Friday, November 28, 2014

Sorry, Aristotle

I admit it … I have a lazy streak a mile wide, and it gets in my way in a lot of ways, often.

I don’t get to do so very frequently, but I most certainly have a propensity to lounge when given the opportunity.  It’s one of the down sides of not having a lot of rainy days in California.  Just one rainy Saturday or Sunday provides a lot of recharge for the batteries.  (ha!)  Now don’t misread me, I think there’s nothing wrong with a little R&R from time to time; actually, I think it’s Biblical.  As Solomon writes in Ecclesiastes 3:1, there’s a “time for every activity under heaven.”  That’s the verse that legitimizes those days where I talk Helen into laying around watching TV on a bad weather day!  8-)

But there’s a difference between R&R and an innate laziness … a lack of dedication to completing a task and completing it with devotion to and pride in God.  There’s a difference between doing something we enjoy well, and doing everything we do well.  Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do.”  I tend to disagree.  I think we are, in essence, how we do what we do.

My reading this week (Proverbs 5 – 11, Isaiah 21 – 27, and Ezekiel 15 – 21) let me internalize a strongly-worded admonition that shaped my thinking on this.  It’s in Proverbs 6 that we find (verses 6 – 11) …

Take a lesson from the ants, you lazybones.  Learn from their ways and become wise!  Though they have no prince or governor or ruler to make them work, they labor hard all summer, gathering food for the winter.  But you, lazybones, how long will you sleep?  When will you wake up?  A little extra sleep, a little more slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest—then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit; scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.

So much is said through not just our actions, but in the manner by which we carry them out.  All the more so when we look at the work that we do … not just in the office or workplace … but in a broader sense.

Our effort is a reflection of our attitude.  Our attitude is a representation of our faith in and gratefulness to God.  How so?  Well, when we recognize the love God continually demonstrates to us, and all that He has entrusted to us (whether in material terms it’s much or relatively little), we can’t help to have the proverbial attitude of gratitude.  But if that attitude doesn’t in turn permeate our behaviors, we are among all things “lazybones.”

When we have a grateful attitude, it exudes all we do.  Little things and big things.  Visible things and those unseen.  It’s shown by being hard-working and industrious, by being complete in all we do.  It’s shown by doing the “dirty” jobs, those that others don’t like to do.  It’s inherent in paying attention to the details, not overlooking stuff because “no one will notice.”

Too often, when my wife Helen asks me to do something I’ll do it, but perhaps not right away, not without grumbling, not in a way that after 19 years of marriage I know she’d like me to perform the task.  It can be small things or big things … inevitably, and all too frequently, I might get the job done, but not without somehow diminishing the experience.  In the past, Helen’s actually appropriately stung me by checking my attitude with, “you wouldn’t do your work this way at the office, would you?”  I might be consistent in doing the work, but if do it in a shabby or crabby way, I’m probably doing more harm than good.

This is another aspect of this idea … we may exert ourselves in differential ways based on where we’re working, for whom we’re working, or our “enjoyment” of the task we’re doing.  Our character shines very dimly in such circumstances, because selectively choosing when we do our best is the opposite of doing our best.

We celebrated Thanksgiving this week.  But we can celebrate it daily by how we do what we do.  If we’re truly thankful, our behaviors will demonstrate it, consistently, genuinely and predictably.  Let’s ask the Lord this week in prayer where we aren’t totally grateful and thankful … where our attitude is resulting from overlooking our many blessings … where the way we do all that we do is undercutting the actual effort we exert.  Let’s ask Him to help us live, behave, and work in a way that embodies a life that is lived fully and appreciatively.  It’s not enough to do something repeatedly, let’s do it repeatedly well.

Sorry, Aristotle.


Tuesday, November 18, 2014

It takes two to tango ...

I often wonder where certain sayings come from … who thought about “it takes two to tango?”  Did someone once see someone trying to tango on their own and decide that it was so horrific that they needed to point out that it shouldn’t be done alone?  I guess it seems self-evident to me.  There’s another saying that ponders, “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”  That one seems obvious to me … there is no sound (although my family … my uncle and as it turns out, our daughter – genetics is crazy … has somehow figured out some crazy way to do a one-hand clap).  So as you can tell, my brain can wander with the best of them.  But in the wandering I got to cross paths with an interesting reality that I think we sometimes treat philosophically.

Let me share where I’m coming from.  This week my reading plan called for Jonah 2 – 4, Proverbs 1 – 4, Isaiah 14 – 20, Ezekiel 8 – 14.  I have to admit, I’m a huge fan of Proverbs and will probably camp out there in my next several weeks’ messages as I read through it.  The reason is that … and Solomon opens up chapter 1 explaining as such … their purpose is to share God’s wisdom with us.  The thing is, it takes two to tango.  Proverbs 1:20-25 says …

Wisdom shouts in the streets.  She cries out in the public square.  She calls to the crowds along the main street, to those gathered in front of the city gate:  “How long, you simpletons, will you insist on being simpleminded?  How long will you mockers relish your mocking?  How long will you fools hate knowledge?  Come and listen to my counsel.  I’ll share my heart with you and make you wise.  “I called you so often, but you wouldn’t come.  I reached out to you, but you paid no attention.  You ignored my advice and rejected the correction I offered.”

Just because we listen, that doesn’t mean we hear.  Just because we look doesn’t mean we see.  Both of those pertain to our procurement of knowledge and / or wisdom as the passage above suggests. 

It seems like today we’ll look to anything to find wisdom, oftentimes not realizing that what we’re seeking out is false and unable to suffice.  We say we should just follow our hearts, but our hearts lie to us … they provide neither wisdom nor knowledge but rather feelings and emotions which hardly compensate or stand equivalently.  The irony is, as is outlined in the Proverbs passage, wisdom is readily out there for us.  We just have to look in the right place.  What is the right place?

As the passage indicates, we don’t have to look long and hard for “her.”  Wisdom is readily available to us.  Wisdom is within our reach.  Wisdom pursues us.  This is what I love about the Bible, the book of Proverbs, and these verses in particular.  They convey wisdom … true wisdom.

God doesn’t hide His intentions and guidance from us.  He ensures that in varying ways, we have access to the fullness of life He intends, and this comes from wisdom.  I like one particular definition of wisdom I found … “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.”  God lays it out right in front of us.  But He doesn’t stop there.  Buried within each of us, whether we are Christian or not, is the inherent awareness of wisdom, but all the more, God blares it out and presents it straightforwardly to us.  Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, says that “wisdom SHOUTS in the streets.”  Wisdom “CRIES OUT in the public square.”  It “CALLS TO the crowds.”

So we know wisdom is right there before us, unhidden, completely retrievable.  Why don’t we see it?  Well, most often because we’re looking to something else, in another direction entirely.  Or, we have already chosen our own way, and hence are basically choosing to flat-out ignore what’s directly in front of us.  That is, we’re looking, but we’re choosing not to see.  It’s crying out to us but why is it that we don’t hear what it’s saying?  Because we’re listening, but we’re not choosing to hear.  For communication to happen, there must be a sender of a message, and a receiver of a message.  God sends, but do we choose to receive?  It takes two to tango.

How do we see and hear?  It starts at the heart.  I would argue that while our ears physically hear and our eyes physically see, it’s our HEART that SPIRITUALLY sees and hears.  Its capacity, though, is limited, so the first thing we need to do is keep an open heart.  Looking but seeing only what we decide to isn’t vision … it’s delusion.  Listening but hearing only what we decide to isn’t hearing … it’s deception.

God’s Word is the key to seeing and hearing … spiritually-speaking.  He makes His plan plain.  His Word works.  His message meets us where we are.  It’s all we need, but if we never open ourselves to its content, we’ll never find contentment.

In order to receive the wisdom God provides, we have to choose to look AND see what God is always prepared to show us, through His word.  That means we have to read it, and read it with an open heart and mind to what He chooses to say to us.  When we go to Him in prayer, we have to spend time to actively listen and be prepared to receive whatever He wants us to in His response.  If we seek godly input from other believers, we have to be open to how God might be talking through them.  He promises to give us the wisdom our lives need, but we have to choose to do what He reveals to us.  It takes two to tango.

If you’re looking for wisdom, look no further.  Open up God’s Word.  Our Bibles are not intended to be coffee table decoration or dust-gathering artifacts sitting on shelves.  They’re our Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.  Bibles are meant to be consumed like food, and absorbed like water in a sponge.  In fact, take a month-long challenge with me.  Open up to the book of Proverbs and for each of the next 31 days, read one chapter a day.  It’ll take you no more than five minutes per day.  In the process, you’ll find a lifetime of insight, intellect, input … WISDOM … if you choose to look and SEE and listen and HEAR.   If you do, I dare you to NOT come away with incredibly valuable “knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgment as to action.”  The question is … will we take the action?

Looking and seeing, listening and hearing,


Sunday, November 9, 2014

Addition by subtraction?

A familiar passage hit me in a bit of an unfamiliar way this week.  I’m nearing the end of my Old Testament reading plan for this year and got to journey through Isaiah 7 – 13, Ezekiel 1 – 7, Obadiah 1, Amos 5 – 9, and Jonah 1.  There are some fascinating aspects to these books as you read through the history of Israel and Judah, as well as God’s plan, judgment, grace, and restoration through the eyes of the prophets as God moved them.  During that journey, I was reminded through the first chapter of Jonah about how God carries out his intentions despite the fact that they’re not our intentions.  In other words, sometimes He works through us and sometimes He works around us.  Jonah 1:9-15 will give you a sense of what I mean …

First let me set the stage a bit.  Remember that Jonah was a prophet of God in the southern kingdom of Israel around the time of Amos and Hosea (roughly 800BC).  The kings of that day were evil and the society was pretty disastrous.  Fortunately for a prophet, it was a bit of a target-rich environment.  But like many of us will at times, Jonah didn’t heed God’s call, though it’s clear that he knew what it was.  As we open the book of Jonah, he gets instructions from God to go to Nineveh, a place few really wanted to go.  Instead of following God’s instructions, Jonah goes in pretty much the opposite way.  He boards a ship to Tarshish and things fall apart for him and his shipmates when a huge storm starts up.  The sailors finally figure out that Jonah’s the reason for the melee and we read –

Jonah answered, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land.”  The sailors were terrified when they heard this, for he had already told them he was running away from the Lord. “Oh, why did you do it?” they groaned.  And since the storm was getting worse all the time, they asked him, “What should we do to you to stop this storm?”  “Throw me into the sea,” Jonah said, “and it will become calm again. I know that this terrible storm is all my fault.”  Instead, the sailors rowed even harder to get the ship to the land. But the stormy sea was too violent for them, and they couldn’t make it.  Then they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. “O Lord,” they pleaded, “don’t make us die for this man’s sin. And don’t hold us responsible for his death. O Lord, you have sent this storm upon him for your own good reasons.”  Then the sailors picked Jonah up and threw him into the raging sea, and the storm stopped at once!

What can you and I take from this?  Plenty.  Realize in this case that Jonah wasn’t the direct recipient of the blessing God intended.  Jonah’s task was to go to Nineveh and convey God’s message.  Other than following God’s instruction (which is sufficient, don’t get me wrong), Jonah wasn’t necessarily the target of God’s actions, the Ninevites were.  God wasn’t necessarily using Jonah for Jonah’s good … admittedly we don’t get to read what ultimately happened to him, so I guess we’ll have to wait until we meet him in person.  I also don’t want to read into the text in any way and presume that the reason Jonah went the other way was because he wasn’t to receive the blessing of God … it was similar, however, in that Jonah did NOT want Nineveh to receive God’s blessing.  He didn’t think they were worthy of it.

The point here is analogous.  Jonah not wanting Nineveh to get God’s forgiveness and blessing is the same as Jonah not getting what he wanted through God’s plan.  I dare say, folks, we can be quite the same way.  Sometimes I think God asks us pretty clearly to do certain things, which we listen to differentially.  That is, we tend to pick and choose the things we agree with and we look the other way for things with which we disagree.  The thing is, our willingness to agree or disagree doesn’t invalidate God’s ability to carry out His intentions.  The question is whether or not they’ll occur with us, or around us.  It’s either addition by addition (God works through our concurrence), or it’s addition by subtraction (God works around our impedance).  Either way, God is not dependent on our cooperation to achieve His ends.

So if God’s ends are accomplished either way, then why does it matter whether it’s by “addition” or “subtraction”?  The distinction comes from the impact on us.  Look what happened to Jonah.  He thought he was in the clear in running away from God.  He probably figured God wouldn’t know … seriously?  His running away not only wasn’t noticed, but it put him and the other folks on the boat in mortal peril.  Eventually, the sailors figured out the situation, and also recognized the God, “sent this storm upon [Jonah] for [God’s] own good reasons.”  God’s plan would not be thwarted … and eventually the message got to Nineveh just as he intended.

The other aspect for our notice is the opportunity we have to exhibit faith when God asks us to do things for which we’re not the beneficiary or with which we don’t agree.  In fact, the strength of our faith can be measured by our willingness to accepts God’s methods and plans even when we’re not the direct beneficiary of them.  Are we willing to go where He wants us to, even if we may get nothing out of it?  Are we willing to follow where He leads when others get the blessing and we don’t?  Are we willing to be obedient to Him when He’s going to care for those we care nothing about?  

Faith that exists only to the point where we’re rewarded is a pretty hollow faith.  The fact that we don’t know what happened to Jonah afterward doesn’t mean he didn’t see the fullness of God’s blessing upon him.  That’s also true for us … we don’t always see the fullness of God’s blessing on us through our circumstances, especially when things go exactly the opposite of our assumptions, expectations or desires.

That’s why it’s called faith.  Faith means following with a fervor even if we fail to receive God’s favor.  In the end, it’s always better to follow God’s instructions.  We’d rather he work by addition than by subtraction, as we learn from Jonah’s example.  And, the opportunity to exhibit faith is an opportunity to grow in faithfulness.

This week, let’s ask God in prayer to help us go where and when He asks us to.  Not just to avoid the potentially painful implications of “addition by subtraction,” but also for the blessing He bestows on those who exhibit faithfulness … even if we don’t see the blessing.

Be blessed,


Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Don't point ...

My mom always told me I shouldn’t point at other people …

As I read through Joel 1 – 3, Psalm 150,  Jeremiah 51 – 52, Isaiah 1 – 6, Lamentations 1 – 5, and Amos 1 – 4, I was struck by the preponderance of dismay being communicated by so many.  The authors of the books, the prophets represented in the accounts, and even in some respects God as He outlined how His judgment and righteousness has to demand reprimand and repercussion upon the Israelites.  These implications came of course as a consequence of a long history of disobedience and idolatry by the Israelites and Judaites.

Where the reading got particularly potent for me was in Lamentations (generally attributed to Jeremiah), especially 3:17-23 …

Peace has been stripped away, and I have forgotten what prosperity is.  I cry out, “My splendor is gone!  Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”  The thought of my suffering and homelessness is bitter beyond words.  I will never forget this awful time, as I grieve over my loss.  Yet I still dare to hope when I remember this:  The faithful love of the Lord never ends!  His mercies never cease.  Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning.

As a prophet, Jeremiah was well aware of the abomination that was the society of his time.  He’d not only seen it firsthand, but he was charged with the responsibility (among others) to point out the disgrace of his people, and to highlight the coming judgment.  But … Jeremiah’s heart was wrenched at the failure of his people.  He speaks of “crying out” and feeling the bitter loss of the demise of his homeland.

The parallels between Jewish society in those days and our society in present days are striking.  However, Jeremiah’s response to the circumstances, I believe, are quite different than what is common today.  Jeremiah was sincerely heartbroken at the fate of his people, mostly about how they’d brought their circumstances upon themselves … his lament in fact is the very topic of the book.

Often today, we tend to point the finger at others to identify their shortcomings, disobedience, sin, etc.  We forget, as the adage goes, that “when we point the finger at someone else, there are three more that point back at us.”  That is, when we focus on the shortcomings of others, we inherently are disregarding our own shortcomings.

In Christian circles these days, we tend to not only identify the sins of others and forget our own, but we also categorize and rank the sins of others.  To our mind … I don’t believe to God’s … there are certain sins that are more sinful than others.  Most often, the sins we find most deplorable are those with which we don’t struggle, and / or that we find more disgusting.  Homosexuality, drug abuse, etc., tend to rank higher than other sins … in our minds.  But I don’t believe this is God’s heart … and while I recognize there are a number of passages in scripture that specifically identify certain sins, I think it’s a stretch to say that the Bible classifies them somehow as greater in offensiveness than other sins.  But that’s a debate for a different time.

Rather than to have a genuine heartbrokenness about the existence and proliferation of sin in our society, our lives, the lives of our friends and the lives of our families, we instead often point outward to highlight how bad certain people are.   We condemn others for their sins, knowing full well that through Jesus, God the Father doesn’t (so long as we accept Jesus’s free gift of eternal life through faith in Him), and that we should stand equally condemned if we apply the same standard to our shortcomings.  We forget that ALL sin is an offense to God, that He hates ALL sin, and that we’re supposed to hate ALL sin … including our own.  We also forget that Jesus died for ALL sins, including those that we find disgusting or offensive.  We tend to put boundaries on His free offer of salvation applied to all sin for those who choose to accept His gift in faith.  He doesn’t place such boundaries.

Jeremiah shows us that we should have a heart like God’s heart, which breaks at the existence of sin and the enactment of sinful behaviors.  Instead of accusatorily and condemningly pointing the fingers at others, we should take to heart our responsibility to pray for those who need to know our Lord, to act in similar ways to our Lord when He walked the earth, to love and serve those who struggle with sin.  We should also remember that while we’re forgiven and perhaps saved from the bondage of many sins we carried out before we knew Jesus, being human we have our own current areas of sin with which we struggle, no better or worse than anyone else’s sin.

Bottom line … let’s point no further than at ourselves and let the Lord work on our issues.  He’ll work on the sins of other people on his own.  Let’s ask the Lord prayerfully to change our hearts and our perspectives to align them to His … where our hatred for sin extends no further than ourselves, and where our heartbreak at the sinfulness of others is treated with the salve of compassion and love through prayer.  It doesn’t mean that we look the other way, or call sin something other than what it truly is (sin), but we should let our transformation with the Holy Spirit’s help be the source of motivation and transformation of others.  If we’re gonna point anywhere, let’s point (others) up toward God.

Pointing up,