An Introduction to Life

A friend of mine recently recommended listening to a podcast called “Everything Happens.” It was one I had never heard of, so I was curious to check it out. I have only listened to the one episode of which I was referred, so I cannot make a judgment on all the material.

With that said, the introduction to this podcast was the most intriguing I have ever heard. While the content of the whole thing was good, the best part was the introduction. The author Kate Bowler shares a little of her story and her message, and I want to share it with you. I believe it captures the heart of a believer wrapped up on this human body.

Hi, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. Look, the world loves us when we are good, better, best. But this is a podcast for when you want to stop feeling guilty that you’re not living your best life now. We’re not always having an “Eat, Pray, Love” experience. I used to have my own delusion of living my best life now. I’m a Duke professor, wine and cheese enthusiast, wife, and mom. Instagram gold. Then I was diagnosed with stage four cancer. That was four years ago, and I’m still here. And now I get it. Life is a chronic condition. The self-help and wellness industry will try to tell you that you can always fix your life. Eat this, and you won’t get sick. Lose this weight, and you’ll never be lonely. Believe with your whole heart, and God will provide. Keep this attitude, and the money is yours. But I’m here to look into your gorgeous eyes and say, hey, there are some things you can fix and some things you can’t. And it’s okay that life isn’t always better. We can find beauty and meaning and truth, but there’s no cure to being human. So let’s be friends on that journey. Let’s be human together.

Don’t Forget the First Commandment

The first three books of the New Testament tell of different interactions where Jesus gives us the two most significant commands in the 613 given to Israel. In Matthew chapter 22, Jesus is tested and asked, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Mark, chapter 12, appears to be the same story, but the question is phrased, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” Luke, chapter 10, says that Jesus is asked, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Each of these stories results in Jesus giving the people two responses instead of one. First, he gives them the Shema as it is called. This is basically the John 3:16 of the Old Testament. It is the words found in Deuteronomy chapter 6. You are to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all our soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.

Then he gives a second command that is found in Leviticus chapter 19. We are told there to love our neighbor as ourselves. Luke gives us a further explanation as the questioner wants to know, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the good Samaritan.

These stories give us what Christians call “The Great Commandments.” Believers often summarize them in two simple statements; “Love God and love people.” These phrases are so familiar that even people who have never read the Bible could probably give you those two instructions for faith.

Over the second half of my ministry, I have noticed a shift to placing the attention on the second command. Quite often, I have heard ministers say something like, “the way that we love God is by loving people.” Therefore, a Church emphasizes community action and service.

These are noble endeavors, but I feel they are misguided in their presentation. Jesus never calls these “one commandment.” He says they are two and called them “these” in a plural sense. There are two separate things he is saying, and there maybe be overlap like a Venn diagram, but they are not the same.

I fear that Christians have emphasized the second to the neglect of the first. Jesus clearly says there is a first and greatest command (Matthew 22:38) – first, of greatest priority, the number one thing we should be doing. The most significant thing a believer does is to love God with all their being. They give God their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

The reason I mention this is because of the neglect I see happening in faith communities. We have led people to believe that if they help a neighbor, then they have done all that God requires of them. That is not true. God demands all our attention. Loving him includes pouring out our emotions in worship, surrendering our soul to him in repentance, learning about him with our mind, and serving him along with others in his name. We must be careful of reducing faith to being a nice person who cares little about God. A believer is kind because they have given God everything. Our lives come from the overflow of faith in God, and it impacts everything we do, not just a few hours we offer a neighbor.

Quick to Listen, Slow to Respond

Quick is not a word associated with spiritual development. Most of the uses of the word quick in the Bible are negative and connected to our anger. There is one place that breaks the rules, and it is in the book of James. He writes in chapter one, verse nineteen, that each one of us should be “Quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

This one piece of instruction could be the single best advice that everyone, especially in 2020, needs to follow. Everyone, including Christians, seems to be quick to respond, and it is often with anger or fear. We hear a story or see a thirty-second video clip, and immediately we take to our platform and let everyone know our thoughts. For many people, that platform is social media. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, blogs, and a few other ways allow us to vocalize our thoughts within moments of some seemingly big event.

Unfortunately, we are wrong so often. Later we find out that the video was edited, the scenes before and after were omitted on purpose, the story we heard or read was only half true. Because we did not take the time to carefully listen before we responded, our thoughts do damage.

James tells us, be quick to listen and slow to speak. Tell yourself; it is okay to not respond to an incident no matter how big it seems for at least 48 hours. Take the time to ask questions, read multiple viewpoints, do research, and, most importantly, remove the emotions to see the facts. Anger blinds us to truth and causes us to say things that harmful in ways we do not understand.

Significant events are coming. What we are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg. I am not saying that the followers of Jesus need to remain silent forever. This is not a plea for us to dial down our faith in the public arena. Instead, this is a request that we place listening as the highest priority on our list of actions and let our words come slowly from a place of thought rather than emotions. Quick tempters are destructive and quick listeners are constructive. No one was ever hurt by listening too intently.

I’m Religious But Not Spiritual

This guy I know post questions on social media every day for connection and entertainment. He recently posted, “How much of your life is impacted by religion?” His followers are mostly non-Christians, so I was not overly surprised at the number one answer, “none.”

The second-highest number of responses did surprise me a little. It was “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” The best I could gather from their comments was that most of the people liked the idea behind faith. They loved the concept of heaven and really wanted to go there. These people knew there were things in this world that cannot be explained by natural means. They were trying to live “good lives” (whatever that means) and “be kind to others.” It was also clear from their words that these people did not want anything to do with the Church. They wanted God with no structure and no rules. They like what faith has to offer, but they want it on their terms.

My response is quite the opposite of those I read on that post. I am religious but not spiritual. On my own, I have no real concept of God, heaven, or even what it means to live a good life. There is no standard of right and wrong without God’s word. While I may have some crazy ideas about what lies beyond the known world, I need the one who lives there to explain it to me. As a result, I read my Bible and pray daily, I spend time with Christian people in organized groups, I attend worship each week, and I am a member of the local Church. I want to come to God on his terms.

Both groups of people want the good things that faith has to offer. One group wants it to be a free for all pursuit with no requirements of behavior or actions. The other wants to commit to the things God desires of us and allow him to run the show. We need a system of belief and worship to bring us closer to connecting with God and not a bunch of unique ideas that lead us back to ourselves. Religion might seem restrictive, but it is the only way to know the one true God.

Giving Up My Old Clothes

Those of you who know me are aware that for the second (and final) time in my adult life, I have lost a lot of weight. I am not seeking praise for this transformation because I am the same guy who let myself get badly out of shape. I let myself go, and now I am reclaiming my body for the good of myself, my family, and the kingdom of God.

This change has brought one big issue into my life. As my waistline is shrinking, so is my wardrobe. I own very few clothes that fit me. Most often, I look like a child who has snuck into dad’s closet and put on clothes that are two sizes too big. These garments of my past fill my closet and drawers since I have been that size for ten years.

Here is what I have found interesting about this one issue. I have a difficult time giving up my old clothes. Even though they no longer fit my new lifestyle, I am reluctant to give away my old stuff. I went through the pants first and managed to give away most, but I held onto a couple of favorites. The shirts were next, and I kept eight of them that held some special connection to me. While I write this, I still have about 20 T-shirts hanging in my closet that do not fit, but I am too hardheaded to get rid of them.

The writers of the New Testament describe the transformation because of Jesus as clothing us in new garments. The Apostle Paul and Peter both use the description – Romans 13:14, Colossians 3:12 & 1 Peter 5:5.

It is easy to understand this imagery. Just like losing weight forces me to get rid of the old and put on new things, following Jesus pushes us to give up old behaviors and do new things. This process sounds easy, but those old clothes are so comfortable. I spent money on them, and some even have sentimental value. The past holds a sense of familiarity that makes moving forward to something new seem too costly.

Just like I need to go home and pack up all my old clothes because they no longer fit me, I also need to look over my life and see what is not proper for a believer. If clothes are hard to discard, habits are even more complicated. Yet, how ridiculous I look in my old shirts now is nothing compared to a believer living like they do not have Jesus.

Being A Self Starter

Change cannot happen until you start something new. Repeating the same old behaviors will get you the same results.

There only two ways that these new beginnings happen, of which I am aware. One way they occur is through forced situations. A job loss, an injury, a doctor’s instruction or else, a spouse’s ultimatum are just a few of the ways we are forced into starting a new venture.

The other way that we come to new beginnings is through the power of the will. We decided deep within the recesses of our heart and soul that things are going to be different. These internally motivated changes are hard to capture and harder to explain.

One possible reason we have stopped attempting new projects is that we fear failure. Another reason is because we know that new things will make us uncomfortable for some time. Still, others push back from the conflict that will inevitably come with different actions. The result is that we keep repeating the same behaviors, even when we hate the results.

The challenge for every new day and every new month is to say deep within ourselves, “Today is the day that things are going to be different. Today is the day I am going to start a new chapter in my life.” Self-starting is difficult, but it is rewarding. The first step is to stop blaming others for your situation and believe you can take control of your future. I know God has a better future planned for you. As a believer, place your life in God’s hands, then step up and step out. The only thing holding you back is you.

Empathy Over Advice

After a lifetime of listening, learning, and reflecting, we have accumulated lots of good advice to offer people. If anyone is having a problem, we have one or two bits of useful information to help them get straightened out. Let me know your troubles and allow me to fix them with my wisdom.

Empathy is different. It is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” When you are empathic, you are trying to connect on an emotional level rather than offering advice. You listen to their feelings, sympathize, share, and allow them space to feel the moment more than analyze it.

Know this fact about life: People want empathy over advice.

Most of the time, we know what to do. We even know how we should proceed. The emotions are what are holding us back. We need to share those feelings, and then we are ready to move forward.

So when your parents, spouse, kids, sibling, or friend is struggling. Keep the advice to yourself and allow them to share their emotions. It will help to build strong relationships in a world where advice is only a google search away.

An Illustration to Help Us Understand Forgiveness

Imagine a husband and a wife disagree one day. (This is not a hard concept for any married couple to grasp.) This difference of opinion makes the man mad. He can feel the anger building up inside of him, and even though he knows better, he says a string of words and phrases the hurt her and drive a wedge in their relationship.

She goes to one room, and he goes to the garage to cool off. After some time passes, several things could happen.

First, he might not even acknowledge he did anything wrong. He doesn’t have to live by her rules. If she cares that much, then she needs to come to him. It is her problem, not his.

Second, he can come back and grovel. He can fall to his knees and plead with her to forgive him with tears. She then must weigh his sincerity. Is he really sorry? If she believes his emotions, then she can forget what happened and try to move forward together.

Third, he can try to make it right with her through his actions. He can start trying to be the best husband on the planet. He can make her dinner and wash the dishes. He can give her pick the shows they watch on TV. He can clean the house and make the bed. He can do one thing after another to show her that he is sorry. Once she feels he has done enough, then she can tell him everything is good, and they can go back to normal.

Finally, he could just walk back in the room and say, “I am so sorry for what I said, will you forgive me?” She could look at him, and out of her love, say, “Yes, all is forgiven.” Their relationship can be restored, and they can move forward in love together.

Which of these describes your relationship with God? Some people deny they need God’s forgiveness. Others try to earn forgiveness through emotions, good works, and penance. The Bible teaches that God so loved the world that he took care of our sin through Jesus. All we need to do is come to him and ask for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. He will forgive us, and our relationship can be healed.

God offers us forgiveness through Jesus Christ. You can stop trying to earn his love, just come and accept what he offers. Once you have received, make sure that other people understand how this thing works.

Get Over Yourself

It is easy to become obsessed with yourself.  We take selfies because we like to look at ourselves.  We buy things we think we want because we are selfish and self-centered.  Often our conversations scream out, “I want to talk about me, me, me!”  Live like this long enough, and you can have an over-inflated ego that believes you are the center of the universe, and everything else revolves around you.  We might not use those exact words, but our actions, conversations, and social media tell the true story of obsession with ourselves. 

That is what makes this statement by the Apostle Paul so shocking in his letter to the believers in Philippi.  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, (4) not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (5) In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 2:3-5 – NIV 2011) 

One of the projects of a follower of Jesus is to elevate others and get over our selfish inclinations. We are to seek the interest of others above our own.  This was modeled by Jesus with his words but primarily with his life.  The passage that follows this one in Philippians is a song about Jesus sacrificing himself for us.  He gave of himself for our benefit.  This is the very definition of selfless living. 

The concept is easy to grasp but difficult to implement.  Maybe the best way to start is with small expressions of selflessness and grow from there.  Today, take the time to say a kind word about the work of other people.  Praise them for their efforts no matter how small.  Ask about their thoughts and feelings, then sit quietly and listen to their response without interrupting.  Open doors for people and let others go ahead of you in line.  Let someone else have the best parking spot or the seat that you feel is the most desirable.  Share.  Post pictures of other people that will bring them joy.  Offer a helping hand.  Do something that lifts other people to a higher level. 

As you start making these little words and actions part of your routine, it won’t be long until you are willing to sacrifice more for others.  With each new day, you will begin to value other people in the way that Jesus did.  Soon, all those words that start with “self” will not apply to you, and Christ will be seen in you. 

New Chapters in Life

For many people, this is a random Tuesday with no special meaning. Here in the community where I live, it is the first day of the school year. At our house, that means my youngest son is starting his Senior year. We are beginning a new chapter in his book that will end with graduation from High School.

Humans like to have fresh starts. We enjoy the opportunity to lie a blank page in front of us and write the next chapter. We celebrate birthdays, school beginnings, and the first day of new adventures. We have New Year’s Day, new months, and Sunday every seven days to start a new week. These are moments when we can pause and start a fresh story that will bring us joy and glory to God.

Today you might not be sending your child off to their final year of school, but that doesn’t mean it cannot be special. What if today was the day you decided to make a change? What if this was the first day of a new life? What if you forgot the past and started writing a new chapter in your life today?

This could be the day you stop doing something destructive. Determine that you will not be angry about everything, or put down the bottle and takes steps to freedom. This could be the day you start doing something new. The exercise you have been putting off could start tonight. You could read your Bible and pray for the very first time. The possibilities are unlimited.

Some new chapters in life are forced on us while others we choose. Today is an excellent time to decide to change. In fact, there has never been a better time to become the person you have always wanted. Just mark the day and call it the first day of the rest of your life.