THIS IS OUR TIME

THIS IS OUR TIME

In J. R. R. Tolkien’s epic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, hobbit hero Frodo Baggins carries a ring of great power and evil, a ring that he and he alone can destroy in the fires of Mount Doom. Depressed by the burden he carries and the evil times, he confides to his wizard friend, Gandalf:

Frodo: I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.

Gandalf: So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides the will of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring. In which case, you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.

Tolkien was a veteran of WWI that killed 20 million and wounded 21 million, as well as the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic that killed 50 million worldwide, as well as the Great Depression, and the polio epidemic that paralyzed tens of thousands. He knew a thing or two about bad times and wove what he knew about how to endure them into his stories.

The Lord of the Rings is full of perseverance and faith against all the odds.

In August of 1940, 25-30 divisions of crack Wehrmacht infantry (over 300,000 soldiers) stood poised along the coast of France. They were waiting for Reich Marshal Herman Goering’s vaunted Luftwaffe to wipe the Royal Air Force from the sky and open the English Channel for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain, to launch. The Germans had a three-to-one advantage in warplanes when the Battle of Britain began that July and had subdued all Western Europe in less than a year. Everyone expected them to win. Everyone that is, except Winston Churchill and the millions of British who believed him when he said, “We shall never surrender!” Londoner’s sheltered in basements, bunkers, and the subway, as the Blitz rained bombs on their city. Nazi planes indiscriminately wrecked churches, hospitals, and businesses destroyed 60% of London’s homes, wounded 87,000, and killed 32,000 people. Victims overwhelmed the hospitals, and no one knew who would “get it” next.

But by the end of October, Hitler was withdrawing his invasion force from the French coast, and canceling Operation Sea Lion.

The story of Great Britain’s ultimate victory overflows with perseverance and faith.

I take great courage from these stories of our collective past because the ultimate source of their strength was the same hope we share in a good God. He loves us no less than our ancestors and, if we ask him, will give us the strength and bravery to “keep calm and carry on,” as Londoners’ did during the Blitz, and as all God’s people are called to do in a crisis.

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1:2-4.

Every generation faces tests. The Corona virus is our time to meet the fury of a fallen planet with faith and perseverance.

So, look out for your loved ones. Ignore the fear mongers. Follow the instructions of our healthcare professionals. Trust God. “Keep calm and carry on.”  And if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a great time to watch The Lord of the Rings

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

THE PLOW: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

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 then I ate an Abbott tomato. I thought I knew what sweet was, but then I tasted a Turbeville, VA cantaloupe.

One such garden was across the street from our house. But none of its fruit would’ve been possible without Mr. Rice from down the street. 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 the thing every garden needs: the plow.

The plow is hard and sharp. It rips through weeds, punctures the hard surface, and breaks up the clotted dirt. The plow prepares the ground for the beginning of life-giving things.

The spiritual life has a parallel in the plow: repentance. Repentance penetrates hardened hearts, breaking up 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.

Today is Ash Wednesday when some Christians mark their heads with an ashen cross to begin the season of Lent, a concentrated period of personal repentance before Easter. That’s good if it helps. Like an unused plow in an abandoned field, repentance has rusted away in our “self-esteem is everything” culture. But repentance is a spiritual discipline that requires regular practice if it’s to do us any good.

Nehemiah shows us how to do it.

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 toughest part of the ground, the hardened surface of self. We come before God and say, “Lord, I did it. It wasn’t my environment, it wasn’t my job, it wasn’t my family, I did something wrong, and I’m responsible for it.”

Repentance Is Specific

Nehemiah confessed 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 sins of omission, failing to do what we know is right. We have not obeyed the commands… you gave to Moses.”

Finally, Nehemiah confessed to group sins. He used the plural pronoun, “We.” We don’t imagine ourselves responsible for what our culture is doing. But when we fail to speak up for the defenseless unborn, are we not responsible? When we fail to care for the poor, are we not neglecting our responsibilities?

Repentance reviews the offense and takes responsibility, putting everything out on the table between God and us. That is essential if we want a response.

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 Mr. Rice about that. He said, “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 less than five.”

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

PREPARING TO LEAD

He was a man of great talent and vision who had served the Church well for many years. Then he became a best-selling author. Encouraged by his success, he decided that he knew how to solve the problems of Africa. He moved his entire family there with a grand vision. Three years later, he was back in the States, retired from active ministry, his dream dead in the African desert. He had failed to plan for the realities ahead, counting instead on his passion, vision, and skill for success.

I was an admirer. Having learned a great deal from his books and conferences, I was surprised he would make that kind of mistake. The reason I was surprised was Dr. John Harbaugh.

Dr. Harbaugh was one of the best professors at the Georgia State University College of Business Administration in the 1980’s. Every class he offered that fit my schedule, I took. He’d spent 30 years in executive management for Fortune 500 firms and knew his stuff. The greatest lesson I learned from him was: Leaders don’t presume they prepare.

About twenty-five years later, in a study through the Old Testament, I learned that Nehemiah knew this long before Dr. Harbaugh.[1] Nehemiah had one shot at his presentation to King Artaxerxes to authorize his mission to rebuild the walls in Jerusalem. He had to get he would need, convince Artaxerxes that this wasn’t some half-cocked idea, in one brief conversation.

The Small Business Administration states that 30% of new businesses fail during the first two years of being open, 50% during the first five years and, 66% during the first 10. Most new businesses don’t make it. The reason? Incomplete preparation, unclear goals, unrealistic objectives.

Nehemiah had a clear goal, rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He presented a complete plan, specific objectives to meet that goal. He gave the king the time frame, listed the authorizations he would need, and secured the logistical support all in one brief meeting.

In the late 1940s, Billy Graham saw a need for something that would unify, equip, and represent evangelicals in the intellectual arena. He began praying and listening to pastors, professors, business leaders, and mentors. Then one night, in 1953, he woke with an idea racing through his mind. “Trying not to disturb Ruth, I slipped out of bed and into my study to write. A couple of hours later, the concept of a new magazine was complete. I thought its name should be Christianity Today. I worked out descriptions of the various departments, editorial policies, even an estimated budget. I wrote everything I could think of, both about the magazine’s organization and about its purpose.”[2] Christianity Today is now the most widely read and respected religious magazine in the world. Billy reviewed the first copy in 1956. From dream to plan to reality took six years.

There is such a thing as planning too much and depending on plans rather than God. But for the most part, failing to plan is planning to fail. Leaders don’t presume they prepare. They do their homework, cover all the bases possible, then move out in faith.

[1] See Nehemiah 2:1-9

[2] Harold Myra and Bruce Shelley; The Leadership Secrets of Billy Graham; pg. 209-210.

A MESSAGE FOR WOUNDED MEN

A MESSAGE FOR WOUNDED MEN

Millions of men go through life with a jagged tear in their souls. They don’t know how it got there, and they don’t know how to fix it. All they know is that they are hurting, they are angry, and they are confused. If you are one of these men or if you know one, read on.

Jepthah[1] was a mighty warrior and a wounded man. His father was Gilead, and his mother was a prostitute. He was a loser times two, the fatherless son of a despised woman, and the sole reject from a band of brothers. Imagine opening the family scrapbook to find that you aren’t there. No one took Jepthah’s picture. No one recorded his wins on the field. No one kept his report cards in a special file. He learned early that his place was on the edge, edge of the camp, edge of the table, the edge of life. A man like that has no roots, no sense of who he is and why he is here.

One day his father died, and Jepthah’s last shred of protection died with him. His brothers cornered him in the camp: “Get out! You have no place here! You have no claim on Dad’s land or money. Get out, or we’ll kill you.”

Men, you don’t have to be illegitimate to feel like a Jepthah. You can grow up in a large family or as an only child and still never know the affirmation of a father or the acceptance of brothers. You can be surrounded by peers in a room full of people and totally alone, always on edge. You might grow up in a home with two parents and never connect with a father because he doesn’t know how to connect with you, or he’s too busy doing his own thing to figure out how important it is.

Men like Jepthah grow up desperate. Desperate for the love they cannot get, desperate for affirmation they’ve never received, and desperate for belonging they’ve never known. It has various effects. But two patterns stand out.

Sometimes, they become passive. Like a two-way radio never used to transmit, these men are stuck in emotional receiver mode. The passive man cannot give of himself from a position of strength. He finds it difficult to take charge and give direction to his life or anyone else’s. He may be extremely intelligent or incredibly talented, but he cannot harness it. He cannot channel it into anything positive.

Often, he becomes aggressive. He’s the hard man, the strong man, the bull-headed man with whom no one can negotiate. People either love him or hate him, but there is no middle ground. He’s always right because he learned as a child that he had to be right to survive. He won’t depend on anybody or take anyone else’s advice. He’s tough, determined, and opinionated and usually gets his way.

He may be married but doesn’t know how to enjoy marriage or make it enjoyable. He may have children that adore him, and he may love them, but he doesn’t know how to receive their love or return it. Such men are often warriors, but combat is all they know how to do.

Jepthah was like that. It made him a successful warrior, but it cost him his daughter in the end.

If you can identify with Jepthah, I have good news. Jesus came to give us the water of life that would heal our wounds and quench our thirst for love. He came to reconcile us to our Father in heaven and give us the ministry of reconciliation with others.[2]

If you want to know his love and healing, begin by praying this prayer: “Lord, let me see myself as you see me. Help me know how much you love me and understand my place in your family. Please heal the wound my father left in my soul. And help me learn new ways of relating to my wife, my children, and my friends.” It may take months. It may take years, as it did in my life, but I promise you that is a prayer God will answer.

[1] Read his story in Judges chapters 10-12.

[2] John 7:37-38; 2 Corinthians 5:18-19;

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL part 3

In 2003, my daughters had a funny lesson on the inevitability of change. Their uncle Mike had given them a whole box of VHS tapes containing 144 episodes of Star Trek the Next Generation. The videos dated back into the 1980’s so watching them was like being in a time machine for commercials. But what really tickled the funny bone was seeing an ad for a brand new 1989 Chevy truck on Tuesday night, and then standing at the bus stop Wednesday morning, watching that same truck with 14 years and 175,000 miles on it go by. “It’s a heap!” They cried. Talk about a lesson on change!

Change is inevitable. It’s how we meet it that matters. The one luxury we cannot afford is to assume it will not touch us and refuse to prepare for it.

The nature of the human animal is to be dominant and territorial. We like to set ourselves up in a good situation and stay there. We work hard at creating stability and predictability so that we can enjoy life with the least amount of hassle. We are control oriented. Unexpected change reveals our lack of control and makes us feel naked in the cosmos.

The Bible is full of examples of God’s people meeting unexpected change. Consider Moses’ successor, Joshua, and the changes he witnessed: Slavery in Egypt, miraculous escape across the Red Sea, the Ten Commandments, the wandering in the wilderness.

For 40 years Joshua witnessed change, but that paled in comparison to what he was about to do. He was about to lead the people of God into the Promised Land itself. He was facing the walls of Jericho and he was doing it without Moses.

God had two commands for Joshua as he took up the challenge of this change, commands that still apply today.

Be strong and courageous.

In the decade leading up to 9/11 the notion was spreading that the days of strong, forthright leadership operating from the courage of conviction were passé. The world – it was assumed – was becoming a kinder, gentler place and there was just no need for confrontation when therapy or diplomacy could do the job. This was just as true in the church as it was in geo-politics.

The Bible is much more realistic than that. It teaches us that evil and danger, deceit and treachery will be in the world until Christ returns. The only way to meet those things is with strength and courage.

Those manage change well who have the courage of their convictions. But what convictions?

Stick to fundamental principles.

Strength and courage are dangerous if they aren’t harnessed to core principles that honor God and respect people. But strength and courage in the service of those principles enable us to adjust our approach to meet the need at hand.

Thomas J. Watson Jr., founder and CEO of IBM from 1956 to 1971 wrote, “I firmly believe that any organization, in order to survive and achieve success, must have a sound set of beliefs on which it premises all its policies and actions. Next, I believe that the most important single factor in corporate success is faithful adherence to those beliefs. And, finally, I believe [the organization] must be willing to change everything about itself except those.”[1]

Those manage change best whose principles are changeless.

Fear is the biggest hindrance to change. Change forces us to think, to adjust, to adapt. We prefer cruise control. When contemporary music first began to make its way in to worship many congregations rejected it. But that indicated more faith in the method than in the message. When new translations of the Bible began to compete with the KJV many churches rejected them. But that indicated more faith in the translation than the message.

As Chuck Swindoll wrote, “Extraordinary times will require of us extraordinary wisdom, vision, boldness, flexibility, dedication, willingness to adapt, and a renewed commitment to biblical principles that never change.”[2]

When the changes come—and come they will—go back to core principles and with strength, courage and wisdom apply them.

When change comes ask yourself: Am I operating with courage on core principles?

Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.[3]

[1] Citation: Thomas J. Watson, Jr., A Business and Its Beliefs (1963); Bill White, Paramount, CA

[2] Swindoll, Chuck; Come Before Winter pg. 26.

[3] The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. (2016). (Jos 1:6–7). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles.

TOUGH SOULS Part 2: Rapid Change

TOUGH SOULS Part 2: Rapid Change

The world is changing more rapidly than it ever has before. Just take a look at some recent statistics.

Population – It took until 1850 for world population to reach 1 billion. By 1930 it was at 2 billion. By 1960 it was 3 billion. Today it is somewhere close to 7.7 billion.

Books – There were almost no books until 1500 and Gutenberg’s press came along. By 1900 there were 35,000. This year, over 2.1 million titles will be published.

Top Speed – Until 1800 the top speed for a human being was around 20 mph. Trains reached 100 mph in the nineteenth century. Now we routinely travel at 400 mph. Supersonic jets are three times faster.

Automation – the first fully automated cars were developed in the 1980’s by Mercedes Benz and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration). In 2018, Waymo began the first fully automated commercial taxi service in the U.S.

Pick any field and a few minutes on the internet will yield data on the hyper pace of change in every one, medicine, robotics, chemistry, physics, you name it.

Change is picking up speed and for some folks that’s unsettling.

It’s much easier to adapt to change over time. But sudden change rocks us. And it doesn’t matter who you are. Unexpected change comes upon everyone. The good news is that scripture gives us timeless principles for the toughness necessary to master winds of change.

The first principle is to expect it. Expect the unexpected. Hear what Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, said about change.

I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11NIV).

The Pros and the CEO’s, the prima donna’s and the Politicians, each one, not to mention the rest of us will experience change. Change is inevitable. We can expect it, prepare for it or be overwhelmed by it.

The good news is that Christians need not fear unexpected change. As the people of God, we belong to the One who knows the end from the beginning. He isn’t caught off guard by change. As people of God’s Book, we have a road map for navigating happenstance.

Over the next few weeks we’ll look at these principles in depth but for now a summary might be helpful to you:

  • Change is inevitable. We can prepare for it or be overwhelmed by it.
  • Those manage change best whose principles are changeless.
  • Those manage change best who trust that God is still at work in unwanted change.
  • Those manage change best who meet it with a positive attitude.

 

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

HOW TOUGH IS YOUR SOUL?

Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong. Do everything in love. (1 Corinthians 16:13-14 NIV)

In my first year at the church I lead, I met a wonderful woman, about sixty years old, named Violet. I was just getting to know her when I got a call that she was in the hospital. I went to visit, and she said, “I just got dizzy and weak one day. The next day they told me my heart was bad and here I am, on my way to Duke for bypass surgery.”  Less than a week later, we were burying Violet.

The economists tell us that we are experiencing full employment, the economy is stronger than it has been in fifty years. But over the last month, five friends find themselves looking for new jobs.

Life is tough. And it only gets tougher. I’m discovering as I get older, and I know you are too, that “life is good, no worries” is at best a temporary arrangement.  “Life’s a witch” is usually waiting just around the corner.  The tough things in life are one heartbeat, one doctor’s report, one emergency phone call, one company meeting away.

And lest we think “that’s only for the older folks” I remember how suddenly I lost my friends Joseph Ramsey, a high school senior, and Steve Kotter, aged 49, who died in car accidents in 2002 and 2004. I also remember how quickly our small town lost over five thousand textile jobs, mostly to China, in the first few years we lived here.

Life is tough and it gets tougher.  In fact, life can get downright crazy. And the temptation is to spend all of our time as Christians in the “emergency room” of soul work – helping wounded people heal – instead of in the gym or on the practice field, training believers for strength and endurance and skill to face the battles.

Healing is necessary. But healing is a temporary state, or it’s supposed to be. (No one I know wants to spend one day longer in the hospital than necessary.) Growing up into full maturity, coming back into the game after an injury or illness, and playing ‘all out’ to the end is what following Christ is all about.

God wants us to be strong people, active people, resourceful people, and balanced people as we face the challenges of life. I’m going to spend the next few posts talking about how to get there.

Until then, …be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. (Eph 6:10-11 NIV).