Mangoes and stones

I bought Mikayla a mango the other day. They were on sale at the grocery store, and I thought to myself, “Self, that would be a fun, delicious treat for Mikayla to try.” A good gift for her, so to speak.

In line with how my mind jumps from random topic to random topic, I started thinking of Matthew 7:11:

If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

This passage is perhaps the most precious and profound passage of Scripture that I have appreciated most since becoming a father. In this passage, Christ isn’t speaking to the wicked Pharisees, who are easy to criticize and who are easy self esteem boosters. No, Christ is speaking to His disciples, the apostles, those paragons of truth and boldness later in the New Testament.

Two thousand years later, this passage is also spoken to us as Jesus’ disciples, and we are grouped with the disciples as “evil.” We sing with David, “I am evil, born in sin.” Though we are evil and born in sin, we still don’t give our children a stone instead of bread or a snake instead of fish. “How much more, then, will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

Remember that we’re not happy-go-lucky, health-and-wealth Christians. Thus, the “good things” here are not only the bountiful, easy-to-spot, good gifts God lavishes on His own. It’s not just the mangoes. Everything that comes from His hand is ultimately good: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (Hebrews 12:6).

The Lord knows what we need even more than a loving father knows what his children need. I know (imperfectly) when to give my kids good gifts and when they need loving discipline. If that’s the case for lowly, evil me, how much more can I trust God when He gives me what I need, and more perfectly than I know what I need? Good and bad, easy and difficult, plenty and want, edifying and sanctifying. What does this truth say about me when I question His purposes?

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)

Five year blog anniversary

I find it hard to believe, but today marks my five year anniversary of blogging. From my first post in 2007, I’ve had the pleasure of blogging on books, worship, sports, music, technology, and the mundane. One miscarriage, two kids, three moves, four jobs, five blog designs, almost six years of marriage, and immeasurable grace later, here we are. I’ve written nearly 650 posts, the vast majority of which which are forgettable. But I’m glad to have written them, and have enjoyed going back and reading some of them. I’ve had posts that I (pridefully) thought were excellent but were barely viewed, and controversial posts that made me hang my head in shame. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to take a stroll through some interesting facts, figures, and anecdotes in the short life of token lines.

First, the less interesting: stats. In five years, there have been nearly 19,000 page views from at least 10 countries (though many foreign hits are spam sites). Google is by far the best site referrer, though the Shomo blog is the highest direct URL referrer, with my wife’s blog a close second.

If you’ll ask any blogger who keeps stats, they will most likely say that they are surprised which posts garner the most traffic. That holds true for me. My post about Robinson Crusoe back in 2008 has more than triple the views of any other posts, with a whopping 1,650! It helps that in a Google image search, the graphic on my post is the first result. The second most popular post also comes from 2008, on Scattergories Categories. People apparently enjoy searching for creative lists, though the ones searching for “dirty Scattergories lists” are surely disappointed when they click through to my post. Three of the top ten keyword searches people use to find my blog are Scattergories related, with dirty lists ranking 7th overall. We’re still pretty proud of coming up with the category “Something you would do for a Klondike bar.” Rounding out the top five most viewed posts are: A Prayer for the Broken Hearted, Matt Redman Pew Review, and Reading the Bible in a year.

I’ve had my share of foot-in-the-mouth moments, which tend to correspond with the most vigorous discussions by you. I read all comments even if I don’t respond to them, and am grateful for what I’ve learned through them. Here is a list of the top eight most-commented posts. Consider it a display of my foolishness and a lesson to think before you blog.

Up for grabs: college football allegiance (18 comments, 2010) I’m still a Michigan fan.
Preservething thy language – (16, 2011) Very insightful comments.
Mission trip recap – (15, 2007) Yikes. All comments were deleted.
Providence in the ordinary – (10, 2009) Highlight: My mother in law wonders if she is “lusty.”
Predominant Psalm singing – (10, 2009) One of my dad’s few comments, and he lays the smack down!
Nursery to the golden oldies – (9, 2011) Decent discussion.
Here I am to Worship Pew Review – (8, 2009) I never did finish those Pew Reviews, eh?
Christianese buzzwords – (8, 2011) One of my favorite posts to write.

It’s no secret that I’m a bibliophile, and my most-used tag is books, with 130. Hymns (74), family (64), sports (61), and Scripture (60) round out the top five tags. I’ve also reviewed over 20 books, many of which I’ve received for free from publishers’ blog programs. Over the last five years, I’ve read almost 200 books and undergone three year-long reading goals (Institutes, 50 books, and the Bible). More recently, my blogging has relied heavily on the books I read, not least because the authors of good books say things much better than I can.

Overall, I think I have benefited greatly from blogging. I’ve learned a lot about pride and humility and being slow to speak (and write). I have learned more about brevity and clarity in writing, honed my own style more, and figured out which writers I want to emulate. I have gleaned much from my readers, the books I’ve read (alone and with others), and the things I’ve blogged about. I’ve also learned that as much as I have been tempted to switch to WordPress, Blogger just has more customizable options and add-ons. I’ve thought about stopping blogging too many times to count, but have always persisted – even if my output isn’t what it used to be. After all, if I stop, how would I get free books through Westminster, Amazon, or publisher’s programs?

So thanks for sticking with me. Thank you especially for your patience, your insightful contributions, your encouragement, your challenges, and your clicks on links that get me free swag. Will I be blogging in another five years? Will there even be blogs in another five years?

Prioritizing marriage

Crossway recently posted 3 Reasons to Prioritize Your Marriage Over Your Children, based on Voddie Baucham’s book Family Shepherds (November, 2011). While children are a huge part of a family’s focus and energy, these three reasons served as a refreshing challenge to continue to work hard at our marriage. By posting this, am I saying children aren’t an important focus in the family? By no means! Given the huge importance children have, that speaks to how much important the marriage relationship is.

1. Children will eventually leave home. Prepare your marriage for the empty nest. Once kids are gone, it will just be Elizabeth and me again. And while we can’t really remember what life was like before Mikayla (and 2P), we have worked hard to lay a firm foundation for our marriage. We need to continually maintain that foundation through the child-rearing years. “Building a marriage on the foundation of the preeminence of children is like building a house on a rented removable slab. You may have days or even years when you feel completely secure, but the day is coming when the lease will be up and the foundation upon which your home stands will be taken away.”

2. Marriage forms the cornerstone of children’s security. This is an excellent point that deserves much attention. Mikayla and 2P will have our marriage as their primary example for marriage. Our marriage will be a source of security, satisfaction, and love for them. Or, it could be a source of insecurity, frustration, and bitterness. Heavy stuff! “Ironically, those who prioritize their children above their marriage are not only jeopardizing their marriage, they’re actually depriving their children of the very thing they desire to provide them. The greatest source of security our children have in this world is a God-honoring, Christ-centered marriage between their parents. Putting the children first is like a police officer putting away his badge and gun in order to make the public feel more at ease.”

3. Putting your marriage first will prepare your children for marriage. Another great point. I am to show what a Christ-honoring husband is to Mikayla, and Elizabeth is to model a Christ-honoring wife. If the saying is even a little bit true that girls grow up to marry someone like their father, and boys grow up to marry someone like their mother, then what are we modeling to our kids? This is “one of the greatest lessons you’ll ever teach your children—how to be good husbands and wives. We must first and foremost model a commitment to marriage. Failure to do this will communicate ideas that are contrary to what we believe—starting with the narcissism it tends to create in our children—including the pitfalls that may follow them into their marriage.”

The primary responsibility for all this falls to the husband. Husbands are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. Children have front row seats to watch the way this is played out: front row seats to every raised voice, disrespectful comment, short temper, belittling jab, or unloving gesture. As the husband, am I telling lies to my kids about Christ’s love for the church, giving them a false idea of Christ’s love (nod to Doug Wilson)? Or am I modeling sacrificial love, laying down my life for my wife in all circumstances? I know I will sin in front of them. But when I do, I hope I am given the grace to use those moments to model humble repentance. After all, there is never a time when parents aren’t modeling something to their kids, consciously or unconsciously.

The great American feast day

We were driving home from our niece’s baptism Sunday, talking about how the Super Bowl has taken over as the primary American religious celebration. It’s a day when so many idols of the nation converge in a celebration akin to pagan feast days of yore. Here are some of the things we thought of that are worshiped so heavily in America that find their climax with the Super Bowl. Reflecting on things like this is an interesting cultural exercise.

-Football: definitely one of the biggest idols of American culture (finger is pointed at me, especially), and Super Bowl Sunday looms even larger when one’s team is involved. I wonder how the homeless in each respective city feel toward football each year when they are hidden or shuttled away so that the city can look perfect for the television cameras.

-Entertainment: The Super Bowl is as much about the entertainment as it is about the game. Starting with the two weeks of pre-game hype to the excess pageantry of the game, it’s the pinnacle of entertainment. The fact that Dallas’ new stadium boasts two 60-yard high definition screens is just one testament to this. It’s also ironic that the Black Eyed Peas didn’t help the entertainment factor this year.

-Consumerism: This one is too easy. $3 million for thirty seconds of air time? Corporations aren’t paying that money to entertain, they’re paying that because they know it’s effective. Players changing into tacky championship garb before the clock runs out? Sales gimmick. Think the Super Bowl MVP really needs a new car? Just another marketing tactic.

-The Individual: Regular season games are bad enough, but in the Super Bowl this is taken to sickening heights. Every first down, every sack, every yard, and every tackle garners another “I am the center of the universe” celebration. Also, quarterbacks especially are elevated to god-like status by fans and the media, especially when they win.

-Gluttony: Super Bowl Sunday is second only to Thanksgiving for food consumption. Antacid sales shoot up 20 percent the day after the Super Bowl. Bad beer and junk food commercials are the norm.

-Sex: From godaddy.com to who knows what else, sex sells year after year. I didn’t see any ads this year, so I have no idea how they scored on the skin meter. But at least neither of the teams had cheerleaders, right?

-Winning: Is winning the Super Bowl really the ultimate prize for players and coaches and fans? Do they legitimately feel more fulfilled in the days, weeks, months afterward? What does it profit the Super Bowl winners if they gain the whole world, but lose their own soul?

-Celebrity: Even the cult of personality is on display at the Super Bowl. From Fergie’s awkward duet with an elderly Slash to the even more awkward A-rod feeding, celebrity gossip fodder was in abundance, and Americans eat it up.

-Finally, each year the Super Bowl (and every other more minor “feast” of regular season games) falls on the Christian’s feast day: The Lord’s Day.

I don’t intentionally mean to ignore the possible positives that might be involved, like competition, opportunities for fellowship, etc. We were, after all, graciously hosted for the game this year (thanks, Kayes!), and had nutritious, delicious, and non gluttonous food.

Reflections on Genesis

It seems strange to post anything after Mikayla’s announcement, but I guess I would have to post sooner or later, right? Just seems a little anticlimatic.

The yearly Bible reading plan is going great, and I just finished Genesis. I had many thoughts on this fascinating book, but here are some of the main thoughts on Genesis that have stuck with me.

-Moses was a great writer and definitely knew what he was doing. The organization of the Genesis narrative is superb, the transitions seamless, the relation of themes subtle but understandable, and his use of language poetic. I never realized how literary, for want of a more precise term, he was as a writer.

-Genesis is earthy. From the creation account to Eve’s creation, the fall and curse, sex, childbirth, animals, blood, rainbows, food and wine, astrology, wilderness wanderings, etc. etc. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but romanticize about how amazing it must have been for the first generations to live so close to the earth.

-Besides being earthy, Genesis also has some pretty weird stuff. Who were the Nephilim? Where did the mysterious king/priest Melchizedek character come from and why does he disappear as soon as he is introduced? What’s the deal with all the concubines, polygamy, and wife rivalry? How did Joseph live in Egypt with all their pagan divinations and gods? How was music invented/discovered?

-I should be much more cognizant in using the many names of God, especially in prayer. I was especially struck by Jacob calling God “The Fear of Isaac,” twice. The text note in my Bible says it could be translated “The Awesome One of Isaac.” Jacob was pretty stupid and sinful sometimes, but he at least had a deep-rooted, covenantal reverence for God.

-Most importantly, in only the first book of the Bible, it is inarguable that the main character of Scripture is the Triune God, with sinful humans merely the roll players in God’s divine story of redemption. It’s not about how we should follow the great examples of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (how sinful were they?!), and it’s not a nice collection of stories. It’s about Christ! It is difficult to miss the fact that Christ is absolutely the center of Scripture, starting with creation and moving through the promise of His victory over Satan in Genesis 3, the preservation of the Messianic line in the geneologies, and the many foreshadowings of Christ throughout the book (Abel, Noah, Isaac, Joseph, and even Judah).

Ordinary Providence

Recently (during the Super Bowl, no less), a friend related a story told by Sinclair Ferguson, of which I don’t remember many details (I have a terrible memory) (I also love to use parenthetical statements). The story involved a chance meeting between two very different men at an airport who subsequently hit it off. Near the end of their conversation, one commented about how God’s Providence was so great to have facilitated the meeting. The other replied that if they hadn’t met, it would have still been by God’s Providence.

This anecdote served as a good reminder that God has ordained even the seemingly routine, mundane, or unspectacular events of our lives to be agents of our conformity to the image of Christ. It’s not just the coincidental or big events that the Almighty uses for our good (though those are definitely used by Him and easily seen by us). But we are to praise and thank Him for even the small, non-coincidental, regular things as part of His providential purposes.

“And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:28-31

Providence in the Ordinary

I’m not usually one for posting public, personal memoirs, but thought it half appropriate to reflect on recent concrete examples of God’s providence. In the last couple weeks, I found myself discontent with my seemingly very “ordinary” current situation: working a lot of nights at Chick-fil-A, not seeing my wife as much as I’d like to, getting adjusted to a new area, struggling to make new friends because of a lack of time and proximity, and immersing ourselves to a small body of believers at a recent church plant. It would just be so much easier and better if our lives would “arrive” already, right? Library school and internship complete, new jobs secured, family started, booming spiritual growth, and bustling social life. In a way, I was becoming bored with my current situation, looking ahead to the future. In my warped thinking, I felt like boredom is not a burden I should be bearing.

I’m not talking about a flashy life. There are some who are called to live extraordinary lives, but that isn’t the norm. Most of us live ordinary lives at regular jobs, including ordinary plodding pastors or stay at home moms (arguably the most challenging full-time job there is). I wasn’t growing discontent because of the longing for a sexy, enviable lifestyle. But, in God’s providence evidenced in several circumstances, I was convicted of my discontent, driven to gratitude for where God has placed us right now, and motivated to use what He has given us even more in our current life situation. Through these situations, I learned to embrace the “ordinary” while not settling for less (an important distinction to make); give thanks in and for the ordinary because I don’t even deserve half that much; and give God the glory He deserves in the ordinary, for everything I do should be done for the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31 wrenched out of context).

God, in His providence (some might say a mere coincidence) coalesced these separate circumstances into one big lesson in contentment (not necessarily chronologically ordered).

  1. I read Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, in which the protagonist lives out an ambiguous existential crisis, which he dubs his “search.” He struggles between a life of significance (doing medical research) and the simple life (a simple financial broker but cognizant of the deep realities of life and living with them). To quote him, “Once I thought of going into law or medicine or even pure science. I even dreamed of doing something great. But there is much to be said for giving up such grand ambitions and living the most ordinary life imaginable, a life without the old longings; selling stocks and bonds and mutual funds; quitting work at five o’clock like everyone else; having a girl and perhaps one day settling down and raising a flock of Marcias and Sandras and Lindas of my own.”
  2. Reflecting on this book led to a long talk with Elizabeth about aspirations, the future, our gifts, our goals, our current situations, and how we can be used as God’s instruments where we are right now. Thank you, Lord, for such an amazing wife.
  3. Our church sponsored a Calvin conference, with one of the talks focusing on the concept of vocation, or calling. Especially helpful was the fact that a vocation isn’t just a future career, but it also includes working to His glory wherever He has placed me currently.
  4. Elizabeth and I listened to a helpful White Horse Inn broadcast on boredom and entertainment, which spoke to the dangers of viewing the Christian life as “what I can get out of it” – especially from an boredom/stimulation perspective. Because of our culture’s emphasis on entertainment and constant (over-) stimulation, it’s easy to feel like we’re not doing what we’re supposed to be doing when our lives aren’t exciting or exactly how we want them to be. From a worship point of view, God has chosen to minister to us through “ordinary” means – Word and sacrament. So, too, in the context of life in general, when we lose the concept of laboring in our vocations in favor of more stimulating thoughts or methods, we lose out on what God has ordained from His word.
  5. We also reflected on Psalm 34 (and sung in corporate worship), a complex song with many themes, a prominent one is praising Him in every circumstance (it’s an especially meaningful Psalm of Scott and Becca). Some key verses are 1-3 and 8-10: “I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together! Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him! Oh, fear the Lord, you his saints, for those who fear him have no lack! The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.”

I know these aren’t really profound new truths that I happened across, nor are they very well-developed here, but they are an example of God using ordinary means to teach His children and drive them to His word and to prayer. To quote a different Percy novel, “Poor as I am, I feel like God’s spoiled child. I am Robinson Crusoe set down on the best possible island with a library, a laboratory, a lusty Presbyterian wife, a cozy tree house, an idea, and all the time in the world.” Embracing the ordinary, cultivating my garden, not dreaming of Utopia but content where God has placed me, where I can ordinarily think and work to His extraordinary glory.