Monday, June 17, 2019

It’s a Slow Fade When You Give Yourself Away

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.

Monday, June 10, 2019

There’s an Eternal Difference for Those Whom God Has Helped

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.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Today I Have Married My Best Friend

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.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Are You an Owner or Ambassador?

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.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

No Frontier is Tamed Without Discipline

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.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Often the Unplanned is the Most Memorable

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.