Category Archives: The Word

Controlling the Belt Buckle

It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control your own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the pagans, who do not know God. –1 Thessalonians 4:3-5

Recently, as I looked around a group of godly men, most of them my age or a few years older, I noticed something that nearly all had in common: bellies bulging out over their belts. I say that fully conscious that my own profile on that evening looked pretty similar to theirs.

What makes men of a certain age put on weight? You don’t expect a sixty-year-old to have ripped abs, but is there really some reason why we should all look as if we’re a pregnant woman who hasn’t just started to show?

In my case, the explanation is quite simple. Over the last couple of years, I haven’t controlled my body very well. Lest you hear that and recall the verse quoted above, let me hasten to say that my lack of control isn’t in the sexual arena. No, my lack of control involves the amount of food that goes into my mouth and the amount of physical exertion that consumes that food.

It didn’t take me a long span of life to learn that food tastes good. Lots of food tastes good, and it doesn’t stop tasting good when you’ve eaten a bit of it. The fifth piece of pizza is almost exactly as rewarding as the first.

Gluttony–just like sexual immorality–is a sin. My body requires stewardship just as surely as my bank account, regardless of whether that stewardship deals with my sexuality or my fitness. Bad behavior in either area can ruin me for effective Christian ministry.

“Control your own body,” Paul insists, as if it were an easy thing. But of course he knew that it wasn’t an easy thing. It’s not an easy thing to hit the gym in the morning. It’s not an easy thing to stop at one or two pieces of pizza. And it’s not easy to keep your mind from thinking sexually impure things. But actually that’s where the key lies.

Unless I am completely wrong, I will probably never stop looking at at least some workouts as something to be dreaded. I will probably never cease to long for more and richer food. And I will probably never stop being tempted in that other carnal area. Still connected to that “body of death” of mine, I’m subject to temptations.

In 1 Thessalonians, Paul does not say that his readers had to escape all temptation. Instead, he urges them to control their bodies and not act upon the temptation. With God’s help and my own efforts, I have mastered my sexual desire. I’ve seen the same combination of forces master my physical shape. Now, wearing a larger size of pants, has God stopped helping? Of course not.

“Learn to control your own body,” Paul insists. Did he suggest it was easy or automatic? Apparently not since it had to be learned. I may not be able to control the physiques of my brothers, but I can, with some effort, make a change to my own.

Who Am I Pleasing?

As for other matters, brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God, as in fact you are living. Now we ask you and urge you in the Lord Jesus to do this more and more. For you know what instructions we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus.–1 Thessalonians 4:1-2

With a four-hour gap between obligations at school yesterday, I headed off campus and visited one of the few indoor malls remaining in the Kansas City area. My purpose for the visit lay in getting some exercise without heading to the gym. Yes, I am old. I’ve turned into a mall walker. But as I strode around both levels of the Oak Park Mall, I witnessed a string of things that should have come as no surprise. That retail pseudo-utopia rests on the notion that we as humans ought to live to please ourselves.

I’ll admit that Auntie Anne’s Pretzel’s smelled awfully good and would, I’m sure, have tasted just as transcendent. The burgers and pizza in the food court spoke to me as well, but I’d eaten lunch at school.

If I counted correctly, there were three shops dedicated to lingerie in this place. To keep my mind where it belonged, I mostly ignored those, resisting the temptation–and that temptation never seems to die–to ogle the images of Victoria’s Secret models.

Nordstrom’s, through which I entered and exited the place, sports all manner of exceptionally nice clothes. A person could drop thousands of dollars in the widely spaced displays of the store, coming away with a gorgeous wardrobe and the credit-card bill to prove it.

Elsewhere, I walked past any number of stores selling overpriced athletic shoes–designed more for appearance than function–and a huge selection of ball caps, so that no one need face the indignity of wearing only a single K.C. Royals hat.

They had a store that offered some service for eyebrows, which I didn’t entirely understand, and a more comprehensible one doing nails. Massage chairs waited for my money in a number of places, and, should I want to drop a serious chunk of change, jewelers held down important spots.

What struck me in that mall is that there really wasn’t much of anything that seemed particularly useful. Clothes, of course, are useful, but the bulk of the clothing in this place struck me as long on price and short on quality or practicality or both.

But how on earth will our consumer-oriented economy continue to expand if we don’t buy new phones every year or dress them up with the perfect case? After all, you only live once. Grab the brass ring and all that. Make yourself happy, because nobody else is going to do it.

As he begins to draw the first letter to the Thessalonians to a close, Paul utters words that are positively un-American. We are supposed to live not to make ourselves happy but to live in such a way that pleases God. Crazy, eh?

Virtually everything at the mall revolves around making ourselves happy. Some of the things can be justified, but most of it is simple self-indulgence. Am I reading into Paul–and I don’t think I am–to suggest that if we live a life aimed at pleasing God, He is likely to give us a life that pleases us. Maybe we won’t get a nice, butter-soaked pretzel, but we’ll get something truly good.

Keep Lifting High the Banner

On February 19, 1945, American Marines stormed onto the beach at the tiny volcanic island of Iwo Jima. In the grand scheme of things, this little dot in the Pacific amounts to very little, but in the ways of strategy, it could not be left in Japanese hands as the American juggernaut moved inexorably toward the Japanese home islands and the close of the war.

In Washington, D.C. (or actually just across the river in Virginia), the Marine Memorial captures in bronze the iconic photograph of sixof those Marines raising the flag atop the island’s only landmark, Mount Suribachi.

I’ve had occasion to think about that battle and that statue recently after speaking with a veteran of the fighting. As I’ve reflected on it, it occurred to me that there’s an important lesson to be taken from the memorial.

First, we have to recognize that those sixMarines had no idea that they were making history to quite the extent that they were. Three of them would not survive the struggle for the island. I’m sure all of them knew that they were involved in something significant, but did they realize that this would probably be the most celebrated moment of their lives?

Second, that statue catches the Marines in mid-motion. There’s another photo snapped a bit later by the photographer, Joe Rosenthal, showing the erected flag and Marines standing around saluting, but it’s not the one that earned the Pulitzer Prize. It’s not the one that fires the imagination. The struggle seems to be captured in that photo, and the struggle almost always seems more interesting than the aftermath.

However, that flag in Washington will never be fully raised. For 63 years it has remained at precisely the same angle, always yearning toward but never reaching its final position. That statue locks six men and a flag in time, potentially forever.

My friend who survived the battle–in fact, who survived five combat landings without receiving a Purple Heart–understands that while the events on Iwo Jima might be the most exciting and historically significant part of his life, he cannot remain locked in time like those statues.

When I think over my life, I can point to some moments that, if not statue-worthy, are certainly moments of some glory, the exciting times when I felt as if I might be performing the most significant work of my life. Hopefully you have those moments as well, but we would both be foolish to allow ourselves to latch on too firmly to our glory days.

As believers, we understand that the “flag” of our faith will never be fully raised under our power, and our glory days will pale when compared with the day of Christ’s triumph. Until then, we need to be, Marine-like,semper fidelis, always faithful. We need to strive to lift high the banner of Christ, keeping faith with those who have come before and still striving into the future.

The day will come when the end result will be far more exciting than the struggle. But until then, let us stand firm.

The Ultimate Alpha Dog–Jeremiah 18:6

O house of Israel, can I not do with you as this potter has done? declares the Lord. Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel.–Jeremiah 18:6

id-10032215A few months ago, Penny and I procured a new dog, Beau or Bo–I’m not sure how we spelled it. Beau is a standard poodle, but before you start scoffing at the idea of a poodle, let’s be clear. A standard poodle is a cool dog. He’s about the height of a golden retriever, lean and athletic. We don’t keep his hair cut in that ridiculous poofy look at you see sometimes. Trust me–real poodles are great dogs.

But like any dog, Beau came into our home and tested the boundaries. He wanted to establish exactly where he stood in the grand scheme of things. Most of all, he wanted to establish that we weren’t the alpha dogs, the bosses of his pack. It took a while, but I think we have pretty much succeeded. Beau now cooperates and goes to his kennel at that word. He’ll mostly come when called, although he’s still terrified of Livie’s boyfriend Sam.

Dogs are wonderfully sensible. When they learn the hierarchy of things, they’ll live within it. If Spike is stronger than Fido, then Fido will mostly fall into line and yield to Spike’s leadership. People can be sensible in that way. That’s why we pull over when the police turn their lights on. We know they have the power and so we yield. That’s why we file our taxes every April, knowing that the IRS can make our lives miserable if we don’t.

However, we don’t always assume that the police or the IRS are right or all-powerful. I have argued successfully with the IRS on a couple of occasions. I’ve never gotten into a high-speed chase with the police, but there’s still time for that. Realistically, we only fight the power that we think we can overcome. We fight when we think they’re not really the alpha dog.

While you might beat the police or the IRS, you will not beat the ultimate alpha dog. When God asks Israel if he doesn’t have the power to overturn them like clay, he’s not really asking a question. He’s asking them to see the reality of it. Whatcan God do with us? Anything He likes. Can we resist His will? Only as far as He allows.

If we cannot manage to behave like clay, yielding perfectly to the potter’s hands, perhaps we should at least try to be sensible like dogs.

Don’t Be An Egg–Jeremiah 18:3-4

So I went down to the potter’s house, and there he was working at his wheel.And the vessel he was making of clay was spoiled in the potter’s hand, and he reworked it into another vessel, as it seemed good to the potter to do.–Jeremiah 18:3-4

id-10032215“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty together again.” I’m not sure why Humpty Dumpty got up on that wall in the first place. He was, after all, an egg, but he did get on the wall. And being an egg, once Humpty was broken, he couldn’t be re-assembled. All Humpty Dumpty was good for at that point was a cautionary nursery rhyme–or perhaps a plate of scrambled eggs.

All too often, it seems to me, we look at life from a Humpty Dumpty perspective. Something bad happens and we feel that we’re doomed. And let’s be clear, life can, for a variety of reasons, not all of them our fault, drop some pretty egg-crushing events into our laps. Your marriage explodes. Your child dies. You find yourself a quadriplegic. You lose your job, your house, or your life savings. Bad news comes your way from your doctor, your plumber, or the IRS. If those or similar things havenot reachedyou, then count yourself blessed and wait for next week. The Buddhists have this one thing right when they say, “Life is suffering.”

The problem, however, is that we think of ourselves as Humpty Dumpty, fragile little eggs that, once cracked, are forever ruined. But inJeremiah’s analogy, we are clay. Clay can be endlessly worked and reshaped. In the hands of our Master Potter, our disastrous lives can be remade. What seemed like egg-crushing tragedy can bethe first step in re-forming the very earth from which we were formed. Painful? Perhaps. Disorienting? Definitely. But how else can a mangled pile of clay be turned into a beautiful pot?

What then do we need to do? There’s a reason that God spoke to Jeremiah about clay. Clay doesn’t have to do anything except yield itself to to the hands of the potter. The clay has no choice. We, of course, have a choice.

If we’re wise, we’ll not exercisethat choice. Don’t be an egg; be clay.