Blind Spots

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Most of us are familiar with the old adage, ‘things aren’t always what they seem.’  It’s a reminder to us of an important truth − we can be deceived. The problem for us can be that we forget that is somewhat of an Achilles heel in us all since Adam and Eve listened to the serpent in the garden that twisted God’s words.

You may well remember that the serpent (Lucifer) was once an angel in the court of heaven, but he lusted after the power of God. He wanted to usurp that power and he was clever enough to take a third of the angels with him and then God reminded him of his place when he fell from heaven. Deception was woven into the very fabric of his being.

Before that day Adam and Eve listened to the serpent, mankind was made in the image of God and was meant to reflect Him and his character. After the serpent’s seduction of the happy couple, God’s image in them was marred and their character reflected the serpent’s instead of God’s. They were the serpent’s ‘image bearers’ and that cosmic DNA got knit into what God had intended to be unmarred and reflect Him. That cosmic combination got passed down to every generation after them to those of us who live today.

Because our nature is not God’s original intent, we struggle with the same character flaws that the serpent (a former beautiful angel) dealt with and still deals with. That includes a desire for power. We may not always recognize that in ourselves because it isn’t always something we feel. We will see it most easily when we are confined in some way and feel more powerless.

We have a paradoxical connection to power.

We know it can be bad if used and abused, but we also respect it and sometimes want at least some of it.  When we submit to power whether it is to parents, teachers, clergy, or others, we might assume because of their authority, skill, beauty, knowledge, status, position, etc. that they have integrity. It’s not a big leap to look at this list, compare ourselves to it and decide that person or organization that has these things knows more than we do and will seek to serve us in ways that benefit us. And sometimes that is true, but not always.

Power can blind us to the truth about ourselves and deceive us. A powerful example of that is evident in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy, Lord of the Rings. The ring has power and even the simplest of hobbits, Frodo Baggins, discovers it can tempt him.

In one scene in the film, Galadriel gives warning about the ring and man’s susceptibility to it:

“In the gathering dark, the will of the ring grows strong. It works hard now to find its way back into the hands of men. Men, who are so easily seduced by its power.”

Once power deceives us, we are ensnared and may not realize how much so until it is too late.

In Tolkien’s epic work, time and again good men, elves, dwarves, or hobbits are drawn to the power of the ring and miss that once they take the ring, it takes them and reshapes them completely.

The strongest example is when we watch Sméagol transformed by the ring into the creature Gollum. His lust for the ring of power (“My Precious”) causes him to destroy himself in molten fire rather than to allow the ring to be destroyed.

When power is misused and abused, the one using it falls prey to deception.

That would be bad enough, but it doesn’t stop there. Often the person doesn’t even recognize he or she is deceived, nor do they see how they move to deceive others. When that step of deceiving others occurs and their goals are thwarted, they then try to use their power to coerce others into giving them what they want.

Dr. Diane Langberg has worked with many persons and organizations about issues of trauma and abuse and the role of power and deception. Hear her wisdom in this:

“Those who abuse power are deceived. Abuse of power requires deadening our ability to discern good and evil.

When self-deception works with temptation, they convince us that something wrong is okay. Then we blame external circumstances for our choices.

As time goes on self-deception functions as a narcotic numbing us to the danger and damage of our choices.

Deadness of our soul will cause us to lose the power to hate evil and remove our taste for good.”

Is all hope lost?  Are we doomed?

As Gandalf would say in The Lord of the Rings,

“All we have to do decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

The first decision is to yield to the One whose image we were meant to reflect and then allow Him to reshape us and fight with and for us.

And with that decision, we must recognize the One who is all-powerful, to humble ourselves before Him, and learn from the evidence that came from the lust for power by the serpent that sought to usurp God’s power.

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How Many Minutes Did You Say?

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Each of us seems to be more and more time conscious these days. I think it relates to the fast-paced overly busy schedules we keep where we struggle to arrive on time and get home before midnight too many days.

We can all thank Thomas Edison for some of that. Before he created the filament for incandescent light bulbs in the late 1800’s, our ancestors’ days were much more related to the rhythm of sunlight and darkness as it changed through the seasons. After his invention, we stretched our working and playing farther into the night until we now seem to no longer recognize the sleep and wake cycles had a purpose for our good and health.

When we are young we tend to feel as if time is passing slowly and we are eager to push it forward for all we want to do or be, but as we get older and see how quickly we are using it up we are more likely to want it to move forward at a slower pace.

With those as a backdrop I have been reflecting on the statement of a pastor from Mexico a few weeks ago who spoke of the Lord coming soon. Yes, I have heard that many times over the years and if we are reading the New Testament carefully, we see Paul’s letters speaking of it. That can leave us quite uncertain about the meaning of the word “soon” in relation to His return.

It was when the pastor used a soccer game analogy and said we are in the last three minutes of the game that my attention was arrested. I have little knowledge of soccer so it was likely not as clear an illustration for me as it might be for others, but it still left a definite impression about the possible meaning of “soon”. If I broaden the idea out to cover other sports I know less well, it becomes clear it means near the end. I know the final minutes of a game often determine the outcome.

I went to a high school where football was king. High school students there first played it in 1891. Prior to the current playoff system that began in 1972, the team won the state championship 23 times. The teams were also recognized as the AP National Champions 9 times between 1935 and 1961 (the most in the nation). Since 1891, more than 10.5 million fans have watched the games of this team.

Every Friday night during football season the whole town would show up at the stadium decked in team colors with lots of enthusiasm to cheer on the team to victory. As a student on such a day, the excitement began with a parade downtown at lunchtime led by our marching swing band and cheerleaders. The idea of losing was not an option in anyone’s mind. We went to games at home and away cheering on the team and I saw more than a few games that came down to the final minute or two of the game to determine the winner.

I loved every minute of it! I first learned the game of football as a grade schooler sitting beside my dad for each game. When I was finally able to sit in the student cheering section, it was an electric experience! I knew every cheer and song and most of the plays happening on the field.

The analogy the pastor was talking about was far more significant and one that often seems to get less attention and fanfare in most of our lives than our favorite sports team. Yes, we know Jesus will return and as we see the world unraveling in every corner of the globe we perhaps think of it a bit more often, but is it a truth that spurs us to respond to the time we have differently?

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The truth about Friday night football in my town was not just about watching or playing the game. It was also about preparing for the season as well as each game itself. It affected nearly every choice that was made so we would be in the optimal condition to play and win. It was the spirit and the traditions handed down generation after generation that included a certainty about what we believed about the game and ourselves. We knew we were winners, but nothing was taken for granted or left to chance. It was something that everyone felt a part of and prepared for, not just the players on the field. We all got ready.

As I reflect on those exciting fun times over what could seem like a silly game to most, I wonder where I am (where we all are) if we are in the last three minutes of the game before the Lord returns. Am I living each day with the end in mind as Stephen Covey might ask?

So often I have felt the reminder as I read about the story of the wise and foolish virgins Jesus tells us in Matthew 25. The parable clearly speaks of preparation for a sure end that has an unknown time stamped on it.

Maybe we handle the anticipation about the last three minutes of the game differently because there is no specific time stamp we know and because we have heard “soon” for a long time. Perhaps that has dulled our senses and lulled us to sleep. Sure, we think of it when we face the death of someone close to us or hear a diagnosis of our own that suggests our own days are numbered, but what about the big picture? What about the unseen world we are living in the midst of that has an eternal reality stamped on it?

One thing seems certain. It is closer today than yesterday.

Even though we do not know the exact time, J.R.R. Tolkien’s words spoken by Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring reverberate in my heart, mind, and spirit:

All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us.”

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The Best of Us

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Who are the best of us?

We seem to have this strong bent to compete and compare ourselves with others with a hope to be “the best” in whatever area we are setting that goal. That push is not new but appears to have gained momentum in each decade as we seek to push the limits higher and higher to attain “the best”. But how do we determine what that is? Records of achievement are routinely broken.

The goal of “the best” connotes success to most of us. And we admire success in all its forms. We flock to stadiums and arenas to watch the “best” teams compete against one another. We are willing to pay the highest ticket price for the musician we deem “the best” and we will travel great distances to see them perform. We choose leaders in every area of life and often we choose them because of their history of success, and we believe they will correspondingly be “the best”. We are drawn to the tallest, brightest, and most attractive people and sometimes attribute things to them that may not even be true because of those traits we determine to be “the best”.

We may give a standing ovation to the person graduating at the top of his or her class, but not notice the parents who sacrificed their own dreams and worked multiple jobs (some menial) and long hours to provide this person with all the necessary skills and abilities to harness their natural talent to arrive at this accomplishment. They don’t show up on a stage or receive the applause, but when they don’t then I think we miss “the best” of us.

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We watch the baker as he or she pulls the perfectly shaped loaves of bread from the oven. We take in the scent of the warm bread as it is set before us and our mouths water as we prepare to take our first bite of it with “the best” olive oil to dip it in or the richest creamy butter we can find. What we have seen and smelled doesn’t disappoint our expectations and we declare to the baker that it is simply “the best” we have ever tasted and the baker “the best” in town. It might be, but how can the baker be “the best” without considering the farmer who tilled the soil, chose the very best seed, watched over the fields with care knowing that he could not control the weather to assure he would glean a great crop. The farmer’s days would be long and hard and the price for a bushel of grain would vary from day to day and be comparatively small for the fancy bread at a high- end bakery on a big city street. Would the farmer ever receive such acclaim?

That favorite story from the Old Testament of the giant and the boy with only a sling and some small stones. Yes, the Goliath story where this giant was considered unbeatable and “the best” warrior. He was so good that no one would risk fighting him. Then a boy not old enough to be a solider arrives with lunch for his brothers and is shocked that all the warriors on the battlefield are trembling. He steps up and offers to take on the giant and in the epic scene fells the giant with the sling and small stones he carried with him all the time. Who was “the best”?

There is another story some of you know about a big crowd out on a hillside to hear the greatest preaching and teaching ever. He was so outstanding they all followed him to this hillside without a thought to bring anything to eat. But there is this one boy who happened to bring a small lunch of five loaves and two fish. When the great teacher, Jesus, tells his disciples to feed all these people they have no idea how to manage that with no available food nearby. When they tell Jesus about the boy with the small lunch you might know what happens next. He blesses that small lunch, and it is multiplied to feed the 5,000 on the hill. This boy in the story doesn’t get his name mentioned, but I think he would qualify as one of “the best.”

As I listened to stories of heroism that happened on September 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked by terrorists using planes as weapons to fly into buildings of significance that represented power and success, I was impacted especially by one story. A young man who had grown up with a desire to help people and to be an EMT was working as a delivery boy for a law firm in New York City. He was a month away from entering the EMT training that had been his passion. When the planes flew into the towers, he was nearby making a delivery and immediately jumped in to help in any and all ways that he could. The law firm called for him to come back to work, but he chose instead to offer all the help he could with what skills he had and a heart willing to give his all. His efforts would be captured in photos in news reports, but he would not be a name you would hear of even though he would lose his life trying to save others.

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The best of us will often not be names we would recognize as famous. They will not make the most money, but often less than others. They may never earn the highest degrees or get the trophies we all admire. Most will not consider themselves to be special or unique, but they will all have two qualities that stand out. They will seek to serve others and be willing to sacrifice for what they believe in as a calling to help in that service. In these two qualities they will demonstrate nobility of character that exceeds those whom we watch and applaud at sporting events and in concert halls. They will exceed those who make more money and are lauded as the most attractive.

They will know themselves well enough to know their strengths while also acknowledging their weaknesses. Because of that they will be less likely to fall prey to pride and more likely to go about life with humility as a hallmark of their character as well.

One day I think these unnamed persons will receive the applause of heaven because they chose to serve and sacrifice even as Christ did to give all who would receive Him life with Him forever.

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The Discipline of Waiting

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Of all things that we humans do poorly, waiting (for or on almost anything) is where we are most likely to score a poor grade. It’s strange that we struggle with it when we have so many opportunities to experience it. We experience it in big and small ways more times than we can count. If practice makes us better at anything, I wonder why we don’t improve more in this area?

Some of our “waiting practice” goes with whatever season of life we find ourselves in. As children we are waiting for a new bike, waiting for Christmas, waiting to go camping, waiting for the treat I was promised, and waiting to grow up to be able to do all the things I see older kids getting to do. A bit later those same children are waiting to graduate from school, waiting to buy their first car, or waiting on that right person to share the rest of life with.

Adulthood brings other waiting related to the season. There are things like waiting on a promotion or a raise, waiting for a child to be born, waiting for a service member to return home, waiting for a diagnosis, waiting on approval for a mortgage, and more.

There are all those mundane daily kinds of waiting too. There is the “waiting in line” at grocery stores, gas pumps, theaters, doctor’s offices, traffic lights, and toll plazas.

Waiting exposes the truth we cannot avoid: We are not in control.

Waiting tests what we know or believe about ourselves, the situation I am in, and certainly what I know or believe about the Lord and His faithfulness, mercy, and goodness. What I know and believe will have a direct influence on my level of hope.

In Learning to Know Esther Meek reminds us of what hope can be:

“…well-placed hope does not disappoint us. It is not a certainty, but it is perhaps delicious for its anticipation. We rejoice in the prospect of knowing.”

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As believers we wait in expectation for God’s coming. To the degree we know the truth Scripture teaches us, we watch for Him because of the fulfillment of the first promise of His coming to earth. Without a certainty of when He will arrive, we have the confidence that He will. The first knowing helps us to have confidence in the promise of His return. Wisdom teaches us what Esther Meek points out: “Certainty is an illusion.”

The discipline of waiting does help us to know ourselves and the Lord better if we are willing to recognize that, but it also helps the Lord to know us better. Perhaps we fear that as well.

For all the times in Scripture that we see someone long to know, see, or hear from the Lord, when He shows up as an angel, in a burning bush, or as a warrior what happens first is very often fear or terror. Quoting Esther Meek again, The gaze of God is both what we fear and what we can’t do without…Our knowing is warped, especially when it comes to knowing God, because of human rebellion against God. There is something inside us that doesn’t want to know him, even as another part of us does. Our blindness thus requires the terror of his meeting us.”

In the timeless work of C.S. Lewis in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Lucy very much wants Mr. Beaver to assure her this lion he speaks of (Aslan) is safe. Most of us recall Mr. Beaver’s answer: “Safe! Of course, he isn’t safe. But he’s good! He is the king, I tell you.”

The discipline of waiting turns us toward seeking to know the Lord and His response to where we are and how we are.

What we miss is that He is the one who is pursuing us!

He pursues us in the midst of our waiting and for whatever we may feel about that, His pursuit of us is what will lead to calm during waiting. Lucy discovered that and chose not to run.

“Seated on the back of a loving lion, as Lucy found, is the best of all possible places to be.”

Esther Meek
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Think Again

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Everything for the day is planned out and we are on our way, but then the flight gets canceled, and we are stuck again. Somehow, we keep thinking we can harness and manage time only to discover that time is not easily tamed by any of us. It aligns with a different metronome than ours and we are reminded once again that “we all live unexpected lives” as Matthew Kelly writes in Life is Messy.

From the time we are born we have a love/hate relationship with time. We love it when we are not waiting, on a vacation enjoying a favorite spot, or seeing a long-sought goal achieved. But we hate it when we need to wait, are caught up in the fast-paced grind of daily life, or recognizing we have far less of it than we had thought. We often are caught between wanting more and wishing it away.

Many who participated in scouts, or other such organizations were taught to always “be prepared”. What does that look like living in a world that is filled with the unexpected? Prepared for what?

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Time.

It is a gift given from our Creator to somehow help us navigate through life with day and night, light and dark. Our conflict with time can tempt us to wish it away far too quickly. We want it to hurry up, slow down, or stop. In the process we forget that we each have a limited amount of it and don’t really know how much that is. That discovery doesn’t usually soak in until we are into adulthood unless some unexpected tragedy strikes us and reveals time seems to have cheated us of someone or something we thought we would enjoy for a much longer time. In that moment we may think it is something that only happens to us, but everyone faces a hard battle (sometimes many) at some point in his or her life.

Be prepared.

Tragedies remind us to be prepared or better prepared.

Some of us were going about life and enjoying the space shuttle lift off again. We had seen them before and yet they still grabbed our attention. We were anticipating the process as the space agency announced each moment but then something we did not expect happened, something we were not prepared for, and the space shuttle Challenger exploded on live television coverage. There had been other tragedies as mankind sought to explore space beyond the realm of earth, but we thought we had sorted those all out until that day. Most of us can recall exactly where we were when this tragedy happened. (I was watching on TV with my students in my classroom.)

Those of us in the United States who are a little older remember exactly where we were the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. (I was on the campus of the university where I was attending classes.) We were stunned as it also happened on live TV. Weren’t assassinations something that happened in the past? Then others happened before we could fathom this one – Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy among them.

Images in tragedies haunt us. Anniversaries of those tragedies are noted and reviewed as we grieve the losses and hope for them to never happen again.

Most of you (no matter where in the world you may have been) still recall where you were at 8:46AM on September 11, 2001, when a plane crashed into the first tower in New York City. That was beyond our imagination, but evil was not done yet and a second plane would crash into the second tower minutes later and a third plane slammed into the Pentagon 40 minutes later. The fourth plane used in the attacks on the United States would never reach its destination as passengers (aware of the other events) sought to charge the cockpit and prevent the plane from being used as a weapon.

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Those directly caught up in these tragedies were starting a day with other plans and places to be. Those of us watching had our day upended differently as well. How can any of us be prepared for something like this? We know evil has always been on the earth, but now we watch it unfold live on TV or other devices and it sears into our memories in unforgettable images. What did we do on those days?

We checked on everyone near and dear to us to see if they were okay and where they were. We were reminded that life is precious as well as uncertain. And many of us went to our places of worship to pray, seek comfort, and look to the only source we knew to turn to. We knew we needed One bigger than any man or woman. This was too much for us to handle on our own. Time stopped and interrupted those of us not directly involved.

But these are not the only tragedies that have hit us unexpectedly. Many personal ones have broken our hearts or shattered our dreams as well. Some known only to us. How could we prepare for those? They were unexpected.

We must come to grips with the knowledge that life is tenacious and fragile and we should not ever take it for granted. Each moment we are alive whether in good times or bad, we have cause to be thankful. We should make every moment count, not by scheduling every moment full of things to do but by loving well, forgiving more quickly, and not taking any interaction with someone else for granted.

And when the fog surrounds us and the darkness in the world deepens, we should remember we were warned life on the earth would become more and more as it is now. We were warned so we would not despair, but rather to look up with hope to the One who gave us the warning and be prepared for His return. He is and has always been the only One to handle such heavy weights and understands how to defeat evil.

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