Modesty–Not a Function of Bathing Suit Surface Area

Imagine that we were playing a game where we described our siblings to each other using only one word. One single word to communicate as much as possible about someone we’ve known really well for our entire lives. When you asked about my brother, out of all the words in the English language available to me (and after a long, thoughtful pause) I chose the word “modest”.

What would you think about him?

I suspect that you’d think that he had some particularly impressive attribute or great strength by which he could exert some social dominance in all of his relationships, but he doesn’t. He lives in a nice neighborhood and drives a nice car, but it isn’t the kind of “nice” that makes people gasp. He dresses OK but not impressively. When he talks to you he seems sincerely interested in what you have to say and doesn’t often bring up his impressive quality or drop names. He’ll help out at the community work day and volunteer to get your mail when you are on vacation. Despite his social power, he is just generally and all-around nice guy.

For example, I’d pick the word “modest” if my brother was a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon who invented a new technique in herniated disc surgery. He lectures extensively and doctors come from all over the world to learn from him. He can make as much money as he wants to make, and pretty much every neurosurgeon in the US and Canada knows his name. Nevertheless, his neighbors only know that he is a doctor. His house is nice but not opulent. He cuts his own grass. He gives most of his money away. He never brings up his days at Harvard. His car costs under $30K. He is the assistant coach for his son’s pee wee soccer team. If a stranger met him for the first time, somewhere other than his medical office, he would be very impressed–by what a nice and helpful guy he is (and no other reason).

Let’s go back to the start of the game. This time, when you asked me about my brother, I told you that I don’t have one. When you asked about my sister, out of all the words in the English language available to me (and after a long, thoughtful pause) I chose the word “modest”.

What would you think about her?

I suspect that you’d think that she dressed super frumpy.

I’d pick the word “modest” if my sister was a Harvard-trained neurosurgeon….

Modesty is a way of thinking about yourself and others. And, like every other way you can think about yourself and others, it will, by necessity, affect the way you live your life and relate to others.

Christian modesty recognizes that I am made by God, at God’s initiative, for a purpose—the exact same purpose that all of my brothers and sisters share. I, as one part of us (the Church), am to bear something of the awesomeness of God into His fallen world where Satan is its prince and power. At any cost, up to and including death, I must manifest the message of God in word and deed. With all the benefits endowed at my creation, while empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit, I am to bring something of the power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy of God to the world for two reasons—to express worship to the author of every good and perfect gift, and to further the work of God in drawing His people to Himself.

But, sadly, Genesis 3 impacts us all. This hostile world thoroughly enjoys power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy—but spins them in worship of the creature rather than the creator. I must never underestimate my vulnerability to this temptation’s allure. It is such a small slip from proclaiming that God is powerful, beautiful, skillful, loving, hopeful and joyful to wanting others to credit me with being beautiful, skillful, loving, hopeful and joyful. Look at me! Treat me like a god—I’m glorious! Praise me! Aspire to be close to me!

“Look at me!”–herein lies the need for modesty. Christian modesty is sincerely desiring to live in such a way that the power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy manifested in my life are pointing to God (worship of the Creator) and not to me (worship of the creature).  Our problem is never that we have too much power, beauty, skill, love, hope and joy. These attributes look like our Father, and it is impossible to look too much like Him. Nevertheless, “Look at me!” feels so overwhelmingly compelling. How do we maintain a heart of modesty?

Satan has a strategy that he markets heavily with, sadly, quite a lot of success. His reasoning goes like this—if you are tempted to want people to look at your greatness, don’t look great. Don’t be too beautiful, too powerful, or too joyful. Dial it back!

Imagine my imaginary neurosurgeon sibling trying this approach. If she said, “I’ll try to have fewer positive outcomes so I won’t tempt my colleagues with jealousy”, would that honor God? If she quit studying so she could become less excellent and more mediocre would that promote the Kingdom?

God wants us to look like Him and use our strengths to point others to the source of them!   Only the devil wants you to hide your light under a bushel (or put it out). Mediocrity is not an ambition that honors our Lord Father.

Modesty isn’t achieved by buying a bigger swimsuit or taking your diplomas off the wall. Modesty is a way of thinking (or more accurately believing).   It is not obtained by taking external behaviors. Rather, godly behaviors flow from the modest heart. Jesus didn’t call it a hard and narrow way for nothing! Modesty, like all the virtues, requires a life-long fight of faith to constantly pull our eyes off ourselves and put them on the Lord.  It is a fight to remind ourselves why we’re here, whose we are and what our purpose is. It would probably help us to constantly remind ourselves that the “why, whose and what” is exactly the same for every Christian—I am here because God wants me here. I belong to God without condition or reservation. My purpose is to worship God and carry His life and message into the world.

At the end of the day, my “why” and “what” is not determined by my family, my job, my wealth, my appearance, my reputation, how many people like me or how successful I appear. My imaginary neurosurgeon sibling is not more valuable or meaningful in the Kingdom because of her wealth and social clout. While it is impossible to imagine a scenario where she should be less excellent at her craft, it is possible to imagine scenarios that would require her to do less of it in order to integrate her craft into her whole-life calling. Perhaps she’d need to see fewer patients in order to be more involved with her children, her aging parents or to be more active in another ministry that God has called her to. She has a Lord. She has a Lord Father. She is, truly, a princess. “Neurosurgeon” is only a means (not an end) from an eternal point-of-view. “Means” can frequently vary due to a wide variety of situational variables. “Ends” never do. 100 years from now, nobody will call her “Dr.”. In heaven, the only thing that will matter about our accomplishments (no matter how impressive) will be whether they were worshipful. A cup of water in Jesus’ name will outweigh donating millions for the praise of men.

The world and flesh and the devil may tell her that being a world-famous neurosurgeon is at the core of her identity.   She is modest enough to know that all the accolades the world can offer would pale in comparison to being princess in the Kingdom of God. She is adopted into the very family of God at His initiative. That is her identity, and it is all of grace—nothing that she could accomplish in this world could rival it.

A person who believes that they are adopted by God and are a beloved prince/princess of the Kingdom can stand strong in the face of temptations to use their physical beauty, their wealth, their prestigious job, their heroic exploits, their generosity, their connections to powerful folks, etc. to earn the praise of men. What is the praise of men compared to being beloved of God? We have more than we can hold already. Now we’re free to love people and bring boatloads of power, beauty, love, joy, hope, skill and work to the battlefield in the name of Jesus to the glory of His name alone.

Why would I want anyone to “Look at me!” when they could see my Lord Father in me?

Oh for the grace to repent and believe!!!

On Applying Old Symbols (A Parable)

[I thought of this parable as I contemplated the tiny, but apparently sincere, minority of “heritage”-minded people who believe that the Confederate battle flag is not a symbol of racism.

In hermeneutics class there was a saying ‘context is king’. Perhaps it has a wider application. When you cut something out of the past and paste it into the present (a symbol, a procedure, a style, etc.) it may comfortably retain the cherished traditional meaning within your particular sub-culture. However, others outside your tribe will experience/interpret it in the context of their cultural values/ideals/style. The more culturally insulated a person is, the less sensitive he will be to this reality. If we are going to be a fragrant aroma amongst the perishing, we need to take heed.]

Once upon a time there was a small Christian school in Podunk, South Carolina. Actually, it wasn’t really small anymore. It was thriving. When it started 50+ years ago, it was just a handful of kids from the local Baptist church hiding from decaying morality and evolution in the science books. However, in the last 10 years or so, it developed a reputation for educational excellence, and it was pretty cheap, by private school standards. That, combined with the fact that the local county school district was one of the worst in the state, caused enrollment to swell.

To their credit, the 6 old Deacons Emeritus of First Baptist Church, who comprised the school’s governing board, saw this as a wonderful opportunity to minister to the community. They were sincerely committed to communicating, in word and in deed, the beauty of the Gospel to the whole student body and their parents—many of whom did not attend their church (or any other). At the same time, though, they were very concerned that having such a large number of students from outside their church could have an adverse effect on the “holy environment” that was at the core of the school’s very purpose. They resolved to protect their school’s environment from any unnecessary risk.

So, when a large group of parents and students requested that the school have sports teams, it didn’t take the board long to reject the idea. Sports seemed to bring out the worst in people—pride, aggression, outbursts of anger (and that’s just the parents in the stands!). Nope, they weren’t going to risk it. Over the next couple of years they saw many families withdraw from the school over the lack of sports. This didn’t really concern them until they realized that many kids were joining traveling teams that played on Sunday. They started to reconsider.

Nevertheless, they remained convinced that organized sports were a petri dish for all kinds of ungodliness to grow. They gave great thought to ways they could reinforce sport’s noble virtues (humility, hard work and strength) to counter the sports-inflamed passionate sins of pride, aggression and anger. If they were going to have sports, they needed a symbol of virtue to be their mascot. The mascot must embody the virtues they wanted to guard.

Hmmm…. mascots were typically animals. Usually they were carnivores with fangs showing. Lions, tigers and bears communicated an ungodly aggression and top-of-the-food-chain pride. It should probably be a herbivore. However, as they researched, they noted that herbivore mascots seemed to always have horns that figured prominently. Horns were a symbol of power in the Bible and usually associated with evil pride. So, they needed a hornless herbivore that symbolized Biblical virtues.

Eureka! A donkey. It is strong. It is known for hard work. It has a humble reputation. Best of all it is biblical! Abraham used one when he took Isaac to the altar. A donkey is the only animal that God ever used to speak for Him (Numbers 22). Mary rode it into Bethlehem at the beginning, and Jesus rode it into Jerusalem at the end. Perfect! The Board’s vote was unanimous that their mascot would be the—

Oh, did I mention that these people only used the King James Bible?

The Board planned a big event for last week of school in the spring. They would invite the media and local dignitaries to the big assembly where they would announce their new sports program and unveil their new mascot. When the big day came they just didn’t understand the mixed reaction they got when they announced the new school mascot.

First Baptist Christian Asses

Most laughed. Some gasped. A very small percentage of people clapped along with the deacons.

As the stunned parents discussed it that evening, they began to understand how this happened. The board members never watched TV, never watched movies or even listened to “secular devil music”. Their understanding of pop culture wasn’t really even “pop” 60 years ago when they think it was. They grew up in (and remained in) a culture and never looked beyond its borders (except to decry others’ moral and social inferiority and warn of the dire consequences that would necessarily flow from it). In their minds, they were the remains of what was once an almost universally-held social consensus. They hadn’t left the world, the world had left them and they didn’t see the need to understand much about where it went—their concern was to remain where they were. They would be the home that the prodigal world could return to when it came to its senses.

Over the days that followed, concerned parents and teachers tried to explain to the board why it wasn’t good to be referred to as “Asses”. Referring to someone as an “ass” was an insult and expression of contempt. Worse still, “ass” was a slang term for a body part and was often used in a sexually-oriented manner. Plus, it no longer had a biblical connotation (modern translations didn’t use that word). But, these warnings just strengthened the Board in its resolve. “Just because the Devil has co-opted our precious symbols does not mean that we should stop using them! We refer to God as ‘God’ even though idolators refer to their deities as ‘god’. We don’t stop teaching about the Noahic covenant sign just because homosexuals put rainbows on their bumper stickers. Modern Bible translations can float in the cultural winds all they want to, but we will stay true to our tried-and-true traditional words, symbols and message. WE DON’T CHANGE OUR MESSAGE TO COMMUNICATE TO THE WORLD—WE COMMUNICATE OUR MESSAGE TO CHANGE THE WORLD!!!”

The Board did not back down. In fact, they moved forward. They were sick to death of the fact that modern cultural style, driven by ignorant, ungodly people, was turning beauty into ugliness. They would not let this go unchallenged! So they promoted their holy Asses with passion. They instituted the “Ass of the Week” award that was awarded to a student from each grade who had demonstrated hard work and excellence (with humility) the previous week. They had T-shirts printed as a prize and put each student’s picture on a large bulletin board in the foyer under a huge “Asses of the Week” sign.

A picture of that bulletin board went viral.

Regardless of all its positive qualities, the world only knew that school for one thing. They couldn’t see past it. They never would. The Board never understood why. That school died–their symbol killed it.

Thoughts on Sexual Orientation

Sam and Julie were found dead in the house where they’d lived together for the past 2 ½ years. Sam’s body was found intact on the living room floor. There was a large rock by his head. Julie’s unclothed body was found mangled on the kitchen table…

The object of the game was to figure out how they died by asking 20 (or less) yes/no questions. The reason it was hard was because Sam and Julie were goldfish. Because the guessers assume they are people, they tended to ask the wrong questions and then be led further astray by the answers. Nobody suspects the pets.

I think the same thing is true about homosexuality. We approach the subject with an incorrect assumption and therefore ask some wrong questions and get led astray by the answers.

What if homosexuals don’t even exist?

We have an assumption (Dallas Willard would call it an “idea”) based on culture, popular opinion and personal feelings, that people who experience same-sex attraction are fundamentally different than people who do not. We have categories (“heterosexuals” and “homosexuals”) and everyone fits in one of those boxes. Most consider it a self-evident truth that there is a significant substantive difference between the two. It is believed as strongly as the difference between “black” and “white” was by many in the pre-civil-rights days. “They” are fundamentally different than “us”.

What if that assumption is wrong? What if there is no substantive difference whatsoever between someone who desires homosexual intercourse and someone who recoils at the very thought? What if the universal experience of all humanity since Genesis 3 is that we desire some things that God forbids and are repulsed by some things that God desires?

What if everyone’s day has enough trouble of it own? What if God’s grace is sufficient for each of us? What if we’re all at war with the same enemies using the same weapons as soldiers of the same kingdom but our battlefields are as varied as we are?

What if you aren’t different than me? What if you aren’t a “homosexual”—you are just one of 7+ billion people who really really really wants something that God has denied them?

What if none of us is a special case?

We’ve bought into the lie that people who desire sexual relations with someone of the same sex are fundamentally different than people who don’t. Then we’ve used our logic to conclude that, to be fair, they shouldn’t have to fight a battle that other people don’t. Since the heterosexual subspecies has the opportunity (at least in theory) to experience sexual release according to their tastes, then the homosexual subspecies should as well. Surely God wouldn’t require some people to carry a significantly heavier/different burden than others…

Yet, He does. Some saints are living in countries where persecution is likely and many saints are at zero risk. Many saints are living in circumstances where adequate food is as unavailable as adequate medical care while many saints will never know a minute without overwhelmingly attractive opportunities for gluttony. Some women who have dreamed of being a mother since they were children will never have a baby (some others not even a husband). Some men will never see, some will never walk. Some will never know a day free of debilitating disease.

The fact that our temptations, resources, enemies and opportunities are extremely diverse and unequally distributed has no bearing whatsoever on our individual meaning or worth. Nevertheless, it certainly will affect each individual’s experience of the life to which he has been created and called.

We are all equally post-Genesis-3 people. We all, to one degree or another, have to deal with a seemingly overwhelming combination of lust and fear and greed and laziness and pride and anger and envy and disappointment and so on and on and on and on. It isn’t hard for me not to sin in the areas of illegal drug use, physical violence or homosexual activity. But the fact that I do not even experience temptation in any of those areas does not mean that I am fundamentally different than someone who does. I have a “temptation fingerprint” that is unique to me, but it is not meaningfully dissimilar to 7 billion others’. If I feel that I’m in a separate class/subspecies of people than you because my “fingerprint” does not contain elements that yours does, it only means that the pride aspect of my temptation fingerprint has won yet another skirmish.

All of us, without exception, experience temptation—we sometimes crave what God has denied, and we sometimes recoil from what He has given. The specific appearance of the temptations common to man is diverse. The ultimate meaning and goal of them is not.

I remember going “orienteering” in ROTC. We had to find flags in the woods with only a compass and written bearings and distances. I was better at finding ticks than flags because it is harder than it sounds to go straight in a particular direction in an obstacle-infested environment. I’d frequently stop and hold the compass against my stomach to check my bearing while counting my paces. Nevertheless, everything in the environment conspired to lead me off target. On a few occasions I managed to get close enough to a flag to see it. I’d then ignore the compass, focus on the flag and run to it. Those were the only flags I found. I think this is the picture in Hebrews 12:2—we are to be looking to (eyes fixed on) Jesus as we run with endurance. Jesus is to be our orientation!

If we are Christians, our sexual orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our vocational orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our family orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our financial orientation must be Jesus Christ. Our ministry orientation must be Jesus Christ.

How easy it is to be oriented to our desires rather than to our Lord! This is the very essence of sin. It matters not whether my desires lead me in a direction that is socially acceptable or not. It matters not how heinous others judge the behavior that follows to be. Ultimately it matters that my orientation is not Jesus. Everything that is not of faith is sin (Rom 14:23).

A boat’s orientation is not the direction that the wind and current is pushing it (no matter how forcefully)–it is the direction that the captain is steering. Likewise, a person’s sexual orientation is not the same thing as his feelings of sexual desire! It is possible (actually expected since Genesis 3) to experience sinful desire while being oriented on Jesus. (“For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things that you want to do” Gal 5:17). Maintaining a Christ-focused sexual orientation (while also maintaining a Christ-focused vocational orientation and family orientation, financial orientation, etc.) is what someone does who is loving the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. This singular, comprehensive, whole-life Christ-orientation is the whole point—it is what walking by faith strives to accomplish. This is the calling of God to His people. Are you oriented to Jesus? Anything (and everything) else is an idol.

Satan’s power is in the lie. Don’t believe it. You are not a “homosexual”—you are a person created in the image of God and adopted into the holy family of our Lord Father. You are a prince or princess in the kingdom of God! This ongoing flesh vs Spirit dissonance will end one day, and then our Christ-orientation will reign unchallenged in our hearts. Maranatha! But until then, God has promised us enough trouble for every day (Matt 6) and that our temptations, which are common to man, will be accompanied with a means of escape (I Cor 10).

There was a time when our temptations defined us, but no longer (I Cor 6). God defines us now—we are His beloved sons and daughters. Our calling is the singular calling of the Family business—manifesting the truth and beauty and glory and love of our Lord Father in the midst of a painful, hungry, dying world. Sin is the kryptonite of the Church. What else cripples truth, beauty, glory and love? We work out our salvation with fear and trembling because it really hurts this side of heaven. Jesus warns us, but he also equips us—better still indwells us. He doesn’t send us out for Him–He calls us to go with Him.

Your temptation fingerprint is not identical to mine, but it is not meaningfully dissimilar. We are all in this together without division. There are not two kinds of Christians in the world separated by the nature of their temptations–there is one kind and one kind only. It is a tempted kind; a beloved kind; a fearing/trembling kind; an adopted by God kind; a suffering kind; a secure in the hand of God kind.

A holy kind.

If God has adopted us into his family, why would we want to define ourselves by the nature of our temptations? Honestly, the only reasons I can think of are pride or an attempt to justify or excuse our idols.

Don’t believe the lie that there is something wrong with the same-sex-attracted saint that isn’t also wrong with the all the other saints. Sin–it is what is wrong with all of us. When the lazy man is born again his recliner is still comfortable and ESPN isn’t less delightful than housework. When the porn user is born again his eyes will still long for the sites God denies them. When the heavy drinker comes to Christ, beer is still delicious. When the glutton joins the church, pizza still tastes way better than salad. After the impatient man comes to Christ, the slow car at the front of the left turn lane will still elicit a strong emotional response–and it will feel very unnatural to not express it. When a same-sex-attracted person is truly born again, the Holy Spirit will turn off their homosexual desires like a light switch. If that is not their experience, salvation is questionable at best.

That sounds so ridiculous when you write it out!–but don’t we sometimes give that impression? Why do we treat same-sex attraction differently than every other temptation?! The only reason I can think of is that we believe the lie that, unlike other temptations, same-sex desire makes you a fundamentally different type of person. It is like a variation of racism.

Let’s never tire of reminding each other that Jesus is better than what our post-Genesis-3 flesh craves. And, although our feelings to the contrary are overwhelming at times, we are one people with one calling. The associations and distinctives that the world values so highly do not fracture our singular identity or mission in the slightest. Since there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free (Gal 3), why would there be gay and straight?

Lets fix our eyes on Jesus! No post-Genesis-3 person maintains that orientation unchallenged. Each day, although experienced 7 billion different ways, has but 1 purpose—the glory of God. Sin, of any and every type, is the thing (the only thing) we can do to thwart it. In the end, we never will thwart it—we can only temporarily hide, besmudge or appear to delay it. We will all manifest His glory in the end—in our salvation or condemnation. Oh to be among the saints on that day!

What is my orientation? Really—how will I know? Should I look at my life and make my best guess?

“For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (Rom 8).

In the end, my orientation is what I actually set my mind on—not what I feel like setting my mind on in the heat of temptation’s moment. This is hard enough for all of us, but I recognize that the pain is not evenly distributed. For what it’s worth, compassion exists. I’m with you in this, and I love you.

Grace and peace to you from our Lord Father.

The Ultimate Level Playing Field

If you asked me to list some awesome, but unnecessary, things God did when creating the Earth, right near the top of the list (even ahead of the design of owls and the smell of really good fried chicken) I’d put the fact that water (even really dirty water) turns pure white at the top of waves and when it flows over rocks.  Seriously–why should it do that?!  That is nothing but pure style on God’s part.

If you asked me to list some of the awesomest Christian doctrines that are totally unlike other religions, right near the top of the list I’d put the fact that the playing field is totally level in everything that God really cares about.

Jesus said that the whole law and the prophets hangs on these two commandments–to love the Lord with all your heart all your soul, with all your mind and all your strength.  And the second like it–love your neighbor as yourself.

The ramifications are, really, quite dizzying.

If, ultimately, ministry and worship can be simply defined as the Christian’s obedience to these two commands, then you can’t even begin to imagine a scenario where someone or something can preclude a truly born-again believer from being able to hit it out of the park at any bat.  While education, resources, particular circumstances or environments can have a huge effect on the earthly impressiveness of our actions, God doesn’t concern himself with earthly impressiveness.  Man looks at the outward appearance but our Lord Father looks at the heart.

The command is to love Him with all your (not someone else’s) heart.  This is great news for the profoundly wounded and autistic brethren.

The command is to love Him with all your (not someone else’s) soul.  This is great news for those raised in harsh, non-Christian environments who had a poor spiritual formation until salvation later in life.

The command is to love Him with all your (not someone else’s) mind.  This is great news for the saints with low-IQs and others who had no opportunity for education.

The command is to love Him with all your (not someone else’s) strength.  Let the poor and socially-marginalized brethren rejoice (and high-five the widow who had two copper coins someday)!

This means that nobody is on the B team.  Everyone has as much potential to be pleasing to God as Billy Graham did when he walked into a packed stadium.  This is because Billy’s rewards in heaven won’t be based on his stats–they’ll be based on his love.  If Christian history tells us anything, it tells us that, unlike the case of Billy Graham, the two don’t always go together.

The Holy Spirit is not more inclined to indwell the beautiful, wealthy, strong or influential.  A socially un-powerful person (too old or young, too poor or too weak, etc.) can actually care about someone (a rare and delightful gift) and leave a beautifully fragrant wake of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control wherever he goes in the power of the Spirit to the glory of God.  A brother locked away in solitary confinement can delight in the love of his Father (we’re never solitary!) and can pray prayers that love through the thickest of walls in the power of the Spirit.  Someone knocked unconscious and lobotomized by a persecutor can manifest just how much better Jesus is than the world (you can brain-damage a man, but not the Spirit who indwells him).  The Holy Spirit can change a “vegetable” into a “testimony” without any additional assistance from us.

Kill him, and he now loves better than anyone left on the planet.

Think about the ramifications of this–if ministry and worship are merely the manifestations of real love in the context of real life, then a person who wants to engage in real God-honoring ministry and worship that matters or “counts”, can do it at any time and in any place God puts him (with whatever means God grants him).

I stop ministering when I go where He hasn’t called me to go or do what He hasn’t called me to.  Sin.  Ultimately, sin is the kryptonite of ministry and worship.  What else precludes love?

What if I believed that I had no less potential to love than Billy Graham had when he walked into a packed stadium?  How would today be different?

Why wasn’t my day more different?

Two Vases (actually 4)

Once upon a time there were two vases made by Michelangelo. They were gorgeous. They were offered up for auction and the first one brought a world-record price—at least until the second one was sold 15 minutes later. Both brought over $500K more than the auction estimate (and most had thought the auction estimates were too high)

The first one was bought by a mob boss. He gave it to his 80-year-old mother for Christmas.   She put it on the kitchen windowsill in her small cottage in the mountains. She filled it half full of water and put a peony from her garden in it.

The second one was bought by a Japanese investor. He kept it in a safe, inside another safe in a private office that he visits maybe once a year. The last time he went, he didn’t even look at it.

The first vase felt really good about himself. “I can see why they paid millions of dollars for me! Look at how I’m holding this water. No leaks! The flower is held perfectly still and I never sag, bend or tip. This flower never wiggles while I’m on the job. Did I mention that I never leak? Wow, I’m such a wonderful vase! Even at my record price, I was a bargain!”

The second vase, sitting there in the dark, thought, “Well, I’m totally worthless. I never do anything. I just sit here in the dark doing nothing. I haven’t even seen the light of day in 13 months. I may as well be a rock or a piece of dust or a dead roach. Why pay millions for me when I never even do anything! Does anyone even know I’m here? How is this different than a landfill?

One day the first vase got rinsed out, refilled and a new flower! He felt even better about himself as not even new water (maybe 2 ml more!) and a heavier peony was too much for him. “Is there no limit to my awesomeness!” he thought as he looked across the room and watched the old lady rummaging around in the garbage. She pulled out a large old beer bottle (he couldn’t help but notice it had a chip on the lip and a tear in the label). She brought it over to the sink and filled it almost to the top with water and put 2 peonies in it. After 24 hours of watching the bottle, he was seriously considering throwing himself off the shelf. “What good am I? Why would someone pay millions for me when a broken beer bottle out of the trash is doing twice as much as she ever asks me to do?”

Meanwhile back in the safe in the safe, it has been 15 months without fresh air or even a speck of light. “My life has no meaning—I am doing nothing. This man may just as well have burned millions of dollars in the fireplace. There is no difference. I wish I had never been made.”

Oh, by the way, three months ago a third vase by Michelangelo was donated to the Louvre. Thousands of people ooh and ahh at it every day. He thinks he’s worthless too, though, since no one ever paid even a penny for him. “I was just given away for free! Am I so worthless that I couldn’t even fetch $1.50 in a yard sale?” But, the more he thought about it, he realized that he probably was worthless—he’d never worked a day in his life. He’d never held water, or even a flower. He’d never contributed to society by fulfilling his (obvious!) calling of working as a vase.

Meanwhile, a fourth Michelangelo vase was just inherited by a guy named Tony in Paulding, Ohio. He only knew it as an ugly old vase from his great-grandmother’s house. Only he (and his ignorant ancestors) had seen it for the last 400 years, and none of them had the slightest clue what it was and that it was worth a fortune. The more Tony looked at it, though, the more he realized that it really had some potential. He’d been working with pottery for a couple of years now, and he had an eye for this sort of thing. Even though this was made out of some sort of rock he figured it would work about the same. He broke off some of the extremely out-of-date (and really over-the-top) ornamentation and sanded it down beautifully with his high-tech electronic diamond-tipped sanding tool he’d paid several hundred dollars for on the internet. Anyway, he then distressed it with an electric drill (“This will make it look old and valuable!”) and stained it with just 3 colors of chemical. He was really proud of it, and several of his friends really liked it too.  The vase loved all the attention and enjoyed his new look. “Contemporary with an ancient valuable feel!” is how he described his reimagined self.  He had no idea he was now totally worthless and destined, eventually, for the landfill.

 

If Life was a Video Game

Imagine if someone told you that they would give you $20 for every point you could score in a Mario-like video game. But–you could only play it one time. What would you do? Seriously, think about it…what would you do?

If I was just given that offer and asked that question, here’s how I’d answer:

I would talk to people who were experienced in playing the game and ask them questions like, “Are there games similar to it that I could practice on?” “What is important to get on each level?” “What are the dangers?” “Where are the coins and the secret weapons/powers?” I’d try to find out if there was a books about the game written by the manufacturer or people who know the game well. I’d memorize their instructions and look at maps (draw them if necessary). Bottom line—I’d take it very seriously because this will be the only opportunity I will ever have to get $20/point in a video game.

But what if you got the offer after you’d already started playing?

If I was just beginning to play level 4 and was asked by a player near the end of Level 1 for advice, I’d pause my game and tell him this:

1: You can pause the game: Pausing is, arguably, the most important step in getting points. True—there is no virtue in pausing in and of itself—in fact, it is somewhat costly as you aren’t getting points or moving forward while you’re paused. However, if you want maximum points you will need to look at your maps, survey the environment, review the instructions, receive counsel, rest your eyes, eat, sleep, etc. If you try to do those things while you are actively playing, it will be ineffective at best and fatal at worst. Remember the exhortation of Mad-Eye Moody, “Constant vigilance!” The truth is, though, no one can be constantly vigilant. You need rest and refreshment as well as training, re-orientation and reflection.   The lower the level the longer you can pause. BUT BE CAREFUL! Most people pause only to escape the game and fill their mind and time and thoughts with other distractions—they learn nothing, grow nowhere and come back to the game more tired and less focused than when they left it. If you’re only going to pause like that, it is better not to pause at all. You have to decide—do you really want points or not? You really can’t play two games at once (although many try…). (Ex 20:8-10, Matt 6:24)

2: Make the most of Level 1: There are hardly any points in level one, but there are hardly any (active) dangers, either. It is a great place to run around and get real comfortable with the controller. If Level 1 is played well, moving your man in Level 2 feels extremely natural. No one ever accidentally runs off the bridge into the lava on Level 2 who spent a lot of time moving around in Level 1. Sadly, hardly anyone does this since there are very few points to be had on the first level and it is very easy to get to the doorway of Level 2. Most just sit around bored and distracted until the level 2 door opens. It is kind of ironic that the least dangerous level is in some ways the most dangerous—failure to take advantage of its opportunities can seriously handicap you for the rest of the game. (Prov 2:1-12) [which brings me to #3…]

3: Pick up the keys!!!: Statistics show that most people who successfully open the treasure box in Level 3 for the super sword and the door in Level 4 for the power food, open them with keys picked up in Level 1. Nevertheless, most people don’t pick them up in Level 1–even the Level 1 players who have old people standing around them yelling, “Pick up that key! Pick up that key!!!” often refuse to do it. I think this is because players notice right away that carrying keys slows them down and bars them from going to certain places on the screen. This just feels wrong to them. Young players think that maximizing freedom, speed and mobility is the best way to get points; when, in truth, what you need most is power, knowledge and ability. There are many keys on the first two levels, and they are way easier to get there than the ones on level 3 and 4. Trust me–pick up the keys early! Gaining abilities always limits your options and always slows you down, but everything that is valuable is costly (and it costs more and more with each level). In this game, you really do only get what you pay for. Pay wisely. (Ps 119:9-16)

4: You can play with a partner: Starting as early as level 2, you can join forces with another player. This is an incredible opportunity to increase your total points, but only if 4 things are true: 1: You are partnered to a good player; 2: You are a good player; 3: You have both seriously prepared yourselves for partnered play; 4: You are both seriously committed to partnered play. If any of these 4 things is not true, you are much better off playing alone. Of the 4 requirements above, level 2 players often only concern themselves with the first two. In fact, the last two are at least as important. Playing with a partner requires very different skills than playing alone, and these are learned—it does not come naturally. A good solo player that never studied partner play is likely to suck in a partnered game. When partnered, maneuvering is much more difficult and you move way slower, but your power, knowledge and abilities can be greatly enhanced. There is great wisdom in an African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (Eccl 4:9-12)

I have been partnered since the beginning of level 3. I’m not sure if I could say if the game is harder with a partner, but it might be in some ways. It is significantly more enjoyable (but occasionally significantly more painful). I can for sure say, though, that I’ve gotten more points. I’m way better as a partnered player (after all, that is how I was designed to play—it is not good for a man to play alone Gen 2). If you want to play with a partner, I cannot overstate the importance of the four things above. You need to know the game well, be comfortable with a controller, and understand the rules and dynamics of partnered playing. How do you do this? Read the guides. Watch (and evaluate) other players. Talk (and listen!) to other partnered players. Then, and only then, should you start evaluating potential partners. If you are a Christian at that point in the game, you’ll understand that the only person you could partner with (while maintaining a clear conscience before God) is one who’s best interest it is to be partnered to you. You must become a great player first or you’ll ruin someone’s game. This is time-consuming, expensive and painful (but way worth it in my experience). BEWARE! This is a big risk. Look around you—there are tons of low-pointed, crippled, and miserable partnered-players out there. Become a great player, learn partner lore, then (and only then) find a great partner. (Prov 18:22).

5: If it wasn’t for God’s grace in my life, I’d tell you to jump on the exploding mushroom: Understand that they don’t call it a “dog-eat-dog world” for nothing. There really are very few people in the world who will ever be truly committed to your best interests. It isn’t so much that they are against you, but that they are for themselves–which prevents them from love (1Jn 4:7-8).

Do you know any good players who are able to teach you? Do you know any bad players that are able to teach you (never underestimate the value of a bad example—sometimes failure teaches the most valuable lessons)? The important things are: 1: are they able to teach you? and 2: Are you willing to learn? One of the great dangers of level 1 is the false sense of ability it can give. It seems so easy and safe that it lulls people into a bored self-confidence. The designer of the game created level 1 so you could learn and grow, but most players just screw around bored while they wait for the door to level 2 to open. This is a huge mistake. If you want points in level 4, play level 1 with the same passion. LEARN from experienced players. If you can’t find a trustworthy mentor, at least pause your game and watch men play—remember you can learn a lot from both success and failure. However, watch and listen with discernment. Just because someone tells you something doesn’t mean that it’s true, and just because something looks like a success doesn’t mean that it ultimately is. This is a complicated game. That is why instruction from an experienced mentor who loves you is more valuable than what you can glean from your own observations. Unfortunately, love is way more rare than you think. If you have access to an experienced mentor who loves you, make the most of this opportunity! Sadly, it seems to me that most don’t. Listen and watch with strong intention (tempered with careful discernment). Here’s another thought–if the Manufacturer loves you and wants you to win, how stupid would you have to be to not listen to His instructions! (DUH!)

One thing that you will never be short of is people telling you how to play your game. This is one reason why people don’t value a loving experienced mentor—we’re all just sick to death of the seemingly incessant voices telling us how to play. It is just easier to quit listening altogether than to listen with discernment. Don’t do what is easy—this is $20/point! Listen with discernment and value those that love you well. Play well. God help you. God help us all. (Prov 3:5-8)

Protecting your child from the world–a parable

Once upon a time, two new fathers were walking through the park when they saw a burning bush that wasn’t consumed. After they took off their shoes and fell on their faces God said,

“Listen carefully. I’m warning you—if you don’t work really hard to prevent it, your children will drown when they are 19 years old.”

“How should we work hard to prevent this?” they asked.

“I gave you brains—use them! But, hear Me—each WILL drown if you don’t work really hard to prevent it.”

The first man ran to tell his wife.  From that moment on they devoted themselves to convincing their child that getting in the water was bad.  They would bathe him in 3” of water until he was 5 and then make him shower only.  They would never let him go to a pool or go to the lake with his friends.  They’d frequently tell him horror stories of drownings and the horrible dangers of swimming or even wading in water.  When the public school started a swimming team they began to home school.  While they used to vacation at the beach every year before he was born, they’d now only go to the mountains (and of course they destroyed all the old vacation photo albums before he was old enough to look at them).  They wouldn’t even let him watch TV shows if they showed positive images of swimming, boating or even wading.  When their son told them that he wanted to be a marine biologist, they told him that this was a demon-inspired curiosity and they wouldn’t hear of it.  After they sent him away to a college in New Mexico to study accounting, they laid awake every night worrying that he wouldn’t stay away from the water.

The second man also ran to tell his wife, and from that moment on they devoted themselves to knowing how to swim and be comfortable, strong and secure in the water.  Then, at the earliest possible age, they started teaching their child to swim.  As the years went by they taught and modeled water safety, skills and strength.  They were in the water a lot together as a family, and both parents watched closely to discern her strengths and weaknesses.  They worked together to strengthen the weak areas and were careful to warn her of the dangers that corresponded to her strengths.  When she told them that her career dream was to become the captain of a submarine, they embraced it with both hands.  When she left for Annapolis shortly before her 19th birthday, they prayed that God would protect her and strengthen her.  Then they fell asleep without anxiety.

You have a very limited time to train your children.  Never forget that while good judgment, wisdom, prudence and stewardship are virtues, safety  (in and of itself) is not.  What do your kids see as your priority for them?  Neither you nor your children are called to be safe.  You are all called, however, to be strong (like Jesus) in a dangerous world that is trying to conform you to its (fallen) image even as it harbors enemies trying their hardest to kill you.  Are you teaching your children to be prudent, strong, and wise as if their life depended on it?  The (very real!) dangers they face now are like the shallow end of the pool.  Get in there with them and train them to be strong, capable, wise and secure in a hostile environment–don’t drag them out of the pool!  They are going to have to spend a lot of their life in the water.  This is by God’s design.  The water will get deeper.  This is also by God’s design.

Naiveté is not the same as holiness.  Fear is not the same as prudence.  Wisdom teamed with strength is fertile soil for all the virtues.