Gift 28 – To Join the Conversation

Turn on the T.V., open your computer, or visit your local…pretty much anywhere there’s people, and it won’t take you long to find conversations unfolding about controversial topics.

“What do you think about immigration?” Or, “What’s your view on homosexuality?”

These conversations in particular (among others) are in the spotlight almost daily—and everyone seems to have an opinion. But before you jump into the dialog, I want to suggest 9 requirements that must be true before you speak, or rather, 9 red flags: sure signs that you are not ready to join the conversation.

1. If you’re joining a discussion out of a motivation to “win,” then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

2. If all your thoughts can be summarized in 140 characters or fewer, you’re probably not ready to be a part of the conversation.

3. If you’re comfortable hearing only one side of the argument, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

4. If you think you have an easy or simple solution to a complex issue, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

5. If you are quick to speak but slow to listen, then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation (James 1).

6. If you haven’t yet considered whether your opinion could possibly be wrong, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

7. If your heart is not burdened to the point of sacrificial action on behalf of those to whom the “issue” relates, then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

8. If you haven’t yet empathized with multiple perspectives on a given issue, or put yourself in the opposing “side’s” shoes, you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation.

9. If you don’t yet have love for your enemies or you haven’t yet taken the time to pray for those of an opposing viewpoint—and not just for them to change their minds—then you’re not ready to be a part of the conversation (Matt. 5).

If after satisfying all 9 requirements you still hold the same perspective, great. Wonderful. To be clear, my intention isn’t necessarily to change your beliefs or opinions by considering these warnings; rather, to ensure that any conviction you might have is rooted in compassion (John 8:1-11). It is important to remember that you can have a “correct opinion” or a “right stance,” but without the humble posture of a servant you will be wrong every time. Christ emptied himself and came to his enemies as a servant (Phil. 2, Rom. 5); do not think you are above doing the same.

Do I have thoughts on immigration policy or on the topic of homosexuality? Yes, I do. Are my beliefs simple enough to boil down to a mere “for” or “against,” or a slogan on a bumper sticker? I’m afraid not.

The homosexuality debate suddenly becomes just a little more complex when you’re sitting across from a mother whose son took his own life after begging God for years to change the way he feels. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the words of a woman I once met: “One night it was raining and I couldn’t find him [her son] anywhere. Finally I found him laying in the soccer field behind our house, sobbing uncontrollably because he felt stuck and didn’t know what to do.”

Immigration becomes more than an “issue” when you consider what kind of conditions could make a mother so desperate that she would send her child a thousand miles on the top of a truck, or across a dangerous desert, just to find a new place to live.

And while many have pointed out that the emotional appeal of an issue doesn’t dictate whether something is right or wrong, the human element can, and must, influence our posture as we seek and teach Truth, knowing that human beings are involved. It might not always change what we believe, but it has to change how we think about and treat people. If these conversations truly are attempts to get closer to the Truth, then we would do well to remember that Truth is a person, a being. When Jesus said, “I am the Truth,” he made it relational; he made it personal.

We live in a broken place, and everyone hurts. Things have gotten messy on political levels, social levels, and personal levels, and we’re sitting in the middle of it. We are all called to repent. We are all in need of grace. No one is completely right except Christ, and his company cannot be joined without great humility and grace. Hurting human beings are involved on every side of every issue, which means there is no room for cruelty, thoughtlessness, carelessness, or pride in the conversation. On the contrary, these discussions need to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and so must be founded in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control (Gal. 5).

All opinions, judgments, or decisions from the Church relating to homosexuality must come from Christ’s own Body lying in the grass next to the young man sobbing in the rain. Every opinion, judgment, or decision from any other place will most Henry_Thomas_Bosdet_painting_of_Jesus_before_his_crucifixion_3certainly be the wrong one. And all opinions, judgments, or decisions regarding immigration must come from Christ’s own Body—the ultimate refugee—who knows what it is to be mocked, protested against, rejected, spat upon, and exiled to a cross. Every opinion, judgment, or decision from any other place will most certainly be the wrong one. Yes, we will talk, and we will debate, and we will go to the Bible, but our stance must become and remain prostrate.

And after prayerfully concluding on what is permissible and what isn’t, what is pursuable and what isn’t, what is acceptable and what isn’t, we must never forget that it is the duty of the Church to shoulder the load, whatever it may be, alongside those who are called to walk with Christ (Matt. 23). So if you’re not ready to carry another’s burden, you’re most certainly not ready to join the conversation.

Love,
Dad

Gift 27 – Now Go

When you love someone, you start to care about the things they care about. As I grow in love for my wife I learn to see from her perspective, value the things she values, and even love the things she loves.

The same is true for those who love God. As our love grows, our hearts are shaped to be like His as we see Him revealed in Scripture. In time we begin to celebrate good things like victory over addiction, unity in the Church family, and the healing of damaged relationships. We also begin to grieve injustice on a personal (addiction, bitterness, jealousy), communal (gossip, bullying, exclusion), and societal (homelessness, sex-trafficking, extreme poverty) level. And as our love grows we are called to act on these things that break God’s heart.

Do you remember the story of Moses and the burning bush? God reveals His plan to rescue Hebrew slaves, and I imagine Moses is ecstatic…at first.

God: I have seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out and I am concerned for their suffering…

Moses: Yes!

God: So I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land…

Moses: Alright! That’s great!

God: I will bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey…

Moses: This is terrific news!

God: So now, go. I am sending you.

Moses: Wait…what? You’re joking, right? I thought you were going to do it?!

God: I am going to do it. Now go, I am sending you.

moses 2

See, when our hearts break for the things that break God’s heart, we’re not just meant to cry, or even just to pray, but to go—because God is going to act, and He is sending us. True purpose begins when we ask the question, “What do you care about, God?” and then act.

God said of the shepherd boy David, “I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.” I wonder how long it took God to find a person, just one person, who cared so deeply about God’s heart that he was willing to do?

Daughter, my prayer for you, for us, is that we would join with Samuel in asking, “speak LORD, your servant is listening,” Isaiah in offering, “Here am I! Send me!” and most of all, with Jesus as he offered himself lovingly and submissively to the Father, “Not my will, but Your’s be done.”

There is much to be done. In our homes, our communities, our world. Our God is looking for men and women willing to join Him in caring and acting on His heart.

Jesus tells a story about a landowner looking for workers for his vineyard. He goes into the marketplace and finds people standing around twiddling their thumbs. “Why are you standing around not doing anything?” he asks. “Sir, no one has hired us,” they respond. The landowner replies, “Well then come work for me!”

In a culture starving for purpose and significance, people standing around not doing anything, hear the invitation of our dangerous Friend and Lord who calls us to follow him into the dead places of the world where he will bring life. He still has a plan to free slaves. Now go, he is sending you.

Gift 26 – There is a River

river

In one of the most underrated Biblical texts, the prophet Ezekiel sees a vision of water coming from the temple in Jerusalem, the place where God lives. The small stream flows east, and as it travels becomes wider and wider, deeper and deeper. Ezekiel walks in the current until it becomes too deep, when “the water had risen and was deep enough to swim in—a river that no one could cross.” As the river continues to flow east, fruit bearing trees spring up on either side because of the fresh, life-giving properties of the water.

Ezekiel watches in amazement as the torrent floods into the most unlikely of places: the Dead Sea. Because of its high salt content, the Dead Sea is notoriously barren (I mean it’s called the Dead Sea after all). No fish. No life. Not even seaweed.

But something extraordinary happens when the river from the temple crashes into the lifeless seawater. “When it empties into the sea, the salty water becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because this water flows there and makes the salt water fresh; so where the river flows everything will live” (Ezk. 47:8-9).

What does this all mean? It’s important to know that visions, like poems from high school English class, can have multiple layers of meaning and often use pictures and places as symbols. And while I do not want to be disingenuous to the original context and meaning of Ezekiel’s vision—a message of hope and life for a captive Israel—this particular revelation is a testament not just to what God would do with his captive people, but what he has been doing all along: bringing life to dead places. This is God’s specialty.

In the very beginning God burst into the chaotic emptiness with a declaration of life—“Let there be light!” he said to the void, and there was light. All throughout the Hebrew Scriptures God rushes into dead places—the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah, the brokenness of Jacob and his family, the suffering enslavement of thousands in Egypt, the hopelessness of a people carried off to Babylon, the frustration of rebuilding a city that has been destroyed—and every time He brings life into a seemingly hopeless situation. And of course, in the gospels God plunges once more into the depths of the grave, the ultimate “dead place”, only to arise victorious over death itself.

But guess what—God’s not done. He is still charging into the dead places of the world: places of despair and deprivation; injustice and pain; dead cities and nations, dead communities and relationships, dead homes and dead hearts. And he is still bringing life. This is the mission of God.

To restore,

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ to revive,

\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ to refresh,

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/ to renew.

The only thing left to uncover from Ezekiel’s vision is what exactly does the water represent? Some have argued that the river is a picture of God’s people, called to join in mission of the Lord. Others suggest that the life-giving tide represents God’s own Spirit overflowing the temple walls and going out into the world. But which is it?

The answer—Yes.

You are invited to join the people of God, filled with the spirit of God, to carry out the mission of God in bringing life to dead places. There is no higher calling than to join this rumble and flow of the thundering river of life.

More to come on what this looks like…

Gift 23 – Prayer (III)

“Is there any chance I could direct an orchestra piece for the Fall Concert?” “Do you think I might be able to get my picture taken in the front seat of your police car, officer?”   “Would it be okay if I marched with the band for a parade?” “Can I ride on the Zamboni between periods of the hockey game?”

“Is there any chance I could direct an orchestra piece for the Fall Concert?”
“Do you think I might be able to get my picture taken in the front seat of your police car, officer?”
“Would it be okay if I marched with the band for a parade?”
“Can I ride on the Zamboni between periods of the hockey game?”

Son,

You might be wondering how I got to do the things shown in the pictures above.  Well, believe it or not, all I did was ask.  Yep…that was it.

If you look up everything that Jesus says about prayer in the Bible, you might be surprised to find (like I was) that he so often focuses on asking from God.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.  Which of you fathers, if your son asks fora fish, will give him a snake instead?  Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!

Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete.

 Or what about the second half of the famous prayer that Jesus taught his disciples:

Give us today our daily bread /  Forgive our debts, as we forgive our debtors  /  Lead us not into temptation  /  Deliver us from the evil one.

 So much asking!

At first, all this asking might make a person a little uncomfortable.  We’ve all been told that God isn’t some divine Santa Claus who exists to satisfy our desires, so what’s going on?  A few things to notice…

  • First of all, if you are someone who loves and follows Jesus, your desires will be increasingly shaped by God’s heart.  Put bluntly: a maturing Christian isn’t asking God for a pony.  James writes, “You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”   A good question to ask is, “Is my life about God’s kingdom or my own?”  That will help determine whether your prayers are about God’s kingdom or your own.  The more you are shaped by the revelation of God’s Heart in your life (through God’s Word, the Holy Spirit, the Church), the more you will care like God’s heart cares.   As this happens, God says ask away!  Asking becomes powerful when the heart of Christ is alive in the body of Christ.
  • Prayer changes the pray-er.  Praying can actually wake up our desires and can be a catalyst for action.  Those who don’t care don’t ask.  And those who care, ask, and care more with each asking.  Perhaps Jesus’ consistent invitations to ask are his pleadings with us to care and to act!  Pray for your enemy and you may start caring about reconciliation.  Pray for the hungry and you may start caring that they have food to eat.  Pray for your wife and you may be moved to be a source of joy and encouragement for her.   In this mysterious way God often answers our prayers through the praying, because prayer is not only a reflection of your heart but also a directing of it.  As Eugene Peterson says, “We become what we are called to be by praying.”
  • Maybe the most important thing to realize is that the asking kind of prayer is an act of trust, dependence, and worship.  No one who is self-sufficient or self-reliant asks for anything, but the person who knows the good character of God relies on him like the branches of a fruit tree depend upon the trunk—and so they ask.  Making requests in prayer is acknowledging God’s generosity, God’s unlimited abundance, God’s ability to provide, and God’s loving heart towards his children.  The heart that does not ask does not yet know God as He wants to be known.

Son, I am convinced that God actually wants his people to ask more than we do, not less.  Though it was uncomfortable at first, I’ve gotten in the habit of making requests to God on a regular basis.  Just as I was surprised by what came of asking a police officer to sit in his car, or asking to march with the marching band, I’ve also been astonished by all that comes from making requests in prayer.

So ask already!

Here are some suggestions:

–       For eyes to see and ears to hear.

–       For opportunities to serve (the funny thing is, asking this will makes you aware of all the opportunities to serve that have always been around you).

–       For joy and compassion.

–       For wisdom and wonder.

–       That God’s Word would become a delight, like the author of Psalm 119.

–        For encouragement and strength for struggling friends and family.

–       Good things for your enemies.

–       Hope for young people wrestling depression.

–       For a tight reign on your tongue (words are powerful!).

Gift 22 – Prayer (II)

Child,

While I don’t have any magical prayer advice (as I said in the previous post), allow me to share some useful practices that have helped shape my attentiveness towards God:

  • Praying the Psalms. Sometimes I just don’t know what to say to God. Reading the prayers of psalmists who lived thousands of years ago can be a surprisingly meaningful way of waking up my heart and offering words when I didn’t think there is anything to say. The biblical psalms have a way of taking me by the hand and leading me to paths of repentance, praise, thanksgiving, and even lament. Check out this article for more reasons to pray the Psalms: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2008/october/35.88.html?paging=off
  • Go for a walk. I have ADXD (the Xtreme version of ADD). This means that prayer can be a real challenge if I’m sitting still with hands folded and eyes closed. A few years ago I discovered that praying while walking allowed me to focus my heart and mind in a way I was never able to do while sitting inside. This is now one of my favorite things to do. Being outdoors, away from controllable conditions and eight-foot ceilings, reminds me that I am less significant (in a good way) than I often imagine when surrounded by hundreds of gadgets and systems in place to make me comfortable. On windy days it is as though God’s wild Spirit is walking by my side, listening and speaking like an intimate companion.
  • Pray the names of God. As the revelation of God unfolds in His Word, God is given countless names that point to various aspects of His divine character. He revealed Himself to Abraham as the God who Provides, to the people of Israel as the God who Heals, and to David as a Shepherd, a Fortress, and a Light. Using different names in prayer directs us to God’s past faithfulness and reminds us just what kind of God we’re praying to.
  • Write your prayers in a journal. I think this prayer-practice has been more transformative than any other in my life. Writing prayers down forces you to actually think about what you’re saying. While I often absentmindedly pray things like, “Thank you for this day” with my mouth, filtering words through a pen reduces and refines my chatter into genuine prayer. And just like a family photo album can be a fun and important method of recording life with loved ones, having a prayer journal allows you to look back and see your relationship with God mature through times of celebration, struggle, and change.

I’m a little hesitant to put excerpts from my prayer journals in this post since Jesus talks about praying alone in a closet (and the Internet isn’t exactly a private place). Still, these examples offer a picture of the way God has used journaling to deepen our relationship and to draw me to Him in all times and circumstances. I hope it is helpful…

photo (8)How good it is to come to you with a tangled heart and to tell you everything, not stopping till I’m completely laid bare before You. Here is where you break through the mess and finally speak to me. There is nothing more lovely than hearing Your voice and talking with you honestly and opening—even about my jumbled soul. You still the storm with Your mighty voice, “Trust, son. Trust.”

Thank you for wise people like C.S. Lewis who stretch the boundaries of our minds in what it means to love You. I am reading The Great Divorce and learning lots.

God, my humanity has been reduced to efficiency. The heart you gave me to be a temple I have turned into a factory. Make my heart softer and gentler. Let it always be found at Your feet. Keep me from becoming wise in my own eyes or anything stupid like that. I am in the middle of this process of being made new, somewhere between grape-flavored water and watered down wine. For some reason I thought this happened instantly.

Ahhhhhh! I am full to the brim with praises to You. Tonight I got to experience the answer to 8 years of praying. My dear friend came over and shared what You’ve been doing in his life lately. All I can say is PRAISE YOU! PRAISE YOU! PRAISE YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! Thank You for this story You are telling!

Lord, life is bigger than I thought. I do not know the way to go. I feel so sure about one path one instant and then 20 seconds later another path seems like the right one. I am so confused, God! Ahh, being a person is so multifaceted! It’s too much sometimes. Tell me You love me, that ever applicable truth.

Confront me, Almighty God. Confront me with your Word, your Truth, your Spirit. Confront my ways, confront my sin, confront my attitudes, confront my choices, confront my feeble beliefs, confront my idols, confront my small ideas of you. Confront me so that I cay come back under your headship and authority.

God, sometimes I love your Word so much, like a person clinging to a photograph of a separated loved one, or like the way I’ve saved my dad’s voice on my phone so I can hear it whenever I want. That’s the way I love your Words. Sometimes I long to stand before you like one of the children from the Narnia books, to stand in your great shadow waiting—excited and afraid to hear your voice! But other times I don’t really care. In these times it’s like I’m numb to your Words, or just plain tired of having a relationship with a God who isn’t here in person to look at and talk to. I guess it’s like any other relationship; there will be ups and downs, highs and lows, mountains and valleys. Give me a strong heart that can hope past times of tastelessness, like the tree Jeremiah talks about: “It does not fear when heat comes; its leaves are always green. It has no worries in a year of drought and never fails to bear fruit.”

Gift 21 – Prayer (I)

“Sometimes I wonder if God is secretly thinking, ‘Dear Child, you are welcome for this day and I already blessed the food. Can we talk about something else now?'” – Anonymous

I once saw a skit that followed a day in the life of a young Christian. Throughout the day—when he got out of bed, before meals, before bed, etc.—the man got on his knees to pray. Every time this happened Jesus would enter and stand next to the young man, eager and excited to talk. But the kneeling man never noticed Jesus standing right next to him. Why not? He was too busy praying, parroting words and phrases that had long since lost their meaning. Jesus tried getting the Christian’s attention and faithfully appeared each time the man knelt to pray, but they never really connected or even truly communicated.

Is this prayer? I think many people would guiltily agree that this pretty much sums up what prayer looks like in their actual lives. We know prayer is meant to be wonderful, powerful, and transformative, but there is a massive divide between theory and practice. Imagine being married but only ever communicating with your spouse via text. There would be little life in the relationship because all interactions would be limited, simple, one-dimensional, peripheral, and brief. This is a picture of the sad reality many Christians experience (or don’t) when it comes to communicating with God. Thinking back on my own prayer journey you would have thought I was an auctioneer the way I “talked” to God:

Dear God thank you for this day please keep grandma and grandpa safe as they fly to Florida and bless this food to my body in Jesus’ name amen.

But son, I want you to know there is so much more.

To be honest, I don’t really have any awesome advice to get you from point A to B in what might be called your “prayer life”. I don’t have 5 simple steps to achieving deeper communication with God or 10 helpful hints to get you praying like Mother Teresa. Because really, there is no such thing as “improving your prayer life” apart from cultivating and nurturing a dynamic relationship with God. Like all other relationships, the depth and tone of conversation is merely a reflection of the relationship itself. Listen in on a conversation between teenagers on a first date—the communication will probably be forced and awkward because the relationship is just beginning.

This means that prayer is more than folding your hands and closing your eyes before you eat; it is an awareness that the place where you’re standing is holy ground and you had better take off your sandals, it is an attentiveness to the fellowship of the Spirit even on a mundane Tuesday, it is a responsiveness to the company of the Living God who seeks to take up residence in your everyday life, it is what Brother Lawrence called “The practice the presence of God.” Walking this path is like walking in the very heart of God.

And yes, son, like all other Christian practices prayer often requires discipline before it becomes delight, but you must know that the heart of prayer is accepting Christ’s own blood as the invitation to enter the sacred fellowship of the Trinity, the Holy Wellspring of Joy and Life from which Creation sprang into existence. When you understand the gravity of this gift you may very well only be able to pray, “Dear God!” But when you say those two little words, and mean them both with all your heart, you will have learned what it means to pray.

Gift 20 – The Truth about Fiction

photo (6)

Believe it or not, this lit. enthusiast, English major, and all around word-lover used to utterly detest reading.

In middle school I somehow almost always coincidentally chose books to “read” that had been made into movies. The teacher would see the title I’d picked and say, “I think that story was made into a movie a few years ago. You might enjoy watching it when you’ve finished the book.”

“Oh Really?” I would say, “I didn’t know that. I’ll have to see if I can rent it when I’m done reading.” I knew this was a dishonest practice, but I had no other way of passing the monthly Accelerated Reader tests.

But everything changed when I checked out The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from the school library. It was the natural choice since I’d already seen the movie adaptation at my grandparent’s house, though when a friend told me about a few variances, I decided to skim the first few pages just to cover my bases.

ozThen it happened: I went to Oz. I didn’t mean to, but I ended up getting hooked and actually finished the book (“It was kinda like watching a movie in my head,” I told my flabbergasted friends). I found out that L. Frank Baum had actually written 13 other Oz adventures, so I bought and read them all.

This was just the beginning of my love for fiction, and for reading in general. Over ten years later, I am convinced that books such as The Wonderful Wizard of Oz impact young people in countless positive ways and contribute to a person’s sense of creativity, wonder, and depth. Every once and a while I meet a fiction critic who doesn’t have time to waste on “silly stories that aren’t even true”, and while I have about a hundred reasons why reading fiction is an unequivocally good and wholesome activity, I want to share just one with you now:

The very best fictional stories are true. Really.

You see, there is a difference between something that is truthful and something that is factual. Many Eastern cultures have historically appreciated this difference when it comes to storytelling. Take, for example, the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. A westerner will tell you that the story is not true. Why not? Because it didn’t really happen. But tell the same story to someone from a story-centric society and they’ll likely tell you that it is in fact true. Why? Because it is true, isn’t it? The deterioration of one’s integrity is very serious business. Every time you break your word the value of your word decreases. Or, as Aesop famously said, “Nobody believes a liar…even when he is telling the truth!” These things are true, making the Boy Who Cried Wolf a story that tells truth, though not necessarily through fact. This is an exceptionally significant distinction to make, and is, in my opinion, the very best reason to read fiction.

Books such as the Harry Potter series, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia are stories that tell the truth. Friendship is more valuable than power. There is more to people than mere appearances. Humility and self-sacrifice is greater than superiority and self-importance. Things are not the most important things. Courage in the face of overwhelming odds does make a difference. Love is stronger than death. The light does shine in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.

There is great and nourishing magic in stories that tell the truth—even when the stories aren’t comprised of facts. It is worth noting that Jesus himself dealt almost exclusively in fiction to communicate truth to his audiences (Matt. 13:34). “There was a man who had two sons. The younger son came to his father and demanded his share of the inheritance…” “Suppose one of you has 100 sheep and one of them runs away…” “There was a woman with ten silver coins…” “A wealthy man was preparing a great feast…”

Clearly there is more to fiction than meets the eye. In fact, In Mark 4 Jesus explains to his disciples that the very reason he speaks in story is so that only few will understand. It is as though his stories are invitations beckoning the true in heart to follow where he leads. Because bookJesus, in his unexpected, seemingly foolish, upside down way of doing things still leads to a cross, and it will be those whose eyes have been shaped by the truth found in fiction who will be the first to recognize and believe that the gardener outside the tomb is really the resurrected Son of God.

Gift 18 – Relatively Speaking

Einstein was right: everything is relative.

You see, I’ve always thought of Piper as a wild and bad dog. I think this when, out of all the magazines, he finds and destroys the one called “Family Dog” as though he knows our secret plans to civilize him and won’t have any of it. Or when I hold his face by the hole in the wall that he’s eaten for the third time and sternly say, “bad dog!” while he wags his tail. Or when I come home from work to find him sitting in my chair and he looks at me insolently as if to say, “Um, can I help you?”
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I used to think these things about Piper, that is until I saw a picture my friend posted on facebook (right). My friend’s dog saw a squirrel outside, and knowing the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, bolted right through the window to catch his quarry. Instead of getting the squirrel he got 9 stiches in his nose.

After seeing this picture I thought to myself, Piper isn’t so bad after all. Because, of course, the badness of dogs is relative.

Everything is relative if you think about it.

You might be 6’2, but you still won’t feel tall standing next to Shaq.

You might consider yourself fast, but not when racing Usain Bolt.

You might think you’re rich, but not when walking in Bill Gate’s neighborhood. On the other hand, you might think you’re poor, but probably not when visiting a developing nation. It’s all relative.

I think this is why New Testament authors constantly remind early Christians to keep their eyes on Jesus. We humans have the tendency to complain—this happens when you compare yourself with someone on the more “desirable” end of the spectrum; when you see that you’re not as popular as _____________, or as well paid as ______________, or as talented as _____________, or as clearly understood as ______________. Poisons such as jealousy, envy, gossip, scorn, discontentment, and dissatisfaction all bubble up from this toxic spring of comparison.

But, in reminding believers of Jesus’ own experiences, the Apostle Paul points us all the way to the other end of the spectrum. Look at Jesus, he says. You might want to complain about the crappy day you’re having, but when you run into a friend whose house recently burned down, you’d feel pretty stupid grumbling about a broken dishwasher. Likewise, any unfair, or difficult, or upsetting situation I find myself in quickly seems more than bearable in comparison with all that Jesus endured on my behalf.

I often catch myself saying things like, “But that’s not fair!” “I don’t deserve this!” “This is ridiculous!” Even in marriage I am often all too concerned with what I think is “fair.” “I did the dishes last night, it’s your turn.” “You want me to run to Sam’s Club? I was at work all day!” etc. And yet, my logic becomes embarrassing and laughable when I consider Jesus surrendering his rights—all that he really did deserve—to pursue a cross on our behalf. What complaints slipped from his lips as he surrendered to the Father’s will? Did he so much as grumble as He set his face toward Jerusalem? Or as he was mocked and spat upon? Or as he was brutally murdered in the greatest act of injustice the world has ever seen?

And here I am complaining…about Sam’s Club?

The purpose of looking to Jesus’ suffering isn’t so that you feel like a horrible person whenever you want to complain. Nor is it the purpose to trivialize the truly difficult and sorrowful things going on in our lives—not at all. The point is to understand the depth of Christ’s selfless character and to be shaped by His good heart, remembering that we’ve actually been given more than we deserve.

Do this, son, and instead of being filled with jealousy or discontentment you will come alive with gratitude, joy, and a deeper love for Christ.

Gift 5 – Action Figures

“[We need to] just land the plane on our plans to make a difference by getting to the ‘do’ part of faith…love is never stationary. In the end, love doesn’t just keep thinking about it or keep planning for it. Simply put: love does.” – Bob Goff

“Christian life is action: not speculating, not debating, but doing.” – Frederick W. Robertson (1816 – 1853)

“Dear Children, let us not love with words or speech but with action and in truth.” – 1 John 3:18

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When I was a kid I collected action figures almost obsessively. I would heap blankets on the floor of my bedroom and stage “mountain” battles between my GI-Joes and Star Wars toys. The cool thing about action figures is that the characters are made as though halfway through a motion—slashing with a lightsaber, running to the crime scene, flying on a skateboard while tossing a pizza in the air (Michelangelo the ninja turtle). They’re doing something.

Have you ever met a kid who wanted to play with an opinion figure? Me neither.

Imagine a boy getting his toys together for a meeting. “Okay guys, today we’re going to discuss the pros and cons of being a polypropylene composite.” Doesn’t happen. We’d rather do something. The reason companies make action figures instead of opinion figures is because no one ever wanted to play with an opinion figure. There’s a word kids use to describe things like this that are all words and no action: boring.

In Matthew 25, Jesus separates all people in to one of two groups—one group going with him and his father, the other group going away to be punished. The folks who get to go with Jesus are the ones who fed the hungry and thirsty, invited strangers to become friends, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited the imprisoned. In other words, the ones who did stuff. The interesting thing is that Jesus didn’t ask the people on his right what they thought about predestination or about Christians getting tattoos, shockingly, he didn’t even ask them what they believed. He simply saw what they had done and knew right away what was in their hearts.

Son, when Christ returns I want you to be found—like an action figure—in the middle of doing something. Being dangerous isn’t about having certain ideas, or agreeing with other Christians, or even just about believing certain things, but about a heart so filled with love for God that it comes out. Sometimes Christian culture (Christian school, church, etc.) can be breeding grounds for opinion figures; boring Christians who talk too much (I’m guilty!), but the Bible is like an exercise DVD in that it’s no good being passive. Imagine watching “Power Body Strength Training” while sitting on the couch eating French fries. What’s the point? Likewise, Jesus asks time and time again, “What’s the point of hearing my words if you’re not going to do them?”

So lets make a deal: I’ll stop writing, you stop reading. Receive the love of God with open arms and go do something about it!

Gift 2 – Nothing and Something

My new campers would be arriving in just a few hours, so I made my way across a big field towards my cabin to clean when I saw another counselor, Silas, wrestling with what looked like a camper (he was with a group of kids that had arrived earlier in the week). I thought they were just playing around until I got closer and Silas waved me over looking pretty serious. Apparently the camper was giving him some trouble…lots of trouble. Both Silas and the 14-year-old kid were scratched up a bit; the boy was injuring himself and Silas.

Silas asked me to stay with the camper while he went to find our supervisors. So I sat down next to this kid who by now had given up the wrestling match and was just crying on the ground (thank goodness…about the not wrestling part). I tried making small talk but the boy wouldn’t even give me his name. I watched him cry into his own arms and noticed he was pretty dirty: dirt under his finger and toenails and scratches and scabs on his body and face. He had cuts on his wrists as well.

After about ten minutes he began talking through his tears about all sorts of things. His name was Matt. He said he was so angry and sick of being himself. He was tired of feeling the way he did and tired of God ignoring his prayers for help. He said the only way he could think of to get rid of all his feelings was to simply not exist anymore.

My heart dropped and broke and cried and did about ten other things. I started praying like crazy for God to give me something to say. Eventually Silas came back; I walked them to their cabin before going to my own to clean. I kept praying while I swept the place out, asking God to do something, to change the way this kid was feeling. I got a little angry. “Let me get this straight, God, so you say that you love people, but you’re just not willing to do anything about it? Really?”
At this point I really believe the Holy Spirit guided my heart, saying, “What if you gave him your ring?” Hooooollllddddd on just a minute. I had gotten the ring earlier that summer in Israel and had worn it every day since. It says in Hebrew, I am my Beloved’s and my Beloved is mine. It was without a doubt my most precious possession; something I planned on passing on to my son someday as a sacred heirloom of sorts (you know, like Lord of the Rings or something). I was not giving it away to some kid I hardly knew. As I continued sweeping out my cabin I had quite a nice wrestling match with the Holy Spirit. It went something like this:

Me: My ring is a symbol of my commitment to You, God. You wouldn’t want me to give that away, would you?
God: If you keep it against my leading it will instead be, in your eyes, a symbol of your lack of commitment to Me.
Me: But what if I give Matt the ring and he doesn’t understand how much it means to me? He probably won’t care about it half as much as I do and it will be a waste.
God: Yeah, I know what you mean. My Son meant everything to Me, and people still don’t get the half of it. Yet I still gave Him to you.
Me: Touché. But God, seriously…
God: So let me get this straight, you’re saying that you love people, but you’re just not willing to do anything about it?

That last bit sounded vaguely familiar…Finally, I thought about Matt’s wounded wrists and understood that though my gift might not mean anything to him, I had to try. I walked through the woods from my cabin to the one in which Matt was staying. Knocking on the door I said, “Hey Matt, can I talk to you for a minute?” He joined my on the porch probably thinking he was in trouble or something.

I told Matt that I’d been thinking about what he said and how he feels like God doesn’t care about him. I showed him my ring, telling him that I’d gotten it in Israel as a reminder of how much God loves me. I said, “This ring is my most precious possession. And you wanna know something cool? The most precious thing to God was His Son, Jesus, but He still gave Him for you so that you would know for sure that He loves you and He’s with you.” I took the ring off my finger and said, “So I want to give this to you. To remind you that God is with you and He loves you.”
I know, not the most eloquent sermon in the world, but it didn’t seem to matter. Matt froze while his eyes got huge in disbelief. He said, “Wait, are you serious?” I nodded, and without another word he wrapped his arms around me (this was the first of five huge hugs he gave me in just a few minutes). He was inexpressibly happy and grateful. He put it on right away and it fit perfectly. His eyes filled with tears as I did my best to keep mine in. “I didn’t tell you this earlier,” Matt said, “But tomorrow is my birthday.”

“Well this is God’s birthday present to you, then,” I said.

“Yeah, I think so,” he said, smiling. We talked for a few minutes before I walked back to my cabin, thanking God for the cool opportunity.

I kid you not, one year later I was back working at this same camp when a taller, more-alive Matt walked up to me still wearing the same ring I’d given him a year earlier. We sat down by the soccer field while he told me all about how much better his past year had been. “Last year,” said Matt, “Before you gave me your ring, I was planning on, you know, ending things when I got home from camp. But this birthday present from God changed my mind.”

Wow. I was speechless. Was this young man’s life worth losing a ring over? Definitely.

So what is the second gift I have for you, son? Nothing. I’m afraid I gave your ring away. On the other hand, I may have gained something even more valuable to pass on. You see I learned that loving people, the way Jesus loved us, almost always costs something. Being dangerous means loving anyway. You might lose time, you might lose money, heck, you might even lose your most valuable possession, but guess what, son? It’s worth it. The value of loving others is immeasurable, incalculable, and life changing. I’m embarrassed and a little ashamed when I think back to how hesitant I had been to give away a thing, and for a person who really needed it. But you’ll soon learn how easy it is to get your priorities mixed up when muddled with the business of everyday life. The gift I want to give you is the reminder that loving people comes first, and that no matter how much you love, no matter how much you give away, it will ever only be a faint echo of the great love Jesus gave to us. Remember that and you will be dangerous.