Expect the unexpected!

rollercoaster

I love roller coasters.  At least I did before I got older and could only tolerate a maximum of three rides in succession before I needed to take a bit of a break.  But my age is a different topic!

Anyhow, the great thing about roller coasters is that they start off slow and low, but then they click, click, click up to the top of a hill and then they fly through loops and corkscrews and dips and heights and falls!  They’re exhilarating, they’re exciting, and most times they’re unexpected.  In fact, the unexpected element of them is what makes them so great!

The same is true of life.  Life is unexpected.  Life doesn’t go the way we want it to.  In fact, the unexpected element of life is what makes it so great!

So by now you may be shaking your head.  You may be in silent disagreement.  You may be in not-so-silent disagreement.  You may even have stopped reading.  But … please hang with me, because I want to encourage you to look at life as unexpected.  I want to charge you to be comfortable with the unexpected.  I want to motivate you to expect the unexpected!

There are numerous examples of the unexpected in the Bible.  Perhaps none are as vivid as the story of Joseph.  From Genesis 37:18-20, 26-28, we read a little of the lead-in to Joseph’s unexpected journey.

When Joseph’s brothers saw him coming, they recognized him in the distance. As he approached, they made plans to kill him.  “Here comes the dreamer!” they said.  “Come on, let’s kill him and throw him into one of these cisterns. We can tell our father, ‘A wild animal has eaten him.’ Then we’ll see what becomes of his dreams!”

 Judah said to his brothers, “What will we gain by killing our brother? We’d have to cover up the crime.  Instead of hurting him, let’s sell him to those Ishmaelite traders. After all, he is our brother—our own flesh and blood!” And his brothers agreed.  So when the Ishmaelites, who were Midianite traders, came by, Joseph’s brothers pulled him out of the cistern and sold him to them for twenty piecesof silver. And the traders took him to Egypt.

It’s probably not surprising that being nearly killed and instead sold into slavery was rather unexpected to Joseph.  One day he’s out tending his father’s flocks in Shechem and the next … he’s a slave, being carted off to Egypt and sold.  Admittedly, Joseph instigated his brothers with a haughty spirit and was the favorite of the father, Jacob, and flaunted it.  This had very unexpected consequences.  But that isn’t where the unexpected ended in Joseph’s life.  It was just the beginning.  Perhaps many of you already know the story, but Joseph becomes quite important in the house of Potiphar the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard.  Unexpected!  He then is falsely accused of trying to rape Potiphar’s wife and is sentenced to imprisonment. Unexpected!  He becomes the right-hand guy to the warden in the prison. Unexpected!  Next, he has the good fortune to be used of God to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh’s cup-bearer and chief baker.  Unexpected!  But he gets double-crossed by the cup-bearer and left in prison.  Unexpected.  Finally, he is asked to interpret Pharaoh’s own dreams, leading to Joseph predicting and helping prepare Egypt for an oncoming seven-year famine.  Un … ex … pected!

And even that is not where the unexpected ends in Joseph’s life.  As he ascends to the second-highest position of power in Egypt, the famine God foretold to Joseph began to spread to the land where Joseph’s family was.  In order to save the family, Jacob’s other sons depart for Egypt to obtain food, in the process unwittingly encountering their brother Joseph, who recognized his brothers though they don’t recognize him. Unexpected!

No doubt for those of us who read the story of Joseph the first time, we would say his life was a reflection of all things unexpected.  At various points of his life I suspect it is safe to say that Joseph lamented, pouted, cried, pitched a fit, yelled out to God.  All of that.  We’re probably accurate in that assessment (though scripture is silent as to those things) simply because Joseph, like you and me, was human.  Those responses would be very appropriate for a human going through such unexpected times and struggles.  Had that been you and me, I suspect we would have had all those responses.  Heck, for me, I would likely have packed it up and given up long before we read the end of Joseph’s saga.  But not Joseph.  He leaned into the unexpected, prepared for it, expected it, and made the most of it. We see this when Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers, and after all the bad they’d intended to do to him, when he has ALL the authority and power in Egypt to exact chilling revenge on them, we see something quite unexpected! (Genesis 50:19-20)

But Joseph replied, “Don’t be afraid of me. Am I God, that I can punish you?  You intended to harm me, but God intended it all for good. He brought me to this position so I could save the lives of many people.

Did you catch that?  Joseph, after all he’d been through, at the hands of his brothers in many ways, expresses probably one of the most important truths that you and I can grab from the unexpected.  It’s pretty much captured in two words in the above … “God intended.”  When we go through the unexpected, it’s pivotal for us to remember that it’s unexpected only to us.  It is NOT unexpected to God.  So, you say, God sure sounds mean and frivolous.  Well, not so much.  For that, it’s captured in the two words later in that same line, “for good.”  God intended it all for good.

What was unexpected for Joseph, Jacob, and all of Jacob’s other sons, was fully expected by God.  And it was fully expected by God to use it for good.  Was it for Jacob’s good?  Maybe.  Was it for Joseph’s good?  That’s debatable.  Was it for Joseph’s brothers’ good.  Perhaps. But it was for good.  Why?  So that he could, “save the lives of many people.”

You’re probably hoping I’ll get to the point as it pertains to you and me.  Well, it’s just this.

I have gone through unbelievable “unexpecteds” in my life.  I bet you have too.  For me, being born in the Bronx in NY and living for the first part of my childhood in the projects, only to move to Huntington Beach, CA and to grow up in Surf City, USA.  Unexpected! To be the beneficiary of enormous sacrifices of my parents who imbued me with a spirit of confidence to do things no one else had done previously in our family, like go to college.  Unexpected!  To have incredible work experiences that I never predicted or asked for, which richly prepared me for growth professionally and into a new season and new job and my wife and kids moving to Texas in realization of a long-time goal. Unexpected!  To be diagnosed with diabetes at age 30 and a tumor at age 31, both of which were wakeup calls to physical health and spiritual salvation. Unexpected!  To use an unexpected professional journey into cancer diagnostics to help guide the horrible diagnoses of beloved friends in ways I couldn’t have done otherwise.  Unexpected! And yet, every one of those things was expected for God.  Because, “God intended it all for good.”

Not every unexpected in my life, or likely your lives, feels good.  No more than it felt good for Joseph to be sold into slavery.  But like Joseph at the time of being sold off, he couldn’t see what had yet to happen.  Even when he made his revelation to his brothers, God wasn’t done using the “unexpecteds” in Joseph’s life.  In fact, it wasn’t for several hundred years before one of the benefits of the unexpected in Joseph’s life came to fruition in the freeing of the Israelites from 400 years of slavery in Egypt.  And even then, that wasn’t the true fulfillment of the unexpected in Joseph’s life. The freedom from the Israelites’ slavery in Egypt was a preview of the freedom Jesus would win for all mankind from the slavery of sin.  And yet, Joseph, through all of his unexpected, would never have seen that.  And yet it had to be.  Why?  Because, “God intended it all for good.”

None of this is meant to minimize any painful, heart-wrenching, challenging unexpected in your life.  That is real, and the hurt is too.  I guess my point is to encourage all of us to expect the unexpected.  Life is hard. Life doesn’t go the way we want to. It can often be like a roller coaster, and frequently can be a super scary roller coaster for those of us who may not like roller coasters or worse yet, may be petrified of them.  I hear you.  Yes, the unexpected can be petrifying.  There is no way around that at times.  Joseph had to be horrified and terrorized as he was being transported away into slavery.

But the unexpected is preparatory … as I look back on my experiences, the unexpected has given me skills I would have never otherwise acquired and knowledge I could not otherwise have gained. It gave me the will to look at my situation and believe God was at work and would pull me through.

The unexpected is progressive … not in a political sense of course … but by that I mean that with every unexpected step in my life, it allowed for later steps that would not have been able to be reached.  The unexpected would take me to a place which was the only place I could find the steps into the next season.

The unexpected is providential … these things don’t happen randomly through some cosmic mix of good luck and bad luck or through the balancing of blind forces.  “God intended it all for good.”  Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.”  God has an omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent way of allowing our free will to work together for our good and His glory.  Don’t ask me to explain how … I can’t.  It’s a mystery, but it’s also a fact.

The unexpected is also praiseworthy … Joseph saw God’s hand in the circumstances he went through and praised God for the good He would bring … the salvation of many lives.  In the desert where Jacob and his family lived?  Yup.  In Egypt 400 years later when Moses was sent by God to free the captive Israelites?  Absolutely. Through Jesus’s sacrificial death on Calvary for you and me and the whole world?  Yes, and amen!  So too I can see in retrospect how God’s hand has been in every situation in my life, graciously blessing me through the unexpected.

And so is my hope that you will look and see it too.  That even if your unexpected is horrifying presently that you will expect the unexpected blessing that God is yet to bestow through and perhaps on you as a result. God intended the unexpected for good! So let’s expect the unexpected!

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

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Once you see it, you can’t not see it

winnie the pooh cloud

When I was a kid, we did a lot of road trips. In fact, we drove across the country from the Bronx in New York City where I am originally from, to Southern California a couple times back-and-forth when I was really young.  Back in those days (GASP!) there were no cell phones, no handheld devices, no GameBoys, and most times the radio didn’t even work when you were out in the middle of nowhere.  Think about it … we were driving 2,800 miles in an old station wagon with my sister and me having NO access to technology of any kind.  It was 1975 for Pete’s sake.  What was an eight-year-old and six-year-old to do?

We did what we did much of the time when we weren’t driving across country.  We invented and played games.  We played “punch buggy” (technically you could still play it today, but unfortunately, it’s not an app so that renders it completely unlikely you will haha).  We also played a game where you deciphered what the clouds looked like.  It didn’t really have a name, but basically, we looked at the clouds and tried to imagine what she shape of the clouds represented.  It could be a crab, a pumpkin, or any number of other things. The limit was our imagination, which made it unlimited.  But the cool thing was, once you saw something in the cloud, you couldn’t look at the cloud in any other way.  No matter how you looked at it, you saw it.  I used to think, “sheesh, once you see it, you can’t not see it.”

I don’t know much, if anything, about neuroscience so trying to explain the way the images of clouds as interpreted by our brains become seared into our minds essentially for good is beyond me.  But something tells me it’s as simple as that … that the images are cataloged in our brains in some way that when we recall the cloud or whatever, the memory location in our brain brings forth the interpretation of the image too.  Who knows. But regardless, I think there is a cool parallel as it relates to our faith journeys and the events of life.  Psalm 3:1-6 is instructive …

O Lord, I have so many enemies; so many are against me. So many are saying, “God will never rescue him!” Interlude But you, O Lord, are a shield around me; you are my glory, the one who holds my head high. I cried out to the Lord, and he answered me from his holy mountain. Interlude  I lay down and slept, yet I woke up in safety, for the Lord was watching over me.  I am not afraid of ten thousand enemies who surround me on every side.

Every one of us goes through times of challenge and struggle in life.  You know, those times when the clouds begin to amass over us, darkening the skies as we look above and posing ominous possibilities.  As we see with King David however, when we look at the clouds of our circumstances, we have a choice about how we interpret what we see.

David went through many seasons of trial.  He was anointed king while Saul was still reigning and although Saul had embraced David as a member of Saul’s court, Saul began to hate David and hunt David.  Even beyond Saul, David at many times had to flee enemies committed to his demise, whether the Philistines or other peoples throughout Israel.  King David also had some self-inflicted wounds that brought upon him the clouds of consequence.  So one way or the other, David understood bumpy, cloudy journeys. Judging from the way he pours out his heart amidst these circumstances in Psalm 3, despite the challenges he faced, David knew that God was his rescue.  He declares, “I cried out to the Lord, and he answered me,” which is not a statement resolving David’s present troubles, it’s a reflection upon prior events through which God delivered David.  David had seen it (God’s protection and deliverance before) and is telling us through Psalm 3 that, “once you see it, you can’t not see it.”

How does that work?  We actually have an interesting look under the hood of David’s familiarity with God’s protection.  It’s reflected in David’s historic battle with the Philistine, Goliath … David was called to the front line of the threat by the giant Philistine, not because David was a warrior, but to deliver food to his brothers when asked by his dad, Jesse.  We see David’s line of reasoning in 1 Samuel 17:32-37a:

“Don’t worry about this Philistine,” David told Saul. “I’ll go fight him!”  “Don’t be ridiculous!” Saul replied. “There’s no way you can fight this Philistine and possibly win! You’re only a boy, and he’s been a man of war since his youth.”  But David persisted. “I have been taking care of my father’s sheep and goats,” he said. “When a lion or a bear comes to steal a lamb from the flock, I go after it with a club and rescue the lamb from its mouth. If the animal turns on me, I catch it by the jaw and club it to death.  I have done this to both lions and bears, and I’ll do it to this pagan Philistine, too, for he has defied the armies of the living God!  The Lord who rescued me from the claws of the lion and the bear will rescue me from this Philistine!”

I love this!  David says, “I’ve seen this before!  God has prepared me for this before and has shown me how He will deliver this victory because He’s delivered other victories in the past.”  David had peered right into the cloud of danger and doubt and in that He saw God, and let that image burn into his mind and soul. So, every time David saw that cloud of danger and doubt thereafter, He again saw God.  In fact, once he saw God, he couldn’t not see God.  That’s power!  We need that kind of power in our lives, in our clouds of danger and doubt!

How do we see this like David did?  Think back to the times when you have looked up at the clouds of hazard and harm and saw God’s provision overcome the cloud. Stare at that cloud, and in it see God … His victory, His rescue, His restoration … let that burn into both your mind and soul and trust that when you look at that cloud again, by His grace and ability He will once again show you the other side.  And then you will know, once you see it, you can’t not see it.

Imagine going into battle against sketchy, scary giants and having the confidence of KNOWING that God will deliver you. Why?  Because He did before.  Because when you look at the cloud of fear, you will see the visual of favor.  When you see the cloud of doubt, you will see the visual of delivery.  When you see the cloud of brokenness, you will see the visual of breakthrough. Train your eyes and allow the image to burn through into your mind and soul, and once you see it, you can’t not see it.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Trail guide

trail guide

So, I have never wanted to climb Mount Everest. Not ever.  I don’t begrudge anyone (perhaps some of you) who would, if given the opportunity, would jump at the chance or who have that on the bucket list. I’m just not one of them.  I guess I’ve just watched too many documentaries on the magnitude of risk notwithstanding the adventure.

Those who do attempt to make the 39,000-foot-plus ascent are aided by guides, referred to as Sherpa.  These are guides who actually take their name from nomadic and indigenous people of Nepal, many of whom have elite mountaineering skills and have served hundreds of aspiring climbers including helping at extreme altitudes, which is obviously necessary when trying to scale Everest (in fact, Sherpa as a term has become applied to trail guides in a broad sense, even if they are not members of the Sherpa clans).  You see, there are quite a number of different hazards and conditions that must be managed when one is attempting to make the climb.  The weather can be incredibly extreme both in temperature and in condition, and certainly volatile changing quite dramatically and quite rapidly. The climb to heights that humanity is not well-suited to live in because of the dwindling oxygen levels can cause manifold physical harm to the body.  Not only that, but there are ways to make the climb that are logical, well-vetted, and successfully navigated in the past.  The trail guides (Sherpa and otherwise) are indispensable, often life-saving, resources for trekking through the challenges and to the heights of Everest.

Trail guides are crucial in the everyday circumstances of life, too.  We see this modeled to a degree in the relationship between the prophets Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kings 19:19-21

So Elijah went and found Elisha son of Shaphat plowing a field. There were twelve teams of oxen in the field, and Elisha was plowing with the twelfth team. Elijah went over to him and threw his cloak across his shoulders and then walked away.  Elisha left the oxen standing there, ran after Elijah, and said to him, “First let me go and kiss my father and mother good-bye, and then I will go with you!  Elijah replied, “Go on back, but think about what I have done to you.”  So Elisha returned to his oxen and slaughtered them. He used the wood from the plow to build a fire to roast their flesh. He passed around the meat to the townspeople, and they all ate. Then he went with Elijah as his assistant.

Thus commenced a trail guide-oriented relationship between Elijah (trail guide) and Elisha.  We’re told that Elisha was to replace Elijah as prophet someday and the selection by God and anointing by Elijah of Elisha signaled the beginning of Elisha’s journey that his trail guide would lead over the coming seven or eight years.  Of course, this is but one example of many in scripture where we see a trail guide leading, and admittedly in this instance Elijah was instructed to seek out Elisha rather than the other way around, but the model serves regardless and we see how Elisha recognizes the role Elijah served as trail guide in 2 Kings 2:6-9

Then Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here, for the Lord has told me to go to the Jordan River.”  But again Elisha replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and you yourself live, I will never leave you.” So they went on together. Fifty men from the group of prophets also went and watched from a distance as Elijah and Elisha stopped beside the Jordan River.  Then Elijah folded his cloak together and struck the water with it. The river divided, and the two of them went across on dry ground!  When they came to the other side, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I can do for you before I am taken away.”  And Elisha replied, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit and become your successor.”

God did not design us as men and women to “go it alone.”  We were meant to live in community, and moreover we were meant to live in close, mutually-symbiotic, trail-guide-oriented relationship.  Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend.”  Iron sharpens iron by contact, connection, closeness.  It isn’t always pretty or easy, and sometimes sparks fly.  But sharpening happens, and that’s the only way it happens.  A trail guide is someone who is knowledgeable and trusted.  Trail guiding comes from contact, connection, and closeness … but it isn’t always pretty or easy, and sometimes in the midst of those challenges, sparks can fly.  But sharpening happens, as does growth.

In my life, I have been blessed to have many trail guides.  In college, one of my friends was pursuing the same major I was pursuing, was involved in several extracurricular activities and organizations that I was interested in, and had accomplished some noted recognition that I aspired to. Noting that it would be far more achievable to follow someone who had been down the road I wanted to go down, I asked for his mentorship, for him to serve as a trail guide.  He agreed, and we developed a great relationship … by contact, connection, and closeness.  And yes, it wasn’t always easy, but it worked.  I accomplished heights I wouldn’t have without my friend as a trail guide.

Later in my career, after graduate school, I took a job as a controller of a company, knowing in advance that the company was also going to hire a Chief Financial Officer who would serve as my supervisor. When I was meeting that person for the first time, he asked what my goals were.  I responded, “I want to learn your job.  Your job is to teach me your job.  My job is to make sure you don’t need to worry about my job.”  Basically I was saying that I wanted to ascend to heights I hadn’t yet ascended, but that he had.  I wanted him to be my trail guide.  He served as a mentor and friend in addition to being my boss for a few years after that and I credit him to a great extent for helping me to achieve my professional goals and success ever since.  It came from contact, connection, and closeness.  And it was definitely not easy; there were challenges, and sometimes sparks flew.

We ALL need a trail guide.  Not just in the workplace, but in life.  Today, I have a number of men in my life who in many ways have achieved things I still aspire to … heights I would like to climb but haven’t yet.  Mostly these days in a personal and spiritual sense.  These are men who I look up to, and duly.  They are great men … great trail guides.  They make me a better person and with their trail guidance I have made ascents and have confidence I will make more.  Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 back this up, “Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help. But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.

Of course, our ULTIMATE trail guide is Jesus. In Hebrews 2:16-18 we are told …

We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham.  Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters,so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people.  Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

Better than anyone who has ever lived, Jesus knows the hazards and conditions that must be managed when one is attempting to make the climb of life.  He knows figuratively and physically how life can be extreme both in temperature and in condition, and certainly volatile changing quite dramatically and quite rapidly. He knows the trails because He has traveled them.  He is our ultimate resource because He descended to earth and ascended to the height of heights.  While human trail guides are critically important, without our heavenly Trail Guide, we will never ascend to our fullest potential.  But just like with my buddies who were trail guides in school and business life, we need to seek Him out and ask Him to be our Trail Guide. Then and only then can we have the contact, connection, and closeness to be able to build the type of relationship that will allow us to achieve all that we desire … and more.  It won’t always be easy, don’t get me wrong, but with Jesus we can at least be assured that sparks won’t fly.  He is an indispensable, life-saving resource for trekking through the challenges and to the heights of life.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Backtracking

Backtracking

[this message is dedicated to the memory of Jimmy … thanks for shining your light while you were here, Jimmy, and now enjoy basking in the light of your Savior, face-to-face.]

Sometimes when Helen and I have hiked, and we don’t necessarily hike frequently, like out in the crazy, scary wilderness or anything, but we might come to a place where we can’t exactly figure out where to go from there to get to where we’re going.  Sort of to say, wait, how do we get to the place we’re headed?  Are we in the right place?  Have we gotten off track?  At those times it can often be helpful perhaps to stop, and just backtrack to a familiar place and assess from there.  That is, we need to backtrack at times to truly validate whether we are where we want to be.  Backtracking often can be a helpful method of figuring out where you are, and if where you are is where you should be.

I think that same mentality is helpful both symbolically but also in actuality as we try to evaluate our spiritual journey. As I have walked with Jesus now for almost 19 years, I have found it helpful a number of times to take a bit of a step back, backtracking in terms of wondering, spiritually with the Lord, where I am and if where I am is where I should be.  A keen method of evaluating that also extends to letting God’s Word speak into that question.

In the past, I have heard pastors remind us of some of these simple but profoundly helpful mechanics in the way we read the Bible. For example, when you come to a passage that starts with, “therefore,” it is helpful to ask, “what it the ‘therefore’ there for?”  In a sense, it’s a technique for backtracking.

One prolific passage I’ve benefitted greatly from backtracking on is Philippians 4:13

For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength.

For all sorts of valid reasons, this passage is frequently cited and relied upon for encouragement.  With good reason.  It is not at all insignificant that Paul affirms a key theological truth, that Jesus is all-powerful and all-knowing, and as Christians who place our trust and confidence in Him, we have access to that same confidence.  His strength allows us to do all things, His strength allows us to bear the challenges in life, His strength can guide us through situations about which we might otherwise be unsure or unclear. Wouldn’t we ALL want to be able to do all things through His strength?

But it is one thing to state or even believe such a powerful passage as that, but we have to do some backtracking in a sense to figure out if we, personally, are where we ought to be in relation to that strength and if not, how do we get “there.”  Perhaps one way is backtracking.

One way we can backtrack on this verse 13 of Philippians 4 is simply walking backward a couple verses … Philippians 4:11-12

Not that I was ever in need, for I have learned how to be content with whatever I have.  I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little.

In other words, if we want to be able to “do everything through Christ,” we should ask ourselves, “well, how do I do that?” Paul’s words would say one way is to remind ourselves that we should be content wherever we find ourselves. Contentedness regardless of our circumstances helps to remove what would otherwise be an impediment to doing “everything,” to allowing Jesus’s power to work in and through our lives.  It’s a reminder to change our attitude and our focus. But how do we do that?  Perhaps we can backtrack a little further to Philippians 4:8

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.

If we backtrack from being able to do “everything through Christ,” and find ourselves acknowledging our need to change our perspective regardless of our circumstances, we need to change our thinking and change on what we spend our time thinking.  It requires a shift of our orientation … fixing (meaning dwelling or reckoning … Greek logizomai) … our thoughts regularly, actively on things that are right, good, etc.  We have to change our thinking. Interestingly, then, our ability to do “everything through Christ,” means that we have to be willing to accept whatever situation we are in and do so joyfully, which requires a change in our thinking.  Backtracking further, we have to ask ourselves once again, “how do I do this?” Philippians 4:6-7, a familiar passage, tells us …

Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.  Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

We can see then, that changing our thinking has much to do with allowing God into the ways that we need to change our thinking. That’s right … we can’t really change our thinking without asking God to help us do so.  When we give it up to him, with gratefulness and expectancy, God will deliver, He will give us peace, and our minds will be guarded and hence able to be fixed upon things that are good.

Circling back around, then, our ability to do “everything through Christ,” has to do with giving everything we want to do to Christ, in prayer and in thankfulness.  THEN we can change our minds and thinking, THEN we can be content in whatever season we find ourselves, and THEN we can do EVERYTHING THROUGH CHRIST.  So, by backtracking a little, we can readjust our course, and determine where we are, and if where we are is where we should be.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

It’s not easy being cleaned

Drum kit

Long, long ago when I was younger I liked watching The Muppet Show (I’ll let you ponder how old I was when I was watching it). It was just good, clean fun, and yet once in a while the writers would come up with some nuggets of wisdom or introspection that just somehow stuck with me, and I remember those to this very day. One such nugget is the Kermit the Frog song, “It’s not easy being green.”  The allegory in the title and singer combination is quite funny in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way, but it’s a pretty poignant tune.  In the song, Kermit laments being the color of so many other things, of things that he mostly blends into and hence doesn’t tend to stand out.  Yet at the end, he reminds himself that even being the same color as many of the things around him doesn’t negate his uniqueness and his value, and ultimately he embraces being green as something special.

In a similar way, the process of being “cleaned,” (by which I mean to say – in an inherently cheeky sort of way – picked-out, processed, and prepared by God for His glory and our growth and good) is also difficult.  Much of the time, it involves pain and difficulty and requires our willingness to be bent, folded, and shaped in ways that can push us to the brink.  But sometimes that is the only way to be made whole, beautiful, useful.  Allow me to illustrate …

Back in 1993, when I started the MBA program at Stanford University, I decided that I wanted to use the two-year period to learn to play drums since I was not working (other than being in a rigorous master’s program … details, details).  But I had alwayswanted to learn to play drums and with four other guys who wanted to start a band, it was the perfect situation.  That is, other than the fact that I didn’t actually own drums. Serendipitously, a friend of mine offered to let me “have” (that is, borrow) his drum kit.  The only snag was that his drum kit was stored at the family farm in Fresno, about 170 miles away, and it had been there for about 20 years. So, if I wanted to use it I just had to go fetch it, clean it up, and away I could go.

I drove all the way out to Fresno, picked up the 1970s-era five-piece all-chrome-shell vintage Ludwig kit.  Vintage.  That’s another word for “old,” “worn,” and “dirty.”  But I was not to be deterred.  Never playing drums, I had no context for what to clean, how to clean, and what pieces worked and what needed to be replaced.  So I took the drums apart piece-by-piece, removed the heads, removed the lugs, checked every piece, polished, scrubbed, applied elbow-grease, and replaced the heads, down to the finest degree of detail.  It was long, it was hard, it was painstaking, but it was necessary.  In fact, it was the only way to get that beautiful drum kit working.  More than working.  Sounding amazing.  Sounding like it was intended to sound.  Frankly, sounding better than it should with the likes of me playing on it.  For that kit, it’s not easy being cleaned.

And so it is with our lives at times.  Many of us have been or maybe are presently in a place where we are spiritually old, worn, and dirty.  Maybe not every part of us, but at least some parts of us.  If we have decided to let Jesus have lordship over our lives, though, the great news is, He is working on us to put us to use. The only challenge is it’s not easy being cleaned.  We get a sense of how God does this in us, however, in Romans 5:3-5

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.

I sort of refer to this passage as God’s “pain chain.”  In a way, it seems to me analogous to the old Ludwig drum kit.  There are times in our lives when God has to pull us apart, piece-by-piece in order that He can tend to the individual components, meticulously cleaning and repairing each one.  There is a lot of work performed in the process, and it isn’t always easy (more accurately, it’s always difficult).  But He knows that going to that level of effort, and that specific and detailed a cleaning, while hard for us, is the only way to get working the beautiful creation He made each of us.  More than working.  Sounding – and being – like we were intended to.  Indeed, better than we should be with the likes of us being us.  It’s not easy being cleaned.

Job was broken apart into pieces in ways most of us think was beyond repair.  In a very short time he literally lost everything.  The Bible tells us that the first messenger came to Job to report of the loss of all his livestock to thieves and farmhands to murder, and while the messenger was still speaking another messenger came to report a fire that destroyed all Job’s sheep and shepherds, and while that messenger was still speaking another messenger came to report the theft of Job’s camels and murder of his servants, and while that messenger was still speaking another messenger came to report the tragic death of ALL of Job’s children.  And that was beforeJob was broken down of his personal health.  He was taken apart piece-by-piece and reconstructed in ways he never could have imagined, and at the end of the book we are told that God restoredto Job far more than Job started off … “So the Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning.”  (Job 42:12a, NLT)

Even more than receiving back all Job’s “stuff,” God grew Job in faith and understanding, and created through Job’s life a wealth of wisdom and witness by which generations have been blessed since. That is, in breaking Job down and undertaking a specific and detailed cleaning, while hard for Job, was the only way to establish a beautiful creation through Job.  Making Job be what Job was intended to be, even through the hardship.  Indeed, Job’s life and impact was far greater than it could be without going through the cleaning.  But I think it’s safe to say that Job would say it’s not easy being cleaned.

And what about you and me?  Maybe life is feeling like we’ve been broken down piece-by-piece and are being rubbed, polished, scrubbed, and cleaned.  But it’s hard.  Well, let me assure you that IF you are undergoing that cleansing in concert with your Creator, then even though it’s not easy being cleaned, you will come out on the other end far better off for the cleaning, and sounding – and being – like you were intended to.  If you are not letting your Creator bring that about, then the cleansing is just more difficult and undoubtedly to a dubious end.  While it’s not easy being cleaned, maybe it’s the very way that Jesus is reaching out to you in this very moment, just asking for your acknowledgment and trust, so He can bring you through to a glorious and far better end. Please … if He is knocking on the door of your heart, you are WAY better off to answer and let Him complete the cleaning.  It’s not easy being cleaned … but you (and I) will be like we were intended … indeed better if we let Him do the cleaning.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Are we there yet?

mater

Perhaps every parent has heard this before, much the same way many of us in my generation know the sounds of fingernails on the chalkboard.  “Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?  Are we there yet?”  The melodically whiny, if not annoying, chant of our kids on a road trip of virtually any distance is enough to have us parents running longingly to any nearby chalkboard to apply our fingernails.  Literally anything is preferable to, “are we there yet?”  No doubt we’ve ALL heard it, and alas, no doubt we’ve ALL said it.

Yet as annoying and frustrating and wit-ending as it might be, could anything be more accurately descriptive of how we approach God in His providential direction of our lives?  Let me speak only as to myself.  If I’ve asked once, I’ve asked a thousand times to God, particularly in this past season over the last year or so, “are we there yet???”  You see, there are many times when we know God is at work in or through a season in our lives that we impatiently beseech Him to hasten whatever destination to which He is leading us.  It could come during times of expected rescue from a distressing situation or the hoped-for arrival at a place or outcome He allows to be on our hearts.  Regardless, we whine, “are we there yet???”  Or at least, I do.

The thing is, just like in those times of the road trips of our youth or our kids’ youth, God is always leading and driving us to a destination.  But our timeline isn’t His timeline and He always has purposes in the journey as much as the destination.  So how do we temper our eagerness, and rely on the trustworthiness of the Lord?  I guess, it’s sort of like Mater from the Cars franchise of movies.  In one segment of the original movie, Mater excitedly and recklessly drives in reverse much to his own enjoyment and Lightning McQueen’s incredulity. After he completes his white-knuckle jaunt, he proclaims some applicable truth for you and me … “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m goin’; just need to know where I’ve been.”

But in view of the fact that Mater was neither priest nor prophet, neither apostle nor disciple, perhaps we can grapple with some superior wisdom, yet similar application, through the Biblical texts. And when it comes to the, “are we there yet?” question, I think Abraham and Sarah can teach us quite a bit.  Genesis 12:1-4

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you.  I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others.  I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.”  So Abram departed as the Lord had instructed, and Lot went with him. Abram was seventy-five years old when he left Haran.

There isn’t necessarily evidence that Abram knew God prior to this time.  This is essentially the first we hear of him after the genealogy of Abram’s father Terah in the prior chapter.  But the Lord speaks to Abram and says to him, “take off and go to a land that I will show you later.”  Not only that, but he promises Abram to make him into a nation.  But there was a problem … for Abram and Sarai to become a nation it was probably a good first step for them to perhaps start with a child.  But they were unable to have one. And worse yet, they were old.  If anyone in history was in a position to wonder, “are we there yet,” it was going to be Abram and Sarai.  And yet, what did they do when told to go?  They went.  But wait, there’s more … Genesis 15:1-6

Some time later, the Lord spoke to Abram in a vision and said to him, “Do not be afraid, Abram, for I will protect you, and your reward will be great.”  But Abram replied, “O Sovereign Lord, what good are all your blessings when I don’t even have a son? Since you’ve given me no children, Eliezer of Damascus, a servant in my household, will inherit all my wealth.  You have given me no descendants of my own, so one of my servants will be my heir.”  Then the Lord said to him, “No, your servant will not be your heir, for you will have a son of your own who will be your heir.”  Then the Lord took Abram outside and said to him, “Look up into the sky and count the stars if you can. That’s how many descendants you will have!”  And Abram believed the Lord, and the Lord counted him as righteous because of his faith.

Now Abram made his way to the land God promised him, but this is now “some time later,” and Abram was yet to see the fruition of becoming a “great nation.”  He and Sarai didn’t even have a single child, let alone a nation.  But despite the passage of a long time, Abram did not say, “are we there yet?”  He kept going and kept trusting.  It wasn’t until Abram (after he was renamed Abraham and Sarai was renamed Sarah) was 100 years old that Sarah gave birth to Isaac, who was the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise to make Abraham into a “great nation.”

For those of you keeping score, Abraham waited 25 years for God to fulfill His promise to Abraham.  25 years!!!  I don’t want to even think about how many times I would ask, “are we there yet?” if I had to wait for 25 years.  And unlike you and me, Abraham and Sarah didn’t have the Word of God to draw upon to see historic accounts of God’s faithfulness and miraculous delivery of His providence.  But … we do!!!

And this is where the Mater comment comes in. “Ain’t no need to watch where I’m goin’; just need to know where I’ve been.”

That is, if you want to be confident in God’s faithfulness in the future, remind yourself of God’s faithfulness in the past. Isn’t that in fact what the Bible is all about?  God tells us what He’s going to do, and then He does it.  Then we can attest to His faithfulness in advance, never having to ask ourselves, “are we there yet?”  Because we have the certainty that He will get us there, in time.

The past year and a half of Helen and my life, we have had a clear sense of God bringing us somewhere.  In fact, in some ways, it feels like the culmination of many years of expectation God has allowed us to have about a journeying “to a land that I will show you.”  Along the way, I have had countless, “are we there yet?” moments.  The wait, and the resulting disappointment from time to time of the wait, has admittedly been challenging.  My faithfulness has lacked, many times.  But God’s faithfulness has NEVER diminished.  It hasn’t been 25 years, to be sure, but we stand at the precipice of what appears to be Him fulfilling his purpose in this season. Of course, it’s possible that He isn’t just yet.  But another aspect of this period He is bringing us through is that I have frequently reflected on His loving faithfulness throughout my life, even during times when I wasn’t following Him.  Along the way, He has reminded me that I can rely on His faithfulness in the future because of His faithfulness in the past.

And such is true for you.  I don’t know what you’re going through, what is making you wonder, “are we there yet?”  But what I do know is that God will be faithful in delivering you to a destination that brings Him maximum glory and you maximum blessing, in time.  If you are struggling to be faithful in this season, think back on how He has been faithful to you in the past.

“Ain’t no need to watch where I’m goin’; just need to know where I’ve been.”

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Ad hominem

ad hominem 2

In debates, the goal is to convey one’s position on a topic and to rebut or defeat the position of the other debater.  So the objective is to break down the argument the other is making and to attack the veracity or logic of the argument.  Generally-speaking, it is less effective to make an ad hominem argument, that is, rather than directing an attack at the argument, the attack is directed at the arguer.  To an extent, this tactic is performed when the opponent doesn’t have the ability to attack the argument.  Thus, she or he has to resort to an ad hominem assault.

It’s probably safe to say that this is not just a debate issue, but a human issue.  Certainly we all probably have dealt with people making attacks on us rather than on the statements we make or the behaviors we exhibit.  I daresay that attacks like these are fairly common in our society right now.  The paint brushes we all tend to use are pretty broad and so when someone says something stupid, we focus our battering on the person rather than the behavior. We say in an ad hominem manner, “so-and-so is a such-and-such,” rather than, “so-and-so did such-and-such.”  There’s a difference.

But these reactions aren’t necessarily always outward-facing.  Many of us have difficult pasts, and many of us struggle to leave those pasts behind. If you lied in the past, you may berate yourself for being a liar.  If you have suffered addiction in the past, you may not be able to allow yourself to see yourself as anything other than an addict.  If you have failed educationally, professionally or relationally in the past, you may not be able to have any other view for yourself than as a failure.  In a sense, we direct the ad hominem attack against ourselves.  I think there could be hopefulness in looking at how God sees it.

Many of us have a false impression that God see us in an ad hominem way.  That is, once we screw up in life, God just tosses us into the “screw up” column on His list.  Basically we fall victim to the thinking that God can’t see us as worthy of saving because of who we are, as an extrapolation of what we did. Fortunately, that’s not quite the case and I think the Bible conveys this abundantly.  One of my favorite passages of Scripture is Matthew 9:9

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. “Follow me and be my disciple,” Jesus said to him. So Matthew got up and followed him.

Simple, straightforward, and powerful.  In order to catch the significance, we need to understand that Matthew, as a tax collector, was despised by his fellow Jews. Why?  Because he was complicit with the Roman infrastructure in not just taxing, but over-taxing and enslaving in many ways, the Jewish people.  Moreover, it was common practice for the tax collectors to skim off-the-top of their collections.  That is, they stole money for their own benefit and enrichment.  In short, they were liars and thieves. Jesus could have not only walked along past Matthew, but could have berated him for being an evil, lying, thieving scumbag.  Those adjectives have applied in all fairness.  But Jesus was not one to focus on ad hominem notions and instead saw past the behaviors and into the person.

Now, I don’t want to get in trouble and have you think I am not being theologically-sound.  The Bible is crystal clear that we have all sinned. More than that, it is clear that as a consequence, we are all sinners.  So in a way, our nature combined with our behaviors, indeed indicate that when it comes to sin, we are what we do.  But there is a bigger, more important and eternal truth I am trying to pass along.

That is, there is a way out.  Our sin does define us as sinners … until Jesus went to the cross to take the full penalty upon Himself.  Now, to the extent you have trusted in that saving sacrifice – trust meaning place your confidence in it and accepting the forgiveness – the Father looks at you and me and doesn’t see sin, He sees his Son.  Now here’s something even better …

When Jesus took our penalty on our behalf, He also purchase for us freedom from the ad hominem nature of our past behaviors.  While my lies may have made me a liar before, Jesus wiped that clean. While your previous addiction may have labeled you an addict to others (and yourself), Jesus has cleared the slate. God no longer sees our behaviors as our identities.  He sees our identities as identical to His son, by his immense mercy and grace.

We see numerous examples of this in the Bible. Consider the woman caught in the act of adultery (John 8:1-11).  Or Jonah, a prophet of the Lord who decided to disobey and go to Tarshish rather than to pass along a message of salvation to the hated people at Nineveh (Jonah 1:1-3).  The examples go on and on.

Again, please don’t misunderstand me. Addictions are real and serious, requiring real and serious treatment.  But with the help of God, many have been freed.  Lying, stealing, etc., have tangible and lasting consequences, and may derive from other psychological or experiential issues.  Again, those are not to be diminished in severity.  And yet … God is powerful above ALL things and can save us from ourselves and our afflictions.  About that, Scripture is clear.

The takeaway … first, we shouldn’t persist in ad hominem attacks of others.  The fact that Jesus died for them as well as us should allow us to separate the behavior from the behaver.  The adage, “love the sinner, hate the sin,” comes to mind aptly. Maybe this orientation will allow us to truly love our neighbors as ourselves.  Maybe those of us who call ourselves followers of Christ will act in a way that attracts others to become so.

Secondly, we should consider the fullness of His grace as extensible to ourselves.  That is, let’s not attack ourselves ad hominem either.  We have a sin nature, yes, but it’s freed if we call Jesus our Lord and Savior.  That which we have done in the past no longer needs to define us.  You and I don’t have to do anything.  Jesus did it all already.  All we have to do is acknowledge what is already true.  We are no longer that which we have done in the past.  We are free.

Finally, if you don’t know Jesus and have not accepted His salvation, I am sorry to report that you are stuck in an ad hominem existence.  Not necessarily only by your prior behaviors, but also by your nature.  So, for the moment, you are what you have done.  But the good news is this … Jesus has already done all you need in order to uncouple your deeds from your destiny.  You can be free of the ad hominem attacks on yourself and the ad hominem attacks of Satan, whose sole purpose it is to accuse and degrade you away from the freedom Jesus already bought.  Ask Him, He is waiting eagerly to share His gift!  He can forever drown out the ad hominem noise!

Soli Deo gloria!

MR