why?

There are legends and myths behind their origins, but I’m guessing there’s a simpler motivation behind their creation.

Look at Christmas. Christmas is mostly fun. Interesting. Pretty.

There are donkeys and camels and sheep. Three kings. Shepherds. Angels. And, of course, a baby in a manger. The entertainment factor is easy to find and build on.

Easter is another story altogether.

Even by today's standards, the death Jesus suffered is hard to think about.

So, cue the Easter bunny! Scatter the eggs! Distract!

Distract from the gruesome reality of the torture and necessary crucifixion of Jesus.

Seriously, there’s enough “ugly” in the world. Who wants to think about a beaten, bleeding, thorn-crowned Savior?

The sin in us shuns such meditation. Why? Because it reminds us that there is, in fact, sin in us. And that that sin is uglier than any death-by-cross.

Actually, we are so sin-acknowledging-averse, we even need to create a distraction for the Truth behind Christmas with Santa, the elves, red-nosed flying reindeers and more. That baby, it turns out, is just so threatening!

Bunnies are cute. Colored eggs are fun. Candy is sweet. And Santa is a pudgy pushover.

But none offer what we truly need.

They are merely cheap shiny things to draw our attention away from the hard-edged reality that without the virgin birth, the grim death, and the ultimate resurrection of Christ there is no hope.

Our sin, without Christ, will kill us.

There’s only one cure for the sin in our skin. Only one out for avoiding eternal damnation. By applying the blood of Jesus. It’s a messy and offensive image. But the sin that infects us is far more messy and offensive.

Probably the most quoted verse of the Bible is, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16, ESV).

Yes, the potential for perishing is very real. But so is the promise of eternal life. You and I are pretty wicked, yet, God still loves us! So much so that he gave up his son to a brutal death to wipe out our impossible sin debt.

The crux is believing in the right Savior.

The Son reigns over Christmas and Easter. Santa, eggs, elves, and bunnies are empty imagery. Don’t be distracted by them.

He is risen. That’s the whole point.


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Additional resources:

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How important is the bunny and associated non-biblical imagery in your observance of Easter? How about Santa and such at Christmas? Is it sinful to enjoy these harmless symbols as long as they don’t over-shadow the true meanings behind Easter and Christmas? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Monday, April 10, 2017

Resurrection ( #PoetryMonday *)


I tuck my sins
like brightly colored
Easter eggs
into the dark, hidden
nooks and crannies
of my foolish soul.

The Holy Spirit
hops relentlessly through my life
finding each rotting one,
collecting them in a basket,
leaving them at the foot of the cross.

Miraculously they hatch out
bright yellow chicks of hope,
cheerily cheeping
of His tender
new-every-morning
mercies.





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* Its PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here.  
Grace. It's what Easter is a lot about. And, even though we long for it, we often run or hide from it. Yet, the "hound of heaven" can be persistent. Any thoughts? Please share them in the comments!





This poem can be found in my recent collection, "Home Noise: New Poems."

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Delight. Fail. Rinse. Repeat. Now!

Many who make resolutions and don’t keep them feel as if they’ve failed for the whole year and can’t try again until the old year once again turns into a New Year.

But why put off what you’ve discerned is a thing that needs addressing?

Could it be, perhaps, you really don’t want to let go of that thing? Maybe you want to play with that bad habit one last time? < Wink, wink. Nudge, nudge.>

Delaying for any reason is avoidance which means failure is likely your fate.

It’s the Holy Spirit in you nudging

As a Christian the reason you’re even considering making resolutions is because the Holy Spirit in you is nudging you. When the Holy Spirit nudges toward needed changes, you can be assured that God will enable you to carry them out.

Let’s examine this methodically with Scripture:

  • Abiding. As a Christian, you live in obedience to God’s word with the Holy Spirit as your Helper: “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you” (John 14:15-17, ESV). See also John 16.
     
  • Conforming. As you bend your life to godly living, God works in you: “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12-13, ESV).
     
  • Thinking. Your mind is attuned to the things of God: “‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16, ESV).
     
  • Choosing. You have access to godly wisdom which yields good choices: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV).
     
  • Doing. You are equipped to do what the Holy Spirit prompts: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13, ESV).
     
  • Walking. The Holy Spirit leads you away from evil and toward holiness: “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16, ESV).
     
When you resist or put off these Holy Spirit nudges you are delaying your own spiritual growth.

Daily resolve is better than annual resolutions

Since change is a process, it won’t be smooth going. But that’s okay. Because, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases...” (Lamentations 3:22-23, ESV).

Also, “If we confess our sins, [Jesus] is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9, ESV).

And since living out the Christian life is an ongoing endeavor, there is no need to wait until the New Year to “begin” again, and again, and again. Every time you fall down, get up. Now!

Ultimately, there is only one resolution you need to make on a moment-by-moment basis, all year, every year:
“I resolve to, as best I can, love and delight in the Lord my God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my mind, and love my neighbor as myself, right now” (see Matthew 22:34-40).

And if you fail?

Rinse and repeat. As often as needed. No waiting necessary.



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How do you feel about New Year’s resolutions? Do you make them? Keep them? Break them? Love them? Hate them? Did you make any? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments!


Note: This is a heavily revised and shortened version of “I resolve to be resolute in avoiding New Year’s resolutions” first posted on December 31, 2015. 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

How your personality impacts reading the Bible (American Bible Society)


Reading and interpreting the Bible through our twenty-first-century sensibilities has its challenges.

Serious students of God’s Word will recognize that assessing and applying Scripture faithfully requires at least a cursory grasp of the culture of the original writers. It helps to keep in mind such simple things as that the biblical writers had no indoor plumbing, that transportation involved using either your own or an animal’s feet, that electricity wasn’t even a spark of an idea.

Not to mention the challenge of writing an entire book with no word processor, typewriter, or even a number two pencil!

On top of such details, knowing that a writer of a particular Bible book was Jewish or Gentile, a prophet or an apostle, a doctor or a fisherman can add to our understanding. It gives us context to wrap around metaphors and figures of speech.

But one other piece of knowledge can also make a drastic interpretative difference: your own personality type.



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Do you believe your personality style/type influences how you read the Bible? How you see the world? Why or why not? Do you view yourself as an introvert or an extrovert? If you are an extrovert, do you view introverts as being broken? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Friday, January 6, 2017

Basics of a good group, Part 3 of 3: Outreach

This three-part series explores some basics on how to build, maintain, and grow good small groups in your church, fostering healthy biblical engagement together.

There’s nothing like a well-functioning small group.

After a tough week, it’s nice to be able to go where everybody knows your name. Where they're always glad you came. Where everyone’s troubles are the same. Or so promises the theme from the old TV show, “Cheers.”

But what about your neighbors or friends who are unchurched? Do you invite them to your group?

Typically, when it comes to “bringing in the sheaves” we immediately offer invitations to strangers to visit our church. In my experience, resistance to such invitations is high. In many cases, it was a bad church experience in the past that is keeping people out of church now.

Church, for many, carries a negative connotation. The experience is viewed as ritual, formal, impersonal, and even a little weird.

Yet, when invited into a Cheers-like scenario, even sans alcohol, those outside the church are much more interested in trying it out. Mostly because a small group in their neighbor’s house doesn’t look like church!

Yet, welcoming newcomers does have its challenges.

The good group is cozy, safe, and maybe even a little predictable. Rocking the boat by adding newcomers can be resisted by the group, but it’s a resistance that should be overcome. Why? Because the group isn’t just about you or your buddies! Or any one person. Well, other than Jesus.

Exactly because small groups are cozy, safe, and predictable, they are the perfect, non-threatening place to invite your skeptical friends and neighbors for these four reasons:

1. It’s just people. Instead of an institution, the small group is basically just some folks hanging out. While some may have issues with “The Church,” fewer have a problem with getting to know their neighbors and their neighbor’s friends, enjoying some snacks, and engaging in casual discussion of the Bible or issues of faith.

2. More than a book. Engaging with people of the Word who view the Bible as God’s living Truth, makes the Bible accessible to those who view it with suspicion. Instead of being confronted with a harsh set of esoteric rules, the warmth of the Word is released through the sharing of those who seek to live it authentically.

3. Hey, this is nice! Being welcomed into an intimate, caring, loving group of people translates the Gospel into reality for those encountering it. Instead of being “preached at” in a sermon,  in a group people engage with other people who are just like them. People who have car payments, trouble at work, childcare issues, health challenges, and all the rest of the stuff of real life. Instead of ritual, they encounter reality.

4. Is there more? A good small group exhibits the attractiveness of the Gospel and, therefore, attracts outliers into the group and then into the church. Often those who object to church do so for reasons that aren’t really valid. Their fears or objections are based on misinformation or time- and location-specific incidents that are not representative of the full Body of Christ. Acceptance into a good group helps dissolve the barriers to meeting the personal God and finding a relationship with Jesus.


It’s tempting to rest in the enjoyment of the group we know and ignore those outside we don’t. But to be true to our calling to share Christ everywhere, even our cozy groups need to be open and inviting. Is yours?.

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Previously in part 1: Logistics of the good group.

Previously in part 2: Leading the good group.



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Are you in a good small group or any group? What makes it a good group or a not so good group? Do you have other good ideas for creating good small groups? Please share them in the comments!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Basics of a good group, Part 2 of 3: Leading

This three-part series explores some basics on how to build, maintain, and grow good small groups in your church, fostering healthy biblical engagement together.


A small group leader training booklet lists 15 tips for leaders. Number 13 is my favorite: “You’re not Spurgeon.”

Right now, in my church, we’re wrestling with the need to grow up new group leaders. We have several small groups that are at or near capacity. This means they soon will need to split in two, with each part needing a leader.

This then raises the question, ”What makes a good leader?” To answer that requires addressing another question, “How do you lead a small group well?” And to answer that, you need to answer, “What’s the role of a small group?”

The primary role of a small group -- and in fact, of the church experience in general -- is discipleship. By that I mean helping those who claim Christ as their Savior grow into spiritual maturity. Spiritual growth, in the very simplest sense, occurs two ways:

  • Content infusing. This happens through intentional Bible study, listening to sermons, attending Sunday school, and so forth. You could label it “Christian education.”
  • Relationship building. It’s in the environment of relationships that the head knowledge of content infusing is moved into the heart of meaningfulness. Information is made practical, truth is turned into experience.

A sermon on a Sunday morning is high on content infusing while low on relationship building. This is why small groups are essential. Here’s how I guesstimate the ratios break out for various activities:


Discipleship - The purpose of the church

Content Infusing
(Christian Ed /
teaching, etc.)
Relationship Building
(Personal interaction)
Sermon
90%
10%
Small groups
20%
80%
Sunday school
80%
20%
Doing life together
10%
90%


There’s no science here. Just my own guess based on several years of being in church and small groups. Doing life together, by the way, simply means believers hanging out with each other outside of church.

Given that the primary emphasis in small groups is relationship building, to lead one well means ensuring that this happens. And now we can address the key traits of a good leader with these four insights:

1. Be a person, not a Spurgeon. You don’t need a seminary degree* to be an effective small group leader. If you have a heart for God and a good study Bible, you’ll be okay. What’s most important is that you are honest and real. This means you’re going to have to be a little vulnerable, sharing your own experiences, both the good and the bad. Opening your heart to the group will encourage others to open their hearts as well.

*Caution to those with seminary degrees: You know a lot and that’s a wonderful thing. However, the small group is not a seminary classroom where you need to bring all of your knowledge to bear. Feel free to prepare like you would for a test, but dial your presentation way, way back for the group. Otherwise you risk coming off as intimidating, overwhelming the participants, and perhaps even discouraging others from considering leading a group.

2. Protect and serve. For relationships to form and grow requires a safe place. Make sure everyone has a chance to be heard. Facilitate a “no wrong answers” environment. This doesn’t mean endorsing heresy, but rather allowing people to ask hard questions and share their doubts and fears. Therefore confidentiality -- what’s said in the group stays in the group -- is paramount.

3. Keep it moving. A small group leader is mostly a facilitator. You want to keep things moving. Make sure one person doesn’t dominate the discussion. Sometimes you’re going to have to cut off a lively discussion to ensure there’s time for addressing individual needs. While it will feel awkward, everyone will understand what you’re doing and appreciate your intervention.

4. Wrap it all in prayer. A good leader prays. Seek God’s help as you lead and prepare. Pray for each member of your group when you’re not together. Make sure each session is opened and closed in prayer. Ensure when needs become known, time is taken to pray and care for the one in need.


Leading a small group is simply one way we can fulfill the Great Commission. And we are all called to be His witnesses near and far. You don’t have to be a theologian to facilitate a group. But you do need a basic knowledge of God’s Word and a caring heart that burns to see others grow in the grace of Christ. The Holy Spirit will provide the wisdom to those who step out in faith as small group leaders.

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Coming next in part 3: Outreach of the good group.

Previously in part 1: Logistics of the good group.



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Are you in a good small group or any group? What makes it a good group or a not so good group? Do you have other good ideas for creating good small groups? Please share them in the comments!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Basics of a good group, Part 1 of 3: Logistics

This three-part series explores some basics on how to build, maintain, and grow good small groups in your church, fostering healthy biblical engagement together.


It’s the first night of your small group. Several people are now gathered at the front of the sanctuary. You begin with prayer and dive into the study.

After a few minutes, you notice Ted looking around, appearing distracted. Beads of perspiration are on his forehead and he’s fidgeting.

“Wow,” you think. “The study must really be hitting home. Ted seems under a fair amount of conviction.”

Just then Ted gets up and makes a beeline for the exit.

Was Ted’s behavior driven by conviction? Nope.

It was too hot, the room too large, and he had to go to the bathroom but wasn’t sure where it was and if he’d make it in time.

Small groups are a big deal in churches and a great vehicle for fostering biblical engagement while building relationships.

Here are six key ingredients for success that too often get overlooked:

1. Is there an echo in here? Years ago, I read Em Griffin’s great book, Getting Together: A guide for good groups (IVP). One piece of advice always stuck with me. He writes, “Meet in a room small enough to put you in touch with each other. Bank lobbies and church fellowship halls may be impressive, but the cavernous space they allow kills intimacy.”

I’ve tested this by holding meetings in very big and much smaller rooms. The differences are significant. Putting a little group in a large room makes people feel small and lost. Minds and eyes wander as every sight and sound is a distraction. A large group in a too small room is just annoying. Fit your group into an appropriate space; big enough that no one feels cramped, but small enough that it feels cozy and safe.

2. Lukewarm is okay. Thermostat battles are real! While it’s impossible to please everyone perfectly, be aware of the room temperature. An empty room that’s a little cool is a good thing -- don’t bump the heat up! The room will warm on its own when bodies arrive. Pay attention to such things as sleeves being rolled up or down, booklets being used as fans, sweaters being pulled on or off, etc. Ask people if they’re comfortable. Make adjustments gradually to avoid wide temperature swings.

3. The lay of the land. Whether you’re meeting in the church or someone’s home, let everyone know where things are, especially the bathrooms. Explain that bringing a cup of coffee to their seats is okay. Allow time for introductions. If you’re located near a quarry (as a group I participated in was) and there will be a loud explosion or two, let people know what’s going to happen so they won’t panic or become preoccupied wondering if they should.

4. Arranged for success. Yes, how you arrange the chairs makes a difference. The circle is most common. If you’re using a video, then a u-shaped arrangement allowing easy  viewing is okay. However you arrange the seating, make sure everyone can see and hear each other easily. Better Bible engagement comes through better sharing.

5. Just say no to technology. Technology is amazing, but can also be annoying. While using PowerPoint is helpful in the college classroom or sanctuary, it’s seldom useful for a small group. Dimming lights induces dozing when it’s cozy! If you choose to use a video or any technology, make sure you know how to use it. Set everything up before people arrive. Test, test, test. And if there are any glitches, be prepared to set the technology aside and go analog, just like Jesus did.

6. The reason I’ve called you together. Small groups are great for building Bible engagement and relationships. Except when the group’s purpose becomes diffused and ambiguous. Have a purpose, mission, and a goal and make sure everything the group does drives toward them. Ambiguity and loss of focus -- which happens over time with inattention -- will kill the best of groups.


Griffin states, “The good group has cohesiveness.” People know what to expect and where they fit. This doesn’t happen by accident. It takes intentionality and effort. The payoff is the good relationships and better Bible engagement that ensues.

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Coming next in part 2: Leading the good group.

Coming next in part 3: Outreach of the good group.



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Are you in a good small group or any group? What makes it a good group or a not so good group? Do you have other good ideas for creating good small groups? Please share them in the comments!

Monday, January 2, 2017

Day old (#PoetryMonday*)

So quickly it’s stale,
not New! New! New! New!

The day old year droops,
drops, sighs, aging fast,
devalued off the lot,
dinged and dented
before it’s even broken in,
becoming last year’s model as
already our eyes and hearts
and longings are set
on the newer new
coming soon to a life near us
in 364 days.

Our short attention span
winded, breathless
we look to the future,
the always shiny, ever fresh,
always receding,
false-promising future.

For now, we’re stuck here
with this day old “new” year
and its grand resolves gone sour
in a mere 24 hours.





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* Its PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here. This one probably is a little raw and may need some more work. But isn't it true that we tire of the new quickly? Have your ever really wanted something that, as soon as it was bought, you weren't as enamored with? We look forward to a New Year and a "fresh" start, then wake up and are met with the same old same old. Any thoughts? Please share them in the comments!

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Outrage vs. the Living Daylight

This is the devotional message
I gave on 1/1/17 at my church,
Huntingdon Valley Presbyterian Church.
It’s been edited slightly for this pos
t.

Some of you know me. Some don’t. I probably should tell you something about myself.

My name is Stephen Clark and I go by Stephen. I write stuff now and then.

I grew up in New Castle, Indiana, the home of the world’s largest high school fieldhouse.

In July of 2015 I moved from Cleveland, Ohio to Oreland, Pennsylvania with my wife BethAnn. Oreland is her hometown. We live with her dad, Walt.

Coincidentally, my dad’s name was Walter, too. But, oddly, everyone called him Buddy.

My mom’s name was Grace and she loved hymns. She had a sweet, tremulous voice that I can sometimes hear when certain hymns are sung.

When I was a kid, it used to crack me up every time we sang, ‘Tis So Sweet To Trust In Jesus because of the verse that declares, “Oh for grace to trust him more.”

Even my dad giggled at that one.

And, of course, there was “Amazing Grace.”

I’ll have a whatever-you-call-it

I lived in New Jersey for about 10 years where I learned how to say FUGGEDABOUTIT. Here, I’m being influenced to say WOOTER but am hoping it doesn’t stick.

I’ve moved around the Midwest a bit. I’ve lived in Illinois, near Chicago -- DA BEARS! In Missouri -- or rather, MISSOUR-AH. As well as Ohio.

If you’re counting, that’s six states, all connected.

This has caused me great confusion as I’m now never sure whether to ask for a soda, a pop, a cola, a soft drink, or something else. Seems no matter what I call it someone looks at me confused or corrects me.

When I was a kid back home in Indiana, we’d go into a restaurant and ask our waitress or waiter for a coke. They would bring you a Pepsi or an RC or perhaps even an actual Coca-Cola.

Whatever came, it was dark, cold, and fizzy and you were okay with it. Even if it was root beer.

Today, that’s not the case. No matter what you ask for, you risk annoying or offending your wait-person.
“I’m sorry, you want a WHAT? How dare you! We don’t serve that kind of garbage here!”
Or, the wait-person runs the risk of offending you by bringing something you didn’t expect.
“What’s this dark stuff? I specifically asked for diet bottled spring water with a twist of gluten free lime!”
Whoever is offended, there are raised voices, ugly name calling, possibly even the threat of gun play and lives being put at risk.

Seriously. It happens!

A time for everything

Ours is an outraged society.

We will not be pushed around, slighted, or stand for even the tiniest potential offense. We don’t give ground on the road or anywhere else. Hair-trigger sensitivity and stabbing snark abounds.

This doesn’t feel like a very Christian way of life to me -- being outraged at nearly everything all the time. Yet Christians are just as outraged as everyone else.

Sure, there are times when outrage may be called for.

Poet Dylan Thomas protested against death encouraging that we “Do not go gentle into that good night” but instead “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

I won’t argue with that.

Even Ecclesiastes 3 tells us, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.”

That would include a time for outrage.

But this well-known passage also teaches that there needs to be balance. It’s not all outrage all the time for every reason.

I resolve to....

It’s a New Year and a time for new resolve.

This brings me to my text. John 15:12 and 13. This is Jesus speaking:
 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
What does it mean to lay down one’s life?

Well, it’s something that I have a very, very, very hard time doing.

And BethAnn is mumbling to herself, “Amen! Preach it brother!”

Laying down one’s life can take many forms. The most extreme form may be someone who throws themselves in front of a bullet meant for another. That’s pretty dramatic.

In other cases it can be as simple as shutting up.

Not expressing an opposing opinion.

Choosing to not make an issue over something that could be viewed as a slight.

Not reacting to someone’s insulting comment or cringing at a homeless person’s body odor.

Keeping the snark to yourself.

Or, simply eating Aunt Sally’s Jell-o Salad Delight, with a smile.

These are just a few specific applications.

General biblical principles that support these can be uncovered by considering what Jesus did or said. The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is a good source.

You know, the part where Jesus says soul-prodding, ego-deflating things like:
  • “Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
  • And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.
  • And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
  • Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
  • But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.”
Paul even weighs in telling us in Romans that, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with everybody.”

This all points to laying down our lives for others.

First you die, then you love

But the John text also mentions love.

Anyone who hangs around me for any length of time will likely hear me reference Francis Schaeffer on this point. In his excellent book, The Mark of the Christian, Schaeffer cites John 13:34-35. He explains that Jesus gave the world the right to decide the genuineness of our faith by the love we show toward one another.

Schaeffer says,
“What then shall we conclude but that as the Samaritan loved the wounded man, we as Christians are called upon to love all men as neighbors, loving them as ourselves.”

“[Also], that we are to love all true Christian brothers in a way that the world may observe. This means showing love to our brothers in the midst of our differences – great or small – loving our brothers when it costs us something, loving them even under times of tremendous emotional tension, loving in a way the world can see…. ”

“Love and the unity it attests to is the mark Christ gave Christians to wear before the world. Only with this mark may the world know that Christians are indeed Christians and that Jesus was sent by the Father.”
So the mark that the world has a right to observe in us who call ourselves Christians, that validates us as true Christians, is “love”.

Especially love expressed to those who are not Christians.

And very emphatically it is love we show to each other within this entity called the Body of Christ.

Not outrage. Love.

Not anger. Love.

Not assertion of rights. Love.

Not political points. Love.

Not religious rules. Love.

Not jealousy. Not criticism. Not exclusion. Not intolerance. Love.

Of course, not the love as promoted by Hamilton's Lin-Manuel Miranda who blithely declared, as he accepted his Tony award, “Love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love....” Let’s see [counting] 1..2..3..4..5..6..7..8...got ‘em all in.

But what Schaeffer means and what I’m getting at is love as evidenced in the life of Christ and wrapped in the context of Scripture.

A much kinder, deeper, truer love than the world could ever hope for.

A love that can happen only when we lay down our lives and consider others before ourselves.

A love that’s costly, difficult, thoughtful.

A love that’s beautiful, attractive.

A love that looks radically different than anything the world labels as love.

Getting mad at the right stuff

But what about our outrage?

It’s there.

Perhaps we should channel it toward better, more worthy targets. Like injustice, bigotry, poverty, abuse, trafficking, hunger, homelessness, and the like.

Or, getting more personal, how about raging against sin? My sin. Your sin. Our sin. The sins we are so quick to overlook and cuddle up with.

You know -- lust, envy, greed, lying, gossiping, bigotry, and -- dare I say it -- not being loving.

To name only a few.

Loving away the hurt

My point is that love is a big deal. The only good love -- and the only love that covers a multitude of sins -- comes from the God who is Love. Who empowers us by His Holy Spirit to be as loving as He is. Who exampled His radical love through the giving of His Son, Jesus.

We all want to be loved. It hurts when we’re not. Perhaps that’s the source of some of our outrage.

You and I could use less outrage and more love.

The world definitely needs far less outrage and a lot more love.

Look again at the text: 
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus isn’t making a request. He issued us a directive. A commandment. This is not optional.

So, at the start of this brave New Year, let’s resolve together to be more loving. To let go of outrage. To lay down our own lives. To live up to the mark of Christ on our hearts, and -- instead of being outraged at others -- to love the Living Daylight into people.

The Living Daylight.

Oh Lord, help us to so resolve today and every day this year.


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What have you been angry and outraged over recently? Do you think it is a good think to be outraged? Sometimes? All the time? Never? What are some practical ways you can think of to live out the idea of laying down your life? Are these things you have done or experienced? If so, how did it feel? What happened? Please share your thoughts in the comments!

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The scars we bear: Sin, consequences & grace

In Carson McCullers’ classic novel, The Member of the Wedding (Mariner Books; Reprint edition), the main character, Frankie (aka F. Jasmine) who is primed for a change in her life, wonders out loud why she can’t just change her name and be new. Her caretaker, Berenice, responds:
“Because things accumulate around your name,” said Berenice. “You have a name and one thing after another happens to you, and you behave in various ways and do things, so that soon the name begins to have a meaning. Things have accumulated around the name. If it is bad and you have a bad reputation, then you just can’t jump out of your name and escape like that. And if it is good and you have a good reputation, then you should be content and satisfied.”

All have sinned

Everyone has a history marred by sinful actions. Some were things done to us. Many, if not most, were things we did to ourselves. They were results of choices that were often poorly thought out.

There are a million ways to sin. And for each sin there are millions of potential consequences.

These real consequences are the scars we bear that, this side of heaven and unlike guilt, no amount of redemption will completely erase.

The little Pentecostal church I grew up in often had visiting evangelists pass through to conduct “revivals.” A favorite story cropped up in many of their sermons. It was meant as a cautionary tale warning us of the indelible consequences of sin. It went something like this.
There was a little boy who loved to hammer nails into wood. His father’s hobby was woodworking so there were always scraps of lumber. These the little boy was free to hammer in all the nails he wanted.

One day, the little boy was in a hammering mood. He had lots of nails but there were no scraps in his father’s workshop. So, he began driving nails into a large lovely piece of wood. He thought only a few wouldn’t be a big deal.

Caught up in his hammering, he lost track of time until he heard the voice of his father cry out, “Son! What are you doing?”

Startled, the little boy stopped hammering. “Dad! I’m sorry! There were no scraps and I only meant to hammer in a few nails! I can pull these out!” exclaimed the son.

“Okay,” said the father, visibly upset. “You pull the nails out and then come in for supper.”

Supper was very quiet that night. The little boy was afraid to say a word. After supper, his father said, “Come on, son. Let’s go out to the workshop.”

There, they stood looking at the wood. The little boy burst into tears. “I’m sorry father! I didn’t mean to! I pulled all of the nails out! Can you forgive me?”

The father looked lovingly at his son, picked him up in his arms, and spoke softly, “Yes, son, I forgive you. But there’s something you need to understand. Look at the wood.”

They both stared at the wood now filled with holes.

“Son,” said the father. “That was a very expensive piece of wood. I bought it to make your mother a special chest for her birthday. Now, the wood is ruined. Even if I fill them with putty, the holes will still be visible. Just like scars.”

A new name

When we come to Christ, confess our sins, and repent, we are promised a new name in heaven and to be washed white as snow. Both of these are true. As Christians, our names are indelibly written in the Book of Life and God sees us, thanks to the imputed righteousness of Jesus, as clean. Holy without holes!

But here and now, on this earth in this life, it’s not quite the same, as McCullers’ character Frankie was learning. When we’re a stinker, the smell often lingers. Especially when our stinkering involves others who have that annoying habit of remembering. With some, it seems like every time they see us they point, hold their noses, and cry out, “Foul! Foul!”

I know this is true because there are people who have hurt me that only have to come to mind for some reason and my heart cringes. I remember the pain, the betrayal, the lie, or whatever the foul behavior was that caused a rift. Fully forgiving is hard.

I think this is why Jesus counsels us to forgive “seventy times seven.” It’s not that the person isn’t forgiven the first time, but rather that our own hurt needs to be healed and rehealed. Our forgiving them again and again brings healing to our own hurt hearts.

Probably it should also spark in our understanding the truth that others who have been hurt by us go though the same process.

None of us are untouched by the sin of someone else. We have all been both burners and burned, both hammer and nail.

Covering the holes

Sadly, I feel more holey than holy most of the time. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

The scars -- or holes -- we bear are to serve as reminders, not accusations. It’s not about piling on guilt, on ourselves or anyone else. We must not be about ruining reputations, or getting even, or cowering in shame.

Instead of pointing at each other’s holes, we need to help fill and cover them. Instead of judgment, the borne scars need to draw out from us love, grace, and acceptance.

Toward those who have hurt us, recognizing our own capacity for wounding, we must go easy. Forgive, and when we are unable to forget, extend even more grace. And as we do unto others, we must do to ourselves.

This is not easy. It’s hard. But it’s the love that’s required.

This is not love made of emotion that we grunt and strain out of ourselves. This is true love fired by the Holy Spirit that is reflective of our True Love, Jesus. It’s love that loves even when it doesn’t feel like loving. It’s an expansive and wide love that speaks to the broadness and bigness of our God.

Recovering reputations

None who are repentant should feel the need to change their names to get away from who they’ve been or are. Instead, we must help each other move toward what we each are to become, what we are designed to be. To help the old in all of us become new.

In Frederick Buechner’s novel, Godric (Harper & Row) the main character asks, “What’s friendship, when all’s done, but the giving and taking of wounds?” This brings to mind a well-known verse about how we are often iron sharpening iron (Proverbs 27:17).

Even when our intentions are good, we hurt one another, especially those closest to us. This is the nature of sin in us. It will come out one way or another. We are all well-barbed and susceptible to one another’s barbs.

But the Godric quote can also be taken differently. We can bear the burdens of others by taking on their wounds. By standing with them in their pain and embarrassment of failure or folly, rejection or ridicule -- whatever the misfortune was or is -- and shore them up. Just as we hope others will do with and for us.

Love, not judgment

The scars we bear do not have to be badges of dishonor. If we are children of the Most High God, they should not be. They must not be. Especially when confession, repentance, and renewal are involved.

Likewise, we must not be giving out scarlet letters to all those we know who have sinned and come short of the glory of God just like us. Discernment may be ours, but judgment is not.

When the Holy Spirit opens our eyes to discern the pain in the hearts of another, our only response as Christians is to love, to forgive, to embrace, to stand alongside.

There will be holes. There will be scars. But godly love covers a multitude.



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See Proverbs 10:12, Proverbs 17:9, and 1 Peter 4:8. Do you feel mostly holy or mostly holey? Why? Are there things you’ve done that you regret? How have you dealt with these? Are there times when instead of accusation, others stood with you? When you stood with others? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.





Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Delay of game?


The end of the year almost always has at least a few frantic believers looking wonderingly, fearfully, or hopefully at the sky.

Why?

Because they have been told that Jesus will return soon.

Significant dates such as a New Year or astronomical events like a full moon tend to bring out the apocalyptic prophet in people. Anticipation is primed.

But in between?

Life as we know it, moving apace, frantic and flailing, eating and drinking, buying and selling. Especially as Christmas approaches and gifts need getting!

Some pray, “There’s a really good sale, Lord, so hopefully you can hold off a couple of weeks.”

Or of it’s not Christmas it’s some other big life event we want to experience before Jesus returns. A wedding, a birth, a special trip.

You know you’ve thought it. “Jesus, come back, but not just yet.”

It’s a faith of pendulum swings and extremes.

Of this frame of mind, Hebrews chides us a little saying, “...so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28, ESV).

Ouch?

What could possibly be better than life eternal in the presence of our Creator? Think about it. Then, every day, look up with eager expectation and hope that this is the big one.


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Are there times you hoped Jesus would not return? What was happening that you felt was more important? Do you anticipate Jesus’ return daily? Why or why not? Share you thoughts in the comments!

NOTE: For the past several and for the next few weeks, Tuesday’s post will be a brief two-minute devotional. Think, “Tuesday Two-Minute Devotional” or “Two-Minute Tuesdays or something  along those lines. ;-)

Monday, December 26, 2016

The day after Christmas (#PoetryMonday*)

It’s the day after Christmas.
The beginning of the
end of holidays.

Anti-climax marks our moods
as we clear away the day before’s
discarded wrappings
and emptied boxes.

We must clean up and
move on, back to jobs
and the same old
same old.

In Bethlehem, centuries
before, the day after was
exceedingly different.

Inn-less, awaking after
an odd and momentous day
dripping with awe, all was
quiet, comparatively.
Neediness reigned.

A newborn needed nursing.
Things needed gathering.
A home needed finding.
Thoughts needed sorting.

Joseph and Mary, still tired,
sat by a small smoky fire, had
breakfast, then headed out
into a new era of wonder
and hardship.

Joy, though born,
would take time
to be fully realized.

Still, it’s the day after Christmas!
Behold! The same old same old
is becoming new!





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* Its PoMo! To learn about PoMo (POetry MOnday), click here. This one probably is a little raw and may need some more work. Still, I have been mulling a lot on the real Christmas experience then and how it compares now. Any thoughts? Please share them in the comments!