Sunday, September 21, 2014

Clear as mud?

I talk about my “favorite” movies all the time … I have many favorites.  Probably in the top five all-time is Arthur, circa 1981 (if you’ve never seen it, SEE IT!!!).  In it, Arthur is meeting his soon-to-be fiancĂ©e’s father … naturally, Arthur is drunk.  Though he is in Mr. Johnson’s home, Arthur (being drunk, and hence, confused) offers Mr. Johnson a drink.  Mr. Johnson declines, saying, “I don't drink because drinking affects your decision-making.  Not missing a beat, Arthur responds, “You may be right.  I can’t decide.

On a more serious note, I think we hit times in our lives when we confront decisions when we quite honestly don’t know what to do.  There are many situations where the direction to head is clear-cut.  Others, clear as mud.  When we confront decision points that hinge upon biblical or moral matters … easy.  When we’re not combatting with a matter of right or wrong, benefits or detriments, legal or illegal, things can get a bit obscured.

Over the past couple years, before I accepted my new job a year or so ago, I went through such a situation inherent in the decision around job opportunities.  Some were obvious “not in a million years” situations, but many weren’t as definite.  The same thing can happen in family circumstances … Helen and I have worked over the years to motivate, guide, and hold accountable our now 16 year-old son relative to school work (it helps now to realize that darn-near all our friends with 16 year-old sons have the same “fun”).   How exactly one approaches that guidance can be challenging … there are a variety of potential strategies and philosophies, not to mention innumerable opinions expressed by well-intentioned individuals.

Unfortunately, we can’t always be sure which decision to make.  So … how do we make the right one?

In reading through Nahum 1 – 3, Habakkuk 1 – 3, Zephaniah 1 – 2, Psalms 108 – 114, Jeremiah 9 – 15, this week, I was moved by a passage that shared some important perspective.

In Psalms 107, we get a tidbit of advice stemming from the poetic / musical structure that the psalmist shares with us.  The psalm opens with a proper reminder of our response to God’s love for us, and then it proceeds to share some ways in which God manifested His love to His people.  Verses 1 – 3 …

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good!  His faithful love endures forever.  Has the Lord redeemed you? Then speak out!  Tell others he has redeemed you from your enemies.  For he has gathered the exiles from many lands, from east and west, from north and south.

The reminder here is that … God has and God will continue to love us, to guide us, and to rescue us.  He is good, and all He does leads to our safety, security, and serenity.  He is never not in charge, never not in control, and never not focused on our good and His glory.  That’s some important grounding we need, particularly when we’re battling with the burden of not knowing what to do.

But here’s what floored me as I read through this.  Four times during this psalm, the writer reminds us about God’s deliverance of the Jews through some of the toughest, scariest times of their history to that point (and since, needless to say).  In verses 6, 13, 19, and 28, we read …

“Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble, and he saved them from their distress.

If you want to make a point … repeat yourself.  God wanted this point emphasized, so He made it four times in this psalm.  The point …

We don’t have to wait until we don’t know what to do … but in the times when we wait AND we don’t know what to do, when we have trouble, there are two words we must remember.  Lord.  Help.  Lord, help!

The great thing is what is next in these verses.  “And he saved them from their distress.”  Instant.  No waiting.  No needing to do anything.  They cried out to Him, and He responded.  Our God!

When we don’t know what to do, we at least know Where and to Whom to go.  Most times … most … He will save us from our distress.  I say “most” because there are times when God will remain silent, for a time.  It’s in these moments when we must truly embrace the promise of God’s love and deliverance.  God will be there to save us from our distress, just not necessarily in our timeframe.  So, in moments when we truly do not know what to do, when the “right” way isn’t clear, I think we have to make the best decision we can, based on seeking God in prayer, seeking Godly counsel from friends, family, pastors, etc., and based on God’s word.  Making a decision certainly brings outcomes and consequences, but we need to remember that not making a decision is the same as making a decision.  Just as in any other time, in times of uncertainty, I think God sometimes wants us to exhibit faith and make a decision … leaving (and trusting) the circumstances to Him. 

That’s the essence of faith … taking a step when the ground beneath our feet isn’t visible, but knowing that God has promised us it’s solidly there.  In times of uncertainty, when we don’t know what decision to make, at least we can rely on the fact that God’s there, and He’s chiefly focused on our best interest even if we don’t know conclusively what that might be.  Take the step.  Any step.  Then let Him work.

Clear as mud?

Trusting Him,


Sunday, September 14, 2014

Don't bend and you won't break

I hate when USC’s football team loses.  I recognize that, among the manifold major issues plaguing our world, whether or not a bunch of 18 to 22 year olds win a football game doesn’t rank highly enough in importance to even reach unimportant.  But I had to at least say it …

As I read through the blogs and Instagram posts after the game to share in pain with the many other Trojan alumni (trying to look past the profanity that proliferates not only in the football culture but seemingly our whole culture), there was a common theme that struck a chord with me, and ironically it fit a scripture verse that I felt had a lot of applicability to many of us.

One of the criticisms of USC’s defense in years past (and it was mentioned about last night's loss) is this notion of “bend, but don’t break.”  Meaning, allow the offense to make little gains here and there, but don’t allow them to make big gains.  To me, little gains eventually add up to big ones.  It seems that being conservative in that way ultimately fails … you just prolong the eventual.  Now obviously many, many people way more expert in football than me will argue against my point, and probably aptly.  Perhaps it’s my competitive and black-and-white nature.  But it still seems to me that “bend, but don’t break” ultimately becomes, “bend, and eventually, break.”

The same holds true in life and in our personal behaviors.  What we allow, we avow … speaking of our personal actions, not those of others.  I’ll clarify my point in a minute.  But during my reading through Micah 2 – 7, Psalms 101 – 107, Jeremiah 2 – 8, and Nahum 1, this week, I came across Psalm 101, and some crucial reminders of the need for vigilance in our behavior.  Psalm 101 (NLT), written by king David, reads …

I will sing of your love and justice, Lord. I will praise you with songs.  I will be careful to live a blameless life — when will you come to help me?  I will lead a life of integrity in my own home.  I will refuse to look at anything vile and vulgar.  I hate all who deal crookedly; I will have nothing to do with them.  I will reject perverse ideas and stay away from every evil.  I will not tolerate people who slander their neighbors.  I will not endure conceit and pride.  I will search for faithful people to be my companions. 
Only those who are above reproach will be allowed to serve me.  I will not allow deceivers to serve in my house, and liars will not stay in my presence.  My daily task will be to ferret out the wicked and free the city of the Lord from their grip.

Now let me be categorical in saying … nothing in this passage is suggested to give us license to go around and poke others in the eye about the wicked things they’re doing.  Too often, we as Christians spend too much of our time pointing our fingers at others and speaking down our noses at their wickedness … all the while missing our own.  We should never forget that while God abhors all sin, that includes our personal sin, which is the only sin over which we are accountable.

Anyhow, what I love about this psalm is how explicit it is … and how driven to personal responsibility it is.  Poignantly, David writes about struggles and sinfulness that no doubt he must have battled with, because frankly we all do.

He starts off by identifying the best way to equip ourselves of success on the balance of the admonitions in the psalm … by reminding us to recognize God’s goodness and power … the very power to which we have access through the Holy Spirit to set the goals that follow throughout the rest of the psalm.  Let’s face it, we are … when left to our own devices … utterly incapable of behaving in a God-honoring way.  The Bible says that ALL have sinned (Romans 3:23) and that there are NONE that are righteous (Romans 3:10), but that we can have Christ’s righteousness because God laid upon Him all our sin.  So, if we’re going to achieve any positive behavior, we have to give God the glory and credit up front.

After this proper recognition, David begins by acknowledging his responsibility for the type of personal accountability for which we all should strive.   Note that he doesn’t say, “I will try to,” or “I will do my best to,” or “So long as other people do what they’re supposed to, I will …” He hits the nail on the head, by being specific, to the point, and unambiguous … he says, “I will lead a life of integrity in my own home,” and “I will refused to look at anything vile or vulgar,” and “I will have nothing to do with all those who deal crookedly.”  The rest of the psalm is equally plain, and demonstrative.

Take a second to read the psalm again, this time out loud.  If you’re like me, you almost take this as a bit of a pledge or covenant.  I challenge you (us) to accept it as such.  Any or all of those statements are challenging in our daily life, but pivotal not only if we’re to live the life that God wants us to (most importantly) but also if we’re to have successful lives.  It goes without saying that these types of behaviors, and commitments to exhibit them consistently, are the only way we as Christians, business and community leaders, parents, friends, colleagues, etc., are ever to gain and maintain the trust and relationship that we seek for our fulfillment, and that others need if we’re ever to point them to Jesus.

Equally important, though, is how unequivocal the standard is as David lays it out.  It’s clear from scripture that ANY deviation, however minor, from God’s holy standard is sin.  So, with respect to the types of behaviors David talks about we must be absolute.  Again, not in pointing out in a condemning way the shortfalls of others, but in laying upon ourselves the standards of expectations.  That is, we must never bend, lest we break.

The Bible teaches that a little sin invades and pervades us (1 Corinthians 5:6) … that is, when we allow even a little bit of sin in our life, it’s far easier to allow more and more.  Thus, we have to take a very hard line on the standard we expect of ourselves.  It’s not that we’ll ever achieve that standard, but our attitude MUST be unrelenting and uncompromising.  That’s the only way we’ll ever have a chance to live a life that is pleasing to God and likely to result in the type of fulfillment we seek (which can only come from Him).  It’s certainly not a guarantee, but it’s a crucial element.

That’s also the only way we can live a life that is attractive to others; the only way we can show people the validity and value of a life lived for God’s glory; the only way to demonstrate why someone would want to know Jesus.

This week, let’s prayerfully ask the Lord to reveal to us any of the areas in Psalms 101 where we might not be attaining the standard to the degree we ought.  Let’s also pray that He’ll help us to be open to the truth and feedback with which He responds in His grace.  Either way, let’s commit … don’t bend … don’t break.

Doing neither …


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Leave it better than you found it

As parents we spend a lot of time teaching our kids to leave a room better than they found it … as a mechanism to remind them to clean up after themselves.  Funny enough, this week at the office I had to remind our staff of the same thing.  We have about 70 people in the company now, and if folks don’t clean up after themselves in the kitchen, or when they leave a meeting in a conference room and don’t straighten up after themselves, it leaves a mess for the folks following.  It also just demonstrates a rather disrespectful attitude and a professional sloppiness that I don’t think has a place in the office environment we’re trying to create.

It’s certainly important to leave places and things better than you found them, but I think there’s a bit of a higher order of importance we have as Christians.  That’s to leave people better than we found them.  What does that mean?

I stumbled on this concept in a roundabout way in one of the most inspirational books of the Bible.  It came in the midst of some really good reading … through Song of Songs 3 – 8, Psalms 94 – 100, Esther 5 – 10, Micah 1, and Jeremiah 1.  In particular, reading the story of Esther brought this to mind.  (Esther’s a terrific book, by the way, and very readable in one sitting … I encourage you to give it a try)

To recap a little of the story … Esther became the queen of King Xerxes, who was likely a Persian king in those days, and who reigned over a very vast area from India to Ethiopia.  He was obviously quite powerful.  Esther became queen in the place of Queen Vashti, who was banished when she refused to visit the king when ordered (guys, don’t try to use this on your wives or girlfriends, it won’t work well!).  Shortly after she was appointed queen, her cousin Mordecai angered one of the king’s most important aides, Haman, when Mordecai refused to bow down to Haman, which Haman was forcing folks to do.  Haman was so mad that not only did he order Mordecai’s death, but the death of all Jews everywhere throughout the kingdom, and Haman got the king to decree that order.  That death order was scheduled for a date not too distant in the future.

Distraught, Mordecai reached out to his cousin Esther and asked her to plead with the king to save the Jews.  The problem was, not even the king could reverse his own ruling.  Nonetheless, the king asks Queen Esther how he can bless her and she realizes she has her opportunity to intercede for her people.  She invites the king and Haman to a banquet she prepares the next day.  Then again, the king asks what he can do for her … she invites them to another banquet.  During that banquet, we see her selflessness and impact on her people (Esther 8:3-6) …

Then Esther went again before the king, falling down at his feet and begging him with tears to stop the evil plot devised by Haman the Agagite against the Jews.  Again the king held out the gold scepter to Esther.  So she rose and stood before him.  Esther said, “If it please the king, and if I have found favor with him, and if he thinks it is right, and if I am pleasing to him, let there be a decree that reverses the orders of Haman son of Hammedatha the Agagite, who ordered that Jews throughout all the king’s provinces should be destroyed.  For how can I endure to see my people and my family slaughtered and destroyed?”

By now you might be saying … this whole point about deriving from this passage the principal of leaving people better than you found them really is roundabout.  Yeah, perhaps … but perhaps not.

Esther’s actions were both bold and risky.  Essentially, she was going to ask the king to reverse an order he gave.  Not only was that not legally permissible, but think about it … she’s basically telling the king he made a mistake.  Beyond that, she was also confronting Haman at the same time.  But she saw through that and had the interests of others at heart.  Sure, there was a chance that she too would be killed in the process, even though she was queen (she was still a Jew, after all), but it’s clear that she was worried about other people and she had an opportunity to save and serve them.  Her care for them was immense, and her impact on them cannot be overstated.

We have similar opportunities … though admittedly not as high-stakes.  When we interact with others, do we leave them better off than we found them?  That is, do we have their interests at heart above our own?  Do we look to save and serve them?  Do we interact with an attitude of care and love?

In every interaction we have with others, whether short, long, formal or informal, we leave a mark on them.  It could be a negative mark or a positive mark … but it’s a mark nonetheless.  What if we didn’t take these interactions as innocuous or meaningless, but recognized that, just as Queen Esther we have an opportunity to impact people every time we come across them.  How would we approach each interaction if we treated it as truly a life or death situation?

As Christians, we have a calling to share the good news of Christ with others.  While there is a time and a place for that to be an overt action to literally share the gospel, I think most times the real impact we can have is more subtle.  Do we make the faith we profess attractive in the way we interact with people, long before we tell them about it?  Our faith is a faith fundamentally borne from a perspective of love and sacrifice, so do we treat others in a loving and sacrificial way?

Besides, I think that sharing our faith with others has more to do with who we are and how we act than what we say.  In any event, we rarely get the chance to have a full conversation with others, or to spend the time necessary to truly help them know who we are and therefore make our faith attractive to them.  All the more critical, therefore, that we break our impact into smaller pieces, because that’s usually all we get.

So … let’s challenge ourselves prayerfully to look to every interaction we go through as crucial.  As the last and only chance we might get to leave the person better off than we found them.  In all likelihood, most of our interactions are the last and only.  Let’s be really purposeful … to leave the people we meet feeling loved, important, cared for.  It might be the only time we get to do that, and perhaps the only time that person might get treated that way.  Whether it’s the check-out person at the supermarket, the stranger in the elevator (you know, that awkwardly silent interaction when you’re only supposed to silently look forward at nothing), the person driving in front of you that wants to make a lane change at the last minute, that annoying person at church you spend most of your time trying NOT to interact with, that person at work who is never pleasant to speak with … whoever.  No matter what, let’s leave people better than the way we found them through our (even if brief) interaction.  Maybe, just maybe, we might save their (spiritual) life through it.

En agape,


Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Help! I need somebody. Help! Not just anybody ...

But I wanna do it on my own …

Those of us who are parents can relate to hearing these words expressed in perhaps the singularly whiniest way a kid can utter them.  But let’s be particularly plain on this … while it’s true that the bone-permeating whine that is usually heard in conjunction with those words is most often brought by kids, most of us as adults live this way.  Not only do we not want help, asking for help is even more difficult for us.

So, I’m breaking from my normal pattern of writing about a passage encompassed by my weekly reading (through Ecclesiastes 8 – 12, Song of Songs 1 – 2, Psalms 87 – 93, Nehemiah 11 – 13, and Esther 1 – 4) by going back into last week’s reading.  In Ecclesiastes 4 comes a passage that I love … easily one of my favorites in the whole Bible … and which is very much on point.  In verses 9 – 12 …

Two people are better off than one, for they can help each other succeed.  If one person falls, the other can reach out and help.  But someone who falls alone is in real trouble.  Likewise, two people lying close together can keep each other warm.  But how can one be warm alone?  A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer.  Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.

Help makes a huge difference.  Where we might fail on the one hand, having someone to help can ensure our success.  We gain strength with the aid of another.  Not just strength to bear weight that we wouldn’t be able to bear on our own, but also strength to face the scary times in our lives.  The strength to hold on when we want to give up.  The strength to stand up to challenges to our faith.

It’s clear, God does not intend us to do life alone.  In all my Bible reading, I have yet to find a passage that admonishes us to gut it on our own.  There are no rewards for fighting the good fight by ourself.  In fact, beyond just this passage, in the New Testament alone, there are 133 references (in the New King James translation) to “one another,” which in and of itself lets us know that we’re meant to be there for each other.  Being there is one thing … knowing if you need to be there is another.  For that, we have to speak up!  We have to ask for help when needed.

Our society seems to suggest that we have to go it alone.  The tough ones of us are those that are self-sufficient.  Those that need no one but our own strength.  Well, news flash … none of us can make it alone.  Inevitably in life we need someone at our side.  Someone to hold us up, shut us up, build us up, or fill us up.  To me, this is somewhat of a universal concept … we all understand it at a basic level.  But what makes us refute that reality and resist the action of simply asking for help?

Again, it comes back to our society … the norms we live by.  Media and popular culture tell us that the real-deals out there are the haggard, self-motivated, self-driven, self-supported ones.  Note the common thread in some of those descriptors … “self.”    Not being willing to seek help is in one sense selfish, absolutely … but ironically, I would submit that not asking for help is self-defeating and self-destructive.  So still self-oriented, but with unintended consequences.

My take on it is that there is strength in seeking help.  It takes much more courage, fortitude, intelligence and might in recognizing that we need to rely on others.  Jesus said, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)  The lower we place ourselves, the stronger He can be in us.  By extension, when we ask for help from others, we allow Him to work through those people we ask for help.  Doing so is also consistent with the model of community that Jesus instructed us to live by, as well as the practice of the early church, as embodied in Acts.

I was talking with a young college student this weekend who reached out because he was suffering from anxiety resulting from the fear that he might have chosen the wrong place to study.  He has gone through some really tough early experiences as part of the college’s football team, none of which have been positive or God-honoring.  He just wanted to talk to someone about the situation and get some advice.  He said, “man, I feel so dumb bringing this all up.”  My point to him was that what’s dumb is suffering from regret and fear and NOT bringing it up to someone who cares and can help somehow.

There’s no heroism in doing things on our own.  No extra credit is given.  Most times the only thing we gain is loss.  We can’t live life on our own without help any more than we can clap only one hand, run a three-legged race on our own, or win a tug-o-war competition by ourselves against a team of NFL linemen.  Let’s face it … life is HARD much of the time, and despite the cutesy metaphors above, they’re not too far off from the reality life often yields.

We need help.  Ask for it.  Give it when asked.  None of us can do life on our own.

Reaching for His hand,