Sunday, August 24, 2014

Regrets, I've had a few, but then again ...

Notwithstanding the title … “Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again …” this is NOT a message giving homage to Sinatra, Elvis, or anyone else that’s sung “My Way.”  Neither is it a tribute to the philosophy espoused by that very famous song.  Frankly, I think the mentality it describes is nothing short of foolishness.  To put it plainly, whether or not someone did life “their way” has nothing to do with the success, impact or fulfillment of their life.  Quite the opposite, I believe.

My reading this week supports this perspective.  Reading through Ecclesiastes 1 – 7, Psalm 80 – 86, and Nehemiah 4 – 10, I was particularly moved by several passages in Ecclesiastes.  The book is generally a self-reflective review of a life that was clearly lived “my way” from the point of view of Solomon.  It’s also a book that recounts a life of regrets.  To me, these are indelibly tied together … a life lived “my way” is inevitably bound to become a life full of regrets.  From Ecclesiastes, here are a few examples of Solomon’s conclusions on the matter …

Ecclesiastes 1:16 -18
I said to myself, “Look, I am wiser than any of the kings who ruled in Jerusalem before me. I have greater wisdom and knowledge than any of them.”  So I set out to learn everything from wisdom to madness and folly. But I learned firsthand that pursuing all this is like chasing the wind.  The greater my wisdom, the greater my grief.  To increase knowledge only increases sorrow.

Ecclesiastes 2:9-11
So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me.  Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors.  But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere.

Ecclesiastes 5:10-11, 15
Those who love money will never have enough. How meaningless to think that wealth brings true happiness!  The more you have, the more people come to help you spend it. So what good is wealth—except perhaps to watch it slip through your fingers!  We all come to the end of our lives as naked and empty-handed as on the day we were born.  We can’t take our riches with us.

Solomon had it all.  Anything he wanted, he could just ask for it, purchase it, demand it, etc.  He literally had access to darn-near anything on earth.  Remember, he was a king.  He had more wealth, possessions, women, devotees, and servants in his life than most of us could fathom.  He was also granted an overwhelming portion of wisdom at the outset of his reign.  Not too long thereafter, it appears he shed that wisdom for material things.  No wonder he lived with such regret.

He recounts a life spent trying to find fulfillment … not denying himself a thing.  He pursued wisdom.   He chased partying, drinking, philandering.  He did all he possibly could to fill his life on his terms.  Nothing worked.  It would appear he died empty, sad, dissatisfied, depressed, and disappointed.  You can read Ecclesiastes and see his account for yourself, pretty plainly.

It’s said that you never see a hearse with luggage racks on it, and that no one on their death bed wishes they’d spent more time at the office.  But I think neither of these sayings accurately depicts the fact that many still die with a firm grip on wishing they could do things differently.  How does this happen?

I think regret is born out of a life lived “my way” rather than God’s way.  It’s the essence of where sin entered our world to begin with, all the way back to Adam and Eve falling because of the desire to have the knowledge of good and evil, to be like God.  No different today … as I look back on my life, most of the pain and difficulty I experienced was self-induced.  Poor choices, always in contrast to the way God wants us to live, invite more and more regret into our time here on earth.  What makes it worse is that we persist in these choices throughout life, even after we decide to surrender our lives to the Lord.  There’s an innate tendency that we all have to choose our own way, to talk ourselves into the notion that somehow we know more than He does, or that we know more what is better for us than He does.  “Next exit … REGRET.”

What areas of your (our) life are budding with future regret.  Where are you (we) making choices that will only ever give birth to regret.  No doubt we all have them.  If you’re having a hard time finding them, we can look to the places where we are choosing our way rather than God’s way.  Let’s choose less than what He wants for us.  We don’t want to be someday breathing our last knowing that the breath we’re taking is weighed down by the burden of wishing we could have done things differently when we had the chance.  Let’s choose NOW to remedy our own frailties and pride … let’s decide that regret won’t be the badge of “honor” on our sleeve at the end of our life.  Let’s not sow pride and reap regret.  In Solomon’s words, doing so is only chasing the wind.  It’s meaningless.  It increases sorrow.

Let’s ask the Lord in prayer this week to reveal to us any areas where we are fundamentally choosing regret.  To show us anywhere we are choosing our pride rather than God’s blessing.  Anywhere that we say “my way” and not God’s way.

No regrets!


Monday, August 18, 2014

Dial tone

Back in the day, before cell phones, we had nothing but landlines.  I know that sounds perilous.  But worse yet … most of the time those landline phones were attached to the wall.  Scary, huh?  8-)   What might blow your mind is that before you could dial a phone call, you had to pick up the handset, make sure you had a dial tone, and then you would dial the phone with a rotary dial.  Something like this. 

Most of the time, you picked up the phone and knew that there’d be dial tone.  It was expected.  When it happened, you didn’t notice it.  It was supposed to be there.  The only time you’d notice it is when it wasn’t there.  When you picked up the phone and dial tone was there, you wouldn’t call the phone company to thank them, or to compliment them on how nice their dial tone was. 

If the dial tone wasn’t there, on the other hand, boy, would you give them an earful and make sure they sent out a technician to fix things.

A lot of things in life are like dial tone.  In my work world, for instance, when people get their paychecks every two weeks, no one calls up our payroll department to thank them for their paycheck and for making sure the amounts were all correct.  In the same way, no one calls our computer support folks to thank them when their computer turns on and they can log into it.  Now mess up someone’s paycheck, forget to pay it, or have someone’s computer have a problem turning on, logging in, or performing basic duties … well, all heck breaks loose (understandably).

A section of my reading this week (Job 36 – 42, Psalms 73 – 79, Ezra 7 – 10, and Nehemiah 1 – 3) reminded me of dial tone, but probably not for straightforward reasons.  In particular, Job 38.  In this chapter, God is responding to Job’s lament throughout the book, asking what appear to be rhetorical questions intended to remind Job that God is God and Job is not.  But in an admittedly indirect manner, I think God is speaking to our human tendency to treat God, His provision, His grace, His gifts, and His creation in a dial tone-like manner. 

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Tell me, if you know so much.  Who determined its dimensions and stretched out the surveying line?  What supports its foundations, and who laid its cornerstone as the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?  “Who kept the sea inside its boundaries as it burst from the womb, and as I clothed it with clouds and wrapped it in thick darkness?  For I locked it behind barred gates, limiting its shores.  I said, ‘This far and no farther will you come.  Here your proud waves must stop!  “Have you ever commanded the morning to appear and caused the dawn to rise in the east?  Have you made daylight spread to the ends of the earth,
to bring an end to the night’s wickedness?  As the light approaches,
the earth takes shape like clay pressed beneath a seal; it is robed in brilliant colors.  The light disturbs the wicked and stops the arm that is raised in violence.  “Have you explored the springs from which the seas come?  Have you explored their depths?  Do you know where the gates of death are located?  Have you seen the gates of utter gloom?  Do you realize the extent of the earth?  Tell me about it if you know!  “Where does light come from,
and where does darkness go?  Can you take each to its home?  Do you know how to get there?  But of course you know all this! 
For you were born before it was all created,
and you are so very experienced!

Principally, God is reminding Job of God’s preeminence over all things, and His dominion over them.  But what struck me as I read this is the magnificence of each of the points God makes, and also the way I can often overlook them.  In effect, I sometimes treat God’s wondrous creation and creativity with indifference in the manner of dial tone.  I expect it, and when it’s there, I look right past it.  Do we notice the expanse of the sky and the multitude of stars?  The power of the ocean and the volume of water contained within it?  Notice the color of the sky at dawn or dusk lately?  Ever think about the light as it appeared after you flipped a switch?  How about the absence of it that creates darkness?  How about the way the air smells after a rain shower?  Or just about how the rain got into the clouds in the first place?  Or what held it up there once it arrived?

Now take one of those things away … cloud up the sky in the morning or evening and we’ll miss the colors behind it.  We’ll call it “gloomy,” “depressing,” “bland,” or just “grey.”  Take away the rain and we’ll curse the drought and wonder why God is drying things up.  It’s interesting that with the presence of grandeur, majesty, and radiance, we’ll see right past or through it, but invoke absence of any of it and we’ll be on the customer service line, blaming God for blowing it.

I think it’s time to take a step back once in a while and notice … notice small stuff.  Notice supposedly insignificant things.  Because things that “don’t matter,” do matter.

What’s wrong with thanking the payroll person for getting our paychecks right?  For paying us on time?  Why not recognize the fact that when we click on an icon, this little two-pound piece of plastic and silicon let’s me have access to nearly every fact in the known world, my cousin in England by video, and every picture I’ve taken of our kids throughout their lives? 

Same thing with God.  How about we choose to notice?  How about recognizing that minor details of His are not the least bit minor?  God isn’t dial tone … everything He does is purposeful and driven by His love for His creation, including you and me.  If we’re going to question Him on the supposed lack of things from time to time, we have to praise Him for the abundance He gives.

This week, let’s ask the Lord to help us better hear, notice, acknowledge, recognize and be thankful for the dial tone.  Nothing about it is inconsequential.

Lord, help us to notice your handiwork and splendor … even the dial tone.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Nowhere but UP

I remember being at a point in my life back in 1998 where I felt I’d reached a low point … in my life’s satisfaction, in my self-confidence, in my health, in my spiritual condition … in many areas.  Though Helen and my marriage was off to a great start and we’d just had our son, when I looked inside myself I just reached a place where I was just displeased with myself.  Primarily as a consequence of some health stuff that started bubbling up, and the realization that I wasn’t living the way I should, wasn’t eating the way I should, and was reaping the consequences.

One afternoon I was walking around our neighborhood on my new exercise regimen, burdened with a heavy weight of fear of what was to come from my newly-diagnosed diabetes and the ramifications of that.  I can remember precisely where it was but I just stopped in the road and said, “God, I know I can’t do this without you.  I’ve tried for too long.  My mom always tells me ‘Let go and let God.’  I can’t muster the courage to put a needle in myself, or to go through what might come with this disease, but I know YOU have the courage.  If You plan for me to go through this, You’ll get me through.  If I have to, I will.  I trust you.”

Immediately, there was a burden lifted from my shoulders.  I’d hit bottom in that season of life … a critical season in that it ultimately led to me surrendering not only that situation, but eventually my entire life to Christ. 

My reading this week (through Job 29 – 35, Psalms 66 – 72, 2 Chronicles 36, and Ezra 1 – 6) brought me to a passage in Psalms 69 that brought back memories of that moment in time … and the blessings ever since.  David expresses palpable dismay and pain throughout the Psalm which opens with obvious anguish in verses 1 – 4 …

Save me, O God, for the floodwaters are up to my neck.  Deeper and deeper I sink into the mire; I can’t find a foothold.  I am in deep water, and the floods overwhelm me.  I am exhausted from crying for help; my throat is parched.  My eyes are swollen with weeping, waiting for my God to help me.  Those who hate me without cause outnumber the hairs on my head.  Many enemies try to destroy me with lies, demanding that I give back what I didn’t steal.

Ever been there?  Seems likely many, if not most, of us have.  Or, at least felt that way even if in retrospect the reality of the situation wasn’t as bad as we made it.  I think there are many times when we feel like the weight of literally the entire world is on our shoulders, or that we’re under water struggling to get to the surface level but it’s unreachable.  Perhaps it might be that there is no one in our life that is pleased with us, or on our side.  Maybe it feels that no matter what we try to do, we can’t kick an illness or get healthy.  It could be that we just feel alone, ashamed or self-alienated.

I think David was there.  Maybe he was in all those places.  No matter, he just seemed to reach the end of himself.  He hit bottom.  But there’s an important element in hitting bottom.  Like falling into a well.  Once we hit the bottom, there’s nowhere we can look or go but up.  Therein lies the opportunity.  I think God sometimes lets us hit bottom (whether self-induced or otherwise) so that we can ONLY look up.  To HIM.

I’ve been blessed over the years to hear the stories of many folks in their journey to surrendering their life to Jesus.  Many of them came through “normal” circumstances, but many more through someone just reaching the end of themself.  In all those cases, while they reached the end of themselves, they didn’t reach the end of God.  In fact, they may just have reached the beginning of God, or at least the beginning of their relationship with Him.  David moves from pain to prevailing in  verses 29 – 33 …

I am suffering and in pain.  Rescue me, O God, by your saving power.  Then I will praise God’s name with singing, and I will honor him with thanksgiving.  For this will please the Lord more than sacrificing cattle, more than presenting a bull with its horns and hooves.  The humble will see their God at work and be glad.  Let all who seek God’s help be encouraged.  For the Lord hears the cries of the needy; he does not despise his imprisoned people.

The hope expressed in the last verse is profound.  The Lord hears.  If we just stopped there, oftentimes that is all hurting people need to know.  It gets even more encouraging … the Lord does NOT despise his imprisoned people.  That sure isn’t how it feels when we’re at the end of ourselves, does it?  It feels like quite the opposite … it most often feels like we’re in that dark and scary place particularly because God must despise us.  NOT SO.

I think the reason sometimes God needs us to hit bottom is that we’re usually unwilling to reach up until we do.  Either in our pride or our fear, we demand to take care of things ourselves.  In every case I’ve ever lived through or observed, that only makes things worse, like panicking when you’re in quicksand.

Don’t get me wrong … God will reach down ANY time we reach up.  It’s not about His inability or unwillingness to do so.  It’s about OURS.  So we’d do well not to let things get to that point, huh.

Let’s seek our Lord prayerfully this week for any area of our lives where we might be heading to that bottom point.  Let’s ask him to not let us get there … or if we are inevitably doing so, let’s ask Him to remind us that when we do, maybe because we do, He’ll be there ready to pick us up.

Looking up …


Wednesday, August 6, 2014

An Oldie IS a Goodie

The older I get, the more I value the experience of age and the wisdom that can result.  The way I see it, if I have to deal with all the physical aches and pains (and trust me, they’re there) I have to have something to hold on to favorably with getting older.

I remember in my younger years, always being told to “respect your elders” and doing it … well, because I was told to.   But our society in general doesn’t hold to such an outlook.  Most of who we think are the “relevant” and “important” people in our culture today are young folks.  Think of the celebrities we follow, or revere.  Generally they’re people who haven’t hit age 30 yet.  And those that have spend thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars trying to look young.  These young celebrities offer their input on a wide variety of issues, from politics to what it takes to live a fulfilling life.  All from folks who perhaps haven’t even logged enough years to gather a lick of experience, let alone context.  Yet, they’re certainly listened to, maybe even by some of us.

This week my reflection comes in a bit of a roundabout way.  I was first really moved as I read through Job 22 – 28, Psalms 59 – 65, and 2 Chronicles 29 – 35, about how God values wisdom in His people.  Specifically, in Job 28:23-28 Job shares his heart (from God) about the importance of wisdom …

“God alone understands the way to wisdom; he knows where it can be found, for he looks throughout the whole earth
and sees everything under the heavens.  He decided how hard the winds should blow
and how much rain should fall.  He made the laws for the rain
and laid out a path for the lightning.  Then he saw wisdom and evaluated it.  He set it in place and examined it thoroughly.  And this is what he says to all humanity:
 ‘The fear of the Lord is true wisdom;
to forsake evil is real understanding.’”

It’s clear that God desires us to seek understanding and wisdom … the understanding and wisdom that can only come from Him.  But something else hit me as I was finishing my current extra-Biblical reading through Lone Survivor:  The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.

“I learned right then from the intel guys that the gentleman I referred to was the headman of all the three villages we had observed.  He was a man hugely revered in the Hindu Kush, because this is a culture that does not worship youth and cheap television celebrity.  Those tribesmen treasure, above all things, knowledge, experience, and wisdom.

This excerpt comes from a point in the book (I’ll try not to tell you too much about it … but you should DEFINITELY read the book; be forewarned that the language can be a little graphic at times) when the subject, Marcus, is reflecting on the help he received from Afghan tribesmen.  Moreover, he was marveling at how both the tribesmen and the Taliban and Al Qaeda (both of whom were looking to find and kill Marcus) were kept at bay by their cultural deference to the tribal elder / leader.

These might seem to be relatively discordant thought processes to try to bring together.  But what moved me about this was how we as an American culture overlook the importance of wisdom that comes from experience and age.  We overvalue the youth and notoriety of today’s “celebrities” and “talent” and neglect the generations who actually experienced life in all its fullness.

Think about how the elderly are treated today.  All too often they’re relegated to a background role of importance, tucked away where they can’t get in the way, where their slower-moving speed can not impede our fast-paced, instant-gratification-seeking world. 

But think about the understanding and wisdom that any one of these older folks possess.  Just having gone through an lifetime that might contain reflections of living through World War II, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the assassination of President Kennedy, watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon LIVE, the advent of inventions and technologies we take for granted like the microwave, computers, cell phones, etc.  And we don’t even need to be so grandiose to derive value … just living through the ups and downs of life, sicknesses, people that aren’t around any longer, relationships that have gone well or poorly.  There’s a richness of available experience that presents itself like a spring of fresh water in an arid desert.  And we tend to walk right past it.

This is clearly a time where I talk as much to me as I do to you in terms of the admonition I provide.  All of us devalue our elders.  And yet, God lays the groundwork for an understanding of the importance of wisdom … it derives from “the fear of the Lord.”  The fear of the Lord is … in part … lived out by valuing those He created and those He loves.  The Lord loves all His people, including the elderly.  He has a plan for our lives … including those whose plan is perhaps at a little more advanced stage than others.

It should be noted that I’m intentionally being a little loose in my strict Biblical interpretation here.  But my point is no less Biblically-valid.

This week, ask the Lord to change your heart (if applicable) with regard to an elderly person in your life, or one that you encounter.  There are lifetimes of experience, understanding, and wisdom that are waiting to be shared, waiting to feed us with the most important type of sustenance we can seek.  I’m not saying younger people don’t have benefits and blessings with us … just not quite yet.  8-)

Grateful for each and every day He’s entrusted to me … even though they’re too numerous to count (haha),