My Thanks for Three of the Best Lessons I’ve Learned

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Do you ever just feel grateful? I think that gratitude is oxygen for the soul, similar to the effect a timely word of encouragement has on you when you’re feeling spent. Seriously, give it a try. “Count your blessings” is only cheesy because we don’t do it. When we do, we realize it actually works. God designed us to depend on one another and function in community, learning things about him and about ourselves through our relationships.

Today I was thinking about how thankful I am to be where I am doing what I do. But none of us got to where we are without a little help from people who cared enough to invest in our lives. I am, like you, indebted to many dear friends for some valuable lessons that were likely hard to learn but are now a part of who I am. Here are three.

First, I want to thank my dear friend John for teaching me to be a problem solver. “Don’t stay in the problem, stay in the solution” is what he drove into my skull over and over again. It took a while to sink in, but now I know a little bit more of what it means to take action, to move things, to get out there and DO SOMETHING to move things forward. “You can’t think your way into good living, you can only live your way into good thinking.” This wisdom has become a priceless to me.

Second, I want to thank my friend Jason for teaching me to have the hard conversation no matter how difficult, awkward, or otherwise intimidating it might be. I haven’t known many people who are better at this than Jason. I have seen him handle awkwardness, difficulty, challenge, busyness, and what would otherwise be extremely stressful scenarios in every area of life with poise, wisdom and determination. I’m hoping some of that got transferred to me from being around him.

Third, I want to thank my friend Robert for pushing me to set goals and step out and risk. You can’t always know everything about where you’re going or what you’re going to do without starting. I can say with confidence I wouldn’t be where I am today without the pushing and prodding I’ve gotten from this wise mentor. Sometimes you just have to begin, and that releases the knowledge, resources and motivation that you need to accomplish your goal. What a gift it is to have friends who will challenge you.

 

There are many others. I wouldn’t be who I am today without my wife, my parents, my in-laws, my high school English teacher or Dr. Young from my freshman year of college history class. Not to mention the countless authors who feel like they are my lifelong friends and teachers. It helps me to think about them often, to remember their faces and their names and what they did that made such a mark on my life.

Who are your people? What did they teach you? Let me encourage you to make a habit of being grateful. And if you really want to bless the people who have marked your life, share your gratitude with them in a thoughtful way. It’s the kind of habit that binds us together as a people who need each other. And it’s how God made us to be.

No One Cleans the Back of the Store

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Every morning on my drive to work I take a side road that cuts behind a strip mall. Looking to the left I get a view of the back of a line of stores and restaurants that I’m sure look quite nice out front (in fact I know they do). The back view of these places…not so much.

Isn’t it interesting how much effort can be put into making the storefront look great and yet the back door gets neglected? Judging by many places I see, not many people think that what’s out back is important. There are usually mops, garbage, grease traps and goodness knows what else. It’s where employees can go to escape the madness for a quick smoke or some fresh air (is it really fresh?) and it’s where everything but the customer goes in and out. I know this much: it’s not a place I’d like to hang out.

Not many people care about this view, but your stewardship of both the showroom and the alley make statements about you.
How you handle the small stuff is a pretty good indicator of how you handle the big stuff.

I once heard a story of a corporate CEO interviewing a man who would be a high level executive in the company. This man had a great reputation and all the right credentials. This lunch was supposed to be a mere formality. He held the interview over lunch in the building’s cafeteria, the kind where you pick all your food up and pay at a register. The CEO noticed that his interviewee was about to pay and pushed a thirty-cent pad of butter under his napkin to avoid paying for it. As much as it didn’t make sense that this guy would cut a little corner like that, he didn’t give him the job. What you do with thirty cents says a lot about you.

The way we handle what nobody sees might just say more about us than the way we “present” the parts that everyone is supposed to be impressed by. When I am looking for a shop to get my car repaired, I don’t just care about your credentials or time doing business, I care how clean you keep your shop. When I go to a restaurant the first thing I experience isn’t the food (which might be great) but the look, feel, and smell when I walk through the front door. And yes, even the cleanliness of your car makes a statement about your life.

It’s kind of like getting up in the morning. Sure, the snooze is only 6 minutes, but that small delay in my day will cost me big. If the first decision I’m making is to put myself behind schedule, I fighting against what I need to win the day.
Don’t sweat the small stuff, just remember that it matters.

The Art of Celebration

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We’re doing a study this fall at our church based on Richard Foster’s book The Celebration of Discipline. I have enjoyed taking a fresh look at some of the ancient pathways to becoming more intimate with Christ. These are challenging and helpful reflections on what it means to live the Christian life.

I had forgotten that one of the disciplines is actually celebration, something that I could definitely use a refresher course in…regularly.

The problem with celebration is that it isn’t practical. I have a very practical mind and I can’t justify doing things just for fun.
Fun, if you really think about it, doesn’t accomplish much. But it is very necessary for our health and well-being, so much so that God makes a big deal of it.

This thought of course brings me back to the fact that worship is meant to be a celebration. I don’t mean that we have to sing happy songs and clap all the time, but rather that it is the nature of worship to be celebratory. Let me tell you what I mean.

According to “Grandpa Bob” (Bob Webber), celebration has three distinct qualities: (1) it is rooted in a past event, (2) it makes that event contemporaneous (brings it from the past into the living present), and (3) it is memorialized with stories, songs, ritual actions and feasting.

I think this is an extremely helpful way to think about celebration. Think about it: what do we do at Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays with family? We remember an event, we bring the essence of that event into our moments together, and we celebrate through telling stories, performing rituals (singing certain songs, making certain types of food or giving gifts) and we have special above-average quality (and quantity) of food. This is what it means to celebrate.

Worship, then, qualifies as a true celebratory act because it meets all of these criteria. In worship we remember a specific event, namely Christ’s salvation and victory accomplished in his death, burial and resurrection. Worship is always rooted in an event, whether it be deliverance from slavery in Egypt (Old Testament worship) or deliverance from slavery to sin (New Testament worship).

In worship we tell the story again of Redemption in various ways: through song, personal testimony (story) and the proclamation of the Word of God. This telling of the story brings the reality of God’s actions into the present once again, making his story a part of our experience not just our intellectual knowledge. “Worship does God’s story” as Webber put it, and we celebrate God’s story in worship.

Finally, worship is memorialized through rituals. It isn’t by accident that we partake of the Lord’s Supper together in worship, because it is one of the actions that Christ has given to reenact the drama of the gospel. We celebrate the gift of Jesus when we feast with him at his table, not only in memory of his sacrifice but in anticipation of his heavenly Kingdom and the wedding feast of the Lamb in the age to come.

As I reflect on these things, it helps me to appreciate what worship is meant to be and do in my heart and in my life. But it also helps to bring a different perspective into the other celebrations in my life. As humans we need celebration, we need laughter and we need ritual and we need to be bonded together in a community that remembers. When we gather to celebrate life, birth, death, or anniversaries, or just our bond of friendship it’s more than just an excuse to eat cake or have a drink or buy someone a present. It is part of the fabric of who we are, an essential component of what it means to live life as God intended. Together.

As you reflect on thee things, I hope you will worship with an attitude of celebration and celebrate with an attitude of worship, knowing that God has made us to worship and thus has made us to celebrate – that our joy may be full and his glory may be displayed.

 

Peace,
JV

The Passive Pop-Culture Male

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I’m going to divert briefly from the typical format of theological reflection so I can rant a little bit on something I’ve had in my craw for sometime. Don’t be scared.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I enjoy listening to country music now and then. There was a time when I wouldn’t have been caught dead listening to anything resembling country, but alas times have changed. I enjoy (some artists’) country music because it tends to be heartfelt, nostalgic, and story based. I like a good story, and I like celebrating the ordinary, everyday things in life that give you joy.

In some of the recent songs I have noticed a trend that’s a little troubling (although not really surprising). There seems to be a rise in songs that celebrate men who want a woman to sweep in and lead them, call all the shots, and basically initiate all aspects of the relationship. I won’t give any examples but maybe you’ve heard one or two of these radio hits. Even though these relationships are typically shallow and superficial, this is a troubling shift because it represents an issue that I see spiraling out of control in the wider culture, something I like to call “baby-man syndrome.”

 

You know you’re getting older when you start looking at the teenagers around you and think “man, they don’t know how good they have it!” This isn’t quite the “back in my day we walked barefoot in the snow” sentiment of yesteryear, but you may be able to relate to your crazy uncle a little better as you age and take a look around. The teens of today are smartphone carrying, new car “owning” wannabe adults, oftentimes with an attitude. All the rights and privileges of adult life are handed to these humans without the mental or emotional capacity to handle them properly. This false sense of maturity is ironic because as a nation we see the age of  “growing up” is getting older and older. Kids staying home with mom and dad well into their thirties, unable (or unwilling?) to get jobs, many expecting to have an upper middle-class lifestyle handed to them without doing the work. This plays right into the man in the songs.

I’m not trying to pick on these artists. As I said, the songs only highlight the underlying problem. See, men who want nothing more than for a woman to come in and take them by the hand and sweep them away into some pseudo-romantic sexual fantasy are doing just that–living in a fantasy. These songs make it sound so magical and romantic, but in reality it sounds a lot like a celebration of laziness. I wonder if women are listening to these messages and thinking, “Mmm, that sounds great! I’d love to do all the work!” If I had to guess, I’d say no way. You can call me old fashioned if you want, but I just don’t think that God designed us that way.

My understanding of how God made men is that we are to be leaders. We carry responsibility to make decisions, set vision, be the protectors and leaders of our families. We do the hard things in order to be servants to the ones we love. My (limited) understanding of women is that they want to be led by the right kind of man, to be treasured, loved, and chased. When women do too much of the chasing you sir are in big trouble. This doesn’t mean that men have license to oppress or take advantage or are somehow better than women. But we have a big responsibility to love like Christ loved, which as we know means to give it everything.

Now I don’t plan to boycott the radio or start listening to only instrumental elevator music. I just think it might be helpful for some of us to be aware of the subtle messages that are coming our way and could affect our worldview. Don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that waiting around for someone else to do all the work for you is a good idea. It’s not.

It doesn’t matter if you are single or married, take my advice: man up and lead. Take that girl on a journey that assures her that you’ve got her best in mind, that you want her and you’re willing to do whatever it takes to win her heart. Then do that over and over again. And please, somebody out there write some songs about being a godly leader. You can still talk about trucks, beer, fields of corn and all the rest if you want, but there’s a lot of people out there who need to know that it’s still ok for a guy to chase a girl. That might just be a little bit closer to what God intended.

 

 

Called To Be Consumers

I don’t have the best relationship with malls. They’re usually big, crowded, and full of overpriced merch. In high school I can remember hating the mall because it seemed that everyone wanted to go there and strut around like geese holding hands with their significant other. I don’t get as angry when I walk in to a mall these days, but the habitat of the “mall dwellers” hasn’t changed much. I’ll say this, a trip to the mall is a study in human behavior (a people-watcher’s dream day). Shop till you drop.

We live in a culture of consumption. Shopping is a hobby for some, an addiction for others, and an Olympic sport for those patrons of Black Friday sales. All that we have we get by shopping, and the activity fills some kind of void in us that goes beyond the actual transaction of letting go of some hard-earned money to obtain the things we want or need. Shopping is a booster shot to our ego because it represents independence. It’s our freedom to choose. It reinforces our reign of authority in our own lives. Sadly, this attitude of consumption has made its way into the church.

If you’ve ever been “church shopping” or heard someone use that phrase, you know what I mean. We look around for a church that is in our style, our “price range,” and fits our ideas for what should be convenient and yet socially acceptable [I don’t intend here to downplay the importance of diligently searching to find the right fit for you when looking for the a worship community to belong to. I’m referring to the “church hopper” who is always on the lookout for the newest “fashion trend.”]
I’ve heard some pastors preach against consumerism because it’s not a good thing. Reducing things (especially church things) down to how it meets MY needs and MY convenience is a distortion of reality. But it can be a bit of a mixed message when we design so much of we do around the convenience and preferences of our “patrons.” But are we supposed to reject consumerism altogether?

I’d like to highlight an aspect of faith where we are supposed to be consumers, and unashamedly so. In fact, Jesus himself endorsed this brand of consumerism and told us that we must be consumers if we want to have eternal life. In John 6 Jesus makes this inflammatory statement:

“I am the bread of life. Your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (John 6:48-51 ESV)

Now his audience just thinks he’s hinting at cannibalism, which is enough to make them perplexed at best and ready to kill him at worst. But Jesus is making an important point here about how we are to view our relationship with him. He says that he is the living bread, the very substance that sustains life and gives us energy and strength to grow and go through our days. He means that we are to depend on him for our spiritual food just as the ancient Israelites depended on the manna from heaven to feed them every day.

This can be taken in a figurative sense that we go to Christ for our “food” of wisdom, connection and life through his Word. But there’s also a strong connection here to communion. When we receive bread at the Lord’s Table, we hear the words “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven,” reminding us of this truth. As we come and “feed on him in our hearts by faith and with thanksgiving,” we are doing exactly what Jesus told us to do. We are coming to him to get the food that we need to sustain our life.

For me this raised an important question: what keeps me from coming to feed on Christ? When I think about how little I take Jesus at his word, it’s embarrassing. I can’t go more than four or five hours without getting some physical food, but how long do I starve myself between these kinds of meals? Am I afraid to come to him, thinking that I should be able to make it on my own? Am I too proud to ask for help? Or do I not believe the promise that his well will never run dry?

In a culture where most of our insatiable consuming is a habit to be curbed, Jesus invites us to an unreserved continual feast on all that he has to offer us. We can come to his table by grace and receive the spiritual food that gives us life. When we draw near to Christ, whether simply in spirit or by faith at his physical Table, we take him at his word that he intends to be the very bread that we eat.

Chances are you could skip that next trip to the mall. The teenagers will walk awkwardly around the food court the same way they always have. Maybe you could use that time to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Ps. 34:8). If you’re like me, you need to be reminded as often as possible.