God as Father

When my youngest daughter was around 2 years old, one of her favorite games was sometimes to pretend she’d seen a “monster” and run over so I or her mom could protect her.  Actually she did this from time to time with her big brother and sister too, which was quite funny.  She wasn’t really scared, she had a half-smile on her face the whole time. It was a big game to her.  Needless to say we all loved playing along.  I loved to see her run to her big brother (who was 6) for protection from imaginary monsters.  I seize every opportunity to teach him that God has given him a baby sister to love and protect. I believe that God has given each of us the other to love and protect, but I especially love the chance to train my son in this way.

I believe that God gives us strength and influence for two primary purposes.  One is so that we can spread the Good News of  God’s great Gospel.  The second is so that we can demonstrate God’s character and the spirit of His Gospel to the world by rescuing those who cannot rescue themselves.

So when I teach my son that he has a responsibility to see the world through the eyes of a compassionate protector, I am teaching him to see the world through the eyes of God.  These are the principles that will guide him as he learns to be a man, to be a son, a friend, husband, and father.

When a man leads the church with compassionate protection, he models Christ as the Head of the church, and presents the world with a right view of Jesus’ authority and the Gospel.  

When a husband sacrificially leads his wife by being a compassionate protector, he loves her as Christ loves the church, and he models the Gospel faithfully. 

When a man leads his family as a compassionate protector, he models the Gospel faithfully to a world that longs for compassion and protection. 

When a man lives a missional lifestyle by compassionately protecting and rescuing those who are weak or poor, he lives out the Gospel for the world to see.  This is what we mean by encouraging people not simply to go to church, but to BE the church.

These are the biblical values and principles that I pray characterize my life.  These are the biblical values and principles that I want to shape my son’s character.  Of course I want my girls to be leaders, to be compassionate, and use their strength and influence to share the gospel and minister to the weak.  They too have unique opportunities to reveal God’s love in ways that are strong and bold.  But on Father’s Day weekend I am thinking particularly of my own life, the path before my son, and the opportunity we have as men to be faithful.

This morning as my little girl ran playfully into my arms I was overwhelmed with gratitude to God that He has revealed Himself to us as Father.  Any good impulse I have as a dad is a shadow and reminder of what God offers each of us.  Unconditional love, protection, His presence, belonging, joy, providing for our needs and wants, etc.  Even my own shortcomings are a reminder that God has provided something for my children that I could not…a Heavenly Father who would never let them down or disappoint them. 

Happy Fathers Day.

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entertainment and kids: the danger of getting too much of a good thing

I’ve been observing an interesting phenomenon lately in the life of my kids.  And I am now convinced that the observation period needs to end, and the time has come for a gentle course correction.  My kids seem to be offended by boredom.  I write that with a smile because no one thinks being bored is fun, but there is a difference between trying to avoid being bored by finding something to do, and being offended by it.  I spent half of my life as a child being bored.  I was never offended by it, but I did become miserable enough at times that I got busy doing something.

It seems that there is a direct correlation between how many forms of instant entertainment kids (and some adults) are allowed to indulge in, and how entitled they seem to feel to it.  Games can be played on the ipod, ipad, nook, wii, playstation, DS, or mom and dad’s smartphone.  Movies can be accessed on all of the above mentioned devices through netflix and other similar providers.  And there’s always the good ole TV at home.

A.W. Tozer wrote, ” the present inordinate attachment to every form of entertainment is evidence that the inner life of modern man is in serious decline. The average man has no central core of moral assurance, no spring within his own breast, no inner strength to place him above the need for repeated psychological shots to give him the courage to go on living. He has become a parasite on the world, drawing his life from his environment, unable to live a day apart from the stimulation which society affords him.”

I want my children to appreciate the value of strengthening the “inner life” as Tozer puts it.  That’s the place where deep satisfaction in God is found.  I realize that as a parent, this will only happen when I directly work to shape their influences.  I need to consider things like how much they see me use outside sources for entertainment.  I need to consider how much is OK for them to find entertainment in outside sources, and how much is too much.  I need to make the commitment to read more at home so that my example can be a positive one in that regard. We are blessed I must say, with kids who love to read.  I also must be committed to engaging them in conversation.  Families are too often physically in the same room, but miles apart due to distraction. The art of being present wherever you are is lost in a desire to constantly be entertained.  

These are just some quick thoughts.  It’s not by any means a full treatment of the issue.  I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.

5 reasons obedience matters in the life of a leader

The purpose of Christian obedience is not moral living. The purpose of Christian obedience is bringing the message of Jesus into this lost world. – Leonard Dupree

You’ve probably heard it so often that it’s become cliché, but it’s still true: The best leaders are great followers. This is not an article about the value of mentors, it’s a call to remember that we in church leadership are not only called to make disciples, we’re called to be disciples. Obedience to Jesus in the life of a church leader is essential, and will create positive ripple effects throughout your span of influence. Here are 5 ways that obedience matters in the life of a leader:

Obedience keeps you humble.

God didn’t call you to your place of service so that you could be a leader. He called you there so that He could use you accomplish His purposes in this world. This brings Him glory, and no matter how we label ourselves, glorifying God through our service ought to be the primary goal. When we are committed to obeying God’s word and will, we are less concerned with our own will. As John the Baptist said, He must increase, and we must decrease.

Obedience provides momentum for ministry.

Obedience in church leadership always means moving forward with a Kingdom agenda. God never calls us to be complacent. When church leaders are seeking to be obedient in their daily work, we find God calling us to identify where He is at work in the world, so that we can join Him in it.

Obedience keeps you authentic.

Being obedient in church leadership means being dependant on God, and those He places in our lives in order to be successful. The people with whom God has blessed us with influence need to see our dependence on God’s guidance. They need to know that we turn to Him for instructions as to what to do next. They also need to know that we need them. God placed a support team in our lives so they can do just that…support. Obedience to God in church leadership often means listening to the advice of the team you serve with and acting on it. In leadership, if you get too far ahead of those you are leading…pretty soon you’re just taking a walk.

Obedience draws you back to the Bible.

Church leaders must excel in the spiritual discipline of bible intake. How can we claim to be obedient to God if we never spend time reading His word? The Bible is more than a set of commandments; it is the words of life. When we are committed to Christian obedience, it drives us back to the Bible so that we can know the heart of God.

Obedience makes you more like Jesus.

When Jesus was tormented in the Garden over what lay before Him on the night of His betrayal He prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.” Church leadership requires that tough decisions be made on a frequent basis. If we are not committed to God’s will over ours, we will tend to make decisions based on our own preferences. Ministry should never be driven by the preference of the leader, but by his submission to the will of God for his work.

Can you think of any other ways obedience affects the life of a church leader?

It’s OK to talk to these strangers, they’re Wisemen.

Bible illustration c.1900

Image via Wikipedia

Some parental instructions are pretty obvious. “Don’t talk to strangers!”  It’s a common sense warning.  Our kids have picked up on that one pretty quick.  Then there are those variations on the obvious instructions that may not occur to you unless circumstances dictate.  The stranger isn’t talking to your child, their trying to give them food.  That’s right, food.  So you repeat the obvious instructions, and add the new variation.  “And of all things, don’t EVER take CANDY from a stranger!”  It would be funny if it didn’t really happen.  A few days ago we were leaving church, and a friendly man my daughter did not know came up to her and offered a candy cane.  Like all 3 year olds who have been taught well, she hesitated to take the candy.  She shied away from the harmless gentlemen and looked at us with that “I don’t know this dude but I sure would like that candy cane.  Is it OK?”  look.  We nodded permission, and she happily received the gift.  Some principles of parenting transcend time, place, and culture.  I bet “Don’t talk to strangers!” is one of them.

I want to call your attention to what I imagine was a profound moment in the life of baby Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph.

Church tradition, and a careful reading of the scriptures lead us to believe that The Magi, or the wise men were not present at the manger that night when the shepherds arrived to see the newly born Jesus.  Most scholars and church historians believe Jesus may have been as old as 2 when the Magi arrived with their extravagant gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.  We tend to refer to “3” wise men because 3 gifts are specifically mentioned in scripture.  The Eastern Orthodox church tradition is that there were twelve distinguished foreigners.  These were also not simply “wise” men, or philosophers.  They were royalty.  They were kings from the east, most likely Babylon, or modern-day Iraq.  Kings don’t travel alone.  They were most likely a part of a large caravan, and the gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh, were more than likely not given in small quantities either.  After all, they traveled to Bethlehem following a singularly spectacular astronomical event, which they believed was a sign that the King of the Jews had been born.

Using your scripture enhanced imagination, envision this moment unfolding.  The toddler Jesus is at home, playing outside in the warm sun.  His mother Mary, not far away keeps a watchful eye over her precious son.  Perhaps Joseph is away at work building something to provide for his family’s needs.  Or perhaps he is there, sitting in the grass, talking with Mary and enjoying the sound of his son’s laughter.  In either case, it becomes impossible to ignore the sounds of the large caravan drawing near to their residence.  It becomes clear that the distinguished looking foreigners are not passing by, they have come to Joseph and Mary’s home.  Their faces filled with wonder, the visitors move toward the small family bearing precious gifts which are intended as offerings to a King.

This is where the universal principle of “Don’t talk to strangers!” may have kicked in.  And this is the moment I want to point you to.  The child Jesus may have shied away from the strangers with extravagant gifts, bowing down before him.  Perhaps the entire caravan dismounted and knelt to the ground as their masters paid homage to the child.  Mary and Joseph knew who their son was.  They knew He was more than just the King of the Jews.  They remembered the angel’s pronouncements that this was God’s Son.  Mary adds another moment to her heart’s treasury which she would ponder over the years.

And so as the din of the caravan grows reverently silent, and the dignitaries have extended their beautiful gifts, the child Jesus looks to his parents for guidance and permission as to what to do.   In awe, Mary and Joseph nod their blessing.  “Go ahead Jesus, you deserve these gifts and their worship.  Go ahead baby.  You deserve all this and more.”  In the still, a smile plays across the face of the little boy.  A smile plays across the face of God.

Who are you anyway?

A mirror, reflecting a vase

Image via Wikipedia

Today when I was at home for lunch I had the bright idea to do a fun little experiment with the kids.  It all started when I made a crack to my son about his shorts and he looked down like, “I have shorts on!?”  My wife and I were eating at the table and the kids were playing in their rooms.  I decided to call them out one by one, tell them to close their eyes, and ask them what clothes they had on.

I called my son out first.  He closed his eyes just as he was asked and I said, “Describe what you are wearing.”  He kept his eyes closed but this incredulous look came over his face like, “You expect me to know that!”  I restated the question as he stood there in his brown t-shirt and grey shorts.  He stuttered a bit and then said in a questioning tone, “Blue shirt?”  Ha!  Wrong.  He opened his eyes, rolled them at his brown shirt and took off.

Next I called out my  8 year old daughter.  I gave her the same instructions and posed the question.  She stood there in stunned silence as my wife and I died laughing.  Finally she said, “What?”  She was stalling for time to think.  She brought her hands up and had to feel her night gown before she remembered.  Cheater.  We sent her off laughing.

Finally I called out the 3 year old.  I told her to close her eyes and she did.  (She had her hands full of puzzle pieces if you want the complete mental picture.) She was wearing a white t-shirt with some incriminating red Kool-aid stains on the sleeves.  I said, “What are you wearing?”  She squinted one eye, and peeked down with the other.  Even staring at her shirt she said, “White shirt?”  She was suspicious it was trick question.  “Good job!” we applauded!

I recently read that the gospel is so much more than a plan of salvation for the lost. It is the water in which a Christian swims everyday.  I have often been guilty of thinking of the Gospel as the diving board into the pool of Christianity.  But the reality is that the Gospel is the pool itself.  The beauty of this truth is that the deeper I swim into the Gospel the more I understand about who I am in Christ.  I realize that I am more sinful than I ever dared think, because my only possible remedy required God the Son sacrificing himself on my behalf.  In the wake of that terrible reality I realize that I am more loved than I ever dared dream, because Jesus did exactly that.  2 Corinthians tells us that “God had Christ, who was sinless, take our sin so that we might receive God’s approval through him.”

If you want to see yourself as you really are, take a look at yourself through the lens of the Gospel.   What you will see may surprise you, but it will be a surprise that will heal your heart. 

James 1 says in vs. 22-24 “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.”

How many times have we heard God’s word taught, or read it ourselves telling us how we could find deep meaning in life through the message of the gospel; only to go on living  in frustration and confusion?  The only right response to the message of the scriptures is to embrace the love of Christ and allow it to shape us into the men and women God would have us be.   Otherwise it’s like wandering around not even knowing what kind of clothes you have on, or who you really are at all.

Junk in the mix

I recently came across the following story in the appendix of a book by Rob Bell. It wasn’t “that one”, so relax.  It served as a good reminder for me.  I hope it speaks to you as well!

“Recently I saw my friend Josh, who teaches fifth and sixth graders. He was preparing the lesson for that day and had his supplies with him: a large glass bowl, a can of beef, fatty tissue, sauerkraut, a jar of olives, some anchovies, and a hundred dollar bill. I know – I was curious too. So I did exactly what you would have done. I asked him what the lesson was about. He replied, ‘I put all of the ingredients in a bowl, including the money, and then I mix it together. Then when it doesn’t taste good I pretend I am going to throw it away. At this point the kids go crazy, telling me not to. I ask them why I shouldn’t and they say, “Because its valuable”. And then I counter with, “But it smells and its disgusting.” At which point they rush to the front, volunteering to reach into the bowl and pull out the hundred dollar bill. Actually I may have to start using a twenty for this lesson, because the last time I used a hundred, they trampled each other to get to the front. I then read to them from Genesis chapter 1 about how every single human being bears the image of God, and how no matter what else is mixed in there, a person still has limitless worth in the eyes of God’.”

Isn’t this a powerful object lesson? We all have some junk in the mix don’t we? I know I do. Sometimes it makes me feel better to compare junk with others and convince myself that I have less than this person or that. But I need to be more mindful that no matter how much junk is in the mix, each person is one who has inherent value in the eyes of God. All of scripture is a testament in part to that fact.

But what about the people I live with and call my family. Do I focus more on their value or their junk? Maya Angelou has a wonderful quote, “If you have only one smile in you, give it to the people you love. Don’t be surly at home, then go out in the street and start grinning ‘Good morning’ at total strangers.” Point taken.

Aren’t you glad God is in the business of redemption? If we let Him, He washes our junk away, and rejoices in the value of who we are. I want to be more mindful of what God values, and less mindful of…other stuff.

The Black Cloth

To me, one of the most beautiful expressions of the resurrection is a simple piece of cloth draped on a cross.  The sight of it, if we slow down long enough to see it, displays a deep truth that our souls long to know.

Timothy Keller gives a brilliant lecture on J.R.R. Tolkien sharing his faith by discussing  how the Gospel speaks to men’s deepest longings.  In it, he argues that the kinds of stories mankind returns to over and over again are stories which depict a love that is eternal,  a love without parting,  a love that overcomes death, and good utterly destroying evil.  All the great stories we love are stories about victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, and sacrificial heroism that brings life out of certain death. Tolkien points out that these are deep human longings.  These longings are woven into the fabric of our souls.  He says that human beings know at the fact level that people do have to die.  That evil often triumphs.  We know that, no matter how much you love someone, eventually you’re going to have to lose them, or that they’re going to lose you.  This is realism.  This is what modern thought tells us is the only reasonable way to look at the world.  We live, we hurt more than we’re happy, and we die.  End of story.  And yet underneath, all human beings feel that there shouldn’t be death.  We feel that we’re not meant to die.  We’re not meant to lose our loved ones.  Good should be triumphing over evil.  

Mankind was created in the image of God, and though marred by sin, we long for the things of God.  We long for reality to be what God intended it to be without the destructive presence of sin.  We long for perfect fellowship with God, unbroken by rebellion and without struggle.  We long to love and fear no loss or parting.  We long to wake up to the reality of life and find that death was only a bad dream.  We long for justice. 

And then, there it is.  That purple cloth draped on a cross for some weeks leading up to Easter.  It’s actually the liturgical color of violet that represents expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of Easter.

Then, on “Good Friday” the violet cloth comes down, and it is replaced by a cloth which represents death.  A black cloth. 

This is the moment when the realist points out the unreasonableness of hope.  Jesus did, after all, die.  His body was broken and did not withstand the punishment of the cross. He was taken from the cross and laid in a borrowed grave.  The religious leaders convinced the Romans to place a massive boulder at the tomb’s entrance.  His disciples cowered in fear and gave up hope.  The wisdom of the world would say that this is inevitably where all stories end.  The blackness of death. 

But then, no one cares for that kind of story.  This isn’t the kind of tale we tell ourselves in order to be touched down deep where inspiration happens.  There is that pesky longing again.  We long for what seems impossible.

I was privileged last year to preach an Easter sunrise service.  In the darkness of early morning I drove past our church, with its cross shrouded in black, and my head and heart were full of resurrection hope.  And then a thought occurred to me.  That black cloth needs to come down.  He’s alive and a black cloth is entirely wrong and inappropriate.  I pulled over, and walked back to the cross.  I was surprised by the surge of emotion I felt.  My eyes filled with tears as I ripped the black cloth of death from the cross.  It was my solemn pleasure.  Where there certainly had been death, there now is life.  Later that morning a white cloth of victory and new life found its place on the cross.

Those simple pieces of cloth had told the story.  Not just any story, but THE story.  Jesus’ story.  My story. 

Tolkien says so truthfully that, “There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true [than the story of Jesus], and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.”  On Fairy Stories

There is a reason Jesus’ story moves us on so many levels.  It’s true.  It’s everything we hope for and need to be true.  When I pulled that black cloth off of the cross, I pulled it off of my heart as well. 

This Easter morning, the cloth of death will be pulled from crosses all over the world.  My prayer is that it will fall from your heart as well.  May the story of Jesus also become your story.  Doesn’t your soul long for it?