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

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas in Probate

Ever get one of those terrifying phone calls?  The kind that puts things into perspective in thirty seconds or less?  I was sitting at my desk on a Monday afternoon and the phone rang.  I picked it up to say hello, and heard the following words, as if uttered into some type of macabre megaphone: "Hello this is the Sheriff's office.  So sorry for your loss."  

My loss?  What loss?  Who is lost?  Details were only forthcoming after I was able to speak again.  Visions of my children or wife in the car on the side of the road wrestling with the Jaws of Life came to mind.  But no, this news was regarding my 74-year-old uncle.  He had been found in his bed a day earlier, and the authorities were now looking for next of kin.  He had died from natural causes. 

It was shortly before Thanksgiving when I received this news.  People all around me were hustling and bustling, talking about Black Friday shopping and succulent turkey.  Soon after it would be on to Christmas plans from there: what to get the kids ... what kind of decorations to put up.  But not for my uncle.  No, uncle Steve's time on this earth was at an end.  Fortunately he lived a long life.  Steve enjoyed simple things.  A good book and a piece of chocolate pie would suffice over and above any other kind of activity, at least in his mind.  He frequented the same convenience store every day.  He had his own stool by the grill.  The staff even labeled it with a sign.  After all, it was Steve's seat.  

He was a handyman by trade, able to fix anything in a single bound.  When he used to come visit us in Des Moines my mother would always put him to work replacing or fixing some type of home appliance, lawn mower, or electrical problem. Rows of handyman books and technical manuals lined the office wall in his own house.  But there was no fixing things after he fell ill.  'It's just a cold, it will get better' people would hear him say.  It didn't get better.  Sometimes it doesn't.

In the weeks immediately following his passing I would drive back and forth to his house to sort through his things.  I couldn't help think of what a curious Christmas gift uncle Steve had left me.  I had begun the probate process, which entailed hiring a lawyer and filing the appropriate paperwork in order to be appointed executor.  It seemed all too familiar, as I had done the same thing with my mother seven years earlier. Everything he cared about was now in the hands of someone else.  One day you wake up not feeling so well, and then all of a sudden it's over.  All of the books he loved are stacked in a line as part of his middle island bookshelf on the other side of the kitchen.  In fact, he had just ordered a new set - they were stacked neatly on the mantle.  They would garner no audience now. 

All of this reminds me of a famous passage from the Gospel of John.  We are studying John this week at church.  I roll it around in my mind as I make the final turn off the highway and up to Steve's empty driveway.  Jesus was comforting his disciples in the face of his impending death under Pontius Pilate.  John 14:2 says, "In my Father's house are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you.  I go to prepare a place for you."  
Steve's gift to me was his home and his land.  He had chosen my sister and I to receive it. Though a humble ranch style home, it had been in his family for years - it was his "mansion."  It held many fond memories for me as well, as my own family would travel there on occasion when we were kids.

Jesus was making a promise to his followers in this passage.  A promise that he would take care of them.  That he would come back for them.  That they shouldn't let their hearts be troubled.  But my heart is troubled, at least for now.  Lining up probate paperwork and cleaning out vacant houses is difficult work.  I now stand in the family room where I used to visit as a small child, back when my mother and father took me to visit Steve's parents (my grandparents).  How much it had changed ... how much it had remained the same.  A flood of memories enter in, as I see an old blanket that I swear was there 25 years ago. 

It is likely that my wife and I will be working through my uncle's estate well through the Christmas holidays, and even after.  There is much to be done.  He is in a better place now I hope. He had given us the only thing he had left to give.  Maybe I need to remember the verse directly before John 14:2.  It says, "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me."  

While sifting through some papers on Steve's desk in one of the bedrooms I come across a torn envelope.  Inside it are pictures of my 3 kids.  "He kept them after all", I thought.  In the kitchen on the refrigerator door there is also a picture of my sister's family.  He loved us, and in a certain way, he has also prepared a place for us.  If it weren't so, he would have told us.  We wouldn't have seen the photos ... I wouldn't be executor.  Even so, the message that Christmas is a gift for you and I now becomes that much clearer.  I am glad there are many rooms waiting for those who believe in God the Father.  I think uncle Steve would be glad also.


Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Everything in Its Place

Earlier this month my family and I were in a Goodwill store shopping for costumes that my wife could wear for an upcoming play production.  Although the performing arts building has a decent enough wardrobe from which the cast may choose, she felt that a visit to the store for some quick and inexpensive costume updates was warranted.  The theatre has been a great joy to my family, especially my daughter.  It is a chance to dress up and become someone completely different for a few hours.  And what better way to celebrate that fact than a trip to buy new clothes?  Both of them were in the play; there was much shopping to do.

It didn't take long as we were looking through the racks of clothes before my wife came across something familiar.  It appears that some of her grandmother's dresses were hanging up for sale.  Shannon's grandmother had passed away a few years back, and some of her Sunday church clothes had made it to this particular second hand store.  What a strange and wonderful feeling to see these dresses again.  Her grandmother had adored going to church and dressing up.  How neat to know that others would now have the chance to wear what she once cherished, maybe even wear them to church again.

Truth be told, it also made us a little sad.  It was such a clear reminder that everything we have, everything we own, will someday stay behind as we slip away into eternity.  But why should this make us sad?  Shouldn't this be a testament to remind us that we are to stay focused on the eternal and not just the temporal?  

1 Timothy 6:6-7 says this, "Now godliness with contentment is great gain.  For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out."  The apostle Paul's words ring true even 2,000 years later.  No matter how much you have or how large your bank account - it is not destined to make its way with you after death.  No, I'm afraid the most you can hope for is to have that much more of a lavish funeral perhaps, or to extend your life a bit longer by way of being able to afford better medical care.  Save that, we are all in the same boat.  Wealth only takes you so far, and then you must face God the same as anyone else.  We are all ultimately made equal.

So why do we run after wealth with so much vigor?  Doesn't Jesus tell us in the Gospel of Matthew that we ought not worry so much about what we will eat, drink, or wear?  Is not life itself much more important than these things? (Matt 6:25-34).  If we are being honest, I think much of the time - at least for Americans - we seek after riches because we are surrounded by excess.  Black Friday after Thanksgiving yields irresistible bargains, and anything we've ever wanted is only a few clicks away on the Internet.  The world contains mountains, so climbers must climb them.  Stores contain goods, so shoppers must shop.  It is our favorite distraction.  It is keeping up with the Jones'.  

And so life goes on. We find ourselves sometimes shopping at the local Goodwill store, coming face to face with the concept of mortality.  So what is the solution to this problem of leaving what we own behind?  Is it really a problem at all?  As it turns out, Paul has some additional advice on the matter.  2 Corinthians 4:18 says, "while we do not look at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal."  What is unseen?  I believe this to be God, and those eternal things which act to reflect His glory.  It has to do with where we place our hope.  It is helping a small child who is lost, or cheering on a runner who is in last place when everyone else has gone home.

What then do we do with all our wealth in the meantime?  I suppose we should give it away to those who need it more than we do.  Slowly perhaps, but also carefully.  A neighbor in need or someone in the church who has been praying in earnest for financial help.  I must be careful, however, not to give the impression that I am any better at this than others.  I love having a new smart phone or piece of electronics just as much as the next guy.  No, I would rather talk about what it's like to realize that we cannot take it with us, and money just happens to be the vehicle by which we see this most clearly.

One last story, if patience permits.  My mother also passed away not long ago.  She was a gracious and caring person, and I enjoyed her ability to see the world for what it is.  I was with her toward the end, sitting in the Hospice room and watching the nurses go in and out.  At one point as she lay down quietly in her simple little bed next to the window, she opened her wallet and handed my sister and I all the cash she had.  She told us that she had no use for it anymore.  You could hear a pin drop in the room at that moment.  What else was there to say?  After all, you can't take it with you.  Everything in its place, and that place equates to where you focus your hope.  It can (and should) be a place of eternal joy and peace with the Father I think.  And it doesn't matter if you have to give away money or dresses that grandmother used to wear, in order to realize it.