“Normal”

Normal is an interesting word. The American Heritage Dictionary defines normal as “conforming, adhering to, or constituting a usual or typical standard, pattern, level, or type.”
It took until my junior year in college for me to realize my eyesight was not normal. I was oblivious to the gradual deterioration that had taken place over the years, so I thought the way I saw the blackboard was the way everyone else saw it. While everyone else was seeing sharp lines and distinct shapes I was seeing fuzzy lines and blurry shapes.
What finally triggered a visit to the eye doctor was a drive home from Western New York after a long day on the ski slopes. The sun had set and a light snow was falling as I edged my little Ford Festiva onto the road home. The road was dark and curvy and the snow began to fall harder the closer we got to home. My brother-in-law was with me and I remember repeatedly saying to him, “boy it’s bad out here tonight. I don’t know if I can make it.” Since this is not the type of thing you typically hear a 22-year old male saying when he is with another guy, I should have immediately recognized that something was not normal. Later on my brother-in-law shared with me that I kept creeping farther and farther over the steering wheel as if I was trying to crawl out onto the hood or something, and by the time we pulled into a gas station at his suggestion I was squinting so tightly he wondered whether my eyes were even open. He graciously offered to drive the rest of the way home and I accepted feeling relieved that I didn’t have to navigate the elements any longer. As we pulled back onto the road I began to realize just how poorly and slowly I had been driving. I felt like we were in a rocket as Rob pressed down on the accelerator. I was a little concerned at first because it appeared reckless until he began to share that he could see things. Things like signs…with words and symbols on them…and oncoming cars. But the biggest shock to me was that he could see these things long before they were at the nose of the car, which is quite short on a Ford Festiva mind you. The next morning I scheduled an appointment with the eye doctor.
Our mind has a tendency to play tricks on us when it comes to “normal”. If we have been born into something or it’s all we’ve ever known, then our propensity is to label it “normal”. For example, it is “normal” in our culture to date. As a matter of fact, though parents differ on the appropriate age for their teenagers to begin this practice, it is not considered bad parenting to allow our sons and daughters to go out on dates. It’s even considered “normal”. But if we were living in the early 1900’s shortly after the word “date” entered the American vocabulary we would have a completely different understanding of normal. Few parents, or sons and daughters for that matter, would have wanted to be caught dating, since it was a lower-class slang word for prostitution. If someone wanted sex for money they went dating. (Mark Driscoll, Religion Saves, 181-183).
Oh how things have changed, but maybe not as much as we think. We may think we define dating differently than the way it was understood back in the early 20th century but how many times do our young women get taken out on dates in which the young man pays for everything and then expects he will get something in return. Couldn’t that, by definition, be loosely understood as a form of prostitution? Just a little food for thought.
Just because something is considered “normal” doesn’t make it right. There are a lot of things considered “normal” today that weren’t a decade ago. Some of those changes are good and some are not. I’m concerned that it is more common for followers of Christ to live life by conforming to what is classified by the surrounding culture as “normal” than it is to transform to the standards of the One we are to be following. We are far too happy with “normal” when Scripture clearly teaches not to conform or adhere to the patterns or typical standards of this world. Instead, we are to be transformed by the renewing of our mind. Our minds, like my eyes, need an appointment and regular check-ups with the Doctor. Some of us may need a new prescription so we are able to see the road signs – words and all – and the oncoming traffic. Then we stand equipped to navigate life in such a way that people see clearly we are followers of Christ. We need to stop letting our mind play tricks on us, stop accepting “normal,” and embrace God’s will by allowing Him to renew our minds.

Consuming Fire

The American Film Institute
recently released their top 100 movies of all time.  Topping the list was the classic movie Citizen Kane.  The movie takes the viewer on a journey
through the life of fictional character Charles Foster Kane.  Kane accrues an incredible amount of wealth
and power and ultimately destroys himself.
As the movie moves along and Charles Foster’s desire for wealth, power
and pleasure grows there is a recurring shot of a wall with a fireplace in the
center of it in the home of Kane.  As his
wealth grows and becomes more destructive, the fireplace gets bigger and bigger
until near the end of the movie the fireplace is nearly as big as the
wall.  This fireplace is always burning
and consuming and by the end of the movie the fireplace has become and inferno
in which all of Kane’s earthly possessions are being burned up leaving nothing
but a lot of smoke.

Charles Foster Kane was a fictional
character that was rumored to have been loosely based on the life of a real
individual.  Whether or not that is the
case his story is one that is very familiar.
It is a story that has played itself out in some form or another
countless times throughout history.

The lure of
enjoying life is one that is great for all of us, and why not?  Life was made to be enjoyed.  We hear it over and over again pumped into
our brains through various forms of media and entertainment.  The entire marketing industry would be
bankrupted if they were to take an approach that didn’t capitalize on this idea
of enjoying life.  Parents encourage
their children to work hard in school and excel in some sport or hobby in hopes
that they will one day do well for themselves and maybe have all the things they
didn’t have.  And it is basically assumed
that any politician who wants any kind of legitimate shot at getting voted into
office will have a campaign filled with plans for making life better and better
during their term.

From every angle we are inundated
with the gospel of enjoying ourselves.
And we have bought what’s being sold hook, line and sinker.  The American Dream is entirely based on this
gospel and who doesn’t want to live the American Dream?  So we want to enjoy life, that’s a good thing
isn’t it?  Living life to the fullest is
a positive value, we don’t want people walking around with frowns on their
faces and miserable, that’s why our parents and teachers warned us that if we
frowned too much our faces would freeze that way.  People who enjoy life don’t frown and we
should all be enjoying life.  There is
enough pleasure and things to go around.

The truth is there is some measure
of enjoyment in the pursuit of pleasure.
We enjoy a good meal and a good movie or an exotic vacation.  There is also some measure of enjoyment in
the accumulation of things.  We enjoy the
smell and feel of a new car or the crystal picture of a new HDTV.  These things are great and they do bring a
smell to our faces and some enjoyment to life, but that enjoyment is always
short lived.  There is always something
else to experience or something better to buy.
And so our wants become needs and our short list of needs becomes a long
list of needs and eventually the fireplace is so big that it takes up the
entire wall.  Eventually the fireplace
consumes our lives and the things we thought would bring enjoyment ultimately
bring despair.

There is only one true source of
enjoyment in life that will not leave us despairing.  The world is not the only consuming
fire.  Nearly two thousand years ago a
wise man wrote that God is a consuming fire.
By pursuing Him and seeking to enjoy Him we find what it is we are
looking for.  Sure you can enjoy life and
experience short bursts of enjoyment here and there that end up resulting in
despair or you can pursue enjoying God and experience enjoyment that lasts far
beyond this lifetime.

The truth is we are all going to be
consumed by something.  Which fire would
you rather be consumed by?

Ironclad Convictions

During the 1924 Olympics held in Paris one young man was recognized as much for what he didn’t do as for what he did.

            They called him the ‘Flying Scot’ and he was Britain’s Golden Boy.  If anyone could win the country a gold medal he could.  But Eric Liddell went from Golden Boy to turncoat because of his refusal to compete in the 100 meter, since the finals for the event were to take place on Sunday.

            Despite the opposition Liddell stuck with his decision and switched events.  Instead of competing in the 100 meter he would enter the 400 meter.  Many thought this an absurd decision and held very low expectations for success.  The two races required vastly different strategies and technique.

            But the strategy paid off for Liddell.  Not only did he win the 400 meter, be he also tied the Olympic record for the event with a blistering time of 47.6 seconds.

            It is hard for many of us to understand why a man who was nearer a sure thing in one race would give all that up and risk embarrassment just because of what day of the week an event’s final was scheduled to take place.  Why would a man willingly face the ridicule of being called a traitor by his own countrymen all over something as petty as a day?  Why would a man devote his life to a race and then shortly before the dream became a reality throw it all away only to begin a new rigorous training program in an event so foreign to him?  Like the British officials who coined the ‘Flying Scot’ a traitor, other adjectives like ‘crazy’ and ‘not all there’ come to our minds.

            But when you look at what was behind Liddell’s decision it makes things clearer.  Eric was a devout believer in Jesus Christ.  Everything he did in life he did for Jesus Christ, including running.  When it came to making choices the driving force was his relationship with God through Jesus Christ and not his advancing of a talent, or gaining the applause of others.  His god was God and not his giftedness.

            Still for some of us this is utter insanity and flies in the face of what we consider common sense.  Why would anyone do something like this and give up so much?  Couldn’t he have honored God and raced in the event he had trained so hard for?  What kind of God would require such a thing as giving up your dream?  What we must realize is we’ve only heard half of the story, and though at this point it seems Liddell gave up so much, in reality he gained far more than he ever lost.

            Liddell may have voluntarily removed himself from the 100 meter competition but his entrance into the 400 meter competition resulted in a gold medal and a share of the Olympic record that stood for several years.  His exploits inspired the Academy Award-winning film, “Chariots of Fire”, and all this began because a man chose to stand on his convictions and live by them.

            As a young boy I used to play a game with my friends called “What If” in which we would take the situation we were in and try to imagine all the possible outcomes.  This was one of my favorite games because it stretched my imagination to all kinds of fascinating places.  I realized through that game that there is no limit to the possibilities in the realm of “What If”.

            I’m sure Eric Liddell played a round or two of the “What If” game as he was making his decision to not run the 100 meter.  Only he knows what he thought the various outcomes would be, but I would daresay he never imagined it would end up like it did.

            The ‘Flying Scot’ chose the reality of putting God before his running and the sacrifice ended up being far less than the reward.

            How about we play one round of  “What If” right now and you fill in the blank.  What if I (insert your name) __________ put God before __________ (choose something of value to you)?  Would you be willing to sacrifice all that is important to you for Him?

Nip and Tuck

            The wonders of modern medicine never cease to amaze, neither does the depth of human vanity.  The combination of the two has turned into a booming business in which anything we want nipped, tucked, tweaked, or enhanced is medically possible.  It is literally possible with the right amount of money or the right insurance to transform oneself into someone else.  Gone are the days of merely dressing like a favorite celebrity, now one can actually have someone else’s nose or cheeks or even their whole face.  Nothing is sacred in the universe of plastic surgery, whatever identity we desire to portray on the outside can come true. 

            Few of us would argue there have been many good things that have resulted from cosmetic surgery.  Every now and then stories emerge of individuals whose lives have been riddled with ridicule and abuse because of physical appearance who are set free from their prison by the masterful hand of a surgeon.  And yet moderation does not appear to be the soup du jour when it comes to cosmetics.

            The world of cosmetic surgery is really kind of like a parable for the rest of our lives.  We live among a people who have mastered the art of portraying one thing on the outside while being something entirely different on the inside.  Walk into any retail establishment and pass by an acquaintance and the likely dialogue that ensues will reflect something of the following.  “Hi so and so, how are things going?”  “Just fine, and you.”  “Oh, just fine.”  All the while we slap on a smile and a happy voice to finish off the masquerade.  ‘Good’ and ‘fine’ are words that are vanilla enough that we can get away with saying them regardless of how things are really going. 

            I’m not advocating that every person we pass in the grocery store who says ‘hello’ should receive a dump truck load of our troubles or that we even need to provide full disclosure of our life and times to every person we call ‘friend.’  But is that really the issue at hand?  There are those who struggle more with knowing when to hold their tongue and not verbally vomit all over those around them but I would dare say that is not the diagnosis for most of us.  Most of us are master cosmetic surgeons who have skillfully crafted an external shell that reveals to the outside world exactly what we want them to see in order to subtly manipulate their perception of who we want them to think we are.  Is that a mouthful or what?  The bottom line is we want everyone to think we have got it all together when in reality there is not one of us on the planet who can concede that claim to fame.  It’s almost humorous when you think about the fact that deep down inside we know that no one really has it all together and yet we still find ourselves regularly stepping into our super suit in hopes that our secret identity will be protected and our façade will hold up for just one more day, for everyone including ourselves.

            The moral is that in the end we end up, in the words of the musical artists Casting Crowns “Happy plastic people…with walls around our weakness and smiles to hide our pain,” and the cruel joke is on us because everyone will see right through our veneer in the end.  Maybe we’re not as good at cosmetic surgery as we originally believed.  Even if we do happen to be masters of disguise and end up fooling everyone around us we still end up the most pitied of all, stuck in a prison of our own making whose walls get thicker and thicker with each passing day of successful deception to the point that even we can no longer discern fantasy from reality.  Maybe it’s time we start concerning ourselves more with the real us and the nipping, tucking, tweaking and enhancing of the heart and quit expending such massive amounts of effort on a false front that will sag with age and leave us nothing more than a plastic replica of someone or something else who is nothing more than a plastic replica of someone or something else, who is nothing more than a plastic replica of someone or something else, who is…I think you get the point.

Journeys & Destinations

This was originally written specifically for the church I pastor but thought is might be helpful for all of us.  So I figured I’d share.

I had the privilege of hiking through Clifton Gorge earlier this week.  For those of you who have been there I’m sure you agree that it is a privilege, and with the foliage changing color it is nothing short of breathtaking.  We were all lighthearted as we started our little hike and the kids were joking around and laughing so in the spirit of things I jokingly said to Mackenzie and Ethan that there was no laughing or smiling allowed because we weren’t here to enjoy ourselves but to get this hike over with so we could say we did it and move on to our next destination.  Of course Mackenzie rolled her eyes because sclifton gorgehe knew I was kidding and just kept right on having fun, we all did. 

As we were driving home I was thinking about how much fun we had and remembered my sarcastic comment to the kids.  It got me thinking about how often we approach life with that mindset.  We focus so hard on the just getting things done and reaching the destination that we fail to see the joy of the journey.  We completely ignore the privilege of being right where we are at and how breathtaking God’s handiwork is all around us.  Being a goal setter I don’t want you to think I am saying that we settle in and don’t seek to move forward, we have to keep moving forward, but we also have to remember that, quite often, the destination isn’t nearly as sweet if we’re miserable when we get there. 

I hope you have been enjoying the journey here at MorningStar as much as I have.  It is such a privilege to be a part of this fellowship and sharing life together.  Your stories and your passion have taken my breath away countless times over the last several months.  And I’ve heard those stories and shared that passion as we’ve been journeying to our destination of being a multi-generational church that simply and clearly communicates the unchanging gospel in the ever changing culture around us.  I hope you are just as committed as I am to reaching that destination but I also hope that are having just as much fun getting there as I am.

Whose idea was it to make bumper cars dodge ’ems?

            There used to be a ride at fairs and in amusements parks that was a little boys dream.  It was the bumper cars.  For most boys between the ages of three and ten you couldn’t get much better than the bumper cars.  This little ride gave young boys not only the opportunity to drive but also the opportunity to drive into other cars, and not just any car but cars that contained siblings and parents.  For many little boys bumper cars were five minutes of pure delight.  Where else could a boy who didn’t possess a driver’s license jump in a car by himself grab hold of the wheel, press down on the accelerator, feel the freedom of the wind whipping through his hair and then slam into the car containing his little sister broadside, without being concerned about getting in any kind of trouble?   For a boy bumper cars were sheer genius.

081107_bumper_cars            Scientific and technological advances have done much to improve our society.  I remember when I was a kid my parents would just plop me in the backseat of their VW bug and then halfway to our destination I would crawl over the back of the seat and curl up in the trunk compartment for a nap.  There’s safety for ya.  Today, when our family heads out to get groceries we strap our little son in tighter than an F-15 fighter pilot for the half mile trip.  So, advances in safety have brought us a long way and improved many things, but the day that someone began to dabble in the realm of bumper cars was a sad, sad day for boys all across the globe.  It must have been a disgruntled sister somewhere, with a mild case of whiplash that made the suggestion that bumper cars needed a ‘facelift’.  Most boys at the time would not have called it a facelift but something more like stripping bumper cars of everything sacred, holy and, well, fun.  And so it happened, amusement parks and fairs all over the land took down their bumper car signs and replaced them with the dreaded dodge ‘em sign.  At the sight some applauded but many groaned.

            When the signs were changed nothing really changed about bumper cars other than the focus.  The cars were still the same, the arena was still the same but instead of having the freedom to drive wherever you wanted into whomever you wanted now all drivers were encouraged to do their best to dodge the other cars driving around the arena.  And for those who had the opportunity to enjoy the thrill and excitement of bumper cars the thought going through our minds was someone has clearly missed the point of bumper cars by changing them to dodge ‘ems.

            Many of us sit in church each year and celebrate what is traditionally known as Palm Sunday.  We celebrate and remember the triumphal entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem at the beginning of the final week of His life.  We remember the joyous crowds and the celebration that ensued as His procession entered into the city.  And in remembering this time we have our own celebrations I’m sure. 

            But what is interesting to note about the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem is that while the crowds were shouting, celebrating and filled with excitement, Jesus wept.  He didn’t just cry a tear or two.  These are not tears of joy from someone who has just been crowned with a great honor, no, Jesus tears are tears of lament.  Jesus is openly wailing.  He is broken hearted and crying out in mourning with just as much fervency as the crowd is crying out with fervent excitement.  Why?

            Because Jesus was thinking bumper cars while the crowd was thinking dodge ‘em.  The crowd was looking to Jesus to bring immediate peace through the overthrow of an oppressive empire while Jesus was intent on bringing true peace through the overthrow of the oppression of sin.  Jesus knew that nothing, not military might, peace marches, worldwide disarmament, education, or social advances could bring lasting peace.  He knew that the only thing that could bring true internal and eternal peace in the midst of even the greatest chaos, confusion and strife was a restored relationship with God on his terms.  The crowds at the triumphal entry missed this and just a few days later had deserted Jesus and some even joined in the cries of,  “Crucify Him”.  Let’s learn from their shallow worship and come to God on His terms of peace and experience the true and lasting peace with Him He so desires for us.  He’s playing bumper cars, are you?

From Heaven to Hell

            I was twelve when I first got to experience the wonders of Walt Disney World.  Like most children I was enthralled by the whole experience.  And like most kids, Epcot was not my favorite stop of the whole encounter.  But there was one place at Epcot which so captivated me that I got lost there, both figuratively and literally.  The place was the Imagination Station complete with a dragon by the name of Figment as my ‘personal’ tour guide.  As a young boy in the early 80’s I literally thought I had died and gone to heaven wandering through the Imagination Station tinkering with all the gadgets, gizmos and games filling the building.  If this wasn’t paradise then I didn’t want to know what was.

            As I wandered through this fantasy land I lost all track of time.  It could have been just a few minutes before I was jolted back to reality or could have literally been hours for all I know, but my journey to paradise was rudely interrupted when I realized that there were no familiar faces anywhere in sight.  At first this wasn’t all that big a deal because I figured I had just wandered in a different direction than the rest of my family.  I was certain I would see a glimpse of Mom, Dad or my sister coming around some corner at any minute.  Imagination Station was big but it wasn’t that big.  I had been taught that if I ever got separated from my family to stay put and they would come find me.  So that is exactly what I did, but as the minutes stretched into over an hour and still I saw no sign of a familiar face anywhere this place that I had, just a short time ago, dreaded the thought of leaving was quickly becoming a place which I dreaded the thought of staying in.   With each passing minute what was once a paradise became a prison. 

            What amazes me most about this whole experience is the fact that something which one moment seemed like heaven to me could so quickly transform into a living hell.  When I entered Imagination Station my thoughts were filled with images of fascination, fantasy and joy, but with the realization that my family was nowhere to be found my thoughts shifted to terror over being alone, a stranger in a strange land.  I no longer saw all the gadgets, gizmos and games.  The lights no longer looked inviting and cool.  And I no longer shared in the laughter and joy of those who were still immersed in the paradise I once knew.  Now all I could think about was getting back what I had lost.  But even that hope was clouded by uncertainty.  What if my family had purposely left me?  What if this was all a big plan they had laid to leave the ugly duckling in Florida to fend for himself while the rest of the family lived happily ever after back in the hills of Pennsylvania.  It’s funny the irrational thoughts that go through your head in times of crisis and turmoil isn’t it?  Yet, when I was just on the edge of the breaking point, in walked my father with a look of concern hidden behind his patent smile and I got to share in the happily ever after with the rest of my family back in the hills of Pennsylvania.

            I wonder how many of us have had a similar experience.  We find ourselves in a place in our lives in which we think something like, “If this isn’t paradise then I don’t want to know what is,” only to have something rudely interrupt our paradise experience and turn into something more akin to a living hell.  That’s exactly what sin does with the good things God has created for us to enjoy.  The only thing that changed in my experience at the Imagination Station was the disappearance of my family.  The surroundings were still the same.  The paradise was still there, but without the presence of my parents it was no longer a paradise.  Sin removes the presence of our heavenly Father from the situation and leaves us all alone.  The surroundings are still the same, the paradise is still there but without the presence of our heavenly Father the paradise can be nothing more than a prison.