I went to a fast-food joint earlier this week, and the young lady in front of me was, well, different. Her hair was a shade of cotton candy pink that I’m pretty sure wasn’t her natural hair color. She had her body pierced in places that aren’t yet considered mainstream, and her clothes weren’t what you see in Sunday School every week—but they completed her image.

As it turned out, she and her friend sat at a table near mine, and I could hear their conversation—they weren’t being discreet. I’m not sure what I expected them to talk about, but I suppose I thought it might have something to do with the next punk rock concert or where the best party was this weekend. Most of my friends don’t have pink hair or piercings in random body parts, so I wasn’t sure what to expect—maybe I’d get the latest scoop on Birmingham’s devil worship hot spots? I couldn’t wait.

You’d probably never guess, so I’ll go ahead and spill it: They talked about their jobs, their friends, a couple of problems they were having, and something about her Dad.

In other words, it was pretty boring stuff, not nearly as exciting as I’d hoped.

It was just like what I talk about with friends when we go to lunch. Probably the same with you and your friends.

Not long after I figured out she might not be a devil-worshiper I got bored with my eavesdropping.

It’s pretty sad. The tempting thing to do is to make snap judgments about people, to put them in neat little boxes that are well-defined and clearly labeled. You look like this, so you must do that. You’re different from me, so I keep you at a distance. Stereotypes come easily.

Pink hair and body piercings? Parties, drugs, alcohol, and who knows what else.

Clean-cut, tailored suit, polished shoes? Respectable, law-abiding, church-going. Good guy.

Except it’s not so simple.

Truth is, we’re not so different from one another. I’ve done short-term mission work on the continents of Asia, South America, Australia, and Africa, and some of the cultural differences are significant—we look different, eat different food, wear different clothes.

But if you look beneath the culture, what you find is that they’re a lot like us, or maybe, we’re a lot like them. They want their kids to be healthy and to get a good education, and they worry about them. They want their marriages to be stronger. They’re concerned about their aging parents. They fret over their economic situation and disapprove of the government. They laugh and cry and eat and sleep.

But going a little deeper, the girl with pink hair and loud clothes and the guy with the clean-cut hair and suit and tie, as well as the Asian, the African, and the American all have the same problem.

We’re badly flawed, and deep down we know it. Because of what we’ve done, our relationship with God isn’t what it ought to be, and that’s caused us to struggle in other areas as well—our jobs, our marriages, our friendships, everything.

And we all have the same hope, no matter our past, no matter how bad. That hope is Jesus Christ, the one who came to bring us back to the Father. To restore us to wholeness. To give us life.

Instead of judging people by their clothing choices or body art, we ought to see them for what they are and what we are: people created in God’s image who have marred that image by the choices we’ve made.

And people for whom God gave everything to get us back. That, in essence, is the story of the Bible. That is the good news.

I doubt God even noticed that her hair was pink.

Submitting to someone is tough to do, and it starts early. Ask the two-year-old who looks you in the eye and defiantly grabs the forbidden cookie. Or the seventh-grader who lives by the adage that rules were meant to be broken. You’ve seen it in the boundary-testing behavior of the sixteen-year-old who constantly has to rediscover that mom means what she says.

And, of course, we’ve seen it in us, and not just back when we were kids.

It all started in the beautiful nature park of Eden. Adam and Eve sought and found autonomy, but the fruit didn’t taste as good as they’d hoped. The lie they fell for was the one that suggested they could make their own rules, that God’s prohibition was rooted in his wanting to keep them from experiencing some kind of secret joy.

What they found was that deciding for themselves what was best wasn’t all the snake promised. It led to shame (within themselves), conflict (with each other), and alienation (from God). Not to mention what it did for childbirth and tilling the ground.

We’ve struggled to submit ever since, choosing to go our own way and make our own rules. The same spirit that motivates the cookie-grabbing two-year-old animates us as well: we want to do what we want to do.

Except it doesn’t work. At all.

It didn’t work when Adam and Eve tried it, it didn’t work with Cain, it didn’t work at Babel, it won’t work with us. In fact, that’s one of the purposes of the Bible—to give us a thorough account of what happens when sinful people live according to their self-centered wants outside of God.

It leads to conflict, hopelessness, anxiety, rebellion, sickness, and death.

Our way isn’t the best way, and even though we know that intellectually it’s a hard lesson to live.

Will you meditate on a passage with me today, and then let it form the basis of your prayers?

“Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (Jam 4:7-8).

Father, I know that I so often choose my way instead of Yours, even when I know better. I let Satan convince me that living according to my rules is better than submitting to You. I know that Your commandments are holy and righteous and true, but I still struggle so hard to submit to them. Please help me. Help me see that disobedience brings disappointment and that You want only what is best for me. Enable me by Your Spirit to submit to You, and please mold my will so that over time it becomes Yours.

In the name of Your Son, Amen.

Chances are, you use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, or Google+ (or some combination of them) . . . They’ve completely changed how we stay in touch and share information with one another.

It’s pretty neat, really. Grandparents living hundreds of miles away can see their grandson’s touchdown almost as soon as the kicker lines up for the extra point. We can keep in touch with old friends we never see, helping us stay connected in ways that previous generations couldn’t. We can share the message of Jesus with people all over the globe.

But (and you knew there was a “but” coming), it’s not all good, of course. Every tool that we use for good can be manipulated for bad, and social media sites aren’t any different. In fact, sometimes they discourage us.

The persona that most of us create online is something different than who we really are—have you ever noticed that? Whoever or whatever we wish we were shapes the messages we create and share. If we want people to think we’re busy, spiritual, pretty, smart, or whatever, we choose pictures and craft status updates that reinforce that. It’s a kind of pseudo-self that we create, sometimes more of what we wish we were than what we actually are.

I’m overgeneralizing, but there’s not a ton of authenticity on social media. If there were, it might look more like this:

You know how I’m always smiling in the pictures I post online? Sometimes I’m so discouraged I can hardly get up in the morning.

I quote Bible verses and cite Christian writers on Facebook, but no one knows I’m struggling with pornography.

I uploaded a bunch of pictures of my big happy family a minute ago, but my husband and I aren’t getting along, and those beautiful kids are driving me crazy.

And then there’s this: have you ever witnessed other people’s online “lives” and felt twinges of envy?

I wish my relationship with God was that good. I wish I looked like that. I wish I had that house. I wish my life was perfect.

Truth is, the guy quoting Bible verses and talking about his relationship with Jesus all the time struggles spiritually. The girl posting heavily edited selfies has a problem with her self-image, and the always-happy family has major meltdowns like every other family.

I’m not suggesting there’s necessarily a correlation between the kind of pictures or statuses we publish and what we struggle with (though there could be).

I’m just suggesting that we’ve all got issues. We all get discouraged and think the world’s falling apart. We’ve all had high points and low points in our walk with Christ. If we’re married with kids, then we’ve got imperfect marriages and flawed kids. The picture we posted online with all the kids smiling was the 78th picture we took (somebody was crying or mad in the first 77).

But for whatever reason, we’re not as open about our struggles, maybe because we don’t want to mess up the image we’ve crafted so carefully.

Authenticity is the buzzword for the millennials—supposedly they crave it more than the rest of us. I doubt that’s true, though—I think we’re all craving authenticity, and I wish we did a better job in the church of being open about our flaws.

We’re all in this thing together, and to the extent that Facebook and its cousins help create an encouraging community, I’m all for social media.

But I think a little bit of just being real wouldn’t hurt either.

Prayer is tough, isn’t it? Not simple, quick prayers, the kind you pray before meals—those aren’t that hard. But praying consistently and fervently takes discipline.

One of the reasons it’s hard is that we wonder why God sometimes doesn’t answer the way we want him to. As I struggle with this I keep being drawn back to a statement I read in Tim Keller’s new book on prayer: “God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows” (p. 228).*

That’s pretty insightful, I think, and we’d do well to mull it over for a while. Truth is, prayer isn’t a simple, I-ask-and-God-gives-me-what-I-want kind of thing.

Sometimes I wish that’s the way it was, because I usually think I know what I need. I’d like for God just to see things the way I see them and do them the way I want them done. I’ve also found that my requests almost always involve asking God to take me down the road with the least amount of pain or difficulty possible.

And then there are some verses that seem to suggest that God might do whatever we ask:

“Ask, and it will be given to you . . . For everyone who asks receives . . .” (Matt 7:7,8).

That sounds hopeful, doesn’t it?

Or this one:

“You do not have, because you do not ask” (Jam 4:2).

Taken together—and out of the context of the whole Bible—someone might start thinking that all you have to do is just ask for whatever you want. God becomes the magic genie who grants the request.

But if you’ve been praying long, you know it doesn’t work like that. Either God isn’t listening, or he’s got some other agenda in mind.

Of course God does have an agenda, and that’s where the statement from Keller helps us. God will either give us what we ask or give us what we would have asked if we knew everything he knows.

I had a professor once who referred to God as the “One who knows the end before the beginning begins.”

That’s what makes him uniquely qualified to answer our prayers according to his own agenda—his plan that is nothing less than working things out for his glory and our ultimate good (cf. Rom 8:28). Sometimes that’s hard to swallow when we’re hurting, but knowing that God isn’t just flippantly dismissing our requests because he doesn’t care helps us to submit to his will . . . and keep trusting him.

In fact, we wouldn’t want a God who could be manipulated into doing whatever we wanted, would we? That kind of God would be something less than the One we worship.

So keep praying, and keep praying big prayers, but be thankful that the God you pray to will answer according to what he knows to be best.

*Tim Keller, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy With God. New York, NY: Dutton, 2014.

Starting over (again)

January 15, 2015 — Leave a comment

We’re about two weeks into 2015 . . . are you still on your diet? Maybe you’re not guilty of making and breaking resolutions, but some of us have been. One year I signed a year-long contract at a gym in January so I would be fit and in shape by the end of the year.

I think I went four times. I think it takes more than that to get fit and in shape.

But there’s nothing inherently wrong with making resolutions, of course. It’s just that they must be grounded in something more substantive than the guilt we feel about spending much of November and December eating everything in sight and washing it down with a few dozen hours of ESPN.

I’m not writing this to add to your guilt or to make your commitment to lose 30 pounds by spring seem hopeless. I’m not even trying to convince you to make some kind of special spiritual resolution like reading through the Bible this year (though that would do us all good).

I just want to ask you to spend some time today reflecting on you and God.

Maybe 2014 was a tough year for you spiritually, perhaps because sickness or relationship problems or stress or the all-consuming job took so much of you that you had little left for God. Or maybe you got mad at him for allowing some of those things to happen.

Or it could be that you struggled spiritually in spite of having a reasonably problem-free year—no major sickness, no job catastrophes, no worse-than-normal stress. Or maybe “in spite of” isn’t the right phrase, because for whatever reason the good times sometimes cause us to look away from God.

Regardless, though, we are where we are. Probably none of us are where we want to be or maybe where we ought to be. We’ve made more compromises than we should have and neglected some of our spiritual disciplines.

Good thing we’ve got a fresh start today—not because it’s January but because our God is one who delights in new beginnings. We know that because of how Jesus spent his time and the kind of people who hung around him.

It’s incredible, really. He gave new life to a girl from the wrong side of town whose reputation caused the suit-and-tie types to give her a wide berth if they accidentally encountered her in the marketplace.

He refused to add condemnation to an already embarrassed woman who was dragged out of a bed that belonged to a man she wasn’t married to.

In his stories he made heroes out of people who were shunned and mocked by the religious establishment. The half-breed Samaritans, the traitorous tax collectors, the sore-covered homeless, the nearly penniless widows.

It’s funny, though. The religious guys? The ones who had it all figured out and were ready to straighten everybody else out?

They couldn’t stand him. He loved them like he loved everybody, of course, but he refused to allow their self-righteousness to stand uncontested.

So if you’re starting 2015 somewhere that you’re not proud of, take heart. Look up and see Jesus—our God who absolutely loves fresh starts.

He’s thrilled to reach down, pick you up, and limp beside you.

And no, he won’t love you any less if your gym attendance lapses as quickly as mine did.

Here’s to a God-honoring, faith-building 2015 . . .

This passage has always convinced me that Jesus had a sense of humor. If what he’s saying wasn’t so completely serious, it’d be downright hilarious.

Try to visualize the image he paints:

Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye (Matthew 7:1-5).

I like The Message’s paraphrase:

That critical spirit has a way of boomeranging. It’s easy to see a smudge on your neighbor’s face and be oblivious to the ugly sneer on your own. Do you have the nerve to say, “Let me wash your face for you,” when your own face is distorted by contempt? It’s this whole traveling road-show mentality all over again, playing a holier-than-thou part instead of just living your part. Wipe that ugly sneer off your own face, and you might be fit to offer a washcloth to your neighbor.

You know what he’s talking about, right? The church-member who’s happy to point out the faults of everyone else at church but completely oblivious to her own. The guy you work with who tears your work apart but who (apparently) never makes a mistake.

To get the full impact of Jesus’ words, think of someone who’s got a 2×4 sticking out of his eye while he’s trying his best to help someone get the splinter out of hers.

Jesus is pretty blunt: Look, worry about the big stick of wood in your own eye before you start obsessing over everyone else’s splinters. You’ve got your own problems to think about.

The mentality he’s talking about is the nitpicking, fault-finding, hypercritical spirit that we’ve all experienced before—and maybe received a time or two.

But here’s the clincher. Though it’s easy to think about someone we know who judges harshly, we’ve probably done the same thing more than we’d like to admit.

I wonder how many kids are discouraged by parents who criticize everything they do? How many women feel like their husbands never see anything good they do but never miss a single mistake they make? Are there husbands whose wives ignore their strong points but freely point out their shortcomings?

The thing is, it makes us feel better. If I can think about, talk about, and shake my head about all of yourproblems, it makes me feel better about my own. “Well, Lord, I know I’ve got a few problems, but at least I’m not like . . .” As long as I use a microscope on your sins and ignore my own, I can feel pretty good about my Christian walk.

It’s wrong, of course, and it devastates the morale and spirit of the people around us. Jesus warns us of the danger of whitewashing our own sins by pointing out others’ faults. He’s telling us that it’s hypocritical, hypercritical, and sinful.

Let’s pray about it today. Maybe your prayer will go something like this: “Father, forgive me for being too judgmental and critical. Shine the light of your word onmy life, my sins, my struggles, and help me first to deal with my own issues before I start helping other people with theirs. Convict me when I start to get hung up on everybody else’s mistakes instead of my own. Help me never again to embrace the secret pleasure of reveling in anyone’s sins.”

Some of you lay awake last night worrying about something. It may have been the blood panels that made your doctor want to do a few more tests. “It’s probably nothing,” he said, but your mind has gone crazy ever since.

A few of you were thinking about your kids, worrying a little (or a lot!) about some choices they’re making. Why don’t they just listen to me? Or, This is probably just a phase they’re going through . . . right?

You may have been fretting over your job. It’s nothing definite yet, but the numbers aren’t looking good, and you’ve heard through the breakroom grapevine that layoffs are almost certainly coming. People in your department aren’t optimistic.

And then there’s retirement. How long will Social Security be around? And what if I don’t have enough invested? What about this healthcare mess?

Or it could’ve been just a general sense of unease with nothing specific. I’ve had sleepless nights where I felt like I needed to be worried about something but couldn’t figure out what it was. (Yeah, I’m good at this worrying thing)

I know folks who don’t worry at all—they know it doesn’t do any good, won’t change anything, etc.—so they don’t do it. I don’t know for sure, but I suspect those people are in the minority. Worry invades the hearts of good Christian people, even people with strong faith.

Like most of our struggles, Jesus speaks quite directly to anxiety. Below is a longer passage than usual, but please take time to read it:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble (Matthew 6:25-34).

There’s a lot in that passage, but it all comes down to one thing.

Trust . . . or the lack of it.

I don’t want to oversimplify what Jesus says, but here’s the gist of it: Your heavenly Father feeds the birds, and he clothes the grass of the fields—can’t we trust him to take care of us as well?

Well, yes, we can and should, but we don’t always do it.

Pause and think about this today. Ask yourself what’s going in in your life that’s robbing you of peace. What’s keeping you awake at night? What’s causing your stomach to churn? What’s keeping you from enjoying the blessings God has given you?

Whatever that thing is, turn it over to God. He’s big enough to handle it, don’t you think?

He is, and he will, so give it to him. Ask him to take it off your shoulders. Ask him to work things out according to what he knows to be best. And then ask him to help you live the life of joy he wants to give you.

And sleep better tonight.

Competing for your heart

February 14, 2014 — Leave a comment

Whether we recognize it or not, we’ve already made a big decision today: What (or whom) are we going to serve? What will determine our decisions, our priorities, our attitudes? What’s going to define who we are?

And it’s important to remember that the thrones of our hearts only seat one, so we can’t give two answers to these questions. We’ve got dozens of important concerns in our lives, but only one is Lord. Only one calls the shots.

Your heart’s throne is a coveted place, so you’ve got all sorts of things competing to sit on it. Your job might be a competitor, either because your boss demands it or because you seek fulfillment and happiness there.

You might feel compelled to put your family on the throne—after all, Christianity is a family-oriented life, right?

It could be a hobby—sports, shopping, hunting, fishing, decorating. We all know the person who works all week only so that he or she can _____ on the weekends, don’t we?

And, of course, it could be money. Yes, Jesus is still talking about money. We might wish for him to move on, but he’s got one more thing to say before he changes subjects:

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money (Matthew 6:24).

Notice how absolute his first statement is. There’s not much wiggle room here: No one can serve two masters. I’ve tried it before, haven’t you? I’ve thought that I could serve God and _____ without really choosing one or the other. Maybe God and career. Maybe God and family. Maybe God and entertainment. Maybe God and self.

It doesn’t work, because we’ve only got one throne. Something—a principle, a person, a pursuit—determines everything that we do.

In fact, we can summarize the Bible’s message in one sentence: God wants to be Lord of our lives. He wants to be in charge of everything about us, not because he’s some egotistical, self-centered deity, but because he knows it’s best for us to run wholeheartedly after an infinitely loving, merciful God.

Every day we make the choice, and then we live according to our answer.

Who’s Lord of your life today? What’s really most important to you? To paraphrase Jesus’ words, you cannot serve God and anything else at all.

A vision checkup

February 13, 2014 — Leave a comment

You probably heard the news last week about the movie star who died of a drug overdose. It’s sad and tragic on so many levels, but honestly, it wasn’t surprising. Not that I expected it with this particular actor—I knew nothing about his drug problems—but it’s happened so many times with superstars that it’s not really unexpected.

In a way it’s hard to understand. Why do so many wildly successful people turn to drugs? Why aren’t they happy with all their money and fame? They’re on top of the world, right?

Or maybe they’re not.

If we follow Jesus, we already know the answer:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:22-23)

Just before these verses he was talking about money, and that’s probably what he’s got in mind here. When people’s eyes are focused on their money—and what it can do for them—their hearts are filled with darkness.

But in a sense money stands for everything tangible and temporal in this world. It gets our attention, then grabs our hearts. We start seeing it, then we can see nothing else. That’s what a “bad eye” is—it’s focused on stuff that can’t fulfill and doesn’t last.

On the other hand, the “healthy eye” sees beneath the surface to what really counts—things of God. Love, mercy, peace, hope, obedience, eternity.

That’s the contrast Jesus sets before us. Will our eyes see only the things of this world? Will we think too much about the world’s cheap thrills—money, superficial entertainment, empty pursuits?

Or will our eyes see God? Will we see what he’s doing in the world, in us, in his people? Will we see what he sees?

It’s not overstating it to suggest that our lives are determined by which kind of eye we have.

How’s your vision?

Some investment advice

February 11, 2014 — Leave a comment

I’m not an investment expert, but I understand some of the basics. I know that when I’m deciding about where and how much I’m going to invest, I need to look at risk and reward. I know that if I invest money and there’s a 90% chance I’ll lose it all, that’s a high-risk investment.
I also know that if I invest, say, $1,000 this month, and that money will only be worth $100 at the end of the year, that’s a terrible investment.

Jesus’ point is similar, and really quite simple:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also (Matthew 6:19-21).

If you invest your money and accumulate material things, Jesus says, what’s your reward? What’s your payoff? Well, you’ll be worried about them—what will happen to them, how long they’ll last, if someone might steal them, if you’ll have enough. In other words, invest your money down here and the reward is bad, really bad. But if you invest them in things that last—in spiritual, eternal things—the reward is unbelievable.

Money’s one of those touchy subjects we try to avoid in polite conversation, but Jesus is pretty direct here. Where’s your money going? Do you have a big retirement account? Are you building wealth by investing in real estate, or maybe stocks, bonds, and mutual funds? Are you using it to buy more and more stuff?

Jesus never taught that it’s wrong to prepare for the future, but I wonder what he might say about the way we accumulate things? He once commended a widow who gave away everything she had, and then he condemned a man who seemed to be investing wisely (cf. Mark 12:41-44; Luke 12:16-21). In other words, he reversed the investment advice we normally give.

Is it possible that we’ve let our money-crazed culture convince us that the accumulation of things is wise, maybe even godly? It’s worth considering, at least.

Jesus tells us to use our money to do good. “Laying up treasures in heaven” isn’t just giving to the church (though that’s good too); it’s using the money God gives us to help others. It’s giving money and food and clothing to the poor. It’s sending money to missionaries so they can share the good news about Jesus. It’s supporting relief efforts in war-damaged parts of the world, or areas that have been devastated by storms, tsunamis, or earthquakes. It’s helping the orphans and widows.

I saw a quote this week that convicted me—it relates to what Jesus is talking about: “No one is getting into heaven without a letter of reference from the poor” (James A. Forbes).

That’s pretty close to what Jesus said: No one’s getting into heaven without a proper perspective on the relationship between money, happiness, and eternity.

When we invest in things God is interested in, our hearts won’t be tied up in this world . . . and when this short life is over, we’ll follow our investments to where God lives.