Your good work (never) goes unnoticed

your-hard-work-never-goes-unnoticed

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!

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Your willingness affects your usefulness

your-usefulness-depends-on-your-willingness

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”

horse-racing

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.”

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!

Destiny, David, and Kung Fu Panda

Po_Kung_Fu_PandaWhen I think of the concept of destiny I think of Kung fu movies, and one of my favorite Kung fu movies is Kung Fu Panda (yes, I’m still a kid at heart). The movie’s main character, Po, is a fat and clumsy panda who dreams of being a Kung fu legend but is stuck working in a noodle restaurant with his father.  One day, through a series of funny and strange events, he is identified as the legendary Dragon Warrior by a Kung fu master named Oogway.

Once identified, the characters express three different beliefs about the situation:  Po seems to think he was chosen by accident.  The other Kung fu warriors seem to think he was chosen by mistake.  But Master Oogway, the wise, old tortoise of the bunch, believes that which looks like an accident or mistake is actually destiny intervening.

The rest of the story (spoiler alert) is a familiar one.  A great enemy — Tai Lung the snow leopard — escapes from prison and will surely destroy everything the other characters know and love, and Po the Dragon Warrior is expected to stop him.  But for the longest time it seems the panda will never amount to anything, and the situation seems so bleak that the other warriors try to stop the enemy before he can reach their town.  They’re defeated, of course, and Po becomes the town’s only hope.

Fortunately, he realizes just in time that the things he thought were holding him back (namely, his size and weight) are actually assets when used properly.  The things that make him different from the other fighters are actually to his advantage, and he eventually fulfills his destiny in dramatic fashion (don’t mess with the wuxi finger hold).

Destiny is a powerful idea because it is a guarantee on something that hasn’t yet been delivered.  In movies and literature a character who is fulfilling his destiny is one who is not only accomplishing the task he was created to accomplish, but he’s also becoming the person he was created to be.

But just as there was a period between when Po was announced as the Dragon Warrior and when he began to act like the Dragon Warrior, so there is often a period between when we learn of our destinies and we actually experience them.

For example, after King Saul disobeyed God a number of times, God finally rejected him as king of Israel and decided David should become king instead.  In fact, according to 1 Samuel 16, Saul was still on the throne when the prophet Samuel anointed David as king!  For a long time the newly anointed king of Israel lived like an exile, fleeing from place to place in order to avoid being killed by Saul.  But all the while he knew it was just a matter of time before he took the throne.

Here’s the principle: Often you’ll be anointed long before you’re appointed.  God calls things that are not as if they are, and in David’s case he called him king long before David actually took the reigns to the kingdom.

What is God saying about you?  What is he telling you to do?  What is he saying you should become?  If there seems like there’s a gap between you and where he wants you to be, maybe it’s because there is.  Just because he’s anointed you doesn’t mean he’s ready to appoint you just yet, probably because he wants to develop patience and trust within you.  The same is true of our salvation.  He calls us children long before we receive our promised heavenly inheritance, but we don’t have to worry about whether or not he’ll deliver on his promise, because it’s guaranteed thing.

God calls out our potential long before we ever see it achieved.  Has God called you to something?  Don’t be discouraged; be patient.  He will see you through in his own timing, and the wait will cause you to praise him even more when he delivers.

Obstacle, or opportunity?

GladiatorOne of my all-time favorite movies is Gladiator.  It’s about a Roman general named Maximus who is loved by his army as well as the emperor.  And Maximus has a dream — he wants to return the power of government to the Roman people.  But things go south when the emperor’s son, who is jealous of Maximus’ special relationship with his father, takes over the throne, kills Maximus’ family, and tries to kill the general himself.  Fortunately the assassination attempt fails, but Maximus is captured and sold into slavery.  Despite doing his best to serve his country faithfully, Maximus draws the short straw.

Many people would have given up at that point.  What’s the point of trying when the most powerful man in the world is against you?  But as a slave he becomes a gladiator and is such a skilled fighter that he quickly rises through the ranks until he has the opportunity to fight in the Coliseum in Rome.  

The emperor, once he recognizes Maximus, makes sure the general-turned-slave is faced with impossible odds, hoping one of the other warriors will kill him on the field of battle, but time and time again Maximus perseveres.  Finally the emperor, a skilled swordsman, decides to fight Maximus himself, but he rigs the match by stabbing Maximus before the fight even begins.

In the end (spoiler alert!), the two dual on the Coliseum floor and Maximus kills the emperor.  As a result, the wounded Maximus orders that power be returned to the Roman people — and sees his dream fulfilled — just before he dies.

Gladiator is a powerful story of perseverance in the face of everything that’s “not fair.”  It’s been said that 90 percent of our problems are self-inflicted, and we expect life to be difficult to some extent, but when we’re doing our best and our plans still seem to keep falling through, that’s when we really want to give up.  When the system is working against us.  When we feel our boss is incompetent.  When we get passed up for a promotion.  When we see other people getting special treatment.  When people are out to get us.  When we’ve been faithful to God but things still aren’t going our way.  These are the times when perseverance matters most.

Perseverance is like a fire extinguisher: It’s something we hope we never have to use, but we need to keep it around just in case.  We need to ready our hearts and minds to deal with the speed bumps that slow us from reaching our God-honoring dreams.  

For a long time I’ve felt the story of Maximus was just a knockoff of the story of Joseph.  Joseph was a guy who had everything going for him until his brothers’ jealousy caused them to do something terrible to him — sell him into slavery.  Over and over again Joseph got the short end of the stick, but despite the unfairness he experienced he persevered faithfully until God took him to a place of authority and used him in a way he could have never imagined.

Joseph couldn’t have anticipated the path he would take to becoming a ruler of Egypt.  He couldn’t have guessed his brothers would betray him.  He couldn’t have known he would become another man’s property.  He couldn’t have predicted he would be falsely accused of attempted rape and thrown into prison.  He couldn’t have foreseen that, even after miraculously interpreting the chief cupbearer’s dream, he would be forgotten for another two years before finally ascending to authority in Egypt.  No matter how unfair things seemed, Joseph always stayed faithful to God, and God showed his faithfulness to Joseph.

Developing perseverance requires us to identify obstacles as opportunities to recognize God's faithfulness and prove our own.Joseph seems to have understood something we need to learn for ourselves: developing perseverance requires us to identify obstacles as opportunities to recognize God’s faithfulness and prove our own.  We have to keep life in perspective and remember that going through hard times doesn’t mean God is done with us, it just means he’s building our character and testing our faithfulness.

Not all obstacles in life are dead ends.  Sometimes they’re just toll booths where God wants us to pay our dues so he can prepare us for what’s ahead!  Don’t lose heart, and don’t quit.  Stay faithful, and persevere!