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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.

Grace in the Storm

I was reminded of a prevalent paradox this week. We are deeply loved by God and we live in a world of turmoil. This means that no matter what we do or how diligently we seek to keep our lives on track, we will experience complex challenges. I was reminded in a number of different ways. First, at the Bible study I am a part of, the following vulnerable statements were made:
“I grew up being deeply criticized for who I am. I was emotionally rejected by my parents and teased incessantly by friends. I struggle with the belief that I am accepted and that it is okay to be me.”
“Intellectually, I know it is not true, but I feel like anytime I have financial struggles in life I must have done something wrong.”
“I know in my mind that God loves me but I am having a hard time feeling it is true when I have been out of work for so long.”
“I never thought I would struggle with this kind of attitude. I have always been grateful for what I have but it seems nothing I am trying to do is working like I think it should. For the first time I can remember, I have been asking in prayer if God is upset with me for some reason.”
Then I read Psalm 37 and I saw the same kind of struggle in the life of David. He was convinced that God loved him and was determined to seek Him. “Trust in Lord and do good. . .” (v. 2) “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.” (v. 4) “He will make the righteous reward shine like the dawn . . .” (v. 6)
At the same time, he was surprised by some of the challenges that relentlessly presented themselves in his journey. “. . . do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes.” (v. 7) “The wicked lie in wait for the righteous, intent on putting them to death . . .” (v. 32) “I have seen a wicked and ruthless man flourishing like a luxuriant native tree . . . ” (v. 35)
The inescapable conclusion is that it is normal in life to experience God’s favor and circumstantial difficulties alongside one another. Almost everyone I know right now is facing daunting financial challenges. Almost everyone I know is wrestling with a thought process that has the potential to defeat them. Almost everyone I know is aware that God loves them immensely whether life’s circumstances are good or bad. Since I am part of the group, I am going to focus today on the game plan I see in Psalm 37.
I am going to take a bigger view of life than today’s circumstances. “The blameless spend their days under the LORD’s care, and their inheritance will endure forever. In times of disaster they will not wither . . .” (v. 18-19)
I am going to remind myself that God takes care of His people. “The LORD makes firm the steps
of the one who delights in him; though he may stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand.” (v. 23-24)
I am going to do what I know is right regardless of how I feel at the moment. “Trust in the LORD and do good . . . Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.” (v. 3 & 8)
I am going to remind myself that the Author and Creator of life has my back. “For the LORD loves the just and will not forsake his faithful ones.”
Jesus, give me the grace today to seek You with energy, trust You with courage and face life with gratitude.

Five Positives per Day

When I wrote my last blog entry, I mentioned that “a friend of mine is known for saying, ‘Everybody faces five problems per day. The way you respond to those challenges will determine the quality of that day and, when you add those days up, they will determine the quality of your life.'”
One of my sons responded to me and asked, “What 5 positive things happened yesterday?” It is as much a part of the message of Psalm 34 as having a clear perspective on the real struggles of life. Verses 8-10 read, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the LORD, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.”
So here we go. Yesterday I was with a group of men at a Men’s Summit in Central Ohio. Here is my short list of the positive things that happened:
• We started the morning with strong, energetic worship. The worship band consisted of a drummer, a keyboard player, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, violin, steel guitar and three singers. The room was filled with music and the enthusiasm infected the crowd.
• A dad pulled me aside and said, “Thanks for this weekend. My 19 year-old and 23 year-old sons were riveted on what you had said. It was so exciting for me to see that.”
• A 65 year-old man shared, “1 year ago I had a liver and kidney transplant. The surgery was half as long as the doctors expected and my recovery has gone better than they expected. I believe God still has an adventure for me and I am going to be looking for it this year.”
• At the end of the summit, men jumped in to help break down the sound and projection equipment for the 10 person worship team and the work was accomplished in 30 minutes – without breaking anything!
• The men bought books. It is true that “leaders are readers” but it is also true that men’s groups don’t normally buy a lot of books. This collection of men were the exception and I am excited to hear the reports going forward of what God is going to do among them.
Yesterday was one of those highlight days we get every once in a while so I expect today to be a little different. But, the God who orchestrated yesterday is the same God who is planning today. So far, I have my health, the coffee maker worked and I am still fascinated with my wife. That’s not a bad start. I am going to honor my son’s request and keep looking for positive things that are going to happen around me. I already know I am going to face some challenges because it is a very full day but I am confident in God’s promise, “The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” (v. 10)
Jesus, give me realistic eyes today. Help me not turn away from, or be surprised by, the challenges of the day. At the same time, remind me of the good things you are bringing to my life.

Five Problems a Day

A friend of mine is known for saying, “Everybody faces five problems per day. The way you respond to those challenges will determine the quality of that day and, when you add those days up, they will determine the quality of your life.” The first time I heard him say it I thought, That sounds kind of pessimistic. Why would anyone want to anticipate five problems every day? At the same time, something about the statement resonated with me and refused to go away. So, I began to observe my own life to see if it was a true statement and I have concluded there is a lot of truth in what my friend proclaimed to us on a regular basis.
King David even echoed this thought in Psalm 34:19, “The righteous person may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all.” David was rejoicing over the fact that a ridiculous plan to act insane before a rival king had actually worked to save his life. On the surface the idea was ludicrous and it would require God to lead Achish king of Gath to conclude David was no longer a threat because he had lost his mind. (Check out the story in 1 Samuel 21:10-14). David was on the run. He had been rejected by King Saul. Saul’s intention to kill him has been confirmed by his best friend Jonathan. He was traveling alone, seeking a new plan and needing to restart his life since the king he served was now opposed to him. In his vulnerable state, his simplistic plan had been honored by God and his life was spared.
Then I thought about my day yesterday and I asked, What troubles did I face?
1. The tree limb that broke and covered my driveway needed to be cleared.
2. I had more phone calls to make than was possible.
3. Team members of a project we are working on needed to have details clarified.
4. Cash flow issues required challenging financial decisions.
5. I had to fight back personal fear in my career pursuit.
I have to admit, the last one surprised me. I have not been prone to feelings of fear since I met Jesus as my Savior. I think it is because I grew up in a home that was dominated by fear and I was determined to find a way to overcome it in my life. Almost every decision in my family of origin was characterized by fear in some way. My mom even sincerely parented out of fear and tried to keep me motivated by saying things like, “You shouldn’t do that. You don’t have what it takes. It is too dangerous.”
One of the choices I made as a young adult was to take refuge in an organization. I liked that because it provided structure, teamwork and a collection of talented people who could cover for one another. In the second half of life, however, I have chosen to work freelance and build a business with my wife. It is exciting and challenging and has almost unlimited potential for helping others but it lacks structure. In fact, the only structure it has is the one I impose upon it. Predictably, there are aspects of this kind of work that are uncomfortable to me and for the past few days the pressure has been on to be good at the areas I am most uncomfortable with. I had to fight back the thought that maybe I really don’t have what it takes to make this work, even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. So when I read, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears,” (Psalm 34:4) it got my attention.
Looking back, yesterday turned out pretty well because I was able to overcome the 5 challenges that were a part of my world. Today, I am praying for the wisdom and strength to face down the next five.

The Way It Is

“I was very humbled by the experience. I never thought it would be us running back with our tails between our legs. But, I have a new appreciation for what God is doing right here in our home town. I don’t think my whole heart was into what was happening here. I always wanted to go somewhere else to do something great for God when my place was here all along. I have a better focus since I realized this is the way it is for me.”
That is part of a conversation I had with a friend recently. He sincerely loves people and is faithfully involved with a local church. For years, he felt the same restlessness I have wrestled with in my heart. All of the prayers of discontent I have voiced over the years echoed in my mind as he was talking:
“I want to do more for you, Jesus.”
“I will go anywhere for you.”
“Lord, send me where the real need is.”
“Help me find my sweet spot of service to you.”
“Show me what I can do that will make a difference in my world.”
Mixed with contentment, these would be great prayers but so often in my experience these were request for the horizon. I was looking past my current situation yearning for God to fulfill the ideal longings in my heart. I had an ideal picture of what my marriage should look like. I had an ideal picture of what my career should look like. I had an ideal picture of how I should feel about my life. I had an ideal picture of the story I should be able to tell of how God was working in my life. What I have come to realize is that God has always been doing in His real work while I was dreaming about the ideal work.
This realization rose to the surface this morning as I read Psalm 31 and 32. “The LORD preserves those who are true to him, but the proud he pays back in full.” (Psalm 31:23) “Many are the woes of the wicked, but the LORD’s unfailing love surrounds the one who trusts in him.” (Psalm 32:10) I was challenged by two phrases: “true to him . . . trusts in him.” It is easy to talk about God as my Creator who made me the way I am for His purpose. It is quite another to be true to Him and to trust Him when circumstances don’t match my dreams. I am prone to the kind of pride that believes I should have an equal say with God in the plans of my life. I fight the arrogance that believes my ideas are just as good as God’s ideas about my life. I wrestle with the self-centered belief that my life is bad if I feel bad about my circumstances. When I read, “the proud he pays back in full,” it kind of bothered me because I tend to think these kind of words apply to people who are obviously proud. This morning it struck me this is why many of my plans don’t work out. They are my plans loaded with my expectations of how life ought to be. God frustrates those efforts in a loving attempt to get me to do His plan with His help.
My friend was obviously wrestling with the same things. He had chased his dream only to discover it was simply his dream. God’s dream for his life had been in operation all along but my friend was looking past it. He has some recovering to do because it is hard to humbly realize we have sincerely not been “true to Him or trusted in Him.” I am excited for him at the same time because “The LORD preserves those who are true to him and surrounds the one who trusts in him.”

Contentment is a Person

Pam and I had the opportunity last week to watch over our grandkids as our son and his wife went out on a date to celebrate their anniversary. We ate their kind of food and played games they loved. We laughed and ran and enjoyed each other’s company. Then, it was time to put them to bed. They didn’t want to go and, to be honest, we didn’t want to make them go to bed because we loved the time together. We knew, however, that life would be hard on our kids the next day if we didn’t follow through. So off to bed they went.
Well, my granddaughters are five and two. After reading with them and praying with them, we tucked them into bed. 30 minutes later, I heard subdued laughter coming out of their room. I went to the door out of curiosity and I could hear them having “sister time.” They were giggling and talking and giggling some more. They certainly were not asleep but they were content to be in bed because they were enjoying a special relationship with one another.
It was a good reminder to me that contentment in life does not come from possessions or accomplishments. It comes through relationship. And that is the point of Psalm 23. At each and every turn in our lives, God is committed to be present, to provide and to protect us out of a sincere and devoted love.
“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” (v. 1) It is easy to think this means we will always prosper and I, like you, get confused when there isn’t enough money, time or ingenuity to do what I believe needs to be done today. From a shepherd’s point of view, however, this means God will keep us moving so we get to the next place of provision. Sheep will stay in one field and eat everything until the field is bare. They will then be confused because there is nothing left to eat. The Shepherd only lets them stay in one grazing meadow long enough to be strengthened for the next move. He then moves them (often against their will) to the next pasture. He rotates them from one field to another so the supply never runs out.
“He guides me along the right paths . . . Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil . . .” (v. 3-4) The treacherous part of a sheep’s life is the move from one field to another. In the pasture, the shepherd has control. The borders can be watched carefully and intruders can be monitored. The transition from one place to another creates danger. Natural protections are temporarily removed. New terrain contains new hiding places for predators. The travel interrupts well-practiced routines making the sheep more vulnerable. The same is true in our lives. Periodically, God needs to move us from one path in life to another. Aging, the acquisition of wisdom, the shift from high productivity to broad influence at midlife and the ever-changing landscape of our technological world create the need for change. As we go through these necessary transitions, life becomes temporarily treacherous. In the move, contentment is found in the truth, “I will fear no evil for you are with me.” (v. 4)
I know that life is inconvenient, exhilarating, disappointing, frustrating and fascinating all at the same time. Like everyone I know, I am consistently trying to manipulate circumstances to find contentment. For the moment, I can confidently say that contentment is found in the person of Jesus because “Surely [His] goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” (v. 6)

He Did It!

My two-year old granddaughter recently served as a flower girl at a wedding. She tenuously walked down the aisle throwing rose petals on the floor and into the crowd. When she reached the end, she turned to her mom in the crowd and proclaimed, “I did it. I did it.” It was, of course, my favorite moment of the ceremony.
I have been a fan of saying, “Celebrate every victory,” because there is something special about the breakthrough moments of life both large and small. In that light, I was fascinated by the way Psalm 22 ends, “. . . future generations will be told about the Lord. They will proclaim his righteousness, declaring to a people yet unborn: He has done it!” (v. 30-31) It was curious to me because most of Psalm 22 does not sound good.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (v. 1)
“My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer.” (v. 2)
“But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.” (v. 6)
“. . . trouble is near and there is no one to help.” (v. 11)
“. . . all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax.” (v. 14)
“. . . they pierce my hands and my feet.” (v. 16)
“They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.” (V. 18)

We, of course, have the advantage of being able to look back on this song from the vantage point of the New Testament. The Psalmist is describing the future crucifixion of the Savior. It serves as a powerful reminder to each of us that the darkest experiences are often the beginning of God’s greatest story in our lives. The crucifixion looked like a defeat. Jesus was really dead. He was actually buried. His followers honestly thought it was over and done. They had staked their hope in the Great Teacher from Nazareth only to watch Him suffer a humiliating demise. It appeared as if their hope had evaporated in a short period of time.
The story didn’t end there, however. Jesus actually rose from the dead. He defeated death. He paid the price we couldn’t afford for eternal life we didn’t deserve. What people thought was a tragic ending to a well-intentioned life turned out to be the greatest act of human history.
In a fallen world, I will need to get used to the fact that every great story is a story of redemption. We are all imperfect so we will make mistakes. We live in an imperfect world so we will experience hardship. We are all connected so the actions of others may negatively impact our lives. Earthly life has a tragic side so any of us may suffer unimaginable obstacles. In the midst of it all, God is prepared to redeem. He takes broken things and somehow makes them useful. He takes tragic experiences and somehow makes them victorious. He takes shattered lives and somehow makes them stories of hope.
When I was young, I wanted to tell a story of victory, escape from pain and great accomplishments. I have grown to be more content with a story of redemption. “He has done it!” (v. 31)

Good Changes

Life is a fascinating partnership between us and our God. As I read Psalm 21 this morning, the following statement jumped out at me, “The king rejoices in your strength, LORD. How great is his joy in the victories you give! You have granted him his heart’s desire . . . Through the victories you gave, his glory is great . . .” (v. 1-5) I am not a king and I don’t ever expect to be one but I see in this a valuable principle of life. God works in and around our lives and shares the benefits of His victory with us. As a result, life will change for anyone who actively pursues a relationship with Him. I, for one, am glad my life has changed.
I grew up in a home that was dominated by fear. I was taught that people were to be feared, opportunity was to be feared, the unknown was to be feared and anything out of our control was to be feared. Then I met Jesus. I have since discovered that all people are to be respected and some people are to be trusted at high levels; Opportunity is the gateway into God’s will; the unknown allows faith to be exercised and God does His best work in areas of my life over which I have no control.
I grew up in a home that was isolated. Since we didn’t trust people, we didn’t pursue friendships. I spent most holidays with just my immediate family. I spent most weekends isolated from people. I was trained not to talk about family issues with anyone outside the walls of my home. As a result, I learned to be very private and to hide both the victories and difficulties of my life. Then I met Jesus. He adopted me into His family and He has a big family. I discovered a connection with people that was real, appropriately vulnerable and supportive. The bond that naturally exists in the body of Christ overwhelmed my training to live isolated. I have since gained the freedom to have real friends and to openly share how our Savior can set people free.
I was prone to anger and overanalyzing my performance. I viewed poor grades as an epic fail in life. I viewed a loss in athletics as a personal failure. I viewed almost every imperfection in my life as a serious character flaw and I struggled to enjoy any victory because I was confident a new failure was around the corner. Then I met Jesus. He died for me because I was imperfect. He readily admitted it and gave me freedom to admit it also. He assured me that my imperfections we not fatal. In fact, they have become some of my best learning moments. He also made it clear that I was not alone in the journey. He promised insight to guide me, inspiration to empower me and intervention to rescue me. He invests more in the partnership than I can and then humbly shares the credit.
Yes, I am glad my life has changed. On my own, I was heading for a repeat of what I grew up around. It would have been an okay life because my parents are good people who accomplished quite a bit despite the difficulties in their experience. However, “through the victories He has given,” my life is much more than I ever expected.

Winning the Battle for Today

“May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight.” (Psalm 19:14) King David was having a good day. He was thinking clearly and making solid decisions. For the moment, he could clearly see that God had revealed Himself in His creation and through His word. “The heavens declare the glory of God (v. 1) . . . The decrees of the LORD are firm (v. 9) . . . They are more precious than gold (v. 10).”
These two thoughts are pretty basic. It is pretty clear that our world has a Creator. I just had the privilege to spend a week at Sandy Cove Retreat Center in Maryland. It was stunningly beautiful. A forest of trees led to the bank of the North East River. One evening lightning decorated the sky accompanied by booming thunder and pouring rain. The next evening ushered in a beautiful sunset with horizontal streaks of red, orange and yellow contrasted with backlit clouds and trees. On a more intricate scale, the spiders were busy spinning webs on every handrail we could find. I wasn’t too excited about it when I walked through one of these webs on the first day. It was sticky and clingy and irritating. It was also hard to appreciate the storm at first since it made everything humid amidst the high summer temperatures. I found myself fighting with myself to remember these are good things that declare the creativity and compassion of the God I love.
It is equally clear that God Himself authored the Bible so it is not like any other book on earth. Everyone who reads, hears or examines God’s word reacts to it. Hopefully it is a positive reaction. In Psalm 19, David was experiencing one of those great moments in life as he realized God’s word is perfect, trustworthy, right, radiant, pure and firm (v. 7-9). Anyone who makes decisions in life that are consistent with God’s truth will, as a result, discover wisdom, joy and strength.
It sounds easy at moments like this. I am sitting still, thinking through my day, deliberately focused on personal growth. The day will not stay like this, however. It will be filled with responsibility, stress inducing encounters and real challenges. The realities of life tend to expose the imperfections we easily hide when life is easy. David was all too aware of this so he prayed, “But who can discern their own errors? Forgive my hidden faults. Keep your servant also from willful sins; may they not rule over me.” (v. 12-13)
It is a needed reminder that I must win the battle for today. Yesterday’s victories and setbacks are done. They offer strength for future challenges but they don’t take the place of what I must do today. In my soul is the desire to do my best. Alongside that desire is the crazy notion that stress can be relieved by certain unhealthy activities. Anger, lust, laziness, manipulation and complaining can seem like welcome friends even though I know they are parasites.
But for now, I will join David in asking God for the grace to win today’s battles. “May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” (v. 14)

Recued for a Reason

I have been telling a number of people lately, “With the extension of life expectancy in our modern world, it is turning out that our most influential years are our fifties and sixties. As a result, there is a battle that rages in our forties to keep us from reaching the level of influence for which we were created. The battle takes place at a spiritual level, a social level and a personal level.”
The typical response I get from people sounds like, “I can think of six people right now who fit that description. They have gone Tasmanian devil on their family and friends as they are wreaking havoc with their lives. Everything seemed to be going well until one day it seems a war broke out in their hearts.”
This is certainly not a new concept. The idea of life being a battlefield in which we work out our decisions, attitudes and behaviors is part of what it means to be human. During “normal” seasons of life, we get in a groove and carry out our responsibilities. The transitions of life, however, are a different story. They arrive on the scene with a vengeance and challenge everything we claim to believe.
Psalm 18 is a graphic example of the process. In verse 4-5, we encounter a man (David) who is thrust into a dark season of life without much warning and without a say in the matter. “The cords of death entangled me; the torrents of destruction overwhelmed me. The cords of the grave coiled around me; the snares of death confronted me.” In a short period of time, life went from peaceful to threatening. At a human level, David had lost control of his circumstances and was now scrambling to hold onto the life he knew.
I believe God included passages such as this in the Bible because we will all find ourselves in similar circumstances at some point in our lives. Health issues create a crisis. Financial setbacks shake us at the core. A spouse abandons the life we committed to build together. Personal needs overwhelm us. Unscrupulous people seek to take advantage of us or ruin opportunities we have built. When any of these take place, what will we do? Will we shrink from the battle? Will we give in to the devastation and let it ruin our hearts? Will we cling to the Lord in an effort to rise above the circumstances?
As a challenge to all of us to get prepared, David proclaims, “In my distress I called to the LORD; I cried to my God for help. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came before him, into his ears.” (v. 6)
I hope your life is going well today. If it is, please enjoy the privilege and grow to be the strongest person you can be. If it isn’t, I encourage you to call out to Jesus like David did. I can’t promise that everything will instantly get better but I can guarantee God will hear your voice and will walk with you through the valley. Step by step He will strengthen you to influence others when the light shines once again on your journey.