Lessons from the Mountains

 

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I’m from Michigan so I don’t get to enjoy mountains very often; so when I had the opportunity to go on Ride the Rockies this year I was extremely eager and excited.  Seeing the Rocky Mountains on a bicycle is my idea of FUN!  It might not be for everyone, but we often move too quickly in life to get the full benefit of the scenery around us.  Riding a bicycle slows me down enough to enjoy sights that I might otherwise miss.  Riding in the Rockies is both arduous and amazing.  I asked God to show me things while I rode and he did not disappoint.  Let me share a few of the truths God showed me:

1. God is Full of Power and Imagination – The Lord of Glories is an amazing creator.  At each turn and at every elevation there was another breathtaking sight.  My smart phone is filled to overflowing with pictures that cannot do the actual scene justice.  I cannot tell you how many times I said “Look over there!” because in every direction there was another wonder of God’s creative genius.  I truly felt sorry for the atheist in those moments because they have NO ONE to thank for the beauty and majesty of all the panoramic spectacles I saw. And here is the BEST part. The Creator of all the incredible landscapes I took into my eye-gate is my Father. And since He is capable of creating such impressive backdrops and since He can sustain it all by the word of His power; He is completely capable of taking care of me and the problems I have to deal with in this life!

2. Climbing is Tough But It is Worth It – I like doing things that very few people in life will ever choose to tackle. I don’t just like to do what everyone else is doing. Give me a challenge…tell me I can’t do something…those are the things that I want to attempt – that’s at least one of the reasons that I wanted to ride the Rocky Mountains. I have never been at high elevation, but from my first training ride in the mountains I knew that I wasn’t in Michigan any more. Getting oxygen to your lungs is like sucking a thick milkshake through a small straw. On the fifth day of my ride we were scheduled to ride over three mountain passes – Battle Mountain Pass, Tennessee Pass, and Fremont Pass. I have to be honest, that day kicked my backside. There were quite a few people who didn’t make it because it proved to be too difficult. For those of us that made each mountain pass there was a lot of hoot-and-hollering, high fives, and picture-taking. Each mountain pass was worth the climb, but none of them were easy.   Making spiritual progress is a lot like climbing mountain passes.  Jesus even told us that it would be tough; and maybe that is why so many choose to stop short of greater heights.  The path of least resistance is more comfortable, but it also lacks the grandeur and fulfillment of the mountain top.   As the hymn writer put it…

Oft times the day seems long, our trials hard to bear, we’re tempted to complain, to murmur and despair; but Christ will soon appear to catch His Bride away, all tears forever over in God’s eternal day. It will be worth it all when we see Jesus, life’s trials will seem so small when we see Christ; one glimpse of His dear face all sorrow will erase, so bravely run the race till we see Christ.

3.  There Are Always Things That Deter Us From Climbing Higher – Ride The Rockies was trying something on the first day of the ride that they had never attempted before. Right out of the gate they wanted the riders to travel 90 miles with over 10,000 ft of gain.  It was the most difficult first day in the 29 year existence of RTR. Now the day started off really nice – the sun was shining – it was about 45 degrees out and before noon it got up to about 65 degrees. But after we left Central City things started to take a turn for the worst. The first thing is that out of Central City the grade changed from 7% to 15% – it was an “Oh my word!” moment for me! Then as we started the 25 mile climb up to Berthoud Pass the weather started changing. We could see a storm cell approaching and no one was quite sure if it would hit us…it did. First came a few sprinkles and then came the cloud to ground lightning. The lightening was close and powerful. There was so much electricity in the air that the hair on my arms started to stand up. I was unsure what to do so I kept riding; but I tried to find tall people to ride next to. Then came the hail – small at first, but the size of the hail grew until they were about grape size in proportion. They felt really good hitting your face! We took cover for a while at a school until the hail stopped, then we kept riding.   On the back side of the storm the air turned cold, and by the time we reached Empire, about half way up the pass, it was about 35 degrees and rainy. Most people, some struggling with hypothermia, stopped there. So many people stopped there, in fact, that there was a two-hour wait to be bused down from the mountain. We decided after some deliberation to press on toward the top. That is when the rain turned to snow. It was light at first – the kind that is fun to watch as it falls; but then it turned heavy. By the time we got to Berthoud Falls, approximately five miles from the top, more people were calling it quits. The air was cold and the snow was heavy – we decided to press on to the top. I cannot even begin to tell you how miserable those last five miles were. We could barely see; our hands were frozen in the now 25 degree temps; and our legs were aching. But at nearly 7:00 PM – 11 hours after we had started in Boulder, CO we reached Berthoud Pass. We were the last two people to make it.  As I reflected on this difficult day God reminded me that there will always be things that will try to keep us from climbing higher in our spiritual life.  Paul said Galatians 6:9 – And let us not grow weary while doing good, for in due season we shall reap if we do not lose heart.  He said this because he knew that there would be plenty of things that would make us want to quit – to say “That’s far enough!” I’m going to stop right here.  By God’s grace, let’s keep climbing!  I don’t want to give the Devil the satisfaction of seeing me stop before the REAL finish.  Let us say with the apostle Paul “I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)

Grumpy Old Men

oldmenThe America Dream goes something like this: Find a way to do better than your parents did financially, either by getting an education that helps you land the job of your dreams, or pursue something that you are good at and receive significant remuneration for your efforts; all with the end game of collecting enough money so that you can retire to a life of ease, so that you can do more golfing, fishing, gardening, traveling, etc.  If that is the American Dream, I don’t want any part of it.

God did not create us or redeem us to pursue a life of ease and retirement.  Don’t get me wrong, I think we should prepare for the time when we allow the younger generation to do more of their part and involve themselves in a greater way; and I think a good 401k or Roth IRA should be a part of good financial planning, but not so that we can retire to cruises, golf courses and lazy boy chairs.

No place in the Bible does it indicate that at a certain age we can use the excuse “Well, I’m retired.” or “Let somebody younger do it.”  I love to travel, play golf and take a good nap in my lazy boy; but I am not looking forward to doing more of it when I am retired.  On the contrary, I am looking forward to doing more for the Lord in my retirement years.  I am sure that there will be some things that I cannot do when I get older (I suppose that comes with the territory); but I flat-out refuse to sit and watch the advancement of the God’s kingdom from the sidelines.  Let these hands stay dirty for the Lord until he calls me home because I want to go with my boots on!

I was at a government meeting several months ago where I saw in the back corner several retired men.  Each one of them had a complaint.  Each one of them wore a scowl.  They were the quintessential group of what grumpy old men look like.  They had reduced themselves to complaining about things in this life that matter very little, like yelling over and over again “You kids stay off my lawn!”  I absolutely refuse to turn into that kind bitter, grumpy, small, retired man.  I want my retirement to be my welcome home party into the presence of my Savior.  Until then I want to stay full of joy, passion, spiritual hunger, adventure, delight, eagerness, service, activity and love for my Lord.  I hope that you will join me in this pursuit.  God knows we don’t need any more grumpy old men!

Why I Rarely Wear a Tie to Church…

I did not growno tie up in Michigan but it is where I pastor.  Michigan is known for its radical weather patterns to which the native Michigander replies, “There is no such thing as bad weather only bad clothing choices.”  That attitude seems to be shared by many in church circles as well, as many believe church goers are making bad clothing choices.  The disappointment of some that casual dress has taken the place of dress up within church services has led a few Christ-followers to the conclusion that casual dress leads to casual worship.  This would imply that the clothes we choose to wear dictates the genuineness of our worship.  This has reached such a state that some even believe it is unbiblical not to dress up for church.  Sadly though to prove such a statement one must take many passages out of context and reject many others.  There is a very interesting history to this topic and one that sheds some fascinating light on this debate.  George Barna writes the following:

Dressing up for church became a popular practice in the first half of the nineteenth century, first in England, then northern Europe and America, as a consequence of the industrial revolution and the emergence of the middle class. While care was historically given to cleanliness and solemnity on Sabbath days, dressing up for worship resulted, not from a theological teaching, but from the influence of Victorian culture on worshiping communities.

Contrary to popular opinion, medieval Christians had no common practice of dressing up for church because nice clothes were only afforded by the wealthy. Prior to the industrial revolution, society was polarized into the “haves” (the landed aristocracy) and the “have-nots” (plebes, serfs, peasants), with a minimal merchant class in between. Fine clothing was hand-made and far too expensive for common folk who maintained their living through subsistence farming.  Common folks had only one or two sets of clothes, made of coarse, drab fabric. One set of clothes was for working in the field, thus getting dirty and tattered; the other was for going into town, and therefore was kept cleaner to avoid public revulsion.  In other words, “dressing up” for anything was never an option for anyone but the wealthiest nobility. In fact, social codes enforced by fines mandated that this class distinction be honored by individuals of every rank.  Distinctions of dress have functioned to maintain social hierarchy since the beginning of civilization. 

All of this changed with the invention of mass manufacturing and the development of urban society. James Hargreaves invented the “spinning jenny” in 1764.  As this and similar machines were reproduced, finer and more colorful clothing, created with more versatile fabrics, made a variety of clothes affordable for the masses.  Industrialization and urbanization gave rise to the middle class socio-economic group, so that a new layer of society received an opportunity to emulate the envied aristocracy and distinguish themselves from the peasants.  Common people began “dressing up” to social events of every kind to demonstrate their newly improved social status. 

Various Christian groups of the 18th and 19th century resisted this cultural momentum among the middle class for the same reasons that many of the patristic writers did among the wealthy in the third and fourth centuries.  Decorative clothing and demonstrative accessories (jewelry, etc) were seen as worldly and prideful, interfering with a simple and austere mood of worship. In the eighteenth century, John Wesley frequently wrote and spoke out against fine adornment, saying that gold and costly apparel were sinful.  “Let your dress be cheap, as well as plain,” Wesley taught, peddling what Leigh Eric Schmidt entitled a “gospel of plainness.” Preachers like Charles Finney and Peter Cartwright lauded plain dress. 

But the growing prosperity of the middle class cultivated a craving for bigger and better houses, church buildings, and clothes. Denominations with a greater proportion of wealthy members (e.g. Episcopal, Unitarian) began selling pews to wealthy families to fund elaborate church building improvements.  As the Victorian enculturation of the middle class progressed, fancier and more formal worship houses began to draw the influential people of society, so that the more populist congregations (e.g. Baptist, Methodist) had to work hard to try to keep up with improvements to their own facilities. 

Children’s religious periodicals like the American Sunday School Union’s Youth’s Friend in the 1840’s began introducing articles on manners and dress together with moral instruction. In 1843, Horace Bushnell, an influential Congregational minister in Connecticut, published an essay entitled “Taste and Fashion,” in which he argued that sophistication and refinement were integral attributes of God that mature Christians should naturally emulate.  Thus was born the environment for “dressing up for church,” in which members worshiping in an elaborately formal, decorated building naturally began wearing formal clothes out of a sense of propriety of morals, as well as pride of status.

So what does the Bible say?

  • Matthew 23:27-28 – Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. Even so you also outwardly appear righteous to men, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
  • 1 Timothy 2:8-10 – I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting; in like manner also, that the women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with propriety and moderation, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly clothing (emphasis mine), but, which is proper for women professing godliness, with good works.
  • James 2:1-4 – My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

So from the Bible we learn that our choice in attire should be modest (orderly); specifically, our choice in clothing should not be overly showy or ostentatious.  And we learn that the Lord is pleased with the inner qualities of a fine character and is not nearly concerned with outward appearance.  And most importantly we learn that our choice in clothing can lead to an attitude of discrimination which is condemned by the Lord.  So the next question that must be asked is “Does dressing up show reverence and respect?”  If that were truly the case and our dress was indicative of our respect of God then it does not make any sense that the women of 1 Timothy 2 would be instructed not to adorn themselves with braided hair, gold, pearls and costly clothing.

Like most issues there are two extremes that need to be avoided, and on this issue both those extremes have to do with ME.  When I prepare for public worship I should not be thinking about MY very best, because MY very best is really about ME.  But I also don’t want to go to the other extreme and think about how comfortable I can be either, because once again it is all about ME.  Worship is not about me, it is about the Lord.

So these are the choices I choose to make…

(1) I wear clothes that are appropriate for the occasion (I do not wear my pajamas to church – pajamas are for sleeping not public worship).

(2) I wear clothes that do not make my congregants feel inferior or self-conscious about their own clothing options (this will change based upon where you serve and the financial norm of the area)

(3) I address my heart before going to public worship because no matter what I wear, suit and tie, khakis and sweater, or jeans and t-shirt, if my heart is not right I will not be really worshiping at all.

When the heart of God’s people is focused completely on Christ, and when we are choosing to love him with all our mind, soul, and strength; and when we truly are seeking those things that are above where Christ is, and when we are completely yielded to the Spirit of God, the issue of clothing choices will take care of itself and will be a small matter compared to recognizing the majesty, holiness, and amazing grace of our Savior and King.

The God of All Comfort

GodcomfortI appreciate so much this quote by John Eldredge, “I’ve been so keenly aware how easy it is when you are hurting to make agreements. This is the time you’ve really got to watch over your heart (Prov 4:23). [It is] too easy to go from the immediate pain, which is real, to something sweeping like, ‘Life is just loss.’ Or, ‘I hate change.’ Or, ‘What is there to look forward to now?’ Pain can so quickly open the door to other things you don’t want to let in – like despair, or hopelessness, or resignation. And what has been most noticeable is that we actually have a choice whether we will let Jesus comfort us.  Pain can feel so ‘true,’ so ‘real,’ that we actually push the comfort of God away because we feel we need to stay in it to honor it, or because it might be the most we’ve felt anything in a long time, or because those subtle agreements have begun to creep in and we [keep] giving place to pain as what is most true about life.  And I don’t want to do that. You don’t want to do that.”

Notice what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 – Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. 5 For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. 6 If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. 7 And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

Over the past year I have become acutely aware of the hurt and struggle that so many people are going through.  It seems like now more than ever that more and more Christ-followers are on some kind of ant-depressant in order to cope with life.  I know that medication has its place, and I am thankful for advancements in medicine, but I am wondering if in our pain we have been guilty of pushing the comfort of Jesus aside.  According to Paul we serve the God of ALL comfort.  That means that he is both eager and able to comfort us when we need it.  Maybe the problem is we don’t know how to accept his comfort.  Starting on Sunday, March 10 we will begin a series of messages entitle “The God of All Comfort.”  If you have been struggling to find rest for your soul I challenge you to attend or listen to these messages at www.bluelakecommunitychurch.com.

Not Everyone Believes We Care

I just got back from a meeting where I was cussed out and berated severely – definitely not an enjoyable experience, but it was not the first time and unfortunately it probably won’t be the last.  My intentions were good.  I simply wanted to convey sincere care and concern.  What I received in return took me completely off guard as I am sure my expression visibly demonstrated.  Usually when I convey care and a desire to pray for someone, I am warmly received with openness.  I did not think this encounter would be any different.  It is true that I don’t always see eye to eye with the person in which I was conversing; however, I did not think that our disagreements were any cause for alarm in this case.  I was naïve.  No, that is an understatement; I was extremely naïve.  Unbeknownst to me there was a great deal of bitterness and anger underneath the surface and my words… “Hey, I just want you to know that I care and I am praying for you” brought all of it to the surface.  It erupted like a volcano and it wasn’t pretty.  The truth is they did not believe that I cared…AT ALL.  My words meant nothing because they already believed in their heart that I was not genuinely concerned about them.  Their response to me was harsh – shockingly harsh.  Their words were acrimonious and poignant.  “I don’t want you to care about me…”  I was honestly befuddled by it all – what do you do when you are told not to care about someone?  For a moment I was offended, and then the longer I stood there and endured the tongue lashing I realized something.  Somewhere along the way I had failed.  It was not deliberate mind you…completely accidental really.  For whatever reason I had failed to accurately convey real love.  Is it possible to love someone that you disagree with?  YES!  Is it possible to love someone that does not like you?  YES!  It is possible…but let’s all admit it…it is definitely NOT easy.  The easy thing to do is to simply do nothing.  Doing nothing got me where I was tonight though – that is not a good place to be.  I suppose I have two choices right now.  I can either get angry at the person that treated me with contempt or I can learn from this moment and I can choose to love others better even when it is not easy to do so.  I am not sure if this relationship can be salvaged.  I like to think it can be, but most likely it won’t happen for a variety of reasons.  Jesus told us to love our friends (1 Peter 1:22); he told us to love our neighbors (Galatians 5:14); and he told us to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44).  I wish that my genuine care had been known tonight – it wasn’t; and that has served as a very vivid reminder that what I do on the outside matters – how I love matters.  God help me to love better…and if it be your will I would rather not get cussed out again!

A Walk in the Rain

This morning I took a walk in the rain. It was not a torrential downpour and there was no thunder or lightning involved. It was a gentle rain – the kind of rain that is easy to listen to because it seems to land almost apologetically on every surface and falls softer than a sigh. There is a cleansing property to rain as it wipes away the summer dust and brings freshness to the air. I could not help thinking as I walked in the rain, getting wet without really noticing or caring, that every human being craves cleansing. The dust of our lives piles up and we can do a decent job of pushing it to corners but we cannot find an adequate cleansing agent that will rid us of all our guilt, despair, and sin. Our dust does not wash off of us with a summer rain. When I was instructed as a child to clean my room I remember many times sweeping the dirt underneath my bed and piling the clutter in my closet – we do much the same in our lives. One of the cries of our heart is to find forgiveness – real forgiveness – a cleansing of our souls. We have searched, but there is nothing man-made that will offer this kind of cleansing. This kind of cleansing must be divine. Jesus knew of this cry of our heart and that is why he offered what no one else could give us – “In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of his grace.” (Ephesians 1:7) When Christ is received not only do we get complete forgiveness of sins, but we also get his righteousness in its place. Talk about a complete cleansing of the soul!! I got back from my walk this morning thanking God for his cleansing and rejoicing with the words of Isaiah, “Rain down, you heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness.”