A Word to Your Circle…

circle of influence

 

Wayne Collier helped us work cows after my father had died.  I was four years-old, riding my one-eyed Shetland pony, gathering up cows.  I felt so big.  Even a four-year-old on a Shetland pony can move a cow.  Then I rode up too close to the herd and Wayne hollered at me, “Son, don’t ride up on them cows.  They’ll scatter.”

It was the first time I remember anyone calling me “son.”  “Son” is what older men in my neck of the woods called young boys when they needed to correct them, but not be harsh with them.  Since my father died, I didn’t hear “son” too often.  Wayne that day gave me a word of affectionate correction when he called me “son.”  I’ll never forget it.

My cousin Tiny Durrance grew up with my Dad.  His home in Chattanooga was halfway between Florida and Kentucky, where I went to school.  Half-a-dozen times I stopped and spent the night.  Tiny would start to tell stories about my Daddy.  He would tell about the time Daddy overturned the truck with fifteen men on back, when Daddy knocked out a man’s eye in a juke joint across the county line, and when Daddy’s mare beat his cousin Floyd’s colt in horse race one Sunday after church.

Tiny gave me memories of my Daddy I didn’t have.  He gave me stories I needed to hear, stories I stored up in my soul, to pass on to my children.  I’ll never forget those stories.

Doing graduate work at seminary was like living in a war zone.  The competition was fierce, the expectations high.  You never knew when a stray verse of Hebrew would be lobbed at you in class.  Halfway through my Ph.D. studies, I realized I did not have a scholar’s temperament.  I really didn’t care how many variations of conjunctions there were in the book of 1 Chronicles.  I decided to finish my degree anyway, but it was like giving birth to watermelon.  My supervisor, Dr. Marvin Tate was patient beyond belief with my missed deadlines and immature conclusions.

After I left school and came to pastor Alice Drive, I sent a weekly newsletter to Dr. Tate (we mailed them in those days before the internet).  One day my assistant told me a Dr. Tate was on line one and asked if I wanted to speak to him.  I immediately broke into a cold sweat; had I failed to turn in a paper?  Were they revoking my degree?

Dr. Tate came on the line and told me a column I had written about women in ministry was the best summation of the issue he ever read.  He asked permission to use it with his Sunday School Class.  Then he asked if I ever considered being a full-time writer.   In that moment, I received an affirmation I never dreamed of.  A simple phone call healed many of the scars I incurred during Ph.D. wars.  I’ll never forget his call.

One day I felt this strange prompting to write a thank you note to John Ortberg.  John’s books have grown my soul through the years.  He introduced me to Dallas Willard, who in turn challenged me to go deeper in my walk with Jesus.  I met John once in a conference in the bathroom.  It’s an odd place to meet a hero.  We didn’t shake hands.

John had added so much to my life, I felt the need to say “thanks.”  I wrote a note, sent it to his church, and felt like I had done what God wanted me to do.  A few weeks later, I received a note back from John.  It simply said, “Thank you Clay.  Your note encouraged me.  Appreciatively, John.”  It must have taken him 10 seconds to write.  I keep in my desk drawer to this day.  I’ll never forget that note.

Each of these men were people of influence in my life.  In their circle of influence, they reached out and communicated something positive.  Their words and stories helped my soul.

There are people in your circle of influence.  They need encouragement.  They need something positive.  They need your response.  You are a person of influence and your words and stories matter.

You may think your influence doesn’t matter.  You are wrong.  It matters a lot.  There are people in your circle who need your blessing.  Bless them.  They will never forget it.

Spewing Liver…

spit out

I realize most of you grew up in tasteful families with genteel manners, where everyone was born knowing which fork to use for dessert and which fork to use for salad.  I grew up in a family that was proud to have forks.

We did have some couth.  Chewing with your mouth open or smacking your food meant you were sent to your room without finishing supper and with no dessert.  “That’s disgusting,” Mamma would say.

At this point, I should inform you that I hate liver.  As far back as I can remember, someone has been encouraging me to eat liver.  I was told, “How do you know you don’t like it unless you try it?”  I’ve never tried self-performed surgery either but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t like it.  It did not matter if the liver came from a chicken or a cow, my parents thought there was some virtue in consuming it.

Mamma finally decided on a fool-proof plan to make me eat liver: she would fry it, like fried steak.  Mamma made the best fried steak south of the Suwanee River.  She would flour it with salt and pepper mixed in, and slide it into an iron skillet of hot Crisco.  Then she would cook rice and homemade milk gravy (this was before cholesterol).  Green beans that had simmered all day with a ham hock and homemade biscuits with butter completed the meal.

I came in from a hard day of running around being a boy.  Being a consummate consumer of Mamma’s fried selections, I knew this was not fried chicken.  I asked Mamma, “What’s for supper?”  She said, without cracking a smile, “Beef!  Now, set the table.”  I neglected to ask which part of the cow would be served, and with mouthwatering, I set the table.

We said the blessings, and used our single forks to spear a piece of crispy brown meat.  I quickly cut a piece, lifted my fork to my mouth, and let my lips capture the prize.

My taste buds registered surprise.  The crispy fried outside was familiar, but beyond that thin layer was a meat of unknown origin. Instead of the sweetness of round steak, there was a bitterness, like burnt motor oil (don’t ask how I know burnt motor oil is bitter). My brain began to frantically search its memory files.  With amazing speed my neurons went back into the cobweb covered taste recollections.  The taste fit the profile of “liver.”

I promise I did not do this intentionally.  It was an involuntary reflex.  My brain sent an emergency message to my lungs, my tongue, my cheeks, and my lips saying, “Expel this heathen substance!”  I spewed the half-eaten chunk of liver out of my mouth, into the atmosphere.  It landed on my brother’s plate.  He yelled my name: “Clay!”  My brain had moved onto other things, like chugging my glass of sweet tea to wash that nasty taste off my taste buds.

There then ensued a great family debate.  My brothers insisted I be banished from the table because I had been caught chewing with my mouth open.  I insisted I was innocent, because: 1) I had not repeatedly chewed, only moving my jaw once; 2) Spewing a deadly substance out one’s mouth is not a violation of Amy Vanderbilt’s Rules of Etiquette, but a survival tactic; and 3) My Mother lied to me.

Mercy prevailed and I filled up on rice and gravy (which was good, even if it derived from liver).

Jesus said to the church at Laodicea, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other!  So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will spew you out of my mouth.”

Jesus cannot stand people or churches that are apathetic and disengaged.  To him, they taste like liver.  Jesus can handle opposition.  He loves passion.  He loathes passivity.

When I was an adult, I told a doctor about my aversion to liver.  He said, “I don’t blame you.  Never eat another animal’s poison filter.”

Are passive Jesus followers, passive churches, bags of poison that Jesus will spew out of his mouth?

Or maybe the better question is, “Is Jesus about to spew me out of his mouth?”

We Are Different, We are the Same…

different same

We are different.

We have different skin tones, different facial features.  Northerners sound funny to Southerners; Southerners sound funny to Northerners.  Some have hair, others (like me) have beautiful scalps, free from follicle interference.   Some people like liver; others gag at the smell.

Men and women are different.  Sure, there is basic biology: women have different parts than men.  But our differences are beyond our parts.  Our bodies produce different chemicals at different levels.  Pharmaceutical companies are just waking up to the idea that they need to test some medicines on men and women before prescribing treatments.  We are different at a very basic level.

All women are not alike.  I know women who would much rather be in the garage fixing a car than in the kitchen fixing a casserole.  All men are not alike.  I know men who would rather arrange bouquets than hunt Bambi.  Before we say, “That’s not normal,” we must ask, “What is normal?  And who gets to define normal?  The US Department of Normal?”

Brothers can be different.  My brother collects guns.  I collect books.  Sisters can be different. One of my sisters can cook up a storm; the other sister can calm a storm of preschoolers.

We are different.

Why?  Maybe God knew we needed variety.  Maybe God knew we would never learn to love unless we learned to accept each other’s differences.  Maybe God knew different people would need different gifts to make a difference.

We are the same.

I’ve never meet a human being who didn’t long to connect to another person.  I’ve never meet a human being who didn’t long to be noticed by someone.  I’ve never meet a human being who wasn’t hungry to be understood.

Every child, even a child who is profoundly disabled, is curious.  Put six children with different skin tones in a room, and they explore together.  They learn together.  They discover together.

I’ve never known a human being who missed out on pain.  We hurt.  We grieve.  Even the man who is mute expresses his pain with a silent cry.  Pain is a universal language.

Brothers and sisters can be the same.  My brother and I have the same upper sinuses that cause disgusting sounds when we wake up in the morning.  Since I’m the youngest, it’s frightening to see my future when I see my brother.

We are the same.

Why?  We are the same because we are all made in God’s image.  God said, “Let us make man in our own image, male and female.”  God crafted us all in the same basic design, with just enough difference to keep things interesting.  You bear the image of God; so do I.  So do people in China, North Korea, Iran, England, Costa Rica, Haiti, and California.  There is a sacred imprint on our souls that not even sin washes completely away.

How do you love people different than you?  Find inside that person what is the same as you.  Find the sacred fingerprint of God.

Maybe that’s what Jesus meant when he said, “I say to you, love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you.”

Find the sacred.  Love and do good.

Five Keystones of Generosity…

open hands

The law of the fist: Open hands receive; closed fists don’t.  This basic faith principle works whether you believe in God or not.  If you live with a closed attitude, you cannot receive love.  If you live with an open attitude, you can receive friendship.  Building an open-handed life requires generosity as a regular practice.  Our problem is defining generosity, and then practicing it.

The scripture teaches that generosity is defined by percentage, not amount.  It’s an old preacher riddle:  When is $40 more than $100?  In the offering plate.  If an administrative assistant is paid $400 per pay period and puts in $40, that is more than if her boss, who is paid $2,000 per pay period, puts in $100.  If you are honest with yourself, you will take a minute and come up with a percentage that represents generosity for you.

Generosity is like the keystone of an arch.  When practiced, it holds your financial life in place.  How do you put generosity into practice?  Put these five keystones into practice:

  1. Give to God first.  This is where many people struggle.  First, they pay their bills, then they set aside money for groceries and Wal-Mart.  Then, if anything is left, they give a little bit to God.  Too often, there is nothing left!

 

Jesus said, “Seek first his Kingdom and his righteousness.”  Apply this to your financial life.  God comes before the bank.  What this requires, of course, is that you organize your finances.  This is not something Americans are good at.  God wants you to organize your finances not just so you can give, but so you live within your means.  Giving to God first creates a healthy soul that is generous.

 

  1. Give what you have. Whenever giving is discussed in church, people get nervous.  Is the expectation for me to give to God and have nothing left for myself?  That was the expectation of the ancient gods.  They demanded sacrifice and didn’t care if you went hungry.  That is not the Christian understanding of God.

Paul taught us two important principles: Take care of your family; and give what you have, not what you don’t have.

You may need to adjust your lifestyle to be generous.  Your lifestyle probably needs adjustment, anyway.  You need transportation, not a car that makes a statement.  Your children do not need to get more for Christmas than the neighbors.  In fact, the most valuable lesson you can teach them is to not play the comparison game.  The real question is not “Does God expect me to do without?” but “How do I need to live so I can be generous?”

 

  1. Give a percentage. You live on a percentage of your income.  I read the average American family lives on 113% of their income (ah, the wonders of credit cards).  No wonder so many of us struggle.  I think 10% of your income is a beginning point of generosity.

 

The best financial advice I can give you is found in the Bible and in every financial planning guide:  Create Margin.  Spend less than you make.  A financial health formula: Give 10%, save 10%, and live on 80%.

Could it be that God wants you to give and save so you can have margin in your financial life?

  1. Give regularly. Regular giving means you pay attention to your financial life.  As a couple and a family, you have the hard discussions.  If you are a believer, regular giving means you acknowledge regularly that God owns it all.  Regular giving means regular acknowledgement of God’s blessings in your life.

 

  1. Give to Jesus’s body. If you aren’t a follower of Jesus, I think it’s still a good idea to give.  But if you are a follower of Jesus, give to your local church.  Give so God’s work can be done.  It takes resources to provide tools for ministry: buildings, bulletins, and Bibles.  It takes resources to fund vocational ministers, who lead, teach and equip.

 

I understand the impulse to want to direct our generosity.  We want to have a direct connection to those blessed by our giving.  But I believe giving 10% of our income to Jesus’s body is a form of submission.  It is a tangible way we say, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

 

What would happen if these five keystones of generosity governed your financial life?  You would be a better money manager, your soul would be healthier, and the world would change.

Small price to pay.

God and The Great Eclipse …

 eclipse

After months of hype, the eclipse is finally here.  Parties have been planned, schools are out, glasses are purchased, and we’ve been warned: “Don’t look directly at the sun!”

We’ve known this was coming.  In fact, astronomers tell us they can predict every eclipse for the next 1,000 years (good thing; I need to make plans for 2915).  Have you ever thought the universe does not have to be predictable?  In fact, the Big Bang suggests the universe should be chaotic, not predictable.

God, however, made the universe to have order and predictability.  Though free spirits may chaff against the routine, the routineness of gravity makes us feel secure.  None of us ever worry about the sun coming up in the morning.  We know the most important thing a child can receive from his or her parents is a sense of predictability.  Our heavenly Father has given us a predictable universe we can count on.

Do you know why eclipses work?  The moon places itself between the sun and the earth and its shadow falls across earth.  How is the moon able to completely block the sun?  Isn’t the sun much larger than the moon?

The sun, in fact, is 400 times larger than the moon.  But the sun is also about 400 times farther away from earth than the moon is.  Amazing coincidence?  Or one more clue that the universe has an intentional design by an intelligent designer?  Maybe God gives us the experience of an eclipse so we can remember God arranged things on purpose.

Although the math is difficult, ultimately the universe is a giant rotating clock, beautiful in its complexity and simplicity.  I have an image of God holding the universe in his hand, just as a man holds a pocket watch in his hand.   Christianity teaches the God who holds the universe also holds me.   He knows our names, and the number of hairs on our head.  Events like the eclipse remind me the God who does life with me, holds the universe together with his grace.

Psalm 18:1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.”  Pause and ask what the eclipse tells you about the glory of God.

But keep your glasses on.

Reset…

reset

 

You know the drill.

Your computer freezes.  You click your mouse.  Nothing.  You try to click out of the program.  Nothing.  You try to minimize the window.  Nothing.  You speak to your computer with four letter words.  Nothing.

You might try Ctrl+Alt+Delete.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes it doesn’t.  When all else fails, you push the button.

What button?  The one that turns the computer off.  You know it will take time.  You know you will lose work.  The alternative is to stay frustrated and hope your anger melts the computer’s brain freeze.

I don’t know why, but this works most of the time.  Electrons get back on track.  The mouse works again.  Programs and apps are opening.  The computer needed to reset.

You need to reset too.

God knows this.  That’s why he commanded the Sabbath (Note: he didn’t suggest it).  Once a week you need twenty-four hours to unplug, remember what’s important, and reset.

You may not know God told his people they needed time off.  In his instructions to his people, he told them to celebrate festivals.  God said to his people “Spend three weeks a year feasting, worshiping, and resetting.

You need more than a day to reset.  You need days strung together to remember what’s important.

Maybe that’s what’s wrong with our vacations.  We get away, but we don’t reset.  We don’t create emptiness so God has space to speak to us.  It is ok to do nothing.  Doing nothing means there is room in your soul for God to say something.

To reset, you may need some vacation time that doesn’t involve Disney.  You may need to shut down your cell phone.  You may need to take a break from social media (you will not be forgotten).  You may need to explain to the kids that part of vacation will be creating space to reset.

Include God in your vacation time.  Ask him what needs to be reset.  Let him whisper to you about your soul clutter.  Soul clutter is all that occupies space in your soul and becomes a “have-to.”  Somethings have to be done – laundry, grocery shopping, etc.   But there are “have-to’s” that aren’t.  You don’t have to involve your child in five sports.  You don’t have to do your adult child’s laundry.  You don’t have to meet the guys at the hunt club at 5 AM for a workday (when the sun doesn’t come up until 6 AM).

Reset means giving yourself time to see your life as it really is.  Reset means giving yourself room to hear from God about what your life needs to be.

Time to reset.  Take a deep breath.  Push the button.  Shut down your operating system.  Let your heart rate slow down.  Do nothing.  Listen for God.

Reset.

Why Hell?

 

I’ve been reading this week reasons why people don’t believe in hell.  The most cited reason: I can’t see how a loving God would send people to hell.

I get that.  God, who is the source of love, doesn’t seem to be the kind of being that would send people to eternal punishment.  One blogger I read talked about a parent putting themselves on the judgment seat and then punishing their child for wrong doing forever.  This blogger concluded no parent would do such a thing (however, I’ve known a few that would).  Therefore, the blogger concluded, either he was morally superior to God or Christianity was wrong about hell.

This kind of logic is appealing, but it poses the wrong analogy.  What if instead of the parent being on the judgment seat, the parent told the child, “You can never leave me.  You must always live in my house.  In fact, I will chain you so you will always be in my presence.  You can have no thoughts of your own, you can make no choices on your own.”  A god who forces people to be with him, to spend eternity with him, turns into a god who makes people dance like puppets.  Anybody want to live that life?

For love to be real, for relationship to be genuine, there must be choice.  God, in His great wisdom, grants us the freedom to choose to do life with Him.  That choice begins on earth and goes beyond death.

All evidence points to God allowing people to make their own choice about relating to Him.  This changes our idea about being saved.  To be saved is not just to escape hell and go to heaven.  To be saved is to choose to follow Jesus all the way to the heaven.

People who choose not to follow Jesus do not go to heaven because they do not want to.  The place they go is called hell.

What is hell like?  Scripture teaches us is hell is a place of regret.  Why?  People regret their life choice to live without God.

To live with Jesus is to live forgiven, to live cleansed.  Followers of Jesus are the Easter People, the people of hope.  People without Jesus are people who live in guilt.  They are people who choose to live life without eternal hope.

If all this is true (and I believe it is), it means my life choices here are really important.  Choosing Jesus matters.  The reality of my commitment is shown by my life choices.  It also means other people may choose not to follow Jesus.  That should break my heart.  There should be no glee when we talk about people going to hell.

At the end of your life, your decision about Jesus matters.

What’s your decision?

The 7 Day Bible Reading Challenge: Passages

Seven Day Bible Reading Challenge

Day 1 – Psalm 23 – God’s care

Day 2 – Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 – The suffering Servant

Day 3 – Psalm 51 – The weight of sin

Day 4 – Matthew 5-7 – The Sermon on the Mount

Day  5 – John 19-20 – The Death and Resurrection of Jesus

Day 6 – 1 Corinthians 13 – The way of Love.

Day 7 – Hebrews 11 – The Hall of Fame of Faith

Deep End Or Shallow End?

pool

I learned to swim in the shallow end.  Though my brothers often tried to throw me into the deep end, it is amazing how much fight you can put up when faced with imminent drowning.

My mother, of a gentler school, told me to lay flat on top of the water.  She would hold me up, while I kicked my legs and moved my arms.  One day, without me realizing it, she let go.  To paraphrase Forest Gump, “I was swimming.”  Soon, the shallow end of the pool was my kingdom.  I learned to push off from the side and zoom around the pool.  But I stayed away from the deep end.  I knew I wasn’t ready.

One day my brother Steve and my cousin Bob seized me without warning and threw me into the deep end.  I had no time to prepare, no time to fight.  I sank, but then instinct kicked in and my legs and arms began to move.  I broke the surface of the water, laughed at my brother and cousin, and swam around the deep end, frightened no more.

When people start to read the Bible, they often want to start in the deep end.  They want to know if God really made the world in six days, and if Jonah was really swallowed by a fish.  They get so busy trying to stay afloat, they miss the story.

This is God’s story in the Bible:  God made the world, we messed it up, and because of His great love, He has been working to save people from their own destruction.  That’s the shallow end.

I’m not saying you should avoid the deep end.  I am saying, make sure you build some confidence in the shallow end first.  Know the basics of the story.  Know the character of God.  Then go to the deeper stuff.

You won’t always find simple answers.  The universe isn’t a simple place and God is not a simple being.  Why does the Bible tell us stories about God’s judgment, wiping out whole nations?  Dallas Willard once said, “Hell is simply the best God can do for some people.”  Maybe the same principle applies.  Maybe destruction is simply the best God can do for some people.

It’s important not to be arrogant about our own time and culture.  We assume our culture’s values are the correct ones.  The Bible, however, is a book for all peoples, for all times.  Some teachings in scripture may not make any sense to us, but were perfectly clear in the time they were written.  They may also be clear in a culture halfway around the word has a different outlook than we do.

Any honest person has to admit there are parts of the Bible they don’t understand.  I’ve been studying the Bible as a follower of Jesus and as a pastor for a long time.  There are still stories I don’t get.  I still read some of the laborious laws in the Old Testament and ask, “What is that doing there?”

But if the Bible is truly God’s book, wouldn’t it make sense that I may not understand all of it?

If you’ve never studied the Bible, start in the shallow end.  Read the teachings of Jesus.  They will help you, whether you believe or not.  Don’t be afraid of the deep end;  God will let you know when you are ready to tackle some deeper challenges.

The main thing is: Get in the pool.  Open your Bible.  Read.  Let God speak to you.  Dive in.

Reasons Not to Believe…

no-god

People have a reason not to believe in God.

Sometimes the reason is hurt.  They expected God to do something and they were disappointed.  They prayed for healing, but there was death.  They expected God to resolve a relationship, but the relationship broke.  The hurt of unmet expectations turned them away.

Sometimes the reason people don’t believe is they want to do something they think God won’t approve of.  The easiest way to deal with God’s disapproval is to stop believing.  A kid grows up in church, participates in the student ministry, then goes off to college or joins the military.  A new lifestyle presents itself.  It looks fun and carefree.  The kid decides the church people were wrong.  There is no god, so that means the new lifestyle can be embraced.

Sometimes the reason people don’t believe in God has to do with unexplained suffering.  Steve Jobs as a child asked a pastor to explain why God would allow a child to starve in Africa.   The pastor couldn’t answer the question and Steve Jobs began to doubt.  The suffering may be more personal.  You lose a parent, or a child and you wonder how God could allow such tragedy.

Sometimes the reason people don’t believe in God is because intellectually they can’t reconcile God with existence as they understand it.  Evolution, on its face, seems to make more sense than God speaking the world into being in six days.  Stories in the Bible fly in the face of logic and reason, or so it seems.  God seems to be an ancient myth unsophisticated people embraced to explain the un-explainable.

Sometimes the reason people don’t believe in God is because they are angry.  Neglected or abused as children, they conclude there can’t be a god.  Angry at their dysfunctional families or parents, they rebel against any authority, including God.

Sometimes the reasons people don’t’ believe in God is because they once did believe.  They were choked by the rules and regulations of religion, the certainty of dogma that left no room for doubt.  The hypocrisy of those who said they believed but lived different introduced a cynical acid on their faith.  Often another god – logic – presented itself.  More predictable and orderly, it became a more attractive path of faith.

Sometimes the reason people don’t believe in God is because they haven’t really thought about it.  Something else occupies their mind: success, money, pleasure, family.   Often people will label themselves as “agnostic” but they functionally live as if there is no god.

Confession: some these reasons tempt me.  Sometimes it would be nice to believe there is no god.  No rules to follow, no intellectual rigor to fight for, no more stupid battles over things in church that don’t matter.  If you believe life is a product of random evolution there is not god, then you get to make your own rules.

But I can’t make that leap.  Each of the reasons not to believe has a response that also makes sense.  It really comes down to your fundamental presuppositions.  My fundamental presupposition is there is too much order in the universe to be random.  An observation:  there has been too much grace poured into my life to be accidental.  One more of my fundamental touchstones: I’ve seen too many lives changed by Jesus to believe He is just a myth.

As much as there may be reasons not to believe, there are also reasons to believe.  To be intellectually honest means you must consider those as well.