May 27, 2013: Go Play!

We took our son to a splash park tonight at a local mall, totally on a whim.  We knew he’d have a blast, so we finished up at our restaurant and promised that a “surprise” awaited him.  He was excited and very, very curious.  When he saw the fountains springing from the concrete and the myriad of children laughing, running, and playing, he knew just what he wanted to do.  With widened eyes, he said with extreme excitement, “Where’s my SWIMSUIT, I wanna PLAY!”  His joy gave us joy.  We said, “don’t worry about a swimsuit, we’ll just dry you off in the car.   Go and play!”

Micah was a little bewildered. “But I’ll get wet…I need my swimsuit.”  He knows that getting his clothes wet is a no-no at home, but in the midst of his worry about breaking our rules, he wasn’t embracing that the rule-makers were giving him permission to go and play.  He kept fretting about getting wet.  We said “go and play!”  He walked cautiously to the first fountain and gingerly stuck his toe into it, cautiously scanning our faces for the go-ahead.  Our smiles and nods told him that it was time to put his leg into the spewing water cannon emanating from the ground.  We said “go and play!”  He looked at us again, searching for permission to break the rules.  We again nodded and smiled.  We said “go and play!”  He interpreted this final nod as the greenlight for Operation Splashbody, running full-bore into the drenching center of the park: a pumping, pulsing urban geyser which soaks anyone who comes near.  He no longer looked for our approval of every step.  He finally stopped thinking of the rules and started listening to the call of the rule-maker: “Go and play!”

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. – Psalm 37:4
We do the same thing with God all the time!  How often do we Christians spend so much time seeking to follow “the rules”…don’t do this, don’t do that.  Don’t drink, don’t chew, and don’t date the girls that do.  Rules are good guidelines.  Drinking can be harmful.  Chewing tobacco can lead to a lifetime of health problems.  Dating women who do both of these things will almost certainly result in a relationship full of second-hand bad breath.  So it’s good to be wary of these things.  However, we can get so focused on the rules that we forget the Rule-Maker.  The Westminster Shorter Catechism says that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  As long as we’re doing the first, we can be fully and finally free to do the second.  When we mature in Christ, we can stop focusing on the rules and start focusing on delighting ourselves in God and then just “go play.”
Instead of following rules, why don’t we spend our energies on loving God and developing greater intimacy with our Father…and then just doing whatever brings the greatest joy to our hearts?  I wonder if we would be more generous, more joyful, more filled with the Holy Spirit…if we would lean into Him and then just go play.
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May 19, 2013: Dreams from God

“For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” – 2 Corinthians 6:2

I had an interesting dream last night.  I wanted to write this right after I woke up so I’d remember it as clearly as possible.  I dreamed that I took a friend of mine named Shane to a church small group I was leading. I had invited him several times and he came out of curiosity.  I can’t remember the exact passage we were studying in my dream (such details fade quickly) but it was something that was a reminder of the need for integrity and humility in the Church.  I remember discussing the quote from Brennan Manning: “The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle.  That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”

It seemed to impact Shane and on our ride home we had a great conversation.  Remember, this is a dream, so in wacky-dream-world style, we started off in a limousine which morphed into a Town Car which morphed into a horse-drawn carriage by the end of the ride.  Shane was quiet much of the ride home, giving me just a few answers that showed he was thinking intensely about what he had seen and heard.  I was happy.  Happy that I’d finally invited a friend to church who really needed to hear the message being presented.  Happy that a friend who was one of the most intelligent people I have ever known, who is also one of the most ardent atheists I had ever known, was willing to come hear me pour out my heart for Jesus and preach the gospel in a way that spoke to him.

I awoke happy, as if the events of my dream had actually occurred.  Then, as the fog of sleep began to lift, my mind focused on reality.  Shane, my oh-so-intelligent atheist friend since first grade and a man I was always timid about inviting to church or talking about Jesus with, committed suicide a few years ago.  He jumped in front of a speeding commuter train in a desperate move to end his daily battle with a bitter depression.  Regret immediately filled me.  It is too late for Shane, but who else is out there who needs not a Bible-bash upside the head, but rather a compassionate presentation of Christ’s love and perhaps also a verbal presentation of the gospel?  Lord, may I never wait until it’s too late again.

“For he says, ‘In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.’ Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.” – 2 Corinthians 6:2

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May 19, 2013: Resist the Slow Fade

I definitely think it’s a sign of the times that our world is routinely rocked by scandal.  It may be that we are on a morally downward slope, degrading more and more into complete moral free-for-all and absolute boundary-less-ness.  Or, it may be that we are simply more attentive to the faults and foibles of public figures, with so many news outlets desperate for a juicy tidbit, a morsel of gossip to feed the voracious 24-hour news cycle.  Sensation sells, and few things are more sensational than a person or organization who betrays the public’s trust for personal gain.  Regardless of the reason, scandal has become sadly commonplace.

One touched me more deeply recently.  A public service organization in the same city where I work has been accused of some heinous stuff…like federal indictment heinous.  Using federal funds for personal purposes is a huge no-no. The person at the center of it all is someone I have worked with for years, a colleague whom I collaborated with on several projects and was very well-respected in our field.  She’s not a friend per se, but definitely someone close enough to me that her accused actions hit me like a brick.  How could she do this, and risk her job, reputation, and a career over 30 years in the making?
It was ironic that when I read the first article about the scandal my Pandora app chose to play Casting Crowns’ “Slow Fade”.  The chorus goes like this: It’s a slow fade when you give yourself away / a slow fade when black and white will turn to grey / thoughts invade, a choice is made / a price will be paid when you give yourself away / people never crumble in a day.  If you’ve never heard this song before, you owe it to your conscience to listen to it enough to memorize it.  It’s my personal integrity soundtrack, a constant reminder that we are all vulnerable to the wiles of temptation.
I looked at the trouble my colleague has gotten into and I thought “what was she thinking?”  I rushed to judge her.  But the more I thought about it, she more than likely got caught into the slow fade.  It begins with a thought, which becomes an attitude, which becomes an action, which becomes a habit, which becomes a character.  What thoughts could have sparked this slow fade?  Here’s a few I can think of:
  1. It could never happen to me
  2. I’d never get caught
  3. Others do much worse things
  4. I deserve better than what I’m getting
  5. I’m too powerful / in a hurry for the rules to apply to me
  6. I need this money/power/desire, and I don’t have time to get it the right way
I think the answer to resisting the slow fade is to focus ourselves and dedicate ourselves fully to a singular focus.  The Slow Fade happens when our focus is diluted, when our worries become too heavy to handle.  The key is to solidify our focus on God and His righteousness so intensely that we don’t have time to think on unethical things.  There’s so much more to say on this, but Solomon wrapped it up in a nutshell:”Whoever walks in integrity walks securely, whoever takes crooked paths will be found out.” – Prov 10:9
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April 7, 2013: Can’t Let Up

You can win or be safe but you can’t do both.  But what happens when you win?

At my job this week, we had a big win.  An external auditor known for toughness was evaluating one of the social services programs run by our agency.  She represented the program’s biggest funding source, so a positive review was of the highest importance.  Our team prepared long and hard for the big review, knowing that the auditor’s opinion could translate into the program’s doom or its survival.  As the program’s manager, her opinion could translate into a similar fate for me.  If it goes well, accolades galore.  If not, the pink slip may be in the mail.  That may be a bit over-dramatic, but my reputation was definitely on the line.

We spent a week under the auditor’s expert microscope, poring through details of program operations, management, fund expenditures, outcomes, and much much more.  After five full days of living under her watchful eye, the auditor delivered her results to senior management.  To our relief, she had nothing but glowing remarks.  It was the best audit she’d had in twenty years, without any findings or concerns, and she will highlight our program as a “best practice” program for others to draw examples from.  Couldn’t have been a better outcome!

As I entered our staff meeting the next morning, I thought “Great!  What now?”  We had spent so much energy and time focusing on the win, and now that we had it…what’s next?  Many times in my life I have over-celebrated my wins, relishing the win and allowing it to lull me into a lackadaisical slumber that I believe I have “earned”.  I generally take the time to slow down and savor the victory (which is fine), but I slow down so much that I stop doing the things that gained me victory in the first place (which is stupid).

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:13-14

What I’m learning is that to keep from losing after a win we must (1) celebrate the win and (2) refocus on the mission.  At the meeting, I said to my team, “We won last week.  Big time.”  We handed out compliments and gifts for the staff involved in the audit all throughout that week.  We celebrated.  But while we celebrated we reminded each other that the work is not over.  In multiple meetings throughout the week we reminded each other of what we are here to do.  “We did well in the audit,” I said, “but we are not here to do well in audits.  We don’t get up in the morning excited about beating audits.  We came here to help people.”  It was a great moment for our team that I hope will result in us never letting up, but keep going and doing the things that made us great to start with.

In our walk with Jesus, we will experience victories.  When a friend meets Jesus for the first time, or a family conflict is resolved, or we conquer a financial debt, it is tempting to relax.  But friends need discipling, families need encouraging, and budgets need maintaining.  There’s always work to be done to ensure future wins.  Because to Christians, there was a HUGE win 2000 years ago when Jesus took the nails with our name on them, but we look forward to an even greater win when He comes back to put all things aright in God’s kingdom.  We strain toward the next win with all the intensity we can muster, knowing the next win is in sight…for you, for me, for all of us.  So, what “win” are you praying for?

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March 24, 2013: Safety First?

I went paintballing for the first time today.  I had no idea what to expect…I’d been hit with laser tag lasers hundreds of times but dreaded an actual projectile coming into contact with my skin.  They told us in the orientation that a paintball travels at 200 miles per hour and that heightened my anxiety.  Really, I was not afraid of the pain so much as I was afraid that the pain would be so great as to turn me into a wussy liability to my team.  When we heard the ref yell “GO GO GO!” at our first game, I rushed to cover and started trying to shoot.  Emphasis: trying.  The trigger wouldn’t engage because I had the safety on.  Safety off, I started firing at targets and missing by a mile.  Then when my buddy got hit, I took over his position…for like twenty seconds.  That’s when a tiny orange ball of death hurtled through the air at breakneck pace and made contact with…my neck.  “OW!”, I screamed, and sauntered off the field in defeat. 

That shot hurt.  But honestly, it wasn’t that bad and it was way worse than I expected.  Also, I knew if I kept living in fear of getting shot our team would never win.  A voice spoke in my head, “You can win or you can be safe, but you can’t do both.”  With each progressive game I went further and further, getting shot every time and weathering it…shot in the kidney, in the mouth, in the arm.  It hurt every time, but every hit made me bolder to face the next one, too. 

My favorite moment of the day was at a location which featured a line of several wooden buildings about a hundred yards long and a burned-out truck in the center.  It was a capture-the-flag game, with flags on either side of the truck; our flag was on the side of the truck opposite our base.  The area around the truck was a killing field, surrounded by elevated positions only a few yards away.  I had already gotten hit trying to flank to the right and quickly grab the flag from a covered position a couple of yards away; I got hit in the arm but shot the other guy in the face.  But that wasn’t the coolest part, not by far.  After we had softened the opposition’s defenses a little bit, my teammate Craig ran out of ammo, but didn’t run out on the fight.  He came near the truck in a covered position and then, with a burst of courage, broke cover and dove into the truck.  There was a piece of corrugated metal which floored the inside of the burned-out hunk of junk.  In a moment of quick thinking, Craig grabbed it and used it as a shield, inching forward under a hail of paint pellets.  Every enemy defender’s gun was focused on Craig, who was inches away from their flag.  Exposing his hand for a brief moment, Craig snatched the flag back into the rusted vehicle, again using his makeshift shield, and still being pummeled by dozens of paint-filled bullets.  When he reached our side of the field, he yelled for suppressing fire and got none.  It was sad to see his moment of valor rewarded by five shots to the chest when he dropped his shield to run for cover.

It was awesome to see Craig’s courage, his focus on winning the game, whatever the cost to him.  Even if we lost (which we did), I was uplifted by his show of valor.  I figured we didn’t have enough guys to give Craig the cover he needed, but at least we tried.  But my spirits were dampened immediately after the game ended, as I saw five guys walk out of the bunker thirty yards away from Craig’s desperate stand, with clips nearly full of ammo.  They desired safety more than the win.

“You can win or be safe, but not both.”  As Christians we are in a struggle every day to win others to Christ. We believe the stakes are high.  But many of us (myself too often included) hang out with each other far away from the action, full of knowledge and talent but too afraid of the sting of rejection to use them.  We choose to be safe and lose rather than be risky and win.  In seasons where I have been both in sharing my faith, I found that the rejection and awkwardness that comes with it was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be and that the more I shared my faith the easier I found it to be bold, just like my paintball experience.  Are Christians living too much with a “safety first” mindset?  Are most of us hanging out in the safe zone while people perish in the killing field every day?  Perhaps I need to drop my desire to be safe and take a few hits for the sake of the kingdom, remembering that the win is more important than anything.

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February 23, 2013: Living the Dark

There’s nothing more scary than darkness.  I ditched my night light ages ago, but even now there are few things that give me the heebie-jeebies more than a pitch-black room, a vast unnavigable unknown that just begs for someone to throw the switch.  You can never have confidence in the darkness.  I am reminded of that harrowing scene in “Silence of the Lambs” where Clarice Starling is caught in a perfectly dark basement with a serial killer hunting her.  The camera shoots from the perspective of the killer’s green-hued night vision goggles and stalks the heroine as, frightened to her wit’s end, she gropes the walls searching for light, guidance, direction, anything to get her out of the hell of the unknown while death lurks only inches away.
Any religious system outside of Jesus Christ is darkness, plain and simple.  This is an offensive statement.  Any system, be it Buddhist, atheist, animist, Taoist, Islamist, or anything-ist that is outside of Christ is summed up in this word “DO.”  There is some list of things you must “do”  to be happy, healthy, wise, enlightened, or whatever gets you to the end-goal.  Here’s another offensive statement: we all live in a religious system.  Even the irreligious have their own religion!
We are also all born into spiritual darkness, inheriting a disease called Sin from our forebears which touches every part of our lives.  I remember the dark.  I lived there for 16 years.  Christians use the term “lost” to describe those living in darkness, and it was an apt description for me.  I often felt like I was living in a fog, not knowing why I was doing anything I was doing.  Why work hard at school?  The promise of college, money, and a better life were far-off abstractions.  Why go to church?  My parents dragged me there every week, and I hated it.  What’s the point of living at all?  I didn’t feel like there was more to life than the daily drudgery of school, home, church, family, blah blah blah.
All of us lived in the darkness and have tried with futility to find a way out.  Do you remember it?  If you don’t, know that it is a horrible place to be.  The Land of “Do” is harsh, unforgiving, lonely, and quite hopeless.  Who do you know who lives in the dark?  How can we everyday be a little light to them, while not succumbing to the darkness ourselves?
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February 16, 2013: Max Power

Of the like five Simpsons episodes I’ve ever seen, I remember the one where Homer Simpson changes his name to “Max Power“.  It was about wanting to change your identity, to become so much cooler than who you are.  Homer believed that walking around with a moniker that bled awesomeness would make him more confident and successful than the bland name he’d been given at birth.

Recently, I’ve gotten more in touch with a great podcast from Antioch Community Church that is rekindling my desire for “Max Power” in my life. More specifically, Pastor Jimmy Seibert is reminding me that as a follower of Christ, the greatest power on Earth is available to us every single day, the power of the Holy Spirit.  Some get carried away with the Spirit and become obsessed with the idea of miraculous spiritual power, focusing on it to the exclusion of other major areas of discipleship.  Others ignore the idea of the miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit altogether.  Usually, the latter is in favor of saying that the Holy Spirit’s activity ended when the Bible was canonized, as if publishing the Word of God was the final act of the Spirit of God.

I have been reminded this week that the Word and the Spirit work together in awesome and sometimes surprising ways.  First, it is important recognize the supreme authority of God’s Word in all matters of faith and practice.  It is the plumb line of truth and falsehood, of godliness and heresy.  It is the source of spiritual truth, wherein God has invested the full potential of His grace, love, mercy, and truth.  It is the truth that sets us free, the light for our path, and the sword which pierces every part of us.  If any experience we attribute to God or His Spirit does not line up with His Word, it may be discarded as absolute rubbish.

Second, we need to know that God’s Spirit is still very much active today.  I know this through theological understanding and practical experience.  I have seen miracles which no scientist or doctor can explain.  I have known men who have risen from the dead, seen injuries heal instantly, and have even seen food multiply.  In the past I have told unbelieving friends that “if God doesn’t exist, then I must be absolutely insane” because I cannot explain these things without Him.  Anyway, I know the Spirit is active, and that He is not restricted only to direct quotations of Scripture.  The Spirit’s voice speaks to us today, in pictures, emotions, words, dreams, opportunities…in all these He draws us closer to Himself.

If we want to experience “Max Power” in our walk with God, we must be attuned both to His Word and His Spirit.  I saw a picture of this earlier in the week.  I’m disassembling a brick grill in my backyard right now, brick by brick.  It sometimes is necessary to pry a brick loose from its moorings in the grill.  When I pry, I use direct force but I also use leverage.  You see, I don’t have a great deal of brute strength (I’m working on it, OK?), but I can use the power of leverage to do what strength alone can’t accomplish.  I can apply direct force to the brick, but my leverage can magnify that force exponentially.

Here’s how I see it.  When it comes to life change needed to set us free to fully and completely worship God, the Word of God supplies the direct force, and the Spirit of God supplies leverage.  God’s power is vested into His Word and the Spirit directs us to apply His Word at just the right time, right place, and right person to work His maximum power.  I think that’s why we can read the same Scripture passage ten times and walk away with ten different things…the Spirit speaks what we need to hear each time.  He also speaks to us when someone else needs to hear His Word, too, allowing us to minister in His eternal power and not just out of our own temporal wisdom and experience.

Are you looking for “max power” in your life, just like Homer was?  I think we need to be in the Word of God, taking it deep into our hearts through regular reading, study, and memorization.  Then we need to listen to the Spirit of God give us a target and apply His force accordingly.  We won’t always get it right, but I believe by practicing hearing the Word and delivering it to ourselves and others, His power will be at maximum in us.

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February 10, 2013: Dealing with the Dumps

The other day, I was in “the dumps”.  You know what I mean, that time when you are feeling down, but you’re not crying-in-your-Wheaties depressed…just flat, emotionless, numb-to-the-world-but-still-functional kind of funk.  Things just weren’t right.  And I wasn’t sure how to fix it.  Now, I’ve been working (not very hard) on losing weight, so I’m still a little addicted to food.  When I drove past some red, poultry-styled scrollwork and my 3 year-old squealed “Chicken Flay!”, I was very tempted to blow twenty bucks on some fried goods which would undoubtedly temporarily reduce my blues but less-temporarily inflate my waistline.  I passed it up, and as I munched on a good old peanut butter and honey sandwich I wondered if there was a better way to deal with a case of the dumps.

As I read in my time with God today, Moses had a similar issue and handled it poorly.  In Numbers 20:1-13, Moses and Aaron are handling a bevy of complaints from the some-odd 2 million Israelite nomads they are leading through the desert.  The people are screaming and whining that their food isn’t good enough and there isn’t enough water.  God then miraculously makes a way for Moses to bring forth water from a rock near a place called Meribah by simply speaking to the rock…how cool is that?  But Moses doesn’t give God credit and just hits the rock.  God still made water flow from the rock in a crazy-awesome show of his power and love but Moses and Aaron are punished for not following instructions.

I’m sure Moses was having a pretty cruddy day. I’m sure he was tired.  I’m sure he was frustrated.  Plus, his sister just died so he was grieving.  Moses was in the dumps, in a big way.  But when God gave him a way out of his dumpy situation, he decided not to pay attention.  Striking the rock was done in an act of upset frustration: “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?!”  I’m sure this gushing rock rewarded Moses with a few “oohs” and “aahs”, but it put distance between him and the One who could’ve fixed the whole thing, and not only did he regret it for the rest of his life, this Meribah Mess was highlighted for generations as a famous failure of faith.

When the dumps descend, it’s tempting to go for the easy fix, especially the one you do on your own.  Like an addict who thinks they can just “white knuckle” it instead of hitting up the AA group, we think that the situation we worked ourselves into we can work ourselves out of.  We forget that we need a Savior, and not just to go to heaven when we die.  We need a Savior when the budget is covered in red ink.  We need a Savior when our spouse isn’t giving us the love/respect/time we think we deserve.  We need a Savior when we’re burned by church.  We need a Savior when the car won’t start, when the A/C goes out, when the promotion doesn’t come, and when the diagnosis does.  We need a Savior, every day.

The dumps are an opportunity to return to the One who created happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction.  Run to Him, listen to Him, and follow instructions.  It’s the longest lasting dumps defense I know.

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February 3, 2013: The Cure for Heart-Sickness

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life.” – Proverbs 13:12

I am often amazed by people who say “I’m thirsty!” and reach for a Coke.  They seek to satisfy thirst with a drink that will only make them more thirsty!  Our hearts get sick when things don’t turn out the way we think they should.  Our hearts get sick when our hearts are set upon circumstances working out as we hope they do.  But many of us try to alleviate that sickness through exercising greater self-control.

What if our desires shifted?  What if instead of wishing for greater control over our lives and the ability to mold and shape out families, careers, churches in our preferred image we looked to God as the source of our hope?  Happy circumstances are sometimes absent, but God never is.  If our hope is in Him, our heats never have to be sick.  If you don’t like your job, take it to God and see what He is teaching you…do not leave until you have learned everything He had to teach you there.  If your paycheck doesn’t have enough zeroes for your taste, seek enjoyment and contentment in God to help you live simply so that God’s passions rather than dollar signs would guide your career decisions.  If your family is in chaos rally around the Cross and seek together the hope that is available day in and day out.

He will never leave not forsake us, and He is always there to provide relief for our heart-sickness, if we will stop drinking Coke and come to the living water to slake our thirst.

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January 14, 2013: Zzzzzzzz

OK, I’ve been offline like crazy in these blog posts.  I am committing to putting something up every week this year.  That’s 52 posts, people, and I’m already like a week behind!  I hope that whatever is written here will inspire, entertain, and generally lighten those who read it…praying for good inspiration this year!  Anyway, thanks to anyone who takes a gander here, and if you like what you see, I promise you’ll see more of it in 2013.  Peace and Amen!

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