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;

EXERCISE IN TYRANNY: Marriage and Freedom of Conscience

A beautiful wedding is a microcosm of cooperative community. Everyone exerts him or herself to the utmost to insure the bride and groom have their day of unalloyed joy. Friends fly in from far-off fields, florists outdo themselves arranging flowers, planners and facility managers push to make the venue flawless, and photographers find the perfect pose to freeze each moment in time. It all costs money, but ask the vendors and they will tell you, it is never only about the money, but about being part of something money cannot buy: the mystical union of husband and wife. When it all goes right, and even when it doesn’t, everyone sheds a tear or two of reverent joy.

Imagine what it would be like, what it would do to the spirit of celebration, to force someone who did not want to be there, who could not in good conscience participate, to do it anyway? What if, for instance, you insisted on bar-b-que for the reception, and your caterer politely declined because she is Hindu? Would you really want her to be there? Would you take her to court and attempt to shut down her business if she refused? Of course not! That is not a microcosm of cooperative community, but an exercise in tyranny.

That is what is happening to a fine lady named Barronelle Stutzman, a 72-year-old grandmother and floral artist in Richland, Washington. Barronelle serves everyone in her community, regardless of race, nationality, sex, religion, or sexual orientation. She has long sold flowers to, and considers herself a friend of, many same-sex oriented people. But because of her Christian conscience about marriage, she could not agree to use her artistic gifts to create custom-arranged flowers for a customer’s same-sex ceremony.

Because of that, the State of Washington brought suit against Barronelle, and the Washington Supreme Court has now ruled against her for running her floral shop, Arlene’s Flowers, according to her Christian conscience.[1] She stands to lose not only her business, but also her home, and all of her retirement savings paying fees and penalties. Alliance Defending Freedom is appealing Barronelle’s case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The people behind the prosecution of Barronelle Stutzman, and other small-business operators like her,[2] are well-funded, well-connected, and cleverly led. Their avowed purpose is not only to stop all dissent, but to force everyone to celebrate their view of human sexuality in general, and marriage in particular. They attack small-business operators who do not have the funds, nor the customer support base (remember the failed attack on Chic-fil-A?) to fight back, and bring suit in courts favorable to their cause because judicial precedent tends to spread from state to state. [3]

What is our redemptive stance in the face of such tyranny?

First, pray for those who disagree with us. We cannot stop people who choose to disregard God’s good order of creation, but we can be kind, loving, respectful to them as persons, and prayerful.

Second, refer customers, like Barronelle did, to other vendors who can serve with a clear conscience.

Finally, follow Barronelle’s example and take a costly stand. Scripture teaches that “ … those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar.”[4] We should not participate in something that so directly contradicts God’s design. But that is not the only reason to stand with Barronelle. The social pressure of millions of believers who refuse to “go along to get along” will speak volumes to judges and legislators. Persecuting a grandma with a small business is easy; suing a hundred million people, not so much.

Watch for Barronelle’s case during the next session of the U.S. Supreme Court. Stand with her in prayer. Support her with your funds, letters to editors, legislators, and judges. It is not just her freedom of conscience that is on the line, but yours as well. If it falls, there will be no cause for celebration.

[1] http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/blog-details/allianceedge/2017/02/16/washington-supreme-court-punishes-barronelle-stutzman.-what-now

[2] http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/case-details/masterpiece-cakeshop-v.-craig See also http://www.adflegal.org/detailspages/case-details/telescope-media-group-v.-lindsey

[3] Harris, W.C., Slouching Toward Gay Theism: Christianity and Queer Survival in America; Bruce, Tammy, The Gay Gestapo, WashingtonTimes.com, March 2, 2014.

[4] 1 Corinthians 10:18

OUTGROWING POVERTY

My heart went out to the young man on the phone and the woman who had taken him in. He had fallen in love with her at work and needed a place to stay and, well, one thing led to another. He had only been out of prison for a few months, still trying to get back on his feet, and his original housing arrangement hadn’t worked out. Her power was about to be cutoff on this damp, cold night.

I had helped in enough of these situations to know that a few bucks weren’t going to keep the heat on, and it was too late in the day to involve the church or other agencies, so I went to the ATM, pulled out $350, and handed it to her in Wal-Mart so she could get the money order and pay her bill.

That’s what Christians are supposed to do right, help the poor? Then why did I feel robbed when she unceremoniously kicked him out before the next billing cycle? Well, frankly, because I had been. I was a voluntary victim of my own hyperactive empathy, unbiblical anthropology, and upside-down economic theory. The only reason I’m sharing this is so that you won’t think me a cold-hearted capitalist if you keep reading.

Nobody likes poverty. No one enjoys seeing other people suffer with only thin blankets between them and a frigid night. Everyone with a conscience informed by Jesus’s Good Samaritan wants to, and should, help in an emergency. But the only way to help people get out, and stay out, of chronic poverty is to help them outgrow it. That’s a lot harder than pulling a few hundred bucks out of an ATM on a cold November night.

Prevailing models of aid view economic resources as limited. There are the haves and the have-nots, and the only way to help the have-nots is for the haves to hand it over. That’s called wealth redistribution, which is completely different from wealth creation. If we’re going to help people get out and stay out of chronic poverty, we need to believe in the expandable economic pie. World Magazine’s Joel Belz reminds us of this in his tribute to American Catholic philosopher (and lifelong Democrat) Michael Novak, who died last month.[1]

Novak often referenced eighteenth-century economist Adam Smith, saying, “The really unusual insight of Adam Smith is in effect a theological insight—that the world is not a finished system. If it were finished, then the urgent need would be for a distributive system. But God made the world differently, with the potential for constantly creating new wealth.” Finding the causes of poverty is not difficult, but we need to find ways to help the poor create wealth.

The first way to help people outgrow poverty is to help them believe that God has given them the power to create wealth, to provide for themselves. Doing this restores their dignity as creatures made in his image who have power, some ability to determine their own destiny.

Another Novak quote corrects the unbiblical anthropology undermining our attitudes toward the poor as well as our ideas about helping them: “Socialism is a system for saints. Democratic capitalism works because it’s a system for sinners.” If we’re going to help each other, we have to be truthful about human nature–that we are prone to oppression and greed, as well as fraud, and indolence. Socialism is brilliant, if we can count on rich and poor alike to ignore economic incentives, but we cannot.

Pure, unregulated, free-market capitalism will almost always favor the strong over the weak, or uninformed. That’s why we needed, for example, some of the credit agency and loan industry reforms passed by the last administration, the “democratic” in Novak’s capitalism.

But the “sinners” part of the equation covers the poor as well as the rich. Behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated. Many single young women now see having babies in order to collect more government assistance as a de facto career path. Marrying the father is out of the question because he would be expected to provide for his own, thus reducing the monthly stipend. The result is that more children are born to more unwed mothers. Perverse economic incentives reap a cycle of increasing dependence as well as the social pathologies that arise from families without fathers.

The biblical view of human nature takes these things into account. That’s why in the Bible, help for the poor recognizes the difference between a crisis and a chronic need. Ongoing, versus emergency assistance, was always predicated on the idea that the receiver performed some kind of work (Deut. 24:17-22).

The bedraggled man at the end of the off-ramp held a crude sign: “I have a wife and child and another on the way. Will work today.” Reliable reporting tells us that these guys often pull in hundreds of untaxed dollars a day. Even so, avoiding his pleading gaze as he made his way along the line of cars was almost more than I could take. Everything in me wanted to pull out a twenty and hand it over. But he kept a respectful distance and I, feeling like an absolute shmuck, kept my wallet in my pocket.

Perhaps the hardest part of helping people outgrow poverty is overcoming our hyperactive empathy. And I don’t believe that God will ever judge us for handing a few bucks to a beggar. But I am utterly convinced that he will ask us one day, “Why did you, in the most prosperous economic system ever developed by man, allow poverty to perpetuate itself, when you knew how to help people outgrow it?”

[1] https://world.wng.org/2017/03/system_for_sinners

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.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.

TO MAKE A GROWN MAN CRY

Bob Hughes stood on the porch on a sunlit November Saturday morning, looking out over the gathering of about fifty people who had come to celebrate, and choked up as he tried to finish the ceremony. The longtime director, and sole (part-time) employee of Tri-River Habitat for Humanity was reading off the names and organizations that helped build Tri-River’s fifteenth home in twenty years.

It wasn’t the names that brought the tears, just the gratitude. Bob knows better than most what a struggle, what a team effort it takes, and how many hurdles have to be crossed every time our small local chapter of this global ministry cuts the ribbon and hands over the keys to another harassed family. Permits, weather, coordinating volunteers, smoothing over misunderstandings, securing materials donations, following up endless details, and making sure that everyone gets properly recognized in the end is a process programmed to stretch the patience of Job. And though he will no doubt deflect this praise, Ole Bob, as he often calls himself, is better at it than most.

Bob’s aw-shucks, self-deprecating style and twinkle-eyed grin, combined with his white goatee, and somewhat Santa-Clause shape, make him easy to like. But underneath that cheerful, ever-encouraging demeanor is a truckload of smarts and quiet determination. The only thing Bob loves more than fishing the Outer Banks is seeing the words of Jesus fulfilled: “When you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it unto me.”  When it all comes together and a family of six can move in before Thanksgiving, well, that’s better than the icing on the celebratory sheet-cake. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.

I served with Bob and a half-dozen others of Halifax’s finest in his first few years with Habitat. We are blessed to have citizens like him and all the others who serve the boards of our volunteer organizations. As we enter the Thanksgiving season, let’s take a few moments not only to give thanks for their leadership, but to consider how we might follow in their footsteps.