The Clean Slate Club

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One of the common phrases we hear around New Year’s Eve and Day is the opportunity many take to “start with a clean slate.” The reference is to the slate students used (like a mini-blackboard – or now we have whiteboards!) before paper was readily available. They’d do their arithmetic sums on a piece of slate (like shale) then wipe it off to do more. Mistakes were easily erased, so they could start again—with a clean slate.

As I was musing on the clean slate, I thought about “the clean plate club” many parents use to try to motivate their children to eat all the food (especially vegetables!) they’ve been served. My dad used to promote this concept with me, and also with our children, his grandchildren. A clean plate meant we were grateful for our blessings, especially considering the needs of starving children around the world. (Pretty heavy stuff for a four or five-year-old…).

Clean plate and clean slate sound similar, but they have very different emphases.

The clean plate club is well-meaning, but misdirected. It imposes guilt and pressure.

The “Clean Slate Club” I’m suggesting does just the opposite. The clean slate club removes guilt and pressure.

Many of us live so continually with a burden of guilt (see my recent “Thriver’s Guilt” blogs) that we hardly know what it’s like not to feel guilty. Jesus gave his life so we could break from bondage to sin and guilt.

By faith, God’s love for us in Jesus Christ erases the slate of charges against us.

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:1-2 NIV).

And there’s these reassuring verses from Psalm 103:

…[The Lord] does not treat us as our sins deserve

    or repay us according to our iniquities.

For as high as the heavens are above the earth,

    so great is his love for those who fear him;

as far as the east is from the west,

    so far has he removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:10-12).

Corrie ten Boom, author of The Hiding Place (about her’s family’s courage in hiding Jews from the Nazis) said it this way:  “Bury your sins in the deepest part of the ocean and hang a sign there that says, ‘No Fishing.’”

But a clean slate is not just a New Year’s thing.

A clean slate is not even a new-morning thing, even though I heartily celebrate Lamentations 3:22-23

Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.

A clean slate is moment-by-moment thing.

In spiritual direction, I find one of the greatest barriers to experiencing God’s presence is focusing on our failures and shortcomings. Because our minds naturally focus on just one item at a time, focusing on our sins (both of omission and commission) takes our attention from God’s grace and goodness.

I continually remind myself of the practical wisdom of Brother Lawrence (whose given name was Nicholas Herman and is also known as Lawrence of the Resurrection). Following his death in 1691, the abbot of his monastic community compiled his letters and notes in a booklet treasured by many, The Practice of the Presence of God. Abbe Joseph de Beaufort recalled of Brother Lawrence:

[That] when an occasion of practicing some virtue offered, he addressed himself to God, saying, “Lord, I cannot do this unless thou enablest me;” and that then he received strength more than sufficient.

[That] when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to God, “I shall never do otherwise if You leave me to myself; it is You who must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss.”  That after this he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

So, I invite you to join the Clean Slate Club. By faith in Jesus Christ, live in the freedom and joy of God’s holy eraser.

Christmas Reminders: A Prayer in the Rush

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In the midst of the Christmas rush, I need continual reminders to keep my focus on the Lord. I have found it helpful to look beneath my immediate experience to a spiritual analogy. Here’s a prayer I initially wrote for use in worship that I now use regularly during Advent.

Lord, when we rush and rush this season, remind us that the only time You rushed was to welcome home Your returning prodigal.

When we search and search for just the right gift for that special someone, remind us that we are Your special people, and that You gave us the perfect gift in Jesus Christ.

When we weep at the tenderness of care shown in movies and on television, remind us to express that compassion and generosity in our own lives.

When we find ourselves overwhelmed with so many places to go, remind us that everywhere we go needs the light of Your love.

When we feel alone, and everyone else seems to have someone who cares for them, remind us that someone needs what we can share.

When we suddenly realize that we have forgotten You, remind us that we are always on Your mind.

When we get caught up in the good things of this world, remind us that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”

When we gather with close family members–but don’t feel so close, remind us that you gave us this family to love.

And when Christmas is over, and we are packing up the ornaments and taking out the tree, remind us of the tree on which You gave Your Life so that our lives would never, never end.

Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. Enjoy his grace and goodness at all times, in all places. A blessed Christmas to you.

Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 2)

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In my previous two blogs, I have been exploring the phenomenon I call “Thriver’s Guilt.” What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle? In the first blog (December 2, 2019), I defined it, and in the next blog (December 9, 2019) I shared the first remedy: Be Grateful.

Thriver’s guilt falls under the broad category of false guilt. Genuine guilt is our healthy reaction to violating a law or standard, especially God’s standards. False guilt is the feeling we have done wrong when we have not, in fact, violated a law or standard.

The “remedies” for false guilt are found primarily in the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We correct the lies we are telling ourselves by learning the truth of God’s Word, applied by God’s Holy Spirit.

So in this post, let’s consider two more important remedies (in addition to Remedy #1: Be Grateful) for thriver’s guilt.

Remedy #2: Be Generous

The biblical pattern has always been “blessed to be a blessing.” God’s blessings are for our enjoyment as well as our partnership with the Lord.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing (Genesis 12:1-2 NIV).

We are too easily seduced by the lie, for example, that it’s wrong to have nice things. It’s just stuff–until it becomes God’s stuff. God uses our resources to further Kingdom work in big as well as small ways. If you are blessed with a lovely home, share it. If you are blessed with a small apartment, share it. Whatever we have, the spirit of generosity blesses others and reminds us how much we are blessed.

Generosity and the faithful stewardship of our gifts and resources express the obedience Jesus called for when he commanded us to let our light shine.

“You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. 15 Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:14-17 NIV).

God has entrusted us with time, with personality and temperament characteristics, with spiritual, financial and material resources that we are to steward for the extension of his kingdom.

As Paul reminded us:

And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work (2 Corinthians 9:6-8 NIV).

To conclude with one more scripture on this topic, it’s interesting to me that Paul did not tell the “rich” to sell everything and give the proceeds to poor.

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share (1 Timothy 6:17-18 NIV).

In his book Gospel Patrons: People Whose Generosity Changed the World, John Rinehart writes about many historical leaders like Tyndale, Wilberforce, Whitefield and Newton — and we could name many contemporaries–who brought redemptive change to their times because of wealthy benefactors (quoted by Steve Perry in Living With Wealth without Losing Your Soul, New York: Rosetta Books, 2016). Steve Perry continued, “It’s not wrong to lay up treasure for yourself! But you do so not by hanging on to every last penny, but by seeking ways to be ‘rich in good deeds.'”

Remedy #3: Be Genuine

Be real both in admitting your struggles and sharing your joys. It’s takes a certain amount of courage to share your joys. Learn to communicate in a way that can be a testimony of God’s faithfulness to encourage people.

Appropriate disclosure is the key. As Proverbs counsels us:

Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart (Proverbs 25:20 NIV).

So we don’t parade our blessings thoughtlessly in front of those who can’t remember the last time they had something wonderful to share. But Scripture also says,

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Let the redeemed of the Lord tell their story (Psalm 107:1-2 NIV).

We are sensitive to those who are struggling, but we still tell our story about God’s goodness.

It is wise to be intentional about finding safe friends and colleagues who can hear your excitement and satisfaction. But this does not mean we cover-up what God’s doing in our lives.

Be ready for comments from those who are not in a good place. If you sense resentment, do not be defensive. Focus on the person. You might ask, “So, would you like to share what’s going on?” Deep down, we are all longing for affirmation, for validation, and for assurance that we matter to each other and to God.

The fundamental principle for community, both for those who are doing well and for those who are struggling is the same:

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn (Romans 12:15 NIV).

There’s much more to share, but I hope this gives some ideas for handling false guilt in general and Thriver’s Guilt in particular.

Be Grateful: Receive God’s good gifts with humility, always remembering the Giver.

Be Generous: Share what God has entrusted to you.

Be Genuine: Let your light shine in ways that meet others with compassion and encouragement.

Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 1)

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In my previous blog, I presented the phenomenon I call “Thriver’s Guilt.” That’s the guilt we feel when we succeed and do well when others around us, especially those we care about, do not. What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle?

Thriver’s guilt triggered an unhealthy dynamic of self-consciousness by which I became embarrassed by any signs of “success” in my life. I felt I had to apologize and minimize when things were going well. I also became self-deprecating in my conversations and presentations. I was reluctant to share the blessings I was experiencing.

Thriver’s guilt falls under the broad category of false guilt. Genuine guilt is our healthy reaction to violating a law or standard, especially God’s standards. False guilt is the feeling we have done wrong when we have not, in fact, violated a law or standard.

The question is: have we truly done something wrong? Compare the warning lights on a car dashboard with the conscience. When a light comes on, we need to discern whether it is indicating a genuine problem, or whether there’s a short circuit in the warning light itself.

In our lives, it may not be a problem of faulty lights, however. It may be that we have many “extra” warning lights that continually flash, giving us false information.

False guilt is spiritually corrosive. It denies God’s truth and undermines our experience of grace. False guilt disrupts our relationships, draws our focus inward, and robs our joy.

The “remedies” for false guilt are found primarily in the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2). We correct the lies we are telling ourselves by learning the truth of God’s Word, applied by God’s Holy Spirit.

So what about thriver’s guilt? Because I want to respect the relative brevity of a blog post, I will share my remedies in two posts. In this post, I want to consider the most important remedy.

Remedy #1: Be Grateful

Be grateful and receive God’s blessings with humility.

Enjoying the good things God provides does not mean we are materialistic, nor that we are spiritually immature.

We are too easily seduced by the lie that “poverty is a virtue and success is a sin.”

We may have a tendency to believe poverty is the ideal condition for true spirituality based on Jesus’ exhortation to the “rich, young ruler” to sell all he has in order to follow Jesus (Mark 10:17-22). Here’s part of the encounter:

21 Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” 22 At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

This one incident, however, was not meant to be a prototype for discipleship any more than being a literal fisherman was required to make us “fishers of men.”

Jesus was addressing this man’s idol. The Lord calls us to turn from anything we value more than the Lord. But that doesn’t always require literal all-or-nothing decisions.

For example, if a person struggles with ambition and success, Jesus would not counsel that person to fail. If a person struggles with beauty, Jesus would not counsel that person to become deliberately unattractive and unwashed. We must be careful not to move from specific situations to general principles too quickly.

God blesses his people. Think of the amazing beauty and delight of the Garden of Eden and the splendor of the New Jerusalem. We honor the Lord by appreciating these blessings and remembering their source. Deuteronomy 8:7-18, spoken as God’s people were preparing to enter the Promised Land, clearly presents this principle.

7 For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills… 10 When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. 11 Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God,… 17 You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.” 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant…

Blessings are expressions of God’s goodness. Gratitude reminds us that God is the giver.

If Sarah and I give wonderful gifts to our children, we want them to enjoy those gifts to the fullest, with due appreciation. To reject the gift would feel like a rejection of our love.

But there’s more to this subject. This remedy alone could be perceived as a “bless me” gospel that does foster worldliness and self-centeredness.  So please keep reading! In my next blog post, Thriver’s Guilt: Some Remedies (Part 2), I suggest how to manage our blessings faithfully and interact with others compassionately.

Thriver’s Guilt: The Problem

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We’ve all heard of survivor’s guilt, that feeling of guilt and remorse people have because they survived a traumatic event when others did not.

I recently read an article on those who survived the Las Vegas massacre of October 1, 2017. Many reported feeling guilty for running away because others ran into the danger to help those in need. Or they feel guilty because they were spared when their loved ones or friends were injured or even killed. “Why my friend or loved one? Why not me?” they ask.

Survivor’s guilt has gotten me thinking about a related phenomenon. I’ve never seen it named before (so perhaps I’m coining a new phrase), but it’s been real in my experience. It’s what I call “Thriver’s Guilt.” That’s the guilt we feel when we succeed and do well when others around us, especially those we care about, do not.

Let me assure you that I have experienced many failures and seasons of discouragement. I’m not always thriving. But there are, by God’s grace, some very fulfilling times.

What do we do with the guilt we feel when we thrive, but others around us struggle?

I realize it borders on boasting even to discuss something like this. Perhaps that’s why I haven’t read about it before. But I think it is a significant dynamic in relationships, and can also affect our spiritual lives and performance. So here goes!

I first became aware of my own thriver’s guilt when I attended a pastors’ retreat about five or six years into pastoral ministry. I had been an associate pastor for four years and had then been called to be a senior pastor (now we call it “Lead Pastor”) of a mid-sized congregation. I’d also published a few articles in Christianity Today and Leadership Journal.

At the concluding communion service of the retreat, the leader invited us to a time of prayer and confession. He included Jesus’ exhortation, “If you have anything against your brother…” (based on Matthew 5:22) and encouraged us to be reconciled with each other before we participated in communion. One of the pastors came over to me and said, “Doug, I want to ask your forgiveness for my envy of you.”

I was confused. “What do you mean?”

“Well I’m not alone in envying what’s already happening in your ministry…” I’ll stop there.

Of course, pastors are as guilty of comparison and competition as anyone else, but my colleague caught me completely by surprise. His confession suddenly made me realize that while I was guilty of focusing on how much better I thought others were doing—there were some who were watching me.

That revelation triggered not only my own guilt for envying others, but also an unhealthy dynamic of self-awareness. I became embarrassed by any signs of my “success.” I felt I had to apologize and minimize when things were going well. And I became self-deprecating in my conversations and presentations—a problem that people challenge me on to this day.

I became reluctant to share the good things that were happening. I’ve noticed this pattern in many settings: I feel far more comfortable sharing what’s going wrong than sharing what’s going well.

In my next blog post, I’ll share some of the remedies I’ve found so that I can live with freedom, gratitude, and compassion. But for now, let me affirm that “success” (which I define as fruitfulness) and experiencing the “rewards” of God’s goodness are not evil, bad, or wrong in themselves. Scripture abounds with stories of blessing, such as Joseph’s experience in Genesis.

The Lord was with Joseph, so he succeeded in everything he did (Genesis 39:2 New Living Translation, NLT).

And we are exhorted to enjoy the goodness of God’s creation and life in this world.

Since everything God created is good, we should not reject any of it but receive it with thanks. For we know it is made acceptable by the word of God and prayer (1 Timothy 4:4-5 NLT).

Stated most simply: Poverty isn’t a virtue, and prosperity isn’t a sin. So what do we do with our guilty feelings? Log on next week and consider what I have to share.

How’s your “To BE List”?

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Graphic courtesy of Stephanie Curry

I would not live well without a “To Do List.” I’ve been making lists since college (at least) and do so daily. I used to jot them down on scraps of paper that I eventually bundled with paper clips—what a mess! Now, I keep a “Day Book” where I compile my lists and ideas. I know there are far more efficient digital ways. But before we go further on efficiency, I want to ask a bigger question: am I so focused on doing that I forget being?

I can’t remember when I first heard the clever phrase, “Remember, we’re called human beings, not human doings.” In his book Holy Sweat, Tim Hansel takes this a step further. “We aren’t so much human beings as human becomings. Every day we are becoming the person we will be. Some people will become less… but most of us want to become more.”

I think of Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be, or not to be: that is the question…”  That profound reflection was on contemplating suicide. It could be paraphrased, “To continue to exist, or to cease to exist—that is the question.” By God’s grace, I pray that is not the question for any of us.

But we all face the question: “To Be or To Do?” How do we keep from focusing so much on doing that we forget the essence of our being, of our identity? How can we guard against the busyness that distracts us from valuing ourselves and others as people created in the image of God?

To be more precise, it’s not about the choice between doing or being. It’s about the priority of being as the foundation for doing. It’s about being overflowing into doing.

It’s also not about passivity; it’s about receptivity. It’s not about doing nothing, but about doing everything as the natural outcome of receiving what the Lord has for us.

So, here are four affirmations on my daily “To BE List”:

Be delighted in your adoption.

First and foremost, I am God’s child! God has adopted me into his family through faith in Jesus Christ. That alone makes life significant and priceless. I pray this is true for you. If we forget this, we have missed the purpose and joy of Life.

“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12).

“This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children” (Romans 8:15-17, The Message paraphrase).

Be filled with the Holy Spirit.

We don’t have the power within to live the life God wants for us. So God has given us his Holy Spirit. The real issue is not us getting more of the Holy Spirit. It’s the Holy Spirit “getting” more of us.

“So be careful how you live. Don’t live like fools, but like those who are wise. Make the most of every opportunity in these evil days. Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do. Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 5:15-18 NLT).

Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

God’s strategy for change involves our minds. That gives us hope, because we can begin to un-learn the lies and falsehoods of life so that we can learn and live God’s truth. The Word of God is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), opening our minds and hearts to see life from God’s perspective.

“Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold, but let God re-mold your minds from within, so that you may prove in practice that the plan of God for you is good, meets all his demands and moves towards the goal of true maturity” (Romans 12:2 J.B. Phillips Paraphrase).

Be here now—be present in the moment.

It’s natural for us to be preoccupied with the past or be concerned with the future. Those mindsets rob us of the gift of the present moment– which is the only time we really have.

“Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes” (Matthew 6:34 The Message).

What’s on your “To BE List”?

Cut-Flower Syndrome

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Many in our day have what I call a cut-flower mentality. They focus on the immediate experience of the “flower,” neglecting the need for roots that sustain the plant. It is normal and appropriate to enjoy flowers, but that enjoyment will be short-lived without the long-term nurture of the plant.

This is especially problematic in matters of faith. Many followers of Jesus suffer from “cut-flower syndrome” in the primary areas of biblical knowledge, theology and worship. Without roots, they are subject to being tossed about by fads and pressures instead of standing firm in confidence and understanding.

Immediate experience and crowd-sourced values are real liabilities when it comes to living as a disciple. This leads to situations where our judgments and practices are based on personal preferences and subjective evaluations, rather than drawing on God’s Word. We think we have to figure everything out for ourselves instead of drawing on the witness and careful thinking of God’s people across the ages.

In his book, A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship, Michael Horton quoted an article by John Seabrook in The New Yorker Magazine about the ‘dumbing down’ of our culture.

“The old cultural arbiters, whose job was to decide what was ‘good’ in the sense of ‘valuable,’ were being replaced by a new type of arbiter, whose skill was to define ‘good’ in terms of ‘popular.’ A ‘hierarchy of hotness’ replaced the older hierarchy of value and there was no such things as poor taste anymore, just different tastes… These judgments do not depend on knowledge of the canon, tradition, history, or some shared set of standards as to what constitutes ‘good taste’ to give them weight; this kind of taste is more appetite than disinterested judgement” (Horton, 191).

Deep waters, I know. So why is this such a big deal? How does this affect our hearts and minds? Here’s the point: If nothing is intrinsically true, good, and beautiful–and therefore superior to other things that are not quite as true, good or beautiful– everything is a matter of taste, or personal preference. And all we have are today’s cut flowers, which wither quickly.

I confronted my own cut-flower mentality during seminary.

I really struggled with impatience during the three years it took to complete my seminary education. I wanted to get out on the front lines of ministry. When I finally did get “out there,” however, I quickly realized that my education was an invaluable resource to sustain ministry in depth and breadth. In other words, I had some roots. I, in no way, had all the answers, but I knew where to look for more understanding. I, in no way, was prepared for the demands I faced, but I had reference points in Scripture, theology, church history, practical theology and counseling (to name just a few areas) that helped me better frame the questions and issues.

You don’t have to go to seminary, however, to develop roots. To change metaphors, when we develop depth through the renewing of our minds, we move from the burden of having a glass we rely on ourselves to fill to the joy of tapping the well of Living Water (John 7:37-38).

Deep roots drawing on Living Water– that’s key to spiritual vitality. It reminds me of this wonderful verse in Genesis:

Isaac reopened the wells that had been dug in the time of his father Abraham, which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham died, and he gave them the same names his father had given them (Genesis 26:18 NIV).

I love the image of reopening the wells. First, it speaks to the reality that the wells of truth and grace have been blocked by forces that stand against us. But we are also reminded of the promise that we can find fresh water from old sources. Isaac didn’t just dig new wells. He went back to the old wells that still had so much to give.

There are too many applications for me to develop now, so I’ll close with a few simple questions. Are you putting down roots, deep roots in your faith? Roots that draw on the life-giving waters of Scripture? Roots that draw from the wells of the thoughts and experiences of dear saints who have hard-won insight to share?

Enjoy the flowers– but, more importantly, put down roots.

Playfulness: A Theological Quest

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Your’s Truly performing with “The Fabulous Edsels,” with John, one of the group. (Photo courtesy of Pam Atkins Photography)

Playfulness does not come naturally to me. To give you some background, I was voted “Most Responsible” in my senior class at Colerain High School in Cincinnati. Did you ever hear of such a category?? (One of our sons was voted “Best Legs for a Guy,” so it seems like the categories are wide-open!). Anyway, when I tell people I was voted “Most Responsible,” I then ask them if they know how to spell ‘responsible.’ I reply, “It’s spelled b-o-r-i-n-g!”

Part of my playfulness-deficit is my personality. I want to “get things right.” I like order, efficiency and effectiveness. I start a meeting on time, follow the agenda, and end on time. (Now you get it, right? Boring…). Of course, these characteristics are valuable and greatly appreciated—most of the time. But it’s just wrong to live every moment by an agenda!

In addition to my personal inclination, however, much of my seriousness has roots in my theology. I take very seriously (of course!) the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30). I want to use the gifts and opportunities God has given me faithfully. I truly yearn to hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21). But I have failed to take into account Jesus’ humor in presenting the image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle. And the miracle of Jesus changing water into wine. And Jesus welcoming the children in spite of serious adult objections.

What I’m learning is that I need a theology of play. It’s right up there with the necessity of having a theology of rest. A better way to say this is that a truly biblical theology includes play and rest along with faithful stewardship (and many other topics).

Many of us lead driven lives. We are driven to do all we can; driven to make the most of every opportunity; driven to succeed. But following Jesus is about a “called life,” not a driven one. We are called to “maximize life” (to quote my personal two-word life mission). We are not called, however, to do so at the expense of our souls, our self-care and our relationships. Playfulness, enjoyment, and fun are part of life.

“There is a time for everything,

    and a season for every activity under the heavens…

   a time to weep and a time to laugh,

          a time to mourn and a time to dance” (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4 NIV)

Or, as I would paraphrase it now, “a time to be serious and a time to have some fun!”

The photo above was taken this past weekend when I played in a “cover band” (a band that plays other artists’ songs) at our church’s “Fall Festival.” Our band’s name is “The Fabulous Edsels” (in contrast to a well-known band, “The Fabulous Thunderbirds”). The brothers in this band (my band of brothers!) are among those the Lord has brought into my life to help me learn to have fun.

As I look back, I can see that many people have taken me on as a sort of project to help me lighten up. My wife, Sarah, most of all! She is so playful. Her sense of wonder for life brings me joy daily. But the challenge has been my “bad” (inadequate) theology. My theology has not made enough room for fun, for relaxation, for “wasting time.” And I need to correct that.

I am breaking free from the “utilitarian spell” that everything I do has be useful, spiritual, significant. It’s not that usefulness and responsibility are inappropriate. It’s more about the proper proportion and perspective.

I don’t have time to develop my theology of playfulness in the post—but I’ve taken the first step: realizing playfulness is part of the grace-full life God provided in creation and promises in Christ.

(P.S. The ponytail is part of the hat!)

Dinosaurs and Heaven

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Dinosaurs may be extinct, but interest in them is very much alive. Millions of people testify to this, buying Michael Crichton’s book Jurassic Park, or seeing Stephen Spielberg’s movie version of it. Crichton’s thesis, in simplest terms, is that a scientist discovers how to extract dinosaur DNA from blood remnants in a mosquito petrified in amber. He then “creates” dinosaurs in the present, developing them in a wildlife preserve setting on an island. His dream is that people will visit it, like a fantastic prehistoric theme park.

I was bitten early by the “dinosaur bug.” As a kindergartner, my favorite books were about these creatures whose toenails were bigger than my whole house and who could eat the local grocery store for an appetizer. I shuddered at the fierce pterodactyl, a monster, bat-like reptile. And the Tyrannosaurus Rex– well, words fail to describe the terror I imagined, being caught in the vice-grip of those claws, thrust toward his reeking mouth…  Oh my!!

Now that I’ve taken a step back (in more ways than one?!) from the vivid imagination of childhood, I’ve tried to understand our fascination with dinosaurs. I think it might be this: We are fascinated by a reality we’ve never experienced, something we can hardly imagine, but for which we have evidence existed. We are people of the five senses, but we find our greatest fascination in a sixth sense: the imagination. And the imagination (properly understood) is one of the primary organs of faith.

I think heaven fascinates us in much the same way. Heaven and life eternal (some theologians make a distinction between these—but I can’t explore that now), is planted within our hearts.

“God has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end” (Ecclesiastes 3:11 NIV).

Yet we can hardly imagine this unfamiliar and different mode of existence. Paul, drawing from the prophet Isaiah, communicates this in 1 Corinthians:

“What no eye has seen,

    what no ear has heard,

and what no human mind has conceived”—

    the things God has prepared for those who love him—

these are the things God has revealed to us by his Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:9-10 NIV).

While thoughts of dinosaurs may be interesting for science and even entertainment, thoughts of heaven can serve the most practical purposes. Puritan preacher, Richard Baxter wrote in The Saint’s Everlasting Rest:

[Thinking of heaven as our eternal rest] is not our comfort only, but our stability.  Our liveliness in all duties, our enduring of tribulation, our honoring of God, the vigor of our love, thankfulness, and all our graces, yea, the very being of our religion and Christianity, depend on the believing, serious thoughts of our rest [in heaven].

Jesus said to his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me, that you also may be where I am” (John 14:2-3).

Think now of that place. Let your imagination feast on the thoughts of dwelling in God’s house: the beauty, the joy, the freedom of heart, mind, body and soul. Our destination is not extinction, but eternity. God’s best is yet to be!!

 

Holy Imagination and Bible Meditation

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I am always amazed at the depths awaiting us in both study and meditation on Scripture.

We easily understand the concept of studying the Bible. The most basic method for personal and group study is often called the inductive Bible study method. It is based on three steps. Observation: What does it say? Interpretation: What does it mean? And application: How do I apply what I learn in my life? We could call study “cognitive meditation” because it uses the analytic functions of the left hemisphere of our brains to come to understanding.

Meditation, however, is a different approach to God’s Word. Meditation is a word that often makes Christians nervous. They rightly think of the problems of “eastern mediation.” “Eastern religions… usually stress the painstaking discipline by which one detaches oneself from the world, losing personhood or individuality and merging with the Cosmic Mind to become one with pure consciousness” (Morton T. Kelsey, The Other Side of Silence, New York; Paulist Press, 1976, p. 1). I heartily agree that Jesus’ followers do not follow that path. We do not empty our minds; we fill our minds and hearts with God’s Word.

Christian meditation is different from study. To meditate means to “murmur” over and over. We could also use the metaphor of rumination, like a cow chewing its cud over and over. Meditation moves from analysis to encounter. Like Mary (Luke 2:19), we ponder God’s word in our hearts.

The Lord clearly call us to meditate on Scripture.

Oh, the joys of those who do not

    follow the advice of the wicked,

    or stand around with sinners,

    or join in with mockers.

2 But they delight in the law of the Lord,

    meditating on it day and night (Psalm 1:1-2 NLT).

In discursive meditation (‘discursive’ because it a type of dialogue with God’s Word) we tap the intuitive functions of the right hemisphere our brain. Discursive meditation is visual and symbolic, connected to stories, art, the physical body, and movement. My own definition of discursive mediation is “encountering the living Lord through the written Word by the power of the God-given faculty of imagination.” (SoulShaping: Taking Care of Your Spiritual Life, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1996, p. 254).

What does it look like when we use our holy imaginations to enter into God’s Word? We slow down and imagine the scene. We consider the characters and may even have an imaginary dialogue with one of them.

Let me share an example from my meditation on Luke 18:1-8, when I entered into a brief imaginative dialogue with the desperate widow who persistently “pestered” the unjust judge.

DOUG:      Why did the judge refuse you?

WIDOW:  Look at me. I’m an old woman. What favor could he gain? He chose cases that served his ends.

DOUG:      How could you keep going after being rejected time after time?

WIDOW:  This wasn’t a matter of convenience for me. Without justice, I could not survive. I was not asking for riches, nor for ease, comfort or vengeance; only for the justice of receiving what was mine.

DOUG:      What would you say to me?

WIDOW:  You value too little too lightly. You have so much that your true desires run shallow. You want– you get. You lose– you replace.

DOUG:      Is something wrong with me?

WIDOW:  You are distracted

DOUG:      And I have rarely faced my helplessness. I run from situations where it’s exposed.

WIDOW:  You aren’t running now, but sometimes you start to coast or divert your energies. Focus and persist.*

The power of this meditation was the insight I “received” from the widow. I don’t fully understand how this happens. And I certainly do not believe I was in dialogue with any true being. But the Holy Spirit, working through my meditation, revealed insights that “ring true,” calling me to repentance and faith. That’s the “test” for a useful meditation.

Holy imagination can break the spell of boredom and disinterest, leading us into ever-fresh encounters with the Lord in Scripture.

*(I first published this dialogue in my book, What About Spiritual Warfare?, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2000, p. 78).