Thursday, September 29, 2005

Laminate Floors and Little Feet

A couple of years ago Tori and I decided that it was time to do something about our nasty carpets. We inherited the carpet when we bought the house in '01, and knew that it would be a matter of time before we had to update them. First, they we worn and a bit skanky upon occupancy. Our two babies and their diverse bodily excretions spread liberally throughout our domecile didn't help the situation. Add in my tendency to break the rules and eat my pizza rolls, oreos and milk, etc. sitting in various carpeted areas throughout the house (This blog is not about my horrendous eating habits, so let's move on). There you have a nasty carpet situation on your hands.

Well, we began considering our options. I wanted the circa 1975 thick purple shag throughout the house, but I have never been the one with a lot of home decor sense. We both love hardwood floors, but realized to put in hardwood floors would cost more than the house itself. It would be like putting a state of the art mega-righteous sound system in my old college '77 datsun that I ultimately had to pay someone to remove from my front lawn. So, given all the possibilities, we went for 'laminate flooring'.

Now, I know that sounds hokey. I imagine one of those big hot roller machines from my elementary school that was used to laminate various drawings, projects, pictures and calendars, so that they could be preserved for a lifetime, providing fond remembrances and many tears for my mother as she came across them in the attic years into the future. But, to my chagrin, they didn't bring one of those to our house to install the floors. In fact, the crew that installed our laminate flooring is fodder for yet another, future blog post. Anyway, laminate looks just like wood flooring, just much cheaper, and it doesn't last as long. It is the flooring of the average joe.

Well, this floor can be quickly distinguished from wood floors when you step on it. It is sturdy enough, but definitely a bit flimsier than normal wood. And this is the thing I love about our new floors. There is a distinct clickity clack pitter patter sound that little feet make as they scurry across it.

It is the sound of Bo and Tess early in the morning making their way across the house to wake up Mom and Dad. It is the sound of little ones sneaking out of their room far beyond bedtime, delicately approaching the bathroom for a drink of water. It is the sound of hurried feet slipping and sliding around tables, sofas, and corners as Dad chases them through the house. It is the sound I think I will never forget, the sound of a special season of my life. The years when my little ones fit on my lap. The years when they could not slip off to sleep without a story, a song, a prayer, and endless kisses and hugs. The years when Dad was the funniest man on earth. The years when Mom was the most beautiful woman in the world. The years when we were young and full of hope and fear and joy and dreams.

Those floors were a great investment.


Some Thoughts on Comfort and the Heidelberg Catechism

I do not like pain. I have never had a stitch, never a broken bone, and my only extended stay in a hospital was after little Esther’s birth. From what I gather all the above are usually quite painful or the result of some sort of painful experience (I will say Esther’s arrival came after seven hours of labor and some screaming and yelling- though I was only a queasy onlooker, I did most of the screaming and yelling). Some go through life with the inspiring yet nauseating, ‘No Pain, No Gain’ motto oft uttered from their lips. I, on the other hand, offer a more reasoned and sensible motto: “No pain…well, no pain”.

Besides pain, I also try to steer clear of discomfort. I like to be comfortable, and I feel that comfort suits me quite well. This is one reason I often avoid camping trips like the plague. Sure, I’ll go if you pay me, because it is the right thing to do as a good American. But if you have the pleasure of my company on a campout, you can be assured that I will remind you of my discomfort with regularity. I feel that mosquitoes and other creeping and crawling things are my enemies, and tents are often smelly habitations that I can neither assemble nor sleep in with any sort of success. Tori and I were able to spend part of our honeymoon at Yosemite National Park in Northern California. While others were hiking and camping, we enjoyed the sights and the beauty of God’s creation while eating ice cream cones from the quaint café in the middle of the park. Another motto of mine goes like this: “Why camp when you can get a room with cable and a hot shower?” I have yet to find a reasonable answer to this question.

As one who is not a fan of pain, and seeks to avoid discomfort, I am intrigued by the first question put forth in the Heidelberg Catechism, “What is your only comfort in life and death?”. Before I tell you the answer to this question, let me tell you a bit about the Heidelberg Catechism itself. The word ‘catechism’ comes from the Greek word meaning ‘to teach by word of mouth; to teach the sayings of another by way of repetition’. Throughout the history of the Church catechisms written in a question/answer format have been used as tools for communicating the doctrines and truths of Scripture to new converts and children in a systematic and straightforward manner. Two young theologians in Heidelberg, Germany penned the Heidelberg Catechism at the height of the Reformation in 1562. The chief author was a man named Zacharias Ursinus, a professor of theology at the University of Heidelberg. The other contributor was Caspar Olevanius, court preacher of one of Germany’s princes, Frederick III. Though only 28 and 26 years old, respectively, these men penned a document, which has become one of the shining stars of the Reformation. Most of the traditional Reformed Churches in America have adopted this catechism and still use it to teach children in the church (some of you from a Dutch reformed background may remember long hours of catechism class from your childhood). Clearly articulating the truths of the Reformed faith, the Heidelberg Catechism seeks to deal not only with the rational and cognitive aspects of Christian doctrine, but the affective, or emotional and experiential, aspects as well. This more ‘holistic’ attempt in the Catechism is conveyed in the question and answer with which it begins.

The question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” is an interesting one. It gets right to the heart of things. Sometimes, in fact often times, the Christian life can be difficult and filled with trials. As Christians we need to be reminded constantly of our true source of comfort. During our time together on Sunday mornings we have been looking at a letter from the Apostle Paul while imprisoned in Rome. We can be sure that his imprisonment caused him no little discomfort. But, rather than seeking an escape from his pain and discomfort, which is the natural (or carnal) reaction, Paul realized that his discomfort served as a sort of tutor, leading him to a better understanding of the sufferings of Christ on his behalf. Paul also realized his discomfort became the vehicle that God used to advance the Good News about Jesus Christ. Throughout his ministry the Apostle Paul began to see that the purpose of his life was to bring glory to God. And this was achieved in his discomfort as well as his comfort. No matter what, Paul wanted the truth of Christ to be proclaimed in every circumstance. This is why he could say so boldly, “For me, to live is Christ…” (Phil. 1:21). With such an attitude, Paul could look at his imprisonment and impending martyrdom without fear. If his whole life were lived to glorify Christ and herald His truth, then eternity would be spent in the very presence of the King of Glory. And so he could finish the verse begun above, “…and to die is gain.”

As one who rarely seeks God’s glory in my discomfort, I stand under great conviction as we move through Philippians, which may be subtitled, ‘Paul’s letter of rejoicing in times of trial’. I need to hear Paul’s words to the church in Rome, “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:7-8). I often live to myself, seeking carnal comforts and worldly substitutes for the Christian’s only real comfort in this life: Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. If we live for worldly comfort then we are unable to see God’s purpose and providential hand in our trial and pain. This leads us to the answer given by the Heidelberg Catechism to its first question, “What is your only comfort in life and death?”

Answer: That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own,
but belong to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ; who, with his precious
blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all
the power of the devil and so preserves me that without the will of
my heavenly Father, not a hair can fall from my head; yes, that all
things must be subservient to my salvation, and therefore, by His
Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me
sincerely willing and ready henceforth to live unto Him.

It is my prayer that we will affirm this sentiment written some 450 years ago by two German theologians, because it is rooted in truth written some 2000 years ago in Paul’s letter to Corinth, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows.” (2 Cor. 1:3-5).

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A Jealous God? Some Thoughts on Remembering Our First Love

Our first four months of marriage got off to a rocky start. No, we weren’t questioning our vows or despairing over whether we did the right thing or not. We were married at the end of May and I was supposed to be accepted into the University of Florida in June for summer classes. A couple of weeks into marital bliss and I found out that, because of bureaucratic glitches and other things (like a couple of below average grades my freshman year in Community College- but I like to think it was just because of a faulty bureaucracy), I was not accepted into my college at the University of Florida. This meant that we would not be able to live in student housing. This meant we would not have a place to live. After speaking with the dean and putting on the old Braun charm- I wept and begged – she told me that I would be accepted on the condition that I take a summer humanities course at the community college and get an A. It so happened that this class was taught by an openly gay Marxist atheist who wasn’t fond of born again Republican youth pastors preparing for seminary. All this was par for the course during the summer of 1995. So we spent our first summer together wandering from one house-sitting job to another, working part-time jobs, with me in school every Wednesday night cowering in the back of the room praying for an A.

The class time that summer was spent mainly in attacking Christianity and Western Civilization. It was not uncommon for the students to show up on Wednesday nights armed with some new glitch they found in the Bible or some horrific crime perpetrated in God’s name some time in the past. As the token fundamentalist doofus, I was the main target each week and was expected to know the intricacies of Old Testament history and Levitical law at the drop of a hat, being the spokesman and representative of some 400 years of protestant biblical criticism, responsible for the actions of all those everywhere who bear the name of Christ.

On one occasion the debate turned to the Ten Commandments. One student asked me why God tells us in the tenth commandment that we should not covet, but in the second commandment He tells us that He is a jealous God. Rather than getting into the obvious difficulties and logical fallacies of this young man’s argument, I decided that I could use this question to relate a bit about what it means to be a Christian. His comment also caused me to examine the nature and character of God and why I am happy He is a jealous God. My response went something like this (at least this is the way it is replayed in my head):

“I was married just a month or so ago. On May 20th I made serious vows to this woman because I love her with a powerful and deeply intimate love, a love that involves commitment, integrity, and trust. Would you agree that I would be justified and right to feel angry and jealous if she came to me one evening and told me that she had met someone new and was forsaking our vows to each other? Some of you have been betrayed and hurt in relationships based on trust and integrity. Was your hurt- your jealousy- wrong? The bible tells us that from the beginning God has been calling a people to himself for a loving, personal, and intimate relationship. The bible describes the relationship between God and His people as a marriage relationship. But God’s people often wander from the one who created them for Himself and loved them with an unrivaled passion. They turn to petty and trivial delights which never satisfy and give no love in return. The fact is that God’s words in the tenth commandment are established in the second. When we covet our neighbor we are turning away from our God and his provision for us. But he is jealous- he won’t let us forsake him for long. He will seek us out and bring us back into a loving and personal relationship with Him. Ultimately, the coming of Jesus Christ to pay for sin and provide forgiveness flows out of the jealousy of God. He eagerly desires our love and our fellowship. He has renewed the vows, so to speak, in the work of Jesus Christ. This is why the New Testament calls the church a Bride and Jesus Christ the Bride-Groom. So, I am glad that my God is a jealous God.”

No one walked the aisle that evening, actually, no one seemed to buy my response. But my professor was intrigued by what I said. We had a long discussion about it after class, and I could tell that something of what I said rang true for him. From then on, we actually began to develop a sort of quasi-friendship (always tempered by his suspicions about my Christian commitments). I did get an A that summer and ultimately I was accepted to UF and we lived in married housing. But I began to think hard about my remarks that night. How often do I break the second and tenth commandments? How often do I turn from the loving relationship provided by my heavenly Father through His Son, worshipping the gods of self and materialism, coveting my neighbor and questioning God’s loving hand in my life? 1 John 4:10 says, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” In 4:19 we read, “We love because he first loved us.” God was so jealous for my affection that He sent His only Son to restore me as His bride, and reconcile our sin-fractured relationship.

If all this is true, then why do I not spend more time in adoration of my Bride-Groom? Why do I so often bring the idols of pride and self aggrandizement into worship with me? The relationship between a bride and her bride-groom is one of adoration, intimacy, and righteous jealousy. But so little of my worship is characterized by heart felt adoration for the God who bought me at such a price. My worship often is so shallow and skin deep, concerned more about my earthly needs than God’s heavenly demands. I rarely am jealous for more time with my Savior and my God. My time in worship is governed and prioritized mostly by the trivial urgencies of my own design rather than the eternal realities revealed in God’s Word.

And what is the remedy? In a word, repentance. This is the message of a jealous God to His adulterous bride in Revelation 2: 4-5, “You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first.” I recall that first summer Tori and I spent together. Our marriage became a word picture for me to relate the truth of the gospel to hostile unbelievers. As I often have to reflect upon my love vows to my wife in the mundane pace of daily life, so I also need to remember the zeal with which I have served my Savior in the past. Not because I am duty bound by legal obligation, but because I was saved from sin and made a son by my heavenly Father who is a jealous God.

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Is Humanity a Waste of Space?

A few years back Jodie Foster starred in the movie Contact that was scripted by the late agnostic astronomy-Guru Carl Sagan. The movie attempted (in typical Hollywood fashion- Matthew McConaughey plays a hunky theologian) to deal with some of the questions that have perplexed and plagued mankind throughout history: Why are we here? Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? Foster’s character is on a tireless crusade to prove that there is intelligent life out there in the cosmos (filled with billions and billions of stars and galaxies), though her search is often foiled by political spin-doctors and power hungry scientists. Ultimately Sagan’s worldview breaks through loud and clear with the close of the film when Foster’s character is asked by a group of schoolchildren on a field trip if there is life in the universe, on some distant planet, in some far off galaxy. The answer is given: “If not, then all this sure is a waste of space.”

There is a problem with Sagan’s worldview on a variety of levels. First, it ignores the incredible studies and findings that have surfaced in the field of physics in fairly recent history. One of the most significant studies was dropped like a bomb on the scientific community in 1973 by an astrophysicist from Cambridge, Brandon Carter. Carter developed a notion he called the ‘anthropic principle’ in physics (coming from the Greek word for man, ‘anthropos’). Basically, Carter’s thesis was this: It seems that the mysterious fundamental forces of physics, the ‘constants’ which we recognize as necessary yet inexplicable on a basic level (gravity, for example) are held in a intricate and delicate balance in order to produce a universe which would sustain and uphold human life. Further, it seemed to Carter that billions of years of evolution moved amazingly toward the goal of creating human life. Now, Carter’s theological commitments are ambiguous, to say the least, and he doesn’t attempt to answer a variety of biological questions regarding the biblical narrative surrounding creation. But his thesis is an incredible one, and has been the source of no little debate in the scientific community. How is it that man seems to stand at the center of such a vast and intricate mystery? If any of the ‘constants’ of physics are altered in the least, then human life is unable to continue. The laws of the physical universe sustain and uphold human life in an astounding way, and the more physicists discover of the universe, mankind’s existence becomes more and more baffling to those who have no ‘theological center’ to provide the answers to their questions. It seems that the more we learn about ‘space’ and the universe we realize that none of it is ‘wasted’ but is part of a created order, held in a delicate balance, in order to sustain the lives of human beings who stand at the center.

This brings me to the ‘theological’ problem with Sagan’s worldview. What a hopeless and devastating outlook! It is a common sentiment in our postmodern age. It is the sentiment which pervades every corner of a secularized community. In a world with no theological reference point we are simply a waste of space. With no theological reference point, one faces a vast and random universe and realizes he is only a blip on the screen. If indeed, as Sagan himself often said, “the cosmos is all that ever was and all that ever will be”, then we should not be surprised that we live in a culture of despair and hopelessness.

So what is the Christian’s response to the jaded philosophy of despair that has seeped into our culture? It is found in Genesis 1:26-27, 31, “Then God said, Let us make man in our image, in our likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Carter’s anthropic principle espouses an ancient and biblical doctrine, the doctrine of the imago Dei, that God has indeed created the universe for the purpose of sustaining human life, life which reflects his own image. Human life is precious and full of worth because humanity reflects, even in a fallen world, the image and likeness of our sovereign God.

But there is more to the biblical answer. The Apostle Paul says this in his description of the person of Christ in Colossians 1:15-20, “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible…in him all things hold together…For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” Though made in the image of God, man fell into sin and depravity. Yet his inherent dignity and worth remains and is shown in the reality that the same God who created us in His image, became man to reconcile us to himself. What a powerful message to proclaim to our culture of despair. God has created the universe for his own glory, and God has sent his Son to redeem a fallen race, to reconcile alienated and sinful men. The God of the universe entered time and space, was incarnated (made flesh) to redeem us. No Christian should ever entertain for a moment the thought that in comparison to the vast reaches of outer space that we are just a waste of space. The cross of Christ is proof positive that all things (including our immense universe) were created for God’s glory- and the most glorious event to have occurred since the beginning of time is beheld at Calvary. And it is there that we find our purpose, our worth, and our dignity. And it is to Calvary that we should point our despairing and hopeless culture.

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Lessons from the 'School of the Pulpit': Prayer

I have mentioned before in my sermons that God works mightily in my life through the ‘school of the pulpit’. It seems that whatever we have before us in the text from week to week becomes a point of great conviction in my personal life. As I meditate upon the passage at hand, spending time in my study to prepare and work through my sermon, God is thumping away at my heart. One great Bible scholar, Bruce Metzger, said it best when asked what role intense study has in the preparation of sermons, “Apply yourself wholly to the text and apply the text wholly to yourself.” I have been grateful to God that he continues to soften my heart with personal application as I apply myself to the study of God’s Word from week to week.

This past week was a particularly intense one for me in the school of the pulpit. We took some time to jump from Philippians into the topic of prayer. I meant what I said about my trepidation in approaching such a theme in a sermon because prayer is one of my great failings. For every moment of sermon preparation I was convicted that I needed to spend more of my preparation upon my knees. For every hour of administrative business throughout the week I need to spend two in prayer. Not only am I too lazy to apply these principles, but I am faithless. My tendency towards ‘works righteousness’ leads me to a belief that prayer is ok, but it’s the duty- bound Pharisee in me that will make things happen. If only this recovering Pharisee would believe that the real ‘business’ and ‘duty’ of the believer who lives under grace is to fall upon his knees and surrender to the living God!

How can we become more disciplined and ardent pray-ers? Let me put some challenges before you that God has used in my own life to help me along the way.

“And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.” Mark 1:35

Set aside time to retreat and pray. Trade mornings with your spouse to cover the hectic goings on and find a secluded place to pray. If you can get away one morning a month and enjoy fellowship and intimacy with your Father, it will refresh and revive your daily and weekly prayer life.

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.” James 5:16

Find a prayer partner. Covenant with one another to hold each other accountable in your prayer lives. Look for someone who might mentor you in prayer. Seek out that righteous woman or man who will be able to pray effectively with you and for you. Be open with one another, confessing and laying your lives before them.

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” John 15:7

Immerse yourself in the Word of God and in meditation upon the Word. The key to conforming your will to God’s is to ‘abide’ or ‘remain’ in His Word. Soren Kierkegaard said this: “A man prayed, and at first he thought that prayer was talking. But he became more and more quiet until in the end he realized that prayer was listening.” Spend a good portion of your prayer time listening to God as He speaks to you through His Word. Remember that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God (Ephesians 6:17). If we are reading, listening, meditating, and abiding in that Word, the Spirit will do His work “penetrating even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; judging the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

“I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to him, as I rejoice in the LORD.” Psalm 104:33

Begin to integrate songs of praise and thanksgiving to God as you pray. This may seem awkward at first. You might not be Twila Paris, but your songs delight the ears of your heavenly Father. Go to the Christian bookstore and buy a songbook or hymnal and have it ready in your prayer time. Sometimes I think that bursting forth in song is the only appropriate response of a sinner saved by grace.

“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” Colossians 4:2

Ask the Lord to make you a devoted and watchful pray-er. Don’t grow lethargic as the day progresses. When we are called to pray without ceasing we are called be ready to pray at a moment’s notice. Devotion to prayer is being open to the Spirit’s leading throughout the mundane activities of your day and responding in prayer. How often have I left a conversation with someone feeling that I have quenched the Spirit by not praying with them and for them? How often have I neglected prayer before going into a meeting or before calling someone on the phone? Is my heart a tender place where the Spirit may poke and prod throughout the day, leading me into prayer? The great prayer warriors aren’t those who can pray the longest, or use the most colorful and theologically precise language. A prayer warrior is one who is devoted to prayer, ever watchful, ready to go before the throne when necessary, whatever the situation.

Just some lessons and challenges from the ‘school of the pulpit’ that I thought I might pass on to the Four Oaks family. Let us heed the words of the Lord to Solomon in
2 Chronicles 7:14, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”