Do You Take This Woman?

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
Ephesians 5:25

You don’t get through 25 years of marriage without accumulating a few bumps and bruises along the way. It seems to me that the longer I’ve been married, it’s the same places that get bruised over and over again. The trouble is that just a light touch on a sensitive spot brings all the accumulated hurt and resentment back to the surface again.

Most of my hurts are not moral issues, where one person is clearly wrong and the other is clearly right. I don’t think I’d have any problem dealing with such failings. “I’m sorry, dear. I shouldn’t have killed the mailman.” “You are right, robbing that bank was a big mistake.” “OK, I’ll stop tripping the blind man.”

Instead, I find my hurts in areas of preference. I want one thing, but she wants another. Do we stay in or go out? Mountains or beach? Almond Joy or Mounds? The challenge here is that one person must give in order that the other might gain. When we discuss these issues, the underlying question always seems to come down to, “So I can never have what I want? I always have to give you your way?” It’s a difficult call.

Recently, I was stewing about one of my biggest bruises that had just been re-injured. I was contemplating the ways I would make sure to let my wife know that she had wronged me, and how I would show her just how it feels to be treated that way. But God would not leave me alone. As I was plotting my revenge, he brought specific scriptures to my mind, reminding me that my plan was ungodly. Then, as I was driving, I heard on the radio how it was National Marriage Week (who would plan that to coincide with Valentine’s Day???). How could I push my wife away when it was a time to promote and defend marriage?

Finally, as I was worshipping God in church, I had an experience of his presence in such a powerful way that I never wanted to leave. As the moment passed, and the glory of his presence began to fade, I heard him say, “Now forgive.”

Failing to seek revenge is one thing. But why can’t I stew in the juices of my resentment? Do I really have to let it go? To be obedient, the answer is, “yes.”

Basically, demanding one’s own way is nothing more than selfishness, and selfishness is just a form of idolatry. Selfishness says, “I am god and you must serve me.” Instead, God commands husbands (that would be me) to love their wives as Christ loved the church. So how did Christ love the church? He gave himself up for her. True love, godly love, God’s love is sacrificial. It gives to the point of death. Death of expectation and demands. Death of control and agenda. Death of self. Rather than selfish, it is selfless.

I have probed the wounds of Christ over and over as I have neglected him, rejected him, and demanded my own way, rather than surrendering myself to him. A popular song includes these words

“I am the thorn in your crown
But You love me anyway
I am the sweat from Your brow
But You love me anyway
I am the nail in Your wrist
But You love me anyway
I am Judas’ kiss
But You love me anyway”

After all that I’ve done, Christ loves me (a part of his church) still. Inasmuch as Christ has loved me, and continues to love me, and forgives all my offenses, I am called to do no less. So as an act of my will, and in obedience to my Lord’s command, I will die to myself and I will love my wife.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Personal Trainer

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.
Revelation 2:4-5a

My body is suffering from decades of (mostly) benign (mostly) neglect. If you are of a certain age, no doubt you can identify, but my particular disrepair is not just the natural decay of age. My back is crooked and fused, my shoulders don’t work, and my hips have been replaced. All before the age of 30. Still, I had settled into a complacent equilibrium. My body didn’t give me too much trouble, as long as I didn’t ask much (or anything) of it. For the most part, that seemed to work pretty well for me.

Now my daughter has this insane idea that we should dance at her wedding in a few months. We gave it a practice go at Christmas, and it wasn’t pretty. I realized just how painful and tiring it was for me to move in that way, and I decided that if I was going to pull this off, I would have to get much stronger. So I have been subjecting myself to the sadistic inclinations of a personal trainer, trying to work out the 5 work days of each week.

My body is not liking this new arrangement. Oh, the workouts are not too bad (although the trainer pushes me much harder than I would push myself). I sweat, and need to sit very still for a while after finishing, but I’ve always been pretty good about rallying to the cause, when a specific demand is made of me.

It’s what happens after that I’m talking about. I am suffering pains and general discomfort in places that I haven’t felt for many years. I wake up sore and tired. It’s not a specific pain associated with some particular exercise. Rather, it’s my body rebelling at the new discipline I am demanding of it. This whole idea of re-defining my body is shattering the complacent arrangement we had, and my body is letting me know in no uncertain terms that it does not approve.

It seems to me that the same thing is true spiritually. This world exerts forces that conspire to drag you away from God and his will. If you don’t actively struggle to “swim upstream”, then the current will carry you away. Like my disease that has gradually robbed me of my strength and mobility (is it really robbery when you sit and watch it happen?), life seduces us away from a passionate “first love” with busyness, responsibility, and amusement.

When God finally breaks through your complacency and you heed the call to live a godly life, many things have to change. We have a divine personal trainer in the Holy Spirit. He points out the exercises he wants us to do. But we have to agree and commit to the change. Often this change produces stress, as we are forced to break habit patterns and discard values that don’t line up with God’s purposes. We have the spiritual equivalent of “body aches”.

Like the children of Israel in the desert, we may even cry out to God, “Why did you take us out of Egypt where we had plenty to eat just to die out here in the desert?” In hindsight, the old life may even appear more attractive that it really was (did the Israelites forget so quickly that they were slaves in Egypt? Or had they just complacently accepted equilibrium?).

I am willingly enduring the pains and suffering that goes along with this new exercise pattern, because I love my daughter and want to honor her with a father-daughter wedding dance. Otherwise, I may never have broken the complacent equilibrium.

What is God calling you to change? Do you love him enough to endure the pain and the discipline required to accomplish that change?

What dreams we dream

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
Matthew 6:19-21

My family is sick of hearing about it. I have an obsession, and it’s a car. An electric car. No, it’s not one of those puny eco-gadgets that practically needs an extension cord dragging behind it. It’s a high-performance kick-you-in-the-back car. I want one so badly I can taste it. I dream of the day when I own my Tesla.

It all started a couple of years ago when my son asked me to take him to the car show in downtown Denver. We saw lots of cool cars, including a concept electric car (I think it was a Pontiac). Some time later, I decided to see what the state of the art was, so I googled “electric cars” and I found it. The Tesla Roadster. 0-60 in 3.9 seconds, 300 miles on a charge. Body by Lotus. What’s not to love. Oh, did I mention the $105,000 (US) price tag?

When I turned 50, my wife had a friend make a cake with a Roadster on it (probably the closest I’ll ever get). For a birthday present, my son gave me an “IOU one Tesla test drive”. I wasn’t sure that we would actually drive up to Boulder some day and drive one, but he pursued it and found a test-drive event in downtown Denver. Afterwards, my wife says we had goofy grins on our faces for days. It is literally the most fun I’ve ever had, anywhere. The only thing saving my marriage is that it’s too awkward for me to get in/out of the car, so I can’t seriously consider owning one.

Enter the Model S. Tesla is moving from the high-end, exclusive toy car market into the luxury sedan market. It has most of the specs of the Roadster with a form-factor more accommodating to my body. Except it doesn’t exist yet. But I have a plan. You see, my daughter will turn 16 in 3 years, at which time I’ll give her my Subaru and replace it with a Tesla. Three years may seem like a long time, but I can already see the day when I’m driving a high-performance all-electric car. If I can afford it.

So one day I started thinking. I look forward to this car. I dream about this car. I feel about it as if it is already a reality. But it’s just a car. Through the atoning death of Jesus, God promises me an eternity in his presence, free from the curse of sin, sickness, and death. I’m not exactly sure what that is like (I haven’t had a chance to test-drive eternity yet), but surely it’s better than a car.

The Bible reminds Christians that we are strangers and aliens in this world. It’s not our final destination. Home is a much better place than where we are now. Do you think about it? Do you dream about it? Is it practically real to you? If not, why not? Every time I fantasize about my new car (someday), I’m challenged to dream of my new home in the city whose designer and builder is God. Because even Tesla will pass away. But the Word of the Lord is eternal. Even so, come quickly, Lord Jesus.

The Reason for the Season

(originally written circa 1997)

This time of year, everyone gets caught up in the hustle and bustle of the “Holiday Season.” People flock to the malls and crowd like cattle through stores, having already given up on finding the “perfect” gift, now just hoping to find something that won’t be returned.

For some, this time of year is just an extended celebration of the end of the year, culminating in a joyous “ringing in” of the new year. A time to celebrate survival of another year, looking forward to new beginnings in the year to come.

For others, it is a time of “Yuletide Spirit”, “Season’s Greetings”, Santa Claus, and winter wonderland. Strings of lights decorate houses and yards. Evergreen trees occupy the place of importance in family rooms, with presents for all beneath.

Yet, in all of the scurrying around, parties, and celebrations, I note a disturbing absence of the One for whom the holiday is named. Even the season’s greeting, “Merry Christmas”, is being forsaken in favor of more secular phrases, such as “Merry Xmas”, “Happy Holidays”, and “Season’s Greetings”.

Pause for a moment and reflect upon the fact that nearly two thousand years ago, a child was born who would change the face of history. When the Supreme Court allows us to, we still gather at the manger to behold the miracle of the child born to a virgin. Most people are even willing to call this child the Son of God.

Unfortunately, the child will not stay in the manger. When he grows up, he becomes a stumbling block who offends all who meet him. To the religious people of the day He declares, “Your rituals and ceremonies for reaching God are useless. God wants repentant hearts and changed lives” (May the church today take note). To those who are broken by their sin, he offers forgiveness, restoration and life. And to those who will not come, he promises certain judgment. Small wonder the world did not accept Him then. Small wonder the world does not accept Him now.

You see, it is not the miraculous birth of the child in the manger which makes this season worth celebration. If the child stays in the manger, his birth is ultimately no more important than any other. It is only when YOU allow him to come out of the manger and into your life that you can truly understand why the angels broke forth with joy, saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.”

Jesus IS the reason for the season.

Is this all there is?

Originally written 10/22/2009

As I approach 50, I’m in full-fledged mid-life crisis. I look back over the majority of my life and I critically evaluate my path across this planet. Do I matter?

As a man, I look first to my work for significance. I’ve been employed by the same company for over 27 years. I’m very good at what I do. This is not idle boasting; I have performance appraisals and a salary to back up my claim. I’m also sure that you could ask anyone with whom I’ve worked over the years and they would back up my claim. By all accounts, I would be considered a success at my job.

I’m a computer programmer. No, that’s not enough. I resist the title “Software Engineer” because I went to an engineering school and I know “real” engineers… the kind who are licensed by the State. I even dislike my current title, “Software Architect”, even though I am a Certified Information Systems Architect, because it fails to capture the scope of what I do. I design, develop, deploy and maintain complex automated processing systems. I deal with an ever-increasing number of complex technologies to create solutions to specific problems. And while I am capable of performing the full cradle-to-grave development cycle myself, I also have to communicate the vision of the system to the rest of my staff, teaching/mentoring, debugging, and optimizing.

But as impressive as all that sounds, when I look back over 27 years I have to realize that nothing I have built will really last. My current project, a labor of more than 10 years, is always one budget cycle away from being cancelled. Despite the fact that no other system in the world does what this system does, it has failed to achieve broad-based support, so we limp along from year to year with uncertain and insufficient funding. Regardless of all of that, I have no doubt that within 5 years of my retirement all my work will be (at best) a DVD-ROM sitting on a shelf somewhere until it gets thrown out with the other trash. So after a lifetime of effort, I will have nothing to show for it. Futility.

(updated 12/5/2011)

Recently, a friend died. He wasn’t much older than me, and his death was sudden and tragic. And, attending his funeral, it caused me to take stock of my life. How will I be remembered? Do I matter?

As I worked through this dilemma, I realized that my eulogy is not the final grade. What I’m really hoping for is “Well done, good and faithful servant.” What I want to avoid is the DiNozzo head-slap (“WHAT were you THINKING?”).

At Thanksgiving, I realized that I have a significant legacy. I have 3 adult children who are making their own way, and a teenage daughter whom I actually enjoy. I am disproportionately proud of them, as if I really can take credit for who they are. But the point is that I have have a profound impact on them and they are my legacy. There are others who I share life with; I impact them and they impact me.

The Westminster catechism states that the chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. My goal is the former. My hope is the latter.

Hello. My name is Jim. I’m a Pharisee

“Be careful,” Jesus said to them. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” “How is it you don’t understand that I was not talking to you about bread? But be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” Then they understood that he was not telling them to guard against the yeast used in bread, but against the teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
Matthew 16:6,11-12

I am a Pharisee. Oh, not a member of a particular sect of Judaism, yet still a product of a religious system as steeped in tradition and rules as in Jesus’ time. Specifically, I am one who has reduced the freedom and beauty of God’s redemption through the atoning death of Jesus to a set of rules to be followed. And I judge those who don’t obey those rules to my satisfaction as being inferior to me.

Every religion in the world is basically a system of rules and regulations, a set of “do’s” and “don’ts”. The degree to which one progresses in the religion, the level to which one attains the goal (the goal of every religion is always basically godliness — or God-ness) is measured by how well one obeys the rules.

The thing that sets Christianity apart from all other religions is just this. While religion is man’s attempt to get to (or become) God, Christianity is God reaching down to man. The true truth of Christianity is that God has done all the work and there is nothing I can do to earn my salvation or get God to like me more. Unfortunately, for the most part the modern Church has reduced that marvelous gift to a set of rules to follow. “I don’t drink, smoke, dance, cuss, or chew, or go with those who do.”

The Pharisees were not intentionally evil people. James Michner paints a beautiful picture in “The Source” of an ancient rabinnical scholar who so loved and revered the Torah (the Law of Moses) that he helped craft the rules and regulations that interpreted the law. They realized that transgressing the law was heinous in God’s sight, so they wanted to create a “fence” of rules around the law, such that even if one broke a rule, the law was still intact.

However, by Jesus’ day those rules had become a crushing weight around the neck of the people. No one, except the elite few, could ever know them all, much less obey them. The Pharisees, then, held themselves up as the standard of goodness.

It is a fact that the normative response of a soul reborn by the grace of Christ is to do good works. But the modern (evangelical) church has implied (if not stated outright) that it is the responsibility of the sinner to manifest these good works as a precondition to acceptance. This heresy puts the cart before the horse, demanding the fruit of new life in Christ prior to receiving new life in Christ. This emphasis on external works is the yeast of the Pharisees that Jesus warned against.

Like alcoholism, Phariseeism has no cure. The best one can do is to recognize the weakness and purposefully and repeatedly let go of the rules and the judgements, and return to the cross. I am a debtor to grace. I am a recovering Pharisee.

On Faith and Suffering

A lady called the Christian radio station, distraught. Her baby was diagnosed with cancer and she wasn’t doing well. The lady said she was really struggling with her faith. The host was gracious and compassionate (much more than I would be, big surprise). But this truth resonated loudly in my soul: if your faith is dependent on your child’s health (or healing), then your faith is in the wrong thing.

All of us have plans, hopes, dreams for ourselves, our marriage, our children, our career. However, in this fallen world, those plans rarely work out exactly as we expected. Bodies fail, spouses break trust, children choose other than we would hope, and jobs fail to fulfill. Where is God in all of this?

The doctrine of the sovereignty of God would seem to place the blame for our suffering squarely on God’s shoulders. After all, if he is in charge, then this suffering must have come to me with his passive permission, if not his active direction. However, there is a false assumption in this accusation against God. When we create our plans, hopes, and dreams, and (tacitly or explicitly) demand that God grant them all, then we are placing ourselves in the role of sovereign, and relegating God to the genie in the bottle who is obligated to grant us three wishes.

Job said, “shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?” (Job 2:10). A true faith in the sovereign God is faith in God: faith that he is good, that he is loving, that he is trustworthy. This faith accepts that things may not go according to our plans, but that God is big enough that His plans will work out as intended. So my faith is to trust God, even when I can’t figure out what he is doing.

So when the body breaks, the spouse cheats, the child rebels, the career crumbles, the man (or woman) of faith clings closer to the God who redeemed them from the kingdom of darkness. We live in a fallen world, and sickness is a reality. While God can and does heal, not all are healed. Ultimately, all will die.

Spouses are free moral agents who may choose to do exactly the opposite of what we wish. A spouse who breaks the marital covenant is responsible for his/her actions. It is worth examining our role in the break-down of the marriage, but each person is responsible for their actions. A spouse who breaks faith does not diminish the worth of the other.

A child who rebels is acting of their own volition. Despite the self-doubt and self-recriminations (“I must be the worst parent ever”), this truth should hold sway: No matter how good (or bad) a parent you are, you are not responsible for their choices. It has been said that God was the perfect parent (Adam and Eve) and his children rebelled. Forgive yourself for being imperfect, and trust God to have His way with your child.

To a man, the career is often inextricably connected to his self-worth. So when a career goes down the tubes, the man suffers similar feelings of worthlessness. However, with an eternal perspective, what we do in this life is not nearly as important as who we are. The work I’ve poured my life into for the past 30 years will be of no consequence in 100 years. So work in such a manner to please God, and trust that He offers greater meaning and significance to your life than any title or salary.

Paul talks about a pseudo-religion, “having a form of godliness, but denying its power.” (2 Timothy 3:5). Faith in the person and character of God is powerful faith. Such a faith is not shaken by trouble (“Though he slay me, yet will I trust him” — Job 13:15). It recognizes that God is bigger than tragedy, is not shaken by calamity, and is working in the midst of catastrophe.