Happy Birthday

I had a teacher in high school named Martha Rutherford who always brought donuts in on her birthday and gave them away to her students. I loved Mrs. Rutherford (for obvious reasons), and as I chowed down a few glazed rounds I would think, “Man I’m glad she was born!” 

Yesterday was my 30th birthday. We went to my favorite restaurant and did things that I wanted to do since it was my special day. Lots of people on facebook told me “Happy Birthday” because they wanted me to feel happy that I was born. One person told me, “I hope God is blessing you in all the ways you’ve dreamed.” 

It occurred to me that God has not blessed me in the ways I’ve always dreamed –         for which I am profoundly grateful. 

I’ve had dreams, plans, and desires that have gone unmet, but they were selfish desires and plans. God hasn’t always given me what I wanted, but he’s always given me what i needed and what’s best for me – things of far greater value that I was too ignorant or immature to ask for. He is such a good Dad.

I think most of us live our lives like its our birthday every day. We want to be happy we were born, so we do what we want to do and pray God blesses us with what we want. But we find that we only grow more and more unhappy. Maybe even unhappy we were born.

It’s ironic how the more we stuff we try or buy to fill the void of happiness in our soul, the more empty we feel.

My sister has a decorative picture frame in her bathroom with a quote from Thoreau on it that reads…

Happiness is like a butterfly. The more you chase it, the more it eludes you. But if you turn your attention to other things, it comes and sits softly on your shoulder.

Turn your attention to other things. Like other people.

Mrs. Rutherford always seemed so daggone happy to be giving away donuts on her birthday. She would laugh and smile and find so much pleasure in it. I think she was happier to be giving the donuts than we were to be eating them.

Jesus said, “It’s better to give than to receive.” I used to think that meant giving was the more responsible thing to do even though it’s a sacrifice and doesn’t feel good. But the literal translation is, “it’s more blessed [happy] to give than to receive.” In other words, it’s actually more enjoyable to give than to get. No wonder Mrs. Rutherford seemed so happy to be giving us donuts on her birthday. She was.

God is teaching me that the secret to being happy I was born is to make others happy I was born. 

One small way God has taught me this is through my relationship with a boy named Bryan Jose Alarcon Landa. He loves soccer and lives in Ecuador. But Bryan’s family is so poor he couldn’t go to school or even rest assured he would have a hot meal every day. Through an organization called Compassion International, I was able to give $38 a month to make sure Bryan has food, clothes, and education. I’m even able to give an extra $20 twice a year so that Bryan gets a gift on his birthday (October 13) and Christmas. I’m always giddy with excitement when I’m giving those gifts. It’s one thing to give obligatory birthday and Christmas gifts to people that will get a bunch of other stuff, but it’s a whole different level of joy to give to someone who won’t get anything otherwise and who desperately needs it.

Bryan and I write letters back and forth and he draws me pictures. He always tells me again and again how happy he is to receive my help. But he has no idea that I’m much happier giving it.

If you’ve been struggling feel happy you were born, don’t fill the void by focusing on yourself and what you want. Try turning your attention to someone else. You could go to Compassion’s website and find a child with your birthday and sponsor them. Or maybe you could just buy someone a box of donuts.

Either way, they’ll be happy you were born and so will you.

Olympic Pressure

David Bowie and Freddie Mercury belt the background track in my head whenever I watch an Olympic final. (You know, the song with the unmistakeable bass line that Vanilla Ice stole for “Ice, Ice, Baby.”)

The pressure of Olympic competition is unmatched in the world of sport. Upon failure in any other competitive context, the athlete can console themselves with, “we’ll get ‘em next year. Take a month off. Get back to work, and in a few more months I’ll be back in the hunt.”

Not so for the Olympian. Four years of blood, sweat and tears culminate in a single crescendo that is over in a matter of seconds. Four more years is often too long for the passing glory of youth to give it another go. Most only get one shot. Talk about pressure.

I’ve heard they have suicide counselors for those who don’t make the podium. 

Many people live under the weight of a similar pressure to achieve, though not athletic in nature. It’s an issue of identity. We confuse who we are with what we do and our worth with what we accomplish. This is a dangerous belief because no matter the outcome, we lose. If we are successful, we become prideful and think it’s actually because we’re better than. If we fail, it confirms what we have suspected all along – we aren’t worthy and we’re lesser than.

But God’s perspective is different…
Our identity and worth are not from what we do, but rather from who and whose we are.

Right before Jesus started his ministry on earth, God affirms his identity:

This is my son, whom I love. With him I am well pleased. (Matthew 3:17)

God is pleased with Jesus, but Jesus hasn’t even done anything yet. He hasn’t saved the world yet. He hasn’t done anything miraculous at this point. He hasn’t even preached his first sermon.

God the Father loves Jesus apart from any accomplishments or conditions.
He loves us the same way.

You are valuable because of WHO you are – a person made in the image of God. You don’t have to accomplish anything to prove you have innate worth.

And you are valuable because of WHOSE you are – a child of God. I don’t love my children because they have learned to talk well or run fast or do amazing things. I love them simply because they are mine. Without conditions. That’s how God loves you.

When our identity is rooted in who and whose we are, we are protected from the idolatry of achieving. If we’re blessed with accomplishments, we’re able to stay down to earth because we know we’re not better than anyone else. If we fail, our hope is not stolen by our incapacity to achieve because we know our Dad still loves us, win or lose. 

Remember who and whose you are. Then you can withstand any pressure this life throws at you, even that of Olympic proportions.

4 Steps to make (and keep) the most important New Year’s Resolutions

The New Year holiday is a time when people all over the world take time to evaluate the trajectory of their lives and resolve to make changes that will help start the coming year on the right foot. This is an honorable practice that can be a catalyst for growth, but to experience the benefit of this ritual, two things stand in our way: making the right resolutions, and sticking with the changes until we experience the fruit of our labor.

Year after year, the top resolutions include eating healthy, managing money better, and getting in shape. These are all positive changes, but they simply aren’t what matters the most. The apostle Paul said it this way in 1 Timothy, “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.” The most important thing you can do in 2014 is draw nearer to God and walk in his will for your life.

2014 can be the best year of your life if its the best year spiritually. That’s what matters most. 

So instead of heading to the gym or avoiding chocolate, what if your resolutions included heading to the Word and avoiding selfishness? By far the greatest investment you could make in your life is to get into a daily routine of spending personal time with God, reading the Bible and praying. Speaking from experience, I have found that when I’m more in tune with God, I naturally start to care more about how I’m taking care of the body he’s given me and managing the income he’s blessed me with. It’s a win-win. He cares about every aspect of our lives, so when we draw near to him, we see the benefit in every area. I’ve also found that the opposite is true as well – when I’m not in tune with God and don’t have a daily rhythm with him, I start to lose the discipline in other areas.

Whatever you decide to do, the real growth comes by sticking with it and not giving up. So here are 4 steps to make resolutions that matter and give yourself the best chance to be in the 8% of people who experience the payoff of perseverance:

4 Steps to Make Godly Resolutions
1. PRAY - Express your desire to do God’s will in 2014 and ask Him to help you plan. James 1:5 says if any of us lack wisdom, we should ask God and it will be given to us. Ask God to show you what changes you need to make. Make these words of  Psalm 25 your prayer: “Show me your ways, Lord, teach me your paths. Guide me in your truth and teach me…”

2. PLAN Specifically – How are you going to do it? Be specific. Write it down! Bad example: I’m going to get in shape. Good example: I’m going to lift weights on Mon-Wed-Fri from 6-7pm at Planet Fitness on Washington Avenue. People who plan specifically and write down their resolutions are 10 times more likely to achieve them. Ask yourself these two questions: What do I need to start doing? What do I need to stop doing in order to accomplish the latter? Example: I need to START getting up 30 minutes earlier to read my Bible and pray. Therefore, I need to STOP staying up until 1:00am watching Late Night so that I can get up 30 minutes earlier. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail. 

3. PARTNER with someone - Tell someone what you plan to do and even ask them to do it with you if it’s something you can do together. The accountability and encouragment of another person is priceless. They can motivate you on the days when inspiration is lacking and vice versa.

4. PRIORITIZE PROGRESS, NOT PERFECTION - If you miss a day or make a mistake, don’t get discouraged. Get back on the horse or wagon or whatever proverbial metaphor you’re riding! So many people give up or quit because they feel like they’ve failed. If your year is a pattern of three steps forward and one step back, you’re still going to end up a lot farther along than where you started. Don’t let the steps back hold you back from the progress you could have made.

Nothing is more important than walking with God in his plan, path, and purpose for your life. Make the resolutions that matter the most, and prayerfully plan to commit your way to God this year. By his grace this could be your best year yet.

“Commit your activities to the Lord, and your plans will be achieved.” - Proverbs 16:3

White Christmas Wonder

won·der (ˈwəndər/):
a feeling of surprise mingled with admiration, caused by something beautiful, unexpected, or inexplicable.

When was the last time you were wide-eyed with visceral wonder? It takes a lot to stir up this admiration-awe in us. You might even have a hard time remembering the last time wonder stole your breath or wet your eyes. We’re a lot like the fish in an old story (as told by David Foster Wallace)…

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the heck is water?”

It’s all around us – we just can’t see it.

More than any other time of the year, Christmas reminds me of our blatant obliviousness to wonder; take these two symbols of the season:
1. Snow
2. An angelic choir scaring the bejeepers out of some shepherds with the best news the world has ever heard.

We all long for a white Christmas. There’s something magical about the white, fluffy stuff. But other than atmospheric holiday nostalgia, what’s so great about frozen water flakes? Where’s the wonder in that? Especially if you live farther from the equator, you’re probably pretty unimpressed by snow. Maybe even annoyed.

Well, this dude from Moscow named Alexey Kljatov took some pictures of snow in his backyard. You know, everyday snow. These are a few of his pictures (see them all here):

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No two are alike. Every time it snows in your backyard, there are billions of these tiny wonders. Whoa. I have this strange feeling of surprise mingled with admiration for something beautiful and unexpected rising up in me. It’s called wonder.

Now, about that angelic choir causing terror on unsuspecting farmhands. The wonder in that moment is a little more obvious. What’s not so obvious is the part about Jesus. What I mean is that the angels were definitely an awe-inspiring event, but a baby being born? Normal. Ordinary.

The shepherds had to go look for Jesus to find him, and had the angels not told them what to look for, they probably would have never found him. John Calvin writes about it this way:

“This was a revolting sight, and was sufficient of itself to produce an aversion to Christ. For what could be more improbable than to believe that he was the King of the whole people, who was deemed unworthy to be ranked with the lowest of the multitude?”

In other words, if the angels hadn’t told them what to look for, the shepherds would have went to Bethlehem and completely overlooked the King of Kings, saying something like, “Well, I don’t know where this King is, but he’s definitely not that poor kid in the feeding trough.”

Like the wonder of snow, I think we sometimes miss the wonder of Jesus because we don’t know what to look for.

We’re looking for the angelic sign in the sky, and miss the wonder of the King in a manger. We can’t see the flakes for all the snow.

The next time it snows, remember the wonder woven into each flake by our Creator, even though its hard to see. And the next time you feel like God is far and the wonder wanes, remember that he wrapped himself in flesh and came near. He is near even now to those who look closely. May he surprise you with wonder this Christmas as you look for him in the most ordinary of places.

On Government Shutdowns, Natural Disasters, and War with Syria

I have several friends who work for the United States government who are not receiving paychecks right now. I have another friend who just moved to Colorado, and after being there only a few short days the floods came, and she was in the heart of the devastation. And like many others I have family members who are in the military, one cousin in particular who has done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, all filled with anxiety as we flirt with war in Syria just as we thought Iraq and Afghanistan were winding down.

The other day I accidentally dropped a dollar on the ground around a bunch of young kids, and was amazed as none of them went for it. In my day, we clamored for a quarter! Our national debt is climbing to historic proportions as the dollar’s value plummets worldwide. It seems like there are more catastrophic natural disasters happening now than when I was a kid just 20 years ago, and I just watched a documentary on PBS about how the number of disasters is only going to increase. The ice caps are melting. School shootings. Arab springs. And just how many wars will it take to end them all???

These are unprecedented times.

I opened my Bible this morning, and flipped to where I left off the day before… Psalm 46. Now, I’m a pastor and I know my Bible, so I know what’s coming on this particular day. I’m a little disappointed, though, because I’m not thinking its going to be very relevant with all that’s going on. Psalm 46 contains one of the Bible’s most famous verses, a beloved favorite of millions of Christians…

“Be still and know that I am God.” - Psalm 46:10

Before I start reading, I’m thinking of everything that’s going on in my life and in this world, and I’m thinking… “How?” How am I supposed to be still? Look at the world! It’s falling apart.

I start reading, more for duty than hope. But I notice something new among these ancient words on this day, and the first few lines are a vise that grip my heart… The earth is giving way. Mountains fall into the sea. Flood waters surge. The nations are in an uproar. The world is falling apart.

Sounds familiar.

It’s in the context of this tumultuous turmoil that God tells us to “Be still and know.” I’d always heard that verse quoted by people who were happy and peaceful, as if referencing a beautiful sunrise in their prize-winning garden where the birds are chirping and all is well. But the author of this Psalm is showing me that “Be still and know” is not some elevator background music to a picture perfect peaceful morning. It’s more like a war-cry that lifts its voice over the uproar of the nations! It girds my heart like a commanding officer addressing his men before battle. If we want Peace, we’ve got to quit being captivated by all the crazy and start fixing our attention on the God who sits enthroned above it all. We have to fight to remove our hearts from the storms of worry and floods of fear. And much like the eye of a hurricane is peaceful despite the swirling chaos, there is a center to our storm where we can find rest from our anxieties–God is in control.

I don’t know what you’re going through right now. A government shutdown or floods in Colorado or war with Syria might be the least of your worries, and your world could still be falling apart. In fact, sometimes our most personal storms are the most terrifying. Whatever it is, Jesus saw it coming. He said there will be famines and earthquakes. Wars and rumors of wars. Brother will betray brother unto death. He said that in this world, we WILL have trouble. Now that’s a promise from God, but not one we like to think about too often!

We will have trouble. There will be wars. The world will fall apart. But Jesus followed that promise of trouble with with these words,

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” - John 16:33

Whatever chaos is going on in your world, whatever worry, whatever fear…
Take heart. Jesus has overcome. He is Lord of all.

As Psalm 46 says in the face of paralyzing trials, He is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in times of trouble. 
He is with us through it all. When the mountains quake, still your heart. When the flood waters rise, know that your Savior commands them with a word, “Peace. Be still.” As you exalt him in your heart, He that calmed the storm will calm your soul. He will lift his voice to sing over you, and the problems of this world will melt away. Amidst the swirling chaos, he will harbor you in the eye of the storm.

Jesus is God. He has overcome. He is in control.

Be still and know.

Distraction

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.  But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

   “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”  - Luke 10:38-42

Sometimes I think Martha gets a bad rap. I mean, if Jesus were coming over to your house, wouldn’t you want everything to be just right, everything in its place? Kids behaving impeccably? Meal exquisitely marinated and cooked to perfection? It wasn’t what Martha was doing was bad. She desired a good thing–to be a good host to the King of Kings. The problem was that Martha let the good things distract her from the most important thing–sitting at Jesus’ feet. The King of Kings wanted something more than to be served by Martha–he wanted to get to know Martha. To talk with her. To delight in her.

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been a Martha at some point too…
You plan the most epic birthday party for your 5 year old because you love them so much, only to be so distracted by the preparations and activities that you miss out on the most important thing– delighting in your 5 year old.
You work all the time to provide for your family, only to miss out on the most important thing–being with your family.

It’s easy to get distracted, especially during busy seasons of life when there is a lot going on. But I’ve come to realize that distraction is not always accidental. In fact, I’m convinced it is one of Satan’s greatest ploys against me personally. If he can’t take me out with something major like cheating on my taxes or my wife, he becomes a lot more sly and cunning. He uses the good things in my life to distract me from the best things.

If you’re feeling a bit distracted lately, schedule some time to focus on the most important things. Maybe you need to scale back your plans so the events don’t overshadow the relationships. Maybe you just need a day off with the family. Whatever good things are going on in your life, don’t let them distract you from the most important things.

Slow down. Rest.
Soak in Scripture and listen in prayer.
Jesus, the Giver of all the good things in your life, is waiting to get to know you. Talk with you. Delight in you.
Don’t let the good things he has given you distract you from the most important thing–sitting at His feet.