Tag Archives: community

Faking Spirituality

I wrote this piece for my weekly column. It was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer in June of 2015.

One of the worst sins I’ve ever committed was actually committed over several years. During my early years working in ministry, I pretended to be perfect. When I left for work every day, I put on my “perfect Christian” mask. I hid any struggle with sin, temptation, and anger. I made excuses and ignored my own shortcomings. Eventually, I stopped talking openly with anyone about anything that might look un-Christian in my life. When I taught, the only sins I ever acknowledged were innocuous, like driving too fast, which is an imperfection of mine that’s well known to any reader of this paper’s traffic ticket listings. I believed that perfection was expected of minsters, and because I wasn’t perfect, I faked it. It may seem excessive to identify this as a terrible sin, but it is because it is a denial of the central message of Christianity: that all people sin and need forgiveness. Pretending to be perfect is self-deceiving and denies our need for God. Beyond distancing us from God, it also drives others away from Him, either because they see our hypocrisy or they see being “good enough” as unattainable.

The saddest misconception about Christianity that drives folks away from knowing God exists primarily amongst Christians: the myth of perfection. Whereas the previous columns in this series have largely addressed those who walk away from God in frustration/hurt, this week will primarily address folks in the church who believe this falsehood.

Believing we are, or ought to be, perfect is spiritual poison. When we look at the life of Jesus, there is no-one that he strikes out against more vehemently than religious folks, specifically the Pharisees, who couldn’t see or confess their own failings. Most were so convinced of their own perfection that they couldn’t ask for forgiveness because they didn’t believe they needed it. They lived for the praise of others, thrived on comparing themselves to “sinners”, and constantly bragged of their righteousness. This puffing up results in blindness to the seriousness of our own sins.

False perfection is also poisonous to relationships. Maintaining the illusion of perfection keeps us from confessing or seeking help. While living this way, I often wished I could talk about my struggles, but wouldn’t do so because I did’t want anyone to know how imperfect I am. Hiding secrets isolates us. Conversely, openness and accountability knits us together in community, because calling on each other in times of need teaches trust and interdependence.

The most profound lesson I learned from being open happened when I talked openly about struggling with sin while teaching one day. A young man approached me afterward, tearfully opening up about his own struggles. He thanked me for being honest, because he too had been hiding everything for fear of being condemned by others. Being vulnerable provides a safe environment for others to be vulnerable. The most common response I hear to openness about my own imperfection is appreciation for being real and human.

Living life- honestly acknowledging our imperfection- is risky. It’s possible that others will judge or ostracize you for being a sinner. I discussed with a friend how tempting it is to want other Christians to be human, but not too human. It’s easy to succumb to the temptation to believe that God should forgive our brand of sin, but not the sin of others. This is the power of acknowledging our imperfection/dependance on God’s forgiveness. It emphasizes God’s mercy, rather than our self-righteousness. This makes judging others harder to justify. Awareness of our dependance helps us empathize with others in the same predicament.

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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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Sunday’s Sermon Audio- Judges 1:1-7: Starting Strong

46638940.cached.jpgThis week’s sermon is the first in  the summer series on the book of Judges. The audio did not pick up the first two minutes of the message… here is the basic introduction:

Rhinos can run 30 mph and can only see 30 feet in front of them. This is why a herd of rhinos is called a “crash.” So, if you are standing in a field and a rhino charges at you, it’ll likely crash into you. Here’s the question, is it your problem or the rhino’s problem? Of course, it’s your problem. In fact, whatever gets in a rhino’s way has a problem.

http://patchingcracks.sermon.net/main/main/20690891

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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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Pink On Family and National Morality

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I came across this quote from Arthur Pink today and thought it was worth sharing, particularly in light of the alarmist things I encounter in my social media feeds on a daily basis lately. It’s easy to find folks to blame for the problems in our nation. Folks post their outrage on social media, flock to politicians peddling easy answers, demand laws that will straighten up the world we live in, and pine for God to set things right. The problem with these solutions is that they are top-down fixes to a bottom-up problem. Decline and decay start in our own homes and churches. We must address our own messes before looking to those of others. In the 2 millennia since its birth, Christianity has changed the world, not through legislation and power, but through discipleship and devotion to the cause of Jesus. Fathers, follow Jesus and grow spiritually. Then, spend time with your families, loving and teaching them who Jesus is and how to follow Him. Devote yourself to your God, your marriage, your family, and your church (in that order). If you want this country to change, start with yourselves. Through prayer and discipleship, Jesus’ following grew to fill the world. It will only happen again through the same efforts.

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The 10 Most Important Things to Do When Taking Your Kids Camping

img_1457Last year, I read Theodore Rex, a biography of Teddy Roosevelt. Amongst the many things that stood out to me in the life of that great man was that he took his children camping almost every night while staying at his vacation home. This was a man who was the leader of the free world, a world class intellectual, and a war hero. He was not too busy or too important to sleep under the stars with his children. I am willing to wager that for all the great things that Teddy was, his kids valued that time spent with him more than anything else. As dads, we often get distracted by our work, our hobbies, and our comforts; all to the detriment of the time we spend with our kids. Putting forth the effort to create special times with them is important. It is when the real impact of our parenting will blossom. Camping is a unique way to do this, because it takes us out of our comfort zone and away from our distraction, forcing us to pay attention to each other. For a child, camping with dad is a great adventure and a privilege. Here are a few of the things I have learned from camping with my kids.

  • You are the most important part of the equation! Last weekend, I had hoped to take the kids camping in the backyard. I’ve been anxiously awaiting my first chance at camping with the kids since January. However, 3 days of heavy rain changed that plan. So, I set up the tent in the living room and we camped indoors. They loved it and I learned something important.
    I am the most important part of the camping experience. I don’t say that to be arrogant. Rather, I realized that the kids, more than anything else, wanted to spend time with me. The prospect of sleeping on the floor with me was pretty exciting. Going to exotic locations, doing crazy things, and planning perfect outdoor experiences are all important, especially as the kids get older, but the single most important component is spending time with dad. That will be the part they remember for the long haul. You don’t have to be an expert outdoorsman to make the experience memorable. You just have to be there.
  • Don’t let the weather stop you. Over the past weekend, rain forced us indoors. I’ve been camping with teenagers
    from work in the past, when it rained for 4 of the 6 days we were in the woods. Instead of enjoying the great outdoors, we played cards in the tent, talked, listened to thunder and wind, learned to build fires in a downpour, read, and had a different brand of fun. The perfect experience isn’t found only when the conditions are perfect. Perfect experiences are had when you enjoy time together, without the everyday noise and distractions of our modern life. This doesn’t mean you should risk your life. Rather, be willing to adapt to the situation. Camping indoors or in a rental cabin is better than doing nothing.
  • IMG_1178Plan time together. The first big camping trip I took my daughter on in the mountains included fishing. She had seen fishing in cartoons and assumed it would be a very different experience. I am confident that she did not love it. She is too impatient. However, she loved sitting in my lap, eating snacks, talking, and reeling in the only fish we managed to catch, which she was terrified of when we finally got it to shore. The time we spent together was the big part. Eventually, I will teach my kids how to pick a campsite, build a fire, cook outdoors, etc. Those activities will be great because it will involve time together. For children, the time you spend focused on them is more valuable than anything else.
  • Step it up in increments. This weekend wasn’t our first experience with living room camping. My children are still young and I recognized that it was necessary to take small steps in the camping experience. Living room camping made it easy to put the kids to bed in their own room if sleeping in the tent proved to be too much for them. Cuddling in the cold of the morning was safer for the first time, knowing that I could take them in from the back yard if it freaked them out too much. Camping at a ranch, within walking distance of a ranch house, is a safe bet if the noises of camping outside of town became too much for them. Increments warmed the kids up to camping in a way that made it easier to experience. This summer I hope to get my daughter out to sleep under the stars.
  • Stay up late to see the stars. One of the biggest blessings of living in Montana is the abundance of beautiful scenery. Perhaps none better than standing under the night sky and seeing the grandeur of God’s creation sprawling before you. My preschool daughter was almost speechless at the sight. On our first camping trip in the mountains, we sat up late (admittedly, watching cartoons) and got out of the tent at 2 AM. The view was breathtaking. Living in a town or city often makes this sort of experience non-existent. If you are going to be out there, take advantage of the opportunity.
  • Eat junk food. There are purists who would disagree with me on this one. However, I am of the opinion that camping should be a special experience. It should be a big treat that they look forward to. Part of how I make this happen is by hitting the junk food aisles at the grocery store and letting the kids pick whatever they want. S’mores are a must, but cookies, chips, candy, etc. are not to be overlooked. Sitting up late, waiting for the sun to set and the stars to come out, and talking is greatly enhanced by the presence of processed junk food. Sharing a bag of Oreos with dad on a camping trip is pure gold. Disclaimer: In bear country, you have to be pretty careful. Have fun, but don’t be stupid.
  • Cook over the fire. Campfire food is amazing. Even if it’s not good by normal standards, a kid cooking their own meal over a real fire is an experience on its own. Teaching a kid to cook their own dinner and marshmallows over an open flame is integral to the camping experience. Plus, it feels like a grown up privilege for them. It’ll make the trip extra special.
  • Talk with your kids. Time spent camping should be special. Sometimes I let the kids watch cartoons, particularly when living room camping. We read comic books, play games, run around, and do all sorts of other things. But, I’d argue that the most important part is talking. You teach your kids how to be adults. Wisdom imparted while camping takes on an extra weight of importance. Don’t waste the opportunity to deepen your relationship through connecting and relating to your children. While you’re camping, the kids will have fewer distractions. Their tv, toys, phones, and every other shining thing that draws their (and your) attention away will be nowhere in sight. Take advantage of it. Talk to each other. This is particularly important when they are young. If you want your kids to talk with you when they are older, teach them to do it early.
  • Don’t forget to have fun. There are so many things to do and worry about that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that you are there to have fun. This is particularly the case because men often have trouble shutting off the part of our personality that focuses on work and worry. Your kids want to have fun with you. Don’t forget to enjoy yourself and them. They will only be young once. Don’t miss it.
  • Do it often! Camping is one of those things that they will remember, especially if you do it often. It’s not always easy to get away to the mountains to camp, but the backyard and living room are always there. Being a dad isn’t something you do once every summer. The biggest impact is made by investing a lot of time. Sleeping in a tent isn’t comfortable, but your kids will remember it for the rest of their lives.
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God Made Men For More Than Work


men at workLess than a week before my wedding day, I lost my job. It was a terrible fit for me and in retrospect, it was a good thing. However, at the time it was a crushing blow. Going to work and providing for my family was pretty much the most important thing in the world. I had no idea how or when this happened, but I am quite certain that my pride and identity were magically tied to my ability to bring home a pay check, put a roof over my wife’s head, and food on the table. The experience shaped my attitude toward employment to this day. I don’t think my experience is particularly unique to me. Men derive much of their identity and sense of worth from their work. It lies at the core of the masculine identity, which is part of God’s design for men. We see this truth in the book of Genesis. The first thing Adam did after he was created was go to work. God put him in the garden and set him to work. It wasn’t miserable work and it wasn’t all that Adam did. He didn’t live to work. Adam tended to the garden, but he also named the animals. In addition, God recognized that Adam shouldn’t be alone, so he created a wife for him. In short, from the beginning man’s work was pretty important to him. In fact, I’d argue that Adam was designed to set his hand to tasks. If Adam was made in God’s image and God engaged in both creation and work, then it follows that work and creation would be important to Adam. One of the things I love about the creation account is that it gives us hints about the nature of men and women. The intended design is seen clearly without the haze of sin obscuring and distorting the foundational truths. In this case, the foundational truth is obvious: Men were made to work, but that’s not all they were made to do. 

 

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A study was done  with elementary age kids. A group of boys and a group of girls were placed in a room with chairs, told to sit, and then they were observed. The girls put their chairs in a circle and began talking to each other, facing one another. In contrast, the boys sat in a line, next to each other, and talked about what they could do in the room. Their focus wasn’t on relating to each other, it was on what they could do together. This trend continues throughout their lives. Men dream of building things, succeeding, and achieving great things through their work. This drive has roots that go right to the heart of a man. He takes pride, derives meaning, finds purpose, and holds his worth in his work. When this element of a man’s identity is healthy and holds the appropriate place in his life, contentment isn’t far. That appropriate place is in a proportional relationship to his family, his relationship with God, and the other spheres of his life. When a man’s work overshadows his family or stands over God in importance, a spark is cast on the rest of his life. It may not happen immediately, but eventually that spark will light a fire that will consume everything, leaving him empty. No amount of success in life can replace the relationship a man has with his wife and children. In regards to his relationship with God, Jesus put it best when he asked what it profits a man to gain the world, but lose his soul. 

 

Work is a big deal to men. Providing for his family and achieving great things are foundational to a man’s identity. However, they are only part of the foundation. The book of Ecclesiastes says: A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in their own toil. This too, I see, is from the hand of God…(Ecclesiastes 2:24) Enjoy life and enjoy work. My younger brother works for a large international bank. He has told me all sorts of stories about executives who throw away their marriages and families in the name of climbing the corporate ladder. It’s a terrible trade. 

 

The key to managing the proper balance in life is setting the big important things in life under the larger umbrella of a man’s God-given responsibilities. He is called to lead his family spiritually, to love his wife, point those around him to Jesus, to serve God faithfully, to take Sabbath rests and enjoy intimacy with God, to raise his children right, etc. Failing to serve Jesus first and foremost is no small matter. Such failure removes the very thing that keeps everything else in its proper place and proportion. 
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Falling “Christian” Stars: Josh Duggar and the Cult of Christian Celebrity

IMG_7424With the recent release of hacker data stolen from Ashley Madison, a dating service for married people seeking to have an affair, and the revelations that followed; various tendencies in Christians’ responses have, yet again, sprung forth. Every time a minister or other prominent Christian is caught in some sort of malfeasance, certain responses are predictable. Perhaps the most troubling to me is the tendency to minimize or ignore sin. Jesus and the rest of the Bible tend to treat sin seriously. This is even the case for the “good guys” in the Bible. David, a man after God’s own heart, took it on the chin for his adultery and murder. Peter was called “Satan” in the rebuke of Jesus when he spoke out of his own interests. Paul repeatedly bemoans his own sin, calling himself the least of the disciples and repeatedly referring to his persecution of the church decades after it happened.
In broaching this topic, it’s important to acknowledge a hard truth in our culture: Western civilization likes to idolize people. Politicians, musicians, actors, directors, writers, activists, preachers, teachers, and whatever the Kardashians are (That last one didn’t trigger my spell checker… just take a moment to let that sink in!). We tend to look to these folks as infallible heroes. The problem that comes with trying to make anyone into a messiah is that they can’t save us, and they’re only human. There shouldn’t be any such thing as a celebrity Christian. This is not to say that folks of faith shouldn’t be in the public square and that we shouldn’t support them. Rather, we need to recognize that these folks are not God and shouldn’t be idolized. They’re fellow servants of our Master. When we worship anyone or anything that isn’t Jesus, we commit idolatry.
Some folks might object to my characterization of idolizing celebrities. To those folks I’d say: If you’ve spent more money on, quoted more, given more attention to, obeyed more faithfully,  talked about more often, or pointed others toward anyone or anything more than Jesus, it is an idol. I see this especially with celebrity pastors. For example, lots of folks quote one best selling mega-church pastor or another more often than he or they actually quote scripture. Worse still, it’s seldom acknowledge that many of them are preaching things that aren’t in harmony with the gospel. Rather, fans tend to treat their teachings as though they are the gospel themselves. We are often slow to compare sermons and books to the Bible ourselves because the light of truth exposes falsehoods.
There’s a handful of reasons that it’s easy to latch on to idols. For starters, we are fallen creatures. We rebel against God by nature. Worshipping an idol is a matter of the sinful heart, which will always tend to love the creation more than the Creator. Further, our culture is geared toward this sort of idolizing of men. It’s on our TVs, magazines, books, billboards, conversations around the water cooler, etc. It’s just there and it’s easy to fall in line with it.
The problem that will typically arise with idolizing men is what we see happening to Josh Duggar and have seen with countless folks before him. They turn out to not be God, and as a result, they will stumble or fail to be everything that God is. We will eventually wind up defending, ignoring, minimizing, whitewashing, or pointing fingers at the sins of others all in an effort to draw attention away from the reality that the thing/person we idolize isn’t sufficient to save or worthy of praise. Otherwise, we are forced to disown and destroy our idol. In short, we shoot our wounded. We’ve seen these reactions in the folks who tried to defend Duggar or ignore his failings, as well as those who tossed him under the bus when it turned out that he’s a sinner, too.
The solution is for believers to come to a point that we recognize that God is deserving of our worship and adoration in a way that no one else is. We must remind ourselves of this daily. When His people who live in the spotlight of public scrutiny fall short, we need to acknowledge sin for what it is and point to Christ. Further, we need to hold ourselves and each other to a higher standard than we hold the world.
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