God in My Work

I am going to let you in on a little secret. Your pastor has no idea what he is doing. And, for that matter, neither do I.

The pastoral ministry requires that you learn most of your skills while on the job. I read my Bible, and I pray diligently. There are conferences and workshops where people try to provide practical information. My office is lined with books about leading a Church and detailed descriptions of various tasks. But most of my lessons have come from trial and error.

Looking back over my years in Church leadership, I have some big regrets. There are things I wish I had said or done differently and times in which I should have behaved or spoken differently. Being a pastor is filled with mistakes, mistimed choices, and blind ignorance.

My leadership requires both the grace of God and the kindness of the people I lead. The fact that anything good happens at all is the result of serving a God bigger than my shortcomings.

What you do is hard too. I am sure you are learning while doing as well. The good news is that not only preachers can count on God to help them. All of us need God’s goodness and mercy, whatever we do. Somehow, he takes our ignorance and makes it work. Today I thank God for showing up one more week in my life to do those things that I cannot. I am also thankful that he did his work in your life too.

Properly Interpreting the Bible

There are two ways of handling a Bible passage.

The first is called exegesis. The word means “to draw out.” In proper exegesis, the reader looks at the passage in context. They examine the overall book in which the test was written, any large subdivisions, the remaining chapter, and the verses before and after it. The words are examined closely, and then all the pieces are put together to draw out the passage’s meaning.

Another way to read the Bible is called eisegesis. In this form of interpretation, the reader has arrived at theological conclusions and reads them into the text. The reader knows what the Bibles says in other places, and so this passage must fit into our already arrived at conclusions.

Every definition I could find online of these two approaches to God’s word clearly explains the failing of eisegesis. Reading the Bible that way opens the meaning to the reader’s interpretation, presuppositions, and agendas. There is no honest way to explain the difference without seeing enormous flaws in improperly handling the text.

And yet, a casual stroll through social media will reveal that most people handle the scripture with eisegesis. Most people come to the Bible with all these preconceived ideas about God, Jesus, and how the world is supposed to work. After all, most of us heard a few stories as kids, attended a VBS, or have been in Church for most Easter and Christmas celebrations. We have reached some well-established conclusions; all we need now is a verse to back it up.

Today my advice is straightforward and yet nearly impossible to do. Here it is: Never read a Bible verse. Never read one verse without context. The moment you read it without the proper context, you are committing eisegesis. You bring all your thoughts, experiences, agendas, and misunderstandings and place them on that passage. Sure, you might get the meaning correct, but you also might be way off the mark.

Believers need to be people who properly handle the word of truth. If we do not do it correctly, then we are setting a terrible precedent for those who are not believers. I know you love that verse, but my question is, do you love it because of what God wants it to mean or because of what you want it to mean?

Just Be There

Her story broke my heart as she described her life with her children.  I asked, “Where is your husband, the children’s father?” She told me he spent most of his time working or pursuing his hobbies, and they didn’t spend much time together.  

His story painted a picture of a marriage that would not last long.  He invited his wife to join him on his many adventures, and she refused.  She didn’t enjoy the same things that he did, so they lived separate lives for several years. 

The pain in her voice was noticeable as she told me about her children.  Now well advanced in years and left alone after her husband of over 50 years passed.  She longed to visit with her children, but they were, according to her description, “busy with their own lives.”

The impact of her father existed not just as a little girl but now as an adult.  She desperately wanted to know the man she called dad.  Be he never seemed to have time for her, and she never completely understood why a conversation and coffee could mean so much. 

Many of the conversations and counseling that I share with people revolves around two topics.  The first is the people who hurt them by their presence.  Numerous people are trying to overcome the pain inflicted on them by others. The second issue is the hurt caused by people’s absence.  The person they loved the most and wanted to connect with in meaningful ways did not have time for them. 

Here is the truth most of us ignore:  we easily recognize the damage caused by evil people, and we never think of the hurt inflicted by absence.  As a result, we can miss the opportunities that exist around us, or worse; we can inflict pain into the lives of people we care about without even recognizing it. 

I continually remind myself and others to be present in the lives of the people you care about and those who care about you.  Your time with them does not have perfect or eventful.  You just have to be there.  I can assure you that someone in this world longs for you to be a part of their life.  They want to sit with you, talk, and enjoy the quiet moments.  Each day you need to remember that one gift you can always give to your loved ones is spending time together.  People do not want you to be perfect; they want you to be present. 

The Appearance of an Effort in Marriage

Going to counseling will not fix your marriage.

Attending worship programs at Church will not solve the issues in your marriage. 

Reading a book will not give you a better marriage. 

Telling your friends, “I am trying,” will not change the situation in your home. 

Admitting your marriage is struggling will not heal your relationship. 

These things are great activities and could help you rebuild your relationship with your spouse, but only if you follow through with the advice you are given. 

Many of the couples I work with are not interested in making their marriage work.  They want to be able to tell their friends that they “made an effort.” This gives them the ability to shift the blame to the spouse so that they can move forward in a new direction without regrets.  The phrase, “Well, I tried,” is usually followed by a list of ways that they worked at it. “I knew we needed help, and once I broke down, we started going to counseling and attending Church.  Unfortunately, nothing helped.”  

The problem is that none of those activities constitute a real effort being given to work on the marriage.  Did you take the advice of the counselor and do what you were told? Did you have hard conversations?  Did you shut your phone off and talk?  How often did you have a date night?  Did you give yourself to your spouse more than your friends?  And did you start living for Jesus or just sit in a chair for an hour?  The list of action steps is long … did you DO anything productive?

I meet couples every single week who are struggling.  Most of them are more concerned with telling me their issues than doing the hard work of rebuilding. My advice is to stop worrying about building a resume of things that only appear you made an effort and do the challenging projects that bring results.

This is not intended to be harsh, but you need to hear straightforward talk to better your marriage.  Your friends might not be telling you the truth, or you are simply not listening.  Today can be the day you stop worrying about appearances and truly improve your marriage by doing something productive.      

How You Respond

Life is full of disappointments, dead-ends, and disasters.  Each one of us makes mistakes, fails, and sins.  All of us deal with the same struggles, whether they originate with other people or are the working of our own hands. Frustrating events are going to happen to everyone.   

The difference in humanity is how you respond to challenging situations.  You cannot control what happens to you, but you have a choice as to how you will react physically, verbally, and relationally. 

When Paul tells the Church in the region of Galatia about the Christian life, he describes what he calls the fruit of the Spirit.  These are the attitudes and actions that come out of a follower of Jesus.  They are love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23 – NIV 2011) 

Recently I noticed that most of these are descriptions of how we respond to situations, particularly the difficult ones.  When greeted with hostility, we respond in love.  When things are dark and gloomy, we have joy.  If people want to fight, we offer peace.  As difficulties mount, we forbear.  We offer the world kindness and gentleness to encounters where others might not be so kind or gentle.  Believers control themselves at times when we feel like losing control. 

The fruit of the Spirit is a force of active good as we live for Jesus, but they are also for the reactive good as we respond to the world.  People know we are Christians by our love, but how powerful is that love when it is a response to hate?   

Four Years Without Dad

It was a Sunday morning when I was informed that my father was gone. Since then, not a day has gone by that I have not thought about him at one point. His words, laughter, love of Indiana University basketball, and the way he loved his grandchildren fill my mind and soul. Every time I call my mom, the label in my contacts still pops up as “Mom and Dad,” and I can’t bring myself to change the name yet.

Here is what has caught me off guard this past year: I remember how we didn’t always get along well. In high school, I was mad at him once for a disagreement that I swore to myself I would leave home after graduation and never return. While in college, there were times that I did not want to go home for the long list of questions he would ask about my life. As a new parent, he was angry with me one time for a choice I made that I told myself he would never see my boys if he acted that way. The years with him were a roller coaster of good times and bad – just like every relationship.

No matter how many times I thought I would move on in life without him, we always found a way to forgive and move past our differences. Now my life has indeed gone on without him, and it hurts more than I imagined. Sometimes it causes me to stop and smile. On other occasions, like right now, I cry.

Through the years, I have used this day to tell people the joy I have found in my faith that dad is with Jesus. I have written for children of all ages to contact their dad if he is alive. My experience has shown me the power of a father in the life of a child. Today I want you to take a minute to appreciate the differences between you and your old man. Perhaps no relationship is as volatile as a parent and child, but your differences form you into the adult you have become today. Some of your actions are a rejection of his and others an imitation.

I miss you, dad. Even though we didn’t always get along, our relationship is what made me who I am today, and for that, I am grateful.

I Already Need Grace

Every year I vow, some might call it resolving, that I will be a better Christian than the previous year.  I am going to sin less if I sin at all.  The mistakes of the year will be left behind in my new and improved lifestyle. 

We are seven days into the new year, and I already need grace.  If I am honest with you, I needed it after one day, but I gave myself a mulligan for the first failure.  By now, there is a long list of my godless behavior that is too extensive to ignore or excuse. 

During the Christmas season, I repeat the same stories every year about a baby coming as God in the flesh, the promised Messiah, and the one who saves people from their sins.  It is a message I am sure people get tired of hearing over and over.  Some may think, “Yeah, I understand grace; let’s talk about something else.  Maybe a topic more relevant to today like marriage or parenting or how to be a good person.” 

Here we are just seven days past the new year, and I am reminded why this truth must be repeatedly shared.  Our sin is ever-present, and we do not live up to our standards, let alone God’s.  As John says at the beginning of his account of the life of Jesus, we need “grace upon grace.” 

The Trouble with Taking Time Off

This week I returned to my office after taking ten days off work.  It was a much-needed break after a long year filled with work, changes, and unusual decisions.  When I say I took these days off, I mean I took them off completely.  I stopped reading my Bible, doing my Core52 workbook, listening to sermons, reading, and exercising.  The only thing I did was pray during the time.  Otherwise, I shut my brain down into low gear for the holidays. 

It was terrific to clear my head and get out of my routine.  This year has been draining, and I needed time to recharge my emotional battery for the year that lies ahead.  Once I was done resting, I found it extremely difficult to get going again.  In just ten days, I found my drive was gone.  It was hard for me to push myself back into a routine once I had left it.  Monday morning came early, exercise was draining, and I just wanted to quit. I was drowsy during my Bible reading and struggled to get anything done.  It took ten days to unravel months of daily patterns. 

This past year, many of us had to change our habits.  We stepped back from Church, from serving others, especially in the body of Christ, from godly relationships, and from the Christian activities that generally fill each week.  Now comes the hard part, somehow you have to get back to a good and Godly place.  Now it is time to call upon all the Spirits’ powers to get back into emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy routines. 

Everyone needs a break sometimes.  We need moments of rest and recalibration.  The difference between people who have successful seasons in life and those who live continually productive lives is not the downtime they take.  It is the drive to get going again once they have had taken their time off.  Getting started is half the battle and getting started again is the other half. 

To Fight Another Day

Everyone wants to thrive.  We want to be world changers, innovators, change agents, and people who will alter history for good.  We desire to live extraordinary lives that leave an impact on the next generation.  Believers pray, “God use me to make a difference in this world.”

While those are noble desires, we must remember that the Bible sometimes instructs us in simpler ways.   We are called to make disciples of all nations and be witnesses to the ends of the earth in ways that turn the world upside down, but we are also told to stand firm, persevere, hold fast, and never give up.  There are times in our faith when life gets complicated.  Some days, weeks, seasons, and years it is enough to hang on tight to what we believe.  There are times it takes courage to keep swinging our fists as we fight the good fight.  Sometimes it is enough to survive and not thrive.

For some of us, the past year was tough.  The good news is that you are still here and trying to do your best for God.  This could be the year you come back stronger than ever before and change the world.  If not, keep doing the right things and live to fight another day.

Don’t Do This in 2021

My social media feeds have been ablaze with everyone’s goals, plans, and dreams for the coming year. The past year was rough on so many people that they vowed to have a better one. The belief is that if we throw ourselves into the right routines and rituals, we can make the next year better than the last, or at least have some resemblance to normal.

I want to suggest that as you are writing your “to-do list” of the coming year, you also have a “NOT to-do list.” There are some things that I hope you do not try to recover to make things feel normal again. Quite possibly, the existence of your long list of things to accomplish is the first step in the wrong direction.

There are innumerable things we can do in the coming year. We can develop routines that give us control over the things we can control. My one word of warning is not to attempt to return to normal if your normal was not godly or healthy.

One of the most significant issues COVID-19 fixed for many people was the chronic busy lifestyle people try to live. We rush from activity to activity with our phone in hand as we attempt to be productive every minute of the day. COVID-19 forced us to slow down and change our schedules. We made time to sit and read, eat together, play a game, study the Bible, put together a puzzle, pray, or have a family night.

My encouragement is for us not to load our schedules and fill up every minute with activity. Use the past year to achieve a new normal – one with space for relationships with God, family, and one another.