Category Archives: Life Application

Christianity’s Missing Ingredient

UnknownLast weekend, I baked chocolate chip cookies for a tea party I had with my kids. I don’t bake cookies particularly often and don’t have an old family recipe, so I went to the internet and followed the instructions on the first recipe I clicked on. Several hours later, when we sat down to eat the cookies, it was difficult to miss the fact that something had gone wrong. They didn’t taste bad, once you gnawed through the cookie to get a taste, that is. It was undeniable that my cookies could be used as rocks. My 19-month old spend over an hour gnawing on his cookie, and only managed to consume half of it. The next morning, I discussed the baking project with some ladies from church and quickly zeroed in on the problem: softened butter doesn’t refer to butter melted to liquid in the microwave. I didn’t want to wait a couple of hours for butter to soften naturally, so I sped up the process using a power tool at my disposal. As reasonable as it seemed at the time, my one ingredient mistake had rendered the cookies inedible. They looked pretty good. They smelled as good as fresh baked cookies ought to smell. They just weren’t right. It wasn’t even a wrong ingredient. It was a correct ingredient in the wrong state. I have seen a similar phenomena in my own life and in the lives of others during my 16+ years of ministry work. It is an ingredient that is wrongly added (or not added at all) in the lives of Christians, which results in something that looks and smells pretty good. However, it is associated with a hardness in the heart and life that is tough to miss.

wilberforceIf you spend time in a church or interacting with believers on the internet, you will encounter those whose words and deeds are not in harmony with what the Scriptures direct. Pettiness in interpersonal squabbles, judgmental attitudes toward others, a lack of self examination and dealing with personal sins, and all manner of other inconsistencies are symptoms of a missing or wrongly added ingredient.This ingredient is “discipleship.” Discipleship refers to a lifelong process of following Jesus and subordinating our lives to His teachings. Mind you, I am not talking about following the ten commandments or pointing out the sins of others wherever they turn up. I am referring to a lifelong training effort to live a life of service to God through application of the teachings of Jesus in faith. Mind you, this isn’t a “just do these things” type existence. Jesus does not disseminate a new collection of rules for believers to toil under. Discipleship is learning to live this way through following Jesus in gratitude for the grace we receive in salvation. It is conforming our hearts to Jesus, an intentional process that Christians commit to as a part of following. When the Lord invites believers are to take his “yoke,” he is using a figure of speech typical to ancient Israel. A rabbi’s yoke was their teachings. He is literally instructing his followers to take his teachings on themselves. The yoke of his teachings are light in contrast to the crushing legalism of the Mosaic laws. In Christ’s teachings, the teachings shift the believer from a focus on “thou shalt not…” to a directive to love God and love your neighbor. This is more than a sentiment or lips service. It’s something that needs to translate into new action and a new way of living that flows from a heart made new.

Going to church, reading the Bible, feeding hungry people, striving to not sin, taking care of the sick, sharing grace with folks who find themselves stuck as a result of destructive decisions, and all the other trappings of Christianity are not discipleship. They may be part of the picture, but they are not the whole thing. They can be the inviting smell and attractive appearance of the Christian life, but without discipleship, they are far less than the whole thing and can result in the sort of hardness of heart that folks often complain about in relation to Christians.

Discipleship involves prayer, studying the scriptures, submitting to accountability relationships, confession of sins, and all manner of other practices aimed at bringing the believer’s heart into conformity with that of Christ.
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5 Ways to Show Your Wife You Love Her the 364 Days that Aren’t Valentines Day

10411953_10152500999866835_664088007240282336_nIf you haven’t noticed the excess of advertising yet, Valentines Day will soon be on us. It’s the one day a year everyone expects you to act romantic. Flowers, cards, candy, stuffed bears, and all manner of other romantic stuff are practically a requirement if you don’t want to get into trouble. The crazy thing is that I know guys who go out of their way to show their wives they care on that one day of the year, but otherwise live like roommates with their spouse. The reality is that February 14th is just another day. If husbands are to take seriously their vows to love their wives and follow the direction Paul gives in Ephesians 5, they have to take loving their wives seriously the other 364 days as well. Here are 5 suggestions to kick off a year of showing your wife how special she is.
  1. Compliment her. Compliments and praise are so easy during the courtship phase of the relationship. However, because men tend to be less verbal, they tend to compliment less often. I have spoken to women who treasure compliments given to them by their husbands literally years ago. Women need to feel affirmed as a part of feeling loved. Compliments are key. Please note, I am not talking about empty flattery. Further, it’s important to offer compliments and praises without strings attached. Many a man has gotten to the point that saying “You look great today” prompts the automatic response: “What do you want?” Offering praise without hidden motive makes the offered praise more believable.
  2. Give her a day to herself. After kids show up, it’s not unusual for wives to feel like there is no time for themselves. With little people constantly demanding her attention and the other demands of life that come with being a spouse, helping to care for a family, and maybe working, it’s easy to feel like there is no “me” time. A simple way to show her how much you care is by taking the kids for the day and letting her enjoy herself. This is a good time to give her the gift of a day spa trip, manicure, or a massage appointment. These aren’t definitive. Figure out what your wife likes to do by herself and gift it to her. The last time my wife did this, she went with a friend and spent the day out relaxing and not dealing with kids. I had a ball with kids, having a tea party, watching a movie, and playing all day.
  3. Deep clean the house. Every now and then, when my wife takes a Saturday afternoon nap or goes out for a doctor’s appointment, I take the opportunity to clean the house thoroughly. Vacuuming, scrubbing, cleaning, laundry, dishes, etc. Mind you, it’s important to pitch in and help with the chores all the time, but once in a while it’s nice to take it way beyond what she expects.
  4. Knock out the Honey-Do list immediately. This isn’t so much a special occasion “I love you.” When a honey-do item pops up, it’s easy to put it off until you feel like it or have a little more time on your hands. But, there is a message that is sent when you put off her requests. You might not notice, but she probably does. Taking care of “guy” tasks immediately shows her that she is a high priority to you. Conversely, when you put her in the position of having to nag you to get things done indirectly tells her that she isn’t a priority.
  5. Plan a surprise date night. Get the babysitter. Figure out where you are going and what you will be doing. Get dressed up. Buy flowers. Pull out all the stops and don’t let her know until it’s time to go. Surprise her. Give her enough time to feel prepared and comfortable, but surprise her. In doing so, you show her that you are still pursuing her as a romantic interest. You are showing her that she is special. You are essentially telling her that you still think about her.
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Who Obeys Who In Marriage? Part 3 of 3 Understanding the Wife’s Role

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.  Ephesians 5:22-33

Mariage19_300-F_ws52793512For many folks, the great stumbling block of the Ephesians household code is the first 3 verses. For this reason, I have saved it for last in the discussion. Not because I am avoiding controversy. Rather, because it is so often understood in terms of our own desires and demands rather than in the context of scripture. This results in all sorts of bad behavior in relation to the text, including willful ignoring of the passage, wielding it like a bat, interpretive gymnastics to make it more palatable, attempts to turn the passage into a prooftext for all sorts of marital arm-twisting, etc. This legacy of Bible believers behaving badly prompted my careful handling and intentional approach to the text. If you haven’t read the preceding posts, I suggest checking them out in advance of reading this one.

The major idea to bear in mind in terms of the larger thrust of the passage is that Paul is speaking of marriage in two senses. First and foremost, Paul is talking about the relationship between Jesus and the church. He emphasizes Christ’s unconditional, sacrificial love that cleanses the church and prepares her as a bride for himself, spotless and pure. This is the model for the man’s job in marriage. He is to love unconditionally, serve, give of himself, and aid his wife in her spiritual growth and maturing, in preparation for facing God on the day of judgement. This is the second sense in which Paul is focusing on the marital relationship: What is expected of men as they stand in the place of Christ in relationship to their wives, the church. Husbands are to pastor their families and lead as Christ leads the church. This concept is central to understanding the wife’s role.

The other bit of contextual information that is important to take into account in reference to the passage is the preceding verses. Paul did not write the household code in a vacuum, as a standalone text. It stands as a piece of a larger letter. The preceding passages deal with moral behavior. The closing clause of the last sentence tees up the discussion in the following verses: “…submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  This is not an unusual concept in scripture. The idea that believers are to submit to each other, love each other, give grace to each other, and behave with deference to the needs and wants of other believers is no small matter. It is the guiding principle for much of a Christian’s behaviors. We are to put on our towel and wash each other’s feet with our lives. The least in the church will be the greatest.

part 1Paul writes a line about mutual submission, then launches into an instructions about how the marital relationship is a mirror of Christ and the church. Specifically, beginning with wives submitting to husbands as unto Christ. There is a degree to which the direction to wives is a restatement of the preceding. Mutual submission needs to be a part of our understanding of this text based on the context. The problem is that the text is a little more complex than that. Simply calling it a pure mutual submission would be to ignore the rest of the passage, in the same manner as those who call for wives to live as slaves to their husbands, though perhaps less egregiously.

part 2As Paul continues, he includes a modifier to the “as unto the Lord” direction. In the previous article, we looked at the Lordship of Christ as a model for husbands that involves unconditional love and a servant’s attitude. There is a different dimension to this relationship presented in the direction for women. Christ is described as the head of His body, the church. This analogy could potentially carry two meanings. The first is that Jesus is the leader, while the church follows. In the modern context, this is the meaning we would tend to gravitate toward. The second meaning involves the head being the source for the body, which was not an unusual analogy for the ancient world. This understanding fits well based on the mention that Christ is the Savior of the church, which would mean that He is the source of life and salvation. Further, this understanding of the analogy suggests that the church is intended to emulate Him. Since the husband is charged with leading his wife spiritually and preparing her for eternity through his example and spiritual guidance, the direction for wives to learn from their husband’s spiritual direction works well with the head/source understanding. Simply put, Paul’s direction is for wives to come under their husband’s spiritual direction, learning from him in the same way that the church would in relation to Christ. In a larger sense, Paul’s major concern for believers, time and again, is that they grow in knowledge and relationship with Jesus. Paul’s marriage analogy proves no different. Though he acknowledges a hierarchy in the familial relationship, it is seen as purely a component of growing in Christlikeness. Though husbands are given a degree of authority, it is only understood properly in the relation to the   enormous responsibility of serving and preparing the family to be presented to God in eternity. This will always coincide with the mutual submission and service that should characterize the relationship between all believers.

This basically begs the question, How are wives to submit to their husbands? In the ideal world, husbands lead their families spiritually. Wives are to recognize, encourage, and participate in that process of spiritual preparation and growth.
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Who Obeys Who in Marriage? Part 2 of 3: Ephesians 5 and the Husband’s Position in Marriage.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nouris hes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:22-33
husband wife fightIn the garden, at the time of the temptation and the fall, the text depicts Eve talking with the snake, who makes all sorts of promises. They talk back and forth regarding God’s rule and whether or not it was wise to follow it. When Eve succumbs to temptation, the text reveals something interesting:

So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. 

Adam was right there. He listened to the conversation and he didn’t say a thing. He was a passive spectator as his wife listened to lies and fell. He did not lead. He didn’t speak out. Nothing. Adam’s sin was that he was passive and neglected his responsibility to his wife. This passivity extended beyond simply watching silently as his wife was tempted, when Adam faced God his first response was to blame everyone else: The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Adam blamed the woman and God, but took no responsibility himself. He was passive in the face of accusation. Adam’s failure was passivity. Unfortunately, this is a sin that can be traced throughout the history of mankind. It is Adam’s sad legacy.

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul compares Adam and Jesus. Jesus shows up and is the opposite reflection of Adam. Where Adam brought death into the world, Jesus gives life to those who believe. It’s a terrific chapter and worth a read. The reason I bring it up is because it presents that idea that Jesus is sort of the anti-Adam. Jesus is active in response to temptation and sin. He redeems the world through his atoning sacrifice. He loves selflessly. This is important to understand because, as I pointed out in Part 1 of this series, this passage is more about Jesus than it is husbands. What we can learn about the husband’s role is based on our understanding of Jesus.

divorce_testEphesians 5 to 6 is what is called a “household code.” In ancient Greece household codes were pretty common, generally memorized by members of the household, and were used for outlining everybody’s job in the home. This genre of writing would have been very recognizable to the readers. When Paul digs into roles in marriage, he starts with the wife, but spends more time on the husband, which is why we will consider the husband first. Beyond spending more time on the husband, Paul outlines a great deal more responsibility and an active role for the husband. He begins by directing husbands to love their wives. The word he uses for love is agape, which is the word used to describe selfless, unconditional, divine love. Paul’s direction for husbands to love their wives is unique to Greek household codes in the ancient world. There was no expectation amongst ancient cultures that husbands love their wives. Christian men are given a MUCH higher standard than the world: selfless, unconditional, sacrificial love for their wives. This is reinforced by Paul telling husbands that they are to use Christ’s example as their guide. They are to act toward their wives as Christ acted toward the church, sacrificing himself for her sake.

Paul goes on to explain: …that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Literally, Christ’s selfless sacrifice is for the purpose of preparing her for eternity. For husbands, the job is the same: help your wife be holy and grow spiritually. Rather than taking the passive role of Adam, watching their wives fend for themselves spiritually, husbands are to take the active role of working to prepare their wives spiritually for eternity. This is why Paul tells Timothy that an elder’s family must be in order. Before an elder can shepherd a church, he must shepherd his family. Spiritual leadership begins at home by fulfilling this directive.

The next job husbands are given is loving their wives as their own bodies, basically loving their wives as themselves. Imitating Christ in this manner involves recognizing that your wife is a part of you in roughly the same way the church is the body of Christ. After the wedding, you are part of each other. You don’t get to be separate or fight over dominance. In fact, if we are to follow Jesus’ example, we have to take the job of servant and foot washer. Jesus directs his followers to be servants to the world, emulating His example. If this is true of the world, certainly it is also true of his wife.

It’s important to recognize that the text is pointing to Christ’s example, which is one of grace. Jesus does everything for our salvation. His work is sufficient for our salvation. We don’t earn it. We cannot add to it and we do not deserve it. He loves us unconditionally and forgives us when we are still his enemies. If Christ is the standard and agape love is the rule, then husbands have a tall order to fill. It’s actually downright impossible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit enabling us to do so.
Perhaps the best guide for determining whether or not a husband is acting in harmony with Paul’s direction in this passage is the simple question: “Would Jesus speak or act this way in relation to His body, the church?”
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Who Obeys Who In Marriage? Ephesians 5 and the Role of Husbands and Wives Part 1 of 3

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. 

Ephesians 5:22-33

During my preaching and teaching career I’ve covered the Apostle Paul’s household codes several times. There are few topics that produce quite as much arguing, anger, and accusation.marriage ball and chain I have heard men denounce women for not submitting, women denouncing men for the suggestion of submission, I’ve encountered authors and speakers who have twisted this passage every which way imaginable to assert that the verse is advocating anything from total equality, to a slave master relationship, to a 49/51 voting split, to discussions of whether or not getting your man sandwiches during football games is a spiritual discipline. This excess of commentary on the topic can tempt me to throw up my hands and pass altogether. The problem with this is that Paul included this bit of instruction on purpose and marriage is important. If the scriptures have something to teach us on the matter, we need to learn it.

There is more than a little material to cover in Paul’s 11 verses on husbands and wives. I don’t intend to cover every interpretation, but rather in the three articles I will post on this topic, I will cover:

  1. Offer a perspective as to why this can be such a controversial passage.
  2. Look at how the text is instructing husbands to operate.
  3. Consider the instruction for women.

Approaching the Text While Wearing the Wrong Glasses

Matthew records an incident in which the mother of his disciples, James and John, approached Jesus and asked that her sons be his right and left hand men in eternity. Later, the other disciples are angered when they hear about the request, which prompts Jesus to call the 12 together and tell them that they are looking at the world all wrong. through-rose-colored-glasses“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Simply put, the disciples jockeying for authority was a result of them looking at the world from the same perspective as the pagans around them. They are seeing the world as pagans see it. Greatness means being served. Followers of Jesus assume the status of servant. Jesus demonstrates this very graphically when he washed his disciples feet at the last supper, taking on the job of the lowest servant in the household. The message seems pretty clear: followers of Jesus are called to serve. We aren’t called to be served or to lord position over others. Believers are nowhere instructed to fight with each other over rights to subjugate each other. Our primary concern in life ought to be our focus on Jesus and commitment to grow in our faith and obedience.

Perhaps the biggest problem with how many folks approach the roles in marriage as they are discussed in Ephesians 5, is that they are approaching the text in terms of who owes who what degree of service and submission. They are wearing their pagan perspective glasses. When believers find themselves enmeshed in discussions about why “you have to” or “I don’t have to” instead of discussing what makes us more like Jesus, it’s a sign that there is something wrong. Believers ought to find themselves in a place of working to out-serve each other long before they even consider arguing about subjecting each other to our own wills.

Perhaps one of the cultural components that gets in the way of a proper perspective on the matter is the sense of entitlement that our culture has developed. We are consumers who should get proper service, not servants of the world following our master’s example. We no longer see ourselves as servants to all. The attitude has even pervaded the church, where all sorts of preachers who talk as though God himself ought to be at our beck and call, making our lives as comfortable as possible and fulfilling our wildest dreams. Churches are too often seen as existing to cater to our desires, rather than equipping us to serve Jesus.

Interestingly, discussion of whose desires get served in the marital relationship so often dominates the discussion of this passage that the vast majority of what Paul says winds up totally ignored. The passage itself spends more time discussing the relationship between Christ and the church than it does husbands and wives. Really, the key to the whole passage is verse 32, when Paul tells us that the institution of marriage, in which a husband leaves his parents to be joined to his wife as one, points to the union between Jesus and the church. As such, the passage is primarily about Jesus. The bit that we can garner regarding marital relationships is primarily in relation to the larger eternal truth of Jesus as His bride, the church. Really, if there is a unifying direction to take in relation to this passage it’s that we are to imitate Christ in EVERY aspect of our lives, including marriage.

The next post on this passage will deal with what Paul says regarding husbands.

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6 Things You Can Do To Support Your Pastor

6 thingsI haven’t posted to this blog in 3 months. The reason for this leave of absence is simple: I am a small church pastor in a rural community of 700. I love my job and the people I serve. Between early October and December 26th, the busy season for church work, I didn’t have a single day when I didn’t field a work-related phone call, head over to the office to take care of a few tasks, visit with someone from the church, run into town for a hospital visit, spend time working on a sermon, sat down for counseling, attended a meeting, or spend time working. I often joke that I work every day, which is true. As the excess or work ramps up, the productivity of writing goes down. That having been said, I’m not bragging or complaining about this. I don’t consider burnout to be a sign of spiritual health. I actually really like my job and most days I don’t think I work to excess. In the past, I’ve worked at similar levels of busyness and not felt as good about it. Most ministers have experienced days when they didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning and when they felt like there was no escaping the crush of expectations.

Strangely, after nearly three years of this sort of schedule, I have yet to reach that point. I certainly have bad days and times when I grit my teeth when the phone won’t stop ringing. The difference between past times of ministry work and now seems to be the attitude of the community of believers I am serving, as well as a few things they do consistently. This is a huge deal considering how often pastors walk away from church work in a state of burnout. Here are a few of the big things I have observed that have made a big difference to me.
  1. Pray for your pastor. Praying for your pastor means more than simply telling them you will pray for them. Praying for your pastor involves asking them what they need prayer for. It’s offering prayer for them in church during community prayers. It involves praying with them before events. Pastoring is spiritual leadership. There is an inherently spiritual component to the endeavor. As such, it is important to pray for pastors and let them know you are praying for them.
  2. Let your pastor be human. I am not perfect. In fact, even on my best days, I am not anywhere close. I still sin. I get tired, frustrated, and angry. Sometimes I am thoughtless, careless, and insensitive. I’m not saying I don’t strive for holiness or that I’ve given up on trying to be a better man. What I’m saying is that Jesus is perfect and I am a work in progress. The congregation I am serving has been great about letting me be human. When I struggle, there are church members who listen and offer advice. I talk about struggling with sin when I preach and no one is lining up to fire me for it. Nothing is more tiring for a minister than putting on their “holy man” mask every morning for work. There is a great deal of peace and comfort that accompanies knowing that you can talk about your struggles. It’s crushing to constantly live in fear of minor slip-ups. It’s even worse to carry secret sin, knowing you cannot confess it to anyone lest you lose your livelihood.
  3. Offer to help. There are several people in my church who routinely offer to help with aspects of my workload. They typically do a great job of following through when I take them up on the offer. These are the same people who show up at church events, bring food to sick members of the community, and stay late to visit with other members and clean up after an event. One of the biggest frustrations that can set in as a pastor stays longer with a small congregation, is the sense that they are doing everything. To be honest, even the offer of help is heartening. The sense that others are willing to help out is huge. Very little is more frustrating than investing time, energy, and enthusiasm, only to be met with indifference. Offering to help demonstrates investment.
  4. Be concerned about your pastor’s marriage. My first pastor appreciation month in Montana, the members pitched in and got my wife and I a 3-day stay at a hot spring resort. With this gift, we were given free childcare at the ranch of one of the members. This has been the norm since. Every year, we are given our own marriage retreat. This really isn’t a once-a-year thing. There are several members who routinely take our kids so we can go on dates or just get some alone time. On top of that, I am regularly approached by members who ask about my marriage and ask for ways to support us. The single best mechanism for maintaining pastoral morale is their family. The demands of ministry work can be significant and can significantly strain a marriage. Supporting a pastor’s family and helping maintain familial health essentially protects the most important mechanism for pastoral contentedness.
  5. Offer your pastor honest accountability and meaningful praise. This doesn’t mean offering empty praise. I often joke that no one ever tells you that you preached a bad sermon. There are a handful of people in my regular contact who will tell me when a sermon wasn’t good or will hold me accountable when I am wrong. Mind you, I am not talking about nit-picking. Feedback is most effective when it deals with larger block matters. Several years ago, I encountered an individual who would make suggestions based on phrasing errors I made while preaching. I don’t preach from a manuscript. It’s nearly impossible to preach extemporaneously without phrasing a few sentences poorly. In addition to accountability, praise is important. Pastors appreciate hearing when they do well. Positive feedback lets them know that what they are doing is appreciated. This should not be empty, puffing up praise. Rather, they should be genuine positive observations. There are a few people in my church whose praise various efforts, but aren’t shy to let me know when I miss the mark. Their opinions are valuable to me. This is not an instant thing. It is a product of relationship.
  6. Develop a relationship with your pastor and his family. My family has eaten meals with most of the members of our church. When I encounter church members at the store, they converse with us. We love the folks we are serving, not just because we are supposed to. We love them because they have made it a point to be our friends. I once had a pastor tell me that it was best not to invite people from the church into your lives. He told me about folks who had personally hurt him and his family. In time, we encountered people who confirmed this as a decent suggestion. For many years, my wife and I were standoffish in church communities. During our time in Montana, we have discovered that this was not the right course. There has been little that has meant more to us than the close relationships our church has set out to form with us.
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3 Ways to Cultivate Thankfulness in Your Life

Thanksgiving_grace_1942In 1863, President Lincoln declared the final Thursday in November the official Thanksgiving holiday. While Thanksgiving had been celebrated irregularly for several hundred years, it was not an official holiday in the United States and was not annually celebrated until this point. It is significant that Lincoln chose to establish the holiday in 1863 because the American Civil war had been raging for several years. Hundreds of thousands of Americans were dead, the United States was united no more, the nation lay in shambles, and it appeared as though the North wouldn’t win the Civil War. To top it off, Lincoln’s son had died less than a year previous. It was in the midst ofone of the darkest points in American history, and certainly Lincoln’s own life, that he declared that Americans would  dedicate a day to thank God for the blessings that they had received. This is a powerful testimony to the degree of faith and dedication Lincoln had toward God. It is also an attitude that is difficult to muster during times of tragedy.

Thank_you_map_wa-sykIt is tough to stop and say thanks for what God has given you when everything seems to be falling apart. Often, disaster prompts people to turn and ask: “Where is God in all of this difficulty?” or “Why Doesn’t God do something to fix this for me?” Lincoln offers us a terrific model for our attitudes toward God in times of trial. This attitude can seem almost superhuman, and certainly unattainable for normal people. I’d suggest that this is probably the case. But, while it may be impossible for men to be thankful in all circumstances, it is certainly isn’t impossible for God to create an attitude of thanks in man’s heart. I’d argue that this is a product of intentional effort and practice, that God aids us in accomplishing.

  1. Learn to recognize blessings: It isn’t always easy to recognize blessings. This is particularly the case in our culture, where affluence is so abundant that it’s easy to take it for granted. Giving thanks for daily meals can quickly become ritual when the danger of starvation is extremely low. It’s also hard to look for our blessings when we are hurting. Pain has a tendency to act as blinders, blocking our peripheral vision so we cannot see the good in our lives. Instead we focus on the painful. Developing the ability to recognize the blessings in our lives starts with intentionally looking for them. We can also pray for God to open our eyes to the blessings He has given us. In the past, I have created lists and reviewed them regularly. Doing so helped me look at various areas of my life with greater scrutiny.
  2. Learn to say thank you to God daily: The next step to learning an attitude of thankfulness is intentionally taking time to pray and say thanks to God. It is a choice we make. If we train to say thanks when things are normal and when they are great, then it becomes easier to thank God when things are difficult. If we develop the discipline of thanking Him, we train ourselves spiritually to engage in this behavior and assume this stance in our heart.
  3. Learn to see the big picture: One of the recurring themes present in the New Testament letters is a bigger picture perspective on life and eternity. The apostles looked at our current lives in context of God’s future promises. They believed that the lives we live now are preparation for the eternity we will spend with God after we die. Our pain helps us experience the pain Christ experienced. Hardship helps us trust God more deeply and perfect our faith. Even death was seen as moving on to living in heaven with Jesus. This big picture perspective provides us with a point of view that frames blessings and sufferings in terms of God’s provision and eternity. If I understand that everything in this life is preparation for eternity and an opportunity for me to know God more deeply, then I can recognize that all things take place for my betterment. Jesus himself teaches that not a hair can fall from our heads without God’s will and knowledge. If this is true, there is opportunity to be thankful in all circumstances. The big picture is key to success in many areas of the Christian’s life and spiritual maturity.
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3 Basic Steps for Avoiding Holiday Fights

images-1The city of Butte Montana is built over a mine which had been on fire for over twenty years. This was not a roaring blaze, but rather a smoldering fire that simply kept burning year after year. The fire was accidentally set by a fellow named Henshaw, who left a candle burning unattended on a pine beam. The beam caught fire. The fire spread to other beams and kept burning for decades. This is at least partially due to the miners managing to deprive the fire of oxygen, which kept it from burning out of control but also prolonged the burn.

As the holidays approach and family gathers to celebrate, it is often the case that old smoldering resentments can flare up and create chaos in their wake. Similarly, small disagreements can quickly spread and get out of control. Both of these possibilities are increased during holidays because of the stress rising from  increased financial pressures, stress related to having guests or traveling, and the addition of new chores to already-busy routines. These flare ups can ruin meals, holidays, and even families.

Be conscious of the folks who make you angry: The surest way to avoid this potentiality is by being conscious of what needs to be done in order to prevent fires. For starters, it is necessary for folks to be aware of their own stress levels, particularly when spending time with folks who tend to push buttons, whether consciously or unconsciously. Self-awareness leads to an increased ability to avoid conflict.

Be quick to apologize and let things go: Often, conflicts that arise keep going because everyone involved holds tight to resentment. When people in conflict dig in and refuse to budge or demand apologies for slights, resolution becomes impossible. Finishing the fight often means someone has to let go and say sorry. This may feel like losing, but its far better to lose a little face in the name of harmony than becoming entrenched in bitterness or ruining family time together with pettiness. Pairing the aforementioned self awareness with a willingness to apologize first for any negativity will quickly smooth over most problems.

Knowing the right way to respond: Years ago, a pastor I worked with gave me a guide for the next step for dealing with flare-ups when they arise. The pastor told me that everyone has two options when they encounter the beginnings of an angry exchange. It’s like having 2 buckets, one in each hand. A gas bucket and a water bucket. When we see a fire, we have a choice to make as to which bucket we will throw at the blaze. Our gas bucket will spread the flames with a vengeance. This is like encouraging gossip or answering insult with angry words. Throwing your gas bucket at the wrong time can result in a fire that will go in forever. If we choose to throw the water bucket, we squelch the fire before it spreads. Throwing the water bucket looks like an apology or quieting gossip or simply saying nothing in response to a slight.

The book of James compares the tongue to a spark that can cause fires that burn up people’s lives. James goes on to say that the tongue is so tough to tame that it usually just tames us. This effort to intentionally throw the right bucket when people upset you is far from easy. It takes effort, forgiveness, prayer, and a great deal of intentionally planning to respond the right way. This effort may seem like a headache, but it is worth it to avoid living over 20 years of smoldering fires in the form of family conflict.

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Christians, the Internet, and Rage Porn

angry-desk-flip-lSeveral times in the last few months, while scrolling my Facebook feed, I have come across friends who have posted those annoying fake news stories, that are technically “parodies”, but are not identifiable as parodies in any way, apart from reading the home page of the website it was originally posted on. These posts are usually political, outrageous, completely fabricated, and designed to induce rage in the reader. The thing that has blown me away is that on several occasions I’ve read where a comment will point out that the article is fictional, and the follow up comments will continue to pile on with rage about how “it might as well be true” or “that’s the sort of thing <insert some group here> would actually do.” In short, it doesn’t matter whether or not they’re true, these  articles become an excuse to pour fuel on the fire of rage at an ideological group. They are, what I refer to as “rage porn.” They exist for the sole purpose of feeding an emotional state. They become an excuse to express rage and fury on the internet. Rage porn isn’t limited to the fake stories. There are whole websites that do the same thing with single line quotes and mischaracterizations. In these cases, the news articles will feature a single sentence and an editorial about how evil the speaker and everyone associated with them is. There is not attempt at context or intelligent engagement. The only objective is eliciting an emotional response, because anger is political strength in our culture.

The crazy thing is that this pouring out of rage isn’t purging or venting anger. It’s the sort of anger that gets hotter and bigger the more it’s given voice. It snowballs. The more the reader engages it, the bigger the anger gets. It’s easy to reach the point where the entire perspective held about the opposing ideological group is nothing but venom and hate. It becomes difficult to see those involved as anything other than the caricature that sits pickling in rage, resentment, and bitterness.

Some might question the use of the word pornography to describe this sort of internet material. It’s not usually sexual or lewd. It’s just inflammatory. It serves no purpose other than generating a hateful response. Anger and hate can feel powerful. Many people enjoy feeling justified in the feeling of hate they can aim at others, particularly those who “have it coming.” Most rage porn puts the reader in a position where they can feel moral or intellectual superiority along with reveling in spite. All of these feelings are part of an image; folks seek out and read these articles in order to feel anger. The only difference between these posts and pornography is the emotions produced by consuming it.

For followers of Jesus, these stirring hatred and rage in our hearts is contrary to the lifestyle we are called to live. Jesus commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves and to pray for those who mistreat us. He even demonstrates this attitude by praying for the Roman soldiers who were crucifying him. Paul directs us not to allow the sun to set on our anger. John’s first epistle tells us that anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. More directly, Paul writes the church in Ephesus:
Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.
Ephesians 4:30-32
warning-42657_640Believers have no place in their lives for stoking the flames of rage over politics or anything else. We may mourn over sin in the world. We can feel free to disagree with the actions of others. We can speak out for Christ and the protection of the innocent and helpless. At the end of the day, we must love those who Christ bled and died for. We need to pray for the folks we would be tempted to judge and love the folks we are more tempted to despise. It’s important to note that love involves more than lip service. If I rage at and trash talk a person, then explain that I love them; I am not doing much in the way of demonstrating my love toward them. Our call is to serve and to love concretely. This isn’t easy. Turning to reading materials that inflame our rage at “the enemy” does little to produce the sort of holiness that Christ is directing us to.
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Why Self Help Doesn’t Help

2427949527_37cee71670_zThe world of publishing has witnessed an interesting phenomena over the last few years. Sales of print books have slumped in almost every category as ebooks sales have surged. The only arm of book printing that has experienced growth over the last several years has been in the area of self-help. Self improvement book sales have defied the trend in the industry by experiencing a boom. Between books on weight loss, ways to improve your marriage, methods for overcoming depression, improve your career standing, and all manner of other do-it-yourself-to-yourself books; Americans are still buying. In our self-obsessed culture, feeling bad or inadequate is simply unacceptable. This has prompted a veritable gold rush of publishing in this area. The world of Christian books has not missed out on this trend. “Christian self-help” books are extraordinarily popular. I include quotation marks because far too often these books are simply christian flavored versions of their secular counterparts. Rather than being a distinct worldview, self-help Christianity has a tendency toward nearly identical in approach with bible verses attached to the ideas at strategic locations. At issue isn’t the notion of working to improve our health, emotional wellbeing, income prospects, or anything else we feel discontentedness toward. The issue is related to a basic philosophical incompatibility that exists between Biblical Christianity and most self-help approaches to the world.

One of the basic theological tenants of Christianity is the concept of total depravity. Basically, this teaches the because man is sinful from birth, he is incapable of following God of his own accord. Man’s natural bent is rebellion against his creator. The only way we are able to have a relationship with God is through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. When a person becomes a believer, the Holy Spirit enables us to follow God and to overcome sin in our lives. One of the foundational concepts behind most self-help systems is that you can overcome any challenges you may face in life. The solution to life’s ills is found by unlocking potential within you. The conflict between this philosophy and depravity make the two positions incompatible. One points to our inborn ability to do right, while the other points to our dependency on God’s provision to overcome. The incompatibility of the two makes the self-help approach problematic from the Christian worldview.

Romans 7 offers the best comment on the matter, when Paul writes about his ongoing frustration that the good he desires to do is seldom reflected in his actions, because sin rules his body. Ultimately, his comfort for this condition is found in Christ’s saving work on the cross. Believers finding themselves in unfortunate life circumstances or trapped in destructive patterns, recognize that relief is only obtained in Christ’s redeeming work and sanctification through the Spirit’s working in their lives.

Self-help can be a band-aid solution for some problems, but can never fix the core problem that all men face. Only God’s redeeming and recreating work can fix the problems that lay at in the hearts of all men.
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