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The Wisdom to be Ready

“I never saw it coming.”
“How could this happen to us?”
“It seems like he became a completely different person overnight!”
“She just woke up and flipped out one day.”
These are sayings I have heard over and over again in my 30 years of ministry as people’s lives are seemingly taken by surprise. To be sure, there are times when the truly unexpected hits and forces us to adjust on the fly. More often, however, the surprises of life are predictable transitions for which we were unprepared.
We know intellectually that a marriage changes roughly every seven years because of predictable social and physical changes. How many of us plan for these changes? It has been demonstrated that our parenting style needs to change when our kids enter school and again when they enter puberty and once again when they graduate from high school. How many of us deliberately make the changes ahead of the transition? The bible clearly states that family patterns are passed on from generation to generation unless focused effort is applied to change the trend. How many of us honestly evaluate the influence of our families and choose which ones we want to keep and which ones we want to replace? We also know that all of our bodies are going to change in our forties and fifties. How many of us put a plan in place to adjust what it means to stay active and healthy in the second half of life?
This is the point of Isaiah 21:1-5. Calamity was scheduled to strike against Babylon. The signs were in place. Danger was imminent. Anyone who was looking would be able to recognize that difficulty was on its way. Anyone who believed the danger was real, would prepare. Those who denied its potential would carry on as if nothing was happening. Verses 1-4 spell out the difficulty that was about to hit. Verse 5 exposes the attitude of those in charge, “They set the tables, they spread the rugs, they eat, they drink! Get up, you officers, oil the shields!” When they should have been preparing for battle, they were partying. When they ought to have been readying themselves for conflict, they were celebrating. As a result, once they recognized the trouble, they had to scramble to get ready.
I know I cannot avoid all the surprises of life but I certainly want to be ready for the ones I can predict. I am in the time of my life when I am transitioning from productivity to influence. I am not as strong as I used to be and my body is certainly not as cooperative as I am accustomed to. I am, however, a lot wiser than I used to be. I have a much clearer perspective on what I do well and I am okay with admitting what I am not so good at. I am much more aware of what doesn’t work than I was twenty years ago. I realize in my mind that I need to rely more on my wisdom now than on my physical abilities. If I can translate that into actual decisions and activity, I can make the next twenty years my greatest time of impact on others.
If I fail to prepare and assume I can keep living like I used to, I will become painfully aware of my limitations and panic over the new expectations of influence that will naturally be put upon me by others.
So, for today, I am asking God for a willing heart to prepare before I need to panic!

Word Pictures

Word pictures have always been stunning in their ability to take profound, and sometimes complicated, truths and make them stick in our brains. A friend of mine has a knack for mixing euphemisms together to create unforgettable mental snapshots. My favorite is “Don’t beat your head against a dead horse!” The original sayings, of course, were
• Don’t beat your head against a wall, and
• Don’t beat a dead horse.
Both of those are powerful visions that remind us to live by common sense and choose our battles well. When you mix them together, however, it creates an imaginary scene that never goes away.
It appears God has wired us to respond to word pictures because he uses them often to get his point across. In Isaiah 20, God is trying to get the attention of the nation of Israel to help them avoid calamity. They had been making poor choices which were setting them up for discipline. The current course of their life was going to result in calamity, exile and self-destruction. From a distance, everyone can see that it was going to turn out badly. They apparently were too close to the action to realize the danger they were. In fact, they had concluded everything was fine because the large nation of Egypt had offered their support. They thought, “We are safe because Egypt would never let anything happen to us.” They were emotionally attached to their own conclusions and were blinded to the consequences they were creating. In an attempt to refocus them, God paraded before them an unexpected sight.
God told the prophet, “’Take off the sackcloth from your body and the sandals from your feet.’ And he did so, going around stripped and barefoot.” Isaiah was one of the most prominent prophets in history. He was a man of God and was expected to act respectfully. It would have been shocking for them to see him walking around half-clothed and barefoot. From their perspective, it would have been inappropriate and scandalous. It would have been so unexpected and so vivid to them they would all notice and react in some way.
And that was exactly the point. God was attempting to wake them up and help them see that the choices of their lives could never succeed. After the word picture set in, God made it personal. “Just as my servant Isaiah has gone stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush, so the king of Assyria will lead away stripped and barefoot the Egyptian captives and Cushite exiles, young and old, with buttocks bared—to Egypt’s shame.” (v. 3-4)
First, we have a prophet walking around semi-clothed and then we have the great and mighty Egyptians being led off with their “buttocks bared.” Not the kind of thing you expect to read in a “religious” book but the pictures are very effective.
As we travel through our lives today, we are going to be surprised by some picture of life. May God grant us the ability to respond correctly to them so we can see life as it really is rather than the way we “feel” it should be.

Team Magic

I had a meeting with the guys last night and we were discussing the desire we all have in our hearts to do something in our lives that is worthwhile because it is bigger than us. At one point, Scott looked at me and made the following observation. “Bill, it seems to me you are an independent, self-reliant individual. You can see what needs to be done, make a plan and get after it. In fact, I think all of us tend to be that way. There is, however, something very powerful that happens when we become part of a team that learns to depend on each other. I have gifts that you don’t have. You have talents that I don’t possess. When we get them working together something big happens. It is almost magical and it is exciting to be a part of.”
I am sure I don’t remember his quote exactly but it sure got me thinking. I have grown up in an individualistic culture and I was raised in a controlling, uncooperative home. I learned early in life that it is safest to rely on myself. My strongest memories in life, however, are the times I was part of a team.
• Throwing a touchdown pass on my first series as a varsity quarterback.
• Losing the league championship to our cross town rivals even though we looked better than they did in our uniforms.
• Leading 60 high school students on a five-day, 400 mile bicycle trip along the California Coast.
• Learning how to serve as a team during a weeklong vacation bible school campaign among migrant farm worker’s families.
• Working with dedicated church leaders to remodel and rejuvenate a small congregation.
• Watching ordinary men and women become influential small group leaders.
I could go on but the point is we all accomplish more when we learn to depend upon one another. It seems to be a theme running in my life at the moment because Isaiah 17:7-8 jumped off the page at me this morning, “In that day people will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel. They will not look to the altars, the work of their hands.” It struck me that we can be so self-reliant we will even make our own Gods to worship. We have the Creator of life with unlimited power and perspective at our disposal and yet we settle for “the work of our hands.” Rather than go to the smartest person in the universe for advice, we come up with our own schemes and rely on our own logic. Rather than join God’s team and ask, “Where do you need me to play and what do you want me to do?” we devise our own plans and hope that God will endorse them. That doesn’t mean we don’t use our own creativity and skills to push forward in life because every person on a team is vital. It is just that life is a team sport and the team functions best when there is one head coach.
Thanks Scott for the reminder that there is no limit to what we can accomplish when we are willing to work as a team and let the team get the credit.

Grieve for the Living

We live with an agonizing discrepancy. We were not originally designed to lose. When Adam and Eve were created, they were going to live forever. Their descendants were going to live forever. They were not going to have deal with illness, death, abuse, abandonment, financial reversals or evil. Things didn’t stay that way, however. Mankind fell and we have been wrestling with brokenness, evil, and destruction ever since.
The news this month has been ripe with reminders of the depravity and brokenness of the human condition and we have all experienced various reactions. It occurred to me today as I was reading Isaiah 15 and 16 that part of a healthy response is to grieve for everyone involved. Moab was put under discipline by God but He found no pleasure in it. God never sacrifices His righteous standards in life but He is primarily motivated by love. In His review of the state of Moab,
• God’s “heart cries out over Moab.” (15:5)
• He weeps. (16:9)
• His “heart laments for Moab like a harp.” (16:11)
I am glad that God is just and that He disciplines people when they do wrong but I am just as glad that His heart breaks over the damage that is done by people’s actions. Since we are created in the image of God, it is my goal to have this same balance in my life. I want us to have strong laws and to act deliberately, wisely and definitively when justice has been violated. I want to us to uphold a standard of respect, high morals, sanctity of life and integrity.
At the same time, I want us to appropriately grieve over the depravity of mankind and the pain it inflicts on a multitude of individuals. I grieve over the factors that converge in people’s lives that cause them to rely on drugs, have affairs, abuse others, lie, cheat, steal and manipulate others for their own advantage. There has to be deep pain or unchecked evil in the heart of these people that desperately needs to be redeemed and transformed. Our faith is littered with imperfect heroes from Samson to David to Paul to Jonah. They all had dark moments in their lives but they also experienced the transformation of grace. In our steps to curb evil and punish wrongdoing, I believe we should also hold out hope that those who do wrong will one day experience the grace of God that can deliver eternal hope even if it can’t undo the temporary sufferings.
Even more, I am determined to grieve over the impact of evil actions on those who have been victimized. Every month, innocent children, business partners, hard-working volunteers, sincere spouses, investors, and the disadvantaged are taken advantage of. People’s lives are left with scars, sensitive trigger points, overwhelming fears and potential bitterness that create significant obstacles to successful relationships and personal growth. I have had the privilege of working with numerous people over the past 25 years as they found ways to forgive rebuild and grow to the point they can now help others who have experienced similar travesties. I grieve over the fact, however, that they had to go through the strenuous and vulnerable process to get there.
Jesus, in the midst of the pain and mistreatment that happens in this world, let me never lose my heart of compassion or my willingness to defend the innocent.

Pride’s Pain

Like so many, I was shocked this week by the news of sexual abuse allegations at Penn State University. We certainly do not know all the facts yet but we have all had been faced with a sober reminder that when pride gets involved in our lives, anything is possible and it will turn out bad. Pride is, and always has been, the primary culprit in life. In Isaiah 14, we learn that pride turned Lucifer (a stunning angel) into the Devil. “How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations! You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God.’” (v. 12-13) Everyday we see the devastating impact of pride on the lives of good men and women.
The defensive coach at Penn State started to believe he was above the rules as he allowed his passions to carry him away. He was obviously a very disciplined man or he would never have been able to handle the demands of coordinating the defense at one of the premier programs in the country. He concluded, however, that he didn’t need that same discipline in his personal life. Pride blinded him to the damage he was creating.
The administration of the school, for reasons we will never understand, failed to take action. These are highly intelligent, extremely capable men. They operate one of the finest institutions of higher learning the world has ever seen. The academics are outstanding. Their sports program is focused and successful. Their reputation has been attracting high-caliber students for decades. Pride, however, blinded them to the right course of action. It isn’t even that hard to figure out. When allegations of sexual abuse involving children are involved, you act quickly and you defer to the kids. They certainly did not want to assume guilt before the facts but this kind of allegation has the potential to ruin everything if not handled decisively and transparently. They know this and yet they tried to act covertly and secretly. Wisdom didn’t tell them to do this. Common decency didn’t tell them to do this. Only pride thinks this way.
Finally, Joe Paterno, one of the finest coaches in the history of football, failed to grasp the urgency of the situation. He has a history of dealing with highly competitive, strong-willed, testosterone filled warriors. For 61 years at Penn State he has been creating men of character who think and live like champions. He has challenged them, pushed them, corrected them, pulled out talent in them, honed their skills and focused their efforts. He knew how to win and instill the will to win. He has coached more teams to more victories than anyone else in the game by taking care of business when it needed to be taken care of. And then this.
For some reason, he couldn’t see clearly how to handle an obvious situation. He did report the allegations to his Athletic Director, which is admirable, but he didn’t check back. A man who had lived by strategic priorities didn’t check back. A man who spent a lifetime figuring out the steps young men needed to take to reach their potential, didn’t check back. A man who instructed others to take care of business, didn’t check back. We will never understand all the reasons for his lack of action but we do know that pride makes even the best of us blind to common sense solutions. And he will pay a high price.
The story of a stunning career that spanned six decades will never be told without including a scandal that might just overshadow everything he accomplished. I still respect him for his achievements but I am soberly reminded that it only takes a little pride to crumble an empire.
Lord, let me be so impressed with you that I can I resist the temptation to be impressed with myself.

People Need Hope

I have noticed I do a lot better in life when I have a sense of hope. When I can look ahead and say, “I can see good things coming,” my attitude stays calm, my motivation stays high and my willingness to faithfully do what is right remains intact. On the other hand, when it appears that things are going to be bad no matter how much effort I put in, I fight the tendency to become selfish, lethargic and apathetic. And I have noticed I am not alone.
I recently met a young man with admirable potential and some impressive traits. He is taking courageous steps to discipline his life and challenging his peers to live with excellence. He has set ambitious goals for himself which will require significant focus and effort. His communication skills, while still in development, are ahead of most of his contemporaries. It is easy to look at this young man and conclude, “There is hope for the next generation because they will be led by individuals like this.” But, he is distracted by recent events. His parents got divorced which has him thinking, “Does this happen to everyone in my family? My grandparents are both on second marriages and now my parents are done. Is this going to happen to me also?” To be sure, he has the drive and raw talent to change the pattern in his life but he is wrestling to find the hope that he can actually do things differently.
His story, of course, is not unique. Many young people are dealing with their parents’ divorce. Spouses are wondering what happened to the loving, cooperative relationship we once had and will we ever get it back? Qualified individuals are struggling to find work. Hard working couples are finding it difficult to keep up with their bills. Some people have been through horrendous experiences that have left deep emotional scars that make it hard to trust. Still others are living in conditions that no human should have to endure. The one thing we all have in common is we need hope. We need to know that better days are coming.
God has always known this so He sprinkled promises of hope throughout the Bible. In Isaiah 11 and 12 we encounter a repeated phrase designed to remind all of us that hope is always alive. The phrase is “in that day.” It is a reference to the day when Jesus sets up His kingdom on earth and changes everything about life. In this passage, the phrase reminds us:
• We are going to be governed by a great leader. (Isaiah 11:10) “the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples.”
• We will live without personal turmoil. (Isaiah 12:1-2) “Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away . . . the LORD himself is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.”
• We will celebrate because we have been set free. (Isaiah 12:3-6) “In that day you will say . . . Give praise to the LORD . . . Sing to the LORD . . . Shout aloud . . . for great is the Holy One of Israel among you.”
God’s goal is to give people hope so they do not lose heart.
Jesus, remind me of your promises today. Let the knowledge that I am secure for eternity keep my heart vibrant, my motivation steady and my convictions active.

The Right Relationships

We all have role models. Whether we can formally identify who they are or say to others, “I want to be like that person,” we are all patterning our personal decisions, interactions, and convictions after others with whom we have significant contact. To be sure, we are individuals with unique characteristics but we have developed that uniqueness by borrowing from others.
I decided early in my adult life that one of the people I should add to my list of role models is Jesus. It seemed like a strange thought at first because He is so much better, so much smarter, and so much more powerful than I could ever hope to be. He did, however, live a human life. He experienced hunger and friendship and family. He also said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15) The context is specifically regarding serving others since He just washed their feet but the principle applies to all of life.
One of the characteristics of Jesus I want to emulate in my life is having right relationships. In Isaiah 11:2, we see that Jesus has authority partly because He strategically relates to the most important aspects of life. As I follow Him, it is my goal to develop these also:
Right relationship with my decisions: “The Spirit of wisdom and of understanding [will rest on him].” I make so many decisions every day I take them for granted. I have choices about what I will wear, what I will eat, how I will organize my day, how I exercise, what my attitude will be from moment to moment, what step I will take in personal development, and so on. A friend of mine is known for consistently repeating the phrase, “We make our choices and our choices make us.” Each of these decisions goes much better if I have wisdom and understanding to know both what I should and how I should do it.
Right relationship with others: “The Spirit of counsel and of might [will rest on him].” Every relationship on earth is flawed since it is the interaction of two imperfect people. Sometimes human relationships need a soft touch of grace, patience, and humility. People need time to grow and freedom to operate with their imperfections. At other times, relationships need leverage and confrontation. People can be stubborn, unwilling, or blind to what they are doing and need to be confronted with “might.” It is not easy to figure out but it makes all the difference when you get it right.
Right relationship with God: “The Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD [will rest on him].” God is more than an idea, more than a religious notion, and more than a passive Creator. He is a living, thinking, feeling person. To be sure, He is way beyond us in all categories but He set up life so that we could interact with Him. It takes knowledge to get it right. There is so much about God that we will never figure out on our own. It requires us seeking Him and Him responding with revelation for us to discover the truth about His majesty, power, presence, wisdom, eternal nature, love, etc. Because He is infinite, there is no end to everything about Him. Relating to Him, therefore, always involves discovery. It also takes reverence to get it right. Amazingly, God created a way for us to be adopted family members and friends with Him. It is not an equal partnership, however. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and one day “every knee [will] bow . . . and every tongue [will] confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:10-11)
Jesus, give us grace this week to have the kind of relationships with our decisions, with others and with God the Father that you had when you walked this earth.

The Roller Coaster of Hope

I think the reason we like roller coasters is because they reflect life. A typical coaster ride begins slowly with an uphill climb that is filled with anticipation, fear, and exhilaration making it feel like it is going to take forever for the actual ride to begin. Then with a flourish, we careen downward in a rush of adrenaline and imagination followed by twists, turns, dips and rises that come at us so fast we barely have time to think. Suddenly, the thrill ends and, although we can’t remember all the details, we remember it as a great experience. We forget about the wait. We forget about the price. We simply talk about it with great emotion and celebration.
Isaiah 9 reminds me of just such a ride. At the beginning of the chapter the people living in Galilee (Zebulun and Naphtali) “were in distress” (v. 1) and experiencing the humble discipline of the Lord. They were frustrated and fearful thinking this state of affairs may never end. This, however, was just the climb to the beginning of the ride because “in the future he [God] will honor Galilee of the nations.” (v. 1) The rest of the journey would be filled with exhilarating changes of pace and unexpected blessings:
• “The people walking in darkness” would suddenly see “a great light.” (v. 2) About the time they concluded it would always be gloom, frustration, disappointment and manipulation, their Messiah would arrive. When Jesus came to earth, Galilee was considered an inferior, kind of second class portion of the nation. The “real honor” was in Jerusalem where the rich and ruling class lived. Galilee was filled with “simple” agricultural and trades people. And yet, that is where Jesus called home.
• The gloom of verse 1 would suddenly be replaced with “joy . . . as people rejoice at the harvest.” (v. 3) As people realized who Jesus was, they couldn’t help but get excited about the possibilities.
• The burdens that were holding them back would suddenly be shattered. (v. 4) Jesus Himself said, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will see you free.” (John 8:32) He then followed that thought up with “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
• The reasons why men go to war would suddenly be replaced by a leader who led perfectly. He will always give wise counsel, always possess sufficient power, always lead with integrity (like a Father), and always do what produces peace. And, He will do this forever. (v. 5-7) There has never been a leader like Jesus. Every human leader is motivated by self-interest and pride. Only Jesus is fully motivated by righteousness, holiness, integrity, and purpose.
Just like a roller coaster ride, when it is finished, we won’t remember all the details of the journey. We won’t remember the climb or the jolts that produced fear. We won’t remember the rapid descents that caused us to scream. We won’t remember the twists that jostled us around or turned us upside down. We will simply remember it was a great ride.

Patient Promises

I am very glad that God’s promises are stronger than my attitudes. Even though I know God is faithful, loving, always true, totally committed, righteous, and unchanging, I still grumble, resist and act foolishly at times. I couldn’t help but relate to King Ahaz in Isaiah 7.
While Ahaz was the King of Judah, he came under attack. Two kings north of him joined forces and conspired to overthrow him. The threat must have seemed credible because “the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” (v. 2) The threat, however, was only a virtual creation. God sent Isaiah to Ahaz to proclaim, “Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood . . .” (v. 4) God promised to protect him, guide him and provide for him despite the fact that his enemies were fiercely opposed to him. Isaiah was not denying reality in communicating these promises as he said, “Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, ‘Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves.’” (v. 5-6) The intention to do harm was real but everything in Ahaz’s life had to pass through the filter of God’s oversight.
Yet this is what the Sovereign LORD said to the earthly king:
“‘It will not take place,
it will not happen, . . .
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
you will not stand at all.’” (v. 7-9)
To convince Ahaz of His protection, God told him to, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” (v. 11) Now, normally asking God for a sign is not a good idea since it smacks of manipulation. In this case, however, God initiated the idea so it became a step of obedience. “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.’” (v. 12)
You can almost see God rolling his eyes as Ahaz says this. Telling God that He didn’t mean what He said is never a good idea. “Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.’” (v. 13-15)
God is disappointed in Ahaz’s attitude and actions. You can sense the frustration as a limited human being tries to out think an infinite God. And yet, in the midst of the mismatch God makes one of the most important promises in history. The Savior of the world is coming and He can be recognized without a doubt because He will be born to a virgin.
That is just the way our God is. He makes promises because of who He is not because of who we are. He keeps His promises because it is in His nature to do so not because we have earned what He has offered. He is patient with His promises because He knows they will all be fulfilled and amazingly we are the beneficiaries.

Willing

I get caught up on a regular basis thinking I have to be spectacular. I watch an athletic contest on TV and I think I need to be like one of the superstars on the field. I watch the news and I am tempted to think our national leaders need to be superstars which would then mean I need to be on top of every decision and every situation if I am going to expect it of them. I watch my grandkids play and I think I need to be an awesome “poppa” if I want them to reach their potential. I find it easy to put expectations on myself and to conclude it is all up to me. Then I read passages such as Isaiah 6 and I am reminded that life is a partnership. I am a full partner so I need to bring it every day with full focus and energy. But, I have a partner who makes a much bigger contribution than I could ever imagine.
“I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim [angels] . . . And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” (v. 1-4)
What a great reminder that I know an awesome God. He is more powerful, authoritative, compassionate, and capable than anyone else I know. When He shows up, things tremble. My first reaction when I read this today was to say, “I am with Him.”
My second reaction was the realization that He doesn’t really need my help. My abilities compared to His look simple and childlike. My words sound immature, my thoughts appear undeveloped and my strength looks puny. But, He has called me to be a partner. “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?’” (v. 8 )The God whose words created the world is looking for a spokesman. The God who is omnipresent is looking for an ambassador. The God who came with grace and forgiveness is looking for someone to send so that others may hear the good news. I know He could do it without me but He is asking for partners.
The most appropriate response is simply to be willing. He doesn’t need help but He wants my involvement. He will provide the message, the strength and the wisdom. He simply wants people who want to be involved in His plan to tell the world of His love, grace, purpose and compassion. Isaiah got it and merely said, “Here am I. Send me!” (v. 8 ) He didn’t say, “I know how to do this, let me handle it.” He didn’t say, “It will never happen without me so let me rescue the situation.” He didn’t say, “I am the man so watch me perform.” He simply said, “I am willing.”
I thank God that He has a place for you and me in His plan so despite my shortcomings and my feelings of inadequacy I choose today to be willing.