How I make decisions

Tough decisionsHere’s the deal…practically speaking, we all have to make decisions every day.   Daily decisions are usually pretty easy.  The big ones?  Sometimes they can bring us to our knees. 

Church folks (and even lots of others) love to talk about the “will of God”…as if they are experts.  People here in Texas, when faced with a particularly difficult decision, like to say, “the Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.”  I have no idea what that means…

This, then, is how you should pray:  “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  Matthew 6:9-10

I’ve come to the realization that for most people, decision making involves:

  • Praying “God, this is what I want”
  • Looking for a feeling of happiness or contentment 
  • Taking the path that provides the highest probability of success
  • Finding people who agree and then listening to them validate your decision
  • Looking for an open door (where things all line up…or fall into place)

In 2 Corinthians, Paul recalls a time in his life when he faced a difficult decision and he writes an easily overlooked statement:

Now when I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me, I still had no peace of mind, because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said good-by to them and went on to Macedonia.  2 Corinthians 2:12-13

Are you kidding me?  God clearly provided Paul an “open door”.  God did it.  God opened the door.  And Paul slammed it shut and kept moving.  Wow.  So much for the open door theory…

Over the years, this verse has forced me to think and re-think what I believe about decision making and the will of God.  A while back, I figured it was important for me to come up with a plan for making tough decisions.  Here’s the end product.  Here’s my thought process.  Maybe it can help you.

Go to God’s Word.  Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.  Psalm 119:105

For me, the Bible is pretty clear on a lot of things.  As a matter of fact, I’d say about 90% of my day to day ethical decisions are dictated by the law of love or the example of Jesus, as I read of them in the Bible.  God’s Word remains my starting point and my true north.

Pray for wisdom.  If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.  James 1:5

Praying for wisdom…for God to give me eyes to see clearly and to apply the truth that I know…is always the one conversation I bring with confidence and boldness.  Others prayers?  Not so much.  This one?  Always.

Live a life that is pleasing to God.  Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God–this is your spiritual act of worship.  Romans 12:1

It’s pretty hard to seek after God’s will when you’re spending your time pleasing yourself.  Duh.

Determine the desires of your heart.  Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart.  Psalm 37:4

I have to remember…always…that God is my Father and he cares about the things I care about.  Even though I don’t believe his priority is my happiness, I’m confident he cares about what I like…what grabs my attention…and what thrills my heart.

Seek wise counsel.  The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice. Proverbs 12:15

I learned early on in my adult life about the genius of asking quality, mature people for their insight and advice.  I am constantly amazed by people who stubbornly (ignorantly) want to make important decisions all alone.  Totally amazed.

Ask others to pray that God would give you wisdom.  We heard about you, we have not stopped praying for you and asking God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding.  Colossians 1:9

Such a simple, humble, practical thing to do.

Be still and wait.  Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him.  Psalm 37:7

Everything about this command rubs us the wrong way.  Bow.  Be quiet.  Listen.  Wait.  Practice patience.  Definitely NOT a value we see modeled much these days.

Use common sense.  For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.  Titus 2:11-12

God gave you a brain.  Use it.  All of it.  Learn to say “no”.

Be aware of peace in your heart (and also of open doors!).  Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Colossians 3:15

In the midst of difficult decisions, I have waited for, and even sought after a peace in my heart.  But I have often prayed just as passionately for God to help me be content in the situations I find myself struggling with.

Decide if you trust God or not.  Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight.  Proverbs 3:5-6

This is the ultimate bottom line.  When I spend my life and ways acknowledging him, difficult decisions are placed in proper perspective.

Hope this helps.

*This blog post is based on my sermon from 5-27-18

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50 Life-changers…#3

number-3some things are just out of your control.

as a matter of fact, most things are out of your control.  we work hard to manipulate the environment and set goals and work the system and do everything in our power to make things turn out the way we want them to turn out…but in the end, sometimes things just don’t turn out the way we planned.

and we are either better for it, or we succumb to the tragedy of loss.  we either let our theology shape us…or let the situation shape our theology.  or maybe a little of both.

twenty-five years ago, i was convinced i was exactly where god wanted me to be.  although there were unknowns all around, i was content and deeply fulfilled living out my dream as a youth pastor in huntington beach.  i was confident, but challenged.  the work i was doing had meaning and purpose greater than anything i could have imagined.

i was surrounded by amazing friends.  i lived in one of the most beautiful and picturesque places on earth.  i was respected and valued by leaders and had the age and experience to continue to do youth ministry right there for the rest of my life.

for me, there was nothing greater than the thought of living out the rest of my days loving and serving with this same church family.  it was my heart’s desire.  it was the promise i made to god.

and then everything changed.

during my 30-plus years of teaching youth ministry to young men and women, one of the most important pieces of advice i ever gave was to help them understand that youth pastors didn’t call the shots.  youth pastors were always subject to the vision and decisions of the leadership they served under.

twenty-five years ago, i had to take my own advice.  the leadership of my own church hired a new senior pastor and it became clear from the moment i met him, that we were extremely different.  i knew, almost immediately, that we were on different pages.  his way of “doing church” and my way of “doing church” couldn’t have been more opposite.

but i had to respect the vision and decision of the leaders.  they were convinced he was who god wanted to come and lead our church family.  and for the record, he has done a great job of leading my old church family for the past twenty-five years.

but all it did was break my heart.  even though i tried for two years, i knew i no longer fit with the direction of where they were heading.  so i took my own advice and we packed up and moved on.  those were some of the saddest and most difficult days of my life.

now here’s what i learned:  we’ve gone on to have an amazing past twenty-three years…the last eighteen here in the sovereign state.  it’s hard to imagine that ministry and friendship and opportunities and family life could have been any better.  god has more than cared for us and met every need that we have had.

some would even say, that this was god’s plan all along.  that everything happened for a reason and god’s mysterious will was played out perfectly in our lives.  but that theology is not the one that has shaped and sustained me all of these years.

nope.  my understanding will appear far less profound.  i embrace the belief that bad things happen.  that dreams can be crushed and disappointment always lurks around the corner.  sometimes things just don’t work out the way we want.

but god never leaves.  he never turns his back.  his promise to hold us and sustain us and provide for our most pressing needs will never be neglected.

did i lose my dream in huntington beach, because it was all part of god’s master plan to get me to where the deer and the antelope play?  i’ll never really know.  theologically, i seriously doubt it.  but really… it doesn’t much matter to me, either.

god always kept his promises.  and he always will.  and that’s really all that matters.

No longer intimidated

standing-alonethis was not the first post i wanted to make in my comeback.

i was thinking more about a “top 10″…or goals for 2013…or an epitaph for norval.  but no.  i had to decide to get all frustrated tonight.

great.

i’m not sure there have been enough days passed since the tragedy in newtown to allow for sensitive discourse.  i’m not sure there will ever be enough days.  i don’t want to trivialize what happened.  i don’t want to use it as an object lesson.  it is simply not time to stop grieving.  but i don’t want to wait any longer to say what’s on my heart.

a couple of weeks ago, president obama spoke at a memorial service for the victims of the sandy hook shootings.  as i listened to his words, i remembering saying to myself, “no…please, no.”

here is what he said:

” ‘Let the little children come to me,’ Jesus said, ‘and do not hinder them. For such belongs to the kingdom of Heaven.’ God has called them all home. For those of us who remain, let us find the strength to carry on.”

god has called them home.  really?  maybe, in some strange way, we could say that god welcomed them home.  but don’t say that he called them home.  i think the president meant well when he said these words.  they are common words for christians to say in times of mysterious and tragic death.

“god’s ways are higher than ours.”…“god’s timing is always perfect.”…“god is sovereign and on his throne.”…“god always knows best.”…“sometimes it’s really difficult to understand god’s will.”   i’ll admit.  it sure sounds good.  spiritual.  the kinds of words people expect me to say in times like these.

i’m clergy, for crying out loud.  it’s the stuff i’m supposed to say.  but i’m not.  and i won’t.   for me, “god called his children home” sounds way too much like “god murdered 27 children and adults”…the specific ones he wanted…and that he sovereignly guided the gunman down the right hallway, to the right rooms, to the right little faces that he desired to take away.  i’m sorry.

i’m not buying.  i may be in the minority of pastors and theologians these days.  i’ve certainly not hopped on the bandwagons of the biggest guns and most popular church talking heads.  but i don’t believe in a god who manipulates killers to do his will.  no matter how theologically trendy that doctrine might be.

i don’t believe in a god who decides to punish a nation by refusing to stop the slaughter of these innocent children… because he’s no longer allowed in public schools.   i’m sorry governor mike and dr. james, but this is just disgusting and offensive teaching that is driving people away from a belief in god.

…not to mention a heartless and insulting assault on the wounds of grieving families.

i know there are stories in the old testament where god does some things that are beyond rational explanation.  but i also know that at the right time, god took on the form of a man and lived among us…and that jesus redefined what it meant to live as a human.

and he gave us a perfect picture of god…in both word and action.

Philip said to Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”  Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”   John 14:8-9

i am neither ashamed nor intimidated to proclaim that the jesus i know would never orchestrate the mass murder of people.  and this makes him no less sovereign…no less powerful…no less “god”.

and his promise to be with us…to comfort us…to teach us…to empower us to make a difference…and to bring good out of tragedy…is more real to me now than it’s ever been.

I’m not real happy tonight.

arghh1like no other time in my life, i’m really starting to get why people don’t want to have anything to do with the church…why they don’t believe in god…why there is so much animosity directed at christians and the christian faith…and why a life of spirituality, with no ties to any organized religion, is so attractive to people these days.

instead of simply grieving for the loss of loved ones during times of heinous and inexplicable tragedy, it seems like christians always  have this unsolicited urge to offer commentary…and even explanation…for god’s role in the cause and purpose of suffering.  and i’m pretty tired of it.

i understand.  i really do.  we have god’s explanation book at our fingertips, for crying out loud.  i often feel that same craving to enlighten people and set them straight as to what god’s up to during these awful events.  i suppose that’s even what i’m doing right now.  hypocrisy is such a personal buzzkill.

here’s some of what i’ve heard coming from christian leaders over the past few days:

  • “god needed his little angels more than we did.”
  • “god is punishing america for it’s unfaithfulness to his commands.”
  • “this is all part of god’s master plan.”
  • “god predestines some to salvation and some to damnation.”
  • “god called these children home.”
  • “who are we to question god’s will?”
  • “this tragedy was god’s call for each of us to personally repent.”
  • “this is a sign of the end of world.” (inferred that god is orchestrating the tragedy)
  • “god did this to bring about even greater glory for himself.”
  • “this is what you get when you take prayer out of schools.”
  • “there is no mental illness…only depraved hearts.”
  • “god is sovereign…his ways are higher than ours.”

some of these explanations have an element of truth in them.  in my pastorly opinion, others are completely false.  here is neither the time nor the place to have a theological throwdown.  and i guess that’s my point.

i know people need help wrestling with feelings and beliefs in times like these.  faith, doubt, and intense sorrow are uncomfortable bedfellows.  but this is not the time to talk.  it is the time to come along side.   if you have a belief in jesus, it’s time to act like him…not be his press secretary.

especially when the world is listening.

at a minimum, our explanations are confusing and smack of “insider language”.  at their worst, our explanations paint a picture of a vengeful and manipulative god who seems to be willing to sacrifice the lives of innocents for a greater good.  sadly, i think they are doing more harm than good…for both the sufferers and the watching world, as well.

and for the record, there appear to be a small handful of specially called and anointed pastors who know the truth well enough to speak authoritatively on behalf of god and what he is doing in these tragic acts.   and i wish they would be quiet right now.

apparently, i must have been checking my fantasy scores when that “pastor” responsibility was passed out…

Of baseball, family, honesty, and money

let’s get this straight right from the beginning.   i love me some josh hamilton.

for those of you living outside the great state,  you don’t get to see the highlights and live reporting of the best player in baseball day in and day out.   there are simply no words to adequately describe the physical greatness of his ball playing ability.

the fact that nobody was particularly surprised by his four-homerun,  18-total base game the other night just goes to show.   his performance placed him in perhaps the most elite club in all of baseball…a club that doesn’t include babe ruth,  hank aaron,  barry bonds,  griffey junior,  a-rod,  mickey mantle,  or ted williams,  just to name a few.

and aside from baseball,  his journey of sobriety and submission to christ…though an easy target for the media and cynics…is a story full of hope and grace that will be told and retold long after he goes home.   and one that inspires me personally.   i think he is the real deal.

so it’s with some uneasiness i choose to pick up a stone today.

the biggest story in the dallas sports scene these days is whether the rangers will take a risk and offer hamilton a long-term,  high-dollar contract sometime this season…the year his current contract with the team expires.   it’s a money issue.   it’s a potential promotional nightmare.   it could be a massive organizational risk if the club handcuffs themselves to 6-year,  $150 million contract…at least what he will command on the free agent market…and makes them unable to sign elvis,  nellie,  and matt harrison the next year.   and who knows what will follow after that?

and what if his body continues to break down?   what if his injury-prone legs keep failing more and more?   what if his substance demons come back?   what if…?   the business side of sports just sucks,  doesn’t it?

but that’s not my issue today.

in an interview with PTI yesterday,  josh was asked…for about the bizillioneth time…about the pursuit of the new contract and whether he would remain with the rangers.   there were two things he said that have stuck with me.   here’s my paraphrase:

“i’d love to be back with the rangers,  but we’ll just have to wait and see.   it’s all about taking care of my family.   i want to do what’s best for them and be able to provide for their future.”

i’m sorry,  but linking the word provision to the $150 million contract negotiation is insulting.   josh,  don’t spin this to try and get our sympathy or to justify saying goodbye to us because your poor kids needed you to make the tough decision.   come on.

just speak the truth.   it’s okay to say you wanted to go where there was more money or play for a better coach or a get a longer contract or live in better weather or have a chance to play for the yankees or you want to learn to surf  (yes,  he would look awesome in a padres uni!) or you want to live near your in-laws.

just don’t play the i’m-doing-this-for-the-kids…pull-at-your-heart-string card with me.   i’m not buying.   it’s disingenuous.   it smacks of elitism.   it shows a total disrespect for hard-working people who truly struggle to provide for their kids.   and who pay your salary.

i’m pretty sure whether you get the guarantee of a hefty $180 million…or a mere pedestrian$100 million, or so  (which would be an insult to your status as the greatest,  but still a number your kids could figure out how to get by with)… provision is not,  nor will it ever be,  the issue.

the second comment was this:

“i just want the lord’s will to be done in my life.   i want to go where god wants me to go.   i’m sure he’ll lead me to the right place.”

look.   i could go on and on about this one.   i’ve written about it numerous times.   really,  josh,  how are you going to know which team god wants you to sign with?   i presume,  at some point,  you’re going to look at all your options…pro and con each of the opportunities…consult your wife and closest counsel…check the standings,  rosters,  and guaranteed contracts of said players…fast for a week…talk to your pastor…and read the book of job…and hope for some inner peace.

and then you’re going to make the wisest and best informed decision you can.

i don’t doubt that god can and does lead us to decisions.   i just don’t think we’ll ever know for sure because there’s really no way to quantify that decision until after the fact.   and then what do we do?   look for success and assume that was where he wanted us to go?   look for struggle or failure and conclude we boo-booed on the interpretation?   consider the struggle as god’s design for pounding out our character?   what?

and the world watches as we do our god-speak and they walk away more confused.   and then they ask this question:

“do you really want us to believe that there is a god up there…or out there…orchestrating and negotiating the details of a mega-million contract for a baseball player,  when there appear to be whole lot more pressing things going on in the world that are worthy of his attention?”

i’m just saying maybe we would be a lot better off if josh…and others who are so privileged to play this great game and make an amazing salary doing it…would simply say:

“i’m going to sign with team that makes me the best offer and gives me the best opportunity to live the life i want to live.”

simple.   honest.   straightforward.   full of integrity.

rrrr….

…and yes.   josh has more homeruns than the entire padre’s roster combined.

What is God doing?

i was doing a little blog-surfing  this afternoon.   i always come away with mixed feelings as i read the posts from other church leader-types who give their post-game analyses of their various sunday morning big shows.

there’s a recurring theme in their observations  (and it’s not the first time i’ve mentioned this).   it’s uncomfortably funny that my criticism is not about their evaluations,  per se.   it’s about their theology.   or maybe it’s a criticism of mine.

god did amazing things in our service today.

we had a bunch of baptisms today.   god is working.

god was really present in the building.

attendance was incredible…god is moving here.

or one of my new favorites:   god is totally kicking butt in our church these days.   (no joke!)

now don’t get me wrong.   i’m going to end up reasoning myself into a corner right now.   but this is a genuine theological battlefield for me.

if god is in fact moving in our service today,  isn’t this something that he should be doing every time we get together?   if an extra-large attendance is evidence of god moving in a powerful way,  can we safely assume that a smaller attendance might be an indication that god was busy doing something else…instead of moving?

and if baptisms and attendance and great music and life-changing experiences are what god wants…and he is in the business of making those things happen…is there some compelling reason why he only chooses to move in this way every once in a while?

i’m not being cynical here.   this thought process is legit.

i’ve been around preachers all my life that,  when they are complimented after giving a sermon,  respond with something like,  “it was all god.   he was speaking through me.   all praise to jesus.”

call me shallow and unspiritual,  but on those occasions i’m complimented,  i just tend to say “thanks”.

or what about the times my sermon isn’t any better than a presentation in a 10th grade speech class?   am i supposed to say,  ” uh,  sorry.   that one’s all on me.   it definitely wasn’t god speaking today.”   just thinking.

so i’ve backed myself into a corner.   again.   why does god only seem to answer some of our prayers?   why do i experience only limited change in some areas of my life?   why do some churches explode  in size and budget…while others decline and are forced to close their doors?   does it mean that god just picks and chooses when and where he wants to move?

could it be that god is always moving…always responding…always busy…and we are just looking in the wrong places and using a wrong system for evaluating his movement?   could it be that we were never really designed to justify god’s apparent behavior or explain the mysteries of his actions,  in the first place?

as for the north point scorecard today:   we sang…we laughed…we studied god’s word…we took communion…we gave our money…we shook hands and hugged…we made fun of each other…we made mistakes…we forgave the offenders…we told jokes…we prayed…we affirmed our loyalty to each other…we encouraged the weak…we confessed our sins…and we remembered what christ meant to us.

was god at north point this morning?   yup.   because his word said he would be.   did he keep his promises?   he always does.   did he have more movement than he did last week…or the week before?   i’m not sure,  but i don’t think so.

but who am i to judge?   i got lost in my sermon notes twice during the second hour…

Sunday Morning Redux…

let’s call it what it was.

sunday was a sad day.   saying “goodbye” to good  friends and valuable partners is never easy.   but it’s not supposed to be.

sunday marked another day in the life of our family here at north point…a day of transition…a day that we reaffirmed our belief that god is bigger than any one of us.   it was a day that we reaffirmed our trust in a god who knows and cares and loves and gives and leads and provides.

yeah,  it was a sad day.   but it was a good  day.   a really good day.

it was totally appropriate that we were studying about goodness…a fruit  (or evidence) of the presence of god in our lives.   goodness is not a description of an action.   goodness is not a term of evaluation.   goodness is an inherent quality.   goodness is the deliberate preference of right over wrong…the firm and persistent resistance of all moral evil, and the choosing and following of all moral good.

goodness is “god-ness”.  goodness is the nature and character of god.   (god is good).   to be “good” is to be “like god”…to share in his character,  to embrace his characteristics.   goodness always acts in unity with the righteousness of god.

at its root, kindness has to do with what i do.   goodness concerns who i am.  

goodness concerns who god is.

so i will say it again:   sunday was a good day.   it was a day that required us to stake our claim on the promises of god.   it was a day that required us to declare,  again,  our allegiance to a god who knows best…even when we don’t.

it is both harrowing and frustrating…and comforting and empowering…to assert our loyalty to a god who is never required to do what we want…but who is always good.

these will also be good days ahead.   we will not “run ahead” of god.   we will patiently pray for god’s wisdom…and listen for how we should proceed with the future of youth ministry at north point.   it’s no secret…we were not ready for logan and aanna to leave.   but,  as always,  god sees a bigger picture than we could ever dream of. 

…and we will wait to be able to see what he sees.