WAITING ON GOD AND PIZZA

I’ll never forget my boss’s reply to a demanding department head who wanted his project moved to top priority for our maintenance crew: “Your lack of planning does not constitute an emergency for me!”

I gasped and laughed out loud.  I did not think anyone, much less the head of a lowly maintenance department, could talk that way to one of the senior ministers in Atlanta’s largest megachurch and get away with it.

But he did.

I wonder if God wouldn’t say something similar to us when, in our hurry to achieve the next thing on our agenda, we run smack dab into the reality that our lack of patience does not constitute a crisis for him.

Ps. 27:14 Wait on the Lord;

Be of good courage,

And He shall strengthen your heart;

Wait, I say, on the Lord![1]

True, sometimes we use the excuse of waiting on God to cover a lack of planning or initiative. As Denzel Washington said, “Dreams without goals remain dreams, just dreams, and ultimately fuel disappointment.” But waiting on God is a pattern that runs throughout scripture.

Noah spent more than a year inside the Ark, sending out first a raven and then a dove to see if the ground was dry. Yet still he waited, even when the dove did not return, until God said, “Come out of the ark …”

Abraham waited till he and Sarah were past their normal childbearing years before God fulfilled his promise of an heir.

Joseph waited years in slavery to Potiphar the Egyptian, then two more years in prison before he was called to interpret Pharaoh’s dream and elevated to Prime Minister of the kingdom.

I doubt that Moses had this message in mind when he recorded those stories in Genesis, but for those of us in the smartphone generation, where information is instantaneously at our fingertips, it’s important to understand that life does not move on our timetable and God is never in a hurry.

The list is long and full of success for people who learned to wait on the Lord. Moses, David, Daniel, and Elijah come to mind. But waiting on him is not the same as doing nothing. It is more like waiting on the pizza delivery man by putting the plates on the table, the ice in the glasses, and the salad in the bowls and getting the dressing out of the fridge. It is a time of watchful expectancy instead of indolent passivity; patient trust and preparation instead of fussy anxiety and inconsequential busyness.

When the trust is total, the heart is quiet, and the preparation is complete, the task is entered into with confidence and the results, usually, are satisfying. Either way we are living with respect for the One who is truly in charge.

[1] The New King James Version. 1982 (Ps 27:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.

YOU MIGHT KNOW A NARCISSIST IF: Defining & Dealing with Difficult People

Are you dealing with an average, run-of-the-mill jerk, or a bona-fide, nth-degree narcissist? Paul Meier and Eleanor Payson may be able to help you.

Psychiatrist Paul Meier, M. D., founder of Meier Clinics and author of over seventy other books, published a best seller back in the nineties titled, Don’t Let Jerks Get the Best of You: Advice for Dealing with Difficult People. The book breaks people down into three categories: First degree, second degree, and nth-degree jerks. It includes advice on how to identify and deal with the average jerk (1st degree), and the jerk within–how many people did you cut off in traffic this morning?—as well as the narcissists (2nd degree), and sociopaths (nth-degree) among us.

Meier’s is a great book, user-friendly, mostly non-clinical and entertaining vocabulary, and illustrations that strike home.  Eleanor D. Payson’s 2002 book, The Wizard of Oz and Other Narcissists: Coping With the One Way Relationship in Work, Love, and Family, is less so, but still helpful. Payson, who holds an M.S.W. and has been a licensed marital and family therapist for over thirty years, addresses issues faced when dealing with narcissists in chapters entitled: “Seeing the Emerald Forest for the Emerald Trees,” on identifying people with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), and “Follow Your Yellow Brick Road,” on finding the boundaries of self.

If you’re dealing with a true sociopath–think Saddam Hussein–you don’t need a self-help book; you need an escape route. But how do you know if you’re in a relationship at work, or at school, or at home, with a 2nd degree jerk or even, as Payson might say, a person truly afflicted with Narcissistic Personality Disorder?

A few clues from Meier and Payson (pronouns interchangeable):

Narcissists are highly controlling, focusing attention on themselves most of the time. He has a grandiose sense of self-importance, truly believing in his “special” status, and isn’t afraid to let others know it. She’s also vindictive, remembering every slight, intent on ultimate payback. He almost never apologizes or takes responsibility for being wrong. His ego is too fragile for that. And he always has a blame-shifting explanation for his abusive behavior. She operates with a quid-pro-quo mindset, a flatterer who enjoys helping and protecting popular, successful people, as long as they understand that “they owe her.” He lacks empathy, but more than that, he is cold and ruthless when challenged. She is never vulnerable, never open with anyone about her shortcomings, but can be quite sexually seductive and even exploitative. He doesn’t believe rules apply to him and he uses others to advance his own agenda.

Narcissists, or 2nd degree jerks, are not to be trifled with, and if you are prone to co-dependency you will need more than a self-help book to deal with them. But these books are a good place to start. Meier, who holds degrees from Dallas Theological Seminary, writes from the biblical worldview and therefore communicates more hope for change. He has seen the power of the Cross of Christ at work in narcissists and their victims. Payson is less hopeful, but still helpful in identifying not only the abusers among us, but also the coping mechanisms best suited to stopping their harmful behaviors. Both books are worth adding to your summer reading list.

PREPARING YOUR SPIRIT TO GROW

Every summer we enjoy another of the benefits of living in a rural community: garden fresh fruits and vegetables! I thought I knew what a fresh tomato was before I moved to the country. But I didn’t know beans (or tomatoes)! I thought I knew what sweet was before I moved here. But then I tasted a Turbeville cantaloupe.

One of those gardens used to be across the street from our house. But none of the fruit from that garden would’ve been possible without the gift of another man who lived down the street, Mr. Rice. He didn’t water the ground. He didn’t plant the seed. He didn’t even help in the harvest. He just appeared on his tractor every spring with that most important thing every garden needs — the plow.

The plow is hard. The plow is sharp. It rips through the weeds. It punctures the hard surface. It breaks up the clotted dirt. It prepares the ground for everything that comes later. The plow makes possible the beginning of powerful things in the life of the soil.

There is a parallel for the plow in the spiritual life: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up the clods that clog our souls. Repentance opens the way for the Word of God to work down into the soil of personality and bring forth the sweet fruit of a life empowered by the Spirit. Repentance is the first step in “putting off the old life” and “putting on the new.” Nothing happens without it.

The Bible talks a lot about repentance. One of the best examples of how to do it is found in Nehemiah, Chapter One.

Repentance Reviews the Offense

Repentance calls sin, sin. Nehemiah said, “I confess the sins … we have committed, including myself.” Neh.1: 6b-7.

There goes that plow blade, right into the hardest part of the ground! In order to have any power at all, repentance has to puncture the hardened surface of self. We have to be able to come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t just my school environment, it wasn’t just where I work, it wasn’t even my family environment; I did something wrong and I’m responsible for it.”

The concept of personal repentance, like an unused plow in an abandoned field, has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture.

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed to sins of commission, doing what we know is wrong. “We have acted very wickedly toward you,” he said. We might say it this way: “God, I have been corrupt in my dealings with you. I’ve played the religious pretend game. On the outside I look fine. On the inside my heart is far from you.”

Corruption is a heart-hardening thing. It needs a sharp plow.

Nehemiah also confessed to sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands … you gave to Moses.” James repeated this idea in the New Testament. “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” James 4:17.

Finally, Nehemiah confessed group sins. He used the plural pronoun “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves as responsible for what our culture is doing around us. But when we fail to speak, or write, or vote for just policies, are we not giving the nod to the unjust ones? When we align ourselves with political movements that perpetrate evil, are we not participating in cultural sin?

Yes, we are.

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility. It gets everything out on the table between us and God. That is essential if we really want a response from God when we pray.

It has been a long time now since we ate the fruit of the garden across the street. The neighbors who tended it died or moved away; grass and trees now fill the lot. I chatted with the neighbor with the tractor and plow about that. He told me something sad, “I’ve been plowing gardens for folks in town here for decades. At one time there were thirty-five that I plowed every spring. Now there are fewer than five.”

When I look at our culture today and see the poison it is producing, I wonder if the reason is that we have stopped tending the garden of the soul, if we have stopped turning over the soil of the spirit with the plow of repentance.

 

THE CERTAINTY OF UNCERTAINTY: Encouragement for Millennials Who’ve Hit A Wall

“I’m not happy with where my life is at the moment, and I’m not real sure what to do about it, but I’m working on it,” said my friend. I could feel his frustration, having been there and done that.

Similar conversations with a number of twenty-something friends who have run head-on into a string of disappointments have had me praying and thinking about how to encourage the millennials among us.  I know what it’s like to see thirty coming up on the horizon with little in the way of success to show for it. Now that sixty isn’t that far off, some constants stand out, not only in my life, but in those of the people I most admire.

Let’s call them three keys to handling the certainty of uncertainty.

First, a successful life is something that you build, not something that you have. Adjusting expectations to that reality is tougher today, where our social media personas only show the “A” side of life, than it was thirty years ago. It takes time, tact, and tenacity to build the skill sets, the relationships, and the track record that open the doors of opportunity. These things form the platform of a prosperous life. There are no shortcuts. Be willing to start small, but start somewhere, and build.

Second, expect setbacks. The old word for this one is prudence. Everyone loves Solomon’s advice in Proverbs, “Commit your way to the Lord, and he will direct your paths.” It sounds like clear sailing to serial successes. But we tend to forget his warning that, “Time and chance happen to them all.” I call that Black Coffee Theology, the certainty of uncertainty. It’s not that God isn’t paying attention or doesn’t care about your life. His eye really is on the sparrow, but he won’t suspend the effects of the fall for anyone until Christ returns. Until then, the cosmic Murphy’s Law remains: You will experience failure. You will be frustrated. But there is an up side: Failure and frustration teach us more, and faster, than success. Learn the lessons early, and well, and they will protect you down the road. On the financial side, build an emergency fund for the inevitable, and develop a back-up skill set that can pay the bills until the opportunity you are looking for appears.

Third, persevere my friends, persevere! Do not let the inevitable setbacks and difficult lessons convince you that you are a failure. Discern your calling, or at least choose a career path where your interests and aptitudes meet, zero in on that path and trim away trivial pursuits. Then take the long view and start putting one foot in front of the other. Lay your plans–your dreams too–before God, and watch, and pray, and live before him in trust one day at a time. Learn the secret of contentment in the day to day, but keep the goal ever before you and press on! Nine times out of ten, the people who succeed are the people who refuse to give up.

Finally, one last word from those of us who can see you in our rear-view mirrors: we believe in you, we believe in God’s good purposes for you, and we look forward to the day you go whizzing by us in the fast lane.

 

THE CAT’S IN THE CRADLE

Three little towheaded girls tossed me back two decades last Sunday. I was waiting my turn at Dairy Queen while their mom patiently absorbed and sorted through their excited chatter to find just the right treats. The other graying men standing near me were all smiles, utterly charmed by these beautiful innocents who couldn’t have been more than four or five years old.

My three daughters, all grown-up now and making lives of their own, came rushing back to me just as charming and sweet–full of happiness and curiosity as little girls. My heart gave a lurch as I yearned for just one more of those long gone days.

But life and time doesn’t work like that, so I thought I’d take a few minutes to encourage you younger dads and moms to enjoy those fleeting moments with your kids. I know you need the encouragement because I know the pressures you face and how easily they distract you.

Children require nurturing in every way. Every day is one of learning, testing, trying, and needing, so very much needing your attention. “But there were planes to catch and bills to pay, he learned to walk while I was away,” to borrow from Harry Chapin’s poignant hit, “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” It is all too easy to let the pressures of providing, the stress of disciplining, and the other demands of life rob you of the joy of the moment, the excitement of the ice cream shop, the thrill of the zoo, and the silliness suffused in the life of a child.

Don’t miss those minutes, moms and dads. Don’t let your preoccupation with your boss, your business, your spouse, or yourself distract you from the tangible joys that are already yours in the lives of your children. Give thanks for every minute that they are home, for the time will come, and all too soon, when childhood waves goodbye.

As the mom and her girls turned away from the counter, treats in hand, our eyes met and I smiled, “I had three just like that. They are beautiful.” She just beamed, God bless her. And God bless you too, moms and dads, as you nurture your kids. Thanks for sharing them with us.

THE DEACON & THE HOOKER

It’s a simple story told in Luke’s characteristically lucid style.[1] Jesus is dining with a Pharisee named Simon. Picture him as the successful, well-dressed chairman of the deacons and you’ll be in the ballpark. A woman steps haltingly into the room. Her name is not given but it is not needed. Everyone knows her, the local hooker. She is not composed, not there to impress or seduce. She is weeping with gratitude, on her knees over the feet of the reclining rabbi from Nazareth, pouring out years of pent-up guilt, little rivers of happiness and shame, down upon his ankles and between his toes. She bends further and wipes the watery dirt away with her hair. Then she withdraws an alabaster jar of expensive perfume and empties it on his feet, rubbing it in with her hands as the sweet aroma fills the room.

Simon is aghast. The Pharisees were known for their righteousness, their religious purity and high moral character. They were the successful middle class evangelicals of their day. They didn’t hang out with sinful people nor approve of those who did.  Scenes like this were too much for such men. “If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” he grouses within.

Jesus knows exactly what she is, a broken woman experiencing forgiveness and freedom from guilt and shame for the first time in her life. But Jesus also knows something else: what Simon is, a successful man in need of humility, a man every bit as lost in his self-righteousness as the hooker had been in immorality. The only difference between the two is that the woman knows her sin and knows she needs a savior. Simon’s success blinds him to both.

Jesus tells Simon a story of two forgiven debtors, one who owed eighteen months wages and one who owed about two months. “Now which of them will love the forgiving moneylender more?” He asks.

Simon can’t help but answer, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

Then Jesus says the most important thing in the whole story, the thing that reveals who he really is. “Correct!” He looked at the woman. “See this woman? I came to your house yet you have not offered me the least of common courtesies. But she has not ceased, since the moment I walked in, to show me the greatest love and devotion. Therefore I tell you, her sins which are many have been forgiven, for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”

In other words, “Simon, in the grand scheme of things I’m the lender, I’m the one that everyone is indebted to. I’m God. Your achievements in life and religion matter not at all. Your relationship to me is all.”

And as if to put an exclamation point on it he turns to the woman with something only God has the authority to say, “Your sins are forgiven. Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

It isn’t what we’ve done or not done in life that determines our salvation. It isn’t how religious we’ve been or how irreligious, our successes or failures. The only thing that matters is our ability to acknowledge our sin, to own the guilt and the shame, to the one who “holds the note” on it and trust him to forgive the one and remove the other. Then every room we enter will be filled with the aroma of our love for him.

[1] (Luke 7:36-50)

FINDING GOD ON LIFE’S BATTLEFIELDS

The summer of 2009 was an exciting time. I had just finished my first book, JUNGLE FLIGHT, my wife and I were taking a two week trip for our 25th anniversary, and the last week was to be spent at the largest air show in the world: The Experimental Aviation Association’s AirVenture (aka Oshkosh). There I would get to sell the book and meet someone who had walked with God through the battlefields of life: Gracia Burnham.

Gracia and I shared a table for the authors of Christian books on mission aviation. People from all over the world came up to greet her and ask for her autograph. (It didn’t hurt my book sales to be seated next to her either).

Gracia is a beautiful woman because her soul, like her name, is full of grace. If you know her story you might expect otherwise. She and her husband Martin were the missionaries, kidnapped by the Philippine terrorist group, Abu Sayyaf, that half the world was praying for back in 2001 and 2002. They endured an excruciating year together of hunger, squalor, brutality and several near misses with death before the final rescue attempt in which Martin was killed.

Here’s what Gracia said about how that affected her faith.

“I used to have this concept of what God is like, and how life’s supposed to be because of that. But in the jungle, I learned I don’t know as much about God as I thought I did. I don’t have him in a theological box anymore. What I do know is that God is God—and I’m not. The world’s in a mess because of sin, not God. Some awful things may happen to me, but God does what is right. And he makes good out of bad situations.”[1]

Gracia isn’t the only one who has faced trauma and come out on the other side with a sweet soul and a deeper understanding of God. Study the lives of Moses in Exodus, David in 1 Samuel, or Peter and the apostles in the New Testament. Each man met God in moments of great trauma.

We will also have our battlefield moments when we are shocked, angry, exhausted and numb and the demands just keep on coming. The bills have to be paid. The car has to be fixed. The grass has to get mowed. The job has to be done and we’re the ones to do it. We don’t have time to grieve, still less to whine. We have to lead. We have to absorb the bitterness and grief of others and keep on trucking. We have to help others make sense of the chaos. We have to help others find their vision and their purpose again and make progress on their own battlefields.

The hardest part is when God seems far away and our emotions are in total lock down; we can’t feel anything anymore.

We might be numb, but we still have a choice: to let the battle come between us and God, or to let it push us right up against him; to travel away from Him in our grief, or further in and farther on into the mystery of his majesty.

2 Cor. 1:8-9 reads: We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9) Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (NIV)

When that happens, when we stop relying on ourselves and our Sunday School flannel graph understanding of God, we begin to know Him who raises the dead. But here’s the thing: We have to die to ourselves before we can know him that way. When we want to find God on the battlefields of life, the rendezvous is always at the Cross.

[1] Corrie Cutrer, “Soul Survivor,” Today’s Christian Woman (July/Aug 2003), p. 50