HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).

HOW TO BEAT BURNOUT

HOW TO BEAT 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]

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. 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, 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 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 to step aside at a predetermined time.  I did this as a soccer coach. 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-negotiable’s 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 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

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

AN ALIEN IN YOUR DRIVEWAY

If an alien from outer space landed in your driveway and asked, “What are all those buildings in your town with pointy spires and crosses on top? What is that about?” Could you answer accurately?

That’s the question C.S. Lewis—author of the Chronicles of Narnia—and Oxford College Chaplain, Walter Hooper, knocked around one day. “We wondered how many people, (who did not flee) apart from voicing their prejudices about the Church, could supply them with much in the way of accurate information. On the whole, we doubted whether the aliens would take back to their world much that is worth having.”

Hooper and Lewis were speculating because at that time, in the mid-twentieth century, several autobiographies of former bishops and preachers had flooded the market explaining why they could no longer accept the faith. Lewis believed that much of the ignorance of true Christianity was due to the flood of “liberal writers who are continually accommodating and whittling down the truth of the Gospel.”

Nothing much has changed. Today, many people reject Christianity because of prejudice. They’ve been disillusioned by a bad Christian or injured by a fraudulent one and rejected the faith out of anger. And a spate of recent statements and books by former evangelicals such as the late Rachel Held Evans, and former pastors Rob Bell, and Joshua Harris contributes to confusion. “If professionals can’t follow it, how can I?”

But as Hooper writes in his preface to God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C.S. Lewis, “…it is impossible to decide whether Christianity is true or false if you do not know what it is about.” Spiritually hungry skeptics must ask themselves, “Am I rejecting something I fully understand? Or am I using negative examples as an excuse not to investigate it?”

If you are ready to learn what Christianity is about, Lewis’ book, Mere Christianity, is a good place to start, as is Lee Strobel’s, The Case for Faith. But if you prefer talking it out among friends you would enjoy the Alpha Course. It’s a ten-week introduction to basic Christianity that’s designed to encourage questions and build friendships with others on the same journey. Our church is hosting its ninth Alpha Course this year. If you come, we promise to feed you well, treat your questions with respect, and above all, not treat you like an alien from outer space.

GETTING A GRIP ON DEPRESSION D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ Classic Book on Emotional Health

GETTING A GRIP ON DEPRESSION   D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ Classic Book on Emotional Health

It happened again yesterday. A Facebook post from a friend reported the death by suicide of a man in the prime of life. The post also mentioned one of the common denominators in most of these stories: even his closest friends didn’t know how badly he was hurting. That’s the bad news. Far too many struggle with depression in the dark, not knowing what to do with it until it kills them.

Yesterday, World Radio’s Emily Whitten reminded me of the good news (you’re not listening to World Radio yet? Try it here) with her classic book of the month review on D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’, SPIRITUAL DEPRESSION: Its Causes and Its Cure.

Lloyd-Jones was a well-known British preacher of the mid-twentieth century with an agile mind and accessible style who left a career in medicine to pursue ministry because: “Medicine could not cure the real disease. Only the gospel had the power to change people at the core.”[1]

I read SPIRITUAL DEPRESSION years ago with great profit and still counsel others with its five major principles. Lloyd-Jones outlines them in the first chapter and elaborates on them through the rest of the 300-page work.

He begins with temperament, explaining that just as one diet works better for some body types and a different diet works better for others, so our temperaments, our personalities effect how we experience life and how we process it. Lloyd-Jones is quick to point out that temperament has nothing to do with salvation—we are all saved by faith in Christ alone—but it has everything to do with how we experience the Christian life. Self-examination is healthy, indeed a necessary spiritual discipline, but some of us are prone to perpetual introspection, self-accusation, and vain regrets. The first principle is to know ourselves, our particular weaknesses, and compensate for them.

The second is obvious but often overlooked: our physiology. We are body, soul, and spirit and though we talk about them separately we experience them as unity. One affects the other. Illness, sleep deprivation, lack of exercise, and a poor diet contribute to depression. The energy of youth can delay the effects for a while, but fatigue is incremental and cumulative. It catches up with us.

Writing in the 1950s’, Lloyd-Jones could not know what later medical research has shown. Just as some bodies are prone to diabetes and require medication, others are prone to neuro-chemical imbalance and benefit from medicines that enable healthy brain function. But those drugs are not for everyone and can mask serious spiritual issues that need to be addressed first. True guilt arising from real sin that results in painful shame can be cleansed and healed only through the cross of Christ.

Next are the natural cycles between highs and lows. The peaks of excitement that come with great success are usually followed by emotional troughs. Think of Elijah under the juniper tree after the success on Mount Carmel.[2] We manage our emotions better when we anticipate the cycles.

A few hours before the rooster crowed his failure and betrayal, Jesus warned Peter, “The devil has demanded to have you, to sift you like wheat. But I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. After you have recovered, strengthen your brothers.”[3] The reality of spiritual assault, the fourth cause, is something every believer needs to keep in mind, especially after a personal failure.

Finally, keep up your faith. Jesus’ instructions to Peter reveal three elements for battling spiritual depression: prayer, partners, and perseverance. We should not face spiritual assault alone. Find brothers who will pray for you. And once you’ve recovered, strengthen others.

Those five principles cover the causes of spiritual depression. Lloyd-Jones ends the first chapter by offering the first principle in effecting a cure, one he learned from the Psalms.

“You have to take yourself in hand, you have to address yourself, preach to yourself, question yourself. You must say to your soul: ‘Why art thou cast down’—what business do you have to be disquieted? You must turn on yourself, upbraid yourself, condemn yourself, exhort yourself, and say to yourself: ‘Hope thou in God’—instead of muttering in this depressed, unhappy way … Then having done that, end on this great note: defy yourself, and defy other people, and defy the devil and the whole world, and say with this man: ‘I shall yet praise Him for the help of His countenance, who is also the health of my countenance and my God.’”

[1] Whitten quoting Lloyd-Jones’ friend, Jason Meyer, from Bethlehem College.

[2] 1 Kings 19:4

[3] Luke 22:31

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

Denny Hamlin’s win in the Daytona 500 was particularly poignant for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team had just buried their former president, Joe’s 49-year-old son, J. D., who died of a neurological disorder in January. I bet Joe’s family would happily forfeit the trophy and all their successes if they could have J.D. back. But that’s not how they roll.

It reminded me of other personal disasters I’ve witnessed.

Seventeen years ago, this week, I walked with my friends Phil and Shelley Ramsey, as we buried their eighteen-year-old son, Joseph, who died in a car wreck.

A late-night phone call, “Pastor, can you come? Our baby was born with undeveloped lungs and isn’t going to survive.”

A distraught counselee, “I’m thirty-nine and pregnant with our second child and my husband just left me. Where is God?”

Pregnancies that miscarry, dream jobs that become soul shredders, the number and diversity of things that can disappoint and disillusion in life is endless. But it’s worse when we think God has somehow let us down.

Evangelicals are particularly prone to this. We’re taught all our lives that God loves and cares for us: “His eye is on the sparrow,” said Jesus. “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you,” wrote Peter. That’s true, but not the whole story. Most of us have a truncated biblical world-view about suffering and it costs us dearly when trouble comes. We cherry-pick the verses we like and forget the context. We think life is supposed to be a Disney World ride when it’s more like the Daytona 500, where the big wreck is always in the offing.

Life’s inevitable disappointments are often about unmet expectations, of God, others, and our selves. When we line them up with what the Bible actually reveals about people, life, death, the world, and God they may not be easier to bear but they do leave us less confused and better prepared to overcome.

Scripture tells us: “time and chance happen to everyone,” including us. “His eye is on the sparrow,” but all sparrows fall. “He knows the number of the hairs on your head,” but they will turn white and turn loose. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” that can be expected to crack without warning. All humans are “slaves of sin,” prone to follow our self-destructive passions and hurt those we’re supposed to protect. The heart is “deceitful above all things … who can really understand it?”[1]

Depressed yet? I’m not aiming for that, but it’s imperative to see that nowhere in the Bible does God promise us sunshine without sweat and smiles without sorrow. Aligning expectations with revelation dilutes frustration.

What has he promised?

To make us part of his tribe. To share with us his joy. To suffer with us when we hurt. To give us his strength. To counsel and comfort us. To love us even when we don’t love ourselves. To stand with us in life’s battles. To shape us into little Christs. To providentially provide for us and through us the things we need to survive. To empower us to participate in the awesome and terrifying task of advancing his kingdom. To give us a purpose, a future, and a hope, a reason for joy in the midst of pain. And to glorify us with Christ when he returns.[2]

Joy and sorrow will ever run parallel tracks until that day.

Joe Gibbs Racing took their fifty-four-pound trophy to Steak ‘n Shake, Sunday night, just like they did after their first win in 1993. It was the biblical thing to do.

Life is like the Daytona 500, a difficult, fascinating, disappointing, exhilarating, often dangerous, always high-stakes ride. Trust God and buckle your seat belt.

[1] See: Eccl. 9:11; Matt. 10:29-30; 2 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 6:6-22; Jer. 17:9

[2] See: Eph. 2:19; John 17:13; Matt. 28:20; Rom. 8:26; John 15:5; John 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Rom. 8:35-39; Rom. 8:15-17; Rom. 8:29; Phil. 4:19; Acts 1:8; 1Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:12; Rom. 8:18.

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

It’s February 13th and romance is in the air, or at least around the corner. Which leads me to ask this question: Do you know what the Bible teaches about romance and sex? Do your kids?

Most Evangelicals don’t and we’re suffering from it. We found out the hard way when our grown children, all three godly, intelligent young women, told us what a lousy job we did teaching them. Their verdict went something like this: “You did exactly what most Evangelical parents do with their children on this issue: freaked us out, scared us to death, and generally made us feel like sex is the last thing on earth we would ever want to have anything to do with, even in marriage. Other than that, you were great parents!”

When it came to sex, romance, and the Bible, we thought our daughters were fine. But like Mark Wahlberg said in The Italian Job, “you know what fine means? Freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

OK, they weren’t that bad, but it wasn’t acceptable either. That drove me to a Bible study on The Song of Songs. I benefited from Douglas Sean O’Donnell’s THE SONG OF SOLOMON: An Invitation to Intimacy, among others.  Here are my top five lessons from Solomon on love, sex, and romance.

The Bible Celebrates Our Bodies

The Bible does not separate body from soul, matter from spirit, or godly purity from physical passion. It does not devalue the human body. It exalts it. Think of the incarnation! Think of the bodily resurrection! There is no belittling of sensual delights. Jesus turned the water into vintage wine! And he did it at a wedding! There is no contradiction between spirituality and sexuality, between loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your spouse with your body. Enjoy it. It’s a gift from God.

Words Have Erotic Power

The Song is some of the most evocative and erotic poetry ever written, but none of it is coarse or crude. The lovers teach us to praise two things: physical beauty and character, and to be specific. Fill in the blanks about your lover’s body: Your eyes are … Your lips are … Your neck is … Your voice is …. Your skin is … Your fragrance is … Fill in the blanks about your lover’s character: Your mind is … Your personality is … Your heart is … Your skills are …  The right words spark the fires of romance. The wrong ones snuff them out.

Timing is Everything

Lovers must make time for love, especially after children arrive. A man’s body works like a smoke detector: one whiff of the right perfume and he is on fire, all his bells and whistles blaring. Women’s bodies are like flowers at dawn, they wake up slowly in the sunlight of affectionate attention. Either way, wise lovers make time for love and don’t rush things.

Risk Heightens Eros

Risk plays a big role in romance. We love the risk-taking lovers: The young man who risks big bucks to follow his love to France, just to demonstrate his love; the teenager who put 500 sticky-note invitations to the prom on his girlfriend’s car; the guy who pays the skywriter big bucks to write “Will you marry me?” in the air above the football game as he kneels and holds out a ring. The extravagance and risk of failure or rejection communicates something powerful to the beloved: I WANT YOU MORE THAN MONEY, PRIDE OR SAFETY. I WOULD THROW MY LIFE AWAY TO HAVE YOU. Risk heightens Eros.

All the Roses Come with Thorns

East of Eden the “rhythm of married life is that of frustration and delight.”[1] There is a natural ebb and flow to romantic love, and the differences in our personalities and stress levels make it difficult to communicate. Be patient and forgiving with each other. The flower is no less sweet for the thorns.

As the book of Proverbs is good for all but addressed primarily to young men, so the Song of Songs is wisdom for all but addressed primarily to young women with their mothers as the primary teacher (8:2). Sing the Song for your daughters as they reach the right age and they will be far more than fine when they’re grown.

[1] David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1991), p.313.

BETTER THAN MEDICINE Health Benefits of a Grateful Heart

BETTER THAN MEDICINE Health Benefits of a Grateful Heart

I have a file labeled: When Science Catches Up with Scripture. Stories from all over find their way into that file; from law, medicine, the natural sciences, child rearing, business, archaeology, and psychology. To qualify, the story must record observations or research on a topic—that’s the science part—that “discover” something already revealed in the Bible. I get a chuckle out of these stories because most of them sound so, “Aha! We’ve found something totally new!” But to those of us familiar with Scripture, they sound like children celebrating when the square block fits the square hole.

I hope to write a book about it one day and if I do the power of gratitude will be one of the chapters.

U.S. NEWS & WORLD REPORT reported on it in 2001 with HAPPINESS EXPLAINED. Harvard Medical School ran a story titled, IN PRAISE OF GRATITUDE in 2011. And BE THANKFUL: Science says gratitude is good for your health, appeared on the Today Show in 2015.

Much of the research on the topic has been performed by Dr. Michael C. McCollough, of the University of Miami, and Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis. A few of their findings on the practice of gratitude include better sleep, lowered blood pressure, and better immune systems. Other researchers found the habit of gratitude associated with less fatigue, lower inflammation, and healthier heart rhythms.[1]

Or, as Scripture has it: A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength. [2] That’s the Scripture part, written some 3,000 years ago 😉

But key words in the reports are “habit” and “practice.” Like physical workouts, the benefits of gratefulness come only to those who exercise their gratitude muscles often. Want to bench-press some of those benefits into your life? Try these routines:

Journal your gratitude. Write down five things per week for which you are grateful. The process forces us to pause and think about the good things in our lives and writing makes a permanent record to help us remember. That’s a good thing!

Write thank-you notes. It cheers up others as it increases our gratitude quotient. Win-Win!

Thank your mate daily. Husbands and wives who thank their spouses for the little things have less trouble working through problems in their marriages. Find specific things to thank them for and do it daily.

Compare down, not up, and give something away. It’s easy to find people more privileged and envy them. Most advertisements are designed to make us unhappy with what we have so that we’ll buy something else. But those are gratitude killers. Contentment comes to those who realize how good they have it and share their abundance with others less fortunate.

When Christ’s disciples returned from their first mission trip, they celebrated saying, “Even the demons were subject to us in your name!” But Jesus reminded them: “Do not rejoice in that, but that rather your names are written in the book of life.”  If you have not yet received Jesus Christ as your savior and Lord I urge you to do it today. For He is the greatest of all reasons to give thanks. Thank God for providing you with eternal life through faith in his Son and no matter what troubles come your way, you will always have something to celebrate.

Happy thanks-giving! It’s better than medicine!

[1] Adapted from Lauren Dunn, “Be thankful: Science says gratitude is good for your health,” TODAY (5-12-17)

[2] Tyndale House Publishers. (2013). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Pr 17:22). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.