Friends are Overrated

I learned a couple of things during the two years I spent as a teacher.  First, I have no business being a teacher.  Second, friends are overrated.

I should probably explain.

I had just graduated from college and, to my amazement, Fortune 500 companies weren’t lining up at my door to beg me to come and work for them.  Through a weird series of events, I was offered a job teaching science and English to middle schoolers.  Deep down, I knew that I wasn’t qualified (see: Failed Science in High School, see also: Never Bothered with Learning English Rules and Only Ten Years Older than Students) but that didn’t stop me.  I needed a job to hold me over until those Fortune 500 companies started recruiting me.

I was done as a teacher on my very first day of school when a kid asked me a question in front of the whole class.

“Mr. Sanders, are you tight with us?”

This is when I should have responded by saying something like, “What does tight mean?” or “Be quiet and go stand in the corner.”  Instead, I said, “Yeah, man.  We’re tight.”

The whole class cheered.

And I don’t think they ever got quiet until summer break.

There were a lot of really good teachers at that school.  They were the ones that never smiled in front of the students until there was only a week left in the school year.  While I was more concerned with being friends with the students these teachers actually wanted to teach them something.  I fooled myself into believing that I didn’t need to be an authority figure as long as I was tight with my students.  In reality, I was neither.

After it was already too late, I learned my lesson.  Kids don’t need an old guy to be their friend.  They need instruction and discipline.  Not only do they need it.  They want it.

By the end of the year, I wasn’t so tight with my students.  They were too busy learning from the strict teachers.

Now that I’m a father, I think about this a lot.

Yesterday was a rough day for my sons.  I’m beginning to think that the so-called terrible twos begins at the age of two and ends sometime around the age of 16.  And that’s part of why my sons don’t need me to be their friend.  On days like the one we had yesterday, they need correction.  A lot of correction.

Correction doesn’t come natural to me.  I’d much rather make up raps with my sons than I would punish them.  But if I turn a blind eye to their rebellion, only to engage them when it’s time to have fun or if they’re really getting on my nerves, I’m enabling them in their sin or provoking them to anger instead of raising them up to be disciples.

Remembering this makes it easier when it’s time for me to correct my sons.  If I don’t train them up and correct them now, I’ll be doing it a lot in the future.  The terrible twos are one thing but they’re not near as bad as the terrible late 20s.

My two sons may not ever say something like, “My dad is my best friend.”

That’s okay.

I’d much rather them say, “My dad taught me how to be a man of God.”

The Fire Out Front and the Chickens in the Back

Chicken thieves, it turns out, are a pretty crafty group of people.  I’m told that back in the days when stealing chickens was a booming industry the thieves had a reliable method for getting what they wanted.  It went something like this.

1.  Start a fire in the front yard of any property where chickens are kept.

2.  Wait for all or most of the residents on that property to rush out into the front yard and take care of the fire.

3.  While everyone is in the front yard putting out the fire, steal chickens from the backyard.

4.  Repeat steps 1-3 at the house next door tomorrow night.

Sunday, October 7th is Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  This idea originated with the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) for the purpose of raising awareness about IRS restrictions on Christian pastors.  The ADF is encouraging pastors to preach sermons that compare the positions of political candidates to the Bible’s teachings and to mail copies of those sermons directly to the IRS.  The hope is that this will lead to audits and lawsuits that will eventually set the IRS straight.

I get that the IRS is way out of line on, well, everything.  I know that it is a bully that is more concerned with control through fear than protecting liberty.  And I even agree that Americans should speak out against abuses of power by our government.  But pastors and the churches they lead need to be careful here.  As big and as ugly and as threatening as the IRS is it’s still just the small fire in the front yard.

The real danger is in the backyard.  You know, where the chickens are being stolen.

If we get too caught up in church tax records, there’s a good chance that we will miss what’s happening around back where men’s souls are at stake.

I think that Satan would be more than happy to see churches all across America participate in Pulpit Freedom Sunday.  I even think that he’d be okay with the IRS backing off or going away all together.  And he certainly wouldn’t have a problem with pastors saying that this candidate is a worthless rat and this one is the next Thomas Jefferson.

None of those things will bother him, just as long as our pulpit freedom isn’t used to proclaim our freedom from sin and death through faith and repentance in Jesus Christ.  None of it will bother him if people walk away from those patriotic sermons thinking that Obama, Romney or the IRS is the real enemy.

What a perfect time for stealing chickens.

Our goal in preaching should never be to raise up more informed voters.  Informed voters still go to hell.  Instead, our agenda should be to preach the crucified and risen Savior’s simple plea to, “Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15).  This is a goal that, by God’s grace and power, churches should pursue with or without threats from the IRS.

Under President Obama a lot of babies have died and a lot of money has been used for foolish and even evil purposes.  I frequently bring that up to my congregation.  But I do not offer another political candidate or philosophy as the solution.  No, my job is to point them to the One who sits as the Sovereign Lord over Obama, Romney, and, yes, even the IRS.

For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  Colossians 1:16-17 (ESV)

Generosity and Someone Else’s Money

“Guys, you know that special offering we’re having at church?  Can I give some money to it this Sunday?”

I was thrilled to hear that one of my young sons cared enough about missions to give money for it.  My wife was just as happy as I was and she jumped at the chance to give him the go ahead.

“You bet, buddy.  When we get home, we’ll get some money out of your bank and take it with us to church tomorrow.”

There was no response.

Finally, my son broke the silence.

“But, mom…”

“But, mom?”  He must not want to wait until tomorrow to give his money.  No problem.  We can just go by the church and let him put his money in early.  He probably doesn’t want to make a scene.

“But, mom.  Do I have to use my money?  I though you could just give me some.”

And that’s when we had a short lesson on giving.

It’s also when I realized that my son just might grow up to be a United States Senator.  After all, he’s already learned how much easier it is to be generous with someone else’s money than it is with his own.

But this pseudo-generosity isn’t just a government problem.  It’s a church one too.  Many Christians know that taking the gospel to the world, building orphanages, and keeping the lights on in the church building requires money.  And they’re okay with this.  Just as long as it’s not their money that’s required.  These are the people who my friend Marty Duren says complain about welfare abuse but have been mooching off of their church’s welfare for years.

The answer is not just giving more or even giving everything you have.  If you’re heart isn’t right and you’re not loving like you should, you can get rid of everything you own and still be disobedient (1 Corinthians 13).  And you won’t have a TV either.  Instead, we should live knowing that none of what we have really belongs to us anyway.  This means that we should live like managers instead of owners (Matthew 25:14-30).

That day in the car, my son made it clear that he wasn’t interested in giving his money and that he would much rather give ours.  What he didn’t understand was that all of the money in his bank was ours.  In the strictest sense, none of it is really his.

This is a lesson that Christians need to continually teach to themselves.  Our retirement plans, paychecks, and savings accounts really don’t belong to us.  Jesus gives them to us for greater purposes than our own.

None of our money really is our money.

All of it is his.

Maybe it’s not such a bad thing to be generous with someone else’s money.


You Can Learn A Lot by Watching

Everything at my grandparent’s house seemed to revolve around food.  Well, food and professional wrestling but that’s for another day.

Breakfast was early every morning.  The biscuits were made from scratch and there was an endless supply of eggs, bacon and sausage.

Lunch was later in the morning, usually around the time that The Price is Right came on.  Eating lunch at my grandparents house was sort of like going to the Golden Corral except that my grandparent’s kitchen didn’t have a chocolate fountain in it.  And the food was fresh.  And made from scratch.  Okay, it was nothing like the Golden Corral but there was a lot of food.  More than anyone needed.  But I did sometimes eat in my pajamas so that’s a little like the Golden Corral.

Dinner usually came around 5 and it was the same thing all over again.

Later in the evening we had what my grandmother referred to as recess.  This is where we ate snacks because the three buffets earlier in the day didn’t seem to do the trick.  Recess is where I met my very first girlfriend.  Her name was Little Debbie.

My grandfather had a ritual after every meal.  As soon as he was done he would grab all the dishes he could find and start washing them.  This would always lead to the same conversation between him and my grandmother.

“Leman, sit down.  I’ll get those dishes.”

“No, mother.  I got it.”

My grandmother would always say something under her breath but the issue had already been settled.  Leman was doing the dishes.

Somewhere along the way I changed my diet.  I upgraded from fried chicken and Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies to green tea and couscous.  But at our house now, when each meal is over, I still think about Leman Sanders washing dishes.

My grandfather never told me, “Look, do not ever let your wife do the dishes.  Even if she says she can do them, you do them anyway.”  He never told me.  He showed me instead.

Somehow, in spite of all of that food, my grandfather was a very thin man.  Towards the end of his life he got even thinner.  Instead of eating my grandmother’s cooking he had to settle for Ensure.  When his doctor told him to slow down, he didn’t listen.  He took his last breath standing in front of the closet in his bedroom.  He took his last breath faithfully serving his bride.  She was standing right behind him.

He never told me, “Jay, stick with your wife.  Never stop loving and serving her.”  He never told me.  He showed me instead.

My boys are young but I make sure to tell them how to treat others, including each one’s future wife.  One day, maybe each son will be seated at a table across from the girl that he has pledged to love and serve forever.  And when the meal is over, I hope he gets up and grabs some dishes because of what his father told him and showed him.

And if there are any young boys seated at the table with them I hope that they will be watching.

You can learn a lot by watching.

I know I sure did.

Settle Down, Sport

Earlier this week the Atlanta Falcons played the Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football. In an absolute shocker to the experts on ESPN, the Falcons won. For once, I was proud of my favorite team.

I had a blast watching the game, not just because of the outcome but also because of my conversations with friends on Facebook and Twitter.

There were jabs from my friend Shane, who would cheer for the Taliban if Peyton Manning was their quarterback.

There were the usual shots from my friend Stormy, a guy who finds the most evil team in any particular sport and makes them his favorite.  He would cheer for the Taliban even without Peyton Manning.

And my friends Dave and Jamie who, although they didn’t have a dog in the fight, were just enjoying a good game.

During a big game like this, there’s always another group of people who are using social media. These are the people who are appalled that NFL fans paint their faces and carry signs to games but do not paint their faces and carry signs to church.

Their status updates read something like this.

Donnie Dravecky When’s the last time you gave someone a high five at church? Oh, but you’ll do it over a field goal?!!!!  SMH

Patricia Sullingham I’ll bet 80,000 people wouldn’t show up for a church service on Monday night.  :\

There’s no doubt that sports is an idol in our culture.  People spend too much money on it, athletes are worshiped and kids are brought up believing the false gospel of sports that says a scholarship will bring salvation. I get that things are out of whack. But is it just sports? Isn’t family, or even church an idol for some people too?  While we’re blowing up sports, should we aim our social network nuclear arsenal at those two institutions as well?

Patty Samson Donaldson Oh, so you’re taking pictures of our food again. And I see you had chicken. If only we would feast on the Scriptures instead of fowl.

TaylorAnd Trevor Thornbury So you had fun at the park with your kids, huh? Well, while you were playing Christians were being persecuted. But have fun.

Instead of using nukes, Jesus used a scalpel.

In John 12, Jesus is enjoying a meal with friends. His friend Martha was doing her usual serving while Lazarus was sitting with Jesus. Another friend, Mary, did something crazy.  She took some really expensive ointment and used it to clean Jesus’ feet. Jesus’ disciples were there and one of them responded in a way that, on the surface, seemed very missional.

But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”  John 12:4-5 (ESV)

“Yeah,” we might have tweeted along with Judas, “doesn’t she realize how many mouths she could have fed if she sold that stuff instead of pouring it all over the floor?”

SMH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 🙁

But John clues us in on the motive behind Judas’ attack.

He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. John 12:6 (ESV)

Judas didn’t care about the poor and he wasn’t being missional.  He was trying to cover up his own sins by accusing Mary.  The same thing can happen when we use big sporting events as our own personal platform for reminding people of how much they don’t love Jesus.  But where does it all end?  How many people went to hell in the time it took to tweet, “How many people went to hell during that last touch down?”  And why even bother with Facebook and Twitter anyway?  Shouldn’t the Internet just be used to watch Billy Graham clips on YouTube?

Jesus, with scalpel in hand, tells Judas to back off by digging beneath the surface to the source of the problem.

Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”  John 12:7-8 (ESV)

Jesus knew that there was more to the story than perfume, money and the poor.  He knew that Mary was worshiping him. And he knew that it is possible to talk a good game about helping the poor and still not worship him.

We can try as hard as we want to remove idols but unless we’re replacing them by worshiping Jesus they will simply sprout back up in a different form. This is why Paul tells us to “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Colossians 3:5) as well as telling us to, “put on the new self” (Colossians 3:10). And then he tells us, “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17).

If you’re not a football fan, have a great weekend doing what you do and do it for the glory of God.

If you are a football fan, enjoy this weekend’s games for the glory of God.

Unless, of course, you plan on cheering for Denver.

This post was originally written on September 20, 2012. It was updated on August 29, 2013.

Important Meeting

Yesterday I had a really important lunch meeting.  You can always gauge the importance of meetings that involve a meal by the eating to talking ratio.  This particular meeting had a eating to talking ratio of 1 to 50.  Or is it 1:50?  Either way, we did a lot more talking than eating.

Here’s what we talked about.

The afterlife.  More specifically, will bees sting people in heaven.

The problem of evil.  Who is a better villain, The Joker or Darth Vader?

Military strategy.  What should one do if one is approached by a sword-wielding lunatic?

Like I said, this was an important lunch meeting.  Oh, and throughout the entire lunch meeting, the dude to my immediate left was wearing nothing but his underwear.  Hopefully next time I have lunch with the governor I’ll be better prepared for this sort of thing.

Because of how close my office is to my home, I’m able to have this same important lunch meeting with my wife and two sons every afternoon.

But yesterday I almost missed it.

As soon we sat down my phone vibrated.  A few minutes later it did it again.  And then again.  I was so tempted to excuse myself from my important lunch meeting to see what all the fuss on my phone was about.  I’m glad I ignored my phone.  If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to tell my sons that it’s okay to run away from a sword-wielding lunatic, that Darth Vader is probably the coolest bad guy of all-time and that there will be no bee stings in heaven.  I would hate to have missed out on that conversation just so I could see that my phone wanted to update the compass app and that someone wrote “LOL :)” on a Facebook status I commented on.

The things we talked about at lunch probably don’t seem that important and, on their own, maybe they’re not.  But our lunch meetings aren’t important because of the topics we discuss.  They’re important because of the conversation.  Discussing topics can be done simply by being present.  Conversation requires being engaged.  My wife and kids need the leader of their home to be more than present.  They need me to be engaged.

A few weeks ago I went into an electronics store.  I was considering making a purchase but I had a few questions first.  I went to the first associate I could find and asked away.  Halfway through our conversation, he pulled out his phone.  Apparently someone laughed out loud at his Facebook status.  I didn’t buy anything that day and I walked away feeling like I was in the way, like maybe that guy had more important things to deal with than my questions.

I would hate to send that same message to my wife and two sons.

If you need me tomorrow around lunch time, feel free to call or text but it will be a while before I can get back to you.  I’ve got a really important lunch meeting scheduled with some special people.

And who knows, maybe this time the dude to my immediate left will put some clothes on.

Fear and Grace

When I was a kid, almost every night while I was in bed, I prayed for God to keep my mom alive long enough to see me grow up.  Losing my mother was my biggest fear.

It was a legitimate fear.  She was born with a hole in her heart.  Major heart surgery came when she was a teenager.  A little later on, she got sick while carrying her first child.  She recovered but he didn’t.

By the time I came along, things weren’t much better.  In grade school, it was common for me to have to stay with friends or other family while she was in the hospital.  Just before I graduated from high school she told me that she had some disease that I had never heard of before.  At the time, I didn’t think things were all that serious.

I was wrong.

There were many nights when my mom woke up in severe pain with her entire body locked up.  It was like her muscles were turning on her.  There was nothing I could do to help.  I was wrestling with that same childhood fear.  All I could do was pray.

“God, please heal my mom.”

I’ll never forget the time that I told my mom that she would have to go to a nursing home.  It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.  We moved around a lot when I was growing up.  That nursing home would be her last address.

My wife and I were about to leave for vacation when we got the call that mom was not doing well.  Instead of driving to the beach, we made the 45 minute drive to see my mom.  She wasn’t going to make it.  I thought about what I would tell her when I got there.

I never got the chance.

Just a few minutes before I saw her, my mom died.  My biggest childhood fear became a reality.  But there was a lot of grace that came along with that reality.

Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:8-10 (ESV)

While we prayerfully wrestle with our fears of what might happen, God is silently reminding us that his grace is enough for us.  When those fears come running through our front door, God is showing us, loudly and powerfully, that his grace is enough.

Last night my mother’s grandsons, two small boys that she never got to meet, were afraid.  The youngest was afraid of “going up in the sky” when it’s time to see Jesus.  The oldest had a bad dream.  I didn’t tell either one of them that there was nothing to fear.  There’s plenty to be afraid of.  Instead, I told both of them that Jesus is bigger than their fear.

When I prayed over my oldest son after his bad dream, I asked God to show him the grace and power of Jesus Christ.

I hope I live long enough to see Brenda Sanders’ grandsons grow up and learn that Jesus’ grace is enough.

Sin and despair, like the sea waves cold,
Threaten the soul with infinite loss;
Grace that is greater, yes, grace untold,
Points to the refuge, the mighty cross                                                                            

Grace Greater Than Our Sin, Julia Johnston

Facebook Christians and Wiccan Fishermen

Over the past few months, I’ve had the pleasure of standing out in the yard on two occasions and talking to gentlemen who were running for office in my town of Jackon, Georgia.  Both men were running for the same position and both men basically said the same thing.

“My opponent is just a few steps below the AntiChrist but a vote for me will ensure unparalleled hapiness for you, your children, their children and possibly their pets.”

In both conversations, it was very interesting to see how the candidate reacted upon finding out that I am a pastor.

“Oh, that’s great.  I grew up in church.”

“Oh, that’s great.  My wife is real religious.”

“Oh, that’s great.  Hooray for church!”

In the part of the world where I live, being a Christian is still acceptable.  Here, Christians don’t get hung on crosses.  Here, Christian pastors aren’t hunted down by angry mobs.  No, here claiming to be a Christian just might help you get elected.  It’s still pretty easy to be a Christian in the Bible belt.

But despite the minimal threat of persecution in this country, can we honestly say that legitimate Christianity is thriving here?  If we judge by the level of commitment professing Christians have to the body for which Jesus died, we have to say no.

A person who claims to really love Jesus once told me that it was just too hard to go to church when Charles Stanley was on TV at home.  No offense to Dr. Stanley but I’m sure that the author of Hebrews wasn’t thinking about sitting at home in your pajamas and watching a preacher on TV when he told his readers to “stir up one another to love and good works” and to not neglect to “meet together” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Even worse is the excuse given by those who love the outdoors.  “I can experience God just as good (insert “in a deer stand” or “on my mountain bike” or “at the lake”) as I can at church.  But since when is “experiencing God” more important than commitment to the body of Christ (Galatains 6:2; James 5:13-20; Acts 4:32-37)?  The idea of communing with God in nature instead of in his word and with his people sounds a lot more like Wicca than it does New Testament Christianity.  But then again, maybe the deer hunter, fisherman or mountain biker who consistently neglects the body of Christ really is communing with his god after all.

And of course we can’t forget the Facebook Christian.  For the Facebook Christain, when Jesus said, “Take up your cross and follow me” what he really meant was, “Hit like on that picture of me hugging a New York City fireman and try to throw a Bible verse in your status every now and then but don’t bother being committed to the people I loved enough to die for.”

At the time of this writing, Americans still enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of religion. But recent events are showing us that the days for those freedoms are numbered.  If our faith, in spite of how much we claim to love Jesus, doesn’t produce anything more than a few religious pictures on Facebook or some quality time with the squirrels we should question that faith.  But there’s also another question to consider.  If I can’t follow Jesus in a culture where Christianity is still relatively accepted, why would I follow him when the culture becomes hostile to Christianity?  To put it another way, if I don’t really love Jesus when doing so could get me elected, I’m probably not going to love him when doing so could get me crucified.

Come to think of it, maybe it’s not so easy to be a Christian in the Bible belt after all.

The Disturbing Robot and Monty Python

After the robots take over, I’m sure we’ll all look back at this video and wonder what we were thinking.  Well, assuming that the robots will let us use YouTube.

0:16 – Is there a Robot Builders Rule Book that requires all robot builders to make their robots talk like C3PO?  Come on!  You’re building a robot.  Make the thing talk like Dikembe Mutombo.  Or Johnny Cash.  Hearing this guy talk made me feel like I did the first time I heard Mike Tyson say something.

0:28 – Rude!  Apparently Jules wasn’t programmed to let people quit talking before he starts talking.  There’s nothing more annoying than an inconsiderate robot.

0:41 – Serial killer grin in 3, 2, 1…

“You must, simply must, come to visit me in England.  I’ll be enjoying a nice side of fava beans.”

1:05 – “I love you deeply.  As deeply as synthetic intelligence can at this stage in technological evolution.”

At this stage in technological evolution?  It looks like the Democratic National Convention is going to have to amend their views on marriage.  Again.

1:26 – Childhood innocence will be lost in three seconds.

1:48 –  “Some day I will come and find you and we’ll be good friends.”

Even on my worst day as a parent, at least I can lay my head down at night knowing that I didn’t program a robot to tell my young son that he’s going to “come and find him.”

This kid is going to need a lot of therapy.

2:10 – It’s very important that you watch this.  Whenever you see Jules, this is how you kill him.

Oh, before you go, here’s one more quick robot clip.  What would come to your mind if you saw a weird looking robot walking up a hill in the woods?  Star Wars?  Terminator?  Of course not!  You’d think of Monty Python, right?  Yeah, me too.