Friday, August 28, 2015

Do it yourself religion?

Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson

  Though for some it’s almost like a second home, for me it’s a quiet moment of desperation. It begins with some angst, then long periods of procrastination, followed by that point of total desperation. Finally, when there are apparently no other choices – I surrender and go…I go to Menards. Going to Menards for me is a cross cultural experience. It’s like visiting another country – I don’t speak the language or understand most of the customs. Then, there’s this annoying music which keeps playing in the background about “save big money…” Okay, maybe I’m saving money but my sanity, well, that’s another matter.  
  Sooner or later nearly all of us end up joining the ranks of “Do-It-Yourself-America.” It’s the growing trend in America and this isn’t your Dad’s little local hardware store. Those have been dwarfed by the Menards, Home Depots and Lowe’s in a big box world. Why? Our culture thrives on self-sufficiency. How many times have we heard (or said), “If you want a job done right, do it yourself.” We believe wholeheartedly that the best person is an independent person. The more self-sufficient, the more personally capable, the more autonomous then the better we are.
  The high value that we place on independence and self-reliance is intrinsically woven into our national mindset. But it doesn’t stop there. It’s also contaminated our spiritual thinking. Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, captured the essence of American spirituality in Poor Richard’s Almanac when he coined the popular motto (that some naively think is in the Bible), “God helps those who help themselves.”
  It’s the American way. Do it yourself. Fix it yourself. Probably, the majority of us grew up in homes where we were taught to not ask for help. Asking for help is looked at with askance. It’s for those who are uneducated or lazy or need a government handout. So when it comes to the spiritual side of life, we often merge that thinking even into matters of the soul and the eternal.  
  But is it true? Can we solve our spiritual problems by investing a little spiritual elbow grease on our souls? Can we build our own ladder to heaven “with a little help from the Big Guy”? Can we find peace and tranquility by “getting our act together” on our own power, by our own initiative? Or, could it be possible that in order to find true peace and fulfillment in life, we need more than just “a little help”? Could it possibly be that what we need is a full-blown rescue operation?
  The Bible is very clear on this – Christianity is not a do-it-yourself religion. No one can ever say that they worked their way into or that they made themselves a Christian. Christianity is not about working to earn God's approval. God approves us in spite of our mess and only because of what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. The humbling truth of Scripture is that we contribute absolutely nothing to our salvation, zero, zilch, nada. Or, as I once heard it put, “The only thing we contribute to our salvation is our sin” and we’re very good at that one.
  The Apostle Paul, writing to the Romans, said, “while we were still helpless…Christ died for the ungodly” (Romans 5:6). He echoed that reality in Ephesians 2:8, where Paul wrote, “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God.” Remember, Jesus reply to the Pharisees when they questioned Him on why He dined with sinners. “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick…for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Matthew 9:12, 13). On another occasion, Jesus said to His disciples, “The Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). In other words, it’s all of God and it’s all of grace. The Bible is clear, when it comes to salvation, forgiveness and going to Heaven, we can’t do it. We’re absolute failures. Scripture makes no allowance for those who treat Christianity as a do-it-yourself religion.
  In Philippians 3, Paul shares that before he knew Christ, he believed the myth that he could save himself and that he could be saved by his own self-generated righteousness. He thought he could count on his ethnicity, his circumcision, his education, his morality, his zeal, and that the accumulation of all these things would earn him favor in the eyes of God. But then Paul met Jesus and when he met Jesus, he realized that all of his great credentials were like manure in the eyes of God. He finally understood that Jesus didn’t come to save good people, because there are no good people. But Jesus died for the ungodly—which is every single one of us.
  Let me illustrate how hopeless we are spiritually. Imagine yourself taking part in a sailboat race from Los Angeles to Honolulu. You’ve devoted some five years of your life training physically and developing your sailing skills just to participate in this competition. You’re now more than ready to cover the distance and have prepared for every possible contingency. The race will be a piece of cake. Nothing will keep you from your moment of glory in Hawaii. But then the unexpected happens. Six hundred miles from the finish line you encounter a violent storm. Your boat suffers severe damage and eventually sinks. Much to your surprise, you find yourself treading water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
  Suddenly on the horizon, a rescue ship appears. It draws nearer and nearer. One of the crew on deck spots you as you bob up and down on the waves like a cork. They toss you a life preserver and tell you to hang on until they pull you to safety.
  So would you push the life preserver away and yell, “No thanks. My goal is to make it to Hawaii alone, and I’ll make it all by myself. I’ll swim the six hundred miles.” Insanity? The height of arrogance and pride? Perhaps. Yet, not very different from the way millions of people are trying to make it to heaven today.
  The first step toward heaven and salvation is realizing that we are in over our heads. We can’t “help ourselves.” The distance between us and heaven is far too great for us to make it on our own. Yet, thankfully, all is not lost. God has accomplished the greatest rescue mission of all time. He has thrown us the spiritual life preserver of forgiveness made available by the death and resurrection of His own Son, Jesus. 
  As we find ourselves adrift in the ocean of life, we face an all-important choice. Will we acknowledge our helplessness and take hold of God’s mercy…or will we just try to keep on swimming? 

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Sunday, August 16, 2015

I've never regretted being too kind

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”  Mark Twain

  Recently, my son, Ben, and I were out for breakfast together. It was a restaurant in the Milwaukee area that was new to us. Neither of us had been there before. Earlier that morning we’d been at a book sale. As we always do after a book sale, we went out afterwards. We’d gotten up early to be at the book sale on time so were a bit tired. It was also a chance to celebrate that Ben has been seizure free for eight years. Eight years ago Ben had brain surgery and has been seizure free since. As you can imagine, even eight years later, it’s still a big deal for Ben and our family.
  Because it was a new restaurant, the menu was unfamiliar and it was an unusual menu, so we both had some difficulty determining what to order. Ben, (I have his permission to share this), has Asperger’s Syndrome. As a result, often Ben doesn’t pick up on social cues and he has some difficulty processing or making decisions when something is unfamiliar to him.
  I’m not sure if our waitress was having a bad day but she bordered on being rude. Ben wanted both eggs and pancakes but pancakes weren’t listed on the menu, other than as a child’s menu item, so he was having some difficulty determining what he wanted. She became very impatient with our indecision. Then, Ben had trouble communicating what he wanted. When she asked how many eggs he wanted. His response, “Two or three eggs” was totally unacceptable and she was a bit curt. He was completely lost on how to place a side order of pancakes when it wasn’t listed on the menu – Ben’s world tends to be black and white.
  Because we want Ben to have a normal life, we rarely intervene. Most of us would have communicated to her either verbally or non-verbally that she was pushing the envelope or even, if needed, asked to see the manager. Social pressure tends to paralyze Ben. He concludes that he must be doing something wrong and becomes apologetic. As we were on our way home, Ben and I discussed what had happened. I pointed out that as the server, since he’s the customer, it’s a server’s responsibility to be polite and patient. If Ben had been rude or obnoxious, her curtness might have been justified. Instead, he was just a little confused and indecisive. Rather than feeling that he’d done something wrong, the server was in the wrong.
  Obviously, I don’t know this woman’s spiritual situation. What saddens me is though is that I’ve seen the same curtness and impatience among Christians – and I’m guilty too. When we’re guilty of being unkind, we’re disobeying God’s Word and sinning. Ephesians 4:32 commands us, “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted…”
  One can’t judge motives yet I wonder if our unkindness is rooted in pride. Because we know the right information or have social skills, we arrogantly conclude we’re better than those who lack them. Though Jesus was omniscient, He was the humblest and kindest man who’s ever walked this earth. You and I are called to be like Jesus, and He was never unkind.
  Kindness is to be one of the distinguishing and unfortunately, unusual marks of a Christ-follower in a cold, cruel world. Because of sin, we’re all broken and lacking in some area. None of us have our act together. Most of us aren’t as skilled or as intelligent as we think we are. For example, Aaron Rogers is very skilled on the gridiron, yet hand him a scalpel, put him in a surgeon’s gown and in an operating room…well, let’s just say I hope I’m not the one he’s “practicing medicine” on. We all have limited knowledge.
  If anyone should be kind and patient with those who have disabilities, it should be those of us who personally know the One who healed disabilities when He walked this earth. In a broken world, we increasingly will encounter those who are “dysfunctional” and lack normal social skills. The more that the traditional family disintegrates, there will be a corresponding increase in a lack of social skills.
  Perhaps you have friends who are deficient in social boundaries. They lack an understanding of what’s appropriate or inappropriate to say. They don’t understand timing. For example, asking someone a very personal question in a public setting is inappropriate, yet they’re often oblivious to etiquette. And that’s where we can demonstrate kindness, either by overlooking the fault or if we’re their friend, privately and kindly sharing some insights on appropriateness.
  As an adult child of an addict, I struggle with “normal.” Because it was my family history, I thought it was “normal” to always have a big family fight at Christmas. When Jane and I were first married, I was very uncomfortable at Christmas because everyone was getting along and enjoying themselves. Then, the Lord opened my eyes to see that my “normal” wasn’t.
  Believers should be the kindest of people, after all we’ve experienced so much unlimited and undeserved kindness from our loving Heavenly Father. A lost world sees a weakness and it’s as if there’s blood in the water. Sometimes, tragically, we go along with the cruelty. More often, we just observe yet stay at a safe distance, never becoming involved. Not only do we not intervene for the victim and discourage the cruelty, we fail to minister to the one who’s been hurt. All of us can help bind up wounds and encourage the one who’s been emotionally bludgeoned. Our biblical model is the Good Samaritan found in Luke 10. Like him, we must be willing to give of ourselves, take a risk and make an investment in someone else’s battered life. It may be touching the life of someone who has disabilities, physical or social. Maybe it’s just going out of our way to be kind to an older person. It might be being patient with someone who lacks social skills. It may include discipling and mentoring an immature brother or sister in the faith. Think about this – everything that we know someone else taught us. Someone invested in us. Let’s be kind and invest generationally for His glory in the lives of others, especially those who have the greatest need for patience and kindness.  

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Tuesday, August 11, 2015

I do: It's a sacred vow

“If you want something to last forever, you treat it differently.
You shield it and protect it. You never abuse it. You don’t expose it to the elements. You don’t make it common or ordinary. If it ever becomes tarnished, you lovingly polish it until it gleams like new. It becomes special because you have made it so, and it grows more beautiful and precious as time goes by.”  F. Burton Howard

  How often do you go to the doctor, not just when you are sick, but for a check-up? How about the dentist? What about changing the oil and filter in your car? A tune-up? The air filter in your furnace? The batteries in your smoke detectors? So what is there in your life that doesn’t require some periodic attention and regular maintenance?
  Yet, for some reason when it comes to our marriages, the focus we made many years ago is supposed to be enough. Then, regrettably, many couples get married and are not given any pre-marital counseling at all (hopefully, that trend is changing…at least for church weddings).
  For some reason we believe that material possessions require maintenance, yet are oblivious to the “maintenance” needs of our marriage, and then we’re shocked when they cough and sputter as we drive down the road of life. Some wait too late and only seek help when the marriage is already in critical care. Sadly, sometimes the relationship is so diseased, it’s virtually unsalvageable.
  Yesterday, I had the privilege of officiating at a wedding for a couple that I’ve known for several years. Over the course of several months we met several times and worked through some of the key basics of what it takes to have a healthy marriage. Essentially, we only laid a foundation that they are now going to have to build on and maintain if they want to have a Christ-honoring marriage.
  One of those final details though of the wedding ceremony are the vows. Usually, I use the traditional vows. Some couples want to write their own and that’s fine. There is only one vital challenge. Because a wedding and love is emotional (as it should be), there’s a tendency when it comes to the vows to say what expresses your feelings. That’s not enough. When it comes to the wedding vows, they must also convey the commitment of the couples’ wills.
  Most people fail to realize that during the wedding ceremony, they are never asked how they feel about the person that they are marrying. Think about other areas where we take vows. Can you imagine someone taking a vow to serve in the military including in their vow how they feel about serving our country? Does anyone really feel like going to boot camp? Does anyone feel like having an enemy shoot at them to try take their life? What about becoming a citizen of the United States? Do you take an oath of allegiance that includes how you feel? Does anyone really feel like paying taxes?  
  When the Bible speaks of marital love, it is always presented as a result of the person’s will, not some fickle emotion that changes with the weather. In fact, the Bible never teaches that romantic love is the foundation of marriage. Many times marriages in biblical times marriages were arranged and couples had to commit to making them work.
  Please understand, no one is suggesting that we return to arranged marriages (though when you look at who some people pick for a life partner, you have to wonder if it might be an improvement J). Marriage can’t be founded on emotional surges or physical attractions. That’s one of the reasons that the Bible teaches purity and withholding of sexual intimacy until marriage. Many couples are merely infatuated or worse, have mistaken sexual pleasure for love. Having feelings or even eroticism as the foundation of marriage is a nearly certain way to have a marriage that will deteriorate before the normal storms of life. Feelings come and go. Our bodies deteriorate and succumb to the aging process. But the likelihood of marital health and survival is markedly improved when marriages are grounded in friendship, companionship and the commitment, as well as the awareness of an unending vow – no matter what.
  The vows are critical. They provide walls of protection when threatening emotional winds and waves beat down upon the relationship. The traditional vows have stood the test of time because they aptly summarize the commitment that is demanded of marriage. A husband and wife have a duty to one another to abide by the vows, much like a soldier or a citizen, because those vows were not just made before the witnesses of family and friends. Their marital vows were made in the presence of God. Faithfulness to the vows is automatically a faithfulness to each other.
  When I officiate at a wedding, I encourage married couples who are present to repeat the vows in their own hearts that I am leading the new couple in. It’s a subtle and small act of marital maintenance.
  But please don’t stop there. If you are having struggles in your marriage, seek good, godly help quickly. If your car was making some strange sounds, you’d have a mechanic check it out. If your marriage is coughing and sputtering, it’s foolish to ignore it and hope it will get better. Having some marital issues is very normal. Let me repeat that: Having some marital issues is very normal. Scripture speaks of issue that are “common” to all of us, 1 Corinthians 10:13. If you’re having some troubles in your marriage, ask a godly sister or brother here at church to partner with you in praying for your marriage. Then, seek out someone who will give you honest, objective biblical counsel. Prayerfully and graciously ask your spouse to go with you, communicating that you have some issues in your heart about your marriage that you’d like for them and a counselor to help you grow through. And even if they won’t accompany you, if you believe that your marriage has some serious issues, go alone.
  You probably can avoid that though if you’ll do consistent maintenance. Schedule regular times when you and your spouse can share what you love and appreciate in your relationship and what are also some concerns without finger pointing or becoming defensive. Once a year, either attend a class on marriage, watch a video series or read a biblically based book on marriage. The key to a healthy marriage is regular maintenance, whether you’ve been married five years or fifty. Too many couples settle for the same soggy death of sameness in their marriage, when God has so much more for them! Be proactive! God is glorified and your marriage will be so much more fulfilling. 

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Sunday, August 2, 2015

A Parent''s Greatest Loss

“When your child dies, you find your life is forever divided into ‘Before’ and ‘After’.”   Wayne Loder

  In his book, Losing Mum and Pup, about his grief and coping with the deaths of his parents, Christopher Buckley shares a powerful story:
  “In the Zen koan, the noble lord sends word throughout the land, offering a huge reward to anyone who distills for him in poetry the definition of happiness…A monk duly shuffled in and handed the nobleman a poem that read, in its entirety: 

Grandfather dies
Father dies
Son dies.

  His Lordship, having had in his mind something a bit more upbeat, unsheathes his sword and is about to lop off the head of the impertinent divine. The monk says, “This is the definition of perfect happiness—that no father should outlive his son.” At this, His Lordship nods—or, more probably, after the fashion of Kurosawa’s sixteenth-century warlords, grunts emphatically—and hands the monk a sack of gold.”
  That monk was a very wise man. No one would ever want it another way. One of the worst things that can happen to a human being is to deviate from that order. Father dies, son dies, grandson dies. No parent wants to outlive their children. No grandparent wants to outlive their grandchildren.
  That story came to my mind the other night when I heard that Bobbi Kristina Brown had died. She was only 22. What a tragic end! Her death came nearly six months after she was found unresponsive in a bathtub in her Georgia home. She never fully regained consciousness and was kept on life support following her near-drowning. The media reported that her father, Bobby Brown, was inconsolable and maintained a bedside vigil following her hospitalization. 
  Over the years I’ve buried far too many children whose brokenhearted parents stood by a fresh grave. My own grandparents, tragically, buried their youngest son, Harold Carson, a few years before they passed away. I can’t imagine that there is a deeper heart wound than the loss of your child.
  Even success, fame and wealth can’t buffer you from the pain of tragic loss. We attempt to protect ourselves and our loved ones from pain and tragedy. It can’t be done. Bobbi Kristina was reportedly worth some $20 million dollars, as the only heir of her famous mother, Whitney Houston. Yet, even having millions of dollars couldn’t protect her from a broken heart after the loss of her mother. Though the coroner’s report has not yet been released, it appears that her death was a suicide.
  Her tragic life and death is one that’s all too common. The list of the rich and famous who struggle with heartache, addictions, broken relationships, that can’t find peace or happiness and those who ultimately take their own lives is a very long list. Somehow too many of us believe that we’ll be the exception. We’re so na├»ve. We won’t be. Wealth, success and fame will never fill that, as Pascal described it, the God-shaped hole in our soul. Though we know that, yet so many of us fret, complain or are exasperated about our lot in life, primarily our financial situation. We sacrifice God’s promised peace for that which the Bible says will never satisfy. It was probably modeled for us by our parents and we, too, often are modeling that discontent and hopeless cycle Jesus warned us of in Matthew 6:25-33 to the next generation.
  Seek to live with very few relational regrets. I wish that I could say that I didn’t have any, but I do. I doubt there’s anyone who doesn’t this side of eternity. For some reason, I was never able to solve the relationship void with my Dad. His death meant that it would never be resolved. That still weighs on me, even several years after his death.
  Too often we stomp out, leaving our loved ones in a huff with harsh words. No one knew that January 31, 2015 would be the last day Bobbi Kristina would be conscious, full alive and able to converse. After she was discovered, she never regained consciousness. Maybe that’s why the Bible warns us, “do not let the sun go down on your anger” (Ephesians 4:26).
  That doesn’t mean that we’ve agreed or that everything is resolved. It does mean though that we’ve left without being in a state of anger, where our last words – if they truly become our very last words – are not regrettable ones.
  Some nurse anger until it becomes a root of bitterness that’s planted itself deep into the soul (Hebrews 12:15), poisoning life. Because of some past event, or because of what someone said to you or about you, perhaps because you didn’t get your way at some point, your feelings were hurt, or you were emotionally injured. You’re angry though and nurse thoughts of revenge. You’re hurt and want them to hurt. Maybe you’re offended, so you give them the cold shoulder, or purposely go out of your way to avoid having to speak to them. And while you think that you’re hurting them, in reality, you’re only hurting yourself. You’ve become so caught up in how hurt, angry and offended you are, that you’ve forgotten how fragile life is.
  You never saw it coming. All of a sudden that sibling, parent, child or spouse who you were so wounded with, so angry at is gone…forever. And now the broken relationship can never be mended. That’s why often the ones who are so inconsolable at the death of a loved one are the ones with the greatest guilt and regret. 
  While we can’t make others change or admit that they’re wrong, we can take care of our own wrongs and bitter feelings. There’s true freedom in living in Romans 12:18, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” It means that you have a clear conscience and know that you’ve done everything you can to clear the slate and rebuild the relationship. Too many come to a loved one’s graveside overwhelmed with guilt and regret. But because of God’s amazing grace, we don’t have to. 

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