Training my brain on scripture

I read recently about the ways technology is changing our brains. For instance, easy access to information is training our brain to “index” rather than “retain” information. Makes sense.

I can still remember my family’s home phone number from when I was growing up, but who bothers to memorize a phone number these days? And all that time I spent memorizing sports records seems like such a waste now that anything we want or need to know is easily found with a quick and simple Internet search. We just need to know the key search words that will lead us to the facts. Or the fake news, as the case may be.

In many ways, this is awesome. There’s only so much room in my head for information, useless or otherwise, so I’m OK with keeping most of it stored on a hard drive or the cloud or wherever it is Google stores such things. If I need it – say, to win an important argument about who is the all-time leading scorer in NAIA men’s basketball history – I know where, or at least how, to find it.

On the other hand, I’ve come to recognize the value of the basic disciplines my parents tried so hard to instill into my ever-resistant soul when I was growing up.

For instance, I argued for years that it was pointless to make my bed each morning when, as was plainly obvious to anyone, I would mess it up again that evening. Why not keep it perpetually prepared for my impending slumber? As an adult, however, I’ve discovered that making the bed each day provides a nice sense of order in the midst of my sometimes chaotic life. Plus, it makes my wife happy. I retain many of my youthful slob-like tendencies, but I find comfort in knowing things are well ordered. Things have a place and they are in their place.

Retaining knowledge is as important as ever. Very often, I hear arguments on the political debates of our day that are weakly rooted in quick Google searches that led to unverified articles that shade the truth and do little more than promote confirmation bias. But retaining knowledge requires discipline, and some of us, myself included, aren’t particularly good at it.

This is frustrating at times, but never more than when I’m trying to remember a Bible verse. Of all the things we should memorize, scripture should top the list. Yet, I stink at this discipline. I’m not bad at remembering what scripture says, but I fail miserably at quoting it chapter and verse. I’ve used a journal, index cards and an app. I memorize verses for a few weeks or months, but then they slip away.

That’s OK, though, because I know I never want to become just an indexer of God’s word. I want to keep it in my heart. So, I’ll keep at it and do the best I can. If I forget the chapter and verse but remember the gist of the message, I figure I’ve gained something important. I might not have every pillow fluffed perfectly and properly placed, but I’ve made my bed.

Trivial side note: I was a cub reporter working for the Arkansas Democrat in the late 1980s when someone on the sports copy desk asked the question, “Who’s the NAIA’s all-time leading scorer in men’s basketball?” There was no Google, so I reached for the NAIA media guide. Before I could flip a page, Robert Yates, a college kid working with us part-time, said, “Bevo Francis.” And he was right. Two other players have since surpassed Francis on the career scoring list. But Francis still holds the record for most points in a game, scoring 113 for Rio Grande (Ohio) in a 1954 game against Hillsdale (Mich.).

Clarence “Bevo” Francis

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Finding Wisdom in Troubling Times

Deciding on a blog topic isn’t always easy, and not always because you feel like you have nothing worth saying. I seldom have writer’s block. More often, I have writer’s fire hydrant. And the Charlottesville violence left me overwhelmed with opinions and ideas regarding racism, monuments, statues, hatred, evil, protests, politics and all sorts of other things that were spewing forth from my mind.

How can I write everything I’m thinking and feeling? How can I contribute beyond all the other voices? What should I say and how should I say it?

Then I re-read Proverbs 8, one of my favorite books in the scriptures. Rather than doting on the symptoms of the problems we face in this world, it speaks to the cure for the root cause of our disease. It won’t tell you if statues should come down in your town’s square, what you should or shouldn’t write on Facebook, or specifically how to respond to friends and neighbors who look or think differently than you. But it will tell you how to put yourself in a position to find those answers.

Proverbs 8 is 36 beautiful verses, 33 of which are poetically written in the personified voice of wisdom. Jesus grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52), and the troubles in our lives and in this world are rooted in a lack of wisdom. Eve took that first bite of the forbidden fruit because she lacked wisdom. Adam stood passively beside her, ignoring his responsibility as a husband, because he lacked wisdom. Racists in America and terrorists in Europe drive cars into crowds because they lack wisdom. So, when wisdom speaks, we should listen.

Here’s some of what you’ll learn about wisdom when you leave this blog and read Proverbs 8 for yourself:

  • She raises her voice and takes a stand.
  • She detests wickedness.
  • She is just and righteous.
  • She is more valuable than silver, gold or rubies.
  • She dwells with prudence.
  • She isn’t the same thing as knowledge, but she possesses knowledge … and discretion.
  • There are things she hates … evil, pride, arrogance, perverse speech.
  • Her insights are powerful.
  • Those who seek her, find her.
  • She was the “first” of the Lord’s works and present for creation.
  • She brings a blessing to those who keep her ways.
  • She is the path toward life; without her, the path leads to death.

Wisdom isn’t synonymous for Christ or God the Father or the Holy Spirit, but the Trinity possesses and provides wisdom to draw us to Jesus and to strengthen our relationship with God. The wisest thing we can do is surrender our lives to Christ, and then we can begin to really grow in wisdom because we’re listening to Him, not to our flesh. As we navigate the troubling times in which we live, we need this wisdom more than ever.


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The Blog God Spiked

Several weeks ago, I wrote two blogs and scheduled them to post while Audrey and I were on vacation. When we returned, I realized one of them never posted. One of two things happened. I didn’t schedule it properly or my really, really smart, hi-tech blog posting system malfunctioned. You decide.

Last week, I reread the blog and decided to use it. I polished it up, sent it to a friend for proofing, and then reread it one last time yesterday morning with plans to post it today. That’s when it hit me: Don’t post this blog.

There’s nothing wrong with the content itself. Actually, I rather liked it. It wasn’t particularly deep, but it reflected my warped sense of humor and made a decent point about how leaders can use manual labor (e.g., not typing) to clear their minds and spark some creativity.

Then something dawned on me. About the time that blog was originally scheduled to post, someone I know died while doing the exact hard work I had described. I suddenly imagined his friends and family reading this tongue-in-cheek blog and finding no humor in it at all. My heart sank, but my spirits quickly lifted. There’s no greater feeling than to realize the hand of God somehow intervened in your life. I’ve experienced it in some big ways – like with the birth of my children or the day I realized Audrey was “the one” for me.

So, today’s blog is about the blog I didn’t write. The one God spiked for me – twice.

We never know when God will allow us to see how He is intervening, but our response should always be the same: Thank you, thank you, thank you.


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Read this Blog and Earn 10 Points!

My wife tells the story of a teacher who motivated his students by awarding their obedience and success with points.

“What do we get for the points?” one student asked.

“Oh, points are great,” the teacher said with great enthusiasm. “They are the best! Everybody loves to get points. When you’re older, you’ll really understand. Points are great. Trust me. You want more points!”

We live in a world that keeps score, even if the score doesn’t always matter and the points don’t really hold any value. You can’t redeem them for money or merchandise or favors. All they buy is ego biscuits.

I, too, like points. I prefer points that matter, like the ones that get me a free cup of coffee. And I like it when my team (the Arkansas Razorbacks) accumulate more points than their opponents, especially when the opponent is Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Texas A&M, or Ole Miss. And don’t forget Texas. But I also like points that are essentially worthless – points in a computer game or points in a friendly game of cards with my wife (she usually wins).

Points are great. Trust me. You want more points.

The problem with points, however, is that we often come to expect them. We feel entitled to get points for anything and everything we do. And even when the points clearly have no real value, we expect to somehow redeem them for something. You owe me points, and, by the way, I’m ready to cash them in. It’s in the Constitution, right? But expecting a payoff for everything we do can suck the joy out of doing things for others.

When I cook breakfast for my wife, should I do it because I love her and want to bring joy to her life, or because cooking breakfast will earn me points? When I memorize a verse of the Bible, should I do it because it earns me points (and maybe a “level up”) on my Bible memory app, or because it draws me closer to God? When my wife and I lead a Bible study, should we do it because it earns us jewels in our heavenly crown, or because it’s a natural response to God’s love for us?

We all need a little help with motivation from time to time, and points and other rewards can be a good way to keep us engaged. But we’re wise to keep those points in perspective. God looks at the motivations of our hearts. If we want to grow in favor with God (Luke 2:52), we won’t get very far if our primary motive is to earn points. Such points are worthless in God’s economy. The Apostle Paul said, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) And in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus put it this way: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” (Matthew 5:8)

That’s far more valuable than all the points the world can offer. Trust me. Points are great. Love is better.


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The Rocks of Our Hearts

Is the soil of your heart prepared for growth? … 

Our home rests near the top of a hill, and we’re mostly surrounded by woods. Bermuda grass thrives on the sun-soaked front and one side of our lot, but the back remains very close to its natural state – it mostly grows rocks, not grass.

We need fewer rocks and more bird seed.
Tuck surveys the rocks of our yard.

I’ve been thinking lately about investing some time into the backyard – more to make it easier to maintain than for aesthetic purposes. What’s stopping me? Well, it looks like hard work. Over the last few years, I’ve removed most of the bigger, blade buster rocks. But several areas are covered in smaller stones that seem to multiply like rabbits. I pick one up and toss it into the woods, and two more emerge in its place. If I really want more grass, however, I’ll need to remove the rocks, prepare the hard Ozark soil, put out some seed, fertilize, water and wait.

Hard work. Just like preparing the heart. If we want to grow like Jesus, we have to prepare our hearts. As pastor/author Max Lucado says, we have to pull the stumps and remove the rocks.

“God’s seed grows better if the soil of the heart is cleared,” Lucado writes in Grace for the Moment.

How do we clear it? We don’t; God does. But we allow it when we come to Him in humble confession, seeking His help with our stumps and rocks.

“Confession is the act of inviting God to walk the acreage of our hearts,” Lucado writes. And, he adds, “Confession invites the Father to work the soil of the soul.”

This is hard work. It makes us uncomfortable, and the more sins we confess, the more we seem to find. Like the rocks in my backyard, they often are hidden just beneath the surface. If we ignore them, they emerge and clutter our lives. If we give them to God, however, our hearts are prepared to grow.


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The Sins of My Writing

Spellcheck says everything’s good. But I’ve learned not to fully trust spellcheck. So, I read over it – one … last … time …

Yep, all looks good. I hit send or print or whatever pushes my writings into public view. In this particular case, it’s a blog post.

I’m never sure how many folks will read my blog, but I hope it’s well received by all who invest five minutes of their lives. I put my heart and soul into it and, frankly, I believe the content and writing is some of my better work. Perhaps it will have a positive impact. That’s always the goal – to get people to think and act in ways that help them grow like Jesus.

So off goes the post into the cyber world, released and free. And I move on to other things.

Then comes that email from a loving friend who gently points out the typo. Not just a random typo, but a typo in the lead (or, if you prefer, the lede). Sure, it’s the second paragraph, but it’s still part of the lead. First word of the first sentence in the second paragraph – standing out like a zit on the forehead of a teenager on prom night. Image should be imagine. Spellcheck won’t catch that, by the way.

I sigh. I thank my friend. I update the post on my website, although by now I suspect that everyone who will read it already has, and I’m certain that each of them snickered at the whiff. Another shot across the bow of my credibility. My insecure self whispers: See, I told you. You’re a hack. This is why you’ll never really make it as a writer.

Little things have always risen up to bite my writing in big ways, and especially spelling. I misspelled water in an elementary school spelling bee, and a high school teacher told me I’d never be a good writer because I was such a poor speller. As a cub reporter for a newspaper, one of my egregious spelling errors resulted in an editor getting chewed out. And I once misspelled a billionaire’s name in a magazine article.

But image instead of imagine wasn’t really a spelling error. I know how to spell imagine without looking it up. It was more of an oversight. It’s one of those words that this writer’s eyes – those eyes that have become all too comfortable with the content – are prone to see as correct, even when it is not. Reading it one more time seldom matters. I look at image and see imagine.

Unless you, too, write professionally or have some other form of OCD, you might think this is much ado about nothing. You’d say that chances are, very few people noticed, and those who did probably didn’t care. Maybe. But I care. And I suspect there’s something in your life – in everyone’s life – that you care deeply about doing well but that you fail at from time to time.

What then? Grace. Forgiveness. Growth.

In my experience, it’s all but impossible to grow like Jesus when I’m wallowing in self-pity that’s swimming in self-doubt. I have to remind myself that Christ died for my sins, that I am forgiven, and that I can walk and live in that forgiveness.

When Jesus encountered and confronted sinners, He never condoned their sins. He offered forgiveness and commanded them to stop their sinful behaviors. (See John 5:14 or John 8:11) So even with something as seemingly trivial as a mental error/typo/misspelling, I am compelled to admit my mistake, embrace forgiveness and try to avoid repeating that mistake.

How? I’ll be more aware of that word, but I’m also investing in a copy editor. Every writer needs one. I’ve avoided it because, well, it’s an expense – either I’m paying someone money or I’m imposing on a friendship. But I work with clients all the time who want to avoid this expense, and I always tell them that doing so is a huge mistake. Every writer needs an editor, usually more than one. It’s time to heed my own advice.

We all need others to help us walk through this broken world – someone who helps us edit our lives. That was a key point of the image/imagine post. And while we’ll never get it totally right, that type of discipleship helps us walk more comfortably in the peace and joy that come from grace and forgiveness.

(Note: My good friend and super wordsmith James Gilzow edited this piece, and I assure you it’s better now than it was when I sent it to him!)


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Our Sanctification Puzzle

Sanctification lives at the heart of the Grow Like Jesus message, and it’s something we do both individually and in the context of our relationships with others.

Imagine a jigsaw puzzle with pieces that never stay the same but that somehow always fit together. We never know how or when our lives might provide the right fit for others or how and when someone else might provide the right fit for us. But we know we need each other to fully grow like Jesus. Our sanctification puzzle is incomplete, of course, without Jesus. His presence fills the voids and gaps, heals the wounds, and makes all things new. But He regularly uses broken human pieces during our earthly journey.

This helps me see myself and others in a different light. My sin nature often tugs at me to judge first and seek understanding later. When I remember that God might use me to somehow contribute to someone else’s sanctification puzzle, or that He might use someone else to grow me, then I become much more empathetic and far less judgmental. I want to know the other person’s pains, baggage, joys, and experiences. I want to understand who that person is and why, not focus on his outward appearance or actions. And I want him to understand who I am and how God has transformed me and is transforming me.

The Me Piece

The biggest, most complex and complicated part of my sanctification puzzle is me. My sanctification begins with my attention to my personal walk with and growth in Jesus. No one else owns it or is responsible for it. When God confronted Adam and Eve for their sins in the garden, Adam immediately blamed Eve and God. The woman you gave me – that’s the problem! (See Genesis 3:12) God, of course, knew better. Like Adam, we can’t shift responsibility for who we are and how we live. We have to own it so we can fully surrender it.

The Us Piece

The next most critical piece of my sanctification puzzle is my wife. God gave her to me, and me to her. While some pieces of our puzzle come and go, this one is ever-present. She adds to my growth, and I contribute to hers. She is my helpmate, which clearly means this: I need help! And I’m called to love her as Christ loves the church, which is no small deal – I am called to give myself up for her to make her holy, to cleanse her by the washing with water through the word, to present her as radiant, without stain or wrinkle or blemish, but holy and blameless. (Ephesians 5:25-27). What an awesome privilege and responsibility when it comes to her growth!

The Others Piece

Finally, there are those pieces of my sanctification puzzle that involve “others.” Some are regular parts of my life, like my family and closest friends. Others are people I know but interact with less frequently. And others still are simply divine appointments – people God places in my life for a short period and then they’re gone. They all shape my spiritual growth, if I’m open to how God wants to use them. And I have an opportunity provided by God to fit some need of theirs, but it’s up to me to embrace that opportunity.

Every day, our puzzle pieces change. We’re reshaped by our experiences. Our needs are different. Our opportunities for growth are different. And what we have to offer others is different. Our challenge is to figure out how we all fit together for the glory of God as we strive to grow like Jesus.


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The God of Tegucigalpa

I’m not a poet, but sometimes I’m compelled to write in my own, unique style of verse. So it is with my recap of the week Audrey and I spent this summer in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

We went with a team led by our dentist and friend Dr. Bob Ward of First Lavaca (Arkansas). And we worked under the direction of World Gospel Outreach, an organization that has learned through the years how to truly honor God and serve the physical and spiritual needs of people in efficient and powerful ways. It was, frankly, the most impactful mission trip I’ve ever taken, and this ode won’t do it justice. But it’s all I have.

We took a ton of photos, a few of which I’ve included. Click here to see more.

God Moved

I asked the Lord:
“Show me a revelation;
“Move within me;
“Move within us;
“Heal this land;
“Heal these people;
“Make Your Glory known.”

We flew in fast, and we landed hard,
Because this is Tegucigalpa – its mountains high, its runway short.

The adventure had just begun;
Pedro took us up and down the mountain,
Through the city and into the countryside,
Driving his yellow school bus like an Indy car,
Smiling all the time.

We came, of course, to help;
A “brigade,” they called it;
A troop of foreigners and nationals,
Joining together in the inward parts of this city,
Offering what we could ….
To provide basic medical, dental, and optical care …
To wash and style the hair of children, treat their hair for lice, paint their nails, and watch them smile …
To pour a concrete floor or paint the random boards
That serves as walls for a shack a family knows as “home” …
To listen, to pray, and to share God’s grace.

Could we make a difference? Really? In this city?
The pollution burned our nostrils, stung our eyes;
We saw pain and heartache holding so many in its vise grips;
Hopelessness attacking their souls, prisoners walking in the streets;
“Who are we,” I asked? “Who am I?”
Poverty had been taking root in these hills of silver for nearly 500 years;
We were here for just a week!
Could we make a difference? Really? In this city?

Evil lurked, whispered his lies,
Distorted truth, twisted hope into despair;
He will not win, I remembered;
He's already been defeated;
Christ's heal has struck his head;
Jesus lives and evil's hold will not prevail!

Could we make a difference? Really? In this city?
Could we make a difference?
Not us … but Christ within us.

So we served and watched Him work;
We saw a double rainbow from the clouds,
Vibrant colors painting the Honduran sky;
We saw God's face in those we loved:
A son, daughter, granddaughter, husband, wife … a stranger … a newfound friend; 
We saw God’s mercies, grace, and faithfulness, 
All written in the faces – of children, young men and women, the elderly; 
They had hope; 
They had Hope. 

We smelled the coffee beans as they roasted, 
High up in the mountains, where the air is clean and fresh; 
We saw papaya growing by a squatter’s shanty house, 
Nestled down a hill on a dirt patch just off an unpaved city street; 
We laughed with the lady who said she had "a zoo" in her tummy; 
We laughed more when we heard about the granny 
Who packed a pistol on her hip and Jesus in her heart; 
And we cried as we washed each other's feet; 
Tears of joy, tears of life, tears of love; 
And along the way we heard the words angels long to hear: 
"Yes, I need Jesus!" 
"Yes, I want Jesus!" 
"Yes, I love Jesus!" 
Another 80-plus souls signed up for heaven; 
Another 70-plus recommitted their lives to the Way. 

And when we stopped … 
When we paused to look and listen … 
All around us, 
All within us,  
All among us; 
Here’s what we saw … 
Our God moved; 
Our God moves! 
Praise His holy name!
  • Tegucigalpa, Honduras, 6/30/17

Practicing Rest

One of the key points in Grow Like Jesus is that rest is a critical piece of our walk with God. Jesus rested. So we should rest. What’s that look like? Well, this week, it looks like me somewhere on a beach. So this week’s blog is the attached photo. It’s from a vacation we took last year, but it symbolizes the rest I hope I’m getting while you read this. I hope you’re getting some, too.

Suggestions for your summer reading

It’s summer, so you’ve probably noticed an increase in articles and blogs recommending books to read while you’re on the beach or otherwise decompressing from your work world. In many cases, these blogs are by authors who simply want to share the books they’ve enjoyed. Others, of course, are secretly sourced by clever PR agencies looking to promote a particular client’s book. That doesn’t make the list bad, it just makes the motives suspect. Caveat emptor.

So what do I recommend? Well, glad you asked. I don’t know what you’ve read or what you like to read or what types of books would help you with your current situation. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help you out a little.

One of my bookshelves, which, by the way, are organized in “random order.” Don’t judge me.

My main recommendation is that you should diversify. Read a bunch of different stuff. Read a bunch of styles. Read fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and humor. Variety from your library keeps you from slipping into a mental rut and helps you see fresh perspectives on your work and your world. Here are my main categories, keeping in mind that in some cases there’s some overlap.

Novels – Great fiction takes us out of our world but reshapes how we view the world in which we live. The most recent really good novel I’ve read was The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a Spanish author who brings 1950s Barcelona to life with a dark but lively mystery.

Biographies/Autobiographies – I worked on The American Immigrant, a Kindle single by Dick Gephardt and Mark Russell that profiles some cool stories. Another recommendation would be Seven Men by Eric Metaxas, which profiles seven of the most influential men in history. Unfortunately, I didn’t finish this book because I left my copy on an airplane.

History – I’m a big fan of well-written history, and I confess it’s been way too long since I spent some time in this genre. One that pops to mind is Washington’s Crossing by David Hackett Fischer. The significance of that one event changed the course of history, and this book shares why in a very readable way. Another favorite of is Blood and Thunder by Hampton Sides, which uses Kit Carson as a thread for the story of the American West.

Leadership/business – Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton fits in this category. It’s written for people in ministry, but I’ve found it applies to leaders no matter their profession. Forging Grit, a short fiction book I co-wrote with Mike Thompson, also fits this bill. Other authors you can check out: Tommy Spaulding, Steve Farber, Eric Chester, Elise Mitchell, Max DePree, John Maxwell, and Mark Sanborn.

Faith-based – I recently finished Donald Miller’s Scary Close, which is faith-based self-help. Obviously I’m partial to Grow Like Jesus and Go West (by my friend Jeremy Sparks). And right now I’m reading and enjoying None Other by John MacArthur. Also, my wife and I always have a devotional book from which we read each morning.

I know people who have multiple books going at the same time, and I do this from time to time. Most often, I’m reading one book on my own and one with my wife. But do what’s best for the rhythms of your life. And by all means, share what’s been meaningful. Almost every book I mentioned in this blog came to me as a recommendation from some wonderful friend like you.

———-

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