Are You a Serpent or Saint?

The cottonmouths formed rank and were flanking the right side of my four-wheeler. It didn’t matter that driving up on their nest was an accident. They closed within ankle striking distance in seconds and were prepared to fight to the death or eat me. Before the biggest one could hit, I had the clarity of mind to kick the gears down into reverse and gun it backwards out of the swamp (taking out a few in the process).

There’s nothing worse than a wad of snakes.

But I shouldn’t have been too scared. After all, I used to be a snake. That’s what John the Baptist would have called me anyway. I shared something in common with the religious folk back in his day.

Matthew 3:7-8
But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.

These guys were The Sin Police and good at it. They could sniff out iniquity from a quarter-mile and relished in pulling over lawbreakers (even when it was one of their own). Sure, they sinned too, and knew it. The problem was that they did a whole lot of lip service to repentance without ever actually repenting.

They condemned pride, but were self-righteous know-it-alls. Jesus called them white washed tombs. Clean on the outside, but dead on the inside. John just called them a wad of snakes.

There was a time in my life where I also knew all the terrible things I was doing. In fact, my accountability partners and friends knew as well. Our meetings were a lot of confessing and condemning but very little (if any) true repentance.

To repent means to turn around. It’s a military command – an “about face.” And it’s the difference between a snake and a saint.

My repentance back then was a lot of lip service with zero life-change. It mirrored the Pharisees. So, you know, not repentance. John, however, didn’t tell us snakes to leave. He didn’t even say, “Never sin this way again.” Instead, he commanded to, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”

Does your repentance bear fruit? Are you just talking a lot about your sin or are you desiring sin less? Is repentance a guilt-driven moment of confession that you gut through until the next meeting? Or is it a daily habit of turning from sin and towards Christ? True repentance is what separates people. One makes a saint; the other, a snake.

And snakes get run over by dudes on four wheelers.

Stop Distraction before It Steals from You

On December 31, 1999, as people were waiting out the last few minutes before the dawn of the 21st century, I was looking for a place to go to the bathroom on the Grassy Knoll. To my defense, I was a kid and the city of Dallas seemed more concerned with Y2K than ensuring Porta-Potties would be available at Dealey Plaza, but at least I didn’t miss the countdown. Not like the guy we passed on the way back to our car.

Weaving through hundreds of people, he stopped us and said, “Wait…wait, what time is it? Did I miss it?!”  And remember, in 1999, we were also afraid that every computer in the world would either crash or turn into Terminators and become our overlords. So, what distracted this guy enough to miss the millennium? (My guess is putting on the finishing touches to his Skynet Resistance bunker, but it’s hard to say.)

Either way, I’m sure the man felt silly, but not as silly as Martha must have. Nobody beats her. In the Gospel account, Luke tells the story about Jesus teaching at Mary and Martha’s house and everyone was learning life-changing truths about the Kingdom of God. Except for Martha that is. She was too distracted to listen to a Man who could raise people from the dead (including her brother) and once successfully told a storm to shut up.

“And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.”  Luke 10:39-40

These dishes aren’t going to clean themselves, Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. I’m sure whatever it is You’re saying is some super great, King-of-Kings sort of stuff…but these dishes.

Like the man who arrived late to the party, we want to ask Martha, “How could you be so distracted that you missed something that amazing?” It’s not that serving is wrong. Jesus even said He came not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28). Yet His reaction to Martha shows that we can serve and still miss the point.

The Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10:41

How, then, can we keep from going into a Martha mindset, missing the good portion Christ offers us? Here are some warning lights to watch for:

  1. Blaming others for your lack of joy.

    I appreciate Martha because she got things done, but it also was a blind spot that cost her the ability to set work aside and listen. Jesus was offering words that brought fullness of joy, but she was too distracted to hear them. So, her anger was spent on the closest target. When we distract ourselves to death, it’s tempting to point fingers at someone else.

  2. Being anxious and troubled about many things.

    We are not told what the “many things” are that Martha is anxious about, but it’s safe to assume from context that it has at least something to do with hospitality and service. Perhaps Jesus was also alluding to hidden areas of her heart that were trapped by fear (He often did these sorts of things), but we can’t say for sure. Either way, when our service and good work becomes a source of anxiety and distraction, something’s wrong. We’ve become like Martha.

Luke doesn’t tell us what her response was to this conversation, but it’s hard to imagine Martha rolling her eyes and going back to the dishes. It’s more likely that she sat down next to her sister and began to listen.

And, unless you want to miss some amazing moments in life, that’s what you should do as well.  

 

A Little Faith is Enough Faith

If your faith has never been body-slammed, I doubt you’ve been a Christian long. But my guess is you probably know what it feels like to be gasping for air while lying face first in the ring.

I used to dread those days and, like some rookie boxer, tried desperately to dodge them. But no matter how much I ducked, life consistently found a way to jab the air out of my rib cage and send me to the mat. I would proceed to heap shame on my already fatigued body:

“Christians over the centuries suffered far worse, you little baby. Get over it.”

The fact that it was (partly) true didn’t stop the spasms in my lungs or the ringing in my ears. Condemnation rarely does. What eventually gave me hope in those moments was the response of Jesus to His weak-faithed disciples in Luke 17.

It would seem to me that if anyone had reasons to believe the things Jesus said, it would be His disciples.  Healing blind people is pretty convincing in my book. Yet there they were fighting with doubt – boxing and wrestling their way through most of Palestine. Finally, one day…

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” Luke 17:5-6

Now, from my understanding of the Gospel accounts, Jesus was never (ever) hesitant about rebuking unbelief in the people of Israel, but something different happens here. If this was a rebuke at all, the tone was shockingly soft. The apostles were quite aware of their lack of faith (that’s why they asked for more).

Jesus didn’t face palm Himself like I would have. Remember, He fed a stadium’s worth of people with a Happy Meal’s worth of food, and it wasn’t even the coolest miracle He did. How much more evidence did those guys need?

But, then again, I’ve heard stories of miraculous healings in my lifetime. I’ve lived in moments that could not be explained apart from the providence of God, and, like the apostles, can still get blindsided with unbelief in times of weakness or tribulation. The difference now is that I can hear the voice of Jesus as He picks me up, pops my shoulder back in place, and repeats Luke 17, “A little faith is enough faith.”  And I keep walking forward.

There were people who saw mind-blowing things, but walked away from Him entirely. So, what separated those guys from Peter, James, and John?  The apostles had faith. Sometimes it was itty-bitty, wimpy-looking faith, but it was enough.

After the deserters took off, Jesus looked at the twelve and asked, “Do you want to leave too?” Then Peter replied something that I have quoted many times as I stumbled back to my feet,

“Lord, where else are we going to go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.” John 6:68-69

Life can dislocate your jaw and send you spinning to the mat some weeks. Peter knew the taste of that floor well. He also had little faith in those days, but a little faith was enough.

Be Picky About Reading

If you don’t get excited about books, you’re reading the wrong ones. That’s why I love a good recommendation list. Someone else already rolled the dice for me to see if a book is worth the time and effort.

So, if you haven’t decided what you’ll be reading this summer, here are some that paid off:

INTERESTED IN CULTURE?

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The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth
MIKE COSPER

This is a book about why you should watch more television (and how to watch it better). By using modern examples from the screen, Cosper shows us why fiction is never truly fictional.

“We weep when Harry Potter rises from the dead, lifted by a deeper and older magic than even the most powerful wizard in the world can conjure: love. Then the theater lights lift and we return to the harsh daylight of the real world. We can hear these stories of life, death, and resurrection, knowing in our hearts that it really did happen.” [p.196]

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The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students
ALLAN BLOOM

In the mid 1980’s, Allan Bloom decided that he would write the most prophetic book on American education ever published, then make it as dry as humanly possible. It’s brilliant, pointed, groundbreaking, and excruciatingly slow. But, if you’re a teacher, student, or somewhere in between, it’s a must read.

“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative. If this belief is put to the test, one can count on the students’ reaction: they will be uncomprehending.” [p. 25]

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Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America
MICHAEL O. EMERSON & CHRISTIAN SMITH

Though filled with statistics and extensive research (making it a little tedious at times), Emerson and Smith’s findings revealed my own cultural blind spots in the Bible Belt, and gave tools to engage racial reconciliation realistically.

“White conservative Protestants are significantly less likely to explain racial inequality in structural [or systemic] terms. It [also] appears that they are more individualistic and less structural in their explanations of black-white inequality than other whites…” [p. 96]

 

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Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
J.D. VANCE

This is the story of what being a statistic feels like. Studies have shown that growing up in relational and financial poverty has marked much of our society’s unhealth, but Vance’s experience brings it to light in ways that you will identify with and recognize far more than expected.

“Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I say, ‘The feeling that our choices don’t matter’.”

INTERESTED IN HISTORY?

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Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World
STEVEN JOHNSON

An entire war was fought over the color purple. (Meaning actual human beings died in that last sentence. You read it super fast, but they died super dead. Over the color purple.) Also, chess reshaped most of the class structure of Western Europe. Nobody died but it was still really interesting. Play needn’t be a luxury, but intuitive to create and innovate. We have to turn off that part of us in order to drone through the mundane. I learned all of that and more reading this fun, fascinating book.

“You will find the future wherever people are having the most fun.” [p. 15]

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The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour
JAMES D. HORNFISCHER 

If you love boring facts about World War II, run away as fast as you can. This book is better than any thriller movie I’ve ever seen…or even heard of.  The fact that it actually happened is simply a bonus. It’s so good that I don’t have a quote for you because I let someone borrow my copy.

INTERESTED IN LEADERSHIP?

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The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting Things Done
PETER F. DRUCKER

Drucker wrote this in the 1960’s and people are still saying it’s ahead of the times. He was the first to coin the idea of a “knowledge worker.” If you lead in any capacity and haven’t read it, this one’s for you.

“Without an action plan, the executive becomes a prisoner of events. And without check-ins to reexamine the plan as events unfold, the executive has no way of knowing which events really matter and which are only noise.”

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Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
SIMON SINEK 

For those of you who have trouble answering the question, “Why exactly do you do what you do?” Take two days and gain Sinek’s insights on how to inspire yourself and those around you by bringing clear purpose to your career.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

INTERESTED IN FICTION?

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The Daughter of Time
JOSEPHINE TEY

If Sherlock Holmes were a bit wittier and far more smug, then he would be Josephine Tey. In this 1951 novel, she keeps you enamored with a detective who sits on a hospital bed for 200 pages solving a mystery that happened 600 years ago. There’s a reason she has been called the “Greatest Mystery Writer” by the New York Times.

“The truth of anything at all doesn’t lie in someone’s account of it. It lies in all the small facts of the time. An advertisement in a paper, the sale of a house, the price of a ring.”

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Alcatraz vs. The Evil Librarians
BRANDON SANDERSON 

I’m not going to try to convince you that this is on the same level as Josephine Tey. Read the title and make a judgment call.

“So, when people try to give you some book with a shiny round award on the cover, be kind and gracious, but tell them you don’t read ‘fantasy,’ because you prefer stories that are real. Then come back here and continue your research on the cult of evil Librarians who secretly rule the world.”

INTERESTED IN SPIRITUAL GROWTH?

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Knowing God
J.I. PACKER

Theology, in it’s purest form, should stir your heart and expand your mind to love Christ more deeply. Packer (a masterful theologian) guides the experience better than almost anyone. It’s practical and approachable. He swims deep but let’s you wear floaties.

“You can have all the right notions [about God] in your head, without ever tasting in your heart the realities to which they refer.”

 

Whatever you pick this summer, just make sure you pick something. And be picky.

 

The Art of Strategic Disregard 

Learning when to neglect your to-do list may be what separates the fulfilled from those who crash into a million pieces. And I love to-do lists. Love them. Uptight wedding coordinators would drool over my to-do lists. I have an entire program on my computer devoted to organizing and prioritizing my year. For some, the lists are color-coordinated and systematized whereas others are playing on a mental loop in the background.

Mine almost killed me.

There was never enough time in the day to get everything done, and I found there wasn’t a “work-home” switch in my brain I could flip on-and-off after 5PM. So, work won. The to-do list followed me through the front door, to the dinner table, and on into the night. Though I was physically sitting beside my son as he built a Lego tower, my mind was off solving another problem or thinking of ways to make an idea better.

Fear of failing to complete the list fueled the motorcycle I was driving towards that wall. Faster and faster and faster it went until I smashed into a million pieces. At that point, I knew something had to change, and it wasn’t a “practical” fix. Like I said, my organizational skills were superb. I had scheduled my burnout down to the nanosecond.

Here’s what I learned: My schedule was not the problem. It was a heart issue.

The noise quieted when I started believing that my value as a husband, father, and pastor really were dependent on what God thought of me. If He was proud and pleased, that was enough (even when there were checkboxes left unmarked on my list).

“Your to-do list needs to be less about what needs to get done, and more about who you want to become.”

 – Bill Hybels

Whether you are an OCD calendar-keeper or a shoot-from-the-hip sort of planner, God wants you to do one thing: Be conformed into the image of His Son (Romans 8:29, 1 Thessalonians 4:3). 

Does your work-life look more like Jesus today than yesterday? Are you working excellently as to the Lord and not for men? If you have a family, do your children and spouse experience the aroma of Christ because of you? Are you present with them?  

I knew something dramatic had happened in my life when a friend asked me, “so, what are you planning on working on this week?” … and I couldn’t remember. It was sitting in my to-do list, waiting for Monday morning. But this was Saturday (and my son is three for only fifty-two Saturdays). Whatever problems that needed solving could wait.

I still love my to-do list (the program is called Priority Matrix…and it’s the greatest). It keeps me focused and allows me to check out when I go home. But clicking off the boxes doesn’t increase my value as a person or leader. It’s made to be neglected – so I can focus on what matters most. 

Are You Chasing the Wind?

I am an avid student of mid-life crises. The similarity of each one is fascinating (and terrifying the more gray hair I find in the mirror). Most happen when someone becomes afraid their life won’t matter, or they’ve somehow missed out.

They haven’t ridden a bull down Mount Everest or fallen into a public fountain while making out with their significant other. And there isn’t a string of educated letters after their name (it’s not even a well-known name at all).

But can you fault them? They just want to live an adventure. Yet that’s exactly where the problem lies – they don’t know what it means to live an adventure. In their minds, adventure looks a lot like a sexy, action movie filled with fast-paced cities or rugged mountains. Whatever it is, it’s certainly a far cry from their hum-drum soccer schedule work week. So, they freak out one day and do all sorts of silly (or harmful) things.

Though that day is fast-approaching, I have a plan for stopping it before I buy shark diving lessons in Fiji. Success isn’t waiting for me in Fiji anyway.

Adventure happens when I choose faithfulness, wisely, every day.

Lest you think that sounds too boring and over-spiritual, the most exciting lives I’ve ever heard of followed that principle; successful men and women who took risks that mattered. Success doesn’t pit goals against godliness. It just has the right perspective of career, family, money, and eternity.

Ecclesiastes 1:14
I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.

Although we don’t know who wrote this (he is referred to only as “Preacher”), many think it was King Solomon or someone much like him; a man with extraordinary wisdom and wealth who had access to every network, business venture, and pleasure available at the time. Whoever it was, he had seen it all and called it “wind-chasing.” Super encouraging, right?

Under the Sun

It might help to know that the phrase “under the sun” was what kept ancient readers from plummeting into Nihilistic despair. In Hebrew expression, God and His ways were always portrayed as being higher than the heavens (Isaiah 55:9, Psalm 103:11). So, the original readers heard, “If what I’m chasing is under the sun, it’s vanity. This man has experienced all of it and concluded that it’s meaningless without God.”

If he were alive today, it might read something like, “Go for it! Climb whatever ‘Mount Everest’ is for you. Become well-known in respected circles, run with the bulls, become CEO of a Fortune 500, publish your books, travel the world, perform a TED talk, experience the perfect relationship, and retire with tons of money to leave your kids…I did all of those.  And let me tell you one thing for certain, unless God is at the center, it’ll be forgotten like the wind.”

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His commandments. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Adventure happens when I choose faithfulness, wisely, every day.  It will take me on a joy-filled journey into a Kingdom that will never fade (unlike the motorcycle I may be tempted to buy when my hair recedes).

May your adventure be more than decades of wind-chasing.

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For more, check out “Stress vs. Success: Do You Know the Difference?” 

Freedom from Big Foot Christianity

While you’re trying to roll out of bed at 6:30, they’ve been up since 4:00 doing pull-ups in their prayer closets and reciting Psalm 119 in perfect Hebrew. Those sparkly, brilliant, mega-Christians. Don’t they make you feel so small?

The good news is they’re not real.

It’s a conspiracy theory. Big Foot Christianity – the belief that super Christians exists (although no one has seen one in real life). At times, we think every semi-mature Christian is really Big Foot in disguise, but they’re not. They’re just Christians. Faithful and growing and saved-by-grace Christians.

Conspiracy theories and fuzzy pictures of Big Foot breed all sorts of icky stuff in our heads. So let’s confront the theory with reality.

Stop trying to impress Big Foot. I have to remember this every day (even right now). Writing feels a little vulnerable at times and I’d rather not screw it up. There are two options I have when sitting down to write it for you:

  1. Imagine the Big Foot eyes that will peer over my words while conjuring up more sanctified and eloquent thoughts than mine. And try to impress you.

    (or)

  2. Remember that Big Foot doesn’t exist. Then maybe I can help someone else get over themselves enough to grow closer to Christ today too.

My default is #1. I have to choose to believe #2, and sometimes the transition is tough. It helps to have clear pictures to replace those fuzzy ones. This Scripture does it for me:

1 Corinthians 4:7
For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?

Everything we have is a gift. You did not change your own diapers or pay rent in Kindergarten. You weren’t saved in a vacuum either. At some point, a man or woman was brave enough to share the gospel with you. Then somebody else (or more likely several people) showed you truths about Christianity and life and leadership.

Anything valuable you give to others is the result of what you’ve been given. And the wisest, godliest people you know are the products of what they’ve been given. There are no self-made, super Christians.

You don’t have to prove yourself to Big Foot (and you don’t have to be him).