Ash Wednesday

Today marks the beginning of Lent. I began observing this season just a few years ago and have found much encouragement through a dedicated time of reflection. Regardless of what we “give up” during this time, the discipline of meditating on Jesus’ own sacrifice and the celebration of his subsequent resurrection and exaltation can become powerful moments in our lives.

I plan to share various thoughts and resources along the way during this season, from today until Easter. I invite you to come along, to investigate and to participate yourself. My hope is that along the way we will each be drawn into a greater intimacy with Jesus and be able to echo what Paul writes in Philippians 3:10-11:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

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Gospel Talk

If we use the same language that we’ve always used—the words and terminology that we unconsciously learned and accepted without fully understanding, are we really having conversations? Or are they just unintelligible monologues? If we don’t define and explain our terms and ideas clearly in a culturally understandable way we’re communicating little more than the teacher from the Peanuts’ programs: wah-wah wah wah-wah-wah.

When it comes to inviting others to follow Jesus, we need to use words that will be at least familiar to those to whom we’re talking. Otherwise we just end up clouding the truth, hope, and beauty of the gospel. If we can’t unpack and define the terms and give them clarity, perhaps we don’t really understand them ourselves.

Those of us who have grown up going to church are notorious offenders of this type of behavior. Part of the work that we need to be doing is to continually evaluate and sharpen how effectively we communicate with people.

Lest you think this is some useless attempt at being relevant it’s important to note that our model for this type of communication is Jesus himself. John put it most simply and clearly when he wrote:

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

The decision of the Godhead to make himself known to the world, to reveal himself, was not to use overly high and indiscernible language, but to come and live among his people, taking their very form and speaking their limited language. He used stories and parables and concrete language. He changed his method depending on the audience and he started with what was familiar to draw them to the truth and to the hope that he offered them.

Words take work. Communication takes a commitment to clarity. It takes listening to people to be able to recognize where they are and what they’ll understand and what will resonate with them. Each conversation will certainly be different and draw on different symbols and illustrations to communicate the truth. But each will afford new opportunities to show the beauty of the gospel as well.

If I truly love Jesus I will put in the effort to clearly and creatively communicate as he did so that through my words others may come to love and follow the Word.

The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson – A Book Review

I was first introduced to Mark Batterson’s books when I received Wild Goose Chase as a gift a few years ago. Shortly after that I found In a Pit With a Lion On a Snowy Day for a reduced price in a local bookstore. I picked it up and read both in both in a matter of a few weeks. They have both been immensely helpful and encouraging in my desire to serve and please God.

I’ve since read another of Batterson’s books and when I heard about his latest, The Circle Maker I put it in my queue. But when I saw the subtitle mentioned in a tweet, I went right out and bought the book and dove right in.

What was that tweet? What’s the subtitle?

Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears.

Batterson had me at ‘hello.’ Actually it was the part about ‘Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears’ that got me. This describes exactly where I feel I am. Truthfully, I think I’ve been stuck in this place for a while, but only recently have I been spurred on to pursue God in that space. Batterson’s book helped immensely here.

This is the second book on prayer I’ve read this year and both have challenged and encouraged me in unique ways. But it’s how Batterson specifically applies prayer to those aspects of life where we must reach higher and leap farther in our faith that made the deepest impact on me. Batterson ties the character of God and his desire to answer our prayers to our impulse to take risks when others might counsel us simply to play it safe.

Rather than simply make excuses and take the easy way out, we ought to pray through the dreams and impulses we wrestle with. Many of our big dreams have been placed there by God himself so that he could accomplish something great in and through us.

We lose faith in the God who gave us the big dream and settle for a small dream that we can accomplish without His help.

Batterson is careful to emphasize that this is not ultimately about us, but about our intentionally trusting God and asking him to accomplish his purposes.

The title, The Circle Maker, comes from Honi, a first century Jew who was bold enough to ask of God to send rain. This man and his faith are the inspiration for this exercise of prayer Batterson calls circle making. He illustrates this exercise by separating the book into three major circles or sections: Dream Big, Pray Hard, and Think Long. Each one is integral to the exercise and discipline that Batterson encourages us engage.

Batterson doesn’t attempt to make much of us or even of our efforts in prayer, but rather points to the greatness of God who is able and exceedingly willing to answer even our largest leaps of faith.

Much like his other books, Batterson puts biblical feet to these ideas. Rather than just tell us what we want to hear and give us a spiritual pep talk, he encourages and challenges us through biblical principles.

We come away with a stronger desire to trust God more and to do more than just ask him in a cursory manner, but to really commit ourselves to asking and depending on him for his answer.

We come away wanting to be modern day Circle Makers.

The Long Way Around

I remember one of the first geometry lessons I ever learned in elementary school: the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

It seemed simple and obvious enough. If you’re at point A and need to get to point B, just choose a straight line.

But somewhere along the lesson I applied these truths to my life journey. And while it is true in geometry, life isn’t necessarily geometric.

I’ve been reading lately about the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt and their journey towards the Promised Land. I’ve long known that the journey took them 40 years (much longer than it ought to have), but I only recently noticed this verse, Exodus 13:17:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near. For God said, “Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.”

God kept his people from going directly into the land, his place of promise and blessing for them, because they wouldn’t have stayed and would have chosen to return to the mistreatment of Egyptian slavery instead.

Sometimes the long way around is meant to strengthen our hearts.

I realize that my goal is often to get into the land, but God’s intent is for me to dwell in it. The difference is subtle, but drastically different. I spend a lot of time trying to arrive and God intends to build into me in a such a way as to prepare me to abide.

Abide, not arrive.

The question I need to ask in evaluating the way ahead then is not so much Where is God leading me? but What does God desire to do in me?

It seems God is less interested in merely fulfilling his promises to us than in making us sufficient enough to enjoy them.

The Blame Game

There’s a short circle in our house. You wouldn’t notice it the first time you stopped by, but after a couple of visits, you might notice it’s presence. Its formed by something I’m learning about myself from my kids’ behavior. Of course, it’s a circle because they first learned the behavior from me. And if I don’t stop the behavior myself we’ll end up wearing it into a groove so deep it’ll become a rut.

The circle is called the blame game.

In case you’re unfamiliar with the rules, it works like this: you do something wrong and when confronted about it, you simply blame someone else. It’s really fairly easy. Often, you choose the person who’s in the closest proximity to you and while the unsuspecting individual is left fending for themselves you try to slip away. It’s the ultimate diversion tactic.

It’s a circle for another reason, too. Usually what ends up happening is that everyone present just points fingers at each other. The brother blames the sister who in turn blames the brother and when that doesn’t work she blames the dog. You get the idea and you’ve probably seen this played before.

Now, to be fair, this game is played a lot more frequently by my kids than it is by me. (Do you see what I did there?)

Our kids learn a lot from us. And if there’s one poor behavior that doesn’t have to be taught, it’s blaming someone else for our own faults. Blaming others has been around nearly as long as there has been someone to blame.

You know the story: Eve ate the forbidden fruit (from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) and then gave it to Adam who also ate. When God confronted Adam about this, Adam blamed Eve and Eve, in turn, blamed the serpent. And so the game began.

Of course it isn’t a game at all. That’s just one of our ways of trying to rationalize it. Maybe we call it that because you’ve got to be quick on your feet to implicate another person before they suspect it—the slyest fox wins. Regardless, we’ve damaged many relationships by not admitting our faults. People get hurt when we try to divert the blame on to them.

One of the major problems with this game is that if you keep playing, it doesn’t end. If I blame you, you may in turn try to blame me, or whomever else might be a worthy scapegoat. Down the line it’s going to come back to haunt us both because that other individual is likely going to bear a grudge for having to deal with our throwing them under the bus.

The only way to stop the game is by quitting. That is, somebody has to decide not to shift the blame onto another person and instead own up to their own wrongdoing. But this is hard to do, especially when that seems counterintuitive to a game that we’ve been playing so long that we’ve forgotten where and when we first learned the rules.

But this is where grace comes in.

Grace doesn’t just step in and say everything’s okay and that nobody has to confess anything and there aren’t going to be any consequences. No, when grace enters in it is accompanied by the truth. And in this way, it is most clearly the gospel.

We play this game because we’re afraid of the consequences for our actions: they are far greater than we are willing or capable of bearing. But the gospel, good news if there ever was any, says that we are fully at fault and fully accountable. This is the truth and though we try to shift the blame, it stills falls directly on us. The diversion only works as a temporary distraction to ourselves, but it has no way of altering the truth.

But the gospel does not stop here. In grace we hear the full truth: that there is one who stopped the game by willingly taking our blame upon himself. Jesus knew we were at fault, but insisted on bearing the consequences that should’ve fallen on us.

There’s a model here for us to follow. But not a model only—it is also the means by which we are able to break the circle. And so we need to just stop playing this game. We need to give up the charade that we have done nothing wrong. We need to humble ourselves and take full responsibility. In doing so we will both see that we are unable to bear the full burden and that we don’t have to. There is one who has taken our blame and shame upon himself and offered us forgiveness and grace instead.

Ask Seek Knock by Tony Jones – A Book Review

I got this book a few years ago for free while attending a conference. This is one of many perks of conferences, but admittedly many of those books go on the shelf and wait years to be read.

At first glance this little book doesn’t look as though it will pose too great a challenge. It doesn’t look like it will take that long to read and honestly, I thought it would mostly just guilt me into praying more.

That was not the case at all. I finally picked it up thinking I would breeze through it and move on to the next book in my queue. I quickly (and happily) learned how wrong I had been.

Jones writes a simple and concise book on prayer, to be sure. But it packs a powerful punch and is highly practical. Most lessons we hear on prayer appeal to our guilt and our obvious need to pray more. Not so with Jones’ book.

In less than 170 pages Jones moves from defining prayer and how it works in the first two chapters to giving a sampling of prayer throughout history.

He spends three chapters on prayers from the Old Testament, three more on those from the New Testament, and then three more chapters on prayers from the Church’s history. He wraps up the book with a dozen pages of sample prayers meant to guide us in the exercise of prayer.

And it is this point, the exercise of prayer, that I think makes Jones’ book stand out from what I expected a book on prayer to be. Jones knows that we all know we ought to pray more, but he recognizes that there are a multitude of reasons that we don’t. And so what he encourages throughout the book is this practice of exercising—though he never does so explicitly.

Prayer takes work. It takes discipline. It takes repeated effort. It needs to be worked out. It is an exercise . . . and we don’t ever fully arrive.

Jones spends his time exposing us to a variety of recorded prayers over a long course of human history. And in doing that he not only exposes our hearts, but also shows us incredible glimpses of the God who hears and answers those prayers. And in showing us these glimpses of the greatness of God, he gives us the only true motivation for prayer.

We are drawn to prayer because we are drawn to God.

Jones follows each prayer with a short summary of the truths contained—a double-shot of truth for those times when we’re tempted to move our eyes to quickly to the next page. This provides for a much fuller exposure of our hearts as well as God’s.

Before moving on to the next prayer or next section of prayers, Jones then asks a number of penetrating and thoughtful questions, questions that are too sharp and direct to escape without answering. They are questions that further motivate and move us to pray.

I have read few books that have accomplished what this book has done: I have come away not just knowing what I ought, but doing it, and finding myself in healthy repeated patterns of this renewed exercise.

Admitting Our Faults . . . To Our Kids

Okay here it is, another confession: I screwed up in front of my kids. Actually, it wasn’t just in front of them, it was with them. So, full confession: I screwed up with how I interacted and treated my kids, specifically my son.

Don’t worry, I’m not posting anything I haven’t already admitted to him and to God. And I am thankful to write that both have graciously forgiven me.

It was at the dinner table last night. Is there any dad out there who hasn’t sinned at the dinner table?

Here’s the problem: dinner is at the end of the day and I’m ready to start winding down from the day. The time I spend in the morning over a cup of coffee serves as the warm-up to the day, and dinner usually serves as the cool-down.

But that’s not how my kids view it. So, we have a conflict in expectations. Dinnertime for them often lends itself to escalated laughter and zaniness that quickly erodes into something akin to a wild rumpus.

Last night, I warmed up leftovers for the kids because Kim was still at work. Now leftovers for a 2, 5, 6, and 9 year old are usually greeted with all the joy of eating slugs. But last night, they were excited: ravioli and mac and cheese. Neither of these were from cans or boxes, mind you. These leftovers were the real deal and the kids brought healthy appetites and good attitudes.

After I got them their meals, I warmed up my own. They were mid-meal by the time I sat down, fully engaged in eating. While that is fairly unusual at our table, by the time I joined them they were already involved in conversation with each other. Conversation, not arguing. So it was going really well . . . until I entered the mix.

As Liam was talking, I said, “Shh. Shh.”

He responded, “Shh.”

Me: “Shh.”

Liam: “I was talking.”

Me: “I know. I said ‘shh.'”

And here is where I realized I was the one at fault, not them.

Liam: “Why? I was talking. We like talking and having fun at the dinner table. We don’t get to have fun in the morning because we have to get ready.”

Me: “I know, but I like it quiet. And not wild.”

Liam: “We like it wild.”

At this point, I fully realized that they were acting very well. There was no rumpus. They hadn’t been throwing food. It was me who had squashed the spirit. So, I apologized and asked him to kindly continue the conversation they were having when I sat down.

He did and the entire meal went very well.

Later that night, at bedtime, I had to intentionally humble myself and tell him that not only had he been right and I was wrong, but I told him that he handled it all very well. He hadn’t gotten sassy or argumentative with me. But in a clear, controlled and rational way he was able to make his case and it was clear that I was the one who nearly caused the wild rumpus.

As I sit here this morning I both hope that this experience will continue and never happen again. I hope that I stop screwing up with my kids and approaching things irrationally and selfishly. But I know that won’t likely happen. So, I hope that my kids will learn to calmly and rationally be able to speak their case and that I will have the clarity and humility to listen.