Tag Archives: Counseling

Quote: Reward in Good Character

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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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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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7 ways Husbands Mess Up the Loving Things They Do For Their Wives


I love my wife. I want her to love me and think I am a great husband. Heck, I want to be the kind of husband that makes my wife feel loved, appreciated, and treasured. Further, I want her to look to me as a source of comfort, assurance, and joy. Achieving this means courting her throughout our marriage. Sitting around and wanting our marriage to grow stronger without putting forth effort is unrealistic. I also want to be faithful to God’s command that I love my wife like Jesus loved the church. This means serving her. Over and over Jesus taught that love is demonstrated through service. Over the course of 18 years of marriage, I have learned through trial and error (lots and lots of error) that simply doing things for her is a start, but it is not everything. There are all sorts of things I, and lots of husbands, do to mess up the good things we do for them. We men can be thick-headed in regards to relationships and often act stupidly in ways that mess up what we are trying to achieve. Figuring out the big pitfalls and avoiding them is a huge part of courting our wives. Here are a few I have done or have observed in others.

  • We remind her that we did them. This is pretty simple. Your wife probably noticed what you’ve done. If you cleaned the house, she noticed. If you did laundry, she noticed. If you do dishes, wash the dog, wash the car, play with the kids, do yard work, write love notes, buy flowers, or anything else… she probably noticed. If she didn’t, she isn’t that concerned about it or is too tired or busy to notice right now. Eventually, she will. The more you talk about the good things you do, the less impressed she is by your effort. No one is that impressed by folks who have to blow their own horn. Serve your wife and let her notice on her own. She will. You not playing it up for points will make your acts more meaningful.
  • img_0717We think it’s a bigger favor than it actually is. There are some things we do that seem like a big deal to us. These are things that she sees as something we should have been doing all along or something that isn’t that important to her. It makes more sense to understand what she is impressed by, wants you to do, or would be meaningful to her, and then do those things. It’s easy to figure out what to do. Just watching what she reacts to or just asking her will tell you most of what you need to know. Also, a single nice act is one thing and will likely be something she appreciates. However, a real impact can be made by putting effort into doing things for her regularly. There is a cumulative effect. A thousand small acts of service, performed over the course of months, will mean more than one huge one standing on its own.
  • We do things she doesn’t want us to do. My wife doesn’t like surprises and isn’t moved by gifts. I spent years planning huge, elaborate surprises and giving her gifts. Neither impressed her much. I thought I was doing all sorts of things to court her, but I hadn’t bothered to learn that she loves acts of service and words of affirmation. Those sorts of things mean a lot more to her. I did what I liked, not what she liked. The point is to meet her needs.
  • We expect sex in exchange. Guys, admit it. We sometimes do things for our wives because we want sex. We clean, serve, get flowers, etc. because we want sex. The problem is that if your loving gesture has an ulterior motive, she will see it as a manipulation. All your good will dissolve the moment she knows you are doing things for you, not for her. Your loving acts need to be about her. They need to be done because you love her. She is smart. She knows. In addition, if you’ve been doing your loving gestures with the expectation of sex as payment, there is a cumulative effect. You build mistrust. You may have to do better for a while before she believes that you are doing them because you love her.
  • We play martyr. If you do things for her and play up the hardship on you or your sacrifice in an effort to build additional good will, it backfires. Do things because you love her, show strength in the effort, don’t make a big deal about it, and be clear that you are doing what you are doing because you love her. In the end, this the reason we court our wives: we love them. That’s what makes acts of service so powerful.
  • img_0715We do it half-heartedly. Do the things you do for her as best you can do them. If you can, do them without her asking. Definitely do them without her having to nag you. Your effort and you thinking about her is what makes your actions meaningful. Don’t do a bad job and don’t procrastinate.
  • You fight with her. Don’t fight with her! If she comments on something you missed when you were cleaning or something you did wrong, don’t lash out. If she doesn’t acknowledge what you did immediately or show as much appreciation as you expect, don’t lash out. I know it’s easy to get frustrated or feel hurt or feel unappreciated. Don’t fight with her about it. Doing something for her and following it up with anger or hurtful words will do far more harm than good. Take a deep breath, take a walk, think it through, don’t approach her with unrealistic expectations, whatever it takes, don’t pick a fight.
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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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Defining Manhood: Office, Man-Cave, or Study?

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Where I spend my time defines much of who I am.

A few months ago, my 2 year old boy got his own bedroom. The room change cost my wife her home office. She telecommutes, so her office is an indispensable commodity. She moved into my space and I moved my office to the back porch. As I was moving into my new space, I had a realization. For years I’ve been calling my space “my office.” This seems sensible to me, because I often work in it. Pastoring is seldom a 9-5 gig and work gets done when and where it needs to get done. However, I found myself settling into my office to work because it was there. Instead of walking down the road to my actual office, I would settle into my space to work whenever I felt like it. The down side of having a home office is that you actually use it. The line between home and work blurs more and more as time goes by. This is less than ideal, especially in a career that, by nature, doesn’t divide cleanly. My friends go to the church, my spiritual life is heavily attached to work, and my family life is connected to my job. Further, I realized that by calling it “my office,” I was defining myself heavily by my job. We use words to define things. Our labels for things will forever shape how we see them. My office is where I work. I don’t want to be defined by my employment in my own eyes or in the eyes of my children and wife. This makes it necessary to change the label. The challenge begins there. If I don’t want to be defined by my job, what do I want my space to be?

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In all honesty, my home office could easily be called “the giant mess where I hang out.” 

It’s popular for men to define their space by calling it a “man cave.” The idea behind the man cave originated with Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. The premise is that men tend to need alone time to recharge their batteries. The man cave has become a bit of a status symbol, with guys building elaborate rooms dedicated to “manly things,” like cars, video games, drinking, etc. The problem I have with this is that it plays the same game as the “home office” by defining men. Instead of defining men by their work, they are defined by their lowest, least evolved state. “Cave man” may be a part of our past, but it is not something to aspire to. I used to wear diapers and I may one day be forced to do so again, but I do not aspire to return to that stage. People will typically only jump as high as the bar that is set for them. If you tell me, my son, or any other man that a caveman is what they are, aspiring to greater is a bit muted. I don’t want a cave and I don’t want my “alone time” to be a de-evolution. Labels ought to inspire men to aspire to greater things.

This prompted me to start calling it my “study.” I don’t take tests and probably will not be in school ever again. However, I want to get better. I read and research to improve myself because my wife and kids deserve the best me I can give them. I feed my curiosity and entertain myself with things that interest me and prompt me to grow. Rest and recharge can be accomplished by aspiring for better, rather than merely escaping to work or mindlessness. There is a secondary consideration here, beyond my own aspirations. My children learn what men ought to look like and how they ought to behave by watching me. Their first lessons in this subject matter will be learned from me. The words I use to define myself and how I model manhood will teach them much. How do I want my son to see his own manhood? Make no mistake, he will learn his values by imitating me. Will he be defined by his employment or his basest drives? Or will he learn to be something more by watching me?

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Reflections on Psalm 23: Finding Peace on the Road

IMG_7473As a dad, sometimes I feel like a shepherd with a herd of cats. My kids wander and stray constantly. I follow on their heels, catching them before they fall and kissing scarred knees. Sometimes, I don’t think they know that I’m watching them all the time. They try to get away with things as though I cannot see their mischief. They get scared, not realizing that I am nearby making sure they don’t get into too much trouble. That’s my job as their dad. When they’re hungry, I make sandwiches. When they’re thirsty, I pour apple juice. I play with them and cuddle with them. I see these things as part of being a good dad and part of loving my children. This image repeatedly came to mind as I studied Psalm 23 in preparation for this Sunday’s message. I wanted to write some of my reflections on the song before preaching on it. This post will be a little long, but there’s good stuff in this passage.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The idea of God as a shepherd is not unusual in the Old Testament, and it shouldn’t come as any surprise. The Israelites were a sheep-herding people, so this image would have been familiar and powerful. What is unusual about its use here is that David refers to God as HIS shepherd. Most uses of the analogy refer to God as the shepherd of the nation of Israel. David’s use here is personal. Beyond that, he describes God as giving him all that he needs. This is fleshed out as we proceed into the later verses. There’s another important idea to take away from this verse. Jesus repeatedly refers to Himself as the Good Shepherd. His sheep know His voice. He lays His life down for His flock. These are central to the identity of Christ in relation to His people. It’s important, as we look at this passage, that we consider it in light of who Jesus is and how He deals with us as believers.
He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. 
David attributes all of his met needs with God’s provision and care. This passage identifies a handful of those needs, including rest (lie down), food (green pastures, the Hebrew here literally refers to freshly sprouted fields, a delicacy for sheep), refreshments (water), and leadership/direction (leads me beside). God provides, but there is some responsibility for the sheep. In the passage, God makes him lay down and leads him beside still waters. Both of these require submission. For starters, sheep are led by their shepherd, which requires that they follow. Sheep are notoriously dumb and have a tendency to wander into trouble. These provisions are associated with a willingness to lay down and rest when we are told, as well as follow when He leads. In light of Jesus’ life, we find even more depth in this expression. Jesus declares at various times that He will provide: rest for the weary, food in the form of His flesh, refreshment in the form of living water (those who drink it never thirst again), and a leader (follow me). It’s easy to assume that God’s provisions for us should be in the form of meeting our physical needs, but to His followers Jesus is the source of our rest from guilt, shame, and fear. He fills us with Himself, satisfying our longings and needs. He refreshes us when our souls are parched and we need hope. Finally, he shows us how to live in harmony with God.
He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. 
The phrase restores my soul literally refers to God setting David back to the way he was meant to be. God repairs our full selves to their original state. Jesus does this by forgiving our sins, then sanctifying us through a lifetime of us growing to be like Him. We are restored, not physically from illness (though that does happen sometimes), but rather, we are reconciled to God and taught how to live holy lives, love Him and our neighbors. His leadership provides this as he leads us in paths of righteousness.Righteousness literally refers to being in right relationship with God. As we follow Christ, we are led closer and closer to God.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 
This is one of the verses most folks recognize easily from the psalm, but it is often taken divorced from the preceding verse. If God leads us in paths of righteousness, then He’s in the lead when we enter the dark valley. Contrary to the promises of charlatan preachers, who claim that faith will ensure us easy travels and wealth, following Jesus will sometimes bring us through some dark and difficult places. We aren’t promised easy sailing or calm seas. Rather, we are promised that He will meet our needs and that we need not fear evil because we know He is with us. After all, we follow Him there. For followers of Jesus, the darkness of death has no real power. We face it knowing that Jesus took the sting of death upon Himself at the cross. Further, He proves that there will be a resurrection. Death is not the end of the road for any of us. It is no more dangerous to us than shadows we encounter. It may be scary, as darkness often is. However, we have a reassurance that He is nearby, even if we cannot see Him easily because darkness Hides him from our sight. The means of God’s protection is clear when we look at the source of comfort. The Good Shepherd’s rod and His staff are a source of comfort. Shepherds carried a large club (rod) for fighting off wild animals that might eat the sheep. They carried staffs with large hooks on the end for steering the sheep away from danger. The hook would fit around the sheep’s neck and pull them away from peril. This is the case with Jesus, who defends us and protects us. We may encounter hurt or even physical death in this life, but in Jesus, we know that God comforts, avenges, and that eternal life is assured. It’s a little like my daughter having a scary dream in the dark of night. The darkness of her room and the scary pictures in her head may make her miserable for a moment, but if she cries out, she knows her daddy is in the next room keeping watch over her and ready to comfort her. In the darkest times, we find comfort in the knowledge that Jesus has won the victory for us, He watches us, and His rod and staff are there defending/protecting us.
This verse reminds me of a quote from Winston Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Stopping and staying in hell never makes sense. Making camp in the valley of the shadow of death may be necessary, but don’t pick out curtains. Instead, follow the Leader. He doesn’t leave us in fear and darkness. We must know His voice and follow Him, sometimes by ear and faith instead of by sight. If we do so, we are assured that the valley isn’t our home. He will lead us to the other side.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
In times of hardship and fear, it’s easy to turn to our own refreshments, rest, and nourishments in order to find escape. However, instead of real refreshment, nourishment, rest, and leadership, we find counterfeits. Alcohol and energy drinks may scratch our itch for refreshment and rest, but in the aftermath of these escapes, we find ourselves more thirst and tired than before. Television, food, sex money, and possessions are all escapes folks run to when they find themselves surrounded by enemies and passing through the shadows. Sadly, these are not real comforts or nourishments. Rather, they are illusions. We’re still in the valley and surrounded by enemies, we just try to pretend that we’re not surrounded by danger. In contrast, God provides us a feast in/with/through His Son, even when we find ourselves in dark/desperate circumstances. Further, He anoints our head with oil, which refers to joy, not to be confused with happiness. Joy is an abiding sense of peace and assurance. It is similar to happiness, but is deeper and coexists with sorrow. Joy exceeds our circumstances. Our cup overflows when God provides for our needs in abundance, which He does in Christ. We are given rest for our souls and water that’ll satisfy our thirst forever.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
The psalm ends with a restatement of the obvious. God’s goodness and His mercy will follow us for life. We cannot outrun God’s love for us. Even when we stray, the good shepherd will leave the 99 sheep to find us and bring us home. David, the fellow who wrote this song, wrote elsewhere that even if he made his bed in hell, God would come for him. In our darkest hours, in our moments of excruciating pain, in the times when we desperately need hope, and in the mornings when we wake up realizing that we’ve wandered away from our homes; in those times, our Good Shepherd is right there, ready to scoop us up and restore our souls.
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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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