MEN ARE FORMED, NOT BORN

The news of men has not been good of late. My friend Tommy died last week. The last I heard he was in the Roanoke Rescue Mission. But in the end, he was homeless, doing crack, meth, and heroin. The drugs took him at 52.

There’s the porn epidemic. As Catholic writer, Benjamin Wiker, has said, “Our sexual environment is about as polluted as China’s air, and the harm caused by such pollution is just as scientifically demonstrable.”[1]

Then there’s the swelling cohort of insecure, indecisive, incompetent young men whose directionless energies are squandered in endless pursuits of, well, that’s just it, nothing special. As Auguste Meyrat recently wrote, they are “hapless chumps” who can “make observations, crack jokes, ask questions…but they cannot make theses and support them.” Women may “friend-zone” these guys, but they won’t marry and have children with them.[2]

And its common knowledge that one of the greatest common denominators for mass shooters (not counting jihadis) is that they are young, alienated men, with absent, abusive, or just irrelevant fathers.

Males are born, but men are formed. And our culture is failing to form them.

Cultural trends for the last forty years mitigate against it. “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle,” founding feminist Gloria Steinem said, and a whole generation of women believed her and did without. That movement, along with constant media mockery of men as sleazy sex addicts or buffoonish oafs, removed much of the motivation men had to become something other than overgrown boys.

Healthy masculinity, the kind that gets tough when the going gets rough and tender when it doesn’t, has also been undermined by hypocrites like Bill Cosby and pedophile priests. But they are only the most famous of a multitude of men who hide predatory natures behind a faith and family friendly mask.

What’s to be done? Specifically, what can the church do? The most important thing we can do is buy into my thesis: Men are formed, not born.

There are definite attributes and specific disciplines that separate the men from the boys that can be passed down from one generation to the next. They have nothing to do with physical or sexual prowess and everything to do with character formation. We can work out the details of how to do that later, but we must buy in first. We must believe that positive masculinity can and should be formed in young men by older men.

Too many fathers and too many church men assume that “boys will be boys” and just let them raise themselves or worse, “let their Momma do it.” That’s not meant as a slam on moms who sacrifice endlessly for their children. But the truth is that young men do not respond the same way to women as they do men they respect. As a result, we have a generation of “feral children,” who—wishing they were real men—have mistaken real masculinity with owning powerful weapons and hyped-up pick-up trucks. Or else mistaken it for feminine virtues that, while admirable, aren’t masculine and therefore do not satisfy the innate need of a male to achieve manhood among other men.

My friend Tommy grew up a feral child. His father abandoned him early in life and rarely offered anything other than criticism for his son’s failings. Like all of us, Tommy made choices for which he alone was responsible. He had multiple opportunities to turn his life around. But I can’t help wonder how his life might have turned out if the right set of men had taken him in and committed to train him how to be a man.

[1] https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2017/08/04/sexual-pollution-is-a-scientific-and-destructive-fact/

[2] https://www.intellectualtakeout.org/article/ts-eliot-poem-describes-modern-males-perfectly

DEALING WITH ANTAGONISTS

One day a farmer, who was a Quaker, was having trouble with his mule. He was trying to plow his field, and the mule was being unusually stubborn. He wouldn’t move. So, the Quaker decided to talk to him ‘reasonably’. “Thou knowest that I am a Quaker. Thou knowest that I canst not curse thee. Thou knowest that I canst not whip thee. What thou dost not know is that I can sell thee to my neighbor down the road. He is no Quaker, and he can beat the living daylights out of thee.”[1]

All of us can identify with that Quaker. We face opposition. There are things we would like to say or do. Then there are things that we can do and still call ourselves Christians.

Nehemiah chapters four thru six are a study in how to deal with opposition. The first six verses of chapter four teach us three things about handling that antagonism.

Antagonism often manifests as ridicule. All of us are vulnerable to it because all of us have glaring weaknesses. Shine the light on them and we get discouraged. Nehemiah’s enemies pointed to five: their competence, their faith, their hope, their resources, and their potential.

All of us feel incompetent at some time or other. Never more than when we’re about to try something new. And we fear the name “fanatic” because it isolates us from our peers. Every task feels bigger when our hope is undermined. We’re easily intimidated when our resources are thin. And our confidence is shaky when we the risks of failure are high.

What to do when we face that kind of antagonism?

Let me give you an encouraging thought here. When someone is ridiculing your work it probably means that they are afraid you might succeed. The best thing that you can do then is…succeed!

Notice Nehemiah’s threefold reaction.

He Does Not Respond in Kind

We can waste a lot of energy trying to right every wrong that is spoken of us. Or we can take the same energy and invest it in doing good work and let the work speak for itself. Keep reminding yourself that people ridicule you because they are afraid of your success.

He Prays

And what a prayer! “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.”[2] But what a problem for Christians! Aren’t we supposed to pray for our enemies, offer blessings instead of curses? Yes. But we live with two realities that Nehemiah did not have: The death of Christ and the life to come.[3] We know that we too are sinners, capable of injustice and slander. And we know for certain, because Jesus promise was validated by his resurrection, that all injustices will be made right by God in the end. So it is not wrong to pray for justice as long as we leave its execution to God.

The final thing Nehemiah did is the most powerful thing anyone can do in the face of ridicule.

He Got on With It

On September 18,1939 the British radio public began hearing a steady stream of ridicule from Lord Haw Haw. He was actually William Joyce, an American born Irishman who as a senior member of the British Union of Fascists, had escaped to Germany before he could be jailed. Every evening Joyce, broadcasting from Hamburg with the voice of an upper-class Englishman, ridiculed Great Britain’s losses to Germany, her lack of preparation, her hopeless situation before Germany’s superior military might. Many British subjects fell under his spell. But most did not. Most believed and followed Churchill.

Lord Haw Haw kept right on broadcasting until April 30, 1945, when British soldiers overran Hamburg.

The British did what Nehemiah and the Israelites did. They ignored the ridicule, went to work, and finished the job.

You know what happened to the Nazis. And William Joyce? They hanged him for treason on January 3, 1946.[4]

What to do in the face of ridicule?

  1. Do not return evil for evil
  2. Pray, allowing God to sort through your emotions and guide your convictions.
  3. Ignore their words and do your work – perseverance pays dividends in the end.

[1] Boice, James Montgomery; Commentary on Nehemiah, pg. 50

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Ne 4:4). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

[3] Brown, Raymond; The Message of Nehemiah; The Bible Speaks Today Commentary pg. 74.

[4] Wikipedia.org

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS

SUCCESS UNDER STRESS

Long ago in our seminary days, my wife and I moved into Park Place Suites, a brand new three-story 162 bed extended stay hotel in the middle of an older but stable part of Memphis, Tennessee. My boss, a developer from Atlanta, built the hotel with a grand plan. He would provide housing, transportation and meals for students of the Defense Contract Audit Institute, located across the street; employ us to live on site and run it on the cheap like a Mom & Pop operation; and make pots of money.

The plan had four fatal flaws. I knew nothing about running a hotel and neither did the developer. Park Place, like so many start-up businesses, was under-capitalized. We needed $80,000 per month to operate and were cash strapped from the first day. We had no contract with the government, no guarantee that their students would use our gleaming new facility. And most deadly, we had no links to a national reservation system, no marketing plan. A website with links to all the travel services would have helped. But the web didn’t exist yet.

I knew what to do. I wanted to go to Holiday Inn’s six-week manager training school (Memphis was HI’s backyard). I wanted a contract with the government. Most importantly, I wanted to buy into Best Western’s reservation network. I wasn’t sure we could get the government contract. But a mere $18,000 would have put me through school and put us in the Best Western system.

But I couldn’t convince my boss. The stress put me in the hospital. I’m sure there are worse things than being cussed out by contractors you can’t pay and bouncing a $40,000 mortgage check but it ranks right up there on the ugly scale for me. I quit to finish seminary. The bank took the hotel back a couple years later.

Everyone experiences stress. It comes when we don’t have the wisdom, authority, cash or other resources to deal with a problem. Nehemiah was a genius at it. This week and next we’ll examine some of his secrets to success under stress.

The first is communication. Read the first two chapters of Nehemiah and you find that he was careful about communication. That is, he was intentional about timing, tact, and truth.

Timing is everything, especially when communicating with authority. Good timing depends on discernment, paying attention to the moods and moments of someone else’s life. It means understanding when the pressures are getting to your superior and when they aren’t. There’s a great line in Pirates of the Caribbean 1: “Wait for the opportune moment.” Prayerful people, like Nehemiah, usually discern those opportunities.

Tact, speaking well when the moment arrives, is also critical. Nehemiah’s “May the king live forever,” is courtly courtesy. Courtesy is the oil that lubricates the fine machinery of civilization. Tact depends on it. But courtesy is no longer a virtue in America. Incivility is the tone of the day.  Nehemiah never stooped to that with his authorities or his subordinates. He never lost his cool and therefore did not lose his head.

Finally, when the right moment presents itself, tell the whole truth. Know what you want to do. Know how you’re going to say it. Then say it. Go for clarity. Nehemiah was very clear. “Let him send me to the city…so that I can rebuild it.”

He did not say, “Let me survey the damage and report back.” Or “Let me go visit my uncle and cheer him up.” He presented the whole vision in one bold sentence. But first he prayed.

There is a time for long prayers and a time for short ones. When you see God bringing your long prayers to fruition, don’t get cocky. Pray a short prayer and then move boldly in faith.

Everyone deals with stress. Handling it successfully requires timing, tact, and truth. We’ll learn more about stress-management from Nehemiah next week.  I hope you’ll login then.

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

PIVOTAL MOMENTS

Pivotal moments often arrive when we least expect them. An email in the inbox, a phone call in the evening and life reaches a cross-road. A new path emerges. Will we take it? Nothing will ever be the same if we do. And nothing will ever be the same if we don’t. We want to know, need to know, is it the right one? Is God in this? How can we tell? How do we know it’s him?

A man named Nathanael had a day like that. His story is in John 1:43 – 51, a text that always intrigues. Why did Nathanael react so profoundly to Jesus’ simple statement in verse 47-48? Why, when Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree …” did Nathanael make a pivotal declaration that would change his life forever?

“You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” (v. 49).

Most commentators focus on verse 51, linking it to Jacob’s ladder in Genesis 28, and of course they are right. But that still doesn’t answer the question. Verse 51 came after verse 49. So, what happened? How did Nathanael know it was Him?

The first clue is in verse 48.

“How do you know me?” he asked. This, in response to Jesus’ comment, “Behold! An Israelite in whom is no guile!” tells us that when Jesus made that observation, he pinged something deep in the man. He revealed that he knew something about Nathanael that only God could know because Nathanael had only discussed it with God.

The fig tree is the clincher. Up until that point Nathanael could speculate that Jesus was a perceptive observer of human nature. But the fig tree in Jewish life is a literal place with a figurative meaning. A man sitting quietly under his fig tree is a man sitting in a peaceful place meditating and sharing his innermost thoughts with his creator. We might compare it to our favorite chair or place of prayer when we think quiet thoughts with God.

Imagine the topic of Nathanael’s meditation that day. What could it have been to draw such a powerful response? Something along these lines perhaps: “God I will not hide my thoughts. Nothing is hidden from you anyway. You know my going out and my coming in. I will tell you what I think and ask you my questions. Teach me your way.”

Imagine then that Nathanael goes on to speak to God about his struggles. It could be some sin or temptation. It could be unbelief or concerns about his people. It could be issues with his wife or his family or his work. We don’t need to know the specifics to identify with his struggle. We only need to know that he was being transparent with God in that moment under his fig tree. He was telling God what he really thought, even though it might not have been something he would want to say out loud at church. “God, I’m telling you the real deal here. I’m not holding anything back, not pretending to be holy. I’m just telling you the truth about what’s happening in my soul.”

I bet you’ve had discussions like that with God. I know I have. Then you open the Bible and it speaks to you in a way it never has before, or a song comes on the Christian radio station, or a man or woman of God delivers a word that pings your soul and you know without doubt that God saw you under your own fig tree. You know without doubt that your pivotal moment has come. You will confess that he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” or you will not. Either way, you know it was Him and you know life will never be the same.

When that moment comes, don’t be afraid. Take the turn. Follow him. He knows you better than you know yourself and he will take you to places you never dreamed you could go.

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

FINDING PEACE IN ANXIOUS AMERICA

I was approaching agoraphobia—the inability to be in a crowd—and didn’t know it, but then, I didn’t know much of anything about anxiety disorders in 1980. All I knew was that I had trouble sleeping, I was constantly worried, I felt terribly alone, incessantly churning down inside. I had been a confident, risk-taking teen, but by age twenty all that was gone. I was so uncertain of myself that I stayed in my car between classes at the junior college and drove straight home after lunch to spend the rest of the day alone and miserable. The only way I could describe it was that it felt like I was free-falling, with no bottom in sight and no rope to stop me.

If any of that sounds familiar, then you may be among the thirty-odd percent of Americans who, according to the National Institutes of Health, have an anxiety disorder. It’s even worse among college students, 62% of whom reported “overwhelming anxiety” in 2016 according to The New York Times.[1]

The search for peace is driving unprecedented sales of anti-anxiety and anti-depressant medications, over 15.2 billion dollars and rising in 2015.[2] The medications have helped many people. And the more we learn about the brain the better. But finding peace is about more than balanced brain chemistry. It’s about inner harmony. Bottom-line: if our souls are out of balance the medications will only mask problems, problems that, if resolved, might preclude the need for medications.

It behooves us to ask then, what exactly is peace?

Peace means wholeness. Shalom—fullness of life—is the old Hebrew word. Harmony, which comes from the Greek Ireinei (pronounced I-Ray-nye), “at one again,” is another. When I have inner peace I am at one, I am whole. My mind and heart are in harmony and every part of me is in agreement. Inner peace has little to do with external circumstances and everything to do with how my mind and heart respond to those circumstances. One thing is certain: I cannot have peace with others if I do not have peace within.

We chase peace in many ways.

Fame is one, the search for which is exacerbated by social media. Teens especially are vulnerable. When we are well-known (translation: many “friends” and “followers”) and well liked, the center of attention, we have peace. But the peace of fame is fleeting. It leaves us empty and anxious when the spotlight turns, as it inevitably will, to someone else.

Perfection is another. Pursuing perfection makes us feel an inch taller than everyone else. Ben Franklin had thirteen rules of virtue but found he could never keep them all at once. Eventually we hit the wall, the end of our ability to achieve whatever goal we set be it athletic, musical, moral or financial. When that happens, peace is replaced by frustration, another word for anxiety.

Finally, some pursue peace through conformity to a sub-culture: We’re Goths or Gays, Progressives or MAGA’s, Baptists or Brethren. Conformity is sturdy, reliable. The boundaries are clear and so are the “ins” and the “outs.” But conformity offers peace only to insiders. It erects barriers to outsiders. In the end, conformity is the peace of prison. Life stops at the gates.

The Bible explains where our anxiety comes from. We are fragmented, incomplete creatures, created whole in the image of God but broken at the fall. We are jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces, un-synchronized and incomplete without relationship with Him who made us.

The Bible also offers the path to peace: Jesus. “For he himself is our peace,” wrote Paul, “who made the two one.” Jesus is our peace because of two things: His personal wholeness, he is shalom personified, and his work of redemption. He restored our broken relationship with God.

Jesus is the only unfragmented person who ever lived. He is complete, lacking nothing. “In him the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form.”[3]

Jesus restored, synchronized and harmonized, our relationship with God. “We have peace with God through” him.[4] He filled up what was lacking in us by “making us complete” in himself.[5] He unifies our minds in peace, overcoming our mental fragmentation by the control of his Spirit.[6]

In March of 1980 I gave my life to Christ, asking him to take control, and experienced the “peace that passes understanding.” The falling stopped, and my feet were finally on solid ground. I have had many ups and downs since then, but the rock beneath my feet has never moved. Aren’t you ready to do the same?

[1] https://www.eab.com/daily-briefing/2017/10/18/why-extreme-anxiety-is-at-an-all-time-high-among-american-students

[2] https://www.grandviewresearch.com/industry-analysis/anxiety-disorders-and-depression-treatment-market

[3] Colossians 2:9

[4] Romans 5:1

[5] Colossians 2:10

[6] Romans 8:6 & 9.

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

HOW GOD HEALS BROKEN HEARTS

Humanity is broken and hurting. Hear some comments from hurting people:

I’m 48 years old and my wife has just filed for divorce. I never planned for this. I never thought I would be alone and have to start all over this late in life. On top of that it may bankrupt me.

I was still in rehab, just recovering from a gran mall seizure brought on by spinal meningitis that could have killed me, when we learned that our daughter, contrary to everything we had taught her, had just “come out” as gay. We read the letter and sat down in front of her old bedroom door and wept broken and bitter tears.

My first husband beat me. The man I’m married to now doesn’t love me. I am fourth or fifth on his priority list. I’m so lonely and unhappy that I’m flying to the other side of the country to find a job and a new life. My life is adrift.

We only want to know one thing when we’re hurting. We aren’t interested in the weather. We don’t care about the stock market. And we sure don’t care about politics. We only want to know how to be healed.

Psalm 147, the second in a set of five that make up the last songs in the book, is a song about healing.

Verse two gives us the context saying, “He gathers the exiles of Israel.” The Psalm was written to help the people of God worship after their return from exile in Babylon. It was good to go home, but still a time of great brokenness and sadness. Their cities and towns had been destroyed, their property given to foreigners. Their spiritual, civic, and economic infrastructure was like Houston after Hurricane Harvey: a shambles.

The psalm shows us that God heals in four ways: “The Lord builds up; The Lord gathers; The Lord heals; The Lord binds up their wounds.” (V. 2-3).

First, he rebuilds what was broken down—the walls in Israel’s case. He gives them the tools and resources and leadership (under Nehemiah) to make their city secure once again, to keep out invaders, to give them stability.

God rebuilds our walls too. Brokenhearted people are often violated people. When we are sexually abused as children; when parents lose children; when we’ve invested years and fortunes in a career and suddenly lose it, our walls are broken down. We feel violated, less secure.

The healer of broken hearts helps us rebuild our walls. He brings together the tools, and the resources, and the leadership we need to make our city secure again, to give us stability in a shaky world.

Second, God gathers what was scattered. In Israel’s case it was the people, scattered about the Babylonian empire. Bit by bit and tribe by tribe, they made the pilgrimage back to the land of promise. God opened doors for them to leave. Cyrus the king issued a decree making money available. Property was returned. Travel was protected.

How does God heal us? He gathers what was scattered. Brokenhearted people are often lonely people, disconnected from healthy relationships with others. God brings us together for strength and encouragement. The New Testament is full of references to this. (See Acts 2:44-46; 2 Thessalonians 1:3).

God heals us when he gathers us to his people. When we become part of the living body of Christ, the Church, we cease to be scattered. We become connected to others who dispel our loneliness and welcome us into their lives based on our common relationship with Christ.

A challenge: do you isolate yourself? If so you are missing the healing God has for you. You may not like it at first, but it’s what you need, and God has it for you in his Church.

Third, God heals the brokenhearted with the brokenhearted. He heals the addicted with the formerly addicted; the divorced with the previously divorced; the grieving with the grieved, the hope and purpose from those who’ve come through on the other side of brokenness.

But there is a catch to all of this. Or maybe it’s better to say that the path to the healing power of God is counter-intuitive.

We are tempted in our brokenness to turn away from God, even to run. That’s the worst thing we can do. When the storm blows the hardest it is time to lean into him. The Psalmist shows us how.

Embrace humility in the pain. “Sing to him with thanksgiving,” it says (V. 4-7). Praising God when we hurt is a humbling thing, completely counter-intuitive. But that’s where the healing comes from. Lean into that wind. That’s what drives the fear and insecurity away, leaning into him with worship and praise, not running.

Finally, “put your hope in him.” (V. 8-11). Remember what Jesus said to Mary and Martha when their brother Lazarus had died? “I am the resurrection and the life. Do you believe this?” “Look to me Mary, look to me Martha. Put your hope solely in me.” It’s counter-intuitive, but it works.

Many voices vie for our attention when we are brokenhearted, many people, many philosophies promise peace and healing. Only God can give us the order we need, the comprehensive understanding that leads to healing. Only God can give us himself.

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

COMMIT-A-PHOBIA

“Look at yourself! You went to law school. You never took the bar.  You went to business college. I can’t get you near the office. You studied languages you don’t speak, instruments you don’t play. You have a series of girlfriends you never see more than twice. Do you not see a pattern here? You’re a grown man, David. Finish something!”

Linus Larrabee to his playboy brother in a scene from our favorite rom com, Sabrina. David had proposed to the latest love of his life but was having second thoughts: “I’m not ready to make this kind of commitment!”

“She’s a millionaire, David, and a doctor. She won’t be a burden!” said Linus.

No doubt, no doubt at all, we are witnessing a generation of David Larrabee’s when it comes to marriage. Fewer and fewer young men have the courage to “pop the question” and make good on lifetime commitment.

But commit-a-phobia happens in spiritual life too. Maybe the rise of the seeker movement, where everything in the church is tailored to the consumerist whims of the latest generation, has contributed or maybe it’s just a symptom. But you know it’s real when pastors say, “I’m haunted when I look into the eyes of my congregation and realize they are only two weeks away from leaving for another church.”[1]

Psalm 119 reminds us of the power and potential, the risks and rewards of commitment to God’s word and God’s way. The psalm is unique in scripture, a 176 verse Hebrew alphabetic acrostic masterpiece of devotion to the “word of God and the God of the Word”[2] that interweaves precepts with prayers, and praise with petition.

Six verses stand out against the backdrop of recent events that speak to the rewards and risks of commitment to God’s way. I’ll come to the events in a moment.

First, the commitment:

I have chosen the way of truth;

I have set my heart on your laws.

I hold fast to your statutes, O Lord;

do not let me be put to shame.[3]

Commitment is embracing with our entire being the risks and rewards of a definite path, the snot and vomit of Olympic training for the promise of the podium. It invites the order that the thing committed to imposes on life, the discipline of saying “yes” to things that align with it, and “no” to those that don’t.

Next, the risks:

Though rulers sit together and slander me,

your servant will meditate on your decrees. [4]

The arrogant mock me without restraint,

but I do not turn from your law. [5]

Remember the catty remarks emanating from media elite about Vice President Mike Pence’s faith? First, it was his commitment never to meet a woman, other than his wife, for dinner alone. The scorn at his godly stand melted away in the smutty heat of Weinstein, Lauer, and #MeToo. Next it was The View Co-host Joy Behar’s contempt at Pence’s confidence that—like followers of Christ for two millennia—he hears from God.

Indeed, the arrogant mock without restraint. That’s the risk of commitment to God.

Finally, the reward:

I run in the path of your commands,

for you have set my heart free. [6]

I will walk about in freedom,

for I have sought out your precepts.[7]

Edmund Burke said,

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains on their own appetites … It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”[8]

David Larrabee lives in all of us, but the more we indulge our commit-a-phobia the heavier we forge our chains. Commit to God’s word and God’s way and fly free.

[1] Os Guinness, The Call, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN, 2008. P. 71.

[2] NIV Study Bible notes.

[3] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:30–31). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[4] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:23). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[5] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:51). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[6] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:32). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[7] The Holy Bible: New International Version. (1984). (Ps 119:45). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[8] The Works of Edmund Burke, quoted by John Stonestreet and Brett Kunkel in Practical Guide to Culture, David C. Cook, Colorado Springs, CO. p. 139.