“Criticism is something we can avoid easily by saying nothing, doing nothing, and being nothing.”
It's Christmas time, and these days I am the one pushing the idea of Christmas lights, decorations, and so on. It wasn't always that way, this has only happened in recent years. I used to really despise Christmas time for some justified reasons, at least I thought they were justified. Like many people I couldn't stand the commercialization of what should be a celebration of one of the most important events in all of human history. But, there is more to that story.
I often found myself in a family that didn't have much money so Christmas gifts were so much less than those around me. That wasn't true across the board, there were years where we had a lot as well. Nevertheless, those skimpy years stuck in my memory as I watched others get these amazing gifts compared to what I got...or so I thought. Envy and jealousy don't look good on anyone! Even as a parent I often wish I could spend more on my kids, but that is another conversation for another time. Money is one of the reasons I have struggled with Christmas.
The narrative of the true Christmas story often felt a little empty to me. Most of the sermons I heard regarding the Christmas story lacked theological depth. That isn't to say they weren't Biblical, but they were about Mary, Joseph, wise men, shepherds, and so on, but they missed the incarnation of the eternal, divine, son of God almost all together (at least that is how I remember it). Instead, I got messages on how we should have the faith of Mary, the integrity of Joseph, or something along those lines. Don't get me wrong, those aren't bad points in a larger theme, but the gospels weren't telling their story, they were telling the story of Jesus. Sometime we get a little sidetracked, even as pastors. Pastors are always trying to be creative around Christmas because they don't wan't to preach the same sermons year after year...I get it, but maybe that isn't the best approach.
I could go on, but this is about how I am reforming my attitude. I love Christmas, or at least I am working on loving Christmas. While I could do without all the commercialization, the buying of gifts, and so on, I love the real story of Christmas. The story of the incarnation is rich and meaningful on multiple levels. The prophecy that foretells the coming of a messiah, the twist in the story when that messiah is born in such modest circumstances, the cliff hanger that looks forward to a divine reality on earth, and so much more. Even the resurrection leaves us with a cliff hanger, a story of sacrifice that awaits a triumphal entry that is yet to come and will dwarf the one recorded in the gospels the week before the crucifixion. What a story, and we are in the middle of it, but that is the point isn't it? The story is still unfolding in front of our very eyes. Someday when Jesus returns, literal eye are going to watch that event happen whether they are our eyes or our descendants eyes.
This Christmas I await, not just the entrance of the divine, eternal, son of God into this world for the first time, but the fullness of time that will bring him back again to establish his kingdom for eternity. The lights, Christmas presents, and so on should be fun as long as we remember this epic story we are a part of and the role Christmas plays in that story. There are so many ways to keep Jesus central this Christmas season. What an opportunity to talk about Jesus openly and proclaim the good news of the gospel! Christmas is exciting, and it should be. Not because of lights, gifts, or fun movies, but because it is the unfolding of God's redemptive plan in history. Merry Christmas!!
Over the years I've thought a lot about what I hoped my kids were learning from my wife and I. It has often caused me to intentionally start certain practices as a family; often times those practices only lasted for a season, but I hope they had an impact nonetheless. It seems each new stage of life brings different things to mind that I hope my kids learn from my wife and I.
I am not perfect and neither is my wife. To be sure, we have made mistakes as spouses and as parents. I often wonder what my kids will complain about regarding their upbringing in 10 or 15 years. I also wonder what "mistakes" we made will become their own "virtues" when they have kids. Some kids have more to complain about when it comes to their parents than others. I hope we have given them less to complain about than most. However, my kids have let us know about our shortcomings many times. Being the children of a pastor has its own challenges. I have done my level best to protect my kids from the unfair expectations that are often placed on PKs (Pastor's Kids), but undoubtedly they have experienced some of that and more. While I could pontificate about many things I hope my kids have learned from us, today I am thinking about hospitality.
We have had people in our home, often living with us, since we got married. I don't think we have the gift of hospitality, I think we learned how to be hospitable. Our hospitality has allowed to invest in the lives of other people more than almost anything we do. It has taken many forms over the years. Sometimes it was having people live with us, sometimes it was parties, UFC fight nights, Thanksgiving gatherings, Bible studies, or a host of other things. I love it, it also completely wares me out. After several hours of being with people I am often exhausted. I don't mean physically tired, I mean worn down from being with people. I need alone time! I'm a functional extrovert, but being with people wares me down fast. So why do it?
I do it because the rewards of loving others and being loved by others far outweighs the exhaustion. I do it because God tells us to (1 Peter 4:8-9) and obedience is an act of worship towards the God who saved me. I do it because there is great joy in being with people created in the image of God, and I love God's creativity. I do it because there is joy in giving someone a roof over their head, especially if they are in need. I do it because it gives me the opportunity to do ministry alongside my wife. Yep, I've grown to love it!
No matter what my kids do with their lives, I hope they have learned the value of hospitality. I recognize that they may find it annoying at times, but I hope that at some point they recognize the good that comes from simply having people in your home and being generous with what God has given. Our home isn't just a place we sleep, it is a gift given to us by God and like all gifts God gives us, it is meant to be shared.
I have often repeated a joke when officiating a wedding, it goes like this, "There are only two problems with this marriage, (pausing before speaking directly to the bride and groom) you and you!" It may not come through in this format very well, but it usually gets a good laugh. That said, I am sure some people are taken back a little too much to laugh in the moment. While it is a joke, it is also serious. There are no perfect people and there are no perfect brides or grooms. If there are, the likelihood of them being able to find one another and marry are statistically zero. Every person brings faults, bad habits, baggage, and sin into every relationship they enter into. Marriage is two people who have faults, bad habits, baggage, and sin living in close proximity to each other and most of the time they create little humans who have their own sin problems and will take on some of the bad habits of their parents and over time accumulate their own baggage...what could possible go wrong? (laugh here)
Like a new car, the first days of marriage are often filled with bliss. Everything seems to work and the new car smell is oddly amazing, but as the car ages things start to go wrong and the new car smell turns into a variety of other aroma's. The warranty (think easy forgiveness) makes the early breakdowns easier to deal with. As time goes on the warranty expires and the cost for repairs increases (forgiveness gets more difficult). Eventually, the car seems to break down on a more frequent basis. Often times this is because it has been driven somewhat recklessly (like a teenager who doesn't understand the damage they are doing until it is too late and the car has run out of oil and thrown a rod), but sometimes it is just ware and tear. Constant maintenance and repair was necessary all along, but it was too often ignored. Eventually it becomes easier to trade it in for something different or even go without one. This is where the car analogy starts to...well, it breaks down. Unlike cars, spouses aren't so easily replaced...nor should they be.
The truth is that EVERY marriage needs repair and maintenance. That means it needs to be addressed with with some maturity. Like a car, it needs oil changes and that requires resources (time and money). Like a car it may also need to be taken in to have some parts replaced from time to time. If you don't repair it, it will eventually just quit working all together. In marriage this often means setting aside the resources to give your spouse the attention they need, especially when you don't want to.
Selfishness is the biggest marriage killer there is. When your perceived needs outweigh the needs of your spouse, the marriage will begin heading toward failure. If you are unwilling to give something up for the sake of your partner, you are the problem! The apostle Paul tells us in Ephesians 5 that we are to submit one to another (v. 22). That means the husband sacrifices himself for his bride just as Christ did for the church. That means that you don't "put your foot down." That means you don't demand, control, or anything of the sort. It does mean you serve, set your own desires aside, and work to present your spouse holy before God. It means you pray for your spouse, serve your spouse, love your spouse, and so on. For the wife, that means the act of submission. This doesn't mean submission to an abusive husband nor does it mean not giving an opinion, even a very strong one. It doesn't mean being a wall flower or a door mat, quite the opposite. It does however mean setting aside your own desires in order to uplift, encourage, and support your husband out of respect (vv. 23ff).
A new car becomes an out of warranty car which often becomes a car in need of constant attention, but given enough TLC it will become a classic, a beautiful car that has seen a lot of good and bad days, but rightly cared for or even restored it's a piece of art with a lot of stories to tell. If you want a classic some day, you have to stop driving like an adolescent. You might have to grow up (become more like Christ) give up bad habits, overcome sin, get rid of addiction, seek some help, stop trying to control, be embarrassed by the occasional backfire, and spend A LOT of resources. It will require sacrifice (that's the one step), more than you could imagine, but the payoff is outstanding!!
I got my purple belt in Jiu Jitsu not that long ago, but five days before testing I herniated the C6/C7 disc in my neck. I didn't know that initially, I just knew my arm felt like it was going to fall off. Like a lot of athletes, you get banged up, strain muscles, pull thing, tweak things, pinch nerves, and whatever else...you just push through. I treated this injury like any other, I just tried to push through. Because of my upcoming Purple belt test I was going to give it some rest and see if it would heal up, but as the days went on the pain in my arm got worse. Unfortunately I couldn't get on the mats for my purple belt test, so I watched from outside the cage (our matt is in a cage). I was still given my belt and told I owed a test which I will be thrilled to go through!! It's now been a month and change since that injury took me off the matt and I will likely not be back on the mat until January. An MRI revealed a herniated disc which could end up with surgery, but I am hoping to avoid that. So, now what?
Well, this isn't my first time with an injury that has taken me off the mat, I broke, dislocated, and tore a ligament in my pinky...yes, all at once. It required surgery and took me off the mat for 8 weeks total. I thought that was a long time. I've already been out a month and the chances are I'm looking at two more at a minimum. That's a quarter of a year. I found ways to train then, and I'm finding ways to train now.
I can't get on the mat at all and this time around, I can't really run. Often times when I have an injury I can run to keep in shape if I miss more than a week. This time I cannot, and I can't just muscle through it. So what an I doing?
Being injured stinks, no doubt, but it is also an opportunity. See the opportunities and exploit those. Don't quit, just shift your training and get back to it as soon as possible.
I've been in Vegas before this last week, but I never spent any significant time there. People go to Vegas from all over the world to experience all it has to offer. Unlike most people, I didn't go there specifically to visit Vegas, I was there for a Jiu Jitsu tournament. I loved my time competing with my teammates and watching and encouraging them! In the midst of it all, I was able to talk with some of the locals (Lyft drivers and others) about Vegas. This place that attracts millions with its audacious, gold plated buildings like Trump Tower, the Hotel/Casino combination that lines the Strip with food, gambling, and sexual temptation is shiny and attractive on some level. I'm not condemning food, it's good and you need it. I'm not necessarily condemning gambling, that needs further clarification, but not here. I'm not condemning sex in its God-designed context. However, certain expressions of all three of these things make apparent the depravity and sinfulness of all humanity.
Think about the reputation Vegas has. We (my team, my wife, and my dad) went to Fremont Street, old Vegas where the the largest LED screen in the world is located. No doubt, it's cool! It's also getting another upgrade. But, Vegas is "Sin City!" It's marketing has included phrases like "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." Of course, anyone with any sense knows that's not true. Not only is it untrue, the moral messaging is horrendous. It is a blatant attempt to remove guilt so people will come and engage in the kind of morally vacant behavior the city encourages and sells in an attempt to entertain the masses.
I couldn't help but think about the depravity that was sitting right on the surface and think about what must be sitting just below the surface or even deep below the surface. When I got home, someone asked me if I saw (not visited, but simply saw) any prostitutes. What a weird question, but it tells you of the reputation this place has. The only thing I could think of was the ancient cities of Sodom and Gomorra or perhaps Corinth. This is what the world has to offer, and what I saw was people engaging in the depravity openly. I saw families with young children walking down Fremont Street where men and women wore next to nothing (literally, next to nothing). Unfortunately there are some things you can't unsee like the man who was wearing nothing other than an adult diaper, the men and women wearing the minimum of what was legal (apparently Vegas doesn't require a lot of clothing), or the simulation/enticement of what was available if you wanted it.
I know, you may like Vegas. Certainly there are some things that are worth seeing. I'm not saying you should never go there, my point is a different one. What does Vegas, sin city, tell us about humanity. The message is pretty blatant and simple. What does humanity look like when you remove the concepts of guilt and shame? In large part it looks like Vegas. Proverbs 5:3-4 warns us against such licentiousness "For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword." We should take that seriously. Engaging in all that a fallen world has to offer will lead to a bitter ending. What happens in Vegas goes home with those who participate.
I'm not condemning Vegas, not exactly. Vegas displays, in part, what is in all of our hearts. It makes known the depravity of humanity, the sin that has infected us all, and our need for the grace of God. If you visit Vegas with a moral and Biblical filter I don't know how you can walk away without seeing humanities need for Jesus. The reality is, what is on the surface in Vegas is available in your town and mine. Vegas simply commercialized the sin nature and depravity that is close to us all. Thanks be to Jesus for the grace that is found in the sacrifice of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.
Monday mornings are finicky for me. Like most pastors I expend an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual energy on Sunday. Yesterday was especially taxing for a multitude of reasons. The news of not one but two mass shootings was almost background noise, but as the day went on and news continued to surface about the shooters, the victims, and the calls for action, the news began to weigh heavy. This morning the talking heads have been pontificating profusely about what the problem is and their solutions. Yet, most of them miss the mark by a mile.
I guess I will add another voice to the noise. While some scream, "GUNS" and others scream "MENTAL HEALTH" and still others cry out various theories related to culture, the good old days when everyone had guns in their cars, or whatever there foundational worldview answer is that few are willing to accept.
Every day about 100 people die from gun related violence in the US. Of course, they don't all die in one place at the hands of one person. Some of those are accidents and police shootings. Nevertheless, 100 per day? The majority of those would be murder. Certainly that isn't reported on very often because it is spread out over an entire country with multiple perpetrators. My heart and yours should sink at this news. However, there is something about one person taking many lives in one moment (in 30 seconds at one of the shootings) that shines a spotlight on the evil.
Where does this evil come from? Is it mental illness? Sure, in part. Is it guns? Not really, but obviously guns are used and they are dangerous. Is it culture? Yes, that certainly plays big role, but that's not all.
Is it the fall of humanity and humanities sinfulness? Yes, of course, but there is another reason that is closely linked. Part of the problem that seems to be ignored, even by many Christians, is Satan himself. Yes, I said Satan, as in the personal being that Scripture describes as a fallen angle whose intention is to devour, destroy, and deceive (John 8:44; 1 Peter 5:8; Rev. 20:1-6; Eph. 6:11-12; Luke 22:3-6; Job 1:6-12; etc.). Perhaps it is time we recognize the reality of Satan's impact and power in our society. We ought to give him the credit he deserves, but not an ounce more than he deserves.
This is not an attempt to displace responsibility for evil actions taken by truly disturbed people, nor is it to alleviate the responsibility our culture has to deal with such a problem. Instead, it is to direct our attention to the importance of dealing with this very real problem that finds its solution in the power of the gospel and the victory won by Jesus Christ on the cross and in the resurrection. The more secular our society becomes and the more it rejects the truth of the gospel, the more susceptible it will be to the evil schemes of the devil. The reason is that secularism necessarily ignores the reality of any evil being that is at work in this world. To speak of such a being will put you squarely in the camp of a "fundamentalist wacko." Yes, I believe the devil is real, and you should too.
Yet, what explanation does secularism in its many forms offer such evil? The answer is none. People are described as generally good. We hear about how much progress we have made, not just in the realm of technology, but in the realm of morality. We have been enlightened, haven't we? Frankly, any serious reader of history along with an honest evaluation of the world we live in today will have to acknowledge that it is difficult to see any real "progress." In other words the nice sounding idea of "progressivism" is a facade, it isn't real. The best we can do is recognize the source of real evil in this world and the one who accomplished victory over that evil...yes, I am talking about Jesus. Mass murder was around long before Columbine and it will be around until the return of Jesus Christ to rule in complete justice.
Do we need more gun laws? Maybe, but that won't solve the issue. Do we need better mental health mechanisms? Maybe, but that won't solve it either. Do we need to transform culture? Most definitely, but by what means? What would a secular mindset transform culture towards? A secular approach to the evil in the world is like putting a bandaid on someone who just got their leg amputated. What's the answer? The answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ. When Jesus gets a hold of someone's heart, their heart is transformed (Ez. 36:26; 2 Cor. 5:17; Eph. 4:22-24, etc.). Call me a fundamentalist if you want, but secularism has no answers, just talking heads and agenda driven partisans. Jesus is the answer for the world today!
Christians are pro-life, at least the vast majority of them are. Some more liberal traditions may have a mix, but for the most part if you meet a Christian, they are very likely to be pro-life. Some may think this is a recent development. Maybe it was in the early 1970's when the abortion debate was raging and various states had different laws. Twenty states had legalized abortion in one way or another prior to Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. A few states had almost no restrictions on abortion. Since 1973 many Christians have protested, prayed, and lobbied in an attempt to limit abortion or make it outright illegal. But, was that the beginning of the pro-life movement? The short answer is, "not even close."
The reality is that the pro-life position of Christians goes back to the beginning of Christianity. That is to say it goes back almost 2000 years. It could be argued that the origin of a pro-life perspective predates Christianity, indeed, it does. But that is not the purpose of this post.
Hilarion was migrant worker in the first century and he wrote a letter to his wife in 1 BC expressing his love for her. Included in the letter were instructions on what to do with his wife's unborn child,
"If-may you have good luck!-you should give birth; if it is a boy, keep it; if it is a girl, throw it out." (Jeremiah Johnston, Unimaginale, 26).
Wow, that is harsh, not to mention sexist. It certainly offends our modern sensibilities, but at the time it was common practice. It wasn't that long ago that such a practice was common in Communist China. The Romans of the first century didn't value women, but boys could provide for the family in ways that women couldn't at that time. Further, girls were expensive. It was more than economics, it was cultural too. Nevertheless, the practice would leave baby girls exposed to the elements and to nature in general. Wild animals would often come at night to devour babies who had just been born. This practice of exposure was common enough and it was not frowned upon. In addition to the practice of exposure, there were very dangerous methods of abortion as well. Often the mother would be left severely damaged or even dead. Sharp objects and poison were common abortion methods (Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity).
Many babies were "thrown out," exposed in the first century, and most of them were girls. First century Christians rightly found this practice appalling. It would be nice to say this is no longer an issue, but this kind of thing has been practiced throughout the centuries and we are but a breath away from this being allowed in the United States today. Not only are their laws in some states that allow abortion on demand up until the point of birth, there are people like Peter Singer who have been promoting the legal disposal of babies who have been born for many years. He isn't that much of an exception. Governor Northam of Virginia (a pediatrician) has promoted something similar. That's it though right? No, former president Obama voted for a bill that allowed survivors of abortion to be left to die when he was still in Chicago. There are more, many more!
Christians, from the inception of the church have been concerned about the life of children. Jesus set the tone when he welcomed children so he could bless them (Mark 10:13-15). Christians were known early on for going around and saving children from exposure, from wild dogs and animals who would kill and eat the children that were thrown away in the first century. While Christians don't always get it right, over the centuries they have been known for running towards the sick, the lame, and dying.
Christians are and have been pro-life because that is the example that Jesus set, because all humans are made in the image of God, and because they are called to be a voice for the voiceless. This is not a rejection of a person's general autonomy or rights, in face one might argue those are the very reasons they are pro-life.
My friend Eric, a pilot for a commercial airline, offered to bring me to Israel. Eric is one of my training partners at the gym where I do Jiu Jitsu. When he first offered, I thought he was asking me to watch his kids at my house while he went. Then I thought he was asking me to watch his dog (my son has a dog watching business). Then when he clarified, I said, “you want me to come?” He said yeah! That was a couple of years ago, I think. Now I’m writing this on the plane ride home. We went. It still cost me quite a bit and we are sacrificing in our finances to make it happen, but it was worth it. It didn’t ruin my life, but it might ruin yours, if you go.
Israel is a unique place. It is roughly the size of New Jersey (the state) and in the north you have an area called the fertile crescent that is green and lush with vegetation. In the south, you have the Negev, and it is hard to exaggerate how harsh of an environment the Negev is. Sometimes you look out your car window and can’t see anything growing for what seems like miles upon miles. No grass, no trees, no vegetation. Of course, you also have the dead sea in the south as well. It is dead, and there is literally nothing that lives in that water…nothing!
Yet, in this narrow strip of land you have the major trade rout connecting that part of the world. One would think the importance of that has faded, but this trade route and the resources, especially those in the fertile crescent and the location of the Jezreel valley, have brought conflict because various nations want that land. The conflict between modern day Israel and the Palestinians who inhabited the land when the nation of Israel was established in 1948 wages on. Of course, it isn’t just about the land, there are religious implications as well. Megiddo has been rebuilt because of conflicts 26 times, as recently as World War 1 and as far back as the 15th century BCE. It is also the place mentioned in John’s Revelation as the place where Armageddon will take place when Jesus returns.
Surrounding Israel are enemies some of which have specifically stated their goal to extinguish the nation of Israel from the face of the earth. That’s not an exaggeration.
Yet, the home of the Jewish nation is also the destination of hajis and pilgrims of the Muslim and Christian faith as well. As a person walks through the old city of Jerusalem they are confronted with this stark reality rather quickly. The Dome of the Rock where a Muslim Mosque sits and is said to be the sight where Muhammed ascended to heaven is also the traditional sight where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac and God provided a replacement. All of that is within a stones throw or two from the wailing wall (what is left of the west wall of the temple built by King Herod some 500 years before the time of Christ and destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans). Let’s just say all the necessary ingredients for conflict are present and everyone walks just a little on edge.
More could be said about the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and other things. It is hard to overestimate the degree to which these things are constantly present in Israel. Yet, Christians, Jews, and Muslims flock to this place year after year to complete their spiritual haji. My friend, Rula, lives in the old city and acted as our tour guide for two days during our trip. She is Arminian (not Jewish and not Palestinian). She speaks 4 languages fluently and can get around Jerusalem well. By the end of our time with her, she was calling me haji Johnny. Haji is generally a term used for Muslims who have completed a pilgrimage but is sometimes used more broadly. She, like a lot of people there, makes her living by working in the “haji” industry. The Catholics have made an industry out of burial sites, the site of Jesus birth, and many other “holy sites.” People come not only to see historical sites, but to touch the place where Mary spilled breast milk and a rock turned white. They touch or even lay on the rock and pray to Mary asking her to cure their infertility. Many claim it works including a friend of Rula.
Pilgrims and hajis don’t come just to see the sites, they come for miracles and spiritual experiences in their lives. Many flock to the site of Jesus’ baptism and get baptized and rebaptized in the Jordan river so they can gain some kind of “spiritual experience.” All of this is problematic to say the least. The relics of the Catholic church and the sound of John Tutsel’s voice are all but faint in the background.
There is certainly not anything wrong with experiencing spiritual highs as you stand in the synagogue that was built on top of the synagogue where Jesus spent time preaching, reading the sermon on the mount as you sit on top of the mount of beatitudes, or standing at the shore of the Sea of Galilee just behind Peter’s house and think about Jesus calming the storm or walking on water. It all happened their and it changed the course of eternity…literally. But, there is nothing magic about that dirt or that water or that air. It’s all just dirt, water, and air. It’s not the same dirt, water, and air that graced the feet and lungs of Jesus. And even if it was, so what. God doesn’t hear your prayers better if you are putting your hands on the wailing wall as I did (I even prayed) and His power to do miracles are not determined by geography. God’s work is grounded in history, but He is not limited by history. If you seek a spiritual experience in the Holy Land you might find it, but what about when you are sitting on the plane going home? What then?
If you are looking for a spiritual experience that will sustain your spiritual walk, don’t go to Israel. Don’t get me wrong, there is something amazing about visiting the Holy Land. I hope to go back, and I hope it will be sooner rather than later and last longer than this short trip. I hope you will get to go as well, but for the right reasons and with the right expectations. The truth is, God isn’t just at work in one magical location, He is at work wherever you live and wherever His people live. God works in the midst of your infertility, He works with the reality of your relationships, their financial struggles, your brokenness, and so on. Israel is a broken place and a site of conflict throughout world history. God is at work in your life, you don’t need a trip to Israel to experience the redeeming power of the cross and the empty tomb. Heck, we don’t even know for sure where the empty tomb is. Is it the Garden Tomb as many protestants believe or is it The Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Maybe it’s neither of them. Wherever it is, we have eye witness testimony in the gospels and epistles of the New Testament that confirm his resurrection and you have access to that. Further, you have access to the Holy Spirit who has sealed your eternal life.
My trip to Israel did bring to life Scripture in a new way as I stood close to the place where Jesus experienced the temptation by Satan to receive the kingdoms of the world if Jesus would just worship Satan. It brought to life the realities of the land and culture in which Jesus lived and worked, where Abraham obeyed God with Isaac, where Simon of Cyrene is through to have helped Jesus with the cross or where Jesus ascended to heaven. My trip grounded the historical reality of God taking on human flesh, living, dying, and rising to life, but the emotional high will fade. I will forget some of what I saw and experienced and I will return home to pay for my trip, help coach my son’s baseball team, go to the gym, and prepare sermons every Sunday in my local coffee shop. Just like I did before I left. I will see God continue to work in Lakewood, Colorado and in my own family and among my friends.
If you go to Israel and expect the emotional and spiritual high that will last you the rest of your life, you will be chasing another experience in a week, month, or year. It will ruin your life. If, however, you go to Israel in the hopes of grounding in history the work that Jesus has already done in your life because of the cross and resurrection and gaining insight into the Biblical narrative, then by all means have a good trip.
The picture is a group of guys in Tel Aviv Israel that I trained with during my trip to Israel. In fact, I'm still in Israel, I leave to come home tomorrow. I came to Israel with my friend Eric (front left), he is one of my Jiu Jitsu friends. He is not just a friend, he is one of my main training partners. We push each other to become better practitioners of Jiu Jitsu, that is why we found time while in Israel to train. I have a plan for my training and a discipline that goes along with it. I don't train flippantly and I don't just do Jiu Jitsu when I feel like it or when it is convenient. I bet there are things in your life where you have developed a discipline and commitment like this. If there isn't, there should be.
There is something far more important than Jiu Jitsu, in fact there are several things, but one of them is my spiritual life. My guess is that you would probably place the same value on your spiritual life that I do on mine. But if that is true, then I should have a plan and a disciplined approach to my spiritual life that is at least equal to the level of planning and discipline i put into Jiu Jitsu. Do you have a plan for your spiritual life, or do you just hope it will happen?
Yesterday (when I started writing this) was Sunday. Normally on Sunday I am in the pulpit preaching a sermon I have been working on for at least a week. There is significant spiritual benefit in preparing and delivering a sermon. I spend time every week digging into God's word exegeting Scripture and examining how it should be applied to my life and the lives of the people who will be hearing the message. Obviously this is part of my job, but it also pays significant spiritual benefits. So, what happens when I'm not preaching and I'm not even at church like I was yesterday? Do I get to "take a break" or a "vacation" from doing what is important and necessary for my continued spiritual growth and development?
Most of the time, even when I am on vacation I will attend church, even if it is in a place I don't know anyone. Yesterday was not a day where I could do that given the nature of this trip. BUT, I didn't take the day off from my spiritual life. In addition to visiting the "Mount of Temptation" in Jericho where Jesus was tempted by Satan and meditating for a few minutes on what that temptation must have been like for Jesus, I listened to two sermons by Chuck Swindoll (one of my favorite preachers of all time). Church is an important part of my spiritual life even when I am not preaching...perhaps more so when I am not preaching. Nevertheless, it is not the only spiritual practice and discipline I have.
I recently checked something off my bucket list that wasn't even on my bucket list until this last year. I completed a 1/2 marathon. Honestly, it sounds almost silly. How do you complete half of something? It almost sounds like a consolation prize, like I didn't do the whole thing, I only did 1/2 of it. Of course that isn't quite true. I completed the whole thing, all 13.1 miles. Here is the thing, I didn't win, I didn't even win my age division. I'm not even that passionate about running. I once hated running but I've made friends with running because it helps me in other areas of my life. So, I did it, I completed a 1/2 marathon taking a modest 7th place in my age division out of 34 and 48th overall out of 230. I set a goal of finishing a 1/2 in 2019 sometime last fall. I don't really remember when I set the goal.
To some this might be a huge goal, but it wasn't the first running goal I set. My first goal was to run a mile...I thought that would be enough. I accomplished that goal and set a new goal to run 5 days a week and get up to three miles (a 5k). I did that. As time went on my goals grew little by little. Some were time goals. I had a goal of running a mile in under 7 minutes and I did that last year. I have a new goal, I want to beat 6:39 (my current mile record) and run under 6 minutes. That's an aggressive goal for me at age 45, but I think I can get there. As time went on my running grew stronger and my goals grew marginally larger. I'm probably never going to win a 1/2 or any race of any real importance, but who knows. What's my point? Let me explain.
Some of my professional life has been spent in an atmosphere that pushed big goals, huge goals, even "God sized goals." While I can surely appreciate the intent behind that approach, it never really worked for me. Maybe it's a personality thing, but I bet there are other people with my personality. I had a hard time reaching these giant goals and often felt like a failure. In fact, I was often told that even if not in so many words. Let's be honest, I did fail to reach a lot of those goals. I still set goals, but I do it different and maybe this will help you.
I set reachable goals. Goals that take work, require effort, discipline, and will stretch me, but they aren't usually GIANT goals. They are goals where I can see the path to completion. I can see how those goals could be accomplished or at least I can see a general idea of how I can reach those goals. That's what I did with my running and I have increasingly begun to do this with other areas of my life. Honestly, in some ways I've been doing it for much of my life. Setting a goal to run one mile eventually and somewhat unintentionally led to me running a 1/2 marathon. Setting a goal to simply complete a half marathon led to me performing at a much higher level than I thought possible. I thought I would average 10 minute miles and I averaged 8:36. I haven't set a new goal for a marathon, that still seems like a huge goal for me. I am considering it. I am thinking about whether that really helps me with other physical fitness goals in my life and whether or not I want to put in the training. That said, I have almost certainly not run my last 1/2.
What is your next goal? What modest goal can you strive for in your spiritual life, in your physical fitness life, in your vocation where you can see the path on how to get there? Don't wait, set a modest goal today and maybe it will lead to something unimaginable down the road.
John Byrne is a pastor who has been spouting off his opinions his entire life (just ask his mom). This little blog is his venue for continuing in this tradition.