Monday, December 17, 2018

Christmas in the Dark

Candles and lights aren't just pretty, they're pretty symbolic

While I have seldom put up lots of Christmas lights outside, and been pretty "simple" (others might say "lame") when I have, I do appreciate the beauty of them. I can look out my back windows and see an illuminated pond and a couple houses with radiant and colorful lights. Looking down my street I can see more such houses, including lights along a VERY long driveway. They are beautiful

We will have our Candlelight Christmas Eve Service this Sunday night, and I always look forward to the end where we light our candles and dim the other lights--the beauty of that moment is moving to me. And other than the wax drippings making life harder on our cleaning crew, everyone seems to enjoy it as I do.

The large number of light displays we see go far beyond the number of people who may understand what they mean. That is true with many of the elements of our culture's more secular observances of Christmas. They have manger scenes, but don't understand their significance. They sing "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" (a very theologically rich carol) but pay little attention to ideas of being given "second birth" by the "incarnate Deity." And they put up all sorts of lights without understanding the historical and theological content.

Tim Keller reminded me of this in his book, Hidden Christmas. Our celebrations took their shape in the Mediterranean world, where late December has the shortest and darkest days. Lights didn't just add beauty, they made it possible to see! Large numbers of lights would make the darkness diminish--in some cases overcoming it temporarily. And this is the idea behind Christmas lights. Isaiah 9:2-9 tells us about people walking in darkness. That is a terrible position to be in. I've had a few walks in pitch dark, moonless nights and I gained a few bruises on some of those occasions. The darkness in Isaiah's context was spiritual, and is described in chapter 8 as turning our gaze earthward rather than heavenward--looking for "light" in the wisdom of other teachings and religions made by people."  The promise of chapter 9 was that a day would come where a great light would shine. This light is revealed in verses 6-7 as a child born, a son given, who would be "wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." Everything would change for the better through seeing him.

We know this Child has come--He is the light that enlightens people, and that cannot be overcome by darkness--a great light indeed (see John 1). And Christmas candles and lights are silent but visible testimony to the coming of the great light in the great darkness--a light that brings hope and life to the world.

You cannot grasp the significance of Christmas until you realize that you live in a dark world, and that any ideas you may have about finding light or creating your own light are not only wrong, but deadly. Many people simply prefer darkness since it lets them hide their own shame (John 3:19). But faith in Jesus means that we realize that he is "the light of the world. Whoever follows [him] will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life" (John 8:12).

Let the lights and candles remind you not just of the darkness around them, but of the true light that leads us through and eventually out of darkness into the light of life. Follow the light!

Monday, December 3, 2018

"Hoping So" or "Hoping In"?

Two different uses of "hope" that mark two different kinds of people

As we are in our first week in Advent and thinking about "hope" as it relates to the promised coming of a Savior, I'm reminded that we use this word in very different ways.

When I say, "I hope so," I'm usually expressing a wish or perhaps and uncertainty about what is coming. I want it to happen, but I'm not sure it will happen. So I "hope" it will.

But the hope we talk about with the coming of Jesus, or the salvation he has provided, has nothing to do with an uncertain wish--it is the expression of a confidence about the future that is based on the believability or certainty of the object.

As a great example, my hope in Christ is not that "I hope he will save me," because I know that he saves the one who believes on him and calls upon his name (Acts 16:31, Romans 10:13). I know that he knows me and will never let me go (John 10:27-30). He will save me. My hope is the assurance that, as good or bad as the present may look, as powerful as evil may seem, and as final as death presents itself to be, Jesus has promised me a future. It is with him, in a place he is preparing, and it involves not only the forgiveness of sins that I have received, but the removal of any effects of sin that were a result of the Fall. It involves resurrection from this dying (and someday dead) body into a glorified, immortal body. It includes final victory over all God's enemies, the ability to stand before God's throne and be justified then (as I am now), and to enter into an eternally glorious existence in a totally remade New Heaven and Earth. This hope is what I receive in Christ.

A "hope so" faith isn't really faith at all, is it? What we are offered in Jesus is a hope--a promise--of much more than I deserve, could imagine, or ever obtain on my own. Place your faith in the Savior of the world, and you no longer have to have a "hope so" approach to your future!

Monday, August 27, 2018

The Pope and I

For a Baptist pastor to respond negatively to  pronouncements from the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church may seem to be one of a number of things:
  1. It's predictable--after all this thing called the Reformation set out some pretty significant differences, and they haven't been solved.
  2. It's pointless--my people will like what I have to say, and the Pope's "peeps" will be all for Francis!
  3. It's presumptuous--he has half a billion or so people in his congregation--I'm a little short of that.
That said, I want to weigh in on the current controversy surrounding him, then recent theological change he has initiated, and why I believe he is not only wrong but is demonstrating exactly why some of us think "popery" (not potpourri) is a bad idea.

The Current Controversy.
We cannot miss the storm created over the weekend when a high placed archbishop of the Roman Catholic Church charged that he had informed the current pope, Francis, of the history of abuse allegations and accusations lodged against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington. Francis was already known to have ignored credible accusations while in charge of his archdiocese in South America. This news, along with the detail that the previous pope, Benedict, had sanctioned Cardinal McCarrick but Francis removed those sanctions, makes for a huge scandal. The accusations, published by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, also state that there is a "lavender Mafia" within the hierarchy of the church that protects and even promotes sympathy with homosexual behavior. This group is said to support Francis but was largely opposed to the previous Pope and his moves to limit such influence. The existence of such a group of clerics has long been talked about, but this is the most public statement offered about its existence in the controversy.

Ironically, this recent news broke as the Pope was returning from Ireland, where he was apologizing to the nation for the abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church there. When asked if the charges in this latest report were true, Francis refused to comment. 

Francis, you cannot remain silent on these accusations if you hope to have any credible future in any role representing historic Christianity of any stripe. You must answer. Many are already calling this the greatest scandal in the Roman Church and potential catastrophe in the modern era.

The Theological Change.
Pope Francis announced that he is changing the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church to reflect an absolute ban on the death penalty--that it is never permissible or moral in the age of the gospel. This changes the previous stance which allowed for it when no other punishment was appropriate--and that was in very rare circumstances then.

What makes this interesting is that while the Pope can make pronouncements that are binding on the Church, such pronouncements are supposed to be clarifying, not contradictory because the Church is supposedly the guardian as well as the authoritative interpreter of the scriptures. It's hard to see how "allowed/not allowed" is anything other than contradictory. More than this, his predecessors not only allowed the death penalty, they encouraged and enforced it in previous eras of church history. Were they wrong in doing so? Roman Catholic dogma makes papal precedent (not just infallibility) pretty significant. 

My bone to pick is that Francis is very willing to ban something that the Bible does not. He knows (or at least has some pretty smart people around him who do) that the command, "You shall not kill" was not an absolute ban on taking life, but on murder. The same writer--Moses--who records the command also records the earlier introduction of capital punishment in Genesis 9 for the wrongful taking of human life. And in the theocratic nation of Israel, there were quite a number of crimes (sins) that led to capital punishment. While the New Testament introduces the gospel in the fullness of Jesus Christ, it is not as if there was no grace or forgiveness in the Old Testament. And the New Testament encourages a fear of the power of governing authorities that "bear the sword" (Romans 14). This wasn't just an ornament, it was the Roman means of execution for citizens and speaks of the power of life and death. While no nation is a theocracy, and the church is not given the right to exercise capital punishment, the practice is nowhere condemned in the New Testament, and the right is acknowledged by its writers. 

My own understanding of scriptural teaching would be that governments still have the right to exercise capital punishment if they so choose. Only in those cases where life has been wrongfully taken (murder) would I encourage its use (echoing Genesis), although a case could be made that certain activities might not be the actual taking of life but lead directly to it (sabotage of an airplane or treasonous lowering of defenses for an enemy attack could be two easy cases) would also be appropriate.

Why is it appropriate? Because this is a matter of societal justice. Justice requires punishment that is commensurate with the offense ("let the punishment fit the crime"). The principle of justice established in Scripture and universal among people cannot be avoided. Others point to capital punishment as a deterrence of crimes. I just heard today a report on a study that showed fear of capital punishment actually kept a significant percentage of criminals from escalating their evil deeds to the point of murder. And of course, a murderer who is executed is not likely to kill again. 

I do not think that those crimes listed under the Mosaic Law that called for the death penalty require it today--we are not, after all living in a nation where God is acknowledged as King (the evidence strongly suggests that even Israel was not very consistent in applying all of God's rules in the covenant). That many of those actions were evil and immoral is beyond question, but those laws were a part of a civil society and code that does not exist today, and no government can claim to speak for God and execute his judgments. This would leave murder as the remaining case where the Scriptures would call for capital punishment as the appropriate response.

Must it be practiced? No--I think that a government may choose to do other things, especially if there is a history of wrongful convictions in certain cases, or if the judicial system seems not to function effectively. Societies may limit their governments in such cases, which may or may not prove wise. And I believe that governments and officials can exercise clemency in cases where the punishment has been pronounced but extenuating circumstances occur. Some (including Christians) argue that the wiser course for governments may be to set aside the death penalty as a tool of justice. But for Pope Francis to weigh in as he has not only is an intrusion into the sphere of governmental authority, it is one that contradicts Scripture and places him alongside those who, rather than take the Bible seriously, seem more interested in making it bend to more acceptable, contemporary understandings. 

The Underlying Bad Idea of "Popes".
If this were Francis's only recent error, I'd probably not be so concerned, but having flatly contradicted Scripture here, it brings to mind his statements same-sex relationships, divorce, the reality of hell, and the necessity of faith in Jesus. As clear as he has been on capital punishment, he has been obscure--that's putting it kindly--about these matters, saying things that have sent some Catholic theologians scurrying to ask him for clarifications,  and for others to rejoice and say, "It's about time--I think. Wait. What did he say?"

I hope you understand that as I write these things, I am not trying to attack any who are committed to the Roman Catholic Church or are sympathetic to it or its practitioners. I won't say "some of my best friends are Roman Catholics" but actually, I have had more than a few. Many Catholic scholars are important voices on matters of both the culture and faith. And I am convinced that there are many that we will see in Heaven--although I would argue that it will often be in spite of their church's dogmas rather than because of it. Roman Catholic believers still affirm the creeds and read the Scriptures which have a power all their own to be used by the Spirit to bring faith and eternal life. 

But the belief that one person (other than Jesus) can rule the church, speak in ways that cloud clear scriptural teaching or even set it aside in the name of theological progress in understanding, continues to be a dangerous dogma. And the concurrent danger of a hierarchy within the church that cannot be challenged or overruled is painfully manifested as the evil it is as we watch the headlines scream of abuse and coverup by that hierarchy over decades. 

The Reformation actually revolved around this central issue--where is the authority for us when it comes to what we must believe? The Roman Catholic answer was that the Scriptures only as interpreted through the established tradition and by the church's hierarchy--focused in the Pope--have that authority. Protestants, led by Luther, said the authority rests in the Scriptures alone--sola Scriptura was the phrase. 

These contemporary disagreements and disasters for the Roman Catholic Church remind us that these issues still matter. Our authority must be Scripture alone when it comes to what we believe.

That said, we cannot simply point fingers at the Catholic Church as if they are the only ones with scandals. Plenty of Bible-believing churches have had scandals and failures. Having the right authority, but not submitting to it, does not help. Let's pray for those being led astray by bad leaders, and especially for those abused by those they have trusted. But let us also pray with vigilance lest we allow similar disasters through failure to guard our heart's devotion to Christ and his Word.

Monday, July 23, 2018

"Look for the F.A.T. People!"

A mentor's odd sounding advice taken from the example of Jesus

It's pretty interesting to hear "experts" on health now telling us that fat is NOT the enemy when it comes to our health--sugar is! And that's because the sugar manufacturers spent boatloads of money to convince us that sugar was good but that fat was bad--there was no "fat lobby" to fight back. So we cut fat out of our diets and products, from milk (another lobby was fighting for its survival there) to just about everything else--"low fat" and "no fat" became very important, even if made palatable in many cases with lots of added sugars.

Now we are learning that fat isn't necessarily bad (after figuring out that sugar may be sweet but it's not healthy after all--and Mary Poppins' advice about that spoonful has been overdone). There is good fat and bad fat. And some of the fat we thought was bad isn't so bad after all. Just not too much.

Of course, this hasn't made the word "fat" pleasing, even if it helps the taste of some of our foods. We don't like the word as a descriptor--it means overweight to us, and little else. That's too bad, because the word used to mean much more.

It still does in a few contexts (and we're not talking about the more recent emergence of "phat"--I'm not cool enough to parse that). When someone has a "fat" wallet he has lots of money. The "fat" of the land was its bounty and surplus--something that everyone wanted to gain and that Pharaoh gave to Joseph's family (Genesis 45:18). Isaac blessed Jacob with "the fatness of the earth" (Genesis 27:28). And the psalmist complained about hard times of mourning when his body had "no fat" (Psalm 109:24), while times of blessing are marked by "fat" and "rich food" (Psalm 63:5). Even the LORD specifically asked for the fat portions in animal sacrifices throughout Exodus and Leviticus. Even today in cultures where scarcity is common, it is a compliment to one's prosperity and good looks to be called "fat."

For me, one special meaning of the word comes from a mentor who was teaching me how to choose people to train and to lead. He told me frequently, "Look for the FAT people!" He wasn't talking physique, though; he was talking about character. The word was an acrostic for three qualities he thought were essential and tried to emphasize. To be truthful, I can't remember if he came up with the acrostic or if I did, so if you think it's a bad thing, blame me, but it stuck. What are the three qualities? I'm glad you asked, because not only did he teach them to me, but we find them looking at the life of Jesus in his choices.

First, a good candidate for servant leadership (or any responsibility) in ministry must be faithful. Here the focus is faithfulness to what one knows to be right and true. It is faithfulness to the cause, not just personal affection for a teacher. This person is "all in," even if they aren't sure of all the ramifications. This is what makes a good friend, too--who "loves at all times"(Prov. 17:17) and whose occasional wounding of us is still faithful in seeking our good (Prov. 27:6). Gaius is commended by his mentor John, in III John for the "faithful" things he was doing. Faithful is not just believing, it is commitment to that belief.

Jesus chose his twelve, and the faithful eleven chose Judas' replacement, out of those who were with them from the beginning of Jesus' ministry (Acts 1:21-22). Long before they were the twelve, we see Peter and Andrew and James and John and others named as being with Jesus, learning, following, and serving. He was the teacher they were looking for, they believed him, and they stuck with him--admittedly not perfectly and with some glaring failures. But they believed and that belief led to commitment to him. My mentor's encouragement was not to try to build someone's faith and commitment by giving them responsibility, but rather to find people who were marked by faith in Jesus and commitment to the gospel as a start.

Second, someone must be available. The disciples' faithfulness to Jesus and his teaching was matched with availability. When Jesus invited them with the words "Follow me," they came. In fact the first "follow me" got them coming, but that was followed by the second, where Jesus said "I will make you fishers of men." Even after the resurrection, Peter's restoration included the reminder, "follow me" and don't worry about what happens to others. Good servant leadership begins by showing up, and then staying.

Not everyone accepts invitations, like those invited wedding guests who had just married or just bought a field or a team of oxen. Similarly, there are times when people we know are committed believers are not available to serve or lead. It may not even be their choice at the time; circumstances, the Spirit, and even Satan can hinder us from doing work we would choose to do. Availability may be limited for a time. But sadly, there are some believers who never seem able to make themselves available. If someone always needs exceptions to the expectations of ministry commitment, it may be like the man who wanted to wait until his father died to follow Jesus (Matthew 8:21). You may be, as Matthew records, a disciple (follower), but you won't really discover what that means beyond the most limited sense. My mentor encouraged me to probe potential servant leaders to discover if they were willing to be available to do the task required, or to go through the training needed. If not, whether it was what I thought was a good reason or bad, I should move on to candidates who will be available.

The mention of training brings up the third quality I was to look for--servant leaders must be teachable. A disciple of Jesus was, by definition a "learner." Learning requires availability, but some who may be available may not be teachable. They may always have a better idea, or believe that the instructions are just suggestions. Jesus' disciples followed his instructions in ministry, sometimes incredulous (think of getting ready to feed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish), and sometimes not understanding what they were doing (their reactions after feeding the five thousand and then the four thousand showed this).

Unlike Jesus, we can't be perfect teachers, and sometimes our learners will have insights that may improve what we do. Servant leaders are always learning. But my mentor's encouragement was to look for people who were ready to learn, often preferring them over those who were convinced they already knew what to do. In some situations, you may know that there are many ways a task could be accomplished, but current conditions and settings make one way favorable and you hope to teach your student that way for this moment. Teachability is a must in the varying circumstances of life.

I haven't always followed this advice, and it usually comes back to bite me. But, I am thankful for these pointers that have served me well in teaching and discipleship. My prayer today is that they might help you, too, as you either look to disciple or train others, or as you consider whether you are the right kind of candidate to serve. Are you faithful--not just "believing" in Jesus but wholly committed to his cause? Are you available--ready to put in the work and the time? Are you teachable--ready to learn, even in those areas you may think you know? Then you are ready to go, and it's time to step up and volunteer! You are the right kind of FAT!

Monday, July 16, 2018

A Fortress and a Fountain

Proverbs gives us a double dose of wisdom on beating sin

I hate sin. I hate what it does in lives. I hate what it can do to me when I give in to temptation. I hate its continuing effects. Its onslaught can be so difficult to bear. I hate sin.

But there is a part of me (my understanding of the Bible tells me it is what I should call "my flesh") that loves sin. I can crave its offers and temptations. I can feel drawn to its allure. And that voice that tells me "just this once" is so powerful. It pains me to say that part of me loves (or at least strongly desires) sin.

I don't think I'm telling you anything that should be shocking because I have found that the people I talk to in honesty admit to a similar dilemma. We don't want to love it at all, and we want to fight it better. How can we do that?

You may have favorite verses you go to or stories in Scripture that help you explain the battle against sin, and there are many good ones, from taking up the armor of God to fleeing youthful lusts, to saying "no" to ungodliness and worldly lusts (Bonus points if you can find all of these phrases in Scripture, and triple bonus if these passages are marked in your Bible!).

I love all of those and more. But in my devotions this week, I was directed to two verses that present a twofold emphasis that I found very helpful and encouraging. It was, of all places, in Proverbs.
Whoever fears the Lord has a secure fortress,
    and for their children it will be a refuge.
 The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life,
    turning a person from the snares of death.
Proverbs 14:26-27

These two verses both talk about the fear of the Lord, which chapter 1 tells us is the beginning of wisdom. This is not just being afraid of God, although it is a healthy awe and respect of his nature. It is the feeling that God is so great and good that I would not want to ever disappoint or disobey him. When I am so concerned about God's approval that nothing else matters, I am walking in the fear of the Lord. Of course, that approval comes when God declares us not guilty (justification) because we have placed our trust in the death of Jesus in our place. We come to know God truly, and come to "fear" him in the positive, influential way we can "fear" the best of loving parents. And when that is the case, these two verses tell me it can help me in my struggle against evil.

First, they tell me that this kind of reverent awe and honor of God above all will provide "a secure fortress." This speaks of protection, in the same way the psalmist speaks of the name of the Lord being "a strong tower" in which the righteous find safety. It can give such security that those closest to us can be encouraged to find that same security--that is the significance of the reference to our children--they can learn of it and find refuge from the dangers and attacks that would come toward those who fear God. There are spiritual forces of wickedness (see Ephesians 6) that are at work against us, but a right understanding and trust in God bring protection from attack.

Second, the fear of the Lord is described as a fountain of life that turns us from death traps. A fountain isn't just a source of life, but a beautiful source of life. I've seen fountains that are mesmerizing in their beauty--not just water flowing, but jumping and shooting and spraying in remarkable patterns--geysers, if you will. This fountain--which offers life--is of such beauty that we are pulled away from the snares (a trap set that is usually disguised) that would lead to our downfall and toward life instead. Sin can be like that--looking so good it draws us toward it. But then it catches us and we are trapped! But the fountain is so much more attractive that it draws us away from such traps.

What a picture we have here. Having the proper fear of the Lord is a fortress and a fountain. It protects us from attack, and it draws away from those disguised traps that would otherwise attract. We find protection and provision.

God wants us to fear him so that we might enter his fortress of security and be drawn to his fountain of life. When evil comes after us, knowing and fearing God can be our defense. And when temptation is beautiful, the greater beauty of the fountain of life will show the shallow attractions of evil for what they are.

Are you under sin's attack? Run to the God who is your fortress. Are you being drawn away by sin's charms? Turn your heart's eye to gaze upon the beauty of the life of God, flowing like a fountain and ready to refresh that longing you think sin will satisfy. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Looking Beyond for Help

A Reminder of Where True Hope Lies

I continue to do my best to maintain more than an arm's length from the current political "dialog," but it gets hard for a recovering political junkie in times like the present. I used to devour political news and commentary, and often felt as if election results were the sure evidence that things were getting better or worse. I've seen more than my share of political moments, but the one we are in has become more polarized than ever in my lifetime. And in such a moment news of the kind we've had recently tends to set off all sorts of excitement for those who love politics. We have had a rash of Supreme Court decisions, primary election surprises, and the retirement of an unpredictable Supreme Court judge, all in a week. Will this be a "wave" election or not? What will the President say or do on Twitter?

At the moment speculation is rampant about what is coming next. And some who have, in the not too distant past, despaired over political developments as if things were all lost, are now talking as if we are just a moment away from total victory. The most recent election, or recent ruling, or recent law makes some seem giddy with excitement and others claiming the end is near.

I know the feeling, because for many years my political hopes rose or fell in the same way. I knew that their were ultimate realities, and their were present ones. But all too often I could lose sight of the former in the heat of political drama. Without meaning to, I could link the success of a political candidate or cause with the triumph or defeat of righteousness. As I came to learn, righteousness and candidates are not irrevocably linked, and God’s program is neither dependent upon or determined by political winds.

So, in another moment of heightened political excitement and speculation, I remind myself and us all that politics doesn't provide total, or lasting, victories or defeats. Judges change their minds. Laws are passed and laws are overturned. And our culture shows no signs of slowing its descent into folly.

We are believers in Jesus who are living at a time of both great persecution in some areas and great gospel advances--even in some of those same areas. If you stop by Connection Central, you will find some copies of a magazine entitled "Iran;" you really should read it and see just how amazing the growth of the church is in a place of great opposition. I can't think of a more exciting time to be a part of God's work in this world.

But we are also living at a time where political divides have seeped into churches, with one group telling another that they cannot be good Christians and not agree with a preferred political stance. When I was young, our Republican family worshiped in a church filled with Democrats, and no one cared. Now, too many Christians risk divisions among Bible believers over politics; busily re-posting political memes but not nearly busy enough praying, sharing the gospel, or living intentionally in ways to attract people to the message and power of Jesus.

When we mix politics with gospel, it isn't a pretty result. If we find our greatest interest focused on political developments, we have lost sight of what matters. And if we believe that laws, rulings, or politicians are the key to our future, then we have the wrong future in mind.

The people of Israel, on their way to Jerusalem for festivals, made their way along a number of roads from various plains to an imposing set of rugged hills where Jerusalem sat nestled. The hills provided a natural defense for the city, and they inspired many who lived in the valleys and plains by their appearance. As the pilgrims went up, they would see the hills--they called them mountains--as a symbol of God's protection--"as the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people (Ps. 125:1)."

But the hills were not ultimate, and the Israelites knew it. "I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come (Ps. 121:1)?" The hills pointed heavenward;  this was a clue, and the psalmist had the right answer: "My help comes from the LORD, the maker of heaven and earth (121:2)." It was not the hills that saved Jerusalem, or gave the pilgrim strength in his journey. It was the LORD. The hills were impressive, and served as a natural protection, but not one that was perfect on its own.

History shows that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and then the Romans, and the hills didn't stop them. God had determined destruction, and it came.

Similarly, laws, courts, and politicians can be good and do good (but not always). But even the most powerful of these are not an ultimate hope, and they cannot give us what we need most--eternal life.

So, for those who are having a moment of political excitement, be cautious. For those in political despair, be sober. What matters most remains both unthreatening and available to all who will seek the right help for our deepest needs.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Paying Attention

Our ability to focus is probably less than we imagine.

"The most seductive modern-day myth
is that we have an
unlimited amount of attention."
Richard Clark.

You've probably heard plenty of calls in your childhood, adolescence, or last week to "Pay attention." We may be saying it to a child, or they may be saying it to you. It may be someone trying to instruct you, but you already know. Or it may be a matter of life and death that the speaker is wanting to make sure you are understanding.

We ought to pay attention. And many times we think we are. But are we really?

Many of us are convinced we can be listening to media, have a conversation, and watch an event unfold before us all at once and "get the gist" of it all. But what is more likely the case is that we get bits and pieces of one or two, and basically miss the third. We call it "multi-tasking," but the tasks really aren't being accomplished, only nodded to.

We also try to pay attention to more things than we probably should. In the internet age we can feed our insatiable curiosity, and when we run up against the limits of our own knowledge, we google ourselves to death. I've learned more about extraneous subjects that won't really matter to me in an hour than I could have ever guessed.

Attention is focus, and we deceive ourselves if we think we can focus on an unlimited number of subjects or pursuits. I've had lots of conversations with students who are paralyzed in moving forward toward a career or a relationship because they realize that the choice to focus on one pursuit carries with it the decision to shut the door on others. And we don't want to do that! We want options; we want it all.

But one lesson that history teaches is that we can't have it all. We can't even have most of it. We must make choices, And we must choose what will deserve our attention. Which relationships, what pursuits, which subjects--there are simply too many.

I guess the expression "pay attention" gives us a bit of a clue that might help. We pay for things with currency, and the currency has value because it is limited. We have only so many dollars to spend, so we must spend it wisely. You should think of your attention as a currency you have been given--24 hours of it comes to you every day, and it can't be saved for tomorrow.

Which of your relationships will you consider valuable enough to "pay" attention to? What tasks? What subject matter?

I'm the first to admit I need to do better at this. In the current season of our church life, I've got extra responsibilities and lots of regular commitments to keep track of, and I found myself missing some things I should have caught, while paying attention to some things that turned out not to be as important. Recently I made the decision to adopt a planner other than my phone. It's pretty demanding--requiring me to plan out my days, weeks, and year around priorities. That made me write out what really deserves my attention and energy. I'm being pretty good at sticking to my plans, and I'm also trying to be more intentional about not looking at my phone all the time or answering emails as soon as I get them--instead, paying attention to the things I've decided were important enough to have this hour of my time.

Obviously (and you knew this was coming), if deepening your faith and walk with God is worthy of attention, then it should claim some of it for reading the Word (the truest source of wisdom and instruction), and prayer. The same would be true of your spouse and family (if you have those), and your church family.

What are you paying attention to today?