Waiting For Something?

what-are-you-waiting-forWhat are you planning to do “Someday”?

Apologize… Forgive … Give … Embrace? Pay Down Debt, Get Fit, Learn to Play Chess, Volunteer? Maybe it’s in your heart to volunteer with a ministry or start one? What has to happen before you actually do it?

  • Do the stars have to align?
  • Does God have to part the clouds, speak audibly?
  • Do you have to get a medical diagnosis that brings mortality into focus?
  • Does someone have to die?

Well, Someone already has.

Jesus died so that we might have life and have it to the full. He also got up from the grave and ever lives to see that His will is faithfully executed.

While it is called today, He wants us to believe Him and live because life is short.

I went to the Y today and someone else was seated in John’s place. John, a fixture at the front desk for years, was a slender man with hands frozen in such a way that his fingers did not easily grasp. Yet, he managed to pleasantly swipe entry cards and hand out locker tokens. I didn’t think much of his absence until I checked out an hour later. There was John’s picture on a funeral service program. He died 5 days ago.

Had I planned to say something important to John, my opportunity has vanished. That’s why it’s important to “Say What You Need to Say,” as singer John Mayer wrote.

God did not give us life for us to sit around waiting for Someday — when everything is nice, tidy, and perfect—before we start living the life we were created for. Life is messy, and we might never feel ready, but the day we hear God speaking, that is the time to act.

When it was God’s timing for His people to enter the Promised Land, they refused to go. Seeing themselves as grasshoppers being sent to face giants, they were paralyzed by fear. The result? That whole generation (save Caleb and Joshua) died in the wilderness, a dry desolate place when a land flowing with milk and honey was theirs for the taking.

If God says Someday is Today, we want to get in agreement with Him.

So if it’s in your heart to learn to ski, move in that direction. Read about skiing. Get in shape to ski. Meet other ski-minded people. See what God might do.

Prompted to pray more? Get in the Bible. How did Jesus and His disciples pray? Look for opportunities to pray. Ask God for some prayer partners and pray with them.

Need to ask for forgiveness? Humble yourself; pray for God’s timing and make the call, make the visit or send the email. It’s our obedience and not the outcome that matters.

Almost nothing just happens. Expect to put some effort into your “Someday.” In my 49th year, I set a deadline to run a half marathon: before I turned 50. Then I prayerfully planned. I joined a training group, ran and cross-trained on a disciplined schedule. When it got tough – as anything worthwhile eventually will – I persevered. I got injured; I got therapy. I kept running. When race day came, I completed the race.

Now I am learning to swim, fulfilling a “Someday” promise made to my children (all swimmers) long ago. I don’t swim in the deep yet, and I don’t swim expertly. I am not even sure I like swimming! But I am in the pool and swimming as best I can at this point. It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. Someday I’ll be a lap swimmer. But it won’t happen if I don’t work at it now.

In realizing a few “Somedays,” I’ve learned that we are capable of more than we might think because the God who called us to Himself is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask, think or imagine according to the power that works in us, His Holy Spirit. All He wants from us is our cooperation.

Our days on this earth are numbered. Let’s make the most of them by conquering our fears, dropping our excuses and getting on with the business of living. What are we waiting for?

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Open Heart, Closed Casket!

Listening to the radio on the drive home one afternoon, I caught a snippet of a woman speaking to a group about a topic I couldn’t make out. What got my attention was a three-word phrase she used: “cold, hard, empty.”

Those words immediately took me back to a conversation I’d had with my daughter on a drive. Somehow we got talking about the dead which led to laughing about theatrical displays at open coffins.

(We laugh about almost anything!) If I go before her, she promised an award-winning performance to get me laughing from heaven.

If open casket drama is unfamiliar, you probably did not grow up in the South in a black church, as I did.

Funerals in Alabama are a scripted production that begins with the body being properly dressed and laid out in a funeral home parlor, the odor of perfumed formaldehyde hanging heavy in the air and permeating everything, including the roomful of cut-flower arrangements.

Done right, this display provokes the obligatory response: “Doesn’t he or she look ‘natural’?” or “Didn’t they put him or her away ‘nice’?”

This is where the radio remark comes in: Dead people do not look “natural.” They do not look “nice.” They look, well, dead: Cold, Hard, Empty. Those words precisely describe what many of us actually are while living – though we may appear otherwise simply because we are still breathing.

Apart from Christ, we are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph 2:1), spiritually dead and unresponsive to God. When people actually die, we come face-to-face with the physical reality of what it means to be dead. A dead body is cold, hard as leather and empty. The unique spirit that animated the personality is gone.

You can stand at a casket for hours, fiddling with buttons, adjusting ties, talking, shouting, weeping. (I’ve seen people actually kiss the dead.) You will get no response.

If the deceased was a believer in Jesus Christ, Christians believe that their spirit is “Absent from the body, present with the Lord.” (2 Corinthians 5:8) If they did not trust Christ, their spirit, being eternal, still lives on in some place of torment. (Consider the rich man and Lazarus) 

I’m not a fan of viewing dead bodies. When I was a child, the departed were sometimes stretched out in their living rooms, where we’d join friends and family while dropping off a sweet potato pie or a bowl of home-made potato salad. Always seemed a little odd to me, eating and conversation with a dead body in the room.

Home viewings may have ended, even in Alabama where the old ways die hard. But the classic last look lives on. Sometime after the readings, tributes, songs and eulogy, family members typically file past the casket before it is finally shut and summarily rolled down the center aisle with prerequisite Scripture sentences: “I am the resurrection and the life…; I know that my redeemer lives…” .

Sadly, that last viewing is often where things turn dramatic. Sometimes the people who showed the least love during the deceased’s life weep inconsolably, require smelling salts to remain upright or have to be restrained from leaping into the casket.

Personally, I favor a closed casket funeral with lots of photos from various points in my life so those who knew me when, can recognize me then. As my mother used to say, “Remember me as I was.” Not cold, hard and empty, but full of life, laughter.

Of course, traditions die hard. When Mom passed away more than five years ago, family insisted on an open-casket send-off. And no, she did not look natural. She was wearing gloves, for heaven’s sake, which she never wore in life unless she was putting on a pair of Hanes!

Pass the plate, and celebrate!

In my world, a happy occasion is an excuse for celebrating with food. Heck, where I was raised, even death was accompanied by a parade of foil-covered pies, cake, and potato salad and such. Even in grief, people gathered around food.

So this afternoon, we will sit down to a feast prepared in honor of our risen Savior Jesus Christ, who proclaimed Himself the Bread of Life. There will be root veggies, apple cake, chocolate pie, fresh greens and, of course, roast lamb fresh from the oven.

I happen to believe that Penzeys motto: “Love people. Cook them tasty food.”

At my house, mashed potatoes are real potatoes actually mashed. Meat is fresh, seldom frozen. Veggies are mostly Farmer’s Market fare. I grew up eating fresh from gardens. I learned to cook by watching it done both at home and on TV before there was cable. My version of “The Food Network” was watching “The Galloping Gourmet” on a black-and-white set with Mom’s friend from New Jersey who loved to cook on visits South.

I had to learn to cook. When I married, my husband endured rock-hard biscuits and sometimes three-hour meal prep before I produced something edible. I am full of thanks that he was patient. My cooking improved with good advice. I used to phone Mom across three states to have her translate a pinch and a dash into measurements that would reproduce her macaroni and cheese made with red-rimmed hoop cheese and butter – or her peach cobbler made with Georgia peaches.

I rather think Jesus enjoyed celebrating around food and drink with those He loved. Search the Scriptures and you’ll find him around a table.

His first miracle was at a wedding in Cana. (John 2) His Last Supper found Him gathered around a table to celebrate the Passover meal, of which He Himself would be the fulfillment.(Matt 26:18) He is recorded reclining at the table in the home of Simon the leper. (Matt 14:3) I am pretty sure there were meals served when he dropped by the home of Mary and Martha, who is said to have been busy with preparation.

For me, what gives a meal meaning is not so much the food itself. What makes the difference is who we share it with and why. All the chopping, stirring and hovering over pots is an opportunity to gather in the kitchen for relationship, conversation and laughter.

As my young people have grown and gone, their arrival home is a joy that we celebrate around meals.  My daughter drove in last evening for Resurrection Sunday, and the cooking commenced in earnest.

I couldn’t help thinking about the marriage supper of the Lamb that Jesus will one day celebrate with us in His kingdom, perhaps with a toast of wine. It will mark the culmination of what He accomplished at Calvary and sealed at His resurrection: to save us sinners and to finally deliver us a prepared people to a prepared place.

It will be a meal to remember, as He welcomes us home.

Good Leaders are God-aware

Godware

Got one of those LinkedIn Pulse emails recommending blog posts worth reading. One caught my eye: a Harvard Business Review piece entitled  “5 Ways to Become More Self-Aware.” It’s advice on how to become a good leader.

Becoming self-aware is key, said the post, because “Self-awareness lets us better understand what we need from other people.”

To become more self-aware, readers are instructed to meditate, to have honest how-am-I doing conversation with trusted friends, to write down plans and priorities, to take a psychometric test (think Myers-Briggs type indicator) and to encourage formal feedback at work.

That’s it?

Inhaling, exhaling, journaling, accepting constructive criticism etc. have their place, their benefits and their limits. We’re human. Becoming more aware of our selfish human selves doesn’t fix us.

Knowing my Myers-Briggs type (ENTJ) and being a natural planner/priority setter didn’t make me a better leader a.k.a. manager. Most managers became managers because they were good at something else. The annual 360 feedback process is like a writing a novel. Once it’s written and read, what happens? In my experience, not much. The calendar turns toward the sequel.

Most people don’t need to “cultivate and develop” self-awareness. My problem, maybe yours too, is that I am all too aware of me – my needs, my wants, my desires, and my demands. I’m not unaware of other people. I simply don’t care as much about them as I do about me. Like the HBR blogger, I am focused on what I need from other people not on what I can give them.

Obsession with self-knowledge is not a biblical principle. The Bible encourages people to know God and, in the process, begin to know and understand ourselves. Our answer is outside ourselves and beyond other people.

The prophet Isaiah had a God encounter. When he saw the Lord, he also had a full-on moment of self-awareness. His response: “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips…” Isaiah 6:5

God-awareness is humbling; this makes us better prepared to lead. “Humility comes before honor.” Proverbs 15:33

Biblical leadership is about denying self and serving others. Jesus, our example, went about selflessly doing good. In John 13, He strips down, suits up in a towel and bows down to wash the disciples’ feet. He willing goes to the cross, dying there to save them and the rest of us self-absorbed sinners.

Becoming that kind of leader isn’t something we’re likely to learn from Harvard Business Review. May I suggest a few tips from the pages of Scripture?

  • Treat people as you’d like to be treated. Matthew 7:12
  • Be merciful. You’ll need mercy one day. James 2:13
  • Be humble. God knows how to exalt you in due time. 1 Peter 5:5-6
  • Never take credit for someone else’s work. It’s stealing. Leviticus 19:11
  • Pray for wisdom. Proverbs 2:6

That last is key. What we really need to lead well we can only receive from God.

But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy. James 3:17

Learning anything from the pain?

Learning anything from the pain?

Suffering1   I knew I was beginning to recover from surgery when I became aware of the sticky square shapes in odd places on my body, the residue of monitoring patches. Now that I had the sense to realize they were there, it was time they were scrubbed off.

Hadn’t noticed them for a week. My days were filled with meds, meals, sleep and occasional trips to the loo.

Major problem; major surgery. Pain and suffering. Weeks of recovery.

I hope no one has told you that once you become a Christian, all your problems are solved. No more suffering or pain, just smooth sailing ahead.

It’s a lie. If someone told you this lie, I hope you don’t believe it. All it’s going to bring is disappointment with God over something He never promised.

Scripture actually teaches that we can expect trouble. Pick your translation and the upshot of 2 Timothy 3:12 is this:

“Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer…”

Not might, will.

Most of my real problems started once I became a Christian. (Before Christ, my “problems” were mostly the by-product of my sin.)

When I embraced Christ, I made the mistake of inviting my running partners, now called “road dogs,” to my baptism. That pretty much cleared my calendar. The ones who stuck around, thinking this was just a phase, exited stage right when they realized I really was a changed person.

I suffered the loss of “friends.” Then there were the family members who went a little crazy, the religious people who didn’t go for all the “saved” stuff. The person who had given me my first Bible became unglued. To this day, our relationship is strained.

Bodily suffering can pale compared to emotional hurt. Still, all suffering hurts. We’d all like to avoid pain, but don’t believe that other lie that if you  “just had enough faith,” you wouldn’t get sick.

If Christians were immune to sickness, there would be no need for all the New Testament teaching on healing. Paul, who wrote much of it, suffered a thorn in the flesh that God refused to remove. Instead, He reminded Paul:

“My grace is sufficient for you; my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)

God is with us in all our suffering. I encountered Him in the longtime nurse who brought cups of warm broth to soothe my aching throat after surgery left me barely able to swallow. I glimpsed Him in the bright bouquets that arrived on my doorstep, the meals brought, the cards mailed. I felt His embrace in the hugs of family and friends, heard His voice in their phone calls.

Suffering is part of the journey, not an aberration. It doesn’t last, but it will happen. When Paul encouraged disciples on his missionary journeys, he did not sugar-coat the reality of what it means to follow Christ, saying: “We must suffer many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” (Acts 14:22)

No servant is greater than his master. Jesus suffered; we will suffer.

“Even though Jesus was God’s Son, he learned obedience from the things he suffered.” (Hebrews 5:8)

I’m learning that dust bunnies will wait. That the people I care about are more important than the work I do. That feeling good is a gift easily taken for granted. That, in spite of everything, God is good. He is faithful and worthy of obedience and praise.

Watch Yourself

How well do you know yourself, that person you wake up to and carry around all day?

Truth be told, we may know the people around us – spouse, children, co-workers — better than we know ourselves.

We learn people by watching them, constantly and unconsciously. If we watch closely, we can learn their strengths, their gifts, their little irritating habits, their inconsistencies, their default settings, their besetting sins, their go-to themes of conversation, the triggers that set them off.

My problem, maybe yours too, is that my being “other-focused” in this way is not always a good thing because it takes my eyes off me.

Paul, writing to Timothy, gave him this instruction: “Watch your life and doctrine closely.” (I Tim 4:16, NIV) or “Pay attention to yourself and to your teaching.” (NASB)

Paul doesn’t tell the young pastor to watch the lives of people in his church. He tells Timothy to watch himself. The word for “watch” has the meaning of pay attention to, observe, apply, to check.

At street level, we’d say: watch yourself. This is not a new idea. The same instruction can be found in Deuteronomy

Paul reminded Timothy of what we so easily forget. In relationships, we naturally focus on other people’s ills: what they do wrong, where they have blind spots, where they need work. If we are leading something, whether it be a ministry, a team or a family, we can begin to view ourselves as the professional fault-finder and fixer.

Paul points Timothy to the man in the mirror. If Timothy wants to make a difference in the lives of the people around him, Paul tells him to keep a close watch on himself and the example he sets. He is to be a demonstration of the truth he teaches.

His first letter to Timothy instructs him on “how people are to conduct themselves in God’s household.” (I Timothy 3:15 NIV) Specifically: what to teach, the qualifications for a deacon or overseer, the appropriate way to related to older men, widows, young men etc. He admonishes Timothy to avoid false doctrine, reminding him of the book-ends of true Christianity: faith and love.

In the midst of this discussion, Paul tells Timothy to pay close attention to how he lives as well as what he teaches.

Paul knew the importance of both right teaching and personal discipline. He wrote to the believers in Corinth that he disciplined himself as an athlete in competition: he beat his body down and made it his slave, that after he had preached to others he himself might not be disqualified for the prize. (I Corinthians 9:27)

I know firsthand the damage so-called Christians can do when we teach one thing and live something else; fixated on straightening the crooked lives of those around us, we do more harm than good when we fail to bring our own lives under the dictates of Scripture. Our actions give God’s enemies an occasion to blaspheme.

Paul reminds us that the biblical challenge is to watch ourselves.

“You, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? (Roman 2:21-22)

Want to lead others to the faith? Watch yourself.

Give Thanks

It’s early the morning hours of Thanksgiving. The last pie is baked and all the side dishes refrigerated. I’ve just turned out the lights and climbed the stairs, thinking how truly gracious and trustworthy God has shown Himself to be since another Thanksgiving a decade ago in this same place.

Just before Thanksgiving 2003, my husband came home early and announced that he had been “selected” to be part of a resource action. If you are unfamiliar with this bit of corporate speak, it has nothing to do with winning the lottery. My husband had been chosen for layoff after 15 years of award-winning service.

The family breadwinner had lost his job. Happy holidays!

This was about the scariest news I could have imagined. I’d been a stay home Mom for a decade. I did freelance jobs from time to time. But it was a hobby, nothing like the career I’d left behind to parent my own children. (This wasn’t exactly an heroic decision on my part. I couldn’t afford daycare; and could never get comfortable with the idea of giving strangers that much face-time with my offspring.)

After my husband shared his news and handed me a thick severance package filled with legalese, I still remember the frightful possibilities that jumped into my mind like a leapfrog: foreclosure, tax liens, homelessness, possibly facing a health crisis with no health insurance, having to make a long distance move to a job far away from aging parents. There were other questions: How would our marriage weather the stress? Would our family survive this?

That was just the major stuff. Later, myriad small worries crowded my mind, like which “nice but not necessary” things would have to go: my daughter’s ballet classes, the lawn service or maybe the garbage service?

Somewhere in there I was reminded that we were believers in Christ. And this crisis was an opportunity to see if my Christianity was real or just for show. Was I going to believe God or not? Could I count on Him when everything familiar moved? Did I really trust Him like that?

Ten years later, I am thankful that by God’s grace, we weathered the storm. We still live in the same house where I got that terrible news just before Thanksgiving so long ago. I’m still married to the same man. He still works in the same industry. Those children whom I worried might be homeless have spent the intervening years sleeping in their same beds, driving to see their grandparents in the same city. Our health is good; our minds are peaceful.

God has proven Himself faithful.

When we sit around our home and talk about Christianity and why we trust Christ for time and eternity, as we sometimes do, I honestly tell my children that I know God is real because we have history together.

I am thankful that, if you walk with God, you will find that He is just who He says He is. And He will do just what He says.

A God like that deserves my undying gratitude, love and obedience.

As our family sits down to dinner this afternoon and passes the acorn to share what we are thankful for, join us in following the instruction of Psalm 100:4

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving; 

go into His courts with praise.

Give thanks to Him and praise His name.