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Why is it so hard to get your work and stress under control?

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Do you ever feel like the work parts of your life are taking over everything else? It might feel a little like dandelions on your lawn. One day there’s only one on the outer edges. They’re not a big deal. Before you know it they’ve spread everywhere and it feels like they are taking over everything. Wherever there is space, dandelions will invade and take over. Work isn’t any different. There is always more to do. If you let it, that “more to do” will invade, spread, and take over more and more territory.

Eventually work and work related stress can choke out every good thing in the rest of your life. Leaving only the leftover energy and time for you, your family, and God. That’s why playing with the kids or talking with your spouse after work feels like trying to climb a mountain with an engine block strapped to your back. All you want to do is sleep, zone out in front of the tv, or fall apart completely. This isn’t how we are meant to live. 

If you’ve found yourself chained to the treadmill of work excess, you probably have told yourself over and over again: “I need to just get through this busy season, then things will calm down.” As Carey Nieuwhof said: If the slow season never comes, you aren’t in a busy season. You have a busy life. (I paraphrased it… It was something like that.)

Maybe you’ve tried over and over to cut back, only to find that cutting back isn’t possible. Or you start strong and then fall into the same patterns when a crisis happens at work. Whatever it is, taming work in your life can feel harder than quitting smoking or losing weight. Why is that? This post is going to look at the reason we struggle with taming work. What does the Bible say about why you can’t just cut back? 

For the TLDR Crowd:

The short answer, for the TLDR crowd, is that our lives become unmanageable because we are not living as God designed us to live. As long as we are trying to do the heavy lifting of changing ourselves, we will struggle. If we cannot manage our own lives, then we need someone who can do the job to take control of the situation on our behalf. The Bible explains that this is God’s job and we are to submit every aspect of it to him. He will do the job. Unfortunately, there are all sorts of things in our lives that make this change difficult and result in our rapid failure and return to the old ways. Jesus described those things in the parable of the sower. This post examines the three ways we choke out God’s change in our lives.

This post is part of a series on Ecclesiastes 4, including sermons and background posts explaining the ideas in detail.

The Problem in Us

Understanding the problem of why we can’t slow down or reprioritize work requires that we first understand something about human nature. We were made to know and have a relationship with our creator. God meant for us to know him, be his friends, and for him to be our God.

Sin messed all that up. It separated us from God. However, it did not change our nature. We are still meant to be connected to God, only now sin has made us distant and resistant to him. Even when we try hard to be good, we tend to fall on our faces. In order to fill that built in need to know and serve God, we find (or make) other gods to serve. Those gods can be money, power, politics, sex, pagan idols, organizations, our families, alcohol, philosophies, and all manner of other things.

Our culture, in particular, has developed an obvious illicit affair with work and money. Many of us become enslaved to work and allow it to be lord over our lives. Essentially, work moves from its proper place as a gift for us to enjoy to a god.

You probably don’t have a little altar in your living room to your employer. However, you have probably have weighed all manner of life decisions based on work before anything else. Many Christians, myself included, fall into this trap. 

The Three Ways We Resist God’s Change

To really flesh out this idea, we’re going to look at something Jesus taught. This teaching was done through a story about a farmer planting seeds in different types of soil. Until this week in Men’s Bible study, I never recognized how well our toxic relationship with work is explained by this parable. The parable is really about the heart conditions that result in folks rejecting new life in Christ, though each of the types has more than its share of work specific examples.

In the story, a farmer goes out spreading seeds in a field. He is lavish in his use of seeds, throwing them everywhere. The farmer is more concerned about crops growing in the soil than he is about saving seeds. Later, Jesus clues us in that the seeds are actually the gospel being preached.

By the Gospel, I mean the truth that God sent his son to take punishment for our sins, giving us forgiveness and new life. It fixes sin in us and frees us from serving the gods we attached our lives to.  It is free, requiring only faith. That faith prompts us to follow. We are the soil and the teachings about new life in Jesus are planted in us.

If the teachings take root and grow, we establish new life and a relationship with God. It also means that we live oriented toward him as God over our lives. He teaches us to live the way we were meant to live. This is key to understanding why work is so impossible to tame on our own. God isn’t stingy in offering new life. New life through Jesus isn’t something we can mess up too bad to receive. It is lavishly spread out. However, we can allow the junk in our lives to kill that new life.

The Parable of the farmer seeding his field shines a spotlight on the various ways that following Jesus dies before we find new life.

The Parable

Jesus explains the results of the scattering of seeds better than I can summarize: 

“…some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow.But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants.Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.Whoever has ears, let them hear.” 

Later while speaking privately with his disciples, he explained the meaning of the teaching. While Jesus was teaching more generally about life and the things that kill our new life in Christ, I am going to plug work into each of these scenarios.

When the Seed Never Gets Planted in Our Hearts

In the first example birds came along and ate the seeds. Jesus explained that this represents the message arriving, but satan snatches it away before it can take root. The idea here is that the person hears the message and doesn’t understand. Either they have made up their mind that they won’t listen, they find excuses as to why it’s not an option, or whatever else. The end result is that it never goes to seed.

If we consider this part of the parable in light of our toxic relationship with work, there are plenty of examples as to why folks might choose not to reorganize their lives around following Jesus and his teachings. For example, we tend to take pride in being busy. It is a virtue of sorts in our world. This is why folks tend to complain about work dominating their lives, but don’t often do anything about it.

Another common argument is that adding religion to life would just make it busy. It’s just one more demand on your time. In terms of this discussion, this argument is sort of like complaining that papers are piled everywhere in your office, creating clutter, and making it impossible to find anything or get anything done. Only to turn down the offer of a filing cabinet, files, and a personal organizer. Following Jesus has the net effect of putting everything in its place and reorganizing our lives around his teaching. What’s more, he helps us do it through his Spirit.

There are plenty of other reasons folks don’t ever consider the gospel, but they all have the ultimate effect of preventing the gospel from changing us. 

When the Roots Get Crowded Out

The second example involves rocky soil, where the plant takes root and begins to grow. Sadly roots never grow deep, so the new life dies. Jesus explains that these folks accept the truth with joy and begin to grow and change. When difficulty in life came along, the new life cannot survive because it had no depth.

There are all sorts of rocks in our lives that prevent us from allowing spiritual depth to happen. Again, in terms of our work life, there are plenty of things that keep us low commitment to the new way of of life he calls us to live.

The love of possessions or success is a rock in our hearts. We may want to experience the freedom God offers, but we also want to be successful. When we hit the rough patches in life, whether our faith becomes hard to follow or just stress in general or we have to choose between work/money/etc and following Jesus, the fact that we’re trying to hold onto both results in spiritual withering.

I have known a lot of folks who have fallen into workaholism because they were trying to “live up to” a parent’s expectations or earn their love. When push comes to shove the lure of earning dad’s approval (even if he has long since passed away) is far too strong to resist for some folks. Submitting to God involves us setting everything else under his rule.

These are both examples of folks who are taking a halfway approach. They are either going into change halfway or trying to hold onto other gods while following God. When difficulty happens and a choice has to be made, they choose the old way because it is familiar and “safe.”

The real trick here is that the stuff which doesn’t produce anything good in our lives needs very little to thrive. Dandelions can grow in sidewalk cracks. Wheat needs good soil. Everything that is beneficial to us requires more.

When Weeds and Thorns Choke Out New Life

The third soil is full of weeds and thorns that choke the new life to death. This is busyness. All of the junk that has dominated life up until this point refuses to give way as the new life takes root. There are only so many hours in the day and so much of you to go around. In the end, those things choke faith to death.

This is a painful truth: if you want to change, you do so by rooting out the parts of life that are trying to be the number one priority and organizing around the priority you were designed to focus on.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a ton of good things in our lives that are time consuming. Kids take time. Running a business takes time. Exercise takes time. Even spiritual growth and development take time.

The problem of chaos in our lives is a result of those things taking more than their rightful place. They want to squeeze out everything else for the lion’s share of your life. Work is just the most aggressive.

By rooting them out, I am not saying that they need to go entirely. Rather, that they need to take their rightful spot in terms of your time, talent, and treasures. Any time one of them becomes your god, it will act as a dictator or an overly demanding boss.

The only thing that can control it all is God himself, primarily because that is the way we were designed to operate. We don’t need to cut back on our time with kids. We need to look at them in terms of how we were made to live.

The Good Soil

The final soil in Jesus’ parable is good soil. This ground has been tilled, broken, weeded, and the rocks have been cleaned out or broken up. The seeds in that soil take root and grow. This new life produces good things in the hearts and lives of those who experience it.

Having the good soil in our lives starts with God being in control, setting the priorities, training us how to live, and his Spirit aiding us in the process. The good news is that God will help us pick rocks out of our fields, trim weeds, and everything else. He just has to be God in our lives. He has to be in charge.

The Key to Change

The real trick to get control of your life isn’t to try harder or move to a new town or anything else. It’s to give up control to the one who can do the job well. It begins by admitting that we cannot run things and we need him to do it for us. We have to jump in with both feet and learn to let him steer.

Jesus once said: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.

If you are starving for something better and stumbling under the burden of what parts of your life has become, the solution is easy. But, it cannot begin until we accept his direction and follow him. As you do, he’ll teach you to understand the truth better and better.

Every time Jesus calls one of the disciples in the Bible, he does it by saying: “Follow me.” Peter, James, John, Matthew, and all the rest made a choice between learning from him or remaining in their old work and lives. We all have to make that decision. What will you do?

A Different Take On Deborah and Women Pastors

“Woman Pastor” is a dynamite phrase. You can say it, tweet it, attach it to a post, or whatever and launch an explosive chain reaction. Boom goes the dynamite with enough concussive force that no one can hear what the other side is saying.

I usually spectate this brand of verbal blowup from a safe distance. The advantages of distance include avoiding shrapnel and taking a birds-eye-view of the fracas. This is not a change in approach. I am not offering my position in this essay. Sorry. Rather, I am sharing a moment of clarity I experienced.

While observing a recent exchange on the topic, I heard a Godly man, who I have a high opinion of, arguing against women pastors. His words stood out to me, though they are ones that I have heard before.

“Many people point to Deborah as an argument in favor of women in leadership, but they miss that the point in that situation was that men had failed to step up to their responsibility to lead. God appointed Deborah as an in insult to his people. They needed a woman to fight their battles.”

He is correct in his exegesis of the appointment of Deborah. The narrative of the book of Judges is about the progressive moral decline of God’s people. Deborah was able and faithful in a time and place where men were not. I’m the ancient world the events were pretty humiliating to the Israelites. It’s not a new read on the text.

However, as right as the exegesis is, the statement is potentially wrong.

I don’t say that lightly. God appointed Deborah to accomplish his will and to make a point. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t apply to the controversy today. In fact, we often get so wrapped up in arguing the the theological minutia of this point that we miss what’s happening in Deborah’s story: Men were abdicating their responsibility… so God appointed a woman.

Now, consider the church.

Are men teaching children the scriptures in Sunday school and VBS or is that something women do? Are there more men than women in Bible studies? What about in discipleship relationships? Are there more men than women in worship on Sunday mornings or do moms and grandmothers bring the kids to church while dad does something else? The hard truth is that we aren’t present. In fact, we are conspicuously absent. We insist that women fill all sorts of spiritual roles that are “beneath us” or that we don’t feel like doing.

Perhaps women are taking to the pulpits because we are sleeping in on Sunday mornings and refusing to teach. Maybe they are leading because we aren’t.

When Jesus entered the east gate of the temple and the crowds praised him, the pharisees grumbled at the praise. Jesus replied that “If they remain silent, the stones themselves will cry out.” We are living in a time when men are growing increasingly silent. The truth is that men are disappearing from churches. We’re abandoning spiritual leadership and have been doing so since Adam watched Eve enduring temptation and said nothing. (Read it! He was right there. He did nothing.) When confronted by God he blamed Eve and the Almighty.

Now, I know folks will point to the various texts where Paul forbids women in different roles. I am not having that conversation. Though, I will say that we must ask us if silence in the pulpit is a greater or lesser matter of the law than women leading.

If the stones will cry out in worship if the people remained silent rather than praising, perhaps it’s reasonable that women might preach the gospel when the hearts of men become cold stones. Ultimately, is it worse for women to preach or for no-one to preach at all? Which is the greater and lesser matter of the law?

I am not claiming that every female standing up front is Deborah. What I am claiming is that in many places, if it wasn’t for women preaching the gospel, the pulpit would be silent. If not for moms and grandmas teaching kids to pray and about Jesus, they wouldn’t learn it at all. We aren’t leading. Or worse, we try to “lead” in selfish, unbiblical, and unchristian ways.

Men, we own this if we are not stepping up ourselves. If we condemn women who step in the gap without urging our brothers to step up to fill empty pulpits, Sunday school classrooms, and spiritual leadership in our own homes we strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. We need to check our hearts. What if this is happening to shame us for our inaction?

Please note: I’m not saying it’s right or wrong for women to pastor. I’m saying we’ve missed the point of Deborah’s story and the gospel must be preached.

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An Uninformed/Probably Foolish Take On Tom Buck and Christian Twitter in General

Yesterday I was home sick with some sort of stomach flu, which gave me opportunity to lay around all day, read, scroll social media mindlessly, etc. That is how I found myself following a strange twitter storm related to Pastor Tom Buck and an article that was posted regarding his marriage. I‘m going to confess that my understanding of the whole mess is limited by the fact that I don’t follow Pastor Tom or know much about him. Also, I’m not a baptist, so I don’t try to understand the weird baptist political thing (I think this is a Baptist thing… usually if I don’t get it, I assume it’s those crazy baptists again). I don’t want to delve into the details of the situation, which looks more like an episode of a bad high school gossip soap opera than the bride of Christ prepping for her wedding day. I am engaging this topic for a slightly different reason. I believe the engagements display several things about Christians in social media that are decidedly unChristlike. I have two objectives in this missive: (1) To address how the conversation surrounding it has revealed our broken focus and (2) to address the caustic culture that keeps folks from seeking help in the church. This situation displays both very well and despite my ignorance of the specifics, I pray my foolish weighing in speaks the truth in love.

  1. Our broken focus: 

All sorts of topics were bandied about in relation to this matter. Discussion of whether or not this was a purely political hit job, if it was a betrayal of victims rights, patriarchy and abuse in churches, whether or not Tom should be ejected from ministry, why ‘big Eva’ is bad, how this relates to the Baptist church government, etc. I couldn’t even reasonably list off the major areas of discussion related to this matter. The one common thing I noticed in the mix was that I never saw anyone discussing how the public flogging of this very personal matter glorified Christ in any way. Mostly tweets are focused on pet topics: whether it be left/right theology, abuse ministry, ‘big eva bad guys,’ who runs the baptist church, or some other ‘vital’ issue. Missing is the main thing that matters: how are we glorifying Christ in this particular issue? Are we bringing about repentance and reconciliation? Are we building up the body of Christ by investing in unity and spiritual growth? Is the world watching and glorifying God because we are so loving… Jesus mentioned that the world would know we are his disciples by the way we love one another… would this be an example of that?

One might argue that the discussion of particular matters on twitter doesn’t warrant such reflection. I would argue that the epistles are a good model for us to follow. In a way the letters of the apostles are similar to twitter arguments. Paul, Peter, and James intended their letters to be read publicly. They were open statements to the church that addressed different specific matters in the life of believers and church bodies. They were meant to be publicly read. How did the disciples use their public statements? Each of the apostles focused their discussions around glorifying Jesus and building the unity of the church. They built up. They loved one another and called believers to fulfill the great commandments… The issue is not that twitter is a terrible forum. The issue is that we have lost sight of the gospel as the guiding principal for the church. The truth that the love of Christ manifest in us is the thing that matters. Period. Christians on twitter should hit the brakes and ask why we don’t come back to these central themes. What does it say about us? 

(2) Graceless Church Culture

In relation to Pastor Buck, who I don’t know or interact with. I can’t speak to his specific stuff.  I can share what I have experienced as a pastor. I’ve been in ministry for 25ish years. I spent a chunk of that time early on as an alcoholic (along with everything that entails). My marriage was a disaster because of me. One night, after a terrible fight, my wife prayed for God to fix me or kill me… She didn’t care which. He did both. In the 15 years since, God has used my brokenness to minister to many people. I can’t take credit for any of it. It’s all Jesus. I should have been driven from ministry completely. My wife should’ve divorced me. No one should seek my advice or help. I am a garbage person. Only Christ in me has value. Before I quit drinking and for years following, I was terrified of the church. I desperately wanted to ask for help, confess my sins, and seek support. I was far too afraid to do so because the church was the least safe place to do that. For years I avoided AA meetings lest a church person see me going and destroy my life. Revealing my sin was essentially begging to be ostracized. This is the opposite of what the body of Christ ought to be. In fact, Christ’s repairing of broken sinners brings him glory. I don’t know what happened with Pastor Buck. I believe that God probably reconciled and healed him. It sounds like Jesus healed the Buck’s marriage. If we aren’t discussing God’s amazing grace or calling him to repentance if it hasn’t taken place, then we are acting contrary to the gospel. If we aren’t praying for him, we are not obeying Jesus. If we look like the world’s political and activist machine then we don’t look like Jesus.  

Pastors ought to be held to a high standard, but they should not be expected to attain perfect sinlessness. When we cannot confess to brothers or make mistakes we are bound to fall into sin. We need to be able to confess our lustful thoughts, our struggles with prayer, our anger, and our hurt. We need to be able to fail and be reconciled. When past sin is brought is brought to light, pastors should be free to say: “Yeah, I am imperfect. I sin. Let me tell you about how Christ redeemed me.” We should be able to point to our sins and praise Jesus for forgiveness. The current church culture doesn’t allow this. We play gotcha, even over sin that has been repented of and dealt with (as seems to be the case with the Buck family). 

Also, slightly off topic but speaking as a long time ministry worker, many times when people bring out the past and play the part of accuser off the brethren… it is motivated by personal vendetta rather than a desire to bring glory to Jesus. I have been attacked many times by people who have left the church. It hurts on many levels. Often the accusations are either false or exaggerated. It happens. Not every whistleblower is being honest or pure. Weigh the matter, the gospel, and the appropriateness of your involvement before weighing in. Pastoring sucks because of stuff like this.

When Jesus speaks of the sheep and the goats, he refers to the judged feeding, caring for, visiting, or healing “his brothers.” Let there be no doubt, he is speaking of brother Christians (especially his servants in ministry!). We need to understand that if feeding pastors is something we do for Jesus, then lording over their struggles or playing political “gotcha” is something we are doing to Jesus. The nonsense with Pastor Buck has revealed our brokenness. Brothers and sisters, repent and be made whole. Pray for this man and pray that we embody the type of grace that glorifies Jesus. 

Being Jesus in the Pandemic

Reprinted with the permission of the Big Sandy Mountaineer.

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In 165 AD, an epidemic swept through the Roman Empire, ravaging the western world for 15 years. The disease may have been smallpox, though it’s difficult to say with any certainty. Regardless of the nature of the illness, the result was devastating. Around a third of the population of Rome died. The population was justifiably terrified of the horrible illness. The wealthier amongst the Roman citizenry simply sequestered themselves in their country homes for years, while the poorer members of the population fled cities or did their best to ride out the illness. One of the worst practices of the time was for families to push members out into the streets when the first of the symptoms arose, figuring it was better for them to die in the streets than to infect the entire household. Ancient witnesses describe streets piled high with the dying as a result of this brutal practice. During this time, the early church responded in a completely different manner. Followers of Jesus believed in an afterlife in heaven and in their responsibility to care for the poor. This was a stark contrast to the belief of their pagan neighbors. Christians simply weren’t afraid of the disease because they believed that to die was to be with Christ, all the better if you died serving Him. The work of early believers to provide basic care to the sick resulted in the saving of countless lives. Medical historians have estimated that the basic care provided was enough to save two thirds of the recipients, most of whom became too weak to do even basic self care. The actions of the early church in caring for the sick and dying was a major contributor to the explosion of growth of Christianity in the 2nd century. I would argue that there is an important set of lessons to be learned from their example. The early church didn’t live in fear of the plague. Certainly, many were afraid, but they did not allow their fear to control them. They saw their obligation to serve Jesus as the first and foremost of their responsibilities. I believe this is our calling for the time we are living in. Mind you, I am not advocating being stupid and acting as though we are completely safe from getting sick. This isn’t wise or Biblical. We need to take precautions because we don’t want to give anything to our family or neighbors. In addition, our actions reflect on the God we serve. That having been said, we shouldn’t be afraid to serve our neighbors either. This life is not all there is for us, and we have instructions as to how we are to live. I read recently that food banks in bigger cities are struggling to meet their obligations because they simply don’t have enough people who are willing to help serve the constantly growing lines of people who need food. Many of us have neighbors who are alone and isolated because they lack family to reach out or care for them in this time. Our calling as followers of Jesus is to help where we can. John Wesley once said that we are to:  “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” This might mean giving up some of our stockpile of toilet paper or sharing of our finances with a neighbor who can’t work and isn’t sure how they’re going to make rent. It may mean calling a shut in, dropping off food on a doorstep if only to brighten a neighbors day, or all manner of other things. Perhaps it means giving your hand sanitizer to someone who has to go to work every day. Find ways to serve. I’m so blessed when I see folks making masks for their neighbors and then giving them away. Perhaps this involves not calling each other names on Facebook because our neighbors doesn’t hold the same belief regarding the right way for the country to go forward. No matter what is involved in serving Jesus in the pandemic, this is a time when we shouldn’t allow fear to control our actions. We shouldn’t be foolish and act as though we cannot get sick. We shouldn’t use our freedom for selfish ends. We should take the instructions of our governing authorities seriously, which is addressed thoroughly in the New Testament. We should love and care for our neighbors. Be the face, voice, and hands of Jesus for our neighbors in this time of trial.

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Christmas Music In November and the Apocalypse

This morning, in an effort to recognize the first week of November, I played Christmas music loudly on the stereo in our living room. My wife was driven nuts by it and repeatedly admonished me about the inappropriateness of starting Christmas 2 months early. I didn’t point out that I was playing Christmas music a couple weeks after stores started selling Christmas junk, but I digress. I will confess that I am not a rabidly cheerful Christmas guy, but I love driving my wife nuts. Also, it clicked in my head that there’s a cool parallel to what I am preaching on this morning. You see, my sermon prep and work life have been very difficult and emotional this week. I did a funeral for a friend yesterday and am preaching on 2 Peter 3:8-14 this morning. My friend was a believer and throughout his long illness, spoke of the day he would standing in the presence of Jesus. He knew that eternity was coming and waited through pain and sickness, patient but eager to arrive in eternity. The repeated statements from my brother in the Lord have echoed in my head all week as I prepared to officiate his funeral. At the same time, I studied 2 Peter, which speaks of the Lord’s second coming and the renewal of all things. I couldn’t have picked a better text to preach following the funeral of a believer. Peter speaks about the necessity to wait on the Lord’s timing for his return and the necessity of preparing by serving and living holy. Peter wanted believers to celebrate and rejoice in the knowledge that the Lord would return, but also he wanted them to work and prepare for the day of His coming. We as believers are supposed to be a little like the folks who start listening to Christmas music on November 1st. No, we aren’t supposed to drive our neighbors and family members insane. Rather, we are supposed to have an eye on the day that is coming, when Jesus will return. That constant awareness of His return is to be joyful and it is to be a reminder. We must remember that the big day is coming, and we have important work to get done before it arrives. There are gifts to buy, invitations to send out, decorations to put up, lights to light, meals to plan, and a million other things to do before Christmas gets here, and we celebrate the coming of the Lord. In relation to the second coming, we don’t know the day or the hour and no one will know, but that doesn’t mean we don’t send invitations to our neighbors to prepare for the greatest celebration in the history of creation, when the Lord sets the world right. We have to light our lamps in the darkness and adorn the church with beautiful good works. We must do our best to clean up our world by bringing the Lord’s kingdom and encouraging His justice. In Peter’s letter, he says that in anticipation of the Lord’s return, we are to live holy lives. Simply put, we must be different. We must grow to be like Christ. We must keep an eye on the Lord’s return. This doesn’t mean that we obsess over comparing the words of Revelations with the evening news. We shouldn’t abandon our responsibilities as believers in the name of fixating on end times prophecy. Absolutely not. When Christ spoke of His return, He would compare it to workers in a household or vineyard who are given responsibilities while the master is away. When the master returned, they were rewarded or punished. We are to work diligently while we still can. The Lord is returning. Christmas is coming. Get ready. Invite your neighbors to the party. Sing praises of a God who will make the world right again. Be patient, but busy.

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Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.

This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.

There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.

A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.

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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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Music to My Ears

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Sitting at my desk, working on sermon materials for this week, I found myself listening to my 3-year-old singing. She changed the words to every song she sang as she played with her dolls and the tune was wobbly, but it is beautiful. The love I have for my little girl made the song as rich and beautiful as any choir. I believe one of the biggest blessings we receive as parents is the opportunity to catch an occasional glimpse of how God sees us. Even our best efforts are certainly less than those of the angels, but God loves us dearly. I’d argue that our praises are well received, harmonious or not.