Pencils

Have you ever looked at some of the most famous paintings in history and wonder about the brush that did the painting?  How about when you tasted the best dessert you’ve ever eaten, have you wondered about the spoon or whisk used to mix the batter?  When Willie Mays made “the catch” at the Polo Grounds in New York (I was a huge fan of his when I was a kid) did you wonder about the glove that he used, or when Michael Jordan hit arguably his most famous shot to knock the Cleveland Cavaliers from the playoffs in 1989, do you wonder about the ball that fell through the net?  When you read a poem by Maya Angelou or a play by William Shakespeare, did you wonder about the pencil (or quill in Shakespeare’s case in all likelihood) that was used to write those incredible works?

Unless you’re … detailed, let’s just say … you probably have never once considered any of these things, and you’re not likely to start now.  I can’t blame you.  I rarely think about such things either.  None of us do.  That’s because the brush, the whisk, the glove, the ball, and the pencil are implements or tools.  Left to themselves, they quite literally can do nothing.  But, in the hands of a skilled artisan, in some cases in the examples above incomparably talented artisans, some of the most memorable and world-changing constructs can be accomplished.  We don’t venerate the pencil we venerate the user of the pencil.  And with good reason.

And yet, we tend to over-focus on the pencils in our human experience, including when we are the pencil.  How?  We find an example in Romans 1:19-20, 25

They know the truth about God because he has made it obvious to them.  For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.

They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. 

Verse 25 says that “they” worshipped the created things, not the Creator of things.  The “they” is us.  We do it, and we do it all the time.  I know I do.

Anytime I have achieved something or done something well, I can assure you I have taken credit for it.  I’ve patted myself on the back.  I’ve notched myself higher in the “I’m pretty awesome” club.  My pride meter creeps ever higher.  Don’t get me wrong, when we set out to do things that are noteworthy, and particularly when we take actions to the benefit of others, some degree of acknowledgement is warranted.  But the proper acknowledgement, and the appropriate apportionment of attribution, is important.  I’m just the pencil.  There’s a pencil User who deserves all the credit.

That’s because left to myself, I can’t do anything.  No matter what character trait of mine I credit, of my own volition it does not exist.  My gifts, my talents, my experience, my education, and even my effort are only available to me because God provided them and allowed for them.  There is nothing that I have and nothing that I do that He didn’t give me.  I can regress as far back as I want and can never quite get to the point where something is of myself.  No matter how far back I look, my skills, traits, and abilities are not there because of anything I’ve done.  No more than the works of Shakespeare are there in any way because of anything the pencil did.

So whether it’s my accomplishments, or it’s the amazing drumming of Buddy Rich when he was alive, or the painting of Michelangelo, or the world-changing work of Martin Luther King, Jr., all were possible ONLY because they were pencils in the skillful hands of the ultimate Writer.

Please don’t misunderstand, though.  This is NOT to diminish the invaluable contributions of the likes of the aforementioned people.  Quite the opposite.  Each of these folks (and those mentioned above) were unique, designed for a job that in many ways only they could accomplish.  Think of it this way, they were perhaps pencils fit to use identifiably for writing a masterpiece, or for drawing a rich, vivid picture, or for measuring perfectly a cut of wood for the perfect structure, or for solving a complex mathematical formula previously thought unresolvable.  They were perfectly and discretely positioned for the work and in that sense were valuable beyond measure.

But it’s in their use in the right hands by the right user that they realize their purpose.  In that way does their merit and value become fully revealed.  The pencils are incredibly important.  But the user of the pencil is the one who brings meaning and purpose to the pencil.

You and I are pencils.  It doesn’t mean that we have no value.  It actually means we have infinite value.  But it’s only in the hands of the One Who can fully elicit our worth, Who can create something with us that we could not create on our own.  God has formed each of us as pencils, but pencils of different types, with different colors and textures, for different purposes, for different uses, and to apply at different times.  Whether you are a pencil that will create a Shakespearian classic and I’m a pencil that measures the location of a cut on a two-by-four, we each have equal value.  That’s because the Hands of the User of the pencil is the one who fulfills 100 percent of our potential.  Because of Him, each of us pencils has immense and infinite worth, because He is the one who brings our worth to fruition. 

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

100 percent

 

If you knew you had only 30 minutes left to live, how would you live that 30 minutes differently?  It’s a question perhaps none of us have thought about, and fortunately none of us have been forced to.  Truth be told, which of us know without a doubt that we have more than 30 minutes left?  None of us can actually be certain of that, if we’re totally honest, and yet few if any of us live as though it might be true.  I include myself in that observation.  I can sincerely say that when I wake up in the morning most days I take that for granted.  The fact that I woke up?  Yes, exactly.  If I were truly cognizant of the fact that the very act of waking up is a gift … which it is … I would more earnestly arise with Psalms 118:24 on my lips –

This is the day the Lord has made.  We will rejoice and be glad in it.

The thing is, all of us have only 30 minutes left.  The only question is when does that 30-minute countdown start?  

In 2007, I was asked to speak at the memorial service for a sweet little girl whose family were neighbors of ours.  She passed away at eight years, four months, and three days old.  That was the entirety of her life, and yet I shared that day what I truly meant … that we had the opportunity that day to remember not the things she didn’t accomplish but the things she did.  You see, even at that incredibly young age, as awful as her passing into eternity was in temporal terms (and it was), that little girl who fought for three years a cancer that ultimately prevailed was victorious in many ways that many of us often miss.  It’s about 100 percent.

 

James 4:14

How do you know what your life will be like tomorrow? Your life is like the morning fog—it’s here a little while, then it’s gone.

Psalms 90:12

Teach us to realize the brevity of life, so that we may grow in wisdom.

Ephesians 2:10

For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.

Psalms 139:13-16

You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb.  Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex!  Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it.  You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb.  You saw me before I was born.  Every day of my life was recorded in your book.  Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.

 

These passages talk in part about two inescapable concepts: the finite and short nature of our lives, and the fact that no matter how finite and short our lives might be, God intends for them to have purpose.  God’s desire is that we live whatever number of days He grants us to 100 percent.  That is, to passionately live out our lives to accomplish 100 percent of our purpose.  To live with 100 percent intentionality.  To be grateful for 100 percent of the time we have.

In other words, it’s not about the time we don’t get here on earth.  It’s about the time we do get.  It’s not about what we don’t get to do in life, it’s about what we do get to do.  It’s not about how much life we live, it’s about how we live the lives we get.  That was true of that little girl, and it’s true for you and me.

Life IS short.  There’s no questioning that.  As I sit here well into the 2nd half of my life, I can say with no hesitation that the 53 years of my life behind me have gone by in what seems to be the blink of an eye.  If I am granted 20 more years, I’m sure the 73 years of my life behind me at that point will seem no less the snap of a finger in retrospect.  But the Ephesians 2 and Psalms 139 passages above show quite clearly that time is not the measuring stick of impact while we’re here on earth.  God has lain before us some number of days, short or long, in order for us to accomplish kingdom purposes.  What gives God most glory is also what He most desires to give us most good … that is, to live 100 percent of our lives at 100 percent of our purpose.

Tim McGraw’s song, “Live Like You Were Dying,” is a song about 100 percent …

I went skydiving, I went Rocky Mountain climbing, I went 2.7 seconds on a bull named Fumanchu.  And I loved deeper, And I spoke sweeter, And I gave forgiveness I’d been denying.  And he said, “Someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.

Now, whether skydiving or climbing or bull riding is your thing or not isn’t particularly the point.  It speaks to me more about the intensity of moments and the focus on difference making every chance we get.  That’s 100 percent.  It’s neglecting nothing and no one.  It’s adding legacy in short snippets of time.  It’s recognizing the hugeness of small encounters.  It’s honoring the value of otherwise overlooked people.  It’s showing people that would never see otherwise the love of their Creator.

100 percent means not wasting time or opportunities.  I remember when I was a very young driver (and a cocky one at that), realizing I was low on gas in my old 1974 Volkswagon Beetle.  In my arrogance and in my questionable prioritization of other things in life, I kept driving though I knew my gas tank was getting emptier and emptier.  As I finally capitulated and made my way nervously to the gas station (fearing I wouldn’t make it), I pulled in and drove up to the station just as the last of the fuel in my car was being consumed.  I literally coasted with what little momentum I had to the tank.  Barely.  In a way, it was satisfying … knowing that I made it with no margin for error … but also knowing that I used everything in the tank.  The same is true when I do a really hard workout and put my all into it.  I feel ground down to a nub when it’s done, but there’s a huge sense of satisfaction that is impossible to detach.

That’s 100 percent.  It means using every drop of gas in the tank of our lives, ending on fumes.  It means working hard with every moment to feel that satisfaction of being done with something hard and taxing, but good.  We will all live 100 percent of our lives.  That’s what we have allotted to us.  None of us will have a shortage and none of us get overtime.  We get 100 percent.  That’s it.  What matters, then, is how will we use our 100 percent? 

Will we live it like there’s only 30 minutes left?  Will we dedicate ourselves to living out God’s purpose and plan for our lives?  Will we love others the way the Bible tells us HE loves them?  Imagine what our world would be like if we did.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Eye of the beholder

cross eyed

It seems like the past several months we keep being shown the worst of society.  No matter where we look, what news channel, what websites, whatever, it’s an at times overwhelming sense of the dregs of society.  The media bend the curve, but it seems each of them bend the curve toward humanity’s least proud behaviors.  Obviously, that must pay the bills for them, and yet it can be demoralizing in the extreme.  In candor, I’ve significantly diminished my consumption of news in all forms, including social media, over the past few months.  It just feels at times like too much.  Too much negative.  Too much weight.

I don’t mean to sound depressing, and I fully recognize that the emphasis of news has generally tended toward the negative more than the positive.  At least in my fifty-something years of life that seems to be the case.  The old adage that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” seems to hit the mark.  At some level, we see what we look for, and if anything is true in our world of immediately-accessible information, one thing is for sure … we can choose to get bogged down in the negative news of the day.  But we can also find better.

We can see the part of our humanity that does take time to love and help and bless one another the way the Bible commands us to.  There is ample evidence that society consists in more than just the dregs.  If we have the eyes to see, we can find numerous examples of folks doing the right things by other folks.  It’s truly in the eye of the beholder.  We … you and I … are the beholders.

If we look hard enough, there are some cool and heartwarming examples of all kinds of people doing all kinds of good.  I’m not advocating us sticking our heads in the sand or covering up our eyes and ears to avoid seeing the harsh realities around us.  We actually have to be aware of what’s real and true.  But I guess my point is, we should seek not only a real view, but a complete view.

Like the musician in New Orleans who is trading people in the area trumpets for their guns, just to get guns out of the hands of kids.  A sweet couple from Texas who have beaten multiple health challenges together motivated by not missing an anniversary celebration together.  A quick search will find many more sources and I suspect I’ll be checking those more often and enjoying some good news more frequently.

But more than that … clearly it’s important to see the good that’s out there, and to focus on it being in the eye of the beholder.  What’s more important, in my estimation, is to be the right types of folks doing the right types of things.

Truly we can conclude that the beauty in our world is in the eye of the beholder, but what if each of us commits to more frequently being those who do beautiful things in our world that other beholders can behold?  If the journey of a thousand miles really begins with a single step, could it be true as well that transforming what is seen of our world with the eye of the beholder begins with a single one of us choosing to do a single act of selflessness?  Could that actually have the benefit of bending the most important curve there is to bend?  Could that help change the narrative?  You bet!  But how can we do that?

Colossians 3:16-17

Let the message about Christ, in all its richness, fill your lives. Teach and counsel each other with all the wisdom he gives. Sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God with thankful hearts.  And whatever you do or say, do it as a representative of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through him to God the Father.

2 Chronicles 16:9a

The eyes of the Lord search the whole earth in order to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.

These two passages aptly help us decipher both why we should do it and how we should do it.

Why do we do it?  We do it to please God, and to bless His people.  There’s an important clarification that I should make, though; we don’t do such things to somehow earn God’s favor.  We can’t do anything to earn His favor.  He gives us His favor freely (His grace and His mercy), simply out of His infinite love for us.  We can’t add to that or subtract from it.  We do it as a consequence of His love.  And whether or not it’s seen or unseen by other people, it’s seen by HIM.

How do we do it?  It’s actually something we don’t do by our own accord.  It’s by His power, by His strength, at work in our lives.  When we’re fully committed to Him, He supernaturally gives us an ability to accomplish more with even our small gestures and actions.  It’s kind of like trying to lift a really heavy weight … we might be able to do it on our own, but with help we can lift quite a bit more.

Sounds impossible?  Matthew 19:26 reminds us, “Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But with God everything is possible.”

The bottom line …

If there’s something we need more of right now, it’s to behold good news.  To view the good that is actually happening out there, even if it’s not what generates news ratings or stirs up viewers on a website.  Moreover, we can contribute and add to the good.  We need to provide the eyes of the beholders with faith-filled love and service that is actually worth beholding.  The eye of the beholder is ultimately dependent on you and me contributing good to behold.  We do it for God and we do it by God.  All He asks us to do is to be available for His work.  Anytime we do so, the eye of the beholder … our eyes … will see His glory and handiwork.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

HUA!

A U.S. Army Rangers

Though I’ve never served in the military, there are many elements of it that have always captured my respect and intrigue.  Certainly, those who have served … you have my utmost and eternal gratitude.  One of my favorite aspects is the Army’s practice of saying “hooah!” as a way to communicate a number of things, primarily as an affirmative acknowledgement of instruction or order.  In fact, some have explained that the meaning of “hooah!” can often be expressed as the acronym, “HUA,” or short for “Heard.  Understood.  Acknowledged.”

The past few months for me have felt incredibly heavy.  With the strife that our country … in fact, our world … has been going through, I guess it isn’t all that surprising.  Perhaps like many of you, the cacophony of societal yelling and hollering (a Texas form of “yelling,” haha) has caused me to taper off the degree to which I watch the news and engage in social media.  It seems today that so many folks are so busy yelling and screaming, there is no way they could actually be listening to one another.  And if they’re not listening, there’s no way they can be hearing.  If they’re not hearing, I would assert it’s impossible to gain understanding.  And what could be more important today then each of us trying to understand one another just a little bit better?

This is what drew me to the concept of HUA.  As I read a little more about the possible meanings of the phrase, the clarity of the utility of the “heard, understood, and acknowledged,” relative to our society struck me.  I can tell you, I could certainly apply the concepts far more in my marriage, as my wife could (and would) attest!  But it’s the power of the simplicity of the phrase that moved me, not to mention that it fits like a glove in the same frame as an admonition from one of my favorites books of scripture … James 1:19-20

Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry.  Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.

I can’t imagine a more appropriate verse to guide the supposed “dialog” that is going on in our country on the health front or the racial front.  You only have to look to our “leaders” in government to see that neither side of the aisle gives the slightest ear to the other side.  Just accusatory arguing and shouting, which certainly can’t activate hearing, understanding or acknowledging.  And at least for me, there are far too few examples of where HUA has been applied in our day and age.

Yet, James (the brother of Jesus) aptly reminds us that we should be quick to listen.  The connectedness of this to the next gem is profound, because if we are indeed quick to listen, by definition we are slow to speak.  And if we do both of those I daresay the slow to get angry portion is simply a natural byproduct.  What would our world look like these days if more people were slow to get angry?

Actually, James answers that question when he rightly points out, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.”  I wish I could put one of those head exploding emojis in this message at this point.  Is there anything that could be clearer from God’s word?  Is there anything that could be, frankly, more important today?  While I am not here trying to claim that the global pandemic we’re undergoing the past several months has to do with unrighteousness per se, I have to wonder how much of our response to it and reaction to it could be far more edifying to one another if we simply heard, understood, and acknowledged one another more, and allowed God to work in our lives to produce not our anger but His righteousness.  All the more if we apply HUA to the “one anothers” in our world even if they don’t look like us.

It seems all too often these days that we tend to demand that others listen to and hear us.  But look more closely at the passage from James 1, above.  It isn’t an admonition to yell and scream to force others to hear us.  It’s a command to us, that we stop and hear others.  Imagine if our politicians in Washington, DC, the state houses, and cities throughout America stopped talking long enough to listen to and hear one another, let alone “we the people?”  They’re too busy demanding that others hear them.  And, so as not to be pointing fingers unduly, so are we.  And more accurately … I have to say … so am I.  This is not intended to be an indictment on others, it’s meant to serve as an encouragement to all of us, me chiefly.  I don’t say these things because they don’t apply to me, I say these things because they do, and I above all need to practice them.  Again, just ask my wife.  😎

One of the other aspects of the explanation of the meaning of HUA is that it can mean anything but “no.”  In other words, it must always be an affirmation that one has heard, understood, and acknowledged the instruction or otherwise what they heard.  It means we can’t say, “no” to lending an ear to someone, to listen until we hear, and to hear so we can acknowledge what we heard.

Some might say, “Why bother?  I’m never going to get that person to come to my side of the discussion!”  That’s not the point.  HUA does not mean “agreement.”  It doesn’t mean convincing someone of something or pointing out your rightness or their wrongness.  How do you know you’re right in the first place?  Just because we agree with ourselves doesn’t make our point of view right.  And even if we are “right” wouldn’t our rightness be enhanced and strengthened by exercising a little HUA so someone else’s perspective can better inform and maybe even bolster our own?  Anyhow, you and I can absolutely HUA one another without agreeing on everything.  We can disagree and … as they say … disagree agreeably.  To my mind, the only way we can do that is to be able to say that we have heard, understood, and acknowledged one another.

Another reason to HUA is to show our love and respect for one another.  After all, Jesus made it quite clear in Matthew 22:37-40

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’  This is the first and greatest commandment.  A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”

Those, according to Jesus the Creator of the universe, are the MOST important commandments … commandments that are indelibly tied to one another, intertwined with one another, and integral to one another.  We show our love for God by showing our love for His people.  Even people with whom we don’t agree.  Especially with people with whom we don’t agree.  I can’t think of a better way to love our neighbor as ourselves than to say HUA! as often as we have the opportunity.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

Certain times

When I first felt led to write on this topic it was in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which our generations have never seen.  Little did I think that it would now encapsulate the reemergence of one of the most divisive blemishes on our democratic republic.  Yet, perhaps it’s just as well since the topic still applies.  Maybe it applies more.

The reason this topic came up in the first place was that it struck me as I watched television over the past couple months (which all of us probably have done more of in this time of societal shutdown), more commercials used the phrase, “in these uncertain times.”  I couldn’t help but wonder to myself, “when have times actually been certain?”  The answer is, of course, as it relates to our temporal lives here on earth, times are anything but certain.  They have never been certain, and regardless of the season we’re in they will never be certain.  To us, that is.

We don’t need a global pandemic to show us how uncertain life always is.  History is replete with examples of how life doesn’t go the way we expect, dream or desire.  Wars, disease, death, genocide, prejudice, tyranny, and on and on.  All of that creates an intensely uncertain experience for anyone and everyone affected by them.  Without sounding overly dark, this world is broken, life is hard, and times are uncertain.  All the time.

However, among all the uncertainty, there is certainty.  There are certain times.  And that certainty only comes from one place …

John 16:33

“I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”

Psalms 91:2-6

This I declare about the Lord: He alone is my refuge, my place of safety; He is my God, and I trust him.  For he will rescue you from every trap and protect you from deadly disease.  He will cover you with his feathers.  He will shelter you with his wings.  His faithful promises are your armor and protection.  Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night, nor the arrow that flies in the day.  Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness, nor the disaster that strikes at midday.

1 Chronicles 29:11-15

Yours, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty. Everything in the heavens and on earth is yours, O Lord, and this is your kingdom. We adore you as the one who is over all things.  Wealth and honor come from you alone, for you rule over everything. Power and might are in your hand, and at your discretion people are made great and given strength.  “O our God, we thank you and praise your glorious name!  But who am I, and who are my people, that we could give anything to you? Everything we have has come from you, and we give you only what you first gave us!  We are here for only a moment, visitors and strangers in the land as our ancestors were before us. Our days on earth are like a passing shadow, gone so soon without a trace.

Certainty comes from God.  He promises us in John 16:33 that even though we go through the craziness that our world offers us, He transcends the strife that comes along with it.  When the world seems overwhelming, it’s because to you and me it is.  It’s not to Him.  Out of the immensity of His love and His knowledge that sin had entered and mutated our world through Adam and Eve (and everyone since), He alone made sure to provide a way out of the chaos.  Just as Jesus spoke calm into the face of a terrifying storm with His disciples, God speaks calm to the storms that you and I confront in our world.  It doesn’t matter how big or scary the storm is, He has already overcome it on our behalf.

In Psalms 91:2-6, he goes further to assure us that not only has He overcome the discord in our world, He is personally with us, each one of us, to provide protection and shelter to us.  He’s our protector, He’s our covering, He’s our safety net.  He doesn’t just sit high upon some lofty and impersonal perch orchestrating like a puppeteer, He is our personal protector.  He knows what you’re battling and what I’m battling individually and He chooses to intercede for both of us.  His love and provision have no bounds and never, ever run out.  That’s how much He loves us.  The 1 Chronicles passage reminds us that He can do these things because the world belongs to Him.  Nothing happens outside His dominion and while it all seems out of control, it’s very much in control.  In His control.  Just because things happen that we may not comprehend doesn’t mean it’s beyond His comprehension.  Nothing is.  And because all creation belongs to Him, He can cause it to operate as He sees fit, in accordance with His holiness, righteousness, mercy, and love.

So our times are uncertain.  Of that there is no doubt.  Times in our world have always been uncertain from our point of view and always will be.  But not for God.  Not only are times not uncertain for Him, they’re very much certain.  And so is His love for us.  And we can draw comfort in our uncertainty because of His complete certainty.  When it comes to our loving, omnipotent, omnipresent God, we can confidently look at our circumstances as certain times.

Soli Deo gloria!

MR

 

 

P.S. I would be remiss if I don’t say this … that God created men and women, ALL men and women in His image.  We all, collectively, reflect and represent His image.  What is certain, unequivocally CERTAIN, is that He loves each and every person He ever created.  Anyone who tries to ascribe less value to any one person, class, race, group or whatever on the basis of the Bible is either completely ignorant of what the Bible says, or is absolutely lying and bastardizing what it says.  I will spare you, but I could cite verse after verse after verse on the authority of the inerrant word of God, that God loves every person He ever created.  And so must we.

Being a sponge

sponge_PNG16

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?

Screen Shot 2019-10-07 at 11.06.45 PM

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