Glory for Berries

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burning-bush-done Last night, our newly renovated local community theater hosted a combined orchestra and wind ensemble and opened the performance free to the public.  This was an extraordinary cultural treat for our little town.  We wanted our boys to experience it–(plus selfishly desired a break from all the ballgames they are immersed in!)  They were enamored by the variety of instruments, inspired by the melodies of John Phillip Sousa and full of questions about the tiny girl playing the giant harp 3 times her size on stage left.

I love that feeling of being swept up in something beautiful.  Several pieces had an alluring quality embedded in the melody.  As a musician, I’m amazed at the infinite combination of chord structures that can create an emotional response of “hold on, something even better is about to happen.” But something occurred that kept jerking me out of this euphoria…

2 rows in front of me, a young man–probably college age–was playing Mortal Kombat on his Samsung Galaxy phone. There was no effort to be subtle with it…in fact, it was as if he hoped the entire audience might join him!  Held high, inches away from his face, the flickering glow of gunfire and explosions lit my view of the stage. And it went on and on. Even my boys were astounded. At least he had turned the volume off.

Held high, inches away from his face, the flickering glow of gunfire and explosions lit my view of the stage.

I wondered who he was?  Perhaps a son or boyfriend of someone in the orchestra?  Maybe a kid from a local college receiving some extra credit for attending? Regardless, in the midst of what I perceived as rudeness, I remembered a few lines from Elizabeth Barrett-Browning:

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries,                        And daub their natural faces unaware.”

I sort of felt sad for him. Whether he didn’t want to be there or thought he was accomplishing 2 things at once, he was missing it.  He wasn’t present.  He was trading a holy moment for berries.

Yet as is His custom, the Lord turned my critical spirit back on me. How often do I do the same thing…multitasking my physical presence while my mind works out a dozen other projects? I think this is what Jesus meant when he said “with the measure you use, it will be measured unto you.”

Lord, help us realize the richness of your presence today in the midst of a doctor’s appointment, lunch with our family, our children’s homework, yard work, grocery shopping, a conversation with a neighbor, practicing an instrument and folding laundry.

May we never, ever be satisfied with blackberries.

Fresh Fruit (Week 9)

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I regret that we don’t utilize confessional booths.  Maybe you can be mine today?  To my Catholic friends, we obviously have some differences; but on this point you are dead right.  And if you have one in your Parish, you should go.  The evangelical church has missed this as an opportunity for spiritual formation, and specifically for the development of self-control.  Yet it can be reclaimed if we can learn to worship like King David did.  sc

You may be wondering…where is he going with this!?  Where are the funny stories about the kids!?  Hang on, you won’t be disappointed.

During these 2 weeks focusing on self-control as a family, my wife & I keep coming back to a core truth:  people are powerful.  All people have power given to them at birth.  Even a baby has power.  He or she screams until it gets what it wants.  You’ve been played.  Our children figure this out quickly.  The great task of parenting is teaching these little people to use their power wisely.  If they don’t learn to control their power wisely, then it will be controlled for them when they are adults.  And nothing is scarier for a kid than an adult that is out of control.

The default for most of us parents is not self-control but me-control-you.  “You’re on restriction because you didn’t do what I asked.”  “You’re disrespectful so I’ll spank your bottom.”  Not that this is never called for, but this doesn’t teach self-control.   It is a hard lesson for me, but I can’t be afraid of my kid’s deliberate sin or his accidental mistake.  God will use those things to teach him how to control himself, and God uses me as the coach to reveal those truths to him through speaking truth & giving grace in those moments.  So as much as is possible, we try to give them an option.  Here’s an example:

Last week the eldest son broke the get-ready-for-school-rule:  No media until you have eaten breakfast, gotten dressed, brushed your teeth & have gotten all your stuff together.  Then you have to be in the car at 7:45.  At 7:44, he was still on his phone with no things together.   Calling him on this caused a tirade on his part on how the late-ness was not his fault, and many verbal justifications proceeded of why he needed to be on his phone.   The rest of us calmly walked to our cars and began backing out of the driveway with the other 2 responsible children.  He bolted for the car, threw his things in and continued his defense all the way to school.  Within 15 minutes, the following text conversation began:

Mom, I forgot my trombone.

I’m so sorry bud.

Can u bring it?

Sorry…I wasn’t planning to come back to school today.

What am I gonna do?

You could make due without it or hire dad as a taxi for $2 to drop it off.

(pause)

I’ll hire the taxi.

So, I wrote out an invoice–seriously, I did–stuck the invoice in the trombone case and delivered it to the band room.  Viola!  He just developed some self-control!  How do I know?  Because that scene has not repeated itself for days. (And yes, he did pay the $2 when he got home.)

When people get out of control, it affects everyone around them.  All of our actions have consequences.   I want my actions to be good consequences.  (For a great laugh, view the attached picture on our refrigerator. This is the “I Forgot” list.  In other words, things our boys have gotten in trouble for during self-control week. Their initial response is frequently “I forgot;” so we just started making a list posted publicly so that they will not have that excuse again. The magnet is just a bonus.)  self control

So how do I keep myself in control?  Because honestly there are times I think I will completely lose it.  If I could have a moment of complete transparency as a pastor let me say this:  the most wonderful, jaw-droppingly gracious, loving, kind, peaceful people I’ve ever known are in the Church.  Thank God for the blessing they have been in my life.  But unfortunately the most mean-spirited, hurtful, spiteful people I’ve ever known have also been around the Church.   Not tons, but enough to leave a mark.  I expect this from the world, but not from those who wear Christ’s name.  There is no other place I know of where cross-training in grace is more pronounced.  I’m glad to be in the middle of this grace.  For all her flaws, the world is certainly not practicing this.

In many of King David’s Psalms, we witness something we simply don’t do:  confess what is truly in the heart.  It’s not just “I’m angry, LORD.”  It’s more like “God, I wish my enemies would fall into the hole they dug for me.  I wish terrible things would happen to them.  I want them to hurt the way they hurt me!”  A strange, sadistic smile has crossed my face before while reading many of these.  Sandwiched between verses of praise are honest, raw thoughts like these.  Check out Psalm 69:27-28 for example:

Charge them with crime upon crime; do not let them share in your salvation.  May they be blotted out of the Book of Life.

Right here in the middle of his praise, David admits that in his heart he wishes his enemies would burn in hell!   And he tells God this.  (I bet you never heard anything like THAT prayed out loud in church!)  What on earth!?  What is happening?  It is the formation of self-control.  The admittance of what is present in one’s heart to God and recognizing Him as the Divine Judge releases the one praying.  If I am that honest with God, I am far less likely to seek revenge myself.  I place my trust in God to be the one to control the outcome & bring justice.  But if I am not honest with God then I push these negative emotions down deep into my soul.   I’m tempted to think they are hidden there, but these embers will eventually manifest themselves by turning me into the aforementioned “christian” terrorist.  Anyone who has ever been to counseling knows that what is shoved down, will eventually come out in destructive ways.  What is present in our hearts needs to spill out before a Holy God.

Thank you, Catholic friends.

Thanks to the rest of you who listened…may you absolve me.

Wherever you worship this Sunday, somewhere in the midst of all the praise, be like David.  Work on some self-control.  Direct your raw honesty to the LORD rather than at others.  He can take it.  And He will change your heart if you will give it to Him.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness & self-control.  Galatians 5:22-23

P.S.  Thanks to all of you who hung with me through this series!

Fresh Fruit (Week 8)

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For a while, I thought I was doing something wrong as a parent.   And if you have a boy (or 2 or 3 or more), you will understand this psychosis.  In the calmness of my morning coffee, our 3 sons begin their day at an acceleration level that would make a Porsche jealous.    Cereal, bacon and pancakes are eaten as if we live in a concentration camp and may not receive any more food for a week.  I’m on the second verse of a wonderful, contemplative Psalm in my morning devotion when full scale war breaks out between the youngest two over who took the last blue Lego.  My name is exclaimed to adjudicate the injustice as I witness the oldest on the back deck, barely clothed, shooting squirrels out of an oak tree.  Their beautiful mom emerges down the stairs like rose being sucked into a tornado.  gentleness

Maybe I need to be a firmer disciplinarian?   Maybe I need medication?   It didn’t help when we got together with our friends with daughters & witnessed the princesses playing happily and quietly with a doll in a corner for 45 minutes.  I get it why some people choose to exchange their morning coffee for a Bloody Mary!

It’s not always this way…there are actually frequent moments when “mama” emerges, everything briefly stops and there are hugs all around.  There are SO many great qualities embedded in the energy of these little people.  For the parent in this situation, it takes prayer and advance planning…as if a flash flood is coming, but you are in charge of where the water goes.

For the past couple of weeks on gentleness, we keep revisiting this idea:

Gentleness is power under control

The best hands-on illustration of this for our boys was the day we took them to an indoor putt-putt place.  The first few rounds went well…even a hole-in-one by the 6-year-old!  But since the youngest set the bar so high, this quickly became THE goal for every hole.  Adrenaline was pumping.  This resulted in a narrow miss to the face when our “center child” hit the ball too hard, ricocheting off a giant dinosaur toward two teen girls innocently playing their round at Green #12.  (The second time this happened, I pretended to not know whose child that was.)  At other times, the ball was simply not hit hard enough, resulting in the slow backwards roll right back to starting position, and demands for a mulligan.

This week’s lesson for our little guys was this:  how they are learning to handle themselves at this point in life is like their putt-putt game.  Sometimes I see them exert too much power…like when playtime starts out fun but escalates to a point where someone gets injured.  Sometimes I see them exert not enough power…like when homework is supposed to be completed or a room cleaned up “the way mom would do it.”  But when power is used correctly, at just the right level, you win and so do those around you.

One more compliment & admonition for them this week:  whenever they are around young ladies, they naturally become gentlemen.  “Let’s try to remember that mom is a lady and not one of the guys!”

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness… (Gal. 5:22-23)

As adults, power tends to go to our heads and is easily abused.  Sometimes even our identities get all wrapped up in it.  This is true of governments and churches.  Without the Holy Spirit, I’m not sure it can be controlled.

Fresh Fruit (Week 7)

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If there has ever been a topic that could feel like a broken record, it has been the week on faithfulness.  So what did we do?  Focus on it, as a family, for 2 weeks 🙂  Explaining the concept of faithfulness to children seemed a little like teaching algebra to our pets…so we narrowed it into a simple definition that we could discuss in multiple scenarios:  “keeping your promises.” faith

Some promises are BIG, like the vows my wife and I made to one another when we were married.  Breaking that promise is a huge deal that affects a lot of people.  But the Word of God says that we should be people of such integrity that we never have to say  “I promise” or “I swear.”  When we say we are going to do something, we ought to be individuals who don’t need a person looking over our shoulder to ensure we really do.  This applies to all those daily things that families have to do to work together well:  cleaning up our room, setting the table, turning off all the electronics at a certain time, sitting down to eat together without our cell phones & iPods, putting our clothes away, feeding the dog,  and on and on.  We are a Team.   Being faithful to do our part as that team member blesses everyone.  When we are not faithful to do our part, it hurts everyone on the team.

But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness…

Being faithful also reveals the state of our heart.  Do I believe in the one(s) to whom I’m being faithful?  Am I willing to do my part even when I don’t understand WHY it’s so important?  Contempt or whininess unveils that we may be on the border of breaking our word.  It reveals a lack of trust, and suggests that I think I know what’s best for me.   But a faithful attitude unwraps a heart full of love and trust…that this team is important to me…that although I may not understand why this is such a big deal I’ll do it anyway.

Of course the LORD is the ultimate example of faithfulness.  Can you imagine how difficult it would be to submit to the Creator of the Universe if He constantly broke His promises, changed His mind, or frequently said to us, “so sorry…I got angry at you about that thing you did for a while.  That’s why I’ve been absent for a couple of years.  Let’s see if we can work this out & like each other again.”  (!@#$%???!)  No, He is consistent in His love for us.  He sustains our every breath and so much more.  Usually, I am so busy with my own life and fretting about my own deal that I don’t even realize this.  He is unspeakably gracious in light of how seldom I acknowledge this.

Parents get a flavor of what it’s like to be in His shoes.  Our children are in the process of learning faithfulness, but don’t always do so well.  This precipitates many moments of counting to 10, or even stepping outside for some fresh air for a while so no one gets hurt, and so we don’t say something we will regret.  But we go back in…they are, after all, our kids.  We love them.  They are in process, and we keep modeling and nurturing the fact that promises are worth keeping.  We don’t leave.  Years of practicing this in the family is like tending to, cultivating, fertilizing, watering a field which produces a rich harvest.

Let us not scatter seed and stand off at a distance for several years to see how it does.

That Moment

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I had the privilege of being with some wonderful MS students this past week.  And I have to say, it’s been a while.  If you have ever been a camp counselor, it’s likely you can relate to these moments …so I made a brief list.  Enjoy.  camp

“That Moment” at MS Camp when…
1.  You realize you are likely the oldest volunteer on staff.
2.  You can’t figure out why the 11-yr-old girl in your family group looks so familiar, then realize  you had a crush on her mom in college.
3.  You realize you aren’t that cool anymore and you don’t care.
4. You see your own kid having a blast and having some of the great life experiences you had at this age.
5.  You witness a moment of pubescent awkwardness, and the full memory of being a hyper-sensitive 12-year-old comes crashing back.
6.  Adolescent hands are in the air abandoned worshipping like you wish adults would.
7.  You realize coffee is not an amenity, but necessary for survival.
8.  You’re watching kids being catapulted off the inflatable blob on the middle of the lake and remember when you too were once mostly made of cartilage.  Your current skeletal frame is audibly saying “don’t even think about it.”
9.  The Holy Spirit is obviously working on a young person’s heart.
10.  A kid accidentally and loudly farts right before the campfire talk, and you never really ever get your audience back.

Vacation Memories

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This time last week, we were prepping the minivan for the 12 hour journey home from Williamsburg, VA to our home in Lanett, AL.  24 hours round trip in a car with your family can be one of the most intensive “small group” experiences of the year!  In your church, it may take 6 months to a year for some people to open up and share what’s on the heart.  But in this circumstance, it takes less than 5 minutes.  Planks

The confines of the car have caused ALL of us who are parents to completely lose it at times.  (More often than not, I tend to look back & think “wow, I could have handled that better!”)  Full of both great memories and difficult moments, the family road trip becomes a test tube for the practice of nurture before returning to a more normal environment. Christ-following parents are afforded the “Cross-fit” workout of pressing into the Fruit-of-the-Spirit.

Lest you think this is any different or easier for a pastor’s family, here are some the most repeated statements/questions during 24 hours in the car with our 3 boys:

How much further?

Are we still in Georgia?

Dad, will you turn on the wifi?

I don’t like that movie.

I love that movie.

How many more hours?

I’m hungry.

I’m bored.

Stop shooting me.

I LOVE this song!

Are we still in South Carolina?

He’s touching me!

I have to pee!

Ethan, can you get me a snack?

I can’t sleep.

I can’t stop eating!

I need a drink.

Mama, can you turn it up?

Can I have a caffeinated drink?

Can I sit somewhere else?

He always gets the back seat.

We need gas again.

Who has gas again?

Which Carolina are we in?

No, you are not peeing in a bottle. We’re stopping at the next exit.

Can I get a Starbuck’s Frappucino?

Did you make a wrong turn?

Dad, why didn’t you just listen to Siri?

Put your seat back and rest.

Your choice for the next hour is to read or take a nap.

No we are not there yet.

That is so beautiful.

Let’s play the alphabet game.

Where’s my ipod charger?

Mom, plug in my computer charger!

It’s about to die!

Whoa!

Look cows!

Bwahahahahahahahahahahahahaha!

(Moment of silence)

Mama! Mama! Mama! Mama!

Are we in Virginia yet?

When are we eating lunch?

Where are we stopping for lunch?

I want McDonald’s. I want Chick-Fil-A. I want Taco Bell. (Spoken simultaneously)

Why?

But WHY!?

You guys are using our data up too fast.

Can we have coke?

No.

What about Mountain Dew?

Mama, are we on hours, minutes or seconds?

He’s touching me!

Stop touching me!

Get your feet off of me!

Why am I always the one that gets in trouble and you never get on to him!?

Bwahahaha….hahahaha!

Where’s my DS?

Who’s got the iPad?

Let’s play Minecraft.

Can we eat at Red Lobster?

My tummy hurts.

I wanna sit with you, Mama.

There are no words.

That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

What would Jesus say if He was sitting here and heard you say that?

…I am Ti…ta….ni….ummmm….

Apologize.

Like you mean it.

I love you Mama.

Fresh Fruit (Week 6)

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Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell illustrate the tension of this week’s point better than anyone else I can think of.    When American Idol debuted, we all tuned in not only for the phenomenal talent and those people-who-thought-they-could-sing, but also for the ridiculous drama often posed by these polar opposites.goodness

I don’t know how much was show or how much is simply ingrained in their personalities, but my observation was that what flowed out of their mouths came forth quite naturally.  Each one revealed an underlying assumption, a starting place from which every critique was offered.  Paula:  “there is something very valuable about you.”  Simon:  “You suck, unless of course you can prove otherwise.”

During this week on goodness, we reminded the boys of how often we begin the day asking them “are you gonna have a good day or a bad day?  Because the choice is yours.”  One quick & simple way to illustrate this with kids (and well, adults too) is to put a black dot on an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper and to ask what they see.  People will almost always say “a black dot.”  Rarely does someone say “a whole bunch of white.”

Our fallenness is unfortunately a part of our wiring.  Most of us have a tendency to gravitate towards what’s wrong.  (Watched The News lately?)  When we do this, we just end up swirling down a vortex of negativity.  But when we go against the grain, when we choose to savor goodness, then we continue to see and experience more goodness around us.  There are family moments when our boy’s “Mimi” (A.K.A. Katie Cartwright), as she is surrounded by her grandkids, exclaims “This is the life!”  What a great way to savor all the white space around you rather than to focus on the dot!

By the way, there’s always a dot.  If there are people in your life who seem to be uber-joyous and you’re tempted to think they have no bad-ness pressing in on them, think again.  Do yourself a favor.  Become their friend and learn how they have chosen to enjoy a life of goodness.

Deuteronomy 30:15 presents the covenant choice for the people of God:

“See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction.”

God calls us to see & to savor the good (tovah) that He offers us.  Our happiness & benefit is ultimately wrapped up in Him.  Life without Him leads toward deterioration & death.

The amazing thing is God gives us a choice in the matter.  In contrast to American Idol, God’s not hoping to eliminate anyone.  He’s got a much more compassionate & gracious starting point.  Take that Simon.