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The Greatest Gift

A friend recently said to me, “No one ever looks happy when they are running.” Since I have included running as part of my plan to stay in shape, the comment caught my attention. I like the results of running but he is right that I never look happy while I am in the process. In fact, I looked back at a few pictures that another friend took of me while I was running on the beach. I was doing the right thing (exercising) and I was in a beautiful place (Cannon Beach, OR) but as you can tell from the pictures I wasn’t exactly enjoying it.
BillRunningAs I have reflected on his statement, I realized forgiveness is the same way. It is possibly the most important activity of our lives. Ephesians 3:7 informs us, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.” As an act of grace, Jesus took our place and paid the price for the wrong in our lives. Each of us is painfully aware of deficiencies within. We think the wrong things, we harbor self-defeating attitudes, we fight back desires in our hearts that are neither good nor noble. And periodically these internal struggles turn into behavior that harms relationships we care about.
As a result, being forgiven is the first step in developing a healthy relationship with God and others. Jesus didn’t look happy when he was sweating blood in the Garden of Gethsemane. He didn’t look happy when He was being scourged. He didn’t look happy when He was sacrificing His life on the cross. He did it because the results were worth it to Him.
This is the legacy of our faith. Forgiveness creates renewed hearts, renewed relationships and renewed freedom to pursue excellence. It is never enjoyable in the process but it is always effective in its impact. Consider Joseph and his brothers in Genesis 50. At the death of their father, the brothers were rightfully worried, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” (v. 15) In honest contrition they said to Joseph, “Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father . . . we are your slaves.” (v. 17-18) Despite the heartache, disappointments and injustices Joseph went through, he concluded in his heart that forgiveness was a better course than vengeance. “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” (v. 19-21)
When God was thinking about the greatest gift He could give to mankind, He decided to give us complete forgiveness that would free us from condemnation and launch us into a pursuit of excellence that comes from a heart that is liberated to dream and take risks. He did it because the results were worth it to Him!

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!

When the Heart Turns

I received an interesting (and enjoyable) compliment yesterday. I met with a man who was frustrated in his relationship with his wife and acted out a couple days prior to our meeting. He said things that were unfortunate which gave his wife the impression that things were in deep trouble. I knew the history of this couple and I have seen this man growing consistently for the past few months so I suspected there was quite a bit of hope for them. When I got together with him it was clear to me he really did want to have a successful marriage.
We talked about the patterns in their relationship that tend to catch him unaware and spark an angry response. We explored the decisions he was making that caused his well-being to be determined by his wife’s responses which was putting pressure on her to “act right” all the time. We reviewed the way a marriage relationship is different than the other relationships in our lives and we set new strategies for helping it go smoother.
None of this was new information as we had spoken about these things before. There was, however, a different response. The compliment I received was, “I don’t know what you did but my husband is a completely different person than the one who left for work. It is miraculous.” I have been at this long enough to know that it wasn’t anything I did. It was the condition of this man’s heart. He was motivated to figure it out. He truly wanted to know and was open to whatever it would take to have a healthy, loving, productive relationship. I have known for a long time that when people’s hearts are open, I appear to be brilliant. When their hearts are closed, I don’t seem to know much at all.
Heart From HandsIt was a good reminder to me of Proverbs 22:17, “Pay attention and turn your ear to the sayings of the wise; apply your heart to what I teach.” Regardless of how people respond the sayings are wise and the teaching is true. Change, however, happens when people accept wisdom with an open heart. This is where it gets exciting because matters of the heart move quickly. A man (or woman) with a soft, responsive heart is one breakthrough away from positive transformation that will extend his influence and draw people to him. A man (or woman) with a stubborn heart is likewise one breakthrough away from complicated setbacks that threaten his relationships and push people away. In either case, the important thing is the condition of the heart and the heart can change quickly.
Many of us have people in our lives who frustrate us, annoy us, disappoint us or simply refuse to do what we know is right. Our tendency is to monitor their behavior in a sincere attempt to get them to act correctly. If the problem is a lack of training, this is helpful as in the case of parents training their children. If the problem, however, is a matter of the heart, it is better to commit this person to prayer and wait for God to turn their hearts because when the heart turns, it is miraculous.
Jesus, give us the humility to keep our hearts soft before you.

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.

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!