The Serenity To Accept… The Bad AND The Good

My plate is unique. God has prepared my life to be like none other. And it’s been a great big bowl of both the tasty and the nasty. But often times, I really can’t tell which is which. That is, I honestly don’t know which bites I like, and which I don’t.

These past two years, it’s been my health that’s “suffered”. I put that in quotes because I don’t feel it personally. It’s almost as if I am telling you about what happened to someone else. Because throughout it all, I’ve never felt in danger. Instead, I have been “made ready” for whatever God has planned next. Life or death. Productivity or rest. Reclaiming joy even out of pain. I believe He has fully granted me The Serenity To Accept.

Do you know The Serenity Prayer?

God
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change
The courage to change the things I can
And the wisdom to know the difference

Living one day at a time
Enjoying one moment at a time
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace
Taking, as Jesus did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it
Trusting that You will make all things right
If I surrender to Your will
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with You forever in the next
Amen
(Reinhold Neibur)

One thing I can say is that I have lived out and from this prayer these past few years.

Kidney failure, and ongoing sessions of dialysis, 4-hours at a time, 3 days a week.
Open-heart surgery, a full month of hospitalization and a year at home during recovery.
Three bouts of diverticulitis, followed by an abscess and surgery to remove a section of my colon.
And, most recently, hospital admittance for unexplained intestinal bleeding.
These are the realities, the facts, of being me.

I’ve had a lot to accept, but God has used these events to develop in me patience and peacefulness. You see, all these “bad” things have had their benefits – the biggest of which is the time I now have to write this blog and Share God’s Story in my life. Despite all, I am more than reasonably happy. In fact, I’ve rarely been happier. (My happiest moments are from my immediate family, also given from God.)

This is the way God works. His way, not mine. He brings us to where we want but not by the road we planned for ourselves. Oh, believe me – I tried going my way, for many, many years. I sought to please myself, only and all ways. That path of insanity led me straight into His arms, eight years ago, when I tired of trying, unable to quench the thirst to fill my empty self, realizing at last that lust can cruelly never be sated. I sought my end. Only then was I ready for His purpose. And He taught me first about recovering from my bad choices and habits.

And this prepared me to weather the trauma that I didn’t choose.

Come near to God, and He will come near to you.
You are sinners, so clean sin out of your lives.
You are trying to follow God and the world at the same time.
Make your thinking pure.
James 4:8 ERV

This is one of the most important verses in my recent life. Four simple statements. Basic instructions to follow to be changed, to be healed. Sentences that imply deceptively hard problems with one amazing and easy solution: Almighty God.

Farness from God – I’ve learned to spend significant time getting close to my Creator, the one who is all that is unseen.
Sin – I’ve learned to see not just what is unhealthy for me, but why it is irrefutably so. And I’ve received unseen help in removing it from my living.
Choosing God or the world – there is no other choice, and there can be only one (despite the other) or the (ultimately empty and meaningless) other.
It starts with my thoughts – What I think leads to what I feel, and whether I am then able to do anything at all.

:2 … You don’t get what you want because you don’t ask God.
:3 Or, when you ask, you don’t receive anything, because the reason you ask is wrong.
You only want to use it for your own pleasure.

At the heart of life is acceptance of Jesus Christ’s sacrifice for me, acknowledging my guilt but moving beyond it. Taking that clean slate, that thousandth second chance, and grabbing that helping hand to get back to my feet, and keep going forward.

Life is not for my own pleasure. Joy is best when it is shared. This is the meaning behind giving of oneself. I have been blessed with a great bounty – not of the usual worldly resources, but of time and experiences. And I have been given the opportunity to share these joyful, hope-filled moments with you. May God use them to encourage you.

Yes, my life is unique. And so is yours.

Works and Faith: Can’t Be One Without the Other

My Brothers and Sisters, if a person claims to have faith but does nothing, that faith is worth nothing. Faith like that cannot save anyone.
…I will show my faith by the good I do.
James 2:14,18

Kingdom work is the only way to create equality of opportunity. Work without faith is as useless as faith without work. There can be no true good without God.

I’ve been working on this post about the nature of work – kingdom work – for several days, thinking upon the topic for quite awhile, and, for the past two mornings, wrestling with it directly in my devotional time and at church. Let me start with the latter.

This week’s message at Grace Chapel was about a small team’s trip to experience the church in China. (Good news: the Church is doing well, recognized, tolerated, and even fostered by the government, contrary to what I had thought. For an excellent review, listen to Pastor Bryan’s 8/28/16 sermon at grace.org.)

More importantly, what I began to understand was that believers show their faith in Christ by what they do – or, rather, by the why and how of what they do. Kingdom workers are workers first, but workers who are ever-ready to give an answer about their faith, rather than the dedicated preachers and teachers of the faith of the Missionary past. They are engineers, infrastructure builders, simple people helping to develop and improve the world for others. (I’d say that the difference is that these believers are actually good for something, but I don’t want to disparage my pastor. At least not too much. 😉 )

There is a huge element of intentionality in “faithful doing”, no matter where the doing is done. My Saturday included two examples of Christians ready to answer the question, “Why are you here, voluntarily giving up your time; time that could be spent enjoying the benefits and comforts of arguably the most advanced society in the world? Why are you helping me instead of helping yourself to all the good things?”

First, the worship team from my Thursday night Celebrate Recovery played at a “Love Your Neighbor” outreach event in the inner city of Worcester. That evening my wife and I went out to dinner, and there were multiple large parties of diners who had spent the day at the Special Olympics. This got me to thinking about who are “the least of these.”

Obviously, there are people less fortunate in circumstances and abilities, as I saw on Saturday. But there are also the less fortunate in terms of exposure, examples, and experience of God and Christ, which was the message on Sunday. Both types of people don’t need to be preached at; they need to be shown faith: faith in action. Faith with works. Answer: “God calls me here to give, to share of the bounty he has given me. He has comforted me so that I can comfort you, and point you to Him as the source of all good things.”

What answer can be given for works without faith? For good without God? What else can such a morality be based on?

In Matthew 12:15-21, wherein Jesus feeds the 5000, he “…Looked up to heaven and said a blessing.” All good things come from God. Our bounty is a blessing. It is the miracle of our circumstances. And we are called to share it.

Delight Thyself in the Lord
And He shall give you the desires of thine heart.
Psalm 37:4

One of my favorite passages in the Bible is Acts 4:32-35 which tells of the community of early believers:

The whole group of believers was united in their thinking and in what they wanted. None of them said that the things they had were their own. Instead, they shared everything. … Everyone who owned fields or houses sold them. They brought the money to the apostles. Then everyone was given whatever they needed.

And, of course, there is the Biblical “it is better to give than receive” in Acts 20:35.

China certainly tried good without God in turning to a Communist/Socialist society. It is heartwarming to see that they are now asking God back, as demonstrated by the Church’s acceptance. Perhaps it is because the ruling officials realized what is missing from Utopian stories, and why attempts to bring such perfect societies to real life fail: The early Christians spent their time talking and learning about God and Christ. They had faith.

I believe this is because Faith deals primarily with what is, and not what should be. Utopias try to make what should be come to pass by purely human means. “From each according to ability; to each according to need” certainly indicates intent to care for “the least of these”. But, in leaving out God, Christ, and the Spiritual, what is lost is the voluntary nature of sacrifice, the fact of God’s calling upon people. The submission of the one for the many becomes forced by one group upon another.

“To be a socialist is to submit the I to the Thou; socialism is sacrificing the individual to the whole.”
Joseph Goebbels

The basis for self-sacrifice, along with Jesus’ own life and death, is acceptance of the way my life is; however that is at any given time:

Not that I speak in respect of want: for I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content.
Philippians 4:11-12

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
Psalm 23:1

If I have faith and trust in God, I am better able and more motivated to share and give away whatever I do have plenty of: time, resources, or just gentle words of encouragement. If I have faith, I accept, plainly, that there is no Equality of Ability. There never has been, and never will be. We are not created equal in gifts and talents, nor in fortuitous circumstances of birth. We, as a society/civilization, can only ever attempt to create Equality of Opportunity. And faith convicts and convinces us that the only way to adjust for inequalities in abilities and circumstances is to faithfully give of ourselves wherever we each see a need.

“Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the Gospel of envy. Its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.”
Winston Churchill

“It is liberty that cultivates a country. No people can ever make any social and mental improvement whose exertions are limited. Knowledge, wisdom, culture, refinement, manners, are all founded on work and the wealth which work brings.”
Frederick Douglas

Socialism is focused on dragging down the circumstances of all to try and make up for differences in ability. But that is not human nature. As a “system” it sounds perfect. But systems depend on identical parts. Systems are not built for exceptions. And human beings are nothing but exceptions.

Only a political system which recognizes that making Equality of Opportunity (and not a pipedream of Equality of Ability) its highest ideal, allowing those who will to shine and those who will care to freely give, can claim any kind of success or morality.

This is not to say Capitalism/Representative Government is without faults. Without faith, it is just as flawed, and I believe we are seeing the cruel results of this today. No character demonstrates the weakness of the American Dream better than the prodigal son’s elder brother, whose self-righteousness and selfishness would not, could not allow him to rejoice and give of himself at the “re-birth” of his sibling. In truth, both sons were wayward.

For “Honest Work” to be honest, both the employer and the employee must be intentional about their part in the agreement: a “fair” wage for the best effort. I don’t believe we are seeing either these days. The whole point of sharing everything in Acts 4, was to prepare the community – and each member of it – for the hard times that God’s Word assures us will come. Sharing with faith is tithing. And just as there is temptation to skimp on the tithe or to remain in ignorance of its purpose, there is also temptation of the storehouse administrators to become possessive or for the successful to hoard for themselves what was given to be shared.

Faith with works, works with faith is the answer.

…The Truth of You

Heavenly Father, Creator of all things in heaven and on earth, Master Designer with a plan to save us, Your free-will-broken creations. You knew we would need saving, just as we parents know our children will need us while growing up. Whatever we believe, O Lord God, must make sense of everything, and science (that is, “science only”) does not explain the Spiritual, the Divine, the Just-in-Time-Exactly-When-Needed-Most, the miraculous moments we all have seen and experienced (though many choose to deny or be blind to). Father, I have believed in a world without You, but You changed my mind and my heart by letting me see and experience You personally. Not all can even say that. So, daily I will continue to meet You here, renewing my mind with The Truth of You. Amen.

Get Obvious and Involved

When I was younger, I had a way of deciding the big Answers in life. I’d think about them over a period of time, make up my mind one way or the other, and from then on, stick with that choice. The decision, of course, would appear obvious to me, and in this way, I could ignore any grey areas and keep things nice and neat, black and white. The questions were things like politics (Libertarian); music (New Wave); faith (a creator god? not logical); involved believers (religious fanatics); food (burgers mmmm). Back then, I needed only one answer on such complicated topics, and having it all spec’d out ahead of time allowed me to get on with the day-to-day things, like which party to attend.

As I approached midlife, however, I began to realize that this approach left me out of touch with progress and trends (hmmm, vegan?), and my own desires for life. I found that I could not speak intelligibly (or intelligently) about the “why” of my beliefs and values. I had a pat answer, and had forgotten how to think further on it. I had reached an age where things could no longer be so simplistic.

During this morning’s time with God, the two words that came to my attention as a way to describe this change of heart and head are “obvious” and “involved”. These words each have two senses, one more historical and archaic than the other.

‘Obvious’ commonly means “plain to see, easily perceived.” It’s Latin root, ob viam, however, means “in the way” – as in an obstruction that must be dealt with or gone around. I submit that it contains an implication of “being constantly in the way”. In particular, I’m thinking of a great boulder in the road, or a question with no provable answer. It must be consciously navigated and reconsidered each time it comes up. One verse in particular sums up the idea nicely:

“He is the stone that makes people stumble, the rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they do not obey God’s word, and so they meet the fate that was planned for them.
1 Peter 2:8

My point is that mankind has always sought an answer to the big “Why?” And, daily, some of us return to the question to worry over it like a dog with a favorite bone. (Hmmm, “worry” and “favorite” in the same sentence.) Perhaps it’s only natural for the curious beings that we are to reassure ourselves that “Omnes viae Romam ducunt.” We literally have to go down every road to verify that it does, in fact, lead to Rome.

‘Involved’ commonly means “voluntarily connected or concerned with, included or participating in”. But its Latin root, in + volvere “into + to roll”, has a sense of difficult to comprehend; complicated, and, therefore, entangling. As in something involuntary; something not easy to get out of; a question that we cannot help but try to answer.

This is the opposite of my younger self’s outlook. Now I find an unavoidable molehill-become-mountain blocking my path, and I feel that I am in an ongoing debate over how to resolve it. I’m no longer satisfied with just getting around it.

Do any of you need wisdom? Ask God for it. He is generous and enjoys giving to everyone. But when you ask God, you must believe. Don’t doubt him. Whoever doubts is like a wave in the sea that is blown up and down by the wind. People like that are thinking two different things at the same time. They can never decide what to do, so they should not think they will receive anything from the Lord.
James 1:5-8

Now, I should say that my underlying belief in the God of the Bible is not what is wavering, although I do deal with an ever-present sliver of doubt. Rather, it is when I look around this world that I find questions about why others believe as they do. Or why they don’t believe as I do.

Regardless, there are two things that I believe keep me focused on holding onto the Truth: that the question is obvious and an answer must be sought, and that the one way to that answer is to be involved; to be active with fellow students in the study of the evidence we have.

Patient (,) For The Present

God has to love the comma (,). It’s the simplest of punctuation marks, but it’s full of meaning, and a calming reassurance. It gently suggests, “pause now, catch your breath, breathe, take a break”. And it implies – it quietly urges, “find the beauty, the gift(s), the present in the present”. Especially when there is darkness in the moment.

When I fall, I  will rise; if I sit in darkness, the Lord is my light.
Micah 7:8

When I feel far from God, when I can’t see Him, this is when I sense a comma in His story; a spot where my mood can be reversed, simply by pausing. I am reminded to “Be still, and know that He is God” (Psalm 46:10). Often times, this is because I’ve reached a point of impatience and desire to control the things I can’t; when I’m not being “Patient for the present”. I’ve forgotten – even broken – the peace. Like a child on Christmas morning, I’ve run into my Father’s room and begun to clamor for Him to get up, now. On my time, not His.

The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
2 Peter 3:9

My Brothers and Sisters, you will have many kinds of trouble, but this gives you a reason to be happy. You know that when your faith is tested, you learn to be patient in suffering. If you let that patience work in you, the end result will be good. You will be all that God wants you to be.
James 1:2-4 ERV

…If there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8b

And the thing is, when I take that break and am still for even a short time, I can’t help but think of blessing after blessing in my life, and that heads me back toward the joy of the Lord, which is my strength. The true gifts, delivered by the simple comma, are those things that can’t be seen or even fully understood, only known and felt.

Speaking “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Supersized

In the public speaking I’ve done – Toastmasters, testimonies, teachings, and even intros to worship songs – I usually prepare with one of two methods: either I write the speech out fully and read it verbatim, or I have a high-level outline in mind and give the Spirit free reign on the details. Each talking type has its appropriate time. A written testimony, for example, can be a powerful and moving thing to hear, because the speaker simply can not keep the emotion out of reliving those moments.

A talk from bullet points works, too, on two levels: one, no one knows me like the Spirit and I do, and two, what I spend my time cramming into my heart is what flows out – overflows, actually – in these moments. A teachimony is a great thing – a lesson backed with personal example.

As part of my Spiritual Formation, I intentionally choose what I believe and keep this message at the top of my thinking and feeling. (And grace is God’s gift, as well.) This post is more about that latter point: that what we fill our hearts with is what comes out in our words to others.

Ephesians 4:29 ERV
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.

The Bible, God’s Word, teaches many things, in many ways. The “How To” manual for being human is a very apt description. It is our Spiritual Guide, yes; but it is also a practical psychological reference. The first of its kind. Quite literally, it consists of thousands of years of informal study of human nature. You can peruse any Self-Help section in your local bookstore and read the same truths that you find in the Bible.

The first of these truths is that our words can help or hurt, encourage or discourage, motivate or kill ambition. (“According to their needs:” It’s interesting that, for some, reverse psychology is what works. Tell my wife she can’t, for instance, and watch her. See my post on Spartan racing.) As a Christian, a parent, a husband, a sponsor, a disciple of Christ, the message I want to consistently give is one of loving and caring, encouraging and lifting everyone up to their highest potential. So I consciously make time to spend reading the Word of God. (I confess, seizing every opportunity to speak these things is something I work hard at.)

We are each created for a purpose which can be discerned in/through an intentional relationship with our Creator.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 ERV
All scripture is given by God. An all scripture is use for teaching [ME: oneself] and for showing people [each] what is wrong in their lives. It is useful for correcting [individual] faults and teaching the right way [for each] to live. Using the scriptures, those who serve God will be prepared and will have everything they need to do good work.

[Oneself / each / individual / for each]: The trick is it generally only works from a one-to-one relationship with God. I have seen good in people who only listen and don’t do their own “research”, but usually it is in people who “admit” to taking some time at some point to get to know God that I see the kind of behavior towards others that I want to emulate.

Another truth is in regards to worry. “Don’t worry; Be happy.” I know how much I worried about all manner of things before I came to Christ. I know I can still slip down that slope without realizing it. And it is at those times when I turn to the Word for simple reassurance and healing:

Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life?
Luke 12:25

So I tell you, don’t worry about the things you need to live – what you will eat, drink, or wear… You can not add any time to your life by worrying about it.
Matthew 6:25-34

The Lord will lead you. He himself is with you. He will not fail you or leave you. Don’t worry. Don’t be afraid!
Deuteronomy 31:8

The Bible is worth reading – even just once through – to find out these basic ideas for living well. And, I believe, when it is read even just for its practical advice, it does work upon our Spiritual beliefs.

Now, about that talking thing:

Even when you are arrested and put on trial, don’t worry about what you will say. Say whatever God tells you at that time. It will not really by you speaking. It will be the Holy Spirit.
Mark 13:11

And God will work in some one who listens, and hears.

Spartan? Try Roman!

My wife, God bless every bit of her, has always been a fitness nut. She’s always felt driven to it. Before we were married, she worked aboard tanker ships, and would tell me about her off-hours on-board exercising. (There was not much else to do when embarked for months at a time.)

Mid-life has been no different. Several years ago, prompted by the sudden, shocking passing of a co-worker who had gone out for a jog, a group from her company started working out together. They set and accomplished goals, at first running 5Ks and 10Ks, and then getting into Spartan racing. This is a race on a course filled with obstacles of every kind: walls to climb over, barbed wire to crawl under, tires to pull, weights to carry, etc.

It was a time of great camaraderie, as family and friends got involved. Our son joined. Even I, just months after open-heart surgery, took up walking the 5Ks (and still do). Spartan races are held in specific locations, and sometimes there are multiple levels and lengths. Finishers are awarded medals. A series of three is a trifecta. There’s a shadow box here at the house, proudly displaying all of my wife’s hard-earned memories. Seasons have come and gone, and the group’s makeup has changed as members move away and change jobs, but a group it remains.

This morning I awoke wondering what (or who) inspires a Spartan. I immediately noticed that there are parallels with followers of Christ, because Jesus, our founder, ran a race very similar to the excruciating challenge of Spartan. Let’s call it “Roman”.

We have all these great people around us as examples. Their lives tell us what faith means. So we, too, should run the race that is before us and never quit. We should remove from our lives anything that would slow us down and the sin that so often makes us fail.
We must never stop looking to Jesus. He is the leader of our faith, and he is the one who makes our faith complete. He suffered death on a cross. But he accepted the shame of the cross as if it were nothing because of the joy that he could see waiting for him. And now he is sitting at the right side of God’s throne.
Think about Jesus. He patiently endured the angry insults that sinful people were shouting at him. Think about him so that you won’t get discouraged and stop trying.
Hebrews 12:1-3 ERV

What Spartan racing is to full, comprehensive physical training, the Roman cross has to be to full, comprehensive spiritual training. And the biggest difference between the two is that the cross, for Jesus, was run to the death.

You are struggling against sin, but you have not had to give up your life for the cause.
:4

We Christians are called to die “in effect”.  To die to ourselves, to die to our own selfishness and goals, and instead to live in and for Christ, for God’s purpose for us. And in service to others. This is the biggest similarity between Spartan and Roman. Sure, there are elite Spartan competitors, but, by far, the “common” racers are not concerned with their own times; they’re only concern is surviving the race to the finish. And they willingly aid those running alongside them. Throughout a Spartan course, you will see nothing but one racer helping and encouraging another.

A Book of Cliche’s?

There are, of course, many cliche’s I’ve heard from my Spartan. Motivational sayings are printed out and tacked up on the fridge. You can google on Spartan race quotes and quips, and fill a book with such sayings.

Likewise, we have a book of Christian motivation, The Bible. But “cliche” doesn’t do either of these collections justice. “Cliche” has a negative slant. It’s definition is “a saying that is overused to the point of meaninglessness”. So I looked up some synonyms: platitude, banality, maxim, axiom, truism. I think I found the right word in “dictum”, which has two definitions. One, is like those other words: “a short statement that expresses a general truth or principle”; but the other is very definitive: “A formal pronouncement from an authoritative source”.

The Bible is our guide. It is full of advice and recommendations on life’s best practices. Can it function the same way for a Spartan racer? I think so, but I now know that in it, I have found another way to connect with my beautiful, hard-charging bride.