Growth

Two Reasons We Drift from Community

We have a conflicted relationship with relationships. We lament our lack of community and express a desire to be known, feeling deep pain when we notice its absence, yet our genuine desire for community is unknowingly undermined by our own habits. We drift away from community. We see it. We want it. Yet we drift away from it like an unanchored boat drifting from shore, pulled by the winds and waves of selfishness and shame.

In the beginning, God created Adam and Eve to be in community. God saw Adam's lack of human relationships and said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make a helper fit for him (Gen 2:18)." When Adam saw Eve, he sang, declaring the goodness of the companion God made for him. God, existing in perfect relationship within the Trinity, created man to know and be known by another human. We were made for relationship.

In the fall, our relationships were broken. Our relationship with God and our relationship with others. Adam and Eve saw their nakedness and covered themselves with fig leaves. When they heard God walking in the garden, they hid from His presence. We were created for relationship, but because of the fall, we drift from community.

If we want genuine community, it will not happen without initiative and intentionality. We do not drift toward relationship with others, but away from relationship with others and toward isolation. We see it in Adam and Eve's response to the fall, and we see it in our own lives. If we want to fight the drift, we must know why we drift. Here are two reasons:

Selfishness

The selfishness of Adam and Eve is displayed in their first sin and also their response. They selfishly disobeyed the commandment of their loving creator. They pleased themselves and questioned the truth of God. In response, they selfishly passed the blame and took no responsibility.

Selfishness continues to undermine our relationships today. First, we sabotage community when we are selfish with our time and with our lives. Real relationships require us to seek the good of the other. Genuine community requires we consider their needs above our own. We undermine relationships when we fail to adjust our schedules to make it happen. Selfishly, we don't want community if it imposes on our lives. We only want relationships if they fit conveniently into our busy schedule.

Selfishness also causes us to drift from community because we put unfair expectations on relationships. We impose our own needs, desires and ideals on the relationship we want, and fail to see that we have made it all about us. We fail to see that it isn't real community. When we want relationships to fulfill our own needs, without a desire to meet the needs of others, we sabotage community. We drift away because unmet expectations lead us to question whether we want those relationships at all - and we end up blaming the other person, when it was us that created the problems all along.

If you want community, you must fight the selfishness that will make you want it on your own terms. You must fight the selfishness that will only take community if it is convenient. It isn't always convenient. And it won't always go as planned.

Shame

In response to their first sin, shame also led to a breakdown in the relationship between Adam and Eve. They saw their nakedness and felt a need to cover up with fig leaves. They heard God in the garden and felt a need to hide. Shame makes us want to hide. Shame makes us feel unworthy. Shame leads us to drift from community because it makes us afraid someone will see our sin.

Christian community is meant to be a safe place for us to confess sin and be reminded of the gospel. Of all people, our fellow Christians should know what it means to be forgiven, and God calls us to offer forgiveness to others. When we feel shame, that is precisely when we need community the most. When we feel unable to speak the gospel to ourselves, it is then that we need our fellow Christian to speak it to us. The words of our brother or sister remind our weary hearts of the truth of God's word. The words of our fellow Christian are a potent potion for the wound in our heart.

We drift from community because of shame. In our shame, we fear what others might say when we are "found out." If we want genuine community, we must fight our fear and walk in the light with our fellow believers. And we must affirm one another in the gospel, so we know where to find fresh water when our soul is parched. In your shame, if you find yourself drifting from community, do whatever you can to fight your way back.

How does wisdom deter a quick temper?

Do you know someone who has a reputation for being quick to anger? When you think about your interactions with them, you get the feeling you are always walking on eggshells. Everything in us wants to avoid them whenever possible - even if it requires extra work, we don't want to incur the wrath of their sensitive and irritable disposition. An even more penetrating question - are you that person? Are you the angry person whom others avoid?

Even if you are not known as an "angry person," you do get angry at times. Every one is liable to a temper. I never thought of myself as an angry person before, but as I feel the weight of more and more responsibility in life, it is like an amplifier to my sin. Under the pressures of pastoring, parenting, husbanding, home-owning, and more, I can be a bit quicker to anger than I ought. Even if you and I do not have reputations as angry people, we must admit that at times we can be too quick to anger.

There is a proverb which says that "good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense (Proverbs 19:11)." This makes me ask the question, how does good sense make one slow to anger? How does wisdom deter a quick temper? As I have pondered this question, here are some of my conclusions.

Quick tempers assume two things

The first assumption of a quick temper is that we are somehow better than the person on the receiving end of our anger. Our pride tells us that we are smarter than them, they are an inconvenience to us and they are not worthy of our patience. A quick temper assumes we are better than we actually are. This is a false assumption. This is foolishness. In the end, this leads to a quick temper.

The second assumption of being quick to anger is that we know the other person's motives, and assume the worst. We do not stop to understand the other person's situation or what has led them to do whatever it is that has rubbed us the wrong way. We assume we know before asking or understanding. This leads us to justify our anger, because we tell ourselves we have been wronged in some way and therefore, they deserve of our wrath. This also is foolishness and is the opposite of wisdom. It is foolish to assume we know another's motives, what has happened in their day or the intention of their heart.

Jesus corrections these two assumptions

In many ways, quick tempers assume the best about ourselves and the worst about the other. Jesus tells us to assume the worst about our own motives and the best about theirs. Jesus said it was hypocritical to look for the speck in our brother's eye without seeing the log in our own (Mt. 7:1-5). Good sense reminds us to consider our own sin first and do the hard work of pulling out the log before going after their speck. Quick tempers are prideful and ignorant of our own sin.

A person who is fast to anger walks around the world assuming everyone else has a plank in their eye, and is reluctant to even consider they might have a speck in their own, let alone a log. This is foolishness. Jesus reverses these assumptions. He says, deal with the log in your own eye first, then discuss the speck in your brother's. Jesus doesn't say to ignore the speck, he just says deal with your log first. He tell us to evaluate ourselves first and then confront them. The Bible does not say anger is foolish, only getting there too quickly.  

What my Kids' Bedtimes Taught me About my Heart

Bedtimes. When they come, my kids’ room can feel like a battlefield and the victory of sleep is not easily won. I would like to say bedtimes are the most peaceful moments of our family’s day. I would like to say we have a perfect routine and each night we sing our songs, say our prayers, get the kids tucked into bed, give them a kiss on their foreheads and they snuggle in for a deep sleep, not to be heard from until the morning.

That is simply not the reality in our home. We do have a routine, but it does not always go as planned and it nearly always has interruptions. And once the lights are turned off and we leave the room, the kids have perfectly timed and flawlessly executed stall tactics.

Lest I leave you disappointed, I need to tell you now, I have not discovered the perfect strategy to consistently leave your bedtime battles with a peaceful and simple victory. This is not so much about bedtimes, but what they have taught me about the battleground of my own heart. Bedtimes, and parenting in general, has helped me see what deeper idols lie beneath the surface. Peeling back the layers of sin can be ugly and parenting has a way chipping through the layers pretty quickly. My kids' bedtimes have taught me that I love control and comfort too much.

"But dad, I want what I want"

My son's transparency about his desires has helped me see my own more clearly. Earlier this year, when he would not get his way, he began to tell me, "but Dad, I want what I want." He was brutally honest, not knowing his statement betrayed his own selfishness. I began to realize I often feel the same way. Like my son, I really just want what I want.

What I have begun to see is that my experience at bedtime is highly influenced by my own heart idols – by my desire to get what I want. My frustrations can be disproportionate to the good and right motivation I have for my children's obedience and need for sleep. At some point, I am not so much motivated by what is good for them, but I am motivated by my own comfort and control. I just want them to listen, because my idol for control wants to be listened to. I want them to listen, because my idol of comfort wants to move on with the rest of my night.

Their behavior and my heart

Sleep is good and necessary for kids. Learning obedience is good and necessary for kids. Therefore, I stick in the battle for bedtimes, for their good. All the while, I wage war on my own heart idols. It’s important that we distinguish between their behavior and our hearts.

My heart issues do not give my kids the freedom to do whatever they want. We might be inclined to give up on some aspects of parenting, because at times we find ourselves having selfish motives. But we should not give up. We must pray. Repent. And trust in the gospel. Don’t allow your heart idols to stop you from following through on what you know is right and good for your kids.

Not just at bedtime

Bedtime shines a spotlight on my heart, but I have begun to see that my idols of comfort and control are present all over my home. When I walk through the door at the end of a long day at work, my idol of comfort tells me that I deserve to sit down and rest for a bit. When I am bombarded with requests to change a diaper, read a book, play with cars, set the table, take out the garbage, or build a tower, I can feel my idol of comfort fighting to say no, I just got home, I need to sit down for a bit.

My idol of control goes wild when my daughter is taking her brother’s toy… again… In that moment, I don’t want to patiently give her correction and instruction again, my idol of control wants, no demands, that she listen. In those moments, I am not as concerned about helping her understand the impact of her decisions, because I am too preoccupied with my idol of control.

Fighting our Idols

Bedtimes have illuminated some of the ugly that still wages war against my soul. I am not content to allow these patterns to continue, so when I am fighting on the battleground of bedtime, I am reminded there is also a war raging on the battleground of my heart. I cannot ignore what parenting is revealing about my idols, so I continue the lifelong habit of repentance and faith.

When sin is revealed, no matter where or when, even during the daily routine of bedtimes, I am called to repent. I am called to recognize my sin, admit my wrongs and turn away. Sometimes, this will require me to humbly ask for my kids’ forgiveness. In faith, I also remind myself of the beauty of the cross and the grace Jesus offers. As I model this for my children, they get a taste of God’s goodness – which is more important than an extra thirty minutes of sleep anyway.

We Fight Sin by Loving God

Sin is attractive. It is alluring. If it wasn't, we wouldn't be drawn to it so often. Through personal experience and conversations with others, I know sin can feel overwhelming powerful at times. In response, we often enter our battles with sin carrying a pea shooter for a weapon, while sin crouches like a powerful lion. The deeply entrenched idols of our hearts, which drive our sinful behaviors, can not be fought through a few well-devised strategies.

Two Ways we Try to Fight Sin

Sin can take on many forms. Whether it is an addiction to pornography, struggles with anger, persistent laziness, engaging in gossip or a pursuit of our own glory, sin can pounce on us when we least expect it. I have seen two common tactics to fight sin, which can be helpful, but are woefully insufficient alone. The first is that we develop strategies to induce behavior modification. For example, we might install monitoring software on our computers, so that when we are tempted to look at pornography, we don't because we know someone will see the report and hold us accountable. This is a good and helpful strategy. I think of this strategy as "building fences" and I wrote about it in another post titled, Fighting Sin by Building Fences. It is necessary, but alone, it is insufficient to battle the deeper idols which drive sin.

The second common strategy is to demonize whatever is leading us to sin. If I don't want to be lazy anymore, I remind myself over and over that slothfulness is sin. I remind myself that "a slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich (Proverbs 10:4)." This can be a helpful strategy, but it does have two problems. First, it can lead us to respond in extreme ways and walk off the road into the opposite ditch. As we demonize laziness, we can make an idol out of ambition and neglect the type of intentional rest God also wants for us. The second problem with this strategy is that we often end up calling evil that which God has given us as good. As we remind ourselves about the dangers of laziness, we often loop in all forms of rest. Even those God has given to us for our good, and call it all evil. For another example, when we demonize pornography (as we should), we can often make all sexuality to be evil in our minds, even though God has given it to be enjoyed in the right ways.

Why is Sin so Appealing?

In our battle with sin, we need to ask ourselves why sin is so appealing. What makes us drawn to it? One of the primary answers is that sin promises to satisfy our desires. It offers solutions to our deepest longings. If we long to be accepted and included, we may engage in gossip, because it makes us feel included. If we have a juicy piece of information to share, then we get to have an audience. We get to feel important, even if only for a couple minutes. Or if we want to be listened to and respected, we might respond in anger. Stern glances and loud voices seem to demand other's attention. Our anger gets us what we want and fulfills the desire we have for respect.

Sin offers us fulfillment, but it can never ultimately deliver on its promise. Gossip might gain us some acceptance immediately, but in the long run, it undermines our relationships with others and erodes the sort of relationships we seek. Anger might gain some initial respect, but it will never develop the sort of relationship that produces long-term respect from others. Sin is appealing at first, but cannot deliver on its promise.

Fighting Sin at its Roots

In the end, we need a much deeper solution to our sin. We cannot simply modify our behavior because that does not deal with the deeper longings that sin promises to fulfill. Behavioral sin is the result of heart idols. Sin has layers, and as we peel them back, we uncover those hidden motivations and desires that drive our sin. If we want to fight sin, we need to address them at their source. Otherwise, we are just mowing over weeds. At first, it looks good, but eventually the weeds will grow back. Another pass with the lawnmower is another temporary solution. Like weeds, we need to deal with the root cause of our sin. (see post, Understanding the 3-Layers of Sin)

At its most basic level, sin pursues something that only God can offer. The longing for significance that drives the pursuit of our own glory, is ultimately found in relationship with God. The desire for love that leads us to pursue acceptance through gossip or our need for respect which we seek in our angry outbursts are ultimately found only in the cross. The significance we want is found in our identity as God's children. Love is found in the unconditional acceptance of God through the blood of Jesus. Respect is established in the humble service that Jesus models for us and then calls us to as his followers.

A Surpassing Love for God

In the end, our battle with sin is fought by loving God. A surpassing love for God is the great remedy for our sin. As we experience the goodness of God, it will reveal the insufficient offer of sin. Matthew Henry once wrote, "The joy of the Lord will arm us against the assaults of our spiritual enemies and put our mouths out of taste for those pleasures with which the tempter baits his hooks." As our affections increase for our savior, sin become less attractive because we see it for the folly that it is. Like good literature - once you learn to appreciate quality writing, you can no longer waste your time on drivel. When you gain a surpassing love for God, sin loses its appeal. In the battle with our sin, we need to fight it on all fronts. We must employ multiple strategies, but we absolutely cannot neglect our need for a robust love for God. You will never win the battle against sin without it.

Asking for Forgiveness Before Grace

Creating genuine reconciliation with others is not very easy and with some relationships, it can feel impossible. When we hurt another person or commit a sin against them, it is important that we do what we can to reconcile that relationship. Even when we do, we cannot control another person's actions. We cannot force them to forgive us, but we can do our best to seek genuine reconciliation.

There are a number of steps along the path of repairing a relationship, and some of the steps really must be in the right order. One common mistake is that we jump to the step of asking for grace before we have done the hard work of asking for forgiveness. What I mean to say, is that we ask the other person to overlook our offense without taking any responsibility for what we did.

I am prone to do this in my marriage. If I have sinned against Megan or failed to follow through on something I had committed to doing, I so often want to dismiss my faults and ask Megan to just overlook my offense. Now, sometimes the ability to overlook an offense and graciously move on is a virtue (Proverbs 19:11). But the advice of that proverb is for the one being offended, not the offender. If I have done the wrong, when I am being confronted, it is not my job to point out the virtue that would be found in them overlooking that offense. My job is to take responsibility for my sinful actions and then ask for forgiveness. If you have committed a wrong and need to pursue reconciliation with someone, here are four steps that might help.

Ask God to help

Before you start to talk with the other person, talk with God. Ask him to help you. Ask him to change your heart and ask him to soften the other person's heart. It doesn't need to be a long prayer, but can be quite simple. We can follow the example of Nehemiah, in which he is asked a question by the king. Before he responds, it says that he "prayed to the God of heaven (Nehemiah 2:4)." In the brief moments between the question being asked and a response given, he takes a moment to pray. We can pray like that.

A short prayer might be all you have time for, and it is a helpful habit to get into for any circumstance. Take a moment to pray for God's strength. In some cases, you may need a longer time of prayer. It might include some time of journaling, reading our Bibles or meditating on Scripture. 

There are times when I know I am in the wrong, but I can't bring myself to take ownership for what I have done. These are the times I need to take a bit longer to pray. Eventually, God convicts my heart and I am willing and able to honestly take responsibility for my actions and begin the process of reconciliation.

Ask for forgiveness first

Once you have prayed, you need to take the hard step of taking responsibility for your actions. Part of asking for forgiveness is admitting your failures. If you are unwilling to own your mistakes, then you are not truly asking for forgiveness. This is not easy. I have sometimes said to my wife, "I am sorry for the way you feel about what I did." That is not a genuinely repentant statement. It is subtly manipulative. When I say something like that, I am not apologizing for what I did, but the fact that the other person is mad at me for what I did.

In the process of reconciliation, we need to take the hard step of being honest about what we have done and taking responsibility for it. No, it isn't easy, but it is necessary. Own what you have done. Take responsibility. Sincerely repent. State your sin clearly and then ask for forgiveness.

Ask for grace second

We so often want to demand grace from the other person without taking responsibility first. I spent six years working in higher education, and sometimes I would meet with students who had broken school policies (ie. drinking alcohol, stealing copyright music, breaking visitation hours, etc.). When I worked at a state school, the students generally just took the consequence and moved on. When I worked at a Christian school, I was disappointed with the way some students would respond. It was not uncommon for a student to ignore their responsibility and say, "Aren't we all Christians? Shouldn't there be grace?" This was a misunderstanding of the gospel and its application to our lives.

God wants us to take responsibility for our sin through repentance and asking for forgiveness. Grace is always available, but we need to take responsibility first. Taking responsibility sometimes even means incurring consequences. Other adults don't hand out consequences to one another like parents to a child, but there are natural and sometimes even formal consequences for our actions. We need to take responsibility first and ask for grace second.

Remember the Gospel

You can own your mistakes and sin, regardless of how the other person responds because you can be confident that when you are repentant, God has forgiven you through Jesus. Even when people around us respond with condemnation, withholding forgiveness and grace, we can know that Jesus does not. "There is therefore now, no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1)." This doesn't change the pain you might experience from a broken relationship or the sorrow you feel when others don't offer to you the grace Jesus has freely given them, but you are still called to own your sin and failures.

You can do it, knowing that you have been made right before the God of the universe. He pardons you. He offers forgiveness and grace. He does not withhold reconciliation. You are still a blood-bought child of the King. You are still righteous in Christ. Remember the gospel. Speak its truth to over yourself. Recall your identity in Christ.

You can own your mistakes. You can own your sin. You can name it and take responsibility for it, all the while knowing that God still loves you. The gospel frees us to be real and honest about our failures. Own it first by asking for forgiveness. And then, being found in Christ, you can confidently ask for grace. But don't ask for grace without owning your sin first.

Should our Good Deeds be Seen? Or not?

What do you do when Jesus makes two statements that seem to contradict one another? At one point, Jesus tells us we are like a city on a hill, and that we should "let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Mt. 5:6)." Not too much later, during the same speech, in fact, Jesus warns us about doing things so that we will be seen by others (Mt. 6:5; 6:16). So which is it? Do we let our light shine? Do we let our good deeds be seen? Or do we keep them hidden?

Often, what seems like a contradiction at first, can be worked out by taking the time to ask some questions and consider the intent of each statement. When we take the time, we can gain increased clarity and Jesus' words can bring transformation to our lives.

The key difference between Jesus' two statements is the outcome of each. One results in glory to the Father, and the other in glory for the one doing the good deed. In the first, we let our light shine because it radiates the good of the Father. In the second, we make our good deeds known so we can personally gain the praise of others. You cannot control the response of others, so the more pressing question for you and me is: "what is our motivation for doing the good deed?" Are we aiming at praise for the Father? Or are we aiming at praise for ourselves?

Here are three questions that can help you discern whether your good deeds should be seen by others. Or whether you are falling into the trap of the hypocrites that Jesus confronts.

What do I want people to do when they see my good deed?

This question gets at our motivation. When people see my good deed, what do I want them to do in response? Am I craving their praise and affirmation? Or am I wanting them to give praise to the Father?

Do you daydream? Do you ever imagine future scenarios in your mind and how they will play out? If so, how do you imagine people responding to your good deeds? Do you imagine them giving glory to the Father in response? Or do you imagine them giving praise to you for all the good things you have done?

Let's be honest. This is actually something we are all prone to do at times. I am not immune to this motivation. And neither are you. Jesus is calling us to be mindful about whose praise we are after and pursue the glory of the Father when we engage in good deeds.

Does my good deed necessitate a public act?

One question you can ask yourself is if the good deed you are doing necessitates someone else knowing about it. Certain good deeds, by their very nature, will be seen. Certain good deeds are done in the public arena, and cannot be done in a private way. If you are going to have a clothing drive for the homeless in your community, you will need to tell someone about it or you will not have a very successful clothing drive. The nature of that good deed requires that others know.

In the gospels, Jesus is critical of people who are fasting and giving money in a very public way. Fasting does not require that others know you are fasting. Giving money does not require that others know you have given money.

You can ask yourself. Does this good deed, by its very nature, require that other see it? If the good deed does not require that others know you are doing it, then that good deed doesn't need to be seen. Allow the deed itself to determine whether it is seen.

Am I going out of my way, so that I can be seen?

This question has some overlap with the previous one but brings another angle to test whether our good deed should be seen. Another way of asking the question might be, "in order for my good deed to be seen, have I gone out of my way to ensure that it is noticed by others?"

We want God to be glorified in our good deeds, so it might follow that we want our good deeds to be seen. We may genuinely have the motivation of other seeing our good deeds so they can give glory to God, but when we begin to go out of our way in order to ensure they are seen, then I think it is a good indication we are crossing a line.

Even if we believe our motivations are pure, if we are going out of our way to be seen, I think we have stepped outside of being the "city on a hill" Jesus describes. When a city is seen in the distance, the light shines on the horizon and is a relief to the weary travelers who approach. But the lights were not made so that travelers can see them. The light of a city serves a purpose for the city. It helps the residents walk from place to place and go about their business. The purpose of a city's light is not to be seen by those outside the city, but for those living in the city.

In the same way, the good of our good deeds is found in the very reason we are doing them. If we are raising money to fight human trafficking, the good of that deed is found in the fight against injustice. The light shines in the good deed itself. The fact that someone might observe this good deed and then praise God is not our responsibility. We are responsible for doing the good, and if asked, to give a reason for the good we do. People might see that good deed on the horizon, like a weary traveler seeing the light of a city, and praise God as a result. But whether others see it or not, whether they praise God or not, there is still good in the deed. And so we do it anyway.

 

A Week Later: Reflections on #AltonSterling, #PhilandoCastile and #DallasShootings

It has been a difficult week. Less for me than for the families that have been directly impacted by this past week's events (although I have had some personal and ministry related challenges that were added to last week's events). It might be a hard few days or weeks for some of us, but it will be a hard few years or more for the families impacted by the deaths of the past week. My heart grieves for the four year old girl who watched as Philando Castile bled out in front of her. Or for the 12 year old boy who had to bury his father after the Dallas shootings.

Beyond the families that were impacted, you can add entire cities and neighborhoods. My small city of Lauderdale borders Falcon Heights, and the Saint Anthony Police Department helps to serve and protect my little suburb. The Philando Castile shooting occurred a mile and a half from my home, and I was driving along a parallel street about the time he was shot. The proximity of that particular shooting has made this so much more personal for me. And I know that I am not alone. The people of Baton Rouge, Dallas, Minneapolis and Saint Paul are experiencing this in a far more personal way. Those who have been impacted by similar events in the past, are being reminded in fresh ways of their own previous loss.

This is my experience. I write this post as my reflections. I recognize that I am a white male, whose experience in life has been largely privileged. I know that as a member of the majority culture, certain advantages have been given to me, and as a result, I cannot fully understand what the black community is experiencing in the wake of these events. But I know they are hurting, and the pain is real. My heart grieves for them as well. I cannot imagine what it is like to walk around in the country you call home, and feel oppressed.

I generally write as a pastor, helping to "equip the saints for the work of the ministry." I write as a mentor, helping you along your journey as a follower of Jesus. In this post, I do not assume a voice of authority on this subject. These are simply my reflections. My thoughts. I am watching as so much hatred, injustice and vitriol is flying around me, and I felt compelled to speak. Not as one who knows the way, but as one who is walking the journey with you.

As I said, these are just my reflections. In the wake of these events, I have been asking, "What am I to do?" I don't want to do nothing, but what am I called to do in response to last week? So, here are five actions I want to take:

Pray

I believe that God can change hearts and minds. Some have found the statement, "My thoughts and prayers go out to... [insert affected party here]," to be a weak and pithy response. I disagree. At a minimum, it is an expression of support, but far more than that, it is a statement about where our trust lies. My thoughts and my prayers have been given to these events and the racial reconciliation I believe God wants - and I trust God with it far more than myself.

I don't know what else to do sometimes. Prayer seems like the only response I can muster. The first action I want to take in the midst of this tumultuous time is to pray. And so that is what I will continue to do.

Listen

I want to be someone who is humble and willing to listen. As I mentioned earlier, I experience a great deal of privilege in this country. And as a result, I believe it is my responsibility to listen well. Whether I agree with someone's perspective on these matters or not, I want to make sure I hear them well enough to understand what they are saying.

I think everyone could do a little better job of listening. I have seen way too much hatred spoken and unfounded statements made over the past week. I don't want to add another voice to the conversation unless I have taken the time to hear another well.  "God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).”

Listening also involves hearing more than one side. I have tried to read and listen to voices from all sides of these issues. I want to hear the pain that is real. I want to listen the proposed solutions. I want to use my ears before I use my mouth.

Speak

I don't want to be silent. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who as murdered by the Nazis for his rebellion in Germany, once said, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act." I do not want to keep silent when I see injustice in the world. I don't always know what to say and I want to use my words wisely. The tongue is a powerful tool, so I want to wield it well.

I have a voice and I have a small measure of influence. It might be small, but I feel responsible to use my influence well. I don't have a clear vision of how, but I know that I don't want to stay silent.

Do

Speaking is not the only way to affect change. And I know that I cannot do all things, but I am reminded of Gandalf's statement in The Lord of the Rings,

“It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.”

I may not be able to do much. But I have seen that inequity exists, and so I want to do something. I believe that God wants to redeem and restore broken relationships and broken systems. Jesus, "went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21 ESV)

Jesus came to fulfill what was written in Isaiah. Until the day Jesus returns, we will still see the impact of sin on broken relationships and broken race relations. But God still wants his people to work toward the reconciliation he brings, and will fully bring in a time yet to come. I don't know that I can do much, but I want to do something.

Hope

It can feel perilous. The complexity of the issue is massive. But there is hope. One day, God "will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4).” Or you may think of it the way Sam does, when he asks Gandalf, "Is everything sad going to come untrue?" The answer is yes. Yes, it will.

Even now, I believe there is hope. I remind myself that God is good and in the middle of our pain, we can end in praise (Psalm 13). I have seen some reasons to continue hoping that God will restore relationships. There is a video on CNN's website of opposing protesters who come together in Dallas and pray. It is powerful to watch.

I believe there is hope. There is always hope to be found in God.

The final thing I will end with in my rambling reflections is a video. Jenny and Tyler, who have a heart for fighting injustice in the world have a great song called Faint Not. It is a call to endure, even when you feel like your efforts to affect change are not helping. I believe there is hope, so this is a reminder for me to Faint Not.

Four Ways Words Impact the World

When words pass the threshold of our mouths, they can never be put back, no matter how much we wish they could. Once spoken, the things we say enter into existence, and with them comes the impact of those words. Sometimes they enter the world and offer a helping hand to someone in need, other times, our words enter the world like a right hook, landing on the cheek of a loved one. Have you ever said something you immediately wished you could have back? Have your words ever exited your mouth like a fist rather than a hand of help?

Our words are powerful. They are something we ought to consider more intentionally, and speak more thoughtfully. It must be said that we are imperfect, and will say things we regret. In those instances, we must be ready to repent and seek reconciliation. Even so, by the power of God's Spirit, we must also seek to gain control over our tongue and give it direction.

James exhorts his readers to give consideration to their tongue (James 3:1-12, and in view of his reminder, here are four ways our words impact the world.

Speak words with humility

James starts with a reminder that we should seek to teach with humility. This is less about the way words impact the world, and more about the manner in which we speak them into the world. He says that "not many of you should become teachers," because those "who teach will be judged with greater strictness (Js.3:1)." When we choose to speak, especially as one with authority to teach, we must approach that role with humility. It is a weighty responsibility, and one that will be judged with greater strictness. We must enter into that role with humble hearts.

Every week, as I send a new article out into the world wide web, I do it with a bit of timidity. I am on a journey of sanctification myself, and like each of you reading this, I am imperfect in my actions. I write as someone who is still in process, and yet, when I write an article, I step into a role of teaching. It is weighty, and I feel the burden. My prayer for myself, and for anyone who aspires to teach and write, is that we would do so with great humility and a sense of the responsibility for the task.

Ideas can change the world

This doesn't necessarily come from the text in James, but something I have thought about a lot recently. Two connections from this passage warrant me mentioning it here. First, the reference to teachers. Words are a primary medium for teaching. Words are powerful, and teachers must use them well. Second, the mention of the disproportionate power of words relative to the size of the tongue. Words are powerful and God uses them to change the world.

I have recently gotten into listening to audio books when I am driving, running, cleaning or working on house projects. Through audio books, I have been able to listen to numerous biographies and history books. One theme I have noticed is that people who have had a significant impact on the world nearly always know how to use the power of ideas and words. Whether for evil, like Adolf Hitler or pro-slavery advocates in American history, or for good, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jonathan Edwards or Martin Luther.

As pastors, church leaders and Christ-followers, we have the most powerful message in the world. The good news of Jesus Christ, which permeates ever area of life. I have been challenged to consider more deeply what God teaches and how I can communicate these truths in clear and compelling ways. Words are a powerful medium to shape our world and culture. God spoke the world into being, Jesus came as the word made flesh, God's primary way of communicating with us is through His Word, and as his people, we are called to use words to serve God's mission in the world.

The tongue is more powerful than its size

It can be easy to take our words for granted, because they flow from our mouths so readily and originate from such a small part of our body. What James' letter so masterfully communicates is that the tongue has disproportionate power given its size. He utilizes some analogies to help us get a picture - the relatively small bit in a horse's mouth, which allows a rider to direct the powerful animal's movements, or the small rudder that enables a captain to steer large sea vessels, or the small fire that can set a forest ablaze. Each of these images are meant to remind us that even though our tongue is small, it can give rise to powerful words.

Further, the tongue is not easy to control. We can so quickly let something slip from our mouths that is like poison to another. Words can take on the form of many different weapons - the poisonous spread of rumor and gossip, the blunt force of vulgar yelling, the arrow like precision of a well timed smear or the suffocating force of an onslaught of insult. These weapons of verbal war flow from us, often without thinking twice. Sometimes we regret what we have said, and other times we don't even realize the pain we inflict.

Consider the words you use and the way you speak to those around you, often to the ones you love the most. First, recognize the power of the things you say. Do not take lightly the impact your words can have on the people around you. Second, ask God to help you gain control over your tongue. It is a powerful instrument, and one which cannot be easily mastered. You need God's help, so don't hesitate to ask.

The tongue has disproportionate power given its size.

Words can bless or curse

The final way our words impact the world is through the dichotomous ends of blessing or cursing. James comments on the fact that with the same mouth we "bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God (Js 3:9)." We use the same mouth to sing worship songs on Sunday and fling words of insult that afternoon. We praise God with our lips and then use them to defame people made in His image. Our words can either speak life or death. They can bring blessing or cursing.

James is calling his audience to fight this inconsistent behavior when he writes, "these things ought not be so (3:10)." The mouths we use to praise God, for such a good and glorious purpose, should not be used to also degrade His people. Our words have the power to heal or hurt. With our mouths, we have the ability to extend a helping hand or swing a fist. Ask God to help you master your tongue this week, and use it as a means of blessing to those around you.

"But Dad, I want what I want!"

Four Ways to be Less Selfish

My son has learned a new phrase. When he is frustrated and not getting his way, he says, "But Dad, I want what I want." In some ways, it is an important developmental step for his little four year old mind. Recognizing that he gets frustrated because he isn't getting what he wants can be good. Learning how to respond appropriately to that desire is something we are still working on...

But his phrase has also been illuminating for me. Hearing him say "I want what I want" has shined a spotlight on my own selfish tendencies. I have been reminded that my heart is prone toward selfishness. And it has been very clear that the most common reason behind my anger or frustration is that I am not getting what I want.

When I get frustrated with the other drivers on the road, it is usually because I am not getting what I want on the roadway. Wouldn't life be so much easier if everyone knew what I wanted and made it happen... When I get angry at my children, it is often because I feel personally wronged, because they have not done what I wanted. In conflict with my wife, a barrier for my own repentance and reconciliation is often that I don't want to give up what I want.

My son's own revelation has led me to recognize I am far too often motivated by my own selfish desires. At my core, God is still working on my heart and still changing my desires. It has been a helpful reminder as I fight my sin of selfishness. Here are four ways I think we can be less selfish.

Remember that Jesus was unselfish toward us

One way to disarm our selfish hearts is to remind ourselves that Jesus was unselfish toward us. There is truly no greater example of selfless and sacrificial love than Jesus dying on the cross to redeem us from our helpless plight. Jesus was innocent. Rather than selfishly keeping his innocence, he gave it away to us. In fact, I would argue that keeping his own innocence wouldn't have been selfish at all, because it was rightly his. But rather than keep what was his, he gave it to us. And in return he got our sin. He took our shame and our guilt, nailing it to the cross.

Jesus even prayed in the garden that this cup would pass, but ultimately he wanted to do the will of the Father. Jesus was entirely selfless toward us. When we feel a desire to be selfish, and to "get what we want," it can be helpful to remember how Jesus acted toward us, and respond in the same way toward others.

Get enough sleep (and other healthy habits)

I had a couple late nights last week, because I stayed up to watch the finale of one of my favorite shows. I noticed pretty quickly the next morning that I was going to have to battle my own crabby and selfish heart, which seems to have more power when I am tired. Michael Hyatt has done a lot of writing on the impact of sleep, and its effects on your life. Lack of sleep can have a very negative impact, so we must fight to be well rested.

Additionally, healthy eating and exercise can help us grow in our patience and grace. John Piper, in his book Brothers, We Are Not Professionals, talks about the importance of making wise choices with our health, ultimately in the service of a greater purpose.

"My aim for pastors is not your maximum physical health. Nor is it to help you find ways to get the best buzz for your brain. My aim is that you will find a way of life that enables you to use your mind and your five sense as effective partners in seeing the glory for God and that you be so satisfied in Him that you are willing to risk your health and your life to make Him known." (pg. 185, Brothers we are Not Professionals)

Here is how I see this working out practically. We need to pursue rest and physical health, so that when the time comes for us to sacrifice those things in the service of selfless acts (ultimately in the service of God's glory and the good of others), we are equipped to do so. When my child is up in the middle of the night scared because of a night-terror, I want to be well rested enough to sacrifice my sleep in the moment to care for them well. Or when I need to give up my meal for someone who needs it more, I want to have cared for myself well, so I am in a right frame of mind to sacrifice my food for the good of another.

Caring for myself is extremely important, but always in the service of a greater purpose. If I tell my child in the middle of the night that I can't help them deal with their nightmare because I really need to get some rest, so that I can be less selfish tomorrow, that would be crazy.

Care for yourself now, SO THAT you can sacrifice yourself later.

Choose intentionally selfless acts

One way we can fight our propensity toward selfishness is to intentionally and consistently choose selfless actions. When we purposefully choose selfless acts, we train ourselves to choose them again in the future. Like the muscle memory of an athlete or musician who practices the same simple action over and over again, so that they can repeat the action flawlessly under the pressure of performance or competition, we can train ourselves to move in the direction of selflessness rather than selfishness.

When we know we will be entering a situation that will require self-sacrificing choices, we can plan ahead and prepare ourselves. Or when we have the opportunity to be selfless when it is "easy," we can prepare ourselves to fight selfishness when it is hard. Think about ways you can make the intentional choice to be selfless, and plan ahead to act in that direction. Choose intentionally selfless acts and thereby train yourself to be sacrificially loving toward others.

Care for yourself now, SO THAT you can sacrifice yourself later.

Remind yourself of God's love for you

One of the key drivers for selfishness is the fear of losing out on what we so badly desire. We are often selfish out of a desire to protect ourselves and what is ours. Selfishness is heightened when we feel insecure and afraid. We fight to gather and retain what is ours. But when we remind ourselves of God's love for us, and the security He brings to our lives, we are more prepared to fight the temptation to be selfish.

"What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

“For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:31-39 ESV)"

This passage in Romans 8 is a great reminder of who we are in Christ. Who can separate us from God? Can famine, nakedness, danger or sword? No! We are more than conquerors through Christ. What in this world is worth our selfish desires when we have the love of God? The God, "who did not spare is own Son, but gave him up for us." That is the kind of love the Father has for us. When we are confident in God's love for us, we have less need to seek our security in the world, which leads to less desire to "have what I want," which leads to sacrificial love toward others. Fight selfishness by reminding yourself of God's love for you in Christ.

Three Common Barriers to Hearing a Sermon

Sermons are a central feature of the Sunday morning church gathering. Especially in Protestant and Evangelical churches. Whether it lasts for twenty minutes or fifty minutes, no single portion of the morning will be given as much importance or weight. And when done properly, we can understand why, because preaching is meant to be the explanation of God's Word and exhortation of God's people. But unfortunately, there are many barriers to hearing the sermon well.

I am not talking about circumstantial impediments, such as volunteering on a Sunday, loud children or problems with the sound system. The barriers I want to discuss are the ones that hinder you from truly hearing the content of the sermon on Sunday, even when you are able to listen distraction free. When you are sitting in the pew, ready to listen, but you just can't seem engage with the sermon. Or you feel like it isn't having an impact on your life. There is a fog that doesn't seem to lift, and the words are fighting to get through like headlights in the hazy precipitation of your mind, but you leave feeling unchanged and unaffected.

There are many reasons you may find it hard to fully participate in the sermon on Sunday. Too many for me to enumerate here, but allow me to suggest three barriers, that if rightly confronted, may help you engage more this coming week.

When you hear a sermon, hear it for yourself and not your neighbor

We are prone to believe that problems exist more in others and less in ourselves. Sometimes because we are prideful and fail to understand the propensity for sin that exists in our hearts (Jer. 17:9). Or we avoid our own issues, and make ourselves feel better by focusing on the sin of others. Rather than asking ourselves how the sermon will inform our own understanding of God or the way we live, we think about how great it would have been for our friend, neighbor, coworker, spouse or classmate to have heard that sermon. You may even approach your pastor after the service and say something like this to him, "That was a great sermon pastor, I only wish my cousin Suzy would have been able to hear it."

When teenager, Deborah Hatheway, a new believer in Suffield (then part of Massachusetts, now part of Connecticut), wrote a letter to Jonathan Edwards in 1741, she asked for his advice to a young convert. He wrote her a letter with a number of points, and one of them begins like this:

"When you hear sermons hear ‘em for yourself: though what is spoken in them may be more especially directed to the unconverted, or to those that in other respects are in different circumstances from yourself. Yet let the chief intent of your mind be to consider with yourself, in what respects is this that I hear spoken, applicable to me, and what improvement ought I to make of this for my own soul’s good?" (you can read the entire letter here)

The advice was as valuable then as it is now. When you hear a sermon, listen to it for yourself, not your neighbor. There might be good application for others, and it may be given with a different sort of person in mind, but your job is not to hear it for them, but for yourself. Before asking who would benefit from hearing the sermon, ask how you can personally learn and grow from hearing the sermon.

When you hear a sermon, listen to it for yourself, not your neighbor.

When you hear a sermon, listen for what can be helpful rather than jumping to critique

In the age of podcasts and celebrity pastors, every local pastor gets compared with nationally known pastors and speakers. It is simply not fair to expect your local pastor to give sermons that compare with some of the most gifted and talented preachers in our nation. God has gifted each person in a different way and for a different task, so don't compare your pastor's sermon to the one you heard last week on a podcast by Matt Chandler, Timothy Keller, John Piper, James MacDonald or many others. It isn't helpful to your pastor. And it isn't helpful to you.

If you are wondering why you aren't getting anything out of the sermon, it might be because you are spending the entire time critiquing every word that is said and comparing them to others. Rather than spending the sermon asking yourself what is wrong with it, stop and ask yourself what you can learn and apply from it.

There is a place for critique. And we must be honest, not all sermons are good. But good sermons are often dismissed because they are not great sermons that will go viral. Be careful to not undermine the work God wants to do in you and your church community because you have spent the whole morning being critical. Your pastor probably doesn't need another critic. But he could use another person in his church who is taking God's Word, and their own growth seriously.

When you hear a sermon, find a way to keep your mind attentive

There is a lot happening in life. You have projects to complete, groceries to buy and work to finish. Monday is just around the corner and a new week is on the horizon. When we are listening to the sermon, our minds can wander to many of life's responsibilities. These are often important and necessary things to think about and deal with, but just not during the sermon. Our inability to keep our mind on the subject at hand is a barrier for hearing the content of the sermon.

I have two very practical suggestions. First, take notes. Bring a pen and a notepad, or use the sermon notes page that you are given when you walk through the door. The notes don't have to be extremely detailed, but even creating an outline will help you stay focused. It will help you follow the general argument and progression of the sermon. And it will help you stay focused and attentive.

Second, have a place to write down the important thoughts that pop in your head, which do need to be dealt with eventually. I find it hard to get mental distractions to go away if I don't write them down. I can't let them go, because I don't want to forget to deal with them later. So they hang out in my mind, taking up space and mental energy, crowding out room for me to take in the message of the sermon. If I have somewhere to write down the thoughts that pop up, then I am able to let them go, knowing I will remember to deal with them later. I actually practice a similar habit when I am reading my Bible, praying or having a quiet time.

Be ready this week, to hear the sermon well

There are likely other distractions. If you can think of one that I didn't mention, write it in the comments section below. Otherwise, prepare yourself this week to be more engaged in the sermon content. Be ready to fight the barriers that commonly occur. Be ready to listen to the sermon for yourself and apply it to your life.

Do you Make Time for Extravagant Waste?

The world goes round each day. The sun always rises in the east and it always sets in the west, and the next day it returns to the same place. People drive to work and people drive home. The freeways get clogged the same time each day. Only to get clogged again the next. You can empty your inbox at the end of the day, only to find it has filled again by the same time tomorrow. Sometimes life feels a bit monotonous. 

Sometimes life is exhilarating. Anyone who has been a student or worked on an exciting project knows the pressure of approaching deadlines. When schedules get full and projects mount, it can feel like running on a treadmill, speeding up with no end in sight. Day-by-day the pressure builds, and it crowds out everything else in life.

Whether monotonous or stress-filled, life has a way of crowding out our willingness to spend time on activities that feel "impractical," but are essential for our souls and our creative energies. When we get up in the morning, rather than taking time to be quiet - spending time in prayer, meditating on God's Word or journaling - the pressure of the day assaults us like cold water to the face.

The need to accomplish

We feel an intense need to accomplish something in our days and lives. Utility and pragmatic solutions press hard against us. In the world of ministry, or much of life, we fail to step back and take time for reflective work. For creative work. For the life of the mind.

I recently had lunch with a friend, and as we discussed what it means to truly be God's people in the world - what it means to be The Church, I was reminded that I often fail to take time to think deeply about important issues. I am pulled quickly to the practical, the immediate, the useful. Carving out time to read, write, create, dream, pray, journal or just think is hard. It feels like a tug of war for my time. And the immediate seems much stronger in its pull.

Do you create time in the present to invest in what feels like a waste? Or do looming deadlines crowd it out? Do you create moments in your days to not accomplish a task, but to invest in the immeasurable and impractical?

Creating space for extravagant waste

There is a video by Sara Groves, a singer-songwriter based out of the Twin Cities. In the video, she reflects on a blog post by Makoto Fujimura, in which she quotes him saying, "Pragmatism and utility have infected every area of life, every institution... primarily the church." Sometimes the space we create, that doesn't always seem pragmatic or useful is "extravagantly wasteful."

I appreciate her reflections, which you can watch in this short (2:30) video:

Our society focuses on Utility and Pragmatism - and it is has crept into The Church as well. Everything must be useful. But that is not always the way of God. Makoto Fujimura is a prominent artist in New York, who loves Jesus. You can read his blog post - the one Sara Groves quotes - here.

And here is a neat video about Makoto illuminating The Four Holy Gospels for Crossway in order to commemorate of the 400th anniversary of the King James Version Bible.

God's economy is not our economy

I am not like Makoto Fujimura. He is an artist, who is fully immersed in the artists life. I am not like Sara Groves. She also creates in a way that I am not wired. Fujimura and Groves are artists, who push hard against the utilitarian and pragmatic society in which we live. They push hard against the way my personality naturally flows. While I am not an artist in the sense of Fujimura and Groves, I do have a desire to create. I like to write, to share in the beauty of creating. I write to bring glory to God and good to others. And their words are helpful to me as I consider my own life.

God does not always gain the most glory in what is most useful and most efficient. That is not the economy of God. He is notorious for using things that seem impractical to the world. Sometimes he is most glorified in what would be deemed wasteful to the world. God's wisdom is not ours.

Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25)

From the world's point of view, there was nothing more wasteful, nothing more foolish than the crucified Christ. Why would God subject himself to that sort of suffering? Why would the innocent die for the blemished? Why would the perfect die for the imperfect? Why would the sinless suffer a sinner's death? The only real answer is love and beauty. Love for His people and being glorified in the beauty of this sacrificial act.

God does not always gain the most glory in what is most useful and most efficient.

Make time to do the impractical

Investing in the impractical is not easy. It takes effort and it takes intentionality. For the sake of clarity, this is not the same as being truly wasteful. Rejecting pragmatism, only to find yourself binging on social media, television, food or folly is not what I am talking about.

The intentional investment in the extravagant waste that Sara Groves talks about, that Makoto Fujimura writes about or that we see in the death of Jesus does not happen by accident. We do not stumble into this sort of living. It will be a fight, because everything in our world and our culture will pull you into the monotony, the stress-filled projects or the truly wasteful entertainment binge.

Make time this week to be extravagantly wasteful. Take the time to have a true Sabbath. Take the time to think about theology. Take the time to read your Bible. Take the time to have a conversation with someone that may not feel "strategic" but simply to nourish their soul (and yours). Take the time to pray, unhurried prayers. Take the time to create. Take the time to meditate on a passage of Scripture. Take the time to paint. Take the time write. Take the time to go on a walk. Take the time to listen to good music.

Take the time to invest in your soul. To draw close to God. To push hard against the world that will want to collapse upon the time you have set-aside. Make time to do the impractical. Make time for extravagant waste.

5 Questions to Ask when Reading Your Bible

For many, the Bible can be intimidating - its okay to admit. I have heard many people tell me they often don't pick it up, not because they don't want to read their Bible, but because they are afraid they will not understand what they read. What people don't know is that there are far more people in the same boat than they realize. Sadly, admitting you are scared of the Bible is feared more than the Bible itself. Unfortunately, this leads to isolation and people don't ever ask for help. This is one of the reasons I wrote my short e-book Rooted: 5 Steps for Better Bible Reading.

The short book includes some helpful steps to get your Bible reading started, and you can get it here. Today, I want to share five questions that you can ask each time you read your Bible, in order to help you understand and apply what you are reading. They are not complicated, and they are not difficult to understand. You can use them every time you read, and they can help dispel some of the fears you have when you approach the Bible.

1. God, will you help me? (Pray)

Each time you start, begin by asking God to help. Ask him to help you understand and apply what you read. God has chosen to communicate with us through His Word, don't ever doubt that He wants to help you read it well. Pray and ask God's Holy Spirit to help you understand what you are reading, and I believe that He will. God delights when people read their Bibles in their pursuit of knowing Him and living in a way that is consistent with His character.

2. What is the text saying? (Observations)

Without needing to fully understand every detail of the historical context (although it can be helpful to learn more about this over time), just begin to make observations. What is the Bible saying? Who are the main characters of the story? Who is the author of this portion of Scripture? What events are taking place? Who is mentioned? Who is the original recipient of this portion of Scripture? What commands are given? What key words are used? What words are repeated?

This does not need to be complicated or scary. Without needing to interpret or apply what you are reading yet, simply make observations. No observation is stupid. You won't answer every question, nor will you make every possible observation. Begin with the most obvious observations, and work toward the more hidden ones.

3. What does the text mean? (Interpretation)

Once you have made your observations, then move into the interpretation stage. You are primarily asking yourself, what does the passage mean? You aren't asking what it means for you yet, only what it meant originally. You don't need to bridge the gap of history all at once. What principles are behind the text that you reading? And what did it mean for the original audience? What is it saying about who God is and the way He is working in the world?

This stage is meant to help us gain an understanding of the original meaning of the passage. This will include an understanding of the original command itself, but also the principle behind the command. Generally, when reading our Bibles, we are after the principle, because that will help us understand how to apply it to our lives now.

4. What does the text mean for us today? (Application)

In this stage, we start to bridge the gap of time. We can ask ourselves if there are sins we are called to avoid? Or is there an example to follow? Is there something we are intended to learn about God or his Character? Is there a command follow? When we think about the principle of the text, how does that apply to my life today?

We must always remember that the Bible is not primarily about us. It is primarily about God. We can get into the habit of reading the Bible as though it is intended to be some "good advice" for our lives. And while it does inform how we are intended to live, it is not just a book of rules and principles. So, we must be careful in this stage to not minimize the Bible or its message. With that said, we are still meant to ask what the text means for our lives today, and how it informs the way we are called to live.

5. What is the text telling me to do? (Action)

As a result of all your prayer, reading, study and meditation on God's Word, this is the final question - what am I called to do today? What am I called to do this week? Try to be specific. It might be simple, it might be profound. Either way, God is calling us to be obedient to what we have read. Not in a legalistic fashion, but in response to the love God has revealed through His son. Obedience does not need to equate to legalism. Legalism is something to avoid, gospel-driven obedience is something to celebrate. Before you put down your Bible, just ask yourself how you are being called to obedience as a result of what you have read.

Legalism is something to avoid, gospel-driven obedience is something to celebrate.

Summary of the questions - As steps

When you put it all together, you can think about your Bible reading in five simple steps.

Pray | Observe | Interpret | Apply | Act

I become more and more convinced each day that Bible reading is an absolutely essential, but commonly neglected practice among God's people today. The Bible is filled with numerous insights and its depths can be plumped for a lifetime, with new and rich deposits discovered day after day and week after week. People spend their lives trying to understand the Bible and teach it to others. A myriad of degrees, at all levels of study, can be sought in the study of the Scriptures. It is true that the Bible can feel overwhelming at times. But it does not need to be.

If you need or want help, please ask for it. Don't be afraid to ask for help. Ask me. Ask your pastor. Ask a friend. But in the meantime, these five questions might give you what you need to get started. Or grab my e-book, by clicking on the image below. You will never regret a single minute you spend investing in God's Word. And no time is too late. You can begin right now.

How do we Measure a Day's Success?

When we get to the end of our days, we can be prone to question whether it was a "successful" day or not. We may end our day, with a pile of laundry in one corner or a sink full of dishes in the next room, and tell ourselves that it is "good enough." Or maybe an email remains unsent, a phone call not returned or a bill unpaid. The repetition of ending our days and telling ourselves, "it's good enough" can begin to weigh on us. We can begin to feel like failures and question our ability to function adequately in our roles.

My wife and I have been in that stage perpetually over the last few months. We had the privilege of welcoming our third child into the world the end of last December and it has been a joy to see him and our family grow. But the addition of our newest son has meant living with three children under the age of four, and many nights we go to bed with tasks undone. Many nights, we go to bed and have to say "it's good enough."

But as we have reflected on this stage, it has become clear that we need to re-frame the way we measure a day's success. It is not measured in the tasks we complete, or the ones left undone, it is measured in a different way.

The problem with "it's good enough"

One of the reasons we have found our former measurement inadequate is because ending the day consoling ourselves for incomplete tasks with the phrase "it's good enough," does an injustice to the good things God has done though us that day. It creates a false sense that a good day is one in which all the mess is cleaned up at the end and the task list is filled with check-marks.

This is not to say that laziness and apathy in our responsibilities is what God wants. I love to be productive. I read productivity blogs, I use a modified form of David Allen's "Getting Things Done" system and I try to find the best tools to help. I am not saying that working hard, in the right direction, is somehow a bad thing.

What I am saying is that our task lists and daily measurements have a habit of undermining our understanding of what it means to be truly productive in our days. Tim Challies has a great definition of productivity:  "effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God." I like to think of it as exhausting ourselves in the service of God and others. When we have spent our days and used our energy to bring Glory to God and good to others, then it is a day well spent.

When we have spent our day bringing Glory to God and good to others, then it is a day well spent.

A new measurement

Saying "it's good enough" only focuses on what was not complete, and neglects to consider and celebrate what did happen in our days. Exhausting ourselves in the service of others and the glory of God means that we have spent our days changing diapers, folding clothes, counseling friends, doing good and honest work, giving up our preferences for others and investing ourselves into the fabric of our community. If we get to the end of our day, and there is work to be completed, but we can say with confidence that we have worked hard for God and others, then we can rest easy.

And if we get to the end of our day, and it has been a mess of a day, we must always remember that our identity is not in what we did or did not do, it is in Christ. We remain blood-bought children of the King, whether we used our day well or abdicated our responsibilities. God still loves us, and he wants us to rest easy, knowing that we remain in grace. But he calls us to try again tomorrow, to exhaust ourselves for God and others tomorrow.

The example of Christ

When we begin to examine the life of Jesus, we see that he completed all that His father gave him to do. At the end of Jesus' earthly ministry, in what has become known as the High Priestly Prayer, he says to the Father, "I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do (John 17:4)." Jesus went to the cross, confident that he had done the work the Father had given him.

But in Acts, we read a story of Peter and John entering the temple and passing a man who was lame from birth, a man whom others laid at the gate each day. We do not know for sure, but I think it is possible, even likely, that Jesus had passed him at least once while on earth. And if not the lame beggar in Acts three, we know that when Jesus went to the cross, there were many who remained lame, blind or worse.

For Jesus to claim that he completed all that the Father gave him to do, and yet there remained lame beggars outside the temple, we must deduce that healing those lame beggars was not within the scope of Jesus' mission. It wasn't on his "task list." It is helpful for us to also remember that we have a range of priorities and responsibilities in our own life - just as Jesus did during his time on earth. We cannot do everything. We can only steward well, the responsibilities God sees fit to give us.

And that doesn't mean doing everything. Or even having everything done at the end of every day. There will be interruptions. There will be seasons in which we feel less able to finish it all. But if we have spent our energy, our days and our lives in the service of God's glory and the good of others, whatever that means for the range of responsibilities God has given to us, then we can go to bed confident that we lived well. Not telling ourselves, "it's good enough."

Love God. Love Others. The Ten Commandments

We have started a new preaching series at First, and we are looking at the Ten Commandments. I had the opportunity to kick off the new series, as we looked at the first of the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, there are a number of misconceptions and false assumptions about the Ten Commandments. They might feel outdated to some, or burdensome to others. You may have been on the receiving end of another person's attack, as they used one of the Ten Commandments as a weapon of war against you. Sadly, many people's experience with the commands does not actually mirror the intent of these commands.

The commands were given to God's people, by God, in the context of relationship. They were not written by human hands or conceived in the mind of man. They were not given as a way of earning God's love and relationship, but were given in order to inform God's people about how to live as God's people. As we preach through the series, we begin with the foundational understanding that the commands are ultimately about love. Love for God. Love for others.

The Greatest Commandment

Our understanding of love as the foundation for the Ten Commandments is seen in the teaching of Jesus. He was asked by a religious leader which commandment was the greatest. And he answered:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depends all the Law and the Prophets (Mark 12: 37-40)."

Jesus is asked about the greatest commandment (singular), and he responds with two. They can be summed up with the words, Love God and Love Others. The first part of his response is a quotation of Deuteronomy 6:5, which is a summary of the Ten Commandments that Moses gives to Israel following his retelling of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy 5.

The second half of Jesus' answer is a quotation of Leviticus 19:18. Jesus wanted to make it very clear that love for God and love for others goes hand in hand. You cannot separate them. Paul follows Jesus' line of teaching when he also quotes Leviticus 19:18 as he explains that love is foundational to understanding the Ten Commandments.

“For the commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,’ and any other commandment are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law (Romans 13:9-10)

The teachings of Jesus, Paul and other NT writers all point toward love being foundational to understanding the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, love is a relatively undefined word today. So, over the next nine weeks of our preaching series, we are going to explain how love is foundational for the Ten Commandments. And today, I will explain three ways that love relates to the first commandment, to have no other gods before God (Deuteronomy 5:7).

Love for God is based on His Character

Our love for God is based on who He is and what He has done. All throughout the Scriptures, we see God's people pointing to God's character as they express their love, commitment and worship. Psalm 105 is a great example. Here are the first six verses:

“Oh give thanks to the LORD;

            call upon his name;

Make known his deeds among the peoples!

Sing to him, sing praises to him;

            tell of all his wondrous works!

Glory in his holy name;

            let the hearts of those who seek the LORD rejoice!

Seek the LORD and his strength;

            seek his presence continually!

Remember the wondrous works that he has done,

            his miracles, and the judgments he uttered

O offspring of Abraham, his servant,

            children of Jacob, his chosen ones! (Psalm 105:1-6, emphasis mine)”

We love God because of His character. Because of who He is and what He has done.

Love for God is singular in its devotion

God calls us to have no other God's before Him. There is no room for our worship of other gods. It is made quite clear that the God of the Bible is distinct from all other gods. He is not just a god among gods. He is The God over all gods. He is the creator God who has laid the foundations of the earth. Our love for God means we are wholly committed to Him. Having no gods before God is about loving God with our whole selves.

The problem is that it is so common for us to make idols out of God's good gifts. We so often turn good things into idols, such as family, work, money, sex or any number of other gifts that God has given us. John Calvin once wrote, "Man's nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols." Our hearts produce idols like General Mills produces Cheerios. Idol after idol flows from the conveyor belt of our hearts. As we grow in our love for God, we also must fight against these idols that want to come between us and God.

Having no gods before God is about loving God with our whole selves.

Marital fidelity is actually a great picture of this singular devotion. As we are committed in our marriages to one another, to having marriages that are singular in their devotion, sacrificial in their love and fully devoted in their commitment to one another, we give a compelling and clear picture of God's love for His people.

Love for God is in the Context of Relationship

God gives these commands in the context of a relationship. The preamble to the Ten Commandments (Deut 5:6) explains God's relationship to His people. He says that he is the Lord their God, who freed them from the slavery and oppression of Egypt. God has chosen to have a relationship with Israel, and He has proven His commitment to them by freeing them from Egypt. Once the relationship had been established and proven, then, and only then, God lays out the commandments for how they were to live as God's people.

It is still the same for us today. We keep the commands, not as a burdensome set of commands. Not as weapons of war against one another. They are commands that are given in the context of a loving relationship that God has initiated. Through Jesus, God is our redeemer. Just like he redeemed Israel from the slavery and oppression of Egypt, he has freed us from the slavery and oppression of sin. He has initiated a relationship with us through Jesus, and chosen us to be His people. And now, in the context of that relationship, he asks us to respond in obedience.

We must get the order correctly. Relationship proceeds the commands. If we get the order backward, then we will feel compelled by a need to somehow earn God's love through our performance. Something that cannot be earned, but is freely given through Jesus. Relationship always proceeds the commands. And through Jesus, we can have that sort of relationship with God.

Understanding the 3-Layers of Sin

Sin is complicated and it is messy. One of the great challenges to fighting sin is that we don't always understand sin or see how it works. While there is no magic pill that eliminates sin from our lives, I have learned a few things about how it works that might help you in our own battles with sin.

Sin has three layers, and we often fight it at the wrong level, which is part of why we find ourselves failing to see progress. The outermost layer of sin is the behavior level. It is the most noticeable and observable and therefore the level we spend most of our time in battle. The problem is that our behaviors have a deeper root, a sin beneath the sin. This deeper root is the second layer - the layer of heart idols. Jesus says that out of the heart the mouth speaks. And that good trees (heart level) bear good fruit (behavior level), while bad trees (heart level) bear bad fruit (behavior level) (Luke 6:43-45). Over and over again, the Scriptures make it clear that our behavior is a product of what is happening inside our hearts. Finally, an even deeper level exists, which is our Christ-centered identity. Ultimately, all sin flows from a loss of understanding regarding our identity.

 

Why behavior is not where we do battle

The reason that we do not simply fight our sin on the behavior level is because it will not ultimately solve the real problem. Its like drinking a lot of coffee to make up for the fatigue caused by a lack of sleep. Drinking coffee may fix the immediate need, but it is the lack of sleep that needs to be remedied. Our sinful behaviors are merely an expression of the deeper sin issue that exists in our heart. If we deal with the behavior, but never fix the heart issue, then our deeper sin will reappear as a new behavior or just reemerge five years down the road as the same behavior. We must deal with the deeper sin.

For example, if someone is struggling with looking at pornography, then they need to not only eliminate the behavior, but also deal with the underlying issue. Looking at pornography is at the behavior level, and is an expression of a deeper heart idol. The deeper issue might be a need for significance, which they seek in the images on a screen. The deeper heart idol might be a need for control, which they find when they look at pornography. These deeper heart idols need to be analyzed and dealt with, or the behavior will return. Whether in the same way, or a new way, the deeper sin will always express itself in sinful behavior.

Why we still fight against the behavior

Even though we need to ultimately deal with the heart issues, changing our behavior does matter. We still need to create habits and patterns in our life that help us to fight the behavior, so that we are freed up to deal with the heart. If we are constantly expressing our anger by yelling and losing control, we will have a heard time dealing with the underlying issue that drives our anger and loss of control. If we never stop looking at pornography, we will have a hard time dealing with the deeper heart idols that express themselves in those behaviors. Creating safe-guards and fences to help us eliminate behavior, gives us the space to deal with the heart. Like the fences around a yard to keep children safe inside. It isn't restrictive, it is actually freeing. If there was no fence, there would be no playing outside. When there is a fence, there is freedom to play. In the same way, we build fences to keep us safe from our sinful behaviors, so we can deal with the deeper heart idols. I wrote about this principle in a previous post, and you can read it here.

Knowing our identity is central to fighting sin

At the deepest level, our sin is the product of a loss of identity. When we fail to recognize who we are in Christ, and what our new life means, it leads to heart idols. When we forget that we have all the significance we need in Christ, we seek it in other places. When we forget that Christ is in control, and that it is far better for us when he is (Romans 8:28), we try to gain control on our own. So in the battle with sin, we need to constantly remind ourselves of our identity in Christ.

At the deepest level, our sin is the product of a loss of identity.

The way to fight sin is not to degrade the good things God has given us in life, which we have turned into idols, it is to elevate Jesus and remember the goodness of the Gospel. One way to do this is to make a habit of preaching the gospel to yourself, which you can read about here. Another great resource would be read Timothy Keller's book Counterfeit Gods.

Sin is manipulative and deceptive, and therefore it is very difficult to fight. When we have a better understanding of how it works in our lives, we can see progress in the battle.

Stop Trying to Have the "Perfect" Quiet Time

Do you feel like you need to have the “perfect” quiet time? Each time you sit down to read the Bible and pray, do you feel bad if it was not earth shattering? Does your inability to ever achieve the holy grail of quiet times keep you from coming back again?

In my experience, whether it is spoken explicitly or felt implicitly, there is a sense that each and every time I take a moment to pray, meditate and read God’s Word, I need to have a ground breaking experience. Let me just tell you that you don’t. You can stop trying to have the “perfect” quiet time. Release yourself from that burden. 

The pursuit of the “perfect" quiet time is debilitating

The nobility of wanting to have the absolute best quiet time is actually working against that great desire. The weight of that high standard is crushing people, and actually keeping them from spending time with God at all. If we fail in our attempts to achieve the perfect quiet time, over time we begin to stop trying. We begin to believe that investing in time with the Lord doesn’t achieve anything anyway, and we give up.

The impossible standard we set, leaves us feeling like we have failed and that it is not worth trying again. It is like me attempting to beat Lebron James in basketball. It will never happen. I might initially think that I have a chance, and might event attempt more than once. But after getting beat down repeatedly, I would eventually give up, having determined that it just isn’t worth trying anymore.

The pursuit of the perfect quiet time is an impossible task, and because we can never achieve it, we eventually give up. Stop trying to pursue the perfect quiet time, and just start to spend time with God. Even if it isn’t earth shattering every time, over time it will transform your life into the image of His son.

You are far better off having numerous slightly imperfect quiet times than giving up in the pursuit of the perfect one.

The pursuit of the “perfect" quiet time is foolish

This isn’t just a debilitating pursuit, it is a foolish one. Because it just isn’t going to happen. The Bible makes it very clear that we are imperfect people, whom Jesus has and is perfecting. We are still in process.

We need to have accurate expectations that are consistent with what the Bible says about humans. The Bible says that we have sin in our lives. We cannot deny it, in fact, if we do then we make God out to be a liar (1 John 1). We cannot deny our finitude, and we must acknowledge its impact on all areas of life. Including the moments that we spend with God.

We will not experience Him perfectly, because we are imperfect. And it is okay. We cannot ignore it or deny this reality. Thinking that we could have a perfect quiet time is inconsistent with a Biblical anthropology. It is foolish to pursue. So, stop trying.

The pursuit of the “perfect” quiet time isn't what God wants

God doesn’t expect or need the “perfect” you. Through Jesus, he has already made you perfect, and he is perfecting for all time those whom he has already perfected (Hebrews 10:14). God doesn’t want your “perfect” quiet time, he just wants you.

Do you think he doesn’t know that you have sin in your life? Do you think he doesn't know that you feel distant from Him sometimes, even when you are reading your Bible and praying? God knows. And He still wants you to keep investing in your relationship with Him. We are fatally flawed, but we are also radically loved.

God doesn't want you to achieve perfection on your own in order to spend time with Him. He wants you to spend time with him, and through that relationship, he will work perfection in you.

God doesn’t want you to achieve perfection on your own in order to spend time with Him.

So, if you struggle to engage in consistent quiet times because you feel the impossible weight of the elusive "perfect" quiet time, then I want to release you from that burden. And if you want some help in reading your Bible, you can read more about it here or download my e-book here.

5 Questions Every Husband Should be Asking

During the month of January, four different men are contributing guest posts in our "The Family Man that Follows Jesus" series. It will give me a month off, so I can spend time with my growing family, and I am really excited to personally learn from the series myself.

This week, Andy O'Rourke, Lead Pastor at Antioch Community Church has written about 5 Questions Every Husband Should be Asking. Andy is a great man, working hard to pastor a vibrant faith community in Northeast Minneapolis. I really appreciate his exhortation to husbands in this post, and I pray you are encouraged by his words as well. A more complete bio of Andy is available at the end of the post.

Asking ourselves the right questions

This year my wife and I celebrated our 16-year anniversary. It’s been an incredible ride. The road has included five moves, two dogs, three academic degrees, four jobs, and two amazing children. When it comes to being a godly husband, I don't claim to be an expert, but my tires definitely have some wear. Over the years I’ve learned a lot, and still have much more to learn! Recently, I was reflecting on the apostle Peter’s instructions to husbands in 1 Peter 3:7, where he says,

"Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (ESV)."

Peter’s admonitions are brief, but powerful and convicting. As I think about growing as a husband in 2016, I’ve been wrestling with five questions I believe every husband should be asking himself. 

1) Am I dwelling with my wife?

Marriage is the beginning of a new life together between a husband and wife. It’s much more significant than simply gaining a permanent roommate. Sure, you share the same space with your spouse, but you can share space without sharing lives. Marriage is a call to share life together, to dwell together. You dwell together physically, emotionally and spiritually. You share hopes, dreams, joys, struggles, disappointments and everything else the journey of life brings. 

In order to dwell with your wife, you have to be present. This means being physically present. If your busyness or personal pursuits are preventing you from investing time in the most important human relationship you have, then something has to go. Dwelling with your wife also includes being mentally present when you’re together. Focus upon her. Listen to her. Turn your phone off, if that’s what it takes. Be available in both body and mind.

2) Am I a student of my wife?

I’ve always valued being a “lifelong learner.” I’m curious about all types of things and I love gaining new knowledge. I love envisioning what the future could look like, and then establishing goals and strategies to get there. But, do I study my wife? Do I really know her deeply? Do you know what your bride is struggling with? What does she need most from you right now? Could you recount to someone how she has grown over the past year? Do you have a vision and strategy for how you want her to flourish as a woman of God? It doesn’t really matter if you like school or not, every husband needs to embrace his calling as a lifelong student of his wife. 

3) Am I adoring my wife?

Peter tells husbands to “show honor” to the most important woman in their life. This involves granting your wife the respect she is rightly due. Honoring her is more than mere appreciation or honorable mention. Your wife doesn’t just want to be thanked. She hungers to be adored by you. Platform her. Lift her up. Take action and show her how much she is valued by you. Work at this with time, energy and creativity. As you create an environment of adoration you will allow your wife to flourish.

Your wife doesn’t just want to be thanked. She hungers to be adored by you.

4) Am I affirming my wife as a fellow heir in the gospel?

Leadership doesn’t mean the person you lead is of lesser worth. Good leaders seek to serve and elevate those around them. They want to do everything in their power to set others up for success. Leaders should never belittle those they lead. Husbands who are followers of Jesus need to lead like Jesus. Part of your sacrificial, servant leadership as a husband includes affirming your wife’s identity in Christ. Though you may have distinct roles as husband and wife, you are heirs together of the abundant riches found in the gospel. This world screams a thousand messages each day about what it means to be a woman. Remind your wife what it means to be a woman of God. Remind her who she is because of Jesus’ work on her behalf. Help her discern the truth from any lies she might believe about her identity. Affirm her in Jesus.

5) Am I praying for my wife?

The end of 1 Peter 3:7 includes a sober warning to husbands. The warning is to husbands who would neglect Peter's preceding instructions. They don’t strive to love their wives well, and maybe they don’t even care. Unrighteousness as a husband will actually cause your prayers before God to be hindered. That’s a terrifying thought. Neglecting my wife will create a barrier between God and I, built by my own hypocrisy. Notice, Peter’s warning assumes something basic. A godly husband is a praying husband. Let’s start there. Husbands need to come before God on behalf of their wives. One simple way I’ve learned to pray for my wife is to ask her, “What are a couple ways you’d like me to pray for you this week?” It’s a great encouragement to know someone is praying for you, especially your own husband.

Becoming the husband God intends

The purpose of the five questions above is not to make husbands feel more defeated or inadequate. They’re intended to help us be more intentional as we take our God-given responsibility seriously. Without the acceptance and security available in the gospel, these questions will crush you. But through the grace and strength of God’s Spirit, we can grow as godly husbands this year. I encourage you to ask yourself these five questions on a regular basis, knowing that in Jesus you’ve been given the ability to become the husband God intends you to be and the husband your wife longs for. 

More about Andy

O'Rourke_Andy.jpg

Andy grew up in rural Iowa and became a follower of Jesus at age 16 through a local, evangelical church. After sensing God’s call to vocational ministry, he pursued theological training at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, and recently completed his Master of Divinity at the University of Northwestern St. Paul. Andy has always been passionate about raising up leaders and planting churches to reach the next generation. Antioch Community Church is the second church Andy has planted, and he is excited to continue to start churches locally and globally. Andy has been married to his high school sweetheart Sara since 1999 and they have two amazing children, Ava and Luke.


Peace or discontent this holiday season?

Thanksgiving leads to peace

The Thanksgiving Holiday is upon us and it is a great time to remember the many things we are grateful for in our lives. Some families will spend time at their meal on Thursday, going around the table and sharing what they are thankful for this year. Other families have found new and creative ways to express gratitude for the many milestones, experiences and people they want to acknowledge. Whatever your traditions, it is a great time to remember that thankfulness and gratitude leads to peace in our hearts.

God has established thankfulness as an antidote for discontent, anxiety and a self-focused life. Like penicillin to bacteria, a grateful heart erodes the virulent effects of worry. It restores health to our hearts and brings peace.

The holidays are not always a time of joy and celebration for everyone. For those who have lost loved ones, the season makes people more acutely aware of their loss, not less. The chaos of family gatherings, unmet holiday expectations and what some have tagged as the "post-Christmas blues," can all strip us of the joy and peace that is commonly associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas.

But God has not left us without a remedy. Thankfulness brings peace.

God has established thankfulness as an antidote for discontent.

Biblical link between thanksgiving and peace

Over the years, I have encountered moments of anxiety and worry. It can eat away at me, seemingly uncontrollable, like rust over the body of a car. Once it sets in, it feels impossible to stop. But in Paul's letter to the Philippians, he gives us some instruction about how God wants us to fight this imposing threat to our joy. I do not know for sure, but this may be the first verse I ever memorized, and it is a constant reminder of God's peace in my times of anxiety.

"Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplications, with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

          - Philippians 4:6-7 (emphasis mine)

In this passage, Paul exhorts his audience to not be anxious. He then gives them instruction about what to do instead of indulging the pestering anxiety that is in them. He tells them to pray, bring supplications and be thankful. Prayer and supplication is the requesting part. It's when we ask "God, I am struggling here, please help me!" This is an important step. Making our requests to God, and asking for his help. In my experience, most people stop there, myself included. But Paul also says that we ought to do it "with thanksgiving."

What happens as a result? "The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."

Thankfulness needs to be part of the equation. When we are anxious, we must do more than ask for help. Take some time to remind yourself of what you have to be thankful for. It is not magic. It is not some easy, quick fix sort of response. It takes work, and it requires some investment. But thankfulness will begin to erode the foothold that anxiety has in your life when you remind yourself of the many things you have to be grateful for.

4 practical ways to add thanksgiving into your life

1. Thanksgiving truths (begin with the gospel)

You have to start with the truth of the gospel. There is no greater reason to be thankful than the reality that God has sent his son into the world to save sinners. While we were the enemies of God, he pursued us and brought life where there was death. And he continues the work of bringing his kingdom to bear on the world. No matter how much you gain or lack in the world's goods, the life that Jesus brings is reason to give thanks. One way to do this is to begin a habit of preaching the gospel to yourself. Read more about this practice here.

2. Thanksgiving dump

In moments of anxiety and worry, you can stop and do a thanksgiving dump. Pull out a journal or piece of paper, and just begin to write down the things you have to be thankful for. You can be thankful for Jesus, for a job, for a home, for a friend, for family members, for the beautiful day, for the lunch you just had, for the kind smile of a stranger, for a good conversation, for a church home, for coffee, for donuts, for God's Word, for God's presence, for your wife, for your children, for your car, for your education, for your health, for your experiences, for.... The list can go on and on and on. No matter how big or how small, you have things to be thankful for.

Through prayer and the leading of God's Spirit, I have done this exact activity. There are so many things that I take for granted on a daily basis that are reasons to be grateful. We need to readjust our attitude and see them as gifts rather than assume them as givens.

3. Thanksgiving journal

This is similar to the last one, but it involves creating a regular rhythm of thanks. Whether you do it daily, weekly or whenever you are able, you can begin a gratitude journal. Each day, write down one thing you are thankful for. As you build a pattern of thanks into your life, you will have stores of thanksgiving to draw upon in your moments of worry and anxiety. They will serve as a reminder that God has given you much more than you deserve, and anxiety and worry need not be indulged.

4. Thanksgiving wall

Another version of the thanksgiving journal, is to create a thanksgiving wall in your home. This would be a great activity for a family to do together. Maybe you write directly on the wall itself, or maybe you write on a white board, or a sheet of paper. Choose a location and a method and begin to write down the many things for which you can give thanks.

Its a start, not an end

Beginning to create a habit of thanks in your heart and a culture of gratitude in your home does not fix everything. The circumstance that brought anxiety to your life still needs to be dealt with. Thankfulness can bring clarity to a situation, so that we can respond to the real problem.

What do you have to be thankful for this day, week, month or year? (please share in the comments below)

Following Jesus Means... We Fish for Something New

I have begun a series on the multiple uses of the word follow (akoloutheo) in the gospels. The word is used in multiple ways, but one of the primary uses is to describe someone who commits to following Jesus as his disciple. We can learn a lot about what it means to follow Jesus by examining the different instances when follow (akoloutheo) is uses.

Posts in the series:

We have been given a new job

Following Jesus means that we fish for something new. No longer are we fully occupied by our current or former professions, but we invest our energy into a new task. In the midst of Jesus calling his first disciples, he makes a statement that has become well known and often repeated. Jesus tells his first disciples, "Follow (deute opiso)  me, and I will make you fishers of men (Mt 5:19, see also Mk 1:17 and Lk 5:10)." It says in the following verse "Immediately, they left their nets and followed (akoloutheo) him (Mt 5:20)."

Note: For the integrity of this study (of the word follow), it is important to note that the Greek work that is translated as follow in verse 19 is different than the Greek work translated as follow in verse 20. Although, the usage is similar in the two passages, and does not prohibit us from extracting the lesson that followers of Jesus have been made into "fishers of men."

When you follow Jesus, you have been called to also help others become his disciples. The initial call to his disciples is at the beginning of his ministry, but Jesus gives a similar call at the end of his ministry. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations... (Mt 28:18-19a)." Without a doubt, part of what it means to follow Jesus is to help others follow him too.

Without a doubt, part of what it means to follow Jesus is to help others follow him too.

Fishing for men

I grew up in a family that loves to fish. My grandfather fishes, my mother fishes, my father fishes and they have made it a point to teach my brothers and me how to fish. Fishing is currently not a regular part of my life, but I enjoy getting the opportunity to fish when it does happen. I recall many times when my dad would be up late re-spooling our fishing pools, getting his tackle box organized or taking care of other miscellaneous tasks in preparation for a fishing trip. In this way, fishing is intentional. It is not passive. You cannot just show up on the shoreline of a lake with no preparation, knowledge or tools and hope to catch anything.

Jesus says that as his followers, we are now called to prepare and invest in the task of calling others to follow him. Do you think about this on a regular basis? How have you invested in Jesus' call to invite others to follow him?

What can we learn from the fishing analogy?

Jesus uses the concept of fishing to communicate the new and glorious task his disciples would be called to as his followers. While the analogy is not comprehensive, we can learn a few things about fishing for men when we think about fishing for fish.

1. We Must be Prepared

Fishing requires preparation. We need to get the right tools, know what sort of fish are common in the body of water, know how to tie a fishing line, etc. You cannot just show up and expect fish to jump into your boat.

Trying to share the good news of Jesus requires a certain degree of preparation as well. You might say, no it doesn't - you need only to know Jesus yourself and then the Holy Spirit will do the rest. While that may be true to some degree, the Bible also advocates that we are "always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15)." As we grow in our own faith, and desire to be increasingly more effective at sharing the gospel, we should be prepared.

Being prepared means that we know something about the worldview those around us - know their basic assumptions, their questions and their idols. Being prepared also means that we have answers for those questions. If someone has questions about whether we can trust the Bible, are we ready to give an answer? We do not have to know all the answers, but we should try to be as prepared as we reasonably can.

2. We Must Be Patient

Fishing also requires patience. I have been on the lake with nothing in the bucket one day, and catching my limit on another. You cannot always predict when the fish will bite, it requires patience. I personally like to go fishing when I know that I can catch fish. Others say that, "A bad day fishing is better than a good day working." Maybe you agree...

Patience is also required when we "fish for men." It can take time for barriers to break down, questions to be answered, wounds to mend and for people to come to faith in Jesus. You cannot always predict who will respond to the gospel, and we need to be patient when we invite others to follow Jesus. Don't give up though. Love people well, share the good news and allow the Holy Spirit to do His work.

3. We Must Be Proactive

You cannot sit at home and expect fish to wonder up to your door. If you are going to catch fish, you need to go to the lake, get in a boat and put your line in the water.

Sharing the gospel also requires us to be proactive. We need to get into relationships with people that don't know Jesus. If you spend all your time with people that already follow him, you will never have the opportunity to invite new people into a relationship with Jesus. Not only that, if you never speak about your own relationship with Jesus to the people you already know, it will also be difficult to invite them into a relationship with him. Be proactive in the task of sharing Jesus with others.

What is your next step?

As a follower of Jesus, you are called to "fish for men." You do not have to be Mr. Evangelism. That is not what I am saying, nor is it what Jesus says. Just take a step toward a life of multiplication. It can even be small, but take a step. Before you leave your computer or phone, take a moment to write down one step you will take to be a more proactive fisher of men. And share it in the comments for others to read.

Technology I Use: Fighter Verse App

I enjoy technology. Probably too much at times. It can be a distraction for me, but I have also found ways to use it in my personal life and my ministry. Every now and again, I would like to share a piece of technology that has been helpful for me.

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Do you memorize Scripture?

Scripture memorization is an important discipline that many people struggle to implement in their lives. The majority of Christians I know wish they memorized Scripture more, and most don't make it a habit in any meaningful way. Most people do not grow up memorizing Scripture, and if they do it can often be about simply memorizing, but not about having those passages shape and inform their life.

It might be one of the most underutilized tools God has given us to grow as his followers. We don't always have a Bible in front of us, or have access to God's Words when we need them most. Rather than having the words of the Bible rolling around in our minds, we have song lyrics from the top 40 station. God's Word is like fertilizer for the soul, giving nourishment and growth. But we often choke ourselves of the most valuable nutrients, replacing it with food that is neutral at best, and toxic at worst.

God’s Word is like fertilizer for the soul, giving nourishment and growth.

I exhort you to memorize Scripture more, and I commit to doing it with you. I do not memorize as much as I want, but I have found a tool that has helped me do it more over the past five years than I had before. And I will be working to increase my own habits of Scripture memorization.

Note: If you want to memorize Scripture with me, let's do it together! We can encourage one another in our desire to memorize Scripture more. If you are interested, use my contact page to send me a message.

Fighter verse app

The Fighter Verse app was developed as a tool for the Fighter Verses that are used by Bethlehem Baptist Church. There are five sets of verses, with fifty-two per set. They can be memorized one per week, over the course of five years. After five years, you can start over, because it is almost certain that you do not still have all 260 passages memorized.

Here is a link to Bethlehem Baptist's explanation of their Fighter Verse Program.

Fighter Verses has its own webpage, with more information that you can read. It has the current weeks verse, memorization tools, devotional articles and much more to help you memorize Scripture.

4 reasons I use the Fighter Verse App

1. Great memorization tools

There are many great memorization tools within the app. You can easily turn the verse of the week into your wallpaper image and use it as your lock screen or home screen. There are also many great quizzes that you can use to help you memorize (ie. fill in the blank, etc.). You can listen to the verse or hear it sung. There are multiple different tools to help you memorize Scripture, and support multiple different learning styles.

2. Easy to use

The app is simple and easy to use. There isn't much more to say about it than that. Its easy to find the verse for the week, and as you scroll down, the different memorization tools are readily available.

3. Always available

This is one of the great reasons to use the app. I pretty much always have my phone with me. If I am waiting for something or someone, I can take it out and spend five minutes memorizing the passage. I am often tempted to spend those short bursts of time looking at social media, checking the latest sports score, responding to emails, etc., but I would rather invest that time in the task of memorizing Scripture.

4. Always improving

The developers are always finding ways to improve the app. In my opinion, this is one of the most important elements to a good app. If no one is attending to it and updating it, then I am weary about how long the app will last. At the time of writing this, the newest update is only two months old. I have seen new tools added over the past four years, and I appreciate that the app is always improving.

Where to get it?

iOS App: Read about it here and download it here.

Android App: Read about it here and download it here.

The app does cost $2.99, but is is a worthy investment into your own growth.