A letter to me

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What are you waiting for?  What is holding you back from doing what you need to do to get to where you want to be?  You have to stop waiting for the planets to align.  It’s just not going to happen.

Ecclesiastes 11:4 says, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant.  If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.”  We root our excuses in reason, but at some point you have to step out in faith.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t plan and prepare for whatever your dream is, because you should.  Proverbs says, “Good planning and hard work lead to prosperity, but hasty shortcuts lead to poverty” (21:5).

But I suspect most people get stuck in the planning stages of their dreams and never get to the execution part.  Why?  Because they’re waiting for everything to be perfect.

Listen: The road to your dreams is not paved and perfect. It’s muddy and messy and, at times, miserable–but it’s worth it.

Don’t delay.  Seize the day.  Live without regrets.  Execute well.  Trust God.  Remember what matters.  Keep a good perspective.  Breathe…now go get it.

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Your good work (never) goes unnoticed

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Once upon a time, I worked at a small, family-owned car dealership that was run by a father and son.  Both the father and son were my bosses, and often they had different ideas about how I should be spending my time.

The son would call me and say something like, “I need you to wash the cars at the front of the lot ASAP.”  A few minutes later the father would say something like, “I need you to go to the title bureau right now.”  When I explained to him that the son told me washing cars was the top priority, the father told me to ignore the son’s commands.  Often, the son would tell me to do the same with the father’s.

This tug-of-war between the father and son created a constant state of stress within me.  I was eager to show that I was a hardworking, reliable employee, but I felt like my own bosses weren’t giving me a fair chance.  I was worried about being judged negatively by the son for obeying the father, and vice versa.

Here’s the truth I’m getting at: No matter how hard you work you can’t please everybody, which is why it’s so important to focus our attention on pleasing God in our work.  Here’s what Paul writes to slaves in Ephesians:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Try to please them all the time, not just when they are watching you. As slaves of Christ, do the will of God with all your heart. Work with enthusiasm, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people. Remember that the Lord will reward each one of us for the good we do, whether we are slaves or free.” (Ephesians 6:5-8).

Notice he doesn’t say slaves (or employees, in my case) shouldn’t care at all about what their masters (or bosses) think.  He says we should “try to please them all the time,” serving them with sincerity and enthusiasm, as if we were serving Christ himself!  When we serve Christ well we serve others well too.

But we all know that even when we do good work, human bosses don’t always recognize it.  While some recognition would be nice every once in a while, just know that none of your work goes unnoticed, because not only does God recognize good work, he rewards it!

Your willingness affects your usefulness

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I’m a fan of mixed martial arts (and a former amateur mixed martial artist), and recently I’ve been watching a show on YouTube called Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight.  In the show the UFC President travels around the country looking for talented fighters, and along the way he and his companions go on all kinds of crazy adventures.

In the second episode Dana and his crew visit Alaska, where they meet up with Dallas Seavey, a four-time Iditarod champion, to learn how to race dog sleds.  At one point in the episode Dallas gives an insightful glimpse into what it takes to breed champion sled dogs:

“This is what they’re bred to do, I mean, this is their life. We’re selecting the parents based on their drive and their desire to run and pull, and then their athleticism, and how good they are at running 1,000 miles. But first criteria is always that desire to pull.”

I think it’s fascinating that willingness is the number one factor Dallas takes into consideration, and it got me thinking, isn’t that similar to how God looks at us, too?  When God is looking for someone he can use to make an impact, he doesn’t look at our strength or ability, but our desire. He can supply everything else we need.

This idea reminds me of Isaiah’s response when God asks,”Whom should I send as a messenger to this people? Who will go for us?” Isaiah doesn’t even know what the message is yet, but he knows he has a desire to serve the Lord, so he responds, “Here I am. Send me.”

I want to be a man known for his willingness–willingness to change, to try, to push through the pain for what is good and right–and for trusting God to provide the rest.

“Finishing is better than starting”

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In between my sophomore and junior years of high school I quit playing soccer so I could focus exclusively on becoming a better wrestler.  I decided it is better to be great at one thing than to be average at two, so I threw all my energies into wrestling training that summer, and it really paid off.

As the first big tournament of the season approached in the winter of that year, I was confident I was going to make a splash despite entering the tournament unranked and generally unknown.  I knew how much hard work I had put in leading up to that season, and I was ready to roll.

I won my first match easily, if I remember correctly, but in my second match the tournament organizers paired me up with the number one seed, the guy who was supposed to become the tournament champion.  I was nervous, but I knew I was going to put up a fight.

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Photo credit: washer_dreier on Flickr (No, that’s not me in the picture.  It’s just a generic wrestling photo for flavor.)

I went out on the mat, faced off with my opponent, and boom!  He started kicking my butt all over the place.

By the end of the second period I was losing by a score of 8-1, and when I went over to get advice from my coaches between periods I don’t think they had much to say.  The kid was just too good.

The third and final period started out much like the other two, with my opponent grinding my face into the mat.  All seemed lost, until for a split second I looked up and saw that he had made a mistake.  He had put himself in a bad position to where I could put him on his back, and a moment later I had him pinned — I won!  Despite the fact that he had gotten off to such a great start, he made a big mistake and failed to finish well.

Recently God has been teaching me a lesson from Ecclesiastes 7:8, which says,

“Finishing is better than starting.  Patience is better than pride.”

Starting off strong is great, and important.  The momentum from a strong start to anything can carry us far.  But so many people don’t finish well because they aren’t patient enough to see their work through!

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Photo credit: Jeff Weese on Flickr

Christmas is coming up in just a few days, and Christmas is all about fast starts and big-time beginnings.  It’s about the beginning of Jesus’ life here on earth, and the beginning of our greatest hope.  It’s truly a spectacular story, filled with prophecies, miracles, angels, and grown men and women praising God for the newborn Savior of the world.

But if the only spectacular thing about Jesus’ life was his birth, we’d all still be screwed.  He was welcomed into the world with great anticipation, yet the real success of his story is that he stayed faithful to God and to his mission all the way through the cross, where he died for the sins of the whole world.

If Jesus doesn’t stay sinless, if he doesn’t make it to the cross, we have no hope for eternity.  Because of sin we are all born into a place of spiritual disadvantage, but thank God for Jesus whose death opened the door for our victory!  He didn’t just have a spectacular beginning.  He finished well too.

Don’t give up.  Even if you feel like you’re down 8-1 in the final period of your life, Christ has opened an opportunity for you to be victorious.  No matter how you started, I encourage you to finish strong, because “Finishing is better than starting.  Patience is better than pride.”

A new (and better) way to work

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It’s pretty audacious for me to proclaim I know of “a new way to work,” especially since Solomon, the wisest man to ever live, teaches us that “History merely repeats itself.  It has all been done before.  Nothing under the sun is truly new” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

Yet just because something isn’t new to the world doesn’t mean it isn’t new to us.  I like to go shopping at a second-hand store located just outside a wealthy community.  Why?  Because it gives me a chance to glean gently used, high-quality clothing for a fraction of the original cost, and that which was deemed “old” by its original owner suddenly becomes “new” in my possession.

The same is true of wisdom.  The most valuable insights are of ancient origins, yet when applied to our condition they become fresh again in our lives.

How does this apply to work?  Well, let’s look to the wisdom of Solomon once again.  Ecclesiastes is a book he wrote about his search for meaning on this earth.  Early in the book, Solomon details how he “had everything a man could desire” (2:8), and how he had become greater than all his predecessors, yet at the end of it all he was still disappointed.

In Ecclesiastes 2:9-11, Solomon writes:

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. I even found great pleasure in hard work, a reward for all my labors. But as I looked at everything I had worked so hard to accomplish, it was all so meaningless—like chasing the wind. There was nothing really worthwhile anywhere.

How tragic!  To spend so much precious time and energy, only to look back disappointed at the meaninglessness of the your work!

But later in the chapter (verses 24-25) Solomon the Wise comes to an interesting conclusion.  He states:

So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work. Then I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?

Here’s what I’d like to draw out of this text: he says it is from the hand of God that we enjoy our work, not the product of our work.  It is a blessing to find pleasure while working, not just in our off time after our money has been earned.

In other words, it is a blessing to enjoy the process, not just the product, of your work.

As a writer, sometimes I just want my work to be finished.  My projects are becoming longer and longer, because I used to almost exclusively write articles and now I’m writing books.  But God has blessed me to do something that I enjoy, and it is crucial that I don’t overlook the process when writing longer works, because it is in the process that we grow, and it is in the process where he grants us joy.

The same is true of our lives in general.  Sometimes we just want to give up on ourselves, on who we’re becoming, because we just want God to transform us, to make us like him, instantaneously.  But I think he often keeps the destination out of reach, at least for a while, not because he’s cruel or unloving, but because it is the journey that prepares you for the destination.  And if you can find joy in the journey–with all of its hardships and struggles–then know that joy has been given to you by God.

One final thought: There is a limit to how much we can enjoy the things of this earth, because we were not made for this earth but for the Kingdom of God.  If you find your work to be meaningless it is probably because you, like Solomon, have learned it will not last.  But those who serve God faithfully can know their lives are a ministry that is making an eternal impact.

Here is my word of encouragement to you, words Paul wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 15:58:

 So, my dear brothers and sisters, be strong and immovable. Always work enthusiastically for the Lord, for you know that nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless.

Be Helpful, Not Just Clever

welcome_to_fight_club_14317627100Pastors are tasked with shepherding the flock, equipping the saints, and evangelizing the lost, but there’s an additional pressure we often feel that has nothing to do with our calling.  We often feel like we have to be clever on top of everything else, offering a performance that is as entertaining as it is thought-provoking, and when we can’t come up with just the right tweetable phrases we feel like our sermons are somehow inadequate.

That feeling reminds me of the scene from Fight Club (the movie) when the nameless protagonist (Edward Norton) meets a rebellious soap salesman named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) on a flight.  Norton’s character is an empty shell of a man who tries to fill the void in his soul by attending various therapy groups and by shopping from catalogs, and when he puts on a facade for Durden (who sees right through him) he gets called out for it:

Narrator: Tyler, you are by far the most interesting single-serving friend I’ve ever met… see I have this thing: everything on a plane is single-serving…

Tyler Durden: Oh I get it, it’s very clever.

Narrator: Thank you.

Tyler Durden: How’s that working out for you?

Narrator: What?

Tyler Durden: Being clever.

Narrator: Great.

Tyler Durden: Keep it up then… Right up.

[Gets up from airplane seat]

I want to ask the same question to pastors: How’s that working out for you?  Lately, I’ve been asking myself the same thing.  I will say this: there’s nothing wrong with being clever, as long as it isn’t our end-game.  Jesus was insanely quick on his feet and delivered some strong, punchy statements that are definitely clever, but he was also helpful, so that is what we should all strive to be too.

His words were not empty.  They weren’t powerless.  They were marinated in meaning, and ours should be too.

The delivery is imp
ortant, but even more so is the substance.  So let’s be people of substance, in our lives and our words.  Whether we’re a pastor or a plumber, let’s make sure our voices are saying what matters, not just what sounds good, interesting, or entertaining.

Strength and Beauty Are Not Opposites

“Real strength never impairs beauty or harmony, but it often bestows it; and in everything imposingly beautiful, strength has much to do with magic.”

-Herman Melville

untitled-designThe above quote from Moby Dick refers to a whale’s tail, of all things, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the same could be said of God.  He’s almighty, the creator of heaven and earth, the one who holds the universe in his hands.  We describe him as omniscient (all-knowing), omnipresent (everywhere at once), and omnipotent (all-powerful).  He has no equal, and there’s nothing within reason for us to compare him to.  Our minds simply cannot comprehend his wisdom, presence, and might.

But at the same time, Jesus showed us God is no power-crazed war-monger.  In Christ, God stepped down from his throne in heaven, taking the form of a servant, in order to extend his grace to us.  He showed his gentleness by not roaring in like a lion ready to devour us because of our sin, but by laying down his life as a lamb so as to take the hit for us.  His gentle gesture was the most beautiful the world has ever seen.

I love the way the wise woman from Tekoa put it for David in 2 Samuel 14:14.  “All of us must die eventually,” she said.  “Our lives are like water spilled out on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God does not just sweep life away; instead, he devises ways to bring us back when we have been separated from him.”

How much more gentle could he be?  Despite being able to easily “sweep life away,” he instead makes plans to gently reconcile us with him — now that’s beautiful.  Although we’re undeserving, he gives us a chance to be made right with him.

Like God, I aspire to be tough and tender too.  I enjoy training and competing in boxing and mixed martial arts.  I like movies like Gladiator and Ip Man.  I want to be strong and be able to protect my family from people who would try to harm them.

But I also want to be gentle in the way I speak and act toward my wife.  I want my son to know I’m not afraid to be affectionate, and that it’s okay for a man to show some emotion.  David was a vicious warrior who played the harp!  I think I’m in good company if I can both fight and enjoy a good sunrise.

So be strong and beautiful.  Be tough and tender.  They’re not the antithesis of each other.  In fact, as God has shown, there are few characteristics of a person that are more complementary!