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In the Company of Kings

I feel like I met a superstar this morning. I am reading Acts 25 and, if I didn’t know better, I would have thought that the Apostle Paul was an elite member of the privileged class. He has already appeared before Felix (a Roman governor appointed to oversee the province of Judea) to share his story and pronounce the truth of the gospel. Now he appears before Festus who succeeded Felix as the governor of the region (v. 6-10). When it was obvious that a plot was in place to ambush Paul, the apostle appealed to Caesar which created a scenario that would take him to Rome to appear before the supreme commander of his day. This made the situation more complicated so Festus convened an elaborate gathering that included King Agrippa, who ruled in Israel under the authority of Festus, his wife, Bernice and “the high-ranking military officers and the prominent men of the city” (v. 23).
Paul was not meeting with all these custodians of influence, however, because of his success or his standing in the community. He was proclaiming the greatest message on earth to them because he was falsely accused of a crime, was waiting patiently in prison for a reasonable hearing and was having to tell his story over and over since there was no real basis for the charges against him. His apparent difficulties had opened doors of opportunity that were not possible in the course of his “normal” life.
I admire Paul for what he was doing but I don’t really like the principle—even though I know it is true. The trials of our lives create opportunities if we are willing to see them!
I would not have the compassion I have if I had not grown up around a fearful, controlling mom. I love her, I believe she meant well and I am glad to have a relationship with her today. It was frustrating and irritating but going through the developmental years of my life in an atmosphere of harsh fear opened my eyes to the hidden pain that many people carry. I was either going to become resentful or resolved to help. Thank God that Jesus gave me the will to help others. As I have told the story over and over I am amazed at the number of people who told me, “I grew up in a home like yours. I think we might be related!”
The day my 6 year-old son was missing for 6 hours settled the issue of whether I believed God was truly good. I had reached the point where I didn’t think I would see him again or, if I did, he would not be in good shape. I had to ask the question, “If I lose my son or find out he has been abused or killed, will I still believe that God is a good God who loves without limit?” It is an easy question to answer when things are going well. It is a much different question to answer when faced with tragedy. I am fortunate because I got my son back (He was playing in a storm drain with a friend). But I can remember the moment like it was yesterday when, through tears, I concluded that God was good regardless of what life may throw my way.
I am certainly not asking for difficult circumstances beyond my control to enter my life. That would be crazy. I do, however, trust that God will give me the grace to see the opportunities that exist in the midst of the difficult chapters of life since I live in a world that is filled with both victories and setbacks.
Jesus, I don’t relish the fact that we all face circumstances beyond our control. I do rejoice, however, that you can turn those same situations into moments of influence, strength and hope. Thanks for being there every step of the journey!

Five Positives per Day

When I wrote my last blog entry, I mentioned that “a friend of mine is known for saying, ‘Everybody faces five problems per day. The way you respond to those challenges will determine the quality of that day and, when you add those days up, they will determine the quality of your life.'”
One of my sons responded to me and asked, “What 5 positive things happened yesterday?” It is as much a part of the message of Psalm 34 as having a clear perspective on the real struggles of life. Verses 8-10 read, “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the LORD, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.”
So here we go. Yesterday I was with a group of men at a Men’s Summit in Central Ohio. Here is my short list of the positive things that happened:
• We started the morning with strong, energetic worship. The worship band consisted of a drummer, a keyboard player, lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, violin, steel guitar and three singers. The room was filled with music and the enthusiasm infected the crowd.
• A dad pulled me aside and said, “Thanks for this weekend. My 19 year-old and 23 year-old sons were riveted on what you had said. It was so exciting for me to see that.”
• A 65 year-old man shared, “1 year ago I had a liver and kidney transplant. The surgery was half as long as the doctors expected and my recovery has gone better than they expected. I believe God still has an adventure for me and I am going to be looking for it this year.”
• At the end of the summit, men jumped in to help break down the sound and projection equipment for the 10 person worship team and the work was accomplished in 30 minutes – without breaking anything!
• The men bought books. It is true that “leaders are readers” but it is also true that men’s groups don’t normally buy a lot of books. This collection of men were the exception and I am excited to hear the reports going forward of what God is going to do among them.
Yesterday was one of those highlight days we get every once in a while so I expect today to be a little different. But, the God who orchestrated yesterday is the same God who is planning today. So far, I have my health, the coffee maker worked and I am still fascinated with my wife. That’s not a bad start. I am going to honor my son’s request and keep looking for positive things that are going to happen around me. I already know I am going to face some challenges because it is a very full day but I am confident in God’s promise, “The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.” (v. 10)
Jesus, give me realistic eyes today. Help me not turn away from, or be surprised by, the challenges of the day. At the same time, remind me of the good things you are bringing to my life.

Five Problems a Day

A friend of mine is known for saying, “Everybody faces five problems per day. The way you respond to those challenges will determine the quality of that day and, when you add those days up, they will determine the quality of your life.” The first time I heard him say it I thought, That sounds kind of pessimistic. Why would anyone want to anticipate five problems every day? At the same time, something about the statement resonated with me and refused to go away. So, I began to observe my own life to see if it was a true statement and I have concluded there is a lot of truth in what my friend proclaimed to us on a regular basis.
King David even echoed this thought in Psalm 34:19, “The righteous person may have many troubles, but the LORD delivers him from them all.” David was rejoicing over the fact that a ridiculous plan to act insane before a rival king had actually worked to save his life. On the surface the idea was ludicrous and it would require God to lead Achish king of Gath to conclude David was no longer a threat because he had lost his mind. (Check out the story in 1 Samuel 21:10-14). David was on the run. He had been rejected by King Saul. Saul’s intention to kill him has been confirmed by his best friend Jonathan. He was traveling alone, seeking a new plan and needing to restart his life since the king he served was now opposed to him. In his vulnerable state, his simplistic plan had been honored by God and his life was spared.
Then I thought about my day yesterday and I asked, What troubles did I face?
1. The tree limb that broke and covered my driveway needed to be cleared.
2. I had more phone calls to make than was possible.
3. Team members of a project we are working on needed to have details clarified.
4. Cash flow issues required challenging financial decisions.
5. I had to fight back personal fear in my career pursuit.
I have to admit, the last one surprised me. I have not been prone to feelings of fear since I met Jesus as my Savior. I think it is because I grew up in a home that was dominated by fear and I was determined to find a way to overcome it in my life. Almost every decision in my family of origin was characterized by fear in some way. My mom even sincerely parented out of fear and tried to keep me motivated by saying things like, “You shouldn’t do that. You don’t have what it takes. It is too dangerous.”
One of the choices I made as a young adult was to take refuge in an organization. I liked that because it provided structure, teamwork and a collection of talented people who could cover for one another. In the second half of life, however, I have chosen to work freelance and build a business with my wife. It is exciting and challenging and has almost unlimited potential for helping others but it lacks structure. In fact, the only structure it has is the one I impose upon it. Predictably, there are aspects of this kind of work that are uncomfortable to me and for the past few days the pressure has been on to be good at the areas I am most uncomfortable with. I had to fight back the thought that maybe I really don’t have what it takes to make this work, even though there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. So when I read, “I sought the LORD, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears,” (Psalm 34:4) it got my attention.
Looking back, yesterday turned out pretty well because I was able to overcome the 5 challenges that were a part of my world. Today, I am praying for the wisdom and strength to face down the next five.

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.”

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!

Contentment is a Person

Pam and I had the opportunity last week to watch over our grandkids as our son and his wife went out on a date to celebrate their anniversary. We ate their kind of food and played games they loved. We laughed and ran and enjoyed each other’s company. Then, it was time to put them to bed. They didn’t want to go and, to be honest, we didn’t want to make them go to bed because we loved the time together. We knew, however, that life would be hard on our kids the next day if we didn’t follow through. So off to bed they went.
Well, my granddaughters are five and two. After reading with them and praying with them, we tucked them into bed. 30 minutes later, I heard subdued laughter coming out of their room. I went to the door out of curiosity and I could hear them having “sister time.” They were giggling and talking and giggling some more. They certainly were not asleep but they were content to be in bed because they were enjoying a special relationship with one another.
It was a good reminder to me that contentment in life does not come from possessions or accomplishments. It comes through relationship. And that is the point of Psalm 23. At each and every turn in our lives, God is committed to be present, to provide and to protect us out of a sincere and devoted love.
“The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.” (v. 1) It is easy to think this means we will always prosper and I, like you, get confused when there isn’t enough money, time or ingenuity to do what I believe needs to be done today. From a shepherd’s point of view, however, this means God will keep us moving so we get to the next place of provision. Sheep will stay in one field and eat everything until the field is bare. They will then be confused because there is nothing left to eat. The Shepherd only lets them stay in one grazing meadow long enough to be strengthened for the next move. He then moves them (often against their will) to the next pasture. He rotates them from one field to another so the supply never runs out.
“He guides me along the right paths . . . Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil . . .” (v. 3-4) The treacherous part of a sheep’s life is the move from one field to another. In the pasture, the shepherd has control. The borders can be watched carefully and intruders can be monitored. The transition from one place to another creates danger. Natural protections are temporarily removed. New terrain contains new hiding places for predators. The travel interrupts well-practiced routines making the sheep more vulnerable. The same is true in our lives. Periodically, God needs to move us from one path in life to another. Aging, the acquisition of wisdom, the shift from high productivity to broad influence at midlife and the ever-changing landscape of our technological world create the need for change. As we go through these necessary transitions, life becomes temporarily treacherous. In the move, contentment is found in the truth, “I will fear no evil for you are with me.” (v. 4)
I know that life is inconvenient, exhilarating, disappointing, frustrating and fascinating all at the same time. Like everyone I know, I am consistently trying to manipulate circumstances to find contentment. For the moment, I can confidently say that contentment is found in the person of Jesus because “Surely [His] goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.” (v. 6)

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.