Looking for a Sign

“Lord, just give me a sign…”

“Teacher, we want to see a sign…”

“No sign with be given, except…”

“I saw the sign, and it opened up my eyes…”

I’ve been thinking a lot about signs in the last week or so. In fact, to be perfectly honest, I’ve been looking for signs. Wishing for a sign.

It’s Holy Week, a week for focusing on the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. A week to be thinking about my mortality, my weakness, my sinfulness, and the awesome gift of grace found in Jesus. A week to stand before the cross and empty tomb and listen to my Savior speaking peace to me.


A week before Palm Sunday I was asked by another church to join their ministry team. I have a few weeks in which to gather information, seek advice, and make a decision that will affect my ministry, my family, and both congregations for years to come. Funny timing. Humbling that God and these church leaders would put such a decision in my hands.

So, Lord, could you just give me a sign what the best thing to do is?

Have you ever felt that way? Ever had a big decision to make, and wished for some divine graffiti to tell you what to do? Ever prayed, “Lord, just give me a sign”?

Here’s some more funny timing – this week, my teaching plan for a religion class I teach on Thursdays to a group of 8th graders had us looking at Jonah 2. In the materials for this class, materials I wrote four years ago, we are led to Matthew 12:38-41 –

Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law said to him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from you.” He answered, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign! But none will be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and now something greater than Jonah is here.

“A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.” Ouch. Did you put that there for me, Lord?

I don’t think Jesus is trying to heap guilt on people for asking God to give them some direction. He’s addressing the sinful motives of the Pharisees, who are essentially saying, “We refuse to believe that you are from God, and refuse to believe anything you say, unless you can prove to us in a way that satisfies our arrogance that you truly are who you say you are.” In many ways, this is no different than people today who insist that faith in God is foolishness if you can’t produce evidence of his existence. “Show us a sign that your God really exists,” they say, and Jesus answer to them is, “A wicked and adulterous generation asks for a sign.”

But there is a warning for believers in this as well. Many want to hear God’s voice whispering to their ears or hearts. Many want to see some kind of miraculous evidence that God is at work. The warning is not too look too hard for God to speak apart from his Word. What does Jesus point to? He points to the Scriptures, to the story of Jonah, and says, “This is the sign to look for. This was a foreshadowing of what will happen to me, and when it happens, then you will know that I am the Lord.”

And it did happen. And we have the testimony of the people who were there to see it. Today is Good Friday, and in just a few short days we will celebrate together the only sign Jesus says we should look for. Jesus died and came to life again. What greater sign do we need? This is where we get our confidence. This gives us every reassurance we need. If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is the Lord and God he claimed to be. The salvation he said he would bring is real. Nothing in this life can separate us from his love. Jesus is Lord, and we are his. What greater sign do we need?

If Jesus rose from the dead, then he is Lord wherever I go to serve. If Jesus rose from the dead, the choice to serve and the promise of blessings in either place is certain. If Jesus rose from the dead, I can’t make a wrong decision between serve him here or serve him there. If Jesus rose from the dead, it really isn’t that big of a decision, because in the end, he’ll use either choice to build his kingdom.

The same can be said of your big decisions. Jesus rose from the dead. That is the sign that he is Lord, and everything he said about your life and his promises is true. Are you wrestling with a job decision? Jesus is Lord and will bless either choice. Trying to decide if now is the time to work toward marriage? Jesus loves marriage and will be your strength. Deciding on a big purchase? Jesus is the giver of all good things, so if this is a good time for this, then take hold and enjoy with thanksgiving.

In the end, the decisions of this life are but a sliver of what is to come. We have eternity to look forward to – because Jesus rose from the dead. So while these decisions may feel very big today, when we pass on to glory, we won’t look back with regret. No need to worry, Jesus has this. Because he rose from the dead.

Now, I won’t say that God never gives us a nudge here or there. Sometimes everything falls into place and you just have to grin. It’s just that he doesn’t promise he will always work that way, and he doesn’t want us to get decision paralysis while we wait for him to convince us of something.

The empty tomb is the only sign we need. Would it be nice to have extra direction once in a while? Maybe. But it doesn’t really change anything. Jesus is Lord. That is enough.

Why I’m Not Boycotting Beauty and the Beast

Image result for beauty and the beast

The remake of Disney’s classic Beauty and the Beast will be in theatres this weekend, and my wife and I have our tickets to go and see it. However, I know that many Christians are opting not to, and that well-meaning articles have circulated explaining why. It all comes down to a brief moment in a single scene, where the actors and director make one character’s sexual orientation clear – and he is gay.

In defense of my Christian brothers and sisters, their concern is valid. The movie makers have unnecessarily altered an established character in their remake of a classic story. While not unprecedented, it’s a transparent maneuver. There is no reason other than to normalize a behavior that, when the original animated film debuted, would have offended virtually the entire audience. And while it is done in the name of acceptance and tolerance, Bible believing Christians see it for what it is: giving one more sin the status of every day human behavior.

As it is a movie aimed at children and families, it is especially onerous, because it means that Disney knows full well they are working to shift the center in the minds of the impressionable young. Christian parents have a right to be miffed, concerned, and grouchy that, without warning, Disney would hijack a classic for the sake of agenda. Why not simply write a new fairy tale with a same sex romance at the center, while leaving the other stories be? Wouldn’t this be more satisfying to both sides? This feels like a poorly executed bait and switch.

My criticism of Disney’s choice doesn’t end with the issue of normalizing sin, though. Frankly, I think they made a strangely poor choice of character in whome to insert their péché du jour. I’ll go so far as to say that what should really offend Christians here is the utter lovelessness and disrespect with which Disney has treated the matter. For those struggling with same-sex attraction, to be confronted with it in a popular movie in the form of a bumbling, comedic buffoon of a villain sidekick would be a slap in the face. Why isn’t the LGBT community up in arms at so ridiculous a portrayal? I certainly find it disrespectful.

If you’re a fellow Christian and for these reasons or others you’ve decided you’re not going to see the movie, I am not trying to persuade you otherwise. I respect your choice, and I support you, and I love you. Please do not take the rest of the post as a critique against your choices.

That said, I’m seeing the movie. My wife is a lifelong Disney fan, and Beauty and the Beast has always been her favorite story. Belle is an intelligent, ambitious, and courageous young woman, who demonstrates sacrificial love for her father and learns to show unconditional love and acceptance for the Beast. Yes, I know we can make sideline jokes about Stockholm Syndrome and all of that, but in the end, it’s a charming love story mixed in with grandly entertaining musical numbers.

Am I sacrificing my morals or my conviction by choosing to be entertained, given the inclusion of a gay character? According to some articles and comments I’ve seen on social media, I am. But I’m not so sure. Here are a few of the challenges from my fellow believers, and how I respond to them:

  1. You’re supporting their agenda by giving your money to them. First of all, I don’t think Disney executives think that every movie-goer who buys a Beauty and the Beast ticket is doing so to say, “Keep adding homosexual characters! It’s just what we’re looking for!” They know that people are going to see the movie because they love the story and want to be entertained, and they know that the inclusion of a gay character is a wink and nod and little more. Second, if I were to apply this consistently, I’d need to avoid anything by Disney because whether it’s through Beauty and the Beast, Moana, or Cars 3, it’s all one company. If giving money to the company supports their agenda, then I need to expunge Disney from my life completely. Besides all that, Disney doesn’t need my money to pursue their agenda, and their agenda isn’t going to fall apart for lack of my money. I can’t stop sin by boycotting its presence – only Jesus has the real solution to sin.
  2. You’re condoning sin – you’re making entertainment more important than taking a stand for what’s right. Is it not possible to be entertained by something and still disagree with some aspects of it? Can I find Friends, Big Bang Theory, or Seinfeld funny and still call premarital sex sinful and unwise? Our movies and TV choices have always included some amount of ungodly behavior, from cohabitation to no-fault divorce to casual sex. Yet we justify it when we are entertained by other aspects of the story. What makes homosexuality a “special case?” Perhaps it isn’t. And what about violence, foul language, insults, gossip, humor at the expense of dignity – do we get concerned about these in our entertainment choices? We live in a sin-filled world, and no entertainment will be squeaky clean. Is it taking a stand to identify one sin among the many and oppose just that? Is there a better way to speak to our culture about sin – and about grace?
  3. You’re letting yourself (or your children) become desensitized to sin. Here’s the funny thing about sin and sensitivity to it – I already do a really great job of desensitizing myself to the sins I like to fall into. The danger of being desensitized to sin is that it will capture me and try to make me its slave all over again. I have a whole host of sins that I need to worry about being desensitized to that are a real problem for me, I don’t need to worry about this one. But there’s a solution to the problem of a seared conscience – and it’s not found in boycotting certain movies. It’s found in returning to the Word, that shows me the mirror of God’s Law and reminds me of the ugliness inside of me, which is what Jesus said truly makes a person unclean. As for my kids? Well, I know the sins they need to face up to as well, and I will help them face them with the same mirror. Then together we’ll turn from that mirror to the cross, where we find the solution to the problem of sin.

Now let me explain a few good reasons I have for going:

  • I want to understand my culture. I’m actually blessed with the job of being a student of both culture and theology and trying to meet the one with the other. I know people who do that as a hobby, I actually have people who give me a livelihood for doing it. But the only way to do that is to see how the culture presents its values, and yes, even how it seeks to normalize its pet sins. If I step back every time the culture piles on a new immorality, I’m going to get too far back to make sense of it anymore.
  • I want to engage with the world. Be in the world, not of the world. So said Paul, who spoke about his desire to be all things to all people, so that by all possible means he might save some. That doesn’t mean joining them in their sin, nor does it mean silently endorsing it. But it does mean being close enough to talk about it. Being able to sit shoulder to shoulder with someone and say, “Let’s talk about this,” rather than standing on the other side of the fence saying, “It’s awfully nasty over there, you know.”
  • I want to help my children understand what they see. I will not be able to shield my kids from the knowledge of good and evil. That fruit was eaten before they were born, and they’re going to eat of that fruit every day of their lives. I can’t keep them from knowing about homosexuality. Or porn. Or premarital sex. Or divorce. Or sex trafficking. Or gossip. Or brazen disrespect. They will learn of these things sooner or later – and actually, they already know about almost all of those things. What I can do is talk to them about them and guide them in seeing them for what they are. And I can show them how to love people who fall into them. I can love my children when they fall into them. And they will. Maybe not all. Hopefully not most. But maybe some, and a host of other sins. My job is to prepare them to face those things. Now, I’m not going to parade sin in front of my boys intentionally day after day – but I’m not going to live in fear or hide them in my cloak whenever sin walks by either.

As I said much nearer the top of this, I do not fault the Christian who says they will not be seeing this movie. I’m explaining my choice, and giving you food for thought, but you might come to different conclusions. In the end, we stand in grace, under the cross of the one who set us free so that we can live in freedom.

Election 2016 Commentary

Elections are intense, and they capture the attention of the whole nation. I kept a running commentary on Facebook of my thoughts on the whole process over the last 36 hours or so, but if you didn’t catch that, here it is in handy one-post form.

Monday, 11/7/2016, 9:52 PM: Tomorrow we elect an earthly ruler. Whether or not our country makes the “right” choice is a question for the historian. The theologian knows that the heavenly ruler remains, and that he is good. Rest at peace, my friends. Tomorrow is not such a big day after all.


Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 7:21 AM: Went for a good hard run to start the day. Who knows, maybe we people of God will need our practice doing so. Thought about how Abraham, father of the promise, got his wife’s maidservant pregnant (at his wife’s insistence!), but then when his wife got pregnant, sent the maidservant and her child off into the desert to die. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 8:10 AM: Just cast my vote. It’s out of my hands now! Thinking about Abraham’s grandson Jacob, a guy so slick his name actually means “Deceiver.” But his uncle tricked him into marrying two women, and swindled 14 years of labor out of him for it. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

This might be favorite moment of the whole day.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 9:06 AM: What can get a whole group of nuns into a Lutheran Church? Voting! Thinking about how God used Moses to lead his people out of slavery, even though he killed a guy and ran away, and later on literally broke God’s Law – smashed the two tablets to bits because he was angry. Scandalous! But Jesus still came.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 11:10 AM: What if today doesn’t go “your way”? I’m not actually sure that any way it can go is all that great. But there are bigger things at work than political machinations. I was just thinking about Samson – blessed by God with super-strength, but he slept around, married a couple different women, and was brought low by a woman’s feminine wiles. Scandalous! But God used Samson, and Jesus still came.


Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 1:51 PM: RealClearPolitics is currently predicting a Clinton win by only 6 electoral votes, while ElectionProjection is predicting a Clinton win by 20. But news sources are also saying that these results could swing wildly as the day progresses. My Facebook news feed is just SWIMMING in goofy memes and people wearing their “I Voted” stickers. I’m thinking about King David. Here’s a guy who had multiple wives, but took his friend’s wife to bed with him (while his friend was off at war) and got her pregnant. He tried to cover it up, but that didn’t work, so he had his friend killed. Scandalous! But God called David a “man after his own heart,” and Jesus came anyway.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 7:20 PM: Polls are closing along the east coast and reports are coming in with some kind of results. My computer is protesting the election by refusing to anything until I restart it, but the restart is going on 15 minutes so far. Whatever. I’m thinking of King Solomon, wisest guy who ever lived. Unless you count the 300 wives and 700 concubines. Scandalous! But Jesus came anyway.

Tuesday, 11/8/2016, 9:36 PM: Still too early to tell who’s going to win this thing, though stuff is starting to really list toward Trump. But lots of people are also talking about the really big upset, which is the change of Toblerone’s shape to include LESS CHOCOLATE! I’m thinking about a regional governor named Pontius Pilate, who could find no fault with a man called Jesus of Nazareth, but had him publicly tortured and put to death anyway, just to appease the crowds. Scandalous! But Jesus came anyway.

Wednesday, 11/9/2016, 6:59 AM: I went to bed still uncertain of the outcome, but with a prediction in mind. All night I dreamed various scenarios. I woke to the news that Donald Trump is our next president. I don’t know if this is good for America or not. I don’t know what I’d feel if they had gone the other way. What I do know is that the sun is rising, I still have breath in my lungs, and God is still good.

There have been many scandalous people in positions of power throughout history. It is no coincidence that the names most often associated with human horror were also people in government leadership. Such is the way of the world.

Yesterday I repeated the refrain “But Jesus came anyway,” but that’s not the most accurate way to phrase it. See, Jesus didn’t come in spite of scandalous human leaders. He came because of them. He came for them. And for us, with all our own scandalous sinful lives. Jesus came precisely because he alone can solve our problems, can remove our scandal, and can give us hope and a future.

Whatever you’re feeling this morning, whether anger, fear, triumph, gladness or sadness, set it aside for a moment. Rejoice that your good God reigns. Remember that Jesus came for this. And that Jesus is coming again to take us from this.

Righteous Rowdiness

It was not a quiet scene – people crowding against each other, hands raised, clapping, shouting, overwhelming ruckus in exuberant, joyful, rowdy celebration.

I might be describing the Rend Collective concert I went to the other night; the description certainly fits. But that’s not the scene I’m thinking of. I’m talking about the streets of Jerusalem the day Jesus rode in on a donkey, and the people hailed him as the coming Messiah. We’re told in the Gospels by men who were there – or who spoke to people who were there – that the people were praising with loud shouts and cheers, waving palm branches and singing. No doubt someone pulled out a zither or harp, some flutes, maybe a few tambourines. There probably people keeping time, stomping their feet or whacking a barrel with a stick.

The commotion was enough to upset the devout church leaders, who found the celebration entirely out of place. True, their real beef was that it was Jesus. They didn’t like the people celebrating a man who had become a real thorn in their collective side. But if it had been a quiet celebration, it probably wouldn’t have been so upsetting. It was the fact that so many people were so wildly passionate for Jesus that the Pharisees got so uptight.

And how did Jesus respond to their objections? “If they keep quiet,” Jesus said, “the stones would cry out” (Luke 19:40). I don’t know what tone of voice Jesus said that in, but in my head I see the Pharisees shouting at Jesus above the noise, and his face, full of smiles at the people praising him, turns to them in amusement as he calls back a sarcastic retort. This is Jesus full of the glory and the fun, and he’s not going to let anybody rain on his parade, especially not these guys.

Now, maybe that’s not exactly how it went down, but here’s one thing I do know: Jesus had no problem with the wild rumpus taking place about him that day. He was delighted to have the people joyfully, rowdily praising him. The only rebuke he would speak was at those who wanted to end the party.

I mentioned that the other night I saw Rend Collective in concert. If you’ve never heard of the group, you are definitely missing out. They are a rowdy Christian band from Ireland, and if anyone knows how to make praising Jesus a wild rumpus it’s these guys. During their first song, Gareth, who usually plays the percussion, was running all over the stage, playing one instrument after another – set, bass drums, chimes, jingling johnny, a garbage can. It was wild. And it set the tone for the whole celebration.

That’s what it was – a celebration. Because every song was focused on the awesome grace of God and the power of Holy Spirit that lives inside every Christian. It was a joyful, raucous expression of the faith God has given us. It was delightful.

I don’t know when or how it was planted in me, but there’s something inside that takes a deep breath at all this. Is this okay? Is this really what we’re supposed to do when we sing God’s praises? Are we really allowed to get so exuberant? Can you really worship Jesus with a panda mask on your head? (Okay, that last one needs a picture to explain…):

I don’t know if it’s something that I was taught when I was young, or just something I assumed because of the way we do our worship in our churches, or if I’ve just heard more voices in my life emphasize the importance of reverence in worship, but there’s a voice inside me that says that this kind of boisterousness is incongruous with orthodoxy. That to truly worship Jesus we need to be solemn, reserved, or at least just a little more self-controlled.

I think that voice is wrong. I think maybe it’s a Pharisee in me that’s rankling at the idea that I could be so passionate for Jesus. I don’t think Jesus accepts our worship any less because it’s a little silly or a wee bit crazy (look, I’m even talking like those Irish guys now…). In fact, I think it puts a smile on his face to see us having loads of fun as we sing about how great he is.

Now, I’m not necessarily saying I would like to see our Sunday morning service turn into a wild concert. There are times for reverence and quiet in worship as well. And I’m not necessarily saying that everyone needs to get into dancing and clapping and foot stomping to praise Jesus properly. I know many people who can be filled with inward joy while still being outwardly reserved. But I am saying that both can be equally worshipful, and I am saying that if you are like me and you have that voice inside you that for some reason protests rowdy worship, perhaps that voice is misinformed.

To be reverent in worship is to remember that God is so completely other than us, that we are so humbled and awed in his presence that we can do nothing but fall before him and plead his mercy. But to be rowdy in worship is to remember that he is also our loving Father, who loves us and wants to be as close to us as a daddy is to his kids. It’s like the dad who gets down on the floor and wrestles his children, tickling them and tossing them in the air. There’s a righteousness in that rowdiness.

We just celebrated Palm Sunday yesterday, and there are so many things to take away from your remembrance of that event. For myself, this year I’m taking away the joy of celebrating Jesus with shouting and cheering, clapping and stomping of feet. After all, this is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Savior of the nations, the Anointed One… and he’s the lover of our souls who came to give completely of himself to bring us to his home. He’s made us part of his family, and he’s promised us a party in heaven greater than any we can throw down here. But maybe we can still throw a party in his honor down here once in a while.

If you’ve never checked out Rend Collective before, give this song a listen. Maybe stomp your foot a little while you do:

The Meaning of Repentance – an Ash Wednesday Meditation

“Remember that you are dust.” Year after year on Ash Wednesday my pastor would say those words as he marked my forehead with ashes. Silently I and my fellow worshipers would walk away, thoughts heavy contemplating the sins and failures that weigh us down, and the great mercy of a God who would forgive one such as me. In the years since, I have only come to appreciate that sentiment all the more, as year after year I see more clearly that no effort on my part can ever satisfy the Law’s righteous demands.

When I was young I didn’t really understand repentance. I don’t know if it’s just an immature understanding, or a consequence of how we teach it, but I had this impression that repentance was about making sure I said I was sorry for my sins and trying really hard to not do them again. And if I didn’t repent, I thought, God would not forgive me.

That line of thinking can only lead to the misguided belief that I actually can do it, that I’m actually capable of being sorry enough and doing it right. Such self-righteous sentiments. The reality is far more grim – I fail completely, both at my false notion of repentance, and at accomplishing true repentance. My sorrow over my sin will always be tainted with self-absorption, be it feeling good about how bad I feel about myself, or feeling bad about how not really sorry I am, or feeling regretful at the idea of giving up my pet sin. And my best attempts at doing better will never amount to anything.

I’ve learned this – true repentance is not something I do. Yes, I want to confess my sins to God, with sorrow over them. Yes, I want to ask his help to amend my life. Those are the marks of repentance, the way it manifests in my life. But the essence of true repentance is simply this – to know that I am dust. To acknowledge that I am completely hopeless. To admit my absolute brokenness. To understand that even in my brokenness, some part of me still grasps feebly at self-righteousness not because I can succeed, but because I fear the truth that I cannot. True repentance is to see that fear for what it is – the natural state of the soul separate from God by sin.

True repentance is to remember that I am dust. That I am ashes. That I am a sinner. That I need Jesus.

I can’t even summon up true repentance on my own. It is granted to me as a gift of mercy by the one before whom I must bow. He grants it so that I will no longer rely on my own efforts, but fall completely on him.

This is where I find the meaning of repentance. It is rest for my soul. I can do nothing, so I look to the one who has done everything. Jesus has done it right where I did it wrong. Jesus has taken my guilt, where no amount of apology to God could have relieved it. Jesus’ blood has washed me clean, and in repentance I find peace as I kneel before his cross and let his blood cover me.

On this day of ashes, I bow before him and acknowledge that I am dust, and seek his mercy.

In Memory of God’s Servant

Grandpa 7

I want to tell you one of the greatest men I’ve ever known. His name was Elmer Steenbock, my grandfather. His story might sound similar to many of his generation – born and raised in the Midwest, fought and was wounded in WWII, married his highschool sweetheart, farmed for a time and then entered the ministry. After twenty five years as a parish pastor he retired to start a mission in eastern Russia, which he worked at over the next twenty years. He fathered seven children, and from them came twenty one grandchildren and twenty seven great-grandchildren. At the age of ninety, full of years, he passed away quietly in his sleep.

These are the facts of his biography, but they don’t tell you who he was. He was a man who knew full well his need for a Savior, who understood the forgiveness and grace he had received from God, and lived fully in the joy of that understanding. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” I believe that Elmer had the as full a life as any man on earth can have.

I have a treasury overflowing with memories of time spent with him and his wife. Sitting on his lap as he drove the tractor around his hobby farm. Singing “Good morning to you” (to the tune of Happy Birthday) over and over again as my siblings and cousins came to the breakfast table, and many other Gospel songs. Helping him light he fire in the fireplace on a cold December evening. Getting scolded firmly for breaking a door latch inside his camper, but then later that same day being invited up to his lap while he read a devotion to the family.

Grandpa 2
Reading to his great-grandsons a book about pirates and potty training.

He had an abundant well of patient love for his grandchildren, a face inclined to smiling, and a pleasant laugh that he let loose freely. It was as natural as breathing for him to connect an event of the day or a news item to spiritual matters. He took his role of patriarch very seriously, always ready and eager to share a prayer or some thought about Scripture. He loved his ale, always had at least one or two cans in the evening, but never once did I see him drunk.

There was a year when I was young that we were selling our house to move to a newer one the next town over. Grandpa came and helped us paint the outside of the old house to help us make a good sale. I didn’t understand then what it meant for him to make that time commitment, but being in ministry now myself, I see now that it was no small thing. But this wasn’t an anomaly; I don’t know how many times over my childhood he and Grandma came to visit, but in my mind’s eye I can see his face smiling in the congregation during the Children’s Christmas program or year-end plays.

For being a pastor, when we visited he wasn’t busy over at church while the rest of the family spent time together. I remember him being around when we were there, and if I knew he went over to church, usually it was early in the morning before we’d get out of bed that I’d hear his truck pull out of the driveway. Yet, by breakfast time or soon after he’d be back.

I remember a conversation when I was teenager about one of my girlfriends. I’d been dating a Mormon girl, and I think he must have met her once or twice. I went down and visited Grandma and Grandpa, and sitting at the table at dinner he asked me about the relationship, how things were going, how the differences in beliefs were impacting the situation. He cared, and he wasn’t afraid to ask. That made it all the more precious when years later I was able to introduce him to the woman I now call my wife.

That particular trip, my wife and I were about to be married and we had just bought a car together – a ’93 Buick LeSabre. We drove it out to Washington to pick up some of my belongings and we decided to go down and visit my grandparents, especially since my mom’s mom had not met my bride-to-be yet. When we got to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the first thing he talked about was how proud he was of me for buying that Buick, how safe and solid a car it was and how much I’d enjoy having it. “This is a good car,” he kept saying, patting it with his knuckles, his face beaming. After he finished talking about the car, he got a twinkle in his eye and said, “Say, are you a thirsty guy? I bet you’d like a beer, wouldn’t you?” It was the first time I’d visited his house after I came of age. We went inside, had ale and dinner, and then the four of us did devotion together.

A few years ago I was preparing for our annual Premarriage Seminar, and I called him and asked him what he would say is the most important lesson about marriage that he would want to communicate to young couples. He and Grandma had just celebrated sixty three years together. He said, “Let me get back to you on that.” Later that evening he sent me an email with a one page document on forgiveness. He said that if a husband and wife can remember daily that they are forgiven in Jesus, and that if they would show Christ-like forgiveness to each other every day, that there is no more sure recipe for a lifelong and happy marriage.

Grandpa 1

The last time I spoke to him on the phone was about a year ago. He’d had a stroke, and dementia was starting to show itself. But as I talked with him and Grandma, told them about my family and my ministry, he kept repeating things like, “If you just keep speaking the Gospel, that’s what counts,” and “Just keep raising those kids to know Jesus, that’s the only thing that really matters.”

There is no better summary for Elmer’s life than that. “Know Jesus. That’s the only thing that really matters.” That was the core of his life, and it was evident by the peace, joy, and love that flowed out of him. I owe so much of who I am to him and his influence.

He passed away this week. As I write these words, I’m on the way to his funeral. I already miss him so much. But I have taken to heart the lessons he taught in life, and I know I’ll see him again. I know he has gone home, and I will join him there someday.

Thank you, Grandpa, for living your life to God’s glory, and for teaching me to do the same. I hope and pray I can do it even half as well as you.

Transgenderism, identity, and the first lie

Some are calling him a hero. Some are calling him a monster. I don’t really know what to call him. Bruce Jenner? Caitlyn Jenner? My wife and I were discussing this a little bit last night, and which is more loving. To call her Caitlyn Jenner legitimizes a very confused individual’s confusion. To insist on calling him Bruce Jenner seems to lack compassion for his confusion.

This whole scenario has been on the news for months, but if you don’t already know what I’m talking about, here’s a little catch up: Olympic Gold Medalist Bruce Jenner has determined that he feels more like a woman inside and wants to be called Caitlyn, and appeared recently in a highly photoshopped picture on the cover of Vanity Fair in the form of a woman.

Our culture, in its eagerness to accept whatever is the newest sensation, has embraced Jenner and lauded him as a heroic example of someone living out his true self. Many conservatives have declared Jenner’s actions to be an affront to God himself. It’s easy to get pulled to one side or the other, but as with most things, the right position is somewhere in between.

When we sit in the seat of judgment we run the risk of both appearing and being hypocritical. Not only do the people around us get the impression that we think another’s sins are worse than ours, but we actually start to think that was as well. Both deny the simple truth – we are all guilty of as much sin as we are capable of committing, and our only hope is Christ.

But when we fully embrace and endorse any new sensation that the world brings to us, we prove just as hypocritical, ignoring that instruction that says not to be conformed to the pattern of this world (Romans 12). It isn’t as comfortable; we’re likely to gain criticism and be called loveless. However, as Warren Wiersbe said, “Love without truth is hypocrisy.” He also said, “Truth without love is brutality.” The two must go hand in hand.

So how do they go hand in hand in a situation like this? What is the loving response when a man asks to be identified as a woman, or a woman as a man? For that matter, what is the truth of the matter? Is it truly wrong for a man to decide that he truly feels like a woman, and is going to take steps to become one? You may think that’s a boneheaded question, but can you construct an argument against it that is truly a) Biblical in all respects, and b) consistent with other things we accept as permissible or not permissible for New Testament Christians? I’m not saying it is impossible, but it is not entirely easy.

I think the answer to both these questions really can be found by going back to the first lie that was ever told, when the ancient serpent said to Eve, “Did God really say?” and then followed it with that alluring temptation, “You will be like God.” In many ways, every temptation since then has been the same temptation, the same lie. Every falling into sin is an acceptance of that lie in some way. “Did God really say this is wrong? And even if he did, what right does he have to tell you what to do? You are your own master. You are your own God.”

Bruce Jenner, and so many like him, have fallen prey to that same lying voice. “Did God really say you are what you are? Did God really say that gender is static from birth? You can be whatever you feel you want to be. You are your own master. You are your own god.”

In many ways, it all comes down to identity. That’s the big argument anyway, isn’t it? How does a person identify him or herself, and don’t they have a right to identify as whatever they feel like?

But who determines my identity? When it comes to my career, isn’t it my employer who determines whether I am identified as a worker or not, and what kind of worker? Or if I’m a student, who gives me that identity? Isn’t it the school I go to? What about family? Can I go into my neighbor’s house one day and declare myself to be part of their family? What if I really identify as a Smith, even though I was born as a Steenbock?

What is my ultimate, eternal identity? Who determines that? Do I get to declare what and who I am in my life?

Bruce Jenner – and every other self-proclaimed transsexual – is seeking an answer to the question, “Who am I?”, but unfortunately they are all being pointed to the wrong place for answers – within themselves. All of us, whatever struggles we face in life, whatever the temptations we face, we all can only find our true identity if we look outside ourselves, and ultimately to God. My employer might change. My school might kick me out (they call it graduation, but really they’re just tired of dealing with me…). My family might all die, and my neighbors don’t want me. But God alone remains forever, and so if I want a stable source of identity, I need to turn to him.

What is my identity in him? He has called me his child. He has adopted me by faith through Christ into his family. He has made me an heir of his blessings. That is my identity. I don’t need to change who and what I am, because God already has. I don’t need to seek inside myself for who and what I am, because God, who is infinitely more reliable than my own feelings and thoughts, has already declared my identity.

So what is the loving thing to do for someone like Bruce Jenner, or any transsexual? I don’t think it’s to viciously condemn and reject their feelings, but it’s not to embrace their will either. It is simply to point them to the God who has already given you an identity far better than any you can invent for yourself. When you talk about this with your friends, your coworkers, your children, don’t focus on how disgusted you are or how wrong it is. Don’t focus on how important it is for us to accept people for what they say they are, either. Focus on Christ. Talk about the identity we find in him.

What the brain needs: oxygen, sugar, and relationship


If you know anything about how the brain works, you probably already know that without oxygen, your brain will die. That’s kind of the reason you go through life breathing, and why things like choking are kind of a big deal. And you probably know that your brain needs sugar (glucose), because that’s the fuel that makes it run. Have a conversation with a diabetic whose blood sugar has just taken a nose dive and you know how important sugar is to proper brain function.

Did you know that there’s a third thing the brain needs to function? Relationship.

This isn’t some clever and gimmicky idea I came up with. I don’t like to do gimmicky, and I’m not so sure I’m all that clever. This is real stuff.

When a baby’s brain is developing, it is using oxygen and glucose to feed and power the cells of gray matter that make up the brain’s structure, and it’s making neural connections from one part of the brain to another, sheathing it all in myelin, a material composed of fat. Those neural connections aren’t happening by accident, though. Every activity the baby is involved in is forming those connections, but the ones that really matter long term are the ones the baby makes in connection with other people.

These connections are absolutely vital to the long term health of the person. They affect that person’s ability to speak, to learn, to process emotions, to love, to interact with others. In other words, relationships are essential to healthy brain development. They are as important as oxygen, glucose, and fat.

Babies that don’t have a proper amount of nurture early on often end up with the “failure to thrive” diagnosis, meaning that they simply cannot live without someone showing them love.

It doesn’t stop with babies. Adult brains need relationship too. The effects of solitary confinement bear this out. When put in solitary confinement for extended periods, prisoners literally go insane. They experience hallucinations, paranoia, hypersensitivity, depression, perceptual distortion, and PTSD, among other problems. Our brains simply are not made to handle an absence of relationships.

See, it’s how God made us. He made us to need to be with other people. It’s a charming notion to say that we don’t need anything but Jesus, and from a spiritual perspective there is a truth to that. But we can’t miss the point that God chooses to work through means, and when it comes to our minds being healthy, one of the means is relationships. I think it’s because he himself, as the Triune God, is relational – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have an eternal relationship with each other. And we are created in his image.

Western science likes to quantify and qualify things by what it can measure, and we can’t really measure relationships. We can study how relationships work and how they impact people, but we can’t weigh relationship. Our tendency, then, is to look past it as something we don’t need to be intentional about. But we do.

If your kids came to you and said they were hungry, and it was after all lunch time, you wouldn’t give them half an apple and say, “Good enough!” would you? And if your child was having trouble breathing you’d probably do just about anything possible to make sure they were getting enough oxygen to their brains.

So what about relationship? Are your kids getting enough? Do they have your interaction, your conversation, your time? Do you play with them, sing songs with them, and hold them? Those things are as important for their little brains as food and oxygen.

And what about your aging parents or grandparents? Sometimes life stuck in a bed in a nursing home can feel awfully similar to solitary confinement. Sure, the staff at those places do what they can to give people social interaction. But nothing beats a visit from a family member or a close friend.

Let’s take it just a step farther. God made us for relationships, and it’s through relationships that the Gospel spreads. It’s like he wanted us to be close to one another, so we could communicate his love to one another. Almost like he planned it all along.


I am the villain of my story

I am big fan of fantasy and science fiction stories. True, I love almost any well-written story, but when I have my choice, I reach for the stuff with dragons or spaceships on the cover. And if there’s one thing any good fantastical story needs, it’s a good villain. I don’t mean a villain who is morally good, I mean a villain who is so compelling, so intriguing, and so convincingly wicked that you just can’t help but turn the next page to find out how he’s going to get his comeuppance. You know who I’m talking about – Sauron, the Emperor, the White Witch, Arawn of Annuvin.

I think what captivates me is the idea that I can step into the shoes of the hero who overcomes the villain. I can imagine how I would meet the challenge, and I can celebrate with the hero the victory as good triumphs over evil. As I imagine, I can begin to think about the challenges and villains in my own life and – maybe even just subconsciously – figure out ways to overcome them.

So who are the villains in my life? Who are the villains in your life? Who is the super evil, arch-nemesis villain who consistently is at the center of every diabolical plan that has ruined your day, your year, or your life?

If you’re like me, you are probably tempted to point the finger of blame. Maybe it’s a person who constantly grieves you. Maybe it’s an entity that you feel is corrupt to its core. Probably at the extreme you want to just blame the devil and let it be known that if not for him, your life would be peachy.

But have you ever read one of those stories where the real villain is not some boogey man but actually someone familiar? Maybe it’s a fellow countryman, a relative, a friend, or a mentor. For instance, in Lord of the Rings while Sauron is the big bad guy, the real villain that hounds the story is Gollum, a creature that was once a Hobbit, just like Frodo. And there’s Saruman, the good-wizard-turned-bad whose betrayal facilitated some of the biggest disasters for the Fellowship. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, sorry, but I love the Lord of the Rings and I think it serves as an excellent example of literature).

The thing about those stories is that even with the big bad guy out of the picture, those close-to-home villains are still bad. Evil doesn’t disappear just because the evil mastermind is defeated. That’s a major theme of many stories, that evil is never so easily defeated.

Well, in the same way, this is our reality as well. What if God completely destroyed the devil? What if he locked him up forever and took away all his power to tempt you and effect the world in any way? Do you think you’d wake up and have no more problems? Do you think your life would just be peachy?

You know it wouldn’t. I know it wouldn’t. Because even without the devil, you and I still have a problem.

It’s you. It’s me.

I’m the real villain of my story.

The fact is, Jesus did take away the devil’s power. The devil can tempt me all he wants, he can’t make me sin. The devil can try all he wants to make my life miserable, God will still make it turn out for my good. So why do I still have problems?

Because I’m the villain of my story.

I can’t be the hero. I don’t have what it takes. I can’t overcome the challenges, I can’t save the day. The best I can hope for is the tragic death, where I am consumed by my villainous nature and bring about my own ruin.

But you know which villains I find the most compelling, the most attractive, the most interesting? It’s the villains who don’t meet a tragic and horrible end, but who find redemption in the end. The ones who are known for all their wickedness and are loved anyway. The ones the hero will risk everything, even his own life, to rescue. Darth Vader. Gnag the Nameless. You. Me.

See, the real hero of the story is Jesus. He saw us, in all our wickedness, and he loved us. He put everything on the line, sacrificed his life to redeem us.

I don’t think we’re always so comfortable with this notion. We still want to be part of the solution. We want to be part of the heroism. But we’ll only really understand what it means to be redeemed if we first see that we are the villains. Then we can let the hero be the hero.