Sitting on the Stool

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“There are two spiritual activities which are to be unceasingly part of a believer’s life, two great pillars that hold up the believer in the matter of daily living.  One is the study of the Word of God.  Two, prayer.”

— John MacArthur

I’m not one to usually criticize John MacArthur, who some would argue is the best exegetical preacher alive today, but when I was listening to his sermon “The Paternity of Prayer” on my way to work the other day, the above quote popped out at me.

Immediately, I thought: Wait a minute. What about service?

I do not disagree that study and prayer are two essential aspects of the Christian life, but if we forget or minimize the necessity of service, we fail to put legs to what our study and praying have revealed. This is why I have often thought of Christianity like a three-legged stool that must continually be in balance, where one leg is study, one is prayer, and one is service.

You cannot neglect one or two of these legs without toppling over. For instance, a person that is great at study but does not pray, he only has head knowledge and can get filled up with the arrogance of much learning. Or if he has a passion for prayer so as to see great miracles occur but does not study or serve, he will not produce anything meaningful. This is why Solomon warns us:

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:12-14)

And it is why Paul says:

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)

In both situations, Solomon and Paul emphasize that the most important thing is not knowledge or faith by itself, but it is adding both of these things to what you do. As Paul later wrote in Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (NIV)

Service, then, is a necessary leg of the Christian existence. If it was not, James would not have argued that it is our deeds that prove our faith (Ja. 2:17-18) Jesus would not have said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn. 13:35) And the disciples in Acts would not have delegated the work of distributing food to the widows to seven godly men so that The 12 would not neglect “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” (Acts 6:1-4)

I understand that it is safer to remain in one’s study, surrounded by books and excavating truths never before understood. I respect that it feels more comfortable, and at times it feels more spiritual, to pray for a person or a situation, rather than get involved. But God calls us out of our safe places and asks us to leave our comfort zones. This is why Jesus tells us “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Because we are to be a going people. We are to be an engaging people. We are revolutionaries who are on a mission to change the culture of our homes, communities, and nations. We are a people who are to serve “by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 4:11)

We are not to be cowardly or sluggish or foolish. Those are mistakes the anxious. We are not to be arrogant, doubting, or disbelieving. Those are the mistakes of the inactive. We are to be doing, going, and serving. Giving our bodies up as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), which is “your spiritual worship” (or, “your rational service“).

Neglect not this third leg of Christianity. It is where you get to see the truth you’ve studied in action, and where you witness your prayers become weapons of warfare. It is where you are allowed to join the holy, sovereign, creating God in the redemptive work He is doing. To reject such an honor is disrespectful. To refuse such a privilege is unthinkable. No man is remembered who does not add service to his study and prayer.

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Quick Thoughts: Repair Your Gate

And Shallum the son of Col-hozeh, ruler of the district of Mizpah, repaired the Fountain Gate. He rebuilt it and covered it and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. And he built the wall of the Pool of Shelah of the king’s garden, as far as the stairs that go down from the city of David.16 After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, ruler of half the district of Beth-zur, repaired to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool, and as far as the house of the mighty men. 17 After him the Levites repaired: Rehum the son of Bani. Next to him Hashabiah, ruler of half the district of Keilah, repaired for his district. 18 After him their brothers repaired: Bavvai the son of Henadad, ruler of half the district of Keilah. 19 Next to him Ezer the son of Jeshua, ruler of Mizpah, repaired another section opposite the ascent to the armory at the buttress.[f] 20 After him Baruch the son of Zabbai repaired another section from the buttress to the door of the house of Eliashib the high priest. (Neh. 3:16-20)

When you look at the headlines from the last week, you see racial unrest boiling across the country. Terrorist attacks in Bangladesh. Flooding in China. Cops being assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The FBI director being interrogated by Congress. A presidential candidate facing possible indictment for mishandling classified information. Long term unemployment is higher than it was at the start of the Great Recession. And the people in charge (or the people competing to be in charge) do not seem to have any viable solutions to fix the overwhelming struggles that face us. The walls that used to surround our country and protect us from outside forces seem to have been trampled. The gates that used to be heavily guarded seem to have been burned to the ground, leaving us with the feeling that we are left only with rock and ash.

The feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness can be overwhelming. But this is where we can learn a valuable lesson from the story of Nehemiah. Each person came out and repaired the section of the wall that was in front of their home.  They did not huddle into private corners and complain about the sad state of.affairs. They did not discuss the impossibility of the task before them. Rather, they came out of their homes, evaluated the damage to tje wall in front of them, picked up a fresh rock or piece of wood, and stood firm as they repaired what belonged to them! They stood shoulder to shoulder, taking care of their responsibility, and within a short period of time, that which had been destroyed was restored.

Ask yourself: If I was to stop worrying and start working, if I was to take care of repairing the section of broken wall in my family, my community, or my church, what role would I need to play? How could I actively repair with my neighbor the intersecting parts of what used to make our lives safe and our faith strong to create healing within my small footprint in the world? How much complaining would I need to stop doing and how much solution-oriented activity would I need to begin in order to see the walls be rebuilt and the ash swept away?

But, you may ask, how can I be equipped to stand firm and meet the task in front of me?

Fortunately, God gives us this answer in Ephesians 6:10-20 (emphasis mine).

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Stand firm. Keep alert. Persevere. Rebuild.

From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17 who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon<span class=”crossreference” data-link=”(Q)” data-cr=”#cen-NIV-12377Q” style=”box-sizing: border-box; font-size: 0.625em; line-height: 22px; position: relative; vertical-align: top; top: 0px;”> in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.  (Nehemiah 4:16-18, emphasis mine)

 

Why I Decided to Stop Reading the Bible Every Year

fasting1When I was a teenager, I began the practice of daily Bible reading. My pattern was to read a chapter in the morning and a chapter in the evening in order to bookend my day with the thoughts of God.  Using this method allowed me to finish the Word approximately every two years. But this changed four years ago after I downloaded a Bible app to my phone. Excited with all of the functionality and options for studying that it allowed me to do, I chose to begin a new Bible reading plan, one that would allow me to read through the entire text in a single year. This meant that I would be reading four or five chapters a day from the Bible.

Admittedly, ego drove this decision more than devotion or fervency for God. I wanted to be able to say, at least to myself, that I had read through the Bible “x” number of times in my life. Something about the number made me feel good about my walk with God. In hindsight, though, this gory self-righteousness led me down a path that was neither spiritual nor helpful for my Christian life. Thus, I have decided it is time to stop reading the Bible every year. Below are my top 10 reasons why:

 

  1. The Bible is to be absorbed, not raced through like a NASCAR race
  2. The Bible is made for man and is best understood in small doses in order to understand its application to life, but reading through it in a year only provides a large 30,000 foot overview.
  3. The Bible is designed to reveal God but, as with all things, speed blurs perception.
  4. If I only have 20-30 minutes each morning to read my Bible, I will get more out of it by examining how this passage connects to others or meditating on a manageable bite size piece, rather than reading 4 chapters and having no time for meditation or study.
  5. The Bible is not only to be meditated upon but also applied. I cannot apply a lesson I have not taken the time to learn. Most likely the only lessons that I am “hearing” when I read through the Bible in a year are the ones I remember the Lord teaching me from the past, not new ones that challenge me.
  6. Reading it through in a year can be more about successfully accomplishing a goal than becoming closer to or more like the LORD.  If my life is to be lived in such a way so that others may see the perfections of God publicly displayed through me, then I must take the time to understand how to exalt the LORD with all of who I am. To learn how, as John the Baptist said, I must become less so that He becomes more.
  7. As Chaucer once said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.” This year I began to realize that I was reading the Bible much like a movie I have seen a hundred times, anticipating the memorable or favorite scenes, but not enjoying it. Such an exercise feels like a duty, not a relationship with the text or the Creator who wrote it.
  8. It taps into my sinful nature much more easily than I anticipated: perfectionism masquerading as holiness, self-righteousness obscuring shame, self-blame and feelings of failure when I miss days that I should have read, as well as pride in doing the safe and private task of reading instead of the dangerous task of actively serving others with the power that God provides.
  9. The Bible is to be a starting point, not an ending point, for Christian living. It points us towards God and holy living. Making our calling and election sure is more than an intellectual agreement with a specific set of teachings. It is also a daily behavior that confirms that we are Christ’s and that He is ours. That the two have become one. The choice to love God is not one we make only at a singular point in time. Rather, it is one that we continue to make throughout our lives, sometimes even several times a day, so that we may know the joy of continually turning towards each other, even when our beloved makes no sense or hurts us. In other words, it is embracing the vulnerability of love in order to gain the intimacy of relationship.
  10. Aside from the incarnation, the Bible is God’s most vulnerable expression of who He is. It is the place where He bares His heart, communicates His desires, shares the joys and sorrows of His past, explains His frustrations, and voices His profound yearning for a deeper relationship. But if I am trying to get through four or five chapters before I start my day, I will often hear His mouth, but miss the message of His heart.

 

What am I going to do instead? I think I will go backward in order to move forwards. Get out my pen, annotate the text, and really try to see how all the parts connect to each other. A chapter or two each day. As they say in the South, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Say Again?

 

 

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I don’t know if you’re like me or not, but sometimes when I read the Bible I skim across the words. At other times, I have to back up my eyes and make sure I read that right while a brief inner dialogue ensues.

“Moses approached the thick darkness where God was”?

Ummmm. Say again? God was…where?

In the darkness.

Ok. Wait…just, stop. That can’t be right.

Why not?

Well, um…BECAUSE!

Oh, that’s brilliant.

No. I mean, God is a god of light. He came to shine light in the darkness. He is the Father of heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. He even encourages us to shine our light in the darkness to be more like Him.

So?

Sooooo, what’s He doing in the darkness?

The thick darkness.

The what?

The thick darkness. The verse says God was in the thick darkness.

No, it doesn’t.

Yes. It does. Go back and read it again.

…Well, I’ll be….

WATCH YOUR LANGUAGE!

Ahem. Sorry. Well, what the…I mean, how in the … Ummm, what’s God doing in the thick darkness? That just makes no sense.

Sure it does. You remember Psalm 139, don’t you?

The one about being fearfully and wonderfully made?

Yes, but not that part. Above that. Go read that real quick.

Ok. Hold on …. “Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
10 even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.”

You get it now?

Um, I think so. But let’s just say I need to talk this one out loud.

(Geez, you’re dense)

HEY! I can still hear you, you know!

Oh. Sorry. Look, it’s all there, especially in verse 11 and 12. Read those again.

11 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
12 even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.” …Yeah. So?

Sooo, God is a God of the light AND the darkness. In fact, if you look closely, you’ll see that darkness is not dark to God….

OH! I see it! And the darkness is as light when I am with God! HE is the God of my good AND my bad. He is the light no matter where He is, even when the darkness covers me and my life is full of nothing but night!

So, where is God?

In the thick darkness. He is there if I lose my job, or my family, or go bankrupt, or am despised by everyone. No matter how dark it gets, God is there.

That’s right. And you know what’s really cool about this verse?

What’s that?

God was waiting for Moses in the thick darkness. Before Moses ever entered, God was already there.

Um. Wait. What?…Can you say that again?

The Burned Out Therapist

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Thanksgiving couldn’t have come at a better time. I still have to go to work on Monday and Tuesday, but after that I have five glorious days of publicly sanctioned absence from work. It’s time for a break. I can feel it.

It has been almost twenty years that I have been in my career as a therapist and over that time I have realized that at least twice a year I get to a point where I begin to feel burned out. The struggles of other people overwhelm me. The frustration of people wanting help but not working in between sessions to change their lives mounts. And self-doubt begins to creep in as I perform my biannual ritual of self-reflection and wonder if there is a better, more systematic way of communicating how to effect change in a person’s life or marriage.

This is one of those times.

There is truth, I know, in the old joke that it only takes one therapist to change a light bulb, but the light bulb has to want to change. But it doesn’t make it any easier when week after week people come in and have the same struggles in the same ways  with the same people, despite us agreeing one to two weeks ago about they need to, and are willing, to do differently. In moments like that, I feel as if the therapist-client relationship looks a lot like this:

But instead of walking away or mentally checking out, I take a deep breath and try to restate the healthy way of living — AGAIN — in a new way. A way that I hope will finally, this time, resonate with the person sitting across from me and motivate them to move towards change.

Sometimes that means I have to get firm; sometimes I give an analogy; sometimes I take an empathetic approach; or if the client is completely recalcitrant, I fire them. (Yes, you can do that as a counselor.) I give them referrals, if they desire it, but I make it clear that I cannot help them any longer and what they will need to do, if they decide to continue counseling with someone else. Fortunately, it doesn’t usually come to that.

That is why I am most thankful this year for…

a break.

I am tired of people coming to me, asking for my guidance, and then not making the conscientious, deliberate effort to change. I don’t think I have all the answers to the problems that walk through my door. That would be arrogant. But I do think that if you have dedicated yourself to taking the time off of work to come to a place where you discuss the darkest areas of your life with a stranger, because you believe that stranger has some professional level of expertise that can help you, then at least do what the professional suggests. And if you don’t know how to implement the suggestions, ask.

It’s okay.

Really.

We won’t think you’re stupid or look down on you because you don’t understand the process. As in your career, there are terms within therapy that come with an underlying set of assumptions, ideas, or behaviors. We therapists understand this subtext automatically (because we’re in the field) but clients often do not. For instance, when we say “communicate,” we do not mean “just sit down and talk to each other nicely.” There is more to it than that. Make sure you understand so you can go practice the skills effectively. And if it is too overwhelming, if it’s too much information to remember to do all at once, tell us. We will tailor it so you can handle it piece by piece.

I can’t speak for all therapists, but as for me, I believe in my clients. I want to treat them like adults. I do not want to play judge/jury between you and your spouse. I understand, even if you don’t,  that you do not need help resolving the weed in your life, but the roots of the weed instead. In other words, I am not here to resolve your situation, but to help you resolve the emotions fueling your behavior/situation.  I am here to help you think about things in a fresh way, but I also trust you to be an adult.

This means:

  1. Although you may prefer a step by step process, therapy will not always work this way. Often, I will present ideas and concepts and trust you as an adult to develop (either on your own or with me) ways to implement this counsel.
  2. Together we can work on resolving your problems. But I cannot drag you across the finish line. In fact, after twenty years of trying to help resistant people, I refuse to play that game any longer. If you want help, be an active participant in the process. Don’t just passively receive information and expect transformation. It doesn’t work that way. It can’t.
  3. You have to daily, diligently apply what you learn, so that new behaviors and new ways of thinking/perceiving can be written into your life. Be intentional about what you are doing.
  4. “Trying” is never enough, for it usually includes one or two efforts that give up after meeting with resistance. Instead, you must courageously and honestly ask yourself if the pain of changing is worse than the pain of staying the same.
  5. Be 100% honest and transparent. You cannot get better if you are hiding an addiction, shameful behavior, or other vital information that you want to deny or excuse. This only wastes time in therapy and keeps you acting like a child trying to avoid punishment. Be an adult. Own your stuff. Then crack it open and explore what lies beneath.

If you can do this on your end, I promise to do this on my end. Then maybe both of us can have something new to be thankful for at this time next year.

Thoughts on Nehemiah

“The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah” (Nehemiah 1:1)

Have you ever noticed that in the Bible there are no last names?  Instead they refer to themselves by the father that they belong to.  This identification set them apart from other people and signified many things about who they were, including social strata and character (“Oh! You’re his kid).  The significance of this truth was never made more clear to me than when my youngest son was playing pee-wee football. For years he had wanted to play this sport, so when he got old enough, we signed him up. At first it was flag football. Then, a year later, it was tackle. That meant he dressed out in full pads for games and practices and belied the image of an athlete, though it was easily apparent he was not one.

This fact did not bother me, though, because I saw what a good teammate my son could be. He was always the kid encouraging his peers, telling them they’ll do better next time, providing optimism in the midst of disappointment. He liked to make people laugh, if he could, and he enjoyed having fun. However, when it was game time, “fun” sometimes included playing on the sidelines with a friend, instead of standing next to the coach, as he had been repeatedly instructed to do, so that he could be sent into the game at a moments notice.

As a result of “goofing off” during game time, his coaches often became upset they could not find him when they needed a sub. This often resulted in the refrain, “HOWELL!” (no response from my kid) “HOWELL!” (still no response as he is deep in make believe). Then something inaudible from the coach to an assistant as they sent in a different player and the assistant went and gently guided my son to the coach.

After seeing this occur for more than one game, I said to him after a game one day, “Let me ask you a question, son. What does it say on the back of your jersey?”

“Howell,” he said.

“That’s right,” I acknowledged. “That means that each time you step out there on that field you are representing me and your mother. People recognize you as our kid. And your behavior says what kind of parents we are. When people hear you being yelled for by the coach and you don’t respond, people hear your name, but they look over at us. Now, I know you’re a good kid. All I want you to do is show people how good a kid you are by doing what the coach says.”

I am not sure if he got this lesson, or even if he remembers this talk. But later, as I reflected on this discipline of my son, I remembered that as a Christian I, too, am a child of God. You are a child of God. But we must all be careful.  Questions about our character, goals, choices, or values are not about us.  They are about how well our Father has fathered us.  If our life is indistinguishable from the non-Christians’, then we reflect a Father who has taught us to compromise with the neighboring pagans.  But if our actions reflect the teaching and wisdom of Christ, if others can listen to your words and recognize the voice of God, then you will not only be set apart as a member of a distinguishable family, but you will also demonstrate the perfection and holiness of  God – our Father.

It is not enough to be a good teammate of the other Christians around you. It is not enough to have fun and enjoy looking like a strong and able Christian. It is not enough to enjoy the joy of fellowship or worshiping God. Who knows? Maybe, if we are paying attention, standing beside the coach to be used at a moment’s notice, we will hear the coach calling for us and get into the game.