I had two marriage counseling appointments today. People don’t come in to see their pastor for marital advice because everything is going fantastically (though I wish they would!), so you can imagine that these are oftentimes difficult meetings.

The marriages that I see that end up having difficulties didn’t get there overnight. They took the vows of marriage seriously. They promised to love, honor, and cherish one another until death; their vows were for better or worse, for richer or poorer, till death do we part.

What happens, though, is that in the midst of the pressures of life they forget to work on their marriage. Little hurts build up, little slights get magnified, and pretty soon that spouse is no longer a person of good will in our eyes. They are the source of pain. We find ourselves on a downward spiral that Emerson Eggerichs calls “the crazy cycle.”

When I see this in relationships it looks more like a death spiral to me. I look at marriages in trouble and I always think of the scene in the movie Top Gun when Maverick and Goose lose control of their plane and crash. (CAUTION-a couple of curse words in the scene, some violence, Tom Cruise in his underpants and some bad 80’s hairdos…proceed at your own risk)

This same cycle can occur in our spiritual lives too if we are not careful. We come to Christ full of hope, but soon our fervor wanes. We let the little things magnify, and soon the luster has worn off our relationship with God. Other priorities come to the front, and soon we are no longer putting Him first. Our Christian walk becomes a set of morals, or we slowly slip away from the patterns and habits that brought us to Christ in the first place.

Thankfully the cycle can be reversed. Whether our spiritual lives or our marriage, there are very, very few cases that are so broken that they are beyond repair. If your marriage is in trouble or your spiritual life is a wreck, God always leaves doors open for you to walk through if you’re willing.

If you know someone struggling in their marriage, (maybe even yours), don’t just sit by the wayside. Help them get help! Call your pastor, get a counselor (a biblical one, please!) or whatever it takes.

Me? I want to stay out of the death spiral. That means we have to work on our walk with God as well as our marriage. In the Navy we were drilled in the process of continuing to improve, a process known as Kaizen. The term means “continuous betterment,” and the idea is to get off the destructive patterns and onto better ones.

So to make sure I am not going to end up in marital counseling, I am reading a marriage book this summer. (for me, it’s Every Man’s Marriage) Anything worth having takes time, and marriage is certainly no exception. So we need to work on them, because if we are not going forward we are going backward.

When we are in a healthy marriage or relationship, that is the time to work on it. That is the time to make it stronger and better and closer. The same holds true for our lives as Christians. Don’t wait for the world to end before you make it a priority. Don’t wait until your spouse announces the divorce; be proactive and work today to make it better.

Take it from someone who has helped people pick up the pieces a LOT: it is better to keep it from getting broken than to try to superglue it back together.

Letting off some steam

So three times in the last two to three weeks burglars have tried to burglarize our church. They tried to steal our church trailer, break into our shed with the yard tools in it, and this last week they broke into our worship building. All three times the alarm scared them off, so nothing was taken. We’ve maybe lost $60-80 in locks. But that gets annoying after awhile, so I thought I would address our would-be thieves and give them some advice.
church sign thieves
What do you think? Was my point made?
This post also hits on the purpose and propriety of church signs. We use ours to make people who drive by think, laugh, and question. I try to make it funny on occasion so that people get the idea we are not too serious about ourselves, thoughtful on occasion so people can think on their drive to work, and informative so the community knows who we are. The funny ones are the ones I like best though. This one lets me blow off some steam from the attempted burglaries and make people laugh at the same time.

The Encouragement of a Father

Psalm 18:30-36 says this:

30As for God, His way is blameless; The word of the Lord is tried; He is a shield to all who take refuge in Him.
31For who is God, but the Lord? And who is a rock, except our God,
32The God who girds me with strength And makes my way blameless?
33He makes my feet like hinds’ feet, And sets me upon my high places.
34He trains my hands for battle, So that my arms can bend a bow of bronze.
35You have also given me the shield of Your salvation, And Your right hand upholds me; And Your gentleness makes me great.
36You enlarge my steps under me, And my feet have not slipped.

Too often we try to do it on our own, when it is the strength of the Lord that gives us what we need. So many times we just try to “gut it out” when we really need the encouragement of God to spur us on.

Just like a dad gives his kids courage to spread their wings and reach new heights, so God works in the lives of His children to give them everything they need to be who He wants them to be. If only we will hear His voice!

I saw a picture of this yesterday in my life. I didn’t get to my kids’ swim meet until it was nearly over because I had to teach a kids kenpo class and then go look at my grandma’s garage door opener. (yeah, the reminder I got from a friend the other day about needing some balance is ringing in my ears for sure) I got to the pool in time to see the last race for both James and Elizabeth. Thank God I didn’t miss the whole meet!

Now, let me start by saying that Elizabeth is not the fastest swimmer in the pool. She is amazingly smart, an excellent actress, a great cook and a wonderful young woman of God. Athletics, though, are not her thing. Swim team is a chance for her to work on that and get involved in an area that is weak for her. She loves practice but really doesn’t like races because she feels like she is slow and not very good.

She really struggled with her first races yesterday. She had to swim the first and last leg of a relay, which with her asthma was very difficult. She totally gassed on the last leg, and her team didn’t place. She was very, very upset with herself but thankfully Laura was able to give her some love and get her heart calmed down.

When I got there, I gave her a hug and we talked about her first races. I reminded her that she was only swimming against herself, and told her that I wanted her to go out there and swim hard no matter the results. I told her she would do well and to remember that she swam for the glory of God, not for ribbons!

As she got ready to swim, the whole family started cheering for her. (her friend Daniel did too…he is the fastest swimmer in the league probably!) She knew I was there, and one last time I gave her a thumbs up and reminded her to swim hard. The girl before her in the relay had a really tough time, so her team was not in the hunt for a ribbon when her leg began.

She hit the water and I started cheering. Every stroke I let her hear it! And you know what? She swam hard! In fact, she had excellent form and caught up with two other teams on her leg. Afterward she said she could hear the cheering, and felt like that race was her best one of the day and best leg of the year.

What a reminder. If we will only listen to God, if we will only hear his voice, what could we do as well? If we looked to Him and saw Him behind us, cheering us on, what would we do? If we realized that it wasn’t a solo battle, but that we have others cheering us on what could we accomplish in life? As the author of Hebrews says in Hebrews 12:1-3, with our eyes on Jesus and the roar of the crowd of witnesses, how far could we go if we just RACED HARD in the Christian life regardless of where we are in the race?

So what if you are behind the pack? Race hard and see what happens. Who cares if you’ve dogged a lap or two? Seek the encouragement of God and pick up the pace. Hear His heart for you in Psalm 18 and, just like Elizabeth in her last race, do it all for the glory of God.

Stupid Human Tricks

Pastors often get caught up in a cycle of struggle. We feel like people’s eternal destiny is in our hands (instead of in the hands of God) and therefore we need to have our “A” game every day. We need to make sure our sermon is scintillating and memorable, our counsel is godly and accessible, and our personal example is top-notch.

Life, though, is not always so simple. No one is at the top of their profession continually. Shepherds have off days too. Those are the days that we need to rest in the truth that it is God who is at work in us and among us to grow His people. All of my hard work is nothing if God is not behind it; likewise, if He is behind it no amount of sophomoric bungling on my part can thwart His desire for His people. There are days that I thank God for that truth and many days that I test the limits of His patience with me in it. 🙂

I had a “did that really happen?” moment this weekend that taught this truth to me again. Without going into the gory details, suffice it to say that in the wee hours of Sunday I got up to go to the bathroom and ended up falling over head-first and cracking my noodle on the bathroom floor. No there wasn’t anything in my way…I stood up, lost my balance, and the next thing I knew I had done an inverted 3 1/2 pike into the tile. (Let’s just say that I need to work on my dismount and leave it at that)

I lay there asking myself “did that really happen?” Then the pain in my head told me that, yes, this had happened. I bit my tongue really hard in the process, too. I blame it on my wife not being home (she was helping a family have a baby…not her fault!).

So I got to church on Sunday with a distinct lack of sleep (it kept me up from 2:30-3:30), a knot on my head with accompanying headache and a hurting tongue. This is not a recipe for a pastoral gem of a day! I preached from Luke 8:4-21 in service, muddling past my owies and happy to go home and take a nap after church.

Of course, my worst seems to ALWAYS bring out Christ’s best. I got emails, facebook messages, notes, and calls about how the parables of the soils and lamp in Luke 8 had challenged people to look at their lives and make changes. Naturally it is when my prep time was limited by VBS and my delivery by my lack of balance that God chooses to change lives in big ways.

It just goes to show to me and all my preaching buddies…gentlemen, it ain’t about us. I agree wholeheartedly with Walt Kaiser’s statement in Toward an Exegetical Theology: “It is our pleasant duty to unleash the Word of God in all its authority and power for those who wait to be fed with bread from heaven.” It is His power and authority we wait for, not our own.

Thank Him that unleashing the Word of God can be done with a headache and a hurting tongue! And with that realization, I can now see God even in the bruised forehead I am nursing this week.

Being Church, not “Doing Church”

Here I sit on Saturday night, having had an amazing week of watching God at work. I haven’t posted since Monday because even for me this has been a busy week…and that is saying something. This week has been filled, in retrospect, with life and activities that highlight what I think it means to be the Church in a biblical, book of Acts, early-church sense.

Many American evangelical Christians have a significant misconception about what it means to be a part of a church, and a bigger misconception about how to function effectively as a follower of Christ in a community of other Christ-followers. I’m not even talking about the typical Baptist church roster that has hundreds of members who haven’t attended for years,(1) or about the nominal Christians who come to a worship service every few months (the CEO’s…“Christmas and Easter only”) and feel like they have enough fuel in the tank to make God happy.

I think that a lot of Christians believe that being part of a church means attending a worship service moderately regularly (say more often than not), putting something in the plate every week, having a Jesus fish on the back of their car, and maybe saying grace at dinner.

That is not what I see among the members of a biblical church though. What I see is this:

42They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. 44And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common; 45and they began selling their property and possessions and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need. 46Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, 47praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47)

The church in its incarnation that honors Christ and lives up to His desires is a church that is WAY more than once a week interaction. It is certainly more than gathering to listen to a band play (and maybe sing along) and then listening to a speech. It is people sharing life, serving one another with their gifts (oh, like 1 Peter 4:10 tells us to!) and holding one another to their desire to follow Christ as Hebrews 10:24-25 mentions. It wasn’t and isn’t coming together once a week and then ignoring one another for the other six days. It wasn’t hiding behind “respecting people’s privacy” as a guise for “don’t want to have to explain why my life the rest of the week has no connection to what goes on Sundays.”

I got to experience that first hand this week in a big way, so this is front-and-center for me. In my life this week, here is a sampling of some of the ways that my family in Christ has made me a better Christ-follower-some good and some bad:

  1. We ordained a deacon on Sunday in worship service. Randy is the first deacon our church has had since 1999, and that is a big deal! (We ordained the first deaconess in the history of our church last year) I love it when people grow in their commitment to serve the Lord, and it was a great start to our VBS.
  2. Speaking of VBS, we had ours all week. We do an evening VBS, and watching the dozens of people serve kids and teach them about Christ was awesome. Every servant there sacrificed a lot of time and effort to serve others, which is very honoring to the Lord I think. I did very little other than encourage and cheer them on! I got to be hit by pies by the class who collected the most canned goods for our food pantry, which was a lot of fun. We collected 710 food items , which we use to provide for our neighbors who are in a bind and hungry. You know, that whole James 2:15-16 thing. 🙂
  3. I had a difficult interaction with someone involving misconceptions about who God is, His character, and what biblical Christianity believes about eternal life and sin. Enough said, but as I struggled emotionally it was the counsel of my friends and their helping me live out my faith in an authentic, non-Pharisee kind of way that made all the difference in the outcome. Thank God for good friends who counseled me to heed James 1:19 and be quick to hear and slow to speak.
  4. I got to allow my wife’s gifts to shine by helping a family bring a new baby into the world as their doula. This Christian family does not attend our church…and that matters not one iota! Laura is helping them honor the Lord with the birth of their first child, and that is cool. It was a family affair, because the kids had to chip in to make it successful too.
  5. I got to teach theology to summer school students all week. We talked about Christology (Jesus, His divinity and humanity, His life, death, and resurrection) and began our study on soteriology (the doctrine of salvation). We are called to love God with our minds, and it is a lot of fun for me to be there with these students as they grapple with the difficult issues of theology.
  6. I got to see several members of our church go visit the sick and the homebound, which is always great and fulfills what real religion is.
  7. I got to meet with my elders and pray for my church family, then talk about how we can be more effective and take steps in that direction.
  8. I finished the week up with an exhausting day moving. We had about 12 or 13 people give up their Saturday to help a family in our church move. We actually had 2 moves going on at once, because my Grandma moved into town this week too! It was great to have 5 guys from our church family show up to help unpack her moving truck, then keep going and get two HUGE loads moved for Pete and Christie. All the time we were having a lot of fun, even when we were totally wiped out physically.
  9. I got to have a difficult conversation with a Christian who was upset at me about my handling of my premarital mentorship requirements. That wasn’t fun (I hate confrontation), but it made me aware that I need to make some informal procedures a bit more formal and challenged me to think through why I do what I do for couples who want me to officiate their wedding. It also made me articulate those ideas, which will bear fruit soon in some writing. We weren’t 100% on the same page when the conversation ended, but I was glad for the biblical confrontation and the chance to grow in my pastoral duties. Pray that the outcome is good, because it is still up in the air and my heart is always to open doors for people to find more room for God in their life rather than shut them. I am hopeful that this will be an area where we can have liberty, though there is still a lot of room for hurt feelings.

With all of that, I am not “looking forward to church” tomorrow. I have been experiencing “church” all week! Of course I am looking forward to having Bible study, singing, praying, building relationships, taking the Lord’s Supper together, and sharing my study of Luke 8:4-21 tomorrow. Sunday morning is the highlight of my week!(2) It is even more meaningful because of the significant and important “church” I have experienced all week.

The church still works today like it did in Acts in some significant ways. The authentic church still gets involved in each other’s lives and moves beyond superficiality to real life transformation. It gets into the messy area of “family” and all that entails. And that, as much as anything else, makes me love Christ’s church with my whole heart.

(1) I have seen SBC-affiliated pastors shocked when I tell them that a couple of times a year our elders go through our membership roster and ask how each member’s life, worship, service and attendance are, then start following up with those who are disconnected. (we aren’t the Gestapo looking for malcontents, but shepherds inquiring about the health of our family) We call, write, and if we can’t reconnect with someone who hasn’t attended in six months or more we remove them from our roster and relieve them of the responsibilities we ask of our members. Many Baptist churches have three times as many members as they have attendees on a Sunday!

(2) For the record, Sunday mornings were the highlight of my week LONG before I was a pastor. Being around others who follow Christ has been a priority in my life since I became a Christian in 1998.