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.

Photo by MARTY LEDERHANDLER / AP on CBS

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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A Clever Device

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Fog. If you have ever needed to drive in fog you are aware of how stressful and disorienting everything is. Even if it is a road that you know, you may be uncertain of exactly where you are. The things you usually see as guides are hidden and you can become confused and doubt where you are on the road.

I have driven long enough to have experienced this more than once, but one incident stands out above the rest even though it happened quite a few years ago. At the time I was living at home while doing student teaching in our local school district but needed to drive to my university campus one night a week for a course that was related to the student teaching. It was a trek of more than 40 miles that took me a good 50 minutes when the weather was good, and construction was not happening.

On this particular night the issue that faced me was fog and it worsened on my way home in the dark that night. I knew the road well and was driving slowly with lights on dimmer beams as I had been taught, but the closer I got to home the denser the fog became until I could no longer be sure of where I was on the road or what was on either side of the pavement. I chose to do something risky and stopped and got out of the car for a moment to ascertain the center line and where the road’s edge was. Then got back to the business of creeping along until I finally made it safely home wrenched with a stressed mind and body from the tension of the trip.

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There are technically different types of fog and meteorologists can tell us all about how it forms and the conditions that bring it about, but they cannot prevent it and we need to deal with it and sometimes navigate through it. It can cause us (like me) to doubt where I am or if I can even get to my destination. Those are real tangible realities we face, but there are other types of fog that can occur as well. Warriors will tell you there is often a fog that settles over a battlefield from smoke that has filled the air and sky from the weapons firing constantly or gases deployed as weapons. It can be difficult to be certain whether you can identify a person as a fellow soldier or an enemy in such times. It can result in either firing or failing to fire your weapon despite your training. You doubt yourself and hesitate. Life can be that way when we are not in the midst of a weather event or a physical battlefield as well. You can become lost even in a place you were sure you knew the terrain.

As darkness grows upon the earth we long for truth and the brightness of the day to navigate but the fog descending with the darkness disorients us and can result in doubt even before fear moves in. Many things come into play. One is that truth is obscured by the scene that the enemy seeks to set before us with words that once sounded good or right but we learn they were not and merely a script meant to deceive us and discourage our hearts from staying on the path we thought we knew. Voices come from every direction both outside of us and within our heads and doubt grows a bit more. We no longer are sure of who we can believe because some we have trusted betrayed our trust. This “fog” appears to be happening on big and small stages around us. It nudges us to trust anyone who seems to know the way.

“If Truth is taken away from us, then Right and Wrong are taken from us as well. If we don’t know Right and Wrong, then we can’t, we won’t control ourselves, but will look to someone else to bring order through brute force and raw power. We will be controlled by a tyrant, and we will no longer be free.”

Frank Peretti

Frank Peretti’s words offer wise counsel. They also remind us of key things we need to navigate the foggy darkness. First, we must immerse ourselves in the truth. That doesn’t come from any source other than the One who is truth. The more we immerse ourselves in what He has told us and the guidance He has offered, the less likely we will be to believe lies and half-truths that stalk us. Those things are meant to deceive us and increase doubt. Too often we have been lazier than we ought to be and counted on others outside of us to provide that truth and remind us of Him. We all need others, but it can never imply we are not to take responsibility to be sure the truth is planted deeply within us. Jesus shows us a perfect example when He was tempted in the wilderness and the enemy quoted scripture in partial and inaccurate context.

Secondly, we must not miss that the desire for someone to show the way is part of the human nature that the enemy would seek to exploit. He wants us to trust in man more than God so that he can deceive us with a man pretending to be God. That truth is something we dare not miss. As everything becomes more chaotic, the longing for someone to save us increases. That causes some to seek Truth and others to seek anyone who “appears” to know a way out of the mess. We must not be deceived.

“Keep a cool head. Stay alert. The Devil is poised to pounce and would like nothing better than to catch you napping. Keep your guard up. You’re not the only ones plunged into these hard times. It’s the same with Christians all over the world. So, keep a firm grip on the faith. The suffering won’t last forever. It won’t be long before this generous God who has great plans for us in Christ—eternal and glorious plans they are!—will have you put together and on your feet for good. He gets the last word; yes, he does.”

1 Peter 5:8 (MSG)

“The depth of a person’s character is not measured by his or her physical strength, but by the depth of his or her nobility.”

Frank Peretti
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It Starts Small

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If we are going to live a life of integrity and purpose, then it will have intentionality as a part of the foundation. Too often we don’t consider that or how significant a role it plays. It is not intent (though good) but intentionality that we need. Intentionality reflects being deliberate and purposeful in how we represent ourselves, our Lord, and all associated with us. It also considers that with the best of intentions not everyone will hear what it is we have said as we meant it to be communicated.

Most of us would be surprised to note the average number of words spoken by most of us each day is 7,000 and many of us speak more than that. Some of the words spoken are deliberate, well-thought-out, and reflect us at our best intent, but many of our words are random or spoken hurriedly or without a great deal of thought. In truth we may not even recall them later and yet they matter.

Unfortunately, even on our best day, some of our words will be thoughtless or appear that way to others. It’s bound to happen as we go about our own schedule or agenda. We are busy, in a hurry often, tired, hungry, under stress, or upended by something we didn’t expect, and words are spoken without much thought. Sometimes you might catch a glimpse on the face or response of the person who hears them but that is not always the case. Even the glimpse doesn’t always tell us how deeply those thoughtless words have pierced the other person.

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Some impacted by our thoughtless words might tell us of the impact, but many more will not because the words spoken caused them to no longer feel safe to be with us. Even if the words were not spoken in anger, the lack of thought for the possible impact hits a tender spot. Sometimes it is one that has been hit before by us and other times it is one that has been hit by others that left a scar that is tender when hit again. Despite that old saying about sticks and stones and words not phasing us, most of us would agree that is not the truth. Words can and often do hurt us and may not heal as easily as wounds from sticks and stones. They also remind us of what the writer of Proverbs has to say:

“The tongue can bring death or life;  those who love to talk will reap the consequences.”

Proverbs 18:21 (NLT)

When we consider the division that has spread through every aspect of our lives in recent years, it seems that we all must acknowledge we have been on both sides of this problem. What is key is whether we have learned anything from it and how we have used it to strengthen our intentionality. Because it doesn’t get better if we don’t address it. It can become habitual either because we really do not care or have not taken steps to reign in our words. Scripture speaks often about the power of our tongues and our responsibility for how we use them.

“If someone believes they have a relationship with God but fails to guard his words then his heart is drifting away and his religion is shallow and empty.”

James 1:26 (TPT)

Habitual thoughtlessness may begin as a small slip or little habit we overlook but we miss that it might begin small but develops into carelessness that begins to harden our hearts and can then move to recklessness in how we handle our relationships routinely.

“The origin of recklessness is thoughtlessness. We have all been thoughtless, and have all been victims of other people’s thoughtlessness. It stings but the pain doesn’t linger for long. If we are thoughtless often enough, we become careless. If we have ever been on the receiving end of carelessness, you know it changes you. When people are careless with our safety, or careless with our trust, or careless with our hearts, it hurts. This pain is real.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy
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This is one of the reasons why intentionality is crucial. And it isn’t just about our words spoken to one another. It includes words we hurriedly use in a text or social media post. We can be distracted and before we know it the spell check has changed a word and we didn’t notice the word or how it changed the meaning of what we hoped to convey. That same intentionality needs to be there when we are the listener (or reader) as well. Are we hearing or reading the words with a desire to understand the other person’s heart, thoughts, opinions or do we quickly jump on them in a defensive mode?

One thing that is a great byproduct of practicing the habit of intentionality with our own use of words is that we tend to become more intentional as listeners as well. Few gifts are as impactful as having someone listen well and then ask a question if we were not as clear as we thought we were.

Stephen Covey’s fifth habit of his well-known The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is worth remembering: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

I don’t think we can ever practice that habit enough. We are all prone to want to be understood above all else. It takes a great deal of self-discipline to seek first to understand the other person.

This thing, this habit, that can start so small can create indifference and an increasingly hardened heart if left to its natural course. And how can we possibly love others if we fail to address this within ourselves?

“Carelessness robs us of our tenderness. People who are careless on a regular basis become incapable of tenderness toward others. People who have been victimized by carelessness withhold their tenderness in an effort to stay safe.”

Matthew Kelly in Life is Messy

Weeds and small bad habits are always easier to get under control if we take care of them when they are small.

Photo of Ramon Crater, Negev Desert on Behold Israel