When the Prodigal Leaves Home

Even a non-reader of the Bible probably knows the story of the prodigal son. While they might not be able to tell you the book, chapter, and verse of the Bible, they do know the basics. They know of a boy who grew up knowing right from wrong and then wandered away from his beliefs and background. This is a universal story of a person growing up into adulthood through the process of making poor decisions.

It is a familiar story to non-believers and believers alike, but it is a painful story for all parents. Its words haunt me as a Christian father. I do not want my children to grow up through mistakes and poor judgment. I want them to do what is right every day for the rest of their lives. For this reason, I continually go to Luke 15 and read this story with my eyes wide open.

When I read this story, I find a few important reminders for me.

1. The Father is Overly Permissive. The story begins with a boy asking for his inheritance. He is basically telling his father that he would rather he was dead. If my children came to me and said, “Dad, I wish you were dead, now give me my share as if you were.” I would say unequivocally, “No way.” Yet, this father who represents God sees a bigger picture. He knows the heart of a young person and doesn’t fight it. Maybe there is little value is yelling them out the door.

2. The Possibility of Prayer. It is not mentioned in the story, but I know this as a parent. I pray and pray and pray for my children. I would like to imagine this dad taking every opportunity to ask God to open his son’s eyes and heart.

3. Plan for a Painful Return. I cannot escape the image of the father seeing his son from a long way off. I picture this old man looking down the road every day with tears in his eyes. I imagine him questioning his own actions. “What did I do wrong as a parent?” And yet, each day he watches and waits, never giving up.

4. He Loves “In Spite Of.” When his son returns, he runs down the road and embraces him. His actions are full of forgiveness and love. He does not question his past or the depths to which he has sunk. The past is left behind, and the focus is on the future.

5. The Place in the Family is Restored. The boy comes home with a speech about how he is willing to live as a hired hand. The father in his grace returns him to his rightful place as a son. There appears to be no lingering judgment or subtle anger toward the boy.

I often wonder if I could be like this father. The parable is about God and reveals his perfect actions as a father therefore I must ask myself, how much I am like God. As my boys go out into the world, I know there will be prodigal seasons. I ask God to let them be short and educational. But I also ask God to prepare me for their actions while he is teaching them.

The prodigal heart is natural for anyone to understand. Finding the father’s heart is difficult for everyone.

A Less Than Perfect Performance

Bored one night my wife and I ended up watching the BRIT music awards. Honestly, I did not even know such a thing existed. It is an award show for the music of the British people and somehow we as Americans got sucked into watching. I assume it happened because my wife enjoys Ed Sheeran music and he was performing, but that is another story.

We watched the show enjoying some music we had never heard before that night. As we watched, I noticed something interesting to me continually resurfacing. The people who won the awards and performed live were not perfect singers. The music sometimes came with a gravelly voice. Many times, you could hear that the singer had very little formal vocal training. They were frequently flat and missed the proper note. And yet, this was the music that people appeared to enjoy the most.

Then I listened to the lyrics. Quite often the songs contained misshapen rhymes forced to fit a particular theme. Sometimes the phrases were very personal, and I had no idea what they were singing about until I did a google search. Their words were a mottled mess that somehow communicated their feelings.

While watching this display of music, my heart was drawn into four songs that I quickly downloaded and have listened to a few times now. Even with modern editing equipment they still have rough edges and oddly formed tunes.

This reminds me that the world is not looking for perfect. They are looking for you.

On an even more profound level, God wants you. He wants you to use your gifts, your words and your story. It is okay if you are not the best in the room. Take the message of God and pull it through your life making your own unique sound. Even if the words are pitchy and misshapen, especially if it is like that, God can touch the life of another person through your story.

Stop striving to be the best and learn to be yourself as God made you.

Don’t Trust Your Preacher in Everything

It will go down in history as one of the most awkward moments in Church history.

The Apostle Peter was a man known for his powerful preaching and witness to the resurrection. He spent three years with Jesus and led the inauguration of the Church. Luke tells the story that one day Peter was sleeping on a roof and had a vision from God. He saw all kinds of animals being let down by a sheet and heard a voice tell him to eat. At that moment, God declared all animals and all people clean. From that moment on Peter shared the gospel with the gentile people and ate their food.

The book of Acts does not record much more of the story. In Acts 15 the Church discusses this change, and the story moves forward. Later, the Apostle Paul writes a letter to the Church in the city of Galatia, and he shares another significant incident. In the second chapter of his letter it says, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face because he was clearly in the wrong.” The next few verses explain that Peter was afraid of a group of Jews, so he started to separate himself and refused to eat with the Gentiles.

Apparently, it was a banner day in the Church at Antioch. They had not one, but two Apostles at Church along with the Barnabas. They were so excited to spend time with them that they held a fellowship lunch and invited everyone to hang around to talk. Paul watches Peter and when he refuses certain foods and then goes to sit at the “Jews Only” table of the lunchroom. Paul gets up and walks across the room and confronts Peter face to face, telling him the error of his ways.

I imagine a silence falls across the room as Paul raises his voice to Peter and Barnabas at their unchristian behavior. Can you say, “Awkward?”

The whole scene reminds me of an essential truth. All preachers, teachers, writers, and speakers are flawed in some way. They are still sinners redeemed through the work of Jesus. It is a warning to all followers of Jesus that human teachers are still prone to errors. Even the great Apostle Peter was wrong in his leadership and actions in front of the Church.

Sometimes I fear that we like something about a leader that we forget their shortcomings. We accept everything without doing our own study and research. We don’t ask questions of the words we are hearing. We trust the teacher and quietly believe everything they say. The honest truth is that no leader is perfect.

Now, that does not mean you have to be a jerk to them, obnoxiously tearing apart every word and idea as God’s critic. It also does not mean that you drink up every word without question. The middle ground of reasonable questions mixed with loving trust is hard to find, but we must seek it.

Peter was wrong. Sometimes I am wrong. Your favorite speaker and teacher are sometimes entirely wrong. It might seem obvious to say, but in the world of the internet, everyone seems to forget that truth.

Weekend Reading

With all the ice in our area, I have been home and reading a great deal lately. Here are some of the best articles I have read.

4 Things I Learned from Stealing Credit Cards and Buying Beer in High School

Adults who went undercover at a high school found 7 things people don’t realize about life for teenagers today – This article is a synopsis of a longer article on Business Insider. Click the link to read the full article.

10 Questions I Wonder if Churches Ever Ask …

Too Busy to Love My Neighbor

What We Did With All Our Free Time

Does It Bother You That God Barred Moses from the Promised Land?

The Little Known Story of Olympian Eric Liddell’s Final Years – Longer article but good stuff if you liked Chariots of Fire.

Essential Questions for Parents Trying to Raise Christian Kids

This month I am the teacher for our youth group program on Sunday nights. This job always turns my focus to our teens and their spiritual life. Each week I am excited to see God working in the lives of our young people in ways even they never imagined.

I am also keenly aware that my words have little impact on these young people compared to their parents. My one or two hours a week are insignificant compared to the number of hours that parents spend with their kids.

I also know that many parents have no idea what kind of impression they are making on their children. So here are a couple of important questions to ask that will help you to assess your influence.

1. Do you have a time each day or each week to teach your children about God?
Do you have any intentional plan to teach them the things of God?

2. Do you model the importance of faith in your own life?
Do your kids see you going to Church, attending a Bible study, reading the scripture, or learning from Christian literature? Much more will be absorbed by what they see than what they hear.

3. Do you encourage your child in Christian relationships?
Every child needs the support and encouragement of another believer to live a life of faith. Do you have any plans to connect them with other Christian teens?

4. Are your children exposed to Christian role models?
My youth group leaders pointed me the right direction with their lives and their words. It is important to have another adult with a Christian influence in the life of your child to whom they are not related.

5. Do you model and encourage Christian service?
Nothing grows your faith quite like serving other people in the name of Jesus. Do your children see you stretching your faith to serve other people? I also believe no one is ever too young to be giving their time in the service of the Lord in some small way. It will grow their faith as they see themselves not just as a taker, but also a giver.

Every year I have conversations with parents who are shocked by the lack of faith in their adult children. In almost every case I know there was a lack of concentrated effort on teaching their child the things of God. Many times, I could have told them what was going to happen years before as I observed little Christian instruction in the home or beyond.

Let me encourage anyone who influences the life of a child. Ask the big questions now and don’t wait until our children are adults to start trying to teach them faith.

When Failure Dominates Your Thoughts

As I was falling asleep last night, my mind went back to one of my failures as a Christian man and leader. I really don’t know why the thought jumped into my head, but it came and completely dominated my thoughts. The events of a failure that happened over ten years ago played in my mind over and over. It was as vivid and frustrating to me as if it had happened yesterday.

I don’t know if this happens because I am introvert and tend to spend much of my life inside my own mind or if it occurs merely because I am a human. There is this tendency within each one of us to replay our failures, mistakes, and sins repeatedly in our heads.

It seems so hard to let go of our past mistakes and sins.

At moments like this, I must remind myself of five fundamental truths I believe as a follower of Jesus.

1. Jesus Forgives Me Completely. The foundation of my faith is that Jesus died on the cross to pay my debt of sin. I believe the cross paid my debt and I am forgiven entirely. It doesn’t matter how I feel about myself because I am forgiven. When my failure comes tapping on my shoulder, I run to Jesus and the cross.

2. Nothing Can Separate Me from the Love of God. Paul affirms in his letter to the Church at Rome that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. I do believe we can choose to walk away from our faith and reject Jesus, but my sin does not mean that Jesus decides to reject me. Just like when my children make mistakes and disobey me it does not mean that they are no longer my kids. God loves me in spite of my flaws.

3. I Do Not Need to Punish Myself. For me, this is an important reality. I frequently fall into the trap of thinking that if I don’t feel wrong about something, then I got away with it. I feel this need to continually feel the weight of my mistake as an effort to bear some of the burdens of my sin. I need to be continually reminded that Jesus paid it ALL.

4. My Life is Not Defined by My Failures. I worry that if people found out about my sin, then I would be branded by some ugly label. My life would be defined as a liar, cheat and failure. Mistakes do not define a believer. Our Lord and Savior is the one who labels us.

5. Get Out of My Head. This seems so simple, but I say to myself repeatedly, “Get out of your head.” If I spend too long inside the darkness of my mind, I can easily believe the lies being whispered in my ear. The temptations of evil are not just to act in an ungodly manner, but also to think wrongly. Sometimes I have to stop and read a passage of the bible or listen to a song or just take a walk outside. I need to clear my head of all the ugliness that goes on in there.

I am sure I am not the only one who struggles with this issue. I think all of us live with some levels of regret and remorse. I hope the next time you find yourself in that place that maybe you will be able to resist the voices inside your head and believe the truth of Jesus.

The Trouble with Doing the Lord’s Work

I am not a very patient person. I want results, and I want them immediately.

The microwave in our house is the perfect symbol of this attitude. Most days the clock on our oven blinks with a number like twelve. This is the result of one member of my family putting something in the microwave and setting the timer for a minute to cook. Then it hits twelve seconds left, and our patience is up, we open the door and immediately begin eating. My parents may have waited for a long time to eat leftovers, but I do not have time for that nonsense.

One of the biggest lessons I have been forced to learn in ministry is waiting on the Lord. God never seems in a hurry. He is not late to do his will, but he is rarely early. Doing his work requires the willingness to wait an extended period of time for results.

This is true if you are trying to lead someone to the Lord for the first time. It is true once they decide and you try to help them grow in their faith. It takes a lifetime to help shape a person into a Godly adult.

Let me be extremely honest with you; this one truth is the reason I continually think about quitting the ministry. I work and work trying to accomplish something for God and most days I see little progress. It gets frustrating, especially if you have a microwave personality.

I imagine this is true for you also. I bet there are days you get discouraged and feel like you are accomplishing so little for God. Your invitations to Church fall on deaf ears. You teach your children, and they appear to ignore you. You invest your life into people who seem to care less. You shine your light in the darkness, and no one seems to be running toward the light.

Let me encourage you today. Don’t give up.

Our God is the God of the harvest. He is methodical and intentional. He works the soil, plants, waters, and waits until the proper season to bring a harvest. Spring may be wet and the summer hot and dry, but that does not mean that God is absent. He is doing his mighty work of creation in the day by day of each passing season.

One day all the work you have done will see its reward. It will not be today and probably not tomorrow, but it will come. Hold on tight and keep working for the Lord. The harvest is coming.

The Heart of Cain

Humanity was fresh out to the Garden of Eden. There now stood an angel of the Lord between Adam and Eve and the tree of life. Like any strong-willed humans, they tried to make the best of a terrible situation. They built a house, started a family and had some children. Two boys are named in the story along with a description of their work. “Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil.” (Gen. 4:2)

Then the story takes a few unexplained turns. Cain is described as bringing in some fruits of the soil as an offering, while Abel brought in his firstborn along with the fat portions. There appears to be a difference in attitude between the two boys. One just tried to do the bare minimum in his sacrifice to God while the other offered his best. There is no real comment made in the text to explain any further, but God looked with favor on Abel’s offering and Cain’s he disapproved. This makes Cain very angry, and his face was downcast (Gen. 4:5).

Finally, Cain takes Abel out into the field where he attacks and kills him. Traditionally the weapon of choice was a stone. We are not given that detail, but since Cain and Abel are in a field, Cain most likely used the closest item as his tool of destruction. It might have been a stone or possibly some farming tool. Whatever he used, Abel is dead, and the first story out of the garden is one of the murder of another human being.

Several things catch me about this story. To begin with, I am amazed that God makes no real comment on Abel’s death. He does not assure Adam and Eve that their son is in a better place. God does not explain what just happened, even though it was the first death on the face of the earth. Cain is cursed, and life moves into the future for everyone but Abel.

The second thing I notice is the motive behind this heinous act. A teacher of mine used to say, “Cain was mad at God, but he took it out on Abel.” Apparently, God had given this original family a plan to help them overcome their sin. He instructed them in sacrifices and atonement that is not known universally until the Old Testament law is received through Moses. The story implies that Cain and Abel knew what God desired, and Cain chose to ignore it and look for a shortcut. His quest for a less costly way to give lead him away from God and he now felt the pain of disapproval. His spiritual failure became manifest in the way he treated his brother.

I often wonder if the real source of his anger was self-hatred. He knew the right thing to do and just ignored it. Then he felt the weight of his sin, and it was a dark stain that would not rub off his soul. He felt the remorse and regret that come with poor decisions. Cain had fallen short of God’s plan, and he felt it deep inside his soul, and his reaction was to hurt the people closest to him.

The world is full of people who hurt one another. The response to these tragedies is to offer up a hundred changes to make our world safer. I rarely hear anyone talking about the real root of the issue is a spiritual problem. I believe the hope for our world is not found in anything outside of Jesus. He came to forgive humanity and make our heart right with God while bringing peace that passes understanding.

Mankind can try to make a long list of rules to stop bad behavior, but if we do not acknowledge the spiritual source of this behavior, we will never find a resolution. We are offering a bandage to fix a broken heart. As long as people live with the self-hatred of a fractured relationship with God, they will find ways to destroy their fellow man.

What the world needs now is the same things it required right out of the garden. We need a Savior. One who will remove the stain on our soul and make us right with God. Only then will we view our fellow man with love and grace.

I do not want to oversimplify a complicated situation, but I also do not want to ignore the spiritual aspects of the events in our world. It is way to easy to pick up our own rocks and throw them at Cain and somehow think we are improving our society. The only gateway to a better world is through sharing the message of Jesus Christ.

A Metal Detecting Parable

Friday is usually my day off. Sometimes it gets adjusted for special events, but it is a pretty sure bet that I am not in the office right now. If I am not in the office, you will usually find me in one of a few places. I am either fishing, hunting, metal detecting, shed antler hunting or shopping for supplies to do one of those activities.

I have found local groups for all these adventures on Facebook. There I can see what other people accomplished, and how they did it. In fact, one of the few things I read on Facebook are the articles posted about my hobbies. I have found it to be a wealth of information that makes my fun time activities more enjoyable.

The other day one of my metal detecting friends had a post with two pictures. The first picture was a handful of silver coins, civil war artifacts and a few pieces of jewelry. Get the picture clearly, one handful of good finds that might have a hundred dollars or more worth of value to the right collector.

The second picture was a pile on the garage floor of metal junk. This guy had literally dug up more than two five-gallon buckets full of trash. Anyone who has ever participated in this hobby knows the world is full of junk items, soda cans, and zinc pennies. There is far more junk in the ground than good things.

Looking at his two pictures, I immediately thought it was a parable of the Christian life. We now live in a world full of information about God, Jesus, faith, and the Bible. There are people, like me, posting hundreds and thousands of articles on the internet every single day. I have dozens of books in my office that are on my “read next” shelf along with another hundred books on my Amazon wish list. We now have more Christian information that we can digest in a lifetime.

The harsh reality is that much of what we will encounter is junk. Some articles do not apply to us. Some books hold no interest to me or are elementary in nature. And there are some things written that just plain wrong. (I really hope you do not believe everything you read, no matter who is the author).

The adventure of being a Christian in 2018 is like being a treasure hunter. You read and expose yourself to thousands of pieces of information, and your job is to find the few little valuable bits to hold onto that will shape your thinking.

My encouragement to you dear Christian is to keep searching. The only way to find those valuable nuggets is to keep digging. Today I will be out there with my coil to the soil and my shovel in hand. I know I might come home with nothing more than trash, but I might also come back with a valuable piece for my collection. The same is true for you. Keep reading, listening, and talking until something profoundly touches you. Life changing truth is out there; you just have to keep looking.

Three Lies Married People Believe

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and my blog feed was full of advice for couples and thoughts about love. Today everything returned to normal, and relationships again slipped to the back of our mind. Personally, I think today is a better day to address the issues of marriage because today is normal. These are the times where marriages are made better or worse.

Today reminds me of three lies married couples believe that are destroying their marriage.

1. One Big Event Will Make My Marriage Better.
Days like Valentine’s Day can lead us to think that if we just remember special days, everything will be fine. If we make a big deal out of Christmas, their birthday, a holiday or even a vacation then all the other junk will be forgotten. Let me be clear; I have never counseled a couple who said, “They do not treat me special on big days.” What I usually hear, “They do not treat me as special every day.”

It does not matter what you do four times a year. It matters what you do and say every single day. It is a lie to believe otherwise.

2. Our Marriage is More Difficult than Others.
I hear this one quite frequently. I suppose it is because most people are so adept at hiding their flaws. They post only the good stuff on social media, they tell just the good stories to friends, and they smile even when they are dying inside. Let me tell you the truth, every couple I know struggles. Even those people who you think have it all together have conflicts. If you were to pull back the veil on their marriage, you would find all kinds of flaws and failures.

Believing this lie makes it easier to give up. We think our marriage is the only one struggling, so it must be a lost cause. It is a lie to believe that your marriage is any more difficult than the average marriage.

3. My Spouse is the Problem in This Marriage.
Please hear me carefully. I am not saying your spouse does not have issues. They do. But, let’s be honest, so do you. You just think your flaws are minor. You think yours are endearing and understandable. Even if you do not have the same problems as your spouse, I bet you struggle with communication. You hide your feelings and thoughts behind your passive-aggressive behavior. Once again, I have never met a couple where one person was the problem. Sure, you may see one of the people’s faults easier, but I assure you, there are problems on both sides.

If you we think the failures in our marriage are the result of my spouse, then we become passive. We believe, “They need to work on themselves, and I will wait till they get it worked out.” Trust me you have flaws of your own that you can be working on right now.

Valentines Day is a great day to celebrate love and declare to the world that you are in a caring relationship. I hope you celebrated and had an enjoyable evening. I also hope you understand that great marriages are built in the days following the holiday. People with long-lasting, wonderful unions are those who ignore the lies they were told, and they do the work that needs to be done. They labor every day to be the best spouse they can be even in the difficult times.

Today is not a holiday of love, but this is a day when real love gets expressed in everything we do.