THE SECOND LAW OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

THE SECOND LAW  OF SPIRITUAL THERMODYNAMICS

Physics recognizes the second law of thermodynamics. Everything is winding down.  Everything atrophies. Everything decays unless it’s maintained.

Do you have a car? The clutches and seals in the transmission will wear out. Own a home? The siding will rot. The mortar in the bricks will need touching up. The porch will sag. The plumbing will stop up. Have a computer? Its CPU will crash if you don’t maintain it.

What most of us don’t realize is that there is a spiritual version of that law.  It’s called “the law (or doctrine) of total depravity”.  It means that the whole person is affected by something that destroys us, something that causes problems in our relationships and our communities. The mind, the will, the emotions and the body of every human being is infected with a condition known as sin. It doesn’t mean that everyone is as bad as he can possibly be. It means that left to ourselves, without something to keep us in line, we will tend toward selfish, greedy and destructive behavior.

The second law of thermodynamics means we must work at maintaining physical things. The law of total depravity means that we must work at maintaining spiritual things. That’s what Jesus meant when he said, “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt has lost its saltiness it is good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled under foot by men. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do men light a lamp and put it on under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and so it gives light to all who are in the house.” (Matthew 5:13-16).

How to pull that off? Well, it can be costly. The late Howard Hendricks told this story:

Recently, I was walking the streets in San Mateo, California. I met an attorney I knew from a local evangelical church. I said to him, “What are you doing?”

He said, “I’m looking for a job.”

I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He said, “No, last week I walked out the front door of that corporation and told them, ‘You can hang it on your beak. I’m no longer going to write contracts that you and I both know are illegal and illegitimate.'”

That man is regarded as one of the top five corporate lawyers in America, and he’s unwilling to sell his value system for a mess of pottage. We need a larger core of lawyers like that.[1]

I can hear you thinking, “Yeah, we need more lawyers like that!” But to be honest we need more mechanics, more doctors, more contractors and more everybody to be like that. That’s what it means to be salt.

Without something to preserve it, the world will suffer ethical decay. Without something to light the way, the world will recede into darkness. God put his church into the world to be that something.  God put you and me here to do something for the world that the world cannot do for itself. You are the salt of the earth. You are the light of the world.

[1] Citation: Howard Hendricks, “Beyond the Bottom Line,” Preaching Today, Tape No. 101

 

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.

DISCERNMENT IN THE D.C. GLADIATORIAL GAMES

Politics is blood-sport where power is the prize and those who play it will stop at nothing to win.

I learned that ugly truth in a beautiful room in the house of one of the power players in Washington D. C. The owner, whose issue is tax reform, was not present, but had made his home available to another special interest group for a meet-and-greet. I was attending their conference as a guest who could offer an evangelical perspective on their issue.

As I sipped my drink and circled the room I came upon an older, white-haired gentleman, erect, clear-eyed and almost elegantly dressed compared to the rest of us. This old gent looks nice enough, I thought; I bet he can give me a real feel for their movement. So I introduced myself and asked something innocuous like, “I’m new to this. Can you tell me what drew you to this movement and what how I might help?”

With little more than his name and state as preamble he said, “Young man, this is about power plain and simple and I am willing to break your legs in order to get that power and defend my rights and achieve my purpose. If you are not willing to do the same you don’t belong here.”

I felt like someone had punched me in the gut. If that’s what this is about, I thought, count me out. But that happened about ten years ago, and the more I watch the D. C. gladiatorial games, the more I believe he was right. While there are a few “Mr. Smiths who have gone to Washington,” honest people seeking to serve, we are witnessing a ruthless battle for power into which all have been swept. Those who have it want to pursue the agenda for which they were elected. Those who do not have it want to stop those who do and will fight dirty to win.

The question for us is: who is telling the truth? Answering that requires the biblical quality of discernment. It is what Solomon asked of God when he became king of Israel, “Give me a discerning heart to govern your people and to distinguish between right and wrong.”[1]

Discernment is the ability to see the character beneath the costume. It perceives the chill in the kidnapper’s eye as clearly as the fear in the real mother’s when threatening to split the disputed baby in half, as Solomon did in his most famous case.[2]

Like Gamaliel, who reminded the Sanhedrin of the fate of earlier messianic movements when he stood to speak on behalf of Peter and the apostles, discernment sees the whole context, remembers the rest of the story, not just the parts on momentary display.[3] It reads between the lines of testimony and sees that what is not being said is as important as what is.

Sound judgment also distinguishes a partisan player from an honest broker, a manipulative speech from a straightforward question, and a witch hunt from an authentic investigation. As Megan Basham, who attended the Comey hearings, reported on World Radio this morning, “Everything sounded so scripted that all the drama was taken out of it. The only thing that raised journalists’ eyebrows was Mr. Comey’s admission that he had leaked information to the press via a Columbia Law professor.”

No one person has access to all of the facts, so discernment in the D.C. gladiatorial games depends on reliable reporting based on biblical objectivity, or the “God’s-eye” view. It is impartial, fact-filled, and thorough and recognizes that “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account,” including the biases of the reporter. [4] 

For that I can only recommend WORLD Magazine and World Radio’s The World and Everything In It podcast. You can get a risk-free three-month trial membership by going to www.getWORLDnow.com.

[1] 1 Kings 3:9 NIV

[2] 1 Kings 3:24 NIV

[3] Acts 5:34-39

[4] Heb 4:13

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.

THE OLD MAN’S EGGS: Three Worldview Questions for 2017

An old man with a cane is struggling to get his groceries out of the buggy and into his car. One bag drops to the ground, breaking most of the eggs inside. What should you do: Ignore him and walk on by? Stop, help him pick up the bag, and maybe give him your eggs? Push him down and take his wallet?

I’m willing to bet nobody chose option three.

The way we answer such questions tells us not only about our character, but what we believe about the existence of objective moral truths. No one believes option three is morally right, even the thugs who might take the money and run. It is testimony to the biblical idea that the requirements of the law are written on our hearts, our consciences also bearing witness.

In other words, whether we admit it, or not, whether we want to believe it, or not, we do believe in objective moral truth every bit as much as we believe in scientific truth, like gravity.

The problem, the thing that creates so much confusion for so many of us as we try to sort through answers for today’s difficult questions on things like social justice, abortion, and same sex marriage, is that we are attempting to live with competing and conflicting worldviews. We wouldn’t take the old man’s wallet, but we can’t explain why someone else shouldn’t.

What’s a worldview? Your worldview is the grid through which you understand and interpret all of life. It answers four questions that are basic to everything else: Where did we come from? What’s wrong with us? How are the problems of life best addressed? Where is life headed in the end?

The reason we can’t offer anything more than an exasperated, “It’s just wrong!” to taking the old man’s wallet is that we are attempting to blend traditional morality with pluralism and post-modernism.

Traditional morality is based, more or less, on the biblical worldview (think: creation, fall, redemption, restoration) and agrees that there is such a thing as objective moral truth. Pluralism says that there are many possible worldviews and many possible truths, each with equal validity. Post-modernism says there is no such thing as truth, that meaning is completely subjective. A thing only means what the individual observer says it means. It’s like the old joke about the three umpires. The first one says, “I calls ‘em as they is.” The second says, “I call’s ‘em as I see’s ‘em.” And the third says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls ‘em.”

So here’s a three-part challenge for 2017:

First, what is your worldview? Is it consistently biblical? Pluralistic? Post-modern? Or some combination thereof?

Second, ask yourself if it actually fits observed reality. Is someone helping the old man with his eggs, or is someone robbing him, and if so, why?

Third, ask yourself which worldview your life is conforming to, the one you say you believe, or one of the others, or some amalgamation thereof?

My hope and conviction is that as we answer these questions the fog of confusion will clear and uncertainty will give way to confidence.

 

THE CUBS AND EVERLASTING HOPE

“Maybe deep heartache takes the nearly impossible to cure because, having lost hope, the only remedy is for it to be replenished by what feels too much like a miracle to ignore.”[1]

Bill Reiter’s opening to his piece on the Cub’s improbable victory–pardon me, mauling of the Indians last night strikes a chord in the heart of every underdog-loving American.  We were watching when young Cub Addison Russell crushed a third inning grand slam over 434 feet, through the exit tunnel in center-right field.

Pandemonium! What a hit! What a reversal of fortunes! Maybe they can do it! Maybe, after 108 years, and down three games to one, the Cubs can win the pennant!

As exciting as it was to watch I have to admit that I am bemused by Reiter’s and other sports reporters’ spiritual allusions to what is, after all, only a game.

“When they move us to tears,” he writes, “to joy, to ebullience, to uncertainty and captivation and heartache and, most importantly, to awe — that is when they rise above some silly game and become something deeper and richer. Something truly lasting.”[2]

Reiter isn’t wrong to say that. In fact I agree with him. Yet the ephemeral nature of such events and our attraction, even our need for them, speaks to something deeper, reveals subterranean longings in our souls.

I remember the thrill of local hero Ward Burton’s 2002 Daytona 500 win. I was ready to paint my station wagon Caterpillar yellow. Yet Ward left NASCAR a few short years later. Current Cubs’ players, like my Atlanta Braves hero, John Smoltz, will sooner than later, be sharing a broadcast booth rather than standing on the mound in the world’s biggest baseball contest. And of course, the Cubs could go down in flames tonight!

Our enthusiasm for these transient victories testifies to deeper longings, truer truths, and our need for lasting hope. The deep heartaches we endure as members of the human race can only be healed by a miracle that offers hope.

That miracle happened and is not ephemeral, but lasting, truly too great to ignore. For one day long ago the underdog of all underdogs went up against a dynasty and went down three straight days. Buried under a curse his fans fell away with no hope at all until an amazing thing happened – like a bases loaded homer with two outs he came back to life. Hope everlasting was reborn on that day and continues down to this.

So if you’re looking for hope and awe that will outlast this year’s World Series, look to Jesus who took your brokenness, your shattered dreams, all of your errors and mistakes, and crushed them at the cross sending them, as it were, over the fence, as far as the east is from the west. Look to Jesus and live with everlasting hope.

[1] http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/cubs-indians-world-series-could-end-up-as-one-of-the-greatest-sports-stories-ever/

[2] Ibid.

VICTIMOLOGY 101

 

What do Islamic terrorists, LGBT activists, and the rioters in Charlotte all have in common? One would think nothing at all, but dig a little deeper and you will find an underground stream running through our culture that nourishes all three.

Welcome to Victimology 101.

The Jihadist rationale for violence depends in part on a doctrine that paints Islam as the victim of infidel oppression. So let’s say you’re the editor of a satirical French magazine that publishes some unflattering cartoons of Mohammed; or you’re a priest of another religion operating in territory claimed by Islam; or you’re a passenger on a plane that represents the prosperity and freedom of an infidel nation. Bang, slash, crash, boom you’re dead and it’s your fault for insulting Islam. That’s Victimology.

The LGBT rationale for imposing its agenda on photographers, bakers, florists, wedding venues, and most recently every public school in the nation regarding who can use what bathroom, is the same. “We’re victims! We have the right to impose our views on everyone in the country!” That’s Victimology.

The rioters in Charlotte, and other municipalities where police have been forced to use force have destroyed businesses, property, and lives for the same reason. “We’re victims!” They cry, as they perpetrate their scorched earth path to power. That’s Victimology.

Adherents of Victimology have at least three things in common.

First, their pain is their fame. They glory in victim status and expect everyone else to comply. Any attempt to diminish their status is met with indignation, anger, or accusations of insensitivity or oppression. Any attempt to persuade them of a need to change behavior in order to change outcomes is met with multiple rationalizations and blame shifting.

Second, they count on cultural co-dependency. “Compulsive rescuing, called co-dependency,” said Robert McGee, “allows the dependent person (or group) to continue acting destructively and keeps him or her in need of habitually being rescued, so that the pattern continues.”[1] We are suffering from national co-dependence. We rush to fix the problem when stepping back, taking a second look, and figuring out how to help the victim help himself would be better.

Third, emotion equals truth. No one is totally objective. But the adherents of victimology have no objectivity whatsoever. Thus, any appeal to dispassionate reality has little to no authority and is often twisted in order to validate the victim’s outrage.

“Now hang on,” you reason. “Some bad stuff has happened to Muslims, Gays, and Blacks at the hands of bad actors.” Of course it has. Welcome to the fallen planet, where power corrupts, racism lives, and gender-disordered people are hated for something that feels out of their control.

Any society worthy of the title civilized would want to address obvious inequities and open oppression of the strong against the weak and marginalized. I for one am glad to have learned what I have about Islam, same-sex attracted people, and racism by the conflicts we’ve endured over the past two-decades. But the missing truth is that you do not help one class of victims by creating another. That path is as old as mankind and littered with the rubble of civilizations.

Thankfully, there is a better way.

The most successful reconciliations in history are those that adopted and adapted the doctrines of Jesus Christ. Why didn’t the American Civil War continue as a perpetual guerrilla battle after Appomattox, as Jefferson Davis commanded? Because Christian Generals like Robert E. Lee wouldn’t allow it. How did South Africa overcome the rancor of Apartheid? By applying the doctrines of reconciliation taught in the Bible and applied by men like Desmond Tutu. Why did Rwanda not continue in a blood-bath of retaliation after the Tutsi’s defeated the Hutu’s in 1994? Because Christians led the way in reconciliation.

What can we do when we see Victimology at work?

First, refuse to buy into its precepts. Don’t participate in the pain is fame game, cooperate in cultural co-dependency, or acquiesce to the myth of emotion as truth. But just as important, be a student of Reconciliation 101. Do not take revenge. Let God be the judge. Forgive your enemies, as you have been forgiven. Be kind to those who oppose and oppress you, and look for ways to serve the greater good.

[1] McGee, Robert S. The Search for Significance. Pg. 63.