Backstage Grace

God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God.  Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. (Ephesians 2:8-9 New Living Translation).

Blog_Eagles backstage
Our backstage pass for the Eagles’ Concert authorized with Bernie Leadon’s initials (BL)

Grace is one of the most significant words in the Christian vocabulary. While it’s a good idea to avoid jargon, it’s simply a fact that all specialties have their vocabulary. In dealing with computers and data, I’ve had to learn megabytes, gigabytes, and terabytes. In caring friendships, I’ve had to learn about gluten-free and vegan. So what about grace? It’s not an easy concept to grasp. Before I share what it looked like once for me, it will be helpful to define grace and how it differs from mercy. The Apostle Paul used these two terms together in the greeting of some of his letters,

“I am writing to Timothy, my true son in the faith. May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace” (1 Timothy 1:2 New Living Translation, NLT).

In brief, grace is getting what we do not deserve. Mercy is not getting what we do deserve (usually in terms of consequences). Mercy is, well… merciful. It is pardon for breaking a law; it is forgiveness for an unkind word or act. Mercy cleans the slate so we get a new start. Grace is something added. It is a gift that blesses us. It is not only forgiveness, but reconciliation and restoration. Mercy removes the negative. Grace adds the positive.

So now let me share one of my special experiences of grace. Every once in a while I get an email that is quite understated. Here’s one that came out of the blue. I needed to read it twice to fully appreciate it:

“Doug, one of the board members in my motorcar hobby association is Bernie Leadon, founding lead guitarist of the Eagles (the rock group known for “Take It Easy”, “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Witchy Woman,” among countless other hits). They are playing at the Inglewood Forum in LA this week and next, and he has set aside 2 VIP tickets for next Wednesday for me and a guest. It also includes 2 back stage passes… Would you like to go with me? Just a thought.  Should be a great show.  (Signed) Bill.

Would I like to go??? Would I?! I play guitar and have enjoyed playing in a band with some church friends—and I’ve listened to the Eagles for decades. I told my wife, Sarah, the news… and let’s just say Sarah was fine with my attending—so long as she came, too! I didn’t want to presume on Bernie’s generosity, but we asked Bill if he could possibly ask Bernie for another ticket and backstage pass. (So you’re already seeing us pushing for more grace….). Bernie came through, “No problem!” he said.

It was an unforgettable experience. When we arrived at the Forum in Los Angeles, we went to a VIP entrance and were ushered to Bernie’s dressing room, where he greeted us warmly. Bernie really respects Bill and truly appreciated Bill bringing his pastor and wife. After some conversation, Bernie asked if we wanted to do anything special, and I asked if we could walk backstage and see his guitars. (I was thinking I might get some pointers for playing with my cover band, The Fabulous Edsels!) So Bernie took us backstage where we saw racks and racks of some of the finest guitars I will ever lay eyes on. In addition to Bernie’s guitars, we also saw two racks for Joe Walsh (of “Hotel California” fame), and guitars for Glenn Frey and the back-up band. Beautiful! (Sorry for all the exclamation points!). Most of the guitarists played a different guitar for every song. We also met the guitar technicians who continually tune and care for the instruments. Then there was the whole backstage set-up with the lights, computers, video equipment and so on.

After that tour we went back to Bernie’s dressing room and “hung out” for nearly half an hour, meeting some of Bernie’s family members and other friends he’d invited to the show. It was such a relaxing time. About 10 minutes before the concert began Sarah, Bill and I were ushered into our seats in Row Six, just to the right of center stage. I have never had such seats before—and never will again, I’m sure. I could watch all the chord progressions and lead-solo fingerings of Bernie and Joe Walsh—a guitarist’s dream! The concert was a blast—in more ways than one—and we felt a connection that really enhanced the whole experience.

The next day I wrote an email to Bernie to thank him. I said, in part, “Last night was a great illustration of grace for me. Grace is getting something we don’t deserve, and there’s no way Sarah and I deserved the VIP treatment we got last night. We ‘coat-tailed’ on Bill’s friendship with you, and you accepted us. That’s a lot like God’s grace toward us. Just had to let you know how deeply it touched us.” Bernie wrote a very thoughtful reply, and we’ve actually corresponded a few times since.

There are many grace-gifts in our lives every day, but some certainly stand out—like this backstage, behind-the-scenes experience. Thanks, Bill. Thanks, Bernie! And thank you, Lord, for your mercy and grace.

When All You Can do is Weep

When we feel powerless in the face of tragedy and wickedness, there is still one thing we can do.

“Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it” (Ezekiel 9:4).

The fall of 2017 has been a cascade of catastrophe. Hurricanes have devastated significant areas of Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico, other Caribbean islands, and most recently, Mexico and the Gulf Coast of the US. An earthquake in Mexico City claimed 200+ lives. In Southeast Asia over 1,200 lost their lives and over 41 million people have been affected by monsoon rains that have brought flooding and landslides. Even more troubling than natural disasters are those tragedies that have resulted from human aggression. Terrorist attacks and random acts of violence continue, seeming to escalate in scale. For a list that will take your breath away, look at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_terrorist_incidents_in_2017 for a compilation of day-by-day attacks around the world. Then there was Las Vega massacre of October 1 when Stephen Paddock killed at least 58 people and wounded over 500 in the worst mass shooting in United States history.

Some would interpret all these events as signs of the End Times. While, indeed, Jesus could return at any moment, I see these as signs that our world needs Jesus’ followers to pray and serve as we never have before. God’s people have often been at the forefront in giving their time, money and caring compassion to help in times of crisis. That is good, and it must increase. It may be, however, that in certain circumstances, all we can do is weep, grieving over the heartache and suffering the world inflicts on humanity, crying out to God over the brokenness and profound alienation that wreak havoc on human hearts, minds and bodies.

I’m not one given to passivity or inactivity. I want to “fix” situations. My dad always, “Don’t create problems. Solve them.” There are many situations, however, where I don’t have the power, the authority, the resources, the intelligence, or the influence to do anything. And who can “fix” the human heart bent on evil? Who is able to see into the deeply, deeply troubled minds behind these random acts to bring healing and wholeness? We cannot create enough “security arrangements” to prevent all those who truly want to do harm from perpetrating their wicked schemes. What now?

The situation described in The Book of Ezekiel in the Old Testament shows the power of continuing to care in the face of a heartless, cruel, and often godless (or worshiping-the-wrong-gods) world. Around 597 B. C. the prophet Ezekiel was taken into exile in Babylon (over 900 miles from Jerusalem) at the time when God was finally bringing judgement against his idolatrous people. Their persistent disobedience and continual refusal to repent was resulting in the logical and natural consequences God had warned would come. What gives me hope as I read this passage, however, is that God would have mercy on those who continued to honor and love him and who continued to show compassion, yearning for repentance and new life for their loved ones, neighbors and friends. We read this in Ezekiel 91-4:

Then I heard [The LORD] call out in a loud voice, “Bring near those who are appointed to execute judgment on the city, each with a weapon in his hand.” And I saw six men coming from the direction of the upper gate, which faces north, each with a deadly weapon in his hand. With them was a man clothed in linen who had a writing kit at his side. They came in and stood beside the bronze altar. Now the glory of the God of Israel went up from above the cherubim, where it had been, and moved to the threshold of the temple. Then the Lord called to the man clothed in linen who had the writing kit at his side 4 and said to him, “Go throughout the city of Jerusalem and put a mark on the foreheads of those who grieve and lament over all the detestable things that are done in it.”  (NIV)

The man in linen was to mark those weep. What has always moved me most deeply about this passage is that the Lord notices our tears. There are many verses that have this same message.

“Record my misery; list my tears on your scroll; are they not in your record?” (Psalm 56:8 New International Version NIV). The King James Version says, “…put thou my tears into thy bottle: are they not in thy book?”

“For the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Revelation 7:17 NIV).

“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4 NIV).

In Ezekiel 9 we read that in the midst of judgment, the Lord instructed his executioners “…touch no one on whom is the mark” (Ezekiel 9:6). This echoes the Passover account in Exodus 12 when the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites who had offered the sacrifice of the lamb and put the blood on their door frames. In Ezekiel, God’s mercy extended to those who grieved over the godlessness, idolatry and disobedience of the people around them. Those who grieved did not retaliate in anger against those in sin. They brought their broken hearts to the Lord.

We cannot control the world that has rejected God and gone its own way. We cannot control other people who’ve done the same. We can, however, continue to keep our hearts soft.  Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision, said, “Let my heart be broken with the things that break the heart of God.” That is a powerful prayer. It may, as in Bob’s case, move us to action. At the very least, it moves us to bearing the burden of the Lord’s heart in our hearts in this fallen world.

Many of us respond more quickly with anger than with an anguished heart.

Or we fall into despair instead of turning to God in “desperate devotion.”

Or we want to take action against people in public instead of bringing our righteous indignation in humility before the Lord in prayer.

Sometimes all you can do is weep, letting your tears fall in prayer. Sometimes all you can do is weep—and that is doing something.

Gilt by Association

So who are you all-by-yourself-all-on-your-own?

 

No—I did not forget to do spell-check before publishing this post. I do mean ‘gilt,’ not ‘guilt.’ Decades ago, I coined this “pun” to describe a tendency I have—that I’ll tell you about in a moment. You’re likely familiar with the phrase “guilt by association,” when the people associated with a guilty person are judged guilty because of their association—even if their “guilt” is unfounded. “Gilt by association” is just the reverse.

Gilt is gold leaf or gold paint applied in a thin layer to a surface. It is a decorative feature, meant to give the impression of value and even “solid gold” beneath the surface. “Gilt by association” is the effort of trying to shine in the glow of another person’s importance. It’s all about impressing others. I fall into this when I “name drop” about people I know or who attend our church; or “place-drop” about places I’ve been in my travels. You get the idea. You can recognize it quickly in others but not see it in yourself so clearly. There are many dynamics at work in this “gilting,” but I want to focus on two.

First, let’s show ourselves some grace because this is one of the most natural tendencies we all have—to draw a sense of identity and worth from others. This is what being a sports fan is about, or being a part of a club or a special group. The danger lies in making that layer of gilt a primary factor in our self-worth and identity. If we do that, we make it part of our mask, our false self, our facade. It’s important to remember I am not who I know, or where I’ve been, or even what I do. In Christ, I am God’s child and all that means in being part of God’s family. Every other association pales in comparison with that!

Second, we dare not try to do this in the area of faith. Fake-faith, in-name-only faith, is a dead-end road. There’s a fascinating story about this in the Acts 19:11-16

God gave Paul the power to perform unusual miracles. When handkerchiefs or aprons that had merely touched his skin were placed on sick people, they were healed of their diseases, and evil spirits were expelled. A group of Jews was traveling from town to town casting out evil spirits. They tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus in their incantation, saying, “I command you in the name of Jesus, whom Paul preaches, to come out!” Seven sons of Sceva, a leading priest, were doing this. But one time when they tried it, the evil spirit replied, “I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?” Then the man with the evil spirit leaped on them, overpowered them, and attacked them with such violence that they fled from the house, naked and battered.  (Acts 19:11-16 New Living Translation).

In my book Questions God Asks, Questions Satan Asks, (Tyndale House Publishers)—here I go my-book-dropping!!! – I spend a chapter on Acts 19:15, “…the evil spirit replied, ‘I know Jesus, and I know Paul, but who are you?’” The sons of Sceva made a tragic assumption in this passage. They assumed that knowledge of Jesus was the same as knowing Jesus.  Those are two very different realities. They tried to use Jesus’ name without believing in Jesus, without trusting Him, without relying upon Him.  The evil spirit challenged their presumption. When I let my imagination go, I picture this demon sitting back, kicking up his legs on a desk, folding his hands calmly across his chest and saying, “I know Jesus… and I know Paul,…. but (and now Demon takes his legs off the desk, looks right into the eyes of every single one of the sons of Sceva, and shouts) but WHO are you???!!!” Then Demon leaps on these guys, overpowering them.

Now, I don’t claim it happened that way… but that’s kinda what I’m picturing. There is no gilt by association with Jesus. Either you know Jesus or you don’t. And people, even demons, can tell the difference.

So who are you-all-by-yourself-all-on-your-own?

But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12 New Living Translation NLT).

See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are! But the people who belong to this world don’t recognize that we are God’s children because they don’t know him. Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure  (1 John 3:1-3 NLT)

The Punt

Are we all apostles? Are we all prophets? Are we all teachers? Do we all have the power to do miracles? Do we all have the gift of healing? Do we all have the ability to speak in unknown languages? Do we all have the ability to interpret unknown languages? Of course not! So you should earnestly desire the most helpful gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:29-31 New Living Translation).

The Punt
Photo by David Cobb /Chattanooga Times Free Press. This article implies nothing about this athlete or his team!

When I was in the 8th grade, I played on our junior high football and basketball teams. I had fun, though I wasn’t a starter. Still, I did get some playing time and had some experiences I will never forget– no matter how hard I try!

One of my most memorable experiences was playing in the football game against our arch rival, Mt. Healthy (or Oak Hills– since we had a number of arch rivals!). I was a safety– which meant I guarded against the pass and the long run– trying to tackle the guys everybody else missed. (It always bothered me that I got in so much trouble for missing a tackle when the bigger guys should have brought him down long before he reached me…).

Anyway, in this game, we kept them from getting a first down, so I went back to receive the punt. This was one of those dream situations for an eighth grader because, as I judged the distance he was likely to kick it, I ended up standing right across from our cheerleaders. There was, literally, a little red-haired girl that I had been interested in for some time.  (I hasten to add that Sarah and I grew up in different towns in Ohio and didn’t meet until my junior year in high school).

Like most junior high boys, I really thought the way to a girl’s heart was to impress them with some manly achievement like catching a dramatic pass and running for a touchdown, or getting knocked out, or suffering a severe injury that would require a transfusion– something like that. Little did I realize that the girls hardly ever noticed because they were talking– or else they just thought we guys were stupid.

So here, I thought, was my opportunity to make an impression. I hadn’t drawn blood on any tackles yet, but now all eyes were on me as the punter kicked the ball.

It was a high kick going right toward the sidelines in front of our cheerleaders. Oh, this was perfect! I can still feel it– the adrenaline pumping, the fans screaming wildly (or maybe that was just me!), and the thundering sound of tacklers bearing down on me like ferocious beasts.

The ball hung in the air forever. I waved for a fair catch. You do that when you know you can catch the ball but can’t run because the tacklers are too close. It’s really a smart move– as opposed to getting chased backwards, or just getting creamed when you catch the ball and are “unguarded.”

So I waved my hand for the fair catch. But– you probably guessed it– the one thing you must never do on a fair catch is drop the ball, because then all’s fair as far as tackling goes. You can get creamed and you can lose the ball…

and you can blow your chances of ever impressing the little red-haired girl…

and you can lose all confidence in ever putting on a football uniform again…

and you can decide to join the marching band instead…

and you can still have nightmares of dropping the ball…

Oh, sorry… got lost in my thoughts there for a moment. Guess you know what happened.

I did learn a basic lesson in life: Without the ball, you can’t do anything.

I also began to realize we cannot expect to be great or even good at everything. In Corinth, various church members were struggling with envy of others’ gifts, and some with pride in their gifts. It was dividing the community. As you may recall, Paul continued from the passage quoted above into “The Love Chapter,” 1 Corinthians 13 where he wrote,

If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

No matter what else we do– or are unable to do–we are to demonstrate love as our way of life. That has implications not only for how we treat others, but how we treat ourselves. I am not loving myself when I condemn or devalue myself for not being “the best” at everything.

The key is exploring the opportunities God brings our way. Try as many things as you can. Takes some risks. Not everything will be a fit; not everything will be life-giving and fruitful. But all those experiences provide valuable information. Over time, we discover our gifts, talents and places where we’re more effective.  Along the way, we’ll have some amazing – and perhaps embarrassing and painful—adventures. But it’s worth it. Just think of the stories you’ll be able to tell.

Authority is the Force of Presence

Authority is much more about our person than our position.

 

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Photo by Benjamin Child at Unsplash.com

Those not in official or formal leadership positions tend to think that the power is in the position. That’s true only to a limited extent. It is true in the sense that a person “in power” can exercise certain rights and authority and claim the perquisites (“perks”) of privileges and benefits that come with that position. But there’s another dimension of leadership that is more significant to the health and well-being of the organization and the individuals leading it: integrity. I mean integrity in the fullest sense of the term: being integrated (inwardly unified) in values and behavior. Living a life congruent and consistent with your vision and calling.  That’s why I say authority is the force of presence not the presence of force.

I’ve noticed that a person’s credentials (their resume of degrees, positions and accomplishments) have a shelf-life of, perhaps, 60 seconds. I’ve been privileged to meet many people in leadership positions in government, in community life and in Christian ministry. They held what I thought were enviable positions of influence. Before meeting each one, I had formed an impression of them by reputation and exposure through books or other media and contacts. After my personal encounter with them, however, I had a strong sense of the difference between those who had true authority and those who just knew how to “work the system.” I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in just working the system. I want to be “the real deal” (with all my flaws and shortcomings) so that people value me and appreciate me for me.

In my book SoulShaping (Tyndale House Publishers) I wrote, “Our authority grows out of our integrity. Without integrity, we are never more than placeholders; with integrity, we can be life-shapers” (page 358). What I’m really talking about is character. It’s about the old-fashioned concept of virtue. And it’s about the credibility of having faced the real trials and tests of leadership in particular contexts. For instance, in sales, there is a credibility that comes only from years of perseverance in the face of rejection as well as with the demonstration of having made some “big deals.” Both are necessary for a leader. People are more ready to follow a person who demonstrates both genuine empathy for the difficulties we face as well as the vision, competencies and determination to triumph over them. That’s how leaders win hearts and minds.

We can force compliance—but that’s not our goal as leaders. We want to win commitment. Honest heartfelt commitment, not just grudging compliance, is our aim. And that means connecting at the level of personhood, not operating out of position.

Jesus was, indeed, the ultimate demonstration of the authority of presence. He shows us that God is not detached from the human situation. In Christ, God plunged into the human circumstance in a way that gives a credibility that is beyond question. The Book of Hebrews in the Bible says this so clearly:

14 Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death… 17 Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. 18 Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested. Hebrews 2:14-18 (New Living Translation)

What’s the basis for your authority? Instead of relying on outward position and achievement, consider the development of “presence,” of your inner person. And think about those in which you see this reality.

Ctrl+Alt+Del

“Ctrl+Alt+Del” can be a powerful daily cue for spiritual focus.

keyboard

Ever go through a routine for the umpteenth time and suddenly ask yourself, “Huh, I wonder why we do this?” That’s what happened recently when I turned on my computer and the “Ctrl+Alt+Del command” appeared on the screen (Ok, so now you know I’m a PC user, not a hip-and-cool MacBook guy). So I did the search thing and found an article in Wikpedia (it was adequate for this) that explained it this way:

Control+Alt+Delete (often abbreviated to Ctrl+Alt+Del) is a computer keyboard command on IBM PC compatible computers, invoked by pressing the Delete key while holding the Control and Alt keys: Ctrl+Alt+Delete. The function of the key combination differs depending on the context but it generally interrupts or facilitates interrupting a function.

This is known as a “soft reboot,” or re-start function.

Well, enough nerd talk. Looking beyond it, I see a message for spiritual health. One of the keys to spiritual vitality is learning to become aware of God and pay attention to our spiritual welfare throughout the day. In my first blog post, “Stop, Look and Listen,” I shared the concept of Cues and Clues: Cues and clues to life’s deeper meaning and purpose surround us in every moment. But it’s so easy to miss them. This is one of them: “Ctrl+Alt+Del” can be a powerful daily cue for spiritual focus. The keyboard can “interrupt” our normal, too-often-nonspiritual, functioning so we can spiritually reboot.

First, “Ctrl” or Control reminds us to “release Control to God.” One of our greatest burdens in life is thinking we have control and that we have to make things happen. On the flip side, one of the most discouraging things in life is feeling powerless and out-of-control. Faith brings us back to the awareness of God’s kind, loving oversight of our lives. I draw great strength from Jesus’ words,

“Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Luke 12:6-7 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).

That kind of reassurance takes me a long way toward trusting God more and more with more and more. I could list many more passages from the Bible, but let’s move on.

Second, “Alt” invites God to “Alter our mind, heart, soul and way of living.” I believe Jesus’ followers want to live differently. We don’t want to be stuck in the same dark thoughts, the same lousy habits, and the same undisciplined, worldly-driven lives. And, praise God, we don’t have to stay stuck. God is in the change business. That change starts with the fact that we have the mind of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:16). God has given us the Holy Spirit to change us completely from the inside out. But that doesn’t happen automatically. God has designed us to mature by inviting the Holy Spirit, God’s power within us, to lead us into the fullness of life in Christ. The Holy Spirit helps us think like Jesus. The Holy Spirit empowers us to act like Jesus. The Holy Spirit is shaping the life of Jesus within us. Here is the staggering description of what God is now doing in us:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:17-18 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).

That is life-altering, friend! “From one degree of glory to another.”

And third, (you can see where this is going, right?) by God’s grace in Jesus Christ, God “Deletes the sins that still preoccupy our thoughts.” Many of us live with a low-grade depression because of regrets that weigh us down and because of thoughts and behaviors we can’t seem to release. A daily (or more frequent) spiritual reboot reminds us that God is not surprised by our sin. In grace and mercy, God’s Spirit continues the work of healing, restoring and strengthening us to overcome sin’s power.

If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 1:9-2:1 New Revised Standard Version NRSV).

So when you log on to your computer, let “Ctrl+Alt+Del” be your log-in to Jesus and the Spirit’s power.

The Horn

That horn, which I thought was a warning to the other driver

—sounded a warning to me.

The Horn nathan-lindahl-253536
Photo by Nathan Lindahl from Unsplash.com

I am really embarrassed—make that more like ashamed—to share this. But here goes. When describing the mistakes of God’s people in the past, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 10:6 that these things “were written as warnings for us” not to do as they did. Here’s your warning.

We live in a fairly “old,” by California standards, development that is situated right at the beginning of a road that serves as the main thoroughfare for several large, newer developments. The resultant traffic is insane—especially in the morning rush. There are very few school bus routes in our area anymore, so it’s a parent-student taxi brigade.

The entrance to our development is the last traffic light for those leaving these newer subdivisions before opening on the major roads. There’s a lot of drama every morning at our traffic light because only one lane turns left and everybody wants into that lane (hang in there, there’s a point to this).

One morning I turned onto that road and was stopped for the red light for the main road. The light turned green and as I started forward a guy started to cut right in front of me. He’d been in the far right lane, passing all the law-abiding drivers patiently waiting in the left turn lane. Now he expected to cut in front of me. Here’s the shameful thing: I laid on the horn and kept him stuck, blocking the right lane. He glared at me and waved… well, I guess it wasn’t exactly a wave…. And kept edging in. Since our cars’ paint colors didn’t match I finally yielded—not the “right-of-way,” but the “wrong-of-way.” Again he “waved.”

Wow… What just happened? I was ashamed to see that—in an instant—I could still get so angry, be so reactive and be so careless. Road rage—I had it! That horn, which I thought was a warning to the other driver—sounded a warning to me.

I’ve come to realize driving is soul stuff. How I feel about control, about my rights, my convenience, my sense of justice and fairness, my right of way—and how I am so wrong-of-way too often.

And I’m reminded nearly every morning when I hear the horns from my house. But you won’t hear mine again.

Those who are hot-tempered stir up strife, but those who are slow to anger calm contention.                                   Proverbs 15:18 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Those with good sense are slow to anger, and it is their glory to overlook an offense.                                                              Proverbs 19:11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Cool Guy?

How do you share your faith when it’s just not cool?

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Photo by Aaron Burden from Unsplash.com

I don’t think I’ve ever been thought of as a “cool guy”—you know, the nonchalant, everybody-probably-wishes-they-were-me kind of guy. If you remember the TV show, Happy Days, I was never, ever like “The Fonz” (Henry Winkler). I’ve always been more like Richie (Ron Howard). In fact, when my senior class in high school was voting on senior class personalities—you know, “Most Likely to Succeed,” “Greatest Hair,” “Most Popular”—I was voted “Most Responsible.” I didn’t even know they had such a category. And believe me, it didn’t feel cool.

Danny was cool. Effortlessly cool. Like he didn’t need anybody, but was surrounded by people who wanted to be with him. Yeah—I found myself wondering what it would be like to be like Danny.

One evening a friend and I went to see Danny because he wasn’t coming to youth group and church activities any longer. Danny invited us in and took us to his back patio. Then he lit up a cigarette, took a deep draw on it, blew out the smoke and asked, “So what’s on your minds?”

It’s cool to be direct—not threatened by anything.

“Well, we’ve missed you at church and just wanted to reconnect.”

“That’s cool, but I’m not into church stuff anymore. It’s just not where I’m at. Too many hypocrites.” He knocked the ashes off his cigarette onto the knee of his jeans and rubbed them into the fabric. (I obviously would never make the shift from most responsible to cool if I had to act like Danny).

“You’re right,” I responded.

His eyebrows rose above his round, wire-rim glasses. “I am?” he said with surprise.

“Yeah, the church is all messed up. Too many people go just to be seen, or to try to be sure they are on God’s good side. That’s garbage. But what about Jesus? What do you think about Jesus?”

“Jesus….” Long, long pause, “Jesus. I guess he’s cool.”

That opened the door to a couple of hours of conversation. Danny smoked more than a few cigarettes as we discussed the Bible, science and evolution, Jesus’ humanity and divinity, death and resurrection, and I can’t remember what else. We covered a lot of ground. And it was not because we pushed, but because he kept asking.

“Hey, Danny, we should be going. Thanks for giving us this time. Before we go, do you want to pray with us?”

Up went the eyebrows!

“Pray with you?? Nah… I’m not into that.”

“Well, after all we’ve talked about, we just wondered if you wanted to take the next step and commit or recommit your life to Christ…”

He just shook his head, “Don’t take this wrong, guys, but I’m not ready for anything like that.”

“No problem. We really enjoyed getting connected again. See you sometime.”

When we got in the car, I couldn’t help myself, “I doubt if we’ll ever see Danny in church again.”

Fast forward 5 years. I had been married for over a year and was just getting ready to leave for seminary. Sarah and I were at my home church in the worship service. When we stood to sing, this guy I didn’t recognize glanced back our way. He did it several times during the service. Like he knew Sarah or me. After the service, he came directly up to us and looked right at me through his wire-rim glasses.

“Are you Doug Rumford?”

“Yes,” but I couldn’t place this clean-cut, suit-wearing guy.

“I’m Danny. Man, I’ve been praying I would see you!”

“Wait. What? You’re DANNY?? Smoking-on-your-porch, rubbing-cigarette-ashes-into-your-jeans Danny?”

He laughed, “Yeah—so you remember me? I gave you quite a hard time that day.”

“It’s a day I’ll never forget.”

“Me neither. That’s why I’ve been praying to see you. Six months ago I prayed to receive Jesus Christ into my life as Lord and Savior. After that prayer, the man who was sharing with me asked, ‘Danny, how many people helped you get to this place of commitment? Who was the first person you remember sharing with you?’ I told him it was you, Doug. He said, ‘Then start praying you can see Doug and tell him—and everyone else who shared with you, too. It will be a great encouragement and joy to them.’ So I’ve been praying—and here you are. Thank you!”

He gave me a huge hug. Tears were rolling down both our cheeks.

“I’m sorry I was such a jerk. That wasn’t cool,” Danny said. “But Doug, you were so cool to reach out to me.”

I was cool. I was cool?… So that’s what it really means! Now I get it!

I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow (1 Corinthians 3:6-7 New International Version NIV).

Strength Comes With The Doing

“Be wise at what is good…” Romans 16:19

God deepens our experience of faith through our action.

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Photo by Jason Briscoe from Unsplash.com

Many of us don’t try something because, at that time, we don’t feel strong enough, wise enough, talented enough, or just-about-anything enough. So we wait—and miss so many opportunities. Life opens up for us when we learn that strength doesn’t come before we begin a task. Strength actually comes with the doing of the task.

Think about exercise: It seems foolish to say it, but you cannot wait until you “get strong” to begin to exercise. Strength is the product of exercise. And it’s important to realize progress in physical exercise is not noticeable immediately. At first, we will feel tired. And then things will change. According to Kenneth H. Cooper, M.D., author of Aerobics, after about six weeks of consistent effort a series of changes happen “all at once” in the body.

In my book, SoulShaping: Taking Care of your Spiritual Life, I tell one of the most famous and amusing experiments demonstrating this. A researcher in exercise and human physiology set a weight on the floor, tied a rope to it, ran the rope over a pulley fastened to the edge of a table, then sat on the other side of the table and looped the rope over the middle finger of his right hand. Then, in time to a metronome, he began lifting the weight. The first time and for many weeks thereafter, the best he could do was 25 lifts before his finger became fatigued. To expand the experiment, he had a mechanic in the building lift the weight occasionally, in the same manner, and the mechanic always beat him. One day, about two months later, the researcher began his usual lifts, but found his finger wasn’t tired at 25. He kept going and ultimately reached 100. He suspected what had happened, and brought the experiment to a rather unorthodox conclusion. He invited the mechanic in again and made a small bet that he could best him. The mechanic accepted—and lost.

What the researcher suspected was the vascularization of his finger muscles–more blood vessels had opened up, creating new routes for delivering more oxygen. What was most interesting was that they apparently didn’t open up one at a time but a network at a time. Physiologists call this “the training effect.”

Athletes report similar “plateaus of progress,” improving not only day by day, but in quantum jumps. This vascularization is the most essential factor in building endurance. It reduces fatigue in the skeletal muscles, saturating the tissue with oxygen and carrying away more wastes. It is a vital factor in the health of the heart, the most important muscle of all.  More or larger blood vessels supplying the heart tissue with energy-producing oxygen considerably reduce the chances of any cardiac failure.  And even if a heart attack were to occur, the improved blood supply would help to keep the surrounding tissue healthy and improve chances for a speedy recovery.

Consider an analogy in the spiritual realm. Spiritual experience shows a similar correlation to physical conditioning.  After sustained discipline, our spiritual lives respond and deepen with increased vitality and sensitivity to God’s presence and direction. Likewise, when we step out in faith, only then do we experience the reality of faith. When we make a commitment to sacrificial giving or to serving or to regular discipleship—only then do our hopes turn into reality.

For “physical exercise has some value, but godliness is valuable in every way. It holds promise for the present life and for the life to come” (1 Timothy 4:8)

Here’s the principle: Strength comes with the doing. If no demand is made, no strength is supplied! Paul wrote,

“Do you not know that all the runners in a stadium compete, but only one receives the prize? So run to win. Each competitor must exercise self-control in everything. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. 26 So I do not run uncertainly or box like one who hits only air. Instead I subdue my body and make it my slave, so that after preaching to others I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 New English Translation).

If you want to experience spiritual vitality, put yourself in a place where a demand is made upon you. Bring Jesus Christ into your conversation. Say yes to mentoring a child or young person who has just begun walking with Jesus. Reach out to a neighbor in need. Pray with a person for a problem they have.

When we step out in faith, our faith grows. When we step out, we will be amazed at our experience of God’s presence. It may not–in fact usually does not–come in a dramatic way. It may not happen all at once– remember the training effect. But there will be a sense of peace and confidence that you’ve done the right thing, and God is pleased.

Achieving strength and competence takes time. But that time brings a huge return on investment.

“Your obedience is known to all and thus I rejoice over you. But I want you to be wise in what is good and innocent in what is evil. The God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you” (Romans 16:19-20).

 

Stop, Look and Listen

Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.

Frederick Buechner

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Half Dome at Yosemite National Park.  Photo by Austin Schmid (from Unsplash.com)

Cues and clues to life’s deeper meaning and purpose surround us in every moment. But it’s so easy to miss them. Human experience can be rich beyond comparison, but many of us settle for a spiritually impoverished existence. Every moment gives the opportunity to learn, to say thank you, to pray, to reach out and to reach in—if we will learn to see these. There is so much to explore, to understand, to consider that it can be overwhelming. To make the most of it we need to be equipped with an expectant attitude, trained with tools for mining the moments, and discipled by models that instruct and inspire us. That is the purpose of this blog. It is a spiritual journal for maximizing our experience of God in everyday life.

The starting point is to see the spiritual application of a lesson we learned from the earliest age about traffic safety: Stop, Look and Listen.

Stop

I love to travel and explore. I’ve visited over 25 countries for ministry and/ or vacation and have more on my list. And I’m even more fascinated by the inner geography of the heart and mind, what someone has called (I cannot find who), “the continents within us.” That’s why it is important to make time for exploring your inner life. Make space for God. I can think of nothing more essential for the cultivation of a rich, full experience of life. People pile up experiences but often fail to savor those experiences. When we stop, we pay attention. We give ourselves the gift of ceasing activity so we can explore the layers of life.

Have you ever been in the middle of an activity and suddenly realized: This is really special? It’s happened to me at family gatherings, in worship services, in meetings with special people, and in simple times of joy. Stopping may be for just a moment, or it may be at the end of a day—but learn how to take time to reflect.

I think this is especially important for parents. We live in a day when parents are very intentional about setting their children up for success. From preschool on, parents want to get the best teachers for their children and to involve their children in sports and clubs that will provide the best platforms for future progress. But what about a child’s inner life? What about a child’s soul? There are very, very few opportunities outside of a vital church fellowship where a child’s inner life can be nurtured. A starting point is helping them stop and ask questions like: Where is God in this moment? What am I thankful for right now? What am I learning right now—about God, myself, others, and the world around me? Where do I need help? Jesus takes the lives of our children very seriously. Jesus said, “And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me” (Matthew 18:5, New Living Translation). I am so thankful for those who welcome children and help them stop so they can learn about God’s love and care.

Look

Stopping does not mean the cessation of activity. It means a change of focus. That’s where our next step, “Look,” comes in. We make time to pay attention. Make time to look around; make time to look within. What am I feeling and thinking right now? Why am I reacting or responding in a particular way?

I am fascinated by black and white photographs. Of course there are wonderful color photographs and images. But there’s something also mesmerizing about black and white images. The work of Ansel Adams comes to mind. Adams said, “You don’t take a photograph; you make it.” He also said, “There are always two people in every photograph: the photographer and the viewer.”

In other words, we bring something to the photograph. That’s true of every experience we have. Life doesn’t happen around us. Life happens in us. And this is all the more important when we embrace the belief that we are spiritual-physical beings, created in God’s image to experience life as God’s special creations. As Psalm 8 says:

3 When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—
   the moon and the stars you set in place—
4 what are mere mortals that you should think about them,
   human beings that you should care for them?
5 Yet you made them only a little lower than God
   and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You gave them charge of everything you made,
   putting all things under their authority.

Psalm 8:3-6, New Living Translation

When we look, we take time to allow an image to form in our hearts and minds. We have the privilege of “freezing a moment” so that it can live on in a very special way. I have kept a spiritual journal for over 45 years. Each journal entry is like a photograph of my heart and mind and life at that moment. When I go back to read past entries (which is often called “harvesting” your journal), it’s like I’m back in the moment. And the practice of journaling has trained me to capture moments in nearly every day.

Listen

Even as we use multiple senses for traffic safety, we also use multiple means for spiritual vitality. I began this piece with a quote from Frederick Buechner, an American writer and theologian. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister and the author of more than thirty published books. He took a position as school minister at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire instituting a new, full-time religion department at the one of the oldest secondary schools in the United States. After nine years, he moved full-time to his farm on Rupert Mountain, Vermont. Here’s the full quote about listening to life.

I discovered that if you really keep your eye peeled to it and your ears open, if you really pay attention to it, even such a limited and limiting life as the one I was living on Rupert Mountain opened up onto extraordinary vistas. Taking your children to school and kissing your wife goodbye. Eating lunch with a friend. Trying to do a decent day’s work. Hearing the rain patter against the window. There is no event so commonplace but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him, but all the more fascinatingly because of that, all the more compellingly and hauntingly…. If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace. [Frederick Buechner, Listening to Your Life (Harper SanFranciso, 1992), citing Now and Then, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983, pages 92, 87].

Buechner activates all the senses in bringing depth, fullness, richness to life’s moments. And, above all, we are always listening for grace, for that sense of God’s loving presence in the present.

I invite you to join me as I write this spiritual journal for maximizing our experience of God and our inner selves in everyday life. My goal is to equip us with an expectant attitude, train us with practical tools for mining the moments, and disciple us by providing models that instruct and inspire us.

Now all glory to God, who is able, through his mighty power at work within us, to accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.

Ephesians 3:20 New Living Translation