Archive for the ‘Life Lessons’ Category

Remembering the The Good Fight on Memorial Day

As a veteran, I pause each Memorial Day to consider the many who have given their lives in service to their country. I have witnessed firsthand their dedication and commitment to, and their love for our country. My dad was a glider pilot during WWII and participated in many missions over France and Germany. He rarely talked about the war other than to tell me it was not pleasant, but he never doubted its necessity. The only story he ever told me about his time in the U.S. Army was how his best friend died as he took his glider through power lines to clear the way for my dad to land his glider behind enemy lines on D-Day. It’s a story about love and self-sacrifice. 

And then there was my encounter with young Marines when I was sent on a 10-day training exercise in San Antonio, Texas as an OBGYN intern at Bethesda Naval Hospital. I had the privilege of going on night maneuvers as well as combat training with them as part of the medical team. These men and women were totally committed to one another in service to their country. Each one of them was ready to die for each other in combat, if necessary. I will never forget the look in their eyes and the love and respect they had for one another. Before that day, I had never met anyone who was consciously ready to die for me and willing to put themselves in deadly situations for me.

What I have learned about the men and women we honor on Memorial Day is that they gave their lives because of the love they have for the person next to them in the heat of the battle. Yes, there is no doubt they love their country. But their country is embodied in that person standing next to them. And they will fight, protect, and battle for the life of that person, even if it means giving up their own life. At the end of the day, even war as we know it today is personal. It is about loving the person next to you as you fight for the freedom of all. Don’t get me wrong, I abhor war and have mixed feelings about some of the wars our country has chosen to fight. And yet I know there is evil in the world that at times requires the insanity of war. I find it amazing that in the midst of the insanity of war is the most sane motivation in the world – love.

And so it is in our personal lives. We are in a battle between good and evil every day of our lives. Some scientists estimate the average person makes 10,000 choices a day. Let’s just say 10% of those choices have moral implications. That’s 1,000 moral choices every day that have moral implications. That is 1,000 choices that love becomes the primary motivator. And the issue becomes the object of our love. Do we love others, or are we only focused on ourselves?

Paul describes life as a battle. In Ephesians 6 he tells us to put on God’s armor for this battle of life. And then he says in 1 Timothy 6:12, Fight the good fight for the true faith. Hold tightly to the eternal life to which God has called you, which you have declared so well before many witnesses.

Jesus came to this earth and gave His life for each one of us because He loves us. Through His death, we have eternal life. Jesus fought the good fight of “the faith” which is to love God and others. He battled satan in the Garden of Gethsemane and won by choosing love of others over love of self! He was crushed by your sin and mine as He bore every sin of humanity on the cross that day. He won the war on Calvary! But the battles rage on as the enemy has not yet surrendered. We are trapped behind enemy lines. And just as my dad trusted his buddies would fought the good fight to rescue him, so Paul encourages us to fight the “good fight” today. It’s a fight to keep our focus on Jesus. It’s a fight to allow love to motivate everything we do. It’s a fight for the true faith that is based on love, not self. 

On this Memorial Day as we honor the men and women who have loved others to the point of death, let us remember the command from Jesus for us to love God and one another as we apply the admonition of Paul in our lives to fight the “good fight.”

Do You Have Any Bleating Sheep?

When Samuel finally found him, Saul greeted him cheerfully. “May the Lord bless you,” he said. “I have carried out the Lord’s command!”   

“Then what is all the bleating of sheep and goats and the lowing of cattle I hear?” Samuel demanded.   1 Samuel 15:13-14

King Saul had been given the mission to completely wipe out the Amalekites. He was to take no plunder, receive no personal gain other than the eradication of sin in the lives of the Israelites. He did indeed destroy everything that was not of value to him. But he kept the best sheep and cattle for his personal gain. Of course he was going to use some of these prized animals to offer sacrifices. But even in offering them for sacrifices he knew that his stature would increase among his people. How often do we serve others for our own gain? How often do we obey God’s commands to the extent that we profit?

I have often gone on God’s errands as I hear His calling in my life. Just like King Saul, I have fought battles and won victories for the glory of God. I look back on my time as a pastor and am thankful for the calling and the opportunity to grow. But truth be told, there have been too many times when I have fought God’s battles with my armor. I have too often confused my agenda with His agenda. I have too often co-opted His mission for my selfish gain. It is easy to rationalize the meaning of love and service for others to fulfill my own needs. There have been times when I felt the need to DO something rather than wait for God’s clear direction. And I must admit that there have been times when I sought personal recognition as the spoils of battle while on God’s mission.

I, like King Saul, have argued that I am on God’s errands and thus have obeyed Him. It is true that God can use our actions to help others even when our motives are impure. But this is not an argument in favor of impure motives. This simply highlights the power of God’s love who can transform our acts that come from misguided motives into acts of redemption. But the fact remains that God still desires our heart above all else. He is only concerned with our actions as they demonstrate the condition of our heart. This is why Samuel replied to Saul’s protest that he had done God’s mission when his heart was not aligned with the heart of God:  “What is more pleasing to the Lord: your burnt offerings and sacrifices or your obedience to his voice? Listen! Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams. Rebellion is as sinful as witchcraft, and stubbornness as bad as worshiping idols. So because you have rejected the command of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.”   1 Samuel 15:22-23

This may seem harsh until you remember that all God is seeking are men and women after His own heart. Enter King David. He had plenty of flaws, plenty of evil deeds. We could talk for weeks about the disastrous choices David had made. And yet David still lived from the heart and allowed God to teach him, mould him, grow him, and transform him. We can only be taught, moulded, grown, and transformed in the heart. God is a heart surgeon, not an orthopedic surgeon. It is with your heart that you submit to Him. It doesn’t matter what you have done or what you will do. The only thing that really matters is the condition of your heart. This is where the battle takes place.

It’s time we focus on matters of the heart, matters of being, and let the doing take care of itself. It’s time to stop judging one another’s actions and focus on allowing God to live in our hearts. It’s time we live from the heart, feel with the heart, and believe in the heart… of God.

What is Your Source of Strength?

And Nehemiah continued, “Go and celebrate with a feast of rich foods and sweet drinks, and share gifts of food with people who have nothing prepared. This is a sacred day before our Lord. Don’t be dejected and sad, for the joy of the Lord is your strength!”  Nehemiah 8:10

I have often been asked why I chose obstetrics and gynecology over such specialties as general surgery, family practice, or any one of a dozen other options. I usually tell people that I love surgery and primary care, which are both present in obstetrics and gynecology. But perhaps the underlying reason is that after 8 weeks of intense study in this specialty as a junior medical student, I took the final exam which was not a written exam, but an oral one. There was something about this specialty that made learning fun and exciting. I read the textbooks with interest and understanding. I attended the surgeries and births with joy and excitement  And when I walked out of that oral test that October day, I felt as if I were walking in the clouds. I was overjoyed. I was ecstatic. And I wanted to celebrate. The joy I received from knowing and understanding the medical principles of that specialty propelled me into an amazing career as an OBGYN physician.

This is exactly how the Israelites felt after returning to Jerusalem from 70 years of captivity in Babylon. They had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem before even rebuilding their own homes. Once the wall was rebuilt they asked Ezra the scribe to read the Book of the Law of Moses as they gathered at the town square. We are told they listened closely and were excited by what they heard. In fact, they were overjoyed. They couldn’t get enough of God’s Word. It was music to their ears and lit a fire in their bellies. They digested every word as they got a fresh glimpse of God’s love, concern, and power for them. No wonder Nehemiah told them to go and celebrate. Why? Because “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” 

I must admit that I have overlooked this source of spiritual strength. I haven’t thought of my emotions as being a source of anything other than perhaps understanding my thoughts and behaviors. But it makes sense. When I am filled with joy, I am ready to take on any task, overcome any obstacle, tackle any problem. But when I am filled with sadness, I am not ready for much other than avoid tasks, turning away from obstacles, and succumbing to my problems. Of course Nehemiah is not talking about just any joy. He is talking about the joy of the Lord! The source of our joy makes all the difference in the world. The joy of the Lord grounded in His Word has the power to transform our lives. 

You have heard that knowledge is power. Well, it’s true. The person with the most knowledge can answer the tough questions and solve the impossible problems, which motivates people to follow her. When we understand God’s Word as it applies in our personal lives to answer our questions and solve our problems, we are overcome with joy. When we understand God’s love and grace and how He is present with us in every situation, our joy becomes our strength. Perhaps if we celebrated God’s Word in our lives, threw a party rejoicing over His Law, ate rich foods and sweet drinks as they did at Nehemiah’s request, we just might have enough joy and strength to change the world. At the very least, we would spread cheer and happiness to everyone we would meet. 

What is your source of strength? Do you have joy? 

Are You Afraid of God?

I was afraid because you are a hard man to deal with, taking what isn’t yours and harvesting crops you didn’t plant.  Luke 19:21

I was a sophomore in high school when Tim’s dad drove us to school early one morning. Tim was my best friend who lived next door to me. We did everything together. And usually Tim would drive us to school, but his car was in the shop. His dad drove up a ramp to take us to the back door. What he didn’t realize is that there was a staircase next to the ramp. As he drove away, Tim’s dad drive down the staircase rather than the ramp. We heard a sound of grinding metal as he got stuck on the landing halfway down the stairs. As you can imagine, this drew lots of attention in addition to taunts and laughter. I was embarrassed. I did not want anyone to know that I had anything to do with that car or Tim’s dad. As silly as it sounds to me today, I was afraid of what others would think of me. I stood just inside the school doors frozen in fear. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know what to do. I watched a group of guys lift the car and move it far enough to be able to drive away.

Fear is a crazy thing. It can paralyze us and cloud our judgment. And so when we have not experienced God’s love and mercy, we can become afraid of His law and judgment. Jesus tells a story of how we can look at God the wrong way. He described three servants who were given silver by their king before he was to be crowned king in a distant empire. He entrusted them with his riches and instructed them to invest for him while he was gone. He would return one day to see what they had done with the silver. The first two servants invested well, but the third was afraid of the king. His fear caused him to hide the silver in the ground rather than invest it. He was so afraid of the king that he became paralyzed to inaction. He hid his silver. He acted as though the king did not exist and hoped for the best.

As I think about it, there is no difference between my fear of what others would think of me and the servant’s fear of his king. Both fears cause inaction. Both fears prevent loving action to invest our talents in the lives of others. There is a fear of God we are to have in our lives that is an awe of His love and mercy prompting us to action. We read of this fear in Psalm 89:6-7, For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord, a God greatly to be feared in the council of the holy ones, and awesome above all who are around him?

You know you have the proper fear of God when you want to be in His presence each morning rather than hiding from Him. You have the right fear of God when you move toward others to lend a helping hand. You know you fear God in a way that gives life when you can think clearly in the midst of temptation. Every time I want my own way, succumb to my own desires, and refuse to take up my cross and follow Jesus, I become afraid of God. This fear always paralyzes. It always prevents us from living freely in God’s kingdom. 

So what’s the solution? Focus on God’s love. Accept His love. Seek His love because we read in 1 John 4:18 , There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.

God Is Willing to Wait

Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Won’t she light a lamp and sweep the entire house and search carefully until she finds it?  Luke 15:8

Jesus told three stories in Luke 15 to describe God’s love for humanity. We are like sheep in one story and like sons in another story. But in this story we are like a single insignificant coin except for the fact that this coin belonged to a woman who only has 10 of them. That would be the equivalent of wages for 10 days. According to US government statistics, the average daily wage in America today is $170.00. So let’s say that you have $1700.00 to your name. Nothing more. You don’t have a job. You don’t have a family. You are alone in the world. If you lost 10% of your income, would you look for it? It is your life’s savings. It is all you have to survive.

I have lost my wallet several times in my life. But the one that stands out is when I lost it after filling my car up with gas. When I arrived home I didn’t have my wallet. I was panicked because I had $300.00 in it and all of my credit cards. I immediately drove back to the gas station. But the wallet was not there. So I went back home and searched every corner, every closet, every trash can, every place in the entire house. But the wallet was not there. I couldn’t think about anything else. Where could it be? I was extremely anxious even though I was a physician making a good wage. Losing $300.00 wouldn’t affect my lifestyle in the least.

In the story Jesus tells us about His Father, we see that His lifestyle is impacted by the loss of even one person. When it comes to you and me, God puts all of His efforts into finding us. Imagine God being anxious, even panicked, over losing you. Imagine God feeling this way since the day Adam & Eve ate of the fruit and hid from Him when He went to the Garden to have a chat with them. Yes, since that very day the God of the universe became anxious and single-minded in His efforts to find His lost coins – you and me. 

A few hours after I lost my wallet, I received a phone call from the man who had found it. I went to his home and he asked for a reward as he handed my the wallet to me. I gave the man $100.00. God gave us His Son. Obviously, my relief at finding my wallet was not near as important to me as God’s relief in finding you or me. In this parable, Jesus gives us a picture of God that is truly remarkable. He is anxious every time we hide from Him.

The truly amazing thing is that God is still lighting lamps today to find His lost coins. Anyone who accepts the Light of Jesus in her or his life becomes a light to find others. God is constantly seeking, constantly looking, constantly lighting the lives of men and women to find every last person who can possibly be found. I think this is what God is waiting for. He is more anxious about those who are still lost than He is about the delay in reuniting with those who have been found. God is willing to wait… for you.

What Do You Celebrate?

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them!   Luke 15:1-2

Today I have three grown children. But it seems like yesterday when each one of them set off for their first day of school. There are many milestones in the lives of our children, but the first day of school is among the biggest. Perhaps this is because we understand that our influence as parents begins to diminish as the influence of their friends increases. We are afraid of all the evil influences in the world. Before we know it, they are in high school. This is when we really pay attention to the friends they have because we know that “birds of a feather flock together.”

We worry about our children hanging out with the wrong crowd. And the truth is that our parents worried about us for the very same reason. So when does that concern of protecting our children and even ourselves from the bad influences of “bad” people end? And if it doesn’t end, are we really followers of Jesus? Notice how the “bad” people in Jesus’s day wanted to listen to Him. And because they hung out with Him, the pharisees considered Jesus to be bad. In such a paradigm the bad influences in life always overwhelm the good. So the only way to remain “good” is to avoid the “bad” people. And when a “good” person turns “bad,” this paradigm teaches that he will never come back to the “good” side. And if he does, we better test him before we accept him. After all, we wouldn’t want him to influence us to become “bad.”

But Jesus lived a different paradigm. One that accepts all people and teaches us that good overwhelms bad, that love overwhelms hate, and inclusion overwhelms isolation. And so when the prodigal son comes home to his father in Luke 15, the elder “good” son is upset that the father has thrown a party for his younger “bad” son. In the eyes of the elder son, his younger brother can never be “good” again. Well, maybe he can be good enough to make it to heaven, but not good enough to be an honored guest in his father’s home. After all, we have to be careful about these “bad” sons and their influence. We have to quarantine them as if they had the Ebola virus that would spread to kill the entire church. We can maybe let them attend, but we are suspect of their spiritual gifts and are afraid to allow them lead in the church. 

But Jesus came to demonstrate to us that love wins. That we can live a life of inclusion. That we can mingle with “bad” people and be blessed by them. That we can celebrate every life. And when someone comes to Jesus, celebrating their life does not diminish our life in God. Perhaps this is the anxiety of so many in the church: We have tried so hard to be “good” and do everything that God has told us to do that if we celebrate a life that has lived contrary to God’s law, then we are afraid that we are condoning such behavior, and maybe even worse, admitting that we should have been mingling with them while they were still doing all of those “bad” things. Now that sentence was way too long. But what is even longer and more painful to God is our paradigm that “bad” is stronger than “good.” 

Perhaps we need to teach our children that peer pressure has the potential of turning “bad” kids into “good” kids. Perhaps we should teach our kids to trust in God and mingle with any kid He brings into their path. Perhaps we should teach our kids that good is stronger than bad, that love is more powerful than hate, and that Jesus has already won the battle. But the reason we don’t teach our kids this is because we don’t really believe it. Too many of us in the church are the eldest son in Jesus’s story.

But we don’t have to be the eldest son in the story. We can be the father, who instead of celebrating the bad things in life by thinking that the bad will always overwhelm the good, can begin celebrating the good in life. The father in Jesus’s story says this to his eldest son about what to celebrate, “We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” (Luke 15:32)

How will you celebrate the good in life? Do you believe that love wins? Do you believe that good is stronger than bad? 

Making the Impossible Possible

Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin, to see the plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hand.  Zechariah 4:10

I can get discouraged at the beginning of any big project. When I was a kid I decided I wanted to build a model. So my dad took me to the local hobby store and I chose a firetruck because my dad was a firefighter. The picture on the box was just like my dad’s firetruck. But when I opened the box, there were hundreds of pieces and pages of directions. I was immediately discouraged. It was actually too big of a project for me to accomplish on my own at my age. Fortunately, my dad recognized this fact and helped me work on it. Simply his presence helped more than I can describe. Knowing he was there, that I was not alone, made an impossible project possible. It took weeks, even months, but I completed the firetruck. Let me rephrase that statement. My dad and I completed the firetruck. I would not have been able to do it alone.

When I became a pastor 10 years ago, I felt much like I did as a kid in the hobby store. Leading a church looked like so much fun. I could see the finished product. But once I arrived at the Richland Church, the box was opened and I realized it was an impossible task. But just like I did as a kid with the firetruck model, I tried to build this church on my own. The more I worked, the less I accomplished. But then I read Zechariah 4:10. I realized experientially what I had known intellectually for years, God just wants me to open the box and get started. He will build the church. In fact, any project God calls us to build cannot be built by our effort, but by His might and by His power. 

And so I realized that all the strategic planning, organizing and effort in the world will not accomplish anything unless God is the One directing it, leading it, and building it. It doesn’t work to build the model myself and then ask God to bless it. Oh, the model might get built, but only Mr Rogers would say it was worth anything. If you want a model to change the world, to change YOUR world, simply open the box and let God build it through your hands. 

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