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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!

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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!

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.

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.

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.”