Tuesday, September 28, 2010

"No" can be a good thing ...

Imagine this scene: You're a teenager, and your home country has been invaded and conquered by a foreign enemy. As part of the strategy to integrate your country into the empire of your conqueror, the best and brightest of the youth in your nation are carried off to the capital of the enemy to become a part of the royal service.

This actually happened to Daniel. Here's the setting as told in Daniel 1:1-7:

"1 During the third year of King Jehoiakim’s reign in Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. 2 The Lord gave him victory over King Jehoiakim of Judah and permitted him to take some of the sacred objects from the Temple of God. So Nebuchadnezzar took them back to the land of Babylonia and placed them in the treasure-house of his god."

"3 Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief of staff, to bring to the palace some of the young men of Judah’s royal family and other noble families, who had been brought to Babylon as captives. 4 'Select only strong, healthy, and good-looking young men,' he said. 'Make sure they are well versed in every branch of learning, are gifted with knowledge and good judgment, and are suited to serve in the royal palace. Train these young men in the language and literature of Babylon.' 5 The king assigned them a daily ration of food and wine from his own kitchens. They were to be trained for three years, and then they would enter the royal service."

"6 Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah were four of the young men chosen, all from the tribe of Judah. 7 The chief of staff renamed them with these Babylonian names:

Daniel was called Belteshazzar. Hananiah was called Shadrach. Mishael was called Meshach. Azariah was called Abednego."

While it would be a tragic thing to experience the fall of your homeland, some of these young men of Israel were about to have greater worldly opportunity than they could have ever dreamed of.

Instead of growing into leading citizens of their own country, they were now being offered an opportunity to rise to prominence in the greatest empire in the world at that time, complete with a whole new identity. They were given new names and would be provided a thorough education and indoctrination in the culture of the empire. In addition to all that, they were offered the indulgence of pleasures from the king's own kitchen.

Therein was the problem. To indulge at the king's table would mean to disobey the law of God. The choice was really between obeying an earthly king, or obeying God. We read about the choice made by Daniel and his friends as recorded in Daniel 1:8a, "But Daniel was determined not to defile himself by eating the food and wine given to them by the king ..."

When it came to behavior that indulged the pleasures and harmed their relationship with God, Daniel and his three friends had a simple response: "No!"

Those four teenagers had more discipline than many adults throughout the ages. It has not been common for even the strongest among us to say "no" to pleasures in life. When it comes to making life easier, more fun, more comfortable, and softer, we often say "yes" to what is offered us. The result is to indulge ourselves at the expense of our relationship with God, and often with others as well.

Saying "no" to the king endangered the lives of Daniel and the others, but God brought them through the situation safely. Saying "no" may not always be easy, but it often is best for us. When we want to indulge at our own tables, we usually do, at the expense of our fitness and health. When we need to exercise, we indulge our laziness. When we need to care about our relationships, we indulge our selfishness. And when we need to worship God, we indulge our own egos. All too often, it's when we get the bad news from the doctor, the goodbyes from relationships that weren't supposed to end, or brokenness that comes from sin, that we wish we would have said "no" to ourselves on multiple occasions.

Saying "no" could keep us from many --- if not most --- of the problems we wrestle with in life. The problem is, it's mostly saying "no" to ourselves! No to our selfish desires, no to our indulgences, no to pleasures that lead us away from God.

Fortunately, God helps those who are serious about following Christ to develop their capacity to say "no," especially to themselves. In fact, learning to deny ourselves is central to what is necessary to be a follower of Christ, as we see in Luke 9:23, "Then he said to the crowd, 'If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me'."

When we give our lives to Christ, God gives us a greater capacity to say "no" to all those things that brought sin into our lives previously. Look closely at 2 Timothy 1:7, "For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline."

What are you currently saying "yes" to that hinders your relationship with God and others? Are there things in your life you should be saying "no" to?


Thursday, September 23, 2010

View from the starting line ...

As I stepped out onto the track, all I could see was a string of intimidating hurdles.

Some time during my junior high school years, track events became part of the physical education activities at my school. I had never jumped hurdles before, so checking out the scene that first morning on the track was something new.

As I looked at the rows of hurdles, I pictured myself stumbling over the first one, falling head first and lying there on the track, dead from a broken neck. It was a dramatic emotion, but the hurdles seemed to present a dramatic challenge.

Nonetheless, they had to be jumped, so I summoned all the courage I could, listened closely to the coach's instruction about how to successfully clear the hurdles, then lined up for my first run. I was nervous, even a little scared, but I was also intent on succeeding.

With the shrill of the coach's whistle I was off the starting line and hit my strides well to jump the first hurdle, which I cleared beautifully! The second I jumped the first hurdle, I instantly learned how to jump hurdles. I continued to clear each of the remaining hurdles except for slightly clipping the second to the last one, which caused me to immediately correct my stride in order to clear the last hurdle.

By the time I finished the run around the track, I was invigorated by having succeeded in (literally) clearing a new set of hurdles, a new challenge.

Track events never became my favorite activity, but I learned something very important that first day on the track: you have to get over that first hurdle in order to succeed through the series of hurdles between you and the finish line. Once you face and clear the first hurdle, most of the anxiety dissipates or even disappears as you realize you can clear the barriers and finish well.

The key is clearing that first hurdle. That's where we tend to psyche ourselves out with imagining the fall that causes the broken neck. We envision everything that can possibly go wrong, and then expect it. However, if we listen closely to the "coach" about how to clear the hurdle successfully, focus and apply our best effort, we clear that first hurdle and, in the process, realize we can clear the others in our paths as well.

Most of us lining up for our first run at hurdles had some anxiety before we started, and a little elation when we ended. There were a couple who so terrified themselves as they stared at the hurdles that they never ran the race. They failed because they wouldn't even try to jump the first hurdle.

What hurdles are lined up in front of you today? Are you gathering courage and taking on that first hurdle, or generating fear and making excuses for not even getting off the starting line? What will it take for you to take on that first hurdle?


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Change without transformation ...

It's almost window-dressing time!

As 2010 is rapidly winding down, the next few months will bring out a rapid flow of holiday decorations in businesses and public areas. From loud orange for Halloween, to an assortment of Fall decor for Thanksgiving, to reds and greens for Christmas, window decorations and store displays will be changing almost by the week as we near the end of the year.

While there may be a lot of "change" going on, most of it will be only cosmetic in nature. The same businesses will be selling the same products, just with different designs and decorations that tap into holiday themes.

We all routinely experience change throughout life, but often it's change without transformation. Many simply redecorate the exterior of their lives as they pass through the seasons and experiences of life.

Jesus wants more from our lives than change, He wants our lives to be transformed from the inside out. He addressed this issue of change v. transformation quite straightforwardly in Matthew 23 as He scolds the Pharisees and religious leaders for their cosmetic change:

"25 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! 26 You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too. 27 What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. 28 Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Matthew 23:25-28).

Being a follower of Jesus Christ is not a seasonal event with thematic decorations, it's a complete life-transforming reality. The Apostle Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 5:17 this way: "
This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!"

Have you allowed Jesus Christ to transform your life, or are you merely changing the decorations? Is the external appearance of your life the reflection of a whole new person in Christ?


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What are you forecasting?

A friend of mine recently approached me with the common greeting, "How are you doing?" I had a lot on my mind at the time, so I almost answered him incorrectly.

What I almost said in response to my friend was what I was forecasting in my mind the challenges the next few days would likely bring. But I realized my friend wasn't asking for a forecast of my future, but rather, was inquiring about how I was at the moment.

At that moment, I was doing fine.

We often mar the actual quality of our lives by defining our current reality on a forecast of what we expect the immediate future to be rather than by the truth of what today really holds for us.

"Forecasting" is a common way of approaching life that can either keep us on track or keep us skewed to irrational thinking. We habitually forecast all kinds of things from the weather or finances, to relationships and potential pitfalls. The problem with forecasting comes when we focus on forecasting our circumstances rather than forecasting our faith.

Forecasting circumstances ...
Times are tough for many people. Today's challenges are resulting in sky-high stress levels as people forecast how much worse tomorrow, the next day, and the next may be if things don't improve. By focusing on a forecast of troubles, we become miserable today over something that may --- or may not --- occur.

One of the most famous examples of inappropriately forecasting circumstances is recorded in Numbers 13. God had heard the cries of the people of Israel in their slavery in Egypt and had sent Moses to lead them out to freedom in a Promised Land. Numbers 13:1-3 sets the stage for a failure of forecasting:

"1 The Lord now said to Moses, 2 'Send out men to explore the land of Canaan, the land I am giving to the Israelites. Send one leader from each of the twelve ancestral tribes.' 3 So Moses did as the Lord commanded him. He sent out twelve men, all tribal leaders of Israel, from their camp in the wilderness of Paran."

So 12 men were selected to spy out the land God had chosen for Israel. Numbers 13:25-33 is the result of their reconnaissance of the land:

"25 After exploring the land for forty days, the men returned 26 to Moses, Aaron, and the whole community of Israel at Kadesh in the wilderness of Paran. They reported to the whole community what they had seen and showed them the fruit they had taken from the land. 27 This was their report to Moses: 'We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. 28 But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! 29 The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.' 30 But Caleb tried to quiet the people as they stood before Moses. 'Let’s go at once to take the land,' he said. 'We can certainly conquer it!' 31 But the other men who had explored the land with him disagreed. 'We can’t go up against them! They are stronger than we are!' 32 So they spread this bad report about the land among the Israelites: 'The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. 33 We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!'”

God had delivered! He had set free His people from their captivity in Egypt and was ready to bless them with a land of plenty. Yet 10 of the 12 spies did some negative forecasting. They forecasted their future by focusing on the strength of their enemy rather than the strength of God. The result was a calamity for the people of Israel:

"26 Then the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 27 'How long must I put up with this wicked community and its complaints about me? Yes, I have heard the complaints the Israelites are making against me. 28 Now tell them this: "As surely as I live, declares the Lord, I will do to you the very things I heard you say. 29 You will all drop dead in this wilderness! Because you complained against me, every one of you who is twenty years old or older and was included in the registration will die. 30 You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you. The only exceptions will be Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun"'."

Forecasting on circumstances can rob you of the blessings God wants to bring into your life. Jesus addressed this issue in Matthew 6:31-34: "31 So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ 32 These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. 33 Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.
So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today."

Forecasting faith ...
Of the 12 spies sent to check out the land, only two came back with a forecast of faith. After the negative forecast by the other 10 spies, the people griped against God and their leadership. In response, Caleb and Joshua stood to give the people an entirely different forecast:

5 Then Moses and Aaron fell face down on the ground before the whole community of Israel. 6 Two of the men who had explored the land, Joshua son of Nun and Caleb son of Jephunneh, tore their clothing. 7 They said to all the people of Israel, 'The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! 8 And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. 9 Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!'" (Numbers 14:5-9).

It was this forecast of faith that provided Joshua and Caleb with a future when those who had a forecast of circumstance would perish in the wilderness.

In the same way, we impact our lives by what we forecast: whether by the fears of our circumstances, or the living out of our faith.

Hebrews 12:1-2a encourages a "faithful forecast" with these words: "1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. 2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith ..."

What are you forecasting?


Monday, September 13, 2010

Small enough to be useful ...

Here's a quirky reality for me: I like flying (in an airplane, of course), but I don't like heights.

For some reason, I'm perfectly comfortable being 30,000 feet in the air, hurtling along at a few hundred miles an hour inside an aircraft. But I feel uncomfortable standing too close to the edge of a mountain or on the roof of a skyscraper.

So when I recently saw the video of a man on a hang glider as he ran off the side of a small mountain, only to take flight, I thought it looked fun ... for someone else!

But the comment the man made at the end of his hang gliding flight captured my attention. He said, "You feel so small up there. It's a good feeling to feel small."

So true!

When we become "small" we gain perspective of the big world around us and the great God who created us, and we realize that we can never be too small for God to use, but we can be too much! It's when we think too highly of ourselves that we get in the way of being who we fully can be for God.

The Apostle Paul addressed this issue in Romans 12:3, "Because of the privilege and authority God has given me, I give each of you this warning: Don’t think you are better than you really are. Be honest in your evaluation of yourselves, measuring yourselves by the faith God has given us."

One of the best examples in scripture of a man measuring himself rightly is the life of Jonathan, son of Saul, who was Israel's first king. Following the tradition of royal families would mean that Jonathan would be the next in line to be king, yet he understood that God had different plans. Jonathan knew that God was bypassing him for David to replace his father as the next king of Israel. But that was okay with Jonathan! Jonathan was content to be the friend of David instead of his ruler. All he wanted was David's friendship, and that David would treat his family kindly. Look at Jonathan's words in 1 Samuel 20:13b-15:

"... May the Lord be with you as he used to be with my father. 14 And may you treat me with the faithful love of the Lord as long as I live. But if I die, 15 treat my family with this faithful love, even when the Lord destroys all your enemies from the face of the earth.”

Jonathan was a big man who knew how to be small so that God's will could be accomplished in his life.

Many leaders spend a great deal of time building their "personal brand" to enlarge themselves. But we can make so much of ourselves that we become "too much" for God to use. It's when we're honest about who we really are, in the light of Jesus Christ, that we are most effective in serving God.

Are you small enough to be used by God?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

The stupid question ...

If you've ever attend a workshop, seminar, conference or retreat, you know that some time after the speaker has delivered their talk they often take questions from the audience. Usually the speaker will coax the crowd by telling them to feel comfortable to ask anything because, "... there are no stupid questions."

As a speaker, I've led some of those question and answer sessions, and from that experience I have to admit there are, at times, some stupid questions. Not often, but occasionally someone may ask something that truly is a "stupid question."

You know a "stupid question" when you hear it. And we read one that was asked to Jesus in Mark 4. First, let's get the context by reading verses 35-37: "35 As evening came, Jesus said to his disciples, 'Let’s cross to the other side of the lake.' 36 So they took Jesus in the boat and started out, leaving the crowds behind (although other boats followed). 37 But soon a fierce storm came up. High waves were breaking into the boat, and it began to fill with water."

With that back drop, here comes the stupid question in verse 38: "Jesus was sleeping at the back of the boat with his head on a cushion. The disciples woke him up, shouting, 'Teacher, don’t you care that we’re going to drown?'"

This question is being posed to the One who had wrapped Himself in human flesh and left the splendors of heaven to walk this earth with sinful humanity so that by offering His own life, we could be saved. So did he "care" about the well-being of His friends and disciples in the boat?

What a stupid question!

Notice that Jesus was fast asleep in the midst of a fierce storm. He had no concern about what the world was throwing at them because He was with them. But at the sound of the voices of His needy, frightened followers, Jesus was alert and responded to their concern.

Unlike us, Jesus isn't afraid of any aspect of this world. He tunes it out when we tune it in and become frightened and overwhelmed. But what always immediately captures His attention are the cries of His children because He cares so much for them!

We don't have to wonder if Jesus cares about the storms that come raging into our lives. The Word of God shows us clearly how deeply He does, indeed, care. Instead of wondering, all we have to do is call out to Him and He will respond. He may not always calm the storm, but at the least He will calm us and walk us through the storm.

Do you trust that Jesus cares about what is happening in your life? Are you focused on the storm, or trusting in Christ? How do you respond to the storms that arise in your life?


Friday, September 10, 2010

Jump in the back ... or the cab?

When I lived in Hawaii, one thing that surprised me was seeing people ride in the bed of pick-up trucks.

Most states have outlawed allowing human beings riding in the back of trucks, citing the danger involved. But it's still legal for people to jump into the back of a pick-up in Hawaii. Due to the high cost of living there, it's more cost effective for a family to load up in a pick-up truck and "go beach" than trying to squeeze a family into a car.

As a kid, I remember several occasions riding in the back of a truck. It was a lot of fun for short trips, but I remember how uncomfortable it was on a long trip. Sitting on a metal bed helped you feel every bump in the road! Being in the bed of the truck was a very different experience --- and ride --- than sitting in the cab of the truck.

How we walk through life is kind of like riding in a truck. When we try life on our terms, without faith in Christ, it's more like riding in the back of a pick-up truck ... you feel every bump in life's road quite harshly! But when we walk through life exercising our faith in Jesus Christ, it's much more like journeying through this world in the cab of a truck ... while the road may sometimes be rough, it's cushioned by faith.

Jesus described our journey in this life in these words, as recorded in 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.”

There is no escaping the fact that life comes with difficulties. But Jesus Christ has already overcome everything this world can toss at us, and through Him, we can overcome whatever rocky road we may have to travel.

How are you traveling through life: being pounded by a rough road of self pursuits, or enjoying the ride that comes through faith in the One who has left a perfect path for us?


Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The barking dog ...

From the moment the small dog saw me, it started barking, and didn't stop until I finally walked out of its sight.

I was walking down a quiet road and, as I neared a house with a low chain link fence around the front yard, I spotted the small dog as it stood in the corner of the fence nearest me and began to bark. What was annoying was the fact that there was no need for the dog's noisy disagreement about my presence. I was on the opposite side of the road than the yard the dog was in. I was walking simply and quietly, making no threatening gestures to the animal or it's master's house. I wasn't making any noise. I wasn't bothering the loud, little creature or anyone or anything else. I was simply passing through.

As I became even with where the dog was, although still on the other side of the road, the little creature suddenly ran the entire length of the fence to the farthest corner of the front yard so that it could watch me --- and bark --- for as long as possible.

That reminded me of how so many people tend to be loudly annoyed simply because of the passing of others in their lives. Like the little dog running the length of the fence, many complain noisily and constantly throughout every moment of the simple passage of others.

The problem with having a grumbling attitude is that it leads us away from God to disobedience. In Psalm 106:25 we read about the Israelite people who, like that dog that barked at me, were noisy "yappers." Their grumbling led them to sin: "Instead, they grumbled in their tents and refused to obey the Lord."

We may not "grumble in our tents" but we do grumble in our cubicles at work, in our homes, in our cars, in our churches, and about any other place where we cross paths with others. And such griping leads us away from God.

The Apostle Paul addressed this issue with some very clear instruction when writing to the Ephesians: "Don’t use foul or abusive language. Let everything you say be good and helpful, so that your words will be an encouragement to those who hear them" (Ephesians 4:29).

When others pass through your life, do you greet them with words that are an encouragement, or do you bark loudly as they pass by? Do you grumble over the presence of others, or are you a source of blessing by your own presence?


Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Faith on a treadmill ...

Several years ago I experienced pain radiating down my arm in a similar fashion to what is sometimes experienced when someone has a heart attack. So the doctor wanted to make sure I wasn't experiencing some kind of cardiac episode.

As it turned out, my heart was fine. The problem was the crazy way a torn rotator cuff expressed pain!

But while undergoing cardiac testing, which included a treadmill test, I came to the realization my actual state of fitness was less than my imagined state of fitness. That helped me make a decision to improve my actual fitness level.

Many people live believing they are in better physical condition than they really are. Even though they rarely exercise (on purpose) and give little consideration to their nutrition, they believe they're more fit and more healthy than they actually are. Yet, they are content with the myth of their fitness. That is, until something starts going wrong with their health.

We treat our spiritual condition the same way. We often believe we're more spiritually healthy than we really are. Even though we do little to exercise our faith or feed ourselves with a healthy spiritual diet, we're content with the myth of our spiritual fitness. That is, until something goes wrong in life and we really have to exercise an (at best) under-developed faith.

The danger of living with a fitness or health myth can be very dangerous. It can cost you your health, even your physical life. But settling for living a "spiritual fitness" myth is far more dangerous. For those people, look at what Jesus has to say as warning in Matthew 7:21-23:

"21 Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. 22 On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ 23 But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws'."

Looking and feeling fit are not the same as actually being fit. And acting like a Christian is not the same as actually being one. Yet Jesus makes it clear that the reward for following Him will go only to those who actually belong to Him, not to those who settle for the "spiritual myth" they have created.

If you had to take a "spiritual stress test" today, would the results show a real, healthy relationship with Jesus Christ? Or would you discover you're not nearly as spiritually fit as you would like to believe? Now is the time to settle this question, while you still have opportunity to build a truly healthy relationship with Jesus Christ.