Tag Archives: spirituality

Training Hard for the Fight: A Pastor’s Guide

In recent years, I have found the habits of elite athletes and soldiers interesting. Guys who not only do physical things well, but at a level above everyone else in the world. I am not an athlete, but am starting to appreciate the habits and mindset of folks who are top-tier in their fields. One of the interesting things I have noticed about such people is that they maintain physical discipline even when they are not doing their jobs. A former Navy Seal I follow online talks about getting up early every day to train. This is a man who is no longer fighting wars on the battlefield, but sees his own training and discipline as non-negotiable. Football legend Herschel Walker continued to train hard whether he was playing ball, between seasons, or retired. Training isn’t seen as a component of his career. Rather, it is a way of life. Pushing yourself daily to exceed yesterday’s best is never questioned. These are folks who are elite athletes and warriors by nature, not just by vocation. I am never going to be an athlete or a warrior. I am a pastor. I live a different calling. I exercise hard every day because I want to be better. This new practice and reading about the habits of these men has helped me to realize something powerful. I study and meditate on scripture verses 8 to 9 hours a week so I can teach them on Sundays. I truly love this aspect of my work. However, I struggle with spending time daily reading and studying the same book for my own edification. I also struggle with the daily discipline of prayer. This morning, I realized something convicting. While the elite athletes and soldiers I’ve been reading about do their required trainings as a part of their work, they also do it as a part of their lives. These men get up, train, then go to work and train more. They do it because it is who they are, not because it is their job. I study because it is my job, but if I want to be a man of God, I must study and pray because it is in my nature to do so. I will never be at the elite level of pastorate. I don’t really know that such a thing exists and if it did, I definitely wouldn’t want anyone to refer to me as something like that. However, I love the folks under my pastoral care. I love my family. I love to teach and preach. I love the folks in my community. I love the folks who read my writings and listen to my preaching online. Most of all, I love the God I serve. If all of this is true, and not just something I say, it really ought to be in my nature to hunger for better. I should treat my spiritual state as though my personal spiritual growth will glorify God and minister to those around me. The higher the quality of my spiritual life, the better I will minister to the people I come into contact with. Prayer and personal study are not optional to a person who loves the folks they minister to. It is training. It is conditioning. It creates in us a state of readiness for the moment when we need to love someone we are angry at or forgive the sins of our neighbor. Pastors and brothers in Christ: we must train daily in study and prayer so we can be ready for the moment God calls us to serve. Prayer must be like running. We should do it so much it is natural to us to pray without ceasing. Study should be like lifting weights. It should create strength in us to handle anything we encounter. Paul put it best when he wrote to Timothy: “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.” Brothers, we must train to be better because it is in our nature.

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Tin Men: A Perspective On Work and Love

I originally wrote this  for the Big Sandy Mountaineer in the Patching Cracks column. I have updated it for this setting.

Screen Shot 2019-07-19 at 8.33.32 AMI recently read the Wizard of Oz and was surprised at some of the differences between the film and the novel. The most interesting difference related to the story of the Tin Man, who started out as just an ordinary woodsman. The woodsman was cutting wood to earn money to buy a home for his fiancé, who he loved dearly. While he was working one day, he accidentally cut off his own leg, which he has replaced with a mechanical one. The same kind of accident claims his other leg and his arms, all of which he replaces with mechanical limbs. He discovers that he is able to work much better as a result of replacing his body parts with machine parts. Eventually, he loses his head and splits himself in half and becomes a fully mechanical man. Now he can work all day and all night without ever resting. The problem is that his heart is gone and he no longer cares about the woman he loves. All he cares about is working. Everything else is forgotten entirely.

This story is interesting because, despite being a children’s tale, it illustrates a sad phenomena that takes place all the time in our world. I have met many men who meet a woman, fall in love, get married, then work very hard to provide her with the best life he can give her. Those are great things. The tricky part is when the man becomes so engrossed in his work that he stops pursuing his wife. It’s easy to do because men are geared to work hard. It’s part of what gives life purpose. In fact, one of the first things God did when he created Adam was give him a job to do: naming animals and working in the garden. Work holds an important place in the male identity. The problem comes when he stops loving everything else. Work becomes his mistress and he leeches time from his wife and family in order to work more. Eventually he winds up struggling with restoring peace to his relationship when conflict inevitably arises as a result of the attention paid to work and not paid to his home life. This is a natural result of misaligned priorities.

In the story, the Tin Man believes he has no feelings, but in reality he does. He becomes emotional at different times, but avoids it because crying makes him rust. This is typically the case for men who fall in love with work. Feelings are hard to deal with and it’s easier to avoid them than to deal with them. When home life becomes difficult, he works harder and hides out at the office because the world there is easier and safer. I’ve known plenty of guys who are afraid of the emotional complexity of repairing their home situation and simply sit at their desks to solve the problem. They get the reward of achievement, financial benefits, and can point to their long hours “to provide for the family” when criticized for neglecting their wives. I’m not saying that working hard is wrong. However, I am arguing that marriage comes with its own set of responsibilities that do not evaporate at 9 AM on Monday. 

In reality, most men still love their wives and become easily frustrated when things don’t go smoothly at home. They want things to work right but can’t quite figure it out. Or, they work hard to provide for their families and don’t realize that they are forgetting the other things they are responsible for. Either way, work is a necessity and it’s easy to justify making it the number one priority in life. However, that is not the way God designed us to be. 

The solution to this issue in our lives is to acknowledge the importance of our family relationships and focus on them. Work is important, but it is not all-important. The cool thing about the book is that the wizard doesn’t actually do anything for the Tin Man. He just convinces him that he still loves his fiancé so that he will act like it again. The same is true of most men. They can fix their problems by simply acting like they love their wives: showing them attention, doing nice things for them, having conversations again, going on dates, and all the other stuff they did when they were dating. This is really just a matter of making our outward actions reflect our inward reality. It’s really not that hard to do. Most men did it well when they were younger. They just have to decide to do it again. I would suggest that this is encapsulated well in Paul’s direction to “love your wife like Christ loves the church.” Love her. Meet her needs. Put your own self second. Have a heart for loving and serving.

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Faking Manliness: A Response to a Common Trope in Christian Manliness Literature

 

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This morning I overslept. I wasn’t late for an obligation or anything, rather I didn’t get up as early as I wanted to in order to achieve my morning goals. I went to the gym and felt tired. I don’t know whether it was because I was unmotivated, dehydrated, or something else. I finished my workout, but I didn’t go as hard as I wanted to. I got less done for work in the morning than I wanted, though I did get some things done. I just sorta fell short of my goal. While taking my son to swim lessons, I read an essay on pushing yourself to create the type of person you want to be and I felt convicted. Still, my physical state was dragging. My spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak. This often seems like the case when I set lofty goals: I eventually lack the time, energy, or will to achieve them. I am not great at being perfect.

My morning devotions dealt with Paul being the chief of sinners. It struck me that Paul worked harder than anyone else around him to achieve righteousness under his own steam. Yet he still failed. He later said that all his efforts were a pile of trash next to knowing Christ. In Romans 7 he acknowledged his daily struggles to overcome sin. Still he pushed hard and confessed that it was only Christ in him that made him good and righteous.

Now my morning focus turned to the manhood movement within evangelicalism and the larger point of my essay. Scrolling twitter, I came across a post from a pastor trying to shame guys into overcoming any softness in their lives. It was obvious he wants men to reach a lofty state of manliness that he has decided is the target of all believers. It was condescending, self-righteous, and unbiblical. He tried to coat it with a religious veneer, but it was a thin veil. He basically told men: Do not be soft, dependent on others, or effeminate in any way. To do so is to fail as a Christian man. It had the feel of a Christianized 300 speech. Part of what troubled me is that the type of manliness the pastor was describing is not unheard of in Christian circles. Lots of male focused Christian literature and influencers push this narrative that men should rule their homes with an iron fist, never feel emotions, shed weakness, and fight the world. The problem is that for anyone to try to live that way is purely playacting. 6846443501_7627be2b7c_b.jpgThere is no authenticity to it. If manliness is all about eschewing “softness” or any kind of personal weakness, it is a form of farce. It eliminates wide swaths of men from the contention of manliness and rewards virtues that don’t really make a man.King David wouldn’t even qualify, because although he was a fierce warrior he was also a poet. He danced before the Ark. He wept. He had close friends who he loved. He wore his dependance on God as a badge of honor. He was a man of steel and velvet. He was also sinful. 

If my manliness is derived from my ability to get up early, bring it at the gym harder than anyone else, achieve more at work, or whatever, I will always be reaching for a ring that is unattainable. My flesh and the reality of my physical limitations are always going to get in the way. I am a cracked clay pot. I can push forever, but never be “good enough” because good enough is a shifting goal post. There’s always something more. My righteousness, toughness, and discipline will always be insufficient. Or worse, they will become a point of pride that will serve as a stumbling block to myself or those around me. Paul realized that. He worked to be like Jesus, acknowledged his struggles to hit the mark, and owned his shortfalls. I think that is what I want to be. I want to be a man, doing his best to be like Jesus. I want to love my wife like Christ loved the church. Teach my son to be like Jesus. Preach the Gospel and faithful explain the scriptures to the best of my ability. Still, I am going to be unfocused and soft sometimes. I’m going to act like a selfish child when my flesh overcomes me. If I fall short but I am a tool in the hands of my master I will consider it a win. If I’m not manly enough or disciplined enough or holy enough, then the good things I do are despite my weakness and point to the fact that Christ can still work through a broken tool. When I tried to be the best and to never deal with my weaknesses, it drove me to drink and wreck everyone around me. I will try hard and Christ will do the rest. If I am weak, he is strong. If I am boasting in anything, it won’t be my manliness or toughness or anything else. It’ll be in Christ alone.

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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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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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Skipping Workouts and Discipleship Training

  

A Patchingcracks Post

 Several friends of mine have been employed by gyms. All of them have shared similar, very funny stories about gym members who show up regularly, dressed in the finest of exercise clothes, spouting workout advice to anyone who will listen, though never seeming to manage to work out themselves. These folks maintain an expensive gym membership, show up regularly, but it makes no discernible difference in their everyday lives. The reason for this lack of impact should be obvious: even though these folks look and talk the part of the fitness fanatic, their lack of exercise yields the predictable results. As ridiculous as this sounds, it’s nothing new. James acknowledges the phenomena amongst 1st century Christians when he wrote that anyone who hears the word, but doesn’t do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, but immediately forgets what he looks like. The idea is that the man hears what God expects of him and is shown his sin, but doesn’t bother to live differently as a result of the revelations. Churches are far too frequently heavily populated by folks with memberships, who wear their finest church clothes as they faithfully show up and offer spiritual advice to those around them, but never manage to grow spiritually by putting into action the teachings of Jesus. Dallas Willard attributes this phenomena to the decision amongst church leaders to teach that discipleship is an optional part of following Christ. Essentially, the modern church has chosen to teach its attenders that Jesus can be their Savior, without being their Lord. The emphasis has been that we need only believe in Jesus to be saved. This is absolutely true, but it is only part of the picture. Because if we truly believe Jesus is the Son of God and that He died to take punishment for our sins, then we must also recognize the rest of His teachings, including the demand that we claim Him as our Lord and take on the yoke of His teachings. These two ideas change everything, but they can be tough to understand without proper context.  

Lord: In the ancient world, if someone was your “lord” it meant that they were your master. You obeyed their will as your ultimate, totally authoritative boss. Paul is not overstating the concept in the least when he calls himself a slave to Christ. In this modern western world, this word conjures images of an abusive overseer, but this is not accurate to who Christ is. He is a loving, self-sacrificing master who lays down His life for His followers. He bids us to love Him and each other as He has loved us. Now, it’s important to recognize that loving is not synonymous with permissive. A loving parent doesn’t let their kids run wild. Rather, they discipline and teach their children, helping them to grow/mature into good people and prepare them for the rest of their life. The same is true of Christ, who leads us to become what God created us to be and prepares us to enjoy life with God. Jesus being our lord is a total life commitment, not an image or part time commitment.The Yoke of His Teachings: A yoke is a large piece of wood that lays across the neck of an ox or other beast of burden. The yoke transforms the effort of the oxen into work, by moving a plow, hauling a cart, or turning a millstone. Ancient students were said to take on the “yoke” of their teacher when they learned the teachings of their masters. Essentially, Jesus is calling us to take on His teachings, that turn our efforts into something valuable. That something valuable is our maturing into people who have hearts like Jesus’. It is also our good works that make our world look like the kingdom of heaven. Taking on Jesus’ yoke means learning/living/loving His teachings. It is a lifestyle of training for heaven. The good news is that Jesus describes His yoke as “easy” and the burden of His teachings as “light.” It doesn’t crush us, though there are those who think it ought to and try to change the teachings of Jesus into something that is unbearable. 

For everyone who chooses to call themselves a Christian and align themselves with Jesus, discipleship and growth is essential. Jesus was serious when He said, “If you love me, keep my commands.” He was also serious when He warned that not everyone who says to Him “Lord, lord” will be accepted into heaven. There are those who He will turn away saying: “I never knew you.” Discipleship is following Christ, not earning heaven. It is the call to all who identify Him as Savior.  

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