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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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.

The Beauty of Discontinuity

I’ve read that Elton John likes flowers. A lot. In 2000 he testified in court that in a 20 month span he’d spent £293,000 on floral arrangements (that’s over $30,000 a month in today’s US dollars).

That leaves just one question in my mind. What do you buy Elton for Valentines?

For most people, receiving flowers is quite special. The blend of surprise, thoughtfulness and beauty interrupts their day and warms their heart. The gift is beautifully discontinuous with everything that is mundane and normal about life.

But for Elton, he’s constantly surrounded by flowers. They are part of his normative, to-be-expected, day-to-day reality. It would take something substantially different to positively capture his attention.

Jesus seemed to understand this human dynamic. He knew that people needed to be jolted out of their everyday expectations, so he acted in ways that were beautifully discontinuous to the world around him. He surprised people with conversation and action in ways that completely arrested their attention. He touched the leper, he forgave the sinner, he fed the hungry, he raised the dead, and he spoke not just with wisdom and authority, but with real love.

Jesus was shockingly redemptive, but shocking nonetheless.

That reality is captured in a story of Jesus shattering the ethnic and gender barriers of his day by having a conversation with a Samaritan woman. He began by simply asking her for a drink of water, then we read…

The woman was surprised, for Jews refuse to have anything to do with Samaritans. She said to Jesus, “You are a Jew, and I am a Samaritan woman. Why are you asking me for a drink?” John 4:9

And Jesus continued to surprise her, a stranger, by telling her about her life and relational brokenness. That beautiful discontinuity jolted her from the routine of her daily pain and struggle and proved to be a key for her to find real freedom.

We also discover that Jesus taught his followers to live in ways that are shockingly discontinuous to the norms of the world as well. He taught us that by shattering the world’s expectations in redemptive ways, we’ll show that we are truly his.

If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also.
If you are sued in court and your shirt is taken from you, give your coat, too.
If a soldier demands that you carry his gear for a mile, carry it two miles.
Give to those who ask, and don’t turn away from those who want to borrow.
You have heard the law that says, “Love your neighbor’”and hate your enemy.
But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!
In that way, you will be acting as true children of your Father in heaven. Matthew 5:39-45

When is the last time I surprised someone with a redemptive act? When have I broken free from the mundane continuity of my own day-to-day existence to shock someone with blessing? When, by my actions, has someone thought I look anything like Jesus?

I don’t know about Elton, but I can’t wait until Valentines to surprise my wife. The flowers are coming today.

Accepted…

Recently, in early morning hours, my dreams turned dark. Hell-fueled thoughts sank deeply into my restless mind as I slept – all pummeling me with blows of rejection. In those dreams I experienced the most severe sense of rejection I’d ever felt, yet my waking did nothing to alleviate this life-sapping pain. For some time I lay in the dark, wrestling with this evil, unsuccessfully trying to work my way back to some semblance of self-worth; fighting in vain to regain hope.

At the end of myself, I feebly whispered my plight to Jesus. It wasn’t a prayer, but a half-hearted affirmation of what I believed to be true: that I am simply accepted by Him.

What took place over the next hours was life altering. The light of God invaded my soul, not only chasing away the dark lies of the enemy, but replacing them with a flood of His truth. I grabbed a notepad and began to document this truth encounter.

May what follows restore hope to you as it did to me.

* * * * * * * * * * *

God’s love is manifested in His complete acceptance of me.

His acceptance of me is not based on my ability, my perfection, my good looks, my success, my righteousness, my history or pedigree, my wittiness or humor, my keeping-up-appearances, my status, my intellect, my anything.

This is why He tells us that NOTHING can separate us from His love.

I spend so much of my life working to earn my way into acceptance, when all He wants to do is throw His arms open and WELCOME me into the most precious, deep and intimate of relationships – where I am my beloved’s and He is mine. He is the bridegroom waiting for His bride. His banner over me – the one He is longing to wave over ME – is love.

This perfect place of acceptance was seen in the Garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve were naked and not ashamed. Nothing hidden. Nothing to prove before God or each other. Only knowing complete acceptance at every turn. No fear. No wondering. No striving. Just complete and utter acceptance.

Sin shattered acceptance. Fear came. Feelings of rejection came. The need to hide, both from God and each other, came. And it was the corruptness of pride that led to this travesty. Lucifer’s sin had been evidenced by his unwillingness to simply be accepted by God; he wanted to BE God. And this same pride-fueled brokenness now oozed into the soul of man. Truth was overshadowed by want. Wholeness was overshadowed by separation. And when the “apple” was eaten, taken in, swallowed, worshiped, idol-made (for hope was placed in that which was inanimate; hope for more; hope for a deeper, better existence; hope for a heightened identity apart from God), sin entered man’s story. And sin shatters acceptance.

The remainder of history – from the Garden until now – is the story of God’s restorative work. His mission is to reclaim all that has been lost, not only redeeming humanity to Himself, but man’s relationship to man as well. His mission is nothing short of the full restoration of acceptance, where nothing stands between us and God; where fig leaves (our feeble attempts to mask our gross inadequacies) are not needed; where shame and fear, separateness and rejection are eclipsed by the fullness of forgiveness, love and acceptance.

History culminated in the person of Jesus. The incarnation: God as one of us. Immanuel: God is with us. Jesus was, and is, the full and perfect representation of God Himself, fully manifesting His heart and His mission: to complete the possibility of restoration. Jesus came to audaciously proclaim, “YOU ARE ACCEPTED. I have not come to condemn you, but to redeem you, to save you, to make a way for you to experience the forever-freedom that comes from knowing HE WHO ACCEPTS.” Jesus, the perfect One, the accepting One, sacrificed Himself to take our brokenness, our shame and our sin, so that true relationship might be restored.

This is Jesus…

  • who invited Himself to a thieving tax collector’s home, and ate with this man who was marginalized and rejected by society due to his occupation and corruption.
  • who sat and talked with a woman of a “lesser” ethnic origin, giving hope to this person rejected by others due to her gender, race and personal impropriety.
  • who touched and healed the leper, someone completely put out of society due to disease and fear.
  • who verbally ripped apart religious leaders, who by word and deed, claimed superior status with God, yet heaped burdens on others that kept them from experiencing His grace.

The apple – that symbol of prideful and idolatrous brokenness; that object of shame that resulted in distance and fractured relationship – has been replaced by bread and wine. That which is animate, made alive in Jesus Himself, has replaced that which was inanimate. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” It is the meal of acceptance – “real food and real drink,” as opposed to all other vain pursuits of acceptance and relationship. Bread and wine stand opposed to the apple.

And now, “…because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.” The acceptance we have found in Christ, we are now required to freely give to all others. We are to contend for unity: that place of full and unfettered acceptance, that place where even truth is spoken in gentleness, humility and love.

Jesus still assaults all word and deed that leads to relational brokenness and spiritual distance. Jesus stands opposed to rejection. And the table – that place where bread and wine are freely shared – must never be a place of greed, lust, pride or humiliation. All are welcome. All are accepted.

I am accepted.