What Target May Have Overlooked

Last week, Target, the “go-to” store for what you need, announced that – “In our stores, we demonstrate our commitment to an inclusive experience in many ways. Most relevant for the conversations currently underway, we welcome transgender team members and guests to use the restroom or fitting room facility that corresponds with their gender identity.” Right now this is a hot topic in our culture and one that surprisingly appears to me to lack the clarity on all sides needed. In turn it has become simply another “divisive issue” to go to war about between liberals and conservatives, organizations representing Christian morality and those championing inclusivity. I don’t think it has to be that way.

Obvious Differences

Let me start be recognizing I don’t expect we will ever bring both sides together to hold hands and sings songs. There are clear and obvious differences as to one’s belief systems, presuppositions, and authority. Behind these actions and the sides we take are both very personal beliefs and strongly held convictions. These don’t get uprooted by social activism or convincing arguments. But honor and dignity for every person created in the image of God, whether stated that way or not, is something we can agree on. We should be able to recognize that both sides hold strong beliefs related to their commitment to the authority of the Bible or the authority of “no discrimination tolerated”. DA Carson in his excellent little book The Intolerance of Tolerance so aptly points out a day when tolerance actually meant we respect each other’s opinions and beliefs even while strongly opposing them. We should be able to interact with opposing ideas and the actions corresponding to those ideas with honor, respect, and yes … tolerance. This does not mean we check or brains at the door, nor our obvious presuppositions based on theology, culture, or family values.

Protection For All

This is probably the point I am most confused about regarding this decision and ones like it. As a pastor of a church that champions the supremacy of the Scriptures I actually don’t have a problem with attempting to honor all people in retail stores through creative solutions that make everyone feel honored and cared for. The problem and obvious oversight appears to be when you make a decision to do that for one person or group that then puts another person or group in danger. How is that inclusivism done well? I don’t think the issue or problem we should be focused on is about whether a transgender person can select which bathroom to use, but those predators that will take advantage of this decision to openly prey on the vulnerable. I suspect that an individual born male who has transitioned to female might already be using the bathroom or fitting room labeled women. Perhaps without issue, controversy, or causing anyone to feel uncomfortable. The decision made by Target may be affirming that they are supportive of this choice and certainly that makes the transgender community feel supported. But what about those predatory individuals who now are given license to enter the bathroom, fitting room (and in some cases locker room) to take advantage of our children? If indeed the goal of Target is, as they stated – “Everyone deserves to feel like they belong. And you’ll always be accepted, respected and welcomed at Target”, then why in fact does that not apply to everyone including the most vulnerable in any culture – the children? Perhaps we can do better at thinking this one through … together.

Clearly Other Options

I have been known to go into the women’s bathroom from time to time. It’s true. At Starbucks, and other places, where single bathrooms are used, if the men’s bathroom is occupied and the women’s is not … well, yeah I sneak in and used the bathroom that doesn’t correspond with my gender. Without being crude, yes … there is a difference in the two bathrooms, but it’s not as if a man and women can’t use the same toilet. We need to be careful to not get too “up in arms” over the morality issue with those who clearly hold an opposing position. We might also want to recognize that in many cases stores have created “family bathrooms” for us dads who were alone with our young daughters in the store and needed to help them as they were potty training. It may mean that public establishments need to think more consistently about how to create appropriate options for everyone so that everyone feels safe and dignified. As a Christian, I care about Biblical morality, but I’m not that interested in having that intensely personal and immensely important subject over a urinal.

These are tough subjects, and they aren’t going to get any easier to discuss. But we would all be well served to not try to change people’s hearts by public attack. We must care for the vulnerable in our society. We must do our best to treat everyone with dignity and honor, especially those we disagree with. We must be willing to disagree and clearly make a case for truth. We must do all of that in a way that is salt and light to a world in need of a Savior!

Talking To Your Kids About Gender

It really was the case that from the minute Michelle and I got married we had great Godly people around us modeling marriage and family. By the time we were preparing for our first child to enter the world we had watched moms and dads around us closely, taken a couple parenting classes, and drilled our close friends as to the “keys to successful parenting”. But nothing really prepared me for the conversation I had with a few of my kids the other day.

Friday mornings are Dunkin Donut time with our three middle-schoolers. Some mornings we just hang out, other mornings we read theology for kids, or mom takes the girls and I take the boys and we talk “boy talk” or “girl talk”. This past Friday as my son and I sat in one corner, a young man who I had counseled a number of times in previous years came over and said hello to me. It took me about thirty seconds into the conversation before I realized who I was speaking with. This young man was now identifying himself as a transgender woman. I had heard he had made this decision but hadn’t yet bumped into him since this decision had been made. We chatted briefly and shortly thereafter we left to get the kids to school. Once we got in the car I tried to keep conversation going hoping that my kids wouldn’t press in and ask too many questions about my previous encounter. Of course they did … this is 2016 and my kids go to public school, we have a television in our home, and they are generally pretty observant teenagers. I hadn’t rehearsed this “lesson” in my parenting arsenal. Talking to my kids about transgender issues wasn’t in the parenting class Michelle and I took years ago. But here’s what I said:

God Creates Gender

I reminded my kids that way back in the early pages of Genesis it says that God created gender … “male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27). We don’t get to choose our gender. Whether someone is a male or a female is in the creative power and wisdom of God. Someone may struggle “feeling” male or female, but that doesn’t make him or her a gender different than God created him or her. In the beginning God determined that two different sexes were the perfect expression of the image of God. That in the man and in the woman God’s image is displayed, both as an individual and in the way they relate to each other as same (human), and as distinct (gender). One is not better than the other, nor did God design a way for mankind to switch between the two genders.

We All Struggle With Identity

I really want my kids to be able to navigate the waters of sexual identity well as this is a watershed issue in our day that is by no means going away. I explained how this young man I was speaking to identified more as a female. We talked about how we all struggle to understand who we are and why God made us the way He did. I reassured them that it’s normal to wrestle with these issues of identity, but that gender identity is determined by God and transgender expressions won’t “fix” what’s going on inside. To think that somehow transitioning at any level will sort out the very human struggle of one’s identity is near-sighted and will only further confuse the struggle someone feels.

Finding The Right Answers Is Crucial

Ultimately I wanted my kids to have empathy for this young man. They could see from his demeanor and physical mannerisms that he wasn’t doing very well. In fact he had told me he recently had a mental breakdown and was having some neurological tests performed to determine what was going on. I want them to fight the natural bent of their hearts to judge and snicker with the grace and compassion that arises from feeling the hurt someone else carries. I want them to deeply understand who they are before the Lord … and even if they don’t get that far, that they at least understand who God created them to be. I want them to understand that without the right answers to these questions you can begin down a path that only leads to greater and greater confusion … and heartache. The gospel-less culture around us champions being who you are, but offers only tips and tools that lead you away from being who God created you to be. I want my kids to be themselves. I want them to look different than my wife and I. I want them to have their own adventures and walk their own paths. I just want them to be equipped to find their worth in Jesus so they can help others navigate these tricky roads we all walk.

Gratitude … and the Day After Christmas

First of all, just let me say that I believe gratitude is a good thing.  Not only is it a good thing, it is a Biblical command – “Give thanks in all circumstances …” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).  But there’s a problem with gratitude.  Gratitude looks back at what’s been done, given, or accomplished … therefore is an inadequate motivation for looking forward to tomorrow (John Piper helped me work this out years ago in my favorite book of his – Future Grace).

You and I said “thanks” for our gifts on Christmas morning, but we need something more to motivate us the day after Christmas.  What is that something more? Looking forward to the gifts that God continually bestows every day until He returns and for all of eternity!  That’s what Piper calls “faith in future grace”.  Here’s why I think this is a big deal:

We know what’s expected of us

It’s easy to be grateful on Christmas morning.  Most of us that have reached an age of understanding social norms recognize that we are supposed to say “thank you” to grandma, and express appreciation for what we were given whether we like it or not.  Any moralistic, behavior-oriented, socially-aware individual can do that (most of the time).  We are conditioned to perform, and even “giving thanks” can become a conditioned response.  I’m not suggested that we don’t say “thanks”, I’m just suggesting that we recognize where our gratitude can malfunction, and that there is more to gratitude that often gets revealed the next day.

When the expectation to perform is no longer present

In our house the day after Christmas ends up being the day to return what you didn’t like, didn’t fit, or want the cash from to buy something else.  Gifts cards that were gratefully received on Christmas get bartered away between siblings for cash to get what you really want.  Of course there isn’t anything wrong with returning gifts, it just alerts us to the great reality that the gifts of yesterday don’t satisfy in being the gifts of tomorrow.  We want more, different, or even if we loved what we got we want that feeling of pleasure to last as long as possible (I’m still basking in the glow of my Apple Watch, but it’ll fade over time).  My point?  The expected social gratitude … and even the proper Biblical heart response of gratitude is a flawed motivation for tomorrow.  It’s always looking backwards, and it’s often seeking an experience or feeling.

We get pleasures forevermore … greater than Christmas morning

The truth of the matter is that for the follower of Jesus even if everything falls apart the day after Christmas, we still have the greatest gift one could ever receive.  The kids can complain, the relatives leave grumpy, the house left in shambles, but Jesus is still enough.  The new year may hold suffering, disappointment, and broken relationships, but the Spirit of God is still at work sanctifying and conforming you into the image of Christ.  If we are merely motivated by gratitude when this stuff hits, then there is nothing to be grateful for anymore, and you have to coax up some regurgitated gratitude of days gone by to get you through.  But if motivated by faith in the future pleasures of God then we can face the day after Christmas … and everyday knowing that God is at work … and it only gets better!

So be grateful … I’m sure you have much to thank God for.  But be a person of faith … we have a God who gives good gifts to His children every day, and never ceases to make the delights of the Gospel precious to those who seek Him.

What Might Star Wars and Your Church Have In Common?

This morning I heard a movie critic on the news describing the blockbuster-opening weekend of the new Star Wars movie. At one point he was celebrating the communal event of everyone in the theater together. I’ll admit I gasped! Communal event? Then I thought, yeah that’s probably right … that is the definition of a communal event in our culture – A lot of people in the same place united by a common pleasure who don’t know each other and leave feeling just as alone as when then arrived. I wonder how many people have that same communal event experience at their local church? They hear the words community, fellowship, and relationships, but have neither given nor received anything close to what those rich Biblical terms promise. Just what is the communal event that the Bible offers and what is being asked of me to participate in that event?

It requires inner attitudes other than those of consumers

 A consumer heads to the theater expecting to be entertained. He purchases a ticket in anticipation of being “wow-ed”. Once he enters his particular hallway he searches for a seat that gives him just the view he wants and situates himself in a way designed to repel others from sitting next to him. He’s quickly annoyed if someone forgot to silence their cell phone or a child becomes disruptive. And he leaves having formed his review to post online long before even opening his car door to head home. I’ll just say, as a pastor, that scenario is one of the most important things we combat in the local church. There is nothing in that movie-going description that should mirror that of a child of God entering the doors of his local church. He should head into his local assembly eager to worship the King of Kings in spirit and in truth. He has purposed in his heart what he will give to the work of the Kingdom. He looks for brothers and sisters to interact with, sit next to, and encourage through his engagement in the service. When the inevitable disruptions come he is patient with people in process, and those children being taught how to sit through a worship service. He isn’t quick to rush out, and hasn’t formed his lunchtime complaints. Rather, led by the Spirit, he looks for new people to introduce himself to, faithful friends with whom he can share the weeks heartaches, and people in need of a genuine embrace.

 It requires outer actions other than those of superficiality

 Now some people “get into” Star Wars and the new movie. They come dressed as movie characters, equipped with light-sabers and their childhood action figures. They may interact with one another, exchanging memories of days gone by, favorite scenes, or the buzz they read online about the direction this movie takes. But none of that touches the soul, nor lasts past the final credits … it just doesn’t have the staying power of relational depth. As the body of Christ we are to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships. That doesn’t mean we can’t talk about the movie we just saw, it just means that we won’t only talk about the movie we just saw. Maturing followers of Christ push for spiritual transactions not merely superficial interactions. Here’s a few descriptions of what those look like:

  • Selfless Questions – You don’t ask the question that you can’t wait to answer, you ask the question that invites someone to share life knowing they’ll be listened to. Selfless questions come from a heart that is ready to have self forgotten should nothing be asked in return. They are motivated simply out of a desire to serve another and the healthy human need to speak of their experiences and feelings.
  • Thoughtful Input – Do you ever prepare for a conversation you intend to have with someone on a Sunday morning? Yes, I mean you actually come with a plan to pursue seeking a particular someone out to share something you have been thinking through – a word of specific spiritual encouragement, insight God gave you as you prayed for them this week, an observation about their life that has taught you, etc. Input doesn’t have to (and shouldn’t always be) spontaneous … you can plan to give input.
  • Vulnerable Sharing – You get to let people into your life, even when they don’t ask. It’s called asking for help. Go to a friend (old or brand new) and ask them to pray for you. You do have needs don’t you? Why not think through what is weighing heavy on you, what is causing tension in your soul, or what is approaching fast that makes you fearful. My guess is that your step of faith in being vulnerable will be met with at least one question in return. Sure, some will feel caught off guard, but most will feel honored that you trusted them.
  • Godward Praying – When in doubt, pray. No really, if you don’t know what to ask, don’t have any Biblical insight to offer, and aren’t ready to share something about you … just ask if you can pray together. It might be awkward (at first), but imagine a truly communal event where people are actually being the community of God’s people. They don’t just chat, hang out, or rub shoulders … they turn to the Lord together with grateful hearts for the work of Almighty God who always cares for His children.

None of that stuff happens at movie openings … but all of that should happen at local church gatherings. So, practice community … then go see a movie together!

Getting Happy

I love preaching on worship … because I love talking about the glory of God.  I mean really, what better subject is there to teach on? Everything centers on the wonder of who God is and what He has done through His Son in redeeming mankind … the greatest display ever of His glory to this fallen planet.  As I reflected further on this subject in my own life yesterday I remembered one of my absolute favorite quotes from one of my “hero dead guys” – George Muller, listen:

“But according to my judgment, the most important point to be attended to is this: above all things, see to it that your souls are happy in the Lord! Other things may press upon you; the Lord’s work even, may have urgent claims upon your attention. But I deliberately repeat, it is of supreme and paramount importance that you should seek above all other things to have your souls truly happy in God Himself. Day by day seek to make this the most important business of your life.”

What is being happy in the Lord other than a life of worship.  Muller had it figured out and sought after this life with every breath he took.  I think it looks something like this:

Not Finding Happiness in Lesser Things

Contrary to some “christian” teaching, I believe that the Gospel is about enjoying the good gifts of God on earth in anticipation of the good gifts of the new earth.  Our Father isn’t about giving us stones when we ask for bread.  He doesn’t shove a rock at us and tell us to make the best of it.  Rather He indeed has given us “all things richly to enjoy” (1 Timothy 6:17).  And it is only when we recognize them as good gifts and not little gods that we can actually enjoy them to the glory of God.  When we try to suck life out of football and turkey, we ruin a good day.  But when we recognize the God of all glory who redeemed us from the futile way of life we formerly walked, then (and only then) can we rightly enjoy parade-watching, warm crescent rolls, and a lazy afternoon of beating your family at cards.  Why? Because we’re not trying to find happiness in those lesser things, we’re just enjoying them for what they are – little gifts from the God of glory who is the only truly satisfying Gift!

Anticipation that Fuels Contentment

I don’t live in the “holiday at the sea” that Lewis points us to, but that doesn’t mean that I should “live making mud pies in the slums” either.  It’s not an either/or, but a eager anticipation over a dismal acceptance.  I know that what God promises me is so much greater than anything this world as it currently is has to offer, and with such confidence I am fueled to live for so much more than mud-pie making.  That doesn’t mean I’m forced to a dismal acceptance of the current situation and must coerce contentment upon myself.   Nor does it mean I have to keep up a public persona of everything being “good, fine, ok” in the here and now.  It actually means I can be happy in the Lord regardless of the current mud without making mud-pies my food of choice … and I can joyfully anticipate the great feast awaiting me on my holiday at the sea.  That makes me happy and honest.

Everything as Worship

I think this is what Muller was getting at – When my soul is happy in God and that’s the daily business I attend to, then everything I do comes under this divine joy.  I can take out the trash with joy as much as when I study the Bible.  I can watch football with my sons with the same delight as I seek to help a struggling marriage in the counseling room.  And when the trash stinks, my study is laborious, the game is boring, and the couple’s marriage is disintegrating, my happiness is no less real … because it’s centered on the sure foundation of Jesus, and the not the shifting sand of the stuff of life on planet earth.

The Need For Other Voices

Last week in my blog I reflected on those situations we find ourselves in where we don’t know what to say and I offered some thoughts on how to respond wisely. Not only is it essential to often slow your voice down in relationship, but we need other voices in relationships as well.

Here’s what I mean … and I imagine this is an experience common to man.  You have been trying to help someone see something in their life and they just don’t understand or see it.  Then someone else comes along and says exactly the same thing to them and the clouds part and they wonder why nobody has ever told them this life-changing counsel.  Parents, you know what I’m talking about!  Your kid comes home from camp or youth group with awe over a truth that was illumined to them and shared it with you as though you’d never heard of it.  It is perhaps one of the craziest things in pastoral ministry.  People who come to understand a precious truth that you’ve been teaching, preaching, and counseling for years only to state that they’ve never heard it.  In my younger (and more arrogant) years, this would drive me crazy.  I so desperately wanted “credit” for faithfully teaching that or courageously sharing that with a friend.  Now in my slightly older (and slightly less arrogant) years, I am able to thank God for the “other voices” in people’s lives that help them grow.  Of course the spiritual reality behind it all is that not my voice or that of another is the “change agent” … it’s the Spirit that opens eyes, minds, and hearts to receive truth and delight in it!

Yesterday I enjoyed the great benefit of “another voice” speaking to a subject I love dearly – friendship.  As a pastor one of my greatest desires is to see the people of God in a local church love each other deeply from the heart … to be engaged in intentionally redemptive relationships as a norm for the life of the body.  But it is always of great value to have other like-minded voices teach that same truth … from their perspective, with their personality, and in the power of the very same Spirit to God’s people.  A friend speaking on friendship, how great is that?!  Pastor Jonathan Holmes taught us well from the unlikely friendship of Ruth and Naomi and guided us into extremely practical counsel for growing in spiritual friendship.  Listen to his sermon here, or buy his book here.  Listen to the wise voices God has placed in your life.  Invite other Godly voices to speak into your life.  But most of all know that the voice of God must ring the loudest in your ear … it is the Spirit that brings understanding!

When You Don’t Know What To Say

I’ve always loved reading Mark’s account of the Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-13) and in the midst of one of the most glorious supernatural encounters with the human Jesus to read one of the most silly natural encounters with the human Peter.  There go Peter, James, and John up the mountain with Jesus.  They see this guy they’d shared meals with now become radiantly white and full of glorious beauty right before their eyes.  He is having a conversation with a couple of the great dead guys of the Bible – Elijah and Moses.  And what happens next? Worship, fear, silence? No … Peter opens his mouth.  “Rabbi, it is good that we are here.  Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (9:5).  My sense of this? “This is so cool Jesus, thanks for bringing us with you so we could see you like this.  It’s neat to see Moses and Elijah too.  I’ve gotta do something to help here, how about we build you tents to rest in”.  Really? Peter had just witnessed glory face to face and the best he can come up with is tents? Like men of such glory need to rest, like they’d rather retreat to isolation that enjoy the fellowship they were having, like they needed help from Peter if they did want tents to rest in.  What was Peter thinking? Why did Peter say this? Well, Mark tells us – “For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified” (9:6). 

I know by now that one of the marks of proud people who have helping gifts is that they feel the great need to speak more than they should (Yes, I’m referring to me).  We (yes, now I’m including some of you too) think that people need our input, need our direction, need our truth-speaking … and in many cases they do.  But all to often, rather than taking time to pray, reflect, and formulate Godly counsel, we just speak because (1) We genuinely believe it will help, and (2) It genuinely makes us feel like we helped.  So here are a couple items to consider in our well-intentioned and often poorly-executed speaking:

Be Quicker to Listen 

Yes I know, I didn’t come up with that.  “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19).  Do everything you can to make sure that when you speak you are speaking to the right thing.  That requires listening, active listening.  But did you know that active listening requires speaking? More to the point, active listening requires asking questions.  When you ask questions you are forced to think about not only what is being said, but what isn’t being said.  You have to consider who this person is, where they are coming from, and what it is that they most are needing.  When you ask good questions you are forcing yourself to resist the urge to make assumptions, think you know what they are saying, and offer a quick remedy.  Asking good questions does more than just get at information, it actually in-and-of-itself says, “I care!”  You don’t see yourself as their savior, fixer, or teacher … you just see yourself as their friend.

Offer Observations not Answers

If Peter had taken in what was happening a bit longer, and even talked out loud about what he saw rather than offer a “to-do”, it might have helped him better understand the scenario he was in.  Perhaps rather than providing an answer he would have observed that falling on his face was a better response that looking for tent pegs.  We all process information differently.  Some of us are auditory processors and we think through situations as we talk them out.  Others of us need to write things out to see on paper pros and cons, possible solutions or fixes.  And others of us just need time to soak it in, the processing comes slowly over a period of time.  Whichever the case may be, processing the situation is needed prior to applying our “fix it skills” to those we are looking to be a help to.  As we make observations, we are forced to reckon with our own presuppositions, our own experiences and story.  It makes us reflect a little more on the silly things people have said to us that weren’t helpful in our need, and hopefully prevent us from repeating that mistake.

Think Long-Term over Quick-Fix

If we enter into conversations with the goal being that we want to actually walk with this person and not just quickly move them on their way, we will not feel as urgent about the right information getting passed on.  We will be quicker to identify with the suffering they are facing.  We will be more sympathetic to the complexity of the circumstances they are involved in.  We will be prayerful about the help coming from the Spirit of God.  Rarely does solid, Biblical, helpful counsel come out in a one-time, thirty-minute conversation.  Truth can be spoken and obedience commended, but they, like us, are people in process … and process takes time.  So think about how to ask questions and make observations today so that you get to do it with them again tomorrow.