Choices and More Choices

“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.

Consequences

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.

Reflections

  • What are some of the choices I regularly make that I rarely if ever think about?
  • In what ways do my everyday choices reflect my level of commitment to following Jesus?
  • What is the most powerful influencer of my choices? Circumstances? Feelings? Values?

Choosing a Different Perspective

Perhaps you’ve seen the presentation before. Someone asks you to tell them what you see on the screen. You look, and there is a single black dot in the middle. That is all. The presenter then asks if there is anything more. Once you confirm that the tiny black speck is the only thing there, the presenter then asks about all the white space surrounding the dot. Oh! You never thought about considering that as part of what was there. Now you’re looking at the screen differently.

This is just one of a million ways to introduce the idea of “reframing.” It’s the act of seeing a situation or problem from a different perspective. It can be a very helpful instrument for change. Therapists use it. Life Coaches use it. Leaders use it. And many individuals have turned it into a personal problem-solving tool. The goal is always to find a solution or way forward when confronted with the feeling that you’re  limited or stuck.

Viewing circumstances from a different angle will almost always loosen up stiff thinking patterns. In the example above, our minds tend to put a “frame” around the one tiny particle at the center of the screen, and that is all that is consciously acknowledged. A new perspective is gained when the “frame” is stretched outward to encompass the entire screen. Awareness of new space opens the door for new possibilities and, for any potential problem, new solutions. We also see that the dot (or problem) is actually quite small when a new frame opens our eyes to a much larger context.

A New Perspective

I learned to do this long before I knew there was a name for it. As I was hit with problems, fears, and hurts when I first joined YWAM, a wise voice often asked me, “What does Jesus want to teach you in this, Jeff?”

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Choosing to Care for that which Belongs to God

A few years back, some friends asked if I would keep their car while they spent a few months working in Asia. I could use it as a second vehicle as long as I took care of it. It ended up being a great deal for us as a family who had only one vehicle. It was more sporty than our minivan, a stick-shift, and a lot of fun to drive. Ironically, I was accused of giving it more tender-loving-care than our own vehicle – checking the oil at each fill-up, regular car washes, vacuuming the inside. Why? Though I enjoyed it for the season as if it was my own, I knew it was not really mine. I wanted my friends to continue to trust me and think of me whenever they had something else of importance that needed watching.

The old-fashioned word for such a role is “steward.” The term “stewardship” refers to the management of someone else’s property. It’s a word you’re likely to hear these days mainly in church services when the pastor is speaking on giving. And for the longest time, that is what I thought the word meant: giving money to the church to keep it going. I’ll save my thoughts on that for another post.

But as the years have passed, my role as a steward has taken on greater meaning. Giving thanks has become an important discipline in my life (read post on Thanksgiving). After all, there really is nothing I possess that I have acquired purely on my own. The problem, of course, is that I easily behave as if what I have is solely mine to do with as I wish. Money, titles, relationships, and time are all gifts from my Creator. Yet how I use them is still often directed by my desires and fears, not the love and wisdom of the One who gave them. Typically this produces a short-term mindset, seeking immediate gratification, rather than understanding long-term purpose. But what might be the benefits if I truly believed and lived as if everything in my possession ultimately belongs to another – to the One who gives generously but always with a purpose?

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Choosing to Offer an Invitation

In the movies it always looked so easy and nonconsequential. As a kid, I watched shows where chairs were busted over heads in barroom fights, the recipient merely staggering a few paces before flinging his opponent through a wooden railing. In addition there were the scenes where a medium-built man kicked a front door wide open. And he never walked with a limp afterwards or stopped to rub the jolted knee or hip joint. Power. It all seemed impressively real until the day I picked up a chair in anger to throw at my brother. Besides being too heavy (fortunately) to lift above my head to toss, I was instantly sobered with the realization that if the chair did break apart on his head, it would likely kill him.  I didn’t even have to experiment with kicking a door to realize that it would take someone with a lot more strength than me to pop a solid oak barrier off its hinges with one swing of the leg.

And yet there is someone with “door-busting” abilities that we should all take notice of.

Jesus began His earthly ministry overpowering (or “kicking down”) obstacles that were raised against Him and His purposes. He ordered demonic interference to be silent and flee. He commanded stormy wind and water to be calm, unfruitful trees to wither, diseases to leave human bodies, and corpses to come back to life. No human had ever displayed such might over nature, physical ailments, spiritual darkness, and death. Nothing could stand in His way. Truly, He was the archetype man of the movies that caught my imagination as a kid. He could not be stopped, no matter what was thrown at Him, no matter the barrier in front of Him. Nothing resisted His will . . . except for one thing.

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Choosing to Relate from the Heart

I was the new kid. I knew no one, and no one knew me. Having just moved from out of state, I was trying out for the football team as a high-school freshman. This was my uncharacteristically bold way of seeking connections. But half-way through the first day, I realized it wasn’t working. Everyone could see by my clumsy movements that I had never played before. I was an athletic pariah. No one dared risk expending social capital to get to know someone who would not increase their chances for success on the team. 

At the end of the long day, I dragged myself to the locker room, intending to quit.

“Hey, I think you’ll do all right,” a voice said behind me.

I turned to see the player who, from the beginning of the day, I had identified as the overall star of the team. He slapped my shoulder pads. And with that heavy thud, my life changed.

Kelley ended up becoming my best friend through high school. His extroverted popularity covered my shy awkwardness in ways I had never experienced before. We went on to room together at college (he continued his success as a football player) and were the “best men” in each other’s weddings (I finally beat him in something by finding a wife sooner). We were the first ones at the hospital when each of our daughters were born within a few weeks of each other (both, little beauties). To this day, decades later, though we live in different states and stay connected with phone calls and visits whenever possible, I still consider him my best friend. 

Years after that first day of practice I asked him why he, with such rich social and athletic capital, reached out to me, an unknown nobody. He shrugged and said, “I don’t know. I just felt my heart go out to you.” 

That was it.

Why do we choose the relationships we do?

It’s no secret that many use relationships as stepping stones to get what they want. It is not unusual for someone to let a “friendship” wither once it is no longer useful or convenient. And for most of us, the thought of initiating a relationship that demonstrates no potential for personal benefit does not even enter our minds. There are natural subconscious blocks against such a move. Whether I consciously acknowledge it or not, relationships are most often evaluated on “what they can do for me.” Energy, effort and commitment to others are meted out as I envision the return on my investment. Granted, sometimes wisdom requires me to trim my social interactions when I get overextended or a relationship becomes unhealthy. But what is the godly standard for such pruning?

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Choosing My Building Materials

I first became a homeowner when I was 25. It was a small run-down rental in a suburb of Sacramento, California. My wife and I decided we could buy it at a good price and “fix it up” ourselves in preparation for our soon-to-arrive first child. I had never done any kind of remodel work or even basic house projects for that matter. And this was before YouTube do-it-yourself videos. But it seemed like a good idea at the time. And thus I began to climb a steep learning curve: painting, wallpapering, roofing, siding, wiring, digging (an inground sprinkler system). Many mistakes, and a lot of money, later, our house was pretty much the way we wanted it. And then we sold it and joined Youth With A Mission (YWAM), all five of us living in one bedroom for more than a year.

Upon reflection, there are a couple of valuable life-lessons I learned, besides “measuring twice to cut only once” and that aligning wallpaper patterns does matter. For one, it is not good for someone with a red-green color blind condition to do household electrical work (a true story for another time). But probably even more important to be applied to the big picture of life is that the quality of the materials you use in your projects makes a difference – especially long-term.

My tendency has been to go cheap to save money. There are always less expensive toilet-repair kits, garden hoses, and brands of paint that catch my eye and keep more in my wallet. In contrast, my wife’s mantra has always been, you get what you pay for, so go with quality for the things that are important. We have had more than a few disagreements over this topic when money was tight (more true stories for another time). But, as the years have gone by and after many repeated repair jobs, paying again to replace the same part, I have come pretty close to now agreeing with her. The bottom line is, I want things to last. And making that happen never comes cheap.

The Most Important Investments

Yes, the Bible does have some things to say about quality building materials and lasting dwelling places. There is Jesus’ parable about the man who built his house on the rock (Matthew 7:24-27). We’re told that it is the quality and wisdom of Jesus’ teachings that are solid enough to be the foundation of our lives and keep us from collapsing in the storm. Of course, there is the cost of studying, meditating on, memorizing, and loving His word to actually have the benefits of this foundation.

But there is another passage that intrigues me, found in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15:

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Choosing to Follow Honest Desires

As a Follower of Jesus, is asking God to fulfill my desires a bad thing? I have been asked this question more than once. There are two extremes that I now see getting associated with Christianity. One comes out of the God-wants-you-to-be-happy theology and therefore wants to satisfy every desire. The other is more related to Eastern asceticism, labeling the pursuit of desires as a source of distraction that leads to suffering and deceitfully draws us away from God.

The short (and unsatisfying) answer that I usually offer: it depends.

So, maybe the better question is, how do I determine the character of my desire?

The Bible talks a lot about desires, and I have written before on the topic (read “Choosing to Desire Well”). Here I am writing about it again. I never seem to be able to get away from thinking about how desires are integral to how we do life. Whether we’re always aware of it or not, we make our choices and pursue our paths according to whatever object or goal our desires have zeroed-in on. Thus the Bible warns us of deceitful desires (Ephesians 4:22) and even ones that can lead to death (James 4:2). But it also informs us that there are desires that lead us to good places (Proverbs 11:23) and those that God longs to fulfill (Psalm 37:4; 145:16).

They are not all trustworthy

I have recently been going through the Book of Ephesians, and my mind got stuck on a verse warning that my life can be corrupted through deceitful desires (4:22). I began to think about how there are desires that lie and lead us in directions that are not good for us. They make promises like “If you just had more money, you would be happier.” Or, “If you had a spouse or a different spouse, or none at all, then you could flourish as a person.” Or, “If you had more education or certain skills, then you would feel valued.” All these and many more promises like them basically tell us that any particular thing or status, or relationship that we strongly desire will bring satisfaction once it is attained. Therefore, pursue it!

If there can be a “deceitful” desire, does that mean there are also honest or truth-telling desires? As I have written in the past, we typically get focused on the object of what we want which is the item or goal that we believe will satisfy. This is where we so often get deceived. An honest desire can thus be understood to be one that God has planted in us. I would call these the real or core desires of our hearts. They are what so often get overlooked as we pursue the unreliable promises of the objects we are lusting after.

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Choosing to Believe in Paradise

Dystopian stories have been all the rage for quite a few years now. The 20th Century produced novels like Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell, Brave New World by Alex Huxley, and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. They each described an imagined future in which powerful forces sought to control not only people’s behavior but also what they thought—a very grim outlook. More recently, The Hunger Games by Susan Collins and Divergent by Veronica Roth are examples of popular stories turned into movies that describe a similar bleak future for humanity in which a controlling elite, through fear and manipulation, hold the populace in bondage. Interestingly, many of the most recent and fashionable dystopian novels have been labeled “Young Adult” fiction. Might this provide a peek into this generation’s expectations for what is to come?

The word dystopian comes from the Greek prefix “dys,” which refers to something badharsh, or wrong combined with the Greek word “topos” which means place. The opposite would be utopian, which refers to a community or country where everything is perfect and ideal. 

So, why are there no utopian novels being made into movies? It seems that would be much more uplifting. My guess is that no one believes such places are possible, and stories about perfection are typically considered boring anyway. In fact, most of the dystopian novels I am aware of concern societies attempting to make themselves into utopian communities. But of course as is generally true, but not always believed, such human efforts fall short, often miserably. And thus the “best” tales that seem to resonate with the most people are those of the gloomy failures in which humans ineptly seek to make their own paradise.

Has it ever worked?

Speaking of paradise, the Bible has a few things to say on this topic. God appears to be interested in drawing humans into a place of utter joy and contentment where there is no evil. We are told in the first two chapters of Genesis that He in fact created a paradise for the first humans. Not only was this Garden perfect with every human need met, but God Himself walked and interacted with all He created, taking particular delight and interest in humans. The man and woman drew their life from the unmediated Divine Presence as the rest of creation looked to them for proper care and management. And it was this unbroken connection with the Creator that allowed the Garden, administered by the humans, to be a successful utopia. It was the place where heaven and earth met. It was the reference point that would be buried deep within the soul of every future human of what ought to be and what we were made for.

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Choosing a Real Friend

I was a child when I remember first hearing the concept of having a “friendship with God.” It provided a welcome relief from the burden of legalism my young perception of religion had pressed on me. But looking back, I now see that this new paradigm also brought a problem. My reference point for “friendship” was rooted in adolescent relationships, which were all focused on what made ME feel good. Thus, while thinking of my connection with God as a friend made Christianity more attractive, it also skewed my image of Him as I viewed our relationship through the fuzzy lens of what’s-in-it-for-me.

Friendships, in my adolescent mind, were supposed to boost MY self-esteem. They were supposed to make ME feel more valuable and less lonely. I was supposed to feel happier, more attractive and always affirmed in MY likes, dislikes and behavior. With the perfect friend at MY side, I imagined MY social awkwardness would disappear; MY shyness around girls would evaporate; I would get more compliments and affirmation. And I would have someone to help ME with MY homework to get straight A’s. The friendship motif was brilliant! Who would not want a relationship like this with God?

A Different Kind of Friendship

Initially, I felt hopeful. I had found the secret to the good Christian life: walking through this world with God as my Buddy. However, as time went on, I began to experience frustration and disappointment. God didn’t show up as a friend in all the ways I expected. I didn’t always feel happy, and I felt even more socially awkward. Loneliness still haunted me and guilt and shame nipped at my heels. My relationship with God eventually cooled as I began to see Him as not knowing how real friends were supposed to act. He needed to learn a thing or two about how to be there for me when I needed Him.

It was quite a few years later that the truth dawned on me. I had never looked into or thought about God’s understanding of “friendship.” Was it possible that His perspective was different than mine? Was He actually friends with people in the Bible? And if so, were there ground rules? How did they work?

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Choosing My Source of Glory

The pop artist Andy Warhol is said to have come up with the phrase that is now known as “15 minutes of fame.” There is disagreement over whether it was actually his idea. But regardless of who coined it, the idea took hold and is now a cliché catch phrase. It refers to the fleeting nature of celebrity status. The vast majority of those who have a season in the spotlight (be it for good or ill), are soon forgotten, relegated to the trash heap of notoriety in favor of the next interesting personality, talent, oddity, or horror. “Enjoy your 15 minutes of fame,” we might be told after getting some kind of media attention for a worthy accomplishment (or an embarrassing blunder). For typically, that is all it will be – a quick bright flash, and then mundane nothingness.

As a child, I always thought it would be great to be famous. Popularity at school would have been an encouraging start – if I only could have attained it. However, the desire did not necessarily disappear as I grew older. Perhaps it changed shape a bit, but the perennial longing for acclaim followed me into adulthood. To be recognized. To be known. To be admired. To be highly esteemed. To be remembered. By the time I was somewhat more mature, I understood that this wish to be famous and/or popular was not a godly thing and therefore probably not God’s will for me. Thus I tried to bury it.

But was my hunger for attention that far out of line?

A God-Given Craving?

In his essay, “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis addresses our human desire for fame. He concludes that glory is what we are after, and glory is what God is offering us. But, of course, like so many qualities in the broken world we live in, our understanding of this attribute has been twisted to fit our fallen self-indulgence. In our “me-centered” minds, glory is merely another word for human recognition that affirms that we are above and somehow better than others. This kind of glory is typically sought by doing anything that gets people to notice and not easily forget. It will almost always involve making a lot of money, getting major media attention, being the best at something, scoring goals, turning heads, behaving badly, forcefully overpowering others in a grandiose way, and even killing on a massive scale or in a unique way.

Hmm.

So what does God have in mind instead?

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Choosing to Embrace the Dry Season

The Sahara can be a lonely and disheartening place. I’ve been to this seemingly endless North African sandbox several times. Its beauty, overshadowed by the harshness and potential for disaster, was often not seen till after I returned home and reviewed my photos. On one trip, I hunkered down in a house with my team, riding out a sandstorm in which the air remained a hazy dark brown with little visibility for almost three weeks. During another, I nearly froze under the stars in my sleeping bag in the sand, anxiously wondering if I would be trampled by a group of nearby camels.

But the most disheartening experience was running out of gas along a barren stretch of road, miles from any village. We never saw another car. Our vehicle had a second fuel reservoir, but the mechanism used to switch the intake between the two tanks wasn’t working. In the end, I had to suck on a siphoning tube to manually move gasoline from the full one to the empty one. What a relief when the car finally started again.

And yet occasionally I have had eyes to see some profoundly beautiful things in this grim and desolate place. Green spots can suddenly appear while driving through the sea of brown rock and sand. An oasis is an exquisite sight in the desert. Jesus followers who somehow persevere in the midst of threats and persecution can unexpectedly show up at your door. What a humbling experience to interact with a believer who truly understands the cost of following our Lord. In my mind, the symbol that best represents hope in this seemingly lifeless and uninhabitable land is the date palm. It thrives in desolately arid regions and produces some of the sweetest fruit I’ve ever tasted. We gorged ourselves on this desert candy while camping beside a cool pool of water in an oasis. It was truly an exotic and refreshing experience.

Life in the Wilderness

Sometimes, followers of Jesus feel as if we have been led into a desert with no oasis in sight. It’s difficult to imagine beauty or opportunities for nourishment in harsh, dry and dusty places. The goal is usually just to find a way to get through as quickly and as painlessly as possible. And yet many followers of Jesus talk of the “dry seasons” of their faith. They wonder where God has gone, what’s up with not being able to hear His voice like they could in the past, and why serving Him feels so much harder than it used to. Desert experiences are not fun. What kind of good can they possibly provide?

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