Life is better together

First off allow me to apologize for blogging so little over the last couple of weeks.  I love to blog, but it’s a task that is pretty low on the scale of responsibilities in my life.  If I don’t blog you, my wonderful readers, will likely make it through the day; if I don’t prepare a meaningful message for Sunday my congregation really suffers.  The past couple of weeks I have been absolutely buried in grading papers for the end of the semester, so my blogging time has evaporated.  My bad!  Thanks for hanging in there with me.

My family went to California for the weekend, so I had a bunch of free time this weekend.  I was “batching it” on Saturday night, so what did I do?  You guessed it: I graded papers. (being a grownup sucks sometimes…)  That is, I graded papers until 9PM.  At 9PM I got an Instant Message from my best friend in Arizona, commanding me to turn the TV on because there was an old Chuck Norris movie on cable.  Naturally, I quit grading papers to watch the Chuckitude!

The movie was called “Breaker! Breaker!”  Go read the IMDB reviews and you will note that this movie probably didn’t get any Oscar nods.  If you go read the user reviews on the link above you will get a good feel for the quality (or lack thereof) in this movie.  I agree with the title of one review, which said “I am dumber for watching it.”

So why was I quoting it before Bible study yesterday, yukking and joking and having a great time about it?  It was simple: Michael and I IMed each other through the movie.  We treated this movie like we were the MST3K crew. (If you’re not familiar with Mystery Science Theater 3000, click the link and choose “theater”)  We chatted back and forth about all of the plot holes and weird scenes, the odd dialog and cheesy action.  I enjoyed this movie thoroughly, even though it is potentially one of the worst movies in history, because I had a good friend with me while I endured it.

Michael and I will now have cheesy movie lines and odd characters as inside jokes for months, and that was what made the movie worthwhile!  Without that, I never would have watched it.  I might have made it 5 minutes hoping it got better before I quit, but with a good friend it became not only bearable but enjoyable.  I started looking forward to the horrible parts because they were where the humor was!

What a great lesson and reminder.  The principle of the “parable of the horrible movie” is that with friends, even the worst experiences can be manageable and even enjoyable.  I see the theme of community so often in the New Testament, from Hebrews 10:24-25 to 2 Timothy 2:1-2 to 1 John 1:3 to all of 1 Corinthians.  God wants us to have good friends in Christ to make the tough times bearable and the good times even better.  He wants us to live in community so that we don’t take ourselves too seriously or sink too low when times get tough.  He wants us to live by what Hebrews 12:12-13 teaches: “Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”

So let some people into your life this week.  Build the relationships that can help when life stinks.  I never could have enjoyed “Breaker! Breaker!” with someone who I didn’t know well; it wouldn’t have worked.  Likewise, sharing life only happens when we know people well.  So build some relationships in your church this week and this month!

But Everyone is Doing It!

My son had a really difficult time at AWANA this week dealing with a boy who has been a lot of trouble for him.  This kid cheats on the rec yard incessantly and harasses James for being a goody two shoes.  His desire to win is so strong that he does whatever it takes, including breaking the rules, to make sure that he is the king of the hill.  Winning is the goal, so ethics are all geared around the best way to win!  James is very keen on doing the right thing and has a strong sense of justice, so it drives him nuts to have to deal with that kid.

I read a fascinating article on MSNBC on Tax Day titled “Why we cheat on our taxes.”  There were lots of great tidbits in the article, but the issue that stood out to me the most were the psychological reasons that people can still feel good about themselves when they cheat, labeling this “moral flexibility”:

  1. When we cheat just a little bit, so that our cheating is a small transgression and not a major one.
  2. When a lot of people around us do the same.
  3. When the act is more hidden.

I was thinking about these motivations today, and they crack me up.  Even more, the phrase “moral flexibility” is an intriguing one.  Using euphemisms to hide what is really going on just doesn’t help anyone in my opinion!  “Moral flexibility” is a nice way of saying “cheating.”  We don’t like to think of ourselves as liars (you know, Revelation 21:8 and all), so we find a term that is easier to handle than “lying on our taxes.”  Then I thought through the list and tried to remove the euphemisms in it, and it boils down to this:

  1. As long as my cheating is, in my opinion, less than most people’s then I think it is okay.  We grade on a giant bell curve in our minds, with maybe Mother Theresa on the side and Bernie Madoff on the other.  So long as we are closer to the (soon to be) saint than the sinner we feel safe, like we’re better than average so we’re okay.
  2. Ah, groupthink.  There is nothing like the idea that as long as everyone is doing it, it’s okay.  It must be fair for you to cheat because everyone is cheating.  There are the “stated” rules and then there are the “real” rules that everyone actually plays by.  Since others cheat, cheating isn’t as bad.
  3. This one is really the “can I get caught” factor.  If the probability of being caught in cheating is low, then we feel safer and better doing it.  Since money is a subject that doesn’t get discussed much, and since no one sees my taxes but the evil IRS agent, then it’s okay to cheat since the probability of being caught is low.

While the article really focused on taxes, the application of this mindset is really far broader than that.  How many guys have we seen cheat on their wives, with these three ideas behind them?  They are on a business trip, the other guys are doing it, and it’s not like they are “pulling a Tiger” right?  How many students will look at another student’s paper for help on a test because everyone else is, because it’s not likely that the professor will see, and others do a lot worse.  The attitude is contagious; it just comes up more at tax time because we all have to deal with this urge in April.

This month in our online Bible study (find it on Yahoo or join our Facebook group) we are reading Psalm 119:1-88, and time and again the Psalmist talks about this kind of issue.  This Psalm is an acrostic, with each letter in the Hebrew Alphabet being used as the first letter of eight successive lines.  Psalm 119:1-8 (all starting with the Hebrew letter Aleph) reminds us where true blessing comes from:

1 How blessed are those whose way is blameless,
Who walk in the law of the LORD.
2 How blessed are those who observe His testimonies,
Who seek Him with all their heart.
3 They also do no unrighteousness;
They walk in His ways.
4 You have ordained Your precepts,
That we should keep them diligently.
5 Oh that my ways may be established
To keep Your statutes!
6 Then I shall not be ashamed
When I look upon all Your commandments.
7 I shall give thanks to You with uprightness of heart,
When I learn Your righteous judgments.
8 I shall keep Your statutes;
Do not forsake me utterly!

True happiness and joy from God comes not from financial security, but from obedience.  How blessed are those who seek God with their whole heart and are not seduced by the temptation to cheat!  Whether it be on their taxes, their spouse, or their employer, a Christian is called to remember their Lord and live for Him and not for the thrill of today.  I think that verse 6 is really important to this discussion, as the Psalmist asks God for obedience so that he doesn’t have to look at God’s commandments and be ashamed.  How often do we sin in ways like this, then either feel shame when we read Scripture or decide not to pick up our Bible because we know the shame that awaits?

Another part of this issue is the “everyone is doing it” mindset.  It’s not hard to repeat the old saw that your mom used on you whenever this mindset reared its ugly head: “If all your friends jumped off a bridge, would you?”  Even more to the point, in Psalm 119:49-56 the Psalmist addresses the issue of following the crowd when they dishonor the Lord:

49 Remember the word to Your servant,
In which You have made me hope.
50 This is my comfort in my affliction,
That Your word has revived me.
51 The arrogant utterly deride me,
Yet I do not turn aside from Your law.
52 I have remembered Your ordinances from of old, O LORD,
And comfort myself.
53 Burning indignation has seized me because of the wicked,
Who forsake Your law.
54 Your statutes are my songs
In the house of my pilgrimage.
55 O LORD, I remember Your name in the night,
And keep Your law.
56 This has become mine,
That I observe Your precepts.

I love his attitude here.  Regardless of what the rest of the people are doing, he wants to honor God and obey Him.  Whether everyone else is acting wrongly or not, we need to remember that God is there to strengthen us and help us make the right decisions.  Peer pressure can be handled if we remember that the approval of God is more important than the approval of people!

Finally, I am struck in Psalm 119 about the ways that the Lord provides for His people when they follow Him and seek Him rather than the world.  Okay, cheating on taxes or pulling the wool over your bosses’ eyes might get you ahead for a moment, but in the grand scheme of things it will only cause pain.  We will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10-15), and on that day we will not be able to hide.  On that day there will be great reward for those who trusted in the faithfulness and provision of God more than their own ability to lie convincingly.

In James’ case, I told him to hang in there with that kid and keep doing things the right way.  This kid only comes to church on Wednesday nights for AWANA, and only sporadically.  He probably doesn’t know any better, but James certainly does.  So I told him this week to keep honoring God with his actions and attitude and keep showing this other kid the right thing to do, knowing that God can see his integrity and is pleased with it.

We are called to be people of integrity who follow the Lord and not our culture.  The world cheats because everyone is doing it and they won’t get caught, but for Christians we have a higher calling.  Don’t get caught in the trap of cheating, because God is bigger than your tax bill and bigger than today’s temptation.  Take Him at His word and serve Him in integrity, knowing that you will reap a harvest of righteousness and hear “well done, good and faithful servant” when your days are done.

Farewell to My Initial Inspiration to Blog

Last night Michael Spencer passed away.  You can read the memorial on his blog here.  Michael was part of the reason that I started blogging.  He was, from what I knew of him, a man with Baptist theology but the soul of an Anglican.  He loved Christ with his whole heart, and much like the Psalmist he wrote when times were good and when times were bad in his life.  He wore his emotions, his thoughts, and his theology on his sleeve; in the process he inspired me to start blogging and to be a better and more thoughtful pastor and theologian.

I suppose it is a tribute to the information age that I only interacted with Michael once other than commenting on his blog.  (http://www.internetmonk.com is the place…)  He had an old blog before iMonk that I linked to on Facebook because I thought the header picture was cool, but when one of my friends on FB got offended at one of the pictures on it, I messaged Michael and asked him to pray for me and for this man.  The offensive picture was a “Jesus action figure” who was dressed in battle fatigues and carrying a gun; the picture was clearly satirical and meant to be a critique of the way Americans viewed Jesus, but my friend didn’t get that.  Michael responded not only by praying for me and for my friend, but by going so far as to change the picture.  That was the kind of man I knew him to be: tender-hearted and desiring to help others find a place to worship God.

I am reminded today of what Paul said in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18,

13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.
14 For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who have fallen asleep in Jesus.
15 For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep.
16 For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.
17 Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord.
18 Therefore comfort one another with these words.

When friends die we grieve, but as Christians we do not grieve as those who are outside of life in Christ.  We grieve for our loss but rejoice in the hope of eternal life, knowing that we will praise God forever together.

So farewell to Michael.  Enjoy the embrace of your Lord.  Thanks for being an inspiration and a friend from afar.  Thanks for making me think, for enlarging my heart for my brothers and sisters in Christ in other traditions than mine, and for being authentic and transparent.

Please say a prayer for Denise Spencer and for their children today as they mourn Michael’s loss.

Divine Appointments

You might have been expecting a couple of blog posts over Holy Week from me, it being the most important holiday of the Christian calendar and all.  I wish I could have indulged you, but it also happens to be a ridiculously busy week for me!  Adding another sermon to my week really makes the time fly by (a sermon typically takes me 15-20 hours to study for and consider at this point…), and God put a few obstacles in the way that reminded me of the important things.

I really was planning on putting a post up on Thursday while my son was taking a private lesson at kenpo.  Really, I was!  It was going to be several links to good resources for reflections on Holy Week.  We got there on time, I had my laptop to write, and I was all set to go.  Then God nudged me in another direction and gave me a bit of a divine appointment.  When He calls we can’t get so busy that we don’t hear the phone ringing, so I put the laptop aside and answered the call.

I am very privileged  to help lead some of the kids classes at our training center.  I’ve been studying for about 4 years (technically 4 years next month) and have a green belt, which is “middle-of-the-road-almost-competent-but-don’t-get-a-big-head-you’ve-got-a-long-way-to-go” territory.  In Thursday class I mostly assist our instructor by helping kids with their technique, leading warm-ups, and occasionally covering for our instructor when he is out.  The kids like me for the most part and respect me, even though I tend to be the disciplinarian in class and make the kids toe the line. (one of these days I will get me a cool “Smokey” and morph into Gunnery Sergeant Hartman without the cursing) It’s a fun part of my life and I enjoy it immensely.

Thursday God used the relationships I’ve built there and the training He has given me to help a young woman (we’ll call her Trudy because I don’t know anyone named Trudy) in a tough spot.  I noticed Trudy sitting in a seat near me, staring off into space about 20 minutes before her class was to start.  That was odd; she’s not normally like that.  She had a bit of a pensive look on her face and wasn’t really “there.”  So I asked if she was okay.

She wasn’t.  She was thinking about the conversation she had to have after class and not looking forward to it one bit.  I know that my selfishness wanted to just give her a pat on the head and tell her to use the mat as a safe place, but I just couldn’t.  So I sat down next to her and asked her what was up.  That’s when this poor pre-teen told me that she had to tell her mom and stepdad that if they couldn’t stop fighting that she was going to go live with her dad and stepmom full time.  And the reason that she had to have that conversation was because after the last fight her mom had bruises all over her, and she was scared.

I was so heartsick when she told me what she was up against.  I mean, going through your parents divorcing is ridiculously hard all by itself.  (mine divorced when I was a baby, so I missed a lot of the grief but still got a lot of the fallout)  Having to integrate into two families is really hard.  Dealing with parents fighting is frightening for kids of any age.  Dealing with domestic violence is more than any kid can handle.  My heart just broke for this kid.  And as it did, I thought of what Paul tells us in Romans 12:14-17,

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.
16 Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.
17 Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.

First I had to remember verse 17 for my own heart, because my flesh wanted to put a pounding on a man who thought he was okay putting his hands on his wife.  That ain’t how I was raised, and it got my blood boiling. (the old sailor in me is never so far away that he’s not available at a moment’s notice…)  More than that, though, I remembered that this kid in front of me, not even a teenager, was being asked to confront an authority in her life about his anger and his sin.  What a horrible burden to bear at such a young age!  I have kids her age, and thinking about them being in her shoes just tore me up.

I dug a little further and found some more stuff to make me think.  This family is a church-going family.  They are regular attendees at one of the largest churches in our area.  They come, sing some songs, listen to a speech, and head home in a car with a Jesus fish on it.  They have no enrichment class, no home fellowship or small group to hold them accountable.  They are adrift in a sea known as a megachurch.  This young woman wouldn’t even know who the children’s pastor or youth pastor of that congregation was. (my guess is that there are multiple people in that role; I am not bashing large churches here but this model of “church” allows this type of relationship a lot more easily)

So insert me.  I got to pray with Trudy and encourage her a little.  I got to offer her (and her dad) my support in a pastoral role.  No they don’t “go to my church,” but I am a shepherd within the Church, and that role never gets a day off.  It’s not what I do, it’s who I am.  It’s what I’ve been bought to do. (Luke 17:10)  I also got several other reminders from that divine appointment:

  1. The people around you in church are hurting, broken people.  Just because they look good and smile doesn’t mean that they aren’t suffering inside.  Look past the smile and get involved in people’s lives!
  2. Church is not about making a weekly pilgrimage to listen to a message and sing, give some money and go home.  Church only works when it involves getting to know people and being involved in their lives.
  3. Sometimes, though the cowboy in me wants to mount up and take care of some cattle rustlers, the best thing I can do is sit with someone who’s been hurt and weep with them.  Knowing someone cares is sometimes the lifeline that can let someone do the right thing in a tough spot.
  4. Regardless of what ‘”hat” I am wearing, I am always and foremost a follower of Christ, called to offer His mercy to a dying world.  I’ve been praying Micah 6:8 this year and asking God to show me how to love mercy; He listens.
  5. If I had been too focused on my own priorities I never would have seen a kid in need of some help.  I might have felt good about getting a blog post up and missed out on the significant opportunity God had for me.

I haven’t heard back from her on her confrontation, so this post isn’t wrapped neatly in a bow; I will ask when I see her next.

If you read my blog, please hear my heart: don’t get so busy that you can’t hear God calling you to help someone in need.  Look for those divine appointments.  They almost never come at church, and often come gift-wrapped in serious problems that someone else is going through.  You might be the lifeline that someone needs to make it through a tough spot, and God can use you to change the course of someone’s life.

March Links

Here are the thought-provoking, interesting, biblical, or just plain goofy links for the month.  March was a busy month of reading and finding stuff that made me think or laugh, so there are lots of links here.

New Blog I am reading: http://artofmanliness.com is awesome.  I am finding good stuff there all the time!  Their guide to being a gentleman is absolutely fantastic.  Truly top notch!

Please pray for one of my favorite bloggers.  Michael Spencer is the Internet Monk; the Lord is going to bring him home soon.  Please pray for him and his wife Denise, as well as their children.

Interesting biblical stuff:

Berean Bible Study freeware!  This isn’t amazingly full-featured, but it is a great Bible study tool for someone looking for a fast and free resource.

Lisa Miller strikes again!  She is Newsweek’s religion editor and very liberal in her theology.  This is front-page stuff, especially around Easter.

Lisa Robinson has the right idea on the balance between truth and community.  This is a good post concerning the interaction of truth and acceptance, and I couldn’t agree with her more!

I love the Skit Guys.  They make great skits that make me think about God.

The path from evangelical Christian to evangelical atheist.  If you find yourself on that path, find someone to confide in and talk about it.  Seek truth; that path is always okay.

The Guinness family loved Jesus…and made beer for His glory.  I think the back story is super-cool here.  I love the bit about making sure that soldiers had a pint during the war.

Making wealth is not about what you earn.  It’s about how you use what you earn.

Can Christians, true Christians, struggle with serious sin?  I agree with Michael.

Is there such a thing as a just war?  I think there is a serious flaw in the “just peacemaking” argument.  See if you can spot it.

Does biblical love require kindness?  This is a great reminder that it does.

This is a great post about mentoring being a two-way street.  Read it and think about how each generation in a congregation should have input and value.

Thought provoking items:
A man’s guide to table manners.  A great post from AOM on how to eat like a gentleman.  This seems to be a lost art, but one that can and should make a quick comeback!

Giving statistics among serious Christians.  We seriously don’t take God’s teaching on finances seriously at all.

The future of fighting cancer is nanorobots.  This reminds me of “The Magic School Bus” for some reason.

I will never eat a happy meal again.  EVER.

The 5 traits of a hero.  No radioactive spiders or super-powers required!  I love the old comics in this post and the way that it is presented.  Did you know that Superman started not by fighting super villains but by fighting corruption and greed?

Take signs of suicide seriously.  Get help for those who need it!

I need a government job.  Good grief, no wonder we’re going broke as a country!

Kindness among people breeds more kindness.  Who’da thunk that being nice to people makes their day better and increases the odds that they will be nice to people?  Shocking discovery, really.

Funny, cool, or ridiculous:

Popular Science has it’s ENTIRE archive online and viewable for free.  And if you ever read it as a kid, I have just made the rest of your day entirely unproductive.

The coolest I-don’t-know-what-it-is-thingamabob ever.  It’s all in Russian but the pictures are epic.

I love AOM’s key to success: hustle!

The Sesame Street History of Rock and Roll, Part 2.  Part 1 is here.  I find it humorous that Woot pays people to write this stuff.

Monty Python is funny…enough said.  Eric Idle is a comedic genius.

The hilarity of Pee Wee Herman doing a PSA is just off the charts!

This is a cool stop-motion project video.

Okay, if I ever catch a man in one of these I will punch him.  A kilt is acceptable for Scotsman or Irishmen, but all others will have their man cards summarily removed.  It is man law.  Be warned, photos are SFW but might make you lose your appetite.

This is ingenious.  Help free POW’s in WWII using Monopoly.  Wow.

A watermelon…carved into the Death Star.  Whoever brings this to the Independence Day picnic wins.

Betty White making “your girlfriend…” jokes is simply amazing.

Don’t mess with professors…just don’t.

And for the grand finale…the most epic Rube Goldberg Machine I have ever seen: