Friday, December 27, 2013

Loving Thorny People: For the Love of Roses, We Must Tolerate Thorns

In the Spring through the Fall, I work for the family business doing landscaping and general shrub maintenance. When it comes to shrub and tree maintenance, the bulk of the work is trimming, and having been involved with this line of work for over ten years, I’ve seen a fair share of the good, the bad and the ugly.

For instance, there are easy shrubs that make one love the job, mundane ones that make one say TGIF, tall ones that require working from a ladder--usually on uneven ground (this keeps things interesting), small ones that require knee pads if you cherish your knees...and then there are the beastly ones that make one want an office job. The most annoying and irritating of all plants are usually the tall or massive shrubs, like cedars or spruce, which require standing on the section of the ladder labeled, “Do Not Stand or Sit” (a.k.a., the top)--on uneven ground, of course--with outstretched arms high above the head to reach the top of the plant with pruning shears; these massive ones are sure to make one sore by the end of the day. 

Besides the massive shrubs and tress, however, there are a couple types of shrubs that send “pricklies” down my spine--literally: rose bushes and barberry bushes. These shrubs have hellish thorns, and if they were removed from the face of the Earth, I would be a happy man.

Barberries are tolerable and I have managed to work with them (only with steel gauntlets, though), but rose bushes have incessantly provoked the defenses of my sanity for years. I hate rose bushes because they are from the pits of hell.

Do we seriously have rose bushes in our yards only because of their flowers? The destructive power of the barbs of death that line their branches far outweighs any beauty those pedals can emit. They ought to be destroyed.

Of course, the only ones complaining about roses are landscapers like me and robbers who happen to rob the houses with rose bushes. For the most part, though, people adore roses. Dozens of them make florists rich every February, and they brighten up centerpieces or bedroom dressers in no time.

Roses are perfect example of love because the flowers cannot be separated from the thorns without the picker being in danger of being poked by the thorns. Every time we desire the “good part,” (the pedals), we must handle the “bad part” (the thorns) in order to separate the two. Love consists of the good parts and bad parts, and rose bushes have them both. 

The question is, why is it so easy to focus on the thorns? When two people interact, it is likely that one (or both) will detect the “thorns” of the other. There will be something about the other person that repels the first person, and the other way around. Every given relationship between two people in the entire world will consist of them eventually finding something wrong with each other. Add a third or fourth person to the relational mix, and the thorns multiply. Why do you think slander exists?

Yet everyone in the world seems to find friends with a number of these “thorny” people. What determines which thorny bush will befriend another when they all have thorns? 

What makes us tolerate our friends’ thorns while rejecting others with the same thorns?

Why can’t we understand that there will always be thorns in people? 

This whole world is filled with thorns, so why do we make it such a big deal when we see them in someone else? 

I think it’s time to rethink how we view others--both friends and enemies. 

Personally, I abhor arrogant attitudes in people. I am repelled by many vices, but arrogance is the worst. The arrogant stature of a self-centered worldview is hard to tolerate. I would liken arrogance to a rose bush with only one half of a flower pedal and ten-thousand branches with a million thorns on each branch (I’m being hyperbolical). 

I forget, though, that I have thorns myself. I hate arrogance, but am I completely void of it myself? Certainly not. So who am I to insist that others change their arrogance when I possess the same vice? The same holds true for all vices that I hate. 

All that’s left for me to do is learn to live with the arrogance and vices of people, and only with the grace of God can I tolerate such thorns. Even if someone’s thorns may have pierced me and are imbedded beneath my skin, I still must learn to coexist with them. It’s hard, but forgiveness and grace are necessary if we are to live alongside thorny people who have jabbed us with their thorns.

Sadly, I can’t rid the world of rose bushes, nor can I rid the world of arrogance. What I can do, though, is let God rid the arrogance in me, and learn to live with the thorns of others. I may not be able to change the thorns of others, but I can do something about my own. I may not be able to change how my thorns affect someone else, but I can be gracious towards them when theirs poke back.

Forgiveness is hard to find in our thorny world, and I want to see more of it. Thorns of friends and thorns of enemies all require grace and forgiveness. It’s a necessary part of what it means to love others. I want to see everyone, myself especially, live with the thorns because love requires us to do so.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Parents Don't Get a Vacation: Why Christmas Cannot Forsake Discipline

Is Christmas a season filled with love? It sure appears that way. Thoughtful gifts fill the carts, an extra dose of Dickens’ Tiny Tim is in everyone, and the sentimentality of a peaceful walk through a snow-riddled Christmas display are all clear signs of the season. Love fills the air. Mistletoes and warm, cozy evenings by the fire fuel such amorous emotions. 

Christmas is certainly conducive to love in all its forms, but do we forsake certain uncomfortable nuances of love so that we do not spoil the spirit of Christmas? 

The author of Hebrews tells us that God disciplines the one he loves (Heb. 12:6). Discipline is an essential part of love, and if we are to love children this Christmas, we must not neglect discipline. 

When one conjures up images of Christmas, discipline is generally not an image depicted. This time of the year is filled with love, but if love and discipline are inextricably linked, why do we shy away from the latter?

How often do we leave room for discipline in this season?

Whether it’s during Christmas or not, “taking a break” from discipline is not a healthy option for parents. Christmas is not a time to take a “parent’s vacation” and spoil a child. It may be tempting to do so, but children will most likely be parents one day and we do not want to pass on a legacy of inconsistent principles. 

Being a child who grew up adoring Christmas, I know the feeling of unmet expectations after all the presents have been opened. I know what it’s like to “want more.” These unmet expectations ruined my attitude, and discipline is needed to realign my attitude to a more selfless one--one that is more thankful.

What spirit produced those selfish expectations in me? Certainly not the spirit of Christmas.

What will an undisciplined child do with unmet expectations? They will grow even more selfish. They will sulk. 

Remember Dudley, from Harry Potter? He was intensely aggravated by the amount of gifts his parents gave him for his birthday because there was “one less than last year.” He sulked with unmet expectations. That is why it is necessary to guide children through those unmet expectations. Although discipline may sound severe, it is not evil--far from it! Indeed, the most powerful lessons from discipline are often the soft words of reprimand. 

When a child has unmet expectations, a parent must address it or else it will slowly fester into embitterment as more unmet expectations will surely be added to it over the course of his/her childhood. A parent who doesn't walk with their child through unmet expectations is only letting embitterment fester. What parent would leave a thorn to fester? Then why would we let embitterment fester?

But if we neglect discipline and guidance altogether, what are we raising our children to be?

Do we want our next generation to be filled with people like Dudley? 

Some might say, “Well, after all, it’s Christmas! Let the children be spoiled a little bit.”

Who cares if it’s Christmas! How is this season different than the rest of the year? There are no holidays in the occupation of “parenthood.” It is a full-time, 24/7 job.  

What is Christmas anyway? What is its spirit?

Christmas is about the coming of Jesus, who came for a single purpose: to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8).

The Devil loves selfish hearts. When we celebrate Christmas, we are also celebrating the destruction of our selfish hearts. In the work of Jesus, we are freed from the bondage to our egotistical strivings. The spirit of Christmas is the spirit of freedom.

Discipline may seem to clash with the notion of “freedom,” but discipline is the means through which we obtain freedom. Those who find themselves in Christ are freed from sin, but that does not make their habitual deeds completely perfect. In other words, nobody will be perfect in this life. We are saved from sin, but we have a lot of work to do in the area of growth.


What do children do? They grow.

How can a child grow without discipline? 

We certainly cannot grow in our new life without God, and children cannot grow without the guidance of their parents. Discipline, no matter how mild, is something that appears severe, but it is always a means to an end, not the end itself. 

If we maintain discipline during Christmas, our children will find greater joy because proper discipline will open the door to a selfless life. There will be less “unmet expectations” and more thankfulness in a disciplined child. 

As a child of parents, I ask all parents to consider their children’s future this Christmas. Stop satisfying selfishness and start satisfying growth. Give them gifts they will truly value, not just gifts that will cast aside half-a-year from now. Don’t dump gifts on them in attempts to alleviate any past or current negligence on your part.

And always remember that God is our loving parent who disciplines us, his children, so why should we not love our children the same way? We are not to lightly regard the discipline of the Lord (Heb. 12:5), and nor should we lightly regard the discipline of our own children.

I may be sounding severe here, and it may be brash coming from a non-parent, but I will be a parent someday, and I do not want to raise my children to be selfless without other parents doing it as well. I need help, and I know you do too. That is why we must never be ashamed to seek help with guiding our children into a life of selflessness because that is the life we want for them.

Love fills this season, so let’s teach our children what it means to love.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The God of Wonders and the Joy of Being Human

The stories in the Gospels become so mundane to churchgoing, Bible-reading folk that it’s easy to miss the obvious fact that the disciples of Jesus, and Jesus himself, were people. Further, all the Bible stories we read consist of real people.

Could you imagine following someone who appears to be an ordinary spiritual teacher only to discover that this guy is borderline magical? He turned water into wine, walks on water, calms storms, casts out demons simply by speaking, raises the dead as one wakes a sleeper, and heals the sick and blind. Are we reading the Bible or Harry Potter here? This sounds more like the work of a fictional magician than a 1st-Century Rabbi. 

How in the world did the disciples respond to this?  

“Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” (Mark 4:41b)

Right before this statement from the disciples, Mark says that they were filled with fear. It’s almost comical. Here they are, trapped in a small boat with this guy who just calmed the storm by merely telling it to do so. I think I would be afraid too. 

After reading this section of Scripture, I am reminded of the film, Man of Steel, and a line spoken by Jonathan Kent, played by Kevin Costner, who tells Clark (Superman) that the world would be filled with fear when they discover that someone like him exists. 

Perhaps Man of Steel and Harry Potter show us something that has been missed in Christendom.  

Although God's activities with humanity have dramatically changed since Jesus and the stories of Scripture, he still works wonders today. Even though the type of wonders are different, the God who performs them is the same.

Humanity craves these wonders of God, which is evident from the fact that the Bible is the most-read book in the world. We all want to experience the power of God. When reading the Bible, we learn about what he can do and how he interacted with humanity in ages past. In doing so, we can vicariously experience it for ourselves. 

Still, there's a gap between what we read and what we experience today.

When is the last time I saw a blind person healed?

When was the last time I saw someone walking on water?

When was the last time I saw a storm calmed by someone speaking to it?

Can I recall a time when I walked around in a furnace? Survived a lions' den?

The Bible tantalizes us with stories of grandeur from days gone by. We know God has always been God, but we find it hard to reconcile what we read with what we witness in our daily lives. Where are the wonders of God for us today?

The point is not trying to see wonders, but to see God. Forget what he can do, let's focus on who he is. Every time we read the Bible, particularly the Gospels, we enter a "simulator" and experience him from afar. We may only be able to glimpse him from our simulator, but that is enough for us to drop our jaws.

How prepared is a soldier for the enormity of war after playing a simulation game? How prepared is an astronaut for the wonder of space after training in a simulator? The same is true with Jesus. Reading the Bible can only do so much to prepare us for the moment when we will see him; no matter how much information about him that we have, nothing can prepare us to meet him as he is. Reading about God, as he is described in the Bible, ushers in a wave of anticipation for Heaven. The anticipation of meeting Jesus in Heaven is perhaps the greatest joy of being a human.

Only when we begin to see God can we begin to see the wonders he has given us in the 21st Century. The horse must pull the cart; we must first desire God, not his wonders, because only then will we be able to appreciate his wonders. Perhaps the best wonder we have to enjoy in this era is our new life in Christ. This new life unleashes joy and goodness into all of our experiences, and the more we tap into it, the more we will anticipate meeting the one who gave it to us. Let us begin to anticipate again--the world needs Christians who anticipate Jesus. 

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Prayers of Irreverent Coating: Why God Desires More Than Decorum

Logically, it makes sense to not all.

How is it even possible to measure the effectiveness of prayer? How can we even know that our prayers are heard? Why do so many prayers seem to be unanswered? Why is _____ not healed yet?

Prayer is such a sloppy subject because it is intensely mystical and seemingly inefficient, but that doesn’t seem to stop most believers from performing the discipline of prayer. What is it that drives us to our knees in reverence of someone (or something) greater? This prostrated attitude seems to be a natural response to living on Earth, since the thousands of years of human existence is one grand tapestry of seeking God or gods. We humans can’t seem to shake our conception of the Divine, and I, for one, cannot shake it either.

The Bible records Jesus’ example of prayer as well as his teachings on the subject. The most universally recognized prayer from the Christian tradition is the “Lord’s Prayer” (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). In Luke 11, a disciple happens to see Jesus praying and then inquires how he himself should pray. Jesus then responds with what we know today as “the Lord’s Prayer.” What is interesting to me, though, is what follows in verses 5-13. Jesus decides to instruct his disciples on the effective method of prayer using a story of a man who is in need. What Jesus is saying in this story is that it is not the relationship between the pray-er and the one receiving the prayer that will determine if the pray-er receives what is desired. It is the impudence of the pray-er that determines if the pray-er receives what is desired. A similar story is recorded in Luke 18:1-6, where a widow annoys a judge because of he persistence supplications. Jesus is saying that people who push their limits get what they desire.

We are invited to be annoying to God because of our incessant prayers of impudence. 

Impudence? Really?

Some translations change this word in Luke 11:8 to “persistence,” but most maintain “impudence” or “importunity.” The NIV phrases this Greek word as “shameless audacity.” Is Jesus saying we should pray to God with shameless audacity? Wouldn’t this impudence sound irreverent to God? Wouldn't incessant prayer annoy him? I think that once we begin to assume that God only desires “proper” prayers that don't annoy anyone, we verge away from true faith. We start to assume that God can't hear brash prayers from the heart, or that he will be offended with us when we fail to pray “properly.” God expects more from us than decorous prayer; he expects us to give him a piece of our minds. 

From experience, I can say that prayer is not always decorous. Prayer can get nasty and nearly irreverent at times, especially when offered constantly. Life hands us lemons and we don’t always want to make lemonade. We want relief from the pains that plague us. Life causes us to be restless and the prayer of a restless soul tends to be messy and distasteful. This type of praying may sound counter-effective due its irreverent coating, but this is what Jesus is encouraging. He doesn't want us to coat our prayers with formalities and particularities. Instead of praying with rigid decorum, we are invited to be ourselves with him. We are invited to get it all out, lay it out and hash it out like group therapy. There are no rules to follow when it comes to conversing with the Divine. 

The impudence of prayer doesn’t mean, though, that we are to distrust God. This is important. Prayer must maintain this one thing: trust in God. Once we distrust God, our prayers become messages of hate instead of messages of supplication. Instead of making seemingly irreverent prayers filled with trust, we become irreverent people filled with distrust. This is not what Jesus encourages. 

Although life often tempts us to distrust God, our prayers must never be infected with such distrust. After we lose trust in God, we lose the desire to seek him, and then prayer becomes futile to us. We end up ceasing to pray altogether and thus lose our bond with God and grow cold to anything pertaining to him. When we stop trusting God, our unanswered prayers, in a sense, become our “gods,” and we exchange faith in God for faith in our broken hopes.

I mentioned at the outset that prayer is illogical because of its mystical and inefficient nature. It’s just not scientific! This may lead one to wonder why people pray, but perhaps it is not the logicality of prayer that brings people to their knees. Maybe it’s the hope that life is not something to be lived alone. It’s the presence of a Friend that is there when all other friends betray. It’s hope that life will always work out, even if things don’t turn out as expected. It’s the trust that God is there no matter what

I’ve heard it said that “Jesus is just a crutch.” Prayer, by extension, is then the use of such a crutch. Well, I would agree--somewhat. I think we need more than a crutch. We need surgery, rehab and therapy. Prayer is the evidence of a hurting soul, and the supplications we offer to God are the chances to receive medicine that a hurting soul needs. Prayer is the courage to endure rehab, and it is what helps us work through therapy. 

Even though prayer can seem futile at times, it must be remembered that prayer fuels something deeper than the satisfaction of our wants and needs. We may pray for those, but at a deeper level, we solidify our bond with God, and that is what truly matters. When compared to our bond with the Creator, unanswered prayers are infantile. This may be upsetting, but nothing should sever our bond with God, even unanswered prayers, because what we expect from prayer is not what matters. What matters is what is given to us because what’s been given is exactly what we need. We must trust that God will always give us what we need, even if we don’t expect what's given.