05 July 2018

Ezekiel Joseph Carlton

I go through so many ups and downs when it comes to keeping a regular writing schedule.  Deadlines were my friend in college -- not because they would motivate me to work harder and sooner, but because I was a good enough student that I couldn't miss one.  I called myself a "pressure writer," because although I would start a paper as soon as it was assigned, and maybe touch on it here and there as the semester went on, I would -- in true procrastinator form -- invest heavily in the final days before the deadline to get the thing written.

"Because," I'd say, "that's when I do my best writing."

Truth or justification, I ended up graduating Magna Cum Laude with my bachelor's degree in 2012, but I've never fully gotten past that whole procrastination thing.

That's why, when my son missed his due date, I simply said that he, like all good Carlton men, was just taking his good old time.

Tara carried to her 41st week, a full seven days beyond our June 8th due date, and was induced on the 14th due to some sudden high blood pressure.  Our son was born on Friday, June 15th at 11:07 in the morning.  Ezekiel Joseph ("Zeke") came into the world crying, with good color, weighing 8 lbs, 1 oz, and stretching to 20.5 inches in length.  After two recovery days in the hospital, we were able to take him home on Father's Day, Mama and baby boy both healthy and feeling great.  Zeke regained (and surpassed) his birth weight by his 10-day checkup, is rapidly becoming a pro at sleeping most of the night, and is what I can only describe as the most chill baby I've ever met.  He prefers to sleep in the powerlifting stance, remains unperturbed by Kaylee's incessant barking at the neighbors, and -- unlike his father -- is incredibly punctual about his eating schedule.  He'll be three weeks old tomorrow, is already showing signs of smiling and laughing, and I'm trying really, really hard not to be THAT first-time social media dad.  Never in my life have I been so quick to pull out my phone to take pictures (#whatishappeningtome?).

I've been asked about the name choice, which we somehow managed to keep a secret from everyone until Zeke was born (though many tried to bully or trick us into revealing ahead of time).  Ezekiel means "God will strengthen."  Our son's biblical namesake is also called the Watchman of Israel, and while many of his Spirit-inspired words contain harsh, ugly truth, his message of judgment is tempered by the tenderness of God's unfathomable love for his people.  We pray that Zeke too will be a truth-teller, a man who won't refuse the messages, instructions, and tasks God sovereignly places on His life.

Joseph means "God will increase."  In the Bible, Joseph is a man who experienced intense betrayal at the hands of his family, but also knew the steadfast love of the Lord, who intended good even in the evil Joseph experienced.  Tara and I desire for our Ezekiel Joseph to know firsthand God's steadfast love and kindness, and to respond to every circumstance of his life with the knowledge that God is faithful, and has his best interests at heart.

In other words, his names are lessons and reminders.

God will strengthen you, Zeke.  Remember that.  Contrary to popular belief, He WILL give you more than you can handle -- so that you can learn to trust His strength above your own.  The Scriptures resound with God's good, invigorating promises to His children.  His Word and power do not fail.

Remember: God will only increase His goodness to you, Zeke.  Again, contrary to popular belief, that won't mean you'll experience the rags-to-riches-American-dream kind of increase, or that you will live your "best life" now.  But it will mean that God will give you more of Himself, lavishing grace upon grace on your life, and will continually prove Himself to be faithful.

Tara and I waited on the Lord for our first child, and in His good timing, He granted our request.  We are so blessed to be parents that we can't stop thanking Him for the gift of little Zeke.  To all those who were praying along with us, THANK YOU as well -- your prayers have been effective, and we've undeniably felt them at work.

Suffice it to say that God has both strengthened us and increased His goodness in our lives.

While procrastinating to write for a blog or to sketch out the next chapter in a novel is one thing, procrastinating to begin teaching my son is something else entirely.  There truly is no time like the present.  Lord willing, I'll start kicking my deadline habit once and for all -- if only to invest in my boy today.  And tomorrow.  And every day thereafter.

05 February 2018

2017-2018 Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl LII Champions: "In all that he does, he prospers"

Bob Dylan's classic song, "With God on Our Side," resounds with cynicism.  It's an anthem against religious justification for acts of violence, racial subjection, and blind obedience that supersedes rational thought and conscience.  It exposes a sentiment that can be ultra-personal ("God won't judge me for this tiny infraction"), denominational ("Anabaptists deserve execution"), cultural ("God has called us to subject and educate the Native Americans"), or national ("The United States is the Promised Land").  Some of it takes the self-righteous positive stance, and some of it takes the damning negative stance against the other.  People often speak of God as a celestial cheerleader who lends support to a cause or grants divine favor to a particular group or movement.

More accurate is the position of Romans 3.10: "As it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one.'"  Therefore, God's "position" is much more akin to the sentiment Treebeard expresses to the Hobbits in The Two Towers: “Side?  I am on nobody's side, because nobody is on my side, little orc.”

All that said, as a battered but hopeful Eagles fan, who has been soaking in all the hype leading up to and surrounding this phenomenal Super Bowl LII victory, the season has been a fascinating insight into what God does when people seek to worship Him in their personal lives.

It would, of course, be poor theology to suggest that God is an Eagles fan (despite jasper stones around the heavenly throne, just sayin'), and just as ridiculous to impose that God's attentions are riveted to our modern-day gladiator competitions.  But at the forefront of the 2017-2018 Eagles team are three incredible leaders (Pederson, Wentz, and Foles), surrounded by a united body of brothers in Christ, who have collectively gone out of their way to proclaim their love for and devotion to our Heavenly Father, giving Him the glory for their skills and their victories.  That is something absolutely extraordinary -- not just within the NFL, but in all pro sports.

It's one thing to have the stereotypical "I thank God and my family" media soundbites from your super-star.  It's a rare but great thing to have a single, sold-out believer on your team who radically speaks to the media about his or her faith.  But it's another thing entirely when you have a core group of player and coaches who -- in every single interview with the media -- unanimously credit Jesus Christ not only with gifting them with talents, but also with changing their lives and motivating them to humility, self-sacrifice, and servanthood.  The Eagles are on a whole other level with this.  The testimonies of Pederson, Wentz, and Foles have all received attention simply because they're the ones most often confronted with microphones, but there are so many others -- among them, Stefen Wisniewski, Jordan Hicks, Trey Burton, Chris Maragos, Torrey Smith, Marcus Johnson, Zach Ertz, and others.  This is a team where players like Chris Long not only donate their paychecks to charity, but also do short-term missions work (Carson Wentz, Torrey Smith), and aspire to become pastors post-NFL (Nick Foles).  This is a team where players not only attend team chapel (out of devotion rather than obligation), but also preach at team chapel.  These are teammates who have held baptisms in their locker room, who have taken every opportunity after games to pray on the field with members of the opposing team, and who deflect media ego-stroking with humble recognition of God's sovereignty.

And there's plenty to brag about, of course.  Their athleticism, team play, and individual stats -- setting franchise and league records -- all speak for themselves.  In fact, if the Eagles were just a bunch of decent players surrounding a star quarterback, there is no way their season could have continued after Wentz's injury, much less secured a Super Bowl victory.  Instead, they fought on, adapted, and continued to play their absolute best, having some incredible fun in the process, and proving that they truly had greatness.  In the process of losing key players left and right all season long yet going on to defeat the greatest team in recent NFL history, there have been plenty of opportunities for self-pity and arrogance alike, but so many players' testimonies of faith -- though tested by fire -- have all proven strong.

The implication of this is certainly not that God is an Eagles fan or that He's "on our side" simply because Eagles players repped Him in postgame interviews.  But it is certainly a biblical principle that God blesses the work of the faithful.  Psalm 1.1-3 attests to this: "Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.  He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers."  The beauty of this principle is that, in terms of God's kingdom, such prospering is both micro- and macroscopic.  It works like this: God shows Himself to be faithful by honoring the work of a righteous man's hands (i.e. career choices, ministry involvement, and even skill development).  As God shows Himself to be faithful, the righteous man gives God glory and worship and praise, not mistaking the tangible blessing as his ultimate reward, but as a small display of God's unfathomable grace.  As he does so, others see and testify, and they too give God glory and worship and praise.  And so the cycle continues.  It's not about God blessing the temporal things we do on this earth, it's also about Him blessing our eternal investments into His Kingdom, which isn't primarily about the big stuff -- missions trips, social work, etc -- but about our every-day, Romans 12:1-2 worship.  Don't make the mistake of seeing this as the absolute nonsense of prosperity doctrine: God does NOT always make us wealthy and healthy just because we're obedient or have strong faith.  He does, however, honor the righteous who aren't looking for an immediate reward, but who do their very best to worship God in everything, whatever the consequence, and keep their eyes on the REAL reward of eternity with Christ.

Nowhere is that principle more clearly illustrated than in our franchise quarterback.  Since Carson's injury in Week 14 against LA, I've been telling friends and family that he has an even greater testimony to give from the sidelines than he does from the pocket.  For a man whose love for Christ and joy in everything he does are so obvious to go out with a season-ending injury, but still maintain his demeanor and remain committed to being a coach, leader, and teammate from the sidelines -- and to rejoice with his backup as he assumes leadership and brings the team to a championship...  This is a much more powerful statement to who Carson Wentz is as a follower of Christ, and how awesome is the God we serve!  Interestingly enough, that's exactly the biblical model of discipleship: one leading and instructing while another watches and learns, then humbly stepping aside to allow the other to take the helm and become the leader.  Sometimes circumstances demand that the transition happens sooner than expected, and the real test of a man's maturity is in how he responds when things don't go the way he planned.

Dylan was right to criticize sins justified by religion and race.  The only one who can justify is God, and He didn't sweep our sins under the rug and pretend like they didn't happen.  Instead, He came in the form of a man to pay for all of our misdeeds, and to graciously give us His own righteousness instead of the eternal death we deserved.  The beauty of entering into new spiritual life with Christ is that He engages with us as we, by His Spirit, align ourselves to Him -- to be on HIS side.  He blesses the work of our hands for His glory and for our good.

I believe that's what we witnessed with this Eagles team all season long: God's blessing for honest and visible faith on the field.  While that doesn't guarantee a Philadelphia dynasty or even a repeat Superbowl run for 2018-2019, it does mean that God has always honored and will honor humble, righteous men for their love, devotion, and service to Him -- either in this world or in Heaven to come.

04 January 2018

Spirit-Mindedness and a New Year

For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
- Romans 8.5-6

It's easy to blame a lack of peace on our circumstances.  If only I wasn't up against this issue, if only I didn't have to do that thing, if only I wasn't so (fill in the blank).  We tend to deflect responsibility onto the things that are outside of our control rather than acknowledging the things that are inside our sphere of influence, because it's easier on our pride to be an innocent victim than it is to be guilty.

A big reason we struggle with ingratitude and anxiety throughout the year, and then feel communally guilty around the holiday season about not being more consistently thankful, is that we tend to set our minds on things of the flesh.  We allow ourselves to buy into the frenetic pace of life and wonder why the chaos has crept from our color-coded, spreadsheet calendars into our hearts.

"If only I weren't so busy!"  "If only I didn't have to get all of that stuff done!"

Poignantly, after encouraging believers to "set their minds on the things of the Spirit," Paul goes on in Romans 8 to say that minds set on the flesh instead are actually openly hostile toward God, because they submit only to their own laws and desires, not to His.  Ultimately, in this idolatrous and distracted state of mind, we render ourselves incapable of pleasing Him.

The Greek word translated as "set their minds" is "phroneo," which means to possess a consistent attitude or a certain view.  Therefore, if I'm "setting my mind" on the Spirit, it's something characteristic and ongoing, not an on-again/off-again thing.  Note that we can do this either with the Spirit, or with the flesh, which means one way or the other is my consistent attitude or certain view.

Setting my mind on the flesh isn't merely a distracted thought life, it's a distraught thought life, and Paul warns that this practice is akin to spiritual death.  That's a big deal, because we as Christians have been bought and justified through the blood of Jesus Christ and deemed eternally righteous before God the Father on the account of the Son.  It's therefore a HUGE problem for us to go back to old ways of thinking, to characteristic types of feeling and operating we did while we were still spiritually dead, because that's no longer who we are.

Do you, like me, sometimes lack peace of mind?  Do you, like me, sometimes focus more on the negative circumstances and heavy demands of life on earth rather than orienting your heart on the character of God and His calling for your life?  Do you, like me, wrestle with a spirit of ingratitude?  If so, then here are three steps we both can take toward Spirit-mindedness in this new year.

1. Maintain a proper focus: I can't control my circumstances, but I can control my attitude.

I might not always like what comes my way, but I can control the ways in which I speak of my circumstances, how much and in what manner I dwell on them, and altogether be proactive to manage my time and resources well.  The struggle to maintain a spirit of gratitude is greatly augmented by a proper focus: God is good, He has blessed me abundantly through His Son, and He has a plan that I might not yet comprehend.  To set my mind on the things of the Spirit is to focus not on how difficult things are, but to choose to see God's hand in everything and trust Him with the outcome.

2. Maintain a proper thought life: I should be sober-minded, not absent-minded.

Eastern meditation practices are all about emptying the mind in order to find inner peace.  This is where Biblical principles of meditation part ways with Zen culture: our goal as Christians is not to be absent-minded and thereby open ourselves to temptation and forgetfulness, or to relinquish control of our often sinful imaginations, but to do the exact opposite.  1 Peter 5.8 warns Christians to be vigilant and sober-minded because the battle to maintain Spirit-mindedness requires us to be cognizant,  level-headed, and in control of our faculties as we face all manner of choices and temptations.  If I don't strive to control my thoughts and my feelings, I will inevitably drift into self-centered patterns of thinking, giving myself over to a complaining spirit and any anxieties that might come my way.  That's neither a recipe for knowing God's peace, nor is it even remotely what righteous living should look like.

3. Maintain proper self-discipline: Prayer and the Word must be priorities.

Lastly, it is virtually impossible for me to truly be Spirit-minded, knowing peace and gratitude, if my personal fellowship with God isn't truly a priority.  In the same way that I can't maintain a healthy relationship with my wife if we spend all of our time together in front of the TV or focusing on our hobbies, I also can't have intimacy with God if I allow my schedule and my concerns to take precedence over my regular, focused prayer life and study time in His Word.  These disciplines are just that -- practices that require time, work, and attentiveness -- but they are instrumental in maintaining Spirit-mindedness and orienting us away from our human tendency to focus only on the things of this world.

Each of these principles is but one step.  If you think of them like stepping stones crossing a river, you know that it will take more than just three to make it safely to dry land: you must repeat those steps.  Again.  And again.  A new year might represent a fresh calendar start, but all of those cares and concerns you had before the holidays began are already audaciously un-pausing themselves and leaping back into view, I'm sure.  Maintaining Spirit-mindedness across each proverbial river is to take careful steps, navigating the inevitable circumstances of life with renewed focus, thought life, and self-discipline.  Don't make the mistake of seeing yourself as a victim, no matter what's in your past: instead, proactively take responsibility to respond well to stress and challenge, no matter how unfair, by leaning into the grace and wisdom of God, both of which are readily available to us as we make each crossing.