You’ll Never Earn What You Deserve (Thank God!)


Words are interesting entities; they ideas that evolve. For example, many people don’t know the term “nice” originally meant “ignorant,” or a “silly person.” The word “ignorant” comes from the Latin term for “not knowing.” Now many people use ignorant to mean foolish, and nice to mean kind or amiable, yet both share the same root. It’s a strange dichotomy.

On a recent visit to a friend who lives in a more affluent area of Northern Virginia, he and I got into a discussion about the word “earn.” The discussion really started with an accidental drive I took through a neighborhood of (what I would consider rather large) homes while using my phone to navigate to his house (in a different neighborhood). Because of the economic climate of the area, the visit as a whole had me contemplating wealth, lifestyle, and motivation.  What started one morning as a discussion on the cost of houses in NOVA (what we Virginians call Northern Virginia) turned to a more nuanced theological discussion on wages—or more appropriately, a person’s belief about the origin of what they earn.

To be clear, when American’s talk about what they earn (if they talk about it), they usually mean to say what they deserve.  I can think of few people who would say they don’t deserve what they earn (Conversely, it’s pretty common to hear someone say they don’t earn what they deserve). Getting on with the point though, I stumbled across an interesting web discussion about the origins of the word deserve, and was surprised to learn that the word has a less entitled origin than it carries today. It comes from the latin word “de” meaning “completely” and “servire” meaning “to serve.” So originally, deserve meant to “completely serve.” However, at one point the meaning shifted to refer to the rewards of serving (or not serving). In other words, what people gain from their actions—be it a reward or a punishment—is what they deserve. So when a person works hard, and employs his or her skills to earn a wage, it’s widely accepted that they deserve their wages and subsequent standard of living. This is all well and good, unless you think about the fault in the logical implications of this belief.

Each of us knows someone who works harder, gives more, is highly skilled, has higher aptitude, never complains, and yet isn’t a millionaire. Many of these people are even poor. Let’s table the argument of personal money management for a second and talk for a moment about circumstances.

Consider, for instance, two musicians who are born in a different time, country, and to different families.
One is born in the U.S.A. during the 1990’s, to a family who can afford music lessons. The second is born to a poor family in rural Bolivia in the 1930’s. Let’s assume both are equally talented (if such a measurement can be made). However, the second musician is forced by circumstances to focus on a trade which is more lucrative, say mining, but does not alleviate his subsistence living. The first is able to focus time and energy on developing her musical talent, forms relationships through this training that prove providential for her later opportunities, and eventually leads to a major record deal and stardom. The first musician is able to retire at the age of 40 and lives out her life in relative wealth. The second works hard, but is never offered managerial positions. He dies at the age of 40 in a mining accident. Have they both earned what they deserved? Who’s to say?25802379213_0bd91f082d_n

The point being that what a person earns in a physical sense (both in their credentials  and finances) is as much, if not more-so, a product of circumstances.  What if the second musician in our story was more talented than the first, and let’s pretend they came from a similar family and privilege as the first. However, because they live in Bolivia in the 1930’s, music is not an industry that pays well.  The second musician works hard, touring from one venue to another all across the country, for years he pours his earnings back into his travel and equipment expenses. Never does he break the poverty barrier, and eventually forced to take another job in which he’s not nearly as talented or skilled in order to survive.

Or what if the second musician is born in the U.S., but never meets the right producer that makes him a hit? What if Donald Trump was born into extreme poverty instead of inheriting millions to start with? What if Michael Jordan started out playing Major League baseball instead of basketball, what if Andrew Carnegie was born in Africa or central Asia? In reality, these are variables which can’t be controlled. A person can only choose to use their talents and gifts, they cannot control their origins or subsequent “chance” happenings that can launch them or sink them.

There’s this corny sermon illustration I heard when I was a kid which relates to this idea. I’ll spare you the details and just summarize below:

A scientist tells God that we no longer need Him.
We’ve advanced as a species to where we can create or do essentially anything God might be able to do. As in the days of Niche, the scientist is declaring God dead; humans have outgrown Him.
In a sage attempt to correct the man, God issues a challenge: If humans are equal to God in ability, let the scientist and God both create a human in the original fashion—out of dust. The scientist confidently agrees and bends down to scoop up a handful of dirt on the ground. As he does, God quickly stops him saying: “Hold on now, get your own dirt.”

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Every person is the recipient of benevolent gifts they begin with—be it talent, time, ability, family, opportunity—of which we have no control. We can only steward these gifts within the circumstances presented to us. What if the most talented sports star to ever live was born a paraplegic?

While this all sounds Fatalistic and depressing, I do believe a person can influence and change their circumstances, but only through the decisions and efforts they make. We can be faithful in our work-ethic and utilization of skills and talents, but our level of success is dependent on circumstances. A farmer can plant a seed, but can’t make it rain and he can’t make it grow. Our ability to earn anything is no different.

When Jesus tells his followers that it is difficult for a rich man to enter heaven, he’s not condemning wealth, he’s talking about ego. It would appear (Trump may be a good example again) that people who have earned wealth and been successful in profession have a hard time distinguishing their efforts from God’s providence (supplying the favorable circumstances).

For the believer in God’s grace, perhaps a more “traditional” view of deserving (to fully serve) can foster a better understanding of what we deserve (reward or punishment). Can we truly earn anything? Have we really earned what we deserve? I personally hope I never do.

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Let’s Eat Ham!


“So don’t ever worry by saying, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ because it is the unbelievers who are eager for all those things.” Matthew 6:31-33 

Lately I’ve been listening to a local Christian radio station on my drive to work in the morning. I’m not sure why I keep doing it; it’s terrible.

I definitely enjoy contemporary Christian music (most of it), but the individuals on this radio station’s morning show drive me up a wall. Despite how terribly judgmental this makes me sound, I believe the commentary to be some of the most fabricated optimism I’ve ever heard. Every morning it sounds like they are having the best day of their lives. I wouldn’t mind if they actually were having the best day of their lives, but for example, when discussing the tragic ISIS attacks in Belgium yesterday, I think it’s appropriate to let up on the “smiling voices” effort and sound a bit more somber. There’s nothing more hurtful to hurting people then to have someone smiling tell them “It’s all going to be okay!” It probably will be; but not today. Today it hurts.

My tipping point came when the lady host on the show commented on how Easter is less than a week away:

“Aren’t you excited to celebrate what we believe!?! I can’t wait to try this honey-glazed ham recipe I just got from my grandmother…”

I wish there had been some kind of pause or comment between the two statements. Unfortunately I’m not writing it that way for dramatic effect; it was literally one breath. A ping of conviction came quickly though– I think most of us do get more excited for Easter dinner than for Easter service. Besides, who wants to go to church service when you have to swim through all those faces you’ve never seen before just to find another church member?

But church service isn’t really the point of it all, is it?  This special day finds its origins in the Christian feast of Passover. Easter is intended as a time to reflect, with deep gratitude and praise, on the resurrection of Jesus. It’s the celebration of the ultimate (and final) sacrifice of the Passover lamb. For the believer in God’s grace, this seminal event should be the highlight of one’s year. It should be.

But I’m ready for grandma’s honey glazed ham. . . I really am . . . Sam I am.

It’s not that I think God cares if we’re excited for a annual dinner/feast in his Son’s honor–especially if it’s shared with family, friends, and other believers–it’s that I’m afraid we may have started using his Son’s death as another reason to feast. I’m as much a product of this American culture as anyone I know. Jesus words, “For life is more than food…” is a daily struggle for me. Honestly. And if American Christians are honest, I think we have a problem with leaving food out of our meetings, celebrations, church gatherings, and theological focus in general.

Don’t believe me? When’s the last time you gathered with “church friends” for prayer or study and there wasn’t food involved in some manner?

Believe it or not, my point isn’t meant to be about food. And I don’t want to knock having food when we gather as the scattered church. Rather, it’s a question of focus, and the propensity of our modern church culture to lose the heart of our faith in the extras we’ve thrown in with it. I’m reminded of the parable of the sower and Jesus’s words about certain types of people–those who will initially believe in Him, and then turn away:


And others are the ones sown among thorns. They are those who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Mark 4: 18-19 )


If we genuinely attempt to narrow-in on what the blood of Jesus has covered in our own life, then a yearly reminder of the forgiveness, grace, and love we’ve been given can be a powerful event. Still, the human mind is fragile. It can easily be conditioned to respond to our instincts. What if —hear me now–what if we talk about Jesus but we include candy, fictitious bunnies, baskets filled with gifts to each other, and feasts of ham? How many years of this ritual mis-focus before the body, mind, and heart look forward to the rewards of the day rather than the rewards of eternity?

Lines. (part 1)

“Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.” – Lao Tsu

There was this funny  Coke Superbowl commercial back in 2011 I remember from time to time. The scene begins with two border guards are un-trustingly pacing next to a thin wooden gate. One guard cracks open a bottle of Coke and suddenly all animosity melts away. Enemies become friends (if for only a moment) and both enjoy a refreshing beverage. If you haven’t seen it, click here:  

I was thinking about this commercial the other day after having an interesting encounter with my two-year old daughter. I’d left my laptop sitting on the coffee table during a short break from doing some work. As soon as I stood up, she shot over to the laptop like a bee to honey. I sternly pointed at the computer and reminded her, “No touch!” She looked at me half hurt and half angered, but trudged off toward her books.

Then she did something which I found intriguing. As soon as I left the room, she took one of her books, carried it to the coffee table, and placed it as close as she could to the laptop. As I peered around the corner, I watched her proceed to “read” her book, all the while sneaking looks at the laptop. She even went so far as to “accidentally” graze her arm against it a couple of times. Yet, the moment I cleared my throat to tip her off to my presence, she grabbed her book and scurried across the room as though she’d somehow unintentionally drifted next to the laptop. I find this incident ominously telling of human nature.

Despite growing up as the son of a minister, I didn’t come to understand Jesus and what his life, death, and resurrection truly meant until my second semester of college. This is also when I met my future wife. When we started dating six months later, I was excruciatingly aware of my propensity to “get physical.” This propensity was evidenced by my previous relationships. I wanted to do all I could to keep the relationship healthy by avoiding sexual encounters before marriage. Yet, despite my clear understanding of my weaknesses, I did very little to prevent her and myself from getting into situations which were a lot like the intimate settings I used to find myself in with my exes. We’d stay up into the wee hours of the morning talking and watching movies—it was all very familiar. 

So, we started to have these “slips” in our fidelity to purity. I won’t get into the nitty-gritty; suffice it to say God’s grace was paired with slow and progressive learning about how not to get into these situations in the future. It was a long process.

The beauty in me sharing this is God wants us to learn from each others’ mistakes rather than make them on our own. Keeping this in mind, if you want to avoid slipping into your own old sins, here’s what that experience taught me: People, including most Christians, want to slip up. It all comes back to this funny game we play with boundaries. We are good about not crossing them until there’s something on the other side we really want. The Coke commercial reminds me of this game. If anyone isn’t following me, I’ll explain.

The game is just this: we’ll see how close we can get without actually getting entangled in the thing we’re asked to avoid. This balancing act goes on until we “slip.” Then all of the sudden we’re reeling, hoping nobody noticed, and if they did notice, hopefully they saw that we “didn’t mean to.” In reality, we did mean to, or else we would have stayed good and well away from that boundary line; it’s awfully hard to slip to the other side when the line is ten feet away, right? The Coke commercial playfully illustrates this for me. The boundary is firm until the one guard wants a sip of Coke. Then, for a moment, the lines are redrawn, only to abruptly return to normal once the deed is done. I feel like we do this with things we want that aren’t good for us fairly often.

Walking a thin line

Maybe this is why Jesus used such extreme examples when he was talking about avoiding sin. In the book of Mathew, Jesus is quoted in saying: “If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” Sounds pretty over the top, doesn’t it? But perhaps Jesus knows the human heart better than the rest of us. Perhaps the truth of the matter is if we have the capacity to “slip,” we will. Maybe the idea behind this command isn’t to be like Van Gogh and offer our severed members up as some noble love-sacrifice, but rather to cut off situations, friends, or anything which tempts us to engage in the sins we’re most tempted by. Why don’t we take this command more seriously? I know we don’t, or else we’d probably have a lot more 20 year old eunuchs running around.

I’m not suggesting we go hacking away at our bodies, but I do believe we can agree each of us plays this game. It’s different for everybody—for some people it’s substances, for some people it’s sex, for some it’s buying stuff, and others it’s relationships. It could be anything really. My point is if a person knows they struggle with something, someone, someplace, etc., isn’t it wiser to stay as far away from those things as possible rather than wonder, “How far is too far?” and continue to walk into situations which lead into those things? In fact, if you find yourself asking the question, “So what can I still do and it not be sin?” then I’d wager you’re playing the line game.

To be continued…

How to be Right and Still Lose the Argument

*This post was originally written 6/24/10 in a journal entry of mine, edits have been made for posting purposes.

Today I was distracted…

Not in the typical sense either. Usually, when I get to doing something productive, it lasts for an hour and then some shiny, glittery thing catches my eye and I’m gone. Well that had been the case most of the day, but then I buckled down for a while–my standard hour–before I was distracted again. Through a long string of mouse clicks that started on Facebook (as they usually do) I somehow landed at clips of Ravi Zacharias on Youtube. Then it was over to a Dateline debate between atheists and creationists, back to Ravi, and finally to some video clips of a British talkshow with an appearance by Richard Dawkins. Three hours later, I’m not anymore informed and overly ready to butcher some unfortunate person with scathing, impetuous words derived from deep passions and even deeper levels of ingorance. And I’m not sure what bothers me more–the inconsistency inherent in all the arguments I listened to, explaining why God can’t exist or why religion is silly but “evolutionarily” understandible, or the failure of Christian apoligists to give any kind of decent answer to those that are asking the first kind of questions listed (To be fair, Ravi did do a good job answering these questions most of the time).

Another thing that really bothers me is the poor rhetorical execution of most of the answer and responses Christians give to atheists and evolutionists alike. It’s so very much “anti-.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I think we should be open to ideas that eliminate God or His fingerprints from the Earth, but I am saying that we should be open to people- their right to think, their right to form opinions, and their right to reason–and quit alienating the “opposition.”

It makes me think of a dinner I once had with a friend/mentor of mine named Todd. Todd has an incredible gift for asking pointed questions that always deepen conversation and reveal motivations and biases behind what a person is thinking and saying. At this dinner, after spouting off at the mouth for roughly twenty minutes about things I thought were wrong with the American church, Todd gently advised me that rhetorically,  it’s not good practice to set yourself in opposition to someone when trying to convince them of the validity of your views.

This makes me think back to my perusing through Youtube videos today, to one video I haven’t yet mentioned. The clip was of some young, savvy, impassioned guy on a street corner. In the video clip, he’s giving another guy a “good person” test using a method I recognized from my time spent in a large college ministry. The examination started civil enough, but as soon as the young evangelist identified a crack in his test subject’s thinking (he professed to be an atheist), the evangelist immediately jumped all over him in front of the crowd who had gathered to listen in. Sure his words weren’t as cut and dry as “You’re wrong and I don’t agree with you,” but the manner in which he addressed his subject was completely combative. So the patient atheist just sat there, attempting to answer, one by one, each question the fiery evangelist grilled him with, but each time he began to answer he was interrupted. Over and over the evangelist fired a question at the man, then as soon as he heard what he was looking for, he’d interrupt and begins to pose another question. This happens over and over and all the while all I can see is the social cleavage this evangelist is creating between his subject and any future encounters he might have with other Christians. It’s moments and stories like these that make me wonder if Christians aren’t responsible for the majority of atheists and deists out there. Responsible, because we push away anyone who doesn’t already “get it.” But what if you have questions (as many “agnostic” folks do)? Or what if you’ve arrived at the answer that makes the most sense to you, and it’s not Christianity? I imagine that if either of those scenarios is the case then some impassioned person standing on the curb is either clearly a person to avoid in your search for answers, or an arrogant nuisance which only proves that Christianity is an inconsistent belief system–one that talks about love, acceptance, and fogiveness and promotes opposition and judgmentalism.

This whole discussion draws my mind to an account of Jesus’s life recorded by John, specifically a scene with a Samaritan woman and a well (John 4). See, I know exactly how these combative types would respond to me, using this encounter in the Bible as evidence: “Jesus didn’t sugar-coat things, he told it how it was!” But then I think, “Yeah, but he was God, he had a right to.” Which then also makes me think of the prostitute who nobody threw stones at because they had all sinned. Jesus could have judged her and thrown rocks, but he decided not to. In fact, the way I read it, Jesus lived and taught in a way that said most of mankind was on the same team. And that’s exactly what bothers me about our young evangelist friend. In fact, it’s what bothers me about Christian apologetics in general. The whole thing seems to be used to show atheists (et al) how they’ve gotten it all wrong. And of course, most of us would immediately wonder, “whose going to positively respond to that?!?” 

Moreover, if we’re all on the same team, then how is setting ourselves against part of the group going to affect us all? I’d imagine it will cause some exceptionally large divides and keep us from making much headway. It will absolutely undermine progress; it will make new teams. Of course there were other subdivisions on the team when Jesus was around too–a couple of groups that refused to play with the other kids (Pharisees, Sadducees)– and He didn’t really like them much. But see, the same thing is going on now. We want those who aren’t on the team to accept our rules before we’ll interact with them. But what’s more, we don’t take time to understand WHY or how they got to their rule set and conclusions to begin with. How on Earth does that make for good debate?

The thing is, in this whole Atheists vs. Christians, Evolutionists vs. Creationists, “no-gloves” brawl, we’ve forgotten that there are people over on their side, and those people usually have reasons why they feel a certain way. And those reasons usually have experiences tied to them. And it seems like nobody asks about those.

Listening to the Small Voice

Last night I sat on my front patio, with its cracked cement and gravel laden corners, and drank wine and ate hot dogs with my dear friend, Jon the Rebel. Jon, who has undergone significant changes in his heart and spiritual journey in the last year, sat catty-corner to me in a lawn chair and pleaded for me to recognize the working of the Holy Spirit. Jon, his wife, my wife, and myself, have talked many times over the past couple years about alternatives to the American church format. We have all felt a deficiency in how the Western church functions. Jon and his wife recently took a trip to Uganda for five weeks. With a couple of weeks left in their trip, Jon’s wife Keisha was offered a job and a place to live in Uganda. They had a little more than a week to make the decision to stay. Jon has been back in the U.S. now for about three weeks while Keisha begins her job with a non-profit healthcare organization there in Uganda. Jon is tying together loose ends here in the states before heading back to Uganda in September. This has allowed us time to reconnect, and I have found Jon to be a more confident, and convicted individual.

As Jon sat and debated with me, he mostly wanted me to see that we had all (his family and mine) arrived at a point where we needed to act; we need to do something about the stirring in our hearts, he said. Jon and I feel the church we see in the U.S. has become removed from the original intentions and purposes it had in the New Testament. My hang up about acting on these convictions has always been a feeling that we are in an underwhelming minority of Christians who feel similarly about this issue. Jon, on the other hand, patiently reasoned with me and surmised that perhaps there are more Christians out there– ones who feel as we do– who want to try something different (though we’re not entirely sure what that looks like yet).

A couple of nights earlier, Jon and I sat at his kitchen table around midnight talking about the same topic. However, during this earlier encounter, Jon made the argument that the stirring in us about the deficiencies of the modern American church were not going away, and were therefore legitimate callings. Perhaps, he proposed, this feeling inside me is so deep and won’t go away because it’s a “thing.” A “thing” we need to give credence to.

Now I have a complex friendship with Jon. We’ve been everything from acquaintances to confidants, mentors and pupils, brothers to enemies. Honestly I’ve often looked at him as an ongoing ministry in and of himself. Yet, I have watched Jon  grow in leaps and bounds this past year, and last night  Jon made me realize my attitude toward him has been wrong–that we can all learn from each other, no matter the perceived degree of spiritual maturity we each posses. Last night,  Jon humbled and taught me. Jon had me realize that we all possess convictions, and those are not accidental. Sometimes convictions are off base, and people get into trouble when they don’t seek out wise men and women to bounce those ideas off of. But these convictions I’ve been speaking about– the ones about the church– we’ve been talking about them for years, and with many, many different people. Almost all of those people agree with what we’re observing too! Yet, for some strange reason, I had dismissed the possibility of exploring these convictions in action because I felt it improbable that anyone else would join in. So, basically I was guilty of exercising the type of logic that I want to see the world freed of: the logic of basing our actions and lifestyles off of what is acceptable to others. This realization made me wince.

Jon pointed out how all along this road we’ve been traveling along, in both our friendship and our spiritual journeys, we’ve both had a small voice speaking to us, prodding us, beckoning us not to settle for the mediocrity that we see so many Christians settling for in their churches, and subsequently in their spiritual walks. I am reminded of Elijah on the mountain, finding the voice of God, not in earthquakes or fire, but in a gentle breeze–a still, small voice. What’s more, this voice was speaking to both of us separately, but at the same time.

For almost three months now I’ve been toying with the idea of a blog– a tool to seek out others who feel that something is missing, that there is more we’re not experiencing in our churches. I’m not saying that all churches in the U.S. are bad, or that nobody grows or gets anything from being a part of them. In fact, I know that many, many people do have great church experiences, and many churches are wonderful facilitators of growth in their members’ lives. But, what if our modern approach isn’t the BEST way?  What if we changed the paradigm we think in when we think of “church?”

That’s what the small voice has been telling me for a few years now. It’s the same voice that Jon has been hearing. And if both of us have been hearing it, maybe there are others out there who are hearing the same voice.

God isn’t like us. He doesn’t have to go to people one at a time or call an assembly to tell us what’s on His heart. So that small voice, it was telling me that a blog might help to connect me with believers who are hearing the same voice. Maybe, just maybe it can.

It’s a theory.