Archive for November, 2009

A Jigsaw Marriage Picture

What can you do when conflict has become the “new normal” of your home?  When there is a spark we expect things to go poorly and we only wonder, “How intense will it get this time?”

The first thing that we must do is stop trying to avoid conflict.  This may sound strange, but when we try to avoid conflict, then the first sense of dissension will trigger the thought, “Oh no, here we go again!”  Instead we must be able to realize, “Here is our chance.  If our marriage is ever going to be better, it is going to be better in a moment like this.”

But more than positive thinking and altered expectations are needed.  We need some tangible way to signify that we are both trying.  After all you can’t hear “not yelling” and you can’t see “self-control.”  You can only hear yelling and see disrespect.

Let me offer this tool for raising a mutual awareness of the moment that we are praying God will redeem by changing our character and teaching us self-control.  Get a recent picture of the two of you smiling.  Take it to a local print shop and ask them to print it as an 8 x 10 on foam board.

On the back of the picture write your wedding vows.  Here is a classic set of wedding vows from the Book of Common Prayer if you need them.

O GOD, who hast so consecrated the state of Matrimony that in it is represented the spiritual marriage and unity betwixt Christ and his Church; Look mercifully upon these thy servants, that they may love, honour, and cherish each other, and so live together in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and of peace; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder.

FORASMUCH as John and Jane have consented together in holy wedlock, and have witnessed the same before God and this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth, each to the other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving a ring, and by joining hands; I pronounce that they are Man and Wife, In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Use a scalpel to cut the picture into a 20 piece jigsaw puzzle (use one of your child’s old puzzles to trace an outline).  Now you have a puzzle with a picture on the front and text on the back.  Your goal is to put it back together again.

Any time you can tell you are entering a conflict either of you can grab a piece of the puzzle or simple say, “This is our chance to put our marriage together again.”  If the two of you are able to get through the conflict with honor, then this piece can be added to the puzzle.

This blog is about raising your awareness regarding “recognizing the moments of change.”  If you would like more instruction on “navigating the moments of change,” I recommend you read the blog on “Communication with Our Desires ‘On the Table’” and “Why Humility is Doubly Important in Marriage.”

It may take several months, but if/as the two of you show an increasing awareness of the moments when change will happen and an increasing willingness to engage in those moments with humility then your marriage will be different once the picture is complete.  And you will have an heirloom to signify the difficult journey you have made and remind you not to regress.

Jesus Redefines Expectations — Mark 2:15-28

Not the Healthy, But the Sick (v. 17)

The big question we need to ask from this verse is, “Do I see my need?”  Jesus was not asking the Pharisees to be more compassionate (“allow the sinners and tax collectors to repent”); he was confronting their blindness (“you do not see how you are like them”).

Consider some of the social groups you consider to be most despicable, destructive, or (at least) misguided.  Jesus is not saying you are just as bad as them—“as bad” is a bad category of thought for this discussion.  Jesus is saying you need Him just as much as they do because you suffer from the same malady—a sin-stained heart.  The point of the discussion is not comparison (frequency or magnitude of sin), but condition (level of hope apart from Christ). Comparison language fails us because there are no degrees of damnation or salvation.

APPLICATION:  Once we adjust our thinking from comparing ourselves to others to evaluating our condition before God we are able to apply what Jesus said without slipping into shame (“I guess I really am as bad as a suicide bomber or [blank]”) or pride (“I just can’t accept that I am as bad as [blank]”).  This allows our hearts to be humble and willing to reach out to others while still making distinctions (falling into the modern “tolerance” movement).

Feasting and Fasting (v. 19)

Christians sometimes feel bad about feeling good.  If you find yourself wrestling with this, I would recommend Gary Thomas’ new book Pure Pleasure.  Jesus is indicating to the Pharisees that somberness is not necessarily a synonym for righteousness in the new kingdom He is inaugurating.  At the same time Jesus is not condemning the practice of fasting.

Once again Jesus is not as neat as we would like Him to be.  Somehow Jesus calls us to take celebration as seriously as self-denial.  As people we are usually only good at one or the other; or we believe one is good and the other is bad.

Jesus will not fit into our (or the Pharisees) pre-made categories and practices. They cannot contain the fullness of life He has for us.  Our categories lack elasticity in the same way as the wineskins and they cannot be mended (but must be made new) with a patch.  As you seek to apply this passage to your life, I would recommend the following two questions to help you identify where to start:

  1. When do you feel bad (or self-conscious) about an innocent pleasure?
  2. When you feel good (or self-justified) in an emotion that is wrong or condescending?

Sabbath was Made for Man

The Pharisees wanted to use the Sabbath as a litmus test or thermometer for Jesus’ spirituality.  Jesus appealed to the created order and His title as Lord of the Sabbath to dissolve their trap.  However, I think it would do us good to reflect on Jesus’ words, “The Sabbath was made for man.”

Whatever we do with this phrase, let us not fall back into the gnat-straining rules of the Pharisees.  But let us not forget that God gave us a gift that we too often ignore.  God looked at our finiteness and saw our ambition (to achieve, to give our kids every opportunity, to please others, etc…) and decided these people need a regular break.

The following questions are meant to help you evaluate whether you are using the Sabbath for God’s intended purpose.

  • Do I feel like God is “holding me back” by asking me to take Sabbath rest?
  • Have I confused entertainment (things that stimulate me) for recreation (things that refresh and strengthen me)?
  • What kind of things would God have me “do” with this “Sabbath” time?
  • Is Sunday the best “day of rest” for me?
  • Is it feasible with my life situation to take Sabbath rest all at one time?
  • Does my disposition while I work reveal that I am “resting” in God during the entirety of my week?
  • Do I need to change my spending habits so I can afford to take Sabbath rest?
  • Might I need to cut some “good things” in order to live a 168 hour week in which I devote the majority of my day to rest, devotion, and family?
  • Does my use of Sabbath rest result primarily in worship of God or self-indulgence?
  • Are my day-to-day energy levels and emotions an inviting testimony to the goodness, grace, provision, and patience of the God I serve?

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

Using a Personal Journal for Spiritual Growth

Too often the use of a journal has been dismissed as feminine, “something you do when you need counseling,” or too time consuming.  But with a bit of reflection (which is all journaling is) we might come to a different conclusion.  Many of the great figures in church history has kept a journal, and the church has benefited greatly from this window into their daily life (not as a voyeur, but to understand what spiritual greatness looks like in the mundane-ness of daily life).  And while not a theologian, the great Socrates famously said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

If you are interested in starting the exercise of journaling let me offer the following suggestions.  Journal during the time when you do your daily Bible study.  Do not feel compelled to write something every day.  Do not write for an audience; write for your benefit and as it comes naturally for you.

When you begin with your journal consider the following subjects and review them annually in your journal.

  • What are the top 5 values by which I want to operate my life?
  • What do I believe are my spiritual gifts and talents?  What are my characteristic weaknesses?
  • What are the key relationships in my life?  What are my goals for each of these relationships?
  • How would I ideally spend the 168 hours I get each week (7/24 hour days)?

As for the journal entries that you write after these core reflections are in place, consider the following subjects.

  • Self-examination based upon one of your top 5 values.
  • A point of conviction regarding sin or a spiritual practice.
  • Reflection on a day’s event in light of your “life story.”  These are great for sharing later with spouse, children, or grandchildren as a discipling moment or family heirloom.
  • A personal goal for change and steps of implementation.  This is a particularly good subject to record after an insightful Bible study or sermon.
  • A prayer in the form of a letter regarding a key life concern.
  • An answer to prayer.
  • A narrative of a key life event from younger days and the impact you see that it has had upon you.
  • Insight from your daily Bible study.
  • A humorous event.
  • Sermon notes with your reflections.

I encourage you to consider this practice.  Many have found it as an immensely profitable way to (1) maintain a focus on your purpose in life, (2) increase the level of intentionality with which they live; (3) enhance the depth of their relationships, especially marriage and family; (4) measure progress and gain encouragement in their walk with God; and (5) remember God’s faithfulness during times that are difficult.

If this post was beneficial for you, then considering reading other blogs from my “Favorite Posts on Spiritual Disciplines” post which address other facets of this subject.

The Kingdom of God Arrives — Mark 1:14-31

The Kingdom of God is at Hand, So…

The first words of Jesus (red letters) in the Gospel of Mark are, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (v. 15).”  I think if we are honest, most of us hear the word “repent” with an echo of “you wretched sinner.”  Undoubtedly, it takes God’s Amazing Grace to save “a wretch like me.”  But should repentance in God’s kingdom always carry the connotation of guilt, shame, and scorn?  I will argue, not in the way we often think of it.

Repentance is not punitive.  Hell and sin’s natural consequences are punishment for sin not the opportunity to repent.  “Repent” is a word we should associate with grace more than law.  The law is concerned only with actions, penalties. and justice.  The condition of one’s heart in the moments after sinning is largely inconsequential to the law.

APPLICATION:  Our attitude towards repentance (most likely) comes from the practice of repentance and forgiveness in our homes (current and childhood).  If we (and our children) are to hear the Gospel call, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel (v. 15)” as the good news it truly is, then we must enact repentance and forgiveness as the Bible portrays them.  If you would like to learn more about this, I invite you to read the Bible study on Psalm 51 and the blog on the role of humility in a Christian marriage.

The Role of Peter in the Gospel of Mark

If you are going to follow the Gospel of Mark, then you must get to know Peter.  Mark bailed on Paul in his first missionary journey and was given a second chance by Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41).  Later Mark winds up in Rome and records many of the sermons of Peter.  It is upon Peter’s apostolic authority that the Gospel of Mark is written.

Consider this quote from second century author Irenaeus about  where we got the four Gospels:

Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by PeterLuke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him.  Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also leaned upon his breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia (as quoted on page 72 in Classical Reading in Christian Apologetics A.D. 100-1800 edited by L. Russ Bush; emphasis added).

APPLICATION: In the course of this Gospel we will see and hear much from Peter.  In this passage he is the first disciple mentioned (v. 16) and it is his mother-in-law who was healed (v. 30-31).  As we study Mark together in the coming weeks we will not only learn about Jesus, but how to give testimony about Jesus’ activity in our life without making ourselves the focal point.  To foreshadow this point observe what is missing from Mark 6:45-52 that is recorded in Matthew 14:22-33.

Teaching With Authority!

What is it that stood out about Jesus’ teaching?  Charisma? Eloquence? Insight? Breadth? Humor?  No, it was none of these.  What stood out was the authority.  Jesus did not talk about what people might do, could do, or offer elaborate context for Old Testament passages.  Jesus spoke about what was and what must be done in response to it.  Because it had been over 500 years since the last recorded prophet in Israel this shocked people.

We all have a primary authority figure in our life.  What made Jesus so divisive is that you could not follow His teaching without Him becoming the ultimate authority (“Lord”) in your life.  Jesus managed to be all or nothing without his personality being what turned people away.  Many rejected His message, but they could not raise a complaint to His character or treatment of others.

From this I think it most wise for us to consider two sets of questions:

First, how do I know if I am living submitted to Christ’s authority?

  • When you are pressed for time or money what gets cut last (or first)?
  • When you worry, whose response do you consider most frequently?
  • What do you study most frequently and with natural interest?
  • Do you assume God agrees with your common sense or consult His Word?
  • Are you humble enough to ask real life questions to more mature believers?

Second, how would I know if I have replaced Christ’s authority in the life of someone else?

  • Does someone close to you fear crossing your “pet peeves”?
  • Are people comfortable giving their opinion if it differs from yours?
  • Do those close to you consistently show traits of insecurity?
  • When you reference Scripture do you listen if someone brings up other passages that might have greater relevance to the situation or confront sin in your heart?

Hopefully this assists you in living under the authority of Christ in a way that is healthy and balanced.

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

A Psalm of Truth AND Suffering — Psalm 119

I, Me, My, Mine to You, Your, LORD

Often because of its length and focus upon God’s Word we often lose the personal-ness of Psalm 119.  This psalm is much more intimate than it is academic; relational than theological.  God’s Word is not viewed as a textbook or resource, but as a life line.  Psalm 119 is not a thesis; it is a prayer.  As you study Psalm 119 hear the interaction between the author of the psalm and the Author of the Bible.  Allow yourself to be challenged not merely by the content of Psalm 119 (i.e., “I should memorize more Bible; verse 11), but by the style of Psalm 119 (i.e., “I should talk to the Author of Scripture this way about His good gift to me.”).

APPLICATION: Read the Psalm slowly as if you are eavesdropping on a private conversation.  Listen with the ears of a (redeemed) gossip wanting to discern the nature of a powerfully intimate relationship that you cannot wait to share with anyone who will listen.

The Theme of Suffering

As you read Psalm 119 do not let the obvious theme of praising God’s Word distract you from the equally strong theme of suffering and struggle.  The psalmist is clinging to God’s Word to be rescued from undefined, but intense hardship.  The psalmist is searching God’s Word for answers to dilemmas that overwhelm him.  The psalmist is feeding on and drinking God’s Word to nourish his famished soul.  Psalm 119 is not celebrating stoic, unmoved biblical reflection.  Psalm 119 is the exclamation of the starving man who found “the food to eat you know not about (John 4:32).”

APPLICATION:  Read Psalm 119 like a prisoner in a concentration camp who found the journal of former prisoner who carefully plotted an escape and was successful.  You are hurting and have many times lost hope.  Those around you are in the same boat.  Hope began to feel like a fairy tale.  Now you have the words of one who was in your

shoes, shared your pain, but recorded the key to his freedom and peace.

“I Have Hidden Your Word in My Heart”

There are few Christians who would doubt the importance of memorizing Scripture.  However, most American Christians own more Bibles than they know Bible verses.  Don’t look away in shame.  Shame doesn’t change the human soul and is not an appropriate response to God’s grace.

Consider the following points to assist and encourage you to memorize Scripture as a part of your regular battle against sin and for God’s glory.

  • Memorize from one translation to avoid confusion.
  • Create a list of verses you want to memorize as you read through the Bible
  • Enlist a friend to encourage you and follow up with you
  • Use note cards and decorate them to increase visual memorization cues.
  • Spend equal time reviewing old verses as you do learning new ones.
  • If you are studying through a book of the Bible, memorize verses from that book.
  • Reward yourself in the same way you would for weight loss, completing chores, or getting a promotion.
  • Occasionally memorize larger portions of Scripture (i.e., a chapter, the Sermon on the Mount, or an entire book).
  • Reflect on your verses while you are doing mundane activities (i.e., cleaning, yard work, driving, etc…).
  • As you work to memorize a verse, read a couple of commentaries on the passage it comes from to increase your understanding of the words you are reciting.
  • Do not let memorization become a chore.  The message of Psalm 119 is that it is the delight in God’s Word that changes the heart.  When we grudgingly recite God’s Word God becomes a distant, demanding professor; not a loving Heavenly Father.

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

A Psalm Celebrating God’s Deliverance — Psalm 116

“I Was Overcome by Trouble and Sorrow” (v. 3)

Have you every felt like you were suffocating in your sorrow?  Like there was not enough air in the room?  This is the experience described by the psalmist in verse 3.  The impression of verse 4 was that it was his dying breath that called out, “O Lord, save me!”  It is on this basis that in verses 10-11 the psalmist could assert his consistent faith through affliction.

Too often we believe faith is evidenced by the unshakable presence of peace.  This is not the testimony of the psalmist.  He was desperate, yet in his desperation he did not forsake the object of his only hope—God.  Let us not feel guilty for being overwhelmed.  If faithful believers never became overwhelmed, we would not need Psalm 116.  Let us, in our most daunting afflictions, continue to cry out to our God so that our testimony can be added to the chorus of this great psalm.

“Be at Rest Once More, O My Soul” (v.7)

Will heaven be more heavenly because of our time on earth?  Is peace more peaceful because of our trials?  Don’t read these questions as a lead in to the, “Why does God allow evil?” question.  Read them as a finger tracing the artwork of God’s redemption.  The psalmist can (and does) praise God with greater passion, clarity, and conviction as a result of his “post-stress rest.”

Interestingly, the psalmist does not condemn his soul for its distress.  Rather the focus has so totally shifted (from self to God) that his affliction is merely a canvass to display God’s goodness and faithfulness.  Every indication in the psalm, however, is that this shift did not occur until after God’s deliverance and the psalmist’s reflection.  During the affliction the psalmist had desperate faith.  After God’s deliverance, the psalmist had to pause and intentionally call his soul to peaceful praise.  Both are God-honoring responses given their circumstances in the life of the psalmist.

How Can I Repay the Lord?

Is this not the very same question for which Naaman was rebuked (2 Kings 5)?  No, this question is different.  Naaman’s question wanted to compensate God monetarily for a service received—apparently to maintain independence (being debt free).  The psalmist’s acknowledges an act of unmerited favor for which the only response is public and private praise.

Praise (in many forms) is the only acceptable response to God’s activity in our life.  It is not payment but celebration and evangelism.  We do not return goodness to God.  We become intoxicated with God’s goodness until it spills out of our life and becomes contagious. Consider the following aspects of the response of praise found in Psalm 116.

  • It was rooted in love for the Lord (v 1).
  • It was humble acknowledging the need for mercy (v. 1, 16).
  • It was highly relational with God (v. 2).
  • It did not deny the harshness of life (v. 3, 10).
  • It was vulnerable enough to acknowledge desperation (v. 4, 6).
  • It was personally directive (v. 7).
  • It was expressive (v. 8).
  • It was willing to risk rejection (v. 11).
  • It was public (v. 13)
  • It did not compromise (v. 14, 19).
  • It was sacrificial (v. 17).
  • It was simple (v. 19)

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

A Psalm for Unpacking the “Fear of the Lord” — Psalm 112

“Blessed” Is the Man (v. 1)

Psalm 112 begins with the simple statement “Blessed is the man who fears the Lord.”  Simple stated this means the man who has settled in his heart that God gets to define…

… the priorities of life,
… what has value, and
… right/wrong,
… what is worth my time,
… success/failure,
… important/unimportant,
… lasting/fleeting,

… will be the man who has a “peace that passes all understanding.” There are two questions we must ask ourselves in light of this reality.

  1. On which of these seven items do we believe we know better than God?
  2. When we believe this what are we fearing (i.e, trusting in, relying on, hoping for) more than God?

As you answer these two questions you will be ready to read the rest of Psalm 112 and allow it to have the purifying affect that God intended.

8 Marks of the Fear of the Lord

Psalm 112 is a practical call to and celebration of the fear of the Lord.  The fear of the Lord is held forth and both right and effective.  In the course of the psalm eight marks or fruits of the fear of the Lord are presented.

1. Upright (v. 2):  As we walk in the fear of the Lord we do not have to cower in shame or insecurity.   A good spiritual, emotional posture becomes more natural.

2. Righteousness (v. 3): A fruit of enduring in the fear of the Lord is an enduring righteousness that is the very righteousness of Christ (2 Cor 5:21).

3. Gracious (v. 4): A mark of the fear of the Lord is graciousness because we know our accomplishments are completely rooted in Christ so we are able to be patient with others.

4. Compassion (v. 4): Another mark is compassion for those who have not yet surrendered their heart to the fear of the Lord and are stuck in their folly (Prov 1:7).

5. Generosity (v. 5): With the fear of the Lord the temporalness of greed makes less sense to us and frees us to be joyously generous.

6. Integrity (v. 5): As we are gripped by the fear of the Lord all gains not achieved with the character of God are seen for the loss they truly are.

7. Steadfastness (v. 7): Once our motivation is rooted in the fear of the Lord the despair, insecurity, and laziness that lures us to quit dissipates.

8. Benevolence (v. 9): Finally, the great freedom of the fear of the Lord is that we are all sinners saved by grace—unmerited favor—and are thereby freed to extend to others what they have not deserved in the name of Christ.

Longing that Come to Nothing (v. 10)

We are all motivated by the desires of our heart (James 4:1-3).  The sad truth is that sin never pays on its promises.  The great hope of this verse—which almost seems to end the psalm on a negative note—is that righteous longings are fulfilled.  When sin comes up short we are left in fear (not the fear of the Lord) and we experience the reverse of the eight marks above.  Go back to the evaluations you made in verse 1.  Look at the areas where you tend not to walk in the fear of the Lord.  How have you seen the opposite of the eight marks above manifest themselves in your life during those times?

Introduction to the “Living Our Faith” series.

Learning God One Attribute at a Time: God is Personal

GOD IS PERSONAL (A Definition): God has the ability to relate interpersonally and does so.  God is neither aloof nor disinterested in His creation.  God is aware of and concerned about the details of our lives.  God is able to sympathize with the struggles we face in a fallen world.  It is God’s nature to be active and involved.

Passages Describing God as Personal – Matt 10:28-31; Psalm 56:8-11; Rom 8:26-27; Heb 4:14-16

Questions About Your Ability to Rest in “God as Personal” – Do you struggle to believe that God cares for you personally?  Do you believe God only loves you generically (because He loves everybody)?    Do you believe God is only concerned about the “big events” of your life, making the day to day choices drab or meaningless?  What would life and faith be like if God were not personal?

Questions About Your Ability to Emulate “God as Personal” – Do you avoid being vulnerable with others?  When do you resist making yourself known because of a fear of rejection or giving others power over you?  How does this reveal a desire to be approved by people (the fear of man) greater than a desire to be approved by God (the fear of the Lord)?  How does being personal open conversation towards God and the Gospel?