Sitting on the Stool

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“There are two spiritual activities which are to be unceasingly part of a believer’s life, two great pillars that hold up the believer in the matter of daily living.  One is the study of the Word of God.  Two, prayer.”

— John MacArthur

I’m not one to usually criticize John MacArthur, who some would argue is the best exegetical preacher alive today, but when I was listening to his sermon “The Paternity of Prayer” on my way to work the other day, the above quote popped out at me.

Immediately, I thought: Wait a minute. What about service?

I do not disagree that study and prayer are two essential aspects of the Christian life, but if we forget or minimize the necessity of service, we fail to put legs to what our study and praying have revealed. This is why I have often thought of Christianity like a three-legged stool that must continually be in balance, where one leg is study, one is prayer, and one is service.

You cannot neglect one or two of these legs without toppling over. For instance, a person that is great at study but does not pray, he only has head knowledge and can get filled up with the arrogance of much learning. Or if he has a passion for prayer so as to see great miracles occur but does not study or serve, he will not produce anything meaningful. This is why Solomon warns us:

“Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecc. 12:12-14)

And it is why Paul says:

“And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Cor 13:2)

In both situations, Solomon and Paul emphasize that the most important thing is not knowledge or faith by itself, but it is adding both of these things to what you do. As Paul later wrote in Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (NIV)

Service, then, is a necessary leg of the Christian existence. If it was not, James would not have argued that it is our deeds that prove our faith (Ja. 2:17-18) Jesus would not have said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (Jn. 13:35) And the disciples in Acts would not have delegated the work of distributing food to the widows to seven godly men so that The 12 would not neglect “prayer and the ministry of the Word.” (Acts 6:1-4)

I understand that it is safer to remain in one’s study, surrounded by books and excavating truths never before understood. I respect that it feels more comfortable, and at times it feels more spiritual, to pray for a person or a situation, rather than get involved. But God calls us out of our safe places and asks us to leave our comfort zones. This is why Jesus tells us “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) Because we are to be a going people. We are to be an engaging people. We are revolutionaries who are on a mission to change the culture of our homes, communities, and nations. We are a people who are to serve “by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.” (1 Peter 4:11)

We are not to be cowardly or sluggish or foolish. Those are mistakes the anxious. We are not to be arrogant, doubting, or disbelieving. Those are the mistakes of the inactive. We are to be doing, going, and serving. Giving our bodies up as living sacrifices (Rom. 12:1), which is “your spiritual worship” (or, “your rational service“).

Neglect not this third leg of Christianity. It is where you get to see the truth you’ve studied in action, and where you witness your prayers become weapons of warfare. It is where you are allowed to join the holy, sovereign, creating God in the redemptive work He is doing. To reject such an honor is disrespectful. To refuse such a privilege is unthinkable. No man is remembered who does not add service to his study and prayer.

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Burn the Ships

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In 1518, Cortez sailed from Spain with 11 ships carrying 500 soldiers and 100 sailors. The goal was to conquer the Aztecs of Mexico. But when they landed on the Mexican coast in 1519, the indigenous people far outnumbered Cortez and his crew. Fear set in for many and some of the men developed a secret plot to retreat to Cuba. It was safer there and they could wait for reinforcements.

But when Cortez learned of this treachery, he refused to listen to the plan of retreat. Instead, he did the one thing that no one would have expected him to do. He ordered his men to burn the ships. “The only way we will leave this land,” he told his men, “is in death!”

Incredibly, the men rallied behind their commander and conquered the Aztecs’ empire, which had been around for over 600 years.

How did they do it?

Simple. They burned all of their avenues of retreat, leaving themselves only one direction in which to move — forward.

Think about that for a moment.

When you take the time to look at your “have to” list or when you sit down to begin tackling your impossible dreams, what avenues of retreat do you permit yourself? Social media? Alcohol? Hanging out with friends? Netflix? Menial chores? Self-beratement?

OR…Maybe you are more clever than that.

Maybe, as you attempt to move your desire into an actionable plan, you provide yourself with the following avenues of retreat:

  1. Disguise: Don’t tell the truth
  2. Avoid the truth: Tap dance
  3. Answer questions with questions
  4. Keep people off track
  5. Keep the B.S. going
  6. Let someone else do all the work
  7. Don’t take responsibility
  8. Blame someone or something else
  9. Keep the attention off of yourself
  10. Keep everyone else in an uproar!
  11. Scatter birdseed, i.e. lead them on a wild goose chase!
  12. Consider yourself special, get into cliques or sub-groups
  13. Focus on a member of the opposite sex instead of what you should be doing
  14. Don’t do anything extra. Do ONLY what you HAVE to do.
  15. Tell others what they want to hear and look sincere.
  16. Change the subject when your dreams/goals are brought up.
  17. Trust no one! Never let down your guard.
  18. Focus on rescuing someone else from their mistakes, failures, etc.
  19. Convince yourself that you don’t need anyone’s help.
  20. Quit…and take someone with you, if you can manage it. (Misery loves company)
  21. Focus on what’s happening in the world
  22. Isolate yourself. Avoid sharing with others
  23. Gripe and complain about everything
  24. Don’t help others, let them fend for themselves.
  25. Build resentments and hang onto them for a long time.
  26. Stay in your head. Don’t let yourself get in touch with your feelings.
  27. Get angry. It throws others off balance.

Or maybe you use one of the following words to weasel out of actually doing anything at all:

  • I don’t know
  • I don’t remember
  • I’ll try
  • You’re picking on me
  • I don’t see how
  • Anyway…
  • Huh?
  • Sorta
  • But
  • If I can
  • I can’t
  • As I can
  • It’s too hard
  • I guess so
  • More or less
  • Maybe
  • Sometimes.¹

Now, take a moment. Go back over the list and ask yourself which of these avenues of retreat sound like you? What practical steps would it take for you to burn these ships?

Don’t just list these ideas in your head.

Write it down.

Make it real.

What would happen if you destroyed ALL of the avenues of retreat in your life so that only ONE path was open to you: the path forward?

What dreams could you begin to accomplish? What goals would you have stripped of the word “impossible?” What excuses would no longer be available? What dreams would you have forced out of your head to become a reality in the world around you? What impact would you make not only in your life but also on those who came in contact with your realized ambitions? What would you be able to do if you honestly assessed your life and decided, right now, to lay the torch to the deck and burned the ships?

 

 (¹Taken from a handout entitled “How to Slide Through Treatment and Stay Sick.” Author Unknown)

Quick Thoughts: Repair Your Gate

And Shallum the son of Col-hozeh, ruler of the district of Mizpah, repaired the Fountain Gate. He rebuilt it and covered it and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. And he built the wall of the Pool of Shelah of the king’s garden, as far as the stairs that go down from the city of David.16 After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, ruler of half the district of Beth-zur, repaired to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool, and as far as the house of the mighty men. 17 After him the Levites repaired: Rehum the son of Bani. Next to him Hashabiah, ruler of half the district of Keilah, repaired for his district. 18 After him their brothers repaired: Bavvai the son of Henadad, ruler of half the district of Keilah. 19 Next to him Ezer the son of Jeshua, ruler of Mizpah, repaired another section opposite the ascent to the armory at the buttress.[f] 20 After him Baruch the son of Zabbai repaired another section from the buttress to the door of the house of Eliashib the high priest. (Neh. 3:16-20)

When you look at the headlines from the last week, you see racial unrest boiling across the country. Terrorist attacks in Bangladesh. Flooding in China. Cops being assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The FBI director being interrogated by Congress. A presidential candidate facing possible indictment for mishandling classified information. Long term unemployment is higher than it was at the start of the Great Recession. And the people in charge (or the people competing to be in charge) do not seem to have any viable solutions to fix the overwhelming struggles that face us. The walls that used to surround our country and protect us from outside forces seem to have been trampled. The gates that used to be heavily guarded seem to have been burned to the ground, leaving us with the feeling that we are left only with rock and ash.

The feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness can be overwhelming. But this is where we can learn a valuable lesson from the story of Nehemiah. Each person came out and repaired the section of the wall that was in front of their home.  They did not huddle into private corners and complain about the sad state of.affairs. They did not discuss the impossibility of the task before them. Rather, they came out of their homes, evaluated the damage to tje wall in front of them, picked up a fresh rock or piece of wood, and stood firm as they repaired what belonged to them! They stood shoulder to shoulder, taking care of their responsibility, and within a short period of time, that which had been destroyed was restored.

Ask yourself: If I was to stop worrying and start working, if I was to take care of repairing the section of broken wall in my family, my community, or my church, what role would I need to play? How could I actively repair with my neighbor the intersecting parts of what used to make our lives safe and our faith strong to create healing within my small footprint in the world? How much complaining would I need to stop doing and how much solution-oriented activity would I need to begin in order to see the walls be rebuilt and the ash swept away?

But, you may ask, how can I be equipped to stand firm and meet the task in front of me?

Fortunately, God gives us this answer in Ephesians 6:10-20 (emphasis mine).

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, 15 and, as shoes for your feet, having put on the readiness given by the gospel of peace. 16 In all circumstances take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one; 17 and take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God, 18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints, 19 and also for me, that words may be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mystery of the gospel, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains, that I may declare it boldly, as I ought to speak.

Stand firm. Keep alert. Persevere. Rebuild.

From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17 who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon<span class=”crossreference” data-link=”(Q)” data-cr=”#cen-NIV-12377Q” style=”box-sizing: border-box; font-size: 0.625em; line-height: 22px; position: relative; vertical-align: top; top: 0px;”> in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.  (Nehemiah 4:16-18, emphasis mine)

 

Quick Thought: Whose Battle is It?

Ezra 5:6-17

 This is a copy of the letter that Tattenai the governor of the province Beyond the River and Shethar-bozenai and his associates, the governors who were in the province Beyond the River, sent to Darius the king.They sent him a report, in which was written as follows: “To Darius the king, all peace. Be it known to the king that we went to the province of Judah, to the house of the great God. It is being built with huge stones, and timber is laid in the walls. This work goes on diligently and prospers in their hands. Then we asked those elders and spoke to them thus: ‘Who gave you a decree to build this house and to finish this structure?’10 We also asked them their names, for your information, that we might write down the names of their leaders.[b] 11 And this was their reply to us: ‘We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and we are rebuilding the house that was built many years ago, which a great king of Israel built and finished. 12 But because our fathers had angered the God of heaven, he gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, the Chaldean, who destroyed this house and carried away the people to Babylonia. 13 However, in the first year of Cyrus king of Babylon, Cyrus the king made a decree that this house of God should be rebuilt. 14 And the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple that was in Jerusalem and brought into the temple of Babylon, these Cyrus the king took out of the temple of Babylon, and they were delivered to one whose name was Sheshbazzar, whom he had made governor; 15 and he said to him, “Take these vessels, go and put them in the temple that is in Jerusalem, and let the house of God be rebuilt on its site.” 16 Then this Sheshbazzar came and laid the foundations of the house of God that is in Jerusalem, and from that time until now it has been in building, and it is not yet finished.’ 17 Therefore, if it seems good to the king, let search be made in the royal archives there in Babylon, to see whether a decree was issued by Cyrus the king for the rebuilding of this house of God in Jerusalem. And let the king send us his pleasure in this matter.” (ESV)

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After years and years of rebelling against God and prophets warning what would happen if the nation of Israel did not repent, God eventually gave Israel over to their enemies and the consequences of their depraved minds. For seventy years they were captives in a foreign land. This meant that there was enough time for three or four generations of Israelites to be living side by side in captivity. This was long enough for traditions to change, religions to be forgotten, and an entire culture to be rewritten and erased from existence. But God had promised restoration to His people. And so, according to the word of Isaiah that had been spoken 150 years earlier (Isa. 44:28), Cyrus released the Jews and allowed them to begin rebuilding their city and their temple.

However, this did not go over well with the locals, and they tried to stop the massive rebuilding project that had begun in Jerusalem.

Now, at this point, we need to pause. Pull back the curtain a bit. Let’s look at this from a different historical perspective. Prior to creation, Satan attempted a coup in Heaven and failed. Although he and his followers were cast out, he just regrouped and continued the battle here on earth. Their first victory was the Fall. But the destruction of man’s purity is not the ultimate goal for Satan. Rather, realizing that he cannot compete against a holy God, his goal is to make the playing field even by removing God’s holiness. And the easiest way to accomplish this? To thwart just one of God’s promises. You see, if only one of God’s promises does not come true, then Satan has proved God to be a liar. Imperfect.  Unable to predict and navigate all the variables. In other words, finite and fallible.

So, when God begins to move history and kings in the direction of fulfilling His promise of restoration, when the walls of Jerusalem and the temple begin to be rebuilt, Satan organizes a faction of people with political clout to oppose the work. This is spiritual warfare and the stakes are much higher than a city or a building. It is the character and person of God.

It seems these Israelites knew this as well. For when their  opponents asked who they were (so they could tell the king who was “rebelling” against his kingdom), they responded that they were “servants of the God of heaven and earth.” Their focus was not on themselves, but on preserving the name of the Lord. We see this pattern repeated during many spiritual battles throughout scripture, both in the Old and the New Testaments:

In Moses’ injunction for Pharaoh to “Let My people go!”

In David’s answer to Goliath: “You come to me with a sword and with a spear and with a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.”

In Joshua’s challenge to the people of Israel:  “And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

In Gideon’s battle cry: “A sword for the LORD, and for Gideon!”

In the response of Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego:  “O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. 17 If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king.[d] 18 But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.”

In Peter’s response to the Pharisees when told to stop preaching the Gospel:  “We must obey God rather than men.”

In Paul’s writing to the Corinthians: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”

In James’ pleading words: “Come near to God and He will come near to you.”

And even today, when you are sitting at the dinner table, and your 17-year-old child challenges the core beliefs of your faith, or when you are at work and encouraged to compromise your values, or perhaps when you are alone, everyone else in the house is asleep, and you consider watching that internet site you shouldn’t….Whatever battle you find yourself in, whatever “king” challenges you (whether literal or metaphorical), remember:

1) “We are servants of the God of heaven and earth.” That is your starting place. This opposition is not about you. It is, ultimately, about God. You may be damaged or destroyed in the process but you are not the bullseye of this conflict. Fight not only for yourself. Fight also for God.

2) God is a god of promises. And His promises do not fail. He is not a liar, indeed He cannot lie.

3) For this reason, you can stand confidently in the promises of God.  “Fear not” should not only be an injunction of angels but also the motto for Christian living. If kings must bow to the will of God, why should we bow to kings?

 

The Star Trek Life

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In 1966 (a full eleven years before George Lucas reinvented the movie industry), Gene Roddenberry pitched an idea to t.v. execs that was so unusual in the day of Andy Griffith and Bonanza that he wound up describing it as the “Wagon Train of space.” In retrospect, that wasn’t a bad description as characters moved from one adventure to the next each week, but never really got anywhere. But that was okay. These people, even the strange one with the pointy ears, were relatable.

They embraced the pioneering spirit that made America great and used technology, ingenuity, and a utopian worldview in a futuristic era “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” But their lives weren’t perfect. They still struggled with the same character defects of all humans, and much like the viewers who tuned in each week, they seemed to always be teetering on the brink of war with their arch-rival, the Klingons. Ironically, after only 79 episodes, they were canceled one month before America’s pioneering spirit and advanced technology helped Neil Armstrong walk on the moon. However, when the show hit syndication in 1970 it quickly developed a rabid fan base and became a cult classic, laying the foundation for movies, animated series, and spin-offs that would so capture the imagination that in 1976 NASA eventually named its first space shuttle Enterprise.

This year Star Trek should be getting its AARP card any day as it hits the half-century mark. As a writer, I cannot overstate how impressive this is to me. To have a television series ingrain itself so firmly into the psyche of a culture and a genre that it persists to 50 years old is not just hitting a home run. It is tantamount to hitting the ball out of the ballpark and across the parking lot. Granted, it doesn’t hold a candle to the longevity of Shakespeare (who recently celebrated his 400th birthday), but come on. We’re talking about television here.

Still, Star Trek has left such an indelible mark on us science fiction fans that filtering our lives through the following phrases is futile to resist (see what I did there?) :

1.

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When I was a child my father always emphasized to me that one choice, even a minor one, can forever change the course of a man’s life. At the time, I thought he was being melodramatic so that I would incorporate wisdom into my daily decisions. But as I have aged and have become a father of two sons myself, I realized that this is not melodrama at all. The true measure of a man lies not only in the wisdom he exercises but also in the boldness that follows that wisdom. Unfortunately, most people opt for comfort, sameness, and the familiar because they are unwilling to let go of what they know so that they can exchange it for the possibility and freedom of the unknown. Unless it is immoral or illegal, do yourself a favor: count the cost that your decision will demand of you, clip the cord of fear that holds the “what” and the “if” together, and boldly go where you have never gone before.

2.

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We like to think of ourselves as the heroes of our own stories. The indefatigable survivors who through luck and ingenuity escape each successive trial and eventually overcome the evil that is facing us.

But that is not always the case.

Sometimes when we boldly go we must be willing to admit that we may never return. We may not be the Kirk, or the McCoy, or the Picard. We may be … a Redshirt. You know who I’m talking about. Like all members of the Enterprise, the Redshirts also boldly went where no man has gone before. But his was always a tragic end. He was that inevitably expendable member of the landing party whose death exposed the present danger and paved the way for success in the lives of his companions.

As we boldly go, we must ask: Am I willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so that the cause may be accomplished or that others may be protected?

We must realize that not all of us will see the end of the journey. But we are no less a valuable member of the team. Even Spock, one of the most beloved characters of the franchise, once sacrificed himself because “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few…or the one.”

You must ask yourself: Am I willing to do the same? Or am I just boldly going for the glory?

3.

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Leonard Nimoy made no secret of the fact that he tweaked a Hebrew blessing he had learned from his childhood to give us this popular Vulcan saying. But whether one is boldly going in this world or in another, it is important to always remember to bless those who share the journey with you.

Sometimes we can get so caught up in what we are doing we forget to nurture the relationships around us. To look out for who they are. To have their best interests at heart.  To make their priorities our own. And, if we are in a position in which we cannot do anything physical or material for them, then we ought to pray daily for them, interceding on their behalf.

May we use “Live long and prosper” not only as a blessing but also as a way of reminding those with whom we share our journey that long life and prosperity are often more about quality than quantity. This is not an injunction to extend life or wealth. It is an encouragement to seek wisdom, practice selflessness, and live a life worth emulating. May we provide such a powerful example of all these characteristics and more that others will understand how to pass this blessing on to those who come after us.

4.

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No plan is a good one unless we put it into action. That is why we must all follow the advice of Captain Jean-Luc Picard and continually give the command to “Engage!” We cannot be thinkers only. We must be doers as well.

It is too easy to procrastinate because of fear. But the command to “Engage!” or “Make it so!” (another Picard favorite) are not the words of the most clever, best prepared, or least fearful person. Rather, they are the words of someone unafraid to risk maintaining the status quo. They understand that if given time a better plan may develop, but right now is not the time for thinking. Now is the time for doing so that great things can be accomplished.

Make your life full of engagement. Do not hold back, wondering, craving, or hoping that something will change. That is a passive approach to living, an unwillingness to accept responsibility for your own self and a hope that someone will fix your problems for you. Engage life! You may not have the best solution, but that’s okay. An active approach to your problems is always better than waiting for the current to change. Put your plans into action. Set your course. Activate the warp drive, and accelerate towards a future of unimaginable adventures. Make it so!

5 Minute Therapy: Overcoming Procrastination

procrastination-clipart-procrastinationOk, everyone knows that change is rarely easy but it is often necessary. If you find yourself in one of those seasons of life where change is needed but “things keep getting in the way” or you’re “too busy,” then we need to discuss what is holding you back. We need to talk about procrastination. And since I know that your time is precious, we will only use five minutes or less to discuss this demon and how to overcome it. Continue reading