Herd Mentality

The other night we played, as a family, a party game called “Herd Mentality”. The object of this game was for each player to write down the most popular answers to questions of opinion that were read from cards (one such question, if my memory serves, was “What is the best meal of the day?”) We played several rounds, and I was victorious in none. My shortcoming was in my inability to think beyond my own correct response and thus not write down the majority’s answer. I have similar trouble playing along with “Family Feud”, which notoriously rewards points for incorrect answers.

What is it about me, or maybe us, that I perceive my opinions as fact? Why do I fight over the merits of Butter Crunch as the best ice cream flavor? Why do I expect others to concur that “Joe Vs. the Volcano” is Tom Hanks’ greatest movie? Why am I compelled to convince others that their preferences are problematic? My opinions and preferences are simply what I use to order the choices I face a dozen times a day.  Without opinions and preferences, I would be debilitated by analysis paralysis every time I scroll through the television guide or stand in the health and beauty aisle at the supermarket.

All of us who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently, that too God will make clear to you.  Philippians 3:15 (NIV84)

Instead of stating the inaccuracies of opinions and preferences that I do not hold, perhaps it would be better if I were to ask, “What leads you to think that way?” If I were to seek the rationale for their firmly held belief, two things would happen: first, I will gain insight into another person’s perspective and gain information from an aficionado; and second, I will be granted an opportunity to share my opinion when they conclude their thoughts by questioning me.  After I have heard their defense of having soup for lunch, when they offhandedly say, “Right?” I will have an opening to engage with them over my contrary opinion.

Most of the conversations we have about opinions and preferences are insignificant. Many times, there are many good responses that relate to things like restaurants and reading materials.  However, there are some opinions and preferences that are substantial (what we believe about God, sin, death, humanity, and goodness, for example). When we share our opinions and preferences about the deeper matters, we would be wise to lead with grace, assuming that there is room for growth for both participants in the conversation. We will be wise to listen and respond similarly to Paul; where we disagree, God will make it clear if we seek His wisdom.

I suppose it is a worthwhile pursuit to hear what is held by popular opinion. In fact, the majority is often correct in everyday decisions. Through right reasoning, opinions and preferences are subject to change. For what it is worth, I still hold that the best meal of the day is breakfast.

Human Kindness

A discussion at our weekly prayer meeting was prompted by my asking a simple question: which of the qualities listed in 2 Peter 1:6-7 is the most challenging to demonstrate?  One of the participants, after some contemplation, stated, “brotherly kindness”. Their reasoning was simple; our human nature often causes us to be more critical of the family, either at home or at church, than we are of the stranger. For centuries, we have lived out the following adage:

Vulgare proverbium est, quod nimia familiaritas parit contemptum (It is a common proverb, that too much familiarity breeds contempt). – St. Augustine in Scala Paradisi

We all can accept the truth contained in these words, that when we know one another well, the strengths and weaknesses of our sister or the views and vices of our brother, we are likely to cultivate disdain for the other person. It sometimes seems that the more time we spend with a friend, the more irritating our times together become.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith … brotherly kindness…. 2 Peter 1:5, 7 (NIV84)

This, however, ought not to be the case with Christians. We are called to make every effort to embody ‘philadelphia’ in ever-increasing measure. This term, φιλαδελφία, is the combination of φίλος (friendship) and ἀδελφός (brother). We are commanded to have friendships with our family members. We are not expected to ignore their personalities or their preferences, but rather have divinely given familial affection for those we spend time with. Living like Jesus demands that we show kindness to those we are closest to. God has given us everything we need for life and godliness, including the ability to exchange our contempt for compassion.

In order to do that, we need to accept the reality that we can get annoyed by our family, whether these bonds be of blood or of spirit. But instead of seeing our siblings’ weaknesses as detriments or their strengths as our shortcomings, we can, with the Spirit’s help and guidance, utilize these facts to wisely work together for the sake of one another. We can appreciate how God has developed us differently and how that diversity makes us better together.  We can share a genuine affection for each other in our shared experiences of serving one another for the sake of all. We can take joy in the stories of the other and take solace in the company of the other. We simply need to love one another as much as we love ourselves.

The world will tell us that familiarity will breed contempt, but I say that the better we know one another, the greater we can love one another. God has brought us together and settled us in families (or churches) so that we can care for one another, smoothing our rough edges and soothing our tender wounds. Choose to love those who are closest to you, understanding that they have chosen to remain close to you as well. The world will know we are followers of Christ when they see our loving kindness toward one another, which is genuinely radical behavior.

Grace and Graceland

Last week, my family immersed ourselves in a cross-cultural experience: we went to Graceland. As part of our vacation in Tennessee, we took a tour of the family home of Elvis Presley. Honestly, I had some presuppositions about the gaudiness, having been told about such attractions as “The Jungle Room”. I thought that my northern sensibilities would be aghast by what I had been told was an expression of quintessential southern charm. By today’s standards of celebrity homes (and having grown up watching “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous”), Graceland was, if anything, understated and small. It was a beautiful house with amenities reflecting the young family that lived there.  I was embarrassed that I had thought it would anything else.

At many points throughout the week, I thought to myself that the southern lifestyle would not be for me. People walk too slow, talk too slow, and have unusual conceptions of the nature of vegetables.  But, for a short period of time, I was able to joyfully adapt to the food (delighting in barbeque, grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, and catfish) and I found myself sounding like Foghorn Leghorn when conversing with museum docents. I appreciated the air filled with country music and stale heat.  I savored the time with my mother and my sister (and her family), transplanted but true southerners. Tennessee was a great place to visit.

My sojourn into the south reminds me of my Christian journey. Each day I engage in a culture of which I am not fully a part.  Many years ago, I became a new creation, and at that time the old me passed away and the new me was made alive. Since that time, I talk differently, think differently, and treasure differently. But much of my life still involves engaging the culture around me. I still need to follow the pace of the lifestyle that surrounds me.  I still need to be familiar with the language and values of my neighbors. I still am called to show love to those who may delight in my demise.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 2 Corinthians 5:17 (NIV84)

As I was walking in Memphis, I occasionally wondered if I reflected some sort of superiority due to my northern presentation. I am curious if I carried myself as better than those I walked among.  As I am walking in my neighborhood, I also wonder the same thing.  Do I reflect some sort of superiority due to my relationship with Christ, even though I did nothing more than agree that Jesus died for my sin?  Do I carry myself as better than my neighbors, despite the reality that I am not?  Can I appreciate where people are without comparing them to where I am?

This week, I am immersed in a cross-cultural experience: I am going with the grace of God into a largely graceless land. I have been changed as a witness that things can change. I am a new creation demonstrating that new life is possible. I still do all that at a quicker pace than most.  Part of my old nature, no doubt.

One Last Time

At the risk of repeating myself, and I am sure that I have reflected upon this thought at least once over the last ten years of weekly blog posts, you never know when the last time is the last time.  You never know when you will pick up and set down your child for the last time.  You never know when you will drive your car for the last time. You never know when you will visit your grandfather for the last time. Because of all the machinations of life – the hectic pace of schedules, the independence of others, the demands of the workplace, the fragility of health – you simply cannot know when the last time is the last time.

I expect this next week to be one of those last times for my family and me. The six of us are vacationing together.  There will be no ‘significant others’ or progeny (people who I look forward to loving deeply whenever they appear) joining us for the trip.  The work and school schedules of myself, my wife, and my four children were all able to be synced and we are anticipating the delights of spending six days together in Tennessee – seeing the sights, spending time with extended family, sitting in the same car – and I am elated about it all.

If there is a possibility that this week will be one of those last times, I have a choice on how I can react to all that will happen.  I can choose to mourn and grieve over this aspect of my life which may be coming to an end; and I may harden my heart so as to lessen the emotional pain involved in the possible loss of a precious experience.  Or I could savor as many moments as I can, refusing to contemplate the concluding season, and appreciate God’s present blessing for me of time together while I have that time to enjoy.

Then maidens will dance and be glad, young men and old as well. I will turn their mourning into gladness; I will give them comfort and joy instead of sorrow. Jeremiah 31:13 (NIV84)

This verse in Jeremiah reminds me that one aspect of God’s love for His children includes His desire that we be filled with joy and not frustrated by mourning. While it is true that all things – experiences, relationships, jobs, ministries, and our very lives – come to an end, God does not expect us to anticipate that end; He desires that we enjoy His blessings while we have them and anticipate His consummation when we do not. As I walk through Graceland, I will enjoy the grace of God that allows me one more memory with the ones I love the most.

Whatever your circumstance, I hope you can enjoy what today offers and not mourn what might be missing tomorrow. I hope that when we come to the realization of that ‘last time’, we will respond with rejoicing and not regret. May we all enjoy the full blessing of today, knowing it will be gone before the dawn.

Missing the Signs

Someone recently removed the yard signs that have taken up space on the church lawn for nearly two years. These two signs (one stating “Black Lives Matter” and the other stating “Stop Asian Hate”) were purchased and erected at the request of the pastoral staff as a reminder of biblical truth.  They were not placed on the church lawn to make political statements or align the congregation with any organization.  They were public acknowledgments that, in a time when people of color are systemically oppressed and devalued, that the marginalized matter and that we opposed hatred of any human being. For some reason, those sentiments were removed when someone stole our signs.

As soon as the thievery was noticed, the signs were repurchased and replaced. I wonder, however, what those who regularly walk by the church thought about their absence. I am acutely aware that our witness in the community includes what we say, what we do not say, what we once said but no longer say, and what we once did not say but now say. I am also aware, in this culture of soundbites and yard signs, that our witness in the community is rarely fully contained in any one conversation. What are we to do with a reputation of being the church that used to declare that black lives matter, or the religious folks that once decried Asian hate?

Fortunately, or unfortunately, we cannot fully express all we believe in a few seconds. Even the children’s song that proclaims that “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white – they are precious in his sight – Jesus loves the little children of the world” could be misinterpreted or misappropriated. Does Jesus also love full-grown women and men? What are Jesus’ feelings about those with brown complexions? What does the term ‘love’ mean in this context? These are important questions that warrant serious discussion. No yard sign will suffice.

It all comes down to this:

[Jesus said,] “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even ‘sinners’ love those who love them.” Luke 6:32 (NIV84)

No one will ever question whether or not we, as a church, love those who are like us. The question is whether or not we also love those who are not like us. Do we love those who are wonderfully different than ‘us’ – those who live differently, look differently, spend differently, speak differently, dress differently, or dream differently? For our church, with its white pastor, no one wonders if we believe that white lives matter.  Of course, they do. But for anyone who may pass by and query whether we believe the lives of people of color matter, of course, we do, for every life matters to God. Is hatred toward our own wrong?  Of course, it is. Is hatred toward any people group wrong? Of course, it is, for all enmity is disobedience against God.

Someone may steal our signs, but no one is able to steal our witness. I can only pray that whoever has our placards wanted to place them in their yard and figured we’d get new ones. Despite their disappearance, the only ones who can silence our expressions of God’s love are ourselves. So, as I place new signs on our lawn, I encourage you to love all those with whom you cross paths.

Good Times

It was not my problem.  I was at the gas station to fuel up the car and inflate one of my tires. I was not in a hurry, but I had things to do. As I waited for the air pump to become available, I noticed a woman not much older than my daughter standing over her flat tire.  The broken pump had deflated, instead of inflating, her tire and she was stuck.  She was stranded at a gas station on the Fourth of July, and I later discovered that she was going to be late for her shift as a nurse at a Boston hospital. As if the interaction was divinely appointed, I had an air pump in my car and she was willing to accept help from a stranger. I learned two things from the occasion: first, that new models of high-end vehicles no longer have ‘lighter’ sockets, and second, doing good is its own reward.

It was not her problem.  My wife cashed a check at the bank, an action that included waiting in an unsettlingly long line.  After walking home with her money, she counted the contents of the bank envelope a few times and knew the amount was wrong; she was given a sizable amount too much. She considered what to do next for a moment, knowing that the bank closed in 15 minutes. Ultimately, she briskly walked back to the bank, informed the teller of the error, and handed over the extra cash. I learned two things as I accompanied my wife on this errand: first, I should do all my banking just before closing time on Wednesday, as it seems no one else does, and second, doing good will make bystanders remark that there are still good people in the world.

Here is my problem. I was content and perhaps a bit smug in my goodness. This morning my wife made a comment, as an aside, relative to these events. She said something to the effect of, “God could have been glorified.” My problem is that I was satisfied with being a good person and I neglected to acknowledge that the only good in me is the good that God works through me. It would have been better if I had said, as I stood at the gas station, “God brought me here to help you,” instead of my default response of “It is no problem.”  It might have been better if my wife had said, “God led me to return what was not mine,” instead of rightly mentioning that we were both tellers and know what it is like to be out of balance. I failed to seize the opportunity to glorify God. I failed to even think of God as the source of my good behavior.

In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:16 (NIV84)

Join me in shining our lights, enabling those around us to see our good deeds and praise God. Please do not send me comments about how good my acts might be; pray with me that whatever good acts we perform would illuminate places like gas stations and bank lobbies with the transforming glory of God.

Restoration Revisions

My wife and I have differing opinions about home improvement shows. I will happily spend a Saturday afternoon living vicariously through the panoply of families sharing their stories on “Love It or List It” and “Home Town”, while she would rather do or watch anything else, knowing that our situation will never require a knowledge of renovations. I think the disagreement we have is that she sees the subject of these programs as real estate, whereas I see the subject of these programs as restoration. Neither of us is wrong. Both of us are right. Some of us see things more literally and some of us see things more metaphorically.

If you have read any of these weekly posts, which I have been composing for 10 years, you might conclude that I see the world more metaphorically than most. I have written about the spiritual truths I have seen through hundreds of everyday experiences. I see the redemption and restoration of the human condition in home improvement shows and in Hollywood blockbusters. I have mused on the grace and mercy of Christ as reflected in professional sports and parenting struggles. I have drawn scriptural comparisons from current events and Christmas lights. My hope remains that you and I, through this blog, will gain glimpses of God in all the ordinary things.

The steadfast love of the LORD never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. Lamentations 3:22-23 (ESV)

Because the Scriptures are true, we can take delight in the fact that there are new expressions of the Lord’s love and mercy every day. Sometimes we see these expressions and sometimes we do not. Sometimes we fail to experience new expressions of God’s love and mercy because we are busy, rushing by the flower growing in the crack of the sidewalk. Sometimes we fail to experience new expressions of God’s love and mercy because we are distracted, focusing on the immediate weather concerns and paying no attention to the rainbow after the rain. We are often too hurried or harried to see God’s handiwork all around us.

Maybe I think a bit more metaphorically than most because I sit down each week and think about what God is doing all around me. I think about what I will write in this blog. Sometimes I settle on the subject easily, and sometimes it is a struggle. I have found God faithful every week – these words each week are a testimony of God’s love and mercy being newly expressed every morning. I am confident that my experience is not unique. I wonder what would happen to us if we chose to sit in front of a computer or a journal, on a bench at a playground or a boardwalk, or outside a busy farmers market or bus station and waited expectantly for God to show us expressions of His love and mercy.

I am certain that there are plenty of stories of restoration all around us. And I will be here each week to share with you what I have seen. Let me know about your discoveries as well.

With You

At a meeting on Tuesday, a colleague shared an article about God’s presence in the midst of tragedy and evil.  Then during our prayer meeting on Wednesday, the Psalm we read was the 23rd, leading us to pray through the truth that God is with us as we travel through the valley of the shadow of death.  It made me wonder how often in scripture this reality of God’s being with us is presented.  It turns out that the answer is quite often.  God spoke this promise to Moses as he was about to confront Pharoah.  God spoke it through Isaiah as a comfort to the Israelites while they suffered in captivity.  Mark refers to the promise as he relates the impending birth of Jesus.  In the Law, the Wisdom, the Prophets, and the Gospels we find this glorious hope – wherever we are, God is (and will be) with us.

And God said, “I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.”  Exodus 3:12 (NIV84)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.  Psalm 23:4 (NIV84)

When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.  Isaiah 43:2 (NIV84)

“The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.”  Matthew 1:23 (NIV84)

Life is filled with horrible circumstances – sometimes it is necessary for us to confront tyrants, sometimes it is necessary to march by the markers of our own mortality, sometimes it is necessary to face the floods and fires, and sometimes it is necessary to wait in hope longer than we ever imagined.  As we watch the news with its daily reminders that there are terrible injustices and awful acts all around us, we might be tempted to lose heart.  Life is often not easy.  But the Bible declares that we have a constant companion as we navigate everything life has to offer.  God himself.  Wherever you are, God is there.

We cannot always lie down in green pastures or rest beside cool waters.  We are required to walk through the worst of circumstances.  But we need not fear.  We need not dwell in discomfort.  We can rely on the reality that God is with us, calming our spirits and soothing our souls.  He is already at the doctor’s office before the diagnosis.  He is already at the funeral home before the family arrives.  He is already at the school before the gunman enters.  Whatever you are going through today, God is already with you, and He will remain with you through it all.  Let the fear of the situation evaporate and allow the comfort of God to envelop you.

Chips and Cracks

I had the occasion of traveling last week, and all went well on my commercial flights.  With technology as it is, I was able to present my boarding passes through an app on my cell phone.  At one gate, however, I stalled the line because of the fingerprint smudges on the phone screen.  A quick wipe was performed, and I was on my way.  My boarding pass was scanned, the terminal turned green, and I was waved through, enabling me to continue my journey.

As I walked the gangway and onto the plane, I looked at my phone and noticed all the damage I had done to my screen protector in a year of use.  It had a scratch from top to bottom from a beach trip last summer, a crack on the corner from a drop onto our concrete walkway at home, and bubbles and chips from uncertain traumas the device has experienced.  But the truth is that I fail to see the damage to the screen protector; my mind has somehow filtered them all out and my sight has adapted to ignore every imperfection.

The screen protector has been doing its job – the actual screen is without blemish.  The valuable commodity of ‘return condition’ has been maintained.  But the effectiveness of this protection is compromised because I have gotten so used to the damage that I now no longer see it.  I have forgotten what the perfect looks like.  We all have ways of protecting what is important – fences, boundaries, and walls, or slipcovers, carpets, and Teflon coatings.  We all need to be careful when the protection we rely upon begins to show signs of failure.

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  Ephesians 6:11 (NIV84)

The good news is that God has equipped us with spiritual protection – the armor of God, an array of garments, and gadgets to stand against the enemy.  Much like a screen protector, the armor of God is not ‘one size fits all’, for the Creator has designed what you need to secure what you have.  Much like a screen protector, the armor of God is only effective if it is maintained and modified if there are signs of damage.  Much like a screen protector, the armor can be the bearer of blows so that the wearer is kept safe and secure.

I am going to look on Amazon today for a screen protector since I want to ensure my phone does not break.  I am also, with prayer, going to look through the scriptures for dents and dings in my armor, since I want to ensure that my soul is not broken by spiritual warfare.  If we refuse to see the imperfections in the things designed to protect us and our things, we will be oblivious to the dangers of the real damage we are susceptible to incurring.  Repair the covers and the carpets before the furniture and floors show their wear.  Replenish the joy of your salvation before an arrow pierces your aging armor.

I Have No Idea

I was taught, many years ago, that God answers every prayer in one of three ways: sometimes, He says, “Yes”; sometimes, He says, “No”; and sometimes, He says, “Wait”.  I have, at times, thought that these responses were akin to the Magic 8 ball I had as a kid – which could be any of 20 phrases, from “Decidedly So” to “Don’t Count On It”. After all these years, I now realize that this teaching does not fully capture the length and breadth of answered prayer.  There are, I believe, circumstances that do not fit neatly into the Yes/No/Wait boxes for prayer resolution.

Earlier this week, I witnessed another category of answered prayer.  My mother had a surgical procedure, and prior to the appointment, I prayed that the doctors would not encounter complications.  God answered my prayers with a “Yes”, but more.  It was true that there were no surgical complications (which is what I prayed for), but it was also true that the procedure went perfectly and flawlessly, more than I sought from God.  Perhaps, sometimes, God answers, “You have no idea what I can do.”

Similarly, later this weekend I will celebrate my wife’s birthday.  I am sure, that before I came to know the mighty power of God or knew the power of prayer, I asked the heavens for a girl who loved me.  God answered my request with a “Yes”, but more.  It is true that I was given love by a girl (which is what I ‘prayed’ for), but this petition in no way matches the magnitude of God’s answer in my sweet Jeanine.  God again answered, “you have no idea what I can do.”

However, as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” ….  1 Corinthians 2:9 (NIV84)

The truth about prayers, and their answers, is that we cannot fully understand what God might do.  We ought to perceive our prayers that God answers in the affirmative as the starting point of what God might do about our request.  We ought to practice praying in ways that stretch our expectations of what may be possible.  We could ask God for all that He has prepared for those who love Him.  We could ask for what we think is possible, or we could ask that He enable us to see the impossible He alone provides – miraculous healing, unfathomable mercy, abundant provision, unending grace, and more.

I encourage you to pray to the Lord Almighty, revealed in the Scriptures, with words that express the need or blessing before you and with words that express the power and promise of the God who is able to do immeasurable more than we can ask or imagine.  Certainly, there are times when God’s plan requires that our prayer requests be denied.  There are also times when God’s plan requires more time for us to be able to fully appreciate His affirmative answer.  And, for a moment, imagine the reality that every “yes” from God might really be “you have no idea”.