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.

ECSTASY THY NAME IS CHASTITY Seven Ways Married Sex is Best

Yes, that is a very COSMO-like headline for a preacher’s blog. But we live in the COSMO generation. We’ve bought into the idea that the best sex is low on commitment, high on recreation, and all about the right “moves.”

Guess what? The best sex isn’t about the right moves. In fact, the moves have very little to do with it. God didn’t make it that complicated. Our bodies can figure out the mechanics of sex without much help.

The best sex happens under the best conditions and it happens that way because we are so much more than bodies with sex organs. We are men and women, made in the image of God, with physical, emotional, and spiritual capacities for intimacy and ecstasy reaching far beyond anything pornography peddlers can imagine.

Thus, chastity is much more than “not doing it.” Chastity before and fidelity within marriage is the best path to ecstasy.

If you have been burned by the COSMO world, or if you are a young adult contemplating your path through our sex-is-everything culture I want to offer you a better way. In fact, I want to offer you a better world.

Married men and women have a better, more consistent sexual experience over the whole course of their lives than unmarried people. The statistics are available to anyone who wants to look, so I won’t spend any time there.[1] Instead here are seven reasons married sex is best.

First, married sex is richer because it can afford to be completely emotionally vulnerable, no fear of being left behind. The deeper the vulnerability the greater the ecstasy, but vulnerability requires levels of trust unavailable to the uncommitted.

Sex can be separated from vulnerability. People do it all the time. But they are missing at least half of the experience, probably more. Many things happen in the marriage, and in the marriage bed before and after lovemaking, that bind husband and wife together heart and soul. Unmarried sex is as risky to the heart as it is to the body, the emotional equivalent of trapeze work without a net. The marriage covenant makes both people more secure, willing to take greater emotional risks and gather its deeper sensual rewards.

Second, married sex is more generous. It is about giving pleasure as much or more than getting it. The marriage covenant fulfills our longing for existential meaning by giving our lives a higher purpose: The good of our mates and our families. Each person is already committed via a covenant spoken before God, to the death, to the other’s well being. That commitment reshapes the entire approach to lovemaking into an act of service, a free act of self-giving. Paradoxically, as Jesus taught, the more we give of ourselves the more we get in return.

Third, married sex preserves dignity. Each one honors the other and doesn’t push them to places where they don’t want to go. Married sex protects our dignity from the pornographization of everything. We treat each other as whole persons rather than objects that exist solely for individual gratification.

Fourth, married sex comes without shame before others and without guilt before God. Our cultural moment has managed to dull this sense of accountability to our creator, but it is not extinct. It is still common for unmarried people to keep the sexual nature of their relationship secret and un-celebrated. Yet celebration attends every wedding and none greater than the departure for the honeymoon where everyone in attendance knows what’s coming next.

Fifth, married sex is spiritually deeper, if the couple are believers, than even the emotional depths mentioned in number one. The Apostle Paul hinted at the spiritual dimension in Ephesians chapter five saying, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.[2] The marriage bed foreshadows the great consummation of the ages in profoundly mysterious ways. The exquisite joy, the honor, security, and oneness we find there is merely the overture of the grand symphony we will join when he returns for his bride, the Church.

Sixth, married sex preserves the neuro-chemical high. The delicate interchange of pheromones, hormones, and neurotransmitters that fire during the act of marriage — oxytocin, nor epinephrine, serotonin, adrenaline and dopamine — along with all the neural pathways of ecstasy God designed for our good create chemical bonds between lovers broken only at great cost. That is why so many of our love songs are about the pain of loss. Multiple liaisons, no matter how greatly lauded in popular entertainment, dull those neural networks, reducing something exquisite into ordinariness and diluting the power of the chemical bond which is one of the factors driving people into stranger and kinkier attempts to reclaim the ecstasy of their first encounters.

Seventh, married sex rejoices in life. It doesn’t resent children and try to get rid of them, it celebrates children as what they really are: the incredible gift of co-creation with our loving father, the fruit of love that comes from love.

No doubt I’ve raised many questions. But this post is too long and the topic is too broad and I don’t want to linger on it, so I’ve listed resources that have been helpful to me below[3]. However, if you would like to know more I’m happy to help.

For too long preachers like me have cursed the darkness of our sexual brokenness.  We need to turn on the light. I hope this post has done that for you.

[1] http://www.nationalsexstudy.indiana.edu/; The Science of Shacking Up

Why cohabitating couples are putting their future at risk. An interview with Glenn Stanton on ‘The Ring Makes All the Difference.’

Interview by Caryn Rivadeneira. Christianity Today. 2011.

[2] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Eph 5:31–32). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.

[3] https://daneskelton.com/2017/02/08/one-ring-to-bind-them/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2016/12/progressively-regressive-sexuality-rebroadcast/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2014/12/time-new-sexual-revolution/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2013/07/recovering-sexual-wholeness/; http://www.ruthinstitute.org/; http://www.breakpoint.org/2011/11/so-long-sex-week-at-yale/; http://www.miriamgrossmanmd.com/books/; http://www.boundless.org/relationships/2007/a-review-of-unprotected-by-anonymous-md; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/september/science-of-cohabitating.html; http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2009/august/16.22.html;

WAITING ON GOD AND PIZZA

I’ll never forget my boss’s reply to a demanding department head who wanted his project moved to top priority for our maintenance crew: “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me!”

I gasped and laughed out loud.  I did not think anyone, much less the head of a lowly maintenance department, could talk that way to one of the senior ministers in Atlanta’s largest megachurch and get away with it.

But he did.

I wonder if God wouldn’t say something similar to us when, in our hurry to achieve the next thing on our agenda, we run smack dab into the reality that our lack of patience does not constitute a crisis for him.

Ps. 27:14 Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord![1]

True, sometimes we use the excuse of waiting on God to cover a lack of planning or initiative. As Denzel Washington said, “Dreams without goals remain dreams, just dreams, and ultimately fuel disappointment.” But waiting on God is a pattern that runs throughout scripture.

Noah spent more than a year inside the Ark, sending out first a raven and then a dove to see if the ground was dry. Yet still he waited, even when the dove did not return, until God said, “Come out of the ark …”

Abraham waited till he and Sarah were past their normal childbearing years before God fulfilled his promise of an heir.

Joseph waited years in slavery to Potiphar the Egyptian, then two more years in prison before he was called to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and elevated to Prime Minister of the kingdom.

I doubt that Moses had this message in mind when he recorded those stories in Genesis, but for those of us in the smartphone generation, where information is instantaneously at our fingertips, it’s important to understand that life does not move on our timetable and God is never in a hurry.

The list is long and full of success for people who learned to wait on the Lord. Moses, David, Daniel, and Elijah come to mind. But waiting on him is not the same as doing nothing. It is more like waiting on the pizza delivery man by putting the plates on the table, the ice in the glasses, and the salad in the bowls and getting the dressing out of the fridge. It is a time of watchful expectancy instead of indolent passivity; patient trust and preparation instead of fussy anxiety and inconsequential busyness.

When the trust is total, the heart is quiet, and the preparation is complete, the task is entered into with confidence and the results, usually, are satisfying. Either way we are living with respect for the One who is truly in charge.

[1] The New King James Version. 1982 (Ps 27:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

THE LIGHT IN THEIR EYES

It has happened too many times to be a coincidence. My wife and I will meet someone new and comment to one another later, “I think she’s a believer. I just sense that she is.” Sure enough, as we come to know the person better our intuitions are confirmed.

I call it the light in the eyes. It’s the reason we tell people about Jesus, invite them to the Alpha Course, and invite them to worship with us. That light is indicative of much deeper and greater things, things that give me deep joy.

But wait a minute; aren’t we supposed to be concerned about where people spend eternity? Heaven and hell and all that stuff? Well yes, but that comes later. Salvation, as the Bible calls it, is what happens now and continues to infinity. Life in Christ, eternal life, begins here, on earth and has definite earthly effects.

Let me outline the ones I’ve witnessed and see if you agree.

The light is the first thing and always a pleasure to see. The shadow is gone from the countenance. The expression takes on a new kind of clarity born of inner peace. The Apostle Paul called it “the peace that passes all understanding,” and he wasn’t kidding. We’ve found, sometimes after years of searching, our ultimate identity in Christ as one of God’s chosen creatures. His Spirit has taken up residence inside and filled us with … well it is not easy to explain. It just is. Love, joy and hope come close, but there is more to it than that. There is something, Someone, where before there was nothing and no one. Life will continue to have its difficulties. There will be ups and downs. But we are never again alone in the universe.

Wounds begin to be healed. Bad habits begin to be broken. Internal peace is followed, sometimes rapidly, sometimes less so depending on the level of obedience and maturity, by external peace; peace in relationships, peace in the life as it takes on more of God’s order of things. Trivialities are put aside, essentials are elevated and prioritized. Christ is at the center of the life bringing balance to the whole.

The yield of these things is fullness of life as the order and peace enable the development of capacities inborn but heretofore obscured or misdirected. The gifts of the Spirit are deployed and untapped potential is discovered.

As the believer continues to grow and these potentials come online they begin to point to purpose; the intersection of our gifteddness and passion with the needs of the church and the world. Life becomes more focused and more fruitful; confident in its identity, stabilized by the order, encouraged by capacities newly discovered resulting in the revelation of why we were put here in the first place.

Then the greatest thing of all happens. The fruit of a life formed in the image of God, filled with the Spirit of his Son begins flowing out into the blessing and encouragement of others. Others see the purpose strengthened by confidence and carried out with competence. They experience the blessing of being served by someone who seeks no personal glory. They observe the fullness of the soul and the order in the life and sense the peace that flows from inside under-girding it all.

And finally, if they are truly seeking, they too begin to see the light in the eyes and wonder where they might find it.

DOING WITHOUT THE DO-OVERS

 

“What is behind-a me is not-a before me!” shouted the Italian racer as he ripped the rear view mirror off the windshield and put the pedal to the metal in one of those silly seventies rally movies. We used to quote it when heading out on family road trips, exaggerating the dialect for effect.

Most of us would like to live that way, “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead…” as the Apostle Paul would say. But the truth is many of us do look back, are held back emotionally and spiritually by mistakes we’ve made in the past, things we wish we could “do over.” We don’t necessarily call them sins. We’re still uncomfortable with that verdict. But if we were honest we’d admit that most of them were. We were raging, deceitful, covetous, gossipy, greedy, or gluttonous and sometimes all of the above. We indulged our sinful nature and it cost us.

In our guilt we look for “do-overs,” ways to fix what we did wrong, or we indulge in melancholy self-loathing, a kind of mental and emotional self-flagellation, in an attempt to appease God or balance our internal scales of justice.

Trust me; God doesn’t need your melancholy. If you are living with some left over guilt allow me to share some encouragement. It comes from the tenth chapter of Hebrews.

Under the old covenant, the Law of Moses, “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” (Hebrews 10:11 NIV). That didn’t help much because the sacrifice of an animal was never enough to cover all sins. In fact, verse three explains, “…but those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins,” (emphasis added).

All the Law could do was to remind us of our inadequacies and encourage an eternal longing for “do-overs.” But Jesus Christ, “having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, sat down at the right hand of God…” In the Bible, sitting down is a symbol for finished work. Jesus was one and done. He made one sacrifice, himself, and it was enough.

Hebrews goes on to explain that the whole Old Testament temple system was a model, a type, a shadow of the real thing in heaven. When Jesus made his sacrifice it wasn’t offered on earth alone, it was offered in the real temple, the heavenly temple. It was once for all, eternal, infinite in its ability to wipe out the sins of all who believe.

In other words, the sacrifice of Christ enables all of us to do without the do-overs.

So no more do overs. Grab that mirror, rip it off the windshield, and say it with me as we continue the race that lies before us: what is behind-a-me is not-a-before me!

 

BECAUSE HE IS GOOD

“Dad, I need some lunch money for school this week,” said my youngest daughter one evening when she was still in high school. Without a thought I opened my wallet plucked out ten dollars and handed it to her.

Then I asked, “Did you get the chores done we agreed on?” I had given her a list before leaving on a trip to Canada and had only just returned.

She said, “Well, I got most of them done but I didn’t clean out mom’s car yet like I promised.”

It didn’t matter. I gave her the ten bucks anyway. You can tell where this is going right?

Think back to the last time you felt like you failed God in some way. You failed to give an offering at the worship service, or you missed the service altogether. You skipped your devotions but somehow had plenty of time for your favorite TV show. You got exhausted and cranky and hurled invective at someone else who failed. You’re nodding your head aren’t you? We’ve all “been there done that.”

Jesus told a parable on prayer for people like you and me. It’s about a man who receives a late night visitor but has nothing to offer his guest. So he goes next door and asks his friend for bread. It’s recorded in Luke 11:5-13. The most well-known verses are 9-10: Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks the door will be opened.

But the lesser known verse, the one with the message we often miss, is verse 8: I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man’s boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs. (Emphasis mine).

Jesus concludes: Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Here’s the bottom line on answered prayer: You don’t have to be perfect to receive the power of the Holy Spirit necessary to live the Christian life. You just need the boldness to believe that God is a better parent than you are. God does not answer our prayers for his power because we’ve been regular in our devotions; or because we are faithful tithers; or because we’ve faithfully taught, or sung, or served in some other way for so many years. He answers them because he is good.

So be bold, ASK, even when you feel like you don’t deserve God’s power. He gives it because he is good.

BEARTOOTH PASS And the Glory of God

BEARTOOTH PASS And the Glory of God

“Every time you ride the pass you have to have a plan A, plan B, and plan C, and be ready to execute either one of them at any moment,” said my new friend and guide, Associate Pastor Rob Griggs of Word of Life church in Billings, Montana.

I soon had reason to appreciate his humility and respect for nature.

Rob grew up riding the Beartooth Highway, sixty-nine miles of winding road, stunning views and terrifying terrain that tops out at 10,947 feet between touristy Red Lodge, Montana, and the Northeast entrance to Yellowstone Park. It opens Memorial Day weekend, or as soon as they can get the snow off, and can close any day of the year for weather.

Rob’s words became prophetic as we rode out of the sunlit lowlands and into the pass. The sky grew dark and menacing, wind buffeted, rain threatened and the treeless, rock-strewn landscape felt more and more forbidding. Miss your footing or worse, overcook a turn on that road, and you are in for a thousand foot plunge on rock-strewn slopes.

But it was more than that. The power and proximity of the weather, thousands of feet up into the atmosphere and exposed as we were with no trees or buildings for shelter, the barren, austere peaks and fields of granite took on spiritual significance. Psalm 104:3 kept playing in the back of my mind:

He makes the clouds his chariot

and rides on the wings of the wind.

4        He makes winds his messengers,

flames of fire his servants. [1]

“I’m for plan B!” I said as we took a photo break near the summit. I was wearing summer riding gear: mesh jacket and fingerless gloves, and was already cold. The churning mass of dark cloud and rain pounding the peaks a half mile to our west made it clear we were also about to be wet.

He grinned and said, “I agree! Here, you might want these on the way down,” and handed me a spare pair of gloves. We beat a hasty retreat to some welcome shelter and hot food back in Red Lodge.

Fast forward a few days and the pass was a completely different experience as our family drove in a borrowed Suburban from the Cody, Wyoming side, up the Chief Joseph Highway, and northeast into Montana along the Beartooth. Bright blue skies, puffy white clouds, and gentle breezes brought out all the majesty and beauty of the peaks. The big SUV made the road less intimidating, the chill air less penetrating. Yet still, these mountains have a presence, a personality, a power that will not be taken for granted, that demands respect and not a little humility from the people that play on their slopes. “Enjoy me,” they seem to say, “But do not take me for granted.”

Beartooth Pass teaches me spiritual lessons. It makes me think about the maker of heaven and earth, who rides upon the wings of the wind. It reminds me to enjoy him, but not take him for granted. And it makes me want to take my friends to see him in all his terror, glory, majesty and beauty.

[1] The Holy Bible: New International Version. 1984 (Ps 104:3–4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.