A Big Decision…

The mind of man plans his way,
But the LORD directs his steps
. (Proverbs 16:9)

There are times in life when we are at a fork in the road, when the decisions we make determine the course of our life.  At many points our character determines which set of choices are available to us (many would call this compatibilism); at crucial times our choices determine what our character will be. (some call that concurrence; more in a post another time) 

Imagine it like this: a young man finds a wallet on the street filled with cash and with a person’s ID.  He has a major choice to make at this point, one that will set a lot of character traits within him.  He can find the owner of the wallet and return their money, which will set him on a path of caring for others and self-sacrifice in the name of what is right.  Alternately he can keep the cash and throw the wallet away, becoming more self-focused and caring less for the needs of others.  Who he becomes in the future is determined by how he handles the choice he has before him.

We are all confronted by these kinds of choices at points in our life.  At crucial moments they determine our path; at the same time we rest as Christians in the knowledge of Proverbs 16:9 that God directs our steps as we plan our way and that we do not make decisions all on our own.  If we will listen to His voice and will ask for His view, He will direct us where He wants us.

I had such a moment yesterday.  The head of the Bible department at the school I teach at told me yesterday that he is officially beginning the process of hiring a full-time faculty member.  He asked me for a résumé  and to consider the job, because he was sure I would do an excellent job and would be a good fit.  From the time I left the Navy to attend seminary I have walked the path of wanting to be in an academic setting.  I love teaching, love the classroom, and love helping eager students grasp the Word of God.  It’s been a desire of mine for the last decade, the majority of my adult life.

And yesterday I asked him to remove my name from consideration for the position.

Am I a fool?  Maybe I am, but my desire and my calling are maybe not the same.  God has made me to be a shepherd, not an academic.  I love the classroom but dislike the administrative side of professoring. (is that a word?)  I am not one for committee meetings or writing assessment reports or planning classroom assignments.  I love to help people see God in their life and apply His word to their unique situation, to have freedom from the past and intimacy with their Creator.  I don’t love grading, though I do it as a necessary “evil.” (it’s not evil, but it is not my favorite task either…)

More than that, I see God at work in our church in major ways, both big and small.  I could not take a full-time professorship and stay the pastor of our church simply for time constraints, if not for focus and responsibility.  If I resigned my pastorate I would have to leave the church out of respect for the new pastor, and my church is my family.  I guess that’s the shepherd in me, that I love my church.  I love preaching, love praying with people, and even love the messiness of life that comes from pastoring a small(er) congregation.  I love being there for the weddings, the birth of their children, the hospital stays and the new jobs and the tough times too.  We’ve been where we are for almost 4 years, and I feel like in God’s eyes we are just getting started there.  I can’t remotely fathom leaving our church, so I told my boss no thanks. (fear not, I am staying on as an adjunct!)

That’s been harder for me emotionally than I thought it would be.  Laying a career in academia on the altar has not been easy, though I know it is absolutely, 100% what God wants and where I will be blessed by Him and joyful.  Still, it was hard to turn away from the path I had thought I would walk in life; maybe it wasn’t as hard as declining my commission in the Navy, but hard nonetheless.  I am joyful, but maybe a bit melancholy at realizing the death of my dream of being an egghead professor.

God, in these moments, makes us who we will be and confirms in us who He calls us to be if we will listen.  He has confirmed to me that I am a shepherd and I will stay a pastor; I get joy in the classroom, but it’s because I get to help students understand and live for God there.  So in reality that is pastoring as well.  This decision has confirmed that within my heart.

How about you?  What have been the hard decisions in your life, and how have they molded you into the person you’ve become?  Were they difficult to make because you weren’t sure or for some other reason?

The Next Step

“Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.” (1 Thessalonians 4:1, NAS)

I love these words of Paul’s.  I am studying the New Testament with my students at Arizona Christian University, and yesterday we dug into 1 Thessalonians.  The tone of this letter is so much different than his tone in Galatians.  He was flat out mad at the Galatians for their legalism, but it seems that the Thessalonians were doing a great job.  They were pleasing God and walking with Him well.  They had it going on!  I just imagine them thinking that compared to many other churches (the Galatians and Corinthians come to mind), they were awesome and could just keep at what they were doing.
So what was Paul’s response? “Excel still more.”  He didn’t want them to rest on their laurels or read their own press clippings.  They thought that they were on the mountain top, but to Paul they were at base camp!  He was pleased with their progress but not content with their situation.  There was still more work to do if they were going to be everything that God wanted them to be.
I’m trying to do this in my walk with God as well as in my other areas of life.  I have run 3 half-marathons in the past year, which is great.  But now it’s time to “excel still more.”  So between now and June I will lose 15 pounds and on June 5th plan to run my first FULL marathon. (pray for me…it appears I have lost my mind!)  Our church is doing well in so many areas, but now it is time for me to “excel still more” in leading our staff, empowering our ministry leaders, and building authentic relationships with more people in our congregation.   I made some changes to my classes at ACU and Phoenix Seminary this semester too, so time will tell if they make the classes better.
How can you “excel still more”?

  1. In your walk with Christ.  What one area do you think that God wants you to change today to be more like Him?  How can you take a strength of yours in your walk with God and make it even stronger?
  2. In your relationships. Is your marriage good?  Your parenting?  Your friendships?  Where are you meeting standards, but want to change that “C” into an “A”?  What is one step you can take today to move in that direction?
  3. In your vocation. If you’re good at your job, what separates you from being great at it?  Would 10% more focused effort lead to 25% more success?  Can you be more agreeable to coworkers, or easier to lead as a team member?  Can you be a better model for those you supervise?
  4. In your finances. If your most successful friend from a financial standpoint looked over your finances, where would they say that you could make some changes to strengthen your giving, your saving, or your spending?

Doing good enough, in God’s eyes, is…well…not good enough.  Where can you “excel still more” today to the glory of God?

Enjoy the Journey

Sorry for being so scarce since returning from vacation.  It’s been a little hectic with renovations going on at church, school starting at Southwestern College and Phoenix Seminary, and starting a new series in my preaching ministry.  It’s been right back to my hectic life!  I promise that there are a couple of important lessons I learned in Rwanda that I have not had time to blog yet; there’s a lesson on relationships and on food that are coming, so hang in there with me!

One of the challenges of our crazy summer was our fitness and running in particular.  I like to run and have completed two half-marathons. (check here and here for my thoughts on those; the first one still makes me emotional to read)  However, in the craziness of the trip to Rwanda and the cruise my running definitely tapered off.  In the weeks of the trip to Africa I ran not one iota.  In Belgium I was too tired or busy, and in Rwanda it was either too early, too late, too much air pollution, too much to do, or what have you.  I ran once in the week between Africa and the cruise, and twice on the cruise while eating enough for a whole family.  I gained about 10 pounds over the month.

So needless to say my running shape was long gone.  I was overweight, had no muscle memory, and couldn’t keep close to the pace I was hitting in June.  3 miles was a huge undertaking, whereas I had just run 13.1 and felt great at the end.  How discouraging!

As I was slogging through a run last week I thought about the fact that I was really “suffering” through my run.  It was harder than expected, it was hot, I was tired and slow, blah blah blah.  I was frustrated that my fitness was garbage and started talking to God some while running, asking Him to ease my suffering and to get me through it until I could get back where I wanted to be.

And then he whacked me upside the head.

Loud and clear in my heart I heard, “Enjoy the suffering.  Don’t endure it; enjoy it.  It is making you into the runner you want to be, so be grateful for it.”  If you re-read my post from the PF Chang half in January linked above, that is the same spiritual lesson that He reminded me of there. 

11      All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. 
12      Therefore, strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, 
13      and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. (Hebrews 12:11-13, NASB)

Discipline is no fun, and we can really resist suffering in our spiritual lives like I was resisting it in my running.  But that’s not how God works any more than it is how physical fitness works!  You’ve got to be willing to train in order to run, to start small and make incremental improvements to get better.  Records are not broken on accident, and frankly they are not broken on the race course.  Instead, they are broken on purpose on those solo training runs where you push yourself to be better than you were.  The race is the celebration more than it is the test.

The same holds true in our spiritual lives.  Enjoy the trials, the struggles, and the tests of faith.  Recognize that they are the “training runs” of your walk with Christ and that He will use them to make you into the person He wants you to be.  It’s that discipline and suffering and struggle that will mold you into a Christ follower who brings Him glory and has true and lasting joy in the midst of whatever comes.  That is how to experience what the author of Hebrews wants for us in Hebrews 12:1-2:

1      Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
2      fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

So with that lesson from God in my mind I set out to regain my form.  I am not nearly there, but I can see little flashes of the old me as I regain my form.  My weight is headed in the right direction, with about 10 pounds to go total.  More than that, though, I am enjoying the process again and looking forward to lacing up my running shoes.

My prayer is that whatever you’re going through today that you hear the lesson I learned and find a place to enjoy the process, not just the product.  Whether your struggle is spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational, educational or financial the same truth can change your outlook on your day. 

Enjoy the suffering and the struggle, not just the result.  Try it and see what God does to your outlook on life as well as your results.  As the founder of American Kenpo, Ed Parker, once said, “Whatever the attitude, so is the response.”

A Goal, a Plan, and Some Help Part 2: Assessment and Analysis

On March 15th, I began my training for the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Half Marathon.  I made some goals and set myself some training benchmarks.  This is what I said then:

Today begins my first day of a 12-week training schedule leading up to my second half marathon!  I ran a 2:08:39 in my first half, and this time my audacious goal is to break the 2-hour barrier.  I need to shave 40 seconds a mile off of my pace from January, so I need to get training!  Those 40 seconds are not magically going to run away and hide; I know that it is going to take a lot of hard work (and hopefully 5 less pounds to lug around) to make it.

The race was yesterday.  Laura ran the full marathon with her brother while I ran the half.  Over 13,500 competitors took the challenge of running this particular race, which I thought was pretty incredible!  The  men’s winner ran all 13.1 miles in 1:07:17; the second place finisher had THE EXACT SAME TIME but was a step behind.  Wow, that has to be frustrating for him!  Let’s just say that I was in no danger of ruining their two-man competition.

I am incredibly pleased with my results.  You can get all of my results here.  My big, audacious goal was to break 2:00:00; well, I did it.  What I didn’t say was that I had an even bigger, more audacious goal that I wasn’t sharing with everyone else.  (it’s pretty common to do that in running circles)  My even bigger goal was to run a 9:00 pace for the whole race, which equates to a 1:57:53.  I ended up feeling great and ran a 1:57:15!!!  That equates out to an average pace of 8:57.

Comparatively I also met my goals.  I wanted to get my Age-Grade above 50%; at the race in January I scored a 46.1%, and I wanted to be over the bell curve this time.  I scored 50.7%, so that was encouraging.  I also placed 1804 overall (top 14%), 1051 of 3920 men (top 27%), and #240 of 748 finishers in my age group (top 32%)!  All of those numbers made me feel pretty good about my run.

I learned several valuable lessons along the course and saw God work in some interesting ways:

  1. I set off to run fast, but it was really clogged at the start.  I thought I wasn’t going to be able to run well at all and was getting a little frustrated.  Then I looked at the back of the shirt of the guy running in front of me, which said, “Never outrun your joy in running.”  THWACK!  God bopped me upside the head and reminded me to enjoy the health He has given me.  I may not meet every goal I set, but I was never supposed to be able to run again after my back surgeries and I was running my 2nd half marathon!  He reminded me to enjoy the run, so I did. “I shall remember the deeds of the Lord; Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.” (Psalm 77:11)  I still ran great!
  2. In my last race I didn’t really talk to God much until mile 9.  This time I didn’t have Laura running with me and was all by myself (in a sea of people running).  So I talked to God a lot; we had a running dialog at points. (Thank you! Thank you! I’ll be here all week…)  It did my heart good to spend a lot of time with God on the course, asking for stamina and to continually focus on Him and His glory in my race and not my own self-aggrandizement.
  3. The race was hard, but the results were worth it.  In reality the race was the payoff for training for the past 6 months!  I shaved almost 50 seconds a mile off my time.  I ran the race MUCH harder than my training runs, though, which made me think of what Paul said in 1 Cor 9 about running.  I had to run like I wanted to win, not like I wanted to take it easy! 
  4. “Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win. Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified. ” (1 Corinthians 9:24–27)

  5. Finally, within an hour of completing this race I was already thinking about my next one.  We signed up for the PF Chang’s half marathon (it’s cheaper that way) while we were at this race, so it’s already time to start training!  January 16th, 2011 will be my next goal time: 1:50:00.  There, I said it.  That’s an 8:23 pace, which will mean another 35 seconds a mile off my time.  We shall see what the future holds!  The only way I am going to get there is by realizing in my running life what Paul talks about in our spiritual lives in Philippians 3:12-14:
  6. “Not that I have already obtained it or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. Brethren, I do not regard myself as having laid hold of it yet; but one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. ” (Philippians 3:12–14, NAS)

It’s amazing to me how many parallels there are between my running life and my spiritual life.  The lessons on the road are the same lessons that God instills in us as believers: don’t stop.  Keep running.  Run like you want to win!  Whether you win, lose, or draw put the last effort behind you and look to the next one.

What a great lesson for our life in Christ.  Keep running the race; never give up no matter the hill you’re looking up at.  Make God the center of the race at all times, and run like He is watching and like you want to win!  And once that race is over, don’t raise your hands or hang your head too long, because it is over.  Look to the next race instead.

Go Hard or Go Home!

Consider the difference between these perspectives on the Christian life.  First up is Revelation 3:15-16:

15‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot.
16‘So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.

What a sad statement from Jesus about a church.  The church in Laodicea had become apathetic.  A church only becomes apathetic when the people in it become apathetic, one at a time and little by little.  Compare this with what Paul says in 1 Cor 9:23-27:

23I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker of it.
24Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.
25Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things. They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.
26Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air;
27but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.

And consider his own view of his life at the end of it in 2 Timothy 4:7-8:

7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;
8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.

Paul wasn’t wondering if Jesus thought he was being lukewarm; he just figured that he would run hard after Christ and let Christ worry about the results.

I got a reminder of this difference this morning when out for my run with Laura.  We have a race in 2 1/2 weeks (for which I have a pretty audacious goal), and this Saturday is my last long run before race day.  With a long run on Saturday (12 miles), this morning we just wanted to take it easy and run our normal 5-miler without pushing.  I know that if I pushed hard in speed work today that on Saturday I would be tired, and since I am going to test my race preparation I didn’t want to be gassed for it.  So we took off to run easy, say 15-30 seconds a mile slower than normal.

To put it bluntly, it stunk.  We got the first mile in okay, but neither of us felt great.  Miles 2 and 3 were hard; mile 4 started off as a real chore.  I felt really, really tired and like I was working incredibly hard for the slow pace I was keeping.  Laura felt the same, so about mile 3.5 she suggested we push our pace for a little bit and then take it really easy for the last mile.  I was all about taking it easy so I agreed!  We stepped the pace up by about a minute a mile or so, thinking that we had about a half mile of hard before we could throttle back.

After a half mile we should have eased up, but neither of us did.  We were running faster, but we both felt better.  My energy came back big time, the aches went away, and I got some spring in my step.  Laura was rockin’ it like always, so we kept the faster pace up and finished with our last mile being our fastest by about 30 seconds.  I was tired like I always am after my mid-week run, but I felt better at the end of mile 5 than I had after any of the previous miles we had run.

The paradoxical truth is that our bodies are used to running fast, so running slower is harder.  While I might think that an “easy” run will be a piece of cake, if I throttle back too far my stride gets all goofed up and it is actually much harder for me to run!  I have to keep my pace up or I begin to labor.  (For the record, for me that means sub-9:15 at this point, down to about 8:30 or so…lower than that and I am in speed training mode)  Going easy made me want to stop altogether; it was only by speeding up and running harder that I got over the blahs and had a good run.

Can you see how this plays out the difference between the experience in Laodicea and Paul?  They were lukewarm, shuffling along without any intent.  This frustrated Jesus to no end, to the point that He gave them a stern rebuke.  Paul, on the other hand, ran the race hard.  He knew that there would be temptation to quit, but decided to give the race of life 100% effort for Christ.  He knew that the victor’s wreath isn’t given for lackluster effort, so he laid it all on the line.  And in 2 Timothy 4 we see that he is confident that his race was well-run for the kingdom of God.  He went hard!  And everything I read from Paul tells me that he didn’t consider his Christian life to be a chore, instead taking joy in the midst of the trials he faced.  (if you doubt me, read Philippians)

So if you’re tired,  run the race hard instead of backing off.  If your walk with God isn’t what you’d like it to be or you’re feeling like you’re putting in a lot of effort for not a lot of return, make the paradoxical choice not to back off but to commit more to living life under the grace and Lordship of Christ.

  • If you’re struggling in your devotional life, spend more time in the Word of God and more time in prayer and more time with other godly people, not less!  Don’t pull away; dive in!  God’s grace comes when we realize that what we are doing is not working and we ask Him to radically transform us from the inside out, so pray like it depends on God and then live like He heard you.
  • If you’re struggling with your finances, commit to God’s method of financial success with more vigor than ever.  That might mean giving more, saving more, cutting expenses, getting a second job, and taking wise counsel.  Don’t give up; get hard core!
  • Maybe you’ve all but given up on a child or sibling, because everything you’ve tried has failed.  Don’t just plod along; re-invigorate your efforts.
  • Maybe your church is kinda lukewarm…it’s not bad, but not good either.  It gets that way when the people slowly get that way, but enthusiasm is contagious.  If you catch fire for Christ, I am willing to bet that others will come along too.  Imagine what your church might look like if you decided to pursue holiness with everything in you and invited others along for the run…and they came.

Go hard or go home, and never forget which one will be best for you and those you love today and forever.  Don’t quit; step it up instead and see if you don’t experience the same truth in your life that I experienced in mine this morning.