Being a sponge

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While I freely admit I am truly, truly excited that we seem to be nearing the end of the lockdown life we’ve been living in our world the past couple months (at least here in Texas), if I’m truly honest, there have been very interesting and edifying elements of it.  Don’t get me wrong … in NO WAY do I long to return to the life of shelter in place and I truly look forward to connecting with – and yes, shaking hands with – friends, family, new acquaintances, people at church … heck, the stranger in the market.

But the blessing perhaps in disguise has been going through experiences that we’ve never been through before.  Having very familiar comforts and experiences and fulfillments evaporate what seemed literally overnight.  In many respects, it was overnight.  The whiplash caused by the unforeseen change was extreme and yet I daresay that, at least for me, it helped significantly enhance not my love for certain things, but the recognition of my love for them.  For instance, having dinner every night together with my wife and kids the past six-plus weeks … I was reminded how much I cherish that time.  Spending some uninterrupted time with my wife just talking … how incredibly blessed I’ve been to have that with her on a more regular basis.  Seeing friends and family in a more focused, intent way, even though by video chat.  For those things, I am indeed thankful.

In another way, I’m thankful.  The shelter in place orders and resultant closure of our businesses and places we like to frequent (stores, restaurants, coffee places, and even once in a while, concerts, sporting events, and the like) have poked and prodded me in ways that were unfamiliar (of course) and instructive.  Instructive in the sense that I got to see my response to these new circumstances, and on certain occasions my response hasn’t always been great.  Sometimes I’ve chosen frustration over faith, anger over acceptance, powerlessness over prayer, and selfishness over surrender.

In many ways, my responses throughout these times – and of course in countless normal situations – reminds me of being a sponge.  Yep, a sponge.  Why?  Well if you think of a sponge, when it’s squeezed and especially squeezed hard, what comes out of it is that which it soaked up previously.  If what comes out of it is dirty and smelly and gross, it’s only because that is what it soaked up before.  If plain, fresh water, or cleanser or soap come from it when it’s squeezed, it’s because that’s what it’s soaked up.

And so it has been for me through this time.  I’ve exhibited behaviors that show that in the past I’ve soaked up stinky stuff and I’ve – humbly submitted – shown ways that provide evidence that somewhere along the way some decent stuff got soaked up.  There are a few passages of the Bible that come to mind as I tinker a little with this realization …

Philippians 4:11-13

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

2 Timothy 3:14-17

But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught. You know they are true, for you know you can trust those who taught you.  You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.  God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.

Psalms 119:9-16

How can a young person stay pure?  By obeying your word.  I have tried hard to find you—don’t let me wander from your commands.  I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.  I praise you, O Lord; teach me your decrees.  I have recited aloud all the regulations you have given us.  I have rejoiced in your laws as much as in riches.  I will study your commandments and reflect on your ways.  I will delight in your decrees and not forget your word.

God’s Word teaches us very unambiguously that we have the ability to soak up some pure, life-enhancing POWER!  How, by trusting in Christ, by studying His word, and by relying on Him to help us sock away His wisdom.  The God who created us (not to mention the universe and everything in it) longs to equip us to soak up all that we need to be able, as Paul said, to “be content with whatever I have,” or perhaps whatever we go through.  God uses His word in our lives to, “prepare and equip his people to do every good work,” or maybe to rejoice even in the most difficult of times.  As the psalmist writes, “I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.”  In other words, if I soak up Your revelation to me from Your Bible, when I’m squeezed like the sponge that I am, good stuff will come out.

There’s a clear demarcation though, just as with a sponge only soaking up stinky stuff.  If I soak up self-centered “wisdom” or societally-based “help,” in the times of stress and strain and challenge, all I will have is the mildew odor of empty promises and impotent aid.  I will have the dirty water of disenfranchisement rather than the disinfectant of God’s loving dominion.  I will react exactly how I’ve prepared to react based on what I soak up along the way.  When I am selfish and angry, it’s because what I’ve soaked up cultivates that.

And remember, what comes out of a sponge is what is soaked up BEFORE it’s squeezed.  I have to imagine (though I’ve never asked one) that when a sponge is squeezed it isn’t aware in advance that it will be.  So, as we prepare for unexpected squeezing, we need to be working now to soak up good stuff, healthy stuff.  What we read, what we listen to, how we live, how we recreate, even how we eat, all have an impact … all get soaked up into our spongey selves.

Perhaps we have seen the ramifications of soaking up bad stuff in the news or online in these times.  Fear, resentment, blame, disdain, defeatedness … all have run rampant in these past couple months.  Let’s face it … the past couple months have only exacerbated these.  Unfortunately, I think we only need to look at our federal government at times to see this.  Maybe this is why in these times churches are overflowing – virtually-speaking of course – as people seek what they can soak up to help them cope in more edifying ways.  The bottom line … it’s Jesus and His Word and the grace and hope it promises.  These are what we must be soaking up all the time.

Let’s all us sponges commit now to soak up what is good and cleansing and helpful and praiseworthy and loving and other-centered so that WHEN (not if) the next squeezing comes along, we’ll increasingly have good stuff come out of us.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Pruning

Pruning

[Wow, it’s been a while!  Praying I can be back to writing once a month … it’s incredibly fulfilling and therapeutic for me and if someone else occasionally gets blessed by it, that’s a bonus!]

So here we go …

 

In NO way am I an expert in pruning.  Of all the colors my thumb could be, green is the least applicable.  But understanding the process of pruning, and more importantly the benefit of pruning, by analogy, is quite familiar to me.  The experiences I’ve had in life always have been and continue to be, even in this crazy season our world is in, a process of pruning.  How?

Well, to my understanding (and with the help of the internet), pruning is a process of –

“the selective removal of certain parts of a plant, such as branches, buds, or roots. Reasons to prune plants include deadwood removal, shaping (by controlling or redirecting growth), improving or sustaining health, reducing risk from falling branches, preparing nursery specimens for transplanting, and both harvesting and increasing the yield or quality of flowers and fruits … the practice entails targeted removal of diseased, damaged, dead, non-productive, structurally unsound, or otherwise unwanted tissue from crop and landscape plants.”

I don’t know about you, but the process of pruning I’ve gone through over the years has been painful.  It hasn’t been fun.  There have been difficult seasons, struggle, and regret.  Note the specific way I said that, however … the process of pruning is what’s been painful.  And while I don’t know exactly what it’s like to prune a plant or tree, let alone to BE the plant or tree, it seems to me the process of pruning for them is also painful and unenjoyable.

It seems like the days we’re in feel like a pruning process for many of us.  People are getting sick, some of us know some who have actually died.  Not to minimize the virus pandemic, but outside of that … people are getting sick and some of us know some who have died … from other causes. As a result of the pandemic, we have businesses closed, cities on full-blown lockdown, fear abounding and reigning, and hopefulness being usurped at times by hopelessness.  Schools are closed, sports are canceled (my personal greatest challenge), and we’re in a fundamentally different, albeit temporary, time for us all.

But as difficult and painful as the process of pruning can be, the result of pruning is invaluable.  The Bible shares how God uses the pruning process in us for His glory and our growth and good … John 15:1-4 promises –

“I am the true grapevine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.  You have already been pruned and purified by the message I have given you.  Remain in me, and I will remain in you. For a branch cannot produce fruit if it is severed from the vine, and you cannot be fruitful unless you remain in me.”

In the definition above, it shares that the “reasons to prune plants include deadwood removal, shaping (by controlling or redirecting growth),improving or sustaining health, reducing risk from falling branches, preparing nursery specimens for transplanting, and both harvesting and increasing the yield or quality.”  Jesus, having created trees, plants, pruning, etc., knew that not only were these benefits true for plants, but also for you and me.  Verse two of the passage above powerfully confirms that “He cuts off every branch of mine that doesn’t produce fruit, and he prunes the branches that do bear fruit so they will produce even more.

God’s heart for us is to produce maximal fruit, fruit for His kingdom.  That means He seeks for our benefit and blessing the result of pruning … removing deadwood, shaping us, redirecting growth, improving and sustaining our health, and reducing risk from parts of us that are weak.  While it might seem random or pointless, note in the definition above once again that pruning is the “selective removal of certain parts.”  That indicates, importantly, that there is a selector, and it would have to be someone with a requisite expertise, perspective, and ability beyond the general populace.  And it must be done out of an inherent desire to create a stronger, better, healthier plant … that is, it must be done from a heart of adoration and love for the thing being pruned.

Jesus made it quite clear … His Father is the gardener.  Our Father.  The Creator of ALL things and of ALL of us.  He alone is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient … He alone is the one with the requisite expertise, perspective, and ability to truly selectively prune His created ones.  He alone is capable of doing it from a heart of pure adoration and love.  That is adoration and love for you and for me.

We are all going through challenges these days.  In these specific days, maybe you have lost your job either temporarily or permanently … or maybe you don’t know which it will be.  I’m not trying to minimize those circumstances of uncertainty, but I want to leave you with the certainty that God, my Father and your Father, is selectively removing parts for the explicit and specific purpose to cause growth, to improve your future health, to shape you, and to increase the yield of your life someday.  That may not take away the pain you’re going through, but my hope is that it might bring some semblance of comfort, knowing it is anything but random and without a doubt not intended to cause dismay.

Maybe you’re a business owner and have had to confront difficult decisions regarding your employees, and notwithstanding those decisions you’re still in a situation wondering whether your business will survive.  Please KNOW … I have no doubt it’s hard and fearsome, but my prayer is you’ll draw solace in knowing that the Master Gardener is actively and lovingly tending to you, NOT ignoring you, for the purpose of your growth, your health, your blessing.  I don’t doubt it feels nothing like that, but I pray that you have faith that the process of pruning, while challenging, will yield the wondrous healthy growth that God the Father brings as a result of the pruning.

In no way do I want to make it seem I’m belittling or simplifying the struggle you’re going through.  The struggles I am going through now and have gone through in the past were not simple.  They were not easy.  In the moment, they were not welcome.  But looking back, I can clearly see that God used the horrible-feeling pruning process to bless me with the pruning result of growth, shaping, health, and future yield of fruit through my life.  I pray you see that too, whether in the process or through the result.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Near or far?

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Early in my college years, a truly groundbreaking movie about a high school dream day was all the rave.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off came out of nowhere for all of us and drew folks of my age at the time into a time of wishing we would have the type of day off that Ferris did when we had the chance, all the while knowing it was virtually impossible.  But BOY did we wish we could be him if only for a day.  An iconic movie to say the very least, it’s still one that those of my generation likely stop and tune in anytime it’s on television these days.  It tells of a Teflon-like dreamer, Ferris, who along with his perennially self-defeated and uninspired friend Cameron go on an impossible and unrealistic adventure … purveying both insanely humorous and meaningfully dramatic journeys that delivery truly deep and meaningful messages to the viewers.

In one memorable scene, we watch Ferris, his girlfriend, and Cameron visit the Chicago Art Institute.  Among the more compelling parts of the movie, we note Cameron staring at a famous painting, “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.”  A painting created in the pointillist technique, Cameron contemplatively peers into the painting at increasingly deeper levels of focus.  Undoubtedly looking in parallel deeper and deeper into his own life, he begins to see incrementally more while seeing incrementally less.  It points us to the views we often have to alternate between in life – that is, near or far?

In the scene mentioned, Cameron stares rather blankly at the painting, with the camera alternating between Cameron and the painting.  Each time the camera switches back to the painting, it tightens the view considerably.  Eight times the camera zooms closer and closer into the painting.  As it does, we get different views of the painting.  At the greater degrees of zoom, what we can visualize is really a series of dots, true to pointillism.  The thing is, the closer the zoom – the closer we look at the dots – the less clear the overall picture is.  What we see is just a mash of individualized dots of color.  We don’t see the beauty of the painting, which shows a beautiful Sunday afternoon scene near the ocean, with people enjoying the serenity and view.  Looking close-up at the dots obscures the entire picture and brings not a sense of tranquility but of chaos.

The painter created the masterpiece by applying individual dots but had a greater sense of vision in mind.  He had the whole scene uppermost in his consciousness as he applied individual dots that left to themselves only appeared as unclear and obscured.  They weren’t, of course, but without the bigger picture in mind, without understanding and recognition of the intentionality of the painter, we only see in part, and we only see disclarity.

Life can often be the same.  We can find ourselves staring too closely at the dots of our circumstances, rather than standing farther away in order to allow the Painter’s view to take shape for us.  Unlike the Painter, too often we only see the dots, but not the whole painting.  It really is up to us to choose … near or far … what view we want to take.  Truly, what we often choose to see, is only partial.

Isaiah 55:8-9

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.  “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.  For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.

Matthew 10:29-31

What is the price of two sparrows—one copper coin?  But not a single sparrow can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it.  And the very hairs on your head are all numbered.  So don’t be afraid; you are more valuable to God than a whole flock of sparrows.

In the passages above, God reminds us that He doesn’t see things the way we do.  Often, we get stuck too close to our situations and circumstances, our pain and our stress.  We can only see the individual dots of the things that we confront at the present moment.  They’re real.  They’re part of the big picture.  We do truly see them and they do truly form part of the bigger picture, but they are only part of the picture.  If we choose to see the big picture we have to step back from our view.

The Painter … God … sees both each individual dot.  Not only does He see those dots individually, those dots are intentionally in their proper place.  They are not obscuring the overall picture, they form it.  So, while we only see either the dots or the overall picture, God sees both.  He uses one (the dots) to craft the entirety of the other (the painting).

It’s why He says in the Isaiah passage that His thoughts aren’t like ours.  He sees every single dot and detail individually, importantly as a critical piece of the whole.  He also sees the bigger picture; in fact, He creates the bigger picture.  And whether we see it or not, it’s a Masterpiece.  It’s why He says in the Matthew passage through Jesus’s words, that as the dots of our lives come together, He is creating a beautiful, Masterful, unique, painting.  Unique to us … to you and me.  And He’s creating those for the express purpose of caring for us through His immeasurable love for us.

So, as we each battle the temptation of seeing our paintings too closely, let’s remember that there is a Painter Who is in the midst of painting a Masterpiece for our lives, dot by dot.  Those dots are not mistakes, and they’re not accidentally.  They are Masterfully placed in exactly the right spot in order to create a painting that is beautiful and that shows both the creativity and the love the Painter uses to make something wonderful … our lives.  When the dots start to obscure our view, let’s consider taking some steps back to see the big picture.  Being too near can give us the wrong sense of where our circumstances fit in the overall frame.  Sometimes being far helps us to see more clearly.  Near or far?  Our perspective can depend on how we look at it.

Best of all, though … God is always near … He’s never far.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Let’s NOT go to the replay

Replay

It’s painful.  Or at least it can be.  We all have events, moments, times in our past that we just generally would rather not remember.  Bad choices, painful news, unforeseen circumstances often joined by unwanted consequences … all of these can sometimes serve as moving images in our minds.  At least they do for me.  I can say, there are many such “videos” that can play in my brain that I quite wish would be erased.

One example goes back almost exactly 33 years ago to the early days of my sophomore year of college.  Having lived in my fraternity house the second semester of my freshman year, it was somewhat automatic to do the same the following year. Plus, I had a roommate who I got along with quite well and who I respected greatly since he was an upper classman.  Little did any of us know that at 2:54am on September 5, 1986 that 58 of us would have narrowly escaped a fire that gutted our house.  The images (from outside) of the house burning, and the windows of my room exploding are some that I will never forget.  But perhaps the most dramatic images of the event are those I can’t quite recall.

Fortunately, several guys that night were out late and were awake enough when the fire started to run through the house shouting to wake all of us up, and all of us got out safely.  I was quite a heavy sleeper at the time (and was until we had kids haha), and really don’t recall anything until I was already outside the house looking back on it … engulfed in flames.  I got out without fully waking up and without fulling being conscious of what was up.  A few days later, after the major stuff started to settle down, my roommate pulled me aside to chat.  He confronted me … lovingly but seriously … about the fact that in our escape, I basically got up and ran.  Perhaps like many of us, including him, but that I didn’t stop to ensure he was up and out. It’s a scene I replay in my mind frequently, though I long ago sought and received his forgiveness.  But that scene never quite gets erased or even faded.

That’s but one example, and there are literally hundreds more things I can look back on and feel less-than-proud over them.  I suspect we all have those times.  It’s like in football when a play is questionable or close, and television commentators say, “let’s go to the replay,” and show the play over and over and over, even from different angles.  By the tenth time you see the play, it’d just be better not to see it any longer.  Especially when it’s a play that works to the detriment of your team.  For many, if not most, of us there are plays in our lives when we would just say, “Let’s NOT go to the replay!”

A lot of us probably see God that way, too. As in, some day when we die all that’s going to happen is God is going to turn on a huge monitor in heaven and play back for us and all to see, all the painful, embarrassing, hurtful, and maybe even damaging stuff we’ve done.  Sort of the big cosmic, condescending, “let’s go to the replay,” as He casts us into the pit of hell.  NO!  That’s not the case, and I can assert that on the authority of God’s own Word.  Romans 6:10 (NIV) …

The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.

See, Jesus died once, for all.  For all people who will accept His gift; for all the sins (the painful, embarrassing, hurtful, and damaging stuff) we’ve ever done.  He is telling us, “Let’s NOT go to the replay!” There IS NO REPLAY.  That’s the greatest news ever.  Sure, we are unfortunately stuck with the brain video in our memories, but God assures us, if we have accepted the absolutely FREE gift of Jesus’s sacrifice, that (Hebrews 8:12) …

And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.

Hebrews 10:17

Then he says, “I will never again remember their sins and lawless deeds.”

Psalm 103:12

He has removed our sins as far from us as the east is from the west.

Isaiah 1:18

“Come now, let’s settle this,” says the Lord.  “Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow.  Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.

Yes, we are stuck with the replay to a degree. I wish I could, but I simply cannot blot out the stain of those things in my past that I regret, that caused me pain, or worse yet, caused someone else pain.  But here’s the great news … as much as my brain (and Satan, our enemy, the liar of liars, and “accuser of the brethren”) wants to scream out to us, “let’s go to the replay,” we have an all-loving, all-caring, all-merciful Father calmly reassuring us saying, “let’s NOT go to the replay.”  In fact, I daresay if we asked Him, He’d say, “what replay?”

The prophet Travis (Tritt … okay, he’s not a prophet, he’s one of the best country singers ever though in my not-so-humble opinion), has a great song, called “I See Me.”  In it, Travis describes looking at his son, and seeing a lot of Travis in him … in behaviors, mistakes, and hard experiences … and being fearful that would carry over. In other words, not only “let’s go to the replay,” but that the replay would re-create that same damage.  But that’s the great thing about God … just as Travis observes, “I look at him, and I see me,” God looks at you, and me … and He says, “I look at [you], and I see Me [Jesus, His Son].”  If we have Christ, we have forgiveness.  For everything.  Forever.  God says, “Let’s NOT go to the replay.”

More than that, if we have Christ, He says, “There IS NO replay!”

Now THAT is something worth doing a whole bunch of touchdown-type celebrating!

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Switching the flip

Switch flip

A month ago, I moved my wife and daughter … along with the last vestiges of our personal effects … to the great state of Texas. Our son and I had been here already, our son for two years and me for eight months after starting my new job in late-2018, but we wanted our daughter to have the opportunity to graduate from the high school she chose in Orange County.  For my wife, she was born and raised in Southern California and had never lived anywhere else.  I’d lived in Texas during a couple of my earlier years but grew up in SoCal and the bottom line is that we were making an enormous life change.

As we were preparing to leave, the bittersweet time with so many wonderful friends and family was a highlight of a time marked with both excitement and apprehension.  To be sure, we felt convinced of God’s call for us to Texas, but in practical terms it was really hard to leave relationships with people we love dearly, with whom we have done life, and who have left us better off in innumerable ways.

One of the sweetest times of fellowship we had before we left was with the parents of a couple of my friends from high school. This couple were in more ways than I can express a safe haven for me in tough times in high school (which of us got through high school without tough times?).  Their love of a goofy teenager at that time, and ever since, has changed our family’s lives for the good in so many ways.  While high school for me is almost 35 years in the rearview mirror, we have remained in close contact with this couple and have continued to invest love and friendship in one another along the way.

And that’s where I’d like to take this message … into the reflection of the importance of relationship, of friendship, of “chance” encounters with people that become life-changing and glorious.  Bottom line, I want to take us to a place … through our family’s transition, sadness and joy, excitement and apprehension, faith and hesitation … where we can together take stock of the blessings of other people in our lives.  A place where, imperfect though we all are, we can ask God to increase our intentionality with others, to lean into the “chance” encounters with people He brings to us.  I want to encourage all of us to not be flippant with relationships, forgetful of their bilateral value, in way that God alone can make mutually-beneficial.  I want to remind us about “Switching the Flip.”

There’s a great admonition in Galatians 6:9-10

So let’s not get tired of doing what is good. At just the right time we will reap a harvest of blessing if we don’t give up.  Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith.

Paul, in writing to the Galatians, is talking about the importance of actively investing in the welfare of other people.  Of taking the time to relate to others, to help others, to encourage others, to bear others’ burdens.  He’s reminding us of the importance, in my parlance for this message, of “Switching the Flip.”

In addition to the hour or so that we spent with our friends, the couple that were my high school safe haven, we also spent some really sweet time with a number of our other friends before we departed on the road for Waco.  In another especially sweet time, a bunch of our friends from our church in SoCal gathered to wish us farewell.  During that time, our senior pastor called the group together for a time of prayer over us.  His words were Spirit-led, loving, and encouraging, reminding us of the call we have felt “away” from SoCal and to central Texas.  Our time with those friends was such a sweet reminder. Many of those friendships were borne out of encounters that were unexpected.  Meaning, the friendships had grown out of situations we may not have expected at the time.

Had we been flippant about those at those times, we would have missed out on countless beautiful hours together with friends who have changed our lives.  Had we been flippant about letting someone know that we were praying for them, had we been flippant about actually praying for them when we said we were going to, had we been flippant about calling them when we felt led of the Spirit or when God brought them to mind, had we been flippant in allowing the relationship to grow, we would have missed out on some of the most valuable jewels God entrusts to us in our lives.

“Switching the Flip,” to me, means not being flippant or careless in relationship.  It’s taking seriously the notion that in God’s economy, people are put in our lives for a reason.  It is being intentional about what Proverbs 27:17 describes as “iron sharpening iron,” the notion that as we have relational, emotional, and friendship-oriented actual contact with one another, we grow.  But it must be demonstratively intentional.  We can’t be flippant about the impact we have on others.  Relationships are created in unforeseen circumstances and are used by God in unforeseen ways.

Flippancy robs us of greater and grander purposes God wants to bring to us through others.  What chances did we miss today to leave someone better off?  Is there a chance that someone you could have started a conversation with might have needed to know that they were worth you stopping to chat?  What chances did we miss today to let God leave us better off? Is there a chance that someone we bumped into but didn’t go beyond, “how are you?” might be someone God could use to teach or encourage us somehow?  I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the people I mentioned above are those with whom we began friendship in ways like those.  Seemingly innocuous introductions who because one or both of us decided not to be indifferent, became monuments to God’s love in our lives.

“Switching the Flip,” choosing not to be flippant in meeting, talking with, and caring for others is one of God’s greatest gifts. It is one of the ways we can see Him at work in multiple lives, in multiple ways, with geometric blessings as the result. I want to encourage … really, challenge … us to be mindful and purposeful in the “chance” encounters God brings us to.  It can be in just calling a family member who comes to mind, visiting a friend you haven’t seen in years, reaching out to someone who needs to know that they gave you encouraging words 30 years ago, asking the checkout person at the supermarket how they’re really doing and listening intently to their answer, talking to someone after church that you’ve seen a thousand times but have never shown interest in, whatever.  It’s intentionality, it’s time-consuming, it’s fearsome to a degree. But maybe as a result of us paying more attention now, to “Switching the Flip,” we’ll look back 20 years from now and be able to marvel, once again, about the ways God put just the right people in our lives at just the right time for just the right reasons.  After all, that the business He’s in.  And He can blow our minds, if we’re just not flippant about it … if we just choose more often, “Switching the Flip.”

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Finish or start?

Finish or Start

Running my first half-marathon at the end of April was a blast.  Not just because my wife, son, and mom all met me at the finish line (though that was a huge thing), but just for the fact that I was able to accomplish something I hadn’t previously done.  The training was hard and the discipline to fulfill the training significant.  Most of the time the training was fun and doable, but as it ramped up to longer and longer distances, it was definitely challenging.  There were both physical as well as mental challenges involved, and the combination was perhaps the hardest part.

The same was true during the run, though because of the training I’d been through, I felt comfortable during most of the 13.1 miles.  There were clearly portions of the race where I struggled to keep going but I could think back to my training and remember I had been there before.  Because of what I had done previously, I realized I could keep going forward now.

When it was all said and done and I finished, there was an enormous sense of accomplishment and relief.  And yet … there was a part of me that felt a longing to do another half. Don’t get me wrong, I realized that there were a bunch of other people who had already run 13.1 miles that day and were in the process of running another 13.1 because they were running the fullmarathon.  That’s NOT me.  But nevertheless, though I had just finished the half, I could also sense that the beginning of something … another half or whatever … was bubbling up.  In that sense, it was hard to discern whether I was at the finish or start.  Perhaps it was both.

A good example of how this works in our lives is King David.  We’re all familiar with how King David slew the Philistine giant, Goliath, and perhaps many of us are acquainted with his reign over Israel as God’s anointed thereafter, but it’s key to look at what equipped David to take down Goliath in the first place.  By doing so, we’ll see how a finish of sorts for David led to a start, and then a finish, and a start, etc.  We see in 1 Samuel 17:32-36 

“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!

Let’s not skirt past what led David to feel not just equipped, but confident that he would succeed in taking down this fearsome beast of a giant in Goliath.  (That is, other than God Himself, obviously).  For quite a long time (say, the equivalent of running 13.1 miles), David tended to sheep and goats.  This is not a small, menial, safe task.  It’s taxing, tedious, intense, and as we note, fraught with frequent peril.  “When a lion or a bear comes,” doesn’t suggest “if,” as in, it could happen.  It suggests that it happens with regularity … ongoing danger against scary, fearsome animals that – let’s face it – posed danger not just to the sheep and goats, but to David.

As he “finished” that race … having completed (in a manner of speaking) tending to sheep and goats against lions and bears, he “started” a new race as someone who would not only slay Goliath, but then “finish” that battle having now become prepared to “start” as King over God’s people.  As he “finished” becoming King over God’s chosen, he “started” as a warrior / leader to secure the nation for God’s chosen. The finish equipped the start, which resulted in a finish, which facilitated a start, and on it goes.

Such is life.  If we get particularly retrospective, we can see how one race prepared us for another and but for the precedent training, we may not have survived (let alone thrived through) the current challenge.  Just this week, as I was talking through a business challenge with a colleague, he noted, “you don’t get particularly stressed or rattled by this stuff, do you?”  I thought about it for a second, and realized, 1) if we follow Christ, what do we have to fear (answer: nothing), but also, 2) because of what I have gone through in business over the past 25 years, I feel as though I’ve largely “seen it all” and as a result, I feel equipped to deal with whatever comes.  I’d completed the training and run and bunch of the business version of half marathons, so I had been prepared for this one. My prior “finishes” led to prior “starts” which became “finishes” and helped me “start” this present situation.

Maybe you’re in the middle of a start that hasn’t yet become a finish.  My encouragement to you is to see yourself as working toward a finish.  I don’t know if you’re at mile 2 or mile 12, but I assure you that you are in process of a “finish” somewhere down the road.  Keep going!  I know it may be a really hard 13.1 you’re on, but there is a “finish” ahead of you. And yeah, the concept of a “finish” leading to a “start” might sound scary, but in life those aren’t always strung together (though sometimes are, in fairness).  Regardless, the “finish” you’re about to reach will prepare you to take on the “start” to come with – like King David – equipping and confidence.

Most important of all … if we, like King David, realize that in the end it’s God that is the Victor on our behalf, our progressing from “start” to “finish” will be far easier.  When we don’t feel like going on, He can carry us.  The primary reason is because of a “Finish” that really was a “Start.”

Jesus, our Savior and King … “finished” on the cross of Calvary.  Many at that time, including His closest friends, felt that the “finish” was all there was.  And yet, the best and most important “start” ever was when, overcoming and overpowering death, He rose, buying us not just forgiveness of our sins, but freedom for the races of life that we run.  He paid our penalty so that our eventual “finish” could be a “start” of eternal life with Him.

All the more … He doesn’t leave us to just battle and struggle it out in life, a sort of cosmic, “hey, good luck, and see you in heaven.”  No!  If we have a relationship with Him, He runs EVERY SINGLE STEP of our “starts” and “finishes” with us.  When we can’t go on, we can trust that He will help us.  All we have to do is ask.

No matter who you are, no matter what race you’re running … there’s a “finish” ahead.  But it’s also a “start.”  A good start, which will lead to a good “finish.”  Run alongside your Savior … He’s longing to join you through to the very last “finish.”  I assure you it’ll be worth it!

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

One … more … step

One step at a time

For some crazy reason, a few months ago I thought it would be a good idea to sign up for a half-marathon in late-April that my company puts on.  I’ve never run that distance before but given that the proceeds benefit cancer research and treatment – one of my passion areas – and in an effort to support the company, I signed up.  That, of course, was the easy part.

Over the past few months I have been training, meaning running five times a week, starting off with smaller distances and gradually moving into longer distances.  Generally, Saturdays have been reserved for the longest runs of the week, as building up distances over time is important to be able to run 13.1 miles eventually during the race.

While I have enjoyed running over the past 20 years or so, I haven’t ever run any more than 10 miles at a time.  Even when I have, it was longer ago and never since turning 50 a couple years ago.  If you would have asked me six months ago if I’d be able to run a half-marathon I would have politely declined … essentially, those days are behind me.  Or at least, so I thought.  Even running four miles, just a few months ago, felt like a stretch. Since then, for the past five Saturdays I’ve run 7, 8, 9, 10, and 11 miles, and yesterday I got through 12 1/2. That made it the second week in a row that ran a distance I’ve never run before.

I say all this not to toot my horn, but to set up a pretty powerful lesson I’ve learned along the way.  You might assume, rightly, that when you’re out running for a couple hours you have lots of time to think.  Most of the time, I am thinking about how I don’t want to be out running for a couple hours.  😎  As I have pressed on, however, my thoughts have centered around those who are serving as my inspiration for this race … folks in my life or sphere who have, had or died from, cancer.  Their journeys serve as the fuel in my tank.  The “one day at a time” mentality that they employ through a horrific voyage with an angry disease reminds me that I can cover a long distance.  How? The same way as they do, by taking one … more … step.  One at a time.

One of my favorite Bible verses affirms this perspective.  Matthew 6:33-34

Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.  “So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

This instruction is so powerful and helps us focus on the here and the now.  On just accomplishing today … achieving this moment … getting over this hurdle.  I literally think about this to myself as I run, and I literally repeat to myself when I’ve been running these long distances, “One more step.  One more step.”  Rhythmically. Because I need to think about nothing other than just taking the next step.  If I get overly focused on how far I’ve run, or how far I have left to run, I reorient my mental state in a way that debilitates me.  It makes me feel fatigued.  I think about the pain I’ll feel when I get ahead further.

And so it is in life in a lot of ways.  Things happen … we get a lot of situations thrown in our paths, we go through challenging circumstances, we get sick, people around us get sick.  We struggle with family or relationship woes.  To say it’s difficult doesn’t do justice to the reality.  It’s one of the things that moves me most about my friends that have or had cancer and why they inspire me so deeply.  I watched my mom go through it.  Day by day, dealing with a disease that could kill her.  She, like so many others, got up every day, went through their treatment and, often worse, the side effects of their treatment.  Every day, they dealt with today no matter how tough today was.

In the portion of Matthew 6 above, Jesus is teaching about faithfulness with money and possessions.  But in a broader sense, He is teaching us to focus on what truly matters … not what we have or what we own, but how we live.  Of course, Jesus was well aware of the brevity of life, since He created it.  Indeed, before long He was going to experience the brevity of it as He sacrificially laid down His life for us on the cross.  And even while He was teaching about the tangible considerations of life, He emphasized that we should take our lives in smaller increments.  One moment at a time.  One more day.  One … more … step.

I don’t know what you’re going through, what you’re facing, what’s facing you.  Some of us are dealing with things that are so big … too big to think we have a chance at overcoming.  I can only imagine.  Seriously can only imagine the burdens some of you bear.  A friend of ours is just finishing chemo and gets to look forward to surgery as a follow up.  It just sounds daunting and heavy.  But somehow, she faces her plight confidently but with imperfect knowledge about what is to come.  How?  She deals with today.  She deals with the here and now.  One … more … step.  Not focused on tomorrow, next week, next month.  Just focused on getting through today.

My goal is not to minimize the reality you might be facing and it’s not to sound trite.  My hope is to encourage us what the Bible tells us in Luke 12:25-26

Can all your worries add a single moment to your life?  And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?

My point is this … whatever you face, whatever battle you’re waging, take it one day at a time.  Win today.  Ask God to give you the power to wake up today, to give you strength to move through today, through this moment.  Doing so will help us rely on Him more frequently, more completely.  It will remind us that He is running right alongside us, that He is there every moment, that the way we can not worry about tomorrow is by relying on Him every moment of today.  First Peter 5:7 sums it up best …

Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you.

Let’s ask Him to help us focus on the here and now, on today rather than yesterday or tomorrow, on one … more … step.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR