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Six Practical Steps to Put Our Faith, Spirituality, and Relationships Back On Track— Why Do People Feel So Lonely? Part 3

The first two parts of this series have dug into the source of separation we experience in our lives. We looked at how God designed people for community and how sin has created barriers to our basic connections with God and others.

Life has a way of wearing us down and isolating us. How do we get back to our created design?

This series is a short side trip on a larger exploration of overwork in our lives. You may be asking yourself why loneliness and the fall are a part of that discussion. I believe the answer to this can be found in the writing of a French Philosopher named Blaise Pascal.

Pascal was a child prodigy, mathematician, physicist, inventor, philosopher, writer, and Catholic theologian. He formulated a number of interesting arguments regarding the existence of God that are still debated hotly today. One idea, in particular, applies to our discussion of work and how it tends to get out of whack.

“There is a God-shaped vacuum in the heart of each man which cannot be satisfied by any created thing but only by God the Creator, made know through Jesus Christ.”

Pascal

That hole is a product of our design being frustrated as a result of the fall. We are made for connection to God. We can try to fill that vacuum in our hearts with all sorts of things.

Work, in particular, is a popular choice. We were designed to work and create. It scratches part of our itch. The problem is that work scratches the itch for a moment, but it comes back worse later. The more we put work in the place of God to make ourselves feel fulfilled, the emptier we are. It’s a little like scratching a mosquito bite. The more you scratch, the worse it itches. Eventually you end up raw and bleeding, but it is still itchy.

The only real solution is to fill the void with relationship with God. That relationship should impact every other part of our lives. Our family, friendships, work, and neighbor relationships will all be impacted by walking with Jesus in our lives. In addition, our work lives cannot help but be impacted by learning to follow Jesus’ teachings and his Spirit’s work reshaping our hearts/minds.

This is the reason Jesus came and died on the cross. He took punishment for our sins and revealed God to us through himself. We are made new through him. Those who walk with Jesus are slowly remade into what we were meant to be. We learn from him and he works in us to reshape our hearts.

These are easy ideas to present, but what does it mean in practical terms?

Follow Jesus.

When a student followed a rabbi in the ancient world it sharing their lives. Disciples would spend all of their time with rabbis. They would share their life. They would observe them in every aspect of life, whether it involved serving the poor or teaching. Watching led to imitating their teachers.

This is the idea behind following Jesus. We learn to be like him by reflecting on how he dealt with life. One aspect of his life was work. He frequently rested. He often stepped away to spend time in prayer. Sometimes he disappeared and avoided crowds so he could regroup.

Pay attention to your “warning lights.”

Every modern car is overloaded with warning lights in the dashboard. They tell you when the car is overheating or when something has gone wrong that needs repairing. You ignore those warning lights at your own risk.

We have similar “lights” that flash to get our attention. I first clued into this idea when I found myself getting cranky and irritable constantly in my early years of ministry and marriage. I spoke with my pastor about it and he explained to me that anger rises out of other feelings, like hurt or frustration. It is not the problem in and of itself.

The trick is to figure out where it was coming from. If we start getting cranky constantly, something is wrong. We may need to rest or spend time with out loved ones or talk about our problems. Whatever it is, those warning lights let us know something is out of whack in our emotional state, relationships, or spiritual life.

Set your priorities and objectives based on his priorities.

When Jesus saves us from our sins, we come under his lordship. He is the boss in our lives, which seems fair because he is God and he bought our redemption by dying for us. Taking time in the morning, midday, and evening to stop and talk/listen to him. We should review his word and listen to him. Our daily goals and schedule should be set based on his direction.

This isn’t a one time thing. We tend to forget, so we need to come back to it daily. It’s sort of like navigating with a map and compass. It is valuable to stop and get your bearings regularly so you know where you are. That way if you drift off course, frequently checking your bearings keeps you from getting too far off course.

Take Sabbath regularly.

God intended for us to take time off to enjoy life. This means resting, spending time with God, spending time with family, and enjoying life. It isn’t some boring restriction from doing anything, even enjoyable things.

Sabbath is taking a day a week to enjoy life. There will be times when you must skip a sabbath. When the Jews were fighting for independence from the Persians, a small army was slaughtered because it was attacked on the Sabbath. They did not fight back because it was the Sabbath. Afterwards the religious scholars agreed that they could ignore sabbath to save their own lives.

The trick is, the easier you make it to skip the Sabbath, the more often you will skip it. The commandment says that we are to keep it holy. That means we set it apart and preserve it as different and belonging to God. Please note: Sabbath is the day you take it. It is not necessarily Saturday or Sunday.

Surround yourself with people who have mastered working in a way that reflects God’s design for life.

The best strategy I can offer is to find people who do this well and spend time with them. The more people like that influence you, the more you will learn new habits. Ask them questions. Find people to keep you accountable and ask you pointed questions about your priorities and time use. There are a few good reasons for this.

First, you will naturally start to look like the people you associate with regularly. It is a strange truth about people that we tend to imitate those we surround ourselves with. This is one reason the scriptures tell us to gather as the church more often. We change each other.

Second, in those circles you will be able to get an outside perspective that is (hopefully) seasoned with real wisdom. You cannot see every angle. Finding wise men to give you perspective and input is vital.

Finally, without accountability it is difficult to maintain high standards in life. You need people who know you well enough and know enough about life to call you out when you drift.

Model a life you want your kids or those around you to live.

We all grow up to imitate our parents in one way or another. We will wind up with their mannerisms, methods of arguing, work philosophies, ways of coping with problems, etc.

Not everything will transfer to your kids, but workaholism has a habit of passing from one generation to the next. If you want your kids to cheat on their spouse with their job or orphan their own kids in the name of long work hours, then model that. I recommend imitating Christ in your work strategies.

There are a million other little things you can do to manage your work life better. These are only a few and they center around the ideas I presented in the first two installments: We are designed to be in relationship with God and others; and sin has thrown up barriers.

By following Jesus in these areas of life, praying and seeking his direction, prioritizing based on his teachings/direction, and surrounding yourself with people whose community will shape you in positive ways you are leaning on the core of who we are created to be.

In addition, by walking with Jesus in these aspects of life, he fills your heart and changes you. This means you are returning to your created design and God is working in you to bring that change about.

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You’ve built a good life. So why does it feel like something’s missing?

Why does it seem like no matter what you add to your life, it is just never enough to make you feel satisfied? Why does it seem like there’s something better in the distance, hiding in the fog where you can only see its outline? Solomon answers that question in Ecclesiastes 3.

Have you ever felt like there should be something more? You built a life complete with the job, home, family, and car. You have everything you’re supposed to gather up in life, but there’s still something missing. I’m talking about a void that prompts you to ask “Is that it? Why do I still feel like something’s missing?”

Kierkegaard called that feeling of disconnect ‘angst’ and devoted page after page to considering what it is and how to fix it. Television commercials constantly tell you that the problem is that you need a new cell phone, or car, or some other shiny new toy to make the void feel full for a while. The problem is that the newness wears off.

Don’t worry. You aren’t alone in this struggle. The there’s-got-to-be-something-more void isn’t even a new thing. Kierkegaard wrote about it in the 1800s, but the wrestling matches in our souls go back much farther. Roman emperors wrote books about it. Socrates was put to death for challenging his fellow Athenians to face it head on. Nearly 3,000 years ago King Solomon wrote a book considering the problem.

This essay will look at what he came up with. My goal will be to examine the question: “Why do we long for something more even when we have found everything we thought we wanted?” and “What do we do about it?”

These questions are at the heart of Chapter 3 of the Bible book: Ecclesiastes. Don’t let the name intimidate you. It just means “teacher.” The goal is to teach the reader of the reality of life in our broken world. This Sunday (8/28/22) I’ll be preaching on the next chapter, which digs deeper into why the answer in chapter 3 seems hollow in our practical experience.

The two chapters were meant to be read together, so one leads to the next. My hope is to connect you with the beginning of the answer you are longing for in the quiet moments and to prepare you for this Sunday’s examination of the next chapter.

A quick note: I am not going to include the whole text. Please consider reading along in your Bible on a good Bible website like Biblegateway. I would suggest the NIV New International Version). Also, you might find the wording in the text a little intimidating and/or confusing. Part of that is because it was written 3,000ish years ago in a whole other language. It’s also written in a poetic/philosophical style. I’ll help explain it as we go.

To Everything There is a SeasonTurn Turn Turn

The words in the beginning (verses 1-8) of the chapter are probably familiar. Feel free to sing the lines as you read them. The Byrds’ adaptation of this passage has branded them in our brains making this poem is most famous part of the book.

King Solomon, who at the time of writing the book is old and gray, is making the point that we are all creatures stuck in time. We live experiencing the passing of days and seasons. Until Doc Brown invents a time machine to move us about within time, we can only go forward at the pace we are going now. Within that passing of time there are seasons for everything.

The poem here is particularly appropriate for the culture of the original audience (farmers and ranchers), whose lives were heavily oriented around seasons. The point is simple: You are going to move through the seasons of your life. Some will be good, others not. They will go by as you move forward on your journey from cradle to grave.

If you’re in asking yourselves the “is-this-really-it” questions, then the poem (and melancholy hippy song) probably resonates at least a little. There’s no saving time in a bottle for later. Like sand slipping through an hourglass, so are the days of our lives… Got it? You’re not getting younger and will probably die eventually.

The Problem of Time Passing By

Verses 9 to 14 take the problem of the void head on, but because you are not an ancient Jewish reader (I assume) I am going to skip ahead to verses 18-21. You see, one of the great paradoxes of the ancient Hebrew worldview involves dust.

If you’re a rural Montanan like me, you know that dust is everywhere. It coats every surface of our cars. It kicks up on the farm roads and reduces visibility to nothing. A friend of mine sells premium collectible harvest dust to folks in numbered, limited edition bottles. It is everywhere and to most folks it is a nuisance. However, in the book of Genesis it is what God used to make man.

The creator of everything gathered up dust, molded it into man in his own image, and breathed into it to give it life. In fact, his name (Adam) essentially means “dirt.” The key bit in the Genesis account is that he made man in “His own image.” The phrase is loaded with tons of meaning and implications. For our purposes we will only consider two aspects:

First: In all of the ancient accounts of where man came from, Genesis is the only one where man was not an accident or an inconvenient byproduct of of something else the gods were doing. The Jews believed that man was special and even resembled God by design. When they asked “Is this all there is,” they did so with the assumption that there really ought to be more.

Second: In our basic qualities we are like God. We create stuff. We write poems and create art. We were designed to have a strong ethical sense. Also, we were meant to live forever. Death is a result of the fall and the sin that has corrupted the world and messed everything up. That is where the paradox happens.

We are dust with God’s image stamped into us, designed for eternity, and to dust we will return. Solomon basically says that just like the animals we will die, returning to the dust.

That’s the tension every Jewish reader would’ve spotted immediately. He talks about returning to the dust, conjuring the image of beings created from dust, to resemble something eternal, which will eventually return to the dust. Seasons pass and we pass away.

Lois Tverberg wrote on this topic: One eighteenth-century rabbi put it this way: “A person should always carry two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one it should be written ‘The world was created for my sake,’ and on the other it should say ‘I am but dust and ashes.’” On days when we feel discouraged and worthless, we should read the first one. On days when we’re consumed with pride and our own self-importance, we should read the other.

Why do I feel like something is missing?

Armed with the understanding of our precarious paradoxical situation, let’s jump back to verses 9 to 14. Solomon asks “What do we even get for the work we put in?” It’s a good question. Earlier in the book he explored the hard truth that no matter what we build, create, write, invent, or decree it is temporary.

Solomon built cities and monuments, that would one day crumble. His stuff would be passed around by family, sold off at garage sales, or donated to Salvation Army. All of his work is temporary and nothing will last long. What is the point of doing great things when those great things will fade quickly like the flash of brilliance that accompanies a lightning strike? The ancient Jewish reader would’ve known that we and all our accomplishments will return to the dust.

Then Solomon points out that God has “He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” We are temporary, but at the core of our being we want to be eternal. We feel like there should be something more because we were made for something more. We long for eternity.

That longing will stay with us for as long as we live because we live in a perfect world that has been broken. We (and it) were designed to know God and be connected to him all the time. However, rebellion made Him a stranger to us. As a result we are constantly longing for something to fill the God shaped hole in ourselves.

The tragedy is that nothing in this world can fill it and the more we use the world to try to fill it, the worse the hunger becomes.

The gnawing hunger we experience for “something more” is part of our design. We were meant for more than this life.

Solomon’s Solution

Solomon’s solution to the emptiness is to acknowledge the gift God has given us and orient life around it. That gift is today: “I know that there is nothing better for people than to be happy and to do good while they live. That each of them may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all their toil—this is the gift of God.” (Verses 12-13)

Basically, we are to realize we are meant for more, then enjoy today based on that truth. Be happy with what you have. Live as God called you to live. Enjoy the fruit of your work. Enjoy your work.

This probably feels like an empty solution on the face of it. The trick is to recognize that it’s a gift from a loving Father meant for our good. It is part of knowing Him. We can pray thanks for our family. We can find the good things in our work. We can enjoy a good meal. We can find meaning in following him in our actions. If it feels like there is a piece missing here, it’s because there is. You see, Solomon wrote this in the 900s BC. He could not see where the plan was headed.

Wait, What?!? That’s it? That doesn’t help!

You may have read Solomon’s solution and thought: “Work sucks and I’m already doing the other stuff but something is still missing.” That is a fair observation. There’s three parts to what’s going on here.

First: the trick is looking at your life in a new light.

It’s a little like the “Antiques Road Show” on PBS. I always find it interesting when a guy comes in with an old iron that their great grandmother left them, which they had been using as a doorstop in the garage for years. The appraiser looks it over, then explains that it was used to press Napoleon’s uniform at the battle of Waterloo and is worth $500,000,000 at auction. Suddenly, that rusty piece of junk has new value.

Your life, family, work, meals, and everything are there for you to enjoy now. They are a precious gift from God. Don’t let the ever present longing for eternity wreck your enjoyment of now.

C.S. Lewis argued that the stuff we enjoy now is designed to awaken a hunger for eternity. They are there to remind you that there is something more.

I’d compare it to a movie theater preview of the best movie ever made. No one watched the trailer to the next summer blockbuster and complains that it isn’t enough. Trailers get you hyped up for opening weekend when you get to enjoy the whole thing.

Good meals are the aroma wafting from the kitchen as the Feast of the Lamb described in Revelation is being prepared. Your wedding day gives you a sliver of the joy that will be experienced at wedding of Christ to his bride, the church. Your friendships are a snapshot of the fellowship we’ll enjoy with God’s family in eternity. Enjoy it like you would a little sample spoon at Baskin Robins, because the full triple scoop, chocolate dipped, waffle cone is coming faster than you expect. This life is not all there is.

Second: God’s Addition to Solomon’s Solution

Enjoying today doesn’t solve the “missing part of ourselves” problem. If the things of today awaken a hunger for eternity, how do we satiate that hunger?

The trick is that the story doesn’t end with Solomon. The answer is bigger than he knew. That solution shows up when God himself shows up.

The New Testament tells us of how the infinite God became a creature of dust, just like you and me. He chose to be stuck in time with us and experience the passing of seasons. He lived perfectly and showed us perfectly who God is. Then he stepped into our spot and took punishment for our sins. When Jesus was crucified, God saw all of our sins in Him and poured his wrath out on him.

In exchange, when God looks at those who follow Jesus he sees Jesus’ perfection. Even the most awful things we have done are wiped away. This established a reconnection to him. It connects us with him in a way that fills the void.

When Solomon says in verse 14 that God and all his work are eternal, he is saying that we want that but cannot get it. We have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that we are meant for more, but that God embodies that truth.

In Jesus, we are reconnected to that and given the promise of joining into eternity. Now, our work is part of something eternal, whether we like it or not.

C.S. Lewis once wrote that everything we do in regards to those around us will push them toward an eternity in God’s presence or an eternity separated from him.

Our work will bring him glory or bring us shame. In light of the gospel, everything we do is eternal. It will all last forever. That is why Paul tells us to do everything in life like we are doing it for Jesus himself. Live your life like the results are eternal, because they are.

Third: Chapter 4 (And This Week’s Sermon)

We will address the third part of why the answer can feel little flat in this Sunday’s sermon.

You might have read Solomon’s idea that work is part of the solution and thought: “Work is awful (especially Mondays!). What kind of solution is that???”

Solomon addresses that objection in the next chapter, which is all about how work gets screwed up in our world. The problem is that our sinful world has lost perspective on what work is for and what place it should hold in our lives.

This Sunday we will look at the various ways we deal with work wrong that results in a feeling that it is “not enough.” Solomon goes through and looks at several different bits of brokenness that make our world feel empty.

TLDR Summary:

In Mere Christianity C.S. Lewis sums the preceding points up better than I could hope to. The reason we experience a longing for more and an unquenchable hunger for more is because:

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage. I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others do the same.”

Solomon acknowledges that hunger and advises us to enjoy our work, the fruit of our work, and our lives while doing good. Walk with God and enjoy the gifts he has given you.

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My Life As a Dog: A Reflection

While studying this morning, I watched my wife’s puppy diligently working to get dog food out of the older dog’s crate. The two dogs eat different foods and she always wants to eat what he is eating… Over the course of an hour she worked her way around the cage and did her best to grab what she can. In fact, she managed to get a few pieces of food in the process and eventually pulled the other dog’s bowl to the edge of the crate so she could steal directly from it.

Why am I sharing this? First, it is cute and funny. Second, as I am sitting up (early in the morning) to study and reflect before the day starts and the kids get up, I kinda think I am a bit like the dog (though maybe not enough like her). I am up looking, scratching around,and digging for a bit of wisdom, understanding, or spiritual maturity. The thing is, it is often just out of reach. BUT, if I dig persistently enough I end up with a morsel or two in the process. I rarely figure out how to get the whole bowl all at once, but I grow in bits and pieces. It just takes work. Maybe the kernels of truth taste better if I have to work for it… I guess my point is that spiritual maturity, depth, and wisdom is not an instant venture. We sorta need to be single minded in our pursuit of it in order to acquire what we are chasing…

There is another side to this coin. I don’t give her the other dog’s food because it isn’t good for her. She is still growing, and the wrong kind of food can mess her up in the long run. In that respect, the dog is a lot like me when my sinful heart gets set on something that God has purposefully locked out of my reach. I will continue to work at it, in my fallenness, trying to get what I can because I think that what is new and exciting and different and forbidden will make me happy. In the end, the things I am trying to get aren’t going to do anything but mess me up. The puppy cannot seem to stop and think: Maybe this cage is here for a reason… maybe I should eat what is given to me and ignore what isn’t for me. Of course, dogs don’t think that way… and neither do I when sin has grabbed the wheel and is steering me where I shouldn’t go.

That was my weird reflection for the morning while drinking coffee and trying to study 2 Timothy. Hope y’all’s day is good… chase wisdom with an abiding hunger… Avoid the things the Lord has set apart from you for your own good.

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Christmas Music In November and the Apocalypse

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

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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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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

Arthur pink- family.jpg

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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