Concerts: Pain and Grace

“The first time you hear the screams is always the hardest; it gets easier to ignore them with time.”

We used these lies to try and console each other, and we said these words to the few visitors who came to our house. None of them ever returned. The ear-splitting shrieks were too much for children our age to endure.

But it was alright, because we came to dislike having company. You see, we had to ignore the sounds, since we were there all the time. After a while your brain doesn’t register the cries, even though your ears still hear them. You can’t help but hear them. When a visitor lifted their head to listen, it called our attention to the sound again. It would remind us of the terrible nature of where we lived. So maybe we were better off without visitors.

I was seven when we moved into that shack. My brother was an older, wiser ten. He had seen more of the world, and he knew of what was happening on the other side of that tall fence. But our mother forbade him to speak of it to me. She didn’t want me to know what the noises made plain enough. What was she protecting? My innocence? My sanity?

So every night we listened to the concert. The clatter of machinery formed the base notes. Shrieks of terror mixed with—so much more—formed the tenor. We could never quite picture what it was in between, that formed the alto in the nightly concerts of our pain and injustice.

It was a horrible thing to experience as a child, but the other locations we might have afforded were even worse. That was the reality our mother faced. She was the one who had to work to pay the rent. We would live here, where the rent was low, because no one else wanted to live, under the shadow of the bedlam, trying to sleep through the cacophony.

Five years later I could no longer claim apathy or innocence to what was taking place. I had peeked through holes in the fence. I had asked a million questions of those who had ventured where I could not. My sense of injustice was boiling over.

It was about that time that a man began coming round, paying attention to momma. The year I turned fourteen, they married and we moved away from there.

We no longer live in poverty. Our new home is large, safe, and quiet. At first we thought we would never hear those sounds again.

Our new daddy bought us season tickets. We went to the amusement park at least once a week. We found the alto voices, which had been so indistinguishable from the shack, were barkers on the midway. We felt the rumble of the bass as the machines lifted us up, and we threw our voices into the tenor parts of the nightly concert, on the way down.

For us, it was no longer a concert of hopelessness, but of fulfilled dreams.

From the top of the Ferris wheel I could see they were tearing down the old shack.

I was glad to see it go.

I was sad to see it go.

I want to always remember what it was like before. Before we were able to add our voices to the concerts of grace.

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Philosophy of the Backbone

I have heard for years that in order to grow our churches we should soften our stand on the issues that society finds divisive. Emphasize unity over truth. Strive to be less offensive on non-essentials in order to earn a right to be heard on spiritual issues. We are paying the price for intentionally softening our resolve.

I have tried to study the issues regarding homosexuality and court cases involving churches. Every church I know has a strong desire to protect themselves from being pulled into court over this issue. There are numerous sources who will issue advice on how to design their documents, policies and procedures to make this less likely. I suspect that it is not possible to avoid the issues completely.

The Bible defines homosexual behavior as wrong. This fact will not go away. Attempts to redefine the Bible only work if you have not given it a serious read. So those of us who read and respect the teachings of Scripture will continue to see homosexuality as a sin.

The courts have been busy deciding that disagreeing with homosexuality is prejudice. This conclusion is based on the idea that homosexuality is less a choice than a result of how a person was born. The phrase is often used that ‘God made them that way.’

So believing this perspective regarding the practice of homosexuality allows the courts to rule that traditional Christianity is discrimination. Since it has become trendy to include sexual orientation in discrimination laws, the idea has legal teeth. There has been an attempt in many places to make laws which clarify that religious freedom is a higher priority than these discrimination cases but the courts have repeatedly stuck these down and probably will continue to do so.

While I will take actions hoping to protect my church from these lawsuits, I don’t believe any defense will ultimately shield us. The battle is going to find us. Perhaps the end result will be that Bible believing churches will no longer be allowed to legally operate or to own property. The result may be that we manage to put the first amendment back into the first position again. I don’t really know what will happen, but I know it will come with conflict.

The reality is that churches in America have gotten soft. Because of generations of living under the protection of the first amendment we have not had to defend Biblical truth. Since we have not had to defend our beliefs, American Christians are not practiced in standing up for what we belief, nor are we accustomed to paying a cost for our choice to love and serve God.

Scripture makes it clear that our association with Christ will bring conflict with the world. We must not allow this to be a surprise; nor should it be a point of dismay. It is a point of opportunity to demonstrate the backbone of Christianity. The church itself will be stronger, more Biblical, and make a more significant impact on the world around us, when our resolve becomes visible.

Immutable God

I believe that God is relational. But the details of God being in relationship with humanity can be confusing. For example we think of God as being perfectly consistent. We even have a fancy theological word for this, immutability. Unfortunately relationships are never perfectly consistent, absolute consistency is far from perfect, and for that matter immutability doesn’t mean what many of us think it means.

We tend to picture God’s immutability as a strict set of rules down the order of, “if we do this, He’ll do that.” Or to put that another way, we want to formulate God. For too many people their entire spirituality is a series of observations about God and His past choices, assuming He will make the same choice every time a similar situation arises.

A boy steals a candy bar. His mom catches him, and punishes him. The child then believes that God will punish every thief. (When we do this, God will do that.) Being able to formulate God’s choices like this is only useful if you are looking for ways to manipulate or control Him.

The truth is that relationships disallow this kind of formulation. People who are in a relationship have to deal not only with variations in their own preferences and choices but also with these variations in the other person. God has a right to respond to the same situation in different ways at different times and with different people, just like we do.

God is immutable in that His character in unchanging, in that His purposes never waver and in that He remains absolutely sovereign. But these facts don’t change the reality that he might react one way the first three times you do something and then choose another reaction on the fourth. God may choose to draw a person to salvation with a heavy hand, or choose another person for some highly significant role in the kingdom, while clearly not doing the same for all people.

This is not inconsistency in God, it is just God expressing His sovereignty. He knew exactly what He would do in every case before history began, that is an expression of His immutability. This is not God being unfair, it is God being God.

Mud Nests

Mud Nest

This is a mud nest. It was made by a barn swallow, and in this picture you can see the round head of the bird on the right side of the nest and the thin tail sticking over the left side. This nest was on an arched entryway of a hotel in Tucson.

These birds will make their nests by gathering mud, one mouthful at a time, which are then carried back home and applied to the structure. The nest will start off relatively small and grow throughout the season, as the parents continue to bring home more and more mud from their daily travels.

Aren’t you glad people don’t do this? It would be horrible if every day we brought into our homes the gunk we accumulate during our day, spewing it out in our homes and building higher and higher walls.

Come to think of it, that is exactly what most of us do. The only difference is the gunk of our lives is not mud but the anxieties of the day. “My boss yelled at me.” “Everyone else drives like idiots.” “They are laying off more people at the factory.” “The new guy is outselling me.”

We pour this gunk over the people in our households and yes, as we do we quite often build higher and higher walls. It wouldn’t be so bad if we actually discussed each of the issues above and discussed them calmly, but most of the time we would rather not admit directly what is bothering us and calm is not the order of the day.

It doesn’t take long before the decorating scheme of your home becomes Modern American Anxiety. The kids retreat to their rooms, or to friend’s houses and discussions with your spouse begin to feel like congressional debates.

The solution to this is to not carry your worries home. Paul gave some advice about the right ways to deal with these anxieties in Philippians 4:6-7

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren

This is a cactus wren, the state bird in Arizona. This bird knows how to exist in the desert. It doesn’t need any freestanding water to survive, being able to get all the moisture it needs from its food. It also has learned to take good advantage of the prickly nature of cactus.

Perhaps the most menacing of the cacti is the jumping cholla, a plant that will have sections break off and lodge itself in unwary passersby. These sections then will work their way deeper into the victim as they attempt to get free, unless they know exactly how to remove them. Cactus wren will commonly nest in these plants though, skillfully building down in the middle of the cacti’s natural defenses.

This does not stop all possible predators, but attempting to raid a nest is unlikely to succeed because not only is the location highly defensible, but the birds are known to aggressively defend their homes. When a predator attempts to access it, the birds will knock them off balance amid the deadly spines.

One story of such an event is on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. They mention a Yuma antelope squirrel that was knocked into the spines and then to the ground. The cactus wren is able to successfully defend its nest because of the combination of a defensible position and aggressive defensive behavior.

Believers should take note of this combination.

The first step to success is to find a defensible position. The easiest way for a Christian to remain in a defensible position is to carefully and closely align yourself with God. Being in agreement with Biblical morality and strong in your personal relationship with God through Christ will allow you to miss the attacks that come from being unprepared and practicing immorality. Much of the warfare believers face is because they are living morally compromised and spiritually distant.

The second step is to know when and how to fight back for the remaining attacks. This can be tricky because our warfare is not like the battles of this world, so our defensive behavior needs to be different. Very often it is a Spirit led word of witness for the Lord. There may be times when the appropriate defense is to simply to explain a misunderstanding, socially or theologically. Increasingly in our world, the defensive component includes political involvement such as voting, campaigning, and political action campaigns. In all cases, our defense includes speaking out, not rudely, but gently and truthfully.

Consider Ephesians 6:11-13 (HCSB)

Put on the full armor of God so that you can stand against the tactics of the Devil. For our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the world powers of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavens. This is why you must take up the full armor of God, so that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having prepared everything, to take your stand.

 

 

A Doctrine of Marriage

Marriage seems to be the topic of the day, so perhaps it’s time to examine what we believe about marriage.

First, marriage is the oldest institution. It is older than the existence of countries, older than the existence of law, and it is the foundation of family. Since it is the first building block of family, marriage is essential for the continuation of humanity. For this reason it is a bedrock piece of the foundations of civilization.

Another word about the continuation of civilized society through marriage: I believe children born in healthy marriages have the best chance for success. Children raised without an example of both a father and a mother in the home are more likely to have certain struggles in life, including an unhealthy view of marriage, sexuality, and family. In this manner, unhealthy views of marriage and family can grow worse with each generation if not given boundaries.

God has a right to give us input on marriage and did so. There are Old Testament passages which address marriage as being between one man and one woman. There are examples of marriage between one man and multiple women, but I don’t believe these are examples to follow. I also believe the New Testament reaffirms marriage as being between one man and one woman. In Romans 1:24 and following is a very clear statement that same sex relationships are wrong, therefore I do not believe in homosexual marriage.

I personally am not surprised by the actions of government recently to legally redefine marriage. What I am more concerned about is the likelihood that what comes next will be the government mandating to the citizens of the country and to churches actions of acceptance of homosexuality and gay marriage.

I do not believe it best for our country to have gay marriage, but I believe it is absolutely disastrous for our country to begin dictating religious belief or behavior to the citizenry. Nevertheless, Christians were warned by Jesus to expect the world to conflict with us. Marriage is the current battleground in these conflicts.

But, let me be as clear as I can. If Christians had been diligent in resisting the multitude of sinful attacks on healthy Biblical sexuality, the sanctity of marriage, and the importance of family, then the battle lines would never have progressed this far.

Verdin

VerdinThis is a verdin. It’s a small and very common bird of the desert southwest. The verdin has the distinction of being a tireless builder.

They might build 10 or more nests a year, all in the same area.

They will build different nests for nesting (having a family) than for roosting (socializing).

They will build different nests for different times of year. In the hot months the entrance catches the wind to provide cooling, while in colder seasons the entrance will be protected from the wind.

The male and female will cooperate in this building process, with the male building the stick frame, and the female finishing up with the decorative touches.

The roosting nests, used primarily in the winter, will have better insulation and more space, allowing a large number of birds to crowd in together to conserve energy.

All of these facts show the verdin’s skill as avian architects. They certainly do their part for developing livable habitat inside bushes. Their abandoned nests are utilized by a multitude of other animals, and in this way, God uses their predisposition to construction in greater ways.

I think every believer should be aware of God using their daily routines in greater ways too. We might not see how our work, patterns, and hobbies are being directed by God, but we generally only see God’s work when we are looking for them and He wants us to see them. God is always at work, and at work in everything. That would include the little details of your life like your trips to the gym and your time in line at the bank.

The believer who wants to be used by God might only need to open their eyes in order to find they are already being used. But the believer who wants to be used better, can take specific steps to make this possible too.

First look at your life and consider the sins you have begun to downplay or overlook. Sin often hinders our usefulness, and especially unconfessed sin. Second for everything you do, do it to the best of your ability. Put forward your best effort at work and in productive tasks. Even in recreation and life management activities watch for ways to be positive, uplifting, and available to God.

In the meantime consider Hebrews 3:4 (HCSB) Now every house is built by someone, but the One who built everything is God. God is always at work, but you can do more by focusing on opportunities to cooperate with Him.

Autofocus Blues

Auto Focus

As a birder, one of my favorite tools is my camera. As a photographer one of my favorite subjects is birds. Now for my aging eyes and reflexes, this presents a basic problem. Birds move. This means that if I am going to get good pictures I have to see them very clearly in order to get a good focus, and I need to do so very quickly.

This is a formula for failure. Although I improve with time at getting the aim and focus correct, it also results in an awful lot of useless snaps.

The shortcut for this problem is called autofocus. The computer in the camera will focus for me. Autofocus is so much better than me that I can zoom in with native resolution and see every single vein on every single feather of a bird. I am not that good without autofocus. Autofocus is great sometimes.

But then again there are other times, like the picture above. This bird is an immature hummingbird, hovering above the water outlet of a desert spring. It is not the kind of setting I get to visit very often. Even if I went a hundred more times, I am not sure I could find another hummingbird behaving this way. So autofocus and I took a picture. I was attempting to photograph the bird, but autofocus chose the two thick blades of reed between me and the subject.

Shortcuts can be convenient, but they can also rob us of the ability to do things for ourselves. When we take the time to practice and discipline ourselves to master difficult tasks, it also means that we have allowed ourselves to become more than we would have been without the experience. The shortcut robs us of the new abilities and often hides from us the potential we are missing.

This is probably truer in spiritual matters than most of us want to admit. We learn our theology from unchallenged sermons, which are sparsely digested. We know the same Scripture verses we knew when we graduated high school, but no more. Our daily Bible study is reduced to devotionals that have one or two verses at most, and prebaked ideas drawn from them for our controlled consumption. (Yes, I know, this piece is exactly that kind of thing.)

None of these issues I describe are problems if they are handled correctly. Sermons should be fact checked and the portions worth keeping should be fully digested. Memorizing Scripture should be a lifelong process. In every way, if we want to take our lives out of spiritual autofocus, then you have to stay connected to God through His Word.

The shortcut of letting someone or something else form the connection for you will leave you spiritually vulnerable. Only when you carefully develop your own disciplines will you be sure you are on the right track.

2 Timothy 2:15 (HCSB) Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who doesn’t need to be ashamed, correctly teaching the word of truth.

Discipline

Discipline should be a trait of a disciple.

Discipline, as in self-control, is necessary to choose the shape of your own behavior. Without it, one cannot control their own choices, walk a path of repentance, nor follow the Lord.

Some would undoubtedly say, you can’t do any of those things anyway, that the human form is incapable of doing anything good. I agree the human form is frail, and incapable of leaving sin completely behind. We should reconcile ourselves to never being perfect.

But this fact does not mean we should not strive to do better, nor that we cannot do better. I distrust the definitions of Christian living which say either, our sinfulness glorifies God by allowing Him to give us more grace, or that our grace means sin is no longer relevant to us. Paul addresses both of these misconceptions in Romans 6.

Instead I view grace as most relevant in salvation. But discipleship, our growth after salvation is a partnership between us and God. Our obedience glorifies Him.

So consider the importance of discipline to the Christ follower.

Discipline is one of the benefits of fasting, discipline is necessary for the taming of the mind and body to the instructions of Christ, and discipline is required to replenish the storeroom of the heart with the things of God.

Baby Killdeer

Killdeer Baby 04.09.15This little guy is a baby killdeer. He is probably not more than three days old and three inches long. Not much more than a ball of fuzz, but a very cute ball of fuzz.

There is something about babies. The toughest men will melt at the sight of a baby. The wimpiest men will stand tall and risk death to protect them. Babies change us, making us set aside our own goals and dreams to meet their needs. At least that is how healthy people respond.

This nurture and protect response, is it a spiritual quality? Just talking from common sense I would assume it is. God designed family, God designed the system where we start as babies before growing up, and God put into us these most common and universal responses toward babies.

I also believe we can see some Biblical instruction that protecting the youngest among us is an expectation of God’s. Consider Jesus’s words in Matthew 18:6 (HCSB).

“But whoever causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in Me—it would be better for him if a heavy millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea!”

Or for another perspective, consider Ecclesiastes 12:1 (HCSB).

So remember your Creator in the days of your youth:

Before the days of adversity come,
and the years approach when you will say,
“I have no delight in them”;

This section is saying it is important to come to grips with the most important things in life, your Creator being the most important, before life begins to jade you. Or by implication, we must protect children from those things which will corrupt their innocence and harden their hearts, so they can learn the lessons of life without these distortions.

I remember growing up my parents had a long list of things we were not allowed to do, see, touch or have, because we were not old enough yet. Coffee was not allowed. Dating was out of the question. Quite a few television shows were considered too racy.

In today’s world though I don’t seem to see the same limitations. If they put it on TV it must be okay for kids to watch. Children walk around with energy drinks in their hands. And I see kids talking about sexual situations and making boyfriends or girlfriends at seemingly any age.

Given these trends I am not surprised that more and more people abandon basic morality, reject the authority of God over them, and live in the misery wondering why they cannot enjoy life. It is now old fashioned to protect the innocent, and we are too oblivious to admit the consequences. But the truth is when a child is not protected from the adversities of life, they will adopt bitterness as normal and never enjoy what is truly good.