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Christian Living

September 02, 2013

It is Labor Day today. That’s Labour Day here in Canada. It struck me this morning that among all the holidays Labor Day is unique in that we celebrate it by ignoring the very thing it is all about. On Christmas we remember Jesus; on Canada Day or Independence Day we think about our nations; on Thanksgiving we count our blessings and give thanks; on Memorial Day or Remembrance Day we remember those who died while serving their countries. But on Labor Day we do all we can to not labor and to not think about labor.

Over the past couple of weeks I have been thinking about labor, about work, and this formula has been in my mind: “disposable time + disposable income = ?” I haven’t known exactly what it equals, but I know it equals something. It has to. It probably equals something a little bit different for each of us.

We live at a time of amazing privilege. Almost all of us have the luxury of disposable income so that after we have paid our taxes and paid our bills and put a check in the offering basket, money remains. For some that amount is far greater than for others, but almost all of us have at least something left over, whether it is enough to head to Disney once a year or just enough to subscribe to Netflix. This puts us in a unique place in human history. Even the poor and middle-class among us have privileges today that rank with society’s elite from days gone by.

And it’s not just money that we have in abundance. It is also time. Many people today survive, and even thrive, on a 40-hour work week. Maybe in your case it is 50 or even 60. Regardless, even with that number of hours you have time to spare, time to dedicate to a hobby or serving at church or hanging out with your family or making use of that Netflix subscription.

When you take disposable time and you combine it with disposable income, something is going to happen. It is too powerful a combination to do nothing.

As I ponder the effect in my life, I keep coming back to the word entitlement. In my life disposable time + disposable income = entitlement. As I have lived in a culture where so many of us have an abundance of time and money, and as I have benefited from doing labor that allows me both luxuries, I feel a growing sense of entitlement. I begin to believe it is my right to have more money than I need and my right to use time in self-serving ways. I find that I begin to desire more of each.

I would prefer that my mind would go to opportunity, and this is how I am challenging myself. Disposable time + disposable money = opportunity. It represents an incredible and unique opportunity to do good, both through serving and through giving. It is an opportunity and privilege to be faithfully and joyfully stewarded.

August 26, 2013

Why sheep? Why not cheetahs or wolves or ligers or another animal with a bit of flair, a bit of class? But the Bible tells us often that we are sheep. We are sheep and God is a shepherd. That sheep/shepherd word picture is at the heart of the best-loved Psalm—Psalm 23. I spent some time with that psalm lately and tried to gain a better appreciation of why God saw fit to tell us we are sheep.

I will admit I am not the world’s foremost expert on sheep. I grew up in the city and even now live in an area of town that explicitly forbids owning livestock. In place of first-hand knowledge, I spent some time reading about sheep. It was funny. And kind of humbling.

Do a little bit of reading about sheep and you’ll soon see they are not survivors. They are not strong and independent creatures, not proud hunters or fierce predators. They’re actually kind of pathetic, entirely dependent upon a shepherd for at least three reasons. Two of these reasons are related to the brain of a sheep and the other is related to its body.

This is a real news story that aptly tells us the first reason sheep need a shepherd: because sheep are dumb.

Hundreds of sheep followed their leader off a cliff in eastern Turkey, plunging to their deaths this week while shepherds looked on in dismay. Four hundred sheep fell 15 metres to their deaths in a ravine in Van province near Iran but broke the fall of another 1,100 animals who survived. Shepherds from a nearby village neglected the flock while eating breakfast, leaving the sheep to roam free. The loss to local farmers was estimated at $74,000.

One sheep wandered off a cliff and 1,499 others just followed along. Can you picture it? 1,500 sheep, each walking off a cliff, one after the other. Soon they were piled so deep that the ones at the bottom were crushed to death and the ones on top were lying on a big downy-soft pillow. It is completely absurd and tells us one important fact about sheep and the first reason sheep absolutely need a shepherd: they are not the smartest animals in the world. In fact, they may well be just about the dumbest animals in the world.

And here’s a second reason sheep need a shepherd: they are directionless. Sheep are prone to wander. Even if you put them in an absolutely perfect environment with everything they need (things like green pastures and still waters), sooner or later they will just wander off. If a shepherd doesn’t manage them, if he doesn’t micromanage them and keep them under constant surveillance, they’ll wander off and be lost.

August 23, 2013

I have often heard my mother say that women have a near-infinite capacity for guilt and that husbands and children intuitively know this and are adept at exploiting it. Not surprisingly, a common theme in books and blogs is the mommy guilt, the weight of unrealistic expectations. So many women, and mothers especially, believe they are meant to be so much more than they actually are. It can prove a life-long burden.

Of course guilt is not the exclusive domain of women. Men can and do carry it as well. I have a practical bent and, while not quite immune to guilt, it tends to be a minimal struggle in my life. Yet there is one area where I feel that weight, that daddy guilt. I struggle with guilt in times of rest, and especially times of vacation.

Over the years, from reading books and listening to conference talks and talking to men I admire, I have picked up this idea that the best dad is the dad who dedicates his times of rest to entertaining his children, to providing them with the ultimate vacation. The dad who loves his family best is the dad who puts full effort into a vacation, who does not prioritize his own rest, but who instead spends that week finding fun things for his children to do, and who allows his wife to be the one who relaxes. That guilt can tell me at times that unless dad comes away from vacation exhausted, he has been selfish and unloving.

Last week was my first week of vacation in some time. I did not leave home utterly spent and burned out. Not at all. I was feeling strong and energized, and I had plans for the time. We would set up in a cottage on a small lake an hour north of Montreal. One day we would go into Montreal and tour the sites. Another day we would head to Mont Tremblant and find fun things to do there. There was more—water parks and hikes and interesting restaurants. It was going to be awesome for the whole family.

Then I got to that cottage. I got to that cottage and settled into a comfortable chair by a giant window overlooking a lake. And as I sat there I was suddenly experiencing rest of a unique kind. The world slowed down. I forgot all about the stack of books I brought along and instead dug up a collection of poetry and spent hours reading poems and even memorizing a bunch of them.

August 14, 2013

Every night my girls want me to pray with them and for them. If I do not tuck them in at night, or if I forget to pray when I do tuck them in, I can be sure that sooner or later I will hear feet coming down the stairs and then the question: “Daddy, will you pray with us?” Sometimes I think they are expressing a good and heartfelt desire and other times I think they are merely being superstitious, as if bad dreams will plague them and every shadow will frighten them if I do not pray. Either way, I never refuse them.

The other night I neglected to pray with them. It was at the end of a long day, I had fulfilled my parenting duties, I had gone off the clock, I wanted some “me time.” And then I heard the footsteps on the stairs. I groaned inwardly. “Daddy, you didn’t pray with us!”

So I called them over and prayed with them. It was a perfunctory prayer. It was lacking in enthusiasm and joy and confidence. I have shown more interest in taking out the trash. I sent them back to bed and went back to what I was doing. It was just another little moment in the life of a normal family.

The next morning I woke up and spent some time reading God’s Word. My devotions took me to Philippians where, right from the start of the letter, Paul tells that church how and why he is praying for them. Paul deliberately opens up his prayer life in order to teach this church how they ought to pray. In his commentary, Dennis Johnson writes, “How can we learn to pray? Instruction helps, but example is the key.” We learn to pray by hearing other people’s prayers.

When I had spent a few minutes in the passage, I went for a walk. And as I walked and prayed, and prayed and walked, this thought struck me: When you pray with your children, you are teaching your children to pray. When my girls had crept down the stairs the night before, they gave me an opportunity to teach them. And I had taught them. I had taught them that prayer can be monotone, that prayer can be done in a quick and uninterested and perfunctory manner. I had taught them that prayer is duty more than it is delight. The lessons were not all bad. I had taught them as well that they can, and should, entrust their cares to God and that he is the one who provides for our needs. But still, if that prayer was a teaching opportunity, it was one I mishandled and one I regret.

August 05, 2013

I often regret making broad statements, but I think most Christians in North America and the rest of the developed world will probably agree with a statement like this one: There is too much complacency in our lives and in our churches. I recently received a question from a group of pastors who had been discussing this topic: “How do you deal with complacency in your own life and in the life of your church?” They had various answers for the first part of the question, but found themselves stuck on the second half. I thought I might take a shot at it.

But first, we do not want to be Christians who are un-complacent. The Christian life is not avoiding negative qualities as much as it is pursuing positive qualities. Therefore, we want to be Christians who are zealous, for zeal is the opposite of complacency. “Zeal” is a word that was once an important part of the Christian vocabulary, but has since diminished.

Sometimes the best approach to a question like this is to find people in history who have modeled what we are missing and to see what they had that we lack. To find zeal as an emphasis and to find zeal on display, we can travel back a few hundred years to the Puritans. Joel Beeke and Mark Jones dedicate a whole chapter of A Puritan Theology to the Puritan emphasis on zeal. I want to trace just a little bit of what they learned.

None of us is without zeal—we are all zealous about something. We are zealous for this sports team or that one, we are zealous for this brand of cell phone or that one. “Zeal runs in our veins for what we love and against what we hate.” What we want as Christians is zeal that is properly motivated and properly directed—a truly godly zeal. John Reynolds defined Christian zeal as “an earnest desire and concern for all things pertaining to the glory of God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus among men.” If we assume this desire and concern is not merely feelings but action, it describes the very opposite of complacency. Zeal is like a flame that brings a pot to a boil—it causes our affections for God to come to a boil so that we pursue what delights him and fight against what dishonors him. Zeal is spiritual heat, spiritual energy that flows out through the godly characteristics of love, joy, hope, peace, and so on. It is not a grace on its own as much as it is a quality that affects every part of the Christian life, making us zealous in the way we love, zealous in the way we express hope, zealous in every area and every characteristic and every fruit of the Spirit.

The Puritans identified four means through which God stirs up the Christian’s zeal. These means are equally applicable to individuals and churches. What may surprise you is how unsurprising they are. There is no great trick to zeal; rather, it is simply taking advantage of God’s ordinary means.

July 24, 2013

A short time ago I wrote about how I had learned to embrace my dependence upon my wife and to celebrate my need of her. The Lord provided me with a helper for an obvious reason: I need help. There is still part of me that hates to admit this. I value independence and self-reliance and other such dubious virtues. Admitting dependence and need comes hard to me. Yet as life goes on, that need and that dependence become increasingly obvious to me and, undoubtedly, to those around me.

Just a few weeks ago I was at an event and due to speak just a few minutes later. Yet I found myself in my hotel room, in a state of near panic, unable to conceive of how I would cross that room and open that door. This isn’t quite the norm for me, but it also isn’t all that unusual. I called Aileen who immediately knew what to do: She spoke truth to me, reminded me of what I had been called to do and assured me that I could do it; she prayed with me and she prayed for me. And then everything was okay again. I felt like a building that had been about to topple, but then someone dug underneath it and poured a new foundation. It was still leaning a little bit, but now it was resting on something strong enough to support it. Or like an athlete (that metaphor is kind of a stretch for me, I know) who managed to hobble across the finish line only because he had someone else to run beside him, to cheer him on, to give him a shoulder to lean on.

And I realized in that moment that one of the most significant ways Aileen helps me is by strengthening me. She gives me strength I simply do not have without her. It drew me to this exploration of the word helper that appears in Susan Hunt and Ligon Duncan’s Book Women’s Ministry in the Local Church:

God ‘helps’ by defending the weak (Exodus 18:4), seeing and caring for the suffering (Ps. 10:14), supporting (20:2), shielding and protecting (33:20), delivering from distress (70:5), rescuing the poor, weak, needy, and afflicted (72:12–14), and comforting (86:17). These are strong, relational, nurturing, compassionate words. They are covenant words. They characterize our relationship with God and with one another.

Supporting, delivering from distress, rescuing the weak, comforting: those are exactly the ways in which Aileen comes alongside me and helps me. These are exactly the things she does for me and the things she delights to do for me. These are the things I need her to do.

July 22, 2013

A good laugh is one of life’s good gifts. Happiness is an emotion we like to participate in as a group, and especially so when that happiness overflows into laughter. We will gladly pay good money to sit in a theatre and allow Jim Gaffigan or Brian Regan make us laugh for a couple hours. And in the aftermath just the words “hot pockets” or “girth units” is enough to get us laughing again.

Laughter is best shared. A funny moment isn’t nearly as funny when we experience it alone. So we re-enact our favorite comedy sketches. We tell our funny stories. We recount the comedic exploits of our children. We tell the embarrassing tales from other’s peoples lives and sometimes from our own. And when we do that we share the laughter and join in it together. It’s such a pleasure.

We are all comfortable sharing laughter. But there are other expressions of emotion—even good and healthy emotions—that we are not comfortable sharing.

Take sorrow, for example. Every man knows that tears are private. Men laugh in a group but cry alone. “He is hilarious” is a compliment; “He is a crier” is an insult. “He is hilarious” praises him for being manly while “he is a crier” criticizes him for being unmanly.

Why is it that laughter is lauded and tears are shameful? Why do I share my laughter and hide my tears? Why do I laugh aloud and weep silently?

No one wants to share a good cry like they share a good laugh. I will laugh during a sermon, if there is something to laugh about; but I won’t cry if there is something to cry about. I will laugh during a funny movie, but I won’t cry during a sad one. I express my happiness for all to see and a stifle my sorrow so no one will see. I will sing my worship with visible joy, but I will not sing my worship with visible sorrow.

July 17, 2013

When you are a hammer, everything looks like a nail. They call this maxim “Maslow’s hammer” and it is meant to make us consider the way we use our tools. Tools like hammers and tools like Twitter and Facebook. The fact is, we live with and through our tools and in some way are almost inseparable from them. Our self-understanding and the way we view the world is always closely tied to the means through which we experience life.

Social media is one of our newest tools and in its near-omnipresence it has quickly become one of the most powerful and one of the most important. It is our new hammer and when we hold that hammer it causes us to see all of life’s experiences as nails.

Social media has had the strange effect of changing the way we experience life. It quietly convinces us that the value of an experience is not inherent; rather, the value of an experience is relative to its social media usefulness. This is true not only for the things we do, but the thoughts we think and the facts we learn and even the Bible verses we read. We begin to rank everything in relation to its value as news. We deem these things valuable if we can somehow package them up through social media, share them with others, and receive the feedback of our friends and followers.

And so a valuable experience is one I can distill to 140 characters and tweet, or one I can photograph and share through Instagram, or one I can record on Facebook. An experience I can’t capture and share is one that just isn’t all that interesting or important. As I go about life my mind is constantly asking, “Can I tweet this?” “Can I instagram this?” “How can I get this onto Facebook?” The hammer is always looking to pound a new nail.

Pause & Apply: Some experiences are too full to distill to 140 characters and too rich to capture in a photo. Sharing such experiences through social media serves only to cheapen them. Do not allow yourself to ruin a beautiful moment by seeing it primarily as an opportunity to share it with strangers.

July 15, 2013

The Bible tells me I am to store up treasures in heaven. It tells me there are eternal rewards for decisions I make in this life and it tells me I should desire these rewards and act accordingly. And yet sometimes I feel the desire for reward is a sign of spiritual weakness rather than strength, like that is for lesser Christians and that I should grow beyond it. I struggle with the idea that I am to be motivated to obey God in this world by the promise of reward in the next. It has always struck me as wrong, as something a little bit less than noble, that I would obey God not purely and solely out of a desire to obey him, but out of a desire to increase my eternal reward. Have you ever wondered about that?

Is it wrong to be motivated by rewards? Somehow in my mind it seems like the reward must negate the joy or the purity of obedience, and especially when it comes to the way I handle money. Shouldn’t I want to give out of the joy of obedience? Shouldn’t I want to give simply because I love the God who commands me to give generously?

Randy Alcorn has helped me as I’ve pondered this. In his book Managing God’s Money, he refers to God granting eternal rewards for faithful obedience “the neglected key to unlocking our motivation” and digs up plenty of biblical proof that our Bible heroes were motivated by this kind of reward. He offers Hebrews 11:26 as a simple example: “He [Moses] considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.” And, of course, we know that the Apostle Paul was also running with his eye on the prize—the crown that would last forever (1 Corinthians 9:25). Both men were doing the obedient thing on earth with a view to eternal reward.

Even Christ endured the cross “for the joy that was set before him” (Hebrews 12:2). He humbled himself knowing that he would soon be exalted. He, too, found his motivation in the eternal reward that would await him—in this case the glory of his Father as he is worshiped by a church washed and redeemed. This challenged me. If I maintain that it is wrong to be motivated by rewards, I am bringing an accusation against Christ, suggesting that he was wrongly motivated. And I bring that same accusation against Paul and Moses and others.

July 10, 2013

For a long time now I’ve had a fascination with what we might refer to as ordinary Christianity, Christian living for the rest of us. This kind of a life stands in contrast to the demands of so many of today’s bestselling Christian books, books that tell us we ought to live extraordinary lives, crazy and above-and-beyond lives. Some of these authors tacitly (or even blatantly) suggest that ordinary must be synonymous with apathetic and that all these comparative and superlative terms—this-er, that-er—are synonymous with godly. But when I look to the Bible I just don’t see it.

The Bible gives us those well-known big-picture commands, the meta commands for the time between Christ’s resurrection and return. “Go and make disciples of all nations.” That Great Commission tells us the what but does not give us a lot of instruction on the how. How do we do that in our daily lives? How does this look in the home and in the office and in the church? Can normal people living normal lives do all of this?

Answers come all through the New Testament and I find it fascinating that concern of the biblical writers is how to be ordinary, how to be normal. In their minds being ordinary offers challenge enough and to be normal is to honor God. Ordinary Christians carry out a Great Commission in ordinary ways through their ordinary lives.

In 1 Thessalonians Paul addresses a group of Christians he loves. He had received an encouraging report about them and sends them a letter to address some of their specific concerns. Many of these concerns are related to daily life. This is a mature church, Christians who had embraced the gospel with enthusiasm and who had preserved that gospel, growing in maturity, growing in strength. And when Paul tells them how to live a satisfying, God-honoring, Great Commission-fulfilling life, he writes about things that may seem so mundane: sexual purity, love between believers, diligence in all of life.

It is this final command that jumps out at me. Paul tells them, “Aspire to live quietly, and to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we instructed you.” When he tells them to aspire to live quietly, he is essentially telling them, “work hard to live quietly” or “make it your ambition to be without ambition.” At our guilty worst we might want to hear him say, “Sell everything you own, move to the most difficult of all mission fields, give up your life for the gospel’s sake—that is Christian living.” But he does not. He tells them to live a quiet and unremarkable life, to be content to be unnoticed, to avoid meddling in other people’s affairs, and to settle into a life of hard work. To do all this is to please and honor God.

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