You Can’t Go Back

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You Can’t Go Back.

This morning I tried. I really did. I knocked on the door of the first place on this earth that I can remember being. At the end of a peaceful cul-de-sac, across the street from a park. The house felt smaller than I remember but I guess when you are ten years old everything seems huge. A young woman in her early twenties answered the door. I think she might have been high, either that or I woke her up. Either way, it is probably annoying to be interrupted in either of those situations.
“I’m sorry to bother you”, I said. “I grew up in this house and just wanted to take a couple pictures and didn’t want anyone to look outside and get creeped out”. She stared blankly. “Yeah, do your thing”, she replied. I backed away and turned to walk back out the the street, on my way I pointed at a huge tree in the middle of the yard, “my family planted that tree” I said over my shoulder as I glanced back at her. She looked at the tree, then back at me, then shut the door.
I took a few moments in the driveway to take it all in. The fire hydrant that used to be the base for my G.I. Joes. The grass spaces between ours and the neighbors driveway that I was so proud of jumping over on roller skates without falling. The basketball hoop that my dad and grandfather had erected that used to stand right at the edge of the driveway (now missing, but an obvious patch where it was taken down).
Somehow I expected it to seem much more magical than it actually was when I stood there. I mean, I haven’t stood here in 25 years. But here I was. And I remember everything. A flood of memories. I stand there for a couple more minutes and think to myself “So this is it, huh? Hmmm, wheres the magic?”.
I walk across the street to the park where I used to play little league games. Past the playground where I learned to be brave and climb. The field where I have memories that are as clear as day of my dad chasing me across the grass while I ran full speed with the football under my arm. Again, wheres the magic? A million more memories flooded my brain with every bench and hill and baseball backstop. But it wasn’t magical. It was just a park.
I learned today what I think everyone comes to learn in their adult years. It’s not the place. Its the people.
It was my childhood home, but my brothers weren’t there to pull me on my skateboard behind their bikes. My mom wasn’t there to yell “good job T!” everytime I climbed higher. My dad wasn’t there to cook burgers on the grill. Family, that is what made it magical. It isn’t the house, the field, the playground, or the yard. It was love. It was the human beings that shared it with me. Yes, the magic is gone away from this place, but it has not gone from my life, or even this world. It has gone to New York, and Indonesia, and Tampa. It has gone everywhere where the people who made it joyous have gone.
Many of you have fond memories of your life. The places, the people, the experiences. You might even have the urge to try and return. I want you to know that even if you did manage to return to the location, the house, or the city, the magic is not there.
The fondness that your soul has for certain memories and periods in your life will often times disguise itself as an affinity for a place or a time. Sometimes when we look back, we make the same mistakes that we so often make when we think about the future: we think fondly about a house we will buy, or a place we will live, or a thing we will do, and we think our pleasure will be there. It will not.
The truth is that the fondness that your soul has is for other souls. Family, friends, community, and God. We were created this way. The connections that we form is where the actual magic and joy deep within our souls resides.
My job is not to go back and try and enjoy those times again, it is to bring those times into the present. To do everything in my power to ensure that my children feel these same experiences. When I am old I want to hear them talk fondly about all of the amazing memories that they have with their father, mother, sister and brother, grandpa and grandma. I want them to, one day, go back to their childhood home (that they live in at this very moment) and to realize the full truth that what made this place great was not the toys or the basketball hoop or the parks, it was their Father and their Mother and the fact that we took every opportunity to enjoy their youth alongside of them.
Your job, parents, is not to give them a great childhood, it is first and foremost to enjoy them. To reflect back to them their joy and their pain and their laughter and their imagination. And to make sure that they understand that this is what God does for us. It started with the first man and woman, Gods first son and daughter, whom he dwelled with and enjoyed. And then he taught them to be fruitful and multiply that love and communion and enjoyment generation after generation for thousands and thousands of generations until this very day.
It is in the intrinsic things that life is found. Pour yourselves out for your children, your neighbors, and the world around you, and you will find true joyous life. You were created for this. Created by a God who does this for you every day.
You cannot go back. It wasn’t the time. It wasn’t the place. It wasn’t the activities.

It was love.

So may you look back and move forward, remembering and resurrecting Gods love. For generations to come.

P.S. – Its time to turn off your screen and be present. Starting now.

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Fake Sunglasses are Bad for Your Soul.

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There has been much written and learned in the last decade about “wholeness”. The movement towards “whole” foods is gaining ground so quickly that the fast food industry, as well as companies like Monsanto that genetically modify natures seeds, are beginning to suffer. People are beginning to believe that things should be “one”. One thing. A seed should be seed, naturally and without modification. Meat should be meat, not a mixture of things that look like meat.

When something that we take into our body is “one” thing, studies have found that our body can use all of it, and not just some of it. Our bodies are able to heal faster, to repair damage that has been present for years, even decades. We also know that when something is “whole” we are not being deceived. We know what it is. We know that someone is not trying to trick us.

In the same way that whole food has positive effects on our bodies, much work has also been done to explore what happens to our mental and spiritual health when we do not practice a posture of “wholeness”.

Both Duke and Harvard University have done studies on the impact of what they call “Fake Adornments” on our ethics. The study was quite simple, but effective. A sampling of 500 women were given expensive Chloe sunglasses and 50% of them were told that the sunglasses were fakes, cheap knockoffs. The women were then asked to complete several complex mathematical equations that could never be realistically completed in the time allotted for them to be completed. They were told that they would be paid money for each math equation that they completed correctly. The payment, however, was based on the honor system. In other words, no one would be checking their work.

The study found that about 70% of those who believed that they were wearing fake sunglasses lied and stole money from the researchers by saying that they had completed the impossible equations correctly.

In other studies they also found that women who believed they were wearing knockoff sunglasses judged others more harshly than those who knew they were wearing the real deal. They were also more cynical, and viewed others in a much more negative way.

It turns out that when we fake it in life, when we pretend that we are something that we are not, it actually effects us at a deeply spiritual and moral level. We fake it to make ourselves feel better, more glamorous, more attractive, wealthier, cooler, more intellectual… but then we begin to feel like a phony and we become more cynical, more deceptive, and this negativity pushes outwards and begins to affect how we look at the world around us. We begin to think that everyone is lying and deceiving, but it is really just us. 

Christians often times talk about “Integrity”. Integrity comes from the word “integer”, which means one. It is a whole number. When we have integrity, it means that we are the same person, one person, all of the time. It is someone who is whole. They are not like the modified food, claiming to be one ingredient, but really made up of several different hidden things. The person who has integrity is one personOne ingredient. They are who they appear to be, and they are not trying to deceive you.

The soul desperately wants to be one person. Its desire is for the mind, body, and soul to be the same person. Most of us are not one person. And our souls know it.

We are married, but have eyes for other people, or another life.
We are poor, but weighted down with debt in order to appear wealthy.
We are doubting and skeptical, but pretend that we fully understand and believe.
We are addicts, but we pretend that we have it all under control.
We are one person, but we are two people.

The soul will not stand idly by and let you be two people. It wants a center. It will move you towards whatever person that you are nurturing. If you are nurturing your lustful thoughts, you soul will push you that direction. It will push you towards being a whole person, meaning an adulterer. You will eventually find yourself at the point where all you are lacking is a proper opportunity to fulfill the desires of your heart.

Oscar Wilde experienced this. he writes:

“I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace.”

Peter wrote to the church on the run from Nero and he urged them not to let their guard down, not even against the little things. He knew that the little things actually have a pretty profound impact in the person that you are becoming. he says in 1 Peter 2:11:

“Beloved, I urge you … to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.”

The passions of the flesh.
Riches and images of success.
Fame and accolades.
Convincing people that we are something that we are not.
Fake sunglasses, fake prayers, fake chastity, fake you and fake me. THAT is what is warring against our souls.

We want to be one person to them, and yet be another to ourselves. We are feeding our souls spiritual fast food. It is not what it appears to be. It is bad for us, and we can feel it. It will kill our souls.

It is out of this double-mindedness that God gave us the church. The community of confession. Where we come, we sing, we worship, we listen, we hear, we repent, and we take communion. We ask the gospel to touch the innermost parts of us that we have kept hidden from it’s view.

We bring our fakeness and sin into the light and we say “Here it is. Here is my stuff. My lies and phoniness”. And we confess it, and we lay it down.

Strive for integrity. Become one person. Be whole. Even if that one whole person is not yet as good as he/she should be, he/she can still be whole by being honest. And that is the first step to your soul finding healing and growth.

Where Does Happiness Come From. Part 2

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This week I’m going to build off of what I wrote in my last post about finding true happiness in this world, and today I want to start with a passage from the Psalms.

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures…

I have always loved this Psalm and it is has always been a favorite amongst Gods people since the day it was written. I have even written songs about this passage and we sing them regularly at the congregation that I pastor here in Tampa.  It is a passage that we read when we need provision, when we need God to intervene, and when we need a little bit of peace in a chaotic world.

But, like much of the scriptures, this passage has been divorced of it’s original context. And when we remove a piece of writing form it’s original time, place, and audience we tend to miss some incredibly important things that we desperately need to hear.

Usually when we think of this passage we picture big fat fluffy sheep grazing in a field lush with green grass up to their mouths. In fact, if you do a quick google search of Psalm 23, this is exactly what kinds of images are conjured up. As if the sheep barely need to even lower their heads because the grass is so thick and healthy that they can almost wander with their eyes closed and open their mouths and be fed.

But the reality of that passage in it’s original context was actually much different, and it should have a profound impact on the actual meaning of the text. The “green fields” that the sheep were supposedly wandering in did not actually exist like we have just described them here. In reality, they looked more like this:

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Not quite the same, I would say. The food that was available for the sheep was not really all that abundant. In the morning, as the sun was rising, the dew would settle on these tiny sprigs of grass, and they would soak up the dew like a sponge. They would indeed turn green, but only for a short time. By noon there would be a scorching wind coming in from the east that would cause the grass and it’s flowers and greenery to wither and fade.

Without a shepherd the sheep would never eat, because only the shepherd knew where to lead them to find the food that they need. The shepherd knew that at different times of the day there would be grasses good for eating in certain parts of the valley, and he would take great care to lead the sheep to exactly what they needed to eat at the exact time that they needed it.

Think about that for a second.

The shepherd didn’t lead them into a land of plenty where they never needed to think about food anymore. He didn’t lead them to a place where they had such abundance that they could relax and no longer worry about being fed for the rest of their days… that kind of place did not exist!

Instead, the shepherd would lead them to exactly what they needed, exactly when they needed it. It was their “daily bread”. It was not year by year, but moment by moment.

If the sheep wanted to live, they had to keep their eyes on the shepherd. In fact, to take their eyes off of the shepherd was the most dangerous thing they could do. And all first century nomadic peoples knew the context in which this passage was written. Peter, Paul and James all wrote about it. Here is what James said in chapter 1:

 For the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes. So also will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

That word for “scorching heat” is the Greek word “καύσων (kausōn)”, also called the simoon”. And it’s heat could killed a healthy man who did not take shelter under a tent, tree, or at least a turban.

So lets reevaluate how we are to read this text.

I know that we want God to lead us into a place where we are at perfect peace. Where there is plenty to feast upon and no lack of abundance. But that is never promised to us in this life. Instead, we are told that we have a shepherd that we can trust, who knows the way through the fires of life, who has gone ahead of us and calls us to follow Him. He knows the way. He is paving and has paved a way for us to be fed and nourished. A way for us to find peace. Not a storehouse of peace, but a fountain of it. Constantly flowing.

Peace is not abundant food or money or shelter… it is abundant trust and faith that, if we follow our shepherd, we will always be given exactly what we need when we need it.

In fact, it is when we receive too much abundance that we tend to fall into misery. When we have too much of a good thing, we find ourselves alone and heading towards destruction.

Pay attention to exactly what God said to the Israelites when he was about to lead them into abundance. He is not telling them that it will be what they need, instead He warns them that it of the dangers of it all. Read Deuteronomy 6:10

“And when the LORD your God brings you into the land that he swore to your fathers…with great and good cities that you did not build, 11and houses full of all good things that you did not fill, and cisterns that you did not dig, and vineyards and olive trees that you did not plant—and when you eat and are full, 12then take care lest you forget the LORD who brought you out of bondage…

It did not take long for them to forget about the God who fed them in the wilderness day after day. It did not take long for them to fall into idolatry. It wasn’t long before they found themselves back in bondage once again.

Usually it is when we have too much that we forget our shepherd. He becomes unnecessary. We find ourselves self sufficient, and so we isolate ourselves.

Sometimes the things that we are praying for, that things that we want, that things that we look at and say “If I only had THAT, then I would be HAPPY!”… THOSE are the thing that will be our undoing.

Sometimes the most loving thing that God could possibly do for us is to say “no, you don’t need that, and I will not be giving it to you”.

Sometimes the most loving thing that god can do is to give you just a little, right here, right now.

Sometimes when we are receiving all of the things that we always wanted, we should be terrified because perhaps we are actually being chastened and disciplined.

Happiness comes in the providence. It comes from posture of thankfulness.

Perhaps the best way to put it is in the lyrics of a beloved song from The Muppet Christmas Carol:

Yes, and every night will end
And every day will start
With a grateful prayer
And a thankful heart

So may you wake up tomorrow in want and need. Because only in the seeking and finding, day by day, do we really understand that love is real and that we have a shepherd and a guide who sees, who understands, and who is capable of granting salvation in every moment. Not just later, but NOW.

Where Does Happiness Come From?

Hello all. I took last week off to rest my brain as I felt like I needed to fill myself and not pour out for the day. As C.S. Lewis used to say “All things in moderation, including moderation”. Anyways, I have been pondering happiness and joy lately and I thought I would spend some time writing down my thoughts on where I believe these things come from, and some of the ways that our thinking can go wrong in regards to finding and maintaining a joyous attitude.

I want to start with a bit of a grizzly scenario.

Lets say that you find yourself alone and freezing to death, and you are becoming increasingly convinced that your demise is steadily approaching. How would you feel? I know it’s a dumb question, we would all feel pretty awful about the whole situation. Hopelessness is saddening, pain is never fun, and being alone while feeling hopeless and in pain only piles on more misery.

Now, lets say that the situation changed. Someone comes to you and gives you a jacket that was of such high quality that your body was warmed and your life was saved. How would you feel then?  I dare say that you would probably feel quite happy. And the jacket had allot to do with that.

A jacket, when you are cold, makes you happy.

Now, if this statement is true, what could be said of ten jackets? Would ten jackets make you ten times happier? Would a hundred jackets make you a hundred times happier? Would a thousand jackets make you a thousand times happier?

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No. It will not.

Happiness is not about having an overabundance of one thing. Studies have proven that, in fact, an overabundance of anything is almost always harmful.If you’ve read the recent reports about people “binge watching” netflix, you will find that this type of behavior actually causes depression. A well crafted show is a good thing. But binge-ing on a good thing is destructive and will actually bring about the opposite of what you are seeking. Happiness and genuine joy come, not from having more and more and more of a good thing, but from receiving just enough of the right thing.

We know this. Deep down inside, we all know this.

This fact, however, does not keep us from trying to acquire a whole bunch of the same thing. A good meal brings us joy, but too much of that meal will leave us miserable, overweight, with low self-esteem and will eventually contribute to an early death. Studies have also recently found that running as exercise is healthy in moderation. But in fact, people who run every day for more than 45 minutes have the same death rates as those who do not run at all.

You are happy when your needs are met, and become saddened when you live in too much abundance and excess. That drive that is inside of you for more and more is a clue that your other parts do not have what they need… namely, your soul.

Your soul has an insatiable desire for more. Theologian Hans Walter Wolff wrote a book called “Anthropology of the Old Testament” and in that book there is a chapter about the “nephesh”, the Hebrew word for “Soul”. In this chapter he repeatedly refers to nephesh as “The needy man”. Wolff uses dozens and dozens of passages of scripture to show us just how needy the soul is. It has a constant desire for more and more, but unless it is fed exactly what it needs, it is never filled.

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

“We are limited in every way but one: we have unlimited desire, unlimited longing”.

When the makers of Netflix added the “autoplay” feature last year, causing shows to play continuously, one after the other, they knew exactly what they were doing. They had stumbled upon the same thing that made Youtube so popular… one more videoAnd Facebook… one more scroll down. And the snooze button… one more quick snooze. But none of it ever gives us what we are looking for… in fact, it takes away what we want. We have all lost precious time because of our insatiable desire for “just one more”.

“Simplicity is freedom, duplicity is bondage. Simplicity brings joy and balance. Duplicity brings anxiety and fear., as Richard Foster wrote.  The discipline of simplicity is an important one. I believe it was meant to remind us of these simple facts that we can readily observe, but rarely notice, every single day. Jesus said “Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (Luke 12:15). I don’t think that we really believe this anymore. It is so ingrained in all of us to literally judge a persons life by the abundance of their possessions… which is why we tend to despise the poor and homeless. This is also the viewpoint of those who would abort a mentally handicapped baby, because we believe that our lives consist of our possessions, and a fully functioning mind is considered among the commodities of a developed society. But Jesus tells us that our possessions, wether it be money, intelligence, willpower, or marketable skills, do not determine a life.

Our request to God should be:
Not for more intelligence, but the simple wisdom to make the decisions that we currently need to make.
Not for more money, but the providence to meet the current need.
Not for more time, but the diligence to live what time we do have to the fullest.
Not for more friends, but the love, compassion, and empathy to be the best possible companion to the few that we have.
Not for more, but for better and more meaningful: moments/relationships/conversations/meals/experiences/marriages/work/etc…

Feed your soul what it needs first, and let the body and mind follow that. When you find yourself wanting more more more… stop and ask yourself where that is coming from. Ask yourself if more has ever really satisfied. Observe all the ways in which more has been destructive in your life and the lives of those around you. And reject the idea that more of this or that will really satisfy.

Ask God for what he calls “Our daily bread”. It is not a lifetime supply. It is right here. Right now. It is all you need.

More on this next week.