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Christian Living

February 18, 2013

The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.” Since the dawn of time humans have looked to the sky and marveled at its immensity, its vastness, the sheer unfathomable number of stars dotting the dark night. The heavens declare God’s glory in all of these ways, but also in this: the heavens provoke wonder. The heavens provoke wonder and that wonder calls us to worship. The sky declares God’s glory through the fact that it exists and the sky declares God’s glory in calling us to that reaction of worship.

For millennia the heavens have provoked wonder. It is only in recent times that we have been able to begin to see God’s creation on the micro scale as much as on the macro, and here too we feel wonder.

I recently read Moonwalking with Einstein, a fascinating bestselling book that recounts author Joshua Foer’s yearlong quest to improve his memory. He came into contact with competitive memorization and what was at first simply another story for another magazine article became an obsession. Soon he was competing in the World Memory Championships, memorizing the order of a deck of cards in less than two minutes, performing feats of memory almost too amazing to believe. This quest to improve his memory took him deep into studies of the human brain.

The brain must be God’s creative masterpiece. The brain has been the subject of intense study for many years now. Modern technologies are able to peer deeper into the brain than ever before; imaging technologies allow us to see the brain in action; experiments are able to temporarily disable parts of the brain; yet all of this study has provided only the smallest glimpse of how the brain actually works. For everything we know with certainty, there are many more things about which we can do little more than speculate. 

Consider memory, as just one example. We know that memories are stored in the brain, but we don’t really know how the brain stores them, how it recalls them, how it forgets them.

All of our memories are … bound together in a web of associations. This is not merely a metaphor, but a reflection of the brain’s physical structure. The three-pound mass balanced atop our spines is made up of somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 billion neurons, each of which can make upwards of five to ten thousand synaptic connections with other neurons. A memory, at the most fundamental physiological level, is a pattern of connections between those neurons. Every sensation that we remember, every thought that we think, transforms our brains by altering the connections within that vast network. By the time you get to the end of this sentence, your brain will have physically changed.

Wonder. Worship. That is what the brain calls us to do.

For all the amazing technologies mankind has been able to fabricate, none of them come even close to duplicating the brain’s power. We like to speak of computers as if they are a form of synthetic brain, but a computer is to the brain what a picket fence is to the Great Wall of China—just the barest, dimmest, most unworthy reflection.

February 13, 2013

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. It’s the day when every seat in every fancy restaurant will be full and when couples who don’t care for restaurants will be preparing nice meals for one another. Flowers will be delivered to offices, gifts will show up in mailboxes, cards will be exchanged. 

I am something of a skeptic when it comes to Hallmark holidays, but I do enjoy Valentine’s Day. I have been married to Aileen for fourteen years now and don’t ever resent an excuse to focus on the love we share. When it comes to Valentine’s Day there is really just one thing I want—to spend time with my wife. It’s not the gifts or the fancy meals, but the company that I long for.

I love Aileen and for that reason I love to spend time with her. What’s amazing is that the more time I spend with her, the more I love her. And the more I love her, the more time I want to spend with her. And the more time I spend with her, the more my love grows. And the more my love grows, well, you get the idea. Our delight in one another grows and compounds with the time we invest in each other. That’s the way the Lord has structured relationships. To love is to spend time and to spend time is to love.

As in any marriage, there are times when I find that my love has lost some of its fervor. There are times when the flame does not burn as brightly as it has in times past. When this happens the solution is so simple: I just need to spend time with her. As we spend time together, that love regains its heat. When I stop spending time with her, love grows cold, and when love grows cold I stop spending time with her. The way our relationship weakens is exactly opposite to the way it strengthens.

God has structured our relationship to him in much the same way. I’ve always loved Psalm 1, the perfect preface to the perfect collection of songs. Here David writes about the blessed man, the happy man, and describes him as the man who delights in God’s law and who meditates on it day and night. There are these two expressions of love: delight and meditation, joy and time.

February 07, 2013

The Lord has blessed me with a dear friend named John, a man with many qualities I love and admire. He also has a quirk that I find endlessly enjoyable—his use of the word “yous.” John is from small-town Ontario and where he comes from “yous” is an acceptable form of the second person plural, a shortened form of “you guys,” I suppose. English may well be the only language that has a personal pronoun that is identical for the singular and the plural and in some contexts the solution is to tack an “s” onto the end of the plural. It may be inelegant, but at the very least it’s practical. Yous may want to give it a try at some point.

A little while ago I found myself reflecting on the corporate nature of sanctification and understanding that I need to grow in holiness not just for my own sake but out of love and concern for those around me. “If I love the people in my church, I will grow in holiness for their sake. I am prone to thinking that holiness is an individual pursuit, but when I see sanctification as a community project, now it is more of a team pursuit. I am growing in holiness so that I can help others grow in holiness, I am putting sin to death so I can help others put sin to death. My church needs me and I need my church, and this is exactly how God has designed it.”

This is certainly true of me. I tend to look at the Christian life as an individual pursuit, where sin and sanctification are primarily interactions between the Lord and me, where I grow in holiness for the sake of my relationship with him and where my sin distances the relationship between him and me. There is truth to this, of course, but recently I’ve found myself pondering the nature of Christian community and considering the ways in which personal sin impacts the local church. When David sinned he cried out to the Lord, “Against you, you only have I sinned.” He lifted his eyes beyond himself and acknowledged that the greatest offense had been against the Lord. That is the right and good response. But I think we would do well to also acknowledge, “Against yous, yous only have I sinned.” Here we acknowledge that the Lord has placed us in communities so closely tied together that the sin of one effects all.

February 06, 2013

Is there any area of the Christian life in which we feel more inadequate than in prayer? Is there any area of the Christian life that exposes greater feelings of helplessness and shame? I know some true prayer warriors, people who dedicate themselves to hours and hours of prayer, yet even they confess to knowing so little about it and having so little confidence in what they do and what they pray.

It should come as no surprise that the Christian market is flooded with books on prayer, books that try to teach the how’s and the why’s of prayer. There are hundreds of good options and thousands of terrible ones. I’ve read many of them and often recommend some of my favorites.

I love reading books on prayer, but sometimes I wonder if I like reading books on prayer more than I like praying. Reading comes naturally to me, prayer does not. Reading is easy to understand, prayer is not. Finishing a good book and looking back on all the parts I have highlighted gives a sense of accomplishment that prayer does not. Reading books on prayer too easily becomes a substitute for praying.

I do not mean to knock the books themselves. They are a blessing and have often proven helpful to me. But ultimately I have learned far more by putting the books aside and just praying—praying on my own and praying with others. For all the good things the books have taught me, I have learned more when praying quietly by myself, praying out loud by myself, praying with Aileen, praying with my fellow elders, praying at church-wide prayer meetings, just plain praying.

If I want to learn to pray for my family, and if I want to pray for them well and effectively, I need to get on my knees and pray for them and I need to persevere in those prayers.

If I want to learn to pray for the people in my church, I need to pray with them and pray for them.

If I want to learn how to confess sin in prayer, I need to pray and confess sin, trusting that the more I do it, the more natural it will become.

If I want to learn to better express gratitude in prayer, I need to pray and thank the Lord for his good gifts, and then do it again. And again.

If I want to more naturally pray with my Bible open, praying Scripture, I need to start praying Scripture and trust that in time it will become easier.

If I want to know how to pray, I just need to pray.

No book, no classroom, no course, no instructor can teach me so much about prayer that I can avoid the the hard work of learning on my knees. Ultimately prayer itself is the classroom.

February 04, 2013

It must have been six months or a year ago that I watched my iPhone—my brand new iPhone—sliding, then flipping, down a flight of stairs. I had just pulled it from my pocket and somehow lost my grip on it. It clattered down one step, then the next, then the next, all the way to bottom.

Idolatry has been much on my mind lately, idolatry ancient and modern. In the Old Testament there must be a hundred stories of the Israelites raising idols and then cutting them down again. The story repeats itself all through their history. Time and again they abandon God in favor of idols of wood and stone, violating the terms of the covenant they have made with him. The Lord is patient and through priests and judges and prophets calls his people to repent, to return. Eventually they do, and as a sign of their repentance they cut down those idols.

Have you ever considered what it would have been like to actually cut down an idol? To take an axe to a wooden god must have been a very tangible expression of repentance. Beverly Chao Berrus writes about this very thing:

There’s a memory seared into my mind from when I was twelve years old. I was watching from the backdoor of our home as my father brought out an axe.

Laying prostrate on the ground was a 3-foot-tall intricately designed statue of Buddha carved from wood. The axe went flying through the air from over my father’s shoulder landing with a loud thwack! The first stroke severed the statue’s head. Another thwack! Then another. Pieces of red wood went flying all over the yard. Finally, all that was left were indiscernible remnants of what was once our family idol. This scene also gave me a lasting impression that life for my dad and our family would never be the same.

We are idolaters still, though few of us bow down before wood and stone. Most of our idols are not so easily destroyed; we cannot take an axe to an idol of reputation or significance or sex. But these are idols, too, that draw the attention of our hearts and minds and demand our allegiance.

My iPhone threatens to be an iDol in my life. It represents so many of the things I value. It represents significance (every email, every retweet, every text message somehow tells me that I am valuable); it represents productivity (I can use it to get more done in less time, at least in theory); it represents reputation (I’m an Apple guy, not one of those Android or Blackberry guys). Watching it fall down the stairs gave me a glimpse of the folly of idolatry. After all, if my idol can be destroyed by falling down a flight of stairs, I probably ought to aim a little bit higher.

January 31, 2013

It is the theme of so many movies, so many novels, so many classroom presentations and political discourses: Freedom comes in pursuing your deepest desires, whatever those desires may be. Be true to yourself, be unashamed in who you are, and you will find joy and fulfillment.

Not too long ago I read the bestselling book Anticancer, written by David Servan-Schreiber. In this book he talks about the importance of a healthy immune system for battling against disease and lists several factors that may cause an immune system to decrease rather than strengthen. One of those factors, he insists, is denying or ignoring one’s natural homosexuality. If you are homosexual, the best thing for your body and soul is to pursue your homosexuality. True freedom, he implies, freedom of both body and spirit, will be found in pursuing homosexuality; captivity will come by ignoring what he believes to be natural and good.

And yet the Bible tells us a very different story. True freedom, the Bible insists, comes when we obey God. We do not find freedom outside of the revealed will of God but within it. It is within the boundaries he gives us that we find freedom and joy and fulfillment. What looks like captivity is freedom, and what looks like freedom is captivity. We are terrible assessors of what brings the truest joy. It is a daily battle to take God at his word.

Think of a child who is told by his parents not to touch the glass in front of the fireplace. He finds freedom in obeying the boundaries his parents set for him and he ignores those boundaries at his own peril. His parents are not being arbitrary or cruel. Rather, they are using their superior knowledge and their love for him to tell him what is in his own best interests. Their love for him compels them to create rules, to create boundaries.

Similarly, God gives us boundaries and he does so out of love and mercy. He tells us that we will find joy and freedom not outside of such boundaries but within them. Within the limits he gives us, we are able to find much greater joy and pleasure and fulfillment. Adam and Eve, living within the simple boundary God gave them (do not eat the fruit of that one tree) were able to live a sinless existence fully in the presence of God. But they were also able to choose not to obey and as soon as they did that, they found that their disobedience made them slaves. No longer free to serve God in every moment of every day, they became slaves to their sinful natures. The promise of freedom brought them only the pain of captivity.

January 28, 2013

It may be the most common feature of the bestselling Christian books. “We all want to be great for God and do things that would be impossible without his presence and help. So live a life that’s Greater.” “You are living a life of comfort, ease and complacency, so step out and do something Radical.” “Your life is just passing you by as you sit on the sidelines, so God is calling you to be a follower, Not a Fan.” “You want more Jesus and are bored with what Christianity offers you. You need to rediscover God’s Crazy Love.” It goes on nearly ad infinitum. Some are awful, some are brilliant, but the theme is largely the same: There must be more to life than this! Please tell me there is more to life than this!

Christians live with this deep-rooted dissatisfaction. Authors have written of it, poets have reflected on it, songwriters have sung of it. We read what the Bible calls us to, we feel what our hearts demand of us, then we look at our lives and are disappointed, discontent. There has to be more than this. The Lord must expect more than this.

Vapor. There’s the answer, I’m convinced. Vapor. This was the refuge, the unavoidable reality of The Preacher—of Solomon in the character of The Preacher—in his book of Ecclesiastes. He begins his book and he ends it with the same cry of discontent: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” All of the pursuits of this life are vanity, all of them are vapor, all of them are chasing after the wind, an impossible pursuit that never ends and never brings deep and lasting satisfaction.

Has anyone in all of literary history written words that are more poignant, more unflinchingly realistic, than these?

All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.

Has anyone ever written words than ring truer?

We are dissatisfied because we must be dissatisfied. God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecc. 3:11) but we locked ourselves in a temporal world. God created us to find our highest joy and delight in him, but we chose to seek delight in the things he made. We worship the creation rather than the Creator. Even those of us who have been drawn back to the Creator still turn to this side and that, to this idol and that.

We can cry out that we were made for more, that we were meant for more, from now until eternity. We will cry out from now until eternity. We will simply be expressing what Solomon told us so much more pointedly so many years ago. “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” This world cannot deliver all we want from it. This life cannot deliver all the satisfaction we long for. Switchfoot said it well: “Maybe we’ve been living with our eyes half open / Maybe we’re bent and broken / We want more than this world’s got to offer / We were meant to live for so much more.” The most contented Christian will still long for so much more.

January 24, 2013

It is a question every pastor faces on a regular basis. It is a question every conference speaker faces in panel discussions or Q&A sessions: How much of my money do I give to the church? How much should I give to the church?

My answer is short: Enough that it matters. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

In Corinthians 16:2 Paul instructs the church to take a weekly collection in which each person is to give “as he may prosper.” This tells us that there will be different levels of giving. Some will give more and some will give less. God has prospered us differently—he has given us all different levels of income and wealth and with it different amounts to give back to him.

(Aside: For various reasons I do not believe that we are instructed or obligated to give the tithe, the flat 10% that was a minimal expectation in the Old Testament. Those who demand tithing today usually fail to understand the Old Testament context where the tithe was a tax as much as a donation; it was a means of providing for the civil and religious structures in that society. Since we are no longer a theocracy, the tithe is no longer operational. It may be a helpful bit of information to include in a discussion but it’s not the place to begin.)

When I say we are to give enough that it matters, I mean that we should give enough that it makes a difference to our lives, to our lifestyles. Erwin Lutzer says it well: “Those who give much without sacrifice are reckoned as having given little.” We are meant to give enough that there are things we cannot do and cannot have because of our dedication to the Lord’s work. Let me be clear that I do not mean that we should do without food or we should do without paying our bills. The sacrifice is to be ours and not the bank’s or the landlord’s. Giving “as he may prosper” is not calling us to give beyond the ways the Lord has prospered us. There are theological traditions that insist that going into debt in order to “plant a seed” will ensure God’s provision in return. God may choose to do that, but wisdom dictates that we ensure that we are able to pay our bills and feed our children. We are to be generous, but we are to be wise as well.

For some people, giving away 10% may mean they are giving enough that it matters. Maybe they cannot have quite the vacation they would otherwise have; maybe they are buying a used car instead of a new one; maybe they are saving for an extra couple of years before fixing up the kitchen or putting the down payment on that home. For other people this may come when they are giving 2% of their income. For others it may come when they are giving 75%. My encouragement is to keep raising the amount you give until you feel it, until it matters.

Giving that does not impact our lives at all is not sacrificial and, therefore, not enough. C.S. Lewis expresses this in a helpful way: “If our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”

How much am I to give? Enough that it matters. Enough that I am sacrificing some comforts and some experiences I would otherwise enjoy. What the Lord teaches those who give this way is that the joy of giving, both now and eternally, for outweighs what we could have had instead. We don’t give because God needs our money; we give to show our gratitude and our dependence, and in return he returns joy. So many Christians can attest that there is a powerful, humbling kind of delight in tallying up the giving for a previous year and thanking the Lord for allowing so much to be given away. That car or kitchen or house pales in comparison to the joy of making so small a sacrifice to the One who sacrificed all for us.

January 16, 2013

Few words in the Bible have sparked as many battles as helper. Whole books and doctoral theses have been written on the word, its meaning, and its implications. It’s too bad, this, because helper is a word meant to generate praise and humility.

You know the words of Genesis 2:18. God has completed his work of Creation and has declared that it is all excellent, it is all exactly as it ought to be. Yet still he declares “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Something interesting happens here. God declares that it is not good for the man to be alone and that he needs a helper and yet doesn’t just go ahead and create this helper. Not yet. As far as we know, he doesn’t say anything to Adam about a helper. Instead, he tasks Adam with naming all of the animals. As Adam does this, as every living creature parades before him, he sees that none of them are like him—none have been created in the image of God. Adam isn’t lonely. How could he be lonely in a perfect world? But he realizes that in order to carry out his God-given mandate he will need help. Only now does God cause man to fall asleep and create for him a woman. When Adam opens his eyes and sees what God has created for him that he bursts into praise. He looks upon this woman and immediately sees that she is like him.

This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.

It is only after he comes to understand his incompleteness that Adam is able to offer God the deepest and most heartfelt praise for such lavish provision. Having experienced need even in perfection, he knows the value of this gift.

The text emphasizes that even in a perfect world something was not good. It shows us that God’s intention for Adam included marriage, companionship and, of course, the sexual relationship and procreation. God does not exist in isolation but in a tri-unity, and man, too, is to live in relationship. To address this need God created a helper for him—a helper corresponding to him and complementing him. This helper is suitable for Adam, meaning that she too is made in God’s image, she is equal to him in dignity and worth, and she is exactly the kind of helper he needs.

There are two dimensions to the word helper that we need to see and understand—the explicit and the implied.

January 15, 2013

Last week I was captivated by a sunrise. I am one of those people who is “early to bed, early to rise” and have watched many sunrises. I love the dawning of a new day because every day is so full of promise and possibility. Every sunrise lays a new day before us and asks, “What will you do with this day? What will this day be?”

The sunrise that so gripped me is described in the book of Ecclesiastes where the author, a man who identifies himself only as The Preacher, writes “Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun.” This man is a poet and he looks at that sunrise and sees it as a picture of youth. The brightness of the sun as it cuts through the darkness and ushers in a new day is like the radiance of youth with all its excitement and energy and possibilities. Youth lays a whole lifetime before us and asks, “What will you do with this life? Who will you be?”

The Preacher’s great concern is that youth does not go to waste. He wants us and commands us to enjoy the days of youth—not just the days of childhood, but all of the days before old age comes. “So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all … Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth” (Ecclesiastes 11:7-9). He speaks to each of us and tells us to take advantage of this time to do what makes us happy, what brings us joy, what we are passionate about. These are the days when we are young and strong, energetic and optimistic. These are the days when the possibilities are limitless, when the whole world lies open before us. He wants us to do what we love and to love what we do, and he wants us to do it now, in the days of youth. He knows that a day will come when joy will be far more difficult to find. If we are going to be joyful in old age, we will need to be joyful now and carry joy with us into those days.

This Preacher has been speaking on behalf of God and teaches us that the Lord wants us to enjoy life and to acknowledge all the good things life brings. Isn’t that amazing? God wants us to enjoy life! God wants us to linger over a good cup of coffee and walk hand-in-hand with the person we love and savor that delicious meal and enjoy making love and appreciate the beauty in a rainbow. These are his gifts and he wants us to enjoy them. Life is a gift and he wants us to enjoy it.

The Preacher is so concerned with our joy that he gives us three joy-enhancers—three things that will help us get every bit of joy we can from these years. These are things each of us would do well to keep in mind.

#1. Acknowledge Youth Will End

The Preacher says, “If a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many.” He wants us to savor life as we live it. If we are granted many years, we are free before the Lord to live them all without sadness and without regret. But even as we take joy in life, even as we live with youthful exuberance, our Preacher calls us to have an awareness that the light of day will eventually give way to the dark of night. The sun that rises will need to set again and darkness will come. The joy of youth will be followed by all the difficulties of old age and the difficulties of old age will be followed by death. It is right and good to really live, to live all the way, but we live best when we keep one eye on eternity, when we keep in mind that these good days will come to an end.

Acknowledging the end helps us. It reinforces that we only get one chance, one opportunity. This life cannot be lived well in retrospect. It can only be lived well in the moment. None of us will get a second chance to do life well; none of us will get a second chance to live today well. So don’t waste your day, don’t waste your youth, and don’t waste your life!

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