The Next Best Day

I recently heard someone pose these brilliant questions and answers:

When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago.

When is the next best time to plant a tree? Today.

All of us have things we wish we would have done long ago.

  • Started that diet
  • Asked for forgiveness
  • Begun a retirement fund
  • Brought a meal to a neighbor
  • Made good on a promise
  • Practiced to run a 5k
  • Sent a love note

The problem is that we get so frustrated with ourselves for what we haven’t done that we become frozen do-nothings. And we come up with self-defeating arguments that keep us stuck: “I can’t start now. It’s been too long. People wouldn’t understand. I’m too old/fat/poor/sick/__________. I’d look ridiculous. It wouldn’t amount to anything.”

This kind of thinking keeps us stuck in a life-sucking, downward spiral of regret:

Frustration → Regret → Stuckness → More Frustration → Repeat →

My Broken Promise

I’d just finished high school when I had the opportunity to travel with a group from my church to Papua New Guinea. We worked for a month on a construction project and had an amazing time getting to meet so many loving people from this beautiful island nation.

Just before we departed for home, the people we’d met threw us a huge party. We feasted and laughed, and were humbled by the gifts they gave. One young man presented me with a beautiful bow and arrow set he had hand crafted. I didn’t have anything to give in return, so I asked if there was something I could send him from home. He was a Bible college student and really wanted a particular study Bible that would help him in his studies. Of course I promised that I’d send one right away.

Unfortunately when I got home I forgot about my promise for several weeks. Then when I remembered, I went to a bookstore I assumed would have the Bible he wanted — of course they didn’t (this was way before Amazon.com!). My busyness and regular forgetfulness caused months to slip by, and by that time I began to become embarrassed as well. I told myself, “The guy already thinks I’m a jerk, and he probably doesn’t even need the book anymore. I’d look stupid for sending it so late. I’ll just chalk this up as a life lesson and I’ll try to remember to not be an idiot next time.”

But as months turned into years, the thought of this unmet promise continued to nag at me — not constantly, but periodically I’d find myself thinking about how I hadn’t fulfilled what I said I would do.

It wasn’t until 20 years later that I finally came to the end of myself — and the end of this destructive thinking and behavior — and immediately wrote a check to go to the library of that young man’s Bible college in PNG. I knew, of course, that he may never find out that I attempted to right the wrong — but I was no longer stuck. What a great feeling!

Getting Free from Stuckness

How can we break free from this “cycle of stuckness”? Here are three thoughts to help us get moving in the right direction.

1. If I’m regretting something I’ve left undone in the past, it’s a strong indicator I should still deal with it.

There are thousands of things we could have done differently in our past. But out of all those decisions, there are probably only a small handful that really stick with us and bring regret. Those are the ones we should put on our “DO TODAY” list.

2. God gives me the strength to do what I need to do today, not to go back and relive the past.

Quit regretting past mistakes. We can’t go back in time to fix those things, but God has given us today! And God’s grace is available to us now to do what we need to do.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends! His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness; his mercies begin afresh each morning (Lamentations 3:22-23).

3. Do it now — right now!

Don’t let another minute go by without taking irreversible action to do what needs to be done. Go pick up the phone, start the letter, or buy the running shoes! Don’t wait and let the regret grow. Take care of it now. What’s the worst that could happen? Who cares — it’s better than living a life stuck in regret.

Today is the next best day to do what we should have done before! Now go plant a tree.

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The Making of a Dad

On Father’s Day Eve I’m reflecting on my dad-hood. 20 years ago I was blessed with the first of three incredible kids. What a ride! Like many families, we’ve experienced heart-wrenching twists and turns in our collective story, yet maintain more parental pride than should be allowed.

I’m also reflecting on a single chapter in Scripture that, to me, summarizes healthy fathering more than any other. It contains at least six traits that any dad would want to have who desires to build rock solid kids. It’s the first chapter of the second letter written by the Apostle Paul to his “true son in the faith,” Timothy.

Check out these traits that characterize Paul’s relationship with Timothy, and consider how they might be lived out as we lead our kids:

  1. He prayed for his son. 2 Tim. 1:3 “Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.” That’s where it begins, with the realization that my kids need a Savior — and I’m not him! As we lift our kids to God in prayer, we’re reminding ourselves that he is the true answer for their greatest needs.
  2. He was motivated by love. 2 Tim. 1:4 “I long to see you again, for I remember your tears as we parted. And I will be filled with joy when we are together again.” My pride, my anger, or my need for control are all insufficient motivators when it comes to seeking positive life-change in my kids. They know when love is absent. But thankfully they also know when love is present — even when I don’t get it completely right. When kids know they are loved it makes all the difference.
  3. He was spiritually affirming. 2 Tim. 1:5 “I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you.” How many times do I miss opportunities to communicate what my kids are doing right? It’s so critical that I not only see their growth, but that I tell them what I’m seeing. Their self-perception will be formed by what is reflected back to them by the people they most look up to.
  4. He imparted blessing. 2 Tim. 1:6 “This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you.” I have the opportunity as a parent to bless my kids and to literally deposit God’s gifts in them.
  5. He led from the front. 2 Tim. 1:8 “With the strength God gives you, be ready to suffer with me for the sake of the Good News.” Am I living in such a way that I can invite my kids to join with me? Paul reminds me that I have to be a “do as I do” kind of dad, and that the most effective forms of instruction always include modeling.
  6. He taught about Jesus. 2 Tim. 1:9 “For God saved us and called us to live a holy life. He did this, not because we deserved it, but because that was his plan from before the beginning of time — to show us his grace through Christ Jesus.” If Paul felt the need to remind Timothy — who was a pastor — about the grace of Jesus, how much more should I be reminding my kids?

Whether you’re a dad or not, these traits can be embodied by all who want to make a lasting and positive difference in the next generation. Every kid deserves someone — a dad, mom, uncle, aunt, or a big brother or sister — who, like Paul, will love them, share life with them deeply, and show them how Jesus can make all the difference.

My desire is that with God’s grace, I’ll do those very things even better in my 21st year of being a dad. My kids are hoping so, too!

Feeling the Cut

I’m just coming through a season I’d describe as “pruning”. I had been pursuing a particular objective — stretching my branches in a direction I assumed would be incredibly fruitful. But at the very moment I’d hoped this new growth might begin to bear fruit, it was cut off. Quickly. Painfully.

I wish I could say I immediately saw God’s purposes in all this. But the reality has been that I’ve needed both time to heal and the help of others to gain perspective.

During this season I’ve reflected on Jesus’ words, captured in the first part of John 15.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. … No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

Jesus’ words have reminded me of several truths:

  • God is a gardener — so I shouldn’t be surprised when pruning happens!
  • Every branch will be cut — either because it’s fruitless or because it should be more fruitful.
  • I can’t produce fruit on my own — I must remain connected to Jesus.

The goal of my life is fruitfulness. I don’t want to be a dead branch. And I especially don’t want to be a leafy branch that looks healthy but doesn’t produce anything that’s truly life-giving.

That’s not just my goal — it’s Jesus’ purpose for my life as well. When you keep reading in John 15, Jesus states: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

There are questions, however, I must wrestle with while the pruning is taking place:

  • Can I trust Jesus to get me where I need to go?
  • Do I really believe he has a better perspective on my life than I do?
  • Will I stay connected to Jesus, even when his pruning blade is cutting in to my life plans?
  • Is my faith secure in him, even when I’m in pain?

But if the “wounds of a friend” can be considered faithful, how much more the wounds that come from the ever-loving, nail-scarred hands of the Gardener? His job isn’t to coddle me — it’s to cut back everything that’s not producing fruit.

While it’s true that all pruning is painful, pain isn’t an indicator of God’s absence or his anger. It might just be a pointed reminder that he’s at work, shaping me for greater fruitfulness.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

NOTE: Not all pain is evidence of God’s work! Sometimes it’s a result of our own poor choices — and other times it’s a result of the sin of others spilling over onto us. But in his grace, God can redeem every situation, no matter the origin of the pain.

A Hydrated Life

Dehydration isn’t a mystery. We know exactly how it happens: moisture leaves our bodies more quickly than we replenish it. This can happen slowly over time, or because of exertion and environmental extremes, we can dry out to dangerous levels rather quickly.

My son, Brennon, who recently ran the Honolulu Marathon, attests to the dehydrating effects of running in the heat: debilitating cramps, nausea, dizziness, and extreme fatigue.

While most of us aren’t running marathons in the tropics, much of what we experience in day-to-day life can leave us with soul-dehydration. We are dried out through:

  • busyness — extended seasons without rest sap us to the core
  • relational struggles — even brief tensions can wear us out, but prolonged relational strain can take a serious toll
  • carrying others’ burdens — even positive care for people can eventually leave us depleted
  • sickness — when our bodies are broken we are taxed in ways that are much more than just “physical”
  • loss — grieving what we’ve actually lost or even the hope of “what could have been”
  • pressures at work or school — when we don’t meet others’ expectations, frustrations soar and life can feel empty
  • acting on addictive impulses — every negative choice reinforces the drying effects.

Any one of these can sap our energy, our creative juices, emotional stamina, or spiritual reserves. Cumulatively, they leave us cracked and dry, in desperate need of soul-hydration.

Into our parched reality, God spoke through his prophet, Isaiah…

Tell fearful souls, “Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right
And redress all wrongs. He’s on his way! He’ll save you!”
Blind eyes will be opened, deaf ears unstopped,
Lame men and women will leap like deer, the voiceless break into song.
Springs of water will burst out in the wilderness, streams flow in the desert.
Hot sands will become a cool oasis, thirsty ground a splashing fountain.
Even lowly jackals will have water to drink, and barren grasslands flourish richly.
Isaiah 35:4-7

I need God’s soul-hydration today — his steams flowing through the desert of my life. How about you?

How do you access God’s thirst-quenching streams when you feel at your driest? Post your thoughts below.

Wrestling with Continuity

I previously wrote a blog on the “Beauty of Discontinuity“, and since then this topic has been swirling around my imagination. I’m convinced that God is intent on interrupting our lives to capture our attention, to bless us, and to redirect us onto new paths — and that he calls his followers to live discontinuously with the values and priorities so often seen in the brokenness of the world.

If that’s the case, then should “continuity” play a role in our lives? Absolutely. Continuity is essential to life and has its own kind of beauty. We see healthy continuity…

  • Daily — waking, eating, working, relating, resting
  • Weekly — school, work, projects, worship, weekends
  • Annually — seasons, holidays, vacations.

Without any continuity we’d be lost. Life would be a like a box of random events, constantly being shaken about (like a never-ending episode of “24”).

Though a certain level of continuity is crucial for a healthy life, it seems that our human tendency is to eventually succumb to these patterns so that they take over much of our existence. We can become so entrenched within these “normal” patterns of life that continuity eventually turns into bondage. The rhythms of my life begin to take on a treadmill-like reality, so while I’m going through the motions, no progress is being made. I’m no longer getting anywhere I haven’t already been — no new discoveries, no more breakthroughs, no new beauty.

It’s been said that a rut is nothing more than a grave with its ends kicked out. And that’s a good picture of a life of continuity that isn’t punctuated by moments of significant discontinuity.

Kind of Like Marriage

My hunch is that many marriages end due to the drudgery of continuity. We enter the “long slog” of doing what we’ve always done, to the point where even natural rhythms take on a nerve-racking drip…drip…drip. Even something “bad” might be welcomed to break up the monotony of life. So affairs happen. Addictions begin.

To keep healthy, vibrant relationships, a good mix of discontinuity is needed in the pattern of our lives.

What could that look like in marriage? Occasional flowers would be nice. Weekends away once in a while would be amazing. Even a surprise love note can add a beautifully discontinuous moment to an otherwise way-too-continuous season. Anything that reawakens us to what is real, true, and beautiful about life and relationship can provide the stimulation of discontinuity.

My Comfortable Life

So do I welcome discontinuity, or do I hate interruptions? When God wants my attention, does he have to rattle my cage, or do I lean into his whisper? How about when it’s my wife, my kids, or others who want my attention? When life shifts gears do I look for new opportunities and insights, or am I too busy whining about the change to notice what’s now possible? Do I cling so tightly to the past that I can’t embrace the hope of a new future that is unfolding around me?

If I don’t keep wrestling with continuity, it’s power of persuasion will eventually wear me down and float me gently down the river of comfortable predictability — then over the waterfalls of boredom and lifelessness. We have to fight it!

And for those of us who get somewhat rattled by the thought of change and discontinuity, God has given us the promise that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). God himself is our constant. And when our feet are firmly planted on him, the Rock, it’s a lot easier to stand strong, enjoy the winds of change, ready for the next adventure.

Disqualified…

What could disqualify someone from ministry leadership? Permanently?

Maybe a better question would be: are there people so broken that they can not be restored?

My hope — and I believe God’s heart — is that no matter what the offense, restoration is not only possible, but should be the ultimate goal. But things get tricky and sticky when it comes to how we do “church life”, and often people are permanently sidelined after failure. Why is this the case?

  • There’s hard work involved. Restoration is often a messy, lengthy process, and leaders dread wading into these challenging waters.
  • Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice…and so on. We are fearful that people will be repeat offenders, and we don’t want the backwash of their continued failure to splash polluted water on to our “clean” reputations.
  • We just don’t want to be associated with the brokenness of others. If I embrace you, offense and all, people may assume that I tolerate your sin (gasp!) and this would be a negative reflection on me (double gasp!).
  • The church often reflects a shame-based culture. When someone blows it, there must be something inherently wrong with them (as if there isn’t something inherently wrong with me). We label those people as failures, as shameful examples of what “not to be”.

A friend has experienced something like this over the past year. A qualified and skilled ministry leader, he went through a dark season, during which he made a bad decision that snowballed a bit before he “woke up” and put an end to it. I had the privilege of walking with him during that time and since. I was so proud of him for going back to each person involved and making it right, choosing to swallow his pride and walk in repentance. The whole episode lasted no longer than two weeks, and he came out of it stronger and more humble than before.

But over a year later, my friend’s pastor won’t even consider him for a ministry role. There’s just no place for him. He’s disqualified. Worse yet, there’s no pathway of restoration being made available to him. In his pastor’s mind, he’s permanently disqualified.

Can’t we just admit that we’re all broken people in need of grace? We all need the hope of restoration. And discarding those who fail is plain stupid (oops…did I just say that?!).

Part of the problem of maintaining a shame-based, rather than a grace-based culture is that people will go to great lengths to hide their issues. Oh, they still have them. They just fear the permanent shame they believe will be brought about by exposure. My fear of marginalization usually exceeds my desire to walk in honesty.

Are there times when someone’s habitual failure should sideline them for a season? Yes, I believe so. Leaders have the responsibility to protect the community — both the one who is currently weak as well as those who could be negatively impacted by his or her failings. But even then, restoration should be the goal of a season on the sidelines.

I’ve recently been reminded of the need for a grace-based church culture in a profound book, Love, Acceptance and Forgiveness. I’m not sure how this book, authored by pastor Jerry Cook, had escaped my reading for so long. But I’m really glad I picked it up…and I’ve bought and passed out dozens of other copies. Pick up your own copy and get ready to live differently. There is a world of broken people who are waiting for us.

(Photo credit: Ramzi Hashisho)