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Archive for the ‘Gratitude’ Category

“But Job replied, ‘You talk like a foolish woman. Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?’ So in all this, Job said nothing wrong.” Job 2:10 (NLT)

Have you ever received a Christmas gift that you found difficult to accept?

Have you ever been downright disappointed in what you’ve received?

I know I have. I vividly recall one Christmas in my late teen years when my parents gave me a gift that I flat out rejected. It wasn’t a pretty scene. Today I’m really embarrassed that I behaved so poorly and was so unappreciative of my parents who had previously never failed to make Christmas a special occasion.

Being a somewhat typical man, I admit I’m hard to shop for when it comes to gifts. I can’t always make up my mind what I really want anyway, so how could my family know what gift to give me?

I don’t know about you but I struggle with the idea of acceptance. We love accepting things that we enjoy especially when fun surprises come our way. But when we get what we aren’t expecting – especially when it comes in the form of disappointment, adversity or suffering – that’s when we are not so sure we can accept the gift.

Being the natural perfectionist that I am, I’m always looking for the best deal I can find so when I get less than what I think is best, disappointment can quickly sink in.

I have found that when I set my standards high and don’t figure in setbacks and suffering into the mix of life, I set myself up for struggles with disappointment and a lack of acceptance.

Lately, I’ve been listening more carefully to people who have graciously struggled with pain, suffering and adversity in their lives. Many of them describe even adversity as a “gift” from God. One that we don’t ask for, but which inevitably comes our way, living in this fallen world.

A colleague of mine has been struggling with cancer for over fourteen years. Barring a miracle her condition will not change for the better this side of heaven. The painful process she’s been through she describes as a “gift.” She has had countless opportunities to speak to others of God’s grace and provision for her during her time of affliction. I don’t know if I would be that accepting if I were in her shoes.

From time to time professional golfer Gary Player alludes to the fact that he had a difficult childhood in South Africa but grew up with the dream that he would be one of the world’s greatest golfers in his generation. He is often quoted as saying that adversity is one of God’s greatest gifts to mankind even though we don’t see it that way. By facing adversity with a more than positive attitude his accomplishments continue to back up his bold statements.

Jealousy and envy also make acceptance a difficult task. When we think that others have it better than we do in some area of life we look at our own situation and covet the possessions of others. We never expect that they might be looking back at us with similar sentiments. We aren’t so quick to envy others for the suffering they endure even though it might just be the making of us.

Part of accepting God’s gifts to us – the pleasant and the painful – is the realization that He is doing something unique with each one of us that only He can accomplish with our willing participation. We refer to this as a “faith” journey with God, trusting that His way for us is tailor-made and whatever is beyond our control comes directly from His gracious hand.

This Christmas I find myself desiring a new perspective on acceptance and gratitude. The more that we can accept what God gives us and respond to Him with a heart of gratitude the less disappointment will be part of our daily life-experience.

God’s greatest gift to the world was His very own Son – our Christmas Treasure. The rich gifts that He offers to all of us – His grace, mercy, peace and forgiveness – can’t be measured or removed once received.

When we gladly accept Him, in all His richness, we can easily accept whatever else may come our way – without disappointment!

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“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Philippians 4:12-13 (NIV)

We live in a very disappointing world. Seems to me that very few things in life “work out” as we hope they will.

I don’t know about you, but I seem to spend a good deal of time in my life waiting for something to “significant” to happen. Often due to disappointment with present circumstances, I seem to be waiting for something “better” to come along so that I can finally give myself “permission” to be happy.

Recently I was watching a sporting event that kept getting interrupted by commercial breaks. It was a tense, close match and I started getting anxious during the breaks not knowing what might be coming in the next chapter of the contest.

I began to realize that I could literally live the rest of my life that way. Living in anxiety between scenes of the story – looking for outcomes rather than enjoying the journey.

We may regularly find ourselves in a predicament that keeps us in the “not yet” mode –

I haven’t found true love – not yet

I haven’t found my life partner – not yet

I haven’t found contentment in my marriage relationship – not yet

I haven’t seen my children finish school and get a job – not yet

I haven’t found fulfillment in my job – not yet

I haven’t paid off my debts – not yet

What has to happen next before you can be happy? I find this to be a very revealing question to ask myself.

I’m finally realizing that how we behave while we are waiting on something we think will make us happy says a lot about the way we “do” life. Disappointment is largely a result of expectations, but our disappointment in someone or something does not alter reality one way or another.

The Apostle Paul makes a very bold statement in the verse quoted above. He says that there’s a “secret” to learning contentment regardless of the situation. I think Paul learned this over a period of time, it wasn’t an immediate realization. He had to do a lot of living through many life experiences to arrive at the point of making such a bold statement.

If you are like me you have many things in your life that you wish were different to the positive side. I can easily get distracted by all the things in our world that are insufficient and incomplete. And there’s no one more insufficient and incomplete than myself.

I think that contentment is the ability to fully live life in the midst of the tension between where we are and where we wish to be. Nothing “has” to happen before we can be content. Our Lord and Maker has designed life that way. He is the source of all that is good and satisfying even in a disappointing world.

For the man or woman of faith it’s a certainty that at present we are not where we wish or hope to be. Heaven is a future destiny not a present reality. Even so we, like Paul, can change our present attitudes regardless of the circumstances no matter how insufficient we feel they may be.

In an incomplete world full of setbacks and disappointments we will always be looking for something that we don’t yet have to “make” us happy. I’m finding this to be a poor investment of my valuable energy which seems to be diminishing day by day.

The life of contentment is one of gratitude to the God who is always there for us personally and intimately regardless of our present reality. If Paul learned the secret it must be available for us also.

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September 1, 2009 marked a new chapter in my life. In the weeks leading up to September 2014 I want to share the top five lessons God has taught me during this season of my life. 

 Lesson One – What’s the Connection?

 “One evening David got up from his bed and walked around on the roof of the palace. From the roof he saw a woman bathing. The woman was very beautiful and David sent someone to find out about her. The man said, ‘Isn’t this Bathsheba, the daughter of Eliam and the wife of Uriah the Hittite?’”     2 Samuel 11:2-3 (NIV)

It can all happen in an instant. We can be going along very nicely then something captures our attention and starts us down a different road.

It tends to happen more frequently these days when we are subject to many interruptions every waking hour with computers, tablets, televisions and mobile devices which are constantly armed for action.

When new information comes crashing in we rarely stop to ask – “What’s happening right now and what connection does it have with the rest of my life – past and future?”

The incident quoted above – King David’s first encounter with Bathsheba – is a huge turning point in the book of 2 Samuel and in David’s life. Up to this moment in David’s life he’s been the golden boy – a true success story. All the way from a shepherd boy to the King of all Israel.

At this point in his life David had just about everything any man could ever want or hope for.  He had influence, friends, power, possessions, wives, concubines and most importantly a rich spiritual life. The Bible describes him as “a man after God’s own heart.”

After David’s encounter with Bathsheba, his life would never, ever be the same. He committed adultery with her, had her husband Uriah killed in battle and kept her for himself.  All of David’s life changes with what is described in these two short verses.  The rest of the story is described in the remainder of 2 Samuel and it’s not pretty – being confronted by Nathan the prophet, the death of his child born to Bathsheba, the breakup of his family and the fragmentation of his Kingdom.

Many wise sages throughout history have grappled with David’s actions. How and why would he sacrifice all he had and all he was for the woman he saw bathing?

Most men I know, including myself, see ourselves in David’s story. We seek to be admired, successful, influential, and even “a man after God’s own heart.” However, at some unsuspecting moment something or someone enters the picture and we lose track of everything, especially the bigger picture of who we are and where we are.

For David he lost it the moment he saw Bathsheba bathing. Even though he had multiple wives and concubines he might have called on at that moment – he lost the plot. The plot turned ugly from there, sparked by his view of someone beautiful.

In reflecting on my own faults and failures in the area of lust I think David lost one vital thing that I’ve learned to appreciate in a new way over the past five years.

It’s summarized in the word “connection.” David lost connection.

In September 2009 I began meeting regularly with a Christian counselor. One of the first comments that the counselor said to me was, “Jesse, everything in your life is connected!” I was age fifty-five at the time and the thought had never occurred to me!

As I learned more about this vital inter-connection I found that my life was far more compartmentalized than I had ever realized. I knew that men tended to compartmentalize their lives but never did I see it in myself until I experienced a personal crash.

It’s been a real education over the past five years looking at subtle ways I disconnect internally to keep from facing reality around me.  Although I’m far from an expert in connection, I can now spot disconnection more readily in my own experience and I see it here in David.

At the point of David’s greatest temptation he lost connection with who he was. He was David the man of God, he was David the husband and father and he was David the King, just to name a few.

David as man of God had a vital role of walking with God and living for God. He had an intimate relationship with his Father. At the moment of temptation, I think he began to think and feel that he could section off his life and operate a part of it independently of God – not the whole – but part of it. That was indeed part of the temptation. He momentarily lost connection with His God.

David was also a husband and father. Obviously he had several wives and concubines (cf. 2 Samuel 5:13-16) but none of them ever entered his thinking when he saw Bathsheba.  He didn’t connect with the reality that his actions were out of harmony with his family. When he least expected it he momentarily lost connection his family.

David was also King of Israel. It was a huge responsibility for anyone. David had been doing a wonderful job as King. He was good at it. It was God-ordained. But in an instant he momentarily lost connection with his vital role in the Kingdom of God’s chosen people.

Do we really ever live one day with the full realization that our lives are connected with those around us? Do we ever fully appreciate just how much the decisions we make really do matter to others?

It’s been a different path for me the past five years as I have been more aware of trying to see the vital connections between everything in my life. I think the life of faith is learning to live with a clear knowledge that the connection is there whether I see it outright or not. Our loving God and Creator is the One who connects everything in our lives.

The fallen world around us says that what we do our own personal business and no one else will be affected. That’s probably one reason why we see such turmoil today – people thinking they can be a law unto themselves and what they do really has no affect on the rest of us. It was clearly seen in the incident of the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine last week.

We may not have the power and influence that David enjoyed, but if we look at the reality of God and the larger picture of our lives we’ll see that there’s much to enjoy with gratitude, even down to the fine details.

Next time something grabs your attention or when temptation comes calling, stop and think about the vital connections in your own life. You’ll find, as I have, that the bigger picture is a great picture and you and I are fortunate to be part of it.

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“So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’  These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.” Matthew 6:31-33 (NLT)

So often it’s our past memories that dominate our present reality.

I was raised by two loving parents who had known the hardship of growing up during the Great Depression years in the USA. Even though my parents were loving, caring and generous people, being their only son I developed something of what I now recognize as a “scarcity mentality.” This term is being used by observers and researchers in Western, developed countries where consumerism and materialism dominate our cultural mindset.

A scarcity mentality says that there is only a limited amount of resources around, so you’d better act now and act fast to beat the crowd to the resources and get “enough.” Unfortunately, the “enough” extends not only to material needs such as food, drink and clothing but also to unmeasurable commodities such as recognition and self-worth.

I have lived outside the USA for many years now but when I return I am shocked by all the adverts which constantly bombard me. They entice me to urgently “act now before it’s too late!” They exert constant pressure on me to get in on the latest bargain.

In my formative years I was taught very early about the value of saving – even down to the scraps of paper that could be useful for grocery shopping lists!

Thrift is a wise value, unless it begins to dominate your life and lead to hoarding! We have that in our family too!

We enjoy the good things that material wealth provides, but no matter what we have we never seem to have “enough” of whatever we acquire.

This may be the downside of the materialistic age in which we live. Marketers and advertisers, some of whom are even my friends, make a living by exposing us to new opportunities for improving our quality of life. It turns dark when we begin to grow dissatisfied with who we are, what we have and bemoan our circumstances in life.

Jesus taught His followers, of which I am one, to be focused on the spiritual realities of His Kingdom and trust Him to meet their daily needs rather than seeing them as the focus of their lives.

I now think He’s trying to tell us that God is a God of abundance and the King will meet our material needs as we trust Him and follow His leadership in our lives.

This does not guarantee that we will all be fabulously wealthy or live lives free of pain and suffering. It does however, require a completely different mindset from the culture around us.

I have discovered that once the scarcity mindset takes hold, it’s very difficult to shift into an “abundance” mentality. If you’ve been taught that there’s a limited supply of God’s resources it leaves you fearful that you will lose what you have and will be forced to scrounge around for the scraps under the table like.

I don’t believe that God ever intended for His children to live with this mindset – even in times of hardship such as the Great Depression or a recession, such as what we have experienced in recent years.

When I live out of my scarcity mentality I’m blind and ungrateful. Blind to the abundance of God’s grace, love, mercy, kindness, generosity and provision. I’m also hesitant to consistently show gratitude to God for the riches that He has lavished upon me in every area of life.

Recently a friend was talking to me and was highly complementary of my family. It’s also a gift of abundance when a friend can point out the riches we have which we can so easily take for granted.

It is possible to move from a scarcity mindset to abundance thinking but it will take a radical and intentional shift in our focus.

Don’t let the mindset of the culture around you rob you of the joy that comes from being grateful for all the blessings God brings your way. In our moments of greatest honesty we have to admit that His abundance always comes through.  

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But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus. All of us who are mature should take such a view of things” Philippians 3:13b-15a (NIV)

I must admit I find it easier to look back than to look forward.

I suppose I tend to be a more of an introspective, reflective and reactive person rather than a forward-thinking, proactive individual. As I approach my sixtieth birthday on the 8th of January 2014 here are some of my reflections at this fairly advanced stage of life and a few aspirations for the future.

My natural reaction to turning sixty is, “I never realized it would be this difficult.”

Over the Christmas break we enjoyed a visit from my son who now lives in Holland and his new wife, our first daughter-in-law.  During the few days they were here at our home in Ireland she asked if she could see our wedding photos, which my wife happily dug out for her to browse through. I found I was taking a closer look at them myself. Our wedding was over thirty-eight years ago and it’s fascinating to see what we looked like as a pair of twenty-one-year-olds making serious life choices on that day in 1975.

I was struck by several things in our wedding photos. Obviously, at the time we looked much younger than we do now, and thinner too – at least I did! But I was captivated by one thing and that was how “happy” I appeared to look in the pictures.

Now that I’m turning sixty, I never realized at the time of my wedding that it would be so difficult to maintain a happy, positive attitude throughout life.

I think the potential is always there for us to be happy and positive, but all the pain and suffering in life takes its toll on us, at least it did on me. Even though our marriage started out well, we actually had a car accident on our honeymoon that was my fault because I didn’t take time to check the brake fluid on the old car we were driving!

During the course of our marriage, we have had many joyous times and abundant blessings, but we have experienced almost every family problem and tragedy one can imagine. We have had a blessed life and marriage, but not without major challenges and suffering. From parents and siblings dying to having all sorts of accidents and other issues with our six children through the years we have had our share of hard times.

I never realized how much these things would cumulatively affect my life and attitudes but I also never realized how they would shape and mature me either.

I also never realized that it would be so difficult to maintain reasonably good spiritual and emotional health and physical fitness over the long haul. For a season of life when we were raising our children and also heavily involved in ministry and church life, my personal fitness regime went totally by the wayside. I also let my emotional life get into free fall as problems seemed to mount up one after the other and my responses to them did more harm than good.

I never realized that caring for myself in appropriate ways would actually be a gift to my family and others around me who might actually benefit from a healthier “me.” Thankfully over the past few years I’ve begun to do better about appropriate “self-care” in most respects – spiritually, emotionally, relationally and physically. I never realized that this would be such a vital priority and that I would have to intentionally work at it!

I also never realized that being faithful to my wife, my children and my calling would require so much effort and would require so much of me. I think for a season of life I grew weary in many respects and perhaps lost focus of what was most important. Seeds of becoming a workaholic started to bring up some shoots. I had few dreams but only hopes of recognition from peers or those I considered “significant authorities” whom I felt had to approve of me and my work in order for me to feel good about myself.

I’m learning now to be much more process oriented and see growth as a lifelong project that we were designed to enjoy along the way, even with its suffering and apparent setbacks.

Going forward I think I’m trying to live a much simpler, more joyful and expectant life. I want to return, in some respects, to the man with the happy smile in my wedding photos. In order for that to happen I see a few important truths I will have to live by going forward –

  • Gratitude must become a daily reality and be as natural as breathing
  • Life will continue to be challenging and suffering will be part of the process
  • Listening to God and learning from Him and those He places in our path is vital for our health and growth. We were never intended to travel the road alone
  • Proper self-care is not only a gift to ourselves but also to our loved ones

Recently I had some extended time to talk with a friend of mine who has been a caring pastor of a growing congregation for over thirty years. We both agreed that in the church we find “grumpy old men” and we both agreed that we don’t want to become one of them.

I never realized how dependent I was on the grace of God Almighty to avoid becoming grumpy as I age and how completely I would have to trust and cooperate with Him.

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Don’t be drunk with wine, because that will ruin your life. Instead, be filled with the Holy Spirit, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, and making music to the Lord in your hearts. And give thanks for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Ephesians 5:18-20 (NLT)

I’m not really a perfectionist . . . I only think like one.

As I write this essay it’s only appropriate that the table I’m sitting at is wobbling because its legs don’t rest evenly on the floor. It’s a struggle to be thankful because I wish I could be perfectly happy and satisfied with myself and everyone and everything around me – all the time!

As the annual Thanksgiving Holiday in the USA rapidly approaches I have been reflecting on the subject of perfectionism and how it so often robs us of joy and thankfulness that God intended us to have. He knows that this is a broken and imperfect world that can never meet or measure up to His holy standards. That is critical to why He sent His Son Jesus to redeem a lost, broken and imperfect world. I am part of that world. You are too.

I honestly don’t remember when the perfectionism bug bit me. I was probably very young. I’m sure if I explored it long enough and talked to any number of my friends who are very competent counsellors they could help me identify the roots of patterns that have come to be lifelong habits.

I’m learning that perfectionism is tied in with pride and has nothing to do with love. When I’m focused on my own desire to achieve perfection in my life and surroundings I’m basically playing a game of one-up-man-ship. Trying to outdo others to meet my own ego issues is completely selfish and unloving. Those are harsh words for someone who’s trying to be perfect!

Pride is a violation of love and perfectionism is pride.

In the verses referenced above the apostle Paul speaks of a Spirit-filled way of living. As redeemed people we can rest in joyful communion with God – singing, praising, and making melody – when alone or with others. In the process he says “give thanks for everything.” 

I think Paul is very intentional in saying that we give thanks to God the Father for everything. We direct our thanks to our Father in the name of Jesus His Son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The PERFECT triune God is involved in every aspect of our lives. For this we should be continually thankful – all the time.

I admit that I often have difficulty accepting the Sovereignty and goodness of God. Thanking he triune God for “everything” can only come from a heart that is grateful for His constant, redeeming, all-encompassing love.

Our pride and perfectionism does not produce fruit in the eternal scheme of things. Heaven is not impressed when we perform on our own stage. We may think that we’re putting on a fine show by our good works, but if motivated by anything other than love for God and His reputation all our best efforts come to naught.

Some have taken me to task on this. “Isn’t a Christian supposed to STRIVE for perfection?”

It all depends on who is doing the striving. When you examine it closely, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are unable to bring ourselves to perfection with self-effort. It’s a faith journey that thrives on thanksgiving, joy and heaven-inspired music.

When I’m caught up in my own pride and perfectionism, I’m far from joyful and definitely not singing and making any music – with my voice or with my life.

Some years ago I was introduced to The Sonship Course. It was originally developed for burned out missionaries but was later adapted for a wider audience. One of the key questions it posed was, “If given the choice would you rather be right or would you rather be loving?” A perfectionist wants to be right. A devoted Jesus-follower wants to experience God’s love deeply and share it with others.

I must admit that most times I’d rather be right than loving when God desires my heart devotion to Him. Everything else, including a grateful heart, should flow from that. Our LORD Jesus is the only one who can be perfectly right and perfectly loving at the same time. Why compete with true perfection?

This year, as always, I’d like to enjoy the “perfect” Thanksgiving holiday – but I’ll settle for a grateful, joyful heart whatever the day might bring. Giving thanks is on God’s menu for us every day and perfectionism always leaves a bitter aftertaste.

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“For we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” – Ephesians 2:10 (NIV) 

There was a man in the middle years of life who one day found himself in deep despair and desperation even though few people who lived with and around him knew of his plight. He seemed to have everything a man could want – a lovely wife and family, a seemingly fulfilling career and many of the fruits of his labor which many in this world can only dream of having. One night in desperation the man knelt by his bed and begged God to give him some indication as to where in his life he had missed the fulfillment and joy he had hoped for.

Even though he hadn’t been sleeping too well as of late, that night the man fell into a deep sleep. He dreamed of standing before a blank canvas, something like a mural on a wall. He saw on a small table a variety of jars of paint and brushes. At the same time he envisioned the art work of many of the master artists of the world. He loved and admired the stunning beauty of their work. Even several of his friends were advancing artists and were producing wonderful works of art, which, if he were honest caused envy to surface in his heart. He wondered if he too would be so fortunate as to create something with his hands that might be of beauty, wonder and substance. Perhaps even a masterpiece capable of bringing glory to his Creator.

The man looked up and before him stood a famous Master Artist who seemed interested in the opportunities that lay ahead for both of them. The Master said, “I will help you create something beautiful on that mural if you will trust me.” The proposition seemed good to the man as he was a mere novice but knew something of the integrity and skill of The Master.

The Master Artist left the man with all the supplies and some basic instructions and assured him that regardless of whether he sensed his presence or not He would always be with the young apprentice as a guide and mentor.

So the man got to work. He followed the instructions of The Master Artist. He used a variety of paints and brushes. He brushed one stroke after another on the canvas as The Master had instructed. After a time he stepped back to look at the canvas and it seemed to have no discernible pattern or captivating beauty. On one level it seemed that perhaps The Master did not understand the objective. The aspiring artist wanted to create something special which reflected his own skill, but also drew the admiration of others, just as other artists had produced.

The man still trusted that The Master knew best and followed the instructions, occasionally taking time to step back and reflect on what was being produced.

Then one day the apprentice artist grew impatient. He began to doubt that The Master really any personal interest in him at all. He also wondered if the Master had simply duped him. Feeling as if he was a deserted apprentice he grew anxious, angry, frustrated and weary. He was tired of working on a project that no one might ever notice and admire, especially one that did not measure up to the great works of art others had produced at The Master’s instruction.

One day out of desperation the man decided to dip his hand into a jar and indiscriminately throw paint at the canvas. After all, if The Master wasn’t there to give more specific instruction then he might as well trust his own skills and see what would happen. He stood back and looked at the canvas. The splashes of multiple colors didn’t seem to fit with what had been created up to that point, but then it didn’t seem to detract from it either. So he continued to follow the same process – tossing one color after another at the canvas and hoping that the result would sooner or later be positive.               ‘

After a time the man again grew frustrated with his own efforts. The multiple running colors and chaos on the canvas obviously made an awful mess. He longed for The Master to return and give him a refresher course on the original plan. One day he cried out in desperation and suddenly The Master reappeared.

To his astonishment, The Master wasn’t at all surprised at anything he had experienced. It seems that all aspiring artists have trouble trusting The Master Artist and following His instructions. He reassured him, “I usually leave apprentices to their own devices at times until they learn to trust Me and together we develop something of enduring substance and beauty.”

The aspiring artist found his encounter with The Master was the turning point. As he learned to trust The Master and form a more dynamic partnership he was no longer throwing paint haphazardly at the canvas, but adding strokes of value at the Master’s instruction. He even stepped back from the canvas and saw that his foolish antics even blended into the masterpiece, representing a time when he sensed The Master was merely a distant and aloof advisor.

When the man snapped out of his dream he awoke to the reality that there is an intentional life to be lived in harmony with The Eternal Master and a confidence in His care and skill more than the seeming beauty or chaos of his life as it unfolded.

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“But he answered his father, `Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.'” Luke 15:29 (NIV)

Disappointment in life normally comes from not getting what we expected.

A friend a few years my senior used to say often with tongue in cheek, “Blessed is he who expecteth nothing, for he will not be disappointed!” Unfortunately, we in the developed world have many expectations and when they go unmet we are left with disappointment and frustration.

At this stage of my life I have begun to realize that many of my aspirations of where I thought I would be at my age will not materialize, at least  not in the short term.  I often live with more disappointment than I’m willing to admit.

In the classic tale of the prodigal son Jesus told in Luke chapter 15 it is interesting to note the contrast between the two brothers in the story. As we know, the younger son  expected his inheritance early and upon receiving it, squandered it. But in doing so, he found the reality that a better life was to be had back in his father’s house. 

When the younger son returned home he received a very unexpected welcome – his waiting father ran to meet him and threw an extravagant celebration in his honor.

We usually don’t focus on the older brother who stayed home and saw himself as “slaving” for his father.  His life was full of disappointment because he must have felt that his commitment to keeping the rules would reap rewards down the line. Discipline and duty would surely gain him an advantage over his foolish, rebellious younger brother.

It is easy for some of us, yours truly included, to live life that way. We keep to a performance regimen so Dad will be proud of us. Maybe He will notice our exceptional behavior and give us whatever we want – when we want it. Unfortunately, we end up disappointed with that orientation toward life.

In recent years I’m learning much more about the way God designed us to live in relationship with Him by focusing on the process, or the daily walk with Him, rather than living with high expectations of what might result from my peak performance. It’s the difference between learning to enjoy the process as opposed to focusing merely on results.

Think of a skill or hobby that you really enjoy. It could be anything from learning a musical instrument to playing a sport or developing a new skill. It doesn’t take much to motivate you when you enjoy the process of learning even when you don’t see immediate results. The moment you switch over to focusing on the results the process becomes more laborious. Often the harder we try to do something the more ineffective we become.

A better quality of life emerges when we live a life of faith in God and let our expectations rest with Him. Accepting the results that come our way with a grateful heart may reap greater benefits in the long run than anxiously focusing on the results that seem beyond our grasp.

The words of the older brother in the story reveal that he expected  a certain level of attention from his father as a result of his good behavior. When the younger brother expected rejection and was willing to be put on the level of a servant, the father not only ran toward him but reinstated him in the family.

The broader implication is that we can expect our Heavenly Father to rejoice in us, to desire a relationship with us, to demonstrate love and generosity to us, to rejoice whenever we move toward Him.  Maybe, when we experience disappointment it’s because we are focused on the wrong expectations.

Perhaps the lesson that we need to hear is that duty and discipline when launched from the wrong motives will never win any credibility before a loving God who cares deeply for us and desires us to enjoy our relationship with Him. Moving in His direction will always reap unexpected benefits.

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“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.”

― Blaise PascalPensees

This time of year as Americans have just celebrated Thanksgiving and as we prepare for the Advent season I’ve been thinking a lot about the subject of gratitude.

I’ve been hearing a good deal lately about what people are grateful for. What I hear them saying reveals a lot about them.

This famous quote from Pascal is worth some reflection in this season of the year. In our most grateful moments, we who  have grown up and lived in an environment of relative affluence must admit that our possessions and comfortable lifestyles tend to capture our hearts and drive our ambitions, probably much more than we realize.

I have heard Pascal’s observation quoted most often in reference to those without a personal faith in God, or more specifically a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. It makes perfect sense that those without an awareness of God’s personal activity in their lives will feel a sense of emptiness in life and will feverishly seek to “fill the void” with whatever seems to satisfy – even if it is only temporary. This would explain the proliferation of various addictions which plague so many of us in today’s world.

In my own naive way of thinking, I have generally felt that people of faith have an advantage over those who don’t because of their acknowledgment of the “God shaped vacuum” and of necessity desire a personal relationship with God throughout life. I’m now realizing that it’s not quite so simple.

I have just finished reading two books on the subject of addiction and recovery. One is a classic work by Gerald May entitled  “Addiction and Grace.”  May’s work  almost reads like a devotional book in that he demonstrates in compelling ways that most people who overcome addictions do so by having some kind of personal encounter with God. In short, he explains that all addictions are simply various forms of “attachment.” Objects of addiction become idols and substitute “gods” in our lives and are always destructive. God Himself, May explains, never allows Himself to be used as an object of attachment as He is constantly seeking to be known in relationship.

When we “give thanks” for our possessions and the trappings of our creature-comforts we often expose the very things that have become attachments and objects of worship in our own lives. I am not saying that we should not be grateful for these things. I am saying that we need to be more focused on The Giver of all good things.

In my own personal journey with God, I would have to say that I am coming through a season in which God has been exposing idols in my own life. This is why May’s book made such an impression on me.

Back as a young man of sixteen I remember the day in Sunday School that I “gave my heart to Jesus.”  Later after hearing about the “God shaped vacuum” I began to think, “Great! Now my problems are solved! I had this vacuum inside and now it’s completely filled. I’ll be satisfied in life from now on!”

What I neglected to realize is that God continues to fill the void only if I allow Him to do so on a day-to-day, moment-by-moment arrangement. I’m not talking here about my eternal destiny – that is a completed transaction. I’m talking about a heart response to what God offers me of Himself every moment of every day.

When we get focused on all the “stuff” that our Heavenly Father provides for us, we can miss the reality that every moment He provides us with His presence and life in its fullness apart from possessions and earthly pleasures.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a long, long way from defeating all the idols and attachments in my own life that challenge my devotion to Jesus Christ. But I think this is one of the first Thanksgivings in a long time that I’m leaning toward being more grateful for God Himself and His activity in my life rather than just starting and stopping with a shopping list of all He’s provided for me.

Obviously all the people and possessions that our Father gives to us should draw us back to Him in gratitude. But I’m finding that God is always in the business of revealing the emptiness that is and would be part of my life if not for His continuing, abiding presence.

At this very “full” time of the year may you allow God into whatever circumstance you are facing just now and find Him filling the empty spaces of your heart. For His abiding presence and personal touch in our lives we can all be truly grateful.

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