I haven’t had an old dog for quite some time. In fact, both of the dogs in my house are two years of age or younger. Which often results in things being chewed that aren’t intended for chewing (I may be a little bitter as one of these items was my most frequently worn Red Sox hat this last week). But I want to take issue with that old adage today, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. While perhaps this may be true for dogs, it is oft applied to humans and I’m not sure that this is exactly the case. Case in point; I have been a sufferer of teenage acne for going on 28 years. I have taken various pills, lotions, creams, etc in pursuit of a clear complexion over those 28 years. But most recently I have found the simplest method is to actually just wash my face one more time before bed. Now most of you at this point are putting your palm to your forehead and saying duh, but for me this was a completely new habit. And yet I have seen better response to this in my later years than to anything else I have done throughout my entire time of eternal adolescence.
It got me thinking about something my pastor, Kevin Ulmet, recently tweeted. He said, “The holiness of God calls us to transformation not continuation. That is a message of hope and change that we must teach and live in these days.” We as people of God are called to transformation and not continuation. And yet continuation is so much easier. Albert Einstein is often credited with the expression, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” And that’s sometimes the way we behave in this Christian life. We keep living the way we always live and are surprised that people are not impacted by our witness. We keep the same routines and schedule and we wonder why we feel relatively the same in our relationship with God. What we come to realize is that continuation is simply that…continuation.
In his letter to the church at Rome, Paul has this to say about transformation, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:2 The word for transformation in the Greek here is anakainōsis which is defined as renovation, something becoming completely new. And that’s what people of faith are ultimately about; becoming completely new. Even the faith habits that we establish early on in life are in need of continued renewal and growth and transformation. After all, I’m not anywhere near the same person I was when I was fourteen…save the teenage acne. So let us learn new tricks. Let us discipline ourselves with new habits. Let us be transformed in new ways so that we don’t continue with the same old same old.
I am by nature a relatively lazy person. Truthfully, I think we all have to fight this. I mean if I were given the choice of doing something I do in my every day routine or taking a nap, I think would always opt for the nap. I even find myself resonating with my 11-yr-old every time I ask him to do the simplest of task, you know like brush his teeth. “Ugh. Right now?!?” And yet, it’s the procrastination, the laziness, the not wanting to stay ahead of the game that so often adds stress and frustration to an already hectic life. My wife and I were talking recently and she mentioned something she had learned once. A speaker had shared a talk about “five minutes”. Basically the person shared that if you were staring something in the face that you didn’t really want to do, but you knew it would take five minutes or less, that you should go ahead and crank it out. I know it seems overly simple, but it speaks volumes into our overly hectic lives.
We truly are over-scheduled people. We have work and school and church and rehearsals and practice and gym time and lessons. And somehow in the midst of all of that we are called to foster healthy homes and families and spiritual lives and do you see where I am going…? So sometimes we do need something as simple and as profound as “five minutes” to help us take back some semblance of order with our lives. In the 90’s there was a Christian record label called 5-minute walk. And 5-minute walk’s motto/vision was simple. They urged people who listened to their artists to begin to spend five minutes a day with God. Just five minutes; and see where it would lead. Now think about this for a minute…each person in their life has an average of 39,000,000 minutes. Of course some have much fewer and some have a bit more, but if we take out five minute increments from 39,000,000 it really doesn’t seem like that much and yet the impact could be huge.
In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul writes these words, “Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” – Ephesians 5:15-16 And Ephesus was a very busy place at the time. It had the temple of Artemis and an extremely healthy guild trade system, while also being a port city for the Roman empire. So when Paul urges the believers there to make the most of every opportunity he realizes how busy their lives are. But maybe the same challenge exists for us today. If it only takes five minutes to go out of your way and be nice to someone; do it. If it only takes five minutes to write a hand written note to someone you know is going through a difficult time; do it. If it only takes five minutes to stop and pray for someone you know is hurting or someone that has hurt you; do it. I think we will all be amazed to see how profound of an impact five minutes can have on us and the lives of those around us.
Yesterday morning, in the midst of all of the hullabaloo of trying to get the Arp family out the door, I decided it was high time. It had been piling up for weeks and enough was enough. So for about fifteen minutes I decided to wade into the quagmire of the entrance to our garage and get busy. You see, we as the Arps have tried to do our part for the planet and engaged in a few forms of recycling; namely plastic, aluminum cans and cardboard. The plastic and the cans can pretty easily be put into garbage bags and taken care of in that fashion, but the cardboard boxes are another matter entirely. So, we engaged in a little practice I like to call “out of sight, out of mind” and simply tossed the empty cardboard boxes into the garage haphazardly. Or should I say, I tossed the cardboard boxes into the garage haphazardly. Well, when my gracious wife pointed out yesterday that one could no longer get into the garage and that it seemed I was becoming a trash collector, I decided it was then “high time” to engage in a little box breaking down session. And I’m happy to report that after an intense fifteen minute session of ripping and folding and maintaining my faith, that one can now enter our garage without needing climbing or spelunking equipment.
It kind of reminds me though of how we treat certain areas of our lives. Sometimes we may place our health on the back burner. Or we may save issues with certain relationships for another day. Or perhaps there are those things that the Spirit has been revealing to us as sin that we simply seek to justify because the change would be too difficult. Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. The apostle Paul said it this way to the Galatian church, “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions…for each one should carry their own load.” – Galatians 6:3-5 In the introduction to the sixth chapter of this letter Paul begins to speak about sin and holding each other accountable and being supportive in bearing each other’s burdens. But then he adds, that each person shouldn’t think that this in any way, shape, or form makes them superior to each other. In fact, we are responsible for our own actions, our own work, our own selves…for that is what we will be held to account for.
I think about this and breaking down boxes. Did it take me all that long to break down the boxes? No, not at all. But I saw it as something superfluous until I realized that it affected more than just me. There are things in our lives that sometimes we may see as superfluous or “not hurting anyone”, when in actuality even our “hidden sins” or our “passive aggressive” behaviors can be detrimental to the lives of others and even to the kingdom of God. So I encourage you today to break down some boxes. Make some paths in the wilderness (garage). Examine every avenue of your life physically, spiritually, emotionally because you never know where the Spirit may be calling you to action. And know, that it might not take long to break down some boxes, but it could possibly do a world of good.
For those of us in the Christian faith this next week holds special significance. We call it Holy Week and it is ushered in by Palm Sunday, celebrated with Maundy (or Holy) Thursday, memorialized through Good Friday and finds its finale on Easter (Resurrection Sunday). For those whose lives revolve around the church or for those employed by the church this is also one of the busiest seasons of the year. There are multiple services to plan or attend, there is less time for preparation and yet this is also meant to be the holiest of times in the life of the church. It can all become a bit overwhelming. And sometimes it is hard for practitioners to find the sacred space in Holy Week.
I think getting back to the definition of the word holy might help us a bit in trying to find that space. Holy, at least in the original Biblical context, referred to something set apart for God i.e. something that belonged to God. Over time because of the way we thought about God and the dualistic nature of the world (thank you Greeks), we came to see clear divisions of that which was holy and that which was profane. And this wasn’t just a discussion of good vs. evil, holiness vs. sin, but life itself took on divisions based on the type of tasks that was taking place. However, doesn’t the world/cosmos belong to God? In her book And the Trees Clap Their Hands, Virginia Stem Owens writes, “All the world is a sacramental loaf. We are not-nor will we ever be, God save us-solitary intelligences spinning in the dark void of space.” In other words, all our life is (should be) holy as all of it is infused/connected to God himself. The apostle Paul put it this way when he was attempting to speak to the Greeks about this very thin in Athens. “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.” – Acts 17:28
Holy Week is a special time in the life of the church. But so is the week after Holy Week. And the week after that. I love the significance of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter, but I also love that the same Spirit that speaks to and through us during these special times also wants to do the same on a Tuesday in July. So what am I saying? We need to be careful in categorizing our lives. With seasons like this it is easy to mark certain times as holy and others as not. Which in turn allows us to mark certain avenues/tasks in our lives as holy or not. When in fact all life is meant to point towards our Creator and His redemption story. Owens goes on to say, “Whenever we eat, drink, breathe, see, take anything in by any means, we are commanded to remember the sacrifice.” Our lives should be lived in a constant state of declaration that God is holy, we are his creations and we are seeking to reflect Him. So that not just one week is set apart for God, but life itself takes place in Him. May you find your life caught up in the Divine Romance not only this week, but for all eternity.
By now the inevitable has happened. It’s late February, Valentines Day has come and gone and with it many of our New Year’s resolutions as well. It hasn’t been as easy to get up and go work out. We haven’t had the will power to say no to the Valentines Day candy that was 300% marked down on February 15th. Some of us have even been forsaking that gym that we joined on January 1st even though it’s just a few blocks from our home. And this isn’t meant to be a criticism, but rather a confession. I’m in the same boat as you. In fact, I’ve even been contemplating cancelling my gym membership. But, mainly I am doing this because I plan on joining a gym that’s closer to my house;).
I love the idea of a gym membership. I am going to pay you in order to hold myself accountable for coming to your facility in order to inflict pain upon myself that will hopefully pay off in me being more fit and healthy. But if I don’t show up, I’m still paying for you to exist. And I think this is the plan for a lot of gyms. We will keep the rate just low enough so that if you don’t show up, you don’t feel guilty for not showing up. I think I have found myself in this category a lot. But what does a gym membership ultimately ask of us? It really asks are you concerned enough about your health that you are not only willing to invest your time, but also your resources to make a difference.
I’m about to make a leap here that I hope a few of you can follow me on. I believe that many people who attend church from time to time don’t believe that the church can actually change who they are. Sure they attend and sometimes feel better about themselves, but there is no real investment. They don’t volunteer with any programming and they can’t remember the last time they tithed. They don’t have skin in the game…and really it’s a statement as to whether or not they actually believe in the mission of the church and its ability to transform their lives. There’s this one passage in Malachi where the prophet actually invites us to test what our tithing/investment might result in from God, “ Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it” (Malachi 3:10).
So I guess the question before us today has very little to do with a gym membership or New Year’s resolution. But rather, do we believe in the mission of the church and whether or not the church can transform our lives enough to get skin in the game? I plan on getting back in the gym sometime this year, but I plan on giving a lot more of my time, money and resources to the living embodiment of Christ that I know can make a difference in not only me, but the whole world.
This morning as I was pouring over my Twitter feed I noticed something aside from all of the tweeted pleas of school cancellations. I have a lot of cynical voices pouring into my life. Granted, most days I will read a lot of these updates, resonate with them and go on with my day, but today was different. Often times I can get behind the cynicism of the people I follow because I find myself to be cynical as well. After all, I am part of the generation raised on X-Files…”Trust no one”. And I like to think of myself as part of the “mosaic” or “millennial” generation of the church that is seeking change for the good of the Kingdom. But it seems to me that often this “change” that is being spoken of is being ushered in all wrong. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t always like some of the main stream methods of doing church or interpreting the Bible or even how Christianity is depicted to the masses, but is cynicism the only way?
In his letter to the church in Ephesus the apostle Paul writes, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” – Ephesians 4:29. I have always loved this verse. And for the longest time I thought it referred to “coarse joking” or “harsh language”, but I think I have found that it really applies more to the disease of cynicism running rampant in some of the young leading voices in the world today. The word the writer uses for unwholesome is sapros. And it most commonly is defined as being rotten or putrid, but it can also mean corrupted by age or worn out. My problem with cynical talk is it is corrupted…worn out. Anyone can be cynical. Really! There is even a school of philosophy (and I know I am going to oversymplify this so forgive me all of my philosophical and theological brethren) called deconstructionism. And the gist of it is to tear down existing paradigms to get down to the root of what is being espoused. But the problem is they rarely have a better alternative.
And I think that is my problem with cynicism in general. It is very easy to tear down existing systems and paradigms. It takes a lot more creativity and work to provide a better alternative. But isn’t that what we are called to do. What comes out of our mouths is meant to be helpful and to build others up around us. Not alienate and destroy them. And that really is what the Kingdom of God is all about. Maybe if we learn to take on speech that is reflective of a hopeful eternal kingdom we would begin to see fruits in a new way. Jesus put it this way, “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.” (Matthew 13:31-32) This is the fruit of Kingdom speech and life.
So I say Death to Cynicism. May our speech, posts, tweets, texts, etc. reflect the hope to which we have been called. And may we speak life into those around us for the sake of Christ who gave his life for us!
I hate being late. I’m not entirely sure where that sense of punctuality came from (my dad), but I have always hated to be late. But then I got married…and then we had kids…and now I sometimes find myself not necessarily being on time for a lot of things in my life. Some days I handle that well and some days my wife threatens to stab me with a horse tranquilizer. But my life for some strange reason has always been about time management and focusing on that therein. (This may be as a result of my constant procrastination) I always wear a wrist watch and have even toyed with the idea of a pocket-watch in the past. And I usually know about how long it’s going to take me to get to my next destination regardless of where I am in the day. Ask any of the parents of my senior high students as to whether or not we arrive on time from any trip and their response will always be yes (with the exception of one bathroom pit-stop just this last weekend). All this to say that you might even call me time obsessed…I don’t even have to use an alarm clock to wake-up in the morning. For those of you unfamiliar with this ability I offer up Kramer: (Only I never hit the snooze button)
But it’s strange isn’t it. We have devised seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years based on the Earth’s tilt, rotation and revolution around the sun and this dictates every avenue of our life. It dictates our coming and our going. Our being and our doing. And it seemingly becomes soooo important. In fact, we get down-right obsessed with the tasks that effect our existence in this realm of space and time when if you stop to thing about it is….well, meaningless. The teacher in Ecclesiastes puts it this way, “For there is no enduring remembrance of the wise or of fools, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How can the wise die just like fools? So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a chasing after wind.” (Ecclesiastes 2:16-17) Vanity…chasing after the wind. This life is literally a vapor. And in the case of the teacher it is an extremely pessimistic view, but I am not sure that is what we need to have.
You see this life is really life lived into eternity. The problem is that if we simply focus on this life and the things in this temporal space then it does amount to vanity. But the apostle Paul has another take on the vanity of life and where it is corrected, “Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.” (Colossians 3:1-2) By focusing on the eternal in the temporal we not only validate the things we do, but they take on eternal significance. Or rather, those things that truly have no bearing on the eternal take on less significance. Setting our minds on Christ allows us to place the temporary trials, frustrations and even tasks of this life in their proper place…and sometimes it becomes vanity. But sometimes we find ourselves in those moments where we truly encounter each other and it is as if heaven itself is breaking in. So I seek out these moments instead. And I try not to focus so much on the watch on my wrist. And maybe if I am late, it is for the right reason. May we find significance in the time we’re given as we walk into eternity together.