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.

YOU ARE NOT ALONE

John Donne famously wrote,

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.

Nevertheless, everyone feels isolated, everyone feels alone now and then, perhaps especially during the holidays. It’s part of the human condition, a result of the fall. Eve caved to the serpent’s song followed closely by Adam, each seeking to be like God, only to find that they lost connection with God and each other. Loneliness began in the garden.

From that day to this every man, woman and child knows the ache of loneliness, the pain of separation from his fellows and his Creator. Loneliness assails us especially on significant anniversaries when we feel the loss of loved ones long gone. The divorced also feel the pain, with the added grief that separation was by choice rather than by chance.

It was with such melancholy mental meanderings that I turned to meditate on John 14:1-4, a passage so familiar that the words felt lukewarm on my tongue as I recited them back to God. Lukewarm that is, until I spoke verse three: “And if I go and prepare a place for you,” said Jesus to his downcast disciples, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”

… that you also may be where I am. That little phrase lit a pale flame on the horizon of my soul that grew in magnitude like the sun rising in the porch window, filling it with warmth and banishing the night.

… that you also may be where I am, is Jesus telling us that he is just as unsatisfied with the separation as we are, that he knows the ache in our hearts, and that he is doing something about it.

… that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us how much he wants to be with us, even more than we want to be with him.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are welcome at his table no matter how inadequate we may feel about being there. It is he who prepared the way, not us, for he was the only one who could.

…that you also may be with me where I am, is Jesus telling us that we are not alone.

I don’t know where this meditation finds you today, perhaps full of joy and good fellowship. But if you are experiencing that existential ache, if you are feeling deeply the losses of life, Jesus offers the way home.

How? Funny, that’s the same question Doubting Thomas asked, “We don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

PRODUCING BETTER THINKERS

The discussion had been disturbing. The young woman I was counseling was in deep-dish trouble. Her relationships were dysfunctional, she was up to her armpits in debt, and most of her decisions were based on a daily reading of her horoscope.

But the most disturbing thing was that she had grown up attending church. She was supposed to know how to manage life, but she didn’t. Her spiritual journey included a lot of lessons to help her feel good, but very few to help her be good.

That isn’t the way Church is supposed to be.

The Apostle Paul said that in the Church we are to “in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ.” (Eph 4:15). We have the Scriptures for, as he told Timothy, “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)

The church is supposed to be God’s university on planet earth, a learning center for Biblical life lessons, a place where each member is constantly growing up into maturity in Christ.

A healthy church is a place where the Christian’s life foundations are laid, where we learn how the Bible applies to everyday life. Healthy churches equip believers to discern between wisdom and the world’s empty values.

Consider some issues believers should be able to think through and come to soundly biblical conclusions: How best to manage our finances? How are we to think about gun violence? What is the best way to help Puerto Rico recover? Should we stay in NAFTA? How about student loan debt? How should we lower the burden on college students? How can we discern between so-called fake news and the real thing?

The list of things we need to know how to think about is endless and simple answers elude us. How should serious-minded believers respond? Can the Bible help?

The Bible doesn’t always teach us what to think. But it can teach us how to think biblically on issues from Abortion to Zoning laws. That’s what it means to develop a biblical worldview. Healthy Christians develop a biblical worldview in God’s university, the local church, becoming in the process better parents, better students, better leaders, better workers, and better citizens.

I’m so grateful for the dedicated Sunday School teachers and small group leaders our church has benefited from over the years! The list is long, but each one has helped us “grow up in all things into Christ,” to think biblically about our world.

And what about you? Do you have the ability to teach? Have you ever tried? Could you take a rotation in Children’s Church, or as a small group Bible study, or Sunday School teacher?

Just like the young woman in my office that day, the church needs good teachers on all levels now more than ever. Ask God if he is calling you to lay the foundation for someone else’s future.

STAYING PUT: Lessons from Long-Term Ministry

“Thank you,” seems inadequate for all of the honors I received from Faith Community Church  last Sunday. The church took the morning to celebrate my twentieth anniversary as its pastor, taking me by surprise in the process.

Some themes stood out in the comments, and others came to mind later, which might prove helpful to you someday. Call them Leadership Lessons from Long -Term Ministry, but many will apply even if you are not a preacher.

Preach the Word. Expository preaching, interpreting and explaining a passage of scripture in its historical, grammatical, literary, cultural, and biblical context, demonstrating how it applies to the listener and points them to Christ, is key to the vitality of any church or believer. It is a time-consuming endeavor that preachers either have to fight for against other demands, or are gifted with by a congregation. FCC made the decision long before I arrived to give its pastor, and by proxy itself, that gift. All of us benefit from it. Find a church that values this and you will usually find a healthy church.

Decide to stay. If you want to have a deep impact on a community you have to commit to the long term. Randy Pope, Eugene Peterson, Rick Warren, and many others advocated for this in their writings as I was preparing for ministry, and I believed them then. But now I’ve seen the generational effects of hoeing one row for two decades and the fruit is sweet. Warning: You cannot do long-term work without short-term rests. Build Sabbath into your lifestyle and vacations into your years.

Speak hard truth with soft words. Speak with grace and gospel faithfulness to the difficult cultural trends of the day and do not flinch. It will force you to examine yourself, be fair to others, and rely more on Christ. It will also stiffen the spines of your listeners.

Be with people one-on-one. Love them for who they are, where they are, as they are. Grieve with them, celebrate with them, honor them, and respect them. They will do the same for you.

Make sure you have a Paul, a Barnabas, and a Timothy; a mentor, a brother, and a disciple, or trainee into whom you can pour your life. They will coach you when you are clueless, strengthen you when you are weak, and challenge you to keep growing.

Believe in people and don’t micro-manage them. Find good people, give them the goal and the support they need, and then get out of their way. Look for and expect their best, and they will usually give it to you. Related: recruit people to your team who are strong where you are weak. I learned long ago that I was too emotional and empathetic for my own good. That’s one reason I try to surround myself what I call “concrete rational” personality types who can help me stay grounded in biblical objectivity.

Pray more than you politic. Consensus building and deal-making have their place in life. But no amount of politicking can accomplish what prayer can do.

Plan ahead and then give your plans to God.  Every leader needs to be at least five months, and preferably five years, ahead of his organization. But as in war, so in ministry, no plan survives combat. Keep the goal clearly in mind, pay attention to the dynamics of the situation, listen to His Spirit and be flexible with the details.

Offend early and often. I’m a recovering co-dependent people-pleaser. It took years to realize that people come into churches and other organizations with all kinds of expectations of the leadership, some conscious, some not; some reasonable, some silly, and some outrageous. Trying to keep them all happy was suicidal. I learned to make sure they knew what to expect, and what not to expect, as soon as possible. It felt offensive to my empathetic soul to do this, to disappoint some people up front, and anger others. Thus the motto, but the proof — the stability and harmony generated by uniform expectations — has indeed been in the pudding. FCC’s Handbook has been a great tool for this. If your organization doesn’t have a handbook, you should write one, and then require everyone to read it.

Finally, hold everything loosely. Any entity you lead is a stewardship from God, including your family. It doesn’t belong to you and he can take it from you whenever it suits his purposes. Live with gratitude and open, up-raised palms.

Phil 1:3 I thank my God every time I remember you. 4 In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy 5 because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, 6 being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. [1]

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Php 1:3–6). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

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;

AND SO WAS FULFILLED

Back in the late 1980’s, when George H. W. Bush (aka “Bush 41”) was running for president, one of the criticisms hurled his way concerned the circumstances of his birth. “He’s the child of up-east, old-money privilege and can’t connect with the common man,” was the gist of it. The fact that he was also a decorated combat hero of WWII and had made his own way in the hard-knock oil business after the war didn’t matter.

I love the way the future president handled that slam, “It’s true, I was born in Massachusetts,” he said. “I did that to be closer to my mother.”

That quote came to mind recently as I re-read the Christmas story in Matthew’s gospel. A repeating phrase (See 1:22; 2:15; 2:17; 2:23) rings like a chorus at the end of each element of the narrative: “So was fulfilled what was said through the prophet.”

Six hundred years before Messiah’s birth the prophet Isaiah said he would be born of a virgin, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred years before, the prophet Micah said Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and Jesus was.

Seven hundred and fifty years before, the prophet Hosea said he would come out of Egypt, and he did.

Four hundred plus years before, many Old Testament prophets alluded that Messiah would be a Nazarene, and he was.

And just like Mr. Bush, the baby Jesus had no control over the circumstances of his birth. He “did it to be closer to his mother.” Yet everything about his first advent testifies to the earthly fulfillment of an eternal plan formed for our good by a loving heavenly Father.

I offer three conclusions from this that I hope will enhance your Christmas meditations.

First, know your Bible. Read it well and deeply. Each prophecy came from what, to us, might seem obscure references. Many of us wouldn’t know about Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, and the rest of the prophets, were it not for the Christmas story. But they weren’t obscure to Matthew’s readers and they weren’t the only prophets he quoted. A similar refrain runs at least twelve times throughout his gospel, confirming for his Jewish readers that Jesus really was the fulfillment of all their messianic hopes.

Life often seems obscure to us. The better we know our Bibles the more things come into focus.

Second, trust God even when you cannot see the plan. No one, save perhaps the Magi, saw this coming. No one knew to combine the predictions of the various prophets in the way they ultimately accumulated in the person of Jesus.

The providence of God in the outworking of his plans is to us inscrutable. We can only see the beginning from the end, whereas he sees the end from the beginning. So trust him. Walk the path of faithful obedience and don’t try to figure out how he’s going to accomplish his plans.

Third, put your hopes squarely on the second advent of Christ. The specific fulfillment of all the prophecies surrounding Jesus’s first appearance points us to the reliability of all the other promises of his return. God was silent for four hundred years between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. Then, in the space of three decades, the fulfilled predictions of Messiah piled up on one another in the person of Jesus.

God’s further promises will come to pass as surely as any we celebrate this December. Put your hope in him.

DISCERNING GOD’S GUIDANCE

How do you make important decisions? Do you know how to listen for the leadership of God, how to discern his direction for your life? Now I’m not talking about those puzzling grocery store conundrums like, “Which should it be, dark chocolate mint chips or classic Klondike bars?” I’m talking about expensive, long term, even life changing decisions like: where to go to college, what to major in, which house to buy, which job to take, which person to marry. These and many more decisions affect us for the long term, contributing either to personal happiness and effectiveness in life or to dissatisfaction, distress and even misery.

Jesus promised us that God loved us and was listening to our requests, that “if we asked him for a piece of bread he would not give us a stone.” He encouraged us to keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking and the answers we need would be given to us. So what does that process look like? How are followers of Jesus Christ to discern his directions?

There are at least three steps to discerning God’s direction today. And like a three-legged stool, or finding your position using three points on a map, each one is important. The three legs are:

  1. The Word of God speaking to our minds, teaching us many, many things that give us clear directions in areas like money, work, marriage, authority, charity, mercy, and managing conflict.
  2. The Gifts to the Church – We also have, according to Paul’s list in Ephesians, gifts to the Church – “Apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:11-13 NIV). Every member of the Church is gifted or experienced in some area of knowledge. We make our best decisions when we seek the wisdom of other members of the body of Christ.
  3. The Spirit of God. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever– the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.(John 14: 16-17 NIV). As we develop the discipline of quietness before God we learn to perceive the direction of the Spirit much as we would a gentle breeze blowing on our face.

Are you faced with a serious, life changing decision? Consult the Word. It will teach you to think Biblically about your values and priorities. Consult the Body of Christ, your gifted brothers and sisters for their wisdom. And ask the Spirit of God to show you which path to take. Then make the decision and act on it, step out in faith and don’t second guess yourself. Trust God to provide one day at a time. I have seen him do so, over and over again. He will do no less for you.