Stuck in the Mud

The first time I jumped on my shiny, yellow steed, I promptly popped one of the back tires. You’d think there should be some sort of “new lawnmower” aura that makes the rubber slash proof. But I can assure you that as soon as you pry apart the crate from your Cub Cadet wonder, the wheels are very much mortal. One hidden piece of chainlink fencing is all it takes.

And, really, that was just the beginning.

I drove a nail through the front tire, cracked the other back tire, got a piece of metal cable wrapped around the blade, hit a branch that popped open the engine compartment, and knocked loose the belt that drives the blades. All that happened in less than a month. Then, despite all my previous misadventures, I thought I could beat an ominous looking cloudburst and whip through the grass with all that horsepower.

Funny how mud has other ideas. As soon as I rounded the turn at the corner of our property, I knew I’d made a mistake. The scraggly patch of grass that looked so solid as it whizzed toward me actually covered a soupy mess. Bloop. Down I went.

By that point, I’d already had my share of lawnmower wrestling matches. So, I hopped off, grabbed the back, and heaved.

Nothing.

So, I heaved and pulled backward.

Nothing. Not even an inch.

Furious rocking, tire spinning, wood prying, wife helping, lever twisting—nothing made the yellow beast move an inch. And by this point, rain exploded from the clouds and made the mess even worse.

Laughing and praying and feeling defeated. All that tumbled together in a soggy mess as I trudged back to the house. As I did, I remembered that saying people like to throw around: “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Bologna.

Sometimes He has to. Driving us into the mud, putting our backs against the wall, pushing us to the limits—those are the only things that get our attention. We keep moving ahead, keep looking the wrong way, keep ignoring His whispers. Only when we’re driven deep into a muddy mess do we stop to cry out… and listen.

The weight is unbearable because it’s a weight we weren’t meant to carry. The worry overwhelms us because we forget to put those worries on Him. The sorrow breaks us because we forget that our hope is in Him.

He won’t allow us to be tempted beyond our limits, but He will lovingly allow us to take on more than our aching arms can carry, more than our tired backs can hold. We think we can do it; we think we can get by on our own.

But we weren’t meant to. We were meant to be dependent.

As for me, my Cub Cadet stayed overnight in the mire right there for everyone to see—a yellow eyesore and reminder of my folly. After work that day, a neighbor I’d never met before drove his Gator down our country road, tied on a rope, and pulled the yellow steed free. I needed outside help.

We all do.

Christ did what we couldn’t do. His sacrifice was more than we could ever hope to give. His death worth more than anything we had to offer. It crushed Him, sucked the life from His body. He died with all the weight of the world on Him.

But He could handle it. And He can handle your mud-stuck problems, too.

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Let’s Redefine Marriage… the Right Way

In America, we come at marriage the wrong way. We assume that marriage legitimacy depends upon a sheet of paper. This sheet of paper, which often gets tucked away in a drawer, serves as proof that we have, in fact, said some vows.

But at the first wedding, there was no paper. There was God, a man, and a woman. No one signed a sheet of paper, got a notary stamp, or surrendered money to a clerk. And when Isaac married Rebekah, there was also no solemn, sealed piece of parchment necessary. (There wasn’t even a cake.)

You see, the biblical view of marriage dispenses with paper altogether. And that’s not because it’s somehow lesser than government-sanctioned unions. In fact, this lack of paper means that God intended more.

A marriage the Bible way is about covenant, a promise that only ends when hearts stop beating. Paper marriages can get tossed out by the same legal machinations that set them up. Covenants are serious. So serious that God gets involved.

We too often get this backward. When we think of marriage, we think ceremony and paper and tax benefits. But God’s intention for marriage is a three-fold cord—with a man and a woman joined together in Christ.

When we say that the government is destroying the sanctity of marriage, this isn’t completely accurate. Civil marriages are not God-marriages. They’re legally recognized unions. An “evolving view” of civil marriage simply means the government is altering what it does and does not accept for tax purposes. They’re changing forms and paper.

But no government can change what God made. A true covenant marriage has nothing to do with taxes, and everything to do with God revealing Christ through us, through the joining of the husband and wife. Covenant marriage points to Jesus like this: husband + wife = Christ + Church. It’s a big deal.

Let’s be blunt here. The governments of this world have long condoned marriages that had nothing to do with covenant, nothing to do with what God meant. When two unbelievers marry, for example, they’re not revealing the mystery of Christ and His Church. The supposed “redefining” of marriage isn’t new; it’s old. Since Noah’s day, according to Jesus.

Things called marriage have existed for thousands of years. But not all things called marriage are true covenants with God involved.

We need to put this in the right perspective. Covenant marriages have nothing to do with a government. The justification is higher—way higher. Governments like to get involved so that they can gather the profits and regulate such unions, but they can’t change what God intended.

So, no matter what presidents (or even priests) say marriage must be, they’re only commenting on civil, temporary, and earthly matters. They’re changing what can be allowed on a piece of paper. Paper that may one day be shredded or burned or stuck in a birdcage.

But God’s definition for the covenant of marriage never stops being the same. It’s continued through floods and towers and rising-to-fall empires. It’ll stand through “tolerance and equality” just the same. We’d do well to remember that.

Marriage doesn’t start with paper. True covenant marriage starts with God.

4 Surprising Reasons You Need Church (and Church Needs You)

This isn’t that article that simply tells you what the Bible says about going to church and then expects you to run to the nearest pew. Sure, God’s got a bunch to say about why you should join with other believers on a regular basis, and they’re all solid reasons. Read those articles first.

But let’s take a look at some purely practical reasons that gathered worship makes so much sense. You didn’t think God would make such a big deal out of something if He didn’t intend it to be beneficial, right?

Here are 4 reasons you need church (and the church needs you):

1. You’d probably just end up wasting that time anyway.

Let’s just be honest here. When people skip church (or don’t go at all), Sunday morning doesn’t magically morph into a productivity bonanza or a God-focused retreat. We laze around, read, cut grass, watch Netflix, rush our kids to fifty different sporting events that we let them sign up for, or just sleep in. Maybe we throw some Bible in there, but that’s only if we feel super guilty.

Sure, we have lots of plans of what we’ll do with this “freed up” time that we’re not spending in church, but that rarely ever happens. Usually, we just veg out or stress out.

That’s not to say that going to a bad church won’t waste your time; it would. But when you put yourself in the company of other real worshippers, you’ve focused your mind on something far grander than your binge watching session:

“The LORD reigns, let the nations tremble; he sits enthroned between the cherubim, let the earth shake.” Psalm 99:1

Earth-shaking, world-changing God? Yes, please.

Worship with others pushes us out of the continuity of regular life and our mundane plans and brings us face to face with our Creator. We worship best together.

2. You need to know that other people struggle just like you.

On our own, we humans have a tendency to assume that no one is suffering or struggling in the same way we are: “This job is the worst thing ever.” “No one else gets completely derailed by these ads on the Internet that keep popping up.” “My life has to be the lamest ever.”

We get trapped in our myopic view of the world because suffering and shame bend us inwards (the Elijah syndrome, 1 Kings 18:22). The more we struggle, the more we just want to hold it in and hide it away.

Church puts you face to face with other sinners just like you. Sure, you may look around at first and think that these people don’t struggle like you, but they do. They’re liars, misfits, and hypocrites—all in the process of being transformed.

You need close proximity with other believers (both mature and newbies) to pull your focus outward, away from your own struggles. That’s the point where you realize you weren’t meant to carry all this weight alone:

“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

You can go it alone, but that’s an awful lot of baggage to lug around yourself—especially when you don’t have to.

3. You need the mess (because you’re part of it).

Most of the time, people like to say they don’t need more drama in their lives. And if there’s one thing you can say for certain, it’s that church has drama. There’s loads of it.

But don’t be so quick to brush it off simply because of that. After all, there’s lots drama in your house, too. Why? Because people are there, and the equation is pretty simple: people = drama. You can’t escape the messiness of life simply by avoiding church. Since drama is pretty much a guarantee, the real difference is in what we do with it.

Honestly, you need some sanctified mess.

Not all churches are healthy when it comes to dealing with “junk.” This is true. But what happens when messy people get thrown together under the transforming power of Christ is something amazing:

“And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” 2 Corinthians 3:18

When it comes to the mess being put right, “we” always works better than “me.” On your own, you rarely have the courage and endurance to do what needs to be done. Just be honest. You get tripped up along the way. You don’t follow through with that “sure-fire goal” you had to change. You’ve got no one to spot for you.

Together, though, we messy people can push each other toward being more like Jesus.

4. You stink at some stuff.

Not all of us are naturally gifted at sharing what we’re passionate about. Not all of us can teach and explain difficult concepts. Not all of us know how to organize something. We’ve got skills, yes, but we’ve got weak areas, too.

For that reason, you’ll never see a big company like Google plug a master accountant into the app development team or a marketing guru in with the code crunchers. You can pretty much bet that the results would be less than awesome because people had been placed where they just don’t fit.

We Christians have skills, too. Yours are solid, but not the same as mine or anyone else’s. When we try to go all solo-warrior in our Christian walk, we’ve pretty much said we can handle the whole Great Commission ourselves. All of it. We’ve got everything we need to reach the whole world for Christ—no church required.

Then again, you’ve got to admit that some Christians just have a way with sharing truth from the Bible. Some can pray like nobody’s business. Some have no qualms about spouting their faith even to hardened atheists. And others write songs that just get it. These are messy, awesome Christians. And we go great together.

By yourself, though, you’re just an eyeball:

“If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.” (2 Corinthians 12:17–18)

Captain Lazy Eye

 “All over the world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, just as it has been doing among you since the day you heard it and understood God’s grace in all its truth.” Colossians 1:6

My right eye decided to be lazy as a child. While the left eye absorbed light rays and churned out superb images in my brain, the right one kicked back, yawned, and took most days off. In an attempt to correct the imbalance, my optometrist had me wear a patch each evening that forced my right eye to pitch in. So, as you might imagine, I ran around the house being a pirate—even though the patch looked more like an oversized bandage than something a scallywag might wear.

But the Captain John routine didn’t fix the problem. My amblyopia—or lazy eye—mutinied and refused to work harder. A thick lens in my glasses didn’t do it either, and contacts weren’t an option, since I can’t stand anything getting close to my corneas. To this day, I can’t really make out those nifty 3D effects in posters or movies, and when I’m tired, I sometimes see two overlapping images of the same person—one clear, one blurry.

I’ve lived with the lazy eye for so long that I don’t really notice it now. The left eye keeps on doing the heavy lifting without a hiccup, and unless I close it, I see just fine. But when the left eye gets blurry for some reason, that’s when things get ugly. At least, they look that way to my much-impaired vision.

How I view global Christianity is just about as lazy as my right eye. You see, I’ve had this naïve assumption for much of my life that as American (or even local) faith goes, so goes the gospel around the world. I see the local scene clearly enough, but everything else comes in blurry—if I even look at all. “Persecution” means being talked to meanly or not getting the result in a court case that I wanted. “Worship” means a Sunday morning experience with a building that needs to be just the right temperature. “Fellowship” means getting stuffed with a potluck array of meats, veggies, and 30 kinds of banana pudding.

Meanwhile, the gospel flourishes happily in Asia and Africa and even Europe without one whit of similarity to my own local preferences. Thousands cram into much-too-hot buildings, laugh, shout, and dance on the way up to the offering basket. Others break bread and eat inside the ruins of a burned out church building. Some whisper praises and prayers so that they won’t be overheard. And they all worship the same Christ I do.

“All over the world the gospel is bearing fruit and growing,” Paul said. Unlike me, his eyes weren’t lazy. He could see that God kept moving the good news express from one place to another, kept transforming lives, kept ripping people out of the kingdom of darkness.

“For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Colossians 1:13-14

That Verse Before

“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12

I’d rather live a Philippians 4:13 type life. But that verse before it always gets me. I’d rather jump right into the “doing all things through him who gives me strength” without slogging through the “content in any and every situation” part. The second verse makes for such great posters, but now, when I read it, all I can think is “whether living in plenty or in want.”

Talk about a buzzkill.

But God’s plans come in a larger size than my earthly satisfaction. He wants my sanctification, my being-made-more-like-Jesus-ness. He wants me to see that His riches don’t come with dour-looking presidents or expiration dates or limited warranties. They aren’t earned by the sweat of my brow. Instead, His riches come pouring down in my contentment.

Paul told Timothy that “godliness with contentment is great gain” (1 Timothy 6:6), and he’s driving at the same thing here in Philippians. “Strength,” according to the world, boils down to laying claim to the most stuff—power, model spouses (emphasis on the plural), houses, and influence. But those who think that way can never be content no matter the situation. When their “strength” disappears, they wilt. Some do whatever it takes to get back to where they were; some end up in rehab; and some see no reason to live. Some strength, huh?

Jesus doesn’t play by our rules, though. His Beatitude bunker busters make that pretty clear (see Matthew 5). The weak, the poor, the hungry—those are the ones who receive the treasures. You see, Jesus does want us to get to Philippians 4:13, but to do that, He has to demolish our strongholds by taking us through Philippians 4:12. We’re strong through Him only when we’ve learned to clear the detritus of what we think we need in this world and see Him for the all-sufficient treasure that He really is (Colossians 2:3).

We can do all things through Him who strengthens us. But to get to that point, we have to learn satisfaction in His “all things,” the plans He has for us. That’s because it’s His strength, not ours.

You are strong—right where your contentment in Christ begins.

Sick on the Scenic Route

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Philippians 3:12

On my way home from North Carolina, I followed my impulse to jump on the Blue Ridge Parkway that meanders along the spine of the Appalachian Mountains. Late spring had hit, and the trees on that slithering byway had burst into color. And if you know me, you know I can’t resist a scenic detour in spring… or summer…  or anytime I’m sure my car won’t get stuck for some reason.

If you’ve ever had the chance to sling along the Blue Ridge, you’ll find it hard to keep your eyes on the road. Gasp-worthy valley vistas pretty much assault you wherever you turn with their seductive greens and purples and blues. The only problem with a wandering gaze, however, is that many of the turns on that road completely bend back on themselves. So, you’re constantly looking out in awe—and then whipping the car back on the road before you become part of that valley view.

In fact, those stomach-churning curves nearly got the better of me. Never before or since have I suffered from motion sickness while driving. But that road, with all its flipping and flopping, beat me up. By the time I finally escaped that tangled beast of a road, I was actually happy to see the interstate and all its rush-hour traffic (well, for the most part). At least those bumper-to-bumper shenanigans meant I’d be going straight.

For many of us, our pursuit of Christ swings us around in much the same way. We whip around curves that seem to take us the long way round, nearly bumble off the road because something shiny catches our eyes, and let the cares along the way nauseate us. It’s a circuitous route, this Christian life, and one that doesn’t move us from start to finish quickly.

But it’s a path paved by the One who made us His own.

Each bend, each switchback curve, brings us closer to the goal He made possible. His mountain climbing 2000 years ago means we can follow Him all the way, no matter how far away the goal may seem. We’re His, and He’s calling us home.

Sifted

“Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31-32

Every so often, I’m overcome with the urge. I tromp my way into the kitchen, raid my wife’s Pinterest boards, and load up the most ridiculously awesome dessert I can find (as long as it has ingredients I can pronounce). Why? I have no idea, but cooking is an itch that has to be scratched every so often. And if I’m going to cook, then let it be dessert (or something grilled, but dessert works better year round).

Now, I’m not the most faithful of recipe followers. I never measure vanilla extract; I eschew mixer etiquette (like the speed really matters); and I don’t sift flour. In fact, I’m convinced that a sifter was invented by kitchen accessory companies as a way to squeeze more money out of wannabe chefs: “Sure, your flour is fluffy, but is it sifted fluffy?”

Okay, okay… a real chef, which I am not, will tell you the importance of sifting. They’ll go into a long spiel about why it makes the dish better. They’re right, I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to go through with the process. I’d rather live my fantasy about why sifting flour isn’t important because it makes the dessert easier.

In fact, that’s exactly the same reaction I have with my life being sifted. I much prefer the easy, slapdash method of getting to where God wants me to be. My desire is that He take me from messed up to fixed in the rough areas of my life without having to go through the tough work of restoration. Throw in the fix, and I’m good to go.

But it doesn’t work that way, and there’s a good reason why: being sifted leaves a mark that instant fixes don’t. We need the scars to remind us.

Notice how Jesus explains this to Peter. First, He tells Peter that Satan has asked to sift the disciple. Asked… as in requesting permission from God to test Peter. Second, Satan gets permission. Jesus doesn’t say the request was denied. He says only that He prayed for Peter’s faith not to fail. In other words, Jesus holds the disciple together, but He doesn’t stop the testing. Finally, it’s only after the sifting and restoration that Peter can strengthen his brothers.

That’s the key here. Peter gets sifted (through his denial of Jesus), but because he’s sifted, he can restore his brothers. His faith gets a huge boost, and the post-sifting Peter becomes a rock-steady man of God (couldn’t resist the pun).

Sifting stinks, and we’d all prefer that God would just snap His mighty fingers and make us the man or woman He wants us to be. But if He did, we would miss the blessing that comes from being refined in the fire. Yes, I said “blessing,” a big, fat blessing—even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time.