Planting and Harvesting, Part II

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In Planting and Harvesting Part I, we looked at a story Christ told that demonstrated the pattern of planting and harvesting. Two servants, given a pretty hefty sum of money to watch over for their master, invested the money wisely and were rewarded. A third one basically allowed fear and hesitation to cause him to bury his entrustment in the ground, and as a result he was stripped of what little responsibility he had.

The lesson was that you harvest according to what you plant. Plant wisely and you will reap benefits (whether physical or spiritual is at God’s discretion). Plant poorly, or refrain from planting, and the harvest won’t be good.

And just like these servants were entrusted with their master’s riches, God has entrusted us with certain abilities and experiences that He expects us to invest in those around us.

There’s something else here, though.  Something that sailed right over my head a thousand times, before it popped me between the eyes one day not long ago.  It’s tied to the master’s exchange with this last servant, and it’s so key to the whole concept of using what we have.

Look at the servant’s statement: “Lord, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you have not sown, and gathering where you have not scattered seed. And I was afraid, and went and hid your talent in the ground. Look, there you have what is yours” (Matthew 25:24-25).

And the master’s response: “You wicked and lazy servant, you knew that I reap where I have not sown, and gather where I have not scattered seed. So you ought to have deposited my money with the bankers, and at my coming I would have received back my own with interest” (verses 26-27).

Did you notice the similarity between the two quotes? Both servant and master agreed that this wealthy man reaped where he didn’t sow, and gathered where he hadn’t scattered seed.

So here’s a new twist to using our experiences: What if God doesn’t want us to just invest the good experiences, but also the bad? He “reaps where He has not sown.”

This means that there are a lot of things in your journey that God did not ‘plant’ or cause, but that He expects to get something out of it nonetheless!

Those bad experiences in your past…God didn’t cause them. But He still desires to get a harvest out of it!

Those offenses that you committed in the past or that brokenness that you still struggle with today…God didn’t cause it or create it. (And in the case of current brokenness, He definitely doesn’t want you indulging it.) But He still wants to reap something good from it!

Sometimes it’s the most stupid or wrong or offensive thing we did that becomes something we are expected to invest in certain situations or relationships.

Please understand I’m not trying to excuse or justify anyone’s bad choices. My own bad choices, for example, are totally mine. And while I would jump at a chance to undo them, God has still used them. He allowed those choices and the lessons I’ve learned from them to reap a harvest through many circumstances and interactions in ministry.

So never ever get caught in the trap of thinking you are disqualified because of something that happened to you or something that you have done. And don’t get caught up in thinking that you have to bury those bad choices in the dirt so no one ever sees them. They’re nothing to be proud of, for sure, but there are still circumstances where they are exactly the investment that’s needed.

God may not always be the planter, but He is always the Great Harvester!

Planting and Harvesting, Part I

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We’re all familiar with the saying – “you reap what you sow.”

If you plant something good, you get a good harvest. If you plant something subpar, you get a subpar crop.

It makes sense doesn’t it? Not only is it a biblical concept, but it’s common sense as well.

But God’s ways often go beyond what makes sense to us (see Isaiah 55:8). Sometimes in an over-and-above-our-expectations way. Sometimes in a completely-off-the-rails way.

There’s this story Jesus told that is commonly known as “the parable of the talents.”  If that little chunk of bible-speak lost you, don’t panic. A parable, as you probably know, is simply a story used to illustrate a point. A talent, as you may or may not know, was a sum of money equivalent to about 6,000 Roman denarii (a denarius was about an average day’s wage).

So there you are. Now, on to the story. I encourage you to read it yourself (never ever take my or anyone else’s word for it when it  comes to scripture – always read it with your own eyes), but it goes roughly like this:

A rich man goes away for a while and leaves his wealth with three servants – entrusting five talents to one, two talents to another, and one talent to the last.  When he returns, he calls them in to find out what they did with his money while he was away.

The first two had invested, and doubled the funds left to them.  The master was impressed. He praised them and gave them promotions – responsibilities over and above the resources they were already managing. It was a good day for those two.

But the third guy, not so much. Knowing that his master was a pretty ruthless man, he had made a different decision. He dug a hole and buried his talent because he was afraid of losing it. The rich master was not impressed, to say the least. In fact, he was so upset with the servant’s skittish behavior that he ordered even the small responsibility which had been entrusted to him (the one talent) taken from him and given to the guy with ten.

You reap what you sow.

Both of the wise servants took a risk, planted wisely, and collected rewards (possessions and promotions).  The not-so-wise servant took no risk, essentially planted distrust and hesitation, and reaped the same.

Here’s the application: Each of us carries many things through our life journey.  Talents (of the what-I-am-able-to-do variety not the ancient-money variety), skills and abilities, experiences, and the knowledge we’ve gained from those experiences.  These things shape us and prepare us for where we are today.

In other words, God equips us with certain ‘resources’. And He expects us to use what He’s equipped us with.

If, out of fear, we take those resources and bury them deep in the ground, the best we can expect is to find ourselves staring into an empty hole where a fulfilling life should be. But if we invest it – if we put it to good use – then we’ll find success, reward, and a sense of accomplishment and purpose that is undeniable. In short, we discover our freedom to be what God created.

(It’s important to pause here and note that “success and reward” do not automatically translate to financial prosperity. Don’t get wrapped up in that – that is so shallow and short-sighted compared to what God has in store for His kids!)

So the reminder is simple: Don’t squirrel away what God has given you. Invest it, and watch to see what the harvest brings. If you’re faithful and a little patient, it will definitely be over and above what you expected.

Next time I want to dwell on this story just a while longer, and look at something that’s a little more out-of-the-box, but just as integral to our freedom to invest. So check back soon.

But until then … take some time to evaluate what God has entrusted you with and how you are investing it.

Not Fair!

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We are surrounded by unfairness.

Too often, we find undeserving people are in dire situations while those who seem to deserve some misfortune strut happily along.

For some of us, it strikes so close to home, as we find ourselves voicing the proverbial “why me?”

Sometimes it hits close to home in a different way. Recently I witnessed a debilitating illness take down someone I love and respect dearly. And as I tried to grapple with reality, I caught myself thinking how really tired I was of seeing good people get sick while I still stand upright.

I share that raw moment not for sympathy, but for the sake of transparency, and because at one time or another, something similar may have gone through your mind. It’s not something we typically admit out loud.

All that aside, the bottom line is: What do we do with that unfairness? Do we rail and cry and yell “Unfair!” like a frustrated child? Do we shake our fist at God or society or the universe in general? Do we just shut down and not care anymore?

As hard as this is, and as much as it may sound like a tired old cliché, the only thing we can do with it is trust that God is in control of it.

Let’s take a look at a nearly 2,000-year-old case study.

Acts 7:58 is the first place in the Bible that we are introduced to a man named Saul. And it’s not a very good introduction.

“Then they cast him [Stephen] out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.”

Saul is overseeing the unjust stoning (a.k.a., murder) of one of the most godly men of the budding Church. He’s not casting any stones himself, but he has helped to get the people stirred up, turned them loose, and taken on the role of watching their coats for them while they took care of things.

To any observer who knows the life and character of both men, Saul should have been stoned while Stephen lived a long life.

Here’s what we know of Stephen from Acts 6 and 7. He is knowledgeable, passionate, loyal to Jesus Christ and His church, a selfless and compassionate servant. He is bold, brave, and unafraid.

Contrast that to what we see of Saul (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-2): hateful, hurtful, heartless, and filled with resentment. He hides behind edicts that he receives from the high priests and travels with a cohort of men to help him carry out his dastardly work.

Now, returning to Acts 7:58…who deserves to die?

But then, we read through the rest of the New Testament, and get the rest of the story (shout-out to Paul Harvey for those who still remember him). And it dawns on us that God knew precisely what He was doing.

Stephen was prepared to meet His Savior that day. He had a relationship with Jesus Christ and knew that whatever happened, eternity was laid out before him.

Stephen would be an inspiration to those in the early church, and remains an inspiration to believers.

Acts 8:1 tells us that the persecution that ensued after Stephen’s death caused the church to spread and the Gospel to reach parts of the world that it had not reached previously.

As for Saul, after Acts 9:3 he would be known as the Apostle Paul, and would turn the known world on its ear.

Paul would start churches all over the Roman empire.

Paul would stand his ground against Jewish leaders and Roman officials alike.

Paul would endure treacherous terrain, hunger, weather, assaults, shipwrecks, and unfair accusations (see 2 Cor 11:23-28).

So next time things seem so unfair, remember this: every single event or circumstance you witness is another moving part in God’s great orchestration. It may not make sense today, and it may hurt like mad, but in the long run He is doing amazing things!

 

Cowboy

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The light fades on the prairie as he settles in. Just a dull orange glow remains on the horizon, countered somewhat by the orange glow of the campfire flames.

Close by there’s a rustle as something scurries through the brush – probably a rabbit or some small rodent.

In the distance somewhere a coyote bellows.

There’s comfort in the solitude.  No one to answer to. No one to keep up with and no one keeping up with him. He’s self-sufficient.

Community is overrated. This much he understands. Letting someone get close means responsibility, accountability, and lots of other troublesome “ility’s”.

Sure there are responsibilities out on the plain, but if he fouls something up it’s only him that has to suffer for it. No one else hurts. No one is disappointed. No one looks down on him or judges him. He can be his own person out here.

But what he doesn’t allow himself to see is that he was built for fellowship. There is this innate part of him that just doesn’t function as designed out in the wilderness. That part of him needs others to lean on. It needs the sense of accomplishment that comes from being present for others. If he messes up, there are no apparent persons to be impacted, sure. But the truth is, repercussions of his choices emanate out into the world even if he doesn’t see it. In fact, his mere absence is impacting lives.

These are the things he can’t afford to realize.

And so he just presses on. He settles in next to the fire. He thinks over his choices of the day, and wishes he had made different ones. In fact, most times he wishes he could make different ones, because the same regrettable poor decisions seem to pop up again and again to the point that he feels incapable of doing anything differently.

‘Oh well, put a lid on it and cowboy up,’ he tells himself. No time for sentimentalities.

It’s time to get some shut-eye. In the morning he’ll wake up, kick some dirt on the embers from the fire, saddle up, and move on. Whatever happens, whatever poor choices resurface, hopefully he’ll at least do some good along the way.

 

Though this might fit the loner hero in a lot of old westerns you’ve seen, that’s not really what I have in mind as I describe the scene. I’m describing everyday people – each of us – enmeshed in our private struggles.

We have this tendency to be cowboys (or cowgirls). Particularly when it comes to those private, shameful things we don’t want to admit out loud.

We long for solitude. That open plain where we can be alone seems so inviting. Sometimes even the ones who seem the most comfortable around people still spend a lot of time out on the prairie when it comes to some aspects of their lives.

But none of us were meant to be lone drifters in any part of our lives. We were created for fellowship, relationship.

When God said “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18), He wasn’t just talking about a sexual partner. He wasn’t even talking exclusively about a marriage relationship. Yes, the immediate plan was to create a female companion for intimate relationship (including physical, spiritual, emotional and psychological intimacy). But we mustn’t overlook the fact that one result of that relationship was procreation, which led to multi-faceted community and a vast breadth and depth of relationship types.

It is in these relationships that we find support, accountability, encouragement, a sense of value and achievement, among other things. And though some of these things may at times seem more trouble than they’re worth, they are in the long run indispensable ingredients for personal growth.

Truth: there are people all around you who will support you. Even for your most embarrassing struggles – those private things that you are sure no one could possibly understand – God has intentionally placed people in your life who will understand, and even if they don’t understand they will still love you. Ask Him to show them to you. He will.

So come in out of the wilderness. This will take courage. Sometimes you’ll get hurt. Sometimes you’ll hurt others. But it’s better than spending your time alone; trying to convince yourself this is for the best while trudging through hopeless solitude and letting the plans God has for you stagnate.

Your Next Move

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Recently I found myself facing some tough decisions. All of us have them – those decisions that we agonize over, worrying about just which way we are supposed to turn.

These aren’t the right vs. wrong decisions. Whether to look at porn or read a good book, if the alcoholic should have a bottle of seltzer water or a glass of bourbon, whether one should to give in to anger of the moment and lash out or go for a walk and calm down – these are easy ones. Even though we still might make the wrong choice, it’s not because we don’t know which choice is wrong. It’s merely a case of losing the tug of war between our godliness and our humanity.

I’m referring to those decisions where it’s not obvious, where either choice could produce desirable or undesirable results, depending on how things play out. So we weigh everything carefully, seek advice, pray, ask friends, pray some more, get our friends to pray, and on and on.

And the uncertainty is maddening. What does God want me to do? Why isn’t He speaking more clearly? I don’t need a huge booming voice or a burning bush…but can’t I just get something, God?

Regrettably, it doesn’t work like that. Often we’re merely left with a sense of peace about one side of the fence or the other, and we have to just fall in that direction and trust that He’ll catch us.

The decision isn’t easy, and it’s never a sure thing. However, there are a few things that are sure.

Here are three immutable truths about your next move, no matter what it is:

It does not have to be determined by any of your previous moves.  Whatever mistakes you’ve made in the past, they’re in the past. The road we’ve traveled does not disqualify us or nullify our right to make a move now. Also – brace yourself – whatever successes you’ve had in the past are also in the past. Mistakes don’t disqualify you, and success doesn’t give you license.

Remember, this is God’s operation here. The same God that used a murdering recluse to lead his people out of Egyptian captivity instead of a more influential inside man. The same God that used a scrawny shepherd boy to defeat a giant when there was a whole army of seasoned warriors to choose from. The same God that used unrefined, vulgar fishermen to build His church instead of the polished religious leaders.

Don’t ever let what’s happened a decade ago, a year ago, or even a minute ago keep you from making a move right now.

It will be used by God. As a good friend told me recently after I made a tough decision, “Now you have to surrender expectations.” You can’t spend your time waiting for things to play out the way you hope they will. Whatever scenes you have imagined or results you’re anticipating, put them aside. It’s likely nothing will work out that way.

In fact, it’s possible you will never even see results from the decision you just made. Maybe it will impact someone silently and privately. But if so, that doesn’t make the impact any less real.

You have to remember that the absence of visible results doesn’t mean nothing has happened.

You will grow from it. Whatever decision you make, and whatever comes of it or doesn’t come of it, there will be lessons to be learned. Keep your eyes open and watch for them. That’s how personal growth happens.

—–

I can’t say there is not a wrong or a bad decision. When the Apostle Paul opted to appeal to Caesar while on trial before the governor Festus (Acts 25:12), he had no way of knowing that later King Agrippa would say “This man might have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar” (Acts 26:32).

I wonder if Paul at that point butted himself in the forehead with the heel of his hand and said “What have I done?!”

Maybe he did, we don’t know.

But we do know that he didn’t let that decision influence his future choices, as evidenced by the content of letters he wrote during his incarceration at Rome (e.g., Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon).

We know that God used his circumstances to save 270 people from shipwreck (Acts 27:21-44), and to display God’s grace to Caesar’s royal guard (Philippians 1:12-13).

And we know that the experience spurred further growth in him (Philippians 4:11-12, Colossians 1:24, 2 Timothy 1:12).

So take heart, my friend. Not every decision we make will be perfect. But we have a perfect God who has a knack for making something good out of even our most flawed choices.

 

 

Onslaught

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Satan never fires just one arrow and moves on. He fires volleys…salvos…relentless barrages.

Anyone who has been assaulted by the Enemy knows that it is rarely dodging one arrow and wiping our brow, like some fortunate wanderer who just happened to step into the line of fire and made it out to tell the story. It’s more like hunkering down in the bomb shelters of London or Liverpool circa 1941, hoping that the explosion that just rocked us was the last one but fearing that there’s at least one more to come.

That’s why Ephesians 6:16 doesn’t talk about using the shield of faith to extinguish the flaming arrow, but all the flaming arrows of the evil one.

I used to think the plural form referred to the accumulation of arrows over a lifetime of living our faith. But experience has taught me differently. Yes, the arrows accumulate over time, but that doesn’t mean they accumulate one at a time.

And the arrows don’t all come from the same direction. Like a good battle strategist, our Enemy wants to flank us and knock us off balance. So he varies the attack vectors to cause more confusion and uncertainty. Hence, the arrows aren’t just coming from personal temptations, or relationships, or finances, or illness, or car problems. They come from any or all of the above.

It almost seems like a mere shield isn’t enough – we need a fortress.

It just so happens, we have one:

“The Lord is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer; My God, my strength, in whom I will trust; My shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold” (Psalm 18:2).

He is our fortress and our deliverer. He is our strength and our shield.

There is distinct symbolism here that gives us a three-hundred-sixty-degree defense against Satan’s onslaughts.

Sometimes when the battle is heaviest, we need somewhere to take refuge. We need walls and barriers to shield us, and someone to provide cover. We need to defend and just survive. There’s nothing wrong with hunkering down and waiting out the worst of the attack. God is there to be that fortress and deliverer in those times.

Then come the times to go on the attack. No war was ever won by an army permanently entrenched in their forts. At some point, an offensive strategy is needed. We cannot attain freedom for ourselves or anyone else if we’re locked in defensive mode. That’s where the strength and shield come in. When we’re ready to step out of the fortress and take the fight to the enemy, God is there for that as well. He becomes our strength to wield the sword and our shield to quench those arrows we talked about earlier.

So when it seems like the onslaught is at its worst, remember we have options. God’s war plan is multi-faceted. The next time you feel like you’re taking heavy fire: breathe deeply, know that He has all the angles covered, and plan your strategy accordingly.

Nailed It!

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While paging through an old notebook some time ago, in the margin of some meeting notes, I found a sketch of a nail. Yes, a nail.

The meeting was April 6, 2009. I don’t remember what the meeting was about, and probably nothing else on that page will ever mean anything to me again. But the nail does.

Because on Palm Sunday 2009 (which happened to be April 5), I listened to a message on forgiveness, and at the end the speaker handed out small nails as a reminder of the forgiveness we’ve all received and the forgiveness we should offer in turn.

For many years I carried one of those nails in my pocket regularly (some days I still do).

The man who delivered that message that day was pastoring a church we visited. My family and I didn’t stay there – it was over twenty miles away and we opted for somewhere closer to home. But we would be back.

It’s funny how we cross paths with certain people along our journey, never suspecting the major role that person will play in our lives someday.

This man had no idea the lasting impact this particular sermon made on my life. He had never met or even seen me before, and considering there were a thousand plus people in attendance that day I doubt he noticed me even then.

I had no idea that three years and one month later I would be in his church again…this time for counseling after a personal crisis would drive me into a spiritual wilderness.

He had no idea that his ministry would be the oasis in that wilderness that was exactly what I needed.

Neither of us had any idea that we would form a friendship, that we and our wives would see one another on a regular basis, or that I would one day consider him one of my most valued personal mentors.

But God knew all of that.

On that day in 2009 as I was doodling in the margin of my notepad, God had already mapped all this out. The meandering path I was about to take would lead right back to the same place I had been the day before, to see the man I had just heard speak.

These are the orchestrations of life that convince me there has to be a God who not only cares but is fully engaged in our lives. Nothing else can explain it.

And it makes me wonder…

…who did Saul of Tarsus see in the crowd that day at the stoning of Stephen who he would one day collaborate with for the furtherance of the gospel?

…what fellow wanderer would Joshua share a campfire with in the Sinai desert that would later become one of his loyal supporters or trusted advisers?

…what skeptic could Peter or John have had a run-in with who would eventually become a champion of the early church?

…which of King Saul’s soldiers may David have spied when he was hiding in caves who would someday serve in his own army?

…who is on the fringes of your life right now that will someday come back around to be a key person in your future (or vice versa)?

Predictability isn’t always God’s modus operandi, that’s for sure. But one thing is certain – He’s always working to bring things together in the most fantastic ways.

And when it happens, and we look back and see it, we can only marvel and say “Wow, God…you nailed it!”