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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.”

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.

Press On

The apostle Paul was one of the most ambitious men in history. He accomplished as much in a short period of time as any pioneer who ever lived. When you simply look at his accomplishments, you might be tempted to think he faced few obstacles but just the opposite is true. He experienced all the difficulties we face and more but he continued to do what he could to influence who he could. He experienced the normal struggles of aging so he wrote, “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (Galatians 6:11)
It had to be frustrating but he did not let it stop him. This stood out to me because I had a frustrating weekend technologically. In our modern world, I have become dependent upon an active connection to the internet. It is easy to stay connected when I am in my local office but it does not always work smoothly when I am traveling. I was with an exciting group of believers in the Greater Toronto area so when I got to our hotel room, I immediately put in the code for the wireless connection. I was relieved at first because it worked well for any website that did not require a login. I couldn’t, however, access online banking, my airline account to choose seats for the trip home, my blog site or my rental car account. It would have been easier if I could have gotten to those sites as I could have worked more efficiently and influenced more easily.
There were a number of things I had planned that I was not able to do and I was tempted to get frustrated and angry about it. There was, however, plenty that could be done. I was able to speak to the crowd with Pam. I was able to pray with lots of people. I was able to talk through issues to help people grow. I was able to connect with some great friends so we could encourage each other for the next season of our lives.
It was a good reminder to focus on what I can do. It would have been easy to miss out on the accomplishments of the weekend by staying focused on the interruptions.
Colonel George Washington Goethals, the man responsible for the completion of the Panama Canal, had big problems with the climate and the geography. But his biggest challenge was the growing criticism back home from those who predicted he’d never finish the project.
Finally, a colleague asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer these critics?”
“In time,” answered Goethals.
“When?” his partner asked.
“When the canal is finished.”
Press on because there is always something you can do.

Things to Remember

Every once in a while I encounter reminders that we live in a world of people I don’t understand very well. I was using the restroom in a restaurant on Sunday afternoon when a young man walked in wearing the biggest earrings I have ever seen. I am not exaggerating when I say they were as big around as a breakfast biscuit. They were not the kind you attach to the ear either. He had obviously spent years diligently stretching his skin because his ear lobes were wrapped around the saucers. I didn’t mean to engage in an obvious double take but I couldn’t help myself. Before meeting this young man, I would have thought it impossible to carry a cell phone in your ear lobe but he could have done it.
I tried to hold back but I had to ask, “How long did it take you to be able to wear those?”
He clearly didn’t want to talk to a stranger about it because he just shrugged and replied, “I don’t know. A while, man.”
He acted like he was a little offended that I took notice but how could I not? They were huge and seemed to be screaming at me to respond. I would have loved to engage this young man in a long discussion about what made him want to change his appearance so dramatically but it was not the time or place. I left the restaurant thinking, there are a lot of people in this world who are very different from me. Some of these people’s choices are neutral and some are destructive. I am going to need wisdom for the rest of my life to know the difference.
In this regard, Paul gives insightful bullet points in Galatians 6:
• The goal is restoration. Everyone in the world needs a Savior. Everyone is insecure, insufficient, and inconsistent. The tendency of the heart is to wander away from Jesus and indulge the flesh. Therefore, one of life’s primary pursuits is to help others (and ourselves) get back on track. “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (v. 1)
• Be compassionate first. We see behavior long before we see the condition of someone’s heart. I was tempted to reach quick conclusions about the man with the earrings because of his outward appearance. It is possible he has a rebellious spirit and will never submit to the authority of Christ. It is just as possible that he has a wounded soul and is crying out to be noticed by others who will love him. It takes a relationship and wise compassion to know the difference. “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (v. 2)
• Live deliberately rather than reactionary. We all tend to decide who we are in reaction to others. If they love us, we are gentle and easy to get along with. If they get angry, we fire back or shrink away. If they are making bad decisions, we change our behavior to either join them in going off track or desperately try to manipulate them to turn around. When we do this, we empower others as we give them control of who we are. The healthier approach is to determine who we want to be based on how God made us and then be that person in all situations. Asking, “Who did God make me to be?” is much easier to live out than, “Who should I be in reaction to others?” “If anyone thinks they are something when they are not, they deceive themselves. Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else, for each one should carry their own load.” (v. 3-5)
It will take the rest of my life to figure out how to apply these principles in real scenarios but I know part of the process is to keep reminding myself of the goal. The next time I see outrageous earrings, I am going to remind myself that the real issues of life involve the heart.

Plays that Work

I watched my son coach a football game this week. In his halftime speech to the players he said, “We are going to call plays that work. It is up to you to decide if you want to implement them in the way you are capable.” The team responded and it was remarkable to watch. They played a mediocre first half against a team they should have resoundingly defeated. As a result, they were behind by 1 point at halftime. They were a different team in the second half and they ended up winning big.
Christian living is a lot like that game. God has called “plays that work.” When we follow His directions, we “win big.” When we ignore His plan and rely on our own resources, we play mediocre at best. It got me thinking, What is God calling me to that is both possible and highly effective?
In this regard, Galatians 5:16-23 is my playbook for life. The main call is given in verse 16, “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” When I ignore the directive, the things I most want to avoid begin to develop. (v. 19-21) When I follow the instructions to walk by the Spirit, however, the character traits I need the most are supernaturally established and strengthened: (v. 22-23)
• The love that makes all relationships work. Without this, I would tend toward selfish choices that alienate others.
• The joy that keeps me energetic regardless of circumstances. Without this, I could easily become cynical because of the difficulties of life.
• The peace that drives away worry and keeps me confident in my relationship with God. Without this, insecurity and manipulation appear to be effective defense mechanisms.
• The patience that keeps me focused on doing the right thing even when the results are not immediately apparent. Without this, being in a hurry to do something runs over the wisdom to figure out the best thing.
• The kindness that softens my heart toward others and makes me willing to give them the same grace God gave to me. Without this, my heart would lose its ability to trust and be compassionate.
• The goodness that develops a resolve in my heart to live with a high moral and ethical standard—not because I have to but because it really is the best way to live. Without this, I would forget that I am accountable to God and will one day answer for what I do in this life.
• The gentleness that increases my influence as I help people move from where they are to where they can be. Without this, I would expect people to be instantaneously mature because it would make my life easier.
• The faithfulness that keeps me on track in life. Without this, the passions of my life could easily overrun the commitments I have which would put regrets in the place of accomplishments.
• The self-control I need to direct my energies to long-term success rather than short-term gratification. Without this, I could easily settle for the things that feel good for a little while rather than the pursuits that are deeply satisfying in the long run.
I want my life to be like the second half of my son’s game. I want to be consistent with my potential rather than play down to the level of my competition. In spiritual terms, I have the choice to follow “the desires of the flesh” with all its mediocrity and self-defeating tendencies or I can “walk by the Spirit,” with all the skill, wisdom and strength that comes with it.
The second half begins today!

Beyond Me

Last night I was moderating a chat room online when I suddenly got disconnected from the server. I had been in conversation with 14 people, had questions waiting in a moderator box for me to answer and was in mid-sentence when everything just stopped. The list of questions disappeared. The chat room flew off the screen only to be replaced with the original login page. I was stunned at how helpless I felt. Prior to being disconnected, I was talking with people from all over the country. I was fielding questions, giving my perspective and receiving messages back from interested people. Then, in a flash, it all ended. It happened so fast that it jolted me into thinking. Wow, I have been taking it for granted that I can do much more with technology than I could ever do on my own. I could never see this many people face to face in this many locations. I could never carry on this many individual conversations in person. I could never say what I am now writing and have this many people pay attention to it while they are sitting in the comfort of their homes. With the help of technology, however, I can have a bigger influence with less effort than my human abilities could ever afford. This is the way the Christian life works. With Christ in us, we are able to have more power, more wisdom, more peace, more understanding about life than we could ever manufacture on our own. Because Jesus figured out a way to set us free and place His Spirit in us, He can work in us to get us to think, feel and act in ways the human soul would never accept. We can love sacrificially, serve enthusiastically, decide truthfully, and live victoriously. Paul was trying to communicate the privilege of this when he wrote Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” He was free to make commitments, free to give, free to love those who had been redeemed, free to suffer, free to be content, free to confront, free to train others, and the list goes on. Activities he despised before knowing Jesus were now a privilege. People who were impossible to love before meeting his Savior were now teammates in his life. Goals that seemed ridiculous before the presence of the Holy Spirit were now cherished pursuits. As I think about the rest of my week, I am looking for the strength and focus Christ brings to life that makes it possible for me to do what is beyond me.

Top Priority

Everybody has a top priority—that thing in your life that is more important than anything else. It drives your decisions, dominates your thinking and determines your emotional well-being. When your top priority is going well, you are doing well. When your top priority is threatened, you protect it and react to the people or circumstances that represent the threat. I saw this in Galatians 1 today. Paul is writing to some good friends in the city of Galatia who had gotten off track with the thing that was most important to him and he responded with strong words. “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!” (v. 8 ) Obviously, the gospel was the most important thing in his life and rightly so. The gospel had saved Paul from himself and an embarrassing eternity. He relied on it heavily because:
• It gave him his purpose: “Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ.” (v. 1)
• It is powerful because it was made possible by “God the Father, who raised him [Christ] from the dead.” (v.1)
• It was selflessly secured by Christ “who gave himself for our sins.” (v. 4)
• It provides security in an insecure world as it “rescues us from the present evil age.” (v. 4)
• It sets people free by “the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ.” (v. 6)
Paul had seen his life transformed by a relationship with Christ. He went from persecuting the church to proclaiming the very message he tried to silence. He went from being bound to a long list of “have to’s” to being free to pursue a whole world of “get to’s.” He went from a pursuit of misguided self-effort to a God-given purpose that was empowered by the Holy Spirit. It shaped his life, settled his attitude, and satisfied his soul despite the difficulties involved.
It got me thinking about what my top priority is. I, of course, would say I agree with Paul that the good news of the death and resurrection of Jesus is the most important message on earth. I would also say that the day I met Jesus at 16 years old was the most formative day of my life. It awakened something in me that I didn’t even know existed. It shaped the direction of my life and planted in me the desire to pursue ministry as the main focus of my life. So much so that when my ministry is not progressing the way I would like or is interrupted by the forces of life, I get frustrated. A restlessness sets in that must be addressed. My mind dwells on what must be done to get things back in motion. My emotions churn within me until a solution can be found that makes it possible to operate at full speed. Lower priorities get ignored to make room for commitments that will reenergize the higher concern.
Everyone I know does the same thing. The content of their highest priority may be different but they protect it with the same intensity. They pursue it with the same zeal. They plan their lives around it with the same determination. They push it regardless of the cost to themselves, their relationships or their personal health.
The big question then is, “Is my highest priority worth holding onto?” When the answer is no, change is in order. When the answer is yes, life is lived with confidence and positive influence.
Jesus, thank you for giving of yourself and sharing your eternal purpose with me.