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Elements of Excellence

I have always had the goal of pursuing excellence in my life and I believe everyone starts out this way. Looking back, I can see it was a drive in my heart from the time I was very young. I dreamed of being a super hero, going on great adventures, and overcoming insurmountable odds. As I watch kids play today, I see the same thing. Girls dream of being princesses. Boys fantasize about being pirates and knights. Kids talk of exploring and doing battles and being great. Then life grows bigger. We grow up, take on responsibility and enter the cynical world of adults where our pursuit of excellence gets tested. Tough circumstances and tough people threaten to steal from our hearts the motivation that used to give us freedom to think big and live with energy. As adults, it takes a decision in addition to a dream to keep the pursuit of a quality life in focus.
Defining excellence can be elusive. We all have a sense of what it is but have a hard time answering the question, “What is it?” As I read 2 Corinthians 13:11 this morning, I noticed a working definition. Paul gives 5 quick statements that help us put handles on what a life of excellence looks like.
• Rejoice! This is the attitude that tenaciously focuses on what is good about life. It is important to do when things are doing well so we don’t grow cynical waiting for the next bad thing to take place. It is even more important when the unwanted happens. We all face circumstances that are harsh, unexpected and demoralizing. At times, we even face scenarios that are so hurtful we would never even wish them on people we don’t like. Excellence calls us to rejoice over our eternal hope, the presence of Jesus in us, and the compassion we can have for others through our struggles.
• Strive for full restoration. One of the reasons Paul wrote to this group of people was to address relational problems that had infected their community of believers. He wanted the problems to be addressed, forgiveness to be realized, and repentance to be practiced so the relationships would be healed and not just tolerated. He wanted their relationships with one another to be reflections of how Jesus restored us to Himself through the cross.
• Encourage one another. This is the commitment people make to stand alongside one another in an effort to make each other better. It is more than compassion and nice words. It is the realization that we are all in this together and we will take turns needing reassurance, guidance, and assistance. Excellence says, “When it is my turn, I will receive it. When it is someone else’s turn, we will give it.“
• Be of one mind. Excellence accepts truth. Paul is admonishing his friends to discipline their thinking so they accept what is right. He is not blandly telling them to tolerate any and all views. Instead, he recognizes that people can only live excellent lives if their thinking is compatible with the way God made life. Otherwise, their thinking will lead to foolishness and self-deterioration.
• Live in peace. We all live in relationship with imperfect people. We, therefore, cannot demand perfection from them and must tolerate some conduct that is inconvenient but bearable. There is other behavior, however, that is so destructive it must be confronted and changed or it will ruin the opportunity to interact in any kind of healthy manner. Excellence pursues the wisdom to discern the difference.
Jesus, give us the wisdom, strength, and determination to live with excellence today.

The Right Information

It was one of those nights. I had directions to get to our hotel after enjoying dinner with my brother and his wife. It should have taken 10 minutes but we had the wrong the information. We realized pretty quickly that we were off track so we tried to interpret the directions differently to see if we could approach our home for the evening from another direction. We gave it our best but we were still operating with the wrong information. We managed to turn a 10 minute drive into a 45 minute excursion before finally arriving.
As we were preparing for our flight, we ran into another complication. We had too many boxes of books to take on the plane so we had to ship one home. It was late, however, so I had to find an all night shipping center. I asked the attendant working the hotel counter if he knew where one was. He was extremely helpful as he looked up directions on his computer, found the closest store and made me a print out. I enthusiastically got in my car and drove to the destination only to find it closed. Once again, I had the wrong information. I had to return the hotel and look a little deeper to find a place that was indeed open. I printed new directions, followed a different route and succeeded in getting my package shipped.
Twice in one night, I was sincerely committed to a course of action that was destined to fail. There was nothing wrong with my desire and there was certainly nothing wrong with my effort. The problem was with the information.
I have noticed that a lot of people live this way. They are sincerely motivated and they are putting in plenty of effort. They are simply working on the wrong information. The apostle Paul started out this way. He was enthusiastically committed to what he believed was true. On the day he met Jesus, he discovered new information that gave his life a whole new focus accompanied with confidence, boldness, and fearless determination. “On the contrary, by setting forth the truth plainly we commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.” ( 2 Corinthians 4:2)
The truth changed his focus and redirected his passions. He was still committed. He was still sincere. His direction, however, was dramatically different. The journey no longer led to disappointment. The path no longer ended up at a closed-door. The right information gave him the guts to put up with any difficulty, outlast any obstacle and strategically utilize the resources available to him.
I didn’t enjoy being off track because of incorrect information trying to find a hotel and a shipping center. I especially do not want to be off track with erroneous data in my life. I thank God for revealing the truth about life through His word so I am committing myself again today to enthusiastically follow what I know is true.

Cool Water

I just finished catching up on yard work and gulped down a large glass of water. I was amazed at the transformation that took place. Prior to drinking, I was hot, tired, thirsty and had a sense of desperation. I even remember thinking, if I don’t get water soon I am going to perish. It was obviously overstated but it was intense nonetheless. Once my body got hydrated, my attitude changed. I was relaxed, refreshed and ready for the next challenge of my life. My thoughts were much different, I feel pretty good now and I am impressed that I recovered so quickly. I think it is going to be a good day.
It is a simple example but it illustrates what we are all looking for. We all get worn out by the realities of life and want to feel strong, capable, attractive and worthwhile. We feel the depleting nature of life and are looking for ways to refresh ourselves so we are ready for the next challenge.
In this sense, Jesus is like the cool glass of water that rejuvenates you after a period of intense exertion. “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” (2 Corinthians 3:18) When you encounter Jesus, a transformation takes place. Just like your body goes from thirsty to satisfied, your spirit goes from restless to calm, exhausted to energized.
After painting this picture of the transforming presence of Christ, Paul got personal. Speaking from his own experience, he talked about the personal benefits that came to his life when he spent sincere time with his Savior:
• He gained confidence. “Therefore, since through God’s mercy we have this ministry, we do not lose heart.” (2 Corinthians 4:1) Paul experienced a lot of trouble in his adult life. He was beaten, betrayed and belittled on several occasions. He faced physical danger a number of times simply because he told people the truth. He was misunderstood and misrepresented and was even imprisoned without cause. It would have been easy for him to get discouraged and “lose heart.” But then, he would spend time with Jesus and find new strength.
• He found security. “. . . we have renounced secret and shameful ways.” (2 Corinthians 4:2) Everyone wants to feel like they matter and will do what it takes to belong or feel important. Many people resort to behaviors we know are wrong because they are intense and touch something in us that make us feel alive. We don’t like to broadcast these because we know they are wrong but we do them nonetheless. When Paul encountered Jesus, he lost his need for these things. The truth set him free to engage in activities that could be boldly proclaimed without shame.
• He found simplicity. “. . . we do not use deception, nor do we distort the word of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2) The truth is simple and it is the same every time you tell it. When you develop a friendly relationship with the God of truth, life gets simpler. You can speak the truth. You can make decisions based on what is true. You can be honest in your interactions with others and you can read God’s word for what it is rather than distort it to make you feel better. It isn’t always easy to live by the truth but it certainly is simpler!
May we all be refreshed today by the time we spend with Jesus.

Forgive Always, Restore Whenever Possible

I was reminded this morning while reading 2 Corinthians 2 of the vital role forgiveness plays in our lives. “Now instead, you ought to forgive and comfort him, so that he will not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.” (v. 7-8) The church in Corinth had a rather strange thing happening. A man was having an intimate relationship with his stepmother. How complicated would that be? The new church wasn’t sure how to respond. They had discovered the grace that comes from believing in Jesus and the freedom from guilt and shame that accompanies it. They, therefore, were not too sure if they should condemn the actions of these two or ignore the behavior since they were “free in Christ.”
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians in part to address this concern and to call the church to take a high moral stand. He pointed out that grace leads to excellence rather than indulgence. The individuals who were engaged in this self-serving behavior were harming their other relationships and ruining their ability to represent a God of righteousness to a lost and hurting world. The story is instructive to us of the process of restoring fractured relationships.
It always starts with forgiveness, which is a private decision between an individual and God. It is a decision in our hearts to not allow the actions of anyone else, other than God, to determine our well-being. For this reason, we truly can forgive anyone for anything. The reason we forgive is to combat bitterness. Once bitterness takes over, it will continue to grow until it has completely destroyed the heart of the one who is holding onto it. This is why Paul stated in Colossian 3:13, “Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” The simplest way I know of to make forgiveness real is to say the following six statements out loud when I need to forgive an individual:
1. I forgive (name the person) for (name the offense).
2. I admit that what happened was wrong.
3. I do not expect this person to make up for what he or she has done.
4. I will not use the offense to define who this person is.
5. I will not manipulate this person with this offense.
6. I will not allow what has happened to stop my personal growth
If I can say all six sincerely, I have forgiven. If I can’t, I ask God to prepare my heart and try again tomorrow.
Although this protects my heart from bitterness, it does not address the relationship. In order to restore the relationship, there must be repentance on the part of the one who caused the offense. That is exactly what happened in 2 Corinthians 2. The man realized the foolishness of his decisions, ended the relationship and sought restoration. There must have been a look in his eyes and decisiveness about his change because the people who knew him best were convinced there was a real, sincere change that had taken place. Based on that evidence, Paul urged the church to “reaffirm your love for him.” (v. 8 )
This is a simple recap of a complicated situation. I know many of you are embroiled in some pretty complicated situations that cause you to wrestle with intricate questions. In the midst of it all, these two simple truths are always applicable: We protect our own hearts by forgiving and the recipe for restoration always includes repentance.
May God lead in with His grace.

The Hard Road of Compassion

Like many of you, I attended a memorial for the victims of 9/11. I had the privilege of hearing from Gregg Manning, a member of the New York Fire Department as he recounted his experience on that fateful day and the weeks that followed. I don’t normally cry in public meetings but I couldn’t help myself. There was so much sincere compassion in his voice when he described for us the six people from his current firehouse who perished when the twin towers collapsed. This rugged public servant then tenderly introduced us to his good friend, Dana, who rushed into the catastrophe to save lives only to end up sacrificing his own.
Gregg was a living example for me of 2 Corinthians 1:3-7, “Praise be to . . . the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God . . . And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.”
Gregg was vulnerable enough to share his suffering. For weeks they engaged in “rescue” efforts in the rubble. The first body he encountered was a severed torso. He went to the scene hoping to find survivors but was relegated to only discovering bodies. Anytime they found a fallen comrade, they would call the engine company to which he belonged. They would place the remains in a coffin and drape an American flag over it. All work would then cease while the engine company silently marched their “brother” off the premises.
You could tell the pain was still very acute even ten years later. A number of times, he teared up as he paused to recompose himself. The pain of his experience could have ruined him with bitterness but it has miraculously been transformed into compassion. He selflessly flew to a little town in Arkansas early that morning to be with us. He came because, in his own words, “the whole country came to help us in our time of need. This is just one way I can give back.”
We will all experience dark days. We will suffer the loss of loved ones and the loss of dreams. We will have financial setbacks and traumatic interruptions. People who appeared to be great friends will disappoint or betray us. Misunderstandings will arise with people who are indeed great friends. Those who dislike us will do all that is in their power to disrupt our lives. Once those experiences present themselves we have a choice. We can focus on the injustice and develop callused bitter hearts or we can forgive, seek the comfort God provides and let it develop in us a heart of compassion.
There is, of course, nothing harder to be around than a person who has grown increasingly bitter. But, there is nothing sweeter than the comfort that is brought by someone who has been there. They know what it is like. They know what needs to be said and not said. They know how to just be there and they know how to challenge us. When they say, “You will get through us,” they are remarkable believable because they have already proven it is true.
Lord, by your miraculous power, turn the painful events of our lives into hearts of compassion.