Love, Mortality, and Aggie Football

11230612_10156141018410160_4599014232661230164_oI didn’t grow up watching Aggie football. My parents both went to Oklahoma, and neither of them were ardent fans of college football anyway. I remember watching college football each year on Thanksgiving, when we visited my mom’s family in Oklahoma City. My grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins were die-hard Sooners. At least once, my grandfather (whom we called Ghido) took us to a game in Norman. All I remember about the game is that Ghido, who was a prominent attorney and later a judge in Oklahoma City, seemed to know every person at the stadium. I came to realize over the years that he seemed to know everybody wherever he went. He was one of those rare individuals who could walk into a room of strangers and quickly turn them into friends.

Still, Ghido loved his family above all else. He especially loved his grandchildren. There were nine of us, and each of us believed we were his favorite.

In a sort of ironic twist, it was my love for my Sooner grandfather that eventually cemented my love of Aggie football.

I came to A&M in 1994, following in my older brother’s footsteps. We were the first Aggies in our family, so when A&M played Oklahoma that September, I made sure to be at the game. OU entered the game ranked 15th; A&M was 16th. Since A&M and OU were not in the same conference at the time, the matchup had only been recently revived. OU won the game in 1993. In 1994, A&M had their revenge and beat OU 36-14.

When I got home from the game, I decided to call Ghido and harass him a little bit. My grandmother answered the phone. When she told my grandfather to come to the phone, I heard him say, “Tell Matt I’m not here.” She told him that he’d better come to the phone right that minute and talk to her grandson, a demand with which he complied (he was really never able to tell her no). I gave him a hard time for a few minutes, and in his gracious way, Ghido said, “You guys have a good team and a good coach. But these things always go back and forth.”

A&M won the next three times they played Oklahoma, but as Ghido predicted, the series swung the other way in 1999. A&M and OU were both in the Big 12 by then, so we played each other every year. OU absolutely decimated A&M, 51-6, in Norman that year. Ghido called me to remind me that “these things go back and forth,” but then followed it up by saying things were sure to turn around for us.

Over the next ten years, A&M only won once, leading me to think that “back and forth” was no longer an accurate description of the rivalry. Ghido never forgot to call me when his team won. Not a single time. I think he even began to feel a little bit sheepish about the calls, since he was on the winning end of a very long streak. And yet he always called nonetheless.

Over time I realized that the phone calls weren’t about football. They were about him and me. They were about a young man from Generation X and a old man of the World War 2 generation, who stumbled upon a shared interest, an inside joke that cemented our love for one another. I grew to love his calls after the game every year, even when the Aggies lost. I’d wait by the phone and look forward to hearing his voice gently razz me about our team. And I know that on the few occasions I got to call him, he eagerly waited by the phone, although he’d always pretend that he was trying to sneak out of the house before the phone rang.

In 2006, my wife and I were living in College Station again, having moved back from Dallas in 2004. It occurred to me that I’d never actually attended an A&M-OU game with Ghido, even though we had watched one or two of them on the same television. So I called to invite him to the game that Fall. He was 85 years old at the time. My grandmother had passed away a few years earlier, and I had a feeling that our time with Ghido was running short as well. I didn’t know if we’d have another opportunity to see the game together in person.

My grandfather sat with me on the west side of Kyle Field, the old “former student” section. He was a bright red speck in a sea of maroon. Ordinarily, a fan of the opposing team sitting right in the midst of home team fans would face some ribbing, maybe even some hostility. But this was Kyle Field, home of the friendliest fans in college football. And, as I’ve mentioned before, my grandfather had a way of winning people over. By the end of the first quarter he was friends with everybody sitting within speaking distance. Since we ended up standing through most of the game, my fellow Aggies periodically checked on Ghido. “Are you doing okay?” they’d ask. “Need any more water? Can we get you anything from the concessions stand?” He stood for the entire game, with the exception of halftime, although I could tell it took a toll on his knees. He just didn’t want to miss a minute of the action.

The Aggies ran out of time that day, losing 17-16 to Oklahoma in a nailbiter that turned into a heartbreaker. As always, Ghido said something like, “You guys have a good coach. It will turn around again eventually.”

As I’d feared, that was the last time I would attend a game with my grandfather. He died in 2012, just after A&M entered the SEC. Oklahoma won their final matchup in the Big 12. Other family members tell me that he talked about attending that game in 2006 for years, how he and his Aggie grandson shared a rivalry that somehow turned into an alliance. To this day, it’s one of my favorite and most poignant memories.

Less than two months after Ghido died, A&M played OU in The Cotton Bowl, and this time the Aggies won 41-13. After the game, I reached for the phone, and then remembered he was gone. For seventeen years, we’d talked to each other after the game. This time, A&M’s victory was bittersweet.

Moses wrote in Psalm 90 that “the years of our life are seventy, or even by reason of strength, eighty” before we “fly away.” My grandfather had 91 good years before he flew away. 

These days, when I watch Aggie football, I often reflect on the bond it created between me and my grandfather, and on the fleeting nature of life on this side of eternity. I remember what my grandfather taught me through those yearly phone calls, that the people we love matter so much more than any game. I remember that our days pass quickly, so we’d best use them wisely.

Another great sage, King Solomon, says to “remember your Creator in the days of your youth.” Because time flies. Three or four hours and the game is over. Seventy or eighty years and so is your life. And then eternity beckons. As a pastor, of course, my calling is to point men and women to the reality that Jesus is risen, to the truth that eternal life is found in knowing Him.

I’m an avid Aggie football fan these days. But I’ve transformed in more important ways since that first game I watched in 1994.

I now understand from experience that time is short. I know in a deeper way how much people matter, how significant our time is with those we love. I remember that eternity awaits us all, so the wise among us prepare for it.

Lessons God drove home through Aggie football and phone calls from my grandfather. Unlikely teachers, but the greatest wisdom often comes from unlikely sources.

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What I Hope You Hear

sw_Listening_sa209430Sometimes you hear me grumble, when your small voice disturbs my rest, when your footsteps cross my room in the dark hours of the night or the wee hours of the morning. You hear me say, “What do you want?” Sometimes in those dark moments, my words sound more like an accusation than a question.

Sometimes you hear me scold, when you’re too loud or too dirty, when your mommy and I are just trying to rest at the end of a long day. You hear me trying to teach you self-control, but instead I model impatience. I easily forget what it’s like to be a child, to be so full of energy that it overflows its boundaries and spills into the living room, leaving behind dirty floors and splitting ears.

Sometimes you hear me worry, when I wonder aloud how you possibly could have eaten all the food we just bought, when I question whether we can ever save enough money for college. I forget that worry serves no purpose, that it only leads me away from trusting God like I always tell you to do. You hear me in those fearful moments when I need to be reminded that, like the birds and the flowers, we have enough for today and that is all we really need.

Sometimes you hear me raise my voice, when I correct you with too little patience or grace. “How could you do that again,” I say, forgetting how many times I repeat the same sins, forgetting how many times God corrects me with patience and grace. I want to treat you like Jesus, but you know I fall short.

I know your little ears listen carefully, and your little heart wonders sometimes about all that you hear.

So I hope you also hear me when I whisper, “I love you,” in those dark hours of the night, after I recover from being awakened. I hope you hear me when I ask if you’re okay, that you hear the concern in my voice, mingled with love for you. You are not a nuisance. You are my flesh and blood and I love your presence.

I hope you hear me laugh, when I tell your mommy about the funny remark you made, when we reflect on our day and can hardly believe that God placed you in our family, with all your energy and joy and love of life. I hope you hear me giggle in those moments when I join the fun and my voice grows as loud as yours, when my own hands and feet get as dirty as yours and together we fill our house with happiness.

I hope you hear me rejoice at the end of a long day when I marvel at God’s mercy, when I thank Him that we had enough food to eat because He gave us our daily bread. I hope you hear me, and believe me, when I say that He will provide, and when I remind you that He has always provided. If we have what we need for today, it is sufficient, so we don’t need to worry.

I hope you hear my love for you, even when I correct you. I want more than anything for you to know your Savior, to reflect all of His goodness and mercy and grace and peace. Sometimes I want it so badly that it’s hard to wait for it patiently. I hope you hear that God loves you so deeply that He gave His Son in order to know you. I want you to know that His love is greater than mine and His grace is a bottomless well that will never run out. And if you drink from it, child, you will never be thirsty.

I know your little ears listen carefully, and I hope you hear what I’m trying so imperfectly to tell you. 

Because what you don’t always hear are my prayers for you, the ones I whisper before you wake up or after you go to sleep or while I watch you playing. I pray He’ll teach you things I don’t know, guide you to places I can’t lead you, and give you love when nobody else does. I pray He’ll teach you character when mine fails, and show you grace when I lack it. I pray that you’ll lean hard into that grace, and that His never-ending mercy will be an anchor for your soul.

You can’t always hear me when I pray that you’ll listen carefully to His voice, so you will one day know the breadth and length and height and depth of His love. I pray you will come to know the only One whose love never fails, whose grace never gives up, who never sees you as a nuisance. You are his flesh and blood, and He loves your presence. He wants to draw you near.

Above all things, I hope you hear the Father whisper, “I love you,” in the dark hours of your heart when you wonder if anything at all is true. When you hear Him say those words, child, draw near to Him, take His hand, and listen closely to what He says. Listen with all your might, because those words will light your darkness and that peace will drive out your fear. “I love you and all my words are true.”

Oh, I hope you hear.

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Mom is the Glue

Last year, I wrote a post for Father’s Day about the life lessons I’d learned from my dad. Writing a post about my mom is harder in some ways. It’s not that I learned less from her than from my dad. Instead, it’s that the things I learned from her are so much a part of the warp and woof of my life, it’s often hard to consciously reflect upon them.

To put it simply, my mom has always been the glue of our family, a sort of spiritual force holding us all together. Our ideas about God and family and relationships often originated from the tone she set in our home. She held us together more with the force of her character and her actions than with her words, although she taught us with words when necessary. More than that, though, she modeled what it means to love God and others in the context of daily life.

I learned to think deeply about God from my dad, but I think I learned to love Him from my mom. She knew how to connect God’s Word to the daily struggles of life. She taught my brothers and me to be unashamed in identifying with Jesus.

Because she believed that the church is God’s hope for the world, she actively volunteered and worked at church. We spent a lot of time there, not out of a sense of legalistic obligation, but because she loves the church and wanted us to love it also. And all of us still do. I’m the only one of her sons who works at a church, but my brothers and their families love the body of Christ as much as I do. Mom taught us to see church as an extension of our relationship with Christ rather than as just another activity.

Mom taught us about joy and laughter. My kids sometimes roll their eyes at the silly songs I compose around the house, songs about making their beds or doing the dishes. They say they don’t like those little songs, but they always say it with a laugh. I said the same thing when my mom sang them — I was embarrassed or felt awkward and please could she stop? Today, all I remember about them is the laughter.

She didn’t only laugh at her own jokes. She laughed at ours, and encouraged us to be creative and funny and joyful. I remember stepping out of the car once on a very windy day. I could hardly stay upright and my hair must have been standing on end. I looked at Mom and jokingly shouted, “Auntie Em! Auntie Em!” Mom laughed at my dumb joke, until she nearly cried with laughter.

When I preach, people sometimes comment on my humorous illustrations. Mom was my first receptive audience. She taught me that life is too serious not to laugh. Laughter is a gift from God, a grace that soothes the pain of a fallen world. 

I learned from her that you can find joy and comfort even in the midst of failure, and that losing isn’t as bad as refusing to try. In 3rd grade, I made it to a county-wide spelling bee. I lost in the final rounds by misspelling a relatively simple word, one I should have known. Later that night my mom presented me with a poem she had composed about my adventures in the spelling bee and how brave I was. My dad told me to treasure it, since she rarely wrote in verse. In fact, I still have the poem. It reminds me that we learn as much from failure as from success, and that life is boring if you only play games you are certain to win.

I’ll end with this: I learned from my mom that love really is the glue that binds families together. And love isn’t always dramatic or loud. Usually it means being present and available. Despite having three sons and seven grandchildren, she rarely misses a significant milestone. She and my dad travel around the state and country to be there for birthdays, class presentations, soccer games, and other events. She calls me and my wife when she knows something important is going on, just to let us know she’s praying. She learned to text and use social media, largely so she could view and share pictures of her family.

As I’m sure is true with many moms, her love for our family is a reflection of the love of God. When I say I learned to love God from my mom, I think I really mean that I learned how much He loves me. It’s a gift that’s hard to quantify, but one for which I’m forever grateful.

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Praying the Fruit of the Spirit for Our Kids

One of the toughest things about being a parent is knowing precisely what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you training your children for a particular career? Do you want them to be athletic, intelligent, kind, emotionally strong, Christ-like?

During a recent conversation, my wife and I were talking about our parenting goals. We agreed that there are probably many skills and qualities we want them to possess. In the final analysis, though, we want them to be like Jesus. We discovered that the Fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5:22-23 is a good target for us to aim toward. While we can’t make them learn these qualities (they are, after all, fruit of the Spirit), we can pray for them. 

With that in mind, here are some specific ways to pray for the Fruit of the Spirit for our kids:

Love

“Father, I pray that my children will learn to love You, because You have loved them first (1 John 4:19). Teach them to love others and to put the needs of other people above their own (Phil 2:1-4). Protect them from narcissism and self-promotion, and instead lead them toward humility and compassion.”

Joy

“Lord, teach these little ones to seek the joy that comes from knowing You, rather than the temporary happiness of the world (Phil 4:4). Teach them (and their parents) to joyfully serve without grumbling or complaining (Phil 2:14).”

Peace

“Father, help them to become peacemakers, who seek reconciliation and forgiveness. Remind them that peacemakers will be called sons of God (Mt 5:9). Protect them from unnecessary arguments. Keep them from being easily offended. Remind them of how much they’ve been forgiven in Jesus, and give them the strength to extend forgiveness to others.”

Patience

“God, give my children the strength to wait for You (Is 40:31). Help them resist the temptation to take shortcuts in life, to grasp for good things at the wrong times. When it comes to their careers, their relationships, their families, and their prayer life, remind them that Your timing doesn’t look like ours. Remind them that You are never slow, but patient and gracious (2 Peter 3:8).”

Kindness

“Lord, please teach them to care about the needs of other people, and to proactively meet those needs when possible. Teach them to treat people generously, even when they don’t deserve it (Eph 4:32).”

Goodness

“Father, I pray they would be upright in their character, hating sin and loving righteousness. I pray they would seek good things for other people. Teach them to live with honest and integrity, always telling the truth and encouraging others to do so. I pray they would not merely be known as moral people, but as godly people who reflect Your good and perfect character.”

Faithfulness

“God, help my kids to persevere in the midst of trial (James 1:12). Remind them not to grow weary in doing good (Gal 6:9). Teach them to work hard and not to give up until the job is done. Cultivate in them the type of loyalty that You show toward us, the loyalty that never gives up on people, but instead keeps praying for them and pursuing them. I pray they will cross the finish line well, that they would maintain their faith in Jesus for a lifetime.”

Gentleness

“Lord, remind them not to use their strength and their talents to hurt people or to amass power for themselves. Instead, help them correct others with patience and humility when necessary, always remembering that they are sinners too (Gal 6:1). May their words be filled with encouragement and gentle truth. Gentleness comes from a heart of humility, so give them an appropriate sense of Your greatness, in order to keep from thinking too highly of themselves.”

Self-Control

“Father, please train these little ones to exercise self-control with their bodies and their mouths. Give them the discipline to pray first and to consider the consequences of their actions. Don’t let them speak or act rashly in ways that are destructive to them or to those around them. Keep them from lies, theft, violence, sexual immorality, and verbal abuse.”

There you have it. Just a few ways to pray for the Fruit of the Spirit for our kids. I’m sure there are many other specifics I could add to this list, so I’d love to hear them! 

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On Parenting Goals and Bubble Wrap

Last weekend I went to an electronics store with my kids. While we were browsing, some employees handed my two younger children (who are 6 and 4) a small piece of bubble wrap. You know the stuff, because when you were a kid you probably loved popping those little bubbles and hearing the sound.

As we continued through the store, they took turns popping bubbles. When I got in line to pay for my purchases, the kids stood behind me and put the bubble wrap down on the floor. They began to step on it in order to pop the bubbles more effectively.

At that point I noticed an older man standing about 15 feet away. He was giving us the “head shake of shame,” a clear sign of disapproval. His lips were pursed, his eyes were narrowed, and his head was slowly shaking back and forth.

I had two initial reactions. The first was to silence my kids and snatch the bubble wrap away. The man’s disapproval was embarrassing, and I hate being embarrassed. My second reaction, though, was to chastise the man for his hatred of children and fun. I had one or two really good verbal responses that I wanted to unleash in his direction.

By the grace of God, I didn’t follow either of those impulses. I paused for a moment to ask myself a few questions:

Were the kids doing anything immoral or dangerous? No. Nothing had been stolen or vandalized. Nothing was broken, and nothing was in danger of being broken. In fact, because they were focused on the bubble wrap, they weren’t tempted to grab items from the shelves or run through the store like maniacs. I suspect that’s why the staff gave it to them in the first place.

Were they acting inconsiderately toward anybody else? No. Besides us, there were four people in the immediate vicinity: the angry man, the cashier, and one young couple who was standing behind us in line. My kids were not bumping into the couple behind them, nor were they getting in their way. I’m fairly sensitive to noise, but the bubble wrap wasn’t loud enough to raise my alarm. Neither the cashier nor the young couple seemed the least bit distressed. We weren’t at a funeral, a wedding, a church service, or in any sort of scenario where a little bit of noise was unacceptable. It was an enormous store, and there were very few people around.

Would confronting the angry man have been helpful in any way? No. He’s entitled to his displeasure, and I doubt I could have changed his perspective.

What did I do? I finished paying, and then I had the kids pick up their bubble wrap and follow me to the car.

Here’s why I’m sharing this story: It was one of those moments that helped solidify for me what I’m actually trying to accomplish as a parent. I’m not raising my kids just to keep them from embarrassing me. I’m not even raising them primarily to be socially adept, although I hope they will be.

I’m raising my kids to love God and to love others. In many instances, politeness is a helpful tool to accomplish those goals. I want them to say, “Please,” and “Thank you,” because those words demonstrate a heart of gratitude. I want them to learn that there is a time to be quiet and listen and a time to play and be loud. Listening to others demonstrates that you care about them like Jesus does. I want them to know that if they are hurting people, causing them distress, bumping into them without apologizing, or failing to consider how other people feel, then they’re wrong. Many social rules are helpful because they provide a structure within which we can live out the love and humility of Christ.

However, in this instance, I felt that ending their fun would have been detrimental rather than helpful. In order to love God, it’s important to understand that He loved us first. One of the ways He’s shown love to us is by giving us pleasure — good food, laughter, friendship, and even bubble wrap! I’ve been reading the book of Deuteronomy this week, and I’m struck by how many times God reiterates His love for His people, and connects that love to His good gifts — sweet honey, vineyards, fertile land, children, joyful relationships, and much more. He loves to give His children good things, and He rejoices at our simple pleasures.

My kids were simply being kids. They weren’t causing pain or heartache for anybody. They weren’t disobeying God or disobeying me. They were experiencing the joy of an unexpected gift. By learning to appreciate gifts like that, gifts with no strings attached, I pray they’ll eventually learn to appreciate and love the gift of Jesus. I pray they’ll come to love and serve the Giver Himself. Fun doesn’t make God angry, unless it’s immoral fun. He created love and laughter and pleasure, and it’s right for children to express those things.

Of course we train our children to care about other people. We train them that some actions are off-limits in public (and some are off-limits everywhere). We teach them those things so they can get along in the world, but more importantly so they can reflect the character of God.

But I don’t want my kids to view God as an old man giving them the “head shake of shame.” I think He delights in His children, and laughs when we laugh. If communicating His love to my children means occasionally earning the ire of strangers, I’m alright with that.

So, to the angry man at Best Buy: You’re welcome to grab a piece of bubble wrap and join us next time! We can pop it together and give thanks to the God who delights in laughing with His children.

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Don’t Burn Down Your Marriage

If the tongue is a fire, then the world is filled with arsonists (James 3:6). Perhaps you’ve met them — men and women who seem to grab their flamethrower when they wake up in the morning. They look for villages to burn, and they don’t care if they light themselves on fire in the process.

Perhaps the worst arsonists are those who torch their spouses, taking every opportunity to inflict third degree burns on the person they claim to love the most. 

When my wife and I were newly married, we knew a young man who seemed to relish burning his wife in public. If she said something that he considered unintelligent, his eyes would roll back in his head, his mouth would curl into a sneer, and he would correct her in the most condescending way possible. We watched her face flush with embarrassment, while her eyes turned toward the floor. Over time, she grew quieter, as if she started to believe that she was as stupid as her husband told her she was.

Since then, I’ve seen this pattern time and time again, and not just from angry husbands. Arson is an equal opportunity sport. Some couples live on a battlefield, throwing Molotov cocktails across the dinner table along with the biscuits and gravy. They don’t even notice the burn marks they leave on their children, since they wrongly believe that fire damage can be limited to the intended target.

In premarital counseling, they often say that three issues are at the root of most marital conflicts: money, in-laws, and sex. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that the way people argue is more important than what they argue about. Consistently expressing contempt for your spouse, with your words or your tone, is the quickest way to burn down your marriage.

No matter how hard it seems, try to say something nice. Even when tempers are flaring. Reassure your spouse that your love for them is still intact, even in the middle of the fight. Surely there is some reason you married this person, some small character trait you can affirm. Surely there’s no need to light up your spouse like a Roman candle, especially in the presence of witnesses.

If you find yourself unable to be kind, at least try to be quiet until you can be kind. And pray for the fruit of kindness to permeate your marriage again, through the power of God’s Spirit.

Pray you’ll use your tongue’s fire to create warmth and heat instead of destruction. The wonderful thing about words is that they work both ways. They have the power to heal, as sure as they have the power to destroy. Even today, God can give you the ability to start rebuilding the ruins of your torched marriage. He delights in repairing what is broken, and He’s the only one who can. No man can control the tongue, but the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead is able and willing to do what we cannot.

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Everybody Needs Good Theology

“Hurting people don’t need theology. They need a hug.” 

I frequently hear that sentiment, or something like it, expressed by people who are wary of theology. Theology, they feel, is for the brainy, the academic, for those separated from the pains and trials of real life. When people are hurting, or struggling with pornography, or knee deep in an eating disorder, they don’t need theology. People don’t need theology when they can’t pay the bills, when their children are sick, or when their marriages are crumbling.

That’s an understandable sentiment, but it’s dangerously wrong. 

I can’t think of anything that’s more important in the midst of a crisis than what you believe about God. Virtually any statement you make about God, about yourself, about your sin, or about the world, is at its heart a theological statement. Your understanding of God and His character filters down to everything you think and do.

When people say that theology is useless in the midst of a crisis, I suspect they’re trying to say that theology apart from love is useless. They’re attempting to paraphrase James, who tells us bluntly that “faith without works is useless.” Fair enough, but James didn’t mean to encourage good works without any coherent understanding of God and His Word. The book of James is, in fact, full of theological statements about God’s character, the work of Jesus, and eschatology. It’s a profoundly theological book, and James’ practical statements are consistently grounded in theological truth.

Too often, we think of theology as a series of useless arguments about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. In reality, every time you tell somebody, “God loves you,” you’re making a theological statement. Every time you proclaim the infinite grace of God, expressed through Jesus, you’re making a theological statement. Every time you talk about sin or grace or the hope of resurrection, you’re talking about theology. 

As Christians, even our acts of mercy and kindness are undergirded with an understanding of theology — even if that theology is a basic one. “We love because He first loved us,” John wrote. You need at least a little bit of theology to know what that means — how did He love us, why did He love us, what did that love look like?

Without theology, human acts of love have no real meaning. They’re an abstraction without hands or feet.

Of course, knowledge without love can make people cold, angry, and unhelpful. The problem, though, isn’t too much theology. The problem is bad theology.

For the young man wrestling with pornography, it matters immensely that each person is made in God’s image, particularly the young women who fill his computer screen. For the family filled with anger and unforgiveness, understanding God’s grace and forgiveness is of the highest importance. For the young woman facing an uncertain future, the sovereignty of God makes an enormous difference in the way she approaches her life.

I’m not suggesting that hurting people should be assaulted with theological statements. But without a proper understanding of God and His character, we are more likely to make that mistake. When we’re insensitive toward other people, we don’t need less theology. We need better theology. We need to study God’s Word even more carefully to understand how our beliefs about God should affect our words and actions.

So please don’t create a false dichotomy between theology and love. Don’t divide the mind from the heart and hands, as if what you believe has no impact on what you do.

What you believe about God is absolutely essential. It might even be the most important thing about you, because it affects everything you think and do. Without theology, we have no way to understand love, God, or hope. But a proper understanding of God, His Word, and His character has an impact that resonates for eternity.

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You’ll Love Her More and More

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe two began in a small pond, in a small boat, rowing with separate strokes. The banks were well-defined, the waters were shallow, and the current was non-existent. It was easy. Like a kiddie pool without the kids.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I imagined growing old together in this pond, rowing in ever-increasing unison. The joys of our pond would multiply again and again and again. More fish, more toys, maybe a child or two to play by the bank while we rowed. An inflatable raft to soak in the sun when we tired of rowing the boat.

You’ll love her more and more.” And I knew it was true.

But the pond began to change. At first it grew a little bit deeper. The bottom wasn’t so easy to see anymore. The banks also widened, and I couldn’t reach the edge from the boat anymore. Our pond was more dangerous, but it was somehow more appealing. I had the sense that there were nooks and crannies I would never explore, even with a lifetime to row and swim. It wasn’t so much like a kiddie pool anymore, but it was strangely better.

Then the currents began to flow. The pond became a creek, then a stream, then a river. A few of the currents even threatened to toss one or both of us overboard. There were currents we seemed to generate: Fear, Anger, Pride, or Selfishness. Others blindsided us from beneath and beside the boat. They had awful names like Poverty, Loneliness, Sickness, and Death.

You’ll love her more and more,” they told me. And I knew it was true, but it wasn’t how I imagined.

I loved you more because you stayed in the boat with me and kept rowing, even when the currents were swift. Sometimes, in my selfishness and anger, I rowed against you, in the opposite direction. But you stayed in the boat anyway.

Your arms and my arms grew tired, but they also grew stronger. We did row in ever-increasing unison. It’s a strange thing, but once the currents were behind us, we laughed at them sometimes. Not because they were easy, or even particularly funny, but because we’d rowed through them together and they didn’t seem so terrible anymore. We laughed in delight because we were alive. And because neither of us had jumped overboard.

We looked back upstream and remembered the perils we had passed. I marveled at the depth of this woman sitting in the boat with me, this creative and lovely and wonderfully strong woman, whom I once thought I knew but didn’t really know. My understanding had been as shallow as that little pond, as narrow as its banks.

As the river got deeper, so did our love. As the currents grew stronger, so did our love.

And we increasingly noticed another Current, stronger than all of the others. Sometimes we’d missed it as we rowed, but it was often visible when we looked back. Sometimes the Current seemed to move us toward the terrible rapids, and sometimes away. But the Current was always there. The Current was alive, stronger than us both, and He –yes, it was a “He” — gave us His strength. He taught us to row, not only in sync with one another, but in sync with Him.

“You’ll love her more and more.” And it was truer than I’d imagined. Loving you more didn’t mean endlessly rowing around and around, in an easy little pond, watching the toys and shiny rocks multiply. Loving you more meant seeing your beauty and strength and grace, even as the water splashed up around us and we faced the ever-present realities of fallenness, sin, and death.

Loving you more meant watching carefully as you learned to row in sync with the Eternal Current, the One who made the river and the boat and these two feeble people inside. The One who made our love to be a dim reflection of His own.

Loving you more meant rowing together as we learned to row with Him. And it meant deciding every day that we’ll keep rowing together, until our boat reaches that junction where every river driven by the Eternal Current flows together, and His love overshadows and consumes our own. We’ll land on the shore at last, with every traveler and lover who rows on His river. We’ll lie down and bask in the light of His love, His perfect and ever-blazing love. The Tree of Life will line the shore and the light of God will never end.

“You’ll love her more and more,” they said. I believed them then, and I believe now more than ever.

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What’s Harder to Say Than “I’m Sorry”?

Despite what Peter Cetera told us, it’s not really hard to say, “I’m sorry.” Those two words are easy to blurt out in the heat of an argument, as a simple attempt to diffuse somebody else’s anger. Saying, “I’m sorry” isn’t an admission of guilt as much as it’s a statement of regret.

“I’m sorry your feelings were hurt.” 

“I’m sorry that what I did made you angry.” 

“I’m sorry, but I did what I felt I had to do.” 

Those aren’t really apologies, and they’re unlikely to bring reconciliation to a fractured relationship. Matthew 6:26 says that King Herod was “sorry” for beheading John the Baptist. That’s awesome that he was sorry, but “sorry” and a really skilled neck surgeon would still amount to one dead prophet. Herod regretted having John’s head removed, but he did it anyway, because he wanted to save face at a party. His regret didn’t affect his behavior one iota, nor did it imply true repentance for his actions.

When our kids were very young, a friend suggested to us that instead of making them say, “I’m sorry” to each other, we try a different phrase:

“Will you forgive me for [pulling your hair, calling you a potty name, stuffing you into the toy box, etc.]?” 

Although I often fail at this, I’ve started trying to implement it in my own relationships, particularly with my wife. “I was wrong to [snap at you, eat all the cookies you made for your friends, insult Downton Abbey, etc.]. Will you please forgive me?”

Asking for forgiveness is harder — and more effective — than saying, “I’m sorry.” First, because when you ask forgiveness, you’re taking responsibility for what you did wrong. You’re acknowledging that your own sinful choices contributed to the conflict. It forces you to verbalize your own sin and confess it to somebody else. That’s painful to do, but absolutely essential. You can’t change your sinful patterns if you don’t admit them. Second, asking for forgiveness places you at the mercy of the other person. It’s an inherently humble act, in which you acknowledge that reconciliation is a two-way street. You can holler, “I’m sorry,” and then walk away before the hard work of conflict resolution is completed. You can’t do that when you ask for forgiveness. You have to wait in humility for the other person’s answer. Forgiveness can be extended in one direction — after all, that’s what God has done for us in Jesus — but relational reconciliation usually requires both parties to participate.

So the next time you find yourself in a conflict, ask this: “Am I even partially to blame?” If so, practice these words: “Will you forgive me for…?”

Yes, it’s even harder than saying, “I’m sorry.” But it’s immeasurably better.

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One Question to Ask Yourself Before Making New Year’s Resolutions

When I was a college pastor, I used to define success for our student leaders every year. I had three goals for them to focus on: love God, love your people, multiply leaders. That was it. I provided those goals for them because I knew that it was easy to lose focus, to shift their attention to auxiliary issues rather than primary ones. “Do I have the biggest group?” “Is my group the most fun and popular?” “Do we finish every question in the study packet each week?” While those indicators might mean something, they don’t necessarily indicate that the group was effective. So I told them this: If you’ve been faithful to love God, love your people, and multiply leaders for the future, then your group is a smashing success. Even if you only have 2 people left in the group in May. Don’t get sidetracked. Focus on what is central.

Similarly, I think we often approach the New Year with a list of wonderful goals, but we haven’t really defined success. We want to lose weight, read the Bible, and take charge of our finances. We’re going to repair the broken sink, make sure our toddlers know how to read in three languages, and get an ‘A’ in differential equations. All wonderful ideas, but we fail to ask, “Why?” Why are we doing any of this?

This year, try asking yourself this question: “What primary value(s) will drive my goals, thoughts, and actions this year?” Don’t write down a list of 27 values. Keep it to no more than three. You can easily remember three, and you can quickly check each of your goals against those values.

So your values might be: love God, love my spouse, and love my kids. Or love God, make friends, and grow in courage. The values will vary from person to person, and yours will vary from year to year, but they will keep you focused.

So when you decide to lose weight, for example, you can check it against your values. Will losing weight help me to know God better? Perhaps, if physical laziness and poor health robs me of the energy I need to pray and to serve. Will saving more money help me to love my family? Quite likely, since you can better provide for them if you’re not buried in debt and overwhelmed by expenses.

Your goals might not dramatically change, but they will be more focused. I’m guessing, also, that they will be fewer. Finally, you’ll know why you’re committing to change. Nobody grows or changes without strong motivation to do so. That’s the reason most of our resolutions fail: We feel we should resolve to do “better,” but we don’t really know why or what “better” even means.

What primary values will drive your goals, thoughts, and actions this year? Write the question down, determine your values, and move from there. Nobody can tackle every problem at once. Finding the simple center of your life will help you make your resolutions and ambitions realistic. It will also inform your prayer, as you seek God’s strength and wisdom to live out your values, to grow in godliness while still very much a sinner.

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