Writing Time

I have been writing for almost as long as I can remember. I think, in my own way, I was writing before I even came to learn about letters and words. There are times I can recall from my earliest days of childhood where I would think up stories in my head and either talk or play them out in my room. Letters and words were only the tools I needed to call what I was doing “writing”.

One of my favorite assignments in school was when we would have to take all of our spelling words and use them in a story. I remember one story I wrote from 1st grade about an Orca whale who read the Bible. Never mind the fact that whales cannot read and that paper turns to mush under water. If I could write it, I always felt like it made it real somehow. Words and stories open up possibilities that can exist nowhere else – not even in the movies.

As I grew older – I am not sure if I have ever grown up – no matter how often my dream career changed, I always thought writing was a given. After all, one can write regardless of what one does to pay the bills. But here is where I have discovered the limits of writing: you cannot write time.

All throughout my life and all throughout my education, I was always able to find time to pursue my enthusiasm for putting words onto an empty page. I was perusing through an old thumb drive the other day and was a bit surprised by just how much I had written: short stories, poems, incomplete novels, and more. There was a time I was blogging fairly regularly and enjoying it immensely. I even managed to complete a novella. But then life happened.

Life happening does not mean “bad things” in any way. It just means that I got busier with other, more important things. Back in 2013, my life changed pretty dramatically in just a couple of months. In September I got married. In October I began pastoring a church. It would be fair to say that writing was no longer a top priority. I suppose that would be okay if that were only for a season – but it’s safe to say that five and a half years is a little more than a season.

That is not to say I have not written in the last five years! Actually, I write every week: a sermon manuscript. Of course, writing sermons is a significantly different kind of writing in my opinion. But I have also dabbed a bit in some creative writing. There have been the occasional blog posts and stories (most of which never got completed). But it has never been how I always imagined it would be. There just never seems to be enough hours in the day.

My life is once again about to change significantly: My wife and I our expecting our first child this July! Just as I was writing this, my wife called me over to feel her tummy and I was able to feel our little baby (“Spud”) kick for the first time. Anticipating this baby is like nothing else I have every experienced.

But I have come to a realization over the past couple of months – it’s now or never. If I do not make the decision to make writing a priority now then it will never happen. I will lose this hobby that I once dearly love. Life will always be in flux. There will always be other things that need to be done. And the reality is, there are not looking to be any more hours added to the day anytime soon. I am stuck with the same measly 24 hours as everyone else. Boo!

I cannot write time any more than I can make time. What I can do is find time. Over the past few weeks – thanks largely to the encouragement of my wife – I have taken just 30 minutes to an hour each evening to practice my writing. It is not much but it is more than I have been doing for the last five years. What I have found is that there is actually more time available than I have ever known. In our day and age of social media and endless information in which to scroll, it can be frightening to realize how much time we waste.

We all only have the same 24 hours a day. What we do with that time reflects our priorities. I can say that writing is a priority – but unless I can demonstrate that with my time, I am full of bologna.

Time is seemingly becoming a more valuable resource by the day. After five years in ministry now, I have discovered that time is one of the last things people are willing to give. Many people will write a check long before they will contribute their time. Time is a resource. But unlike money, we are all pretty much on the same playing field. 24 hours is 24 hours.

Looking at my future, I realize that I do not have a clue how much my life is going to change once we have this baby. But what I do know is that I love this baby, my wife, Jesus, my ministry, and myself far too much to lose something that I have loved for so long. The last thing I want is to allow resentment to gain a hold of my heart to where I start blaming the people that I love for taking away from me something that I love doing when the only person I could really blame would be myself.

So I am beginning the habit now of writing every day (or just about every day, at least). I am frustrated with how rusty I am! But at this point, it does not really matter if what I write is worth two cents. I am finding life and energy that I had not even realized I had been missing over the last few years. And with a baby on the way, I need as much life and energy as I can get!

Advertisements

Sabbath and the American Dream

monday-reflectionsWhat do we value as a society?

One of my favorite movies over the past several years is Nightcrawler directed by Dan Gilroy and starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The film tells the story of Lou Bloom who is a persistent and focused hard-worker. Lou decides to start his own small business as a filmmaker of sorts, videotaping nighttime events such as car accidents, burglaries, and the likes for a local news station. He is quite good at his job and the business expands.

The story begins with Lou desperately looking for a job. It ends with him being the owner and manager of a very successful TV news business. Another great rags to riches story.

There’s just one problem: Lou Bloom is a sociopath.

He tampers with crime scenes to get a better shot. He manipulates the police and creates crimes of his own by withholding information. He blackmails a colleague to fulfill his own sexual cravings. Lou has no problem exploiting law enforcement, crime victims, as well as his co-workers in order to advance his own life and career.

Yet society rewards him because he is a hard-worker

Granted, this is a fictional story. It never happened. Yet, perhaps in some ways, it happens every day.

It comes back to that question: what do we value as a society?

Oftentimes, if we are honest with that answer, we value hard-work, diligence, and, ultimately, productivity. The American Dream is the idea that we can be anything we want to be if we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (whatever those are) and get it done.

In theory, we say we value ideals such as honesty, integrity, and morality. But consider George and Matt:

George is physically strong, agile, and attractive. He has been in the work force since the day he turned 16. He has worked both blue-collar and white-collar jobs. His employers give him nothing but praise, calling him “self-motivated”, “focused”, and “persistent”.

Meanwhile, Matt is weak, underweight, and appears rather sickly and homely. In fact, he can barely walk without a cane. Matt struggled throughout his education and barely graduated high school. College was out of the question. His employers say that he is easily distracted, calls in sick too often, and has a difficult time understanding basic instructions.

Now, without saying anything regarding these two men’s integrity, which of these men will be primed for what society refers to as “success”?

So regardless of what we say we value as a society — the answer seems all too clear.

In fact, if we take a look at how we understand “success”, we continue to see that we put more emphasis on productivity than we do any notion of morality. We ask children “what they want to be when they grow up” and we expect them to give us the name of an occupation. A doctor. A teacher. An athlete.

We don’t expect to hear answers such as “a generous woman” or “a Godly man”. Those are not as easy to define and they are too abstract to be given the label of “success”.

So what we really mean is: “How are you going to be productive when you grow up?”

In such a culture where productivity and efficiency is praised above all else, those of us who desire to be faithful citizens of God’s Kingdom are in need of a reminder of Sabbath. In a world that is constantly praising business, we can take time to step away from that world and find rest in the arms of God. We need time to remember that God loves and values us regardless of our “success”, or lack-thereof, in the world.

Sabbath is not only about rest. It is also about refusing to worship the idols of production and the almighty dollar. It is declare to a world that says, “You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps” that no, we cannot. We cannot lift ourselves up on our own. We need the grace of God. We need the Lord’s help. We need Jesus.


Monday Morning Sermon: Give Us Today Our Daily Broccoli

broccoli-166948_640

                        Photo by PDPics licensed under CC0 Public Domain.

“‘This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.’”

Matthew 6:9-13

The older I get the more I realize how blessed of a childhood I had. I grew up living the American Dream in so many ways. I had a nice house in a nice neighborhood. My parents are still together to this day – happily so. My sisters and I got along for the most part. Every night for dinner we would all eat together at the family table. You don’t see pictures of families like that very often anymore and that’s a shame.

Yet even for a healthy family like mine, the dinner table was not always a peaceful place. Wars were fought at the dinner table and I was the cause for many of those wars. Now, what you are probably thinking is that I was a spoiled brat causing problems or something. But once I share my side of the story you’ll understand that I was the victim. See, my parents kept trying to put this substance on my plate and, I’m telling you, it was something that the human body is not supposed to consume. It was green, it had a stem, and it had little leaves on the top. It looked like a little baby tree. They told me, “Andrew, you don’t get to leave the table until you eat all those little trees.” I’m thinking, “You’re trying to kill me, aren’t you?”

So I came up with some battle strategies. Plan A: I just cry and scream and whine until they give in. Plan A never worked very well; I just got spanked and then I had to eat the baby trees anyway. Plan B: Milk is opaque. When you put the trees in the milk they become invisible. Plan B didn’t work; they found the trees when dumping my milk so then I would have to eat milky trees. That’s where Plan C came in: I can just throw the trees on the floor and they’ll never know the difference. I tried that once and my dad caught me so I got in pretty big trouble.

Okay, maybe I was just a spoiled brat. Here I am, such a lucky kid who never has to worry about food being on the table and I spend my time complaining with what I have. What I really needed to learn as a kid was the Lord’s Prayer.

“Give us today our daily bread.” That doesn’t sound too complicated a thing to ask. It’s short. It’s simple. What else is there to say about it? This prayer is simply asking for God to provide for our needs. It’s not necessarily literal bread but it is the material needs that we have in this world. We already do that, don’t we? We ask for God to give us the things we need.

Well, I am not so sure that we do. Praying the Lord’s Prayer is difficult because it is asking God to interfere with our life, our boundaries, and our values. So, we often merely recite the prayer rather than pray it. We may say the words, “Give us today our daily bread.” But are we really asking God to do that for us – or do we feel that God has bigger things on His mind?

After all, there is unrest in the Middle East – God should be working to take care of that. There is a presidential election coming up next year – maybe God should be focusing on ensuring the right candidate gets voted in. There is the cliché that there are children starving in Africa – they need their daily bread. But we can take care of our own, right? We do not need God to provide that for us. After all, we live in America where we can work hard and provide for ourselves.

I spent some time this week looking up definitions for the “American Dream”. Every definition that I read had its own spin on exactly how to define it but there were some key words and phrases that I saw in just about all the definitions. “Opportunity”, “Equality”, “Freedom”, “Liberty”, “The pursuit of happiness”, and “hard work”. Essentially, we define the American Dream as the idea that, in America, you can be whoever you want to be if you work hard enough. You can achieve all that you want to achieve. You can have all that you need and want to have. Because in America all are created equal and we all have the opportunity to become successful.

In America, no one needs to provide our daily bread for us. At least that’s what we seem to believe. But remember – the gospel has a way of challenging our values. The one who believes in the American Dream does not find it necessary to pray, “Give us today our daily bread”. The one who prays the Lord’s Prayer rejects the American Dream because it is to admit that we cannot sustain ourselves and we are dependent upon the grace of God in all things.

See, we like to pretend that God has His little boundary in our life. He affects us spiritually. He makes us better morally. But we don’t need Him to provide for us materially because we can do that ourselves – at least we want to. We need God’s grace to save us from sin but we earn the food on our table. We earn the roof over our head. We decide what the bread that we need is. God just needs to stay in His boundary, right? Because otherwise, we become a little too dependent on Him and when that happens we lose control.

Now, don’t get me wrong – it is important that we work hard to put food on the table and to do what we can to make a life for ourselves. Praying this prayer is not an excuse for laziness.

There are some “preachers” out there who will say that they do not spend any time working on a sermon throughout the week. In fact, they’ll say that even come Sunday morning they don’t know what passage they’re going to look through. They’re just going to be led by the Spirit and preach what He is wanting them to preach.

I have a couple of words for preachers with that kind of mentality. One of them is lazy. Every Sunday morning, you bet I am praying desperately that God gives me the words to say and that I don’t get in the way of what He is trying to do. But if Sunday is the first time I’m expecting the Holy Spirit to lead me then I’m in trouble. Because I need to be praying that He leads me all throughout the week as I study, as I wrestle with the passage, as I write out the words that I want to use. When I write a sermon I work hard. Just because I am seeking for the Lord to lead me does not mean that I sit around all week and do nothing. But I also understand that no matter how hard I work, on my own strength my efforts will amount to nothing.

It’s good to work hard but we all have to realize that it is the Lord that sustains us not our own hard work. There is actually very little that we can control.

That is what I learned when I was little kid whining about eating my broccoli. You know what’s great about my parents: when I was a good kid, obeying all the rules, finishing any chores that were asked of me, my parents would put food on the table for me. And when I was not a good kid, when I didn’t obey the rules, and when I didn’t do what was asked of me, my parents still put food on the table for me. That was not a conditional thing and it was not something that I could control in one way or another by my behavior. They just provided for me. But I also didn’t get to choose what they fed me. Sometimes I had broccoli put on my plate and so I often found it easier to complain than to actually trust that my parents were seeking out my best interest.

It is much easier to complain than it is to trust.  See, when we complain we get to play the victim and everyone loves a good victim. Turn on the news and there’s always a new victim that we need to be sensitive towards. Kids are “victims” of bullying. Gays and lesbians are “victims” of discrimination. Christians are “victims” of religious persecution. Immigrants are “victims” of unjust legislation. Veterans are “victims” of an unthankful country. I do not mean to be insensitive because many of those individuals are certainly mistreated. But it illustrates how much we love to be the victim. It gives power behind our complaint. It allows others to feel sympathetic for us. It puts the attention on us. And it allows us to try to gain control back rather than being dependent upon God.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t seem to give any room for complaining. Because we turn to our Father in heaven and ask Him for our daily bread – for what we need – and when we truly pray that prayer we believe He can and will provide for us. So there’s nothing to complain about. It’s out of our hands. There is nothing to worry about because we believe that God has it under control. He will sustain us.

Every time that I complained as a child about what parents fed me I was telling them that I did not trust them to give me what was needed. Every time that we complain we are telling God that we do not trust Him to give us today our daily bread.

To pray the Lord’s Prayer is to be reminded that God is our Father in heaven, and like the best of father’s here on earth, He’s going to provide for us. And yes, we need Him to provide for us. We need Him to give us our daily bread. It may not always be what we want. There will be times He may give us something akin to broccoli. But when we pray, “Give us today our daily bread.” We are praying with confidence that God will sustain us.

God cares about our physical needs and He is present in the daily circumstances of our life. God is not only “out there” making His will done, He is also providing us something as simple as bread. We work hard to do what we can but we understand that it is ultimately God who gives us the strength to do the work and it is God who puts the food on our table.

And this challenges us because we grew up believing in something called the American Dream. We believed that if we worked hard enough that we could decide what is best for us: what we need and what we want. The Lord’s Prayer rejects that idea because it says we are dependent upon God to sustain us. We have to trust Him rather than our own strength. So here’s a new dream, a better one I have found: We are a people who seeks that God’s will is done in this world and that is what we live for. We do not chase after our own desires or affluence, we live to be God’s hands and feet in this world. We don’t need, we don’t want the materialistic possessions that the world finds so important. And we trust that in the daily grind the Lord cares about us and for us and He will provide what we need to survive.

In this dream there is no room for complaining because God is present and we can trust Him to give us today our daily bread – even if it is broccoli.


Monday Morning Sermon: Giving God Our Coloring Book

“‘This, then, is how you should pray:

‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.'”

Matthew 6:9-13

When I was a young child, like many young children, I was given coloring books and crayons so that I might be entertained. There were no “rules” to this per se, as long as I did not make a mess by coloring on things off the page. The line between the coloring book and the table was a boundary that I was told I needed to respect. As I matured my boundaries narrowed. I was told that I needed to stay within the lines on the page. I could choose whatever colors I wanted but I needed to try to stay within those lines – those were my new boundaries.

The elementary school I attended had two “fields”. One was smaller, had playground equipment, and was fenced in. The other field was much larger and more open. It was used for baseball or football and it had no fences. We called the two fields, quite appropriately, the “big field” and the “small field”. Younger children were rarely allowed on the big field. So for some time the fence on the small field was my boundary. When I was finally allowed to play on the big field during lunch and recess, there was no fence but we were not allowed to go beyond certain points. “You can’t pass the parking lot”, they said. “You can’t cross the railroad tracks.” “You can’t cross the alleyway”. Those were now my new boundaries.

When I attended high school, I had to take a biology class. When we got to the topic of evolution, our teacher told us that this was a time to set our faith aside for a while. My teacher said that faith has its place and science has its place. But she made it clear that there was a boundary between the two.

As I matured I grew accustomed to the fact that everything has its boundaries – a place where it belongs. Countries and people have boundaries. Different schools of thought have boundaries. Politics has its boundaries. Our values have boundaries. Some of these boundaries are clearly defined for us; a border between countries, for example. Others are more abstract but are still very much present.

The problem with the gospel is that it has a way of breaking through those boundaries that we have come to find so important. The gospel doesn’t always stay in the lines of the coloring book; in fact, it doesn’t even always stay on the page.

This is probably why most of us are not bold enough to pray the Lord’s Prayer.

This is a prayer that is often recited but it is rarely prayed. What I mean by that is that we have grown so accustomed to the words that when we do say them we are simply mimicking what we have heard in Sunday School.

We cannot pray this prayer because we do not believe its words. See, what we pray reveals what we believe about God. A person who prays the Lord ’s Prayer believes that God is our Father in heaven – which means that He is both intimate (because He is our Father) and He is also a clear authority (because He is our Father in heaven). The one who prays this prayer is asking that God’s name be hallowed, or set-apart.  To pray, “Hallowed be your name” is to request that God be a unique presence in this world; an authority dependent on no other.

The one who prays this prayer is asking that God’s kingdom become even more present than the kingdoms of this world. It is to desire to see the Kingdom of Heaven overcoming the kingdoms of humanity.

But we don’t believe this prayer because we certainly don’t live like we believe it. We don’t see God as our set-apart authority, dependent on no other. We don’t see His kingdom as greater than kingdoms of our world.

Unless you have been living under a rock for the past couple of months, then you know that gay marriage is now legal in all 50 states. When the Supreme Court made that decision, there were two reactions that I noticed. On the one hand you had those celebrating this as a victory for civil rights. On the other hand you had those who cried that this went against the authority of scripture and against the authority of God. Not too long ago, a county clerk in Kentucky named Kim Davis was thrown in jail for not giving marriage certificates to gay couples. When asked on whose authority she did this, she said on God’s authority. Once again, there were two sides in this debate. One side said that she was discriminating against these couples. The other side said that she was standing up for God’s authority.

Throughout this whole debate I have realized something that bothers me about the way our country has reacted on both sides: we don’t see God as a set-apart authority. We don’t want His name to be hallowed or holy. We want to ignore His authority completely when it clashes with our own agendas. Or we assume that His authority is somehow at stake because a country says that a piece of paper and a law defines marriage rather than God. Which means that we believe His authority is dependent upon what our country calls reality. So no, we apparently don’t want His name to be hallowed. We don’t want His kingdom to come because we see the kingdom of this world as the final authority.

On Christmas in 1914, there was an unofficial cease fire on the western front between German and British soldiers. The two opposing armies lit Christmas trees together, exchanged gifts, played football, and celebrated the birth of our savior. On that one day, the world got to see a glimpse (just a glimpse) of what the gospel thinks of the boundaries of this world. Because on that day there were no Germans nor Englishman. There were neither French nor Austrian. As Paul says in Galatians, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28, NIV).

It seems that the reason that we do not pray the Lord’s Prayer is because we are afraid of Him, His Kingdom, and His will messing with the boundaries that we have created and have become so comfortable with. When we allow God’s will to be done in our world, our values tend to be messed with. We think a poor boy who pulls himself up by his bootstraps to become rich is a hero and the rich boy who gives all his possessions away is a fool. Our Lord tells us that former will have a difficult time entering the Kingdom of Heaven and that the latter will inherit eternal life. We think of one who desires for a promotion and a pay raise as ambitious. The gospel calls such a person one who covets. We think of industry and big business as a foundation for our country. The gospel reveals it for what it often really is: greed. Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster writes, “We really must understand that the lust for affluence in contemporary society is psychotic…it is time we awaken to the fact that conformity to a sick society is to be sick” (Foster, 80).

If we want to pray the Lord’s Prayer more than merely reciting it, we must be ready for God’s set-apart authority to come into our world, destroying the boundaries of our country and our values because we want His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. To pray this prayer is to ask God to take our coloring book and do whatever He wants with it even if He begins drawing outside of the lines.

Prayer has power. The one who would be bold enough to pray, not recite, but pray this prayer is asking for God to transform reality. I am fortunate enough to have a wonderful Earthly father. Not all of us can say that. There are many who have been let down in terrible ways by their Earthly father. The picture of father in our world has become so distorted. In television, the father is seen as stupid and incompetent. Stories of father’s abandoning their children are all too often heard. Our prisons are filled with hateful and abusive fathers. But this prayer shatters the world’s picture of a father and reveals to us that God is our good, heavenly father – and He overcomes the reality of our Earthly fathers. And even those, like me, who have a wonderful dad – none of us had a perfect dad. Praying the Lord’s Prayer reminds us that God is our true Father – the true intimate authority in our life.

We are blessed to live in a very privileged country and society. But folks, the U.S.A. is not the Kingdom of God. It never has been and it never will be. Despite all our privileges we sometimes find ourselves oppressed by what America calls freedom because it is so easy to get sucked in to the materialism, the greed, and the self-centeredness in our culture. Quite frankly, the values of our country often clash with the values of the gospel. Praying the Lord ’s Prayer gives us power to step out of the self-centeredness because we don’t seek our will – we seek that His will is done. And we don’t seek for America’s kingdom to come – we seek to have God’s Kingdom overcome it and every other fragile human boundary.

God, through the power of prayer, transforms our reality from one that oppresses us to one that saves us. It should not be a frightening thing to pray that His will is done because we know and believe that His will offers the world salvation. Nothing else can do that! We are a people who proclaim that Jesus is the answer and we want to see His will cross every boundary that the world holds sacred.

We are a people. The very first word of this prayer, in English, is “Our”. The Greek text very clearly makes this prayer plural. We do not pray, “My Father.” We pray “Our Father”. The Church is the people to whom we belong. Like British and German soldiers during Christmas of 1914, we reject the boundaries of the kingdoms of this world and call our fellow sisters and brothers in Christ our people. There is no British nor German. There is no French nor Austrian. There is no Chinese nor Russian. There is no American nor Mexican. For we, who are part of the Church, are all one in Christ Jesus and we all say this prayer together: “Our Father in heaven.”

Helmut Thielicke was a German preacher and theologian during World War II. During the war, he was preaching a series on the Lord’s Prayer. The week before he intended on preaching about the phrase, “Thy Kingdom come”, American bombers wiped out the bulk of his city. The cathedral that he preached in itself was mostly destroyed. But Sunday still came and he was there, as were the surviving members of the congregation. They gathered in the choir loft (which was all that was left of the building). Theilicke began with these words, “Isn’t there a comfort, a peculiar message in the fact that, after all the conflagrations that have swept through our wounded city, a sermon can begin with these words: ‘We shall continue our study of the Lord’s Prayer’” (Weigelt, 43)?

The Lord’s Prayer is a prayer that changes our perception of boundaries and reality. Who is bold enough to pray this prayer?

There is a phrase that I have grown fond of that was popularized by the television program, Mythbusters. The phrase is, “I reject your reality and substitute my own.” Praying the Lord’s Prayer empowers us to turn to the world and say: “We reject your reality and substitute God’s.” Amen.

Works Cited

Foster, Richard J. A Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Harper, 2002.

Weigelt, Morris A., and E. Dee. Freeborn. Living the Lord’s Prayer: The Heart of Spiritual Formation. Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill of Kansas City, 2001.


Changing Things Up

Before today, it had been over a year since I had logged in to WordPress. Life is busy and priorities change. Anyway, I now intend on returning to the world of blogging but things will look a little different than in the past. So, here is how Where the Shadows Lie is going to look:

  1. Within the next couple of weeks, I will start a new series entitled “Monday Morning Sermons” where I will be posting my sermon manuscripts in the form of blog entries. These will be my only regular posts.
  2. As I write various short stories, I will share them here.
  3. I will still post my opinion on various matters though there will be no regularity to this.

Most of my writing time these days is dedicated to working on my first novel. I’ve been working on this thing since 2011 but there is still a lot of work left to do.

I will also be posting book and movie reviews quite regularly on a second blog that you can find here.

So that’s the plan. We’ll see how it works out.


%d bloggers like this: