The Bad and the Good of a “Messy” Christian Life

kids-messy-room

Everywhere I turn these days, the descriptor of “messy” is being used. The church is messy. Discipleship is messy. Our lives are messy. Friendship is messy. Marriage is messy.

Everything is messy.

Much like the word “missional,” the word is used a lot without actually being defined. What are we saying when we say something is messy?

Last night , we asked our boys to clean up the den because it was messy. Legos were everywhere. Their socks and shoes were scattered across the room. Library books covered one area. So they cleaned it up.

An hour later it was all back.

A couple days ago, I read yet another blog post about the messiness of the Christian life. And this is what triggered my thinking about these things. As my boys were cleaning a second time, I had the humorous thought of one of them turning to me and dignifying the messiness of the den with poetic flair.

Now look, I’ll be the first one to defend a messy den. It means our kids have been there and been playing with toys. My mom once said to me as I was apologizing for the mess our kids had made something along the lines of, “a messy home is a happy home.” That’s some good wisdom. But she knows and I know and even the kids know that some point the mess has to be cleaned up.

I believe there is some good and some bad in our seeing the Christian life as “messy.” The difference is *why* we are calling the Christian life messy.

First, the bad – Far too often “messiness” is an excuse for ourselves. We use it to excuse wrong behavior and a defiant bare honesty without repentance in it’s wake. We aren’t unrepentant, selfish jerks with addictive behaviors, we are “messy.” There is a whole genre of blog posts now about the messiness in the author’s life. I’ve probably contributed a few myself. I’m afraid to look. The language of grace is used but I cannot help but get the feeling, no one wants to clean up the den. It’s a true statement and needs to be acknowledged. But it’s kinda like saying a a battlefield is bloody.

Now, the good – The Christian life is never, no matter who is living it, a straight line. The grace we think we are showing ourselves when our following of Jesus gets “messy” is harder to extend to others. But when we do get glimpses into other’s lives and see the starts and stops and triumphs followed by epic failures, and see the messy parts up close and love them anyway without writing them off, that’s a good thing. Part of that love will be reminding them they are loved in spite of the mess, even if they are covered in the mess. But another part of the love is helping clean the mess up and off.

It’s true Jesus loved messy people. He seemed to go out of his way for them. Smelly fisherman. Hated tax collectors. Prostitutes. Lepers. Half-breeds who had rejected God’s law. This is good news for us.  And a great example for us. When we feel like our lives are a mess and hope seems to be just beyond arm’s length, we know that God has sent Jesus into the mess of this world and then became a mess for us. And it helps us see the need to extend the hope of the gospel to those whose lives seem hopelessly a mess.

But we need to also see Jesus’ coming as a rescue mission to slowly clean up the mess. And sometimes it is painfully slow. Slow in us and slow in others. But this is where the hope is, the removal of the mess.

15 Great John Calvin Quotes

John_Calvin_by_Holbein

The other day I read a disparaging statement about John Calvin. It was the kind of off-handed dismissal that treats people as one-dimensional characters in a one act drama. Find that person’s worst moment and define them by that moment. You do it. I do it. Everyone does this.

Perhaps that was the only moment of Calvin’s life they knew. The only scene they had been exposed to was a negative.

When I was in college I discovered Calvin through Michael Horton. I figured I should read this guy Calvin if I’m gonna buy into “Calvinism.” So I started reading the Institutes and it felt like all the feelings you get when you read revolutionary writings.

I’d never read anything like it.

So, this post is done in hope that someone will read and discover the full humanity (contra-humanism) of Calvin beyond even these quotes. Some of these quotes I lived in for a long time, others I went and found because half a dozen would have made for too short of a post…

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1. “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.”

2. “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

3. “However many blessings we expect from God, His infinite liberality will always exceed all our wishes and our thoughts.”

4. “For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.”

5. “True wisdom consists in two things: Knowledge of God and Knowledge of Self.”

6. “Doctrine is not an affair of the tongue but of the life.”

7. “For it is better, with closed eyes, to follow God as our guide, than, by relying on our own prudence, to wander through those circuitous paths which it devises for us.”

8. “All the arts come from God and are to be respected as divine inventions”

9. “Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.”

10. “The gospel is not a doctrine of the tongue, but of life. It cannot be grasped by reason and memory only, but it is fully understood when it possesses the whole soul and penetrates to the inner recesses of the heart.”

11. “All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard, difficult, laborious and full of countless griefs.”

12. “A perfect faith is nowhere to be found, so it follows that all of us are partly unbelievers.”

13. “On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”

14. “Whenever the Lord holds us in suspense, and delays his aid, he is not therefore asleep, but, on the contrary, regulates all His works in such a manner that he does nothing but at the proper time.”

15. “You must submit to supreme suffering in order to discover the completion of joy.”

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

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1. There are numerous people suffering and dying who have no stage or blog, platform from which to tell of their struggle to trust God. Remember that.

2. Last night I picked up a book to read and then put it down after giving it three nights. Then I picked up another and put it down after a couple of pages. Frustrated, I picked up my $1.50 copy of A Moveable Feast and settled in.

3. In all seriousness my wife’s cooking is preferable to all the restaurants I know.

4. I’m actually thankful for the loss of an hour this past weekend. It has given me something to blame my lack of productivity at work on.

5. Already this week I’ve heard half a dozen heart-wrenching stories from coworkers and customers. It’s Wednesday.

6. Had tacos twice today, so it’s kinda like Christmas around here.

7. Sometimes I read men like Hemingway and feel closer to the way I’m supposed to when reading than when I read Christian writers.

8. Faith leans into grief.

9. We like to refer to the time period after 8 PM as the time “when the 5 yr old is not talking.”

10. I need a vacation like Beyonce needs autotune.

Theses

churchbusiness With love and and some frustration…

1. The gospel is simple enough for a child to believe. And enough for a criminal in his final moments.

2. The gospel in the mouth of a content unknown preacher is a singularly powerful thing.

3. The great threats to evangelicalism are not the sins of those outside the faith but the swallowing of business principles, the alignment with political ideology, and reducing the faith to a means of materialistic ends.

4. There is no escaping the fact that Jesus seems to have a special place in his heart for the poor and weak and hard words for the rich and powerful.

5. The present peddlers of religious goods and services employ the bait and switch of grace to draw you in and then lay down the law to keep you there.

6. Those who have espoused the doctrines of grace are far too often the least gracious.

7. When Jesus said “repent and believe the gospel” he was describing the whole of Christian spirituality.

8. Evangelicalism is no longer in charge in America. How we respond to this and the resulting hostility will show the watching world if we follow the One who loved those who crucified him.

9. The shallow morality of the moralists is easier than believing the good news of what God has done in Christ to save us from our biggest problem.

10. Our biggest problem is our sin. It is not liberals, conservatives, terrorists, poverty or sickness.

11. A church full of kind people is a powerful outpost of heaven in a dark land.

12. The wealthy, politically liberal believer in the gospel has more in common with the poor redneck conservative, gun-toting believer in the gospel, than with anyone who is a unbeliever. The reverse is true also.

13. During his earthly ministry, the only privileged status Jesus enjoyed could not be seen.

14. If the world around us cannot see our love for enemies and for each other in a way they can understand, we should not be surprised by their lack of unbelief.

15. The cross is the hermeneutical center of the Universe.

16. Jesus was born into a world of far more injustice than we may ever see in our lives. And yet he came. And the government is upon his shoulders.

17. The Scriptures can only be truly understood by the weak and suffering because those are it’s writers and original recipients.

18. We will be the most thankful for prayer when it seems to be only thing we have for a given situation.

19. If you cannot follow the money, you will see something extraordinary.

20. Churches that hire through résumés have more in common with the corporate business world than they do with the church throughout history.

21. The litmus test of believing the gospel is not evangelism and anyone who says otherwise has said more than the Scriptures and might as well put on a funny Pope hat.

22. A sermon is not powerful because it is well-organized but because of the clarity of the gospel within.

23. Following Jesus does not appear to be a life of “never do this.” Sex is permitted, adultery is forbidden. Drink is permitted, drunkenness is not. Jesus told the disciples to get a sword and pursue peace. Lying is clearly wrong unless you are Rahab protecting the spies. We want clean and neat categories. But the Scriptures will not allow it.

24. When wealthy pastors ask their people to think deeply about moving overseas to do missions, the people should all respond with, “You first.”

25. Jesus prayed for those who shamed him in public. This is the difference between Christianity and other belief systems. He would not have us fight for his honor. We honor him when we love those who shame us and deride him and his way.

26. Outside of the Scriptures, there are no “must read books.” To deny this is to deny the Reformation.

27. Jesus was hard on the rich and spoke graciously to the adulterous. We are the exact reverse.

28. When Jesus’ followers asked Jesus what work they should be doing, he told them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom he has sent.” Given 100 opportunities to answer the same question, this is not the answer of American evangelicalism.

29. The availability of the Scriptures is a wonder full of wonders.

30. There is an otherness to Jesus we have rejected. We have recreated him in our image of a starched button-downed type-A business leader, with middle class family values.

31. If “simul iustus et peccator” is true, we should not be surprised to see people acting in complete opposition to what they say they believe as Christians.

32. Criticizing Joel Osteen and other prosperity preachers is like shooting fish in a barrel. Our criticisms would be better spent on jet-setting celebrity pastors on the conference circuit.

33. Only one man has lived the “Victorious Christian Life” and His intercession should make it clear our’s is one with plenty of failure.

34. The gospel is truly good news when it is the only good news you are hearing.

35. All of Paul’s outrage seems to be reserved for the Judaizers. Not Roman politicians. Not soldiers.

36. There is no room in the message of the good news of what God has done in Jesus for preaching on our potential to do something special. It is crowded out by our sin and God’s grace.

37. The church needs to be a place safe from the marketing world.

38. Each passage of Holy Writ, like a bottomless mine, is inexhaustible in wealth.

39. The proof of the presence of the Holy Spirit is a desire to see the fruit of the Spirit grow in us for the good of others.

40. The more you see yourself as a sheep without a shepherd apart from the mercy of the Holy Spirit, the more likely you are to be kind to the discouraged and dying. You know the territory well.

41. The Holy Spirit is a comfort for the spiritually depressed who cannot find the words for prayer beyond a groan of “help.”

42. The flesh hates the freedom we have in Christ.

43. Those who defer to the rich might as well deny the incarnation.

44. The deeper we go into grace, the more we will see how we forgive our own particular sins easier than we forgive the sins of others with which we do not struggle.

45. The cross is a place where every imaginable hurt can be seen. And understood.

46. Fundamentalism sees error everywhere but within.

47. Jesus said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and not “Blessed are the happy-clappy.”

48. Most of our unbelief is about tomorrow and where to place our trust so we can rest easy. Far too often the fears of tomorrow are eased by bank accounts.

49. The Scriptures are an unrelenting reminder of our lack and God’s day-in and day-out provision.

50. The most noble goal of the Christian is to be as gracious as our crucified King.

51. The New Testament was written in the context of intense adversity. It will be the most meaningful when our context is adverse.

52. So much of what we look to in hope will end, but the reign of our Redeemer-King will never end.

53. All the pastors who preach against the American Dream, have already achieved it and then talk about its evils using a computer or smart-phone and then go to their three-bedroom house with wi-fi.

54. The prophet Isaiah said Jesus would be “acquainted with sorrows and familiar with grief.” If we are seeking to be like Jesus, we cannot bypass this hard reality.

55. There is a profound freedom that draws us near to God when we realize how much we wish the Scriptures speak differently than they do.

56. According to the Scriptures, the dead giveaway of faith in Christ is love.

57. A church requires only the sacraments and the word preached. The luxuries of Western Civilization have lured us into thinking otherwise.

58. The glory of God is seen most clearly in the grace given in the work of our Lord Jesus to sinners.

59. The homosexual debate has two fronts. The first is to hold fast to the clear teaching of the Scriptures, that homosexuality is not God’s design. The second is to love those who will hate us and accuse us of hate for believing the aforementioned.

60. Ministry leaders who work in church offices need to be slow and careful in telling their congregants, most of whom are in the secular business world, they need to make friends with unbelievers and people of differing races. They already do this, 40 hours a week and beyond.

61. There is a hopelessness that readies men and women for the gospel.

The Pre-Marital Counseling I Still Lean On 16 Years Later

Wedding Photo

My wife and I just celebrated 16 years of marriage. I’ve been doing pre-marital counseling for a couple getting married next month. And one of my students from my youth ministry days asked me for my address today, so he could send me a wedding invitation.

So I’ve been thinking a lot about the pre-marital counsel I received, which has also been the same advice I’ve been giving to others for years now. It’s all pretty simple and I deserve no credit for or any of it. Bob Flayhart, the pastor of Oak Mountain Presbyterian Church, here in my hometown, gave it to us and I’ve been living on it and giving it away.

But this morning I got to thinking about how it might be helpful and here I am with a blog and all.

Anything that follows of value should be credited to Pastor Bob Flayhart. Anything suspect is probably me messing it up. This is, of course, not exhaustive. I gotta be leaving something out. I’d say more in a counseling session. But these are the 3 things I’ve been telling to myself for 16 years now.

1) If Romans 8:28 is true and since your spouse is part of “all things” then your spouse has been given to you for your good. All of who they are is being used by a sovereign God to serve your good. And the same is true of you for them. What is that good? Knowing Christ as he is revealed in the gospel.

2) You need to live as the bigger sinner because you know, or should know, your own sin better than your spouse’s. Your sin is a bigger problem for you than your spouse’s sin. Jesus died to save you from your sin, not their’s. The temptation is to see the speck in their eye with clarity and the log in your’s with reluctance.

3) Marriage is not fair. It’s not about being fair and expecting fairness. It’s not 50/50. It’s 100/100. Marriage is a picture of the gospel and therefore is meant to be a place where grace is lived out with abandon. The temptation will always be to believe you are giving more and doing more. The goal is to extend grace and mercy because of the grace and mercy we’ve received.

Some Thoughts on Writing and Publishing

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“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the University stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” 

― Flannery O’Connor

Let me start by saying that I’m no authority on these things. But I get asked about publishing and writing in general often enough to justify me putting down some thoughts and advice I hope will encourage and discourage. I write these as a writer and as reader. A banker and sometimes pastor.

First, make sure you have the support of your elders in your church for your writing. Writing as a believer is for the benefit of the church. If you do not have the support of those who you would have lead you, then stop. Don’t write. Close this post, because there is no need for you to continue.

Second, make sure you have writers who will be gut-level honest about your writing. Not accountants, writers. While it is necessary for you to have non-writers affirm your writing, you need writers even more. And you need  writers who will be honest and not be the kind of people who will affirm you in hopes they get your support for their writing. You need to have people, especially writers, in your life who will tell you that you are not ready and need to take up knitting. Or manga. Anything for God’s sake.

Third, if you are writing for acclaim or money, you will more than likely be very disappointed. It’s just true. A hard truth, of course but truth nonetheless.

Fourth, you need to ask yourself if you are the kind of person who enjoys having written more than writing. If you are not, don’t do it. Chances are, you will not be read all that widely. You need to be in a place, emotionally and spiritually where you can write and not be read and that be OK.

Fifth, be prepared to be tested by what you’ve written. I wrote about contentment where you are and God has pushed me on that one every freaking day since. I wrote about our need as believers to be ok with being nobodies and I’ve proved to be a smashing success.

Writers and readers, feel free to add your own advice in the comments.

Random Thoughts for the Weekend

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1. The beauty of Brennan Manning’s memoir is how it rings with the same tones of all the biblical “heroes.” It’s not pretty. The failures are stark. And the grace of the Gospel takes center stage.

2. I am truly afraid God has placed me in a situation where I must existentially deal with the propositions of my own book. Sometimes I can laugh about this. But often it is a very dark thought.

3. My weekend came with all the emotion of a vacation, which is nice because I’ll get another next week.

4. My social media feeds have devolved into a constant discussion of race and pornography wrapped in a Buzzfeed style of Christianity with numbered lists churning out new laws for us and everyone else to break.

5. I’m glad I’ve relearned the simple joy of opening a pack of baseball cards.

6. Please stop trying to write like Ann Voskamp.

7. I want my kids to experience grace and not the well-oiled machine of American moral religion. But I’m not sure how to do that apart from communicating forgiveness even more than the rules.

8. There are a lot reasons I enjoy the music of Van Morrison. The lack of politics and social issues is not the least of reasons.

9. It’s normal to look forward to the weekend and buying baseball cards, right?

10. I would rather fail at life in the eyes of the watching world and be with my wife than enjoy all that is considered success. I’d rather do without, with her.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

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1. My wife and I finished watching Ragamuffin, the movie about Rich Mullins last night. It’s a unique experience to watch a movie made about someone you have actually talked with. It’s not a great movie. But it’s good enough to do the job it set out to do. It made me miss him more than ever.

2. The St. Louis Cardinals’ pitchers and catchers report today and that makes all the difference on this Thursday.

3. I can remember the sadness when I heard rich Mullins had passed away and then thinking how it was just like him to go early.

4. One of the more telling points of our consumerism is our pickiness and snobbery surrounding what we eat and drink. Christians should be neither.

5. The first Rich Mullins song I remember latching onto was “Growing Young.” To this day I cannot sing along without being moved to the point of having to only listen.

6. I’ve named my fantasy baseball team “The Trench Arts.” Trench Art was art created by soldiers during WWII while in the “trenches.” they used mortars and helmets and spent shells. It helped get them through. To survive. It’s a weak analogy. But I need something of the sort to survive my weekdays.

7. I can’t remember the last time I had pizza. (hangs head)

8. I still have the copy of “a liturgy, a legacy and a ragamuffin band” I bought in 1993 in Auburn, AL.

9. Wait, I had pizza on Saturday. (wipes brow)

10. My wife’s first reaction after watching the movie about Rich Mullins was to start reading Brennan Manning’s A Ragamuffin Gospel, which is about as good a result as could be imagined.

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

baseball

 

1. I ache for baseball season. I don’t know if this is a good thing but it feels like my childhood and that was a good thing.

2. The only privileged status Jesus enjoyed could not be seen.

3. Far too often I dream of someone famous getting ahold of my book and recommending it so I can make more money and take my wife on a date to Wendy’s.

4. When I write I’m thinking about Hemingway. Everyone is writing like Voskamp and Piper these days. I want to be Hemingway. A whole other Universe. Who cares if I get there? It’d be better to burn up in the stratosphere of singular writing than just get along on such well-trodden ground.

5. I’m going to two concerts in the next couple of months because growing up is stupid.

6. Social media is a good way for celebrities to engage the nobodies. But usually it’s just used for marketing and promotion. Christian or otherwise.

7. I finished an email interview this week. Only those of you with a stutter will understand how much I enjoyed not having to talk to people I couldn’t see.

8. My brilliant wife suggested we get a St. Louis Cardinals flag to fly by the front door of our house and it was then I fell in love all over again.

9. If “simul iustus et peccator” is true, we should not be surprised to see people acting in complete opposition to what they say they believe as Christians.

10. Repeat after me: “Dear God, Please find Matt a new job. Amen.”

Thursday’s Random Thoughts

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1. Repeat after me: “Dear God, Please give Matt another job. Amen.”

2. Nine years ago, we were in the children’s hospital in Jackson, MS with Knox. Our joy at his birth turned into pure fear and confusion when he would stop breathing while sleeping. I’m not sure we got any sleep that first week or over the months following.

3. Some guys wrecked #diet2015 this week, I don’t know their names but I do know for certain there were five of them.

4. The mistake is to assume the primary way you live out the Christian life is through the events of the 501c3 organization that is a church. It is part of it. And an important part. But your home and place of work are more important.

5. Think about how wonderful the invention of recorded music is. We are used to the stuff and it’s all so disposable now, it’s hard to catch the weight of what we hear. But then you hear some music, an album that has a physical quality about it and you realize this was not always the case. People were not always able to just listen to music whenever they wanted. Music was an event. Music had weight. And the music sat between the silence and more silence.

6. Time is a luxury when money is scarce.

7. When I was much younger, I could not understand why my dad loved the warm weather so much. I now understand. My bones ache a lot less during the warm weather months. I begin to miss the yard work and the sweat more. I’ll complain in August, sure. But I look forward to the heat now.

8. We are part of a Supper Club with 2 other couples and we eat together at least once a month. We also have a group text we’ve kept going for about 3 years. My wife said, “I need them like air.” I agree.

9. I started doing some pre-marital counseling this week for a soon-to-be married couple. My wife and I have gotten a lot of advice over the years. But none so good as what we received in our own pre-marital counseling. So that’s what I’ll be relaying to these two.

10. My wife’s cheese grits topped with slow-cooked roast beef and au jus is only surpassed by herself.

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