The Invisible Fence

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So I was afraid and went out and hid your talent in the ground – Matthew 25:25a (NIV)

The Only Thing We Have to Fear Is Fear Itself – Franklin D. Roosevelt

Do you know what an invisible fence is?  If you live in a suburban or rural area in United States, you likely do.   An invisible “fence” consists of a wire buried around the perimeter of a yard.  The wire transmits a mild static electric shock to a receiver located in a dog collar.  Any time a dog wearing a receiver-equipped collar approaches the fence, the dog receives an uncomfortable, but nonlethal,  shock.  After a short time, with the assistance of a trainer, the dog learns where the boundaries of the fence are located and stays confined therein.

Over the last several days, I’ve been reflecting on 2012.  By some measures, it was a pretty pedestrian year, a cocktail of successes, failures, victories, defeats, breakthroughs and setbacks.  My career went a little sideways, but it was that movement that really caused me to embrace my true passion (see my previous blog entry, Are You Making Tent or Pursuing Your Calling?).  After a previously aborted attempt, I got serious about blogging consistently, writing 26 posts.  I got to travel more for pleasure than I have in recent memory, including a family vacation with my brother and in his family to the St. John in the US Virgin Islands.  (That is certainly not our “typical” family vacation.)

I looked back at the things I failed to accomplish last year for clues as to their root causes.  Was I constrained by other people, finances or health?  No.  In the vast majority of cases the answer was one four letter word beginning with an “f”- “fear.”  I had erected my own invisible fence of fear.   I allowed feelings of anxiety and in some cases dread to keep my within a confined space.  I allowed fear to “train” me like a dog wearing a receiver-embedded collar.  There are several similarities to fear and the invisible fence:

  1. While both are extremely uncomfortable, but neither is truly life threatening.
  2. Both are confining
  3. Beyond both lay freedom.

In 2013 I am committed to push against the limits of my invisible fence.  I am committed to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and run with perseverance the race marked out for me” (Heb. 12:1).   Will I always be successful? No, but that’s where the perseverance part come in. If I set out to do this in my own strength, I will fail miserably, but I serve a God who has promised to displace my fear with his power, love and self-discipline (2 Tim 1:7).

The scripture snippet in the introduction of this post is from a parable that Jesus tells of three servants entrusted with talents (Matt 25:14-30).  Two of the three servants invested their talents wisely and earned a return for their master.  The third servant, motivated by fear, hid his talent, earning nothing.  I don’t know about you, but I want to live in a way that yields a return.

I leave you with this quote that I came across credited to Mark Twain, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do.”

God’s Thread

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Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few. . .1 Samuel 14:6b (NIV)

It seems everyone loves a good suspenseful movie. You know type I’m talking about where the hero or heroine finds themselves in a life-threatening, precarious situation with no visible sign of escape.  If you need a mental picture think of the popular Indiana Jones movie series.  Even if you’ve never seen any of the Indiana Jones movies in their entirety, you’ve likely seen short clips from them showing Indiana Jones being chased by a giant boulder or attempting to outwit a cobra.

Taking a look at redemptive history, it appears that God too has an appetite for suspense.  A pattern seems to emerge where God will make a promise to an individual or community and then either orchestrates or permit events to occur that would seem to undermine the promise.  The Israelites had been in bondage for 430 years in Egypt when God emancipated them and promised to lead them into a land flowing with milk and honey.  However the escape route that God intentionally chose for the journey was an apparent dead end leading them to be trapped by the Red Sea.  The Egyptians pursued the Israelites and had them boxed in.  The Israelites had two means of escape, one would involve turning around, doing an about face and running headlong into the teeth of the advancing Egyptian army.  The other means, which seemed even more improbable, would be to escape by swimming across the Red Sea, which was 221 miles across and 1,600 feet deep.  This was playing out to be a true cliff hanger if there ever was one, clearly besting anything that Indiana Jones might face.  Why would God place the people he swore to deliver in such peril?  God reveals the answer to Moses, “I will gain glory for myself through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD” (Exodus 14:3b)(NIV).  While God shared his plan with Moses, apparently that word had not yet spread throughout the entire Israelite camp, because the people reacted in fear. “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!” (Exodus 14:1-12)(NIV). 

God did not abandoned his plan to save is his people.  Instead of utilizing either of the two apparent options of rescue; a.) the Israelites turn and face and Egyptian army head on or b.) the Israelites swim across the Red Sea, he created a third more miraculous option; c.) part the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to walk across on dry land and cause the Red Sea to revert back to its original form and drown the Egyptians when they attempted to follow.

We all like a suspenseful drama provided we’re in the audience and not acting it out. But God does not exempt us from his casting call.  He will see to it that we are protagonists in our own spine tingling stories apparently hemmed us in on all sides with no visible means of escape. Sooner or later we will all find ourselves hanging on by God’s thread and that thread will appear to be fraying. But God’s salvation does not rely on appearances.  He often does his best work when situations appear most dire.  He can save by many or by few.  Even if we are saved by what seems like a hair’s breadth the outcome is no less secure than if we had been saved by a mile.  The more dramatic the rescue, the greater the faith lesson taught to us and the greater the witness to God’s glory.

The Israelites’ lament when they saw the Egyptian chariots approaching turned into a song of praise when they saw those same Egyptians washed up dead on shore of the Red Sea, “who among the gods is like you, O LORD? Who is like you–majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11)(NIV). 

Do you feel like you are in a tight spot with no visible means of escape?  Remember that God is just helping you to compose your song.

A town without Christmas, but not without Christ

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The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us – Matthew 1:23 (NIV)

On Thursday of this week I was preparing a post for this weekend, but it wasn’t this one.  The events of Friday changed everything.   I’m writing the post I didn’t plan to write or wish I didn’t have to write, but felt compelled to write. Unless you’ve been on a complete media fast, you have no doubt by now heard about the horrific tragedy that occurred in Newtown Connecticut on Friday where a 20 year old gunman killed his own mother before traveling to a nearby elementary school to open fire on children and school administrators before taking his own life.  In the end, 26 people lay dead including 20 children.  President Barach Obama is his emotional address to the nation in the aftermath of the shooting aptly tapped into the nation’s sentiments when he said, “we’ve endured too many of these tragedies in the past few years.”

As a parent, especially the parent of an elementary school student, it is very easy for me to place myself in the shoes of those shocked and grieving parents.  Those parents who had been making preparations for Christmas, but now find themselves making plans for funerals.  I find myself haunted by the thought of Christmas gifts already purchased that will go unopened.  The phrase, “one more week more week” keeps playing in my head.  These children would have been on holiday break in a week, likely safe from the reaches of a troubled and evil gunman.  A ghastly pale now lingers over the town of Newtown Connecticut.   Instead of the Grinch, it was Adam Lanza who stole Christmas.

I leave it for others to attempt to answer the “why” questions.   Why did the gunman take his actions? Why did God allow this happen?  Any attempts at answering these questions will bring little consolation and solace to the suffering.  Scripture tells us there is “a time to weep” (Ecclesiastes 3:4) and now is that time to weep with those impacted by this tragedy.  While Newtown may have been robbed of Christmas, they have not been robbed of Christ.  We can be assured that just as Christ was in the fiery furnace with the three Hebrew boys, He is the furnace of affliction with the Newtown residents.  Just as he wept at the graveside of his friend Lazarus, he is weeping now with the family members and friends of the shooting victims.   It is during the Advent season, but especially during times like these that we are reminded that Jesus is indeed Immanuel, “God with us.”

I ask that you would agree with me in pray for the following groups:

  • The parents, siblings, grandparents and extended family of those who were killed.
  • The children who were in the school at the time of the shooting who must deal with their own trauma as they grieve the loss of friends and classmates.
  • The first responders who had to witness the grizzly crime scene.  No amount of training would prepare someone to witness such carnage.
  • The schoolteachers and administrators who must carry and “be strong” for their students but whose hearts are breaking inside.
  • Ryan Lanza, the brother of the shooter and son of the first victim.  He is not likely garner public sympathy and will have to deal with the guilt that his brother caused so much heartache for so many people.

Having trouble finding the words to pray?  Might I suggest the words penned by one of my favorite bloggers Debbie Kay on her blog “Hope For The Broken-Hearted.”

The Shots We Never Take

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Video of Jack Taylor’s record breaking performance of scoring 138 points in a single basketball game

For though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity. – Proverbs 24:16 (NIV)

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. – Wayne Gretzky, retired hockey great

A few weeks ago, Jack Taylor, a 5-10 sophomore guard from Division III Grinnell College shattered the collegiate basketball scoring record by scoring an incredible 138 points in a single game.   Taylor hoisted up 108 shots converting on 52 of them including 27 three point attempts.  For you statisticians, that means Taylor average one shot every 22 seconds!  In looking at Taylor’s amazing feat, it’s interesting what we do not focus on.  We do not focus on the 52% of the shots that Taylor missed.  Taylor missed 61% of his three point short attempts, but it was by taking these riskier shots that he accumulated so many points.   What inspired Taylor’s record setting feat?  – a shooting slump.  He shot poorly in his most recent games prior to his record setting night and even started off slowly on this occasion. His coaches figured the best way to get him out of scoring slump was for him to shoot his way out of it.

Accomplishment is sports in not measured by perfection.  A major league baseball player can have a hall of fame career by maintaining a .300 batting average, meaning he is only successful 30% of the time.  Taylor’s 39% success rate on three point attempts is considered pretty good even by NBA standards.  I was recently reminded that the sports accomplishment standard applies to areas other areas of life.

I was reading the story of Abraham in the book Genesis.  Abraham is known as “the father of the faith” and inductee into the faith “hall of fame” found In Hebrews, 11th chapter.  Perhaps I was feeling overly critical during my read, but instead of focusing in Abraham’s accomplishments, I found myself focusing in his failings which include:

  • Covering up his marital relationship (twice) with Sarah when confronted by powerful men.
  • Not waiting on God’s timing to allow for Sarah’s promised pregnancy but rather taking matters into his own hands and impregnating Sarah’s maid servant, Hagar. This single act of disobedience set the stage for the unrest between Jews and Arabs that has occurred throughout history and continues until this day.

I came to realize that I was reading Abraham’s account as some audience member watching a sporting event or theatre production.  I needed to get out my seat and get into the game or onto the stage to walk in Abraham’s sandals.  Taking this approach, I gained a greater appreciation for the man, his successes  and his failures.  Hebrews 11:8-9 tells us about old patriarch, “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise.”

Think about what this passage in saying.  Abraham had to display initial great faith by venturing out to an unseen country based on God’s promise to him. Abraham did have the benefit of the scriptures to comfort, inspire and encourage him for the Bible had not yet been written.  Scripture mentions that God told Abraham to go to the strange land, but makes no mention of God revealing this to the rest of his household.  Can you imagine how hair-brained this revelation seemed to Sarah?  Can’t you hear her saying, “God told  you to go where?”

We look at Abraham’s lack of faith as he hid Sarah’s identity as his wife from Pharaoh (Gen 12:13) and   Abimelech (Gen 20:2).  Let’s remember that in both instances Abraham was a foreigner without legal standing and feared for his life.  When Sarah did not initially become pregnant, it was a culturally acceptable practice to have children through a servant to extend the family line.   I am not being an apologist for Abraham’s misdeeds.  Rather it his misdeeds that link him to us as being not some superhuman demigod, but rather just simply mortal.   However instead of allowing his misdeeds and failures to define him, Abraham persevered in faith.  In the end, Abraham displayed such a great act of faith – the willingness to sacrifice his own son, that it was only outdone by God himself when he gave his son, Jesus Christ, to die on our behalf.  It is this perseverance that defined Abraham and for which he is remembered.

I started out talking about Jack Taylor’s basketball feats and if a broadcaster were to do an abbreviated play-by-play of Abrahams’s life it might go something like this:

  • Leaves Ur of the Chaldeans – Count it! – he scores!
  • Tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister – Abraham clanged that one off of the front rim and misses!
  • Abraham gets Hagar pregnant – He throws up an air ball and misses everything.  Man, is he in a shooting slump!
  • Abraham obeys God’s instruction to sacrifice his son Isaac, but the angel of God stops him from carrying it out – Abraham hits on the three pointer at the buzzer to win the game!

“Every time you don’t make an attempt, you fail automatically” – Marc and Angel tweet.

What’s Next?

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. . . .but the righteous will live by his faith – Habakkuk 2:4b – NIV

After two years in the media spotlight and two billion dollars spent by the candidates, the US presidential election is finally over. (Gee, I wonder what everyone will post on my Facebook timeline now?) Current President Barach Obama has been reelected. The President’s staunch supporters are jubilant, his ardent critics are depressed and many in the middle are just glad the whole thing is over. One Arizona woman was so distraught by the President’s re-election that she ran down her husband with the family car for failing to vote. The irony is that her preferred candidate, Mitt Romney won the vote in the state of Arizona with or without her husband’s uncast vote.

One of my neighbors made a comment that I think reflects the sentiment of many, “I wasn’t thrilled with either candidate. I was afraid that Obama is going to plunge the country into financial ruin and I’m afraid that Romney is going to plunge us into war.” We have the same President, the same Speaker of the House, the same parties in control of the houses of Congress and an impending fiscal cliff. If past results are any indication of future performance, the directions on a shampoo bottle might well describe the political landscape over the next four years, lather, rinse, repeat.”

Whatever reactions to the election might be, I think they reveal a bias in many Christians of over reliance on the civil government to cure our societal ills. Some on the left would argue that more government programs are needed to provide for social needs while those on the right would argue that more laws governing moral conduct are needed. Mankind’s greatest needed are not economic, militaristic or social. Man’s greatest need is spiritual and no government or political ideology is going to fill that need.

While it might appear that I am being overly critical of our political process, by comparison, it’s wonderful. I heard a radio show host make a remark that in the history of mankind and all of the countless billions of people who have ever lived on the face of the earth, how many ever had the opportunity to elect their leaders? The pages of history are marked with pharaohs, kings, emperors and dictators none of which were elected by the people they governed. Even today, nearly 20% of world’s population is from the country of China were free elections are not held and the church is persecuted. Democracies like Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom do not directly elect their Prime Ministers, the closest equivalent to the office of President in those countries. Rather, citizens vote on their parliamentary representatives who in turn select the Prime Minister. Every four years in the United States there is a peaceful transition of power. While the transition might be marked by mudslinging and name calling, it is devoid of violence and bloodshed.

Back to the question I posed earlier, “what’s next?” or to borrow the title of a book by Francis Schaeffer, “how should we then live?” The prophet Habakkuk complained to God about the injustice he was seeing in his day. God answers Habakkuk and lets him know that he is sending the Babylonians, a people more wicked that than the Israelites to administer justice against them. Habakkuk complains to God again asking how he could allow the more wicked to punish the less wicked. God again answers Habakkuk letting him know that the Babylonians will not ultimately escape justice, but they too will be punished. While God is revealing this Habakkuk, he reminds him, “but the righteous will live by his faith” (2-4b). Habakkuk is a relatively short book, comprising only three chapters. Over the course of the three chapters we see a transformation in Habakkuk. In the first chapter he is complaining to God, but by the last chapter, he is praising God. Habakkuk realizes that God’s justice will ultimately prevail and that God’s goodness and love toward him cannot be appropriately assessed through the lens of current circumstances. Habakkuk is so overwhelmed by this realization that he composes lyrics and puts them to song, “Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign LORD is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” (3:17-18).

God is the ultimate sovereign ruler. He cannot be voted out of office, impeached or overthrown by military coup. Any earthly leader only leads by God’s will. Proverbs 21:1 reminds us that, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases.”

How do we as Christians make the greatest impact in our communities? It’s not primarily by espousing our political ideologies on Facebook, Twitter or other social media outlets. These efforts at best only serve to educate like-minded people, and do little to “convert” anyone to our way of thinking. We make the greatest impact for the cause of Christ when those around us see us passionately and authentically living our faith. “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16 – KJV).

Living in Vision

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Video link – Indianapolis Colts Head Coach – Chuck Pagano delivers inspiring message to his team

And the LORD answered me, and said , Write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it. – Habakkuk 2:2 (KJV)

If you do not follow NFL football closely you may not know the name Chuck Pagano or be aware of his current plight. Pagano is the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts who was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in September of this year. He took a leave of absence from his coaching duties to undergo treatment for his cancer. However he was well enough to visit his team last Sunday after their win against the Miami Dolphins to deliver an inspiring speech the link to which is contained in this post. Even prior to Pagano’s speech, The team rallied around their ill coach, winning four of five games since he’s been off the sidelines. The Colts fan base has shown it’s support of Pagano with banners and clothing carrying the phrase, Chuckstrong a play on words from the “Live Strong” organization founded by Lance Armstrong.

While not ignoring his current difficult circumstances, Pagano made it clear he was living to see a brighter future, a future that would include him dancing at his daughters’ wedding and coaching his teams on to several Super Bowl victories. I don’t know of Pagano’s religious beliefs, but as it is said in some preaching circles, Pagano’s speech to his team will “preach.” There is a message in it for the Christian community. Scripture reminds us that “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7 – KJV) and that “without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb. 11:6 – NIV). The writer of the book of Hebrews describes faith as “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” 11:1 (KJV). In order words, believers are to “live in vision.”

Living in vision is not always an easy place to live. When the going gets tough, we are tempted to focus on the wind and waves and to lose sight of the one who can quite the storm or either guide us safely through it. From time to time we all fall prey to a case of spiritual amnesia or ADD. We forget God’s past faithfulness. That is why it is so important for us to consistently practice the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Bible study, worship and fellowship with other believers. We will only live in vision to the extend that we are transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2).

Living in vision requires a careful balancing act. When faced with difficult circumstances our first reaction may be to ignore the circumstances in the hopes that God will somehow airlift us out of them. Another common reaction is to become overwhelmed by our circumstances. Either reaction results in inaction and our situation is unlikely to improve. We must take vision propelled action knowing that God has promised to give us hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). Our current situation in no way impedes the fulfillment of God’s plans for us.