“Chicken, beef or vegetarian?”
The text was from the planners for an upcoming banquet. My meal choice was needed and I quickly shot back my answer. I was hungry.
Ahh, wouldn’t it be nice if all decisions in life were that easy?
They’re not. Most the time I hate being pushed into issuing a verdict. I often try to put off coming to a conclusion as long as possible because I naturally doubt my initial conviction. Yet it seems there’s always some kind of decision I’m being asked to make—financially, vocationally, relationally, politically, ethically, spiritually, medically, nutritionally, etc., etc. Some feel easy, some seem irrelevant, while others overwhelm me as completely impossible. And I must remember that procrastination and even not choosing at all are all choices. I can’t get away from them!
Following Jesus is the choice I want to focus on. It’s actually a decision made up of many choices: daily, hourly and even minute by minute. They determine what I believe, think and do, as well as how I react, love, hate, give, trust others, and distract myself, all in light of truly being a follower of Jesus. And sooner or later an outcome chases after each one—outcomes, that for better or worse, I must own.
Joshua said it several thousand years ago, “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15). He was fed up with the people of his country waffling on important issues like who their god was going to be. I find, however, that I so dread the thought of being stuck with the results of a bad choice (I don’t have all the information after all) that I look for ways to avoid committing at an intersection in life. Saying ‘yes’ to one thing means saying ‘no’ to one or more others. What if a better option comes along? Can’t I just hold off and sit here for a while, no obligations? Of course I can; that’s a choice. And it will eventually produce some kind of consequence.
As a result, it’s easy to just let life happen, which is releasing others to make choices for me. That then becomes my choice with its own set of consequences. I’m sure that some who were listening to Joshua were thinking, if not saying out loud, “But what if a better god comes along?” Hmm. And how did that work out for them?
They’re Ours to Own
The irony of making decisions is that while we want, and even fight for, the right to make our own choices—resisting the commands of those “Joshuas” who want to control us—we also struggle with it. There are many times we would rather someone just tell us what to do. Choosing can be hard and confusing work. It’s nice to have someone who’s figured it out give us the answer. And if in the end their judgment was wrong then it wasn’t our fault. Right?
Unfortunately, for that way of thinking, an irrefutable law stalks us: everything about our choices belong to us. We choose, whether we realize it or not, how we respond to everything that is thrown at us, even the things we didn’t choose: our DNA, our upbringing and all those crazy, painful outside circumstances or abuses. Though it feels like we don’t have a choice, we still must decide our response, our attitude and our actions. What we do with all that is given or thrust upon us is ours! And as much, if not more, these choices are what make us who we are, for good or for ill.
A lot of Choices to Examine
I want to use this blogging space going forward to talk about what it means to move through every day as a follower of Jesus, depending on His grace but recognizing all the choices before us. There’s actually many to look at because walking with Jesus involves our entire life—every part. And like so many other choices, not committing or half committing our lives to Him (is it possible to half-commit to my wife?) has an eternal consequence.
So, take Joshua’s challenge and choose. Some choices will be as simple as deciding between chicken or beef. Others will force you to search more deeply, determining WHO you’re going to serve each day. And your options are quite limited on that last one. For, as the Bible communicates and one of our American cultural prophets, Bob Dylan, has said, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody. It may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
The choice is yours.
My father was a boy during World War 2. He often heard of atrocities that America’s enemies, the Japanese and the Germans, were committing. According to the stories, those foreigners were the villainous aggressors, and they were seeking to come to our country to do the same things. In his child’s imagination, the images of these people resembled monsters. They were evil incarnate.
Then came the day he learned that his own grandparents and mother were Germans. The mental dissonance was overwhelming. How could his gentle, caring mom be one of the enemy? Of course, she wasn’t. And thus my dad had his first lesson on one of the problems that come with judging whole groups of people with simplistic labels.
What are God’s thoughts on canceling people because of their reputation, behavior, or beliefs?
A Prophet’s Struggles
We get a good idea of God’s perspective in the Old Testament book of Jonah. God told this prophet to go to Nineveh and announce that unless the people of that city repented of their evil ways, it was going to be destroyed. Jonah however, refused. He got on a ship sailing the opposite direction, seeking to get as far from Nineveh as possible. A horrendous storm came up, and to keep the rest of the passengers and sailors from perishing, Jonah had them throw him overboard. He was aware that his disobedience was the cause of the storm. What happened next is the most familiar part of his story.
A giant fish swallowed him. And we are told that he survived in its belly for three days while he went through an uncomfortable repentance process. He was then spit onto dry ground and given a second chance to do what God had instructed.
I have tended to view Jonah as a jerk. The story narrator tells us that the prophet didn’t want to preach to the people of Nineveh because he was concerned they would actually respond to his message. That’s not the usual fear of a preacher.
“I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people” (Jonah 4:2 NLT).
And because he was familiar with these character qualities of God, he rightly predicted how the Almighty would respond if the people of Nineveh responded to his message. God is merciful and prefers to forgive than destroy. So, how could this prophet of God know all this and yet be so heartless toward Nineveh?Read More
I recently had someone describe her life problems to me as rooted in co-dependency. She could see that her choices had become so enmeshed with another person’s responses that she no longer knew what was hers and what was the other person’s. The solution she came up with was to set more boundaries in her life.
She recognized that the lack of distinction in her own identity left the door open for others to manipulate her and use her to meet their own personal needs, often to her detriment. Letting people do this had at first seemed to be the loving thing to do. It was how she felt accepted. But as she continued in this tendency, she began to realize that she was often left empty, confused, and unsure of who she was anymore. Having no personal boundaries actually had devalued her. This revelation gave her hope that life could be different if she could change. But, of course, there is a lot of work ahead. For she is like so many of us who do not easily accept restrictions on how we operate.
What is it about the limits of a boundary that we do not like?
Fences seem to put out an invitation to be climbed. There always seems to be something on the other side that is attractive, making promises, or declaring a new level of righteousness that will be attained by those bold enough to ignore the old ways and push beyond any limitations. Laws become suggestions or merely dares to not be caught violating them. Rules are quickly judged to be unjust or frivolous. We humans find all kinds of ways to discredit boundaries. That is unless we can start to see that some (and perhaps even all) protect us from some kind of harm and allow us to grow.Read More
I had a short stint running track when I was in middle school. It was enjoyable until the coach put me in an 800 meter race that I had not prepared for. As a sprinter, I applied what I knew and started out strong. But halfway through I had nothing left and ended up coming in last place. Not only was that the last track meet I ever participated in, but it was also the day it dawned on me that what is reserved for the end of a race is just as important, if not more so, as what is put in at the start.
Of course, beginnings are important. Poor starts in athletic events, and life itself, can make winning seem impossible. But even with a disappointing outset, the end is never fully determined until the crossing of the finish line or the ticking of the last second off the clock. It’s true of races, soccer matches, and football games. The way a person or team finishes, more than how they begin, says much about who they are and what they value.
This is true for how life and faith are lived out as well.
They Were Chosen, But . . .
The Bible is full of stories of people who started out well but are now remembered for their poor finishes. Saul, the first king of Israel, comes to mind. He seemed to be such a humble unassuming guy when he was first anointed to lead Israel. But by the time his reign ended, he was ignoring all the instructions of God’s law and prophets and was a paranoid and unstable man. And then there was Judas. Chosen by Jesus as one of the Twelve, he had every opportunity to be remembered as one of the pillars of the Christian faith. Instead, he ended up being a thief and then betraying Jesus to the religious leaders for a bag of silver.
Strong beginnings in life are helpful. But it is how one finishes that speaks the loudest and most powerfully impacts those watching.Read More
During my senior year in high school, my football coach referred to me as a “great athlete.” I was shocked but ecstatic that he would say such a thing. That was NOT how I saw myself. I had had minimal interest in athletics most my life, never finding deep personal fulfillment on any particular team, preferring to spend time reading books. Playing sports (when I did) was mostly a pathway for acceptance from peers. But with those words, uttered from a man who had driven us hard into the Oregon State Quarter Final Playoffs (where we were soundly defeated), I felt as if I had found myself. Soon after the season ended, the same coach encouraged me to try out for a college team (albeit a small one). I was pumped with a new and alluring picture of myself: Jeff the athlete!
What am I, really?
It wasn’t until a long conversation a month later with my girlfriend (who would eventually be my wife) that I faced what was really going on inside. I didn’t really want to play football. It was the newly-embraced athletic image that I was seeking to maintain. Even then, however, I did not yet realize that I was seeking a narrow, two-dimensional picture of myself that could easily answer the question, “who am I?” Being an athlete was such an easy, culturally acceptable, ready-made handle that was difficult to let go of.
I ended up not playing any sports in college. And the answer to my question remained elusive. Even as I tried various activities and jobs over the next few years and explored different college majors, I was unable to compress myself into a neat and tidy manageable understanding of who or what I was.
Lesson learned: The longing for a clarified identity never leaves. I always feel driven to center my self-understanding on that one thing that makes me feel unique, that I can do better than those around me, or that just makes me feel good and right.Read More
Freshly baked bread. The smell and the taste of it are difficult to beat, especially when it’s warm, just out of the oven. My mother made it when I was growing up and still occasionally does. It’s a comforting memory associated with good and pleasant feelings. Even now, as I seek to eat healthier, I often choose to ignore the amount of carbs I’m taking in as I slather butter on the second and third pieces. What is it that gives freshly baked bread its reassuring flavor and fluffy texture?
The mystery of leaven was first introduced to me as I watched Mother bake. She would allow me and my brother to take turns “punching” the rising dough down as it expanded. As little boys, we were in awe of how it grew, spilling out of the large bowl. And then of course, there was the final product. Yum! I learned to appreciate yeast even more after tasting a type of bread that had no kind of leaven in it. In the opinion of my young still-developing palate, nothing compared to the light and airy texture of what could be produced from a few teaspoons of the ivory-colored grains mixed with flour and water.
Leaven in the Bible
But a bit of confusion settled in when I began to read the Old Testament for myself. Yeast, or leaven, appeared to be something bad. As the Jews celebrated Passover each year, they were instructed to cleanse their homes of any form of the substance. What? Get rid of this wondrously magical stuff? I learned that on one hand it was meant to remind Israel of their rescue from slavery in Egypt, when they did not have time to use yeast and let their bread rise before baking. But on the other hand, the prohibition on all forms of leaven for the Passover celebration seemed to indicate the idea that yeast represented something negative.
And then I read some of the words of Jesus, and I was even more confused. One day after performing the great miracle of provision — multiplying bread and fish for thousands — He told his disciples to be alert to the dangers of leaven. The yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees was mentioned specifically (Matthew 16:6). Being that these two religious and political groups were not known for their baking skills, what was Jesus talking about?Read More
I first smoked a cigar in college. Somehow I had managed to avoid all tobacco before that. When I joined several other film students in a project to tell a story set during a poker game, we decided our set needed to be filled with smoke. Of course there were other ways to produce that image without actually smoking multiple cigars (I see that now). But in our youthful wisdom, lighting up and puffing on multiple stogies was “obviously” the best way. Unfortunately for me, I sought no outside guidance on whether this was a good idea nor on how to go about smoking my first few wads of rolled tobacco leaves. By the end of filming, I was not feeling well. I also could not recall why I had been so eager to do this. And in case you’re wondering, the film turned out to be an embarrassment. We put more thought into filling our room with smoke than the actual story we chose to tell.
I look back and still wonder why I was so excited to light up that first time. The best answer I can come up with is that I wasn’t in touch with my real desires. Though I had refrained from tobacco throughout my high school years, the image of a real man sitting in a high-backed chair casually blowing smoke rings massaged a deep longing. Descriptors like “mature,” “confident,” “respectable,” “cool” pressed into my mind. The film class provided an opportunity to become that image. Or, so I thought. The occasion, in reality, gave me none of what I anticipated. In fact, at the end of the day, I felt like an impotent child who couldn’t handle any adult stuff. I was nothing close to the coveted image of a suave and urbane man of the world. The experience left enough of a negative impression that I never touched tobacco again. My core longings had not been addressed at all.
Desires often are moving targets. That which I am so sure I want at a certain point in my life can later have little to no appeal. What changes? I don’t think the actual desires shift. But, what I imagine will satisfy that deep yearning can jump all over the place. Smoking a cigar was not what I truly wanted. I had convinced myself, however, that it was going to give me what I longed for, at least for that season of my life.Read More
It’s been used as a joke, but there are some very funny images to support it as a reality. Do humans often resemble their pets? In attitude and temperament? Even in their looks? It appears that the answer is a strong YES! This phenomenon, particularly with dogs, has actually been studied and photographed multiple times*. The theories vary as to why this seems to be more than a coincidence. But for me, it is obvious. For one, we are attracted to things (and people) who are like us in some way. And for two, we tend to take on the characteristics of those we hang out with most often.
This idea can be seen in couples who have been married for many years. Friends who are constantly together also can begin to take on similarities that they don’t even recognize but are obvious to the outside observer. While my wife and I will be the first to point out all the ways the two of us are different, others see our similarities: our values, our lifestyles, our faith, and even some of our habits and mannerisms. It wasn’t always that way. But having been married for more than 40 years now, it’s fair to say we’ve rubbed off onto each other a bit. And, as for the non-couples out there, just look at social groups from teens on up in age. From hairstyles to clothing choices, to the use of piercings and tattoos, not to mention language and all the other cultural traits. We become more and more like those we open our lives up to.
It’s more than a physical thing
But I can see a spiritual side to this as well. I heard it said many years ago, “You become like whatever you worship.” If that is true, why would it be so?Read More
We have just finished Holy Week, and I am still reflecting on what it all means. Resurrection Sunday morning provides some hearty food for thought, considering that the followers of Christ are promised to one day experience being resurrected with new incorruptible bodies themselves. Good Friday is a bit more challenging. The Cross tends to stir offense or ridicule. But each one of Jesus’ followers have to wrestle with why he had to die a bloody death. What does it mean that Christ died for me? Christ’s death and resurrection have been and always will be the core of the Christian faith. How one responds to them determines what kind of Christ follower a person really is.
But what about that first day of Holy Week? We call it Palm Sunday. It has always been a bit of a mystery to me. Even as a child, I noticed the incongruence of Jesus being hailed the King of the Jews by adulatory crowds on this day only to be arrested, beaten, mocked and killed as a criminal a few days later. Why is recognizing this day significant? Why should we still celebrate it? And what application does it carry for our daily lives today?Read More
Ever been treated badly? Abandoned? Insulted? Ignored? Forgotten? Replaced? Taken for granted? Or you just feel like you never get a break? Nothing goes your way?
Join the club!
I have felt the sting (and sometimes the gut-punch) of all these abuses and misfortunes many times over in my lifetime. I haven’t always responded in the healthiest way. Anger, accusation, and resentment have been common. But my favorite go-to for a good portion of my life has been the cuddly-soft emotional blanket of self-pity.
The word “pity” comes from a Latin word that means dutiful respect or devotion. Its roots are closely related to the English word, “piety.” To show pity to others fundamentally refers to ‘dutifully showing respect’ for the pain or suffering of those around us. But when this pity is turned inward, all our attention and energy is ‘dutifully’ applied to the care and comfort of our own wounds and bruised feelings. The more we indulge in this warped type of “self-care,” the more it becomes an engrained pattern. And the less time and energy we have to direct sincere care outwards toward others as well as to respond to what God desires to show us.
Let’s be honest: it’s ugly!
Self-pity is one of those habits that we tend to notice in others before we identify in ourselves. When something goes wrong in a colleague or family member’s life, we see how often they view and verbalize their difficulties as the fault of circumstances and the bad intentions of others. Rarely do they take responsibility. They quickly move into nursing the perspective that such things ought never happen to them (life and God are so unfair). They typically assume they are experiencing worse treatment than anyone around them. This leads to lifting their own “suffering” above the difficulties of others and either minimizing or completely blinding themselves to the pain that those around them are experiencing. Without intervention, these patterns and conclusions become part of a person’s identity.
Don’t you hate it when people have such self-absorbed attitudes?Read More
My desire as a boy was to be strong. Being verbally and physically picked on in elementary school, I became fascinated with the idea of becoming powerful. The longing to demonstrate my strength led to a few fights and endless daydreaming of what that day would feel like when I could show the bullies what I had inside me.
And there were also the models of “manliness” I was exposed to. Athletic coaches were the most influential. They taught me that to get ahead in sports and in the world, I needed to push harder, and do whatever necessary to be better than the person in front of me. Success would come to those who could overpower the next guy. My cumulative adolescent understanding was that strength was proportional to aggression and determination to subdue anyone who stood in my way.
But my feelings of weakness always seemed to be the most powerful things within me. And as a result, I never could sustain any personal campaign of dominance or viewing myself as a conqueror.
And then there was Jesus. I was trained to look to Him as my example, praying to surrender my life to Him when I was a boy. But as I read the Bible stories, I couldn’t escape the feeling that He, as my model, was just as weak as me. Pretty disheartening for a kid trying to figure out the secret of vanquishing abusers and proving to everyone, especially myself, that I wasn’t weak. Jesus, afterall, let Himself be bullied, taught that His followers should “turn the other cheek” when attacked, and eventually gave Himself up to be killed on a cross.
What hope was there for me?Read More