We recently celebrated the baptizing of a dozen people at our church in Mexico. After each person was immersed the praise team burst forth in a song, leading the congregation in the celebration of that person’s baptism. It was a joyous time.
The main focus of everyone there was, of course, on the folks being baptized and the two church leaders doing the baptizing. Something else caught my eye, however. There, next to the baptism tank, were a husband and wife mopping up the water that dripped from each baptized person as they emerged from the tank. After finishing mopping up the water of the last person who had emerged from the tank they had a few moments of a break to watch the next individual being baptized. Then, back to mopping up the water that dripped from the newly emerged baptized person.
It occurred to me that the husband and wife mop team were as much a part of the baptisms as were those being baptized and those doing the baptizing. The water needed mopping up, otherwise someone might fall and break a bone or crack a head in a fall. Theirs was a crucial role.
It was not lost on me that the moppers were expressing an incredibly important characteristic of what a great human being is to be like, what a disciple of Jesus should exhibit, and that was servanthood. Jesus made it clear by His own example and by His teaching that the highest position we can attain is that of serving others, and thereby serving God.
Most cultures hold to the view that the high and mighty have others serve them. The counter-cultural view that Jesus lived and taught is that those who serve are really the high and mighty ones!
We’re all given plenty of opportunities to serve others. Much of the time we prefer to pass up such opportunities! Serving others usually means personal sacrifice, not very pleasant or enjoyable.
The irony is that if we consistently resist opportunities to serve the needs of others, thinking first of all as to what is best for us, we end up feeling quite miserable. “But what about my needs?” we ask. True, our needs need meeting too. There’s a place in relationships to serve the other person by letting them know they’re being selfish and/or insensitive to our needs, but such times are more rare than we care to admit. Most of the time, in most situations, the best way to relate to others is to have a servant’s heart. Seeking to be a blessing to others more often than not is a blessing that boomerangs!
I talked to the couple with the mops after the baptisms, after their mopping was done. They seemed quite happy with how the baptisms went. I think they’re on to something!
“Serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13b)
Wind-up toys have been around since the 1880s when they first became popular and were mass produced. Usually made out of tin, iron, or some other metal, they had a wind-up key that turned a clockwork-type spring tight inside the toy. When the spring slowly unwound it ran a series of gears that produced the toy designer’s intended motion for the toy. Both the introduction of plastic in toy production and the availability of economical alkaline batteries led to their decline in popularity, though there are still a considerable number of wind-up toys made of plastic.
I’m going to make a deep and profound theological statement here; we’re all wind-up toys! You won’t find this statement in any thick theological book, so just hear me out as to why I think it’s accurate to state that we’re all wind-up toys.
Picture yourself, everyone you know, and all the people you don’t know, as having a wind-up key protruding from the back between the shoulder blades. We’re all like the vintage metal wind-up toys in that we need winding up.
Imagine we can reach around behind ourselves and wind ourselves up. This is a lot of the advice of self-help books; reach around and pat yourself on the back and tell yourself how wonderful you are. It’s all up to you! Imagine a wind-up toy designed to reach its arms behind its back to wind itself up. It wouldn’t work; the energy it would take to wind itself up would take more energy than it has. It would have to be a perpetual motion machine, impossible because it would have to break one or two laws of thermodynamics.
Maybe the wind-up toys could wind each other up? It would give new meaning to the phrase, “I’ve got your back.” But again, the laws of thermodynamics would apply, and eventually all the toys would wind down.
There needs to be an outside source to wind up the toys, it’s the only way to keep the toys moving. The same principle (a theological principle, if you will) applies to us. The Divine Toy Maker has created us, wound us up with life, and keeps us wound up. Yes, there’s a place for self-motivation, winding ourselves up some. There’s certainly also a place for us to wind each other up with words of encouragement and by lending a hand. We do need to have each other’s back. But the human race is more than a closed environment of wind-up people. We need an outside source, that which is beyond us, to keep us going!
Wind-up Toys R Us! In our going here, there, and back again, going through our daily motions of being human, we should never stray far from the Divine Toy Maker. He’s created us and can keep us going, making motions that matter!
“Look to the Lord and His strength; seek His face always.” (Psalm 105:4)
Judge Lou Olivera had a man, Joe Serna, appear before him in his court in North Carolina. Joe had previously been arrested for drunk driving. Part of the requirement of his probation was that he stay away from alcohol. He had violated his parole by lying about a urine test. Judge Olivera had little choice but to sentence him to a night in jail.
The judge knew that Joe had served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and earned two purple hearts for his bravery. He also was aware that while riding with three other soldiers their vehicle slid into a ditch filled with water. Unable to escape from the vehicle Joe felt the water rise to his waist, his chest, and then to his chin before it stopped. Joe was able to escape but has suffered from PTSD, Post-traumatic stress disorder, including claustrophobia. Judge Olivera had also served in the military and empathized with what Joe was dealing with.
When the jail cell door closed on Joe he immediately felt the walls starting to close in on him. Within minutes, the jail cell door opened again and in walked Judge Olivera with blanket, pillow, and food to spend the night with Joe. Joe later said they ate and talked well into the night. He said the jail cell walls seemed to disappear.
Judge Olivera had presided over Joe’s sentencing earlier that day from the transcendent position of his judge’s bench, but now the judge was very much present with Joe in the cell! This is how God is. He is transcendent, infinitely above and beyond us in all ways, but God is also immanent, very much present with us!
What has us confined, like a jail cell? What’s limiting what we feel life should be like? It could be health issues, hurting relationships, financial difficulties, employment issues, some kind of a deep and personal struggle, or something else. We may feel others don’t understand or can’t or won’t do anything to help. We can feel really alone as the walls of our world seem to be closing in.
The story of Judge Olivera joining Joe Serna in his cell can be our story of how the transcendent God who is way above and beyond us is also immanent and right here with us! Jesus’ parting words as He left earth to ascend to heaven were, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:20) We can personalize those words, letting Him speak to us, emphasizing a different word each time, reflecting on the nuanced difference…
On my morning walk I pass an orchard of small trees, probably avocado trees. I was recently startled to see that the entire orchard of trees had been pruned, severely pruned, in my opinion. There were just a few twigs remaining on each tree; what stood out were large branches that had been cut off two or three feet from the trunk. I’m sure the farmers know what they’re doing. I have no doubt that in a few months each of these stubby trees will have lots of branches and lots more leaves and, in time, lots of avocados, or whatever fruit they’re destined to produce.
Pruning is done to a lot of plants to make them more fruitful. The imagery of pruning was used by Jesus to illustrate a significant purpose God has for allowing pain, problems, and difficulties in our lives. His plant of choice in His illustration was the grapevine, very common to His listeners. Jesus said that He’s the vine and that God the Father is the vineyard keeper. Jesus also said that those of us who are willing to have a connection to Him are similar to grape branches being connected to the vine. One of the realities of this relationship is that we get pruned!
There’s avocado tree pruning, apple tree pruning, grapevine pruning, and people pruning. Supposedly plants don’t feel pain, but we people do. People pruning is painful!
Why does God allow for pain and problems in this world of His? It’s a complex issue. Timothy Keller writes, “We have become so confident in our powers of logic that if we cannot imagine any good reason that suffering exists, we assume there can’t be one.” One reason for sure, Jesus said, is that the difficulties we encounter in this world can help us live more fruitful, productive lives. I know, I know, I’m like you and would rather seek to be a better, more God-pleasing person as a result of good times. Realistically, however, this isn’t usually how it happens.
In a lifetime of pastoral ministry I’ve never had a person say to me, “I want to get closer to God because my cancer was cured and I just won the lottery.” Good times rarely bring us closer to God. On the other hand, I’ve observed many deciding to seek out God because of a serious medical diagnosis, financial difficulty, or a broken relationship. In my own life I know God has done a special work on me when I’ve faced situations I would have rather not had to face. As C. S. Lewis so eloquently put it, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains.”
This doesn’t mean we have to like the “pains” that come into our lives – that would mean we’re a glutton for punishment and that’s not normal! It does mean, however, that we can face the negative developments in life with the conviction that God has good that He wants to come out of it, including a better us!
The pruning of the trees I observed on my walk will result in their greater fruitfulness. The same can be true for us!
Jesus said, “…every branch that does bear fruit he[God the Father] prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.” (John 15:2b)
Our Florida home is about an hour and a half drive from Disney World. It’s a destination for many from the U.S. and also from around the world. Over 50 million make The Magic Kingdom, the happiest place on earth, their destination each year. It certainly is a great place to visit, but don’t expect your visit to be perfect. You’re dealing with Florida weather, which means it can be hot and muggy way beyond what’s comfortable, and depending on the time of year, can rain every afternoon. Be prepared for long lines and expensive food, too.
We’re always yearning to get away from the daily grind, wanting to experience something special, exciting, transcending the ordinary. That’s why we have such high hopes for a vacation, a wedding, a big party, a concert, a ball game, and the list goes on.
We yearn for a transcendent experience, but nothing seems to deliver completely. Special experiences may turn out special, pretty much as we planned, but not completely. We end up saying, or at least thinking, “It was great, but…” It’s not uncommon to reflect in the midst of a much anticipated experience, “Is this all there is?”
The search for a transcendent experience that will allow us to escape from the ordinariness of life or the pain of existence can lead to an abuse of alcohol, drugs, and sex (including pornography and explicit romance novels). They become an addiction to the pursuit of the transcendent that won’t be found going down any of these paths.
God, and God alone, is transcendent. He’s way beyond anything and everything that is or that we can imagine to be. We’ve been created by God to yearn for the transcendent, but that yearning can only be ultimately satisfied by God Himself.
It’s strange that we would ever find the study of God (called theology) to be boring or extended reflecting about Him to be uninteresting. Also strange is how our idea of an exciting heaven has more to do with enjoying our favorite activity there than experiencing God as never before. This certainly says a lot more about us than it does about God!
When we’re sick we often have a lack of appetite for foods that we normally find appealing, and certainly those that would be good for us. Could it be that our lack of spiritual health has resulted in a loss of a hunger for God? Perhaps a good prayer to pray would be something to the effect, “O, God, restore my soul to a healthier state so I’ll want my greatest satisfaction to be found in You.”
This world certainly has a lot of great experiences to be enjoyed, but they’re never going to be the ultimate transcendent experience. Only God can deliver that; only God is transcendent!
“Who is like the Lord our God, the One who sits enthroned on high, who stoops down to look on the heavens and the earth?” (Psalm 113:5-6)
Every morning I head out on my daily walk here in rural Mexico, taking the same path for the first part of the walk, then heading either left or right. I’ve walked this path for eight years, the six months of each year we’re here in Mexico. Last week, however, I noticed a barely discernible new path, a slight thinning of grass and weeds, that had gone undetected by me up until then. I followed it.
The faint path eventually joined a rustic two track lane suitable for the small trucks the local farmers use to haul their produce from the field. There were additional truck lanes branching off from this, each one explored by me during the following morning walks.
This fresh take on my morning walks got me to thinking, as a man now in his 70s, that I want to be intentional about continuing to take fresh approaches in my life during the remainder of my journey here on earth. I don’t want to be stuck in my ways, living in a rut! I’m thinking of the statement by Laurence J. Peter, “A rut is simply a grave with the ends knocked out.”
What might it look like to seek to step off the familiar paths we trek each day? For those of us who are married it could mean pleasantly surprising our mate in some way, doing something different together, or maybe reflecting on how we found each other delightful to be with when we first met and allowing that memory to flow into the present.
We have family, neighbors, friends, and others that are regular players in our daily drama of living each day. Is there some way we could inject some surprise, laughter, or gratitude into their day that we haven’t done for awhile, or maybe never?
When it comes to some of our everyday domestic duties we carry out, is there a way to see them or do them in a fresh way? We may not get excited about buying groceries, mowing the lawn, doing dishes, or whatever. But could we set a goal of offering a friendly greeting to a few people while we buy groceries, giving thanks to God that we have the strength to mow the lawn, or finding some other way to see something extraordinary in the ordinary?
How about how we relate to God? If we don’t pray regularly how about trying to do so? If we do pray regularly how about intentionally moving away from religious repetition and talking to Him in a fresh way? Are there some other ways we can move our relating to God from being such a bore to being such a blessing?
We all walk through life one day at a time. How about stepping off the familiar path once in a while?
“He [God, the Good Shepherd] refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake.” (Psalm 23:3)
While working on a project in my small shop at Refuge Ranch in Mexico, I often have a wannabe carpenter come alongside me, our 7 year old grandson Nicolas. He asks me for scraps of wood, hammer, and nails and then goes to work, pounding away. We have to share a hammer, so he often gets interrupted with his hammering when I need to hammer.
One time while I pounded away with my one and only hammer I glanced at Nicolas, who had become impatient at getting the hammer back and was attempting to pound in a nail using my tin snips. It wasn’t working well for him, and I was concerned he’d do damage to my tin snips. He has yet to develop the conviction that every tool has its purpose, and to try to use a tool for other than its intended purpose usually doesn’t end well.
It’s not a stretch to see the human enterprise as being a project of God’s in which He’s building His kingdom in His cosmic workshop with us as His tools. Like the tools in my humble workshop (and any workshop) we, as God’s tools, are each unique. Our problem is that we can easily become discontented with the way we are and envy others, and sometimes insist on trying to be the kind of tool God never intended us to be.
We have to come to the conviction that we are the right tool for God to use in the way He’s always had in mind to use us. It’s a struggle I’ve experienced in various areas, including the area of being a writer. I’ve been inspired by such word crafters as Max Lucado, A. W. Tozer, John Ortberg, Lloyd Ogilvie, Anne Lamott, and even the secular humorist Dave Barry. In fact, on more than one occasion I’ve said to my wife, “This article is a ‘Dave Barry’ type article.”
But, the fact is, I can never write exactly like Dave Barry or any of the other above mentioned writers. I remind myself regularly that I have to be the writer Dave Claassen. In fact, I don’t mind stating that I’m the best Dave Claassen writer there is! No brag, just fact. The same goes for you too. The truth is, you are the best at being you! No brag, just fact.
We can’t be like anyone else; God never intended us to be. Each of us is uniquely crafted to be used of God as His tool to carry out a specific part of building His Kingdom of God. This means there’s no reason for us to envy someone else, or to be prideful over someone else either, for that matter.
The analogy of the tools has its limitations. After all, tools have no say about being grasped and used by the craftsman, they’re inanimate objects. We have been animated by God and given unique potential to be used by Him. We’re to be His tool, and as His tool we just have to let Him get a good grip on us!
“[They] will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” 2 Timothy 2:21b
When Olympic champions are interviewed they almost always bring up the names of people who have helped them achieve their Olympic dream. Usually parents and coaches are at the top of the list. These people, they’ll frequently state in the interviews, believed in them. Imagine the emotions of the Olympiads’ parents and coaches listening to these interviews! Steve Farber, a motivational coach, writes, “None of us gets very far without someone who believes in us more than we believe in ourselves.”
All of us want our lives to count for something. We’d like to make a difference in this world, at least our little corner of it. It would be great if just a handful of people felt we meant a lot to them and were a significant part of their lives. The fact is, we ARE in a position to add value to the lives of those within our sphere of influence. A major way this happens is to believe in them!
In 1968 a study was done by psychologist Robert Rosenthal and school principal Lenore Jacobson. They gave teachers in Jacobson’s school a select list of students who, they were told, had done well on a previous intelligence test. What the teachers didn’t know was that the names had been selected at random and no such test had been given. Later on in the school year all the students were tested. Those on the select list that was given to the teachers did better, though they had been chosen at random. The teachers’ expectations of these students resulted in them actually doing better! Rosenthal also noted how the “feedback factor” played a role in the results of the study. When teachers believed in a student they gave more praise and positive feedback.
The idea that high expectations of someone often leads to improved performance is called the Pygmalion effect. The Pygmalion effect is named after the Greek mythological character Pygmalion. Pygmalion was a sculptor who created such a beautiful statue of a woman that he fell in love with it and his love caused the statue to come to life. People come to life when we believe in them!
I know, we all want others to believe in us too. But maybe, just maybe, we should forget about ourselves a little more and put more of a focus on believing in others. Believing in someone is one of the best ways to be a blessing to them, and we’re likely to find that the blessing boomerangs right back to us!
This is a tough, broken, harsh world. Everybody’s been beaten down. We don’t have to look very hard or far to find them, they’re our family, friends, neighbors, co-workers, and church family. What they need more than anything is for someone to believe in them. That someone can be you and me!
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” (The Apostle Paul writing to Christians in 1 Thessalonians 5:11)
I had the delight of designing our small house in Mexico. We wanted lots of windows to let in light and warmth from the sun. The house, like most homes in Mexico, has no central heat. The result is three skylights, high windows on the tallest east-facing wall. There are also a large window and sliding glass door on the east wall to let in the morning sun. The other large pieces of glass in the home are several mirrors into which we can look in order to make ourselves presentable beyond our front door.
It occurred to me that these three forms of glass in our home, the skylights, windows, and mirrors, can be seen as metaphors on how we should live life. The skylights reveal the upward view, the heavenly view: the sun, blue sky, clouds, moon, and stars. The windows reveal the horizontal view: the hills, trees, grass, and people beyond our house. The mirrors reveal a reflection of ourselves: hair, face, body, and expression.
The order in which I’ve listed the three types of glass in our home is intentional and in order of priority. This order is not of my own making but that of the book I’ve studied, preached, and written about for over 50 years, the Bible.
The skylight look, the upward look, the vertical look, toward God is most important. The first commandment the Bible lists, both in the Old Testament and by Jesus in the New Testament, is to love God with all we’ve got. Everything else tends to fall into place when you get first things first, and the first thing is a connection with God like we have with no one else or nothing else. Anything else in first place becomes an idol. Look up first!
The window look, the outward look, the horizontal look, toward others is next in importance. The second great commandment in the Bible is to love others, again, stated both in the Old Testament and by Jesus. What adds value to our own life is when we add value to the lives of those God’s put within our sphere of influence. This second commandment says to love others as we love ourselves, meaning we should watch out for the good of others like we most often do for ourselves, except even more so.
The mirror look, the reflecting look, toward ourselves is to be last in priority. This doesn’t mean we neglect our own needs, we aren’t much good to either God or others if we do. It’s just that we’re not to live self-focused, self-centered lives, always looking to see how things reflect on us.
This order of priorities is counter-cultural. The world around us, self-help books, and celebrity talk show hosts promote loving self first, loving others is usually second on the list, and God comes in a distant third, hardly getting mentioned at all (at best maybe some vague reference about spirituality).
Yes, our house has skylights, windows, and mirrors. Now you know the reason why I listed them in this order!
“‘Which commandment is the most important of all?’ Jesus answered, ‘The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.’” Mark 12:28b-31
It’s not uncommon to hear people say, “That’s old fashioned,” “We don’t want old ideas, we want new ideas,” or “That’s old school.” Such comments reveal our inclination to believe that old ideas are outdated and nearly useless.
The great Christian thinker and writer C. S. Lewis struggled for years before coming to belief in the Christian faith. Arthur W. Lindsley, Senior Fellow at the C. S. Lewis Institute, writes that Lewis wondered, “How could this ancient religion be relevant to my present setting?” Lindsley also writes, “This was one of the obstacles that C. S. Lewis had to overcome in order to come to faith in Christ. He dubs the problem as one of ‘chronological snobbery.’”
“That Old-Time Religion” was a gospel song that appeared around 1873. The lyrics, “Give me that old-time religion… it’s good enough for me,” have been sung by countless people and by such artists as Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton. But the fact that it’s an “old-time” religion seems to make the historic Christian faith less appealing to many, as it did at first for C. S. Lewis.
When you really think about it, though, there are many old ideas and ways of doing things that still hold up with the passing of time. Who hasn’t pondered the ancient pyramids of Egypt and asked, “How in the world did they build them?” Do we really think we are smarter than people generations ago? We’d be hard pressed to prove it.
C. S. Lewis, a scholar who taught English literature at both Oxford and Cambridge, eventually came to the conclusion that ancient writings were worth taking seriously, particularly the ancient Biblical texts. He became convinced that the Biblical texts taught ultimate truth.
As a preacher for about 40 years, I’m so glad I didn’t have to come up with a new idea each week for a sermon. In fact, I better NOT have come up with a new idea! I believe, along with countless millions, that the old idea, a message preached for over 2,000 years, is as true now as ever, and that it can’t be improved on! The best I tried to do as a preacher was proclaim this wonderful old message in a fresh way.
It’s like C. S. Lewis said, it’s snobbery to think that something old is not worth taking seriously today. It’s a relief to know that we don’t have to try and come up with some new truth by which to live. The truth has been there all along. We just have to make it relevant for our lives today!
“This is what the Lord says: ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.’” Jeremiah 6:16a