Do I believe every life matters and that life has worth as it was designed?

Clearly, there is a war on life in our world and it is most certainly a spiritual war. We devalue health in favor of immediate gratification. We devalue lives based on appearance, IQ, gender, power, or even difference of opinion. I think our penchant toward death — which is a manifestation of our bent toward the negative — pervades every thought. Do I think someone who doesn’t vote like me or believe like me is as valuable as I am? Do I see the person in line in front of me at Kroger as a person of value, whose life deserves my respect? Do I get it, that when someone in Venezuela or India is devalued by their government, then all of humanity is depleted? That I have a vested interest in preserving the value of life … all life?

Our bent toward death has been with us almost from the beginning. Christians trace it to a story rooted in Genesis 3, when humans chose to listen to a voice other than the God of life. By the time the people of God were consigned to slavery in Egypt, the culture of death had permeated the earth. Dennis Prager has written on the Egyptian preoccupation with death. Their bible was called the Book of the Dead. Their greatest monuments were pyramids, which were basically over-sized caskets. Even the pagan priests were preoccupied with death. As pagans, the Egyptians were everything the Kingdom of God was not. A preoccupation with death made their decisions for them. When God brought the Israelite people up out of slavery from Egypt, he had to totally reorient their thinking. “Everything you learned there, everything that enslaved you, was wrong. It is not all about death. Creation is about life.”

Hundreds of years of wrong theology had to be reoriented. The people of Israel had to understand God as life-giving before they could stop living to die and start living for God. The work in the desert — the story of which is told in the book of Exodus — was the work of learning to live. That meant constantly rejecting Egypt and pressing toward God’s promises. God’s training on this mindshift is detailed (and by detailed, I mean detailed) in the book of Leviticus. All those odd rules we read there are a rejection of a culture of death. Moses shows his people that while there may seem to be countless options, there are really only these two choices: life or death. And then, almost like a battery of visual aids, Moses shows us that everything else — what we eat, what we wear and watch and get entertained by, who we choose for intimacy — all those options eventually boil down to life or death.

If this is true, that everything — every single thing in your life — leads to either life or death, then that means, fallen creature, that there are likely things in your life that lead to death. They carry the veneer of death. And I’m not even thinking about the obvious stuff. A thousand times a day, Leviticus teaches us, we are confronted by pockets of death. It becomes remarkably tempting to choose death simply because it is easier. And yet, the story of God teaches us that God’s preference is always for life. His value is life, and his desire is to see us live … really live.

This is God’s great design. All life is sacred, and a person who engages in life-creating behavior enters into a sacred process. We are not given license to pick and choose how life happens or which children come into the world. That was never our charge. The alternative, then, is to receive life as a gift in whatever way it happens.

For me, that means throwing baby showers for single women more often than I’d like and toeing the line on what holiness means in unmarried relationships. It means honoring the questions, too, and the suffering caused by shattered dreams. It also means that when I look at you — in all your messiness — I am challenged to see you as your Maker does. I am expected to develop eyes that see what God sees when he looks on his children.

This is what it means to choose life. And to choose grace. And to choose love.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live … (Deuteronomy 30:19)

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Hope for a hopeless marriage

Another guest post by Angel Davis, my friend and collaborator in ministry. In this blog she shares how her marriage was transformed by her own decision to lean in and let God transform her life. This is Angel’s testimony:

Not much gets better after 36 years, but I’m happy to say marriage has.

That was my husband, texting with his brother on our anniversary. Those fourteen words are such a sweet gift to me. They are a testimony and a miracle, because there was a time when our marriage could only get better.

About halfway into these thirty-six years, I was ready to walk. Throw in the towel. Start all over with someone new who truly loved me. Someone who would understand me, invest energy in me and help me feel secure. I was sure I would never find these things with my current husband.

I had tried and he had failed.

What stopped me from walking? In a word, Jesus, who I now understand as the author of life and love. He gave me no easy out when I begged for one. He gave me no excuses when I manufactured plenty of them. “God, I’m a counselor. I help other marriages heal and thrive. I’ve tried everything in my own, and it hasn’t worked! The only solution is to leave.”

That argument made perfect sense to me, but True Love stopped me from walking out the door. Believe me when I say that isn’t how I defined it in those days. It didn’t feel like love to me at all. In fact, it felt more like punishment and it made me angry. “Fine, I’ll stay God, and now I’ll be miserable the rest of my life.” I felt bitter, rejected, unloved, dissatisfied, not understood — all fruits of a selfish spirit. I had no idea what True Love was or where it came from.

Oh, I thought I knew! I thought I knew what love was and what “fair” was and what I needed. After all, I’m a licensed counselor! I know all these things for other people. And I’m a student of the Bible. I ought to know for myself, too … right?

What I discovered was that while I knew a lot of things in my head, I knew almost nothing in my heart, where it counts. I had not had a transformational, personal encounter with Love Himself around the issue of my marriage. I had not surrendered that to the One who changes hearts, changes perspectives, changes lives.

Eighteen years later, so much has changed. I am still married to the same man I once wanted to leave, but inside this marriage I have experienced love I never knew existed. I have a sense of security and assurance I didn’t know before, and a deep peace beyond anything I could have hoped for. There is contentment. Satisfaction. Belonging. Acceptance. This was the payoff of staying in it and working the plan from God’s angle.

How did it change? You’d think (given my own vocation) we’d immediately get into counseling, but we didn’t. I went to counseling myself for a time and that helped, but I already knew the psychological truths. Mind you, they are good and some are very powerful and beneficial in managing life and making it more tolerable. But all transforming truth ultimately comes from God. He made the heart and only He knows how to care for the heart. So the real change was a heart change. As I leaned in and listened to the Holy Spirit, what I discovered was that I didn’t so much have a marriage problem as a heart problem.

Someone had to go first and in our case it was me. According to his plan and pleasure, God chose to call me first to step up and let him change my heart. As He lovingly hemmed me in, He took me on a journey of heart transformation that changed me permanently. And that change in me brought new life to our once dead marriage.

(Side note: Dead is definitely how I saw what we had. In the season before our transformation, I had diagnosed the marriage and pronounced it dead. As a trained and licensed counselor, you would think I had the insight for that and as a spouse the “right” to it. But guess what? Only the Author of Life can decide when there is no life left. Until then, we had a responsibility to live.)

Had I moved forward with my desire to run, I grieve to think of the tragedy, devastation and lasting effect that would have had on both of us and our children. If I’d done what my selfish heart wanted, today we’d be sitting on separate aisles at our daughters’ weddings, planning separate family holidays, splitting time with grandkids. Family vacations would be near-impossible, not to mention the heart damage — resentments, bitterness, and unresolved anger rippling through the entire family. I grieve to think of our children having to navigate new relationships with their parents, losing their childhood family, finding themselves as adults craving (just as I did) security and assurance.

Those hurts don’t end in adulthood. They are lasting. The world and the enemy of your soul (who cares nothing about your kids or grandkids) will convince you everyone will get over it and be fine. And in some small percentage of cases, that may be true. It is also true that in God’s economy, nothing is lost. In His mercy He redeems everything, even the worst hurts. He can make beauty out of ashes. Divorce is not the ultimate sin.

But dear friends, listen: only God can determine life. We don’t get to decide what is dead and what isn’t. We are not wise enough, smart enough or powerful enough to make that call. No matter how many degrees or how much experience we have, we are not the Author of Life nor the fountainhead of True Love. Only God gets to make that call.

Are you struggling in your closest relationships? Are you wondering if it is time to give something up for dead? Before you make that call, will you allow the Author of marriage and the human heart to have yours today? Will you surrender your expectations and allow Him room to do the deep transformative work only He can do? Here’s the assurance: he will do it, if you allow him, because he specializes in the restoration of things … even something as difficult as your marriage.

What learned from my experience is this: It only takes one person in the hands of a loving God …

Angel H. Davis is a Christ follower who lives in Athens, Georgia and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in healing prayer. Read more from Angel in her book, The Perfecting Storm: Experiencing God’s Best Through the Trials of Marriage. This is an exceptional resource for those who want to see transformation in their marriage.

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Ten Marks of Wise Living

Solomon didn’t sugar-coat human existence. Often called “the wisest man who ever lived,” Solomon wrestled with the meaning of life. In his diary of that wrestling (the Book of Ecclesiastes), he begins with that seems to be the case — that life seems meaningless. People work; they have kids. The wind blows; rivers run into the sea. All this movement … for what? Because we can be rich, smart, fixed for life, with every move perfectly calibrated, and still be miserable. We can be incredibly busy and organized and put miles on our pedometers and odometers and still go nowhere.

After examining all the options, Solomon came to this conclusion: Life cannot be its own good. The circumstances of it don’t generate the kind of fulfillment for which humanity longs. There has to be more to life than simply living it. Solomon’s wrestling offers alternatives to the drudgery of simply existing so we can live as we are designed.

Here are ten suggestions from a very wise man:

1. A positive approach is half the battle. 

The starting point for finding meaning in a seemingly dead-end existence is to change our perspective. A simple decision to see life as hopeful is a good first step toward wisdom. The smart ones are not the ones who can criticize everything; they are the ones who can see through to creative solutions. In our current culture, it is no small thing to choose positivity over criticism.

2. Evaluate your values.

Our church has set three simple values for ourselves to help us decide what to say yes to and what to say no to. Those three values have changed us. They took away all the hesitation and need to please. Instead, we are now more focused, more determined, and our decisions have more integrity. Take time to figure out what matters to you, so you can begin to make choices based on values rather than the moment.

3. Timing is everything (but not everything is up to us).

Singing the words of Ecclesiastes 3, The Byrds informed a generation that there is a time for everything. There will be times when we must restore something that looks for all the world like dead, and also times when we have to tear everything up that we thought we cared about in order to be on the side of right.  Knowing which time is which is the real trick and if it were all up to our always getting it exactly right, we’d be sunk. Timing is everything, but God’s sovereignty is able to work God’s design into our choices. Are you being stepping up when the time is right, trusting God to place the floor beneath your feet?

4. Embrace the power of partnerships.

In his book, Bowling Alone, Steve Robert Putnam theorizes that since the 1960s our nation has dramatically decreased its ability to foster friendships. Along with a decrease in social interaction has been an increase in panic attacks, paranoia and other fears; intolerance of noise; difficulty with concentration; and an increase in aggressive fantasies. Why? Because we have lost touch with the divine design. We threaten our own quality of life when we put self above others. Healthy partnerships are the cure. They require vulnerability, accountability and honesty. Pursue partnerships that honor God and add value to your life and work.

5. Learn to trust by becoming trustworthy.

God is not as committed to our happiness as he is to our character. Becoming trustworthy is what happens as we become holy. So how can we improve our trust factor? For starters, we can learn to listen first before we form opinions. The fact is, we probably know less than we think we do about any situation. Lean in and learn to trust others’ good intentions rather than assuming the worst in the absence of information.

6. Practice grace (it is the key to healthy relationships).

Grace is not for wimps. Solomon’s version of grace looks a lot like accountability (Ecclesiastes 7:5): “It is better to heed the rebuke of a wise person than to listen to the song of fools.” We need people who love us enough to speak the truth in love. Grace is not only unmerited forgiveness; it is that willingness to lean in and stick together, no matter what.

7. Pursue joy, and not just happiness.

If we’re waiting for all the clouds to break and for everything to become clear this side of death, we will be sorely disappointed. And anxious. What if, instead, we just decide to enjoy the rescue, instead of rebelling against it? What if, as Hugh Halter has so wonderfully counseled, we decide to “enjoy life, and live like a missionary”?

8. Live for the long haul (and not for the moment).

Soren Kierkegaard was a Christian philosopher in the 20th century. He once said that to make progress, we should define life backwards, then live it forwards. In other words,  instead of just getting up every morning and putting one foot in front of the other, hoping that it all leads someplace, we should start with a goal, then work back from there. What do you value? What do you want to accomplish? Start there, then plan backwards toward your present.

9. Weigh your words.

Somehow, we’ve managed to create an atmosphere where you can say just about anything and even get applause for it. In the right atmosphere and for the right reasons, transparency can be a marvelous freedom. Undisciplined opinionating, on the other hand, is the surest way to expose your own foolishness. In fact, I am now convinced that discipline is not only the key to spiritual maturity and effective fruit-bearing, but also the root of all joy.

10. Fear God (it is the beginning of wisdom).

This is where Solomon concludes his quest for the meaning of life. He counsels his reader to learn how to fear God, not in the guilt-generating sense of thinking God is out to get us but in the humbling sense of recognizing there may be more to this than we can understand. It is the stark realization that in order to love this life, we have to love God more. And that in the process of loving God more than our own lives, we will find ultimate freedom, wisdom and joy.

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Abortion, choice and what makes a life

(This post first ran a little more than a year ago. I am reposting these blogs in recognition of   the 100th anniversary of the founding of Planned Parenthood in October.)

“As of today, I am responsible for 18,617 abortions.”

Those were the words on a note handed me by a young woman who walked into our church desperate for counsel. For three years, she said, she’d been working in an abortion clinic, rising in the ranks to the place of managing several clinics in Georgia for an owner in Tennessee.  The day she came to see me, she’d decided she was done and wanted help getting out. What she knew put her in a dangerous place; walking out wasn’t as easy as just walking out.

I’m remembering that conversation and all we did to help (we put her in touch with folks who helped her begin a new life) as I note the 100th birthday of Planned Parenthood earlier this year.

In light of that, I’d like to spend a few paragraphs discussing what I know about abortion and believe the Bible teaches.

For those who may not have a good sense of the history of abortion in America, let’s look at the highlights:

The early church – Some of the earliest writings of the Church fathers deal with the issue of abortion. They debated the question of when life begins, but never the question of the morality of abortion. It has always been considered morally wrong by the Church.

1869 – Pope Pius IX announced that abortion at any point in pregnancy was cause for excommunication. That’s when the Church began to say with authority that life begins at conception.

Around 1900 — Laws against abortion in the United States first appeared.

1916 — Margaret Sanger and her sister opened the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn, New York. Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood.

1927 — Sanger helped organize the first World Population Conference in Geneva.

1942 — Planned Parenthood Federation became an official organization.

January 22, 1973 –– the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision in Roe v. Wade, recognizing the constitutional right to privacy and a woman’s right to choose abortion.

Planned Parenthood is by far the most influential voice in the pro-choice movement. While most people today associate Planned Parenthood with women’s rights, most are not aware that Margaret Sanger, the founder, was actually a student of eugenics. That was a sort of popular movement back the 1920s. Eugenics is about breeding. It is the idea of controlling population by breeding out ( I’m actually quoting from someone Sanger followed) “the physically unfit, the materially poor, the spiritually diseased, the racially inferior and the mentally incompetent.” People involved in the eugenics movement of the early 1900s, when Sanger was involved, believed these groups of “inferior” people should be controlled through segregation, sterilization, birth control and abortion. And that was at least partly Sanger’s motivation for supporting contraception and eventually abortion.

Today, Planned Parenthood clinics still reflect that bias. You will almost always find them (76% of all clinics) located in economically depressed areas of a community and particularly in areas where minorities live. The second largest abortion clinic in the world (like an abortion super center) is in Houston, Texas, in a neighborhood that is 85% Hispanic and African-American.  That should be a concern, especially given the soil in which this organization is rooted.

How do we understand these things in light of the Bible?  Let me give you a few starting points:

God creates life. God has allowed the killing of animals since the fall, but we’re not animals. We have God’s spiritual DNA. Genesis 1:27 says, “God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” Life is sacred because we bear a spiritual likeness to our Daddy. Every human being has life because God chose to give it.  Surely that’s worth more than $335 a person, or $20 for a part.

Human life is under God’s care and control. Psalm 139:13-16 says, “You created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

God is involved in our lives from the moment he calls us into being, and is making plans for us even before we’re born. We are under his care.

Jesus came to give abundant life. God is always on the side of life. Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal, kill and destroy, but I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10).

Choose life. In Moses’ final instructions words to the Israelites, he pleaded with them to “choose life” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Surely this word was more deeply prophetic and more deeply eternal than the man who first uttered it could have imagined.

The woman who walked into my office looking for help and a way out discovered that as she participated in sucking the life out of thousands of children, the industry in which she was taking part was sucking the life out of her. When we take life, we lose our own.

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