Who We Need Most

My last post was about what we need most, so this week it seems natural to talk about who we need most. Obviously, each person needs a family that loves them. In my experience, as a parent of three boys, and as a child myself, the father role is exceedingly important. I could read to my boys, take them to the park, buy them new toys, feed them their favorite foods, and play games with them all day long, but none of this compares to five minutes of football with Daddy. Although it should be noted that Saturday’s football fun resulted in a single stitch for Nate’s chin, and guess who got to take him to the ER? And when my dad was alive his approval was of great importance to me. I wanted to make him proud in way that did not and does not apply to my mom. Maybe that just indicates the security I have of her undying love, I don’t know for sure. I just know there is something special about daddies and all the statistics about the fatherless are heartbreaking.

So family is important, but we need friends too–people who are going to love us, and encourage us and hold us accountable. It’s great to have friends who are at your same stage of life; you can exchange familiar stories and knowing smiles. But it’s also fun to have friends from other generations. Caitlin (my twenty-two-year-old niece) and I have now had dinner twice with women who span five decades. We call it the multi-generational girls night out, or miggno. It is a total blast–plus the wisdom shared by those who have lived life is invaluable. Every woman would be blessed by a regular miggno, although I am extremely partial to the members of ours.
But friends and family are not who we need most in this life. In fact, if you expect mere mortals to meet your deepest needs you will always be disappointed. Always. Is the divorce rate not proof? How about all the fractured families and friendships? The best friend in the world is still imperfect. The best spouse in the world is still going to say things to hurt your feelings. The best parent in the world is still going to fall short in some way. There is only one person who lived a perfect life, and there is only one person who loves you perfectly. Blaise Pascal, the brilliant French mathematician from the seventeenth century, recognized the silly charade we play of trying to fill the longings in our hearts with earthly substitutes. Pascal said we have a God-shaped hole in our heart that only God can fill.
The Holy, Perfect God of the Universe loves you. Through the redemptive work that Jesus Christ did on the cross, you can experience relationship with Him. You can have that God-shaped hole in your heart filled to overflowing. You can rid yourself of that nagging feeling that something in this life is missing. Because if you don’t know Jesus, something is missing! You are missing the Person you need most. The Person who knows you and loves you best!
As we contemplate this week, the suffering of Jesus, the betrayal by those closest to Him, and the atonement He offered for our sins, I pray that we come to appreciate His sacrifice more than ever. And I pray that if there is anyone who reads this that doesn’t know Jesus in a real and personal way, that they will put their trust in Him. He loves you. He loves you perfectly. And He is who we all need most.

The Right Words

Earlier this month I had the honor and privilege of speaking at a fundraising dinner. I think there were between three and four hundred people in attendance. Even though my little talk was only about five minutes long, I was very nervous leading up to the event. I wanted to convey the message well, and I didn’t want there to be regrets over choosing me for the task.

As I closed up my remarks and headed back to my table, I passed the leader of the organization and he spoke only one word to me, “Perfect,” he said. Now, I’m not so delusional to think that the word “perfect” actually applied, but how affirming to hear it! C.S. Lewis said, “Isn’t it funny the way some combinations of words can give you–almost apart from their meaning–a thrill like music?” (The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves) Words have such power, and words of affirmation, no matter your dominant love language, are gifts to be treasured.
Yet so often that treasure is withheld. I have a friend who called her parents with exciting news, longing for a few supportive words, maybe even a congratulations. Instead she faced questions and discouragement. I have another friend who craves the praise and approval of her mother, yet no matter how much others recognize the daughter’s gifts and accomplishments, she endures the nagging silence of her own mother.
Choosing the right words is not always easy. As C.S. Lewis said, “to say the very thing you really mean, the whole of it, nothing more or less or other than what you really mean; that’s the whole art and joy of words.” (Till They Have Faces) There is a special satisfaction in hearing those artful, musical, well-chosen words. There is also joy in speaking them on those rare occasions we stumble upon them, but maybe beyond the art and the music people just need to be affirmed. Is there someone in your life who could really use an encouraging word, even if it isn’t eloquent?
And as for the “perfect” comment I received, it was an undeserved shot in the arm, but it also symbolized a spiritual principle much weightier than any five-minute speech. After all, if you’ve accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, flawless is how your Heavenly Father sees you. The blood of Jesus covers every wrong thing you’ve ever done, and to quote one of my all-time favorite songs, The Power of the Cross, the blood of Jesus even covers “every bitter thought.” How incredible to think that the Creator of the Universe looks at you and at me, and lovingly declares us, “PERFECT!”

The National Prayer Breakfast: 10 Highlights

Last week I had the privilege of attending the National Prayer Breakfast, which of course is a lot more than just a breakfast. There are so many highlights that I’d like to share that I’m going to list my top ten; otherwise this post would take up too much of my time and yours.

  1. The breakfast was opened with the Lord’s Prayer in Cherokee, and those humbling words of submission have never sounded more beautiful.
  2. The sincerity of Tony Blair’s faith paired with his polished British wit made him a VERY hard act to follow. Read his address here.
  3. Every week many Democrats and Republicans in the Senate and House put aside their political differences and pray together on Wednesday and Thursday mornings, respectively. It is not reported in the news. It is not meant to be public. But if you have the opportunity to hear the faithful members talk about how much these weekly prayer breakfasts mean to them, you cannot help but be encouraged. I loved seeing Democratic and Republican members interact and talk about their prayer breakfasts. They may not agree on everything, but they love each other as brothers and sisters. John 13:35 says that disciples of Jesus will be known by their love for one another. Some members of Congress are living this out better than many church communities.
  4. If you ever, ever have the opportunity to hear Casting Crowns live, seize it. Listen to a sample of their music here.
  5. There were something like 4000 people in attendance for the event, representing all fifty states and over 170 countries. I thought it was pretty cool to sit in the same room with the President of the United States and the First Lady, but even cooler to think, that in a sense, the world was gathered for prayer and breakfast.
  6. The National Prayer Breakfast has been a tradition since Eisenhower was President, which makes last week’s event the 57th of its kind. The President of the United States has attended each year, but I would guess never to a warmer reception than President Obama received Thursday.
  7. The National Prayer Breakfast is not a Christian event, but it is a Jesus Fest. Jesus was proclaimed over and over at all of the meals and events. I heard people from Fiji to Finland to Egypt to Pittsburgh praise the name of Jesus and His message.
  8. On Wednesday afternoon I was down at the Washington Hilton and had some time to kill before dinner, and since my life is divinely orchestrated, I happened upon a little gathering for Prison Fellowship Ministries. I heard Chuck Colson speak about prisoners in Sudan embracing the gospel message. I heard about the growth of Prison Fellowship in the Middle East, and about PFM’s Centurions Program, a distance learning, in-depth program which aims to help believers authentically live out biblical truth. Learn more about PFM by clicking here.
  9. William P. Young, author of The Shack, was also at the Prayer Breakfast. I heard him speak about how the first million copies of The Shack were mailed out through his buddy’s garage, and how he spent less than three hundred dollars on marketing. He also touched on some of the criticisms of his book. I have a hard time relating to people who can become enraged over a work of fiction. It’s not that I believe that Mr. Young nailed every single detail, it’s that I don’t think it matters. If people are spurred to think, to talk, to wrestle with some of the very deep theological principles that are addressed in The Shack, then what is the problem? But I love talking about it; and blogged about it last summer. (Click here to read it).
  10. On Thursday night the event ended. After dinner, speakers, and more Casting Crowns, the Kendrick brothers gave away hundreds of copies of their DVD Fireproof and their book The Love Dare. And then one of the brothers closed in prayer. He asked everyone who was willing and able to kneel, and two thousand people got down on their knees.
May the list above spur you and I to thank God for all of our blessings, and to regularly ask God for wisdom for ourselves and for our leaders.

The Last Taboo

It used to be that people didn’t talk openly about sex or how much money people make or how much a woman weighs, but now sex is a primary topic of conversation, and many people’s salary and measurements can be found online or even in line at the grocery store. Since I did some last-minute Super Bowl shopping yesterday, I stood at the checkout counter long enough to learn that Jessica Simpson’s weight gain is the most important thing going on in the world.

But even though sex, money, and weight gain are now acceptable topics of conversation, there is at least one last taboo. A couple of months back, I heard Dr. Forrest Church interviewed on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show. Dr. Church, a minister in the Unitarian Universalist All Souls church in New York City, has terminal cancer. He believes the last taboo is death, and in his effort to eradicate cultural reluctance to talking about death, he published a book entitled Love & Death. But I disagree with Dr. Church on most issues, including this one, because really it is not death that is taboo. Think of the cultural fascination over the deaths of Heath Ledger or Anna Nicole Smith. Think of Randy Pausch and his The Last Lecture, or the critically acclaimed bestseller by Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius.

People are willing to talk, read and think about death — at least somebody else’s. So it is not death itself that is the last taboo, it’s what happens next. And that is very taboo indeed. Try bringing up even the idea of a real hell in secular conversations and you’re likely to be unfriended (and not just on Facebook).
Talk of heaven is only slightly more permissible. Having lost numerous family members, I’ve observed that many people are alright with saying nebulous things like “he’s in a better place,” but they avoid using the term heaven.
But neither heaven nor hell is taboo in the Bible. Both are described as real places, where real people go. And they go there forever.
When the Nazi guards came to execute Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he told them with confidence: “For you it is an end, for me a beginning.”
I hope and pray that, like Bonhoeffer, you know Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. I hope and pray that even though much of our culture scoffs at the Bible’s simple explanation of salvation, that you realize that a God of love wouldn’t want it to be complicated. I hope at the very least this post has you thinking about things eternal and maybe has you contemplating Pascal’s Wager.
And for those who do know Christ, I pray that you and I will be bold this week in addressing this last taboo. May we be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have, and may we always do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15-16).

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Don’t you think Christmas brings out the best in people? And I’m not talking about people in the mall, or even people in mall traffic, I’m talking about people who take seriously the wisdom that it is better to give, than to receive. It’s refreshing, especially after studying the seven deadly sins for the past six weeks, to witness such widespread generosity. It seems like everywhere I go I see Angel Trees, Toys for Tots boxes, and efforts to support our troops. And you read about professional athletes, like Kurt Warner, who invest not just their money but their time to serve the less fortunate. I am so thankful that there’s something good left in us, despite all the pride, envy, lust, anger, greed, gluttony, and sloth.

Sometimes it seems we witness so much heartache, so much greed, so much anger, so much that is downright evil, that the decent act becomes striking. Were you awestruck on September 12, 2001 to see the depth of character of so many Americans? Or after the Tsunami of 2004? Or after Hurricane Katrina? We may be wholly imperfect beings, but there is a glimmer of something beautiful in each of us.
I’ve often wondered where that goodness comes from. The answer is found in Genesis 1: 27 which tells us that “God created man in his own image.” Each person is an image-bearer of God Almighty. The flicker of that image may sometimes be very dim, but nothing can fully extinguish it. Nothing can change the fact that each man, woman and child were made in the image of God.
Today I celebrate the birth of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. He’s my Savior because I know that I could never earn my way to heaven. The very idea, after taking a hard look at my own life through studying the seven deadly sins, is laughable. Earn a place in eternity with a holy, perfect God? Absurd. Presumptuous. Arrogant. No, I need a Savior for sure.
But the birth of Jesus is not just about eternal security, it is about the here and now. It is about being an image-bearer. The life of Jesus–his example of loving unconditionally and yet without compromise–is the goal, and the provision of the Holy Spirit is the way. As followers of Christ we need to take seriously our responsibility as image-bearers and embrace the power through the Holy Spirit to do so.
The Apostle Paul said “you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.”
Merry Christmas and may your image-bearing of God Almighty be evident to all in 2009.

This Ironic Paradoxical Life

Life is full of irony and paradoxes. My dictionary defines paradox as something that “seems self-contradictory or absurd but in reality expresses a possible truth,” and suggests that an “essential feature of irony is the indirect presentation of a contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which is occurs.”

Whatever, right? Processing that is like brainy boot camp. I’m almost too intellectually fat and lazy to work through it. Yet I find it ironically paradoxical that Sam, in the wisdom of his eighteen months of doing life, fights so hard against sleep. The child is never ready for bed. I’ve spent hours upon hours rocking him, giving much thought to why. Why does he fight it? And I think I’ve come up with the answer. It’s about control. We’re born with an “I’m calling the shots” attitude. We have an innate confidence that we know what we need. The paradox is that it is only in surrender that Sam gets the one thing he really does need: sleep.
This little nursery phenomenon represents the human story. We go through life thinking we know what we need and how to get it. Our perceived needs evolve over time so there is an ever-present striving. Many think life is about sex, status, and stuff, but the satisfaction these bring is fleeting. The hedonist knows that he will always need more pleasure, the billionaire CEO isn’t satisfied by status (see Oracle’s Larry Ellison), and things always fail to fulfill (See previous post, You, Happier.). Our real needs are to know where we came from, what our purpose is, how we are supposed to live, and what happens when we die. Written in our DNA is a need to explain the evil that is in this world, a desire for justice, a hunger for love, and a yearning for forgiveness. You can search the world over for answers to these questions. Different worldviews and religions offer different answers, and some can be very appealing. But Jesus Christ is unique in all of history because no other worldview or religion addresses all of these needs. (Ravi Zacharias often speaks to this. Learn more at www.rzim.org).
But just think about it. Jesus explains our origin, gives us transcendent meaning, provides a morality with which to live, and offers us eternal life. The Bible describes how evil entered our world and our hearts, it gives us guidance for how to mete out justice on earth and provides the hope of ultimate justice. The Bible also explains and satisfies our hunger of love. Finally, redemptive forgiveness is found in the person of Jesus Christ. His sacrifice not only pays for our sins, it obligates us to forgive one another as we have been forgiven.
So Jesus isn’t a set of rules. He’s an answer to the longings of our hearts. In fact, Jesus is THE ANSWER. And how do we take hold of Him and his gracious offer to satisfy our deepest needs? Just like Sam, only in surrender.
After thinking about this I’ve come up with my own definition of paradox. It is something that is true, but in our subjective analysis seems contradictory. It doesn’t seem like surrender could possibly be the answer, but it is. It doesn’t seem like God could be both three and one, but He is.
The fact that our “fallen little minds” (a favorite Joe Stowell line) can even recognize any paradox illustrates that there is something beyond our subjective comprehension. We operate in the dimensions of this world, but many things, including paradoxes, point to a dimension we don’t yet understand.
Someday Sam will recognize his need for sleep. He won’t fight anymore. And someday I’ll understand how it is that God is three and one. Until then I’ve got faith that I know what’s best for my son, and more importantly, I’ve got faith to believe that Jesus is God’s Son.

Viva La Vida?

So I admit it I’m a Coldplay fan. Worldwide there must be about a half billion of us, but unlike a lot of bands that command such a fanatical following, this British sensation really does make great music. Their rhythms are original and catchy, and I guess maybe their lyrics are good too. I’m just not much of a lyrics person–unless it’s a lyrical disaster akin to Phil Collins’ Groovy Kind of Love, which is too painful to ignore–mostly I don’t even listen to the words. I just hum along or make up my own lyrics, which are sometimes quite similar to the original and sometimes, to the irritation of those around me, rather dissimilar. I know, I know. Poor Will, and he’s such a lyrical purist.

But sometimes I wonder what subliminal messages I’m picking up with all my nonlistening. For example in Coldplay’s recent number one, Viva La Vida, I know they are saying something about Saint Peter, but what? As you may know, the album’s full title is Viva La Vida Or Death and All His Friends. Evidently, the members of the band were going for a sort of bipolar mood, attempting to reflect the ups and downs of life. The upside is the song Viva La Vida, Spanish for long live life, the downside is…well, obviously Death and All His Friends, a ballad about ill-fated love. Life and Death. You can’t be more polarized than that. And even in the life song, the words belie hope: “For some reason I can not explain I know Saint Peter won’t call my name.”

Wow. I guess if one knew Saint Peter wasn’t calling their name, they sure would want to “long live life,” so the album title is certainly apt, but how sad. So much of my purpose, so much of my hope, so much of who I am is derived from this very issue: For many reasons I can explain Saint Peter is calling my name.

Is he calling yours?

This blog is about spurring each other on to greater love and good deeds, but did you know love and good deeds are irrelevant when it comes to eternal life? I mean completely irrelevant. You can no more earn your way to heaven with good deeds, than you can drive there. The only way to heaven is to “confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead.” (Romans 10:9 NIV). It is so simple a child can understand, and by God’s grace, I have two that do. Working your way to salvation is impossible, and God in His mercy, has provided such an easy answer. Unfortuately, some people refuse to accept that it really is that easy. But if God loves you, and He does, why would He want it to be hard?

John 3:16 says whoever believes in Jesus “shall not perish.” Now that’s my kind of Viva La Vida!

The Pillow Principle

A few weeks ago a babysitter put my children to bed while my husband and I enjoyed a picnic dinner and concert at Wolf Trap. A DC summer is incomplete without at least one visit to this amazing venue (check it out at www.wolf-trap.org). But when I got in bed, The Black Crowes still ringing in my ear, my most beloved pillow appeared to be missing. It is important to know that this pillow has been a part of my life for more than thirty years. Originally a fluffy down pillow, it is now flat as a pancake and easily folded into my suitcase wherever I go. I’ve wondered whether any pillow, save one of the airlines’ sorry little numbers, has ever logged more miles than mine. It has been to Europe twice, Canada, and Mexico. It has cruised to the Bahamas, once in 1985 and again twenty-one years later. And that’s only its international travels. Goodness, I sure hope this post doesn’t prompt the CDC to confiscate it, because although I admit it is a little peculiar, maybe even a teeny bit unsanitary, I love this pillow.

So I drifted off to sleep longing for the malleable coolness of my beloved, contemplating doing a full search, but fearing that little ones would wake from the ruckus. In the back of my mind I think I already knew that little Will had taken it. In the morning he received a full interrogation.
I should have asked about the babysitter, how the night went, if the baby cried, but I couldn’t help myself. When little Will appeared at the bottom of the steps my first words were, “Did you take my pillow?”
He grinned from ear to ear, quite satisfied that the coup had been successful.
“Please don’t take it, again,” I warned.
“Well, I love it too,” he said with his palms up and out in indignation. “Why can’t I have one? Can I get one for my birthday?”
Poor thing he doesn’t understand it can’t be bought. Only thirty years of reckless devotion and fanatical use could reproduce it. It is one of a kind.
But it means the world to me that he loves it. I find it oddly affirming and bonding–this shared love for my pillow, especially since he and I are the only ones that seem to recognize its beauty.
Last week I had the immense privilege to vacation at Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference on Lake Michigan. (www.vacationwithpurpose.org) I saw seven magnificent sunsets in seven days, each painted with different shades of pink and purple and blue. I also heard the president of Cornerstone University, Joe Stowell speak (www.getmorestrength.org), and he made a very simple, yet profound statement. He said that we care about what people we love care about. Stowell didn’t say so, but really it’s the Pillow Principle. It is rejuvenating and edifying when people you love are enthusiastic about something dear to your heart, even when that thing is a nasty old pillow. And the converse is also true: the absence of enthusiasm can be deflating, especially when your loved one is never or rarely jazzed about the things that get you jazzed.
So what’s the lesson? Should I expect my husband to all of a sudden love my pillow? No, of course not, we don’t need to feign enthusiasm, but we can be cognizant of how meaningful it is to share genuine enthusiasm. My husband is already looking forward to football season. He greatly appreciates my shared interest, my willingness to park beside him on the couch and cheer on the Philadelphia Eagles. Would I watch the Eagles if it weren’t for Will? Probably not, but I love him and I care about what he cares about.
But the Pillow Principle is actually a lot more than just sports and idiosyncratic fixations, it’s biblical. In John 21, Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?” Peter assures Jesus that he does, and each time Jesus follows Peter’s assurance with a command to feed and take care of His sheep. It is somewhat of a cryptic exchange, especially given the unique history between Jesus and Peter, but Joe Stowell helped me see that what Jesus is really saying to Peter is, “if you love me, you’ll take care of my sheep.” Who are His sheep? People.
So just like Peter, there is an implicit command in loving Jesus. If we truly love Jesus, we will care about what he cares about. And Jesus cares about people! All people. Do you?
Let me just say that when I pose this question to myself, my heart cringes. I know it’s a work of the Spirt, but somebody spur me on!