Another miracle of Christmas

Last week we had a special day where my wife, Marjorie, was ordained and we also had a graduation ceremony for our oldest daughter, Faith. That day was December 11, which I hope we’ll always remember. In talking about Christmas memories last Saturday night, however, it suddenly dawned on me that December 11 already had a significant place in our hearts, and the earlier memory also commemorated two events.

December 11, 1986 was the day we found out that we were pregnant with Faith. It was also the day that my dog, named Cat (nope, not going to explain that now), died. It was also the day before my wife and I were to host our first Christmas party as a married couple — and we were both devastated and in tears, but for dramatically different reasons.

The true meaning of Christmas specials


Perhaps I was like Scrooge seeing Marley’s face on his door knocker, but I’m almost certain that when I watched the Charlie Brown Christmas special I heard Linus stand on stage and say:

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree to render unto Caesar, and that all the world should shop and pay sales tax, and all went to be taxed, everyone into his own mall. And Joseph also went up from Shakopee, into Bloomington, unto the Mall of America, (which is called MOA) because he was an American, to shop with his wife Mary, they being great with debt. And so it was, that, while they were there, the items were purchased that needed to be delivered, and they brought forth their credit card, wrapped in promises to pay and laid it on the counter because there was no money in their checking account.

And there was in the same country stewards, abiding in their homes, keeping watch over their televisions by night. And lo, the commercials from Mammon came upon them and the glory of the goods shown round about them and they were sore afraid they would miss a good deal. And the commercial said unto them, “Fear not, for behold I bring you great tidings of a good economy, which shall be to all who do their part. For unto you is laid out this day, in a store near you, all manner of precious items, and this shall be a sign unto you: 40% off.” And suddenly there was within the commercial a multitude of friends and family praising their gifts and saying “Glory to the Giver with the highest credit card balance, and on earth peace, good will toward all, just $29.95.”

And it came to pass that I kept all these things and pondered them in my heart.

Fear not, for this is not going to be a complaint on how commercial Christmas has become. Frankly, those complaints have become as traditional and meaningless to most people as holly and ivy (if you don’t know what these represent, look it up). Complaining about how the true meaning of Christmas is being ignored, without actually dwelling on this meaning, is merely spiritual lip service; kind of like singing “Gloria In Excelsis Deo,” without knowing what it means. For me the issue is not that commercialism obscures the meaning of Christmas, but the cultural camouflage that diverts attention. As a case in point, let’s look at the Christmas specials we watch with our families.

Despite my parody of the Linus speech earlier, the Charlie Brown Christmas special is a classic and a true Christmas special because it is one of the few that deals specifically with the birth of Christ. “The Little Drummer Boy” is another old one and favorite of mine that also does this, while the Veggie Tales “The Toy That Saved Christmas” is the highlight of the new generation. Many so-called Christmas specials, however, purport to be about finding the true meaning of Christmas, but where is the Christ in “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” or “A Christmas Story”? Watch these and most other shows and you’ll get the message that you can be what you want to be and you should do kind things for others, and that Bumbles bounce. Nice shows and nice sentiments all, but while Jesus would exhort us to be “nice” it isn’t why he came. Don’t forget that “for unto you is born this day in the city of Bethlehem a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Enjoy the shows with your family, but look for ways to highlight fundamental Christian concepts within the programs, even if these messages appear unintentional. Since everything will ultimately prove the word of God true, teachable moments are everywhere if we are alert to them. The classic movie “Miracle on 34th Street,” for example, really focuses on the importance of faith, at one point virtually reciting Hebrews 11:1 and 11:5-6. Don’t miss the opportunity to call this to your children’s’ attention. I once sat open-mouthed (but not slack-jawed) watching the SpongeBob Squarepants Christmas program for the first time. The story is that SpongeBob has never heard of Santa Claus until his friend Sandy fills him in. SpongeBob gets so excited that he stands on a street corner proclaiming the good news to everyone (no one else has heard of Santa either) about how kind Santa is and about all the gifts he will bring. Soon, everyone is shouting, “We love Santa!” I turned to my daughter and said, “SpongeBob is an evangelist!”

Of course, SpongeBob is focusing on all the benefits that Santa brings, which is also a failing of modern evangelism. People are exhorted to “try” Jesus for all the blessings that will be added to their lives but if these don’t show up right away (or don’t show up in the way people expect) they get disillusioned, even bitter. This, too, happens in the SpongeBob Christmas show. We lose sight of the fact that the first benefit of the salvation we receive from believing in Christ is not in getting what we deserve, but in avoiding what we deserve.

A good story for illustrating this concept can be Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” You may think you know the story of Ebenezer (there’s a Biblical name) Scrooge, but look at it as a parable. Scrooge is greedy and cruel and oblivious to his iniquity. He doesn’t heed warnings to change, but because of another’s desire for him to avoid his fate, he is visited by spirits that convince and convict him of his sins and show him what is in store for him. In horror he repents and asks for forgiveness, vowing to change. He’s not concerned about the benefits of a new way of life; he just wants to escape the fruit of the old way. Waking the next morning and realizing his opportunity he says “Thank you (Holy Spirit) Spirits!” and is ever after known as “a man who kept Christmas (Jesus) in his heart.” (By the way, I happen to think the George C. Scott “Christmas Carol” is the best, but I’ll always have a soft spot for Mr. Magoo as well).

I’m sure there are many more examples in Christmas programs that I’ve left out but that have occurred to you. I’d love to hear what message or blessing you and your family get out of different Christmas shows, so feel free to leave a comment. Just don’t shoot your eye out!

Merry Christmas, my friends, and to your families!


Rob’s touching tribute to Linus’s speech about the true meaning of Christmas is posted over on The Llama Butchers (originally posted last Christmas).

Filings: What can we glean from social justice?

My wife accepted an invitation from a friend of ours and has attended a couple of Social Justice Bible Studies. The invite came out of a conversation she and this friend, a Christian, had about his Kerry/Edwards bumper sticker and his belief that conservative Christians who criticize the federal welfare program aren’t concerned about the poor. To our friend’s way of thinking, this behavior is breaking faith with a fundamental premise of Christianity (and don’t we consider ourselves fundamentalists?).

There are certainly a lot of places where you can begin in taking on that argument, but my wife decided to start by going to the Bible study to hear what they were talking about, in part because she was really curious about what the group meant by “social justice.”

The group’s focus, as I’ve said, is on helping the poor and what we need to do as a nation to rectify this injustice. After my wife’s last visit I was curious as to what scriptures the group was using to support their position that this is the government’s responsibility and not that of the church or of Christians as individuals. The leader that time had cited either Leviticus 19:10 (“And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather [every] grape of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and stranger: I [am] the LORD your God.”) or Deuteronomy 24:21 (“When thou gatherest the grapes of thy vineyard, thou shalt not glean [it] afterward: it shall be for the stranger, for the fatherless, and for the widow.”)

Well that’s pretty clear direction, but where the leader was missing it, in my opinion, was making the leap that the if people weren’t following that instruction then it became the government’s responsibility — ostensibly from a desire to do good — to pass a law requiring it. Oh, the peril of good intentions (and unintended consequences)!

It’s my take that when you’re trying to determine the nature or intent of God you should look for where the relationship is. Whether with the first Adam or the second, and through all the prophets in between and the apostles that came after, God has shown he is interested in establishing relationships, both between himself and people, and people to people. Now, in the case of the social justice bunch, it may seem like a natural step for God-fearing people to reflect this desire by delegating to their government the authority to act for this good. To me, though, that is also the first step leading to replacing a relationship between God and man with a relationship between man and the other big G – government.

Let’s play out the example of the gleaners. Man, or the church, through hardness of heart, is not leaving the gleanings for the poor. In an effort to be righteous (and concern that others aren’t being righteous enough), people get together and direct the government to pass a law requiring that gleanings be left. Then, if the poor aren’t doing a good enough job of picking up the gleanings (or if the more motivated ones are out-hustling the infirm or indolent) someone gets the bright idea that maybe they should put some of the poor to work collecting the gleanings and bringing the second harvest in where it can be distributed more equitably. If the people hired to do this were among the more ambitious ones mentioned earlier, they soon see that they get the same share no matter how much effort they put in to picking up the food.

Now, before the law was passed a poor man might pray and ask God to help him find the means to feed his family. Coming upon a field just harvested, he might thank God for bringing him to that place and giving him the strength and ability to collect the food his family needed. Maybe even a landowner passes by at that time and sees the man is diligent and offers him a job. After a time of living under the government’s rule, however, that man (or his now grown children) starts to see the law, not God, as his source and the excess harvest as something he’s entitled to; not because he’s a child of God, but simply because he’s poor. Furthermore, bitterness might start to set in and he starts to wonder why the owner of the field gets to have first pick, and why, instead of just leaving what falls during the harvest and what collects in the corners of the field, he can’t start also leaving every third row unharvested for the poor as well. Of course then the government has to hire more people to collect the additional food. The poor man’s belly might be full, but what is in his heart and his spirit? What was the result of all those good intentions?

And what benefit does the landowner get by doing it God’s way in the first place rather than being hard-hearted and subjected to government fiat? Well, certainly less interference in his life on a business level, but he also gains favor with God by following his commands and escapes judgment as well. As I’ve written before, when I stand before God and he asks if I helped the poor I’m not going to get very far saying, “Well, I paid my taxes!” Perhaps the most insidious harm from the welfare state isn’t the trap it creates for those who live from it, but that it disconnects everyone else from realizing their responsibility to get directly involved.

It’s a lesson that bears repeating even for those who are receptive, and I know that I don’t always get high marks on this test. Yet my family has at times taken people into our home, helped other people move into homes, and bought groceries or medical care for those who needed these things. Where possible we’ve also tried to disciple others so they could learn they can trust God and also avoid behaviors that might put them back in the same place. When the time comes when these people have no longer needed direct help from us or our church, we’ve been genuinely happy for their success and progress. If, however, it was my job as a government employee to distribute these things then I’d have to worry that if I was too successful I’d be out of a job myself!

Finally, I give the social justice group credit for wanting to do God’s work. I wonder, however, if they are as quick in desiring that the government enforce by law other scriptural commands such as those dealing with adultery and homosexuality. Perhaps my wife will raise this question at a future meeting. She finds the meetings pretty interesting and the conversation polite even though there are significant differences of interpretation and doctrine between her and a couple of the group leaders. She feels she is getting something out of it by hearing other perspectives, and hopes that the others are also benefiting. She plans to keep going back as long as they’ll have her.

It is, after all, all about relationships.


Similar thoughts are in this post from Stones Cry Out.

Filings: Sunday School dropouts?

Former Minnesota governor and professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was once quoted as saying that religion was a sham and something for the weak minded. I think the best response to this statement came from Jay Leno who commented that it’s a good thing nobody ever said that about professional wrestling.

Da Guv later amended his words somewhat saying that the people he really thinks are weak-minded are the “wackos and fundamentalists,” not the “typical” religious folks. Of course, Jesse – like the Devil and the StarTribune – are most useful when you just take it for granted that the opposite of what he says is closer to the truth.

The truly weak-minded are the ones whose convictions are easily swayed or intimidated, or those who really don’t know what they believe in the first place. After all, which is harder – to go with the flow (or the latest poll on what’s right or wrong), or to hold fast to what you’ve seen and experienced to be true when to do so is said to be unpopular or controversial?

Sometimes I wonder how an ostensibly “Christian nation” can tolerate – or even embrace – thinking and actions that are clearly ungodly. A large part of this perception is probably due to the fact that – except in unusual or extreme cases – events that show there is an active and interested God don’t make it into the news, and even when they do they are twisted or incomplete.

I think the real problem, however — and the reason why ungodliness is unwittingly celebrated — is ignorance. In our society a high school education is considered to be the bare minimum necessary to succeed. Spiritually, much of our “Christian” nation seems to be Sunday School dropouts. They have poor study skills and even less comprehension. The knowledge many have about what is really in the Bible may even be dwarfed by the number of things they think are in the Bible but really aren’t. No surprise then when policy is based on poll rather than principle. And no wonder that the best that so many can do when they struggle to come up with a spiritual answer for something they don’t understand is to say “the Lord moves in mysterious ways.” It’s only mysterious when we don’t know what the Word says!

And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ… (Ephesians 1:9)

It’s when I take my eyes off of the big picture, however, and focus on my life and the lives of those around me that I see just how tangible an impact Jesus Christ really is having. I know what’s happened in my life, and I know the testimonies of others who have sought and discovered what God’s will is for them in many areas. Therein is the hope for our world, for no lasting large-scale change can happen without the hearts of individuals being changed first.

The breakthroughs I see come in the lives of those who have permitted themselves to be discipled and who have committed to disciple others. While there’s no downplaying the importance of evangelism (how will they know, unless you go?), I think discipleship is just as important (how will they grow, unless you show?). Christians have a joint obligation to both learn from others and to help others learn. It is important to “study to show yourself approved of God” [2 Tim 2:15], but the breakthroughs in my life in healing, finances, and relationships have occurred not just when I’ve read the Word, but when I’ve also had it explained and seen it lived out. Furthermore, I’ve seen my breakthroughs get turbo-charged when I’ve helped someone apply in his life what I’ve learned in my life.

No matter where we are spiritually, there’s always someone who knows more than us, and always someone who knows less – and we need both in our lives. Furthermore, our world needs it. I know there’s lot of prayer going up for our nation, our government and for God’s will to be manifested, and I believe these prayers are and will be effective. I also believe that some of the fruit of these prayers, however, occurs when we move ourselves away from our pride and/or our self-interest and admit, first of all, that we need help and then – perhaps even harder – admit we have what it takes to help someone else.

Vase to faith

Here’s a Sunday thought that occurred to me: What is the difference between religion and faith in a living God?

“Religion” to me is like a Ming vase locked up in a storage case in your home. You can worship it, venerate it, pass it on from generation to generation. You can study it, talk about it with other people who collect Ming vases, and even feel better about yourself because you have a Ming vase and say that you love it. Other people will even say it is a lovely and beautiful thing … and you might vote for them when they do.

But will it heal you? Can it bring you peace? Can you take it off its shelf and put it on your table at dinner time – even pour cream out of it, or serve your guests from it? Could you go so far as to lend it to your neighbors, or take it with you on a trip? Will you let your kids handle it up close and personal so they can enjoy its beauty and practicality? Can it stand up to having rocks thrown at it, and still bind the wounds of the one who did the throwing?

That is faith, my friends.

Filings: Is your God from around here?

I once overheard part of a conversation where a young college man, fresh from his Comparative Religion class, was explaining to my wife and daughter that, according to his professor, Christianity is a Western religion. My ladies were politely having none of it since they’ve got a good understanding of both Christianity and geography.

I suppose that the professor could consider that the Middle Eastern religions – Christianity, Judiaism and Islam – are “western” in the sense that they are not from as far east as Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, or that Christianity and Judiaism have had more influence in the West. Nevertheless, whether you consult Genesis or Rand-McNally, Christianity is an Eastern religion.

This is even more clear philosophically when you consider the religions of Greece and Rome, the root cultures of Western civilization. The Greeks and Romans shared the same cast of multiple gods only with different names. It should also be noted that this pantheon (look it up, homeschoolers) consisted of beings who were lustful, quick-tempered, deceitful, vain, petty and untrustworthy. Sounds like the cast for the next reality program, Survivor: Mount Olympus. In short, these were gods made in the image of humans. If you go further West into old Europe and Britain you find even more polytheistic paganism.

The Judeo-Christian and Islamic revelation of one God, perfect and all-powerful who requires not just worship but the pursuit of moral excellence (and provides the framework for doing so) is a radically different – and un-Western – spiritual proposition. In fact, it might be an interesting exercise for you and your children to imagine and discuss the effects on individual behavior and society of trying to serve arbitrary, unpredictable gods who were little more than immortal and more self-indulgent versions of yourself.

Another point to ponder is that polytheism hasn’t gone away. Today our worldly culture goes through incredible contortions to deny or ignore the first commandment. Science and law strive to claim there is no God while philosophy and the entertainment industry promote that there really are all kinds of gods and they all should be recognized the same in the name of diversity. Meanwhile law, science, philosophy, entertainment, politics and others all have their enthusiastic disciples eager to evangelize our children.

Sometimes it’s through head on confrontation, other times by a slow and steady erosion of relativity and rationalization aimed at sowing and watering doubt. Often it is the intellectual seduction of a respected teacher or professor saying, “Oh, surely you’re too smart to still hold those outmoded beliefs. Now let me show you how we turn gold into lead.”

At some point our children will face all of these and more. Their ultimate defense is not in simply knowing the Bible, but in knowing God. Others will try to turn God and Christ into mere concepts, and arguments about concepts are rarely productive and often dangerous. A young person who has sought a relationship with Christ, experienced a revelation from God, applied these to his or her life and achieved a noticeable result is young person who has a strong foundation to counter any argument or doubt.

Our children may feel strongly about something, but strong feelings are easy to come by, and are on every side of an argument. A personal testimony is virtually indisputible. If your child can say “God said this, I believed it, acted on it, and this happened in my life,” there is little anyone can say to refute it (especially if you have the x-rays to prove it!) Being able to recite scripture isn’t a bad thing; being able to apply scripture, however, will change the world.

Filings: What’s “good” for you?

A friend of mine e-mailed to gently chide me about a recent post I wrote drawing parallels between the Supreme Court decisions on Kelo and the Ten Commandments and how the Constitution and the Ten Commandments concern themselves with standards of behavior. In that post I had a toss-off line (I buy them three for a dollar) that “in my opinion, those who find the Commandments offensive are offended more by the suggestion that there should be such a standard of behavior (other than their own) than by the mention of God.” I’ll include his entire comment later in this post, but the part of it that was most related to my original essay and the struggle I see is as follows:

We believe that standards of behavior as established by the state should not pander to any one religious order but rather to the collective will of the moralities of all the American religions, which includes no religion. Contrary to fundamentalist belief, even humanists have morality.
: )

Oh my goodness.

Or is it, “Oh, my goodness”?

Yes, everyone has a level of morality, whether it is self-formulated or externally applied: “I won’t do this, even though I might want to, because I think it is wrong,” vs. “I won’t do that, even though I might want to, because I don’t want to get arrested.” And if you’re grading on the curve, there are “good” people everywhere inside and outside of religion. I’m reminded, however, of the account of the rich, young ruler in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke who came to Jesus and asked:

“Good Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responded to him by saying, “Why do you call me good? There is none good but God. But if you will enter into life, keep the commandments.” (Matthew 19:17, Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19).

This essentially becomes a worldview issue. To use my friend’s terms (though perhaps not his definitions), a “humanist” sees people as essentially good, a “fundamentalist” sees people as essentially bad, or sinful (there are obviously a lot of shadings within the groups, including those in either camp who wouldn’t necessarily include themselves in their respective groups, but let’s go with these terms for now). You can argue over which side can bring the most compelling evidence in support of its case.

People generally accept there should be a standard of goodness; it comes down to whether this should be a fundamental and timeless standard, or an evolving one complete with exceptions and penumbras. Roping myself to the fundamentalist side, I’d go for the eternal, if unattainable, standard over the one that relies on the shifting currents of human wisdom and fashion. I do so even though I believe that all of us, regardless of philosophy, have what Bonhoeffer calls “the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price.” It’s my belief that society is better served by acknowledging these “stretch goals,” even if large numbers ignore them, and even if there is a wide gap between what the culture deems “desirable” and what it sees as “acceptable”.

What struck me about the SCOTUS rulings on the Commandments and the Constitution is that both are important documents and were written down so that we could remember them and consult them authoritatively. If the people don’t know what they say then you can make them – commandment or the Constitution – say whatever you want, especially if you are a Supreme Court justice.

Now some will question the reasonableness of believing there is a divine standard in the first place, and the constitutionality of displaying it even if there is. It certainly makes for robust and, sometimes, even civil debate. For me, however, God is not a concept or an ideal. I have felt His tangible presence, seen His miraculous intervention in my life, even heard His voice. (So has Sandy, and you can read her recent account here.) And yet I still have better than an even chance of breaking many of the commandments every day. That, however, will have to wait for another post, as will my thoughts on the rest of what my friend e-mailed to me:

It’s not a matter of whether what’s on the Commandments is a standard or not, it’s rather that they talk specifically to a standard established by a religion–they are, after all, supposedly the word of God, but that’s a very specific, Judeo-Christian God. The laws of the country are established by consensus of the individuals herein (in theory, of course, being representational government and all) and one of the key parts is that said government “shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. Accepting the commandments de facto does just that. Establishing murder as illegal establishes that the society has deemed this behavior immoral, regardless of our varied religions. Laws can and do incorporate the ten commandments, but the 10, as a group, in the wording of the Bible, represent a specific religious segment. That’s why we find it offensive. We believe that standards of behavior as established by the state should not pander to any one religious order but rather to the collective will of the moralities of all the American religions, which includes no religion. Contrary to fundamentalist belief, even humanists have morality. 🙂

There are some good points in there and some things I want to respond to, especially regarding what “establishment” means and how the “collective will of the moralities of all American religions” are expressed, but this post is already long even though I’ve avoided any number of tangents that occurred to me while I was writing this. I hope to return to this topic soon, and I invite your comments as well.

Filings: The Catch of a Lifetime

The Minnesota Fishing Opener is this Sunday, and Mother’s Day was last Sunday, which is a nice change from some recent years when these events have fallen on the same weekend. It has allowed me, however, to see some similarities between being a good fisherman and being a good husband – and I think I may have some pointers to share from my own experience with “the one that didn’t get away” on how to have a trophy wife.

First, let me say that the things I don’t know about fishing would fill a hundred books, judging by what I see in my library and at the outfitting stores. You can add several years worth of In-Fisherman magazines to that total as well, and do I have to mention all those television shows? I’m amazed at what you have to know if you expect to hook anything besides the meaty part of your thumb! Likewise maintaining a happy marriage can appear overwhelming at times. I know I’ve been skunked in both areas at times, but one thing I’ve realized is that experts gain their knowledge by fervently pursuing the sport they love. With that approach, becoming an expert is fun.

That applies to fishing and marriage. I love my wife and I love being married. Therefore in the 17 and a half years we’ve been married I’ve avidly sought out and collected many important bits of information about her in particular and marriage in general that have helped us become each other’s favorite pastime. Here are a few tips that have worked for me:

CATCH AND RELEASE? First off, I’m not a big proponent of catch and release when it comes to marriage. I have found, however, that there is a lot of challenge and a lot of thrills in catching the same fish over and over again! I’ve found that the secret to this is not just to be married, but to be engaged!

THE RIGHT EQUIPMENT: The expert fishermen are always sharing information on what type of bait and what type of tackle to use for different conditions. They can tell you what to use on cloudy days, windy days, sunny days and days when the fish aren’t hungry. They know what’s best for trolling, jigging and casting and the preferred food of every species. I’ve wondered, though, how many of those guys know their wife’s shoe size, or if she’s an autumn, summer, spring or winter in her coloring? Early on I memorized my wife’s sizes, favorite colors and preferred styles of clothing. Today, much of what she wears are things I’ve bought her either shopping on my own or when we’re together. Now, I don’t think a fish was ever caught because it was honored or flattered that someone had spent so much time and effort to learn about it, but it’s sure made an impression on my wife!

LURES: When you think of lures you might think small, shiny objects or furry things work best but the real “power bait” is our words. Men are attracted by what they see (I know I’ve bought certain fishing lures because they looked good to me, never mind the fish) but women are moved by what they hear. Our words build our wives up and make them feel special and make our relationships special. I try to make sure my wife hears how much she means to me, how much I value her opinion – and how much I like the way she looks in those jeans. Certainly relying on my good looks to win my wife would be like me fishing for muskies with 4-pound test line. I’ve got to work those lures, paying attention to the conditions and water temperature. Oh, and I try to stay away from the crankbaits.

STRUCTURE: The experts I read are always talking about “structure” or “knowing the bottom” (but I’m not going there).

Filings: There’s Still Time

I spent a lot of time in hospitals last week, some of it in an emergency room and some of it in a waiting room with families of other men and women undergoing heart surgery. In the process I gained some new insights that I’m currently working into another post.

While doing this, however, I thought of something I had written for the original, pre-blog “Filings” a few years ago that seemed to gain additional resonance as we waited with others for word on matters of life and death. I offer these questions for now while I finish my more recent thoughts.

I was present at a couple of “good-byes” recently that really made me stop and say, “Hello.” One was a retirement party for a woman who was leaving a job after 27 years, and the other was a visitation for a man who left this earth after 38 years. I attended the two events one right after the other in the same evening. This unusual set of circumstances, and the overwhelming honor and esteem the two unrelated individuals were so obviously held in, helped me to rediscover the value of an old, old lesson.

Have you ever noticed how we judge others by their actions, yet expect others to judge us by our intentions?

The woman who’s retiring is a real sweetheart who always seems to have an encouraging word and a cheerful attitude, and a habit of doing quiet, thoughtful things for others. She’s always been wonderful to me, and of course I’ve thought that this is because I’m such a lovable guy myself. As I looked at the room overflowing with sincere well-wishers, the table piled with gifts, and the company choir that had come to sing for her, I was taken by the realization that she didn’t just treat me as special, she treated everyone as special. And of course it came back to her, in heaps.

By the time I made it to the visitation, there were lines of people extending out of two doors and well into the parking lot of the funeral home. The man who died had recently done a small favor for me, but I was there because he was the brother of a good friend. I had known he was active in the community, but I was unprepared for the large crowd of people of all ages who were there, so many of whom were obviously and profoundly grieved. As I beheld the ever-increasing crowd I, too, began to feel the loss – the loss of not having known this man myself.

The point here is that for these two people, touching others had obviously been a lifestyle and not a special event. Their good intentions were manifested in their lives, and I’ve got to believe that the blessings poured back into their lives over the years have been a result of this, and not the other way around.

This is not to say that the impact of our lives is ultimately measured by the number of people who show up at our retirement parties or funerals. At the same time, however, you don’t get large crowds of people who turn out to say, “You know, he really meant well.”

It’s true that God looks at the heart, but it’s also true that “out of the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks” (and you act). Has the impact of your life – in your home, your job, your church – lived up to your own intentions? How about God’s?

Filings: Love, and the Difference Between Being a Friend and Being Friendly

Sandy from the MAWB Squad was asked to opine yesterday on the lessons that could be learned from the highly publicized celebrity marital crack-ups that are keeping the tabloids in business. Of course she delivered admirably in “Advice to the Lovelorn.”

This got me to thinking, however, about the far less titillating but every bit as devastating romantic tragedies that happen all around us. Even, dare I say, in our own lives. My wife and I have been very blessed and happy in our 17-year marriage, but we both experienced emotion-searing, even mind-altering damage in our single days (stories for another day, but don’t count on it).

As we look to what may be ahead for our daughters, we’ve come to realize that the dating culture of serial monogamy and mini-divorces is not a good way to find a mate for life. And that’s based on our experiences from 20 and 30 years ago in the more idealistic days of the sexual revolution. With our oldest being of “dating” age, my wife and I naturally want better for our daughters than what we subjected ourselves to when we were their age.

Back then, at least, the culture expected couples to adopt the appearance of having a relationship. Now even the minimal commitment to someone else needed to simply make a date is optional in today’s hook-up culture among teens and older singles as reported here and in the New York Times, and even among ninth-graders. Somewhere along the line “Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am” went from being the height of selfishness to the point where merely throwing in the “thank you” passes for gentlemanliness. The glorification of sensation has ironically desensitized a significant part of a generation, and I can’t even picture how much “enlightenment” is required to make this look like a good thing.

Even in evangelical circles the challenges are severe for parents with an eye to preparing their youth for healthy, happy marriages. The book “Best Friends for Life” by Michael and Judy Phillips includes several case studies of kids who grew up in “churched” families and dated other “churched” youth and eventually married – and then crashed and burned. Though each example had different characteristics, the common thing I saw in each was the parents really had no vision of what they wanted for their kids or what was acceptable – or if they did, they didn’t communicate it. In many cases they gave in to the predominant dating model and were simply glad that their son or daughter was dating another Christian. As a result, the youngsters also fell into self-centered relationships in which they may have been physical, but they were far from intimate.

Is there another option? Well, I admit that the locking them in a tower until they’re 30 plan has its strong points, but that doesn’t do anything to prepare them for a strong marriage either. Our plan is the opposite of isolation, both the isolation of the tower where they are separated from others and the passion-induced isolation of being a couple where they separate themselves from others. We’ve encouraged our daughters to have a group of friends they can count on and do things as a group. Boys can be a part of this group, and are even encouraged, but no pairing up. The idea is to determine who can be trusted to be a friend – and not who just wants to get friendly.

What are the standards for friendship? The Bible lists some good ones (New Living Translation):

— Friends are few (Prov. 18:24) – “There are ‘friends’ who destroy each other, but a real friend sticks closer than a brother.” We know the traditional concept of what a brother is, but think about what a brother is to a woman. A brother is someone who will stand by you and stand up for you because he wants the best for you, not because of what you can do for him.

— A friend lays down his life (John 15:13)”And here is how to measure it–the greatest love is shown when people lay down their lives for their friends.” A friend puts your needs and well-being above his own.

— A friend loves unconditionally (Prov. 17:17) “A friend is always loyal, and a brother is born to help in time of need.”

— A friend speaks the truth in love (Prov. 27:6)
“Wounds from a friend are better than many kisses from an enemy.” A friend will tell you what you need to hear, again because he wants what is best for you. Someone caught up in infatuation or what he thinks is love will keep quiet so as not to jeopardize the physical aspects of the relationship.

— A friend encourages you and is sensitive to your needs (Prov. 26:18, 19) “Just as damaging as a mad man shooting a lethal weapon is someone who lies to a friend and then says, ‘I was only joking.'”

If true friendships can be established in a safe environment where the emotional stakes are not as high, then the ground is prepared for a possible courtship with an eye toward marriage. In a true courtship, both partners learn to trust the other with more and more of their innermost thoughts, wishes and emotions. This relationship is the key to a successful marriage. Most modern marriages fall short of genuine intimacy due to a distorted cultural image of romanticism that expects immediate intimacy. Too many want to jump right to the courtship stage simply because the other person is cute or a “hottie.” This might make for lovely wedding photos (or great tabloid covers) but is not much of a foundation for a lovely marriage.

I may appear pretty smug and overconfident seeing as how our oldest is just entering this dynamic time, but the rules and expectations have been set down and discussed for several years prior to this, and we do have wonderful examples in the lives of other parents and young marrieds we know who have crossed these waters ahead of us.

Truthfully, I don’t expect it to be easy, but right now the relationship my wife and I have with our children is still the most important in their lives aside from the relationship they are developing with God. And part of our responsibility in this relationship is to prepare them for a relationship with God and for a loving and godly relationship with their spouse – and ultimately their own children who they, in turn, must train. It won’t be the easiest course, but given what else is out there, I know it is the safest.