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The Greatest Gift

A friend recently said to me, “No one ever looks happy when they are running.” Since I have included running as part of my plan to stay in shape, the comment caught my attention. I like the results of running but he is right that I never look happy while I am in the process. In fact, I looked back at a few pictures that another friend took of me while I was running on the beach. I was doing the right thing (exercising) and I was in a beautiful place (Cannon Beach, OR) but as you can tell from the pictures I wasn’t exactly enjoying it.
BillRunningAs I have reflected on his statement, I realized forgiveness is the same way. It is possibly the most important activity of our lives. Ephesians 3:7 informs us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” As an act of grace, Jesus took our place and paid the price for the wrong in our lives. Each of us is painfully aware of deficiencies within. We think the wrong things, we harbor self-defeating attitudes, we fight back desires in our hearts that are neither good nor noble. And periodically these internal struggles turn into behavior that harms relationships we care about.
As a result, being forgiven is the first step in developing a healthy relationship with God and others. Jesus didn’t look happy when he was sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He didn’t look happy when He was being scourged. He didn’t look happy when He was sacrificing His life on the cross. He did it because the results were worth it to Him.
This is the legacy of our faith. Forgiveness creates renewed hearts, renewed relationships and renewed freedom to pursue excellence. It is never enjoyable in the process but it is always effective in its impact. Consider Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 50. At the death of their father, the brothers were rightfully worried, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” (v. 15) In honest contrition they said to Joseph, “Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father . . . we are your slaves.” (v. 17-18) Despite the heartache, disappointments and injustices Joseph went through, he concluded in his heart that forgiveness was a better course than vengeance. “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (v. 19-21)
When God was thinking about the greatest gift He could give to mankind, He decided to give us complete forgiveness that would free us from condemnation and launch us into a pursuit of excellence that comes from a heart that is liberated to dream and take risks. He did it because the results were worth it to Him!

The Greatest Friendship

I was engaged in a Bible study with some close friends when the following passage got my attention, “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you.” (Ephesians 3:2) It triggered an interest in me to learn more about grace. I have a vague recognition that the term “grace” represents all that Jesus did for us but until recently I didn’t take time to look at the various aspects of grace that make it so valuable. For the next few blog posts I would like to share what I have learned about the implications of grace in our lives.
FriendRequestGrace Initiates favor and a friendship with God. In Genesis 6, the news reports were not good. “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (v. 5) The general state of things was not good. People had stopped considering the consequences of their actions, given into every whim that rose up in their hearts and became content to judge their actions by their own ideas rather than any kind of objective standard. Any attempts to point out the negative impact of current affairs were met with stubbornness, scoffing and ridicule.
In the midst of the turmoil, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” (v. 8) The idea is that God accepted Noah and viewed him as a valuable, attractive part of His life. In other words, he was a trusted friend. God “opened up” to Noah about His disappointments and plans. He then invited Noah to be a full partner in His plan.
Abraham was an average man living an average life when God reached out to him. God knew that people weren’t “getting it” when it came to His love for them. He decided He wanted to build up a nation who would demonstrate for the world His interest in mankind, His dedication to provide for His own, His commitment to help us become the best we could be and His desire to draw all people into an honest, cooperative relationship with Himself. To establish this nation, God chose Abraham (Genesis 15:4-6) and because Abe said, “Yes,” he was called God’s friend. (James 2:23)
This is the nature of grace. It goes beyond God taking pity on us because of our imperfections and shortcomings. It raises us to the level of friendship where we confide in one another, share each other’s dreams and make plans together to make life better for those we care about. Hence, Jesus said to His followers, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
As I consider the nature of a friendship with God, I realize it is more than just “hanging out” with God. It is joining with Him to accomplish the dreams He has for the people He created. He could do it better all on His own but He prefers to share the journey with friends. It reminds me of the words of legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, “I’m just a plow hand from Arkansas, but I have learned how to hold a team together. How to lift some men up, how to calm down others, until finally they’ve got one heartbeat together, a team. There’s just three things I’d ever say: If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes real good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”
May we fully enjoy the friendship we have with God through His grace.

Persistence on the Imperfect Path

This week has been an interesting reminder of the imperfect journey of life. Everyone I encountered along the way has a dream for their future and undying hope that life is going to turn out well for them. One man is highly dedicated to his career and wants to rise to the top of his professions. One mom is working tirelessly to help her kids discover their talents, navigate their education and overcome their obstacles. Another couple will tell you boldly they want to have an excellent relationship with open communication and cooperative decision-making.
At the same time, everyone I encountered was confronted with either a circumstance or an attitude that was holding them back. The businessman has a couple of habits in his life that are counterproductive to his dream which include keeping his passions in focus and responding with something other than anger to situations that are frustrating. The mom was upset because she often gets angry with the people she loves when they don’t live up to her expectations. She doesn’t want to give up her dream but she doesn’t want to be angry with her family for the next decade. The couple honestly admitted they run at very different paces and have started to resent one another for their differences.
BumperSticker(2)I am sure I noticed these folks because they are a mirror of my life. I love my life, I adore my wife and I am proud of my kids. At the same time, I get frustrated with managing finances, integrating with Pam’s spontaneous scheduling and trying to prioritize the relentless tasks of life. Like you, I keep looking for an easier solution.
For all of us who are willing to accept that life is an imperfect journey, Jesus has some strategic advice in Luke 11:9-10, “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” According to the context, Jesus is telling us to keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking because some things in life only get accomplished through audacious persistence. As a pastor, I would love to present to you a simple, easy plan for becoming spiritual mature. As an author, I would love to give couples and parents a quick path to family unity and strength. As a concerned friend, I would love to tell you that one of the quick fix programs for weight loss and physical conditioning would actually turn you into an athlete in just 7 minutes a day. That is not the real path of life, however. The real path of life is a mixture of fun and frustration, accomplishment and agony.
I am not sure what you are facing this week but I am confident it has an element of imperfection to it that will require persistence to stay on the path despite the obstacles, frustrations, setbacks and inefficiencies involved. I’ll see you on the path as we keep asking, keep seeking and keep knocking!

What Has God Been Doing?

We all have “pet peeves,” “hot buttons,” and “areas of intense focus” that capture our attention to the point we think everyone should share our level of interest in the topic. Today’s topic is one of those for me and I would like to get your feedback. The “hot button” for me is a conviction that the question, “What has God been doing in my life?” is one of life’s great privileges. Ephesians 2:10 states, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Philippians 2:13 echoes this same thought, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

It seems inescapable to me then that God has been working in each of our lives from 10 Best Decisions a Leader Can Makethe beginning to lead us in the pursuit of His will. Even before we knew He was at work, He was busy shaping, molding and redeeming situations to develop passion in our hearts for something I believe there are a number of ways you can look back on your life to discover what God has been about. You can look at your strongest memories, your life altering decisions, the consistent interests of your heart, your choice of friends, etc. One of the ways is also to look at the leaders you have been inclined to follow. In The 10 Best Decisions a Leader Can Make, I share the short list of those leaders in my life as a way of discovering your place in the plan. I have included a short excerpt to illustrate:

“We can all describe the journey of our lives by the leaders who have impacted us.
In third grade, Mrs. Svoboda taught me that math could be fun. She was energetic about math concepts and instituted a number of competitive games to help those of us with natural aptitude excel in our development. It was the first time in my life that learning captured the same sense of adventure as athletic competition . . .

In fifth grade, I was assigned to Mr. Foladare’s class. His body was mildly deformed from a childhood malady, but it never stopped him from doing what was on his heart. He taught with focus and enthusiasm that made me want to learn . . . Even though he was only five foot six, he coached an elite club basketball team that consistently played in tournament championships. He was tough-minded, energetic, and determined that obstacles would not hold him back . . .

Coach Pitts started [freshman] basketball practice that year with the statement, “You are going to be the toughest, hardest working team in our league. You may end up liking me or hating me by the end of the season, but you will be the most determined basketball players around.” I wasn’t even sure at the time why it got my attention. I do know, however, that my time with Coach Pitts better prepared me for the realities of life . . .

Coach Howell was a high-school football coach in the mold of Paul “Bear” Bryant. He wasn’t the most personable man I have ever met, but he knew how to win. He taught me that success is not just about talent. It’s about maintaining discipline in the midst of adversity. It’s about adjusting to challenges with a clear view of your goal and cultivating a mindset of believing you will succeed despite the forces trying to keep you from it . . .

Pastor Jack Peacock taught me the power of building authentic networks. He had an uncanny ability to connect with rugged men . . .

Bob Bell was a corporate leader I watched from a distance. He was extremely busy with his career and family so he didn’t have much time to give, but the way he handled his life and business was attractive to me. An associate of his told me one day, “Bob was in charge of investigating safety reports in our company. He was always tough, but he was always fair.”

Jim Conway convinced me that having a full-fledged ministry and raising a healthy family could be done at the same time . . . Despite a difficult childhood, he was positive, energetic, and ambitious.”

From these leaders I discovered that I am drawn to help people with real issues in their lives, environments that are competitive, learning significant information, balancing solid relationships with a standard of truth and overcoming obstacles with tenacity. These have become major themes in my life that drive my decisions and help me sort out my priorities because I am passionate about them.

It seems to me, however, that people in general have a hard time “seeing” what God has been doing. They can report the news of their lives but have trouble identifying the themes that are supposed to capture their hearts and focus their efforts.
This is where I would like your input. As you look back at your life, can you identify the themes, convictions, and interests that God has been trying to weave into your heart? I look forward to your insight – Thanks!

When the Heart Turns

I received an interesting (and enjoyable) compliment yesterday. I met with a man who was frustrated in his relationship with his wife and acted out a couple days prior to our meeting. He said things that were unfortunate which gave his wife the impression that things were in deep trouble. I knew the history of this couple and I have seen this man growing consistently for the past few months so I suspected there was quite a bit of hope for them. When I got together with him it was clear to me he really did want to have a successful marriage.
We talked about the patterns in their relationship that tend to catch him unaware and spark an angry response. We explored the decisions he was making that caused his well-being to be determined by his wife’s responses which was putting pressure on her to “act right” all the time. We reviewed the way a marriage relationship is different than the other relationships in our lives and we set new strategies for helping it go smoother.
None of this was new information as we had spoken about these things before. There was, however, a different response. The compliment I received was, “I don’t know what you did but my husband is a completely different person than the one who left for work. It is miraculous.” I have been at this long enough to know that it wasn’t anything I did. It was the condition of this man’s heart. He was motivated to figure it out. He truly wanted to know and was open to whatever it would take to have a healthy, loving, productive relationship. I have known for a long time that when people’s hearts are open, I appear to be brilliant. When their hearts are closed, I don’t seem to know much at all.
Heart From HandsIt was a good reminder to me of Proverbs 22:17, “Pay attention and turn your ear to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach.” Regardless of how people respond the sayings are wise and the teaching is true. Change, however, happens when people accept wisdom with an open heart. This is where it gets exciting because matters of the heart move quickly. A man (or woman) with a soft, responsive heart is one breakthrough away from positive transformation that will extend his influence and draw people to him. A man (or woman) with a stubborn heart is likewise one breakthrough away from complicated setbacks that threaten his relationships and push people away. In either case, the important thing is the condition of the heart and the heart can change quickly.
Many of us have people in our lives who frustrate us, annoy us, disappoint us or simply refuse to do what we know is right. Our tendency is to monitor their behavior in a sincere attempt to get them to act correctly. If the problem is a lack of training, this is helpful as in the case of parents training their children. If the problem, however, is a matter of the heart, it is better to commit this person to prayer and wait for God to turn their hearts because when the heart turns, it is miraculous.
Jesus, give us the humility to keep our hearts soft before you.

Big Roots

I had the “opportunity” to do some landscaping work at my parents’ house this past weekend. My parents are getting to the age where they cannot do this kind of work themselves so my siblings and I decided to help them out. The project involved creating a large planter section at the base of a short hill which would provide my mom with a level area to practice her interest in growing drought resistant plants. My son and I agreed to prep the area for new planting, which is a nice way to say we were going to do a lot of digging and contouring.
Tree RootsIt didn’t take long for us to encounter some impressive roots in the ground. There are a number of trees in the area that have, over time, extended their roots over a large area. The small roots were easy to deal with but not all the roots were small. Some of the support structure had grown to between 2 and 3 inches in diameter and took great effort to clear out in anticipation of a new collection of plants.
The amazing thing is that these big roots started out little. When the trees were planted many years before, the roots were thin and contained in a root ball that had to be carefully buried in the ground, fertilized, watered and watched over until it established itself in its new location. With time and care, however, they were solid, stable and difficult to dislodge.
It reminded me of the truth of Galatians 6:8-9. “. . . whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” When the Holy Spirit enters our lives at the point of salvation, He gets planted in our lives as a seed with the potential of developing a strong, stable and pervasive influence over our souls. God has set up the system in an interactive way so that when we “sow to please the Spirit” His influence grows. Just like the roots we battled to remove this past weekend, the power of the Spirit can grow in our lives as we engage in the activities that nourish our relationship with Him.
The key is consistency. Trees need consistent water, fertilizer and sunshine over time to grow strong. In the same way, there are consistent activities in our lives that I have found helpful in sowing to the Spirit:
• Regular exposure to the Word of God through reading, studying and hearing it taught.
• Interactive prayer where we share what is on our hearts and quietly listen.
• Doing what is obvious. There is much in our spiritual journeys that has an element of mystery to it but there is also a lot that is clear and obvious. Our willingness to do what is obvious keeps our spirits cooperative to the bigger things God has in store for us.
• Pay attention to God’s word. When verses make you feel better, be encouraged by them. When verses bother you, ask, “What area of change in my life is this verse pointing to?”
Like most of you, I wish I could develop strong roots quickly. The fact is they take unremarkable routines practiced over time.
Jesus, help me today to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest.”

A New Look at Faithfulness

I gained a new appreciation for what it means to be faithful as I was talking to my youngest son this past weekend. He is in his senior year in college and this will be his last year playing football. It makes for a year of mixed emotions. He is playing better than he ever has but it will all come to an end soon. I have been watching my sons compete in athletics for over 20 years but we are now in the final lap. His older brothers have made the transition from competitor to leader in their chosen fields and I know my youngest will be doing that soon. But for now, I have one more season to cheer and build memories.
They had a very good game on Saturday. They played a quality team and won the game 31-10. My son plays defense so I rejoiced with him that they only allowed the other team to score one touchdown. As we talked about the play on Sunday, he said, “It was an option play which means all of us need to keep our assignments. The only way to stop the option is for each of us to do what we are supposed to do and trust everyone else on the team to do what they are supposed to do. If anyone tries to do someone else’s job, it usually results in a big play for the other team and that is exactly what happened.”
“I desire to do your will, my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:8) The conversation has lingered for me as it encouraged me to think through my assignment in life. I did a quick survey of the way God created me and I came up with this list:
I am a man.
I am the only husband Pam has ever known.
I am a dad to three young men.
I am Papa to three young children.
I am the youngest son of 83 year-old parents.
I am an author.
I am a pastor at heart
I care about helping people develop skills that improve their decisions and relationships.
I love helping church ministries get stronger.
I love to exercise.
I love simple solutions that work.
Based on these characteristics that God placed in me, I have work to do, people to love, responsibilities to fulfill and talents to develop. The problem is that I see more needs around me than I am capable of addressing. There are financial processes that need to be developed. There are products that need to be created. There are vital relationships that need training and repair. There are lessons that need to be taught, decisions that need to be guided, self-destructive habits that need to be replaced and defeating attitudes that need to be challenged. And these are just in the lives of the people I call family. Beyond that, there is a world of people who grew up in challenging homes and now lack the skills that are necessary to live a calmly productive life that leads to quality relationships and satisfying accomplishments. If I allow it, I can be tempted to think I have to do more than I am capable of doing.
The reality is that I have my assignment. I am called to love my wife, encourage my kids, invest in my grandkids, fulfill my ministry and develop the gifts and talents God decided to give me. Beyond that, I need to trust that others will take their care of their assignments through the grace and power of God.
Jesus, give me a firm resolve to do what I have been assigned to do in my life and grant me the humility to believe that you can empower others to take care of their assignments better than I could.

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