Today I celebrated my birthday by hiking Blueberry and Speckled Mountains in Evans Notch, Maine -- 8.2 miles over two mountains. It was a cool day with great visibility. The beautiful views are always what I anticipate most about hiking, but today I discovered something I wasn't expecting.
I know, since the mountain was named Blueberry Mountain, I ought to have expected blueberries, but mountain names don't always match up to reality, so I hadn't thought too much about the possibility of finding blueberry bushes on the mountain.
How did the blueberries taste? EXTRAORDINARY!
As a matter of fact, I don't think I've EVER tasted blueberries so sweet and flavorful as these ones. We have a blueberry bush in front of our house, which produces some great blueberries. We have a grocery store down the street where we can buy big, plump blueberries.
But NOTHING compares to the blueberries on that mountain. Don't believe me? Go hike it for yourself (Here's my hike report at HikerSpace.net: Blueberry and Speckled Mountains). And if you don't hike it, you'll never know what you're missing!
That made me think -- the Christian life is a bit like those blueberries. People sometimes ask if the Christian life is easier, and I say, "No, of course not!" There's nothing easy about it.
If I wanted easy, I'd stay at home, and pick blueberries from my front yard. Or drive to the grocery store and spend a few bucks on some. But easy isn't necessarily the same as better.
Sometimes the best things in life are the things you have to work the hardest at. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told his followers a great many things about the kind of life he wanted his followers to live, and the truth is -- living the way Jesus calls us to live is incredibly difficult (harder than climbing a mountain, for sure!). To live without falsehood, to live without lust, to live without pride, to live without grudges -- to be a merciful peacemaker and to hunger for righteousness -- these are NOT the easy way of life. But Jesus makes a promise to those of us who will hear these words of His -- when the storms of life come, we will stand rock solid instead of collapsing in a heap.
Hard work? You'd better believe it! But worth it? Oh yes!
If you're looking for "easy," you might as well just go to the store and buy some blueberries.
But just remember, you're missing out on the best.
A year ago I went to see my dentist and he said to me, "Doug, you have great teeth. They are solid, the gums are good, everything looks great!"
This year I went back for my checkup and he said, "Oh, Doug, you have two big cavities, right between the teeth." Long pause... "Have you been flossing?"
Ouch. Of course -- that task I know I'm supposed to do every day, but I don't. Flossing helps to clean out the food particles between the teeth, so they don't cause the teeth to start decaying.
Do you floss? Every day? I didn't floss at all, until I had to have two fillings this spring. Now I do.
I started thinking, though, that Bible reading is a lot like flossing -- it's one of those tasks that everyone knows you should do on a regular basis, but we often say, "Oh, I don't have time for that today," or "Maybe tomorrow."
And reading your Bible is a lot like flossing in another way -- it's a way of cleaning out the garbage that your brain picks up on a daily basis, just from living in a messed up world. Every day, just from living in this world, you daily come in contact with bad attitudes, bad actions, and bad ideas (and this happens even when you're just hanging out with other Christians, because -- let's face it -- Christians aren't perfect either!). And these bad attitudes, actions, and ideas can get lodged in your brain, where they do not belong.
Reading God's word is a way of dislodging some of that stuff that can cause spiritual decay. Romans 12:2 says to renew your mind, and so in a sense, we could think of a regimen of regular scripture reading as your "mental floss."
A couple more thoughts about the idea of scripture reading as your spiritual floss or mental floss:
1. Just as you should never say, "Oh, I've already flossed 500 times, I don't need to do it again," you should never say, "Oh, I've already read God's word 500 times -- why should I bother reading it again?" The answer should be obvious; the fact that you've flossed in the past doesn't do any good when it comes to cleaning out the garbage you've accumulated now. In the same way, since you're continually collecting spiritual garbage in this world, the spiritual flossing needs to be ongoing as well -- no matter how many times you've already read it!
2. If I hadn't told you that I had two cavities, you never would have known it. In the same way, if you allow spiritual decay in your life, you can probably hide it from people for a long time. But if you hide it, and don't do anything about it -- if you pretend it doesn't exist -- sooner or later, everything will collapse in spiritual decay, and you (and everyone else) will be saying, "What in the world just happened?"
In 2 Corinthians 5:20 Paul writes, "Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us."
An ambassador is a representative of their homeland, king, or president. Christ was an ambassador of the Father, and he represented His Father both by speaking the words of the Father ("...the word that you hear is not mine but the Father's who sent me." John 14:24) and doing the works of the Father ("...the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me." John 5:36).
In the same way we are ambassadors of Christ, and we must represent Him both in word and deed.
A few weeks ago I was driving down Route 3 from Augusta to Belfast, and I noticed the car in front of me -- a bright, shiny-red Mustang with two signs printed on the back. The first sign was the name of a driving academy and a telephone number. The second sign had three simple words: "DRIVE THIS MUSTANG!"
It was quite a contrast to the driving academy in my hometown; their cars are nondescript, uninteresting vehicles, and if the academy put a sign on their cars that said, "DRIVE THIS CAR," everyone would laugh.
And I thought, "The car represents the academy in two ways: The sign represents the academy in words, but also, the car itself is a representative of the academy. People who see the Mustang will know all the information they need to contact the academy, but it is the Mustang itself that is the real advertisement. People who see this car will say, "That is the academy I want to go to!"
In the same way, we must be the "advertisement" for Christianity both in our words, and in our lives. Our words tell others about salvation which is to be found only in Christ. But our lives must be an advertisement for Christianity as well; when people look at our lives, they ought to say, "That's a life that's a cut above the rest, and if that's what Christianity is, I want that!"
The words and the deeds must go hand in hand. One without the other is pointless.
Recently I saw something that reminded me of the importance of having roots that go down deep: a toppled tree with very shallow roots.
On top of North Sugarloaf Mountain in New Hampshire, the trees can't put down their roots very deep...presumably because the soil is so rocky. There's probably a granite slab a couple feet under the soil. The result is that instead of putting down deep roots, the tree's roots spread out just under the surface.
When the high winds come (and believe me, they get very high winds in the White Mountains!), even though the tree is alive, it has no stability in its roots to withstand the blast. The result is tragic for the tree; it simply tips over, exposing the underside of its very shallow root system.
I began thinking then of how very much like us this tree is. For us, it is tempting to put down very shallow roots in our lives. Why? Because shallow roots are easier. They don't require as much work.
They don't require us to put off what we want in order to gain what we need. They don't require us to choose obedience in difficult circumstances, only the easy ones. They don't require us to choose honesty even when we know it will hurt us. They don't require us to choose compassion over unkindness. They don't require us to choose humility over pride. They don't require us to choose a strong work ethic over laziness or procrastination. They don't require us to have patience over grasping what we want now. They don't require us to choose generosity over selfishness.
For many of us, life is more about finding what is convenient, fun, and enjoyable, rather than choosing what is right no matter what the circumstances, and no matter what the cost. This is the way of shallow roots. If I choose the easy way over the right way, maybe no one but me will notice that I'm not living the way I should...but when the storms come, I won't be ready for them!
Remember this: a tree cannot wait for the storm to come before it puts down deep roots; then it is already too late. Put down deep roots now, so when the storm comes, you'll be unmovable and unshakable.
If you've been following the content of this site for very long, you've probably noticed by now some of my hobbies, because I do write about them from time to time. I like to play the violin and the guitar. I like to climb mountains. And I like to to paint.
Interestingly, each one of these hobbies has, in some way, changed the way I view the world.
Because I like to play music, whenever I hear music, I don't just sing along with it, I notice how it is structured. I notice the timing, the bass line, the percussion, and a lot of things that I never would have noticed before I started learning to play a musical instrument.
Because I like to climb mountains, I can't even drive down a country road without noticing every single mountain in the distance, and being amazed by their beauty. Strange...before I started climbing, I never even noticed those mountains.
And since I've started up painting again, I can't go anywhere without noticing the brilliant, vibrant colors all around me, and thinking things like, "What color paints would I mix together to get that particular shade of blue?" or "I wonder if this scene would make a good starting point for a painting?"
I think it's interesting that each of my hobbies has, in one way or another, heightened my awareness of the world around me. I didn't start climbing mountains because I always thought the mountains were so beautiful. Nor did I start painting because I noticed and understood color and structure and composition.
No, it was the other way around. My appreciation for mountains, my understanding of color, and of beauty -- these things came after a lot of hard work on my part. The work came first, and then the understanding and the appreciation.
You might not have realized it, but the Christian life is very much the same way. I occasionally hear Christians pray, "Reveal yourself to me," but really, that's sort of a lazy prayer, because Jesus already told us the circumstances under which He reveals Himself to us:
If we want to more deeply understand God, and the work He is doing in this world, it doesn't just happen. It happens because we have his commandments, and are doing them. And we are doing them because we love Him.
The work comes first, then the understanding. I never would have come to such a deep appreciation for mountains without first putting a backpack on my shoulders and doing some very hard work. I would never have understood music so well if I hadn't spent so many hours doing tedious scales and exercises.
Do you want to understand God? Do you want Him to reveal Himself to you? Don't just sit around waiting for it to happen. Put your nose to the grindstone and actually do his work, follow his commands. Yes, it's hard work. Yes, it is sometimes discouraging, and yes, there are sometimes a thousand different things you would rather be doing. But do God's work with the same stubborn determination that a musician practices his scales, or a hiker keeps on climbing, no matter how tired he gets.
In the long run, the benefits are worth it, because bit by bit, God reveals Himself, His character, His love, and His work to us.
And that's more wonderful than the tallest mountain, the most beautiful song, or the most magnificent painting.
Recently I had a chance to visit with Nate, a young man who used to travel with me and run my sound system when I went out to preach, sing, and do ventriloquism. We were reminiscing about some of the things that used to happen when we were "on the road" together, and we recalled that it was not uncommon for people to say to Nate, "We sure do appreciate you and your dad coming today."
To which Nate would reply, "He's not my dad."
Frankly, I never saw much resemblance between us, and since I was only thirteen years older than him, I found it a bit disconcerting that people would think I was old enough to be his dad.
The day after I visited with Nate, day I took my nephew Daniel to a basketball game that our local Christian academy was competing in. During the half-time break, I took Daniel to the concessions stand, so Daniel could buy a cheeseburger. When the lady behind the counter gave us our food, she said, "Here's your cheeseburger, and here's your dad's french fries."
Once again, I don't think there's that much resemblance. But those two back-to-back events started me thinking about family resemblances. Do you look like your father? Your mother? What about your brothers or sisters? Do your children look like you?
Did you know that the Bible has something to say about family resemblance? It's true!
Colossians 1:15 says that Jesus is "the image of the invisible God," and "the firstborn of all creation." Think about that for a moment. God is Spirit, and as such, we cannot see him. But when Jesus Christ came to earth, he came as a man with a physical body. So what does it mean that Jesus is the "image of the invisible God"? That he physically looks like God the Father? Of course not! There is a "family resemblance" between God the Father and God the Son, but it is not a physical resemblance.
When Jesus came to earth, it was so we could see and understand the character of God. When we look at Jesus, when we read of His life, His deeds, and His sacrifice, we are seeing the character of God being lived out perfectly.
But that's not the only thing that the Bible says about family relationships. In 2 Corinthians we are told:
Nice little progression, isn't it? Jesus is the likeness of the invisible God, and we are to be transformed into the likeness of His Son, Jesus Christ. In other words, when people look at us, they ought to be able to see our family resemblance to God Himself!
What do you think? Is your character like the character of God? Or does it leave a lot to be desired? How does your character change to be more like His? Well, the answer is right in the verse: we behold the glory of the Lord. How much time do you spend looking on Jesus Christ, through reading of Him in God's Word? Take time each day to read of Him, and allow yourself to be transformed more and more into His image.
Today as I was driving from South Paris, Maine to Gray, Maine, I was thinking about how much more enjoyable the drive is, now that all the road work has been completed. Back before all the road construction, if I needed to go from South Paris to Gray, it seemed as though the drive took forever. The road twisted and turned around every little hill and obstacle along the way. Now it's much different, and much nicer.
Why do you suppose the road used to make all those twists and turns? A good guess might be that the original road builders didn't want to build over the hills, and they didn't have the resources to carve through the hills. So building around was the only option left. Now, as you drive that road, you see rock faces which are a testament to the fact that the road has been carved into the sides of the hills.
As I think about this, I'm reminded of John the Baptist, and the message he was commanded by God to deliver to the people:
In the days of John, roads were difficult to maintain through the wilderness -- perhaps they were even as awful as our Maine roads during the winter and spring! But what if the king wanted to travel across the countryside? Surely he wouldn't follow the same dizzying pattern of twists, turns, dips and rises that everyone else followed? No, heralds would go out before him announcing to the people, "The king is coming! Fix up the roads! If it passes through a valley, raise it up! If it passes over a hill, lower it! We want the king to have a perfectly smooth and comfortable trip."
Make no mistake about this: when John said, "Make straight the way of the Lord," what he was really saying was, "The king is on His way!" When the king comes to visit, everyone's lives are disrupted. The people understood this, for they asked John, "What do we need to do to get ready for His coming?" John's answer, though simple and straightforward, was certainly a disruption to the way they lived their lives: Be generous, don't be a cheater, don't be a bully, don't lie about one another, and be content with what you have.
Jesus the King dwells with us daily -- does His presence disrupt your life at all? Or do you simply live life as though He is not there at all?
I will never be a professional ping-pong player. For one thing, I only get to play once or twice per year, and even then it's only just a couple games.
But there's another reason. I think of ping-pong as a cooperative sport, rather than a competitive sport. If I had my choice in the matter, instead of playing games, I would just hit the ball back and forth with someone of a comparable ability level for hours on end without even keeping score.
Being at camp this past week, I had some time in the evenings to play ping-pong against several talented players. One of the men I played against, whose name was Rob, would probably have beat me, except that he couldn't return my serves. If I had had my choice in the matter, I wouldn't have even played games against him. I would have just kept serving the ball to him, exactly the same way each time, until he figured out how to return it. Of course, if I had done that, when we did play a game, he probably would have beat me.
Another side effect of this "cooperative" attitude is that I always end up working into a rhythm with the other player. One gentleman I played against said to me after the game, "You were going easy on me, weren't you?"
Well, no, not exactly. I just tend to (without really even thinking about it) find a rhythm that we can both volley in, because having a good volley is far more enjoyable to me than winning a point.
And that's why I could never be a professional, even if I was professional in my ability. I don't think of the game as a competition, but as an opportunity for two people to work together at both becoming more capable.
Of course, this attitude is not very healthy for a ping-pong player, but it is healthy in the Christian life. Far too often we find ourselves competing instead of cooperating. I shouldn't be trying to win honor, prestige, power, or leadership at the expense of another. Jesus had many comments to make about that sort of attitude. Instead, we should be striving to build one another up in the faith...working on our "serve" together, instead of trying to outdo the other guy.
A couple years ago I had my cholesterol level checked, and my doctor told me "Your cholesterol level is way too high." We talked about what I was going to do about it, and I told him I wasn't interested in taking any medications to lower my cholesterol. I wanted to do the "all natural" approach, even though I knew it would be much harder.
So I changed my habits. I changed the amount of exercise I do, and made significant changes in my diet. Now I eat far less fast food, far less fatty foods than I used to. And the good news is that, in the last two years, my cholesterol has dropped 27 points. I still have a little way to go, but that's definite progress.
Changing my diet has really changed the way that I "taste" food. I used to love really greasy foods. Now, however, after being careful to avoid greasy foods, my appetite has changed. If I have a pepperoni pizza, I find myself thinking "Wow! This tastes really greasy!" It's not that pizzas are any more greasy now than they were two years ago; it's just that my appetites have changed because of the kinds of foods I put into my system.
This change of appetite can happen spiritually as well:
Just as my physical appetites have changed from fatty foods to more healthy foods, our spiritual appetites can change as well. We are supposedto have an appetite for the Word of God, just like a little baby has an appetite for their mother's milk.
Unfortunately, our appetite changeswhen we start tasting of other things which aren't as healthy. What are some of the spiritual "fatty foods" that are unhealthy, and change our appetite away from God's healthy food?
Malice. Deceit. Hypocrisy. Envy. Slander. When we indulge these unhealthy spiritual appetites, it destroys our appetite for God's word, and ultimately means that we will never grow up spiritually.
So Peter says: "Put these things aside!" As long as you let any of these things into your spiritual diet, you will never be healthy, and you will never grow to maturity.
Every morning when I get up I go through all my morning rituals: a cup of coffee, a shower and (occasionally) shave, and maybe a bowl of cereal or a couple slices of toast. And before I set foot out of my house, I've looked at my mirror once or twice to make sure everything looks okay (or, at least, as well as can be expected!).
I suspect we all have similar rituals. I wonder, though, how often we think about the fact that we have a spiritual mirror as well! James tells us:
So how much time do you spend in front of the spiritual mirror, the word of God? After all, if we wouldn't leave the house without checking our physical appearance, should we leave without checking out how we're doing spiritually?
Understanding God's word as a mirror changes how we view it in several ways.
First, we cease to read God's word thinking, "Oh, so-and-so needs to hear that." Because what we are really doing is looking in a mirror expecting to see someone else's reflection there. No, when we look into God's word we see our own reflection; that is how God designed His word.
Second, we stop reading God's word with the thought "yawn...I've read this before." Just as a mirror is unchanging, but gives us a different reflection every time we look in it, so God's word is utterly unchanging, yet still reflects back to us something different depending on our spiritual need. It is no wonder Hebrews calls the word "living and active"!
Finally, when we read something in God's word, we do something about what we see there. We would not look into the mirror, find a hair out of place, and do nothing about it. So we shouldn't ignore what we see in God's word. James says if we ignore what the mirror tells us, and do nothing about it, we are simply fooling ourselves.
In the corner of the mirror in my bathroom there is a little slip of paper, which reminds me every morning: "This mirror only shows my physical appearance!" To deal with my spiritual appearance, I need a different mirror altogether.