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.

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.

My Greatest Fear

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It’s an ambitious title for a post. I know.

And once you read it, you may think me shallow or self-centered.

But this fear has haunted me for half of my 35 years on this terrestrial ball that hangs in mid-air as if held in place by some magical force.

My greatest fear?

      That I will do nothing to leave a mark on the world. 

  • I won’t write a book that changes the way people live their lives.
  • I won’t preach sermons that God uses to launch a movement.
  • I won’t shape a school in such a way that future generations are transformed for the better.
  • I won’t start something that lasts and serves as a legacy.

In other words, I’ll be…ordinary.

Attempting to stuff that fear back into its proper place, I found myself reading through the Acts of the Apostles once again–in addition to my regularly scheduled Bible reading > because I’m so awesome.

There’s one verse in particular that I have an on again off again sort of relationship with. When I read this verse, I go “That’s my life verse!” and want to get it tattooed on my person flesh. But prior to reading it again a few weeks back, I’d mostly forgotten about it. This reading was different as well because, for the first time in a long time, I’m not a pastor. And I had always read this verse through that one, narrow, particular lens of a pastor.

This is the apostle Paul’s posture toward life and legacy

But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. (Acts 20.24, ESV)

For years I interchanged ministry and pastorate. That is, preaching and shepherding and leading in a local congregation. As if the only ministry I, or anyone, could receive from the Lord was a church ministry proper.

This, of course, caused great anxiety for me vocationally speaking because my identity was tied up in the title, which meant where I worked and what I did at a church was the sum of who I was at a given moment, not to mention what I’d be in the future!

Now the title is gone. I’m ordinary (I know this was always the case, but I’m searching and sharing my soul, so play along).

Yet, even though I’m not working on a church staff, Acts 20.24 still speaks. The Spirit asks, “What ministry, then, have you received?”

Answer. Look around. Where has the Lord placed you for such a time as this? What comes with where you are?

Husband. Father. Friend. Educator. Administrator.

All titles that are overflowing with responsibility and expectation.

Moreover, if God cannot be confined to a building or an occupation or our hearts, then He’s everywhere. And if God is everywhere, then there is no such thing as ordinary, because where we go, there God is. There, in his presence, the ordinary is sanctified, set apart, made holy.

Changing the diaper. Playing in the pool. Greeting the attendant at WalMart (or Target if you’re fancy).

Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy of the ordinary being the well-kept secret of spiritual living. He calls it a receptacle of the divine. Which as best I can tell means that the ordinary spaces and situations of life become sacred when we acknowledge the presence of God in whom we live and move and have our very being

Isn’t this what Jesus did?

He worked an ordinary job in an ordinary town for a couple of decades before calling some ordinary guys to follow him and welcoming ordinary women to minister alongside him. His greatest spiritual teachings centered on ordinary items like bread, water, birds, grass, bushes, and fishing.

Jesus’ very incarnation puts this principle on display. The divine entered into the ordinary, and the world was changed forever.

A similar invitation is extended to us.

Acknowledge the presence of God in every moment. Welcome in the divine and watch as God takes ordinary to new heights.

Leaving a mark may mean some level of notoriety or fame. Not for most people. But, being fully present where you are and with whom you are? That will change your life. And it will change the lives of those around you in ways you will never know.

Approval, acceptance, and you

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I’m not a hunter. I don’t have a moral issue with hunting. It’s just not something I grew up doing. I did own a pair of camo cargo shorts that my wife eventually made me throw out.

Hunting would be more of a sport if you didn’t use the urine of an animal to hide your scent. Also guns. Guns are cheating. At least chase that animal down like a nomadic hunter whose life depends on it and look it that beast in the eyes whilst taking his life and whispering, “It’s all gonna be okay….” #Epic

I have been hunted, however. Not in a “rich guy pays to hunt you on his private island” sort of way. But in a “you want the approval of others and don’t realize it’s going to kill you” sort of way.

Proverbs 29.25 says it like this: The fear of mankind is a snare, but the one who trusts in the Lord is protected.

A snare is a trap  meant to lure you in and kill you instantly or, more likely, keep you in place and lead to a slow, miserable death.

The fear of mankind is the snare of approval. I seek the approval of a certain person, a certain group, a sector of society. Longing and living for the approval of others  leads to death. And approval seeking leads to appeasing, whether that means living for a lesser dream or violating your conscience, it’s deadly either way.

The problem is some of us don’t realize we’re trapped because the death is slow. The death of a dream. The death of a vision God had given you.

The tricky thing is that dying in this sense can look pretty normal. It could mean going to work, coming home, eating dinner, watching Netflix and going to bed. REPEAT.

All the while we hear a faint echo of what we believed God wanted us to do, where He wanted us to go, how He asked us to risk, what He told us to quit, that thing He urged us to start…

But life in the snare has become normal. Safe. And I have the approval of others.
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I think Jesus knew very well that his disciples (you and me disciples) had a bent towards getting complacent and drawn away into the snare of people pleasing.

So here’s what Jesus instructed his followers then to do as he sends them out to minister in different places and do things that the locals weren’t used to, and I think it’s the same for us now.

Greet a household when you enter it, 13 and if the household is worthy, let your peace be on it; but if it is unworthy, let your peace return to you. 14 If anyone does not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that house or town. – Matthew 10.12-14

What do you do if they don’t like what you’re doing or saying? Shake it off.

Shake, shake, shake, shake, shake it off.

Leave their approval and acceptance right there with them and move on.

Don’t stay explaining why it makes sense and how you arrived at the conclusion. Shake it off and head out.

See, we’ve become conditioned to making sure the people around us understand our intentions and the process we went through to make a decision and trying to let them know that we aren’t crazy….Jesus didn’t really do that. He shook it off.

So perhaps don’t spend precious energy trying to get them to where God has brought you. They’ll need their own journey for that, and you’ll need that energy moving forward. Just shake it off.

Have you noticed there are people who are made uncomfortable when you get out of your comfort zone? It’s like they go, “No, get back in the snare. The snare is safe. It’s known.”

Different is scary.

But God’s love FOR us and IN us pushes us beyond our fears.

And that means if God is calling me to risk something, to sell something, to move somewhere, to stop or start a certain ministry, to leave a job, then it is God’s LOVE compelling me to take the next step.

God is faithfully for me, and in turn I can be fearlessly faithful.

And if someone takes issue with that and can’t understand where I’m coming from and that it couldn’t be of God because God would never tell them to do that, then I respectfully shake the dust off my feet and move on to where God’s leading me.

So if you have that move of God in mind and you’re struggling to take a step out of the snare, repeat after me —  The Lord is for me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me? (Hebrews 13.6)

  • When you feel the pull to stay right where you are because people might talk….The Lord is for me, what can man do to me?
  • When you feel paralyzed by the thought of taking a step forward even though all the details aren’t lined up…The Lord is for me, I will not be afraid.
  • When you find yourself caring more about what “they” might think than what God thinks…The Lord is for me, what can man do to me?

If the Lord is for you, what are you afraid of? Who are you afraid of?

Be free

It’s not sexy, but it is beautiful

pexels-photo-29751I have been following the Bible Project’s Read Scripture plan this year and have enjoyed it. I probably would enjoy a little more of an Old Testament / New Testament mix, but overall it’s been good to journey from cover to cover (with a repeat trip through the Psalms along the way).

I started in Jeremiah a couple of days ago and cannot for the life of me think of why I haven’t come back to this historical/prophetic record on a regular basis.

Jeremiah is given a pretty gritty ministry by the Lord. He does what the Lord says, and each time gets abused for it, more or less.

We shouldn’t be surprised considering the nature of prophetic ministry laid out for him. More than predicting the future (prophecy), prophetic ministry is about holding people to account in the present, that is, holding up the standard of God as a measuring line for all else.

What’s that look like for Jeremiah?

It’s not about health and wealth.

Jeremiah 1.10 See, I have appointed you today over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and demolish, to build and plant

  1. Uproot and tear down
  2. Destroy and demolish
  3. Build and plant

This prophetic calling is not a recipe for winning friends. Numbers 1 and 2 have to happen before 3. Which means upsetting, offending, and angering a lot of folks.

It means, for instance, telling people they have abandoned the fountain of living water and instead dug cracked cisterns for themselves that are incapable of holding water, let alone the bitter waters of flaccid saviors and fleeting satisfactions (the Nile and Euphrates).

             We dig leaky wells, too. Our Nile and Euphrates tend to be consumable,    wearable, edible, or achievable, but oh do we dig…

The prophet calls this futile effort what it is and lays out a vision of the God-shaped alternative.

Reading the first chapters of Jeremiah calls to mind the ministry of Jesus. Like him or not, Jesus was bold. Jesus didn’t play favorites or pull punches.

In true prophetic fashion, Jesus uprooted and tore down established religious practices, destroyed and demolished entrenched religious beliefs.

He did so in view of building up something new. If all you do is demolish, you aren’t prophetic. You’re just a jerk.

Jesus demolished the religious soil of his day and planted the seed of a new people. But, for the seed to grow, it first had to die.

Writing about persecution of Christians throughout the Roman Empire, the ancient theologian Tertullian penned an indelible depiction of this death to life phenomenon: “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”

How did a movement catalyzed by a criminalized Jewish mystic and carried on by a ragtag band of misfits from the margins ever make it out of the first century? Not by political force or entrepreneurial prowess.

No. It was by faithful devotion to the way of Jesus, the way he modeled.

It is not sexy. But it is beautiful. 

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If you are in Christ, you have prophetic blood flowing through your veins. You, too, are seed.

What could it look like for you to give your life’s blood for something that will outlast your carbon footprint?

 

 

 

Are you a peacemaker or peacekeeper?

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Jesus once said, Blessed are the peacekeepers, for…” Wait. No, no, no. He didn’t say that.

Jesus actually said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.” Yep, that’s what he said.

David invites those who want long life to “seek peace and pursue it.” In other words, be a peacemaker.

But is there really a difference between peacemaking and peacekeeping? I think so, especially in my southern context.

Southerners–especially church going Southerners–tend towards peacekeeping.

  • Which basically means don’t say or do anything that might upset someone, even if they’re in the wrong. It’s best just to let it go, let a little time pass, and move on.
  • Or the classic, don’t poke your stick in it and it won’t stink.

I’ll confess that I’ve done my part of this for decades. It sounds something like-“That’s not my place.” or “It probably won’t go well, so why bother?” There, I kept the peace.

Simply put, we confuse peacekeeping for peacemaking.

Here’s the primary difference b/n the two:

  • Peacekeeping is passive
  • Peacemaking is active.

In other words, we think we’re being peacemakers in the home, at work, or at church, but it’s actually the shadowy offshoot of glorified passivity known as peacekeeping.

There is nothing passive about peacemaking. Patient, yes. But not passive.

Peacekeeping is about protecting an illusion of calm or avoiding conflict of some kind.

But Peacemaking almost always involves conflict of some kind. It’s active.

  • It may be a difficult conversation. (e.g., someone is doing you wrong)
  • It may be a confrontation. (e.g., someone is wronging others)
  • It may be a confession. (e.g., you’ve wronged someone)

Making peace via these avenues means you and I will be engaged in conflict. It means we will make enemies most likely.

Since I’m writing this around Father’s Day, think about some of the men remembered and revered (not everyone will agree with my list, but you have your own). They actively sought and pursued peace:

  • Martin Luther King, Jr. was a peacemaker. He gave a voice to a people who weren’t being heard and didn’t feel safe to speak.
  • Abraham Lincoln was a peacemaker who put his career and life on the line to acknowledge and honor the inherent dignity of every person no matter the color of their skin.
  • Jesus of Nazareth was a peacemaker whose ultimate goal was to lead people into peace with the God of heaven.

These were men of action. They had plans and goals. And all of these peacemakers have something else in common–they gave their lives in the pursuit of peace.

Peacekeeping doesn’t get you killed. Maybe an unfollow or unfriend, but not killed.

If you choose to respond to the Lord’s exhortation to be a peacemaker, you’ll end up with more unrest and discomfort in your life because of it.

It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, David writes in Psalm 34.19 that “the one who is righteous has many adversities.”

Because you just have more problems trying to follow Jesus than not. As if peacemaking isn’t enough, you love enemies, forgive 1-bajillion times, wash dirty feet, and so forth. So I get it, peacekeeping is easier now, but what about in the long run?

If you choose peacekeeping over peacemaking, what you actually do is leave the door wide open to greater and more complex problems in the future.

       A failure to address things now will only be magnified later.

King David could certainly think about this from his experience as a man, husband, dad, and king

David wasn’t a great dad from the picture presented in Scripture. Well after the triumph over Goliath and his disastrous sequence of events surrounding Bathsheba, David was husbanding, fathering, and doing what kings do. But he wasn’t doing what peacemakers do. Quickly:

  • David’s son Amnon was infatuated with his [Amnon’s] sister, Tamar.
  • Amnon raped Tamar, making her an outcast in that culture.
  • David finds out and is infuriated, as any dad should be.

Here’s the crazy thing, though. Two verses after David is said to be furious comes this: “Two years later…” Two years passed, and we hear nothing of David’s actions to reconcile this situation, to bring the peace necessary to this massive injustice.

Absalom–Tamar’s other brother–hated Amnon and found a way to kill him. Such bitterness took root in Absalom toward David that he decided David was unfit to rule and ran him out of town. Not long after, Absalom himself ended up dead.

And there is king David left to make sense of the carnage. Two dead sons and a disgraced daughter who feels unloved and unprotected by the man who should have been looking out for her the most.

David may have been a pro at keeping the peace, but he was pathetic at making peace.

After avoiding confessions around Bathsheba and Uriah he evaded necessary confrontations and conversations with his sons and daughter.

Peacekeeping is easier now, but everyone pays for it later. As best I can tell, that’s true in business, education, church, and family.

Making peace will require making a mess, at least for a while. But to avoid it is to ensure a greater calamity in the future.

Since peacemaking is active:

  1. What conversation do you need to have?
  2. What confrontation should you schedule?
  3. What confession might you need to make?

Blessed are the peacemakers…