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Persistence on the Imperfect Path

This week has been an interesting reminder of the imperfect journey of life. Everyone I encountered along the way has a dream for their future and undying hope that life is going to turn out well for them. One man is highly dedicated to his career and wants to rise to the top of his professions. One mom is working tirelessly to help her kids discover their talents, navigate their education and overcome their obstacles. Another couple will tell you boldly they want to have an excellent relationship with open communication and cooperative decision-making.
At the same time, everyone I encountered was confronted with either a circumstance or an attitude that was holding them back. The businessman has a couple of habits in his life that are counterproductive to his dream which include keeping his passions in focus and responding with something other than anger to situations that are frustrating. The mom was upset because she often gets angry with the people she loves when they don’t live up to her expectations. She doesn’t want to give up her dream but she doesn’t want to be angry with her family for the next decade. The couple honestly admitted they run at very different paces and have started to resent one another for their differences.
BumperSticker(2)I am sure I noticed these folks because they are a mirror of my life. I love my life, I adore my wife and I am proud of my kids. At the same time, I get frustrated with managing finances, integrating with Pam’s spontaneous scheduling and trying to prioritize the relentless tasks of life. Like you, I keep looking for an easier solution.
For all of us who are willing to accept that life is an imperfect journey, Jesus has some strategic advice in Luke 11:9-10, “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” According to the context, Jesus is telling us to keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking because some things in life only get accomplished through audacious persistence. As a pastor, I would love to present to you a simple, easy plan for becoming spiritual mature. As an author, I would love to give couples and parents a quick path to family unity and strength. As a concerned friend, I would love to tell you that one of the quick fix programs for weight loss and physical conditioning would actually turn you into an athlete in just 7 minutes a day. That is not the real path of life, however. The real path of life is a mixture of fun and frustration, accomplishment and agony.
I am not sure what you are facing this week but I am confident it has an element of imperfection to it that will require persistence to stay on the path despite the obstacles, frustrations, setbacks and inefficiencies involved. I’ll see you on the path as we keep asking, keep seeking and keep knocking!

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.

The Way He Is

Yesterday, my granddaughter asked me, “Papa, why do you love me?” I didn’t see it coming and, honestly, I had not thought about it. It is such a natural thing for me and my love for her is so present in my soul that it never occurred to me to ask myself, “Why?”
I gave her an answer about how smart and sensitive and talented she is. It seemed to satisfy her for the moment but I realized it wasn’t really the right answer. I would love her just as much even if she wasn’t smart, sensitive and talented. So, the question has lingered in my heart and I have been asking myself the question, “Why do I love my grandkids so much? Why do I carry the important people of my life so indelibly on my heart?”
As I was pondering this question, I read Acts 26. Paul was on trial before King Agrippa and his wife Bernice. Paul seized upon the opportunity to tell a new crowd the story of what God had done in his life. Paul had a story of redemption that clearly illustrates the grace and power of God. Paul was a sincerely motivated enemy of God and didn’t even know it. He was actively opposed to everything God was trying to establish in the world and thought he was doing the right thing. Then, on the road to Damascus, Jesus interrupted his life and transformed his purpose. In the big picture, Paul is the proof that no one is too far away or so far off track that the grace of God can’t reach them.
In the midst of the big picture, I encountered a more intimate portrait of the heart of God. “I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’” (v. 17-18)
Notice all the ways in which God demonstrated His love in this short statement. “I will rescue you.” Paul was hopelessly lost in his own zeal. He proudly thought he knew what was right and he was going full speed ahead with his agenda. As a result, both Gentiles and Jews would be upset with him. Rather than scold him, Jesus said He would rescue this wayward apostle.
“I am sending you to open their eyes.” Jesus saw that people were blind. They lacked real discernment because their stubborn hearts closed their eyes to the truth. Rather than reject them, Jesus chose to send Paul as an example that anyone can be transformed.
“I am sending you . . . to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God.” People were wandering in the dark, stumbling their way through life. Rather than leave them to their own devices, Jesus chose Paul to fearlessly “turn the light on” by proclaiming the truth with a story of undeniable grace and forgiveness.
The purpose of all this activity was “so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” At the time, the people Jesus was referring to were selfish, stubborn, self-centered schemers. Rather than punish them for their waywardness, Jesus opened the doors of His heart so they could be forgiven and be raised up to their proper place.
Jesus’ perspective of people was shaped by His love. His decisions were motivated by His love. His patience was enabled by His love. His relentless commitment to stick with His plan was rooted in His love. Why? Because He is love. It is who He is. He doesn’t love us because we are so good and so enjoyable and add so much value to His life. He loves because it is in His nature to do so and as He expresses His love to us, we change.
He lives with the unswerving, unchanging, undeterred belief that His love can break through all our excuses and all our imperfections to convince us of our eternal value. He has proven over and over that when His love does break through, we are transformed into people who grasp our value and live to bring value to the lives of others.
I guess I love my granddaughter because it is who I am. I am pretty sure she is not old enough to grasp that concept but, while I am waiting for that day, I am going to keep adding value to her life. Jesus, share with us your ability to be the kind of people who love others whether they are acting loving today or not.

Simple Focus

I was thinking today about all the areas of life I struggle to keep up with. In our highly advanced society, my list has grown longer rather than shorter! My “short” list looks something like this:
Consistent personal devotions
Exercise routine
Yard work
Pay bills
Manage my business
Spend time with my wife
Stay in contact with my adult kids
Spend time with my grandkids
Help my dad with his computer
Household chores
Household repairs
Facebook
Email
Phone messages
Meetings
Auto maintenance
Make travel arrangements
Help someone less fortunate than myself
Finish a major project (mine happens to be finish writing a book)
And this is my short list! Technology and modern advancements have added multiple lines to my “to do” list and made them all feel vitally important. I find one of the greatest challenges of modern life is figuring out how to simplify.
That is why I think I responded so quickly to a statement in Acts 24. Paul was confined in a “gentleman’s’ prison” in Caesarea. I think the Governor Felix knew the charges against him were fabricated but he liked having Paul around to talk about life’s issues. “He sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus.” (v. 24) As Paul’s life was pared down, his message became more focused on the things that matter the most for the longest period of time. “As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now!'” (v. 25)
“Righteousness” is the conviction in my heart that I am right with God and my conscience is clean. It begins with the assurance that I am forgiven because of what Jesus did on the cross and then it expands into the ability to think correctly about life and make decisions based on what is true.
“Self-control” is the ability to actually live out what is correct in life.
“Judgment to come” points to the day when I will sit down with God face to face to review my life. If righteousness and self-control have been growing in my life, this will be one of the greatest meetings of my life. It will be the encounter with God that we all long for from our dads when we hear that He loves us and is proud of us.
Felix, of course, had not made righteousness and self-control a habit so the thought of standing before God was a frightening thought, as it should be. He realized that just because God is love doesn’t mean He is soft.
Today, in the midst of all that I need to accomplish, I am going to simply focus on doing what I know is right and trust that God will orchestrate the rest of my circumstances.

Speaking to Your Audience

I have noticed I have many “audiences” in my life. At times, my wife is the audience. She watches the way I live, responds to my decisions and seeks out ways to stay connected with me. I have noticed there are some things I can say to her that I would never say to anyone else and there are statements I could make to anyone else that I would be ill-advised to say to her. She is a very personal and vulnerable audience.
At times, my sons are the audience. They also watch the way I live but they respond differently to my decisions. They look to me for encouragement, bantering and challenges. They are trying to establish their place in the world and they want to know they can decompress around me and then get ready for the next competitive moment of their life. They seem to gain strength when they know I am genuinely proud of them.
At times, my grandkids are the audience. They have a much different view of me than my wife and sons. To them, I am a hero and a friend. I am part grown up and part kid in their eyes. They know I am bigger and older than they are but they also have in insatiable appetite for us to play together. They simply want me to show interest in their lives and be fascinated with them. When they get lost in a creative moment which distracts them from staying on schedule, I admire the giftedness and enjoy the moment with them despite the frustration it creates for those who want to keep a schedule.
I could go on talking about the audience of my friends, my colleagues, my clients and my acquaintances. The point is each audience of our lives responds to us in a unique way and we are wise if we employ different approaches with each grouping. This is exactly what Paul demonstrates in Acts 22. He has made his way to Jerusalem and it doesn’t take long until he is arrested. If he hadn’t expected this to happen, he may have panicked but he knew ahead of time this was part of God’s plan for his journey. As events unfolded, he took a different approach with each audience.
With his Jewish countrymen, he told a story. “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors . . . I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death . . . as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me . . . ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting’ . . . ‘Get up,’ the Lord said, ‘and go into Damascus’ . . . ‘Go; I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’ ” (v. 2-21) This audience shared a common ancestry, common experiences, common history and a common value system. As a result, Paul could relate with them in story form with confidence that they would get the point.
With the Roman Centurion, he asked a question instead of telling a story, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t even been found guilty?” (v. 25) This representative of Rome would not relate to the stories of Jewish history and tradition. He would, however, care deeply about the Roman law since it was his job to enforce it and he was accountable for how well he carried it out. With a single question, Paul entered into the Centurion’s world.
I don’t know of a formula we can follow to determine how we should relate to the various people who surround us but I am confident God will give wisdom when we follow the principle that each audience of our lives needs a unique approach.

Asking is Better than Assuming

A man named Jeff stood up at an open microphone sharing session at the end of a weeklong family camp and said, “I have to admit that I made assumptions about people here at the beginning of the week that turned out not to be true. John over there shared that he was grumpy when he first arrived. I met him on that first day and I can assure you he was grumpy—very grumpy. In my heart I said, I need to keep my distance from him because he is going to have a bad attitude all week. It wasn’t true. He just needed to decompress from his responsibilities and as you saw he was one of the most fun acts at the talent show last night.
“Then I met Ivan and I said in my heart, That guy has it all. He is a physical specimen. He has an attractive wife and amazing kids. He seems to always be talking to people. God has blessed him way beyond what He has done for me. Then I actually talked to Ivan and heard his story. He is here to reconnect with his family after his third deployment. As you heard him share, he lost one friend and watched two other friends get seriously hurt from IEDs in the war in Afghanistan. My assumptions changed when he said, ‘Even though I hate their guts, I realize now that I have to forgive the people who hurt my friends. If I don’t, I will be a prisoner for the rest of my life and I will ruin the relationships I care about the most.'”
I need to be reminded often that making assumptions about other people seldom leads to healthy conclusions. Paul’s experience in Acts 21 is another one of those reminders. Paul has arrived in Jerusalem knowing it is going to be tumultuous. Out of respect, his first act was to see James because he was the leader of the church. (v. 18)
James reported to Paul that many of the Jewish believers “have been informed that you teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or live according to our customs.” (v. 21) This was not the truth but it had been said enough times that many were starting to believe it. To help calm the issue down, Paul agreed to join four other men “in their purification rites and pay their expenses.” (v. 24) It was assumed this would settle the issue and calm everyone down.
Instead, “When the seven days were nearly over, some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him . . . ‘he has brought Greeks into the temple and defiled this holy place.’ (They had previously seen Trophimus the Ephesian in the city with Paul and assumed that Paul had brought him into the temple.)” (v. 27-29) The crowd erupted, seized Paul and began to beat him.
To save his life, “The commander came up and arrested him and ordered him to be bound with two chains.” (v. 33) The soldiers were shocked when Paul talked to them in Greek because they had made assumptions about who he was, “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?” (v. 38)
In rapid fire succession, assumptions led to the wrong conclusions. I know it is important in life to reach conclusions about individuals so we can make healthy relationship decisions. I just want to be wise enough to gather real evidence first. Since you are reading this, I assume you agree with me!

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.

The Boomerang

I never saw it coming from Bruce. He was a retired businessman who agreed to drive Pam and I from the conference center to the hotel room we would staying at for the night so we could preach at his church on Sunday morning. He walked with a limp and didn’t have much to say during the conference. He and his wife quickly volunteered to drive us so I expected they would be nice people but I didn’t think his words would become the focus of my week.
Over lunch, Bruce told me, “The most important lesson I have learned in life is ‘in the same way you judge others, you will be judged.’ (Matthew 7:2) I grew up in a home of rejection. It was the one thing I could count on from my parents. I spent too much of my adult life judging that others would do the same thing. I judged my wife as someone who would reject me so I kept my distance emotionally. I judged people I did business with as people who would reject me so I was either overly cautious with them or overeager to please them. Amazingly, they all seemed to reject me when I needed them the most. I insured they would do the very thing I wanted them not to do.”
My first thought when he finished was, “the judgments we put on people are like boomerangs that are guaranteed to come back to us.” A flood of examples flew through my mind:
• The spouse who is consistently complaining about the immaturity of the other seems to constantly get immature reactions.
• The child who is consistently accused of being irresponsible, frustrates her parents with ongoing irresponsibility.
• The friends who talk about how mean other people are seem to be surrounded by mean people.
• The leader who complains about the lack of initiative among the employees is confused by the fact that no one takes initiative.
• The individual who refuses to forgive can always find someone close by who is emotionally unhealthy.
• The person who is afraid of failure, rejection or, abandonment is usually in close contact with people who trigger the fear.
I am not advocating that we ignore reality because there are harmful people in the world and we need to learn to set healthy boundaries that allow for personal growth and protect the most important people in our lives. But, I am also determined to see the potential in the people I care about and to train myself to focus on what they can be rather than on the imperfections we all possess and must wrestle with.
I want to be surrounded by responsible, compassionate, forward-thinking, innovative people. I, therefore, need to judge the people in my life as responsible, compassionate, forward-thinking and innovative. As I help them see these traits in themselves, they will, likewise, see those same traits in me.
Let the boomerang fly!

March On

I am amazed at the way ordinary discipline exposes me to extraordinary discoveries. It happens often with the regular reading of God’s word. It occurred just this morning with the reading of Judges 5. I almost skipped it because I thought, It is the song of Deborah after Barak defeated Sisera. I already read the story of how the army of Sisera was scattered by Barak’s men and how a woman named Jael drove a tent spike through Sisera’s head to secure the victory – that’s pretty crazy! I am sure the song is just a repeat.
After deliberating, I decided to read the song anyway and I encountered a phrase I am sure I have read before but this time it jumped out at me. “March on, my soul; be strong!” (Judges 5:21) Deborah and Barak were celebrating the remarkable victory God had given them. Prior to battle the odds were not good. They had a long track record of losing as Sisera “had cruelly oppressed the Israelites for twenty years.” (Judges 4:3). God led to them to go into battle, however, and they won. Now it was time to celebrate and remind themselves that they could walk in victory. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
As soon as I read the statement, I realized it applies to so many situations in life. Many of you reading this have a long list of tasks you need to complete. The list is daunting and it is hard to imagine how you will ever get it done. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
Many of you are facing relational challenges that appear to be insurmountable. You have your own personal growth moving forward but someone you care about deeply (a spouse, a child, a family member or close friend) is operating somewhere between difficult and impossible. It is clear to you what this person ought to do but you are powerless to make them do it. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
Many of you are struggling with personal challenges that improve very little year to year. Nagging habits repeat themselves despite your desire to live differently. Addictions keep trying to lure you back. Unhealthy reactions to stressful events seem to take over before you have time to consider what you want to do. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
Still some of you are trying to sort out new career choices as your chosen path has been interrupted and is no longer available to you. “March on, my soul; be strong!” Or, you may be in a boring season of your career and it just feels long. You know this is where you should be but the days drag on. “March on, my soul; be strong!”
As if to fuel our resolve to stay strong, the song ends with a simple, motivating statement, “Then the land had peace forty years.” (Judges 5:31) The peace they experienced lasted twice as long as the time of oppression!
“March on, my soul; be strong!”

Trust the Transformation

I recently had the privilege of meeting with a young man (I will call him Steve) who had been through a transformational moment in his life. He grew up in a Christian environment and was friendly toward Jesus. I would describe him as one of those guys who waves to Jesus. They like Jesus and they speak kindly of Him but they want to keep Him at a comfortable distance because they aren’t ready to yield to His leadership. Then it happened. He was confronted with the reality of his life and his need for a Savior. He became deeply aware of his personal inadequacies and wanted to find something better than what he had been experiencing. As God so often does, He brought along an individual at the right time to invite Steve to a Bible study and the change began.
My friend gave himself wholeheartedly to the process of growth and he discovered what he had heard others talk about. The Bible came alive for him. It seemed every time he read something, it was meant directly for him. Every story had application for his life today. Prayer began to be a conversation between him and his Savior rather than a religious exercise. His goals in life somehow shifted from self-centered pursuits to serving others.
It was clear to me that God’s hand of favor is upon this young man and that a plan is developing. This young man is being groomed for some position of influence. There is a group of people who need the kind of leadership Steve is capable of and he is being equipped to be their leader. In time, all of us who know him will understand it but right now it simply looks like enthusiasm.
For many, it will be hard to accept the legitimacy of the transformation because they remember his earlier years. I even had the opportunity to meet one of his friends and gave a short report of what was going on. His friend’s face twisted in surprise as he blurted out, “Steve? Really? I would have never expected that from him.”
People had a similar reaction to Jesus in Luke 4. Jesus grew up in Nazareth. He was a child there. He was a teenager there. He was a young man beginning his career there. Then He turned 30 and his public ministry began. “He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom.” (v. 16) As part of His ministry, He read from the book of Isaiah and gave His commentary. At first, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” But then they got to thinking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (v. 22)
Unfortunately, they couldn’t get past their memory of Him as a child. Rather than recognize that Jesus had transitioned from the preparation phase to the action phase, they limited His influence in their lives.
It is a great challenge to each of us. It is hard to judge from childhood, and even the teen years, who someone will be as an adult. May god give us all the grace to trust in the transformation He does in the lives of the people we are surrounded by.