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Christian Living

February 26, 2013

I have been reflecting a lot on Ecclesiastes’ concept of vanity or meaninglessness. As every one of us can testify, this life can grow tiresome and we often wonder if anything we do really has any real significance. I came across a good little illustration in Gordon Cheng’s Encouragement: How Words Change Lives as he describes an occasion where work, futile though it may have seemed, really did make a difference.

First, let me share a little glimpse of my own life. When I was a child my father would occasionally take me to work with him. Dad did not work in an office so this was not a typical “take your child to work” situation. Dad was a landscaper and a day with dad was a day in the hot sun. It was a day of hard work, hauling, digging, planting, watering, tending. As a child I would grow discouraged at how little I could do in comparison to dad. By the time I had hauled a couple of flats of plants from the truck to the garden, he would have hauled a hundred. By the time I had dug a hole big enough to fit a rose, he would have finished a dozen. Even when I did get something done quickly, he would almost inevitably tell me that I had done it poorly and would tell me to go back and do it properly. After a while I would wonder if there was any reason at all to even help him. What could I really accomplish in comparison?

And yet at the end of the day dad would thank me for my help and would stop and buy me an ice cream or another treat. And he would give me a few dollars as payment for what I had done. Despite false starts, despite carelessness, despite weakness, I really was able to help dad out. Together we got the job done, even if my half of the work was, well, a lot less than half.

A few days ago I was reflecting on how good God is to allow us to work with him and to sometimes do his work on his behalf. When we share the gospel with unbelievers or when we preach the gospel to our brothers and sisters in Christ, it is easy to see our own inadequacy, our own shortcomings. It is easy to grow discouraged, knowing how little we can accomplish. Why bother with our fractional percent when God is the one who must provide all of the power?

And now to Gordon Cheng.

February 25, 2013

Have you ever seen a bloodhound at work, tracking down a fugitive? Bloodhounds are absolutely remarkable creatures that are able to distinguish smells a thousand times more effectively than human beings. An article at PBS tells how they get on a trail and how they stay on it:

When a bloodhound sniffs a scent article (a piece of clothing or item touched only by the subject), air rushes through its nasal cavity and chemical vapors — or odors — lodge in the mucus and bombard the dog’s scent receptors. Chemical signals are then sent to the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain that analyzes smells, and an “odor image” is created. For the dog, this image is far more detailed than a photograph is for a human. Using the odor image as a reference, the bloodhound is able to locate a subject’s trail, which is made up of a chemical cocktail of scents including breath, sweat vapor, and skin rafts. Once the bloodhound identifies the trail, it will not divert its attention despite being assailed by a multitude of other odors. Only when the dog finds the source of the scent or reaches the end of the trail will it relent. So potent is the drive to track, bloodhounds have been known to stick to a trail for more than 130 miles.

When a fugitive is on the run, he leaves behind a trail. This trail of breath and sweat and dropped skin cells is invisible to the human eye and undetectable to the human nose, but it contains all the information a bloodhound needs to stay on the trail, to distinguish that one scent from thousands of others.

One of the remarkable facts about life in this digital world is that we leave trails behind us wherever we go and whatever we do. I am writing today from Huntsville, Alabama; Rogers, my cell phone company, knows I am here. They know the route I took to get here—from my home to Toronto’s airport, a layover in Chicago, then my route from Huntsville’s airport to this home. It has all been recorded as my phone has checked in with a variety of cell phone towers. In the same way Google has a record of searches I’ve made today, and yesterday and the day before. 

Facebook keeps track of the name of every person you’ve searched for, every status update, every comment on another person’s status, every photo you’ve liked, every friend you’ve made. Taking a look at this list makes for a helpful social media heart-check.

I’d encourage you to take just a few moments to do this heart-check. Here’s how to begin. Go to Facebook and then click on your name to see your profile:

Facebook 1

Then click on “Activity Log.”

Facebook 2

Then make sure this box is selected (click it so a checkmark appears):

Facebook 3

Now you will see something like this:

Facebook 4

Here is a list of just about everything you’ve done on Facebook. It will go on and on and on, showing all of your activity. Let me suggest a few questions you may want to ask yourself as you look at it.

Would you be comfortable having your husband or wife sitting beside you and seeing this activity log? How about your pastor or a good friend?

February 20, 2013

I’m not a grumbler, a complainer, and it’s a good thing, too, because complaining is one of those sins that I find especially offensive. Jerry Bridges counts it as one of Evangelicalism’s “respectable sin,” one that falls under our collective radar. He is probably right. But I’m onto it. I can spot it blindfolded at a hundred yards.

You must know what it’s like to be around those people who always find something to grumble about. Good news comes in and they somehow manage to find the negative spin. Bad news comes and they nod knowingly because this is exactly what they expected to happen. When a leader makes a decision, it is the complainers who begin to murmur, who begin to talk to everyone else, to ask the leading questions. You see them huddled together in the church foyer, you see them whispering together in the cafeteria after the meeting. They’ve got an opinion about everyone and everything and feel justified in being heard far and wide. They are complainers. They are grumblers.

My understanding of complaining is that it typically manifests pride. There is a pride that assumes that you know what others do not, that they have ignored information you believe is obvious, that the church, the world, the business, the family would work so much better, go so much more smoothly, if the leaders stepped back and allowed you to take the reigns. You may not say it quite like that, but isn’t that at the heart of most complaining—that your way is the best way? Do it your way and it will succeed, do it another way and it will fail. That’s at the heart of most grumbling. I hate that sin.

Now, to be fair, I guess I occasionally do some of this. I’ve got an opinion on most things and tend to believe that my way will work better than your way if you will just give it a chance. But that’s not pride, that’s selfless realism. After all, I’ve read lots of books and have experienced quite a bit of what life offers. Here’s the difference between me and you: I’m not complaining; I’m just humbly expressing what is true—that you should give me a hearing and then do things the way I suggest. Even though I may have an incomplete grasp of the facts, I definitely have the most important ones at my disposal and know beyond doubt that you’re wrong and I’m right. I’m not a complainer; I’m a servant! I’m not grumbling to others, I’m just sharing my thoughts and asking them to verify that it’s better than what you’ve suggested.

I’m no complainer! It’s just that I am especially gifted at seeing the facts, putting the pieces together, and charting a forward course. It’s a gift. When you do it you’re sinning, we all know that. But when I do it, I’m expressing love. It’s a spiritual gift in action. When you do it it’s proud grumbling; when I do it it’s humble service. That’s the difference between you and me. And that’s why I find your complaining so offensive. Yeah, that must be it.

Matthew 7:3-5

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.

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