Thursday, March 31, 2011

Celebrating Fat Tuesday vs. Lent

I’ve been thinking about something. It all started with a paczki. What’s a paczki? You might know what one is, but didn’t realize it was spelled this way. It’s pronounced poonch-key. Still confused? It’s the delightful ‘doughnut on steroids’ that only comes out on Fat Tuesday. I look forward to it every year. I may be guilty of forgetting Valentine’s Day, but I don’t forget Fat Tuesday. I celebrate it.

But celebrating Fat Tuesday was never meant to be a 1-day affair. Of course, Fat Tuesday comes right before Lent, the season that seems to have lost all meaning except for giving up stuff. What we see is many people celebrating Fat Tuesday without celebrating Lent.

This is a problem.

First of all, is it celebrating when you give something up? This may just be semantics, but every time I celebrate something, there seems to be dessert involved. We have cake for birthdays, candy for Halloween, pie for Thanksgiving and cookies for the end of each day. That last one may just be me.

Secondly, and more importantly, why are we so unwilling to ride the ups and downs of the roller coaster? Celebrating Fat Tuesday is easy. Buy a paczki, or three, and you’re all set. You could probably get a handful of friends, at least, to join you. But pass out flyers asking people to join you in giving up something for 40 days and see how well that goes over.

I have 3 ideas that may make your invites a bit more inviting.

Get a proper focus

This isn’t about you. It’s about Jesus. Paul wrote that we are not to “let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17).

When we observe the practice of Lent, we acknowledge that we have excess in our lives that we can get rid of, at least temporarily. We do so to turn more of our attention to Jesus. It is most properly due at this time as we look ahead to Easter.

Plan ahead

For many years I would remember it was Lent when, on the first day of Lent, a friend would ask me what I was giving up that year. D’oh! Then I would panic and give up the first thing that came to mind. A couple of hours later I would want to change my mind but would feel too guilty. So then I would feel stuck. I could either feel guilty about reversing my decision or I could feel guilty about sulking over what I didn’t have. I don’t think God wanted either of those options.

So now I plan ahead, considering what would be a benefit to my spiritual growth. By giving it more than 5 minutes worth of thought, I was able to allow time for God to tell me what He wanted to do. Then I could walk through Lent feeling good about my decisions and understanding the overall goal.

Celebrate the 'Loss'

Once you have done #1 and 2, it’s time to realize this is a celebration as well. Lent is not something to do with just your serious side. Remember that Jesus warned against looking ‘somber as the hypocrites do’ (Matthew 6:16). Not only do you lose your reward this way, but you forget the overall goal.

Consider this, even when we experience the ‘loss’ of a friend or family member, we ‘celebrate’ their memory at a funeral. The loss is not eternal, so celebrate the way it is helping you grow.

I believe it is possible to celebrate both Fat Tuesday and Lent. You just can’t do both with a paczki.

So there you have it. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s mine. What would you add to it?

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

When People Meet Jesus

I was once about 10 feet away from Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson, who had recently helped Michigan State win a National Championship. Never heard of them? That’s ok, it’s college basketball.From 1999.

I got to meet the members of DC Talk backstage after a concert. Never heard of them? That hurts a little, since they are a favorite band of mine that is no longer together, but I understand.

Then there was this time I was in the same room as Mel Gibson. He was speaking about this new movie he had made. It was about some guy named Jesus. Wait, you’ve heard of him? Or do you mean Him?

Ah, Jesus. You may have heard of Mel Gibson as well, but if you’re like me, being in the same room did not change my life much...or at all. Neither did meeting DC Talk or seeing some basketball players.

But the same cannot be said for those who met Jesus.

People who met Jesus never forgot the experience. If they were blind, they went away with sight. If they were deaf, then all of the sudden they could hear. The crippled were able to run and the lame were made cool.

Ok, I may have made up that last one. But when people met Jesus, they left changed. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t always for the better. Those who seemed to be wise left confused. Some who had good plans walked away frustrated. For those who did not trust or could not believe, they simply walked away.

All were changed by their meeting with Jesus.

Have you been changed? Or did your life just kind of keep going as it had always gone. I believe that's what happened when I first said I was giving my life to Jesus. But that's because I only said I was giving my life. I didn't actually give my life. That would come with time.

I believe that it is impossible for a life not to be changed if we give it to Jesus. It's not because He will instantly make us a missionary to some third-world country or have us join a traveling troupe of singers, like Wiggles for Jesus. I have to believe Jesus would strike that group down with laryngitis before they even got on their tour bus. But that's besides the point.

I believe our lives change because our focus changes. Whereas all of our prior decisions were made based on what we wanted, now our decisions are made based on what Jesus wants. It's the difference between living selfishly and living selflessly.

So what does your life look like? Does it reflect Jesus? If it doesn't, let me ask a pointed question. Have you really met Jesus? I said earlier that people who meet Jesus never forgot the experience. More succinctly, people who met Jesus lived every other experience in connection to meeting Jesus. It changed everything.


Thursday, March 24, 2011

Moving Furniture For God

It hadn't happened in awhile, but I should have been better prepared. My wife asked for my help rearranging furniture.

It hadn't happened for awhile because there is really only one way our living room can be set up. Unless of course someone wanted the furniture to point away from the television, but as long as March Madness and college basketball still exist, that would be dumb.

Then we received some carpet for our basement, making it a bit more livable down there. That meant the furniture which had been in a youth-group style circle now needed to be rearranged. I don't know how it works in your house, but my wife and I have 5 phases for moving furniture in our home.

#1 She asks for my opinion and help.
#2 She shoots down my logical ideas.
#3 I stop offering opinions and just become the guy moving chairs.
#4 I offer to draw a diagram of the room and furniture, which would be lighter than the actual furniture.
#5 I go back to moving furniture.

It's not that Jennifer doesn't have good ideas about arranging a room. It's just that she has too many ideas about arranging a room. I only have one criteria for any piece of furniture; can I see the T.V. from where I am sitting? Jennifer has more, lots more. Can you see the T.V, can you see everyone else, can you smell the candle from every seat, is there an echo in this corner of the room, where does the sun shine in this room at night, and on and on and on.

So you can understand when I say, with this as my experience, that a small tear ran down my cheek when I read Exodus 40:33. You see, Moses was setting up the Tabernacle, or God's Dwelling. More specifically, he was arranging the furniture. He had to set up the altar, the ark of the covenant, the lampstand, the basin for washing and the curtain. It sort of sounds like a living room / bathroom.

And as this was to be God's Dwelling, I have to believe that He had an exact idea of where He wanted the furniture. I believe He told Moses where it was to go. And as there is no listing of a couch, I am also assuming that Moses did not take any breaks to check a game score or anything like that.

I'm also guessing that God did not change His mind. I doubt there was a time when God asked to see what the basin looked like in another part of the room. I don't see Moses grumbling under his breath about how much light the lampstand would provide.

But Moses also had Exodus 40:33, a beautiful and glorious scripture that needs more publicity. It says that Moses finished the work. Done. Finito. Complete. To come to such a point in time as to not still be doing the work.

Moses finished the work. That's more than I have ever heard. After carrying furniture around the room enough times to exhaust any and all possibilities, Jennifer will sigh and just tell me, 'I'll let you know."

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Pastor Turns Away Offering?

In a move that has dead pastors rolling in their graves and live pastors shaking their heads, Moses shocked a nation. This is a section in Scripture that your pastor doesn't ever want you to read. In fact, if I suddenly disappear after this post is published, somebody come looking for me. Because I'm going to tell you anyway.

There was once a time when Moses decided not to take more offering from the people of Israel.


I know. I hope you were sitting down. It was wrong of me not to ask that ahead of time. (Somebody get that senior pastor an oxygen tank. He doesn't look well.)

You can't make stuff like this up. I've heard senior pastors mention in a circle of other pastors that they considered not taking an offering. Then they pause for effect and all the other pastors start laughing. What's next, Pastor? Are you not going to preach a 32-point sermon either?

Go ahead, look it up. Exodus 36:1-7. It's all there in black and white. But why? Why would Moses do something so crazy as to turn away an offering? Because they already had enough? Yeah, like there could ever be enou....

Oh wait. Actually that is the reason. In fact, it says they had more than enough. Well, that's a new one. They were collecting offerings for building the sanctuary. God had commanded it. The people responded. Imagine that.

Actually imagine a command from God so capturing the heart of His people that they would bring too much for the project. Imagine the Church and other relief organizations having so much that their main problem was figuring out what to solve next. Could it happen? Could a command actually stir our hearts like that.

I've read in several places that we have enough resources to end global poverty. We could solve the world's water and food crisis. With enough research I believe we could stop many diseases. I recall Jesus saying we could move mountains.

Imagine that. It's easy if you try.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Nature of Love: A Theology

There should be awards for packing ability. Like when a man can pack enough for a two week trip in half the space that a woman would use for the same trip. Or when close friends can exchange as much information in a knowing glance as teens can in a week of texting back and forth. Or when Thomas Jay Oord fills 157 pages with reams of insight in his book The Nature of Love: A Theology.

Thomas uses surgeon-like precision when he tells us exactly what he wants to do and then does so in this book. After an introduction of ideas and direction he provides us his definition of love.

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God
and others, to promote overall well-being.
His goal is to dissect and take the best parts of love theologians from the past, of whom he says there have not been nearly enough. He wants to see Love returned to its rightful place of honor as THE core attribute of God.

He begins by tackling love theologian Anders Nygren, (not's a book on love, after all). He esteems his place in theology and then proceeds to break down the myriad of reasons why Nygren is wrong. If there's anything to be learned here, it's that we should read the Bible first, then come up with our theories, not the other way around.

Next he discusses Augustine. You might assume that there's no criticizing this philosopher who loved love, but you'd be wrong. Again, Oord does a great job of talking about the issues at hand, not the man. This is something we could use more of in these days. But in this chapter we get to see some real-life application over some of the ideas we have on God's nature and love.

The next 30 pages deal with the pros and cons of Openness Theology on the concept of Love. Again, Oord does a fantastic job of defining terms, realizing that many will automatically accept or reject theories upon hearing the phrase Open Theology. If you've never heard of Open Theology, this may make another good reason to pick up this book. Thomas does a good job of taking the good while not accepting the whole of this belief system.

Just before Oord unveils his answer to love theology he quotes Anders Nygren in what may be the best repeated quote of the entire book, outside of his own defintion of love.

Rather than worry about our discomfort, perhaps we should be worried
about God's reputation.

Essential Kenosis is the proper term for Oord's theology. Kenosis is the Greek noun in Philippians 2:7 which is translated as 'emptied himself'. This is a key passage of scripture as it details how Jesus loves us and views Himself. It begins to open up the idea that God loves creation, something that He must do, not because someone greater than God told Him to, but because it is His nature.

This theology of love is complete and returns the focus to where it never should have left, Jesus. It is God's nature of love that defines everything else about God; His power, His freedom, His purpose. I guess you could say that, in the end, love wins.

All that being said, this book is not to be approached lightly. After all, it is a theology book. But I believe Oord does a great job of simplifying mountains of heady knowledge and then showing us practical application. This should not simply be read, but preached and shared, and then lived out.

You can check out more from Thomas Jay Oord at:

The good people at SpeakEasy supplied me with this free preview copy, but much like God's love does not coerce, they did not force me to say anything good.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Caring Enough to Pray

Without really talking about it, I've done my first ever series on my blog. I know it all seems to be quite aimless and drifting with a few cute stories of children and my long-standing insignificance. I guess it is that.

However, if I had to choose something to create a series around first, I'm glad it was prayer. I didn't actually choose it. It all started because of some ideas I had about Pharaoh. Then it got me thinking some more. I revealed those thoughts here, here and here.

The reason I like it being about prayer is that I am not an expert on prayer. I don't know if anyone actually can be an expert on prayer, but if there is an expert, it's not me. In fact, most of my lessons about prayer come from actually feeling guilty that I don't pray enough. I don't keep my insignificant role in view nearly enough. If I did, I would pray more.

If I wasn't so focused on my own needs, I would be praying more. It's simple, really. I focus on myself. I arrogantly assume that I can control most aspects of my life. Voila, nothing to pray for. Thanks, God, but you can focus double attention on some needy tribe in South America today.

What I need is eyes like God. I need to see the needs of people around the world. I need to hear the cries as if they were coming from my own children. I need to feel their need and make it my own. Because when I have a need you better believe God is going to hear about it.

Compassion. Come on, people are suffering. We should be begging God for answers that don't take generations to see. We should be intervening with the Divine on behalf of those who have no voice, no hope, no help and no alternative.

Even with all these thoughts, I will still wonder if I'm doing it right. Like I said, I am not an expert. But at the very least, I need to care enough to pray.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Type-A Praying

I'm Type-A. I've only recently come to accept that, even though people have been calling me that for a while. For awhile I assumed that the 'A' in Type-A stood for Awesome. So I was pretty stoked when people would gawk at me and ask me if I realized how Type-A I was. I'd puff out my chest, pause for dramatic effect, then humbly respond, 'That's what they tell me."

But then I found out that's not what the 'A' stands for. (By the way, it also doesn't stand for arrogant, although I've been accused of that as well.) Type-A is for people who like order. While my life does not always glow with nuclear levels of organization, I do enjoy having a list to check off each day.

I hit the general areas of order pretty well. My movies and music are all stored in alphabetical order. The books in my office are arranged topically. Even my strategy for keeping clothing neat and folded has an order to it.

But what I have come to realize is that as much as I love the order behind it all, it's not the order I'm in love with. It's this desire to be prepared no matter the circumstances. I want to be able to hand a DC Talk cd to anyone who asks to see it just by glancing to the D's in my cd collection. Do you want to watch a superhero movie? I have them all together, next to chick flicks. (It's a his and hers situation at my house.) If I need to get dressed in the dark, I can do that too because blue shirts go with blue shirts and black shirts go with black shirts. Add a pair of jeans and I'm good to go.

I've even attempted to do this with my prayer life. I have a daily list of reminders. It's a general list. It doesn't limit what I can pray for that day. Sorry to hear about your diagnosis, but I only pray for health on Thursdays. Mainly it just provides focus.

Of all my lists it is the most unsatisfying. Keep in mind the list itself is not a comfort, like some long lost blankie that smells of the child's first five years of life experiences. I want to be prepared. I want to be able to send up prayers that will thwart any impending danger or looming trial. I know they're out there.

Have you ever had someone ask you what you would ask for if you could ask God for anything? I would ask for knowledge. Foreknowledge. I want to know what is coming so I can pray for it. But life is not like that. If it were, Pharaoh might have said different things to Moses during those plagues.

Remember when he told Moses it was ok if the frogs hung around for another day? I think if he knew then that 8 more plagues were coming he might have answered differently. Take the frogs away and keep away any gnats, flies, darkness and killing of firstborn children.

If I knew today what was coming tomorrow, I'd have a better idea of how to pray specifically. But I don't. In the end it's probably a good thing. For now I'll keep making lists and asking God to take care of the rest.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Acting a little too BIG

Driving to school one day, I had to move into the opposite lane of a 2-lane road. A truck was coming from the opposite way but it was easily a football field away. After safely making it back into my own lane, my daughter, ever the drama queen, cried out, 'Whew, God saved us again!'

My immediate reaction was, 'I'm not sure I needed God on that one.' Fortunately I said it only to myself. Otherwise, one the preacher's kids in the back were sure to give me a 3-point sermon on how we need God for everything. Which is true. And which I should have remembered.

The Bible tells us a story of a business man, and a successful one at that. He worked hard and he saved. Then he saved some more. In fact, he saved so much that there came a day when he stopped saving. He stepped back, breathed a sigh of relief and patted himself on the back.

What happened next was not the thing of romantic comedies. No guy would be kissing a girl in the rain. No girl would come back and choose the underdog. The guy was found to be prideful, too self-sufficient and much too big a fan of Jersey Shore. Ok, maybe only two out of three, but God demanded his life from him that very night.

I'm not sure I'm exactly like that guy...ok, maybe I am. I am way too self-sufficient, something I can no longer blame on the society of which I am a part. I know better. I know that my whisper of a life is being held in God's hands. He protects me. He watches over me. He could squash me like a bug whenever He felt the urge.

If I truly accepted how precarious my position is in the universe, I would spend much more time in prayer. I would spend more time asking God for the small things that happen everyday of my life. I would also thank God for the small things that He does for me, and for the big things I am completely unaware of in my life.

I need to add humility to the list of things I need more of in order to improve my prayer life. How about you?

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Prayer Time Confidence

Growing up, I did not know very much about the financial situation of my parents. Actually, that's a bit of an understatement. Everything I knew can be summed up by what they told me about money: 'We don't have any.'

Clearly this wasn't true. They weren't keeping things from me, but whether it was Christmas-time or vacation time, expectations were balanced with the idea that we had enough for what was needed, but maybe not everything that was wanted.

If you're getting the idea that I went to school in cereal box shoes or that meals consisted of small bowls of porridge, you've gone a bit too far. I had everthing (and more) that I ever needed. Plus, as a teenager, my Mom was always magically able to make a $20 bill appear when I asked for some cash...although I still don't know if my Dad was aware of my Mom's ability. But I became quite confident that if I asked Mom, she would be like an ATM machine.

Fast forward almost 20 years and I am wondering how much my own children should know about what I make (or don't). The need to teach something became clear when my oldest daughter, now 9, asked if my mortgage payment was $100. Yeah, something like that, I told her.

When asked to dream big, she wants $100. That would pay for an American Girl doll (barely), but it also seems to be the magically realistic number of big amounts she could hope for. While she hasn't yet asked for money to simply go shopping, I am sensing her confidence in my ability to provide everything might be misplaced.

Last week I mentioned Pharaoh and discussed the idea of prayer and how we approach God. I said that patience was necessary, but I don't think it's the only thing that's needed. Now I don't know what Pharaoh's kids would have asked him for, but if the Disney cartoon The Prince of Egypt is any clue, I can guess. I imagine some of the following made the list: Israelite-made bricks, less plagues, more vertical stripes in their clothing and swimming lessons. And since they were royalty, I can bet they asked with confidence.

How does this connect to prayer you ask? I'm glad you asked.

Prayer is sometimes approached like a blank check we can write and know that God will cash. I have heard preachers and other Christians talk about how we should name it and claim it. Others seem to indicate that you might not have any faith at all if you don't give God step-by-step directions as to how to answer your very specific prayers.

I'm not so sure about that, but what would it look like for us to approach God with greater confidence? Having confidence is certainly something that would help in this area of prayer. Clearly we should have confidence when we talk with God. After all, He loves us and wants to give us good things (Matthew 7:11). Jesus told us we would do greater things (John 14:12). In James we read that those who doubt what they ask God for will become seasick (James 1:5-7).

Among these other scriptures that speak about confidence, I found the writer of Hebrews talking about having confidence in our walk with God. Confidence can lead to many great outcomes.

So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. (Hebrews 10:35)

So go ahead, pray with confidence. Maybe you should even ask for $100.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Patience of Pharaoh

Last year I was on a Bible reading plan that would take just 1 year. Many days had me zooming through four and five chapters at a time. It was a great read. But this year I've started a new plan. To say it is a tad slower than last year would be like saying that Katy Perry has skewed just slightly off the path her parents planned for her.

Three months into this year I am in the middle of Exodus. I'm not a math whiz, but 1 book of the Bible each month has me finishing in about 2016. (Though I could probably crush some of those Minor Prophets in less than a month.)

One positive from all this is that I am paying more attention to smaller details. Recently I breezed through the 10 Plagues on Egypt. In Exodus 8, frogs have overtaken the land. Clearly there were no French chefs in the land, because no one seemed to think this was a good thing. But a couple of things stand out in this story.

First of all, why did the Egyptian magicians make more frogs? If they wanted to show their power, why not make the frogs disappear? 'Look Pharaoh, all those frogs that disgust you....we've made more!'

The second interesting detail comes from the resulting conversation. Moses and Pharaoh get together for a little pow-wow. Moses tells Pharaoh that he can choose when the frogs go away. Pharaoh replies, 'Tomorrow.'


If I had been Moses I might have asked Pharaoh if he was serious. You can choose whenever to get rid of these frogs and you're putting it off until tomorrow? Am I missing something? Aren't these frogs disgusting? Wouldn't you prefer them to be gone, oh say, right now?

Maybe Pharaoh is a big-picture guy. Perhaps he's trying to be cool, not letting on how much it bothers him. 'Frogs? I like frogs. Had a pet frog as a young kid. No problem.' I guess I can see that. After all, this is only the second plague. Perhaps Pharaoh will be less patient after plague #7 or 8.

I know patience is a virtue, but it makes me wonder if there are times when we should be less patient. When I am violently ill I am not patient. The last time I got sick I asked God repeatedly to either take the sickness away or just kill me and get it over with.

But what about those needs that don't impact me today? What about those requests that come to me from friends and family members? Why is it easier for me to ask for patience for someone else in their situation than it is for me in my situation?

What about when I meekly ask God to change something over the next 6 months? Is this wrong? God may have forever, but with my desire for all things deep-fried I am limited to another 40 years here on Earth. Maybe less. Shouldn't I be more urgent in the things I ask for?

The problem in my life is that this forms a habit in me. I put off asking God for things until I am in crisis mode, when I really feel the need. I readily acknowledge I can't make God do even the smallest thing He does not want to do. Yet something tells me I should be more urgent in my asking.

I think there are some key factors that would help motivate us to pray more urgently. It's something to think about and I will be doing so over the next couple of weeks.

What about you? Have you ever put a time-line on God?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

A New Steakhouse in Town

The first time I heard the phrase, 'Mickey D's Steakhouse', I was in the 7th grade. Our band teacher was taking us through a school-wide survey on dating. I'm not sure what a band teacher would know about dating, but I knew even less, so who was I to judge?

The survey was all about what we would do on a date, something I had plenty of expertise in when I was in the 7th grade. And by 'plenty' I mean 'none' and by 'expertise' I mean that I was socially further from getting a date than Pluto was from the Sun.

One of the questions asked where we'd take a first date. One of the options was Mickey D's Steakhouse. I hadn't remembered seeing that restaurant in town, but I thought, 'Hmmm, a steakhouse. That'd probably be nice.' Check.

I refer you back to the amount of expertise I had in this area. That would be less than none. I don't remember any of the other questions, due in large part to the fact that I was still trying to figure out where this new steakhouse was. It would be years before I figured out that my band teacher was referring to McDonald's. I kind of wish I could go back and take that survey. It's not that I have much more dating experience now, but I would have at least marked some place classy like White Castle.

This just taught me that not everyone knows what we're talking about. Not surprisingly, this happened to Jesus. Yet on time Jesus was surprised. It's in John 3 when Jesus is talking with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. Nic seemed to be having trouble with elementary topics such as God being able to do whatever He wants.

Basic principle or not, the fact is that Jesus had to back up a step and deal with Nic where he was at. Because Jesus did that, we get one of the best purpose statements ever in John 3:16. If ever you've wanted the Cliff's Notes version of the Bible, this was it.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
For a man, even one who was supposed to be teaching Israel like Nic, it paid off to slow down and make sure that everyone was on the same page. Consider that the next time you assume everyone already knows what you know.

Don't assume that everyone understand what we mean when we talk about 'Good News'. Seriously, some people don't even know that McDonald's is not actually considered a steakhouse.