Wednesday, August 10, 2016

A Place to Call Home

My family summer vacation this year was superb.  It had all the bells and whistles a person could ask for.  My wife did a great job planning the excursion, and even went so far as to outline each day's events on an excel spreadsheet.  We had decided to travel by car across country to Virginia and Washington D.C.  The scenery was breathtaking as we traveled through the Appalachian mountain range.  God knew what He was doing with the American landscape in this part of the country.  I suddenly felt very grateful to be alive.  In fact, I remember one day where we followed a looming thunderstorm in it's early stages of development, all the way to our first hotel.  The reflection of the setting sun against the tall, billowing cloud was like something out of a National Geographic magazine. 

Our stay in Virginia was also picturesque.  Only an hour away from the ocean and boardwalk by car.  Not to mention some plush accommodations in the resort itself.  From there, we turned the car toward our nation's capitol.  The whole family was excited.  There were monuments to visit and photos to take.  Once we arrived at the hotel in downtown D.C., it was time to unload and get checked in.  Up until that point things had gone very well.  Probably a little too well.  It was time for a good vacation story;
time for one of those Chevy Chase moments. 

You see, when you travel to a large metropolitan city from rural Iowa, you forget that buildings are often constructed in a way that focuses on conserving space.  We had now exchanged the solace of wide open mountain ranges for the concrete jungle.  And from this point forward, I would become intimately acquainted with the hotel's underground parking garage.

From the moment the gate went up and I pulled the car in, stress and claustrophobia took hold.  There was barely enough room to maneuver my mid-sized SUV around the corners, much less fit into one of the parking spots.  It felt difficult to breathe.  The painted lines were practically stacked on top of each other; or so it seemed.  Most of the signs read 'compact vehicles only'.  Oh to be driving a Volkswagen Beetle just then!

Things became worse as I met another vehicle attempting to exit the garage.  The driver had the same panicked look on her face as I did.  "Lucky people" I thought to myself.  They were allowed to leave this underground shop of horrors.  I estimated maybe two or three inches between our cars as we glided past each other - too afraid to make eye contact.  And then soon after, the sound of people arguing followed by a loud crunching noise that rang out from the other bay.  No doubt one of the other vehicles over there didn't quite make it around the bend as safely as I did.  Did I mention it was hard to breathe down there?  

The pinnacle of anxiety came when I finally gave up and tried to exit the garage, only to find that there was no way out.   You heard me correctly ... it was a dead end at the very back of the ramp.  In order to leave, you had to turn your vehicle around completely or go in reverse out of the gate.  I tried twice to do this but my car was too big.  I had to admit defeat and eventually pulled over into a corner next to a stack of wooden pallets.  I cannot remember the last time I had felt so out of place.  There were literally (and figuratively) no available spots left for my white SUV.  No safe recourse available.

I think many of us have a story like this from our past.  One that we can whip out at a party or some similar gathering of friends and family.  One of those "you should have been there" type of stories that becomes more and more embellished upon each re-telling.  But the feeling stuck with me, even after my family and I returned home to Iowa.  That feeling that something isn't right, I don't belong here.  No safe place.

Famous author and philosopher C.S. Lewis wrote often about the notion that the physical world points to the more celestial (yet still very much existential) plane of existence.   If we are hungry, there is food to eat.  If we are tired there is sleep to renew us.  So in this particular case, Lewis may well have argued that if people don't feel like the world they inhabit is quite right ... then it may just be because we aren't home yet.  Not our real home at least.  Our hearts give an inner testimony to the fact that there is something greater beyond our current existence.  A place where the thin painted yellow lines of a parking garage don't overlap the spot next to it.  A place where we will finally feel like we belong.  An ultimate safe place to come home to.

I remember vividly a job interview I once had years ago with a large factory.  I was applying for the job of on site technical trainer, and the human resources person was very excited to have me that day.  From the moment I entered the building, however, I knew it was a bad fit.  They were interested in hiring someone who would drive a forklift and wear a hardhat.  Instead, I write articles and work with computers.  I remember being taken on a tour of the plant that ended very abruptly once they realized I wasn't wearing steel toed boots.  I wasn't allowed beyond a certain area without them.  I was out of place, and we all knew it.  There was something not quite right ... that feeling of being displaced began to surface once again.  

Job interviews and parking garages are one thing, but what happens when these feelings give rise to something a little more serious?  What happens when people allow that feeling of being lost to turn into feelings of hopelessness and despair?  It is easy to do I suspect.  On facebook for example, everyone looks so happy all the time.  They show photos of vacations and grand kids and new cars and big houses.  Only occasionally does real life sneak in, and someone posts something about a tragic event or an addiction they are struggling with.  I believe it is often the same way with churches.  People who are hurting and feeling lost may show up seeking after something, only to look around and see the Sunday morning facade of well dressed, upper middle class people singing and smiling.  "No one here is struggling the way I am" they might think.  After the third or fourth song about God's glory and spiritual renewal, this same person may feel like turning around and running for the door.  They don't fit in here, something isn't quite right.  They thought church would be more ... real.   They had hoped people would show their brokenness a little more openly.  They had hoped to fit in.



So what does God say about preparing a place for you and I in this world of displaced hope and fear?  John 14:1-4 relates some of the most comforting Scriptures out there.  It says, "Do  not let your hearts be troubled.  Trust in God; trust also in me.  In my Father's house there are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you.  I am going there to prepare a place for you.  And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.  You know the way to the place where I am going."    

These are beautiful words, and the world needs to hear them.  Not only does Jesus tell us that he has a place for us, but he has also provided a road map on how to get there.  It is the gift of salvation offered freely to anyone who wants it.  An important stop marked on this road map occurs in the book of Romans, chapter 10 and verse 9: "That if you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."  

We live in a world where we can feel things aren't quite right.  We often feel out of place, alone, or displaced.  The Bible identifies this truth and then God provides an answer to it.  Something you and I can cling to in times of difficulty.  His offer stands to anyone who seeks after Him with all their heart, mind, and soul.  A mansion with many rooms awaits those believers who take seriously God's road map, and who listen to the command in the book of Romans.  No one stays lost in the parking garage unless they want to be.  It's better to follow the map.

After my failed attempt to park my vehicle underneath the hotel that day in Washington, I had decided to walk back up the ramp to the lobby and ask for assistance from the front desk.  I am perfectly aware that men don't ask for directions or for help when driving, but this situation called for me to swallow my pride and become humble.  The gentleman behind the counter was nice enough to leave his post for a moment and accompany me down into the coffin-like expanse of the garage.  It took us about twenty minutes, but we finally got the car parked.  I managed to squeeze into a spot next to one of the support beams that looked just big enough for a skateboard.  We even had to fold my rear view mirrors inward against the car doors in order to fit!

It appeared that asking for help and having a little faith was exactly what the doctor ordered.  I believe that the same prescription applies to the world we live in as well.  We need never feel alone or hopeless.  There are people in churches all around us willing to listen and help.  There is a God who loves us and who has prepared a place for us in Heaven.  A place to call home, where we will finally feel a sense of eternal belonging.  A place where we can finally find our way out of the parking garage.  A mansion with many rooms.  

Sermon Sunday: 'Building Your Theological Roof'

Last Sunday I had the privilege of presenting the sermon at my local church.  I addressed the importance of building a strong "theological roof" through the study and exegesis of Scripture.  If you have 20 minutes or so, please take the time to watch and listen below.  It is more important than ever that the church adheres to the teachings of Christ.  Hope you enjoy it:





.

 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Building a Roof that Lasts

I had no idea how much work it would take to replace the old, crumbling roof on our one hundred year-old house.  Soon after we moved in, my wife and I began to notice small areas of soft wood, where the water could sneak through and cause damage to the  ceiling and surrounding dry wall.  This was disturbing, but not uncommon in old houses I'm afraid.  Water finds a way.  If there is an entry point or weak spot anywhere in your house, chances are good that mother nature has begun working on that area in some way.  This is the natural way of things of course - if you don't fix it in the beginning, you will certainly have to fix it later.  The only the problem with waiting is that it can be larger, cost more to fix, and probably take longer.  All things considered, we knew it was time for a new roof.  


After a month of sawing, cutting, sheeting, and hard labor, the team of roofers that we hired were finally done.  Cleanup was minimal due to the conscientious manner in which the workers toiled.  My thanks go out again to the Amish for the quality job they did.  Our home no longer leaks during Spring storms.  This raises a certain analogy in my mind as it relates to Scripture and the human search for truth.  I don't believe it is too much of a stretch to consider a pedagogy in which a new roof can be viewed in a similar way to theology.  Certainly the directional metaphor applies:  we look up to God in heaven, and we also look up to the roof on a house.  It is the top most section of a home.  In fact, if we cannot stop our roof from leaking and letting in rain and snow, eventually everything else in that building will be at risk.  Images of the Clarke Griswold character from the movie National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation come to mind.   Who knew people could actually fall through their ceiling while installing Christmas lights?  I'm sure it happens.

But what if you and I don't take the time to cover ourselves in solid theology?  What if the outside, brackish water has found its way into a weak roof?  I am sorry to say, it is  possible to become accustomed to placing buckets under the ceiling at various parts of the home to catch leaks.  We can even become comfortable doing that.  When it rains outside, you can always run to the kitchen and select your favorite piece of Rubbermaid, right?

The Apostle Simon Peter from the Bible was really good at providing a reality check for the early Christian church.  There were no leaky theologies on his watch.  He gave this warning to the early Christ followers in 2 Peter 1:16, "For we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty." There isn't much wiggle room here.  You see, the early church often had problems with letting in occult-like beliefs and bad ideology just like we do today.  We are surrounded by divisive teaching in the twenty-first century.  People don't know what to believe anymore, and I can't say that I blame them.  The notion of God has become more of a buffet-style, 'take what you want and leave the rest' framework.  If it works for me, then I accept it.  If not, then I reject it.  Who knows if it is really true or not.

Peter saw this back then, and I'm certain modern pastors see this today.  It may be time for us to replace our theological roof.  The only problem is there are too many contractors to choose from.  It is a confusing landscape out there.  It begs the question: how do we gird up our theology to be both accurate and strong?  How do we stop the leaking roof in a way that will last for generations to come and provide for our children?  How do we know what is true?

Fortunately Peter answers this question in the same breath.  In 2 Peter 1:19 he says, "We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts."   In other words, he was reminding the church to hold fast to their original teaching as given to them by Jesus.  Do not fall prey to the latest, most interesting (yet aberrant) teaching that may be floating around at the time.  

So how does the modern believer begin the task of replacing his or her roof?  We must  search out the completely reliable message Peter was talking about.  We must pray, seek after God, read the Bible, and attend church.  These things can work together to keep us focused and attentive to the things that God is telling us.  Omit just one of these four things, and the tendency exists to backslide into picking and choosing what we feel like believing in.  In effect, creating our own version of what is right and what is wrong.  A makeshift theology often based more on emotion than truth.  Fortunately, the real God has given us the tools to repair our roof effectively, and He helps guide us as we begin the process.  But we must allow Him to do so - it is a two-way street.

By the way, cleaning up ruined dry wall and picking up drip buckets isn't always easy.  It involves rooting out the damage already done by the brackish water.  Likewise, strengthening our theology can be just as difficult.  It's always easier to rest on what we have already learned (good or bad), and simply accept the status quo.  God however, requires us to dig a bit deeper.  He desires for us to challenge ourselves against what Jesus says in the Bible.   To come to grips with the fact that Jesus really is the way, and that God really can transform lives.   


As I mentioned earlier, my Amish friends did a great job on our roof.  It will last for years and years to come.  I believe it will allow us to weather all manner of rain and wind.  The process itself was difficult - I watched them work every day and I saw firsthand what it took.  It was often windy and cold, and at times the weather itself even seemed to purposely thwart our efforts.  Still they pressed on.  A good roof is worth the trouble I suppose.  So is good theology.




.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Anger Management and Easter Sunday?

As I write this article, the Easter holiday is fast approaching.  In fact, it will be here in a matter of days.  I wonder what God wants us to think about as this most important  Christian celebration approaches.  It is an interesting time to be alive I think.  A presidential election looms in the near future, and the national debates have been quite interesting to watch.  Some of them are very heated, and from time to time - the candidates are simply rude.  Name calling is often the order of the day.  It made me think about how our society handles anger and frustration in general, what has become acceptable on a public level, and what God might have to say about these matters as the countdown to Good Friday begins.  It really comes down to how we treat each other.
  
For many years someone in my family was a guidance counselor for an elementary school (two of them actually). She ran an anger management group. Guess what the average age of the attendees was? Between 5-6 years old.  Kindergarten! Does the world need to hear what the Bible might say about anger management? I would say so.  It is clear that this problem can start early.  Equally clear is what can happen to these kids if they grow up under this type of duress without ever having adequately addressed the problem of anger.

When I first began thinking about this, I searched the Bible for Scripture references about anger, and I noticed an over-abundance. As I list out some of the verses below, try to read them with an eye toward the action statements contained within the Scriptures themselves. There is something that God requires us to do when it comes to the subject of anger I think.  There is an action step we must take.


For example, Psalm 37:8 says, "Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret-it leads only to evil."  Proverbs 20:22 says, "Do not say, 'I'll pay you back for this wrong!' Wait for the LORD, and he will deliver you."  Romans 12:21 likewise tells us, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."
And the following two pieces of Scripture seem to stress personal action as well.  Collossians 3:8 says, "But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips."  And 1 Peter 3:9 tells us, "Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult, but with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing."


Did you notice something? All of these Scripture passages (and many more that I haven't listed) require us to make a choice. Words and phrases like, "refrain, do not, you must..." tell us that God wants us to manage how we handle anger. I think God is telling us that although you can have a gut reaction when you are offended or slighted, the amount of time we allow this frustration to boil is up to us. How we deal with anger is an act of the will, not simply some automatic response or animal instinct that we cannot control. We are active participants in how well we propagate peace.  But don't try telling that to our current roster of presidential candidates during a debate!

There is no shortage of evidence linking physical violence to anger and frustration.  They often walk hand in hand.  But I think difficulty can especially set in when we excuse violence as simply the uncontrollable result of something that someone said or did to me in the heat of the moment.  "I had to punch him in the mouth, did you hear what he said to me?"  Yes I did hear what he said.  And no, you didn't have to punch him in the mouth.

I teach martial arts to a group of wonderful and devoted students twice a week.  We practice kicking, punching, and board breaking ... and it has nothing whatsoever to do with violence.  Instead there is courtesy resulting from discipline, and self-restraint by way of mutual respect for one's opponent.  Anger must not factor in - only personal growth and spiritual development.  This is not philosophical nonsense.  Traditional martial arts have understood these truths for years. It is a lesson we can take into all other areas of our life as well. 

Obviously this is easier said than done at times, and I cannot say with any amount of truth that I never get mad.  But hopefully, if we are good students of Scripture and followers of Jesus, we can learn to deal with anger differently than the rest of the world.  Or at least react differently to each other when it happens.  Because believe me, the rest of the world is watching.


I personally hope those kindergarten kids come to grips with this truth as well, as it is the same truth that you and I struggle with.  It will take spiritual maturity to grapple with this idea; that anger is controllable. Perhaps many of us didn't have parents that modeled this for us when we were younger, or maybe we simply lead frustrating lives without any choice in the matter and no perceivable way out. But when I think of situations like this or when I lose my own temper, I must remember to ask, "where would I be without the Bible's teaching on peace?" And just as important: where are you with regard to anger in your own life?  How would you do if you were up on stage at one of the presidential debates, with someone bringing up your every mistake publicly?  How would you react?

I will resolve to view the things that make me angry in light of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Easter is a celebration of the essence of Christain living.  The joy of the resurrection coupled with the hope of all things made new in God's image.  In this realization there also exists, I think, an attitude of forgiveness as opposed to anger.  I appreciate it when I see this attitude in others, and I'm ashamed when I don't see it in myself.  I may as well get used to the idea that peace is better.  After all, there is no going back to Kindergarten once we are adults.  We shouldn't have to.



Thursday, March 3, 2016

.

Many people are dying a slow death because their hope lies in the traditions of the church only, and not in JESUS! Have a relationship with Him, not a building. Make sure wherever you assemble, that the foundation is Jesus!    - Keyondra Lockett










.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Your Backpack, and Mine

We are on the precipice of a new year as I sit down and write this article.  2016 is upon us, and with it the promise of new and exciting things.  It is a time to reflect on our recent Christmas holiday.  A time to think about what it means to have our shopping done, to be another year older, and to eagerly anticipate what God has in store for us next.  Our adult Sunday school class kicked off the week after Christmas and before the new year with a study about forgiveness.  I suppose in the same way that Jesus will make all things new when He triumphantly returns in the future, so our class discussed what it could mean to delve into the new year with an attitude and posture of forgiveness.  Making things new in the sense that past wrongs could be dealt with.  What it would mean to dare to partner with God's divine nature as we attempt to follow what Jesus tells us about forgiveness in the New Testament.  That it is an act of the Godly, and that we must keep it close to our hearts as one of the most formidable weapons in our Christian arsenal. 
 
I recently found this quote from C.S. Lewis (famous Christian author and philosopher) regarding the concept of Biblical forgiveness.  He emphasizes why it is so important to cultivate this attitude.  He said:


"Remember, we Christians think man lives forever. Therefore, what really matters is those little marks or twists on the central, inside part of the soul which are going to turn it, in the long run, into a heavenly or hellish creature. We may kill if necessary but we must not hate and enjoy hating. We may punish if necessary, but we must not enjoy it. In other words something inside us, the feeling of resentment, the feeling that wants to get one’s own back, must simply be killed."


It is humbling to think that what we do in this life can reflect in such detail, that higher form of existence in heaven to which we are all called. Holding grudges and keeping unforgiveness in our heart is fashionable and widespread today, and even sometimes gratifying. But why are we gratified?  Why do we sometimes enjoy hating something or someone else?  What part of ourselves are we feeding - the heavenly part or the hellish part?
 
Fortunately we have the beginning of a new year available to us which acts as a reminder that some sort of resolution is at hand.  But we have so much more to offer the world than trying to lose 10 pounds or quit smoking by end of January.  There is something much more important at stake.  If you are reading these words right now and there is still breath left in your body - then it is still possible to take God up on his offer.  We can still engage in the act of forgiving someone who hurt us, or even to allow ourselves to be forgiven as well.
 
There is an analogy that I love to employ when discussing this topic.  It involves my 

youngest son.  Well to be honest, it involves his backpack.  It is worth it to note that he has kept this backpack with him for the last two years, and I suspect that he will have it with him well into the new year also.  In his mind, it is part of him.  He wants nothing to do with any new or shiny backpack ... only his old reliable gray and blue one will suffice.
 
In the course of any given day as he goes to school or attends daycare, there are 100 different ways in which the world may cause him grief.  Every once in a while he will return home in tears.  Someone hurt his feelings that day, or maybe refused to play with him on the playground during recess.  Tough medicine to take at age 7.  A pastor and good friend of mine gave a sermon years ago where he equated any hurtful act done by someone else to that of a builder's brick.  The same type of simple brick used to construct a house or building.  Each time we go through life refusing to forgive people for the things they have said or done to us, we toss another brick into our own backpack.  As you could imagine, the bricks add up quickly.  For me it conjures up a picture of someone trying to walk down the street, barely able to stand upright under the weight on his shoulders.  Backpack fully loaded and bursting at the seams.  A truly miserable existence.  
 
I believe that we all have our own backpack you see.  It may not be gray and blue or designed especially for a 7-year-old, but we have one nonetheless.  In fact, we may be fairly proud of our backpack.  Maybe it is brand name and very expensive.  Something we love to show off to the right audience and at the right time.  But how heavy is it?  What are you and I holding onto as we go through life?  Are the bricks piling up?  Why do we feel so comfortable under all that weight?
 
There is an excellent lesson laid out for us in Matthew chapter 1, verses 18-23.  It is a unique take on the birth of the Son of God.  If we read it closely, we see a microcosm of our conundrum in the author's prose.  Matthew writes:
 
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.  But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:  “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).  When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife.  

It would be easy to miss all the implications and social ramifications going on here at  first glance.  God was in fact asking Joseph to endure any possible criticism from his  friends and peers by taking in a woman - who by all appearances - was pregnant with someone else's child.  This was a severely punishable sin in 1st century Palestine.  Despite these strained circumstances, Joseph decided to accept Jesus as his son anyway.  Though also an act of obedience to God (and this Scripture is rightfully taught that way also), at some point I think Joseph had to come to some kind of inward acceptance of the situation prior to taking Mary as his own wife.  I do not believe it is too much of a stretch to say that before the angelic visit - Joseph had forgiven Mary for her circumstances and decided that a quiet divorce would be best.  He didn't want to impugn her character publicly.  He cared too much about her to do that.  He had an attitude of humility and forgiveness - not of anger or spitefulness.

Would others have done the same?  Don't many relationships end today for similar reasons?  Many of us are not that generous I have a feeling. 

Children are lucky I think.  They can forgive and forget easier than grown ups.  Grudges have no room to take hold in the very young.  The predilection toward gossip hasn't taken root yet.  No, these things are saved for the older people - those who should know better.  Those who have graduated on to shinier, more expensive backpacks.  Those who have grown comfortable under its weight. 

In the Biblical parable of the unforgiving servant, Peter and Jesus discuss how many times someone should forgive others.  Matthew 18:21 records it this way:

Then Peter came and said to Him, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?" Jesus said to him, "I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.…

The implication here is that you and I have been forgiven by God more times than we can imagine, and that we shouldn't fumble around with keeping a record of past wrongs.  We are to tear up the scorecard and throw it away.  We are to forgive others in the same way that God has forgiven us.  Now this is tough medicine for you and I, even as adults.  But remember, forgiving someone doesn't mean we continue to stay in a bad situation.  Nor does it mean that there will not be consequences for those who add their bricks to our backpack.  I think it does mean, however, that we are not afforded the luxury of stroking our own egos while maintaining that we are "right" while others are usually "wrong."  We must work to lessen our load of bricks.  We must consider what would have happened if God had not forgiven humanity.  

It is nearly 3:45 in the afternoon, and my children will soon be home from school.  It is almost always a happy time.  Even our pets look out the large front window in eager anticipation.  As my youngest child walks through the door, I check his face for any signs of a heavy backpack.  He is all smiles today.  If anyone did try to hurt him, he has not retained the brick.  He shouldn't have to.  The choice whether or not to hold onto the brick was always his in the first place.  



.

Monday, December 21, 2015