Oh No I Didn’t

It happened and I didn’t even know it, at least not right away.  We had just finished an event this week and I was helping to clean up.  Everything had to be taken out of room and to our van and our portable sound system was next.  Without even thinking, I grabbed it with one hand and started walking.  I knew it was heavy, I knew I shouldn’t be carrying it by myself and yet there I was.  Later the same day, I unpacked our van and unloaded a heavy box of Bibles.  That box had to be moved to where it belonged and once again, I ignored my best instincts and hefted the box onto my shoulders and started walking.  Slowly, but surely, my body began to fight back.  By midafternoon, I was feeling a strange tingling in my leg and a growing ache in my back.  Sitting down didn’t feel so good.  I had made a big mistake.  In my haste to be helpful, I ignored good lifting techniques and now I was going to pay for it.  By that night I was in severe pain and knew that sleeping was going to be a challenge.

The next day, I was supposed to help our team clean out the basement of one of our stores and I was pretty useless.  I could barely get in and out of the van.  While I knew what needed to be done, I was not much help.  For all practical purposes, I was sidelined and I hated it.  How had this happened?  Simple.  I made some bad choices.  This time those choices had painful consequences.  Recovery would not be quick and I was going to have to make some different decisions in the weeks to come.  No more heavy lifting for a while and much more thought about how I lift heavy objects in the future.

As all this was happening and I was struggling to find a comfortable position for sleeping, I began to wonder how many other choices we face in life that are just like this.  How many times do we know what we are supposed to do and then do the opposite anyway?  In one of the most authentic and vulnerable verses in the Bible the Apostle Paul admits, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”  How often do we take people for granted, refuse to pick up a phone and call someone or simply ignore a problem and hope that it will go away? Knowing what to do is one thing, actually doing it is another thing entirely – that takes courage.  Andy Crouch talks about this in his latest book, The Tech Wise Family.  He says, “…even though it’s incredibly hard to simply know what we should do, it’s even harder to act on what we know we should do.  Because almost all the time, the most faithful, the most loving, and the wisest thing to do is scary, hard and painful”

At the end of the week, I got to attend one of the most extraordinary events I have ever been to.  Our local church was celebrating the life of our Pastor, Ron Lutz, who is stepping down from his role as lead pastor after thirty years.  It was a wonderful night and an incredible celebration of one of the humblest men I have known.  As person after person spoke, a pattern began to emerge.  Without even realizing it, Ron had had an outsized influence far beyond the church he helped to plant.  Many young pastors that he had mentored have gone on to serve in key ministry positions at other churches.  His support of one of those men led to a church planting network of over eight daughter churches in the Philadelphia area.  One of the people who thanked Ron for his years of service that night was the renowned church planter and author, Tim Keller, who counts Ron as a friend.  Serving alongside Ron as one of the elders in our church, I know something about his leadership style.  He cares about the little things.  He made the tough choices to get involved in the mess of other people’s lives when it would have been easier to avoid it.  He pursued reconciliation and forgiveness and publicly admitted his mistakes.  He led by example and I am profoundly grateful for his influence in my life.  As I face tough choices ahead whether it be lifting properly or being willing to forgive someone who has hurt me, I have a Godly example in my pastor who was willing to do the scary, hard and painful things.  Now it’s my turn to make better choices.

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May 20, 2017 · 10:23 pm

The Power of Recommendation

Someone shared the story with me again this week.  I had nearly forgotten.  Several years ago, a distraught mother and her daughter came into our bookstore.  The mother was at her wits end and came right up to the counter to ask a question.  She was so desperate that she just blurted it out, “My daughter is suicidal and I don’t know what to do. Do you have anything that might help?”.  After thinking for a moment (and I am sure praying too), my colleague did what came natural, she recommended a book.  Instead of going to the self-help section or the counseling section, she went to the classics section, found a book by C.H. Spurgeon and handed it to this mother.  The book was called “Satan, A Defeated Foe” and dealt with the heart of the problem – our sufficiency in Christ and His power to conquer every problem, even suicidal tendencies.  To God’s glory, her daughter read the book and began the process of “taking every thought captive”.  Today, she is alive and her mother shares that story with anyone who asks.  While no one book is guaranteed to fix a person’s life, it is remarkable how the right one recommended at the right time can begin the process of life change that often seems so elusive.

At a time when our culture seems to get coarser by the day, getting a good book in someone’s hands can be remarkable act of kindness and community building.  Recently, I have been more and more curious about Russia and its relationship to the rest of the world.  Several weeks ago, I arrived at our Bible study group and discovered a bunch of books in the entrance way to our host’s home.  As I stepped through the door, Kevin (our host) told me he was getting rid of these and I was free to take one.  After looking through what was available, my eyes stopped on a biography of Peter the Great that had been a best seller at one time.  I picked it up and have not been able to put it down since.  Chapter after chapter have opened my eyes to a culture very different than my own and helped to explain a history that I had never heard before.  As I listen to the news about Russia these days, I see things through a different lens and can readily make connections from the past to the present.  I am no Russia expert now, but I have become much more sympathetic to a people have struggled greatly for their survival over many centuries.

Finding books to recommend has been one of the great joys of my life.  This typically starts by committing to reading widely, but also includes a lot of research.  At our annual conference this past month, we had a panel discussion on books that had impacted the lives of our team members.  It was remarkable to hear the diversity of perspectives and the different types of books that had been read.  Ironically the first panelist started with a book by C.S. Lewis and the last one finished with a book by Tolkien.  I love hearing how books have shaped a person’s thinking and perspective.  One of my favorite ways to discover great new books is to ask another trusted friend what they are reading and what they would recommend.  It is a wonderful conversation starter and can lead to all kinds of unique books and authors that I would never have considered.

Last weekend I attended a cookout with our Bible study group and the conversation turned to children’s books.  We were reminiscing about reading books like The Little House on the Prairie series and Pippi Longstocking.  It was remarkable to learn that many of us had read the same books and were impacted in similar ways by the authors and their stories.  I was so glad that my parents had introduced me to the Sugar Creek Gang right along with the Hardy Boys as those adventures captured my heart.  It is never too early to start reading and recommending great books.  You never know who might benefit from a book that has changed your life.

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Walking the Dog

I heard the sound and instantly knew what it was.  A little dog had awoken in my house and needed to go for a walk before we had another “accident” in the hallway.  This little animal had my attention and it was very clear that I was not going to be able to sleep any longer.  Like clockwork, nature was calling and she would not be denied.  Each morning for the last week, this same routine has played out and either my wife or I respond begrudgingly since this is not our dog and this is not our normal routine.  Our day had begun and the dog is charge whether we like it or not.

This little dog named Cheyenne belongs to my parents and most years they leave her with us while they go on vacation.  She is pretty well trained, but is now showing her age (thirteen dog years) and the requisite lack of bladder control.  So now our days are regulated by the number of hours between dog walks.  With the light lasting longer, Deb and I typically find ourselves taking a long walk with her in the evenings and shorter walks throughout the day.  Not surprisingly, these times with Cheyenne have provided us with a unique opportunity – a chance to change our routine and begin new habits. While walking the dog may be tedious, spending more quality time with Deb is not and truth be told, I look forward to these daily walks now.

Habits and their formation are a key part of the Christian life, both for good and for evil.  In an often-overlooked verse in the Bible, it says that “In the spring, at the time when kings go off to war, David sent Joab out with the king’s men and the whole Israelite army. They destroyed the Ammonites and besieged Rabbah. But David remained in Jerusalem.”  This decision to break with routine, to stay home from war opened an opportunity for temptation as David walked on the roof of his palace and saw Bathsheba bathing.  Not content to avert his eyes, he gave in to the temptation and had her husband killed in the process.  He would never be the same again.

This month, Christianity Today Magazine has a compelling feature article about self-control.  I loved the cover photo of a donut with a chunk bitten out of it.  Given that I love to eat, this caught my attention.  Self-control is one of those biblical virtues like goodness that we know is on the list but seems so impossible that we often ignore it.  In an attempt to justify this behavior, we talk about it in the same sentence as “works righteousness” and remind ourselves that we are saved by grace anyway.  At least that what I normally do when I see a plate of cookies or potato chips that I know I don’t need, but I really want.

Bradley Wright, the author of this insightful article talks about our automated behaviors as an elephant and our controlled behavior as the rider on the back of the elephant who can train the elephant to do what it wants.  Spiritually speaking, this elephant is our natural desires that we revert to without even thinking but must be controlled by a rider and in this case, Wright makes a strong case that our Holy Spirit enabled willpower is that rider.  At first, I thought this sounded pretty simplistic and almost stopped reading as I considered how ineffective willpower has been in my own life.  But I continued reading and loved his wisdom in pointing out the principle that willpower is like a muscle and that it gets stronger as it is exercised more and more.  He also pointed out that we are often weakest right after exercising some restraint and achieving victory in some small area of our lives.  How grateful I am that in every one of these moments, I am not alone and that I have a counselor, the Holy Spirit, who gives me the power to resist in the first place.

As we have been walking the dog this week, I noticed something.  The more we did it, the more it became a part of our routine and no longer such a burden.  In fact, looking for the dog leash as soon as we walk into the house has become second nature.  I guess this is how good habits begin, one dog walk at a time.  What am I going to do when my parents get back?  I guess I’ll just have to grab Deb by the hand and go for a walk anyway, but maybe not so early each morning.


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Brain Hacking

So “brain hacking” is apparently a real thing, at least according to Anderson Cooper on a recent episode of 60 Minutes.  Programmers and App developers are utilizing our brain chemistry and their algorithms to create more and more addictive uses of our phones and other devices.  It turns out that a chemical called dopamine in our brain is activated every time we scroll or swipe looking for new information or to see how many people have liked a post we put on Facebook.  It is no different than the feeling that a gambling addict gets when they pull the handle on a slot machine and wait to see if they have won anything.

At the same time, our addiction to technology, especially our smart phones is creating more anxiety in our lives.  Here is an excerpt from Anderson’s interview with Dr. Larry Rosen about this:

Larry Rosen: We’re looking at the impact of technology through the brain.

Rosen told us when you put your phone down – your brain signals your adrenal gland to produce a burst of a hormone called, cortisol, which has an evolutionary purpose. Cortisol triggers a fight-or-flight response to danger.

Anderson Cooper: How does cortisol relate to a mobile device, a phone?

Larry Rosen: What we find is the typical person checks their phone every 15 minutes or less and half of the time they check their phone there is no alert, no notification. It’s coming from inside their head telling them, “Gee, I haven’t check in Facebook in a while. I haven’t checked on this Twitter feed for a while. I wonder if somebody commented on my Instagram post.” That then generates cortisol and it starts to make you anxious. And eventually your goal is to get rid of that anxiety so you check in.

So the same hormone that made primitive man anxious and hyperaware of his surroundings to keep him from being eaten by lions is today compelling Rosen’s students and all of us to continually peek at our phones to relieve our anxiety.

Larry Rosen: When you put the phone down you don’t shut off your brain, you just put the phone down.

Anderson Cooper: Can I be honest with you right now? I haven’t paid attention to what you’re saying because I just realized my phone is right down by my right foot and I haven’t checked it in, like 10 minutes.

Larry Rosen: And it makes you anxious.

Anderson Cooper: I’m a little anxious.

Wow was I ever convicted when I watched this segment of 60 Minutes and realized how creative our enemy is and how susceptible I am to his tactics.  So, what is one to do when our world is creating technology to entrap and devour us?  One possible answer is to put down the technology and pick up a good book.  Just last week, Baker Books published a new book called The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place by Andy Crouch who is one on my favorite authors and an important Christian voice.  I for one need this book as much as anyone else in my family and am looking forward to applying the advice he has to share.  How important it is that we recognize the what our enemy is doing and choose to follow Paul’s important advice in Romans 12:2 “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will”

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An Unexpected Journey

My Aunt Jan, my mother and me

I was on a train to Dundee.  As the countryside sped by, I couldn’t help but wonder how this was happening.  I was supposed to be flying back to the USA and instead I was headed to a memorial service for my Aunt.  Only ten months earlier, I had been in England and seen her at a celebration for our ministry and she had seemed fine.  Now, she was with her heavenly father and she was only seventy years old.  As my Uncle would say, cancer is a monster.  Despite that reality, our family was gathering in Dundee and we were going to celebrate her life.

As I arrived at the church, I was greeted by the early arrivers as I had gotten there an hour early because of the train schedule.  The little ensemble orchestra was getting ready to practice and the audio engineer was working on the sound system.  Soon the pastor saw me and welcomed me expressing his condolences to our family.  Though my Aunt and Uncle had only attended this little Scottish church for two years, it was clear that they had made a difference in many people’s lives.  People began to stream in and take their seats and there were many tears shed even before the rest of my family arrived.

My Aunt Jan was a remarkable person.  As a teenager, she had helped to lead a Bible study for her peers and as a young adult she was actively involved in The Bible Club Movement that made biblical teaching available to public high school students.  It was through that ministry that she met her husband Tom.  While my Aunt was a very busy person raising three children, ministering alongside her husband as a missionary in three different countries and learning a new language, she always had time for individual people.  She cared deeply about what was going on in our lives and constantly prayed for all of us.  I was often amazed at the small facts she remembered when we would see each other again and that she had been praying for me and my family so diligently.

As my family arrived at the church, we embraced and cried some more.  This was not what we had expected to be doing on this Saturday afternoon.  The young pastor opened the service with a personal greeting and made it clear that Jan had touched his life too. As I sang along to the songs that had been chosen for this occasion, I put my arm around my mother who had lost her only sister and prayed that she would have the strength to give her remarks.  Right on cue, God answered that prayer and many others.  With a sudden resilience, my mother spoke of the special relationship she and Jan had enjoyed from the day she was born until the moment that God took her home.  Each of Jan’s children shared heartfelt remarks and my Uncle got up to speak.  I could hardly imagine how he could be able to do this without breaking down.

Before he gave his remarks, Tom thanked several people for coming to the service and as he did so he turned to a person playing in the little orchestra.  Surprising to most of us, Jan’s Oncologist was playing an instrument and participating in this celebration of her life.  What a special gift she was that day.  It seemed that no matter where Jan was, she had touched people deeply and they wanted to say so publicly.   Tributes to the impact of her life poured in over Facebook and via e-mail and phone calls.  Her son Jeff summed it up best when he said that she had the gift of “paying attention”.  She could focus on you and your needs like you were the only person in the world.

In leaving us so early, Jan left a hole in our hearts and a legacy of faithfulness.  She always pointed us to her savior and was constantly looking for ways to introduce Jesus to people that did not know Him.  Even in her later years, she joined a ministry called seeJesus and was excited about the prospect of using their materials to introduce more people to the one who had so radically impacted her life.  The truth is that none of us knows the time we have on this earth.  Our life’s journey is unpredictable and many times unexpected events intrude.  In the words of the famous missionary pioneer, C.T. Studd, “Only one life, ’twill soon be past, only what’s done for Christ will last.”  My Aunt Jan made every day count for her Lord and Savior and left us a compelling example to follow.


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A Fateful Question

It was a Friday morning in 1985 and it was time for class.  I walked into the familiar room like I had every day for the last two weeks and yet something was different this time.  Even though the teacher had not assigned seats, all of us had quickly chosen our spots on the first day of class and acted like they had been assigned anyway.  I walked to the front of the class with my books when I noticed her.  She was leaning across my seat and chatting with the guy who normally sat next to me.  This was awkward.  I didn’t even know her name and now she was occupying my space.  With a slight hesitation, I walked up behind the chair and asked a question that changed my life, “Is this seat taken?”  Looking into my eyes she quickly said, “No, it’s for you” or at least that’s how I remember it.  With that remark, she had my attention and we began to chat.  How had I not noticed this girl sitting next to me for two weeks?

That remark started a conversation that has continued for the last thirty two years.  The girl was Debra Chapman and she is now my wife.  Something happened that weekend that has shaped who I am today in more ways that I will probably ever fully understand.  A simple comment led to a chat that led to a relationship that turned into a lifetime commitment.  Looking back, I am amazed how quickly it all happened and how young we were when we met.  Deb was eighteen and I was still seventeen.  How could we possibly have known where things would end up when we simply started talking.  The truth is, we didn’t have a clue, we just found each other too interesting to ignore and the rest is history.

Life is like that sometimes.  Seemingly random events that don’t seem so random in hindsight.  Two kids from very different backgrounds and yet remarkably suited for each other.  I loved to talk and she loved to listen.  She played field hockey and I played soccer.  We both were interested in learning and fortunately, we both loved to read.  Her mom had been a missionary in Iran and her dad was a missionary kid.  My parents were missionaries and I grew up on the mission field.  Yet with all these things in common, there was still one thing that mattered more.  We both loved God and were serious about our faith.  Just going to a Christian college did not guarantee that.  It was so encouraging to me to discover that she not only wanted to go to a local church every Sunday, but that the type of church mattered too.  We had a lot of fun finding a church together.  Years later she told me that she had actually noticed me before that fateful Friday.  She had seen me in a campus chapel service and was excited that some of the guys at the school were voluntarily attending worship events so early in the semester.

Even for our era, we married pretty young – only a few weeks after we graduated from college.  Little did we know what God had in store for us.  Life would throw us a few curve balls early in our marriage with job changes and our first son getting so sick that he nearly died eight weeks into his life.  More often than not, we felt like we had no idea what we were doing and wished we had a play book.  In moments like that, it was deeply gratifying to know that we had someone to rely on in those times of doubt and distress.  While everything around us seemed to be so uncertain, we had a God who was faithful and never changing.  He provided us a faith community that helped to keep us grounded and started to smooth out some of our rough edges as we learned to serve others.  His word became our source of strength and provided many of the answers that alluded us as parents and partners.

While I wish I could say that the lessons we learned in those early days and our unique compatibility made our marriage and parenting journey smooth sailing, that would be a lie.  Like every relationship, we have had our ups and downs and boy would we do some things over if we could go back in time.  As we enter these middle years of life with our boys growing into young men, I am more and more aware of my need for a savior.  No amount of will power is strong enough to conquer a sin nature that we are born with when we enter this world.  Only the finished work of the God/ Man – Jesus Christ – is powerful enough to loose the chains that bind and the sins that so easily entangle us.  Living the “Christlife” is a daily surrender to His will and not mine.  I praise God that He was the one who orchestrated that “random” event so many years when that young woman was blocking my seat.  Who knows what He will orchestrate next.

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The Soundtrack of the Mind

I was on a train again this weekend headed into Center City Philadelphia and noticed it.  For some reason the train car I entered was really full even on a Saturday morning and I discovered the only seat available was right in the front.  I had never been in the front of a train before and certainly not close enough to see the train engineer at work.  He had a window shade pulled down on his side window so all I could see were his hands.  That was enough though.  His strong hands would wait until the signal from the conductor and he would put the train in gear and we would get moving.  It was fascinating.  So fascinating that I almost missed seeing the young man beside me.  He was clearly a teenager, but seemed like he had an important task.  He was wearing an official SEPTA (South Eastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority) cap and jacket and was holding a clipboard.  At each stop, it seemed like he was recording our time of arrival and when we stopped suddenly, he made a note on the sheet of paper.  I presumed he had been hired to monitor the activity of this relatively new train that had recently been put back into service after having been repaired when cracks had been discovered by some inspectors and it became big news in our city.

Watching him work, I couldn’t help admiring how methodical he was and how much he seemed to enjoy it.  Then I saw something else.  Just like many other young people I knew, he was wearing earbuds and listening to something that held his attention as well.  Somehow, he could multi-task.  He recorded what he needed to, waved at passing trains, kept an eye on the conductor and even said “Bless You” when I sneezed.  Yet, the entire time, he was listening to something else.  It got me thinking.  I wonder what his soundtrack was.  Must have been something he enjoyed, because he seemed to be quite content and even focused.  Music can do that and so can the right words.  As I looked around the train, I realized that lots of people had headphones on or were reading books.  They were creating their own soundtracks – those patterns of words and sounds that come back to us over and over again when we least expect it and often need them the most.

Our minds are a lot like our stomachs.  What goes in shapes us in ways that we don’t expect, even though we are warned about it from childhood.  Eat junk food and you are going to be overweight.  Listen to lies and juicy gossip and we become suspicious and skeptical adults as the world continues to disappoint us.  My parents knew this and decided that my spiritual health was as important as my physical health and served up a healthy dose of biblical wisdom each day right alongside the casserole we were going to eat.  They shaped my mental soundtrack one verse at a time with a rigorous commitment to scripture memorization that was so natural, it was like eating the delicious rolls my mother used to cook.  Mom was really creative and relied on our unique personalities to make this process as normal as possible.  In my, case she knew that I had a competitive streak and decided to incorporate Bible drills into our weekly kid’s club.  It was never enough just to find the verse quickly, she wanted to see if we could quote it from memory and if so, you got an extra prize.  On our table for several years, we had a plastic box shaped like a small loaf of bread that held Bible Verses.  It was a big deal among us siblings to see who got to read the verse for the day.

I am so grateful for that spiritual nurturing of my mind.  When I am tempted to question God’s love, I remember that “he sent His only son…so that I might have eternal life”.  When I am tempted to give up, I remember that “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me”.  When I get anxious and afraid, I remember that “I have not been given a spirit of fear, but of power and love and a sound mind”.  As things look bleak, I am reminded “all things God works for the good of those who love him”.  These are not just nice sayings or spiritual platitudes; they are soundtrack of my life.  Yet, just like the food I eat, I must keep eating good things or my body will show it.  Resting in the truth of scripture should be a daily practice or my soundtrack begins to get warped or even worse, I start listening to other voices than the still small voice of my heavenly father.

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