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January 27, 2015

About once a year I go through a phase—a deliberate phase—in which I evaluate our family finances to see where we’re doing well and where we aren’t doing so well. I especially look for places we are spending money we don’t need to spend—bills that are too high, subscriptions we no longer need, and all of those little money-wasters that eventually add up. And over the years, I’ve collected quite a list of ways that we, and perhaps you, waste money. Here are some of them:

The Daily Latte

I read quite a few books on personal finance and there is a trend I have noticed in recent years: Every book now uses Starbucks as the negative example of financial management. The math really is that simple: $5 per day for that latte, multiplied by 365 days in the year, adds up to an extra mortgage payment or two. And if both of you go every day, the damage is doubled. Consider brewing at home, or at least sticking with the brewed instead of specialty coffees.

Keeping Up

There is something in all of us that longs to keep up with the neighbors—to have the things they have and to do the things they do. But it’s a fool’s game, of course. Envy and jealousy are never satisfied, and the more you have, the more you’ll need. It is far better to learn contentment and to stop fooling yourself into believing that more stuff will bring more happiness. A quick audit of your finances may show all the different ways you are trying to keep up and get ahead of your neighbors. It’s wasted money.

Club Packs and Jumbo Sizes

Club packs and jumbo sizes offer great value, but only if you can consume it all before it expires or is otherwise ruined. The stores have a knack for knowing exactly what products you are likely to buy in such quantities that you cannot possibly get through them before they go stale (or melt or wilt or grow mold or…). Buy the toilet paper, but be careful of the crackers, flour, or vegetables.

Coupons

Just like jumbo sizes, coupons can offer great value. Who doesn’t want to save a few dollars or even a few cents, just for waving that little piece of paper? But coupons fail you when they are for something you are buying only because it seems like a shame to miss out on such a good deal. If you wouldn’t buy it anyway, your savings come to exactly nothing. If it’s brand name but still more expensive than the generic, the same is true. It’s important to be honest with yourself: Sometimes you just can’t afford to save any more money. And while I’m on the subject of shopping, don’t buy the licensed shampoo or toothbrush or band-aids—you are paying extra for the picture of the princess or superhero.

Kindle Books You Won’t Read

I’m all for buying Kindle books at a discount, and there are plenty of phenomenal deals on phenomenal books. But if you buy those books and then never read them (or never even open them up to refer to them), you are getting precisely nothing for your money. Collect them if you know you’ll read them or are certain you’ll want to use them in the future. Otherwise, take a pass on them. It’s only $1.99 each, but that still adds up to a lot over a year.

Buying Junk

Sometimes you can save money by investing a little more up-front. Those dollar store toys may mimic the brand name, but if they cost half as much but break on the way home (which they always did for my kids) you aren’t any further ahead. Electronics, pots and pans, and even contractors—through hard experience we have learned it is better to spend a little more at the beginning to get a lot more in the end. Financial stewardship doesn’t always mean spending less.

Paying Cash

We need to be careful with this one, as some people, by wisdom or necessity, force themselves to hold to a cash budget. However, for those people with good habits and financial self-control, credit cards offer points or cash-back—a sweet little bonus for those things you would buy anyway, or those things you can use to treat yourself. Play your cards right, and you may be able to begin saving for that vacation, or enjoy a bit of free cash, just for using your credit cards wisely. I’m bringing my family to the Ligonier conference this year, and I owe it all to points.

Paying Interest

It seems appropriate, after pointing out the potential value of credit card points and perks, to speak to another massive money-waster: Credit card interest. Credit card companies are betting that they can get you to over-spend so they can charge you their exorbitant interest rates. Don’t ever carry a balance! Play the game right and you can have all the benefits without any of the drawbacks.

Failing to Meal Plan

Meal planning is a practical way of stewarding the responsibility of caring for a home and family, but there is financial value to the practice as well: Meal planning allows you to know what you should (and should not buy) and pushes you to ensure that you use every bit of food in the fridge and pantry before it goes bad. We have wasted far too much money by throwing out food that we should have eaten while it was still edible. The better our meal plan, the less we waste.

Eating Out

Eating out is just so easy, and sometimes so pleasurable. But it also tends to cost an awful lot more than eating at home. Not only that, but the nutritional value is usually much lower. Save eating out for the special occasions, and day-to-day, learn to pack a lunch and prepare dinner at home. If you do eat out, eat out wisely. Here’s an example: If we order two medium pizzas and have it delivered, it costs us $24 dollars, but if we walk-in and pick-up, the exact same pizzas cost us $10—a cost-effective, quick and easy dinner on a frantic night.

Extended Warranties

The guy at Best Buy has to offer you the extended warranty, and will give you a long list of reasons why you are utterly foolish to resist. But don’t fall for it. In almost every case, the extended warranty is a waste of your money, and especially so when you are buying quality products. And remember: That 3-year warranty overlaps with the manufacturer’s warranty, so it is actually only a 2-year warranty.

In-Game Purchases

The freemium model is the new trend in gaming—to charge nothing (or almost nothing) for a game, to allow you to advance to the point where you are committed to it, and then to make the game agonizingly slow or agonizingly difficult unless you spend a bit of money on upgrades. Don’t do it! There are plenty of games out there that will treat you better, and you will almost always regret those charges when you see them on your credit card statement.

Not Asking

It always surprises me what I can get by asking. Cell phone bills, bandwidth overage charges, gym fees—many of these things are negotiable. We even asked our dentist if we could get the up-front cash rate for my daughter’s braces and he gave it to us just for asking, even though we will be paying in installments. Tell your doctor or dentist when you don’t have insurance and see what they’ll do for you. Don’t be afraid to ask, and don’t be afraid to look for alternatives—it’s amazing what a customer-retention department will do for you to keep you as their customer.

And that’s our list. Where do you find that you are tempted to waste money?

Image credit: Shutterstock

January 26, 2015

The Bible is not a book. I know we talk about the Bible as if it is a book. I know we praise God for giving us his book. I know we tend to buy our Bibles from book stores. But it’s not a book. Not really. We’ve confused the nature of the thing with its form.

The Bible is a collection. It is a collection of all that God meant to communicate to us through inerrant and infallible words. The apostle Peter describes it well: “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). God spoke, men wrote. Men wrote the exact words of God exactly as he breathed them out. Over 1,600 years they wrote them as histories, as letters, as prophecies, and as poetry. They wrote whatever he spoke until he stopped speaking.

What should be done with all of these writings? The answer was obvious: They needed to be collected and combined to form a canon, the complete works of a single author. In Moses’ day the Bible was words spoken and memorized and passed along through oral tradition. In Jesus’ day the Bible was a collection of scrolls. In Paul’s day the Bible was that same collection of scrolls with handwritten letters added to it. But in every form it has always been the Bible.

Today we know the Bible as The Good Book only because for the past few centuries the book has been the dominant medium through which we encounter it. But it has not always been that way, and will not always be that way. As the dominant medium has changed, so too has its form. Today it is The Good Book, but before that it was The Good Codex and before that The Good Scroll.

Now here is why I tell you all of this: The Bible transcends form. It transcends media. Not only that, but whatever the form, whatever the media, it has proven dominant. The reason we have such confidence that it has been faithfully transmitted through history is that it has been so widely copied and disseminated in every form. 

Not too long from now the Bible will transition from being The Good Book to being The Good App. As information migrates to digital media, the Bible will make the shift, just as it as has through every other literary media. But through our little glimpse at history we know that we have nothing to fear from the appification of information. Since the dawn of the printing press, the Bible has been the most dominant book. We have no reason to doubt that in time it will prove the dominant app. And when apps have had their day and we move to whatever is next, the Bible will remain and will dominate.

As one medium gives way to another, we do well to remind ourselves of what the Bible really is. Not a book, but something far better, and far more transcendent. It is the enduring words of God himself.

January 22, 2015

I knew next to nothing about my wife on the day I married her. We had dated for a few years, we had spent countless evenings talking on the phone, we had attended church, we had organized events, and even run a business together. But despite all that, we still barely knew one another. The knowledge we had was genuine, but it was shallow. Still, that small amount of knowledge was enough to compel us to invite our friends and family to a little church in Ancaster so we could pledge our lives to one another.

I have never had a moment’s regret for marrying Aileen (which is not the same as saying we have never had disagreements or difficult times). This is remarkable when I consider how little I knew of her on the day of our wedding. I loved and appreciated her as far as I knew her, but in retrospect can see how little knowledge I really had.

Fast forward through sixteen years of marriage, and our knowledge has increased dramatically. It has increased to a level that all those years ago would have seemed downright creepy. Through the pleasure of living together, the toil of working together, the intimacy of sleeping together, the delight of having children together, and all the normal joys and trials of life, we have come to know one another in a much deeper way. I love her much more now than I did at the time, because today’s love is based on much more substantial knowledge.

Don’t hear me saying that I have now learned everything about her, as if sixteen years has been sufficient for that. I am fully aware that, should the Lord grant us thirty-two or sixty-four years together, I’ll look back and marvel at how little I knew of her in 2015. This is part of the joy of marriage—spending a lifetime growing in my knowledge of, and therefore love for, another person. This is part of the honor of marriage, that another person would allow me to know her to this degree, to allow me to know her mind, body, and soul.

When I first began writing these words, I intended to make a comparison to the Christian’s relationship with God. And there is a sense in which the comparison works. But there is another sense in which it fails.

When you became a Christian, you did so on the basis of partial knowledge. You had genuine knowledge of genuine truth, but it was very limited knowledge. Still, it was enough—it was enough to see yourself as a sinner and Christ as a glorious Savior, and so you put your faith in him. But to some degree it was still a leap in the dark. Then, as you have grown as a Christian, you have inevitably come to a better and deeper understanding of God, and his glory and grace; that small faith has been rewarded as it has grown into a fuller and more robust faith. You love for God has grown as your knowledge of God has increased.

But God’s love for you has remained unchanged. It has not grown a bit, and that’s because God’s knowledge of you has not advanced one bit. Before you were born he knew everything you would be. “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). Before he saved you, he knew everything you would do: “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10). He knew it all. His knowledge of you was complete and is complete. His love for you was complete and is complete. It will never change. It can never change.

Image credit: Shutterstock

January 21, 2015

I receive the emails often, the emails from the man who wonders how he, he of all people, could possibly lead his family. He has blown it. He has sinned too often, too flagrantly, too publicly. Usually it is the porn: She found the stash on his hard drive or the links in his browser. Hard-earned respect was demolished in a moment.

Aside: Men, don’t you know what it does to your wife’s heart when she learns this about you? Don’t you care how it destroys your reputation in her eyes? Don’t you fear how it shatters her confidence in the man she married? 

Or maybe it wasn’t porn, but years of apathy, of neglect. How could he lead after so many years of being so passive? Or maybe it is neither porn nor apathy, but fear, fear of a woman who is so much wiser and so much more knowledgeable, who knows so much more about the Bible and so much more about the God of the Bible. How is he supposed to lead his wife and family when she is the one who knows so much more?

Whatever the reason, he hasn’t led. He hasn’t given direction to the family, he hasn’t called the family together for devotions, he hasn’t prayed with the kids, he hasn’t stepped up and been a leader. And the longer he goes, the harder it gets.

This is the most difficult time to lead. The most difficult time to lead is when you have forfeited the respect of those who are meant to follow you, when your confidence, and theirs, is shattered. But this is also the most important time to lead. This is where a real man will, and must, lead.

No one leads because he is worthy of the honor. In all of human history there has only been one person who was a worthy leader, and only one person who perfectly succeeded in his leadership. The rest of us, the best of us, are unworthy. We fumble along. We lead and stumble. We lead and fail. We lead and lose our way. We lead and hope desperately to learn something from it all. In all of human history there has been only one person who was a worthy leader, but the call to lead goes to the unworthy as well. And so we lead. Like it or not, confident or not, skillful or not, we lead.

We don’t lead because we are worthy, but because we are called. You don’t lead because you are worthy, but because you are called. And, my friend, you have been called— commanded and called by God himself. If you are a husband, you have been called. If you are a father, you have been called. You have been called to lead—you and no one else. You have been called to lead despite your sin and your failure, despite your fear and apathy. There is no backup plan, there is no one to lead in your absence, no one better suited, no one better qualified.

It won’t be easy, but it will be right, and God always blesses when you do what is right. So ask forgiveness for your sin. Turn away from those failures. Put to death the doubt and pride that traps you in inactivity. And lead. Lead gently, lead humbly, lead prayerfully. But lead.

If you won’t lead, who will? If not today, then when? You know what to do. So do it.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

January 19, 2015

Have you ever compared the front and back of a tapestry? The front of a tapestry is art. In the hands of a skilled weaver it displays incredible artistry and fine detail. The world’s best art museums collect the world’s best tapestries and display them there as examples of a rare but beautiful form of art.

The back of a tapestry is a mess. A tapestry is made by weaving together different-colored threads, and the images and designs are created by the interplay between the different colors and textures. What is clear on the front is opaque on the back. The back shows something of the image, but it looks more like a child’s attempt than a master’s: it lacks nuance and clarity and detail. Where the front is smooth, the back is covered in knots and loose ends.

We are meant to see and admire the front of the tapestry, not the back, and this has often served as an illustration of the truths of Romans 8:28: That God promises to use every single event in our lives to bring about good. Though I have often heard Joni Eareckson Tada use the illustration, I believe it originated with Corrie Ten Boom and her poem “The Master Weaver’s Plan.” “Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow; / And I in foolish pride / Forget He sees the upper / And I the underside.” It serves as an effective illustration for the truth that for now we get to see only the underside of all God is weaving together in this world, while clinging to the promise that someday we will see the upper side and marvel at what he has been doing.

But it illustrates something else equally well. I have been thinking a lot lately about good deeds—not the good deeds people do to try to earn the favor of God, but the good deeds people do when they already know that Christ has earned them the favor of God. Titus 2 calls us to be people that are zealous for good works; in Matthew 5 Jesus tells us to let our light shine before others by doing good works; Ephesians 2 tells us that God’s very purpose in saving us was enabling us to glorify him by the good works we do for others. As Christians we are to be known for our good works—those things done for the glory of God and the good of other people.

And so we go through life doing these good works, and far more often than not, these are small and seemingly inconsequential deeds. We rarely talk a person out of recklessly taking his own life; we rarely write a check that utterly transforms a life or ministry; we rarely save a drowning child or defuse a ticking time bomb. Instead we interact with people for moments at a time and attempt to say something—anything—that may be encouraging; we write small checks and place them in the offering basket; we have brief conversations with children, and we share just a shred of the Good News with that taxi driver.

Most of our good deeds go unnoticed and unmarked by others. I suspect that even we ourselves fail to notice or remember the majority of the good deeds we do. But not God. God sees them all, knows them all, remembers them all, and uses them all.

Just as some day we will see the beautiful tapestry God has been weaving through our suffering, through the events we never would have chosen, in the same way we will see the tapestry this Master Weaver has been creating through those good deeds. We will see how a kind word resonated in a person’s heart even days and weeks later; we will see how that small amount of money was used to accomplish something amazing; we will see how that little shred of the gospel was the pebble in the shoe of the person who had hardened himself against God.

Some day God will show us his tapestry, we will see how God has woven each of these little deeds together to his own glory, and we will rejoice.

Here is Corrie Ten Boom’s poem:

My life is but a weaving
Between my God and me.I cannot choose the colors
He weaveth steadily.

Oft’ times He weaveth sorrow;
And I in foolish pride
Forget He sees the upper
And I the underside.

Not ’til the loom is silent
And the shuttles cease to fly
Will God unroll the canvas
And reveal the reason why.

The dark threads are as needful
In the weaver’s skillful hand
As the threads of gold and silver
In the pattern He has planned

He knows, He loves, He cares;
Nothing this truth can dim.
He gives the very best to those
Who leave the choice to Him.

January 15, 2015

LogosI have written about Logos Bible Software a number of times over the years, and would like to return to it today. I do so after making the rather momentous decision to commit to it—to stop collecting printed commentaries and theological works and to focus on collecting these in Logos instead. After years of dabbling in Logos, the new version, version 6, finally convinced me to make the leap, and for the past few months I have done all my sermon preparation using only electronic resources. To this point I have no regrets.

Here are a few ramblings on Logos from my vantage point.

Apples & Oranges

We cannot make too rigid a comparison between a printed library and an electronic library. While a printed book and a Logos book may contain the same words, they are different media and each has strengths and weaknesses. We need to resist making a 1:1 comparison between the two.

The greatest strength of Logos is its wider system. What a Logos book offers that a printed book does not is integration into that system. When you add a new book to your Logos library, you increase the power and usefulness of the entire system, because that book now links to and from every other book. It is less like adding a printed book to a bookcase and more like adding a new Christian with his spiritual gifts to your congregation—it improves and strengthens the entire system.

The most important part of the Logos system is its power to find and relate information across an entire library. With a print library, it may take me hours of searching bookcases, looking for Scripture indexes, and referencing endnotes to find all my library has to tell me about a particular verse or subject. Logos makes it as simple as typing in a keyword or clicking a Scripture verse. Within seconds it will search an entire library, organize the results, and show the best ones; one more click will begin a deeper search. Logos also makes it easy to do word studies and to find basic or advanced information about the original Greek and Hebrew. It allows notes and easily formats footnotes. It is rich in features that display the unique strengths of software.

More Than Books

Over the last few years Logos has begun extending Logos to be more than a research library. Recently, for example, they added Logos Mobile Ed—video-based courses taught by prominent theologians. These courses were created specifically by and for Logos and feature the teacher looking straight into the camera, making them very natural and intimate. The ability to take courses through Logos—to watch the lectures, read the books, and take notes all within the system—adds a lot of value to the software.

Get Trained

While Logos’ most basic functions are easy enough to access and understand, you will probably need help discovering and taking advantage of its advanced capabilities. Logos offers many different forms of training—major conferences often have a Logos-sponsored breakout session, you can take the Logos Mobile Ed course, or watch online video tutorials. From personal experience I can say that you will use Logos better, and alleviate some of your frustrations, if you learn how to use it better.

Casual Users

I often see Logos at major conferences advertising as software that may appeal to the casual Bible reader. I would urge people to be very cautious before making a significant investment. Logos alone will not change your heart or give you a new desire to read and apply God’s Word. It is a useful aid in Bible study, but is very unlikely to be the key that unlocks new spiritual depths. While it is certainly useful for any Christian, the greatest value is for those who have to do the greatest amount of Bible study and who can purchase the greatest number of resources for it. At the very least, give it a good test-drive before making the financial investment.

On Building a Library

Here are several important principles to consider when it comes to building a Logos library.

January 14, 2015

On February 6, 2006, Stephen Harper stood before the Governor General of Canada and recited the oath of office: “I, Stephen Harper, do solemnly and sincerely promise and swear that I will truly and faithfully, and to the best of my skill and knowledge, execute the powers and trust reposed in me as Prime Minister, so help me God.”

In the very moment when he recited that oath, he received a new identity: Prime Minister of Canada. That identity includes what the oath calls powers and trust: he received authority to represent Canada, power to make decisions, and responsibility to lead the nation in ways that are best for all Canadians. As a citizen of Canada, I want my Prime Minister to know who he has become, to know what he is responsible for, to know what authority is his. I want him to take on the full identity of Prime Minister and to behave accordingly; if he will not take on that identity, he cannot do his job effectively.

I have never met the Prime Minister and have never been able to ask him, but it is my guess that taking on that new identity is difficult. Though he became Prime Minister in the moment he recited the oath, it must have taken him some time to begin confidently behaving like a Prime Minister. There must have been a period of adjustment where he reconciled himself to all of these new realities—his new abilities, his new title, and his new leadership responsibilities. It must have been strange at first to hear people call him “Mr. Prime Minister,” and to always look to him for direction.

As a Christian, you, too, have received a new identity. Just like Stephen Harper was immediately given a new identity when he recited his oath of office, you were given a new identity in the very moment when you put your faith in Christ Jesus and were justified by him. And just like the Prime Minister, it takes time and knowledge for you to grow into that new identity. All through the Christian life, you will be growing and straining to understand it in better and deeper ways, and to live as if it is true.

More than anything else, your new identity hinges on this one simple truth: You are in Christ. You are united to Christ, and identified with him. Many Christians through the years have said that of all the blessings you receive as a Christian, none is greater than this. Why? Because it is only through your union with Christ that you gain all the benefits of Christ. His life is your life, his death is your death, his righteousness is your righteousness, and all because you are united to him.

You are in Christ, and all that is his, is yours. This is your deepest identity.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

January 13, 2015

The Bible is a long and at-times complicated book centered upon a short and simple truth: Jesus Christ died to save sinners. The Bible tells the great narrative that is unfolding in this world: the story of God creating, man falling, Christ redeeming, and the end coming to all sin and evil. The Bible serves as our guide to this story and to the characters who play roles in it. It does this through 66 books that span genres, cultures, authors, and centuries. It is a remarkable work that could only have come from the mind of God.

The Bible is a sure and steady guide to life and doctrine, but to be that sure and steady guide it must be properly understood and interpreted. Proper understanding and interpretation is dependent on one indispensable rule: Before you ask, “What does it mean to us now?”, ask “What did it mean to them then?” In other words, before you attempt to apply the Bible to your life and circumstances, anchor it in the lives and circumstances of its original recipients. Application must be related to meaning.

Sadly, Christian books and preaching are absolutely littered with teaching that has almost no resemblance to the Bible passages it is drawn from. Recently I reviewed a book that perfectly illustrates how we tend to move too quickly from the text to personal application without asking that all-important question. The author was writing about the importance of setting goals, and as he did this he quoted Habakkuk 2:2 where God tells the prophet, “Write the vision and make it plain.” And here is the author’s application: “Your goals must be in writing. … There is spiritual power in writing down your goals.”

I agree with the author that goals are useful and that writing down goals make them more powerful in the sense that you are now more likely to remember them, return to them, and take action on them. But to insist that there is spiritual power in writing them down, and to draw this from Habakkuk 2:2, well, that is a different matter.

When we read Habakkuk 2:2 and look for application, the first question we need to ask is “What did it mean to them then?” In other words, what did these words mean to the original recipients? The answer is quite plain: God had given his people a prophetic message and did not intend to fulfill it immediately; Habakkuk was to write it down so it could be recorded for posterity. That way God’s people could cling to that promise and, at a future date, rejoice that God had fulfilled it.

And now, on that basis, we can ask this: What does it mean to us now? How can we draw personal application that is related to the original meaning and application?

One application might be to rejoice that God reveals himself to us and that he always fulfills his words. After all, he told his people to write down these words because it was absolutely fixed that he would, in due time, do what he had said. He is the promise-making and promise-keeping God. Another application might be to look for promises God has made to us and to see where and how he has fulfilled them. Where do we owe God thanks and praise for keeping his promises? Where do we need to patiently and prayerfully wait for him to keep his promises? These applications flow right out of the “them then”—out of the way the original recipients would have understood the text.

We cannot fairly say that this text teaches that there is particular power in writing down our goals; in fact, we cannot say that there is anything in this passage about setting or keeping goals. Neither does Habakkuk mean to say anything about the power of writing. We cannot make those applications if we adhere to that one indispensable rule. If it did not mean it for them then, it does not mean it for us now.

As Christians, Christians who long to know and obey the Bible, we only really know God’s Word when we know it accurately. So before you make application, always ask the simple question: What did it mean for them then?

For more on this subject you can read the article 1 Triangle, 3 Corners, 4 T’s.

Image credit: Shutterstock

January 12, 2015

One of the more popular blog posts I’ve written, and one that seemed to resonate with many of those who read it, is the one in which I declared the goodness of the ordinary, or really, the goodness of being ordinary. Ordinary has since been a popular theme in Christian publishing, with two books now sharing that title, and a host of others carrying similar ones: Boring, Mundane, Normal, and so on. I’m glad for this new emphasis.

Way back when I wrote that article I said this: “Ordinary is a book I have lived. I live it every day. I live an ordinary life, pastor an ordinary church full of ordinary people, and head home each night to my ordinary little home in an oh-so-ordinary suburb. I preach very ordinary sermons—John Piper or Steve Lawson I am not and never will be—and as I sit with the people I love I am sure I give them very ordinary counsel. A friend recently confessed his initial disappointment the first time he visited my home and got a glimpse of my life. ‘Your house is so small and your life is so boring.’ Indeed. It’s barely 1,100 square feet of house and forty hours every week sitting at a desk.”

And not much has changed. My mortgage is a couple of years closer to being paid off, but the house hasn’t gotten any bigger or fancier. My preaching skills have probably increased just a notch or two since then, based simply on preparing and delivering quite a few sermons. But there hasn’t been any sudden or dramatic improvement. And my life? It is still just about the same, I think. I love to live it despite the fact that it is almost always very mundane. In fact, I love to live it exactly because it is almost always very mundane.

But.

You knew there had to be a “but” in here somewhere. Over the past couple of years I have learned something about being ordinary: I am comfortable with “ordinary” as my self-diagnosis, but I haven’t yet gotten to the point where I am comfortable hearing it from others. That’s the new battleground. I can see my own ordinariness and be okay with it, but it still hurts when other people see and acknowledge it.

I have realized that diagnosing myself as ordinary can carry with it some pride. “I’m the ordinary guy” sounds humble, but can still pack a proud attitude. That’s the sinful human heart, I guess—able to boast about a lack of skill or a lack of talent just as much as an abundance of each. It’s pathetic, but it shows that somewhere and somehow I still want to be a big deal, even if the big deal is being ordinary. I still want to wear a label. I have learned that when I say I am ordinary, I am sometimes actually bragging and maybe even hoping that people will respond to my statement with some kind of a correction—”Oh, no, you’re not. Not you.” That does something to me that my heart quite enjoys.

But then there are the people who agree with my diagnosis. Or who even somehow communicate that they had already come to that conclusion. I have counseled people in my church who really wanted one of the other guys, but had to settle for me. I have been invited to speak at conferences or churches where I have learned—or just been told—that I am plan b or plan c. We really wanted those other guys, but they were all too busy doing other important stuff, so we’re settling for you. And the public has said it as well. I’ve written books, and the books have sold, but not in noteworthy quantities. It’s not that I expected a book on spiritual discernment or a book on Christians and technology to go shooting onto the New York Times list of bestsellers, but, you know, like every other author, I couldn’t help but dream a little.

I’m realizing that somehow I still want to be a big deal—an ordinary big deal, as if that makes any sense. I want to be ordinary by my own assessment, but special by other people’s. I struggle to let go of the desire to be a big deal. And God gives these gracious little pokes, these jabs, to remind me that I’m not. I’m not a big deal. I couldn’t handle being a big deal.

I’ve got a feeling that the people who do the most for God are those who are most content to be ordinary. Some of them remain unknown and unnoticed through their entire lives. Others are elevated and admired. But I suspect that the ones we love the most are the ones who can be satisifed with either a profile or invisibility, with either much or little—whatever God gives. There is beauty in that. I want that.

I guess what I am seeing is that it takes ongoing training to be and to embrace ordinary. It is not a one-shot deal. I want to be content with ordinary, and I need to be, because more and more I see God’s gracious evidence that this is exactly who and what I am. I’ve just got to learn to love it.

Image credit: Shutterstock

January 07, 2015

I once watched a master glassblower at his craft. I had pulled off the highway to look for coffee, a small pick-me-up during a day-long drive. And in that search for a decent cup, I spotted his studio, a converted warehouse, far off the main street of a small Pennsylvania town. One of his assistants invited me in and for a time I sat, mesmerized, as I watched him work.

The artist did not say what he intended to make, and for a time it was impossible to tell. He began by gathering molten glass around the tip of a long rod, the glass glowing a viciously beautiful bright orange. He carried that unshapen blob of glass to a workbench and began to roll it back and forth. Then it went to a different furnace, then back to his bench, and back, and forth, and back, and forth, shaped with fire and shaped with force. And then, at just the right moment, he lifted that rod to his mouth and began to blow into it, forming his work from the inside, carefully, gradually, inflating it, adding contours, curves, shapes. It began to take form. The finished work was stunning, a beautifully, perfectly misshapen vase of vibrant greens and bright yellows and subdued blues.

I love words. Words are like molten glass, raw material just waiting to be gathered, to be rolled and blown upon, to be formed and contoured, to be transformed to a finished work of art. The glassblower begins with a picture in his mind—a picture of a finished work of art. Each one of his actions is designed to take that object from his mind and bring it to life in his studio. The writer begins with an idea, information he means to convey to others, and he labors to shape the raw material of words into a finished work that expresses that information with nuance, with freshness, with force. The degree to which he succeeds is the degree to which he is satisfied with the result.

Words are the very best kind of raw material. Words are my favorite art form and I indulge my passion with these amateurish attempts to imitate the true artisans. But the greater joy by far is reading a great book. It is in those great works that I stand in the art gallery, see the artist at his craft, wonder at his skill, and marvel at his mastery of his medium. This is where I see the true master at his craft. 

Image credit: Shutterstock

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