An “Inside Out” Perspective

A big question I often have is perspective and motivation.  Should I do the right thing only when I feel like it, or should I work on my beliefs and understanding and not worry about the outside as much?  Obviously the goal is to be an authentic, transparent disciple of Christ whose motivation is right and whose actions are God-honoring.  If I have to err, though, which side should I err on?

Several guys at our church started an online men’s Bible study last week,  (the link to the group is in this post if you’re (a) male and (b) interested) and today’s reading in our group really got me thinking about this topic.  We are reading the book of Colossians every day for the month of March.  I am posting my entry from today because I think that the approach that God wants is for us to focus on the truths of Scripture and the hope of eternity with Him, allowing that hope to change us from the inside out.

Today I did my reading after men’s group. I got chapter 1 read, then had a meeting, and then read chapters 2-4.

What really struck me today is the theme of hope in chapter 1. I looked up the term “hope” in my handy dandy Bible software, and Paul uses the term three times in Colossians; all three of them come in chapter 1. (that’s why I checked; I wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss any!) This seems to be an important concept that he wanted the Colossians to be reminded of right off the bat in this letter. The first use in verse 5 comes in the context of Colossians 1:3-5:

3 We give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you,
4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love which you have for all the saints;
5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, of which you previously heard in the word of truth, the gospel

The second is in 1:23 and comes in the context of Colossians 1:21-23:

21 And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds,
22 yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—
23 if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel that you have heard, which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, was made a minister.

The final use in Colossians 1:27:

to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.

It really struck me how important hope is in chapter 1.

  1. In the first instance, the faith of the Christians and the love they had for the saints came as a result of the hope they have laid up in heaven. Our godly actions came from the source of our hope!
  2. In the second usage, if we go backward from verse 23 it is “the hope of the gospel” that causes us to be firmly established in the faith, which then as we continue in it will present us to God holy and blameless and beyond reproach.
  3. Finally, in the third usage we see where the hope is anchored: Christ in us. Christ within us, and His righteousness living inside of us, is the source of the “hope of glory” that Paul talks about in chapter 1.

So what is hope? Well I looked it up in my “Student Bible Dictionary” (and confirmed it in my Greek lexicon for you Bible nerds), and it defines hope as “Belief that God will accomplish what He has promised.” The term means to look forward to something with confidence, expecting fulfillment. The gospel, or “good news” that is the anchor of our hope, is that all who trust in Christ alone for eternal life will spend forever with God, pardoned for their sin and in perfect fellowship with Him!

When I put those two together it really hit me how important my outlook and focus are. Christ in me is the reason for my confidence that God will rescue me from hell and welcome me into His presence forever. By remembering that hope, having confidence in God’s fulfillment of His promise and not being moved from it, by focusing on it and keeping it in the front of my mind I know that when I meet God on the day of my death I will be presented to Him “holy and blameless and beyond reproach” (v. 22). The meeting day will be a good one, filled with celebration at His gift given to me and His faithfulness to His promise. Finally I know that the path of hope expresses itself in the love I have for God’s people and the trust I have in Christ in my daily life.

So today’s theme and focus for me is hope. Am I confidently expecting God to fulfill His promise, focused on the eternal life that awaits and eagerly anticipating it? That is then the source of my actions, my trust in Christ for my daily needs and love for His people. Truth drives action today.  I will focus today on living “from the inside out.”

May your day be a day of hope today as well!

A Decade of Perspective

January 16th, 2000.  It’s a day that will forever be etched into my memory.  I went to help a friend who was hurting on the evening of the 15th.  I went to coffee with him and we talked late into the night.  His parents were divorcing and he needed a listening ear.  We shut the coffee house down at 1AM, and I drove home.

At 2:10 AM on that Sunday morning I was about 3 miles from home, contemplating snuggling up into bed and church in the morning.  I was less than 5 months from my commission as a Naval officer, and life was great.  I had accepted Christ 18 months previously and was on fire for Him.  Everything was going as it should, full of blessing and positive change. 

That was the night when life changed forever. 

Driving down a dark and deserted road, a car came flying up behind me at 85 mph.  I was doing 40 and barely had time to see him before he hit me; when all was said and done he was convicted of DWI and a host of other offenses.  The spin into the ditch was only the beginning of the tailspin my life went into that night.  I ended up having to decline my commission as a Naval officer because of my injuries, and was ultimately removed from military service because of back problems from the wreck.[1]  I went from the highest of highs to the darkest lows in the months that followed.

I remember the pain of those months following the wreck.  The physical pain was certainly no fun, as two bulging discs in my back made movement painful.  I ended up with two surgeries to try to put myself back together, though they didn’t come for over a year and a half.  Many nights I laid on the couch in pain.  Putting on socks was an ordeal, and sometimes a week would go by before I could muster up the courage to bend over to wash my feet in the shower.  I played sports in high school and college, so living in constant pain simply stunk.

Worse than that was the emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain.  I prayed many nights, asking God why in the world He allowed this to happen.  I had worked hard to get into a very competitive and prestigious program in the Navy and the wreck took it.  I had two kids who needed a dad to roughhouse with; I couldn’t even pick my 7-month-old son up if he was crying.  I had a bright future in the military and in politics after that, serving God and shining His light in a place that all too often is dark.  I had come to Christ 18 months before, and now my military service had real meaning!  Why take it away now?

Why God?  Why?  What good could possibly come of this?  I remember cursing the crutches I had for 3 weeks, the badge of a displaced pelvis that went undiagnosed for a long time.  I had great resentment for superior officers who thought I was malingering.  I saw the effect of my pain on my marriage and lamented what I was doing to my wife.  I saw my daughter not understand why daddy couldn’t play on the floor and again I thought, why?

The following is an excerpt from Laura’s journal from this time (thanks, dear, for allowing me to share):

“Dec. 12, 2000
  … John’s definitely at his worst point that he’s had, physically.  The 2nd MRI done in Nov (late) shows 3 bulging discs and a tear in the last.  It would take pages and at least an hour to put down all the feelings and emotions that we’ve had, both individually and as a family, with this progression.  I know I’m struggling to hold myself together- I almost had a nervous breakdown last week…
We only have about 5 weeks of medical coverage left and we had hopes of a relatively new procedure called IDET being done.  However, we only have $5k left of coverage, and the procedure’s $18-20K.  Today I really saw anger and fright in John’s eyes, wondering if he was ever going to get better.  Seems unfair that he should have to worry about cost caps and deadlines to get better when it was no fault of his own.  Helping out a friend, no less.  I can’t help but wonder what we’ll see from this when we look at it 20 years from now.  I’m fighting depression every minute…
The [pending settlement] money’s so unimportant now, even having the severe financial struggles we’re having.  And yet, if we had that $ now, we could do the surgery.  Of course, we wouldn’t need the surgery if he’d never have gotten hit!!!  Oh Lord, what do You want us to learn from this?  I feel so defeated.  I’ve occasionally gone through this, but it breaks my heart to see John depressed and hopeless at times- I’ve never seen him that way.  I know he’s never been depressed….
It’s a vicious cycle because his depression, anxiety, anger, helplessness and bitterness reflects to me, which makes me fall apart which is hard on him… you get the picture…
Trying to hold on to my faith that God has great things for us in spite- because of- this. “

There is no way you could have ever convinced me in the months after my wreck that God was using it for His glory and my good.  Romans 8:28 seemed more of a taunt than a comfort.  God uses all things to work together for my good?  I’m going to be from Missouri on that one.  Same thing on January 16th, 2001.  I had just been removed from the ship I was serving on, headed out of the Navy through a long process of doctor evaluations, surgeries, and pain.  By January 16th, 2002 I was out of the Navy, a disabled veteran retraining for a new job because I couldn’t do what I trained to do in the Navy.

Fast forward to January 17th, 2010.  clip_image001The day after the 10th anniversary of my wreck I ran a race.  It’s a miracle of God that my back pain is largely gone.  (He used surgeons and physical therapists in that miracle, though I have no doubt that it is His hand at work through them that healed me)  It is gone so far that on this day I was able to run a half marathon!  On January 17th, 2000 I was asking my doctor if the pain I was feeling would be there for long and he was considering ordering an emergency MRI to check for internal bleeding.  On January 17th, 2010 I knew that the struggle would last for 13.1 miles!  My perspective today about my wreck is completely different than it was right after, or even at a year or two after.  Today I count this (at the time) seeming  great evil as one of the greatest blessings He has ever given me.

At about 9.4 miles into the half marathon on Sunday I got very emotional.  I cried out to God right before, asking Him to help me finish the race for His glory.  My mind flooded with the images of 2000, of the sleepless nights and pain medication, of the anger at the man who hit me and the struggle with my military career ending.  Now here I am, living a dream.  I am one of less than half of one percent of Americans who will run a half marathon this year.  He has healed me so thoroughly that I can run!  I can lift my kids over my head. [2]  I don’t work on nuclear reactors anymore, which is a blessing beyond belief for me.  Instead I get the incredible privilege of pastoring a church and being an instrument that God uses in the preserving of families and souls.

Today, I can say without a shadow of a doubt that what God says in Romans 8:28 has become a reality in my life.  I met the man who would become an incredibly important mentor in my life during the trials of my back surgeries.  He is the one who helped me see that God would be pleased if I pursued vocational ministry, who helped me pursue a seminary education.  My wreck led me to the mentors who currently help me live life with Christ.  It led me out of the Navy and into the life I live today.  It paid for my seminary training.   It led me to the opportunity to help others who are struggling with understanding why God does what He does, and how He can redeem circumstances that seem beyond comprehension.

God didn’t keep me from an incredibly difficult trial.  He didn’t prevent a great evil coming into my life.  Instead He chose in His sovereign will to make me the man that I am today through it.  He used that car wreck to get me to give my life completely to Him, to trust Him in the unknown and with the pain of my life.  He got me away from my plan and closer to His.  And now, a decade later, He has even redeemed my body to the point that I can train for and run a half marathon.  He made me dependent upon Him with my wreck, and the dependence I learned there has spilled into my marriage and my parenting as well as my job.  To Him be the glory, because there is no way I am where I am today without the crucible of pain I went through.

What about you?  You might be struggling right now, wondering how in the world God could be there if you’re going through what you’re going through.  How can He care if He allows situations like you’re facing?  I’ve known people who have lost parents, spouses, children, and others who have shared my cry.  Why, God?  Why?  I know many who are out of work through no fault of their own, having their homes foreclosed on.  Why, Lord?  I know marriages struggling through real trials and hurts.  How can God allow godly and good people to go through this?  Where is He, and why doesn’t He stop this? 

Though I can’t see into the future, I can see the past clearly and how it influences the present.  Though you may not see the redemption of your trial or your circumstance, I can say unequivocally that God is at work.  He can redeem even situations that look bleak if we will continue to trust Him.  While I can’t say exactly how or when, I can say that I am evidence that God redeems bad situations if we allow Him to by trusting Him when times are tough.  Where are the challenges in your life today that in a year, five years, or ten years God wants to use to bring about His glory and good in your life?  Those very same struggles, pains, trials and troubles may not be what is standing in the way of you being who God wants you to be.  Instead, they may be the instruments that He can use to mold you into that person, if you will only walk with Him through the fire.

Now I know why Job could say, “Shall we indeed accept good from God and not accept adversity?” (Job 2:10)  That adversity builds in those who trust Christ a depth of conviction and trust in God that can’t be built through prosperity or ease.  So if you’re struggling today like I was in January 2000, I can’t tell you enough to trust Christ through all that pain.  Stay with Him!  Allow Him to transform it in your life, to use it as a tool in His perfect hand to build you into the person He can use.  Though the path is not always easy, He is a Redeemer.

Blessed be your name, Lord.  Thanks for my healthy body that I may use to run for your glory.  Thanks for a wife who loves me through the pain and the trial.  Thanks for the many blessings that you taught me are your gracious gift.  Thanks for your love when I am unlovable.  Thanks for days when I have no pain.  You have given back what was taken away, and I will choose to bless your name through it all. 

“For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” (Romans 11:36)


[1] I call it a wreck rather than an accident on purpose. An accident occurs when someone makes an honest mistake and cars collide. The man who hit me blew a 0.24 BAC 2 ½ hours after the wreck. Getting that inebriated, and then getting behind the wheel of a car, is no accident. (he had a DWI 5 months prior as well…) So I don’t call my wreck an “accident.”
[2] Okay, only the little ones. My 12-year-old daughter might object if I tried, and my son would judo chop me on the way up.

The Christmas Spirit

Holy cow it’s been difficult for me to get in “the Christmas spirit” this year.  I’m not all “humbug” or anything, but it’s been busy pretty much nonstop.  From Thanksgiving until now it seems like it’s been one thing after another, from grading final papers at school to late nights in pastoral care to making the 2010 budget and the Christmas play at church this weekend, I have been running around like mad.  We adopted a stray dog (who we found a home for today!), and I am in the final stretch of training for a half-marathon.

The past two weeks I have been trying to get some more quiet and reverence since school has been out, but it hasn’t been easy or particularly successful.  I’ve had several marriages in significant crisis that I am trying to help; the holidays increase money stress, which increases marital stress.  I have 4 sermons in the next 10 days (Christmas play, this Sunday, Christmas Eve, and the following Sunday) to prepare for, and for me sermon prep is a time-consuming process of study, prayer, writing, outlining, and thinking.  We are inviting the church to come to our house on Sunday afternoon for Christmas carols, cookies, and fellowship, which is stressful because we’ve been cleaning and de-cluttering the house in preparation.  (If you’re in town, you better come see us!  The house will NEVER look this nice again!)

I know that I am not alone in my craziness.  I took Laura out to lunch yesterday at a restaurant near a local mall, and at 11:30 on a Thursday morning the mall parking lot was completely jammed full of cars.  The consumerist cycle continues unabated in America, with news reports touting better-than-expected holiday sales and parents rushing to get the latest toy craze for the kids. (this year it’s the zhu zhu pet)  Like I said earlier I am seeing a lot of marital breakdowns right now, much of it centered around money and holiday stress.  Several good people I know are out of work right now and looking for a job that will last beyond the New Year.  I have military friends trying to cram in some family time before deployment to Iraq or Afghanistan.  My heart aches as a pastor when my congregants hurt, so I work hard to help them.

Throughout all of this, God has been calling me back again and again to a particular verse of Scripture that isn’t normally associated with Christmas; even though it’s not really “Christmas-y” it has spoken to me powerfully this December.  The prophet Micah wrote it during a time in Israel and Judah when they had fantastic wealth but also a smugness and contentment in their lives that took them away from the worship of God.  They had class warfare and financial ease, and since life wasn’t too bad their hearts got hard before the Lord.  In Micah 6:8 God looks at them and points a finger at their debauchery, showing them the simple yet profound demand that He has on them as His people:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

In the midst of all of the busyness, God has called me to three simple habits and attitudes.

  1. “To do justice”: I like the way that the NIV puts this: “to act justly.”  God wants me to be upright in my thoughts and conduct.  Despite the hustle and bustle He calls me to do the right thing, all the time and as an act of worship.  That means I look out for others this Christmas, be they the kid lost in the mall or the clerk who gives me too much change at the store or the friend who needs a call.  God is just and wants me to be as well.
  2. “To love kindness”: God wants me to love kindness, to be merciful and loving to people.  He wants me to share the good news of Christ with others, to help them live to honor God (how unloving to allow a friend to debase themselves in sin and never try to help!), and to be there for them when they fall.  He wants me to extend forgiveness to others just as He has to me.  So when someone cuts me off in traffic or hurts my feelings I need to forgive them in love.  I need a soft heart with thick skin!
  3. “to walk humbly with your God”: How hard it can be for a type “A” personality like me to walk humbly with God.  He is the one responsible for any success and goodness in my life.  He is the one who provides it all, and yet how often do I take the credit!  He wants humility; He wants me to know where I stand in His eyes and to shine His glory rather than my own into His world.  He wants me to be His instrument rather than use Him as a tool to build my career or the path to my own success. 

This is the call I have from God this Christmas.  It’s been a busy one, and frankly I don’t see it letting up before the New Year.  Even so, I can enjoy the spirit of Christmas by remembering the cry of the prophet Micah.  God sent His Son into the world to pay the price for my sins and yours (1 John 2:1-2), living the words of Micah to perfection.  He came not for His benefit but for mine, so this Christmas I want to focus on doing the same to the best of my ability for His glory.  My prayer is that perhaps the call on me this Christmas can help you live out the call He has in your life too.

Merry Christmas!

Redemption

On Thursday Michael Vick signed a 2-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. The first year will pay him $1.6 million and the second, if the Eagles keep him, pays $5.2M. The Eagles already have an all-pro quarterback in Donovan McNabb, but the addition of Vick makes the Eagles a very, very potent offensive football team. If you’re a football fan, the thought of McNabb, Vick, and Brian Westbrook in the backfield all together is crazy to think about.

Signing a free agent during the pre-season would normally be no big deal. You’re perhaps reading this and wondering why I am even writing a post about football! This particular free agent acquisition is one of great interest, though, because of the moral and ethical dimension to the signing that has caused a lot of controversy.

For anyone who has had their head buried in the sand for the last two plus years, Vick just finished a 23-month sentence in federal prison for running a dog fighting operation. He was released a month or so ago, and after a good bit of intrigue in football circles landed in Philadelphia. There will be people protesting the presence of Vick at Eagles training camp, and he will hear from the crowd in every game he plays in the NFL.

The question is the moral and ethical side of the signing. Vick is absolutely an asset on the field, being a 3-time Pro Bowl selection. However, some feel that having him back in the league lets him off the hook and implies that what he did was okay. There are many who believe that the NFL is shameful for letting him once again be a role model for kids after what he did. Playing in the NFL is a privilege not a right, and no one should be given a chance to make that kind of money and have that kind of celebrity after behaving so heinously.

Really?

There is no question that Vick participated in some horrible abuse of animals, and that the dogs in question were helpless victims deserving of protection and not exploitation. In Genesis 1 and 2 Adam is given the responsibility to care for creation, not abuse it, so this sort of thing should be viewed as intolerable. There is no excuse for what he did, and Vick has done nothing but admit his guilt.

But let’s put this in perspective. Another NFL player just killed a man while driving drunk. Dante Stallworth served 24 DAYS in jail (he pled guilty to DUI manslaughter) and will be suspended for the 2009 season. So for killing a person (and please, no arguments that it was not purposeful; drinking and driving is purposeful) a 24 day sentence and a year without pay is appropriate, while killing dogs is a heinous crime worthy of a 2-year sentence and then banishment for life? I don’t get it. Stallworth is already a kajillionaire; he will be just fine without the paycheck. His Bentley is wrecked (yeah, he was driving his Bentley), but it will get fixed. He settled out of court with the family, so everything is behind him and he gets to watch this season on his HDTV and be in excellent shape next year.

There is another dimension to this as well; it is a theological issue. Vick has done his time, none of it in “Club Fed.” (He spent time in Leavenworth…) He has been released from prison and forced to pay restitution in large amounts. The federal government determined an appropriate punishment, and he has paid that punishment. The path for him to pay his debts is through the skills he can market in the NFL.

He has apologized and seemed genuinely remorseful for his behavior; maybe sitting and thinking of all that his actions cost him has given him perspective. Sure, it could all be a careful facade maintained by a good PR firm, but it seems that he is genuine. Though we cannot tell for sure, there is always the chance at redemption. We must never get so jaded that we aren’t willing to give someone a second chance.

I think that this attitude seeps into our lives as Christians far too often. We don’t want to offer forgiveness. We want to hold it against someone when they sin and make them really prove that they are sorry by relegating them to second-class status. Christians who fall prey to sexual temptation and all that goes with it, to greed, to lust, to envy, to a host of public sins are seldom offered forgiveness. What would happen if a deacon’s wife in your church stood up and confessed an abortion in her past? Would the church rally to her, or shun her? What if a leader confessed a serious gambling problem or a pornography addiction? Would we seek forgiveness, healing, and restoration or justice?

We talk about the grace of God and forgiveness, but if we hold onto it so tightly with others can we really say that we understand it truly?

In 1 John 1:9 we are told that when we confess our sin God will forgive it. In Galatians 2:11-13 we read of Peter sinning and leading others astray; this same man, after restoration, wrote two books in the New Testament and was one of the most important figures in Christianity. In Acts 15:37-39 John Mark abandoned Paul, yet in 2 Timothy 4:11 Paul requests Mark’s presence. Paul forgave him at some point and gave him another chance to serve with him.

In Exodus 2:12 Moses murders a man. Yet in Exodus 3 that murderer is the man (after a long time away from home) God uses to free His people. In 2 Samuel 11 David commits the sins of adultery, plotting, lying, and murder. Yet God still, after David’s repentance (read Psalm 51 and see also 2 Samuel 12:13), restored him and used him in a great way.

I can see the same in my own life. I had no redeeming qualities that would make God want to use me. I had nothing but sin and depravity (Isaiah 64:6; Jeremiah 17:9) to offer God. And yet, with all of my sin, Jesus Christ died for me. (Romans 5:8) He owed me nothing, and had every reason to hold my sin against me. And yet because of His great love He redeemed me.

I look at my redemption before God, and I pray that Michael Vick has found the same. I pray as well that we would find it in ourselves to offer the grace of God that we have been given to the people in our lives who sin, even in big ways. With repentance comes restoration and redemption, no matter how we view the sin committed.

So this season, I will be rooting for Michael Vick. I hope he is able to recapture some of the magic that he brought to the NFL. More than that, I hope he uses this second chance to right the wrongs and tell the world that with repentance, restoration can occur. Show us all, Mike, that we can overcome our past and turn our lives around.