Sunday, April 13, 2014

the assumption we cannot afford

We ended another year of women’s Bible study last Tuesday: eleven weeks in the epistles of John and eleven weeks in James. Fifty-four different churches were represented in our enrollment this year. A couple thousand more women podcast from around the country. At the conclusion I was deluged with cards and emails from participants expressing their gratitude, reflecting on what they had learned, and, almost uniformly, uttering a confession I have heard so often that it no longer surprises. I still waver between joy and discouragement as I read that confession on card after beautiful thank you card. I still vacillate between celebration and grief each time it turns up in my inbox. I still hesitate between thankfulness and frustration every time it is spoken to me over coffee. Their confession is this:

I’ve been in church for years, but no one has taught me to study my Bible until now.
I remember confessing the same thing myself almost twenty years ago. It is gratifying to know that our efforts at FMWBS to help women know the Bible are changing the way they understand their God and their faith. But it is terrifying to me that so many log years in the church and remain unlearned in the Scriptures. This is not their fault, and it is not acceptable.

Church leaders, I fear we have made a costly and erroneous assumption about those we lead. I fear that in our enthusiasm to teach about finances, gender roles, healthy relationships, purity, culture wars, and even theology we have neglected to build foundational understanding of the Scriptures among our people. We have assumed that the time they spend in personal interaction with their Bible is accumulating for them a basic firsthand knowledge of what it says, what it means and how it should change them. Or perhaps we have assumed that kind of knowledge isn’t really that important.

So we continue to tell people this is what you should believe about marriage and this is what you need to know about doctrine and this is what your idolatry looks like, but because we never train them in the Scriptures, they have no framework to attach these exhortations to beyond their church membership or their pastor’s personality or their group leader’s opinion. More importantly, they have no plumb line to measure these exhortations against. It never occurs to them to disagree with what they are being taught because they cannot distinguish between our interpretation of Scripture and Scripture itself, having little to no firsthand knowledge of what it says.

And they’ve been in church for years.

When we offer topical help – even if the topic is doctrine – without first offering Bible literacy, we attempt to furnish a house we have neglected to construct. As a friend and seminarian said to me this week, “There is a reason that seminaries offer hermeneutics before systematic theology.” He is right. But it would seem many who have enjoyed the rare privilege of seminary have forgotten to pass on this basic principle to the churches they now lead.

We must teach the Bible. Please hear me. We must teach the Bible, and we must do so in such a way that those sitting under our teaching learn to feed themselves rather than rely solely on us to feed them. We cannot assume that our people know the first thing about where to start or how to proceed. It is not sufficient to send them a link to a reading plan or a study method. It is our job to give them good tools and to model how to use them. There is a reason many love “Jesus Calling” more than they love the Gospel of John. If we equip them with the greater thing, they will lose their desire for the lesser thing.

I wish you could see how the women in our studies come alive like well-watered plants after a drought. I wish you could hear their excitement over finally, finally being given some tools to build Bible literacy.

"I can’t believe how much I’ve grown since I started studying. ..I had only done topical studies… I didn’t know you could study like this… I was so tired of navel-gazing... I’ve never been asked to love God with my mind… My husband teases me about how excited I am to tell him what we’re learning… I’ve never studied a book of the Bible from start to finish…"

They are so humble in admitting what they don’t know. We must be humble in admitting what we have left undone.

As I read their notes joy always trumps discouragement. Celebration overturns grief. Thankfulness overrides frustration. And because the need is great, I commit myself to wade through another stack of commentaries, to write another curriculum on another book of the Bible, to give another year to building the house of Bible literacy in which the furnishings of doctrine and other worthy topics can take their rightful places. We owe our people more than assertions of what is biblical and what is not. We owe them the Bible, and the tools necessary to soberly and reverently "take up and read". The task requires resolve, but the reward is great. Will you join me? 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

our children, our neighbors

If you asked me the single-most important insight that has shaped my parenting, it would be this: “Children are people.”

It seems self-evident. Clearly, they have arms and legs, ears, noses and mouths enough to qualify. But the idea of their personhood goes far beyond just possessing a human body. It goes to the core of their being and speaks to their worth. Children bear the image of God, just like adults. Well, not just like adults – it is true that they are developing physically, emotionally and spiritually at a different rate than adults, but their intrinsic worth and dignity does not increase or decrease depending on the rate or extent of their development. As Dr. Seuss has famously noted, “A person’s a person, no matter how small.”

If you asked me the single most misleading statement I have heard with regard to parenting, it would be this: “The Bible is relatively silent on the topic of parenting.”

On the surface, this statement appears to be true. When we think of “parenting passages” we typically think of those that explicitly mention parents, children, authority and instruction: Deuteronomy 6, the fifth command in Exodus 20, spare the rod and spoil the child, train up a child in the way he should go, children obey your parents in the Lord, and a smattering of other verses. We may even throw in the example of the Prodigal Son or the parenting woes of the patriarchs for good measure. But other than these, few passages mention the parent-child relationship specifically, leading many to conclude that, for the most part, the Bible must leave us to figure out this parenting thing on our own. An understandable conclusion.

Until we remember that children are people.

Because if children are people, then they are also our neighbors. This means that every scriptural imperative that speaks to loving our neighbor as we love ourselves suddenly comes to bear on how we parent. Every command to love preferentially at great cost, with great effort, and with godly wisdom becomes not just a command to love the people in my workplace or the people in my church or the people at my hair salon or the people on my street or the people in the homeless shelter. It becomes a command to love the people under my own roof, no matter how small. If children are people, then our own children are our very closest neighbors. No other neighbor lives closer or needs our self-sacrificing love more.

Suddenly, a great deal of the Bible is not silent at all on the topic of parenting.

Recognizing my children as my neighbors has impacted the way I discipline them, the way I speak to them, the way I speak about them to others. It has required me to acknowledge how quick I am to treat those closest to me in ways I would never treat a friend or a co-worker. It has helped make my children objects of my compassion instead of my contempt. I am better able to celebrate their successes without taking credit for them, and to grieve their failures without seeing them as glaring evidence that I’m a terrible parent. Recognizing my children as my neighbors has freed me up to enjoy them as people rather than to resent them as laundry-generating food-ingesting mess-making fit-throwing financial obligations.

Except for the days that it hasn’t. And on those days, I must be reminded again what Scripture teaches about loving my neighbor, confess that I haven’t loved my child that way, and begin again. And Scripture provides ample help. Here are just a few "unlikely" parenting verses that point me back to neighborliness on the days that don’t go as they should:

When I want to correct my kids with harshness:
Proverbs 15:1
A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.

When I want to lecture them:
James 1:19-20
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.

When I want to make them make me look awesome:
Philippians 2:3-4
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

When I find meeting their needs to be an imposition:
Matthew 25:37-40
Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

When I want credit for how hard I’m working as the mom:
Matthew 6:3-4
But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

When I don’t want to extend forgiveness for their offenses:
Ephesians 4:31-32
Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.

When I’ve completely lost sight of the forest for the trees:
2 Timothy 2:24-26
And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

That last one is on a note card on my fridge. 

It is true that our children are God-given responsibilities we are to steward. But we will only steward them as we should by remembering that, first and foremost, our children are people we are to treasure. When we treasure our children as our neighbors, we remove from our discipline any hint of condemnation, shame or contempt. We alter our language to communicate love and value, even when we must speak words of correction. And we replace our prayers of “please fix my frustrating child” with prayers of “please help me to love the little neighbor You have placed in my home, even as You have loved me.”

Fred (“Mister”) Rogers understood well the value and dignity of children. An ordained Presbyterian minister, he spent his life preaching the beauty of neighborliness on public television to small people: “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood…Won’t you be my neighbor?” His message is a good one for parents as well. Children are people. Our own children are our closest and dearest neighbors. Mom and dad, use each “beautiful day in the neighborhood” to show preferential love to the neighbors who share your roof. And be encouraged: the Bible overflows with help for you.

What passages of Scripture have most benefited you as a parent? I’d love to know.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

has failure become a virtue?

“Christian, you cannot obey the Law. Your certain failure is a means to show forth the grace of God when you repent.”

“We don’t need more lists of how to be a better spouse/parent/Christian. We need more grace.”

“My life strategy for today: fail, repent, repeat.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? These sorts of statements comprise a growing body of commentary that finds the Law of the Bible to be a crushing burden, not just for the unbeliever, but for the believer as well. Enough with “checkbox Christianity”, these voices tell us. No more “how to‘s” on righteousness. In the righteousness department you are an epic fail, so toss out your checklists and your laws, and cast yourself on grace.

failure gets a makeover

In recent years church leaders have rightly spoken out against moralistic therapeutic deism, which is really just a fancy name for legalism – the idea that we earn God’s favor through external obedience to a moral code. Moralistic therapeutic deism, as in the days of Jesus, pervades our culture and even our churches. And it’s as harmful today as it was when Jesus spoke against it two thousand years ago.

I fear, however, that as an antidote, some are now articulating an equally skewed view of grace. I have come to call this view “ecstatic failurism” – the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt. But more than that, that our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.

These days, obedience has gotten a bad name. And failure has gotten a make-over. 

Interestingly, Jesus battled legalism in a different way than the ecstatic failurist. Rather than tossing out the Law or devaluing obedience to it, he called his followers to a deeper obedience than the behavior modification the Pharisees prized. He called for obedience in motive as well as in deed, the kind of godly obedience that is impossible for someone whose heart has not been transformed by the gospel. Rather than abolish the Law, Jesus deepened his followers’ understanding of what it required, and then went to the cross to ensure they could actually begin to obey it.

set free to obey

The gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey (Rom 6:16). And what are we to obey? The Law, that once gave death but now gives freedom. So, don’t miss this: behavior modification should absolutely follow salvation. It just occurs for a different reason than it does in the life of the unbeliever, as the outworking of a changed heart. When Peter says we have spent enough time living as the pagans do, surely he means that it is time to stop disobeying and begin obeying. Paul tells us that grace teaches us to say no to ungodly passions, not merely to repent when we fail to say no. He goes on to say that we are redeemed, not from the Law, but from lawlessness (disregard for the Law). If, as John attests, all sin is lawlessness (disregard for the Law), ought we not to love the Law and meditate on it day and night, as those who desire deeply to cease sinning? When Jesus says “Go, and sin no more,” don’t we think he means it?

Any profession of faith that is not followed by evidence that it is genuine is an empty profession. To live a life of faithful profession void of faithful obedience is spiritual schizophrenia. It is to affirm that God exists and then to turn and live as if he does not.

Ecstatic failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope. The hope of the gospel is that God, whose law and whose character do not change, changes us into those who obey in both motive and deed. Rather than live lives under the Law, believers live lives in which the Law is now in a sense under us, as a sure path for pursuing what is good, right and pleasing to the Lord. Contrary to the tenets of ecstatic failurism, the Law is not the problem. The heart of the Law-follower is.

Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God. The believer knows that it is impossible to curry favor with God because God needs nothing from us. He cannot be put in our debt. Knowing this frees us to obey out of joyful gratitude rather than servile grasping.

Imagine telling your child, “I know you’ll fail, but here are our house rules. Let me know when you break them so I can extend grace to you.” We recognize that raising a lawless child is not good for the child, for our family, or for society as a whole. We don’t train our children to obey us so they can gain our favor. They already have our favor. We, being evil, train and equip them to obey because it is good and right and safe. How much more our Heavenly Father?

moving beyond “fail and repent”

We must not trade moralistic therapeutic deism for ecstatic failurism. Sanctification is about more than “You will fail, but there is grace for you.” Growing in holiness means that we fail less than we used to, because at long last we are learning to obey in both motive and deed, just as Christ obeyed. There is a difference between self-help and sanctification, and that difference is the motive of the heart.

Earnest Christians look to their church leaders and ask, “Teach me to walk in His ways.” We owe them an answer beyond, “Fail and repent.” We owe them, “This is the way, walk in it.” It is a way that is, in fact, often delineated by lists – a list of ten don’ts in Exodus 20, a list of eight do’s in Matthew 5, a list of works of the flesh and spiritual fruit in Galatians 5, and so on. These are lists that crush the unbeliever but give life to the believer. They make straight the paths of those who love them, and though the way they delineate is narrow, it is the way that leads to life. The Law becomes a gracious means of conforming us to the image of the Savior. We love the Law because we love the God of the Law, who has engraved it on our very hearts. We do not start our days planning to fail, nor do we celebrate failure. Rather, we set our faces like flint and resolve by the power of the Spirit to obey.

I delight to do your will, O my God;
    your law is within my heart.”      Psalm 40:8

Monday, February 17, 2014

should i leave my church?

I blogged over at The Village Church blog this week about whether unity in the church should be preserved at all costs. I'm often asked what would constitute a good reason for leaving a church, so this post is an attempt to clarify how each of us might think through that question. I hope you find it helpful:

If you’ve ever experienced disunity in a church, you know how upsetting it can be. Not many of us enjoy conflict in general, so the thought of conflict within the body of believers is particularly uncomfortable. But conflict happens, just as it does in any committed relationship. Christians are exhorted to be known by their unity even in their diversity, but does that mean we never raise a concern? How can we know if an issue is worth fighting for? Is there ever a time to break unity for the sake of integrity?

Every member of the body of believers possesses a set of beliefs that can be divided into three categories: essentialsconvictions and preferences. Understanding how these relate to unity can help us know whether to speak up or to remain silent, whether to break fellowship or to stay put...

{Read the rest of the post here}

Thursday, January 23, 2014

don't you know what causes that?

The Fam 2002
Today, a friend passed on to me a blog post entitled “Top 10 Ridiculous Responses Regarding My Third Pregnancy.” As a mother who has four children, all of the responses on the list were familiar to me. As a mother who had four children in four years, I could think of a few more that didn’t make this girl’s list.

She left off “Were you born in a barn?” and “You need some hobbies.” And another favorite, almost always asked in the grocery store: “Are they ALL yours?”

My kids are all teenagers now, so I remember these comments with a smile. They don’t offend me – I understand that most people don’t have a file folder for people with “larger families”, although a family of six is not extraordinarily large. It doesn’t bother me to be mentally filed under “Hillbilly”, “Catholic” or even “Mormon” – people are just doing their best to process reality. I remember flying to Cincinnati one Christmas with two lap children and two in car seats. A sweet young Mormon couple on the next row carried on a knowing conversation with us for most of the flight before realizing we were actually just Southern Baptists with no sense of moderation. We deplaned leaving them as baffled by our family planning as our Southern Baptist friends were.

Over the years I’ve developed some responses to these repeated awkward questions. For example:

“Don’t you know what causes that?” – “Clearly. We’re so good at it we should patent the process.”

“Are they ALL yours?” – “No, I just think WalMart is so fun that I go pick up extra toddlers to bring along with me.”

“Is your husband getting snipped?” – “Already has. It was a non-event, really – nothing a bag of frozen vegetables couldn’t mend. Can I serve you some more peas?”

The trickiest one to answer, in my case, is, “Did you mean to do that?” If I say, “Yes, who doesn’t want four kids in four years?” I’m basically insane. If I say “No”, I’m an idiot. The truth is, I’m not sure what my answer is. The question itself implies far more control over conception than even I can claim to have.

And that’s the real reason we should be careful about these kinds of questions. Yes, they’re funny, and yes, I’m a big fan of self-deprecating humor, but it’s not me that these questions can hurt. It’s my friends and family who know with great clarity that conception is a miracle because it is one they have not experienced. It’s the people I love who ache for fertility to be their scandal.

During the Four Years of Much Pregnancy, my dearest friend was infertile. She came to my baby showers and listened to the jokes. She came to my hospital bed four years in a row to hold the latest Wilkin. She cried tears of joy for me, but I know she carried her sorrow with every casserole she brought to my home. I would have.

So I suggest that we stop saying these things to the woman whose arms are full of children for the sake of the woman whose arms are not. Because the answer to “Don’t you know what causes that?” is not a what, but a Who. I don’t know why God gave me children effortlessly and withholds them from others who would make fantastic parents, but I know this: Fertility is not a curse, it is a gift. It is a scandalous miracle.

So the next time you see a mother with a herd of small progeny, just say “What a blessing!" And maybe offer to help her get those groceries to the car. Or offer to put her kids through college. Any or all of these responses would be just fine.

Friday, January 17, 2014

authentic worship, hands down

A few years ago I was in a worship service with a Tambourine Lady. No one else in the service had brought a tambourine, much less decided to play it during the singing. No one else had moved to an open space to find room to sway and to jingle. Like the lone apple in a bowl of oranges, Tambourine Lady took her place among us. I am thinking of her now.

I’m standing at the front of the room, just to the left of the podium I will shortly stand behind to speak, and my body language is completely wrong. It’s a fairly small room, so the fact that my hands are at my sides is particularly evident, even though everyone else is on their feet as well. From behind the keyboard you repeat your plea that we be free in our worship, that we let go and throw our hands in the air, let go of worry about what others might think. Come on, ladies, let’s raise every hand in this place to the glory of the Lord. Be free.

The music swells, the singing grows louder. My arms stay conspicuously at my sides.

It’s a beautiful song, a God-exalting, glory-laden chorus, suitable for the throne room itself. I am deeply moved.

No one will judge you here. Raise your hands to your Father! Every hand!

Oh, man. I try to focus my thoughts away from the possibility that eyes are watching me through that sea of upraised arms, wondering why their retreat speaker is so uptight. I half expect to glance up and see my hands, like two traitors, mutinously occupying the space above my head. But no, they seem to be still in their usual place. Think about the God of the song. Think about the God of the song. Don’t worry about it - just worship.

The chorus, one more time. Okay, sure, three more times. I hear a faint jingling sound in the back of my consciousness.

Sweet, earnest worship leader, I hope I haven't let you down. Your job, like mine, is hard: we ask people to step outside what is comfortable. I gather that you may have recently flung off the fetters of conservative worship, and that’s tremendous. I say that without irony. But there's something I need you to understand.

Authentic worship means to me exactly what it means to you: the freedom to worship as the Lord leads. I have traveled the length of the denominational spectrum. I have been instructed to kneel, shout, laugh, fall over, chant, throw my hands up, take off my shoes, sway with my neighbor, and dance like David danced. It was a long trip through myriad worship styles, and participation was not always optional. My hands are at my sides for the same reason yours are thrown in the air: because I am free - free from the expectations of any of my fellow worshippers, free to worship in whatever posture the Spirit leads.  The truth is, I do occasionally raise my hands, but never when told to by a worship leader or a lyric. Because of my history, nothing could be more inauthentic, nothing less free.

So for me, and I suspect for a few others, authentic worship looks a little different than it might for many – a little less demonstrative. Let’s just say you’re never going to sustain a tambourine-related injury standing next to me. It would grieve me to know that you felt dishonored by my failure to participate in the manner you encouraged.  But it would grieve me more to know I had traded authentic worship for the comfort of conformity.

Tambourine Lady understood that. And taught me that. I am her, in my own way.

You are dead right – we must be free in our worship. Sometimes freedom raises its hands, and sometimes it sways and jingles. And sometimes freedom stands quietly and trembles. Believe me, it is entirely possible to have your heart in your mouth and your hands at your sides.  What you see is not fear or hardness. It is worship unbound.

Friday, December 27, 2013

five lies about your body

As we head into the New Year and take inventory of what we would like to change, many women will place making changes to our bodies at the top of the list. How we view our bodies will determine whether our plans to change them are God-honoring or self-elevating. Do we see our bodies the way our Maker does?

With that in mind, here are five lies our culture tells us about how we should perceive our bodies – and five truths from Scripture to help us shift our perspective.

  • Lie #1: Your body is decorative. It should be used to attract the attention of men and the envy of women. What matters most is how it looks.
  • Truth: Your body is useful. It should be used to accomplish the good works that God ordained for you to do. What matters most is what it does.

  • Lie #2: Your body’s appearance is flawed but fixable. You are not the right size, shape or color. But you can (and should) go to enormous effort and expense to change that.
  • Truth: Your body’s appearance is designed by God. You are fearfully and wonderfully made, according to a plan. Because God is a God of infinite creativity, people come in many different sizes, shapes and colors.

  • Lie #3: Your body is a source of power. It can and should be trained, toned and preserved from all signs of age. Its level of attractiveness or strength can and should be leveraged to give you dominance over and independence from others.
  • Truth: Your body has a set of limits. It succumbs to hunger, fatigue, exposure, injury, illness and age. Its fragility and fleeting vigor should point you toward submission to and dependence on a strong and eternal God.

  • Lie #4: Your body is yours. You are its owner. You may neglect it, obsess over it, indulge it, punish it, pamper it or alter it as you wish.
  • Truth: Your body is not yours. You are its steward. Because you were bought with a price, all decisions about and behaviors toward your body must be run through the filter of, “Does this glorify God in my body?”

  • Lie #5: Transforming the outside will fix the inside. By making changes to your body, you can change the condition of your heart. You can have more self-confidence, better self-esteem and greater happiness.
  • Truth: Transforming the inside will make peace with the outside. A mind being progressively transformed by the gospel rejects the worship of self and the futile pursuit of happiness. By pursuing holiness, your attitude toward your body will change, as you learn to love it as a good gift from God.

It is true that our bodies bear the impact of the fall: disability, disfigurement, infertility, chronic illness, terminal illness and even advanced age make these temporary dwellings difficult to love. People who face challenges like these think of their bodies differently than people who don’t. They tend to enjoy a heightened ability to value wellness over attractiveness. They readily understand that a beautiful body is a body that simply functions as it should.

Has someone close to you known a great health challenge? Honor their suffering by adopting their perspective, whether you ever share their experience. Trade cultural lies for the truth. May 2014 be a year in which we steward well the gifts of our bodies to bring about the will of God wherever they carry us. May it be a year in which we see our bodies as God sees them, in which we serve Him with eager hands, swift feet, and a joyful countenance. What could be more beautiful than that?

related posts:
New Year, New Self-Control
To Your Daughter Speak the Truth

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

how knowledge feeds our delight in God

A few mornings ago, my son queued up Handel’s Messiah on his iPod and began playing it through the stereo. It was a day of cancelled school, so I sat, coffee in hand, with all four kids - some of us working, some of us reading the paper, all of us periodically humming or singing the parts we loved best - for the full two hours and 47 minutes of the recording. Hard to believe, since two years ago I couldn’t get them to suffer through a single track.

What had changed? How had they grown to take pleasure in something they once found boring and pointless?

The answer is one that is common to all humans, according to Paul Bloom, a Yale professor with a PhD in Cognitive Psychology. Dr. Bloom’s area of specialty is in pleasure research – how we as humans develop the ability to derive pleasure from people, experiences and things. He has discovered through his research that pleasure does not simply occur, it develops. And how it develops is a point worth noting:

"People ask me, 'How do you get more pleasure out of life?' And my answer is extremely pedantic: Study more….the key to enjoying wine isn’t just to guzzle a lot of expensive wine, it’s to learn about wine.”1

knowledge yields pleasure

Bloom has found that pleasure results from gaining knowledge about the object of our pleasure, not, as we might assume, from merely experiencing it over and over. Specifically, our pleasure increases in something when we learn its history, origin and deeper nature.2 Christians, in particular, should take note of this connection. We are called to be a people who delight ourselves in the Lord, who can say with conviction that “at your right hand are pleasures forevermore”. Many of us identify readily with the call to Christian hedonism. Yet, we fight daily to live as those whose greatest pleasure is found in God. If Bloom is right, finding greater pleasure in God will not result from pursuing more experiences of him, but from knowing him better. It will result from making a study of the Godhead.

Think about the relationship, possession or interest you derive the most pleasure from. How did you develop that delight? Whether you are passionate about modern art, your car, conservation, your spouse, nutrition, education or baseball, my guess is that you became that way by learning about the object of your passion. And that your pleasure in it grew as your knowledge grew.

My kids love Handel’s Messiah because two years ago on a long car drive we told them its history. We printed out all of the lyrics (scriptures) in random order and offered a prize if they could match each set of lyrics to the correct track. They did not initially respond with enthusiasm, and the complaining continued throughout the listening exercise. But in the end, making a study of the Messiah enabled them to derive pleasure from it. As they learned about it, they began to experience it in a fuller and richer way – a way that they would not have if we had simply asked them to listen to it over and over again. Because they made a study of it, it gives them pleasure.

The same is true of our enjoyment of God. When we go through spiritual dry periods, we often try to increase our pleasure in God by seeking repeated experiences of him. But if Paul Bloom is right, and I believe he is, our delight in the Lord will increase not through chasing experiences, but through making a study of him – his history, origin and deeper nature - a practice that would actually allow us to experience him in a fuller and richer way. If we want to feel deeply about God, we must learn to think deeply about God.

to know him is to love him

What Bloom’s research has uncovered bears witness to the truth that the heart cannot love what the mind does not know. The more we know God, the more we will love him. Our pleasure in him will increase as our knowledge does. We must make earnest study of him as he has revealed himself in his Word.

Consider your pattern of spiritual disciplines. How much of it is given to study? The more time you devote to discovering the revealed knowledge and will of God, the greater your pleasure will be in him. The Westminster Catechism teaches us that the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever. But don’t pursue enjoyment. Pursue the knowledge of God himself, and watch as your pleasure in him multiplies.

“May grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.” – 2 Peter 1:2

1 What Do We Value Most? NPR Radio TED Radio Hour, May 25, 2012, 14:00 mark

Thursday, December 5, 2013

a holiday parable

“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn't.” 
- Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

On the first day of November I looked out my front window and saw my neighbor stringing LED lights over every inch of his shrubs. If you’re thinking November 1 is a little early for Christmas lights, you’re exactly right. My neighbor is Hindu, and as I later discovered, the lights were being strung in celebration of Diwali, the five-day Hindu festival of lights.

For the next week and a half, every time we passed each other on the way to get the newspaper, he greeted me with a loud “Happy Diwali!” This was bewildering. Not wanting to offend, I replied “Happy Holidays!” the first several times, but after awhile I honestly didn’t know what to say. Was he trying to make a point? I was pretty sure he knew I was a Christian.

Then came the afternoon I bumped into him outside our neighborhood coffee shop. We exchanged greetings (“Happy Diwali!” “Ummm…yeah, you too.”), and then I asked him what coffee drink he liked to order. He glanced toward the store.

“It turns out I’m not ordering anything after all.”

“Really? Why not?”

He pointed at the words “Happy Holidays” painted across the storefront windows. “What a cop-out. This place is not getting my business.”

Now I was really confused. Did my neighbor expect a store that did business with people of all backgrounds to hang a “Happy Diwali” sign in its window? Just what kind of holiday was Diwali? It must be a pretty mean-spirited one if you can’t patronize stores that don’t specifically acknowledge its occurrence. I went home and looked it up online: “Diwali is a five-day celebration of brotherhood, involving firecrackers, lights, the wearing of new clothes and the exchanging of gifts and sweets.” What did any of that have to do with boycotting businesses? It didn’t sound mean-spirited at all.

During the five days of Diwali, my neighbor did indeed wear new clothes – tee shirts with different messages about the true meaning of Diwali and its rightful place on the calendar. There were yard signs to let us all know what times his temple would be holding services. And the twinkle lights? Think Vegas.

Here’s the weirdest part: for eleven months out of the year you’d never know a nice guy like him could be so oblivious to other peoples’ beliefs. I wanted to gently sit him down and read him the parable of the Good Samaritan – I wanted him to see that being a good neighbor involves treating others with respectful care, even if their beliefs are not yours.

But I don’t think he’d get it – after all, he’s not a Christian.

All parables have a message. Can you guess the message of mine? Click {here} if you need a bit of help. To my Christian brothers and sisters, a very Merry Christmas. To my neighbors of every persuasion, the happiest of holiday seasons.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

choose hospitality

On November 6, 2010 I tweeted the Most Regrettable Tweet of my mediocre social media career. In anticipation of the holiday season, I decided to weigh in on hospitality. The tweet was a flawless blend of selective memory and self-righteousness, designed to heap condemnation on the heads of my followers under the guise of offering wise counsel. It was a verbal “selfie” snapped from my best angle, positioned to make me look very, very good. Let’s have a look at it, shall we?

Note the double-whammy: if your house isn’t orderly on a daily basis, you will withhold hospitality from others and set a bad example for your children. Moms everywhere, be encouraged!

Three years later, I still cringe remembering that tweet, mainly because I have failed to live up to it repeatedly ever since. I presume my house was clean on November 6, 2010, but it has rarely been so in recent months. Even as I type, I am looking out across a disordered landscape of scattered laundry, schoolbooks, dusty baseboards and chipped paint. That tweet neglected to mention what my house looked like when my children were small, how I would hide clutter in the dryer when guests came, how hard I found it just to get dinner on the table for my own family, much less for someone else’s. So I regret that I proposed to moms a standard to which I could not hold myself.

But more importantly, I regret that tweet because I have come to recognize that the standard it proposed is flawed. It revealed my own lack of understanding about the nature and purpose of hospitality. In my self-righteous desire to offer advice, I had confused hospitality with its evil twin, entertaining. The two ideas could not be more different.

entertaining versus hospitality: what’s the difference?

Entertaining involves setting the perfect tablescape after an exhaustive search on Pinterest. It chooses a menu that will impress, and then frets its way through each stage of preparation. It requires every throw pillow to be in place, every cobweb to be eradicated, every child to be neat and orderly. It plans extra time to don the perfect outfit before the first guest touches the doorbell on the seasonally decorated doorstep. And should any element of the plan fall short, entertaining perceives the entire evening to have been tainted. Entertaining focuses attention on self.

Hospitality involves setting a table that makes everyone feel comfortable. It chooses a menu that allows face time with guests instead of being chained to the cook top. It picks up the house to make things pleasant, but doesn’t feel the need to conceal evidences of everyday life. It sometimes sits down to dinner with flour in its hair. It allows the gathering to be shaped by the quality of the conversation rather than the cuisine. Hospitality shows interest in the thoughts, feelings, pursuits and preferences of its guests. It is good at asking questions and listening intently to answers. Hospitality focuses attention on others.

Entertaining is always thinking about the next course. Hospitality burns the rolls because it was listening to a story.

Entertaining obsesses over what went wrong. Hospitality savors what was shared.

Entertaining, exhausted, says “It was nothing, really!” Hospitality thinks it was nothing. Really.

Entertaining seeks to impress. Hospitality seeks to bless.

But the two practices can look so similar. Two people can set the same beautiful tablescape and serve the same gourmet meal, one with a motive to impress, the other with a motive to bless. How can we know the difference? Only the second of the two would invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind to pull up a chair and sip from the stemware. Our motives are revealed not just in how we set our tables, but in who we invite to join us at the feast. Entertaining invites those whom it will enjoy. Hospitality takes all comers.

why be hospitable?

Hospitality is about many things, but it is not about keeping a perpetually orderly home. So, forgive me, Twitterverse, for my deplorable tweet. I could not have been more wrong. And may I have a do-over?

Orderly house or not, hospitality throws wide the doors. It offers itself expecting nothing in return. It keeps no record of its service, counts no cost, craves no thanks. It is nothing less than the joyous, habitual offering of those who recall a gracious table set before them in the presence of their enemies, of those who look forward to a glorious table yet to come.

It is a means by which we imitate our infinitely hospitable God.

So, three years later, here is my advice to myself as the holiday season begins: Forgo the empty pleasure of entertaining. Serve instead the high-heaped feast of hospitality, even as it has been served to you.