Monday, November 03, 2008

Don't Be a Logface!

Thoughts on Matthew 7:3-5.

(Jesus speaking) "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eyes,' when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye." (ESV)

Imagine two four-year-old boys. They both want the same truck. It's a dump truck. Not just any dump's a bright yellow, Tonka dump truck. Both boys have a firm grip on this treasure, and each has tried to wrestle it from the other's hand for several minutes. Now, tired from the fight, they are reduced to words. "You let go." "No, you let go." "I'm not gonna let go...I had it first." "No you didn't; I had it first." And so the fight goes on.

Now imagine two forty-four year old men (or boys). They go to a church in which half the church is just about ready to leave because of a huge division in the church. These two men are on opposing sides of the issue. They have raised their children together, and they have walked through difficult times with one another. One lost his mother to cancer, and the other had a rebellious teenage son that still hasn't returned. They have sat with each other, cried with each other, prayed for one another, and held one another accountable through it all.

During this church conflict, though, they have come to be on opposite sides of the issue at hand. They have thought and said things to and about each other (and to third parties) that are completely dishonoring to one another and to God. They are not proclaiming they belong to Christ through their love for one another. There is a deep, abiding bitterness that can be suppressed enough for a superficial handshake or a 10-minute bowl of chili at the Wednesday night supper. However, like the four-year-olds with their truck, these men shoot thoughts back and forth.
  • "You're wrong."
  • "No, you're wrong."
  • "You know, if you'd just repent and confess your sin against me...just say you hurt me...I'll forgive you and we can get on with this."
  • "Well, if anyone's going to start the confessing, it'll be you, not me. You're the one that's planning on leaving the church."
  • "Yeah, and I'll be leaving soon if someone (hint, hint) doesn't humble himself and ask for forgiveness."
  • Do I really need to go on?

What is the truck? What is the treasure? Being right...not being wrong. The treasure is not truth's not Christ's not God's glory in the church anymore. It's not so about right and wrong as it is about ME being right and YOU being wrong. You being in sin and my only need being to forgive it...if you ever repent.

It seems that the problem in this scenario is the problem in many marital relationships and many churches...whether they are physically divided or not. It is an issue of pride vs. humility. You see, pride is like x-ray helps us see right through the log in our own eyes to pick out the speck in our brother's eye. We can't see our own bitterness, our own hatred, our own lust, our own pride, or even the justification we so sinfully use to cover it up. All we think is that if the person on the "wrong" side of this deal would just repent, everything would be fine. He was wrong...not me. She sinned...not me.

Humility is quick to confess...pride is quick to justify. Humility seeks out the person offended...pride waits in hiding. Humility primarily sees my sin...pride primarily sees yours. Humility receives grace from God...pride receives opposition from God. The problem is that we love our pride so much that not even opposition from God scares us into letting it go; it is in this case that we are most certainly blind to reality. We are blind to our own sin, but we see with 20/20 vision the sins of others. It is a very evil and very alluring temptation our enemy offers, isn't it?

Broken relationships and church divisions would not stay that way if humility beat out pride. Even now, my friends, you could be in a situation where there is sin on two sides of a conflict in your church. Whether it's in the issue itself or the attitude with which the issue is handled, sin abounds. Do not be so prideful as to fold your arms and wait for someone else to do the right thing (i.e.- humble themselves and confess sin) before you do it. Do not be so prideful as to read a blog like this and think, "Man, that's a good word for someone else." It's not for someone else! It's for you! Don't be a logface! Humble yourself, ask God to search your heart long and hard with His glorious and holy light for sin, and then confess it to Him and to the appropriate person(s). Seek peace and pursue it!

It is only then that you can be a tool of God to remove the speck from another's eye. It is only then that Paul would call on you as part of "those who are spiritual" to help restore your brothers trapped in transgressions (Galatians 6:1). Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

This is my prayer, and I hope it is yours as well. Oh, God...let humility begin with me. Keep me from interpreting your Word according to my situation and sinful attitude...instead, interpret me and my situation by Your Word. Grant the courage to be humble and confess any and all sin to You and to those from whom I need forgiveness. Restore broken relationships so that they are whole again. Keep me from the temptation to feel good and right...all the while being a logface and far from where You want me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

I Cannot Serve God and Money

A meditation on Matthew 6:24.

"No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money." (ESV)

It was about four-thirty in the morning, and the last five words of this verse came to my mind. I had been praying for God to speak into my life about my that was new but feeling overwhelming. These were the words the Spirit called to mind, and not only did I see my own sin...I found my relief. In seeing my sin of that moment, I was equipped to fight another day in another battle.

Ok...more is needed for you to feel the impact of that verse in that moment. My wife and I recently moved back to Indiana, where we lived for almost four years at an earlier time. I had served as youth pastor at a church that recently split, and we felt that the Lord wanted us to come and encourage reconciliation between those who had chosen to break relationships. (How that's going won't be talked about in this post...and probably not in this blog. It's enough that I would ask you to pray. As in any area of needed growth, there are obstacles that only the Spirit and the Word can break pray that will happen.)

The point of telling you this is that, as you can probably guess, there is no income associated with such a ministry, so God has chosen to provide for our work here through my work as a hospice chaplain and also as a Bible teacher at a local Christian school. Even with both of these incomes, our total household income dropped 20% in the move, which has created quite a strain. I am no hero, and I am no martyr. My point in telling you any of this is to glorify God and how He uses His Word and His ways to sanctify us.

The financial strain was beginning to affect me. I was giving in to the temptation to worry and be anxious, though the Scripture clearly commands that I not be anxious for anything (Phil. 4:6). I felt I had the right to be anxious because there were medical bills not getting paid because of this reduction in income. WARNING: This is a major way that the enemy tempts us...he uses "rights." I have the right to be anxious. I have the right to be bitter because of the great hurt/betrayal that person caused in my life. I have the right to commit adultery because my wife isn't providing the kind of love I need. I have the right lie to my boss (or cut corners at work) because I can't lose this family needs the money, and God doesn't want me to stop providing for my family. Beware of your "rights"...they will lead you into sin that you (and too many believers around you) will find to be "respectable," to use a word from Jerry Bridges.

At the same time, I have been enrolled in a biblical counseling class through Southern Seminary, and we have been assigned a sanctification project. It is a time of focused work on one area of our lives. This anxiety is what I've been working on, and Matthew 6 has been one of the passages I've chosen to use in that project. All of this combined has led me to an intense battle against anxiety.

In the midst of my battle, I thought, "What if I delivered papers and made some extra money?" I had done it before, and when I looked into it, I would make over $1000 a month doing it (the route I was looking at was especially large). Well, this seemed just about perfect. I would have to give up some sleep and the ability to alert all day, but it was worth it. The money was too good to pass up. After all, if I made all this money, my anxiety would be reduced. (Do you see where this is going already? You probably do, but I didn't.)

After about two days of delivering papers, I was physically and mentally exhausted. The hernia I had surgery for in May was being aggravated, and my schedule was as follows:
(1) Wake up at 12:40 am. (2) Deliver papers from 1-6 am. (3) Fall into bed for an hour. (4) Get up and go to work at the hospice from 8-5 (teaching the Bible class in there as well). (5) Get home and eat a zombie dinner with the family. (6) Take one of the boys to either Scouts or football practice. (7) Get home around 7 or 8. (8) Crawl into bed at 8:30 PM. (9) Do it all over again.

There was no time for the ministry I came time to encourage time or mental focus to pray as I should...none of that. All there was time for was food, work, and sleep. And, truth be known, I was eating and sleeping so I could keep working. It was on the 8th or 9th day of the newspaper that I was driving and wondering how I could keep up this pace for long. The original plan was 6 months, but 8 days had almost literally stopped me in my tracks.

I was driving, jumping in and out of the car and running from house to house in order to meet my deadline (as I did every day). At one point in the route (which always came at about 4:30), there was a long drive from houses to a nursing home where I delivered a stack of papers. As I was driving, I began to pray. 'God, is this what you want from me? I can keep pushing myself, but am I doing the right thing?' (I you don't have to say anything...a prayer I should have prayed before taking the route.) Tears came to my eyes as I cried out to God in what must have looked crazy, if anyone else had been on the road at that time.

Then, the only words that came to my heart were these: "You cannot serve God and money." I remembered hearing John Piper talk about what it meant to serve money. You don't do things in order to bless position your life in such a way to be blessed by money. It hit me, at that moment, that I may have not had the sin of anxiety ruling my heart that week, but in its place I had put the sin of serving money. I had positioned my life so that money would bless me. I became a slave to to work rather than working to live. I didn't want to become rich; I just wanted my bills to be paid. Good intentions...yes! But the end of paid off medical bills does not justify the means of slavery to making each week about money.

I don't know that this means I should never work overtime...or take opportunities to earn a little money here and there, as God may provide. However, exchanging one sin for another is not God's plan for me...for any of His people. I work hard every week. I work two jobs every week. God has sovereignly placed me where I am with the income I have for His purposes. In this case, he wants to drive the love of money out of my heart because it is the root of all sorts of evil (1 Tim. 6:10).

You see, it's not just the rich man who wants to get richer who struggles with the love of money. It's the middle class family that strives for more money in order to find security. It's the poor man who thinks that if he just had more money, everything would be better. You have to really examine attitudes like these. What is it that makes things better, more secure, in each of these situations? Money. And Jesus said, you cannot serve God and money...either you will love the one and hate the other...or devote yourself to one and despise the other.

This is no place for balance in life...this is a place to turn from our sinful desire to find security and hope and help and a better life in money...and trust in Christ as the treasure of our souls. If we had everything this world could offer us and did not have Christ, we would have nothing. If we were stripped of everything as Job was...and we have Christ...we have everything we need for life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). This is an easy thing to "amen" when the preacher says it, but it is far harder to live your life as if you believe it. And, we must believe it.

Money is still exchanged for goods and services, but it is no longer seen as the source...the any situation. Instead, the kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field...a treasure that we would go and sell everything to buy the field so we could have the treasure.

Now, as I fight the good fight against anxiety, I remember that 4:30 appointment with God. When I am tempted to bang my head against the wall or pick a financial fight with my wife, I remember the appointment again. Because of that week of sinful pursuit of money, God has opened my eyes and my heart to trust him more as a man who can't seem to make ends meet right now. That's okay. If God chooses to increase my income, blessed be the name of the Lord. If God chooses to reduce my income, blessed be the name of the Lord. I am better equipped to fight now. I still struggle with it...but this memory keeps me standing against the enemy of my soul,

So, that's what hit me at 4:30 in the morning...that's what hit me again even as I typed it...and that's what I pray hits you before you click the "X" and close this window.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Assuming Motives Leads to War (Re-run)

(I's a little too early in my blogging life for a re-run, but it's been more than two years since I first posted this.)

Thoughts after reading 1 Chronicles 19.

Motives are difficult things to read...reading the question "What are you doing?" gives us no indication of motive. However, if you begin to emphasize different words, you can begin to feel different motives. "What are you doing?" is the question of a parent, whose motive is to find out why her three-year-old son is eating soap (true story). "What are you doing?" is the question of a person who has just been asked what they were doing in an accusing manner. After giving what they believed was a good answer, they throw the same question back in their accuser's face. "What are you doing?" is the question of an inquisitive boss, whose motive is to try to find some reason not to fire a seemingly lazy employee that he/she otherwise likes.

Motives are funny things, and when you begin to assume someone's motive, it can get dangerous. Have you ever assumed that someone was questioning your character when they just had a question? Have you ever assumed someone to be selfish or proud when reality proved otherwise...that they were simply acting in ignorance? My seventh grade band teacher told us all one day that assuming makes something of "u" and "me". (If you don't know, it's okay.)

King Hanun assumed something in 1 Chronicles 19. He assumed that David had sent a delegation to spy on him and find a way to overthrow his country, when David was actually sending a delegation to express sympathy over the loss of Hanun's father, Nahash. Hanun was paranoid and assumed David's motive was antagonistic toward him, so he had the delegation captured, shaved, and stripped. This was not good...the Ammonites became "a stench in David's nostrils" (verse 6). What happened next? You guessed it...battle lines were drawn, and eventually the Ammonites ran away from the fight. The integrity of the king had been questioned by Hanun...assumptions were wrongly made about his motive. Nobody would dishonor God's anointed king, and so war broke out.

Where did it all start? Hanun was so paranoid about being attacked that even an act of kindness by David seemed threatening to him. He didn't even give the delegation time to explain why they were coming; he simply assumed the worst and jumped on the defensive. Does that sound familiar at all? Don't we too often assume that people are out to get us? Someone that we have had conflict with in the past may genuinely try to encourage us...what goes through our minds? "I wonder what her angle is." "I wonder what he really meant by that." "Was that sarcastic?" What would happen if we didn't assume these kinds of things? What would it be like to actually give someone the benefit of the doubt?

This is not to dismiss the importance of defending integrity when it is attacked. However, I think we too often jump to the conclusion that everything is an attack on our integrity. Well, I know I jump to that conclusion too often. Let's listen carefully to Paul's words in Romans 12, with some parenthetical comments by me:

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody (even the ones you assume are against you). If it is possible (and it is more possible than we usually think it is), as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay,' says the Lord...Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17-19, 21)

Assuming wrong motives in those around you can lead to war. It did in the Old Testament, it can in your family and friends, and it can in the New Testament church.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Season of Change

This is a different kind of post for me. Rebecca Powell, a friend of ours, has written a new book called Season of Change: Parenting Your Middle Schooler with Passion and Purpose. Rebecca asked me to read it and then ask questions from a dad's perspective. It was an honor to be asked, and you'll find my questions along with her answers pasted below. If you want more information or would like to order the book, just click on the picture or go to Here we go:

View from the Cheap Seats: From reading your book, it seems apparent that your main target is moms. Are there any words of wisdom you would give specifically to dads for the middle school years?

RIP: Probably the best advice I could give dads is advice that another dad gave to Rich and me when Danya was just around four years old. This dad was raising a 13-year-old daughter, and he said that he had been a little uneasy around her when she started to “blossom” and begin to look more like a woman and less like a little girl. This didn’t seem to be the same little girl he was used to wrestling around with, and he felt like he didn’t know her anymore. So, unfortunately, he was starting to shy away from her, thinking that this was a time in her life when she needed her mother more than she needed him.

However, an older friend of his noticed what he was doing, and he really reprimanded him for it. He just told him, “Hey, your little girl will always be your little girl, and she needs you now more than ever!”

And that’s so true. When our daughters begin to grow and change, they are feeling so awkward and ugly about themselves. Unfortunately, dads can sort of get weirded-out by the process. However, it is critical to a girl’s self-esteem that her daddy push past his weird feelings and tend to her needs! He must do everything he can to help her know that she is and always will be his beautiful little girl. Take her on dates! Tell her how pretty she is! Pray with and for her! A daddy’s relationship with his daughter sets the standard for every other relationship she has with the male species. Dads must intentionally take an active role in their middle school daughters’ lives.

View from the Cheap Seats: It seems that much of the book is aimed at preventative parenting, which is greatly needed for those looking for answers. However, as I read, I began to think of parents who already have middlers. Maybe they have unknowingly allowed their kids to get sucked into the culture, with idols of convenience and laziness and appearance (and more) set up in their homes. What words of encouragement would you give parents who want to finish the parenting race with godly kids but feel like it's hopeless?

RIP: First of all, it’s never too late. Our God is a God of second chances and fresh beginnings, so no parent should ever throw up his hands and give up! Sometimes, if the children are sucked into the culture, it is because the parents are, too. Now is the time to ask for God’s forgiveness for your own failings, and then, go ask your children to forgive you! Let them know that you have failed, that you realize it, and that now, as one who stands forgiven before God, you desire their forgiveness as well. Then explain that while you may have let certain things go before, such as the trappings of unwholesome media (TV, Internet, video games), along with things like laziness, materialism, and complaining, you are not going to be doing that any longer. With middlers, you have a unique opportunity in getting started with this new plan because you can ask them to hold you accountable as well.

When I was growing up, a friend’s mom realized that she had never truly been in a relationship with Christ. She had always been in church, but she had never really experienced Jesus. When she finally accepted His forgiveness of her sins, her life changed. My friend saw that change, and she thought her mom had gone nuts! Her mom was transformed, and my friend didn’t understand what was going on. But they were moving from living as shallow, superficial church-goers to living as Christ-followers. They began reading the Bible together every night, and then everything changed: their relationship with Christ, with each other, and with other people!

Experiencing success rests on the fact that you and your children have accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Savior. If that hasn’t happened, then that’s where you begin. That starts with a very simple prayer.

Dear God, I confess that I am a sinner, and my sin separates me from You. Please forgive me of my sins. I believe that Jesus is Your Son, and I ask Him right now to come into my heart and fill up the emptiness with His love. I accept Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior today. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

View from the Cheap Seats: In the role of the church with the family, there exists a huge range of feelings. Some parents drop their kids at the door at 6th grade, and their attitude seems to be, "Can you please fix this child before he graduates from high school?" Others believe that allowing someone else to teach or influence their child must be a kind of usurping of their parental duties. So, they don't allow their kids to be part of any youth ministry, and some even go so extreme that they remove their whole family from the church. Can you speak to the role of the church in all that you have written regarding middlers?

RIP: Toby, this is a great question. Let me begin by saying that I love the church! I grew up a preacher’s kid, and I became a preacher’s wife several years ago when Rich was called into ministry, so the church is very much a part of who I am.

If I were to encourage churches in any way regarding this age group, it would be to respect and appreciate your middlers. Just as our parenting has to transition in the way that we are responding to our middlers, so does the ministry of the church need to transition in the way that it responds to the needs of those middle-school age kids. Some churches are large enough to have a middle school ministry, and a lot of churches are establishing those.

As you know, my family serves in a small, inner-city church. We are short on both financial resources and parental resources—most of our kids get dropped off, so we cannot count on actively involved parents to help with our programs. A very talented leader in our church, Miss Mel, came up with a way to separate our fifth and sixth graders. She recognized that they needed to be called up higher, and she implemented the steps to do that.

1. She formed a special class for them, “Crossroads,” taught by the only male leader in our children’s department.
2. They cleaned out an unused room in the children’s area, painted it, and furnished it with used couches and chairs. It is stocked with a mini-fridge full of soft drinks, a special privilege only for our fifth and sixth graders. By giving these kids a place of their own and privileges of their own, she is preparing them for their eventual rise to the youth department.
3. Deeper Bible study is an important part of moving to the “Crossroads” class, where they are presented with homework and weekly action challenges.

We are seeing changes in our kids. We are seeing them develop an understanding of what Christianity is all about. We are also giving them multiple ways to minister by offering them roles in the many services we extend to our community.
The church has a vital part to play in every Christian’s life. It does not exist to usurp the parent’s role but to supplement it. And of course, for those who are neglected, it can certainly serve as a home and family.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Mustard Seed

A meditation on a text yet to be revealed.

Take a look at this saying of Jesus: "If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry bush, 'Be uprooted and be planted in the sea'; and it would obey you."

If you have been in church for any length of time, my guess is that you've heard it. You may have participated in Bible studies centered on it. You may have opened up your favorite devotional book, and this was the verse of the day. You may have heard sermons devoted to it. Here's a question, though...what does it mean?

That's no trick question. When we hear this text taught and preached, we often hear teachers and preachers lay down the strong challenge to have this kind of faith. That if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we would see earth-shaking results in our life. Some take this to mean that we can "name and claim" whatever we want (e.g.- healing, wealth, a promotion at work, etc.), and we will receive it. If we don't receive it, then the problem is with our faith.

In response to this kind of teaching, it seems that many evangelicals avoid texts like this altogether. Why? It's only a guess, but I think it's because we're afraid of sounding like the charismatics with whom we disagree. When you hear this saying, maybe you think of the story in Matthew 17, in which the disciples couldn't cast out the demon. That's what I had always thought of, but I read it again in Luke 17, and it really hit me...well, the context really hit me.

What is the context? Well, it's Luke 17:1-6:
"And He said to His disciples, 'It is inevitable that stumbling blocks should come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he was thrown into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, "I repent," forgive him.'
And the apostles said to the Lord, 'Increase our faith!' And the Lord said, 'If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, "Be uprooted and be planted in the sea"; and it would obey you.'"

Did you just see that? What's the context? Jesus says to avoid being an avenue for sin to enter the lives of others...literally saying woe to those who bring stumbling blocks. We've all had those people in our lives, and at times, we've been those people to others. Boys introducing their innocent friends to pornographic magazines or websites. Women introducing gossip to someone who had no desire to hear anything. And I'm sure the list could go on. Jesus tells us, "Don't be those people...don't lead people into sin...don't even live your life as if nobody else is going to follow in your footsteps. You're better off dead than leading people to sin."

So, what is our relationship to other people with regard to sin? We are to be forgivers of sin. Instead of being those who lead people into sin, we are to be people who let repentant sinners off the hook through forgiveness. Even if they sin against us seven times a day...if they come to us repentant, we forgive. We don't hold grudges, we don't dig a pit of bitterness in which to sit. We forgive. Sure, it's not natural...but it is "forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:32b).

Now, to the disciples, this was amazing. In the Jewish culture, you were only supposed to forgive a person a certain number of times...then they get cut off. To hear that if someone comes seven times a day, everyday, we forgive...that just made the disciples' jaws drop and eyes pop. Let's be honest...if makes our mouths and eyes do the same thing. If the disciples had a cartoon-like thought bubble above their collective heads, it might read, "We don't think we can do this...we don't have that much faith. We need more faith." Then, the sense of need becomes a request, "Increase our faith!"

What is Jesus' response? Surely they need more faith. Jesus is always questioning their faith, so He'll understand that they need more faith, right? He'll answer their reply...this is a worthy cause...forgiveness is a huge part of Jesus' life mission. So, surely He'll give them the extra faith they need. Right? Wrong!

Jesus essentially says that if they had any faith...even a speck of faith like a mustard seed...they could do anything. They could uproot a mulberry tree and cast it into the sea with that faith...they could even forgive a brother's sin seven times a day. They didn't need more faith; they didn't need a special kind of faith...they simply needed to access the tiny, wobbling, embryonic faith that they already had.

This is challenging to me. Is it challenging to you? It's always been easier to be amazed at people like Corrie ten Boom (who forgave a Nazi soldier face to face...a soldier who tortured her during the Holocaust). It's easy to be in awe and think, "I wish I had that much faith." The truth is this...the faith that Corrie ten Boom has is the faith that you and I is the faith once handed down to the saints. The problem is that we avoid living out every cubic millimeter of our mustard-seed faith.

So, think of the last person who hurt you but you thought, "That's the last straw!" Maybe you didn't get mad...maybe you just decided to remove yourself from that person's life. You changed grocery stores, jobs, churches, etc. By staying around and not forgiving that person, we not only avoid living out our faith...we also allow the sin against us to fester in the soul of the other person. In some ways, we have become a stumbling block to the other person by not offering them the chance to escape the guilt of their sin against us. (Remember what Jesus said? We're better off dead than to do that!) By removing ourselves from their lives, we don't do them any spiritual favors...after all, out of sight, out of mind. If you never see the person against whom you have sinned, the opportunities to feel repentant are diminished.

Let's not be the people who are avenues of sin into other people's lives. Let's be the people who go out of our way to forgive our brothers of their sins. How? Use the faith God has given us, as microscopic as it seems at times.

One final's interesting that Jesus uses the picture of uprooting the mulberry bush. I've already quoted Ephesians 4, but this word picture makes my brain go back to it. Just before Paul instructs the Ephesians to forgive as God in Christ forgave them, he says, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice" (4:31). Then, he goes into forgiveness.

The mulberry tree has an intricate root a maze that goes deep and has a firm grasp on the soil. If we think spiritually, what greater maze of emotion and attitude can there be to escape than bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, slander, and malice? Oh how deep it can dig into the soil of the heart! Get rid of the roots of bitterness and slander...forgive! If you are feeling bitter or are swimming in a pool of slanderous, malicious conversations, look for the one you must forgive! Cast the mulberry tree into the sea, and experience the freedom of forgiveness!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

What are you saying, Paul?

A meditation on 1 Corinthians 1:10-12.

"I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, brothers. What I mean is that each one of you says, 'I follow Paul,' or 'I follow Apollos,' or 'I follow Cephas,' or 'I follow Christ.'"

Divide, separate, take apart, tear into pieces, split, break up, cut in two, segment, sever, etc. There are many ways of talking about splitting things into multiple pieces. These words can be pretty harmless, but when you start saying things like divorce, calling it quits, and parting company, there's more involved; namely, there are people involved.

As we approach these verses in 1 Corinthians, it is helpful to note that the division of the church seems to be a theme running throughout its sixteen chapters. The immaturity of divisions is mentioned in 3:1-4, divisive lawsuits between believers in chapter 6, divided marriages in chapter 7, division over eating food sacrificed to idols in chapter 8, division's effects on the Lord's Supper in chapter 11, and even potential divisions about gifts and tongues in chapters 12 and 14. If the Corinthian church was anything else, it was divided.

The verses we are considering here basically begin Paul's letter with the lament that there are divisions in the church. Paul hates this. He spent over 18 months investing in the lives of these people (Acts 18:11, 18:18). To say the least, he loved them, and to see them divided like this must crush the apostle. He did not found this church so that it could be divided; instead, it was meant to be a beacon of light in a very dark city.

Now, to the text. Paul urges these believers to be of the same have the same judgment (v. 10). You know what? To a lot of people in our world, this sounds boring. It seems monotonous for everyone to think the same way about God...where would all the interesting coffee shop conversations go? Why would you want everyone to think the same? Be an individual...think how you want. In fact, we believe it's a basic right to think how we want. However, we believers surrendered that right at Calvary. No longer can Jesus be anybody we want Him to longer is 'sin' defined by my longer is the Bible just another religious book. This means, one of our goals in church life should be to think the same. What the Bible teaches, we think. We study it to find its meaning...not our feelings about what it says, but the meaning...then we wrestle it into our hearts and minds.

I remember reading a sermon lamenting the attitude that "church would be boring if we all thought the same way." I can't quote it, but the preacher responded kind of like this. He said that if it's boring to be in perfect agreement, then we're saying that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit must have the most boring relationship because they are in perfect agreement. They think exactly the same. Are we really ready to say that our churches with divisions over one issue or another are better than the inner-relationships of the Trinity? He goes on to say that we will be incredibly bored and dissatisfied in heaven because all believers will have the same doctrine in heaven. We all will know as we are known...fully and perfectly (1 Corinthians 13:12). Are we prepared to say that our theological debates over end times, baptism, God's sovereignty vs. free will, and the rest are really better than heaven?

I don't think Paul is ready to say that divided thinking is best. Unity in thinking is is best that we work to think the same and have the same judgment. Oh...there's a hand in the back of the classroom. "Ok...then who's judgment wins? Mine or the other guy's?" Answer: this isn't a competition. The goal is to find God's judgment on a given manner and think that way. So, God wins. Now that that's settled, we can get back to the text. We've seen Paul say that agreement and same mindedness is needed. What else?

Well, Paul follows this up with the report he's been given by Chloe's people. I don't know if Paul sent Chloe's people to check on the church or if Chloe was actually part of the congregation. I just know that it had gotten so bad, Chloe may have thought, "You know what? These quarrels aren't going away. If we're going to stay together for the sake of the gospel and for one another, then we need some help. I'll get Paul...he'll be able to help." So, they went and told Paul...they didn't gossip to him; they just needed somebody to come from the outside, who loved the people and could speak into their lives. They told him the problem, and they asked him to help.

Now, we get to verse 12, and if I'm confessing, then I'd have to say at this point...this is the verse that struck me the most. On Monday night of this last week, I mowed our yard, which is a great time of meditation for me. Too often, I meditate on useless things. That night, I happened to meditate on 1 Corinthians 1:12. It all made sense up until the end. Paul would obvious discourage the proclamation of following himself or Apollos or Cephas, but why does he include Christ in this list? He even goes on to talk about how Christ is central to his message...why include His name in the list of divided groups? (FYI - when you're studying the Bible, always try to see if there is something surprising in the usually turns out to be a rich truth)

I thought, and I mowed...I mowed, and I thought. Then, it hit me...I was in the front yard, and my hands we starting to feel a little numb because our push mower shakes. Anyway, it hit me. What hit me? Well, let's see if I can get you there. Think about your, and God forbid this ever happens, think about a business meeting where lines are drawn. One group yells, "We follow [prominent man in the congregation]." Another group yells, "We follow [prominent man in the congregation]." Another group yells, "We follow [prominent man in the congregation]." A fourth group yells, "We follow Christ."

Can you imagine what their doing? It's as if they're saying, "You can follow that man, and you can follow that other man. You can follow any man you want to, but we follow Christ." Can you hear the pride laced all through that? Spiritual pride is dripping from that statement like raspberry jelly from a donut on your brand new shirt. This group sounds the most spiritual, don't they? It's not that they are simply trying to follow Christ, it's that they are vocally reminding the church, "I follow Christ." They want everyone else in their congregation to know how carnal the rest of the people are for following men. They also want everyone to know how spiritual they are because they follow Christ. In today's church, this is no small group. Too many of us would belong to this group if we were honest.

Too many of us would be shouting from the rooftops how spiritual we are because of the decision we've made to do this or leave this vote this way in the business not be part of that over there. We are now the Pharisee in Luke 18, standing in the temple shouting to the top of our lungs about how spiritual we are...and all the while Jesus is disapproving of our actions and motives.

Apart from this pride, which is bad enough, why would Paul be against people talking about following Christ in the midst of conflict in the church? Don't you want people following Christ? Of course you do, but don't you see what's happening? People are putting themselves ahead of the church...people are willing to sacrifice the unity of the body for the sake of "following Christ" if the two could be separated. How can I say I am following Christ when I am contributing to the division of His church? How can I say I am following Christ when I speak harshly, mistreat, and abandon His bride? How can I say I am following Christ when I am not willing to fight for His body's life?

Being of the same mind and judgment is absolutely necessary in church's a continual process, and sometimes a fight, but it's worth it. Divisions have no place in the church of Jesus Christ. It's not even okay to seek to divide the church on our holier-than-thou soap box proclaiming, "I follow carnal people who follow men!" After all, "the eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you'" (1 Corinthians 12:21).

A friend of mine recently led a Bible study on Romans 15, in which Paul writes, "May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus" (v. 5). Why did Paul say that they needed the help of "the God of endurance and encouragement" to live in harmony...unity? Because living in unity, as sweet as it is, is hard work. It will take perseverance, and it will take encouragement. So, I encourage you, my friend, don't give up on the church. Fight for her unity...for her same mindedness...for her agreement...for her to never divide...and ultimately, for the glory of her Head, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Not dead yet

I checked my stat counter recently, and I can see that several of you are still checking in from time to time. I apologize for not writing more. My family is just beginning to settle from a move, and it has been nuts. Having a yard again, I find myself with one of life's greatest meditation-conducive activities...mowing. The Lord has been teaching me much, and there are things I plan to begin to write about within the next week or so. So, I'm not dead yet...I haven't thrown in the towel (I can't even find the towel, but I'm sure it's in a box somewhere).

For those who come by often (or even not so often), you can pray for me as I think about the next stage of this mysterious journey of writing. There are two large projects looming in my head, and I would like to take the next year or so and pursue one of them. I am praying for the discernment to decide correctly and for the perseverance necessary to dedicate a year to such a project.

In the mean time, I'll still be blogging. See you soon.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Long time, No write

It has been about 40 days dince my last post, and for those who check this blog weekly, you have be wondering if my fingers had bee removed in some industrial accident (or by a member of the mob). You may wonder if I've run out of thoughts...or you may have hoped that I had run out of thoughts. Neither is the case. I have simply been negligent in updating lately. Excuses abound...I had surgery about four days after the last post, and even this morning, I still felt the effects. My family and I are moving, which is a post within, I'll leave it at that. This has meant packing and preparing for a new phase of life. There are plenty of things I can point to...but I am now writing again.

I am writing today out of a need to be transparent. I have attended the BASICS conference at Parkside Church in Cleveland, OH, on two occasions, and I recommend it to anyone who is passionate about preaching or wants to grow spiritually and pastorally. One of the most refreshing things, for me, is to see a man like Alistair Begg...or any of the other amazing men who have spoken...become transparent. You hear these men on the radio, read their books, and it is easy to get a quick sense that they live in a different world than we do. There's some shiny, sinless world they live in...while we dwell down here in the muddy, dingy, sinful realm of earth.

In addition to this, it is easy, as a pastor, to believe that you will somehow weaken your ministry or your influence if you are honest about your own struggles with sin. What a lie! The opposite is actually true. I was listening again to "Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire" by Jim Cymbala on tape...and it was amazing that his first spiritual breakthrough at the Brooklyn Tabernacle came as a result of his giving up on a Sunday night sermon. He makes this statment about what he learned that night, "God is actually attracted to weakness."

We don't believe that, do we? I mean, we read about Gideon and celebrate the grace and power of God in the midst of his weakness. We see God ambushing the enemies of Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20, and we have long discussions over the battle being the Lord's and not ours. We read Paul's testimony that God's grace is sufficient and that God's power is perfected in weakness (2 Corinthians 12), but we really don't believe that, do we? That's just good makes for an interesting Bible study...but that's no way to live your life...always boasting in your weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9b).

We live in a world where you have to be must seem impenetrable by the power of sin, or else you could lose status. Whether you are actually growing in holiness or not is often must seem like you are. This is especially true is you're going to be called a leader in today's church. You can't have chinks in your spiritual armor. You can't slip on the narrow path that leads to life. You must stand tall, chest out, voice firm, with confidence radiating from every pore. You must, in some ways, be like the Grinch who stole Christmas. You must have an outward appearance that is meant to almost intimidate those around you, while your heart is aching or struggling or broken. They don't teach you this in seminary...this is stuff you learn "on the job."

In this arena, there are two things I know to be, pastors must pursue holiness and, in many ways, be the example of what it means to pursue holiness. Second, and the flip side of this same coin, is that honesty about failing is part of what sets the example for others to pursue holiness. I will create nothing but an attitude of defeat if I stand boldly in every arena and fake my holiness. Likewise, pastors shoot their hurting, struggling, sinning congregation in the foot (and sometimes in the heart) when the facade of perfection in life is kept up for the sake of the "fishbowl."

It is with this in mind that I must confess...there is much in the way of killing sin that has yet to happen in my life. I find myself struggling with things that have plagued me for years. It's not every day, which is the sneaky part of how the enemy works. However, too often, I let my guard down, and the enemy takes that opportunity to introduce things that haven't crossed my radar in months or years. Because my guard is down, I knowingly walk into sinful thoughts, sinful words, or sinful actions...usually things I have just denounced from the pulpit or am prepared to denounce the coming Sunday. It is in these moments when nothing seems lower than I am...murderers, thieves, liars, and adulterers seem to have nothing on me.

It is usually at this time that I don't immediately turn to the right place. Instead of running first to the throne of grace to seek mercy and grace in my time of need, I instead start my party planning. I get my proverbial pointed hat on and am ready to throw the great pity party of the ages. The main event? I will recall my sin over and over and over again, and the enemy of my soul will clap with each repetition. I will announce my failure with my failure voice fully revved up, and Satan batters me like I'm the pinata.

Thankfully, the Holy Spirit interrupts the party and turns on a light. This is not godly's not godly sorrow because it doesn't lead to repentance. It is only leading to my spiritual demoralization. Godly sorrow looks to the One who has borne my burden on the cross. Godly sorrow recently took me to John 1:5, where I was reminded that "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it." No darkness can overcome the light that has shone in my heart by the power of the Holy Spirit. No darkness can extinguish the Light of the world who is my Light. It is this Light that has brought grace upon grace (John 1:16) and that is full of grace and truth (1:14). This grace is mine because He has brought me out of the kingdom of darkness and into His marvelous kingdom, where I enjoy the forgiveness of my sin (Col. 1:13-14).

So, what do I do? The party's over. I take off my pointed hat, and I prepare to walk with my Savior again. As best I can, I will leave behind the memory of my failure and press on to the high calling of Christ (Phil. 3:13-14). If the memory of failure comes back, I cast my anxiety over it on the Lord because He cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

Yes...I fail. Yes...I sin. Yes...I admit it. Yes...I am a pastor. I beg you...don't throw a pity party for yourself when you sin, even if it's habitual and seems impossible to break. Join me in running to the throne room of grace and casting yourself on His mercy. His forgiveness is ours when we confess and repent.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Just joking...

Meditation on Proverbs 10:23 - "Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding."

I recently went back to a familiar way of reading the Bible on a daily basis. Each day, whatever else I read in the Bible, I try to read 5 psalms and a chapter in Proverbs. On Saturday, the 10th, I was scheduled to read Psalm 46-50 and Proverbs 10. It was on that afternoon that I ran into this verse.

Proverbs are unique from things like narratives. Often, it takes the span of a couple of paragraphs, or maybe even a whole chapter, to feel the impact of a narrative's teaching. Narratives can also be read fairly quickly. Proverbs, however, are different. Each one must be taken in slowly and thoughtfully, or the point will be missed altogether.

I remember a show on TLC called "I Can Make You Thin". Being on the last 20 pounds of a long weight loss journey, I was interested to see what the host had to say. One of the things he suggested was after taking a bite, put down your knife and fork and chew twenty times before swallowing...getting all the flavor out of it. For a speed eater like me, this is an unusual concept, but I get the point. Eating slower means getting more satisfaction out of what you eat...therefore, you don't have to eat as much.

I think we should learn to read Proverbs this way. Read one verse, put the Bible down, and chew on the truth in the comparison or contrast put forward. Get all of the soul satisfaction out of it you can! Then, move on to the next verse.

Now, this has nothing to do with the actual subject of Proverbs 10:23, but I wanted you to know the way in which I was trying to approach my reading. It was a gloriously warm and sunny Saturday afternoon, and I was in one of our Adirondack chairs on the back porch for my Bible reading. I was working my way through Proverbs 10, trying not to "swallow verses" without adequate chewing. Verse 3...the Lord does not let the righteous go hungry...tastes good. Verse 11...the mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life...a tasty reminder of the importance of our words. Verse 19...when words are many, transgression is not biting into a burritonot realizing it's full of jalapenos - WHOA! That really got my attention!

Then verse 23 - "Doing wrong is like a joke to a fool, but wisdom is pleasure to a man of understanding." When is doing wrong like a joke? Where is the trap that I want to avoid? I certainly don't want to be a fool, but where is the temptation to treat wrong doing like a joke?

Then, it hit me. The place where it is easiest for us to treat wrong doing like a joke, sadly enough, is when we are surrounded by close, Christian friends. Our guards are up in the office, where unbelievers are all around. Our guards are up at the gym, at the ballgame, and even at church...making sure we avoid wrong doing. After all, we want to conduct ourselves wisely toward outsiders (Col. 4:5a).

However, when it's just us and that other couple...just two deacons...two elders...two Christians...then, we feel some sort of need to "be real" and "lighten up". We would never make a joke out of that (pick a wrong doing) with Bill from accounting! But...with John from Sunday School? He's a Christian. He understands. He knows I'm just kidding. He knows it's just a joke.

I don't want to travel down some legalistic pathway here, but joking about wrong doing is a slippery slope. Laughing about an unbiblical, immoral life choice breaks down a barrier that may keep us from hating a sin as we should. The problem's not "just a joke". Proverbs 10:23 says it's the mark of a fool, and when take a glance through Proverbs (and the rest of Scripture) to see how fools are spoken of, we should quickly want to distance ourselves from even the appearance of foolishness.

So...I sat in that Adirondack chair on my back porch, and I chewed and chewed. The more I chewed, the more conviction I felt about my own "just joking" attitude about some things. Today, I sit in a burgundy, swiveling office chair, and I continue to chew. How I long for less foolishness in my life and more wisdom! I want to laugh...but I don't want foolish laughter. I want to be called a "man of understanding" by the Lord. May wisdom be my pleasure...our we walk through life.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

You Mean It's Not Just My Church?

As I was studying for my sermon on John 21 last week, I read a sermon by Charles Spurgeon entitled, "Do you love me?" It was amazingly helpful to me personally for many reasons, but I only want to share one with you. The reason I want to share is that I believe we can find some common ground with Spurgeon.

There is a real temptation to believe that someone else's church is perfect. We may lament, "If only my church were like this pastor's church or that pastor's church, then we'd be alright." Now, please understand that seeing God at work in other settings ought to spur us along to greater faithfulness. We can and should be challenged by another congregation's evangelistic zeal or their commitment to mission work or whatever the case may be. However, we go too far when we begin to assume that because this guy wrote a book or that guy spoke at a conference, their churches must be ideal. That's not the case.

Some seminary coffee shop is probably buzzing while I'm typing, and it's buzzing with the notion that no church can be blessed by God unless it is perfectly biblical in every aspect. Don't hit the "comment" button yet to blast me. I believe in a church functioning biblically. I believe that God's blessing is on our being biblical. I believe that when we stop pursuing biblical faithfulness in all things, we begin a journey on a dangerous, slippery slope into a religious wasteland.

However, this is not my subject today, and I'm not interested in chasing a bloggit (i.e.- same as chasing a rabbit, only in blog form). What I am interested in is sharing with you the encouragement I found in this sermon by Spurgeon. It's easy to feel like it's just our church that isn't everything the Bible says it should be. We long for the "New Testament church" as we look at Acts 2:41-47, often forgetting that the actual New Testament churches carried the problems of Corinth, Laodicea, Galatia, and more. In the midst of this search for biblical fidelity, I hope we can find some encouragement from Spurgeon's candid look at his own congregation. Allow me to state things that a pastor might say today and then quote Spurgeon's words for you.

1. Our church doesn't have biblical church government.

Spurgeon said, "Dearly beloved, I have been of late perplexing myself with one thought: that our church-government is not scriptural. It is scriptural as far as it goes; but it is not according to the whole of Scripture; neither do we practice many excellent things that ought to be practiced in our churches."

2. We need to be assimilating and discipling new believers more effectively.

Spurgeon said, "We have received into our midst a large number of young persons...I think there ought to be on the Sabbath afternoon, a class of the young people of this church, who are members already, to be taught by some of the elder members. Now-a-days, when we get lambs, we just turn them adrift in the meadow, and there we leave them. There are more than a hundred young people in this church who positively, though they are members, ought not to be left alone."

3. The deacons are acting like elders, but they shouldn't have to.

Spurgeon said, "If we had elders, as they did in the apostolic churches, [the teaching ministry] might in some degree be attended to. But now the hands of our deacons are full, they do much of the work of the eldership, but they cannot do any more than they are doing, for they are toiling hard already."

4. It's not just the pastor's job to disciple new believers.

Spurgeon said, "By God's help I will take care of the sheep; I will endeavor under God to feed them, as well as I can, and preach the gospel to them...I would that some here whom God has gifted, and who have time, would spend their afternoons in taking a class of those who are around them, of their younger brethren, asking them to their houses for prayer and pious instruction, that so the lambs of the flock may be fed."

5. Our church is nice to visitors but isn't really open to new people.

Spurgeon said, "[One complaint] which I have often heard is, 'Oh sir, I joined your church, I thought they would be all brothers and sisters to me, and that I could speak to them, and they would teach me and be kind to me. Oh! Sir, I came, and nobody spoke to me.' I say, 'Why did you not speak to them first?' 'Oh', they reply, 'I did not like.' Well, they should have liked, I am well aware; but if we had some means of feeding the lambs, it would be a good way of proving to our Savior and to the world, that we really do endeavor to follow him. I hope some of my friends will take that hint..."

6. People need to get up out of the pew, stop whining, and do something for Jesus!

Spurgeon said, "I beseech you, do something to prove your love; do not be sitting down doing nothing. Do not be folding your hands and arms, for such people perplex a minister most, and bring the most ruin on a church - such as do nothing. You are always the readiest to find fault. I have marked it here, that the very people who are quarrelling with everything are the people that are doing nothing, or are good for nothing. They are sure to quarrel with everything else, because they are doing nothing themselves; and therefore they have time to find fault with other people.

I write all of this not to give you more ammunition for your Monday morning pity party about church. I write all of this to remind you that you are not alone. The same battle for the people of God to BE the people of God has been going on for centuries. It is not new with this millennium. Things weren't perfect in the 90s, the 80s, the 70s, the 60s, the 50s, or any other time in history. Pastors have always pulled their hair out because they cannot seem to help their flocks "get it."

I take great heart from the fact that Spurgeon had some of the same struggles that I have. I also take heart that even in the struggle, he was faithful to preach the Word in season and out of season. Stay steady, my friends, and be faithful. If you are a pastor, take heart, and do not grow weary in well doing...I had to be reminded of that at lunch yesterday. If you are not a pastor, then pray wholeheartedly for your pastor, and don't be the "good for nothing" that Spurgeon talked about.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Restoring Grace

Thoughts on John 21:15-19.

I remember sitting in a Knoxville restaurant, wringing my hands as I waited for my friend and mentor to meet me. I was nineteen years old, and I believed the Lord had called me into ministry. This friend had confirmed God's call in my life, but he didn't know everything about me. So, when he arrived, I decided to fill him in.

"Denny," I said, "I think I'm disqualified from ministry." He was puzzled and asked me to explain. So, I went into a fifteen minute story about a "major sin" I had committed 2 years earlier, how it haunted me even though I had asked God to forgive well as asking those that my sin had hurt to forgive me. After I got done, I simply waited for him to say, "You know're are disqualified from ministry."

Instead, he surprised me with this question: "Do you believe that the Bible is true?" I didn't see how this was relevant at the time and said, "Of course, but what does that..." He cut me off and asked again, "Do you believe that the Bible is true?" A simple "yes" was my reply. He smiled and began to explain.

"Toby, if the Bible is true, and your sin has been have repented...then your sin is forgiven by God. It's as far as the East is from the West. God has removed your guilt. So, the only guilt you can be feeling is generated by the Enemy. He's your accuser...not God." As much as I knew what Denny said was true, my heart struggled to believe it. We talked more as we ate, and by the end of dinner, I knew that what God was saying to me through my friend was true. I left the restaurant with a stomach full of food and a heart full of peace.

Have you ever been there? Have you ever wrung your hands in guilt over some old sin? A sin that haunts you, even though you have repented and confessed...even though you have asked forgiveness of both God and those you may have hurt? Do you find yourself going through your "sin resume" often...explaining to God and others why you're no good to serve the Lord?

If so, then think about Jesus' restoration of Peter in John 21. In verses 15-19, we find Jesus publicly restoring Peter to usefulness for the kingdom's sake. Peter's restoration is intentional, penetrating, humiliating, gracious, and complete. I'm sure we could think of more things to say, but let's just briefly think through these five adjectives.

1. It is intentional - Notice the setting of these verses. It's not just Peter and Jesus in a corner somewhere having a private conversation. It's out in the open, with the disciples sitting around the fire watching everything happen. In fact, it was at a fire such as this in Matthew 26 that we find Peter weeping bitterly after he had denied the Lord three times and the rooster crowed.

Why did Jesus intentionally restore Peter in public...with the other disciples right there? One good reason can be found as we think back to the disciples last night together before the crucifixion. It was at the Last Supper that Jesus had predicted Judas' betrayal. It was also at this supper that Jesus predicted the scattering of his followers when he was killed. In response, Peter proudly and boldly proclaimed, "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away" (Mt. 26:33).

In front of all the disciples, Peter had basically said he was a better follower than them and that he would never fall away. The fact that he denied the Lord may plant doubts about Peter's future leadership in the minds of the other disciples. Without this public restoration, it wouldn't be too strange to imagine the apostles' eyes rolling as Peter preaches at Pentecost. You see, Peter needed to be restored with respect to these other men. He had bragged in front of them, and he had fallen. So, he needed to be restored in front of them. It was Jesus' intentional way of showing His approval of Peter once again.

2. It is penetrating - The fact that this restoration is penetrating comes in Jesus' questioning of Peter's love. He doesn't ask, "Do you fear God?" or "Are you sorry?" or "Don't you believe in me?" or many other questions. He simply asks, "Do you love me?" That has to sting. It has to penetrate the heart of Peter to know that his Savior is questioning his love.

Facing our failing and our sin is part of restoration. It stings, but it is necessary. When a small spot of melanoma (i.e.- a type of skin cancer) was found on my right leg back in 2003, the doctor didn't just shave a little off the top at that place. There was a significant chunk taken out. Do you know why? It's because the surgeon wanted to make sure he got it all. Jesus, like a surgeon, wants to make sure he "gets it all" as he deals with Peter. The questions sting so much that Peter is grieved by the third time it's asked, but they are necessary for his restoration.

3. It is humiliating - It's interesting to me that Peter doesn't make the same kind of bold claim that he did at the Last Supper. No longer was he boasting of how he would be the last disciple standing. No longer was he saying things like, "See, we have left everything and followed you" (Mark 10:28). Now, Peter appealed to no accomplishment or trait of his own. He simply appealed to Jesus' knowledge of his heart. "You know I love you" was Peter's three-time response.

It's as if he's saying, "You can't look at my actions of the past few days, you can't listen to all the claims I've made in the past...but just take a look at my heart. See my heart the way you could see the Pharisees' heart, and you'll know. You know this failure is eating me alive, but you also know I love you, Jesus." Restoration is a humiliating experience, and it is so appropriate that Peter would later write, "God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble" (1 Peter 5:5).

4. It is gracious - I absolutely love Jesus' response to Peter. Jesus asks, "Do you love me?" Peter says, "You know I do." And then, Jesus does not say, "Then why did you deny me?" That might be how we would respond...don't you love Jesus? Then why did you make such a stupid decision!!! Aren't you so glad that Jesus doesn't treat us this way? Aren't you glad that when we come to the God's throne of grace we find mercy and grace and not constant reminders of our failure?

In this moment, it's as if Jesus is forgetting what is behind in Peter's life and pointing him toward the goal toward which he must press (Phil. 3:13b-14). What is this new goal? "Feed my sheep." Jesus is saying, "You love me, Peter? Then be passionate about what I'm passionate about. Feed my sheep, care for them, love them, leave the 99 for the 1, lay down your life for them."

And Peter would do just that as one of the main preachers that helped establish the church. He would do it in letters to scattered and suffering believers. He would do it by reminding other elders like him, "Shepherd the flock of God" (1 Peter 5:2). Jesus graciously gave Peter a hope and a future, instead of rubbing his nose in the past. What an amazing grace we have in Christ!

5. It is complete - We can see the completeness of Peter's restoration in a couple of things. Most obviously, Jesus asks Peter about his love three times, restoring Peter for his threefold denial of the Lord. Also, we see Jesus' commission to Peter at the end of verse 19. Take notice of it, underline it, highlight it.

Jesus says, "Follow me." It is the same call that Peter received when he first started with Jesus. The call didn't change. He was still called to leave everything, to take up his cross, to love God and love others, to preach the gospel, and to deny himself for the gospel's sake. There is no asterisk beside this new call with a footnote saying, "This isn't a real call because you blew it, so your effectiveness has been diminished."

If anything, Peter will be even more effective as a shepherd because of his fall and restoration. His ministry would have been incomplete without it. This is why Jesus told him that Satan would sift him, but "I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" (Luke 22:32). Peter would be better equipped to shepherd and restore souls because the Great Shepherd had restored his soul.

Peter's restoration is intentional, penetrating, humiliating, gracious, and complete. It is only by the grace of God that Peter was restored, and it is only by the grace of God that you and I are restored when we fail. Don't sell God's grace short on what it can accomplish in restoring you to usefulness. Instead, do what our restored friend, Peter, wrote, "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 3:18).

I'll leave you with some amazing lyrics from Caedmon's Call:

You're rerunning the mistakes
In the theater of your mind
Hoping that there'll be a happily ever after this time
Oh let go, your sin is not an axe
That can fell the Sacred Tree
Oh let go, your regret is not a net
That can dredge the forgetting sea
And a wise man once told me
I was dying just the same
The past can be like sidewalk chalk
If you will dance and pray for rain
Oh let go, your sin is not an axe
That can fell the Sacred Tree
Oh let go, your regret is not a net
That can dredge the forgetting sea

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Pagan Practices Anonymous

Thoughts from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-6).

You've probably seen portrayals of AA meetings on television. There are metal folding chairs in a circle, and the first man begins, "Hi, I'm Bob, and I'm an alcoholic. My last drink was 47 days ago." (or something to that effect). The rest of the circle answers, "Hi Bob." Then, the introductions proceed around the circle.

If we were to begin PPA (Pagan Practices Anonymous), we would find believers sitting in a circle. These men and women want desperately to live as Christ has called them, but they get caught up in pagan practices. No...not sacrificing chickens, worshipping golden idols, or casting voodoo spells on others. These pagan practices are loving others and praying.

WHAT?!? Pagans don't do these things. They don't love others...they don't pray. How can you say such a thing? Why would we ever want to stop believers from loving others...from praying? Well, let's slow down, put on an oxygen mask, and walk through that again. I don't want believers to stop loving others and praying. I believe Jesus wants us to stop the pagan practices of loving others and praying. There is a difference, and Jesus lays it out for us.

In Matthew 5:43-47, Jesus says, "You have heard that it was said, 'Love you neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you...If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?"

In telling his followers to love, Jesus distinctly tells them to avoid the pagan practice of only loving those who love you...only greeting those who greet you...only caring for those who you know care for you. This is why we need the PPA...we believe that the secret to holiness and living a righteous life is to seclude ourselves from all things pagan. Use Christian doctors, mechanics, and interior decorators. Only buy books at the Christian bookstore. If you have a choice between Starbucks and the Christian coffee shop down the road, forsake your taste buds and get the drinkable motor oil (FYI...not all "Christian" coffee shops serve bad coffee).

This doesn't limit itself to doing business though. We see those who look or act radically outside of what we call "Christian" and we avoid them like the plague. We'd just as soon have a special section of the country for everyone who didn't profess Christ. We are like Jonah...hating the Ninevites around us and hating the very idea of grace entering their lives and transforming them. Maybe we're like those who sat at the table the first time Mephibosheth came to dinner at the palace with David (2 Sam. 9). We look at this cripple from the enemy's family, and we are suspicious of him and his motives...never knowing if he'll turn on us. Whatever the case may be, I believe Jesus would look at such practices and say..."How is that any better than pagans? How is that the radically different life I've called you to? It's's not the life I called you to live. Love you enemies." So, let's take our place at PPA and say, "Hi, I'm Toby, and I practice pagan love for others. The last time I remember loving my enemy was..." Confess this attitude, and ask God to break it.

The next section comes in chapter six, as Jesus is instructing his disciples in how to pray. In verse 7, Jesus says, "And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words." Jesus is not condemning repetition in praying. If so, He would condemn Himself for using the same words in the Garden of Gethsemane. Matthew 26:44 says, "So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing." Repetition is not the problem.

The problem is that these prayers just go on and on. It's "babbling" in the NIV and NLT. It's "vain repetitions" in the KJV, "meaningless repetitions" in the NAS, and "heap up empty phrases" in the ESV. I think I like the ESV best. In other words, when pagans go to pray, they really pile it on...the longer they sit there and ask for something, the more credit they believe they have. They're not really saying anything of meaning because there is no real faith from which these prayers come. They do not pray believing...they simply have empty conversations, looking up at the ceiling and talking to someone they don't really believe is there or will intervene.

This is the pagan practice of prayer that we must avoid. Simply praying out of duty is not good enough. Even flowery, biblical phrases in King James language can be empty if there is not a heart a faith producing them. Again, repetition is not the problem. It is even taught by Jesus. In Mt. 7:7, the literal translation of Jesus' instruction is "keep on asking...keep on seeking...keep on knocking." Also, Jesus holds up the example of the widow and the unjust judge as an example of persevering in prayer in Luke 18. The repetition is not the's the vanity of the repetition, the emptiness of the prayers, the meaningless nature of pagan prayers that is the problem.

So, join Pagan Practices Anonymous, and confess, "Hi, I'm Toby, and I practice pagan, empty praying. My last sincere time of prayer was..." Confess it, and beg God to renew your energies for a vital prayer life. Let Jesus reteach you how to pray. Read the prayers of great saints of the past. Pray with those who truly know how to pray. Don't just pout because you feel disconnected in your prayer life. Do something about it.

You see, this is why it is dangerous to just teach that we should love others and pray. That's not good enough. There is a specific way we must love and pray. There are pitfalls even in the most honorable spiritual disciplines. Even pagans can do some of these things. It is the way a changed heart engages spiritual disciplines that sets the believer apart from the rest. So, my friend, love others and pray, but don't do it as the pagans it as a Christ follower does.

Monday, March 24, 2008


"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled."
-Matthew 5:6

Empty. It's not a comfortable word, is it? Emptiness is a feeling and a state of being that all of us try to avoid. Emptiness also creates a desire in us to do something about be be filled. Hunger is an emptiness in our stomach that creates a desire to satisfy ourselves with food, but emptiness goes beyond the physical.

If emptiness occurs in one's career, it results in a desire to do something different. Maybe I'll go back to school, start my own business, or rethink how I approach work so that it's not just a J-O-B. If there is an emptiness in family life, then there's a desire for things to change. Maybe I'll use family time more wisely on the weekends, begin family devotions at least once a week, coach one of my children's teams, or simply keep my promise to leave the office when I say I will. Emptiness in marriage results in a desire for more satisfaction...maybe from turning off the TV and actually talking to my wife, going away on vacation (just the two of us) to retreat and regroup, or just taking small, intentional steps to be more sensitive to her needs on a daily and weekly basis. Embracing our emptiness seems to be the first step toward satisfaction.

It sounds backwards...who are we kidding? It is backwards, but isn't that what Jesus is saying in Matthew 5? Those who are void of righteousness and embrace that by being hungry and thirsty for it...those are the ones who will be satisfied. The problem with embracing emptiness, though, is it means admitting weakness. It means I'm not the only person I need, and that flies in the face of our culture's view of man. We have become extremely individualistic in our society. In fact, the very idea that my satisfaction is based on something outside me is offensive because it takes me out of the center of my universe.

However, whether we like it or not, we all start life empty, and too many of us live our whole lives empty. To paraphrase something that French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, there is an emptiness in the lives of all men and women. How we choose to try and fill that emptiness will determine the course of our lives and the course of our eternity. People try to fill this emptiness with money, cars, houses, having another child, having another mistress, education, drugs, casual sex, going to church, giving to the Salvation Army, and lots of other things. Ultimately, these things...even sinful things...may give temporary satisfaction, but they won't last. If God graces you with conviction, you will lie in your bed, stare at the ceiling, and say something like this: "What am I doing with my life? Where am I headed? Is this really all there is? I feel so empty."

It is at this point, with the ceiling offering no answers, that you are best prepared to have your soul satisfied. Denying your emptiness would be a denial of reality, but embracing your emptiness will send you on a journey to find your satisfaction. In order for that journey to be successful, it must end at another empty empty tomb. You see, the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus is the source and substance of our soul's satisfaction. When we embrace the emptiness of the tomb of Jesus, we find satisfaction for our souls and our life. "If you confess with your mouth, 'Jesus is Lord,' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead [the emptiness of the tomb], you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

So, Pascal was right on...there is an emptiness in every life. And he was right when he said the's an emptiness that only God can fill. Don't look for the satisfaction of your soul anywhere other than in the person of Jesus Christ. Embrace your emptiness...embrace the fact that every effort to try and fill it apart from Jesus is empty...embrace the emptiness of Christ's satisfied with Jesus.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Insert Name [HERE]

Thoughts on Luke 14:25-26.

I am so thankful for the love of God. I am so thankful that as spiritually wretched, poor, blind, and naked I was, the love of God sent Christ to die while I was still a sinner (Romans 5:8). The third verse of the old hymn, The Love of God, is incredibly true...

"Could we with ink the ocean fill and were the skies of parchment made
Were every stalk on earth a quill and every man a scribe by trade
To write the love of God above would drain the ocean dry
Nor could the scroll contain the whole, though stretched from sky to sky"

That song was written in 1917 by Frederick Lehman, and it still rings true today. In fact, Mercy Me did it on their album called Spoken For, and it's great.

We could swim in the deep, deep waters of the love of God and never find its end. We could sweat and toil to hike every square inch of the mountainous love of God and never find its peak. The love of God for us in Christ is so precious. I remember, as a teenager, hearing an evangelist quote John 3:16 and afterward, he said, "Now, put your name in there...let's say it out loud." The whole congregation began "For God so loved the world...", and at the appropriate times, we entered our names. It was a reminder of God's love for individuals.

Now, none of what I have written seems to remotely correspond with Luke 14:25-26. In fact, it seems quite the opposite. Don't we get into the habit of talking about "the positives" of following Jesus...and then "the negatives". You know, the benefits are peace, joy, forgiveness, eternal life, etc., etc. The cost is holiness, picking up your cross, forsaking everything else, etc., etc.

Now, I agree that there is a cost to discipleship, but I think we dismiss it too easily, and we think of it wrongly. First, we cannot dismiss the cost...I'll insert my name in Luke 14:26, and I dare you to do the same - "If [Toby] comes to Me, and does not hate [Harold, his dad] and [Stephanie, his mom] and [Susan] and [Caleb, Austin, Emilie Grace, and Georgia] and [Andy and Jeremy] and [Christie], yes, and even [Toby's] own life, [Toby] cannot be My disciple." We could have kept talk about taking up [Toby's] cross (v. 27) or giving up all of [Toby's] possessions (v. 33). However, you get the picture. Maybe you're thinking, "That's personal...lighten up...can we get back to the love theme?"

Don't you see? This is the very essence of love. Hating father, mother, brother, sister, wife, and children...taking up our up all our is the very death of the old me. The old me considered nothing more important than family, a good salary, a nice 401k, a comfortable lifestyle, and my health. The love of God cries out to that incomplete, superficial, selfish, idolatrous person and says, "Come to me, all who are weary...and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28-30). "Unless you likewise repent, you will perish" (Luke 13:3).

The greatest treasure in the universe is Jesus Christ, and unless we repent of treasuring family, possessions, and even our own lives over Christ, we will not be saved. But the love of God has invaded the time-space continuum that we might be saved. Somehow, for the one who knows Christ, he can love his wife as Christ loved the church (Eph. 5) and hate her in comparison to treasuring Christ. A child can honor father and mother (Ex. 20:12) and hate father and mother in comparison to treasuring Christ.

It seems paradoxical, but the Christian life is just your life, and you'll lose it. Lose your life for My sake, Jesus said, and you'll save it. The man who hates his wife when compared to the way he loves His Lord is the greatest lover his wife. The child who hates father and mother when compared to the way she loves the Lord gives the greatest honor to father and mother. That may need to roll around in your mind for just a does mine.

The first verse of that hymn begins..."The love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell." My friend, leave every other love, and with reckless abandon, live in the love of God.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Livin' La Vida Liberia #2

Sorry it's been so long since I've posted. I do have things swirling around in my brain that I'd love to share with you. However, I have not made the time to do it yet. So, again...sorry.

This may be an "easy out", but I recently posted a new sermon on my church website. It's the first one I preached after coming back from Liberia, and it contains more personal information than I normally include. However, part of the sermon is a testimony to God's grace in answering my prayer for Georgia's visa to come through. I hope that it encourages you as you walk with the Lord.

Go to, and click on "Sermons Online" on the left side of the page. Have a great week, and keep your eyes on Jesus!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Things to Avoid When You're Exhausted

The year-long emotional roller coaster of adoption, the 3 1/2-week journey to Liberia and back (which included being a single dad for that time), the malaria medicine's side effects, and jet lag have all combined to give me about 2 1/2 weeks of exhaustion. I simply have felt tired all the time. Though the stretches of normal energy levels are increasing (praise the Lord!), I still find myself wanting to nap (i.e.- pass out) a couple of times a day.

All of this has reminded me of being at a pastor's conference once and hearing someone talk about things to avoid when you're exhausted (physically, mentally, emotionally, etc.). It wasn't the main topic...I just remember it being a "side note" in the midst of his talking about other things. I can't find my notes, but I can remember some of them. When you're exhausted, you should never:

1. Operate heavy equipment...or a car, for that matter
2. Write important letters or e-mails
3. Quit your job
4. Try to make important, life-changing decisions
5. Evaluate your spiritual health
6. Evaluate others' spiritual health

That's all I can think of right now. To be honest, some of these have snuck up on me when I've been exhausted. Not only is reality often skewed when you're tired, but for me, negativity is an easy trap to fall into...whether it's about me, others, relationships, ministries, etc. I can get to the point that I sound utterly depressed if I allow myself to think too much about important things when I'm tired.

Take some time, think about it, and leave a comment with anything else that might be unwise to do when you're exhausted. If you feel so moved, write your own confession of things you've done when you were exhausted...and now you wish you wouldn't have done it.

READERS' NOTE: Though I have blogged a few times when exhausted (and the result was certainly tainted), this entry is not one of those times. Thanks...the Mgmt.

Monday, February 18, 2008

For Whom the Bell Tolls

A meditation on Romans 8:1-4.

Though I've heard it attributed to a couple of sources, it has apparently been said that the Scripture is like a beautiful ring, the book of Romans is the jewel in that ring, and the eighth chapter of Romans is the sparkle in the jewel.

At the opening of the 'sparkle of Scripture', we read this great declaration: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (v.1). This statement of our security in Christ is so strong, so sure, and so glorious that we could spend much time meditating on its content. I mean, think about it. We are in Christ, so we do not and will not ever experience God's condemnation. We cannot be labeled "condemned" anymore because of Christ's work and because He has sent the Spirit of life to set us free from the law of sin and death (v. 2).

The content is fascinating, but what has captured my heart at the moment is the context. You see, chapter breaks are really such modern inventions, and it's a real shame when Bible reading plans have you stop at chapter breaks when there is such a vital connection. When you find such unfortunate breaks in your translation (whether it's a chapter break or a new "heading" inserted by an editor), dig down deep, ignore your Sunday School teacher's voice in your head, and write in your Bible in all capital letters: "DON'T STOP READING!" In my estimation, the end of Romans 7 and the beginning of Romans 8 is just such a place.

Sounds random, but think about a boxing match. I've only watched limited amounts of actual boxing in my life, but I have seen the fictional Rocky Balboa fight many, many times. You know those rounds where it looks like all hope is lost? The other boxer is having his way with Rocky, Rocky's eye is bloodied and swelling shut, and he's literally getting his brains beaten in. After being knocked down, Rocky struggles to get back up just before the referee finishes the dreaded 10-count. Then, just when you think "It's over...there's no way he can go on...somebody needs to stop this fight"...something happens. The bell rings. Rocky sits down, and his trainer waves smelling salts under his nose, bringing the boxer back to reality. They squirt water in his mouth and on his face, patch the cut above his eye, and prepare him to go out and fight again.

This is how I imagine the transition from chapter 7 to chapter 8. It's like a cosmic boxing match between you and the power of sin. Blows are being forcefully landed by the power of sin...doing what you don't want to do, wanting good but evil is right there with you, your mind loves God but there's sin in your body. The fight's not looking too good, and you're starting to lose hope. Your eyes are swollen're beaten, bloodied, bruised, and begging for it to end. You can't imagine having another ounce of energy to fight anymore...where's the towel so you can throw it in? You feel like shouting, "I GIVE U..."

Before you can finish giving up, the bell has rung. You're in your corner, and the apostle Paul climbs into the ring with a towel draped over his shoulder. God has sent this man into your life to bring you back to reality. So, the smelling salts come out, but they're not smelling salts at all...they are words...words that shake you back to reality: "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."

I can almost imagine Paul preaching his own text to you as you heave for a breath. He looks you right in the eye and says, "Have you forgotten who you are? You are in Christ and the condemnation of sin does not mark your life anymore. You are no longer subject to sin and to the will fight, but you will not fight with this defeat-ist attitude and posture. The Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death...don't you remember? Sin has no dominion over you anymore (ch. 6). And the Law? Don't go out there swinging the Law at sin...the Law can't do anything about sin except make you feel the sting. The Law doesn't rule you either (8:3, 7:1-13). Now, stand up...remember that Christ has condemned sin and robbed it of its sting and power in your life (8:3b)...get out there, and fight. Kill that sin (8:13), or as John Owen said, 'Be killing sin or it will be killing you.'"

Paul is right. What we must do when we are getting to that defeated posture is open our Bibles and smell reality. Then, we need to bang our gloves together, shake our head to clear it, crack our neck a couple of times, start hopping to get revved up, and then launch into another round. I'm so thankful for these 'smelling salts.' What a great, glorious, beautiful placement of this great, glorious, beautiful truth!

So, my friend, do not sit around and bemoan your Romans 7:14-25 experience. It is a true experience for believers, and it is a fight that we all must face. However, it is not the end of who you are. You are more than a conqueror through him who loved us (v. 37). So, put down the towel that you want so desperately to throw in. Sniff the smelling salts. Get out there. And fight!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Livin' la Vida Liberia #1

For those who do not know, I just arrived back in the country on February 4 from my trip to Liberia. I brought home our new, 2-year-old daughter, Georgia. While there, I wrote a journal so my wife could have a feel for what I felt and went through while there. This entry isn't from the journal, but it will give you an idea of what daily life was like. More about my trip and experience will come (including pictures) , and they'll all be labelled "Livin' la Vida Liberia".


Imagine waking up at 5 AM because the rooster outside, who you have lovingly named "Breakfast", is talking long distance to the other roosters in the neighborhood and trying to welcome the sun 2 hours before it will rise. You dose back off, trying to ignore the cock-a-doodle-doo every three minutes, but you are awakened again at 6 AM. The generator has shut off for the day, which means no more cool air and until the sun comes up, complete darkness.

Imagine finally rolling out of bed at 7 AM because you just can't lay there anymore. Your first act of business is the same as anywhere else in the world - a trip to the bathroom. However, with the generator now off, the electric pump that would have flushed your toilet is no longer working. So, once you finish with whatever your business is, you grab the 5-gallon bucket of water next to the toilet and pour some in to get things down the drain.

Imagine eating one of three things for breakfast every day for three weeks. Always eggs...the only surprise will be this: fried in oil or scrambled with onion? And...always bread. It's going to be french toast, pancakes, or sweet bread (which is about the consistency of corn bread, only much sweeter). Lunch will be Liberian: white rice with some kind of "soup". The soup is what you pour over the rice, and it will have either chicken or beef in it. (You've noticed plenty of chickens running around, but you haven't seen a single cow in all your travels through Monrovia, Liberia...where'd the beef come from? Best not to ask.) Your dish will be named by the vegetable in the soup. It's not a lot of veggie, but it's all you get each day. Chicken with hot peppers and potato greens over rice is simply called "potato greens". Beef with hot peppers and cabbage over rice is simply called "cabbage". You get the picture. Dinner will be American-type ordering American food in a Chinese or Mexican will look vaguely American and taste good, but it's not exactly the same. Hamburgers, pizza, chicken, etc.

Imagine taking a walk every day, but before walking, you layer on the SPF 50 sunscreen you brought with the bug spray (99% deet) over it. You walk everywhere, and you probably average about 2.5 miles a day in walking. You can walk along the beach, where people are having their morning bathroom time right out in the open. Their "bathroom" is the grassy area just out of the sand of the beach (Note to not walk there). As you move along the beach, you will face the Atlantic Ocean and enjoy the beauty of the waves crashing or see fishing boats in the distance. If you look down the beach, you will notice trash, trash, and more trash. There are some homes that look nice, but many others seem either burned out by the recent war, incomplete, or shack-like (reminding you more of the clubhouse you and your cousins built in your grandmother's backyard).

Imagine walking through the market. Any street can be turned into a market, as men, women, and children have small tables or stands set up in front of their homes. Some are selling small bags of rice, some peppers, some fruit, and a few sell luxuries like Coke (but you really have to look for them). Many vendors will sell you a casaba cooked over hot coals. These are potato-like root vegetables that are soaked in water before cooking, and they remind you of eating a sweet potato with a crispy exterior. The ones soaked in salt water are best. You can also buy sugar cane on the street. It is peeled for you, and then you bite of the fibrous material inside. You chew and get all the sweet juice out of it...then you spit out the fibers themselves.

Imagine seeing the people in the market. Though they are distinctly Liberian, many have on T-shirts that are very American...advertising The Dells in Wisconsin, 50 Cent (he's a hip hop artist, for those who don't know), and even various universities in the US. Some, however, are dressed in more traditional, Liberian clothes...bright, colorful wrap skirts or suits. You can see many boys, girls, and women carrying things on their head. From a bucket of peanuts to laundry to giant bunches of plantains, anything and everything seems to be transported on the head. When you ask, you will learn that this skill is taught from an early age, so it is quite natural to them.

Imagine being seen as a continual source of financial aid. Not everyone has hit you up, but everyone on the street wants to quickly call you their friend, learn your name, get your cell phone number, and tell you their story. The unfortunate thing is that if you help someone openly, then you will never be left alone again. Men and women will argue with you...telling you how unfair it is to help one but not help everyone. It's a little like getting caught with gum in second grade... "Do you have enough for the whole class?"

Imagine walking past a school and having a pocket full of Tootsie Rolls. Your pockets are full of candy on came to give it to the children. The children see you coming, and they begin to swarm around you. You are reminded of the scene in Finding Nemo when the birds kept saying "Mine." "Mine." "Mine." Now, however, precious little faces are looking at you, and empty hands are extended toward you. All you can hear is, "White man...white man...white man...white man." As you give out the candy, they see that it's coming from your pockets, and now you wish you would have tied the draw string on these shorts because it feels like they may "de-pants" you at any moment if it means more candy. You decide that this is the last time you'll bring candy here because you see older children pushing and hitting the younger children to take their Tootsie Roll away.

Imagine never feeling clean. Imagine dust and dirst being on every square inch of your body. You wash your feet twice a day, but there's still dirt you can't get off. You wish you had an SOS pad or something to get the dirt out from around your toe nails. Even after your evening shower (which will run scalding-freezing-scalding-freezing...though you are thankful for the few seconds in between these two extremes), you feel dirty. You have to put on socks immediately or else you will have dirt-covered feet all over again. The other reason you want to wear the socks is because you've got to try and keep sand and dirt out of your bed.

Imagine that each day, one of your greatest moments is when you hear the beep of the wall-mounted air conditioners at 7 PM. The generator has kicked on, and you will have electricity for the rest of the night. Of course, everything's in Chinese...the TV/DVD remotes, the air conditioner remotes, etc. Everything has been shipped in from China, but you don't care. You'll get to stop sweating for a few hours, play cards, watch "Cheaper by the Dozen" for the fourth time, and go to sleep in a soft bed.

Imagine that in the midst of all this, you are getting to know your new daughter...what scares her, what makes her mad, what makes her smile, what makes her laugh, what comforts her, etc. You are attaching to her, and she is attaching to you. You weren't quite sure how you could love another child like you love those you already have, but it happened all the same. You're in love, and one day, she'll realize it. She'll know she's got you wrapped around her finger, but for now, you just enjoy her. When she's scared, she nestles her head between your neck and shoulder. When she smiles, she lights up the room. When she sleeps, you stare in awe and wonder and thank God for every moment you get to be her daddy.