On the Way to the Cross: Collection

Jesus had this uncanny ability to be distracted without losing focus. Remember Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:40-56)? Jesus stopped to heal the unclean woman–giving her seemingly undivided attention, yet He never forgot or ignored Jairus and his daughter.

Someone said we should look at distractions as opportunities. Must have been before the days of smartphones. When I’m distracted by social media, that’s simply an “opportunity” to waste time. Throughout His public ministry, Jesus turned distractions and digressions into opportunities…opportunities for teaching, blessing, or healing, and sometimes for all three. Continue reading

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Jesus Had a “Martha Moment”

Jesus spent most of his days preaching, teaching, and healing. In the moment we see here, He had sent His disciples off for a little two-by-two trial run, so He was managing the crowds by Himself. Just as the disciples returned, Jesus also heard that John the Baptist—His cousin and precursor—had been beheaded. It’s easy to see why Jesus wanted some time away from the crowds.

When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Matthew 14:13a

Because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, [Jesus] said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.” So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.  –Mark 6:31-32

Jesus wanted to get away…to spend some time with the Father. As a leader, He needed to debrief his team. As a bereaved cousin, He needed to grieve for John. Jesus wanted some time at the feet of God, like the time His friend, Mary, would spend at His feet a little later (Luke 10:38-42).

He didn’t get that quiet time. Continue reading

Lord, the One You Love

Mary peeked into the room. “Is he any better?”

“He’s the same as half an hour ago,” Martha whispered, “I thought you were going to get some sleep. It’s not even sunrise yet.”

“How can I sleep when my brother is so sick?” Mary forgot to be quiet. “What can we do? We’ve called three different doctors. We’ve tried every conventional treatment. We’ve sent offerings to the temple. He’s only getting worse! What else can we do?” Her voice rose in pitch with each sentence. Continue reading

Guilt By Association

Why do we group and categorize people? My Mom used to say, “You sleep with dogs, you get fleas.” I’m still not 100% sure, but I think that phrase means, if you spend time with people, outside observers will think you are like those people. You’ll be guilty by association even if you aren’t actually guilty.

What about being associated with Jesus? Would you want that label? I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yes, of course!”

What about during Jesus’ lifetime? Would you have been so willing then? Continue reading

What if Martha Ordered Pizza?

Martha, Martha, Martha. Oh wait, wrong reference–one you’d have to be of a certain age to understand: the Brady Bunch age. Marcia Brady could order delivery pizza. Martha in the New Testament could not.

In my post for Pastor’s Wives this month, I share my heart about Martha, the much-maligned sibling of Mary and Lazarus. Put yourself in her shoes for a minute and ask yourself what you would have done when the Messiah walked into your living room (Luke 10:38-42). Continue reading

In Hot Pursuit of Happiness

I have a bone to pick with the Founding Fathers.  Check out this well-known line from the Declaration of Independence :

Image courtesy of justsweetandsimple.blogspot.com
Image courtesy of justsweetandsimple.blogspot.com

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

I can accept “life” and “liberty” (although neither is a God-given right according to the Bible), but why did they say we have a right to “the pursuit of happiness”?  And what does it mean to chase something like happiness? They didn’t say we have a right to be happy in the same way we have a right to live and be free.  They just said we have a right to try to be happy.  First of all, I think we forget the “pursuit of” phrase when we think about our rights as Americans.  Secondly, I think we misunderstand happiness.

My modern definition of happiness:
a sense of contentment or well-being
derived from one’s external circumstances.

Maybe happiness had a different meaning back in 1776.  After all, meanings do change over time.  If you think you know what the Founding Fathers meant by happiness, feel free to post it in the comments.  These days, happiness seems to mean comfort, convenience, even entertainment.

Look where this logic takes you:  If I “need” my TV shows to make me laugh, which indicates that I’m happy, then I have a right to those TV shows.  Or—*warning: I’m about to get political here*—if my lifestyle makes me feel good (i.e. makes me happy), regardless of its morality, then I have the right to live that way.  Most Americans are in hot pursuit of happiness.

This idea—that we have the right to happiness­—leads us to believe that we are entitled to entertainment.  Why is the cost of cable/satellite television listed under ‘necessities’ in our budgets? Why do people take out loans to go on vacation? Why do many families subscribe to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime on top of their existing television bills?  Why do our children play video games at the dinner table and have game systems in their rooms?  Why do those same children complain when the DVD player in the minivan doesn’t work?

Entertainment has become
the preeminent priority
of the American populous.

Before I go on, let me clarify.  There’s nothing wrong with being happy. I like it when everyone in my home is happy, and everyone else likes it when I’m happy: “When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy!” Also, I watch TV, go the movies, attend concerts, and all that sort of stuff.  There’s nothing inherently sinful in these activities (although, of course, we all need to guard what we see and hear). The issue on my mind for the last few months is this:  the relentless pursuit of happiness through entertainment, as if it were the goal of life, the preeminent priority of the American populous.

A recent television commercial suggests that we should have access to our television, movies, and/or music even while we rock climb or horseback ride.  I know they are using exaggeration to make a point, but it still makes me uneasy.  Is constant access to entertainment really going to improve our lives? It feels like we’re entertaining ourselves into idiocy and social ostracism.  Tony Reinke, posting at Desiring God, observes, “This is sloth at its deadly best: trying to preserve personal comforts through the candy of endless amusements.”  And like the sugar in candy, entertainment is addictive.  We have the freedom to eat as much candy as we want (Watch out, Halloween, here I come!), but we aren’t entitled to candy (at Halloween or any other time), and it certainly isn’t good for us to eat candy until our stomachs ache.  The same is true of entertainment, which is why no one has to explain the new term, “binge-watching.”  It reminds me of this.

Many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. -Philippians 3:18b-19

Consider these six things we may lose when our minds are set on the earthly “pursuit of happiness.”

Loss of Rest

Entertainment is not rest or leisure.  Our minds need rest just as much as our bodies.  If we sit down to rest for a minute but we feel compelled to flick on the TV or scroll through Facebook, we’re not really resting.  It’s a false high, like a caffeine buzz.  Sitting on the porch, just watching the sunset, is restful.  Watching TV is not restful for our minds.  A long, face-to-face conversation with a friend, a brother or sister in Christ, is restful. Trolling Facebook, where you have 500 “friends” is not restful.  Paul Maxwell  said it well: “Don’t stop and collapse into mindless inactivity. That’s a cycle of laziness — fake, shallow rest — not rest.”

Loss of Logic

When we fill all of our ‘down time’—even the thirty seconds we wait at a traffic light—with diversions, we lose the ability to carry thoughts to their logical conclusions.  It takes time to work through a problem, and our minds don’t always operate on an 8-to-5 timetable.  I don’t know about you, but I get some of my best ideas in the bathroom.  I may be wasting water in the shower, but I’m solving the world’s problems (or so I tell my husband)! Even right now, I’m tempted to “take a break” from this difficult writing and go check Twitter.  Sometimes our problems feel like mental weightlifting, but if we drop the weights in the middle of the set, we’ll never get any stronger.

Loss of Empathy

In a recent interview  on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Professor Sherry Turkle (author of Reclaiming Conversation: The power of Talk in a Digital Age) bemoans the loss of casual social interaction. She says, “Face to face conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do; it’s where we learn to put ourselves in the place of the other.”  Authentic conversation is the incubator for empathy; it’s how we learn to express it and to seek it.

Authentic conversation is
the incubator for empathy.

As Turkle points out, if everyone is privately occupied, we will not converse, which means we will not learn to communicate our pain or share another’s pain.  I wonder, is this why I cry over books and movies so much more than my children? Are they lacking empathy? (Not to mention how frequent portrayals of violence and death cause our children–and us–to become jaded to the real thing!)

Loss of Creativity

By constantly indulging in entertainment, we also lose creativity. Mind-wandering, and even a little boredom at times, fosters creativity and innovative thinking.  Back in 2012, Irish TV writer/director Graham Linehan said, “The creative process requires a period of boredom, of being stuck. That’s actually a very uncomfortable period that a lot of people mistake for writer’s block, but it’s actually just part one of a long process. The internet has made it very difficult to experience that.” (Here’s an article  about the link between boredom and creativity, if you’re interested. I found the Linehan quote there.)

Loss of Spiritual Intimacy

“If you’re constantly stimulated by being called away to the buzzing and the excitement of what’s on your phone, solitude seems kind of scary,” according to Professor Turkle in that same interview on Weekend Edition. I think we’re afraid that, if we have time to actually look inside ourselves, we won’t like what we see. We’ll be forced to pay attention to whatever difficult thing we don’t want to acknowledge or the change God has been asking us to make, so we pursue inauthentic happiness through the diversion of entertainment.

Consider this situation from my Bible study, Dwell: Mary, Martha & Lazarus (yet to be published).  It comes from Luke 10:38-42, where Martha prepares a meal while Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. I was writing about how we let ourselves be distracted.

Just for a minute, put yourself in Mary’s place: completely absorbed in Jesus’ words and thoughts, even in His facial expressions. Maybe you (not Mary—you, yourself) have been making excuses for a long time. Maybe you’re just scared to honestly look into the face of Jesus. Maybe the distractions are your distancing technique so that you don’t have to be real with God. If there were no distractions…nothing else to do…would you be comfortable sitting at the feet of Jesus?

Loss of Engagement

Have you ever had a fascinating conversation with a complete stranger on a bus or while waiting at the doctor’s office?  Although I’m an introvert, I still remember several really interesting conversations with people I never saw before or since.  But not since I got a smart phone. Professor Turkle says that we’re actually losing the ability to carry on a conversation.

Not only do we no longer have those pleasant, serendipitous conversations, but we’ve also forfeited God-orchestrated opportunities to share Truth. When our son started practicing sports, I thought it would be a great chance to get to know some parents and share Truth as the Holy Spirit provided openings.  Instead, every parent sits on the bleachers absorbed in his or her phone or tablet.  No one talks.  1 Peter 3:15 says, Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. They aren’t going to ask me anything–they aren’t even going to know about my Hope–if I look busy on my phone or if they prefer the ease of social media over the potential awkwardness of new social interaction. Sure, you might show a Christian YouTube video to your neighbor, and God might use it in your neighbor’s life, but can it replace an authentic relationship with that neighbor? I don’t think so.

So, Founding Fathers, what did you mean by “the pursuit of happiness”?

Somehow, I don’t think it was the mindless entertainment and deluge of distractions that we’ve established as the path to personal satisfaction in the 21st century.  Entertainment is like mental junk food.  It fills us up, but it doesn’t satisfy.  When our mindset (back to Phil 3:19 again) revolves around self-indulgence through constant distractions or entertainment, we lose so much of what connects us to each other and to God.  This vain pursuit of ill-defined happiness may just set the course for our destruction.

I’ve got a bone to pick with the founding fathers. 6 things we lose when we over-prioritize happiness. Because my #happiness is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Have you given this any thought? What do you think we sacrifice when happiness or comfort become our highest priorities? I’d be happy to start a conversation about this in the comments below.

Don’t Quit on Your Quiet Time (Part I)

You all better hold on because I’ve been thinking about this one for a while!  In fact, I had to divide it into two parts.  The F.A.Q. section will post in a couple of days.

Do you remember those offering envelopes from the 1970s and 80s?  I know some of my readers weren’t even born then, but if you’re of a certain age and you grew up in church, you know what I’m talking about.  Sometimes they were pink, of all things!  They had these little squares at the bottom or on the side where you checked off things you had done that week:  present (Wait, what?), on time, attended Sunday School, brought Bible, read Sunday School lesson, tithed, read Bible daily . . . things like that.  Anyway, you got a score based on how many boxes you could mark.  Can you imagine?  “Mom, I made a 70 in Sunday School this week because I forgot to take my Bible!”  But that’s how it was.

Somewhere along the way, shortly after we quit using those envelopes, we shifted from “read Bible daily” to “had a quiet time.”  No, we didn’t check off a box any more, but it became one of the, umm, qualifications of a good Christian.  But many of us didn’t change what we actually did.  We just kept reading the Bible every day.

And then, one day we thought (although we would never admit it), “I have been reading this same book since I was eight years old.  It’s getting kinda old.  If I miss this one day, it won’t matter.  No one will know anyway.”  One day turned into two, then a week, then a month, until finally, our daily Bible reading (a.k.a. quiet time) could be described as ‘sporadic’ at best.

At a certain point in that “somewhere along the way”—a point that would take me pages to explain, so just trust me—someone showed me that daily Bible reading and having a quiet time are not the same thing.  A quiet time involves three things:

  1. Resetting your focus on the Lord
  2. Hearing from the Lord (usually through His Word plus the Holy Spirit)
  3. Responding in obedience.

But you can’t just check these three things off on your mental Sunday School envelope each morning and be done with it.  Actually, if you are really focusing on Him, you’ll find it so much more fulfilling than getting 100% in Sunday School ever thought about being!

People say, “I don’t know how to do a good quiet time.”  We try to complicate everything, to think there’s a specific process–almost a formula or incantation–that we must perform in order to have a “good” quiet time.  A good quiet time is any moment in which we reconnect with God.  A great quiet time is when the repercussions of that moment stretch throughout the day.

That being said, allow me to offer a few principles based loosely on Hebrews 5:13-14.  And if you didn’t grow up with those church envelopes, it will still be good “food for thought” (haha!).  But first, consider this:

“The Jewish approach to Scripture is that we don’t read the Bible but rather that it reads us!  . . .  Mere exposure to [the Word] does not change us into agents of the kingdom.” –Alan Hirsch and Lance Ford in Right Here, Right Now

Sit down at the dining room table.

Come to your quiet time expecting to hear from Him. 

What do you do at the dining room table?  Or rather, what are you supposed to do?  (We use our dining room table for an office, art desk, and Lego-building space; that means we have to eat at the kitchen table, but just go with me here.)  The point is, when you sit down at the table, you expect to eat.

Quoting John Piper, Jonathan Parnell (at desiringgod.org) encourages us to bring our minds and hearts into a “hungry readiness to hear the Lord himself speak kindly and deeply and powerfully to our souls.”  (See, he said “hungry.”  I knew this analogy was good!  Just kidding.)

Say the blessing.

Center your focus on him through prayer.

Thank God for His Word.  Praise Him for being a revelatory God, which means He wants to be known by His people.  Ask the Holy Spirit to meet you there.  Ask Him to show you something of Himself as you study.  Ask Him to change you as a result of the time you spend exclusively with Him.

Cut off small bites and chew.

Slow down in your reading. 

Treat the Scripture like your favorite meal, enjoyed rarely and savored.  Again, this is not just “daily Bible reading.”  There is no prize for completing more chapters than anyone else, as if we were in a hot dog eating contest.  You don’t pick up a whole steak and stuff it in your mouth then try to chew (forgive me for that analogy, vegetarians).  You cut off bites—preferably small bites—and you chew them thoroughly before you swallow.  Approach the Scriptures with the idea that every paragraph has value, that every sentence was intentionally included.  Take a couple of sentences and see what the Holy Spirit can show you.  This works best (especially if it’s new to you) in the letters of Paul or Peter.

Perhaps it’s left over from those years of “daily Bible reading,” but we tend to fill our quiet time minutes with reading the Word so that we don’t have to do the actual work of hearing Him and obeying!  Plus, if you read too much, you are just going to forget most of it anyway.  James (1:23-24) said, Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.  We are to look intently and continue in that state of having looked so that we don’t forget but instead, we do/act/obey (James 1:25).

Read a few verses or as much as a paragraph.  Think about what it means.  You probably know the context, and that helps.  If nothing strikes you, check the cross-references for other related verses.  After you consider what it meant to the author and to his first audience, focus on what it means for you.  This second ‘level’ of meaning is directly related to the first, but we live in a very different culture and a very different century.  Let the Holy Spirit guide you in this, and test any understanding against Scripture as a whole.

Digest.

Let the Holy Spirit use God’s Word to change you.

In eating, this is where your body really goes to work.  It takes awhile, and it often affects you for hours (sometimes in a negative way, like if you ate beans & rice!).

“I think you should learn, of course, and some days you must learn a great deal.  But you should also have days when you allow what is already in you to swell up inside of you until it touches everything.  And you can feel it inside you.  If you never take time out to let that happen, then you just accumulate facts, and they begin to rattle around inside of you.  You can make noise with them, but never really feel anything with them.  It’s hollow.”  –e.l. konigsburg, From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

Is this not what we often do with the Word of God?  We accumulate knowledge, then let it rattle around inside us, doing nothing but creating noise.  So let what you have come to understand sink into your mind and heart.  Paul said, Let the Word of Christ richly dwell within you . . . (Colossians 3:16 NASB).  Toward the end of your set-aside time with the Lord, give yourself a few minutes to sit and ponder.  Think of Mary (Luke 10:39), just sitting at Jesus’ feet, soaking in everything He says without any agenda of her own.  This is meditation.

If you are at a loss, ask yourself any or all of these questions.

  • What does God want you to do with what you’ve learned? (James 1:22-25)
  • What change do you need to make in your life in response to what you’ve studied? How, specifically, are you going to make this change? (Write it in your journal.)
  • How does this thought or information apply to your day?
  • Is there anyone specific with whom God wants you to share these thoughts?

Then, before you close your Bible, put your thought(s) in that part of your mind where you store things you seriously need to remember for today, things like “pick up kids at 3pm.”  As a matter of discipline, remind yourself of what you studied as you go through your day.  I’ve heard of people setting their watches to beep every hour, taking a moment before opening Facebook, writing something on the bathroom mirror, and other similar reminders.  It’s up to you.

Remember, “You are what you eat!”

My husband likes to brush his teeth just before he goes out the door:  after coffee, breakfast, shower, everything.  So more than a few times, the rest of us stand at the door, waiting on him while he runs back to brush his teeth.  It’s become a joke.  As we open the door, someone will ask, “Dad, have you brushed your teeth?”  When your quiet time takes on value and affects the rest of your day, it will become an absolutely essential part of your routine.  Just as you would NEVER leave the house without brushing your teeth, you will think it entirely unacceptable to walk out the door before you spend some quiet, alone time with God.