As we leave behind the month of June and bask in the aftermath of a long July 4th weekend, we find ourselves scrambling to get work and personal schedules back on track. After all, the long weekend often affords us the opportunity to rest and relax – to barbeque, swim, enjoy Fourth of July fireworks, and reconnect with family - but the recovery is where the challenge lies. We always feel the need to get right back on work projects, on workout schedules, and into our regular routines, and we don’t use the downtime to our advantage or to our benefit in the long run.
I like to take time off to reflect, and I encourage others in my church to do the same. When we take the time to reflect and focus, we can accomplish so much more than when we’re scrambling day to day, project to project or paycheck to paycheck.
Certainly, our creature comforts ARE important as are the daily rituals that make us who we are, but without time to think on what we have accomplished and what we CAN accomplish, we are not living up to our true potential. William Shakespeare once said, “We know what we are, but not what we may be.” And this holds true for most of us. After all, it’s when we are relaxed and at peace that we have clarity of thought, and in those moments, we can project what we need to do and what we see for ourselves in life.
I talk a lot about achieving success. And, of course, I mean success in every way – not just in the traditional big car, big house, big job sense. I mean that we all need to determine what makes us happy, what makes God happy, and what serves our families and communities well and go for it!
Proverbs 2: 7 – 9 (NIV) says:
7 He holds success in store for the upright,
he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless,
8 for he guards the course of the just
and protects the way of his faithful ones.
9 Then you will understand what is right and just
and fair—every good path.
The scripture tells us here to be faithful and to walk with God in a Christian and charitable way and that, in doing so, our walk to success will be protected and supported by the Almighty God himself. IF we reflect on occasion, we can check ourselves and we can make sure that our priorities and our lives are in line with that faithful walk that God wants us to take.
Over the long holiday July 4th weekend, we may have spent extended time with family, and had a lot of conversational journeys with friends. In these moments, we had clarity of thought, knowing that this time spent in fellowship and family felt right. If we take this philosophy into our daily lives, we can feel right about all the initiatives to which we put some vigor and some effort. We can walk, talk, relax, and reflect knowing that our introspection is healthy and necessary to personal success as well as success as a Christian in God’s eyes.
I’ve talked a lot about conquering lately, and I do feel that taking the spirit of our holiday weekend into our daily lives will help us to conquer stagnation and fear of what we CAN accomplish in life. It’s been a little while since I’ve done this, but I’d like to highlight a few community events coming up that might provide us all with a little joy, faith, and direction as we take time to enjoy life and experience new opportunities for fellowship and personal direction:
Bike the Burgh Historical Bike Tour is a reoccurring event every Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday that meets at 10 am at 500 First Avenue downtown. Time to reflect is ample as you’ll explore familiar haunts in Pittsburgh, and Mount Ararat’s community of East Liberty is coming up on the tour. Check it out between now and 30 November 2016. More information here: http://www.visitpittsburgh.com/includes/calendar-of-events/Bike-the-Burgh-Historical-Bike-Tour/23409/
The August Wilson Center / African American Cultural Center has a number of events coming up throughout the summer and into the fall. Visit their website here for information on upcoming events to restore, enlighten, and rejuvenate the most stagnate of routines throughout the year: https://culturaldistrict.org/pages/aacc
Follow God’s example, therefore, as dearly loved children and walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God. (NIV)
As we all know, summers have become the time of the superhero. Now, I don’t know if you enjoy these movies about Spiderman and X-Men and Batman like I do, but I do know they have something to teach us in these hot summer months.
Most of us treat these movies as a place of escape. We escape the summer heat, the summer responsibilities with the children at home, the difficulties of our lives. For a couple hours, we are entertained by a fantasy about strong men and women who can conquer anything that is holding them back, who are strong enough to live by what is right at all times.
Now, in those superhero stories—in all great hero stories in fact—there is always a moment near the end of the journey when the hero draws back because the struggle seems too much. The hero throws away the mask and promises himself or herself never to pick it up again or the team threatens to disband. It’s all too much, even for these super-powered people.
We see this in summer blockbusters, and we see it all the way back to ancient hero stories. In fact, we see it even in the story of the greatest hero of them all, our Lord Jesus Christ, who in Gethsemane had a moment of drawing back, when He asked God to “take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).
This moment is so common in stories and history precisely because it is so true. To reach greatness, we have to conquer many things, and among those is the desire to draw back just before we can grasp our glory.
In our own lives, we also experience these moments when we look for a quick exit just before reaching a moment of triumph. For many of us, it is not a mythological monster or an alien invasion that makes us want to turn back, nor is it something so potent and real as the cross. It is the truth that we want to run from.
To live as God wants us to live, we have to understand the truth and live by it. God wants us to have “truthful lips” (Proverbs 12:19) and to “speak the truth to each other” (Zechariah 8:16). Before we can conquer any great task, we have to move past the reticence to hide.
Of course, a pastor never gets tired of talking about truth. That’s the center of our trade. When my daughter Houston was a child, I used to marvel at the joy she seemed to carry within her. Her joys were true joys—intense joys that made her whole being light up. There was no discontent mixed in like we have when we’re grown. Likewise, when she was sad, it was the dull light of cloudy days. She simply wasn’t able to hide the truth of how she felt or what she thought. She was simply, completely honest.
There’s a reason our Lord compares truth with light. The obvious and well-explored reason is because we can see in light and truth lets us see. If we want to conquer our problems in life, we have to be able to see them first.
If you have children, you know what a child lying about taking a cookie from the cookie jar actually looks like. They can’t do it. They say all the lying words but everything about them betrays their lie. They can’t look you in your eye, they can’t keep still. They want to giggle at the joke of it all. All the skill we pick up over time isn’t there weighing them down. They are just naturally truthful beings.
That’s the kind of truth God wants in all of us. He wants that complete honesty that exists under all that heavy guilt that we’ve built up over the years while we created mountains of small and large falsehoods.
And yet, whenever we approach that level of truthfulness, we draw back. Like the heroes before their big battle, we suddenly stop being sure of ourselves. We are afraid. We’ve learned to fear all those heavy consequences of honesty in our long years. What will people say? What will people think? Will I be judged? What will it cost me to say the truth?
We’ve got to learn the lesson of these superhero movies and learn to accept the urge to draw back but to march on anyway. For a superhero, it is into a grand, cosmic battle; for Christ, it was towards the cross. And for us, it is a motion towards complete openness and truth.
Because when we admit our hands were in the cookie jar, when we share our true selves, we won’t find the harsh punishments and judgments we feared; we’ll find God Himself.
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NIV)
Thinking about families and fathers, as I have been for the last week, I began to think about all the stories I hear of grudges that go too far. In my profession, you hear a lot about family. True, you get to hear all the joys—all the births and graduations and marriages, as well as all the makeups and returns to God—but you also get more than enough of the ugly side of things. Sometimes, it’s petty; it’s a child or spouse who refuses to do the chores or it’s a forgotten birthday or anniversary. Sometimes, it’s an off-the-cuff comment that stung a little harder than expected. And sometimes, it’s serious. Sometimes, it’s the stuff we need to ask God about, the stuff we truly need guidance on.
I can tell you, all families have these sorts of dynamics. Every couple bickers and every child goes through growing pains. Most of us sulk for a bit when these things happen and then move on, forgiving our spouse or parent or child, perhaps discussing the problem or just shrugging it off when we realize it wasn’t actually that big a deal.
But we all know families where that isn’t the case, where grudges run on not for hours or days but for years, where hatred is allowed to “stir up strife” but love is never given the chance to “cover all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). Grudges, we all know, can destroy a family. Consider how torn apart David and Saul were over a grudge of who should be king. Consider how far Joseph’s brothers were willing to go because they begrudged their father’s preference.
Now, those are quite big issues, and these are tough challenges—and some of the families around us have these sorts of difficulties—but not every family needs such a consequential issue to see itself destroyed. I’ve witnessed families break apart for the tiniest little thing, for insults said in the heat of the moment and mistakes made decades before. I tell all these families the same thing: you have to learn to stop holding on. You’ve got to let go and forgive.
We talk a lot about forgiveness in Christianity. God’s act of forgiveness in His Son Jesus Christ has made all the difference for humanity. We weren’t deserving, maybe we weren’t even ready, but Christ was there all the same, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for us, to show that God was capable of forgiving anything.
And I mean anything. Think of the worst thing you’ve ever done. He can forgive it. Think of the worst thing you blame on your spouse or your parent or your neighbor. He can forgive that, too.
We know that. We know that awesome power. And we talk about it all the time; we praise God for it every day. What we don’t talk enough about is the need for us to extend that privilege to those we know and love. We have been forgiven, but the flip side is that we need to forgive. We are, in fact, required to forgive.
“For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.” Jesus lays it out right there. You’ve got to do some forgiving before you deserve that forgiveness yourself.
And think about the weight of that burden. On the one hand, you’ve got some old family grudges going around, perhaps a sibling who stole a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past or a parent who never rose to the challenge of that role. I’m not saying either of those are easy to let go of, but before you continue to brush that person aside, think for a moment about all of your sins, all the sins you’ve committed in your life. Every last little mistake you’ve made, every last act against God. When you sum all that up, is it more or less than what this sibling or parent did to you? No matter what, God is willing to forgive you for all that. But you’ve got to forgive first.
I wrote last week about what fathers need to teach their children. They need to teach them to be strong and moral, and to have the strength to let go when the time is right. But they also need to teach them to have the strength to stop holding on to what holds us back, to have the strength to forgive.
We often learn our strongest lessons from our parents, and if we are an example of forgiveness to our children, they will learn how powerful that act is, both for personal relationships and for faith. When we storm about and sulk because of a little slight or mistake, we teach our children to nurse these petty hurts; we teach that it is right to hold on to any offense and that forgiveness is only for others and only for God.
And forgiveness is for others, and it is for God. But it is for each of us as well. When Jesus told us to turn the other cheek, He didn’t just mean specifically about slaps. He meant we have to be generous in our hearts, to be ready to forgive any grudge no matter how painful.
It’s that sort of commitment that keeps a family together, and that makes a father so important to that family.
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. (NIV)
With Father’s Day coming up this weekend, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a father and what my responsibilities are to fatherhood. As we should, we talk a lot in this society about mothers and about how important they are to a child. We know how a mother nurtures and guides, and we honor that. But fathers have their place as well, and we’ve all seen what happens to a family when they aren’t doing their jobs.
Now, every family is a little different. Some fathers make a point of getting to every baseball and softball game and some just make the time to watch Disney movies. Some are the disciplinarians and some invite their children to see them as a mentor and a counselor. Most, in fact, make a mix of all these qualities. And all that is fine, all that can work. But one thing a father has to do is to teach his children how to let go.
Last summer, I saw my daughter, Houston, off to college. You can imagine how difficult that moment was: that last embrace before driving away, that last look in the rearview mirror at her new home where I couldn’t be there every day to protect her, to watch over her. We’re a close family, and taking those steps back to the car were harder than I can describe. It was one of the most difficult moments of my life, but I knew I had to do it, and I knew I had to show her both how difficult it was and how important it was I do it.
I was helped, I have to admit, by knowing just what it means to have a little freedom. When my parents let me leave the nest for college, when they taught me how to let go, I was able to find the personal space to accept God into my life in a way that changed everything. It was on my own in college that I received my call. I wasn’t looking for it, I wasn’t begging God to speak to me, to pull me in. I had to have a little space and I had to find myself before God could get me to truly notice Him. If I had stayed at home, stuck to the shallows of home life with my parents always watching over me, how long before I would have had the space on my own to listen for the Lord?
Now, I don’t expect my daughter to necessarily get that call, but I do know that she needs the room to see for herself where God wants her to go in life. We all know the verse from John written above: “the truth will set you free.” We also know just how true it is. Knowing God’s truth has made us all free.
But one side of this equation that we don’t often think about is how important it is to be free in order to find truth. God gave us free will for a reason, so we could freely choose Him. Under the roof of parents who raise children to love God, that choice is only so free. There’s the pressure of family and the pressure of the church and community. Everybody is telling this child to come to God, to love God, and they may do it, but they haven’t chosen to do it. We can probably all remember being young and just accepting what our elders told us.
To truly know God, we have to come to Him from our own way, down the path we chose freely. Even the disciples were no different. That’s why we have so many stories of their different calls. They needed to experience Christ on their own, seeing Him from their own unique lives, and making the free choice to see the truth.
Unfortunately for us fathers out there, that means we’ve got to let our little girls and our little boys out of our sight sometimes—we’ve got to let them experience freedom like we did—so that their commitment to God is genuine and theirs alone.
As fathers, we work hard to build up strong children with morality, faith, and decency in their hearts. We try to show them what it is to be strong and committed to God. And one of the most important ways we do that is by having the strength to let them go.
That way, when they come back to God and they come back to us, we know their love is genuine, and we can rejoice all the more in the beautiful people we have helped create.
Please also remember that in times of tragedy when we are trying to make sense of violence or heartbreak, humanity and prayer should be at the forefront of our minds.
When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, "Put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch." (NIV)
Last week, I wrote about the need to put aside our easy distractions and make a point of living up to our purpose. We have to stop always swimming in the shallows and let God help us swim into the deep waters where we can do the most good for Him and for ourselves. But I can already hear the objections you’re having: “I’m ready to swim, I’m putting the distractions aside, I’m ready to dive wherever God tells me to dive, but where am I going? Where exactly am I swimming to?”
That’s a good question. When we’re ready to take that dive, we can sometimes find ourselves confused. We all know we have a purpose, and we all know we are loved by God. “For I am the Lord your God, who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you” (Isaiah 41:13). God’s there ready to take our hand, but where is He leading us? Where does He want us to go? Where exactly are these deep waters?
The truth is, these waters are all around us. How many of us walk by a homeless person every day without looking for purpose from him? How many of us see a family struggling in our community and fail to see purpose on their doorstep? How many of us see a child in need or a friend or a mentor and see no purpose there either?
The truth is, purpose can be found in every direction, and when we think about it that way, the only answer is to “put out into deep water, and let down the nets for a catch.”
Fishing is a favorite metaphor for our Lord. He lived in a culture that survived partly on the trade. And while we might think we can understand that connection when we sit on the banks of the river on a Saturday and cast a line in to see what bites, the truth is, few of us know the dedication it takes to really live by fishing. Those like Simon Peter, who Jesus was talking with in Luke, knew that to fish is to live; fishing takes purpose. In other words, it takes dedication, focus, and commitment.
When Jesus said these words to Peter, it was after a night of fishing when he had caught nothing despite his best efforts. It wasn’t that Peter was lazy—he wasn’t procrastinating in his trade and sticking to the shallows—but something was still missing from his purpose.
In the next verse he says, “Master, we’ve worked hard all night and haven’t caught anything. But because you say so, I will let down the nets.”
That is the key. “Because you say so.” When we decide to cast out into deep waters, we need to be looking for God there to help us. We need to take our purpose and combine it with God’s purpose in order to start making a difference.
Of course, Peter soon found that his boat was full of fish, that Jesus had taken Peter’s purpose in his context—fishing—and given him success when he merged it with God’s purpose, which was showing faith in the Lord and helping to convert James and John. The result was so miraculous and overwhelmed Peter so much, he protested he didn’t deserve it. The Lord had to remind him that none of us are worthy and none of us deserve our blessings, but God in His love delivers them anyway, especially when we search in the deep waters.
When we consider such miracles, it seems obvious that purpose is never too much and the water is never too deep. Though we may struggle to catch a single fish on our own, God is there to bring a great catch in for us.
Our part is simply to keep fishing, to return to the deep waters even after an unproductive night out. We have to pursue purpose with purpose. We must keep casting our nets out in our community and allow God to fill them with purpose. We must remember what Jesus said to Peter when he felt so unworthy.
“Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.”