Monday, March 23, 2015

The Crook in the Lot

This tree sits next to our house as a constant reminder of human frailty and God's sovereignty.

It's right beside our driveway. I see it every day as I pull in from work. In the summer it's heavy with leaves that hide its deformity, but when the leaves fall off you see just how crooked it is. I often wonder: Was this tree planted hurriedly and incorrectly, without adequate thought of the angle it would take as it grew? Did it miss out on some critical ingredient in its infancy? Did a child thoughtlessly kick the tree, hammer a nail into it, or push it over and then try to prop it up--is that why it got off to a bad start?

But then look at the photo: In time the tree sensed its nonconformity, tried to correct itself, but overcompensated. Now it goes too far in the other direction. It's easily the ugliest tree in the cul-de-sac. The fact that other, more beautiful trees and shrubs grow around this tree only underscores its woundedness.

Still, this tree bears fruit. It's growing at a steady rate, stretching its branches more and more with each passing year. This summer it will again be full with large, bright green leaves. In the fall they will avalanche down all around our yard and that of my neighbor. Then the naked tree will once again be revealed for the crooked piece of work that it really is.

The tree is a living parable, of course.

Many years ago, the Scottish pastor Thomas Boston wrote a book called The Crook in the Lot: Or, the Sovereignty and Wisdom of God Displayed in the Afflictions of Men. Boston based his book on Ecclesiastes 7:13, which says, "Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?" In other words, said Boston, everything that happens, happens at God's command and by God's design. God foreordains whatsoever comes to pass, including our weaknesses, trials, and struggles. We are thus able to say with the psalmist, "The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places" (Psalm 16:6). We don't have to struggle against who we are, where we've been planted, the work we've been given to do, and the weaknesses that make our way difficult.

If my tree could talk, it might say, "God, why did you make me like this? I don't like being different. I'm the talk of the neighborhood and I don't like it. This is not the life I would have chosen."

But if my tree were a Bible-believing tree, it would hasten to add, "But it's the life you've chosen for me. Therefore I will rest in your sovereign wisdom, believing that you work all things according to the counsel of your will, for our good and your glory."

The reason for my tree's crookedness is a mystery. But it is what it is. It's been given a crook in the lot. Faith means accepting God's will, acknowledging his goodness, living for others, and looking forward to that day when the crooked will be made straight.  

Friday, February 06, 2015

Facebook, pride, and envy

There's a growing body of evidence that Facebook contributes to low self-esteem and depression. Reuters reported last year, "Witnessing friends' vacations, love lives and work successes on Facebook can cause envy and trigger feelings of misery and loneliness." The Huffington Post recently reported on a survey of over 700 college students that found that "while heavy Facebook use was not linked directly to depression, frequent users who experienced feelings of envy were more likely to identify with statements corresponding to depression." Finally, studies by Drs. Christina Sagioglou and Tobias Greitemeyer of the University of Innsbruck led them to conclude, "The longer you're on Facebook, the worse you feel."

This doesn't surprise me. I'm a heavy user of Facebook. I post often, have a lot of FB friends, and read their posts throughout the day. Okay, I'm addicted. And I'm thinking about giving up Facebook for Lent or something because I believe it does throw fuel on the fires of my flesh. 

That's not Facebook's fault, it's mine. I own it. But I do wonder: Is there something about Facebook that makes it an almost irresistible magnet for pride and narcissism?

Think about it. Do I ever post about my sadness, feelings of inferiority, or anger? Do I spread the news about my boring day? Do I tag photos of me staring off into space thinking, "Been there, done that"? Does anyone? No! Well, that's not true. Some people are up front about their struggles, and I take my hat off to them. But the usual Facebook post is the wonderful vacation, the smiling family photo, the highlight or victory or promotion or answer to prayer. So when many people read such happy posts, what are they to think but "What a loser I am! I don't have wonderful vacations. I don't have a happy family. Why, I'm not even married. I can't even have children. God hasn't answered my prayers in years. I must be good for nothing."

So yes, Facebook probably contributes to depression. It paints a distorted vision of reality. It creates hopes and expectations that cannot come true. It gives pride an outlet for acceptable expression. It stirs up envy and covetousness.

At the same time, Facebook is a technological marvel with benefits. As a parent of grown children who have spread out across the fruited plain, I love keeping up with their activities through Facebook. I can maintain ties with old friends without having to attend class reunions. So I don't want to give up Facebook. 

What is to be done? Maybe the answer partly lies in everyone being more honest. We can post about our discouragements as well as our advances, our failures as well as our successes. We can ask for prayer. We can do what the Apostle Paul did: "boast all the more gladly of [our] weaknesses" (2 Corinthians 12:9). At the very least, we can decide that some things--however worth celebrating they may be--do not need to be posted. There is something to be said for keeping some things to ourselves.

And as a Facebook addict, that's something I need to remember.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

How to ruin a good concert

My guitar hero, Phil Keaggy, came to town last weekend. And it was a good concert...until a preacher started talking. And wouldn't stop.

It made me mad too.

You see, Phil and his friend Randy Stonehill were on fire. They played songs both new and old, including some of the hits from their Jesus Movement days--"What a Day," "Love Broke Through," etc. And of course Phil Keaggy is just a masterful entertainer, especially when he starts layering loop after loop on top of amazing sounds no other human being can create.

And then it came time for a break. That's when this preacher got up on stage and started expounding. It was really kind of creepy. There was nowhere we could go; we were trapped. He read a few verses from John 10: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." Now that's Bible, and Bible is good. So why did I get upset?

Three reasons. 

Number One, it turned into a 30-minute sermon with a prayer for "salvation" at the end. And here we were, a room full of Christ followers.

Number Two, the reason I put "salvation" in quotes in the paragraph above is that the sermon was more about how, if you do the right things and try hard enough, you'll have a life of success and fulfillment. There was little Jesus in the guy's message and a lot of do's and don'ts. Why did the man even feel this message was needed, much less faithful to the text?

And Number Three, the fact that the preacher felt compelled to insert a long Bible lesson into the concert revealed a greater problem: the denigration of the arts. This preacher failed to grasp how music, especially music played for the glory of God as it was on this night, is a spiritual feast to the soul, a gift of God to the world, and an aspect of general revelation to thirsty hearts. As I listened to this preacher, I sent out this tweet: "Please Mr. Preacher, stop spoiling a good concert with your 30-minute sermon. Let the music be. Glad I didn't bring a non-Christian."

Yes, let the music be.

I was embarrassed. Embarrassed for Phil Keaggy and Randy Stonehill, who must have felt betrayed, waiting in the wings for the second half of the show. And embarrassed for this preacher, whose theology was just awful. It's because of this "abundant life" kind of preaching that millions of non-Christians dismiss the gospel message as so much anti-intellectual pablum. And if there were any unbelievers in the audience, I was embarrassed for them. I felt like standing up and saying, "I'm sorry. This is not Christianity."

But I suffered through it, and at last Phil and Randy came up and did their second set. But it wasn't as good. It seemed like Phil and Randy felt like apologizing too.

When will the Church celebrate the arts and not feel they have to be "baptized" with a few verses of Scripture to be valid? In the Old Testament, Bezalel was "filled...with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze" (Exodus 35:30-32). God gives the Spirit to artists, who empowers them to bless the Church with songs, paintings, photographs, dance, literature, sculpture, architecture, and other creative endeavors.

Let the music be! 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Check out my new blog

I started a new blog. I'll keep The Greener Grass going for personal and family-related posts, but my new blog's theme is "tips and tools for joyfully persevering as a church leader." My goal is to provide help and hope primarily for pastors. The new blog is called "Surviving Ministry." If you're in ministry, I hope you find it helpful.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Reflections on turning 60

I turned 60 a few days ago. 

Wow--I've entered my seventh decade! Pablo Picasso once said, "One starts to get young at the age of sixty and then it is too late." I don't know what to think. I don't feel old. But when I look in the mirror, for a split second I wonder who's staring at me. I look more and more like my dad every day. I remember when my parents were in their 60s. I thought they were ancient.

So here are some random thoughts that have been bouncing around inside my head the past few days.

  • The saying is true: how time flies. When I was a kid, I thought I'd never grow up. The next Christmas seemed an eternity away. Now, weeks just zoom past. One holiday ends and another is upon us. As a pastor, I measure time by Sundays. The days in between are often a blur. Job was right: "My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle" (Job 7:6).
  • I'm more grateful than ever for friends. I'm glad I have some. Many people do not.
  • I'm also more grateful than ever for health. I'm still running, playing racquetball, wrestling with my grandkids, and working in the yard with strength and agility. I know this will decline in the decade ahead, but for now I feel really good.
  • My best days are ahead of me. Not in terms of productivity, necessarily--my output is already not what it used to be. But in terms of the freedom I have to live with more selectivity and intentionality. Last year I purposely "downshifted" from being a senior pastor to being an associate pastor. I'm focused on helping people grow more spiritually mature and emotionally healthy. I am writing a book on pastoral ministry. I can travel on weekends to see my kids and grandkids. My wife and I can go out together more often than ever. We have plans to visit California and Chicago later this year. I am mentoring younger people, doing premarital and marriage counseling, leading a small group, and other ministry activities I love best. I'm so glad I read Bob Buford's book, Halftime, several years ago. It inspired me to view this final third of life with optimism and purpose.
  • I'm also thinking more than ever about death. It may sound morbid, but I feel death's reality much more than I used to. I feel its enmity, its curse. The cliche, "Death is just a doorway to eternal life," just doesn't satisfy me anymore. I don't want to die. Or put it this way: I don't want to be terminally sick, to be hospitalized and be a physical and financial drain on my wife. When I was young, I didn't think much about death. Even when I conducted funerals, I didn't think "That could be me in that box." Now I do. People I know are getting cancer and dying of heart attacks. I'm asking myself hard questions like, "Have I lived well? Am I ready to see Jesus? What's that going to be like? Will I die well like Hopeful in Pilgrim's Progress, or with much fear and trembling like Christian?" I know all the pat answers. I know they are true. I'm just telling you what death feels like, the closer it gets.
  • Finally, I'm REALLY glad for the gospel. Because when I look back on my life, I see an enormous number of failures. Sins of omission. Sins of commission. Blunders in marriage and parenting. Risks I didn't take. Hardships I didn't face. Disappointments I caused other people. Thank God Psalm 130:3-4 is true: "If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared."        
How good it is that whatever stage we're in--whether six, sixteen, or sixty--we can have the perfect righteousness of Jesus credited to us, and our ugly sin transferred to him, so that we can face our future and our Maker unafraid!

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while life shall last,
And our eternal home.
(Isaac Watts, 1719)

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Things Christians say

Some time back I posted a plea for plain speaking. I also once complained about Christian cliches in a post called The problem I have with Twitter. I continue to believe that one of the strangest things about us Christians is our specialized vocabulary. Surely it accounts for at least some of the disconnect between us and our non-believing neighbors.

So every week or two I've been tweeting a banned Christian phrase. Someone asked me to collect all my banned phrases in one place. So here's the list so far:

  • "hedge of protection"
  • "rethinking church"
  • "praise report"
  • "the center of God's will"
  • "love on"
  • "love well"
  • "Jesus is the reason for the season"
  • "God will never give you more than you can handle"
  • "God showed up"
  • "a God thing" 
Can you think of others?

To qualify as a banned Christian phrase, think of something Christians say a lot that either makes no sense to people outside the church, or is said merely because it's the cool, hip, trendy thing to say, or has appeared on sentimental framed prints in the local Christian bookstore for years...or is simply untrue.

If we want to impact our culture, let's use truthful and sensible words.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The one-legged duck

We have a one-legged duck in the pond behind our house.

I can't tell if his leg was bitten off, lost in a fight, or if he was born with only one leg. Either way, it's sad because when he comes up on land he labors to get anywhere. He's straining with life. He hops and falls over, hops and falls over. When you see him in the water, he looks just fine. But when he's on shore, you ache for him.

I've been feeding the ducks so they have grown in number. But today the one-legged duck was all by himself. So I brought out some bread and took these photos. Finally the one-legged duck didn't have to compete with all the two-legged ducks to get some food. When they are around, it's really pitiful. He's slow. They grab the bread before he can get there.

I can relate to the one-legged duck. I am broken just like him. I hop and fall over, hop and fall over. I say the wrong thing, think the wrong thing, and do the wrong thing, many times a day. "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (Romans 7:19).

The whole world is like this. Things are not as they are supposed to be. Everybody's missing a leg. You see this on the news, when you read about a death, or a rape, or a terrorist act, or a drug bust. On the outside most people seem to have it all together. But when you look more closely into their eyes, you ache for them.

You know this yourself. You think about this when you're all alone, late at night, when the house is quiet. You're not what you always thought you would be or should be. Either you're not happy, or married, or successful, or hip, or good looking. Something's always missing. You're just like the one-legged duck.

The good news is, one day everyone who trusts in Jesus will get their legs. 

Jesus died and rose again not just to save our souls and take us to heaven, but to make things right. All things. To rid the earth of injustice, and loneliness, and fear, and hate, and poverty, and death. One day we won't read about kids beating up another kid. One day we won't see a young starlet gyrating on stage and cheapening the gift of sex. One day we won't pack up a friend's truck and say goodbye. One day we won't need to bomb Syria. One day weeping wives won't talk about how lonely they are in their marriage. One day men won't get told they're worthless.

"For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord" (Isaiah 65:17, 25).