I love music. I've always loved music. But when I started playing a musical instrument in fourth grade I had no sense of rhythm. In fact, it took me many years to develop that sense. My mom and I would drive a half an hour to my private violin lessons with Mrs. Small, a tiny lady who used to be my mother's music teacher when she was young, and who insisted that now that she was over 85, she was allowed to subtract a year from her age for each birthday. I can still remember her asking me, week after week, "Are you counting this?" and "You didn't count this week, did you?"
The truth is, counting was something I reserved for math class, and I found the process of counting to four repeatedly, while playing the violin, to be very difficult. My mind didn't seem to want to do those two things simultaneously, and honestly, I didn't really see the point of it.
I was well into my high school years, I think, before I really began to develop a sense of rhythm. How did I survive all those years of playing recital pieces, and playing in an orchestra?
I used external cues. If Mrs. Small was accompanying me on the piano, I would listen for her to play a specific note/chord, and then I would know it was time for me to come in. If I was in an orchestra, I would often wait for the violinist next to me to lift her bow, and then I would know it was time to start playing. Of course, neither of these techniques were very good, and often resulted in me starting a fraction of a second too late, because I would hear, and then play.
As my sense of rhythm developed, it was not because my mathematical abilities improved (I was an award-winning math student and competitor, so counting to four over and over produced no mathematical challenges for me!), but because I started to feel rhythms internally. My toes started tapping, and my fingers started drumming, and my head started bobbing. And the more I felt those rhythms physically, within my body, the less necessary it became to count.
When playing with an accompanist, I didn't need to listen for a note to happen; I could predict when it was going to happen. If I was in an orchestra, I wasn't watching and listening for my neighbor to come in; I could feel the right time within my body.
Counting, under these circumstances, becomes something you do to help you understand the structure of a particular piece of music, rather than something you do because it's the only way to keep time.
I realized that this is very similar to my life as a Christian in this world. At first, nothing comes naturally. My behavior is not internalized. To know how I ought to behave, I watch the people around me to see what they do, and I take my cues from them. It's not internalized.
But God wants the Christian life to be internalized. This is why there are repeated statements within the Bible that say God wants to "write his word on our hearts, rather than on tablets of stone."
The process of internalizing the Christian life is very similar to the process of internalizing a beat. At first, it all feels unnatural, and you end up mimicking others in order to "fit in," but as God does His good work in your heart, what was once externally motivated becomes internally driven, because your character and your heart are more and more aligning with the one who was born with a perfect moral rhythm.
Where are you in this process? I'm not talking about what your behavior is; I'm talking about what drives your behavior. Is it driven by a follow-the-leader mentality? Is it driven by a desire to fit in? Or is Christ steadily (albeit perhaps slowly) transforming your heart, writing the rhythm of his own heartbeat onto yours?
Oh Lord, change my heart, make it ever true. Help my heart to beat in perfect synchrony with you!
This morning my son and I were planting trees again. The first part of the process was to dig eighteen holes, and pour a bucket of water into each hole. So right after breakfast we got a wagon, filled two five-gallon buckets of water, added a spade, and headed for the field where we're planting.
While I dug the holes, my son scooped water and poured it into holes so there would be plenty of moisture in the soil when we planted the trees. The temperature was already on the rise, and I was dripping with sweat, so I wasn't in a good mood to argue with my son when he told me, "Daddy, I don't want to do this. The grass is wet, and it's getting my feet wet."
"Well, it needs to get done," I said.
"Why do we have to do it now, when the grass is so wet?"
And here's where I was tempted to use that famous line, "Because I said so." It's quick and easy to say, and doesn't even interrupt the work I was doing. After a moment's thought, though, I put the shovel down and said, "Do you know why the grass is wet here?"
"Because of the dew?"
"Mmm hmm. Come here," I said, as I walked up the hill, and out of the shade. "The grass isn't wet here. That's because it's not in the shade, and it is really hot here, isn't it?"
Then I pointed back down the hill at the tree holes, which were all in the shade. "If we wait for the grass to dry off, then all of that will be in the sunlight, and it'll be hot, and that'll make the work twice as hard."
Armed with that understanding, he agreed that it was better to do it now.
Don't get me wrong, I think that there are times that "because I said so" is a legitimate answer; I do think that children should be taught and trained that obedience is important even when they don't understand the reason for it. But I also think it makes sense, in most cases, to explain my reasoning to my children when I'm able to do so.
This is a very common pattern in scripture, and if you look for it, you'll find it everywhere. God gives an instruction, and then he explains the reason for it.
Every time you find a "for" or a "therefore" or a "because" in scripture, think about it carefully. It's likely that you'll find that God is explaining himself and his instructions to his children.
To illustrate this, I randomly opened my Bible to Philippians 4, where I read this:
The command is to stand firm, but the word "therefore" precedes the command, which suggests that in the previous verses Paul explained the reason for the command:
Why stand firm? Because we have a citizenship and a glory ahead of us that outweighs any burden or struggle that faces us now.
I encourage you to read scripture looking for these kinds of pairings, and express your gratitude to God that he didn't just say, "Because I said so," but took the time to explain his commands. And, of course, always be ready to obey, out of trust and submission, whenever an explanation is not given.
My life is controlled by a clock. School begins at 8:00 a.m., and I am there at 7:30 to work with students. First period ends at 9:30, and new students arrive. And so on, through the day. Then, when school is over, I have my first music student at 3:00. My first math tutoring session is at 3:30. And on it goes.
On Sundays, I preach at 8:00 a.m. at a nearby church that is pastorless, and I'm expected to be there on time, ready to go. Some Sundays I preach at two churches, and then I have to leave the first church at 9:00 a.m. in order to get to the next church by 10:00 a.m.
Day after day, week after week.
The strange thing is, I never realized just how regimented my schedule is. I never gave it a thought. It was simply part of how life works.
Then I went to Argentina. And I discovered that not everyone operates the way we do here in the United States. When does church start? When everyone gets there, and has had a chance to greet everyone. When is supper? Sometime in the evening when it's ready.
We're doing an after-school program? Great! What time is that? 3:00. Or maybe 3:20? Or 4:00? Well, no, not everyone is here yet, so we'll get started around 4:15.
And all of a sudden, for the first time, I realized just how much my life centered around the ticking of a clock.
Now, my point in sharing this is not that one way of approaching life is better or worse than the other (there are positives and negatives to both approaches). My point is: centering my life's activities around the movement of gears and clock hands is something I was virtually unaware of, to the point that it never occurred to me that there was another way to approach life.
The same was true of how I greet people. I grew up in a culture where a greeting goes (almost without fail) like this:
Me: Hi, how ya doing?
Them: Fine, you?
And that's it. Fast forward to the time I spent in northern Africa, and discovered that every greeting involves a plethora of questions like "How is your wife?" "Is business going well?" "Are you parents well?" and you are actually expected to answer these questions, instead of just saying, "Oh, fine."
I was never aware of how shallow our greetings are until I went somewhere that they did something very different, and suddenly I became very conscious of the manner in which I greet people!
So what does this have to do with the Christian life? Believers in Christ have (or should have) a culture all our own. We speak the truth without fail (Matthew 5:37). We speak with grace no matter the circumstances (Colossians 4:6). We are gentle with those who are weak and failing (Galatians 6:1). We give generously to those who are in need (2 Corinthians 9:6-7). We treat others as more important than our own selves (Philippians 2:3). These, and so many other things, define a culture that is extraordinarily beautiful and winsome.
This is the hope, the goal, and the ideal. But we live in a culture where these things are not the norm. All you have to do is visit social media to discover that people speak with neither truth nor grace. All you have to do is consider the corporate world to realize that generosity is not a standard feature of our culture. So here's the problem. If the culture I'm steeped in day after day is a culture of dishonesty, graceless communication, selfishness and pride, these things become part of who we are, without us even realizing it. (Again, all you have to do is visit social media, and you will easily see that many many Christians have chosen the way of false, proud, and graceless communication).
Romans 12:2 is all about a culture, or a way of life. Paul is telling us that the culture around us will influence us and control us without our even realizing it, unless we proactively take measures to renew our minds -- to refresh the ways of our own Christian culture. There are many ways that we do that -- the reading of scripture, and listening to the teaching of the Word are two ways. But in addition to these, we must remember that the only way to become acclimated to a culture is to immerse yourself in it. We must deliberately spend time in the company of our fellow culture-members, so that the Christian culture will permeate not just our actions, but our thought process.
If you've spent much time browsing this site, you've probably figured out by now that I'm a fan of hiking. Some of my best times of thought, meditation, and prayer happen on a quiet trail through the woods to a mountain peak.
But my priorities in hiking have changed quite a bit in the last few years. For a long time I set as a goal for myself to hike all the four-thousand-foot peaks in the state of Maine. What? Maine has four-thousand-footers? You bet! We have fourteen of them. And I intended to hike all of them. So far I've hiked ten of the fourteen. The last time I bagged a new four-thousand-footer was about seven years ago.
So what happened? Well, there were a couple things that happened. The first was that I hiked some mountains like Redington Mountain and Spaulding Mountain, which -- despite their impressive heights -- had little to no views. When you are used to hiking mountains with nice views, an eight-mile hike with no views is a bit off-putting.
The other thing that happened was: I got married and had kids. Now when I go hiking, most of the time I'm trying to find mountains that a five-year-old (and sometimes even a three-year-old) can do.
Suddenly, I don't even care about bagging four-thousand-foot peaks. The truth is, I'd rather hike mountains I've hiked ten times already, like Mount Chocorua, or Kearsarge North, or Tumbledown, or Bald Mountain -- mountains that I know and love for their beautiful views -- than to hike a mountain I've never done, no matter how big, if I know there are no views at the top.
My priorities changed a bit during the last few years. I still love hiking, and get out to hike when I can, but it's less important to me now than it was.
In Luke 12, Jesus said:
This is a bit of what I've experienced. More and more, my treasures are found right in my own home, rather than on a list of mountains to check off. And where my treasure is, my heart follows.
The context of this verse is not about children and mountains -- it's about the treasures of heaven:
The principle is this: if your treasures are in heaven, you will prioritize the treasures of this life far more lightly. Why is the believer willing to sacrifice and give with generosity, not seeking anything in return? Because the believer sees a treasure far beyond the riches of this world.
Whenever we find something greater our heart follows that greatness, even if it means leaving the lesser behind.
Years ago, when I was in college, I participated in a Bible study group for college students. The object lesson I'm sharing here is not mine; I first heard it from Lenny, the leader of that Bible study group. I found it helpful, so I thought I'd share it here.
Imagine that you get a phone call from a friend who says he has a gift to give you. Curious, you ask him what it is. He tells you that he has received a van Gogh painting, and he would like to pass it on to you. You are stunned, knowing that any van Gogh painting is worth millions of dollars.
Your friend tells you that you need to make arrangements to come pick up the painting and bring it home. Imagine how you feel at this moment. How are you going to collect the painting? Will you drive your car there and pick it up yourself? Will you hire a moving van? Or maybe even an armored truck? And what about once you've received the painting? What will you do with it? What kinds of security systems will you have to install in your house? What about UV protection for the artwork?
As you pick up the painting, and as you install it in your home, you approach the entire process with "fear and trembling." Not because you are afraid that your friend will take back his gift, but because you understand how precious and valuable it is, and how easily damaged it is. It is a treasured possession, and you want to guard it and protect it.
In Philippians 2, Paul writes:
Paul is not telling us that our salvation is ours to earn. No, like that van Gogh painting, it is a gift beyond value or belief. But now that it is ours, we treat it with all the care and regard that a priceless gift deserves. We understand that the gift of God's grace is fully ours, but with that gift comes a grave responsibility.
And in the midst of this, Paul offers this reassurance -- you're not on your own. As he had already promised in Philippians 1:6, God is, and will be at work in you.
As an added note to Lenny's object lesson, it's interesting to note that the phrase "work out" in this verse comes from a compound Greek word: katergazomai. Kata has a variety of meanings, so any compound word built from it also may have many possible meanings. Kata has these likely meanings in this verse: "toward the completion of," "in the direction of," or "according to." Gazomai simply means "work." Thus, we could alternately translate that phrase as "work according to your salvation," "work toward the completion of your salvation," or "work in the direction of your salvation." That fits nicely with the next verse which assures us that God is working in the same direction!
Not work for it, but work according to it, and toward its fulfillment at the day of the Lord. My life now, in this world, should be aimed toward that future day of glory.
We have a field on our property that is too rough to be a nice lawn. It gets mowed twice a year with a cutter bar mower. About half of the field we'd like to smooth out and turn into a lawn; the other half is on a hillside, and we don't want to mess with it. For a couple years now we've been talking about simply not mowing that section, and letting it go to weed, knowing that there are stands of poplar trees all around, and it'll eventually become woods. Poplars aren't a great tree, but it's better than dealing with a tough-to-mow hillside.
This spring, my father had about thirty oak seedlings that shot up in his garden. I assumed he was going to till them under, but a few days ago I noticed they were still there, and asked him why he hadn't wiped them out. "I thought you might like to plant those in your field -- oak's a lot nicer than poplar."
That settled it. We're transplanting oak trees into our field, in hopes that it'll turn into something nicer than a poplar stand. It's possible that nothing will grow, but we're giving it a try.
So yesterday afternoon I went out into the field with a bucket full of stakes, a mallet, a spade, a tape measure, and a square (since I'm a geometry guy, my rows must be parallel). Oh, and one more thing. I took my five-year-old son.
His jobs were: hold the tape measure, bring me things I needed, and count off the spacing between trees on the tape measure.
The process of marking off and digging an array of thirty holes in the ground reaffirmed to me something every parent knows: sometimes getting "help" from your children results in a process much longer and more tedious than simply doing it by yourself.
For example, my son is just starting to get the hang of two-digit numbers, so the idea of starting at 15 feet and adding 10 feet to get 25 feet is still something he needs help with. And that slowly developing number-sense certainly does not facilitate the process of tracking down the number 25 on the tape measure. I would often end up standing around for a minute or more, waiting for him to find the number I wanted, when I could have found it for myself in about five seconds.
But here's the thing: I didn't bring my son out there because I thought it would make my job easier. I did it for the following reasons:
What was I really doing? I was making a disciple. I was training him in the things that I'm good at, that I hope someday he will be good at as well.
Jesus told us to make disciples. We often read Matthew 28:19 as a command for evangelism, and there's no denying that evangelism precedes making disciples, but making disciples is a much longer and more time-consuming process than simply sharing the gospel. Making disciples requires a great deal of effort beyond that initial sharing. And at times, it might make you feel like you're wasting your time.
Consider Jesus. For three years he went about doing the work of His Father, with a company of twelve men tagging along with him everywhere he went. In a lot of ways, those twelve men were like little children. They argued, they fought, they lacked understanding. Can you imagine how much more Jesus could have done if he hadn't been surrounded by these men who needed him to intervene in their arguments, and re-explain things over and over to them?
Yet Jesus saw these men as valuable. Valuable enough to spend his divine time on them. Correcting, rebuking, training, explaining. And the end result? In Matthew 10:5-8 we find Jesus able to send out these twelve men on their own to do the work He was doing.
The process of discipleship is the patient, time-consuming process of taking younger believers with you when you go out and do the work of the Father, in order to guide them in their faith and their service. In our efficiency-based culture, this process seems as counter-productive as having a five-year-old count off measurements when you could do it ten times faster by yourself.
But I didn't bring my son with me because I thought it would be more efficient; I brought him because of the tremendous value that I place on him -- because of my love for him. And really, when you think about it, this is what drove the Savior's earthly ministry. Not the desire for efficiency, but the love of people.
Tonight I'm cooking up a batch of rhubarb sauce. The obvious ingredients in rhubarb sauce are rhubarb and sugar (rhubarb is so tart most people consider it inedible without a lot of sugar!). Less obvious, but also important, are the spices. Cinnamon? Nutmeg? And maybe (if you want your rhubarb to have even more bite) a pinch of ginger.
But there's one more ingredient I always put in my rhubarb sauce. No one ever tastes it, but it's very important. Salt. No one ever tastes my rhubarb sauce and says, "This is too salty." In fact, no one says that it's salty at all!
One of the interesting properties of salt is that, if used in the proper quantities, instead of making food taste saltier, it simply enhances the flavors already in it. Putting salt in my rhubarb sauce doesn't make it saltier -- it makes it rhubarbier! Because of this, salt fits into virtually every recipe. I once scanned through a cook book looking for recipes that don't have salt in them. In the entire book, I found only one such recipe.
No wonder Paul wrote this in his letter to the Colossian church:
Paul here compares grace to salt -- just as salt fits into every recipe, grace fits into every conversation. And just as salt brings out the natural flavors of the recipe, grace brings out the very best in every conversation. Even when rebuking, grace must be present in your speech.
In our current society, gracious speech is hard to find -- not only does everyone have an opinion (which is fine) but few people want to express those opinions without putting down and belittling those who disagree with them. In such a society, Christians who are the recipients of the grace of Christ can surely stand out as extraordinarly different, simply through their gracious speech.
I'm in the process of launching a new Content Management System for some of my clients who own websites. The control panel for my clients' websites gives them fine-tuned control not just over the appearance of the site, but also over how it appears in different devices (desktops, phones, etc).
It's exciting for me to be launching this software, but it's even more exciting to hear the positive feedback from web masters who are enjoying creating content for their websites. "This is fun," I heard from a couple clients, and one client is creating beautiful pages filled with images and nicely formatted text that looks great not only on a desktop computer, but also on tablets and phones.
I sent that client an e-mail, saying, "By the way, your site looks great -- you're really doing a great job of building your pages!"
His response was interesting: "Regarding the site, I appreciate the compliment, but it would be like God telling me that I'm doing a good job with His word. Can't really take any credit for it. I'm just utilizing a good creation."
An interesting comparison. But it got me thinking...
There is really a very strong sense of satisfaction for me in watching people make use of the software I created to make something beautiful. I guess you could say that I "delight" in seeing what people are doing with what I built.
In the same way, don't you suppose God takes a great deal of delight in watching as we make use of His creations in good and beautiful ways? When I pick up my guitar and improvise something new, I'm really just building on something God created in the first place. And it honors him, as the Creator, when I do so.
So be beautiful. Improvise. Make beautiful music, carve beautiful sculptures. Photograph beautiful rivers, sunsets, flowers and oceans. Stand at the top of a mountain at sunrise and belt out a verse of "This Is My Father's World." It's all just stuff that God made in the first place, but don't you think he loves our improvisations on his handiwork?
One of the perks of living next to my parents is that when Dad gets out his snow blower to clear their driveway, he also brings it over our way and clears our yard as well. We had our first big snowstorm over the weekend, and we knew that our young son (who was too young to remember anything about winter last year) would be very interested to see the snow blower for the first time.
Sure enough, when we heard the snow blower coming our way, we directed him to the window, and he clung to the windowsill in excitement as he saw his grandfather on his little tractor, and watched a fountain of snow blow into the sky.
But our son doesn't have a very long attention span, and as soon as Dad finished one swath and disappeared from view, our son started to walk away from the window.
"Don't go," I said, "he's coming back!"
And then I thought -- isn't that how we are?
In John 14:3, Jesus tells His disciples that He's going away, but if He goes, He will return again. We know he's coming back, but like young children, we get easily distracted from that.
At Christmas, we celebrate Christ's first advent, but when December 26th arrives, we put away the manger scene, the Christmas tree, and all the other trappings of the holiday season, and move on with the everyday grind of life.
Not that we shouldn't get on with the grind of life, but we should do so with a powerful awareness -- the sense of anticipation and eagerness with which we looked forward to Christmas day is the same sense of anticipation and eagerness with which we should look forward to his return.
Just as I say to my son, "He's coming back," let's keep reminding one another, "He's coming back! Maranatha!"
When trying to teach our one-year-old about things he is (and is not) allowed to do, we run into a couple problems. One is that, since he can't communicate except in grunts, waves, and "diddle-diddle" baby-talk, it's hard to know how well he understands what we're telling him. If we tell him not to stand on the sofa, does he understand what a "sofa" is? And does he understand what it means to "stand"?
The second problem is that he has not yet developed much impulse control, so if we inundate him with rules to follow, we will be constantly correcting him. There are only so many hours in a day, and we don't want to spend them all saying to him, "We told you not to do that!"
So, as our son is developing understanding and impulse control, we are careful to keep our instructions to him at a simple and minimal level. Most of the "dos and don'ts" we give him divide into two primary categories:
1. Instructions that are for his own benefit/safety. For example, we are strict about not letting him stand on the sofa, or take things out of the trash can, because the first activity could easily result in injury, and the second activity -- well, let's face it -- the trash can is not the most sanitary object in any home!
2. Instructions for the benefit/safety of those around him. For example, we have a diabetic cat, and if he eats "people food," he gets sick. Thus, we are strict about our son not throwing his food on the floor.
There is a third category of "dos and don'ts" which we try not to delve into too deeply:
3. Instructions that are for our own convenience. For example, even though we don't let him get into the trash can, we have never told him that he's not allowed to unload the diaper bag all over the floor. There's nothing in there that's dangerous for him, and while it's a nuisance to repack the bag, we feel that there are more important "dos and don'ts" for him to learn first.
The goal in all of this is to have a set of rules that are not overwhelming for either our one-year-old or us. Are we succeeding? I don't know, and perhaps it'll be a very long time before I do know. But as I thought about all of this, it occurred to me that what we're trying to do is to emulate our Heavenly Father in the way He gives commands to us.
1 John 5:3 says that "His commandments are not burdensome." Doesn't God do for us (perfectly) what we are trying (imperfectly) to do for our son? God's commands are neither burdensome nor self-serving. His commandments to us fall -- for the most part -- into two basic categories: commands that are in our own best interest, and commands that are for the benefit of those around us.
If I can appreciate that my rules for my son are reasonable, wise (hopefully!), and beneficial to our household, can I not trust that God's rules for me are even more reasonable, wise, and beneficial?