Lessons from demons

Some guy talking

Throughout the New Testament Gospels, it’s rarely the church folk who recognize the true identity of the insightful yet salty carpenter from Nazareth who teaches like nobody they’d ever heard before. It certainly is not the church leaders who recognize the true identity of the incomparable son of Joseph.

You probably guessed from the title. It’s the demons. Those rascally unclean spirits get it right every time. Those spirits from below see him, hear him, know him, and are aware of his nature and power.

In Mark 1.21-28, there are a couple of lessons I think we can glean from one such unclean spirit (Mark’s choice phrase) who inhabited a local from Capernaum.

And they went into Capernaum, and immediately on the Sabbath he entered the synagogue and was teaching. 22 And they were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes23 And immediately there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit. And he cried out, 24 What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” 25 But Jesus rebuked him, saying, “Be silent, and come out of him!” 26 And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying out with a loud voice, came out of him. 27 And they were all amazed, so that they questioned among themselves, saying, “What is this? A new teaching with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” 28 And at once his fame spread everywhere throughout all the surrounding region of Galilee. (ESV)


These lessons are for those who ever craft sermons or draw the short straw to give the obligatory devotional talk before what everyone else is really looking forward to. Because of my extensive theological training and study, most of which could be Googled, I read verse 22 and know why the people aren’t enthralled with the teachings of the scribes.

Lesson 1: If you want to stand out as a preacher or teacher of the Bible, you have to resist giving into the scribal practice of regurgitating what everyone else thinks about a text. Synthesizing a series of other peoples’ commentary on what a passage of scripture says and calling it your own is not only disingenuous, it’s an ‘F’ in English class everywhere.

Why, then, is it so readily accepted in church?

I’ve done it myself in the angst of feeling like I’d better have something worthwhile to say on Sunday. Or, when I’ve been told to hit a home run with the sermon. I don’t know what that looks like…do people swoon, bark (it’s happened before), stand up and mean mug me while I say something inspirational a la Steven Furtick’s Elevators (I assume that’s what Elevation Church attendees are called).

No, Jesus taught with an authority that first-century women and men hadn’t experienced because he was the author. There was originality, albeit a bit unfair since he’s always existed, to what he spoke and how he connected it to their lives. The point remains. There is a temptation to find what a popular speaker, communicator, or preacher has already said, take notes, repeat that process, and then smush it all together to make it “your own” by adding a dabble of personal stories.

Bottom line of lesson 1–fight the urge to be a grown up smusher together of everyone else’s opinions. Read widely for sure. But make every effort to craft your own thoughts first.

Lesson 2: Here’s is one of many questions to ask when sitting with a passage or idea or topic. As the unclean spirit looked and asked of Jesus, What have you to do with us, so we must ask of the Scriptures before us.

Whether reading in the prophets or psalms or epistles, the question is the same. Jesus, what have you to do with us in this passage? And, correspondingly, what would have us do because of it?

I used to be quite satisfied with spouting off a running commentary of a Bible passage. Here’s what this means and how it connects to history and what so and so has to say about it. Good luck doing anything with it!

Application is more than giving someone an idea of how the Bible is relevant to their life. It’s teaching and showing people how to lay their lives bare before the Lord of the Bible and to find a place in the unfolding story of Redemption. I haven’t done that well historically. I thought I was getting better, but the doubts are always there.

Lesson 3: (though not in the Bible) You’ll probably always doubt whether you did any good with your talk, devo, sermon, blog (wait, what?). Who said anything about blogging? But seriously. You’ll doubt.

What do you do with those voices?

If you’ve really asked of Jesus, what have you to do with us here, and have wrestled with the what do you want from us here, then you can rest after the fact knowing that you were not striving to make something happen in the moment.

Life has lyrics to forget

I used to watch Newlyweds. I did. I loved it. I also love that it has a Wikipedia page as well to tag when writing about Newlyweds.

Nick and Jessica will forever be in my heart. Not in one another’s. But mine, yes.

I saw a clip years later of Nick and his brother Drew singing at their grandmother’s wedding (or something like that). For those who weren’t in the coolest of cool groups in the 90s, one of 98 Degrees’ biggest hits was I Do, Cherish You. It was a mixed CD staple.

In the 90s, you could only wear denim and white, in no particular order.

It was also a redo of a country song, which may be the only boy band hit to boast such a genesis. Regardless, Nick Lachey probably sang that song 1,000 times, scientifically speaking.

So there Nick and Drew are, at granny’s wedding (or something like that), rehearsing for the walk down the aisle. And Nick doesn’t remember the words! Oh, Nick, you’re so crazy, forgetting the words to the song you sang for 10 years.

It’s comical how something so familiar can feel so foreign at times.

I have a great friend who is a great singer of great songs he’s written. He used to forget words to his own songs. It was always awkward.

My son loves to sing. In the shower. Doing chores. In the car. Doing chores in the shower before getting in the car. Singing is his favorite. Christmas is also his favorite, which means Christmas songs are his favorite favorite.

A few weeks ago he boldly belted out O Come, Let Us Adore Him. He knew the melody. He knew when to go up and down and when to get softer and louder. That he didn’t know the correct words seemed a non-factor to his ill-formed frontal cortex. As far as he was concerned, he was nailing it.

Ready for what any of that goobly gop has to do with our adult lives?

I can’t help but feel that there are days upon days when it seems I know the tune…maybe I’ve even sung it perfectly before. Marriage, parenting, friendship, conflict, work, finances. We have lots of songs to sing.

We know the crescendos and tempo changes, but doggonit, sometimes I can’t remember the blasted words!!

I know what marriage is supposed to sound like and how that relationship is intended to flow and how my job harmonizes with it all. But I’m singing and just. can’t. remember. the. next. ___________.

Those moments are going to happen. I’ve appreciated when artists have just owned it right there in the moment and didn’t pretend like they were perfect. They laughed at themselves and made everyone feel free to laugh as well.

At 36, I’m learning to own my lyrical amnesia. I’ve been owning it a lot lately.

  • Sorry, children…it’s not you, it’s me.
  • Sorry, babe…it’s the kids, not you. Okay, no, that’s me too.
  • Sorry, teacher at school…that was my fault.
  • Sorry, person struggling to figure out the merge lane…it really is you and you’re the only one who doesn’t know it so I’m not owning that one.

What do we do in those frightful moments when the music’s playing, but the lyrics just aren’t there?

I think we keep singing. Keep belting it out like we know what we’re doing. And when it’s clear–even if only to ourselves–that we’ve forgotten the lyrics, we own it. Name it. Laugh or ask forgiveness or confess or whatever the moment requires. 

And if you’re wondering

I do, cherish you
For the rest of my life
You don’t have to think twice
I will, love you still, from the depths of my soul

 Love, Nick and Patrick (we do share a birthday, so that counts)

This is why you criticize others

I’m pretty good at it. Criticizing.

I’ve trained for it my whole life.

Like Rocky Balboa trains for a fight.

Rising before the sun knows I’m up, with a beard burlier than the night before, efforts aimed at capturing a deer I’m chasing up a Russian mountainside in four feet of snow, while simultaneously processing the emotional devastation of what this all means for my wife, kids, and the sequel…and then eating said deer, raw.

There’s a lot of time for criticizing, especially if you have a poor work ethic, which I’ve had for much of my life.

Whew. I feel better saying it.

It’s true. My dad tried to get me to work hard. To clean with great detail, build manly things out of wooden materials, “fix” broken stuff.

One attempt on his part to teach me responsibility and work ethic I remember like yesterday. He pushed our vintage Snapper riding mower out of the garage and onto the blacktop.

After driving it down to the field in the rear of our house, the lesson began. Here’s how to start it. Here’s the blade engage. This pedal makes you go. (I nodded, probably overconfidently so as to compensate for my obviously not understanding.) You also want to look back every now and then to make sure the engine isn’t on fire.

I think I cried.

No, dad. I don’t want to do that. The prospect of burning to death for the sake of a neatly manicured 3/4 of an acre didn’t rouse the manual labor muse within.

I didn’t find my work stride until more recently. Part of it is the job. Part of it is the community of folks I’m around. Part of it is my wife–a huge part. If I have any parts left, another one is what I’m reading now. Not theology. It’s more practical theology–like the be doers of what you’re reading, not just hearers, part.

Steven Pressfield has written novels, screenplays, and non-fiction kicks in the rear. The latter is what I’ve been devouring the last month.

The War of Art

Turning Pro

Do the Work

These are gold mines for me. The principles therein are such that I can superimpose them on the last decade of my life and then wish Uncle Rico’s time machine really worked so I could go back and do a lot of things very differently.

At least I found them at 36 and not 46. Those of you who are 46 know what I’m saying, right?

Here I am now. Learning and growing. Growing and learning. The learning usually has to do with some deficiency deep on my withinside.

In The War of Art, I appreciated Pressfield adding this biographical portion about me –

If you find yourself criticizing other people, you’re probably doing it out of Resistance. When we see others beginning to live their authentic selves, it drives us crazy if we have not lived our own.

The War of Art, p. 38

Thanks, Steve. May I call you Steve?

Translation: We criticize others who are moving closer to becoming who they really are.

They’ve pushed through resistance and done the hard work of doing the work. And when I, you, we see someone do that, we can’t help but be envious. So we find something not to like.

Ah, but what (who) we really don’t like is ourselves. In that way, rather than scratching the itch to criticize, let it serve as a built-in reality check. What am I not doing that I want to be doing? What have I not accomplished? What have I given up on? What resistance am I permitting to keep me from becoming who I really am?

Who knows. Maybe you and I will be criticized one day.

The Journey Towards a Better Death (and life)

architect-architecture-black-and-white-1537008The better game is one we all play even though it never promises a return.

We pay for the next better, move cities to find the next better, cheat on a spouse to experience the next better. There really is no end in the quest to find this psychological sasquatch.

One of the ways it has shown up in my life over the years is with church and employment.

Southerners are especially skilled in playing the better game with churches. The perfect one is out there. I’m going to find it. The one where the pastor preaches a strong, theologically rich sermon with hilarious stories, poignant illustrations, priceless application and all in 30 minutes or less, like an episode of that new Netflix show, F.R.I.E.N.D.S.

In my mind, there was always a better preacher. A better worship experience. A better atmosphere. There had to be. This could not be the pinnacle of church.

And I carried that same mentality and quest for better into my graduate education and professional career.

So by 2013, after 7 years of marriage, we’d moved 11 times (a couple of which were in the same city to a different living situation, but my wife still counts those as moves). Granted, at least I didn’t say I was feeling “called” to Nowheresville. We set up camp in Savannah, Los Angeles, St. Louis–all great cities.

My graduate transcript was a registrar’s worst nightmare. It probably looked more like a word search than a transcript.

After all my searching and gypsy-like moving, where did we end up? Daggum Bluff City, TN. You have to say daggum in a sentence with Bluff City.

That’s a very generous use of the word City, by the way.

But there I was. There we were.

I went from megachurch to megachurch in search of better and ended up being most satisfied pastorally and professionally working in this little, out of the way church and at a Christian school.

At Bunker Hill Christian, there was nobody waiting to be wowed. They wanted to be loved. I didn’t hit a home run with that one, but I grew. Oh so slowly. But they were kind, patient, and gracious.

That season was refining in the sense that it exposed the prideful dross that covered every inch of me. That pride kept me from living a Hebrews 11 life. It would keep from dying a Hebrews 11 death.

Even when I thought I was seeking first God’s kingdom, I was very much at home here. I was an earthly citizen through and through, ALL about the tangible, measurable, and quantifiable.

From childhood to adulthood, the next achievement, next girl, next church, next city, the next better was supposed to make me feel like I’d arrived.

My grand realization? Fundamentally, these were all things I could manipulate. All I had to do was say, Well, God’s calling me to California. Calling me to St. Louis. Calling me to break up with you (best.line.ever).

It doesn’t take faith to manipulate. It takes faith to live and move toward that which you do not control.

Hebrews 11 again

10 For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.

There’s only one truly better city, better scenario, better whatever. The city of God.

There is a future that will only be fashioned by faithfulness in the moment. The Architect has the plans drawn up. But He is also the Builder. So what’s our part?

It may sound like this conclusion to Hebrews 11

32 And what more can I say? Time is too short for me to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets, 33 who by faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the raging of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, gained strength in weakness, became mighty in battle, and put foreign armies to flight. 35 Women received their dead, raised to life again. Other people were tortured, not accepting release, so that they might gain a better resurrection. 36 Others experienced mockings and scourgings, as well as bonds and imprisonment. 37 They were stoned, they were sawed in two, they died by the sword, they wandered about in sheepskins, in goatskins, destitute, afflicted, and mistreated. 38 The world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and on mountains, hiding in caves and holes in the ground. 39 All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

What better epithet could you ask for than verse 38?

    The world was not worthy of them

Only a person who has lived for a better world will have that said of them.

But like the folks in the text, I can’t sit idly by and dream of the better place.

So, a word to the dreamer like me who can’t get no satisfaction.

Pastor Darrin in Pooler, GA said something one Sunday while we were visiting. I can’t shake it. Keep your eyes fixed on heaven, but get your head out of the clouds, he said. Mind your business, I thought.

No, it really did hit me. Translation for my life? Stop being a critic without bringing a contribution. I’d made a living doing that. The pay is terrible.

I’m asking God to do something with my imagination other than have it be an idol factory that spawns discontentment and petty thoughts. I want to bloom where I’m planted as those flowery journals at Target quip.

But part of our spiritual journeys is smashing face first into the transcendent reality that the lasting satisfaction and fulfillment we seek won’t be found this side of forever. No thing. No one. It won’t happen.

That realization should be even greater fodder for the fire of exhausting all resources in this life on the journey towards what matters most. And it’s probably not the latest facebook fight or Twitter mud slinging contest.

I have a finite amount of time, energy, and resources, and this is what or who God has put in front of me right now, and I’m going to catalyze those resources to make the most and best of my actual life right now—and by faith it will produce a better life and death.

Eyes on heaven. Heads out of the clouds.

I’m going to cultivate the very ground in which I’m presently planted to see the fruit that God wants to grow in me and through me, for my good, the good of those around me, and for His glory.

Selah.

The Better You’ve Been Longing For

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Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Welcome to part 3 of this lovely series on why happiness eludes you, experiences disappoint you, and dreams deceive you.

In case you’re just joining in, I’ll give you the bottom line — it boils down to the idea of better. You can read parts 1 and 2 to catch up or fall asleep, your choice.

For those picking up after part deux, you were left with but a centimeter of your posterior hanging on the edge of your seat, wondering what in the world happens in Hebrews 11 to these men and women who lived by faith and died in faith, having never witnessed or grasped that for which they so deeply longed.

There are two helpful summaries about these men and women in relation to better.

Summary 1 is Hebrews 11.13-16.

These all died in faith, although they had not received the things that were promised. But they saw them from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth14 Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland15 If they were thinking about where they came from, they would have had an opportunity to return. 16 But they now desire a better place—a heavenly one. Therefore, God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. 

Summary 2 comes at the end of the chapter in verses 39 and 40.

All these were approved through their faith, but they did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, so that they would not be made perfect without us.

So these faithful men and women who’ve gone before us by thousands of years, listened and obeyed God–not perfectly–but to the point that it was clear their better was not a better to be grasped in this world.

This feels like that moment where the preacher has no application and leans hard on  aren’t you glad heaven is waiting? Now, let’s stand and sing eight stanzas of I’ll Fly Away into Beulah Land somewhere over Jordan!

So yes, no wool to pull over your eyes, the better is forever. It’s eternity. It’s with God in His presence for eternity.

But I don’t think that is the main point for the writer of Hebrews. There is a pursuit of better here and now. The letter doesn’t continue on with a charge to suck it up until you die. 

Chapter 12 carries on with physically vigorous exercise words like lay aside every hindrance/weight and run the race with endurance. There’s no passive laisse faire spiritual gobbly goop there.

Run. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. He’s the one who got you started, and he’s the one who will get you across the finish line.

And oh that moment. That moment when your race is done. That moment when I fall into the arms of my Savior. That moment.

Having never laid hands or eyes on that which we longed and lived for, we will know in an instant that nothing was done in vain. We will be reassured one billion times over that there was nothing or no one on earth worth trading for a city that only God can build and an inheritance that only God can afford.

  • That moment will be better than whatever awkward bliss you can achieve with your girlfriend or boyfriend in your car or your apartment.
  • It will be better than whatever subdivision you dream of living in but can’t seem to afford.
  • It will be better than that car or lifted truck or boat or house or outfit or purse or batting average or GPA that you think will satisfy your itch for better or make your dad proud.

What’s it all mean?

May I be blunt? Of course I can; I’m writing.

There is no better this world affords that will be better enough.

It feels wrong to say it, type it, read it, believe it. But it’s true.

The only better that will satisfy is the better that lasts forever.

An obsession with that better will yield a life of beauty and purpose here and now. There is something about looking out and walking the path of long obedience that, invisibly and invariably, satisfies in the end.

For lack of a better word, it’s better.

I  will conclude this series next time with my own grasping for better story.

Until then.

 

Seeking a Better Better in a World of Imposters

So you’ve been bamboozled by the idea of better your entire life, as I mentioned in the last post. Nobody said that’s what was happening, but it happened. And it carries on.

Right now, some of you reading this are thinking about the better job or car or shoes or purse or blog (shame on you for that last one). But it’s in us. We want better. We crave better. We have anxiety over better and imagine ourselves living in, driving, or sleeping with better.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the fact that better is so alluring. The first advertising campaign on earth had to do with better.

It took all of three chapters in Genesis for Eve to be convinced that she could be

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Just one bite?

better and life could be better if she’d just eat of the fruit from a specific tree.

Both she and Adam took the bait of better, hook, line, and sinker. And then everyone blamed someone, but that’s a different topic.

Better is that low hanging fruit, right there in front of your face non-stop. It seems so reachable, so pleasing to the eye, and it must be wonderful to experience. 

  • With ladies, I think about social media and the gnawing sense that her life is better. It’s constant.
  • For the gents living in a hypersexualized culture, it’s evident that the Internet thinks you can get better, and for cheap. Why bother with real people when virtual people will fulfill your fantasies?

Better is everywhere. It wears many masks.

It may be worth noting here that my hope is NOT that you would abandon better. I want you to believe in better. There is a reason that longing is in you. It just may be a wildly different better altogether. It’s a better that, in an election year, will make people frustrated and simultaneously prevent you from slinging mud on the facebook…because you don’t think better will be won at the polls, at not the better folks are slandering, lying, and cussing to grasp.

I found myself some time back re-reading through the letter of Hebrews in the New Testament, which really reads best if you do it all at one time. It’s more like a sermon.

Hebrews chapter 11, in particular, is where this is all coming from.

This chapter is sometimes called the hall of faith because it is replete with the names and stories of some of the who’s who of the OT

Enoch. Noah. Moses. Abraham. Sarah.

The refrain of the chapter is by faith. By faith Noah–by faith Abraham–by faith Israel…

In order to not be confused about what faith is, God is kind enough to tell us exactly what faith is at the beginning of chapter 11

Hebrews 11.1 Now faith is the reality (confidence) of what is hoped for, the proof of what is not seen. (CSB) 

> The glaring oddity about faith and your walk with Christ is that it’s wrapped up in things not seen.

It’s not that the empirical, visible, or tangible doesn’t matter. But rather, that the transcendent, intangible, and invisible matter more, at least in terms of what governs the way you live.

As you might expect, this is a pervasive theme throughout the Bible. That we live amidst the visible and invisible.

It’s this tension that makes so many college students and academics uncomfortable.

It’s what drives attempts by Bible professors who’ve spent nearly a decade in doctoral programs to explain away the supernatural.

And yet much of the focus in Hebrews 11 is on these men and women who were faithful even when they didn’t see what was promised to them by God in this life. Those who were captivated by the invisible, by faith.

  • Abraham didn’t see descendants as numerous as the stars.
  • Moses didn’t see the Promised Land in all its glory.

In the next post, I will point you to a summary of several of these lives and their having died without seeing the better they so longed to experience. Faithful men and women who, thousands of years before we ever cared about a thing, listened and obeyed God, not perfectly, but to the degree that it was clear their better was vastly different than the better we’ve become accustomed to chasing.

Here’s to a better better.

This Idea Casts a Long Shadow Over Your Life and Mine

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Photo by Andrew Tallent on Unsplash

Many of us, myself for sure, live in the long shadow cast by an idea, a phantom idea, a ghostly, probably not real but it feels so real idea. The shadow of this idea brings a darkness with it that goes where we go and grows as we grow.

I’d go so far as to say we are inculcated–indoctrinated if you will–with this idea.

What is this idea? The shadow-caster? The ghost?

Better.

Better stuff, better place, better people, better toys, better car, better neighborhood, better amenities, better clothes.

Better is in us. It grows up with us, too. Your better may not be the same as your friend’s better, but you both have it. It could have looked something like the following –

  • You were 12 years old and SUPER awkward (because who isn’t) and you were 100% confident that 13 was the magic number when things would be better. But no. Just more awkward.
  • 15, though, 15 is where it’s at! I’ll get my driver’s permit, and I’ll cruise into the horizon (with my dad in the passenger seat because mom gets too skittish when I don’t brake in time).
  • Ugh, I’m sick of driving while my parents hit imaginary brakes on their side of the car. It’s all good. I get my license next year, and 16 is when life will really begin.
  • At least at 18 people will take me seriously, because I’ll be an adult. (Nobody tells us why that’s the age. The government just decided one day.) Now, if I want, I can
    • Enlist in the military
    • Buy cigarettes–make America proud
    • Vote, because Ben Affleck told me to

18-20ish are the first of the serious ‘who am I’ years…what do I want to be, who will I marry. Can I marry her–no, her–no, her…

  • I turn 21 in a few weeks. I’m so glad I’m not one of those pathetic teenagers anymore. Look at how sad their lives are.

After 21, better moves into life stages instead of ages. So, life will be better when I…

  • Get a job
  • When I get married
  • Marriage will be better when we have kids
  • Maybe life will be better with a different wife, a different husband
  • Better with a different job
  • Better if we move here
  • Better if that person would die
    • Shoot, I didn’t mean it! Do I have to go to the funeral?
  • Better when I retire…

And then we run out of better and die.

It really could happen.

You could die always believing that the next better would be better than the better before.

Here’s what I’ve learned about my better, and I’m willing to bet your better is a distant cousin of my better and looks mostly the same.

Better is always a moving target. Better is elusive.

It’s like trying to shoot the squirrels who used my back deck as their personal teeth filing hot spot. Those glorified rats were sneaky. Better senses you’re coming and scampers off, leaving part of your deck chewed up while you’re standing there in pajama pants, holding a BB gun with a heart full of anger and sadness. (no metaphor is perfect)

Whether you want to talk education, politics, economics….someone is always promising something better.

A better plan; better policies; better financing; better curriculum. Blah, blah, blah.

The marketing and advertising world lines its pockets by playing on this intrinsic appetite for better.

This product will make you look better, feel better, think better, hit better, jump better, study better.

Instead of better, we get bitter. We were duped.

Better is the guy who never comes through like he says. Better is the boss who over-promises and doesn’t deliver. Better is the movie with the star-filled cast that you wish you had never seen.

There has to be more to it, right?

I don’t have to live in this shadow forever, right?

Right.

More to come