When Selfless Love and Selfish Love Fall on the Same Day

Today is Ash Wednesday. Today is also Valentine’s Day.

There may not be two more opposite emphases celebrated on the same day. Each one celebrates love, but two different kinds of love. Ash Wednesday is the beginning of Lent- a 40 day preparation for Easter. Lent is often celebrated by fasting from something as a symbolic way to enter into the suffering of Christ and as a way to prepare for the joy of Easter. Ash Wednesday, Lent, Good Friday, and Easter are all about selfless love. The selfless love of Jesus who went to the cross to bring the forgiveness of sins.

Valentine’s Day, in our culture, has become symbolic of selfish love. Love shown by the buying of stuff- teddy bears, candy, and expensive dinners. This way of celebrating Valentine’s Day actually brings out the worst of “love.” It celebrates a kind of love that is needy, a kind of love that finds its fulfillment in materialism, and a kind of love that is given and received based on what it gets in return.

Jesus said there is no love greater than the love that causes someone to lay down their life for someone else (John 15:13). In other words the greatest love is selfless love. The greatest love is Ash Wednesday love, not Valentine’s Day love.

Today, let’s bridge the gap between Ash Wednesday love and Valentine’s Day love. Before you give that teddy bear and candy, and before you go out to that expensive dinner, first give yourself. Show Ash Wednesday love by setting aside yourself, laying down your life, and getting rid of any agenda.

Practice selfless love. Practice Ash Wednesday love.

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2018 Theme(s)

I can’t believe that is almost February 2018 already. I also can’t believe I haven’t written since November. Usually in January I write about my theme for the year. In 2017 the theme was “review.” In 2016 the theme was “bravery” and in 2015 it was “doubt.”

Looking back on those themes, the themes from 2015 and 2016 really did define my year. In 2015, I went through a period where God worked in my heart to redefine my calling. Looking back at my blogs from 2015, I find a process of working through hurt, confusion, and doubt about what God was trying to do in my life.

In 2016, the theme of bravery led me to do some things that are not naturally characteristic of me. I wrote about humility, I stepped out and did some teaching, and (most importantly) I sent a resume to a church in a town I’d never heard of, in a part of Texas I’d never really visited. Then I watched how God worked and put me and my family together with the perfect church to pastor and lead. All because sometimes faith takes some bravery.

Last year my theme was “review.” I wrote that I wanted to reexamine, relearn, reengage with some authors I have in library and with some of the ideas that I spent time writing about on this blog. Ideas of how we should structure church and work in ministry today. Last year, however, was a hard year on bloggers. The news and the world was consumed with politics and that’s not a world that I want to enter as a blogger. So, many of my posts last year were reviews, just book reviews. I wrote about eight different books over 2017. Maybe last year’s theme didn’t turn out the way that I envisioned.

But what about this year? What about 2018?

To be honest I haven’t settled on a theme yet. But I do have some concepts that have been churring in my heart and mind. Perhaps this year I won’t have one theme but several.

Sow. One of Jesus’ most famous stories is about sowing. You can read it in Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23. In the story the farmer scatters seeds far and wide- all the way from the road to the field. The farmer knows that nothing will grow if he doesn’t sow, and while we might see him as wasteful (letting seeds fall on the road, the rocky soil, and among the thorns) the principle is that we sow far and wide. One of my themes for the year is to sow far and wide and lead the church to sow far and wide. And in doing we will trust God for the fruit.

Productivity. On a more personal level, I’m realizing more and more the speed of life. It’s easy to let days turn to weeks, weeks to months, and months to years (the fact that I haven’t written since November is exhibit number 1). There are things I want to get done (personally, professionally, with my family, spiritually) that I know can be accomplished if I spend time wisely and productively.

Contemplation. This is the balance to productivity. There is a danger in measuring oneself simply on production. There has to be balance in working and resting, giving and  refilling, production and contemplation.

Those are the ideas in my mind as we begin a new year. I’m excited to see how the year unfolds and how these themes play into the journey.

How Do We Think? (A Book Review)

We’re always being told what to think, but not how to think- enter Alan Jacobs.

how to think coverPolarization is the mark of our current social, political, and religious environments. I don’t know if there’s another time where so many people are on opposite extremes of so many different issues- from healthcare, to gun control, to climate change, to foreign policy, and many more. It is into this extreme environment that Alan Jacobs speaks a word of calmness, clarity and, yes, even grace through his newest book How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.

Jacob’s book is, both, timely and important because he does what the title of the book says- he advises the reader on how to think, not what to think. Through a book that is both well researched, and in a style that is deep and engaging, Jacobs invites the reader to examine the influences and prejudices inherent in our thinking.

My main takeaway from the book is two-fold. First, is the realization that we believe that the things we think, and the positions we take are true, or else we would not be holding those ideas. And because we believe them to be true, we naturally listen to others who confirm what we hold to be true. Even if we are truly not sure what we think about an issue, we will gravitate toward others who are unsure and hold those with a defined position as suspicious. What Jacobs rightly notes is that when we are faced with another idea, although we may find that idea repulsive, instead of labeling only the idea repulsive, we label the one who holds the idea as repulsive- or what Jacobs borrows from Susan Harding and calls the “repugnant cultural other.” Jacobs’ main goal in the book is to show that the “RCO” is indeed a human being and realize that we might, under different circumstances, hold the same view that we find repulsive.

Second, there is a deceptive argument that promotes eliminating emotions, both positive and negative, collectively called biases and, instead, use pure reason. Jacobs notes, however, that reason alone is an “insufficient guide” because our biases actually help us navigate through life because without them “the cognitive demands of having to assess every single situation would be so great as to paralyze us” (86). Feelings and biases actually help us make quick decisions when we cannot stop and rationally assess every situation or decision on a day-by-day, moment-by-moment basis. He warns, however, that we want our biases to be the right biases and that begins by “learning to think with the best people, and not to think with the worst” (87).

These are my top two takeaways but there are many other things that I could note that are interesting. Overall Jacobs writes a fascinating book and it may be one that I routinely give away to graduating seniors and college students. My most telling endorsement is that when I finished the book, I was glad I read it.

I received this book from Blogging for Book in exchange for this review.

Heavy on “What” but Light on “How”

9781601429537I was immediately drawn into this book. In the preface, Erwin McManus reveals that while he was writing The Last Arrow: Save Nothing For the Next Life, he had cancer but did not know it. He admits that writing a book about living without fear and regret became a prophetic word to himself as he edited the book under the cloud of his diagnosis.

In the body of the book, McManus uses the story of Elisha and King Joash in 2 Kings 13:14-19 and the image of striking arrows as the jumping off point to talk about we can live a life where we hold nothing back. McManus rightfully reminds us, “You have one life to use everything you have been entrusted with, so you might as well save nothing for the next life” (30).

In the subsequent chapters McManus speaks to ideas like letting go of the past, recognizing that other people depend on your life and knowing what we want out of life. He speaks to these ideas with the familiar interlacing of personal stories and biblical illustrations.

One of the issues I have with “pop” Christian books, and The Last Arrow falls into this category, is that it is hard for the reader to relate to many of the personal stories of the author. I’ve never had a conversation with a billionaire. I’ve never been to war-torn Syria. I’ve never been disinvited to speak at a large conference. It’s not to say that the reader cannot gain insights from the life experience of the author but that life experience has to be translatable to the life experience of the reader and at times McManus’ life experience doesn’t translate well.

That brings me to the one main critique I have of The Last Arrow: it is heavy on the “what” but light on the “how.” I think the main ideas McManus presents are right and true but in order to engage more readers and move those readers to a lasting change in the way they live their lives, it would be helpful if McManus spent more time explaining how we find great people with which to surround ourselves. Or how do we discover who we are? Or how do we know what parts of our pasts we need to set on fire, like Elisha did? Readers that see this weakness can fill in the gaps themselves as they work through the book’s ideas and their implications.

Overall, however, the book was an engaging read and one that if you’ve read other of McManus’ books, I think you’ll appreciate. I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.

A Missing Defining Event

This week is the sixteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I was a sophomore in high school in 2001 and while it will probably be the defining moment in my lifetime (I pray nothing worse takes its place) this is the first year that my oldest child really learned about the attacks (he’s in third grade). So Monday night my wife and I were telling our third grader a little about what we remember of that day.

My thoughts went from 9/11 to the other defining events in my life (so far). The first real world events I remember are Operation Desert Storm and the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. I remember seeing video of explosions lighting up the night sky as the air portion of Desert Storm began. I also remember the sci-fi looking F-117 Nighthawk stealth bomber.

I thought about the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. I remember the way the building looked and the heartbreaking picture of the firefighter holding a lifeless baby pulled from the rubble.

Columbine was also a defining event. I was in junior high in 1999. I remember the news coverage and the images of SWAT teams escorting students from the building with their hands on top of the their heads.

Now that I sit here, I think about the first World Trade Center bombing, the bombing at the Atlanta olympics, and the Boston Marathon bombing.

And I wonder, are there any positive defining moments in my lifetime? Are there any events that stand out that cause me to say, “I’m proud that happened during my lifetime?”

Sure there are proud moments in response to these tragedies, as people come together to help one another, but I’m not sure there is a positive defining event.

At least not yet. But I am hopeful. Maybe it’s naive but I believe there is still time- I’m only 31 after all. I don’t believe that my lifetime has to be defined by bombings, shootings, terrorist attacks, and wars. My lifetime can be defined by something more; it can be defined by something positive; it can be defined by something God-inspired.

Jesus said in John 14:12-14 that followers of Jesus will be able to do even greater things (greater works) than Jesus because Jesus will have accomplished his mission and sent the Holy Spirit to live within us. Jesus was one man who taught twelve, who taught thousands, who taught millions, who taught billions. Estimates are that there are 2.2 billion Christians in the world.

With 2.2 billion Christians, how is there not a defining God-inspired event in my lifetime? God is moving in the world. There are stories of how God is moving in China and in the Middle East. There was the rise in the worship movements and Pentecostalism in South America. But there hasn’t been a “Pentecost” in my lifetime. There hasn’t been a “Great Awakening” in my lifetime. There hasn’t been a “Jesus Movement” in my lifetime.

Why?

Maybe we are the plants growing in the shallow rocky soil or growing up amidst the choking thorns of worry, riches, and pleasures of life. Maybe it’s because we Christians can’t seem to stop fighting among ourselves as we keep calling out “heretics” for their specks while ignoring our own logs. Maybe it’s because we are lazy. Maybe it’s because God desires us to be desperate but we are too content with our iPhones and Netflix. Maybe it’s because we keep looking for someone else to do something when God is calling each one of us.

I’ve been wary of the term revival, as it’s used now, because it’s been equated with a return to a religio-social-cultural-political ideal that never really existed. There can be no return to a reality that never was.

What we need are people and churches who are inspired to do God-inspired things. We don’t need to look into the past but gaze into the future and have God inspire us to do a greater work.

Maybe then in 30, 40, or 50 years the defining moment in my lifetime will be a God-movement or a God-event and not more of the same.

 

Jesus and the Illusion of Control

Nature has a funny way of reminding us that we aren’t in control as much as we think we are. We love the idea of control. We live in a world where we can control the thermostat in our house, the lights in our house, even the ice maker in the refrigerator in our house all from our smartphone. Through social media we can control the narrative of our lives that we project to the world. Some people take great control of what they eat and put into their bodies. Some people put in guardrails so that they remain in control their time. I don’t think any of us like the feeling of being out of control- either emotionally, physically, or financially. But what happens is that we build an illusion of control and we find it shocking when that illusion comes crashing down.

Nature has a tendency to be that thing that causes our illusions of control to come crashing down. Control didn’t matter when water from Hurricane Harvey starting rising. Right now Hurricane Irma is making it’s way across the Caribbean and where the storm goes and what damage it produces is outside of our control. We have to bend to the wind, not the other way around. We have to respect the ocean, and the rivers, and the mountains, they don’t have to respect us.

Unless you’re Jesus.

On multiple occasions Jesus took control over nature. He calmed storms. He silenced winds. He walked on water. He caused the fruitless tree to wither.

Why did he do those things? I think Jesus wanted to show us that he can control the things we can’t control. Jesus can control nature. Jesus can control disease. Jesus can control limited resources- like taking five loaves of bread and two fish and feeding 10,000+ people. Jesus can even control death.

Whatever is in your life that you can’t control, Jesus can. I know that sounds trivial. Especially to people who are dealing with the aftermath of those uncontrollable things, whether natural disaster, or addiction, or anger, or a disease. But it’s those weary people that Jesus promises to give rest. We just have to seek that rest in Jesus.

We all walk with our illusions of control but what do we do when they fall? Where do we turn?  If your life is out of control, if you are weary, Jesus is in control. There is nothing that stands outside of Jesus’ control. We can rest in that.

“Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” Luke 8:25

Book Review: “How We Love”

9780735290174In a couple of weeks our church will begin a sermon series on marriage and relationships. To get ready, I’ve been reading several books on Christian marriage. One of those is How We Love: Discover Your Love Style, Enhance Your Marriage by Milan and Kay Yerkovich.

In the book, the authors’ main idea is that the way we express love comes from the impressions and imprints of love we received through our childhood (6). As the joke (or perhaps the truth) of counseling goes: It’s all your parent’s fault. They propose that the way we learn to express love, beginning as children, starts as we remember how we were comforted. It’s our memory of how we were comforted by our parents or caregiver that lays the foundation for how we love when we get older.

They go on to outline four different love styles: Avoider, Pleaser, Vacillator and Chaotic. These were actually fairly helpful and I could see my love style and that of my spouse fairly easily. They follow the introduction of the love styles with several chapters on what dynamics tend to occur when different styles marry one another. What are the dynamics, for example, when a Vacillator marries an Avoider?

The final section of the book is devoted to being able to understand the love style of yourself and your spouse and how to get behind the barriers that have been built up and love in a fuller and more intimate way. Two themes that dominate this section are being able to understand your emotions and being able to openly communicate.

One of the positives of the book is that the love styles that Milan and Kay describe are helpful. It’s pretty easy to see which style you most identify with. One of the negatives however, is that most people fit into multiple categories. I understand that there are infinite combinations of how these love styles can be manifested and while they do address that problem it would be helpful if they spent a little more time on it.

One other negative is that in the final section, I think some of the couple emotion and communication exercises they suggest might be a bit more than the average couple would feel doing solely based on what they read in a book. I know part of what the authors want is for couples to move past the awkwardness and into better intimacy. But for the 99% of us who aren’t marriage and family therapists and who don’t have years of experience in these situations, perhaps there is a danger in doing them wrong. I can easily see how couples would be intimidated by some of their suggested exercises.

Overall, I think the book is helpful and provides talking points for couples- even if some of the exercises might be a little too clinical or advanced. It is also helpful that the authors approach marriage from a Christian background. My take is, like with any book, dissect what you read and apply what is helpful for you and your relationship.

I received this book from Blogging for Books in exchange for this review.