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Ready to Stand

The story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego walking around in the fiery furnace is famous. Almost everyone has heard of it and I suspect those of you reading this have personally read the account in Daniel 3. As I read it again this morning, a number of thoughts occurred to me that I hope to keep in focus this year:
• It is possible to be a good citizen and not agree with everything our leaders are doing. “At Daniel’s request the king appointed Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego administrators over the province of Babylon.” (Daniel 2:49) These three faithfully carried out their duties as citizen leaders. They helped the kingdom prosper as they kept it organized and functioning. They certainly didn’t agree with the religious foundation of the kingdom but they served the people with integrity.
• There will always be people who create agendas that are against God’s design for life. In this case, “King Nebuchadnezzar made an image of gold . . .” (v. 1) and commanded everyone in his empire, “As soon as you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, you must fall down and worship the image of gold that King Nebuchadnezzar has set up.” (v. 5) Whether it was motivated by pride, insecurity, evil or short-sightedness, this new edict put three of the King’s best servants in a bind. The second of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall not make for yourself an image in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them.” (Exodus 20:4-5)
• At some point, everyone needs to take a stand. The competing agendas on earth set up scenarios which require me to decide what I truly believe. Daniel’s friends could not worship the God of Israel and bow down to this image. In the same way, I will be faced with choices that cannot be reconciled. Taking a stand for what is true may be unpopular. It may even seem impossible. At times like these, the only reason for standing is deep-seated conviction. “If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.” (v. 17-18)
• God is faithful. Of course, this story ends with a miracle. “They saw that the fire had not harmed their bodies, nor was a hair of their heads singed; their robes were not scorched, and there was no smell of fire on them.” (v. 27) Even if the Angel of the Lord had not intervened and these three had lost their lives, they would have stood before their God with a clean conscience. In either life or death, they would have experienced the love, grace and provision of their God in the areas of life that matter the most.
I cannot predict when or where the challenges of life will be for me but I can be prepared to stand with the author of truth who has promised “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)

What Motivates Me?

As I was reading Daniel 2 today, I encountered this statement, “Then Daniel returned to his house and explained the matter to his friends Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. He urged them to plead for mercy from the God of heaven concerning this mystery, so that he and his friends might not be executed with the rest of the wise men of Babylon.” (v. 17-18) It got me to thinking, “I would be highly motivated to pray if I believed execution was imminent!” Daniel didn’t have to give much explanation or work very hard to persuade his friends because personal survival was a sufficient motivation.
Fortunately, I am not currently living in imminent danger but the scenario led me to ask, “What motivates me? What keeps me committed to what I think is important and provides energy for my pursuits in the midst of the ups and downs of real life?” It is impossible to sum up personal motivation in a few simple statements but as I begin this new year, I am aware that the following are aspects of what keeps me going:
• My life (and yours) is a partnership with God. After God revealed the King’s dream to Daniel, he prayed, “I thank and praise you, God of my ancestors: You have given me wisdom and power,
you have made known to me what we asked of you, you have made known to us the dream of the king.” (v. 23) Daniel was going to appear before the king but God provided the information he needed to succeed. In similar fashion, I have work to do, a family to support, responsibilities to pursue and causes to fight. Along the way, God provides wisdom and power so that these activities have eternal influence.
• I love the people God has put in my life. Just as Daniel had his three friends, God has filled my life with individuals I care deeply about. My wife, kids, and grandkids are extremely important to me. I am not always happy with them but I always want what is best for them. If I am honest, the times I am upset with them is caused by the sense that they are either under-achieving or performing below their abilities. In contrast, I find great satisfaction when they learn new things, grow wiser and develop new skills.
• I love helping others succeed. I know some people gain energy from personal accolades, being in charge or finding answers but, for whatever reason, I gain motivation when I feel like I have helped others find new insight, persevere in tough circumstances, develop healthier relationships or discover the skills they need for their personal or professional life.
• I remember the change. There was a time in my life when I didn’t know Jesus and had no sense of what my life was all about. I did things in life because I enjoyed them but I had no sense that I was created for a purpose. I grew up the youngest child in a dramatic home. My response was to develop strategic numbness to protect myself from getting hurt in the conflict. Since I met my Savior, the numbness has gradually been replaced with the understanding that I am “God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)
2012 promises to be filled with opportunities and obstacles, successes and setbacks, breakthroughs and bottlenecks. My goal is to maintain my motivation through it all so that I stay true to my convictions.

Christmas Revealed

In Daniel 2, Daniel and his friends are asked to do an impossible thing. King Nebuchadnezzar had a disturbing dream and he wanted desperately to know what it meant. He, therefore, “summoned the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers and astrologers to tell him what he had dreamed.” (v. 2) He didn’t simply ask for an interpretation of the dream. He asked them to tell him what he had dreamed and then give an interpretation. From a human point of view, this was impossible and they passionately told him so, “There is no one on earth who can do what the king asks!” (v. 10)
The King would not be persuaded as he stubbornly held his ground. He made it clear this was a life and death situation. “This made the king so angry and furious that he ordered the execution of all the wise men of Babylon.” (v. 12) At this point it became personal for Daniel and his friends since they were included in the wise men of Babylon. To save their lives, God was going to have to reveal to Daniel exactly what Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed and what it meant for him and his kingdom. As you read the rest of the chapter, you discover that this is precisely what happened.
As I read the account, it reminded me that Christmas is this same way. On my own, I would never have come up with the plan. I made a list of all the details of the Christmas story that defy human ingenuity and courage: Without it being revealed to me in the Bible, I would never have figured out:
• God Himself would pay the price I owed.
• The Son of God would come to earth as a man.
• The Savior of the world would have to be born to a virgin.
• The Messiah would be born to a common, relatively poor family.
• God’s Son would choose to grow up in an ordinary family raised by ordinary parents.
• Shepherds (blue-collar workers) would be the first to hear the news announced by angels.
• Families would lose their sons because another jealous king was afraid of Jesus’ birth.
• The creator of the world would have to be transported to a foreign country for His own safety.
• The plan that would bring salvation to all mankind could begin with such a simple scene of a baby in a manger.
I fight with pride like every other person on earth and I like the idea that I can figure life out on my own and that my conclusions are generally the best around. The reality is I know far less than I don’t know. Life is infinite and I am not. The only way I am going to get a correct view of life is if I humbly accept that I need some truth to be revealed to me by the God who is bigger than me. There are physical, spiritual and intellectual realms that exist beyond my understanding. There are processes in motion in dimensions I cannot see or experience that impact my life today. The only way I can know how to process that information is by meekly learning from the revelation of God’s word. This does not mean I put my mind in neutral because I can skillfully interact with the world of my four dimensions (height, width, breadth and time). When it comes to the world that exists beyond, however, I need God to invade my space and fill me in.
I am grateful that God did not wait for us to figure out what we needed before he sent His Son, born of a virgin to be the hope of all people.

The Highlight Reel

Caleb's HIghlight

I have been watching my sons compete in athletics for a decade and a half. Over the years, I have compiled a number of highlight films to capture the memories of their football exploits. There are great runs, crushing tackles, interceptions run back for touchdowns and game winning passes. You would think they never lost a game! Watching those films are fun but they certainly don’t capture the whole story. There are no clips of the long hours in the weight room or long miles of running when no one was watching. There is no footage of time in the training room recovering from injuries. The days of introspection, asking themselves if they should push on and continue to challenge their bodies and minds with the grueling life of an athlete, are missing from the end product. The proof that they did all that is announced in the short but sweet highlights.
Daniel 1:21 is one of those short clips from the life of Daniel that speaks volumes. “And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.” “There” is in the service of King Nebuchadnezzar advising the ruler of Babylon. What is striking about the statement is that it puts Daniel well into his seventies. The “first year of King Cyrus” was the year the Israelites were given the freedom to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 1:1) and marked the beginning of the end of their seventy year captivity. Daniel was roughly fifteen when he was taken captive, so by verse 21 Daniel has held firm to his convictions and grown in his influence for more than 60 years.
We know he persevered through some very difficult challenges because “Daniel remained.” We know he was given wisdom to deliver outstanding advice because “Daniel remained.” We know he chose not to compromise over and over again because “Daniel remained.” We know he flourished in an environment of jealous opposition because “Daniel remained.”
In fact, some of his greatest exploits occurred late in his life. He didn’t spend the night with lions until he was well into his eighties. Daniel 6 begins with the words, “It pleased Darius to appoint 120 satraps to rule throughout the kingdom, with three administrators over them, one of whom was Daniel.” (v. 1-2) Darius took over about 19 years after Cyrus which makes Daniel an old man. He still has great influence and is still strong enough to be perceived as a threat to the other advisors.
The point here is not about age. I am simply impressed that Daniel served God his entire life. As long as he had breath, he was true to his convictions and the gifts God had chosen for him. Despite the disappointments and difficulties of life, he pressed on. Despite the confusing questions and frustrating setbacks, he pressed on. Despite the obstacles and seemingly impossible circumstances, he pressed on. Despite the temptation to be proud over his astounding victories, he pressed on. In one simple statement, “And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus,” we realize the Daniel was a man of character and perseverance.
Verse 21 challenges me to press on in hopes that the highlight reel of my life makes the statement that I stuck to God’s plan through all the rigors and victories I will face.

Give and Take

Following God’s will is always risky because it is a supernatural journey that cannot be accomplished by human ingenuity or strength. That is why we call it a walk of faith. We take the risk of obeying even though we recognize it is impossible on our own. As a faithful partner, God gives the resources to actually do what He has asked us to do.
Daniel is yet another example of how this principle works. He and his friends took the risk of obeying God when it came to eating differently than the other men they were competing with. In response, “To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.” (Daniel 1:17) God gave them what they needed to succeed. The implication was that their own abilities were not enough. They were going to be asked to do things that were beyond human intellect and strength. But, the answers were not out of reach because God was willing to give them the resources.
Daniel is an extreme example of the principle because he was chosen to change history but our challenges are no less remarkable. We are all asked, on a daily basis, to do things that are beyond our human capabilities. Galatians 5 spells this out for us. “Stand firm.” (v. 1) “Do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh.” (v. 13) “Serve one another humbly in love.” (v. 13) “You, my brothers and sister, were called to be free.” (v. 13) “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (v. 14) I don’t know about you but, when I try to do these do things out of sheer will, I am sporadically successful. I can do them for a little while but then I either lose focus, lose the will or get so frustrated with the people I am trying to serve that I give up.
Fortunately, God is willing to give the resources. “Walk by the Spirit . . . the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” (v. 16, 22, 23) As I take the risk to stand, serve, and love freely (without conditions or self-imposed expectations) God gives me the personal character and resolve I need to stay the course and pull it off.
I need to be reminded of this often. Intellectually, I know I live in a world of brokenness but I keep forgetting that when it comes to doing business and interacting with people. Getting business done is challenging with seemingly endless obstacles to overcome. Caring about people just seems to expose their weaknesses and stubbornness. I know this but I still expect it to be different. When I am focused on my abilities, I want people to be easier to deal with and business to fall together with less effort. As a result, it is always a choice of faith to stand with people, serve them humbly and love them despite their imperfections. I am just thankful that the Holy Spirit is committed to give me what I need to stay in the race.
Jesus, thank you for being an active partner in life who gives.

Truth Works

A couple of years ago I heard Erwin McManus speak about the way post modern people think. He said, “People used to ask the question, ‘What is right?’ People now ask, ‘What works?’” It has intrigued me ever since because, in a perfect world, these would be one and the same thing. In Daniel 1, there is a great example of how God often confirms what is true by making it the option with the best outcome. Daniel and his friends “resolved not to defile [themselves] with the royal food and wine.” (v. 8 ) This created a problem for “the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah.” All things being equal, a diet of just vegetables would not have the same effect as a balanced diet of meat and vegetables. The guard knew that he would be in trouble if these four young men looked weaker than the others under his charge.
This created quite a challenge for Daniel. He was committed to do what was right. He was determined to follow God’s directions. In order for him to do so, however, God’s ways had to produce better results than the efforts of the others. These young men would need to look healthier, stronger and more capable even though they were eating less protein. It wasn’t enough to simply feel good about what they were doing or to boldly proclaim they were doing the right thing. The credibility of their convictions was dependent upon a superior outcome. In other words, the truth had to work better than any other philosophy.
Fortunately, truth works. That doesn’t mean that my agenda will always be accomplished if I do what is right. It does, however, mean that my life will always turn out better if I live according to God’s design than it will if I make up my own rules. I will have better relationships. I will have a stronger sense of peace in my heart. I will have fewer regrets and a more solid sense that my life counts for something worthwhile.
Today, I am going to have choices. I can tell the truth or I can lie. I can treat people with respect or I can manipulate them for my own purposes. I can seek to serve others or I can be self-serving. My choices will reveal what I believe works best.
Lord, give me the wisdom to know what is right and the courage to believe that your ways always work best.

Qualified to Choose

I think it is nearly impossible not to be inspired by the story of Daniel. He stood tall in the face of adversity, spent a night with lions and single-handedly proved the power of God’s faithfulness. In some ways, he is head and shoulders above the rest of us and defies comparison. I saw a unique perspective this morning, however, in Daniel 1. His opportunity was made possible by the way God made him and the choices he made.
“Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility— young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well-informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace.” (v. 3-4) In order for Daniel to be in the place where God would work through his circumstances, he needed certain attributes that were beyond his control. He needed to be physically fit, good-looking, mentally quick and capable of sophisticated learning. Daniel was not given the opportunity to order these as accessories to his life. God simply chose these for him.
In the same way, the opportunities I have in my life are made possible by the characteristics and skills God chose to give me (and not give me). I can write but I struggle to sing on key. I like to run but I struggle with anything that involves skis or skates. I love team projects, helping people grow and systems that help people be more efficient. These are traits I didn’t select anymore than I did my body type, hair color or when I was born. These traits both energize and limit the opportunities that lie within my radar. If I am to fulfill God’s plan for my life, I must accept these as gifts from his hand to guide me.
“Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.” (v. 8 ) The stage was set by Daniel’s natural talents and attributes, but the mission couldn’t begin until Daniel chose. Choices focus our attention and direct our emotions. They cause our thoughts, will and emotions to line up adding momentum to our lives. Our decisions engage our hearts so our pursuits are more than intellectual exercises. They become exhilarating challenges that lead us to appropriate risks and satisfying rewards. When Daniel asked for a special diet, he was taking a calculated risk. Normally his diet would have resulted in him being weaker than the rest of the young men. He was trusting that God would come through for him and do what could not be done simply by human effort.
My journey is certainly not as dramatic as Daniel’s. I don’t serve a powerful political official. I am not at odds with people who would like to throw me to lions. I do, however, have a part to play in God’s plan. Today, I will need to assess the opportunities available to me based on God’s design and I will be confronted with choices that will either enhance or hinder those opportunities.
God, please grant each of us the wisdom today to correctly see the opportunities you have for us.