Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Dude, You Have A Speck

I was scrolling through Facebook the other day and I saw something that made me shake my head sadly. A person was commenting on an article about a prominent Christian leader and author, who she happened to disagree with.

Her comment was simply to place a reference of Scripture in the comment line. Her reference of choice was second Peter 2:1, which includes a warning about false prophets and false teachers.

She also included the letters SMH which stands for shaking my head.


I'm familiar with this passage of scripture because it was quoted numerous times in comments and reactions on news stories and social media posts regarding a story that made the news regarding me and my church. The story made TV news because I bet my congregation if they broke an attendance record for Easter last year I would do something crazy. 

The crazy wager was that I would get a tattoo of the church's logo on my leg if they broke the record. Apparently, this was an act of heresy according to scores of fundamentalist Christians who decided to use me as a spiritual scratching post of sorts.  In their minds I was a false prophet and a false teacher and probably the antichrist to boot. I was leading my people astray. I was perverting the Gospel

Dogs and cats living together mass hysteria!

I find it interesting that people enjoy using that Peter passage every time they have something to say about pastors, theologians, or Christian authors who they disagree with. 

Why do I find it interesting? Because almost every single moment in the epistles from the New Testament where someone is addressing false prophets and teachers it has to do with people who are trying to impose more regulations and more religion on to other Christians. It's to call out those who say that in order to be a Christian you have to jump through 1 million hoops so that God will find you worthy. 

Jesus was teaching his disciples about hypocrisy and he used an illustration that had to do with a person who was eager to tell his friend that he had a speck of dust in his eye and needed to remove it but in reality that same person had a huge log sticking out of his own. 

The thing about using scripture in order to throw fiery darts at someone you don't agree with is that there's probably another passage of scripture that they would be able to use to return the favor. 

The Bible is funny that way. It's an equal opportunity offender.

And here's another thing. That moment when someone says that because you believe a certain thing or you interpret the Bible a certain way that you no longer exhibit evidence of true Christianity... That's another of those sort of ironic moments. Because there are plenty of moments in the Bible where the words land on each of us in such a way that we can't help but realize how we cannot possibly live up to the example set by Jesus Christ. Ever. 

I was listening to the news today and I heard a report on how hundreds upon hundreds of conservative evangelical pastors were signing a petition to send to the White House urging Pres. Obama to respond to the growing radical Islamist threat through force.  

Honestly, depending on the day I might be compelled to add my name to that list too. The news from the Middle East has been less than heartening lately.

But then I read this story about the brother of a Coptic Christian from Egypt who was murdered by radical Islamists along with 20 other Coptic Christians. The brother of one of the slain martyrs thanked  the murderers of his brother for allowing his expression of faith in Jesus Christ to remain in the videos they shot of their vile act. He said that hearing his brothers declaration of Faith strengthened his own faith in Christ.

Now, which of these two exhibit more of the character of Christ? The hundreds of evangelical conservative pastors who have fixed their names to a petition advocating war and violence?

Or the Coptic Christian who thanked the murderers of his brother?

There is an argument to be made that 2 Peter 2:1 ought to be affixed under the names of those pastors...  A dang good argument, to be honest. 

See how quickly this can happen? 

Here's something I don't love all that much.  I don't love how you can say something like "God loves everyone," and then there's some Christian somewhere just chomping at the bit to qualify your statement with a "Yeah, but..." and then to follow with something dumb and judgmental.

And then there's the way that Christians use the word "Gospel."  They'll say, "You need to share the Gospel..." or "You just need to preach the Gospel, preacher..."  or  "We shouldn't waste an opportunity to share the Gospel..."  I agree.

The word "Gospel" means "Good News."

So Jesus told his disciples to share the "Good News" with everyone they met.  The "Good News" according to Jesus was outlined in Luke chapter 4 when he proclaimed that "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring Good News to the poor... to set free the captives and prisoners... "  Good News according to Jesus had to do with the kingdom of God come to earth--with a new world that is breaking through the old one in miraculous ways...  That sin and death no longer hold any fear over us.... That's good news.  

Do you know what's not good news?  When you tell someone that they are going to hell if they don't believe exactly as you do...  When you tear down someone and denounce them as an unbeliever because their interpretation of the Bible doesn't meet your lofty standards... When you create so many rules and regulations that you make following Christ a chore rather than an adventure.

In Matthew chapter 7:1-5, Jesus uses the aforementioned analogy that should rock you and I to our very core.

He says,

Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

Basically, Jesus is saying here that the ironic thing about judging others is that you typically get judged by the same criteria, and when that happens you always fall short.  It's like telling your buddy, "Dude you have a speck... in your eye... a speck of dust... I can see it from here..."  Meanwhile, you have a huge 4x4 piece of wood sticking out of your own.

It's hard to really see a speck in someone else's eye when your own is loaded down with a log.

As Christians, we need to work on the logs in our eyes.  We've got to figure out what the word "Gospel" really means.  We've got to learn that the way we become "right" with God is not by faithfully keeping our own rules and regulations that we've created and attributed to God.

The way to become right with God is to be right with others.

This is what God wants.

Because. God. Loves. Everyone.

If that makes someone somewhere call me a heretic--so be it.

In the words of a Christian author and pastor I admire--who has weathered his own share of criticism and charges of heresy:  "Its often easier to call someone a heretic than to deal with your own shadows." 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Love Song Week Two - "Love In Action"

Today I am concluding the two-part sermon series "Love Song," a short study on love, relationships and marriage using texts from the Old Testament book, the Song of Solomon to help me teach. 

Last week we learned a couple of very profound lessons that we'll be lifting up once again this week: When it comes to finding love, if you want to be with the right one, you have to be the right one.  It's not so much about finding the right person as it is about becoming the right person.  And when it comes to marriage, if you don't like what you are getting, look at what you are giving.  

We discovered that there are four qualities that you need to be looking for in a potential partner, and that you need to be developing in yourself, if you want to have a successful marriage:  You need to look for and develop godly character.  You need to have higher standards.  You need to develop growing trust, and you need to practice consistent encouragement.  

Today we're going to talk about ways that you can show Love in Action and we're going to examine three actions that will create a vibrant, lasting marriage.  

Here's the thing.. we generally judge others by their actions--by the things that they do.  We judge ourselves, however, by our intentions by the things that we meant to do.  

For example, when my wife texts me when I am on the way home and asks me to stop at the store she usually texts me a list of things I need to obtain.  Sometimes, because she kind of loves them, she'll list popsicles as one of the things I need to obtain.  Now, I might forget other things on the list--which happens sometimes even when I try to follow it.  But if I forget popsicles, that's bad.  Merideth knows that I know how much she loves them.  And when she is asking me to pick them up, that means that we are out of them, and she needs one badly that evening.  There have been times when I have forgotten popsicles, though.  Those were sad evenings for all of us.  

And I'll say in those moments when I have forgotten the popsicles--"I am sorry, I meant to get the popsicles." 

Or--like the other day--when I promised her that I would go and get her gas because she was almost out of gas.  And then I didn't and the next morning she said to me, "You said you were going to go and get me gas." 

And I said, "I am sorry, I meant to get you gas.  

Because I meant to, I want to give myself a free pass, you see.  

But when Merideth wakes up in the morning and makes herself coffee and doesn't make me a cup, too (which rarely happens), I feel all pouty and out of sorts.  "She didn't make me coffee!  Selfish so-and-so!"  Even though she was probably letting me sleep in because she knew that I was tired. 

Or when we are supposed to leave at a particular time to go to church, an event, on a date, etc. and we don't because of one thing or another--I'll get all bent out of shape, "She doesn't care about me anymore obviously!"  Forget the fact that she was working all day long, worrying about a baby sitter, ordering pizza for the kids, and then getting all dressed up...  "She doesn't care about me... boo hoo."  

We often judge others on what we perceive to be their actions, abut we judge ourselves on our intentions. 

What we need to learn is how to close the gaps between intentions and actions.  We need to learn that our actions do speak louder than words, and definitely louder than our intentions.  

I think there are three ways that we can close this gap and strengthen our relationships.  

First, If you think something good, say it. 

Song of Solomon has been our guide through this study, and as I mentioned last week it's an interesting guide because of the very open, honest and sometimes earthy way it speaks about love, relationships and lasting marriage.  

As we mentioned, Song of Solomon has been attributed to Solomon and it was written about 965 BC as a guide to passion, love, relationship and commitment.  It's also widely seen by Christians as a metaphor for how Christ loved the Church and for Jews as a metaphor for how God loved Israel.  

In Song of Solomon chapter 7:1-3 we have a moment where the woman in the relationship is dancing for her beloved.  And the brother is checking her out.  He says, 

How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince’s daughter! Your graceful legs are like jewels, the work of an artist’s hands. 2 Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. Your waist is a mound of wheat encircled by lilies. 3 Your breasts are like two fawns, like twin fawns of a gazelle. Songs 7:1-3

Now I would recommend never describing a woman's waist with the word "mound" but you get the gist of what this dude is throwing down.  He's thinking something good---and he says it.  He compliments her from head to toe.  Although I am not sure where he gets the whole "twin fawns of a gazelle" thing.  Guys, just FYI that might not work all that well, but you are welcome to try. 

The point is, when you think of something good, you need to say it.  This is important!  Because if you don't say something good to your beloved, then they often assume that whatever you are feeling is not good.  For example, I remember once when Merideth and I were getting ready to go to a banquet or an event and she had taken great pains to pick a dress, fix her hair, put on incredibly awesome heels and I was so focused on getting out the door, and taking care of other things that I didn't immediately tell her how awesome she looked---even though I thought it.  

A bit later, she said to me in a small voice--"You never told me that I looked nice.  Do I look bad?" Because I didn't say what I thought earlier--it causes issues later.  

If I text Merideth something sweet---or something that's a bit... you know... saucy---I get worried when I don't hear back from her right away--but when I do, oh man... everything is right with the world.  

And here's something that is true for all of us.  What is rewarded is repeated.  What is rewarded is repeated.  So if you want to see transformation in your spouse--then practice saying something good when you think of it--when your spouse has done something you absolutely love and want them to keep doing for the rest of your life. 

Ladies, when your husband prays the blessing at dinner---you tell him that prayer was the best prayer in the history of prayers outside the Bible.   When he helps you get the kids ready for bed at night--as he is pulling those Transformers pee-jays over your kid's head you tell him that he is the sexiest man alive and that you can barely contain yourself in that moment.  Tell him--in the moment--when you are thinking it--exactly how you feel and I guarantee you will light him up.    

The same goes for men--tell your wife how incredible she is, how beautiful she looks, how talented she is when you think of it--in the moment you think of it, and make sure that it's in front of her friends once in a while.  

Practice something together that's simple, but powerful.  Instead of merely saying "I love you," which a lot of people say just to say it, say "I love you because---" and then fill in the blank.  "I love you because you are overlook all of my faults and show me grace." "I love you because you are the only person I ever want to wake up with in the morning."  Use your imagination.  

In Song of Solomon 7:5 we read this, (He) 5 Your head crowns you like Mount Carmel. Your hair is like royal tapestry; the king is held captive by its tresses. Song 7:5

The man is essentially saying, "I am a prisoner of love.  You have put me in bonds."  When we think of something good about our spouse and we say it, we create these unbelievable bonds of love between us that cannot be broken.  

Then he goes on to say what he is thinking, (He) 7 Your stature is like that of the palm, and your breasts like clusters of fruit. 8 I said, “I will climb the palm tree; I will take hold of its fruit.” Songs 7:7-8

This is a risky thing to say because it could go either way for him, right?  I mean he might climb the palm tree and find out that his taking hold of the fruit is the last thing on her mind right then.  But because he's been practicing saying these good things to her, she replies with this: 

(She) 10 I belong to my beloved, and his desire is for me. Songs 7:10

She doesn't just feel desire, she expresses it!  The word that she uses here for desire is teshuwqah, which is the same word that is used to describe what a lion or tiger does when it attacks a hapless animal it wants to devour.  

Listen, if you want to get to this point where some teshuwqah-ing is about to happen--if you want to be unbelievably attracted to one another--if you want to find the connection that comes from godly intimacy... then practice this love action.  

If you think of something good, say it. 

Second, if you think something special, do it. 

I would divide this into two areas:  Purposeful time and Thoughtful Acts.  

First, Purposeful Time. 

Song of Solomon says this, (She) 11 Come, my beloved, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Songs 7:11

Let's get out of here, she tells him.  Let's go to a bed and breakfast.  Let's leave all of this other stuff behind for a while and focus on one another.  

I think that if there is one word that you could rest on to define success in a marriage when it comes to this kind of thing it would be "No."  

In order to say yes to this one thing--being away, creating purposeful time to be with one another away from the cares of life, jobs, kids, family, church, whatever...  You need to say no to a lot of other things.  

In order to be away together--guys--you may need to say no to golf... no to that hunting trip... no to extra hours at work... no to hard work  ladies you may need to say no to the demands of your job, your kids endless activities, the perfect house, girls night out...  

The woman in Song of Solomon has a plan, ladies...  

(She) 12 Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom—there I will give you my love. Songs 7:12

She is making a plan, "Let's go to the vineyards, let's go to this special place I know, let's go somewhere where we can be alone, where there's heartshaped bathtubs, champagne on ice, a hammock down by the beach... and there I will give you my love."  This. Is. In. The. Bible. 

Do you want to make your man's night, ladies?  Then make plans.  Call him up and tell him that there is a baby sitter for the kids, there's a reservation at a restaurant and a hotel booked afterward.  

I will tell you that all day long that guy will be on cloud nine.  He will be the happiest dude at work, and he will be the first guy out the door when it's quitting time.  

Guys, the same goes for you.  Buy tickets to her favorite show.  Book her favorite restaurant.  Dance with her on a dance floor somewhere.  Tell her you are going for a long walk on the beach to talk. 

My brother when she sees that you are planning these things ahead of time---you will not fail.  

Second. Thoughtful Acts. 

The mandrakes send out their fragrance, and at our door is every delicacy,both new and old, that I have stored up for you, my beloved. Songs 7:13

Here she thoughtfully makes sure that they have everything they need to be comfortable, loving and intimate.  Mandrakes, like raisins, were thought to be passion inducing fruit. So she has those, which are good, and she has all kinds of other things, too.  She not only thought ahead, she was careful to pick things that were meaningful to him. 

Every Sunday morning I wake up at 5 AM and get ready for church while Merideth sleeps.  She has told me in the past that she likes for me to wake her up before I leave, and sometimes when I do she'll ask me to set her alarm.  The other morning she was sleeping really well, and I didn't want to wake her.  But I did go over and set her alarm for her.  When it went off and she realized what I had done, she told me that she felt loved.  

It was a little thing, just a small gesture, but it made her feel special.  Trust me.  I don't always get this right, but on this occasion I did, and because she told me how it made her feel---I'll be thinking of this for other kinds of things, too.  

If you think something good say it!  If you think of something special do it. 

Lastly, If you want something different, be it. 

Remember last week when the woman told the man in Song of Solomon: "I am not going to be like the veiled women--those prostitutes.  I am not going to give myself away in this relationship and end up a shell, a used and dirty thing."  She creates boundaries, clear, loving boundaries, that mark off where she is willing to go and not go in the relationship.  

If you find yourself constantly being taken advantage of, constantly overlooked, neglected, abused, cheated on, betrayed...  Then I would venture a guess that you are not practicing boundaries.  If you want something different, than you have to be different.  You can't be the kind of person who has no boundaries. 

In another part of the book the man tells the woman, "We're not going to let the foxes ruin our vineyard."  The word for foxes is also the same word for impurity.  If you want to have a godly, vibrant romantic life--than keep impurity out of it.  Have eyes and thoughts only for one another.  Guys, you might very well recognize that someone other than your wife is attractive.  Recognizing this is one thing.  Projecting impure thoughts on to that person is another.  Ladies, that trainer at the gym might be young, strong and awesome.  But when you start imagining you and your trainer doing something other than training---you have a problem.  

Don't let the little foxes destroy your vineyard.  Normal in our society is betrayal, cheating, emotional affairs---divorce.  If you want something different, than you have to be different.  

This goes for how you communicate, too.  When you disagree, respond to one another rather than reacting to one another.  Talk to each other rather than walking away.  Decide that whatever you have to give is more important than what you think you need to receive--grace, forgiveness, understanding, etc.  

Here are some parting words of wisdom...  

Parting words—“the older I get the less time I want to spend with the part of the human race, who didn’t marry me…”  - Robrert Brault  How awesome is that?  

“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times—always with the same person…”  - Fawn Weaver Imagine if we committed ourselves to re-discovering one another. 

“Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success…”  - Henry Ford There's a lot of work and effort that is involved in a good, lasting marriage.  

I also want to share this with you from Romans 8:38
38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

For those of us who follow Christ, we have the example of his love to guide us in our own relationships.  If we are fully committed to a godly, long lasting marriage--than the same will be true for us.  Nothing can separate us from that kind of love.  

And it all starts with this:  If you want to be with the right one, you have to be the right one. And: If you don't like what you are getting in your marriage, than look at what you are giving.  

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Love Song - Week One: "Sunburn Brings Out Those Cute Little Freckles"

This week I am starting a new sermon series--a two-parter, entitled "Love Song."  This is a series that is inspired and informed by a series of sermons I heard from Craig Groeschel, a preacher I admire.  I've given this series my own twist, of course, but I wanted to give credit where credit is due.

Over the next couple of weeks we are going to be using some passages of Scripture that are very seldom read on Sunday mornings in the context of worship, and even more seldom as the source of a sermon.  You'll see why in a moment.

I think that one of the many ways that our Enemy, Satan--the Accuser--seeks to bring down the people of God is by destroying marriages.  I shared in a sermon last year that the divorce rate among evangelical Christians is higher than almost every other demographic in America.  Something is definitely wrong in the Church.

In my opinion, one of the main reasons why church going couples in America are struggling in their marriages is because pastors are typically afraid to talk plainly about what it takes to have a strong, solid marriage, and to be very frank about the things that tear marriage apart.  Pastors and church leaders tend to speak in platitudes or place too much blame on either husbands or wives, depending on the kind of church or the pastor's particular theological bent.

The fact of the matter is that things are changing rapidly in our culture.  I've been married for twenty-three years and in that amount of time the world has completely transformed, and our culture's views on marriage have been transformed, too, and not entirely for the better.

Right then there were probably a whole bunch of people who wanted to shout "Amen, Preacher! Get after it!" Lots of Christians have clear ideas about marriage--what constitutes marriage, who should get married, who shouldn't get married... but there's that pesky statistic to deal with.  Christians seem to be failing in their marriages at a faster rate than everyone else.

I met my wife Merideth when we were thirteen years old.  We met on Walker Field in Winter Garden at a football jamboree.  I was a new kid in the school and thought I was fairly awesome in my football attire.  I actually weighed 130 pounds soaking wet and looked like a stick figure in shoulder pads.  Merideth was a cheerleader and she walked up to me on that field in her cute little cheerleading outfit, stuck out her hand and said, "Hi! I'm Merideth."

Ten years later we found ourselves standing at the doorway to the Orange County Courthouse in Ocoee Florida waiting for it to open.  We had decided to elope--to "run off and get married."  There had been a lot of water under the bridge that connected our lives, and there were lots of people who thought that we would never really make it.  But there we were.

Our song for many years--and I suppose even now--is "Still the One" by Shania Twain.  The lyrics go something like this: "Looks like we made it, look how far we've come my baby.  We might have took the long way, but we knew we'd get there someday.  They said, I bet they'll never make it, but look at us holding on, we're still together, still going strong..."  

We've had our ups and downs, our trials and triumphs.  It's not always been easy, but it's always been an adventure.  We have had richer and poorer, sickness and health, better and worse.  Merideth and I constantly work on our marriage--constantly.  It is our number one priority--even over our own kids.   Some people might get a charge off that last statement.  "Over your kids?  Are you serious?"   Because if our marriage ain't right--then everything else ain't going to be right.

But unfortunately, not many people in our culture have the same idea about their marriage.  Like I said earlier, things in our culture are changing.

It's crazy how social media has influenced the way that people connect with one another--particularly when it comes to romance and marriage.  There are a ton of dating websites that try to connect people for the purposes of finding a right match.

But the way people describe themselves on these sites can often be misleading, which starts everything off on the wrong foot.  For example, when a woman describes herself as "40ish" what tha means is that she's actually 49.  When a guy describes himself as "40ish" it means he's 52.  If a guy says that he's "huggable" it means that he's a hundred pounds overweight.  If a woman says she's "romantic" that means that she looks better by candlelight.  If a guy says that "he's laid back and is close with his family," that means that he's unemployed and still lives at home with his parents.  If a woman says that she's "bubbly and fun," it means that she has an annoying laugh and never shuts up. If a guy says that he's "average looking," that means that he fell off the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down.

Some of you were totally taking notes then.  I'm glad I could help you out.  It's difficult in this day and age to know for sure how to find the right person to spend your life with, and even more challenging to have a marriage that will stand the test of time.

So here's something that I want you to hear, so I need everyone to pay attention and listen well.  You might want to write down what I am about to say.

When it comes to relationships... when it comes to romance... when it comes to marriage that lasts...
If you want to be with the "right one," you have to be the "right one."  If you want to be the right one, you have to be the right one.

In other words, if you aren't married yet and you are thinking about one day tying the knot then you need to hear this wisdom from Andy Stanley.  "You need to be the person that the person you are looking for is looking for."  Think about that for a moment.  

And if you are married then you need to hear this bit of wisdom that relates to what I just said.  When it comes to marriage and relationships, if you don't like what you are getting, look at what your giving.  If all of this sounds like there is work you have to do in order to find and build a life with the person of your dreams--you are totally tracking with me right now.

The passage of Scripture that we are going to be using as our inspiration today is from Song of Solomon chapters one and two.  Song of Solomon was written in 965 BC and was attributed to Solomon, who reputedly was the wisest person who ever lived.  I need to call bushwah on that to be honest.  Solomon had like 700 wives and 900 concubines in his harem.  And many of them had different religious beliefs than Solomon.  So not only did the dude have like over a thousand women to handle, they all went to different churches.  That doesn't sound like the wisest man who ever lived to me.  Just saying.

Still, he was pretty wise in a lot of other things.  And apparently, according to the work we have here in Song of Solomon, the dude had some serious game when it came to his beloved.  The book of Song of Solomon has been called an allegory of Christ's love for the Church by many Christian scholars.  Jewish scholars see it as an allegory of God's love for Israel.  And still others see it simply as it is:  a poem about pursuit, passion, romance, true love and lasting commitment.

For the record, I tend to think its more the last thing than the other two, but I can see where people would find connections to all of them.

I believe that in the first couple of chapters of Song of Solomon we can find some help as we seek to navigate the complicated waters of marriage and relationships in our current culture.  In fact, I believe that there are four qualities that we need to not only look for in a potential spouse, but that we also need to develop in ourselves both before and after we are in a relationship.

First, you need to both look for and develop Godly Character.  

The first few verses of Song of Solomon go like this:
Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore the young women love you. 

The woman who is speaking here starts off well, doesn't she?  Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your live is better than wine...  Yeah baby!  There is not a single dude in here that doesn't want to hear that from his lady.  Can I get a witness, my brothers?

But then she says something profound.  She says, "your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is oil poured out."  The word that she uses here for oil is a word that means "expensive perfume or cologne."

In a world where baths are rare, she's making a statement but not just about the way they guy looks, how he kisses or how he smells.  She says that your name is oil poured out.  The reason why all the chicks like this guy is because of his good name.  He's not just a hottie with a body, he has a good name, a good reputation.  The thing that matters the most to her is character.

Character matters.  Reputation matters.  Here's the thing, if the person you married didn't have a good reputation or godly character before you married them--don't be surprised when they don't have it after you marry them.  And if you want to attract the kind of person who has godly character, than chances are you need to make sure that you have it yourself.

This is also the kind of thing that goes on well after marriage.  If you want to have a godly marriage then you need to work at maintaining your reputation, your good name, your godly character all of the time.

Andy Stanley once said that Marriage is not so much about finding the right person as it is about becoming the right person.

It means not putting yourself in compromising positions with the opposite sex.  It means that you save up your flirtations for one another and not for co-workers, friends or your trainer at the gym.  It means being open with your social media, your online use, your emails and texts.  It means that you care about going to church with one another, praying with one another, building up one another in the Lord.

Second, you need to work on Growing Trust.  

In Song of Solomon 1:5-6 the woman reveals something personal to the man.  She says:

I am very dark, but lovely,
    O daughters of Jerusalem,
like the tents of Kedar,
    like the curtains of Solomon.
6 Do not gaze at me because I am dark,
    because the sun has looked upon me.
My mother's sons were angry with me;
    they made me keeper of the vineyards,
    but my own vineyard I have not kept!

In the ancient Hebrew culture if your skin was darkened by the sun it meant that you were low bred--of a lesser class of person.  She reveals to her beloved that she had to work out in the sun and she is now tan, dark, and unlovely.  She reveals her insecurities, and he loves them away.

Guys, I am going to speak to you for a moment here.  In our culture, women have so many mixed messages that they receive all of the time about what is attractive and what isn't.  And although guys have some of the same kinds of messages, it affects us much differently than women.  So when a woman opens up and shares with you that she doesn't like the way her hair hangs, her pants fit, her butt looks, her ankles show...  She's revealing to you some very real, very scary, very vulnerable feelings.

Which is why the question, "Does this make me look fat?" so important and so dangerous.  It would seem there is no good answer to that question, right?

But you can do this.  You can take her in your arms and you can tell her that she is the most beautiful girl in the freaking world and that her hair is gorgeous, her pants are unbelievably hot, her butt won't quit, her ankles are banging and that if the kids weren't watching right that second, things would get absolutely out of hand.

And ladies, guys aren't immune from this kind of thing either.  For my entire life I've been blind in one eye.  This means that the eye that doesn't work tends to look at things that my other eye isn't looking at, which is otherwise known as being "cross-eyed."  I've always been self-conscious of my errant eye.  Early in our marriage when I revealed how much it bothered me, Merideth covered me in grace and love.  She told me how she never really noticed it, and she thought I was the sexiest man alive.  I don't know if she said that exactly, but that's how I remember it.

No matter what the insecurities, the vulnerabilities that you both have--when you love away one another's insecurities, it builds trust that can't be shaken.

This brings us to the third quality:  You need to have Higher Standards.  

The woman says:

7 Tell me, you whom my soul loves,
    where you pasture your flock,
    where you make it lie down at noon;
for why should I be like one who veils herself
    beside the flocks of your companions?

The phrase "one who veils herself" is a strange phrase that doesn't have any meaning for us, but in the ancient world it referred to women who were prostitutes.  They would go where men were gathered and would sort of be in the background, faces veiled as a sign that they were available for hire.

The woman is basically saying, "You need to treat me like a lady.  Tell me where you are going to be, where I can find you.  Don't make me pursue you like a prostitute."  What she is saying to her beloved is, "There are some things that I won't do, that I won't become in this relationship."  I won't lose myself, my self-worth, my reputation in order to be with you.

I have conversations all of the time with people who find themselves in relationships with someone who makes them feel less than--with people who make them feel dirty and used.  I have counseled both men and women who have regretted the things they've done in order to maintain a relationship with someone who is consumed with themselves and no one else.

If you want to have a strong, godly marriage you need to have high standards for both the person you are with and for yourself.  The woman in Song of Solomon makes it clear that she has boundaries, that there is a line she will not cross.  The man responds by saying to her:

If you do not know,
    O most beautiful among women,
follow in the tracks of the flock,
    and pasture your young goats
    beside the shepherds' tents.

He give her plain directions, honoring her by calling her "most beautiful among women," and assuring her that he will not take advantage of her, he will never let her be made to feel less than, she will be highly esteemed and cherished.

Finally, you need to practice Consistent Encouragement.  

In Song of Solomon 1:9, the man says to the woman:

I compare you, my love,
    to a mare among Pharaoh's chariots.
Your cheeks are lovely with ornaments,
    your neck with strings of jewels.

I know, I know.  It doesn't sound that awesome that he is comparing her to a horse.  In our culture that would be a no-no.  "I just want to share with you how I feel... I feel like I am not that attractive..."  "YOU LOOK LIKE A HORSE!"  Yeah.  Bad idea.

But in the ancient Hebrew world, the man is giving her an unbelievable compliment.  His metaphor here is of a horse that would pull the Pharaoh's chariot--the chariot of a king who was believed to be a god.  The chariot of Pharaoh would only be pulled by a white horse, a horse that was thought to be as divine as the Pharaoh himself.

I am going to give you all some very important advice.  If you want to have a solid marriage with an amazing romantic life... then practice consistent encouragement.

In Song of Solomon 1:12-16 we get this exchange that happens after all of the encouragement that the man gives to the woman.

The woman responds:
While the king was on his couch,
    my nard gave forth its fragrance.
13 My beloved is to me a sachet of myrrh
    that lies between my breasts.
14 My beloved is to me a cluster of henna blossoms
    in the vineyards of Engedi.

The the dude responds:
15 Behold, you are beautiful, my love;
    behold, you are beautiful;
    your eyes are doves.

She fires back:
16 Behold, you are beautiful, my beloved, truly delightful.
Our couch is green; the beams of our house are cedar;
    our rafters are pine.

While all of this makes little sense to us, what we are seeing here is a couple who have been encouraging one another, and now they are about to reap the benefits of that mutual encouragement.  In other words, they are about to do it.  Get down.  Make whoopee.  The couch is green my friend, the beams are cedar and the rafters are pine and Barry White is playing in the background.

Let me let you in on a little secret.  The better you treat one another, the hotter you get.  I am an average looking dude.  No comments.  But when I practice consistent encouragement with my wife, she finds me irresistible.  I look to her like one of those dudes on he cover of a romance novel with long flowing locks and muscles like Fabio used to have.

Encourage one another consistently. You will not regret it friends.

So what is the result of all of pursuing these four qualities--godly character, growing trust, higher standards and consistent encouragement?

To begin with, you feel special.  

In Song of Solomon 2:2 the man says, "As a lily among brambles,
    so is my love among the young women."  He wants her to know that she is cherished, treasured and valued.  There is no feeling in the world quite like the one that comes over you when you realize that the person you are spending your life with, or the one who you want to spend your life with, thinks you are the bomb.  And you need your beloved to know that there is no one like them.  That they are a lily and every other girl, every other guy is like a thorny weed.

You also feel secure.  

In Song of Solomon 2:3 the woman tells the man: 3 As an apple tree among the trees of the forest, so is my beloved among the young men. With great delight I sat in his shadow, and his fruit was sweet to my taste.

What she means is that she feels safe, protected and free from harm.  She knows he is not going to cheat on her, leave her, betray her, or mistreat her.  She can trust her feelings with him.  And because of this she is free to truly live.  You see, when your marriage is solid, you feel like you can handle anything.  You know that you can count on your beloved, and because of this you have courage and strength to be who you need to be, say what you need to say, go where you need to go.

Listen to me.  If one person in the relationship gets all the glory, the attention, the benefits, the payoff, the affirmation and the power... that is the exact opposite of security and protection.

Lastly, you feel desired. 

In Song of Solomon 2:5-6 the woman says this: He brought me to the banqueting house, and his banner over me was love. Sustain me with raisins; refresh me with apples, for I am sick with love. His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me!

There's a subtlety to this passage that we don't get, but the ancient people who read this would have been grinning ear to hear when they heard it.  You see, in the ancient world raisins were believed to be aphrodisiacs.  Yeah buddy.  In other words, the woman is saying to the man--because of who you are, what you do, how you love me...  I would like a bunch of raisins big boy.  Then she illuminates the portrait even more by describing where his left and right hands happen to be.  Hubbadahubbada.

If there's a run on raisins at Publix today---don't blame me.

I don't want you to think that because I am up here telling you these things that I have figured it all out.  I am still working on this every single day of my life.  Merideth and I have to hold each other accountable all of the time.  And every single day I have to ask myself, "If I don't like what I am getting, than I need to look at what I am giving."

Because this isn't as much about Merideth as it is about me.  If I am not being the right person, than how could I ever expect her to be the right person?

Make godly character, growing trust, higher standards and consistent encouragement a part of your life as a couple.  Whether you are wanting to be married, already married or used to be married and want to be married again----or if you have kids or grandkids who are any or all of the above... Remember what you heard today.

When it comes to marriage if you don't like what you are getting, look at what you are giving.  If you want to be with the right one, you have to be the right one.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015


I typed the original version of this on a virtual typewriter

A virtual typewriter. 

This is what we've come to in our crazy-mixed-up world. I am actually typing on a virtual typewriter that has virtual typewriter keys that when depressed make virtual typewriter arms or whatever the heck they are called fly into the air and virtually strike a virtual page making a virtual imprint on a virtual piece of paper.

And then if I want I can send this virtual piece of paper with virtual type virtually printed on it to a program on the iPad I am using to command this virtual typewriter that will enable me to print and actual copy of this virtual creation.

What a world.

And here's the funny thing about all of this. I actually prefer writing on this thing to simply using a word processing program-- despite how slick it is and despite all of the ways that said program can make my document look snappy.

There was a moment just then when I actually felt my hand start to rise and hit the return on the virtual typewriter. 

Man, I used to love doing that. 

Remember? You would get to the end of the margin and there would be this little "ding" to warn you that you were about to run out of room. And if you were really awesome at typing, you would know that you had just a few more spaces--just enough to fit a word or half a word and a dash. And then you would hit the return arm at the last second and suddenly you would be given a new line to finish your thought, your sentence, or that word that you left hanging on the right hand margin with a dash in the middle of it.

I'm not one of those guys that sits around pining for the good old days of rotary phones. But there is something meaningful about being connected to what you create, isn't there? We've made this too easy I am afraid. There used to be something kind of dangerous about sitting down in front of an honest-to-god typewriter to write.

Think of the variables involved. You couldn't just erase a mistake if you made one. You had to whip out that weird circular eraser with the wisk broom on the end of it and try to make your mistake disappear cleanly without a trace--a task that was very nearly impossible. It was either that or white-out, which would make your errors stand out like a sore thumb.

And God help you if you had to include footnotes, am I right? I remember trying to half turn the roller that held the paper so I could position the footnote just so. Inevitably the footnotes would be at varying heights across my page.

Having someone proofread your work was a maddening and soul- stealing exercise. You would sit there watching your proofreader work, waiting for their brow to furrow and their pencil to descend--your stomach in knots, dying inside every moment. And then they would find an error, or two, or three and you found yourself debating whether you were willing to re-insert the paper and try to line the errors up so you could correct them properly, or just put a new sheet of paper in the roller and start over.

There's no danger in writing any more. There is no thrill, no roller coaster ride of creation, and correction.

When I wrote my recent doctoral dissertation, I purchased a computer program that scanned my document for grammatical errors, content issues and moments when I strayed from Turabian's rules and regulations.

Where's the fun in that?

I rather like this virtual typewriter, to be honest. It actually makes me feel more alive to use it.
I think that in a world where everything is at the touch of a button, where information streams into the virtual desktops of our virtual desks, where we grow impatient when that email that we just sent doesn't get answered in moments... we need to be connected to creating.

We need to relearn what it's like to feel the act of creation--to be connected in visceral and emotional ways with our thoughts and ideas. We need to know that our mistakes aren't always so easily covered up. We need to remember what it feels like to know that starting over might be the best way to correct our errors.

We need to type again.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

In The Beginning - Week Four: "Sibling Rivalry"

This week we are concluding the sermon series that we've been working on for the past several weeks, a sermon series entitled, "In The Beginning."  The idea behind this series was very simple:  This new year isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation.  And in order for us to learn what it means to become a new creation in this new year, we decided to go back to where everything started--back to the beginning, and the first four books of Genesis.

Our focus this week is on the first few verses of Genesis chapter 4 and the story of Cain and Abel--perhaps the most famous story of sibling rivalry in the history of the world.

I was an only child so I never really had to deal with sibling rivalry.  The only person I had to be jealous of was myself--which might seem crazy on the surface, had I not been such a smug little so-and-so growing up.  I tell you when my mom showed me favoritism over myself--it really chapped my hide.

But I do have three boys all of which are several years apart, which guarantees that there will be some seriously annoying moments between older and younger brothers.  Let's just say that our family has had more than our fair share of broken Lego creations, maimed action figures and deleted video game files to last a lifetime.

I was doing some research this week into famous sibling rivalries and found some interesting ones.  There's the story of Eppie and Priscilla Lederer, more famously known as Ann Landers and Dear Abby--advice columnists and dread rivals.  When Eppie Lederer became Ann Landers and assumed some serious popularity, Priscilla took on the persona of Abigail van Buren (Dear Abby) to compete with her sister.  She even went so far as to offer her advice column to newspapers at a reduced rate if they refused to run her sisters.

Then there was the horrible rivalry of Oscar winning actresses Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland.  When Joan Fontaine won the Oscar for best actress in 1941 she snubbed her sister who tried to congratulate her, and in 1946 when Olivia de Havilland won she did the same.  Fontaine later wrote about how she was always made to feel like a loser in their family and even suffered physical abuse, broken bones at the hands of her jealous sister.

Believe it or not, Walt and Roy Disney were rivals.  Walt was the younger of the two and the creative genius behind the company that bore his name.  Roy was always second banana even though he would outlive Walt and would run the company for years after Walt's death.  Walt once said about a decision he made against Roy's wishes, "When we were children and slept in the same bed, I used to [pee] all over Roy.  I [peed] on him then, and I am [peeing] on him now."  Only he didn't use the word pee.

More recently, Liam and Noel Gallagher from the rock band Oasis engaged in bitter arguments often fueled by drug use and alcohol that were mostly legal but often turned  physical regarding the future of their band.  In Britain they are widely known to be two of the worst sibling rivals since King Lear's daughters.

So what does this look like when it unravels completely?  What does it look like when people who should get along don't---and perhaps even turn against each other for good?

It looks a lot like the places in our world where there is strife, inequity, war, poverty, starvation, oppression... I could go on.  Fear, hatred, jealousy...  these are powerful emotions that can cause a world of hurt.

Why do people hate one another?  What's at the very core of it all?

I think the answers to those questions can be found in the first few verses of Genesis chapter 4
1 Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten a man with the help of the Lord.” 2 And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a worker of the ground. 3 In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, 4 and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, 5 but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. 6 The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? 7 If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”
8 Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9 Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?” 10 And the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground. 11 And now you are cursed from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother's blood from your hand. 12 When you work the ground, it shall no longer yield to you its strength. You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth.” 13 Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is greater than I can bear. 14 Behold, you have driven me today away from the ground, and from your face I shall be hidden. I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Not so! If anyone kills Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.” And the Lord put a mark on Cain, lest any who found him should attack him. 16 Then Cain went away from the presence of the Lord and settled in the land of Nod, east of Eden.
So I have to say this.  When I was a kid I was always confused by the first line of this passage.  "Adam knew his wife."  I would always think, "It's kind of obvious that he knew her, right?"  I had know idea it meant that Adam knew his wife, knowwhatimeannudgenudgewinkwink...

But I digress...

Cain and Abel begin by doing very different things.  Cain tills the ground and Abel keeps flocks.  But they both decide to bring offerings of gratitude in worship.  There is no indication whatsoever that this is a sacrifice--it's a freely given offering of thanks.  The Bible says that Abel brought "fat portions" or in a more accurate translation, "the choicest of the firstlings."

And then it says something else.  "For his part" or in the Hebrew gam hu.  The way that the ancient rabbis translated this was to say that in addition to his own offerings, Abel also brought himself.  He offered the best of what he had to offer, and he also offered himself.

The Scripture said that God accepted Abel's offering, but didn't accept Cain's.

So what happened to Cain, why didn't his offering get accepted.  The ancient rabbis who wrote about this story said that in part it had to do with his motivation for the offering.  Sure, it was out of gratitude, but the key phrase for them was "in the course of time" which appears at the beginning of that part of the story.  They say that this line actually refers to Cain worrying about the future, and the end of his life so he comes to offer God an offering.

There's also some great teaching from the rabbis on how Cain took on the role of tilling the ground and trying to bring life from it as a way of replacing his parents lost dream of Eden.  In other words, he was trying to remake Eden, to do it on his own terms.

The rabbis also believed that the way Cain knew his offering wasn't accepted was because fire came from heaven and consumed Abel's and not his.  There's nothing in the text to indicate this happened, but it is part of the ancient commentaries on this passage.

When Cain gets upset about the perceived inequity of everything, God says to him "What's your damage, Cain?" or more literally translated, "If you take yourself to the House of Study, no harm will come to you."  That sounds pretty strange, but it actually speaks to the heart of what God wanted Cain to know--he had a choice.  He had a choice as to how he responded to God's favor of his brother over him--favor that had come because of the way Abel had approached the whole thing with a pure heart.  Cain could dedicate himself to being in relationship with God and repairing his selfishness, or he could keep going and possibly end up in destruction.

Cain, as it turns out, chose destruction.  He kills his brother in a fit of rage, and then buries his body to hide the crime. God shows up, however, and spoils everything for him.  "Where is your brother?" he asks, which in the Hebrew actually could translate, "Where is the brotherly affection that you claimed you had?"  "Am I my brother's keeper?" Cain replies angrily.

Then God says something fascinating.  "Your brothers blood cries out to me from the ground."  We tend to think that our actions against our fellow human beings have no consequences beyond the doing---but this story tells us otherwise.  All of Creation is connected--it is all good.  God's DNA, his Holy Spirit energy, His Creative Word through Christ is embedded in all things, including us.  Violence has cosmic implications.

Further, the retort that Cain offers up, "Am I my brother's keeper?" also has cosmic implications.  The answer is obviously, "Yes! Of course you are!"  All homicide is fratricide--murder of the brother.  And those who deny their responsibility for their brother are as guilty as those who commit the act itself.  This was an important teaching for the Jews who endured the Shoah or the Holocaust. Millions of people stood by and watched as 6 million Jews were exterminated.

So...  what does all this mean.  It means simply this:  At the very core of this whole story is the question of the right worship of God.  In other words, how you view God, directly affects how you view your brother.

Despite the many examples of brutality, violence, horror and hatred throughout the centuries there are so many stories to the contrary.  For every moment where we see Cain, there are other moments when people act more like Abel.

During the Nazi scourge of Europe, Jews were being deported from each of the countries that were conquered by Germany.  France was no exception, and in most cases the French were seemingly ambivalent to the plight of their Jewish neighbors.  Except for one town: Le Chambon sur Lignon.  The citizens of Le Chambon rus Lignon were responsible for saving over 5000 Jews from concentration camps during the Nazi occupation of France.  They didn't have meetings about it, they didn't plan things as a group.  They just started doing it, and soon the whole town was in on it.  They believed firmly the sign that hung above the gate to the churchyard in the center of town, "Love One Another."

In 1920 just after the national elections a riot broke out in Ocoee Florida.  The riot occurred because a black man had registered to vote.  The ensuing violence ended in the destruction of nearly all of the homes occupied by Ocoee's black citizens and the murder of over fifty of them in cold blood.  But there were many white families who defied the crazed hatred of the inciters of the riot, and who hid black families in their own homes, saving their lives.

Just a couple of weeks ago during the terror attacks in Paris, a young Muslim man who worked in the Jewish grocery store that was attacked by Muslim extremists risked his own life to hide Jewish shoppers in the freezer so that they wouldn't be harmed by the terrorists.

What made them do this?

I believe it comes down to a simple question:  "How do you see God?"  Do you fear God as a God of judgment, vengeance and anger?  Do you dread God like Cain did?  Do you see God as a being who is ready to smite you at a moment's notice for all of the mistakes you've made?  Do you see God as a gleeful judge who can't wait to sentence millions upon millions of people to eternal torment?

Or do you see God like Abel?

Do you see God as loving and full of grace?  Do you see God as worthy of your very best, of your whole life because God has plans for your future that are full of hope and promise?  Do you see a God like the one that Jesus taught about--a God who is not willing that any should be destroyed, but that they would all come to be his children?

Because I guarantee you--the way you see God directly affects the way you see your brother or your sister.

I know that it doesn't feel like it sometimes, but another world is possible.  I want you to hear that again... Another World Is Possible.  And you can be a part of that new world, that new creation.

Jesus told his followers, "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father who is in heaven."  Let your light so shine... It's up to us in the end.

We have choice.  We can see God as a tyrant who wants blind obedience and who stands in judgement of us--coercing our love with threats of eternal torment.  And when we embrace this view of God it creates an "us" and "them" out of people who either agree with us or not.

Or we can see God as loving, forgiving, eager to be in relationship with us and for us to be at peace with all we come into contact with--to shine our light so they will see God.  Because when you truly see God in this way, every single person you come into contact with has the potential to be a disciple, a fellow believer, our brother or sister.

This year, beloved, isn't just a chance to make a new resolution, it's a chance to be a new creation... and to be a part of God's crazy beautiful plan to save the world.