Thursday, May 29, 2014

Great Delight

May 29, 2002. I was working full-time for a pharmaceutical company in a town intricately designed around horse farms and silver springs. The months preceding this day had been full of uncertainty, but on this day 12 years ago, a miracle occurred. Some Christ followers will tell you that they don't believe in miracles. They believe that God ceased to perform signs and wonders when the early church took a turn into the next century. They obviously have never met her. Twelve years ago, my wife and I, together with our first-born son, welcomed a beautiful miracle into the world. My world has never been the same.

They say (whoever they is) that little girls have a special place in their daddy's hearts. Their smiles and those sweet kisses have a different effect, some tell us, when they come from a princess. As much as I might like to argue to the contrary, I cannot tell a lie (thanks, Abe). She has my heart.

Of all of our children, Caroline has probably sacrificed the most in our move. If you saw her glide across the room, you would see what an elegant dancer God created her to be. To hear her sing, you would think you were listening to angels. To watch her run, you would call her a gazelle. To experience her at a gymnastics meet, you would think she could fly. Biased? Perhaps. But I can only see her through my eyes. When we moved to Tennessee, she gave up all of that for a season. For various reasons, we did not enroll her in some of the activities she had been a part of in Florida. We asked her to spend the year getting adjusted to school and to finding her place. She has adjusted well, and she is doing okay. Disney has taught us that all princesses go through times of struggle and transition, but one day their prince comes and saves the day.

The prince. Let's talk about him for a second. There is no particular prince I am talking about. As far as I am concerned, Daddy is the only prince any little girl needs. Since my darling won't date until she is at least 80 years old, I think I am safe. As a minister, I've visited in lots of nursing homes, and I have never seen anything bigger than a twin bed, and those are the electrical hospital beds that no one would ever share. The rooms are small. The food is fair. The card games are not fair. (Have you ever watched elderly people try to sneak a card under the table? It's hilarious). The point is that since she won't be dating until she is 80, any guy will be so worn out that I will have nothing to worry about!!!

Just in case I'm wrong, however, let me say that any prince that thinks he is going to steal my baby girl's heart away better be ready. I have lots of questions and am looking for very specific answers. These questions are not multiple choice questions where you eliminate a few answers to get to the right one. No grading on the curve for this exam. My questions are long discussion questions that will require years of research before the prince can prove worthy. The first few questions will be easy ones. What is her favorite color? What time of day was she born? How does she like her pasta? How many teeth did she have to have pulled before she got braces? Once he gets past these obvious questions, I have a few more. Explain the dynamics between molecular biology and the existence of human life. Discuss in detail with proper citation the doctrine of the church and the impact of the doctrine on the future of Christianity in our world. Consider the works of classic theologians and use those works to explain the doctrine of salvation, moving quickly into the process of sanctification that leads ultimately to glorification. Use sources from at least three different languages, excluding English. If he makes it through those questions, then we will move on to the more difficult questions. How many times will you be willing to forgive her when she is wrong (assuming of course that she ever will be wrong, which will be doubtful because we men know that the woman is never wrong)? What are your plans to help my treasure grow in her relationship with Christ? What are you doing in your own life to prepare to present her to Christ as a holy bride? Since no one will obviously be able to complete the assignment in the allotted thirty minutes, I feel fairly secure in saying that my princess will stay with me and her mother for the rest of her sweet little life.

Just in case I'm wrong, however, let me say that the primary prince in her life can never be a man, even her daddy. My ultimate prayer for the miracle I call darling is that she grow to love the Lord with all of her heart, mind, soul, and strength. Jesus is the prince she needs. He loves her even more than I do. His word tells me that even when we fail as humans, he does not. He loves my baby girl so much that "while [she] was yet a sinner, Christ died for her." "Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life his friends" (John 15:13). The truth is that I love her more than life and would willingly give my life for hers. Someone has already beat me to it, though. She has a Savior to whom she has committed her life, and he delights in her (Zephaniah 3:17). The truth is that she does not belong to me. She belongs to Him, and He has entrusted me with her for a short time. So instead of my considering what questions I will be asking one day, perhaps I should review the questions He might ask me one day?

1. Did you teach my ways to her diligently? Did you talk of my commands when you sat in your house, when you walked by the way, and when you lay down, and when you rose? Deuteronomy 6:7
2. Did you teach her to have no other gods and honor My name? Exodus 20:4-7.
3. Did you teach her to delight herself in Me so I could give her the desire of her heart? Psalm 37:4
4. Did you teach her that "Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised"? Proverbs 31:30.
5. Did you teach her to obey so that she would transfer her obedience over onto me? Ephesians 6:1-3
6. Did you teach her that I created her for My glory so that all of the world can see Christ in her? (Ephesians 1:3-14)
7. Did you teach her that I have called her to make disciples of all nations? (Matthew 28:19)
8. Did you realize that teach didn't mean lecture and preach, but meant train? (Proverbs 22:6)

I have no biblical evidence that the Lord will ask me any questions at all, but since I am convinced that my princess is a blessing God has entrusted me with, I know I should strive to bring her up in the admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4), teaching her above all to be pure because "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God."(Matthew 5:8)

With all of that said and with my perspective back in place, I suppose I should end by saying that if some strange smelling middle school, high school, college age, or adult boy (as the years progress of course) is smart enough and wise enough to see how much of a treasure my darling princess actually is he had better be ready. I'm investing a lot in her life. Jesus died for. What in the world could any other boy possibly offer?

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Why Don't Baptists Dance?

Someone actually asked me once, "why don't baptists dance?" I looked at them puzzled, having seen several of our teenagers as cheerleaders at a football game doing something that many would call dancing. My daughter actually is a beautiful dancer. Some would call me biased. I would say honest. I am confident if you watched the dance videos you would agree. If at any point you would like to see them, just let me know. We can have popcorn and make a night of it. You will certainly be blessed by the experience. She really should be on Broadway . . . Oops. Sorry. I digress.

Asking "why don't baptists dance" is like asking "why don't baptists drink." I heard once that in the town where I used to live in Florida, the liquor store had "the Baptist special." It was a brown bag handed out of the back door in the alley behind the liquor store. The saying was that the most unfriendly exchange between deacons was not the deacons meeting but was actually those few awkward moments when they passed each other coming in and out of the "express lane" on Saturday nights.

The morality of these two past times is not the subject of this post. Instead, I am intrigued by the question. Many wedding receptions are now held "off site" because of dancing. Father/daughter dances. First dances with the bride and groom. Recently my six year old entertained a few wedding guests with his own dancing moves. He was heard before the wedding saying, "If there's dancing at that reception, I'm going to get on stage and show them how it's done." This statement is coming from a young man who literally laid down on the floor at his first children's choir performance. He learned the dancing part from his mother, by the way.

Many people in our world have made decisions about the body of Christ based on what someone told them they could or could not do if they connected to the church. I find it interesting that no one refuses to go to school because they have to wear uniforms or because they can't smoke in the hallways. (Baptist do let you smoke outside the back door by the way. I suppose the puffs of smoke are their version of "burnt offerings.") Just like no one refused to go to school because of behavior codes, no one refuses to play t-ball, baseball, football, soccer, or any other sport for that matter because you have to wear a certain uniform, show up for practice, and abide by the rules of the Athletic Association. As a matter of fact, parents pay lots of money to be told what to do and how to do it by sports leagues, cheer coaches, private schools, health clubs, homeowner's associations, golf clubs, and so many more activities that are not hurting for memberships or support. People are actually fighting in some cases to get into the top schools so their children can be forced to wear certain clothes, behave a certain way, study certain courses, and wake up at certain hours.

Even our medical community tells us what to do. Did you know that doctors have the nerve of requiring you to have an appointment before you can see them? On top of that, they make you sit in a waiting room with tons of other sick people reading magazines that are old and probably have the mucous and virus on them from the last person who sat in that chair. The exam rooms are cold. They come in and make you strip down to your personals, and then they start to probe. Why in the world can't they make stethoscopes that are warm? Just once, I'd like to have a doctor hear my heartbeat without chill bumps coming all over my body. After all that they put us through in those offices, they then have the nerve to require that we pay them. Some offices even make you pay up front. I suppose that is because they know the service is so bad you'll be tempted to sneak out without paying, if you could get by Helga the guard that is. Or maybe it's not that they think you'll sneak out. Maybe they think that you will freeze while you are waiting an hour on the doctor and won't be able to pay. Who knows.

So why don't baptists dance? A better question is "why does it matter?" The people asking those questions have already made a decision not to be part of the church. We have a generation of people who have decided that being part of the church isn't worth it. The church doesn't make you have an appointment. We do have scheduled worship times, but that is just to make sure we get to lunch before the other denominations across town. We do all sit together in a room with tons of spiritually sick people reading from a Bible that was written thousands of years ago. Some of our music is not exactly current, and the pews have the mucous and virus on them from the kid who blew his nose and wiped it on the seat. The sanctuary is usually too cold. No stethoscopes, but sometimes the message and the music does get to your heart. Why do we endure the agony of the doctor's office, pay lots of money, take lots of medicine, and get so frustrated with the church? The experiences sound very similar. I suppose it's because the doctor is offering us a chance to improve our lives. Live longer. Be healthy. He (or she) seems to have something we need so we will endure a little discomfort to get some help.

At some point, the church used to have something we needed. People would endure a little discomfort to get some help. The church used to offer us a chance to improve our lives. To live forever. To be healthy - emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Something happened somewhere along the way. Some decisions were made, and a group of people with absolutely no rhythm decided that baptist's don't dance. At the same time, it seems, they decided that baptists don't do a lot of things, many of which are mandated in God's word. Why are so many of our churches closing their doors? Why are so many of our churches in such an unhealthy condition? Why are so many of our churches keeping themselves comfortable until the hour of death passes by? I can't help but wonder if we are in such a sad condition because we have forgotten how to dance. Don't get me wrong. I never knew how to dance. Not physically anyway. Spiritually, though, I remember a time of dancing. I remember the joy that was part of following Christ. The time before life became so confusing and people became so cruel. The time before deaths and disease and debt.

Our Sunday School class recently discussed what it means that man is created in the image of God. One of our conclusions was that we are created as spiritual beings. At some point in church history, we stopped relating to God spiritually. We started relating to him physically and emotionally, hoping that was enough. We decided that we could enjoy God without the body of Christ sitting in the stands of game. We decided that as long as we felt warm inside with our hands lifted high to the latest Christian song we must be in touch with God. We decided that the physical and emotional connection was enough - so long as we didn't dance in response to those physical and emotional connections. I wonder if the spiritual part of knowing God somehow involves a dance - a movement with the Spirit of God that is so in sync with the rhythm of God's heart that we progress across the stage of life with what seems like little effort.

At some point we all made a choice as to how we approach God. Those individual choices became corporate choices, and we are dealing with the fallout today. In 1 Kings 3, God told Solomon, "Ask what I shall give you." King Solomon asked for one thing. "Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people." Solomon asked for wisdom to know what is the best choice. He wanted to lead God's people well.

Perhaps we would be wise to pray for the same wisdom. How can we lead our families, our communities, our churches well? Ask the Lord for wisdom to know the best answer. When we make decisions based on what our minds, our cultures, our desires, our own selfish hearts tell us to do, we will fail, giving Christ a name for what He does not allow instead of for what He offers. He offers life everlasting. He offers freedom from sin. He offers to chance to dance. Let's change the perception. Tell the world that baptists do dance. Christians do dance. We dance to the beat of the Master Musician who has created us to experience the fullness of joy in His Presence. Spread the word. Send the invitations. Maybe it's not too late for us after all.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The White Stuff is Ash

We burned a tree today. The tree was dead when we moved to Trenton, and the recent ice storms left no doubt that the tree had to come down. A few weeks ago, our neighbor brought his chain saw and cut the tree. The rains came and delayed the bonfire, and today was the day it would all go up in smoke. My wife and daughter went to swim practice early this morning, which left us men at home to play with fire. Our neighbor returned, and started the fire. We piled branches and moved pieces until the blaze was going strong. We had a trailer full of limbs and boxes that needed to be destroyed, so we added those to the furnace. Over time, they all burned up. What we have left is a large white spot in our yard where a tree once stood. A few large pieces of wood remain, but for the most part everything is gone except for the ash. 

About mid-afternoon, my youngest son and I walked over to the spot where the tree once stood. As we looked at the smoldering remains, he asked, "What is all of that white stuff?" I answered as simply as I could, "the white stuff is ash." He looked at me with that look that says, "well, thanks for clearing that up dad; it all makes perfect sense now." In that moment, I knew he didn't know what ash was either. I could have employed the circular teaching method that causes humans to chase their proverbial tails and explained that ash is the white stuff that is left after a fire, thereby making the white stuff ash. Instead, I simply said, "when things burn, this is what they look like when it's over." Now that's profound right??

The Lord stopped me for a moment, and I looked at David and said, "You know the Bible talks about ash too. The Bible teaches that anything we do that is not for Jesus ends up looking like this pile of white stuff. Kind of yucky and smelly, with glimpses of smoke." He replied, "That's not good, dad. That's not good at all." The rest of the day, I kept going back to those simple words. "That's not good, dad. That's not good at all."

The apostle Paul wrote a letter to a church in Corinth. He explained to them that the foundation of Truth is Jesus Christ. No other foundation can be laid. As Christ followers build on that foundation, we build with "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw." (1 Cor. 3:12). One day (The Day), Jesus will return, and each person's work will be tested by fire. If the work survives the fire, the Christ follower receives a reward. If the work does not survive the fire, "he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire." (1 Cor. 3:14 and 15). In other words, the one whose work survives will reign as a victor. The one whose work is burned up will walk around with ash as the garment of the day. Ash. White, smelly, smoky ash. Sounds so much like the description of hell that you could almost argue for a works based salvation, except for that statement that says "though he himself will be saved." Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace alone. What happens after salvation? The works of our lives are tested.

The tree we burned used to be a thriving tree. Blooms blanketed the branches as the tree towered strong for all to see. Then, the tree was no longer useful. Lighting, disease, ice - something not quite known - took the life of the tree and what once was beautiful is now a pile of ash. 

Physical pictures of spiritual realities designed by the Creator to teach us - to teach me - that I don't want my life to be left as a pile of ash. Paul told the people of Corinth, "Let each one take care how he builds upon [the foundation]" (1 Cor. 3:10). In other words, what we do with Jesus matters. How we treat others in the name of Jesus matters. The path of our lives matters. The careers, the ministries, the hobbies - they all matter. How we raise our children matters. As followers of Christ everything we are doing is built on the foundation of Christ. What in the world are we doing that matters? What in the world are we doing that lasts beyond the flame of a tree burned up into tiny, smoldering ash?

The Lord has made it abundantly clear to me that wood, hay and straw are worthless pursuits. They may look pretty for a while and make a soothing landscape to relax in as the sun goes down, but in the end they are meaningless efforts that will receive no reward from heaven's throne. I long for the smile of my Father who looks into my eyes and sees past the pain and the loss and the cries as He says, "Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. enter into the joy of your master" (Matt. 25:23) Enter into the JOY. Not the job. Not the joke. Not the jab. ENTER INTO THE JOY. Oh, Father, how I long for the fullness of joy that comes from knowing you!

We don't have much time. The days are running fast. The trees are being gathered, and the refining fires are being flamed. The pursuits seem so weak at this point. Entertain the crowds. Get the right design. Be comfortable and secure. In the end, the white stuff is ash. 

Maybe your heart is sensing that the piles we have been building on Christ's foundation are not what they once appeared. Have we sacrificed our lives for the good fight that Paul described? Or have we sacrificed our lives for a fight that appeared to the right fight, with blooms blanketing the branches of our lives and ministries for all of the world to see. Oh God, may we recognize before it is too late that in the end, on the Great Day of your return, the white stuff is nothing but ash. 

Friday, May 23, 2014

A Rose By Any Other Name

Two hundred ninety five days. Not completely, but mostly. Take away holidays, breaks, and ice storms, and the number lessens. The number, perhaps, but not the transformation. The change has been subtle, but real nonetheless. After 1,825 days of living, our youngest son embarked on a new adventure in life. Looking back on the experience, I can call it an adventure, but in the beginning, "adventure" was not the word I would have chosen.

Moving to a new town at this stage of our lives was perhaps the most difficult experience our family has ever undertaken. We left many dear friends behind, and we met some new friends. During the process, relationships died. Some were physical deaths. My father, my wife's grandmother, and a very dear friend died within the same ten day period. Others were emotional deaths. Friends we thought we would have forever dropped from our lives, some of which are still lost to this day. We left with few goodbyes and landed in a place in a part of the country that is familiar yet not.

One of the biggest adjustments for our family was public education. Prior to moving we schooled our children at home. Many who called themselves friends made comments over the years about homeschooling. Most of them were the kinds of snide remarks that church people make when they are trying to get a dig in without being openly cruel. They forget that sometimes people can see through the facade. We kept the faith and pressed on. When we moved to our new town, some financial changes pushed us back into the arena of public school. The schools here are not bad. Neither are they all that we were told they would be. I suppose that had we known what we would face in education, we would have made the same decision to follow the Lord. Our children have certainly done well, which is a great testimony to the impact homeschooling had on our kids, despite those who saw it as "second class."

So, today is the end of the beginning of a road not less traveled. Most choose this road, actually. The preferred law of the land is that we send our children into the midst of enemy territory every day. The "new education" promotes thinking that is contrary to Truth and encourages our children to live lives independent of parents yet under the authority of others who are under mandates from a country that, like the evil one, "is seeking whom he may devour."

We have had two major blessings in our educational experience this year. Perhaps more will surface as the winter wears away, but this morning two stand out. Both blessings are attached to our youngest son, who after today is no longer a kindergarten student. I'm not ready to call him a first grader yet. For a little over two months, he will be a home student again. The blessings are people, as God's blessings usually are. Who are these pools of fresh water in a dry and weary land? Mrs. Rose and Mr. Jonathan.

Our merciful Savior used Mrs. Rose to get our family through kindergarten. Our precious son did not want to go. As a matter of fact, when I would take him to the door, he would follow me outside, proclaiming boldly, "School is for babies, and I'm not going." I would talk to him, hold him, cry with him, and secretly wish I could take him away from this brick fortress that would keep him away from those who loved him most for the majority of the day. I didn't know Rose at first, but it did not take long for me to realize that she had the grace and mercy of Jesus in her heart, her life, her smile, and her classroom. She took David and helped him get comfortable, never giving any sign of impatience or fear. She knew he would be okay, even when we did not. She never forced him. She just loved him. At the end of the day, David would come out smiling. He was adjusting, and without Mrs. Rose, I am confident that he would not have made it. I wonder how our calling to the new church would have been different if Mrs. Rose had not been there to make sure that the beige brick building called "school" became a safe place for our son.

Things were not easy for the first two months. Every day we faced tears and drama. Sometimes even from David. :) Then September came. I had to be gone for several days, and everything we had worked on feel apart. Our son became fearful and apprehensive again. The family separation was too much for him, and his anguish grew worse than before. Mrs. Rose noticed it, as well. She talked with us about David's emotions, saying that at times during the day she would look at him, and he was sad. She would ask him about his feelings, and he would simply say that he missed us. If only he knew how much we were missing him during those seven hours every day. We tried to reassure him. Nothing seemed to work.

Allow me to introduce Mr. Jonathan. He is the principal of the school. From the beginning he was looking out for our son. Being a bi-vocational pastor and the son of a minister perhaps gives him more understanding to the plight of a five year old forced from his home and friends by no choice of his own. Coming from a place where he had a church filled with other friends his age to new stomping grounds where he is the only child his age was a challenge. Going to school having met absolutely no one was tough. Our other two children at least met some friends at church first. Mr. Jonathan must have known. After all, he did place our son in the classroom of an angel sent from heaven.

After a few weeks of discouragement and despair, I called Jonathan and asked him if we could talk. He graciously agreed. We talked about the move and about recent deaths. We realized that the last time I was gone for an extended time, my return brought my father's death and a move away from everything David had ever known. In David's mind, my absence meant something that he could not quite figure out. This young man talked me through my own fear and frustrations. He agreed to meet us at the door of the school for several days in a row to see if being passed from one male figure to another would make a difference. Then, he said, "I'd like to pray with you." I couldn't believe it. Here was a man who was willing to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a place I was totally unsure of when everything about the situation should have been dictated by state rules and organization. I cannot tell you the peace that rushed over me as this man of God prayed with me about our family, our son, his peace. We didn't pray about dibels, common core, reading, writing, or arithmetic. We prayed for the heart of one of the three most precious gifts God has ever blessed me with. I would be dishonest to say that from that day forward David never cried again. As a matter of fact, he cried the very next morning. The difference was that Mr. Jonathan met us at the door. He took my son by the hand and walked him into Mrs. Rose's classroom. They talked briefly, and then he left. Mrs. Rose took over from there, and the rest is history. This routine lasted for several days. I remember David saying that Mr. Jonathan came to check on him a few times over the next few days. Then, he was fine.

We went to school today for the last time as a kindergarten student. Tears were not shed - at least by my son. Dad, on the other hand, may still need Mr. Jonathan to meet me at the door. In a little more than an hour and a half, I will pick him up for the last time as a kindergarten student, and I will thank the Lord again for Mrs. Rose and Mr. Jonathan.

I cannot end this post without acknowledging the dry time that has kept me from writing. I, too, am weary and afraid. Many things lie ahead that I am unsure of and do not know how to handle. I am convinced that all physical events can point us to a spiritual reality, and the experience of our son and kindergarten is no exception. In our lives, we have a Mr. Jonathan, too. His name is Jesus, and he meets us at the points in our lives when we call out to him. As principal, Jonathan could have been too busy to meet a six year old at the door. Surely he had more important things to do. I am reminded of the words of Paul in Philippians. He wrote, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." Praise God for a principal and friend who did not consider his position something to be grasped, but took on the form of a servant. In our lives, we also have a Mrs. Rose. Scripture says that our heavenly Father is our "refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble." He is safe, and He never wavers. Perhaps you would take the time to read the rest of that psalm as you seek the Lord for help to the struggles that are ahead.

Psalm 46 (ESV)

God is our refuge and strength,
    a very present help in trouble.

Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way,
    though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

though its waters roar and foam,
    though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
    the holy habitation of the Most High.

God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved;
    God will help her when morning dawns.

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.

The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Come, behold the works of the Lord,
    how he has brought desolations on the earth.

He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
    he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
    he burns the chariots with fire.

 “Be still, and know that I am God.
    I will be exalted among the nations,
    I will be exalted in the earth!”

 The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah