Monday, November 26, 2012

The First and Best

I always found it interesting that the only time the really nice dishes came out of the cupboard was when “company” was coming over. Mom’s good China dishes and fancy glasses were used almost exclusively when guests joined us for Sunday dinner. In reality, I didn’t really care about the dishes we ate on, I only cared about the food that would land on my plate. But, I also noticed that the best food was served when company was over. My dad was a pastor of a small country church when I was growing up and mom was a wonderful pastor’s wife. She viewed her role in supporting dad’s ministry as being warm and hospitable, opening up our home to guests on a very frequent basis. These guests would get the best we had to offer— the best dishes, the cleanest house, the choicest cuts of meat from the freezer, and a killer dessert.

I didn’t mind all the special attention that was given to company, the benefits were obvious to a growing boy who loved to eat. I knew it would be the best meal of the week. But, there was a moment at the beginning of each of these meals that would trigger a bit of concern in me. You see, there was this rule in our home that guests would be served first. After the prayer, each dish on the table would be lifted from the table and handed to the guests. I wasn’t to take anything until our guests were served. So, when that platter of fried chicken was placed on the table, I would eyeball the best piece hoping it would still be there when the platter got to me. I hated the idea that our guests got the first shot to grab the best piece. Selfish and petty, I know, but that was my boyish, child-like mindset in those situations. Looking back though, I can’t remember not getting a satisfying portion of all the food offered at any meal. In fact, we always had enough for seconds and even thirds.
No one taught me how to feel and think that way. Selfishness and self-protection came natural to me. I think it came from a primal, fleshy view of life that says, “Get what you want and deserve, then protect it with all you have.” Ironically, being generous, hospitable, and selfless had to be taught and learned. Those principles of living didn’t come naturally.
As God formed his chosen nation, Israel had to learn the same lessons. God wanted them to be distinct, set apart, and different from every other nation on the planet. Every other nation had a “get all you can and protect it” mindset but God’s people were to stand apart from this selfish life-view. God wanted them to realize that all they had came from the generous loving hand of God; and he wanted them to trust him to provide on a continual basis.

This principle was clearly seen in the festivals, or the celebrations, that God placed on their yearly calendar. The Festival of the Firstfruits was a time God set for them to express their joy and gratitude for their annual harvest. In essence, God tells them to throw a party because the harvest was gathered and it was good—God had provided them with what they needed in abundance. But what’s interesting about this celebration is what God asks them to do before they enjoy the fruits of the harvest. Check this out:

When you enter the land I am going to give you and you reap its harvest, bring to the priest a sheaf of the first grain you harvest… you must sacrifice as a burnt offering to the Lord a lamb a year old without defect, together with its grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with olive oil—a food offering presented to the Lord, a pleasing aroma—and its drink offering of a quarter of a hin of wine. You must not eat any bread, or roasted or new grain, until the very day you bring this offering to your God. (Excerpts from Leviticus 23.9-14.)

I find that interesting. Before they could enjoy the fruit of their harvest, God asks them to give back their first and their best. Why? I think it’s because they were like me at that the table with the platter of fried chicken. They needed to be taught to trust that God had provided more than enough, even when their best had been given away. The alternative was for them to give from their leftovers. How would that reflect the heart of God?
Hundreds of years later, God demonstrated this principle of giving the first and the best in the most dramatic way. Mankind had a sin problem that could only be resolved with God giving something of high value. He gave his Son—his first and his best.  Jesus, the Son of God, the second member of the Trinity, came in humble fashion as a baby. This baby grew into a man, the Messiah, who died an unimaginable death to pay the penalty we owe for our sins. Jesus was the ultimate lamb without defect. Now that Jesus, the ultimate firstfruits offering is given, we can celebrate life—eternal life.  I’m so glad God gave from his first and best and not from his leftovers.
So, how does the principle of firstfruits affect the way you give? Are you giving your first and best from the resources God has provided you? Or, do you give from what’s left over after you’ve grabbed the best from the platter?  Something to ponder this week.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Wiggley Bat

Over the next couple of months, I’ll be using some of my disposable time in a batting cage. Baseball season doesn’t start until March, but the winter months offer a great opportunity for players to work on their hitting. Hitting a baseball is a very mechanical, athletic motion that takes a lot of repetition to master and fine tune. And because of that, the mechanics can easily break down and bad habits set it.
Last winter, I coached a high school player who had the habit of wiggling his bat incessantly as he waited for the pitch to be thrown. I’m not sure where he picked up this habit. He may have seen a major league player do it or it may just have been a nervous tick he developed. There’s nothing inherently wrong with wiggling your bat, unless it negatively affects the outcome of your swing. It was obvious that this little habit was no help to him as he struggled to make solid contact, swing after swing. So, I put a ball on a tee and gave him one instruction, “As you get into your hitting stance, focus on a quiet, still bat. Then, just hit the ball.” After some tee work, I threw him some live pitches, giving him reminders and gentle corrections along the way. By the time we finished, his hitting was much better and the wiggle was gone. He beamed with confidence. All he needed to do was to simplify his approach to break a habit that was negatively affecting his performance.
A week or so later, I noticed that this little bat wiggle was back. This time, I held my correction back and I stood and watched him struggle. I wanted to see if he could figure it out and correct himself. I wanted to see if he changed his approach. Again, he was struggling to make solid contact. I asked myself, “Does he remember what we talked about? Does he realize what’s going on with his bat moving all over the place? Does he think he’s doing it right? Or… did he not believe me? Did he not think my correction was good and right for him?” After a few minutes, I stepped in and we started again. I’ve learned that repetition seems to be a key to coaching. Over time, he’d get it without my help.
When we began the New Testament Challenge this fall, we looked at this passage:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3.16-17
My coaching mind resonates with this verse. A big part of coaching is pointing out what needs correction and what needs further training. The goal is to be ready, equipped to do what the coach wants us to do. These verses tell us that God uses his Word to show me how to grow and improve in how I live. But, I think we struggle with the same issues my baseball player did with his wiggly bat. We listen to teaching but then forget what we’ve heard. We hear correction but when faced with an opportunity, our mind and body default to old, bad habits. We’re given instruction but we doubt that the guidance will really help.
As we finish the NTC this week, I hope we all have developed a new or better training habit of reading Scripture on a regular, if not daily, basis. But, reading is not enough to bring about transformation. We need to read in a way that we capture the principles in our mind and heart. And, we need to read with the attitude of wanting it to break our bad habits of living and to help us build new ones. Most importantly, we need to read so we can know the ultimate Coach and trust that his words are true, beneficial, and have our best in mind.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Hearing and Doing

My mom used to say, “Learn to play an instrument that you can play in church.” As a kid, I always had the fascination of being able to play guitar or drums but my parent discouraged this dream. You need to know that I grew up in a very conservative, rural church community where guitars and drums were trumped by organs and pianos. So, as a kid, I learned to play the cornet. Ironically, I haven’t seen a cornet in a long time on the stage of my church; and my days of playing the cornet have long passed.
Music has changed and so has the church in regards to music. But, my little dream of learning to play guitar or drums still lingers in my soul. From time to time during worship at a weekend service, my heart drifts away from the lyrics of the song we’re singing and I find myself just watching the musicians do their work. They make it look so easy and I wonder what it would be like to create the rhythms and rifts that they do so naturally.
A couple months ago, I had the privilege of being at a small group retreat where a friend of mine led us in worship. Eric is a gifted worship leader who beautifully played his acoustic guitar to guide us into meaningful moments as we sang worship songs. When our worship time was done, Eric and I had a chance to chat about music, worship and the art of playing the guitar. I told him about my latent dream to learn to play and how fascinated I’ve been over the years with people who do it well. He asked, “So, have you ever tried? Do you own a guitar?” I told him I had, but not with much consistency or effort. I do own a guitar but it has resided quietly in my basement going untouched for many years.
Eric asked if I had ever taken lessons or spent time with someone willing to show me some of the basics to get started. I said I hadn’t but often taught that would be a good idea. I fully expected that to be the end of the conversation but Eric pushed it further. He said, “If you have some time, I’d be willing to help you learn.” He even suggested some times and places. I felt honored to be offered such a kind gift but I found myself awkwardly trying to find reasons to say, “thanks, but no thanks.” Eric got the hint. I think he figured out that I was more intrigued by the idea of being a guitar player, than I was really interested in pursuing it. Later I privately wondered why I balked at the chance to pursue a dream. In reality, I think I just want to be a good guitar player rather than wanting to learn and practice to become a good guitar player.
Unfortunately, I think we often treat our pursuit of following Christ the same way. God enters our life through salvation and then he tells us to be his followers in all areas of our life. He wants us to look and live like him. But then we realize that we are far from that goal and it will take time, effort, and practice for us to live as God desires. He offers us help through his Spirit and his Word yet we struggle to commit to the effort and pursuit. This, I think, is why James penned these words. He knew the human heart had the tendency to hear but not do, to dream but not pursue, and to be informed but not transformed.
But don’t just listen to God’s word. You must do what it says. Otherwise, you are only fooling yourselves. For if you listen to the word and don’t obey, it is like glancing at your face in a mirror. You see yourself, walk away, and forget what you look like. But if you look carefully into the perfect law that sets you free, and if you do what it says and don’t forget what you heard, then God will bless you for doing it. James 1.22-25 NLT
As I’ve read my way through the New Testament Challenge this fall, I’ve become aware again the Bible offers a ton to learn and know. It’s overwhelming at times. There’s so much to digest, understand, and to discuss in just the NT. But, if I’m not diligent to read with an open heart, I may just leave this valuable information in my head and never allow it to help me be truly transformed. I find it interesting that James follows his discussion about hearing and doing with some hard hitting comments about how we are to use our mouths, and what genuine religion really looks like. It’s as if James is saying, “You’ve heard, now let me give you something to do! You understand, now get busy. ”
If you claim to be religious but don’t control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and your religion is worthless. Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means caring for orphans and widows in their distress and refusing to let the world corrupt you. James 1.26-27

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Resisting Temptation

As I write, it’s Halloween morning and I’ve just spent a few minutes flipping around the internet as I often do before I jump into some real work. Today, there are self-help articles all over the place on how to resist the temptation to over-eat candy and sweets. It’s one of those days when candy is everywhere. This interests me because I love candy and will most definitely be feeling the urge to enjoy too much of this good thing. Then, I stumbled on this headline: “Think of God, Resist Temptation, Study Shows.” Ooooh… that’s hitting both my candy and my pastor fix. So, I clicked to find this:

“The American Psychological Association suggests in a new study that if you think about God, you'll be more likely to resist temptation when it comes to the Halloween candy. The study, entitled "Divergent Effects of Activating Thoughts of God on Self-Regulation," by Kristin Lauren of the University of Waterloo, Aaron C. Kay and Gra´inne M. Fitzsimons of Duke University, tested 37 undergraduate students. They found that "participants who read a short God-related passage reported greater willingness to resist temptations to achieve a major goal, such as maintaining a healthy weight, finding a long-term relationship or having a successful career. This effect was found only among participants who had previously said they believe an omniscient entity watches over them and notices when they misbehave.”
God reminders can influence the self-regulation not only of believers but of anyone who has a representation of God as a cultural concept, then at least in cultures where God is portrayed as omnipotent and omniscient, reminders of God are likely a persistent and pervasive influence on self-regulation. (, Dakota O’Leary)

I’m always intrigued when I see a secular explanation of a spiritual, biblical principle. And as usual, they seem to have gotten some of it right and some of it wrong. First, the wrong. God doesn’t want to be used as a mental, cooping tool to help us achieve our personal goals of weight loss or cholesterol health. He doesn’t want to be relegated as a “reminder” to influence our self-regulation of nasty habits. Instead, he wants to be Lord of all.
But, I do find it interesting that there’s a measure of truth in this article. It shouldn’t surprise us that science and research can be consistent with biblical principles. Think about these words from David in Psalm 119 in light of the APA study:
I have tried hard to find you—
don’t let me wander from your commands.
I have hidden your word in my heart,
that I might not sin against you.
Psalm 119.11-12 NLT

I love the context of this passage. David has just described why God’s Word is so valuable to his life and he declares his delight in following God’s decrees. But then David says he has tried so hard to find God and doesn’t want to wander from him. I think he knows how quickly he can stray and desperately doesn’t want to lose his intimate connection with God. So, David states the solution—he’ll hide God’s Word in his heart. This will stave off temptation. This will hold back drift and sin.
As a kid, I memorized this verse and many others thinking that Scripture memorization was what it meant to “hide God’s Word in my heart.” What I found was that memorizing Scripture was just a good start. What I was doing was hiding God’s Word in my head. They say that the head is approximately 18 inches physically from the heart; but spiritually, the head can be miles from the heart. I think there is much more to this than a “reminder for self-regulation.”
When Jesus was tempted three times, he used Scripture to refute and rebuke Satan. Think about how vulnerable Jesus was in this situation. He was alone. He was without food. He may have been weary. He was in the discomfort of being in the wilderness for an extended period of time. But, when the most evil of enemies approaches him to deceive and distract him, God’s Word pours from his mouth as if it was part of his personal fabric. It’s interesting…another word for heart is “psyche.” This is someone’s inner most being. What is in the heart cannot be masked or violated. What’s in the heart will be revealed in times of trial and temptation. When Christ was weary, hungry, and tempted by the worst evil imagined, Scripture poured from his heart. It was more than a tactic of self-control; it was a revelation of his true heart. As a result, Jesus was able to walk away from temptation unscathed.
As you continue to read through the New Testament this week, think about the difference between having Scripture in your head and having it in your heart. Remember the verse below from our reading last week. Notice the connection between God’s Word and our inner most being. God desires to change us from the inside out through his Word.  

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.  Hebrews 4.12 NLT