Like the true story about a man sitting quietly in church for a wedding when suddenly he erupted with a “Yes!” at full volume, standing part of the way up with one fist raised triumphantly. He sat down sheepishly when he remembered where he was, turning red with embarrassment as the whole church, including the wedding party who was about “mid-vow,” turned to stare. That’s when they noticed the wire and the ear-piece. Seems the man was attending a wedding with his body, but his mind and his emotions were fully engaged with a college football game, coming to him live, through a radio in his coat pocket. His team had just scored the winning touchdown.
If the man’s wife was there, can you imagine the look that she gave him at that point? Some of you have seen that look. Some of us would have to admit, if we were honest, that we have mastered the ability to be physically present in a place, and totally absent in every other way. I have been amazed at students of mine in various classrooms who would hear me give an assignment, see me write it on the board, see it clearly on the syllabus, and then claim, “I never knew we had to do this” on the day that the assignment was due. But then I remember the many times in my marriage that I have told my wife I would do something that she had asked, and even read the email reminder that she sent me, and I still showed up at home that night with an “I forgot” excuse on my lips. The truth? Even if I did forget, it was because I did not take the request seriously enough to remember. What was going on in my own head, in my own life, was more important to me than something my wife had asked of me.
One thing I really love about Jesus is his concern with our ability to hear. He spoke to a deaf mute, saying “Ephphatha, be opened,” and immediately the man’s ears were opened. He also spoke to those who had perfectly good hearing, saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” When Jesus said these words, he wasn’t trying to save people from embarrassment or even from damaged relationships. He spoke this warning, “he who has ears to hear, let him hear,” to wake us up to the fact that our very lives depend on whether we obey that simple command. As his disciples said to Jesus, “You alone have the words of eternal life.”
It is true, is it not, that we tend to remember very clearly what is spoken to us when we are under great stress, or in a life threatening situation. Take any of those students who blew off one of my assignments, put him on the top of a roof that is about to be overcome by raging floodwaters, then speak a word of instruction to him as you lower the rescue rope from a helicopter. Would he not be looking and listening intently to your every word? Would he dare to yawn or brush you aside or say that he would love to take the rope, but he is not sure he heard how to do it, and that’s OK because he is really enjoying the song on his iPhone at the moment? I don’t think so.
He who has ears to hear, let him hear. What are you waiting for? Take the rope. Hearing grows worse with disuse. Oh, and take that plug out of your ear and pay attention.
You have probably heard the “frog in the kettle” illustration. Drop a frog into hot water and it will jump out immediately. Drop a frog into lukewarm water, slowly raise the temperature, and the frog will stay there and cook. There is a parallel here to what Jesus meant when he warned his disciples, “beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” How does leaven work? It is hidden in a lump of dough and spreads quietly, determinedly, until the whole lump is affected. Leaven is persistent and it is not satisfied with the area in which it is first placed: it has a lust for more that drives it to take over the whole lump. How do we fall into alcoholism? One drink at a time. How do we “fall out of love” with our wives or husbands? One unresolved conflict at a time. A carpet not vacuumed will double in weight in five years. How do you find yourself living in a dump? One day at a time of “putting off until tomorrow.” How does a person’s soul become a waste dump? One off-color joke, one pornographic movie, one shady deal at a time.
I’ve heard of an interesting way people used to catch geese. They would hide behind a tree and roll a pumpkin into the lake where the geese were swimming. The geese, alarmed, would fly away instantly. When they came back, their hunters would roll another pumpkin into the water. This time the geese would hesitate a second or two and then fly away. But not for long. When they came back, another pumpkin interrupted their day. And so on. Finally, when the pumpkins were rolled into the water, the geese did not even bother to look. They had been desensitized to pumpkins! One of the hunters would then don a “pumpkin helmet” and, with a reed in his mouth to help him breathe, he would swim toward the unsuspecting geese. When he got close enough, he would grab his supper.
Casting Crowns sings a song that speaks to the danger we face when we begin to let down our guard, slip into easy compromises, give in to the leaven of hypocrisy, greed, lust or other sins that will consume us. Here are the verses:
Be careful little eyes what you see; it’s the second glance that ties your hands as darkness pulls the strings.
Be careful little feet where you go; for it’s the little feet behind you that are sure to follow.
Be careful little ears what you hear; when flattery leads to compromise, the end is always near.
Be careful little lips what you say; for empty words and promises lead broken hearts astray.
The journey from your mind to your hand is shorter than you’re thinking.
Be careful if you think you stand; you just might be sinking
And the chorus warns us of the insidiousness of the process:
It’s a slow fade when you give yourself away;
It’s a slow fade when black and white have turned to gray
Thoughts invade, choices are made, a price will be paid
When you give yourself away.
People never crumble in a day. Daddies never crumble in a day. Families never crumble in a day.
Are those who follow Christ immune to such self-deception? Certainly not. We can fall and the stakes are very high.
If you realize that you are in the middle, or even near the end of a slow fade, that’s great news. It means it is not too late for you to wake up and cry out to God for help. But don’t wait. Don’t let the sun fade into darkness again before you do.
There was a certain rich man who lived large. He wore the finest clothes, today’s equivalent of a Brioni suit (around $6,000) and Berluti shoes ($1,850 a pair). He held a feast in his house every day, for himself, dining on today’s equivalent of Tartar of Kobe beef with Imperial Beluga caviar and Belons oyster, Lobster Osso Buczco and Supreme of pigeon en croute with crèpes mushroom sauce and cipollotti ($5,000 or more). He lived in a gated, palatial home that was staffed by an army of servants and even boasted its very own beggar. You had to be very rich to have a beggar in front of your house.
Speaking of which, as beggars go, he was one of the most pathetic. If the rich man’s back was covered with white and purple, the beggar’s back was covered with sores. While the rich man dined on lobster and beef, the beggar starved as he wished he could have the crumbs that fell from the table. And when the rich man was entertaining business moguls from all over the world, the beggar was harassed by scavenger dogs that came and licked his sores. Though the rich man knew the beggar’s name, there was not enough evidence to convict him of ever speaking to the man, much less trying to help him through his trial.
That brings to mind one more detail that is important to this story. The beggar had something the rich man did not: a name. Jesus, the story’s author, named the beggar Lazarus. That may not mean anything to you, but it meant something to the hearers in Jesus’ day. Lazarus means, “God has helped.”
Can you imagine the snickering as the rich man and his staff and his countless wealthy visitors walked right past ol’ “God has helped,” lying there being licked by dogs? Jesus, are you sure you have the facts of this account right? I mean, isn’t it clear that the one God has helped is the rich man, living in luxury, and the one whom apparently God has forgotten (if not ‘cursed’) is the poor schmuck lying in the street?
Ah, but dear reader, here is the truth of the story. It happened in two scenes. Scene one took place on earth, when both characters were alive. Then Lazarus died and was escorted to his next and final location by angels. And the rich man died and was buried and ‘woke up’ in his next and final location as well. What these two men had experienced in scene one seems to have been completely reversed in scene two. Lazarus is now in heaven, resting with Abraham and very much at peace, having all that he needs. The rich man is in torment, begging that someone would come and touch the tip of his tongue with even a drop of water. He asks Abraham to send Lazarus to help him or at least to go and warn his brothers not to make his mistake and end up in the same place.
Don’t misunderstand, friends. This is not a story about rich people going to hell because they are rich and poor people going to heaven because they are poor. The difference between these two men was that one cried out to God in faith and was helped by God and ushered into his presence in eternity. The other lived for himself and died by himself and was ‘welcomed’ into eternal torment and separation from God.
There is an eternal difference for those whom God has helped.
They say that marriage as an institution is in trouble. Every time I hear something like that, I have to laugh. That’s like saying, “Gravity is in trouble.” Any day now the reason you won’t be able to find your car keys is not going to be because you don’t remember where you dropped them. It will be because they didn’t stay there. They floated off. Last time I checked, gravity was working just fine with no end in sight to its consistent power to keep our feet firmly planted on the earth.
Marriage is in trouble? That’s like saying that the ocean, as we know it, is in trouble and will disappear any day now. There goes that beach trip you had planned. Hey, look on the bright side. You will never again hear the soundtrack to “Jaws” start playing in your head as you stick your big toe in the water because, uh, the water won’t be there. No more fear of undertow. No more ocean? Hey, that’s like losing your hair: less hair to comb but more face to wash. Less water to swim in (none, actually) but miles and miles and miles of shells to explore.
Some of the same people who gleefully report that marriage as we know it is coming to a grinding halt also claim the church as an institution is dying. Yep, they gloat, fewer and fewer find a need for church in their lives. It will soon disappear with a whimper and we can be done with it. People can feel good about believing in themselves without the confusion about whether there is anything “out there.”
It is precisely because there IS Someone out there that I do not fear either the end of marriage, or the law of gravity, the church, the sun, moon or the stars. He is God. The same one who created the heavens and the earth ordained that a man would leave his father and his mother and be united with his wife and the two would become one flesh. Marriage was God’s idea and he hasn’t changed his mind about it. In this life there will always be marriage that follows God’s design: one man and one woman, for life.
Jesus said, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’?” It is the same with the church. That was God’s idea and in fact Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” The church, as God defined it in the Bible and as Jesus is building it on the earth, is here to stay, until the very end. Gravity isn’t going anywhere either, just in case you are wondering. You can test that one every day, if you like.
The wedding invitations sometimes say, “Today I am marrying my best friend.” I married my best friend 37 years ago this Wednesday. The world has changed a lot since then, but several things are still the same. The ocean is still crashing on the shore. The church is still alive and strong. Gravity is still working: I fell hard for Cindy then and I am falling in love with her more and more every day. Cindy is still my best friend and we are more committed to loving each other to the very end than we ever dreamed of in our twenties.
Marriage in trouble? Not in my house.
Cindy and I had the chance to get away for a few days of R&R last week, and we loved every minute of it. Besides running together a few times, eating breakfast out twice, soaking up some sun and walking on the beach, we also read. A lot. One of the books I read is entitled, “Parenting,” by Paul Tripp. I have heard Paul speak at conferences before, and he is hilarious. And wise. I still laugh at the story he told about taking two bowls of ice cream up the steps for himself and his wife to enjoy. They had a bowl every night, and every night as he walked up the steps with the ice cream, Tripp said he weighed them in his hands to see which one had the most in it. He would give his wife the other one. He said, “I am taking a bowl of ice cream to the woman who has given birth to our children, who has loved me and put up with me our whole marriage, and I am making sure she gets the bowl with less ice cream in it?!”
Tripp writes and speaks a lot about grace, and how critical it is for marriage and for raising children.
Very early in his book on parenting, Tripp asks the question, “Do you see yourself as an owner or an ambassador?” We know an ambassador has only the authority that has been given to him by another, and that his job is to represent the desires of the one who does have authority. The Bible speaks of Christians as “ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”
Whether we parents see ourselves as owners or ambassadors is reflected in our identity. Owners find their identity in their children, and live vicariously through their children’s success. Ambassadors find their identity in God. How we see ourselves is also reflected in the work we do as parents. Owners see their job as turning their children into something. Raising children is hard work, and it does require the parents to take a hands-on approach that will include love and instruction and discipline. But when we see ourselves as ambassadors, we can rest in the fact that we represent someone much wiser and greater. He is the one who does the important work of changing the hearts of our children.
This is also reflected in how we define success as parents. Owners define it as athletic success, academic performance, musical proficiency, or even social likeability. They put pressure on their children to be the best, because their identity, their ‘success’ as parents is integrally tied to their children’s performance. Does this mean we don’t want our children to succeed, and to be the best they can be? Of course not, and every parent who sees himself as an ambassador for Christ wants his children to exceed him or her. But we want that for the child’s sake, and for God’s glory, not for our own.
Finally, this is reflected in how we see our reputation as parents. Owners turn their children into trophies. You can’t have a five-minute conversation with an ‘owner parent’ without hearing about little Johnny’s MVP trophy and Susie’s full-ride to Princeton. Ambassador parents understand the humbling messiness of what they are called to do. They understand that children are God’s trophies.
Tripp writes, “Effective parenting is only possible by God’s grace. His grace is what changes us and changes how we parent. It is what will change our children.”
You know, I often have the thought, though all my children are grown, “I can’t do this! I cannot be a good father for my children!” And I am reminded that no one can, and that each of us is called by God to do the impossible. Tripp writes, “When you’re willing to confess that you’re the biggest problem in your parenting, you are on the road to very good things in you and in your work with your kids.”
That’s me, Lord. Problem-parent number one. Thank you for your grace.
Cindy and I were blessed to watch our youngest son, Judah, walk across the stage at Liberty University last Saturday and receive his diploma. His discipline and hard work paid off, and it reminded me of something I wrote about Judah years ago…
When our son Judah was 3, he liked to pretend he was Davy Crockett or Daniel Boone. He would dress up in his buckskins, don his coonskin cap, take ’Ol Betsy and his powder horn, and head off into the backyard to trap and shoot wild animals. Since we lived in downtown Graham at the time and our backyard consisted of a little bit of grass, a small garden, a swing-set and a few trees, Judah had to use his imagination. The wildest animal we ever encountered in our yard was a family of possums who decided to take up residence under our back deck. So, Judah mainly shot at invisible mountain lions and imaginary bears.
That was hard work, though, and after a while, a frontiersman out in the wild works up a powerful appetite, so Judah Crockett would come in for supper. The problem was, the grub was not always what a pioneer like Judah was expecting.
“Broccoli? Davy Crockett doesn’t eat broccoli!” Judah said when he spied the unholy vegetable on his plate.
“He does if he wants to hunt mountain lions,” his mother replied. “Broccoli gives pioneers energy and strength, and besides, you have to eat it. If you don’t, you will have it for breakfast in the morning. And I don’t think Davy Crockett ever ate broccoli for breakfast. Yuck!”
Judah Crockett was caught on the horns of a dilemma. “Do I eat the broccoli now, so I can hunt lions and bears in the morning after a good breakfast of eggs or cereal?” He pondered that option. “Or do I refuse to eat it and hope that Mom will forget about it by tomorrow?”
Judah refused the broccoli, and was told that it would be saved for him until breakfast. He slept fitfully that night, dreaming that he was Davy Crockett and he was being attacked by a giant broccoli tree that kept trying to eat him up. But when he woke up, the sun was shining, the lions and bears were out there, waiting to be trapped or shot, and Judah hit the floor with a smile, excited about life on the frontier. When he got to the chow hall, drawn by the smell of bacon, he saw the rest of the family sitting down to a scrumptious breakfast, and then the dream he had all night became a nightmare. His plate was there, and all that was on it was last night’s broccoli.
“Where’s my breakfast?” Judah asked, knowing the answer but hoping maybe that this was all a cruel joke.
“Right there,” his mother replied. I added, “Judah, you were told last night what the deal was. If you want to be able to go outside and play this morning, you are going to have to eat your broccoli.”
Judah slumped in his seat, his chin on his chest, his hands hanging at his sides, defeated on the outside but stubborn as the wildcats he hunted on the inside. “I won’t do it,” he thought. “I will not eat my broccoli. Yuck!”
The lions and the bears had the run of our backyard that day because Judah Crockett’s will remained strong — or, was it weak? He finally gave in, and he was reminded of two valuable lessons. First, he was the child, we were the parents, and he would have to obey. Period. Second, he was beginning to learn that “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” We are proud of Judah and the fruit of righteousness we see in him, and thankful to God who loves our son more than we can imagine.
I remember, not too many years ago, a weekend camping trip I shared with my five sons that was meticulously planned. Well, let me qualify that. It was about as planned as it could be by my standards. My motto is, “If I get there and I don’t have it, well, that’s what Wal-Mart is for.” My wife’s motto is, “If I am leaving the house and I have forgotten something, then the four checklists, 6 spreadsheets and 4 days of planning that would rival the preparation for D-Day were not enough.” I am kidding about Cindy, but some of you men will recognize this statement as you are backing out of the garage to go on vacation or even just to church: “I just feel like I have forgotten something.” She often looks at me as she says it, and I will say, “Of course you feel that way, darling. But you never do forget anything. And if you did, well, that’s what Wal-Mart is for.”
This weekend trip was just me and my sons, and we were headed for the mountains to camp, cook over the open fire, laugh a lot, and talk about our lives. The campsite was a little over 2 hours away from home, and about 15 miles from our destination the transmission started to give up the ghost. That’s what I forgot to bring, I thought. A spare transmission! All the rental car places were closed, so we limped back toward Burlington, thinking that if the tranny was going to die completely, the closer to home we were, the better.
Four hours later, we arrived at a lake lot owned by a family in the church, just 20 miles from home, and tried to pick the lock to the Dutch barn on their property, with their permission, of course. That’s another thing our spreadsheet failed to include: a lock-pick. We gave up after an hour and decided to pitch our tent in the dark. I wasn’t worried about sleeping; my friend Mark had loaned us their tent and a queen size air mattress. I realized as we were setting up camp that I forgot a pump. The prospect of two hours of blowing up the mattress left me feeling breathless, and there wasn’t a Wal-Mart in sight, so I slept on the queen-size sheets.
We built a fire, ate s’mores, and talked about college, relationships, jobs, and future plans. The next day we had planned to drive north a few miles to play disc golf. That plan was changed when we realized the transmission had not been healed as we slept, so we started toward home. A 20-mile trip took an hour and included some scenes worthy of a sit-com episode as Micah drove while the rest of us jumped out and pushed the van up hills, then made a mad dash to jump back into the moving vehicle. Don’t try this at home or even in Caswell County.
We traded the van in for two worthier vehicles back at the house and still got in three hours of disc golf. Judah said later, “That was the best day of my life.”
This camping trip will go down in the Foxian chronicles and be told for generations. It was not at all what we planned but it was everything we needed, and a powerful reminder that “A man’s heart plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps.” We can trust Him for a camping trip, for a college career, for a marriage decision, and for every other step we take.
It’s often the unplanned that makes the best memories. Still, next time we’re taking Micah’s car.
David wrote, “Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law.” Wondrous things? In the Bible? Let’s be honest. Most of the world and a great number in the church do not believe the Bible is anything special. That’s why it sits on their shelves. They have no idea of the riches that are found in here, the wondrous things to behold. You never hear a Super Bowl MVP after the big game say, “Now I want to see the wondrous things in God’s Word!” No, he says, “I’m going to Disney World.”
I have been to Disney World a few times. I honestly don’t remember much about it except for long lines, irritable people (like me), and unbearable heat. It was fun, don’t get me wrong, and don’t think I have anything against the place. I don’t. But not one thing happened at Disney World that was life-changing. However, on many occasions I have heard a word preached or seen a passage in the Bible that changed my life.
As a senior at Carolina I woke up one day thinking, “I’ve got to find a wife!” Seriously, that’s about as deep as the thought process went. I asked someone to marry me not long after that, bought her a ring, she bought a wedding dress, and in five months we would be married. While home one weekend, I went to church with my family. The teacher of the college and career class said, “You need to know who your master is, what your mission is, and who your mate is, in that order.” That’s what I remember, but I am sure he anchored it in the Word, maybe something like, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Then the teacher said, “If you don’t know for sure who your master is, you can’t possibly know what your mission is. And if you don’t know your master and your mission, the biggest mistake of your life is to try to choose a mate. You are courting disaster.”
You know what God did that day? He opened my eyes to see wondrous things in his Word. I had a moment with God in that church classroom that was just as important to me at that time in my life as the Mount of Transfiguration was to Peter, James and John. They saw Jesus, glorified. So did I. They went down the mountain different men because of what they had seen and heard. So did I. I made that drive from Winston-Salem to Chapel Hill that afternoon scared to death of what I had to go and do. But I also went back rejoicing because I had seen the Word and met with Jesus, and he changed my direction and my life!
Open my eyes, that I may see wondrous things from Your law. That last phrase is crucial. The wondrous things are found in the Bible. Notice that David did not ask for new revelation. Or for a miracle or a visitation. He asked to see what God had already written. That means two things. First, we cannot see God’s Word with understanding unless he opens our eyes. Second, we have to look at God’s Word to see it. Asking God to teach you his Word and never reading and studying his Word is like asking someone to hold you accountable for an area in your life and then refusing to answer the phone whenever that person calls. A simple point, but one often ignored, even in the church.
Are you seeing wondrous things in God’s Word?
The sunrise service a few years ago was long over and it was almost time for the regular service to start. One of the little boys in the church asked me, “Isn’t it about time for the normal people to come?” I laughed as I considered a host of responses to him. There’s the comedienne’s book title that comes to mind: “Normal is just a setting on your dryer.” I thought about saying in response, “Do I not look normal to you?” But the possibility that I might get an unfiltered response deterred me. I finally just laughed and said, “Yes, I think the normal ones will be showing up soon.” He smiled and went to look for them.
This encounter made me think about what it means to be “normal.” The simple dictionary definition is “conforming to the standard or the common type.” A normal softball for play in the church leagues must conform to a standard compression. I get that. Those who have jurisdiction over the sport have chosen that standard. They can change it if they wish. The normal speed limit on the interstate between here and Wilmington is 70mph. I get that. Those who have authority over the traffic laws of North Carolina have set that speed limit. They can change those laws as they so desire. A normal temperature for a healthy human being is 98.6. I get that, too. That temperature was chosen by our Creator, and things really get messed up when it changes drastically in either direction.
A normal response to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, according to the dictionary definition of “normal,” is yawning indifference. The normal people did not show up at church last Sunday, nor will they this Sunday, precisely because they are normal. They have conformed to the standard. Even many who went to church last Sunday did so, by their own admission, because they wanted to see the fashion parade, or because they knew there would be more music, or because they figured the church would be decorated, or because it’s tradition, or because it’s the least they can do and maintain their “Christian” status, or because they feel guilty. They are part of the holly and lily crowd who goes to church every Christmas and every Easter without fail.
A normal attitude toward the Bible is that it contains some good stories and even some important truths, but at the end of the day it is just a book, written by men, according to most. “Read it every day?” the normal people ask. “The only thing I read every day is Twitter and email.”
A normal attitude toward Christianity itself is that it is one way among many, and that any who would suggest otherwise are narrow-minded bigots who would impose their “standard of morality” upon the rest of the world. A missionary in Turkey was explaining the truth of the resurrection of Christ. He said, “I am traveling, and have reached a place where the road branches off in two ways; I look for a guide, and find two men: one dead, and the other alive. Which of the two must I ask for direction, the dead or the living?” “Oh, the living,” cried the people. “Then,” said the missionary, “why send me to Mohammed, who is dead, instead of to Christ, who is alive!”
The other “abnormal” people did show up last Sunday. Together, we worshiped the One who calls us to be anything but normal, the one who rose from the dead to conquer sin, death, and the grave.
Normal is highly overrated.