“Chicken, beef or vegetarian?”
The text was from the planners for an upcoming banquet. My meal choice was needed and I quickly shot back my answer. I was hungry.
Ahh, wouldn’t it be nice if all decisions in life were that easy?
They’re not. Most the time I hate being pushed into issuing a verdict. I often try to put off coming to a conclusion as long as possible because I naturally doubt my initial conviction. Yet it seems there’s always some kind of decision I’m being asked to make—financially, vocationally, relationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, medically, nutritionally, etc., etc. Some feel easy, some seem irrelevant, while others overwhelm me as completely impossible. And I must remember that procrastination and even not choosing at all are all choices. I can’t get away from them!
Following Jesus is the choice I want to focus on. It’s actually a decision made up of many choices: daily, hourly and even minute by minute. They determine what I believe, think and do, as well as how I react, love, hate, give, trust others, and distract myself, all in light of truly being a follower of Jesus. And sooner or later an outcome chases after each one—outcomes, that for better or worse, I must own.
Joshua said it several thousand years ago, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). He was fed up with the people of his country waffling on important issues like who their god was going to be. I find, however, that I so dread the thought of being stuck with the results of a bad choice (I don’t have all the information after all) that I look for ways to avoid committing at an intersection in life. Saying ‘yes’ to one thing means saying ‘no’ to one or more others. What if a better option comes along? Can’t I just hold off and sit here for a while, no obligations? Of course I can; that’s a choice. And it will eventually produce some kind of consequence.
As a result, it’s easy to just let life happen, which is releasing others to make choices for me. That then becomes my choice with its own set of consequences. I’m sure that some who were listening to Joshua were thinking, if not saying out loud, “But what if a better god comes along?” Hmm. And how did that work out for them?
They’re Ours to Own
The irony of making decisions is that while we want, and even fight for, the right to make our own choices—resisting the commands of those “Joshuas” who want to control us—we also struggle with it. There are many times we would rather someone just tell us what to do. Choosing can be hard and confusing work. It’s nice to have someone who’s figured it out give us the answer. And if in the end their judgment was wrong then it wasn’t our fault. Right?
Unfortunately, for that way of thinking, an irrefutable law stalks us: everything about our choices belong to us. We choose, whether we realize it or not, how we respond to everything that is thrown at us, even the things we didn’t choose: our DNA, our upbringing and all those crazy, painful outside circumstances or abuses. Though it feels like we don’t have a choice, we still must decide our response, our attitude and our actions. What we do with all that is given or thrust upon us is ours! And as much, if not more, these choices are what make us who we are, for good or for ill.
A lot of Choices to Examine
I want to use this blogging space going forward to talk about what it means to move through every day as a follower of Jesus, depending on His grace but recognizing all the choices before us. There’s actually many to look at because walking with Jesus involves our entire life—every part. And like so many other choices, not committing or half committing our lives to Him (is it possible to half-commit to my wife?) has an eternal consequence.
So, take Joshua’s challenge and choose. Some choices will be as simple as deciding between chicken or beef. Others will force you to search more deeply, determining WHO you’re going to serve each day. And your options are quite limited on that last one. For, as the Bible communicates and one of our American cultural prophets, Bob Dylan, has said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
The choice is yours.
It has become a beloved classic. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, although written by C.S. Lewis as a children’s story, has powerfully communicated the Gospel message to many adults as well. Aslan, a lion and a Christ figure in the story, has a way of getting behind some of our unhelpful stereotypical images of Jesus and God. In one very memorable scene, the four Pevensie children are questioning Mr. and Mrs. Beaver about this lion they have just heard about and are having a difficult time understanding his appeal. “’Then he isn’t safe?’ said Lucy. ‘Safe?’ said Mr. Beaver; ‘don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.’”
Lucy’s concern about this powerful being that she and her siblings are just learning about is similar to that of many Jesus followers. Am I safe in God’s hands? Do I dare allow myself to fully trust Him with my entire life? Will I in the end get hurt or regret making myself vulnerable to Him? These are fair and very natural questions. But ultimately, I don’t think they allow us to explore God to the fullest or open the door to know Him in the way He desires to be known.
Expectations and Disappointment
Most people are searching for ways to be in better control of their lives. The pursuit of wealth, knowledge, and power are the classic ways humans have always sought to minimize the pain and unpredictability of living in this broken world. We search for pathways that guarantee safety, provision, health, success, and satisfying relationships. Uncertainty of desired outcomes can be unnerving, stir anxiety, and lead us to do almost anything to maintain a sense of control.Read More
I remember as a child being afraid of the dark. It was in the blackness of night that the monsters, the “boogey man” and all my unspoken fears, manifested. Unlit buildings paralyzed me with fright. Sleeping with the light on was always a good idea. As a child it was easy to see that bad stuff hides in the shadows, just out of sight.
So, how can the statement in John 3:19 be true? “People loved the darkness more than the light.” What could possibly make darkness so alluring that humans feel affection for it and prefer it?
The Attractive Side of Darkness
As I got older, games in the dark became fun. We played one where an individual, the wolf, would hide in a wooded area at night. A group would search without lights, then run back to base before the wolf could catch them. Shadows were my friends when I was the one hiding. As the wolf, darkness emboldened me. I would terrorize people with sounds and movements that imitated wild animals—or maybe something worse. Often it worked, with the searchers timidly feeling their way through the underbrush, jumping at the slightest rustling of bushes, screaming with fright. The ability to easily hide made me feel powerful, and energized an annoying side of my personality. Perhaps darkness wasn’t always undesirable after all; it felt nice, like a comfortable, protective yet exhilarating blanket.Read More
Dystopian stories have been all the rage for quite a few years now. The 20th Century produced novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Brave New World by Alex Huxley, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. They each described an imagined future in which powerful forces sought to control not only people’s behavior but also what they thought—a very grim outlook. More recently, The Hunger Games by Susan Collins and Divergent by Veronica Roth are examples of popular stories turned into movies that describe a similar bleak future for humanity in which a controlling elite, through fear and manipulation, hold the populace in bondage. Interestingly, many of the most recent and fashionable dystopian novels have been labeled “Young Adult” fiction. Might this provide a peek into this generation’s expectations for what is to come?
The word dystopian comes from the Greek prefix “dys,” which refers to something bad, harsh, or wrong combined with the Greek word “topos” which means place. The opposite would be utopian, which refers to a community or country where everything is perfect and ideal.
So, why are there no utopian novels being made into movies? It seems that would be much more uplifting. My guess is that no one believes such places are possible, and stories about perfection are typically considered boring anyway. In fact, most of the dystopian novels I am aware of concern societies attempting to make themselves into utopian communities. But of course as is generally true, but not always believed, such human efforts fall short, often miserably. And thus the “best” tales that seem to resonate with the most people are those of the gloomy failures in which humans ineptly seek to make their own paradise.
Has it ever worked?
Speaking of paradise, the Bible has a few things to say on this topic. God appears to be interested in drawing humans into a place of utter joy and contentment where there is no evil. We are told in the first two chapters of Genesis that He in fact created a paradise for the first humans. Not only was this Garden perfect with every human need met, but God Himself walked and interacted with all He created, taking particular delight and interest in humans. The man and woman drew their life from the unmediated Divine Presence as the rest of creation looked to them for proper care and management. And it was this unbroken connection with the Creator that allowed the Garden, administered by the humans, to be a successful utopia. It was the place where heaven and earth met. What more could the man and woman desire?Read More
I was in Lhasa, Tibet the first time I saw someone physically bow in worship to a statue. The Buddhist temple was filled with smoky incense, and dozens of people prostrated before a grinning image. Sunday-school stories of the ancient Israelites giving offerings to idols bubbled up from my memory. It was difficult to comprehend there were people today still worshiping gods made of wood and metal. The second Commandment came to mind: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:4, ESV).
My next thought: “I’m so glad we don’t carve images and worship them in our Western culture.”
Of course, I’m embarrassed now that I blindly believed the American people were idol-free. As a nation, we’ve made gods out of so many things, it’s mind blowing. Money and comfort are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are all kinds of things we worshipfully run after to make our lives feel easier and worthwhile. We have relational idols—ideal connections with others that we trust will remove or cover our loneliness and give a greater sense of significance. We have philosophical and political idols—ideas we count on to provide a sense of control, self-determination, and justice. We even have religious idols—reshaped images of God that allow us to better relate to, manage, and fit the divine into our lifestyle.
Yes, we still worshipfully “carve” and fashion things and ideas into shapes we believe will benefit us. And we then bow down in submission, living our lives and treating others according to how these “gods” dictate.
Buddhist temples have nothing on us when it comes to worshiping hand-crafted images.
The Shape of Love?
One such thing I have noticed popping up more and more among Christians is the refashioned image of love. We quickly assume we know what it is: to show love is to affirm the feelings and personal interests of another. Granted, sometimes that is how love is manifested. But as far as a definition goes, it’s not quite what’s presented in the scriptures. Nobody today disagrees that we need more love in our society. However, if you ask someone what the word means, you’re likely to hear something about being nice and letting people alone to do and be whatever they want.
The most succinct definition of love in the Bible is found in 1 John 4:8: “God is love.” It’s important to note that it doesn’t merely say God is loving. In other words, love is the essence of the totality of God’s being. It is not just what He does, it is what He is.
Some are drawn to this definition because it allows us to call out anyone who does something that we consider insensitive or unloving as working against or opposing God. The logic appears to be sound: if God’s essence is love and we claim that His Spirit indwells us, then love is what we should be all about. And someone who isn’t loving is thus “Godless.”
However, if we’re going to take this definition seriously, it seems to me that we first must determine what God is like so we can then know what love is really like. Only then can we conclude whether what we feel love ought to be fits with what has been revealed about who God is. To be faithful to this definition, we must start with God. If we begin instead with what we personally believe love is or should feel like, we end up shaping our image of God, and love, after ourselves. Thus, we would be saying something more like, “My idea of love is God.” We would then be on the pathway of worshiping an image rather than the Almighty Creator of heaven and earth.
This possibility should concern any follower of Jesus.Read More
I almost killed my younger brother when I was 12. He was being mean to our sister, and when I stepped in, he said something—I don’t remember what. But I lost it. I put my hands around his throat and squeezed as hard as I could. The screams of our sister finally cleared the red haze clouding my brain. My brother’s face was a shade of blue. I pulled away, stunned that I could do such a thing. Even though I was young, and I felt my feelings were justified, I couldn’t deny that something dark had churned up to the surface. And It scared me, not to mention my siblings.
What is it?
Anger is an emotion that provides a surge of energy through the body and mind. In addition, it’s a protective armor that covers the vulnerable and weak places where my insecurities dwell within. It makes me feel bigger and more powerful than I actually am. It’s addictive and difficult to put away once it is found to be effective for injecting strength I can’t otherwise access. It makes me feel in control . . . for a moment.
But it’s also destructive and twists my judgment. Yes, the Bible mentions righteous anger, the kind without sin (Ephesians 4:26). But the stuff we mostly deal with falls far from any rightness in its results: holes in walls; broken tennis rackets; refusal to speak to that person; impulsive texts that “speak our minds;” friends and family members who now avoid us; canceling; secret desires to get even and see people hurt, a younger brother with bruises around his neck. And it only gets worse.
For centuries, Jesus followers have classified anger as one of the Seven Deadly Sins.* These sins are the attitudes and behaviors that early Jesus followers recognized as seedbeds for all sorts of evil. Anger is a particularly toxic one since it is so easily justified and quickly grows. While anger can take various forms and even smolder hidden within our hearts, a common way this particular sin manifests is as a drive for revenge, desiring and even meditating on others getting the humiliation or pain we feel they’ve earned.
Wishing on them what they deserve
The Bible declares that vengeance is territory that belongs to God alone (Romans 12:19). But the hunger for it can get so strong. And the taste of it, so sweet (at least that’s what we imagine). We want justice—that is, personal satisfaction—when we’re offended. Finding a way to take it into our own hands, right a wrong, humiliate a bully, hurt a hurter or humble someone acting too arrogant just feels right and even pleasurable. But God seems to be saying that we will rarely, if ever, get it right and the pleasure, if any, will be short-lived. We only mess things up more. We are urged to leave it to Him and then bless our enemies (Luke 6:28). Anger interferes with us dealing with “undeserving” people God’s way. And He has a way, if we’ll only trust Him.
So, why is anger a deadly sin? Because so many dark, ugly, and damaging sins spring out of it. In its essence, it opens the door for us to dehumanize another person or group. Unrestrained anger then paves the way for prejudice, malicious talk, defaming another’s character, gossip, shunning, broken relationships, hatred, violence and homicide—justifying each sin the whole way. We don’t treat people as made in the image of God because in our anger we have judged they don’t deserve that sort of value. Basically, we can’t handle anger without inflicting some kind of damage on others—and ourselves. Uncontrolled anger will destroy us if not confronted. We must call it what it is and choose to turn away from it.Read More
Full disclosure: I am a recovering English teacher. It’s been many years since I stood in front of a class of middle-schoolers and attempted to convey the beauty of past participles, gerunds and the joy of diagraming a sentence. The response was almost always less than rewarding. Honestly, I never personally liked anything grammatical. It was just part of the job. And focusing on grammar never seemed to produce more motivated readers anyway. But I do find myself every once in a while, as I read, breaking apart a sentence to see if there might be anything hidden a little deeper in the text. This can be helpful when I attempt to comprehend the pithy thinking of a philosopher or theologian. Typically it sounds boring and labor-intensive, so it doesn’t happen often.
My grammatical antennae recently went up, however, as I was reading the Bible. It’s a book that is not always easy to appreciate, especially if you venture into the non-stories. It easily feels like theological gibberish and takes some work to comprehend what’s being said. But the payoff for making the effort can be enriching for a Jesus follower (and even those who are not yet following Him). Unfortunately, I don’t know the original languages of ancient Hebrew or Greek to help me in the process. But as my eyes passed over the text last week, some insignificant English words caught my attention and got me wondering. Suddenly I was seeing prepositions and actually asking myself what they meant. And that can be a bit unsettling, even for an English teacher.
WARNING: Short grammar lesson ahead!
It’s a category of words that most of us forgot the moment we stepped out of the classroom. Some may not have even gotten that far. Simply put, prepositions are connecting words that show the relationship between two items. They provide information about location, time, position, direction or relation. Commonly used prepositions are – to, at, in, on, before, after, through, of, by, towards, about, inside, over, under, between, within – and the list goes on. Learning to use these words give speakers of other languages fits when studying English (why do we get ON a bus but IN a car?). A simple, but not complete, image for identifying prepositions that I offered my middle schoolers in the past was, think of how an airplane might relate to a cloud. It could fly above, behind, around, below, beneath, beside, and through it – all prepositions. You get the idea.
I realized that when reading the Bible and trying to better understand our relationship to God, prepositions can provide a window to better appreciate what’s being said. Let’s look at the passage Colossians 3:3-7 (ESV) for example and focus on the seemingly insignificant word “IN”:Read More
Most people have done things they look back upon and view as a bit wacky. “What was I thinking?” Sometimes they were done for love. Sometimes they were done to relieve boredom. Sometimes they were done for the thrill and attention. And sometimes they were done because of personal convictions. Then there are the things done that are downright insane with potential life-threatening consequences.
It Makes Sense to Me
Interestingly, every one of these and others that have done or are doing things considered weird or “off the deep end,” believe they have “good” reasons for their actions. That which is seen as reasonable, justifiable, and positive is always determined according to an individual’s values and worldview. Amou, the non-bather, has explained the reasoning behind his position. He got quite sick after taking a bath when he was young. Because he values feeling well, it logically followed in his mind to never wash himself again.
The same idea can be applied to how a society or an entire generation thinks. Common thought processes and unique patterns of logic develop in groups that make sense to the members but many times not to “outsiders.” We often look back in history and negatively judge people for their stupid actions or beliefs. But many individuals we think of as nutty or deranged were actually quite intelligent, maybe even more so than us. It’s the way they viewed the world, understood reality, and determined values that shaped their dubious and sometimes atrocious behavior. Beliefs are the machines that produce our actions and lifestyles.
Glad I’m Not the Crazy One
But before we divide the present population between the right-minded and the crazies, maybe we should ask ourselves some questions.
For some reason it’s painful to admit that I’m not a handyman. Sure, I have taught myself how to fix some things around the house. But, I have also created a lot of messes. The bottom-line issue has almost always been to save money. Time is usually less expensive for me than hiring a trained professional. So, I have been motivated to figure it out myself, or find convenient and cheap advice. My do-it-yourself plumbing jobs and electric wiring projects, therefore, have rarely been completed without mishap. Yet I’ve had just enough successes to keep me feeling “I’ve got this one.”
The writer of Psalm 121 said, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?” This is an ageless question. Where should we look when we need some help? We all require it, regardless if we admit it to ourselves or not. Whether it’s how to fix the bathroom faucet from dripping, or how to climb out of a massive hole of credit-card debt, or what to do with the confusing questions surrounding identity, purpose, sexuality, past, future, etc. Sooner or later we all ask ourselves, “From where does my help come?” How we answer greatly determines where we end up down the road. The source we seek help from today will either create greater messes or lead us toward a life-giving, peaceful future.
What do the “hills” have to offer?
The Psalmist’s natural inclination was to look to the surrounding hills for support and guidance. This initially doesn’t make sense to my 21st Century mind. But when I recall that in ancient Israel there were mini worship centers called high places sprinkled throughout the land, it becomes a little clearer. These altars were more convenient than traveling all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship Yahweh. And since they were rogue sites, not really answering to any real spiritual authority, over time they absorbed the worship practices of local Canaanite deities. Yahweh worship got muddled with the practices of ancient pop culture.
Ultimately, the “hills” were where a person went to find aid and answers on their own terms. They had a more comfortable, “hip,” and broad-minded feel than Yahweh’s seemingly strict and narrow commandments. The local gods and goddesses came across as more accommodating in receiving the people’s worship and spiritual loyalty.
Yet, the ancient prophets of Israel were explicit: the Temple of Yahweh was where God’s Spirit manifested. It was THERE they were to worship, their sins to be forgiven, and God’s intervention in their lives accessed. Having ONE location and ONE source was an important way Yahweh distinguished Himself from the pantheon of powerless deities the local people worshiped.
The difference between good and evil kings of both Israel and Judah was often determined by how they dealt with these high places. The leaders who had them torn down and directed the people back to the Temple were the ones that displayed a humble respect for God’s place in Israel’s history and society. Those who encouraged high-place worship, or even ignored it’s practice, were leaders remembered as the ones that contributed to the corruption and downfall of the nation.
Do I look to the “hills”?
The question for the 21st Century Jesus follower is, “Where are my high places?” We all have them. They’re where we naturally go for guidance, particularly for convenient and easy answers that don’t disrupt the rhythm of our life too much. Let’s face it. Seeking God can expend a great amount of energy, rattle schedules and social engagements, as well as create some awkward moments, and just be down-right difficult. And to top it off, we don’t always hear or get what we want. Our modern-day “hills” on the other hand can be fashioned to fit our personal preferences and make our spirituality work for us.
I believe that each generation has had their trendy go-to “high places.” I suppose there can be as many as there are people on the earth. It can be Public Opinion or Pop Culture. The more cerebral among us might find themselves regularly cruising the “hills” of Rationality or Science for help and guidance. There are also the “isms” that draw a broad spectrum of worshipers: Nationalism, Socialism, Capitalism, Liberalism, and Conservativism to name a few. Even Personal Feelings have become a favorite “place” to retreat as the final authority on what is right or wrong.
Positive aspects for each of the above can be argued. But it’s when we go to any one of these ahead of, or instead of, God that we sooner or later find ourselves drifting from Him and His word. Our present-day “high places,” like the ancient ones, are often more convenient than faithfully seeking the Almighty, and they provide nice, quick-access answers (albeit short-sighted) to the dilemmas we find ourselves in. To put it bluntly, even today our “hills” are doorways to idolatry.
I lift my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
Who made heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Will neither slumber nor sleep.
The LORD is your keeper;
The LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.
The LORD will keep you from all evil;
He will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
Your going out and your coming in
From this time forth and forevermore.
Psalm 121 (ESV)
Which one of our “hills” can match what the LORD promises, to do and be for us as we look to Him? These “high places” all make their own promises to us. But they are at best temporary, and ultimately empty. Granted, there is a price for making God our first and primary source of help. He demands every part of us, mind, soul, and body. However, as we surrender ourselves completely to Him, He offers Himself completely to us. Just look at what Jesus has already given.
I will still need to call on a professional plumber to fix my water lines. And professional counselors can be helpful for other struggles. Yet, God is the One who is the source of all help that lasts. And as Jesus followers, we save ourselves much futility and grow in wisdom by going to Him first.
It was hot and humid. Our family of five had just joined YWAM ministry staff and purchased an old mobile home in East Texas. But, within a few weeks, the worn central air conditioner died. The repairman said it would take at least $1200 to replace it. At that time, we barely had money to put gas in our car and buy food. Doubts bubbled up and then plagued us over whether we had really heard God when we joined the mission and committed to “live by faith.” Working in YWAM was turning out to be more difficult than we thought. Everything felt so hard—living circumstances, ministry expectations, working relationships. Things were not coming together as I believed they should. My wife was giving me the look that said, “It’s the last straw. I can’t do this anymore.” And did I mention that it gets hot and humid in East Texas?
This went on for months. Self-condemnation weighed heavily. I was a terrible husband, father and missionary, probably ruining my family. I sent out a letter to our friends and supporters asking for help with our A/C unit, but in the end received only $25. And just as the heat of summer was intensifying and we were discussing leaving the mission, one more unexpected thing happened.Read More
A chance for new beginnings and making life improvements. A clean slate to start over. That’s what so many of us long for and what the new year seems to offer. The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions has been popular for quite a while. There’s evidence that the ancient Babylonians more than 4,000 years ago were using the beginning of their new year to make promises to their gods. The Romans adopted that practice, as well as Medieval knights renewing their chivalric vows. Later, Protestants started holding New Year’s Eve watch services to pray and read scripture as they committed themselves to renewed efforts of living out their Christian faith.*
Today, New Year’s Resolutions are pretty much a secular practice. Rather than seeing them as vows to a deity, most people now make promises to themselves. From what I’ve read, around 45% of Americans make resolutions at the beginning of each year. However, 80% of those who do, give up after the first week. Around 8% of those who take that first step at the beginning of the year end up achieving their goals. It appears that few of us are able to keep the promises we make to ourselves.
New Habits are Hard
Why are personal goals so often not met? For one, we tend to focus on the areas of our lives where we know some kind of change is needed. But we feel little, if any, motivation to actually ‘pay the price’ and do anything about it. I look at myself in the mirror and decide I need to lose some weight. But my immediate alarm over the poor shape I’m in recedes when I see the plate of Christmas cookies sitting on the table. Motivation is the engine for change. Tapping a reason for losing weight that stirs something more than momentary satisfaction to look good in the mirror is an important key. I need to know myself and what makes me tick.
Another reason personal goals are so regularly abandoned is that we try to go at them alone. Encouragement, support, and accountability are necessary for even the most independent souls. Involving others increases the likelihood that we’ll actually follow through.
And what’s the result of setting a goal that you don’t really want to tackle with no plan for support or accountability? Failure. Though it can be a powerful teacher and motivator at times, for many of us failure just makes us not want to set anymore goals. We easily rationalize and settle.Read More