Monday, June 30, 2008

Where is Your Brother?

Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” (Genesis 4:9)

Brothers fighting.

It’s as old as the origins of the human race, roots sinking deep into the early pages of Genesis. The first man and woman became one as the creator intended and brought two boys into the world. Those boys grew up and one killed the other. As we make our way further into the biblical story, things don’t get much better.

Jacob was the younger twin, a mama’s boy. The older Esau had the doting affections of his Father. Jacob had lousy boundaries, constantly getting into Esau’s business, stealing his birthright, deceptively robbing his blessings from Isaac.

Joseph was given a gift. The other eleven boys got nothing. They despised his colorful coat and they despised him. It wasn’t just the coat. Joseph had dreams that suggested that his brothers would bow to him. Lacking good judgment in this matter, Joseph told his brothers about the dreams. They eventually sold him to a caravan of traders and made up a story about his death to tell their father.

Moses led the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt. Moses was at the head of the line when the waters parted and the people crossed the Red Sea. Clearly, Moses had a gift, a calling – but his brother and sister began to feel that they needed a cut of the action. What made Moses so special? They challenged their brother. God afflicted Miriam with leprosy and brought an end to their squabbling.

Let’s not forget Eli’s sons, Hophni and Phineas. Corrupt priests. These brothers were religious bad boys and a source of shame to their Father. And then we have brothers Absalom and Amnon, sons of David. Sexual abuse in the family provoked Absalom to kill his brother.

Fast forward to the New Testament. Even among the twelve that Jesus chose as his closest followers, there were two brothers who conspired to seek the place of honor. They made a quiet bid for special box seats in eternity. Jesus had a nickname for them: “sons of thunder.” That ought to tell us something.

The list could go on and on. The landscape of the Bible is littered with fractured relationships between brothers and sisters. It appears that the worthy models are easily eclipsed by the examples of jealousy and brokenness and ill will.

And yet, when we look for language to describe the new community of faith that Jesus brought into existence we consistently find one prevailing image: brothers and sisters. Here and there we find “membership” language in the Bible when it speaks of the church. But we can’t escape the language of family – especially brothers and sisters. Sibling language is used time and time again.

Where is your brother? It’s a good question. It’s good for those of us who like Cain are alienated from our own blood, brothers and sisters of the flesh. But it’s good for those of us who claim to know Christ but remain strangers to other believers. Do we know our brothers and sisters? This week we’ll ponder what it means for us to be brothers and sisters, and why that relationship is sometimes so very difficult for those who claim God as Father.

Father God, help us to recognize our brothers and sisters. And then turn mere recognition into love. By your grace and the gift of your Spirit you have brought us onto your family. May our claim to love you be evidenced by our love for each other, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, June 27, 2008

A Name Better than Sons and Daughters

This is what the Lord says . . . let not any eunuch complain “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the Lord says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me, and hold fast to my covenant – to them I will give . . . a name better than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:3-5).

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “You must not marry and have sons or daughters in this place.” (Jeremiah 16:1-2)

Yesterday I watched my daughter jump off the diving board. I watched her delight in the act of splashing around aimlessly in the pool. And for just a few seconds I sensed blessing deep within myself. Sure, I’ll readily admit on any day of the week that I’m blessed, but in those moments yesterday as my daughter swam I felt it like something weighty in my chest.

Tomorrow I will go to pick up my son after his two weeks away at Camp. I can’t wait to see him. Again, the sense of blessing and grace is so real right now. Marnie returns from the General Assembly on Saturday, meeting up with us in North Carolina. All of us will be back in one car and under one roof. Yes, the sense of blessing can quickly dissipate in one car – but I’m still eager and ready for all of us to be close enough to get on each other’s nerves again.

Sons and daughters are a blessing. And even the ordinary rhythms of family life are a gift of grace. But there is something greater. There’s a name better than sons and daughters.

That’s what God spoke through the prophet Isaiah. God’s word was aimed at eunuchs who felt themselves excluded from blessing. A eunuch would never see his daughter swim or anticipate the sight of a son after a two week absence. The eunuch might be tempted to say of his life, “I am only a dry tree.” Lacking life. Unfruitful. God answered: “Don’t say that. There’s something more to your life than that. There is a name better than sons and daughters.”

Another prophet, Jeremiah, was commanded not to marry and have children. Jeremiah probably grew up assuming marriage and parenting would be a part of his life . . . until God said “don’t do it.” Why? Because there was something more significant happening in Jeremiah’s world. God was at work in some powerful ways and Jeremiah had a role to play in what God was doing. That role took priority over marriage and family.

A name better than sons and daughters. God at work in the world and inviting us to participate.

The greatest name by which we can be known is God’s name. The name better than sons and daughters is given to all who live for God, choose what pleases God, keep fellowship with God. And the highest calling is to be a part of what God is doing in the world. Our God is on a mission and invites us to join. Marriage is a not a prerequisite for participation.

For those married and those not married, this name and this calling tells us who we are. This is how God gathers his family together. And this is the source of our greatest blessing.

Gracious God, through this day remind me of who I am and to whom I belong. Help me to keep company with you and do what pleases you. Thank you for including me in your family and for the gift of your Spirit that makes me yours. Wherever you place me today, use me as you see fit, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Better to Be Single Than to Wish You Were

“. . . if anyone is thirsty let him come to me and drink.” (John 7:38)

I love that line. Better to be single than to wish you were. I wish I could take credit for it, but I can’t. It came to me in an email from a friend. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Today I’d like to tell you the tale of two emails. They don’t carry the weight of biblical epistles, but I think God has something to say to us through them

Email # 1:
This came to me from a single woman who wrote to express appreciation for the daily devotionals but offered a word of challenge on this weeks’ series of meditations on the single life. The critique pointed out that singleness involves a very real struggle with loneliness. This person fully embraces her call to serve Jesus and has good friends in her life. But losing her husband to cancer after 22 years of marriage has been hard, and loneliness is an ever present reality in the single life. As she put it, “I have many friends, but that cannot compare with the quiet I have had to learn to deal with.”

Email # 2:
This came from a friend who wrote to tell me about her mother who has been single for 15 years since the death of “the love of her life.” After working through her grief, which sounds like it took a while, she started leading a group called “Begin Again” for others who have lost their spouse. My friend wrote, “Mom sees a lot of people who, after losing a spouse, are desperate to get married again because they are afraid of being alone.”

The common thread that links these emails is the reality of loneliness in the single life and what to do with it. One writer reminds us that even a full and active life as a single adult doesn’t remove the ache of a silent and empty house. The other writer also knows the pain of loneliness and reminds us that loneliness is a bad reason to get married.

Loneliness is a wound on the soul, and the human soul bears many such wounds. Soul wounds have no regard for your marital status. What married people and single people share in common here is our tendency to mend the wound ourselves, to find something that will make us better, take the pain, make us stop hurting.

The lonely tend their wound by jumping into another relationship. The anxious tend their wound by trying to control everyone and everything around them. The grieving tend their wound with constant busy-ness. Those who live with a nagging sense of inadequacy might tend their wound with constant work and ladder climbing, piling up the accolades.

Jeremiah diagnosed our condition when he identified the sin of the people in turning from the source of living water to dig their own cisterns (Jer. 2:13). We do that more than we know. We dig our own wells when Jesus invites to come to him and drink of living water.

In one way or another we’re all thirsty. When we dig our own wells and try to fix loneliness on our own, the remedy we use often proves inadequate. Thus the proverb: Better to be single than to wish you were. God can be trusted with every wound of the soul. God is sufficient, and those who trust him lack no good thing (Ps. 34:10). Thanks be to God!

Lord Jesus, we are thankful for your invitation to come to you and find living water. There are places in our lives that are parched, and we need what only you can give us. Forgive our efforts to mend ourselves and teach us to rest in you. We thankfully cast every care upon you in the knowledge that you are sufficient for all that concerns us today. Amen.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

If Only: A Reflection on Misguided Envy

Friends, stay where you were called to be. God is there. Hold the high ground with him at your side (1 Cor. 7:24 Mssg.).

I’m a single adult tonight. Well, not really. It just feels that way.

My wife is in California at the General Assembly meeting. My son is still away at camp. My daughter and I, along with my Mom, are in a hotel in Greensboro, North Carolina. We drove up here today to visit my grandmother who hasn’t been doing so well lately. I’m sitting here trying to write something meaningful about God and the single life while my little girl is down the hall in Mimi’s room watching TV.

It’s quiet in here. I’m by myself. And I really don’t like it. This surprises me because I spend a fair amount of mental energy dreaming of just this. A quiet room, books to read, time to write and think and pray. My wife says, only half joking, that by marrying me she saved me from a monastic life. Sort of funny . . . sort of true.

I never feel like I have enough of this kind of thing. I live with a low grade frustration over not being able to read and think and pray enough. If only there were wider margins in my life I could be a better pastor and a better writer and teacher or whatever. But here I am in the quiet and I don’t really want to write or read or pray. I miss the family. Quiet and solitude are overrated.

It seems that we’re always living under the weight of misguided envy. A different kind of life looks appealing. Not just appealing, but curative. If we could have more of this and do more of that we’d be better at you name it.

This means that single people often look at married life and yearn for the particular demands of being a spouse and a parent. And married people look at the single life and yearn for the freedom, the time to do whatever, the mobility and the options. And both are misguided.

Sometimes it happens. The single person marries and raises a family and finds in quiet moments of near exhaustion that this whole thing is not what they thought it would be. Sure, it’s good. It just looked different from a distance. And sadly, sometimes the married person finds their freedom again. And even though the marriage was difficult, the freedom is hollow.

Paul’s advice along these lines was simple: whatever your life was like when God called you into fellowship with himself – stay that way. Don’t try so desperately to change your place in life. In one of his letters to Timothy, Paul spoke of contentment with godliness.

There’s a quality in the life of every soul that we spend a lifetime trying to develop. It’s true for married people and single people alike: Contentment. Receiving with thankfulness the life we’ve been given right now in all of its detail and particularity.

So what does your life look like today? Aspire to be all that God calls you to be, and in your aspiration do not despise the life you’ve been given now. No more “if only” excuses. No more “if only” fantasies. Take what you’ve been given and determine to live well for the glory of God right where you are. Whatever life is like for you today, God is in the midst of it.

My soul is too often restless, O God, searching and waiting for something that will make me right and whole. Teach me what it means to rest in you, content with the life you’ve given me today. Help me to live this day with a heart that is thankful, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, June 20, 2008

There and Back

Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had and set off for a distant country . . . (Luke 15:13).

The mind is prone to fill in gaps. That can be dangerous when you’re reading the Bible. Paul warned the Corinthians “not to go beyond what is written” (1 Cor. 4:6). Good advice. Still, omitted details in a story quickly become fodder for the imagination.

So it is with the story we know as the “prodigal son.” Jesus told us exactly what we need to hear but he didn’t tell us everything. How does the prodigal get to the far country? I imagine the faint light of dawn revealing a neatly folded note on the kitchen table.


We’ve both seen this coming for a while. Since it was bound to happen I probably should have packed and left after breakfast or while the sun was up. But knowing of something and actually watching it happen are two different things. It seemed best to me to leave in darkness – thus the note. . . .

And on it goes.

Did he get what he wanted and leave as quickly as he could manage? Did he linger around for a while so as to avoid the obvious stigma of running as soon as he got the money? Jesus doesn’t tell us that. But the absence of this detail in our biblical text allows us to ask a larger question.

How does anyone get to the far country?

Without doubt, some run there. They can’t get there quick enough. It isn’t clear if there’s something in that far place that they are running toward, seeking with high hopes. Or maybe there’s something they’re running from. It doesn’t matter where the far country is as long as it’s away from here, wherever “here” might be.

But it’s just as likely – and every bit as common – that some simply meander to the far country. It was never a destination. It was never even a conscious decision. They drifted there, further and further from home, further and further from their truest and best self. Sometimes our hearts get to the far country before our bodies do. We check out, and then go looking for . . . well, we’re not sure what for. But again, whatever it is isn’t “here.”

And if this is so we may do well to remember that we find ourselves getting home in much the same way. Sometimes the road to the far country is long, and so is the road home again. This prodigal son first found himself in need, then he found himself feeding pigs, then he wanted to share the pigs’ food, then he finally came to himself. Again, Jesus didn’t tell us, but it seems that he resisted the road home for as long as he could.

Maybe how we get back home and how long it takes doesn’t matter, as long as we get there. Perhaps there are some today who are on their way to the far country. At break-neck speed or a gradual slide. Either way. There is a loving father who allows you to go there and graciously waits for you. And this same Father gladly, joyfully welcomes you home.

Heavenly Father, today we pray for all who are lost. We pray for all who have wandered far from their truest self, for all who have rejected the person you created them to be, for all who have slowly become someone they no longer know. We thank you for your faithfulness as we wander in distant places and for your grace that receives us home again. Thank you for being a good and loving Father, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Stretched Thin

When Israel was a child I loved him . . . But the more I called Israel the further they went from me (Hosea 11:1-2).

What parent doesn’t know what this is like? Few things elevate the blood pressure quicker or baffle the mind more than the ignored summons, the I’m-going-to-pretend-like-I-can’t-hear-you game.

Sometimes, when children are very young, their delight in something truly keeps them from hearing. The delight becomes distraction. They are running about or discovering something new and interesting. Innocent delight. An early love affair with the world and with life that enthralls them to the point of not hearing their own name. They are more wonder-struck than willful. It’s possible.

But that kind of enchantment is soon outgrown. In its place there emerges something far more dangerous and sinister. Marnie and I call it the “media coma.” The media coma looks like innocent delight, but it is nothing more than technologically induced deafness.
A visual fixation accompanied by complete auditory failure. Very early signs can be detected in association with Elmo. Later manifestations might involve Hannah Montana or Sponge Bob.

This leads to the real test of parental patience and sanity: the child’s intentional disregard for their own name. Oh they hear you clearly. They just won’t respond. No answer.

I’m pleased to say I don’t experience that very often. My kids and I, we have our moments, but generally they will respond to my voice when it speaks their name – especially if it is spoken loudly and with notable intensity.

Nevertheless, I do know what it’s like to be ignored and my experience of that kind of thing makes it very hard for me to fully comprehend God’s words to Israel spoken through the prophet Hosea. God called to Israel but they wandered further away. God called through his law, through the prophets and eventually through his own Son. They didn’t listen.

And yet, Hosea continues, God continued to lead his people with “cords of human kindness.” That’s surprising to me. God calling to his people, the people refusing to heed the call, wandering further away and yet being led by “cords of human kindness.”

When my call to my children is ignored my cords of human kindness are stretched thin. At times the cords of kindness are little more than a few strained fibers. I resort to a different kind of leading. When ignored I lead with steel cables of parental threat, of declared authority, of fatherly anger, whatever works.

The words of the prophet remind us again of how differently God parents us. We wander, but never far enough to break the cords of human kindness and the ties of love.

Long after the prophet Hosea had spoken those words, the apostle Paul wrote that it was God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). The Bible says plenty about God’s anger. But when it comes to turning us around and bringing us back to himself, back to the voice that calls us by name – God’s kindness does that. And just maybe kindness can do the same thing in our own families.

Ever calling Father, even in our wandering you lead us with kindness. Teach us to do the same with our children. Guard us from the impatience and frustration that fray the cords of kindness and ties of love in our homes. Make us more like you, our merciful Father. Amen.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Lunch with Dad

This then, is how you should pray, “Our Father . . .” (Matt. 5:9)

I had lunch with my Dad on Sunday. That’s not so remarkable. I’ve had plenty of lunches with my parents, meals in their home, family gatherings at holidays, having them to our house to grill burgers. My Dad and I have been at the same meal and sat at the same table more times than I can remember.

But on Sunday I had lunch with my Dad alone. Just me and him. And honestly, I can’t remember the last time that happened.

The day, of course, could not have been more fitting. It was Father’s Day. My mother has been in North Carolina tending to her own mother who is in poor health. My wife was in a different part of North Carolina delivering John to a two-week camp experience. So we two preachers, finding ourselves wife-less on Father’s Day, made plans to meet for lunch after church. Like I said, that doesn’t happen often. I’m glad it happened Sunday.

We’re going to be thinking this week about the ways that God is a parent to us and what it means for us to mirror who God is in our own parenting. Today, having sat at table with my own Father, I’m particularly aware of the fact that God’s fatherhood is defined by intimate fellowship with us.

To speak of God as Father says so much about who God is and what God is like. Such language certainly speaks to God as creator and the giver of life. God is our father in that our life issues forth from his very own. Fatherhood speaks to the ways in which God provides for our needs. God’s guiding and teaching are included as well as God’s discipline.

But at the heart of all of this is simple fellowship. Apart from the intimacy of ongoing fellowship with our God we will not be able to hear his word of instruction, we will resent his hand of discipline, we will take far too much credit for our own existence, we’ll assume that hard work and smart decisions allow us to provide for ourselves and those we love. When we lose the experience of daily fellowship with God we may also find that we’ve lost our delight in his Fatherhood.

Interesting. Few people saw the raw power of God unleashed and displayed more than Moses. With every morning deposit of manna, Moses knew that God provided. With the tablets of the Law, Moses knew that God would guide and instruct. And after the people lapsed into idolatry Moses knew that God would discipline his people.

And yet it was Moses who spoke with God face to face as a man speaks with a friend.

This morning God invites you into fellowship, a few moments at the table. You are free to sit quietly, free to voice questions and worries, free to think through the events of your day and the people in your life, free to give thanks. And all of this is done in the company of your loving Father.

What was the last time that happened? Hopefully it hasn’t been long, and hopefully it you will return again to this table.

By the help and presence of your Spirit, O Lord, teach me how to keep fellowship with you throughout this day. Guard me from a hurried appointment in the morning, the quick read of a devotional thought in route to more pressing matters. Keep me mindful of your presence in all things. Amen.

Monday, June 16, 2008


What therefore God hath joined together let man not put asunder (Mark 10:9 KJV).

Asunder. We don’t use that word much anymore. Of course, Jesus didn’t use it either. When Jesus said “What God has joined together let no man put asunder” he said it in Aramaic. The words were written down in Greek and eventually made it to the good ol’ King James Bible making use of the now defunct “asunder.” The NIV Bible renders those words with an underwhelming “let man not separate.” It may sound old, but I like “asunder.”

I had been thinking about how and what to write about this when my phone rang late this afternoon. My neighbor Robbie didn’t waste any time with pleasantries. “Did you know you lost a tree?” No, I didn’t know.

For several minutes a good hard rain had been falling, and for a short while the rain was accompanied by some powerful winds. I had been checking my weather radio and surfing channels looking for some weather warnings. There were none for Cobb County, so I was feeling at ease and thankful for the rain. Until the phone call came.

I looked into my back yard and saw the huge wad of earth and the massive muddy tangle of roots. A gnarled mess of branches stretched across my back neighbor’s yard. Seems he lost some gutter but his roof is fine. The real damage may not be known yet, but it appears to me that things could be much worse.

So here I sit in the study, thinking about “asunder” and looking out on the fallen majesty of that large tree. The connection, at least in my mind at this moment, can’t be avoided. Storms tear things asunder. Storms damage and destroy, coming up quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.

Marriages are sometimes ravaged the same way. That which was never anticipated and which could never be subject to our control comes with fury and leaves its damage.

What Jesus warned against was the kind of damage that we cause directly. To “put asunder” is to drive a wedge in our own marriages (and certainly anyone else’s). Jesus prohibits any thing we might do to divide what God has joined. Life’s storms will come. That’s a metaphor we understand, and for some of you it’s more than metaphor. It is experience.

But let us never put asunder what God has joined. Not by our hurry and busy-ness, not by fatigue and neglect, not by nurturing hurt feelings and stoking old wounds, not by refusing to communicate, not by insisting on our own way.

Violent storms and fallen trees may damage a house. But to “put asunder what God has joined” destroys a home. The repair work in such cases is far more difficult. Is there anything that might be driving a wedge in your marriage, perhaps something subtle and gradual – not obvious like a gale force wind? Carefully tend the union in which God has placed you and never put asunder what God has joined.

Lord Jesus, we easily let small things drive us asunder. They accumulate and form a chasm, dividing what you have joined. Forgive us and teach us to forgive. Strengthen us and help us to give strength and encouragement to each other. Shelter us in life’s storms, and make firm the union you created by the presence of your Spirit in our lives and in our homes, we pray. Amen.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

What is Marriage For?

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife (Mark 10:7).

Careful proofreading would have been a good idea.

I had plenty of time before I needed to walk over to Kellett Chapel for the wedding I would conduct. Plenty of time, but little motivation. Sure, I had noticed that my printer was producing pages with a wide swath of blank space in the middle of the text, but it didn’t seem too bad. After all, I’ve done quite a few weddings. I know the drill.

There is however one part of the wedding ceremony that I don’t know, at least not from memory. The Presbyterian Book of Worship includes a piece called “Statement on the Gift of Marriage” as a standard part of the marriage ceremony. It is a well crafted theological reflection on how marriage is created by God and given to us. Marriage isn’t something we do or define. It is something we receive as a gift. This is the only part of a ceremony that I read word for word.

The appointed hour for the ceremony approached. After the chiming of the hour I led the groom and best man into the chapel and waited patiently as the wedding party processed, all culminating in the moment when the bride walked down the aisle.

Things were going perfectly as I concluded my opening prayer and looked down at my notes to read to the couple the “Statement on the Gift of Marriage.” My throat tightened at what I saw on the page; half the text was blurred beyond recognition. It simply wasn’t there. And for one horrifying moment I could not remember why God gave us marriage.

I had to wing it. I don’t even remember what I said as I stumbled through the blurred and faded part and groped my way to the clearly printed text. Whatever I said in those few seconds wasn’t wrong, but neither was it eloquent. I was making it up as I went along. Matrimonial ad-lib.

I knew enough to say that God created marriage. I knew that God had given marriage to us as a gift. I just went blank as to why. And all because of carelessness. I had been going through the wedding motions, and when you go through the motions you forget the real reason for marriage.

This happens all the time, not in weddings but in ordinary homes and ordinary lives. We go through the motions, slipping into careless inattention, neglecting the gift God has given until it suddenly dawns on us that we’ve forgotten what the gift is for.

“For this reason . . . a man is united to his wife.” Jesus deliberately quoted Genesis 2:24. So what’s the reason? Answer: that God made male and female in his image. Marriage was intended to reflect that image. God gives marriage as a means of grace, a mirror of mercy, a living embodiment of God’s own character.

And this gift isn’t just for you (if you’re married). Marriage is given to the world. There’s a nearly universal sense of admiration for couples who have been married a very long time – and both singles and married people feel it. Your marriage is what people can look at and know that God is love and grace is real. Don’t neglect the gift.

Help me today, Lord Jesus, to do more than go through the motions of marriage. While this day may be ordinary, remind me that it is a sacred gift. Help me to embrace my calling to reflect your image to the world, and help me to do so particularly in my marriage and family life. May others be drawn to you by what they see in me, I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Two Made One by the High Price of Gas

“It was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law,” Jesus replied (Mark 10:5).

I’ve seen it coming for a while now. Marnie and I have had some conversation about it, wanting to make sure we’re on the same page. We’ve been thinking about how to make this part of our marriage work. Today, we took a step together and crossed a threshold into a new chapter of our relationship.

Today we rode to work in the same car.

The fact that Marnie and I serve the same church means we office in the same building. But being under the same roof during the day is about the extent of the similarities in our work. Typically we have very different obligations during the day, an entirely different set of meetings, and a different plan for when we’ll be able to head home at the end of the day. No problem – we just drive two cars to work every day. We park right next to each other at home. We can surely do that at Peachtree.

But lately the price of a gallon of gas reads like a very poor score in Olympic diving competition. The higher those numbers go the more absurd it seems for one family to drive two cars to the same place of work. So we’re looking at our schedules trying to identify those days that will allow us to share the ride. When God intended for two to become one I’m not sure he had carpooling in mind, but it works for us.

However, today the experience of sharing a ride taught me something about myself and why the “two shall become one” plan sounds easier than it actually is. The ride share reminded me of something I’ve long known: I’m selfish. I like having a car to myself.

When you’re in the car alone . . . you can choose the music, you can crank that music as loud as you want to or you can think through the day in silence, you can pull through the nearest Starbucks drive-thru without offering an explanation. The solo commute means no one else to deal with. And sometimes this feels very good.

But to make this is way of life is an affront to what God intended for us. A chronic indulgence of self is what Jesus called “hardness of heart” and he named it as the main reason that God’s plan for marriage is regarded by so many as an unattainable ideal.

Hard heartedness can be mean and uncaring. But most often it’s simply self indulgent, leaving little room for the other, sometimes resenting the demands others place on the “self.” A hard heart is the ever present enemy of family life, and marriage in particular.

And here’s where there is hope and good news for families and marriages and relationships of all kinds. God delights in changing hard hearts. What frustrates us is the reality that this work is God’s and God’s alone. You cannot change the heart of your spouse. You cannot do much to truly change your own heart. But God can. The union that “sticks” and triumphs over the calloused heart is a union that God makes. It is “what God has joined together” (Mark 10:9).

The irritations of family life are red flags that point not to the flaws of those around us, but to the hardness of our own hearts. A hard heart shows itself in hundreds of little ways. Pay attention today to your heart, and invite God to work in your heart as only God can.

Merciful God, my heart is deceptive, allowing me to feel right and entitled, causing me to chafe at the presence of others around me, even my own family. Forgive me and change my heart. As you work in my heart, work in my home. Teach me to love others – especially my family – as you have loved me. Amen.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Family: Made to Stick

(This post begins a new series of reflections that follow the weekly messages in worship at PPC)

Let’s just call this post exactly what it is: shameless use, or borrowing if you will, of someone else’s work.

Of course, the ideas are being adapted and modified for my own purposes. And I’m not going to take credit for something someone else did. But the fact of the matter is we’re starting a new series of messages on the family just as I'm in the middle of a book that has nothing to do with the family. The book, which deals with communicating ideas in the business world, is Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath (yes, they’re brothers).

You can probably see where this is going. In recent days my mind has been anticipating the work of thinking and writing about the family. At the same time I’ve been reading Made to Stick. Family . . . made to stick . . . family . . . made to stick. The convergence was inevitable, even a little obvious.

We were made to stick. At creation God saw that it was not good for the man to be solitary among all created beings. What’s more, God understood that lions and chipmunks could not provide adequate company for the human soul. So God made another person, a suitable companion. The intent was that they would become one flesh – in every sense of that phrase. In doing so they would bring into the world other beings just like themselves and they would be a family (Genesis 2:24).

We were made for connection with others. The family is God’s design for that web of connectedness. Every human soul is coated with a kind of spiritual adhesive. Again, borrowing from the Heath brothers, we were “made to stick.” That’s simple enough. At least it should be.

Marnie and I just recently began repainting the trim in our kitchen. As a part of that project I ran painters’ tape along the baseboards, around windows, along the crown molding. After priming and painting half the kitchen Marnie was eager to see the finished look. When she pulled away the painters tape she was less than pleased to see that wallpaper was being ripped from the wall. This job just got much larger.

We were made to stick, not rip. But family life is hard, and sometimes we damage those closest to us. Without realizing it, often without intending it, we rip and tear the most intimate connections of our lives.

This series is an invitation to embrace the varied rhythms of family life. You may need to work at the “stickiness” of your family life: getting connected, cultivating deeper intimacy. You may need to repair what’s been damaged, tend to the scars inflicted on the ones to whom you were “made to stick.” It’s a delicate balance, a constant rhythm of moving toward and stepping back, being close and allowing space.

Think for a moment about your own family. Where are you in that rhythm today?

Creator God, in your grace and wisdom you made us for connection with others. You placed us in families and then called us to live as people who reflect your love. This is a high and difficult calling. At times we feel “stuck with” those whom you’ve given us to love. In these coming days help us to connect as you intended and teach us how to mend what has been damaged. Amen.