25 February 2021

Things we can't share (and are totally happy about it): AKA 9 Years of Wedded Bliss

Show of hands.  How many of you, like me and Tara, have a running #thingswecan'tshareonFacebook list?

That list includes hilarious slip-ups, memorable comments, and intimate things that -- on one hand -- we immediately want to share when they happen for the inevitable reactions we know we'd get.  But then we remember in the nick of time that we have reputations.

Filters are kind of important.  We use them for drinking water, air purification, and for internet content.  They protect us primarily from bad stuff getting in.  But they can also protect us from overexposing, venting, or damaging our personal image.

As I was working on our 2020 Christmas letter to friends and family this past December, trying to whittle the year down to some of the major events worthy of recounting, I was reminded that there are so many precious moments that Tara and I share.  So many inside jokes and silly memories -- things that still make us belly-laugh when we recall them, but things that only we would truly find funny, cute, or worthy of recounting.  They also happen, in many cases, to be things that would also be deeply embarrassing if they actually made their way onto social media...

And all of them are things we wouldn't trade for anything.

We live in a world that abides by the creed, "Pics or it didn't happen."  So we share everything for the validation.  We overexpose because we live for the likes.  All of our experiences feel more legitimate and exciting when they're community experiences.  We video and share our kids' special and embarrassing moments, because we like to know that we're not alone in our parenting struggles.  We broadcast our "failure to properly adult" to reassure ourselves that other people are lazy and irresponsible too.  Every nook and cranny of our lives, no matter how ugly, can become spotlight avenues for exploring our sense of self-worth.

Thriving off of the opinions and reactions of others might fall into a Type A personality block in the sociologist's book, but in biblical terms it's actually called the fear of man (Prov 29.15) and it can truly undermine our worship of God and our ability to properly love, value, and serve the people God has placed in our lives.  After all, instead of using others to stroke our own egos, our primary objective as Christians is to model the missional mindset of Jesus, which is to serve (Mark 10.45).

I find myself identifying with Captain America at the end of Avengers: Endgame when pressed on his relationship with June Carter.
This is just a short little post directed to husbands and wives, intended to think together with you about the benefits of protecting certain things and treasuring secret moments with your spouse.  If you're married and reading this, remember that the #thingswecan'tshareonFacebook list is a special thing for you and your spouse.  Not everything in your marriage needs to be proclaimed from the social media rooftops.  There are so many private things between me and Tara, special things afforded to us by our marriage covenant, that are privileged moments.  You and your spouse would be better served protecting those things by sharing them only between the two of you, than by giving other people windows into the special things that should stay between you.

Today, Tara and I are celebrating our 9th wedding anniversary.  Throughout the course of our decade-long relationship, we've been recording our memories and moments -- our road trips, house purchases, and coffee dates -- but it wasn't until 2018 when a certain little boy came into our lives, and then a little girl two years later, that our Photos libraries truly began exploding our cloud storage.  We are certainly guilty of overexposing our kids on Facebook (I mean, who could blame us?  Our kids are darn cute), but even in that realm, we would be wise to beware of how much we conflate real life and social media.  Sometimes the precious moments we have are cheapened by sharing them; sometimes the value of a memory is found in the bounds of privacy.

Maybe at the heart of this post is a statement about maintaining an appropriate level of marital and familial transparency.  On one hand, I believe that Christian marriages and families are called to a community of accountability.  It's called the Church, and being part of it means surrendering my rights to my independence.  It's critical that we are transparent with one another so that we don't fall into undiagnosed or unaddressed patterns of sin.  But at the same time, there is also a sacredness to be preserved in our marriages, a privacy and protection warranted by having and holding none other from this day forward.  Over-publicizing on a public platform is often the natural result of over-publicizing in smaller settings: how much of my marriage am I comfortable sharing with close friends?  Family?  Do I have a tendency to complain about my spouse, our children, the challenges we face as couples, etc -- all without my spouse knowing what I'm revealing, much less being comfortable with that level of detail?  Are our divulgences TMI, or are they sensitive to the fact that our marriages are to be upheld in honor, mutual respect, humility, and propriety?

So here's a post on social media about the stuff you shouldn't post on social media.  What a world we live in.  Would you join me in striving to protect what is precious in your marriage by seeking to love and respect your spouse, preserving your special intimacy and allowing no outside influence or internal friction to damage your unity?

Live together, laugh together, rejoice together, worship together.  Share what's appropriate with others, ask for help when you are lost, and commit to having the same conversation again and again -- if that's what's necessary to persevere.  Relish the things you can share with absolutely no one but your spouse.  Remember the command of Hebrews 13.4, which demands the marital union and all the intimate things that go along with it should be protected and upheld.

That's been my goal for the last 9 years.  Lord willing, Tara and I will maintain that for the next 9 and beyond.

Sweetheart, thanks for laughing at me and with me all this time.  I love you.

February 25, 2012

28 August 2020

Three personal blessings in 2020

2020 has claimed another casualty.  The other night, I had to retire my faithful French press after it slipped off the drying rack, hit the countertop, and cracked.  I felt like playing "Taps" as I reverently laid it in the trash can.  And then swept a bunch of veggie ends on top of it.

Believe it or not, this is something of a gratefulness post, because in the midst of the 2020 pandemic, a broken French press is just about the worst thing that has happened to me and my family.  It is incredible to me when I pause to think about the innumerable and unspeakable hardships that have befallen our world: death and permanent health impairment from Covid-19, unemployment, debt, riots and looting, isolation, fear, loss.  For me, things have remained fairly consistent, and that is an incredible mercy from the Father.  Many people who I know have not had the same experience.

Each morning as I've walked the dog, my prayer time has started with simple gratitude to the Lord: "Father, thank you for the breath in my lungs today."  As I've studied the Scriptures, I've been challenged that so much hinges on the Christian's ability to pursue and maintain a spirit of thanksgiving.  Simple gratefulness is the enemy of a host of sins -- see Ephesians 5.4, where a simple spirit of thanksgiving is the antidote to "sexual immorality, impurity, covetousness... filthiness, foolish talk, and crude joking"; and 1 Thessalonians 5.18, where giving thanks is connected to giving voice to (rather than "quenching") the Spirit.  It's alarming the weeds of entitlement, bitterness, and arrogance that spring up in the hard, mineral-deprived soil of ingratitude.

Here are some things that I've chosen to be intentionally grateful for over the last few months.  In truth, they were unexpected, positive "fallout" of the pandemic and quarantine experience, and I couldn't honestly ignore them.

My family.  Even through the hardships, discouragements, and uphill journeys, my greatest joy in life is being a husband and a father.  My son turned two in June, and my wife is now 7 months pregnant with our first daughter.  Working from home for the months of March through May, to be present for some amazing developmental moments in Zeke's young life, was such an unforeseen blessing.  I've on-and-off been "that dad" -- the one who is constantly taking pictures of his kid (never thought I'd be "that dad," by the way) -- and looking back at many of the shots I snapped during the spring, it's amazing to me to see all those profound but subtle changes in his face, voice, and mannerisms.  Those are precious moments for which I was able to be home, by God's grace.  Were the world experiencing more "normal" circumstances, I might have only experienced those changes more indirectly.

My church.  The people who comprise Fellowship Bible Church have found ways to stay united through it all.  Their love and support for our leadership has been such a blessing in a time where it has felt like our hands have all been collectively tied.  Through extended online church and frustrating social distancing requirements upon reopening, our people have simply gathered to fellowship and worship.  All of these circumstances have served to show that God's Great Commission purposes for His Body pervade even a scenario that ground the rest of the world to a halt.  Even the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church (Matt 16.18).  The hardships reveal who is truly invested in spiritual growth and edification, and force us to be inventive in how we continue to do what we have always done.  I'm thankful for a persevering church family, held unerringly by the One who is "able to keep you from stumbling" (Jude 24).

The internet.  As a youth pastor, I find myself criticizing more than celebrating things like the internet, social media, and video games.  However, the long period of separation from extended family, friends, and my students reminded me anew that all tools are only as good as what they're used for.  In 2020, we have witnessed both the ills and the gains of media and technology: ugly conspiracy theories going viral, racism not being exposed for the purpose of change but filmed for the sake of outrage and backlash, media outlets functioning as judge and jury for events with absolutely no clear context, memes substituting for rational arguments, conversation undermined by accusation.  But Zoom was truly a godsend for us in youth ministry, Facebook live was so beneficial for conducting online prayer times, and FaceTime became a means for me to continue direct and vital counseling.  I praise God for the common grace in these tools that have enabled us to maintain the immense priority of meeting and fellowshipping together (Heb 10.25).

These are just three things that have given me pause to celebrate in 2020.

To be honest, I've not always maintained this type of attitude.  I've been prone to anxiety and quick to complain -- even eager to complain about restrictions and mandates that have been laid down from the powers that be.  I've needed all the inconveniences of 2020 to help me realize my dependence upon things less than Christ.  It's also an indictment of my heart that I've not always been this intentionally grateful, in 2019 and years past, prior to the world being turned upside down by a virus.  As the year rolls on, it is my intent to further grow in this discipline, and in so doing allow the Lord more fertile, submissive soil in my heart in which to work.

09 March 2020

Some personal study notes on the Book of James

The quiet time regimen that I put together for our teens recently took us through the book of James.  As I was reading, I was reminded that James is sometimes called the "Proverbs of the New Testament" because it contains lots of practical wisdom and can seem to jump from topic to topic.  However, there are also some big, connecting themes that unites the epistle into more than just a loose string of pithy truths.

James' epistle is a text dedicated to wholeheartedness in the life of the believer: the total unity of body, mind, and heart -- of faith and works -- in comprehensive worship of the Lord.  The antithesis of this is divided allegiance between God and the world (4.4), doubt (1.6), double-mindedness and instability (1.8), confusion (3.16), and lack of true saving faith (2.14).  James writes to persecuted churches, dispersed from their homes, to remind them of their calling and to warn them of how easy it would be to allow their circumstances to dictate how they act and think, and what they believe.  Most of these churches were comprised of Jewish Christians, which meant they carried a lot of cultural baggage with regard to how to properly understand and practice the Law in the light of the gospel, and so James spends a lot of time talking about how to properly apply what he calls the "Law of Liberty" -- not de-systematized freedom from religious obligation, but rather heart-felt obedience to the commands of Christ, done as a response to the free grace of salvation, not as a duty-bound means of obtaining it.

Recorded below are some observations I jotted down as I was reading.

[Jas 1.1-18]  James addresses his epistle to the Jewish believers scattered by persecution from their fellow, non-believing Jews (see Acts 8.1-3). This opening section of his letter deals primarily with believers' appropriate responses to suffering, trials, and temptations, as well as helping them to understand the sovereign hand of God in these unfortunate circumstances.  In fact, the believer is to see all trials as a means of perfecting faith, not cause to blame the Almighty for leading them astray.  From the hand of God comes the Christian's eternal security, any blessings we might receive this side of heaven, and also the trials were experience, which serve the function of helping us change our perspectives on what truly matters.  God's goodness is what gave us this existence to begin with.  The believer, facing enormous difficulty, has only to petition the Lord for wisdom, asking in faith, and God will supply.

[1.19-27]  James exhorts the believers to wait for the righteousness of God, even in persecution: man's wrath won't produce justice or settle the conflict, but God's measured wrath -- one day -- will settle all scores.  Our calling is to meekly receive the truth of the gospel, which preserves our souls beyond the experience of suffering.  In the meantime, what is required of those who would persevere toward the crown of life (1.12)?  Answer: the exercise of self-control, sacrificial service, personal integrity (1.26-27).  This type of lifestyle means putting the commands and priorities of God's Word into practice, moving beyond merely hearing and intellectually receiving its teaching, and actually exercising the faith and gifts we've received from the Holy Spirit  Someone who does not live as the Word commands is self-deceived, because he thinks he is pleasing the Lord simply by hearing but not responding.  Such might be the excuse of Christians experiencing hardships and trials, such as persecution, but this is James' call to faithfulness: true believers hear and obey God's Word by doing what it says, no matter the circumstances, because we have a joy that transcends our trials and orients us toward eternity.

[2.1-13]  Speaking to Jewish believers in dispersion, James has an audience that could easily slip back into old ways of thinking -- obeying the Law not from a place of faith, but a place of obligation, preferring certain peoples over others, especially other Jews over Gentile believers, or expecting God to change their misfortunes as a result of their obedience.  The Church is growing and expending and diversifying under persecution; there is no room for Christians within the Body to treat others with class distinctions in the way pagan communities might.  There is to be no inequality of personhood in the Church -- hence the special care for orphans, widows, and the destitute (1.27).  The Church is to vibrantly stand out against the culture by its radically different approach to serving one another, not abusing one another -- that's what the persecutors were doing to the Christians!  The entirety of the Law was captured by Jesus: to love the Lord and to love your neighbor as yourself.  This "law of liberty," and the constraints placed upon believers by the Apostles' teaching (via the Holy Spirit), are altogether the standard of holiness promoted by OT law, a standard which must be embraced in the heart in order for mercy (2.13) to truly be shown.  One cannot hope to show mercy to others if one has not first received mercy from God.

[2.14-26]  This conversation, which began with James' exhortation to be doers of the Word and not just hearers (1.22), is pressing toward this key theological understanding: obedience to the Law and obedience to the Word are the manifestation of true saving faith.  James is clearly referencing Deuteronomy 6.4-5, the Shema, which Jewish believers would have quoted and known, but which may not have inspired active, wholehearted obedience to the commandments that follow.  A faith that has no obedience is a dead and useless faith.  This was the condition of ancient Israel, and the Church was already in danger of its members following the same pattern.  Abraham and Rahab both demonstrated this principle: they believed, which justified them before God and counted (imputed) as righteousness for salvation, but that faith was also verified ("justified" or "vindicated" is the word James uses) before men by their works of obedience.  Believers must -- will -- follow this example, because they are transformed (see 2 Cor 5.17).  Faith, when it is true and saving, produces in the believer a receptive and obedient heart.  All Christians must therefore demonstrate a faith + works, Romans 12.1-2 lifestyle, which is adherence to the Law of Liberty: freedom from sin, freedom to righteousness, both in status before God and in demonstrable conduct before men.

[3.1-12]  In discussing the Christian's earthly goal (pure and undefiled religion before God -- 1.26-27), James foreshadowed a longer conversation regarding the necessity of self-control and reputation with regard to the tongue.  After discussing the critical nature of works that prove/verify the Christian's faith, he connects this idea to the topic of edifying, gospel-centered speech.  This comes with another warning: as we will be held accountable for our actions, so also we will be held accountable for our words and what they reveal of our hearts (see Matt 12.36).  This standard is high for all Christians, but it is even higher for those who are teachers -- elders, leaders, mentors, influencers in the Church.  This is because the tongue has incredible power to edify or demolish, to lead to truth or to deceive.  Furthermore, the mark of maturity is found in self-control in our speech.  How and what we communicate are representative of Christ and how we have been shaped by Him.  How we speak to others should not usurp God's place of judgment (4.11).  Wisdom is ultimately the discretion of knowing how to speak and act in a manner that is pleasing to the Lord and edifying to man (3.13).  God is not pleased by a believer who talks out of both sides of his mouth, is culturally profane, unrestrained, or immature in speech.  Speech is a defining quality, for it is out of the heart that the mouth speaks, and therefore acquits or condemns (1.26-27; 3.6; Matt 15.18).

[3.13-18 James is not interested just in actions and works: humans can be pharisaical, boasting of our piety and wisdom but harboring selfishness, pride, and bitterness inside.  Our works should verify our faith in the "meekness of wisdom" -- that is, a humility of the heart demonstrating that truth has penetrated not just our heads, but also our hearts.  All of our speech and conduct should be windows into our hearts.  Wisdom is the right knowledge of how to speak and act in a God-honoring, man-edifying manner, and it comes from a place of internal transformation.  The sign that this genuine change has happened is found in how the individual responds to criticism, hardships, and people: are we compassionate and merciful?  Are we approachable and humble?  Are we patient and gentle?  Are we sincere?  Do we only choose to listen to people who think like we do?  Are we in the business of seeking and making peace?  These are the characteristic pursuits of a heart transformed, manifesting faith via proper speech and conduct.  The opposite will eventually be revealed for what it truly is: wanton selfishness, ambition, disorder, vile and demonic practices.  But ultimately, the harvest -- at the end of the "season" -- is what will reveal the wheat and the chaff (see 5.7-8).  True, God will judge our works (5.9), but first He judges our hearts to ensure they belong to Him.

[4.1-10]  The types of disorder, vile practice, and selfish ambition that James referenced in 3.16 are the underlying source of conflict among the believers in 4.1ff.  When we exercise the "meekness of wisdom" (3.13), we practice peacemaking selflessness; when we are motivated by self-centered arrogance, we are exercising friendship with the world, and trending down the progression of sin (see 1.14-15).  The underlying issue is the motive: the heart wants, creates idols, and craves.  This lifestyle is more becoming a child of the world than a child of God, for whom Christ paid the highest price.  Perhaps the single most important factor in our relationship to God (and to others!) is a spirit of humility, which provides the necessary platform for the selfless type of love that does not seek its own way (1 Cor 13.5).  The Christian must submit himself to God, not to his own desires.  This type of genuine humility brings great reward in God's kingdom.

[4.11-5.6]  While arrogant and judgmental behavior is unbecoming a believer in any scenario, it is especially damaging when such behavior is directed toward another Christian.  Christ has redeemed both individuals; how can you presume to act as the Lawgiver when there is only One who can adequately and justly fulfill this role?  Whether or not a brother has wronged us, our role in conflict is still subordinate to the Law and its Lawgiver; none of us is the Judge, jury, and executioner of God's Law!  James is shifting in this section to addressing presumptuous behaviors, which result from arrogance and are the enemy of the applications his epistle has been pressing.  Overconfidence in presuming on time and financial security are both attitudes with an unwarranted sense of entitlement.  Time is in the hands of the Maker and is only a gift to be used appropriately while it is here.  We aren't guaranteed more of it.  Money similarly is not a lasting commodity.  James seems to allude to Jesus' teaching on where treasures should be "laid up" (see Matt 6.16-21), reminding the persecuted believers in dispersion that the pursuit of wealth and prestige did nothing to protect them when persecution came, and would ultimately fail again if that became their aim.  Wealth should never be a means of exploitation or self-indulgence, but exclusively a means of increasing service.  Furthermore, it is the brother of "low degree" (1.9) -- the humble, poor, persecuted believer -- not the comfortably rich land-owner who is in a better position to know everlasting wealth, because he pursues a crown of life that will not perish instead of earthly comfort (1.12).

[5.7-12]  Here, James returns to his opening exhortation: believers should count it a unique opportunity for joy even when trials come.  Suffering is just the waiting process for the inevitable harvest (5.7; 3.18).  The Lord's coming is perhaps "slow" by human reckoning, but it is nevertheless imminent -- that is, it could happen at any moment.  In order to persevere, we must remember the examples of faith and endurance set by our spiritual predecessors.  They too lived through suffering and trials, keeping their eyes on the God of Heaven and the reward at the end.  Even in examples of suffering like Job's, where the suffering seemed heavy and meaningless in the moment, God still proved Himself steadfast and compassionate.  He operates the same way with his children today.  Our confident expectations should be in Him and His promises, not in our abilities or words of oath.  Our obedience is possible because He helps us, not because we swear to fulfill our end of the bargain.  Ultimately, all our boasting must be in Christ (1 Cor 1.31).  The epistle's call for the believer to remain "steadfast" under trials (1.2-4, 12) is only possible because God Himself is steadfast (see Ex 34.6-7).

[5.13-20]  As he concludes the epistle, James reminds the suffering believers of their recourses: prayer and community.  Our prayerful worship can appropriately vary in tone with our current circumstances, but the common thread is a joy surpassing the mere emotions of the moment.  In cases of serious illnesses, suffering believers may request the elders of their church family to pray for them, anointing with oil.  This act is intended to remind the believer of his/her chosen, called, and sanctified status, set apart for the Lord's own purpose.  The prayer of the Apostles and laying on of hands could work miracles of healing by the Spirit's power during the New Testament era; in our modern context, the prayer of the elders, symbolic anointing, and laying on of hands is all done to petition the Lord to act, not to indicate special apostolic power in the elders' authority.  To the contrary, this concluding section of James' letter is driving home the power of prayer, which is intended to work first toward the spiritual healing of souls and the increasing of faith, and second to entrust physical healing to the Lord.  This, of course, does not replace the necessary practical steps of seeking medical aid, nor does it rule out the possibility of the Holy Spirit to perform a spontaneous miracle of divine healing.  As a poignant reminder, James points to Elijah, who was "like us" in faith, and saw God powerfully answer his prayers.  We too serve this one true God, who can act in supernatural ways should He so choose.  Ultimately, the Church community exists for rescue: to evangelize the lost, to encourage the suffering, and to confront and restore the wayward.  James' final point is that steadfastness in all of these areas depends ultimately on prayerful reliance upon God, and that such exercise of prayer must be done completely in faith (1.6).