Is It Good to Be a Star?

Recently, I shared my amazement at how my granddaughter, fifteen years old, had established herself as a minor celebrity on the social-media video site Tik Tok. What you might have wondered if you read that post was why I didn’t give more of a shout-out to the kid. I didn’t tell you her user name or provide instructions on how you could watch her videos. Don’t I risk having my grandpa privileges revoked?

The answer is, “No.” No, I don’t worry about my credentials as a loving grandparent, and, especially, no, I don’t particularly want to encourage anyone to watch her videos. For the most part, the ones I have seen are not tremendously lurid or anything, but they do involve her dancing to songs from which we’re better off not repeating the lyrics. Some of her own language in those posts is stuff I find uncomfortable. I’m very proud of my granddaughter but not for this work.

That brings me to a question. Is fame really a good thing? My current study of Ecclesiastes suggests that fame, like pretty much everything else, is a fleeting, futile thing. But my Tik Tok girl is making money from her moment of fame. Shouldn’t she milk it for all its worth, selling all the hoodies and inspiring all the fan art that she can?

Seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands

1 Thessalonians 4:11

The answer is, “No.” No, fame is not something to be pursued for its own sake, and no, all fame–even the sort that makes us money–isn’t a positive thing. Let me give a simple example. In 1950, like today, there were two senators from Wisconsin. One of them served for an impressive 24 years, but my guess is that you’ve never heard of him: Alexander Wiley. Wiley’s counterpart, serving only 10 years, was Joseph McCarthy. That’s the “I have here in my hand a list of 205 communists” McCarthy.

Whether you think of McCarthy as the ultimate villain or a guy who was doing a patriotic duty, he almost certainly handled his affairs poorly, doing more to advance himself than to make the nation safe from commies. His fame clearly outstrips Senator Wiley, but was that fame that should bring him pride?

The answer is “No.” No, fame can, perhaps more often than not, be a negative thing, and No, fame sought for its own sake is essentially idolatry. That’s why Paul cautioned the Thessalonians to hold back.

But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more, to seek to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you, so that you may behave properly in the presence of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone.

–1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12

Just to be clear, I am very proud of my oldest granddaughter. She clearly has a charisma and talent that can help her achieve things that I would never dream of achieving. That said, I want to see her pursuing things that do not degrade her and, ideally, that bring honor to God.

Does my grandfather-ness outrank my role as a child of God? The answer is “No.”

The Girl’s a Star

The weirdest thing happened recently. My wife, Penny, took our granddaughter to a swanky retail establishment, Dollar General. They were looking to buy something of incredible import, but that has nothing to do with what happened.

As they waited in line, they heard this mother and her two daughters talking excitedly behind them. The weird part was that they seemed to be talking about our granddaughter.

“Excuse me,” the mom finally said. “Are you on Tik Tok?”

If you, like me, live outside the mainstream of the social media ecosystem, you might not know Tik Tok, an app that allows people to upload and share short music videos of three to fifteen seconds or looping videos that go up to a minute. What can you do in 15 seconds? Not much. Most the videos are millennials doing goofy things. It’s basically Vine with a slightly longer time limit.

If you’re old enough to remember the old TV ads for compilation albums from K-Tel, then you could imagine Tik Tok. Here’s a snippet of Elton John followed by a couple of seconds of Tony Orlando and then a few notes of Rod Stewart. It seems that my favorite 15-year-old has found her place between Vickie Lawrence and Bill Withers.

When the mom asked, our girl turned and replied, dramatically, “Maybe.” What followed was absurd. The mom and daughters took photos with her. They expressed their admiration. Afterward, we learned that our little celeb has a huge following–something like half a million people–on the platform. She’s a Tik Tok star, and she now gets recognized from time to time when she’s out living her life. She has received a number of different pieces of fan art and is currently filling 200 orders for merchandise. In short, she’s turning this into a paying gig.

But here’s where I trip up. What sort of hollow life does someone have that makes them enjoy watching tiny little blips of video of a girl acting silly, perhaps lip-syncing to some song or busting into a dance move? In fact, these people don’t just enjoy watching these absurd little clips, but they get excited to meet the “artist” who filmed herself eating a bagel or forcing out a belch. They draw portraits of her. They buy hoodies with her name or image or something plastered on them. It’s just too weird.

Who would it excite you to stand in line with at Dollar General? I might find it fascinating to have a conversation with John Piper or N.T. Wright. A few months ago, I had my picture taken with Peter Furler, the former singer of Newsboys, but I did that for the benefit of my daughter. But who would excite me just for the sake of being able to say that I had a personal encounter with them? I’m hard-pressed to name anyone.

We like the idea of having a personal connection with the famous and significant, but in the end, the only connection worth having at Dollar General or elsewhere is a connection with Jesus, because anything else is just an exceptionally short video in the grand epic of eternity.

Did I Write Anything Today?

It’s 4:15pm as I type these words, recognizing that I haven’t written anything today. I shouldn’t feel bad, since I’m now about three months into a string of daily postings. In fact, I have actually written ahead some seven days (which explains why my entries each day seem so hopelessly out of date).

Why does it matter if I have written anything today? Wouldn’t it be okay for me to give things a rest for a day or so, what with the summer beginning and school out? I could offer a lengthy and thoroughly thought-out response to these questions, but instead, I’ll just pluck a two-word answer from Jesus’ own lips.

“You fool!”

In the parable of the rich fool, which I visited a little over a year ago, Jesus tells about the farmer who, after bringing in a bumper crop, decides to coast on his wealth, to “Take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.” All of this is lurking in Luke 12:13-21.

Back in 1998, I published my doctoral dissertation. That was nice, seeing a hardback book with my name on the cover. Feel free to pick up copy if you like: Haunted by Waters. I’m proud of that accomplishment, but 20 years later, I have to recognize that it doesn’t amount to a great deal today. The royalties stopped coming my way pretty soon after it was published, and you don’t find the title on the shelves at Barnes and Noble. If I were to point to this accomplishment when conferring with my dean for my annual review, he might well say,

“You fool!”

But he’s too polite for that. He’d just redirect my attention and ask me what I’ve done lately.

The sacrifice of Christ, was perfect, performed once and for all time:

Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.–Hebrews 9:28

But my acts of worship, my living sacrifice, if it is going to have any real meaning, must be acknowledged as imperfect. It must be done day by day. In short, I need to write today.

Years ago, Penny struggled to recruit children’s Sunday School teachers in our former (not so enthusiastic) church. With call after call, she heard people say, “I’ve done my time.” In those people’s mind, they’d made their sacrifice, apparently perfecting it with a few years teaching the second graders. But there’s another answer to those people:

“You fool!”

My age of service should never end. My age of worship must never cease. It’s like that repeated line from the D-Day movie The Longest Day. When British glider troops capture a key bridge, they are ordered to “Hold until relieved.” My work with the children of my church should be done until I’m relieved. My service as a deacon should persist until I am relieved. I should pick up my pen (or my keyboard) and hold until relieved. Granted, God might shift my efforts to some other endeavor, but He has not set a date for my retirement that does not coincide with my inability, through death or disability, to function. To think otherwise, would earn a rightly scornful response:

“You fool!”

Never-ending Studies

Martin had the office across the hall from me during my one year as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas. He was practically an institution at the school. The most long-standing graduate students in the department reported that Martin had been an old-timer when they began their studies. Supposedly, he had been there, finished with course work and working toward completing his dissertation, for so long that his foreign-language qualifications expired and he had to retake them.

What is the point out going to school endlessly, paying your fees and supposedly making progress on the degree for year after endless year? It took me five years to complete my doctorate, which seemed like too long to me. Martin must have had about 15 years in when I last saw him.

It strikes me that many churches have people who are a lot like Martin. These people go to Bible study classes every week. They sit and nod appreciatively as a teacher shares whatever nuggets of wisdom are available. Then they go home and await the next week’s class.

Is there something wrong, you might ask, with going to Sunday School? Isn’t that what good Christians are supposed to do? I’d like to argue the answer to both questions might very well be “yes.” Yes, there might very well be something wrong with going to Sunday School. And yes, that just might be what Christians should do. Confused? Let me try to unconfuse.

Imagine if you will the Apostle Thaddeus. We always think about Peter and James and John, but nobody says anything about Thaddeus, so lets consider him. He probably sat with Jesus at the Sermon on the Mount. He listened attentively and perhaps even asked questions. Maybe he asked Jesus who sinned, the man born blind or his parents, in John 9:2. In short, we can picture Thaddeus going to his version of “Sunday school.”

But then, in Luke 9, when Jesus sent the twelve out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick,” what if Thaddeus had said, “You know, I think I’d rather stay here and just keep learning from you”? In short, what if Thaddeus had just decided to keep going to Sunday school rather than serving?

Christians should continue, from the day of salvation until the day they die, learning more about God’s Word. It’s important, but if that’s all we do, then what good are we? What is the point of being a Martin, learning and learning and learning but never actually putting all of that learning to use.

I mention this today, because I know of many people who should be going out of their comfortable and comforting classes in order to serve God. Are you not quite ready? Guess what? Neither was Thaddeus or the other disciples. Jesus didn’t send them out because they were ready. He sent them out to help get them ready.

For all I know, Martin is still lurking around the bottom floor of Wescoe Hall at KU. For all I know, he never finished that degree of his. We don’t need a waste of potential like that in the church.

Where Was Kira When the Lights Went Out

Where was Kira when the lights went out? In the dark?

The lights are off, but somebody’s home. That was the situation in the home of a woman–let’s call her Kira. The city, which runs the water and electricity utilities had turned off service, leaving Kira and her children dry and in the dark.

If you’re like me, you might be sitting there smugly thinking how you’ve always managed to pay your bills and how you’d never let such a thing happen. Let me assure you that, although she might have taken missteps along the way, Kira is not a deadbeat or an incompetent. A year ago, she had endured a serious injury that took time to heal, time when she couldn’t work. The family got behind on an already-tight budget. Things snowballed, and eventually they owed several thousand dollars.

When we realized this problem existed, we felt the desire to help, but that’s not what I want to focus on. Instead, I want to focus on Kira and what she did.

First, she continued to teach her kids–middle to high school in age–to trust in God and live obedient lives. Tough times were not an excuse for ugly behavior in Kira’s house.

Second, after she got back to work, she did not simply focus her thoughts on getting the family’s budget righted. Instead, she continued to look at the people around her. The lady next door needed her yard mowed but couldn’t push the mower around the lawn. Kira thought, “I have time, and I have legs. I can mow her grass.” Many people in Kira’s situation would have sat back licking their wounds and feeling sorry for themselves.

When she saw another neighbor, she felt led to give that woman some groceries. Sure, by taking food out of her own pantry, Kira was costing the family money that they needed to get right with the utility office, but she still did it. The neighbor thanked her, explaining how they had no cash for groceries for the rest of the month.

Then came Sunday. After discovering how much it would take to get at least Kira’s water turned back on, Penny and I felt a definite urge to help. Penny’s small group, told anonymously of the situation of this woman most of them didn’t know, collected funds, more than we had expected. A new member of the class, somebody attending for the second time, didn’t have cash but brought a large sum to our house in the afternoon.

When Kira brought the kids over that evening to take showers and run some laundry, Penny, without comment, handed her an envelope containing over $800, more than double what she needed to get the water turned on.

I have been young and now I am old,
yet I have not seen the righteous abandoned
or his children begging for bread.
He is always generous, always lending,
and his children are a blessing.–Psalm 37:25-26

I’m pretty sure that Kira didn’t mow grass or share groceries thinking about a payoff from God. She did those things for the same reason we all put money into that envelope: to seek God’s kingdom first.

Doing that, we know that all we needed will be provided for us. Where was Kira when the lights went out? From what I can see, she was standing and trusting in the light.

A Colossal Waste of Time and Energy

They came. They ate. They listened to the music, and they left a mess behind them. That’s my slightly grumpy report on the 2019 Widows Luncheon at my church. Hosted by the deacons, this event is an annual thing, gathering several dozen widows and about 20 deacons and their wives. We feed these ladies, provide moderate-quality musical entertainment, and then clean up after them. That, all in all, is the colossal waste of time and energy–not to mention resources and talent.

Honestly, what benefit is there in this production. The deacons are asked to toss money into the till to cover much of the cost. We give up a high-quality spring Sunday afternoon. We make awkward small talk with women that, in many cases, we’ve never met before. And what do we have to show for it at the end of the day?

“Is there going to be a program?” one lady asked me when I finally stole a moment to eat a bowl of soup.

“Yes!” I wanted to say. “Don’t we always have a program?”

“You should do a dinner next year,” another woman said. Really? Then we’d have to run a taxi service for all those ladies who don’t drive after dark. And it would cost more, because she was thinking of more substantial food.

Apparently somebody told a lady–a friend of mine–that she couldn’t sit at their table. This pushed her over the edge and out the door. I think she drove through Arby’s on the way home.

Is this sort of work really worthwhile? Wouldn’t it make more sense investing ourselves in evangelism or in discipling kids–you know, people who have a longer potential span of ministry ahead of them? Sometimes I think the problem with the church is that we just don’t run it on sound business principles. I’m proposing a cost-benefit analysis on the widows luncheon next year.

But then I pause and reflect for a moment. When, in John 21, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep,” I notice that there aren’t a lot of conditions or modifiers attached to that directive. He doesn’t say

  • Feed them if there’s a profit in it.
  • Feed them if they’re nice to you.
  • Feed them if it makes sense to you.
  • Feed them if it fits into your strategic goals and enterprise objectives.

No, he just says, “Feed my sheep.” So that’s what we did yesterday afternoon. That’s what we’ll do next year, I’m sure.

And in reality, most of the ladies were polite and appreciative. The work was light and shared by many hands. The time invested was redeemed when I got to play with my granddaughter during the evening, and the twenty dollars I put in the hopper didn’t keep me from driving through Arby’s on the way home.

When I started writing this, I didn’t intend to bring it back to Matthew 6:33, but there it is again. When we seek God’s kingdom, even when the means of seeking seems pointless, good will flow out of it and all of our needs will be added to us as well.

A young man unjustly murdered on a Roman cross. That would seem an even more colossal waste, but it seems God made something out it. Who am I to hold back my efforts?

 

What’s It To You?

Am I a terrible person because one of the highlights of my week comes after I return my grandkids to their mother’s house early on Sunday afternoon. It’s not that I don’t love the daylights out of them and not that I don’t enjoy their company a good bit of the time. What drives me bonkers is the way that they pick at each other.

One of them specifically has moved into a season of life when he seems to love nothing more than to point out his brothers’ flaws. This Sunday, he exploded when one brother dropped a loose piece of trash on the floor at the church. Then a few minutes later, he was laying into his other brother over some hyper-important detail of a video game.

Although this sort of thing makes me a little bit crazy, I have to note that the behavior is not unique to a preteen boy in Kansas City. Almost universally, people do a better job of seeing the issues with others than they do with seeing their own.

This morning, I was reading over John 21, when I noticed the curious piece at the chapter’s and book’s end. After going through the whole “do you love me?” exchange with Jesus, Peter looks over his shoulder and spies John. “What about him?” he asks.

When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”
“If I want him to remain until I come,” Jesus answered, “what is that to you? As for you, follow me.”–John 21:21-22

“What is that to you?” That could be the most significant question that Jesus ever asks. In fact, in John’s account of things, these are the last recorded words of Jesus before His resurrection. It’s not that John didn’t think that Jesus spoke the Great Commission and related things just before He ascended–after all, John was there–but for his gospel, these are the words that John elected for a closer.

And what profound words they are. Essentially Jesus is asking, “Why are you concerned about his fate? Just follow me.” Let’s apply this to today:

  • Why do you care if your brother drops a piece of paper? You follow me!
  • Why do you care if your brother is wrong about a video game? You follow me!
  • Why do you care if this sister has more talent than you? You follow me!
  • Why do you care if that brother doesn’t stick to his diet? You follow me!

Obviously, Jesus wasn’t calling Peter to apathy. After all, he’d just told Peter to feed the sheep several times. What he was calling Peter to do was set aside that very human tendency toward jealousy and comparison.

Following Jesus, we’ll need to keep our eyes on Him. If we also feed and care for the sheep, then any spare attention we have has just been claimed. If I dedicate myself to those endeavors, the opportunity to covet and compare almost totally disappears.

As for you, follow me. Indeed.

 

Family Feud Revisited

“We asked 100 people to name someone who is always right.”

Quick! What are your top answers?

Yes, again I found myself at my mother’s during the Family-Feud evening marathon, volume at the “aircraft carrier deck” level. When I couldn’t ignore the blare of the show, I decided to play along to this question. I guessed that the top answer would be husband or wife. That one was on the list, as was mother. Both of them were quite a ways down.

Eventually, the family playing struck out, offering some singularly foolish suggestions. The other team attempted to “steal” the points. They also failed, leaving several undisclosed answers, including numbers one and two.

Steve Harvey, as he does each game, marched from the highest-numbered unrevealed items to the lowest. What on earth would be in places one and two? I was legitimately curious.

Harvey called out, “Number two,” and the answer popped over: “God/Jesus.” That had been my guess, the one that I wanted somebody to say. If I remember correctly, the score was 30, a pretty respectable number, although it had to be disappointing for somebody who created the universe in six days.

But what on earth could be number one? Who could be named more often as “someone who is always right”? Obligingly, the host called out, “Number one.” Again the answer was revealed. There it was, having been mentioned by 37 people.

“Me.”

“Me”! Nearly 25% more people named themselves as “someone who is always right” than mentioned God.

And therein lies the problem with this world. We, far too often, think that we know better than God knows. It’s not shocking that we think ourselves smarter than football coaches or government officials or doctors, but can we really think ourselves more often right than God?

Before you start wagging your finger at those terrible heathen who answered the Family Feud survey, let’s look at our own lives. Do we really behave as if we think that God knows better? Don’t rush to answer before reading these verses from James.

My dear brothers and sisters, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger, for human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness. –James 1:19-20

Or

Don’t criticize one another, brothers and sisters. Anyone who defames or judges a fellow believer defames and judges the law. If you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. –James 4:11

Do you believe these things? Are they right? “Well . . .yeah, but . . .” Honestly that score of 30 that God received on Family Feud was probably higher than how people–and by people I mean you and me much of the time–actually behave.

Who do you really listen to? Survey says . . .

More Powerful than a Nuclear Missile

There was once a nuclear missile pointed at Pilot Grove, Missouri, a tiny little town in the middle of the state. I say that the Soviets had such a missile, but I have no firsthand knowledge. What I do know is that about a mile north of town on Route 135, you’ll see the tell-tale arrangement of stout fencing that marks the former location of one of Whiteman Air Force Base’s old Minuteman missile silos. Since the U.S. had a missile there, it’s a fair bet that the other guys had this spot on a target list.

Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 12.10.09 PMDriving up Route 135 yesterday, I got to thinking about that artifact of the cold war. In the image here, you’ll find the missile site to the left of the main road where apparently somebody is now storing hay. Glance up to the top left of the photo and you’ll see the former right-of-way of the MKT Railroad, which is now Missouri’s Katy Trail. The town of Pilot Grove would be off the screen, down and to the left, probably about where your monitor ends.

This town was founded in 1872. Some of my ancestors lived in the area as far back as 1820, but no town popped up until the railroad came through. Now, less than 150 years later, the railroad is long gone, converted to a lovely bike trail. The nuclear missiles began to be deployed around Whiteman AFB in 1963 and were decommissioned in 1995. Therefore, in one map image we can see the remnants of two technologies that came to this part of the country, left their mark in fairly dramatic manner, and then became obsolete.

At the same time, with the nukes and the railroad gone, many of the things that brought my ancestors to this part of the country remain a powerful draw. Animals still graze on the Missouri hillsides, and hay, now baled into a giant round bales, still gets those beasts through the winter. The farms are larger and raise different crops, but they still involve quality soil, plowing, harvesting, and the like.

The creations of man are temporary. They can mark the land in long-lasting ways, but they are not nearly as permanent as we think them to be at the moment. The creations of God, however, endure. People can damage those creations, but in most cases, the forces of nature, left to their own devices, will push things back toward where they began. Barring something drastic happening, the trees will still lift their branches to the sky and the rivers will continue to flow to the sea. As much as we like to think otherwise, it is God in control rather than man. It is God, rather than man, who provides for life.

He causes grass to grow for the livestock
and provides crops for man to cultivate,
producing food from the earth.–Psalm 104:14

Is there still a nuclear missile aimed at Pilot Grove, Missouri? That I can’t answer, but a look at the countryside suggests that we should fear not cataclysmic weapons or hurtling technology. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Perhaps we should truly begin.

What’s Your Isaac?

This morning, Bo the Poodle and I did our customary routine, riding in my car to QuikTrip for a large refill of Diet Dr. Pepper. To those who want to tell me that diet soda is worse for your health than regular soda, I would like to say, “Shut up!” I don’t really care. I don’t drink coffee, and I like my Diet Doc.

Yesterday, in preaching on Genesis 22, my pastor asked us, “What is your Isaac?” In other words, what is the thing that you would find it difficult or impossible to give up if God required it. In Genesis 22:2, we hear God establishing this category:

“Take your son,” he [God] said, “your only son Isaac, whom you love, go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains I will tell you about.”

In this verse, God piles on the pain. He starts off telling Abraham to take his son. Then he emphasizes that Isaac is Abraham’s only son. Then God calls Isaac by name before emphasizing that Abraham loves the young man. The sarcastic side of me wants to hear Abraham responding, “Oh, that Isaac!”

Abraham loved Isaac. He’d waited for decades to see a son born from Sarah, and finally he had one. God had promised to make of Abraham a great nation through this boy. And did we mention that Abraham loved his son? Now God wanted Abraham to take this miraculous, sought-for, promised, and beloved son out to a desolate mountain and thrust a dagger into him. We have to assume that, although obedient, Abraham did not rush to this task with joy in his heart. Still, he showed his readiness to obey.

So what’s your Isaac? What would be the impossible or nearly impossible thing for you to give up for God? I’ve determined that right now, my Isaac is my stomach. I enjoy eating way too much. I enjoy that Diet Dr. Pepper.

You might protest that food and drink do not compare with sacrificing Isaac, and you’d be right. Still, I can love them more than I love God. I can give them priority. Eating and drinking–like loving a son–is not sinful, but it can become sinful when it pushes God into second place.

Jesus sets up our priorities pretty clearly.

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.”–Matthew 22:37

That list does not leave a lot of room for Diet Dr. Pepper. Or maybe it leaves room for however much of that drink God allows. The beauty of our Isaac problem is seen in the conclusion to the Genesis 22 account. When he is willing to give up Isaac in order to obey God, Abraham is given Isaac and so much more along with God.

I’m not sure God will allow me to keep the Diet Dr. Pepper, but I’m hopeful.