Thriving in the Middle

EIB pinning

The Army’s EIB (Expert Infantryman Badge) “forced march” is daunting. With full pack and weapon, a soldier set out to complete the twelve-mile journey in less than 3 hours as part of the testing to earn the proficiency badge for the infantryman’s craft.

I was never an infantryman, but this “twelve-mile ruck march” was adopted by several other training courses I participated in as a way to test physical and mental toughness. The physical element test is self-evident…but let’s take a moment to explore the mental test and see how it applies in other areas of our lives.

On my first EIB March, I can say that there was great enthusiasm at the onset and the last few hundred yards also bolstered enthusiasm within. Where the difficulty resides is in the middle. Somewhere after the first six miles or so, the road begins to drone on forever and the pain in your body appears to be more prevalent. It is in this difficult “middle” that the mental test reveals itself. A battle rages in the mind of the soldier to succumb to the throbbing feelings in the back, legs, and feet…or to press forward. Pressing forward is not complicated but it requires mental toughness. Simply stated, to work through the middle requires one to intentionally continue placing one foot in front of the other.

EIB Badge

Step, then step, then step, then step. This is the recipe for overcoming the middle. Some guys create games to focus their minds such as developing a cadence in their head. Some will simply focus on another soldier and the interval between them. Others will work on counting off paces along the way. Whatever mental game is implemented, the task is to put one foot in front of the other and then to repeat.

Life in general is like this too. Church life (my present reality) also bears these characteristics. In recent days, I’ve watched several people I love simply lose focus in the middle. They struggle to attend faithfully. They struggle with their personal devotion time. They struggle with fulfilling obligations made to teams and committees. They, frankly, are in the middle of the march. Some of those, experience teaches, will fall away. Some will think the problem is the “march” they are in and will look for other marches (churches) to join. Others will just focus on the throbbing in their legs and sit on the side of the road waiting on the pick-up truck to carry them back to the rally point where they will tell the many reasons why they needed to stop and try again some other times.

But…and this is huge…some will simply put one foot in front of the other and repeat.

Where is the motivation to continue the march?  Friend, that is the part of the test that demonstrates mental toughness. It is individual and personal. At the same time, there are a few aids that seem to be common with everyone who presses through to the finish line:

  • Don’t forget WHY you started. The Infantryman doesn’t want to march, he wants the proficiency badge and the honor that goes with it.
  • Don’t focus on the pain. Feet and legs throb in the march. I get it. Focus though on the terrain or the interval to the next “soldier” ahead of you. Paul instructs us in this when he says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
  • Eliminate “other marches” from your field of consideration. All marches in life have a middle. They all test mental toughness. If you quit this one, your future ones will be that much harder, even if you change marches.
  • Remember those around you. Yep, you became part of a team when you started. Someone loved you, cared for you, and encouraged you through your difficulties. If nothing else, defer to your sense of loyalty to the group and put one foot in front of the other. Failure to do so will be a thorn in your side eventually and will serve to discourage the “family of marchers” that loved you to the point where you are.

You can finish. One foot in front of the other. Step, EIB Finish 2then step, then step…

Grace and Peace…and finish the march.

The Draft, the Bench, and the Will of God

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Two years. That’s almost how long I “rode the pine” in ministry. God had spoken and moved in my life. I surrendered to the call to ministry and began to preach immediately, and often…most months as often as three times per month. But no church called me.

Have you ever “known” the will of God and were certain that God was sending you in a particular direction…only to get passed over?

How did it feel? Did the enemy whisper in YOUR EAR as he does mine?

  • You’re not good enough.
  • You’re not ready.
  • You’re not qualified.

We have recently gone through another season of college football players being examined and selected in the NFL Draft…

The players in the draft represented the best of the talent from their college football squads. They were the guys who made the amazing plays caught on the ESPN highlight reel, and they were the guys making the block that made the plays on the reel possible.

One of the familiar refrains among many of the observers related to why “their player” did not go sooner or did not go to a particular team. Certainly, the “Monday morning quarterbacking” (pun intended) is evident as people like me try to second guess those involved in the process. We might not approve of the message it sends when our favorite University standout doesn’t go until the second or third round. We may even carry a burden of offense for the message of “value” attributed to our player if he goes later in the draft. After all, aren’t all the good players going in the top ten of the first round?

What we may miss now and again is the underlying message. The draft picks are based on the quality of the player AND the needs of the drafting team. It is important to remember that a team with a great quarterback and significant depth on the bench is not making a value judgment of our favorite quarterback when they choose to select a defensive player first. Their selection is about the needs of their team first, and the caliber of your player second.

In our lives and assignments, it is tough at times to watch God draft others for assignments ahead of us. Sometimes He selects people that we should have beaten out for a job. But doesn’t such assessment lack insight? Is God not also able to consider the needs of the team as well as the talent of the player?

Monday comes every week. Every week we look back on Sunday and ask the question about our usefulness in our assignment. If we have a good understanding of God’s will and God’s ways…we must consider that He is working on a larger vision than we cannot often fully grasp. We look at our areas of awareness but God is infinitely more aware of the needs that exist everywhere and at every time…including those that won’t even be revealed for months or years to come. So, rest easy dear friend. Trust the process of the Draft and war against the desire to accept the implicit value judgments. You are valuable. You were drafted. You are exactly where He assigned you and your next assignment, whatever it is, is already known. It is perfect…not only for you but for Him who called you as well.

They heard of God’s concern, and…

open-bible 2This passage spoke to me today as I was reading in my morning devotional time.

“So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped.”
Exodus 4:31.

The people of Israel were in Egypt for 400 years. The latter years were dramatically more difficult that the former because the leadership of the nation changed following Joseph’s death. (Never mind a sermon on how God has to, at times, increase our discomfort to get us to move on with the mission). Pharoah really hammered the people and the more he tried to break them physically, emotionally, and even spiritually, they grew increasingly desperate in their cries to God.

Then Moses arrives on the scene. He approaches the people, demonstrates, his credentials (which were nothing but the working of God through him…which is another sermon in itself), and the people saw a glimmer of hope.

They HEARD that God cared about them. This is an important step that we miss. Many of God’s people are busy explaining how God is angry with their conduct. The focus at times is on how God is concerned with everyone else BUT the people we speak to. What moved these people though was their understanding that God was concerned for them.

God had SEEN their affliction. What an encouraging thought that God sees every transgression, failure, victim, and perpetrator. He sees. He sees! There is nothing that you and I experience that God doesn’t see! Furthermore, He voiced His concern and demonstrated that He was seeking to rectify the matter. (It is why He raised up Moses).

And the people BOWED LOW and WORSHIPED. The response of the people upon realizing that God sees and is concerned is humility and worship. It was not God’s awareness fo their sinfulness and lack of faith that provoked worship. God met them exactly where they were. There would be many days ahead to address faithlessness, but today, what provoked worship, was realizing God’s concern.

For the preacher today…”Message received.” Perhaps you hear the same thing. Today, remind people that God is concerned. He sees. He is able. He is active. He deserves worship.

Blessings, CA

Boundaries

Pacific Highway“There are boundaries that exist for our good.” These words are incredibly difficult for me to speak in my flesh, that is, when rising up from my humanity. I dislike the concept of boundaries. I recognize their inherent worth in principle, but, at times, the desires of man’s nature make those boundaries seem intrusive and even impossible.

Yet, if we comprehend the metanarrative of God’s purposeful design then we must acknowledge the value of boundaries. To reject boundaries or to resist their purpose is to subject ourselves to incalculable suffering. Early one morning, I scanned through the channels of the television and came upon a movie about transgressed boundaries. The full story line is inconsequential except for its value in illustrating my point. It was a story of forbidden love and how the draw of the heart brought two people together, even momentarily. Doing so damaged a marriage commitment. In fact, the commitment to marriage had been modified to become “open” so that the heart could wander and fulfill its passions. The storyline presented the case that casting off boundaries, while ultimately causing heartache, freed the heart to experience great and blissful happiness and fulfillment, even if it were only temporary. I was reminded of the gracious and loving gift of boundaries.

Some see God as “old fashioned” because He instructs people to avoid certain things. From the declaration to not eat from the “certain” tree in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3), to the counsel of the writer of Proverbs about the foolishness of lustful naivety (Proverbs 7) and its magnetic draw toward adultery and death (Proverbs 5), Scripture gives us boundaries to guard us and guide us toward unspeakable joy. These boundaries, when tested by the heart, seem oppressive; however, when comprehended by the faithful Christian, are instruments that promote ultimate peace, pleasure, and satisfaction.

“Rules were made to be broken,” as the saying goes, is a recipe for disaster. Time will not allow me to unpack stories of those who have wept before me over adulterous relationships that began as unchecked flirtatiousness. There are not enough hours to detail the immense suffering that resulted from stealing from a trusted friend or family member. We cannot even begin to examine the costs of addiction that began as one pill or one beer to relax. In nearly every case, the grief-stricken person can detail the moment that the heart approached the biblical boundary for the final skirmish and transgressed it.

Truly, boundaries seem archaic at times and the draw of human nature (or you may call the heart) seems overwhelmingly strong; however, can we ever claim that this is unusual to us? Is this not the struggle in Genesis 4 in the heart of Cain? Is this not the allure that seized David’s heart when looking upon Bathsheba? IS this not the battle raging in Peter’s heart as he warmed himself over a stove in Caiaphas’ courtyard (Matthew 27:69ff)?

Dear friends, God always designed us to battle the pull of the heart toward rebellion…not because His ego was massive but because God desired to save us from the consequences of the morning after, and the one after that, and the one after that.

The storyline of the movie positioned the experience of forbidden love as something positive. The “adversary” convinced Cain that his happiness would follow the destruction of his brother Abel. The naïve young man of Proverbs 7 fell headlong into destruction, convinced that the beautiful woman would be his “ticket” to ultimate pleasure. Truthfully, the “enemy” has always packaged rebellion as the means to happiness but the consequences outlive the momentary pleasure. God’s boundaries promote joy over suffering, pleasure over pain, and holiness over dishonor. They are His gracious and loving gift.

Love your enemies…

Open Bible 1“Love your enemies. do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6:27-28.

If you’re like me, you might have wished you had just scrolled past this short article.

What under heaven is Jesus thinking?

Is there a text more challenging, more piercing, more provoking in all of Scripture?

Is there a single statement that is more illuminating of the condition of our hearts? 

We struggle truly loving those closest to us. I don’t mean that we don’t have a form of love for them; certainly, we do. What I am speaking of is the passionate conviction to apply ourselves to living for their good…to serving to their benefit. We struggle because there is often a part of us, deep down, that hopes to benefit from such loving displays. We love and (kind of) hope/expect to be recognized for it. In these cases, we demonstrate self-love.

Man’s greatest issue is his infatuation with Himself. We are self-seeking and self-serving at our core. We process most events in our lives through the filter of “how is this going to affect me? What is the implication on my life?”

Perhaps that is the Lord’s point. Maybe Jesus commands us to love those who hate us so that our selfish hearts will come to light. Perhaps he wants us to see our hearts as He sees them. Frankly, Jesus did not command us to love our enemies because He was concerned that they should live better. He is not seeking to make them more comfortable or more confident. The command, while it affects others, is like a searchlight aimed directly at our inner being. He is seeking to expose the self-centeredness that lurks within us so that we can wrestle it to the ground and diminish its control in our lives.

How can I be sure of this assessment? Because Jesus also presented a contrast for us in Himself and His own actions:

  • He loved us while we were His enemies (Romans 5:8).
  • He prayed for us while we were His enemies. Examples abound but do not gloss over His prayer from the cross- “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”

Today, as we consider that Jesus loved us from “enemies” to “family,” let’s not yield to the temptation to mitigate the weightiness of this command. Let’s not minimize it or make excuses about how “we are just not Jesus.” We are not Jesus, but He lives in us so let’s not proclaim how much less accountable we are. Instead, in light of His love toward us as enemies, let’s allow God to expose and transform our hearts to the place that we can love our enemies, bless them, and pray for them as Jesus did for us. Then, and not one second before, will we know what it is to be like Him.

A blessing that provokes a curse…

Open Bible 1“He who blesses his friend with a loud voice early in the morning, it will be reckoned a curse to him.” Proverbs 27:14

Blessing a friend is good. Blessing a friend first thing in the morning is good. Blessing a friend in a loud voice is often good. Put them together and you may become the subject of your friend’s disdain.

There is a right time and a right context for everything. Standing to shout out your school’s “fight song” is good in the stadium after winning the game. It is generally frowned upon in class during a midterm exam.

Many “good” messages have been lost because the messenger did not consider the context from the recipient’s perspective. As one who speaks to groups multiple times per week and without a manuscript, I can tell you that I miss the mark here far too often. Sometimes my “filter” doesn’t catch a thought before it crosses my lips. (That’s not an excuse…just a fact of my present reality).

I wonder how many times we have a “good word” for a person’s situation but it is missed because our timing was off. For instance, a friend’s child is overdue to get home from school and hasn’t answered the phone. Is this a time to comfort your friend or recite recent statistics on child abductions? The answer seems obvious.

Christians mess this up too. “Hey brother, I didn’t tell them anything that wasn’t true! I’m just speaking the truth!” Sure friend, but aren’t we called to speak the truth in love? How is it loving to say what you said, in the way you said it at the time you said it? Did the hearer see your anguish in delivering such a message due to the inherent implications?

Jesus instructed us to be “wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” Serpents are not powerful but they are hypersensitive to their surroundings. Rarely will a snake dart out from under a bush to attack a person walking by.(Back them into a corner and you may have a different story.) Doves are harmless and pleasant.

So how do I do this? Here are six considerations:

  • Be clean. Check your heart motive. Are you compelled to speak “the truth” because you are aggravated with a person or jealous for God’s glory?
  • Be aware. Play the conversation through as if you were hearing it as the person you are speaking to. How did you receive it?
  • Be humble. You’re not “all that.” But for the grace of God…there go I.
  • Be empathetic. Listen. hear. empathize.
  • Be gracious. If someone says they “get it” and apologize, taken them at their word.
  • Be encouraging. They should feel more emboldened in God’s love after you leave than when you got there.

If you have thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

Plowing the field

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tilling-rapeseed-2“The sluggard does not plow after the autumn, so he begs during the harvest and has nothing.” Proverbs 20:4.

Agrarians debate the value of Spring vs. Fall plowing, but certain variables notwithstanding, most agree that it is best to plow a field after the fall harvest so that the soil is most fertile for the spring planting.

My mom and dad were always proud of their garden. Sometimes, when people came by the house, my folks would show them how good the corn, beans, and tomato plants looked. I never recall them, though, taking anyone out back to look at the tilled dirt in the cold of winter.

The writer of Proverbs strikes an important chord with the verse today. There isn’t much fun about plowing a field. It is cold, hard work and it will be months before the field can even be planted. However, it is necessary as doing so gives an advantage to the Spring planter. The remaining vegetation will be turned under to decompose. The temperature of the soil will aid in this process. Insects and other parasites below the surface will be uprooted and diminished in the Spring. Still, the work isn’t easy…and it doesn’t feel “pressing” at the moment.

Cultivating spiritual lives requires the same diligence and discipline as good farming. There are seasons of harvest but the greater efforts are put in where the work is less “glorious.” The field of evangelism is plowed in private seasons of prayer. The fields of patience, gentleness, and kindness (grace) are plowed in times of reflection on our own sin and God’s magnificent grace toward us in Salvation. The fields of obedience in discipling others are plowed long before in ones own submission, accountability, and discipleship by others.

The step of plowing may not seem glorious but it is necessary to experience an abundant harvest. The man or woman with no evangelistic fruit bear witness to the lack of diligence in prayer and preparation. A lack of patience demonstrates a lack of preparation by soaking in the meditative moments of reflection on God’s gracious kindness toward us.

Plowing is hard work. It is not glamorous. It does not bear immediate fruit; however, if one omits the step or procrastinates too long, he will be left begging at the time of harvest.

Choose today to plow the fields. Do the hard work now and trust in the harvest to come. God will bring a harvest because the harvest brings Him glory. John 15:8.