Living in the ‘Cone of Uncertainty’

As Hurricane Irma prepares to bash the United States, here in Charlotte we’re wondering if it will be coming our way. As we wait for the answer, I’ve been intrigued by weather reports saying our region lies in the “Cone of Uncertainty.”

While modern meteorologists probably feel clever in using this term, it’s really no different than King Solomon wrote about over 2,000 years ago:

Just as you cannot understand the path of the wind or the mystery of a tiny baby growing in its mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the activity of God, who does all things (Ecclesiastes 11:5 NLT).

Then and now, the path of the wind is highly unpredictable. Even Jesus found it important to weigh in on this great mystery:

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes (John 3:8).

As meteorologists apply the Cone of Uncertainty idea to the difficulty of projecting Irma’s destructive route, I feel prompted to write about another  kind of Cone of Uncertainty. While the uncertainty about Irma’s path will be resolved within days, I’ve observed a bigger and more long-term issue that seems quite common today…

Some people seem to live their entire lives  in a Cone of Uncertainty!

I’m not trying to be harsh, but you’ve probably met people like this. They’re continually uncertain about their standing with God, their career, their relationships, or what their priorities should be. And if they’re anything like my good friend Ron, they’re stuck in a Cone of Uncertainty in their dating life too.

So what does the Bible say about this? Lots.

Here are just a few random principles for your consideration:

  1. God wants us to live lives of peace rather than confusion (1 Corinthians 14:33). His peace is supposed to transcend our circumstances and guide our decisions, even amid the storms of life (Philippians 4:6-7, Colossians 3:15).
  2. We must be careful not to claim certainty on subjects God hasn’t truly revealed yet. For example, Jesus made it clear that no one would be able to accurately forecast the day of His return—even though people continue to try. On one hand, He said we could observe the signs and know His return is near (Matthew 24:33). But on the other hand, He said we wouldn’t be able to know “the day and hour” (Matthew 24:36, 24:42). On this and many other issues, “we know in part and we prophesy in part” (1 Corinthians 13:9).
  3. When God allows us to experience a Cone of Uncertainty for a season, it provides an opportunity for us to trust Him. I love the statement Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego made to the king as they were being thrown into the fiery furnace. Although they were uncertain about the outcome of the trial they faced, they were absolutely certain of God’s love and faithfulness:

Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up (Daniel 3:16-18).

These three men were determined to trust the Lord, regardless of whether He delivered them and changed their difficult circumstances.

  1. There are some things we should be certain  about. In today’s postmodern world, it’s fashionable to say there are no absolutes. People seem suspicious if you say you know anything for sure. The book of First John was written toward the end of the first century, amid some similar trends of uncertainty affecting the church. A new generation was arising that wasn’t as certain or dogmatic about things as the early apostles had been. No wonder John uses the word “know” 32 times in this book! In fact, he says he wrote the book “that you may KNOW that you have eternal life” (1 John 5:13).

So there’s no need to live in a Cone of Uncertainty about whether you’ve been born again and given eternal life. Nor do you ever need to doubt God’s love or His desire to bless you and meet your needs.

This issue came up recently when I was trying to encourage a friend who was going through a hard time. “Brother, the Bible says in Romans 8:31 that if God is for us, it doesn’t matter who is against us,” I reminded him.

I thought that would settle the matter, but it didn’t.

“How do I really know that God is for me, though?” he replied.

Yikes. I could tell this was going to be a much deeper conversation than I had expected. My friend was living in a Cone of Uncertainty on an issue of supreme importance.

But take a moment to apply this to your own life and ponder my friend’s question. How can we know for sure that God is FOR us?

I suppose I could write an entire book in response to this vital query, but for now this basic explanation will have to suffice:

YOU CAN KNOW FOR SURE THAT GOD IS FOR YOU,

BECAUSE HE SENT HIS SON TO DIE FOR YOU!

Shouldn’t that be enough of an answer?

But what if you’ve been living in sin, knowingly disobedient to the precepts in God’s Word? Is He STILL for you?

Once again, the answer is actually quite simple: Even if you’re living in the deepest sin imaginable, God is still for you—He’s for you to repent so He can release the fullness of His blessings in your life once again!

You see, no matter what your situation may be, your Heavenly Father is FOR you, not against you. If you are living in a pigpen, He’s FOR you to come home so He can throw you a party (Luke 15:11-32). If you’re a stuck-up religious person like the older brother in that story, He’s FOR you to humble yourself and enter into the joyous festivities He’s prepared.

What an incredible revelation! Either way, no matter what, God is FOR you. So why not leave the Cone of Uncertainty and join the party, already in progress?

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Unpacking Ron’s Baggage

Recently an unexpected firestorm ensued when I wrote about my friend Ron’s woeful dating life. Some people said Ron was clearly shallow and judgmental. Others blamed him for pointing out the baggage of the women he’s dated, while seeming oblivious to his own issues. One woman even prophesied that Ron was too picky to ever  find a new wife.

Ouch!

Ron has been surprised by the negative reactions. He’s really a nice guy, after all, and not used to all this criticism.

As you might imagine, Ron has been rather irritated at me as well. His only explanation for people’s criticism is that I must have portrayed him in an unfair and unflattering light.

“The truth will set you free, brother!” I told him jokingly, paraphrasing the words of Jesus in John 8:32.

But time will tell whether Ron can truly handle  the truth.

Fortunately, my blog has also resulted in some helpful suggestions. Someone offered to launch a #PrayForRon campaign on social media. Another idea was to start a GoFundMe initiative to reimburse Ron for all the money he’s wasted on bad dates. And several people requested that I keep everyone posted on Ron’s ongoing dating saga.

With predictions from some of his critics that there’s no hope for him, Ron gets discouraged at times. Often I try to lift his spirits by pointing him to the promises of Scripture. “Even deplorable people like you found hope in the Lord!” I tease.

One of the Bible passages I’ve shown Ron is Lamentations 3:18, where the prophet Jeremiah said despondently one day, “My strength and my hope have perished from the Lord.”  For any of us, some days are like that!

But everything changed for Jeremiah a few verses later when he remembered God’s faithfulness:

This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the Lord’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I hope in Him!” (vs. 21-34).

So there’s hope for Ron. And if there’s hope for someone as shallow and picky as him, there’s certainly hope for YOU as well! No matter what you may be going through today, God’s power and goodness are bigger than your pickiness and your problems.

Isn’t that good news?

P.S. Ron says he’s open to additional suggestions on how to solve his dating impasse. Please feel free to send them my way. #PrayForRon

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8 Myths That Eclipse God’s Love & Purpose

While studying the origins of the church at Philippi, I was startled to discover how the story contradicts many of our common misconceptions about the nature of the Christian life. The narrative in Acts 16 debunks at least 8 myths—and I bet you’ve believed some of these misconceptions yourself.

Myth #1: As long as you’re well-intentioned in pursuing spiritual activities, any direction is okay.

The apostle Paul never intended to plant a church in Philippi. In fact, he had other plans. Plan A was to minister in Asia, but he was “forbidden by the Holy Spirit to preach the word in Asia” (v. 6). Plan B was to preach in Bithynia, but God closed that door too. Finally, the Lord spoke to Paul through a dream that he should go to Macedonia, where Philippi is located.

This story shows that God has a specific plan for our lives, even when it comes to “good” activities like evangelizing and planting churches. Yet it’s bewildering in Acts 16 to see God actually forbidding Paul to preach the gospel if that means going in the wrong direction. While the Great Commission tells us to go into “ALL the world” and “to the ends of the earth” (Mark 16:15, Acts 1:8), God wants to direct us on how to proceed.

Myth #2: If you’re a very spiritual person, you’ll always get it right the first time.   

It would be hard to be any more spiritual than Paul, yet it wasn’t until the third try that he found God’s optimal direction for his life (vs. 6-8). That’s good news for you and me! We shouldn’t despair if we don’t hit the bulls-eye at our first attempt to find the Lord’s perfect will.

Myth #3: The most important ingredient in church planting is good preaching.

Hey, I’m a preacher, and I certainly put a high value on good preaching. But if you read Acts 16, you’ll see that the secret to Paul’s success clearly was PRAYER, not preaching. He met Lydia (his first convert) at a place of prayer  (vs. 13-15), and he was on his way to pray  when he cast a demon out of the fortune-telling slave girl (his second convert, vs. 16-18). Then the Philippian jailer (his third convert) was saved after Paul and Silas caused an earthquake through their prayers and worship (vs. 25-34).

I surely hope your church or evangelistic ministry has great preaching, but these illustrations demonstrate that prayer must be the foundation of everything else we do in God’s kingdom. Without that, our impact on people will be superficial at best.

Myth #4: If people are saying the right things, that automatically means they have the right spirit.

Oh, how I wish I would have understood this misconception earlier in my ministry! Many preachers, politicians, or church members say all the right things, but they are being motivated by something other than the Holy Spirit.

Look at what this demon-possessed girl was saying while following Paul and Silas day after day: “These men are the servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to us the way of salvation”  (v. 17). What’s wrong with that? Most pastors would have put her on the front row so everyone could hear her words of affirmation! But Paul discerned that her right-sounding message had originated with the devil rather than the Holy Spirit. Can you tell the difference?

Myth #5: If you’re in God’s perfect will, everything will always go great for you.

Believing this myth will bring tragic consequences, because it means you’ll also believe the corollary: If things AREN’T going well for you, you must not be in God’s will.  What a horrible, yet incredibly common, misconception. Even though Paul and Silas were following the direct leading of the Holy Spirit to minister in Philippi, the result seemed catastrophic. Their clothes were torn off, they were brutally beaten with rods, and they were thrown into prison, with their feet in shackles (vs. 22-24). All this happened because they were following God’s will!

Myth #6: Nothing good ever happens after dark.

Verse 25 says Paul and Silas received their breakthrough “at midnight.”  I love that. Some of God’s greatest miracles seem to happen at our midnight hour—when things look the bleakest and all hope is gone. We may not be shackled in a jail cell, but perhaps we’re imprisoned to an addiction, a health problem, a mound of debt, or a toxic relationship. No matter what the situation may be, the Lord can break off our chains “suddenly”  (v. 26).

Myth #7: God’s salvation is a fragile thing, easily lost.   

Paul later described his complete confidence that the One who had BEGUN a good work in the Philippians would also COMPLETE it (Philippians 1:6). Exactly how confident was Paul in God’s ability to care for these new converts in Philippi? In one of the most stunning plot twists in all of Scripture, verse 40 says that after meeting with “the brethren”  gathered in Lydia’s house, Paul “encouraged them and departed.”

The “brethren”  numbered just a handful of folks at this point, all of them new converts. But instead of staying to care for these baby Christians, Paul and Silas left town!  He entrusted them to their Heavenly Father’s care, believing that nothing would be able to separated them from His love (Romans 8:31-39).

Myth #8: Everything in God’s kingdom rises and falls on leadership.

I’ll admit, there’s a lot of truth contained in this statement, and I’m sure I’ve quoted it myself at times. However, there’s also a misconception here, because we’re often wrong about who is supposed to provide that leadership.

For example…

  • The Israelites could have panicked after Moses died and his unproven understudy Joshua was suddenly in charge (Joshua 1).
  • David’s family never considered him a worthy candidate to be the next king (1 Samuel 16).
  • All of Jesus’ disciples except John denied and deserted Him, and they certainly seemed to be a bad bet to lead the church and reach the world.

But the church in Philippi is one of the most remarkable examples of God raising up unlikely leaders. In Paul’s opening greeting to the Philippians (1:1), he refers to the “overseers and deacons.”  Isn’t that amazing? When Paul left Philippi, the church consisted of Lydia’s household, the slave girl, and the jailer’s family.

So where did the overseers and deacons come from? Did they get imported from some Bible college or seminary? Were they transplanted from the thriving churches in Jerusalem or Antioch? Certainly not. These were homegrown leaders.

My friend, what are you trusting in for your personal fruitfulness or the success of your church? Are you relying on the grace and power of God, or in your own spirituality and the charisma of the human leaders around you?

Thankfully, Jesus is both the Author and the Finisher of every success story in His kingdom (Hebrews 12:2). Let’s fix our eyes on Him, allowing nothing to eclipse His love and purpose for our lives.

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Shocking Dating Lessons from My Very Good Friend Ron

I’ve written before about my friend Ron’s dating escapades. He’s now in his 60s, and it’s been quite eye-opening to reenter the world of dating after a marriage of over 30 years.

At the advice of his kids, Ron signed up for Match.com after his divorce was final a few years ago. There he quickly found a Christian woman named Sherry, whose favorite books were Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and Living Courageously by Joyce Meyer.

“This is my kind of woman!” Ron confidently told me before his coffee date with her at Panera Bread.

But things didn’t exactly go as he had hoped. The first thing he noticed was that Sherry looked at least 10 years older than the pictures she had posted. Hmmm…pretty disappointing, he immediately thought.

However, Ron is a nice guy, and he decided to at least engage Sherry in some friendly conversation. After some small talk, he asked, “So, how long ago was your divorce?”

Ron thought this was a pretty easy, straightforward question. But her answer stunned him.

“Well, I’ve been married four times,” Sherry informed him, “and for a while I also lived with a guy I wasn’t married to.”

Ron’s jaw probably dropped at this point. But she went on to say she had eight children and fifteen grandkids, attributable to her various marriages and boyfriends.

Yikes, Ron was getting queasy. How did things go so amiss in his attempt to find a wholesome Christian woman? While the conversation was running its course, he couldn’t help envisioning Thanksgiving dinner if he married Sherry. How would he be able to figure out “who’s who” among the kids and grandkids—not to mention remembering who everyone’s daddy is?

This was a rough start to his online dating experiences, no doubt. Yet Ron wasn’t about to give up. He continued spending time on Match.com every day, trying to find suitable prospects for dating and eventual marriage.

Uncomfortable Encounters

Things didn’t get any easier in the following months, though. One day he was having a nice phone conversation with a woman named Sarah, and they seemed to have some things in common. But he started getting uncomfortable when she mentioned her distress that her son was gay and had married his lover. Once again, Ron started envisioning Thanksgiving dinner, and he wasn’t sure how he would respond to the family dynamics of Sarah’s son and the guy he was married to.

Then he had another coffee date, this time with an attractive woman named Sheila. But her husband had died of HIV, her father had been shot to death and, once again, Ron felt there was just too much baggage for him handle.

Ron says one of his favorite dates was with a woman named Linda. She attended a good church and clearly had a strong relationship with the Lord. But the conversation took a difficult turn when she described her daughter’s bipolar personality disorder and the incredible anguish it had caused her. Some days her daughter loved her, and other days her daughter hated her, making Linda’s life miserable.

Another disappointing date occurred when Ron went out to dinner with a woman named Sarah. She had been a single mom for many years and was now agonizing that her 16-year-old son had become a neo-Nazi skinhead, hating Jews and believing all sorts of conspiracy theories. She had no idea how to convince the young man of his erroneous views—and neither did Ron.

5 Lessons

Eventually Ron had some relationships that were more than a one-time phone call, coffee date, or dinner. He says some of these were with very nice women, but he just couldn’t see himself spending the rest of his life with them.

Recently Ron and I took time to review his dating experiences, hoping to glean lessons for others entering the dating scene in their 50s and 60s. Here are five lessons we came up with, but perhaps you can add some insights from your own experiences:

  1. Dishonesty is rampant. While it’s understandable to “put your best foot forward,” it’s sad there are so many outdated pictures and misleading online profiles. Also watch out for the out-and-out scams that target online daters. Despite your hopes for “love at first sight,” be careful to verify that the person you’re dating is who they say they are!
  2. Baggage is rampant. Ron chuckled that many woman on Match.com describe themselves as “baggage free” and “drama free.” What a joke. He concluded that it’s virtually impossible to be a divorced person in your 50s or 60s without accumulating some baggage along the way.
  3. Our OWN baggage is rampant. Like many men, Ron initially thought all the baggage was on the female  side of things. Yet after some painful breakups, he had to admit that his own baggage was often a large part of the problem. Just like landmines under the surface of the ground, he discovered emotional scars that were triggered in pressure situations and close relationships.
  4. Sexual temptation is rampant. Ron was a virgin when he got married, but he admits that sexual abstinence is a lot harder these days. Perhaps this can be attributed to several factors: (1) Loneliness in being single after many years of marriage; (2) feeling like “time is running out” to have a close, intimate relationship; (3) the amazing willingness today of many women (even longtime Christian women) to engage in sexual activities with men they aren’t married to.
  5. Not everyone really wants to be married again. At the beginning of his online dating journey, Ron assumed anyone on Match.com or eHarmony was there in search of a marriage partner. Surprisingly, it turned out that many people were more interested in dating than marrying. Why so? Some are fearful. No one wants to enter into another unhappy marriage. And some prefer the freedom of not having to answer to anyone. Instead of being tied down, they would prefer to “keep their options open.” And, once again, Ron had to come to grips with his own commitment phobia. “I have a pretty good life as a single guy,” he told me. “Why run the risk of another bad marriage?”

What About You?

If you’re in the dating world today, my heart goes out to you. I sincerely hope you’ve had an easier time than my good friend Ron.

Although I could attempt to provide all sorts of spiritual platitudes and additional advice, let me close with just a simple reminder from Scripture:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths
(Proverbs 3:5-6).

I wish you well on this perilous journey!

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Are You Ready for a Fresh Gust?

Have you ever been in a sailboat when it seemed there was absolutely no breeze? While experienced sailors somehow can catch the wind when there is no wind, amateurs like me often find ourselves dead in the water, going nowhere.

Sailing is such an apt metaphor for life. Winds come and go, blowing from one direction or another. But no matter what winds we encounter, we must resolutely set our sail and rudder toward our desired destination.

Yet this is a mystery in some ways. Even Solomon, known for his great wisdom, admitted he didn’t understand how ships can stay on course, even amid adverse winds (Proverbs 30:18-19).

So here’s a question to ask: Which way are the winds blowing in your  life today? Are you experiencing pleasant breezes or fierce, unrelenting windstorms? Or perhaps you find yourself wearily praying for a “second wind” or a gust to help you get unstuck from your present doldrums.

From time to time, we all need a fresh gust of wind. Whether in our family, our finances, our ministry, or our career, things get pretty stale if no wind is blowing.

Although I’ve tended to shy away from sharing “prophetic” impressions in my blogs, recently I sensed God speaking to me through the metaphor of sailing. Even though the past few months have been fantastic in many ways, I sense that they’ve just gotten me ready for what’s ahead.

As I was praying about these things, I felt that God was saying quite distinctly, “Get ready for a gust  in August!” I took that as very good news. I’ve never liked to drift listlessly in the water, so it was great to hear that a new blast of wind was on the way!

However, I’ve also experienced times in my life when God sent a fresh gust of His Spirit and I wasn’t prepared. A strong breeze does a sailboat no good if the sail isn’t ready and the rudder isn’t set. Even worse, it can capsize the boat if the sailor isn’t paying attention!

Will God truly send “a gust” in Au-gust? We will find out soon! But one thing is for sure: It’s best to be ready.

Sailboats are a lot like eagles, for both rely heavily on wind currents to supply their propulsion. We’re promised in Isaiah 40:31, “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”

The message here for eagles, sailboats, or Christians is clear: Continually needing new strength and inspiration, we must wait expectantly for God to send a new gust of His divine wind. And based on Isaiah’s promise, we can expect a gust of God’s Spirit anytime, and any month, we’re willing to wait for it.

So now’s the time to prepare our hearts to be ready when it comes!

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7 Weeks Living out of Suitcase

During my sabbatical in New Zealand and California a few months ago, I lived for seven full weeks with just the clothes in one fairly small suitcase. I had a few shirts, a few pants, some socks and underwear, and a toothbrush, razor, and stick of deodorant.

Yes, I did wash the clothes from time to time. But I traveled light and never lacked a thing.

Shortly after returning back to the Carolinas, I went through the arduous process of moving into a new residence. I couldn’t help but be struck by the contrast.

For seven weeks, I had done just fine with only the belongings I could carry in one suitcase. But back at home I had countless boxes and pieces of furniture to move. Too many clothes. Too much furniture. Too many books.

Too much junk…

What an eye-opening experience! If I could get along so well with just the items I could carry, what was I doing with all the other stuff back home?

Jesus said a lot about “traveling light” as we journey through life. When sending out His disciples, He warned, “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts—no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep” (Matthew 10:9-10 NIV).

And then there was Jesus’ famous statement about unloading our “stuff” if we truly want to enter into the riches of His kingdom: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18:25 NIV).

I don’t think He meant we must disavow owning any property. Rather, this is a warning not to clutch our possessions so tightly that they hinder us from the eternal abundance derived from wholeheartedly following Him.

In order to enter a city’s narrow gateway, a camel’s heavy load often had to be removed. In the same way, we must lay down our possessions—and our very lives—in order to enjoy the maximum blessings of God’s kingdom.

I think many of us Americans are so attached to our material goods that we fear what would happen if we ever lost them. But I’m glad I discovered that, if necessary, I could have kept living out of my suitcase.

Likewise, I’m glad I finally came to realize that much of the “stuff” in my storage unit wasn’t really a blessing, but merely a burden.

What do you really need in order to comfortably live? It’s probably a lot less than you think!

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The Downside of Being a Perfect Kid

I was a pretty awesome kid, if I do say so myself. Polite and well-behaved, I never recall talking back to my parents or any adult.

I worked hard at school and got good grades. My parents never had to worry about me skipping classes, getting into fights, using profanity, or disgracing them in any way. They were proud of me, and rightfully so.

Never once did I try a cigarette, smoke a joint, or get drunk.

And all this time, I never doubted that my parents loved me. Of course  they loved me. I was quite lovable, after all.

So what could possibly be the downside to this seemingly idyllic picture?

During my recent sabbatical, I came to a surprising and quite troubling realization: Yes, my parents loved me, but there was a problem…

Because I was so “perfect,” I subconsciously assumed my virtue was the reason I was loved.

This created an obvious dilemma: If my parents loved me because I was always lovable, how could I ever know they’d love me when I was unlovable?

Flash forward to today, and I realize how this warped perspective has infiltrated my relationship with God, my Heavenly Father.

If someone asked, “Jim, do you think God loves you?,” I would say yes, probably so. But my answer would be based largely on the fact that I’ve been a “pretty good Christian,” just like I was a good kid for my parents.

Do you see the problem here? (And it’s a BIG problem!)

If you think God loves you because you’re such a good, well-behaved person, there’s no room left for His grace. On days when you feel good about yourself, you’re confident the Lord loves you. But when you realize you’ve fallen short in some way, you find yourself questioning His love.

This makes God’s love dependent on your performance…your behavior…your productivity. As long as you’re perfect, everything’s fine. But if you screw up, you assume your Father’s love and favor will be withheld.

What a shaky foundation this is!

If you’re having a good day, you think God is certainly pleased with you. If things aren’t going your way, you assume He must be disappointed and angry.

No wonder the older brother in the Prodigal Son story had such a struggle (Luke 15). He had been the perfect kid, faithfully serving his father year after year. Yet because he felt that he was so “good” and so “worthy,” he never experienced the unconditional nature of his father’s love.

The prodigal, in contrast, couldn’t rely upon his good behavior as a reason for his father’s affection. He knew  he needed mercy and grace—and he received them in great abundance.

So let me ask you two questions:

  1. Do you know, really know, that your Heavenly Father loves you, and loves you deeply?
  2. If your answer to question #1 is yes, do you realize He loves you even when you’re an underachiever…or mischievous…or downright rebellious? Do you realize His great love is able to cover even “a multitude of sins”?  (1 Peter 4:8).

It’s such a wonderful relief when you finally recognize you don’t have to be the perfect kid in order to get your Father’s love and affection. You’ll find yourself entering deeper into His love and, perhaps surprisingly, your conduct will improve as well.

It turned out that the older brother in Luke 15 wasn’t so perfect after all. Instead of entering the father’s house and enjoying the party, he just kept on working.

In the same way, a funny thing happened by the time I got to the end of this blog. I realized I wasn’t really  a perfect kid, either. Countless sins have come to mind, and the greatest of all was pride.

Those, like me, who grew up with an inflated view of their own worthiness will usually end up with the same twisted view that their Heavenly Father’s love is based on performance.

He loves you, my friend. Not because you’re the perfect child, but because His love is greater than all your shortcomings.

So go ahead and enter the Father’s lavish party. He’s throwing it for you, after all.

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Hurney and Gettleman, Grace & Truth

I’m always looking for current events that display Biblical principles for successful leadership. The decision by Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson last week to fire Dave Gettleman as the team’s general manager provides some excellent fodder for a discussion of good and bad leadership traits. After being fired in 2012, Marty Hurney was appointed as the interim general manager.

Here are just a few observations:

  1. Timing is everything. As King Solomon pointed out, “A wise heart knows the proper time and procedure” (Ecclesiastes 8:5 NASB). One of the unusual things about Richardson’s decision is that it came just eight days before the start of the Panthers’ training camp. Even Richardson had to admit that the timing was “not ideal.” An organization’s major decisions ordinarily should be planned with enough time to allow for a smooth rollout and careful communications to all the stakeholders. In this case, even Panther’s head coach Ron Rivera was apparently caught off guard by Richardson’s decision.
  2. Instead of evaluating a person’s overall track record and the long-term picture for an organization’s success, leadership often comes down to “what have you done for me lately.” By almost any measure, Gettleman’s tenure with the Panthers was extremely successful—except for last season. But despite an amazing Super Bowl run in 2015, Richardson apparently felt that the trajectory was going in the wrong direction. And, no doubt, trajectory is more important than past successes. I’ve seen numerous situations where pastors face similar scrutiny. Past success is deemed irrelevant if church attendance and finances are on a downward slide.
  3. We must resist the urge to jerk between extremes. From my perspective, Marty Hurney’s decisions as general manager tended to err on the side of GRACE—giving players big contracts and sometimes keeping them past their prime. In contrast, Dave Gettleman was a man of TRUTH—looking at a player’s current productivity and being unwilling to break the bank when a player’s performance didn’t merit a huge contract. In switching back to Hurney, I think Richardson was siding with grace and loyalty. He wanted to take care of players like Greg Olsen and Thomas Davis, who were in negotiations for new contracts. And it seems he may have been unhappy with how Gettleman parted ways with Panthers stars like Steve Smith and Josh Norman.

I would argue that both Hurney and Gettleman were successful, but partly because the Panthers benefited from the combination of grace and truth that these two general managers provided. Hurney was credited with a harmonious locker room, full of players who felt honored and appreciated. Gettleman was applauded for clearing out players who were past their prime, which greatly improved the salary cap situation.

Jesus, the greatest leader of all time, was full of BOTH grace and truth (John 1:14). He didn’t have to jerk from one extreme to another, for He perfected embodied these two qualities every successful leader must demonstrate.

In Jim Collin’s best-selling book, Good to Great, he notes that organizations thrive when they have “the right people on the bus and have them on the right seats on the bus.” That pretty much describes what a successful general manager must do in the NFL.

When it comes to the future of the Panthers, my hometown team, I hope Marty Hurney will have learned the lessons from the past—both from his own decisions and from those of Dave Gettleman. May he bring back the grace needed to recreate a harmonious team culture, where past performance is honored. But may he also have the guts to make hard decisions when a player is overpaid or should no longer be “on the bus.”

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6 Takeaways from a Great Sabbatical

Jim CLT final

Not all the lessons from my recent sabbatical in New Zealand and California would be relevant to your life, and some things are probably too personal to share. But I wanted to at least offer a few insights I think you’ll find beneficial.

There’s no place like home. Even though New Zealand and San Diego are two of the most beautiful places in the world, sometimes I could relate to Dorothy’s experience in “The Wizard of Oz.” Despite the dazzling colors and fascinating characters she encountered in the Land of Oz, she surprisingly found herself missing her home in Kansas. After traveling to the ends of the earth, I eventually felt the same way about returning to my hometown, Charlotte, North Carolina. I hope you feel the way about the place you call home. Even Kansas can be a glorious place if that’s where God wants you to be!

Gratitude is ALWAYS a good thing. Why do I find it so easy to grumble about my life? The psalmist declared, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord” (Psalm 92:1). God is good all the time, and it’s always good to give Him thanks. The Bible says this is the key to entering into His presence and His blessings (Psalm 100:4), so why is complaining a much easier habit than gratitude?  It’s amazing that Adam and Eve could find a reason to be discontented in paradise, while the apostle Paul found reasons to rejoice even while stuck in a Roman jail cell. Which of these examples are YOU following?

God loves us even when we accomplish nothing. By its very nature, a sabbatical is a time of rest and reflection rather than productivity (note the root “sabbath”). But this is extremely difficult for a person like me, whose self-image is often tied to my accomplishments. To be honest, I didn’t “accomplish” a whole lot on my sabbatical. Yes, I wrote a few blogs along the way, and my daughter Molly secretly arranged for me to preach at the San Diego Dream Center. Yet weeks went by when I “produced” absolutely nothing—and it was eye-opening to realize my Heavenly Father loved me anyway.

God used a song from Bethel Worship to drive home this life-changing realization. Here are a few of the lyrics from the song “Given” (“There Is No Striving”), but I encourage you to watch the YouTube video and listen for yourself (http://bit.ly/2szTSEv):

You never ask that I earn Your affection.

I could never earn something that’s free.

I never have to fight for Your attention,

Because Your eyes are ever on me.

You have given everything my heart could ever need,

And all You ask is I believe.

I am resting safe inside Your promise to provide,

And nothing could ever change Your love.

If you are still striving to gain God’s approval and affection, I strongly encourage you to give it up! As the Bethel song says, you can’t earn something that’s free. Your Heavenly Father is crazy about you, but His love has nothing at all to do with your accomplishments.

God wants to give us new zeal, not just new instructions. Before leaving for New Zealand, I changed the password on my computer to “New Zeal” (but please don’t hack me!). Although I greatly desired a fresh set of instructions from the Lord about my future, it became increasingly clear that He was far more concerned about my heart than my guidance. So if you’re seeking divine direction today, remember that it’s not likely to come in the form of an impersonal email or ticker tape from God. Instead, guidance is the natural by-product of drawing closer to the Lord as your Shepherd and the King of your heart (Psalm 23). And when you ask Him to change your circumstances, don’t be surprised if He first changes your perspective instead.

We’ll never arrive at our intended destination without focus and intentionality. In both New Zealand and San Diego, I saw beautiful sailboats, and they provided me with an important lesson. A boat’s captain can’t just sit there and hope a wind blows in his desired direction. He must set his sail to catch the wind and must firmly adjust the rudder toward where he wants to go. Without intentionality, we will drift aimlessly through life instead of fulfilling our purpose. And even if we originally started in the right direction, we will still need to regularly assess whether we’re on course.

Thankfully, I came away from the sabbatical with some new vision for my life and ministry. However, I’m well aware that I’ll inevitably sink right back into all the same ruts unless I make a firm commitment to purse the necessary changes. And in addition to holding myself accountable, I will need accountability partners to challenge me if I drift off course.

“Mr. Holland’s Opus” was right all along. You’ve probably seen the 1995 movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” Glenn Holland was a high school music teacher chronically frustrated by his inability to complete his life’s passion—writing a renowned orchestral score that would one day make him famous. As the years passed, it became unlikely his dream would ever be realized. His day job and family were simply too taxing.

Hey, I feel his pain. Similar to Glenn Holland, I’ve said for years that I want to get more of my own books in print. But, as happened to him, other responsibilities have seemed to get in the way.

On his final day as a teacher, Mr. Holland entered the school auditorium and was shocked to find hundreds of his present and former students gathered to honor him. One of his musically challenged students had even gone on to become governor of the state of Oregon. Together his students performed the opus he’d been working on all those years.

But it turned out that Mr. Holland’s real achievement was not writing the world’s greatest orchestral piece, nor will mine be writing best-selling books. The most important accomplishment any of us can have is to touch the lives of people.

In the midst of his frustration and shortsightedness, Glenn Holland had failed to realize his greatest “opus” was the impact his life had, day by day, on his students and family.

What an incredible lesson as we seek to fulfill our dreams and impact the world. While some of your dreams may remain unfulfilled at the moment, your greatest accomplishment may be simply to show people around you the love of Jesus in tangible ways. No matter what kind of “opus” you’ve been striving to produce, in God’s eyes people  are always the product  that matters most.

Let me know if you can relate to any of these takeaways from my sabbatical. And I would love to hear about the lessons God is showing YOU these days!

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The 4 Ingredients in My ‘I-deal’ Life

ideal life 1

Someone asked me an important question when I told them I was going on a sabbatical to seek direction for my life. Looking me in the eyes with great earnestness, they said, “What makes you happy, Jim? That’s what you should be doing.”

My reply probably surprised them, for many people would have cited romance or worldwide travels as their expected source of happiness.

“The thing that makes me the happiest is to have an impact on others,” I said without hesitation. “And the more impact I’m having, the happier I am.”

Although I don’t really think life is all about “the pursuit of happiness,” this conversation really got me thinking. What, exactly, would my ideal life look like?

I encourage you to ask yourself this “happiness question,” because your answer probably won’t be the same as mine. If you’re not fully satisfied with your present life, what are some things that would bring you greater fulfillment and joy?

After some soul-searching, I’ve identified four primary ingredients necessary to bring me the greatest joy in life. They all start with “I,” so I’m calling this my “I-deal” life.

  1. INTIMACY with God and people. The Bible says “fullness of joy” can only be found in the presence of the Lord (Psalm 16:11), so that must be the starting point in my ideal life. But it’s also clear that close relationships with people are necessary in order to experience lasting joy. By “intimacy,” I’m not referring to romance or sex, but simply the ability to open your heart to others on a deep and vulnerable level. Do you have relationships like that with family and friends? I do, and it’s a blessing I’m profoundly thankful for.
  1. IMPACT. As I told the friend who asked about my happiness, impact is very important to me—perhaps even too  important. I believe we’ve been put on earth not just to be “successful” or just to “hang out” with people. We’re called to make a tangible difference  in the lives of others. Of course, we each have different ways to bring about impact. My personal mission statement is “To change the world through the written and spoken word.” That means I love to write and preach, and those are two of the ways I can touch people’s lives. In my remaining years, I also want to find more ways to pour myself into the next generation. But you may have completely different gifts and passions. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to find your own God-given calling in how to make the world a better place.
  1. INCOME. I’m not retired yet, so income is still an important part of the equation for me. It’s easy to talk in glowing terms about such lofty objectives as intimacy and impact, but we all must find ways to pay the bills as well. If you’re making lots of money but falling short in things like intimacy and impact, I challenge you to make some changes. However, some of my friends have been so intent on their spiritual and social pursuits that they’ve neglected the basic necessity of having adequate financial provision for themselves and their family. Financial stress can really undercut your pursuit of a happy life.
  1. I-CARE. Sorry, but this is the only “I” word I could come up with to mean self-care. Of all the ingredients in my ideal life, this is perhaps the most difficult one for me. Although I’m passionate about impacting others, in the process I often neglect taking care of myself. In the coming season of my life, I must give a much greater focus to my health and fitness. I also need to take more time for rest and recreation, and I must reassess the margins in my work-life balance. As I was departing for my sabbatical, a friend told me, “Have fun!” Sadly, I had to admit that “having fun” is an element of self-care I really need to work on.

Identifying the elements of your ideal life won’t automatically answer all the questions you face concerning your future—but it’s a great place to start. So set aside some time, find a journal to write in, and get started in the process of defining what the life of your dreams really looks like. And don’t forget to solicit the input of trusted friends who can help you deal with any blind spots.

Your ideal life awaits! But you’ll have a much greater chance of experiencing it if you know what it looks like.

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