Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Summer Days, Unread Books, & Butterfly Wings

When I am on vacation, I have one idea of how I like to spend my time. Celia, my four year-old daughter, has another.

Often when we are at Miriam's parents' home at summertime, I find myself alone for a few hours in the morning while the rest of the entourage goes into town to shop. Lounging about sipping coffee and reading one of the several books I'm in the midst of before an afternoon down on the beach of Lake Michigan is my ideal. Yesterday morning looked promising, as once again everyone went off to do their thing at an antique store (or was it Meijers? They told me but I was engrossed in my reading and did not hear clearly). Anyway, one thing they surely told me, but I did not factor into my "It's going to be a perfect morning" equation, was that they were leaving Celia behind.

Now I love my kids, and playing Monopoly, riding bikes, jumping in waves, playing kickball in the sand and the like are testimony that I cannot exactly be accused of ignoring them on vacation. But I do like to read, and it's tough trying to do so when a drill sergeant with gold curls is demanding your attention. Before I knew it, I was awakened from my reading-induced, semi-comatose state to find myself being accosted by the repeated demand, "Daddy, let's go for a walk on the beach."

In the first two dozen requests I'm sure this sentence must have been spoken with some respect and hope, and I, having mistaken it for something like the annoying buzz of a fly, must have kept on reading. But by the time my consciousness had returned to me this sentence was being blasted into my right ear with the force of a battlefield command. "Daddy, let's go for a walk on the beach!" At first I looked up from my book ready to pull rank and explain to the assuming Sergeant York of the family that beach time is in the afternoon, while morning was for reading time. Yet upon seeing that earnest face and pudgy body in her bathing suit, I wilted. Sighing at yet another unread chapter, I laid the book down and hand-in-hand out we went, down the steps to the beach below.

As we walked along by the water's edge, the rolling curves of debris left on the sand from the waves from the night before caught Celia's eye. Smooth stones were collected. Driftwood was thrown back into the surf for another ride amidst the waves. Every bug was marveled at. A small, dead, silvery fish was examined. And an unread chapter was slowly forgotten as I looked at the real world again through the eyes of my child, every bit as fascinating and imagination-filling as my book had been. Then we came to the butterfly.

Having apparently been tossed for a while in the surf, the small, brown butterfly flapped helplessly at our feet. Closer inspection revealed that parts of its wings, created to float on air but unable to withstand the water, were torn. Celia kept oohing over it as I picked it up and placed it in her hands. With all the tenderness of a mother she turned from the wind to shelter it and held it close to her body to keep the stiff breeze from blowing it away. We turned and walked back to the house, the butterfly drying out and resting contentedly on her hand as she carefully carried it. An empty juice jug, with stones and sticks collected from our walk lining the bottom, served as its new home. A pink flower plucked from Papa's garden was dropped inside in the hope of providing nourishment. The rest of the day it was carried around and shown to all.

Yet the hope of yesterday turned into the reality of today. This morning she asked to hold the butterfly, but I had to inform her it had died. There were no tears, just an "Oh, well, you can take care of it, Daddy," and off she bounded to take wonder in something else. I was the one left holding the dead butterfly.

As I scattered the contents of the juice jar in the woods behind the house, and watched the fading color of the fragile creature blow away, I was reminded again of our own fleeting existence. Was it not just yesterday that Lindsay (now graduated), then Emory (now a teenager), took delight in showing me bugs and butterflies? Summer days and butterfly wings - bursts of God's creative glory - will be gone with all the suddenness of the fireworks we will be oohing over in just a few days. And so will we, says the Scriptures that compare our days to flowers and moths. Though we moderns often believe thinking upon death is morbid, somewhere I recently read in one of those books that we are never more alive than when we are aware of how close to death and eternity we really are.

So as I head down to the beach now, I will sneak a book down in the hopes of finishing that chapter in between the children beckoning me for attention. Yet as I turn its pages and near the conclusion, I will remember what my daughter has taught me, a lesson learned today with a butterfly, a lesson that will be remembered again tomorrow when I discover she has grown. We are like books ourselves in the hands of the Lord, the days like pages, the end drawing near. Yet, in Christ, this is not a morbid thought at all, for we are headed to a never-ending glory. For these fragile body and souls we are were not meant for the churning, heavy surf of this sinful world in which we flounder, but rather created and now redeemed for the sweet atmosphere of heaven.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Real Christianity

This subject is just the last two words of the typically long, 18th century title of the book A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System of Professed Christianity in the Higher and Middle Classes in This Country, Contrasted with Real Christianity. Written by William Wilberforce, this book helped persuade minds and hearts about the powerlessness of the "cultural Christianity" being practiced at that time in England and the need for a living faith in Jesus Christ. Having seen the movie Amazing Grace in recent months, I was motivated to read Wilberforce's seminal work. The source of his passion to end slavery in his nation was his dynamic walk with the Lord that this book reveals.

As the Lord so often does when I'm reading one thing seemingly unrelated to other studies, I have found His Spirit using Wilberforce's words to seal things He has recently been teaching me and that I have been emphasizing in the preaching and ministry here. In particular, recent concerns I have had regarding worldliness in my own life and in the church find truer expression in Wilberforce's words:
The advancement of the kingdom of God and His glory are scarcely embraced as the objects of our greatest passions. The pursuit of these treasures is no longer what we strive for...Personal pleasure and personal peace become the regulators of where we live, where we work, how we spend our time, what we think, what we say and how we amuse ourselves. The great issue of our life becomes (overcoming) boredom. What tragedy!
...Life goes on with too many living in a kind of shapeless idleness. Recreation becomes the goal of life. Pubs abound, sports are perpetually proliferating, gambling consumes many, and almost any form of entertainment is pursued to fill the void created by a meaningless life...We are not criminals or murderers or thieves. Our sin is not so obvious. We live according to the standards of society, drifting along on this world's ideas of living, oblivious to the consequences.

...The Bible instructs us to put to death the deeds of the sin nature, but through habitual indulgence, the way of the old nature has become the norm for the majority of modern Christians. The idea of exercising vigilant restraint and self-denial is viewed as something belonging to the residents of monasteries.
(boldness mine).
Reading this, one almost feels as if Wilberforce is addressing our day and culture. But then again, nothing is new under the sun - especially the sins of our old man.

Wilberforce then urges his generation toward authentic Christianity. As he points out, the same Jesus who said "Believe in Me" also said "Follow Me!" For Wilberforce, this means living by faith. To live by faith is "an exhortation to continually allow our faith - our relationship with Christ - to be the habitual dynamic by which we live out our days. We must walk (live) by faith as the motivating and ruling dynamic of our life. When we live this way, it creates a new kind of vision for our life" (again boldness mine).

Note from the bold wording above that Wilberforce saw both a worldly, cultural Christianity and an authentic, dynamic Christianity to be the result of our habits. What are we giving our minds and hearts and times and passions to? If to Christ and His kingdom, the results will be that the church will be world-changing. If to pleasure and idleness, the results will be that the church will be world-conforming.

How do we evaluate properly our habits? As I am in the midst of preaching a series on the Lord's Day entitled Calling the Sabbath a Delight, I was excited to see that Wilberforce stresses Sundays as the day to address our habits. Nothing like setting a day God gave us aside to be sure that the habits of our lives are centered on Christ. Let me conclude then with this quote, for it lays the matter clearly before you. Again, the boldness is mine.
Another example of the differences between the these two kinds of faith is what we see in reference to Sundays. This is a day that God Himself set aside to be a special day. It was designed to be a day when spiritual issues could be especially focused on...The intention was that this would be a joyful day of fellowship. But is it? How do cultural Christians spend this day? Do they enter God's house with gladness? After church, if they go, how do they spend the rest of the day? Do they spend the day cultivating their relationship with God? Do they reach out to others to help them with their growth in Christ? Do they use their time seeking to serve the kingdom of God?

You would think that setting aside one day for these purposes would not seem problematic. Properly understood, it should be viewed as a great blessing. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Instead of experiencing the day as a day of spiritual opportunity, a day of reflection and adjustment, a day to correct the errors that might have accumulated during the week, or a day of joy, love and harmony, many abuse the day through the sense of obligation they attach to it or by totally disregarding it. It seems to them a chore to devote a whole day to God. If they attend church at all, they deem it a merit entitling them to spend the rest of the day as they please...For many, business itself is viewed as more recreational than enduring what they feel to be the drudgery of Sunday!

There are those who find themselves having the right attitude to the devotional life and especially the role Sunday plays in it...They desire a heart that is more hungry for spiritual things and less consumed by the enjoyments of the temporal world. If you are one of those people, do not be discouraged.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Little Joys

The Lord turns even our little sorrows into joy...

Last weekend I had to spend yet another beautiful, sunny Saturday going to various open houses for graduation. Now don't get me wrong. With my own daughter crossing the graduation stage Friday night, I rejoice in seeing her and her friends reach this milestone in their lives. It was just that the prospect of having another Saturday so filled that I would not be able to do any yard work, ride bikes with the kids, or read leisurely made me, well, a bit grumpy. So as I climbed into the car with my wife and three of my teenagers to head to Lafayette, I had that same low energy, frustrated, angst feeling I get when I have to go clothes shopping (which thankfully because of a wife whose patience is vast and whose care for me is heroic I have not had to do for several years). Yes, I had nothing less than a sinful, selfish attitude.

However, throughout the day the Lord used means to pour grace upon grace on me. Listening to the excitement of my children on seeing their friends and to Trevor joke in good spirits with his sisters on the car ride made my smile return. Watching eight young people receive their diplomas from their parents and hearing Jared Olivetti speak on the value of God's Word in their lives made my eyes tear up. Recruiting another dad to help coach the home school basketball team made my growing concern for the program relieved. Fellowshipping with other friends through the day made my heart thankful.

Yet it was Lindsay sitting on a container of yogurt that made my day. Somehow the yogurt, packed as a snack for the drive, ended up on the seat and Lindsay sat on it. She was not aware of this fact until she got out of the car and found a wet spot on the back of her skirt. Watching her sister and mother help her wipe it off was funny enough. But finding out the name on the squished yogurt container caused the outburst of laughter.

The name? Yoplait's "Fruit on the Bottom."

All I can say is that when I returned home that evening, I was a happy, singing man once again, which I had not believed possible when I was looking ahead to the day. The Lord's loving kindnesses indeed never cease and are new each day. So who knows? If this keeps up, I may even ask Miriam to go shopping for clothes.