Mowing the Wide World

Powell Gardens, outside Kansas City, covers some 970 acres. Tanner, a teenage worker there, set out to mow the whole thing–with a push mower. Perhaps that’s not completely accurate, but yesterday, when Penny and I visited this lovely place for our 37th anniversary, we saw this young man (who might have been named Tanner) mowing a wide border of grass around a large swath of vegetable rows. Given the rain that Kansas City has enjoyed in recent weeks, the grass was thick and tall. Tanner would have plenty of mowing to keep him busy all day.

I stood and watched Tanner for a couple of minutes. He shoved his mower into the tall grass. You could hear the engine start to struggle. After a couple of steps, the grass would bunch up and stop the blade, killing the engine. Tanner’s shoulders rose and fell as he drew a heavy breath. Then, without even pulling the mower back to get away from the problem, he began jerking on the starter rope.

When, after several difficult pulls, he succeeded in restarting the mower, he’d repeat this process. As I stood there, I saw him clog and start at least four times, having covered perhaps 15 feet of grass.

I wanted to offer Tanner some advice, suggesting that he only cut a narrow swath with each pass, that he set the wheels to maximum height and then move them to mow it again lower, or at least that he only mow in the direction that threw the cut grass away from the uncut.

Of course all of these strategies would have involved much more walking. Instead, Tanner opted to rely on his own strength and endless pulls on the starter rope. He might still be there this morning, mowing the grass six feet at a go.

Sometimes the best way to do things is a way that makes no sense to us in our flesh. All those things Jesus teaches about turning the other cheek, loving your neighbor, and going the second mile seem to fly in the face of logic. Then try out this instruction from Exodus 23:11-12:

Sow your land for six years and gather its produce. But during the seventh year you are to let it rest and leave it uncultivated, so that the poor among your people may eat from it and the wild animals may consume what they leave. Do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove.

So God is telling an agricultural people to willingly give up more than 14% of the productivity of their land. You might as well ask Apple to only sell iPhones six years out of seven. When you have a productive asset, you want to use it! But God’s way, perhaps especially when it runs against human sense, is the best way.

I wouldn’t suggest that my mowing advice for Tanner was God’s way, but don’t we all behave like Tanner now and again. We might hear the counsel of God, but we know that our own way is more efficient, more effective. Instead of following God’s plan, we shove our mower into the tall grass and rely on our own strength. Yes, we sometimes get the job done that way, but what other opportunities do we miss when we mow like Tanner?

 

 

Easter Zombies

You never thought you’d hear those two words together, did you? I determined to put that sentence down as my lead, and then thought it might be fun to do a Google search for that phrase. And it turns out that “easter zombies” has appeared in several guises including on an anti-religious “deist” site, which mocks Matthew 27:52-53:

The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And they came out of the tombs after his resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.

In fairness, that is a surprising pair of verses, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard a preacher take that as his central text. We shouldn’t be surprised that a skeptic, someone leaning wholly on human reason, would fasten on this as a problem point in the gospels.

But those are not the “zombies” I’m talking about. In popular culture, zombies are the bodies of dead people that are reanimated, somehow, inexplicably, and that wander around the countryside attempting to eat people who are still living. In many versions, these zombies are obsessed with eating brains.

These aren’t my Easter zombies either. The Easter zombies are those people staggering into the church on that one spring morning, more out of a sense of habit or compulsion than from any true devotion to God. Maybe going to church is the price they pay to enjoy peacefully a family dinner and Easter-egg hunt during the afternoon.

The problem with these people is that, like the zombies on TV, they’re dead. Maybe they’re truly spiritually dead, or maybe they have that spark of Christian life within but they’re so wrapped up in dead works that they might as well, from an outward appearance, be still lost in their sins.

Two times in Hebrews we read about people who are dealing with dead works, and in Hebrews 9:14, the writer urges us to “cleanse our consciences from dead works so that we can serve the living God.”

The Easter zombies don’t serve the living God. They’ll think more of jelly beans than Jesus, more of Peeps than God’s people.

While some of them are, as noted before, spiritually dead, some of them are technically believers but the sort who Paul describes, in 1 Corinthians 3:12, as building on Christ’s foundation with “wood, hay, or straw.” But then don’t we all do that now and again? Sure I might build with precious materials, I might serve the living God 90% of the time, but what of the other 10%. Should I look at your 80%/20% split or the bona fide Easter zombie’s 5%/95% split and boast? Aren’t we all really zombies to one degree or another?

I will walk into my church service this morning with a grateful and joyful heart because I am, like every other person wrapped up in this body of death, a little bit zombie. It is not for me to judge those who are more zombie, more far gone than me. It is for me, for us, beloved, to pray for them and to love them. It’s our place to believe in the truth that these bones can live again.

You will know that I am the Lord, my people, when I open your graves and bring you up from them.–Ezekiel 37:13

He is risen! And He can make the dead alive again. Praise the Lord of the Easter zombies.

The Great Deceiver

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a dozen times–and that’s pretty much par for human experience. That’s what I thought when I recently read the story of Samson. Smitten by the wiles of Delilah, Samson becomes a total fool. This guy was really no fool, of course. He’s the one who, after he finds bees making honey in the carcass of the lion he’d killed, makes up a riddle that stumps all the Philistines. But set him up with Delilah and Samson becomes the dumbest guy in town. We pick up the story in Judges 16:16:

Because she nagged him day after day and pleaded with him until she wore him out, he told her the whole truth and said to her, “My hair has never been cut, because I am a Nazirite to God from birth. If I am shaved, my strength will leave me, and I will become weak and be like any other man.”

This exchange came after Delilah had three times heard him lie about what would render him powerless. Samson suggested bowstrings, new rope, and a weird operation involving the braids of his hair. Each time, Delilah attempts to use this technique and then tells him that the Philistines are attacking him.

Three times, Delilah proved utterly untrustworthy. You’d think that Samson might have caught on and said, “Maybe I shouldn’t trust her,” but that’s not how he was wired. He tells her about his Nazirite vow, effectively breaking it, and he pays the price, first with his freedom, then with his eyes, and finally with his life.

Wouldn’t you think that Samson might have been a little more suspicious? Don’t you think he would have said something along the lines of “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice (or four times), shame on me”? But again, that just wasn’t in the cards for this man. I’m inclined to be exceptionally critical of Samson.

But then I look to myself. I’ll do that while you look to yourself. Right now, my biggest frustration is with controlling my eating. A few years ago, I had gotten myself to a healthy weight, but in recent days, despite my best intentions, I’ve lost all the ground I had gained.

Day after day, I intend to control my eating. Day after day, I fail to control my eating. Does it make me happy to pig out on whatever comes to hand? No. Instead, I tend to feel at least guilty and often physically uncomfortable. You’d think I’d learn after one time, but definitely after two times, but what about a hundred times. I don’t. But tomorrow will be different.

What the flesh wants, the mind can create all manner of excuses to justify. Who’s fooling me in those hundred times? Who fooled Samson? Delilah wasn’t his most formidable deceiver, and my refrigerator is not conspiring against me. It turns out that I’m probably my own most dangerous deceiver.

Habit Established!

I’ve done it! I’ve established the habit. With this being the last day of March, I can happily report that I’ve written an entry for Tune My Heart every day this month and actually through the last week in February. That’s almost 40 days, and most of the self-help gurus, Zig Ziglar, Tony Robbins, and the like, agree that you can establish a habit in 21 days. Apparently, that figure comes from Maxwell Maltz, whose book Psycho-Cybernetics, serves as a sort of Bible for people who don’t want to use the Bible to improve themselves.

With my 21-day habit almost doubled, I should find daily blogging doubly established as a habit in my life. There’s just one problem. I’ve done this before. I’ve gone months regularly posting entries, sometimes writing not just regularly but every single day. And then I’ve seen that habit fall by the wayside. If you can establish a habit in 21 days and it then goes away, how much of a habit was it?

Maybe I just didn’t go long enough? Maybe I need to keep posting daily through April. That’s what science seems to tell us. And we know that science is never wrong.

On average, it takes more than 2 months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. And how long it takes a new habit to form can vary widely depending on the behavior, the person, and the circumstances.

For all the wisdom that is in work by either scientists or by people like Maltz or Ziglar or Robbins or Dale Carnegie, they frequently lean more on human understanding and ability than on God’s understanding and ability. They ignore the short and long-term effects of sin in gumming up the machinery of our lives.

The book of Judges in particular and the entire Bible in some ways records a pattern of habits: sinning and then returning to God and then falling away and then returning. It’s summed up in Judges 2:18-19:

Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for the Israelites, the Lord was with him and saved the people from the power of their enemies while the judge was still alive. The Lord was moved to pity whenever they groaned because of those who were oppressing and afflicting them. Whenever the judge died, the Israelites would act even more corruptly than their fathers, following other gods to serve them and bow in worship to them. They did not turn from their evil practices or their obstinate ways.

I have established a habit. Whether it is good for you or not, it is a good habit for me. Will I allow this habit to fade away like I have before? That’s not my intention, but I wouldn’t be shocked. Sin has a way of corrupting all our behaviors.

We can’t say that this is okay, but it is the way of a fallen world. And if I could succeed by following the prescriptions of Maxwell Maltz or some other best-selling guide to self-actualization, I really wouldn’t need God, would I? And we know that won’t be happening.

 

 

May the Circle Be Unbroken

Last night I ran into a friend whose mother, at the spry age of 103, had recently passed away. I offered him my condolences, knowing that this sympathy was different from that for someone who died unexpectedly or at a young age. He proceeded to share about ten minutes worth of thoughts, feelings, experiences, and the accompanying details. I was surprised at how deeply these events seemed to have struck him, but then, on reflection, why should I be surprised? At 73 or 83 or 103, she was his mother. Nobody wants their mother to die.

burial cemetery countryside cross
Photo by Mikes Photos on Pexels.com

This man is completely at peace with his mother’s current situation and with the assurance that he will be reunited with her at some point in the future, yet still he gets misty thinking about her last days and her absence. And so the question I’m left with is whether that response is appropriate. Is it right for Christians to mourn the loss of other Christians, especially when they have clearly lived a long life and the body is no longer cooperating.

In Matthew 5:4, Jesus helps us toward an answer:

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Would Jesus have offered a beatitude for a behavior that is sinful or even just inappropriate? It doesn’t seem likely.

Toward the end of Revelation, we read this:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”–Revelation 21:4

The verb tense is important. He will end the mourning, the crying, and the pain. He will do it, but He hasn’t done it yet. Until He does that, I think it is fair to assume that there will continue to be pain, crying, and, yes, mourning. The Holy Spirit, Ephesians 1:14 assures us, is the deposit or guarantee of our inheritance, but it is not the entire treasure promised us.

But what about 1 Thessalonians 4:13, you ask? (We’ll just pretend that you immediately thought of that verse and its reference, okay?) That verse seems to forbid mourning.

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.

Yes, Paul could be read as saying “don’t be like those others and mourn,” but I’m inclined to read it as “don’t grieve in the same manner as those others who have no hope.” It’s not the grief but the sort of grief Paul criticizes. After all, Jesus did not condemn mourning, so why should Paul?

Motivation 5Our mourning, our grief is different from that of non-believers because our grief coexists with hope. Yes, we miss the departed person. Our lives are changed as a result of their departure. We mourn their absence, and we grieve that our lives are slightly diminished by their deaths.

As much as I try to be a spiritual man, as much as I try to remember at all times that this world is not my home, I still exist in the flesh. I will be reunited with my Christian loved ones into eternity, and eternity, I’m told, is a really long time. However, as much I remember that the farther pleasure greatly outweighs the nearer pain, I still have to live in this body of death and that body cannot help but mourn.

I Can’t Look! You’re Gonna Fall!

Afraid of HeightsI have, among other slight psychological disorders, something that I call, Vicarious Acrophobia Syndrome. VAS (which is not included in the the American Psychological Association’s DSM-5, is a very real problem. It means that you have fear of heights for someone else. Just to be clear, I have very real fear of heights for myself. Only in recent years have I gotten to where I can scale a ladder and get onto my own roof, but watching somebody, like this fool sitting on the edge of oblivion in the photo, makes me crazy.

I first recognized my struggle with VAS back at Boy Scout camp a number of years back. As an adult, I had been enlisted to help out with an evening’s adventure, guiding boys to scramble up a challenging but not terribly dangerous rock formation. I say that it was not terribly dangerous, but the top of the formation was also the top of a 60-foot cliff.

The guys in charge of the outing had me go up the rocks first. “Just keep everyone from going crazy up there,” they told me.

To me, the way that you keep from going crazy at the top of a cliff is to hold onto a tree–or better yet lash yourself to said tree–30 or 40 yards away from the edge. Instead, these boys would walk up to the brink of the cliff and stare down into the void. I thought I would die.

My rational mind knows that a 12-year-old boy can stand on the edge of something–a rug, for example–look down, and not totter over onto the floor. Why shouldn’t he be able to stand on the edge of a cliff? That’s my rational mind, but my VAS-afflicted, emotional mind was going crazy.

Why am I thinking about this today? That’s probably fodder for another entry, should I ever get around to it, but thinking about my lifelong struggles with VAS leave me wondering about a struggle I don’t have.

Every day, I see people who are standing on the brink of an eternity in hell just as surely as those Boy Scouts were standing on the brink of the cliff. And while those Boy Scouts were not about to suddenly plunge to their deaths, these unsaved people will someday face death and plunge into that doom unless something brings them to Christ.

Why do I, the VAS-obsessed guy, not have a similar dread of their very real fate?  Why is a highly-unlikely physical risk so much more frightening to me than a completely-certain spiritual risk? I wish I could answer that. More importantly, I wish I could generate the sort of empathy for those standing on the brink of hell that I have for those standing on the brink of a cliff.

Yogini or Yogurtini?

YogaI am conflicted when it comes to the practice of Yoga. My decidedly secular college fills up as many Yoga classes as they offer. While I have never attended one of those classes, I feel confident that there are no mantras chanted, no chakra magic invoked, and no references to Lord Shiva or any other Hindu deity.

Yoga is, stripped of the Hindu mumbo-jumbo–that’s a Sanskrit term, I’m pretty sure, synonymous with “folderah”–can provide good exercise and stretching. I do a couple of Yoga poses in my lower body strength training but without calling them Yoga. The “locust” asana or pose came to me as a “Superman.” You lie, face-down, on the floor and then lift up your head and arms at the same time that you lift your legs, leaving only your mid-section on the mat. The plank pose, basically holding yourself in an “up” pushup position, is not one of the traditional positions from what I can discover, but it is a staple of Yoga classes today. Hold either of these positions for 15 seconds or so and you’ll probably be feeling less spiritual and more shaky than before.

My mixed feelings come from the very religious, very Hindu roots of the practice. The traditional 84 Yoga asanas were supposedly created by the Hindu god Shiva. One traditional sequence, the surya namaskara, is known in English as the Sun Salutation. Essentially it is a form of worship toward the Hindu sun god. The whole purpose of Yoga practice, at least originally, is to allow the yogi (male) or yogini (female) to be able to meditate for long periods of time. This is a very religious practice in its origins.

While I can use my two “poses” and not feel any risk of being drawn into Hinduism, I’m reluctant to fully explore this sort of exercise. On the other hand, I wonder at that original purpose.

How many Christians fail to worship to their ability, fail to pray deeply and effectively, and fail to have the focus necessary to really embrace a long sermon because their body is saying, “No.” I once heard good advice for teachers: “The brain can only absorb what the seat can endure.”

Shouldn’t Christians tune their bodies just as carefully as Hindus tune theirs? Shouldn’t we do our best to ensure that achy joints or finicky backs do not  limit our ability to worship the one true God? When we have a living object for our worship, shouldn’t we do our best to make our bodies capable of enduring and enjoying that worship?

The 3,500-Calorie Rule is Malarkey

It turns out that everything I thought I knew is wrong. Or maybe not. For years we’ve been taught that burning 3,500 calories will make you lose a pound. Like so many things in the realm of diet and nutrition, this is just way too simple apparently.

The video below provides a brief overview of how weight loss might be viewed differently.


It occurs to me, after watching this video, that there’s a good bit of truth here–not just scientific truth but spiritual truth. Compare the idea of weight loss as described in the video, with the gradually flattening chart line, to the sanctification that we experience after salvation. Have you ever been frustrated by your lack of progress in losing the “fat” of sin? Think of Paul’s words in Romans 7:15: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

There are no diet pills to eliminate sin and the math of sanctification isn’t particularly simple. However, unlike with weight loss, we have a uniquely effective personal trainer to assist in the effort. And He’ll help with the weight loss for no extra charge.

But Don’t Love That Body Too Much

Muscle BoyAbout two weeks ago, I mentioned a post by Paul Maxwell in which he questioned male body image problems. Maxwell suggested that we’re trying to impress five different people/groups/entities for five different wrong-headed reasons. Here are his five headings:

  1. To our selves, we want to be confident.
  2. To the opposite sex, we want to be sexy.
  3. To our peers, we want to be intimidating.
  4. To our fathers, we want to be competent.
  5. To God, we want to be superhuman.

I’ve been letting Paul’s ideas float around in my mind since I originally agreed, and I have to say that I’m now convinced he got it wrong. Yes, these five reasons to want to have chiseled bodies are wrong, but they are not an exhaustive list.

A couple of years ago, right about the time I started to get my diet and exercise house in order, I taught at a church children’s camp. My lessons used the idea of masks as a metaphor. Recently, I saw a photo from that camp and–I kid you not–asked this question: “Who is that fat guy in the mask?” It was me, fifty pounds ago. With that in the background, let me tour the five audiences above.

I want to look good for myself, because looking good …well, looks good. I’d rather look in the mirror and see a healthy-looking me than the one in that camp photo. I’m not particularly vain, but I know that a less flabby, more muscular body translates to health and energy and other good things. (Proverbs 27:19)

I want to look good to the opposite sex, or at least one member of the opposite sex, my wife, because I love her and I care about her and I want to demonstrate that love and care by keeping my body healthy and reasonably attractive. (Proverbs 5:18)

I want to look good to peers, but not to intimidate. I’m not going to intimidate anyone, but by having an unfit, unhealthy body, I become a distraction. When I speak with my peers, I do not want them to be thinking of me as the fat guy or the wheezing guy or the guy who is probably going to have a heart attack. (Judges 3:17-23)

I want to look good for my father, but not really. My father passed over a decade ago. However, since I carry his name, I believe that my appearance will reflect on him. It’s a matter of honoring my father when I take care of my body. (Exodus 20:12)

I want to look good for my God. But actually I don’t want to look good so much as I want to have a functional, healthy body. God will never be impressed by how I look, but He can be pleased with how I treat the body He gave me. (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

When I look in the mirror, I see a body that could stand to lose 10 pounds but that is in the acceptable range of fat and muscle. My wife is pleased. My peers are not distracted. I believe that my appearance mostly honors both my father and my God. These are sufficient outcomes, and they are worthy reasons to pay attention to that image in the mirror.

13.1 Miles and Goal Achieved

At a little after 7:30 am this morning, I started running the Rock the Parkway Half Marathon. Somewhere around mile 9, I thought my body was going to cease to function. Heavy legged, I kept trudging through the miles, desperately wanting to slow down but perhaps more desperately wanting to make that sub-2:00 goal.

2015 Rock the ParkwayLet’s be clear. A two-hour half marathon is not going to get me a shoe endorsement contract. I won’t be picking up any awards even in my age group. Plenty of guys over the age of 50 can run long distances faster than me. But a two-hour half marathon is something I couldn’t have thought about two years ago. It’s 11:19 better than I did ten months ago. (At this rate of improvement, by the way, I’ll hold the world record in this distance in five years.)

When you’re running a two-hour race and obeying the rules against earbuds, you have a lot of time to think, and this morning I put that time to good use. It occurred to me that running such an event is something like a metaphor for the Christian life. The parable of the sower could be adapted as the parable of the runner.

Some of us run fast, like the guy who won this morning at 1:07; some of us are slow, maybe still on the course now as the shadows gather outside. But the key to Christian life is that we prepare ourselves to run our best race and then keep the legs turning over even when lungs and heart and muscles scream for us to stop.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul uses this same metaphor, recognizing that he is approaching the “finish line” of his life:

For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness,which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing. (2 Timothy 4:6-8)

The key to this understanding of living in Christ is that a PR, a prize, or an impressive finish time isn’t the key thing–which is really good news to me. Whether you run your race of life fast or slow, a long distance or short doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you run your best race, that you keep pushing on toward the prize even when the temptation to stopping screams into ever cell of your life.

That’s what I had time to think this morning.