Expectations, part 2 (The best in myself and in others)

For part 1, click here.

The desire of the righteous ends only in good; the expectation of the wicked in wrath. – Prov. 11:23

Some of us are accused of having expectations too high. Others are content with low expectations or even none at all. And they have a point. After all, low expectations are a lot less work. if I have high expectations of myself or of other people, I’m just setting myself up for disappointment, right?

Maybe that’s why a lot of parents shrug their shoulders or look the other way when their kids act badly.  Maybe it’s why so many believers accept lifestyles that conflict with biblical instruction and Jesus’ example. Maybe it’s why people say things like, “That’s just the way she is” and “I can’t help it. I’m only human.”

I wonder what would have happened after Jesus ascended into heaven had He not had the highest of expectations for His disciples. Would they have turned the world upside down? If He had shrugged His shoulders and said, “After all, you’re only human” instead of “Be perfect” would they have responded to the persecution they faced with such grace and integrity? Probably not.

So did He really expect them to be perfect? Does He really expect me to be? And should I expect that of myself and others?

In answering these questions, it’s important to note what Jesus was and was not referring to when He said those words. He wasn’t talking about not making errors in a baseball game or getting a perfect score on the ACT. He wasn’t talking about never making a mistake on a report at work or leaving dinner in the oven too long. He was talking, as usual, about love. This is the expectation of us He reiterated over and over, even making sure we get the point by naming it as the two greatest commands – love God and love people (Mk. 12:30-31).

As believers, our expectations of ourselves and of other believers, then, should match God’s expectations of us – to love Him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and to love others like ourselves.

We have to have high expectations. If we don’t expect ourselves to love God and people, and allow ourselves to treat them rudely, gossip about them, or judge them as unworthy of our time, then we trivialize the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  If we don’t expect other believers to act and speak with love, we underestimate God’s power to change them.

Having high expectations doesn’t mean you’re delusional or have no grasp on reality. If someone spreads rumors about you, for instance, you should probably be cautious about trusting her in the future. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t expect, or at the very least hope, that next time she will behave differently.

It does mean that we don’t ever settle. Understanding that God does the work (Phil. 2:12-13), and we’re all fighting a battle until the day we die (Rom. 7:21-25), we don’t stop allowing God to transform us as we learn to love like He does. And we can expect that He will.

There’s more than one way to meet the neighbors

The summer before I entered the 2nd grade, my parents moved us from Houston to The Woodlands, TX. At the time, The Woodlands was a small community, “A Real Hometown,” complete with a directory that listed information about every family who lived there – names, addresses, phone numbers, and even the children’s ages. So, at the apparently uninhibited age of 7, I sat down at the kitchen table and marked the addresses of girls near my age who lived in a 1/2 mile radius of my new home. Then I set out on foot to meet them. The way I imagine it, I was an irresistible, if not  precious, sight heading up sidewalks with pencil and directory in hand and ringing those doorbells with such courage.  I made some pretty good friends that way, too. That’s how I met Kristen Feuerbacher, whose mom nicknamed me Doodlebug, and Andrea Johnson, whose dad let me go with them on an overnight trip on their yacht in the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, in my adult life, I seem to have taken a more subtle approach to meeting neighbors. It’s called, “sit in my house and do nothing and then blog about it.” And as I reflect upon the last two months since we moved to a new house in a new town, I can say with some certainty that most people use the same tact. Maybe it was the cold weather, the holidays, or a combination of both…whatever, no neighbors came to meet us. I thought it might happen the night our smoke detectors went off – 9 of them all sounding deafening sirens for at least 15 minutes until Clay and Brandon ripped them out of the ceiling. But no one came. Not even the fire department. All we got out of the deal was hearing loss, and the prospect of meeting new neighbors seemed hopeless.

That is, until last weekend when we flooded the neighbor’s yard. I noticed a large pond outside that I didn’t remember being there. So I put my man on the case, and do you know what he did? He went right over to the neighbor’s house to talk about the pond we now shared. He didn’t have a directory in his hand and he’s not 7, but it was every bit as precious to me. The moral of the story is that sometimes your sprinkler pipe might have to spring a leak and flood the neighbor’s yard for you to meet them, but hey…whatever works.

It’s a relief to me. I mean, I don’t want to wait until we’ve been without power for 3 days, or my wi-fi is out for an hour. Not to mention I just heard Kraft announced there’s a Velveeta shortage. I have 2 pounds in my pantry now, but what happens when those are gone and Kraft still hasn’t gotten around to processing more loaves of cheese? What then? No, I need to develop relationships now, grease the wheels so to speak so people will be ready to share that generator, wi-fi code, and cheese loaf when the time comes.

Maybe you do, too. That’s why I thought we could devote this List Wednesday to exploring ways to meet your neighbors.

Use Google Earth to find swimming pools nearby. Then bake cookies, head over, and introduce yourself. If you think about it, it’s very similar to 7-year-old Cynthia stalking the neighbors in search of playmates. Only not quite as adorable.

Abner!
Abner!

Summon your inner Gladys Kravitz.Hi. I’m Cynthia. I noticed smoke above your house…but now I see it’s coming out of your chimney. Have a good day.”

Let the dog loose…on purpose. This one’s tricky. I did this on accident the other day and it was a good 30 minutes before our unruly mutt ever stopped to meet a neighbor. In fact, neighbor in this case is a very loose term, since we had traveled through yards and across multiple streets until we were nearing a 4-lane road deathtrap.

Switch your mail. This might be effective if your mailbox is right next to another mailbox; however, I would not suggest trying it if you have to walk down the street to make the switch, or if locks are involved.

Mail yourself a welcome to the neighborhood package. I don’t think this one will actually help you meet people, but it’s always nice to get presents.

Put out flyers for a party at a nearby park to meet all the new neighbors. Show up and thank everyone for being so kind.

Send your kid out to do it for you. Hey….wait a minute. Mom? Dad?

Expectations, part 1 (All that God has or nothing at all)

I pray that you…may be able….to know the Messiah’s love that surpasses knowledge, so you may be filled with all the fullness of God. – Eph. 3:17-19

Maybe it’s the rule-breaker in me, but I sometimes resist expectations. Case in point, this is my new year’s post – a full 3 weeks into  2014, after people have already determined that exercise is overrated and eaten french fries when they said they wouldn’t.

Anyway, that word expectation has had me thinking on all sorts of levels lately. I read a quote by A.W. Tozer and have been wrestling with it ever since: “I want the presence of God Himself, or I don’t want anything at all to do with religion…I want all that God has or I don’t want any.”

If you know much at all about the Bible, the prospect of all that God has probably seems a little scary. After all, when Abram chose all of God, it cost him his home and almost cost him his son, too. When the disciples chose all of Jesus, they had to leave their jobs. Then after He ascended to heaven and they chose all of Him again, they became radicals, preaching the gospel to everyone at any cost. All that God has includes His power – the same power that breathed life into existence, parted the sea, cast out demons, healed people, and broke all the rules of time and space in sending Jesus to earth and raising Him from the dead. All that God has also includes His love, mercy, grace, wisdom, and discipline. And these only scratch the surface.

The danger for believers is that we can carry the knowledge of God around like neatly packed luggage instead of wrapping ourselves up in it. Far scarier than being filled with all the fullness of God is that we can live life with just a little bit of Jesus.

The question isn’t whether or not the fullness of God is available to us. We don’t receive only a little bit of God’s presence or an immature version of the Holy Spirit when we trust in Jesus and follow Him. But to what extent are we aware of Him? How do we appropriate His presence in daily living? What is our expectation of God? Is it so big that we want all of Him or nothing at all?

If my greatest hope is that 2014 will be better than 2013, in the circumstantially focused ways that I define it, then I underestimate God’s character and power. If my biggest request of God today is for Him to help me do a good job at work or meet my personal health goals, then the Messiah’s love still far surpasses my knowledge of Him.

And I wonder what would happen this year if, instead of accepting just a little bit of Jesus, we invited God to fill us with all that He has

 

Next week’s devotional post: Expectation of self.

Parenting Teens column, January

I’m writing a monthly column in Parenting Teens for 2014. It’s a walk through the senior year and the months that follow. They asked me to write it as if it is happening in the present tense – our oldest child Brandon graduated last year, in 2013, but other than that, it’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it! At first, I thought it might be hard to write the months that came after graduation; it has turned out that those are my faves! I joked with Brandon this fall after he started college that I was thankful he was giving me so much material. So you have that to look forward to:) Anyway, this is a scan of January’s column. It’s the first of 12, and I will post them here each month. I will tell you that this transition of life has been the hardest parenting challenge to date – partly because of the circumstances of his first semester at A&M and partly because it’s just hard for all of us. God is so faithful, though, and sometimes the hardest things turn out to be the best things. I hope that through my experiences you can laugh and be encouraged at the same time.

Things Christians are afraid to admit

worshipsongsI got a funny text from a friend not too long ago, wondering if it’s OK for Christians to begrudge certain worship songs. He felt guilty about not wanting to “Bless the Lord, oh my soul,” but couldn’t help it.

I can relate. I listen to Christian radio a lot, and they play some songs to literal death. In some instances, I find myself almost wanting to find a station playing AC/DC’s “T.N.T.” so I can sing along to that, instead. At least the chorus.

Mae West said, “Too much of a good thing is wonderful!” but I have found that too much of a good thing can also make you want to stab yourself in the eye.

Regardless of your stance on the number of times it is appropriate to sing a worship song, you have to admire my friend’s willingness to voice his feelings. It’s hard to admit that you don’t want to sing what is arguably the most well-loved worship song of the day. People might judge you for saying that out loud, or blogging about it, for instance.

There are other things we are hesitant to voice, for fear of seeming less spiritual than we should. Since it’s List Wednesday, I thought we could explore a few of them.

Some things Christians are afraid to admit:

I haven’t seen the movie “Courageous.” Say that out loud in your community group next week; I dare you. While we obviously can’t say they are requirements for salvation, there are certain books and movies that are viewed by many as good indicators of one’s spirituality. I’m just saying that if you haven’t read Francis Chan’s Crazy Love, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The greeters at church creep me out. The intention behind the greeter concept is pure, and these are great people with wonderful servant’s hearts. Where it falls apart sometimes, in my opinion, is in the spacing and intensity. There is a fine line between being pleasantly welcomed to church, and feeling like you’re on the red carpet at the Emmys.

I don’t like all the meaningful call-in stories on the Christian radio station. I’m not saying the personal anecdotes aren’t touching; I’m just saying I change the channel when people start sharing them.

I have no idea what John Piper is talking about.  Don’t be ashamed. That dude is deep, and uses really big words. I’m not even sure he knows sometimes.

chacosI don’t like Chacos. If you’re unaware, Chacos are standard footwear for Christian college students. They’re kind of like a modern-day Ichthys, the not-so-secret symbol by which 20-somethings identify one another as Christ-followers. But what about the young believer who doesn’t like the colorful, adjustable straps or want a separate compartment for his big toe?

When the preacher tells everyone to bow their heads and close their eyes, I peek. Especially when the “bow your heads and close your eyes” directive is used as a guise for the conclusion of the sermon…but that’s probably a topic for another blog post. Don’t get me wrong; it’s important to respect the authority of spiritual leaders, and I try to keep my eyes closed. But in every other social setting I can think of, except maybe when getting your teeth cleaned at the dentist, it’s rude to close your eyes when someone is talking to you. They might think you’re praying…kind of like what the preacher said we were going to do.

What are some things you think Christians are afraid to admit?

My thorn(s) in the flesh

So I take pleasure in weaknesses, insults, catastrophes, persecutions, and in pressures, because of Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong. – 2 Cor. 12:10

I have a tremor. It’s pretty noticeable, too. For instance, when I make a purchase and hold out my hand to get change, people look at me funny. Then I feel like I need to explain that I’m not suffering from drug withdrawal; but usually I’m in a hurry so I just smile and let them wonder. There have been other times at the dinner table that I can’t get the glass to my mouth without the beverage sloshing wildly. We all laugh, because it’s kind of funny…unless I’m in a mood that day, in which case everyone is better off to just pretend they didn’t notice.

When I first started getting invited to speak to groups, I really worried that I would show up some place and all they would have is a handheld microphone. Go ahead, you can stop for a moment and picture the scene. Clearly, my tremor-happy self is more suited to the headset or lapel variety.

My tremor is hereditary. It is aggravated when I am tired or stressed or self-conscious about holding a handheld mic in front of a crowd. Other than that, it’s not really a big deal or a health hazard in any way. I tell you about it, though, because it is the context through which I have always understood 2 Cor. 12:7-10.

Paul had a thorn in the flesh. The thing is, we don’t know what it was for sure. It could have been a physical problem that got in the way when he stood up to preach or sat down to write letters to churches. But it could also have been something else, like depression, a temptation, a person, or people.

Whatever it was, it was big. Paul endured a lot of stuff – arrests, imprisonment, attacks on his life, attacks on his character from both inside and outside the church, a shipwreck, and a snake bite. So this thing he pleaded with God about three times had to be a source of great suffering.

Really, it doesn’t matter what the thorn was, because Paul applied it to all kinds of problems: weakness, insult, catastrophe, persecution, and pressure.

This got me thinking. In a physical sense, I have experienced the truth in Paul’s words. I think most people can understand it in that context. But what about those other problems we face?

Paul wrote in verse 9 that God’s grace is sufficient, because “power is perfected in weakness.” But it seems to me that more often than not in my life, the only thing that is perfected in weakness is weakness. When people let me down, I can’t say that I want God’s grace to be sufficient; most of the time, what I really want is for people to stop being jerks.

I need to allow God to broaden my understanding of His power in my struggles. Maybe you do, too.

When we recognize our problems as opportunities for God to grow us, He does. His grace is not just sufficient when we face physical conditions over which we have no control. It is also enough when it comes to dealing with the people or circumstances that get us down emotionally, and the battles we face spiritually.

Whatever it is that is getting you down is an opportunity for God to show you His grace. Choose, like Paul did, to focus not on the issue itself, but on God’s power in it.

Facebook is the new phylactery

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. – Matt. 6:1

Back when Jesus first gave this teaching, it wasn’t uncommon to see church-folk wearing long robes and boxes containing Scriptures on their foreheads, called phylacteries. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with wearing such things; in fact, they were commanded to do it back in Deuteronomy 6.

The problem was some people, somewhere along the way, had become prideful about it. Guys who wanted to look super-spiritual added fancy tassels to their robes and built those forehead Scripture boxes much bigger than necessary. They wanted to impress people with their holiness.

Fast forward 2000-something years, and you don’t see too many tassel-loving phylactery wearers. But if you’re on social media websites much at all, you do see something that, if you think about it, might be a whole lot like it.

It reminds me of the age-old question, “If a tree falls in the middle of a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” It seems irrelevant, but what if we think of it in the context of Christianity and the Internet? If a person helps the homeless but doesn’t tweet about it, does it have any effect? If a church group has an awesome worship service but doesn’t post a picture on Instagram, does God see it? If your kid prays for his friend and you don’t write a Facebook status to let everyone know, is it just as sweet?

Obviously, serving the homeless, worship, and praying are good things; things Christ-followers are commanded to do. And using social media to edify the church is great. But the caution Jesus gave His disciples is the same for us today. Be careful.

Be careful that your motivation to post is not to boast. Be careful that you don’t miss out on the fullness of relationship with Christ by focusing on what others will think of it. Be careful.

Because if you don’t, then you are trading in eternal rewards for likes and retweets.

Some ways to tell if you’re crossing the line between the kind of sharing that honors God and a phylactery the size of the World Wide Web:

phylactery thumbYou think about what you will post about an experience or event before it even happens.

You check back often to see how many likes, comments, favorites, and retweets you got.

You really, really hope a certain person sees your picture or post.

You feel more satisfaction from your online response than you do from the experience itself.

You manipulate (or are tempted to manipulate) an event for the sake of a post or photograph.

It’s not just a game

Last Saturday we were watching the A&M game with some friends…eating burgers, drinking sodas, sharing alternating moments of raucous laughter, anxiety, confusion and whatnot. I don’t know what I said (I’m sure it was edifying), but whatever it was prompted their 6-year-old daughter to look my way as she said this: It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It’s just a game.

First of all, I don’t know why she looked at me, because of the four adults in the room, there were at least 2 who were more worked up than I was. And secondly, I don’t know where she heard that kind of crazy talk. Probably from Michelle Obama on one of those ads they air on the Disney Channel.

Clearly, it does matter, and it is not “just a game.”

Would people set aside all of Saturday and most of Sunday afternoon if winning didn’t matter? Would there be press conferences, polls, rankings, blogs, scholarships and drafts for just a game? Would I be hunched over in my living room with my hands on my knees saying, “Aaaaaaaaaaayyyyyy gig ’em, Aggies!” at kickoff time?

It must be so confusing for an impressionable kid. It’s confusing for me, and I’m…older than 6. ESPN says, “Johnny needs to learn it’s not all about him.” Then they show a 10-minute segment that’s all about him, and devote a significant portion of every broadcast to him. When you lose, you need to care more. When you win, you need to care less. And on and on the contradictions go. It’s dizzying, really.

I don’t want to single out the Disney Channel and ESPN. Wait, that’s a lie. Yes, I do. But it’s List Wednesday, and I think we can all admit that we do the same thing on various levels. Consider these contradictions:

When I was in high school, I was in the band.
Watching football game: *expert
No offense, former band members. This isn’t really about you; it’s to point out that, when it comes to sports, everyone thinks they’re an expert. From a bleacher seat on the 3rd deck, a living room couch, or the broadcaster’s booth, we know what’s up, and we know it better than the people on the actual field.

No, I’m not going to play catch with you. It’s too hot to be outside.
Attending football game: Stop complaining. It’s not that hot.
It’s all relative. We’ll pay big bucks to endure a heat index of 104, and bundle up with a parka and cheesehead hat when it’s 12 degrees.

No, I’m not going to buy you that Pez dispenser. Put it back.
Attending football game: *pays $22 for a drink in a souvenir cup and a corn dog
Not that those corn dogs aren’t delicious…

There is no ‘I’ in TEAM.
After your kid’s football game: That coach doesn’t know what he’s doing. We would have won that game if they played you more.
This topic could be a whole blog post in and of itself. Oh wait, it was. I remember now… The bleachers made you do it.

You need to respect authority.
During football game: *gets mad and questions coach and/or officials every play in which opponent succeeds
If our kids shouted out “Hey, teacher, where’d you get that degree? Wal-Mart?” from their desks in Algebra class, we would be horrified. No, there is a time and a place to publicly berate someone’s job performance, and that, children, is during a sporting event.

Calm down! No yelling in the house.
Football game on TV: *yells in house

What are some other ways sports tempt you to contradict the lessons you want to teach your kids?

That’s not suffering

Therefore, God’s chosen ones, holy and loved, put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience – Col. 3:12

I’m just going to go ahead and tell you that mercy is not my spiritual gift. Never has been. I’ve taken spiritual gift inventories before, and I’m telling you, those mercy scores are low.

What I’m saying is that on a scale of Judge Judy to Mother Teresa, I’m somewhere around Madea.

This lack of compassion has been illuminated to me over the past 20+ years that I have worked with teenagers. For example, when a young girl is upset over a breakup with her boyfriend that she had for the last 2 weeks, I typically have to run through a whole Rolodex of thoughts internally before I land on an appropriate response. When a baseball player worries over his strained hamstring in prayer request time, I have to feign interest.

I mean, come on. The suffering people endured and wrote about in the Bible was stuff like getting big rocks thrown at your head or being put in prison for talking about Jesus. There are millions of modern-day slaves and people starving in Africa and stuff, and I’m supposed to pray about your wisdom tooth extraction?

We judge others suffering (or lack of it) by comparison, don’t we? If my grandmother had a stroke, then your grandmother’s hip replacement surgery really isn’t that big of a deal. If my friend lost his job and was without work for 6 months, then your anxiety over a possible pay cut seems kind of self-absorbed. If I consider the problems of people around the world, then you and your eating out, Louis Vuitton purse with an iPhone 5 in it, 2-car garage, Netflix-lovin’ self are gonna have a hard time coming up with any real kind of suffering.

But that’s where I’m wrong.

Certainly we are called to encourage and exhort one another to not be overcome by the struggles we face. If we were to let each other sink at every difficult life experience, we’d be a mess. We should expect one another to bear up under the weight of trials, and to grow in our faith and understanding of suffering as we do.

But it’s also true that there are many kinds of suffering and varying stages of spiritual maturity in which they are viewed. So it’s not our job to judge what counts as suffering, and what does not.

It isn’t my job to decide what people or problems I should care about; it’s my job simply to care.

When Paul wrote “Bear one another’s burdens” in Gal. 6:2, he was referring specifically to the spiritual weight felt by someone who had been caught in sin. But does that mean we are excused from applying the same principle to physical and emotional burdens? Of course, not.

Paul’s subject in this passage should cause some introspection. His instruction wasn’t directed at the one who had messed up; it was aimed at those of us who might shrug it off as bothersome or unimportant.

The point? No Christ-follower is excused in any way from caring about the burdens of others. Col. 3:12 is not a suggestion; it is a command. Since I have died and my life is now hidden with Christ (v. 3), I must put on heartfelt compassion…no matter what my spiritual gift may or may not be.

We need to wise up

The other night during the VMA’s, I was busy in my office working on a writing assignment and following Twitter at the same time. Not for news about the VMA’s, of course (I didn’t know, or care, that it was on), but because it serves as a sort of quiet office chatter when I need it. Anyway, that’s when my Twitter feed suddenly started blowing up with tweets about Miley’s, um, performance.

The thing that bugged me is that the tweets didn’t stop. People didn’t get offended enough to stop watching. They were shocked, but most reactions seemed to be a mix of surprise and a strange sort of amusement.

There are all kinds of directions to go with what happened Sunday night, and lots of other people have. But to me, the question isn’t really how or why is this happening; it’s why are we watching it?

The problem is much bigger than a young performer trying to out Gaga Lady Gaga.

We let and even encourage our kids to feed their infatuation with pop culture, and then we get mad when it crosses the line.

Sadly, Miley’s behavior the other night should come as no shock. For several years now, she has been letting anyone who has been paying any attention know that her purposes, or at least the means she will use to accomplish them, have changed. Her tweets, pictures, and press have not hidden what she’s been up to. The song she sang at the VMA’s was one with references to drugs in the lyrics. Still, we listen; still, we watch her perform it on stage. And then when wonder why.

Why weren’t we offended more than 3 days ago? Why were we still tuned in? Why are we just now explaining to our daughters why they can’t follow Miley’s career anymore? Are we bothered that our sons saw it, too? Or is that less of a concern to us, like Robin Thicke’s participation has seemed to be?

I think if we’re honest, we’ll admit that we really don’t care if the celebrities our kids watch and emulate are godly or not; we just don’t want them to put their godlessness on TV when our kids are watching.

And we need to wise up.

Teach your kids to keep every person they admire in right perspective. Years ago, I took Abby to a Hannah Montana concert. I didn’t spend an outrageous amount of money to do it, but I did it. And it was a teachable moment. More recently, I bought her some One Direction school supplies. That ended up being a teachable moment, too. We had a talk that ended with her deleting all but three of the One Direction fan accounts she follows on Instagram, because no one should get that much of our attention. I’m not saying our kids should withdraw completely from the world; but they do need to understand, in word and in practice, that no one besides God deserves our worship.

Don’t expect Hollywood to ever, EVER, model life for your kids. In fact, the majority of the time, you should use it as a cautionary tale.

Get on the offensive when it comes to protecting your boys. What happened on stage at the VMA’s is called pornography. And it is eating us alive. Don’t stick your head in the sand or excuse it, thinking “boys will be boys.” You can’t teach them to flee sexually immoral actions if their brains are already filled with images of them.

Be careful what you let your kids watch. The VMA’s were on MTV. MTV plays music videos that glorify the kind of sexuality that Miley showed us live. We would be far better off if we would join with the psalmist in Psalm 101:3 and say,  “I will not put before my eyes anything that is worthless.”