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The Greatest Friendship

I was engaged in a Bible study with some close friends when the following passage got my attention, “Surely you have heard about the administration of God’s grace that was given to me for you.” (Ephesians 3:2) It triggered an interest in me to learn more about grace. I have a vague recognition that the term “grace” represents all that Jesus did for us but until recently I didn’t take time to look at the various aspects of grace that make it so valuable. For the next few blog posts I would like to share what I have learned about the implications of grace in our lives.
FriendRequestGrace Initiates favor and a friendship with God. In Genesis 6, the news reports were not good. “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time.” (v. 5) The general state of things was not good. People had stopped considering the consequences of their actions, given into every whim that rose up in their hearts and became content to judge their actions by their own ideas rather than any kind of objective standard. Any attempts to point out the negative impact of current affairs were met with stubbornness, scoffing and ridicule.
In the midst of the turmoil, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD.” (v. 8) The idea is that God accepted Noah and viewed him as a valuable, attractive part of His life. In other words, he was a trusted friend. God “opened up” to Noah about His disappointments and plans. He then invited Noah to be a full partner in His plan.
Abraham was an average man living an average life when God reached out to him. God knew that people weren’t “getting it” when it came to His love for them. He decided He wanted to build up a nation who would demonstrate for the world His interest in mankind, His dedication to provide for His own, His commitment to help us become the best we could be and His desire to draw all people into an honest, cooperative relationship with Himself. To establish this nation, God chose Abraham (Genesis 15:4-6) and because Abe said, “Yes,” he was called God’s friend. (James 2:23)
This is the nature of grace. It goes beyond God taking pity on us because of our imperfections and shortcomings. It raises us to the level of friendship where we confide in one another, share each other’s dreams and make plans together to make life better for those we care about. Hence, Jesus said to His followers, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15)
As I consider the nature of a friendship with God, I realize it is more than just “hanging out” with God. It is joining with Him to accomplish the dreams He has for the people He created. He could do it better all on His own but He prefers to share the journey with friends. It reminds me of the words of legendary football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, “I’m just a plow hand from Arkansas, but I have learned how to hold a team together. How to lift some men up, how to calm down others, until finally they’ve got one heartbeat together, a team. There’s just three things I’d ever say: If anything goes bad, I did it. If anything goes semi-good, then we did it. If anything goes real good, then you did it. That’s all it takes to get people to win football games for you.”
May we fully enjoy the friendship we have with God through His grace.

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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!

What Has God Been Doing?

We all have “pet peeves,” “hot buttons,” and “areas of intense focus” that capture our attention to the point we think everyone should share our level of interest in the topic. Today’s topic is one of those for me and I would like to get your feedback. The “hot button” for me is a conviction that the question, “What has God been doing in my life?” is one of life’s great privileges. Ephesians 2:10 states, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” Philippians 2:13 echoes this same thought, “for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.

It seems inescapable to me then that God has been working in each of our lives from 10 Best Decisions a Leader Can Makethe beginning to lead us in the pursuit of His will. Even before we knew He was at work, He was busy shaping, molding and redeeming situations to develop passion in our hearts for something I believe there are a number of ways you can look back on your life to discover what God has been about. You can look at your strongest memories, your life altering decisions, the consistent interests of your heart, your choice of friends, etc. One of the ways is also to look at the leaders you have been inclined to follow. In The 10 Best Decisions a Leader Can Make, I share the short list of those leaders in my life as a way of discovering your place in the plan. I have included a short excerpt to illustrate:

“We can all describe the journey of our lives by the leaders who have impacted us.
In third grade, Mrs. Svoboda taught me that math could be fun. She was energetic about math concepts and instituted a number of competitive games to help those of us with natural aptitude excel in our development. It was the first time in my life that learning captured the same sense of adventure as athletic competition . . .

In fifth grade, I was assigned to Mr. Foladare’s class. His body was mildly deformed from a childhood malady, but it never stopped him from doing what was on his heart. He taught with focus and enthusiasm that made me want to learn . . . Even though he was only five foot six, he coached an elite club basketball team that consistently played in tournament championships. He was tough-minded, energetic, and determined that obstacles would not hold him back . . .

Coach Pitts started [freshman] basketball practice that year with the statement, “You are going to be the toughest, hardest working team in our league. You may end up liking me or hating me by the end of the season, but you will be the most determined basketball players around.” I wasn’t even sure at the time why it got my attention. I do know, however, that my time with Coach Pitts better prepared me for the realities of life . . .

Coach Howell was a high-school football coach in the mold of Paul “Bear” Bryant. He wasn’t the most personable man I have ever met, but he knew how to win. He taught me that success is not just about talent. It’s about maintaining discipline in the midst of adversity. It’s about adjusting to challenges with a clear view of your goal and cultivating a mindset of believing you will succeed despite the forces trying to keep you from it . . .

Pastor Jack Peacock taught me the power of building authentic networks. He had an uncanny ability to connect with rugged men . . .

Bob Bell was a corporate leader I watched from a distance. He was extremely busy with his career and family so he didn’t have much time to give, but the way he handled his life and business was attractive to me. An associate of his told me one day, “Bob was in charge of investigating safety reports in our company. He was always tough, but he was always fair.”

Jim Conway convinced me that having a full-fledged ministry and raising a healthy family could be done at the same time . . . Despite a difficult childhood, he was positive, energetic, and ambitious.”

From these leaders I discovered that I am drawn to help people with real issues in their lives, environments that are competitive, learning significant information, balancing solid relationships with a standard of truth and overcoming obstacles with tenacity. These have become major themes in my life that drive my decisions and help me sort out my priorities because I am passionate about them.

It seems to me, however, that people in general have a hard time “seeing” what God has been doing. They can report the news of their lives but have trouble identifying the themes that are supposed to capture their hearts and focus their efforts.
This is where I would like your input. As you look back at your life, can you identify the themes, convictions, and interests that God has been trying to weave into your heart? I look forward to your insight – Thanks!

Big Roots

I had the “opportunity” to do some landscaping work at my parents’ house this past weekend. My parents are getting to the age where they cannot do this kind of work themselves so my siblings and I decided to help them out. The project involved creating a large planter section at the base of a short hill which would provide my mom with a level area to practice her interest in growing drought resistant plants. My son and I agreed to prep the area for new planting, which is a nice way to say we were going to do a lot of digging and contouring.
Tree RootsIt didn’t take long for us to encounter some impressive roots in the ground. There are a number of trees in the area that have, over time, extended their roots over a large area. The small roots were easy to deal with but not all the roots were small. Some of the support structure had grown to between 2 and 3 inches in diameter and took great effort to clear out in anticipation of a new collection of plants.
The amazing thing is that these big roots started out little. When the trees were planted many years before, the roots were thin and contained in a root ball that had to be carefully buried in the ground, fertilized, watered and watched over until it established itself in its new location. With time and care, however, they were solid, stable and difficult to dislodge.
It reminded me of the truth of Galatians 6:8-9. “. . . whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” When the Holy Spirit enters our lives at the point of salvation, He gets planted in our lives as a seed with the potential of developing a strong, stable and pervasive influence over our souls. God has set up the system in an interactive way so that when we “sow to please the Spirit” His influence grows. Just like the roots we battled to remove this past weekend, the power of the Spirit can grow in our lives as we engage in the activities that nourish our relationship with Him.
The key is consistency. Trees need consistent water, fertilizer and sunshine over time to grow strong. In the same way, there are consistent activities in our lives that I have found helpful in sowing to the Spirit:
• Regular exposure to the Word of God through reading, studying and hearing it taught.
• Interactive prayer where we share what is on our hearts and quietly listen.
• Doing what is obvious. There is much in our spiritual journeys that has an element of mystery to it but there is also a lot that is clear and obvious. Our willingness to do what is obvious keeps our spirits cooperative to the bigger things God has in store for us.
• Pay attention to God’s word. When verses make you feel better, be encouraged by them. When verses bother you, ask, “What area of change in my life is this verse pointing to?”
Like most of you, I wish I could develop strong roots quickly. The fact is they take unremarkable routines practiced over time.
Jesus, help me today to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest.”

The Shrewd Love of God

One of the realities in our world is that people would rather pick a fight than give in to truth. We are living in days of unprecedented wealth and opportunity. I know many individuals are struggling financially but we tend to be worried over issues such as, “Can I keep my house? Can we continue to make our car payment? Can we afford to fight two wars? Can we afford to have half our population receive public assistance?” Most of us are not asking, “Will we eat today? Will we have shoes to wear when the one pair I own wears out? Will I be able to afford cold or flu medicine when my child gets sick?”
In the midst of this, you would think we would be grateful and committed to the principles that got us here. It would make sense to train people to grow spiritually, live with integrity, work steadily and protect the freedoms that created the atmosphere of opportunity we enjoy in America. Instead, we look for new issues to fight over.
At a personal level, we are discontent and dissatisfied. We blame God because our life is inconvenient or the people around us won’t act the way we believe they should. We act surprised when kids act like kids and we create conflict with them. We put expectations on people that ruin relationships and divide families.
At a public level, we invent causes that create unnecessary conflicts. We are busy redefining a life that doesn’t need redefinition. Rather than recognize the truth that got us where we are, we invent reasons to be upset, stage protests over convictions that ought not to be changed and leverage our leaders to give in to self-serving ideas rather than solid principles that stabilize life.
Be encouraged, however. This is nothing new and God has been dealing with this characteristic of mankind for a long time. “To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd.” (Psalm 18:25-26) Those who walk with God receive His support. He is faithful and blameless in the way He treats His own. He loves unconditionally, provides consistently, protects tenaciously and encourages strategically. To those who try to reinvent life according to their own designs, He shrewdly faces off with them and shows them step by step the emptiness of their efforts. If they respond favorably, He accepts their repentance and renews their life. If they continue to be stubborn, He increases the intensity of their discomfort in an effort to get their attention. He never interrupts their free will but He never gives into it either. In a word, His love is either soft or shrewd toward us depending upon our choices.
I, for one, want to be on the soft side of God’s love. I know He can handle me if I am stubborn and self-absorbed but I would rather experience the faithful and blameless side of His character.

Be Who You Are

A common theme in my conversations with people revolves around the questions, “Why did God make me the way he did and how am I supposed to respond?” In my case, I have often wondered why God gave my family athletic and teaching abilities but did not give us ears for music. Some people wonder why they aren’t better at making money. Others wonder why they have a hard time focusing because creative thoughts swirl in their heads. Some wonder why they are so tall or so short or more round than others. And the list goes on. Just last night I was asked how I would respond to a situation if a friend of mine insisted on doing something he obviously wasn’t gifted to do. It wasn’t hard to answer because I believe it is quite common. John Maxwell is famous for saying, “Anyone who thinks he is leading but has no followers is simply taking a walk.”

My Next Generation

The truth is that God was in charge of our creation. We are who we are by the sovereignty of God. Sometimes that is great news. When you are good at what you like to do and circumstances of your life are pleasing, it is easy to say thank you to God. The problem comes when who you are creates difficult choices. Enter the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:3-4. “Our father died in the wilderness. He was not among Korah’s followers, who banded together against the LORD, but he died for his own sin and left no sons. Why should our father’s name disappear from his clan because he had no son? Give us property among our father’s relatives.”
Moses was in the process of dividing up the land of Canaan among the tribes of Israel. We must keep in mind that this was the key to their success. If you had land in that day, you had the opportunity to build a business, have shelter and develop a financial foundation for future generations. Even if mistakes were made along the way, every 49 years (the year of Jubilee) the land would be returned so the clan could regroup and get back on track. It was, therefore, a vital issue to both survival and influence to possess part of the new land. Zelophehad, however, had passed away without sons, which meant his daughters would be nomads. It was resolved quickly and they were given land but this was not the end of the story.
In Numbers 36, the issue rose again. Family members approached Moses with the following scenario, “Now suppose they marry men from other Israelite tribes; then their inheritance will be taken from our ancestral inheritance and added to that of the tribe they marry into . . . When the Year of Jubilee for the Israelites comes, their inheritance will be added to that of the tribe into which they marry, and their property will be taken from the tribal inheritance of our ancestors.” (Numbers 36:3-4)
This “problem” was created simply because they were all female, a decision in life over which they had no control. In response, God asked them to do something unusual. “They may marry anyone they please as long as they marry within their father’s tribal clan.” (v. 6) This certainly is not a general rule. It is not what God normally asks of people. It is, however, a good example of situations in life that force us to decide whether we will adjust to God’s sovereignty or foster a bad attitude. It would be understandable if these ladies were upset with this ruling. It is equally remarkable that they willingly made the adjustment.

Lord, give me the grace today to adjust to the way you made me.

Treasure the Unexpected

Some of the best memories of life happen when you least expect them. Last weekend I was in Edmonton. Pam and I spoke at a large conference where we saw more than our share of transformation in a short period of time. Three couples said to us, “We were separated when we came here. If this didn’t work, we weren’t too sure what we were going to do. We have had some kind of a breakthrough and we have found our motivation again.”
Another couple told me, “We realize we haven’t been doing what will really help us. We are a blended family and we have resorted to blaming each other. We are going to start by reading one of your books together and practicing new skills.”
Those were the things I kind of expected to hear. We had prayed for this kind of movement in peoples’ lives and, amazingly, that kind of thing happens regularly at marriage conferences. What I didn’t expect was the inspiration that came from the ride to the airport.
The man who drove the SUV appeared to be an ordinary volunteer. There was nothing striking about his appearance and he was humbly serving as a driver for the conference. As we headed out, we discovered Paul is a member of a quartet called The Crew Guys. He has a natural ear for music and is somewhat of an expert at speaking in dialects. In a short ride, he sang an a capella version of Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus in perfect pitch and then spoke to us in dialects from Ireland, Newfoundland, England and a Southern California beach community. We laughed, applauded and marveled at a gifted man who was content to be a humble servant for the weekend. You can check them out singing the Star Spangled Banner. (Paul is the one with facial hair.)
Matthew 21 started with one of the greatest unexpected treasures in history. It was the beginning of the Passover week and people were flocking to Jerusalem to celebrate the holiday. They had done this year after year and they knew how the routine worked. They made their plans and set their expectations for the week. Then Jesus “sent two disciples, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me.’ (v. 1-2) ‘They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,
“Hosanna to the Son of David!”
“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, ‘Who is this?’ The crowds answered, ‘This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.’” (v. 7-11)
The highlight of their day was the unexpected entrance of the Messiah. As I go through my week, I am going to keep my eyes open for the unexpected treasures!