PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

OF JEOPARDY AND BIBLICAL EPICS

 

The game show Jeopardy is an occasional evening indulgence. Answering correctly, before the contestants, is the big draw, and fun when it happens, but let’s just say that I’m never tempted to audition, except when the Bible is the category. Alex Trebek became the host of the hit game show the year we got married, and since that time it seems the contestants’ biblical knowledge has decreased with each decade.

We have become a visual media culture, learning more from television, film, and streaming sources than any civilization in history. Fewer Americans, it seems, are reading the Bible, but more are watching movies.

That’s why I’m recommending my top five biblical movies just before Easter. I’m not suggesting that anyone can build a solid foundation of biblical literacy, still less doctrine by watching, but we can get the big picture, and some of the major themes. And movies contribute to cultural conversation. It’s always easier to begin a discussion with, “Have you seen …?” than with “Have you read the book of Matthew lately?”

The Passion of the Christ – Mel Gibson’s R-rated (for violence) 2004 blockbuster is not for children, or the faint of heart. It was controversial, but brutally accurate in its portrayal of the final twelve hours before Jesus’s death. The expressions on Jesus’s (Jim Caviezel) face at the beginning and the end capture the conflict with evil, and the hope of resurrection, like nothing else available on screen.

Ben Hur – The 1959 classic with Charlton Heston in the title role was remade last year by husband and wife team Mark Burnette and Roma Downey (The Bible). The new film is shorter, by an hour, and faster paced. But the mid-twentieth century version is truer to the best-selling, 1880, Lew Wallace novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. The story of revenge and redemption between two adoptive brothers, Roman Messala, and Jewish Ben Hur, plays out in and around the crucifixion and resurrection. The climactic chariot race benefits from better special effects in the newer film, but the 1959 classic won eleven Academy Awards.

Risen –The 2016 film follows the tradition of The Robe and Ben Hur by inserting a fictitious historical character into the Biblical narrative as an eyewitness to events. And while it doesn’t aspire to the epic proportions of those classics, it is a good story well told.

Prince of Egypt – The 1998 animated epic remains one of the most powerful and accessible retellings of the Exodus ever produced. Watch it with your children and grandchildren. It is visually compelling and musically breathtaking.

The Jesus Film – This 1979 film hasn’t won many awards–on earth. Neither has it made much money, but the two-hour long, faithful rendering of the Gospel of Luke has been shown on more screens, to more audiences, in more diverse places than any other biblical film in history. From Bible-less peoples in the Amazon jungle, to Aborigines in the Outback, this film has probably changed more lives, and will win more awards in heaven, than any other. If you want a literal rendering of the most historically detailed Gospel, this is it.

These are just my favorites, included because I’ve seen them. What are yours?

 

 

 

BEATING SEVEN YEAR BURNOUT

The Seven Year Itch, a 1955 Billy Wilder film with Marilyn Monroe and Tom Ewell, surfaced an idea that had burbled along for some time in pop culture. To wit: married couples experience a decline in satisfaction over the first four or five years and, by year seven, tensions have risen to the point that they either divorce or adapt to each other in new ways. Some social scientists pooh-pooh the notion, but others have documented the phenomenon.[1]

Well, you may want to file this under “for what it’s worth,” or just hit delete, but I’ve been in the people business a long time and I think they’re on to something that affects not just our marriages, but every aspect of life. Calling it the seven year enthusiasm curve or passion cycle may be more accurate. Take your pick, but knowing what it is and how to deal with it can definitely increase your quality of life, may help you make better job choices, and might even save your marriage.

The burnout cycle in a nutshell: First, initial enthusiasm about a new idea, person, job, or ministry. We find something or someone new and fall in love. Second, energetic commitment to it, we go all in. Third, sustained effort for two or three years, we work hard at the new thing or new love and enjoy it. Fourth, inevitable problems emerge and the new thing starts to feel old, the gears grind, effort required increases as enjoyment declines. We hang on a couple more years, wondering where the love went. Fifth–and this can happen anywhere between years five and seven–the thrill is gone, baby, burnout descends, and we start looking for something new to relight the fires of passion, or else begin casting blame for our unhappiness.

The end of the cycle can get ugly in all kinds of ways. People have affairs, start fights in churches, or jump from job to job, seeking long-term satisfaction at the price of instability and upheaval. (I first learned about this cycle not from the movies, but from a theology professor who had observed the dynamic in some of the more emotion-based expressions of Christianity).

But even if it doesn’t deteriorate into shouting matches, unconscious acquiescence is not the path to peace and happiness. So how do we beat the seven year burnout? A few suggestions:

First, plan to bail before you fail. Some things do not require life-long commitment and work better if we plan ahead to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. I was never very good at it, and when my kids were done, so was I. Ministry tasks, volunteer roles, hobbies, these and many more, benefit when we recognize the limits of our humanity and plan to move on to new things before passion becomes drudgery.

Second, identify your non-negotiables and plan to replenish your energy. Think of marriage. Think of calling, be it ministry, law, medicine, or business. If it is something worth keeping, it is worth the effort to build emotional and spiritual recovery and renewal space into your life to sustain it. God’s gift of Sabbath is part of this, as was the year of Jubilee for Israel, each occurring not so coincidentally I think, every seventh day and seventh year respectively.

Third, develop long-term goals and short-term objectives that move you toward the goal, and then take time off to celebrate when each objective is met. Celebration replenishes energy.

Finally, and most importantly, build your life and learn to draw your strength, day by day and year by year, on the only one with an infinite supply of energy and passion: Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.[2]

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_seven-year_itch

[2] Hebrews 13:8

EMBRACING YOUR JESUS CRISIS

There is an old story about a gathering of people listening to recitations of the 23rd Psalm. One man everyone wanted to hear was a well-known actor with a deep melodious voice. He wasn’t a particularly spiritual man, but he appreciated the Psalm and was happy to comply. He stood and delivered it beautifully and everyone was duly impressed. Then a very old gentleman, one with no great skill at public speaking, but a man whom everyone respected, was also urged to recite. He slowly rose to his feet and in a quiet voice quoted the Psalm from memory. As he spoke a hush fell over the room, a silence and peace no one wanted to disturb even after he sat down. Finally, the actor spoke the truth everyone knew: “I know the Psalm. He knows the Shepherd.”

Many people are like the actor in the story. They say things like: “I’ve read the Bible. The teachings of Jesus are brilliant. I like the idea of going to heaven when I die. As far as religion is concerned, I check the “Christian” box on official forms. But this whole idea of a relationship with God is beyond me. I know other people experience it. I believe they are genuine. But I don’t seem to be able to have it myself and I don’t know why.”

A story from Luke 5:1-11, the story of the calling of the first disciples, offers a clue. Jesus was seated in Simon’s boat, teaching. He finished, turned to Simon (later called Peter) and said, “Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”

Now Simon was an experienced fisherman, a concrete, rational businessman. He was also tired. He and his partners had fished all night without a catch. He had every reason to politely decline. What Jesus was asking wasn’t rational. Peter could have cited a dozen reasons why it wouldn’t work.

But Jesus wasn’t thinking about fish. He was working on Peter’s faith, precipitating a crisis in Peter’s life by purposefully, intentionally, and meaningfully pushing him to choose between Peter’s will, intelligence, experience and knowledge, and Jesus’s command. The question was not: would they catch any fish? The question was: would Peter obey?

Peter did obey and the rest, as they say, is history. They caught so many fish that the boats began to sink. But again, it wasn’t about the fish. It was about what happened inside of Peter. “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” he said. In other words, Peter now knew Jesus on a whole new level, knew Jesus as God’s Son, and his shepherd, because when his “Jesus crisis” came, he obeyed. He chose submission over experience, Jesus’s will over Peter’s. Life was never the same for Peter after that day.

The ability to experience a living relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, and by the presence of the Holy Spirit within, does not depend on a blind leap of faith–far from it. It depends on how we respond to our “Jesus crisis” when he calls us to obey against all experience. And call, he will. Perhaps he already has in your life. Perhaps you’ve had many crises with Jesus and, like the rich young ruler in another story, “went away very sad …” without obeying, never knowing the incredible peace and power that comes from obedience. My prayer for you is that the next time he brings you to that moment of crisis you will, like Peter, obey. I promise you, your life will never be the same.

 

THE CERTAINTY OF UNCERTAINTY: Encouragement for Millennials Who’ve Hit A Wall

“I’m not happy with where my life is at the moment, and I’m not real sure what to do about it, but I’m working on it,” said my friend. I could feel his frustration, having been there and done that.

Similar conversations with a number of twenty-something friends who have run head-on into a string of disappointments have had me praying and thinking about how to encourage the millennials among us.  I know what it’s like to see thirty coming up on the horizon with little in the way of success to show for it. Now that sixty isn’t that far off, some constants stand out, not only in my life, but in those of the people I most admire.

Let’s call them three keys to handling the certainty of uncertainty.

First, a successful life is something that you build, not something that you have. Adjusting expectations to that reality is tougher today, where our social media personas only show the “A” side of life, than it was thirty years ago. It takes time, tact, and tenacity to build the skill sets, the relationships, and the track record that open the doors of opportunity. These things form the platform of a prosperous life. There are no shortcuts. Be willing to start small, but start somewhere, and build.

Second, expect setbacks. The old word for this one is prudence. Everyone loves Solomon’s advice in Proverbs, “Commit your way to the Lord, and he will direct your paths.” It sounds like clear sailing to serial successes. But we tend to forget his warning that, “Time and chance happen to them all.” I call that Black Coffee Theology, the certainty of uncertainty. It’s not that God isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care about your life. His eye really is on the sparrow, but he won’t suspend the effects of the fall for anyone until Christ returns. Until then, the cosmic Murphy’s Law remains: You will experience failure. You will be frustrated. But there is an up side: Failure and frustration teach us more, and faster, than success. Learn the lessons early, and well, and they will protect you down the road. On the financial side, build an emergency fund for the inevitable, and develop a back-up skill set that can pay the bills until the opportunity you are looking for appears.

Third, persevere my friends, persevere! Do not let the inevitable setbacks and difficult lessons convince you that you are a failure. Discern your calling, or at least choose a career path where your interests and aptitudes meet, zero in on that path and trim away trivial pursuits. Then take the long view and start putting one foot in front of the other. Lay your plans–your dreams too–before God, and watch, and pray, and live before him in trust one day at a time. Learn the secret of contentment in the day to day, but keep the goal ever before you and press on! Nine times out of ten, the people who succeed are the people who refuse to give up.

Finally, one last word from those of us who can see you in our rear-view mirrors: we believe in you, we believe in God’s good purposes for you, and we look forward to the day you go whizzing by us in the fast lane.

 

DON’T MISS HIDDEN FIGURES

Aviation is my hobby, and I grew up in the middle of the grand quest to “put a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth” by the end of the decade, bequeathed to us by John F. Kennedy. I thought I knew about everything there was to know about the space race. Then I saw Hidden Figures, (Rated PG for mild language) and learned a beautiful back story to the Mercury space program that no one should miss.

The film centers around three gifted mathematicians who overcame racial and sexual discrimination to make significant contributions to America’s ultimate aerospace achievement. Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae) is a spunky math whiz who, “would already be an engineer,” if she were a white man. Dorothy Vaughn (Octavia Spencer) is just as smart, but also a wise and wily leader, as she positions her cadre of “colored computers,” a whole division of black female number crunchers working for NASA in segregated space at Langley, Virginia, to become indispensable programmers of the new IBM machines that will soon take their place. But Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the real Brainiac of the bunch, and the central figure in the film. Her skills in analytical geometry get her assigned to the Space Task Group led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) where she soon becomes invaluable. It’s her relationship with Harrison, and her conflict with direct supervisor Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), as well as “the system” of segregation, that make this story so compelling.

The real strength of Hidden Figures is that it humanizes the story of segregation in America without overplaying its hand. It does that because it is the true tale of the way three brilliant women experienced and overcame racism in the most mundane of matters. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the bathroom and the coffee pot are more compelling in this film than the rockets and IBM machines.

More important than all of those things, however, is that the biblical worldview is on clear display. Although we are all created equal in the image of God, inequality is real in more ways than one. We are differentiated not only by skin color and sex, but also by brains and character. Katherine’s mathematical skills, the depth of Dorothy’s wisdom, and Mary’s tenacity make them stand out above the rest, black or white, male or female. But their needs for dignity, respect, and opportunity are shared by all.

The Fall is also present: our capacity for hypocrisy and rationalization on full display–but so is Redemption. The mission, the grand quest not only to beat the Russians, but also to explore the great beyond, reveals the foolishness of discrimination better than any sermon. Everyone is needed to accomplish the goal, and things like segregation just get in the way.

Finally, the world is changed, not just because man made it to the moon, but because three black women helped him get there.

THE CUBS AND EVERLASTING HOPE

“Maybe deep heartache takes the nearly impossible to cure because, having lost hope, the only remedy is for it to be replenished by what feels too much like a miracle to ignore.”[1]

Bill Reiter’s opening to his piece on the Cub’s improbable victory–pardon me, mauling of the Indians last night strikes a chord in the heart of every underdog-loving American.  We were watching when young Cub Addison Russell crushed a third inning grand slam over 434 feet, through the exit tunnel in center-right field.

Pandemonium! What a hit! What a reversal of fortunes! Maybe they can do it! Maybe, after 108 years, and down three games to one, the Cubs can win the pennant!

As exciting as it was to watch I have to admit that I am bemused by Reiter’s and other sports reporters’ spiritual allusions to what is, after all, only a game.

“When they move us to tears,” he writes, “to joy, to ebullience, to uncertainty and captivation and heartache and, most importantly, to awe — that is when they rise above some silly game and become something deeper and richer. Something truly lasting.”[2]

Reiter isn’t wrong to say that. In fact I agree with him. Yet the ephemeral nature of such events and our attraction, even our need for them, speaks to something deeper, reveals subterranean longings in our souls.

I remember the thrill of local hero Ward Burton’s 2002 Daytona 500 win. I was ready to paint my station wagon Caterpillar yellow. Yet Ward left NASCAR a few short years later. Current Cubs’ players, like my Atlanta Braves hero, John Smoltz, will sooner than later, be sharing a broadcast booth rather than standing on the mound in the world’s biggest baseball contest. And of course, the Cubs could go down in flames tonight!

Our enthusiasm for these transient victories testifies to deeper longings, truer truths, and our need for lasting hope. The deep heartaches we endure as members of the human race can only be healed by a miracle that offers hope.

That miracle happened and is not ephemeral, but lasting, truly too great to ignore. For one day long ago the underdog of all underdogs went up against a dynasty and went down three straight days. Buried under a curse his fans fell away with no hope at all until an amazing thing happened – like a bases loaded homer with two outs he came back to life. Hope everlasting was reborn on that day and continues down to this.

So if you’re looking for hope and awe that will outlast this year’s World Series, look to Jesus who took your brokenness, your shattered dreams, all of your errors and mistakes, and crushed them at the cross sending them, as it were, over the fence, as far as the east is from the west. Look to Jesus and live with everlasting hope.

[1] http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/cubs-indians-world-series-could-end-up-as-one-of-the-greatest-sports-stories-ever/

[2] Ibid.