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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.