Mashed Potato Sundae

I have a sweet tooth for ice cream. All it takes is a stroll through the ice cream aisle at the grocery store or a Dairy Queen commercial and all my defenses collapse. But several years ago I had a horrible ice cream experience that nearly changed my love for the arctic dairy treat forever.
Some friends of mine knew of my love for the cool creamy stuff and thought it would be funny to play a practical joke on me. They built the most beautiful caramel sundae the world has ever seen. OK, so that’s a little of an exaggeration, but you must picture in your mind a pretty doggone good lookin’ sundae. Just one look at the finished product made my glands jump into overdrive. So with spoon in hand, bib around my neck and my friends gathered round, I prepared myself for my journey to ice cream heaven.
I dug my spoon into the creamy caramel creation, pulled out the biggest scoop I thought my mouth could handle and thrust the spoonful into my mouth. I was instantly thrown into a state of confusion. Instead of finding myself on the Rocky Road to heaven, I was on a Mississippi Mudslide of misery. My taste-buds were expecting the cool, sweet, creamy flavors of an ice cream sundae but instead they were greeted with the warm, bland, pastiness of mashed potatoes and gravy.
I have nothing against mashed potatoes and gravy, but when one is expecting a caramel sundae I don’t know that anything could taste worse. Mashed potatoes and gravy may be able to be doctored to look like a real sundae but with the first taste there is no denying the combination is a counterfeit – just a poor reproduction of the real thing.
The joke, for my friends, was in the fact that they knew I was going to recognize the counterfeit just a little too late. Imagine the shock that would have ensued if, upon that first bite, I had really believed I was eating a caramel sundae and continued digging in, commenting on how cool and sweet and creamy the sundae was. The joke would have still been on me, but my friends may have brought my sanity, or at least my definition of a caramel ice cream sundae, into question.
Most of us would agree that humanity’s general orientation is toward ourselves. Whether it is conversations between parents and children or the advertising industry and the talk show circuit the connecting mantra is something akin to, “You’re worth it,” or “You deserve it.” Peruse the aisles of any bookstore and notice the growing self-help section. We want to feel good about ourselves and unlock our inner power, thereby contributing to the betterment of this giant blueberry. Then hopefully, we’ll be remembered for a generation or two as a good person. We even go so far as to scientifically prove that we are justified in focusing on ourselves because of the evolutionary processes that have put us atop the food chain. We are a people who are generally oriented toward ourselves.
Yet in the end all of this sounds about as pathetic as calling mashed potatoes and gravy a caramel sundae. And the truth is, it doesn’t settle all that well in our souls. We know this isn’t the real deal, but we’ve done our best to convince ourselves and everyone around us that it is as real as it’s going to get. And as long as the propaganda keeps playing in our ears, well, then it must be true. All the while we wonder why, if this is as real as it gets, all the pieces just don’t seem to fit together to make much sense. From marriages, to parenting, to worldwide peace it feels like we’re trying to fit square pegs in round holes.
Perhaps a shift in orientation is in order. Perhaps if we oriented ourselves toward God rather than ourselves we may find the pieces fitting together like they are meant to, not necessarily like we think they should, but like they are supposed to. And then suddenly when we sit down for that caramel sundae and put the first scoop in our mouth we would actually feel the rush of an arctic treat rather than some sculpted potato substitute. You can keep pretending the spuds are the real thing, me, I’m gonna get back to the real thing.

Something Old, Something New teaching series

This mini-series will look at two passages from the book of Matthew in which Jesus addresses the relationship between the old and the new.  As we dig into these two parables of Jesus we will gain valuable insight about our attitude to both the new and the old.  Audio and outlines of these two messages can be found by clicking on the following link,  http://www.morningstardayton.org/resources/audio/series/info/something-old-something-new

Life: Meaning and Mystery

As a child I was fascinated by the television show, In Search Of. The show was hosted by the man who played Spock on the science fiction series, Star Trek, Leonard Nimoy. Each episode of In Search Of centered around Nimoy’s pursuit to uncover some mystery of life in a thirty minute show with enough time reserved for several commercials from the sponsors. These mysteries of life covered everything from the resting place of Noah’s Ark and the location of the tomb of Jesus to aliens, ufo’s and haunted houses. The show always fascinated me because in my childhood naivety I believed that Leonard Nimoy was the smartest guy in the world. How else could one explain his amazing ability to overcome every obstacle and provide all the answers the whole world was looking for? Sadly, my bubble has since been broken when I was informed that a whole team of people fed Spock his information. I must admit I was nothing short of crushed when this information first came to me.
Even though Leonard Nimoy may not have been the superhero I thought he was there is one thing he taught me that is absolutely certain, life is full of mysteries. Spock unveiled several mysteries for me, but there are still many questions which have been left unanswered. And there is one mystery which In Search Of never even sought to tackle. A mystery that has plagued the minds of mankind for centuries and though many have claimed to have solved the mystery still the search goes on generation after generation by a new batch of pioneers. It is the mystery of the meaning of life. What exactly is the meaning of life? How exactly do we find meaning in life? Is there really a purpose for our existence on this giant blueberry or are we simply just a product of an evolutionary process doing nothing more than existing, surviving and evolving?
Several thousand years ago the quest to answer some of life’s most pressing questions was tackled by a man who had all the resources necessary to perform an exhaustive search for the answer to this question. He had the brains; you could actually say he had been given a dose of divine wisdom. He had the money; if we were to transfer his assets into today’s standards it would be safe to say his wealth would dwarf that of Donald Trump or the Rockefellers. He had the connections; his friends consisted of queens, kings, princes, philosophers and the like from all across the known world. And he had the time; what else does someone who has a servant for every task do? He wasn’t limited by anything or anyone as he set out on his quest. And so he searched everything under the sun.
His conclusion at the end of his search may shock and/or annoy you. After this exhaustive search he emphatically proclaimed that everything is meaningless. How’s that for a show that will bring some high ratings to the network? Somehow I don’t think that’s exactly what we want to hear. His basic conclusion is as follows, “You want to know the meaning behind your existence, there is none.” He is not seeking to be overly pessimistic or sarcastic with this answer, simply realistic. If we can grab hold of this reality – that if the depth of our pursuit of meaning goes not deeper than trying to find our meaning in the monotonous repetition of the daily grind of work, or the futility of seeking to leave a legacy, or the pursuit wisdom gained through experience – then we will end up living a meaningless existence trapped in the monotonous drone of life as it ticks past us one second at a time.
Nothing satisfies. In his quest nothing that our seeker saw, discovered, attempted, produced, initiated, or concluded in his lengthy search brought lasting significance or personal satisfaction.
But his search didn’t go beyond this finite earthly existence. The search was conducted as if there was or is no God. If we live as though that is the case, true or not, then our lives are nothing but a monotonous repetition of complete meaninglessness.
I have no doubt many reading this are really pursuing being good people, trying to make the most of life and trying to find meaning in anything but God. You may look good, you may be very smart, and have great potential. You’re hoping there is a real light at the end of the tunnel. You may even keep telling yourself that it is life and happiness you’re pursuing, all the while ignoring the voice in the back of your head that keeps whispering yours is an effort in futility. As long as you keep your search earthbound you will find nothing but meaninglessness and monotony. The only way you will find meaning in life is in looking beyond this finite earthly existence to the Author of life. His name is Jesus Christ and He wants to bring meaning to your life. He says, “I have come that you may have life and have it abundantly.” How can he make that promise? Because He is, “the way – to find meaning, the truth – that reveals true meaning, and the life -we’ve all been looking for, no one comes to the Father except through Him.” Why would we want access to the Father? He is the Author of life. Not only did He create the heavens and the earth but He also created all of mankind in His image. It is through a relationship with Him, the one who made us, that we unlock the mystery of meaning in life. Without that relationship everything is nothing more than an exercise of futility.

Beyond My Control

            The older I get the more and more I realize there are many things in life that are beyond my control.  Yet, I find myself trying on a regular basis to control many of them.  What I have also realized is this is a phenomenon that is shared by many of my fellow human beings.

            Take time for example.  We have zero control of time – nada.  I have yet to find an individual who has mastered the ability of slowing down, speeding up, rewinding or pausing time.  Though there have been movies and books that grant characters these special abilities the last time I checked all those movies fell under the classification of fiction and fantasy.  I have yet to see one that begins with the words, “based on a true story.”  There are those who would like us to believe they are living a true story in which they have slowed or stopped time through the wonders of cosmetic surgery. In reality all they have done is effectively masked the certainty we all face that time is no respecter of persons.

            Though all have at least a subconscious knowledge of the vainness of seeking to control time we still expend amazing amounts of energy on this effort in futility.  Year after year we chase after the proverbial fountain of youth, seeking immortality.  Why?  In large part because we want to live forever, we don’t want to see time run out on us.  We want to cheat death, beat death, laugh in the face of the Grim Reaper as he stands before us totally impotent. 

Imagine for just a moment the implications if someone did actually come up with a marketable way for people to control time?  What a precious gift for the family member who never got to say goodbye or reconcile with a loved one who passed away unexpectedly.  And how beneficial would it be for someone in danger to simply pause time in order to steer clear of the danger about to ensue.  This would be a great military weapon especially when our special forces find themselves hot on the trail of known terrorists who seemingly continue to slip through their grasp.  But not all the implications are good ones.  For every good result we can cite there are a handful of bad ones as well.  This epic struggle is what good movie plots are made of, keeping powerful tools meant for good out of the hands of evil tyrants with an insatiable lust for power, destruction and control.

Regardless of what we may see played out at the local movie theater and on our home entertainment centers there always has and always will be certain things outside the realm of our ability to control and time is just one of them.  Like it or not there are aspects of this life we live in which we are the drowning victim bobbing in the middle of the ocean in need of a rescuer to throw us a line.  It doesn’t matter how hard we try or how much effort we expend because all that will ultimately result from our efforts is a tired victim bobbing in the middle of the ocean hoping and praying ever more frantically for any sign of a rescuer on the horizon.  It wouldn’t matter if you were an endurance swimmer, a lifeguard, or the person with the longest running lucky streak in history, we find ourselves on equal footing when we’re alone hundreds of miles from a shoreline.  A hope for timely help is the only thing we have.

            As I’ve aged I would like to think I have become wiser, and as I ponder these things beyond my control I realize that instead of trying to shape reality to how I think it should be I should be living within reality as it is.  If I’m bobbing in the middle of the ocean it doesn’t matter how much I believe I am living a different reality, unless a rescuer shows up I am sunk.  I can think I’m on a tropical beach basking in the noonday sun all I want but in the end all I end up with is an empty fantasy.  The good news is there is a rescuer on the horizon who throws a lifeline to all who stop trying to control and shape their own reality and send out an SOS asking for His help.  The question is will we stop thrashing around and trying to save ourselves or will be accept reality and cry out for His help?

Under Control

I’m reading a book right now by Ravi Zacharias, The Grand Weaver.  He recounts the building of the ark by Noah, highlighting how God was so particular with the details of how it should be built.  God provided specifications for particular materials and exact measurements but there were two critical things left out; a sail and a rudder.  Imagine building a boat that big then being in the middle of catastrophic conditions with no means of controlling the boat.  God made it imperative that in the design of the ark Noah be willing to trust Him.

God has a way of doing that doesn’t He?  Abraham was sent on a journey without a map or even a destination, Joseph reached his childhood God-dreams through a lifetime of nightmarish circumstances, and Gideon was sent into battle with a handful of rookie recruits against a veteran legion of mercenaries.  So many accounts from Scripture and my own life affirm what Zacharias observes, “God has made it imperative in the design of life that we become willing to trust beyond ourselves.”  I would add God delights in this.  Yes, I said delights.

Quite often I think we struggle to see the delight in it as God does.  We tend to think things would be better if we were in control.  If we had the map, the steering wheel, the last say then everything would be, well…better – in my (insert your own name) humble opinion.  But it also means the loss of faith, which means the loss of hope and feeling continually crushed under the weight of a world full of pain and suffering. 

God has designed us and delights when we live by faith, when we “trust in the LORD with all [our] heart, and do not lean on [our] own understanding.”  The blessed life is trusting the One who knows more than we do and is good – though He isn’t safe.  So how are you doing?  Are you asking God to include a sail and rudder or are you just building as He’s told you and leaving the control to Him?

Afraid?

I shared this poem John Stam, martryed missionary, shared with his father in a letter shortly before his martyrdom.  Since college this poem has had a powerful impact on my life, praying it may do the same for some others.

Afraid?

Afraid?  Of what?

To feel the spirit’s glad release?

To pass from pain to perfect peace,

The strife and strain of life to cease?

Afraid—of that?

Afraid?  Of what?

Afraid to see the Savior’s face,

To hear His welcome, and to trace

The glory gleam from wounds of grace?

Afraid—of that?

Afraid?  Of what?

A flash—a crash—a pierced heart;

Darkness—Light—O Heaven’s art?

A wound of His a counterpart!

Afraid?—of that?

Afraid?  Of what?

To do by death what life could not—

Baptize with blood a stony plot,

Till souls shall blossom from the spot?

Afraid?—of that?

Firmly Resolved

I came across an inspiring story of a young woman who took a stand for her faith in Jesus Christ. This story did not originate from some foreign country in which individuals must hide their relationship with Jesus Christ behind closed doors and it is not a story from centuries past. This story took place just a few years ago right here in the United States of America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, and let me say that in my opinion the story of this young lady epitomizes both of the these values. Megan Chapman was a graduating high school senior at Russell County High School in Kentucky. At the outset of her senior year she had been elected to the chaplaincy of her class. This position had traditionally had the privilege of delivering a prayer at graduation but this year things looked as if they were going to turn out somewhat different. The Wednesday before the graduation proceedings the ACLU filed suit to stop the prayer, and on Friday morning a federal judge issued an order barring the high school from conducting prayer in conjunction with the graduation ceremonies. In this order Megan was actually specifically named as being barred from praying during the graduation. With graduation taking place on Friday night it appeared as though prayer had effectively been removed from yet another part of the fabric of America. Yet, while all these official court proceedings were taking place the senior class officers of the high school had met on Thursday and decided that Megan should not only deliver the prayer at graduation but she should also be the one to deliver a message to the graduating class and everyone present. This group of seniors was determined to have prayer as a part of their graduation so throughout the day on Thursday they had passed out bookmarks containing the Lord’s Prayer, not fully aware of what would take place on Friday. With the realization that her name was specifically sited in a federal lawsuit I can only imagine the incredible pressure that Megan must have been facing. With just hours until graduation she had a critical decision to make, would she stand for Christ in spite of these circumstances and possibly face federal charges or would she comply with the court order and keep silent about her faith in Christ? I’ve asked myself multiple times since reading of Megan’s account what I would have done, though I can’t be one hundred percent certain my prayer is that I would have done the same thing she did. Just three hours before the graduation ceremonies were to take place Megan was contacted by a group of evangelical lawyers who informed her that the court order could only prevent her from praying and not from sharing her personal testimony or a religious message. So Megan prepared to take her stand. With 3,000 in attendance the senior class of nearly 200 students opened up the ceremonies by all standing together and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Before the students could even conclude the prayer the entire high school gymnasium was enveloped in applause. This was followed up by Megan stepping up to the podium. She had brought a poem with her to the podium but felt as though God was leading her to share a message instead. The message included her personal testimony of her faith in Jesus Christ, her confidence in the peace and guidance of Christ and a desire that everyone present would know Christ as she knows him. There were several instances during Megan’s message in which she was interrupted by applause and cheering as the crowd displayed their support of her decision. I thank God that most of us have not had to face such adversity as followers of Christ, but I also know that God’s Word tells those of us who are followers of Christ that we should be ready for such adversity and expect it. If you were faced with a similar choice with similar severe consequences potentially facing you how do you think you would respond? Would you respond as Megan did and stand boldly for your faith in the midst of adversity or would you quietly give in to the pressure and remain silent about the one who gave everything that you might have life? My prayer is the Megan’s story encourages each of us to have faith in God that there is no adversity too severe that He cannot carry us through and turn such situations into opportunities to proclaim His great message of salvation.

Fear

            Fear is one of the most powerful influences driving our lives, and to varying degrees we all stare it down on a regular basis.  It is an influence that both draws and repels us.  We hate the fact that we are fearful and try to avoid those things which send a chill down our spine and cause us to freeze like a deer in the headlights, but at the same time we are almost hypnotically drawn to those things that strike fear in our hearts as though there is some hauntingly attractive quality about them.  It is almost as if we are puppets and fear is holding the strings, pushing away and drawing us back at its own demented impulse, and to varying degrees we find it painfully enjoyable.

            Fear is the thing that drives much of the amusement industry.  These puppet masters expend immense amounts of brain power and financial capital to perfect the art of pushing human beings just beyond the boundaries of their fear threshold.  Then we pay them for entrance into these ‘amusement’ parks just so they can take us to the brink, and we walk away calling that fun, further cementing our demented relationship with fear. 

            The same is true of several of the movie and television genres of the day.  Whether it be a ‘thriller’, ‘suspense’, or ‘horror’ puppet masters are once again sent to task with the goal of weaving a yarn that will take movie goers or couch potatoes just beyond the limits of their fears with the purpose of the audience walking away feeling entertained possessing what could almost be labeled a sense of satisfaction for sitting through the entire experience.

            Of course, these are controlled environments that give us a sense of power over our fears, a fact we must not overlook.  We are fine with our fears as long as we feel as though we are in control of the puppet strings, because then there is no overwhelming sense of imminent danger for us.   But what about those things we can’t control?

            Fear of the flu seems to grow each year since the outbreak of the avian flu just a few years ago and now with the H1N1 strain this year.  People wear medical masks and governments are hard at work on possible vaccines for fear that at any time the threat could become an epidemic if we human beings did not stay one step ahead.  Responses to such things vary.  Many are forced to face a fear that is beyond their control along with the questions in their lives they may not be ready to answer, so anxiety heightens.  Others just laugh and sweep such threats under the rug.

            The current instability in the Middle East and other parts of the world has stirred up chilling fears in many that rival those that suffocated many during the days of the Cold War.  Once again the threat of nuclear war is wreaking its havoc. 

            Still a greater fear, on a national level was stirred nearly a decade ago on the fateful day in September, 2001.  The reality that terrorism could invade our borders, hit many with a crippling force that has left many fearful to this day.  And though all were not crippled by fear all were impacted.  Thankfully, the fear drove many people to action, but even this action has at its roots fear, the fear that if something wasn’t done the same thing could happen again. 

            On a regular basis each of us is faced with situations and realities that force us to stare down our fears to varying degrees.  We are continually reminded that regardless of the marvels of medicine, we all must face our finiteness.  And ultimately, most fears we face find this reality as the source of their power.  They remind us we are not invincible, we are breakable and one day the system is going to shut down.  It may be in our sleep or while we are awake.  It may be long and painful or it may be short and painless, but we all will face the reality one day. 

            Jesus was keenly aware of the crippling power of fear in our lives.  It was something for which He wanted us to have the right perspective.  His comments concerning fear are both a source of contemplation and, for those who know Christ, a source of comfort.  He gives us valuable insight into the proper handling of fear when He says, “do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  Rather, fear Him who can kill both soul and body in hell.”  God is not a puppet master seeking to profit from our fears, but the reality is that our Creator desires a relationship with us that only comes through a right relationship with Jesus Christ.  And if that is a relationship you are missing then all other fears in your life are child’s play.

Information Overload

Have you noticed how we analyze everything?  You can go on the internet, pick up any newspaper or switch on the radio or TV and inevitably you will find someone analyzing something.  Whether you are interested in an analysis of something as significant as the inner workings of the human heart or as insignificant as the evolution of the Oscar Meyer Wienie Whistle, if you look long enough and hard enough you will find the information you are looking for and then some.  It is nothing short of an understatement to say that we live in a culture that is running on information overload. 

            Even as I write this I recognize how much I am a victim of this very thing.  As a matter of fact, the whole reason I’m writing about our bent toward analysis is because of a recent incident in my life.  Not too long ago I turned on my computer and decided that I would check out the results of the NFL draft.  All I wanted to see were the results, but as I jumped on the web I was instantly sucked in to the editorials of multiple sports analysts who had already rated the draft according to various criteria complete with complex grading systems.  Before I knew it I found myself reading column after column on which teams made out the best, which teams missed their opportunities, which players would shine and which players would flop.  What started out as the innocent desire of a sports fan turned into a mind numbing experience of over analysis.  I realize I have no one to blame for this but myself and I feel like at this point I should be saying, “Hello, my name is Mark Simpson and I am an information junkie.” 

            As mind numbing as my experience was it really is a window into the heart of our society.  We are driven by information and analysis.  We want to know and understand everything around us.  Though I could give a variety of opinions as to why this is the case they would be nothing more than opinions.  But what I know for certain is that information flies through our lives at a speed faster than light.  The information on the internet is changing by the hour and sometimes by the minute, a barrage of books are published each day and hit the shelves of bookstores worldwide both virtual and actual, entire networks have been created for radio and television that are devoted to the news and analysis of newsworthy events and newspapers are printed weekly and even daily all in an effort to keep us up to date and informed.  And the thing that drives all of these mediums is the fact that we keep listening, watching and buying. 

              Now those of you who happen to be sharper than the average bear are probably saying to yourself, “Wait a minute Mark, you’re guilty of the very thing you are talking about, right here in this article and every week you write.”  And to that I would have to concede.  I am not only a victim of information overload I am also a contributor.  Once again I feel like I should be saying, “Hi, my name is Mark Simpson…”  But my point here is not that this steady stream of new information and analysis is all bad.  Were it not for our innate desire to know and understand we would still be in the dark about how to treat many of the illnesses for which we now have vaccines and simple cures and that is just one of a multitude of things that have resulted from our pursuit of knowledge.    

            My point is, there are some things we cannot fully know no matter how much information comes down the pipe.  What struck me most this morning as I found myself in the vortex of information overload is that when it comes to God there will never be an over analysis.  We could spend an infinite number of lifetimes solely gathering information and analyzing God and we would only scratch the surface.  Knowing God is not about gathering all the facts, analyzing them and giving them a grade like a sports analyst.  Knowing God is about faith; the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.  Waiting for the verdict to in come about God is an exercise in futility.  Because no matter how much we think we know about God there will always be more we don’t know.  Though information is a beneficial and important element in coming to and knowing God, faith is, and will always be the critical element.