When the Pieces Come Together

Small choices are the building blocks of character formation. Being like Jesus is usually formed in little things that at the time might not seem significant. A choice to use kindness in place of trying to win, or the decision to share, rather than hoard, are the things that cause us to look like him. These are small pieces, but they are coming together to make us like Jesus.

We think of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as what defines him, and I do not mean to minimize it in any fashion. However, if you spoke to the man born blind from John 8, or the widow of Nain, or the lepers who stood healed and whole after their encounter with Jesus, they might have a different answer.

The cross has meaning because of two factors. The first is the resurrection that followed it. Thousands of people have been crucified, only one has been raised from that death.

The second is equally important. The cross has meaning because of the life that was lived before it. The selflessness, the compassion, the willingness to help and restore in the face of judging eyes and whispering lips; these are the characteristics that separated Jesus from the crowd.

I can’t imagine the throngs of people as the message went out before him… Jesus is coming this way! The hope that it must have been elicited in the hearts of parents with sick children, and spouses of those who were infirmed is indescribable. Jesus is coming and with him comes hope.

But, what if Jesus, with all of his capacity to touch lives, had been unwilling to engage others? What if he turned away from the ugliness of illness or the despair of death? How would the gospel story read without words like “moved with compassion” or stories of his stopping to help while on his way to another place?

Jesus made small choices that were enormous in the lives of the individuals he influenced. Choices that we might not have considered important in the moment.

You will make some choices this week as well. Someone with holes in their shoes not asking for help but needing it. Someone with a coat that is too small, or a heart that is too heavy. Turn away, focus elsewhere, or continue on your path without further thought? If those are your little choices, the result will never look like Jesus. All we have to do is choose.

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I Found Me a Bass Player At The Party


People are important, relationships are meaningful, and it takes energy to maintain them. Janet and I planned to spend Friday and Saturday with some friends we met in Oxford at a music festival. It is actually three couples from Wichita, Harlan, and Codell. We prepared the motorhome for a weekend away and left Thursday evening about 6p.

You remember Thursday evening, the wind was blowing from the north about 40 mph. In the motorhome that kind of headwind is miserable, then when we turned west it became a crosswind.

Janet kept saying, “This is crazy.” But I insisted, “It will be worth it.”

We finally lumbered into their place at Codell about 9p and set up for the evening. The pleasure of our weekend was without measure. We sang and played, laughed and ate, then started over. Some of the ladies decided to do some Saturday morning shopping in quaint shops in the area.  Ages ranged from 55- 85, with little more in common than the genre of music.

Conversations were at times spiritual, other times simply trying to learn about each other. One couple winters in the Big Bend area of south Texas, urging us to come see them, play music with them there.

All of us have relationships, friendships… based on some area of interest, farming, old cars, music, sports, cooking, and thousands of other things. We create the time for them, setting aside other important things to cultivate a precious thing.

I am grateful that I have these ancillary relationships that also incorporate times of prayer and conversations about our walk before God. Some of the language of my new friends, in their walk, is different than my own. When asked to tour their tiny rural church building, to see the new “praise band platform”, we walked into an old white framed church house with high lofty ceilings. We looked as the history was explained, then out of the blue our guide said, “Can you imagine how your church would sound in here with their voices ringing in the rafters?”

We smiled, respected differences and connected once more. Our prayers together over the weekend focused on fellowship, joy, rejoicing and the belief that God brings people together for a reason. We encouraged each other, rejoiced in the joys that were shared from each life experience and laid the groundwork to spend more time together. Relationships matter.

 

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Tossing and Turning?

Never worry about anything. But in every situation let God know what you need in prayers and requests while giving thanks. Then God’s peace, which goes beyond anything we can imagine, will guard your thoughts and emotions through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7  

 Does this mean that it is a sin to worry or be anxious about things? Are we violating God’s will when we toss and turn in the night, concerned about the events of the future? No, not at all.

Remember that Jesus wrestled with fears and concerns all night long before his betrayal. As he prayed in the Garden, his anguish was such that his night was sleepless as the disciples slept while on watch.

If you have those nights, lying next to a partner who appears to sleep effortlessly while your brain will not shut off, it does not mean that you are incapable of trusting in God.

This text points to appropriate behavior during those times. In anxiety we toss and turn for a solution, for escape from the weight of the problems at hand. We think that if we just had the right answer, all of our difficulty along with the concern would melt away.

Unfortunately, that faulty thinking causes us to turn inward, thinking the solution resides within us. Paul offers a different focal point.

Prayers and requests that move before God shift our attention from a world that is directed by our own good choices and perfect planning to a more realistic focus.

As he told the church in the letter of Colossians, lift your eyes to things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Our hope, dreams, and ultimate peace arises from a source outside of ourselves.  It is this heaven given peace that will move beyond anything that we can describe. It will begin to regulate our thoughts and emotions, helping us as we face the enemies that surround us. Temptations lose their power before one who is God centered. The forces of darkness are exposed as powerless when we walk side by side with Jesus in this world.

Does it mean that you will never have concerns again? No, this life is full of concerns. Jesus spent more than one night in isolated places in prayer. What it means is that you know the source of strength, and knowingly place yourself in his keeping. It is this that offers peace, nothing else will.

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Success or Significance?

In a meeting with a prospective client recently, I was attempting to describe my success rate with the particular malady with which they were wrestling. When clients first present for treatment they are often discouraged, desperate, and hopeless. One of the first battles is to demonstrate that things can be better and that I know how to move with them toward that goal.

Unfortunately, when I listen to myself describe the efficacy of the treatment process and my particular experience in helping others, it can come across as cocky and arrogant.

I ran across this quote and thought of how it addresses this issue. I found it meaningful and believe it is my new mantra. “I’ve been successful, but it is more important to be significant.”

Success can be a singular accomplish-ment, produced through the untiring efforts of an individual toward a specific goal. For example, 1994: Daniel Bent set the record for fastest ever time in the bog-snorkeling triathlon in 2 hours, 23 minutes, 24 seconds at the World Bog Snorkeling Championships. That might be successful, but it isn’t significant.

Some might question the success of Jesus’ coming into this world, after all, it ended with his crucifixion. While I would argue that he was successful because he gave his life as a ransom for many, and that the resurrection and ascension were the end rather than his crucifixion… no one can argue about his significance. We measure time in years from his birth, we celebrate holidays, observe holy days, and a large portion of the world begin and end their days reading about him.

Success or significant, which would you choose? Many significant people never achieve financial success, nor are they ever known outside of their sphere of influence. Jesus even alluded to it in reminding the disciples that everywhere the Gospel is preached the act of Mary anointing him with oil would be remembered. One act, significant for all time.

 

 

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The New Song

It thrills my soul to sing the songs of praise, we mortals sing below.

They sing in heav’n a new song, of Moses and the Lamb.

 

I love being in large venues where thousands of voices sing that song. The “New Song”, the song unlike any other proclaiming to all of creation that God has a plan, has always had a plan, and will always accomplish his plan. The song of faith, proposing to this world and the next that our God is worthy of honor and glory. The song that lifts hearts above the perils of this world, the chaos and clutter of a world in disorder to the splendor of God’s renewed creation.

The words are composed in tattered hearts and disheveled lives by people of God whose eyes look above to where Jesus sits on the throne. Like Stephen gazing above while the stones flew through the air, today God’s people look up as hearts are broken and dreams shatter. Still the words come, I see Jesus, seated at the right hand of God.

Hurricanes may pound the coasts, children may struggle in the darkness, confusion may threaten to choke out all of the light, but God’s people lift their voices to announce that he still reigns. We may not understand all that goes on in this broken and twisted world, but we know who holds us in the hollow of his hand.

Sing the New Song, children of the king. Don’t fall for the cheap imitations of glittery foolishness or temporary fixes. God is worthy of glory and honor.

Some world leader makes a rash statement, God reigns. Some supposed friend breaks your heart, God reigns. Age threatens the way things always were, God reigns. Give him honor and glory in the worst of times, when your voice is unique and clearly heard above the din of calamity.

 

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A Chance to Encourage Being Like Jesus

It was about 11:30p when I invited two young ministers to share a meal at a local Denny’s. We sat down with a cup of coffee and menus to discuss the opportunities and responsibilities of ministry. I enjoy such occasions.

Our waitress was an early 20s lady who was obviously nervous. This was her first time alone on the night shift, so if she “pushed the wrong button on the cash register there was no one to call.” We laughed, assured her that we would be understanding and learned her name was Meagan.

With only three other tables with customers, Meagan had plenty of time to stop by and engage us in conversation. Our coffee cups were full, the orders taken, when I asked her about the significance of a diamond shaped tattoo on her lower bicep.

“It means I was 17 and stupid. It was free so I went for it.” She was laughing as she explained. We joined in her laughter and I mentioned that many people have marks on them from immature choices in the teen years, scars and hurts of bad decisions.

Meagan then mentioned that she did have a rose tattooed on her side that was done in memory of her friend who died in high school. I could see it was special to her to mention her friend.

As we finished our meal and ministry chat about 2a and I settled our bill, there was one last conversation with Meagan.

“Meagan, I want you to know that I am glad to know you. That you wear a mark to acknowledge how important your friend was to you, a testimony of love, I really respect that. I am a Christian. My Jesus wears marks, in his hands and feet that are evidence of the same thing. I want you to know that you remind me of Jesus in that way. I encourage you to keep doing things that are like him. It makes all of us better people.”

I planted, now if the next Christian waters, then God can give the increase.

 

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A Spiritual Lesson From History

Anyone who knows me is aware I love history. I am currently listening to a biography of Robert E. Lee, Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee by Michael Korda while reading S. C Gwynne’s Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson. 

Cross referencing the two sources, I am exploring the campaign of the Shenandoah Valley in the spring of 1862. During that period Jackson suffered one defeat at the hands of a union Col. Nathan Kimball, who had been given command after the serious injury of Brigadier General James Shield.  This was Jackson’s only defeat of the campaign, due to faulty information about the size of Shield’s army (9000 men, but reported as 3000). Jackson with his 4000 men was unsuccessful in the engagement.

 

As a result of the victory, James Shield was promoted to Major General by President Abraham Lincoln, later withdrawn, reconsidered and rejected. But, those names faintly rang a bell for me. Let me give you a bit of the back story. Two decades before this battle, James Shields was the state auditor of Illinois and Lincoln was a self described “prairie lawyer”. Illinois was in a financial crisis and Shields created a plan where the Bank of Illinois would no longer accept paper currency from private citizens looking to pay off debt. Gold and silver, which the common man did not have access to, became the only acceptable currency. Shields sided with the Democrats and supported the decision to close the Illinois Bank.

This made him the target of the Whig party, in particular a young country lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who writing under the penname “Rebecca” wrote strong letters to the editor of the Sangamo Journal, making fun of Shields who fancied himself as a ladies’ man. In the course of these letters he shamed Shields, intensified when Mary Todd (engaged to Lincoln for the second time and consider quite a catch), taunted Shields with her own letter to the editor under the pen name “Cathleen”.

Then Mary Todd and a friends of her’s decided to write under the pen name “Rebecca” and “Aunt Becca” wrote that Shields was “a ballroom dandy, floatin’ about on the earth without heft or substance, just like a lot of cat fur where cats had been fightin.” That was enough for Shields who demanded the name of the author of the letters.

The editor revealed that Lincoln was the writer, and Lincoln also took responsibility for the letters written by Mary Todd. When he refused to make a written apology, scoffing at Shield’s demand, before he was challenged to a duel.

Duels, being illegal in Illinois, a small sandbar island in the middle of the river in Missouri known as Bloody Island was selected for the meet. It was famous for duels, cockfights, bare knuckle fights. Lincoln, being the challenged party had the choice of weapons. Not wanting to kill or be killed by Shields (known as an excellent marksman), he avoided pistols and announced his preference for cavalry broadswords of the largest size. Being a towering six foot four inches compared to Shields’ comparatively diminutive five foot eight inch frame, this gave Lincoln a considerable advantage in reach.

As they met on the field of honor, a large plank was placed between them, with each being instructed to stand at the end of the board. When practicing, Lincoln was lopping off the tops of trees around Shields while Shields was unable to reach Lincoln at all. Seeing the immensity of Lincoln’s strength and reach advantage, the bystanders were able to convince Shields to call off the duel.

Have you heard of the Lincoln-Shields duel (175 years ago today)? I am sure you know of the Burr-Hamilton duel, and perhaps of the Jim Bowie Sandbar fight (190th anniversary was September 19th, four days ago) following the Wells-Maddox duel? Duels made names for those engaged, establishing reputations in the telling and retelling of them.

The reason you’ve not heard of the Lincoln-Shields duel is likely because of Lincoln’s refusal to speak of it. After being elected president, a young army officer asked him about it. “Is it true that you once went out to fight a duel and all for the sake of the lady by your side?”  “I do not deny it,” replied Lincoln. “But if you desire my friendship, you will never mention it again.”

Lincoln teaches two lessons from this story, first one: Shameful acts are not the kind of thing upon which to build a reputation and ought to never be mentioned or rehearsed. The second is equally important. 20 years after the altercation, Lincoln was in a position to reward an old enemy for an accomplishment and acted to do so. When the power to do good to one who at one time opposed us in present, bless rather than curse.

Scripture mentions both of these qualities. The things that evil men do ought not to even be spoken of (Ephesians 5:12), including our own misdeeds. It is one of those difficult commands, for us to return a blessing for a curse (1 Peter 3:9).

So, while my crazy brain remembers dates of odd things like duels, I was reminded of a far more important lesson.

By the way, James Shields served as a U.S. Senator for the states of Illinois, Missouri, and Minnesota, the only person to ever represent 3 different states in that capacity.

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Moving to Forgiveness

A friend recently spoke with me about their efforts to be a disciple. “I agree that Christianity is the best way to live life. Thinking of the needs of others, being kind and compassionate, and many other sacrificial choices. What I struggle with is forgiving others. I have a hard time moving past the bitterness that crops up in me over injuries that are very painful.”

I appreciate and admire the candor. Christianity is not a life that can be lived piecemeal, obeying where you agree and disobeying where you struggle. The problem with a partial obedience is that it exposes our refusal to submit to the will of God. God’s sovereignty, being ruler of all of our life, is a basic principle for those who are a part of the kingdom of God.

Sometimes, for me, obedience is easier if I focus on why I am obeying. To forgive one who has horribly injured us, not based on their being entitled to forgiveness, but because of our debt toward God has helped me obey at times.

Ephesians 4:31-32 has been helpful to me. “Get rid of your bitterness, hot tempers, anger, loud quarreling, cursing, and hatred. Be kind to each other, sympathetic, forgiving each other as God has forgiven you through Christ.”

In the verse the goal of transformation appears to be clear. We are moving from a self-focused and self-absorbed life to a life of surrender, doing the hard thing for the better thing. I want to be like Jesus, it is what God called me to. I want to live a life that moves beyond the basics. I am called to something beyond seeing that I eat, sleep and am clothed.

Jesus demonstrated to us an elevated way of living. One of the most telling lines in Scripture is his statement, “Nevertheless, your will, not mine be done.” Surrender, to an event that his entire being sought to escape.

So in the worst of times, the most desperate of times, surrender and move forward. Be all God calls you to be.

 

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How We See The World Around Us

I was recently asked by a court system to write a report about the volatility of a certain client, accessing the risk to both the family and the community. Periodically, this is something that I am asked to do.

The challenge is, that once someone is identified as being a “certain way”, then that label follows them, making it difficult to come out of that particular shadow. For me, I have to be on my guard, lest I become suspicious of every interaction and see it through that filtered lens.

Seeing God in a particular manner can impact our interaction with him as well. If we see God as being angry, needing to be appeased, it restricts our desire and willingness to approach him in times of struggle. Ignoring that Scripture describes God as having immutable standards and expectations can result in a carefree, wanton attitude toward responsibilities and the commands of God.

A friend from camp recently mentioned that they had a difficult decision to make, asking me to be prayerful about it. The friend said that they would be looking for a sign from God about the choice they were going to make. My caution was, “Remember, when trying to determine a course of action based on the interpretation of life events, there is a danger that your unspoken desire filters your discernment, making the choice yours and not God’s.”

Our foundation for how we see God must be primarily influenced by the Scriptures. Taken in the context of the kind of evil God was correcting, how God responds is informative to us in our contemporary lives. The underlying assumptions we make about his nature or character, grossly distorts what we understand about what he says about himself.

Just look at the hullabaloo in recent days about statues, special interest groups, and reactionaries to see how prejudice on any side results in hideous reactivity.

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Broken Wells

She was trying to avoid eyes that judged her, in crowds there were whispers, in the marketplace she was more accustomed to the back of heads than seeing friendly faces. When you’ve been hurt by so many failed relationships, sometimes you gain a reputation, making it easier to avoid others than to face their harshness.

As Jesus spoke to the woman at the well, he was insightfully aware of this. His easy engagement with her, pushing through her attempts to “change the subject” he focused on water, a new water…. Living water.

Her question, quoted in the picture I’ve included today, is a haunting one. My friend David Smith shared it with me and the words jumped off the photo to me. Lots of people in our world have heard about this living water, without any idea of how to get to it.

Their efforts to discover that thing that will quench the need deep within them, have only resulted in a broken pump. They know it is there, for we can’t desire something so intensely if it didn’t exist, but they can’t reach it.

Wanting acceptance and love, a place to belong, someone to trust all that you are with… it has eluded our friend speaking to Jesus. She has tried multiple times, partners who are nameless but numbered, and now has agreed to live with one not her husband just so she has a place to be.  When her ears are teased with the notion of living water… she is intensely aware that she has no way to get to it.

Our “new song” that we’ve spent this year talking about… here it is described in a conversation about “living water”. Jesus sings the song of Good News about the acceptance of God for broken people who desire him. It isn’t about running to a mountain, or an altar, it is about a heart that worships God in spirit and truth.  Broken spirits, contrite hearts, genuine movement to God through Jesus, these are the things to which God calls us.

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