It’s Time

The new year is a good time to think about new beginnings, but it certainly isn’t the only time. Into creation God has built cycles, seasons, and even mandates that prompt us to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again.

And again.

From the beginning, God established a 7-day cycle of work and rest. To the ancient Israelites he dictated seasons of rest for the land and jubilees of freedom for their people (See Leviticus 25). Those moments of rest, peace, and freedom are wonderful. Unfortunately, getting to these breakthroughs is not always easy.

Innate in the human existence is a spirit of struggle and triumph. We are drawn to epics detailing the hero’s journey. But the Christian message is not one of an elite few who succeed, but an open door to all who will persevere.

I picture Moses leading the Israelites muttering past the same rock formation for the 32nd time. “Are we almost there yet? How much further? We are sick of this miserable food! Did you bring us out here to die?”

A new beginning is coming.

Do these words echo challenges that you face? They certainly do for me. “How much longer? Which way am I supposed to go? When will this end?”

A new beginning is coming.

The process is as important as the new beginning itself. All their wanderings in the desert allowed the Israelite’s hearts and minds to be transformed by God. They entered into their promised land when both they and their new land were ready. Only God knew the perfect timing.

Paul and James both admonish us to rejoice in our sufferings. “Because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance, character and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts.” (Romans 5:3-5)

Perhaps this new year has already seen amazing breakthrough for you. Hold onto those lessons as you walk forward.

If you feel like you are walking past the same rock formation for the 32nd time, do not lose hope. God is working even when you do not see or feel the results. A new season is coming if you do not give up.

It is a new year, a new week, a new moment. Pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.

This post was first written and shared for inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed. Happy New Year, friends!

Making Sense of it All

“It doesn’t have to make sense, it has to make faith.”

I was in a small group discussion where one of the ladies was relaying a conversation she had with a pastor. As someone who likes to make sense of everything, I was struck by this point. Sometimes things would be easier to endure if I could just understand it all!

But sometimes understanding is not the point. Sometimes understanding can even be detrimental to how God wants to use what we’re going through to do a good work – not just out there in the circumstances around us, but inside us.

Bible in Mirror

As we come into the Christmas season, it seems a perfect time to reflect on this idea. Christmas itself may be one of the ultimate occasions that was given to us not to make sense, but to make faith. John 3:16 tells us that God loved the world so much that He gave his only son for us, first in the form of a helpless baby, then as a minister to the people, and finally as a sacrifice on Calvary’s hill.

As far as religions go, it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

But the reason, John 3:16 continues, is so that anyone who believes in Jesus will have eternal life. Not understanding, but faith.

One of my favorite analogies for the logic behind the incarnation is in the story of the Christmas ducks that Paul Harvey relayed. (It’s worth hearing if you’ve never heard it.) It offers a sliver of “why” in a story that on its surface is incomprehensible. Despite these glimpses of understanding, the fullness of God will always escape our comprehension.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we understand perfectly. God came in the flesh to make Himself known to us not so we would have a simple understanding, but so we would have a simple faith.

I think of Mary, of whom the Bible says several times after Jesus’ birth that she treasured all that was happening and pondered it in her heart (Luke 2). Even though there is bewilderment, I read a sense of serenity in these words, perhaps harkening back to her reply to the angel Gabriel – “I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.”

Geese and baby

I have heard these words read many times with the emphasis on Mary’s subservience and willingness to go forward with God’s plan. I also see something beyond simple submission. I see trust the God will take care of her whatever is to come. She is not just any servant. “I am the Lord’s servant,” she said.

No amount of pondering was going to make sense of all the Mary was about to witness. But as God’s plan unfolded just as was foretold, there was the opportunity for faith.

We have the same opportunity to allow God’s Sprit to work within us. God can use whatever we are facing to grow our faith. And our faith, as Peter wrote, is of greater worth than gold.

Our God is not hidden. He made himself known on an unexpected Christmas morning, and He continues to make Himself known to us through the scriptures and through His Spirit. Regardless of whether this particular Christmas is a time of joy or a season of struggle, take a moment to look through your circumstances and see God’s presence in your life.

He has come, and he will continue to come, so that we may have faith to believe in Him.

This post was first shared at inspireafire.com. Merry Christmas!

Some Things are Worth Repeating

Instant replays. Silly jokes. Favorite stories.

Oh sure, we may roll our eyes at the 200th telling… unless of course we’re the one doing the telling.

When you’re reminiscing with a friend, the stories just get better with age. The memory can take you back until you can see it, taste it, feel it. The retelling is not just a retelling, it’s a reliving. There is power in memory, and there is power in sharing that memory.

It’s easy to get swept up in our day to day and miss out on opportunities to recall important milestone. God knows this, which is why He set a precedent of commemoration. On the night of the Passover as the Israelites were being delivered out of Egypt, God told Moses and all the Israelites, “This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you are to celebrate it as a festival to the Lord… And when your children ask you, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them… (Exodus 12:14,26-27)

Many other times throughout the early history of Israel God established appointed feasts and annual celebrations. When Joshua led the people into the Promised Land, God instructed them to take 12 stones from the middle of the Jordan River and set them in their camp as a permanent memorial. God told them, “In the future, when your children ask you ‘What do these stones mean?’ tell them…” (Joshua 4:6)

Indeed, some stories are worth repeating.

Maybe we have never witnessed anything like the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea. Maybe we have never moved from a physical desert into a land flowing with milk and honey. But we may have our own stories to tell. Times there was a near accident avoided, a relationship that was healed, a seeming impossible barrier that came tumbling down, a word, a friend, a provision when we needed it most.

Every one of us has a story we can tell. A memorial marker that we should erect so that we have occasion to repeatedly recall and share what God has done in our own history. These recollections draw us ever nearer to God, and grow our sense of wonder and gratitude.

Here in the United States we are entering into the season of Thanksgiving. It is a time to commemorate not just the history of gratefulness dating back to that first Thanksgiving, but a reminder to reflect on our own stories. Take this opportunity, like a festival to the Lord or a memorial marker you have erected, to recall what God has done and continues to do for you and those you care about. Share one of you own stories with someone else, and seek out stories from others.

Write a letter, make a phone call.

God knew what He was doing when He established the model to regularly remember and share. We need to keep alive those moments when God’s presence was most dear and most imminent for us. We shouldn’t limit these memories to only an annual Thanksgiving recollection, but Thanksgiving is an excellent time to stir up our gratitude as we recall what God has done.

However you choose to do it, put God’s stories – and your gratitude – on repeat.

This post was first written for and shared at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed this encore!

A Tale of Two Spreadsheets

God will use whatever is at hand to instruct us.

Last month I mentioned I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time detailing spreadsheets. So I should have expected that my next lesson would come through a spreadsheet.

It was another Friday evening and we were in the final crunch of a major event. I was scheduling nearly a dozen email reminders to various groups of presenters and participants, uploading spreadsheets to merge event details and email addresses.

I was nearly through the stack of emails and spreadsheets when I noticed an error in one of the messages. No problem. I made a quick correction and re-scheduled the message. Only then did I realize that my edit had also cleared my email delivery options. Rather than receiving a friendly reminder on Monday at 7:00 a.m., an entire list of our invited presenters had just received an “I’m looking forward to your presentation later today!” message on the wrong day.

As far as errors go, it certainly wasn’t catastrophic. I sent an apology email, rescheduled the message appropriately, and responded to the few panicked individuals to assure them that, no, they had not missed their presentation; it was in fact on Monday despite the email they had received.

“It’s to keep me humble,” I quipped to a friend later. Because while sending an email on the wrong day is not exactly earth-shattering, it was a definite jolt when I had been pouring hours of effort into making perfect every detail of this event.

“And worse – of all the emails I had scheduled, the one I made the mistake on was the one that went to our 83 distinguished guests and invited lecturers. Of course!”

My friend commiserated. Perhaps you can also relate. Maybe it wasn’t a spreadsheet error, but perhaps you have also worked hard to make something perfect only to mess up in front of the audience you most wanted to impress.

Well, if the first lesson of the spreadsheet was to keep me humble (nobody is perfect, and that includes me!), this second lesson went a little deeper. Because as I reflected on what I had shared with my friend, I began to wonder why it was particularly troublesome that it was with this list I had made the error. It didn’t inconvenience them any more than it would have inconvenienced any of my other contacts, and yet I wanted everything to go smoothly for them even more than for everyone else.

I was subconsciously placing a value on the various groups I was emailing. Mostly because I wanted them to think highly of me.

This realization was convicting.

As leaders we are in a unique position to recognize and respect every individual we come in contact with. There may indeed be contexts that require differentiation in recognition. When we go to a concert, we want to see the singer up on stage, not hidden in the crowd. The most popular speakers should have the largest room and the biggest stage so everyone in attendance can see and hear. Jesus himself did not condemn the social norms of having places of honor at banquets, but he did warn that we should not be grasping for ourselves those seats of honor. Jesus also told the host not to fill the banquet only with friends and people of prominence (Luke 14:7-14).

I’m pretty sure that means that I, as the event leader, had better check my guest lists.

As leaders we need to keep ourselves humble, or the circumstances around us will do it for us. We also need to carefully distinguish in our own hearts the respect due to positions of honor and the respect due to every individual.

Positions may be differentially recognized; people should not.

It’s easy to place value on certain groups, even subconsciously, based on how much we want them to like or approve of us. Sometimes we need reminders that God places value on each one of us not because of position or performance, but because He created us. We should look for opportunities to call out and recognize that true value in others.

This post was first shared at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed this encore!

For Want of a Spreadsheet

It was a Friday evening and I was staring between two spreadsheets.

It was like one of those children’s picture challenges where you’re supposed to find what’s different, only in this case the spreadsheets were supposed to match. Trying to find the difference was anything but fun.

“Is this really all I have to show for a week of late nights and back-to-back meetings? Another week gone, all those moments I can never get back, and two mismatched spreadsheets is all I have to show for it!”

I took a break, donned my raincoat, and headed out the door. My dog sniffed happily among the weeds while I listened to the rain pounding out my question, God what am I doing here?

Perhaps you’ve asked that question, too. Maybe for you it wasn’t spreadsheets. Maybe it was dirty diapers. Or a double shift on your feet. Or five commitments you had to turn down because five other ones were clamoring for your attention.  You blinked and the time was gone and now you’re wondering: Am I really doing the right thing? Is this the best use of my time? God, am I supposed to be here?

Every fall when the geese fly over my feet get a little itchy. As though they want to migrate, too. It’s my time of year to pause and ask God if I have my priorities rights if I’m leaning in close enough to hear Him, if I’m in the right place or if, just maybe, he might be calling me to something new.

But migration isn’t the only flavor of fall. For every being winging south there is another staying put, digging in with careful preparations for the long winter ahead.

Sometimes fall is about fleeing. And sometimes it’s about painstakingly detailed preparations.

As I pounded out my questions with the rain and my dog and my God, the answer that came to me was not one I expected. What came to mind was this ancient ditty, which appears in various forms through several centuries. Perhaps you have heard it:

For want of a nail a shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the message was lost.

For want of a message the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the war was lost.

All for want of a horseshoe nail.

Details do matter. The insignificant is, in fact, significant. We may not see the war, but the nail that we drive in just might be the linchpin that wins it.

The Bible urges us that whatever we do, we should work at it with our whole heart, as though we are working for the Lord (Colossians 3:23). It also says that whatever our hand finds to do, we are to do it with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10). I think that includes spreadsheets, and dirty diapers, and whatever you’re facing right now.

There are indeed times where we need to re-prioritize, where God may be telling us to migrate to a new place. But many times we are called to do our best right where we are.

The spreadsheets I work on today will lead to impacts down the road. In my case, this information is needed to help manage an event where many peoples could receive information that is helpful to them. I may see some of the results of these mundane details. But many results I hope and pray will be so far beyond my limited scope that I will never see them.

I don’t see the whole battle plan, but God does. And He put me right here and you right there for a reason.

God is looking for excellence in His followers. He is looking for us to do the best we can, where we are, with whatever we have.

If I have anything to say about it, we aren’t losing this war just for want of a spreadsheet.

I first wrote this post for inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed it!

Today’s Forecast: Stormy with a Chance of Patience

Here in New England we have a saying: If you don’t like the weather, wait a minute. It will change.

When I moved to the Midwest, I learned they have the same saying. And it’s true. I’ve seen the temperature flip from near 80 to below freezing in a matter of hours. I’ve witnessed rain, snow, and sunshine all in a single day. Change can happen quickly.

I’ve also learned something else. Unlike the weather, matters of relationship, self-improvement, and personal challenges do not change so rapidly. These matters take perseverance. And patience.

Patience is a fruit of the Spirit. Like physical fruit, spiritual fruit does not suddenly manifest. It needs to be grown under the right conditions. Unfortunately, the right conditions for growing patience may feel more like a hurricane than a soft summer rain.

A man once asked his pastor to pray for him to develop patience. Dutifully the pastor launched into an earnest prayer. “Lord, give this young man conflict and hardship at every turn. Litter his path with frustrating delays, unexpected obstacles, and personalities very different than his own.”

Indeed, patience is not something we typically receive fully formed. It is a character trait developed slowly. Ironically, we learn patience while learning patience. It is only when we are in situations that require patience that we learn how to develop it.

Reading about patience, studying God’s Word, and even receiving God’s Spirit is not the same thing as exhibiting patience. The Bible warns we need to be careful to not hear God’s Word and think that is the culmination. If we believe that, we deceive ourselves (see James 1:22). God’s Word is not the end, but the beginning. It is the seed which through trials, tribulations, and our own perseverance develops into the full fruit of patience.

James (5:7) gives an example when he urges us, “See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains.”

Unlike the fast-changing weather I am used to, James was using an illustration from a part of the world that could undergo weeks, even months, with little to no rain. They did not have forecasters to give a 10-day weather outlook or an hour-by-hour prediction. Much more like the unpredictable changes we face in other areas of our life, these farmers had to prepare their fields and learn patience as they faced each day not knowing what was in store. The more their patience was challenged, the more patience they developed.

We, too, can produce a valuable crop of patience. We can plant the seeds God gives us and carefully tend them through every trial and tribulation. When life gets stormy, we can remember that the most bountiful growth happens in some of the most challenging times.

The forecast may be stormy, but hang in there my friends. There is a chance for a crop of patience.

Crazed. Or Not. Finding Balance in the Midst of Extremes.

Digital display

There is a good kind of stress.

If you’ve always thought of stress as a four letter word in the plural, then this may come as a surprise. But it’s true. It’s even reasonable, once I stopped to consider it.

An environment with absolutely no stress is an environment void of stimulation or purpose. As human beings we need something to engage us. That something, to the scientists among us, is called “eustress” – a beneficial stress in just the right dosage to give a feeling of fulfillment.

Too little and we get bored. Too much and we get overwhelmed.

Balance is the key.

Unfortunately, life seems to try everything it can to send us in any direction except the one that leads to balance.

Take as an example of extremes these past 12-18 months. Not many people have been spared. You may be one who has had far too much to do: front line workers, parents juggling work and at-home schooling, caretakers trying to navigate a system that has been completely upended. Or you may be one who has not had enough to do: quarantined and alone with no visitors and limited chances to venture out. There has not been much middle ground.

I hope and pray along with everyone else that the slow return to a middle ground keeps progressing. And along the way, I am trying to learn what it means to find my own middle ground when the world around me is completely crazed, or completely not.

Either extreme can feel like a prison, and I’ve been in both. I’ve spent time strangling under the tangle of my to-do list and panicked over things left undone. I’ve also battled waves of crushing lethargy that come in the dark nights of an isolating depression. Once the scales start to tip one way or the other, it’s easy to keep spiraling in the same direction. Freedom comes only when I move back against the tide and seek balance. Recognizing where I am is the first step.

One of my favorite Bible verses is 2 Timothy 1:7: For God did not give us a spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of self-control. This tells me that when I start to feel trapped, powerless, and afraid, those feelings are not from God. God has given me the self-control and the strength to make any necessary changes. I can do it, even when it doesn’t feel as if I can.

The amplified translation drills down into the meaning of that last word “self-control” even further, to say it includes a calm, well-balanced mind. Do you see that word in there again? Balanced. No matter what is going on around me, the Spirit within me has the capability of maintaining a calm, well-balanced mind. My mind in turn can direct the self-control needed to keep from leaping to extremes. Exercising myself in this way is freedom – freedom to think, be and act how I choose regardless of what swirls around me.

This past year has been a severe example, but much of life will tip us one way or the other. If we aren’t careful, we can feel trapped under the confines of our own days. It’s up to us to discover the freedom God has waiting for us, back in the balance, even in the midst of extremes.

How I Started Recycling: An analogy of our Father’s method for change

I recycle because I have a friend who recycles.

I mean, I have a friend who recycles.  She carries a bag with her when she goes on walks simply so she can pick up trash.  When she comes to visit, she brings me all the recyclables she can’t recycle in her own town, because my town has a broader recycling program.  “Maybe I’ll inspire someone else,” she says.  And by someone, she occasionally means me.

Any activist will tell you that the hardest thing to initiate is a change in someone’s behavior. This was certainly true for me.  I agreed 100% with everything my friend told me.  “Be the change you want to see in the world,” she’d quote.  “Absolutely!”  I’d agree.

But my behavior didn’t change.

Plastic bag in hand.

Now I should clarify.  I would occasionally pick up trash and pack it out of my favorite hiking haunts.  Or I might pick up something blown from a dumpster and return it.  I would recycle when it was convenient, but when it took a little more effort… not so much.

This same friend sent me an article about the impacts of plastics in our oceans.  It made me sad at what we are doing to our planet. It made me feel guilty over my part in it. But it still didn’t drive me to action.

So what was it that actually changed my behavior?  First, my friend’s persistence.  But more importantly, she didn’t drive me to it.  She led me to it.

Too often when we are trying to change someone’s behavior – or even when we are trying to change our own – we try to drive the change like a cowboy driving a herd of cattle.  We crack the whip of reason. We coerce. We plead.  But instead of a stampede toward the corral, the result is usually more like a baulking bull.  Even when we want to change, we find ourselves pushing back rather than embracing a new behavior.

The Bible gives us a different analogy of change.

Jesus didn’t ride herd with a whip.  He simply entered the pen through the gate.  “I am the good Shepherd,” Jesus told his followers. “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep… He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out” (John 10:2-3,14).

Jesus wasn’t driving the change; Jesus was leading the change.  And this is precisely what my friend did to change my recycling habits.  One time when she was visiting, she threw me and her recycling in the car and drove to the recycling center.  She never said: “I’m going to show you how to recycle so that you will start doing it.”  We simply went and recycled together.  And after I had done it once, there was no reason for me not to continue.

Sometimes in life, change is elicited simply because we have someone come alongside us and show us how. We have a Father in heaven who first demonstrated this principle for us, by sending Jesus to not just instruct us from afar, but to walk alongside us. Now we can do the same for others.

I wonder how many of us can say, “I am a Christian because I have a friend who is a Christian.”  And more importantly, how many of us have friends who can say about us, “I am a Christian, because I have a friend who is a Christian.”

A slightly different version of this post was shared in 2012 – can you believe I have been blogging that long? It was revamped to share recently at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed it!

One Thing I Do: Forgiveness

Forgiveness brings hope

In her book on forgiveness, Lysa TerKeurst writes an analogy comparing forgiveness to having your legs broken in a car accident. You can forgive the initial incident, but there is also a process of forgiving just as there is a process of healing broken legs.

Reflecting on this, I had a thought that was revelatory to me: forgiveness brings healing; it does not undo what happened.

I’ve often wondered why, even after I have forgiven someone, I don’t feel like I have forgiven them. I have to remind myself dozens of times, “I’ve forgiven them. I’ve forgiven them. I’ve…”

If I’ve forgiven them, why can’t I move on?

Rainbow

I expected forgiveness to erase the pain, but it doesn’t. Forgiveness can’t undo what has happened. It can only point us forward toward the slow process of healing.

Here is what I am learning. I may be a new creation in Christ, but I have to remind myself of that. Paul said, “One thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead…”

I never noticed until recently that little word “do.” After all, forgetting has always been a passive action for me. Forgetfulness is something that happens to me unexpectedly, not something I actively strive for. Who in their right mind tries to be forgetful? Yet Paul is saying this is something he does. He actively forgets what lies behind.

Sometimes I need to actively forget, too. When the emotions come, when the thoughts come, when the feelings come, I can actively remind myself: “This has been forgiven. I have given up my right to think about this anymore.”

I can choose to think about something else instead.

This is the healing process. It doesn’t undo what has been done. The ramifications of that will always be with me. No matter how much healing I go through, I will always walk with a figurative limp. I am a different person because of what has happened to me.

I bet you are too.

Forgiveness is like healing a broken leg

But different is not always a bad thing. I am also more compassionate, more understanding, and more insightful because of what has happened to me. I am stronger in ways I never expected. I am weaker in ways I never wanted.

I remind myself that Christ shines through our weaknesses.

There will come a time when Jesus will wipe away every tear. We will be a new creation in the fullest sense of the word – body, soul, and spirit. We aren’t there yet, but we have been given the Holy Spirit as a deposit guarantee of what is to come. It is with His help that we navigate this tumultuous in-between time. We wrestle with anger, hurt, frustration, and longing. We forgive, and then we remind ourselves that we have forgiven. We forget what needs to be forgotten because this is something we can do. It does not change the past, but it can change our future.

A bone that has been broken and healed is not the same thing as a bone that has never been broken. A heart that has been broken and healed is not the same thing as a heart that has never been broken. We cannot undo the breaking, but we can forgive and begin the healing.

~ ~ ~

This post first appeared at www.inspireafire.com.

Oh Well

“Oh well,” I would say.

“That’s an old hole in the ground now, isn’t it?” My father would reply.

I would roll my eyes in that superior way that only teenagers can do. It was not a new joke. And it was not funny the first 400 times I heard it.

Then one day, years later, the unthinkable happened.

 “Oh well,” a friend sighed.

“That’s an old hole in the ground now, isn’t it?” I said.

“What?”

“An ol’ well? That’s an old hole in the ground.”

Blank stare.

Inside I laughed and laughed and laughed. Because apparently things that drove me batty as a teenager have become uproariously funny now that I’m older.

Heaven help the poor soul who accidentally says, “Well, well, well… What do we have here?”

Because that’s a whole lot of holes in the ground now, isn’t it?

There’s just something about punny dad jokes that beg to be repeated from generation to generation. They drive us crazy, but then we are compelled to inflict them on others with a sense of wisdom from the ages: You may think this is a terrible joke now, but someday you will thank me.

The joke doesn’t change, but we do.

We grow and change into our own personality, but we pick up quirks from those in whose footsteps we follow. This is true of our earthly parents, siblings, and mentors, and it is also true for our heavenly ones. The bible tells us that just as we have born the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven (1 Corinthians 15:49). At the end times, we will all be changed in the twinkling of an eye, but in the meantime, our transformation is happening much more slowly.

With Christ as our example and this world as our crucible, we learn obedience, self-control, patience, gentleness, faithfulness, and love. Our heavenly Father calls us to mimic His perfection, and the Holy Spirit within us prompts us toward right decisions.

The more time we spend learning God’s word, listening for the Spirit’s prompting, and communing through worship, the more our heavenly parentage will be reflected within us.

Christ’s light shines within each one of us as surely as the DNA of our physical heritage. It might be years before a spark within us now is parroted back to a subsequent generation, but there will come a time when we laugh uproariously with the knowledge that this word, this action, this punny dad joke was learned from our heavenly family.

This post was first shared at inspireafire.com. I hope you enjoyed!