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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!

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)

Plan for Endurance

Competition begins in earnest today at the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London, England. I am excited because I am going to have the opportunity to watch some of the best athletes in the world compete in their passionate pursuits. It never fails to inspire me when I watch people who have endured to this point. They have all faced challenges, setbacks and injuries but they found a way to stay at it until their opportunity unfolded. I love that because it is how I want to live my life.
It is one of the reasons I have so much respect for the apostle Paul. To be sure, he did not start well. With great zeal, he tried to shut down the church that God Himself was putting in place. “Opponent of God” is not something I want on my resume! But, he finished well and that is much more important. As I read Acts 21 this morning, I noticed three commitments Paul made that resulted in the endurance to finish his race well.
1. He had a plan. His goal was to reach Jerusalem (Ch 20). He mapped out his route by ship and booked passage for himself and his travelling companions. He sought out lodging in Tyre, Ptolemais, and Caesarea during layovers in those towns. (v. 4, 7-8)
2. He had counted the cost. The trip to Jerusalem was anything but a vacation. It was going to be hard work and it was going to be personally dangerous for Paul. It wasn’t like some of the situations we all get into where we are surprised when things go bad. It was clear from the beginning that Paul was going to suffer. Everywhere he stopped on his trip, he was reminded. In Tyre, “Through the Spirit they urged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” (v. 4) In Caesarea, “. . . a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, ‘The Holy Spirit says, “In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.”‘” (v. 10-11) Even his travelling companions joined in the chorus, “When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.” (v. 12) Paul would not be dissuaded, however. He knew this was God’s will for him. He had already decided he would follow through and had determined in his heart that the price must be paid despite the difficulties.
3. He was connected to people. Many of the paths we walk take us to difficult challenges because we live in an imperfect world. It helps when we realize we are not alone in the journey. Paul understood this so he deliberately connected himself to people who believed in his God and in His sovereign right to lead us. In Tyre, “All of them, including wives and children, accompanied us out of the city, and there on the beach we knelt to pray.” (v. 5) In Caesarea, “the people there pleaded with Paul not to go . . . When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, ‘The Lord’s will be done.’” (v. 12-14) Amazingly, “Some of the disciples from Caesarea accompanied us and brought us to the home of Mnason, where we were to stay.” (v. 16) Finally, when he arrived in Jerusalem, “the brothers and sisters received us warmly.” (v. 17)
The application is easier to state than actually live out but I at least have a place to focus. I need to keep making plans that are consistent with what I know to be God’s will. I need to count the cost ahead of time as far as I can determine it. I need to stay connected to people who will encourage me along the way. For all of you who have believed in my journey, “thank you!”

On Purpose

There is a big difference between those who live on purpose and those who live on accident. By living “on accident,” I mean those people who simply do what occurs to them next hoping it will turn out alright. In contrast, people who live “on purpose” have concluded that their life matters, they have some kind of goal they are pursuing, they actively adjust their goals as God unveils His purpose for them and they make decisions in life that keep them on track with that purpose.
As I read Acts 20 this morning, I was reminded that the apostle Paul was one of the most “on purpose” people who has ever lived. As I encountered his example this morning, I was reminded of the benefits that come to us when we live on purpose:
Purpose gives us courage. “I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents.” (v. 19) He knew there were people who wanted to shut him up and shut him out. Many considered him a threat and would be glad to see him fail or come to harm. Regardless, Paul was bold and willing to stand his ground.
Purpose gives us clarity. “I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.” (v. 21) To be sure, this is a straightforward, challenging message but it is the truth. It was transparent to Paul that “the truth will set you free” because of his personal encounter with Christ. He wanted the best for people even though most people are willing to settle for comfort rather than the best.
Purpose gives you endurance. “. . . my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me.” (v. 24) Paul knew he would face hardship by going to Jerusalem. He knew for certain he would be opposed and imprisoned. He also knew this was his race to run and it didn’t matter how much effort or sacrifice it took. As we approach the beginning of the 2012 Olympic Games, it is good to be reminded that none of the athletes we will be watching got there easily or by accident. They have strived, sacrificed, trained, gone without, overcome injuries, ignored criticism and fought through adversity for a chance to fulfill their purpose.
Purpose gives you focus. When your purpose captivates your heart, you find the resources you need to live it out. “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (v. 32) Through experience, Paul had discovered that God never fails and God’s word faithfully delivers the forgiveness, direction, hope and correction that leads to a full life. When you live on purpose, you swim upstream and many people will tell you to turn around. You will hear things such as, “You are moving too fast, you are too intense, you think you are better than the rest of us, you need to chill, you are making the rest of us feel bad, you are being judgmental,” and so the list goes on. To stay on track, people with purpose look for the resources and skills that enable them to live strong, focused and efficient.
Purpose gives you compassion. “I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” (v. 35) When you discover that your life has meaning, it becomes clear that everyone’s life has meaning. You begin to realize the needs of the world are too big for you to address on your own so you are compelled to value the contributions and potential of others. You are anxious to help others so they can grow strong and get into the battle of life. You honestly believe that energizing others is necessary because the task at hand needs all hands on deck.
I invite you today to join me in living in purpose. It will prove over time to be the easier path!

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.

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!”

Getting Used to Quickly

It started out like any other day. The alarm went off at the normal time. Pete got out of bed, had his first cup of coffee and got ready for work. He and his colleagues started their daily pursuits in their career like any other normal working day. In fact, it was a rather frustrating day. They worked diligently but circumstances didn’t cooperate very well so the results of the day were unimpressive. They spent more time on maintenance and practicing their skills than on actually achieving any measurable goal.
Then, without any pre-planning, a local preacher asked to borrow his vehicle so he could stand on it and deliver an impromptu sermon. Pete liked this preacher and had nothing better going on this day so he agreed. After the sermon was over, this unassuming preacher challenged them to go back to work and do exactly what they had been doing all day long.
You can almost hear Pete’s thoughts. This preacher borrows my work vehicle and now he thinks he is an expert at what I do for a living. What a waste of time but there is an audience. If I blow off this man, it will affect my reputation. If I take his advice, I am going to be throwing away a couple of hours. I don’t want to do this but I guess I have no choice.
Reluctantly, Peter, James and John loaded up their nets, got back in their boats and went out to the same waters where they had caught nothing earlier that same day. “When they had done so, they caught such a large number of fish that their nets began to break.” (Luke 5:6)
Suddenly, life had changed. The man they thought was just a local preacher proved He had authority over nature. Peter’s self-confidence quickly became self-awareness, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!” (v. 8 ) Their careers were transformed with a single statement, ““Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people.” (v. 10) Before they could even process the magnitude of what had just happened, “they pulled their boats up on shore, left everything and followed him.” (v. 11)
As I look back on my life, the biggest steps have happened quickly. I simply went to a movie at the age of 16 and was confronted with my need for a Savior. I simply went to a leadership conference at 19 having no idea I was going to meet my life partner. On an otherwise uneventful day, I heard the words, “We are going to be parents!” I asked Jim Conway to mentor me as a pastor having no idea that one day, out of the blue, he would challenge Pam and me to become authors. At a simple visit to the doctor’s office for a sinus infection, I was asked the question, “How long have you had high blood pressure?”
These moments changed my life quickly and unexpectedly. It was impossible at the beginning of each of these days to predict how important they were but each of them led to key decisions and sweeping adjustments in my life.
It has become part of the adventure of life for me. Today could be one of those days. Of course, today could just be another routine day of preparation getting me ready for one of those days. Either way, I want to live today with the anticipation that the next time Jesus makes a big change in my life, it will probably happen quickly.