KEEPING A CHILDLIKE SPIRIT

Like children the world over they chased each other around the building after the adults had finished their serious church stuff, squealing with delight. “Easy, now,” I said, trying not to raise my voice or come across too strong. “You guys slow it down a bit, use your inside voices.” I flashed back to the tiled floors and wooden pews of my childhood church, remembering the lightness of spirit, the careless joy of pursuit and escape in a building that felt like home. (The tile was great for sliding under those pews)! That’s what church should feel like for children and I didn’t want to spoil it by being a grumpy old man.

Where does that lightness go? Is it inevitable that our spirits will sag with our waistlines? Must we grow heavy with age?

No. Just as exercise and a good diet can help us stay fit, the spiritual discipline of confession keeps our spirits free of excess baggage. But also like dieting and exercise, confession has gotten a bad rap, an undeserved reputation as something only masochists enjoy, and mercy like something we must leverage from God.

Neither is true. “Confession is not primarily something God has us do because he needs it. God is not clutching tightly to his mercy, as if we have to pry it from his fingers like a child’s last cookie. We need to confess in order to heal and be changed.”[1]

What are the keys to this kind of healing? How to maintain that lightness of spirit? David gave us two clues in the fifty-first Psalm. First, he takes ownership of his sin, and second, he remembers that God is the one we most offend.[2]

I have sinned…”

Most commentators associate this confession with his adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband.[3] David doesn’t rationalize. He doesn’t justify himself. He doesn’t deny it or cover it up. He doesn’t say, “Joab misunderstood my orders!” Or “Bathsheba’s marriage was already over anyway. I mean, look, Uriah wouldn’t even go see her when he was in town! That proves the marriage was over!”  David owns it.  “I have done it. I’m responsible.”

The first step to being free from the soul sinking power of sin is taking responsibility for it, refusing to justify or rationalize it away. The first step is to say, “I am the man. I have sinned.”

“…against the LORD.”

The second thing David does is recognize the person whom he has most deeply offended. “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Hey, wait a minute, didn’t David sin against a whole bunch of people? Bathsheba, Uriah, his family, etc.? How is it that you are leaving them out of this confession?

Yes, he did. Yet the one who has endured the greatest insult is the giver of all good things.  When we sin, we sin against God. We sin in our bodies against the architect of anatomy. We sin in our minds against the builder of brains. We sin in our speech against the maker of mouths, the Logos, the Word of Truth. We sin in our ethics against the Spirit of righteousness. We sin in our souls against the giver of life. We sin not only against other human beings, but against what it means to be fully human – a being formed to reflect God himself. We are at odds not only with other humans, but with the meaning of humanness.

That is why if we really want to keep a childlike spirit we need to confess to the Maker of children. Then and only then can we be synchronized with the source of freedom, peace, and joy.

What is life like for us when we do that? Psalm 32, also one of David’s, explains it. The joylessness is gone, replaced by a rich appreciation of all that life is and all it has to offer. The lightness is back with gladness and expectation of more joy in the presence of God. The songs once sung in heartless ritual now resonate down in the soul. The prayers that once felt like they bounced off a brass sky now ring down the halls of heaven like the shouts of a child playing in a giant cathedral that feels like home.

[1] John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted, P. 129

[2] See Psalm 51:3-4.

[3] See 2 Samuel 11.

RENDEZVOUS WITH JESUS: Alpha 2017

A new friend sat across the table at the local deli, eager to tell me what had happened to him.

“On the third week, when Nicky Gumble led in prayer, I prayed with him and gave everything to God. I told God I couldn’t do anything without him and didn’t want to try. Up until then I had some good days and some bad days, well, really a lot of bad days and some OK days, full of anxiety, sleeplessness, and depression. All of that is gone. I felt this incredible lightness after I prayed. I’m sleeping the night through now, and I’m so happy.”

That was in 2011, about five weeks into our first Alpha Course, and conversations like it have continued to happen ever since. That’s the reason our church will offer Alpha in September for the eighth time since 2011. I’m writing today to ask you to pray for the course and for friends you might invite this summer.

Haven’t heard of Alpha? Wonder what it’s like?

The Alpha Course is completely apolitical. More importantly, it isn’t built around a sales pitch of the gospel. It is a course, Christianity 101 if you will, founded instead on two fundamentals: Process and Community.

Learning is a process that happens best when we are in the presence of friends. This is what makes Alpha so enjoyable and encouraging. No one is pressured to “buy” anything and all questions are welcomed in a community of friends who’ve gotten to know one another through shared meals and laughter.

Alpha is for everyone. People who have attended church all their lives will enjoy it. Those who’ve never entered a church or considered Christianity will also enjoy it and come away enriched, with new understanding and new friends.

The Alpha Course Team, the people who make the event happen each fall, consists of two parts: task force, and hosts / facilitators. The task force prepares the meals and handles logistics. The hosts / facilitators make  guests feel welcome and facilitate small-group discussions. The only prerequisites to serving on the team are to have attended the course at least once and meet a few times prior to launch for prayer and training.

One of the most important things our Alpha team has learned over the years is that the primary reason people attend the course is because a friend has invited them. So even if you choose not to serve on an Alpha Course team, your prayers for and invitations to friends really count. Of course you’ll also want to attend with whomever you invite.

The coolest thing in the world is to sit with new friends, see the peace and joy on their faces, hear how awesome it is to know that they are loved and cared for by the Creator of heaven and earth, and know that we got to play a small part in their rendezvous with Jesus.

Interested? Visit  http://alphausa.org.

LISTEN TO YOUR SQUEAKERS: Preventive Maintenance for the Spiritual Life

“Dad,” my daughter sounded worried over the phone, “I hate to tell you this, because I know you just checked, but my brake pedal just went to the floor when I was on the expressway.”

This kind of thing did not used to be a problem. As a formerly ASE certified service technician I had always been able to repair the family cars, usually cheaper and faster than a local shop. But now my girl’s life was in danger because I had missed a critical diagnosis on her last visit. Not only that, but she was five hours away in a big city. What would have been a $300 job at home became a $750 repair bill. It stung my ego, because I had missed the warning signs, but I was happy to pay it to make sure she was safe.

That mistake reminded me of a spiritual lesson from King Solomon that might save us all a lot of heartache, if we are able to hear it.

Keep your heart with all diligence, for out of it spring the issues of life. (Proverbs 4:23 NKJ).

For as long as I can remember General Motors products with disc brakes have been equipped with what I call “squeakers.” Squeakers are small flat wear indicators made of flimsy spring steel that are attached to one end of each inner disc brake pad in a set. When the pad wears down to within a few hundredths of an inch of the backing plate the squeaker contacts the rotating disc, emitting a high pitched squeal that will get the attention of any driver who isn’t making an audio assault on the neighbors with his stereo. When you hear the squeak you know it’s time to replace the brake pads. If you don’t you’ll soon have the stopping power of a greased bowling ball and a simple $150 repair can rapidly become a $750 repair or worse, a car wreck.

King Solomon’s admonition, along with many other verses in Scripture,[1] is a reminder to pay attention to the state of our hearts, to listen to our spiritual squeakers. They’re warning us of little problems that can become big ones in a hurry. But they aren’t quite as noticeable as the ones GM uses so I’ve listed a few below.

You know your heart is squeaking:

  • When gossip is easy and prayer is hard.
  • When you’re spouse is annoying but your colleague is alluring.
  • When wrath makes more sense than reconciliation.
  • When vengeance seems more logical than forbearance.
  • When fear and foreboding replace faith and courage.
  • When lust looks lovely and purity looks pathetic.
  • When devotions are dull but distractions are dynamic.

We could go on but I’m sure you get the picture.

Listen to your spiritual squeakers. Put the brakes on runaway desires and ask God, “What’s missing? Where do I need a little soul maintenance? What has dulled my relationship with Jesus Christ and made me insensitive to his warnings?” He’ll help you replace the worn out parts and keep your spirit strong for the long haul.

[1] 1 Timothy 4:16a; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; 1 Peter 5:8;

FOG ON THE MOUNTAIN: Staying Upright in Zero Visibility

“Uh oh,” I said out loud inside my helmet, “not good.”

Post rainstorm fog had descended on Route 8 south of Floyd, Virginia, skirting the edge of the Rocky Knob Recreation area through which we now rode, some three thousand feet above sea level. We had avoided most of the wet that day, the return leg of our two-day spring motorcycle ride, and prospects were good for a fairly dry trip home, but visibility was fading fast.

Fifty feet, I thought, now thirty, now twenty, now … who cares! I can’t see! Get the face-shield up! Forget the distance, just stay on that white line!

I was experiencing, or right on the edge of experiencing, spatial disorientation–that unnerving feeling that happens to pilots, divers, and sometimes motorcyclists in fog, when the visual cues don’t match up with the little motion detectors in your head and body–making up seem like down, and down seem like up.

Those God-given motion detectors, called kinesthetic sensory receptors, are one of the reasons I love to ride, especially in the mountains. Carving the climbing curves with my old Beemer, swooping down switchbacks, soaring up the slopes, beveling my boot heels on the asphalt just before the foot pegs scrrrape! Pushing opposite bar, weight-shifting to the inside of the curve, down-shifting, grabbing some brake to preload the suspension, focusing everything on nailing the next apex. Then throttle on coming out, letting the physics of acceleration on uncoiling springs stand you up, ready now to fling it into the next turn going the other way.

If you can identify with that, you can understand why my friend Jamie and I love motorcycling so much. The wind in your face and bugs in your teeth are fun, too, but not nearly so much as the sensation of flying. I thank God every time I ride for the sheer joy of it.

Except when I run into fog; then I pray for deliverance, I slow down, and I concentrate on one critical thing: that bright white line along the edge of the road. Visibility may be ten feet. It may be less, but I know that line will lead me out of the fog.

Remember what the Psalmist said? “I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path. Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path. I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.”[1]

Life is like a long ride through the mountains and valleys, sometimes in sunshine, and sometimes in rain and fog. It is easy to stay upright when the sky is clear and the roads are dry. But some days the visibility will drop to almost zero and spiritual disorientation will make you wonder which way is up. That’s when you need to slow down, keep your eyes fixed on the bright white line of God’s word, and follow it out of the fog.

[1] Psalm 119:104-106, NIV.

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.

 

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

ONE RING TO BIND THEM

Glenn T. Stanton’s The Ring Makes All the Difference: The Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage

Ask any pastor what the toughest part of his job is and, second only to funerals of the young, he will tell you “counseling broken marriages.” Nothing else wreaks more emotional, spiritual, familial, and financial havoc than divorce. No wonder then that we are always on the lookout for resources to help couples, especially pre-marital couples, prevent that disaster. Glenn T. Stanton’s THE RING MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE (Moody Publishers, 2011) takes aim at one of the preeminent pre-cursors to broken marriages today: pre-marital cohabitation, and does so with pinpoint accuracy.

Stanton is the director for Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, and a leading spokesperson on marriage and family issues. He can also be heard on the weekly “Breakpoint This Week” podcast, hosted by John Stonestreet.

At fewer than one hundred and fifty pages, The Ring is an easy read, incredibly well-documented, and highly practical for couples or individuals who want to think carefully and act wisely as they approach marriage. Each chapter has large-print summary quotes for quick review along with five or six insight-inducing questions at the end.

The book is also a great example of science “catching up” with scripture. Anyone familiar with the biblical understanding of marriage knows that sex before marriage is sin and cohabitation is not equal to marriage. The mid-twentieth century sexual revolution and feminist movements undermined that message, and cohabitation has skyrocketed as a result. Most couples just sort of slide in to the arrangement, not intending to commit sin so much as failing to see why it matters. But social scientists have been tracking the results of that sea-change for fifty years and the results support the biblical view. A few of the findings are indicative:

“Marriage matters, not just because it is preceded by a wedding that costs us or our parents tens of thousands of dollars, but because the nature of the relationship itself makes a difference in ways you probably never imagined.”

“Even if (cohabiting) couples consider themselves essentially “married,” they know that without a marriage license, they are freer to exit the relationship at any time. This lack of security in the mind of each partner affects how they deal with each other.”

“Marriage involves things the cohabiting couple–or at least one of them–would rather not deal with. This is why cohabitation even exists.”

“People with cohabiting experience who marry have a 50 to 80 percent higher likelihood of divorcing than married couples who never cohabited.”

All of those findings are important, but the one that stood out most, because it is the one that I deal with most often in counseling, is that cohabitation, even with someone you eventually wed, sets up unhealthy relationship patterns that carry over into the marriage. Cohabitors have fewer and weaker conflict resolution skills. They are less likely to be supportive and self-sacrificing. Most notably, “the lack of relational clarity is likely to foster more controlling and manipulative interactions to try to keep the relationship together and get the partner to do what the other desires. As a result, cohabitors are much more likely to report a sense of relational instability than their married peers.”

Any married person would benefit from Stanton’s book, but I highly recommend it to young men and women contemplating marriage, as well as to those who haven’t yet found that special someone. Read it, and protect yourself from a world of hurt.