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June 15th, 2012

What Do You Know?

After reading this story about “Two Kinds of Knowing”, there are some questions for reflection I would like to encourage you to answer.

1)      How do you think Carl felt after his conversation with Johnny?  What kind of impression did his conversation with Johnny make on Carl?

2)      Do you think Johnny learned anything from Carl in their conversation?  If so, what?  And why do you think that?

3)      How do you think Carl felt after the conversation with his mom in the car?  What kind of impression did his conversation with him mom leave on Carl?

4)      Do you think Carl’s mom learned anything about Carl in their conversation?  If so, what?  And why do you think that?

5)      Do you think Mitch Mitchell’s first priority in life was winning baseball games?  Why or why not? (Hint:  What does he do with his time during the off-season?)

6)      Johnny thought Mitch Mitchell made a huge blunder bringing in Bobby Eubanks to play shortstop instead of first base.  Why do you think Mitch brought him onto the team and found a position for him? And why do you think Bobby agreed to play a position he was not used to just so he could play for the Sharks?

7)      What does that say about Mitch as an owner?  What does that say about Bobby Eubanks?

8)      How would YOU explain the difference between knowing *about* someone, and actually knowing them?

I wrote this story hoping to illustrate a point.  My hope is that if you think about these questions and go back and re-read the story looking a little deeper the second time around you might discover some things you didn’t see the first time.  I find it is extremely fruitful to read the Bible this way… to go back and read (and re-read again) the stories in the Bible, asking questions that help to peer a little deeper into the text.  Often there are wonderful gems lying just beneath the surface that a little bit of digging will unearth like the treasure in the field (see Matthew 13:44).  I would like to encourage you to read your Bibles this way.  Don’t just speed through the stories, but enter into them.  Take your time.  Ask questions.  Try and really get to know the people in the stories.

And finally, there is one last thing I want to say about this story on “Two Kinds of Knowing”…

We have easy access to celebrity lives through the Internet, television, and magazines.  We can get statistics on athletes, and read articles in the paper about them.  But knowing about our favorite celebrities or our favorite athletes is not the same thing at all as actually having a relationship with them.  In the same way, we can go to church and we can memorize Bible “facts”, memory verses, books of the Bible, etc.  We can commit to memory the “ordo salutis”, the historical creeds, and entire catcheisms… and there is nothing wrong with that.  But, just as with people, so then with Jesus…  There are two ways of knowing.  There is nothing more important than honesty in answering this question:  Do you really KNOW Him?  Or do you just know ABOUT Him?

Think about the reaction in the grocery store that Carl’s mom brought up.  One of the most sobering passages in the entire New Testament is given by Jesus in the “Sermon on the Mount”.  Here, He says:

““Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Matthew 7:21-23)

I want to encourage you to ask and to answer this question honestly.  It is of the utmost importance.  And if you find that the honest answer is that you really know ABOUT Jesus, rather than KNOWING Him in a personal and intimate way, then I would like to encourage you to press on for the prize (as Paul would say) and seek Him with your whole heart.

Paul wrote the Philippian church:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— 10  that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” (Philippians 3:7-15)

You can email me anytime if you are not sure about how to begin a relationship with Him.  We all know that most relationships start off in kind of an awkward stage, so if you feel awkward getting to know Jesus, please know that’s okay.  But you must also know that no one else can have that relationship on your behalf.  You cannot have a vicarious relationship with Jesus through anyone else.  But you can talk to people who know Him.  You can pray to Him and ask Him to reveal Himself to you as you read His words.  You can (and should) pray for His Spirit and His presence.  And keep seeking Him.  Keep pressing on.  There is truly nothing more important in this world.

June 13th, 2012

Two Kinds of Knowing

Johnny Richmond loved sharing his knowledge of the Suntown Sharks with other people.  He couldn’t believe his luck today.  He had just found out that Carl, the new kid in the afterschool program, was the “ball boy” for the team this season.  They were just two weeks out from the playoffs this season, and Johnny was absolutely positive that he was their biggest fan.

“Hey, kid what grade are you in?” Johnny asked the younger boy as they got off the bus together.

“Oh, hey.  I’m in sixth grade.  What grade are you in?”

“Who me?” Johnny asked, as if Carl should already know.  “I’m in eighth.  Carl Dewhurst.  I’m sure you’ve heard of me?”

“Uh, no.  Sorry, but I’m kind of new around here.  We just moved here last summer.”

“Oh yeah?  I heard from a friend of mine that you’re the ball boy for the Sharks this year.  How’d you land that gig when you haven’t even been here a year yet?”

“Well, my dad knows the owner pretty well.  They went to school together and he offered my dad a job with the team last year.  That’s actually why we moved here,” Carl told him.

Johnny raised an eyebrow and said, “Well, you must be pretty privileged to be the ball boy.  You gotten to know the team at all?” the older boy asked.

“Yeah, I’ve gotten to know them a little bit—“ Carl began before Johnny interrupted him.

“Yeah, well, I bet you don’t know them half as well as I do.  I’ll bet I know more about the Sharks than anybody around,” Johnny boasted.

“Really?” Carl asked.

“Well, sure,” Johnny replied.  “I’m pretty sure I’m their biggest fan.  Hey did you know that Milo Pitts was throwing ninety mile per hour fast balls when he was just fifteen years old?”

“No, I—“ Carl began before Jimmy cut him off again.

“And Ronnie Jay runs a four-six forty.  That’s why he steals all those bases.  Do you know how many he’s stolen this year?”

“Ummm… I think around thirty or so,” Carl replied.

“Try thirty-seven, buddy boy.  He’s stolen a grand total of one hundred and ninety seven bases in the five years he’s been in the league.”

“Wow, that’s a lot.”

“Oh yeah.  Wanna know why he doesn’t have more than that?”

“Um, sure.”

“Because he fractured a bone in his left foot his rookie year on a wild pitch from Eric “the Sandman” Roberts halfway through the season.”

“Ouch,” Carl said. “I didn’t know that.”

“Really? Hey did you know Earl Rogers used to be a pitcher?”

“The catcher?” Carl asked.

“Yeah, I think he was your age when he led his little league team to the state championships.  But he hurt his elbow trying to throw out Magic Vinnie Ferrio in the seventh inning and never pitched a game after that.  He played second base up to high school and then started playing catcher.  I’ll bet you didn’t know that, did you?” Johnny asked smiling.

“No, I sure didn’t.”

“Yeah, well, like I said.  I probably know more about the Suntown Sharks than anyone around, and that includes Mitch Mitchell, the owner of the team.  You know he brought Bobby Eubanks on this past year thinking he could play him at short stop.  That was stupid, no offense.  Bobby Eubanks plays first base.  That’s his spot.  But we already had a great first basemen in Terry Richards.  We would’ve been better off getting a real shortstop coming into this year.  I’m sure you know how many errors Eubanks has at short already.”

“Um, well… no, not really,” Carl replied.

“He’s got seventeen errors so far, and it’s not even playoff time yet.  He has more than anyone else on the team.”

“Well, maybe, but—“ Carl started.

“No maybe about it,” Johnny interrupted.  “He does. He has more errors than anyone else on the team. Hey, do you know Kenny Carlson?”

“Well, yeah, of course I do,” Carl replied.  “I know all the guys on the team.”

“Yeah, but how well do you know them?”  Johnny asked. “Did you know that Kenny was supposed to go play for Fenway Diamondbacks before he wound up here?”

“No,” Carl said again.

“Yep, but he didn’t want to be a relief pitcher.  He wanted to be the star and his agent and the owner of the Diamondbacks got into a pretty big disagreement during negotiations.  As a result of all that, Kenny’s shot at the Diamondbacks fell through and he wound up here, throwing for us… as a relief pitcher!” Johnny laughed.

“Well, I sure am glad we picked him up,” Carl said.  Kenny was one of his favorite guys to talk to in the dugout, and had a little boy the same age as Carl.  Carl and Kenny Jr. had gotten to be really good friends these past few months actually.

“Yeah, Kenny’s okay I guess. I still wish they would have tried harder to keep Buck Adams, though.  He’s a much better closer in my opinion. But I guess old man Mitchell didn’t want to pay him what he was worth.  Did you know that he is twelve and two in games he’s closed so far this year?  Kenny’s only eight and five.”

“Well, Kenny’s still a pretty good closer, I think—“ Carl began.

“Yeah, but we could be going into the playoffs in first place right now rather than fourth or fifth if we had kept Buck and landed a real shortstop in the offseason.”

“We’re still having a pretty good season, though,” Carl responded.

“It’s not bad,” Johnny said. “Hopefully we won’t have to play the Cats in the first round of the playoffs. Those guys always have big bats against our pitchers for some reason.  Did you know that they have outscored us fifty-one to twenty-seven in runs scored over the last two years in the regular season?”

“Nuh uh,” Carl said, impressed with Johnny’s knowledge. “You sure do know a lot of facts and figures about the Sharks.”

“Yep. I told you, I probably know more about the Sharks than anyone else around.  I can tell you about each player on the team, their batting averages, high school and college stats, strengths, weaknesses, you name it. Heck, I probably know more about those guys than they know about themselves,” Johnny said proudly.  And for the next half hour or so, Johnny unleashed stat after stat for nearly every player on the team.  After about ten minutes, Carl’s brain reached the saturation point and he just listened and nodded as his eyes glazed over.

When Carl’s mom came to pick him up, Carl introduced his new friend to his mom.  “Hey mom, this is Johnny. He knows more about the Sharks than anyone around.”

“Really?” she said smiling politely and shaking Johnny’s hand.

“Oh, yes ma’am,” Johnny said. “I’m pretty sure I taught Carl here a lot of stuff he didn’t even know that he didn’t know today. I think he learned quite a bit actually.”

As Carl and his mom drove off, Carl looked out the window quietly, thinking to himself.

“What’s wrong, honey?” his mom asked him.

“Oh, nothing. Well… it’s just that, I don’t know. Johnny seemed to know so much about the Sharks that I sort of felt… I don’t know.  I guess a little bit embarrassed.  He knew so much more about them than I do, mom.”

“Really?” Carl’s mom asked. “Are you sure about that?”

“Gosh, yes, mom.  You should have heard him.  He knew how fast each player runs the forty, and what their batting averages were in high school and college.  He told me how Earl Rogers used to be a pitcher and even led his little league team to the state championships.  And how many bases Ronnie Jay has stolen – and not just this year, but for all five years he’s been in the league.  He knew the numbers for everyone and everything right off the top of his head.  I don’t know any of that stuff.  Heck, I don’t even remember most of the numbers that he told me.  It’s like he said mom, I didn’t even know all the stuff I didn’t know before he started talking.”

Carl and his mom drove in silence for a few minutes before his mom finally spoke again.

“Hey, pumpkin,” she began. “What is Kenny Jr.’s favorite ice cream?”

“It’s mint chocolate chip, mom. Same as his dad’s. Why?”

“Oh, I was just wondering,” she said.

After another minute or two she asked, “Hey, what does Bobby do every Sunday that he doesn’t have a game?”

“Well, he normally comes to church and then he goes to visit his mom at the care center?”

“And why is she at the care center?” Carl’s mom asked.

“Well you know that, mom. Because she has Alzheimer’s and because Bobby’s dad was killed a few years ago in that automobile accident.”

“Right,” she said. “Hey, what about Earl. Do you remember what he wanted to be when he grew up?”

“Well, sure,” Carl replied. “He wanted to be an astronaut, but his eyesight was too bad and he couldn’t have qualified because of that.”

“Really?” Carl’s mom asked, in mock surprise. “Where did you hear that?”

“From his daughter, Missy, mom.  Remember when we went over there for hot dogs and burgers a while back and she was showing me her telescope? She said her dad still loved the stars and they looked at them a lot together.”

“Hmmm…” Carl’s mom said. “Well, that is interesting.”  She paused for another minute or two as Carl sat there wondering why she kept asking him all these crazy questions.

Finally she asked, “Hey, what does Mitch Mitchell do when he’s not tied up with baseball?”

“He helps with that orphanage down in Mexico City and goes on missions, mom. You know that. Dad’s gone with him before! Why are you asking me all these questions?”

“Because I wanted to try to make a point, Carl,” she said. “You seemed a little bit down when we got in the car. You seemed a little bit intimidated by all the stuff that Johnny knew about the Sharks. But I want you to know that there is a big difference between knowing ABOUT people and actually KNOWING them.  Now let me ask you one more thing, Carl Montgomery Stafford.  What do you expect would happen if any of those players saw you in the grocery store or at the mall or wherever?”

“I don’t know. They’d say hello to me?” he half-guessed at his reply.

“Well of course they would, silly. They’d be thrilled to see you. Now what do you suppose would happen if they saw Johnny?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Carl said, wrinkling his forehead and trying to imagine. “I don’t guess they would say anything,” he finally said.

“And why not?” his mom asked him.

“Well, probably because they don’t know him,” Carl said.

“So, what you’re saying then is that all of that stuff – all of those facts and figures – that Johnny knows ABOUT them… well, that doesn’t mean that THEY know HIM.  Is that what you’re saying?”

A smile began to creep across Carl’s face as it began to sink in. “Yeah, I think I get what you’re saying, Mom.”

April 27th, 2012

Eleven Things

I wrote this recently and thought I’d post it publicly to share.  Having three children at home and influencing the lives of others as the Lord allows, I wrote this list of eleven things that I hope to pass on before I pass on.  Maybe they aren’t your eleven.  Maybe your list isn’t even ‘eleven’.  That’s okay!  I wrote this list to help me live intentionally and so that if the Lord takes me sooner than later, they will have some record of the things I thought would matter most in their lives.  While I didn’t take the time to look up all of the scripture references that were running through my mind as I compiled this list, every single one of them has multiple verses that goes along with it.

The ELEVEN Things

To: Kyndall, Paul (PJ), and Logan
From: Dad

These are eleven things that I have tried and will continue trying to teach you guys as long as I am able.  This is obviously not everything I want to teach you in life, but these eleven things are so crucial to living a life that will be rewarding no matter what that life might look like, that I wrote them down… for both our sakes.  These are eleven ways to live that I hope to pass on to you before I pass on from you.  May God help me and you in these eleven things.

Love,
Dad

Work hard. Whether you are rewarded by other people or not, doing your absolute best and putting everything you’ve got into what you do really is its own reward.  Do not allow yourself to be satisfied with doing less than your very best.  You not only cheat others, but you also cheat yourself, when your approach to work is to do as little as possible and avoid it like a disease.  Do not rob yourself of the joy and satisfaction of doing your absolute best no matter what you do.

Take an interest. Learn to love learning!  Interested people are interesting people.  Likewise, bored people are boring people.  It is way better to be interested and interesting than to be bored and boring.  Interesting people have lots to offer other people.  Boring people don’t have much at all.  No matter what you do, what you learn — and whether you want to do or learn those things or not — get interested and make your life (and the lives of everyone around you) a hundred times richer for it!

Gain a mastery. Find something you want to be good at, grab a hold of it and don’t let go until you have attained a mastery of it.  It does not have to be something you are good at it or naturally gifted for.  It could be something that is hard for you and that does not come easily.  But if you are willing to work hard and take an interest, even if you never attain complete mastery over whatever it is you decide to throw yourself into, I promise you will appreciate it more than you would have ever thought you might and your life will be much richer for it.

Learn new things. Don’t be a one-trick pony.  Gain a mastery in more than one thing.  Do this by taking an interest in new things, and keep learning and growing until you gain a mastery in that, too.  It could be something spiritual, a new discipline, a sport, a musical instrument, a language, a vocation, a hobby, a skill.  And it doesn’t have to necessarily be something you are all that interested in at the start.  Perhaps you have a friend or a loved one that is has an interest or has gained a mastery in something.  Want to appreciate that person in ways you’ve never imagined?  Take an interest in something they are interested in, and learn and grow together!

Be a truth teller. Some people pretend to be “truth tellers” when they make ugly remarks about others.  They say, “Well, I’m just telling the truth.”  But when it comes to admitting their own faults and shortcomings – that is, when it comes to sharing the ugly truths about themselves – they aren’t quite as honest.  This world is full of people who manipulate “the truth” to make themselves look better, or who use “truth” as an excuse to make others look bad (usually with the same end goal in mind).  Don’t do that.  Don’t be that.

Have integrity. Look for the good in others, and don’t compromise or manipulate the truth when it suits you.  A person of integrity will stick with the truth even when it hurts them.  Someone who can admit that they were wrong or made a huge mistake even – no, especially – when it will cost them, has a character quality that money cannot buy and no one can ever take away.  It is called integrity and there just aren’t that many people who have it.  Be someone who does.  If you have nothing in this life but integrity, I promise you, you have enough.

Make good use of your time. There are SO many ways to waste your time nowadays.  But time is the one resource that you can never get back once you have lost it.  There are only so many hours in a day and all of your days are numbered.  Time is too precious to waste on vain and empty things.  We live in a time and place where literally millions of people waste all the time they have doing things of no value.  Living to be entertained is a total waste of time. Do something GREAT with the time and the life God has given you.  That is what GREAT people do.  Do not live to be mediocre.  Do not exist to be status quo.  Live to be GREAT and you will truly live.  Live with purpose (and on purpose) and make your life matter.

Develop good habits. Whether it be what you feed your mind, feed your heart, feed your soul, or feed your body – make it count.  Don’t fill your life with nonsense and malnourishment.  How you spend your time matters.  How you spend you money matters.  How you shape your mind matters.  How you invest in others matters.  Don’t just follow the crowd as you move through life.  Find what matters, find what is good, find what is useful, and what develops character, and pattern your life around that.  Bad habits are so hard to break, and most if not all of them only promote decay and destruction.  AVOID SUCH THINGS!

Be a cheerful giver. This world is full of selfish people… people who only do something to get something better in return, or who live to be entertained (aka, “boring people” – see above).  Takers only want what others have, and they don’t want to part with what they already have.  But givers are a blessing to everyone who receives from them.  Yes, you can give away money and material things, sure.  But you can also give away your time, your effort, your presence, and — get this — your interests!  That’s right.  When you share the knowledge you’ve acquired, a skill that you have mastered, or just something you have taken a true heart-felt interest in, you breathe fresh air into other peoples’ lives.  Your interest and excitement over something that is near and dear to your heart can often catch a fire in other people’s lives.

Love others! The most miserable people I know are in the condition that they are in because they have never enlarged their hearts to really love someone else.  Selfishness creates a vacuum that not only sucks the life out of other people, but even moreso the life of the one who suffers from it.  The people that I have known in this world that felt the most alone were the ones who were the least willing to live beyond their own borders and truly give their hearts and lives away to other people.  Yes, really loving people is risky.  Yes, it makes you vulnerable.  Yes, it can result in heartache.  But to tuck your heart away to keep it safe is to bury your talent in the ground.  Living to avoid hurt is not living at all.  That is the wrong way to play it safe.  If you really want to live dangerously, then love others!

Love the Lord! Of all the things that you can learn, know, and be interested in, knowing God in Jesus Christ (in my humble opinion) surpasses them all, and it brings them all together.  You can do some, maybe even all of the other things on this list and not know (or love) the Lord.  But I can’t.  And to be honest, I’m not sure I would want to.  Knowing and loving Jesus has not only enabled me to strive for and appreciate the other things I listed here, but it has made them (and everything else in my life) so much sweeter.  If there is anyone worth loving, worth working hard for, worth taking an interest in, worth working toward mastery with (and being mastered by), worth being a truth teller and having integrity for, worth giving sacrificially for, and worth loving others for… it is Jesus.  For me personally, He is the reason for all of those other things.  Whatever else you may do or be in this life, I sincerely hope and pray that you will know the grace of God in Jesus Christ… walk with Him, talk with Him, learn from Him, and be led by Him.  As much as I love you, He loves you so much more and so much better than I ever will.  So don’t just know about Him.  Know Him! And love HIM!!

February 7th, 2012

The Invitation to Grace

One of the more prominent ways that people in the 20th century (at least in postmodern America) have been ‘evangelized’—that is, introduced to Jesus Christ by someone else who purports to know Him—is to be “invited” to have a relationship with him.  Specifically, using the common religious verbiage of our day, the person being introduced to Jesus is encouraged to “enter into a relationship with Him” by “inviting Him into your heart.”  I think most of us who live in a part of America where people are still willing to talk about Jesus and who have been approached by someone bold enough to actually ask us if we have a relationship with him have probably heard these words before.  “It’s about a relationship, not a religion”, “pray this prayer with me”, “all you have to do is invite Him into your heart”, and so on.  This is actually how I, myself, was introduced to Him.

I will say that this approach to ‘evangelizing’ or ‘winning souls’ has fallen into a bit of disrepute in some circles, especially among those who grasp the doctrine of predestination and who cling to it with all of their might.  There are many people who come to a point in their faith where they believe that God does “all of the work” of salvation.  “We contribute nothing,” they would say.  “Salvation is all of God.”  Monergism.  To be fair and honest, I tend to lean that way myself.  Some people call this predestination.  Some people call this “Calvinism.”

And there are some people call it heretical because “it denies man’s free will.”  These people believe that we are actively involved in the work of salvation and that the choice is ours whether or not to “accept Christ.”  Because we have a choice in the matter, we are responsible for the consequences of the choice that we make concerning Him.  And because we act decisively in the matter of salvation, it is God’s will working along with our will that accomplishes it.  Synergism.  Some people call this “Arminianism.”

There are some who argue vehemently for and against both sides of this issue, and who are often bitterly divided on the matter.  Early on in my faith, I was totally ignorant of all of this.  Being completely new to Christianity, I had very little knowledge of Christian theology, much less theological camps.  I was challenged enough just by reading the gospels for the first time and trying to wrap my mind around Jesus—this Lord and Savior I had recently “invited into my heart”.  Personally, I don’t much care for all of the ire and venom that often come from both sides of the debate.  Strong proponents from both sides will quote passages and reason from Scripture to make their case.  And they will treat those who are opposed to their view with contempt.  Honestly, though… is it really that big a deal?  Some say so, but I’m not so sure it should be.  And I will humbly confess (and repent) that yes, I myself have walked down that road.  I can also attest that the further you go down the road (regardless of the direction you travel) the less grace you will find.  Or rather, I should say, the less grace others will find in you.

Regardless of who issues the invitation to grace, something very interesting happens when we “invite Jesus into our heart.”  Now, when I say this I mean, when we *really* and *truly* invite Him into our heart… when we are desperate for His presence in our lives… when we are really and truly ready to surrender the mess of our lives to someone else to break down and refashion… when more than our self-destructive “freedom” we desire His life-giving control and direction… well, then that is where “interesting” happens.  You see, at the same time we are “accepting” Jesus into our heart, He is receiving us into His.  In fact, many people who have come to really know Him and walked with Him for a while will tell you that when they reflect back on that time when they “invited” Him to come in live in their hearts, in hindsight that is when they began to yield and accept His grand invitation to come and live in His. This is the dance of the mystical union with Christ.

It is unfortunate that so many of us who say we dine with Him waste so much time bickering and arguing over who invited who and dissecting the invitation.  The lines may actually be quite blurry.  Is it the Son of the great King who is inviting the unworthy to the great wedding banquet (see Matthew 22:1-10)… or is it the sinner who invites the Savior to come and dine with him in his house (see Luke 19:1-10)?   Do we really think that Jesus is impressed or choosing sides when we – who He said would be known and shown as His by our love for one another – bicker and quarrel about who is greatest: the “I Chose Jesus” or the “He Chose Me” camp.  And ultimately, does ‘knowing’ the answer to this question really matter half as much as just knowing Him?  Questions that too often divide us from one another over time ought to dissolve and fade away altogether in the immensity and intensity of His divine love if indeed we have been affected by it.  What we are really striving for is to surrender our lives to Him, so that He may live through us by the power of His Spirit.  And in doing so, we become alive in Him.  He lives in us and we in Him.

Blurry?  Perhaps.  But perhaps not every mystery is meant to be explained with logical, mathematical precision.  Surely, those of us who have put our faith in Jesus – fully God and fully man, the perfect and sinless one who became sin, who lived to die and died to live, who conquered death by dying, who was born of a virgin and yet existed before time – surely, we can admit that so many of the beautiful mysteries of God consist of seeming paradoxes to our small and finite minds.  Can we not allow the mystery of salvation to occupy that space as well?

Blessed Lord Jesus, we thank You for the mystery of grace – that while we were yet sinners, still You loved us.  We thank You Father, Creator, Sustainer of all life, who created us in Your image, that although we rebelled against You, reviled You, and squandered every good gift You have given, yet You RUN to meet us when like prodigal children we turn from the squalor of our riotous living and return to You with repentant hearts.  We thank You Holy Spirit, that though we have turned the tents of our soul’s dwellings into bordellos of sin and corruption in the red light districts of the world, because of the finished work of Your anointed on the cross, You come tabernacle with us.  God, oh great and merciful God, help us to be humble and thankful before You, astounded by Your glory and the mystery of salvation.  And help us to be gracious as You Yourself are gracious,  to be charitable as You Yourself are charitable, and to be forgiving of others as You Yourself have forgiven us… in spite of ourselves.  Amen.

January 5th, 2012

Driven to Distraction (Tony Reinke)

This is an excerpt from Chapter 11 of Tony Reinke’s excellent book about reading books, “Lit!” The chapter is entitled “Driven to Distraction – How Internet Habits Cripple Book Reading”…

Meet David Ulin.  David is the book editor for the Los Angeles Times.  David reads a lot of books because he gets paid to review a lot of books.  It’s David’s job.

But one day David noticed something alarming – the task of reading books was becoming more and more difficult.  That’s bad news for a professional book reader.

The problem was not the lack of will to read, but the lack of concentration.  He wrote about his experience in the autobiographical article, “The Lost Art of Reading”:

Reading is an act of contemplation, perhaps the only act in which we allow ourselves to merge with the consciousness of another human being…  In order for this to work, however, we need a certain type of silence, an ability to filter out the noise.  Such a state is increasingly elusive in our over-networked culture, in which every rumor and mundanity is blogged and tweeted.  Today, it seems it is not contemplation we seek but an odd sort of distraction masquerading as being in the know.  Because the illusion that illumination is based on speed, that it is more important to react than to think, that we live in a culture in which something is attached to every bit of time.

Ulin pointed to the Internet as a primary cause of his withering concentration.  And he is not alone.  In the summer of 2008 journalist Nocholas Carr published an article in The Atlantic that brought these concerns to popular attention under the provoking title, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”  He wrote,

Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory.  My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing.  I’m not thinking the way I used to think.  I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading.  Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy.  My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose.  That’s rarely the case anymore.  Now my concentration starts to drift after two or three pages.  I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do.  I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the struggle… And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.  My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles.  Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I sip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.

Carr and Ulin sound oddly familiar.  So what is happening to them?  And is this happening to us?

To answer these questions we need to address how online reading habits damage our offline reading habits.

Socially, the Internet offers us streams of fragmented information that must be quickly browsed as they pass.  Social media (like Facebook and Twitter) and online browsing patters will train our minds to hunt for information in small, isolated bits.  In fact “reading” in the traditional open-ended sense is not what most of us, whatever our age and level of computer literacy, do on the Internet,” writes Susan Jacoby.  “What we are engaged in—like birds of prey looking their next meal—is a process of swooping around with an eye out for certain kinds of information.”  Whether our brains are being rewired as a result is a topic of debate.  What is less debated is that browsing fragments of information erodes concentration.  And this erosion in concentration influences how we think and read books.

November 30th, 2011

Some Quick Thoughts on Sin and Temptation

This is sort of a hodge-podge of thoughts that have been floating around my head today.  I haven’t taken the time to really flesh these out, but am putting them up here with the hopes that they will cause you to think about these things in more depth, too…

I have reflected before on the temptations of Jesus in the desert, and saw in them these three common temptations to us all:

1)      Provision

2)      Protection

3)      Prominence

My initial thoughts on these were that inherent in each temptation was the choice to seek attainment of these things through one’s own efforts, or to seek God (the Father) first and let Him provide these things as He sees fit.  Jesus is tempted first by the devil to turn the stones into bread.  Now, obviously this would require divine power, something that is not inherent in our nature.  But the temptation for Jesus was to use His power for his own gain… not to glorify the Father, but to satisfy Himself.

I saw a book review on Amazon earlier that reminded me of these things, but also prompted me to think in some slightly different directions.  It was for a book by Diogenes Allen entitled “Temptation”.  This is the short review of it:

This short, readable, and profound book examines the preconditions of Christian spirituality. The jumping off point is a detailed analysis of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness: to live for material things, to seek personal security, and to clamor for social position. Once we overcome these temptations, the path is cleared for a spiritual pilgrimage; if we are lucky, the pilgrimage culminates in trust in Christ and faith in the Resurrection. “Temptation” doesn’t present a comprehensive apologetic for Christianity. Instead, it profoundly reorients the reader and offers a view of the human world in which Christianity can make sense. It is really, really good.

I thought it was interesting the way the reviewer broke the three temptations down.  There is certainly some overlap with what I saw.  In reflecting a bit more on the first temptation today – the one I shorthanded as “provision” – it occurred to me that there is something about this temptation that I didn’t quite see or grasp before.  This temptation has to do with “appetite”, which I think sheds a lot of light on the nature of this temptation.  Now, an appetite is not necessarily a bad thing, although the way one may choose to feed an appetite may very well be.  However, an appetite (a word often used synonymously for “desire”) is a God-given part of our humanity.  We need to eat to survive.  So God gives us a desire for food.  We need to rest to function well.  God gives us desire for sleep.  We need to procreate to continue to exist.  God gives us a desire for sex.  We need relationships and meaning.  God gives us the desire to communicate and express ourselves.  We need to live and grow.  God gives us desires to thrive and succeed.

These desires are not bad.  Indeed, God created us and created them as a part of us; they all have a purpose.  However, because of the calamity of sin and our fallen human natures, these desires are often perverted into grotesque misrepresentations of their original intent.  Healthy appetites become distorted obsessions through the perverting power of sin.  When we are no longer satisfied with the fulfillment of an appetite according to God’s plan for humanity, but instead seek fulfillment according to our own deviant plans, we succumb to this temptation.  Was this not the very temptation with which Satan approached the first man and woman in the Garden?

And speaking of Satan, this was something else that occurred to me as I was thinking about these things earlier.  Is it any wonder that we are so susceptible to the temptation of this world?  As I was thinking about the evil trinity of our three great adversaries – the world, our flesh, and the devil – I had another thought that was new and rather revelatory.  Although we were created in the image of God, we were also created from the dust of the earth.  We were fashioned and molded out of the very world in which we live.  God’s word says that our flesh was formed from the very dust of it.  Is it any wonder then that ‘our flesh’ has such a propensity for the things of this ‘world’?  The devil seems to have such terrible power in this world, but really… how much power does he have?  He approaches Adam and Eve in the form of serpent.  Think about that… he has no hands and feet.  But his mouth is full of poison.  He cannot wrestle with a man (like God wrestled with Jacob); no he can only ‘suggest’ with his poisonous breath.  The devil markets sin and manipulates sinners, but he is only selling something someone already wants to buy.  He does not force anyone to do anything against their own power.  Rather he tempts them to do something they already desire to do, even when they know that to do so is wrong.

He has no hands and feet.  That is the thought that just kept running through my mind again and again as I thought about the devil’s role in this whole business of sin and temptation.  He has no hands and feet.  All he has is a mouth that is full of poison.  He lies, yes.  He steals, yes… but when he steals he does so without hands and feet.  He steals the same way politicians and corporations do… by convincing someone else to willingly give up something, and convincing them that they will gain something valuable in return.  But of course, we have already mentioned that he lies.

He also kills… but here again, the power of life and death is not in his – oh wait, he doesn’t have any hands.  As with stealing, so with killing… the devil uses people to accomplish his foul ends.  He crouches outside their doors and whispers to hearts that are all too willing to go along with his wicked schemes.  It can seem sometimes that Satan really is the prince of this world, and that he is the ultimate master of mayhem in this global Gotham City.  However, the real (and I think sad) truth is, that old serpent Satan does not have any power to accomplish anything in this world that a man has not given him.  He has no hands.  He has no feet.

Jesus was tempted in the wilderness just as we are.  The reason that he did not sin is because there was nothing there in his heart for Satan to manipulate.  There was nothing distorted in his desires.  He was tempted and yet without sin.  In the desert temptations, Jesus responded to Satan’s attempt to play on his hunger with Scripture, quoting Moses, saying, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)  Jesus said something very similar to His disciples when they were urging Him to eat after they left the village where He had shared the living water with the Samaritan woman.  Jesus told them that He had food they did not know about, and when they were perplexed he told them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent me and to accomplish His work.” (John 4:34)  Satan tempted the Christ, but God’s anointed didn’t need to turn stones into bread to satisfy His appetite in the wilderness because despite the hunger he surely felt after forty days without physical food, Jesus’ real appetite (i.e., His greatest desire) was not for food at all, but for His Father… and to know and do His will.

October 26th, 2011

The Christian and Books

Perhaps I just love this because it provides me some justification for my love of books.  But then again maybe — just maybe — there is something to this.  John Piper writes in the Introductory chapter to the book “Thinking. Loving. Doing.: A Call to Glorify God with Heart and Mind“:

Healthy Christianity clearly appreciates the life of the mind. Love God “with all your mind,” says Jesus (Matt. 22:37). “Think over what I say,” Paul tells Timothy, and us with him (2 Tim. 2:7). When Proverbs instructs us to “seek it like silver,” the referent is insight, understanding, and the knowledge of God (Prov. 2:3–5).  It is a tragedy that in many Christian circles, the life of the mind is not prized, and it is even diminished. Anti-intellectualism in the church (of all places!) is a calamity given that Christians this side of heaven are people of a Book, and thus irreducibly thinkers in some sense.

Jewish author and talk-show host Dennis Prager observes:

One thing I noticed about evangelicals is that they do not read. They do not read the Bible, they do not read the great Christian thinkers, they have never heard of Aquinas. If they are Presbyterian, they’ve never read the founders of Presbyterianism. I do not understand that. As a Jew, that’s confusing to me. The commandment of study is so deep in Judaism that we immerse ourselves in study. God gave us a brain; aren’t we to use it in His service? When I walk into an Evangelical Christian’s home and see a total of 30 books, most of them best sellers, I do not understand. I have bookcases of Christian books, and I am a Jew. Why do I have more Christian books than 98 percent of the Christians in America? That is so bizarre to me.

This hits close to home. Honestly, such an evangelical allergy to books, and its accompanying subtle form of anti-intellectualism, characterized what I would have called “my Christian walk” in high school. I hated reading. Today at my parents’ home in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in my old room (now the guestroom) lies a thick stack of CliffsNotes that reminds me how I cut corners to make it through high school reading assignments. At the time, I would not have verbalized any formal anti-intellectual opinions, but my disdain for reading was eroding the foundation of my present and future thinking. Though many tremendous gospel seeds were sewn in those years, it now seems that it was my freshman year in college when God really turned on the lights of new birth, and with it came a voracious appetite for reading—and in its wake, a more engaged life of the mind.

To read the entire chapter online, click HERE.

You can also order the audio book from ChristianAudio for less than $5 through the rest of the month.  While you are at it, pick up John Piper’s “Think: The Life of the Mind and the Love of God” for FREE!

October 13th, 2011

Caleb’s Lamb (Book Review)

Caleb’s Lamb by Helen Santos

“Why must it be like this?” Caleb asked his father.  “How can the blood of a lamb save us from death?” (pg 83)

What a wonderful book to help my kids (ummm… and their dad) really think about what life may have really been like in the land of Goshen during the time of the Exodus.  The author not only uses a holy imagination to paint a realistic picture of that, but at the same time to tell a story within a story about the atonement Christ made for us by payment of his own blood.

Helen Santos tells a very realistic tale of Caleb (the young boy becoming a man), his God-fearing Israelite father, Asher, and the lamb that changes Caleb’s heart from one that hates to one that loves the sheep he has been called to shepherd.  The author tells the story simply, but with enough detail that you genuinely feel like you have gotten a glimpse into life three thousand years ago.

The story of the atonement is told first by Asher to his son Caleb as the father relates the tale of Abraham and Isaac to his own son, and then revealed even more powerfully in the unfolding events leading up to the first Passover.  And then completely unveiled in the gospels. (Bible sold separately, not included with this item ;~)

This is an absolute gem of a book.  It is a great story to read aloud to kids, but even if you don’t have a kids, it is just a great story.  I think anyone could read this and come away with a much greater appreciation of what our Lord has done, in the pondering account of His answer to Caleb’s question: “How can the blood of a lamb save us from death?”  It was truly a blessing to read this with my kids, and it definitely kept their interest.

October 6th, 2011

Courageous Movie Review

Escape into the every day…

So much of what comes out in theaters is just an escape from every day life. That’s a shame because every day life is where we live and how we live there is what we are truly accountable for. This is one of the rare and exceptional movies with a message that encourages you to look for an entrance back into every day life and to make it meaningful rather than to escape from it by making it seem more meaningless. I wish there were more movies like this one that would encourage us that way. But I am grateful that at least there is one.

If you are a man, especially if you are a father – do whatever it takes to see this movie. Be challenged, be broken, be encouraged… be courageous. And let’s be honest. Most of the time spent watching movies at the theater is just wasted. You will not be wasting your time on this one. In fact, I would say this is one of the few movies you can see where the time and money that you spend is actually an investment.

So what are you waiting for? Get on the phone and call up some buddies and go and see this movie. Today.

October 3rd, 2011

Divided by the Sword of the Lord

“Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward: and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, most certainly I tell you he will in no way lose his reward. (Matthew 10:34-42)”

I remember being somewhat perplexed by this passage as a brand new Christian several years ago… the Prince of Peace promising not peace but a sword?  As time has passed, I have come to understand that where there is a true commitment to Jesus Christ in a family that is not shared by all the members, rather than being united “in Him” (see the epistles of Paul), rather even the closest of relations may and likely will find themselves divided BY Him.  James says that “Friendship with the world is enmity with God.”  And it is equally true that friendship with God is enmity with the world.  Those striving to live for the world will naturally experience tension with those striving to live for the Lord.  Even (and perhaps most especially) in the home, when the center and focus of two lives lived out next to each other are completely opposed, the result is hardly what one would call peace.

Christ compels all who are weak and the weary from their labor to come to Him and take His yoke upon them… “for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt 11:30)  And the Apostle Paul warns, “Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? (2 Cor 6:14)”

How does one reconcile the Prince of Peace promising NOT peace but a sword?  It is important to understand that the peace that Jesus came to restore what was not “horizontal”; that is, not in the relations between men or in families.  The peace that Jesus came to restore was between fallen and sinful men and a righteous and holy God.  Such peace could never be made without a mediator.  It should come as no surprise then, that those who have been restored to fellowship with God will find stress and strain in their relations with those who absolutely refuse Him in order that they may pursue and persist in theirs sin and their worldly affections.

I love to read J.C. Ryle’s thoughts on the gospels.  Here are his thoughtful reflections on this passage.

“Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword. For I came to set a man at odds against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. A man’s foes will be those of his own household. He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me. He who doesn’t take his cross and follow after me, isn’t worthy of me. He who seeks his life will lose it; and he who loses his life for my sake will find it. He who receives you receives me, and he who receives me receives him who sent me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward: and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man will receive a righteous man’s reward. Whoever gives one of these little ones just a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, most certainly I tell you he will in no way lose his reward.”

In these verses the great Head of the Church winds up His first charge to those whom He sends forth to make known His Gospel. He declares three great truths, which form a fitting conclusion to the whole discourse.

In the first place, He bids us remember that His Gospel will not cause peace and agreement wherever it comes. “I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword.” The object of His first coming on earth was not to set up a millennial kingdom in which all would be of one mind, but to bring in the Gospel, which would lead to strifes and divisions. We have no right to be surprised, if we see this continually fulfilled. We are not to think it strange, if the Gospel rends asunder families, and causes estrangement between the nearest relations. It is sure to do so in many cases, because of the deep corruption of man’s heart. So long as one man believes, and another remains unbelieving–so long as one is resolved to keep his sins, and another desirous to give them up, the result of the preaching of the Gospel must needs be division. For this the Gospel is not to blame, but the heart of man.

There is a deep truth in all this, which is constantly forgotten and overlooked. Many talk vaguely about unity, and harmony, and peace in the Church of Christ, as if they were things that we ought always to expect, and for the sake of which everything ought to be sacrificed. Such people would do well to remember the words of our Lord. No doubt unity and peace are mighty blessings. We ought to seek them, pray for them, and give up everything in order to obtain them, excepting truth and a good conscience. But it is an idle dream to suppose that the churches of Christ will enjoy much of unity and peace before the millennium comes.

In the second place, our Lord tells us that true Christians must make up their minds to trouble in this world. Whether we are ministers or hearers, whether we teach or are taught, it makes little difference. We must carry “a cross.” We must be content to lose even life itself for Christ’s sake. We must submit to the loss of man’s favor, we must endure hardships, we must deny ourselves in many things, or we shall never reach heaven at last. So long as the world, the devil, and our own hearts, are what they are, these things must be so.

We shall find it most useful to remember this lesson ourselves, and to impress it upon others. Few things do so much harm in religion as exaggerated expectations. People look for a degree of worldly comfort in Christ’s service which they have no right to expect, and not finding what they look for, are tempted to give up religion in disgust. Happy is he who thoroughly understands, that though Christianity holds out a crown in the end, it brings also a cross in the way.

In the last place, our Lord cheers us by saying that the least service done to those who work in His cause is observed and rewarded of God. He that gives a believer so little as “a cup of cold water to drink in the name of a disciple, will in no way lose his reward.”

There is something very beautiful in this promise. It teaches us that the eyes of the great Master are ever upon those who labor for him, and try to do good. They seem perhaps to work on unnoticed and unregarded. The proceedings of preachers, and missionaries, and teachers, and visitors of the poor, may appear very trifling and insignificant, compared to the movements of kings and parliaments, of armies and of statesmen. But they are not insignificant in the eyes of God. He takes notice who opposes His servants, and who helps them. He observes who is kind to them, as Lydia was to Paul–and who throws difficulties in their way, as Diotrephes did to John. All their daily experience is recorded, as they labor on in His harvest. All is written down in the great book of His remembrance, and will be brought to light at the last day. The chief butler forgot Joseph, when he was restored to his place. But the Lord Jesus never forgets any of His people. He will say to many who little expect it, in the resurrection morning, “I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink.” (Matt. 25:35.)

Let us ask ourselves, as we close the chapter, in what light we regard Christ’s work and Christ’s cause in the world? Are we helpers of it, or hinderers? Do we in anyway aid the Lord’s “prophets,” and “righteous men?” Do we assist His “little ones?” Do we impede His laborers, or do we cheer them on? These are serious questions. They do well and wisely who give the “cup of cold water,” whenever they have opportunity. They do better still who work actively in the Lord’s vineyard. May we all strive to leave the world a better world than it was when we were born! This is to have the mind of Christ. This is to find out the value of the lessons this wonderful chapter contains.

(J.C. Ryle, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew)