Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Parable of the Leaf

I don't really have a favorite season.

I like things about every time of year; I also dislike some things about every season. 
I'm usually ready for something different by the time the next one rolls around. 
But not always...

For example, I can't say I was really ready for the ten inches of snow we got a few days ago. 
I mean, it's pretty and everything - but it sure made getting around harder and more hazardous.

This autumn was particularly nice. It was relatively warm, and the fall colors were spectacular.  
The maple tree that shades our driveway was a riot of yellow, orange and red.

And it stayed beautiful for a couple weeks.
Even the leaves that fell on the ground were really pretty.

Every morning my pickup would be covered with leaves.
No worry there - I just started up and drove off, and the leaves went flying. Except one.

My truck has one of those bug guard things mounted on the hood, and this particular leaf had lodged itself behind it. As I'd drive along, it would flip up and wave at me, then duck back down behind the bug deflector. Over and over and over again.

Now, I'd seen tenacious leaves before. Sooner or later the wind would catch them, and they'd fly off. So I knew it was just a matter of time till this one took off, too. I started paying attention as I drove to and from work and church. This leaf continued to hang on day after day. Even after little pieces of it fell off from the force of air whipping it back and forth, it refused to just let go and move to its final rest.

After a while, I started to get annoyed. Stupid leaf keeps flipping up and down as I drive. Why doesn't it just let go and fly away? I watched every day; it continued to hold on despite all the forces trying to drive it off. Lesser leaves had succumbed to the pressure days before. The maple tree that had produced this leaf was nearly barren. Still this leaf stubbornly refused to give in.

Every time I started the truck, I expected that leaf to be gone. And there it was, waving at me. 
I quit being annoyed, and began to be impressed. Look at that guy! Fighting for existence long after all hope should be gone. I like it!

What was the secret of its amazing survival? Eventually I had to look.

When I examined it, I found that this leaf was still attached to a branch that had fallen and lodged itself in the space between the bug guard and the hood. (You can see a little of it in the picture above.) As long as the leaf stayed connected to the branch, it didn't matter what force of wind came against it. It might be battered and torn up, but it couldn't be dislodged.

Wow. What a lesson for us.

Jesus said, "I am the vine, and you are the branches. If you stay joined to me, and I stay joined to you, then you will produce lots of fruit. But you cannot do anything without me." (John 15:5 CEV)

Sometimes when the troubles of life come at me, I try to handle them in my own strength. Typically, that doesn't work out so well. As long as I stay closely connected to Christ, 
I find wisdom and ability to survive the trials. He wants to help me, but will never force me to do 
His will. I have to choose His way every day, every hour, every minute. That is what it means to stay connected to the vine.

You'd think I would have this process down pat after more than 40 years of serving Jesus. 
But as Jesus pointed out, "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:38 NIV) 
My flesh wants to rule, and it's easy to give in to my natural tendencies. Even though the end result is less than optimal, my default mode is to trust myself rather than really let God lead. 
I always seem to think, "This time it'll be different." But failure looms every time.

I need to be reminded often: I must abide in Christ. That's what this little leaf did for me. 
Connected to the branch, it couldn't be dislodged. Even though I couldn't see the branch, it was there providing security and support for that leaf. Its source of strength was completely adequate to keep it going long after all the other, unattached leaves had blown away. 

Storms will come. Trouble, pain and difficulty are guaranteed in this life. But Jesus has promised to be with us. With His help, we can overcome and be victorious. We might be bruised and battered - even Jesus has scars - but God "always leads us in triumph in Christ." (2 Corinthians 2:14 NKJV)

So hang on! Never give up. With God's help, you will survive every trial and fulfill your purpose in this life. You have His Word on it. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Mr. Know-It-All

"Those people who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do." - Isaac Asimov

I confess: I suffer from know-it-all syndrome.  

Doesn't that sentence absolve me from all blame for my behavior? 
It's not MY fault - it's a malady, a sickness, something beyond my control!  
Saying this might make me feel better about my know-it-allishness.

Just one problem - it's not true! Not the know-it-all part - unfortunately, that is so. 
But a syndrome? Please. It's a choice I made very early in life, and it quickly became 
a habitual defense mechanism.

Now first, let me state clearly: I DO NOT KNOW IT ALL! Never did, never will. 
I am interested in many things and always learning, and I do know how to find stuff out. 
For instance, I've been using the quote at the top of this post for years, but never knew where 
it came from. (Told ya I don't really know it all...) And it only took me about 30 seconds online 
to find out it's attributed to famed author Isaac Asimov.

So how did I become a know-it-all? And more importantly, why? 
And what's wrong with that, anyway?

When I was a child, I was fairly small (shrimpy, even), rather uncoordinated and very near-sighted (20-400 without correction). Oh, and slow of foot. And relatively lazy. As a result, I reeked at most things that were important to young boys, like hunting and fishing and sports. And anything that didn't come easily to me I tried to avoid. (see lazy, above) I endured a lot of teasing and ridicule for my lack of athletic prowess; I was always the last kid picked in gym class. 
(Not a confidence booster!)

The only thing I did well was schoolwork. I was a voracious reader, to the point of being "bookish". The only power I thought I had was brain power. So that's where I put my confidence. I always had to be right. I wanted to be known as the smartest kid, the best, the go-to guy for information. 
This did garner me some positive attention, which only reinforced the behavior. 
In a very short time, I was a know-it-all. And frequently insufferable.

And since I avoided putting real effort into much of anything, I learned to sound as if I knew what I was talking about even when I actually had no clue. Getting the real facts required a fair amount of work back then, maybe going to the library and digging through dusty encyclopedias to unearth obscure information. Who wants to work that hard? 

(Okay, true confession: I did occasionally read encyclopedias for fun.) 

So I often bluffed my way through, confident that others wouldn't go to that much work just to 
fact-check me.  And I really did know answers frequently enough to have some credibility. 
Admit I was wrong? Never!

So what's the point of this discussion? I mean, besides publishing my shortcomings 
for the world to see. Actually, anyone who knows me is not particularly shocked by this revelation. And when I was younger, I didn't see any problem. I was who I was, and I was comfortable with it. As I have matured, my opinion has changed.

The problem is, I was hiding behind my Know-It-All persona. I took pride in displaying my knowledge and apparent wisdom. But underneath all the bluster, I was quite insecure, 
completely unsure of myself. And I was afraid someone would find out who I really was, 
and then they wouldn't like me. So I kept up the phony facade, refining it as the years went by.

And there was another thing: PRIDE. The whole reason for the fake mask was my fear of rejection. So I became not just Mr. Right, but Mr. Always Right. I wanted to impress people with how smart I was, and so became pretty much unteachable. And I had no idea how annoying 
I actually was. Pride kept me from asking for help, even when I really needed it. 
I was the go-to guy! I might be physically weak, but I was mentally sharp! 
I just couldn't allow any apparent weakness to be seen in my chosen armor.

Pride is one of the three major roots of sin, according to God's Word. 
1 John 2:16 lays it out this way: "For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, 
the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world.

Lust of the flesh - that's making yourself happy without considering the eventual consequences or how it will affect anyone else, and only caring about self. Lust of the eyes (Greed) is wanting more and more stuff, thinking that things will fill the emptiness inside. And then there's the Pride of life: thinking more of yourself than you should, thinking you're never wrong and should never lose an argument, refusing to ask for help or even receive it when offered, looking out for number one.

Pride is a deadly sin, one we all struggle with in one way or another. 
(Some people are even proud of how humble they are!) 

This is why Jesus said, "whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant." (Matthew 20:26) God's Kingdom is upside down from the way many typically behave - striving for position or notoriety, seeking to move up, to be someone, grabbing for power or influence. 

And Jesus demonstrated what He meant by the way He lived. 
"The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many." (Mark 10:45

And there's this: 
"Those who say they live in God should live their lives as Jesus did.(1 John 2:6
Hiding behind a good Christian mask, pretending to be something you're not, 
seeking to impress others with your knowledge, abilities, talents, appearance, whatever - 
this is not living as Jesus did. And I want to pursue God, to know Him, 
to develop the character He wants me to have.

Now don't misunderstand - one sin isn't worse than another in God's sight. 
We Christians like to categorize sins and make ourselves feel better by comparison. 
"Well, I know I gossip, and I overeat sometimes - but at least I'm not a drunk like that guy, or engaging in risky and immoral behavior like those people." Guess what - that's pride! And Jesus specifically warned against this attitude in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. 
(Luke 18:10-14)

Pride manifests itself in lots of different ways in various people. One way for me is being a know-it-all. But I don't want to be a phony, and I really don't want to be an arrogant blowhard who annoys everyone he meets. I want to live as Jesus did, with mercy and kindness and love and humility. So I have repented, and am actively trying to stop being Mr. Know-It-All.

I'm not saying it's easy to change, or that I have arrived. Old habits die hard, 
and I have nearly half a century of practice at this. But I am seeking to become more like Christ, and He has promised to help me if I will genuinely pursue Him. (see John 14:15-17)

Why now? I have become convinced that the majority of people who call themselves Christian, 
at least in the good ol' USA, don't behave anything like Christ. Oh, sure, they attend church and quote Bible on Facebook, but my mom always said "Actions speak louder than words", and 
their behavior doesn't line up. When I examined myself, I realized that I was often judgmental, cynical, holier-than-thou, and hypocritical. A whole lot like worldly people.

If I really believe that Jesus offers a better life now and in the world to come (and I do - 
otherwise why serve Him?); if I want to see others come to Christ and experience this new life (and I do - if I really cared about others I'd want to share the best news I know); then I need to make sure my actions reflect what He has said. Why should anyone become a Christian when it appears it's not real, because our lives don't look any better?

Here's what I know: Christ is real, He is good, and His promises are true. 
But when I'm phony, no one can see the reality of Jesus in me. 
When I'm insecure and don't really trust God, I'll cling to the old, tired, useless way of coping. 
And Jesus wants to totally set me free, if I'll just let Him. 
Old things pass away - everything becomes new! (2 Corinthians 5:17
I'm not supposed to conform to this world; I am to be transformed by Him. (Romans 12:2)

I am convinced Christians can change our world. 
But first, we have to let Christ change us from the inside out, so we can truly represent the Light. 
I can't change anybody else, but with God's help I can change me.

It's not quick and easy. It's an arduous, sometimes painful, lifelong process.
And the end result is totally worth the cost.

I am not there yet, but I'm on my way. Won't you join me?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

How ya doin'?

Recently several people have asked how things are going for me. 
I don't always know how to respond, because really it depends on what day and sometimes what hour or minute they ask.

Overall, I'm doing pretty well. I have good days and bad days, like everybody else. Most of the time I smile and kind of lie, saying "I'm fine". Because that's what most people expect. It's just easier than launching into a long explanation they probably don't want to hear anyway.

But the truth is, I'm not fine. Not really. Not now, maybe not ever on this earth. You see, my only son died 4 years ago today. And I'm still not over it. He was so young, so full of hope and promise. He left too soon. And I feel cheated.

Oh, I know - I'm supposed to be an overcoming, victorious saint of God who never struggles and always triumphs over every adversity. And honestly, God has been a tremendous comfort to me. 
I don't think I could have coped without the calm assurance that this life isn't all there is, that this temporal existence is simply preparation for eternity. I believe that, now more than ever, and I'm at peace. Lowell won't come back to me, but I get to go to him.

But I'd be boldface lying if I told you I never struggle, never have doubts, never have days when depression threatens to overwhelm me. The devil would lose his job if he didn't attack us at our weakest points. And he's pretty secure in his employment, at least when it comes to me.

You see, I have weak areas. And it seems as if my weakness has increased since Lowell's death. I have no tolerance when people, especially children, are put into danger, even in movies or on TV. If I view that kind of suspenseful program, I get a horrid feeling in my chest and panic threatens to overwhelm me. So I just don't watch. I inherited Lowell's phone, and even 4 years later his voice is still the recorded message. I can't bring myself to change it - somehow it comforts me to have his voice on my phone. There are times when I miss Lowell a lot; occasionally this puts me into a very dark mood.

Sometimes I don't really want to fight back. I guess I feel I'm somehow being unfaithful to my son's memory if I resist the melancholy blues. I have determined this to be a lie from hell. If I sink into depression, I'm ineffective and I know Lowell wouldn't want that. 

For a couple of weeks in April, I couldn't seem to get out of the funk. I was trying to handle my problems with my own strength. And I can't... 

When I finally gave in, and told God I had to have His help to overcome, the Holy Spirit immediately came to me and the depression lifted. And I've been pretty good since then.

I believe that's what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote that God's "power works best in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:9) As long as I insist I can solve my own problems, that I can handle everything by myself, the Lord will respond, "Okay - suit yourself." And I really don't have the power to fix things. Thankfully, God is very patient, and when I finally come to the end of myself and ask for help, He's right there for me. Paul said in the next verse, "when I am weak, then I am strong." 
(2 Corinthians 12:10)  James wrote, "you do not have because you do not ask." (James 4:2
And sometimes I just don't want to ask.

But I'm learning to swallow my manly pride and depend on the Holy Spirit. One of the hardest things for me to do is ask for help. And sometimes I need help from other people. I've learned some difficult lessons over the past few years. And I'm so thankful for my family and friends who are on this journey with me - I need those relationships more than I can say.

I hope I'm more Christlike than I used to be. There are some days when I definitely am not. 
And then I have to come to Him, repent for my attitude and often my actions, and let His power be perfected in my weakness. Again.

So, how am I doing? I'm okay...
I'm growing, changing, learning, walking. I'm beginning to trust God again. 
I'm broken, and only He can fix me. And it's a slow process - looks like it will take a lifetime.

But the good news is, one day I will be changed and be with Him - and with Lowell and all my other loved ones who have gone on. Until that day, I'll keep putting one foot in front of the other and try to fulfill the destiny God has for me. When I am weak, then I am strong.