A Polar Vortex Miracle

Like many of the weather phenomenon of recent years, I haven’t a clue as to what a “polar vortex” is.  But to me, “polar vortex” is synonymous with “crappiest week that I’ve had in quite a while”.

It all started on Monday morning, when I awoke to discover that our kitchen and bathroom sinks were all frozen from the cold.  But having suffered through frozen pipes before, I wasn’t unduly concerned.  All I would have to do is make a quick trip to Home Depot, and I would have those pipes unstuck in no time.

But as I drove, I realized that even though the engine temperature was up, the car was not getting any warmer.  At a stoplight, I turned on the heat to full, and was greeted with a blast of polar vortex air to the face.  Knowing that it would not do to have a car with no heat in this kind of cold, I took my car to the mechanic to check things out.

But by the time I got things sorted out with car, it was already the afternoon, with only a few hours of sunshine remaining.  I feverishly tried to unthaw the pipes in the time I had, but was unsuccessful.  I would have to leave them overnight, and hope that they didn’t freeze so completely that they would burst.

I got up at 5 am to start working on the pipes, using a hair dryer to thaw them.  But a few hours into this process, I suddenly heard a sharp crack, followed by the sound of rushing water.  And despite my complete lack of plumbing knowledge, I knew what that meant – our pipes had burst.  I rushed outside to see water cascading from underneath our back porch, where not one, but two pipes had burst. Continue reading “A Polar Vortex Miracle”

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Living In The Tension, 2 Corinthians 10:9-11

I do not want to seem to be trying to frighten you with my letters. 10 For some say, “His letters are weighty and forceful, but in person he is unimpressive and his speaking amounts to nothing.” 11 Such people should realize that what we are in our letters when we are absent, we will be in our actions when we are present.

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I preached upon this passage two weeks ago at church, and was struck by its forcefulness.  Here Paul issues a thinly veiled threat to the church of Corinth, telling them this:

“You think I’m hardcore in my letters, just wait until I come and see you in person.”

Whew!  We should remember that Paul doesn’t always write this way to every church, but that the incisiveness of this comment is driven by the fact that the Corinthians had been bringing Corinthian understandings of class, wealth, and sex into the house of God: the disciples were being divided into different classes (super-apostles), the poor overlooked at meals, and children fornicating with step-parents. Paul rightly finds this cultural amalgamation reprehensible.

But in a larger sense, the sternness of Paul’s words here remind me of the words of Christ as well.  That seems strange given that quite often when we recollect the sayings of Jesus, we remember his call to the weary to come and find rest in him, or else the parable of the prodigal son, passages that highlight his compassion and forgiveness.  And these are without a doubt a large part of his ministry, and a revelation of his character.  But they are not by any means the only lessons he taught, and words that he uttered.  He also made clear that it is better for a person to cut off an arm that causes sin, or gouge out an eye that does the same, than to have that appendage prevent entrance into the Kingdom of God.  Many of his parables ended with chaff or useless vines being discarded and burned, or sheep being separated and left to eternal punishment.  These are not the teachings of Jesus that we usually recollect, but they are as much a part of his ministry as anything else he taught.

I think this is a good reminder that Christianity is not solely a soft type of religion.  Now I won’t get into the whole discussion of masculine vs. feminine approaches to Christianity, as that I think that is a discussion that has a lot of basis in Western understandings of gender.  Through the example set by my mother, I in no way equate females with “softness” or some deficient lack of will.

But these days, I do think there is the tendency to over-soften the Christian faith and edit out its harsher and more disciplined elements for the sake of greater palatability with the world at large.  I think this tendency is dangerous, and false.  Surely Christianity is a religion of peace, but not peace as the world understands it, i.e. people getting together and working things out.  No, the peace that is described in the Bible takes place when God is seated at the center of all, and all kings stream towards God to worship him.  The Christian faith as seen in Jesus’ own life is not at all militaristic, but in no way is it impotent, as Jesus spoke powerfully to centers of power, both of this earth and not.

Faith in Christ is not easy nor convenient, equivalent to becoming a temporary fan of Kaballah as so many celebrities are in the habit of nowadays.  According to Jesus, it is a life that requires complete commitment and willingness to sacrifice all, and will put us at nearly complete odds with the world, not in its graces.  It is supposed to be a difficult life…but an eternal one.

But I would be representing myself quite badly if I said I was a fan of the movement to make Christianity a manly man’s MMA kind of faith, because I don’t see myself that way, nor Christianity.  Rather, what I am advocating here is balance, that the softness and hardness of faith be held in simultaneous tension, rather than a rejection of one over the other.  This balanced dynamic is anathema in the West because here, there always must be clear winners and losers, no ties (that’s why we hate soccer and are ambivalent to hockey), but I believe that our faith supports such a tension.  After all, God is a righteous judge who demands his moral law be upheld!  But he upholds that law by allowing his own Son to stand as a sinner in our stead – justice and mercy, held in divine tension.  Christ exhibits total acceptance of humanity, allowing anyone to draw near to him regardless of their moral failings: tax collectors, prostitutes, adulterers.  But none of those who followed him remained in those lifestyles of sin, but forever left them behind in order to be more like Christ – total human acceptance balanced with total moral transformation.

So don’t let the MMA’s and the Mamby-Pamby’s tell you that their way is the only one because most likely, the path in between them is the best one to take.

Ephesians 3:14, The Secret Parenting Manual

(This is a picture of my baby daughter, Lucy, who was born this past Friday – such a sweetheart!  I thought that given her birth and Father’s Day, it was only fitting that I post a little something about parenting.)

14 For this reason I kneel before the Father, 15 from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. 16 I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being.

I suppose there is no more frightening aspect of parenthood than the lack of a solid manual, or at least some mandatory test for eligibility.  You would think that for a role so important such things would be required, but nope – you have a baby and are confronted by the stark fact that you don’t have the foggiest idea how to raise this child.  You can try to recollect the manner in which you were raised, but that might be more harmful than helpful, depending on your parents’ skill or the selectivity of your own memory.  You can turn to Dr. Sears’ mammoth volume, the closest thing we have to a manual for child-rearing, but frankly, some of his methods kind of freak me out.

So it would seem that we have no ideal model to follow when it comes to parenting.  But that’s really not at all true – we have the example of our God.

The verse above from Ephesians 3 tells us that all earthly families derive their name and purpose from our heavenly Father, and that it is out of that richness that we our strengthened in turn.  This means that earthly families are not independent or self contained, but are based completely on the way that God parents us.  If we want a perfect model of what it means to be a good earthly parent, then we need look no further than the way that our good Heavenly Father parents us: with infinite love and patience, a heart that forgives not just once, but 70 x 7 times.  He does not let us do whatever we will, but bends our lives to follow His greater wisdom and purposes.  These are the ways in which God cares for us, and so, are the ways in which we should care for our children in turn.

But all of this hinges on an important principle, that if we do not personally know the manner and depth of God’s love for us, we will be at a complete and utter loss as to how to love our families.  If we are disconnected from God, we are disconnected from the very source of parenting itself.  And this exposes one of the most destructive mistakes we make as parents, where we think of developing our relationship with God as an extracurricular of some kind, only to be indulged in after we have completed all of our truly necessary duties as parents: cooking, cleaning, driving, diapering. But this is totally wrong minded, for our relationship with God is not an extracurricular to ou role as parents, but a prerequisite; not optional, but absolutely mandatory.  To be the best parents we can be, we must place high priority on strengthening our relationship with God.

After all – when we know how much we are loved, it is so easy to be loving to others in turn.

“How do plants grow without the sun??” Genesis 1

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

11 Then God said, “Let the land produce vegetation: seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds.” And it was so. 12 The land produced vegetation: plants bearing seed according to their kinds and trees bearing fruit with seed in it according to their kinds. And God saw that it was good. 13 And there was evening, and there was morning—the third day.

14 And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate the day from the night, and let them serve as signs to mark seasons and days and years, 15 and let them be lights in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth.” And it was so. 16 God made two great lights—the greater light to govern the day and the lesser light to govern the night. He also made the stars. 17 God set them in the expanse of the sky to give light on the earth, 18 to govern the day and the night, and to separate light from darkness. And God saw that it was good. 19 And there was evening, and there was morning—the fourth day.

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Like many others, I started my ministry career focusing on youth, both high school and college students.  I’m sure that college students would resent being considered “youth”, but I’m sorry…it’s true.  You have no idea what you are doing.  And as a youth minister, I have heard a lot of curious questions about the Bible, like “Did Jesus wear a thong?”  You know, because John the Baptist said he wasn’t worth of tying Jesus’ sandals, referred to as thongs.    But one question that a very quiet youth group student posed has always stuck with me:

“How did the plants grow without the sun?”  

I asked her to explain what she meant, and she launched into detailed recitation of the Creation account, that plants were created by God on the third day, and then the sun was created on the fourth day.  So how did the plants survive without the sun?  I think my answer at that time was something pretty stupid, something along the lines of, “Well…it was just one day between them.  The plants would have been fine during that time.”

Oh boy, may God forgive me for the innumerable idiocies I have uttered as a youth teacher or pastor.

But I have actually discovered that this question is a major stumbling block to many people.  Atheists commonly use this passage as clear evidence of the stupidity of Scripture, that of course plants could not exist without the sun.  Just another example of how backwards the writers of the Bible were, and how ignorant of basic scientific principles.  Laughable, (snootily) HAHAHA…

But hold on, that can’t be true.  The Israelites were pastoralists who spent nearly every waking hour trying to raise food, both crops and livestock.  And not for cash, because such a thing hadn’t been invented yet – for survival.  Like all farmers, they were probably intensely aware of that principle, as it dictated whether they would have enough crops to harvest and eat.  They knew how plants grew, and that plants needed the sun.  No, they didn’t understand that sunlight has an effect on the chlorophyll in the plants’ leaves to create usable energy, but they understood that plants needed sun.

And so contrary to what we might think, it is not ignorance or stupidity that drove the writer of Genesis to write this description of creation.  Rather, it is a particular understanding of God, and an understanding that plants do not grow because the sun shines upon them, but because God wills them to.

The sun is very important to the growth of plants, of course.  The Israelites knew this, and we know this.  But this is where our agreement ends.  Because we believe that plants can’t grow without the sun, while the Israelites believed that plants can’t grow without God, without His creation, without His light, without His will, without the sun that He would create.  Their belief was that God was the source of all things, bar none.  And this was a belief that would be carried from the first book of the Bible to the very last, for in Revelation 21, this is what we read:

22 I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. 23 The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. 24 The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. 25 On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. 26 The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.

That city will not need the sun, for the Lord Himself will be their light.  God is the Source, with none before Him, a Presence so wonderful it dwarfs even the sun.

But think about what this means away from Genesis 1, and in the context of our own lives.  How often we look at our circumstances and mistakenly believe that it is our ability, or money, connections or influence, that makes all things possible!  We have our own “suns”, proxies that we feel are more necessary for our lives than the will and providence of God.

I’m curious – what is that for you, what is your “sun”?

Salt’s Worst Enemy, Matthew 5:13

13 “You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.

Believe it or not, before I became a pastor, I was a scientist.  I studied organic chemistry and biochemistry and all the other requirements for medical school.  I worked in a neurobiology laboratory where I would do grotesque things to rats all day, like sticking needles into their still-beating hearts.  I even took the MCAT, the standardized test for medical school, and did quite well.  Actually, “quite well” is something of a relative term.  And whenever I read this well-known passage, that hidden scientist side of me comes out for a moment.

In the passage, Jesus says that non-salty salt is good for nothing but to thrown out and trampled by men.  But really, that would do nothing to it.  Salt is comprised of some powerful molecular bonds (ionic ones, if I remember correctly), and when bonded into a solid form, create a very stable crystal with a cubic lattice structure.  As a result, salt is pretty hard to destroy.  If rock salt is smashed, it merely becomes smaller and smaller crystals of salt.  It is hard to melt, with a melting point of nearly 1500 degrees Fahrenheit.  Trampling salt would not destroy it.

You know the simplest practical way of getting rid of salt?  You dilute it.

Although difficult to shatter or melt, it is very easy to dissolve salt into water.  So if you want to get rid of salt, you dissolve it into a measure of water, and then pour half of that water out, dilute the remainder with more pure water, pour half out, dilute and pour, dilute and pour.  And after enough dilutions, the concentration of salt in your volume of water becomes so small as to be virtually undetectable.  You haven’t really destroyed the salt, but watered it down to the point where it is no longer noticeable any longer.

And so it is with faith.

Faith can withstand incredible pressure of the worst kinds.  Faith will often remain intact in the face of the terrible tragedy and loss and sickness and death, as evidenced in the lives of countless saints, across centuries, around the world.  In fact, according to the book of Hebrews, suffering actually refines and strengthens faith, rather than the opposite!  Just like salt, faith is strong and stable and enduring.

But just like salt, the easiest way to get rid of faith is to water it down.  You dilute faith with worldly priority and concerns, getting ahead at work, saving up a bit of money so that you can get that car you don’t need, chasing that skirt or those broad shoulders, climbing this or that ladder for a better view and greener lawn.  Nothing serious, nothing criminal, just a little bit of the world and its values in small quantities.  More often than not, this is not a conscious action on behalf of Christians, but an osmosis of sorts, the subtle and unfiltered imbibing of the world’s priorities and point of view through countless sources: friends, family, movies, magazines, internet, internet, internet.  And if you do this repeatedly, over the course of years, faith becomes diluted, its concentration and influence dwarfed by other concerns and values that seeped into our lives undetected.  In time, our faith, so strong and potent, becomes virtually undetectable, watered down into non-existence.

Most likely, your faith will endure through trials of the worst kinds.  But be very careful that your faith is not in the process of destruction through dilution.

There is a very important note that I want to make in all of this: all Believers walk a delicate line between being separated from the world for the purpose of holiness, and being engaged with that same world for the purpose of mission.  It is a difficult balance that is important for all Believers to strike.  But in the end, I have to say that it is more dangerous for us to walk too close to the world than to be too separated from it.  I say this not as a person who has lived as an ascetic monk his whole life, but as a person who listens to the unholiest of rock music and plays the goriest of video games, one who has always cheated far more towards the principle of engagement than separation.  We always strive for balance, but must remember that separating ourselves from the world may destroy our mission, but engaging too closely with it will destroy our faith.

And what good is it if we are more able to relate to the world, but forget the message that we were meant to bear in the first place?

Motivational…Whatever: The Ascension of Jesus

Acts 1

6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

 9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

 10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

This passage naturally evokes a lot of questions because of its remarkable and supernatural character.  “He just floated away?  Where did he go?  Did anyone else see this?”  I even had a very blunt friend ask, “Could everyone see up his robe??  Do you think Jesus crossed his legs?”  See, this passage just begs questions of varying sorts, some more appropriate than others.

But there is another question that I ask when I read this passage, which is, “How did the disciples feel as they saw Jesus ascend?”  And the answer probably would be, “Terrible”.  And you can hardly blame them.  This was the second time that they were losing Jesus, the first being the traumatic events of Good Friday.  But lo and behold, Jesus returns to them, and they are sure that after His miraculous resurrection, He’s going to restore Israel from Roman occupation (they still don’t really get what Jesus is up to) and just generally be awesome.  But instead…He’s leaving them again.  And I would think that mixed in their sheer wonderment at the ascension, there was also a feeling of sadness and perhaps fear, as they saw Jesus leave them.

“He’s leaving us again??”

But the fuller purposes behind this event are revealed in John 16, where Jesus tells the disciples this:

“Now I am going to him who sent me, yet none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ Because I have said these things, you are filled with grief. But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment: in regard to sin, because men do not believe in me; 10 in regard to righteousness,because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer; 11 and in regard to judgment, because the prince of this world now stands condemned.

So as sad and painful as the ascension seemed to the disciples, it is in reality the start of something vitally important, and very good – the empowerment of the disciples, and the beginning of the early church.  They are on the brink of being transformed from everyday people into the leaders of a movement that will forever change the course of human history, God’s very instruments here on earth.  And it all begins not with a party and celebration, but with a moment of great loss and utter confusion.

Pain of any kind is unpleasant, and difficult to deal with and understand.  Rejection, sickness, failure, loneliness, loss, whatever it is, can feel categorically negative and destructive, with no redeeming purpose.  A setback of any kind sends us reeling, unable to understand what God is doing, or if He is even there at all.  Perspective in the midst of pain is nearly impossible.

But what makes that perspective possible is the realization that there is enormous good that God can accomplish in moments of great pain.  What’s more, sometimes we must experience those “negative” moments in order to experience the greater good that God has planned for us.  And so, the journey to witness the greatest good that God has planned for us may actually begin in confusion and loss.  Those moments are still difficult, but are not at all mutually exclusive to the work of God, and in fact, ultimately serve to make God’s ultimate redemption all the more amazing in the end!

So don’t let yourself being overwhelmed by disappointments and  pain, but realize that often, those moments are just a prelude to something amazing that God is going to accomplish in your life!

Motivational Tuesday! The Pain and Power of Confession

“Forgive us our sins.” – Luke 11:4

I love the Lord’s Prayer, except this verse.  I hate that part, and so generally avoid it.

But not today.

Because there must be some reason why Christ calls us to confess in prayer, even if I don’t like it.  So here are some of the sins that I have committed in a 48 hour period.  I could try to justify myself in each of them and give more context, but I think that rather ruins the whole point of confession, so I won’t.  Be warned, I don’t think these confessions put me in a very positive light:

1. I swore at a bus driver all the way home this morning.  Not just the PG swear words, the R ones.

2. I met with a person who has been struggling in life for a long time now, and felt a sense of impatience with them.  I privately wished that someone else could take care of this person’s needs, not me.  Or that they would just go away.

3. I was bitter towards people whom I thought betrayed me, slandered me, turned their back on me.  I blamed my situation on them, and realized that I harbor a deep ill will towards them still.

4. At the park with my kids, I felt intimidated and apprehensive around men who were there for the simple fact that they were homeless.

Ugh.  That’s not it, either.  These are only the ones that I feel comfortable sharing on an online forum.  So I did it, I confessed my daily sins as commanded in the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s not pleasant, but I realize that despite the pain of confession, there is great power there as well:

First, I know myself better now.  Our sins are a crystal clear window into our spiritual state, perhaps the best we have.  We try to hide our shortcomings at all costs, and the more we do so, the less self-aware we become.  And after a while, we begin to believe our own lies and assume that we are doing just fine, and have nothing to confess, and so no need for Christ in our lives.  But however much we try to hide it, our sins unveil it all: our true anger, our bitterness, our prejudices, and our needs.  In confession, the shiny veneer of our lives is stripped away, our deeply flawed nature unveiled.  And our need for Christ acutely sharpened.

Second, I know what I need now.  It’s funny – sometimes as Christians, we have no idea what to share when someone asks to pray for us.  We scratch our heads and say, “Hm.  I guess I have a tough time at school or home or whatever, and you can pray for me.”  Something ridiculously generic like that.  But not me.  Now I know exactly what I need prayer for, and perseverance in: I need to rein in my tongue!  I need to have more compassion on broken and unlovable people.  I need to forgive others as I have been forgiven.  And I need to have a heart for the poor as Christ did.  I have a lot you can pray for.

Lastly, I feel freer…man, that word looks weird.  I feel more free.  It feels liberating not to hide everything, to put enormous effort into supporting the false pretense that I’m perfect.  It’s good to let it all hang out there and admit that I am not a perfect person, even as a pastor.  I feel better!  Now, I want to clarify this a bit – I don’t feel exonerated.  The state of innocence from guilt is not something accomplished through confession, but through crucifixion, and not my own either.  My sins, past and future, are paid for by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Thank God!

So why do we confess then, if not to exonerate us from guilt?

There is more than one answer to this question: the difference between the state of sinfulness and the commission of individual sin, the idea of salvific grace versus daily grace, complicated questions that you should ask a more theologically minded individual.  But the answer that I want to highlight is that confession leads to healing.  Our culture is so judicial and legalistic that we tend to view anything having to do with wrongdoing through that lens: blame, guilt, innocence, exoneration.  And the gospel definitely has that sense to it, no doubt.

But as we confess our sins, we also inch closer to emotional wholeness and healing.  In this way, confession has not solely a legalistic component, but a personally restorative element as well!  Confession heals us, binds us up, and restores our relationships to one another.  Or as a professor at Fuller was so fond of saying:

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” – Lewis Smedes

So there are very good reasons that Christ commands us to confess our sins when we pray.  And if we avoid this command, as contradictory as it might feel, we are only hurting ourselves in the end.  Because it is through the painfulness of confession that we approach the freedom found in forgiveness.