Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Out of God’s Hands

Posted: August 8, 2013 in Uncategorized

This may help explain why you have not heard from me lately in this space; come see the other other side of my life!

Striding Towards Life

The drawing for the lottery into the Chevron Houston Marathon was held last weekend, and I woke up Monday to find this wonderful message in my Inbox:

ConfirmedI guess that makes it real: I am running a marathon about six months from now – I have made it to the big leagues! (No disrespect intended to y’all out there who stick to shorter distances…I know from experience, those races are just as hard, only in different directions.) So that means my whole game has to step up to a new level…and with it, my whole life! The good thing is, that is merely a continuation of what has already been happening; it’s no longer a sea change, but only a matter of degree. The last few months have taught me much about discipline and determination – things I only thought I understood before – and mostly have taught me…

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Back in April (remember April?…seems a long while ago, for some reason) I started off in a challenge to write and post, consistently, for one month; sadly, I did not succeed. I didn’t run out of ideas (indeed, my Drafts folder glares at me sullenly every time I open my dashboard); neither did sudden catastrophe strike…I just got busy and got behind, and so “failed” to live up to the expectations of the challenge. With an eerie sense of the familiar, I followed this “failure” with another, even more tragic: I continued not-writing, at least in this place, for an entire month and more…with only the pitiful excuse of guilt as a reason for this “failure echo”. This cannot be allowed to continue. I have learned to see this as a metaphor for how I always have dealt with my shortcomings: I give my yesterdays power over my tomorrows…I accept that “Past performance is the surest indicator of future behavior”, and so my choices become scripted by “what has been” instead of  “what should be”…I deem myself “unworthy”, and then earn that designation. It’s deeper than the way I write, it goes into every aspect of how I live; the writing is only one way that the life I live on the inside expresses itself on the outside. Come, I’ll show you what I mean.

I recently observed my third anniversary of employment with the company; this marks the longest time I have worked anywhere in my entire life or career. (Well, I attended the same high school for 4 years, does that count?) This has been, by every measure, the best place I have ever worked. I have survived a corporate merger and downsizing, brought on by two years of downturns in the local economy, while watching my salary increase 25%; upper management is very encouraging and supportive of me, allowing me to grow and expand my skills and my role. At the same time, they have stood beside me as I serve in ministry, scheduling my workload around the twice-annual visits to the prisons on Kairos teams; stood beside me as I cared for my wife during her year-long battle with breast cancer treatment, guaranteeing a minimum weekly paycheck (and continued insurance benefits) whether I worked or not, long after I had exhausted my personal time off allotment for the year. The level of mutual respect among my co-workers exceeds anything I ever imagined that “a job” could provide. Yet, earlier this week I came within hours of losing my job, literal hours, because I fell short of MY expectations, and nearly allowed the “failure echo” to unravel everything. I’m still too close to spell out the step by step of what happened, perhaps in a later post, perhaps not…but the details are not as important as the big picture – I allowed pride and fear to rule over me, instead of accepting that I have been set free; I looked forgiveness in the face and screamed, “I don’t deserve you!” – which is completely true…and completely the amazing message of God’s grace.

Long story short, and the reason I posted this: in my desperate hour I cried out to the Lord, and by the power of prayer, I was able to hear that message clearly despite my despair…and respond to it. I am on the way to restoring my relationship with my employer, but there are others I also need to restore…including the one with you, my readers. I bailed out on you, with no warning or explanation…left in mid-conversation, with over half yet unspoken. I am sorry, and I will make the effort to be better…or at least, more honest, OK? and I can do another thing – I can post the rest of the Challenge! I have most of them written, but a bit of polish before release is needed, so look for one or two a week. The ideas are worth their moment in the light of day, and I will enjoy the privilege of sharing them with you. See you again very soon, may you remain aware of the blessings you enjoy!

Nicky

As I mentioned in an earlier post, some characters are only set upon the stage of Scripture for a brief moment, and then they are gone; some leave lasting legacies, some barely register. In the grand scheme of things, what could we possibly learn from these minor, transient personalities? What, indeed? Let’s consider one of the most-well-known-but hardly-discussed people in the Bible: Joseph, husband of Mary, father of the siblings of Jesus (but of course he was not Jesus’ father). He has only a few lines, stars in but a couple of scenes, and he is gone…so why is he even here?

I must give my wife credit for suggesting Joseph, and the reason for his significance…she  reminded me how the exercise of faith often comes down to just moving forward, despite not fully understanding (or believing) everything going on around you. The most ordinary people, when moving in faith, can become the greatest heroes for the rest of us, by being living examples of trusting in The Lord to sustain us; Joseph is exactly that kind of person.

A simple carpenter, living a simple life in a simple village in Galilee, Joseph probably never imagined he would find himself in the center of prophetic fulfillment; like most of us, the routine of normal life was enough to think about. Then, his world is turned upside down by a series of events: his young, virgin fiance turns up pregnant – a scandal, and no one would think wrongly of him for just walking away. He nearly does, until an angel of God appears and confirms what Mary has told him: she was not guilty, but blessed; to his credit, he believes. He may not understand it, but he goes along with the plan. This act of faith (because what else can you call it?) is repeated practically every time we see Joseph – when he takes his radically pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the census, despite the dangers; when they are visited by a horde of shepherds in the stable, telling wild stories of visions of angels singing praises; when they are visited again, this time by wealthy foreigners who bow and offer worship to their young son, calling Him “the King of the Jews”; when the angels warns him to take his family and flee to Egypt, to avoid the Slaughter of the Innocents; still later, when the angel bids Joseph return to Nazareth, because Herod has died. All these incidents contain a common thread: the faithful, trusting obedience of Joseph to the voice of God. If he could hear and believe, in spite of everything his upbringing and his culture told him he should do…how much more should we, with the testimony of Joseph as our evidence, be willing to do likewise?

The structural arrangement of the Bible is not commonly discussed, except in the most scholarly of venues; but there is oneunfortunate consequence which must be diligently avoided: modern readers have a tendency to treat each book as a discrete story, more like an anthology rather than chapters within one narrative. This causes us to miss the simultaneous occurrence of some key events in God’s history with His people. The ministry of the Old Testament  prophets is a good example. In the previous post, for instance, we saw Isaiah speaking the Word of God to King Hezekiah; but that was only one of four kings during whose reigns he served The Lord (Ussiah, Jotham, and Ahaz came before), and other biblical prophets  – Amos, Hosea, and Micah – were his contemporaries. These facts make the stubbornness of the people, their refusal to repent, all the more damning…they could not claim ignorance, the news was on every channel!

The Book of Isaiah is by far the longest and most extensive passage of prophecy we have in Scripture, and the most revealing of Jesus. I have seen some commentators call this book “the Gospel of Isaiah”, so accurate are the details about the coming Messiah. Yet about the man himself we see very few details. The title above is used nearly every time he is introduced; this sparse answer to the questions, “Who are you, what is your job, where did you come from?” is apparently all the information we need; much like John the Baptist, who quotes this prophet when asked to identify himself, Isaiah is content to be nothing more than –

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.”

So many preachers today (in my opinion) make themselves the center of attention. I live in Houston, Texas: home to three of the ten largest “mega” churches in this country, and I can tell you far more about their senior pastors than any of their ministries; their names and photographs are on all the billboards and websites (often with a link to their newest books), but sometimes you have to scroll around or read a little to find the name of Jesus…and I have to wonder at that. Isaiah and the other prophets lived to speak God’s words to God’s people, or anyone else who would listen, for that matter; it was not in the least about themselves – how far we have strayed in these days!

In an earlier Challenge post, I referenced the fact that at times I have been guilty of “lightly” reading the Scriptures, i.e. turning the pages but only skimming the text; not really paying attention to passages (or books, in some cases) that did not seem relevant to me. As I also said, we do ourselves a gave injustice when we undervalue the Word of God.

Another example I have recently unearthed regards the parallel books of Kings and Chronicles (and portions from several of the prophets), which detail the history of the twin nations of Israel and Judah, following the division which arises from the sins of God’s people, in general, and King Solomon in particular. Solomon prayed for and received an enormous gift of wisdom, to lead the people and prosper as their king, as well as carrying out the commission of building the Temple. Yet, he married incessantly and politically, drawing wives from all surrounding nations (in conflict with God’s commandments) and as a consequence being led to compromise his worship, going after other gods as the behest of his wives.

Once the kingdom has divided, it seems the decline into unrepentant sin becomes irreversible…so much that the northern Kingdom is carried away into captivity, and Judah is attacked and threatened repeatedly; King Ahaz goes so far as to begin worshiping the gods of his enemies, in an attempt to fend off disaster. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.) He goes so far off the plan of God that his own subjects cannot bring themselves to bury him with the kings of old when he dies; instead he rests in the tombs with the common people, and the throne passes to his son, Hezekiah.

According to the account in 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah wastes no time putting things right. He orders the Temple to be cleansed and re-consecrated; he finds priests and Levites worthy to serve before the Lord; and he restores sacrificial worship, making sin offerings and burnt offerings on behalf of the people; once again Passover is observed, which (according to the story) had not taken place since the time of Solomon, a span of twelve generations. I cannot imagine how they could let such an important practice lapse…or can I? Perhaps I have been equally negligent in some aspect of my own worship, and have suffered an equal decline? Have I fallen out of fellowship with other believers, or spent insufficient time reading and studying the Bible, or allowed my prayer life to grow stale? Perhaps you have as well?

The good news, both for us and for Hezekiah, is that we serve a God of second chances; and third chances; and thirty-third chances, if necessary. The title of this post appears 8 times in Scripture, and every time Hezekiah prays to God, he is answered with something positive: rescue from his enemies, forgiveness for his people, even a reprieve from death. Likewise, God yearns that we would pray to Him, call on His name in our distress, and trust that He will save us, bless us, preserve us. The way God treated with His people in the Old Testament is the same way He will treat with us…we know this to be true, because He is the same…yesterday, today, and forever, AMEN!

Throughout the Bible, there are incidents where foreign kings and officials interact with God’s people; whether it be Pharaoh of Egypt, Cyrus of Persia, or Caesar himself, these men typically believe themselves to be in ultimate control of their own destiny. But they are included in the Scriptures to demonstrate that all people and all things are subject to the will of God, and are disposed according to His design. The Roman governor Felix, whom we see in the later chapters of the book of Acts, is another such individual.

In Acts 23 and 24, the Apostle Paul is being hounded and hunted by the Jewish officials in Jerusalem. Having declared a religious war on those who follow the Way of Jesus, they now must deal with the “defection” of one of their most formidable inquisitors, Saul of Tarsus; who has been transformed by an encounter with Christ into a new creation, the Apostle Paul. Paul has traveled far and wide across Asia Minor, spreading the good news of Jesus raised from the dead and promising forgiveness of sin and eternal life; things in opposition to contemporary Jewish teachings. The Jews wish Paul dead, nothing less, and attack him in public. This forces the involvement of the local Roman authorities, who step in to quell civil unrest. Upon learning of a plot to ambush and murder Paul, the commander orders him sent to appear before the provincial governor, Felix.

Felix is a consummate politician; he is familiar with the social structures of the province he rules over (he is in fact married to a Jewish woman), and knows that Paul’s conflicts with the high priest do not involve Roman criminal law; he therefore has no compelling reason to find fault. He does have, on the other hand, an opportunity to ingratiate himself with the religious authorities in Jerusalem (helpful in preserving peace, which is one of his most prominent duties to Rome), as well as the potential of receiving a payoff to deliver a suitable verdict on Paul’s behalf (helpful for living a comfortable lifestyle, one of his prominent duties to himself). Felix finds himself in an ambiguous place, uncertain of how to proceed, but aware of the dangers of choosing wrongly;  this becomes strikingly clear to him as Paul speaks about righteousness and the coming judgement – a time where every man will be held accountable for the choices he has made. Felix is not a bold man, he is a cautious  man, and has governed according to what was best for Felix, rather than seeking truth and justice in his administration; he is not thrilled to learn of a time when he will be required to answer for himself. In typical bureaucratic style, he therefore makes no decision whatsoever, and keeps Paul in custody for over two years, until he is finally replaced by another governor.

I am not thrilled to learn of a time coming where all my choices will require an accounting; I know I have acted selfishly, more than not; or given in to anger, fear, greed…any number of weaknesses. I do have something, though, that Felix apparently did not possess – I have hope; the hope that comes from a faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior; hope that forgiveness of sin is available to me through His atonement; hope that in Him, I will stand before God and be accounted as washed in the Blood of the Lamb, white as snow; and be welcomed into my Father’s rest. Thus, I can make decisions; I can take risks; I can declare what I believe to be true without concern for how others will receive me. Because He lives, I no longer have to be afraid!

In Genesis, the book of Beginnings, we see the continuing development of the covenant between God and Abraham, Issac, and Jacob; in each generation, the promises made by God to the father are repeated, renewed, and refined for the son, in the form of a blessing at the end of each father’s life. Traditionally, the father’s blessing would confer favor to the eldest son above any younger brothers – yet God remains sovereign in the affairs of humans, and will overrule our conventions for His purposes, despite what we think or do about it – let’s look at the record.

When Abraham tried to provide his own heir by lying with Hagar and fathering Ishmael, God superseded him by giving Issac to Sarah; Abraham recognized this by sending the older boy away and placing his blessing upon the younger. In his turn, Issac fathered twins, Esau and Jacob; Esau was the firstborn, but even in the womb the Lord had promised that Jacob would inherit the promise; this came to pass when Esau sold his birthright to Jacob for a bowl of stew, and then it was sealed when Rebekah assisted Jacob in deceiving Issac, so that he received his father’s blessing – just as God intended.

When Jacob, now renamed Israel, came to the end of his life and prepared to pronounce his blessing upon his sons, the same pattern repeats itself, with one unique and significant exception – there are two sets of blessings delivered, foretelling the two nations which would arise later. In Gen 48, Jacob calls Joseph, his favorite son, to his side to make his dying request, that he not be buried in Egypt, but returned to the land of Canaan.  He then blesses Joseph’s sons, Manasseh (the elder) and Ephraim (the younger), even before blessing his own sons (see Gen 49, and notice that the three oldest are likewise passed over in favor of Judah, from whom our Savior Jesus is promised), crossing his arms to place his right hand upon the head of Ephraim when he does so. Joseph tried to switch the blessings, believing that his older son should receive the greater promise, but Jacob demurred, insisting that he knew what he was doing; this was obviously so, for in fact the descendants of Ephraim became the kings of the northern Kingdom of Israel, while the sons of Judah ruled over the southern Kingdom, following the line of David. In all the acts of men, we must remember that God has see the end from the beginning, and His will shall always prevail – if you ever wonder what the “will of God” was in any historical event, just look at what happened…you will see exactly that which God intended.

Liebsteraward 1While I have been writing here at “Sharper Than…” only since Labor Day 2012, I’ve been dipping my toes into the blogosphere for about three years now, in fits and starts (I’ve abandoned more blogs than many better writers have ever started); so naturally I have seen lots of nominations for awards being discussed. In all honesty, I never paid much attention – to me, an award is something you work for, a prize for competing; with this blog I have tried to move away from being competitive and towards being competent. Then I signed up for the A-to-Z Challenge this year, and something wonderful happened – I was nominated for an award! Specifically, my new friend Rebeccah Giltrow over at Rebeccah Writes has nominated me for a Liebster Award, and I owe her a special “Thank you!” for doing so!!

For those unfamiliar, the Liebster Award is a way to help expand the community of connections among bloggers from all over the ‘Net, by bringing the “smaller” sites (like mine) to the notice of more people, in a “pay it forward” system that shares the love and recognition with others, according to these conventions:

  • Post the award to your blog.
  • Thank the person who nominated you and post a link to their blog.
  • Post 11 random facts about yourself.
  • Answer 11 questions that have been set by the person who nominated you.
  • Nominate 11 bloggers with fewer than 200 followers to accept this award.
  • Ask your nominees 11 questions.

So with the first two items complete, here goes the rest – enjoy, and be sure to visit and show some comment love to Rebeccah and to my nominees!

11 Random Facts About Me:

  1. I have a terrible memory for names, so I routinely make up names for people that nobody knows but me.
  2. So far, the only food item I have ever found that I do NOT like is liver – no style, no way, never again.
  3. My wardrobe consists of 80% t-shirts and jeans, and 20% everything else.
  4. Of the four children my wife and I raised, only one shares my DNA, but everyone tells us how much they all look like me.
  5. Every vehicle I have ever owned was at least ten years old, and all but two cost less than $1,000.
  6. I have worked in commercial air conditioning for nearly twenty years, but my house does not have central heat or A/C, and probably never will.
  7. My jeans are the same size today as they were when I graduated high school in 1986.
  8. I never have less than three books which I am reading at the same time, sometimes as many as five.
  9. I can use any tool I own in either hand, but otherwise my left hand is truly my “dumb hand”.
  10. I failed the test for my SCUBA dive card because I cannot tread water – I sink like a rock unless moving forward.
  11. I don’t really listen to the lyrics of most songs, I just kind of bop along to the rhythm of the words; I am often surprised when I learn what they are saying.

11 Questions from Rebeccah:

1.Where in the world are you right now?

I live in Houston, Texas – born and raised, and except for 2-1/2 years in college, never lived anywhere else.

2.What has been your best gift?

If you define “gift” as “something given by a person”, it was when my employer offered to pay for my dental reconstruction because he thought I was “worth investing in”. (Botched dentures several years ago left me missing 2/3 of my natural teeth, with all the problems you can imagine go with that.)

3. Can you play a musical instrument?

Sadly, no…I have taken piano and guitar lessons, but not with enough consistency to actually learn anything. I did learn to sight-read music singing in the church choir, so it’s not hopeless!

4. If you could time-travel to any period in the past, where would you go?

Torn on this one – United States, end of 19th century, at the birth of the Industrial Revolution; or 1st century Judea, to experience the earthly ministry of Jesus first hand

5. What’s your favourite dessert?

No contest – my own recipe: Harvest Spiced Cornbread Peach Cobbler

6. Who was your favourite teacher at school?

Ellen Farrell, 5th grade at Dechaumes Elementary – she was the first teacher to challenge me to be to do more than merely pass, but to excel…I didn’t know it then, but she was teaching critical thinking before it was a “thing”.

7. Do you have any pets?

Yes, we have a pair of rescue dogs we saved right off the streets – a 4-yr old American Pit Bull named Cinnamon, and a 9-month old Pit/Boxer mix named Li’l Girl; and we just recently lost our 12-year old chow-chow, Ginger, who came to  us as a 2-month old puppy.

8. Where did you go on your last holiday/vacation?

We drove across Texas to Waco to visit my daughter at the birth of my granddaughter, and then stopped in Austin on the way back to meet an Internet friend in person for the first time – both wonderful experiences!

9. What languages can you speak?

I have a semi-functional command of Spanish (useful on the jobsite, in restaurants, etc) but I am working to improve.

10. What’s your favourite word?

“accoutrements” – gleaned from a Daffy Duck cartoon as a child

11. If you could exchange lives with anyone, who would you choose?

I would not; each of us is a unique creation, shaped by our experiences…dropping into another’s life would not be the same as living it, and so it would be a disappointment at best, and a waste in any case.

My 11 nominees:

11 Questions to Answer:

  1. What is your favorite candy/sweet treat?
  2. Where is the farthest from home you have ever traveled?
  3. Name one book that you have read at least twice.
  4. Breakfast, lunch, or dinner – which is your favorite meal?
  5. What modern “convenience” would you gladly do without?
  6. Which is your favorite holiday?
  7. How long has it been since you climbed a tree?
  8. Have you ever had an unusual or exotic pet?
  9. What sports or games do you participate in?
  10. What movie have you seen more than five times?
  11. What place in the world would you most like to visit?

Thanks again for playing along, and be sure to pay this forward. See you all in April!

Many of you may be wondering why, after finally finding a nice steady pace, I suddenly stopped posting…yeah, there’s been the  occasional re-blog, when I see something I find especially moving…but no writing. And isn’t that the whole reason I started this blog, to give myself a forum to practice my art? Well, that is an interesting question, so let’s examine this idea.

I must admit that I have let myself become pretty divided lately…after all, I am just a guy, and I have trouble doing more than one thing at a time very well; multi-tasking has never really been one of my spiritual gifts. Here lately, I have reached critical mass – taking care of Karen as she slogged through cancer treatment; handling an enormous level of responsibility trying to drive the design process on a complex construction project at work; helping to kick-start a prayer-and-share ministry at a halfway house; and “standing in the gap” at the church while we struggled through the transition period without a pastor, or much of a leadership team at all, for that matter. The Lord has been with me, and these things have prospered…I have been blessed to have been a part of it all. But even seasons of insanity come to an end…and strangely enough, that has been the problem!

Karen has finally reached the end of her regimen – only two more radiation treatments and one more follow-up, and she will be done, hallelujah! The project has been designed to a fare-thee-well, and actual construction begins next week. A new crop of volunteers has been trained for prayer-and-share, and a routine has been developed, duties spread around. The church has merged with another fellowship, so we have a pastor, and a staff, and budget, and a vision. Suddenly, I don’t have a gap to stand in, and it has left me off-balance and questioning  my role, and in fact my value, because that is just how I am wired.  I have a lot of trouble functioning well unless there is a crisis going on…smooth seas and clear skies leave me twitchy and anxious, and I have never really understood why; in truth I still don’t. But that doesn’t mean that I have to accept that as a healthy or right way to live, because I can recognize that it isn’t…it’s just a matter of learning a new way to behave; substituting better habits in the place of bad ones, and rediscovering passions from my past that I have allowed to wither under the weight of “busyness”.  I have been working on that very thing for a few months now, with success, and so I think I can expand this behavior into other realms of my life.

Back on New Year’s Eve, I made two  life-changing decisions: I stopped smoking cigarettes, and I started distance running…something I really enjoyed back in high school, but allowed to die out.  I also began blogging about the journey, at the suggestion of a friend, who reminded me that accountability and support from others in a similar situation are invaluable for making commitments stick. She was right, and I have so far succeeded: I have not smoked for nearly 12 weeks; I have run almost 80 miles this year; I have completed one 5k race, and and I’m signed up for a 10k in May; and my running blog is doing quite well. So, let’ s apply some of these principles to my current issue: how to spend less time in agonies of doubt, and more time pursuing my God-given art of writing (the reason I began blogging, remember?) Here’s what I came up with:

I have registered for the Blogging from A-to-Z in April Challenge, as a way to encourage myself to write something every day for a month. I will focus on themes relevant to Christianity (my own unique spin on the challenge) and in the process, try to recover some of my joy and wonder at the purpose God has placed in me – to express in writing how great He is, and yet how accessible He is to any who will seek after Him. THIS is my role, THIS is my value to the kingdom of heaven…and I am grateful that the Lord is patient, and continues to minister to me and encourage me. He has done this through many mediums – the sermon series our pastor is doing on how God’s plan for humanity has always been that we are blessed to serve Him and to serve others for His glory; the brothers at the halfway house and at the prison where I serve, who are constant examples of how God’s grace extends to “the least and the lost” of this world, and that our worth in His eyes is in no way dependent on how the world sees us; and by a book I finally picked up off the shelf and started reading: Quitter, by Jon Acuff, who tells how finding fulfillment of our dreams is more about recovering than about discovering…a message I really needed to hear! (Jon also recently reminded me that artists are specially blessed by God, and that writers are artists.)

I welcome your comments, and pray that God will lead me in finding 26 creative ways to write about Him in April. I have heard that once you do something 21 times it has become an ingrained habit…let’s put that to the test again, shall we? Stay tuned, spread the word, I believe some wonderful things are about to happen!