Parenting A Toddler (A Guest Post)

This is a guest post from my wife, Sarah. Enjoy!

Spending all day with children can be trying, frustrating, nerve-wracking and simply exhausting. Any parent, teacher, day care worker or even volunteer knows that children can also be the greatest gift and blessing on this Earth. Erin MacPherson, mother of three, uses personal experiences, professional advice and (my personal favorite) humor to write The Christian Mama’s Guide to Parenting a Toddler. The book is one in a series designed to encourage and steer Christian mothers.

No child is a as simple as textbook answer, and MacPherson does not have all the solutions, but her modestly titled chapters and bullet point list of tips make this a very easy read during those few minutes at naptime, when you think you should be doing the laundry or the dishes or cleaning. You can even read it while you are on your lunch break or waiting for the bus.

MacPherson does an excellent job relating to moms, both stay-at-homes and those who work outside of the home. She opens up to her readers, helping moms avoid feeling alone in the frustrating and trying times of rearing a two year-old. She gives “How-to” and “How-to-not” tips on difficult subjects like potty training and tantrums, and even gives some fatherly advice from experienced dads in one chapter. All of her advice and ideas on everyday toddler happenings are wonderful, but her guidance on incorporating Jesus into our daily activities captivated me, especially in her chapter on discipline.

After reading her book, I feel more in control and empowered to be the mother that Christ wants me to be. I find myself taking an extra moment to act, rather than react, when dealing with my 2 year old. After all, I am the adult and I am the one walking with the Holy Spirit guiding me.

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When? Tonight!

I heard TobyMac’sCity On Our Knees” for the first time tonight. I’ve listened to it several times now, trying to let the words soak into my mind and my heart.

If you gotta start somewhere why not here, If you gotta start sometime why not now, If we gotta start somewhere I say here, If we gotta start sometime I say now…

It’s a pop song. It’s sugar coated, and simplistic. It’s not the kind of thing I would normally listen to. Still…something about this song calls out to me.

Through the fog there is hope in the distance, From cathedrals to third world missions, Love will fall to the earth like a crashing wave…

A pastor said recently, there is often great truth in even the simplest of songs (my paraphrase). He’s right. In fact, I’d say he’s directly on target.

Tonight’s the night, For the sinners and the saints, Two worlds collide in a beautiful display

This song is not just a call for action. It’s not only a plea to God to work in His people. It is definitely those things, but it is so much more as well. It is a standard. It is a conviction. In this song, we are reminded of the hope of Christianity.

It’s all love tonight, When we step across the line, We can sail across the sea, To a city with one king, A city on our knees

Forget for a second, if you can, all the silly rhetoric you hear in church about love. Ignore the impulse to lump this song into the category of “isn’t that ideal” like so many other Christian songs. Try, concentrate on the words, and absorb what is really behind this song.

This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:12-14)

It’s there. Imbedded in this sugary tune, Jesus’ heart can be seen. Not only is this song calling Christians to prove the apostle right when he wrote, “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome.” This song is a call for Christians to love God, to love the broken in this world, and to definitely love one another.

It’s probably that last one that trips us up the most. I think that’s why Jesus didn’t talk about it amongst His more casual disciples. He saved it for Gethsemane. He saved it for His friends. Jesus understood (among everything else in the universe) that it is sometimes hardest to love those who see us the clearest. I can give $20 to the homeless man downtown, and he will never know the depths of my selfishness and sin. God knows, but He forgives and sanctifies.

My brother in Christ? That’s a different story. We tell ourselves all kinds of little consolations to avoid really loving our brothers and sisters. “They should know better by now than to act like that.” Or maybe, “they’ll just judge me if they know what’s really going on.” There’s a million more excuses out there. We get frustrated with each other. We make each other crazy, but still, Jesus doesn’t leave us any outs: “This I command you, that you love one another” (John 15:17).

No matter the issue, great or small, we have been given a spirit of unity. When are we supposed to live this calling out? Well, if we gotta start sometime I say now.

CPR

My life group had an interesting discussion this past Sunday. We’ve been going through John, and we were looking at the Bread of Life discourse during this particular meeting. We observed how simple the message of Christ is: “This is the only work God wants from you: Believe in the One He has sent.” In the course of talking about the different ways we add to this Gospel, we began discussing the whole “works versus faith” issue that often arises in Christian circles. Theologians have been dealing with this for  a long time (St. James, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Barth, Francis Schaeffer, James W. Sire, N.T. Wright, to name a few) and there are still a variety of opinions.

In my life group, there seemed to be two main thoughts (well, two were voiced anyways): 1) When you’re saved, you desire to have the character of Christ, and this desire produces the works James wrote about. 2) Works that are forced are bad, because works should come naturally from our salvation.

This sums up the perspective of many Christians that I have met over the years. They often cite amazing transformations (like those of Paul, or the brother of Jesus, or even Constantine) as examples of how the power of the Holy Spirit comes down and just changes a person overnight. While there is some truth to these examples, this kind of thought offers an incomplete picture for a few reasons.

1) Powerful transformation does not happen overnight. The few (and I stress the word, few) examples of this kind of thing that we find in Scripture should serve as a stark warning. For most people in the New Testament, change is difficult and slow. The Disciples are perhaps one of the most prime examples of this, and Christians should keep in mind that while the Spirit does indeed give us a new nature, that does not mean we will be sinless from that point on.

2) The Christ-like character of people like Paul came with effort. Immediately, people will want to point out errors in this thought. So perhaps an example will help. As a Christian, it is our business to help point people to God, in effect saving their life. A person trained in CPR is very similar. Both desire the best for those in need, and have a sincere desire in their heart to help people. However, if I am choking, I would rather have the CPR-trained individual nearby than the Christian with well-meaning intentions. In order to be of any use in the business of saving lives, we must practice the habits that will be used in this process. This leads into the next point.

3) Being kind by nature is not the same as being transformed. The person who was gentle before they were saved will continue being gentle. So when this individual reads that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, they think to themselves, “look at how easy this comes!” This is a deception though. Some people will have gentle natures, while others have the nature of a thief. And yet, no one is exempt from needing God. We have to understand that in some aspect, we will fall short of God’s standards. If kindness comes natural, perhaps honesty does not. Of maybe we fail in our sexual ethics, but stand strong in our generosity. Regardless, in order to exhibit the fruits of the Spirit, we will have to practice some of them.

C.S. Lewis often spoke of the importance of doing something in order to really feel a certain way (he touches on this in Mere Christianity, The Four Loves, and The Weight of Glory, which are all books I recommend). The idea is this: if we treat someone like we love them, because we desire to love them as Christ does, our hearts will be transformed. Eventually we will find ourselves loving this person without effort. It becomes natural because we made it a habit.

In the end, the Christian who does not live the Christ-like life is not fulfilling their purpose. And that, sadly, seems to be the case in much of the American Church. Perhaps, we are just out of practice.

Lord, as we seek to really be Your body here on this earth, soften our hearts to the wounds around us. Open our minds to the truth found in Your Word. And give us the hands to carry out Your will, just as You would have it done. May Grace and Peace characterize Your people. Amen.

Advent Season, Part II: Longing for…

This time of year sees Americans rushing out to stores to purchase gifts for those they love. Even if the intended recipient knows what gift they are getting, family and friends insist that they wait until Christmas to get their gift. Some families have traditions that allow for a single gift to be opened on Christmas Eve, in order to enhance the already mounting anticipation.

Longing is a part of Advent. Many long simply to open their gifts. But that is not where the Christian tradition of anticipation began. After all, Jesus did not come to grant us all a Nintendo 3DS. So what does the Christian long for? What exactly does it mean to long?

For starters, listen to the Christmas song “O Come O Come Emmanuel.” If you don’t have it, you can download a beautiful rendition here. Often when we listen to Christmas music, we want something poppy or upbeat. That is all good and well, but we miss something when we leave out the songs built upon agony and yearning. Are you listening to the song yet? Pay close attention to the first stanza:

O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.

El Greco (Greece/1541-1614)When Luke writes of the shepherds going to see the newborn Messiah, they weren’t just going to see a baby who would one day be a great man; they were witnessing the beginning stages of humanity’s redemption. Luke’s previous chapter is scattered with references to Isaiah, and I doubt it’s coincidental. The angels who tell Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds about Jesus are not just proclaiming the birth of a man. They were proclaiming the Kingdom of God! This was the beginning! This was what Israel had been waiting for! Isaiah 2: 1-5 and 11:1-16 give us a picture of what this would have meant to those who first greeted Jesus.

To summarize: all of the longing for God’s justice, for His mercy, for His redeeming love, for His Presence had finally arrived! This was truly a moment to rejoice.

But what now? The early Christians did not look back at Christmas and long for Jesus’ birth, did they? No, rather they looked forward to His return. The joy of Christmas, which is intricately bound up in the agony of longing, is founded on the idea that while God’s Kingdom is being inaugurated here and now, it will not be complete until Jesus returns. As Christians, we don’t celebrate Christmas because we like “baby Jesus” the best. We rejoice during Advent Season because Jesus came once, gave redemption to His people through His life, death, and resurrection, and He will return again to finally set everything to rights. We can be part of His glorious work now, but we still groan for justice and the redemption of all creation.

As the first week of Advent comes to a close, we open our hearts to the agony of a painfully incomplete world, and begin to move into the hope of Jesus’ second coming. Christmas is a time of looking forward to the promises of God, and worshipping Him in return.

The best way to prepare our hearts for this is prayer. I’ll end here with word from  John Chrysostom, who says it much better than I could:

Our spirit should be quick to reach out toward God not only when it is engaged in meditation; at other times also, when it is carrying out its duties, caring for the needy, performing works of charity, giving generously in the service of others, our spirit should long for God, and call him to mind, so that these works may be seasoned with the salt of God’s love, and so make a palatable offering to the Lord of the universe. Throughout the whole of our lives we may enjoy the benefit that comes from prayer if we devote a great deal of time to it.

Prayer is the light of the spirit, true knowledge of God, mediating between God and man. The spirit, raised up to heaven by prayer, clings to God with the utmost tenderness; like a child crying tearfully for its mother, it craves the milk that God provides. It seeks the satisfaction of its own desires, and receives gifts outweighing the whole world of nature. (excerpt from “The Prayer of Longing”)

May we learn to pray in this way, and thus long for our God with all of our heart, mind, body, and soul.

Advent Season, Part I: Fighting for…

The image above is an actual billboard on display in New Jersey. You can read about the billboard here.

As we go into Advent Season, I’d like to take a look at what it’s all about. Why does Christmas matter?

In my own home, there has been lots of discussion regarding Santa (and our son’s future Christmas traditions), and this has set me to thinking about the meaning of Christmas. People have different views about Christmas, and its interesting to me how this plays out in American culture. This video is a good example:

For starters, the claim that Christianity stole Christmas is silly. Yes, other religions have similar holidays (and they may have even come first) but Christmas is the celebration of Jesus Christ coming to earth. No other religion claims that (or calls it Christmas for that matter). It’s also interesting to me that I never hear people raise a fuss over Easter, despite its ties to fertility rites in other religions. The whole argument seems to be more about “Christianity is wrong” rather than a reclamation of the “holiday season,” (it is, after all, hard for someone who doesn’t believe any kind of god exists to reclaim a holiday which celebrates such a deity). But whatever. This is not the real problem anyway.

Part of the reason Christmas has become a battle ground is because Christians do not approach it in terms of worshipping God, as those present for Jesus’ birth did. It upsets people when they’re told God in the form of Man was born on December 25th if the person telling them this is a hypocrite. We, as Christians, do not often treat Christmas in terms of God redeeming humanity, but rather in terms of traditions and hot chocolate and presents. What atheist would ever believe Jesus mattered when the Church spends more money on Christmas gifts than they do caring for the poor?

“That’s an excuse,” some might say. Perhaps. And ultimately, critics are right when they point out that a bad example will not excuse anyone when they stand before God. But we cannot be guilty of using that very idea as an excuse to wage a war in which the victor wins nothing. Make no mistake, winning a cultural battle of words gains nothing, except pride in proving your enemy wrong (which in the end equals…? Well, nothing). We should be fighting for the lives of the lost, not the “reason for the season.”

I know that for many Americans, those two are the same thing. They’re not, though. How do we glorify God? We do as He commanded (love God, love our neighbor, love each other). This is how people will know we are Christians: by our love!

Advent Season matters because it is the beginning of something different, something new.

From now until Christmas arrives, I’ll be looking at what this “something new” might be. And why its important.

Can we bridle Greed?

How is that Christians believe that we can work Capitalism to our own ends? I realize that many within the Christian community believe that Capitalism is a good thing. The idea breaks down into something like this:

1) The best kind of society is one where freedom, in particular religious freedom, is the norm.
2) Politics and economics follow the same outline in that freedom is what is best.

2) Capitalism promotes freedom through competition, therefore it is the best economic system available.

Of course, the Industrial Revolution taught us a thing or two about the abuses of freedom (as if we had not been taught this lesson throughout history already), and so began regulations. Two World Wars, and three substantial economic crises later (‘20s, ‘80s, 2000s), the regulation continues. In fact we could add to the above outline:

4) Complete freedom, particularly in Capitalism, is dangerous so we must learn to control and direct the path of our economy.

While not a detailed economic blueprint, the above sketch is how many people (not least American Christians) think about the current economic system. This video serves as a prime example:

While it would be most prudent to go into a complete explanation of how our global economy currently functions, we cannot. My own knowledge is too limited for such an endeavor (without merely resorting to parroting someone else). But, I would like to challenge Dr. Deimer’s thought all the same.

There is no way in which Capitalism can ever truly be “bridled.” The recent economic crises around the world, not to mention in Greece and Ireland specifically, should have taught us that (this video was made in 2009 so apparently not all have come to the same conclusions as I have). Competition, whether we like to admit it or not, is in contrast to the character of God. Look at Paul’s writings to the Colossians, the Galatians, or the Romans. When he describes Christian virtue, does he list competitiveness? Does he mention anything closely resembling it?

No, he does not.

Why? Because it is not in Christ’s nature to compete, and His nature is what should govern God’s children (one could argue that God the Father is jealous, but that would be remiss…after all, God does not compete for our affections).

It brings me back to Matthew, and the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus’ teachings on money are not vague.We either love money, or we love God. There is no in-between.

Of course, I’m stating the obvious, and no Christian, Capitalist or otherwise, would argue. In fact, they would say in my understanding of Matthew 6, I’m right.

The issue, then, comes from something else. After studying Scripture (in particular Exodus, Judges, Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and the Gospels), I cannot fathom how any self-professing Christian can think that the economic system we have in the United States is anything other than a love of mammon. I understand that money is a useful tool, but that is not the limit of Capitalistic greed. Think of the housing collapse. Money, in the form of credit, was not being used as a tool. It was more a child’s plaything. We didn’t use it to end poverty, or better our communities. We used to get what we wanted. We manipulated numbers until the lifestyle we desired was achieved. There are, of course, exceptions to this (particularly people who suffered even though they did all the right things), but they are by far the tiny minority.

I don’t blame the people who took out home loans they could not afford. I don’t blame the banks who lent to people they should not have. Both of those  goats have been faulted enough.

I blame our habits, our hearts, our process of thinking. We believe that money can be tamed; that greed can be bridled. Regulation, deregulation, taxation, financial reform, and on, and on, and on. The truth is, no matter how you try to, you cannot accommodate greed. And what is Capitalism but greed put into practice?

Forgive the humor...We can do the math in way we want to, but the answer will never change. What is needed is not more of what we have, nor less of it for that matter. What we need is transformation.

 

 

Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect. For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith. (Romans 12:1-3, NASB)

It is only by this that things will change. And it is my continual prayer that things will indeed change. That’s what Jesus told us to do.

Worship and Sex?

Last night, a friend of mine sent me an essay of his. In it, he compares worship to a sexual relationship. There is a right context for enjoyment, and there is a wrong one. He goes on to compare the way many Christians come to worship as an extramarital affair. He writes,

…some Christians seem to have only an emotional relationship with God, based on how they feel about God in general, and largely dependent on the worship band on Sunday mornings. You see a faith that is dependent on what we call worship music and moving inspirational speeches is a faith that becomes compartmentalized into one kind of person during a worship set, and a completely different person the rest of the time. In some sense (if you will allow me) these people metaphorically have “sex” with God during “worship” but have no relationship with Him independent of their encounter with Him on Sunday, and maybe sometime mid-week if they can make time for that…

If we aren’t engaged in the right relationship with God, we’re turning worship into something sensual and selfish. Right? Were I to only seek sex from my wife, I would be thought of as a villain who abuses my wife’s body. That assessment wouldn’t be too far from accurate either. Paul was pretty clear how husbands and wives should interact. Yet we don’t often connect our worship of God (a time when we seek to enter into a right relationship with our Lord) with much else. We treat worship like a one night stand, and this has become the standard.

I think my friend is on to something, but neither of us have concentrated on it enough to formulate something more substantial.

Of course, who is to say that I’m on the right path here? There is a whole host of evidence from the past 100 years or so that worship is being carried out exactly as it should be. New churches don’t offer new ways to worship, they simply affirm the old ways in a “contemporary” manner. And if these recent traditions argue against what I’m saying, then perhaps I’m wrong. But for now, my conscience tells me something is violently wrong with the way we Christians approach worship. Something must be done. So here I stand, seeking and hoping for more.

We can all agree

Whether you’re Baptist, Emergent, Anglican, or Catholic, we can all agree that when Jesus says to “pray in this way,” its important.

Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. 
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. 
Give us this day our daily bread. 
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
Amen.

There isn’t anything to argue here. Sure, we can find something to debate. But we have to look for it. Because it doesn’t get much more straightforward than this.

This prayer has changed my life. It makes me sad that it happened so late in my Christian walk. But I’m joyful that it happened at all.

Pray this way. Exactly as Jesus recommended. See what happens.

Is Biblical Illiteracy really the Church's Dirty Little Secret?

San Antonio, Texas, Pastor Randy Frazee says a recent study revealing how little Christians know about their own faith, let alone other faiths, is good news.

"It’s a good wake-up call for us. It brings to light one of the challenges for the contemporary Christian church," the senior minister of Oak Hills Church explained…

You can read more about Pastor Frazee’s response to the survey I posted about previously by going here.

But I need to state that I disagree with him. Perhaps he and I would fuss over word choice, but I think the recent survey showing that Christians know little about the Bible and the God who inspired it is a very bad thing. This isn’t a contemporary problem either. This is the very thing Luther and Tyndale tried to overcome. But clearly, the problem remains.

I also don’t think its any secret that Christians in America know little about their faith. It’s probably a worldwide epidemic, but I’m only familiar with the American strain. It’s embarrassing and heartbreaking, but not a secret.

This, of course, brings me back to opening a Bible school. It’s my hope to one day open a Bible school on the Emerald Coast of Florida, to serve as a place where laymen and women can devote themselves to a one year program of study that presents them with the Bible and encourages them to draw close to God.

I think we have to start with the basics, namely, Jesus the Christ. I think our Lord’s words provide a special clue to this:

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, "All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)

Its important to note that He didn’t say “All authority has been given to My Words (or the Bible or the Scriptures or any other variant therein).” Authority has been given to Jesus in heaven and on earth, and without that authority the Bible is just another book. Learning about the Bible without encountering God is hollow. That’s the crux of a Bible school: Encountering God through His Word.

Is there really anything else?