Cleaning Out, Looking Back

In the process of de-cluttering some of the “stuff” that accumulates over the years, I recently came across a letter I wrote during my senior year of college to the administrator of the Christian school where I was hired to teach after I graduated. Reading through the letter, which I had no idea I had saved all of these years, definitely brought back some memories. In the letter I explain how I came to learn of an upcoming opening at the school due to the retirement of the teacher who taught social studies courses at the school. I was about to enter my final semester of undergraduate study, majoring in Political Science. As I explained in the letter, I was applying to a number of graduate schools in both Political Science and American History, but I was not sure what God’s plans were for my future. As I wrote at the time, “I do not consider it a coincidence that my parent’s mentioned [the teacher’s] retirement to me the same day I had spent a significant amount of time praying that God would show me what He wants me to do after graduation.”

Discovering this letter allowed me time to look back on the last seventeen years of my life and see how God has orchestrated a path I never intended to follow. The truth is, when I wrote that letter in 1997 I had no real interest in working with children. The possibility of spending my life teaching young people was nowhere on my radar screen. The few times it had ever been mentioned to me I immediately shot down the idea. I had plans, goals and dreams. I was going to do big things. Children were not part of that plan, other perhaps having a few after I got married. God’s plan was different, though.

I was accepted to graduate school, by the way. I was offered admission to one of the top programs in the country in Public Policy Analysis. To a lot of people that may sound about as appealing as a bowl of sawdust for breakfast, but it was something that fascinated me. I spent considerable time and effort during my undergraduate studies studying and writing about the federal budget and the federal budget process. I had done an independent study course on that very topic, written a lengthy paper and presented at a regional honors council on my findings–after which I had professors from other colleges ask for a copy of my work. That door was open for me! Yet, for reasons I could not articulate, I had no peace about accepting the offer. I assure you, some of my professors were wondering what I was smoking when I told them I was turning down the offer in order to go teach in a Christian school. One of my professors joked, “One of the advantages of teaching in a small private school is that you can quit and not notice a drop in pay.” (He was kidding, but not all that far off, I would find!)

By following God’s lead, I was in the right place to meet the woman who would become my wife. She was a first-year teacher at the same school, a place she had not intended to be, either, according to her plans. I would discover that I really enjoy teaching–communicating ideas, developing thinking, helping students learn to apply the knowledge they have acquired in meaningful ways. The teaching position at that school did not last all that long–only three years–but it was a step that led to the steps to come later, which of course eventually led me to where I am now. Never in my wildest imaginations would I have become the Executive Director of a multi-site non-profit ministry with an annual budget in excess of $3 million at the age of 28, but that happened later. Never in my wildest imagination would I move to central South Dakota to lead a school that attracts students from across the state, the country and the world, but that is where I am now. Never would I have imagined spending more Sunday mornings filling the pulpits of other churches that I spend sitting in the congregation in my church, but that is my present reality.

Looking back, in this instance, has been an affirming exercise for me, as it has reminded me of how God has been at work over those seventeen years. The path has not always been easy and the realities have not always been pleasant. After all, being fired from two leadership positions within less than twelve months was never a part of my wildest dreams, either, but that happened, too. Seeing our life savings disappear and a considerable debt result from plunging wholeheartedly into the pursuit of a dream that I thought surely God was directing me to pursue is something I would rather not have experienced and certainly hope not to experience again. There have been other bumps along the way and there will no doubt be more to come. The simple truth, though, is that God has always been in control, still is in control and will always be in control. Sometimes I will be able to look back and see clearly how He orchestrated events to accomplish great things for my good and His glory. Other times I will look back, scratch my head and wonder, “Why did I have to go through that, again?” Looking back can be fun, it can bring memories, smiles and tears. Most importantly, looking back will hopefully cause us to look up, to thank God for His provision, His plan and His purposes being fulfilled in our lives.

Don’t Cheer for Stupid

A few evenings ago I was watching a baseball game on television. Not being a big fan of commercials I decided during a break to see what else was on. Scrolling through the guide I saw that America’s Got Talent was on. I could not remember the last time I had seen the show, and I do not think I have ever seen a full episode, but I thought, “Maybe there will be some decent talent on there.” So I pushed the button and switched the channel. The first thing I saw was an older woman–I think she said she was 78–about to do some power lifting. I think she lifted 185 pounds or so. That was impressive, but not particularly exciting. I have never seen a senior citizen lift that kind of weight so, sure, it got my attention. The judges had a similar reaction; they were impressed, and told her so, but they did not vote to move her on.

Next came another older man. I do not remember how old he was but he said he was a grandfather. He was a former real estate agent who said he decided a few years ago that he was tired of selling real estate and wanted to do what he was really passionate about–extreme stunts. Whether he had ever done any extreme stunts before quitting real estate I do not know for sure, but I got the impression he had not. Now he does things that most people with common sense would never attempt. So foolish, in fact, are his shenanigans that he said his wife will not watch him perform. He strode onto the stage carrying a chain saw. When Howie Mandel asked him how long he had been doing extreme stunts he did not really answer; he just said, “For this one, this will be the first time.” “How dangerous is it?” Madel asked him. “I could die,” came the response. Thus, before he had even done a single thing, he had everyone’s attention.

He proceeded to start the chain saw, set it on the ground, and then walk on his hands directly over top of the chain saw–meaning, of course, that his face was just a few inches from the whirring blade. This got some gasps and looks of astonishment, but the dude was nowhere near finished. Next he picked up an apple, bit into it so that it was mostly protruding from his mouth and put on a blindfold. He then picked up the chainsaw and proceeded to cut the apple in half with the chain saw–again, obviously, bringing the moving blade within a coupe of inches of his face. Heidi Klum was aghast. Mel B almost immediately said no, he was not getting her vote. But Howard Stern and Howie Mandel both said yes, they were intrigued and wanted to see more. With the crowd cheering wildly and Mandel and Stern pressuring her, Klum yielded and gave her assent. The man who called himself The Grandpa Show was moving on past the audition round. As I flipped back to the baseball game I thought, “How incredibly stupid!”

Stupid is something that has always irritated me. When I was a rookie teacher the student council at the school where I taught asked each teacher to complete a questionnaire for some activity they had planned. One of the questions was, “What irritates you more than anything else?” Truth be told, there are quite a few things that irritate me. Once I heard myself saying, “Nothing irritates me more than…” and then realized that, whatever it was that came next was probably at least the fifth or sixth thing I had inserted into that blank. Hmmm… To this question, though, I responded, “Stupidity – which I define as refusing to use the intelligence that you have.” That has been my answer ever since whenever I am asked that question. I just find it irritating, aggravating and frustrating when someone knows better and chooses to do something stupid anyway. Something like passing a running chain saw within a couple of inches of one’s face while blindfolded. Thinking about it a bit more I was struck by how many times people will cheer for stupidity. The crowd was going wild for the chainsaw wielding grandpa, after all. No doubt you can think of examples, too, of when you saw others–or you yourself–cheered for something that was just plan inexcusable. I remember attending a professional baseball game once when some idiot climbed up the foul pole. We was probably drunk, and I am sure he spent the night in jail, but dozens, if not hundreds, of people were cheering him on. Once in while someone will go too far and we will, collectively, call them on it–think Michael Jackson holding his child over the railing of a hotel balcony–but more often than not many of us are more than happy to cheer on stupidity.

Further thought brought to a few more conclusions, too. First, we tend to cheer on behavior that we ourselves would never engage in. Perhaps that is why it excites us. Second, we tend to blur the line between stupidity and skill, or stupidity and courage, by classifying them based on the results. Had The Grandpa Show miscalculated and sliced the front of his face off I doubt anyone would have been cheering. “What an idiot!” would have been the more likely result. “What was he thinking?” would no doubt have been uttered frequently. And, no doubt, “Why would they even let him do that?” would have been asked of America’s Got Talent by more than a few people. Yet, since he pulled it off, the majority of the crowd and three-fourths of the judges said they want to see him do more stupid stuff–and you know he will have to continually up the stakes. Using a chain saw to slice an apple you are holding in your mouth, by the way, is not talent. When performed successfully it may demonstrate a certain amount of skill and precision, but it is not talent. It is not a natural ability or an aptitude grandpa was born with. (Neither, by the way, was grandma’s power lifting).

Most of us are bright enough to use the intelligence we have and refrain from doing things as stupid as slicing apples in our mouths with chain saws. Many of us, however, do like to walk that fine line in other areas of our lives. Convincing us that we won’t get hurt is one of Satan’s great strategies. We like the thrill and the rush that comes from doing things we know we probably should not do when we actually pull them off or get away with them. We know the risks are real, but we choose to think they do not apply to us. If grandpa slices apples with chainsaws every day and never gets hurt does that mean it is a good idea? No. Does it mean we should all try it? Certainly not. No doubt, however, many people will continue to cheer loud and long for such stupidity.

Believe it or not, the Bible has a a fair amount to say about stupidity. Depending on your translation, the word “stupid” may not appear, or not appear much, but the principles are there. Stupid people are those, biblically speaking, who resist instruction. Those who seem to know everything themselves, have it all figured out not need any advice or direction from anyone else. These are the people who only learn, if ever, the “hard way.” Job 11:12, after all, says, “But a stupid man will get understanding when a wild donkey’s colt is born a man!” (ESV). This of course, will never happen; rather like the Job-era equivalent of saying “when pigs fly.” Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” This one is tricky. None of us want to be called stupid, but few of us like reproof. Why? More than likely because we are proud. Reproof, however, when properly motivated and delivered, is for our own good. Reproof, by the way, is telling someone who is slicing apples in their mouth with a chainsaw that it’s really not a good idea, not cheering for them.

Those of us who tend to frown on stupidity can be ostracized at times. We may be called sticks in the mud, party poopers, old fashioned or even puritanical. Don’t worry about it. There is an adage that fits here quite well: “Better safe than sorry.” Yes, maybe some of us need to lighten up sometimes and get a little silly, but there is a still a definite line we must not cross. Fun and silliness must never become stupidity. And when you do see it on display, for goodness sake, don’t cheer for stupid!

Exciting Worship

A few days ago Bob Kauflin, Director of Sovereign Grace Music, wrote a post on his blog Worship Matters entitled, “How Exciting Should Our Sunday Meetings Be?” He began his post by sharing a comment from a friend, who told him that his pastor “wanted their meetings to be more exciting.” Kauflin then proceeded to expound upon why striving for excitement in our church services–at least excitement as our culture defines it–is not what we should be pursuing. If you look at the definition of “exciting”, as Kauflin does, then you would no doubt agree with his conclusion that anytime the body of Christ is gathered together should be a time of excitement purely because of the very nature of the gathering. Kauflin writes,

Certainly, nothing should cause greater enthusiasm and eagerness than meeting with the church to recount what God has done to save us from his wrath through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All our sins are forgiven! We have been adopted into God’s family! Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell! We are new creations! We are part of God’s unstoppable, unchangeable, unrelenting plan to have a people on earth who will display his glory, truth, righteousness, love, and compassion!

What can be more earth-shattering, soul-shaking, and EXCITING than rehearsing and reveling in those realities?

To that I would say a hearty Amen! However, I would also agree with Kauflin that that is almost certainly not what his friend’s pastor had in mind, nor is it what many people in church leadership, worship ministry and the schools who train those individuals likely have in mind. When we think about the things in our lives that we might describe as exciting we probably think about things that get our juices flowing, that get our heart beating, that bring a smile to our face and a twinkle to our eyes–things that we enjoy in the moment and think back on fondly after the fact. Depending on who you are and what your interests are, “exciting” for you could be a theme park roller coaster ride, a deep sea fishing excursion, a professional sporting event, a classical music concert in a world class venue or a hike in the Rockies. All of those things are fine and good–there is nothing wrong with any of them. Rarely do any of us think about church the same way we would think about one of those activities, though. I think that is interesting for several reasons, and I see some similarities and some differences.

First, with the exception of hiking in the Rockies, each of the activities above occurs in a setting designed specifically for the purpose. (Yes, I realize the ocean is not a venue designed specifically for deep sea fishing, but the boat and equipment used would be specific to the activity). Similarly, church services are often–though, I realize, not always–held in facilities specifically designed for corporate worship or, if not designed for that purpose, at least set up accordingly. Second, excluding hiking again, each of those activities have personnel present for the specific purpose of aiding and assisting in your experience, whether to take tickets, provide directions, show you to your seats, explain the safety instructions, sell you food and beverages or ensure that you are outfitted appropriately for the event you are about to experience. Similarly, many churches have ushers, greeters, teachers, etc. to assist members and guests.

Here are a couple of differences I see, too. First, rarely does anyone engage in any of the activities I described above without planning and preparation beforehand. I realize that someone with easy access to the Rockies may decide on a whim to take a hike or someone in close proximity to an amusement part may decide to go spend the day there, but for many of us any of those activities will involve planning: buying tickets, getting direction, arranging our schedule, organizing our finances so that the necessary funds are available and so on. I would suggest that there are very few people–myself included–who put anywhere near that kind of preparation into going into the House of the Lord. I know I’m going to church on Sunday, so I do not plan anything else to do and I make sure I am up on time, but the intentionality, planning and preparation that goes into my attendance at church on Sunday is not even close to the level of preparation I would put into one of the activities above. Second, every one of the activities above would involve, for the vast majority of people, dressing in a manner specific to the occasion. Whether it means wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team, putting on a suit or dress for the concert, lacing up your hiking boots and strapping on your backpack for a hike in the Rockies, putting on your swim trunks and flip flops for the fishing trip or whatever the case may be, rarely do any of us engage in any of those activities wearing whatever we usually wear for our normal day-to-day activities. Many people do exactly that when it comes to going to church, but I have addressed that topic elsewhere, so I will leave it go at that.

Kauflin addresses the growing tendency in churches to make their services more exciting, more stimulating, more emotional. “[A]n increasing number of churches,” he writes, “have sought to add elements to their gatherings that will make them more ‘exciting.’ Meeting countdowns. Fast-paced videos. Engaging dramas. Creative humor. Breathless, energetic emcees. More upbeat songs. Smoke machines. Light shows. And a mindset that views dead space as the supreme excitement killer.” In other words, too many churches are trying to turn their services into a show that gets everyone’s adrenaline pumping and hands clapping. I am not suggesting that church services should be boring or sleep-inducing. I have defended the position that worship should be an emotional experience. (After all, how sincere can worship be if it has no connection to one’s emotions?) When we go to church and just go through the motions, God is not pleased by that. At the same time, when we go to church and get wrapped up in the show and the activities at the expense of why we are there in the first place and Who we are there to worship, God is not pleased by that either.

I have been to churches at both ends of that spectrum. I have been in churches where all the routines of a worship service were present but it seemed as if no one was engaged at all. There was no emotion, no energy, no excitement. Everyone was basically putting in their time. That is draining, let me tell you, and I would seriously question whether anyone was really worshiping. I rather doubt God was feeling worshiped! I have also been to churches where there are huge screens, massive choirs, full orchestras, live bands, “recognizable” personnel on stage and so on. It looks like, sounds like and feels like a major concert experience. There is a lot more emotion, energy and excitement but the question in that situation is, on what–or on whom–was that emotion, energy and excitement directed? If it was directed at the “worship leaders” then God is not pleased. If it was directed inwardly, at how it makes “me” feel, then God is not pleased with that, either.

“Strictly speaking,” Kauflin writes, “God never says the goal of the church gathering is excitement. It’s edification for God’s glory. We meet to stir up one another to love and good works, not simply to have an emotionally electrifying time. We meet to behold God’s glory in Christ through his Word, responding in ways appropriate to his self-revelation (Heb. 10:24; 2 Cor. 3:18).” Here is the rub. I do not believe God is displeased or dishonored by lights, bands, orchestras, mass choirs and recognizable people on stage. I believe any or even all of those things in combination can be used to worship the Lord and to lead a church service that is appropriate focused. To a certain extent, the focus of the service depends on the people sitting in the pews (or padded chairs). The person(s) leading the service can have their focus in the right place and the heart and mind of the folks in the congregation can be elsewhere. That is a personal matter between those individuals and God. What is not a personal matter is the heart, focus and intention of the pastor and other personnel leading the service. If the purpose is to generate excitement purely for excitement sake, that is wrong. If the intention is to sell more books or CDs, or to increase one’s Twitter following, that is wrong. If the purpose is to engage those in the congregation in order to help them grow in their knowledge and understanding of God, in order to stir them up for good works and to be doers rather than hearers only, then that is a good thing and God is pleased. Kauflin clearly sums up the purpose of a church service as follows:

Our greatest need when we gather is not simply to feel excited, but to encounter God: to engage with the certainty of his sovereignty, the reality of his authority, the comfort of his mercy in Christ, and the promise of his grace. We need to be strengthened for the battles against the world, our flesh, and the devil that will confront us the moment we wake up Monday morning, if not before. Mere emotional excitement, however it might be produced, won’t be sufficient. We need God’s Word clearly expounded, God’s gospel clearly presented, and God’s presence clearly experienced.

If that is what is happening in your church, then you are at a great church, regardless of whether you use hymnals or words projected on massive screens, whether you have an old upright piano or a live band, whether you have the local insurance salesman leading the singing or an internationally-recognized worship leader at the front. Ultimately, everything other than what is contained in Kauflin’s statement above is peripheral. Maybe that sounds harsh or oversimplistic, but that’s the truth. We could get into debates about all of those other elements of church services, and the odds are good that we may have very different opinions about what what we prefer or think is most effective. Since God does not give explicit instructions on the order or elements of a worship service, though, I think there is room for a variety so long as the focus and purpose remains where it needs to be. When he explains that church services are not to be rock concerts or pep rallies, Kauflin also explains, “They’re something much more mundane, and at the same time something much more eternally and cosmically significant. Our plans, lights, smooth transitions, technology, videos, sound systems, visual effects, and creativity don’t make it so. Christ dwelling in the midst of his people through his Holy Spirit makes it so. That’s why if we understand what’s going on, sharing the bread and cup during communion can be one of the highlights of our week, transcending the greatest of world championship sports rivalries in its effect on us.” That is where he hits the bulls eye. All of that extra “stuff” is, as I said, peripheral. None of it makes the church service successful from God’s viewpoint. At the same time, none of it prevents the service from being successful from God’s viewpoint when it is all used to accomplish the purpose of encountering God, growing in our knowledge of Him and truly worshiping Him, in spirit and in truth. So the real question is not, “Should our services be more exciting?” The real question is, “What are you trying to accomplish with that ‘excitement’?” If the purpose is excitement, then there is a real problem. If the purpose is to stir the hearts of the people to know and worship God, then go for it–so long as that focus never changes. Yes, church leaders need to carefully and prayerfully reflect on why they do what they do and why they want to do what they are considering. At the same time, each of us needs to carefully and prayerfully reflect, too. When we say we’re looking for something “more” from the services at church, what do we really mean? What do we really want–and why? If anything, and I mean anything, seems to be more exciting or desirable than the sovereignty, grace, mercy and love of God then we better check our definition of “exciting.”

Not Just a Nice Story

I speak in churches on a fairly regular basis, filling in when pastors are vacationing or when a church is without a pastor. It does not usually take long when I visit a church for the first time to get a sense of the atmosphere in the church. Specifically, it is fairly obvious whether most of the congregants are just going through the motions or the church is spiritually vibrant and healthy. In one of those churches that seems to tend toward the “going through the motions” end of the spectrum I was speaking once on the latter part of James 1. James is one of my favorite books. It is a to-the-point book that includes a plenitude of practical instruction and for that reason it can be uncomfortable to read, to preach or to hear preached. For all the those reasons it is also a book I love to speak on, even if I will only be in a church one time. (Or maybe especially if I will only be in a church one time!) Verse 22 in particular is a sure-fire way to step on the toes of those that like to just go through the motions and feel like they are doing their part for God. On the occasion I have in mind, however, I found that even the unmistakeable instruction to be doers of the Word and not hearers only will only penetrate a heart that is sensitive to the working of the Spirit. In fact, it made me realize that even “hearers only” is a step below listeners.

I have said on many occasions, primarily in teaching but not always, that there is a tremendous difference between hearing and listening. We can hear things without really listening to them. In fact, we do it all the time. We do it often when we are in a store or a restaurant and music is playing in the background. I do it to television commercials. Some of us have been accused of doing it when our spouse is talking. On this particular Sunday, some of the congregants were apparently doing it while I was preaching. As I said, I spoke on the latter part of James–verses 19-27–and I pulled no punches. I made it clear that James tells us that ritualistic religion is worthless and does not please God in the least. I made it clear that if we are doers of the Word it will influence every area of our lives. I emphasized that in the original language, the words translated “deceiving yourselves” in English referred to a mathematical calculation. In other words, James was saying that if we think we’re doing all we need to do by hearing the Word, we’ve got the wrong answer!

Imagine then, if you would, my delight (pardon the sarcasm) when I stood near the foyer of the church greeting the congregants after the service and had one older gentleman shake my hand and tell me, “That was a nice story.” Really? A nice story?!? I had done all I could, to communicate as clearly as I could, that living the Christian life is serious business, not a casual or passive one. I was as clear and direct as I could be. And this gentlemen thought I told a nice story. I felt quite sure that he certainly was not listening to what I said, and I was not even sure he actually heard me. For a moment I started to think, “Well, what was the point? A lot of good that did.” It did not take long for me to feel the Spirit prompting me, though, reminding me that (1) the “success” of the message is not for me to worry about as long as I deliver it faithfully, and (2) how often must God feel the same way? He has provided us with all that we need for living a life that is pleasing to Him. His Word includes instruction, correction, encouragement and more. We no longer receive visions or hear from prophets because we no longer need that; we have the complete revelation of Scripture. How often, though, do I treat it like a story? How often do I check off my Bible reading, my pre-meal prayers and my Sunday morning church attendance and then go about the rest of my life doing my own thing? I cannot imagine having the opportunity to shake hands with Jesus and saying, “Nice story”–but I might be living my life that way far more often than I care to admit. The Holy Bible is far more than a “nice story.”

The Way of a Fool

A few days ago a friend of mine posted one of those postcards that show up on Facebook all the time. It said, “I am afraid of a world run by adults who were never spanked as kids and got trophies just for participating.” I “liked” it right away because it is a sentiment I believe in wholeheartedly. I have always abhorred the awarding of trophies for participation. Certificates, okay; I might even go along with ribbons. But trophies? We are not doing children a disservice by allowing them to encounter at an early age the reality that not everyone wins.

The day after my friend posted the e-postcard I was walking through the parking lot of a shopping center with my wife when I spotted an SUV decorated with writing on the windows announcing a momentous event. At first glance I thought it may have been for a sports team headed to a championship game or something along those lines, but as I kept walking I could see the side window, which read, “Next Stop: First Grade!”  Now is finishing kindergarten a milestone in the life of a child? Sure. Is there anything wrong with acknowledging it, even celebrating it? No. If the parents went so far as to write all over the windows of their vehicle, though, I can only imagine the other festivities that must have surrounded the event, and that got me to thinking: If little Johnny or Susie got all this for finishing kindergarten, imagine what will be expected when the time comes for high school graduation?

When children are very young and just beginning to exercise creativity it is appropriate to oooh and ahhh over crayon scribbles on a piece of paper that resemble nothing more than…crayon scribbles. Even posting said scribbles prominently in the refrigerator may be in order. When a few years have gone by, though, and those crayon scribbles would be the obvious result of carelessness or apathy, celebrating them would be foolish. In fact, I will be so bold as to say that we are not helping children when we celebrate everything they do as if it were some monumental feat. When we treat every participant equally, when we reward showing up the same way as we reward doing your best, it does not take long for children to discover that those accolades are really quite hollow. If the only thing that happens when you are the best of the best is that your trophy is a little bit bigger than the one they give to the kid who just put the uniform on and attended every game it would be understandable to wonder if it’s really worth it.

The realities of the e-postcard on my friend’s Facebook page were revealed in an unmistakable way on the first two episodes of the Food Network’s latest installment of Next Food Network Star, a show in which twelve contestants are eliminated one by one with the winner being given the opportunity to become a star on the channel. A number of the show’s previous winners have indeed gone on to become stars in their own right–though some have faded almost immediately after their victory. This season, though, included a young contestant named Matthew Grunwald. Only 22, he was the youngest of the show’s competitors, though his bio on the Food Network web site says Grunwald has “the experience of a chef twice his age.” Maybe so, but within minutes of the first episode it became clear that he also has the maturity of a child half his age.

Grunwald was cracking wise from the very start, which, understandably, irritated many of his fellow competitors. Being a smart aleck could be forgiven, perhaps, if it was balanced by some redeeming qualities, but Grunwald never demonstrated any. Instead, he was consistently arrogant, opinionated and pretentious. Even that could perhaps be overlooked by some if his actions could back up all of his talk, but they did not. Sure, he made some good food at times, judging by the comments from the real Food Network stars, but his presentation and camera presence were unfocused and chaotic. Of course, the mentors, Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis were there to help Grunwald with that; after all, that is their job as mentors to the finalists. Grunwald, however, was not interested. He made comments away from the mentors that he really did not care what they had to say because he knew his cooking was good and he was who he was. He had this idea for taking cooking to the masses through the use of the hashtag, and he was not going to be deterred regardless of what the mentors had to say. At the end of the first episode, Grunwald and two other competitors were in the “bottom three”, meaning one of them was going to be eliminated. As they waited during the mentors’ deliberations one of the other competitors–a mother of three and seventeen years Grunwald’s senior–tried to offer him some advice. She began by saying, “I’d like to offer you advice, as a mother.” Before she could get another word out, Grunwald spouted off, “But you aren’t my mother. My mother raised a champion.” That remark was followed by something along the lines of, “I don’t care what you have to say. I don’t care what any of you have to say. I don’t care what they have to say,” gesturing in the direction of the room where Flay and De Laurentiis were meeting. The other competitors seemed genuinely shocked at his arrogance and immaturity.

Episode two was more of the same from Grunwald. He found himself in the bottom three once again, and he shared more of the same attitude during the waiting moments. When the three candidates for elimination went back into the “judgement room” to find out what was being sent home they stood before Flay, De Laurentiis and Alex Guarnaschelli, another Food Network star and Iron Chef. Viewers knew from comments included of the deliberations that Flay wanted Grunwald gone, but Guarnaschelli favored sending one of the other contestants home. De Laurentiis was the deciding vote, and she was also the one to deliver the news to the three finalists. When it became clear that she was about to send home one of the other contestants, Grunwald smirked. This clearly irritated De Laurentiis, as her displeasure became immediately clear. She looked at Flay, who commented, “That’s just immature.” She then turned to Guarnaschelli and said she was changing her mind, that Grunwald’s reaction had made it clear to her that he should be the one going home. She delivered the news to Grunwald and, after making it clear that he was “still going to be successful in this business” he made his exit. Interestingly, the episode did not include any tearful goodbyes to Grunwald from the other contestants as is usually the case; I suspect there were not any.

Leaving Grunwald on the show would no doubt have been good for ratings. There is always something to be said for having a contestant that the audience loves to hate. Grunwald was a spoiled brat accustomed to getting his way, and there was no doubt about it. I do not know how his mother raised him, and I am not going to presume to judge his mother, but his behavior is the epitome of what is implied by the e-postcard about no spankings and participation trophies. In an interview posted on the Food Network web site after his elimination Grunwald said that his behavior stemmed from the fact that he just gets so competitive. Competition is a good thing; I could hardly complain about participation trophies and argue against competition at the same time. Competition is a motivating force that makes someone want to be and do their best in the pursuit of a goal. Speaking from personal experience, getting too wrapped up in competition can indeed cause someone to do and say things they may later regret if it is not harnessed. A desire to win, however, should also produce teachability. The best competitors in the world get where they are not by themselves, but with the assistance of coaches who help them improve. Grunwald had the opportunity to be coached by two of the best; Bobby Flay and Giada De Laurentiis are two of the most successful and recognizable culinary personalities in the world. Yet, Grunwald was convinced they had nothing to offer him; he knew it all already.

Grunwald was a perfect example for the rest of us, but the truth is there is a lesson is his flaming arrogance for each of us. Scripture includes abundant instruction of the wisdom of listening to and heeding wise counsel and the stupidity of ignoring it. Proverbs 12:15, for example, says. “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” Grunwald is young and, apparently, talented. He no doubt will have other opportunities for success. That success, though, will be determined far more by whether or not he learned a lesson in his Food Network Star experience than by his talent. Figuratively speaking, De Laurentiis spanked him; she made it clear that his arrogance and immaturity was not acceptable. He received no trophy for participating. May Matthew Grunwald serve as a lesson for each of us.


The Bible talks a great deal about joy–including instructing us to count it all joy when we encounter trials, because trials strengthen our faith and our patience and serve to shape us into who God wants us to be. I know all of that, and you no doubt do, too. Knowing that, and believing it, does not mean though that it will be easy or enjoyable. Nor does it mean that we will always feel joyful. If we are honest with ourselves (and others) there are times when we’ve just about had it. We do not really feel like pressing on or persevering or fighting the good fight. Truth be told, sometimes we would rather just lock ourselves in our house or our room, when we would like to retreat to an undisclosed location–preferably one with lovely weather and environmental surroundings to our liking–or even when we feel like we would be perfectly fine abandoning the ministry God has given us, whether that be full time Christian ministry or the call to be light and salt to those we interact with in the secular workplace, and just punch a clock and check electric meters or something mundane and seemingly free of contention and strong opinions. Acknowledging that does not make me special, because it is certainly nothing we have not all felt from time to time. Acknowledging it publicly may be more transparent than some of us are comfortable with, but the reality is that we all feel this way at times.

In my own life it seems as if there has been one thing after another for the past four months or so, and it does get exhausting. It can be tempting to question whether it’s worth it or whether any good is really coming out of the trials. As I was reflecting on this I was reminded of a song that I had not heard in quite some time, but I knew where to find it. The title is the same as the title of this post, and it was co-written by Southern Gospel songwriters Kirk Talley and Rodney Griffin. Tally and Griffin are both singers, as well, and the song is about as transparent as a song could be for someone whose life is devoted to full time Christian ministry in the form of songwriting and singing. The message, though, is relevant far beyond singing. The words speak adequately for themselves, so I will just share the lyrics with you and trust that you will be encouraged by them, too.


Weary with nothing left to give
Tired from this hectic life I live
But yet I stand before you
Ready to sing on
Though I know the Savior
I don’t always feel the song

Chorus One
Honestly, I don’t always feel like singing
When the struggles of this life pull me down
Quite honestly, I don’t always feel like smiling
When it’s hard to find something to smile about
But I will keep singing, I will go on
For if I give my praise to Him
He will give the song

Little ears listen to what you say
So teach that Sunday lesson anyway
The task that God has given
Is something only you can do
You must go on and sing your song
His grace will help you through

Chorus Two
‘Cause honestly, you won’t always feel like singing
When the struggles of this life pull you down
Quite honestly, you won’t always feel like smiling
When it’s hard to find something to smile about
But you must keep singing, you will go on
For if you give your praise to Him
He will give the song


I sing because I’m happy
And I sing because I’m free
I will keep singing, I will go on
If I give my praise to Him
He will give the song
He will give the song

A fly in my mouth

Confession: I drink a lot of tea. Not hot tea–I seldom drink that. I drink a lot of what some people call iced tea, though I rarely have ice cubes in it. Oh, and I cannot stand unsweetened tea; it has to be sweet tea. Don’t even think about offering me unsweetened tea with sugar packets either, because it is not even close to the same thing. I drink tea at home, I drink tea at work and sometimes–if they can get it right–I drink tea at restaurants. Nowadays I actually drink quite a bit of green tea, which is supposedly healthier, but it’s still sweet.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a chair in my living room reading a book. I had a glass of tea on a coaster next to me. I stood up to go do something and when I did I also picked up my glass of tea and took a drink. When I did, though, I became immediately aware that something had just entered my mouth besides tea. I did not get a real great feel for it but it was rather solid and certainly should not have been in my tea–and the first thing I wanted to do was spit it out. As I was standing in the middle of the living room I knew this would not be wise, so I managed to not spew the tea across the room. I did however spit it into my hand as a beat feet toward the kitchen sink. When I did so I looked into my cupped hand to see, floating in the little pool of brown tea, a fly.

Now, I hate flies…and I mean that literally. I truly, genuinely, deeply hate them. Unlike many other unlikable creatures (such as snakes or spiders) I cannot think of a single good reason for the existence of flies. I think they may well be part of the curse. I know one thing, had I been Pharaoh when Moses wanted to lead the Israelites out of Egypt there would have been no need for ten plagues. After the flies, I would have given Moses anything he wanted. In fact, I probably would have surrendered Egypt and I would have left!

And now I had just had a fly in my mouth. The very thought of it was disgusting. I dumped my tea and fly into the sink, dumped out the rest of the glass and seriously considered scouring my tongue with a Brillo pad. I was disgusted by the fact that I had had a fly in my mouth. For the next half hour I could hardly get it out of my mind.

Then my thoughts shifted and I was reminded of Revelation 3:16. In that verse God says of the church at Laodicea that because of their lukewarmness He would spit them out of His mouth–literally vomit them! As disgusted as I was by having a fly in mouth, God is even more disgusted than that when I am lukewarm–or when you are–about spiritual things. When we go to church and present the right image but then do our own thing for the rest of the week, He wants to throw up. When we talk a good talk but walk an entirely different walk, He wants to spit us out of His mouth. The level of detestation I have for flies is minute compared to God’s revulsion for lukewarm believers.

In other words, He takes it quite seriously.

Not a Math Problem

Though I have not been able to find definitive evidence that she did so, I have seen this statement attributed to Hillary Rodham Clinton in a number of places: “In the bible it says you have to forgive seventy times seven. I want you all to know, I’m keeping a chart.” And while I have not found that definitive evidence, it does strike me, if you don’t mind me saying so, as something Clinton would say.

If she did say it, she was referring, of course, to Matthew 18, where Peter asked Jesus how many times he needed to forgive someone who sinned against him. Verse 21 says Peter asked, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Peter thought he was being quite magnanimous, of course, and, if understood in context, he was. The Pharisees, after all, taught that one need only forgive three times. So Peter doubled it and, for good measure, added one more. Knowing Peter as we do, we can easily imagine him asking the question with an air of confidence, thinking that he would be commended for his generosity. Jesus, however, had something else in mind. “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven,” Jesus told him.

Seventy times seven is a lot of forgiveness. Who could keep track of forgiving someone 490 times? That, of course, was Jesus’ point. He was teaching Peter that there is not to be an end to forgiveness. Even if you go with one of the translations that presents Matthew 18:22 as “seventy-seven times” the point is that we are to keep on forgiving. We are not to keep a list. If someone kept track of forgiveness, whether seventy-seven times or 490 times, the implication of that would be that once that magic number had been reached, all bets were off, and revenge was coming. That, of course, was what Hillary Clinton was implying in the quote above. She was suggesting that there would come an end to her forgiveness, and when that point was reached, watch out!

God, however, never stops forgiving us. If he did, I would have long ago exhausted by 490 chances, as would everyone else on the face of the earth. Jesus went on, after answering Peter, to deliver the parable of the master who forgave a servant an insurmountable debt that he could never have paid on his own. That is the forgiveness that God offers. There is only one unpardonable, or unforgivable, sin, and that is refusing to accept that Christ died on the cross as the only possible perfect sacrifice that would satisfy a holy God. Beyond that, there is nothing you can do, I can do, or anyone else can do, that God will not forgive.

As incredibly comforting as that should be, the inverse is just as incredible. Just a few chapters earlier, Jesus said that if we do not forgive others their sins, God will not forgive our sins. Followers of Christ are called to demonstrate God-like forgiveness when others offend or wrong them. We need not keep a list, because it isn’t a math problem anyway, it is a heart condition. And the heart that is surrendered to Christ and yielded to the Holy Spirit will forgive the offending brother–every time.


It seems I have been reading a lot recently–and not even because of any intention on my part–about the Church. Some of what I have read is good, some of it not so good. All of it has served to generate at least five blog posts-worth of thoughts, ideas and comments in my head. I have scribbled myself a 24-word note outlining what I hope to address in those five posts, so hopefully I will be able to stick with it and crank out all five by the end of next week at the latest.

This first one will on the topic of belonging to a church. Everyone who has accepted Christ belongs to the Church–the universal body of Christ. But what is it about belonging to a local body of believers? Why does that matter–or does it matter?

On January 29, posted an interview between Laura Turner and Erin Lane. Lane is a divinity school graduate, pastor’s wife and a program director at the Center for Courage & Renewal. She is also the author of Lessons in Belonging from a Church-Going Commitment Phobe (IVP, 2014).

When asked why the concept of belonging is so important to the church, Lane said, “We have so many options for connecting with one another and all this pressure to make the most of them. But it’s often the case that the institutions that used to broker these connections—institutions like the church—are losing their influence.” While the church struggles sometimes in handling it, Lane says that one of the major premises of her book (which I have not read), is that “we need to recover some basic practices that remind us of our interdependence.”

That is a crucial point right there–that we are interdependent. That certainly is not what our culture likes to portray, and the idea of needing each other–of needing anyone–is not an overly popular idea. The reality, though, is that God created us for relationships. (Even a relative introvert like myself, who can be perfectly content spending a day alone or driving a thousand miles with someone else in the car without saying a word needs other people!) Try as some of us might, there is simply no denying that need. We may be able to exist without other people, and we may even do it happily for a while, but the long run we would not thrive.

Commenting on this search for belonging, Lane says, “There’s a huge desire to experience belonging in an embodied way. We search for shared interests, like exercise groups—Crossfit, yoga, and Pure Barre. A great deal of belonging is created over food culture and being connoisseurs of things like coffee or beer—for me, it’s cupcakes.” There is nothing wrong with any of that, of course. Lane continues, though: “I worry, though, about whether we’re doing enough to interact with people who don’t inhabit our particular lifestyle enclaves. I don’t see many examples of rich involvement in public spaces that are open to strangers and friends alike. … I think we’re losing some of those rich public spaces where anyone can show up, regardless of fitness or food preferences or economic status and ability to work.” This is what, in Lane’s opinion, makes the church unique. People from all walks of life, all racial and ethnic backgrounds, with diverse hobbies and interests, can come together at church because of their love for God, His Truth and His Church. Nancy Ortberg, in her book Looking for God, describes sitting between two individuals in a church service whose paths would otherwise never cross. One was a high powered attorney and the other a lowly grocery store bagger. If their paths did cross it would have been brief and inconsequential. At church, however, they were on the same playing field; the ground, after all, is level at the foot of the cross.

Lane explains that there are very little things that can be done to encourage and promote a sense of belonging–even as simple as wearing name tags. At a relatively small church where most people know each other than may not be necessary, but it does provide some leveling and it does invite personal interaction. I can remember watching sermons by Michael Youssef at Church of the Apostles in Atlanta and seeing everyone in the (large) congregation wearing name tags. That actually never appealed to me, but that may be because (1) I don’t really like sticking things on my clothes anyway, and (2) sometimes I kinda like being anonymous. As Lane says, though, “There’s something powerful about hearing your name and seeing other people’s names….” I have to agree. I actually make a point to use people’s names often, whether simply saying hello in the hallway or when sending an e-mail. I don’t always do it, but I think I do more often than not. I notice when someone uses my name–and when they don’t. In fact, I remember once being asked, about a church I began attending when I moved to a new town, “what did you like about our church?” I do not know if I had really thought about it before I was asked, but the greeter at the door introduced himself on that first visit and also asked my name. When I went back the next week, he remembered my name–and used it. That struck me.

Lane offers other insights about the importance of church and belonging, including the need to let people be themselves, let people speak freely and a lack of earnestness. Her insights are good. I want to read her book. The bottom line, though, is that we need each other. When we are together with other believers at church we are encouraged. We are challenged. We are sharpened. We may even be convicted. The Bible tells us not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together. In other words, we are supposed to go to church! Not because it’s a rule, and not because we will get any bonus points or extra rewards, but because we need each other.

I do not remember where I read or heard this illustration, but it has stuck with me and may be one of the best illustrations of the importance of belonging: charcoal. Yes, charcoal. As in the squarish-looking hunks of black stuff that we bar-b-que enthusiasts squirt with lighter fluid and then set aflame. When they are together, pieces of charcoal generate considerable heat–enough to cook hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, fish, whatever. (They look pretty too, with their orange-y glow). Next time you’re around a pile of burning charcoal, though, see what happens if you remove one piece and set it off somewhere by itself. Actually, I suspect you know exactly what will happen. That’s what is likely to happen to us, too, if we stay away from church.


Humbled though I am by the number of people who read my thoughts in this space, I do wonder, fairly often, if there is really any point. Nothing I may say here is going to change the world. While the number of readers may seem impressive to me at times, in the grand scheme of things they do not even reach the level of “a drop in the bucket.” Maybe, just maybe, a drop in the ocean. So does it really matter? Is there any point? I am still not sure, but I keep doing it. And if you’ll pardon my candor, I do it more for me than I do for you. Frankly, I find it therapeutic and good mental exercise. I like the way blogging makes me think through things more carefully and develop cogent arguments and support for my positions. I like that it makes me seriously consider “the other side.” Having said that, I should also mention that these posts are mostly stream-of-consciousness stuff. I do not outline what I will say, I do not read over it and I do not edit it. In occasion I will look back over something and catch a typo or a word I left out, and sometimes my wife will make me aware of the same, and in those instances I will make the correction. In nearly 350 posts here, though, I bet that has happened maybe ten times. So here is my disclaimer: these are not edited, are not polished, and should not be considered exemplars of great writing!

Now why did I say all of that? I said it because a column by Mindy Belz at the end of 2014 reminded me of the importance of words. Mrs. Belz, who writes a regular column and is also an editor of WORLD, no doubt sees all manner of words, from the good to the bad, the splendid to the sloppy, the crucial to the worthless. By her own admission, she receives more than ten thousand e-mails on any given day. Just the act of deleting all of the worthless ones would be a significant time killer! Combining that with the fact that she literally makers her living with words, Belz has a unique perspective on the importance and power of the written language. In her column, she wrote, “[T]he throng of a media-saturated world and the blare of nonstop information can seem more oppressive, more full of noisy gong and clanging cymbal than ever.” How true that is, and no wonder it caused me to reflect on whether there is really any point to all of these words I have posted here over the past few years.

“Scripture has plenty to say,” Belz wrote, “about how we communicate, and models a variety of forms. Recounting history and waxing poetic–even romantic–all have their place, along with harsh admonition and R-rated graphic details of real life in a fallen world. Sarcasm and humor? Those too. But the forms are formed and the point is: Have a point. Speak with purpose. In this day that might mean pausing to think what I hope to accomplish in 140 characters, rather than simply increasing my Twitter followers.”

As I said, this is mostly therapeutic for me, not any intention to increase followers. Still, I choose to get my therapy on a public stage rather than in a private journal, so I would be deluding myself and you if I pretended that I do not hope anyone reads what I write. I am thankful for those that do, and I hope, at least the majority of the time, you can see that I do have a point. If I do not, let me know. If I make a point that you do not think needs to be made, feel free to let me know that, too. Some of you have done that on occasion, and I appreciate it.

Belz ended her column with this: “Brevity isn’t boss, but it shows thoughtfulness. And whether you Facebook, Tweet, Gchat, or hit Slack, words fitly spoken and thoughts that connect are more to treasure than ever.” I do not even know what Gchat is or what “hit slack” means, so I am obviously not as “with it” as I could be. The words I share, though, need to be fitly spoken and need to connect to a purpose. I need to have a point. So, too, the time I use to share them needs to be used wisely, and I need to reflect on whether or not blogging is always the best use of my time.

And it took me nearly 800 words to say all of that…