Tag Archives: Circumstance

A Small Cog in the Works

Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Xerxes, preeminent among the Jews, and held in high esteem by his many fellow Jews, because he worked for the good of his people and spoke up for the welfare of all the Jews.
Esther 10:3 (NIV)

I found myself working with a small Inside Sales team that was a small cog in the works of a large business silo of a global corporate empire. The fact that we had this gig was a bit of a minor miracle. You see, the corporation they worked for didn’t care about their customers. The corporation didn’t survey their customers because they didn’t want to know. The corporation made it virtually impossible for customers to reach the right people by virtue of a labyrinthine phone system in which you could get lost for days among vague menu choices, endless loops, ignorant operators, and unempowered employees who long ago ceased to care. The corporate system was set up to serve the system itself. Customers were treated as a necessary nuisance.

So, how in the world did I end up there?

There was one front-line manager in charge of this small Inside Sales team. He couldn’t do anything about the corporate empire, the phone system, or any of the other teams, departments, divisions, or silos of the system. He determined, however, that he could control his little cog buried in the systemic works. He hired me and my team to help his little team to apply what I call Customer Service Rule #1: Do the best you can with what you have.

The sheer size and scope of the corporate system working against their efforts made it feel, at times, like we were Quixote tilting at windmills. Still, I had to admire the manager and his team for their courage to make a small difference and do their best to do the right thing for customers in a corporate environment that would never support their efforts, and would only undermine those efforts time and time again.

Over the past weeks on this chapter-a-day journey, I’ve been making my way through what’s known as the exilic books of God’s Message. It was a period of history when the ancient Israelites had been taken into captivity and were ruled by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Median, and Persian empires. Individuals like Daniel, Esther, and Mordecai were strangers in a strange land. They were despised by many and the odds were stacked against them in a myriad of ways. Yet, their stories tell of God using these small individual cogs to accomplish His work in the foreign empirical machines and the often horrific circumstances in which they found themselves.

Today’s final chapter of Esther is simply a brief epilogue that honors Mordecai for his accomplishments. It’s a literary epitaph of sorts and it leaves us with the reminder that Mordecai rose to power because concerned himself with the needs of all his people and worked tirelessly for the welfare of others.

I find myself reminded of two statements this morning. One from Peter’s letter to the believers who, like the Jewish exiles, were scattered by persecution around the Roman world:

“Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
1 Peter 5:6 (NIV)

The other from the prophet Micah:

But he’s already made it plain how to live, what to do,
    what God is looking for in men and women.
It’s quite simple: Do what is fair and just to your neighbor,
    be compassionate and loyal in your love,
And don’t take yourself too seriously—
    take God seriously.
Micah 6:8 (MSG)

The exiles were like the Inside Sales team that I and my team worked with inside their own corporate empire. In many ways, that Inside Sales team was small, impotent, and relatively insignificant in the grand corporate scheme of things. But, they chose to humbly do the best they could each day to serve as best they could with what little power and influence they had. Sometimes, that’s the best you can do.

In the quiet this morning, I’m reminded that along life’s road I will encounter many situations and circumstances that are out of my control. There are so many times when I’m really powerless to make a significant change to large problems. The exiles provide a good example to follow as they, themselves, heeded Micah’s advice. I can do the same. Humbly, quietly, mercifully, faithfully do the best I can each day, in every circumstance, with what I have.

When Life Throws a Wicked Curve

As for me, this mystery has been revealed to me, not because I have greater wisdom than anyone else alive, but so that Your Majesty may know the interpretation and that you may understand what went through your mind.
Daniel 2:30 (NIV)

One can’t control some circumstances. Life sometimes throws you a curve, and you stand there in the batter’s box with only a proverbial moment to decide what you’re going to do with it.

The latest curveball in our journey happened on Friday when my dad suffered a (thankfully small) stroke. In the course of a few hours, our weekend plans were scuttled and our plans for a week at the lake were placed on hold. I quickly found myself spending my nights caring for my mother who is living in the middle stages of Alzheimer’s disease, and spending my days with her and my dad at the hospital entertaining a small army of doctors who are trying make sense of my father’s puzzling mixture of medical issues. I’m glad to report that everyone is well, and it could have been much, much worse.

As doctor after doctor has come in to discuss the various tests that have been continually run over the weekend, my dad has been intent on asking them exactly when his stroke occurred. He’d had symptoms starting on Tuesday of last week and went to the hospital on Friday. I’ve watched as every doctor he asks will look at him quizzically and laugh at the question. Strokes apparently don’t leave a time and date stamp on the brain. Undaunted by this, he continues to ask.

His doctors should be happy they aren’t serving King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. In today’s chapter, King Neb asks a similar unknowable question to all of the prophets, magicians, and enchanters on his royal payroll. The mad king had a puzzling dream, and he wanted the interpretation, but he wanted to make sure the interpretation could be trusted. So, he asked them to first tell him what the dream was, and then tell him the interpretation. If no one could do it, then they’d all be killed and their homes destroyed. Talk about a major league curveball.

Daniel and his friends were, at this point, minor minions at the bottom of the King’s org chart of advisors. Nonetheless, the decree of death applied to them, as well, when Neb decided that he was cleaning house in the Advisory Department.

I find Daniel’s response fascinating. He doesn’t seem to panic. Having not been aware of any of the circumstances leading to the fateful knock on his door, he makes a bold move. He asks for an audience with King Neb. It’s possible that Daniel had not even been in the King’s presence since he and his friends were tested and made the cut to be on the King’s advisory staff. Daniel requests a night to see if he could do the impossible. Then he and his friends pray. That night, Daniel receives a vision explaining both the dream and interpretation.

When Daniel approaches the King with the answer, he is quick to let the King know that there was no magic involved and Daniel did not have some kind of ESP. He simply says that God had a message for the King and Daniel was the messenger. In the entire affair, Daniel’s thoughts, words, and actions appear humble, measured, and focused on seeking God’s purpose in the midst of it all. He stands in, keeps his eye on the ball, and knocks the curveball out of the park.

This morning as I write from my folk’s apartment and help get my mom going so we can head back to the hospital, I’m finding inspiration in Daniel’s attitude. As I wrote in my previous post, Daniel had already faced several wicked knuckleballs and curveballs in life. Perhaps he had learned from those experiences. Nonetheless, he provides a good example.

Don’t panic. Take some time. Seek God’s purpose. Be humble. Flow.

My dad was supposed to be discharged from the hospital today. He called last night to report that the doctors have found another complication. Another procedure today, and I have no idea what it will reveal or whether we’ll bring him home today or not.

Here we flow.

 

The Path to Contentment

But godliness with contentment is great gain.
1 Timothy 6:6 (NIV)

Our friend Tony Harris published a book this past year entitled FADS Marketing. Tony is an expert marketer and his book is a fascinating insider’s view of the world of big marketing. The book opened my eyes to the way I am being sold a bill of goods every day with regard to food, alcohol, drugs, and sex (F.A.D.S. Get it?). If I’m blind to it and if I’m not paying attention, then I will fall for it over and over and over again. What big marketing does is take the field of my basic human appetites and then sows discontent.

Contentment is a recurring theme in Paul’s later writing. I find it interesting that it seems to have become a more important topic the further he got in his own spiritual journey. He takes a rather balanced approach. “I know what it is to have plenty,” he writes, “and I know what it’s like to be in need.” In either circumstance, in whatever circumstance we find ourselves (because it can change rapidly in ways we don’t control), we should seek to be content.

That’s hard to do if I’m blind to the fact that every advertisement and marketing ploy (and they’re all over the place) is trying to stir my appetites’ discontent until I have what they tell me I want and need.

The further I get in my life journey the more I find myself pursuing contentment. I’m not perfect at it by a long shot. I confess that. Like most paths to growth and maturity, the road to contentment often finds me repeatedly taking one step forward before falling two steps back. Looking back, however, I can see the progress. More and more the things of real value to me are relationships, conversations, laughter, time, quiet, a shared meal, life together.

In the quiet this morning, I find myself once again honestly taking inventory of my wants and also taking inventory of my haves. Along the path to contentment, I’ve discovered that if I focus myself on gratitude for, and enjoyment of, the latter then the former takes up less room in my heart and mind.

And so, I contentedly enter another day of the journey.

Pomp and Circumstance

I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

We are all suckers for a Pinterest-worthy phrase. The Bible is full of them. The stuff of inspirational bookmarks, posters, desktop backgrounds, and cheap commercial trinkets sold at your local Christian bookstore.

As I’ve journeyed through God’s Message for almost 40 years, I’ve observed that it’s quite common for that inspirational, scriptural quote to be taken completely out of context. Text that is actually profound, mysterious, and/or challenging with eternal, Level Four spiritual meaning is screen printed, replicated and dragged down to self-centric, ego-pleasing, Level One interpretations. I’m not pointing fingers, by the way. I’m as guilty as anyone.

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

I’m sure there are many young followers of Jesus who are receiving graduation gifts from well-meaning grandparents with that phrase printed on a greeting card, key-chain, or bookmark. On the surface, it seems to flow right along with all the pomp and circumstance of your boiler-plate commencement address:

“Chase after your dreams.”

“You can be anything you want to be.”

“Make your mark on this world.”

“The world is yours for the taking.”

“All your dreams can come true if you work hard enough.”

I noticed as I read the chapter this morning that preceding Paul’s inspirational statement is a rather sobering message:

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.”

Paul, who was stoned and left for dead outside the city of Lystra. Paul, who was shipwrecked three times in the Mediterranean and once spent twenty-four hours floating on debris in the open ocean hoping to make it to shore. Paul, who was bitten by a viper. Paul, who five times was given 39 lashes (because 40 was considered lethal). Paul, who traveled some 10,000 miles largely by foot. Paul, who was beaten with rods three times, went hungry and found himself cold, naked, and alone. Paul, who was writing those words from prison.

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

The secret of being content in any circumstance is the “all things” Paul was referencing with his inspirational phrase. He wasn’t talking about grabbing the world by the tail, achieving his personal dreams, and moving up in the world. He was talking about being perfectly content being cold, naked, hungry, bloody, bruised and shackled in a first-century dungeon. Ironically, that is not the stuff of inspirational commencement addresses.

Along my life journey, I’ve observed that it is discontent that often fuels personal dreams, aspirations, ambition, economics, and the American dream. Paul’s faith taught him contentment in the midst of unimaginable suffering. I struggle to be content with my iPhone 8 when the iPhone X hits the market.

And there’s the disconnect.

This morning I find myself challenged to restore the meaning of the words “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to its profound, mysterious, spiritual meaning in my own heart and life.  Being content no matter my current situation and circumstances. I confess that it’s easier said than done for me, and I’ve got a long way to go in learning the secret Paul discovered. Which is why this is a journey.

Time to press on. Have a good day, my friend.

 

Prisoner of Whom?

For this reason I, Paul, the prisoner of Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles….
Ephesians 3:1 (NIV)

One’s perspective makes all the difference.

Having just journeyed through the season of Lent, I was reminded time and time again that Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, suffering and execution had been predicted. Jesus knew what was going to happen, and He made it clear to His followers. Despite this foreknowledge of what was to happen, Luke writes the Jesus “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (9:51)

Jesus wasn’t the victim. He was driving the events that happened. He was on a mission.

As I’ve been studying the events surrounding Paul in the Book of Acts, there is a very clear parallel to Jesus’ story. Paul was a citizen of Rome. It was a rare status that afforded him all sorts of privileges. When Paul was arrested and put on trial, he could have easily gotten off. Instead he appealed his case to Caesar assuring that he would be taken prisoner to Rome. As he waited for his trial before the leader of the Roman Empire, he wrote letters. Ephesians is one of them.

I couldn’t help but notice in today’s chapter that Paul doesn’t call  himself a “prisoner of Rome,” but rather a “prisoner of Christ Jesus.” Paul, like Jesus whom he followed, does not see himself as a victim of circumstances, but a servant of Christ. He’s not a victim. He’s on a mission. There is no moaning about his imprisonment. He tells the believers in Ephesus not to be discouraged by his sufferings. The entire chapter is focused on God’s eternal, cosmic, Spirit-ual, Level 4 power:

  • God’s grace given me through the working of his power” (vs. 7)
  • boundless riches of Christ” (vs. 8)
  • God, who created all things” (vs. 9)
  • the manifold wisdom of God” (vs. 10)
  • “[God] from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name” (vs. 15)
  • out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit” (vs. 16)
  • how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ” (vs. 18)
  • this love that surpasses knowledge” (vs. 19)
  • him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us” (vs. 20)

This morning in the quiet I’m thinking about the perspective with which I approach my own circumstances. Am I walking this life journey as a person who happens to claim to be a follower of Jesus but then lives my life as if I’m a victim of random earthly circumstance? Or, am I on a mission, as well? Like Jesus, like Paul, is my faith-journey propelling me to a larger purpose and mission rooted in Level 4 power and purpose?

Your mission, should you choose to accept it….”

The People v. Paul of Tarsus (Part 2)

If, however, I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die. But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”
Acts 25:11 (NIV)

Our daughter and her family recently moved to the United Kingdom along with some good friends who were scheduled to leave about the same time. On the the eve of their departure, their friends were still dealing with a snafu with their visas. As they explained it to me, the whole affair became maddening cluster of a situation involving frantic phone calls, an attorney, government bureaucracy, and university bureaucracy. The maddening situation ultimately delayed their departure for an indefinite period of time and kept them in hurry-up and wait limbo.

As we enter today’s chapter, Paul has been imprisoned in a similar “hurry up and wait” limbo in the regional Roman justice system. The Roman Procurator, Felix, had kept Paul in prison for two years as a favor to the powerful Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. Felix is replaced with a man named Festus to who begins his tenure in office with a diplomatic mission to Jerusalem where the Jewish religious leaders urge him to return Paul to Jerusalem (so they could assassinate him). Festus makes a political countermove by urging them to come to Caesarea and make their accusations.

In Part 2 of Paul’s trials the Jewish leaders make their accusations. Once again they have no evidence and accuse Paul of nothing that would be deserving of death. Festus, however, is a new Procurator playing a political game of chess with the political players of his region. He attempts to appease the Jewish religious leaders by asking Paul if he’d be willing to go to Jerusalem and let the case be heard there.

Paul knows that this is a mockery of Roman justice being suggested for political gain. To return to Jerusalem would only pander to his enemies and accusers. It’s essentially a step backwards and to agree would place him in a weaker position. Festus obviously wants to appease Paul’s accusers and Paul can smell a rat. If Festus is willing to try the case in Jerusalem, outside of Roman civil court, then he just might be willing to make Paul a sacrificial offering to shore up his political position.

Paul now makes a bold move and appeals to Caesar. This is a bold move because Festus has not actually tried Paul’s case and has not rendered a verdict. It was a risky move because Festus might have ultimately released Paul. The case against Paul was weak and executing a Roman Citizen for political gain with the Jews would not have been a good political move within the Empire. It was also risky because appealing to Caesar meant being sent to Rome and more languishing in the Roman justice system for an indefinite time. Paul also knew that his surprise appeal would give Festus a political out: “Sorry guys. I tried to bring him to Jerusalem to stand trial, but he appealed to Caesar. He’s a Roman Citizen. My hands are legally tied.”

As a read this morning I find myself, once again, trying to crawl into the mind of Paul. Paul clearly stated when he went to Jerusalem was that his motivation is to expand the Message of Jesus and to proclaim the Message across new boundaries. He wants to push the Message forward. The prospect of a return to Jerusalem would only put him back where he’s already been for years. The appeal to Caesar, while risky, offered the potential for his story and his witness to become a matter of official public record in the Roman Empire. In essence, Paul’s deft legal maneuver assured that he wouldn’t be the sacrificial lamb for Festus’ political gain, but he would willingly sacrifice himself for the sake of Jesus and taking the Message of Jesus to the very heart of the Roman Empire.

Being stuck in the limbo of bureaucracy can be maddening. Just ask Taylor’s friends about their experience. I find that Paul, however, is finding purpose in the pain of his situation. It comes down to motives. His ultimate motivation is not about his physical freedom, but freeing others by furthering the Message of Christ. With that in mind, he’ll use his circumstances to achieve his goal.

Explosion Begets Expansion

On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Acts 8:1 (NIV)

In the past week the world has watched as the floodwaters caused by Hurricane Florence have forced thousands of people to flee their homes and communities to seek higher ground. The news has been dotted with interviews of individuals who have owned property along the beautiful Carolina coast for many years, but who now say they’ve had enough.

As a follower of Jesus, seeking to live with purpose, I have always determined that I want to be where God wants me to be doing what God wants me to be doing. This morning I find myself recounting three very distinct moments in my life when circumstances outside of my control put me in such uncomfortable predicaments that I was compelled to make vocational choices that moved me and my family to different places. In retrospect, I can see that each of those moves led me to where I was supposed to be.

Looking back along my Life journey and reading through the Great Story, I recognize that sometimes it takes an uncomfortable, sometimes explosive, change in circumstances to force a person to move. Joseph was sold into slavery by his own brothers and ended up in Egypt, where decades later he would save his entire family from dying of famine. David was forced into the wilderness to live as a mercenary, where he would learn the very leadership lessons that prepared him for the throne. Daniel was taken captive to Babylon where he was used by God in the life of Babylon’s king, Nebuchadnezzar. Jesus experienced the ultimate example of circumstance conspiring to lead Him to a gruesome yet purposeful death, making salvation available to us all. After the resurrection, Jesus tells his right-hand man, Peter, to expect the same:

When you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” [emphasis added]

The resurrected Jesus went on to tell his followers to take His story, their story, to “Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the world.” As we approach today’s chapter we find Jesus’ followers still hangin’ with their homies in Jerusalem. The Temple’s religious authorities both tried and executed Stephen in yesterday’s chapter. Now the Sanhedrin decides to snuff out this pesky Jesus movement once and for all. As the persecution against Jesus’ followers breaks out the followers of Jesus scatter to…wait for it…Judea and Samaria! It was an explosion of persecution that forced Jesus followers to move to the very places Jesus had always purposed for them to be.

This morning in the quiet I’m preparing for a message I have to deliver to my local gathering of Jesus’ followers on Sunday. It so happens to be on this very topic from this very book. “Explosion Begets Expansion” is my theme, and today’s chapter could easily be Exhibit A. Sometimes explosive or uncomfortable circumstances flood our lives and force us to move where we would otherwise not have been, only to find out we end up exactly where we were supposed to be all along.